The 53rd  Sydney Film Festival
9-25 June 2006

Every year since 1997 I have posted on this website my thoughts about the films I have seen – as I see them – at each Sydney Film Festival.  Now I find that what I have been doing is blogging – creating a blog and putting it out into cyberspace.  Who knew?

* If you arrived here after a search, either scroll down to the film you were looking for, or search the text for the name of the film.

Oh, and these reviews are copyright. You must not use any part of them without my permission.

Opening Night Film - Fri 9 June

Ten Canoes – Australia – Dir Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigrr – 4/5

A return to good form for the opening night film!  At last!

This film is told in the Aboriginal manner – no straight narrative, but dancing around the point with detail that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere, and then, eventually, you get to the end.

This will make it hard to watch for some.  If you are tired or stressed it could be hard going, but…

It looks gorgeous!  The sights and sounds are delicious, and it is funny, and wise, and really a work of art.  David Gulpilil’s narration is deadpan funny, and his son, Jamie, is a real star.

The directors also subvert the past-in-black-and-white convention.  The film really exists in 3 time frames (before white settlement, in the time of the ancestors, and the dreamtime), and is all the richer for it.  A combination of anthropological and cultural primer and good rollicking tale, as well as morality play, this is great viewing.  I want to see it again.

Saturday 10 June

Photograph – Australia – Dir: Sarah Lambert – 2/5

A very derivative little short film – overly influenced by “Whatever happened to Baby Jane” (Aldrich, 1962).  It felt very contrived, but all was saved by the marvellous presence of Elaine Lee – a truly great Australian star.

Waiting – France/ Palestine – Dir: Rashid Masharawi – 4/5

This is a small gem of a film. We see waiting in all of its manifestations, and we make the journey of the main character, a film and theatre director, from impatience to acceptance of the interminable waiting for a solution to the Middle East crisis, and to the impossible way of living along the way.  A rare insight into the same position in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Gaza.  And funny with it.  A lovely start to the subscription program.

An Inconvenient Truth – USA – Dir: Davis Guggenheim – 4/5

A slick and very convincing documentary which seems to be the first step in Al Gore’s next presidential campaign.  He seems to be a good man and he has a great message which he delivers well.  He
is a born comedian, too:  he sells jokes masterfully!

This is one of the most comprehensive collections of data about global warming I have heard of.  The only 3 important criticisms I have are:
1. Gore goes a bit overboard with the graphs – at one stage I couldn’t work out what a particular graph was showing, and he didn’t actually explain – and some of his labelling was misleading.  I think the effectiveness of his trip up the cherry picker shows how his physical presence is more powerful than any graph.
2. Gore skims over a couple of points – important ones – without giving the evidence to back them up.  This is significant as he prides himself on the fact that he has all the scientific evidence in his grasp.
3. Gore didn’t actually bring all his points to a practical call to action – it was left to the film makers to do that.  He seemed to be making the point that it was a moral issue – a question of ethics.  But everything he said, every point he made indicated that it was a matter of life and death  – of the survival of the human race, to say nothing of millions of individual people.  So he weakened his argument crucially – a key insight into his failure to gain more votes when he ran for President, I think.

But all of this doesn’t diminish the power of this as an effective communication of complex facts.  Most memorable quote: “Political will is a renewable resource”.

confused (particularly at the beginning – who are these people?), and too long.  An interesting subject, but the film makers seem to have gotten too close and fallen in love with the subjects of their documentary.  Its past as a multimedia presentation is far too obvious.  The graphics are distracting and not very filmic – they seem to be a hangover from a more static presentation.

Solo – Australia – Dir: Morgan O’Neill – 3/5

A flawed, but interesting first feature from the director who was successful in Project Greenlight and had to put up with a “Making of” team flowing him around with more equipment and funding than he had to make the feature… makes you wonder about a lot of things.

I think the best thing about this film is its location shots.  They provide most of the authenticity of the film.  Mick Smith’s gun shop on Broadway, various back lanes, Chinese restaurants and clubs and casinos, all look authentically Sydney (I asked the question at the Premiere screening about the locations).  An exception is the south coast, where :”South of Batemans Bay” was actually Kiama harbour, but there you go…

The narrative was disappointing:  we’ve seen it all before.  It is like a pastiche of any number of crime thrillers we all know and love.  It’s a shame, because some of the dialogue was very clever – some wasn’t, notably the opening lines.

I was disappointed in the female characters:  Madonna and whore basically.  But some of the subsidiary characters were beautifully drawn – minor crims galore, and all of them interesting, if not all equally well acted.

A couple of clangers (like an Assistant Police Commissioner wearing his medals at his desk in the morning  – and snorting coke off his frames citation, if you please).  But let’s not dwell on the detail.  There’s a great cast to relish, but the resolution won’t surprise you at all.  There’s even a shower scene.  Towards the end it dragged, and I longed for somebody to be bumped off.

If I’m critical, it’s because I can see the extreme talent that managed something as polished as this in a 22-day shoot.  Go for it, Morgan O’Neill.  Let’s see another one.

