During the final four days of the Sydney Film Festival the fatigue began to kick in, but, at the same time, the films got even better. With some of my most anticipated still to see – Winter Sleep, The Rover, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, Snowpiercer and What We Do In the Shadows – there was no time to feel tired. Fellow Graffiti With Punctuation writer Cam Williams came to stay with us for the final three days of the festival, which was fantastic. There were some out of town visitors I would have liked to see more of, but I was so glad we got to spend as much time socializing and chatting about films as we did. The films are great, but even better are the new friendships you build.
On Friday we shook up the venues, seeing Double Play at Dendy Opera Quays and then traveling to Newtown to see The Rover outside of the festival environment. The rest of the sessions were split between the State Theatre and Event Cinemas. Saturday commenced with the 3+ hours Winter Sleep, and by the third film that day, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I was in dire need of a hot, comforting meal. On Sunday, we ended up swapping out of our 10am session of Timbuktu for a 3pm session of Of Horses and Men, which was a good decision.I was sad to miss the Cannes Competition entry but Of Horses and Men was fantastic, and it meant a bit of a sleep in before the awesome Snowpiercer and to ensure I had enough energy for the Closing Night film, What We Do In the Shadows. During the ceremony the Sydney Film Prize was awarded to the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, which along with Snowpiercer and Boyhood ended up standing out from the group, personally.
A couple of comical things – we tried several times to get Gelato Messina at the Sydney Film Festival Hub but we were always either too early or too late. There was a pop-up Title Store in the Hub too, which was essentially a ‘Best of Title’. We resisted the urge to enter every time we visited the Hub out of fear of temptation. Who knows what is going to be happening next year, but I hope to fit in more of the talks, panels and events. This year I prioritized the films, and considering I was also working full time, something had to give.
Here’s an overview of the final four days of viewing:
In Order of Disappearance (Hans Petter Moland)
This turned out to be adequate filler, but I'm glad I didn't expect too much from this grisly Scandanavian revenge thriller. It is far too long but works far better when it is a one-man (Stellan Skarsgard) mission to avenge his son's murder than a convoluted drug-fuelled gang war between a Norwegian and Serbian cartel. Again, the setting, and how it is captured, is the film's obvious strength. There are some very unique images, and the light is miraculous. The dark, oddball and distinctly Scandinavian brand of humour works pretty well for a while - livening up the villain/s especially - but then becomes forced and calls upon domestic violence (and mostly violence full stop) for laughs.
Fish & Cat (Shahram Mokri)
There was a moment in this extraordinary two-hour plus Iranian single-take mind-bender Fish & Cat when I was hooked, and I stayed so throughout the remainder. This is a conceptual experiment that requires a great deal of patience and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a playful ‘horror’ film - there is tension and unease, but nay a genre convention in sight - that will surely leave audiences scratching their heads. A group of young people meet at a lake, set up their camp and prepare for a kite festival, and over the course of the shot, helmed by the DP of A Separation, we follow these individuals as they cross paths with one another, and two chefs from a nearby dodgy-looking restaurant. As the film does strange things we are challenged to reflect on everything we have seen and simultaneously think ahead. It becomes an increasingly complex entanglement of strands that make for a giddily exciting trip.
Palo Alto (Gia Coppolla)
I imagine James Franco's collection of short stories that inspired this project are far better than his awful performance here, and this high school life/coming of age drama, overall. There are some poignant and accurate (I guess) observations of teenage life in America, but whenever it attempts to convey a message subtlety is sorely absent. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) and Emma Roberts are admittedly quite good in their roles as two confused everyday kids who are drawn together when everything else in their life blows, but the largely annoying Palo Alto is populated by poor dialogue, weak acting (and bizarre cameos) and forced, incredible drama.
Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Gabe Klinger)
The promise of spending 70 minutes in the company of two mavericks of the industry in Linklater and Benning was enough to get me in the door for this. The sequences of them sitting around and idly chatting about film and life (in between shooting hoops and throwing around a baseball) are fascinating, if unspectacular on a technical level. Though there isn’t as much coverage of their films as I thought there might be, we learn how both men have influenced each other and how late they bloomed into cinephiles and filmmakers, and how different their individual influences were. The commentary on how their films utilise time, and the role of experience and memory in Linklater’s films is also poignant. We are also privileged to some insider commentary on the making of Boyhood, and Linklater’s Austin roots. Entertaining but limited.
