2016 Sydney Film Festival - Julieta

Pedro Almodovar's latest film is based on three short stories from the book Runaway (2004) by Alice Munro. It is Almodovar, I will go and see it. His films range from fantastic to still better than anything else being made at the moment. 

So I ended this year's Sydney Film Festival as I began, with a movie about the lives of women, based on three short stories by women writers. Almodovar is a beautiful film maker and his framing of his subjects are like beautiful photographs. I enjoyed the film although I was not completely convinced by the central issue of the breakdown in communication between the characters.  I would also like to find the soundtrack as the score was amazing. This is a good Almodovar movie, but not a great one. 

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Sing Street

Set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1980s, this is a story of a boy who starts a band to impress a girl he likes. It was the darling of this year's Sundance Film Festival and most critics have really enjoyed it. Did it live up to the hype?

This is loads of fun, especially for the 1980s music fan. It is like a combinations of The Committments (with the very same Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Gregory's Girl. The performances are great, the songs are really really good pop songs and you leave the cinema with a smile on your face. This is the second movie I saw in two days that are family friendly coming of age films set in a decade where fashion and music were bright and rambunctious. One more and we may have a trend. We definately need more movies like Sing Street and Girl Asleep.

2016 Film Festival - Everybody Wants Some!!

Named after Van Halen song, Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater's follow up to Boy is equally as personal to him as it is an exploration of his college years in the 1980s. 

This film has divided audiences. Some completely reject the young jocks at college story, with its posturing and drive to get drunk and sleep with as many girls as they can. Others just went along for the ride, enjoying the ride and watching the freshers at college try on different personas. We have all been there. I think we have expected our stories about the high school or college experience to be wrapped in a genre - a gross out sex comedy, a romance, an acapella competition. What they forget is that it is a time when people talk rubbish, try on new clothes, and in some cases, even learn something. Linklater shows this time and also adds on a layer of commentary about masculinity. He also uses some of the most awesome music to go with it.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Girl Asleep

Girl Asleep is the debut film from director Rosemary Myers and writer Matthew Whittet adapted from their original play at the Windmill Theatre as part of the 2014 Adelaide Festival. This is the blurb from the Sydney Film Festival which convinced me to buy a ticket:

Navigating puberty in 1970s suburbia, Greta (Bethany Whitmore) doesn't want to grow up. Her mum is embarrassing and her sister disinterested. Geeky Elliott (Harrison Feldman) is her only ally. Greta's surprise 15th birthday party is on track to be the worst night of her life – until she's flung into an odd fairy-tale universe with a warrior princess (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Filled with wild musical flourishes and moments of colourful theatrics, Girl Asleep resists the adult world as much as its lead character.

This film reminds me of Strictly Ballroom, the other highlystylised, very Australian film that started on the stage and then brought to screen bythe samu creators. Girl Asleep, however, is aimed at a younger audience. It is great fun and a wonderful coming of age movie. I highly recommend it to kids of all ages, the adult ones too

2016 Sydney Film Festival - The American Epic Sessions

One documentary in four parts shown in three sessions. That is pretty much how you get to see The American Epic Sessions, a documentary that captures contemporary American artists lay down songs from the beginning of the twentieth century. The director, Bernard MacMahon focuses on capturing the 'lightning in the bottle' of a raw, unedited live take of a song.

This is a fascinating series of documentaries for the music nerd who likes to know how the original vinyl records were made and the history behind those songs. This was one of the first time these films were seen by a cinema audience and they were well received with a insightful Q&A with the director and the editor, Dan Gitlin. These films track the origins and growth of American pop music and ultimately the growth of a nation of immigrants into a dominant cultural influence across the world. 

The rawness of the one take, three and a half minute song is explored in the fourth movie when the songs are recorded on the original technology by modern artists. As music producer Jack White (of the White Stripes) says in the film, the musicians turn up like they are coming to church, dressed in their Sunday best and prepared to put on their best as there is no dubbing or editing. All live and in one room.

