Spotlight on the Sydney Film Festival: mapping the highlights and lowlights

June is the merry month of the Sydney Film Festival and I luckily managed to enjoy some illuminating films again this year. This is always a worthwhile festival with great breadth and depth. The artistic director Nashen Moodle and his team produced a robust, diverse 2017 programme.

It’s a shame I could only manage to be there for a week and not for the full festival. Maybe next year I will walk in, head high, with my full-on festival lanyard around my neck, broadcasting to the world that I am one of the chosen. Beware all who try to snaffle my designated seat! But no, that is not my film festival style…

Getting this off my chest

The glowering, muttering and downright rudeness of the  Lanyardians at this festival is gobsmacking to behold and experience. Not only inside the cinema but in the queues outside, the lanyard-bedecked privileged class assert their entitled superiority by glaring, pushing, shoving, spreading their clothes and food over many seats, treating random others as intruders… While I realise that many of these people have been coming to SFF year in, year out since the dawn of film time, I find their lack of basic courtesy quite extraordinary. I figured I had probably spent more money on my tickets, when you add in my airfares etc., but still I am treated here as a lower form of life by the ‘in crowd’. Funnily enough my friends and I haven’t noticed the same proprietorial snobbishness when we go down to Melbourne for MIFF.  People there chat to you in queues and even can be warm and helpful. After all, we all do share a love of film.

Anyway it is good to get my Lanyardian-aversion off my chest. The Grand Master and I are plotting to make our own special VIP lanyards next year, in order to befuddle and upstage them all.

On with the show

As usual,  I head off in my warmest layers of winter clothes with my old friends who are also intrepid film buffs, particularly the aforementioned Grand Master who has been attending this festival for decades, long before it existed in its current form. Here is an extract from his famous spreadsheet dedicated to documenting at least 5 people’s filmgoing this year:

Part of the Grand Master’s SFF
spread sheet, an annual gift to all involved.

The first film we saw was the complex, demanding Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara.

The unsettling Una

It was good to see the irrepressible, talented Ben in person on stage before the screening.  Who can forget him in The Year My Voice Broke and Animal Kingdom? This film about a girl who suffered abuse as a child is rich in nuance, and could disturb audiences, especially when the abuser, played by Ben, comes across at times as quite sympathetic. In conversation with others afterwards, the different, even visceral reactions to the film were very thought-provoking.

The next day we saw Hotel Salvation, an Indian film about family and mortality that was heartwarming and pleasant enough, a pretty good first film by the young bubbly filmmaker.

The second screening that day was much more memorable – the Georgian film House of Others. Set in the Nineties just after the Georgian civil war, the film’s haunting, powerful images and spare narrative style were reminiscent of the works of Ingmar Bergman and even Andrei Tarkovsky.

In the Q & A afterwards, the young woman director Rusudan Glurjidze spoke about her fascinating award-winning debut film with warmth and insight. The Russian producer also contributed well to the conversation, with some astute observations.  This was a perfect festival film which also broadened our education. We had to dash home later to do a background check on the history of Georgia.

The next morning we headed into the State Theatre again with high hopes for the latest Michael Haneke /Isabelle Huppert film, Happy End, knowing that this would most probably not be a happy film.

A not so happy end.

I used to teach Haneke’s films at Uni back in the day – in particular the brilliant Hidden. His more recent masterpieces are The White Ribbon and Amour. The unease of the first few minutes of Hidden was recaptured in Happy End, and I knew we were in for a bumpy ride. The latter was not helped by the frustrating seating arrangements at the State Theatre, where it is often difficult to see the film properly in the stalls because of big heads in front. From what I managed to see, Happy End was an unrelenting journey into family dysfunction and psychopathology, set among the charmless white bourgeoisie in Calais attempting to avoid family scandal, while racial and class issues inevitably close in around them. The audience was laughing at the end, though it certainly wasn’t a happy one. I immediately wanted to see the film again, which is always a good sign.

I moved up to the Mezzanine seats for the next film, Warwick Thornton’s playful yet quite scathing documentary We Don’t Need a Map, a film which had also been chosen for the opening night gala screening.  This was a creative, thoughtful film focusing on the historical and cultural meanings of the Southern Cross, white invasion and indigenous identity. Again, it was great to hear this talented filmmaker talk at the beginning of his film.

The State Theatre – quirky and downright uncomfortable

In the Mezzanine there is a pretty good view of the screen – much better than the dress circle, which is too far away, especially as the screen is awkwardly situated at the rear of the stage. The State Theatre, stately and grand though it is,  was never designed to be a cinema. Also the rows of seats are too close together and my legs always ached by the end of each film when I was allocated a Mezzanine seat. Therefore none of the areas in this theatre is an easy, relaxing place to be.  As the Grand Master says, for instance, it is not at all good to be in the stalls looking straight at the blackheads on some bloke’s greasy neck in front of you, and missing the screen altogether. The other cinemas screening festival films, such as the Dendy Opera House and the Events cinema in George Street are pretty normal and comfortable.

View from the mezzanine floor at the State Theatre

The next film that I saw – or tried to see – in the State Theatre was the outstanding, profoundly moving documentary about the writer and activist James Baldwin,  I Am Not Your Negro, using Baldwin’s own poetic words.

A stunning experience

The producer Hebert Peck was there to introduce this award-winning film directed by his brother Raoul Peck,  and to answer questions in the Q & A session afterwards  This extraordinary film was the only film I attended that received a spontaneous standing ovation by the packed crowd of cinema goers. I Am Not Your Negro is being screened at the Queensland Film Festival in July – I urge everyone in Brisbane to try to get along to the New Farm Cinema to see it.

Leaving the Best Features until Last

The final two feature films I enjoyed at SFF were by two very different women filmmakers. The distinguished UK filmmaker Sally Potter wrote and directed the wonderfully dark, witty film The Party.

The superb film The Party

This film was beautifully written, acted and directed, with a sterling cast of great actors who were a joy to watch in action as a night of celebration unravelled spectacularly. The cast included Kristen Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall,  Cillian Murphy, Bruno Ganz and others. What a gold star experience this film was.

This next film was On Body and Soul, a riveting screen experience from Hungary by writer/ director Ildiko  Enyedi.

The extraordinary prize-winner

Her amazingly beautiful love story not only won the Berlinale Golden Bear this year, but also the Sydney Film Prize for ‘audacious, cutting-edge and courageous’ filmmaking. The film is about two lonely, damaged people working in an abattoir in Budapest, who discover by accident that they have the same haunting dreams every night. While I did not manage to see all 12 films considered in competition for the Sydney prize, I was very pleased that this original film won the award. Again, there was another excellent Q & A with the director after the screening.

Last night woes and a brighter future

I did mean to attend the documentary by Kriv Stenders on the Brisbane band The Go-Betweens on my final night in Sydney, but sadly that was not meant to be. This was because of a couple of other dramas in the real world e.g. a stolen credit card, and broken sleep caused by a hotel evacuation at 1.30 am. Anyway,  I was there in spirit. Funnily enough, at the airport the next day I caught up with an old mate who had been in the Go-Betweens band, and he told me that the film had been very well received the night before, which is great. Maybe this one will screen at the newly revived BIFF (Brisbane International Film Festival) in August/September. Along with many other fans of the old BIFF, I am looking forward very much to seeing what will be on offer then. I might even get a lanyard…

 

 

 

 

 

Filmbuffery ‘Light’: from the Oscars to the French Film Festival

Moonlight – my Oscars pick

Back in February, I watched the Oscars right through, live from Hollywood. I even indulged in some of the red carpet fluffery. Of course, there were many cringeworthy moments, and much has been written about those, as well as about the heart-stopping cockup of the Best Film award announcement.  However, I will say here, briefly, that I was upset that  La La Land seemingly won, and, yes, I yelled my disgust at my TV screen. Then it quickly became apparent that ditzy Bonnie had announced the wrong winner, after a befuddled Clyde threw her under that proverbial bus…and the starstruck accountants were also thrown under the same Oscars bus.  Suddenly the much more deserving film Moonlight was given the Oscar – bad timing, many red faces and much fluster, but a very good outcome ultimately.

Moonlight is a beautifully modulated film, heartbreakingly pitch perfect while La La Land is an overhyped, pretty average musical film, which also should not have won the Best Director award. That award should have gone to Barry Jenkins for Moonlight or Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester By the Sea.