David Michod’s follow up to the terrific Animal Kingdom can only be classified a disappointment. The evolution of Pattinson’s character, which comes very late, and the committed performances from he and Guy Pearce elevate this grim, grimy beast of an outback thriller. It is a skeletal-plotted post-apocalyptic western about survival and loyalty in a lawless, blood-drenched dystopia. Michod certainly has talent as a filmmaker, because this film looks fantastic, the bursts of violence are the moments that jolt you out of a mild stupor, and the bleaker than bleak atmosphere is just enough to keep a viewer interested, if not wholly immersed. But I'll re-iterate that there's just not much going on, and barely anything to contemplate on. There are glimpses of what happened to the world, but withholding so much detail means that we are stuck with a pair of mismatched characters who blaze a trail of death and are beset on revenge, but we don’t really know why. The dialogue, bland and profanity-loaded, and the score, overbearing and misjudged, save for one excellent electronic progression, were weak elements. The ending, of all things, actually worked for me, but it isn’t enough of a payoff, considering how stripped down the narrative is, and how little is driving the plot.
[rating=2] and a half
Last month’s Palme d’Or winner from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (the extraordinary Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) is a riveting, beautifully photographed portrait of middle-age re-evaluation and revelation in historically and economically crippled Anatolian isolation. In addition to being an honest and insightful study of a writer and their creative influence, it is about the divide between the rich and the poor in Turkish society, a strained marriage emotionally unravelling and a clinical observation of how a man reacts when his character, his deceptively content personality, is dissected and criticized. After an incident with one of his tenants, a member of a struggling family who have fallen behind on rent, Mr Aydin (a wonderful Haluk Bilginer) is forced to re-consider not only his closest relationships, but also the way he carries himself and how he is viewed by the very town he ‘presides over’.
Once a celebrated theatre actor, he now runs the hotel formerly owned by his wealthy father and is the landlord for most of the village. He also pompously and self-importantly expresses his opinions in a weekly column for the local newspaper, topics drawn from his dissatisfaction with humanity, and the actions of the lower classes. This is a very long film - 196 mins - but the lengthy conversations (often debates and arguments) are so engrossing, the characters so interesting, and the thematic density so challenging, that it was never a burden. Set amongst one of the most stunning film locations in recent memory, this leaves a viewer with an immense amount to process.
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson)
A pleasant, funny and quite affecting drama about two sibling screw-ups Maggie and Milo (Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader), grappling with depression and life dissatisfaction, who re-bond when LA-dwelling Milo comes to live with Maggie and her husband (Luke Wilson) in New York. Even as their relationship undergoes repair, their individual lives continue to unravel, and bottled-up secrets eventually burst out. What is especially fantastic about The Skeleton Twins are the performances of Wiig and Hader, two renowned comedic actors who have rarely put a foot wrong in their careers. Here, their comedic skills are utilized to great effect, but these roles prove they have a lot of range. There are some gut-punching dramatic moments, and they deliver heartbreaking work. Unfortunately the subplots are forcibly overdone, but this was far better than the melancholic indie fluff it could have been.
While perhaps not as successful a stand-alone film as The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, this remains a beautifully written and performed portrait of dealing with a tragic loss and the ensuing breakdown of a relationship. It is a satisfying gap-filler, telling the other side of a story with overlapping content cleverly adjusted to suit the perspective of the character in focus, this time James McAvoy’s Connor. When his wife Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) disappears after a traumatic event, he is forced to deal with his grief alone, and at the same time try and keep his struggling bar afloat. He tries to track Eleanor down, but she is beset on starting her life again (conveyed in Her). But, considering everything they have shared, they are drawn to each other.
The casting, again, is perfect. Isabelle Huppert has a single scene in this film, but actors like William Hurt and Viola Davis appear only in Her. New to the cast is Ciaran Hinds, who appears as Connor’s father, and the father-son relationship is wonderfully authentic. Also terrific is Bill Hader as Connor’s goofy best friend and loyal colleague who tentatively offers guidance on how to cope. Both men don’t really understand what Connor is going through, but they offer comfort and advice when he needs it. Hinds’ 60-something restaurant mogul, thrice divorced, draws from his increasingly philosophical perspective of life and has the most powerful moments. The film is bursting with emotion, rounding out an incredible debut project by writer/director Ned Benson.