Sunday 11 June

Winter Soldier – USA – Dir: The Winterfilm Collective – 3.5/5

A fascinating and important documentary from 1972, about the Detroit Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, involving more than 100 Vietnam Vets opposed to the war.  Really just a record of testimony, so no cinematic value – other than, of course being a fascinating and vital document

These boys were so young, and so beautiful!  Yet they sounded so world-weary and jaded, as of course they must be.  I look at them and think:  why, why, why?  War is hell, of course, but this war was different:  or was it, now with Gulf War 2, it now looks lie too much SOP (Standard Operating Practice”.

Adam’s Apples – Denmark – Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen – 4.5/5

A delicious black comedy that transgressed over a lot of subjects, to the extent that it had me gasping – but at the same time laughing. From the writer and director of last year’s SFF hit “Brothers”.  This guy can write dialogue!  He keeps you guessing on what will happen, creates weird and wonderful characters, and evokes the spirit of Hitchcock by having a scene out of “The Birds” and the music from “Vertigo”, as well as the Spanish Mission clock-tower look-alike church.  An early contender for Festival audience favourite, I’d say.

Starred both of the brothers from “Brothers”.

L’Armée des Ombres – France – Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville – 5/5

The first film in the Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective was very impressive indeed.  A cold, bleak examination of the troubles faced by the French Resistance, warmed by the bravery, resourcefulness, loyalty and sheer magnificence of the human spirit.  Clearly a film made by a man who knew personally the kind of story he was telling, it is imbued with truth and beauty.  The actors are pitch perfect and the story is one of great dignity and honour.  Riveting.

Memorable quotes:  “For the French the war will be over when they can see this marvellous film [‘Gone with the Wind’] and read Le Canard Enchainé.”
“You will die by a bullet under a false name and no one will ever know”:  this is one of the most heartbreaking sequences in all cinema, involving Jean-Pierre Cassel.
“If I don’t believe I will die until the very last moment , then I never will”.

The experience was marred only by an overly pompous and poorly-read introduction by the expert Dr Adrian Danks, who was unable to convey any passion about the subject, just reading from notes, some of which were in the program, mispronounced “reticent” and described its final moments as having achieved an “aphoristic poetry”.  Huh?

Monday 12 June

Black Sun – UK – Dir: Gary Tarn – 3/5

A wonderful narration by the thoughtful, courageous and wise Hugues de Montalambert keeps us watching – hard going at times – as abstract images show us something of the experience if blindness.  Once you relax into it, it takes you on a marvellous journey of discovery, and contemplative thought.  A gentle and moving film.

Friday or Another day – Belgium/ France/ Italy/  Slovak Republic – Dir: Yvan Le Moine – 3/5

This "update" of Robinson Crusoe is based on a book by Michel Tournier.  Here Robinson is an acteur from the Comedie Francais but the film is still set in the last half of the 1700s.  It is a thoughtful and beautiful looking film, with a bravura performance by Philippe Nohan.  It covers fascinating issues like the connection of loneliness with madness, the question of whether language is necessary for thought, and the nature of companionship, friendship, race and equality and civilisation itself.  I don't think the crowd either liked or got it.

Léon Morin, Pretre – France – Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville – 5/5

Oh boy!  Melville is turning out to be such a versatile director.  I've only seen 2 so far ("L'Armée des Ombres" yesterday, and I'm very impressed.  He's a thinker about the big issues, and so far adapting famous books, but still.  Here he manages to make an argument about theology riveting as he places it in the foreground, with the French occupation and resistance in the background.  Again he seems to know exactly what he is working with, and gets a superb performance out of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo as the priest.  It's an intellectual performance – though with some surprising physicality as well. Somehow Melville has made an intensely moving  film about a saint for modern times – a hard nosed, practical, clever man, who can be friends with all manner of women, and who is perfectly Christ-like. This felt very Herman Melville to  me, too.

Memorable lines:  "Baptisms by the grace of God – and the Germans!"
"France is now a land of missions"
"Wondrous is the irony of God".

These just a few of the terrific lines from a film full of fabulous writing.  A stunner!

Tuesday 12 June

La Moustache – France – Dir: Leloutha Petrou-Veschi – 4/5

A fascinating meditation on truth and reality.  How do we know what is true and what is misperception (see my notes on the earlier SFF film “Black Sun”: some people just don’t see).  This film feels like David Lynch meets Hitchcock: the Hitchcock of “Suspicion” with Emmanuelle Devos in the Cary Grant role – is she benign or is she evil?  She plays it beautifully, as does Vincent Lindon – is he a victim or is he crazy?  This film seems to begin in the middle and spread out on both ends.  Which is the real story, and which is the dream (drug-induced or otherwise (which is of course where David Lynch comes in)?  I don’t mind.  I don't think we need to decide.  We even get a bit of Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and "Vertigo" with the washing machine spin cycle in Marc’s head.  Sounds a bit serious, but it’s really funny, especially in the first half. I liked it a lot.

