Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sydney Film Festival DAY FOURTEEN

Film #23 United 93 (Feature, US)
A film about the September 11 hijacking of the one plane which didn't hit its intended target. A documentary style feature which is hard to watch - such ordinary people, in such a surreal and awful situation.

Interesting questions: what is the purpose of making a film like this? Why the choices in focus on the command centres? What did the director want to achieve - a good film, or some kind of public document / record?

Verdict: regardless, it's a fascinating piece of cinema and I think it would be impossible to watch it and remain unmoved. I never want to see it again, but it's the kind of film that will become a reference point/touchstone for describing a certain kind of film.

Film #24 C.R.A.Z.Y (Feature, Canada)

Canada's entry into the last Oscars for foreign film is a (french language) coming of age film. The film follows Zack as he considers the dire warnings of his brothers and father that he may be "a fairy" and/or "a fag". Everything in Zack's world teaches him that this fate is one to be dreaded - but everything in his head, his heart, his experience of the world suggests something else.

At a running time of over two hours, this film is too long. There have been so many coming of age films, and "how hard it is to come out" films, and although it's well written with a very good cast, this film doesn't add anything really new to that well-trodden subject matter. With one exception - the use of music. Both Zack and his dad listen to a lot of music (particularly Patsy Kline) and the songs played in the film go beyond setting the mood - to being really pivotal moments and keys to character.

Verdict: This film is really likeable if not brilliant - and there's some genius moments - a rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is hands down one of the best uses of a song in a film, ever.
Sydney Film Festival


Film #21 Brick (Feature, USA)

A film set in an American highschool where everyone talks like they're in a Dashiell Hammett novel (and I should know. I love Dashiell Hammett). Better yet, there is no "joke" to be in on - it's played completely straight with no winks to the audience about the style. Unusual doesn't begin to describe it. Awesome might.

There are scenes when the style just feels stretched too far. I think the greatest criticism you make of this film is to dismiss it as like the cinematic equivalent of someone playing fast scales on a piano: technically proficient, but empty (the guy who sat next to me in another film fell basically within this camp). There are also moments when you reflect on the plot and think: this makes no sense. But:

a) I love Dashiell Hammett.
b) The lead actor is just as awesome here as he was in Mysterious Skin.
c) It's amazing how well all the tropes / styles of the genre/noir film work in a high school - who knew that the fit would be this perfect? On reflection, this probably says something very disturbing about high schools.
d) No one ever cares about plot in Dashiell Hammett novels, and look how awesome he is!
e) In fact, a nonsensical plot is almost a genre requirement.
f) I love this film.
g) Love doesn't need to be rational.
h) But in this case my love is completely rational, because the film rocks.

My advice would be to go into this film resolved to go with (rather than argue with) the mood. You won't be disappointed.

Verdict: Loved it.

Film #22 The Descent (Feature, US/UK?)
I know I was in the same session as SMH critic Gary Maddox, because during one scene (yeah, the bit with the climbing axe) someone behind me said emphatically and loudly: "Man, this film is fucked up." What an accolade!

There are elements of this film that are totally standard "guess who dies first" horror movie tropes we all know (and secretly enjoy). However, The Descent is also more interesting than you'd think . . . [spoilerish discussion ahead]

[wait for it]

. . . my current theory of the film: it's like the lead character drags all the other women into her world of grief - instead of going into a cave, they're moving into part of her psyche (remember, they were going to name the cave after her) - and it destroys them because instead of the calm exterior she's been presenting, her anger/grief/rage has simmered, manifesting into these violent beings "kept out of the light of day" below the surface.

Even at its most graphic and violent, there was always something haiku like about the way the story unfolds: so simple, so final, so hopeless. And as she circles around her own head and can't get out (those memory sequences) - I think we all knew how it would end. The "axe to the leg scene" wasn't a satisfying moment - we understood why she does it, but it's the wrong decision, it's the decision not to let go, not to get out, not to forgive, not to grieve. She's still in the car, she's still blowing out the candles. Chilling.

[end vague spoilers]

Verdict: The entire audience screamed at one point in my session - how can that not be a win? This is one of those rare genre movies that's aiming for something more interesting, and (rarer still) it gets there. Pretty much . . . I loved it. Christ, I need a new review.
Sydney Film Festival


I had plans to see a documentary, but then my work mobile rang all "can you stay back and check this thing?" and I moped, but ended up saying yes.


