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Guv and Dusty do the Sydney Film Festival - Part One
by Andrew Howe and Michael Collins

Having previously caused enough trouble at the Sundance, Cannes, LA and South By Southwest film festivals to have mug shots of us posted in publicist offices across the world, the powers that be at eFilmCritic thought it might be a good idea to dispatch some new faces to get the lowdown on the Sydney Film Festival. And so it goes that Michael (If-It's-A-Festival-I'm-Already-There) Collins and Andrew (If-It's-On-Then-I'll-See-You-At-The-Bar) Howe were sent down to Sydney's State Theatre to continue the mayhem. A true test of endurance skills, a film festival is always something you survive rather than simply visit, and nothing, however official or arduous, was going to stop correspondents Howe and Collins from exploring the sweaty underbelly of Sydney's premier film orgy. Well, nothing apart from a particularly severe hangover and periods of forgetting to turn up to the movie altogether.

The festival is held at two venues; The State Theatre and the Dendy Opera Quays complex. The two venues represent all that is good and bad about the old and modern film experiences. The State represents the old-style, old-time, old people film experience. It smells of dust, is used for all sorts of non-cinema events, has only one (admittedly huge) screen and the sound's all over dodgy. It should be said that the building is a beautiful example of art deco architecture that - as When Brendan Met Trudy director Kieron J. Welsh pointed out -sets a "high standard for the films since the theatre interior has plenty of interesting things to look at" if the film isn't worthy of the viewer's attention. As pretty as it is, you wish you had your legs blown off in 'Nam as you try and squeeze into the sardine-can-like seats.

A short Writers' Walk from the Sydney Opera House, the Dendy Opera Quays complex, on the other hand, is a new building with good sound, many screens and big comfy seats. It's all very sleek and modern and perhaps lacks a little atmosphere. If you like your cinema experience with a little soul, then the State is for you. If you're there just for the film and prefer that your cinematic experience doesn't include a case of D.V.T. then head over to the Dendy.

For Festival opening night, though, there's no choice. It's to the State we go for the opening film Lantana and (far more importantly) the Opening Night party. Our man on the spot, The Liver of Steel Howe, was there. - MC

Friday, 8th June - The forbidden dance
Setting the punters back a cool hundred bucks, Opening Night tickets don't come cheap, but that didn't stop them from selling out a week in advance. After the usual opening remarks, it was on to Lantana. The festival organisers like to open with a strong Australian offering - last year they dropped the ball by foisting the irksome Better Than Sex upon the unsuspecting crowd, but 12 months later they upped the ante with Ray Lawrence's first film since the magnificent Bliss, released some fifteen years ago. It would have been too much to hope for another Bliss, a film which boasted the combined talents of Lawrence, novelist Peter Carey and lead actor Barry Otto, who at the time was firing on all cylinders prior to a prolonged slide into oblivion. Lantana doesn't want for acting talent - it features the likes of Anthony LaPaglia, bit-part specialist Vince Colosimo (Chopper) and Oscar-hog Geoffrey Rush - but their efforts are undermined by a script which injects a hackneyed murder-mystery subplot into its exquisite meditations upon adult relationships, thereby diluting the film's overall impact.

Much of the dialogue is inspired ("We're not having an affair. It's a one-night stand that happened twice,") and if its views on relationships are unremittingly cynical then it's simply the price of holding a mirror to a society in which the divorce rate is pushing fifty percent. The character roster is overcrowded (many of the actors, including Rush, are reduced to cameo status) and none of them are particularly likeable, but it's still a grim, cutting effort that atones for its lackluster suspense element with top-shelf acting, insightful observations, and gallows humour. It probably won't make too many waves overseas, but it succeeds as much as it fails, and as Opening Night flicks go it was a solid, if not outstanding, choice.