Keep an eye out for these movies on a television or streaming service near you this December and take some time out to witness some history in the making.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - War on Everyone

Again another choice made on the strength of loving the director's previous movies. War on Everyone is from British director, John Michael McDonagh who also made The Guard and Calvary. I am slightly disappointed that this film does not also star Brendan Gleeson, but you know, Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard are almost as awesome.

Described as a black comedy that evokes the buddy cop movies  and TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, War On Everyone certainly has a mixture of some laughs and some violence. However, it did not quite work for me. The tone was uneven, as it seemed to lurch from parody (like Hot Fuzz) to serious. The opening scene sums up the movie well. The two cops are in their car chasing a mime who is running down the street. The one cop, Bob (Michael Pena) says to the other (Terry) something like "do you think a mime makes a noise when he is hit by a car?" They then run the mime over and he doesn't make a sound, he just mimes the exclamation as the car hits him he then lies bleeding out on the street. If you found that humour to your liking, then this movie may just be for you.

There are a couple of elements I really enjoyed, namely the fantastic clothes and style of the characters, and a really great soundtrack. Lovely use of Glen Campbell. Yes, Glen Campbell. It really does fit with the film as it combines with the clothes, location of Albuquerque, and concept of masculinty of the characters, especially Terry. John Michael McDonagh's love for this American style flawed heroes of the 1970s and 1980s is all up there on the screen, however, the film did not always work for me, especially following the wonderfully crafted The Guard and Calvary.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Goldstone

The opening night film for the 2016 Sydney Film Festival is Goldstone from Australian director, Ivan Sen and lead actor Aaron Pedersen. I caught the follow up session on the weekend. I saw Sen's previous movie Mystery Road at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival which introduced us to Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) and loved it. I am very happy to see more of this world.  

This is a beautiful slow burn crime movie that rarely gets made anymore. Drenched in its Australian outback location and embued by wellrounded characters, this film highlights the underbelly of the resource pillaging that has driven Australia's economy in the last few years. It is a like reading a great crime novel. Just go and watch it. Actually watch it in a double bill with Mystery Road and marvel in the fantastic partnership of film maker Ivan Sen and Aaron Pedersen. More films please sirs.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis: Little Girl Blue is the 2015 documentary from Oscar nominated director, Amy Berg. Watch her talk about making the film during The Hollywood Reporter documentary roundtable. Very insightful.

Biographical documentaries about famous artists are hard to make unique as some to most of the facts about that person's life is known. Especially how it all ends. Berg anchors the emotional elements of her documentary around Joplin's open, raw, powerful and leave it all there stage performances. Joplin's drive for love, acceptance, and honest comunication is all there on stage, and the absence of that love and acceptance when she is off stage is keenly highlighted and gives us insight into possble reasons for Joplin's heavy drug use. What is quite apparent is the huge natural talent Joplin was and that her death cut short what could have been a monumental body of work from a great artist.  Check out the perfornace below that announced her arrival on the music scene, and watch Joplin blow the audience away. 

With Big Brother and the Holding Company, she performed the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to an enthusiastic audience and critical reception. The first performance on June 17 was not filmed, so the band was persuaded to perform the song again on the next day.

This is a well made documentary and a must see for Janis Joplin fans.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Certain Women

I loved, loved Meek's Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt's beautiful western starring Michelle Williams. So, I signed up for this movie straight off. Here is the blurb from the Sydney Film Festival, which tells you the film is "based on Maile Meloy's short stories, tells three connected stories of independent Montana women trying to understand and shape the world around them." I have not heard of Maile Meloy, but here is a Q&A with her that tells you a bit about her. This movie also boasts a wonderful cast of great actresses - Reichardt favourite, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and new comer Lily Gladstone.

The cast of  Certain Women  at the 2016 Sundance Film Festoval

The cast of Certain Women at the 2016 Sundance Film Festoval

Like her previous work, Certain Women is beautiful and languid. It is a study of exteriors and interiors, from the wild winter landscape of Montana to the emotional life of the women in the three interconnecting stories. It is a quiet movie that has a couple of stand out scenes that will linger in your mind days after you left the cinema. The performances are really great throughout, however I must highlight the luminous Lily Gladstone, who says so much with very few words.

