Sydney Film Festival 2017

* If you arrived here after a search, either scroll down to the film you were looking for, or search the text for the name of the film. Please excuse typos as I am using a strange software that does not indicate errors, and I am typing quickly to get my thoughts down. I'll correct as I go.


Opening Night film - Wed 7 June 2017

We Don't Need a Map - Australia - Dir: Warwick Thornton - 3.5/5
The Director and Producer introduced the film. Producer Brendan Fletcher described the film as being "punk," and Director Thornton said it was "a little bit of bulls**t and a  little bit of bile made by two d**kheads." It certainly is punk in its motivation and partly in its execution, in that it is anarchic and irreverent and full of loud music. And that's a good thing.

We begin, fittingly, with an upside-down map of Australia. Throton takes us on a rambling journey through Australia, exploring the Southern Cross, via the creation stories of the indigenous people from different parts of Australia, astronomy, fishing trips, a tattoo parlour, interviews, and some very charming idiosyncratic puppetry (the puppet-makers came onstage at the end, dressed in fabulous cowboy finery, and nearly stole the show). This is a very personal view from Thornton, but no less valuable for that. All the visual aspects of the film are inetresting, and some are superb. The input of those interviewed is of variable quality: I thought the Rapper of middle-eastern origin was fabulous, both in his beats and rhymes and in his commenatry, but I wasn't so sure about the Anglo rock musician's contribution. He seemed like a mate getting in on the action. Dee Madigan appears, and is sometimes puzzling. She mixes metaphors by saying "If you are a girl, you want to hear through a sympathetic lense." And she also opines: "They have more right not to be intimidated than you have to carry a flag." I don't agree, but I'm a proponent of free speech. I think we have equal rights there. But her opinion is not challenged

Nevertheless, this is an important film, which continues to the debate about what it means to be Australian and to live under the Southern Cross, on Aboriginal land.

Thurs 8 June 2017
Spoor - Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovak Republic - Dir: Agnieszka Holland - 3/5
Spoor looked very promising, with a great role for an older woman. It began as a fable, with quirky chatacters and an interesting location, but it soon descended into the realm of the cartoon (eg. ALL men are cruel, even the Priest), and then finally it became Agnieszka Christie! I had hoped for more than a whodunit. However, the direction of the film by Holland is impeccably polished and often inventive.

However, the film certainly has its moments. The character of the entymologist is interesting, and his study of insects was quite beautiful. It served the important purpose of reminding us that the environment does not just involve the large otr the cute, but also the small and the (somewhat) revolting. I also loved the moment when the golden-haired boy fell into a fit and came to looking into the eyes of the shopgirl, whose head was haloed. There was also a precious piece of dialogue when our anti-heroine, Janina, speaks of the golden-haired boy as having "testosterone-related autism" - "where older men start reading about World War 2 and Hitler."

The Nile Hotel Incident - Sweden, Germany, Denmark - Dir: Tarik Saleh - 4/5
Film noir to its core, even down to the title, with its echoes of Kansas City Confidential (Karlson, 1952) and The Phenix City Story (Karlson, 1955). The old expression for a film like this was "Ripped from the Headlines", and it certainly is that. Set in Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring, this is a fascinating exercise in the use of genre to explore politics, crime, police corruption and democracy in modern Egypt - area that have always been fertile ground for film noir, since its origins in the late 1930s. Our anti-hero, Noredin (Fares Fares) is a lazy cop who can expect promotion in his job due to his Uncle being a Police Chief. But when Noredin (with such an arresting hangdog face) gets involved in the murder of a nightclub singer (how film noir is that?) he finds that he has a real talent for sleuthing, and he gets involved, first professionally, and then personally. Throughout it all, Mobarek's picture looks down on town squares and police and governemt offices alike. The film ratchets up the suspense with each scene and keep you guessing, right til the oh-so-cynical final scenes. An excellent thriller

Untitled - Austria, Germany - Dir: Michael Glawogger, Monika Willi - 4/5
This film didn't sound too enticing from its description in the SFF brochure, but I figured it was the type of film that could either be great or dreadful. Luckily, I decided to roll the dice and trust the programmers, and my faith was justified. This is a fascinating and unusual film of the type that you would only see at a Festival.

Director Michael Glawogger, as we hear in a radio interview from some years ago, wanted to make a film "which would never come to rest." But he died of malaria in 2014, whilst filming in Liberia. His colleague, director and editor Monika Willi (she edited Happy End, Amour, The White Ribbon and The Piano Teacher for Michael Haneke) decided to  take the footsge and edit a film to honour his intentions. The result is an unexpectedly accomplished and involving film, which moves from place to place and subject to subject, using footage of variable quality (the very first section of the film has a hair in the gate!), and following no discernable them or story line. But it moves along rhythmically and takes the viewer on a journey which somehow converys the essence of the vagabond soul of this dedicated filmmaker, Glawogger. The list of countries in which the film is shot is given at the beginning (and again, I think, at the end), roaming from Austria to Africa, and only occasionally does the narration - mosty by Irish actress Fiona Shaw – mention that kind of detail. At the end the words "Jungle of Eden, Garden of Hell" appear. I'm not sure what this refers to - I've been unable to find an external source for it. It does perhaps describe some of the extremes of the film. Perhaps it is something Glawogger said. There seem to be some worde of his own that precede it, describing how he wanted to disappear, in Harper, Liberia - but realised because of his colour this would never be possible.

So the film ends on this rather sad and enigmatic note, but the filmmakers have taken us tp places that we will probably never see in person, and have shown us those places through the eyes of talented filmmakers working purely on their own terms.


