The 46th Sydney Film Festival
11 - 23 June 1999

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

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

Friday 11 June

The Dendy Awards for Short Films

Paying for the Piper (director Julia Redwood)

This documentary should have been so much more moving than it was. It's an awful thing to say, given the scale of the tragedy that the film deals with, but to me, it felt self-indulgent. As soon as the focus went off the Piper Alpha oilrig disaster and onto Ed Punchard's quest for whatever it was he was looking for - some kind of what we now call "closure", I guess. But unfortunately the film began to lose interest at that point. Perhaps it was simply that I could think of so many ways that Ed could have gone about trying to get some recognition for the survivors of the disaster, and even some form of "justice." You see, I don't believe it is achieving anything to simply whinge that corporations "don't care." Of course they don't. Most of the people wouldn't have even worked there 10 years before.

However, there was one moment of extreme clarity, perception and honesty: this was when Ed was watching Peter Weir's film Fearless, and explained that this was his story, and that he was so ashamed of feeling marvellous after he had been a hero in the rescue operation. Quite a stunning revelation. But all those lingering closeups of him was too much for a film. It tipped the balance from sympathy and pity to bathos.

The Reunion (director: Phillipa Newling)

I didn't connect with this one at all. I felt the acing was forced, the script was predictable, and it felt like "fiction" - it wasn't grounded in reality. When one of the characters advised his lover, inexplicably "Question everything", I wanted to scream out "Why?"!

Seasons of Revenge (director: Janet Bell)

This was an excellent and intriguing investigatory documentary, unfortunately somewhat marred by raising just a few more questions than it answered, and by its weak ending. (It fell back on a quote from the South African Constitution, which, although apt in sentiment, was not well enough connected to the subject-matter of the film).

Your Turn (director: Greg Woodland)

This film felt like it was made by the kids who appeared in it. It had a good punchline, but poor sound and picture. Not good enough for this company.

Edithvale (director: Clare Madsen)

Not a bad idea, and some nice erotic scenes, with beautifully filmed flesh. However, there were a few unfortunate stereotypes in other characters, and again, the narrative felt a little forced - not grounded in reality.

Flowergirl (director: Cate Shortland)

Absolutely superb fictional film. It has a very strong Wong Kar Wai influence, but the setting in Bondi made it fresh and original. It had great visual style, with Bondi Road looking like the Ginza, and some very cute touches. Terrific use of locations, sets and music enable the characters to be established quickly and strongly. The script was original, touching and sometimes profound. I'd give this first prize in as many categories as possible.

Two Girls and a Baby (director: Kelli Simpson)

A pretty good short film, but a couple of the performances (Claudia Carvan & the actor playing Simone) were disappointing. Niky Wendt, however, was superb, and hit just the right note of humorous self-deprecation. The speech which she delivers about "What do we do now?" in the pregnancy was superb, and quite moving. All in all, very polished.

Above the Dust Level (director: Carla Drago)

Funny, hip, interesting characters and a great sense of self-aware humour.

Help Me (director: Louise Fox)

Clever, well-acted a real sense of atmosphere and suspense, and black humour at the same time.

Pentuphouse (director: Cate Shortland)

What a talented girl this is! She is a master at establishing character and setting swiftly and getting on with the interesting stories of people's lives. This one was a little thinner than Flowergirl, but still excellent work.

Opening Night Film - Limbo (director: John Sayles, USA)

Limbo starts very slowly. The director presents us with an amazing locale - Juneau, Alaska - and a formidable group of people. In fact these people are so interesting that you don't know whether the film will zero in on one story or many. Almost anyone's story here would do.

But after a while we see that it is the story of Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), her daughter Noelle (the talented newcomer Vanessa Martinez) and Joe (Sayles regular, David Strathairn). They're an intriguing threesome, and we're happy to follow them.

Then, after a long stretch of character development and scene setting, the film changes abruptly into a thriller-mystery. The change of pace is welcome, but it is so abrupt that we almost feel we're in a different film. However, the slow building-up that Sayles has done in the 1st half begins to pay off in the 2nd half, when the theme begins to emerge. As one of the characters says, you must be able to survive an ordeal emotionally as well as physically.

Mastrantonio's performance is well-judged and gradually carves an endearing character out of a ditsy hippy singer (she sings very well, but acts better). David Strathairn is as gorgeous and deep as ever. Martinez, as Noelle, is a Christina Ricci look-alike at times, and gives a moving performance of some considerable subtlety.

Haskell Wexler's cinematography is brilliant - he makes the landscape dominate, physically and emotionally.

In summary, life is a dangerous and capricious thing, and we can never know what's ahead of us or how we'll cope until we're there. In that regard, see Claude Lelouch's Chance or Coincidence, below.


