Tag Archive: Sydney Film Festival

I’ve never read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; so if you were hoping for an informed perspective, you should click on to the next thing. (I refuse to feel bad – I’m watching At the Movies right now and Margaret is admitting she’s not qualified to review Ted because she’s never seen Family Guy.) But in assessing Emily Arnold’s feature-film adaptation, I’m not sure it matters whether I’ve read it or not. I’m not even sure  it would matter whether Arnold had ever read it. Her film approaches adaptation as an extreme sport. The story’s themes, characters and plot are present in what is presumably a recognizable shape, like points on a constellation, but otherwise complete liberty is taken. Perhaps this is expected these days; Shakespeare is adapted so freely on both stage and screen in contemporary times that we’re actually surprised by more traditional interpretations. But Hollywood and BBC costume dramas based on classic novels follow such a standard form that I guess there’s still a bit of shock left to mine from re-interpretation with contemporary aesthetics and values. Either that, or Arnold is particularly good at ruffling middlebrow feathers, because her version of Wuthering Heights has been called controversial, difficult and dark. It’s certainly dark, I’ll give you that. I liked it quite a lot.

Brontë’s 1847 novel is known for its bleakness and strangeness anyway, and was already controversial upon publication. Clearly Arnold felt she had to get even weirder in order to register the same impact. In her hands, the tale has become something beyond Gothic – primal, elemental, brutal. Whether life on the Yorkshire moors of the 19th century was as grim and downright Medieval as it’s depicted here is up for discussion. But there’s almost no doubt we’ve been kidding ourselves with our sanitized versions of Dickens and Austen; life in northern Europe at any time, and for any class of people, before the inventions of indoor plumbing and electric light would have probably seemed pretty grimy and, well, dark to us. So this film exaggerates (maybe) to make a point. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which I love) leans a bit in this direction, with dark interiors, a tomboyish and messy-haired Elizabeth, and gaggles of farm animals running around the periphery of the rather scruffy Mr Bennett’s country house. Arnold’s film makes that one look very tame.

I saw Wuthering Heights late one rainy Friday night towards the end of Sydney Film Festival. I was alone, tired and in a bad mood. I sat in the front row of the State Theatre, which never seemed so cavernous and absurdly ornate. It was the perfect way to absorb, or rather to be absorbed in, the film’s chilly, haunted atmosphere. It’s not only the way Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan create such an evocative world onscreen – an unearthly place where the wind always blows, where the distant sunlight glints off the raindrops and pale purple heather and hardly warms the wood and brick dwellings. It’s the way they make that world seem so real and tangible (and achingly beautiful) – with softly focused closeups of rough-hewn wood, rough fabric, dirty hands, flowers, birds and animals, warped glass refracting external forms like ghosts.

The characters seem like ghosts inhabiting this place. They’re not always in focus; we don’t always understand what they’re saying. They nearly always seem to be cold and wet (even indoors) and unhappy. Two of the young ones, a young lady named Catherine and Heathcliff, a foster child who is treated like a servant, develop an animal affection for one another that blossoms into love. They steal a little time in between harsh, gutteral reprimands from Catherine’s stern male relatives to explore the delicate, primordial miracle of their feelings, before everything falls apart and everyone dies or goes home miserable.

Sure, Heathcliff’s black. Sure, the young Catherine dresses like a neurotic art student, with trousers under her skirts and a beat-up cardigan. Sure, her brother has a shaved head, and he and Heathcliff talk to each other like yobs from contemporary Liverpool. But it’s not that Arnold is just casually asking “Why not?” She doesn’t seem to be playing around with the iconography of the novel for a good laugh; her commitment to its creepy, doomed Romanticism is total. More than any recent literary adaptation, its anachronisms force us to ponder the set of aesthetic or cultural signs that define “history”, or what distances us from the past. Other than the odd electric cable and a few plastic microchips, what separates our world from the bleak, lonely world in which Emily Brontë lived and wrote anyway? Didn’t we simply inherit its cruelty, its racism and its messed-up notions of love? Maybe it’s time we stop kidding ourselves?

Anyway, I got pretty wrapped up in Arnold’s vision, though there are weak spots. The largely unknown leads inhabit their roles with conviction, but the acting falters in the crucial later scenes. And I admit the grottiness goes overboard – the scene in which a playful romp in the rain between Heathcliff and Catherine devolves into a mudwrestling bout is a bit too precious; the scene where she licks his wounds (after he’s beaten with a whip) too indie-grimy. But it never lost me completely; and the film’s excesses seem perfectly in line with the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, which was pretty freaky in the first place (think Edgar Allan Poe, incest, necrophilia, premature burials, etc.) About the worst to be said of the film is that the characters are often swallowed up in the blurry, almost Expressionist atmosphere. But with atmosphere this good, I’m not sure that’s a knock. Certainly it’s destined to be a slumber-party classic among lonely Goth-minded youngsters for years to come, and I mean that as high praise.

