The 56th  Sydney Film Festival
3-14 June 2009*

* 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 3 June

For the first time since 1991, I will not be attending the opening night.  For the last few years the opening night film is shown again for subscribers at 10am the following day. This year we subscribers were not given the opportunity to buy opening night tickets in advance, or at a discount, and so my little protest is not to attend opening night.  But the film, Looking for Eric, I will review when I see it on Thurs 4 June.

Instead, I was at...

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector - USA/UK Dir: Vikran Jayanti -  2.5/5
This disorganised & sloppy documentary was nonetheless pretty entertaining, purely by virtue of its subject, and the great access they had to him (Spector has a wicked sense of humour).

However, the film's premise was pretty slim: let's link Phil Spector's songs to the footage of the trial (terrible quality from Court TV).  Few insights there.  Then let's put some pompous quotes about his music at the bottom of the screen from some egg-head - who is not really identified until the end credits, and let's let the soundtrack (words and music) run over that so that you miss both, straining to hear or watch either.

There was also an issue about who acually wrote many of the songs.  This was completely fudged, with Spector mentioning several that he wrote or co-wrote (Spanish Harlem, who knew?) and claiming credit for the brilliance of them all. But there were no songwriting credits at the end - only producing and performing ones - so sloppy! 

The final idiocy was at the end, when they put "THE END" which it clearly wasn't.  It finished at the (2nd?) mistrial. As we all know,
Phil Spector has since been retried, found guilty, and now Spector has been sentenced to serve 19 years.  Get the facts right, please!

It Might Get Loud
  - USA - Dir: Davis Guggenheim -
What a contrast!  A technically superb documentary, making a new story out of the virtuosity of three musicians , on whom the limelight hasn't yet shone too brightly (Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White - what a delightful surpridse he is!).  Perhaps there were too many cutaways to the countryside, but mostly this was enlightening, and the music is given its due.  Intelligent and inspiring filmmaking.

Thurs 4 June

Looking for Eric
- UK, France, Belgium, Italy – Dir: Ken Loach - 3.5/5
This entertaining film is, I think one of Loach's best films for some time.  Not to say it is perfect, but it is charming.  I'm not sure Cantona can act, but he's certainly a magnetic personality, and the footage of his football feats is just terrific.  There's almost more need for subtitles for the Manchester accents than the French language of Cantona!   This is more like Loach's Raining Stones (1993) than his more recent films. I knew from very early on that Eric's group of friends would scrum in to help him out. The way they do it is very funny, but I'm afraid the resolution is not very likely, and the true story would have been quite tragic.  But it's a fun movie all the same.

Burma VJ
- Denmark - Dir: Anders Ostergaard
This is a documentary based mostly on cladestinely filmed footage from Burma. A note at the beginning of the film says that some scenes have been reconstructed in close co-operation with the actual persons involved.

This film is incredibly important and powerful.  True guerilla filmmaking. Exhausting, because of the poor quality of much of the film - of necessity (some of it is taken from inside bags, etc) but it must be seen.

Four Nights with Anna
–  Poland - Dir: Jerzy Skolimovski - 4.5/5
A very stylish and assured film, as you'd expect from theis veteran director, with a deceptive beginning  and a sly sense of humor.  All the exterior shots are stunningly beautiful, and all the interiors are dreadfully ugly.  There's a fractured narrative that is simultaneoulsy easy-to-follow and deceptive.  It is used to great affect to manipulate your assumptions, but despite that, I didn't feel used, I felt that I was gently brought to a great emotional climax.  I had great empathy with the weird leading character, knowing that there are many kinds of love, but I still felt the director compared the 3 crimes effectively with each other. Loved that waterfall tableau night-light with the chirping birds!

Soul Power
– USA – Dir: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte – 4.5/5
What a treat!  Fabulous music, outlandish costumes - and I'm referring in particular to The Spinners - and amazing footage of the lead-up to the concerts associated with The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974. A really interesting social document. A time capsule.  And a wonderful celebration.  Great behind the scenes and in front.  A fabulous unseen footage of Muhummad Ali and Don King in particular. Celia Cruz and her band were just marvellous. And thre's Larry Cartleton, a terrific white guitarist right there with The Crusaders (not credited though). And Bootsy Collins doing his thing playing bass - and playing up - with James Brown.

