Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Not So Positive

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.

IMDB Links
Girl Cut in Two

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2007

My music listening has taken backseat to the movies over the last few days as it's Sydney Film Festival time again. There's actually an entire 'strand' dedicated to music, called Sounds on Screen, but I've not limited myself to that by any means.

So here, pretty much in note form, are some of the films I've seen so far. Hopefully this will help me remember them after 2 weeks immersion in the world of film !

12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dry 'post-revolution' film set in a small town outside of Bucharest, with a surprisingly funny finale that had us all in stitches.

Daratt is an unusual revenge story from Chad, with a great insight into some of the society there. One of the things that can sometimes get on my nerves in films, is a scene where great secrets are revealed, and yet in the next scene the characters are getting on without any apparent reaction or change in relationship as a result of the previous conflict. This film is full of scenes like that yet they didn't annoy me at all, and although it was mostly a low key film it still had me on edge right up to the final scene.

I Served the King of England is a riotous and absurd Czech film - based on a Hrabal novel that i'm going to have to hunt down. Apparently the largest budget Czech film ever made, it's possible that it could be mistaken as celebrating the life it portrays (the way rednecks have adopted Born in the USA for example) but in reality it's a wonderful satire on the delusions of Czech high-society during the first half of this century, visually rich and entertaining yet with serious ideas.

I'm still trying to work out if Antonia was a Brazilian Spice Girls or something deeper ! Often judgement gets suspended for foreign films, and i suspect that's the case here. I know my parents hated it - but i knew that would be the case from the first scene, which had Brazilian rap music shaking the State Theatre to its venerable bones !

More mainstream were the American films Bella and The Walker. I'm not really sure what The Walker was doing in the festival. While it's more overtly political that your average Hollywood release - with politics that please festival goers, of course - it had the cast (and budget) that you would think ensures a release into the chains later this year. Nevertheless, an enjoyable political thriller, and an outstanding performance by Woody Harrelson (tour de force, as they like to call it) as the eponymous walker, that is, friend and confidant of Washington's bored and rich housewives.

Bella is a different case. It too had the mainstream budget (the credits thanked 20 plus sponsors for the privilege of having their products prominently placed in the film) and production values of The Walker; and while the ethnic twist to the story (a USA/Mexico co-production apparently) adds to its festival appeal, i'm not so sure that the not-too-subtle pro-life theme would be so appreciated by that crowd.

Lastly (for now), the Chinese film How Are Your Fish Today was a kind of two-for-the-price-of-one deal, a chinese road-trip movie with bonus making-of weaved into the film. While not quite as funny nor original as its title deserved, nevertheless it's an interesting journey into a modern Chinese film-maker's world and motivations, as well as a visit to an older, more traditional village, Mohe, in China's far north.

Originally posted on last.fm June 12, 2007. And yes, it helped me remember these films so well I'm doing it all again this year !

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2008 - First Reviews

They've snuck the festival opening forward this year, holding it on a Wednesday rather than the usual Friday night. I'm a bit of a traditionalist though; and with other plans for Friday night I kicked off my 2008 film festival viewing Saturday morning at the un-godly hour of 10am at the State. My selfish appeals for rain were ignored, and it was a glorious Sydney winter's morning as we settled down to watch the opening film, Quiet Chaos.

Directed by Antonio Grimaldi, Quiet Chaos stars Nanni Moretti and is very consistent with his earlier work; particularly in the exploration of the theme of family grief from The Sun's Room, and the conversational style of Caro Diario (amongst others) which in fact came out in Italy while I was living there. An easily likable film, it follows the way the protagonist (Moretti, of course) copes with his wife's unexpected death and the impact (or lack thereof) it has on his daughter, while offering a broader observation on some of the absurdities of modern life. It's lightly told and mostly subtle, with the exception of a surprisingly graphic sex-scene that seemed out of place with the feel of the rest of the film. This will most certainly get a run in the art-house cinemas later this year and is well worth seeing (that horrible expression from my travel diaries pops up again !).