Anyway, I’ll probably read the novel soon.


I find it impossible to neatly summarize my feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild. After the considerable hype I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. I found it way too messy and all over the place, and frankly short of the mark that I could almost palpably sense it aiming for. Yet simultaneously I thought it was uniquely brilliant and loved it in a very genuine if troubled way, the way you might love a scruffy stray dog you can’t afford to take home. It’s an impossible movie not to love. I can’t remember another instance that admiration for and disappointment in a film have resided together so comfortably in my mind. It’s like I feel a sense of ownership. This is exactly my kind of film, or would be, and maybe that’s why I’m hard on it. In any case I can’t get it off my mind.

Beasts is the debut feature from writer/director Benh Zeiltin, who hails from Queens but is now based in New Orleans. It’s quickly become the most talked-about American independent film of the year, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the US Competition at Sundance before going on to win the Camera d’Or (for best new film) at Cannes. It’s even got an early Oscar buzz. The story is not easy to explain, but if you’re not already on board with the key elements you can get from a really basic blurb – little girl hero, magical realism, backwater bayous, apocalyptic storms, rampaging prehistoric beasts, post-Katrina American mythmaking, nonprofessional actors – we don’t have much in common. Little Hushpuppy and her father Wink live somewhere on the Gulf coast in an impoverished but spirited and tight-knit delta community called the Bathtub, which seems to exist in its own space and time. When a massive storm cuts the Bathtub off from the outside world, its cantakerous residents attempt to pick up the pieces in defiance of the local authorities, while all of nature seems to be turning against civilization. Meanwhile her dad’s degrading physical and mental health creates a crisis of self-reckoning for Hushpuppy at a tender age.

Beasts screened in Official Competition here at Sydney Film Festival a few weeks after Cannes with the highest possible expectations. Local fans and cinephiles went apeshit for it, and everyone assumed it would take the Sydney Film Prize in a cakewalk. Instead the jury handed the award to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an icily cynical and absurdist black comedy that bitterly divided audiences here – a controversial choice (if a stream of resentful tweets counts as controversy). Me, I think Beasts is superior to Alps on most counts, and infinitely more likeable of course, but I had to admire the jury’s cojones and privately chuckle at the monkeywrenching of a consensus.

I saw Beasts on the first Friday of the festival at the opulent State Theatre, back to back with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Surely there won’t be a better or more interesting double feature all year. It was on the one hand a study in contrasts: Anderson’s obsessive perfectionism, his maniacal focus on design – each frame so lovingly composed the whole thing feels like an animated feature; versus Zeitlin’s rowdy, rambling, handheld, deliriously beautiful mess of a film. Yet the thematic parallels between the two are worth exploring: child protagonists, isolated rural communities, storms as key turning points. Going in my expectations were sky-high; I loved both films, but came out bearing reservations. (More on Moonrise later.)

Yeah, Beasts is a rough and messy film. Should I feel bad about pointing that out? Is that like complaining that Wu Tang Clan are too raw, or that Meg White isn’t the greatest drummer? Is it just part of the magic? Maybe the same thing would have been said about Breathless or Stranger Than Paradise when they first came out. Don’t we need a dose of, well, wild energy in cinema on a regular basis? If it was more polished would it also be more boring?

By “rough” I’m not referring to the often quite shaky hand-held camera – I’m fine with a bit of shake. To me the culprit is the editing. There are times during the film when two people are talking and it’s cut in such a way that somehow you never get a good look at either of their faces. Often you’re not sure of the shape of a room or space, or what exactly you’re looking at (however beautiful it might be), or which characters are taking part in a scene. (The fact that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled doesn’t help with the latter.) I suspect a re-edit might have solved some of those issues without selling out the film’s energy at all.

This pervasive sense of disorientation also applies in a macro way to the narrative. Within each scene the style of the film is naturalistic (and wonderfully so); but the overall story doesn’t have much organic sense. Fantasies need internal logic; here, because a lot of this made-up world goes unexplained, we’re not always sure what’s at stake, and there’s a disconnect between the crazy plot twists and the inscrutable choices made by the characters. At times we can almost hear Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tapping away furiously on their MacBooks. “OK, now this has to happen!” Settings and locations change with little warning – we were in a hospital, but now we’re on a beach – while motivations and conflicts are taken up and set aside again like toys. It’s almost as if they wanted the story to reflect the short attention span and freeform imagination of a child. (A friend of mine compared it to Maurice Sendak; others have cited Miyazaki.) Does it work? I’m still deciding. My gut reaction is that it’s absolutely inspired at times – as zany and explosively creative as beat poetry or freestyle graffiti – but sloppy and incoherent at other times.

