Sydney Film Festival 2016

* 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.

Sydney Film Prize:

On the night of the Festival, Aquarius (see below under Friday 10 June) won the Sydney Film Prize for 2016. In retrospect, it was more "courageous, audacious and cutting-edge cinema" (the requirement for the prize) than many of its other competing films. I had predicted either The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet, 2015) which I disliked (see below), but which has been extravagantly praised) or Land of Mine (Zandvliet, 2015), which I didn't see, but which was an audience favourite on the basis of word-of-mouth, to take the prize. And I was hoping that Apprentice (Boo Junfeng, 2016 - see below) might get there. But I have said this before: there seems to be a mismatch between the films chosen to compete for the prize, and the terms of the prize itself. There's not a huge amount of audacity that I could see in the films in competition this year. But I do think it is audacious for a Singaporean filmmaker to use a feature film to call for law reform in Singapore on an issue like the abolition of capital punishment - an issue which the director noted is not even a really up for discussion in contemporary Singapore.

This year I have seen fewer films than usual, taking only a Night subscription and a flexi-10 and a few single tickets. I've seen 35 feature films over  11 days, and a handful of shorts. Every year I try to detect a theme at the Festival. This year, a theme that emerged early was women lawyers (Certain Women, Aquarius) but that did not continue. The next theme was extreme violence, often with a iron bar or a bat (Psycho Raman, Casino, Goodfellas, The Endless River, Down Under, Blood Father, and more). But even more disturbing was the trend to show battered and abused women/ domestic violence. That list includes Psycho Raman, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Goodfellas, New York New York, The Endless River, Viva, Embedded, Blood Father,  and Suburra (the list is not complete, and these are only the films I've seen).

My Top 10, in the order I saw them:
These are the films which I scored at 4/5 or above (not counting the Scorsese retrospective, which were all 4.5 and above!):
Certain Women
Elvis and Nixon
It's Only the End of the World
Blood Father
Down Under
Winter at Westbeth
Gimme Danger

plus the closing night film, which makes 11:
Love & Friendship

Thursday 9 June

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (USA, Director: Werner Herzog ) Rated: 3.5/5
Werner Herzog's exploration of the internet in 10 Chapters (quaintly numbered using Roman numerals) follows Herzog's usual serpentine route, meandering through various aspects of the topic as they occur to them. We begin by meeting Leonard Kleinrock, who was involved with the ARPANET project, one of the precursors of the internet. He walks along the corridors of UCLA, which Herzog, narrating drolly calls "repulsive" and goes into a small room where, in a corner, sits the revered machine, "Interface Message Processor" which sent the first "internet" message: "LO". It was meant to be login, but the receiving computer at Stanford crashed before the full message "LOGIN" could be transmitted.

Werner interviews various people, some relevant, some tangentially relevant, but all are interesting - even the professor with the weird idea about the flow of water. I had no idea what he was going on about, but Herzog loved him. The most interesting and useful information and discussion came from the Professor at Harvard University (I missed his name) who talked about the ability to be anonymous or totally identifiable on the internet. The anonymity causes problems now that we'd like to fix, but the alternative would be a boon for regimes that didn't practice the rule of law. Laurence Krauss from Arizona State University was informative, and former-hacker Kevin Mitnick revealed that the easiest was to get into its system via a person.  "If  I can manipulate one person within and organisation, I'm in," he says and tells a hair-raising tale about obtaining source codes for the Motorola Star-tac mobile phone. Sam Curry, a security expert, is one you'd like to have on your side.

The most cinematic sequences were the ones involving the recovering teenage internet addicts (when one runs down a plank leading from a treetop rehab cabin, Werner pronounces that that's all the introduction he needs). And the poor family who lost one of their 4 daughters to a car accident in which she was beheaded, an someone got hold of a photo from the accident scene and sent it out into the ether where it populated and returned to the girl's father with horrific text attached. The was Herzog shoots the family is somehow both respectful, and gothic.  The family looks lugubrious but we sympathise with them. Herzog places freshly-cooked muffins in the foreground and shoots  the group mostly statically. Suddenly a tirade about the devil emerges from the mother. Extraordinary material!

Certain Women (USA, Director: Kelly Reichardt) Rated: 4/5
This slow-moving but strikingly shot film from Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff, SFF 2010) rewards close attention. Some shots are so original, and so creative, that you want to draw a sharp intake of breath. 3 stories unfold gracefully and there is some tour de force acting by stars Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristin Stewart (absolutely inhabiting her role), and Rene Auberjonois (always good to watch), and relative-newcomer Lily Gladstone. Based on what must be very subtle short stories by Maile Meloy, I took this to be an exploration of 3 pretty powerful and confident women (2 of whom are lawyers, yay!) who have to question their motives when presented with 3 interesting individuals. There's much here to think about, especially about the role of ego and selfishness in modern society, and we are forced to look at those who get left behind. Jared Harris also shines in the role of a man who's screwed by the legal system and his own lawyer as well, twice.

This is in competition for the Sydney Film Prize, but I can't see it winning. It is too quiet and subtle to be considered "cutting edge", but we shall see if the cutting edge is able to be somewhat blunted...

Elvis and Nixon (USA, Director: Liza Johnson) Rated: 4/5
For fun. Great opening credits, which signal very clearly that this is going to be a fun romp.  Luckily it is.  It is mostly nonsense of course. In fact Elvis did turn up at the White House unannounced, and he was given an appointment with the President.  And he collected badges: he didn't want a real undercover role. But we brush all that aside, and just enjoy Kevin Spacey's OTT performance as Nixon, and Michael Shannon, probably one of the least likely people to play Elvis, doing a damn fine job at creating a character that could be Elvis. False notes include the Elvis impersonator scene, but it is still funny. Colin Hanks is good as Egil (Bud) Krogh too. Music excellent, and not predictable. The funniest scenes involve people's reaction to Elvis being out and about.  I love the girl who goes to get her hair done before meeting the King!