Fri 9 June 2017
School Life - Ireland, Spain - Dir: Niasa Ni Chianain, David Rane - 4.5/5
This is one of my 2 favourite documentary films of the festival. It has been meticulously made and edited, as we heard from the co-directors who introduced the film and did a Q&A at the end. They filmed over 2 years and had 500 hours of film to edit, which took 3 people 6 months just to review, and another year to edit. During this process it bcame evident whose stories they should follow - they had not known at the start of filming.

The story follows two of the head teachers at Headfort school, and  several of the pupils. Headfort is unique in Ireland. It is the only school of its kind: the only boarding primary school in Ireland. There's a different teacher for each subject.

The intimacy of the film is amazing. It must have been incredibly difficult to film over such a long period in such delicate circumstances. The filmmakers must have been totally trusted by the families of the children, who uniformly loved the results, as we were told in the Q&A.  This is a sensitive, poignant and totally involving study of the moulding of young lives, accomplished by people who absolutely know what they are doing, and are completely dedicated. Inspirational.

The Untamed - Mexico, Denmark, France, Germany, Noray, Switzerland - Dir: Amat Escalante - 2/5 (IN COMPETITION)
The weird-o-meter went off the scale on this one. I can never eat calamari again! It started with promise: a woman in an unhappy marriage with a brute of a husband, who seems to be having an affair with his wife's brother, and is violent to both. The brother is a nurse, and very caring, and he treats an attractive young woman who ecomes friendly with him. I had hoped to explore the lives of these people. Unfortunately, an alien spacecraft has arrived and its occupants are no living in the Mexican countryside and causing mayhem, sexually with humans and animals alike.

I should have reaised, with the strange and rather uninspiring long-held shot of the asteroid that starts the film that weirdness would be the order of the day. We don't know why an older couple is facilitating sexual encoutes between the tentacled one and men and women who are in need of intimacy. But they are, the lovemaking of the tentacles is something I can never unsee.

An extended Q&A with the director revealed that the first 2 drafts of the script did not inviolve an alien, but Escalante felt something was missing, so the alien was born. It is a metaphor for the unanswered question that the director is exploring in the film: "where does the violence come from?" The state where the film is set is very religious, and there is no sex eduaction. There is no admission that homosexuality exists. When the director couldn't answer the questions he was asking, he came up with the alien plot. What a shame he didn't try harder to answer the question. Or even leave it unanswered, but explored.

All this reminded me of another SFF film from years ago: Love Serenade (Barrett, 1996). I remember in the Q&A Shirley Barratt saying that someone - maybe a film school teacher - had told her that whenever she got stuck in scriptwriting, she should try to do a complete U-turn. She did this by inventing the creature who lived in the river. Escalante must have followed the dsame advice. In my view the advice is rubbish, and it didn't work for either film. This film is such a lost opportunity.

Sami Blood - Sweden, Denmark, Norway - Dir: Amanda Kernell - 4/5
Probably the most unusual and intriguing film of the Festival. I learned a lot about the Sami people (better known as Lapps), who were discriminated against in the worst way in Sweden in the past (the film is set in the 1930s). A great central performance by Lene Cecilia Sparrok as Elle anchors this fascinating portrait of a woman who is determined to overcome prejudice and become the thing she admires, despite everything, yet learns to understand what she has given up. Very moving in its simplicity.

Una
- UK - Dir: Benedict Andrews - 3/5 (IN COMPETITION)
An intriguing premise which ultimately disappoints, yet at the same time, of all the festival films, it is the one that I am still reflecting on now, a week later.

First, Ben Mendelsohn’s performance is superb. It’s a difficult, unsympathetic role, and it is to his credit that we sty with him throughout the film, willing him something of the benefit of the doubt. I say “something of,” because, as a lawyer, I found him GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY from the moment I realized what he’d done. But I was still willing to hear his side. Rooney Mara’s performance I found more problematic. I didn’t believe entirely in her ambivalence. She’s the victim, but the filmmakers want us to revise our opinions, and consider that she may have either entrapped her seducer, and/or been in love with him, suggesting that they should reconcile themselves. But the answer to that is NO, and the poor woman should not be in the position of thinking that reconciliation is a possibility. It’s is LOSE/ LOSE situation, especially when we see the last few scenes involving another child.

The film’s stage origins were still apparent, despite some effective opening-up. At the moment I consider this film to be another lost opportunity, but I’m still thinking and rethinking my view of this film.

The Party
- UK - Dir: Sally Potter - 4/5
I really liked this very funny film at the time - such a relief at the end of a long day!  But in retrospect it did go for some very soft targets. Lesbians (a childlike partner in boots and overalls (Emily Mortimer) to the dominant academic (Cherry Jones) – The Killing of Sister George (Aldrich, 1968), anyone? Left wing academics? The Labor Party? Merchant Bankers?  But if it’s a bit obvious, there are some great comedic performances: Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Timothy Spall. But Cillian Murphy is over the top, and Bruno Ganz miscast, I fear. Still, I quibble. I laughed a lot.

Sat 10 June 2017
Last Men in Aleppo
– Denmark, Syria - Dir: Feras Fayyad, Steen Johannessen – 2.5/5
This film documents some important and worthy material, yet I wonder about it. It’s clearly propaganda: these macho men can do no wrong, and they clearly put themselves in harm’s way day after day, but their motives are never questioned. Are they adrenaline junkies? Are they doing their jobs well? Efficiently?

But also, another nagging question: where are the women?  We only see a handful – maybe even just two. Dead bodies, yes, but where are the wives, the female relatives, the female witnesses? In the Q&A, the director, Feras Fayyad, said that they deleted all the scenes they shot with the wife of the main character, Khaled, who was killed after the end of the film. He said she was scared of the camera and scared for her life and the lives of her family. He said she is now in Istanbul with her new baby (Khlaed). It’s hard to argue with this, but was she the only woman in Aleppo? So I think we only saw part of the story.

