Sydney Film Festival
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Wednesday 3 June
- Opening night film
Ruben Guthrie (Australia,
Dir: Brendan Cowell)
I saw this work as a play produced by the Belvoir Theatre in 2009. It
was its 2nd incarnation: it had been produced at the Downstairs theatre
in 2008, and graduated to Upstairs the following year. Both productions
starred Toby Schmidt, charismatic and convincing in the title role. Now
the writer, Brendan Cowell, has directed the film version. How does it
It compares well, I think. The play was intimate and claustophobic,
with a huge bar extending across the back of the stage, looming over
all the action. The film version is completely opened out: Destination
NSW would be thrilled with the harbour and river backdrops: Rose Bay
looks the size of Sydney Harbour, and Ruben's Dad's restaurant on the
water looks truly inviting.
But the message of Ruben Guthrie is confronting: does Australia (and
Sydney in particular) have a drinking problem? Has hedonism taken over
everything and are we heading (like Ruben) for a terrible fall?
The film starts with a great credits sequence with the names of the
cast trademarked or patented. Ruben is said to have won the "best ad"
award at Cannes for his campaign for Sydney's Vivid Festival (which is
a real festival, and still going as I write). There's lots of wit and
lots of show-offy name-dropping and place-dropping, but there are also
plenty of uncomfortable moments. I think what Cowell is doing is
challenging us: OK you're not an alcoholic, but do you drink all the
time? What does that say about you?
The lead role is taken this time by Patrick Brammall (Griff the Invisible (Leon Ford,
2010), TV's The Moodys), who
is a more powerful and less cute Ruben. He's showy but he can certainly
change gear and he's a convincing cryer. Theatre royalty fill out the
senior roles: Robyn Nevin is excellent (and creepy) as Ruben's Mom and
Jack Thompson is both powerful and pathetic as Ruben's Dad. Is it too
much to say that he is now Australia's Marlon Brando? He does very
little, and yet his presence is electric. Alex Demitriades almost wears
out his welcome (both as his character in the film and in his portrayal
of Ruben's flamboyant friend) by going over the top. Abbey Lee is
amazingly convincing as Ruben's too-young Czech girlfriend, Zoya.
There's a bit too much flash for this film's good, and the subplot
involving the Asian girlfriend of Ruben's Dad is a tad too farcical.
And the songs written for the film by Sarah Blasko are too literal: if
there's a lost love, that's what the song laments, and there's even an
ode to alcohol. But there are enough good things in this film to
carry it over the line. It's very funny, it looks great, the cast is
excellent, and it packs a punch.
Good luck to everyone at the SFF Afterparty! I can't imagine the
vibe... I'll be on the mineral water.
Thursday 4 June
My Love, Don't
Cross that River (South Korea,
Dir: Jin Mo-Young)
This is a quite extraordinary and moving film about a
very elderly couple, followed over the course (it seems) if 4-5 years.
They are very much in love, dress beautifully, and are in remarkable
nick as the film begins. This film had the audience sobbing and
laughing, and kept us in rapt attention. A fascinating look at a
personal relationship that stretches back 75 years. And the
business with burning the clothes, and laying them out with
instructions, and in particular, the buying of the long-johns (which we
needed in the State theatre today, BTW - it was SO cold - was one of
the most moving gestures I've seen on film. And of course the
grieving scene was harrowing but a fitting tribute to a gorgeous man.
(It was the first of two grieving scenes I saw today, the other being
But the question is, how did
the film-makers get to know of this couple and how did they get such
intimate access? Brilliant observational work.
The Volcano (Guatemala,
Dir: Jayo Bustamante)
True film festival fare. How else would we learn about
Guatemalan Indians and attitudes to fertility and pregnancy and
volcanos? But I did know already about driving out snakes!
The Postman's White
Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky)
More wonderful observation, but this time with actors and
real peope mixed. The photography of water has never been more
wonderful. The scene on the river with the little boy and the water
sprite was just astonishing, in so many respects: beauty, timing and
performance all came together.