Friday 10 June
(Brazil, Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho) Rated: 3/5
Here's another film with a female lawyer, and although she's quite effective in getting research material, she's not so good on legal tactics.
Aquarius opens well, with a fabulous montage of old photos of Recife, Brazil, in the earlier years (1950s it seems, before the redevelopment began). But after that there are so many themes explored that we really don't know where we are heading. For example, the Aunt whose 70th birthday is being celebrated: is she there just as a link with the past, or does she have a function in the narrative? The different time frames confused me too: for example, the central character, Clara (played by Sonia Braga) is played as a young woman by Barbara Colen, who does not really resemble her. I did not connect them for a while. There were so many interesting characters, and I was not sure which we would be following. Finally we end up in a battle over real estate, and Clara defends herself by using unconventional means. Each time the dispute ramps up she avoids using "the proper channels" and goes for tit-for-tat retaliation. As a lawyer, this irks me: is the director saying it isn't possible to fight a developer by normal means in Brazil? The dispute ramps up gradually, and this is effective, if a bit strung out, but Clara has access to a lawyer in her friend (is it Fatima?) and so she is not defenseless.

The climax did not make a lot of sense to me, but it was effective enough in a dramatic sense. It just took too long to get there: 2 hours 20mins.  I'd have liked to see it done in true 1940s  thriller style in 90 minutes.

Post script: this film won the Sydney Film Prize for 2016. In retrospect, it was more "courageous, audacious and cutting-edge cinema" (the requirement for the prize) than many of its other competing films. I had predicted either The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet, 2015) which I disliked, but which has been extravagantly praised) or Land of Mine (Zandvliet, 2015), which I didn't see, but which was an audience favourite on the basis of word-of-mouth, to take the prize. And I was hoping that Apprentice (Boo Junfeng, 2016) might get there. But I have said this before: there seems to be a mismatch between the films chosen to compete for the prize, and the terms of the prize itself. There's not a huge amount of audacity that I could see in the films in competition this year. But I do think it is audacious for a Singaporean filmmaker to use a feature film to call for law reform in Singapore on an issue like the abolition of capital punishment - an issue which the director noted is not even a really up for discussion in contemporary Singapore.

War on Everyone (UK, Director: John Michael McDonagh) Rated: 3/5
After Calvary (SFF 2011) and The Guard (SFF2014), I'm a bit disappointed. This really is just Starsky and Hutch (by way of Roger Rogerson and Glen MacNamara) – buddy cop flick with more than average profanity, some genuine humour and a lot of pretentious (smart arse) dialogue. It's a bit too Zucker Brothers for my liking, and doesn't have the heart that John Michael McDonagh usually displays. It's easy for him to churn out the clever lines and set up absurd situations, but there needs to be a point, and using pedophilia to make it seems somehow disingenuous.

Saturday 11 June

Mean Streets
(USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1973) Rated: 5/5
This film marks a milestone in cinema history, because it is the direct descendant of pre-Production Code films such as Little Caesar, Scarface and The Public Enemy. 1973 brings us Scorsese's Mean Streets, and then the continuum leads to the ultra-violent films of today. But Mean Streets heralded a golden era of gangster and violent crime films with great finesse, and Scorsese is responsible for the resurgence.

As David Stratton pointed out in his introduction, this film was independently made on a budget of $550,000. It was Scorsese's first film after student films such as The Big Shave (1965), seen as a critique of the Vietnam War. He was spotted by Roger Corman, who engaged him to make Boxcar Bertha (1972), on a small budget - but it can out very well, and Scorsese was able to make Mean Streets after that. A couple of other interesting things from David's talk:
• the autobiographical elements, the rock soundtrack, the naturalistic dialogue, and the influences of cinema, such as Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955), Marlon Brando in de Niro's performance, and Godard's Breathless (1960) in a scene in the hotel room, are all characteristic of Scorsese now.
• Brian de Palma recommended de Niro to Scorsese: they would work with each other in the next 3 Scorsese films.
• Martin Scorsese said he was making a homage to Warner Bothers gangster films of the 30s, but he slipped into the 1950s too (there's a clip from The Big Heat (
Fritz Lang, 1953)
• Explaining the use of music in the film (and all his films, really) he said "When we were young we all stopped for 2 minutes to listen to [our favourit] songs".
Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1974) Rated: 5/5
As David Stratton has pointed out, there could hardly be a greater contrast between two films as there is between Mean Streets, and Scorsese's next film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More. But it is definitely a Scorsese film nonetheless.

It comes up as fresh as ever after all this time, and it is very funny indeed. To those who say Scorsese is misogynistic, I say watch this film. David Stratton told us that the script had been written for Diana Ross (Alice is an ex-nightclub singer), but Ellen Burstyn acquired the script. Francis Ford Coppola had been impressed by Mean Streets, and suggested Burstyn talk to Scorsese. But of course it is a big contrast with Mean Streets: a film shot in  New Mexico, about a women, and the friendship between women. The beginning sequence evokes cinema history as Scorsese likes to do:  there are references to The Wizard of Oz (Fleming & Cukor, 1939), Gone with the Wind
(Fleming & Cukor, 1939), Duel in the Sun (Vidor, 1946) and Invaders from Mars (Menzies, 1953)! Scorsese said: "We never intended it to be a feminist tract. It is a film about self-responsibility, and the way we make the same mistakes over and over again". The much-married Scorsese would know a lot about that!

I think if the film were made again today, Alice would have left David (Kris Kristofferson). But it is only 1974, after all...

Notable also for an early-ish appearance by Jodi Foster (although she was already a veteran by that time). She would go on to star in...
Taxi Driver (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1976) Rated: 5/5
This, in my opinion is the apotheosis of violent crime films, and it has never been bettered. It has such an intelligence about it, and is so prescient, that it remains absolutely fresh on each re-viewing. Incredibly, this year is its 40th anniversary, so I must have first seen it when I was 20 or 21. Amazingly, quite a few in the audience seemed not to have seen it before - they seemed to genuinely and spontaneously laugh at the funny or incongruous bits as if for the first time, and the shock at the violence seemed also the shock of the new. The Bernard Herrmann score (his last) is still incredibly fresh and effective. The direction is masterly.