My second favourite film on the Oscars list, Manchester By the Sea, won the great writer-director Kenneth Lonergan a best screenplay award, and Casey Affleck gained the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. I was also barracking for Michelle Williams and the teenager Lucas Hedges as best supporting actors, but those awards went to other equally worthy stars. Indeed, I was thrilled that Mahershala Ali won for his amazing performance in Moonlight. Sometimes it is hard to separate the winner from the others  – it is probably just as well that I don’t have a vote. Also I would have awarded Isabelle Huppert the Best Actress in a Leading Role award…sorry, Emma Stone.

Manchester By the Sea – another gritty favourite

I also think enough has been said about Casey Affleck’s sexual assault charges, as I prefer to focus on his extraordinary performance, separating the person and the art, and judging his oeuvre accordingly.  I adopt the same approach for Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and many other great creative people, who would most probably not be good people to encounter in reality; I can still admire them as consummate artists in their fields.

 

 

 

 

 

Feasting on the French Film Festival

This is the first major National festival to come my way this year, a cornucopia of filmic delights. Some of the films on the massive list did not appeal to me, and of course, I simply couldn’t see several that I wished I had seen (a common issue with festivals, despite this one offering multiple repeat screenings). Hopefully some will have a general release – e.g. The Dardenne brothers’ new film, The Unknown Girl.

My francophile friend Barbarella and I chose several films to see together. We enjoyed the films and the discussions over a crisp rose afterwards.

Kalinka was the first film Barbarella and I saw.

Our suite of films was chosen according to the great actors, the awards won, the directors, good reviews – many ways of checking and crosschecking and hoping for the best. I always try to see at least one film with Daniel Auteuil in it every year. He is an extraordinary actor, and we found him in Kalinka.  Based on a true story of one man’s thirty-year struggle to gain justice for his murdered daughter, Kalinka was both absorbing and gut-wrenching.  The film did sag a little in the middle, but overall it was a good start to the Festival for us.

Another film we picked because it sounded intriguing was 150 Milligrams, also based on a true story.

A plucky woman fights the fiercely aggressive medical status quo.

This film was directed by a woman director Emannuelle Bercot, with a remarkable performance by the Danish star, Sidse Babett Knudsen, of Borgen fame.  While it was a bit too long,  we both liked this depiction  of a valiant woman up against a rogue multinational drug company, as well as hardened medical establishment views about modes of research.

Another gripping film was the Cannes Grand Prix winner, It’s Only the End of the World, by the young, extraordinary Canadian director Xavier Dolan. This was a tense, claustrophobic film about a dysfunctional family set on one day, when the gay son comes home after 12 years away, to inform his family that he is dying.

Xavier Dolan’s award-winning film

 

I loved the closeups and the miscommunications, the subtle shifts and different perspectives of each family member, as hidden pain and resentment surface and explode. An added bonus was the casting. Again I always try to see a film – any film – with the fierce Vincent Cassel in it. In this film,  the great Marion Cotillard played his self-deprecating wife to perfection. Who can ever forget Vincent in La Haine and Marion in Rust and Bone – amongst many other roles.  This film was a meaty one to discuss with Barbarella afterwards, over tapas and more rose.

 

 

Another three films from the French film world

I also went with some other people to three very different films – The InnocentsThings to Come and Saint Amour. The first two were both directed by sterling women filmmakers – France has the highest proportion of women directors in the world. Directed by Anne Fontaine, The Innocents was a suspenseful, emotional film set in Poland in December 1945. The film concerns a capable, compassionate French nurse who tries to help a devastated group of cloistered Polish nuns cope with at least 7 of them giving birth, after having been raped by Russian soldiers 9 months earlier. Again, this film was based on a true story. Highly recommended.

Being a fan of Isabelle Huppert, I was pleased to be able to go with some dear friends to one of her latest films, Things to Come, directed by Mia Hansen-Love. Several of these friends also adore Isabelle.

Captivating Isabelle

We did enjoy this subtle film about a stoic philosophy teacher dealing with marital breakdown, the death of her mother, student protests,  becoming a grandmother and other life issues. Again, highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, I should mention Saint Amour. This bizarre road movie/ comedy starring Gerard Depardieu (I am so over him) also featured the famous French writer, Michel Houellebecq, starring in a minor role. My friends are huge fans of Michel’s novels, and I also enjoy reading his work. For us, he was the big drawcard. Once we coped with seeing the gross Gerard yet again (at least he can act), the film was unexpectedly funny.

The irrepressible Saint Amour

There was loud giggling and even some snorting going on throughout the film as it became more and more absurd. Only about six other people were in the cinema that night, apart from the guffawing five of us – just as well.  Good film therapy for us all.

POSTSCRIPT – Looking back on the past months

Thanks to all those who wished me well after my last blog post in November.

Just to report here that I have survived  the seemingly endless weeks of surgery and then radiotherapy.  I am now on the mend, hoping to get my mojo back in the not too distant future. Unfortunately I have been suffering  shingles as my immune system was compromised by the radiation, so that has also led me to be debilitated by further pain and discomfort.

Things are slowly improving, and hopefully by the time I hit Sydney for the Sydney Film Festival in June, I will be Phoenix Helen rising from the ashes of the creepy cancer and the shitty shingles.

 

Life changing

Lovely roses at the Wesley Hospital from my old workmates

Lovely roses from my old workmates.

As John Lennon once said, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’, or words to that effect. When a personal tsunami happens, everything changes, and old certainties go out the window. Breast cancer has been a most unwelcome health crisis for me, turning my life upside down, and shutting out creative ventures along with many other pursuits, in order to focus on simply going with the swirling riptide, surfacing awkwardly to gasp for breath, and somehow staying alive.

It is funny what can trigger a new blog episode for me. I have been feeling for the past ten weeks or so since the cancer diagnosis, that my Seeing Me Out blog would have to wait until I felt up to it again. I don’t want to be ‘seen out’ yet, rather unceremoniously.  Then the blog trigger happened.

Growing old disgracefully

Early this morning, I was sitting in the waiting room near the Rainforest radiation room in the third week of a 6 week intensive radiation therapy treatment at the Wesley Hospital. I was wrapped uncomfortably in a medical gown that was ‘designed by a man for male patients’, as one nurse accurately said to me a couple of weeks ago, a wry smile on her face. A feisty older woman patient walked past me, then stopped, looked directly at me, and announced: “I’m not going to wish you ‘a good day’. It isn’t a good day and anyone who says so should just be told to fuck off.”

I laughed and agreed with her, finding her attitude refreshing amidst all the polite smiles and kind mumblings from the other patients I encounter there each day.  A while ago, I received a frank text from my dear friend Liliana who has also undergone pretty vicious breast cancer surgery and treatment this year. She communicated frankly that ‘if anyone tells you to be positive about all this, just tell them to fuck off. What we have is a horrible disease’.  In a similar vein, the feisty older woman today elaborated further.   Apparently she saw the radiation therapy treatment as a form of barbaric torture, not unlike the horrors that witches were subjected to in the Middle Ages – and she had made her candid views known to the staff at the clinic. I liked her spirit. We formed an instant bond. And I knew immediately and unexpectedly that I had the trigger for a new blog.

Recent beautiful flowers cheering me up on the back deck.

Recent beautiful floral gift cheering me up on the back deck.

Rainforest and Coral Reef

When I first went into one of the radiation theatres, benignly entitled the Rainforest, I wasn’t too happy when I was placed in a tight position, lying flat on a slab with my arms stretched and clamped up behind my head. For the mapping procedure, I was tattooed and lined up with coordinates in preparation for the daily zapping treatment to come. Indeed, the sense that I am regularly in a torture chamber has been going through my mind over the past two weeks. Prior to this zapping prep, I had met with the clinic’s financial advisor, who put me through another form of torture, outlining the massive charges I would be facing over the following 6 weeks. At least I will ultimately receive much of this back from Medicare, so there is some light on that horizon.

I also have a little rest from this relentless daily routine each weekend: 12 treatments down,  18 to go. And the nurses and the clinic staff are all very kind. They don’t have the same grim reaper aura of the financial advisor.

All systems go

First operation day. Being marked and lined up for the surgery.

First operation day in September.  Being marked and lined up for surgery.

Since early September, I have found a good surgeon and had 2 operations to remove the cancer. Apart from being something of a legend, he also uses apt metaphors to describe my cancer (a Rottweiler pup), my lumpectomy surgery (scooping a brown spot out of an avocado), and multiple airbag protection in a car to describe the post-op radiation and hormone suppressant treatment; luckily no need for extra chemo airbags.