Some have said the film could have done without the prehistoric monsters. It’s true they don’t help the general problem of clutter in the story – it’s just one more thing that doesn’t tie together and isn’t fleshed out very well. But no way would I get rid of them. If anything I want more of them, along with more clarity about them. Likewise, curmudgeonly types said the dinosaurs didn’t belong in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life; but that film wouldn’t be as visionary without them – the flights of fancy are what make the study of the family so much more. Zeitlin has established an important signpost with the audacious fantasy elements of his film: because special effects are a lot cheaper to accomplish these days, independent filmmakers don’t need to be stuck in the ghetto of realism anymore. Movie magic has been democratized.

Eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy has been the focus of much of the film’s press. If I can risk sounding cynical here, I think some of it amounts to so many indirect or quasi-intellectual ways of saying, “That little girl is so adorable!” I’m not saying her performance isn’t remarkable. I’m saying the commentary on it lacks nuance.

Of course it’s a remarkable performance! Kids can do amazing things when given the chance; but Quvenzhané has extraordinary poise and grit. As Roger Ebert wrote recently (in his review of Glendyn Ivin’s great Last Ride), “I have run out of words to account for young actors.” Without taking too much away from Quvenzhané, I would say Zeitlin also deserves credit for trusting in her and letting her do her thing in such a natural way. This is where the rough style of the film shines, in the way the girl’s rambling and running amok and randomly destroying things is such a part of its aesthetic. It’s reminiscent of the way Steven Spielberg’s early films seemed revolutionary in the way he allowed kids to just be themselves onscreen, with their cluttered rooms and cluttered lives, their dirty faces, their heartbreaking way of shrugging off adult abuse and neglect, their casual violence.

I found her high-pitched scream annoying, but the filmmakers must have thought it was cute because we get to hear it a lot. (Remember Carrie Henn’s tea-kettle-like squeal in Aliens? It sounds like that). Some of her character’s dialogue is a bit forced, and even sappy, especially when she talks about history or the future in a grandiose way – it’s as if she’s working too hard to impress the audience or pull their heartstrings. (Again, at these moments I hear the screenwriters tap, tap, tapping away.)

Quvenzhané’s best moments – indeed, the film’s best moments – are the seemingly improvised scenes with Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. There’s so much fierce affection there, so much electricity between the two, as Wink insists on toughening up his daughter to face a harsh world alone, it seems like documentary footage. With all the attention on the little girl, Henry’s gutty, gloriously ragged performance has somehow managed to fly under the radar. (His work is all the more amazing considering he’s a baker by trade who had never acted in a film before.)

There’s much more to discuss about Beasts of the Southern Wild – just one example is the fabulous production design, with beautifully chaotic sets and crazy vehicles welded together from scrap parts like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s an unforgettable film, filled with piercing ideas and images, even if it doesn’t have very good control of them. It’s the type of thing that might have blown my mind and changed the way I look at film if I’d stumbled across it as a kid late at night on cable TV – the way, say, the very messy Repo Man did. You should see it; everyone should see it – it’s definitely one of those rare indies capable of very broad appeal with little or no compromise. And years from now, when it’s considered an American classic, you can read this review in the archives and scoff at my shortsighted crotchetiness.

OK, Good

OK, Good is a clever, funny and disturbing little burst of American angst in the form of an ultra-low-budget narrative feature that screened in Sydney Film Festival‘s Freak Me Out section (which covers much more adventurous and experimental territory than just schlock and horror, in case you hadn’t noticed). Credit programmer Richard Kuipers for once again bringing a rough-hewn gem (unclassifiable, unmarketable) to big screens here when it would never have had a chance otherwise.

OK, Good is a flawed overachiever but is, well, pretty damned good. (There’s my mandatory riff on the title.) Its best and most striking quality is its almost complete lack of conventional storytelling. There’s only one real character, a dogged but pathetically unremarkable actor named Paul Kaplan, played by co-writer and co-producer Hugo Armstrong. (Director Daniel Martinico also co-wrote and co-produced; one gets the feeling there wasn’t much more crew than the two of them.) The narrative is primarily a montage of audition tapes: we watch as Paul tries out for an endless string of inane local TV commercials for pet food, travel insurance, barbecue sauce. The tape rolls through Paul’s many awkward miscues, with variously oily or unimpressed producers prompting him offscreen. Viewed through such a lens, in this passive-aggressive world of feigned enthusiasm, Paul’s pent-up frustration becomes frighteningly apparent.