Saturday 12 June

Chance or Coincidence
(director: Claude Lelouch, France)

Clause Lelouch does Krzysztof Kieslowski by way of Robert Altman and a touch of Wim Wenders and Robert Lepage. But somehow he makes it his own, and it is fresh and interesting and daring and romantic. It's lush and clever and funny and sad and astounding.

There's a magnetic star in Alessandra Martines, who lights up the screen every time she appears (which is most of the time). There's delightful humour, a clever script dealing with fate, the past and the future. It's a very apt choice for the last Film Festival of the Millennium. The ideas are interesting, and the locations are fabulous - we see polar bears, whirling Dervishes, Acapulco divers, Toronto ice hockey stars and Carrara marble. But it the people who keep you interested: they're charming, or, in the case of Marc (Marc Hollogne) exasperating. But exhilarating too.


Shadows (John Cassavetes retrospective, 1958-59)

It's the first time I've seen this film and though at times it is clunky and a bit staged, there are moments of great clarity and insight and some real sincerity. For a first film it is absolutely astonishing!

Lelia Goldoni (as Lelia) seemed right over-the-top at first, until you realised that her character was over-the-top at first. Her breakthrough seduction scene was completely honest and absolutely touching. For me, Hugh Hurd (as Hugh) and Anthony Ray (as Tony) were the other standouts. And the scene in the MOMA sculpture gallery could stand as a classic lesson in character study.

Cassavetes moved the camera as if he was born to do it - which he was. He and his camera follow this group of friends across New York and conveyed such a feeling of excitement and vitality as to be worthy of the renaissance in cinema which this film clearly signalled.

Storefront Hitchcock (director: Jonathan Demme, USA)

The first disappointing film of the festival. A shame, because Hitchcock himself was there to introduce it, but he seemed much more concerned about taking an inventory of his appearance in the film, than the film itself.

But perhaps that's because the film was pretty boring. As a matter of fact, the boredom was interrupted twice because I'm absolutely convinced that they played two of the reels in the wrong order. This was signalled by an abrupt jump visually and a complete derailment of Hitchcock's train of thought. Strangely, this didn't interfere too much with things. Hitchcock's narratives are so free-associating that they seemed to make almost as much sense in the wrong order. And people didn't seem to notice as day became night and then day again, people appeared and disappeared and sentences that finished early in the film, started later in the film!

Hitchcock's songs are clever and mostly quite good musically, but his voice and acoustic guitar playing suffered from a few off-key notes. The film itself was just too long and very static. Demme varied the visuals as much as he could for a setting so plain - a shop window with a few meaningless props and some different forms of lighting. The backing musicians weren't properly introduced, so it was difficult to appreciate properly what they were contributing, unless you were already a fan. Fans of Hitchcock will like this, but it didn't convert me.


Gods and Monsters (director: Bill Condon, USA)

Not quite the film I was expecting. It builds up expectations in one direction, then leads you to believe something else, and then rips your heart out. The climax brings all sorts of elements of the film together and creates something (as Frankenstein himself did) which is quite electrifying.

The scenes of the director and his actors making Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are fun, but not quite as effective as I'd hoped. But another beautiful Carter Burwell score made up for that small quibble. He's becoming a personal favourite of mine.

But this is fundamentally a film about performances. Ian McKellan is as wonderful as ever, with such a knowing performance. In fact, he almost pushes it too far. Lynn Redgrave gives a real audience-pleasing performance, gets lots of laughs, and again, almost pushes it too far. Or perhaps this is in keeping with the mood of some of Whale's films - especially, of course, Bride of Frankenstein . But for me it is Brendan Fraser who takes your breath away. He's just about perfect. He really shades his performance nicely, plays dumb well, but plays not-as-dumb-as-you-think as well. And his body, his head. It is architectural! All in all, he's a wonder! And it's ultimately his film.


Sunday 13 June

Kurt Gerron's Karrusell
(director: Ilona Ziok, Germany)

This is a fascinating and ultimately moving documentary about Kurt Gerron, a cabaret performer and film star (he appeared in The Blue Angel, no less) and director from 1920s & 30s Berlin.

Gerron was the original Tiger Brown in Brecht's Threepenny Opera and introduced "Mack the Knife" to the world. The documentary follows his life and career from success in Berlin to death in Auschwicz, for Gerron was a Jew in Nazi Germany. In between we see some fantastic and moving performances of Berlin cabaret and some fascinating interviews with survivors of the cabaret scene. We need to know about people like Kurt Gerron. We should not forget them


The Wild Party (director: Dorothy Arzner, USA)

It occurred to me that this early talkie is actually a forerunner of the teen-pic so popular at the moment. What we have is a group of fast young college girls, out for a good time and not interested at all in learning. They're up for any prank or scheme that's going.

