Sydney Film Festival 2014

* 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. Please pardon bad typing. I'm doing this on the run, and using funny software which is harder to use than Word.  I'll correct things gradually.

I've been writing these notes up almost daily since the Festival began. Now that the festival is over, and I have seen 44 films.

Here's a list of my top 11 favourite films of the festival, with my favourites first in both categories, and then in no particular order:


Abuse of Weakness
Fish and Cat
Two Days, One Night
The Captive
Keep on Keepin' On
Particle Fever
The Overnighters
Faith Connections
The Unknown Known.

The Jury picked Two Days, One Night to win the Sydney Film Prize, but I don't agree with their decision. The prize is for films that demonstrate "emotional power and resonance"and are "audacious, cutting-edge, courageous" films that "go beyond the usual treatment of the subject-matter". While Two Days, One Night has considerable emotional power and resonance, I'm not sure that it is as "audacious, cutting-edge, courageous" as the Iranian thinking person's slasher/ thriller, Fish and Cat, my pick for the prize. (Calvary was not in the running). The Foxtel audience prize went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Wintersleep, which was a late entry to the program, and which I didn't manage to see ...sigh... I'm sure it  is a worthy winner, based on how great his previous film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (SFF, 2012) was.

I saw 2 films before the Festival began: Calvary and The Two Faces of January. Calvary was my favourite film of the Festival. I gave it  5/5. The Two Faces of January is an excellent thriller in the style of Hitchcock. 4/5 I think. I'll review these up front. Then I'll go through the rest of the films in the order I saw them at the Festival, day by day.

Calvary  (Ireland, UK, Dir: John Michael McDonagh) Rated 5/5

John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, 7 Psychopaths, and numerous black comedy plays). John Michael's debut as a director was the fabulous The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. The brothers share a dark sense of humour, a fierce intelligence, and a great knowledge of pop culture.

Calvary (note: it's NOT Cavalry) is a fitting follow-up to The Guard. JM McDonagh is interested in the big issues: faith, violence, good, evil, guilt, forgiveness, foibles and humanity He also knows how to pick a great location. Apparently he set The Guard in Galway, where his father came from. To placate his mother, he set Calvary in Sligo, where she was brought up. Both are gorgeous, and in Sligo, we have the dominant hill, which is an obvious metaphor for the mountain of Golgotha, or Calvary (in the Latin version), where Christ suffered his Passion and death.

I believe JM McDonagh was moved to make this film because of all the current shocking news about bad priests abusing innocent children. Why not, he thought, make the opposite story: a film about a good priest in a bad congregation? As that priest he cast the incomparable Brendan Gleeson, who has often worked with the 2 brothers. He has also cast several of the best Irish comedians working today, including Dylan Moran (whom The Irish Times memorably called "the Picasso of dishevelled indecision) and Chris O'Dowd. The whole cast is  pitch perfect.

This film was for me like a kind of Breaking Bad for Catholics. In Breaking Bad, we see a man tempted to commit a serious crime, and we see how he justifies each transgression (I am dying, I need to provide for my family; someone else will be doing this, so it might as well be me; these people are worse than me; I'll be a better boss/ supplier than those scum; I've come this far, it's only a lttle step further; it's only going overseas, that's better than harming Americans, etc etc), until finally he becomes a monster - and then he realises he enjoys it. In Calvary we see an array of sins and we see all the reasons that people have for committing them, from just being a human, to being depressed, to being betrayed, to being abused in various ways, and so on. We also see all the foibles of the Catholic Church (and organised religion in general), and then we see the difficulties of forgiveness.
It's not easy being good, and it's even harder to be good in an evil world. Calvary gave a proper workout to my moral compass. And I found that both exhausting and exhilerating!

I read in Sight and Sound that McDonagh has described his film as “Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in”. Pretty funny, but that made sense to me, because I had noticed that Calvary ends, just like Bresson's film
Pickpocket (1959), which I saw earlier this year, with a transcendent scene in a prison, and an optimistic view of the possibilites of a future marked by forgiveness.

Calvary opens in Sydney on 3 July.  See it!  I'm off to watch more Bresson...

The Two Faces of January  (UK, USA, France. Dir: Hussein Amini) Rated 4/5

This is an excellent, fast-paced thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock, but with really authentic locations. It's an assured directorial debut by screenwriter Hossein Amini who has writen a lot of intelligent and successful screenplays, including Drive and 47 Ronin. The three main actors are all top-notch: Viggo Mortensen, who can do no wrong, Kirsten Dunst, who has just the right combination of vulnerability and smarts, and Oscar Isaac who is darkly
ambiguous.  The setting in 1960s Greece is magnificent, and the wardrobe is to die for. The mystery is unpredictable and suitably (for Greece) labyrinthine. One death literally took my breath away. This film is real class, and I look forward to see the next offering from Mr Amini. For something similarly classy, see Atom Egoyan's The Captive, below.

Wednesday 4 June  -  Opening night film

20,000 Days on Earth  (UK, Dir: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) Rated 2.5/5

The film-makers (including co-screenwriter Nick Cave) wanted to make a film that was unlike your standard bio-pic or rock doco, and have saud their inspirations were: The Song Remains the Same (about Led Zeppelin, which I saw at the time but have absolutely no memory of(!)), Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man (I can't work out how) and Jean Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil (which I found quite turgid and too didactic). No wonder what emerged was pretty shapeless.

This is meant to be impressionistic and aims to reveal great truths, but it ends up being a very controlled film - controlled by Nick Cave himself who is only showing what he wants to show of himself. I was looking for great insights (there were some) and great revelations (there were just a few). Ironically, the most revelatory statement was made by Kylie Minogue, who was one of 3 people driven by Nick Cave in his car around his hometown, Brighton. Kylie said, in response to a question from Nock, that she feared not being remembered, but her greatest fear was being lonely.

The other 2 people driven by Nick were Ray Winstone (talking about the difference between being an actor and a rock star (only a platform for Nick to expound his theories) and former band member Blixa Bargeld, who finally reveals why he left The Bad Seeds (too busy it seems - who would have guessed?). No real insights there other than for the fanatics.

The best thing about the film were the 3 set-piece performances: "Jubilee Street", and my favourite "Higgs Boson Blues".  Electric. And the film itself looks good, apart from some wobbly hand-held camers delpoyed for no real effect.

Probably the biggest insight here is from Cave's conversation with a psychoanalyst (Why?  Never explained or set up properly) when the psych asks him what was his first memory of a woman's body, and he answers it with a story about a beautiful girl's face, which was clearly not his first experience, and when the pshych asks him about his first memory of his father, and Cave answers by telling the story of his father reading the first chapter of Nabokov's Lolita aloud to him.  Gorgeous story, but that can't have bee his first memory of his Dad.

These 2 questions sum up for me what happened in this film: the directors pretend to be profound and in fact get a (very eloquent) PR release from Mr Cave.

And oddly, for a film about a pretty fascinating subject like Nick Cave, in whom I am quite interested, I was bored by the end.  Quite an achievement, that!

Thursday 5 June  - 

Short film: The Lion's Mouth Opens:
a superior effort, a very moving story well-told.

Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars  (Denmark, Iran, Norway, Sweden, Dir: Berit Madsen) Rated 2.5/5

I'm afraid this film was severely marred by poor subtitling. I suspect whole lines were missing, since many of the titles were sentence fragments, many not starting with an initial capital. This made it impossible to determine the motivations of some of the characters, and I ended up not quite knowing what decision Sepideh made.

