The 45th Sydney Film Festival
5 - 19 June 1998

(These reviews are copyright. You must not use any part of them without my permission.)

* If you arrived here after a search, scroll down to the film you were looking for.

Fri 5 June

In the Winter Dark

Yet another dreadful Australian film! What is with us these days? It is good that the festival supports Australian film, and this film comes with an interesting pedigree, but all I can say of the result is that its director, James Bogle, is no Hitchcock. We were pretty angry after seeing this film. We felt we had wasted our time. There are some reasonable performances - mostly Ray Barrett, alrthough a colleague has rightly pointed out to me that Ray Barrett seems to be doing his best Bill Hunter here. But the film is all over the place, and does not tell a story well. This is a major handicap when the story you are telling is a mystery. I'd like to single out the sound in particular for being the most over-heightened and ridiculously intrusive sound I've heard in a long time. And the script! Bogle announced proudly that he'd done 8 drafts, and had a lot of help from Tim Winton. If I were Winton, I'd be hushing that up.

A silly mish-mash of "scary" images does not a thriller make. Nor does cross-cutting far too often between those images achieve any result other than irritating the audience. An enervating film and a waste of time, talent and money.

Sat 6 June

Couldn't attend, but had in fact seen Welcome to Sarajevo at the Festival Launch a few weeks ago.

Welcome to Sarajevo
This film just missed the point. It was interesting, well made, and well-acted, but this feature film just shows how powerful a form the documentary is to tackle subjects like war in general, and Sarajevo in particular. I couldn't care as much about the people in the film because I knew:
1. they were not real; and
2. there were equivalent people in Sarajevo whose stories were real.

Knowing those 2 things took the edge right off the film for me. Still, there were some great moments, particularly the moment when the old man explains why the reporter should return the child to its mother. He says something like : "So much has been taken from us. You can give something back to us, so you should." Simple logic, but profound. Another nice moment, though more obvious, is when Woody Harrelson's character says: "I can't help thinking that if these were Muslims shooting at Christians, the world would do something about it".

Sun 7 June

Waco: The Rules of Engagement
An interesting documentary, not just because it fills in a lot of the gaps in my memory of the news about Waco, but also because it allows you to observe manipulation in a documentary. And there was manipulation, from just the use of music (eg ominous music played in the background whenever a point was being made about the Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco, or the FBI), but also selective use of homemade video tapes showing David Koresh and the other Branch Davidians as family people - rarely was there a shot without a child being cradled or nursed. But still, the picture appeared not to be too skewed, and many interesting points were made about testimony, evidence and cross-examination. I was fascinated by how the members of the House Committee investigating the affair used the occasion for their own ends and played fast and loose with the facts, making political pronouncements at the expense of the witnesses. However, the film is too long, by a long way. It seems that the filmmaker was seduced by his own story, and wasn't tough enough about editing. But it was still an interesting film, and in my view confirmation of the theory that if you have to decide whether something was caused by a conspiracy and a bungle, take the bungle every time.

Happy Together
Visually stunning, with Chris Doyle's camerawork and Wong Kar-Wai's vision sweeping all before it in the most inventive, fluid and emotionally satisfying pictures you'll ever see. But how much bickering, breaking up and getting together again can one movie take? I have read an article by Chris Doyle on the making of the film, and he said that Wong couldn't make his mind up about what should happen to the characters, and that they kept shooting without a plot, hoping that something would click. Now that I've seen the finished product, I can safely say it did not. The film feels cobbled together as a narrative. The "meaning" is all rushed together at the end by use of voice-overs. It feels like cheating, and it probably is. But maybe Wong is (as Picasso said of Monet) "just an eye...but what an eye." And who's complaining about that? Oh, and the music was excellent.

The Sweet Hereafter
Brilliant, clever, beautiful to look at, and profoundly moving, this will be one of the best films of the festival, if not THE best. Ian Holm is devastating, especially when he describes the medical emergency concerning his daughter. Those moments are some of cinema's great moments. There is also an extraordinary line which cut me to the quick. The actor who plays the bus driver (Brooke Johnson ?) says, of "Bear": "He would have made a wonderful man". Heartbreaking. She is fantastic - she looks disconcertingly like ex-Senator Janine Haines - and gives as naturalistic a performance as you'd ever see. When she says "No, no, no, no, no" in a distracted way, it's a tour de force. The actor who plays Nicole (Susan Polley(?)) is also excellent. A very subtle performance indeed.

The allegory in the film is powerful, and clear, but never forced. There are many layers to the meaning of the Pied Piper theme. I'll be thinking about this film for weeks to come. This is an assured work by a director at the height of his powers.

This documentary sounded promising on paper but proved sloppy in the execution. The print was terrible, many of the clips were of poor quality, and there were too many simple mistakes. Three that I picked up: "Klu Klux Klan" (really!) "Julie Holliday" (instead of "Judy"), and in the credits, a film called "Winchester of ' 73." Disgraceful.