Of Horses and Men
Within minutes it was clear that Of Horses and Men was not a documentary about the unique relationship between humans and horses in Iceland, as was the belief (?), but, in fact, a very well made fictional feature film layered with semi-truthful Icelandic husbandry.
This film is set within a single small Icelandic town and the breathtaking surrounding landscapes, following a series of eccentric individuals whose bond with their horses is more bizarre than you’d ever believe. There are about half a dozen short vignettes - one involving the town drunkard who rides his horse into the ocean to intercept a freighter to collect vodka, another involving a riding novice who finds himself stranded in the mountains with only one option to survive - that initially seem to have no relevance to one another, but end up being linked in the strangest of ways. The film quite surprisingly comes full circle, bookended by two of the funniest sex scenes I have ever seen.
From one scene to the next you never know what to expect. Some will leave a viewer howling with laughter, others cringing and cowering in shock. The footage is incredible; enough to make you question how these scenes were even conceived. Technically, I couldn’t fault it. It is brilliantly edited and the music was effective. Where the Scandanavian humour ran out of gas in the 120+ minute In Order of Disappearance, here, in this 80 minute film, it works every time. Definitely one of the strangest films I saw at the festival, but, in this case, different is good.
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
This is as unnerving, brutally intense and realistic as any prison drama I have seen. The performances are terrific - so convincing, especially from young Jack O'Connell, that if I were to ever see these actors on the street my first instinct would be to run the other way. I liked how focused the film was - we never leave the prison and though we are introduced to other inmates it is solely about Eric Love's experiences - aligning us with an extremely volatile and violent prisoner who seems incapable of reform and thrives on disruption and chaos. Rehabilitation seems impossible, but the organic way we see him begin to change through his unexpected bond with others in a support group environment is very well executed.
There is a tension throughout the film between the influence of the penitentiary facilities, and the corrupt methods initiated to control Eric, and Eric's own imprisoned father (Ben Mendelsohn). Neville has never been there for his son when he needed to be, but his attempts to prepare his son for survival in this prison, and his guidance on how to behave, falls on deaf ears. Eric makes it clear he can't be controlled or suppressed by the prison’s most powerful inmates, and his relationship with his father worsens when circumstances reveal themselves, which ultimately places both of them under threat. A bone-crunching, horrifically realistic document of prison life, it is extremely affecting in places. You feel trapped inside the prison and no matter how strongly you feel about trying to escape, it is too riveting.
What We Do In the Shadows (Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement)
What can I say about the brilliant Closing Night presentation that Cam Williams’ review hasn’t? The entire experience, which involved co-writer/directors Taika Waitit (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) introducing the film (in side-splitting fashion) and returning with star Jonathan Brugh for a post Q&A, was the work of comic geniuses. This is a clever, witty and hilarious Wellington-set vampire mockumentary that does for vampires what Shaun of the Dead did for Zombies. Creature lore, contemporary pop culture and slacker-hood are the targets, but not the exclusive source of the mayhem, and it is destined to be a genre classic. The laugh quota is so high that missing jokes due to prolonged laughter is a genuine concern. I doubt I will see a funnier film this year. Really. It is perfect.
Also viewed, but not reviewed:
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a beautiful hand-drawn animated feature and the final film from Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. It is a lovely story based on a thousand-year-old Japanese folktale, but I watched it at the wrong time of the festival. With its dreamy visuals and slow pacing, I unfortunately couldn’t keep alert for the duration.
Snowpiercer, Korean genius Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language feature, is one of the wildest, most entertaining and most unforgettable experiences of the festival. While the action-packed futuristic premise and the A-list cast suggest a Blockbuster, this brilliant study of class structure and the natural order of humanity is so batty you can’t help but get swept up in it. It lives and thrives on its B-movie sensibilities. The action sequences are astonishingly good, the cast perfect and the video-game-level structure offers up surprises behind every door. I had a rough audience who were compensating for their confusion (and likely disappointment) by laughing inappropriately at the most profound and powerful moments, of which there are many. This is one of the best-directed films I have seen in a while; it wouldn’t have worked without Bong. I simply can’t review this with any authority, because I am still trying to work out why I loved it. But I did.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.