David Stratton noted how Brian de Palma had introduced Scorsese to the writer Paul Schrader. What a matchmaker he was! Schroder came from a strict Calvinist family in Michigan, but lately had been living in his car in New York City and taking a lot of drugs. Schrader had written scholarly articles on Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer. 
Scorsese, the once-staunch Catholic, bonded with him immediately. Schrader was influenced by JP Sartre's novel La Nausée, and the diaries of Arthur Bremer who had tried to assassinate Governor George Wallace.  
Weiner (USA, Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg) Rated: 4.5/5
My favourite documentary of the Festival so far (as of Tuesday 14 June). The access these filmmakers have got is amazing, even given that they were members of Weiner's staff. And the narcissism of Weiner is jaw-dropping, though it does explain a lot of Weiner's actions. But what's even more interesting is the motivation of Weiner's wife, Huma Abadin. At one point in the film a commentator on TV current affairs says that Abedin is consciously trying to resurrect Weiner's career so as to rehabilitate him, and thus her, and thus her position as aide to Hillary Clinton.  That makes sense to me. And so there we have it: Weiner abuses his wife by cheating on her, and she uses him to further her causes. The perfect happy family.

And I say "cheating on her" deliberately, because the issue of infidelity seems to be lessened here for 2 reasons: it happened in virtual reality, and so didn't really happen at all, and because of the anodyne language used to describe what happened: "the incident", " what happened" "the challenge" and so on: not "the pictures of my genitals that I sent to a stranger".

The film raises so many questions about society today, and our attitudes to morality and public and private life: it's really a very important film, and it would pair nicely with The King of Comedy (which is showing in the retrospective strand this weekend. See below)

It's Only the End of the World (France, Canada, Director: Xavier Dolan) Rated: 4.5/5
This is one of my favourite fiction films of the Festival. It looks beautiful, its lush, and the actors are all either staggeringly beautiful (Gas[pard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux) or fascinating (Vincent Cassell, and an almost unrecognisable Nathalie Baye, whose costume design - done in part by Xavier Dolan himself, according to the end credits - is just exquisitely over-the-top). It is quite slow-moving, but everything is so interesting and everyone os so over-emotional that I remained glued to the screen. There's a piece of news that is so ridiculously delayed that it is almost unbearable, but along the way there is text and meta-text, and because we the audience know the news and most of the characters do not,  that in itself is fascinating, and sustained me almost to the end. Just as I was about to give up, there is a magical event that just moved me to tears and the film won me over. I'm not normally a fan of Xavier Dolan's work, which I have found in the past to be very self-conscious and inconsequential, but here the whole seems greater than its parts, and I enjoyed this film thoroughly.
Maggie's Plan (USA, Director: Rebecca Miller) Rated: 3/5
A promising film that I felt ran off the rails to some extent. It stars the charming Greta Gershwig as Maggie. She's an actress who is not to everyone's taste, but I think she has a goofy charm and a nice delivery. It also features Ethan Hawke, who is pretty convincing here I thought, playing John,  a selfish self-centred academic. Then there's Julianne Moore playing an absurdly pompous academic (who is too well-dressed to be believable, and who affect a Danish accent that is questionable). And Travis Fimmel is unrecognisable as the goofy Guy. It is written by Rebecca Miller, whose work here resembles Woody Allen's in some ways. The only written or directing work of hers I've seen is Proof (2005) but strangely I have no memory of it.

There are some funny lines, like:
Maggie: "I just don't like leaving my destiny..."
John: "To destiny?"
And there are a few lovely scenes, such as the one where Maggie reads John's first chapter of his novel, and loving it, and really communicating that. I also just loved the skewering of acdemia: John is a Ficto-critical anthropologist, and they have their own international conference. As Georgette (Julianne Moore) says to John : "Nobody unpacks commodity fetishes like you do".  The script is not kidding. It's documentary!

But I'm afraid these characters wore out their welcome, even before the 98 minutes run time. And I guessed the ending right at the beginning. Pity.

 Sunday 12 June
New York New York (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1977) Rated: 4.5/5
This film just falls short of a 5/5 rating, because at 164 minutes, it comes close to overstaying its welcome. Yet everything in it is so enjoyable, it is hard to carp. The music is sublime, and Liza is amazing, especially when she has to "do" her mother, Judy Garland. I do think Robert de Niro overdoes his schtick a bit and he becomes overly annoying (I say overly, because he's meant to be annoying, and he is).  I understand that Martin Scorsese was having an affair with Liza Minnelli when they were making the film (as were Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli while making Meet Me in St Louis (1944)), so that explains why the film is a bit long: Scorsese didn't want to cut either Minnelli or de Niro. It also explains why Liza looks so beautiful in the film, just as her mother did in Meet Me in St Louis. Everything in this film is artifice, and it is all the better for that: I loved artificiality of the train carriages, the set piece "Happy Endings", where Liza is a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Cyd Charisse in an A Star is Born (Cukor, 1954) type plot. I love the fact that Sydney Guilaroff, the legendary hairdresser, played "Hairdresser"! There's much to admire about this film, and the fact that it falls short of perfection is not at all important.

Raging Bull (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1980) Rated: 5/5
This is just a superlative film, and what a study of a man, and the nature of mankind! It is close to perfect in every way, especially the cinematography, editing, and the sublime music. It's a mystery how such violence can be so beautifully rendered. Scorsese himself wondered about the self-destructive side of Jake LaMotta and his basic instincts: "What could be more basic than two men hitting each other til one of them falls down?"

Embedded (Australia, Director: Stephen Sewell) Rated: 2.5/5
First, the disclosure: my nephew, Adrian Powers, edited this film. However, I can state with utter confidence that Embedded looks great: that was the consensus at the Q&A afterwards, at the world première screening at the Hayden Orpheum, Cremorne on 12 June.