But the film had very little new to tell us. It told us little about how these Jews came to Hollywood, how they set up their businesses, and what made them tick. Oh, there were generalisations, frequently repeated, but insights were few and far between. The whole theory that these Jews made films about outsiders, and that this was the quintessential Jewish issue came tumbling down with the risible assertion that Superman was a metaphor for Jewish aspirations. Come on! The guys that created him might have been Jewish, but hey, all kids love and identify with Superman. To me, many of the issues the filmmakers claimed for the Jews were universal themes. The whole film had the feeling of a theory stretched and stretched to breaking point.

Monday 8 June

The Life Story of David Lloyd George

A charming experience. This silent film was magnificently accompanied by silent film pianist Neil Brand, over the whole two and a half hour running time. Brand composed the score, which was delicately balanced between the maudlin and the ironic, and never really spilling over either way. He took a perfect line which heightened the emotional moments as needed, but never went too far.

The film itself was in great shape, and fascinating in its detail on things like legislation, famous speeches, historical events and so on. It was also fascinating in what it left out (eg almost his whole private life). The man reason we can see this film today was that it was suppressed (by someone - the government? Lloyd George himself? It is unclear). The film is more hagiography that biography, but still a story very well told, and a magnificent achievement by the filmmakers. Some scenes had 10,000 extras, and they are truly awe-inspiring.

The Taste of Cherry
The first "It was only a dream" film of the festival. The film is very slow-moving as it reveals its tale you to, and I am usually very tolerant of that. In fact I thought I had gone to sleep at one point when the main character was being enveloped by dust in a terrific scene, and then I suddenly found that a new character had been conversing with the main character for some time and I wasn't aware of that character arriving. I found out later that I hadn't missed anything - we were just being jolted by the director, who had already jolted us once before. But I was prepared to overlook that teasing when I heard the magnificent speech of the taxidermist (!) and watched the key events of the night unfold. Then, sigh....intense disappointment. A trick ending. I hate it when directors play games with you.

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Primary
A landmark film. Rough around the edges, but fascinating. It is amazing that Pennebaker seemed able to pick the particularly interesting moments of history or culture and be on the spot to capture lots of juicy bits. Pennebaker explained that the voiceover was the TV network's idea, to make it more like Edward R Murrow's programs. Pennebaker was dead against it. He also (unlike Paul Byrnes) hated the sequence that showed the voters' legs and shoes going into the voting booths. He said it was a cliché and that he didn't shoot that footage.

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Jane
Now this is a brilliant piece of work. Pennebaker & Associates take us along as a new Broadway play is rehearsed, tried out out-of-town, rewritten, re-rehearsed, premiered and then closed by the producers after appalling reviews. Scene after scene is a classic. Jane is remarkable in her determination, slipping in and out of "performance mode." Her director is almost a parody of himself. Jane's disappointment is touching, but what I found fascinating was the strength she seemed to draw from her appearance. She would look in the mirror, study her image in all its exquisite youth and beauty, and draw strength from it. Now I know why she had the breast implants: her self-worth must be intrinsically tied to her looks.

Tuesday 9 June

Kelly Loves Tony

A rougher-than rough documentary, made by a young couple who become compelling as time goes on. The film is so rough because it has been shot by Tony who has been given a video camera to record his story over a period of about a year. It is hard to watch because Tony is no filmmaker and often does things like shooting the pavement as he walks along. And he is no brain-box. But Kelly, who says she loves him, is a different kettle of fish. Strong, articulate, thoughtful, determined and yet quite flexible, she tries to finish high school with honours, have a baby, go to college, move in with Tony's family, comply with Mien custom (they are both Laotian Mien) have another baby and get married. She can't manage it all at once (who could?). But she's strong. She will survive. Without Tony, she may even have a better chance. An inspirational film. The editing process must have been a marathon effort, and is marvellously accomplished.

The Voice of Bergman
A young man nearby me warned his companion that you need stamina to watch this film. You do. Watching Bergman's face for 87 minutes is quite an experience. I fell asleep once, but only because it was difficult to concentrate with only one image for that length of time. Actually, I lie. Bergman was not very interesting when talking on abstract topics such as the process of writing. But when he got onto what he loves about cinema and what films he likes, he was riveting. His enthusiasm and love for cinema was palpable, and moving. He says that all films, to be good, should move you in some way: either make you laugh or cry. What struck me was how much of what he said is almost identical to things I have heard Martin Scorsese say, or Bill Collins. For example, he said that there can be bad films which are bad in a good way, and you can watch them over and over because of that. Hear hear!

Fatal Reaction: Bombay
An innocuous enough documentary, full of interesting sights, sounds and people (how could it not, being filmed in Bombay?). Sights a-plenty, but not many insights into the issues the director, Marijke Jongbloed, professes to be investigating. She doesn't ask the right questions, and draws conclusions which are not really justified. She's chosen a great subject, but doesn't do it justice. Not nearly as good as Fatal Reaction: Singapore (SFF 1997).

A promising start to the film , and a dramatic and moving conclusion, but somehow the film didn't ring true for me. This is particularly strange since it is based on a true incident (though the characters are all fictional). The script is well written and funny - the director obviously knows these people really well - and the central performance is magnetic. but to me it screamed "performance." It was too self-conscious. Helen McCrory has been seen before - as Nicola in the TV drama The Fragile Heart. Her part was not as showy there, but she still showed the same tendency to chew the scenery. In the end, though, I think the character was not convincing. Her reaction to the crisis she faces seemed uncharacteristic, though I blame the script for this, more than the performance. The woman in the first half of the film was not the woman at the end. And so I couldn't react as I should have. For me, it just missed. A shame, because this filmmaker shook me to the core some years ago with Morphine & Dolly Mixture (SFF 1991).