The film festival is slowly expanding geographically - later in the year a sub-section of the films will tour regional Australia; and even during the Sydney fortnight, the festival now claims two screens in the George St Greater Union complex and one in the Dendy at Opera Quays. Next stop on the filmic agenda was Andalucia, down among the homeboys in George St. I'd assumed from the title it was a Spanish film, but in fact was a French film, which told the story of an Algerian immigrant, Yacine, trying to straighten out his life in Paris. This film can be accurately described as 'typical film festival fare' - with many unexplained scenes and random plot evolutions it's not at at all to everyone's taste. However I really enjoyed it, both for it's original view on life on the peripheries (literally and figuratively) of Paris; interesting characters (many played by non-actors) and particularly the talents and expressive face of the lead, Samir Guesmi. The ending (and link to the title) was really taking the piss though !

To take advantage of the weather, and complete the trifecta of festival venues, next stop was the Dendy in the Toaster building next to Sydney's Opera House (via a couple of glasses of bubbly watching the sunset behind the Bridge at the Opera Bar - a terrible day). On our agenda was a Swedish film, chosen mostly for my companion who was keen for a chance to practice her language skills. It was an inspired choice - I haven't laughed so much in a film in ages (much to the displeasure of my 'alien' a.k.a hernia). Du Levande (You, The Living) is a delightful series of loosely connected vignettes set in a run-down area of Stockholm. Initially purely humorous (and with unexpected outbursts of song, accompanied by a brass band), the film moves into exploring darker themes of history, guilt and human misery, while never losing its light touch and original world view. The soundtrack, credited to Abba's Benny Anderson of all people, is also a delight.

Finally (for this review set) a Monday film (once again accompanied by holiday rain) that was both worthy and enjoyable. Son of a Lion is an Australian produced and directed film set and shot completely in the Pashtun areas of the North West Frontier of Pakistan. The story itself, of a sensitive and artistic son rebelling against his traditional father is far from an original one; however it's in the telling that this film is special. The filming was mostly surreptitious; while the film makers had the full support of the villagers who appear in the film, they could not get permission from the government and needed to be constantly aware of interference from soldiers and officialdom. Consequently, most of the filming was done on a hand-held camera often relying on natural lighting (unintentionally following some of the rules of the Dogma manifesto.) Despite those constraints the film is physically beautiful; and with a soundtrack of traditional musicians masterminded by former Go-Between Amanda Brown it also sounds fantastic.

At the screening itself, which was the Australian premiere, we were lucky enough to have the presence of the film-maker, Benjamin Gilmour, and producer, Carolyn Johnson, for a Q&A. Unlike many Q&As at the Film Festival, this one was brief, informative and contained (mostly) actual questions rather than the usual festival-goer showing off. Modest, yet justifiably proud of their work, Benjamin and Carolyn treated us to amusing anecdotes about the filming and some fascinating background covering the inspiration for the story, the contributions of the villagers to the plot evolution, and some of the issues regarding the filming of women in such a traditional area. The film-makers were visibly moved when a member of the local Pashtun community stood up and stated how much the film meant to him. All in all, a great experience.

IMDB Links:
Son of a Lion
You the Living (Du Levande)
Quiet Chaos (Caos Calmo)

Sydney Film Festival 2008

One of the highlights of my year (when living in Sydney at least) is the Sydney Film Festival; which kicks off on the June long weekend, promising 2 weeks of travelling the world via the cinema. Ticketing for the festival gets more complicated every year, but basically there are two main ways to see the festival - via a subscription which reserves you a given seat for one or two weeks (further split into day and evening streams) at Sydney's stunning State Theater, or by buying a wad of festival vouchers and then exchanging them for tickets for individual films. I've managed subscriptions a couple of times in the past, but lately with the unpredictability of work and work related travel, I've gone for the wad approach. Typically this means seeing between 15 and 25 tickets in a fortnight - and selfishly praying for rain on the long weekend so that sitting in a dark cinema for 6-8 hours doesn't seem quite so criminal !