Feast of the Goat – Spain – Dir: Luis Llosa – 2/5

What a shame!  This film looked promising on paper – from a Mario Vargas Llosa novel, with Isabella Rossellini and a fairly distinguished cast, with a fascinating story based (how far?) on the true story of the assassination of Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo around 1961.  But something went wrong.  It is a Spanish film but it has a lot of English input (English language & some English actors).  The dialogue sounds mistranslated – very banal.  Rossellini’s narration is dreadful – she looks bemused.  All the cars are new and all the clothes look odd.  And I didn’t believe the crucial plot points:  why did the girl allow this to be done to her when she must have believed she’d be committing a mortal sin, and why did she come back to visit.  So I didn’t engage, even thought the story is poignant.  Disappointing.  But this does make 3 good priests in a row! (The priest who says that Thomas Aquinas says God sanctions the killing of 'the Beast' if it will save the people, plus the priest in "Adam's Apples" & Father Léon in "Léon Morin, Pretre").

Kidulthood – UK – Dir: Menhaj Huda – 4/5

A very powerful film that covers similar ground to the recent US release “The Chumscrubber”, except that that felt dishonest and forced and this one felt honest – based on real kids, if a little compressed (the action takes place over one horrific day).  Marvellous performances from mostly unknown “kidults”, and a mile-a-minute script with good-looking visuals and a nice story arc, almost ending in a bit of romanticism, but toughening up at the end.  It has a lot of misbehaviour and bad language, but a lot of it is (intentionally) unintelligible, so it may be possible to go through the movie and not understand a lot of the vulgarity! (The director said he’s not opposed to subtitles, but they’d have to be translated as well!).  There's a very good soundtrack – nearly all English hip-hop, which came after the script, and so is still very contemporary: The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Audio Police.  The script was written by Noel Clark, who plays one of the kids, Sam.  He was about 25 at the time he wrote it, and looks the part. Locations are around Ladbroke (?) and West London, near where the director lives.  It is one of the few areas where rich live next to poor and the kids go to the same schools. It also stars Ray Winstone's daughter Jaime, who is very good as Rebecca, a slut.  Kids will love this, and adults should see it.

Memorable line: "This is a vicious circle" (said by kid to taxidriver – taxis won't pick up kid because he's black, and then when he does get a ride he skips without paying!).

Les Enfants Terrible – France – Dir: Jean Pierre Melville – 3/5

This is a bit of a curiosity for me – I never realised Melville directed it.  I thought it was Cocteau himself.  But Cocteau wrote the novel and chose Melville to direct the adaptation.  They wrote the screenplay together.  It’s a mannered and arch film – but you don’t expect realism from Cocteau: you expect poetry, symbolism and out-there ideas.  Here we have an amazing mix of beauty and innocence with corruption and grime, high fashion (Christian Dior) and grimy dressing gowns, all in a sticky clammy melange.  About 15 minutes too long for my liking, but interesting every step of the way.  Melville does and amazing job of converting something so artificial to the screen in a visually interesting way.

According to the intro by Dr Adrian Danks, there was a lot of conflict between the two authors, and Melville actually banned Cocteau from the set after Cocteau yelled “Cut”!  Cocteau thought the film was more Melville’s than his.  The narration, and the heartbeats in the film are by Cocteau, and both Melville and Cocteau appear together in the dining car – but I missed them. Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” is a loose remake.

Memorable quotes:  “Introspection demands discipline that they lacked.”

“Beauty demands unlimited privilege.”

Wednesday 14 June

Friends with Money – USA – Dir: Nicole Holofcener – 4/5

Could director Nicole Holofcener be a Woody Allen for the new century?  This gentle observational comedy about friendship among a self-obsessed group of 30- or 40-somethings is a nice antidote to some of the more serious films of the Festival.  It had a few aspects to it that were a bit close to the bone:  I love to collect Lancôme samples myself!  And I identified – I am sorry to say – with the anger of Frances McDormand’s character, Jane when people steal her parking spot or queue-jump.  I also liked the observation that everyone in the street Catherine Keener’s character (Christine) lived in was extending their houses to make them enormous without regard for anyone else’s feelings.  And I liked her observation that her good taste merely becomes “trendy”.

However, Frances has a real problem if she is worried that, at 43:
 “There’s no more wondering what its going to be like.”
“What what’s going to be like?” asks her husband
“My life – my fabulous life”.
Do we all need to live fabulous lives?  Or, indeed, do we all actually lead fabulous lives?

Other memorable quote: “You were the prettiest one there”: a gorgeous sentiment.

Lots of fun, and quite astute.

Girl Shy – USA (1924) – Dir: Fred C Newmeyer & Sam Taylor – 4.5/5

How gorgeous!  Cute Harold Lloyd at the top of his game.  Jan Preston’s band with a new score.  But whose score is this?  The SFF booklet gives, as usual, almost no information. The final chase scene has got to be one of the greatest in silent comedy. I loved the boogy-woogie for the bumpy road.  How did they get the car to keep jumping on the smooth road?  And were those horses from “Ben-Hur”?  Was Yakima Canutt involved?  The jumping over the top of the team of horses was straight out of “Stagecoach” (Ford, 1939).  And the accident when the horse fell over – and when it had to jump the broken yoke – was real. I’m sure of it!