Friday 5 June
The Maid –

The Queen and I –

Disgrace –

In the Loop –

A savage, hilarious comedy derived from a TV series

Saturday 6 June


Jeanne Dielman

Sun 7 June

– Belgium, Germany, Netherlands – Dir: Peter Brossens, Jessica Hope Woodworth – 3/5
Worthy and pompous, but also stunningly beautiful, I think this film suffers from having too may ideas at once.  Do we really need an Iraqi Pultizer Prize nominee going to Peru amongst the indigenous (but devout Catholic) Indian population to investigate the death of her Belgian husband in the midst of a mercury spill disaster caused by evil mining companies?  Or is that 3 different films?  I thought it was too much and found my attention lagging, while simultaneously being exasperated.

I think the point of the film was the phrase said tice by the heroine " Without the image, there is no story".  But what a depressing thought!  As a lawyer and a writer, I just can't agree.  And I don't think they made the point effectively enough, if that was what the filmmakers were intending.

- UK – Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn - 4/5
Interesting and powerful, with a powerhouse central performance. But for me, in the end, overly derivative (or maybe just reminiscent) of films like A Clockwork Orange, Chopper, and even Once WereWarriors (the credits).  Terrific art direction and makeup, but then let down by things like a stereotypical representation of mental patients.  A disturbing moment was hen the audience laughed when a title card satated that Michael Peterson is still in prisn in the UK with no date set for release!

The Beaches of Agnès
– France - Dir: Agnès Varda – 4.5/5
What a woman! What a great storyteller!  What a creative person! What a communicator!  Varda's documentaries seem to be stream-of-consciousness, but she always drives the narrative through a wonderful journey to a satisfying conclusion. Satisfying filmmaking par excellence.

Last Ride
- Australia - Dir: Glendyn Ivin. 3.5/5
A beautiful film about a horrible man

Hugo Weaving transforms himself again into a criminal on the run, with awful tats and a dreadful wardrobe, and a beautiful young son who's with him as he runs from the poice after assaulting and possibly murdering a friend.  This first feature film from Ivin, who scored at Cannes in 2003 with his lovely, but not particularly novel film Cracker Bag, is a very professional work indeed.

The landscape is beautiful, but also beautifully used by Ivin, to tell the tale of the relationship between father and son. The scene on the slat flats is an absolute knockout.

Probably no one else in Australia will go to see such a sombre film with such intelligent ideas,  so you should look at this one at the Festival, and spruik it to your freinds.

Winged Creatures
- USA - Dir: Rowan Woods - 3.5/5

Extremely capable but never takes flight

This first international film by Australian director Rowan Woods (The Boys, 1998, Little Fish, 2005) is a Crash-like film involving one act that affects a group of people in different ways.  There's a great cast, and complexity is very well-handled, but for me, Woods never achieves the poetry that is always close, but not quite present.  He's sensitive and intelligent, but the motif of winged creatures is a bit heavy-handed, and though Guy Pearce and Forest Whittaker are both very good, it finally took Dakota Fanning's performance to bring me to tears.

Despite all the expertise on show here - and the film looks really interesting, too - Woods blots his copybook.  See if you can spot the boom in 2 shots!  Eeeek!

The other film that this reminded me of was Peter Weir's Fearless (1993).  Now that's poetry!

Monday 8 June

Tuesday 9 June

Red Cliff 
- China - Dir: John Woo.  4/5

Muscular epic

I saw this film in May at a critics preview.  Wow!  It is spectacular.  If you loved some of the other great Chinese historical  or fantasy epics, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000 ) or Hero, or The House of Flying Daggers  (Jiang Yimou, 2002 & 2004), then you'll love this.  Or if you love John Woo, then you'll also love this.  Because it is like those other films, but much more - muscular.  The battles are bigger, the scenery is more spectacular, the cast is larger and the whole thing is more visceral.

Woo fans will pick up his usual themes here: the two sides of the one heroic personality, the twinning of protagonist and antagonist, slow motion, humour, doves - there's even "dove-cam" which was thrilling! There's no broken glass - I don't think it had been invented in 208AD - but there are drops of water filmed in slow-mo.

Woo has handled immense detail with ease.  You must pay attention, because the cast is so long, and there are so many Generals and heroes.  But  your attention will be rewarded.  My personal favourite - apart from Tony Leung in rare action mode, and Takeshi Kaneshiro (
The House of Flying Daggers ), the charming villain with  his fabulous smile - was the General who can knock over horses.  So good Woo showed it teice!

Don't miss this one. 131 minutes that fly by.  (The original Chinese version is 5hrs long, and I'd really like to see it!)

And don't walk out during the credits.  The final song is on the Woo theme as well, and you need to read the subtitles. At my screening, idiots stood up and blocked the projector, so I missed some of it.  And they hung around and talked in the screening room.  I told them off. They wouldn't get away with that behaviour at the SFF!