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Opening Night Film
Friday 7 June 2002
Black and White Australia 2.5/5
Shine. That’s the
set for the Sydney Film Festival opening night film.
OK, so we haven’t got there yet - but we could.
Instead, we get another disappointing opening night.
Look, up until about the 40-minute mark I thought we were doing all right. It’s a straight courtroom drama, I thought, in the great Hollywood tradition. Maybe a down-home film like To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe not Twelve Angry Men, but maybe The Verdict. Or maybe something along those lines. But no, after a that, the film began to lose me. I became bored, then irritated.
I blame the director Craig Lahiff, for not holding the line. What was the message he wanted to send? He started out on quite a few messages, but ended up sending none of them wholeheartedly.
Then I blame Louis Nowra. His script was lazy, but also schizophrenic. In the one screenplay he can come up with anachronistic dialogue like:
• ‘Ladies who lunch’ (said by the Crown Prosecutor's wife). I’m sure that was coined in the 80s (possibly by Stephen Sondheim in the musical Company -see Recording the Producers, below - but certainly he immortalised it).
• Barmaid: ‘We're just friends’
Kerry Fox: ‘In the biblical sense...’ Crikey! This is the 1950s! If anyone was referring to ‘the Biblical sense’ then they’d be using the biblical verb ‘to know’, and not being ironic, surely.
• Crown prosecutor, who is about to give a devastating account of the unspeakable crime he accuses Max Stuart of: ‘If you’re all sitting comfortably, I'll begin.’ Really! This is a cliche of the 1990s referring back to the 1950s, ironically. What is it doing being used ironically in 1958?
At the same time, he comes up with gems like:
• Max Stuart (an immaculate performance by David Ngoombujarra - the best thing in the film), who says, after his execution is stayed and then his case is to be reopened: ‘These people, are they going to kill me again?’.
• Max Stuart again: ‘I'm a long way from home. Maybe when they kill me I'll go home’.
The real Max Stuart, who appeared at the end, was a delight. if there’d been more of Max, and less of, say Charles Dance. He was another cliche I’m afraid. But otherwise, it was a good solid supporting cast.
And now to a legal disagreement. I was very annoyed that the screenplay had David O’Sullivan (Robert Carlyle - all at sea), and his law partner Helen Devaney (Kerry Fox, stealing every scene she’s in) appearing before the Privy Council. Couldn’t happen. To simplify things, the screenplay has eliminated Counsel, and yet highlighted the lack of Counsel by saying that the solicitors were intimidated because they weren’t experienced enough. And it had them advancing some of the most pathetic legal argument I’ve heard outside The People’s Court. Don’t get me wrong. I know this is fiction, I understand poetic licence and the suspension of disbelief. But this was just lazy. The real story is inherently fascinating, so why give us the Readers’ Digest version?
And it wasn’t just the lack of Counsel that was exasperating. There was a scene that took place in Judge’s Chambers, which was just ludicrous. The Prosecution and Defence and the Judge trying the case in private! Outrageous behaviour by one person, but by 3? Louis has been watching The Practice too much, I’d say.
The problem is that this film went out of its way to annoy me, and it succeeded
Saturday 8 June
I'm Going Home France/ Portugal 3.5/5
(Note: in the catalogue, this film is called I Go Home, but the script has the main character say, in a critical scene, ‘I’m going home!’
It begins with our hero, Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli), performing in a play, which turns out to be Ionesco’s Exit the King - and he's superb in the play. He’s also wonderful in the second play, too: 'The Tempest. By now we’re starting to get the idea. This is a story of a talented man on the decline.
Veteran director Manoel de Olivera is a master, and he seems to have lost note of his powers - although clearly he’s thinking about it. He gives us a whole scene focusing on one of Gilbert’s new shoes. Then Gilbert says he is always in someone else's shoes. - ie playing a role. This is one of the many films in this festival that is about growing older, and all the fears hat that involves. It is very moving indeed.
There’s a lovely scene when the master actor pays professional courtesy to a singing organ grinder. He shows a shiny new Paris. The little characters in this Paris are endlessly fascinating: the man in the caf⁄, the milkmaid (cameo) etc.
Like Kieslowski, de Olivera has the ability to hold the camera still for a very long time on a face - this time the child's face, in the stunning final scene. Michel Piccoli is fabulous in the main role.
Georgie Girl New Zealand 3/5
The makers of this film were canny. They knew thew there was good archival footage from Wellington, nightclubs, featuring several of the famous NZ trannies of the 60s & 70s. They knew this because some of them made those films.
The documentary itself doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of being a trannie vs being a woman. The story is well told. The filmmakers use TV and photos and a few really key and interesting and fun interviewees. There’s some funny and pretty ordinary music, which contrasts markedly with the excellent version of title song that features near the beginning.
Georgie has a wonderful ability to cut through the crap - she’s plain speaking, and it’s refreshing. The film is remarkable for its excellent editing and direction. But in the end it is Georgina who makes it. She’s 'a good chap' as described by one of the crusty old farmers who were interviewed. And that makes for a good film
Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song Germany 4/5
The Marlene who emerges from this comprehensive - but not complete - documentary is brave, talented, disciplined and with a will of iron - but also vulnerable and vain. But above all - brave. We see just how brave and how close to the front she was in the war and how much she did for 'her boys'. There's humour:
'Get those 2 krauts out of the kitchen' says Bette at the Hollywood Canteen.
And there are insights: the way Marlene keeps her eye on the camera - once when she sees the camera on the boat going over to Hollywood for the first time, and again when kissing a GI at the front.
But there's also a bit left out. For example, the narration (strangely, by Jamie Lee Curtis) says that having helped her sister and he brother-in-law and nephew by vouching for them at Bergen-Belsen, where they lived, she later disowned them, and we don't hear why. There's also no mention of her bisexuality, her many affairs and the intense pain she suffered in the closing years of her performing career. This is often the problem with films made by relatives - this film is made by J David Riva, Marlene’s grandson. Yet Marlene’s daughter (Maria Riva)'s biography of Marlene does not hide these facts. She must be the filmmaker’s mother, which makes it all the more intriguing.
