Sydney Film Festival 2015

* 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.

Wednesday 3 June
  -  Opening night film

Ruben Guthrie  (Australia, Dir: Brendan Cowell) Rated 3/5

I saw this work as a play produced by the Belvoir Theatre in 2009. It was its 2nd incarnation: it had been produced at the Downstairs theatre in 2008, and graduated to Upstairs the following year. Both productions starred Toby Schmidt, charismatic and convincing in the title role. Now the writer, Brendan Cowell, has directed the film version. How does it compare?

It compares well, I think. The play was intimate and claustophobic, with a huge bar extending across the back of the stage, looming over all the action. The film version is completely opened out: Destination NSW would be thrilled with the harbour and river backdrops: Rose Bay looks the size of Sydney Harbour, and Ruben's Dad's restaurant on the water looks truly inviting.

But the message of Ruben Guthrie is confronting: does Australia (and Sydney in particular) have a drinking problem? Has hedonism taken over everything and are we heading (like Ruben) for a terrible fall?

The film starts with a great credits sequence with the names of the cast trademarked or patented. Ruben is said to have won the "best ad" award at Cannes for his campaign for Sydney's Vivid Festival (which is a real festival, and still going as I write). There's lots of wit and lots of show-offy name-dropping and place-dropping, but there are also plenty of uncomfortable moments. I think what Cowell is doing is challenging us: OK you're not an alcoholic, but do you drink all the time? What does that say about you?

The lead role is taken this time by Patrick Brammall (Griff the Invisible (Leon Ford, 2010), TV's The Moodys), who is a more powerful and less cute Ruben. He's showy but he can certainly change gear and he's a convincing cryer. Theatre royalty fill out the senior roles: Robyn Nevin is excellent (and creepy) as Ruben's Mom and Jack Thompson is both powerful and pathetic as Ruben's Dad. Is it too much to say that he is now Australia's Marlon Brando? He does very little, and yet his presence is electric. Alex Demitriades almost wears out his welcome (both as his character in the film and in his portrayal of Ruben's flamboyant friend) by going over the top. Abbey Lee is amazingly convincing as Ruben's too-young Czech girlfriend, Zoya.

There's a bit too much flash for this film's good, and the subplot involving the Asian girlfriend of Ruben's Dad is a tad too farcical. And the songs written for the film by Sarah Blasko are too literal: if there's a lost love, that's what the song laments, and there's even an ode to alcohol.  But there are enough good things in this film to carry it over the line. It's very funny, it looks great, the cast is excellent, and it packs a punch.

Good luck to everyone at the SFF Afterparty!  I can't imagine the vibe... I'll be on the mineral water.

Thursday 4 June 

My Love, Don't Cross that River  (South Korea, Dir: Jin Mo-Young) Rated: 4.5/5

This is a quite extraordinary and moving film about a very elderly couple, followed over the course (it seems) if 4-5 years. They are very much in love, dress beautifully, and are in remarkable nick as the film begins. This film had the audience sobbing and laughing, and kept us in rapt attention. A fascinating look at a personal relationship that stretches back 75 years.  And the business with burning the clothes, and laying them out with instructions, and in particular, the buying of the long-johns (which we needed in the State theatre today, BTW - it was SO cold - was one of the most moving gestures I've seen on film.  And of course the grieving scene was harrowing but a fitting tribute to a gorgeous man. (It was the first of two grieving scenes I saw today, the other being in Pasolini.

But the question is, how did the film-makers get to know of this couple and how did they get such intimate access?  Brilliant observational work.

The Volcano  (Guatemala, France, Dir: Jayo Bustamante) Rated: 3/5

True film festival fare. How else would we learn about Guatemalan Indians and attitudes to fertility and pregnancy and volcanos?  But I did know already about driving out snakes!

The Postman's White Nights  (Russia, Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky) Rated: 4/5

More wonderful observation, but this time with actors and real peope mixed. The photography of water has never been more wonderful. The scene on the river with the little boy and the water sprite was just astonishing, in so many respects: beauty, timing and performance all came together.