Dorothy Arzner, a woman pioneer director in Hollywood, who was also gay, gives this film a strong Lesbian undertone, but only if you're open to seeing it. Basically everyone wants to see all that lush young flesh, no matter what their preference!

It's a slight film, a morality tale masquerading as sensationalism, but it is interesting just to see Clara Bow in action. She was a STAR, there's no doubt about it! She injects life into every scene. Fredric March is also quite magnetic, even if he has to speak some lines which sound funny to us these days. It's also interesting to see how cleverly Arzner dealt with the difficulties of sound recording in 1929. She moves the camera very well and the film doesn't feel static at all.

In Dreams (director: Neil Jordan, USA)

This is a strange film in many ways. The script is a bit of a liability, in that it does lumber us with something that could , in any other hands, seem very clichéd. Because it is, after all, a "shocker" in the sense of a thriller which shocks. But Neil Jordan's images, and Darius Khondji's cinematography keep us enthralled, so that the clichés seem fresh and alive - almost too alive. Jordan also has a marvellous central performance from Annette Bening as "Claire Cooper" the clairvoyant woman who seems surrounded by apples (though not usually in barrels). And up his sleeve he has Robert Downey Junior who plays a most difficult role very well, perhaps too well.

To say any more would be to say too much, so I'll just say that I loved it, that the music score by Elliot Goldenthal was outstanding - almost like a homage to Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho as played by Phillip Glass, and that I thank God for Roy Orbison.

Oh, and that I have a slight problem with the ending, but I can't say what here, except perhaps to say that revenge is never as sweet as apples.


Ghengis Blues (director: Roko Belic, USA)

This is the sort of film that I want to see when Festival Time comes around. It's a documentary made by 2 young Chicago kids, brothers, who somehow or other hooked up with a blind blues singer from San Francisco and an bunch of other crazy assorted people, all of whom were interested in the throatsinging music of Tuva, a country north of Mongolia on the border with the former Soviet Union. This same Tuva had been a hobby of the great physicist, Richard Feynman. The film follows this group of people to Tuva, where the blues singer, Paul Pena, ends up entering a throatsinging contest. Paul actually taught himself to throatsing, and to speak some Tuvan, back in San Francisco.

What we see is an amazing journey born out of a hare-brained idea, and we meet the extraordinary Tuvan people who accept Paul wholeheartedly. Paul connects with them in a moving way and his story is inspiring indeed.


Monday 14 June

(director: John Cassavetes, USA)

According to Professor Ray Carney, Faces is an attempt to understand the people portrayed (the hard-bitten businessmen he met in Los Angeles) lovingly, not mockingly. That really comes through in this film, even though there are some pretty harsh things said and done by these people, and they are shown mostly warts - not just "warts and all".

Some of the things that impressed me:
- the laughing oral sex scene! John Marley is a very good laugher and, as Liv Ullman has said: "laughter is hard".
- the sudden changes of mood ring absolutely true here. John Marley's character Richard Forst suddenly says to his wife, played by Lynn Carlin: "I want a divorce. Well why don't you laugh - it's funny. Well why don't you answer me?"
- you get the feeling that you are folowing all the characters around somehow, rather than just passively observing them.
- the complexity of the human emotions Cassavettes is dealing with here. Everyone is striving so hard to achieve something. What? If only these people could connect with each other.
- the excellent closeups of Lynn Carlin and her sense of absolute puzzlement. She's cast adrift.
- the tremendous tension in the scenes with the wives at home.
- the wonderful moment of intimacy, punctuated by stupid singing.
- the fantastic moment when Richard comes home to find his wife's lover (Seymour Cassel) running off over the rooftop. The Flim Festival audience gave this a huge laugh, and the comic timing was perfect!

This film seemed to consolidate everything Cassavetes was working towards, but couldn't quite capture properly, in Shadows. A fascinating exercise in human emotion and motivation.

Blackmail (director Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1929)
From the clips I have seen of the sound version of Blackmail (Hitchcock made two versions, and the festival showed the silent one) the silent version seems to be much more effective.

Hitckcock, fresh from his experience with the great German silent film directors such as GW Pabst, knew the value and effectiveness of showing the story rather than telling it.

Some of the great visual touches:
- Frank's hand enveloping his girlfriend's glove - it shows he's compromised.
- the way the girl puts the knife back on the plate after she kills her seducer - as if she wants it all to go away, and the knife to revert to being just a bread-knife again.
- the chilling and faintly ludicrous laughing portrait: is it Hitchcock himself?
- Hitchcock's macabre sense of humour in the scenes at home with yet another bread-knife.
- the spectacular chase and fall.

