Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2007 - Final Reviews

Originally posted 24th July 2007 on last.fm.

Here's the final batch of mini-reviews / notes from the 2007 Sydney Film Festival. First the worst - Don't Touch the Axe - a slow, boring, pretentious, try-hard French film. I lasted longer than it deserved before walking out because I couldn't believe that it wasn't going to get better and reward me for my patience; but people I spoke to later who went the distance want that part of their life back. Gerard Depardieu jnr (his parents call him Guillaume) has the distinctive facial features but none of the acting talent of his father; and hobbled (literally) through the film with a single pained expression on his face as he attempted to justify the absurd story he was trapped in. An unbelievable (in the literal sense) love affair between unsympathetic characters; I'm not sure I've ever seen a worse film, at least not with the same pretence of being worthy.

Luckily I didn't know much about Black Snake Moan, although the presence of Justin Timberlake in the cast didn't really give me much cause for optimism. However this is a surprising and powerful story; inspired and driven by the blues. If you get a chance to see this, do. If you can, avoid the trailer, which puts a misleading slant on the film, and destroys the surprise of one of the scenes with the greatest impact. It's also highly recommended to see it in a cinema with the best sound system possible. I'm no Blues fan, but the music makes this film, and I ended up buying the Soundtrack, in which Samuel L. Jackson demonstrates an impressive talent as a Blues musician.

My other unexpected highlight was Beaufort. I didn't have high hopes for the story of an Israeli army camp, and I only attended reluctantly. The press attaché of the Israeli consulate in Sydney had been invited to speak on behalf of the Consul General; and, demonstrating a woeful ignorance of his audience; launched into a political speech defending Israel's recent (2007) incursion into Lebanon. He was roundly heckled for his troubles; but most of the audience remained and were rewarded with an intensely powerful (again !) and tense personal story. Almost documentary like; the film focuses on the young commander of the Israeli military base - Beaufort - built on an old Crusader fort, and his relationship with his team. The commander had the challenging job of attempting to motivate his soldiers to defend the camp with their lives, given the knowledge that his government was contemplating abandoning the camp to give the peace process a chance. Politics was by definition present in the story but the film maker chose not to take a political position; instead focusing on the personal impact of the situation on the soldiers. In doing so, the audience was left with far greater sympathy for the plight of those soldiers than any propaganda piece (or ill-considered speech) could have done.

Danish film After The Wedding is a taut modern mainstream film that will certainly get wider release later in the year. Starring 'Maddie' (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) popular in Oz due to the SBS hit Unit One (and now a Bond star), the film follows the story of a Danish volunteer teaching working in India who is lured back to Denmark with the promise of funding for his orphanage. Highly recommended.

Finally, another episode in the Sounds on Screen series, Scott Walker - 30 Century Man, a bio-pic of former The Walker Brothers member Scott Walker. My knowledge of Walker came mainly through his covers of Jacques Brel songs; although I was also aware of his earlier fame, and vaguely that his later work was non-prolific and 'difficult'. This film covers the full range of his career and gives a great picture not only of the artist and his music, but also an insight into his motivations and extreme difficulty in concluding any artistic endeavours as he gets older. Other artists such as Jarvis Cocker, Radiohead, and importantly David Bowie (his involvement released much needed funding for the film) spoke of Walker's influence on their career. And the pig carcass slapping scene is not to be missed !

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2007 - More Films

Originally posted 16th June, 2007 at last.fm.

It was a triple header at the Sydney Film Festival last night on a rainy, stormy Sydney Friday. My wish for rainy weather for the film festival has been amply rewarded - and it can stop now. Please. Sorry to anyone inconvenienced by the storms - I'll be more careful with what i wish for in future.

Before I get to last night's films, here are some more notes on films seen and half a real review.

Two films I omitted from my first report were The Dead - John Huston's last film, and All In this Tea. The latter is a moderately interesting documentary about Californian Tea enthusiast David Lee Hoffman. I was expecting a more general documentary on tea in China (and no price jokes) so to me this was a slightly lazy effort - telling Hoffman's story without any further research or perspective. Maybe my disappointed expectations were the fault of the promoters. The other notable point (again, made in the publicity) was that it was shot exclusively digitally. Unfortunately that equated to washed out and blurry on the large screen at the State Theatre. Hopefully that won't be such a problem on television, which is where it really belongs. As filmmaker Les Blank was a guest after the presentation i feel like a bad host to be critical of his work - so sorry Les.

The Dead, on the other hand, surprised and moved me - a gentle, small scale film, shot almost exclusively at a genteel dinner party in Dublin at the turn of the century (19th to 20th that is) and based on a story from Joyce's The Dubliners. Although the setting represented a fast disappearing world, and Irish politics (the film is set only a decade before 1916) rate the barest of mentions, the final scenes pack a powerful punch and the entire film was engrossing. The Dead was only released in 1987 but its languid pace is from another era altogether.

