55th Sydney Film Festival
4-22 June 2008*
* If you arrived here after a search,
either scroll down to the film
looking for, or search the text for the name of the film.
Every year since 1997 I have posted on
this website my thoughts about the films I have seen – as I see them –
at each Sydney Film Festival. Apparently I was blogging. Every
year it seems to get harder to get these reviews up quickly, but I
won't give up!
Sometimes I post the raw notes I made
at the time I saw each film - my contemporaneous
thinking, informed by discussions with people in and around row D in
the stalls, and in the aisles and foyer. Thanks to all of you! It
is a bit shorthand, and often poorly typed. But I'll try to work
through it and edit it as
soon as I can...
Oh, and these reviews are copyright. You must not use any part of them
without my permission.
Night - Wed 4 June 2008
Happy-Go-Lucky - UK,
Dir: Mike Leigh
What an interesting film. Leigh confounds nearly all our expectations
with a happy middle-class heroine, who gets a lot of what she wants out
of life, and some of what she doesn't need, but none of it fazes
her. She doesn't worry when her bike is stolen (I'd go
ballistic!) and she makes you think that somethines it might be best to
let things wash over you.
That made me frustrated for a lot of the film, and so I found it hard
to enjoy the main character. She made me crazy. Still, there is a lot
to like in the film - its humour, its sensitivity, and its interesting
Also, it made me question the usual arc of narrative of a film. This
doesn't follow that arc really - though it does in a way - and life
on much as it would in all of our lives. What a concept!
The troubling scene in which our heroine goes into an alley where a
homeless man is ranting and raving. My first reaction is that this is
ridiculously foolhardy, but then later, when I thought about it more, I
think that Mike Leigh is telling us that her openness is like a
protective layer, which disarms the man - and after all, he is harmless. Thus her
optimism is not foolish, not crazy. It is in fact an act of
Thur 5 June
Haze - Short film - Singapore
Dir: Anthony Chen
What a surprise, from Singapore. Censorship must have softened
even more since I was there last - or it hasn't been shown there. A
young couple, bored, discover sex ansd condoms for the first
time. She doesn't like it much ("Frankly, it hurts") and he
thought it was pretty good. But will he love her forever?
Are you kidding? I loved it!
Wonderful Town - Thailand,
Dir: Aditya Assirat
Again an interesting film - and by that I mean that it doesn't do what
we want. A Thai town, off the tourist route, has been badly affected by
the tsunami. To concentrate on life after the tsunami is fascinating
enough, but we see here a portrait of what comes in its wake - possibly
Lovely guitar score (except for the obligatory romanic interlude, where
the music spills over into the realm of the soppy). Superior
photography - particularly of clouds and water. Fascinating location,
and a sudden downbeat ending made for good festival viewing.
One scene after the female lead has been kissed for the first time was
feeling_lonely - short -
Australia - Dir: Rachel Turk
Well-executed and acted, but I'm afraid the plot is like an
urban myth. I've seen this scenario somewhere
before... Should go for the jugular, but it didn't move me.
Revanche - Austria - Dir:
Best film of the day - a
suspenseful thriller that takes you to different settings that
constantly surprise. The characters Spielmann creates are so real and
it feels like they have minds of their own. From the opening
scenes we know that these characters are doomed, but we don't know
exactly how it
will happen. So many elements are at play here that we just don't know
what to expect and where or when disaster may strike. Suspense is
ratchetted up to breaking point by things like a photograph on a table,
or an old man who plays the accordian, and then stops playing. It's
really very film noir and at
the same time very Hitchcock - I'm thinking Hitchcock's Notorious, actually.
Intelligent, literate, and a great movie-movie. With gorgous
photography to boot. Top class.
Funny Games -
France - Dir: Michael Haneke
It's so hard to know why someone would do a remake of their own
film after 10 year, except perhaps to reach a new audience that won't
read subtitles, when the resulting remake is virtually a shot-by-shot
recreation, but with a different cast. I understand that the DVD of the
original, Austrian, Funny Games was
a huge hit in the US, so it's not as if the orginal film didn't find an
audience. I guess Michael Haneke (who is uncommonly clever) wants
to get the audience that he is lampooning - or at least criticising -
with his hard-to-take film.
Is it just me or this time do the 2 interloping boys look more gay this
time round? And Naomi Watts, a co-producer, is what they call
"courageous" here in that she lets herself look really terrible
But the big difference here is that this is now post-9/11, and so the
gated community that our family lives in seems like a reaction to the
ferar that that tragedy engendered. Is it a rational fear? Perhaps that
question is what made Haneke revisit his idea.
Seeing this a second time I was struck by the fact that I took all the
violence as matter-of-fact. I was not shocked. Is this because I
knew what was going to happen? No - see my review later on of The Innocents. It may just be
all the violence I have seen in the intervening 11 years...
Fri 6 June
Silent Light -
Mexico/ France/ Netherlands/ Germany - Dir: Carlos Reygadas
and mysterious film begins with a timelapse sunrise scene (but not as
long as in the recent Australian film Night.
With all the cows and chooks it was not unlike sunrises at my farm at
Foxground NSW! Things unfold very slowly, as the Director seems to be
saying to us: slow down. Look, listen and feel.
These are real Mennenites, not actors: you can tell by some of the
minor characters such as Johann's father. And by Johann when he cries
in the last part of the film - it's like no on-screen crying I've seen.
There's a sequence with the family watching what I think is Jaques Brel
singing on b & w TV in a trailer home which will blow your mind!
Then something happens which no one could be prepared for, and it tears
your heart out.
The gorgeous cinematography, setting and composition are reasons enough
to see theis film. And then towards the end it tips over into Ingmar
Bergmann territory, by way of some South American magic realism.
The slowness of this film is not an affectation: passing of time is an
important theme here. From the ticking clock in the early scenes in the
kitchen, which Johann stops, to dialogue like:
"If only we could turn back time" (Johann)
"That's the one thing in life we cannot do" (Marianne).
But Marianne's tear falling on Estehr's face changes everything, and in
the last scene Johann's father starts the kitchen clock again.
A gentle modern fable with old-time players.
The Red Awn -
China - Dir: Peng Tao
Wild Harvest with
Alan Ladd (1947)?. Uncanny!
Terribly disappointing, since one if the main features of this film is
the beauty of the landscapes, that the film print didn't arrive and we
had to see a DVD blown up too large, so everything was not as sharp as
it should have been. According to Peng Tao, in the Q & A, it was
shot in the Gangzao Province in NW China, a very beautiful area.
This is a fairly ordinary story of the conflict between a teenaged boy
and his ne'er do well Dad who struggle to restart their relationship
after dad left and didn't even come back for his wife's funeral (he
felt disgraced). It is interesting to see the way that private
enterprise has replaced State-organised farming. But that - and the
uncanny co-incidence of the plot with that of the 1947 film - are the
only distinguishing features here.
Pend mentioned that in China 400 films are made every year, and that
his film was only in the cinemas for 5 days, which is tyipcal for this
sort of independent production.
Her Name is Sabine -
France - Dir: Sandrine Bonnaire
Sandrine Bonnaire bares a very private part of her life with this troubling
documentary about her sister, Sabine, now diagnosed as autistic, and
badly damaged by electro-shock therapy.