It's a talky film. The screenplay is by the director, the very experienced playwright and screenwriter, Stephen Sewell (The Boys, restored version SFF 2016). Talkiness is a difficult trick to pull off for any screenwriter or director. It's tricky to convert so many words into a compelling film, and this one doesn't quite achieve that, despite some good visuals. There's an inventive and fresh approach to the use of the one hotel room where much of the talking takes place. The DP, Rhiannon Bannenberg, has really used limited resources well to come up and interesting approach to a static setting, and making the most of the 3 different settings/ timeframes by using different colour palettes.

It takes someone like David Mamet to make so much serious dialogue work well. And I think there's a problem here with character.  Both the lead characters are excessively mysterious: they lie constantly and conceal their pasts and their motivations, so we the audience can't be sure where they are coming from, which is good for the suspense aspect of this thriller, but it makes the narrative very hard to make sense of. This is where the editing is crucial. Adrian Powers' editing helps make something that could have been almost incoherent, coherent. He's a writer and director himself, so he knows a lot about telling a story. Sometimes, as he pointed out at the Q&A afterwards, it was a question of not cutting, but simply letting things flow. That takes real confidence. It pays off here.

The two stars, newcomers Nick Barkla (from The Secret Life of Us) and Laura Gordon (from Saw V) have difficult material to sell: the dialogue is copious, dense, and portentous. They struggle, although Nick Barkla has a few moments when he starts to nail it. Laura Gordon has a variable accent (though to be fair, we don't really know where she comes from). She certainly looks wonderful in a variety of fabulous costumes (and lack of costumes).

In the Q&A, Stephen Sewell was asked about the films that had influenced him.  I immediately thought of In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima, 1976), and indeed he mentioned that, along with Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci, 1972) and Love and Anarchy (Wertmuller, 1973). Heady stuff. But for me the feeling was more Roman Polanski, or even Alfred Hitchcock in Notorious (1946) – another erotic political thriller with a MacGuffin. It's a mysterious film, with attractive stars and superb technical work. It just falls a bit short in getting its message across effectively.

Monday 13 June
The King of Comedy (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1982) Rated: 5/5
Here's another Scorsese film that is really worth revisiting. Along with Taxi Driver (1976), it is one of his most prescient. This issue of the cult of celebrity had been examined before - even back in 1957 in Elia Kazan 's astonishing A Face in the Crowd, but here it is interesting for us to look back from 2016 and see that the American talk show has changed in format so little in the nearly 35 years since 1982. The introduction (by Jane Mills, in lieu of David Stratton) emphasised the "creepiness" of each of the 3 main characters, but I disagree. I think that only Jerry Langford is really creepy. It's a brilliant, malevolent performance by Jerry Lewis, whose face conveys total contempt and hatred (probably because he had great experience of these emotions in his real life). He certainly knew how to hold a grudge. Sandra Bernhardt in her breakout performance here is simply brilliant in portraying an emotionally damaged and mentally ill person. When she declares she just wants to be "completely impulsive tonight" and "to put on some Shirelles" and "be black", it is truly electrifying. And finally, Robert de Niro is thoroughly ingratiating, compelling, and portrays just the right amount of talent - borderline - to invoke all the "stars" of the current crop of reality TV shows. He - rightly - thinks he has every right to host his own TV show. If he'd only waited 30 or so years, he could have done so without resorting to kidnapping. In any event, like Travis Bickle, he is rewarded for his crime, and becomes a celebrity. As, in the future, will everyone.

Goodfellas (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1990) Rated: 5/5
At 146 minutes, Goodfellas is long, but utterly compelling for every second. The SFF notes say that Goodfellas is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies, but I feel like it is more like the Bible. It has everything in it! Looking back on it once again, I am struck by how good Lorraine Bracco is as Henry Hill's wife, Karen. She, along with many of the cast, turned up again in The Sopranos on TV, along with Tony Sirico (Tony Stacks, who played Paulie Gualtieri in The Sopranos),  Michael Imperioli (Spider, who played Christopher Moltisanti), and Frank Vincent (Billy Batts, who played Phil Leotardo). In fact, I think that Michael Imperioli's Christopher Moltisanti got shot in the foot in The Sopranos, just as he did in Goodfellas!

Goodfellas seems to be composed of at least 4 long set-pieces, each of which could sustain a full-length film in its own right.  There's the opening sequence, where we meet Henry Hill (Ray Liotta - who lobbied very hard for the role) and the other characters of this world. One of the early lines sets the scene: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Immediately the song: "I've Gone from Rags to Riches". It's not subtle! There's the fantastic steadicam sequence when Henry Hill takes his girlfriend (a terrific performance by Lorraine Bracco) to a nightclub, there' the prison sequence, and there's the final cocaine-addled day Henry spends cooking and dealing drugs. Goodfellas is brimful of ideas and events: it's like a bible for crime.

Jane Mills' introduction was not particularly instructive as it relied on a "recipe" for a generic Scorsese film that she found on the internet. But as we have seen in the retrospective, Scorsese is versatile as well. But she did give us a good quote from Scorsese: she was describing how every character feels absolutely real: "These are the people I grew up with... I heard them talking on street corners..." She also stated that the main character in Goodfellas is the lifestyle, which is a fair comment. There, she said, but for the sake of education, would have gone Scorsese.

Saint Amour (France, Begium, Director: Benoit Delépine, Gustav Kervern) Rated: 2.5/5
A very uneven film. Sometimes very funny, often gross, and often falling short of amusing. It's hard to watch Depardieu as a kind of clown, especially paired with Benoit Poelvoorde, but he does in the end achieve a moment or two of grace. I hated the ending, however, except for the few scenes of Céline Sallette (Venus) riding a chocolate-brown draught horse beside the Seine in Paris and past the Eiffel Tower towards the Tuileries. Michel Houellbecq is weirdly present as the man who has a very odd B&B. Chiara Mastroianni is the beautiful woman who runs the fried fish van. Why? The film does have a little sub-theme of the nobility of the life of the farmer, and the need for strength and robustness and hard work, and I loved the judging of the bull, Nebuchadnezzar, and Depardieu's speech describing him. I'd have preferred more of that, and more of the wines: their descriptions and heir origins. Alas, it was more funny sex instead.