It’s obvious Paul is going nowhere. He’s a big, awkward bloke in his mid-30s; he comes across like a loner from a small town somewhere who got the acting bug late in life and just arrived in LA, only to flounder at the lowest, most degrading level of the industry. These cringe-inducing “performances” are intercut with scenes of Paul’s dreary life. He seems to do nothing but rehearse alone in his cheaply furnished apartment, drive to the next audition while listening to self-help tapes, and engage in an ongoing struggle with the local print shop after they bungle his order for headshots. The strength of the film lies in the minimalist way it sketches the grind: audition, workshop, rehearsal, audition, ramen noodles for dinner, audition, audition, workshop. After a while the repetition becomes hypnotic. We barely see the outside world, never see a human interaction that isn’t forced or artificial. Especially memorable are the glimpses of the dubious acting workshop – part improv, part primal-scream therapy. Participants are by turns obliged to scream insults at each other, act out childish fantasies of terror and pain, or roll around on the floor, pulling faces and making animalistic noises. There’s much hilarity in all of this, but it’s also undeniably creepy (especially on a big screen).

The microscopically small budget is obviously part of the aesthetic – the “narrative” scenes are shot as if they were a continuation of the audition tapes, long takes of static video, so we get the sense of seeing Paul’s life under surveillance. This verité quality belies the spooky brilliance of Armstrong’s performance (which has a queasy sense of being based on hard experience). The jarring staccato rhythm of the editing wrenches a hell of a lot of suspense out of the suffocating routine, as Paul slowly and haplessly slides towards some kind of breakdown.

Halfway through I had the feeling I was witnessing some kind of contemporary existentialist classic. Unfortunately Martinico and Armstrong can’t seem to sustain the atmosphere. The confrontation with the print shop workers, the film’s sole forays into actual dialogue, are decidedly average, coming across like a TV skit or, I hate to say it, a student film. Though the prosumer-quality cinematography is often sneakily quite good, the uneven look and texture of the film starts to wear thin. When the big meltdown finally comes, it’s loopy, destructive and very entertaining – but it’s somehow also anticlimactic, the cinematic equivalent of empty calories. The film might have been a lot more powerful if it had stuck with the monotonous pattern of the audition tapes (by far the strongest “scenes”) right through to the end.

Disappointment aside, OK, Good is not easily forgotten. Independent filmmakers should marvel at how much Martinico and Armstrong have achieved with how little. (Actors might want to seek inspiration elsewhere.)

Safety Not Guaranteed was the Closing Night film at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and a fine choice it was, something pretty much everyone could agree on: an American indie comedy with brains to spare and a geeky sci-fi twist. Financed by mumblecore impresarios Jay and Mark Duplass (Mark also co-stars) and directed by Colin Trevorrow, Safety premiered at Sundance and looks on its way to being one of this year’s bigger independent hits. Deservedly so: it’s the kind of comedy that comes around only once in a while – fresh, original, as full of heart as it is cheeky and hilarious. With only a handful of characters, a small-town setting and a simple but ingenious premise, it runs rings around the sad, stupid raunchy comedies churned out by the big studios.

Though it was meant to be a celebratory occasion, watching it on Closing Night was a bit melancholy for me. I’d been told it may be the last actual celluloid film screened at SFF. (There were only a few of them this year; it’s become too expensive to deal with them.) With this in mind I was even more impressed by the look of the film, with its nicely subdued color palette and plenty of overcast natural light from the Pacific Northwest setting – it’s quite beautiful for a low-budget comedy. And I appreciated each grain and defect, each pop before the reel change. This added something extra to what is a uniquely touching film.

I have only done this once before.

I don’t want to give away much, so I’ll stick with what you probably know from the trailer, if you watch trailers. (I don’t.) Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a lazy, sleazy, wisecracking Seattle magazine reporter who, for his own selfish reasons, concocts a scheme to research an article in the town of Ocean View based on a crackpot’s anonymous classified ad about time travel. He recruits two misfit interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to do all the work for him and the three of them embark on a road trip in Jeff’s Escalade. From there, the narrative has many stops and starts, many sparks and discoveries and changes of heart. The crackling screenplay, written by Derek Connolly (remember that name) in his feature-film debut, balances the silly hijinks and sentiment of early Wes Anderson with some of the shambolic good fun of Judd Apatow at his best, adding a generous dash of the loopy genre-bending mindgames of Charlie Kaufman. Yes, it’s good enough to merit those comparisons. From the first scene, Safety filled me with that rare, delicious feeling, the same you got the first time you saw, say, Bottle Rocket: the feeling that here are some filmmakers who can entertain and captivate using the symbols and language of common experience, who can create fantasy out of day-to-day life, without falling back on cliché (even when maybe a couple of clichés would be forgivable). And it’s a bouyant, confident feeling of being along for a great ride, an aching certainty that dawns on you during the second reel: They aren’t going to screw this up!

There’s also a terrific economy to the story. The film is only 85 minutes long; the capers get under way in the first few minutes, with little exposition. Though there’s one important sub-plot crucial to the emotional arc of Johnson’s character, there’s no other fat, no filler, nothing wasted. Yet still there’s a lot going on, and the screenplay keeps you guessing, keeps you invested until the brilliant payoff in the very last scene.

