As I reach the end of my 2015 Sydney Film Festival Diary I have been fighting off a lack of post-festival motivation to get this done. There are two films I watched over the last four days that I haven’t been able to review – Cemetery of Splendour and The Assassin. The former I enjoyed, but watched on the verge of slumber. It is a mesmerising film, suited for that sleepy atmosphere, but I have no idea how to describe the experience. The latter I appreciated on a visual level, but struggled to make sense of the story, which doesn’t clue in an audience with cultural or historical context. I am not sure what to say about either, and I feel like it is better to leave them alone. But, after the jump you can find my reviews of Phoenix, Tangerine, Arabian Nights: Volumes 1-3, Seymour: An Introduction and Me & Earl & the Dying Girl.
And, you can find all of my personal awards, and final ranking of films here:
Phoenix – Christian Petzold-regulars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld (who both appeared in his Berlin award-winner Barbara) star in this very powerful film set in the aftermath of WWII and examines the Jewish experience in a very unique way. Nelly (Hoss), a concentration camp survivor, returns to the ghostly rubble of Berlin and seeks to resurrect a life that has been obliterated by the war. Badly disfigured, she undergoes a facial reconstruction and is nursed by a friend from the pre-war days. Her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) had long protected her from the Nazis as a result of their marriage, but there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of her capture. On their meeting he doesn’t recognise her as Nelly – believing her to be long dead – but as her doppelganger, and hatches a scheme to use her to recover his wife’s (her) considerable inheritance. Nelly doesn’t reveal the truth to him, hiding behind the veil of innocent deception, in an attempt to find out if her husband still loves her and what happened the day her life changed forever.
This is a deceptively complex story, because we are never quite sure whether Johnny actually knows who Nelly really is. Some viewers will be hard pressed to accept that he doesn’t know. “How could he not?” I heard someone say on the way out. Every time I felt like I was giving in to disbelief I fought it off and considered the context. Survivors were so rare that any hope left in Johnny had long disappeared. Nelly has been so affected by her experience that she has no semblance of identity. She finds herself in such an unexpected situation; a Vertigo-style obsessive moulding into a ghost of the past, that she is torn between the happiness she feels for being reunited with her husband, a curiousness to see if his true colours reveal in time, and a devastation at being oppressed again. He has the means to access a fortune, promising Nelly a cut if she helps him. As Nelly is moulded into the version of her that she needs to be to convince people that she is, in fact, his wife, she begins to re-discover her identity. But her agency has been stripped, just as her life has been saved. She will never be the Nelly of old, no matter how she dresses and does her hair.
This film is wonderfully photographed – in the early sequences the use of shadows is a terrific representation of the human spectre surviving within the ruins of war – and really well paced. I won’t forget about it easily. Features another amazing performance from Hoss, who is a world-class actress, and a stunning final sequence – a collision of all of the tensions throughout the film and the resurrection of Nelly’s identity in ways impossible to expect.
Tangerine – Sean Baker’s competition entry was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, and considering those limitations it looks pretty good. I completely applaud the embrace of such means to make films, and the inventive approach, but I found the story quite horrendous. What starts as an exciting, high-energy, very-LA film about two inseparable friends from a minority group we rarely see represented becomes an arduous slog as three interconnected stories converge on a donut shop in loud, aggressive and frankly contrived fashion. The breadth of LA, the most interesting character in the film, is reduced to this single location.
Tangerine is set on Christmas Eve and aligns the audience intimately with two transgender sex workers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who has just been released from prison to learn that her pimp boyfriend has been unfaithful, and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Sin-Dee becomes obsessed with clarifying the rumour, embarking on a whirlwind mission to locate Chester (James Ransone, The Wire), while Alexandra, who has booked in a singing performance at a club later that night, simply wants to get through the day drama-free.
The third story involving Razmik, an Armenian taxi driver who works with the transgender girls by offering rides around town as a currency for favours, initially reveals a lot about the seedy side of LA. We see all sorts of individuals come and go in his cab. When he learns that Sin-Dee is out of prison, he becomes obsessed with tracking her down to the point of abandoning his wife and family for Christmas-Eve dinner to start the hunt.