Still, all in all, it is a moving and inspiring film.. When Dietrich sings 'Where have all the Flowers Gone?' in Tel Aviv, in German, it makes you weep!
Making Venus Australia 4/5
Wow - what a film!
A documentary about two idiots making a movie, with gullible friends and relatives who have money available in seemingly endless lots of $25,000, with no script and no clue about how to make a feature film, etc etc. Not only are they so stupid that they think that the cast and crew’s union is a government bureaucracy, but they also make - on screen -serious admissions of misleading and deceptive conduct and fraud and other offences under the Corporations Act - including knowingly trading while insolvent! Bring on the ASIC investigators!
In marked contrast to the subjects of the documentary, the director of Making Venus is clearly a perfectionist, and the producer is an experienced professional. So it is easy to see why this film works and the feature film titled one of The Venus Factory/ Starring Duncan Wiley/ The Money Shot fails.
Or does it? You never know if the documentary might make the feature film rise from the ashes...
Monday 10 June
Minor Mishaps Denmark 4/5
I enjoyed this film perhaps more than I expected - in the end because the characters were so well drawn and portrayed. There’s a very good introduction of each of the characters. And there’s plenty of unforced humour. For example, at the funeral, the way the coffin goes back and forth up and down the aisle. And the way it has red cabbage and artichokes on it instead of flowers: ‘When she’s cremated it’ll smell of school dinner’ says one of the sisters.
Each time the film threatened to turn into a Danish Lantana, which - by the way - I hated, Soren smokes 4 cigarettes at once, and the humour redeems it. ‘Couldn’t we just smoke a lot of cigarettes?’ asks Soren. ‘There are 7 left - l4 for me and 3 for you since I suffered the most.’ And later Tom says: ‘I'm an engineer. I can tell a dyke when I see one.’
The actors playing Soren (Jesper Christiansen) Tom and John (the father) are the best. However, the plot does descend into the predictable, and there is the question of the jerky editing style. In order to achieve a documentary feel, the camera was never allowed to sit on the actors. So what was supposed to be an actors’ piece was spoilt.
My Voyage to Italy USA 5/5
This wonderful documentary by Martin Scorsese explores the films from Italian cinemas that mean a lot to Martin personally. But it’s a fairly comprehensive list. The documentary was made by his usual team: (apart from the addition of executive producer Giorgio Armani!) The editor is Thelma Schoonmaker and one of the producers is Barbara da Fina. What follows is a list of the films excerpted and the occasional comment by me. Suffice it to say that this was my favourite film of the festival and that I could have sat through another 243 minutes - without a break!
Rome Open City (Rossellini)
253 Elizabeth St - the address of Scorsese's home in NYC - Little Italy (for a future pilgrimage).
1860 (1934) Blasetti
‘You can only trust your family - not the Church or the state,’ says Scorsese, of those times.
Paisan (1946, Rossellini) the 1st Italian film he saw (the 1st episode, Naples).
Fabiola (1948), Blasetti
The Iron Crown (1941, Blasetti)
Cabiria (1914, Pastrone)
Is he a little bit blinkered, especially about silent film, in the US?
La Terra Trema
The Bicycle Thief (1947)
The White Ship (1941, Rossellini’s 1st film)
‘When you’re a film maker, you gotta get the money first’, says Scorsese.
Voyage to Italy (Rossellini)
The last part of Paisan is set in the Po Valley
Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, 1947)
The Miracle 1948
1952- a case in the US in Supreme Court holds that blasphemy is no grounds for censorship.
Flowers of St Francis 1950
He embraces a leper then covers his face and falls down in a field of flowers.
They spin round to find where to go when they split up. One goes to where the finch is dancing. The film is about the making of a saint. ‘We don’t know how to live in community,’ says Scorsese.
Europa 51 - 'When you’re bound to nothing, you are bound to everybody.'
‘If Rossellini directed the facts, de Sica directed the emotions.’ says Scorsese.
Some ‘white telephone’ films (glamour).
Mario Camerini films
Il Signora Max
Shoeshine 1946 (1st de Sica directed film)
The Bicycle Thief 1947 (Chaplin influence)
The Garden of the Finzi Continis
The Gold of Naples- thin line between comedy and tragedy
Visconti - North Italian Count and Communist
Days of Glory (involved at end of war)
La Terra Trema 1948
Bellissima with Magnani
Senso - total artifice as the way to the truth. Fellini also used artifice
I Vitelloni 1953 - closest to Scorsese's life. 5 friends. Major inspiration for Mean Streets - 1973
La Dolce Vita (1960, Fellini). Made him a maestro. A little too much of everything? A spiral of pleasure and excitement to avoid the void of the cold war.
Included in Divorce Italian Style 1962
Voyage to Italy (Rossellini -intimate c/f epic quality of La Dolce Vita). Cahiers du Cinema recognised its greatness, if few others did. It paved the way for Antonioni
L’Avventura (1960). The importance of framing. Use of black and white was crisp, use of spaces and landscape around people to echo their emotions.
La Notte, and the Eclipse were the other 2 in the trilogy
Eclipse - people even more lost than L'Avventura. Antonioni said I'm looking for the traces of feeling in men.
8 1/2 (1963). For Scorsese, this is Fellini’s real breakthrough. The creative process is the narrative - you watch as Fellini creates the film. Scorsese says 'You can only explain a dream with the logic of a dream. The moods change abruptly - as in a dream.' 'A film about film that could only exist as a film.’
Red Satin France/Tunisia 3/5
Nice assured direction by Tunisian director Raja Amari. There’s a good establishment of place (what an interesting place!) and characters. Lilia (the mother, played by Hyam Abbass) is like a Tunisian Charlotte Rampling. The little pin in her demure cross-over dresses disappears after she starts dancing seriously.
There’s a lovely scene, which shows the contrast between cleaning the floor with undulating movements and the belly-dance. The film has a great sense of humour and it didn’t settle for being a melodrama (it could have been like Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce) or a feel-good movie.
And the final scene? It doesn’t resolve everything, but the future looks bright for the mother - at least she has managed to bring together all her friends at the wedding.
