Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sydney Film Festival 2009 Highlights

So it's all over for another year - being the shy and retiring type I didn't go to the closing night party (and film - An Education) and instead finished the festival with the 5 hour Che epic. As usual, my reviewing is running well behind viewing, so to make sure I don't forget anything there's a quick summary of the films I've seen here, and I'm going to write up my overall festival impressions while it's all still fresh ! Individual film comments may or may not follow.

Overall it was probably the most consistent film festival I've been to. While there were no absolute killer films, there were, for the first time in memory, no duds either; the closest being a mere let-down (The Girlfriend Experience) that really didn't live up to it's promise or director's reputation. I believe I promised I wouldn't mention the website and ticketing problems again - so I won't !

My favourite documentary was the The Cove - for being everything a good documentary should be - but a special mention here to Big River Man, the story of an overweight alcoholic 52 year old Slovenian who decides to swim the entire length of the Amazon, which came very close, telling a remarkable story at once personal and global; with a much smaller budget and none of the rich and powerful connections that the makers of The Cove enjoyed.

The Beaches of Agnes was a delightfully unexpected treasure and beat out Che Part 1 for favourite bio-pic (really I just created the category so I could mention it). Understanding the history, character and motivations of Agnes Varda also added enormously to my appreciation of Cleo from 5 to 7 the next day - I just love seeing those old 'new wave' black and whites on the big screen.

The winner for best big budget Chinese propaganda piece (in the face of terrific competition) was Red Cliff - and what a pleasure to see John Woo in person - so humble and proud of his work.

And finally, my overall favourite was probably Wake in Fright - despite (or because) of it being nearly 40 years old. The back story added to the enjoyment, of course, but the film absolutely stood on its own as an unflinching look at part of the Australian psyche. I'm really hoping a lot of people will go and see this when it gets its cinema run soon.

PS The full set of my 2009 Film Festival entries are collected here; and those for past years here - starting to build up quite a collection now, definitely helpful in remembering what I've seen !

Saturday, June 13, 2009

SFF 2009 Films Seen Still to be Reviewed

Below are films that I've seen but not yet written up. Really just notes for me at this stage but feel free to take a peek ! It may well be that they get no further.

Disgrace - loved it, haven't read the book, maybe in about 6 months. Brilliantly done, it will be interesting to see how the South Africans react to Australians making a South African story - and compare it to how Australians reacted to Wake in Fright (Canadian director) all those years ago (it lasted 7 days in cinemas in Sydney - compared to months in France !

The Beaches of Agnes - best bio-pic I've ever seen. Unexpectedly delightful, original approach and her character really shines.
Cleo from 5 to 7 - from Agnes Varda above, 'cute' new wage film from the early 60s; original and fun.

Parque Via - slow but lingers, the second 'Latin American live in help' film of the festival after The Maid. Not as immediately appealing as The Maid.
The Missing Person - interesting take on film noir. Stylish even if the plot was light.

The Missing Water
- ambitious and lots of admiration; the 'gimmick' didn't work for me, as much as I wanted to like the film. There was a lot of good will in the State Theatre for the young director and many loved it. A great achievement at any rate.

Red Cliff - fantastic John Woo fun, big Chinese propaganda push !
Big River Man - magic story, worked as a film as well. Highlight was the standing ovation the Big River man himself got when he surprised us after the film (last we saw of him was in an alcoholic stupor on his couch in Slovenia - a few months after completing an extra-ordinary swim the length of the Amazon that took him and his team to the mental edge.

The Girlfriend Experience was pretty ordinary - didn't say anything really. Probably only disappointment of the festival.
Wake in Fright - absolutely brilliant, powerful and spectacular, deserved the hype.

Che Part 1 was a great telling of the story. I've forgiven Soderbergh for the blah-ness of The Girlfriend Experience.
Che Part 2 - works as a stand alone film but not I'm convinced the same impact couldn't have been had with an extra 15 minutes on part 1. Still completely watchable though; but given there had to be two films why not more on the trials of establishing a government in Cuba directly post revolution ?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mercury Rising

Two quite different 'environmental' films share this review.

The Cove is what great documentary making is all about. Passionate, exciting and revealing, the Cove both exposes the shameful annual dolphin massacre in the Japanese town of Taijii, and tells the exciting story of the work of dedicated activists over the years (including Ric O'Barry, the (human) face of Flipper) to expose this story to the wider public. Also check out the official website for more background on the campaign to save the dolphins, and inform the world of increasing problem of mercury poisoning in fish (and therefore humans).