The Price of Fame  France, Switzerland, Belgium, Dir: Xavier Beauvois) Rated: 3/5

Funny and sweet.  Cameos by various Chaplin rellies and Chiara Mastroianni has a good role, plus the film has a killer ending! And an Easter Egg, so don't leave before the titles finish!

Pasolini  (France, Italy, Belgium, Dir: Abel Ferrara) Rated: 3/5

Willem Dafoe was a great Pasolini, and the grieving scene at the end, set to Maris Callas' aria "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville was astoinishing, but the film is very ambitious and I felt it lagged a bit in the middle.

Friday 5 June

The Chinese Mayor 
(China, Dir: Zhao Hou) Rated: 4/5

A fascinating and intriguing documentary about a charismatic and supremely effective manager.  He's got plenty of faults, and so has the system he implements, but the most amazing thing of all is the fact that the filmmakers have been able to make such a revelatory documentary, with all its critical facilities fully-fledged.

This Mayor is great on getting things done (whether or not the should be done), but he's also a micro-manager, picking out the artworks plundered from elsewhere to adorn his "restored" Great Wall of Datong. Every morning he holds court just like a Mafia Don or a Mandarin or even an Emperor, and helps to placate those wronged by his grand works, sometimes solving their problems with a sigatorial flourish, and sometimes brushing them aside after seeming to listen.  It soon becoems apparent that this guy cannot last in the system. As soon as somebody notices what's going on in Datong, changes will be made...

This is the first of many films that I've seen this year where the backstory of how the film came to be made must be (if we could hear it) just as interesting as the story told by the film.

Slow West  (UK, New Zealand, Dir: John Maclean) Rated: 3/5
This film looks great (although I'm wondering how many effects were used because some of the landscapes did not
quite look real - I could be wrong but some of those clouds looked meterologically improbable), but it was something of a disappointment. It began with a number of clichés and the odd anachronism, and then continued through some sub-Tarantino whimsy, some cinematic nods to Anthony Mann, John Ford and George Steven's Shane. Then it displayed some flashy word-play which was amusing but seemed only to distance the viewer more from the characters and story, and it ended in a great set-piece shoot-out but by then we are aware that this has all been an intellectual exercise.

I was confused about the motivation of the main character, Jay

Michael Fassbender, is, however excellent, and his character deserved a better vehicle.

The Daughter 
(Australia, Dir: Simon Stone) Rated: 4.5/5
This is the best Australian film I've seen at the Festival for years, and I hoped it could win the Sydney Film Prize, though I don't think that it qualifies as "cutting edge". It might be "audacious" to adapt Ibsen in this way, setting it in modern Australia, but I'm not sure that's the right word. After all play- and film- makers have been doing this for years.

The setting (Tumut and Tumbarumba) is really wonderful, and it gives the film a gloomy and mysterious air. Casting is superb, with Ewayn Leslie

I first saw this as a play at the Belvoir theatre, and this is one in a string of successful Australian play-to-film adaptations at the Festival this year, including Last Cab to Darwin and Ruben Guthrie.

Palio  (UK, Italy, Dir: Cosima Spender) Rated: 4.5/5
A fascinating and beautifully-filmed doumentary about the machinations of the famous bareback horse race that takes place twice a year in Sienna. There must have been plenty of money behind this, because there are lots of cameras to cover the races from every angle, an the archive work is good too.  There's a reason that Machivelli was Italian, and this film shows that to a T. The race  scenes are so suspenseful, it reminded me of Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010).

Lambert and Stamp  (Australia, Dir: Simon Stone) Rated: 3/5
Here's an example of a film that had plenty of good material but should have been more assiduoulsy edited, so as to cut its run-time of nearly 2hrs by about 30 mins. All the material about Kit Lambert was fascinating, but not all the comments of Chris Stamp were illuminating. You can see the role he played in the duo who were early managers of The Who. Lambert was brilliant, and Stamp could sell anything, and could generate a lot of hype and bluster, sweeping people along with him while not making much sense, but being so enthusiastic that it didn't matter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have also fallen a bit too heavily for his patter and prattle, and I could have done with less of that. But the interviews are generally illuminating and the slips are great too.