This could have been a coherent film like Wadjda, from last year's festival, but the filmmakers didn't seem to have a good grasp of the other characters in the story apart from Sepideh. The uncles are not dealt with properly, and of course this was just frustrating to those of us who wanted the whole set of problems to be resolved. And these days I'm not satisfied with films that tell you if you just long for something hard enough, you will get it. Especially when your poor mother has land that she could get an income from of only the pumps and tanks were fixed! In the end I lost patience with Sepideh, who just wanted to stargaze and who fell at the first real hurdle. She's now relying on a millionaire spacetraveller to help her. Good luck to her, and I hope to see a sequel where Sepideh is at CalTech (married or unmarried) and her teacher has finished building the observatory. But I'm not holding my breath!

The Mystery of Happiness  (Argentina, Dir: Daniel burman) Rated 3/5

This is a slight and amusing rom-com/ mystery, that's stylishly accomplished and has a really good music score, revolving around various different versions of the standard Brazil, and some terrific a cappella. It's funny and it has quite a lot of insight into what men think (and dream). It involves a mid-life crisis, so I liked it for that alone. And it has a most satisfactory ending, where the protagonists all get what they want, though maybe Santiago comes out better than Eugenio, but we'll need the sequel to be sure. At least both men were wearing their "thongs" (really budgie smugglers) which to me meant they both got what they want (if not perhaps what both of them needed).

Short film: White Earth: a very superior effort, an interesting story about oil drilling in North Dakota, strikingly photgraphed and interstingly told through the mouths of children.

Watermark  (Canada, Dir: Jennifer Baichwal & Edward Burtynsky) Rated 3/5

A visually stunning film by the environmental filmmakers
Jennifer Baichwal & Edward Burtynsky, the team behind Manufactured Landscapes from 2006. This one explores man's relationship with water, using various settings, including the Colorado River delta (amazing aerial shots), the XianLao Dam silt release (a kind of nightmarish Niagara Falls), the Ogallala Acquifer in California, the Los Angeles Acquifer (and William Mullholland's damming of the Ovens River, at the end of which he gave the most wonderfully plain speech of all time: "There it is. Take it." The film begins and ends with the stunning Stikine River in British Columbia, which gives us some hope, and we also see the incredible bathing in the gamges of 32 million people once every 12 years for Kumbha Rashi.

Throughout we see Edward Burtynsky photographing and assembling the book Edward Burtynsky Water. I guess the message is: buy the book.  Food for thought.

Friday 6 June  - 

Diferet  (Ethiopia, Dir: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) Rated 4/5

Now we're talking! This is the first of the "You can only see this film at the Festival" kind of films. This little gem was executive-produced by Angelina Jloie amd it is a fabulous and moving story, very well-told indeed. A young girl (Hirut, who's 14)  is promising in her schoolwork, and is about to be promoted by her male teacher to grade 5, is abducted on the way home from school
by a group of men, then beaten, raped and imprisoned by one young man in particular, who then anounces she will soon be hos wife. Yes, folks, it's the charming old Ethiopian tradition of wife abduction. Her main captor is stupid enough to leave his gum within her reach and  whn she escapes she happens to shoot and kill him (with some deftness, it must be said). Luckily some men from the village interrupt the revenge that the group were about to wreak on her, and hand her over to the police.

The story then would normally unfold under traditional Ethiopian law that a "customary" court would find her guilty of her captor's murder, and she too would be killed. A court is indeed convened in her absence. But in the meantime, enter the fabulous Adinet Women Lawyers' Association, and their crack defence attorney, Meaza Ashenati!

This police procedural/ courtroom drama (Addis Abeba style) is fresh, enthralling and fascinating. It is also wise and witty. It is interesting to note that a little influence from one's mentor and former boss might go as far in Ethiopia as it does in London, New York or Sydney. The ending of the film (recreated from the facts of a real precedent-making, law-changing case in 1996) is not romanticised, and we are made aware that winning a case does not solve all the problems that go along with such events. but it's a start, and that's satisfying to know.

The Overnighters  (USA, Dir: Jesse Moss) Rated 4/5

Sometimes documentarians strike paydirt. Here, Jesse Moss, who writes as well as directs, finds the Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke, and his flock, in the new frontier mining (fracking) town of Willaston, North Dakota, and as a subject he's gold. We've already seen North Dakota at the Festival in the shape of short film White Earth (above). It's going through severe changes. Pastor Reinke decides that he must help the hundreds of single men who have descended on the town in search of mining work. Some of them will get work right away, some will take more time, and some will be rejected (old, infirm, junkie, criminal records etc). Each man brings his own problems and Padstor Jay is a saint in dealing with them all.

He's also an egotist to a degree, and that's why, we think, he has agreed to allow such an intimate portrayal of himself and his family. As the film plays out, we think it wll follow a familiar form (congregation gets fed up & tries to override him, but eventually they come round (or maybe not). But no - the film does a u-turn and we are left panting! Oh the irony of where Pastor Jay finishes up!

This film is a marvellous effort of documentation, and the editor has done a stupendous job. The truth really does come home to roost, and the film certainly shows that none of us is above the other. But I would like to see Pastor Jay forgive himself, just as he forgave all the others.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellbecq  (France, Fir: Guillaume Nicloux) Rated 3.5/5

I almost decided to miss this film, but my friend Erica told me: "It's funny". The film proceeds along quite po-faced as we see a portait of a rather nasty middle aged man who potters about and people seem to fawn over him, but he's standoffish.  Then he gets kidnapped by the strangest looking bunch of guys who take them to a farm nearby and keep him in a pink frilly bedroom with a dolly in the corner. Turns out it's the bedroom of one of the kidnappers, and the farm is owned by his cute old parents, who turn up.

Then follows the nuttiest stand-off you've ever seen, and the film is very droll and full of fascinating arguments. Houellbecq is still unpleasant to be around but he sure has a way with words and he's a lively dinner guest. He'll try anything, even wrestling.  The film is a crisp 93 mins and doesn't outstay its welcome. A great feat of the imagination.

Altman Live, followed by Nashville

Curator Richard Moore is showing 8 of Altman's 49 films in the Altman retrospective. He introduced Robert Altman's son Michael Altman saying it is unusual for him to do this sort of thing because he doesn't travel the world keeping his father's memory alive: this is very much a one-off. He's a documentary maker, an editor, he developed new digital imaging technology, and he also wrote the lyrics to "Suicide is Painless" when he was 13. He also won an Emmy for editing on Twin Peaks, and he wrote an "unauthorised" biography of his father.

Michael imposed several disclaimers on the things he would say this evening and during the retrospective:
• None of the other members of the extended family share his perspective - it's his personal point of view.
• On the text of the SFF guide he says he won't adjust the facts.
• He believes a public figure is the property of the public.

When he died there were 2 memorial functions (not funeral services) at huge 1500 seat venues in New York and LA. People in tuxedos talked on stage. He was cremated and his ashes dumped in the ocean by the brothers. In the meantime, Michael arranged a screening of 6 Altman films back-to-back at Fox Studios and he thought that was the best tribute he could arrange for his father.

The short films from the Robert Altman family vault have never been shown in public before. The UCLA Film Archives has the rights to his catalogue and half the short films (they are retoring the negatives).They were suitably quirky and weird. In fact Michael Altman seemed a bit mystified that we - or anyone outside the inner circle of the family - would want to see them. But they were quite interesting in that they showed a few people that insideres would recognise from Altman's films (I'm not good enough to play that game, though I could always recognise Altman himself). It was also interesting to see some of the swooping closeups (zooming in and out) that you'd recognise from his feature films.