Ikiru / Living (1952) – Japan - Dir: Akiro Kurosawa –5/5 (RETROSPECTIVE)
David Stratton introduced the film. He noted that the Americans call it “Doomed”, because they are “so literal.” He said that Kurosawa’s creative freedom after Rashomon (1950) allowed him to make this really very extraordinary film. David said its star, Takashi Shimura, has “the most beautifully expressive face.” He appeared in every film Kurosawa made from Judo Story in 1943 to his death in 1983. Here, he’s a very ordinary man. He knows he’s going to die in a limited time.

Some have compared this film to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), but David thinks it is better compared to It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), which David believes Kurosawa had seen. Like Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), it is divided into 2 distinct halves. In the 1st half, you meet the man and see what he is trying to do. In the 2nd half, you see what others think about him. It is filled with irony.  The 1st half is “real” (if you like); the 2nd half is illusion. Some people find the 2nd half anticlimactic or too long. David O Selznick suggested it was a great film, but they should cut the 2nd half!

This was a highly popular film in Japan – the most popular film of the year. It was seen widely around the world, but not everyone understood it. We saw a 35mm print from the Japan  Foundation.
….

Rip Tide – Australia - Dir: Rhiannon Bannenberg –3.5/5
This film is edited by my nephew, Adrian Powers, so I disclose my disposition towards it. It is also set in my beloved Illawarra, so I am doubly disposed towards it.  But it is a Disney film, and slanted towards a teenage girl demographic – not my area, even if I can recall what I used to like as a teenage girl nearly 50 years ago!  This film ticks all the boxes. It’s heroine is a pretty tall  and charming teenage model (Debby Ryan) from New York. There’s even a scene on a beach with horses and a hot teenage surfer boy (Andrew Creer). The direction is sure and visually inventive, and the locations star. There are some nice adult performances, particularly from Valerie Bader. What’s not to like?  It’s a simple story, well-told (with superb editing of course – check out how Powers avoids cliché in the airport scene!). The kids have voted it as one of the top 10 films in the audience vote. Onwards and upwards for Riptide and Rhiannon!


Sun 11 June 2017
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - USA - Dir: Steve James - 3/5

Steve James directed one of my top 10 docos of all time: Hoop Dreams (1994). He returned to the SFF in a big way in 2014 with Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, again a great favourite of mine. Here he moves from the intensely personal to the commercial – though he does it through the prism of a family.

It begins with a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), which I have already referred to in these notes in the context of Ikiru from Kurosawa, which I saw yesterday morning. Sadly, Mr & Mrs Sung were watching it on TV in the wrong ratio.  Clearly for them, the parallels are painful, as Mr Sung founded the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York, in Chinatown (another movie that features in this one). And the Bank suffered some problems to do with charges of systematic fraud, larceny and conspiracy to defraud, involving the falsification of loan application documents which supported mortgages which were then packaged and onsold by the Bank to “Fannie Mae”, the Federal National Mortgage Association which securitises mortgages, transforming them into mortgage-backed securities. The film shows the Bank’s position, which was that a handful of employees were being dishonest, allowing unqualified businesses and individuals to qualify for mortgages that they weren’t eligible for, sometimes extracting a cash payment along the way, and then knowingly allowing these to be passed on to Fannie Mae. They were prosecuted, with the Ne wYork County District Attorney (Cyrus Vance Jnr, son of Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State!) alleging that the Bank and its executive officers (mostly the Sung sisters – a group of women lawyers with the habit of all talking at once on top of each other and anyone else – knew, or ought to have known, of the deceit.

Much like Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Sung went out with a megaphone to tell investors in his bank, attempting a run on the Bank, that everything was all right (but in this case, it wasn’t).

As a lawyer, I saw quite a different film from many of the SFF audience. Little details gave away to me the idea that there might be more to this than was being shown, in this simple story of a small bank against the might of an emasculated US Government, unable or unwilling to prosecute the “real culprits” of the GFC – the Big Banks. One scene might serve to illustrate my skepticism: Mr Sung is eating a sandwich lunch during a family business meeting and his daughters are fussing over him and the sandwich, micro-managing every aspect of the meal. In a family of control freaks, how was control so badly lost?

The film ends unexpectedly (for me) in a great vindication of the jury system in the USA. I don’t want to say more for fear of giving away the ending. It’s a film that needs to be seen, but not necessarily for the reasons the filmmakers may have had for making it.

Happy End - USA - Dir: Michael Haneke - 4/5 (IN COMPETITION)
This is another film editied by Monika Willi, Haneke's regular collaborator, who also edited Untitled, a documentary reviewed earlier for this year's Festival. I'll have to do this review completely from memory as I have only that one note in my Festival notebook. The reason for that is usually that a film is particularly entralling - which this is but in addition this is a Michael Haneke film, and you dare not miss a frame or a subtitle for fear of missing something really significant....


The Throne of Blood - Japan - Dir: Akira Kurosawa - 5/5 (RETROSPECTIVE)
A superb reworking of Macbeth, reset on medieval Japan, and artistically heavily influenced by Noh theatre, one of the least penetrable forms of Japanese drama – and one which Kurosawa loved (according to David Stratton’s introduction, along with Japanese ceramics). Mifune is a magnificent Macbeth character, and Isuzu Yamada almost steals the show as the Lady Macbeth equivalent, dressed in Noh costume, thus rendering very creepy indeed. The final death scene of Mifune is totally riveting and really powerful, and I think Kurosawa even improves on Shakespeare to a degree, by the way that, before “Birnam Wood” moves to Dunsinane,” in an arresting scene, Kurosawa has thousands of birds fly towards the palace. He leaves out the point that “no man born of woman” can kill Macbeth, but that’s no matter. This is just a wonderful film.  