Tuesday 11 June
Dark Water Japan 4/5
This was certainly a damp film. It opens raining & dark, but there’s a sick yellowish tint to almost every scene. Technically the film is very good - suitably creepy-looking, suspenseful and frightening, but, oddly, not mysterious - I found that the secret was easy to work out, but there was the added bonus of the divorce, custody battle and psychiatric problems of the heroine. There’s superb acting from the mother (Hitomi Kiroki) and her daughter (Rio Kanno, who’s only 5).
Is it Gaslight by way of the Family Court?
It has the scariest ‘thing on a wall’ since The Lost Weekend. But I couldn’t help feeling the film would have been more mysterious if they hadn’t shown quite so much.
Under the Skin of the City Iran 3.5/5
This film is the story of a woman trying to hold her family together under increasingly trying circumstances. She comes slowly to the realisation that she cannot cling to the old ways any more or wait for her daughter to become independent - she must act for herself, and that means more than just acting. It means becoming radicalised.
An interesting tale from an Iran that is coming to terms with modernising, and globalising.
Borders France 3/5
My enduring memory of this film is of the wonderful colours: reds on blacks,
blues and oranges against the beige of the sand. This tale of refugees reminds us that not all refugees are honourable: one of the refugees is a wanted man. They may all be lying to each other. And they may all be going to rip off each other. But there’s humour too. At one stage a character proposes that they should dress at the (Catholic) church, but eat at the mosque.
What’s also notable about the film is its great pacing - it reminds me of the Crawford/Gable/Ian Hunter picture Strange Cargo.
Wednesday 12 June
Dog Days Austria 3.5/5
A weird, violent and ugly film. I couldn’t see much humanity in it, but the scene in which a candle is inserted in someone’s bum and they all sing the Austrian national anthem says it all.
Margaret Pomeranz loved this film and introduced it. She says it will be banned. Is that enough reason to see it?
Ah! To see some ordinary people (c/f -Happiness of the Katakuris when they see a bunch of ordinary looking people and all exclaim together ‘Ah! Ordinary people!’.
Are the suburbs of Vienna entirely populated by psychopaths and schizophrenics. If not, what is the director trying to say? At least Bad Guy (see Thursday 13 June), with its awful violence had plot development and a character arc!
Happiness of the Katakuris Japan 4/5
The film begins with a stunning and unexpected claymation sequence. This is the story of the world’s most unlucky B&B proprietors. Their first guest commits suicide. But what makes the film refreshingly different is that this disaster provokes a nutty MTV dance number. Later in the film, 4 bodies get up and dance to a bright little song called ‘Always be positive (OK).’ Then a volcano erupts! This is a funny, sweet and crazy film - a real original.
‘Ah - ordinary people!’ they sigh.
The Navigators UK 4/5
The film opens with a very tasty jazz score - music by George Fenton. The Ken Loach film is better than some of his recent efforts. There’s little here that’s overdone or maudlin. There is, however, a lot that’s trenchantly critical of privatisation (particularly of railway services) and it is relevant to our experience in Australia - in NSW railways in particular. So it’s a story worth telling.
There’s meaty and funny dialogue:
‘From now on, just doin’ the job is not goin' to be good enough.’ says a manager. And
‘A mission statement is where we say what we're going to do - and then we do it.’
‘Deaths have to be kept to an acceptable level.’ says the manager. ‘What’s acceptable? Two a year?’ asks an employee.
‘But its been agreed.’ says the manager to his boss. ‘What's an agreement? It might be an understanding that's been misunderstood.’ replies the boss.
And what’s interesting is that it’s a story without an ending. Which makes it all the more poignant.
Bellaria - As Long as we Live Germany/ Austria 4.5/5
This very charming doco looks simple, but it is also very accomplished. The film makers have managed to get deep inside the lives of the old souls who visit the Bellaria Kino - I mean deep. Beginning with watching these people at the cinema, soon we are in their homes, looking into their closets and suitcases, and hearing about their emotional lives and their philosophies of life. Somehow we also get an insight into their lives and what cinema means to them. We also get to meet one of their idols in the flesh, which is a real treat and puts things beautifully into perspective. The only spooky thing is the question:
Will that be me in a few years?
Thursday 13 June
July Rhapsody 4.5/5
This was one of my favourite films of the festival, but it crept up on me and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Asking around, tentatively at first, I found it had the same effect on some of the other people whose cinematic opinions I respect.
As soon as the film opens we see that the main character, Lam (Jacky Cheung) is a good teacher and that Cheung is a great actor. The film deals with the issue of aging (again). There’s a particularly graphic illustration in a scene where an old man chokes on food in a restaurant.
There’s also great beauty in the script. For example, when Ching decides not to have the abortion, Lam says ‘Our family started on that day’. There’s also restraint and rigour: as Lam says: ‘Life is a never-ending examination’.
Domestic Violence 3/5
Frederick Wiseman’s documentary uses his usual technique of using no voice-over, no guidance, and just allowing the subjects of the documentary to speak for themselves. It opens with police attending a domestic violence incident, with a wounded woman who is upset and incoherent. Later, we see the (kindly) police trying to tell her what her options are, and they direct her to a pamphlet, which she keeps ignoring. It occurred to me that the reason she kept ignoring the booklet was that she might be illiterate - how could a pamphlet outlining injunctions help an illiterate woman?
The documentary follows the stages of a domestic violence incident. First we see 3 female victims of domestic violence. Then we see the refuge they go to (there are lots of beautiful kids running around). We learn that this is the largest domestic violence shelter in the state, and there are only 12 men there. But as a reasonable percentage of batterers are female - the people running the shelter think that that men are just ashamed to report it.
Interestingly, the only men we see are:
• 1 man arrested for domestic violence at the beginning of the film
• most of the police
• a lawyer.
After we see the people in the shelter, then we look at the children’s discussion group. then we see a tour being given to some elderly ladies (possibly donors to the cause). Finally, we see the women’s discussion group.
I had to leave early from this film in order to get to...
