Dallas IFF: Friday (4/9) – ‘City of Life and Death,’ ‘I Am Love,’ ‘Down Terrace,’ ‘The Loved Ones’

A terrific first full day of the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival is capped off with a colossal dud.

Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death is such a powerful piece of cinema that it is almost unbearable, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Recounting the events of 1937 Nanjing, at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the film portrays action scenes with an immediacy that is striking, atrocities with a detachment that can leave you shaken, and yet still handles heartbreaking intimate moments with a delicate touch.

Shot in a softened black and white that accentuates both physical and thematic shades of grey, the film is crammed with stark, shocking images that can make you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut.  The early mass killings of captured soldiers, for example:  some are shot in pits and buried, others burned alive in buildings, while most are marched to the sea’s edge and shot by the hundreds.  Once the battle is over, the abuse of the Chinese refugees, particularly their women, is brutal and seemingly without end.

City of Life and Death is one of the most important and stunning films I have seen in many, many years.  The film has a second screening on Thursday, April 15th, and is co-presented by the Asian Film Festival of Dallas.

I Am Love is Tilda Swinton’s follow-up to last year’s searing portrayal in the criminally overlooked Julia.  The film is in Italian, and at times has the textures, rich colors and ample architecture of a Greenaway film, without the cataloguing.  Swinton plays the wife of a textile magnate, faced with a resurgence of passion thanks to a friend of her eldest son.

The film is unbalanced, to say the least.  Swinton has moments of brilliance when her sexuality and grief are brought to the forefront, sensuality is at an all-time high, and some of the photography is gorgeous.  But a seemingly aimless narrative and some ill-timed, bombastic musical cues don’t serve the film well, and overall there isn’t a lot driving it if you remove Swinton’s epiphanies.

I Am Love has a second screening on Monday, April 12th.

“You’re only as good as the people you’re with.”

City of Life and Death may be the most powerful film, but Ben Wheately’s directorial debut Down Terrace is my new favorite.  A coarse, funny and caustic depiction of small-time criminals dealing simultaneously with spiraling business issues and disintegrating domestic matters, Down Terrace is an absolute winner.

It has a second screening on Thursday, April 15th.

Alas, a great day (by festival standards) can be overturned by a faulty midnight show.  The Loved Ones is little more than a grueling excuse for an evil, demented Lindsay Lohan-lookalike to carve up a boy who wouldn’t accept her invitation to the prom.  Protracted and gruesome without the usual fun that comes with such dismemberments, it really boils down to a daddy’s girl who never learned about rejection.

The one saving grace to the film is a subplot about the protagonist’s best friend, who manages to take the local goth chick to the dance.  It is funny, unpredictable, and ends on a surprisingly poignant note.  But it’s not enough to warrant all the slow, torturous goings-on that surround it.

The film has a second screening on Sunday, April 11th.