I was apprehensive about Half Moon (Niwemang) as Iranian films have not exactly been my cup of tea. After a hard day's work and a hard week's film watching I was worried I'd get an attack of the nods, no matter how stunning the scenery and unusual the story. I needn't have worried though - the only people suffering attacks of the nods in the theatre were characters in the film itself - a beautifully filmed road movie, with impressive performances from mostly non-actors. Half Moon is about a family of Kurdish Iranian musicians travelling to newly liberated Kurdish Iraq for a music festival. Being a road-trip you won't be surprised that we barely get to see the destination, but on the way we are treated to a fascinating insight into life in those parts, more than a few laughs, as well as a serious story. Although the realities of the political situation were ever-present in the story (the film is set on the Iraqi/Turkish/Iranian border) they never get in the way of the human story being told.

Kiwi cinematographer Nigel Bluck was presented before the film (as an Australian - much to his displeasure !) and told us how director Bahman Ghobadi wanted an outsider as cinematographer in order to get a different perspective on the Iranian landscape. What Bluck couldn't admit was that his cinematography was inspired by Iranian cinema, and thus he was not ideally suited to deliver to Bahman's vision. Thankfully he still got the job as it is beautiful looking film, on top of everything else.

Life Is All About Friends has a pretty twee title that seems to have been chosen just for this Festival - it's known as Unni in IMDB. The story of four primary school boy friends set entirely in their school and surrounding village, it is a mostly light-hearted look at childhood in rural India, with darker themes such as the caste system and alcoholism lurking in the background. It's a very funny film, with beautiful scenery and endearing characters, so it's hard not to like this film (although the 'festival virgins' sitting next to me weren't so impressed!)

The first film in the Friday trifecta was from Spain - Mallorca to be precise. Yo was classic festival fare – dark, complicated and slightly obscure ; basically about melding/losing identity. At some stage during the film it really annoyed me but it was certainly original, and by the end of the film i was converted. First time director Rafa Cortes was there and spoke afterwards. He's quite a charmer and even resorted to a self-contained Q&A when questions from the (slightly bemused) audience dried up.

Next film was pure pop, a great English comedy – Death at a Funeral, which will definitely be a mainstream hit. Despite it being completely predictable and somewhat derivative, I haven’t laughed so much in ages. Perfect for a rainy Friday night and a great antidote to the seriousness of Yo.

The last film of the night was Shut Up and Sing, the Dixie Chicks film. I’ve never been a fan, but those girls are pretty cool – especially the lead singer – Natalie Maines – who is feisty-ness personified. I have to admit it’s always fun to laugh at rednecks and GWB as well, and there's plenty of that on offer here. A well made and surprisingly interesting documentary, Shut Up and Sing following the girls from the fall out over their Bush/Texas comments to the release of the recent album, Taking The Long Way. Am I tempted to listed to more Dixie Chicks ? Almost !

Great Australian Albums - Born Sandy Devotional

I knew him as a gentle young man,
I cannot say the reasons for his decline
We watched him fade before our very eyes
And years before his time, and years before his time.

With these sadly prophetic lines from Tender Is The Night, the moving Great Australian Albums - Born Sandy Devotional concluded with a dedication to David McComb (17/2/62 - 2/2/99). The film, which tells the story of The Triffids, in particular focusing on their classic album Born Sandy Devotional, is part of the Sounds on Screen strand of the Sydney Film Festival, and screened to a nearly full Metro Theatre, more traditionally a music concert venue.

It will also be the last episode in the Great Australian Albums series to be screened on SBS (Australian television channel) from late July. The series features one classic Australian album per decade, the other albums to be featured being:

Silverchair - Diorama
Crowded House - Woodface (not the most obvious choice of album, IMO)
The Saints - I'M Stranded

After the screening tonight, there was a Q&A featuring filmmakers Martin Fabinyi, Toby Creswell, Danielle Kelly, and Larry Meltzer, hosted by SMH music critic Bernard Zuel. Hopefully a sufficiently enthusiastic reaction to the series (and DVD - good news for overseas fans) will encourage SBS or others to document more of Australia's music heritage.

The film itself has a low-budget, home movie feel, which tied in with the home made aesthetic of the Triffid's album (if not reflecting the production values, which are excellent, especially obvious in last year's re-mastered release). As well as some great archival footage, it features interviews with remaining band members Robert McComb (David's older brother), 'Evil' Graham Lee (described as the keeper of the The Triffid's flame), keyboardist Jill Birt, and finally drummer Alsy Macdonald, who got the laugh of the night describing his isolation stuck with his drum kit in the attic at the Mark Angelo studios in Farringdon as the band recorded the album (and had all the fun) downstairs.

Also featured are Australian musicians such as Paul Kelly, Steve Kilbey from The Church, and former The Go-Betweens Amanda Brown and Robert Forster. Paul Kelly describes how he has tried and failed to cover Wide Open Road, unable to find a new angle on the song, considering it perfect as it is. Steve Kilbey, a passionate fan, described it as Australia's PlayBorn to Run, but I guess he doesn't share Paul Kelly's opinion on covering the track, given there's a version on the Church's latest album, El Momento Siguente.