The films were:
1. Pot au Feu, 1965: a film extolling the virtues of a joint. It features Michael's  grandfather and step-grandfather, his nanny and a neighbour. Robert himself appears playing chess.
2. Damages, 1972: shot during the filming of Images in Ireland with Suzannah York. There are many references to Images. Everyone went to the dailies for the film. It's a dark and freaky film: Susannah is schizophrenic but you don't realise what you are seeing is her hallucinations. Is she killing real people or imagining it?
3. The Katherine Reed Story 1965, 15mins: Katherine Reed Altman was Michael's step-mother, much loved. She married Robert in 1959 and they had 50 years together and ahe is 90. An amazing woman. He made this film for her birthday. It was all shot in the family home. It really is a home movie (makes Dud Films look really good) excpet that it has a specially composed Johnny Williams score!
4. The Party, 1966: Lots of people that were in his films are in this. Including Bob Fortier, who featured in minor roles in several Altman films, including 3 Women, Popeye and McCabe & Mrs Miller. He was not really an actor: more a family friend - like the alcoholic uncle.

Michela said that when he strated making films he thought the director was doing it wrongly: Altman's films were not orthodox and they were al very much ensemble films: the same people occur over and over agin.

Michael Altman only took one question from the audience and it was the classic "What was his favourite film?" question. The classic answer came back: Altman could no easier choose from between his films as he could from between his children.  We also heard that Altman's way of advocating the legalisatioin of marijuana was to smoke it all the time, in public. We also heard quite a lot about the making of AWedding, which was one of the films Michael singled out. He confirmed there were 24 characters with simultaneous plot-lines and so 24 separate radio-mikes were used to capture all the dialogue. We heard that of all his father's pictures, this one had the most ensemble work and the most capture of group dialogue. No one knew when they were being recorded or whether it would be used so they all had to act at all times.  The first assemblage of the film came in at 4hrs. Nashville was much more pre-conceived and pre-constructed than A Wedding. The interactions were more isolated. Nashville's music was all written for the film - spoofing country music at the same time.

From memory, in the extras to the A Wedding DVD, Altman comes pretty close to naming it as his favourite film - or at least the one he is most proud of, technically.

It was a long day, so we did not stay to see Nashville, for the umpteenth time, but Michael told us it would be a beautiful new digital copy. The rest of the retrospective is on 35mm film.

Of Nashville, Michael said that the Altmans weren't welcome in Nashville after the film! The only reason that he can go back to Nashville now is that everyone associated with the filming is dead! Nashville is a nepotistic whirlpool of  of power struggle. With all its cynicism, the film is warm and endearing, says Michael. Altman zoomed in on flawed characters but he did it warmly. The ending of the film is the best example of that. The magician in the film is Richard Baskin, the heir to the Baskin-Robbins icecream fortune!

That Cold Day in the Park is rarely seen. It does not have overlapping dialogue, it's not an ensemble piece. It was done immediately before M*A*S*H, in 1969, just after he came out of film school.

3 Women, he said, is a real dark ride. And there is no Kansas City in the program, but he would have loved to include it: but the SFF only allowed 8 features.

Saturday 7 June  - 

A Story of Children in Film (UK. Dir: Mark Cousins) Rated 4/5

I find Mark Cousens' approach alternately irritating and inspiring. I think he injects himself too much, and yet it is his insights we are interested in.  Here he starts on a weird tangent, discussing Vincent Van Gogh in San Remy, looking at his field of view from his room, and noting that he was observing a small thing.  Children are small too. Let's observe children in film.  Long bow?  Yes!

Now we see footage of his niece and nephew in pyjamas, playing, and Cousings makes onbservations of their behaviour. He then finds parallels in the history of cinema.  Did we need the intro?  Well not really, but at least it took Cousins to his points. Not we observe the various chracteristis of chidrenm through a quirky, but marvellous choice of films, and - more imortantly - moments in films. I've seen a lot of these films, but there are lots I haven't seen, and most are now on my list of ones to chase. Many are quite rare.

Then he goes on holidays and takes us with him. Why? Because he is Cousins, so he can.

No one has such an eye for a movie moment, and no one has quite the knack of nailing the description of the key to the moment. Unfortunatley, we have to listed to the sound of Cousins
drawing some awfully long bows along the way. For example, in his summing up, he asserts: "No art form has looked at kids as much as film. Certainly not novels or (I'm almost certain he said) painting". Really???  That's incredible!

Here's a list of the films he mentioned, along with the childhood characteristic he was describing (though there may be one or two films slipping from one category to the other due to poor notetaking) :

Yellow Earth, 1985
Children in the Wind, 1937
An Angel at My Table, 1990
Ghattashraddha, 1977
The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961
Freedom is Paradise, 1987
Los Olvidados, 1950
Great Expectations, 1946
An Inn in Tokyo, 1935

The Boot, 1993, Iran
The White Balloon, 1995, Iran

Fanny and Alexander, 1982
Curly Top, 1935
Meet Me in St Louis, 1944
Moonrise Kingdom, 2012
Tomka and her Friends, 1977
The First Movie, 2009 (Mark Cousins!)
The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, 1999

Child/ parents relationship, then storytelling:
The Night of the Hunter, 1955
Hugo and Josephine, 1967
Kauwboy, 2012
Kes, 1969
Freedom is Paradise, 1987 (again)
Moving, 1993

Kids and framing:
Nobody Knows, 2004
Yaaba, 1989
(Burkina Faso)
A Mouse in the House, 1947 (Tom and Jerry)
Gasmen, 1998 (Lynn Ramsay)
Long Live the Republic, 1965
10 Minutes Older, 1978
The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973
Frankenstein, 1931
Yellow Earth, 1984 (again)
Willow and Wind, 1999
The Unseen, 1996

Big Business, 1929 (Laurel & Hardy)
Zero de Conduit, 1933
Forbidden Games, 1952 (style like The Night of the Hunter)

Two Solutions for One Problem, 1975
Alyonka, 1961
(Boris Barnet)
Finlandia, 1922
Long Live the Republic, 1965 (Czech, again) on an ice floe!
The 400 Blows, 1959
A Hometown in Heart, 1949
Hugo and Josephine, 1967 (again)
ET the Extraterrestrial, 1982
Palle all Alone in the World, 1949
The Night of the Hunter, 1955 (again)
I Wish, 2005
Moving, 1993 (again)
The Iranian Boy ?
Willow and Wind, 1999 (again)
Palle all Alone in the World, 1949 (again)

"That's why Westerns are so popular", Cousins says. Huh???
The Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood, 1972
The Yellow Balloon, 1956 (J Lee Thompson)
Melody for a Street Organ, 2009

ET the Extraterrestrial, 1982
The Kid, 1921
Moving, 1993 (again)

Dreaming: (one of the things cinema does best)
The Night of the Hunter, 1955 (again - dream sequence on the river)
Emil and the Detectives, 1931
The Newest City in the World, 1974
Long Live the Republic, 1965 (again)
The Mirror, 1975

The White Balloon, 1995

Boyhood (USA. Dir:  Richard Linklater) Rated 3/5

This was a bit of a disappointment. For all the logistical brilliance of filming a boy and his "family" over 12 years, I found the insights few-and-far between.

And what a tough position in the SFF program: running after a film about all the greatest moments in cinema history on the subject of childhood. There were more insights in 10 minutes of Mark Cousin's film
A Story of Children in Film (above) than there were in the whole of Linklater's film.

One of my stalls friends made the point that Linklater's strength in film is getting his characters to extemporised based on loose ideas, thus getting great authenticity from his characters. And while Ethan Hawke is as adept as ever here, the other characters - particularly the kids - aren't up to it.