After the show it was over to Star Court for the Opening Night party. I am led to believe that all manner of Australian stars were present, but the only ones I spotted were Tony Martin and Geoffrey Rush, who looks as decadent in real life as he does on the screen (I was half-expecting him to start signing autographs with his own blood). After consuming more Skyy vodka than was strictly necessary I retired to my cave, where I spent the weekend sitting in a darkened room, acclimatising myself to the vampiric existence which was to be my lot for the next two weeks. -ABH

Saturday, 9th June - Will the circle be unbroken?
The Circle outlines what life is like for the typical Iranian Muslim woman. Life's pretty crap basically. And that's about it. Directed by Jafar Panahi, it outlines a day in the lives of seven women who dare to test the boundaries of their society - and get their asses kicked. It's simply told, the gritty urban streets are nicely photographed and while the message is important, there is nothing more that's particularly remarkable about this film. Felt a bit flat really - maybe I shouldn't have seen Pearl Harbor just a few hours earlier.- MC

Monday, 11th June - Still waters run deep
When the time comes to impress friends and enemies with your eclectic taste in art-house films, it's always useful to have a couple of 3-hour Chinese flicks under your belt (especially if there are no films about nomadic yak-herders on the program). A One and a Two (Yi yi) is actually Taiwanese, which is even better, and the best part is that it's nowhere near as difficult as its weighty running time suggests. Writer/director Edward Yang's tale of the life and loves of an extended Taiwanese family does require a certain commitment, but the rewards are well worth the effort. It's a gentle film, light on movement but heavy on emotion, and there are few who can fail to be touched by its memorable excursions into the turbulent depths of the human heart. Anchored by an outstanding performance from Nien-Jen Wu and cinematographer Wei-han Yang's impressive visuals, it's a film which deserves every one of the numerous accolades it has received.- ABH

Tuesday, 12th June - Boredom, passion and that ol' ultraviolence
After the previous day's success something had to give, and it arrived in the form of Platform (Zhantai) . Zhang Ke Jia's 155-minute opus has apparently provoked a great deal of interest from local distributors, which suggests that none of them have actually seen the damn thing. The plot, which concerns an acting troupe's metamorphosis from purveyors of Maoist propaganda to proponents of Cantonese pop music, sounds a good deal more interesting than it actually is. Featuring absolutely nothing in the way of pathos, poignancy, involving characters or relationships, humour, thought-provoking philosophy or dramatic tension, it prompted the greatest number of walk-out's and the most desultory applause I have witnessed in some thirty festival screenings. I should note, however, that this is a stripped-down version of the full 195-minute cut, which could well be the masterpiece that some reviewers are making it out to be. It certainly couldn't be any worse.

After enduring the bane of the hardcore festivalgoer - the three hour break - it was time for the much-anticipated Before Night Falls. This film was plucked from obscurity by virtue of Javier Bardem's nomination for a Best Actor gong at the 2001 Academy Awards, and it was certainly a deserved honour. His sensitive portrayal of homosexual Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas's victimisation at the hands of the authorities is damn-near faultless, and the film itself is a slow-burn affair which features, in an attempted balloon escape, one of the most memorable scenes to emerge from the 2000 year. Another hour might have catapulted the film into the realms of true greatness (even at 133 minutes it's somewhat episodic, since the first half-hour is devoted to snapshots from Arenas's youth), but it's still a passionate, absorbing tale, and Arenas's ability to maintain his unquenchable lust for life in the face of repression and betrayal is a lesson for us all.

After a couple of heavy-duty releases my soul was crying out for a dose of high-octane action, and Battle Royale practically defines the term. It's one of the damnedest things I've ever seen, as 42 Japanese high school students engage in mortal combat on an uninhabited island for reasons which are never entirely clear. The gut-churning violence is no worse than the likes of Commando, but school-age actors and a willingness to dole out major trauma to the female combatants raise it to the necessary heights of improbability. The finely-tuned script and surfeit of heroes and villains prevent it from becoming nothing more than an excuse for gratuitous violence, and I predict that it will be afforded the status of a cult favourite when it secures an international release (provided, of course, it can get by the censors, which is by no means certain). - ABH

