The first film review I remember writing was a high school English class assignment. While almost everyone in the class wrote gushing reviews of recent Hollywood blockbusters they'd seen and loved, I chose instead to bag Steven King's Christine, which had left me cold. I got top marks for that review; probably for the original take rather than any particular insight into the faults of Christine.
What is true is that it is (unfortunately) easier to criticise than to praise; and often more entertaining as a result. I really enjoy Bill Bryson's light-hearted travel books, but I didn't enjoy his book on Australia, Down Under, (released as In a Sunburned Country in some markets) nearly as much. The problem was he seemed to like Oz too much; and while he still managed to unearth some great anecdotes, it just wasn't as cuttingly funny as his trips around Britain, the USA and Europe had been. Some critics take this too far; and go out of their way to mercilessly exaggerate every fault in the book/restaurant/movie that has passed their way; causing considerable damage or hurt to the author/chef/director involved in order to show off their cutting wit.
All of this to say that, unlike my first set of reviews, there are some definite duds in the second set of films I saw at this year's Sydney Film Festival. First and worst was Girl Cut in Two, the latest offering from French veteran Claude Chabrol. It's hard to explain in just how many ways this film sucks. For a starter (and this will surprise you) it deals with a love triangle; in this case between a pretty and ambitious local TV weather girl; the spoilt rich son of a deceased local tycoon, and an intellectual three times her age. Given Chabrol's vintage, there are no surprises who Gabrielle really 'loves', and in fact a lot of this film plays out like a dirty old man's fantasy. The characters were all clichés; the story predictable; and the 'dilemma' of the film's title was literally enacted in the film's ludicrous conclusion. The heavy-handed attempts to satirise the French television industry, seen by some as a redeeming feature, were completely undermined by the fact that the film itself was a potpourri of French cinematic clichés.
I feel meaner criticising Slingshot; especially as the director himself was present for the screening - an Australian premiere. The film opens in a rush; and indeed the first 5-10 minutes are a dramatic and gripping ride through the slums of Manila following a police raid. The style and energy of this opening are reminiscent of a music video clip; unfortunately this can also be said of the depth and characterisation of the rest of the film. While the film is effective in capturing the desperation (and sad reality) of life in the slums, there doesn't seem to be any attempt to say any more than this. Most of the characters in the film are not likeable; in fact there is too much skipping between stories and characters to build any empathy with any of the characters at all. This is apparently director Brillante Mendoza's sixth feature film in two years - hopefully if he slows down a little he might come up with a film where the depth of character and story match the intensity of the action.
Finally for this post is Vogelfrei, definitely the first Latvian film I have seen. This film tells the story of a solitary Latvian male (Teodors) in four stages of his life, each directed by different directors. Not only is this take unusual; but there is no attempt to make his life chronologically consistent: Teodor is a shy child, an awkward teenager, a cold businessman and a lonely old man all in the early years of this century.
Teodors has a somewhat difficult, outsider's character which he gradually comes to terms with over the course of his life. The first part of the film, showing a pre-pubescent Teodors, owes a lot stylistically and thematically to My Life as a Dog. How many coming of age films show children playing on railway tracks ?
Teodors as a teenager was probably the least interesting (and effective) of the film's 'ages'; after-all, the teenager as a socially awkward outsider is hardly new territory. As a seemingly successful businessman, Teodors has developed a defence mechanism that allows him to interact with the rest of the world; even though he is still disturbed by this inability to relate personally to people. The austere style of this part of the film is in keeping with the tight control Teodors has learnt to keep on his character. It's only as a retired falconer that we finally see Teodors 'free as a bird' - interestingly in this, the most original of the 4 ages, he doesn't talk at all.
Despite the use of 4 different directors (and obviously actors) for each age, Vogelfrei works as a whole; and is noteworthy both for its unusual structure and character study, as well as an insight into a country most of us know little about.
Girl Cut in Two