The pumping soundtrack, on its own fantastic, does an enormous amount of heavy lifting by covering up that not much is actually happening. This highlight-feature disappears in the later stages as the soundtrack is replaced by the characters yelling at one another. I found the acting mostly appalling, especially from Ransone, the only recognisable ‘actor’ in the film. But, the real hurdle for me was feeling sympathy for these characters, and I understand that Baker has tried to avoid any sort of judgement towards them, but the time spent with them just isn’t enjoyable. The stories are very thin. When Sin-Dee starting viciously pushing and pulling around the girl she believes her pimp has cheated on her with, and when Razmik walked out on his family, I realised I couldn’t care less what happens to them.
Immediately following a forced and completely unnecessary late conflict Tangerine does have a fantastic final sequence with more heart than anything else preceding it. But by this point I had been long contemplating a swift exit.
Arabian Nights (Volume 1-3) – Miguel Gomes’ (Tabu, which I didn’t love) ambitious six-hour anthology-trilogy screened over two days at the tail end of the festival – Volume 1 on Saturday afternoon, and Volumes 2 & 3 on Sunday. Turns out my stamina wasn’t cut out for the back-to-back pair as I struggled through the film’s comically tedious stretch to the finish line, but I can’t deny I enjoyed the surreal, incisive, funny and downright crazy of the preceding five hours. Gomes’ agenda? To create a vivid portrait of his homeland of Portugal while drawing from the structure of the ‘Arabian Nights’. Anguished by the austere governing of his homeland – and the closure of a shipyard proving to be just one catalyst for the booming unemployment rates – he commissions journalists to gather stories from all over the country, which he then fictionalises.
Volume 1 opens on Gomes himself as he discusses the near-impossible task of blending these two very different things into his art – wonderful, seductive, vibrant stories, and a social commentary acknowledging Portugal’s miserable situation. He uses the disparate cases of the shipyard and a beekeeper fighting off threatening wasps to set the scene. There is so much to process early in this film, because Gomes is often talking about something completely different to the images he presents. It is a bit of a warm up for the audience, who shouldn’t expect to read these stories at face value. This segment ends with him running away from his crew members, fearing that this task is beyond him. A short while later we are introduced to Scheherazade, the legendary Arabic Queen and the storyteller from ‘Arabian Nights’, and the various chapters (within chapters) commence.
Volume 1 is most memorable for the very funny ‘The Men With Hard Ons’ and ‘The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire’. In the former, an African wizard sprays the genitals of visiting European business leaders, prompting them to get uncomfortably unshakable erections and as a result see the error of their impotent ways. The latter is set around the trial of a cock (see a trend here?) for crowing too early in the morning, and involves a love triangle between kids conveyed through SMS-lingo and emoticons. One of the most interesting elements of this first film is how information is transferred and interpreted in different ways (voice-over, first-person testimony, text message); and an audience is challenged to dissect Gomes’ allegories within.
Volume 2 starts out with a very peculiar story – “The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao ‘Without Bowels'”, which is about an elderly bandit guilty of killing his wife and daughter whose escape to the countryside involves random erotic encounters and a hero tout – but it is then proceeded by the trilogy’s strongest chapter and one of the most brilliant of the entire festival. In an alfresco courtroom-amphitheatre a judge commences a trial surrounding the ownership of furniture (laid out in front of her and the gaggle of audience members), but this soon becomes a pass-the-buck type situation as more and more of the characters in the audience (including a hilarious gang of thieves only willing to confess) are called to impromptu trial. The baffled judge (one of the best performances of the festival from Luisa Cruz) is brought to tears by the end of it all. The final chapter is set in a suburban apartment block – exploring its bizarre history and linking residents through a photogenic pooch.
Volume 3 begins brilliantly in the time of Scheherazade, and features all the colour and magic we expect from the Arabian Nights stories. The soundtrack in this chapter is fantastic. Then the film takes a curious shift, to a conglomeration of bird trappers (I have since learned that these were actors, and not actually unemployed men discussing their unique vocation) who train chaffinches in birdsong competitions. While not the most engaging chapter to begin with, I felt like the whole cinema groaned when Gomes abandoned his third chapter after mere minutes to return to the chaffinches…and this is where the film remains until the end. I missed what Gomes was trying to say in this final chapter, and my ideas since then are very creative and likely way off the non-apparent mark. While I am sure many have been very moved by the finale, I was displeased by what I felt was a punishing prank.
While strictly for the brave filmgoer, this is a patchy but consistently entertaining and intellectually stimulating experience. Even during the chapters that were more gruelling than enlightening, I remained confident that something fascinating was just over the horizon. Most times I was rewarded. I am glad I made the effort to see Arabian Nights at the festival. I dare say I won’t get another chance to experience it in a cinema.