The acting is outstanding. I understand all the key cast members are known for their work on TV. IMPORTANT NOTE: I don’t watch TV. I had little idea who these people were beforehand, but here I can tell you they’re inspired. Mark Duplass is great in the Owen Wilson-ish/Jeff Daniels-ish role of the nerdy loner with a plan. He and Johnson both portray awkward older guys driven by painful loneliness and regret – guys whom a lot of us can relate to I suspect – folding these bitter ingredients in with the laughs in a holistic way that adds resonance to both. I gotta admit I damned near cried a couple of times.

I can’t say enough about Plaza’s performance as Darius. Trevorrow joked before the screening that he’s had a lot of geeks and fanboys asking for her number. I am not going to deny it; she’s super cute, loveable even, and I wanted to join Team Aubrey after like three minutes. But it’s more than that: in her first leading role in a feature she’s a wonder, elevating the film with her perfect modulation between deadpan cynicism, incredulity and then, slowly, a gentle kind of openness. It’s a bit Ellen Page, a bit classic Brat Pack, and a lot of her own thing. Darius comes across like a young woman you might meet in real life – which is to say, something almost never seen on a big screen – and her motivations and feelings are revealed a little at a time in a lovely unstudied way. If we didn’t believe her character (and its transformation) the story would have nowhere near the depth it does. It’s a breakthrough turn for Plaza at the center of a sparkling, joyful film.

Two of the films that I was most keen on going into this year’s Sydney Film Festival hail from Senegal. New Festival Director Nashen Moodley is known for his knowledge of African cinema; he’s from Durban himself, and has been working with Africa programs at the Durban and Dubai film festivals for the past decade – a decade in which more and more African filmmakers have started to make names for themselves.

Nashen downplays the Africa thing, saying he’s just as passionate about films from Australia or Greece. Fair enough; but it’s hard to escape the fact that the guy knows his African stuff, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to SFF. I’m getting more and more tired of the focus on Western and Central Europe that is more or less automatic in festival-land (not that I was ever that Eurocentric in the first place) but now there’s so much amazing film coming from every region of the world – East Asia, the Middle East, everywhere – and to me that’s where it’s at right now. I feel like I have even less time for [insert name of multiple award-winning European auteur here].

In an Official Competition filled with distinctive films (from a six-hour Indian crime story to a South Korean animated psychodrama about school bullying), Today stands out in my mind for its narrative minimalism and its spiritual qualities. Directed by Senegalese Frenchman Alain Gomis, this magical-realist story is about a man named Satché, played by slam poet Saül Williams, who wakes up one day somehow knowing this day will be his last. We never find out how or why; Satché’s impending demise is taken for granted by him and his loved ones from the very first shot. The film is simply concerned with how he chooses to spend his day. In that sense the day becomes a metaphor for his entire life – and for all of life. As he wanders around the Senegalese capital of Dakar saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances, he passes through fear and anger and regret, but also acceptance and even joy. It sounds a bit high-concept to read about it; what makes the film work is Gomis’ crisp screenplay and deft, restrained directorial touch. Even in moments of celebration or heated anger, there’s an ephemeral, ghostly quality to each of Satché’s encounters – his baleful stare, his long silences, the way the city keeps moving around him as he stands lost in thought, as if he must be wondering whether he’s already dead and merely haunting the place.

In the terrific opening scene, Satché’s wife and family gather with him in a kind of ritual to vocally celebrate his life, to mourn its end – and also to criticize his faults. Satché silently takes it all in, the good and the bad, reflecting on a life that has run its course. I found myself painfully relating to his shortcomings as vehemently pointed out by his wife – his indecisiveness, his inability to get things done. I’m not sure if it means I have something in common with the character, or whether the screenplay functions as a mirror.

Williams’ understated but magnetic performance carries the film – he’s onscreen almost constantly. I did wonder why an American got cast in the lead – but the story vaguely alludes to Satché’s having lived in the States, and it adds an interesting sense of detachment. As it happens, director Gomis is an outsider himself, having been raised in Europe, so maybe it fits. (I have no idea if Williams’ lines in Wolof are delivered with the right accent or not.)

The depiction of Dakar is gorgeous, with all its rhythm, variety and color set against gleaming tower blocks and corporate offices that communicate the same postmodern alienation as anywhere else. The cinematography is beautiful, finding just the right balance between the rich hues of sunny African city streets, and a darker, more desaturated palette that speaks to the morbid nature of the story. (Amazingly, the film was shot on a Canon 1D.) Here I risk sounding like a cine-tourist, but such a varied and balanced view of life in urban Africa is one of the valuable things about the film. It reminds you that Western Africa is not all poverty and desperation – it’s just another part of the world with its own problems and its own way of doing things.