Sabine is 1 year younger than Sandrine, and was even more beautiful
than Sandrine when she was young. Sandrine has the advantage of lots of
home footage of her family so that she can show us Sabine's
deterioration over the years. She also shows Sabine today, on good days
and bad, with an unflinching eye. It must have taken a lot of courage,
because she exposes herself, her guilt, and she leaves herself open to
criticism for allowing things to get as bad as they did.
But it's not just self-flagellation, or self-indulgence. It is also an
important exposure of the lack of help for people like Sabine, in
France, and possibly elsewhere too.
There are a few missteps: by about 1hr15m we have got the point, and
there is still another 30mins to go. When Sandrine asks Sabine if she
is in love I think it is in bad taste. And initialli I thought shoeing
Sabine's reaction to an old DVD of her was cruel - but it did end up
In the end, this is both a frustrating and a fascinating and moving
Sat 7 June
No films seen.
No films seen.
UK - Dir: Steve McQueen
clear winner of the Blue Pavlova. It's another important social
document (how quickly we can forget the horrific details of history!),
but it also a work of art.
McQueen and his writer Enda Walsh establish the milieu of Maze prison
first (how that name resonates in my memory). We see how the prisoners
and their guards had to live and interact during those dark days. Of
course comparisons with the brutality of Gitmo are both inevitable and
essential. Having shown us the rules of the game, the film makers then
home in on Bobby Sands, as we see what he is doing and why, as well as
where he came from. We see how a "Blanket and No Wash protest must
escalate, and how the only weapon the prisoners have is their bodies.
The central section is given over to a debate between Sands and his
priest about the rights and wrongs of what he's chosen to do. The
Priest asks if Sands simply intends to commit suicide, but Sands
counters that it is in fact murder (by the State). There's also a
lyrical flashback about an incident in Sands youth when he had to put a
foal out of its misery when it was badly injured. What he learned
from this sustained him in later life. He knew he had done the
right thing, and so he could take the punishment that he wrongly
received from a priest "on behalf of everyone".
Only right at the end are facts introduced in writing to confirm some
things that I dimly remembered - such as the fact that Sands was
elected to parliament during the strile.
mistake, this is an utterly
revolting film to watch, but it must be so. But I'm so glad I've
seen it. Having done so, I feel I can watch
almost anything now. And in a strange way, that has set me free.
Film making at its most powerful.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp -
UK : Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Deborah Kerr
Marred by the first few minutes being shown using the wroong lense, so
that it was in squashed cinemascope. Luckily Clare Stewart saved the
day and insisted it be rewound and reshown propoerly from the begining.
She also gave us a short intro to the film, which was a bit
disappointing given that she said it was one of her favourite films of
all time. She mentioned that Deborah Kerr (who was seeing director
Michael Powell at the time) was portrayed as 3 versions of the
ideal woman - or at least Powell's ideal.
This film has a huge scope and is trmendously ambitious - all the more
impressive given it was filmed in wartime Britain in 943 when
everything they need would have been rationed. And one of my
friends told me Winston Churchill hated the film, which he felt to be
unhelpful to Britain's war effort (presumably because it has a
sympathetic approach to an honourable German - Anton Walbrook's
But of course in retrospect, he was wrong. This is a love letter to
Britain, and it contains just about everything we love about the
Distant Voices, Still Lives -
UK - Dir: Terence Davies (Revive and Restore strand)
better now than it was 20 years ago. Could it be me?
Pete Postlethwaite is amazing. Magnetic and appalling. A very
photographic film, and gorgously so - Still Lives indeed. Scenes like
the fall from the scaffold are indelible. Freda Dowie as the mother
(we've seen her recently in Midsomer
Murders and The Bill
on TV) is also fantastic. These women who can sing while their husbands
abuse them: no wonder London survived the Blitz! The role of
singing in keeping a community together should not be underestimated.
A sweeping and moving memoir.
Tue 10 June
Three Blind Mice -
Australia - Dir: Matthew Newton
Film Festival Director Clare Stewart introduced this by saying
(who also scripted) had "an unusual approach to scriptwriting".
But what he does have is a marvellous ear for dialogue, and a great wit.
This is the best debut Australian film since Kenny. I just loved the
freshness of the thing. And the fact that beneath all the razzle dazzle
and showy, assured direction, there was a real issue lurking there.
Speaking of debuts - Gracie Otto, debuting as the freshest acting
talent I've see - again since Kenny.
And she edited to boot.
Ewen Leslie also impressed, and the number of cameo apprearances is
just staggering. Helps to come from a show-biz background, I guess. But
to Newton's great credit, he doesn't let this overbalance the film.
Don't ask me how he did that. It's a mystery.
The only part of the film I'd take issue with is the scene in the
karaoke restaurant, continuing into the walk past Cook & Phillip
Park. I thought it went on too long. The point could have been made
without the hystrionics. I felt it pushed over into farce, and the
actors were over-indulged. The rest of the film is so perfectly judged
that this stands out even more.
I'll have to do a full-length review of this one. It's too good to give
only rough impressions. I also want to review it for the NSW Law Society Journal, but it has
to get a distributor first!
Encounters at the End of the World -
Dir: Werner Herzog
Herzog does it again. A rambling documentary is held together by
rigorous photography, his ability to find incredible characters and get
them to talk, and his uncanny knack of making things all connect,
somehow, logically. Plus his questioning mind. Stunning underwater
Antarchtic photography to boot.
In the City of Sylvia - France/
Spain - Dir: Jose-Luis Guerin
A somewhat bewildering love letter to Strasbourg, and to youth
Sound is post-synched, which both dislocates and emphasises it. This is
a film to stick with, since (as in several other films in this year's
Festival) nothing much happens in a narrative sense - and yet, of
course everything that happens in a city happens. People pass by,
people work in shops, drink in bars and coffe shops, drive their cars
and generally live their lives. So when the young man who
searches for Sylvia fails to find her, don't worry. Look at the
film's title again. It's a film about the city, not Sylvia.
Relax, and get to know its streets and their inhabitants.
- USA - Dir: Isabella Rosselini (very short films)
3 very cute and quite primitive "docos". Not too informative,
inventive and amusing. She does have an unusual take on the nature
doco, and a good sense of humour. Won the audience vote doco award for
the State Theatre. Who'd have thought?
My Winnepeg -
Canada - Dir: Guy Maddin
Expecting a difficult film (after The
Saddest Music in the World, SFF 2005), I was pleasantly
surprised when the director introduced it so lightheartedly, and it
turned out to be wonderful.
In our session he was not doing the narration, but as I understand it,
that was a bonus becasue we got the whole soundtrack, with music.
Music was great - really underlining the moods. Not forgetting of
course that glorious tune "Winnepeg Oh Winnepeg": "It's no Eden that
you would say, but it's home sweet home to me".
A great looking film, too, mostly in glorious B&W, with some
stunning animated sequences, some homage to silent film, some terrific
documentary & archival footage, and some tall tales and some true -
but all dramatic. I'd like to know how much was fiction, but
that's not really the point of the film.
Very very laugh-out-loud funny, and quite poetic too. With Ann Savage
(ex Detour) as his Mum!
Foster Child -
Philippines - Dir: Brillante Mendoza
film looks so much like a documentary that is was important that the
dorector introduced it by pointing out that everyone was a professional
actor. His camera prowls through the slums and follows a family as it
goes about its business over a very eventful day. I found the location
shootngquite mesmerising, and the story, while slightly manipulated,
held my interest til the end, marred a bit by strained performances by
the American adoptive partents.