But I'm also starting to feel the strain by this point.
Sydney Film Festival


Film #20 - Funny Ha Ha (2002)
Sydney Film Festival


Went home and crashed. [/lame]
Sydney Film Festival

Film #18 The Great Game

Film #19 The Pusher III

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Sydney Film Festival


Film #16 Le Doulos (1962)
(Feature, France)

Film #17 Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story
(Documentary, USA)
Sydney Film Festival


Film #14 Mutual Appreciation

Film #15 Perhaps Love
Sydney Film Festival

DAY SIX - The day of shame

A headache and general fatigue made me miss half of The Aura and all of Marock. Boo! I am fading! fading!!

The Aura (feature, Sth America) : I picked this film because it was by a director I liked, it was a thriller, it sounded intiruging, and Sth American films in general have been kicking arse. I can report that the first half was so absorbing - very visually heavy, low on dialogue, and an elusive, absorbing story. I think by the time I left it was becoming a heist movie, but . . . it's going to be more complicated than that.

Marock (feature, Israel?): A teen romance which looked interesting on paper. Still want to see it. Heard good things about it from some other festival-goers.
Sydney Film Festival


Film # 11 Workingman's Death
(Documentary, Germany/other)
A mindblowing documentary in five parts about workers in different parts of the world. The visuals are extraordinary - welders in the middle east pulling apart massive tanker ships. Men who work in a slaughterhouse in Africa. Miners in Russia who work in mines less than knee-height high. Workers who collect sulphur desposits.

Amazing. I did walk out during the slaughterhouse scene though to get a coffee (seriously, the live slaughter sequences just got a bit much after a while.)

Film #12 Diameter of the Bomb
(Documentary, Canada/Israel/other)

This doco follows the story of a bomb that blew apart a bus a few years ago in Israel. The title indicates the intent: to meet the survivors, the doctors, the emergency workers, the families of both the victims and the suicide bomber . . . and track the repercussions of that act.

I was sold on this description - but as fascinating as this base material was, this documentary didn't quite deliver. A bit repetitive, and some of the interviews just didn't work as much as they needed to (a lack of chemistry between the subjects and the directors might have been the issue, I think.) Anyway - I still cried, a lot - so they clearly got something right.

Film # 13 Girl Shy
(Silent Feature, USA)
It is always worth seeing silent films when they are performed with a live soundtrack. Always.

The lead actor isn't up there with the Keatons and Chaplins, but this was hilarious all the same. I'd love to have clocked the number of pratfalls per minute. The highlight was a very long chase sequence involving cars, bicycles, motorbikes, the mob (I think), a construction worker line, a tram, and at least one horse. Too much fun.
Sydney Film Festival
DAY FOUR : Stimulating

Film #9 Rats in the Ranks (10th anniversary viewing)
(Documentary, Australia)

Rats in the Ranks is the first documentary I ever saw at the cinema. I remember thinking it was hilarious and really well done. On seeing it again - it's not only better than I remember, it clearly deserves to be elevated to the status of bona fide Australian classic. I'd forgotten how much fun it was.

For those who haven't seen it (shame!) it concerns the election of the new mayor of Leichardt in Sydney. Councillors of Leichardt are elected by generally ballot of the community. The councillors then meet to vote on which of them is mayor. In 1994, the charismatic Larry Hand was finishing up his second term as mayor . . . and as the mayoral election looms, the wheeling and dealing for votes begins. The main intrigue centres around the four Labor councillors - if they vote together, their four votes combined could potentially decide the result. But two of them have mayoral ambitions - setting off a disatrous chain of intrigue, misdirection and Shakepsearian levels of angst.

For anyone who loves the film as much as I do, the Q&A after the film was nothing short of monumental. Larry Hand was there - still as charming and glib as ever. Anthony Albanese, a current government minister was also present, even though his only presence in the film was a subtitle informing the audience that he'd refused to be filmed. I was sad that Kate from Labour couldn't make it (she's apparently very ill) - but her faithful sidekick Trevor was present, as was a number of women from Larry's ticket, and one elderly former councillor who'd run as an indepdent (he gets one of the films biggest laughs towards the end when on hearing about a particular piece of backstabbing, breaks out with a gloatingly unholy little chuckle.) Bob Connolly the filmmaker was also present (his partner Robin sadly passed away a few years ago).

Just a few of the points I remember from the Q&A:

Film #10 Hard Candy
(Feature, US)

Very young girl meets up with older man in a cafe, after first getting to know him online. There's flirting - and it's uncomfortable. She suggests going back to his place. He agrees. And you think What is she doing? and more accusingly, He must be a pedophile, because if this is a nice guy, why is he agreeing to this?