According to IMDB, Harold Lloyd is the only actor who owned most of the films he appeared in:  “(sadly many of the earliest ones were destroyed in a nitrite fire in a vault at Greenacres [his estate] in 1943). This ownership gave him the ability to withhold his films from being shown on television; Lloyd feared incorrect projection speed and commercials would damage his reputation. As a result, a generation of film fans saw very few of his films and his reputation was diminished.”

But it seems he was more financially successful than Chaplin, and, on the evidence of this film at least, he was probably wrong about future generations: he seems to have just as much appeal today.  People giggled and cheered and loved every minute of “Girl Shy”.

Thursday 14 June

Little Miss Sunshine – USA – Dir:  Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris – 4.5/5

Thoroughly delightful.  See it! 

Alan Arkins's character is so fabulous and so engaging that when he disappears early on, I was upset.  But luckily his spirit hovvers over the film, until the stunning final sequence with one of the best "new talent" routines you'll see.  Toni Colette is better than ever.  Steve Carell is a wonderful comediac talent.  It's the little things, the detail of this film, that feel true and honest and screwy and wonderful.  See it!

Memorable lines: "Divorce, bankruptcy, suicide.  You're losers, you're fucking losers".
"Where's your grandpa?" "He's in the  trunk of our car".

Kanyini – Australia – Dir: Melanie Hogan – 4/5

A brilliant bit of guerrilla film making.  With images to match the beauty of the wisdom of the philosopher at its heart – Bob Randall.  Amazing use of archival footage.  And an actual call to action.  Melanie taught herself to edit the film so she could maintain the intimacy she needed with Bob Randall.  THIS IS FILM MAKING!  THIS IS HOW TO DO IT!

The House of Sand – Brazil – Dir: Andrucha Waddington – 3/5

Stunning looking film about  part of the world I never knew existed.  Great opening scene! Excellent use of cinemascope.  Nice connection with the moon landing, if contrived. First and last scenes are stunners.  Lovely mother/ daughter acting, but a few too many switches.  The last switch, in 1969, made the audience laugh!   A film I would never have seen otherwise.  Long live the Film Festival!

Footy Chicks – Australia – Dir:  Rebecca Barry – 2.5/5

Oh so misguided!  The film-makers thought made a film about sexually-empowered women, with a little of the down-side, but Oh My Lord they have made a film about women trapped into a culture that they need to get out of.  So sad.  It is right there before the film makers and it seems they choose not to see it.  Each woman longs to get out before it is too late.  They all say as much.  I hope it isn’t too late for them.  And where are their counsellors?  They all seem to be as misguided as the footy chicks are!  One of the saddest films so far…  Would have scored higher but it seems they know not what they do.

Burke and Wills – Australia Dir:
Matt Zeremes & Oliver Torr – 2/5

Started out as a promising, original film, and fell into a self-important mire.  What I thought was an interesting take on modern young men and their inability to understand what is going on before their very eyes in terms of life, relationships and everything that is important in life, turned into an artificial tale of a schizophrenic rapist.  Irresponsible, immoral and a waste of talent.  Where was the critical voice of reason that should have said this was a good short film at 40 mins – a slacker comedy with music that would become irritating if overused (it was)?  So derivative of Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch and “Taxi Driver”.  Disappointing: superficially good, but they sacrificed all the substance in the film on the altar of their narcissism. Oh, and that contrived (did not work, merely irritated), oh-so-clever name:  Leichhardt?  They'll never guess it!

Friday 16 June

Five Days in September – Canada – Dir: Barbara Willis Sweete – 4/5

Another bit of guerilla film making.  The director, with virtually no time to prepare, has produced a wonderfully intimate documentary about the resurrection of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra due to the new energy and excitement injected by a new Conductor and Orchestra Leader, Peter Oundjian.

Admittedly the project was brought to the director on a plate, but she is so experienced, having made hundreds of musical and arts-related docos before, and so the Orchestra and Conductor knew they had to co-operate, and they paid honoraria to the 3 main soloists: Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming and Emanuel Ax.  As the director said, you never get Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming and Emanuel Ax one after the other on consecutive days, as here

Memorable quote: “If the content is successfully communicated, then we have a magical moment” – Yo-Yo Ma.

Hear hear!  This film has a bit of magic about it, and one of the magical moments involves Yo-Yo himself.  A feast!

No 2 – New Zealand – Dir: Toa Fraser – 4/5

Here’s another bit of magic.  Although not a perfect film – some of the acting is a little stilted, and I didn’t really accept Miss Ruby Dee as the Fijian matriarch, it’s easy to forgive these transgressions in this film where the heart is in the right place and the details are so exquisite and the story feels so honest and true.  The montage where the family prepares the feast while the matriarch lies in bed listening to opera is the most glorious and lovely of the Festival so far.  3 exquisite minutes!  And the faces!  The 3 male cousins (Sol, Erasmus and Tyson) are beautiful and engaging men.  And the female cousins and the kids are also arresting.  I loved it.

Memorable quotes:  “Where is Mount Doom?” (German tourist)
“I dunno.  I think it’s in Hamilton.” (Tour guide).

“Jesus is not from Fiji”.