Demolition (USA, Director: Jean Marc Vallée) Rated: 3/5
This film had many good elements, but it did not convince me. I think there were too many ideas pursued, when it would have been better to concentrate on a couple of the aspects and that way make them more authentic. I understand the metaphors on offer here. Jake Gyllenhaal (excellent, as he always is) plays Davis, a merchant banker whose life falls apart when he's involved in a car accident that kills his wife. He becomes obsessed with writing to a vending machine company after he loses his money in the Hospital's machine. It's just after he's been told his wife has died, and strangely, there's no one there to support him (not his family - they live out-of-town), not his wife's family, not anyone from the hospital which is weirdly deserted. Writing to the company means he meets the very weird customer relations officer (Naomi Watts) and her son (the excellent Judah Lewis, doing a bit of a young River Phoenix act). But he also begins to take things apart (ok...) and then, eventually, demolish things (what?...). In the end he half-demolishes his gorgeous house. At that point, I was already losing touch with the film as his wife's father (who is also his banker boss) savagely refuses to sympathise with his grief, and Davis seems to have had no real relationship with his wife. When the demolition began, though, I just gave up: who can afford to demolish their own house? Why didn't the neighbours object? Why didn't local authorities intervene? And why didn't the director realise that the film was about to collapse under the weight of its own metaphors?

Further events only made things worse, and the sub-plot involving Judah's character Chris began to look like a better movie to make than Demolition.

Tuesday 14 June

Francofonia (UK, Director: Alexander Sokurov) Rated: 3/5
Alexander Sokurov is a very thoughtful filmmaker, and in some ways he's like Werner Herzog in that he can be very discursive and tangential, but here I'm not sure it works as well as it could. The framing device of the discussions by Skype with a ship's captain carrying containers from a museum has some interesting discussion, but really the story of the saving of the works in the Louvre is much more interesting and I'd have rathered more of that. I see this as something of a lost opportunity. But what we learned was fascinating.
The Childhood of a Leader (UK, Hungary, France, Director: Brady Corbet) Rated: 2.5/5
On paper, this film looks superb: with a cast including Liam Cunningham, Berenice Béjo, the superb child actor Tom Sweet, and Robert Pattinson (can he act? I'm never sure) and music from Scott Walker (from 30th Century Man, SFF 2007). But it is overblown. The music is a sledgehammer, and everything is huge, and yet I was left wondering what it all meant.  There's some ravishing cinematography, and the film has an air of Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, 2009) about it, but I'm not convinced. The main problem is that everything was so self-important, and portentous, and yet at the end I didn't really have any more idea about what makes a Fascist dictator (of a fictitious country that seemed to be USSR and yet it had a US-born dictator???) than before the screening. All I know is that that little boy sure can act (he's far better than the rest of the cast, Yolande Moreau as the housekeeper excepted) and I wanted to give him a good slapping. I also wanted to slap the director and turn down the music. Pompous nonsense!

Messiah (Short film, Australia, Director: Danian Walshe-Howling) Rated: 3/5
We start with a quote from Einstein: "Reality is only an illusion, albeit a really persistent one". The film is extraordinarily beautiful-looking, with superb landscapes, great production values and amazing special effects. Every dollar spent seems to be up there on the screen. David Gulpillil gives his usual inscrutable and mysterious performance. What will happen is fairly obvious from the start, but not much less satisfying for that. The only problem was the "middle 8". I didn't believe either the Irishman or his French girlfriend. And that bit is crucial to the payoff. Shame.

Blood Father (France, Director: Jean-François Richet) Rated: 4/5
On the evidence of this film, Mel Gibson is back! It's a great performance from him, in a role that's tailor-made for him. He's an ex-con who's done his time and is out on parole.  He's living a quiet life, but he's forced to come out and make a stand. Will he be forgiven?

Gibson is magnetic, smart, funny, heroic and ascerbic in Blood Father. As the SFF notes astutely point out, it is a "self-aware" performance. And it is pretty-well matched by Erin Moriarty, who pays his daughter. She is a very engaging young actor, and she can do comedy well.
All the action is well-staged by the French director Jean-François Richet, and it functions as a very effective thriller as well as a different take on the kidnapped daughter sub-genre. There's a nice circular structure, and there's a nice awareness of cinematic history: the movie that Lydia sees at the cinema is Assault on Precinct 13 (Carpenter, 1976), and there's even a nod to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), some of us think, in the Motel scene, and possibly a nod to Les Diaboliques (Clouzot, 1955). And at 87 minutes, it didn't outstay its welcome. A good solid thriller.

Wednesday 15 June
The Endless River (South Africa, France, Director: Oliver Hermanus) Rated: 3/5
With big red Douglas Sirk-type credits and music over a sprawling and gorgeous landscape, this film opened really well. It is a murder-mystery thriller of sorts, but the thrills emerge very gradually - leisurely even, so that when the investigating policeman talks you could drive a bus through the pauses. He is laconic to the extreme, and resembled a stereotypical Aussie country cop to that extent.

There are 3 central characters, and, as Festival Director Nashen Moodley pointed out, director Oliver Hermanus has until now (in his 3 feature films to date) concentrated on only one character. In the Q&A after the film he admitted it was a bit of a struggle, and he felt most comfortable writing the character of Tiny, the waitress (and she is a bit of a gem, on the page and in person (Crystal-Donna Roberts)). A second character is her husband, Percy, who has just been released from prison, and is struggling. The third character is a French farmer, Gilles, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle. He's central to the plot as a tragedy occurs early in the film and he is a grieving survivor. And this brings me to the main problem I had with the film: why is he  French? Why is he farming in South Africa when he can't even speak Afrikaans? What connection does he have with the land? Could it be because the film had French funding?

