The 55th  Sydney Film Festival
4-22 June 2008*

* 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.

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.  Apparently I was blogging. Every year it seems to get harder to get these reviews up quickly, but I won't give up!

Sometimes I post the raw notes I made at the time I saw each film - my contemporaneous thinking, informed by discussions with people in and around row D in the stalls, and in the aisles and foyer.  Thanks to all of you! It is a bit shorthand, and often poorly typed. But I'll try to work through it and edit it as soon as I can...

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

Opening Night - Wed 4 June 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky -
UK, Dir: Mike Leigh


What an interesting film. Leigh confounds nearly all our expectations with a happy middle-class heroine, who gets a lot of what she wants out of life, and some of what she doesn't need, but none of it fazes her.  She doesn't worry when her bike is stolen (I'd go ballistic!) and she makes you think that somethines it might be best to let things wash over you.

That made me frustrated for a lot of the film, and so I found it hard to enjoy the main character. She made me crazy. Still, there is a lot to like in the film - its humour, its sensitivity, and its interesting setting.

Also, it made me question the usual arc of narrative of a film. This doesn't follow that arc really - though it does in a way - and life goes on much as it would in all of our lives.  What a concept!

The troubling scene in which our heroine goes into an alley where a homeless man is ranting and raving. My first reaction is that this is ridiculously foolhardy, but then later, when I thought about it more, I think that Mike Leigh is telling us that her  openness is like a protective layer, which disarms the man - and after all, he is harmless.  Thus her optimism is not foolish, not crazy.  It is in fact an act of heroism.

Thur 5 June

Haze - Short film - Singapore Dir: Anthony Chen

What a surprise, from Singapore. Censorship must have softened even more since I was there last - or it hasn't been shown there. A young couple, bored, discover sex ansd condoms for the first time.  She doesn't like it much ("Frankly, it hurts") and he thought it was pretty good.  But will he love her forever?  Are you kidding?  I loved it!

Wonderful Town - Thailand, Dir: Aditya Assirat
Again an interesting film - and by that I mean that it doesn't do what we want. A Thai town, off the tourist route, has been badly affected by the tsunami. To concentrate on life after the tsunami is fascinating enough, but we see here a portrait of what comes in its wake - possibly something worse!

Lovely guitar score (except for the obligatory romanic interlude, where the music spills over into the realm of the soppy). Superior photography - particularly of clouds and water. Fascinating location, and a sudden downbeat ending made for good festival viewing.

One scene after the female lead has been kissed for the first time was just exquisite.

feeling_lonely - short - Australia - Dir: Rachel Turk

Well-executed  and acted, but I'm afraid the plot is like an urban myth.  I've seen this scenario  somewhere before...  Should go for the jugular, but it didn't move me.

Revanche - Austria - Dir: Gott Spielmann


Best  film of the day - a suspenseful thriller that takes you to different settings that constantly surprise. The characters Spielmann creates are so real and it feels like they have minds of their own.  From the opening scenes we know that these characters are doomed, but we don't know exactly how it will happen. So many elements are at play here that we just don't know what to expect and where or when disaster may strike.  Suspense is ratchetted up to breaking point by things like a photograph on a table, or an old man who plays the accordian, and then stops playing. It's really very film noir and at the same time very Hitchcock - I'm thinking Hitchcock's  Notorious, actually.  Intelligent, literate, and a great movie-movie. With gorgous photography to boot.  Top class.

Funny Games
- France - Dir: Michael Haneke
It's so hard to know why someone would do a remake of their own film after 10 year, except perhaps to reach a new audience that won't read subtitles, when the resulting remake is virtually a shot-by-shot recreation, but with a different cast. I understand that the DVD of the original, Austrian, Funny Games was a huge hit in the US, so it's not as if the orginal film didn't find an audience.  I guess Michael Haneke (who is uncommonly clever) wants to get the audience that he is lampooning - or at least criticising - with his hard-to-take film.

Is it just me or this time do the 2 interloping boys look more gay this time round? And Naomi Watts, a co-producer, is what they call "courageous" here in that she lets herself look really terrible onscreen.

But the big difference here is that this is now post-9/11, and so the gated community that our family lives in seems like a reaction to the ferar that that tragedy engendered. Is it a rational fear? Perhaps that question is what made Haneke revisit his idea.

Seeing this a second time I was struck by the fact that I took all the violence as matter-of-fact. I was not shocked.  Is this because I knew what was going to happen? No - see my review later on of The Innocents.  It may just be all the violence I have seen in the intervening 11 years...

Fri 6 June

Silent Light
- Mexico/ France/ Netherlands/ Germany - Dir: Carlos Reygadas
This beautiful and mysterious film begins with a timelapse sunrise scene (but not as long as in the recent Australian film Night. With all the cows and chooks it was not unlike sunrises at my farm at Foxground NSW! Things unfold very slowly, as the Director seems to be saying to us: slow down. Look, listen and feel.

These are real Mennenites, not actors: you can tell by some of the minor characters such as Johann's father. And by Johann when he cries in the last part of the film - it's like no on-screen crying I've seen.

There's a sequence with the family watching what I think is Jaques Brel singing on b & w TV in a trailer home which will blow your mind! Then something happens which no one could be prepared for, and it tears your heart out.

The gorgeous cinematography, setting and composition are reasons enough to see theis film. And then towards the end it tips over into Ingmar Bergmann territory, by way of some South American magic realism.

The slowness of this film is not an affectation: passing of time is an important theme here. From the ticking clock in the early scenes in the kitchen, which Johann stops, to dialogue like:
"If only we could turn back time" (Johann)
"That's the one thing in life we cannot do" (Marianne).
But Marianne's tear falling on Estehr's face changes everything, and in the last scene Johann's father starts the kitchen clock again.

A gentle modern fable with old-time players.

The Red Awn
- China - Dir: Peng Tao
Have you seen Wild Harvest with Alan Ladd (1947)?.  Uncanny!

Terribly disappointing, since one if the main features of this film is the beauty of the landscapes, that the film print didn't arrive and we had to see a DVD blown up too large, so everything was not as sharp as it should have been. According to Peng Tao, in the Q & A, it was shot in the Gangzao Province in NW China, a very beautiful area.

This is a fairly ordinary story of the conflict between a teenaged boy and his ne'er do well Dad who struggle to restart their relationship after dad left and didn't even come back for his wife's funeral (he felt disgraced). It is interesting to see the way that private enterprise has replaced State-organised farming. But that - and the uncanny co-incidence of the plot with that of the 1947 film - are the only distinguishing features here.

Pend mentioned that in China 400 films are made every year, and that his film was only in the cinemas for 5 days, which is tyipcal for
this sort of independent production.

Her Name is Sabine
- France - Dir: Sandrine Bonnaire
Actress Sandrine Bonnaire bares a very private part of her life with this troubling documentary about her sister, Sabine, now diagnosed as autistic, and badly damaged by electro-shock therapy.

Sabine is 1 year younger than Sandrine, and was even more beautiful than Sandrine when she was young. Sandrine has the advantage of lots of home footage of her family so that she can show us Sabine's deterioration over the years. She also shows Sabine today, on good days and bad, with an unflinching eye. It must have taken a lot of courage, because she exposes herself, her guilt, and she leaves herself open to criticism for allowing things to get as bad as they did.