Wednesday 10 June

Paul Simon - Graceland
A wonderful documentary about music - insightful and well edited. The story is well told, with - unusually and delightfully - an emphasis on the lyrics of Simon's songs. Simon, who seems a bit surly and introspective, really opens up and takes us through his songs line by line and note by note, This process is brilliantly handled by the editors, who go back over the music line by line to make the explanations fit in with each line of the songs. Inspirational and fascinating. And what a great album it was. After, I heard a young girl say "I'm going straight out to buy that album, and that Ladysmith group, too." Gee, I thought everybody in the world had a copy of Graceland..

Marius and Jeannette
Thoroughly charming from beginning to end. Funny, touching, well balanced, unselfconscious performances, colour and texture. Wonerful, well realised characters. Can't wait to get to France again. Marseilles, here I come! I feel quite infused by aioli.

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Company
Another masterwork from Pennebaker Associates. A brilliantly told tale of recording the original cast album of Company, a fabulous Broadway show, on the traditional day of the Sunday after opening night. One long day and night. The show's author is Stephen Sondheim - who is there for the whole process. So much talent under so much pressure! I went out the following day to get the CD of the album, but it has been deleted. It may be reissued in 6 months or so as one half of a CD with another show on it (ie 2 LPs' worth). But I must hear Elaine Strich again as soon as possible. Anyone got a copy I could borrow?

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Branford Marsalis
Not as good as Company. An interesting subject, but you couldn't really get close to Branford Marsalis. He'll speak eloquently about jazz and jazz musicians, but when he gets really tired and looks like he might be about to throw a tantrum, he doesn't: he just goes on stage and plays such a magnificent set that you just sigh with admiration. But even though Marsalis is guarded, Pennebaker takes us really close to his soul through the camerawork on the final song. It is a revelation: the emotion is communicated clearly, and it is intense and searing.

Thursday 11 June

Silver Screen - Colour Me Lavender
This covered a subject that particularly interests me, so it was surprising that I had trouble staying awake through this film. I think it was the fact that it was on video, the sound was poor, and the script was a bit rambling. Some of the points made were right on, some were a bit of a long bow to draw (and the filmmakers acknowledged this from time to time, which is somewhat unnerving - what are they really saying then?). The film was hampered by a monotonous delivery style, at odds with what was onscreen. But the clips were very good - Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and - incredibly - Walter Brennan!). They made a great case in the case of the "Walter Brennan Syndrome" - the crusty old sidekick or the grizzled old prospector who fusses over the handsome leading man (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart et al) and cooks for him, makes endless cups of coffee and wanting to settle down with the leading man on a farm somewhere. Much food for thought. In particular, it makes you think again about the man in Good Morning Vietnam who wanted to get nude pictures of Walter Brennan!

A great-looking, well-scripted, funny, touching and authentic film. For a debut, this is outstanding. What I liked about the film was that it wasn't afraid to be stylish and at the same time follow a narrative line (though it did operate in 3 time zones). It also wasn't afraid to stop for several set-pieces which resembled music videos - whole songs were played and the action stopped to focus on the characters. I particularly liked Van Morrison's Wild Night played against a background of Bob Hoskins' Alan Darcy, both as an energetic and outgoing young boy and as a sharply dresssed middle aged man going out for a night of dancing. A lovely scene, and not rushed at all. Meadows is confident enough to take his time, and let the story unfold slowly and steadily. He has made what is, in many ways a conventional film, in that he has not tried to reinvent cinema with this, his first feature. What he made instead is alovely film which crept up on me without my knowing, so that I found myself suddenly overcome with emotion and crying. In other words, for me it passed the Ingmar Bergman test of a good film.

Pianese Nunzio Fourteen in May
A film which looked pretty good, was well acted, but ended up as tedious. I'm not really sure why, since the subject matter was compelling, controversial and particularly interesting to me. Maybe the device of the characters talking to the camera fragmented the film and distanced you from the action. Or maybe there are just so many times you can see 2 people having sex, no matter who they are.

The only scenes that really grabbed me were those of the Stations of the Cross in the rain. I thought "Now we're really getting somewhere", but that was all there was. Those scenes seemed to come from a different movie - and that's the movie I wanted to see!

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Town Bloody Hall
What a feat! Again Pennebaker & Associates are on the spot, filming a significant moment in history and culture. Germaine Greer was a formidable opponent for Norman Mailer (and looked gorgeous too). Diana Trilling was impressive in her views and the way she communicated them. You had to see Jill Johnston to believe her, and Jacqueline Ceballos was practical but not profound. Mailer hogged the microphone while all the time professing to be handing it over to be fair. He could not resist the opportunity to comment on any question, no matter that it was not for him. His ego was tremendous, even as he patronised the "ladies" as he kept calling them, even after this was drawn to his attention by Susan Sontag. I came away thinking how far we'd come. The Sydney Film Festival audience was measured in its response, not thoughtlessly booing either side, or clapping too much, but recognising Mailer's outdated thoughts and laughing or gasping at some of his comments. Mind you, so far we haven't achieved much of the grand vision of the feminists. Perhaps it was too grand a vision. But at least the issues are recognised as issues now. The film is a tour de force of editing by Chris Hegedus, and well-enough shot under difficult conditions. A social document of great importance.