The Other Side of Hope - Finland, Germany - Dir: Aki Kurasmaki - 3.5/5 (IN COMPETITION)
The usual array of lugubrious or depressed characters appear to the usual fun comic effect in Kurasmaki’s latest offering, but with one striking difference: the star is Sherwan Haji, a Syrian, now living in Finland, who used to live in Britain. Despite the proliferation of hangdog characters, it’s an optimistic film in many ways, with a laudable aim: to show the progress of one refugee who has made his way to Helsinki. Some people help and some people hinder, and no one is a stereotype. However, that doesn’t mean that the story is always believable: the motivations of the other main character, Wikstrom, are difficult to fathom. But then again, it’s Kurasmaki, so I went with it.  Maybe there are angels on earth after all…

 

Along the way there’s much to enjoy: there is the usual quota of huge American cars, funny hairstyles, and interesting live musicians. Sherwan Haji himself plays a stringed instrument much like an Oud, and in response to my question in the Q&A afterwards, he admitted that once Kurasmaki found out he played an instrument, he wrote a special scene for Sherwan so that he could play it (Sherwan also composed the piece).

 

A good film, but not a Sydney Film Prizewinner, in my opinion.


Mon 12 June 2017
Wolf and Sheep - Denmark, France, Sweden, Afghanistan - Dir: Shahrbanoo Sadat - 3.5/5 (IN COMPETITION)
This is the film that I thought should have won the Sydney Film Prize. Not because it was the best film, but because it is the most “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” film. The story of how that film was made convinced me of the courage and audacity of the filmmakers, and the ability of a 20-year-old woman to make a film set in Afghanistan (where they make one film every 8-9 years) in Tajikistan, over a period of 9 years, is absolutely cutting edge. No one has ever done that before! In the Q & A director Shahrbanoo Sadat told the story of how the film was made, including how she couldn’t shoot in Afghanistan because of fighting near the village where she had set the film, so she had to move shooting to Tajikistan, but then faced the problem that no one in the village had a passport,  and – more than that – hardly anyone had fingerprints (because of hard manual labour) so no one could apply for a passport until they had backed off on the manual labour and applied hand cream for 2 weeks! Talk about being up against it!

 

The film itself is fascinating in its detail concerning the running of a village community, focusing on one unusual girl (based on the director herself) and it is consistently engaging, even though it ends (as many middle-eastern films do) it ends abruptly. It is a considerable achievement.


Yojimbo - Japan - Dir: Akira Kurosawa - 5/5 (RETROSPECTIVE)
I think Yojimbo is the film I’d recommend to people to introduce them to Kurosawa. It’s so mych fun, it’s amusing, and Mifune is great in the title role (which translates as “Bodyguard” – but Mifune is not the Kevin Costner type!). He’s the ultimate mercenary here, offering his services to one group or the other, and withdrawing them abruptly as well if it suits him Though he does not rensemble to typical “nobler” Samurai, you soon realise that Kurosawa is telling us not to judge a book by its cover. This mercenary bodyguard is as altruistic as the best of them. Highly recommended as an introduction to Kurosawa, or as just a fun film with some really excellent stunt fighting and choreography.

 

Famously Yojimbo was the “inspiration” for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Apparently Kurosawa, I have read, has admitted using the plot of The Glass Key (1942, Heisler), based on the 1931 Dashiell Hammett novel), but I can’t see the plot similarities myself.  More likely it is based, as David Stratton suggested in the introduction, on Hammett 1929 novel Red Harvest.


Madame - France - Dir: Amanda Sthers - 2/5 
Why did The Party work and Madame fail? Both are comedies of manners, both dissect society and class, but I could not connect with the characters here, much as I loved the production and costume design. It seemed an old-fashioned film, and I did not believe Toni Colette and Harvey Keitel as a married couple. Toni Colette is a superb comedian, but something was off-kilter here. And I didn’t warm to lead actress Rossy de Palma as Maria, or believe in the affair she has with Michael Smiley’s art dealer character.  It is almost as if the director was so in love with some of her actors that she just put them together and let them do their things. However, I missed the Q & A, so I can’t say if this was actually the case. I also found the film very hard to hear clearly, which did not help when the dialogue and wordplay was key.

 

I wanted to like this film, but I found it too far-fetched. Unlike many, however, I liked the unromantic ending: finally, some reality in this flawed fairy-tale.


78/52 
- USA - Dir: Alexandre O Philippe - 4/5 
This is really one for the Hitchcock fans. A whole film about the shower scene from Psycho (1960, Hitchcock). But having studied film at university, I can perfectly understand why someone would make a whole film, or write a whole book, about one scene in one movie. The film begins with the quote from Edgar Allan Poe: “The death … of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”

 

Director Philippe did the intro to the film, which had some technical difficulties, so he had more time than usual.  Later in the Q & A he was asked how he got authority to use so much of the film.  He replied that it was “far use” which he described as “very specific” and he had a “fair use” lawyer! This was a fascinating discussion, and I would have loved to have asked some penetrating questions, but this was not the time. The next question was about getting some of the famous names who appeared in the film. Basically the answer was that they all loved Hitchocok: Guillermo del Toro had written a book about Hitch, which had just been translated into English. He was keen, and Philippe described what a thrill it was to meet Walter Murch. He was extremely interesting on the technicalities of editing. Marli Renfro, a former playboy bunny and nude model  talked about being a body double for Janet Leigh. However I don’t know what Elijah Wood brought to the table, other than Oooh Wow! Philippe was clearly star-struck: he described him as “a cool dude”!