It also reinforced all my doubts about inter-country adoption. A
worthy social document in fictional form.
The Sky, the Earth and the Rain -
Chile/France/ Germany - Dir: Jose Luis Torres Leiva
The fact is this is a very beautiful film, but it has no
speak of. This is pretty diffficult to deal with in the middle of
a film festival, 3rd film of the day. I failed the test. I was
pathetically grateful when anything happened other than people walking
along a muddy path or sitting on a ferry. Not a lot happened. For
me, I needed more.
The director suggests we fill in the gaps. Really, though, isn't
that his job? Or the writer's? On another day I might be more
Sacks - UK -
Dir: Fiona Collins
about an amazing quilting project taking place in HM Prison,
Wandsworth. All the prisoners in the project are interviewed and
photographed in such a way as you can't identify them (only a small
piece of each face is shown). Clever, but I wonder whether that is
enough to shield them. A distinctive voice - or in one case, set of
teeth, could give it away.
At the end, all say what their sentences are. One has a particularly
worrying one: "One of the new IIPs, indeterminate sentences, equivalent
to a life sentence".
Thanks goodness for people like the ones organising this project, and
the ones filming it.
Girls Like Us -
Burma? - Dir - ? (short film, seemingly not in the printed program)
Interesting insight into the girls living in a hostel in Yangon,
raised more issues than it answered. What is the role of this hostel?
it Burma? How was the film made? Who made it? Are these poor girls
still alive after the cyclone?
La Corona -
USA/ Spanish - Dir:Amanda Micheli
Set in the National Women's Penetentiary, Bogota, the biggest women's
penetentiary in Columbia, this documentary is about a beauty pageant
they hold yearly. In contrast to the short film Not Sacks, the faces of (nearly) all
the women are shown.
Of the contestants, who each represent a cell block, one was a hired
killer, one was a guerilla, one was in for robbery and assault, and one
for armed robbery.
It's quite moving to see all of the women so beautifully dressed and
made up, so happy and having so much fun, but I feared that by allowing
it, the authorities were setting most of them up for a fall.
Funnily enough, a highlight was a soap opera star (judge) giving
a short speech about freedom of the heart. And the saddest bit
was not the bitterness of the losers, but the fact that when one of the
contestants (the winner, actually) makes parole, there is no one to
meet her when they release her into the night.
Great access for a terrific little story.
Tokyo Sonata -
Japan - Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
There is a lot to like about this film. Firstly its subject is
fascinating: the pride of the Japanese - and the Salarymen in
particular. Issues are exposed and explored in a way that I've
only seen done obliquely before. Here it is balatant, and while
played for comedy, the intent is clearly serious.
Next, the plight of the Japanese housewife. There's a fery memorable
scene where the wife, exhausted, lies on a sofa and begs, first to her
non-listening husband,a nds then to the universe in general: "Somebody
pull me up, please!". Then there's the story of the eldest son,
Takeshi, who seems to give out leaflets for a living, but wants to join
the US army. But this is not elaborated.
The film seems to lose its way about half way through when we get into
a burglary, a kidnapping, a rape, a traffic accident, and a subplot in
which the 2nd son, Kenji, becomes a piano virtuoso in about 6
months. I really want to go to his music school.
The final scene, the climax, when Kenji blows away the competition with
an adult rendition of Debussy's Clair de Lune (I think) is absolute
melodrama, as befits a director who is emlating Ozu in many of his
compostions and camera pans, and his attention to the tensions on an
ordinary family. And there is no double about the central performances
of Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyoko Koizumi as the father and mother
(especially when they are watching Kenji play the piano for the
competition). But, for me, the film would pack more punch
without its middle section.
The Song of the Sparrows -
Iran – Dir: Majid Majidi
The director introduced his film, informing us that all the cast
the leading man had not acted before (the laeading man, Reza Naji, has
starred in 3 of the diector's films (including The Children of Paradise and
Baran). The performances are
accordingly very natural, and the hero's face is eminently fascinating.
The film opens with a magnificently evocative shot of an ostrich's
head. The countryside looks arid in the first part of the film,
and the city looks surprisingly beaustiful , but once the city is
exposed for the duplicitous place that it can be, and we return to the
country, it begins to look truly stunning. The whole film is
filled with magnificent compostions, whether it be a blue door carried
on Karim's back across arid plains, a truck full of kids and pot
plants, or a cement plaza strewn with goldfish. Or the final shot of an
elaborate ostrich dance.
This is the 2nd film in a row about the foolish pride of a man who has
lost his job, unable to see that histrue treasure lies in his own home
and community. But this 2nd one tells the story with real
simplicity and without manipulation. Along the way we see alarming
scenes of consumerism, capitalism, commodification of people, and
children working for a pittance, or begging literally in the
streets. There are also some hair-raising traffic scenes with
huge loads being carried ipon the back of motor bikes. I presume
this was filmed buy bike-cam. I wanted to ask the director about
this, and what it was like filming with ostriches, but I
didn't. Memo to self: always ask!
Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient -
USA - Dir/ Prod: Todd McCarthy
Not very good-looking visually, with some dodgy sound from time
time, but seemingly most comprehensive, this is a fascinating
documentary for cineastes. Pierre Rissient is one of those marvellous
people who are totally obsessed by cinema, and who has made it his
life's work (but only making - by directing and editing - a handful of
films himself). The list of people interviewed for this film is
an virtual who's who of cinema, and the list of films mentioned is an
education in itself. I'm pleased to see I've seen most of them,
but I've a weak spot in older
Asian cinema. I have an
almost complete list of the films mentioned here in handwritten notes
of the film.
This sort of film is an important historical document. Just as Risient
himself knew many of the greats of cinema personally - his tales of
Carl Dreyer and John Ford are just priceless, and his feud with Joseph
Losey ends in farce - so this film records the thoughts of more
contemporary giants of cinema - such as Sydney Pollack, who has only
See it and see all the films in it.
The Dendy Awards
all the films.
The Cars that Ate China - Dir:
Initially interesting but overlong. The last scenes
young people driving crazily
were hair-raising and disturbing. How did they find these people?
Rare Chicken Rescue - Dir:
Very Errol Morris. Even down to the Klezmer music. And of
Gorgeous graphics and backdrops. A fascinating story with a are
bunch of people - as well as chickens.
"I'm a poultry nut. D'ya mind if we have a look at your chooks?"
"Q: What do you get out of birds?"
"A: Peace and Tranquillity - some would say serenity".
"Seeing little baby chickens hatch is like new life" (No. It is new life!)
Not surprisingly, won the Dendy Best doco award.
Skin: Dir: Rhys Graham
What a shame this doco was up against Rare
Chicken Rescue, because it was a great little story & film
More beautiful grapgics, both on the subject of the doco and as part of
the doco itself.
I'm still wondering why artist Ex de Medici did not allow her face to
be shown "for reasons of personal safety".
Wide ranging, thorough and completely intriguing.
Ephemeral - Dir: Tony Radevski
Interesting animation - very 3D, which must be why it is in this
category rather than Animation. The idea of having a b&w film
that has a touch of colour is hardly innovative: it happened in
Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925).... tbc
Spirit Stones - Dir: Allan Collins
Interesting, both in subject and in
unfortunately way too long to sustain interest over nearly an
hour. Not innovative enough visiually.