One for a lazy contemplative Sunday afternoon.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - The Secret River

The Secret River is a prestigious TV two part mini-series from the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) that premiered at the Sydney Film Festival last night. It will be shown on the ABC this coming weekend and will be available to all Australians online and on the TV.  It is an important production for a local industry that has funding cuts, a talent drain to the USA and the UK, and public apathy at the box office for local content. It has a lot riding on it for the local TV industry. 

What a burden. In addition, it is a slowly building story based on the novel by Kate Grenville, which is now taught as part of the school curriculum in Australian schools. It has also previously been dramatised as play that was put on as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival. It is a story of Australian colonisation though the eyes of one family who claim land along the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney, and their actions in the face of an Indigenous population resisting this invasion.  Thankfully, the production is beautifully shot and acted and it builds towards a literal and emotional massacre that will stay with the viewer. In a white washed Australia it is an important story to tell. It will start conversations and it will help give a voice to the secrets of the past that still scar the Aboriginal communities today.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - Slow West

British writer/director John Maclean creates a lovely take on the western myth in his debut feature film Slow West. It is set after the American Civil War in the push of white settlers into the west of the continent across the frontier.  This movie is basically a two-handler with Kodi Smit-McPhee's love-lorn teenage Scottish aristocrat, Jay Cavendish, and his guide along the trail, world wearing Silas, played by Michael Fessbender.  A road movie on horse back with a beautifully realised friendship growing between Jay and Silas as they make their way west in search of Rose, the woman Jay loves. 

This is not a grand western with huge personalities and performance in the John Wayne tradition, it is more like a cross between High Noon and Meek's Cutoff. It is more about what is not said and done and the space in between actions than the straightforward plot.  Not all people will like it, but enough did for it to win the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I really enjoyed it and recommend that you check it out on the big screen.

Sydney Film Festival - A Talk with Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton

This year at the Town Hall,as part of the Sydney Film Festival, Australian film reviewers and national treasures, Margaret and David talked about films that they felt were under appreciated or underrated. Here are the movies they chose:

Margaret – Running On Empty (1988)
Directed by Sydney Lumet. Starring Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Martha Plimpton.
Blurb from IMDB: The eldest son of a fugitive family comes of age and wants to live a life of his own.

David – Storm Center (1956)
irected by Daniel Taradash. Starring Bette Davis, Brian Keith, Kim Hunter
Blurb from IMDB: A small-town librarian is branded as a Communist by local politicians when she refuses to withdraw a controversial book from the library's shelves.

Margaret – In The Cut (2003)
Directed by Jane Campion. Starring Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo.
Blurb from IMDB: New York writing professor, Frannie Avery, has an affair with a police detective who is investigating the murder of a beautiful young woman in her neighbourhood.

David – Blessed (2009)
Directed by Ana Kokkinos.  Starring Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto, Deborra-Lee Furness
Blurb from IMDB: Seven lost children wander the night streets while their mothers await their return home.

Margaret – Festen (1998)
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (uncredited). Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo.
Blurb from IMDB: At Helge's 60th birthday party, some unpleasant family truths are revealed.

David – Across the Universe (2007)
Directed by Julie Taymor. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson
Blurb from IMDB: The music of the Beatles and the Vietnam War form the backdrop for the romance between an upper-class American girl and a poor Liverpudlian artist.

Margaret – All Is Lost (2013)
irected by J.C. Chandor. Starring Robert Redford
Blurb from IMDB: After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.

David – In The Electric Mist (2009)
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.  Starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard
Blurb from IMDB: A detective in post-Katrina New Orleans has a series of surreal encounters with a troop of friendly Confederate soldiers while investigating serial killings of local prostitutes, a 1965 lynching, and corrupt local businessmen.

Margaret – 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
Directed by John Singleton. Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Cole Hauser
Blurb from IMDB: Brian O'Conner and childhood friend Roman Pearce are re-united by the FBI to bring down a Miami drug exporter in exchange for clear records.

David – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)
irected by Mira Nair. Starring Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland
Blurb from IMDB: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family's homeland.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - Lambert & Stamp

My first film at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival is a straightforward music documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp the managers and creative guides to The Who. The film, directed by James D Cooper tracks the meeting, friendship, subsequent rise and flame out of the son of a world renown conductor, Lambert and the son of a working class East Ender, Chris Stamp with the backdrop of the creation of the band, The Who. There are interviews with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend, Chris’ brother, actor Terence Stamp, long-time friends and most importantly Chris Stamp. Unfortunately Kit Lambert died in 1981. The documentary is interesting to anyone who wants an insight into the beginnings of The Who, 1960s London, the Mod subculture and a look at an unlikely friendship. It is not a ground breaking documentary but, like Good ol’ Freda, the documentary about Freda Kelly, The Beatles secretary, it highlights those behind the scenes of some of the biggest English bands of the 1960s.

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Snowpiercer

There has been much discussion about the edits made by Harvey Weinstein and his production company to the South Korean action/science fiction movie, Snowpiercer. The Weinstein Company is of the opinion that changes needed to be made to make the film more suitable for American audiences. Thankfully the Sydney Film Festival sidestepped this issue and made sure that the film seen in Australia was the original cut made by director Bong Joon-ho. Director Bong is known for making genre movies, whether that is horror (The Host in 2006), drama/thriller (Mother in 2009) or comedy (Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000), and he does each of them with a visual flare and an great understanding of the rules of the genre he is working in. With Snowpiercer, Director Bong works in English for the first time using western actors such as Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and John Hurt alongside Korean stars of his movie The Host, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung to tell the story of a massive train that circles most of Europe and Asia during and ice age 18 years in the future. All that is left of humanity is on the train compartmentalised into a class system that is ridgely contained and monitored. This film is based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige written by Jean-Marc Rochette and Jacques Lob and it is great fun. Here is an interesting article on the comic. Bursting with eye popping visuals and realistic fight sequences the film hurtles towards its conclusion with a sense of inevitability. Some of the quieter moments lag a little, however this is a minor quibble when watching something that is original and new in a genre that is dominated by sequels and reboots.  Here is a social cultural analysis of the movie that I recommend reading after you have seen the movie as it contains spoilers.

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - The Skeleton Twins

Most people will go and see The Skeleton Twins because it stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live, and will most probably expect a lighthearted comedy. They may be in for a big surprise as this movie is a gentle drama about an estranged brother and sister (played by Wiig and Hader) who catch up with each other after ten years. There is humour in this movie and it comes out of the wonderful performances and interaction between Hader and Wiig, who really do sell the sibling relationship. As the Craig Johnson, the Director, says below in the clip, they are both playing characters that are very real, and that realism anchors the natural humour and quieter moments in the movie.  

This is Craig Johnson's second movie as a writer/director, the first being True Adolescents in 2009 starring indie favourite Mark Duplass.  The Skeleton Twins is co-written by Mark Heyman and executive produced by Mark Duplass and his brother Jay, who seem to be producing an mix of movies that are very human with elements of humour and drama. See a list here.  Craig Johnson is an interesting filmmaker who will be someone to watch. It is a great film and I truly recommend it.   

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Black Coal, Thin Ice

Ok, here it is. I picked this film to see at the Sydney Film Festival because it was billed as Chinese noir and I am a huge fan of noir films, books and TV and I have also read some great crime novels set in modern China, by both western and Chinese authors. I was looking forward to seeing this on the big screen.  In addition, it won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival.  All good on paper. I left the cinema quite depressed. I did not like the movie at all. I am not a fan of the visual style of the movie and it felt that there were three natural endings to the film before it finally ended. Ultimately it was not intriguing enough to me, which is the deathknell for a thriller, especially if it is classified as noir. 