On the "looking at my watch" test, this film lasted 1hr 30 mins. It ran for 2hrs 44 mins. This is not to say that it was a total bore: no, there were flashes of greatness, including Ethan Hawke's first weekend with the kids, his talk in the bowling alley about contraception, and Patricia Arquette's little breakdown when all the kids leave the nest finally. But it wasn't enough to sustain me.

It seems I'm in the minority on this one...

Love is Strange (USA. Dir:  Ira Sachs) Rated 3.5/5

Here's a very sweet film with a few flaws, but the performances (including that of the various neighbourhoods of New York) are all note perfect, and the cinematography is a dream. Again, this little film had so many moments of truth and authenticity, that it makes the grand ambitions of Boyhood look strained. The film's last shot overstays its welcome by quite a bit, but that's just a quibble. It really covers a lot of the issues of today's life in a big city, but with grace and humility.

My only real gripe is with the script: there was a bit too much of the sledgehammer there, and it wasn't needed.  For example:

1. If it was mentioned one more time that  the couple had spent 39 years together, I was going to scream.
2. Uncle Ben talks to Joey's parents and  informs them "Last year you were so worried that Joey didn't have any friends - that he was anti-social - that you sent him to the therapist".  I'm sure they needed to be reminded of that.
3. Young Joey says to George "Sorry I didn't go to the service".  George asks "The service?" Joey has to explain that it is The Funeral that he's talking about. Oh - right!

And I'm not sure I agree with the focus on Joey and his girlfriend at the end, but even with these faults, the film is wonderfully sweet and an unexpected delight.

In Order of Disappearance (Norway, Sweden, Denmark. Dir:  Hans Petter Moland) Rated 4/5

This film is a hoot. It has one of the biggest body-count of any film outside the war genre, and it is bloody and violent  and there are some very unpleasant scenes, but the thing is pitch-perfect black humour. Moland joins the ranks of the great dark comic directors, like John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary - see above) and his brother Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, etc).

Featuring a cast with some notables from Borgen and Lillyhammer (whose humour it reproduces in part), plus Stellan Skarsgard and a wondeful new villain, The Count, this is a must-see. The shortness of my notes might indicate just how much I enjoyed this film!

The Norwegian name of this film is "Kraftidioten", which I think is much better, and probably evokes the tone of the film much better.

Frank (Ireland. Dir:  Lenny Abrahamson) Rated 4/5

This is a funny and sensitive film dealing with questions of talent, mediocrity, genius, work ethic, integrity, poor investment decisions, craziness and mental illness.  It is based on a real character: Chis Sievey whose alter-ego was Frank Sidebottom, who also wore a bog papier-maché head, very similar to the one in the film, and whose band was called The Oh Blimey Big Band. He dies penniless at the age of 54, but the social network raised £21,000 odd  to cover his funeral expenses.

The music is suitably weird, though Frank's soulful baritone reminded me a bit of Jim Morrison doing something like The Soft Parade. And the musicians are all really weird characters, who amazingly play all their own music (though as a drummer myself, I'm not sure Carla Azar as Nana played every note (she has a very strange sitting position too).

The striking thing about this film is that it stars Michael Fassbender as Frank, and you don't get to see his face til the very end. That takes guts. However, we do have the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal to look at and appreciate (interestingly, she's called Clara and plays the theremin: and the greatest exponent of the theremin ever was another Clara: Clara Rockmore. I wonder if that is Clara's character's surname here: most appropriate!).

There's an awful lot of playing with the idea of duplicates and copying here. For further example, our hero, Jon (played by Domnhall Gleeson, himself the son of the marvellous Brendan Gleeson, as seen in the fabulous Calvary - review to come) is a replacement for the bass player of Frank's band (who has gone mad, and who himself was a replacement for the original bass player, now manager, Don played by Scoot McNairy). Frank's character is a copy of the real Frank Sidebottom who is really the another person, Chris Sievey. Etc etc.

Another really unusual thing about this film is that "our hero", as I described him, is also actually the villain of the piece, as he is the reason the band breaks up and everything goes to hell. He seeks  to "make it" commercially and betrays the band to get fame and fortune. He mistakenly thinks that's what they all want. he's wring and that wreaks havoc. And he slinks away to return to well-justified obscurity in the end.

But in the end it is a moving plea for sympathy and care for those who are different, whether they are genius reclusines, a little eccentric, crazy, difficult or quite mad. Because they are still real people with real talents and other qualities, and their mental states should not define or confine them.

Sunday 8 June  -

The Great Museum (Austria. Dir:  Johannes Holzhausen) Rated 4/5

Another really good documentary about the restoration of the Vienna Kunsthistoriches Museum. Beautiful photography and attention to detail that does justice to the painstaking work of all the museum workers who have guided this faded ediface back and beyond its former glory. There's been a lot of work done over the 10 years the museum has been shut, and there's lots to report, which the filmmakers do very efficiently in a mere 94 minutes. There's plenty of wit here, and a great eye.

There are some very amusing scenes amidst all this culture. "Picture side up, if possible," says a curator to the moving guys. Crikey! I've been more forceful than that with my own art collection! Cut to a man vacuuming the balls of a marble statue. The director also has a great eye and ear for meetings: he films some classics. In one Budget Committee meeting a female PR person talks to the group (but mainly to the Boss) about the publicity material for the new entry prices. He peremptorily hanges her wording and obsesses about the shape of the numeral 3 in the number 34: "It should be rounder" he says, and he gets his way, even though he presumable has no expertise in typography. Typical!

An enormous amount of money must have gone into this restoration. And thought too: they commissioned modern chandeliers by Olafur Eliasson! There's an amazing depth of expertise here, especially in the conservation depatrtment. What they do there is so painstaking. The whole film is a poem to the unsung heroes of museum scholarship and artisanship. It should be viewed by all Ministers for the Arts, and all Treasurers.

One glaring error though: a stray apostrophe in the subtitles: "Oh dear! Lot's of fine webs!" exclaims a conservateur working on a painting.

The Rover (Australia. Dir:  David Michod) Rated 3/5

I had been led to believe this might be disappointing, by those who saw it on Saturday night. I decided to see it fairly fresh on Sunday morning, to give it a chance, rather than let myself be misled by tiredness.  This paid off for me, and I thought it was a very accomplished work indeed. The film has its flaws (not the least being its whole premise) but it features a spell-binding performance by Guy Pearce, which just about kept me with his character the whole way. Other great actors are wasted (Gillian Jones and David Field for example) and Athony Hayes is the only minor character who manages to get a toe-hold in all the gloom. The less said about Robert Pattison's performance the better. Why did he have such an impenetrable southern US accent? His brother was Sooot McNairy again (from Frank, above) and I could understand what he was saying.

The other thing I loved about the film was its look. It was not the stereotypical red centre type Australia, but a bleached greenish beige one, and the Flinders Ranges  and the plains below look terrific. The framing of most shots is also first-rate. Well-done on the technical side.

The story and script have their problems (though there are some lovely lines, there are some stinkers too), and it is very hard to make a post-apocalyptic Australia story fresh after Mad Max, though this is technically "post Collapse",  whatever that may be. No one seems to have too much trouble getting guns or petrol though.

Speaking of guns, there's a sequence in which a dwarf is selling Guy Pearce some guns. I can't believe we see a dwarf in a dystopian landscape after Living in Oblivion's dwarf Tito said:
    Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who's had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I've         seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! "Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!". Everyone will go "Woah, this must be a fuckin' dream, there's a fuckin' dwarf in it!". Well     I'm sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up your ass!