In any event, it is possible to enjoy this film without asking too many questions, take in the scenery, and the competent performances of the 3 main characters (others in the supporting cast are a bit uneven). And if you can go the distance, it does have important issues to raise, and it rewards with an excellent payoff.
Down Under (Australia, Director: Abe Forsythe) Rated: 4/5
On paper this sounded to me like an attempt at an Australian version of Four Lions (Chris Morris, SFF 2010). And indeed, the director, Abe Forsythe, said exactly this in his introduction to the film. He said he loved the State Theatre here in Sydney and had seen many important films here, including Four Lions, which he saw while sitting right at the front in the Stalls. He pointed towards B29 (I'm in D29!).

So the bar was set high, as far as I'm concerned, because I love Four Lions, and I show it to guests at every opportunity. Much was made before the screening of Down Under (dud name!) of how it would be controversial (because it is about the Cronulla riots of 2005) and how it was a daring and challenging film. But as far as I am concerned, all that controversy was already raised and disposed of by Four Lions itself. A review at the time that impressed me by pointing out that by the end the laughter that we have enjoyed along the way is "as ashes in our mouths". That's exactly how I felt.

I laughed intermittently through Down Under, sometimes harder than at other times, and not as hard as I laughed in Four Lions, but I did enjoy the film, and I thought it was well-crafted (Forsythe said it had taken him 4 years and 10 drafts, and the hard work shows, in the sense that it is quite a polished work). By necessity it's very vulgar too - perhaps too vulgar for some. The ending, while uncomfortable and sad, is clever, well-set-up and (in retrospect) inevitable. There are a few terrific (if broad) cameos, notably by David Field, Harriet Dyer (as Stacey) and Marshall Napier. The rest of the cast is excellent, too, especially Alexander England, and Chris Bunton, who plays the cousin with Down Syndrome. Watch for Anna Hruby as Stacey's mum, who pops up for a moment in a mind-blowing scene of the home life of Jason (Damon Herriman, excellent as ever) and Stacey and their poor kids.

Forsythe said his aim was to shine a light on a difficult issue, and he has done so. Let's hope it allows us the occasion for some further self-reflection as a society, now that 10 years have passed since that time of great shame in the Shire.

Thursday 16 June
Apprentice (Singapore, Germany, France, Hong King, Qatar, Director: Boo Junfeng) Rated: 4.5/5
This is close to being my favourite film of the Festival so far, and it is only the second film that has made me cry. It deals with an issue that is important to me: capital punishment (I'm writing a Masters Thesis that involves the abolition of capital punishment in Britain, and the British films of the 1950s that dealt with this issue. Britain effectively abolished the death penalty in 1965). So I'm a rapt audience for any film on this issue. But here there's a lot at stake as Singapore still has the death penalty, and, as we learned in a terrific Q&A with the very thoughtful, measured, and   incredibly young-looking director Boo Junfeng after the film, Singapore had suspended all executions until very recently, but, very ironically, a prisoner was executed in Singapore while this film was premièring in Cannes.

The great thing about this film is that it looks at the various points of view, because it lets us stand in the shoes of various people involved in the process of state-sponsored execution. Our protagonist appears to be an impartial observer, until part-way through the film we find out he has a personal stake in things. We look at the executioner (who seems cool and calm and pragmatic, and sympathetic, until we see him let off steam) and we see various prisoners, including those condemned to die, and we see various family members and friends of the prisoners, as well as religious and other counsellors. As I recall, we don't see any of the families of the victims, but we do see families scarred by the murders and other crimes. It's not an over-emotional approach, but it is really quite rational. And there's a great ending, which I think forces you to choose your position on the issue, which is why I cried.

Boo Junfeng told ud during the Q&A that the abolition of capital punishment is a hard issue to push in Singapore because, he said, th public is pleased with and proud of the low crime rate and the general degree of safety in Singapore, and he, said, they credit this in part to the fact of capital punishment (presumably as a deterrent to crime).
Captain Fantastic (USA, Director: Matt Ross) Rated: 2/5
Although this film was fun in parts, I really disliked it because I felt it was rotten at its core. It's a story about a father bringing up his 6 children in an unconventional manner, in the woods in Washington state. He teaches them incredibly well with only a few books and no internet, and he brings them up to always be honest and tell the truth (except when they deceive the police and steal from a supermarket!). He gives them an education and then opposes it being taken further. Etc, etc.

One thing that irked me in paticular was Captain Fantastic's father-in-law's threats to have Dad arrested. For what, I thought? He's not doing anything wrong by attending a funeral and producing the will. Was he with the Weather Underground? Had he committed a crime?  Nope - not that I detected. So these were empty threats, just designed to increase the feeling of 'us against the world'. Captain Fantastic? No such luck, even if he's played by Viggo Mortensen...

Friday 17 June
Winter at Westbeth (Australia, Director: Rohan Spong) Rated: 4/5
Terrific new Australian documentary about older artists in New York City. It's a great little story and you will fall in love with the 3 main subjects: Ilsa Gilbert (poet), Edith Stephen (ex-dancer and filmmaker) and Dudley Williams (dancer). And in the background is Deirdre, a film editor helping Edith, whose own story would be well-worth telling in more detail, as I mentioned to the director, Rohan Spong in the foyer after this World Première screening at the State Theatre at 10 am. I also asked the director if he knew the film Young at Heart (Stephen Walker, Sally George, SFF 2007) and suggested it would be a terrific in a double feature with his film, except that we'd all cry ourselves to death!

