SFF17 Capsule Reviews: Last Men in Aleppo and Roller Dreams

 2017, Festivals, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on SFF17 Capsule Reviews: Last Men in Aleppo and Roller Dreams
Jun 152017

Last Men in Aleppo

Set amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this tremendously powerful portrait of White Helmet civilian volunteers was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Though an unfortunate product of the Syrian Civil War atrocities, viewed as a work of vital on-the-ground reporting this is an extraordinary achievement. Not interested in glorifying the heroics, or showering a viewer with all the gruesome images, but in simply in telling it how it is, this film is humane, gripping and heartbreakingly sad.

As the Russian missiles fall across the Aleppo war zone – Syria’s largest city becomes the symbol of Bashar al-Assad’s war against the rebels opposing his government – the physically exhausted, unarmed and poorly equipped troupe of aid volunteers get the call to scour the rubble in search for survivors. It is haunting viewing (emphasised by the score) and director Feras Fayyad, in a collaboration with Danish filmmaker Steed Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre, records, via privileged and professionally dangerous access, the traumas and the emotional struggles of these brave everyday heroes. With the distressing coverage of the rubble scouring and the excavation of expired youngsters (mostly) we are offered intimate insight into the psychology of these men as they share dialogue and have rare moments of comfort to balm their stresses – with the next tragedy emerging from the horizon.

Fayyad achieves greatness here, by tempering a pair of dramatic arcs – the stories of White Helmets’ Khaled and Mahmoud – by balancing their desperate rescue efforts with details of their attempts to recreate a sense of normalcy. Khaled is a father torn between fleeing with his children and his duty to the White Helmets. Mahmoud visits a family that he help save from the debris, and at one point is caught up in an attack where his brother is almost killed. This harrowing and depressingly haunting document spotlights the courage and resilience of these men, whose personally-unfathomable optimism of a brighter future for Syria begins to be broken down with each fresh bombing raid, and who admirably maintain a sense of duty to the community and the city they remain proud to call home.

Roller Dreams

It was the year 1984, and on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California, young people of colour were seeking refuge from the turmoil of inner city life. They would flock to the eclectic ocean community to create a brand new phenomenon: roller dancing. The talent and vibrant personality of this multicultural roller ‘family’ transformed the pastime into an art form and drew massive crowds of appreciative spectators. But politics and gentrification would conspire to end the dream. Australian filmmaker Kate Hickey’s energetic documentary turns the lens on this exciting subculture; injecting blast from the past archival footage with a respectful interrogation and colourful stylistic flourishes.

At the centre of the film – and the catalyst for the boom and the unofficial delegate for the eventual dismantling of the art at its height – is Mad, a smooth-moving, physically-perfect icon who took the eager youngsters under his wing, established a reputation of leadership and respect, and forged a culture of integration, collaboration and pride for the art. When the hotspot became a target of racially-charged police crackdowns, Mad was chief rebel.

For a large part of the film Mad remains a silent spectre in the background – there didn’t seem to be many videos of him and I expected that he had passed in the years since (I feared tragically) – as fellow skaters Jimmy, Larry and Sally and others tell their skating origin stories, and share their experiences with the man touted as the ‘Godfather’ of roller dancing. But, eventually, the film directs its focus to Mad – a man who has hung up the skates for good and never looked back. The loss of dancing has continued to pain him all these years, but he has applied his natural charisma and sensible wisdom to every endeavour in his adult life. Reluctant to revisit the past Mad is coerced into returning to Venice Beach to lead one final line with his former proteges. It is a powerful image; to see the man reduced to tears when confronted with the past, considering the life he never led.

2016 Sydney Film Festival Awards

 2016, Festivals, Sydney Film Festival, Uncategorised  Comments Off on 2016 Sydney Film Festival Awards
Jun 262016


After looking forward to it for so long, it’s hard to believe that another Sydney Film Festival is done and dusted. The quality of films was exceedingly high this year, and we had a wonderful time at the festival. Thanks and congratulations to the entire festival team and all of the volunteers.

The Sydney Film Prize (the prize given to the winner of the Official Competition) was this year awarded to Kleber Mondonca Filho’s Aquarius, which also happened to be our favourite film from the festival. The Audience Award (Feature) was awarded to Deniz Gamze Ergüven’ s Mustang; while the Audience Award (Documentary) went to Australian documentary Zach’s Ceremony, directed by Aaron Petersen. 

After the jump we have picked out favourite films, performances, music, cinematography, and other achievements, from the films we saw at the festival. For context, Sam saw 40 films and Andy saw 49 – about 1/5 of what was playing. These selections are purely based on what we saw, and we have no doubt we missed some gems – please let us know what they are! We highly recommend you seek out any of the films mentioned in our “awards” after the jump.

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SFF16 Review Diary: Days 10-12

 2016, Feature, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on SFF16 Review Diary: Days 10-12
Jun 252016


The final days of the festival – and when you’re 30+ films in you just want it to be over – brought a mixed bag of films. And more weird and wonderful sensory pleasures. I also slept through my first one on day 11 – Viva, meaning I didn’t catch all 12 of the Official Competition. Read on for thoughts on Fire at Sea, The Red Turtle, Personal Shopper, Notes on Blindness, Under the Shadow, The Handmaiden, Psycho Raman and Gimme Danger.

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SFF16 Review Diary: Days 6-9

 2016, Feature, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on SFF16 Review Diary: Days 6-9
Jun 192016


Read beyond for my thoughts on films watched during the quietest stretch of the festival; days 6-9, which includes Chevalier, Letters From War, Desde alla, Suntan, Toni Erdmann, The Endless River, Magallanes and ApprenticeThere are several in here that I didn’t like so much – but certainly none I am sorry I saw.

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Mahana [SFF2016]

 2016, Festivals, Reviews, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on Mahana [SFF2016]
Jun 172016


Set in 1960s rural New Zealand, Mahana (adapted by John Collee from the novel ‘Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies‘ by Witi Ihimaera) tells the story of a Māori family who are ruled over by their iron-fisted patriarch, Tamihana Mahana. Tamihana’s word is law, and he expects a lot from his family, particularly from his young grandson Simeon, who has of late begun to question his grandfather and other aspects of his life.

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Morris From America [SFF2016]

 2016, Reviews, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on Morris From America [SFF2016]
Jun 162016


Winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Screenwriting Award, writer/director Chad Hartigan’s third feature film Morris From America is the tender coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old African-American teenager, Morris (Markees Christmas), who is trying to navigate puberty and acclimate to a strange new world, after being relocated to Heidelberg, Germany with his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson, The Office and This is the End).

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Kate Plays Christine [SFF2016]

 2016, Reviews, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on Kate Plays Christine [SFF2016]
Jun 162016


In 1974, television news show host and journalist Christine Chubbuck committed suicide live on air. Suffering from severe depression, Christine was committed to continuing the network’s obsession with blood and guts TV with this pre-meditated act. Though believed to be the inspiration for Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network, where her character was substituted for a veteran male news anchorman set to be sent to pasture, she remains an unknown. The taped footage of the suicide is kept under lock and key, and inaccessible online, and the true reasoning behind what led to her suicide remains only speculation.

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Chevalier [SFF2016]

 2016, Festivals, Reviews, Sydney Film Festival  Comments Off on Chevalier [SFF2016]
Jun 162016


Athina Rachel Tshangari’s Chevalier is effectively a movie-length pissing contest, with a painfully accurate representation of the fragile egos of men. Six men on a fishing holiday aboard a luxurious yacht invent a game to pass the time. The game formalises what the men have been doing the entire trip, and likely their entire lives, which is competing with each other – seeking validation of their manhood.

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