Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sydney Film Festival round-up

Here’s my long overdue round up of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, the event may have been reduced to 12 days but they certainly packed in a plethora of entertaining films to keep even the most discerning film goer satisfied in the cold Sydney Winter.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee featured an all star cast including Robin Wright Penn as the eponymous Pippa. It’s almost impossible to imagine how director Rebecca Miller could go wrong with line up including Alan Arkin, the stunning Monica Bellucci and Julianne Moore. The film was a gentle but entertaining journey through a fascinating life that had become stagnant. The film also coaxes a decent performance out of Keanu Reeves.

A Good Man was one of the huge surprises of the festival, one of those rare life affirming films that manages to be moving, poignant and hilarious. The documentary follows the life of Chris, a down to earth Aussie farmer whose wife Rachel suffers a stroke few weeks after they discover they are pregnant. Despite the fact that she loses all control of her body apart from her eyes the couple have get married, have children and continue a loving relationship. As his farm and finances take a plunge, however, he decides to invest a new project to raise money for his farm, he builds and opens a brothel.

The Canadian shocker Pontypool opened like a vintage John Carpenter film. Claustrophobic, brooding and ominous, the atmosphere created by director Bruce McDonald ratcheted up every inch of tension but unfortunately the film didn’t manage to maintain its grip. Set in small town radio station, the film follows the gradual discovery of a horrific, unseen, event taking place while Grant Mazzy broadcasts his morning show. As the shocking truth gradually reveals itself to the DJ and his production team, their panic is palpable until you actually discover what the truth is. It’s fair to say that the plots of most horror films often lean towards the ridiculous but for Pontypool it asks a huge leap of faith from the audience that just isn’t remotely believable and the film lost any tension it had built up.

As a huge fan of the Pusher trilogy, Bronson was on my must see list the moment I read through the festival program and it most certainly did not disappoint. From its astounding central performance to the breathtaking visuals created by the director this is the prison movie that Stanley Kubrick never made. The use of overwhelming classical cues, stark stately backgrounds and shocking moments of savage violence recall A Clockwork Orange as the story of Britain’s most violent criminal unfolds before you.

Although much of its thunder had been stolen by Lucky Miles director Michael James Rowland’s ABC telemovie The Final Confessions of Alexander Pearce, there was much to enjoy in Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Diemens Land. Taking an ultra realistic approach and benefiting greatly from the beautiful cinematography of Ellery Ryan. Talking of stunning visuals Zift, made in Bulgaria, was beautiful to behold, despite its brutal subject matter. The stunning black and white photography filled up the scope framing with beautiful image after beautiful image and definitely benefited from being viewed on the big screen.

My favourite film of the festival so far was Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite. The loving homage to the blackploitation genre of the 70s fused Superfly, Shaft and Dolemite and stuck it to the man with a hilarious comedy full of jive talking turkeys, afros, flares, kung fu. It’s the best spoof since the Zucker’s took flight with Airplane. Another hugely entertaining surprise was Gustave de Kervern & Benoît Delépine’s Louise Michel, a pitch black tale of murder, hitmen and two very lonely and bizarre characters drawn together when a angry group of usurped staff decide to hire a hitman to kill their ex-boss. The week did, however, end with two disappointments with Catheine Breillat’s turgid Bluebeard and David Caesar uninspiring Prime Mover. The latter a particular frustration as Michael Dorman and Emily Barclay both give their all in the lead roles.

Woo’s Red Cliff, is the biggest film ever made in China. With a storyline that moulded the country as we know it, this is a bravura piece of filmmaking. The final on screen battle, lasting over 45 minutes, is breathtaking, a flaming sea of fire, hundreds of extras, explosions, flying arrows, much slow motion heroism, throat slashing mayhem, blood letting galore and a cup of tea that changed the face of the country forever. A long heart felt project. Woo looked thrilled to be introducing the edited ‘Western’ version of the film, the Eastern version came in two parts running over 5 hours. As he told us on the red carpet, “Red Cliff is about the epic battle fort in China almost two thousand years ago. It’s a heroic adventure but it also has a theme of friendship, love and courage and that’s what we really need in movies nowadays.”

Pitch black comedy came in the unlikely form of Tony Manero. A Chilean film about a middle aged man obsessed with John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. From taking part in a television look a like contest to hosting his own dance ‘spectacular’ he will stop at nothing to live his dream. When a cinema stops showing his favourite film and replaces it with Travolta’s other 70s dance sensation Grease he kills the projectionist. The film’s understated style and realistic performances only add to this off kilter comedy.

Teri Hatcher hit the red carpet to promote Henry Selick’s Coraline, working the press and keeping the hoards of autograph hunters happy. “I think it’s a classic fairy tale but at the same time it’s fresh, maybe even twisted. Coraline becomes a hero and a real role model as she has to save her family and bring them back together.” She adds, “I had a great time. Henry Selick, the director, is amazing; it was just a lot of fun. When I finally got to see it, I couldn’t believe I had a chance to be in it, I’m very proud.”

The winner of this year’s audience prize was Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes in Heaven. Starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbit, the filmed followed two lives that were inextricably linked after a young member of the IRA cold bloodedly kills to make his name. Years later Neeson plays the murderer and Nesbit, the brother of the diseased. Both have demons to exorcise and a meeting is set up to be filmed for television. The film’s masterstroke is the exploration of how reality shows and interviews can deeply affect the subject. The performances, from both leads, are extraordinary and after the hiccup that was The Invasion, Hirschbiegel shows that Downfall was no flash in the pan.

Ted Kotcheff’s restored Wake in Fright was amazing on the big screen. Thought lost, since 1972, until it was found in a skip in Pittsburgh; the Canadian director’s harrowing look into Aussie life in the outback shows a side of the nations countrymen that most Aussies would like to forget existed. Kotcheff, the man who gave us First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s was in attendance along with actor Jack Thompson and the films editor, the man who led a one man crusade to find the film, Tony Buckley. The trio also took part in a very entertaining interview session.

The last day was jam packed including the excellent Roman Polanski documentary Wanted & Desired and a complete screening of Steven Soderbegh’s Ché which has just been reviewed on this site. On the big screen the epic production thrills, exasperates, stuns and bores. Soderberg has to be commended for this mammoth undertaking and the scenes of guerrilla warfare are expertly executed. Del Toro was fabulous as the titular hero but you left the film feeling you still didn’t really know much about the man behind the face that launched a million T-Shirts in the 70s. A valiant effort but no Cuban cigar!

Dead Snow was a joy from beginning to end. Harking back to the gory days of early Sam Raimi and Pete Jackson; the film took a group of Norwegian twenty somethings and introduced them to a platoon of defrosted Nazi zombies. The juxtaposition of the bloody attacks and gratuitous plasma against the icy mountains and brilliant white snow was beautifully judged and with severed tongue firmly in cheek this was the perfect way to end the festival. Those not in the know headed to the State Theatre for the closing gala screening of An Education.