Bad Guy South Korea 3.5/5
It was ironic that I left Domestic Violence early to get to see Bad Guy. This film is an extremely violent one, but also fascinating. Director Kim Ki-Duk shows no mercy in his treatment of the young heroine (Sun-Hwa, played by Seo Wan), who moves from a safe, cosy, educated middle-class background (although where her family is during her ordeal we never find out) to a dreadful and violent life of prostitution. This happens to her after she meets a gangster (Han Gi, played by Cho Jae-Hyun), but it does not seem to happen because she meets him. In fact she is the one who first commits a crime (or misdemeanour) by tearing out a picture form a book (significantly, by Egon Schiele) and then stealing a man’s wallet. The Director seems to be hinting that because she likes Egon Schiele she is interested in another kind of life - kinky sex! This hardly seems fair.
Han Gi doesn’t speak until the very end of the film: his throat has been cut from ear to ear and you can see the scars - so he can’t speak. Therefore he has to act only using his body, and it is a wonderful performance.
This film aims for realism, but it does not approach naturalism. The Director has said that realism means there is no redemption - only the possibility of psychological change. There’s certainly no redemption here - things go on long after you feel there has at least been some resolution. For me that signals that the director is not looking for neatness - he wants to approximate what would happen in reality.
So we have a portrait of a dysfunctional and co-dependent relationship based on sex and voyeurism. Devotion comes in many forms. Sun-Hwa seems to have no one to save her. She cannot leave even when allowed to. However, the film is almost Shakespearian in that a high-class college girl entering the demi-monde completely disrupts that seedy world that the gangsters and prostitutes others live in. The violence escalates beyond what many people would find acceptable. Han Gi sis resilient enough that the film could have been called ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Die’.
The film constantly surprises. In one scene there is very soppy music as Sun-Hwa resigns herself to stay. But the music stops abruptly when she cries and then the music starts again. Then it stops, Sun-Hwa approaches Han Gi, she vomits all over him, and then soppy music starts again! And her (prostitution) room is a parody of a girl’s bedroom
This is a film, which deals with mutual obsession and the captor/ victim relationship. There’s a wonderful use of body language, and a strong sense of claustrophobia. But suddenly, at the end, it turns into Vertigo. Don’t ask me why!
A real ‘film festival’ film. Not perfect, not pleasant, but well-realised and challenging.
Friday 14 June
The Marriage Certificate China 3/5
This film made me feel slightly uncomfortable. The way the mental patients are treated is dubious - they are (borderline) made fun of. After a while I began wondering whether it was a kind of Chinese All About Eve? Feng Gong’s assistant wants to write the first draft of his paper, and she smiles to herself when she gets her way. But that aspect of the film wasn’t really pursued.
Did Coke sponsor the film? There seem to be product endorsements galore (on the bus and when they drink in the country)
This is a film about the contrast between the time under Mao (& the People's Commune) and now, with western influences (Coke) and modern attitudes, but still with the old rules & bureaucracy.
Good performances, but I think the story was stretched to the irritation point.
A Huey P Newton Story USA 4.5/5
Here’s a master filmmaker in action. Spike Lee takes a performance piece, inserts documentary material and uses other filmic techniques to make this material electrifying.
A most mannered performance, but all to good effect. Roger Guenveur Smith gives us a tour de force as he embodies Huey P Newton. I must have been too stunned to take notes (and Roger speaks really fast so there’s a lot of material in this one-man show). The only
quotes I have taken down are : 'The opposite of both love & hate is indifference,' and the telling of the story of the Geek & the Freaks. This was an amazing co-incidence since I had only the week before seen a film shown for the Biennale of Sydney called Nightmare Alley (1947, Edmund Goulding) in which the story behind the circus ‘geek’ was explained. That’s synergy for you.
Unseen Cinema: Picturing a Metropolis USA 2/5
How can it be unseen if I’ve seen it? I’m referring to Gold Diggers of 1935 and the ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ sequence. Millions have seen this.
This was quite a disappointing session. First of all there was no musical background to the silent pieces - and there would have been when they were shown in the theatre. Some were quite beautiful, but they were hard to watch in complete silence. One film (I think it was Seeing the World - Part One: A Visit to New York, by Rudy Burkhardt contained
Joseph Cotton’s first screen appearance in the 1938 film.
Interesting, but not illuminating.
Saturday 15 June
Lost in La Mancha UK 4/5
Now this is a fabulous documentary, in both senses of the word. Terry Gilliam is of course a fabulist.
The film opens with Gilliam filming a Spanish theatre troupe, which may have been the same one that came to the Festival of Sydney a few years back, performing in the guise of Devils. It tells the story of Gilliam’s abortive attempts to make a film about Don Quixote. he’s been trying to do it since 1991.
Jeff Bridges narrates. Don Quixote, he says, is a man who gleefully rattles against all ideas & logic. This appeals to Gilliam. But right from the 1st meeting with Gilliam, the technicians look worried. The Production Designer says Gilliam is ‘a little bit the Quixote’. Ray Cooper, a friend, says ‘in the past he has enjoyed fencing under the cloak of an ‘enfant terrible.’’
As things deteriorate, Phil Patterson, the Australian 1st assistant Director, is on the verge of tears. The Production Designer, who is Italian, calls their troubles ‘La Sfiga’ - worse than bad luck - a negation. But Terry will not compromise.
There’s a terrible co-incidence between Gilliam and Don Quixote, perceptively stated by the film’s writer. We love Gilliam while he’s dreaming, but like Q Don Quixote when he’s sane, we know Don Quixote will die - so says the writer And again ‘The most painful thing was seeing reality win over Don Quixote in the end, because it did.
That the filmmakers were on the spot and able to capture it all - and that Gilliam let them - is fantastic. And there’s even a discussion of the force majeure clause. What a film!
The Outback Australian presentation 2.5/5
This was a fairly disappointing session in which film historian Graham Shirley selected excerpts from various films made in Australia about Australia and matched them to different categories. Maybe it was the breadth of the subject matter vs the short time allocated, but it didn’t seem to do much more than just listing films and giving us a taste of them. Somehow this didn’t seem enough.
Shirley pointed out that it took til the 1960s & 70s for filmmakers to film Aborigines speaking about their relationship to the land. That was a fascinating revelation in itself. The films he showed (and the categories he divided them into) were:
The Land My Mother 1976
On Sacred Ground 1971
Need to tame land & settle:
Sons of Matthew 1949
Bitter Springs 1950 - introduces the idea of the land rights problem.