Prior to the diagnosis, inspired by the wondrous young filmmaker Katherina, I was working on a little documentary about decluttering and leaving my Art Deco apartment for a smaller place with a lift. Quite a life-changing journey for this old Baby Boomer to document. Yet now, for a while at least, there is a different life plan that I might have to call ‘Woman Interrupted’.  Yet the narrative discourses merge in a way – decluttering my home, decluttering my breast. There could yet be a sterling documentary film emerging out of this mess, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

 

 

Three festivals in one fell swoop

Outside the wonderful Scorcese exhibition at ACMI.

Outside the wonderful Scorcese exhibition at ACMI. Loved this exhibition. What a treat for film buffs and lovers of his films.

Over the past few months since my last posting, I have been very lucky to attend three film festivals across three cities: the Sydney Film Festival in June, the Queensland Film Festival in July, and the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. I thought I should wait until I had attended all three before I returned to blogging – hence the delay since the last posting.

In all, I viewed  around 20 festival films, along with about 12 shorts – a mere drop in the ocean really, considering the amazing scope of SFF and MIFF. My relatively low hit rate was because I only managed to be at SFF for three film-packed days and MIFF for five.  While at MIFF, I also went along to see the exciting ACMI exhibition of Scorcese’s life and work – an absolute thrill.

One of the fight scenes in Raging Bull and the actual ring from the film.

One of the fight scenes in Raging Bull and the actual ring from the film.

QFF, which is being run in the very special tradition of the now defunct Brisbane International Film Festival,  is a more modest enterprise that is slowly expanding. In this, the second year of its operation, the festival has grown from one film-packed weekend to operating over two weekends, as well as on the nights of  the adjoining week. Due to other engagements at the same time this year, I was unable to attend much of QFF, which was a shame, as this little gem of a festival is held, not only in my home town of Brisbane, but also at the cinema situated just a hop and a step from where I live.

Highlights of my film smorgasbord: a documentary feast

Looking back, I realise, with some surprise, that the personal highlights of all three festivals turned out to be documentaries. While I also saw some great features, and some disappointing ones, I found the best docos took me to more moving, unexpected spaces than did any of the fiction films.

The poster for the extraordinary film Heart of a Dog. What a glorious triumph.

The poster for the extraordinary film Heart of a Dog. What a gloriously delicate, mesmerising triumph.

In Sydney, one exceptional film for me and my companions was Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s beautiful documentary about her dear little terrier, but also about much else as well. It was an innovative, groundbreaking memoir: happy, sad, profound and inspirational. I also saw this entrancing film again at QFF – this was irresistible – and the very positive audience reaction in Brisbane was much the same as in Sydney. I do hope that this special gem has a general release, although I doubt that this will happen, as documentaries such as this one rarely are exhibited outside of festivals. I gather that ACMI in Melbourne may be screening it in the future, so watch that space – 5 stars.

At QFF I also saw the engrossing documentary by Australian/NZ  filmmaker Margot Nash, called The Silences. This was another memoir, interlaced with archival footage, reflections on a complex, difficult family situation, interviews and excerpts from earlier creative films made by Margot. It was enlightening to hear her speak after the film about the process. Ronin has picked up the distribution of this film, and it is well worth catching if you can – 4 stars.

MIFF treats

At MIFF, the best film from my point of view was the five star documentary, In Jackson Heights,  by the revered Frederick Wiseman. This, his 40th film, reveals a diverse community in Queens, New York under stress – greedy developers are moving into this  community and bland, middle-class gentrification, with all its inherently destructive consequences, is looming.

In Jackson Heights - a tour de force.

In Jackson Heights – a tour de force.

This warm, astute film was a triumph of observational filmmaking with no overt authorial interference such as voiceover or the filmmaker intruding into the frame. Of course, the choice of people and venues was thoughtfully and adeptly done, and the camerawork and editing were spot-on. A riveting cinematic delight – five stars.

Over the road from the old Forum Cinema in Melbourne where I spent many hours viewing films.

Over the road from the old Forum Cinema in Melbourne where I spent many hours viewing films.

Another very interesting documentary that I caught on my last day at MIFF was Cameraperson. This award-winning film made by revered woman DOP, Kirsten Johnson,  revealed her (mostly behind the camera) revisiting scenes and places  such as Bosnia during the civil war. She shot private footage as well on these larger project, filmmaking journeys. Linking these snippets together in a fragmented narrative, she largely lets the visuals tell the story, thereby capturing  a fascinating mosaic of  reflections on the significance of her life’s work. Four stars.

Fiction delights…and some not so delightful ones

One significant event for me, on both a personal and professional level at MIFF, was the screening of a restored version of the Australian 1998 classic, The Boys. 

At ACMI: the Q & A after the screening of the new, beautifully restored version of The Boys.

At ACMI: the Q & A after the screening of the new, beautifully restored version of The Boys. Achingly good to see again on the big screen.

I taught this brilliant, unnerving film evey year for over ten years in my Australian Film unit. This film has therefore inspired many a young filmmaker and educator. Particularly interesting about this event at MIFF was the discussion that ensued – for instance Robert Connolly who was the first-time producer pointed out that everyone on the crew was a first-timer – the director Rowan Woods, the DOP, the sound designer, the production designer etc etc. This had apparently been the rule decreed by John Maynard, Robert’s mentor and co-producer. Maynard produced Sweetie when everyone such as director Jane Campion was a first-timer, and he wanted that same raw freshness to be present in The Boys.

Meanwhile I also enjoyed the Venezualan/Mexican film, Desde Alla, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015. This was a gripping tale of homophobia, repressed desire and complex sexual yearning in a violent, macho culture. Another highlight was the rather crazy, wildly energetic Polish film 11 Minutes, reminiscent of Run Lola Run. Both of these little films were perfect festival fare – 4 stars for each of these.

Not so exciting, for me at least, were two much anticipated films at MIFF – Toni Erdmann and Elle. Both of these had been feted at Cannes Festival this year, and I was very pleased that I had nabbed tickets for them – it pays to become a MIFF member. With the father-daughter film Toni Erdmann, I liked the first quarter and the last quarter, but not the slab in the middle, if that makes sense. This overly long film certainly sagged for me, and I found the father’s antics quite exasperating and not very endearing. Three stars.

The screen at the Forum cinema, before the screening of Elle

The screen at the Forum cinema, before the screening of Elle

Elle, with the amazingly gifted Isabelle Huppert, turned out to be a complicated film with a plot that could actually have been more subtle and more clever. It was also a difficult film to watch, with repeated rape scenes, or rather the same ghastly rape scene repeated and extended, and then the same rapist came back — whatever, it was deeply disturbing on many levels (even her back story was horrific). My companion was nearly physically ill. We had to grab a taxi home afterwards, as we weren’t going to be walking the streets at midnight after this film. Not sure – maybe 2 stars.

Female filmmakers score good films at SFF, QFF and MIFF

Two films by exciting female European filmmakers popped up at all three film festivals this year. I managed to see them both in Sydney. Chevalier was directed by the emerging Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari. This film showed men isolated on board a hired yacht, vying for some form of mythical masculine supremacy which ultimately became more and more nonsensical. While I liked the premise of the film, and enjoyed some moments, I found that Chevalier tended to become a one-note film that disappointed.  I know I am probably in a minority about this film, as it was very popular at the London Film Festival, and also popular at the three Oz festivals I am dealing with here.  Three stars from me.

On the other hand, I went along with very few expectations to see the haunting film Evolution by French filmmaker, Lucile Hadzihalilovic. As it turned out, I loved its ‘slow burn’ and unexpected, creepy twists and turns. I am not a scifi/horror fan, but this one had me enthralled. Four stars.

Festival trivia – or are these issues actually trivial?

As a finale here, I need to vent several frustrations that tend to make me a less patient festival attendee than perhaps I should be. I have to confess also that I am even becoming one of those bothersome, grumpy people who likes to put her stuff on the seat beside her, hoping that no one will claim that seat. So mea culpa. There is even a funny story that I will reserve for a chat over a wine or coffee…

Among other usual annoyances are people talking when the film is on – yes, this still happens, even at Festivals these days. The long held, unspoken rule that a hush must descend at the very beginning of every film, no longer seems to apply, even amongst supposed film buffs. Of course, the old guard (such as myself) are always on the alert, ready to shush any such transgressors.