Friday 12 June

Pennebaker & Hegedus - Searching for Jimi
In some ways a more conventional film than some of their others, but still a top documentary. Someone came up with the idea of making a CD recording various artists' interpretations of Jimi Hendrix songs. The album isn't released yet (June 1998) but the film of the making of the album is. Who better to ask than Pennebaker & Associates, who made a film which cuts between the recording sessions (which took place over 2 continents: in Manchester and all over the USA) and interviews with the artists involved. So we get to see how they all work and why they picked the songs they did, how they approached the songs and what they thought about Jimi Hendrix. Some had a straightforward no-nonsense approach to the song as a song, and some thought a lot about what Jimi meant by the lyrics, and what they mean to them. My favourites: Cassandra Wilson doing Angel (of course!) and Chuck D's rap version of Freedom, which had some terrifically powerful improvisations and ended up a dialogue between Jimi's words and a young black musician 30 years on.

Pennebaker & Hegedus - The War Room
I saw this film when it was realeased theatrically, and for me it ws one of the films of the year. It holds up very well on second viewing - maybe it is even better. Once again, the Pennebaker team was on the spot. At the time they began filming there was no guarantee that the Clinton team would get anywhere at all in the election. But with luck, or by prescience, they picked a winner, in more than just the obvious way. This is a fascinating look at the running of an election campaign, from the inside, with candid views and non-stop action from charismatic and likeable people. Even Pennebaker himself thinks it is the direct inspiration for Primary Colours, which looks weak in comparison to the real thing - as with Welcome to Sarajevo, I don't think fiction can beat the real thing in this kind of context. Pennebaker's team had a little more money than usual for this film, and it shows. It looks good, and is utterly compelling.

Frank Capra's American Dream
A very professional documentary, with lots of material that was new to me. It had excellent interviews with Capra's sons (Capra's family commissioned the film) and others who either knew him, or whom the filmmaker knew to be knowledgeable about Capra, or to be big fans of his films. Particularly knowledgeable, articulate and thougtful was Richard Dreyfuss, who spoke insightfully about Capra's construction of the America that Americans wished they were. Lots of clips - from (I think) every sound film he made, and many of the silents.

The fact that the family commissioned the film was raised in the Q & A with the director, Ken Bowser) after the screening. He answered questions in what appeared to be a very honest way. A paraphrase of the Q & A session follows. It is based on my shorthand notes taken at the time, and is not verbatim by any means but conveys the general drift of the dialogue...

Q & A with the director, Ken Bowser
Q The film was always going to be 84 mins, but it now runs 109 mins. Why?
A Originally it was commissioned by the Capra family as a celebration, but I thought it would be boring & told Tom Capra that it would be boring unless we look at the darker side. Columbia then said: "Why not make it a feature film?" That's why we shot it on high definition video - but it looks like film!
Q Why didn't you make a tougher film?
A I think it was pretty well balanced. I mentioned the darker side of Frank Capra as well.
Q Why didn't you tell the proper story about Frank Capra in the McCarthy era? It wasn't the way you told it in your film.
A Joe McBride's book makes speculative leaps in his book. There is some speculation that Capra "named names". But Joe McBride's assertions are not supported by facts, and I didn't find anything in them. Garfield was attacked by the HUAC, because he had formed an independent production company, as Capra had done. It may be that the studios were trying to crush both Garfield and Capra as revenge for their attempts at independent production.
Capra's passport was pulled at one point. Robert Riskin [editor's note: often Capra's screenwriter], with whom he was involved, was a Communist, but there is no evidence that Capra was.
Q How did you choose the people you interviewed about Capra? They're not all obvious choices.
A I used people whom I knew to be fans or knowledgeable about Capra. The people at Columbia Pictures suggested some people. Richard Dreyfuss may have even contacted us. I knew Michael Keaton was a fan. There's not very much of him in the film because he'd just been shooting another film and he was very tired & he rambled a bit. We couldn't use much. It was mainly just my knowing who was a fan. I knew Scorsese was, but Oliver Stone I didn't know. My favourite interview is with the sound man who was there. Herskevick & Zwick have a production company called "Bedford Falls" (the town in It's a Wonderful Life).
Q Compare the characters of Sturges & Capra - both 2 idealists who ran into the brick wall of the Hollywood system.
A When I was a kid & saw Preston Sturges films on TV - Miracle of Morgan's Creek - I knew this was a voice I'd never heard before. I knew there was something going on, a totally new voice. With Capra, in terms of his toughness & the way he made it in the industry - they respected him because they distrusted anyone who had a passion. Peckinpah & Welles had this problem too. But Capra was so tough, and ultimately so successful that he could break through. If you're successful enough...
Q How long were the interviews and did you ask set questions?
A 2 - 21/2 hours. For example, Robert Altman: we interviewed him in Savannah Georgia, in the final stages of shooting his latest film The Gingerbread Man. He said he was not prepared and he didn't know anything about Frank Capra. Actually, he knew a lot about Frank Capra - knew all his pictures and spoke very eloquently about them. I also asked the interviewees reasonably intelligent questions and some were political questions, eg "What was going on in the country at the time Capra was making this or that picture?"
Q You put the failure of Frank Capra's post-war films down to his personal side. I think what happened to him was he represented the Rooseveldt era, which was no longer wanted. You also said the Why We Fight films were not seen by many people. They were seen by 12 million servicemen - I was one of them.
A The Why We Fight films were not famous at the time he made them. I think I did say in the film that he was out-of-step with post-war America. I spent a fair amount of time on that.