One Night the Moon 2001
The Squatter's Daughter 1933
The Outback as a Garden of Eden:
On Our Selection 1932
The Sentimental Bloke 1931
The Adventures of Priscilla 1994
The Squatters Daughter 1933(fire out of control - actually!)
Dust 2000 (Ivan Sen)
Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975
The Back of Beyond 1954
Man in the Outback:
The Rats of Tobruk 1944
On Our Selection 1932
The Back of Beyond 1954
Wake in Fright 1971
Sunday Too Far Away 1975
The Lawsons (TV)
The Drover’s Wife 1958
A Girl of the Bush 1921
Sons of Matthew 1949
Rangle River 1936
Bitter Springs 1950
Surviving Shepherd's Pie(doco)
On our Selection 1932
Crocodile Dundee 1986
A Big Country episode 1 1968?
No Worries 1993
The Overlanders 1946
Beneath Clouds 2002
Recording the Producers USA 3.5/5
Not a documentary like the superb DA Pennebaker doco Company, (1970) screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 1998. In that film we saw Elaine Strich struggling gamely to do the definitive take of ‘Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch.’ She does take after unsuccessful take, until her voice is pure gravel - then she nails it! It was riveting. Here we only see the successful takes, so the film is not as interesting. It is more like a charming promo for the movie, than a doco.
Having said that, who could complain about having to watch Mel Brooks (one of my favourite comedians) explain his marvellous creation? He not only wrote the original film script, but the book of the musical, and all of the songs too! Then we get Nathan Lane (what a professional!) and Matthew Broderick and the rest of the cast. A treat, but not a great documentary. Heil (Mel) himself!
Bloody Sunday UK 4.5/5
This film was too exciting and too fast-moving for me to take adequate notes - always a great test of a film.
My notes say that this is a brilliant evocation of documentary style. It has some showy techniques - like the blackouts - but overall it works. However, I ask the question:
‘Is it cheating or a new way of telling a story? It’s Propaganda. They pretend to you that you have the inside story.’ And yet...
The story is well-structured - we see the build-up of the army -professionals vs the ordinary. There is very effective use of close-ups
The film makers are clearly making the point ( and showing us after the fact) that the government of Great Britain was at full-scale war with a section of its citizens, and that the army, once brought in - the paratroopers, for Christ’s sake - were going to act as they were trained, even if it was a ludicrous situation.
Fantastically realised, with a simply marvellous performance by James Nesbitt (who is known mainly here for his comedic TV roles). But is it a cheat? In the end, I don’t think so. The cinematic techniques give the film a strong enough style to make sure we know it is fiction. Powerful fiction. And a great use of cinema.
Sunday 16 June
The Laramie Project USA 4/5
I had seen the play at the Belvoir Street theatre in Sydney, and so when I saw Laura Linney on-screen in this filmed version of the play, I immediately reacted against it. Then Peter Fonda popped up and I thought I wasn’t going to like the film at all. Why doesn't anyone else have a Western accent, I wondered? Christina , for example, makes no effort at all to sound like she’s from Laramie.
But gradually the stars melded into their parts, and they brought their gravity to the roles, and all began to look just fine. The young man who picks the part from Angels in America for his audition (Jeremy Davies) was the first to impress. Dylan Baker is a standout as Rulon Stacey .and Bill Irwin is striking in the small, but crucial, role as the man with the broken leg. Laura Linney excels in a difficult role.
The director uses a grainy look to show the suspects in court. I wondered (in a similar way to the worry I had about Bloody Sunday) if this was ethical? However, it works for the effect and mood they were trying to achieve. And to counter-act the faux journalistic style we have the very effective use of split screen, which reminds us that this is fact-based fiction, not fact.
I have a practical (factual) quibble too: why is the judge describing the facts - and why is he doing so at the arraignment?
However, all in all this is a very good translation from stage to screen. It helps to open up the play to include the locale & landscape helped a lot. After all, as Rebecca says, ‘To me, it’s still about Laramie’.
Sisters Russia 4/5
The first thing you notice is the very strong Russian rock soundtrack. Then you notice the performances: both sisters are wonderful. The older one (Sveta) has a marvellously expressive but impassive face. There are other effective performances too, and a great use of location, giving great sense of place.
Sisters seems to be very influenced by old Brit crim movies - the music, the camera work, the low-life details, the pacing and the mood reminded me of films like Get Carter. However, this is the Russian Mafia, so we have duelling 4-wheel-drives instead of Jaguars and former-Soviet ethnic groups instead of London tribes. A strangely affecting film.
Cabiria Italy 4/5
This silent film from 1914 still impresses with its massive scale and special effects. Maybe it’s not as lovely as some of the other silents we’ve seen, but it was still fabulous. The exterior shots involving Hannibal were very impressive.
There was spectacle and plenty of humour (with the inn keeper). Some of the model shots would be hard to surpass today. And the costume design was truly outstanding
(c/f what Martin Scorsese said in My Voyage to Italy (seel earlier): many of the great costume designers are (and were) Italian eg Terry Gilliam’s in Lost in La Mancha & Baron Munchausen.
Monday 17 June
One Fine Spring Day South Korea 3/5
In a way, this film is simply melodrama with sound effects. But in another way, it sticks in the mind. I remember its mood even now, a month later.
The plot involves the love affair between a young Korean boy and the slightly older girl, which eventually breaks up and causes the boy to go into a deep depression. It doesn’t sound appealing from that description. But the amazing thing about this film is that (from my enquiries at the Sydney Film Festival) most men think that the girl breaks up the affair because she can’t commit, and most women think that the break-up is the boy’s fault because he can’t commit and then becomes jealous when she accepts that and moves on.
The film has many layers and many of them involve sound (he is a sound engineer) and she is a radio program producer/ presenter). Here are some of the things that struck me:
She asks him to 'sleep over' but they sleep separately and when he joins her on the floor and they kiss, she says 'Let’s get to know each other first.’ Then suddenly they are sleeping together to French accordion music!
There are generations here - a sub-plot involves unhappily married grandparents and the places where the characters & their relatives were born. The grandfather's mistress suddenly turns up.
A brass band plays the classical precursor to 'I can't help falling in love with you.'