Wanderlust/ Wanderlost - Dir:
A delicate meditation on imagination and childish thought, shot
Saigon, and filled with sequins and light, with green tones and night
shadows, lanterns and street stalls. There's a lovely use of music
which establishes a perfect rhythm, and which propels the film to its
conclusion with some inevitability (particularly clever in a film with
no narrative arc).
It also contains this lovely line, spoken by one of the children:
"Careful, we will fall down down down into the stars". If only...
Ali and the Ball - Dir: Alex Holmes
Beautiful music, great rhythm. Lovely story, told most economically,
with a very moving ending, perfectly judged. Very O. Henry.
The Sound of Cry - Dir: Michael
Extremely moving scenario moved only by some unconvincing acting. It is
interesting use of the fantail who is trying to telll them somethng.
Summer Breaks - Dir: Seam Kruck
A fairly straightforward summertime drama with young people idling
about until tragedy strikes. Don't ask me why this one won an
There are lots of elements: a stlker, a new bike, an accident, the golf
sticks, and the sister and the father apart from all of the
above. But they don't ever come together.
The CRC Award
296 Smith Street - Dir: John Evagora
Simple, good-looking film, very well acted and dramatically presented.
A Northern Town - Dir: Rachel
Kempsey, birthplace of Slim Dusty. This film starts off in one
direction but changes into something else altogether. Quite a
surprising little film, and very strikingly filmed.
Ten Pound Poms - Dir: Lisa
A much bigger-scale
film than all the other Dendys, and I've already seen it on TV, so I
wonder why it is up for this award. Still, a fascinating doco, very
well researched and made. There's nothing more fascinating (or
perverse) than real people's lives.
The Yoram Gross Animation Award
Dir: Denis Tupicoff
Gosh I liked this film! It starts as a safey film about using
chainsaws, then turns to the legendary bucking bull called Chainsaw,
then moves towards bullfighting, Luis Miguel Dominguez, Pablo Picasso
costumes, Goya pictures, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot,
Olivia de Havilland, and so on. Come to a hilarios
conclusion. Makes connections like a Werner Herzog film. Seems to
use only folk songs, so (like John Ford) it would not require fees for
Lucille - Dir: Tali Gal-on
Primitive animation, but sweet story, and really good sound and
Mutt - Dir: Glenn Hunwick
Funy animation and characters, good story, inventive. It's a shame
about the payoff.
Friday night 13 June
CSNY: Déjà Vu -
USA - Dir: Bernard Shakey (Neil Young) (Part of the 'Apocalypse again'
I should have guessed from the fact that this was programmed by
Eddie Cockrell in the 'Apocalypse
again' strand, but this film is more interested in politics than music.
Forme, however, the main shock was not David Crosby (I knew what he
looked like, and he seemed pathetically grateful to be there, so was a
very bengn presence). No, the big shock was Stephen Stills. He
looks worse than Crosby! And what he had to say didn't really
make a lot of sense to me. Graham Nash looked remarkably well
preserved, and his voice is still as beautiful. The band is still
and it works well when they paly their old stuff. But - and I
hate to say it - Neil Young's new songs are too much
the same. His huge talent means that he can pump them out, but they
just seem to me to be rants now, with little melody and little
Interesting archival stiff, and some interesting audience reactiobs,
but ultimately a bit soft.
Tahoe - Mexico - Dir: Fernando
The Director of Duck Season (SFF 2005) has become a
minimalist. This film is so pared back. It is beautifully framed
and composed, and the cinematography is crisply fabulous. The
lesson of the 2008 SFF seems to be the classic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
line "less is more".
One of the producers, Jaime Ramos, introduced the film by saying that
they paid a lot of attention to the sound, and so could we listen
carefully. In fact they have often used a blackout when something
significant or violent happens (like the initial car crash) and simply
given us the sound to tell us what is happening. Quite effective.
But visually, there's a beautiful use of widescren, crisp clear light,
brilliant compsition (nearly every scene could be hung as a photgraph
in a gallery). The often static or slowly-panning camera gives a sense
of tranquillity that belies the emotional turmoil of our young
protagonist and his family. The truth is revealed slowly but
deliberately, and the result is a very moving, gentle and beautiful
Stop-Loss - USA - Dir: Kimberly
After an extraordinarily good
beginning, the film becomes very conventional, which is
disappointing. I'm sorry to say Abbie Cornish seemed wrong in the
role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nearly runs away with the film, but all the
men are very good. Why was Ciaran Hinds there? He too was
badly cast as an all-American (actually all-Texan good ole boy.
He looked uncomfortable. I think Ryan Phillippe took on Abbie's
wandering Texan accent and ran off-course.
Having just seen Coming Home
(Hal Ashby, 1978) again, I was reminded of how much harder hitting that
film was. Remember the scene when Jane Fonda arrives for the first time
in the vets' hopital and duns into Jon Voight on a trolley (literally)
and his urine bottle spills all over her? We didn't have anythng
like that here, though I did find the digging of the fox-hole in the
front yard quite frightening.
An Affair to Remember -
USA - Dir: Leo McCarey
new eye-popping print. Acting by winks and nudges. A masterclass
in innuendo. A couple of lovely musical numbers I'd forgotten all
about. The most gorgeous gowns on Deborah Kerr. Such attention to
detail reflecting her fastidious and lady-like character. The
very moving scene in the chapel, with Cary Grant getting down on his
knees. Screball dialogue and timing. A marvellous film all
Sun 15 June
Terror's Advocate -
France - Dir: Barbet Schroeder
film, but certainly brilliantly made. It covers a huge amount of
ground, but in the end are we any closer to our subject, Jacques
Vergès, the man who defended Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons.
The Innocents - UK
- Dir: Jack Clayton (Deborah Kerr
- again! Having seen this film at least twice before on the big
screen, and several times more on the small screen (not recommended),
it still have the power to thrill and frighten. In the climactic scene,
a shiver went up my whole body, from heels to scalp!
And the ending still takes audiences' breath away.
Bravura filmmaking and a stellar central performance.
Mon 16 June
The Square -
Australia - Dir: Nash Edgerton
Another crackerjack Australian film. Another film that was
finished a couple of days before premiering at the festival (along with
Matthew Newton's Three Blind Mice)
and yet looks and sounds as polished as if there were all the time in
Marked by a razor-sharp script, a labyrinthine plot, a plethora of
ideas, a magic cast and an extremely striking setting in the Woronora
River area, this is an extraordinary debut. The Woronaora River
setting is vital to the film as it is a place where various strata of
Sydney society come together, and yet it is semi-rural and a bit
isolated. It is also bisected by the river. At the Q&A after the
2nd screning I asked about the setting, whether it had been written
with that precise setting in mind, and writer Joel Edgerton said that
he had written it on the Gold Coast of Qld, with the canal area in
mind. he said that there were people there who thought they were rich
because they lived on "scummy little canals filled with duck shit", but
they needed somewhere closer to home, and director Nash chimed in that
they has thought of setting it in Sylvania Waters, but that was not
practical. Them someone suggested Woranora, and they drive down
there one day, saw the tall bridge with a backdrop of people rushing to
and fro, and realised it was perfect.
This is a terrifying film noir descent into hell by a man who starts by
compromising his morals and one thing leads to another. He never
thinks of himself as evil, it's just one thing after another. His
girlfriend (Clare van den Boom, as a somewhat muted femme fatale) says
words to the effect of "It's not as if we'd be hurting anyone", but of
course they do. In many ways the film is about what happens when you
compromise your morals. When is too much?