Today is really elevated by its largely dialogue-free and absolutely spellbinding third act. After his ramblings, Satché arrives back home; his wife cooks him a meal (including some delicious-looking fried balls of cornmeal that look like what we Americans would call hushpuppies) and he plays with his kids. The film becomes a kind of visual poem about hearth and home and food and contentment, which is constrasted with such an aching melancholy, such a bewildering awareness of death, that watching it I almost felt a sense of personal loss. But the sequence also communicates peace, a stillness that is about being present in the moment. It’s remarkably meditative. It seems like a cliché but this is a film that makes you value life.

And that’s where I find Today significant. The flavor du jour in European arthouse fare is nihilism. It’s all too easy to imagine how grim or hopeless this film would be if it were, say, Scandanavian – and how much more seriously it might be taken. (Want to debate about it? Let’s start with Joachim von Trier’s superb Oslo August 31st, one of last year’s best films, which by the way very much resembles Today in narrative structure. Is it bleak and miserable, or actually life-affirming? Months later I’m still deciding.) I don’t know if there’s something in Senegalese culture that allows for a more holistic and accepting view of death, or if Gomis himself has a singular talent for sharing spiritual insight on film. For now, it doesn’t matter; either way it’s resulted in a lovely film, one of the best of the year so far.

La pirogue takes a more standard approach, but it has the benefit of being set largely at sea. I’ll watch just about any movie about boats. Moussa Touré’s film is about the Senegalese refugees who brave the Atlantic every year in simple fishing boats (the pirogues of the title) in order to make it to Europe. As the film informs us, many of them die along the way due to storms or shipwrecks. This would resonate with Sydney audiences: every Australian knows full well the real-life significance of such asylum seekers and their impact on society. This film sets out to give them individual stories.

La pirogue‘s narrative is lean and spare: it is simply about a group of people who have a destination. Their journey turns into a struggle for survival. That’s it. There are few subplots, few efforts to make the story about something larger than it already is, which is life and death and the yearning for a better life.

Material like this needs to be played straight; the downside to that is that it might come across like a made-for-TV film. Whether or not it will be good cinema, in addition to communicating a good message, is all about the execution. La pirogue comes close to hitting the mark. It’s well-crafted, with very good production values – even its share of special effects. You could hardly call it low-budget, at least in terms of developing-world fare. Touré’s confident, unpretentious direction suits the story perfectly. The opening scenes of exposition on dry land are nicely handled and create strong dramatic interest, as a reluctant fisherman (played by Moctar Diop) is convinced to captain the fateful voyage, and a group of desperate inland refugees who don’t even speak his language are placed under his care.

Once at sea, it seems we’re in for a corker of a tale. Back to the boat thing: Touré says he was influenced by Master and Commander, one of my favorite mainstream films. You can see it here, not only in obvious moments (such as the deadly storm), but in the way he seems to have borrowed some of Peter Weir’s tricks in very effectively dealing with the cinematic problems of filming a feature-length drama with a number of characters on a crowded vessel. Despite the limited scope of the action we never lose interest; and there are some truly affecting, even heartrending moments of doubt, conflict and suffering. In such a confined space there’s a good deal of intimacy, both between the characters and for the viewer – and this, of course, allows Touré to humanize the lives of boat refugees without being preachy at all.

Unfortunately the story flattens out a bit during the third act. The screenplay seems to take shortcuts; just when we would like to get to know the characters just a little better, get a little bit deeper, the narrative is speeding along to its resolution (which is at least admirably free of sentiment) in typical docudrama fashion. It’s not as clumsy as it might have been in lesser hands, but it’s not quite there either. The acting is fine overall, but falters during some crucial moments. This film will indeed play very well on TV – or better yet, in educational contexts; honestly, every resident of the developed world should be made to watch it) though it left me wanting more.

But in the end, you know what? There are times when I’d rather watch an honest and heartfelt film like this one, with all its shortcomings, than something by [insert name of European auteur here].

So, the three best films from the upcoming Sydney Film Festival that I’ve seen in advance are all about police. This is surprising to say the least, since I’m pretty much over cop movies. But maybe my suspicion of this way, way overcooked genre is what fuels appreciation for reinterpretation. Or maybe these are just three intelligent and ballsy and unmissable takes on the mentality of law enforcement in contemporary times from three disparate locations around the world.