An old man & woman sing Airirung (ancient Korean songs). But they say they can never sing them together - and yet they do so for the recording.
Yoo Ji-Tae (who plays the boy, Lee Sang-woo) has such a lovely smile, even when he’s perplexed. So when he stops smiling in the film it is devastating! Then when the girl (played by Lee- Young-Ae) comes back, they kiss in a passageway with the wind going through the leaves. There are birds & crickets outside in the night when he cries on her bed. ‘How could love fade away?’ he asks & smiles. It is so sad!
Later, Grandma says ‘It’s hard isn't it?’ and she’s the only one who understands the pain. And then there’s a truly great line from Grandma: ‘Buses and women, once they go, aren’t worth stopping.’
In the end, Yoo Ji-Tae’s gorgeous smile comes back, but his girl doesn't. A wistful, atmospheric film, with a great emphasis on sound.
Something to Remind Me Germany 3/5
At the beginning of this film one of the minor characters remarks how strange it is that ‘You work in a call centre, but he never calls.’
I have to confess to liking this film and being totally fooled by it until almost the end. But other of my friends hated it, guessed the ending, and walked out, Am I off-kilter here? Anyway, these are my thoughts:
Here we have 2 films in a row about love-struck men. Right away in this film there is a palpable atmosphere of mystery. Leyla is at the table on the terrace. Then she’s gone. Then she’s on the sofa. Everything is cool and distanced. We know there is something strange about Leyla, but we believe that Thomas can’t see it because he’s in love.
The character Blum is mysterious, but perceptive. He asks Leyla why she is working in a shit job when she is young & beautiful. And what do you want from me?
There are clues everywhere, but I just couldn’t put them together. A book is called ‘Target: Man.’
I thought the ending was perfect, and the mystery was chilling. Am I right?
Stones Spain 4.5/5
Here’s a film that matches its songs to the characters’ shoes! (Eg ‘La Vie en Rose’). There are shoes everywhere here. One character is a podiatrist, others work in a shoe shop. A little boy doesn't have the right shoes to play soccer. His mother wears slippers while driving a cab.
This character driven piece was delightful, colourful, a bit nutty and warm. I loved the character Anita 's delight at aeroplanes, and the fact that the writer and director felt no need to tie everything up too neatly.
Funny, moving and joyful.
Tuesday 18 June
Uncle Frank USA 3.5/5
This documentary is other dealing with the unofficial Festival theme of aging. It deals with the film maker’s (Matthew Ginsberg’s) Uncle Frank who, on retirement, took up organ playing and visiting old people’s homes performing for them. As Ginsberg says ‘I guess that's what keeps him young.’ Later Ginsberg asks Uncle Frank: ‘Does getting older bother you?’ ‘Nope,’ says Uncle Frank, ‘It might if I was the only one getting older.’
Uncle Frank is philosophical about the symptoms of getting old:
‘Once in a while I get a phone call.’ Compare this with the short film Gosta & Lennart) in which Lennart sys: ‘I used to get 10 phone calls a day. Now I get 5. Soon there'll be none.’ Memo to self: Keep calling friends.
Uncle Frank is frisky: ‘I'm gonna put my slippers on dude,’ he says. It is apparent that Frank needs to do the organ entertaining to feel good, young, superior. When his wife complains: ‘We're getting old.’ He says ‘No were not getting old -we ARE old!’
When Frank is diagnosed with prostate cancer, it is another case of miscommunication by the doctors. Frank and his wife don’t understand that the cancer is 'normal.'
The film is almost like a home movie ‹ but the intimate style fits well. The slightly out-of-focus lounge room is intimate and confidential. ‘See these rainbows on the wall - that’s your life going by,’ says Uncle Frank, as the clock keeps ticking.
This is a very promising film by a first-time feature-length documentary film maker, but, like Georgie Girl, it is really made by the star quality of its subject.
Bend it Like Beckham UK 3.5/5
This film was the most popular feature film at the festival, but I didn’t love it. It’s actually a very cynical film: the director, Gurinder Chadha, admitted at the Festival Q & A that her intention was to make a film with the widest possible appeal - with an Indian Girl in the centre. Which is why she made it about football.
Chadha says that football is a metaphor for whatever you can achieve, and that the film is about femininity and asks the question: who decides what that means. That’s a lovely question, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t handled more seriously. But this is not a serious film, so it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the fluff.
The film is very funny, but also a bit exploitative. I liked Frank Harper in the small role of
Keira Knightly’s father. He made a real relationship out of a tiny amount of screen time. But I did not like Juliet Stephenson in the role of Keira Knightly’s mother. She is written as a cartoon character, and she overplays even that. It just didn’t ring true. Perhaps the same could be said of the extended Indian family, but I didn’t find it overdone, and I thought all their performances were charming.
Escape to Paradise Switzerland 3.5/5
Some of my friends walked out of this film, saying it was a propaganda film made by the Swiss to encourage all refugees to tell the truth, and to show the world that the system ids based on truth. I think they seriously misread the film.
In the final scene of the film, when the family finally gets an apartment the son, Baran, says
‘Dad, do we have to live here now?’ and you see that their future is bleak. But there are fun moments too, like the competition for who has the biggest scars (c/f Bend it Like Beckham!)
I thought the film effectively showed the terror of being a refugee, and the lottery that refugee status-seeking can be. Even approaching footsteps & knocking on a door is terrifying to the mother in this story. There is an effective use of flashbacks - especially in their timing. There are poignant lines like this, when the father is trying to work out the story to tell the authorities:
‘My Story? Who the hell am I?’ says the father.
‘You're my Dad,’ says his son.
A moving film.
Wednesday 19 June
The Trouble with Merle Australia 3.5/5
This documentary is a fascinating story, well told. The story is revealed gradually, cleverly, maximising the mystery. The first half of film takes place in Tasmania, then moves to Calcutta, and then North America. There’s good photography and a good choice of settings ‹ both the landscape and the interiors are well chosen and interestingly photographed. The excellent music was by Jan Preston (who has performed at a previous SFF).