The Price of
Fame France, Switzerland, Belgium,
Dir: Xavier Beauvois)
Funny and sweet. Cameos by various Chaplin rellies
and Chiara Mastroianni has a good role, plus the film has a killer
ending! And an Easter Egg, so don't leave before the titles finish!
Dir: Abel Ferrara)
Willem Dafoe was a great Pasolini, and the grieving scene
at the end, set to Maris Callas' aria "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville was
astoinishing, but the film is very ambitious and I felt it lagged a bit
in the middle.
Friday 5 June
The Chinese Mayor (China,
Dir: Zhao Hou)
A fascinating and intriguing documentary about a
charismatic and supremely effective manager. He's got plenty of
faults, and so has the system he implements, but the most amazing thing
of all is the fact that the filmmakers have been able to make such a
revelatory documentary, with all its critical facilities fully-fledged.
This Mayor is great on getting things done (whether or not the should be done), but he's also a
micro-manager, picking out the artworks plundered from elsewhere to
adorn his "restored" Great Wall of Datong. Every morning he holds court
just like a Mafia Don or a Mandarin or even an Emperor, and helps to
placate those wronged by his grand works, sometimes solving their
problems with a sigatorial flourish, and sometimes brushing them aside
after seeming to listen. It soon becoems apparent that this guy
cannot last in the system. As soon as somebody notices what's going on
in Datong, changes will be made...
This is the first of many films that I've seen this year where the
backstory of how the film came to be made must be (if we could hear it)
just as interesting as the story told by
(UK, New Zealand,
Dir: John Maclean)
This film looks great (although I'm wondering how many
effects were used because some of the landscapes did not quite
look real - I
could be wrong but some of those clouds looked meterologically
improbable), but it was something of a disappointment. It began with a
number of clichés and the odd anachronism, and then continued
through some sub-Tarantino whimsy, some cinematic nods to Anthony Mann,
John Ford and George Steven's Shane.
Then it displayed some flashy word-play which was amusing but seemed
only to distance the viewer more from the characters and story, and it
ended in a great set-piece shoot-out but by then we are aware that this
has all been an intellectual exercise.
I was confused about the motivation of the main character, Jay
Michael Fassbender, is, however excellent, and his character deserved a
The Daughter (Australia,
Dir: Simon Stone)
This is the best Australian film I've seen at the
Festival for years, and I hoped it could win the Sydney Film Prize,
though I don't think that it qualifies as "cutting edge". It might be
"audacious" to adapt Ibsen in this way, setting it in modern Australia,
but I'm not sure that's the right word. After all play- and film-
makers have been doing this for years.
The setting (Tumut and Tumbarumba) is really wonderful, and it gives
the film a gloomy and mysterious air. Casting is superb, with Ewayn
I first saw this as a play at the Belvoir theatre, and this is one in a
string of successful Australian play-to-film adaptations at the
Festival this year, including Last
Cab to Darwin and Ruben
Dir: Cosima Spender)
A fascinating and beautifully-filmed doumentary
about the machinations of the famous bareback horse race that takes
place twice a year in Sienna. There must have been plenty of money
behind this, because there are lots of cameras to cover the races from
every angle, an the archive work is good too. There's a reason
that Machivelli was Italian, and this film shows that to a T. The
race scenes are so suspenseful, it reminded me of Senna (Asif
and Stamp (Australia,
Dir: Simon Stone)
Here's an example of a film that had plenty of
good material but should have been more assiduoulsy edited, so as to
cut its run-time of nearly 2hrs by about 30 mins. All the material
about Kit Lambert was fascinating, but not all the comments of Chris
Stamp were illuminating. You can see the role he played in the duo who
were early managers of The Who. Lambert was brilliant, and Stamp could
sell anything, and could generate a lot of hype and bluster, sweeping
people along with him while not making much sense, but being so
enthusiastic that it didn't matter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers have
also fallen a bit too heavily for his patter and prattle, and I could
have done with less of that. But the interviews are generally
illuminating and the slips are great too.