The downside of seeing so many films in such a short time is the risk of the films blurring into each other, or even forgetting altogether a given film (or at least not recognising the title in the video shop or SBS guide !) I use two techniques to avoid those problems. The first is the Internet Movie Database; one of my all-time favourite internet resources (along with CricInfo - yes, I'm a cricket tragic).

IMDB is simply a database of pretty much every movie ever made, with cast, director, year, actor profiles awards etc, all nicely cross-referenced. User maintained, individuals can contribute reviews, add websites and make corrections to almost any entry in a manner that's far more prevalent now with the fashion all things Web2.0, but was quite innovative for its time. One of the site's features is the ability for users to give a film a rating on a scale of 1-10. The accumulated votes are used to to generate charts, including the all-time top 250, which is calculated using a top-secret weighted average formula (to avoid rigging). As you can see, several of the films have been rated by more than a quarter of a million users.

I'm not a huge believer in summarising a film with a simple score out of 10 - yet by voting on films I see (especially the more obscure ones), I have a self-maintaining list of my film going history which I can even share with the general public. If you take a look, don't get too hung up by my ratings; although I try and maintain some sort of consistency in my ratings, I don't spend too much time on it - as my goal is recording before rating.

Of course, a simple mark out of ten does not help me remember what a film is about (although the Vote History feature comes with convenient links to full film descriptions). Last year, in order to address that problem, I started writing mini-reviews of Festival Films I saw; posting them on my journal page on the social music site last.fm. One day I'll transfer the reviews over here; but for now it's festival time again, so my Cuba trip will be put on hold while I try and keep up with my film viewing over the next two weeks. I hope you enjoy travelling with me.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

Your Man in Havana

It was with great trepidation that your correspondent arrived at customs and immigration control at Havana airport. The guide books and web forums were filled with stories of hour long interrogations; not so subtle requests for bribes, and particular scrutiny to check that expensive state owned hotels had been reserved as a condition of granting visas (which I hadn't done, of course). There were two other obvious solo travellers on the plane, so we hooked up together for safety in numbers. In the end we needn't have worried; but Andy, Janet and I got one so well together we ended up travelling together for multiple stages of our respective trips !

Customs safely navigated, we shared a taxi into town to our respective accommodations. The best option for independent travellers in Cuba is to stay in Casas Privadas - private homes that function more or less as Bed and Breakfasts. Although mostly legal, the Casas take away business from the sterile and over priced stated owned hotels; and as such are subject to much harassment and exorbitant taxation from state officials. I'd arranged to meet up with a fellow solo-traveller at a Casa Privada in the old part of town so I said a temporary goodbye to my new friends and made my way there.

The next day was the first chance to really see Havana. Storms the previous night had cleared the air and the city had a fresh washed feel to it. Apart from the historic old town (Havana Vieja), which has been renovated to within an inch of its life, Havana is in a desperate state of disrepair. Depending on which guide book you believe, 100s or even 1000s of buildings a decade simply crumble through a combination of neglect and corrosive sea water. The roads (outside of a few key areas) are pot hole ridden warrens; and walking at night-time (street lighting is at a premium) requires real concentration not to end up going for 6.

Havana Vieja, on the other, hand, has been subject to years of funding from UNESCO and Spanish provinces, and is considered the best example of colonial-era Spanish architecture anywhere in the world (including Spain). It's the only part of Havana many of the European tourists get to see, and as such is strictly policed and almost completely free of the hustlers and scamsters that proliferate in the rest of the city. While this makes for a stress free tourist experience, there is a slight Truman Show feel to this part of Havana; as beautiful as it is it would be a travesty to miss out on the real feel of the town, which can be found walking 10 minutes in any direction.

I also made a visit to the Necropolis Cristobal Colon (or Christopher Columbus, as we know him), Havana's main cemetery. I was looking for the grave of Jose Raul Capablanca, a former world chess champion, who was supposedly buried here. I failed in that search, but the scenic cemetery was still worth the visit - not least for the bizarre story of La Milagrosa, known as Cuba's unofficial saint !