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Monday, June 20, 2011

Sydney Film Festival; Seriously Fantastic Fun

8 more films to wrap up Sydney Film Festival 2011, which I enjoyed more than any of the festivals I have attended over the past few years.

The directorial debut of Paddy Considine, one of my favourite actors, features two other excellent performers from the same generation, Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan. So it was a surprise to me that the standout performance in this hard-hitting film came from somebody with whom I was previously unfamiliar, Olivia Colman. The story is a grim one involving graphically presented domestic violence, and the audience is left considering the limits and appropriateness of forgiveness in extreme circumstances.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
I had been looking forward to this a great deal as a confirmed Werner Herzog fan and after some excellent reviews elsewhere. It was quite amusing to see the festival crowd uncomfortably putting on their 3D specs but the use of depth really pays off when the camera lingers on the amazing 30,000 tear old cave paintings that are the film’s raison d’etre. An interesting doco enlivened by some typical Herzog flourishes.

Take Shelter
This kind-of-thriller about a family man who gets prophetic visions of horrible future events works well in its early stages with some effective horror movie stylings and a sense of dread. Basically a study of male impotent terror in the face of global forces (the GFC, climate change), the mental illness plot trajectory develops promisingly before being horribly undermined by a terribly ill-judged coda.

One of those lavish Chinese period melodramas, this is one of the less interesting examples of the genre that I have seen. The plot gets very tangled early on and never quite recovers, but the imposing performance of Wang Xue Qi as the baddie is never less than enjoyable.

There’s Always Tomorrow
On my film course, David Stratton occasionally gets grumpy about us laughing inappropriately at moments which, to a contemporary audience, would have been moments of high drama. After watching this admittedly hokey 1956 melodrama accompanied by the sound of constant chuckling at its earnestness, I see the bloke’s point. The noises off were a distraction from a handsome production that featured Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in well-written roles as former lovers that meet again later in life. The result is a typically Sirkian critique of marriage; the family unit is subversively depicted as suffocating and dull, but ultimately social stability is restored by personal sacrifices being made.

The petrol heads invaded the State Theatre for this doco, which made for a lively and unusual atmosphere. I have about as much interest in Formula 1 as I do in automated pool cleaners, but this brilliant doco does such an excellent job of telling its compelling story that I was utterly gripped throughout. Superb, and the “Rosebud” moment at the very end had me floored.

Meek’s Cutoff
I’m not sure I exactly enjoyed this slow, meditative Western while it was unfolding, but the sudden ending really had me thinking about how much it had to say on an allegorical level. A conventional resolution would have had a reductive effect on the questions it raised about the nature of leadership and democracy.

Corman’s World
It seemed appropriate to end the festival with a shamelessly hagiographic celebration of a great film maverick, the incomparable Roger Corman. Much is made of his influence over those who he mentored, who went on to become the great Hollywood generation of the 70s. Ironically, it was films by this generation such as Jaws and Star Wars that put an end to the drive-in culture that was Corman’s lifeblood and exiled him to the slightly sad world of straight-to-video.

I was also supposed to see Stake Land, but by this stage I was exhausted and just wanted to head home to remind myself what my children look like.

14 movies in total, then, and 2011 was a particularly good vintage for female actors (Jessica Chastain, Olivia Colman, Michelle Williams) and documentaries of both the conventional and unconventional sort (Senna, The Arbor).

The best film of the year? A tie between Tree of Life (for its ambition) and Senna (for its emotional impact).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Meme

Another book meme, this one’s from Con.

1. The book I’m currently reading:
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I have a vague mission to read all of the winners of the Booker Prize, and this picked it up in 1978. I’m about halfway through.

Also, see 5.

2. The last book I finished:
The History of Mr Polly by H.G. Wells. I quite like it.

3. The next book I want to read:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read it before, and really admired it, but I fear it may have been a clunky translation. I have since picked up a more recent version and I am looking forward to revisiting.

4. The last book I bought:
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. The title made me snicker and it had a bit of buzz, so I picked it up when I saw it in my local Vinnie’s. It wasn’t up to snuff.

5. The last book I was given:
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This has been my bedside dipper-inner for a while now, I really should get around to having a serious attempt on its 700 pages.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sydney Film Festival - So Far, Fun

The Sydney Film Festival 2011 has been up and running for a while now, but I’ve only really jumped on board in the last couple of days. I’m going hard, though, 6 films so far and then 1 tonight, 3 on Saturday and 5 (five) on Sunday.

The movies so far:

The White Balloon
Actually a 1995 film, showing as part of the Jafar Panahi retrospective in recognition of the fact that the director is currently serving a six year jail term in Tehran for the crime of making movies. Anyway, The White Balloon was his debut and is typical of the Iranian films of the period in its use of children to act out allegorical political tales, its wry humour and its deadpan acting style. The plot in its entirety: girl tries to buy goldfish. It’s pretty good, and the final shot superbly undercuts all of the audience’s sympathies.