But it's not just self-flagellation, or self-indulgence. It is also an important exposure of the lack of help for people like Sabine, in France, and possibly elsewhere too.

There are a few missteps: by about 1hr15m we have got the point, and there is still another 30mins to go. When Sandrine asks Sabine if she is in love I think it is in bad taste. And initialli I thought shoeing Sabine's reaction to an old DVD of her was cruel - but it did end up being moving.

In the end, this is both a frustrating and a fascinating and moving film.

Sat 7 June

No films seen.

Sun 8 June

No films seen.

Mon 9 June

- UK - Dir: Steve McQueen
In my opinion, the clear winner of the Blue Pavlova. It's another important social document (how quickly we can forget the horrific details of history!), but it also a work of art.

McQueen and his writer Enda Walsh establish the milieu of Maze prison first (how that name resonates in my memory). We see how the prisoners and their guards had to live and interact during those dark days. Of course comparisons with the brutality of Gitmo are both inevitable and essential. Having shown us the rules of the game, the film makers then home in on Bobby Sands, as we see what he is doing and why, as well as where he came from. We see how a "Blanket and No Wash protest must escalate, and how the only weapon the prisoners have is their bodies.

The central section is given over to a debate between Sands and his priest about the rights and wrongs of what he's chosen to do.  The Priest asks if Sands simply intends to commit suicide, but Sands counters that it is in fact murder (by the State). There's also a lyrical flashback about an incident in Sands youth when he had to put a foal out of its misery when it was badly injured.  What he learned from this sustained him in later life.  He knew he had done the right thing, and so he could take the punishment that he wrongly received from a priest "on behalf of everyone".

Only right at the end are facts introduced in writing to confirm some things that I dimly remembered - such as the fact that Sands was elected to parliament during the strile.

Make no mistake, this is an utterly revolting film to watch, but it must be so.  But I'm so glad I've seen it. Having done so, I feel I can watch almost anything now.  And in a strange way, that has set me free.

Film making at its most powerful.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
- UK : Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Deborah Kerr retrospective)
Superb. Marred by the first few minutes being shown using the wroong lense, so that it was in squashed cinemascope. Luckily Clare Stewart saved the day and insisted it be rewound and reshown propoerly from the begining. She also gave us a short intro to the film, which was a bit disappointing given that she said it was one of her favourite films of all time. She mentioned that Deborah Kerr (who was seeing director Michael Powell at the time) was portrayed as  3 versions of the ideal woman - or at least Powell's ideal.

This film has a huge scope and is trmendously ambitious - all the more impressive given it was filmed in wartime Britain in 943 when everything they need would have been rationed.  And one of my friends told me Winston Churchill hated the film, which he felt to be unhelpful to Britain's war effort (presumably because it has a sympathetic approach to an honourable German - Anton Walbrook's character).

But of course in retrospect, he was wrong. This is a love letter to Britain, and it contains just about everything we love about the British.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
- UK - Dir: Terence Davies (Revive and Restore strand)
Way better now than it was 20 years ago.  Could it be me?

Pete Postlethwaite is amazing. Magnetic and appalling. A very photographic film, and gorgously so - Still Lives indeed. Scenes like the fall from the scaffold are indelible. Freda Dowie as the mother (we've seen her recently in Midsomer Murders and The Bill on TV) is also fantastic. These women who can sing while their husbands abuse them: no wonder London survived the Blitz!  The role of singing in keeping a community together should not be underestimated.

A sweeping and moving memoir.

Tue 10
Three Blind Mice
- Australia - Dir: Matthew Newton
Film Festival Director Clare Stewart introduced this by saying Newton (who also scripted) had "an unusual approach to scriptwriting". Perhaps. But what he does have is a marvellous ear for dialogue, and a great wit.

This is the best debut Australian film since Kenny.  I just loved the freshness of the thing. And the fact that beneath all the razzle dazzle and showy, assured direction, there was a real issue lurking there.

Speaking of debuts - Gracie Otto, debuting as the freshest acting talent I've see - again since Kenny. And she edited to boot.

Ewen Leslie also impressed, and the number of cameo apprearances is just staggering. Helps to come from a show-biz background, I guess. But to Newton's great credit, he doesn't let this overbalance the film. Don't ask me how he did that. It's a mystery.

The only part of the film I'd take issue with is the scene in the karaoke restaurant, continuing into the walk past Cook & Phillip Park. I thought it went on too long. The point could have been made without the hystrionics. I felt it pushed over into farce, and the actors were over-indulged. The rest of the film is so perfectly judged that this stands out even more.

I'll have to do a full-length review of this one. It's too good to give only rough impressions. I also want to review it for the NSW Law Society Journal, but it has to get a distributor first!

Encounters at the End of the World - Dir: Werner Herzog
Herzog does it again. A rambling documentary is held together by his rigorous photography, his ability to find incredible characters and get them to talk, and his uncanny knack of making things all connect, somehow, logically. Plus his questioning mind. Stunning underwater Antarchtic photography to boot.

In the City of Sylvia - France/ Spain - Dir: Jose-Luis Guerin
A somewhat bewildering love letter to Strasbourg, and to youth and beauty.  Sound is post-synched, which both dislocates and emphasises it. This is a film to stick with, since (as in several other films in this year's Festival) nothing much happens in a narrative sense - and yet, of course everything that happens in a city happens.  People pass by, people work in shops, drink in bars and coffe shops, drive their cars and generally live their lives.  So when the young man who searches for Sylvia fails to find her, don't worry.  Look at the film's title again.  It's a film about the city, not Sylvia.  Relax, and get to know its streets and their inhabitants.

Wed 11 June

Green Porno
- USA - Dir: Isabella Rosselini (very short films)
3 very cute and quite primitive "docos". Not too informative, but inventive and amusing. She does have an unusual take on the nature doco, and a good sense of humour. Won the audience vote doco award for the State Theatre.  Who'd have thought?

My Winnepeg
- Canada - Dir: Guy Maddin
Expecting a difficult film (after The Saddest Music in the World, SFF 2005), I was pleasantly surprised when the director introduced it so lightheartedly, and it turned out to be wonderful.

In our session he was not doing the narration, but as I understand it, that was a bonus becasue we got the whole soundtrack, with music.  Music was great - really underlining the moods.  Not forgetting of course that glorious tune "Winnepeg Oh Winnepeg": "It's no Eden that you would say, but it's home sweet home to me".

A great looking film, too, mostly in glorious B&W, with some stunning animated sequences, some homage to silent film, some terrific documentary & archival footage, and some tall tales and some true - but all dramatic.  I'd like to know how much was fiction, but that's not really the point of the film.

Very very laugh-out-loud funny, and quite poetic too. With Ann Savage (ex Detour) as his Mum!

Foster Child
- Philippines - Dir: Brillante Mendoza
This film looks so much like a documentary that is was important that the dorector introduced it by pointing out that everyone was a professional actor. His camera prowls through the slums and follows a family as it goes about its business over a very eventful day. I found the location shootngquite mesmerising, and the story, while slightly manipulated, held my interest til the end, marred a bit by strained performances by the American adoptive partents.

It also reinforced all my doubts about inter-country adoption.  A worthy social document in fictional form.