The Tasmanian writer, Cassandra Pybus is used well. She remarks that the mystery of Merle Oberon connected Tasmania to the world, and showed you could get out! The narrator is a bit unreliable at times (mischievously so, I think!). For example, she refers to ‘Ron, Merle’s brother,’ when that is by no means established. But then she reminds us that it is just a story which ‘just won't go away'. And the local Tasmanians won’t give it up. As Cassandra Pybus says ‘This is not a story for this generation of Australians.’ They just won’t let go of the glamour.
I loved the quote from Merle to Laurence Olivier: ‘With a past like mine, one can never be sure about anything.’ In fact, I would have loved to have more of the clips from merle’s film captioned (hardly any were). The produced said during the Q & A that they deliberately didn’t ID the films because it is not a bio-pic, and the films were not there for the films themselves, but just to show Merle. But I think in retrospect they regret that decision, and may revisit it.
One thing I objected to in the Q & A was the way the audience and the producer kept referring to the way that Hollywood concocted Merle’s identity. In fact it was Alexander Korda’s London Films, a UK company. Why give Hollywood credit for everything? The film makes this clear, so why didn’t the producer correct this mistake?
The Slaughter Rule USA 3/5
This is a tough little film by twin brothers who came to Sydney for the festival (and whom I chatted to). One of the points I made to them (and which they didn’t see until I spent a while explaining it to them (!) is that this film could be seen as a male counterpart to Bend it Like Beckham. This is a film that asks the question: What does it take to be a man? There are even similar moments ‹ such as when someone sees Roy & Gideon together (and possibly misinterprets the relationship ‹ or do they?)
As Roy says: ‘My father told me if I was hard enough I wouldn’t break. He lied. Everything breaks.’
The film revolves around the sport of 6-Man Football. It is tough. It is rough-necking in Texas. There's no place to hide. The ‘Slaughter Rule’ is the rule that if a team gets 45 points ahead they call the game.
Ryan Gosling is excellent in the main role. Kelly Lynch and Clea Duvall play the only two real female roles and there is not enough of them, but they are very effective in the short times they are on screen. The film makers admitted to me that they were very concerned at cutting out much of the female performances (which they had to do for time reasons). Eddie Spears is wonderful in a supporting role as the Native American friend.
It is also another film about boys and girls splitting up (an unofficial festival theme). There is probably too much material for one film, but all of it is interesting.
Secret Ballot Italy/ Iran 2.5/5
Here’s an interesting film from Iran (presumably made with Italian money) about the importance of voting. At least I thought it was about the importance of voting, but then after the film, as we went out to vote, I heard a boy said to his friends: ‘How ironic - we have just seen a film about how dumb voting is.’
That amazed me. I had come out of the film thinking it had told me that it is important to vote, even if it doesn't count. And it is also important to obey the law (in the form of a red light) ‹ except if it turns out it is (still) broken.
The film has interesting characters, such as the mysterious Granny Baghoo who has her own government, and the man at the solar station who votes for God: ‘But God isn't a candidate.’ ‘God is my candidate.’ There’s an almost absurdist script. It is beautifully photographed, but in the end it is a bit try-hard, a bit heavy on the message. The music was great, though.
The film ends with a change of shift - but the soldier still stands guard. He can’t sleep - he’s been changed forever. It’s a lovely image.
Late Marriage Israel/ France 2/5
This was probably the most disappointing film of the festival. It travels the fine line between comedy and parody, and it spills over too often into parody. For example, the old married couples are made fun of. They dress loudly and they are fat and ugly. The parents are all broad comedy characters. It is almost like The Sopranos. The singles are all glamorous & loving. But Zaza and his girl Judith and her daughter are the real ones. They are not cartoons.
The sex scene between Zaza and Judith is compelling, but not compelling enough to save the film. The film rams home its message: if the older generation forces their will on the younger, then the younger generation will repeat the sins of the fathers. Tragic, but a one-note film.
Thursday 20 June
Abandoned Hungary 5/5
This was one of my favourite films of the festival.
It is a sad film about the abuse of children in the institutions of newly Communist Hungary. It is partially based on the director’s (Arpad Sopsits’) early life (poor baby!). The story is depressing, but the style is wonderful. The performances are uniformly brilliant (even the little kids) and there are so many scenes that stick in the memory. The cinematography, by Peter Szatmari is almost monochrome ‹ dark, dank and coldly beautiful, with the crisp snow and the cold water almost palpable.
Some of things I loved about the film were:
It seems this lovely and moving film won’t get a theatrical release in Australia ‹ it is coming to SBS World movies on August 25 & 26, 2002.
Swing France 5/5
Lucky me ‹ two of my top 5 films of the Festival in a row!
This is a joyful and moving film about what’s important in life. Mostly this is music and love ‹ and who could argue with that?
There’s a truly great scene where a huge group of people play a Russian song (‘Dark Eyes’) and then a Jew, a Gypsy and an Arab all go off together and play music. And there’s another lovely scene when the gypsy shows him all the remedies & potions in the forest and they find a hedgehog (in gypsy dialect, ‘Niglo’) and make a potion to make them dream of the one they will love. But this love won’t last ‹ another film in which the boy and the girl split up.
Music dominates ‹ musicians Mondino Reinhardt and Tchavolo Schmidtt are the main contributors (Warner Music France (WEA)). Mondino Reinhardt plays Miraldo, who teaches a young boy about music (and life). When Miraldo dies, it is gypsy tradition to burn his possessions ‹ so there’s a beautiful scene in which the roses burn and his beautiful guitar burns, and its strings break and the caravan goes up in smoke and Swing wears a dress for the only time, and Max cries, and Max leaves.
But the music goes on, one hopes, in Max’s heart.
L’Afrance France 3/5
This is an important film about colonialism, immigration, overseas students, visas, black-white marriage, prejudice, discrimination, literature & poverty. There are lovely performances and a great ending. A good ‘Festival’ film.
Friday 21 June
All About my Father Norway/ Denmark 3/5
This is a fascinating documentary made by a son about his transvestite father - but maybe it was made a bit too soon. Maybe the director, Even Benestad, is too young to be making this documentary. He certainly injects himself into it, and it is certainly being made at a time when things are in a state of flux. Perhaps this is even because of the documentary. One longs for the follow-up, which would ideally be a kind of inverse of the 7-Up series, with the director growing up instead of the subjects.