I may be repeating myself, but I also can’t abide the hordes rising up instantaneously in the dark at the end while the credits are rolling, scrambling  in their mad rush for the door, inevitably blocking the screen and afflicting damage on those in the same row. I have had handbags, coats and feet trampled on very unceremoniously. Some of us like to remain and pay respect to the listed creative crew and associates, and some even enjoy watching the credits roll. Usually the music list is interesting, and the list of  locations used etc. Such revelations always come at the end. Also of course I like to gather my things in a brightly lit cinema, as, especially in winter, it is easy to leave some item of clothing on the floor.

On hats and limbs

The next on this list of audience-related exasperations are those people who wear their hats into the cinema and don’t remove them. I became especially upset in Sydney by a girl in a beanie with a huge pom-pom wiggling around, intermittently blocking my view of the screen. Similarly, people with sunglasses on their heads or high topknot hair-dos (or both) inhibit a clear view, and can cause frustration. Of course, on the other hand, it is hard to pat someone with a naturally large head on the back and request that they somehow slink down in their seat or pull their head in, but sometimes one is tempted to do so.

For me, with ageing, creaky limbs looming as an issue I would like to forget, I do find stairs in cinemas sometimes difficult and even scary to negotiate, especially in the dark and half light, without anything to hold on to as I descend. I can’t quite recall now which cinemas have been the worst and the best in this department; I just try to seat myself so that I don’t have to stress too much about this increasing physical wariness and timidity of mine. However, on second thoughts, I did note that ACMI Cinema 2 had a handy railing running down the side walls of the steps on both sides of the cinema. Hence, ACMI gets first prize for health and safety.

The seating is rarely designed to be ideal across so many cinemas, and, in itself, such discomfort can become in a source of irritation and distress. Sydney’s famous State Theatre may well be a romantic, historical picture palace, but if you are positioned near the back in the stalls, you are lucky if you can see half the screen. Also of course the seats are pretty hard, and not at all made for comfort.

Speaking of extreme discomfort, I overheard people telling horror stories about the set-up at the Comedy Theatre, one of the screening venues at MIFF. One woman claimed that the only seats from which you could actually see the screen in full were in the third row of the dress circle – otherwise vision was blocked from every angle, everywhere else. There were so many bad stories circulating that I became daunted, giving two films a miss that I had booked at that theatre. I did feel a bit miffed, MIFF.

Overall, the prize for the most comfortable seats I encountered in my trifecta Festival quest goes to those at my local New Farm cinema, while ACMI Cinema 2 in Melbourne also receives another big tick for comfort.

Looking to the Future…

Some more film festivals are looming – including  the Italian, the Iranian and the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. I am also starting to work on a little film I am making with an amazing young filmmaker friend who has inspired me to be creative again. So I am not sure what the future holds for the next blog, but hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.

 

 

Critical Pursuits: Shock and Awe on the Big Screen

 

The programme.

The programme.

The Spanish Film Festival hit town earlier this month, and, despite the best of intentions, I only managed to see two films in the enticing lineup.

The much anticipated, award-winning film, The Clan, was the first on my list. I went with three wonderful comrades, all of whom happen to speak Spanish. Masterly Mateo, who comes from Argentina, was in his teens when the criminal kidnapping family scandal depicted in The Clan occurred; funky young Zoe had just arrived back from a Uni study exchange experience in Buenos Aires. She had seen the tremendous box-office hit The Clan there, and was looking forward to experiencing  the film again with English subtitles, in order to pick up any subtleties she may have missed in the original. Mateo was curious to see how this notorious historical case, rather hazily recalled from his earlier life, had been translated onto the big screen.  The glorious Joanna bought our tickets and we headed off to Palace Barracks, looking forward to viewing the film and discussing it afterwards over a Spanish meal – a very Spanish affair all round.

The Clan - full of promise

The Clan – full of promise

We waited for 20 minutes after the supposed starting time of our session, but nothing came on the screen. Then there was an apology from a rather timid young girl,  and finally the film began. We all breathed a sigh of relief. A little over half way through, however, the film shuddered to an abrupt halt.

These days, of course, screenings are digitally operated, and there is no one sitting up in the projection room anymore, monitoring the progress of the film. Most of the audience was in a frozen state of indecision and mild shock, sitting in the dark. No one came to the rescue for quite a while. Trembling even more, Miss Timid Girl eventually re-materialised, this time with a fistful of free tickets for those who wanted to leave. After telling us the manager simply wasn’t available, she went to each person, quietly asking them if they wanted to stay or go. This wasn’t really helping the rather confused situation, as most of the audience couldn’t hear her,  or work out what was going on.  Some people decided to cut their losses and go; we agreed to wait it out.

After another seeming eternity, the film came on again, but in a different spot in this powerful film. Frustrated, we figured we had lost at least ten crucial minutes, a factor adding a different kind of tension to the already tense narrative. Then, at the ultimate climax, the film shuddered again to a halt.  What on earth were the chances we would ever see this much anticipated film through to the end?

Further chaotic, spluttering negotiations ensued, along with a wide-eyed surge of new people arriving with their glasses of wine, popcorn and choctops in readiness for the next film. Those of us who were left had to admit that, finally, we had been defeated by faulty technology and even more faulty management, and that our experience of The Clan was in tatters.

Naturally quite disgruntled, we queued up at the box office for a full refund along with our free tickets for another film one day – hopefully to be screened from timely start to smooth finish. We did manage to enjoy some tasty tapas at Peasant afterwards, chatting about the film event that wasn’t. Hopefully we will manage to see The Clan right through one day.

Other cinematic disasters at the Barracks

Funnily enough, the 20-minute ‘delayed start to nowhere’ experience had also happened to Comrade Pietro when he rocked up to the Barracks a few weeks earlier, hoping to see A Bigger Splash. The film never even started after the lengthy blank screen time in the dark, and, following a hasty apology and a meaningless explanation,  the audience members received a refund and a free ticket. To make matters worse, the same Comrade Pietro, ever optimistic, and accompanied this time by Comrade Geronimo, had gone along to a French film session, also at The Barracks, only to find the version of that film did not have subtitles. More refunds, more free tickets, more inconvenience. Not a very good track record, Palace Barracks!

A gritty heart-warming film

A gritty heart-warming film

Hope springs eternal – Ricardo Darin and a beautiful dog

Still warily licking my wounds, my next Spanish film festival hope was Truman starring one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin. He is usually a signal of a quality cinema experience. I went with Comrades Carlotta and Jake to Palace Centro, fingers crossed that there would be no technical hitches there.  Furthermore,  Jake gently teases me that I often take him to the most gruelling, difficult films, so I was hoping that this one would strike the right chord.

Fortunately (for my track record, as well as for my pleasure), Truman was a heartfelt, definitely not gruelling or overly sentimental, film set in Madrid, at a crucial time in the central protagonist’s life. As he has chosen not to continue with further treatment for his rapidly worsening cancer, he needs an old friend and his female cousin to help him manage his affairs. This includes his fervent desire to make sure that his dog, Truman, will be cared for after his inevitable death.  We warmly recommend this film, and hope that it will gain a general release in the future. This time, mushroom pizza at Tinderbox was the go, along with very acceptable red Spanish wine. I thanked my lucky stars that this Madrid-based film was nothing like the appalling film Madrid 1987, endured with Comrade Juanita several years ago.  This latter film involved a creepy old dude and a bright young woman trapped naked in a small, grotty bathroom together for most of the film.  I have never recommended that one.

Botched recommendations: a dangerous game-changer practice

Speaking of people enduring films which I do, in good faith, recommend, I was reminded the other night how fiercely some people can react and take any recommendation personally. Last Friday, I was enjoying a visit to the cinema once again, this time with esteemed Comrades Bella and Savannah, to see the documentary First Monday in May.  We all enjoyed the film, a great one for undemanding Friday night consumption, and we loved seeing behind the scenes at the Met. However, we agreed that Bill Cunningham New York was the best film about the fashion industry we have seen in recent times. Just for the record, we met up with Comrades Jose and Pedro later, savouring a delicious meal at the ever-reliable Beccofino in Florence Street Teneriffe  – although I can’t help wishing that this restaurant, along with its equally superb brother Julius in South Brisbane, would allow bookings…

In a conversation on the actor John Turturro, Bella mentioned that she had once excitedly recommended the Coen brothers’ film, Barton Fink to some friends; subsequently, they failed to share her enthusiasm – indeed they totally hated it.  This triggered for me several repressed memories about extreme, game-changing reactions to my own innocent, well-meaning recommendations.  For instance, Comrades (and cat devotees) Suzette and Brian have never really forgiven me for Bad Boy Bubby.  On my urging,  they journeyed across town to see it at the old Boomerang theatre in Annerley, only to be totally mortified by the memorable ‘glad-wrapping of the cat’ scene.  Years later, Comrade Wolfgang also definitely did not like Steve Mcqueen’s film Hunger, with Michael Fassbender.  Wolfie recoiled in horror; by contrast, I thought Hunger was an amazing, groundbreaking film by an exciting new filmmaker. We agreed to differ. You can’t win them all.