I also can't believe the dwarf gave his customer a loaded gun!  Is this meant to be like the scene in Indiana Jones when Harrison Ford shoots the swordsman?

And, without wishing to give the twist away, I have mentioned to a quite a few people that I think a better reason for Guy Pearce's character to be obsessed with getting his car back (à la Coalhouse Walker Jnr in Ragtime, by the way) is that it must get really good miles-per-gallon.

Finally, what's with the film's name? The car wasn't a Rover, was it?  Or is this a joke to do with the final twist? Or both?  Surely not!  That would be silly wouldn't it?...

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (USA. Dir:  Michel Gondry) Rated 2.5/5

I had real problems with this film. It is high-spirited and earnest by Michel Gondry and he's tried really hard but it is almost impossible to tame Noam Chmosky into answering your questions at the best of times. Here Gondry decides that for reasons of distancing from his subject he has to film Chomsky in a little square at the corner of the screen, on a primitive mechanical camera  that makes a big racket, ask the questions himself in his "outrageous" French accent, and illustrate it all with quirky animation. I could hardly follow what was being said for the 1st 20 minutes due to all the distraction, and it is hard enought to follow Chomsky at the best of times. Then I could follow everything on screen but I couldn't take notes. Finally, in the last 20 minutes I could understand what was going on, but by then Chomsky had got repetitive and Gondry was asking personal questions about Chomsky's wife and family. Not what I wanted to know.

Gondry should take a lesson from Errol Morris - below.

The Unknown Known (USA. Dir:  Errol Morris) Rated 4.5/5

The fabulous Errol Morris does it again, this time with Donald Rumsfeld. Both love words games and precision, and Errol is Donald's match!  I  really enjoyed this film.

The first thing I noticed was the music: Danny Elfman does Philip Glass! The next thing I noticed was Rumsfeld's definition of "Unknown Knowns": they are, he says, "things you think you know but it turns out that you do not".

Hang on, I thought, that's not right. There are no such things as unknown knowns. You can't unknow something you know, unless you forget it. An unknown known is an impossibility: a paradox. He must be thinking of mistakes.  But before I had time to work all this out, we were onto the next thing. Little did I know that we would return to this conundrum later.

In the meantime, we have the usual terrific, rambling, but somehow thorough portrait that Errol Morris always paints. He does this mostly by letting his subject talk and talk (while Morris illustrates his subject's points with a hypnotic score and wonderful graphc design, archival film and photography. Maybe he injects himself into the interviews a little more than usual (though he was fairly present in The Fog of War with Robert MacNamara too). Rumsfeld emerges from this as a very clever and meticulous man, with an obsession for memos and dictionary definitions. Reliance on the dictionary definiton is not a plus in my world: its a sign of rigidity, and of the need for an argument stopper, rather than the ability to win an argument by rhetoric, evidence, and persuasion.

And so it should come as no surprise to hear that the wily Morris (who, like Rumsfeld, loves words, but also has a lawyer's education and training, and the nimble mind of a superb interviewer) gets the better of Rumsfeld, and has him rethinking his idea of Unknown Knowns.

Rumsfeld's original quote about the Known Knowns etc (at a Press Conference at NATO headquarters on  6 June 2002) did not feature the Unknown Knowns.  It had Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns. There were only 3 categories because the 4th category is an impossibilty. He seems to have forgotten that. Trust Errol to work that out and run with it.

Monday 9 June  -

National Gallery (USA. Dir:  Frederick Wiseman) Rated 4/5

More great work from Mr Wisemen, but interesting to compare it with The Great Museum, from yesterday. That was only 94 mins, compared to this at 174 mins, and I'm not sure the extra time conveyed a lot more. Maybe others can do Wiseman as well after all these years...

One of the areas in which the films overlapped was in the filming of administration meetings.  More to come...

Locke (UK. Dir:  Steven Night) Rated 4.5/5

Locke is my 2nd favourite film of the festival so far after Calvary. It's fascinating and contemporary, with a marvellous performance by Tom Hardy, sporting his gorgeous Welsh accent. I believe that choice was made because the Welsh accent is often a calming, musical one and we needed something like that amidst all the turmoil of the things going on in this film.

This is such a film for our times. These days when the phone rings, we drop everything! We are in touch with everyone, all the time.  We need to be connected. All this does is ramp up the urgency of everything, and rather than making us more efficient, it makes up distracted, dealing with too much detail, too many nuances, when leaving everything alone for a while might mean things "work themselves out". When was the last time you heard anyone tell you things would work themselves out?  I thought so.

Locke is in contention for the Sydney Film Prize, for films that are
"audacious, cutting-edge, courageous", so you might think that Locke could win: a film where there is no one seen apart from Tom Hardy as Locke, the protagonists. Everyone else is a voice on the phone or in a car in the night. This makes for very inventive filmmaking as the visuals have to keep our interest, and the acting has to be top-notch to keep us involved. And yes, Locke has all these things, plus a great humanity. It's a very satisfying film, that takes you on a very tense trip with Locke and keeps you guessing til the end

And yet, no matter how good a film this is, we must not forget that Jean Cocteau wrote a play in 1930, The Human Voice, in which a woman is on the phone to her lover for the duration of the play, having a nervous breakdown as she loses him to the woman he's going to marry the next day. It was made into a film (part of the anthology film L'Amore (1948), directed by Roberto Rossellini and starring Anna Magnani. So it is not quite cutting-edge.

But it is a thrilling and engrossing film that reminds us to keep everything in perspective: wise and timely advice.

Words and Pictures (Australia. Dir:  Fred Schepisi) Rated 3/5

A sweet and clever film of ideas and wordplay. 
Fred Schepisi always keeps his films moving right along. And here he has 2 marvellous actors to eork with: Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. They have good chemistry, but they are both really annoying, and I cabn't quite believe they could make it together, particulary after what Juliette says to Clive right at the end before they laugh.  I give it a few weeks.  Still, Juliette paints her own works which are quite convincing in the execution, particularly the black and white work. But the kids and the school are rather unconvincing.

My friend David had the courage to say to Fred in the Q&A that made up the
Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture (notes below) that he enjoyed the characters' journeys even if he found the ending a bit predictable. I guess he put into words what we were all thinking.  Then again, it is a rom-com, and that's where they all end up, isn't it?

Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture (David Stratton interviews Fred Schepisi) Rated 3/5

Fred was very candid and generous with his responses. This is from my notes so is not a verbatim transcript

Q: You grew up in Melbourne. Your father was a fruiterer turned car salesman. You were not so good at school [FS: Actually I was and I did the Leaving Certificate at 14]. Then you went to Marist Brothers Junior at 13 and would have become a Marist Brother, but didn't - leading to The Devil's Playground.
A: I was going to be a motor mechanic in my dad's caryard but I was good at English so Icould be a journalist or a novelist. I went to Vocational Guidance and the Cousellor recommended advertisingand got me a job! I was a despatch boy, but learning all about post-production, printing etc. Then TV came in and I was in charge of the TV Production Department.

Q: You discovered movies by going to the Savoy in Melbourne to see sexy pictures.
A:  You got that right. It was called continental pictures. But I saw Ingmar Bergman pictures and a double bill: Beauty and the Beast by Cocteau and a Brazilian Faust! How lucky was that?

Q: You established The Film House with Alex Stitt in 1966.
A: We did industrial films and commercials. We were accused of only taking good work - not time - but we'd only take could improve them.

Q:  1973: the beginnings of the revival of the Australian film industry. A 4-part film called Libido. Your part, The Priest, was a bit different.
A: It was written by Thomas Keneally. 6 parts were made, only 4 made it to film. I wanted to get to know Thomas Keneally because I was writing The Devil's Playground.

