Jun 132016
 

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Read beyond for my thought on films I have seen on Days 1-3 of this year’s Sydney Film Festival – Born to Be Blue, Being 17, Certain Women, Elvis & Nixon, Julieta, Tickled and The Lure. Let’s just say it has been a fantastic start.

Wednesday

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Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke stars as the troubled but charming genius jazz trumpeter and singer, Chet Baker, in this conventionally themed, but inventively structured semi-factual musical portrait. Using an interesting device – the imagining of a proposed-but-abandoned feature film biopic about Baker starring Baker himself – director Robert Budreau inserts details of Baker’s earlier career (and downfall) into his unlikely 1966 comeback to jazz and his romance with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), which makes up the bulk of the story.

After a severe beating, in which he loses all of is front teeth, many believed Baker’s career to be over. A longtime heroin addict; his road to recovery, both from addiction and from his potentially career-ending injuries, was a long and challenging one. Born to Be Blue captures this journey – as he goes back to basics and re-learns how to play through pain, and without the comfort of his own teeth, and repairs his psychological state. While I initially found it difficult to accept Jane’s attraction to Baker, and her swift decision to commit to him and support him through his recovery, I warmed to it by the end of the film. The commendably melancholy finale feels earned, as Jane sticks to her principles and desire to forge her own career and not have her life defined entirely by Chet’s.

For me, the film’s most interesting layer is the way that Chet grapples heroin addiction, and the role it plays in his creative expression, and the improvised melodies that would define ‘West Coast Swing’. Does the drug define this creativity, or has it always been present within him? Budreau carefully masks the role of heroin as ‘the’ catalyst for Chet’s musicianship. We believe it to be a serious vice, but a side effect of the entertainment life only. Ultimately, he finds himself unable to escape the sensation of playing while high; even if it means losing the love of his life.

Hawke’s performance is excellent – his vocals haunting, the music captivating – and the film doesn’t attempt to etch in every detail of Baker’s life. The montage-heavy middle section, while really strikingly photographed, is clumsily assembled, but the varying palettes and impressive period design (the elegant minimalism of the recording studios for example) leave plenty to appreciate.

3/5

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Being 17

Wow, what a remarkable film. It will surely be one of the strongest works of this year’s festival. Veteran French filmmaker Andre Techine (Wild Reeds), working in perfect complementation with his co-writer Celine Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) has created an unforgettable portrait of the volatile emotional unpredictability and urgent thrills of first love. It details in fluid and authentic intimacy life on the cusp of adulthood, as the awkward adolescent emotions of desire, angst and grief boil together; and the violent confrontation of those feelings towards a person you are deeply are attracted to, but can’t find the way to express it.

Individually outcasted classmates Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) don’t get along, and their violent sparring betray repressed feelings neither of them can articulate nor deny. Thomas lives in the mountains with his adopted parents; tending to the farm of a morning and making the hour and a half journey to school every day. Damien lives minutes from school with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a doctor, and father Nathan (Alexis Loret), a pilot on duty abroad. When Marianne is called out to Thomas’ home she discovers his mother is pregnant and ill, and taking a liking to Thomas and wishing to help him with his grades, invites him to stay at her home. But, as the incidents between the pair increase in severity, and their families are hit with further challenges, the sexual tension erupts and they find mutual comfort in one another.

The runtime could have been a bit tighter, but considering the chaptered trimester structure this has substantial narrative and thematic heft, with great care shown for every character; including Damien and Thomas’ parents. It is superbly made; the technical details faultless and the performances from the young leads incredibly brave. Stunning Pyrenees landscapes through a bitterly cold winter and the thawing summer to follow, provide a beautiful backdrop, too.

The tension between Damien and Thomas is palpable. I have never seen this sort of muscular flirtation portrayed on screen before. The twist in emotions – when the boys eventually let their feelings out, having bashed the repression from each other’s systems – is genuinely overwhelming.

4/5

Thursday

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Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt speaks my language. Certain Women is a marvellous pleasure to be a part of. The director of the wonderful Meek’s Cutoff, Old Joy and most recently Night Moves is one of America’s most consistently interesting filmmakers. Certain Women is made up of a trilogy of short and loosely-connected stories (based on Maile Meloy’s) that offer a hypnotic, understated and beautifully filmed (on 35mm) study of the everyday, and three independent small-town Montana women living in states of unfulfillment and navigating the hand they are dealt as best they can.