Listen to Me
Dir: Simon Stone)
This was one of my favourite films of the whole
Festival. It's because I really learned something about Marlon Brando,
and I very much admired the way the filmmakers used the audio
recordings and made them interesting visuall by various means. This is
a perceptive insight into a complicated man who had his motinatios for
all the choices he made, and was even more complex that we ever
Dir: Kim Farrant)
I found this disappointing. I though Joseph Fiennes was
wooden and suspicious from the start. Nicole Kidman struggled to do
something with her part, but I think she was fighting a losing battle
given the material. The two children, Maddison Brown and Nicholas
Hamilton were quite impressive, particularly Brown, and Hugo Weaving
was his usual solid self, delivering somewhat dodgy dialogue as
believably as possible.
I objected to the co-opting of the indigenous myth and legend byt the
filmmakers to serve a dubious purpose. The indigenous characters were
perfunctorily used, just to set up a bit of mystery. And the
whole proposition of the film was not delicately- enough handled. I
cottoned on to the mystery early and I found the rest of the film
unconvincing. Even just the fact that Joseph and Nicole's characters
went out in that dust storm - ridiculous!
Scientology and the Prison of Belief (USA,
Dir: Alex Gibney)
An informative and thorough documentary that answers some
of the questions we all have about why Hollywood has adopted
Scientology so enthusiastically, thanks to the participation of writer/
director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar
Baby, 2004, Crash,
2004), and others. Basocally a friend told him about an organisation
that will "take all your cash but make everything possible for
you". They get you in to a certain level, and then you invest so
much of yourself that you can't pull out. It's something similar to
when you ring an enquiry line and then get put on hold for far too
long. After about 15 mins it becomes impossible to hang up because you
have invested so much time.
Director Alex Gibney is fearless, given that these people have
threatened ex-members of Scientology. He exposes this "religion" for
the fraud that it is, and predicts that the numbers of Scientologists
will decline rapidly, noting that the problem is that the "Church" is
very rich due to the huge amounts it extracts from the wallets of its
members. The film tries to show that the problem is that people can
resort to all sorts of nefarious conduct if they view it solely through
the "Prison of Belief".
There were Scientologists at our screening. They were the ones in the
front row who asked a question and were very dark when they heard the
response. They asked why Gibney did not direct his attention to other
religions. He replied that he had just released his film attacking the
Catholic Church: Mea Maxima Culpa:
Silence in the House of God (2012). Question answered!
The only negative I guess is that I had seen (last year?) an ABCTV doco
on Scientiology that made many of the same exposés, especially
about the Sea Organisation.
USA, Dir: Bill Condon)
A charming little film about Sherlock Holmes in retirement
aged 93. Ian McKellen is Holmes, at 93 and in an earleier time: makeup
is fantastic! I loved the little boy, played by Milo Parker, and it
took a while for me to recognise Laura Linney as the boy's mother,
Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs Parker.
We are all so Sherlock-literate these days, what with the books, all
the films over the years, the Guy Ritchie films and the Benedict
Cumberbatch tv series. So a film has to be pretty good to pass muster,
and I think this one does. The bee mystery had me fooled. I
was kept guessing til the end. Fun!
Vincent (France, Dir: Thomas Salvador)
A fun little film with amazing special effects and it's
based on a great idea. The director wrote it, starred in it, and
devised the special effects and "cascades"! The characters are
well-realised, and the chase scene is fantastic. I just feel that
the film missed out on the payoff I was expecting. It has a nice
ending, but I wanted something more...
Last Cab to Darwin (Australia,
Dir: Jeremy Sims)
Another in a series of great play-to-film
adaptations at this year's Festival. Michael Caton gives the
performance of a lifetime: Jeremy Sims has made the point in interviews
that he is an actor of such great talent, largely unrecognised. He
would be a great star if he were European. And what a star is Mark
Coles Smith as "Tilly"! You can't take your eyes off him when he is
on-screen. He has a great future, I predict.