Unfolding Florence – Australia – Dir:  Gillian Armstrong – 2.5/5

Oh how much I wanted to like this film, but I didn’t.  I knew something of the topic, being the proud owner of several Florence Broadhurst printed textiles (a bag and a coat) – I took the bag to the screening.  But…

On the plus side, first, it was very well directed and edited, had a very good script, using an interesting approach, and with fabulous use of archival material and great interviews with many very significant people in Florence’s life.  Artistically, I think it matched Florence’s style pretty well.

But on the minus side I think the use of animated photos failed.  It trivialised the otherwise fascinating archival material and documents, and proved very distracting.  I found myself trying to peer through the animation to read the documents, and not being able to.

The use of little scrolls with quotes was also problematic.  Were they real quotes, or part of the script?  By mixing fact with fiction they trivialised the fact.

Now my most significant criticism.  Florence’s murder was never solved.  This is a film about Florence’s life and death.  I know there were 15 suspects and 5 prime suspects.  Who were they?  Who killed Florence?  I am none the wiser after the film.  Now I know they can’t go making accusations, but the film begs the whole question.  And isn’t that the question we are all asking.  Doesn’t that lead to a gap, a void.  Perhaps if that were explained up-front then the question mark wouldn’t loom so large over proceedings.

One of the producers at the Q&A told us to read the July issue of the Australian Women's Weekly to find out more.  Surely that is unsatisfactory!

I have to review this film for the NSW Law Society Journal’s August issue, so this review will be expanding in the near future.  But those are my preliminary thoughts…

Saturday 17 June

Bob Le Flambeur – France (1955) – Jean-Pierre Melville – 5/5

Another one from Melville that I loved.  Set in the netherworld, between bars and dives in Montmartre, between Deauville and Paris, between day and night, between right and wrong.  Roger Duchesne is magnificent as Bob.  Makes me want to see the loose remake The Good Thief (Neil Jordan, 2002), again.

A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – UK/ The Netherlands/ Austria – Dir: Sophie Fiennes – 2.5/5

Truth in advertising.   3 hour marathon with a maniac babbling about the relationship of psychoanalysis and cinema.  Easy pickings, especially Hitchcock and David Lynch.  I’d have loved there to be more of a point to it.  It is easy just to make assertions and than back them up with scenes from films.  And your point is…?

Having said that, I loved the idea of setting this manic man in the real or mocked-up settings from the films he’s chosen.  And I learnt a fair bit, but I disagreed violently with just about as much.  Eg: women can only enjoy sex by talking about it afterwards.  We all want to kill our fathers…Grrr!  Still I loved the characterisation of the Marx Brothers:  Chico the Ego, Groucho the Superego and Harpo the Id!  Hard to argue against that one!

Le Samourai – France (1967) – Jean-Pierre Melville – 5/5

A terrible print marred a fabulous cinematic experience.  A lot more is going on in this film than you think at the time.  I want to see it again immediately.

Alain Delon is magnificent as what I now see as a dead man walking.  The first scene confirms it.  As soon as he looks up at the femme fatale – the lovely black nightclub pianist  – he is doomed.  But watching him go down is magnificent.  And fantastic forensic detail in the arrest, line-up and letting-suspects-go police procedure, followed by the tailing sequence, with the 70 personnel and the little light-up map with the radio transmitters. Fantastic!  Wanna buy a Citroen, anyone?

Monday 19 June

Beyond Hatred – France – Dir: Olivier Meyrou – 5/5

A fantastic forensic examination – almost Frederick Wiseman style – of a dreadful hate murder of a gay man by skinheads in Rheims.  A very emotional subject handled with great sensitivity and the distance allows us to take the great sorrow on board.  Fascinating detail about the French legal system.  No jury and a 3-day trial.  Marvellous, and extremely moving.

1:1 – Denmark – Dir: Annette K Oleson – 4.5/5

The very great Annette K Oleson right on form.  Top work!  Potentially gratuitous violence shown in the best possible taste.  A rare performance of Arabs as a "normal" family,  not at all stereotyped, with an interesting husband-wife relationship, uncles who are human
joking about September 11, in a regular way and funny, and big brother looking after sister in a knowing way.  Something special.

Australian Short Cuts 2

3 good ones.

Snow – Dir: Dustin Fenely
A beautiful-looking, nicely acted  two-hander.  But what’s it all about?

Sexy Thing – Dir: Denie Pentecost
Well-executed story, imaginative and sensitive.  Economically told. With several layers, and keeping you on the edge of your seat until the last few gestures.  Moving.

Love This Time – Dir: Rhys Graham
An amazingly sensitive film by a man about a young woman with many responsibilities and several loves.  Touching.

Tuesday 20 June

The President’s Last Bang – South Korea – Dir: Im Sang-Soo – 4/5

Nudity, appalling language, mistreatment of women, guns, and lots of blood:  it must be a Korean film.  But what a film!  Put this in a double feature with The Feast of the Goat (see above) and compare and contrast,  The Bang wins.