The Sky, the Earth and the Rain
- Chile/France/ Germany - Dir: Jose Luis Torres Leiva
The fact is this is a very beautiful film, but it has no narrative to speak of.  This is pretty diffficult to deal with in the middle of a film festival, 3rd film of the day. I failed the test.  I was pathetically grateful when anything happened other than people walking along a muddy path or sitting on a ferry. Not a lot happened.  For me, I needed more.

The director suggests we fill in the gaps.  Really, though, isn't that his job? Or the writer's? On another day I might be more charitable.

Not Sacks - UK - Dir: Fiona Collins
A doco about an amazing quilting project taking place in HM Prison, Wandsworth. All the prisoners in the project are interviewed and photographed in such a way as you can't identify them (only a small piece of each face is shown). Clever, but I wonder whether that is enough to shield them. A distinctive voice - or in one case, set of teeth, could give it away.

At the end, all say what their sentences are. One has a particularly worrying one: "One of the new IIPs, indeterminate sentences, equivalent to a life sentence".

Thanks goodness for people like the ones organising this project, and the ones filming it.

Girls Like Us
- Burma? - Dir - ? (short film, seemingly not in the printed program)
Interesting insight into the girls living in a hostel in Yangon, but it raised more issues than it answered. What is the role of this hostel? Is it Burma? How was the film made? Who made it? Are these poor girls still alive after the cyclone?

La Corona
- USA/ Spanish - Dir:Amanda Micheli
Set in the National Women's Penetentiary, Bogota, the biggest
women's penetentiary in Columbia, this documentary is about a beauty pageant they hold yearly.  In contrast to the short film Not Sacks, the faces of (nearly) all the women are shown. Of the contestants, who each represent a cell block, one was a hired killer, one was a guerilla, one was in for robbery and assault, and one for armed robbery.

It's quite moving to see all of the women so beautifully dressed and made up, so happy and having so much fun, but I feared that by allowing it, the authorities were setting most of them up for a fall.

Funnily enough, a highlight was a soap opera star (judge)  giving a short speech about freedom of the heart.  And the saddest bit was not the bitterness of the losers, but the fact that when one of the contestants (the winner, actually) makes parole, there is no one to meet her when they release her into the night.

Great access for a terrific little story.

Thur 12 June

Tokyo Sonata
- Japan - Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
There is a lot to like about this film. Firstly its subject is fascinating: the pride of the Japanese - and the Salarymen in particular.  Issues are exposed and explored in a way that I've only seen done obliquely before.  Here it is balatant, and while played for comedy, the intent is clearly serious.

Next, the plight of the Japanese housewife. There's a fery memorable scene where the wife, exhausted, lies on a sofa and begs, first to her non-listening husband,a nds then to the universe in general: "Somebody pull me up, please!". Then there's the story of the eldest son,  Takeshi, who seems to give out leaflets for a living, but wants to join the US army. But this is not elaborated.

The film seems to lose its way about half way through when we get into a burglary, a kidnapping, a rape, a traffic accident, and a subplot in which the 2nd son, Kenji, becomes a piano virtuoso in about 6 months.  I really want to go to  his music school.

The final scene, the climax, when Kenji blows away the competition with an adult rendition of Debussy's Clair de Lune (I think) is absolute melodrama, as befits a director who is emlating Ozu in many of his compostions and camera pans, and his attention to the tensions on an ordinary family. And there is no double about the central performances of Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyoko Koizumi as the father and mother (especially when they are watching Kenji play the piano for the competition). But, for me, the film would pack more punch without its middle section.

The Song of the Sparrows
- Iran – Dir: Majid Majidi
The director introduced his film, informing us that all the cast but the leading man had not acted before (the laeading man, Reza Naji, has starred in 3 of the diector's films (including The Children of Paradise
and Baran). The performances are accordingly very natural, and the hero's face is eminently fascinating.

The film opens with a magnificently evocative shot of an ostrich's head.  The countryside looks arid in the first part of the film, and the city looks surprisingly beaustiful , but once the city is exposed for the duplicitous place that it can be, and we return to the country, it begins to look truly stunning.  The whole film is filled with magnificent compostions, whether it be a blue door carried on Karim's back across arid plains, a truck full of kids and pot plants, or a cement plaza strewn with goldfish. Or the final shot of an elaborate ostrich dance.

This is the 2nd film in a row about the foolish pride of a man who has lost his job, unable to see that histrue treasure lies in his own home and community.  But this 2nd one tells the story with real simplicity and without manipulation. Along the way we see alarming scenes of consumerism, capitalism, commodification of people, and children working for a pittance, or begging literally in the streets.  There are also some hair-raising traffic scenes with huge loads being carried ipon the back of motor bikes.  I presume this was filmed buy bike-cam.  I wanted to ask the director about this, and what it was like filming with ostriches, but I didn't.   Memo to self: always ask!

Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient
- USA - Dir/ Prod: Todd McCarthy
Not very good-looking visually, with some dodgy sound from time to time, but seemingly most comprehensive, this is a fascinating documentary for cineastes. Pierre Rissient is one of those marvellous people who are totally obsessed by cinema, and who has made it his life's work (but only making - by directing and editing - a handful of films himself).  The list of people interviewed for this film is an virtual who's who of cinema, and the list of films mentioned is an education in itself.  I'm pleased to see I've seen most of them, but I've a weak spot in ol
der Asian cinema.  I have an almost complete list of the films mentioned here in handwritten notes of the film.

This sort of film is an important historical document. Just as Risient himself knew many of the greats of cinema personally - his tales of Carl Dreyer and John Ford are just priceless, and his feud with Joseph Losey ends in farce - so this film records the thoughts of more contemporary giants of cinema - such as Sydney Pollack, who has only just died.

See it and see all the films in it.

Fri 13 June
The Dendy Awards
I saw all the films.


The Cars that Ate China - Dir: Stefan Moore
Initially interesting but overlong.  The last scenes of  young people driving
crazily were hair-raising and disturbing.  How did they find these people?

Rare Chicken Rescue - Dir: Randall Wood
Very Errol Morris.  Even down to the Klezmer music. And of course the chickens.

Gorgeous graphics and backdrops.  A fascinating story with a are bunch of people - as well as chickens.

Memorable quotes:
"I'm a poultry nut. D'ya mind if we have a look at your chooks?"
"Q: What do you get out of birds?"
"A: Peace and Tranquillity - some would say serenity".

"Seeing little baby chickens hatch is like new life" (No.  It is new life!)

Not surprisingly, won the Dendy Best doco award.

Skin: Dir: Rhys Graham
What a shame this doco was up against Rare Chicken Rescue, because it was a great little story & film too.
More beautiful grapgics, both on the subject of the doco and as part of the doco itself.

I'm still wondering why artist Ex de Medici did not allow her face to be shown "for reasons of personal safety".

Wide ranging, thorough and completely intriguing.

Most Innovative

- Dir: Tony Radevski
Interesting animation - very 3D, which must be why it is in this category rather than Animation.  The idea of having a b&w film that has a touch of colour is hardly innovative: it happened in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)....  tbc

Spirit Stones
- Dir: Allan Collins
Interesting, both in subject and in country, but unfortunately way too long to sustain interest over nearly an hour.  Not innovative enough visiually.