The only false note, I felt, was Jacki Weaver's performance as Dr
Farmer. She's playing a difficult role because her character, a
Dr Philip Nitschke type, is a bit of a self-promoter, and remains a bit
ambiguous throughout. But Jacki portrayed a similarly ambiguous
character in Animal Kingdom
(David Michod, 2010), with great subtlety and success. i don't know
what went wrong here.
So one point deducted for that problem. The rest is excellent. Even the
cruelty of Rex to Polly is explained by rex's need to distance people
from him, and it is esecially poignant.
This film doesn't go where you expect it to, and that's admirable.
David and Margaret's Favourite Films:
Love and Mercy (Australia, Dir: Jeremy
Dir: Ingmar Bergman)
The Silence (Sweden, Dir: Ingmar
Ian MacPherson Lecture:
Dope (USA, Dir: Rick Famuyiwa)
Democrats (Denmark, Dir: Camilla
Teheran Taxi (Iran, Dir: Jafar Panahi)
Villa Touma (Stateless (in Arabic),
Dir: Suha Arraf)
Sherpa (Australia, Nepal, Dir:
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch... (Sweden,
Norway, France, Dir: Roy Andersson)
Black Souls (Italy, Dir: Francesco
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, Dir: Hong
Our Little Sister (Japan, Dir: Kor-eda
The Project of the Century (Argentina, Cuba, Germany,
Switzerland, Dir: Carlos M Quintela). Rated:
audience favourite, and it did cause me to drop off a fee times (not a
good thing for the first film of the morning!). But there were some
interesting things there, including the most awful grandfather.
Song of Lahore
(Pakistan, USA, Dir: Andy Schocken, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy). Rated: 4.5/5
Well this is it: the Festival Film that should not be
missed. A fabuous tale of a musical tradition in Pakistan that
was in danger of dying until and enterprising man decided that the way
to revive the past was to bring it into the present. Or at least into
the golden age of Jazz.
The filmmakers could not have anticipated the amazing trajectory of
these musicians. But as Andy Schoken told the SFF audience, it is these
sorts of co-incidences that are pure documentary-makers' gold.
How a group of traditional classical Pakistani musicians found
themselves a hit on youtube, and then playing with Wynton Marsalis at
the Lincoln Centre, is one of those uplifting, glorious tales that
you'll never forget.
Since I've been studying music (drums) I have a much finer appreciatin
of musicianship, and of course the drums and rhythms of Pakistan are so
complex and virtuosic that it brough a whole other layer to me watching
the film. I loved the reactions of Marsalis' drummer to the
rhythms he heard.
(Germany, Dir: Sebastian Schipper). Rated 4/5
Talking of virtuosic, this film is a tour de force of
technical filmmaking, because it is a one-shot film, running 140mins (a
bit too long). OK, there have been one-shot films before, but this one
has exterior shooting over several locatios: a rave party, the strett
outside, a bike, a car, an apartment block, a carpark, a bank and a
chase. Unbelievable. Combine this with great performances of great
charisma, a sweet & poignant love story and a convincing (mostly)
heist story, and you have a terrific film all round.
There was one point at which I thought OK, this would not happen.
Victoria would not make that choice. But, cleverly,
we have already been shown just about enough motivation to justify the
decision, and in any case, I was so entranced by the film that I
continued along with it right to the end.
Some Kind of
Love (Canada, Dir: Thomas Burstyn). Rated 3.5/5
Families are fascinating, and people rarely see themselves as
others see them. But this family was amazingly talented and quite
extraordinary, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them. I'm
not sure the part of the story dealing with the filmmaker's
realtionship with his brother was as fascinating to us as it was to
him, but it did add a little something to the general philospophy of
the film. The sections dealing with the motives and ethics of the
filmmakers (continuing to film when forbidden to by elder uncle Joseph)
was also of great interest.
Friday 12 June
(India, France, UK, Dir: Danis Tanovic). Rated: 3/5
A curious kind of film, which I expected to like more than I
did. But it was nice to look at the handsome Pakistani star (Emraan
Hashmi) who looked like a cross between Imran Khan and Colin
Farrell! More later...