Funny, unusual, violent and clever.  Tango music is incongruous and strangely jocular but perfect in tone for this black, black comedy. I love this film for its view of the “cock-up” theory of history.  Mungo McCallum always said that if there’s a choice between a bungle and a conspiracy, take the bungle every time.  I agree.  So does this director.

So much memorable dialogue.  Here’s a taste:

“Does my breath stink worse than normal?”
“I’ve been smelling your breath for a long time. I can’t tell… People stink.  It’s no big deal.”

“Everybody’s talking about democracy, but how many countries are actually practising it?” – President Park.  (Then he gives us a list of failures of democracy in various democratic countries.) How true!

“Do you have a gun with a silencer?”
"Then bring me an M-16".

I love the character of the waiter, who seems to know more about what’s going on than anyone.  Moral of this story, and The Feast of the Goat:  If you’re going to assassinate a dictator, don’t lose control of the body!

The Aura – Argentina – Dir: Fabian Bielinsky – 4.5/5

This is a fabulous little thriller that would have scored a 5 except for the fact that it was just a bit too neat for my tastes.  The hero is such an impassive character.  He hardly makes a positive move.  He simply reacts.  Luckily he has a photographic memory, and is smart, so he can put 2+2 together and keep himself afloat.  But he doesn’t think too far ahead, so he gets into trouble.  The only real move he makes on his own is to reveal something to the girl about her husband – but even that he leaves til the last minute.

It’s another part of Argentina that I hadn’t seen before – said to be “in the South”, a forest set against snow-capped mountains.  A wonderful setting that recalls Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947).  Begins with the eyes of the fox, and ends with the eyes of …

A very elegant film and mystery, but all the clues are there for you, laid out a tad too neatly.  So not a perfect film.  But close.

God on My Side – Australia – Dir: Andrew Denton & Anita Jacoby – 3/5

A competent documentary about the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention held in Texas in February 2006.  Andrew Denton is an intelligent and sensitive interviewer, and we see a lot of material presented in a balanced way, but I don’t think we learn all that much.  I had a problem with the structure of the film (it is divided into various “Books” like the bible:  The Book of Faith, The Book of Miracles, The Book of America, The Book of Bush, etc, but these are unhelpful divisions.  A more helpful structure would have been the series of 4 (according to producer John Casimir) or 5 (according to Denton) questions the film makers said they asked of themselves before they began filming:
1. What was the business of selling God in the 21st century?
2. How did these people find God themselves (personal journeys)
3. What kind of a US do they see in their hearts?
4. What is it about George Bush that so turns them on?
5. Tell us about the world and what it should be
I don’t know that the documentary tells us enough about each of these questions. It should.  But there is no doubt that Denton is a perceptive, quick-witted and entertaining interviewer, when on form, as here.

Prisoner 345 – Qatar – Dir: Abdullah El Binni – 3/5

Another competent documentary with plenty of damning evidence against the Bush regime and Guantanemo Bay. Everyone needs to see this film, for the content.  It is not the greatest film in the world, but it is an important one.  Mostly the evidence is compelling, but some of it is weak. And that lessens the film.  But it still has enough power to be very distressing. The structure is loose, but the personal testimony mostly convinces.  How can it be that this travesty continues? 

Wednesday 21 June

Something Like Happiness – Czech Republic/ Germany – Dir: Bohdan Slama – 5/5

A lovely, if devastating story, filled with real people showing us honest emotions.  You fall in love with everyone (well nearly everyone) here, and the 2 children are so good and truly adorable.  How did they get them to react so well? This film finished me off emotionally by lunchtime!  Long live the Czech film industry!

Dam Street – China – Dir: Li Yu – 2.5/5

Suffers badly in comparison to the intensely moving and emotional Something Like Happiness.  A film where the background is more interesting than the foreground.  All of the social, cultural and historical background to the main story was fascinating, and the settings were stunning.  Everything about the film was admirable except for the main story.  And why the intertitles?  Couldn’t the director show us rather than tell?

Gabrielle – France – Dir: Patrice Chéreau – 5/5

My pick of the festival so far.  A perfect film.  Stunning camera work, gorgeous art and set decoration, impeccable cast and immaculate acting, the most stunning music I’ve heard in a film for years, an intelligent and moving script.  The perfect interpretation of a Conrad story, yet intensely relevant to today’s relationships.  Divine!

Thursday 22 June

– Slovenia/ Croatia – Dir: Jan Cvitkovic – 3.5/5

This film would have scored higher, but for a misjudged veer into a bloody piece of revenge, which seemed to come from nowhere, enacted by characters that did not seem likely to do such a thing (both the perpetrators, in the form of their act, and the nature of the revenge).  I imagined a different scenario: that he takes his chariot and damages their chariot.  I wish it had gone that way, because in every other respect this was a gentle comedy with an enormous jolt at the end.  I felt that supplied sufficient surprise and horror, mixed with a strange beauty.  Most of the characters felt real and were well-portrayed, though the grandfather’s salvation at the hands of a handy widow was a little cartoonish.  But in nearly every other respect this was a delightful film with a strong dose of profundity.