Rampart – Writer/director Oren Moverman’s deconstruction of the LAPD’s notorious cowboy culture is a brave and scintillating indie drama in the form of a noir thriller. On the surface it’s a fictionalized commentary on the scandals and lawsuits that rocked the brutality-prone department in the 1990s, but the film works on a much more personal level than standard “ripped-from-the-headlines” fare. Co-written by James Ellroy, it gleefully heads right to the dark side and stays there. Woody Harrelson’s powerhouse starring performance as the swaggering, paranoid, dysfunctional Officer “Date Rape” Dave Brown has to be seen to be believed. Rampart isn’t the first film to portray a conflicted man of violence with a disarmingly human side, but the way the screenplay strings us out, helplessly fascinated with this scumbag’s deteriorating professional and personal lives, is masterful. It’s also surprisingly human and oddball, especially in depicting his interactions with his unorthodox family. The weirdly touching scenes between Brown and his punk-rock artist daughter almost belong in another movie (something by, say, Terry Zwigoff or Alexander Payne), and that will put off some viewers, but to me they add resonance to Date Rape’s dirty capers and drunken meltdowns. The great supporting cast features one star after another (Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Robin Wright Penn, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube! an uncredited Steve Buscemi!) in gritty, sometimes ugly roles. The restless, fluid cinematography and editing are breathtaking. I never did get around to seeing Moverman’s 2009 feature directorial debut, the Iraq War drama The Messenger (also starring Harrelson and Foster), but now I’m kicking myself.

Policeman – Maybe the most underrated film in the festival, this is an astonishing debut feature from Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid. Comparing and contrasting the lives and destinies of a squad of elite antiterrorist cops with a group of militant anarchist Jews in contemporary Jerusalem, it comments on the culture of violence we’re all caught up in; it’s a dispatch from a post-Occupy world at war with itself. Though the events it depicts are as outrageous as some kind of near-future apocalyptic comic book, it also creates the bracing but queasy sensation of watching something that’s really happening – which is a rare thing, but exactly what you want from this kind of fiction. The central thesis is that Israel is the “Western” nation with the biggest disparity between classes – a conflict “ripped from the headlines” to be sure, though this movie defies conventional formula in every scene. The ace cinematography makes great use of open, sunbleached landscapes and alienating postmodern urban spaces alike. The style has the feel of a Romanian or Iranian new-wave film, with long takes, a meandering narrative and unorthodox editing – and the sound design in particular is outstanding – but it also has the gut-wrenching suspense of a superior action thriller. Can you tell I’m excited about this movie?

Polisse – This verité-style drama, co-written and directed by Maïwenn, formerly a one-named starlet, now a formidable one-named French auteur, is centered around the cops assigned to the exhausting and demoralising child-protection service in inner-city Paris. Polisse hits hard but with a deft, unpredictable touch, and ultimately puts itself in company with Laurent Cantet’s The Class as a powerful portrait of contemporary France. It matches that film’s tense, incisive, rapid-fire dialogue and psychological insight, with many of its seemingly continual onscreen arguments taking place between haggard adult authorities and suspicious or difficult children, and exploring racial conflict and child abuse with refreshing honesty. To this knotty recipe Maïwenn adds street-level police procedural grit and salty black humour, leavened with surprising bursts of comic release. Despite, or because of, its desaturated, handheld realism it’s a good-looking film too. The acting of the ensemble, including JoeyStarr, an apparently famous French rapper, is suitably excellent.

Monsieur Lazhar, from French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, screens in Sydney Film Festival‘s Official Competition this month. It won the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last year; I saw it when it opened Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October. When I first read the write-up, it sounded like a made-for-TV drama to me, and I didn’t expect much. I was surprised by how much I actually loved it. A quiet little film set in a classroom in snowy Montreal, it may have not been the best choice of film for a gala opening night on a hot beach in the Middle East. But I remember being captivated by it, and feeling temporarily swept away from my gruelling workload.

Monsieur Lazhar is a fine drama along the lines of another French-language title set in a multicultural classroom, Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008), though Falardeau’s film is far more gentle and uplifting. Indeed, Monsieur Lazhar has shown broad appeal among audiences wherever it’s screened. Perhaps anyone can relate to its vision of adults and children working together to deal with a tragedy. It’s also a splendid production: beautifully filmed, treating its subject matter with skill and sensitivity, and marked by terrific acting from adult and child actors alike. Algerian-French comedian Fellag carries the film with dignity, his expressive features betraying a glint of humor and a well of emotion beneath his stern composure. The film addresses the complex topic of Canada’s cultural identity frankly, while keeping the focus on universal themes.

The story begins on a bleak note. One bitter winter’s morning, an elementary school teacher is found dead in her classroom. The school and the community reel in shock. In the weeks that follow, the children – all of them 11 or 12 years old – are anxious, lost; their parents perhaps more so. Specialists are called in to counsel the kids. The principal scrambles to find a substitute teacher.

As if by grace, a man named Bachir Lazhar arrives suddenly and offers to fill the position. He says he taught grade school for 19 years back home in Algeria. When asked for his qualifications, he states drolly, “I’m available now. They need a teacher, no?”

So this quiet, rather prim man begins teaching the class according to how he thinks a classroom should be run. He insists on respect and courtesy, and on silence when he speaks. His old-school ways clash with the school’s open, egalitarian approach. M. Lazhar is seen as rigid and behind the times.