 

I asked a question about Hitchcock putting restrictions on himself: Rope in 10 min takes; Lifeboat all on the one set; Rear Window mostly from a static p.o.v.: here a horror movie in b&w with a star who dies after the first few scenes. He didn’t respond with anything new to me. Just agreed. He did say it was a difficult film to make: having to watch the scene over and over again, 20-30 times a day. Still making new discoveries, though! He also revealed that Hitch hadn’t wanted any music at all in the scene, but Herrmann scored it anyway, and now the music is integral. Finally he was asked about the people who didn’t want to be in the film. These included David Lynch, Tarantino (he’s still waiting for a reply), William Friedkin, and Brian de Palma.

 


Tues 13 June 2017
Mifune - Japan - Dir: Steven Okazaki - 4.5/5 
A great companion-piece to the retrospective of Kurosawa films, this was a very enjoyable and educative documentary. Before seeing this film, I had little knowledge of the life of Toshiro Mifune, other than that for a long while he was Kurosawa’s go-to lead actor, and, more than that, his alter-ego.

 

This film paints a portrait of a very likeable, handsome, down-to-earth man, who was nonetheless a glamorous playboy.  He liked driving fast cars, drinking whiskey (as his son points out in the film, often at the same time!). He palyed poker every lunchtime and yet he was meticulously professional in his craft, arriving early for makeup or rehearsals, mentoring and helping inexperienced actors, and doing his homework. His physical presence was extraordinary, and he earned his salary with the amount of physical work he was required to do – all strictly choreographed.

 

This meticulously-researched and fascinating documentary is worthy of Mifune’s high standards.

Wed 14 June 2017
In My Own Words Australia - Dir: Erica Glynn- 4/5 
I loved this story. It follows a literacy program designed in Cuba for indigenous adults, and it is facilitated by local indigenous people, which is part of the reason for its success. The program itself it a bit clunky, relying as it does on the Cuban model, with a film featuring Cuban students, thus adding an occasionally-impenetrable accent to the difficulties of the hopeful students.

 

The indigenous students and teacher are really engaging, and by the end we are really hoping for their success. This important film has a message which is ultimately moving. Recommended.  It’ll be on ABC TV sometime in July.


My Happy Family
 - Germany, Georgia, France - Dir: Nana & Simon - 4.5/5 (IN COMPETITION) 
This begins with a very interesting family setup: it is hard to tell what class they are – looks like middle. They drive a Mercedes.  Manana, the mother, is a teacher, who on the face of it is happy and settled, but those of us of a similar age can tell right away she’s only just hanging on. Soon she packs up and leaves the family for her own flat, and the film details her trials and tribulations, those of a newly-single woman in a patriarchy like Georgia. She’s capable, but no one can believe it. Her family is unbelievably selfish and she’s way better off without them.

 

The film resembles Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Scorsese, 1974) or An Unmarried Woman (Mazursky, 1978). Marana is witty and edgy: “If you feel bad, call a doctor, not your relations.” There’s an absolutely fantastic scene involving a family argument. She retreats to her apartment and listens to Mozart with a cup of tea, cream cake, and a book. Trees in the background blow in the wind (a recurring theme of this Festival, by the way). She takes up the guitar again, replacing a broken (7th) string. At a school reunion she is coaxed into singing and it is absolutely lovely and joyful. However, something is revealed by an old school-mate that will change her life and bring more drama to the film.

 

The only thing really marring this film is some unnecessary use of hand-held camera in a handful of scenes. Otherwise this is an excellent and fascinating film, offering a real insight into Georgian society. It’s a country with a significant film history and it is good to see it being continued.


Graduation – Romania, France, Belgium – Dir: Cristian Mungiu – 4.5/5
The films of Cristian Mungiu are consistently fascinating (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007), as are those of his Romanian compatriot, Calin Peter Netzer (Child’s Pose (2013 (SFF 2013))). This is no exception.

 

Corruption pervades this film, as it does in the Czech film The Teacher (see Friday 16 June, below). This is less stylized, and less comic. A stone flies through an apartment window, shattering it. A father cleans it up and drives his daughter to school. But he drops her off a little way before the school, and she is attacked – but we don’t see the attack, so we can’t be sure of the circumstances. The father is supposed to be working t the hospital where his daughter is taken, but instead he’s having illicit sex somewhere else. The lies begin.  They magnify. But apart from selfishness, once he finds out that she has not actually been raped – “just” assaulted - what motivates the Dad (a doctor) is that his daughter recovers enough to sit the exam that will clinch her scholarship to study at university in he UK. Complication follows complication as the Dad stops at nothing to manipulate the system to get his daughter in the best position. This is relatively easy in the Romanian system, which seems rife with kickbacks and favours and rule bending.

 

The film ends quite satisfactorily on a kind of cliff-hanger, but there is some optimism there so that we do not feel too bleak about the daughter’ future. The Doctor, on the other hand… The final scenes are set in the daughter’s school for her graduation, and the school’s walls are festooned with 1950s Soviet-style frescoes of aspirational school students working at subjects like science and music. This is another excellent (and salutary) exploration of modern life in Romania.


Thurs 15 June 2017
Motherland – Philippines, USA – Dir: Ramona S Diaz – 4/5
A little sleeper of a film, and one of those excellent documentaries that underpin the festival for subscribers. The title is a bit misleading in these days of “patriotism.” But it is also cute, since this is a film about the busiest maternity hospital, not just in the Philippines, but in the world. The film won an award at Sundance.