Film studies – a veritable minefield

Thinking back over the many films I have taught in the past, I recall that I also triggered some memorably extreme reactions to several that I chose for indepth study. It is sometimes hard to predict which films will be particularly divisive and disturbing, although, saying that, I always tried to screen and present for critical analysis, challenging, thought-provoking films. I guess it is inevitable that some would elicit unpredictable, intense responses.

                                Three quick snapshots: some vivid teaching moments 

*A girl suddenly gets up and runs from the dark lecture room in the middle of a screening of the Australian film by Paul Cox, Man of Flowers.  I quickly follow her, concerned that she is ill.  Trembling, she finally tells me that she has become a ‘born again Christian’ three weeks ago. Apparently, part of her new belief system is to reject all lesbian and gay sex. Consequently, she has rushed out just after a mild lesbian scene in this beautiful, unconventional film. I try to calm her down,  attempting to persuade her that, if she doesn’t see the film through to the end,  she will miss out on being able to participate in the tutorial discussions. I also say that she is most welcome to put forward her views to the class, based on her reading of the text. All academically substantiated, well argued points of view are welcome in my class. She doesn’t take up my offer.

*Another girl is shaking and crying alone in the auditorium after a screening of the film, Shame, starring Debra Furness as a bikie barrister, fighting an insidious rape culture in a Western Australian country town. The students mostly love this film, finding it very provocative and interesting, with its feminist play on the American western genre. However in the film, a frail grandmother is kidnapped, but luckily rescued by Debra and others, from an imminent gang rape. Apparently, this poor student has a grandmother who had been gang raped a few years before. I comfort her as best I can, also advising professional counselling. While I always warn students that there could be graphic scenes in films that may disturb some viewers, coming face to face with such distress really shakes me up as well.

The Boys - one of the best Oz films ever.

One of the best Oz films ever.

*A film that also reverberates strongly with the students is the superlative Australian film The Boys. In my lecture before the screening, I highlight the grim context of this film,  relating the appalling,  true-life rape and murder of Anita Cobby. I mention that, although no actual rape and murder scenes are shown in the film, it is still a powerful, even visceral, rendition of the circumstances building up to the shocking incident, as well as the aftermath. Of course, the men who committed this atrocious crime have been sentenced to never be released from prison.

One girl is profoundly affected by her first encounter with this film, recognising her own abusive relationship with her current partner, in the menacing treatment of the Toni Collette character by the sinister David Wenham character. I help her after the screening. I hear later from some rather cranky male Journalism colleagues, that this promising final-year student was about to graduate and that she has dropped out, thanks to having seen The Boys. They suggest I strike that disturbing film from the teaching unit.

However, on the plus side, I find out that she leaves her boyfriend and has lots of counselling, graduating successfully the following year.

I always defend the inclusion of this film in the course, as I argue that, if it does resonate in such a profoundly personal way, there can be positive, even life-changing outcomes, if not immediately, perhaps later. I win that battle.

Ah, the power and wonder of film…

 

 

 

 

Celebrating film festivals and slippery festive moments

The three-week-long, highly successful  27th Alliance Francaise French Film festival has finished in Brisbane. In this blogisode, I will write about several of the nine films I managed to see. I had planned to write instead on another topic dear to my heart, a personal story about a dreaded qi vampire, the she-devil ‘Shauna’, who has unexpectedly re-emerged in my life, a story that may or may not find its way into a novel and/or film script. Who knows, this may one day become a film screened at a festival.  I am getting ahead of myself here of course. As it turned out, I wasn’t happy with that writing effort, and I have put it on the backburner, for now.

Talking about films already crafted – some treats for cinephiles and Francophiles

As signalled in my last posting, the political film about refugees from Sri Lanka, Dheepan, was certainly worth a look.  This is a gritty study of a ‘family’ of strangers suffering from post-traumatic stress, struggling to adjust to a new culture in a difficult crime-ridden banlieu in outer Paris.

A fascinating film showing the grim reality of being a new arrival in France

A fascinating film showing the grim traumatic reality of being a new arrival in France

This film was directed by the distinguished Jacques Audiard (The Prophet, Rust and Bone). The final sequence seemed to be an absurdist dream rather than reality, and did not really gell with the rest of the narrative, which was probably the point. The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2015, though I gather Audiard had to hurry to complete the film by the Cannes deadline. Nevertheless, I would rate this film highly. The group of six of us who saw it together, agreed.

Another great film with a very different tone was L’Hermine / Courted, tightly scripted and directed by Christian Vincent, starring the wonderful Fabrice Luchini as a grumpy judge, and the beautiful Danish actress from Borgen, Sidse Babett Knudsen, as a mysterious juror.

The imposing judge with unexpected depth

The imposing judge with unexpected depth

A looming slippery slope..

I ended up seeing this beautifully modulated film twice, not by accident, as I am easily persuaded to see a good film again, especially when a cosy dinner with close friends will follow. However, the second time, I arrived, bright-eyed, at the wrong cinema complex. Thankfully I managed, after some consternation, to get to the correct place across town in peak hour, with just 30 seconds to spare. This was a low point in my formerly impeccable film-attending career, impeccable at least where time and place are concerned. Is this the stark beginning of a slippery slope for this floundering film buff? After that slip, I now rather neurotically check and recheck all film programs, in order to halt any more signs of such a dithery decline. Savannah Burgundy was very pleased, and even quite smug, that for once I was the late one, while Bella was simply patient and amused at our rather wild crosstown dash…

A madness of two…

Mon Roi - a powerful film

Mon Roi – a powerful film

Another highlight for me was Mon Roi, directed by Maiwenn, a very interesting woman director.  This emotional rollercoaster film starred one of my favourite actors, the breathtaking Vincent Cassel. Who can ever forget him bursting onto the screen as Vinz in the superb La Haine, a film still evergreen after 20 years. The main female role in Mon Roi was played astonishingly by Emmanuelle Bercot, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes. The film explores a turbulent relationship that hurtles into a ‘folie a deux’, a madness of two.

The closing film on the final night, Godard’s Le Mepris / Contempt, starring the glorious Brigitte Bardot also explored a marriage descending into a kind of vicious, claustrophobic hell.

Stunning Bardot in classic Godard fare

Stunning Bardot in classic Godard fare

I am still haunted by the dizzying design and endless steps of the film producer’s house in Capri, improbably clinging to the cliffs. Charlotta and I were astonished that no one in the cast and crew actually slipped and crashed into the sea.

Thanks to my dear friend and former film studies colleague Marguerite, who gave a stirring introduction to this screening.

A saga of opening nights…

A less complex film journey was with Rosalie Blum, a surprisingly enjoyable film with a clever script and great performances.

A pleasant surprise - warm, funny, quirky.

A pleasant surprise – warm, funny, quirky.

I had been a bit wary of this film, unfairly and simply because it was featured on opening night, an event which, more often than not, I tend to avoid these days. Having been to more festival opening nights than I care to remember, I do have many happy memories of dressing up and hanging out with a buzzy crowd  over a swag of film years. Sadly, however, I have been finding that festival films showcased on opening nights have slowly but surely descended in quality, hence my wariness about Rosalie Blum. Moreover, the event itself has not really been delivering value for effort and money. Blandness has descended on a spirited event, once full of memorable twists and turns…However, I am still ever-ready to be proven wrong!

In recent times, the often broad middle-of-the-road appeal of the films chosen on opening nights is grudgingly understandable,  as the sponsors, PR people and sundry VIPs are invited to come. This bunch of invitees don’t usually go to foreign films, rocking up on opening nights mainly for the bubbly and the socialising.   Who can really blame them? Such people also may not wish to be confronted by an edgy film, and are, in any case, rarely sighted again throughout the festival.