Tree of Life
This was the movie I was most excited about, simply because it is directed by the genius that is Terrence Malick. The film intercuts three main strands. One is the childhood of a group of boys in Middle America in the 1950s Midwest, whose parents are a brutal Brad Pitt and an ethereal Jessica Chastain. The second features Sean Penn as one of the sons, now grown up, trying to deal with his unresolved issues mainly by staring out of the window of his workplace skyscraper. The third, and most controversial among the group I saw it with, has extended sequences of natural beauty including waterfalls, undersea creatures, nebulae and even CGI dinosaurs. I was in a minority, but I think it worked together superbly and, even if you don’t get on with it, you have to admire the visual magnificence on display and the insane ambition it shows.

Win Win
Some light relief with a decent, predictable comedy from Tom McCarthy. It’s all fine, mixing together some amusing elements but with slightly too much stock humour of the swearing children variety. It’s a mild disappointment from the director of the gently sweet The Station Agent.

Typical festival fare, this. A straightforward story set in an exotic locale with the odd arty flourish, the storyline loses momentum early on but the depiction of Alexandria’s youth subcultures retains interest. The film is at its best when the narrative stops and we can just watch the musicians, rappers, skaters and graffiti artists doing their thing.

The Mill and The Cross
An ingenious idea superbly executed, this visually ravishing film appears to take place entirely within Peter Bruegel's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary". The characters move across a landscape blending outdoor locations and paintings in a way that I have never seen before in the cinema. The first half of the movie takes its time depicting the brutal life of the 16th century Dutch peasantry, oppressed by Spanish invaders, and then segues into an interpretation of the Passion. A fascinating insight into the work of a great artist, and a study of how old stories can be interpreted anew in different ages and using different media.

The Arbor
Oof, this was tough going. A sort-of documentary about the life of 1980s British playwright Andrea Dunbar, the film continues after her early death to chronicle the sad life of her oldest daughter Lorraine. A few keywords will give you a sense of it; racism, domestic violence, crack, heroin, prostitution, rape, child death. Grim stuff then, but the narrative technique makes it work. The film-makers use audio from interviews of the main participants which is placed into the mouths of actors who lip-synch whilst addressing the camera directly. Innovative and though-provoking.

Lots of fun so far, plenty more to come.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Knowing the Score

Earlier this week I thoroughly enjoyed listening to a special edition of the BBC’s Kermode & Mayo ever-excellent film podcast dedicated to classic film scores. There were 11 pieces that got selected for performance by the BBC Philharmonic. All had to be orchestral and no composer could be represented twice (except John Barry, evidently).

The final list was as follows:

1) Star Trek – Jerry Goldsmith
2) Taxi Driver - Bernard Herrmann
3) Midnight Cowboy – John Barry
4) Blue Velvet – Angelo Badalamenti
5) The Godfather – Nino Rota
6) The Mission - Ennio Morricone
7) James Bond – Monty Norman/John Barry
8) 2046 - Shigeru Umebayashi
9) There Will Be Blood – Johnny Greenwood
10) The Magnificent Seven - Elmer Bernstein
11) Raiders of the Lost Ark - John Williams

A pretty good list, I’m sure you’ll agree. Midnight Cowboy is a huge favourite of mine, not least because M&I watched the DVD on our wedding night (no, really). The Mission and The Magnificent Seven both gave me goosebumps, and 2046 was a beautiful revelation, making me want to watch the film.

What was missing? Nothing blatant really, but personally I would have had Deborah's theme from Once Upon A Time In America for Morricone and Amarcord for Rota.

What have I missed?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

(irony) Another Quiet Sunday (/irony)

Sunday was hectic.

1) Train ride to the city! The Bs rarely travel by public transport, so it’s a treat for them, especially B2 who has a very boy-ish love of all methods of transport. A nod of acknowledgement to CityRail, whose Family FunPass is ridiculously good value. A trip of around 32km.

2) Breakfast with Lou and Jon, always a pleasure.

3) Off to Prince Alfred Park for the National Day of Climate Action rally. It’s years since I attended a political do, but M suggested we go and I happily agreed. Reading the Australian press you might believe that Julia Gillard and Cate Blanchett are the only people who support a price on carbon, so it was great that a big turnout resulted in some media coverage of those that have a differing opinion.

4) 50km journey out to Kenthurst for lunch with the Player collective, largely to plan a 4WD trip next weekend. Irony acknowledged and noted.

5) 33km trip to a cinema to see Source Code. Really rather good.

6) 16km to Sydney Opera House to see Chris Cunningham perform his audiovisual spectacular. To be honest the visual was more spectacular than the audio but it was still a headshreddingly intense experience.

7) Finally a 67km journey home via Grandma’s to pick up the Bs and head home for a well-earned rest.

A total journey distance of around 200km going from the centre of Sydney to its most distant outskirts twice. Daft, really.