Nash also mentioned that they cut 75 scenes out, and that he wished he
had another hour. I'm glad he did, because the film is richer for
it. For example, we do not know what the deal was which resulted in the
bag of money. We do not need to know. It is happening off-scren,
as is much else. There's a universe out there, conspiring against
us. It's only a matter of time before you get caught...
The film's climax is so black that people tittered. The film
occasionally tips (intentionally) into black comedy. The producer,
Louise Smith told me this is typical of Joel's sense of humour. That
became obvious in the Q & A. Both brothers are smart.
Both brothers have ideas, energy and humour in spades. I expect
even bigger things from them, especially if they remain the economical
and judicious storytellers of this film.
Tue 17 June
The English Surgeon -
UK - Dir: Geoffrey Smith
Inspirational and moving, but also squirm-making as we watch
surgery in all its visceral glory. It is very alarming to see
that this surgeon does woodworking with his precious hands - without
using gloves or protective eyewear. Is he crazy? Probably just
another in a long line of eccentric Englishmen. He makes the wooden
cases for the 2nd hand surgical and mediacl equipment he sends to
Ukraine. This man knows the enormity of the problems in Ukraine's
hospitals, but doesn't let that deter him. He's a saint.
A very important documentary,
and a potent plea for help for brain surgery in the Ukraine. Why
wasn't there a website and instructions about how to donate?
I Always Wanted to be a Gangster -
France - Dir: Samuel Benchetrit
Hilarious, with a killer cast. Somewhat reminiscent of Jim
Jarmusch, but starring some of the best French acting talent past
and present, including my particular favourite, Edward Baer (the
incompetent robber in the 1st scene). With the gentle humour of
Jacques Tati, but not in a corny way. It relies on that kind of humour
where you know what might happen, you're not exactly sure, and then it
hapens in such a way as to take you by surprise anyway.
Apparently this is packed with movie references, and so I have some
homework to do trcking them down. One obverhead shot of a
card game is particularly memory-arousing - could it be Rififi?
Really good French slang for my vocab. Eg "Le Fric ou le
flingue?" The cash or the gun? Great script!
Buddha Collapsed out of Shame -
Iran - Dir: Hana Makhmalbaf
overblown, underlined by the music.
A darling little girl, shot almot always in closeup, wants to go to
school, and has to overcome all sorts of obstacles to get there.
She's naughty, but dogged. But somehow this film tpps over into bathos,
and when the little girl is tortured by boys playing Americans, I just
lost patience with it. Manipulative, I thought.
A Girl Cut in Two -
Germany/ France - Dir: Claude Chabrol
a disappointing film. Stylish - yes, but what is the substance?
Sure there's a superficial look at the difference between true
intellectualism, and the kind of pap that passes for intellectual
discussion on TV. But why is there young successful woman on the way up
who falls for an old writer (and rejects the advances of the young fun
multi-millionaire who dresses extravagantly in Paul Smith
designs)? Haven't we we seen this kind of thing in decades past?
Are young women
still falling for old codgers, or does this only happen in the movies?
And even if they do, do they ruin their careers over it? And what
on earth is this sex club? What's the appeal of this sort of thing for
young women (unless
they are making lots of money)? Have we learned nothing in the 20th
This is a stylish, superficial museum-piece. All I can say is
that I would like to eat at Georges Blanc and visit Lisbon.
Sparrow - China - Dir: Johnnie
Intriguing, but that was a finch, not a sparrow!
This film has been compared to Stanley Donen's films and Cantonese
films of the same era, but for me, what it most resembes is the UK TV
series Hustle, about a team of
swindlers, filmed in glorious candy colours where everything seems a
bit unreal, and the backdrops seem to be mere facades (and often are).
The mix of comedy, sleight of hand, choreography and light musical
doesn't quite work, but bits of it are brilliant. I loved the
elaborate pickpocket scene in the rain with Hitchcockian umbrellas (Foreign Correspondent), but theere
was a hige problem with that scene too - I couldn't follow what was
happening. A serious flaw indeed!
La Zona - Spain/ Mexico - Dir:
An intriguing film about a nightmarish scenario. People in a
gated community experience an "invasion," by young kids bent on a bit
of burglary. But things go wrong and the community decide to take
things into their own hands. Things escalate, adults make bad decisions
which go even worse, and the ending is quite hopeless. A disturbing but
thoughtful film about the dystopia that threatens in our future.
A Very British Gangster - UK -
Dir: Donal MacIntyre
With Young@ Heart,
my favourite documentary of the Festival. The filmmakers got
extraordinary access to these gangsters, and stuck with them for such a
long time, and for such long days that they got extraordinary footage.
Great subjects, yes, but they'd have to really trust the filmmakers to
allow them into their lives (and deaths). Great job, and very
entertaining. Not a hagiography - MacIntyre asks the hard
questions, including whether he is right in detecting "a hint of the
lavendar" about Dominic Noonan (aka Lattlay Fottfoy).
The Sundowners - UK - Dir: Fred Zinnemann
print - what a shame - but a top class film, even
better than I remembered it. Funny, fresh, moving, and true to life.
Not the cliché that some think it is, but a film that has a lot
to say about life in the bush. And a great musical score to boot.
The Last Continent (aka
Mission Antarctique) - Canada - Dir: Jean Lemire
were they all doing there? Allegedly observing what happens to the
Antarctic in winter. Well I don't know if they realise this, but
plenty of scietists have wintered in Antarctica. They seem to be
indicating it's never been done before. You never seen them doing
anything vaguely scientific. They just seem to be interfering with the
landscape and the flora and fauna.
For example, though they say over and over that there is not enough ice
shelf for the seals and other mammals to breed, they think nothing of
taking up many square metres for their impromptu ice hockey field!
Unless I've missed something, this just seems to be egotistical film
making. Sure they are incredibly brave, and remarkably calm under
pressure, but given that their plan to moor in a certain bay simply
doesn't work, and they all nearly die, you've got to wonder how
reponsible these filmmakers are.
Heartbeat Detector -
France - Dir: Nicolas Klotz
The excellent Mathiieu Almaric stars as a psychologist who works in
human resources for a large corporation. (Actually, he never
seems to do any real work). Then he is asked, effectively, to spy on
one of the top executives, and he uncovers a link between Nazis and big
business. It all seemed very forced and artificial. It is meant
to be horrific, but there is no real horror there.
All in all, this is a film as empty as the big warehouse where a horfic
office party takes place, and Mathew Almaric melts down (apparently
from the strain of it all, but this party os no worse than a regular
Friday night after work in Sydney. Cool music, though. Michael
Londsdale, as the suspicious boss, does the best he can with the
Turkey/ Greece - Dir: Semih Kaplanoglu
trumps complexity once again at the Festival.
This is a heartwarming film about the things that are important in
life, and how they can be right under our noses.
The film moves slowly, particularly at the beginning, but it is worth
the wait. You get the feeling that our hero's mother, who has doed, is
guiding her son to his true destiny. I believe this is shown in the
last few scenes when the dog (Cerberus, the 3-headed dog that guarded
the gates to hades) mysteriously guards over him, and prevents him from
leaving as he intends to. So then when he goes home, the girl
presents him with an egg, and that is the symbol of their new life
together. Lovely symbolism!
God Man Dog -
Taiwan - Dir: Singing Chen
attempt. But brave.
A lot of interesting characters wander around in various degrees of
despair. Some heartwarming moments, but for me, the film never gelled.