As well as focusing on the music and making of BSD, the documentary delivers a brief history of the band and its position in Aussie rock history. Much is made of the sense of light and space in the Triffids music, and many of the fans and friends of the band recalled how evocative of an Australian childhood the music is.

In that sense, much is made of how Born Sandy Devotional is not just a great rock album, but a Great Australian Album; but this tribute (really the best term for the documentary) is for all fans of great song-writing and great music, whatever nationality.

Originally published 13th June, 2007 on last.fm.
The DVD has now been released; and all 4 documentaries can now be purchased as a box-set. At the 2008 Festival, the first instalment of Great Australian Albums Series 2 screened, featuring
Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. Other albums in series 2 are:

Powderfinger - Odyssey Number 5
The Go-Betweens - 16 Lover's Lane
Hunters & Collectors - Human Frailty

Friday, August 8, 2008

Splinter in the Arse 2008

For seasoned punters, Splendour in the Grass, a Byron Bay music festival considered by many to be the best in Australia, is synonymous with gumboots, and many of the shops in Byron Bay stock up in June in anticipation of a July windfall. There was no need this year though; since moving the festival into the first weekend of August last year, Splendour in the mud has become Splendour in the dust (there are those who are convinced that shifting the festival by a single week is responsible for the improvement). Don’t worry about the shopkeepers though, the gumboots still served for the nearly-washed-out writer’s festival the weekend before.

This was my first Byron Festival experience since the Byron Bay Arts and Music Festival in 1995. Memories are hazy, although I do remember The Dirty Three being absolutely brilliant. I also recall that the festival back then had a real ‘Byron’ feel to it, with all that implies, and I was looking forward to the chilled out crowd – as a contrast to all the 20 y.o. dickheads running around at the last two Homebake Festivals in Sydney I've been to. Unfortunately the dickheads have discovered Byron; lots of drugged up Brisbane boys with Rugby League brains and Rugby League manners, pushing everyone out of their way were a real downside to this event. Not enough, however, to spoil the enjoyment of the great music and venue !

We arrived at the venue just in time for the end of Operator Please. Not much to say about these guys; they’re not my cup of tea and I’m sure they don’t care. The kids certainly seemed to like them though, judging by all the high pitched screaming from the Supertop ! The Music, on the other hand, are very much my cup of tea live – and – it seems – everyone else’s. The big blue tent was packed to the rafters of heaving bodies swaying to the music (capitalised or otherwise) and they got the best fan reaction of the day. The only puzzle is why they were on so early. Musically, The Music's music can be a little repetitive (in the lounge room at least), with all the high pitched arm punching choruses, driving beats and angry guitars; but it's tailor made for a short set at a festival like this one, and they were for many the highlight of the day.

Gyroscope and The Fratellis came and went. I wasn't really familiar with either of these bands, and already their gigs are blurred in my mind, but I do remember enjoying both of them despite the lack of familiarity. Gyroscope in particular played with a real energy which suggests bigger things to come. I had heard great things about Band of Horses and had been meaning to give them a spin for a while. I wasn't disappointed - the show was great, both musically and as a spectacle; and even if the crowd reaction at the smaller 'GW McLennan Tent' wasn't as passionate as for The Music, this was my highlight of the day. These guys are a band I'll be keeping an eye on.

I'd also heard great things about The Polyphonic Spree and was looking forward to seeing their much praised live show. On paper it sounded great; multi-instrumental, with operatic influences, parallels to the Beach Boys and Flaming Lips, and (according to a recent interview) 'definitely not a gimmick'; it sounded right up my musical alley. The show itself was spectacular, from the build up behind the red curtain; the colourful stage props, through to the exciting light show. However (you saw it coming, didn't you) the music itself let me cold. Tuneful and happy, yet somewhat soulless; it reminded me more than anything else of a musical meeting a church choir - think Godspell - and I certainly won't be rushing out to buy the CDs.

Which brings us to Devo, the headline act for Day One if not the entire festival. It was a strange choice of headline act, and certainly the crowd was noticeably smaller and more subdued that for The Music and the other bands earlier in the afternoon. Although they'd resent being called a novelty act (and certainly their longevity belies that tag) it has been literally decades since Devo had done anything musically significant, and even an oldie and almost fan from the old days like myself was struggling to recall more than a handful of songs.

First things first - yes, they still wear the flower pots and boiler suits. While that's to be admired, there's no hiding age, and what was quirky on 20 year-olds looked - as much as I hate to say it - pretty ridiculous on a bunch of middle-aged guys.

Musically the gig was fine without being inspirational. Whip It was whipped out early and rushed through, and their version of Satisfaction, so inspirational in its time, seemed limp. Girl You Want and Beautiful World were better - and I'm definitely glad I saw them, yet somehow I expected more from Devo.

In good news just to hand, the Byron Bay Arts and Music Festival is being resurrected in the New Year after a 12 year absence. Stay tuned for part 2 of the Splendour in the Grass review ... and sorry about the crap title, if you've got this far.