It is the story of a down on his luck policeman who teams up with his ex-partner to investigate how the murders of three men connects to the woman who works at the local laundry. There are some set pieces that are reminiscent of a Tarantino film, however they are plot asides that do not really add anything to the story. The main characters are unpleasant and the central romance falls flat as the women in this film are put upon by the men, either physically or emotionally. There are three distinct scenes were a man grabs and forces his attentions on a woman. Each time the woman escapes from the situation, but it is frequent enough to either be reflective of the society that is being depicted or a comment on the characters involved. It is not clear as the movie does not really hold together thematically. Here is an interesting review that goes into more detail about the plot if you are interested.

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Begin Again

This is a slight US indie with charming performances and some theories about the modern music industry. I can see this film being marketed as a romantic comedy, but that would be sad as it is more about people just trying to connect rather than a romance. It has a soundtrack that is singer/songwriter driven in the pop/folk genre, which is limiting and very white. There is a nod to Cee Lo Green as a successful rapper, however it is really all about white middleclass hipsters and their music. It is a nice way to spend a couple of hours if you want to relax and just have a movie wash over you while eating popcorn. 

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Locke

Steven Knight is known as a screenwriter for great movies such as Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Eastern Promises (2007) and Closed Circuit (2013). His first movie as writer and director was Hummingbird (2013) with Jason Statham and he recently created and wrote Peaky Blinders, a British historical TV series for the BBC starring Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill as gangsters in Birmingham in 1919. His second movie as writer and director is Locke, a movie shot entirely in a car as the only person seen on screen, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) drives from the north of England to London one night. Not an easy concept to make exciting, however it mainly succeeds due to an incredible performance by Tom Hardy and the great vocal performances by the other cast members (Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott and Ben Daniels), who manage to convey character through a voice on the telephone.  Some elements, such as Locke's back story with his father feels like dramatic license, like it is from a one person play, rather than organic actions and conversations that inhabit the rest of the story. But this is minor and does not take away from a great small movie with a wonderful performance.  It is good to see filmmakers and actors taking a risk and making innovative and interesting movies. 

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1973, Chilean-French cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky was asked by French producer Michel Seydoux what film he wanted to make next. Jodorowsky said Frank Herbert's book, Dune without having read it. What follows is two years of development that involves the collaboration of artists, (H.R. Giger, Christopher Foss, Jean (Mobius) Giraud) musicians (Pink Floyd, Magma) and special effects creators (Dan O'Bannon) that results in ideas and concepts that are still being seen today in science fiction movies. 

For a movie that was never made, Jodorowsky's Dune has a lasting impact.  This documentary opens up the thoughts and inspirations of the men involved in the project as they look back on their youth, their creative impulses of the time and the dreams they have about the power of art as transformative medium. Jodorowsky has a certain cinematic style that I am not a huge fan of, but his vision and drive for this project makes the movie that he did not make the most important cinematic legacy he has. It is interesting to see how the project is felled by the lack of commerciality and the fear of the unknown in Hollywood, and it is especially fascinating to track how these original ideas filtered into Hollywood science fiction films over the next 30 years. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. This is a documentary for the cinefiles, science fiction fans and lovers of that inspirational and original idea. 

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - In Order of Disappearance

This Norwegian film has echoes of the Cohen brother's Fargo, with its unrelenting snow, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, black humour and murder. Starring Stellan Skarsgard as Nils, an upstanding citizen in a small Norwegian village who keeps a strip of road passable throughout the year, no matter the snow fall. His son is caught up in the business of the drug lords who run the transport of cocaine through the nearby airport and into the city, and is killed. Nils decides to avenge the death of his son.

The film has elements of the darkness of the Scandinavian Noir subgenre from crime fiction, however it is more influenced by the aforementioned Cohen brothers and Quentin Tarantino as the black comedy quota and stylised bloodshed is very high. This is the fourth movie director Hans Peter Moland has done with Skarsgard, starting with Zero Kelvin back in 1995, and the long standing collaboration keeps you in good hands. Even when the comedy gets broad, the film is anchored by a wonderful performance by Skarsgard. His pain and pathos shine through.  It is ultimately very straightforward and a diverting way to spend an afternoon. It is a fun take on a plot that we have seen before.