Saturday 6 June
Listen to Me Marlon  (Australia, Dir: Simon Stone) Rated: 5/5
This was one of my favourite films of the whole Festival. It's because I really learned something about Marlon Brando, and I very much admired the way the filmmakers used the audio recordings and made them interesting visuall by various means. This is a perceptive insight into a complicated man who had his motinatios for all the choices he made, and was even more complex that we ever suspected.

Strangerland  (Australia, Dir: Kim Farrant) Rated: 2/5
I found this disappointing. I though Joseph Fiennes was wooden and suspicious from the start. Nicole Kidman struggled to do something with her part, but I think she was fighting a losing battle given the material. The two children, Maddison Brown and Nicholas Hamilton were quite impressive, particularly Brown, and Hugo Weaving was his usual solid self, delivering somewhat dodgy dialogue as believably as possible.

I objected to the co-opting of the indigenous myth and legend byt the filmmakers to serve a dubious purpose. The indigenous characters were perfunctorily used, just to set up a bit of mystery.  And the whole proposition of the film was not delicately- enough handled. I cottoned on to the mystery early and I found the rest of the film unconvincing. Even just the fact that Joseph and Nicole's characters went out in that dust storm - ridiculous!

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief  (USA, Dir: Alex Gibney) Rated: 4/5
An informative and thorough documentary that answers some of the questions we all have about why Hollywood has adopted Scientology so enthusiastically, thanks to the participation of writer/ director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, 2004, Crash, 2004), and others. Basocally a friend told him about an organisation that will "take all your cash but make everything possible for you".  They get you in to a certain level, and then you invest so much of yourself that you can't pull out. It's something similar to when you ring an enquiry line and then get put on hold for far too long. After about 15 mins it becomes impossible to hang up because you have invested so much time.

Director Alex Gibney is fearless, given that these people have threatened ex-members of Scientology. He exposes this "religion" for the fraud that it is, and predicts that the numbers of Scientologists will decline rapidly, noting that the problem is that the "Church" is very rich due to the huge amounts it extracts from the wallets of its members. The film tries to show that the problem is that people can resort to all sorts of nefarious conduct if they view it solely through the "Prison of Belief".

There were Scientologists at our screening. They were the ones in the front row who asked a question and were very dark when they heard the response. They asked why Gibney did not direct his attention to other religions. He replied that he had just released his film attacking the Catholic Church: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012). Question answered!

The only negative I guess is that I had seen (last year?) an ABCTV doco on Scientiology that made many of the same exposés, especially about the Sea Organisation.

Mr Holmes
(UK, USA, Dir: Bill Condon) Rated: 4/5
A charming little film about Sherlock Holmes in retirement aged 93. Ian McKellen is Holmes, at 93 and in an earleier time: makeup is fantastic! I loved the little boy, played by Milo Parker, and it took a while for me to recognise Laura Linney as the boy's mother, Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs Parker.

We are all so Sherlock-literate these days, what with the books, all the films over the years, the Guy Ritchie films and the Benedict Cumberbatch tv series. So a film has to be pretty good to pass muster, and I think this one does.  The bee mystery had me fooled.  I was kept guessing til the end. Fun!

Sunday 7 June
Vincent (France, Dir: Thomas Salvador) Rated: 3/5
A fun little film with amazing special effects and it's based on a great idea. The director wrote it, starred in it, and devised the special effects and "cascades"! The characters are well-realised, and the chase scene is fantastic.  I just feel that the film missed out on the payoff I was expecting.  It has a nice ending, but I wanted something more...

Last Cab to Darwin
(Australia, Dir: Jeremy Sims) Rated: 4/5
Another in a series of great play-to-film adaptations at this year's Festival. Michael Caton gives the performance of a lifetime: Jeremy Sims has made the point in interviews that he is an actor of such great talent, largely unrecognised. He would be a great star if he were European. And what a star is Mark Coles Smith as "Tilly"! You can't take your eyes off him when he is on-screen. He has a great future, I predict.

The only false note, I felt, was Jacki Weaver's performance as Dr Farmer.  She's playing a difficult role because her character, a Dr Philip Nitschke type, is a bit of a self-promoter, and remains a bit ambiguous throughout. But Jacki portrayed a similarly ambiguous character in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), with great subtlety and success. i don't know what went wrong here.