To be continued....

Cold in July (USA. Dir:  Frederick Wiseman) Rated 2/5

I found this a particularly confusing film. It starts out well with an intriguing premise: a man and his wife live in Texas suburbia with their little daught in peace, reasonably, if not too comfortably off. Their lives are shattered one night when an intruder comes into their loungeroom, and, being Texas, our hero has a hand gun handy, and is able to shoot the intruder, point blank, killing him and making a shocking mess. He does this incompetently, and in an very unusual set of scenes, he and his wife  (after going throught the formalities awith the police who are only too happy to speed things through), they clean up the blood & guts. I don't believe I've seen that in a film before (except when it's a professional doing it, like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction.

In any case, this set-up was good enough for me, but the filmmakers take the film in another direction altogether, and we enter Cape Fear territory, with my pinup Sam Shepard (who's now old!!!), the dead man's father, starts stalking our hero (Michael C Hall) in the creepiest manor possible. Again, this makes for a great setup for another little thriller. But even that's not enough for tour filmmakers, who take the fillm in yet anouther, even more sordid, direction. At this point I was about to give up when enters a marvellous Don Johnson in a bright red covertible wearing a white 10 gallon hat, and you say, OK I'm up for this. But then everything goes nuts, logic flies out the window and you can't stay with it
Two perfectly good thrillers ruined by overplotting!

Tuesday 10 June  -

Two Days, One Night (Belgium, France, Italy. Dir:  Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne) Rated 4/5

A thoughtful film that may seem repetitious, but there's a purpose to going over the same scenario in different ways and it really does canvas all the issues. A heartfelt plea for unionism.

What a terrible dilemma this film poses: a boss, in what is actually a very cowardly move, allows his employees to vote on whether one of them (Marion Cotillard) gets the sack so that they can get a cash bonus, or whether Marion gets to keep her job. As the film opens, Marion (who has a history of mental instability), has lost the vote and so lost her job. But a canny friend realises that the boss has unfairly influenced the vote, so she gets the boss to agree that there should be a new ballot, after the weekend. So Marion has "Two Days, One Night" (actually two days and three nights!) to contact each of the employees and try to convince them to vote for her to keep her job (thus forgoing their cash bonus). Hence the repetition. But I think it's fascinating to see the variations and I think it is crucial in that it focuses us on all the competing interests and consequences of this one decision made by each person.

Marion is superb, as usual, and the other chracters are well drawn and acted. The film is bleak at times, and borders on the rekentless, but there are a couple of really beautiful and touching scenes, including one involving a picnic under a tree, when a bird sings and Marion says: "I wish I was yup there, singing with that bird". There's another when they all sing a song with the tune of The Searchers' "Needles and Pins" but with different words (I think "La Nuit n'y Finit Plus" sung by Petula Clark in French!).

The film's ending is really clever, satisfying, and ultimately, I think, inevitable.  And we close with a reprise of 
"La Nuit n'y Finit Plus".  Perfect!

Keep On Keepin' On (USA. Dir:  Alan Hicks) Rated 4/5

Gorgeous jazz doco made by people who really know their subjects. Director Alan Hicks and cinematographer Adam Hart and much of the crew are Australian. And Hicks is a drummer.  It's great!

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (USA. Dir:  David Zellner) Rated 2.5/5

Why dignify an urban myth from the internet with a feature film? Apart from a great central performance, and 2 vignettes featuring the Zellner Brothers as actors, I wasn't entranced by this one.
Some of it looks really good, but there's a serious matter of mental illness that's just brushed over. It made me uncomfortable.

The Captive (Canada. Dir: Atom Egoyan) Rated 4/5

An elegant film that returns to similar themic and stylistic territory of the director's sublime The Sweet Hereafter, but heads out on its own path. I loved this film. It's not perfect (the villain is a bit too "moustache twirling" perhaps (he's really creepy), but I thought the film was so intelligent, I'm prepared to forgive its flaws.

Wednesday 11 June  -

Mothers (China. Dir:  Xu Huijing) Rated 3.5/5

Disturbing and sad. A bit hard to follow, but important issues here.

Ruin (Australia. Dir:  Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Michael Cody) Rated 1/5

No no no no no no no no no! I did not go wth this film. Where is the Cambodia in it? It is just a generic view of Asia as the western tourist sees it. It is not nearly up to The Rocket's standards (and I think even that is a flawed film). There are a couple of beautiful moments: the water, the fire, the stars -
but that was in the fairly brief periods when you could actually see the picture through the jumpy camera and the blur. And there were some really disgusting scenes too. (Why cast a barroom drunk and allow him to improvise? His scenes with the young girl were truly gruesome). Then, incredibly, the rest was cliché - two lovers on the run. We've seen this so many times before throughout cinema history. It's not enough just to go to Cambodia. These boys have to prepare their film better than this. As I have often said: "Just because you can make a film, doesn't mean you should". Dreadful!

Macondo (Austria. Dir:  Sudabeh Mortezai) Rated 3.5/5

Another really strong film from Austria with a great performance from the child, Ramasan Minkailov. You learn more about Chechnyan culture in a short time in the film than you do about Cambodia in the whole of Ruin. A great sense of humanity here.

Ilo Ilo (Singapore. Dir:  Anthony Chen) Rated 3.5/5

Similarly to Macondo, a really human film with a great central performance from a child, Koh Jia Ler,  but the whole cast is excellent. And what a great topic for Singaporean film to tackle: the role of the Filipina maid in society! Bravo!

Thursday 12 June

Faith Connections
(India. Dir:  Pan Nalin) Rated 4/5

I nearly missed this film, as the weariness was setting in, but I'm so glad I didn't. It's a fascinating look at the Kumbh Mera, the pilgrimage to the confluence of 3 holy rivers in India (the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati), but the director has looked at the micro as well as the macro, and that is the strength of the film: the personal stories, which he has promised to bring back to his father, along with some holy water. A deeply spiritual experience, by a film maker who knows a story when he sees one.

Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (France, Portugal, USA. Dir:  Gabe Klinger) Rated 3/5

Interesting, but not distinguished. Part of a French TV documentary series on the arts. I didn't know too much about Linklater, really, outside of his more popular films (and having just seen Boyhood - reviewed above) and I knew much less about Benning. Now I want to see more, as I see a direct connection to Antonioni in some of Benning's style. Some pretty interesting footage

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China. Dir:  Pan Nalin) Rated 3/5

A competent neo-noir film that kept me guessing til the end. Stylish, if a bit hard to follow: some of the detail was a bit murky. And I know it was meant to be a dank film noir in the snow, but was the strange colour intended, with reds and greens the only clours to emerge from the sludge? Not really cutting-edge in terms of the Sydney Film Prize, but interesting coming from China. It's not a side of China we often see. Perhaps that is why it has won the Golden Bear at Berlin.I liked the police use of photography when the accused was pointing out the various parts of the scene of the crime. Is this evidence in the future prosecution?

Life Itself (USA. Dir:  Steve James) Rated 4/5

A timely and moving doco that follows film critic Roger Ebert's last 5 month of life, but of course neither subject nor filmmakers could have know that. It unflinchingly looks at Ebert's face and body after radical surgery on his chin and throat after thyroid cancer, and a hairline fracture of the leg, but also takes us along through his whole life and career. He was a very surprising man and he had serious drama in his life, but he had a fine heart and spirit, as well as a first-class mind, and this documentary really does honour that. He was an admirable practitioner of plain language writing too.