The deteriorating standard of the opening events themselves, however, is inexcusable, given the high cost, the sparse, rather boring food and drink, and the lack of meaningful cultural entertainment, allowing for dancing…. Hence, unless the film is a precious standout, I have been rather ‘ho hum’ about opening nights across the board, especially with the national festivals.

I saw Rosalie Blum in the main body of the festival, as, luckily, most films were repeated several times across two cinemas at the French Film Festival, giving greater flexibility – but also keeping everyone on the alert. Lorelei, Lillibelle and I enjoyed seeing it in a packed house on Good Friday evening. This was 15-year-old Lillibelle’s second favourite French film of all time, her favourite being the magical Amelie.

Checking the festival calendars

A new surprising addition to the extensive annual lineup at Palace cinemas is a small festival targetting ‘oldies’ like me, called the Young at Heart, tucked in between the more lavish French and Spanish festivals.  I am looking forward to seeing  Grandma, starring the irrepressible Lily Tomlin. This film also screened at the recent Queer Film Festival. Unfortunately I missed getting a ticket there, as it sold out so quickly in that program. One to savour.

Hot on the glamorous French heels, with a little detour into the spry young-at-heart, the dashing Spanish Film festival will commence on the 19 April at the Palace. I am feeling a little sad about the Spanish, as my dedicated Spanish companion, the delightful Juanita, will be overseas. Together we have experienced some wonderful films from Spain and other Spanish-speaking cultures, such as Chile and Argentina. We have also endured some cringeworthy downers, although that is, inevitably, part of the risky fun of any film festival. Later in the year, after several more mini-national festivals here (Italian, German, whatever), I plan to attend the amazing Melbourne Film Festival again, experiencing many great films there over several packed days, hopefully turning up to the right film in the right place at the right time…

 

 

 

 

 

A film buff’s personal rocky horror show: the good, the bad and the ugly

French film festival program guide 2016

French film festival program guide 2016 – currently screening in Brisbane

These have been rocky, heady times for this film devotee so far this year, with a rather messy overdose of Awards and Festivals. For instance, after a viewing binge of the Golden Globes, then the BAFTAs, culminating in the Oscars, I have experienced a peculiar form of Awards indigestion and heartburn. The three look-alike ceremonies have all blurred into each other. As, by now, there has been Awards entrail-dissection overload, I will certainly limit my observations here to a sprinkling of Oscars moonshine, mixed with some spicy French films as the icing on the rather doomed, indigestible cake.

There were few surprises along the Oscars pathway awakening me from my near-comotose state, after weeks of trying to see all the nominated films (I failed). Spotlight was an unusual Oscar winner choice for many, because it was widely thought that The Revenant would shoe it in. I was pleased that such a topical film about criminal child abuse by clergy and the massive coverup by the Catholic Church won the top award, mainly because of the horrific issues highlighted, rather than for its superior excellence in film craft. (Please note those issues, Cardinal Pell and Pope Francis…)

I will never retrieve those, what some would say, ‘lost’ hours both at the cinema and glued to my television screen – which is fair enough, given that I actively chose to indulge in these events and their ramifications, in all their decadent, tainted glory.

My own Oscars horror movie

The local cinema brightly advertised an Oscars viewing event with champagne, cheese, biccies, and cake. How could I resist, even though I don’t like champagne all that much.   Figuring that I could overcome that particular beverage obstacle,  I relished the idea of enjoying the awards for once on the big screen. Joan graciously agreed to come with me,  and we arrived around the corner just after 10 am, as scheduled, drinking coffee instead of champers. There were about 40 – 50 people there, and by 10.30 am, we lined up to go into the big cinema.

The talkative woman in front of us kept complaining about having to wait to get a seat. However, she said something worth hearing: while our tickets were only $15 a head, a rival cinema had an Oscars screening event on at 11.30 am, where you had to dress up and compete for a ‘best dressed’ award on a mini red carpet.  And that event cost $35 for champers etc. Joan and I were glad we didn’t have to parade in front of the fashion police, and also apparently we had landed ourselves a bargain.

Then came the big shock. The flustered manager came out to open the cinema, apologising that he had mistakenly thought the red carpet build-up would be currently on Channel 9, but alas it wasn’t. Nine was still playing the morning show called Today Extra, and the Oscars would start now for us at 11.30, at least an hour later. He muttered that they wouldn’t finish until about 2.30.

Lurching from crisis to crisis

The people in the queue became pretty fidgety at that news, and cake and glass in hand, consulted earnestly with each other. Joan and I decided to sit it out until 11.30, watch the Awards for the first hour, and then go to lunch nearby. In any case, I was taping it all at home, and would eventually catch up with anything we missed. I must confess that I had initially been mystified by the advertising for this event which claimed the Oscars lasted from 10 am – 12 pm, but, foolishly, I thought they must know what they were doing…

The fiasco continued with Nine’s Today Extra program repeatedly insulting our intelligence, with advertising overload and the inevitably inane advertorial segments. On the big screen, this program loomed as even more offensive. Some young women rose imperiously after about 15 minutes, announcing to all that this was a total disgrace, and they would demand their money back. They stormed out and a few others followed their lead.

One woman near me had her mobile phone on and was listening to some other loud program on that device. Usually in a cinema I would ask such an ignorant person, firmly but politely, to please turn off her phone. But I didn’t have the heart, given the already derailed circumstances. Trash horror overload was coming at us from all angles. We lasted another 15 minutes, until Today Extra became too much even for me, a longtime academic in film and television, who had been seizing the whole experience as a multilayered semiotic text, hurtling, like most reality television programs, towards inevitable disaster.

A flashback to a film love-in

Eventually, after skipping out and negotiating free tickets to another screening, after a bite of real food, I came home and caught up with the whole Oscars gig, fractured though it was, time-wise. Many media commentators have discussed at length the Oscar statues bestowed, the deeply offensive all-white nominations issue, as well as the insults to Asians. Chris Rock’s opening gig was quite impressive, his very presence holding it all together, despite some awkward, difficult moments. I was pleased that Leonardo, Alejandro and Emmanuel received their Oscars for The Revenant.  I have been in love with Alejandro G. Innaritu’s work since I first saw his debut film Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch).

A memorable first film.

A memorable first film.

After a preview screening of Amores Perros earlier this century for a motley group of us reviewers, I simply couldn’t move from my seat for quite some time. I was so overwhelmed, devastated and impressed by the film. This was in the old Dendy cinema in George Street, Brisbane, which permanently had a unique musty smell. This film certainly transcended the olfactory and comfort limitations of those memorable surrounds.

My students thereafter had to endure studying this amazing three-hour long Mexican film, as one of many confronting films in my unit International Cinema. Happily, I know that most of them completely ‘got’ Amores Perros too, along with Innaritu’s later films. One of those students, I am proud to say, subsequently worked in the camera department on The Revenant. She wrote to me from on the set, knowing how much I loved his films.

A diet of French films: sweet and sour love triangles and the tart money shot

As a prelude to the currently screening French Film Festival, I went along a while ago to see a special one-off film buffery screening of the controversial film by Gaspar Noe, Love 3D.  I had found his most famous film, Irreversible, incredibly powerful and disturbing, and I looked forward to catching this film, although it had received very mixed reviews and opinions. As one reviewer from The Guardian graphically puts it, “Gaspar Noe’s Love is a fantastically doomy, porny melodrama of erotic despair, all in super-strength 3D…Sex is the main star…in all its fleshy, messy, dreamlike, 3D glory.” The money shot was overkill, but to be expected…

The love triangle is a well-worn cinematic trope. This triangle recurs in a French film I have seen more recently –  In the Shadow of Women, a dire, barely digestible film by another French auteur, Philippe Garrel.

At the French Film Festival - a disappointment

At the French Film Festival – left a bad taste in the mouth

In both these films, the male protagonist is supposedly a filmmaker, although neither of them has any real, demonstrable talent. The filmmaker hero who is sexually involved with two beautiful women appears to be, in both films, some kind of masculine directorial fantasy projected and reenacted on screen. No irony here.  Thank heavens the self-indulgent film In the Shadow of Women wasn’t in 3D. One of those in a year is sufficient, although after In the Shadow, I am liking Love 3D a lot more.

A scene from Love 3D

A scene from Love 3D

Cinema audience: not so musical chairs

Yesterday during the day, I went to a French film at the Festival called La Belle Saison directed by Catherine Corsini. I have been heartened to find that the French film industry can claim about 50% female filmmakers. The USA and Australia do not compare at all well on this gendered score, although Australia is better than the US. This film by an up and coming female director, depicted the moving story of a lesbian relationship in the 70s. It was well directed and the main actors performed their roles very capably.  This was a pleasant film, with interesting insights into sexuality and women’s politics issues in the 70s, as well as the tensions between rural and urban France.

