Here are my thoughts on seven of the eight films I watched over the first weekend of the Sydney Film Festival, save for It’s Only the End of the World – reviewed in further detail here. Read on for thoughts on Official Competition entries Aquarius, Goldstone and Land of Mine as well as Weiner, Contemporary Color, Mahana and Wild. There is only one of these films I wasn’t impressed with, and so the high quality continues.
Screening in the Official Competition (and at the time of writing – six films in – clearly the best one) Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s (Neighbouring Sounds) astounding study of history, memory, family, class and modernity is ruled by a fierce, complex performance from Sonia Braga. Set and filmed in his native town of Recife, Filho’s film has huge scope; projecting through Braga’s character a national fear of change.
65-year-old Clara is a 17-year widow and a retired music journalist. Intelligent and stubbornly independent, she lives in a seaside apartment building called Aquarius. She is the last remaining resident – outside of her sanctuary it is ghostly and deserted – and the surrounding apartments have been acquired by a company with development plans for the site. After politely refusing to sell, the company’s attempts to coerce her into doing so becoming increasingly aggressive – and as we explore her rich and fascinating private and family life – she finds herself in an escalating war with the company to keep her home.
With a very deliberate pacing, it gracefully constructs Clara’s relationships with family and friends, demonstrating through their interactions her firm resolve, and the suffocating encroachment upon her quality of life. Stickers placed on doors to tag ownership, cars blocking her garage and loud parties in the apartment directly above are just the beginning. Clara fiercely objects, repainting the beachfront facade and digging up dirt on the company, while facing opposition from former tenants awaiting the sale royalties, and even her own daughter who worries about her safety.
The film’s prologue is set at Clara’s apartment in 1980, where her entire family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of her Aunt. We are introduced to Clara’s husband, siblings and children, learn of her struggle with breast cancer, and understand the rich family history and the memories embedded within the apartment. It is a perfect set up for the themes explored through the rest of the film. Clara is romantic for the past and the tangibility of objects – she has an extensive vinyl collection, which has the ability to send her back to a past time and place, much like her antique dresser, which stirs memories in Clara’s aunt at the birthday party. By knocking down the Aquarius apartments, generations of history would be destroyed. Some people are able to part with that, but not Clara. Gentrification works its way into the apartment block like a cancerous tumour. Clara, having battled and defeated cancer (though not without side effects) is determined to win this fight also.
With an incredible soundtrack (including two Queen songs) – which complement Clara’s self-empowerment and liberation – and an encompassing soundscape, this is a gift for the senses. Filho’s Altman-esque zoom shots, and an observant eye for visual details, enriches his film even when Braga isn’t present. With Clara, she has created one of the most interesting and complex female characters to grace the screen this year, and the film has an astute understanding of time and place, as well as Brazil’s rich history and the effects of modernity. Aquarius is a truly outstanding and deeply resonating piece of cinema, and would be a deserved winner of the Sydney Film Prize.
Ivan Sen’s anticipated follow-up to the brilliant outback police procedural, Mystery Road, is screening in the Official Competition and launched the festival on Opening Night. Unfortunately, save for the return of Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) there are few similarities between Mystery Road and Goldstone. It was very disappointing, completely lacking in the nuance – and the political complexity – that made Mystery Road one of the Australia’s best dramas in recent years.
On the trail of a missing person, Jay finds himself in the small mining town of Goldstone. Troubled, as a result of personal trauma, he is arrested for drunk driving by young local cop Josh (Alex Russell). Jay’s presence immediately makes the locals nervous, and when his motel room is blasted with gunfire, he realises that there is something larger at play. Jay and Josh struggle to overcome their mutual distrust, but as their independent inquiries uncover evidence of corporate greed and corruption, murder, and an illegal child trafficking/prostitution ring they team up to cleanse the rotting district.
Unfortunately there is just no mystery, or intrigue, established here. I don’t want to just make comparisons to Mystery Road, but I have seen many commentators favour Goldstone, and I find that hard to accept. Whereas the former works as a Western, and achieves the pacing of an authentic police enquiry, Goldstone is much more straightforward. Here, the chief antagonists (portrayed by a badly-wigged, and clown-lipsticked Weaver and a smarmy, oily David Wenham) are caricatures and obvious within minutes, there are few surprises, and the film’s glacial pacing is stilted by the repetition of Swan’s solo beer-swigging, spending far too much time establishing the dark place his character is in without offering a particularly satisfying context.
The dialogue and screenplay is also just too obvious; I didn’t believe the way these characters spoke to one another – in absurd philosophical metaphors that literally define the film’s primary themes. The mining company’s expansion, and forcing the Aboriginal community to sign over the rights to their land, has contemporary relevance, but the child-prostitution ring feels like a plot device to get Swan into Goldstone.
Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell are very good, but Pedersen is a surprisingly passive presence. Russell has more screen-time as the local cop who grows a conscience. The film’s final act – the strongest stretch in the film – also feels rushed, like a scene or two is missing, which communicates just how the pair end up on the same wavelength. Still, despite the issues, Sen proves himself to be a terrific director of action, and the photography of the ochre-red sands of the outback is frequently stunning.
This hilarious, bewildering and generously candid political insider won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Charismatic politician Anthony Weiner torpedoed his comeback 2013 New York Mayoral campaign when a second sexting scandal broke news.
Back in 2011, Weiner resigned from Congress after being shamed for sending a sexually explicit photograph of himself via Twitter. His wife Huma Abedin, Hilary Clinton’s top aide, stood by him throughout believing in his policies and potential to make a difference in the State of New York. But the crusading Mayoral bid falls apart when news breaks of the new scandal – Weiner now using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’ – involving several different women. Outrage ensues – within the campaign staff, and in the media circles – but Weiner repeatedly brushes himself off and gamely continues his campaign. Now, this documentary was, I expect, initially conceived to capture his political comeback. So, when it transforms into a document of personal failure, you wonder why he let it all be filmed. When asked this question late in the film the now completely-defeated Weiner just shrugs.
This is a man whose passion and energy is infectious, his popularity understandable. He believes in his policies, and has the drive to make them happen, but idiocy repeatedly hijacks those qualities. When the scandal broke, he not only let down Huma, who had remained cool-headed and supportive, despite slowly withering in embarrassment, but the people of New York who were willing to give him a second chance. The filmmakers do their best to humanise Weiner – whose misguided confidence and aloofness means he becomes his own opponent – and his ‘never quit’ stance is commendable in the face of the swarm of public humiliation.
The documentary offers unconstrained access to the campaign – tracking the highs (a 25-point leadership position) to the lows (slumping to a mere 4% of votes), and the reactionary strategising in between – and this is incredibly engrossing. The jokes simply write themselves, and while the media reacted in gloriously comic fashion, it is the closed-door decision-making that proves to be just as entertaining.
Contemporary Color is admirable in concept alone. David Byrne’s idea to bring together a group of elite USA and Canadian Color Guard teams, usually relegated to half-time shows at sporting events, is a celebration of the skills of the young performance artists. But it is also a very well put together film, with an interest in inclusivity, and using inventive cinematic techniques to enhance the spectacle. It is not just a concert film, but serves as a document of the conception and running of such an event.
Ten Color Guard teams were all flown to New York to perform in a giant auditorium, and their complex marching sequences, involving twirling flags and wooden rifles are accompanied by live performances from Byrne, Nelly Furtado, How to Dress Well, Devonté Hynes, St. Vincent, and others. These musicians perform songs that they had specifically written for the routines.
I loved the holistic approach to the event – the mundane backstage moments, as the performers observe the photos that line of the halls of the auditorium, rehearse and apply make-up, and the glimpse of the small towns where the kids first learn of their involvement and meet the performer they will be collaborating with. Even the security teams and stage hands get some screen time, while an old-fashioned MC is set up backstage; his interviews with the kids are projected to the audience in the auditorium, while also offering insight into the emotions of being involved in such an event.
There are ten performances, and while portraying them one after the other might have become tedious the many simultaneous cameras offer a diverse arrangement of footage, and we jump between the main floor and backstage, the Colour Guard’s choreographed routine and the live song. Images are super-imposed over one another to create a mesmerising fusion of music and motion, while each Guard is assigned by filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross a representative – an identifying face. The collaborations themselves are also very interesting – Ira Glass (This American Life) uses an audio accompaniment of interviews with his Guard team, which is incredibly profound. With both spectacle and an enlightening backstage pass, this is an energetic celebration of opportunity and camaraderie.
I started the day with the Dolan, but I had so much to say that it became too much for the confines of this diary.
Mahana is a competently and confidently crafted historical study/family drama from veteran filmmaker Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors), re-uniting with one of the legends of New Zealand cinema in Temuera Morrison. With a terrific screenplay from John Collee (Master and Commander), adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera (The Whale Rider), and striking photography of the rural landscapes this film transported me to an unfamiliar time and place; and tells the rousing story of a proud, hard-working Maori family undergoing a changing of the guard.