Wanderlust/ Wanderlost - Dir: Keri Light
A delicate meditation on imagination and childish thought, shot in Saigon, and filled with sequins and light, with green tones and night shadows, lanterns and street stalls. There's a lovely use of music which establishes a perfect rhythm, and which propels the film to its conclusion with some inevitability (particularly clever in a film with no narrative arc).

It also contains this lovely line, spoken by one of the children: "Careful, we will fall down down down into the stars".  If only...

Ali and the Ball - Dir: Alex Holmes
Beautiful music, great rhythm. Lovely story, told most economically, with a very moving ending, perfectly judged. Very O. Henry.

The Sound of Cry - Dir: Michael Mier
Extremely moving scenario moved only by some unconvincing acting. It is interesting use of the fantail who is trying to telll them somethng.

Summer Breaks - Dir: Seam Kruck
A fairly straightforward summertime drama with young people idling about until tragedy strikes.  Don't ask me why this one won an award.

There are lots of elements: a stlker, a new bike, an accident, the golf sticks, and the sister and the father apart from all of the above.  But they don't ever come together.

The CRC Award
296 Smith Street - Dir: John Evagora
Simple, good-looking film, very well acted and dramatically presented.

A Northern Town - Dir: Rachel Landers
Kempsey, birthplace of Slim Dusty. This film starts off in one direction but changes into something else altogether. Quite a surprising little film, and very strikingly filmed.

Ten Pound Poms - Dir: Lisa Matthews
A much bigger-scale film than all the other Dendys, and I've already seen it on TV, so I wonder why it is up for this award. Still, a fascinating doco, very well researched and made. There's nothing more fascinating (or perverse) than real people's lives.

The Yoram Gross Animation Award
- Dir: Denis Tupicoff
Gosh I liked this film!  It starts as a safey film about using chainsaws, then turns to the legendary bucking bull called Chainsaw, then moves towards bullfighting, Luis Miguel Dominguez, Pablo Picasso costumes, Goya pictures, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, Olivia de Havilland, and so on.  Come to a hilarios conclusion.  Makes connections like a Werner Herzog film. Seems to use only folk songs, so (like John Ford) it would not require fees for music usage!

Lucille - Dir: Tali Gal-on
Primitive animation, but sweet story, and really good sound and music.  Funny.

Mutt - Dir: Glenn Hunwick
Funy animation and characters, good story, inventive. It's a shame about the payoff.

Friday night 13 June

CSNY: Déjà Vu
- USA - Dir: Bernard Shakey (Neil Young) (Part of the 'Apocalypse again' strand)
I should have guessed from the fact that this was programmed by Eddie Cockrell in the
'Apocalypse again' strand, but this film is more interested in politics than music.

Forme, however, the main shock was not David Crosby (I knew what he looked like, and he seemed pathetically grateful to be there, so was a very bengn presence). No, the big shock was Stephen Stills.  He looks worse than Crosby!  And what he had to say didn't really make a lot of sense to me.  Graham Nash looked remarkably well preserved, and his voice is still as beautiful. The band is still tight, and it works well when they paly their old stuff.  But - and I hate to say it
- Neil Young's new songs are too much the same. His huge talent means that he can pump them out, but they just seem to me to be rants now, with little melody and little originality.

Interesting archival stiff, and some interesting audience reactiobs, but ultimately a bit soft.

Sat 14 June

Lake Tahoe - Mexico - Dir: Fernando Eimbcke
The Director of Duck Season (SFF 2005) has become a minimalist.  This film is so pared back. It is beautifully framed and composed, and the cinematography is crisply fabulous.  The lesson of the 2008 SFF seems to be the classic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe line "less is more".

One of the producers, Jaime Ramos, introduced the film by saying that they paid a lot of attention to the sound, and so could we listen carefully. In fact they have often used a blackout when something significant or violent happens (like the initial car crash) and simply given us the sound to tell us what is happening. Quite effective.

But visually, there's a beautiful use of widescren, crisp clear light, brilliant compsition (nearly every scene could be hung as a photgraph in a gallery). The often static or slowly-panning camera gives a sense of tranquillity that belies the emotional turmoil of our young protagonist and his family. The truth is revealed slowly but deliberately, and the result is a very moving, gentle and beautiful film.

Stop-Loss -
USA - Dir: Kimberly Peirce
After an extraordinarily good beginning, the film becomes very conventional, which is disappointing.  I'm sorry to say Abbie Cornish seemed wrong in the role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nearly runs away with the film, but all the men are very good.  Why was Ciaran Hinds there?  He too was badly cast as an all-American (actually all-Texan good ole boy.  He looked uncomfortable.  I think Ryan Phillippe took on Abbie's wandering Texan accent and ran off-course.

Having just seen Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978) again, I was reminded of how much harder hitting that film was. Remember the scene when Jane Fonda arrives for the first time in the vets' hopital and duns into Jon Voight on a trolley (literally) and his urine bottle spills all over her?  We didn't have anythng like that here, though I did find the digging of the fox-hole in the front yard quite frightening. 

An Affair to Remember - USA - Dir: Leo McCarey
Gorgeous new eye-popping print.  Acting by winks and nudges. A masterclass in innuendo. A couple of lovely musical numbers I'd forgotten all about. The most gorgeous gowns on Deborah Kerr. Such attention to detail reflecting her fastidious and lady-like character.  The very moving scene in the chapel, with Cary Grant getting down on his knees.  Screball dialogue and timing.  A marvellous film all round.

Sun 15 June

Terror's Advocate
- France - Dir: Barbet Schroeder
A problematic film, but certainly brilliantly made. It covers a huge amount of ground, but in the end are we any closer to our subject, Jacques Vergès, the man who defended Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons.

The problem

The Innocents -
UK - Dir: Jack Clayton (Deborah Kerr retrospective)
Amazing - again!  Having seen this film at least twice before on the big screen, and several times more on the small screen (not recommended), it still have the power to thrill and frighten. In the climactic scene, a shiver went up my whole body, from heels to scalp!

And the ending still takes audiences' breath away.

Bravura filmmaking and a stellar central performance.

Mon 16 June

The Square
- Australia - Dir: Nash Edgerton

Another crackerjack Australian film.  Another film that was only finished a couple of days before premiering at the festival (along with Matthew Newton's Three Blind Mice) and yet looks and sounds as polished as if there were all the time in the world.

Marked by a razor-sharp script, a labyrinthine plot, a plethora of ideas, a magic cast and an extremely striking setting in the Woronora River area, this is an extraordinary debut.  The Woronaora River setting is vital to the film as it is a place where various strata of Sydney society come together, and yet it is semi-rural and a bit isolated. It is also bisected by the river. At the Q&A after the 2nd screning I asked about the setting, whether it had been written with that precise setting in mind, and writer Joel Edgerton said that he had written it on the Gold Coast of Qld, with the canal area in mind. he said that there were people there who thought they were rich because they lived on "scummy little canals filled with duck shit", but they needed somewhere closer to home, and director Nash chimed in that they has thought of setting it in Sylvania Waters, but that was not practical.  Them someone suggested Woranora, and they drive down there one day, saw the tall bridge with a backdrop of people rushing to and fro, and realised it was perfect.