A viewer will naturally seek a link between the stories but Reichardt keeps them elusive and speculative. The first story is about a lawyer (Laura Dern) who is tasked to diffuse a hostage situation involving a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), the second features a married couple (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros), who encounter friction as they try to persuade an elderly man to part with his stockpile of sandstone so they can build a fence for their dream home. The third story – the strongest and the most emotionally impactful – benefits from outstanding work from Lily Gladstone, portraying a ranch hand who forms an attachment to a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart, also terrific), who has been making a four hour drive into her local town to teach a twice-weekly adult education class.

Thematically, Dern and Williams’ stories find both women in a state of anxiety as a result of the carelessness and aloofness of the men in their lives, but ultimately come to accept that they give them direction and purpose. Gladstone’s story doesn’t feature men at all, and it is a woman who provides the most stinging betrayal. Each of these stories possess an undercurrent of dramatic friction; relationships on the verge of combusting, the characters taking chances, contemplating the morality of their decisions, and having to live with guilt and regret following others.

This film’s pacing and threadbare plotting won’t be for everyone. Williams’, I expect, will be the most polarising. But, no one can deny Reichardt’s ability to wring every ounce of beauty out of the beautiful landscape, and using her pared-back, observational style to build a stirring tapestry of human experiences (not only with each other, but with the animals in their lives) that seem small, but have an enormous bearing on their lives. Like her preceding works the quiet, enthralling pace has a mesmerising effect.

4/5

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Elvis & Nixon

This was a lot of fun. A perfect film to end the night on, and a treat to catch with a huge crowd completely getting into it.

In the year 1970 Elvis (Michael Shannon), determined to play his part in protecting America, turns up at the White House with an unusual proposition – insisting on being made a Federal Agent at Large so he can work undercover and do his part for the country he loves. While Nixon’s aides see the PR value in picturing the curmudgeonly Nixon (Kevin Spacey) next to the King, he shows no interest in the meeting.

Circumstances bring them together, with Elvis and his comrades holed up in a hotel room waiting for the call. We know that they two met – there is photographic evidence – but what really happened in the Oval Office that day? Elvis and Nixon is an imaging of this bizarre situation – truth be damned – completely embracing it to frequently hilarious results.

Any trepidation about Spacey playing Nixon is quickly dismissed; he absolutely nails the interpretation. But, the great thing about this unusual biopic is that neither performer is completely committed to total ‘authenticity’, and nor is the film. Michael Shannon’s natural charisma, and physical presence, means that he effortlessly carries Elvis’ swagger without overdoing the ‘impression’.

The film’s final act is a riot; Shannon is a pinball; breaking down the stuffiness of Nixon’s office and turning it into a playground for political discussion, cultural appreciation and even some karate. This film has no other agenda but to please, and definitely worth the goofy journey to the meeting.

Note: this screening was preceded by a short film called The King, a sweet Kiwi documentary about a scrap metal labourer, who is also famous around town for his performances of Elvis songs. After the film he hit the stage and sang two songs for the surprised, but very appreciative audience. It was an unusual evening to say the least, but I had a smile on my face before Elvis & Nixon even began.

3/5

Friday

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Julieta

Pedro Almodovar is back with a new (and rare) feature screening at Sydney Film Festival, fresh from a berth in the Cannes Competition. A middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) is about to leave Madrid to live in Portugal with her new lover when she runs into the childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía. This chance meeting sets off a range of emotions in Julieta, and as she writes a long and revealing letter to her daughter – one filled exclamations of regret, guilt and love – we jump into the past and learn of Julieta’s extraordinary and tragic life (as portrayed by Adriana Ugarte).

Like all of Almodovar’s films Julieta is rich in textures, with a sumptuous colour palette (especially the striking use of reds) and elegantly composed sequences. A haunting, if occasionally heavy-handed, score add to this sensory experience. It is the plot that doesn’t quite earn the audience’s emotions. Julieta, through her life, has run the gamut of emotions – and Almodovar explores the passions of falling in love, the stings of betrayal, the grief of loss, and the guilt of bearing responsibility. The strained mother-daughter relationship is sympathetic, but in the flashback/letter-recount structure the plot does meander, which numbs the impact a little.