This is a thriller which exploits your preconceptions and social norms about sexual (and other behaviour) in order to shock you. That's pretty much its modus operendi - and unless you're particularly hardened, it's going to succeed on some level (challenge accepted, I hear you think).

I'd recommend it - because it's a pretty awesome cinematic experience for all that I watched most of it between my fingers. The two lead actors give it their all. But I think it pushed me beyond that subtle point - to "enjoy' this film, you have to just go for the ride. The moment you think to ask "but why?" (or even more damagingly, "but how?"), the film will lose you a bit because it doesn't offer any answers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sydney Film Festival

DAY THREE: Distracted

My sister called me late on Sunday night to tell me she had (maybe) started going into labour. So I missed my first scheduled film today as I was busy being an aunt. I was all ready to miss the others, but then as my parents arrived from Canberra, my services were no longer required . . . but it was a weird experience trying to proceed all "business as usual" but waiting for a call from the hospital.

The film I missed was a documentary from Iraq: My Country, My Country, which looked really good. Will have to track it down later.

Film #7 Pusher II
(Feature, Denmark)

I was feeling pretty spaced out [see above], but fortunately for me, Pusher II just required me to sit down and hang on. The second installment of this trilogy was made eight years after the first, but it feels like no time has passed at all. Rather than a conventional sequel, it's a standalone film (in fact, it's tough to pick whether the events in Pusher II happen before or after Pusher I).

The focus is on Tonny - who in the first film, was Tony's sidekick and a relatively minor character. Tonny has just gotten out of jail, and is attempting reestablish himself in the world. But because of the background of the first film, we never buy him as a protagonist, we know from the beginning that we're sidelined with the bit players, the small fry. It's like a sequel to Hamlet starring Rosencrantz or Guildenstern - but imagine a Rosencrantz with a capacity for violence, and what he might do when pushed to the limit over his own ineffectualness . . .

I think this is even better than Pusher - in part because of the lead performance of Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny. Violent, fast moving, oddly affecting (!) at times, and just so much fun to watch.

Verdict: Yet again, loved it.

Film #8 Old Joy
(Feature, USA)

One weekend, two friends go on a camping trip, visit some hot springs and come home. That's seriously all that happens in Old Joy, a cruisy, peaceful 70 minute film. As the men drive, interact, talk - it becomes apparent in small ways that this friendship is on the wane, as the men have clearly grown (and are growing) further from each other's lives. Hardly any of this is explicit - it's mostly in the gestures, the tone, the feel. The pace is slow, peaceful, cruisy - the tone both nostalgic and a little melancholy.

But there's more going in the film than a simple analysis of relationships. In an opening driving sequence, a radio plays talkback about the Bush administration. Both men are left-leaning, and throughout the film discuss ways in which they are confused/saddened/worried about the present and future of America. These men and how they interact with their world can also be read as a comment on how the left in America have lost their sense of direction.

Kelly Reichardt (the director/co-writer) was at the festival, and talked about how she both wanted/didn't want to make a political film. She spoke about how she and many of her friends feels disengaged, or helpless in the face of current American politics. As she described it - amongst the left in America, it's easy to sit around feeling like you've been right all along, but equally easy to let your self-righteousness and your convictions feel like you're taking "action" somehow when you aren't at all. These characters walk that line - they feel but never do . . . watching things they love fade and feeling powerless to change the flow.

Old Joy is based on a short story (which I've just ordered through Amazon). It was filmed in about two weeks with a crew of six people plus the two major cast members. Small and low key as it was, it snuck up on me. Still thinking about it.

Verdict: Really, really loved it. Early contender for the Bright Leaves spot.
Sydney Film Festival

DAY TWO: Enthralled. Eyes holding up well.

Film #4 Adam's Apples
(Feature, Denmark)
Adam is a newly released prisoner - big guy, shaved head, scary as hell, and a neo-Nazi to boot. He is picked by the roadside by Ivan - a priest,with whom he has been placed (presumably for some period of adjustment /parole). Unpacking in his room, Adam takes down the crucifix hanging on the wall and hangs up a picture of Adolf Hitler. Ivan comes in and notices it:
Ivan: Who is that? Your father?
Adam: [coldly, and clearly expecting to make an impression] Adolf Hitler.
Ivan: Really? [peers] No. No it isn't. Hitler had a beard.
Adam: [nonplussed] He had a moustache.
Ivan: No, no. [pause] Wait. Yes, yes you're right. Well then! Hitler! That's nice. [exits]

The opening scenes slyly hint that the film will be an odd couple kind of buddy flick (and/or a redemption narrative where Adam sees the error of his ways) but things rapidly start to go seriously awry. I tried telling some of the jokes from this film - only to be met with blank stares, or comments like "shooting a cat is not funny." Normally, I'd agree -but with all apologies to the RSPCA, it's pretty fucking hilarious. I also liked the religious imagery (apples are never just apples when you're watching a film set in a church). Lots of other nice little touches- like the bible that always fell open at "Job".