So one point deducted for that problem. The rest is excellent. Even the cruelty of Rex to Polly is explained by rex's need to distance people from him, and it is esecially poignant.

This film doesn't go where you expect it to, and that's admirable.

David and Margaret's Favourite Films:

Love and Mercy (Australia, Dir: Jeremy Sims) Rated: 4/5

Monday 8 June
The Virgin Spring (Sweden, Dir: Ingmar Bergman) Rated: 5/5

The Silence (Sweden, Dir: Ingmar Bergman) Rated: 5/5

Ian MacPherson Lecture:

Dope (USA, Dir: Rick Famuyiwa) Rated: 2/5

Tuesday 9 June
Democrats (Denmark, Dir: Camilla Nielsson) Rated: 4.5/5

Teheran Taxi (Iran, Dir: Jafar Panahi) Rated: 3.5/5

Villa Touma (Stateless (in Arabic), Dir: Suha Arraf) Rated: 3.5/5

Sherpa (Australia, Nepal, Dir: Jennifer Peedom) Rated: 4.5/5

Wednesday 10 June
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch...
(Sweden, Norway, France, Dir: Roy Andersson) Rated: 4/5

Black Souls (Italy, Dir: Francesco Munzi) Rated: 2.5/5

Hill of Freedom
(South Korea, Dir: Hong Sang-soo) Rated: 3/5

Our Little Sister
(Japan, Dir: Kor-eda Hirokazu) Rated: 3.5/5

Thursday 11 June

The Project of the Century
(Argentina, Cuba, Germany, Switzerland, Dir: Carlos M Quintela). Rated: 2.5/5

Not an audience favourite, and it did cause me to drop off a fee times (not a good thing for the first film of the morning!). But there were some interesting things there, including the most awful grandfather.  More soon...

Song of Lahore (Pakistan, USA, Dir: Andy Schocken, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy). Rated: 4.5/5
Well this is it: the Festival Film that should not be missed.  A fabuous tale of a musical tradition in Pakistan that was in danger of dying until and enterprising man decided that the way to revive the past was to bring it into the present. Or at least into the golden age of Jazz.

The filmmakers could not have anticipated the amazing trajectory of these musicians. But as Andy Schoken told the SFF audience, it is these sorts of co-incidences that are pure documentary-makers' gold.  How a group of traditional classical Pakistani musicians found themselves a hit on youtube, and then playing with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Centre, is one of those uplifting, glorious tales that you'll never forget.

Since I've been studying music (drums) I have a much finer appreciatin of musicianship, and of course the drums and rhythms of Pakistan are so complex and virtuosic that it brough a whole other layer to me watching the film.  I loved the reactions of Marsalis' drummer to the rhythms he heard.

Victoria (Germany, Dir: Sebastian Schipper). Rated 4/5
Talking of virtuosic, this film is a tour de force of technical filmmaking, because it is a one-shot film, running 140mins (a bit too long). OK, there have been one-shot films before, but this one has exterior shooting over several locatios: a rave party, the strett outside, a bike, a car, an apartment block, a carpark, a bank and a chase. Unbelievable. Combine this with great performances of great charisma, a sweet & poignant love story and a convincing (mostly) heist story, and you have a terrific film all round.

There was one point at which I thought OK, this would not happen. Victoria would not make that choice. But,
cleverly, we have already been shown just about enough motivation to justify the decision, and in any case, I was so entranced by the film that I continued along with it right to the end.

Some Kind of Love (Canada, Dir: Thomas Burstyn). Rated 3.5/5
Families are fascinating, and people rarely see themselves as others see them. But this family was amazingly talented and quite extraordinary, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.  I'm not sure the part of the story dealing with the filmmaker's realtionship with his brother was as fascinating to us as it was to him, but it did add a little something to the general philospophy of the film. The sections dealing with the motives and ethics of the filmmakers (continuing to film when forbidden to by elder uncle Joseph) was also of great interest.