The Cool School -
USA - Dir: Morgan Neville
Another really important social document, and timely, too.
were arresting contemporary artists in LA in the 1950s. In
Sydney, they're still doing it in 2008!
There's so much good material here, both archival and comteporary. It
is great to see the cool school when they were young and cool - and for
those still with us not that they are old and still cool. Also great to
see the story behind the building of the LACMA building - I was
always puzzled as why it looked like a shopping centre.
This movie should be compulsory viewing for all those ignorant people
who say that LA is boring and devoid of culture. As the film says
"This group of artists helped LA to grow up". Fascinating and
informative. And such good art!
The Pope's Toilet -
Uruguay/ Brazil/ France - Dir: Cesar Chalone & Enrique Fernandez
Simplicity trumps complexity at this
Festival. If you compare this with Heartbeat Detector, no contest. Go
another film with a recurring theme of this festival: a man tries to
provide for his family, and risks everything on a "hare-brained
scheme". He won't listen to his wife and children, and puts everything
in jeopardy. Interesting locations, great faces, nice music, and a
resonant theme (especially in anticipation of the Pope's Australian
visit for so-called "World Youth Day" in July). The director builds
tension gradually and effectively.
A bleak, but true ending, and things go back to normal.
Young @ Heart -
USA - Dir: Stephen Walker
One of my favourite documentaries of the Festival (along with A Very British Gangster, The Cool School, and Pierre Rissient), this won the
audience vote for docos at the State Theatre.
It begins with a dear very old old lady singing "Should I Stay or
Should I Go?" by The Clash. It just gets better and better. We
follow this most unusual choir, whose average age must be in the 80s,
as they rehearse for a tour. The director, Bob Cilman, is 53, and has
impeccable taste in contemporary music. He's picked many of my
favourite songs for the choir to sing. Such gems as "Golden Years", by
Bowie "I Wanna be Sedated"by The Ramones, "On the Road to Nowhere" by
Talking Heads, and so on. The film clips they make are hilarious.
There are some very sad moments, though, as we realise that the choir
cannot last in its present lineup. But the choir will go on, and this
film - despite its dreadful title - will make you feel wonderful!
UK/Ireland - Dir: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
The only dud for me in the Festival. Such a downer after Young @ Heart...
I worked hard to get into this film, but it is so low-key that it just
eluded me. My notes say "it is so hard to stay with a spotty girl
who speaks in a monotone".
The whole "taking over of the boyfriend" strand became unbelievable.
The last straw was when she asked her boyfriend to tell her he loves
her - and he does. My notes say "This would never happen".
Bewildering. What's the point?
and Sympathy -
USA - Dir: Vincente Minnelli (1956)
Fresher than ever! Now we can perceive
even more clearly the many layers of meaning and the irony of the
question: what is a man? Marred by the tacked on ending, when John Kerr
reads the letter Laura never sent to him, which undermines the message
of the play (the play ended with Laura's and Tom's kiss), and perhaps
by a below-par musival score, this is still magical 50s film making at
its best. And don't even THINK the word "dated"! You must be in
the moment with every film.
River of No Return -
Australia - Dir: Darlene Johnson
A star is born. Go Frances! A most surprising and original
After all the efforts that Frances goes to to get into acting school,
and then she changes her mind! But the real story is the
backstory of Frances and her people, and their surprising lives.
Good film-making on the run.
From Here to Eternity -
USA - Dir: Fred Zinnemann (1953)
A sprawling war film than looks wonderful in a new print on a
screen. Zinnemann did a HUGE job to wrangle all that talent, plus
recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor. Superb filmmaking on a grand
scale. Complex characters, an epic story coherently told, both on micro
and macro levels.
Somers Town -
UK - Dir: Shane Meadows
At only 68 minutes, this snappy little feature
stars Thomas Turgoose, the young boy whom Meadows discovered for hs
film This is England.
Thomas has grown up, and into a good little comedian. He's charming,
and so is his character. The film began as a commissioned salute to the
London suburb, next to St Pancras railway station for the Eurostar and
the cross-channel tunnel. What we see is a short feature which
emphasises those things that Meadows always examines: the need for a
good loyal best friend (no matter how weird or unusual) and the need
for adults you can rely on, outside our family (the weirder the
better). Meadows does not disappoint, and he gives us 2 more
character actors to watch for: young Piotr Jagiello and the
amazing-looking Perry Benson (who was also in This is England, as Meggy)
Closing Night Film
France/ USA - Dir: Vincent Parronnaud, Marjane Setrapi
After the jubilation and triumph of the dreadfully-titled Young @ Heart, which in my opinion
is the ideal film to end a festival, we have this beautifully animated
but ultimately downbeat dramatisation of the graphic novel of
her "rollercoaster" life, written
by co-director Setrapi.
We begin with her as a child living in Iran under the Shah, with a
family of devout Muslims, libertines, philopophers, loyal subjects,
prisoners and Communists. We see the overthrow of the Shah and the
chaos of the aftermath. We see Marjane sent to live in Vienna,
living a bohemian life as a student, but ending up on the streets in
extreme depression, and then admitting defeat and going home. Then we
see the increasing repression under the religious dictatorship, the way
the people try to rebel, and the disastrous consequences.
We see Marjane going to live in Paris, and having to leave her beloved
Jasmine-scented gradma behind (voiced by screen legend Gena Rowlands,
she's my favourite character by a mile). (By the way, the
Festival notes say this is Danielle Darrieux, but this must be so for
the French language version, because I know Darrieux doesn't have a New
The film ends with a whimper, and that's how I ended the
festival. Worthy anticlimax rather than singing punk songs with
the tears and the smiles still on my face, as I was after Young @ Heart. Still, as with
all Festivals, there is room for all emotions. I'd only quibble
with the timing.
Sun 22 June
Page of Madness - Japan - Dir:
Tenosuke Kinugasa (1926)
Despite this being an Australian premiere of this rare film,
it. But not, I think, with any soundtrack, and certainly not with
the live performance we heard that night.
First, the print is fabulous. The film looks gorgeous, and it really
an extraordinary portrayal of
madness. It is sensitive and insightful and it makes other films about
madness look pedestrian. The film opens with amazing art-deco style
titles (in Japanese lettering). The opening scenes of the dance done by
a beautiful woman against an art-deco inspired decorative backdrop are
remarkable, and then poignant as we realise that we are seeing the
dance through the eyes of a mad dancer.
The film continues to astound with visual techniques of expressionism
and with effects such as a fairground mirror distorting our view to
reflect that of the mad people (I'm using that expression because that
is the word used in the film title). The lead actor, Masuo Inoue has an
extraordinary face, portraying compassion and anguish and bewilderment
brilliantly. His wife, played by Yoshie Nakagawa is also marvellous, in
a strenuous roll. The dancer in the next cell (Eiko Minome) is
beautiful, and convincing. The story is beautifuly told by the visuals,
and one of the later scenes when Masuo
Inoue puts Noh theatre masks on
the inmates is absolutely transcendent.
My only criticisms releate to the presentation of the film on Sunday
night. First, there would have been a Benji, or narrator, when
the film was presented in Japan in 1926. That would have explained the
story and some of the dialogue and printed words for us. It was a
little hard to follow for that reason. And the live contemporary jazz
music, while terrific, and amazingly suitable for a 1926 film,
sometimes went out of synch. It just goes to show what a
difficult art playing the score to a silent film is, and how brilliant
Jan Preston and other performers have been in previous years.