La Belle Saison. Not so belle in the audience.

La Belle Saison. Not so belle in the audience.

The problem this time was with the audience, not the film. There were only about 10 people in the largest cinema at Palace Centro. I moved up a couple of seats in my empty row to be more centred, only to be confronted by two bossy latecomers who practically sat on top of me. No flexibility was evidently there, so I sighed and moved back to my spot. Mea culpa. I should have waited until after the film began. I also hoped for reasonableness to prevail regarding seat allocation rules when hardly a soul is there.

Meanwhile, a young disabled man in a wheelchair was sitting not far away with his carer, and he was moaning loudly before and during the film. All power to him I thought, although I was a bit concerned when the bossy women arrived. I thought they might complain. Then a crippled man on crutches came into the cinema; not finding his allocated seat comfortable,  he and his companion moved to other seats where he could stretch out his injured leg. Just as the film was about to commence, a woman came in and insisted on moving him and his companion, so that she could sit in her allocated seat, despite the fact there were many better seats for her across the aisle and towards the centre in the same row. So the poor crippled person had to move again.  I found all this personally quite disturbing. I know when the cinema is crowded, the Festival seat allocation system works well. But when there is only a sprinkling, some give and take is ok surely…

Some friends had to walk out of the screening of another promising Festival film The Bureau, as the subtitles didn’t show up at their screening. They didn’t stay and did get a refund. I had hoped to see that film, but now I am not so sure. I do hope that the Cannes award-winning film Dheepan will live up to its reputation…fingers crossed for a very satisfying, tasty film treat this time.

Hoping for a great film here in the tradition of La Haine...

Hoping for a great film here in the tradition of La Haine…

 

 

 

SURPRISE: Interview about this blog direct from NYC

Here is a little surprise.

http://www.btrtoday.com/listen/biologyoftheblog/biology-of-the-blog-77
Hope you enjoy this interview about this very blog. The lovely Jess from Breakthru radio in New York contacted me after she scanned the blogisphere searching for blogs dealing with film. It was very early in the morning Brisbane time, so my mind and voice were both a bit foggy. Anyway it is what it is, along with some groovy music which you can include or skip through.

Film list…a quick blog episode before January disappears – or before I do

Hope the list gives some hints for other film lovers

Hope this list conveys some hints and happy memories for other film lovers. Do look now!

When friends start sending me their top ten films, carefully calibrated in A, A -, B+ etc categories, at the same time inquiring about my progress, I start to get the hint.

So here is one film lover’s ramble/scramble through some of the most remarkable films that I experienced in 2015 –  at least, those I can actually remember. I haven’t as yet managed to see Carol, Spotlight, The Danish Girl, The Big Short… given their mid-late January release dates. In any case, I will be overseas at a magnificent wedding when their seasons begin. Realistically, those probable Oscar nominees  will have to wait to be considered by me next year, as I didn’t view them in 2015 anyway.

Of course, I also haven’t managed to see many films that other people have loved and recommended. But within my fairly dedicated, if rather limited, film-viewing diet, here is The List for general digestion. Of course some of these were made in 2014, or even earlier, but my excuse is that I wasn’t able to view them until 2015…

From Far from Men to The Assassin: foreign language films extraordinaire

An early one I loved was Far from Men, a beautifully executed film set in 1954 in Algeria, with Viggo Mortensen in the leading role, and with a score by Nick Cave. This profoundly moving French film is based on a short story by Albert Camus, and this was a brilliant start to the year for me. I saw it twice in quick succession. A second international film that impressed me in the new year was Leviathan, a Russian film that evoked another kind of dark grandeur, depicting an ordinary man being persecuted relentlessly by corrupt officials.

A superior neo-noir Spanish film screened at the Spanish Film Festival was Marshland, a crime genre film that was quite delightful and grim at the same time.

Another memorable film festival film I thoroughly enjoyed was the wry, moving, funny, sad Italian film, Mia Madre (My Mother), directed by the amazing Nanni Moretti, whose films I always seem to enjoy. This one did not disappoint. Moretti also plays a key role in his film, as per usual.

Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas, is another excellent French film that, while being wordy and complex, is also involving and gripping.  Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart are particularly outstanding in their roles as ageing actress and her personal assistant. Life and art certainly mirror each other in this intriguing film.

At the new Queensland International Film Festival, the outstanding fare for me was the beautifully made, achingly fierce opening night film, Timbuktu, and an off-the-wall, unexpectedly delightful French cinematic TV series, screened as a three hour film – or was it five? – Li’l Quinquin. Directed with a quirky, lighter touch by the formidable Bruno Dumont,  this serial killer/police procedural production set in the French countryside has lingered with me for a long time – always a great sign of a different kind of masterpiece. Thanks Huw!

The end of the international film festival year was marked by the Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

Discussion on The Assassin and martial arts films, conducted by the wonderful Kiki Fung and Sam Ho.

Discussion on The Assassin and martial arts films, conducted by the wonderful Kiki Fung and Sam Ho.

Amidst this feast of films in November, I enjoyed many, and a few stood out for me. Amongst them were Small Town, Early Winter and The Assassin. Small Town was a deeply personal film, made in 1997, by the great Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan. This is his first film, and, as a dedicated admirer of his later films, it was a great treat for me to see this early work. Early Winter is an impressive Canadian/Australian co-production, directed by Michael Rowe (an Australian currently living in Mexico). Trish Lake from Freshwater Pictures, based in Brisbane, is a co-producer. This is a powerful, suitably claustrophobic film, wonderfully shot and edited, intimately revealing a marriage in crisis.

The dazzling, award-winning martial arts film The Assassin (by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is visually stunning and a great portrait of a female assassin. While the narrative arc is quite mysterious, it is best just to relax and immerse oneself in the exquisite poetry of this beautiful film.

English language films

Two Australian films I particularly relished were the very moving Holding the Man, and the wild spectacle of Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw the latter in a New York cinema which was a special treat. With the former, I had not read the book by Timothy Conigrave, nor had I seen the play based on that book. However I thought the film was very sensitively handled.  It also provided  a realistic, visceral portrayal of the AIDS crisis in the Eighties. Many of us lost dear friends at that time, making the film doubly poignant.

Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was my favourite American film of 2015. What a terrific roller coaster ride this enjoyable film was, with Joaquin Phoenix playing a stoned private detective in Venice Beach. Another  English language film I hold in high esteem is Macbeth, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the key roles. directed by the Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel. This was a dark, brooding piece, tightly drawn.  I also was impressed by Lobster, a dystopian black comedy film by the extraordinary Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos,  and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. That one has kept me awake at night…Then I caught Locke on Foxtel, and thoroughly immersed myself in Tom Hardy’s remarkable one man effort, driving his car to his destiny.

Regarding documentaries, it is hard to beat the extraordinary Amy, a towering film. Directed by Asif Kapadia, Amy explores the life and death of the diva Amy Winehouse – a gut wrenching experience. Other worthwhile documentaries I enjoyed are What Happened. Miss Simone? a gritty biopic on Nina Simone’s tragic life. And of course, Iris, a fun film on the flamboyant, eccentric fashionista Iris Apfel. I also commend the uncompromising Frackman, an inspiring Australian documentary on anti-fracking activism, again co-produced by Trish Lake.

Now comes the hard part – ranking the films. I know also that sadly I have missed a couple of Iranian films I enjoyed at the lovely Iranian film festival, but, regrettably, I can’t find the program details for those at present.

This is my top ten in order, for now:

Far from Men, Inherent Vice, Amy, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Assassin, Leviathan, Mia Madre, Holding the Man, Lobster, Li’l Quinquin.

 

 

 

 

 

SCREEN CULTURE: My favourite tv treats of 2015

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My head is reeling from perusing the overload of lists by too many popular culture commentators, proclaiming their 10 or 20 best/worst tv series for 2015. Some of these lists I tend to agree with, by and large, while others I wonder what planet they are on. But that isn’t the point here; in the best ‘seeingmeout’ blog tradition over the past several years, I am shamelessly contributing to the overload,  boldly placing my television highlights list in the mix, for dialogue, for enjoyment, for serious thought about the delights of a year’s viewing. I will publish my 2015 Best Film list sometime soon.