 

There is no narration, no subtitles, and no explanatory notes. Frederick Wiseman style, the director simply observes and shows. Of course there is shot selection and editing, as in any film. (The director said that they shot for 6 weeks – 6 terabytes of film!). The only written information we get is on the signs put up in the hospital. From this we learn that as the film starts, the total number of mothers in the hospital is 151 and the number of babies is 115. We also learn from the staff and mothers about “Kangaroo Mother Care” (“KMC”), which is an alternative for premature babies in a place with not enough incubators. It was developed in Columbia (the director later said she thought that was the source). Mothers wear what we would call a “boob tube” and hold their babies in this wearable stretchy top that keeps them close to the mothers’ skin to keep the babies’ body temperature up. This in turn makes them feed better and gain weight.

 

We meet a mother aged 24 who is expecting her 5th child (one died at birth). She is not married to her second “husband”. The language is interesting, because in this Catholic country, birth control is frowned upon, and yet they still give the unmarried mothers the dignity of being considered “wives.” We meet another mother who at 26 has had 6 babies and is considering having her tubes tied. There are so many fascinating stories here of poverty, ignorance and resilience. The circumstances of the filming, which are shown at the end of the film, make this an extraordinary achievement. The filmmakers had to wear hospital gowns and gloves and film behind screens – and yet they achieved remarkable intimacy. This is a wonderful achievement in documentary filmmaking. The Q&A with director Ramona Diaz only confirmed her talent and dedication

 

On Body and Soul – Hungary – Dir: Ildiko Enyedi 5/5 (IN COMPETITION)

This was my favourite fictional feature film of the festival, and it won the Sydney Film Prize. It is a lyrical, poetic romance, beautifully filmed and imaginatively realized. The care put into the film is easy to see on screen – the director advised that the team worked for almost 2 years on it.

 

The film opens with a beautiful scene involving a pair of deer – a roe and a buck, grazing in a winter landscape. But we are soon in an office in what looks like an abbatoir. Quite a juxtaposition. The story involves a slowly-developing love affair between 2 damaged people – an obsessive and distant public factory inspector (the woman) and a crippled and lonely factory finance director. Because of a theft, they are each interviewed by a psychologist, and it transpires that they actually share the same dream – the dream about the roe and the buck. Eventually they try to dream together, and begin to fall in love. But the course of true love does not … and there is trouble ahead. It’s a simple film in many ways, but also profound and poetic. The atmosphere is everything here, and I know that some people found it hard to go with this film. But I did. Totally. It seems the Sydney Film Prize judges did too.

 

Hope Road – Australia – Dir: Tom Zubrycki 2.5/5

This film is interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. It starts out to do one thing, and ends by doing something else. Along the way, director Zubrycki becomes part of the story – and it’s a complicated one. Zubrycki introduced the film, along with film critic Gary Maddocks, with Zubrycki saying that it was about refugees who want to do something for their homeland. “The amazing passion of Zacharia is what attracted me to the project,” said Zubrycki.

 

Technically, the film is not exciting. There’s some unfortunate hand-held camerawork, and Zubrycki’s voiceover narration is pretty flat and low-key. Somehow, Zacharia Machiek gets a committee of volunteers to help him raise funds, and before we know it he’s doing a super-long walk from Tweed Heds to Sydney (why Tweed Heads? We don’t find out.) with his teacher friend to raise money to build some classrooms for his home village in South Sudan. One website summarized the film thus: “Zacharia sets out with high hope to build a school back in his village in war-torn South Sudan with dedicated Aussie supporters, but his ambitious plans are challenged when life intervenes.” This might indicate a certain well-intentioned naivety in all those involved – even to Zubryicki, who, on his own admission (in the film) says “I’ve been roped onto the Committee.”

 

The walk has clearly been poorly planned, and experience would tell you that doing a walk like this (which looks very hard) without proper preparation and without firm sponsorship was always going to be fraught with difficulty and unlikely to make much money. A cursory listen to “Australia All Over” on ABC radio on Sunday mornings will give you an idea of how many super-marathon walks, rides, etc are going on in Australia at any given time. There’s a lot of competition for the money. Another area of concern is the poor control the Committee had over the building work in South Sudan – and indeed problems arise there. Zacharia’s personal life injects itself into the film, and before long a simple tale of fund-raising effort becomes murky and dark. But it seems like Zubrycki may be too personally entangled with Zacharia to delve further into these area.

 

Significantly, Zaccharia did not appear for the Q&A. He was meant to be there, but he was apparently “late.” I saw him outside after the screening. He looked nervous.  Maddox and Zubrycki did their best with the Q&A but  - “No Show without Punch.” Yet again, it was unsatisfying.

 

The Hope Road website tells us that Zac has plans to return to South Sudan “to assess the situation and to co-ordinate resumption of work on the project.”

 

Call Me By Your Name – Italy, France – Dir: Luca Guadagnino 4/5

Guadagnino is one of the great romantic filmmakers of our time. I loved I Am Love (SFF, 2010), and this is almost as lush. The film is about the blossoming of a love affair between Elio,  a young man of 17 (Timothée Chalamet) and an older grad student of his father’s (Armie Hammer). Neither actor is gay, but director Guadagnino has explained in an interview that this I because he “only casts actors and actresses I fall in love with” and that he prefers “never to investigate or label my performers in any way.” Regardless of their status, they both produce superb performances.

 

The title of the film reflects something the lovers say to each other, and is a consequence of Guadagnino’s belief that “the other person makes you beautiful.” It is a lovely, romantic idea. The film is set in the eighties, and the clothes are fun and the music (by Sufjan Stevens) is well-used. Amie Hammer can do many things, but he can’t dance ­– there, I’ve said it. He’s only human. And I found the casting of Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, an eminent archaeologist and academic, a little odd. There’s a vast amount of money in the family, but who knows where it comes from – it’s summer in Europe and it’s just gorgeous. The girls are lovely, the boys are lovely, and the food is lovely. And so’s the film. Just let it wash over you, and book your flights to Italy.