The film begins with a quote that really is the key to the insights of  Roger Ebert: "The movies are a machine that generates empathy". So are his reviews. One of his earliest reviews was of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Great film. He says he could knock out a full blown film review in 30 minutes in those days. What a lucky man. But then he talks about his drinking problem (he took his last drink in 1979). He never changed his clear, plain, mid-Western newspaper style of writing, and Martin Scorsese says that he made it possible for a wider audience to appreciate cinema, and he managed never to get caught up in certain ideologies.

There's a fascinating discussion about whether or not he (with TV partner Gene Siskel) were guilty of "dumbing down" film criticism. There are plenty of talking heads. We see how mean Gene Siskel could be (he's now dead too). A O Scott of the New York Times says Ebert was a tougher critic in his younger days, and that's probably right. But in his later days he married, then got sick, and that does tend to give you a different view on life and work. The film goes with Ebert to the brink of his death, and that is extremely moving. It ends with an Ebert quote: "Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn't reproduce it".  But this is real life - Life Itself, in fact.

The film was Executive Produced by Scorsese and Steve Zaillian.

Friday 13 June  -

Abuse of Weakness
(France, Belgium, Germany. Dir:  Catherine Breillat) Rated 4.5/5

I was thrilled by this film. The incredible honesty of Catherine Breillat to make a film about her own gullibility is breathtaking. Of course if you have Isabelle Huppert to star as yourself, it makes things easier. She was superb! She gives an amazing physical performance, not only to portray a stroke victim with epilepsy, but also to portray the vivacity of Breillat, the fierce wit and bravery, and the extreme vulnerabilty and stupidity that came with her "faiblesse".

Abuse of Weakness begins with the most marvellous scene of  Huppert falling out of bed: she's had a stroke and her body is just like a carcass. Over the course of the film we see her turn from a beautifully-dressed, smart, successful and sassy woman, totally in control of her busy life to a "Woman in a Dressing Gown" (co-incidentally, the name of one of my favourite British films of the 1950s). But little things show us how financially naive she is: thinking that passing bad cheques might get you jailed - and yet she was the one who wrote the bad cheques and she didn't understand it was fraud.

So Huppert's character (Maud) falls under the spell of a rogue whom she falls in love with, and becomes totally dependent on him. This character (Vilko Piran) is played by an actor with the wonderful name of "Kool Shen". "Hold on to me" she keeps imploring him. It's an old old story, but even without the love element, the film is so relevant to these days of internet fraud. I have heard the stories of those who have been scammed by people emailing them, often from Nigeria, and telling a sad story about the need for money, which they then back up with phone calls, cleverly squeezing money out of gullible or vulnerable people. And how do these people explain why they were so compliant? Why they fell for the oldest trick in the book. They can't. They just say they couldn't refuse. They thought that the person needed the money, but even after they began to doubt, even after police intervention, sometimes they continue to give. Why?

This film offers a clue: as Maud says: "It was me - but it wasn't me" And when someone suggests: "He was persuasive?" She replies: "No. He just asked me for money". And when she talks about the money she lost to this rogue, she doesn't really seem to think is is real money.  In the end, all she can say is: "Yes I did realise it, but it doesn't matter".

This film is clever, brave and important. I loved it.

Rock the Casbah
(France, Morocco. Dir:  Laila Marrakchi) Rated 3.5/5

This is a lovely piece of exotica, sweet and funny, marred only by a too-pat ending, and a big sudden turn-around in the emotions of a family at war with itself. Omar Sharif was the only person who could really do justice to the patriarch of this family, and he was a delight every time he came on screen.  A very witty and fast-moving script and a lovely ensemble cast (with the exception of the little boy who looked the part but didn't make me believe in him - how mean I am!). I want to go to Tangiers, but not in a Mustang! And I need to stay in that gorgeous house!

And I can't believe the opening song was "The Road to Morocco" (by Hope and Crosby)!

Fish & Cat
(Iran. Dir:  Shahram Mokri) Rated 4.5/5

Such a challenging and interesting film in some ways, and such a fun film in others. All you need is patience, and an eye for detail, and then you can sit back and let this film thrill you in all sorts of ways. In a way it is like a reinvention of cinema, in that by doing the whole film in one continuous shot, you are proceeding in real time (although in this case, unlike Russian Ark, that other magnificent one-shot film, time does repeat itself several times), without the need for the grammar of cinema which we have understood and worked with since the days of DW Griffith.

Like Hitchcock often did (in Rope, for example), the director here, Sharam Mokri, has set himself a puzzle, or made himself an impediment, and filmed around it. This puzzle is mathematical and aesthetic: he said in the Q&A that he wanted to film an HR Giger drawing, or a Moebius strip. He also set 4 dofferent 360 degree pans at regualr intervals throughout the film. So if you can watch for all that, as well as checking that it is indeed one continuous shot, you have your hands (eyes?) full. Then you need to survive all the surprises and shocks, and while you do that you can watch for cinematic references (the twins in Kubrick's The Shining, of course, and what else?). You become aware that your mind is well-and truly being messed with, and yet everything is so beautiful. The director told us his passions are philosophy, quantum physics, mathematics and slasher movies: it all makes perfect sense.

And far from feeling gypped by the ending, I loved it. A slasher movie with no slashing: perfect!

Saturday 13 June  -

Particle Fever
(USA. Dir:  Mark Levinson) Rated 4.5/5

A superb and dramatic documentary (with a proper narrative, but no narrator) on a potentailly difficult but fascinating subject: the Large Hadron Collider. As with Keep on Keepin' On, the filmmakers really know their subject, and it shows (Mark Levinson was a particle physicist before he became a filmmaker and this made it much easier for him to get access to the peole he needed to know.

I met Mark Levinson after another screening (actually the Closing Night film!) and he was absolutely delighted when I told him how much we - and everyone we knew who had seen it - loved the film. He seemed astonished that people would come to a screening on a Saturday morning at 9.30am. I asked him about the graphics used in the film and he told me they were almost an afterthought. They were put in after all the filming had been done and towards the end of the editing. I told him how effective they were and he was again delighted.

(Australia. Dir:  Kasimir Burgess) Rated 3/5

How strange that I failed to connect with this film. Though it looks beautiful, and the story should be heartbreaking, I was so connected to the reality of the forest that I felt distanced. To me, every move the film made (and there weren't that many) was predictable, and the film seemed interminable. But I loved the tree climbing.  Perhaps I was distracted by the lack of protective clothng the loggers used.  That was shocking to me. And I loved the aerobatics in the trees, but I've never seen anyone do tree felling like that: they are always much more controlled.

And where were all the leeches?

The two central performances were excellent (Matt Nable continues his series of hangdog protagonists), but the little girls were a bit disappointing, I'm afraid.

Jodorowsky's Dune (USA, France. Dir:  Frank Pavich) Rated 3.5/5

Another fascinating documentary: take a bow, Jenny Neighbour. I wasn't a Jodorowsky fan before I saw this. Noew I think he's a visionary. A weirdo, but a clever one. A good match for Dali, and Orson Welles. How sad that the film was never made. But on the other hand, maybe it is a good thing, since it could have been dreadful: 12 or 20 hours!  Crazy! But the ideas are there, and the art.

A very thorough piece of work, this, and great interviews.

(South Korea. Dir: Bong Joon-ho) Rated 2/5

This film is such a dichotomy! Based on a French graphic novel, it has a premise so ludicrous that your train of thought risks being derailed (pardon me) because you keep thinking about practical things and being distracted from the story, such as it is. The idea is that in July 2014, global warming has become so bad that we have all got together to invent a new chemical that wil cool the atmosphere down, and we've all agreed to go ahead and do it. It backfires (like the introduction of the cane toad to Australia) and the world freezes and everything dies. Everything, that is, apart from the people that managed to get on the luxury train built by billionaire Wilford (which is a Frenchman's idea of an English name, isn't it?).