Wednesday, 13th June - Friends, Romans, countrymen, cover your ears
A well-earned break gave me time to reflect upon the festival audiences, who are indeed an unusual crowd. The major benefit of festival screenings is that the vast majority of the attendees are hardcore cineastes, which means that they're there to watch the film, not to stuff their faces, rustle papers, and continue conversations from the previous evening (though every single session was interrupted by at least one rendition of The Entertainer, courtesy of an active mobile phone, and the owners should consider themselves lucky that they weren't lynched by an unappreciative mob). Unfortunately, they also bring some unique baggage to the table, and while one trait is merely unusual, the others are profoundly annoying. To wit:

- the audiences break into a round of applause at the end of every screening. I've never understood this reaction, since it's not as if the cast and crew are going to be taking a bow. I suppose it could be a gesture of appreciation to the festival organisers for screening the film, but given the inflated ticket prices I would suggest that forking over our hard-earned readies is thanks enough (a single ticket is priced in excess of the going rates at the local multiplex, which, in comparison to the State Theatre, features much improved sound, seating and lines of sight).

- the average age of attendees appears to be post-retirement (which stands to reason, since anyone still in the workforce has to take time off to catch the daytime sessions), and since the festival is held in winter the amount of coughing, hacking and general spluttering is astronomical - at times it's like having an accompaniment provided by the Emphysematous Citizens Choir.

- festival audiences can find amusement in anything. Every joke, however slight, elicits gales of laughter, and at times it's almost as if they laugh simply because they feel they should. This has a darker side, however, which is that the level of inappropriate laughter is profoundly depressing. I have lost track of the number of times a heartfelt or disturbing scene was interrupted by brain-dead cretins having a good old cackle (last year's Innocence was a prime example), and I can only hope that they one day find themselves in the exact-same situation as the characters, so we can see just how amusing they find it then. I feel much better for lifting that particular weight from my chest, and it's cheaper than Valium. - ABH

One of the Herculean trials that your correspondents have to put up with is the people who actually turn up to watch the films. There's nary a more pretentious group of people this side of the Pretentious People Society. Other than filmmakers that is. What's really annoying about them is how prepared they are. They camp at their seat with pillows, blankets, bottles of wine, a thermos or two (one coffee, one tea), cute little sushi lunches and deli-supplied assorted meats and cheeses; it's enough to make you sick. This compares to your correspondents who were fighting the battle of their life just to find a crammed seat without spilling the stale overpriced coffee onto other patrons - even though we really, really wanted to. - MC

Thursday, 14th June - Not all gifts of value come in fancy packaging
Festival releases are not limited to current films, and every year we are presented with a few reissues that are not readily available in other formats. This year's major coup was securing the restored prints of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, a series of films that many talk about but few have actually seen (I note that they were restored by none other than Merchant and Ivory, which appears to be the equivalent of oil companies sponsoring the arts in an effort to distract attention from their less palatable activities).

Released in 1955, Pather Panchali fully deserves its revered status. It's a meditative, unassuming tale of life in a small-town Indian village, chronicling a time and place that few of us will have experienced, and now we never will because those days are gone forever. The film's non-existent budget, non-professional actors and exquisite black-and-white photography lend it the appearance of reality: the sights and sounds are almost tangible, and the concerns of the characters become your own. When the lights come up it's like waking from a dream, and it is this all-encompassing experience that lies at the core of Pather Panchali's success. Mere words, however, cannot do justice to Ray's creation - it's like falling in love with the movies all over again, and that's a treasure few of us can afford to ignore. - ABH

Friday, 15th June - Music to my ears
Cool and Crazy is a documentary about an all-male choir in a Norwegian fishing village. Now that you've had time to chuckle at the thought of viewing such a film (I certainly did), I'm here to tell you that it's an unusually affecting tale of the twilight years that lie in wait for us all. 2/3 of the running time is devoted to interviews with members of the choir, and since most of them are the wrong side of 70 it provides considerable insight into the trials and tribulations of old age. Some attempt to fan the flames of their youthful passions (a bearded, unapologetic Marxist is a hoot), others exhibit quiet resignation at the passing of loved ones or a life ill spent. It also provides a fascinating insight into daily life in small-town Norway, and every ten minutes or so the director takes the choir out to an unusual location to perform a number. These scenes are beautifully photographed, and the sight of the lads belting out a tune amidst a blizzard or on the side of a silo that stands alone in a snow-covered field is worth the price of admission alone. Singing in that snowstorm probably killed most of them, so if nothing else it's worth catching as a gesture of respect.