Saturday 13 June

To Get Rich is Glorious
Everyone fell in love with Vincent Lee, the person around whom this documentary was based. He flew in specially for the screening, at his own cost, and was going straight home. The audience didn't want him to go! The filmmakers managed to follow Vincent everywhere, and even added something to his kudos as he negotiated with the various officials in mainland China. Vincent gave a very human face to the realities of life in Hong Kong today, and the adaptability of the Hong Kong business world. He also let us into the private world of his family, just enough to get an idea of the differences between the attitudes and relationships of his father's generation and his generation. Seamless and insightful, this was an excellent documentary, and excellent investagative journalism of the human kind.

The Matinee Idol
A pure delight. The star, Bessie Love, is as cute as can be and an excellent comedienne, who looks as if she could hold her own against Carol Burnett, for example (see Moon Over Broadway below). Her co-star, Johnnie Walker is well cast too. The director's touch is light and fluent. Things move at a mile-a-minute, and the film feels surprisingly modern. Capra is already directing with flair and intelligence, and is constantly trying new tricks with inventive camera angles and framing. Neil Brand's accompaniment was again excellent - if not quite as brilliant as the performance for Lloyd George, which was truly magnificent. A wonderful cinematic experience.

Pennebaker & Hegedus: Moon Over Broadway
When Chris Hegedus introduced this film she said it was quite a different film from their other theatrical film, Jane. This became apparent immediately the film opened, with the cast taking a bow to rapturous applause (presumably on opening night). So there's the ending right there. There will be none of the tension there was about the doomed show photographed in Jane. So what is this about?

It's about the insecurities involved in "putting on a show." First there's the director, calm under pressure because he has put in place every possible insurance against a flop: a proven star returning to Broadway, a reliable and proven Broadway performer, an experienced and well-loved supporting cast, a writer with a couple of hits under his belt and a series of out-of-town try-outs to hone the material. Then there's the star, Carol Burnett, saying that she'll be paraphrasing her lines (because he's frightened she won't be able to remember them). Then there's the writer, a veritable encyclopedia of insecurities. And finally there's the supporting cast, who flit about nervously and finally turn on Carol when they need someone to blame. Oh the frailty of the show-biz crowd! But isn't it just any community in microcosm? That's the brilliance of the Pennebaker team. Once again they've focused on a narrow scenario, but at the same time told us something about what it is to be human.

Sunday 14 June

A beautiful documentary about a brilliant and fascinating woman. My friend Barry asked me after the show "Did you see that last film? You know, the feminist one. I thought of you. I thought you'd like it". Well I loved it! The filmmakers were lucky enough to find that one of the family, Shirley Nicholas, was a keen filmmaker herself, taking lots and lots of home movies. The director makes the most of this, and somehow manages to fill in the gaps without the audience being too aware of a lack of footage when Shirley wasn't around. In fact, the ending is even more effective for the lack of footage of Hephzibah's death in London. There's a gorgeous shot of the Victorian bush at sunset, a fence and a mob of kangaroos. It emphasised the strange, savage beauty of the Australian landscape and it made you acutely aware of the effect it must have had on this highly educated, intelligent and vital woman with modern ideas and so much to accomplish. A superb portrait of a brilliant and mysterious subject.

Silent to Sound
A marvellous session with Neil Brand, maistro of music for the silent film. Brand showed us excerpts from films from Mississippi Burning to Vertigo. In Mississippi Burning, Brand showed us how Alan Parker had dampened the effect of some horrific violence - blacks being beaten by Klansmen - by setting gospel music sung beautifully by Mahalia Jackson. Brand said he wasn't sure he agreed with the approach but there was no doubting the effect. He also showed us how, in Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann (his favourite film composer) created a beautiful love theme and then uses it in different ways, even to actually advance the narrative by cueing us to a mystery. He did a similar thing in Citizen Kane with a theme that used only 4 basic notes! Brand finished by doing something absolutely astounding: he improvised the piano accompaniment to a silent film he had never seen before - all he knew was its name "The Romantic Adventure of Margaret ....(I've forgotten the surname - but it is a Raymond Longford film). But the really astounding part was that he talked us through his thought processes as he played. It is an unforgettable privilege to have been able to see this genius at work.

The Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture by Marcia Langton
The morning after the appalling result in the Queensland election with Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, came Marcia Langton's speech. The actual speech was quite academic in tone, and Langton read out her written paper rather than speaking directly to the audience, so the speech itself was drier than I had hoped, and couched in academic language. But the moment the Q & A section started, the whole thing came to life, and Langton was frank and blistering in her analysis of the reasons behind One Nation's good showing in Queensland. She was magnetic and arresting as she told us some home truths, like the fact that the disaffected rural and semi-rural poor will need exactly the same welfare support that needy Aboriginal people currently receive.