– Canada – Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée – 4/5

A chaotic and yet precise film: chaotic in that the family’s life is presented messily:  it’s not neat, and so it feels real.  And the struggle our hero has with his sexuality is also messy and confused – and hence feels right.  The precision comes in the art direction:  the detail is amazingly real (I know the decades intimately!) and yet not forced:  everything looks appropriately worn and used.  It is a real family and real lives.

The music was the music of my life and times – even down to the Charles Aznavour-obsessed father (my mother loved Aznavour in the 70s too).  It’s a great soundtrack, even including Roy Buchanan.

A little bit of trivia:  I was listening to the French (loved the accents!) and reading the subtitles and I can almost swear that at one stage the father says: “I wondered where my sunglasses were” when the subtitles read: “I wondered where my shoelaces were” (!).

Apart from the run into the desert, and the rescue by the Moroccan family, I found this film to be true and accomplished, with lots of lovely family humour and drama.  An enjoyable film about what it is to be human.

The Sun
– Russia/ Italy/ France/ Switzerland – Dir: Alexander Sokurov – 3.5/5

I really wish I had seen this film early in the day and early in the festival, because I was too tired to approach the film in the contemplative way it deserved.  This was not helped by the very murky tones the director uses to make this seem like an animated sepia photograph from the past.

This is more anthropological study than bio-pic.  The remarkable Issey  Ogata plays Emperor Hirohito in the last moments before he renounced his divine status.  The Emperor was a very intelligent and curious man – a linguist, marine biologist and would-be poet.  The director, who also directed Russian Ark (2002) sees the Emperor as himself a specimen.  Ogata’s mouth opens and closes constantly like a carp, and when he dissects a crab, it is clear that  we are also dissecting the Emperor.  This is, after all, a man is so unused to dressing himself that he can barely do it on his own, and certainly his relationship with his wife seems unnatural and forced.

I think there is  a problem with some of the English language dialogue – it sounds stilted and inauthentic at times.  This undermines the role of General Macarthur, in particular.  But if you can surrender yourself to this film, there is much to enjoy.  The scenes where the Emperor confronts one of the cranes ornamenting his garden is stunning: the Emperor tips his hat to the crane. (The crane was, I understand, responsible for bringing the islands of Japan to rest, and is thus a sacred bird.)

All in all an hypnotic and fascinating film.

Friday 23 June

October 17, 1961
– France – Dir: Alain Tasma – 4/5

Fascinating and moving documentary-style fictional recreation of the day in 1961 in Paris when the French police allegedly murdered anything from 50-200 unnamed Algerian protesters.

This is the day that Michael Hanneke was referring to in Hidden (2005).  The point of that film was that the French had still not acknowledged their guilt for their treatment of colonials, and in particular the Algerians in Paris in the early 60s.  This film addresses that problem.

From the outset it seems balanced: we see a sympathetic French cop who is so afraid of being shot by the FLN that he gets changed into his uniform in a café, rather than show the FLN where he lives.  He’s a moderate, who is made into a bad guy by fear, and by the inability to report the appalling behaviour of the nastier cops who hate the “filthy Arabs”.

Our nice cop and his nastier colleagues are contrasted with hard-line FLN members, some more moderate FLN, and a couple of “working stiff”-type Arabs, brothers, one of whom is studying English to try to “make it:  become a Frenchman”, and the other of whom had fallen behind in his “subs” – the compulsory payment to the FLN that funds their activities.

Tasma paints a complex picture of all the different figures involved – from the Police Minister, through a teacher and her student,  right down to the lowliest Arab worker.  At the same time he builds suspense to  the breaking point.  We see how things can get out of control so easily when there is such a build up of pressure on both sides.

This film has been compared to Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002) a film about the Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30, 1972.  If anything, this film is easier to follow than that film.  It is more conventional storytelling, but none the worse for that.  Absolutely compelling.

United 93
– USA – Dir: Paul Greengrass – 5/5

A masterful and devastating recreation of the hijacking and crash of United’s Flight 93: the plane that didn’t crash into the Capitol building on 9/11, but ploughed into the ground.

This must have been such a difficult film to make:  there’s the need to respect the memories of those who died – the film is “Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives… on September 11, 2000.” Note the word “all”.  This film has respect for both sides of the story.  It begins with Muslims at prayer, but these Muslims are about to get ready for their suicide mission.

There are no stars in this film.  The cast consists of ordinary-looking people.  That of course gives the film more of a documentary feel.  It also makes it easier for us to put ourselves in the places of the people on United’s flight 93.  Most of us have been on a plane.  We know the drill.  That’s part of what makes this film so enthralling and so absorbing.  But the rest is down to the director.  He’s brought to this film the skill he showed in Bloody Sunday (2002), but this film is a more accomplished piece of work,  and much more coherent.

When the crunch comes there’s a very moving sequence as people say goodbye to their loved ones.  Again, this would be easy to mess up or overdo, but Greengrass judges the timing exactly – as he does at the end of the film, too – to the second.

I saw the film twice in a day.  It’s that good.  And it was equally absorbing each time I saw it.  Your pulse will race.  You will sob. And you will be devastated.  But don’t go before you read the credits – you’ll be amazed.