Hitchcock certainly had fun torturing this woman! This time the torture is never-ending: she's going to have to live with the torture for the rest of her life.

Frankenstein (director: James Whale, USA)
What impressed me most about this film, I think, was the way Whale used the camera inventively. Whale's WWI experiences are quite in evidence here. There are many scenes that look as if they were shot from the trenches - low camera angles, horizons shot from below ground, dawns and dusks, silhouettes. And there are skeletons ecerywhere in the first few scenes; skeletons and skulls!

There's also a wonderful moment when the camera becomes a member of the crowd, as the monster falls from the mill. It's almost documentary-style photography. Actually, he's not called a "monster until latish in the film. Before that' he's a "creature." So much more polite!

It is a horrible death for poor monster - killed by fire, the very thing he's afraid of. This is noicely ironic, too, because there's a beautiful scene early on in the film when the creature first sees light. He seemed to he love the light, and tried rather touchingly to catch it in his hands.

The other famously touching scene is the one where he plays with the little girl and throws flowers into the river, eventually throwing her in too, mistaking her for a flower. In the print we saw, this scene had been clumsily cut short by the censors at the time, thus leaving the little girl's fate to our imaginations - and that can be much worse!

There's a nice double entendre in the last line of the film, too: "Here's to a son for the House of Frankenstein!"

Punitive Damage (director: Annie Goldson, NZ)
This documentary told a very interesting story, but the telling of the story was a little muddled. Was this the story of the death of a boy, of the war, or of a court case? I think it was supposed to be of the court case, and yet the details are not clear - nor is the outcome. It's a sad and tragic story, but one feels that a lot has been left out.

I wasn't comfortable with the scenes recreating the hearing, and the fact that there was no defence really weakened the drama of both the case and the film.

There were also some strange choices in whom to interview and whom to avoid, which also raised a few unanswered questions.


Tuesday 15 June

(director: Michael Glawogger, Austria/ Switzerland)

This excellent documentary is a little reminiscent of movies like Baraka , and also of the films of Frederick Wise. The director/writer doesn't editorialise too much and doesn't narrative or seem to put words in his subjects' mouths. He simply follows them with his cameras and sound and watches what they do, how they live and lets them tell their story (or do their schtick, as the case may be). Heaven only knows how they found some of these people and got some of these shots. Twelve stories from 4 "Megacities": Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow and New York.

This is a must-see documentary - and it contains two scenes that I will never forget. one is a man in Bombay who makes his living sifting coloured food dyes: one day he is red, the next, green.

The second scene I will never forget is a Mexican woman, called Cassandra, who is what I guess you'd call an "exotic dancer." Her "routines", done before and with a number of men at once, were among the most humiliating I have seen, and yet through it all she maintained a quiet dignity, a professionalism, almost a pride in being good at her job, and an eye firmly on the future of her children. Extraordinary film-making.


Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Centre (directors: Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt with Albert Maysles)

I went to the Getty in December 1998, so I was really looking forward to this film, about the design and building of this new Los Angeles museum. Let me declare my opinion at the outset: I love the Getty buildings and I think Richard Meier is a genius . The garden and the interiors are a crying shame.

So having said that, you've got to know that I found this documentary absolutely fascinating, and took reams of notes. Essentially this is both the story of the building and the artistic and temperamental struggle between the architect, Meier, and (mainly) John Walsh, the Museum Director.

Somehow, the filmmakers faithfully chronicle something like 7 years worth of the artistic and aesthetic vision of Meier and his firm doing battle against the very people who hired him for that artistic vision. They don't takes sides, they don't make anyone look 'wrong' or 'bad,' and yet they do seem to tell the true story. And yet they don't appear to sanitise anything either. At least, I happen to know that you can buy the video at the Getty Centre, so I guess no-one was too unhappy with it.

Throughout all these trials, it's a miracle that Meier maintains an even temper and a patient attitude. I'd love to meet him. The closest he gets to losing his temper is when the artist whose been hired to design a garden decides to lower it 10 feet and thus lose the view of the ocean. Meier says "You're an artist: you can make a square wheel!" and then talks about the responsibility they have to the public to maintain the view. "Bullshit" the artist, Bob Irwin, eloquently replies.

One section of the film that's an absolute joy (and there are many joys in this film) is when Meier explains his view of the colour white as being "the clearest expression of all colours, of all forms around it , and what is natural and what is man-made." He shows a picture of a white house which he had designed, which was on the edge of a lake. In the photo, it is blue, reflecting the lake. "For me," he says, "the whiteness is all colour - it is the abundance of colour, not the absence of colour".