Capra/Stanwyck - Ladies of Leisure
Barbara's first lead role, and is she ever well-cast! Capra could certainly pick them. The opening is wonderful, and the film is quite daring - it preceeded the production code by a few months. The film is full of little gems of performance. Lowell Sherman as a drunk, mad for Napoleon brandy, which is the source of quite a few jokes. Nance O'Neill as Barbara's floozy girlfriend is terrific. Capra also tries a "steadicam" shot - in 1930! Somehow he moves the huge camera bit by bit and then speeds up the film to make it look like it flows. Then, as if that weren't enough, he does it again - but backwards! Incredible!

Monday 15 June

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
Another fascinating documentary in the BBC series "Classic Albums." Again this followed the structure of dissecting each of the tracks on the album, in exquisite detail. But at the same time, because the relationships between the members of the band were so volatile at the time the album was being recorded, this necessarily involved a lot of discussion of the band members' private lives as well. There were many revelations to me: Mick Fleetwood's great drumming, which I'd hardly noticed before this, John McVie's brilliant bass playing - what an artist! And Christine McVie's songwriting talent and the pivotal role she played in the band. But the best moment was John McVie's moving confession that he simply loved Chritine to pieces and could not cope at all with their breakup. Another great moment in cinema!

Investigating Tarzan
Pretty disppointing on the whole. Many different Tarzans were shown, but I didn't learn much about any of them that I didn't already know (except (a) Johnny Weissmuller used to yodel in Pennsylvania - his family was German, and (b) much more from Dennis Miller than I cared to know). I was particularly disappointed that there was hardly a mention of the TV Tarzan Ron Ely - my personal favourite of all the Tarzans. But we did get to see some of the lovely original illustrations from the Edgar Rice Burroughs book series, and the early comics. These were a real treat.

The Maelstrom
A total surprise! The program notes didn't look promising, so I had decided to miss this one, but ended up staying for it, and I'm so glad I did. A fabulous documentary which crept up on me and which was, in the end, unbearably moving. The director was lucky enough, like the filmmakers of Hephzibah, to have access to home movies made by a family member - Max, the future brother-in-law in the family. The director used these inventively, panning across them, stopping and starting them, enhancing them with the names of the various family members, and selecting clips so that we get to know this family and go with them on seaside holidays (a wonderful game of leapfrog on the sand in which everyone participates, even the largish Momma Flora in her bathing suit!), we see them through weddings, parties, births, religious ceremonies and eventually we begin to love them. The sudden ending is brilliant, moving and totally appropriate. We are not manipulated, but are left with an immese sense of loss all the same. Absolutely brilliant filmmaking!

Capra/Stanwyck - The Miracle Woman
Ken Bowser, introducing this film, said that he thought the first scene (where Barbara takes over her father's pulpit) was the only scene that didn't work in this film. He was wrong. It nearly all works (but who wrote so many scenes for the ventriloquist's dummy? Was it in David Manners' contract? He definitely did all the ventriloquism!). Barbara is magnificent, even in her scenes with the dummy. So is Capra, who handles all the challenges of this film - including a climactic fire with a huge crowd - superbly. Barbara shows her range, versatility and magnetism. And she gets her man, even if he is a ventriloquist! I do hope the dummy was burned in the fire.

Censorship Follies
Oh dear! A nice idea to try to bring a little humour into the issue, but shame about the execution. Most of the humour was singularly unfunny, and it was certainly NOT David Marr's finest moment. No discussion was permitted, so I left feeling frustrated and knowing that the debate had been advanced not one whit. Vanessa Wagner (mildly amusing) and Nurse Nancy (not at all amusing) hosted. David Marr made blanket generalisations about "Christians." Jane Mills and Delia Browne were lucid and informative and Raena Lee Shannon tried to be witty but didn't quite succeed. Pretty much a wasted opportunity.

Tuesday 16 June

First Love, Last Rites
A terrific little first feature from a very hip director, Jesse Peretz. The average age of the film festival audience dipped by about 20 years for this one! Jesse co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on an Ian McEwan short story which is apparently 8 pages long. Jesse also moved the location from Northern England to the Louisiana bayous and it all works brilliantly. McEwan has actually told Jesse that he thinks the Bayou location works better than his original location - which is all the more amazing because McEwan's short story is autobiographical! I haven't read the story, but it seems to me that Jesse exactly captured the sense of mystery and forboding that is McEwan's trademark. Excellent performances form a mostly young cast. Watch this guy!

A Mexican Bunuel
Interesting, but not spectacular.

Lou Reed: Rock N Roll Heart
Much more interesting. Great footage, excellent interviews, an enigmatic but witty subject, and a wonderful story to tell. His lyrics are pure street poetry, and the film shows us how much it is admired. By the end of this documentary, even if you aren't a fan, you'll understand why. And the music! Just what I needed to listen to at this point in the festival.