 


Fri 16 June 2017
An Insignificant Man – India – Dir: Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shulkla  4/5

For me, this was one of the sleepers of the Festival. The description in the program didn’t appeal to me very much, and it was programmed first thing on the last Friday of the festival, but I’m so glad I didn’t miss it! It’s an accomplished film, and I would have said an important one, too, but its importance seems to have receded with the effluxion of time and the changing fortunes of its subject. However, the experience of watching the film at the time was invigorating. Here was a story I’d not heard of before about the rise of a new political party in India, the Common Man’s Party (AAP), with a charismatic leader, Arvind Kerjiwal, with a fairly simple agenda involving anti-corruption and reducing utility bills for the poor. In the manner of Weiner (SFF 2016) we follow him very closely indeed, so that we can see him with all his faults. This is great work from the filmmakers, to get such access and to be so intimate. The man is still a bit of a cipher by the end, but we can see the chinks in his armour, and the gaps in his agenda. He’s not quite the hero he appeared at the beginning. Along the way we learn a lot about the Indian political system (Kerjiwal is running for the post of Chief Minister of Delhi), some good and some bad. We also learn a lot about the level of corruption in India.

 

The Q&A with director Khushboo Ranka was most illuminating, and one of the questions about the film’s music revealed that the filmmakers wanted a Scandinavian feel for the music, given the chaotic nature of India. They wanted to bring down the pace of the film to a more “meditative” level. So they chose a Norwegian composer, Ola Flota. We also heard about the attempts of PM Modi to censor the film. We were told that the film cannot have a theatrical release until it receives clearance from all the main players – which is something that would be most unlikely, from my observation However, we did hear that the Indian Censor’s decisions are often overturned on appeal because the original decisions are “so arbitrary”. I asked a question about the disclaimer at the beginning of the film about Sheila Dikshit, who sought to clarify a point made in the film: my point was it went by too quickly before we knew the facts which it related to.

 

As intriguing and energetic as the film seemed at the time, it is ultimately unsatisfying. It is almost framed a s thriller, but points are raised and then not followed through (like the death in a motor bike accident of a party aide, in what seems like an assassination – I asked a question about this and was told that the police would do nothing about this as witnesses were too hard to find because they are intimidated. But this is murder, I pointed out!). All in all, this film is not quite a hagiography, but it not the whole story.

 

Félicité –France, Belgium, Senegal, Germany, Lebanon– Dir: Alain Gomis 2/5 (IN COMPETITION)

I’m sorry to say I was very disappointed by this film. Having said that, there is a great central performance, by Véro Teshanda Beyo, and the film is filled with fascinating detail. However, the film takes a long time to get going, and it drags a bit. Then it doesn’t go very far. It does give you an idea of the chaotic life of the poor in Senegal, and the terrible difficulty of paying for medical services in the event of an accident. For me, Félicité is a worthy film, but not a great one.

 

Ice Mother – Czech Republic, France, Slovakia – Dir: Bohdan Slama 4/5

In a way, this is like a Czech version of Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955), and of course it shares a fair bit with My Happy Family (Nana & Simon, SFF 2017). A fifty-ish woman’s family don’t want her to take up a new interest and new friends. “And what do you need a group for? Aren’t we enough for you?,” one says. The film proceeds down one road, with our middle-aged heroine meeting an unsuitable man who lives in a trailer and striking up a friendship that leads to love and sex. There are touching moments when we realise he’s an alcoholic: he refuses a drink saying, “No, I’ve already had my share.”  And there’s a very amusing use for extra virgin olive oil.

 

But then the film completely changes tack as we learn more about her friend Brona. He has another family, a Down Syndrome boy, and there’s another woman. How will this end?  Life is messy and this film is more complex in its aims than it first appears. Another excellent festival film, about a moture woman. Bravo!

 

The Teacher – Slovakia, Czech Republic – Dir: Jan Hrebek 4.5/5

Hrebek continues to delight the SFF with his clever, warm and funny films with a sharp point. I loved Cozy Dens (SFF 2000) and Divided We Fall (SFF 2001). Can it be more than 15 years since those two?  Lately he’s been working on TV series (which film director hasn’t these days?) but in the 13 years between Divided We Fall and his TV work, he’s made an average of a film a year. Why haven’t we seen them? I’m going to look for them: the plot of Garbage, the City and Death (2012), based on an old screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, looks particularly good.

 

The Teacher concerns the corrupt figure of a teacher in Communist era Czechoslovakia, who exploits her position both as a teacher and a member of the Party to get material and other advantages out of the parents of her students. It’s an excruciating portrait of a bully by Zuzana Maurery, and the efforts of the parents either to conform or rebel are quite excruciating as well. Once the scheme is hatched to get rid of the teacher we get a great deal of satisfaction, and we see how the students blossom when they are freed from her passive aggression. But then… A most chilling and pessimistic ending, and oh, so right!

 

Pop Aye – Singapore, Thailand – Dir: Kirsten Tan 2.5/5 (IN COMPETITION)

This slight film was a bit of a disappointment. There’s an interesting footnote in that the elephant star, “Popeye” is listed in the credits under that spelling, but the film itself is called “Pop Aye”.  Copyright problems? I’d love to know.  The elephant is charming, and eminently watchable, the landscapes are interesting, and some of the characters are well portrayed. I did like the climax when our protagonist goes home to what he remembers from his idyllic childhood, and finds it all changed. But all in all the film seems overly and pointlessly wistful.