My Generation is a documentary about the three Woodstock music festivals (1969, 1994 and 1999). Since they were all organised by the same dude there's a strong narrative spine, but any real insight into the differences between the generations is conspicuous by its absence. The bulk of the running time is devoted to the 1994 festival (director Barbara Kopple was there, camera in hand, from its inception) so the other two get surprisingly short shrift, but the back-room machinations are both fascinating and hilarious. It's a lightweight effort, but worth catching on video. - ABH

Saturday, 16th June - Time, tide and multiple exit wounds wait for no man
Not having experienced it before, I was looking forward to The Day I Became A Woman. I was not to be disappointed. Again set in Iran, it explored similar themes as The Circle, yet in the imaginative hands of Marziyeh Meshkini we are treated to a much more expansive cinematic experience. With the use of beautiful locations, humour and cute young'uns and old'uns, the film's three stories were a more satisfying experience than The Circle. Apparently a play on the title, "When Harry Met Sally", When Brendan Met Trudy is a real film-lover's crowd pleaser. It's so choc full of references to other films that it will keep the cinephile waffling on for ages. From old John Wayne weepie westerns, French new wave classics to tiresome American romantic comedies from the 80s, the references come thick and fast. Written by Roddy Doyle (his first original screenplay), it tells the life of film fan, teacher, no-lifer Brendan and how he falls for the wrong woman - or is she the perfect one? With hilarious Monty Python-esque physical acting from Peter McDonald and Flora Montgomery being full of life and charm, this film was easy on the eyes and an entertaining 95 minutes at the cinema.

The best action films in the world from recent times have come from Asia - it's no contest. Hollywood films have now caught onto this and we are now experiencing the (good and bad) results. Best to go to the source for the top-shelf gear though, and Time and Tide is well and truly top-shelf. A mind blowing, frantic, action-crammed, visual feast, over the top extravaganza, this film will leave you floored. The lightning pace and editing of this film makes Moulin Rouge look like a three hour Russian minimalist film about ice melting. The plot? Er, not sure exactly, but who cares!? This is easily the most thrilling thing you will see for ages. Perfect for screwing up timid little minds. - MC

Sunday, 19th June - A laughing matter
If you combined Romeo and Juliet with Requiem for A Dream the result would be the extraordinarily powerful Disco Pigs. Pig (Cillian Murphy) and Runt (Elain Cassidy) have known each other since just a few moments after birth. And it was from that point on that they developed a unique, intensely close, loving bond throughout their lives. Inseparable, they are troublemakers and their futures are bleak, but that doesn't matter if they have each other. As their 17th birthday approaches, punctures start to appear and their intense relationship becomes unbearably volatile. This moving, beautiful film leaves you awestruck. With an exquisite soundtrack and amazing performances, this film will live in your tear-stained thoughts for a long time.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2001 Oscars, Divided We Fall is mainly set during World War II in Czechoslovakia as locals try to deal with the Nazi occupation. Perceived as Nazi collaborators, Josef and Marie are asked if they would house an SS officer. That will be kind of inconvenient since they are protecting David - a Jew - in their home. "We can't have the SS officer!" Marie says. "Why not?" "Because, I, er, um, I'm pregnant!" Which means Marie has to get pregnant NOW. Problem is, Josef has just found out he can't father children. What to do? Well there's David . . . A beautiful humanist story expertly told by Jan Hrebejk, who won the audience award at last year's Sydney Film Festival. - MC

Monday, 18th June - Pass the hallucinogens, mama
Aparajito is the second in Ray's Apu Trilogy, and is painted on a somewhat larger canvass than its predecessor. It doesn't quite scale the same heights - Smaran Ghosal's portrayal of the adolescent Apu is the least of the major performances in the Trilogy, though to be fair he's lumbered with a character who possesses few likeable qualities - but it's still a magnificent film, and its depiction of the deteriorating relationship between Apu and his mother provides some of the most quietly affecting moments in the entire series.