Seymour: An Introduction – I just have to say: “Thank you Ethan Hawke for the introduction.”
While Hawke wisely keeps his subject, the compassionate, life-philosopher and classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, the focus of this documentary he does step into the film briefly to provide some context as to how he met Bernstein, and the profound effect that his wisdom and understanding had on him as an actor. Bernstein reveals in the film that during his 30 years of performing he suffered from stage fright, much like Hawke reveals he has at points in his career, but that wasn’t ultimately what led him to dedicate his time to teaching and composing.
We see Bernstein in action as a teacher in his modest New York home and giving auditorium masterclasses. It is a real privilege to see his constructive and inspirational teaching style and draw from his experience and immense insight into not just playing the piano, but making the most of whatever passion you may possess. We also learn about periods of his early life and career in a informal meeting with former student Michael Kimmelman.
The film, as many like it have before, culminates in a performance by Bernstein, but there is something so rewarding about it this time. He has not triumphed over adversity, but is returning to performing as part of an honourary celebration. Hawke has invited him to perform before a small intimate audience of friends and peers, and thanked him for the role he has played in his life. No doubt he has touched many more during the course of his carer. There is nothing particularly cinematic about this film, but it is Bernstein’s valuable words of wisdom that is the treasure here.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the most hipster films yet made, and sure to be very divisive as a result. It is so self-consciously hip that it is at times unbearable. It doesn’t have a unique aesthetic to warrant the drowning in style and reference, as well constructed as it is. As a film nerd I love a lot of the ingredients (and there are a lot) that are used to tell this coming-of-age/teen cancer story – classic films, the music of Talk Talk and Brian Eno, Ron Swanson – but this was so drenched in references to aid the swallow that the film ends up feeling as fake as the parody films made by the self-centred protagonist.
Greg (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior trying hard to blend in and remain anonymous. While he would be defined as a geek he declares that he doesn’t belong to any group and just wants to get through the year and leave everyone behind. He spends most of his free time making parody films with “co-worker” Earl (R. J Cyler), finding influence in classics such as Peeping Tom and Midnight Cowboy, and his room is adorned with movie memorabilia and cast-aside film ideas. I related with, to a point. When his mother insists that he spend time with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), he is initially put out, but as they bond he starts to realise just how essential close friendships are on the cusp of adulthood, and Rachel helps him to discover a way to utilise his significant creativity and skill for a real purpose.
The story should have been very moving, but the tragedy of Rachel’s situation is kept at a distance because we experience it through Glen’s ho-hum attitude. His manipulative diary entry-esque narration (which we learn makes up his new college application, yawn) is also trying very hard to catch us off guard with our emotions at the end. It becomes a bit of a selfish woe-is-me tale, because as a result of Glen spending so much time with Rachel he begins to flunk school, which places his college position at risk. His friendship with Earl is also tested and his carefully cultivated anonymity is threatened. He begins to resent ever meeting Rachel. The script rarely gets out of Glen’s head, and that makes it difficult to find an emotional connection to Rachel.
Also, Earl is woefully short-changed in this film. He is a black guy from a bad part of the neighbourhood. That’s pretty much the extent of it. He has an intimidating brother, with an intimidating dog, and he often provides the voice of reason for Glen. Cyler does a great job, but it is disappointing that he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Then there are the fake characters. Glen’s father (played by Nick Offerman) is such a lazy hipster version of Offerman’s character from Parks and Recreation, and Offerman could sleepwalk through this role. And he does. Glen’s mother (Connie Britton) also does unbelievable things. She forces him to talk to this girl he doesn’t know very well, and for some unexplained reason has no other friends. Imagine the awkwardness you would set up for your son. Seems a very irresponsible piece of parenting. Then, months later when he is flunking out of school because of the time devoted to this same girl, you give him a lecture about his priorities. The sequences in the office of their uber-cool, heavily-tattooed, noodle-slurping history teacher Mr McCarthy (played with great charisma by Jon Bernthal), where Glen and Earl hang out watching films, are some of the funniest in the film. But they would never happen.
I am starting to mistrust the Sundance Grand Jury/Audience Award double because I wasn’t keen on comparative 2014 winner Whiplash either. The film was also a favourite here in Sydney, winning the Audience Award for Feature Films. I get the appeal – it is about the bonds of friendship and how the teenage consideration of mortality can really change who you are. I appreciated that the love for film is in its veins, but every time it did something cute and nerdy it also threw up some very problematic that I wanted to swat into the stands.