This is a film where the filmmakers (mainly the director) have obviously taken a lot of time to gain the trust of their subjects, and they do get great confidences in return. There's a lot of heart here, and the director hopes that audiences get three things from this film: thinking about what it means to get older, thinking about why we need the arts, and thinking about where to get some green eye-shadow. I'm glad I wore my extravagant knitted coat to the screening!
Viva (Ireland, Director: Paddy Breathnach) Rated: 4/5
It's an unlikely prospect: a film made in Cuba about the drag show scene, made by an Irishman. But the Irishman is committed and pretty sensitive,  the scene is so fascinating, and the actors are so convincing, that the thing works! We also have the magnificent music, which would be well worth following up on its own. The music, cording to the director, comes from Cuba, various South American countries, and even Spain. It was apparently a nightmare to get some of the rights, but the persistence is really worth it. The star, Héctor Medina, who plays Jesus/ Viva, is a real find: beautiful and versatile. The character's father, Angel is played in a wonderfully brutal fashion by Jorge Perugorria. The only problem I had with the film involved a rather too-tidy resolution. But it was a tough road to get there so I can't really complain of romanticisation.

There's a certain similarity between this film and The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962), which may or may not been intended.  If only I had thought to ask Paddy Breathnach in the Q&A!

Gimme Danger (USA, Director: Jim Jarmusch) Rated: 4/5
This is an excellent and inventive documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges. It tells the tale well, largely thanks to the articulate and unexpectedly wise, droll, and retentive Iggy Pop (James Osterberg Jnr), who has a good rapport with director Jarmusch and is very co-operative. One of the fascinating things we learn about Iggy is his great relationship with his parents - he lived with them in a trailer on and off over the years, and they even gave up the master bedroom of the trailer so he could fit his drum kit in (I also didn't know he was a drummer!).

It's a familiar story about the trajectory of a band (and the members lost along the way) but it always feels fresh. Jarmusch's enthusiasm for the band is partly responsible (he's a fan), but the star is definitely Iggy. He's a real pioneer, fearless, talented, and one-of-a-kind. I'm glad his spirit has been captured. See it, if only for the transcript of guitarist Ron Asheton's telephone conversation with Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, when Ron asks for permission to use the name "Stooges". Gold!

Saturday 18 June
The Age of Innocence (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1993) Rated: 5/5
Divine! My favourite Scorsese film, and the one that proves he can do anything. For those who say he only makes film about men, here's one where women manipulate the rules laid down by society and are able to make men their puppets.

But what  terrible print!  All scratched! Scorsese would be appalled! The beautiful opening credits with the opening flowers was almost spoiled. But it did occur to me that the flowers were opening to display their sexual parts, and this gives a delicious layer of meaning to this drama of the triumph of manner and mores and appearance over true love and passion and feeling.

Jane Mills' introduction raised some interesting points: she talked about Scorsese as a lover of surfaces and style. It also positioned him as a rule-breaker, who shows how the rules work and then how the rules can be broken (on this, I thought, see Casino, next). But where I thought Mills got it terribly wrong was her analysis of Winona Ryder's character, May Welland. She said "Winona Ryder plays May superbly: vixen, victim, she doesn't know she's imprisoned by the rules." I disagree: May uses the rules to her advantage, and her timing is exquisite. She uses the system for her own ends, and traps and emasculates Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) thoroughly and cold-bloodedly. Passion hasn't got a chance.

The other thing I adore about this movie is the unreliable narrator (voiced by Joanne Woodward, who is perfect).

Casino (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 1995) Rated: 5/5
An amazing film. Long but constantly fascinating. Jane Mills in her introduction made the extraordinary claim that she had never met anyone who knew what it was about. When the audience objected (mildly), she added - "on first viewing". But I never had any doubt. This is a film about the fall of man - no more and no less(!) - and the clue is in the magnificent opening credits by Saul and Elaine Bass (their last, alas).  Robert de Niro's character Ace Rothstein is blown to heaven and falls through an inferno, presumably towards damnation. Throughout the film Ace rises to be in charge of paradise, and then goes through a decline and fall, largely due to his 2 closest relationships: that with his wife-to-be Ginger (who can be seen as Eve in the garden of Eden) and Joe Pesce's character Nicky Santoro (who can be seen as the Serpent). Ace's fatal flaw is pride, especially when he stupidly admits to running the Casino. Pride Cometh Before a Fall.  That's how I see it, anyway.

But it is also a fairly straightforward narrative about the "Golden Years" of the Casino Culture. From the early scenes explaining, very coherently, how the money flowed from the pockets of the punters towards a deli in Kansas City, we see how everything fits together.  Everything is on the up-and-up, until it finally collapses under its own weight. And the supreme irony is that Scorsese has a certain nostalgia for the way things were under the crime bosses. Now everything has been corporatized,  the criminal element is minimized, everything is family-friendly, and the skimming of money has been legitimized by marketing holidays to the masses, and pacifying them with big spectacular shows. In Scorsese's view, all the glamour and excitement went when the gangsters left: sigh... He's always been up-front about this: it's almost the first thing he says in Mean Streets (see above). For him, the gangsters always had all the fun.

Sing Street (Ireland, Director: John Carney) Rated: 3/5
A fun look back at the 1980s, romantic, but with a hard edge. In a way there's a similar tone to the other Irish film I saw at the Festival, Viva (see above). There's so much fun in the scenes where the boys get a band together and teach themselves to play, that the sub-plot of the despair of those who want to get away from depressed Dublin and make a career for themselves in London seem like something tacked-on. For me, the film reached its peak in the fantasy scene where the band gives a perfect performance at the school dance and everything turns into a Hairspray -like dance routine. It's all downhill from there. But the 2 boys who are the young leads (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark MacKenna) are charming and their relationship has something of the Lennon/ McCartney about it (McKenna resembles John Lennon). A couple of the original songs are really good, and the other songs are well-chosen and fun.  This is my music!

Incidentally, the SFF film notes are in error: due to the downturn in Ireland's economy, Conor has to leave his prestigious private school, yes, but he does not end up at a public school: he ends up at - - - the Christian Brothers' school!  The horror!

The ending is interesting: it was heading for the overly-romantic but didn't quite get there. That makes it all the more interesting.

Psycho Raman (India, Director: Anurag Kashyap) Rated: 2/5
This is a very tough film, and I'm not sure that its redeeming features (there are a few) outweigh its loathesome qualities.