At the beginning, the problem with documentaries and truth is acknowledged: ‘You’re only getting one side of the story,’ says Espen, the father. As the film goes on, Espen begins to mind them talking about him behind his back: ‘It has became quite emotional for me,’ he says. The film gets very messy when it concentrates on the divorce. Espen wants to steer the documentary away from it. But it is difficult for the three of them (father, son and daughter) to communicate.
At the book launch, Espen (as Esther) is the centre of attention and she cries. She calls herself and her wife Elsa 'uncommon people’ and her life story 'an uncommon family story'
'We could go on forever' says his wife. I believe it.
Technically the film is good: there’s very good use of close ups. And there’s a nice montage of dinner with Espen & Elsa. The music he uses is less effective - particularly the waltz in the garden is a bit circusy & oom-pah-pah ‹ that tends to trivialise the issues.
The treatment of the mother’s face is interesting. The whole of her face is never shown. Presumably she didn’t want to be identified. This issue is treated sensitively and not played up too much.
As we leave the documentary, Espen has changed. He wishes to speak for ‘uncommon people’. He wants to recognise transvestism/ transgenderism in small children. Even his voice is changing. This is actually happening during the documentary. As he becomes more feminine, he cries more, and describes himself as 'skinless.'
This documentary is evidence of the fact that there can be no such thing as an objective documentary.
Grill Point Germany 3.5/5
I liked this film more than some of the critics: one of them labelled it as ‘the most disappointing film of the festival. I don’t agree. I’d give that title to Late Marriage.
It adopts a mock-doco style - someone behind the camera interviews the characters individually (but there is no attempt to take this any further ‹ it’s just a lazy technique, I fear, because the interviewer really couldn’t have known to be there on the spot at the relevant times.
The Festival notes say that the 4 characters in this film are ‘living lives of quiet desperation.’ I wouldn’t go that far. They are just living ordinary unfulfilled lives. The spectre of aging is always there (another unofficial Festival theme): ‘But we’re still young so it's not too late.’ says Katrin. And Uwe (a knockout performance by Axel Prahl) is worrying about his bad teeth. Maybe you have to be a bit older to appreciate the sweetness of this film.
For my money, the first half works - does the 2nd? When the affair is revealed?
The shock discovery comes suddenly - like in All About my Father - except that it is more ridiculous because Chris has foam on his head! Things are just so domestic ‹ and I think that’s endearing. For example, the two couples discuss the infidelity over cake. And when Uwe goes, he leaves the window open like when the budgie (Hans-Peter) flies away. But the director takes the cameras off his performance, going for style over emotion. The camera is in the wrong place in order to pursue the mock-doco style. It’s an alienating style, which does not serves the subtlety of the performances. But still, Uwe manages to be brilliant. He gets to shine when Ellen (Steffi Kuhnert) comes back.
The horoscope theme (with Magic Chris perversely predicting the future) is amusing. But when he uses it to talk to his wife, it is pushed too far (as in Pushing Tin when the air traffic controller broadcasts his apology).
But one of the most charming and effective things about the film is the use of the band and their music (by ‘17 Hippies’). From one busker playing outside Uwe’s Grill point restaurant, bit by bit it builds up to the point where there's a whole orchestra on the steps after Ellen leaves Uwe. The band plays at the catered occasion with Uwe. Then they are on the radio in the restaurant.
Finally, at the end, the camera is in the right place. It shows faces of all the band and the patrons of the restaurant. It’s almost Eisenstein!
At the end the whole Festival audience went 'Ahhh!' - They got it!
Donnie Darko USA 2/5
This is a very troubling film. From the Tarantino rip-off (there’s a detailed and jarring conversation about Smurfs, and music is used in a very Tarantino way), to the cynical exploitation of schizophrenia and the attempt to link it to the paranormal, this film disturbs me. I find it dishonest and disingenuous.
At times you wonder whether you are watching The Sixth Sense ‹ whether anything is actually happening at all ‹ why doesn’t the therapist take Donnie seriously? At other times you might be watching The Hotel New Hampshire ‹ since a plane ploughs into a roof. This is another irritating exploitative thing - after September 11, every aeroplane that goes overhead is suspect. But then again, was this film made pre 9 /11? Sometimes you think it is a cut-rate Magnolia ‹ in this case the Tom Cruise guru character is a character called Jim Cunningham, played by Patrick Swayze. And of course there’s A Beautiful Mind, which dealt with schizophrenia in such a compassionate way.
Clues pile up everywhere. So do the pop culture references. The sound track plays Tears for Fears, The Church and Duran Duran (Notorious). Donnie and his girl go to the movies to see Evil Dead. Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is also on at the cinema. This is dangerous ‹ you risk reminding the audience about quality cinema.
The cast is interesting. Jake Gyllenhaal impresses as Donnie, and Mary MacDonnell is terrific as the mother. ‘How’s it feel to have a whacko for a son?’ asks Donnie. ‘It feels just wonderful’ says his mother. Katherine Ross is a total shock as Dr Thurman. And is that Robert Downey Jnr under the suit? Or is it Jake/ Donnie (who looks a lot like him)?
I was very afraid all the way through that it was all going to be a dream. In fact it nearly was ‹ but in a more technical way involving a wormhole. I’d call this a dishonest film. I didn’t like it.
Y Tu Mama Tambi⁄n Mexico 3/5
It’s the sexual Cheech & Chong! Cheech and Chong go through puberty (God what a concept!)
This film is a boys’ fantasy. Ana, the older woman dies in the end. She succumbs to the old Production Code rule that a woman must be punished for being a sexual being.
It has good music, great locations, plenty of adolescent humour and bad language in amazing patois. However, the subtitles were so 'totally' LA slang ‹ it made me doubt whether they were a proper translation.
The film makes you want to go to Mexico proper. It is an enjoyable ride. But in the end, as usual, the men go back to their lives and the women (including the maid) suffer. The character Julio can’t even be bothered visit his doting old nanny’s birthplace. How can you like such selfish characters? To be fair, the filmmaker is drawing our attention to the lives of these boys, in a similar way to Late Marriage, really. Perhaps this self-awareness is, finally, the main redeeming feature of a film which is hard not to like.