The Pearl Button
(Chile, France, Spain, Dir: Patricio Guzman). Rated 3/5
Another curious kind of film, something of a hybrid. More
later, but it was beautiful to look at, if langourous. It caused a bit
of snoozing, I'm afraid (it's that
time of the festival) but I woke up for the section on the Fuegians,
and continued on for the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. More
Tales (Iran, Dir:
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad). Rated 4/5
An intelligent and moving series of vignettes commenting on
contemporary Iran and its surprisingly modern problems. Beautifully
observed and written. Yet more time spent in a taxi, after Tehran Taxi and Last Cab to Darwin! The
Q&A with the director revealed the intelligence behind the
intelligence obvious onscreen. More later...
The Goob (UK,
Dir: Guy Myhill). Rated 3/5
I found it hard to follow this film for the 1st half-hour:
the accents were difficult, the sound was not sharp, the film began
right in the middle of things and the characters' names weren't
apparent. But after that I went with the film, and I particularly
enjoyed the performance of Oliver Kennedy as Elliot, whose appearance
lit up the film. But the film didn't go where I thought it was going,
or where I wanted it to go, yet it did go somewhere quite valid and the
setting was striking so I found it reasonably satisfying.
Best of Enemies (USA,
Dir: Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon). Rated 4.5/5
This is a very important piece of social history that we
need to remember now, when so much social commentary, and even the news
is so dumbed down as to be almost unwatchable. This docmentary shows is
the end of the golden years and the beginning of the end. Debate has
not since been so erudaite and also so entertaining and
inspiring. We don't even use the same sort of syntax any more.
This is one that I'd love to see again.
Dir: Sean Baker). Rated 4.5/5
Another superb film, this one photographed entirely on an
iphone 5S. As the Q&A revealed, the dsound was recorded by
professionals on professional recording equipment, which was
understandable and necessary. But this is such an authentic film in so
may other ways. More later...
Dir: Gillian Anderson). Rated 1.5/5
What a disappointment! I'd been looking forward to this film
since the program came out and I even managed to get myself to Cremorne
(gasp!) to see it to fit in with the rest of my program. And then to
see the story of Orry-Kelly revealed in such a jokey fashion, with
Darren Gilshennan inexplicably standing in for Orry -Kelly. There were
plenty of talking heads who may be costume designers, but some of whom
didn't know Orry-Kelly or even really know his films. To hear
people say "He must have felt... He must have known... It must have
been so hard for him...!" etc. How about a bit of
scholarship? There was some, of course, and there were some
really good clips and some terrific insights into the dressing of some
of the wonderful stars (particularly Bette Davis and Natalie Wood and
their body defects), but the elephant in the room was Orry-Kelly's
memoir, which was rumoured to exist, but which we only heard a few
passing references to - until the end, at which point its existence was
revealed as was its publication date of August 2015!
in it? None
of that is here in Armstrong's film.
At the Cremorne screening, Gillian Armstrong told us how she and
producer Damian Parer had never heard of Orry-Kelly before they started
researching the film. She asked the audience who had heard of him, and
about half the theatre put up their hands. I fear the wrong
people made the film.
Shouldn't it be made again? By someone who really knows the subject?
Sunday 14 June
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (USA,
Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon). Rated 4.5/5
What a lovely film. There are 5 times as many ideas
here than there are in half the SFF films! How
amazing to hear Hugh Jackman's voice coming from a poster on a wall!
This film won audience favourite at the festival, and rightly so.
Arabian Nights: Volume 2, The Desolate One (Portugal, France,
Dir: Guy Myhill). Rated 3.5/5
Better than Part 1, which I had to miss, I'm told. Interesting
film, paticularly the "courtroom" scene, which takes palce outside, at
Dir: Ingmar Bergman). Rated 5/5
Superb! An autumnal film indeed with unbelievably intimate
So that's it. 48 films in 12
days. More to write. I'll be back.