On the positive side, the opening credits were terrific, the music is great, and the cinematography is dynamic and yet coherent. There are 2 very good central performances, by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Ramanna, a serial killer and psychopath, based on a real serial killer from 1960s Mumbai, and Vicky Kaushal as the drug addict cop who's on his tail.

On the negative side, the violence (with a tyre iron, among other things) is extreme, and much of it is directed towards women (and even a gorgeous child).

The director couldn't be at the Festival, as he was struggling with India's film censorship board. I can understand why. I'm against censorship, but I am in favour of classification and information. This film presents a dilemma for me, because I believe one of the most important issues for India at the moment is the attitude of some of its men towards women, and the horrific violence that has been perpetrated on women over the years. The last thing India needs is a film industry cashing in on the trend towards violence in cinema (see my comments on Sydney Film Prize winner in Only God Forgives (SFF 2013)). I wouldn't say this film glorifies the violence, but it does - to an extent - familiarize us with it, using the excuse that this is filmmaking that pays homage to "genre." It's not a good enough excuse. I'm hoping that some of the other Indian films released this year tell stories about woman so that the balance can be maintained.

Sunday 19 June
The Aviator (USA, Director: Martin Scorsese, 2004) Rated: 5/5
This is only the 2nd time I've seen the film. I saw it at the cinema when it first came out, and I relished the chance to see it again knowing what was to come, so I could concentrate on the immense amount of detail in the film - factual and technical. It certainly repaid my rapt attention, and the 3-hour running time fairly flew.

Speaking of flying: the scenes involving the making of Hell's Angels (1930) are jaw-dropping. Some scenes are shot in what looks like 2-strip technicolour, an old technique that Scorsese recreated for the film. These scenes make the "reality" of the film look like old colour newsreels of the première of Hell's Angels and really make you feel as if you are there in the 1930s. Cate Blanchett is simply a genius as Katharine Hepburn, and Kate Beckinsale shines as Ava Gardner (even if there's no real resemblance other than raven-haired beauty).

The key to Hughes' downfall comes early in the film: his mother bathes him, saying "You know the typhus? You know what it can do to you? You are not safe." She washes his body (including his private parts, which gives us a slight Freudian frisson). This scene will recur throughout the film.

Jane Mills saw the film as a portrait of a capitalist, and wondered why Martin Scorsese ("a small 'l' liberal and possibly a leftie") made the film, She noted that he's an independent New York filmmaker, but he's also at one with Hollywood. Mills believes The Aviator "extols the capitalist values of the free-market economy" and yet Scorsese manages to transform Hughes into "a trademark Martin Scorsese underdog hero". I wouldn't go that far. I think that Scorsese saw another independent filmmaker, a fellow-perfectionist with an obsession for detail, and he saw a twin spirit. The story of Hughes, aviator, hero,  filmmaker and challenger to censorship, had largely been forgotten by the public, and I'm sure Scorsese was pleased to have the chance to retell the story. And I'm sure David Stratton programmed it in the Festival because: (1) it is a superb film, and (2) it is a fascinating slice of Hollywood film history, and US aviation history as well.

Suburra (Italy, Director: Stefano Sollima) Rated: 4/5
An excellent thriller, and just the thing to wake me up for the last night of the Festival! Clever, contemporary, violent, surprising, with a plot that twists and turns at regular intervals so that you cannot be sure what will happen next, let alone in the end. With extremely believable characters, excellent performances, and extremely-well staged fight and chase scenes, this is a film that would justify a second viewing. The framing of some of the shots is very inventive, and a scene in a petrol station with a mirrored wall is stunning. There's also a scene early on in a strange and enormous night-club where a neon sign of what looks like the facade of St Peter's Basilica is superimposed on the nightclub facade. Symbolism!

There's also a pair of scenes that I particularly liked: in one, a corrupt politician pees off a hotel balcony in the rain, over a piazza in fashionable quarter of  Rome. And in another, a crime boss/ developer and his girlfriend have sex on a balcony of his office that overlooks the dance floor of his huge nightclub below. The contempt is staggering!

This film has something of the scope and ambition of the magnificent Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008). That's high praise.

Closing Night Film
Love and Friendship (Ireland, France, Netherlands, Director: Whit Stillman) Rated: 4/5
Jane Austen as done by Whit Stillman, and it's just as amusing as that sounds. Stillman-favourite Kate Beckinsale is terrific as Lady Susan, an anti-heroine and narcissist self-justifier of epic proportions. Another Stillman favourite, Chloe Sevigny, is her foil, Alicia, which allows a series of conversations that comment on the action – such action as there is, given that this is based on an early Austen novelette, which is itself a series of letters. There's also Xavier Samuels as a love-interest, but I always find him very dull, with facial features (and here a pair of pants) that are too large for my tastes. There's Stephen Fry, who is perfectly cast as a serious senior figure in the proceedings,  and an extremely funny Tom Bennett, who has a sequence of physical clowning that is utterly hilarious. A series of opening credits explains in amusing terms who is whom. So all the elements are there for a lot of fun. The opening music is a nod to Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975), with its use of (I'm pretty sure) Leonard Rosenberg's orchestration of Handels's Sarabande from the Suite in D Minor. That conjures up in the mind the arch and ironic tone of Barry Lyndon, and I can see what Stillman was getting at.

All of which sounds great, and it is, and yet... at about the hour mark I began to lose interest a bit. True, it required a lot of concentration to follow all the witty dialogue, and to keep all the characters and their competing schemes in the mind (and this is the Closing Night film of a 12-day film festival and I've seen 35 films over 11 days). But I think there's something missing at the heart of this film, and I'm wondering if it's to do with the detachment that the film's whole conception naturally involves. If the BBC had made this (with Andrew Davies writing) it might have kept me  more engaged. There's also a certain predictability about the structure of the film, and the recurring conversations between Lady Susan and Alicia, that proved a little tiring. But having said that, Stillman's script is fantastic, and very finely-honed, and the film looks great, and has good cast and performances, so I'm really just quibbling.