The only criticism I have of this documentary is that it never actually shows the true beauty of the Getty Centre. They try, and they show plenty of it, but I've seen it in reality, and it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.


Husbands (director: John Cassavetes, USA)

Seen, loved, but not reviewed at the time. My memories are these: a great ensemble performance by Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and John Cassavettes. Amazing sequences of improvisation, some of which were quite cruel. Moments of tenderness juxtaposed with scenes of cruelty. An intense experience in which, against the odds, the characters seem to learn something about life. Somehow, cassavettes manages to wrestle with the big issues and fashion them into a journey and a story.

Wednesday 16 June

(director: Jim Shedden, Canada)

A well-done documentary about an experimental filmmaker whom I had barely heard of, although he is supposed to be a genius and to have changed the face of cinema.

The film does justify fairly well Brakhage's reputation. It explains his life and work fairly well, with good pacing and enlightening interviews, interspersed with excerpts from his films, which illustrate the points being made and give you a good feeling for the art of the man.

He moved into abstract expressionism, and his wife explained that he'd moved abstract expressionism a long way: "He's added light, and he's added movement," she said, "the light and movement of the brain." Now he's working with scratches on film ("whittling," he calls it) and it is simply beautiful.

I still don't understand his films, but I can see the genius in them.


I Stand Alone (director: Gaspar Noé, France)

This is the most Germanic French film I've ever seen! It is an extremely showy, and reminds me inevitably of Michael Haneke's Funny Games. It addresses the audience directly, as that film does, and it even has similar titles.

The protagonist spouts plenty of rubbish, posing as philosophy. It has a kind of mesmerising false-truth to it, and it could be quite seductive, if you didn't question his logic properly. All this has a nasty ring of truth to it: the script is very cleverly written.

At one point the film does begin to resemble Scorsese's Taxidriver a bit too closely, even to the extent of talking threateningly in a mirror, but then again, that also is grounded in truth for the main character. But just at this point the film takes 2 tremendous leaps which seem impossible to anticipate.

There follows an absolutely extraordinary monologue. Totally scarifying! We then face another shock, and an unexpected ending.

This is the film which is famous for offering its audience "30 seconds to leave the cinema". But I think you'd have wanted to leave far earlier than that if you were so inclined: this man is so creatively foul-mouthed it is astounding. He is horribly violent, and he has such a poisonous view of humanity - and life itself - so as to be thoroughly repulsive. But he is also spellbinding.

This is shocking and compelling filmmaking. Gimmicky, yes, but also breathtaking. I didn't feel one iota of sorrow for this man, and I'm afraid at one point I caught myself wishing he would just get on and kill himself. That shocked me! I think Noé made his point.


Set me Free (director: Léa Pool, Canada/ France/ Switzerland)

After all the troubles in I Stand Alone, the family in this film seemed to have life pretty sweet, so it was hard for me to recalibrate and appreciate the growing pains of this young girl. Still, it was a lovely performance by Karine Vanasse as Hanna. In fact the whole cast were excellent, and the characterisation was particularly strong.

The setting is Montréal, in 1963. The story is fairly simple, but the motivations and characters are complex and interesting. The film had a nice arc of development, but I must admit to being a bit shocked when Hanna's brief attempt at prostitution was not specifically addressed by any of the adults...but perhaps that's just the point.

Set Me Free was well shot, with excellent music, and effective use of excerpts from Godard's Vivre sa Vie. My only worry is that when Hanna gets a movie camera at the end it seems as if this will be her salvation - and that's too pat a resolution by far.


Fucking Åmål (director: Lukas Moodysson, Sweden/ Denmark)

Two teen-angst films in a row! This could be dangerous!

This film about the coming of age of a few young people in a small Swedish town, Åmål. It seems very true - there's not a clichéd character or line in sight. The overall story is a little predictable, but the details ring astonishingly true - kids and adults alike, struggling to make sense of the changes that take place when you are 14-17 or so. An intelligent, sensitive and refreshing film on a classic topic


Thursday 17 June

A Child is Waiting
(director: John Cassavetes, USA)

Despite being disowned by Cassavetes, this film is pretty bloody good. It is instantly obvious that this film was made by Cassavetes within the studio system. Even though one of the first things you notice is the overly-sentimental musical score, and the film has 2 big name starts (Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland), the Cassavetes stamp remains.

Cassavetes establishes a kind of equality between the retarded kids and the "normal" adults. he does this partly by camera angles which give us the chilren's points of view, and partly by camera angles, such as overhead shots, which bring the adults down-to-size.

Lancaster and Garland are both excellent - Judy plays a suitably brittle role - is she acting, I wonder? Burt Lancaster was someone Cassavetes admired, and he plays an unsympathetic role in his usual subtle way. Steven Hill is a knockout as the father of Reuben, a retarded child (played by non-retarded actor).