Australia has produced a number of memorable comedies, but Silent Partner isn't one of them. There are only two speaking parts, and they're taken by a couple of losers who try to hit it big in the greyhound racing business. You will note that I didn't refer to them as "likeable losers", because they're anything but - when one of them takes to selling neighbourhood pets to an abattoir to raise funds you can forget about any notion of supporting them in their quest for riches. Its pitiful budget works against it, since there's precious little to distract us from our loveable anti-heroes, and it winds its way to an abrupt and unfulfilling conclusion. Like the main characters, it's a complete waste of space.

Maelstrom apparently won the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar for Best Film, but nobody who isn't on mind-altering substances could possibly find anything of merit in this muddy, unfocussed release. Narrated by a fish (I am not making this up), it's 90 minutes of scenes that set the gorge to rising (a cold, hard look at an abortion springs to mind), graphic sex, and clinical detachment. It's certainly arresting, but will only appeal to hardcore fans of avant-garde cinema, since those hoary old standards of filmmaking (involving characters and anything resembling a plot spring to mind) take a back seat to director Denis Villeneuve's visual flourishes.

I also happened to catch a media screening of Tomb Raider in the evening, which prompted me to reflect that, execrable as Silent Partner was, at least writer/director Alkinos Tsilimidos didn't feel the need to spend 80 million dollars to bring his excuse for entertainment to the screen. - ABH

Tuesday, 19th June - You talkin' to me?/No laughing matter
With the rush of the opening well and truly over, and the ending too far away to think about, the challenging time of the festival looms like a dark wave CGI from The Perfect Storm finale. The eyes begin to ache from trying to read the program in the dark, the knees are sore from the dodgy seats and the effects of malnutrition - from too many rushed meals between sessions - are making your stomach ache. Festival madness starts to set in. It's at this stage when you're in danger of things becoming a blur. Friends will ask, "What films are you seeing tonight?" I don't know. "What film did you just see?" I don't remember - it's all a bit hazy . . . Got any food? Real food I mean?

It's also at this stage where you tire of fellow festival-goers banter. "What films have you seen?" I don't know. "What film did you just see?" I don't remember - Hey, you're in my seat, Goddamnit.

Either the films have been great and you're looking for more, or the films have been bad and you're not prepared to put up with any more nonsense. Whichever way it is, your standards are high and your resilience for crap is low. So it is perhaps rather unwise that I chose three films that had a chance of being rather awful for this difficult time of the festival.

Paul Schrader - author of that question from Taxi Driver (as well as penning Raging Bull) - was having a mini-retrospective of a trio of his directed films. It was a risk to turn up to these films as two of them were from the 70s. They may have been great then, but what about for the 21st century film watcher? A hazardous decision and I wasn't sure how much more pain I could withstand. Still, there were free jellybeans to be had, so... The first of the Paul Schrader festival trilogy, Light Sleeper, was introduced by the man himself with the effects of jet lag just starting to set in his mind. Glad to see that the filmmakers were suffering as much as us viewers. He said that this was about the only one of his films that he could bear watching anymore. Oh great. Doesn't exactly augur well for the other two.

Light Sleeper tells the story of a guy who starts to go through a mid-life crisis. Nothing more tedious than watching a man go through that. Unless he's a drug dealer - then there's opportunity for laughs. Well, what do you know, he is a drug dealer, but it's not funny. Well, occasionally it is, but this film is hardly a comedy. Willem Dafoe is good in the lead, but damn, he's not a guy the public should see naked. Eeeoow. The film was made in 1993, but it felt very 70s. I left this film with a smile, but that was because I scammed better seats. - MC

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that The World of Apu may well be the pinnacle of the Apu Trilogy. It's considerably more accessible than its predecessors, but that's not the reason for my unbridled admiration. For that we need look no further than a masterful performance by Soumitra Chatterjee as the fully-grown Apu, and a couple of scenes (the final fate of Apu's novel, and the magnificent final shot) that will stay with me forever. A word of warning, however - events from the first two films resonate throughout the third, so its true majesty is not apparent if viewed in isolation, and I therefore recommend viewing the entire trilogy back-to-back.