Friday 12 June      

Tigers (India, France, UK, Dir: Danis Tanovic). Rated: 3/5
A curious kind of film, which I expected to like more than I did. But it was nice to look at the handsome Pakistani star (Emraan Hashmi) who looked like a  cross between Imran Khan and Colin Farrell! More later...

The Pearl Button (Chile, France, Spain, Dir: Patricio Guzman). Rated 3/5
Another curious kind of film, something of a hybrid.  More later, but it was beautiful to look at, if langourous. It caused a bit of snoozing, I'm afraid (it's that time of the festival) but I woke up for the section on the Fuegians, and continued on for the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. More later...

Tales (Iran, Dir: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad). Rated 4/5
An intelligent and moving series of vignettes commenting on contemporary Iran and its surprisingly modern problems. Beautifully observed and written. Yet more time spent in a taxi, after Tehran Taxi and Last Cab to Darwin!  The Q&A with the director revealed the intelligence behind the intelligence obvious onscreen. More later...

The Goob (UK, Dir: Guy Myhill). Rated 3/5
I found it  hard to follow this film for the 1st half-hour: the accents were difficult, the sound was not sharp, the film began right in the middle of things and the characters' names weren't apparent. But after that I went with the film, and I particularly enjoyed the performance of Oliver Kennedy as Elliot, whose appearance lit up the film. But the film didn't go where I thought it was going, or where I wanted it to go, yet it did go somewhere quite valid and the setting was striking so I found it reasonably satisfying.

Saturday 13 June
Best of Enemies (USA, Dir: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon). Rated 4.5/5
This is a very important piece of social history that we need to remember now, when so much social commentary, and even the news is so dumbed down as to be almost unwatchable. This docmentary shows is the end of the golden years and the beginning of the end. Debate has not since been so erudaite and also so entertaining and inspiring.  We don't even use the same sort of syntax any more. This is one that I'd love to see again.

Tangerine (USA, Dir: Sean Baker). Rated 4.5/5
Another superb film, this one photographed entirely on an iphone 5S. As the Q&A revealed, the dsound was recorded by professionals on professional recording equipment, which was understandable and necessary. But this is such an authentic film in so may other ways.  More later...

Women He's Undressed (Australia, Dir: Gillian Anderson). Rated 1.5/5
What a disappointment! I'd been looking forward to this film since the program came out and I even managed to get myself to Cremorne (gasp!) to see it to fit in with the rest of my program. And then to see the story of Orry-Kelly revealed in such a jokey fashion, with Darren Gilshennan inexplicably standing in for Orry -Kelly. There were plenty of talking heads who may be costume designers, but some of whom didn't know Orry-Kelly or even really know his films.  To hear people say "He must have felt... He must have known... It must have been so hard for him...!" etc.  How about a bit of scholarship?  There was some, of course, and there were some really good clips and some terrific insights into the dressing of some of the wonderful stars (particularly Bette Davis and Natalie Wood and their body defects), but the elephant in the room was Orry-Kelly's memoir, which was rumoured to exist, but which we only heard a few passing references to - until the end, at which point its existence was revealed as was its publication date of August 2015!

But what's in it?  None of that is here in Armstrong's film.

At the Cremorne screening, Gillian Armstrong told us how she and producer Damian Parer had never heard of Orry-Kelly before they started researching the film. She asked the audience who had heard of him, and about half the theatre put up their hands.  I fear the wrong people made the film.

Shouldn't it be made again?  By someone who really knows the subject?

Sunday 14 June
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (USA, Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon). Rated 4.5/5
What a lovely film. There are 5 times as many ideas here than there are in half the SFF films!  How amazing to hear Hugh Jackman's voice coming from a poster on a wall! This film won audience favourite at the festival, and rightly so.

Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One
(Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland, Dir: Guy Myhill). Rated 3.5/5
Better than Part 1, which I had to miss, I'm told. Interesting film, paticularly the "courtroom" scene, which takes palce outside, at night.

Saraband (Sweden, Dir: Ingmar Bergman). Rated 5/5
Superb! An autumnal film indeed with unbelievably intimate performances.

So that's it.  48 films in 12 days.  More to write.  I'll be back.