This is a terrifying film noir descent into hell by a man who starts by compromising his morals and one thing leads to another.  He never thinks of himself as evil, it's just one thing after another.  His girlfriend (Clare van den Boom, as a somewhat muted femme fatale) says words to the effect of "It's not as if we'd be hurting anyone", but of course they do. In many ways the film is about what happens when you compromise your morals.  When is too much?

Nash also mentioned that they cut 75 scenes out, and that he wished he had another hour.  I'm glad he did, because the film is richer for it. For example, we do not know what the deal was which resulted in the bag of money.  We do not need to know. It is happening off-scren, as is much else.  There's a universe out there, conspiring against us. It's only a matter of time before you get caught...

The film's climax is so black that people tittered. The film occasionally tips (intentionally) into black comedy. The producer, Louise Smith told me this is typical of Joel's sense of humour. That became obvious in the Q & A.  Both brothers are smart.  Both brothers have ideas, energy and humour in spades.  I expect even bigger things from them, especially if they remain the economical and judicious storytellers of this film.

Tue 17

The English Surgeon
- UK - Dir: Geoffrey Smith
Inspirational and moving, but also squirm-making as we watch brain surgery in all its visceral glory.  It is very alarming to see that this surgeon does woodworking with his precious hands - without using gloves or protective eyewear.  Is he crazy? Probably just another in a long line of eccentric Englishmen. He makes the wooden cases for the 2nd hand surgical and mediacl equipment he sends to Ukraine. This man knows the enormity of the problems in Ukraine's hospitals, but doesn't let that deter him.  He's a saint.

A very important documentary, and a potent plea for help for brain surgery in the Ukraine.  Why wasn't there a website and instructions about how to donate?

I Always Wanted to be a Gangster
- France - Dir: Samuel Benchetrit
Hilarious, with a killer cast. Somewhat reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, but starring some of the best French acting talent past and  present, including my particular favourite, Edward Baer (the incompetent robber in the 1st scene).  With the gentle humour of Jacques Tati, but not in a corny way. It relies on that kind of humour where you know what might happen, you're not exactly sure, and then it hapens in such a way as to take you by surprise anyway.

Apparently this is packed with movie references, and so I have some homework to do trcking them down.  One obverhead  shot of a card game is particularly memory-arousing - could it be Rififi?

Really good French slang for my vocab.  Eg "Le Fric ou le flingue?" The cash or the gun?  Great script!

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame
- Iran - Dir: Hana Makhmalbaf
Slightly overblown, underlined by the music.

A darling little girl, shot almot always in closeup, wants to go to school, and has to overcome all sorts of obstacles to get there.  She's naughty, but dogged. But somehow this film tpps over into bathos, and when the little girl is tortured by boys playing Americans, I just lost patience with it.  Manipulative, I thought.

Wed 18 June

A Girl Cut in Two
- Germany/ France - Dir: Claude Chabrol
What a disappointing film.  Stylish - yes, but what is the substance?

Sure there's a superficial look at the difference between true intellectualism, and the kind of pap that passes for intellectual discussion on TV. But why is there young successful woman on the way up who falls for an old writer (and rejects the advances of the young fun multi-millionaire who dresses extravagantly in Paul Smith designs)?  Haven't we we seen this kind of thing in decades past? Are young women still falling for old codgers, or does this only happen in the movies? And even if they do, do they ruin their careers over it?  And what on earth is this sex club? What's the appeal of this sort of thing for young women (unless they are making lots of money)? Have we learned nothing in the 20th century?

This is a stylish, superficial museum-piece.  All I can say is that I would like to eat at Georges Blanc and visit Lisbon.

Sparrow - China - Dir: Johnnie To
Intriguing, but that was a finch, not a sparrow! 

This film has been compared to Stanley Donen's films and Cantonese films of the same era, but for me, what it most resembes is the UK TV series Hustle, about a team of swindlers, filmed in glorious candy colours where everything seems a bit unreal, and the backdrops seem to be mere facades (and often are).

The mix of comedy, sleight of hand, choreography and light musical doesn't quite work, but bits of it are brilliant.  I loved the elaborate pickpocket scene in the rain with Hitchcockian umbrellas (Foreign Correspondent), but theere was a hige problem with that scene too - I couldn't follow what was happening.  A serious flaw indeed!

La Zona - Spain/ Mexico - Dir: Rodrigo Pla
An intriguing film about a nightmarish scenario. People in a gated community experience an "invasion," by young kids bent on a bit of burglary. But things go wrong and the community decide to take things into their own hands. Things escalate, adults make bad decisions which go even worse, and the ending is quite hopeless. A disturbing but thoughtful film about the dystopia that threatens in our future.

A Very British Gangster - UK - Dir: Donal MacIntyre
With Young@ Heart, my favourite documentary of the Festival. The filmmakers got extraordinary access to these gangsters, and stuck with them for such a long time, and for such long days that they got extraordinary footage. Great subjects, yes, but they'd have to really trust the filmmakers to allow them into their lives (and deaths). Great job, and very entertaining.  Not a hagiography - MacIntyre asks the hard questions, including whether he is right in detecting "a hint of the lavendar" about Dominic Noonan (aka Lattlay Fottfoy).

The Sundowners
- UK - Dir: Fred Zinnemann

Terrible print - what a shame - but a top class film, even better than I remembered it. Funny, fresh, moving, and true to life. Not the cliché that some think it is, but a film that has a lot to say about life in the bush. And a great musical score to boot.

Thur 19 June

The Last Continent
(aka Mission Antarctique) - Canada - Dir: Jean Lemire
What were they all doing there? Allegedly observing what happens to the Antarctic in winter.  Well I don't know if they realise this, but plenty of scietists have wintered in Antarctica.  They seem to be indicating it's never been done before.  You never seen them doing anything vaguely scientific. They just seem to be interfering with the landscape and the flora and fauna.

For example, though they say over and over that there is not enough ice shelf for the seals and other mammals to breed, they think nothing of taking up many square metres for their impromptu ice hockey field!

Unless I've missed something, this just seems to be egotistical film making. Sure they are incredibly brave, and remarkably calm under pressure, but given that their plan to moor in a certain bay simply doesn't work, and they all nearly die, you've got to wonder how reponsible these filmmakers are.

Heartbeat Detector
- France - Dir: Nicolas Klotz

The excellent Mathiieu Almaric stars as a psychologist who works in human resources for a large corporation.  (Actually, he never seems to do any real work). Then he is asked, effectively, to spy on one of the top executives, and he uncovers a link between Nazis and big business.  It all seemed very forced and artificial. It is meant to be horrific, but there is no real horror there.

All in all, this is a film as empty as the big warehouse where a horfic office party takes place, and Mathew Almaric melts down (apparently from the strain of it all, but this party os no worse than a regular Friday night after work in Sydney. Cool music, though. Michael Londsdale, as the suspicious boss, does the best he can with the material.

- Turkey/ Greece - Dir: Semih Kaplanoglu
Simplicity trumps complexity once again at the Festival.

This is a heartwarming film about the things that are important in life, and how they can be right under our noses.

The film moves slowly, particularly at the beginning, but it is worth the wait. You get the feeling that our hero's mother, who has doed, is guiding her son to his true destiny. I believe this is shown in the last few scenes when the dog (Cerberus, the 3-headed dog that guarded the gates to hades) mysteriously guards over him, and prevents him from leaving as he intends to.  So then when he goes home, the girl presents him with an egg, and that is the symbol of their new life together. Lovely symbolism!