The acting was good all round - Mads Mikkelsen is great as the priest (and unrecognisable as the skinhead from the Pusher trilogy - more on this later). It was also cool to see Nickolaj Lie Kaas from Brothers as a minor thug. Ulrich Thomson (Adam) is fabulous, and clearly enjoys getting to beat the crap out of almost everybody.

Verdict: It might be partly the enthusastic festival audience, but I loved it. I think it wanders a bit in the middle third, but overall it's just deliciously wicked.

Film #5 Play
(Feature, Chile)
A man (Tristan) loses his briefcase. The girl (Cristina) who finds it sorts through his belongings, finds out where he lives, and begins to follow him around the streets of Santiago.

The writer/director Alicia Scherson was at the festival. I loved her -her answers and comments about the process of making this film were fascinating. She said that the inspiration for the film came from an experience she had travelling when she lost her wallet - after the annoyance, cancelling credit cards, etc - she wondered about the person who found it, how much information they could find out about her, and what they might do with that knowledge.

For most of us this idea might be scary/unsettling. But in Play, Cristina uses the objects from the briefcase like a series of talismans to try and experience Tristan, to feel out the limits and expanses of his life. The most perfect thing about this film is the title - because it is "play" - this beguiling approach to places, people, objects. Even scenes which in other films might seem creepy or invasive (when Cristina tries on the clothes of Tristan's ex-partner) -it's somehow just explorative.

Verdict: Loved it. It sounds so condescending to describe a film as delightful, but . . . it just is, completely, delightful. Can't wait to see it again. Watch out for Alicia's work in the future.

Film #6 Pusher
(Feature, Denmark)
Part one of a crime trilogy from Denmark first released in 1996. This film centres on Frank (the pusher of the title) who acts as the middleman in a series of drug deals. Over the course of a week, he attempts to stay on top of his mounting debts and obligations. And whilst Frank is clearly not someone you'd want to owe money to . . . some of the sharks higher up the food chain are equally dangerous. You can smell the blood in the water from the opening of the film, it's just going to be a question of who gets it, when, and how.

This film's a kinetic thrill ride which uses a pulsing soundtrack and some electric action sequences. So much fun. And remarkable when you consider that other crime flicks which seem similar to this one are actually more recent (I bet Guy Ritchie saw Pusher before he made Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels).

Verdict: Loved it. I mean, it's not rocket science, and it's essentially a genre action film - but it's a fantastic genre film. So of course, I bought tickets to Pusher II and Pusher III for later in the week . . . stay tuned.

Sydney Film Festival Rundown

DAY ONE - Enthused.

Film #1 Three Times
(Feature, Taiwan)
Three stories about love/intimacy - with the same actors, but different characters - and set in 1910, 1960 and today.
The 1960s piece is brilliant, set in a pool hall with a young man called off to war and the girl who writes him a letter, complete with a great soundtrack of American popular songs. The 1910 piece is played as a silent film (albiet in colour) - a tale of courtesans and idealogues. Finally, the modern piece - the most obtuse and explicit segment, and also the least tender of the three.

Verdict: Loved the 1960 thread, but the film as a whole is a stylistic (rather than narrative) achievement - and it didn't pull me in as much as I'd hoped. Still, such an interesting idea for an interrogation of a theme.

Film #2 Little Miss Sunshine
(Feature, USA)
Dysfunctional family (headed by Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear) travel interstate to beauty pageant in which their young daughter is competing.
It's hilarious. By which I mean - hilarious. I'm sure there are people out there who might think that this film is over the top / ridiculous / tries too hard, etc. But I don't want to be friends with those people.

Verdict: Loved it. Am considering making viewing this film a pre-requisite to being "friend of Lyn."

#3 La Moustache
(Feature, France)
The opening premise: a man shaves off his moustache, and his wife doesn't notice.

It seems simple and pretty absurdist - but by the end, watching this film feels like living in someone's nightmare. There's a logic at work, but it's just beyond your grasp. Very unsettling.

Verdict: Loved it. Freaky. Lots of people walked out, but I think they missed the point.

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