OK, I get how rich people might already be on the train, and the middle class might have somehow got on, but how did the seething working class get on (they live in the last few carriages of the train)? And why are they permitted to stay there?  Is it just to provide the litle kids needed for something revealed later in the film?  Why do they need so many?  But see, I digress with the improbable detail.

Anyway, if you swallow all this detail, and the clumsy Marxist metaphor, the action comes pretty quickly as a man is publicly punished by having his arm put out the train to freeze, and then it is shattered by a sledgehammer. OK I thought that explained the many legless and armless people around: they were naughty. But no, there's something else sinister about that, which provides the film with one of its many climaxes. We next proceed rather smartly to the Proletarian Revolution.

So far, so negative but the amazing thing about this film is that it goes straight ahead with the premise, and believes it right til the very end. The director, Bong (The Host, 2006),  obviously has a great sense of humour (Tilda Swinton's character  - a Yorkshire schoolmarm tyrant with shocking denture and a nice line in torture - is evidence of that, along with the Korean star Kang-ho Song who has a great line in deadpan humour: literally in the end!). But Bong can also be very po-faced, and some of the dialogue is absolutely risible. The audience in my premiere screening at the State theatre were tittering and giggling through dialogue like: "They cut off their arms and legs and offered them up. I've never seen anything like that before".  I'm not surprised...

The set pieces look alternatively great and ridiculous. Most of the production design is impressive, but the the scenery outside the train (the film was mostly made at Barrandov Studios in Prague) sometimes looked like a mix of mecchano set and airfix kit.  It's alternatively good and terrible, this film. It's a real puzzle.

The ending, when two people emerge dressed in impeccable fur suits and boots tailor-made just for them, is, I gather, meant to be ambiguous. But the sign of life meant only one thing to me:  RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! 

Wish I was Here (USA. Dir: Zach Braff) Rated 3/5

Another sweet enjoyable film in the "soft" spot (last film of the day at the State). This is a very well-written film about a family. It's funny and it has a great cast. It touches on some very impotant issues: the impotance of religion in a family with some devout members and others who don't care so much, the death of the partiarch, failure and disappointment in one's life or career, the line between genius and eccentricity, and the role of the family in holding all this together.

This film shows Kate Hudson at her very best. She looks lovely and is funny and touching and believable. Her scenes with the great Mandy Patinkin (as the dying Patriarch) are extraordinary! Zach Braff is charming, and Josh Gad (so good as the sex-addicted doctor in Thanks for Sharing)continues to impress, this time as the no-hoper brother who can never live up to his father's expectations.

This film has room for many eccentricities in the family, and offers some very good advice. I just don't think the device of the superheroes visiting Zac (Aiden) in everyday life quite worked. But I did love Josh Gad's (Noah's) entrance to  Comic Con in his space suit, marching to Paul Simon's song The Obvious Child, where he had Afro-Brazilian percussion superstars "Groupo Cultural Olodum" playing.  But for me, for some reason, this film just wasn't quite as good as Garden State (2004).

Sunday 13 June  -

Stop the Pounding Heart
(USA. Dir:  Mark Levinson) Rated 4/5

This is an extraordinarily intriguing film. Part documentary, part fiction, it has people playing themselves in the drama of their lives, but there are some scenes that are dramatised, which I guess is necessary to give the film its narrative structure. The central "performance", by 14-year-old Sara Carlton is beautiful, still and nuanced. It's amazing that she has the self-confidence to give so much of herself to the camera. On the other hand, perhaps the fact that she's not allowed to watch TV, see films or   the phone or the computer
might mean she has not fear of how she'll appear.  But somehow I doubt it. She's a smart kid, and probably quite grounded.

Her scenes with Colby, the teenaged bull rider she seems drawn to, are sweet and chaste, but I noticed that the camera did not follow them too far when they were walking together, and the next day he greets her with a very sweet smile. However, I doubt she'd get away with much: her mother seems very knowing.

The bullriding scenes are hair-raising.

They make artisenal goats' milk, cheese, yoghurt and other by-products, and they make enough money to pay for braces on 3 of their gitls' teeeth (there are 12 kids in all). Sara seems to do much of the work looking after the goats, and looking after the children too, and helps her father with things like fencing. She says she doesn't want to get married, and she's obviously questioning the life they've been brought up to lead, which leads to the final talk with her mother about her unnamed uncertainties.

There's a curious sequence when the girls all dress like pre-Raphaelite maidens and have a picnic with cucumbers and sanwiches in the woods. They place flowers in each others' hair and braid their hair. It is a beautiful set-piece but I wonder what it signified. It does set up the beautiful final shot of Sara in a white dress (bridal?) standing on a pile of hay and looking lovely, chaste and persive.  What might her furure be? I'd love to know.

The filmmakers have done an incredible job to get such intimacy from a family, and a sweet young girl, at a difficult age.

(USA. Dir:  Mark Levinson) Rated 2/5

This for me was a disappointment. Technically, the film is excellent, and brilliantly directed: a real high octane thriller. Adam Bakri makes an athletic and attractive hero, and Waleed Zuaiter (a Mandy Patinkin lookalike) makes an excellent foil.

But I was uncomfortable from the beginning for reasons that are hard to pin down. And it's odd because I loved the director's previous Palestinian film,  Paradise Now (which I saw in the original languages - without subtitles - when the wrong print was screened at the SFF).  Here I was worried from the beginning about Omar's motives. It's a very dangerous game to play both sides against the middle, and these guys (Omar and his two friends) are amateurs. In fact, I was wondering if the director was setting them up to fail in the manner of Chris Morris' brilliant jihad-black comedy, Four Lions (2010). Because in the beginning, when they are doing target practice, they are using a microwave oven, just like the incompetent jihadists in
Four Lions.

I was uncomfortable about the way the men talked about women in the film. The Paletinians didn't hesitate to denigrate their sisters and mothers in casual conversations. Their jokes were often sexist. For balance, one of the Israelis was a bit crass too, in describing using a gun like holding a woman.  And then the writer/ director Hany Abu-Assad had him being dictated to by his wife on the phone. Was this intended a humiliating or humanising? I can't be sure.

The violence and torture was so bad that I was sure Omar would be killed, paralysed or at least hospitalised, but no, he just had a few scratches. This is hardly realism.

But the worst thing of all was the love story. First of all, I was very much put off by the idea of Omar marrying a schoolgirl. Next, I was appalled by the way that the men used her as a pawn, and did not include her in the deception, with disastrous consequences. Then I was frustrated at her acceptance of her fate.  Am I reading the director's intentions wrongly? Is he being critical of these men and their attitudes? Is he just presenting a reality and letting us make up our minds? Or is he presenting this as a bona fide tragedy that could not be avoided?  I can't tell, so I'm left bereft, with a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps that's just what he wanted.

What We Do in the Shadows
(New Zealand. Dir:  Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi) Rated 4/5

This faux doco was a delight from beginning to end. The idea of a documentary on vampires in Wellington is pretty funny, but it might be hard to sustain. When there was an extended introduction before the opening titles rolled, I thought Uh-oh, how long can they riff on this theme? But the answer was, for the full 86 minutes, with a little help from a pack of werewolves (including the hilarious Rhys Darby) and a few other extraneous characters.

The perfect end to the Sydney Film Festival - complete with performances and a Q&A from Clement, Waititi and Jonathan Brugh.