God Man Dog
- Taiwan - Dir: Singing Chen
A failed attempt.  But brave.

A lot of interesting characters wander around in various degrees of despair. Some heartwarming moments, but for me, the film never gelled.

Fri 20 June

The Cool School
- USA - Dir: Morgan Neville
Another really important social document, and timely, too.  Police were arresting contemporary artists in LA in the 1950s.  In Sydney, they're still doing it in 2008!

There's so much good material here, both archival and comteporary. It is great to see the cool school when they were young and cool - and for those still with us not that they are old and still cool. Also great to see the story behind the building of the  LACMA building - I was always puzzled as why it looked like a shopping centre.

This movie should be compulsory viewing for all those ignorant people who say that LA is boring and devoid of culture.  As the film says "This group of artists helped LA to grow up".  Fascinating and informative.  And such good art!

The Pope's Toilet
- Uruguay/ Brazil/ France - Dir: Cesar Chalone & Enrique Fernandez
Simplicity trumps complexity at this Festival.  If you compare this with Heartbeat Detector, no contest. Go the Toilet!

Here's another film with a recurring theme of this festival: a man tries to provide for his family, and risks everything on a "hare-brained scheme". He won't listen to his wife and children, and puts everything in jeopardy. Interesting locations, great faces, nice music, and a resonant theme (especially in anticipation of the Pope's Australian visit for so-called "World Youth Day" in July). The director builds tension gradually and effectively.

A bleak, but true ending, and things go back to normal.

Young @ Heart
- USA - Dir: Stephen Walker
One of my favourite documentaries of the Festival (along with A Very British Gangster, The Cool School, and Pierre Rissient), this won the audience vote for docos at the State Theatre.

It begins with a dear very old old lady singing "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" by The Clash. It just gets better and better.  We follow this most unusual choir, whose average age must be in the 80s, as they rehearse for a tour. The director, Bob Cilman, is 53, and has impeccable taste in contemporary music.  He's picked many of my favourite songs for the choir to sing. Such gems as "Golden Years", by Bowie "I Wanna be Sedated"by The Ramones, "On the Road to Nowhere" by Talking Heads, and so on. The film clips they make are hilarious.

There are some very sad moments, though, as we realise that the choir cannot last in its present lineup. But the choir will go on, and this film - despite its dreadful title - will make you feel wonderful!

Helen - UK/Ireland - Dir: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
The only dud for me in the Festival.  Such a downer after Young @ Heart...

I worked hard to get into this film, but it is so low-key that it just eluded me.  My notes say "it is so hard to stay with a spotty girl who speaks in a monotone".

The whole "taking over of the boyfriend" strand became unbelievable. The last straw was when she asked her boyfriend to tell her he loves her - and he does.  My notes say "This would never happen".

Bewildering. What's the point?

Sat 21 June

Tea and Sympathy - USA - Dir: Vincente Minnelli (1956)
Fresher than ever! Now we can perceive even more clearly the many layers of meaning and the irony of the question: what is a man? Marred by the tacked on ending, when John Kerr reads the letter Laura never sent to him, which undermines the message of the play (the play ended with Laura's and Tom's kiss), and perhaps by a below-par musival score, this is still magical 50s film making at its best.  And don't even THINK the word "dated"! You must be in the moment with every film.

River of No Return
- Australia - Dir: Darlene Johnson
A star is born. Go Frances! A most surprising and original documentary.

After all the efforts that Frances goes to to get into acting school, and then she changes her mind!  But the real story is the backstory of Frances and her people, and their surprising lives.  Good film-making on the run.

From Here to Eternity
- USA - Dir: Fred Zinnemann (1953)
A sprawling war film than looks wonderful in a new print on a big screen. Zinnemann did a HUGE job to wrangle all that talent, plus recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor. Superb filmmaking on a grand scale. Complex characters, an epic story coherently told, both on micro and macro levels.

Somers Town
- UK - Dir: Shane Meadows
At only 68 minutes, this snappy little feature stars Thomas Turgoose, the young boy whom Meadows discovered for hs film This is England.  Thomas has grown up, and into a good little comedian. He's charming, and so is his character. The film began as a commissioned salute to the London suburb, next to St Pancras railway station for the Eurostar and the cross-channel tunnel. What we see is a short feature which emphasises those things that Meadows always examines: the need for a good loyal best friend (no matter how weird or unusual) and the need for adults you can rely on, outside our family (the weirder the better).  Meadows does not disappoint, and he gives us 2 more character actors to watch for: young Piotr Jagiello and the amazing-looking Perry Benson (who was also in This is England, as Meggy)

Closing Night Film

Persepolis - France/ USA - Dir: Vincent Parronnaud, Marjane Setrapi
After the jubilation and triumph of the dreadfully-titled Young @ Heart, which in my opinion is the ideal film to end a festival, we have this beautifully animated but ultimately downbeat dramatisation of the graphic novel
of her "rollercoaster" life, written by co-director Setrapi.

We begin with her as a child living in Iran under the Shah, with a family of devout Muslims, libertines, philopophers, loyal subjects, prisoners and Communists. We see the overthrow of the Shah and the chaos  of the aftermath. We see Marjane sent to live in Vienna, living a bohemian life as a student, but ending up on the streets in extreme depression, and then admitting defeat and going home. Then we see the increasing repression under the religious dictatorship, the way the people try to rebel, and the disastrous consequences.

We see Marjane going to live in Paris, and having to leave her beloved Jasmine-scented gradma behind (voiced by screen legend Gena Rowlands, she's my favourite character by a mile).  (By the way, the Festival notes say this is Danielle Darrieux, but this must be so for the French language version, because I know Darrieux doesn't have a New York accent).

The film ends with a whimper, and that's how I ended the festival.  Worthy anticlimax rather than singing punk songs with the tears and the smiles still on my face, as I was after Young @ Heart.  Still, as with all Festivals, there is room for all emotions.  I'd only quibble with the timing.

Sun 22 June

A Page of Madness - Japan - Dir: Tenosuke Kinugasa (1926)
Despite this being an Australian premiere of this rare film, I've seen it.  But not, I think, with any soundtrack, and certainly not with the live performance we heard that night.

First, the print is fabulous. The film looks gorgeous, and it really
is an extraordinary portrayal of madness. It is sensitive and insightful and it makes other films about madness look pedestrian. The film opens with amazing art-deco style titles (in Japanese lettering). The opening scenes of the dance done by a beautiful woman against an art-deco inspired decorative backdrop are remarkable, and then poignant as we realise that we are seeing the dance through the eyes of a mad dancer.

The film continues to astound with visual techniques of expressionism and with effects such as a fairground mirror distorting our view to reflect that of the mad people (I'm using that expression because that is the word used in the film title). The lead actor, Masuo Inoue has an extraordinary face, portraying compassion and anguish and bewilderment brilliantly. His wife, played by Yoshie Nakagawa is also marvellous, in a strenuous roll.  The dancer in the next cell (Eiko Minome) is beautiful, and convincing. The story is beautifuly told by the visuals, and one of the later scenes when
Masuo Inoue puts Noh theatre masks on the inmates is absolutely transcendent.

