Aug 102015


Having seen a substantial amount of films in Sydney at our annual international film festival, the weekend my wife and I had pre-programme booked offered risky choices. Unfamiliar with most of the 9 films on our schedule, we were either in for plenty of surprises, or some endurance tests. In the end it was a bit of a mixed bag. Great weekend, though. While the escape from the hustle and bustle of Sydney city life, for the slightly colder, greyer and more relaxed hustle of the Melbourne inner city was a necessary one, we made the most of our limited time. In addition to the films, we met up with many of our dear friends for lunch and dinner and satisfied our inner-Bowie with a visit to the excellent ACMI ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition. You can find a quick analysis of all films viewed after the jump:

We got off a to a rough start on Friday. I fell asleep in our first film, the fascinating-sounding La Sapienza. This was a downright bore, save for the stunning, richly textured Italian locations and architecture. I was confused as to what the filmmaker was trying to achieve here with this grandiose but oblique study of the relationship between art and love, light and inspiration (or something to that extent), and his baffling decisions – the relentless and pointless reverse close-ups to complement every single line of aggravatingly theoretical dialogue, even though the mannequin-esque performances gave us little emotion or feeling. We walked out of our second film, Belluscone: A Sicilian Story in bemused protest. What a mess. While an analysis of Belluscone’s ties to the mafia fused with a mystery – the disappearance of a journalist attempting to make an investigative film about him – were enticing, this film couldn’t commit to a single idea long enough to be incisive, nor was it willing to get the tough answers. When we hadn’t learned anything about Belluscone in 40 minutes of this horrendously put together documentary, we figured anything else was better.

7 Chinese Brothers was very slight but consistently funny in its uniquely charming way. It never shoots for the moon, but as a character study about a boozy, irresponsible troublemaker whose simple life – a lone friend, one surviving family member, and a dissatisfying job – is on the verge of falling apart one piece at a time, it hits its marks often. While very heavy on the dog-related humour, this has many sequences I expect I will be randomly reminded of and chuckle embarrassingly to myself about. This is Schwartzman’s show and he really has mastered the lovable slacker. His defeated posture, unpredictable and disarming comic delivery, and bursts of volatile anger are all given free reign here. I wonder how much was actually scripted, and how much was Schwartzman’s own initiative.

A Perfect Day ended up being our best of the festival. Wonderfully directed. Unfortunately it will not be screening again. The subject of this anti-war comedy/thriller – the bureaucracy-plagued international aid program in the Balkans during the Bosnian War – was compelling on its own. Assigned the task of removing a body from a well before it contaminates the village supply, a misfit troupe of aid workers attempt to procure some rope. When all sorts of obstacles impede on that mission the series of misadventures are equally hilarious and nail-bitingly suspenseful. The balance of these disparate tones, and the way that character-progression is always a priority, is what is especially impressive about this Cannes Director’s Fortnight selection. The performances (headlined by a superb Benicio Del Toro, and also including Tim Robbins and Olga Kurylenko), and the unusual soundtrack are also terrific.

The Ground We Won received stellar reviews out of New Zealand Film Festival and I understand it is a very distinctive spotlight on Kiwi culture and people. It is a stunningly photographed black-and-white micro-study of the masculine camaraderie of a motley troupe of career farmers, whose remaining energy is put into competing for their local rugby team. This spirited and honest documentary tracks a few individual members of the team; a single dad of two who lives and breathes rugby, a 17-year-old who is still earning the respect of his older teammates, and the captain contemplating retirement following the season. This is a bittersweet story of a cultivated culture that may not paint these men in the best of light, but we see that on the ground they tread, whether it is the farm or the rugby field, they give it their all.

Deathgasm screened in the ‘Freak Me Out’ sidebar at the Sydney Film Festival and was one of the runners-up for Audience Award. It is very very silly and made for that midnight slot. Watch it at home in the middle of the day, and you will wonder what the hell you are doing. I thought it was often-hilarious and laughed throughout, despite some questionable jokes and juvenile directorial decisions. It is a Kiwi branded assault of death metal mischief and chunky gory mayhem, using its effective fusion of inspirations with love. In a small NZ town an outcast metalhead opens up the gates of Hell when his band play some chords from the Death Hymn, turning the residents into demonic flesh-eating Zombies. Don’t think about this too much. The effects are pretty good, the soundtrack is epic, there are plenty of little nods for metal fans and horror junkies alike, and the young cast work the comedy well together.

Peace Officer and Raiders! were disappointingly average documentaries – overlong with a familiar structural approach and an unfocused strategy on how to tackle the interesting subject matter – and The Thoughts That Once We Had was an outright fail. Peace Officer addresses a pressing issue – the SWAT team militarisation of the police force, and the untameable violent repercussions – through a committed and decorated veteran law enforcer and government official. He has witnessed his vision for the SWAT team completely unravel and his passion to execute change is rousing. His investigation into a number of incidents, including one involving the death of his son-in-law, reveals some disturbing incompetence and skewed evidence, but the film sketches broadly and doesn’t convince.

Raiders! is a fun little doco full of geeky tidbits and some awesome coverage of the now-famous teen project – an 80’s amateur zero-budget shot-for-shot adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark – but it stretches hard for drama and conflict and overstays its welcome when it isn’t reflecting on the kid’s youth and what they had to do to create their film. Interviews with film critics and programmers have energy, but don’t add a lot. In the present day, the film chronicles a race-against-time to finish the shooting of the one scene they were unable to do as kids. With private funding the best friends (co-producers/director and lead star) decide to give the scene a shot. The stakes aren’t high enough to fully feel the pressure desired, but the strive for closure is inspiring.

The Thoughts That Once We Had is an essay film, distantly resembling Mark Cousins’ The Story of FIlm and drawing from the theoretical essays of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. I have read chapters of Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image during university study and found in them some fascinating new methods to read and understand film. I expected to learn something here, or be refreshed with a new avenue or critical thinking, but I didn’t. Irreparably haphazard, one dry theory to the next seemed unassociated, the saving grace are some of the choice of clips. Zoning in and out, there was just as much historical documentation than the application of an idea to a sequence, which amounted to a rather puzzling experience.