Funny Games
Whatever else this film does, it does not glorify violence. Violence is the subject of the film - gratuitous violence, in fact. So does that mean that the film contains gratuitous violence? I don't think so. It comments on violence in film, and it seems that the director believes that the best way to do that is todepict shocking violence. In fact, he does not actually show the violence - it all takes place off-screen. You don't even see much that is explict of the aftermath of the violence. But that does not diminish the effect of the violence on the viewer. Things seem just as awful, and the film seems just as disturbing as if you had actually seen the beatings etc. I presume that the director, Michael Haneke, is making this point: that it is not the violence on the screen that matters - the issue is much more complex than that.

The film is very well-exectuted, funny in parts, and clever. very clever. It comments on itself, and at one point even "rewinds" to show an alternate scenario. It asks the audience's opinion on whether it is better to stop the film at one point, or continue to the end to give a satisfactory resolution to the plot. The director is quoted as saying: "You can't solve the problem by chatting about it". But can you solve it by watching violent films? I'm not sure about that. It certainly crystallises some of the issues for you.

I'd really like to have seen the director after the film and had a chat with him about his intentions. This was one potential guest director whose Q & A would have been electrifying. Maybe next year...

Capra/ Stanwyck - Forbidden
This film was a real treat: Adolphe Mejou in a relatively rare romantic lead (or is he the villain?). Stanwyck in a rare appearance as the put-upon woman who is in love with a man who doesn't do the right thing by her. But although this sounds like a standard melodrama, this film is certainly not that. It keeps on con dounding your expectations. From the moment that Stanwyck as the sweet old maid librarian takes off for Havana, things don't happen as you expect.

You'd never expect Stanwyck to give up her own child just because of a misunderstanding, but she does. You'd never expect her to stay with a louse and reject the charming faithful newspaperman, but she does, and the ending you'd never predict in a month of Sundays. But there it is. A lot of fun, and refreshing with every twist and turn of the plot. And the plot had me so rapt that I din't notice the direction at all!

Wednesday 17 June

Conceiving Ada
The turkey of the festival. Preposterous from start to finish. The program notes made this look very promising, and it dealt with subject-matter that I am interested in. I knew about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and their computer proptotype, and I thought it would be fun to see a movie with the actors performing on digitised sets. So did quite a few young people as well, because the audience was looking particularly youthful at this session.

Well we were fooled. This film missed all the opportunities to explore the real people and the real issues. It just cooked up a ludicrous and physically impossible plot, which involved a computer sending a message through a photo - a photo! - and contacting the 19th century figure of Ada, and somehow carrying her DNA back to the 20th century and into a pregnant woman's embryo's DNA!!! Crazy! But not even explained properly. Just a throwaway line or two that did not make sense at all. NOT SATISFACTORY!

And the digital sets: a complete flop. They just made it more difficult for the actors. It seemed to take away their ability to act. I've never seem Tilda Swinton this bad before. And the others were worse. Timothy Leary looked like someone had put him in the film on a bet, or as a practical joke. And he spoke utter nonsense - badly. A complete waste of time. And it's not just me, you know. The young kids next to me were laughing and making fun of the film all the way through. I wasn't at all inclined to shush them.

Lovely, ugly, lyrical, prosaic, funny, sad, full of action, taking its time, this film was a roller-coaster ride of everything I love in cinema - in the one film. Marvellous! The producer/ director/ writer/ editor/ artist Takeshi Kitano is a true Renaissance man.

Capra/ Stanwyck - The Bitter Tea of General Yen
I know this was Capra's stab at an academy award, and I know that he strayed away from the material he really knew to make this film. I know that it is strange to cast a Swedish actor as a Chinese warlord. I know that Barbara Stanwyck is usually considered as miscast in her role as a missionary, but I don't care. I love this film, the more so each time I see it. The crowd scenes are astounding, the feeling of war and destruction are palpable, Barbara looks gorgeous, and Nils Astor is a fabulous Chinese warlord. This time round I realised he even had a Mandarin accent! The ending is so exquisite, and so culturally sensitive, it is hard to believe it was made in Hollywood in 1933. But it was, and that's why I love Hollywood.

Thursday 18 June


Films like Leila are the real reason I love the film festival. They used never to get a commercial release (although this one may well, because the audience seemed to love it). Now more foreign films do get some kind of commercial release, but there's no guarantee for any particular film. Seeing them at the film festival is great because it gives them a palpable context in world cinema, and I love to see English language films measured up against foreign language ones. There's something particularly wonderful about being deeply touched by a film about things outside your cultural experience. The feeling is even more piquant when the film from an unfamiliar culture teaches you things and the films from the more familiar culture do not.

With Leila, we are in the hands of a very experienced director, with a light touch and a great sense of humour. We are also in Iran: but in the city, in the upper-middle class, amongst affluent, well-educated people. We are concerned with the relationship of a successful and happily married couple, who have a problem. It is a problem that is all too common in Western society, but the complications for those living in an Islamic culture make things all the more complicated.

Along the way, we are treated to a close-up view of the intimate details of these people's daily lives, and we begin to understand the pivotal role of the family in nearly everything. By showing us birthdays, feast days and everyday days, the director gives us an insight into the effect the family and tradition has on the modern individual in Iran.