For the record, this is how I think the story goes: a ship's captain
and his wife have a much-loved baby. But the baby drowns, and this
sends its mother mad from grief. She is confined to a mental asylum,
but when her husband sees the conditions, he gets a job there to care
for her. His daughter has become engaged to a respectable man, and she
has not told him about her parents, as she is ashamed. A younger
brother makes fun of his mad mother to his friends. Our hero is a
broken man. He has been dishonoured. And now conditions in the asylum
are worse than he imagined. To protect his wife, he has to retaliate
against some of the inmates, and he ends by beating (killing?) a
doctor. He is then himself confined to the asylum, and he has a mad
dream of the wedding of his daughter being disrupted by his wife and
the other members of the asylum.
Brilliant film making!
Phase IV - USA - Dir: Saul Bass
(1974, "Revive and Restore" stream)
An interesting sci-fi drama that pays homage to several of the
classics, including Kubrick's 2001: A
Unfortunately, some of the audience seemed to think it was sci-fi
schlock, and so we had some silly giggling.
Not that I think it had to be treated with the utmost seriousness,
because I think the director was playing with the genre himself. But it
did have some serious ideas, and some clever scripting, so it served to
be treated with some respect.
Ultimately this film reads as an allegory of the takeover of the world
by Communism, especially in the context of the Vietnam War (Saigon fell
in 1975, so this film was released was in the last phases of the war).
But the film doesn't just read as right wing hysteria. It has other
I like the way film critic Brian J Wright (in his website called 'The
Cavalcade of Schlock') puts it:
Here's a weird,
thoughtful little movie out of the 70's which takes the then-saturated
"nature runs amok" corner of the genre and gives it a few unexpected
twists. It's slow, ponderous, a little heavier on the science than most
movies of its kind, and definitely not for everybody, but it dares to
be a little different and for the most part succeeds.
Another reason to see the film is
for its extraordinary cinematography (by John Barry), and for its
extraordinary macro photography of insects. If you like ants,
this one's for you. Starring Michael Murphy, who plays it relatively
straight, Nigel Davenport, who goes way over the top as a scientist who
might be mad, and Lynne Frederick, an English rose (why is she in this
film?) known mostly for marrying Peter Sellers and David Frost.
Also, films in the Festival that
I saw before the Festival include:
In Bruges - UK/ Begium - Dir:
As luck would have it, I saw McDonagh's
challenging play The Pillowman during the Festival.
I've seen several of his other plays too, and I
love his writing. It is fresh, funny, hard-hitting and original. But
how would he work as a cinema director?
Answer: he's a natural. From the opening scenes of Bruges cathedral
details, you can tell this is an assured director. For those of you who
have seen The Pillowman,
relax, this is not as horrific, but it still has some gruesome scenes.
But set as they are in pretty Bruges, and in the context of the art of
Hieronymous Bosch, they tell a broader story.
The cast includes 2 of my favourite actors: Brendan Gleeson and Ralph
Fiennes. But its biggest revelation is Colin Farrell, who is
absolutely terrific as an Irish hitman with a conscience. The clever
script is reminiscent of Tarantino, but less self-conscious, and more
Irish. There are co-incidences, but they don't stretch the bounds of
reality, becasue all this is taking plave in the fairytale setting of
Bruges. It's like a Grimms fairytale, really. But with perfectly
judged Carter Burwell music.
Fantastic, in the true sense of the word.
I have since done the following review for the September 2008 issue of
the NSW Law Society Journal.
In Bruges, 107 mins,
rated TBA, opening in cinemas on 4 September 2008.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
Martin McDonagh, the writer
and director of In Bruges, is better known
as a playwright. His plays include The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple
of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and, most
recently, The Pillowman. All of
these plays have had productions over the past few years in Sydney.
McDonagh is a theatre prodigy: he’s the only
writer to have had four plays running in London's West End at the same
time. He was nominated for Tony awards for Best Play for Leenane (1998),
West (1999), Pillowman (2005) and
Inishmore (2006). Pillowman won the Laurence
Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2004. Now he has turned to film
He started modestly in 2004 with a short film
he wrote and directed, called Six Shooter. It won the
2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and starred the
wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (Gangs of New York, 2002,
General, 1998). McDonagh’s first feature, In
Bruges, also stars Brendan Gleeson, along with Colin
Farrell (The New World, 2005, Alexander,
2004) and Ralph Fiennes (Spider, 2002,
Schindler’s List, 1993). What a threesome of
McDonagh’s plays give you an inkling of what to
expect: dark comedy, hilarious dialogue, and moments of sudden and
shocking violence. McDonagh is often described as combining elements of
JM Synge with Harold Pinter or even David Mamet. He was born in London,
but of Irish parents, and his plays are either set in Ireland, or
feature Irish characters, or both. He’s widely admired, but he also
divides audiences. Is he a brilliant interpreter of contemporary
Ireland, or peddler of arrant caricature?
In Bruges is set, not surprisingly, in Bruges
(as the tag line says, “it’s in Belgium”). Farrell and Gleeson are two
Irish hit men, hiding out in that beautiful medieval town on the orders
of their boss, after a botched hit. We soon find out that the hit was
on a Catholic priest (an uncredited Ciaran Hinds) – in a confessional!
This is so typical of McDonagh: what’s the most outrageous hit you can
think of? Let’s have that.
The banter between Farrell (Ray) and Gleeson
(Ken) is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, too, but it seems more
authentic, perhaps because of its thorough Irishness. Ray hates Bruges.
He hates history too: “It’s all about stuff that’s already happened.”
But Ken really warms to Bruges, and tries to take Ray sightseeing.
Ray’s not interested, until he notices a film set, and an unusually
short actor. “They’re filming something! They’re filming
midgets!” he cries, delightedly.
There are many amusing diversions and
non-sequiturs like that before we learn the real reason that Ray and
Ken are in Bruges. In the meantime we become tourists with them, and
I’m sure that many of us will fall in love with the town, as Ken does –
and as their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has already done. Harry is a
truly loathsome character, not unlike Ben Kingsley’s frightening “Don
Logan” from Sexy Beast (2000), and it’s hard to believe he admires the
chocolate-box good looks of a town like Bruges. But he’s adamant:
Bruges is beautiful, and Ray and Ken should go sightseeing.
In Bruges succeeds for many
reasons. It’s not just the quirky characters, the funny dialogue or the
unexpected directions of the plotline. McDonagh has an uncanny sense of
character and plot, but we expect that from an award-winning
playwright. What I didn’t expect was his assured visual ability: In
Bruges looks, in turn, wonderful, menacing, fairytale, dangerous,
mysterious and fun. In several scenes we actually seem to
enter a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. This is particularly wonderful
because Ray and Ken have earlier been to a museum to see Bosch’s
Judgment Day, and Ken has tried to explain it to Ray, who gives us this
priceless explanation of Purgatory: “Purgatory's kind of like the
in-betweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that
great either. Like Tottenham.”
Inevitably, there is a Judgment Day coming for
Ray and Ken. And, like most of Bosch, it will not be pretty. But it
will be moving.
And When Did You Last See Your Father?
- UK - Dir: Anand Tucker
I have now reviewed this film for the July 2008 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal.