My only criticisms releate to the presentation of the film on Sunday night.  First, there would have been a Benji, or narrator, when the film was presented in Japan in 1926. That would have explained the story and some of the dialogue and printed words for us.  It was a little hard to follow for that reason. And the live contemporary jazz music, while terrific, and amazingly suitable for a 1926 film, sometimes went out of synch.  It just goes to show what a difficult art playing the score to a silent film is, and how brilliant Jan Preston and other performers have been in previous years.

For the record, this is how I think the story goes: a ship's captain and his wife have a much-loved baby. But the baby drowns, and this sends its mother mad from grief. She is confined to a mental asylum, but when her husband sees the conditions, he gets a job there to care for her. His daughter has become engaged to a respectable man, and she has not told him about her parents, as she is ashamed. A younger brother makes fun of his mad mother to his friends. Our hero is a broken man. He has been dishonoured. And now conditions in the asylum are worse than he imagined. To protect his wife, he has to retaliate against some of the inmates, and he ends by beating (killing?) a doctor. He is then himself confined to the asylum, and he has a mad dream of the wedding of his daughter being disrupted by his wife and the other members of the asylum.

Brilliant film making!

Phase IV -
USA - Dir: Saul Bass (1974, "Revive and Restore" stream)
An interesting sci-fi drama that pays homage to several of the sci-fi classics, including Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unfortunately, some of the audience seemed to think it was sci-fi schlock, and so we had some silly giggling. Not that I think it had to be treated with the utmost seriousness, because I think the director was playing with the genre himself. But it did have some serious ideas, and some clever scripting, so it served to be treated with some respect.

Ultimately this film reads as an allegory of the takeover of the world by Communism, especially in the context of the Vietnam War (Saigon fell in 1975, so this film was released was in the last phases of the war). But the film doesn't just read as right wing hysteria. It has other ideas.

I like the way film critic Brian J Wright (in his website called 'The Cavalcade of Schlock') puts it:
Here's a weird, thoughtful little movie out of the 70's which takes the then-saturated "nature runs amok" corner of the genre and gives it a few unexpected twists. It's slow, ponderous, a little heavier on the science than most movies of its kind, and definitely not for everybody, but it dares to be a little different and for the most part succeeds.

Another reason to see the film is for its extraordinary cinematography (by John Barry), and for its extraordinary macro photography of insects.  If you like ants, this one's for you. Starring Michael Murphy, who plays it relatively straight, Nigel Davenport, who goes way over the top as a scientist who might be mad, and Lynne Frederick, an English rose (why is she in this film?) known mostly for marrying Peter Sellers and David Frost.

Also, films in the Festival that I saw before the Festival include:

In Bruges - UK/ Begium - Dir: Martin McDonagh
As luck would have it, I saw
McDonagh's challenging play The Pillowman during the Festival. I've seen several of his other plays too, and I love his writing. It is fresh, funny, hard-hitting and original. But how would he work as a cinema director?

Answer: he's a natural. From the opening scenes of Bruges cathedral details, you can tell this is an assured director. For those of you who have seen The Pillowman, relax, this is not as horrific, but it still has some gruesome scenes. But set as they are in pretty Bruges, and in the context of the art of Hieronymous Bosch, they tell a broader story.

The cast includes 2 of my favourite actors: Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes.  But its biggest revelation is Colin Farrell, who is absolutely terrific as an Irish hitman with a conscience. The clever script is reminiscent of Tarantino, but less self-conscious, and more Irish. There are co-incidences, but they don't stretch the bounds of reality, becasue all this is taking plave in the fairytale setting of Bruges. It's like a Grimms fairytale, really.  But with perfectly judged Carter Burwell music.

Fantastic, in the true sense of the word.

I have since done the following review for the September 2008 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal.

In Bruges, 107 mins, rated TBA, opening in cinemas on 4 September 2008.


Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, is better known as a playwright. His plays include The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and, most recently, The Pillowman.  All of these plays have had productions over the past few years in Sydney.

McDonagh is a theatre prodigy: he’s the only writer to have had four plays running in London's West End at the same time. He was nominated for Tony awards for Best Play for Leenane (1998), Lonesome West (1999), Pillowman (2005) and Inishmore (2006). Pillowman won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2004. Now he has turned to film directing. 

He started modestly in 2004 with a short film he wrote and directed, called Six Shooter. It won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and starred the wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (Gangs of New York, 2002, and The General, 1998). McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges, also stars Brendan Gleeson, along with Colin Farrell (The New World, 2005, Alexander, 2004) and Ralph Fiennes (Spider, 2002, Schindler’s List, 1993). What a threesome of Anglo-Celtic actors!

McDonagh’s plays give you an inkling of what to expect: dark comedy, hilarious dialogue, and moments of sudden and shocking violence. McDonagh is often described as combining elements of JM Synge with Harold Pinter or even David Mamet. He was born in London, but of Irish parents, and his plays are either set in Ireland, or feature Irish characters, or both. He’s widely admired, but he also divides audiences. Is he a brilliant interpreter of contemporary Ireland, or peddler of arrant caricature?

In Bruges is set, not surprisingly, in Bruges (as the tag line says, “it’s in Belgium”). Farrell and Gleeson are two Irish hit men, hiding out in that beautiful medieval town on the orders of their boss, after a botched hit. We soon find out that the hit was on a Catholic priest (an uncredited Ciaran Hinds) – in a confessional! This is so typical of McDonagh: what’s the most outrageous hit you can think of? Let’s have that.

The banter between Farrell (Ray) and Gleeson (Ken) is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, too, but it seems more authentic, perhaps because of its thorough Irishness. Ray hates Bruges. He hates history too: “It’s all about stuff that’s already happened.” But Ken really warms to Bruges, and tries to take Ray sightseeing. Ray’s not interested, until he notices a film set, and an unusually short actor.  “They’re filming something! They’re filming midgets!” he cries, delightedly.

There are many amusing diversions and non-sequiturs like that before we learn the real reason that Ray and Ken are in Bruges. In the meantime we become tourists with them, and I’m sure that many of us will fall in love with the town, as Ken does – and as their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has already done. Harry is a truly loathsome character, not unlike Ben Kingsley’s frightening “Don Logan” from Sexy Beast (2000), and it’s hard to believe he admires the chocolate-box good looks of a town like Bruges. But he’s adamant: Bruges is beautiful, and Ray and Ken should go sightseeing.

In Bruges succeeds for many reasons. It’s not just the quirky characters, the funny dialogue or the unexpected directions of the plotline. McDonagh has an uncanny sense of character and plot, but we expect that from an award-winning playwright. What I didn’t expect was his assured visual ability: In Bruges looks, in turn, wonderful, menacing, fairytale, dangerous, mysterious and fun.   In several scenes we actually seem to enter a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. This is particularly wonderful because Ray and Ken have earlier been to a museum to see Bosch’s Judgment Day, and Ken has tried to explain it to Ray, who gives us this priceless explanation of Purgatory: “Purgatory's kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that great either. Like Tottenham.”

Inevitably, there is a Judgment Day coming for Ray and Ken. And, like most of Bosch, it will not be pretty. But it will be moving.

And When Did You Last See Your Father? - UK - Dir: Anand Tucker
I have now reviewed this film for the July 2008 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal.  Here's the review:

And When Did You Last See Your Father?, 92 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 31 July 2008.