I now have Netflix, Foxtel and free-to-air television available, along with web/internet fare via the computer. This is definitely overload binge mania potential indeed, although I think my efforts are pretty small scale, compared with some other people’s secret indulgences. This glittering multi-platform flexibility both enriches and muddies my viewing experiences on the small screen.  I am also still having some problems with my technological setup here at home. Hence, I think I will need to acquire a new tv set with some more whizzbangery. Hopefully, this will eventuate in the not-too-distant future, if the budget will allow such indulgence, if I can find a willing, non-patronising whizz kid to help me set it all up, if…

 THANK YOU TV GOD: SBS & the ABC are still standing, wobbly though they may be

The Sydney Morning Herald TV Guide is pretty reliable and essential reading every week

The Sydney Morning Herald TV Guide is pretty reliable and essential reading every week

I mainly watch the ABC and SBS on the free-to-air viewing option.  The highlights of television drama viewing for me in 2015 on free-to-air, definitely came courtesy of SBS. It is hard to rank these particular gems, but I will try. The ABC drama was not of quite the same overall standard, though I am enjoying the very promising Exile early this year.

Probably the best drama for me was FARGO series 2. This series  became better and better as it progressed to its dazzling finale. The delights were manifold:  the antics of Kirsten Dunst and her butcher spouse; the grimness of the real villains on both sides engaged in their epic fight to the death; the folksy homespun goodness tinged with tragedy of the lawman and his sweet family, including his father- in-law, played by Ted Danson…

A close second was a very different drama from Denmark called THE LEGACY, concerning the vicissitudes of a family in crisis after their artist matriarch dies. I liked how it was written, acted and directed so flawlessly – the viewer’s sympathies were often  twisted around in unexpected ways. I trust that series 2 will be forthcoming very early in the new year.

Next on this sub-list is the US TV police procedural series, BOSCH, based on the Michael Connelly books. As I have read all the Bosch books over many years of dedication,  I had my own image of my favourite character Harry Bosch of course. The actor in the central role, Titus Welliver, didn’t really live up to my own image of Harry, although I did warm to Titus more as the series progressed. While the plot lagged a little at times, and the love interest was rather limply handled, the production values were high. The mood was gritty LA noir, although not as darkly existential as the variable but interesting True Detective Season 2.

A very good Australian series was THE PRINCIPAL, with old favourite Alex Dimitriades in the leading role. Like East West 101, this was a standout gritty multicultural drama. I am also anticipating similar high quality in a different way, with The Family Law sitcom series coming up very soon in the new year.

ABC HIGHLIGHTS

The ABC excelled for me in 2015, particularly in the arena of well-produced shows which struck just the right note – e.g. the engaging Please Like Me, and the witty, satirical fare of Utopia, Gruen, and Sean Micallef’s Mad as Hell. These shows rarely disappointed.

Of course, the news and current affairs offerings from the ABC were largely superlative. My evergreen favourites were Insiders, the 7.30 Report, Four Corners, and the Drum. 

Other free-to-air fare

Channel 10 continued to screen the new series of The Good Wife, a legal drama that I enjoy following.

And thank heavens channel Eleven screens The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; I was missing his wonderfully outrageous wit and interviews when The Colbert Report finished on Foxtel during the year. In the new format, he is particularly acidic and insightful on the current presidential race, and has some great guests. While he is rather trapped in that standard late show format that Americans seem to love, he manages to break some of the corny rules and embed his own classy imprint on the genre.

NETFLIX: one free month slipped into a subscription…

On Netflix, fairly recently acquired (the line of least resistance), I find the pressure to binge is not working too well. However I have thus far enjoyed GRACE AND FRANKIE with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterson. What a sterling cast for this entertaining and quite moving comedy drama. I am looking forward to Series 2.

Another favourite has been NARCOS. It is hard to beat a ‘true’ story about the Columbian drug cartels in the time of Pablo Escobar and Ronald Reagan. On the downside,  the rather highhanded voiceover narrative can be a bit irritating.  This patronising device supposedly emphasises the subjective, verisimilitude factor, but can also be used to underline the key points, just in case the viewer is a bit slow in grasping it all. However, overall, I have found Narcos a quite fascinating and gripping drama. I have always been a sucker for mafia-style crime stories, hearkening back to that great Italian series The Octopus (La Piovra) which ran from 1984 – 2001and of course the superlative HBO series The Sopranos.

RITA has its  flaws,  yet this is quite an eye-catching Danish series, particularly if you aren’t up to the challenges of more demanding fare all the time. When it comes to tv production, the Danes certainly have class, e.g. Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge. On the other hand, Rita is more melodramatic, more mainstream than those superlative dramas. While each Rita episode isn’t always a stunner, there are some great moments. The key protagonist Rita is a feisty woman teacher in her forties, who has always made a mess of her private life, but is inspirational with her students – pleasant viewing for a rainy afternoon. Also it was heartening to find some non-American international TV programs on the frustratingly limited Netflix suite offered here in Australia.

I also enjoyed LONGMIRE, a police series with a difference. It doesn’t measure up to JUSTIFIED (Foxtel), which is also part cop show, part contemporary Western. While Justified is well written and fastpaced, with the bonus of a gorgeous main protagonist, Longmire moves at a slower pace. However the characters are involving, and while the plot lags at times, this series did engage and earned some  pretty high points from me.

I started the British series RIVER about a world-weary detective who sees and engages with dead people. It is worth further exploration, as is BLOODLINES, with Ben Mendelsohn. Time is of the essence here. Again bingeing isn’t quite my thing…

 

THE FOXTEL SMORGASBORD: SOME 2015 HITS 

A snapshot of some programs that I have recorded on Foxtel

A snapshot of some programs and films that I have recorded recently via Foxtel. A pressing smorgasbord, never finished.

The most extraordinary television experience overall for me this year was definitely the HBO series THE JINX: THE LIFE AND DEATHS OF ROBERT DURST. This brilliant documentary series was actually watched by me on the long haul flight from Brisbane to New York. On my return home, I fortunately caught the episodes again on Foxtel, and I was just as captivated the second time. Unmissable.

THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH is also unmissable. It used to be hosted but the extraordinary Jon Stewart, of course, but the handover occurred in 2015 when, much to my dismay, Jon decided to step down. However, the youthful South African seems to be filling the role creditably. Also AMY SCHUMER’S stand up routines, as well as her own comedy series, have been very entertaining. I also didn’t want to miss the new series in 2015 of LOUIS CK. While Louis seemed to be perpetually in crisis, and the series was often quite dark and even difficult to watch, this is still innovative television.

Another enjoyable program I discovered last year on Foxtel channels was the cop show BABYLON, about an American communications hotshot, trying to work on changing the image of the Metropolitan Police in London. Sadly I think this one isn’t continuing into a second series. Meanwhile, I have been enjoying the droll comedy drama THE DETECTORISTS about two bungling guys with their trusty metal detectors looking for mediaeval treasure troves on the fields of England. THE SYNDICATE is another well-crafted British series I have been following, concerning the plight of those who win the lottery and how things don’t always turn out as planned. There is excellent casting on all of these British series.

I also have tuned into the program SCREEN, hosted by Margaret Pomerantz and Graeme Blundell, who review the latest TV and films. They are joined by a bright young internet program reviewer, whose name currently escapes me. Informative and quite enlightening.

The Best Viewing,  Spoiling the Best and Failing Memory

And last, but not least, I have to mention MR. ROBOT – a highly recommended American series about computer hacking and capitalist corruption that I started watching compulsively, after an initial resistance to the title. However the problem now is that I ceased watching it rather abruptly, when the program started getting rave reviews on many Best TV of 2015 lists. Much to my horror, one reviewer casually gave away a crucial spoiler, thereby indeed spoiling my viewing pleasure. Subsequently, I can’t really include this in my final list. I will no doubt return to the series, but…

I have sketched here my small screen highlights overall. No doubt I have forgotten some good ones along the way.  I find it hard to recall when, for instance, the excellent Broadchurch screened here. Was there a new series in 2015 or am I thinking of the repeat, or the American remake version? I know I shouldn’t let things slip in my viewing / tv research memory, but that is how it is for now. I am starting to think my short-term memory  (i.e. second half of 2015) is more functional.

In any case, with all these reservations, I guess my Top 10 ranked list would be:

The Jinx, Fargo, The Daily Show, The Legacy, Bosch, Grace and Frankie, Utopia, Amy Schumer, Please Like Me, The Principal.