The students aren’t sure what to make of the man, but their grief makes them malleable. Despite his authoritarian nature, he shows them compassion and understanding during a confusing time. Grimly, he must teach them in the same classroom where their former teacher died. He’s accused of not respecting the legacy of the dead woman. The room has been repainted in a feeble effort to improve the atmosphere, but she continues to haunt the story.

It turns out M. Lazhar has already dealt with his own woes. Early on we find out that he and his family were the victims of political persecution in Algiers; he still suffers nightmares. In this light, his patience and good humor with the children show remarkable strength of character.

We’re not surprised when M. Lazhar’s old-fashioned methods break through the limitations of the system and he finds success – the children’s grades improve, and they start talking through their grief. What matters is how Falardeau makes the formula work, finding a nice balance of melodrama and subdued realism, letting each scene feel natural however much it tugs at our emotions.

It’s a gorgeous film. The muted, wintry palette of greys, browns and pale pastels and the cold, indirect sunlight illuminate the story perfectly. One memorable scene features a series of close-ups of the children’s faces (African, Chilean and Arabic alongside French-Canadian) as they pose for school photos; their openness and sincerity speak volumes about the film’s heart.

Perhaps it can’t be like this in real life; perhaps an asylum-seeker can’t appear out of nowhere to win the hearts of a group of children after such a painful tragedy. However, in one revealing scene, the substitute teacher encourages his students to express themselves by writing fables, and the nature of this story becomes clear. Monsieur Lazhar is a kind of a fable itself.

This review was originally published on Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s website: Fables of Compassion: Monsieur Lazhar 

The posters for Wes Anderson’s latest film Moonrise Kingdom are brilliant. But you probably could have guessed that.

I remember being amazed by the art for The Royal Tenenbaums when it first hit, and whiling away many an hour poring over not only the poster, but the soundtrack album’s sleeve and all the great material that came with the Criterion DVD. Now I take it for granted. If there’s one thing Wes Anderson is good for, it’s design. His films themselves are rich feasts of design in and of themselves, of course. (Some would argue that’s a fault or a weakness – but not me.) And it extends off the screen too. Like few filmmakers (Tarantino is one of the others), and much more like a musician (the Beastie Boys are an an example that’s fresh in my mind) or a quality independent record label (SubPop, Warp), Wes is clearly invested in making sure every single thing, every bit of collateral, associated with his films is thoughtful, special and worth looking at. Nothing is prefab or half-done. Anyone can slap a film still onto a DVD package, but Wes is there to make sure there’s hand lettering and a drawing of the boat in cross-section – if only because the fanboys who think just like he does will go, “That’s awesome.” And it has a way of extending and enhancing the alternate universes he creates within his narratives. (That’s why I’m so psyched about Moonrise Kingdom getting all this attention as the opening film at Cannes this week – it’s like the revenge of the nerds.)

The campaign for Moonrise features more terrific custom lettering (but you knew that). Here’s the French poster:

Even better is the series of character-driven “motion posters” that were released as exclusives to various websites last month. (IndieWIRE compiled them all into one blog post.) If you don’t normally follow links when you’re reading online, do yourself a favor and make an exception this time – I can’t embed these motion posters and they are definitely worth checking out. Click on the stills at the top of each poster to rotate the images and see different quotes from the film. Normally this kind of thing is a really tedious marketing tool for big-budget blockbusters, but leave it to Wes to transform it into something fresh and exciting.

Moonrise Kingdom premieres in Australia at the State Theatre next month as part of Sydney Film Festival. There couldn’t be a better place to check out a Wes Anderson film than the State, with its red velvet, marble and crazy ornate mishmash of art deco, neoclassical and just about every other style dreamed of in 1929. I can’t wait.

Here’s a great poster for the Australian release of Where Do We Go Now?, which screens at Sydney Film Festival next month. Love the gorgeous custom lettering (thankfully getting away from the usual faux-Arabic fonts). Writer/director/star Nadine Labaki is kind of gorgeous too:

More images from the film available here via Hopscotch, the Australian distributor.

As for the film itself, I thought it was very good. After tracking it since last year (it won the audience prize at Toronto, and has gone on to become one of the biggest Arabic-language hits worldwide in recent years), I was not let down. It sure is ambitious – it fact, it’s all over the place, trying to fit elements of melodrama, farce, slapstick, tragedy and even musical into one story about the increasingly desperate attempts made by the women of an isolated Lebanese village to overcome sectarian violence. But Labaki mostly succeeds in all of this; for every WTF moment, there are two or three others that are inspiring or hilarious – and I cried a couple of times. It’s certainly more edgy and daring and has a lot more to say than your average foreign title aimed at the middle of the road – you know, the ones that are usually about women and food. (Though that crowd will eat it up too.) Its ecumenical message is genuine and powerful enough to light a flicker of hope for the region and for the world. It’s a nicely made film too. Of all the reviews I’ve read, Tasha Robinson at AV Club nails it.

Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?