PS.  In what was either an incredible lapse of taste or an appalling co-incidence, when the house lights went up at the State Theatre, and the house music came on, the song playing was: "Straighten Up and Fly Right"!

Saturday 24 June

Dendy Awards:

Abortion, Corruption and Cops – The Bertram Wainer Story
– Dir: John Moore – 4.5/5

Butterfly Man
– Dir: Samantha Rebillet – 4/5

Girl in a Mirror
– Dir: Kathy Drayton – 4.5/5

Looking Back
– Dir: Mark Tsukasov – 4/5

– Dir: Maia Horniak – 4/5

Whole Heart
– Dir: Tracie Mitchell – 2.5/5

– Dir: Simon Portus – 3/5

Paper and Sand
– Dir: Sotiris Dounoukos – 3/5

– Stuart McDonald – 3/5

The Eye Inside
– Dir: Cordelia Beresford – 2.5/5

– Dir: Eron Sheean – 4/5

Small Boxes
– Dir: Rene Henandez – 4/5

Switch on the Night
– Dir: Alejandra Canales – 4.5/5

Autumn Moon
– Dir: Nga Chu – 3/5

Carnivore Reflux
– Dir: Eddie White, James Calvert – 3/5

– Dir: Jonathan Nix – 3/5

The Safe House
– Dir: Lee Whitmore – 4.5/5

Closing Night Film

Thank You for Smoking
– USA – Dir: Jason Reitman – 4.5/5

This is a very witty and reasonable savage satire on America, California, Lobbyists, spin doctors, PR people and plenty more.  The script is consistently funny but also sly and clever – at times the logic it employs is dizzyingly brilliant – the scene with the payoff to the Marlboro man (Sam Elliott) in particular.  The cast is wonderful, especially Aaron Ekhart and Rob Lowe, and there are quite a few people playing themselves.  Dennis Miller (we don’t know who he is ere in Australia, do we?) is hilarious: “I must have that tie clip!”

This film runs along the same lines as the brilliant TV series Absolute Power (2003, but showing now in Sydney, and starring Stephen Fry, with the tagline “Spin is dead, long live PR”).

There’s only one misstep, I think.  I don’t believe Nick Naylor would ever put himself in a position of weakness – certainly not with Katie Holmes.

Memorable dialogue:

“If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.  That’s the beauty of argument”.

“How did you convince her?”
“It was an argument, not a negotiation.”

“You should have been more careful, Nick.  You destroyed all the goodwill created by your kidnapping.”

“That’s kind of cool in a Jimmy Stewart kind of way.”
“More an Ollie North kind of way.”

And watch out for the exchange of insults between the Californian PR flunkies that work for Rob Lowe.  Amazing!

Sunday 25 June

A Prairie Home Companion
– USA – Dir: Robert Altman – 3.5/5

A not-entirely successful attempt to recreate the long-running radio show written and hosted by Garrison Keillor, who appears in that role in the film. 

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a funny, gentle, and in many ways accomplished film, and Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman seem to be a match made in heaven.  I guess my main quibble is with some of the famous actors performing as singers.  We get to see a few of the real regular musicians on Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show: Jearlyn Steele, Robin Williams, Linda Williams, and Prudence Johnson.  When they perform, we get a real sense of musicianship.  I’m not too thrilled with a movie that casts Meryl Streep as a great country singer (please don’t improvise, Meryl!).  Lily Tomlin at least doesn’t take herself seriously, and does better as a result.  Lindsay Lohan is passable.  But next to the real musicians they are disappointing.

An exception is John C Reilly, who has a real voice!

With that off my chest, I think the film gets a lovely wistful feeling going, and that seems to match exactly the tone of Keillor’s books (which I’ve read a lot of).  I’ve heard small snatches of the radio show, and it seems to reproduce the whimsy of that well too.

Altman brings along his wonderful trademark moving camera and overlapping dialogue.  This reaches a glorious peak in a scene backstage when all the performers are arriving before the show and the camera tracks around backstage, picking up bits and pieces of conversation, coming to rest at the dressing table of the Johnson sisters (a real-life duo, but played by Streep and Tomlin).  There are bits and pieces of their lives on the table, as they do their makeup, reminisce over old times, good and bad, and the camera pans back and forth before 2 or 3 mirrors, reflecting the detritus and memorabilia of several lives.  It’s poetry!

Kevin Kline is hilarious as Guy Noir, the narrator, a private detective/ security guard.  His gift for physical humour is prodigious.  It’s a bit of a device to have him tell the story – in fact he is a fictional character that features in stories told on  the real-life radio show – but the idea that this is the last radio show after 30 years (it’s not ending in real life) adds to the sweet wistfulness of the tone.

John C Reilly and a crusty-looking Woody Harrelson star as Lefty and Dusty, whose “bad jokes” song and monologue is absolutely hilarious. The mock ad breaks narrated by GK are very funny as well.

All in all this is a gentle, loving tribute to the things of the past that we only just remember.

Memorable quotes:

"I'm of an age when if I started to do eulogies, I'd be doing nothing else." – GK
"You don't want to be remembered?" – Lola
"I don't want them to be told to remember me." – GK

“The Carter family was like us, only famous”.