Since I wasn't able to hotfoot it down to Circular Quay in time to catch the noon screening of L.I.E., I chose the Bergman-scripted Faithless as a suitable alternative. Directed by actress Liv Ullmann, it's a long, slow-moving testament to the way in which the negative effects of infidelity are rarely confined to the parties involved. It's an incredibly insightful film, featuring scenes of such intensity that emotional exhaustion is impossible to avoid. Bergman's trademark detachment repels any attempt to become personally involved in the proceedings (the nihilistic characters act like they're in, well, a Bergman film), but it's a discomfiting chronicle of human frailty that leaves you as battered as the protagonists.

The day was rounded out by Divided We Fall, the latest in a line of comedies set during the Holocaust, with the problem being that, unless you're a fan of borderline-slapstick, it's not particularly funny, and any attempts to applaud the "triumph of the human spirit" amount to mere lip-service. Praised far beyond its merits, it's a film that has little to say, and even less idea of the most appropriate way to say it. - ABH

Wednesday, 20th June - Baby, it's cold outside
Under the banner headline "Comedy That Won't Leave You Cold", the November 24th, 2000 edition of Variety praised the efforts of Northern giants Kormákur, Fridriksson and Kaurismäki, and suggested that Icelandic comedy would soon "… supplant the gross-out film as the drug of choice for American teenage audiences". Actually, I just made that up (though the directors are real, courtesy of the festival programme), but 101 Reykjavík is nowhere near as inaccessible as its origins might suggest. Icelandic youth embraced certain aspects of American culture (most notably drunken partying) some years ago, so if it wasn't for the subtitles and snow you could be watching a Californian slacker comedy. Co-writer and director Baltasar Kormákur is no Kevin Smith, but that doesn't prevent the film from becoming a moderately amusing chronicle of one man's fight for his right to lethargy. The comedic element relies heavily on several bizarre twists and situations, but it's no worse than A Fish Called Wanda, and the dialogue has its moments. The unusual setting and undercurrent of resignation are added bonuses, leaving us with an enjoyable little film that is deserving of greater exposure.

Light Sleeper features Willem Dafoe as a drug courier who wants out of the game, and it's typical Schrader fare - seedy characters, neon-lit cityscapes, and the inevitable firefight at the end. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but Dafoe's memorable performance and a couple of unusual flourishes (the soundtrack features a commentary on the events via an ongoing ballad, which is actually rather good) make for a mildly diverting ride. - ABH

Blue Collar is quite special for two reasons. First, it's probably Schrader's best directorial effort. Secondly, it has Richard Pryor in his only dramatic role committed to celluloid. The film also has rumours surrounding it that the three leads hated each other. More evidence of filmmakers suffering - good to see. Three autoworkers in financial trouble are disaffected with their work and their union. They are desperate to break out of the rut they're living in. This is an excellent film with strong thoughtful themes and excellent performances. It's been redone for DVD so check it out, if only to see how Pryor fits in those unfeasibly tight pants. - MC

Thursday, 21st June - Patton and porn/Look back in anger
The last of the Schrader trilogy was Hardcore - a film that he describes as making him uncomfortable. It's the only film that Schrader doesn't have a personal copy of. George C. Scott plays a Calvinist dad who goes searching for his missing daughter. It leads him into a dark world at complete odds to the values and life style of his home. A more personal film than the broadly themed Blue Collar, this is a gritty exploration of a man desperate to get his daughter back. Great stuff with Scott putting in an impassioned performance. - MC

End of Part One - for Part Two visit http://hollywoodbitchslap.com/hbs.cgi?feature=395


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=396
originally posted: 07/03/01 17:07:43
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