Both Suarez and Ugarte are perfectly cast – their resemblance to one another uncanny – but this didn’t do a whole lot for me. Almodovar is dealing with familiar themes, but this felt to me like a Master on cruise control.

3/5

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Tickled

This engrossing and jaw-dropping documentary investigation was big hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year, and incredibly (considering the subject matter) releases theatrically soon in the United States. While surfing the web, New Zealand entertainment journalist and TV personality David Farrier discovers a bizarre subculture of ‘Competitive Endurance Tickling’ – involving clips of young men squirming under a tickling onslaught.

After contacting the event organisers – a website called Jane O’Brien Media – for an interview he receives an onslaught of homophobic vitriol (Farrier is openly gay) and is threatened with a lawsuit if he starts asking questions. Obviously rattled, but intrigued – especially by the behaviour of the company’s representatives, who are flown first-class to visit Farrier in Auckland – he and his co-director Dylan Reeve turn to Kickstarter for funding and head to the USA to investigate. There they uncover a dark and twisted web of criminal activity, and discover many more victims of extreme cyber-bullying as a result of involvement with this company.

But, the mystery rippling throughout this film – who is orchestrating everything and how are they affording it? The sequence at Auckland airport – as Farrier hangs out all day waiting for the arrival of the representatives – is one of the most strange and unnerving in the film. But this is just the start. There is serious tension built here, and you fear for the safety of these guys. They covertly photograph off-the-record conversations, and even infiltrate a ‘comp shoot’ – their surprise visit met with cagey behaviour and even further threats.

But, the documentary doesn’t just deal with this investigation, but builds a complete portrait of this subculture. Farrier and Reeve meet a tickle fetishist in Orlando, who runs a professional business – willing to discuss his methods and origins of his fetish. Also candid is a former recruiter for an organiser known as ‘Terry Tickled’, who was instrumental in turning amateur shoots into a professional enterprise. He reveals that he received the same abuse and legal threats from his employer, and the filmmakers observe a pattern and become convinced that it must be linked to Jane O’Brien. Former recruits, and organisers of ‘Tickle Cells’, also provide revealing accounts of their experiences. It is these various threads that lead Farrier and Reeve to one figure; the puppet-master pulling all the strings.

Tickled is a well-produced, cinematic procedural investigation into a deep, dark web of extreme cyber-bullying, exploitation, privacy invasion, fraud and identity theft. While the film raises clear ground for prosecution, it is the lawsuits against the filmmakers that keep piling up. It really must be seen to be believed.

4/5

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The Lure

The Polish killer-mermaid romance musical that was too tempting to possibly pass up. Directed by the clearly very talented Agnieszka Smoczynska, this film doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it offers up some explosive musical sequences, and an evolving soundtrack that lays the platform for all kinds of unclassifiable weirdness. Young, seductive Vampiric Mermaids Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszanska) are first seen in human form as they surface off the coast of Warsaw, summoned by the bass-playing of Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). Seemingly cast under their spell, Mietek and his fellow band members welcomed them back to the nightclub they play at, where they are hired as novelty strippers/back-up singers. But as Silver pines for Mietek, and their romance blossoms, Gold can only keep her bloodsucking urges suppressed for so long.

This is a crazy film, and questions ripple throughout this insane, erratically brilliant flesh-eating-mermaid musical. It is unclassifiable. I have to say I have never seen a film quite like this before and, so I discovered, very few foreign language musicals. Scene to scene, individually, it is twisted and grotesque, and impossible to predict where it is going to next. Despite the substantial audio-visual pleasures the thin story is unexpectedly conventional, leaving a lot of narrative holes and doesn’t come together in a particularly satisfying way. However, I admired the production of this film a great deal. Some budget constraints are evident with the clever avoidance of CGI and yet not a cent seems to be spared on the many elaborately shot and orchestrated musical set pieces. The soundtrack is incredible – a mix of Euro-techno, heavy-metal rock and pop ballads.

3.5/5

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