Altiplano takes another path altogether. Superficially the movie tells the story (based on true events) of a traditional Peruvian village suffering mercury poisoning from a new mine in the area, with a side story of a Belgian couple whose lives become caught up in the conflict. However the film-makers have a greater ambition, which is to draw attention to the problem (in their eyes) of the decline of the spiriual in modern western lives. Maybe it's my rational side, but for me, the film worked best at the more mundane level. Three quarters of the way through I was loving it - beautifully filmed, interesting and important story, opening us up to a new world. However the last quarter (or so - it seemed longer) the self-indulgent mystical pieces over-took the film, unfortunately losing some of the impact of the rest of the film.

Judge for yourslves though - either by seeing the film (which I still recommend - especially anyone interested in South America) or by exploring the official website which spells out better than I have the film-makers philosophy.

SFF2009 - The Rude Ones

Well not really, but the two films here certainly shared a certain fruitiness of language - and Britishness - if not much else.

The synopsis for Bronson, which would be familiar to any Australian thanks to Chopper, was enough to convince my mum that it was not for her and so I gratefully accepted her ticket for the Sunday afternoon screening. Based on a true story, Bronson (SFF link) tells of 'psycho' prisoner Michael Peterson, in and out of (but mostly in) jail for 34 years from the age of 19, adopting Bronson (from Charles) as his alter-ego; and, like Mark 'Chopper' Read, becoming something of a media celebrity.

In reality the movie has more in common with A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest than Chopper; thematically exploring both violence and society's sometimes dehumanising reaction to what it can't control, as well as our bizarre celebrity obsession. Stylistically the film is stunning - the use of colour, light, sets and music place it in another league altogether to Chopper.  Simply a brilliant piece of cinema, and an acting tour de force (apologies for the cliché, but it's needed here) from Tom Hardy. And mum, the violence was more stylised than real; and although the language was pretty fish and chips, you would have coped !

In the Loop is simply a great British comedy / political satire - also not for those with sensitive ears. Drawing strongly from events around the time just before the second (US) Gulf War, the story follows a variety of bumbling politicians and advisors on both sides of the Atlantic, with not one but two foul-mouthed Scottish operatives scaring the bejesus out of all and sundry. This one will definitely get mainstream release and is well worth seeing - you won't learn much from the satire if you have even a vague interest in politics, but you'll sure get a good laugh.

Fighting the Festival Website

I alluded in my opening Sydney Film Festival 2009 posting to problems with the 2009 website. I won't turn this into a whinge-fest - but in the interests of - I hope they get it better next year - here are the problems with the website I have found - purely through attempting to use it, not through any active fault-finding exercise !

There are two main areas of frustration - film browsing and ticket purchasing - both fairly essential activities on a film festival website.

Browsing films is slow slow slow; the most common activity I use the website for is to see what films are showing on a given night at the State Theatre. This isn't possible; but using the calendar navigator you can at least select all the films on a given day. Unfortunately, the website makers have decided to limit the display to 5 per page, further more there is no next/previous option to navigate between the pages, nor is the current page identified. Instead there are just the numbers 1-5/6/7 at the bottom of the page. If you are looking for a specific film (and there is no search by title option, believe it or not) you have to guess on which of the 5 or so pages it might fall; and this task is further complicated by the fact that alphabetisation used puts all the 'The ...' films together contrary to almost all accepted practice.

On a slow connection, and with the poor performance of the festival site's servers, what could be just a minor irritant suddenly makes planning a night's viewing a very slow process; it can take 10 or more minutes just to see the titles of the films on show, much more if you want to read the details of an individual film as well.

For next year, an easy option would be to provide a 'Single Page' view option, on top of existing functionality. Even better, enable search by title (rather than navigation by first letter of title), modify the sort functionality to ignore 'The' (actually A-Z search has done this, unlike the calendar search) and give a sub-search option on the calendar navigation of day-time/evening and venue.

Print your own tickets is all the trend these days and the festival have jumped on the bandwagon - which given the queues at the box-office is an essential step in the right direction. Unfortunately there are a few irritating issues that make this harder to use than it should be. The most annoying 'feature' is the seat reservation process that forces you to chose where you want to sit - up to nine options (Stalls/Mezzanine/Dress Circle and Front/Middle/Back). This is great for unpopular films but as a film approaches selling out it can require 20 plus clicks to navigate to a spare seat. There is no cursor/feedback after clicking on 'find seat' either, nor any indication that the 'no tickets available' response relates to the most recent search or a previous one.