Sat 17 June 2017
High and Low – Japan – Dir: Akira Kurosawa 5/5 (RETROSPECTIVE)

A really interesting thriller dealing with class in modern (1963) Japan. A rich industrialist must deal with the fact that his son is kidnapped for ransom – and then, in a brilliant plot twist that occurs very early on – he finds that it his chauffeur’s son that has been kidnapped by mistake. What does he do?  What do the police do?  Who did it, but – more importantly for Kurosawa – why? Along the way we get a fascinating insight into postwar Japan as it began its economic boom.

 

Red Beard – Japan – Dir: Akira Kurosawa 5/5 (RETROSPECTIVE)

Kurosawa does Dickens, by way of a 19th century hospital in the ancient Japanese capital of Edo. Toshiro Mifune is Red Beard, the head doctor in the hospital, who is convinced that public service requires complete dedication and sacrifice, even to the extent of complete subjugation of the ego, and poverty and privation. A young intern finds this intolerable and wants to go back to his cushy position in town, but for some reason his father has sent him to learn under Red Beard. Mifune is superb, and the story proceeds by a series of vignettes and a parade of colourful characters. David Stratton believes this film is the summation of all that Kurosawa was trying to convey in his films. A long film – over 3 hours – but I did not want it to end. Superb.

 

In the Fade – Germany, France – Dir: Faith Akin 3.5/5

A very dramatic thriller which begins at a thousand miles an hour and hardly lets up. Some pretty amazing handheld camera to begin with, then “My Girl” by Smokey Robinson, and a wedding in a school hall. Then the film divides into 3 parts: 1. The Family – which begins with a very realistic depiction of the aftermath of an explosion. 2. Justice and 3. The Son.

 

It’s an exciting film that is part thriller, part love story and part courtroom drama, but the problem comes, for me, in believing the miscarriage of justice. There’s a neat plot twist involving a fatal decision to smoke a marijuana joint, but I could not believe that, or the result of the criminal trial. That made it hard for me to go with the rest of the film. And the bleak ending, as shocking s it is, seemed to me inevitable, and so set uo too neatly. However, much of the material along the way was fresh, fascinating, and very well done.


Sun 18 June 2017

The Farthest – Ireland – Dir: Emer Reynolds 5/5

This was my favourite documentary of the festival. What a great piece of work, and how inspiring are its subjects! In this film, as with Particle Fever (Levinson, SFF 2014), the form of the film is just as enjoyable as the content.  In both cases, the interview subjects are scientists, and they are passionate and articulate geniuses, on the whole. Their passion is contagious. Inventive visuals make this film a joy to watch. Palm trees, glass, water, upside down shots, boats, beaches, all inserted artfully between the talking heads. Cleverly chosen music makes it a joy to listen to. And the interview subjects just love their creation Voyager probe. So many anthropomorphic scientists, and so little time to interview them all… like Voyager itself, this film just flew by. And it’ll play forever, as all who saw The Farthest hope Voyager will too.

 

A superb film, visually, musically, intellectually, and scientifically.

 

The Beguiled – USA – Dir: Sofia Coppola 3/5 (IN COMPETITION)

I did not want to write this review until I had seen the original version of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971). I’m glad I delayed, because I’m afraid this remake (and it IS a remake, no matter how much director Sofia Coppola denies it) is far inferior to the original.

Coppola maintains that she thought the film had to be remade for a new audience, because the female characters she needed to be given a voice. The problem is, had she read (or paid attention to) the novel by Thomas Cullinan, she would have realized that each female character is given a chapter to tell the story in her own voice. And worse than this, Coppola’s “improvements” on the original include leaving out the amazing character of the black maid, and the backstory of headmistress Martha which includes an incestuous affair with her brother. Coppola has managed to “dumb down” and “pretty up” what was an original and intriguing low budget thriller from the 70s and replace it with a set of tableaux, to little effect other than arch beauty.

 

In the New Yorker, critic Anthony Lane wrote that Coppola’s film didn’t even have the energy to be camp. I agree. I think Coppola might be trying (with The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides) to achieve a Picnic at Hanging Rock feel (another 1970s film). But she’s opened a can of worms by cutting out all the black characters. She says she did this because she didn’t feel qualified or entitled to tell their story. And she’s received some support for that approach, but also criticism. For myself, I just couldn’t work out who did all the washing and ironing to produce such immaculate clothing on everyone. I felt the absence of the black characters in the everyday, and once I saw the original, I felt deprived of a strong black woman in the midst of confusion and delusion. After all, this is the end of the Civil War: black slaves were at the very centre of events.

 

Final Portrait – UK, France – Dir: Stanley Tucci 3.5/5

This film is all about its star, Geoffrey Rush. While co-star Armie Hammer is very good, and shows again his versatility and intelligence, it’s all about Rush’s portrayal of Alberto Giacometti. A very witty script (by director Stanley Tucci) and great production design (by James Merifield) contribute to an enjoyable and amusing film about the nature of genius and success. London + CGI stars as the Paris setting!

 

McLaren – New Zealand – Dir: Roger Donaldson 2.5/5

This film has a fascinating story to tell about a little-known subject (except to the cognoscenti), but to a degree it blows it. Admittedly it suffers by comparison to Senna (Asif Kapadia, SFF 2011) and the director’s own The World’s Fastest Indian (2005).

 

One thing that distinguishes this film is the unattractive graphics design. It may have been an attempt to compensated for the amount of 4:3 ratio footage (often from TV) that had to be used in this widescreen film. But black space takes up too much of the screen, and the typeface is very elaborate and distracting.

 

It is almost as if the film is trying to minimize itself – make it less international and more New Zealand. Yet The World’s Fastest Indian revelled in its own “New Zealandness,” and was all the better for it.  I can’t pin down the problems I have with this film any better than this, but the film really suffers from a tome problem. And I came away from the film with more questions than I had before I saw it. Ultimately unsatisfying.