The director treads a fine line between humour and sorrow, and, with the lightest touch imaginable, pushes the dimensions of the dilemma further and further. Slowly but surely the couple's stress-levels build up - and ours build with them, until the tension is at breaking point. The ending is adult, real, sad, and somehow optimistic as well. The performances are wonderful all round, with Leila (Leila Hatami) the stand-out. A fasciating and thought-provoking film.

Lucky Star
The "blurb" for this film put me off, but luckily I decided to see it anyway. This film was a great contrast to Leila, because Leila relied on controlled buildup of drama, whereas Lucky Star just plunged in and got on with it - no mucking around. Passions are definitely on display here, as is humour and emotion. The events twist and turn, and just when you think that things are just going too far, and that everything is running off the rails, you are told something that makes you realise that life is very strange and very wonderful. A moving, messy, and very human film.

The Butcher Boy
A rollicking, bumptious jumble of a film from Neil Jordan, with fabulous titles, and a great central performance by the young Eamonn Owens as Francie. It is all very strange, but it works! Jordan seems really confident here. You suspect he's in semi-autobiographical mode - he co-wrote the script with the novel's author. At the very least he knows these people very well indeed. This film is by no means naturalistic, but it does ring very true. It is funny and violent and moving and real. Some of the accents are hard to follow - but it doesn't matter, you just go with it. I read somewhere that Francie's voice was completely dubbed by a woman because it was considered unintelligible outside Ireland. I don't think anyone would realise this if they weren't told. There are so many wonderful characters in this film, and such spirit, that despite its grim subject-matter you will feel uplifted at the end.

Friday 19 June

Perfect Circle
Forget Welcome to Sarajevo - this is the feature film to see about the war in Bosnia. It is made by a Bosnian, and it shows. This film rings absolutely true, even though it employs such melodramatic material as 2 cute little orphan boys - one a deaf mute - and a crippled dog. The opening scenes are unforgettable, and set the scene so brilliantly that you are drawn quickly and palpably into this tragic and devastating landcape. Like Welcome to Sarajevo , this film shows you the piteous reality of daily life for the Sarajevans, but is not as polished as the English/American film. It doesn't feel the need to provide you with English-speaking expatriates to help you understand the situation. It just takes you by the hand and leads you straight into the fray. It gives you a much better sense of place than Welcome to Sarajevo does, and ultimately gives you a better truth. A must-see film if you care anything for the human condition. And the "perfect circle" of the title packs a killer punch.

This film is anchored by three brilliant performances: Rachael Maza, Trisha Morton Thomas and Deborah Mailman give us excellent portraits of three Aboriginal women, and with not a stereotype in sight. Deborah Mailman's Nona is exuberant and fresh, and I nominate hers for the best smile on current film - overtaking the last title-holder, Toni Colette. Rachael Maza is elegant and cool as Cressy, but finally it is Trisha Morton Thomas' performance which astonishes.

The film is well-directed, looks great, and is a great advance in Aboriginal cinema. But I do have a major problem with the script. I think it has too many gimmicks (Radiance nougat for heavens sake? That black hat!). And I think is has a big sag in the middle of Act 2. The form itself is a bit of a cliché : the idea of 3 siblings returning for a parent's death or illness and confronting each other, themselves and their pasts is an idea we have seen done many times before. But this time the fact that the 3 are modern Aboriginal women does give the idea some pep and a few new angles.

The director changed the ending of Louis Nowra's play for the film, and I agree with her decision. Rachel Perkins knows what she is doing, and she does it very well. The ending is delicious, and just right for now. We need that kind of an ending right now.

Capra/ Stanwyck - Meet John Doe
I'm sorry to say that my love affair with the Capra/Stanwyck films boiled over at this very late stage in proceedings.

I'd seen this film several times before, and enjoyed it, but this time something went awry. Perhaps I'd already seen the apotheosis with The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Perhaps it was Paul Byrne's exhortations that this was a film for today, now, more than ever (referring to Pauline Hanson no doubt). But the film did not have the clarity or sincerity of the others in this series.

Barbara, of course, is beyond reproach in the way she performs her part. One of the film's problems seems to be Gary Cooper. He is too old to be playing this naive role. He looks incongruous and is too easily manipulated for my liking.

The plot goes through a number of reversals and backtracks and doesn't really come out the end with any cohesion. The ending seems to belong to some other film. It doesn't really resolve any of the questions the film has posed.

And then there's the question of the grassroots John Doe clubs. I can't see how they are either:
(a) admirable; or
(b)relevant to Australia at any stage in its history.
I think they really are an "It could only happen in America" kind of thing.

For me, A Face In the Crowd is a much more relevant and salutory lesson in media and political manipulation. It is far more chilling. And, dare I say it, more relevant to Australia today.

The Theme

For me, based on the films I saw, the festival's theme this year was Families Under Pressure. The two Bosnian films, plus Waco, The Sweet Hereafter, Kelly Loves Tony, Streetlife, Marius and Jeannette, TwentyFourSeven, Hephzibah, The Maelstrom, Funny Games, Hana-Bi, Leila, Lucky Star, The Butcher Boy and Radience - and even Frank Capra's Forbidden, all illustrate aspects of that theme. And what a fitting inversion of John Howard's Australian dream...

That's it for this year. See you at the festival in 1999!

© Michèle M Asprey 1998

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