Similarly when trying to purchase chosen tickets, there is no acknowledgement of click (such as change in cursor/hourglass). If you're uncertain whether a click has taken or not (after waiting for more than a minute for any sort of feedback), you end up adding extra tickets to your cart. Want to remove them ? Sure, but you have to cancel the whole transaction (not just remove the extra 2 tickets accidentally added) and go through the above process again. Thus did I spend more than an hour (really) attempting to buy a pair of tickets to 2 popular films - thankfully on a boring work phone conference at the same time.

In comparison the login screen is a relatively minor annoyance - a pop up that won't remember your password, and is too small to display a normal length email address (the only login possible). It took me three attempts at the box office to link my 20-ticket flexi- pass to my online account - at one stage my password was set blank (and emailed to me as such in confirmation) but the login window wouldn't allow a blank password to even be submitted. With no phone support for website problems or ticketing the only way to fix this is to join the queue at the State.

Finally (thankfully you say) - although I have 3 redeemable tickets left and am trying to get my last 4 tickets the system will only let me redeem 1 of them, forcing me to use the credit card for the others ($17 each instead of ~ $10) and leaving me with 2 unusable tickets - unless I join the queue again again - or attempt to on sell them somehow.

I do hope someone reads this and takes in feedback for next year. I know there's a human behind the design of the website - which is why I've to focus on the functionality issues rather than cutting criticism for its own sake. I also know that I forked out more than $230 for my tickets (that I could have spent on music, mainstream film or football) and don't really expect it to be such a painful and time consuming task to redeem them.

I would also suggest that next year a help-desk style phone support is provided (even better, online phone sales - even with a surcharge a la Qantas) especially when going live with a new and untested web system. For anyone trying to buy tickets during the festival, the only alternative when the website doesn't work is turning up an hour early and hoping the queue clears in time.

I promise it's the last you'll hear from me about the ticketing !! Next post some films I loved ...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sydney Film Festival 2009 - Here we go again

It seems to come around faster every year; like everything else I guess. Suddenly it's the June long weekend and time for the Sydney Film Festival again. I've already seen 10 films without putting pen to paper (or mouse to pad, or whatever the 21st century equivalent will be*) so it's time to get scrawling.

First, the changes. The Film Festival has been reduced to 11 days from the previous fortnight, which I think is a good thing. Reasons given vary from the GFC to aligning with other festivals around the world - regardless, 11 days over 4 cinemas is plenty of time to absorb some great cinema from around the world without demanding too much of a sacrifice.

On the downside, the ticketing and website have both changed - and not in a good way. Replacing Ticketmaster with a hand made solution - apparently used by 'other festivals' has caused serious grief - and the re-jigged website to support this is several times less user-friendly than that of previous years. Added to that, the new system requires each ticket to be printed out on an A4 sheet after about 5 minutes of data entry - resulting in ridiculous queues at the box-office, which has been relocated to a bunker. I feel sorry for the staff having to deal with frustrated festival goers - some of whom can get pretty (unreasonably) stroppy.

On the upside though, the films have been better than ever and after 10 films I've yet to see a dud ! Hopefully there'll be no Not So Positive reviews this year ...

I missed the opening night 'Looking for Eric' - which hopefully I'll catch on local release, so my first film was the Chilean film La Nana - The Maid. This 2009 Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury prize winner is set in an upper-middle class Chilean family and focusses on the relationship between the family and their aging and increasingly bitter and erratic maid, Raquel, played by a Chilean television star Catalina Saavedra.

While the opening phase of the film was clever in exploring the middle class guilt that inhabits the complex relationship with live-in help, and there were plenty of gags as we watched Raquel undermine her 'helpers' - at a certain point in time, I was left thinking, 'sure - but what's the point'. That was answered for me in the delightful and unexpected final third of the film that really gave the film its meaning.

Afterwards we were treated to a better than usual Q and A session with director Sebastián Silva and actor Catalina Saavedra. Silva in particular charmed the audience with his frank discussion and admission that the story was 60-70% based on his family experience, as well as being a very common scenario in Latin America in general. Asked how the real-life Raquel has reacted to her on screen depiction he replied simply: 'She dyed her hair blonde, quit her job [after 20 years with the family] and got a boy-friend' !

A great start to the Festival.

*The twitterati have decided that fingers to keys is the new pen to paper. Obvious really !