This film is an adaptation of the 1993 best-selling and influential memoir by Blake Morrison, a novelist, critic, and past literary editor of British newspaper The Observer. The book is an exploration of memory, reconciliation, and the author’s attempt to come to an understanding of his complex relationship with an exasperating father.

The title comes from a famous British painting by WK Yeames, a Victorian painter of many historical pictures, often dealing with the English Civil War. This particular painting shows an imaginary scene in a Royalist house. Parliamentarian soldiers are questioning a little boy (about 5 years old) about his Royalist father.

The question Yeames poses in his painting is: will the boy tell the truth and thus betray his father? This is quite a conundrum, especially for the Victorians, who believed in children as paragons of honesty and virtue. The painting adds another layer to the memoir and the film: what is the role of honesty and truthfulness in the father/ son relationship?

The Morrison memoir has been sensitively adapted for the screen by David Nicholls. The screenplay takes the point of view of Blake Morrison (Colin Firth), aged about 40. He has returned to the family home to see his father, Arthur, a country doctor who’s dying of cancer. This triggers memories of Blake’s childhood and adolescence. The film cleverly cuts between the present, and two stages of the past: when Blake is a boy of 8 (Bradley Johnson) and when he is an adolescent of 14 (strikingly played by newcomer Matthew Beard).

The director often uses mirrors and glass to show duplicate images, or reflections of people who may or may not be in the frame, to suggest different points of view, and different personas, as well as the idea of reflection itself. The mood is gentle and slow moving, and some filmgoers may feel restless as we cut back and forward in time, returning again and again to the dying Arthur.

But there are several moments of great humour, and a few squirm-worthy scenes where Arthur manages yet again to embarrass Blake. Jim Broadbent plays Arthur, in a towering portrayal of a difficult man. Arthur’s a rogue, not above using his status as a doctor to push ahead in a queue waiting to get in to the car races. This is how the film opens, and we immediately see the fraught relationship Arthur has with his fellow GP wife (the superb Juliet Stephenson), his son Blake, and daughter Gillian (Claire Skinner). They watch in appalled admiration as Arthur triumphantly lies his way into the private members’ carpark and special seats.

Arthur repeats this sort of behaviour throughout his life. And most people seem to love him for it. But he embarrasses Blake, often in front of girls. He refers to Blake as “Fathead,” and he never seems to acknowledge his son’s successes, even when Blake wins an important award for poetry. Worse, Blake suspects Arthur has had an affair with Aunty Beaty.

Arthur never seems to show any emotion with Blake. He’s not the type. Blake, too, is stitched-up and closed-in, having been discouraged and belittled at every turn by his father. So when, towards the end of the film, Blake finds a form of release and begins to cry, it is a genuinely shocking moment. But there is no Hollywood style reconciliation in this film. Colin Firth’s Blake is an internal being, and it is a beautifully restrained performance. Matthew Beard’s portrayal of the teen-aged Blake is intelligent, restrained and quite striking. Juliet Stephenson, as Arthur’s wife, plays way above her age with ease and grace.

Director Anand Tucker’s two previous feature films were Hilary and Jackie (1998) and Shopgirl (2005), both sensitive films. But here he delivers a really beautiful meditation on how we see our parents and what they mean to us. The final scenes of the film ask the question of the title: when did you last see your father? When was he last the way you want to remember him, before he was too ill, before he lost that spark of mischievousness that you loved and hated at the same time? The answer is both unbearably sad and amazingly consoling.

The Band's Visit - Israel - Dir: Eran Kolirin

This first feature by Israeli TV writer/director Kolirin has a heart of gold. He has said that as a boy he and his family and friends would watch Egyptian films on TV every Friday, and they made a deep impression on him: meodramas, soap operas, musicals - and all the while the 2 countries were at war. This paradox forms the very core of Kolirin's film.

The film opens with a confident visual style: not naturalism, but a kind of heightened reality - not surreal, but pared-back, symbolic, almost like a parable. We see a white van, and behind that, a small band in full military uniform - in powder blue. They are at an airport, but it is almost deserted. The band leader has an unmistakeable air of dignity to him. But they are clearly fish-out-of-water.

After some amusing confusion, they are on a bus riding through vast expanses of desert, until they arrive in the middle of nowhere. The film has adopted a sweet, sardonic tone, reminiscent of Aki Kurasmaki and his Leningrad Cowboys, but with more dignity.

What follows is frequently hilarious, and often very moving. Kolirin, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to deal with the personal issues of each member of the band, but so economically and with such humour and compassion that we barely register the thoroughness of the process.  There's a scene in a roller disco that is just a masterclass in bittersweet comedy. And the final scenes, when we actually hear what the band has come to play, are a revelation.  This is the true nature of these Egyptians. This is their culture. This is what they have to offer.

Likewise, The Band's Visit is a revelation.

Unfinished Sky - Australia - Dir: Peter Duncan
This film is a remake of a Dutch hit called The Polish Bride. The writers have relocated the action from Europe, with a Polish economic refugee, to Australia, with an Afghani political refugee. Amazingly, the same woman, Dutch star Monic Hendrickx, plays both roles. To play an Afghani woman, she learned the Dari language. It is an amazing feat. Unfortunately, for me, it never quite worked.  To me, she was like Afghan lite.  I couldn't believe in her character.

The two central performances are strong, however, and William McInnes really inhabits his character of the taciturn Queensland farmer whose heart has been turned to stone by events in his past. The love story that follows between the Queenslander and the Afghan is sweetly told, and unfolds languidly. The film becomes much more interesting when both characters can communicate with each other - at last the actors can really work. True, there are some false notes - Monic's character Tahmeena learns English very quickly, whereas McInnes' character, John, learns barely a word of Dari.  Why do't they call the police when they could do so easily?

But my main problem with the film is the abrupt change of pace when the twist comes at the end.  It seemed to make the film into something else altogether. It's effectivel done, but I didn't buy it.  The character of the friendly country copper (the amazing David Field) is a cracker, but seems to belong elsewhere.  I guess it is just one of the hazards of forcing a remake into another mould.

Ten Empty - Australia - Dir: Anthony Hayes
Another first feature, this time from Anthony Hayes, one of Australia's most striking young actors (The Boys (1998), Suburban Mayhem (2006), Look Both Ways (2005), The Square (2008), The List (2008), etc. He co-wrote the film with playwright and actor, the whit-hot Brendan Cowell.  It's a promising pedigree for a film.

I'm sorry to report that this film didn't work for me. It seems to try too hard. It feels forced. The eye for period detail is just too good. Yes, we realise that this family must be stuck in the past: it seems they haven't bought anything new since the early 80s. Even the music at the club comes from the 80s - "Come Said the Boy" by Mondo Rock and "Heaven" by Eurogliders.  But no, it's not the 80s - they mention the internet.

The cast is great, and do their best. But the mood is dire. When Jack Thompson arrives on the scene, it is a blessed relief. He lights up the screen. But the sub-plot involving Elliott and Bernadette doesn't ring true to me. And the device of the Ten Empty canvases is also forced, I think.

The idea behind this film is a worthy one: it deserves more exploration. The sense of place is excellent, and as I said the cast does good work. Maybe the film-makers overreached themselves.  It's a good try, but I think this would have made a more  powerful 50 minute film.