There's a very tough scene in this film when we confront the institutionalised retarded adults which the children may become. This scene is unflinching, and seems very John Cassavetes. Cassavetes is very careful to treat each child as a valuable individual, and he seems to adopt the viewpoint that the character played by Cassavetes-regular Paul Stewart: "Rose doesn't know she's a tragedy - so the tragedy must be in ourselves".

Somewhere in the Darkness (director: Paul Fenech, Australia)

Oooh, I didn't like this one! Stuck underground with 3 clichés for what seemed like an eternity. And "quirky" mad storylines to boot. No thanks! Rewrite, please!


Woman Under the Influence (director: John Cassavetes, USA)

A masterpiece. An artist at the height of his considerable powers.

Waterloo Bridge (director: James Whale, USA)

much better than Mervyn Leroy's 1940 version with Vivien Leigh! Both Mae Clark and Kent Douglass (later known as Douglass Montgomery) are superb. And Whale makes a wartorn London absolutely believable: the bombs are terrifying.

Waterloo Bridge opens daringly, with a tracking shot of a line of chorus-girls and pans to individual closeups. Them in the dressing-room, we see nipples! This was 3 years before the production code.

In this film , just about everybody is on the make, out to get something out of somebody else. Girlfriends ask for gifts, wives require their due, and prostitutes wanting to be paid. Even mothers ask favours. It's tough in London during the Great War. Only Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass) is innocent.

Whale gives us an extremely realistic and frightening Great Wat. The sound of dropping bombs is terrifying. But even in pre-production code Hollywood films , a prostitute can't live to marry an innocent soldier, and in the final moments of the film, Whale lets the last bomb say it all. It is deafeningly eloquent.

Friday 18 June

Opening Night
(director: John Cassavetes, USA)

Another tour-de-force performance from Gena Rowlands as Myrtle, an actress starring in a play about women and aging. One of the things I've been noticing about Casavetes is the way that he establishes a sense of place very strongly. Here, there are two main places: the theatre (actually the Pasadena Community Playhouse) and Myrtle's penthouse hotel room, which in itself looks like a stage - it is vast and cavernous and timber-floored. And many dramas are played out there.

One of the things Cassavetes does very well here is show the backstage passages, which are seen from the stage (and to a degree by the audience) as a kind of "limbo", where the actors sometimes interact with each other out-of-character, and sometimes stay in character. It's quite eerie really. I've never thought much about it, but here it seems a magical and strange place.

So this is a play about a play, and this classic "play within a play" device is quite an astounding device here, since part of the time you don't know which is the reality and which is the play. Some of the best scenes are when Myrtle, who is having trouble dealing with the text of the play, which is a bit too close to the bone for her, and yet not "real" enough, begins to play with her lines and improvise, and the audience goes with her! It's amazing.

Cassavetes appears in this film, playing an actor - and as my friend Keith Howes observed at the screening "Nobody plays an actor like Cassavetes". Especially whe n he's on-stage, he's quite amazing: much better than Gena Rowlands as a matter of fact, although she's working on other levels here, playing a woman who may or may not be acting. Eventually, John too has to join her in this endeavour, and it's an extraordinary scene when he does. I got the feeling that he's almost lost control of the film in those final scenes, but perhaps not. Another viewing is necessary to make sure.

This film is also interesting in that there are 2 scenes when woman talk to each other and actually communicate. This seems rare in Cassavetes - for one thing, 2 women rarely talk. For another, people rarely communicate. But here Myrtle the actress and Sarah the writer understand each other perfectly.

More Than Yesterday (director: Laurent Achard , France)

Most of the action of More Than Yesterday takes on the afternoon and evening of a swimming race on the river near a small country community. Against this setting the problems of a family are played out. It's a bit like Joshua Logan's Picnic, really, but set in rural France.

A very effective ensemble cast create a very realistic almost-melodrama about the need to say goodbye to the past and at the same time the inability to ignore it completely. These people are so real and each has a story which would be worth telling. The mother of the family, played, I think, by Lily Boulogne, was particularly good. There's one scene in which she says goodbye to her elder daughter, by sending her preserves and waving from a window, which lingers in the mind.


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (director: John Cassavetes, USA)

There are 2 entirely different versions of this film. One runs 135 mins, and one runs 108 mins. We saw the latter, which is the latter version which Cassavetes cut.

According to Professor Ray Carney of Boston University, this is one of 3 films which dal with the "walking wounded". The other 2 are Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence. In this film Ben Gazzara, as Cosmo Vitelli is a wounded man, literally and metaphorically.