Set in the 1960s the film depicts the rivalry between two sheep-shearing families – the Mahanas and the Poatas – who harbour decades-old resentments. The Mahana clan – a large extended family, each with their own farms to run – is ruled with an iron fist by Tamihana (Morrison, whose physicality make him an imposing presence). When his grandson Simeon (talented youngster Akuhata Keefe) starts to rebel against the authority of the patriarch, the secret at the root of the vendetta is unearthed, setting up a dramatic conflict between the clan and forcing the determined Simeon to repair it.
Simeon is a bright young man, who still has much to learn when we are introduced to him. His outspoken nature and rebelliousness gain him attention from his conservative, strictly Christian grandfather, who takes him under his wing and tries to toughen him up and shape him into the man he envisions. When Simeon questions Tamihana’s authority, he is left to forge his own path as a man. Not only does he secure his family a new shearing contract but he takes steps to heal the resentments between the Mahanas and the Poatas. His coming-of-age feels organic, his decisions true to character – and Collee adds some nice touches of humour to complement the stress of the family conflict.
The use of flashbacks might be a minor quibble for some viewers, but I found them to be an effective projection of Simeon’s interpretation of the stories he was being told, bringing in his unique appreciation of cinema, which the film is determined to make a key element in the narrative.
Mahana deals with some heavy subject matter, but it isn’t necessarily a gruelling, challenging watch. It will prove engrossing for a wide audience, ensuring historical authenticity and emotional honesty without pitfalls of contrivance or melodrama. I found myself frequently moved by the story.
Land of Mine
This tremendously intense and brutal World War II drama from Martin Zandvliet addresses a little-known and previously cinematically unexplored part of history – German youth mopping up the mess started by their forefathers – and blends a queasily suspenseful POW-horror mission with stirring humanist drama.
Following the Nazi surrender to end World War II, a group of teenaged German POW soldiers, conscripted at the tail end of the war, are put to work on the Coast of Denmark. Their mission, which they are forced into with minimal training, is to disarm thousands of land mines that lie hidden beneath the Danish beaches. Under the tough supervision of embittered Danish sergeant Rasmussen (Rolan Moller), the boys face not only the tremendous pressure of disarming the mines, but malnourishment and mounting internal tensions that threaten their survival.
War is the destructor of innocence and can soften even the toughest of men; these kids were working to a schedule without adequate nutrition or rest, and Rasmussen’s lack of sympathy begins to shift to empathy as he recognises the horrific task. While his intimidating leadership establishes him as a man to fear and obey, his allegiance begins to shift from his Danish commanders (including Mikkel Boe Følsgaard’s Lt. Jensen) and more towards the boys – especially Sebastian (Louis Hofman), the smartest and most intuitive of the group.
You don’t often find recurring repetitive musical themes in films these days, but I found the insertion of the score during moments of tension to be very effective. Throughout the search for the mines various threats emerge that challenge the boy’s resolve. A mine discovered on an officially cleared area results in them having to test the safety of the beach by pacing the entire length, while several of the boys reveal heroic qualities when facing potentially disastrous situations.
What I admired about Land of Mine was Zandvliet’s ability to build distressing levels of tension, and then relinquish it when you least expect it, and along with the superb performances (especially from Moller) this makes for stressful and affecting film.
The third feature from Berlin-born filmmaker Nicolette Krebitz is a disquieting and provocative drama that has ample claim to be the craziest and most transgressive film of this year’s Festival. A dream sequence involving sex with a wolf is just the start of the crazy, as things get progressively…wild. It certainly makes you re-think that Reese Witherspoon movie (“that’s not Wild”).
20-something Ania (Lilith Strangenberg) is a lonely, anonymous young woman living an unfulfilling life as an office worker. Her sister has just moved out of the apartment with her new boyfriend, and her grandfather, who lives in adjacent apartment, has been hospitalised in a coma. When she locks eyes with a wolf on her way home from work one evening something stirs within her and she becomes obsessed with it.
Ania hatches an elaborate plan – borrowing her boss’ van, and researching luring techniques – to capture the wolf and bring it into her apartment. As the wolf acclimates to its new home and company – but not before completely destroying it – Ania turns anarchistic, plunging fearlessly into a life without the hypocrisies, morals and decencies of human civilisation, treating the world like the lawless jungle the wolf emerged from. In her grief, and psychologically-damaging solitude, she turns psychotic – her natural human desires on overdrive.
Some of the plot developments are ridiculous and contrived, and this is before Ania even gets the wolf into her apartment, but it is well-constructed and has such conviction in its ideas, that you have to admire the effort. What makes Wild work is that Ania makes these destructive decisions herself; she isn’t forced into sex by her slimy boss, or is trapped in an abusive relationship that sends her over the edge. It never feels nasty. I don’t know if anyone can prepare themselves for what this film offers, but we left in a shaken and baffled sense of disbelief.