Here's the review:
And When Did You Last
See Your Father?, 92 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 31
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
This film is an adaptation of the 1993
best-selling and influential memoir by Blake Morrison, a novelist,
critic, and past literary editor of British newspaper The Observer. The book is an
exploration of memory, reconciliation, and the author’s attempt to come
to an understanding of his complex relationship with an exasperating
The title comes from a famous British painting
by WK Yeames, a Victorian painter of many historical pictures, often
dealing with the English Civil War. This particular painting shows an
imaginary scene in a Royalist house. Parliamentarian soldiers are
questioning a little boy (about 5 years old) about his Royalist father.
The question Yeames poses in his painting is:
will the boy tell the truth and thus betray his father? This is quite a
conundrum, especially for the Victorians, who believed in children as
paragons of honesty and virtue. The painting adds another layer to the
memoir and the film: what is the role of honesty and truthfulness in
the father/ son relationship?
The Morrison memoir has been sensitively
adapted for the screen by David Nicholls. The screenplay takes the
point of view of Blake Morrison (Colin Firth), aged about 40. He has
returned to the family home to see his father, Arthur, a country doctor
who’s dying of cancer. This triggers memories of Blake’s childhood and
adolescence. The film cleverly cuts between the present, and two stages
of the past: when Blake is a boy of 8 (Bradley Johnson) and when he is
an adolescent of 14 (strikingly played by newcomer Matthew Beard).
The director often uses mirrors and glass to
show duplicate images, or reflections of people who may or may not be
in the frame, to suggest different points of view, and different
personas, as well as the idea of reflection itself. The mood is gentle
and slow moving, and some filmgoers may feel restless as we cut back
and forward in time, returning again and again to the dying Arthur.
But there are several moments of great humour,
and a few squirm-worthy scenes where Arthur manages yet again to
embarrass Blake. Jim Broadbent plays Arthur, in a towering portrayal of
a difficult man. Arthur’s a rogue, not above using his status as a
doctor to push ahead in a queue waiting to get in to the car races.
This is how the film opens, and we immediately see the fraught
relationship Arthur has with his fellow GP wife (the superb Juliet
Stephenson), his son Blake, and daughter Gillian (Claire Skinner). They
watch in appalled admiration as Arthur triumphantly lies his way into
the private members’ carpark and special seats.
Arthur repeats this sort of behaviour
throughout his life. And most people seem to love him for it. But he
embarrasses Blake, often in front of girls. He refers to Blake as
“Fathead,” and he never seems to acknowledge his son’s successes, even
when Blake wins an important award for poetry. Worse, Blake suspects
Arthur has had an affair with Aunty Beaty.
Arthur never seems to show any emotion with
Blake. He’s not the type. Blake, too, is stitched-up and closed-in,
having been discouraged and belittled at every turn by his father. So
when, towards the end of the film, Blake finds a form of release and
begins to cry, it is a genuinely shocking moment. But there is no
Hollywood style reconciliation in this film. Colin Firth’s Blake is an
internal being, and it is a beautifully restrained performance. Matthew
Beard’s portrayal of the teen-aged Blake is intelligent, restrained and
quite striking. Juliet Stephenson, as Arthur’s wife, plays way above
her age with ease and grace.
Director Anand Tucker’s two previous feature
films were Hilary and Jackie
(1998) and Shopgirl (2005),
both sensitive films. But here he delivers a really beautiful
meditation on how we see our parents and what they mean to us. The
final scenes of the film ask the question of the title: when did you
last see your father? When was he last the way you want to remember
him, before he was too ill, before he lost that spark of
mischievousness that you loved and hated at the same time? The answer
is both unbearably sad and amazingly consoling.
The Band's Visit - Israel -
Dir: Eran Kolirin
This first feature by Israeli TV writer/director Kolirin has a
heart of gold. He has said that as a boy he and his family and friends
would watch Egyptian films on TV every Friday, and they made a deep
impression on him: meodramas, soap operas, musicals - and all the while
the 2 countries were at war. This paradox forms the very core of
The film opens with a confident visual style: not naturalism, but a
kind of heightened reality - not surreal, but pared-back, symbolic,
almost like a parable. We see a white van, and behind that, a small
band in full military uniform - in powder blue. They are at an airport,
but it is almost deserted. The band leader has an unmistakeable air of
dignity to him. But they are clearly fish-out-of-water.
After some amusing confusion, they are on a bus riding through vast
expanses of desert, until they arrive in the middle of nowhere. The
film has adopted a sweet, sardonic tone, reminiscent of Aki Kurasmaki
and his Leningrad Cowboys, but with more dignity.
What follows is frequently hilarious, and often very moving. Kolirin,
who also wrote the screenplay, manages to deal with the personal issues
of each member of the band, but so economically and with such humour
and compassion that we barely register the thoroughness of the
process. There's a scene in a roller disco that is just a
masterclass in bittersweet comedy. And the final scenes, when we
actually hear what the band has come to play, are a revelation.
This is the true nature of these Egyptians. This is their culture. This
is what they have to offer.
Likewise, The Band's Visit is
Unfinished Sky - Australia -
Dir: Peter Duncan
This film is a remake of a Dutch hit called The Polish Bride. The writers have
relocated the action from Europe, with a Polish economic refugee, to
Australia, with an Afghani political refugee. Amazingly, the same
woman, Dutch star Monic Hendrickx, plays both roles. To play an Afghani
woman, she learned the Dari language. It is an amazing feat.
Unfortunately, for me, it never quite worked. To me, she was like
Afghan lite. I couldn't believe in her character.
The two central performances are strong, however, and William McInnes
really inhabits his character of the taciturn Queensland farmer whose
heart has been turned to stone by events in his past. The love story
that follows between the Queenslander and the Afghan is sweetly told,
and unfolds languidly. The film becomes much more interesting when both
characters can communicate with each other - at last the actors can
really work. True, there are some false notes - Monic's character
Tahmeena learns English very quickly, whereas McInnes' character, John,
learns barely a word of Dari. Why do't they call the police when
they could do so easily?
But my main problem with the film is the abrupt change of pace when the
twist comes at the end. It seemed to make the film into something
else altogether. It's effectivel done, but I didn't buy it. The
character of the friendly country copper (the amazing David Field) is a
cracker, but seems to belong elsewhere. I guess it is just one of
the hazards of forcing a remake into another mould.
Ten Empty - Australia -
Dir: Anthony Hayes
Another first feature, this time from Anthony Hayes, one of Australia's
most striking young actors (The Boys
(1998), Suburban Mayhem
(2006), Look Both Ways
(2005), The Square (2008), The List (2008), etc. He co-wrote
the film with playwright and actor, the whit-hot Brendan Cowell.
It's a promising pedigree for a film.
I'm sorry to report that this film didn't work for me. It seems to try
too hard. It feels forced. The eye for period detail is just too good.
Yes, we realise that this family must be stuck in the past: it seems
they haven't bought anything new since the early 80s. Even the music at
the club comes from the 80s - "Come Said the Boy" by Mondo Rock and
"Heaven" by Eurogliders. But no, it's not the 80s - they mention
The cast is great, and do their best. But the mood is dire. When Jack
Thompson arrives on the scene, it is a blessed relief. He lights up the
screen. But the sub-plot involving Elliott and Bernadette doesn't ring
true to me. And the device of the Ten Empty canvases is also forced, I
The idea behind this film is a worthy one: it deserves more
exploration. The sense of place is excellent, and as I said the cast
does good work. Maybe the film-makers overreached themselves.
It's a good try, but I think this would have made a more powerful
50 minute film.