Cosmo has to have 3 girls on a date, not just one. He picks them up in a chauffer-driven limo and he gives them all corsages (even his favourite girl's mother is invited on the date!). He wears a button-hole and black tie, even to an LA casino.

He owns a nightclub that puts on cheesy strip shows - but they have a format, specially written songs, a musical director, and a weirdly camp narrator performing in character (called, ludicrously, "Mr Sophistication"). Everyone is caught up in this show of "professionalism" - his employees, the girls, and even the waitress from the café down the street who puts on makeup, and gets into costume to "audition" for Cosmo.

But Cosmo has a gambling debt and he has gangsters after him. He's forced to kill the "Chinese Bookie", and the story goes on in unexpected directions from there. But he never loses his "professionalism". Even when he is badly wounded he's calling his club, making sure the show goes on. And even when he's about to die, he's "workshopping" his ludicrous show, and giving the "actors" a pep talk!

This film seems to be about a man who is fated to die and proceeds to settle his debts, both literally and metaphorically. He goes about this in a methodical way, taking great care over each member of his staff (which are all he seems to have of family). But he never connects emotionally. He says "The only people who are happy are those who are comfortable." This is as much as he expects. Then he says "I'm only happy when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself. That takes hard work". Later, Mr Sophistication echoes this when he tells the audience, as Cosmo is leaving (probably never to return) that Cosmo's aim was to be "comfortable".

It's a hollow epitaph indeed.

Saturday 19 June

Wild in the Streets
(director: Barry Shear, USA)

What a marvellously fresh piece of social and political satire this turned out to be, 30 years on! And not as far-fetched as it might have appeared when it was made.

Buena Vista Social Club (director: Wim Wenders, Germany/ USA)

What a fabulous juxtaposition: a film about the cult of youth is followed by a film dedicated to the glory of the elderly! Wim Wenders produces a wonderful documentary about these talented old Cuban musicians and the music they make. Their music is uplifting, and so is the film. Ry Cooder tries to receed into the background so as to leave the film to the Cubans, and they are more than equal to the task. They are stars, and Wenders allows their own personalities to dominate.

Some judicious editing gives the film a great dramatic arc - in reality the end of the tale was anticlimactic, but Wenders downplays that aspect and gives us the triumph of true talent and persistence instead. Wenders camera is so intimate and alert that it manages to capture private moments of incredible beauty and tenderness.


ExistenZ (director: David Cronenberg, Canada)

This is an extremely satisfying and revolting film, which seems to bring together all of David Cronenberg's obsessions.

There are so many levels to this film that you just have to sit back and let it all wash over you. You just can't anticipate or extrapolate while you're watching. All you can do is surrender yourself to the experioence, just as you must in the game itself. Very clever and very stylish.


Sunday 20 June

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood
(director: Michael Epstein, USA)

Not a lot of new ground is covered by this otherwise well-made documentary.


Focus on John Cassavetes (with Professor Ray Carney)

The 19th Ian McPherson Lecture - David Marr
"How did we get into this mess and how do we get out again?"

Not a lot of new ground is covered by this otherwise well-made speech!

Mikey and Nicky
(director: Elaine May , USA)

Missed, unfortunately.

The Old Dark House (director: James Whale, USA)

Fabulous camp!

Monday 21 June

John Huston's War Stories
(director: Midge Mackenzie, USA)

omewhat disappointing and more than a little boring. Not at all what I expected. The story was presented in a confusing fragmented fashion. the most interesting sections were the interviews with Huston himnself (conducted by the director and Richard Leacock).


A Voice from Heaven (director: Giuseppi Asaro, USA)

Another music documentary, on a fascinating subject. It painted quite a creditable portrait of the now-deceased Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and gave us quite a good context for his Qawwalhi music, but it was more of a hagiography that a balanced piece. It gave us almost nothing of the controversy that surrounded Nusrat's popularisation of Sufi music and his concentration on love songs rather than the more religious songs which the true faithful consider to be a truer representation of the genre. It did manage to advert to Nusrat's habit of letting people use his music rather indiscriminantly (such as allowing it to be used on the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers), and told us that some peple had accused him of "crass commercialism", but the film gave the impression that this might have been due to the fact that Qawwalhi music is basically a music for evangelising, and therefore any means that gets the music to new audiences could be seen as acceptable.

Also it was almost completely silent on the subject of Nusrat's poor health for many years. Also, there were some very unenlightening interviews with DJs and music producers who didn't relally seem to know what they were dealing with. So ultimately it was an unsatisfying documentary - although I'm glad it gave us so much of Nusrat's music and also introduced us to Nusrat's nephew, Rahat, who looks set to take over Nusrat's ample mantle. Both voices have different timbre , but both voices are "other-wordly." The fascinating question that this documentary didn't ask was: "Can you separate the srt from the man?"


It all Starts Today (director: Bertrand Tavernier, France)

From the moment this film starts it has the ring of authenticity about it. All the details are so real, all the people are true to life, every word everyone speaks is realistic. It is obvious that this story is taken from life, and that those who lived the life have been closely involved in the making of the film.

And all that's true. Tavernier made this film after meeting the real-life school-teacher, his daughter's poet boyfriend (played by PhilippeTorreton (of the Comedie Français). He proceeded to get involved with the school, and then to make a film about it. Tavernier appeared in person to introduce the film, and he quoted Samuel Fuller who said "When you get angry - make a film". Tavernier got angry, and got results: the film has already apparently already resulted in some social change in the area, thank heavens.

As a film, this is engrossing. It tells a number of home-truths, and it is brutal in some respects. An alarming amount of the film is directly relevant to Australia today. The Mayor describes his problem: "I need a job Mr Mayor," people say, "I need a flat. But if they don't get one, they vote Far Right".

But it's not all bleak. Tavernier said he wanted to show how beautiful the countryside was, even if there was all this pain within it. So he shot in cinemascope. And there are moments of hope: when the teacher asks one of the poorer parents to bring in his truck to show the kindy kids, the parent doesn't quite comprehend why the teacher would want him to do this. but when he does it - what a moment! He explains with growing confidence and pride how his truck - actually an enormous crane - works, and the kids are transfixed. He's a hero.

The script was co-written by the teacher-poet Dominique Sampiro, Tavernier and Tavernier's daughter Tiffany. The poetry comes through strongly, and exquisitely at times. But strangely, given all these elements, the film did not move me as I thought it would. There's something faintly detached here... but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.


Love Streams (director: John Cassavetes, USA)

This was the least satisfactory film in the Cassavetes retrospective. It is said to be loosely based around Shakespeare's The Tempest, but for me the connection was tenuous at best. There is a storm, a sort of Caliban figure appears in the shape of a dog, and there are couples floating in and out who end up with each other, leaving Cassavetes, the great puppet-master, alone at the end. But there's not a lot of point to the connection as far as I'm concerned. And much of the film is incoherent rambling. There's an operetta in the middle, which doesn't quite come off, although it's noice to know that Gena Rowlands can sing!

Tuesday 22 June

The Invisible Man
(director: James Whale , USA)

What a frightening idea for a film! And how brilliantly realised, technically!

Another Day in Paradise (director : Larry Clark, USA)

A much cleverer film than it at first appears. Larry Clark is a very savvy film maker indeed. Absolutely marvellous performances all round, with James Woods pipping Melanie Griffiths for top acting honours. Larry Clark stylishly out-Tarantinos Tarantino and then turns it all into an eloquent critique of the genre. I think this is my favourite feature film of the festival.


Death Race 2000 (director: Paul Bartel , USA)

This film was part of the "Future Shock" retrospective which gave us the fabulous Wild in the Streets. But unfortunately Wild in the Streets this ain't!

This starred David Carradine, who could well be considered the James Woods of the 70s.


Renzo Piano: Piece by Piece (director: Christopher Tuckfield , Australia)

This was a different kind of documentary - it tried to give you an overall impression of Piano by showing us his work and relying on what he says about it and about himself, rather than by relying on a multitude of interviews with commentators. The director descibed this as trying to "document" Piano and his buildings - in the sense of recording them for posterity. In fact, this documentary took the unusual course of not even identifying its inteviewees by name until the end credits. I asked the director about this. In essence, his answer was that he didn't want to elevate those "experts" above the level of Piano, and send the viewer on a separate train of thought about the expert. He said the convention was that a voiceover in a documentary was usually identifiable as an "expert", without the need for further explanation, and that was where he preferred to leave it. Frankly, I found this technique distaracting. For me, it had the opposite effect. "Whose voice was that?" I kept thinking, and "was that Phillip Johnson? [itwas!]. Should I believe that expert?"

The director admitted that he'd only been able to get about 8 hours with Renzo Piano - which is a minuscule amount of time compared to the usual access documentary-makers seek - and get. But Piano is uncommonly busy, and the filmmakers have done a phenomenal job within such a limitation.


Wednesday 23 June

Unfortunately (especially given the once-only screenings of Soft Fruit and Two Hands) I couldn't attend today due to the flu! What an annoying way to end the festival!

The Festival Theme
As handicapped as I feel by missing the all-important last day of the Festival, I'd like to nominate "Fear of the Future", particularly as it relates to kids coming of age, as the 1999 Festival Theme.

© Michèle M Asprey 1999

44th Sydney Film Festival

45th Sydney Film Festival

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