Monday, July 5, 2010

Sydney Film Festival 2010: In Brief

For me, the unquestionable pick of the festival was:

Raoul Peck – Moloch Tropical
It was, on the one hand, a youthful obsession with voodoo (come on, we've all been there), and, on the other, a passion for Graham Greene's underrated novel of Haiti, The Comedians which first got me interested in Haiti. This film is a fascinating dissection of the final days of a fictional Haitian dictator, an amalgam of the Duvalier authoritarians and latter-day ‘democrats,’ by a director who himself was briefly Minister for Culture under Aristide. In some ways, Downfall can be seen as a predecessor but this is by far the better film, set in a gorgeous mountain eyrie sitting not-so-comfortably above the palace torture chambers, and the slums of the Haitian people. A deeply thought-provoking meditation, both scathing and compassionate, on human weakness, political idealism, gender, race, violence and cruelty, and international politics as theatre and as cynical praxis.

And further, in order of impressiveness:

Sean Byrne - The Loved Ones
Fantastic and original Australian prom-night torture-porn. The horror which is only latently concealed in the ubiquitous pinkificated gender consumerism of the present childhood milieu is made manifest – and you’ll never hear Kasey Chambers’ Not Pretty Enough in quite the same way again.

Sylvain Chomet – The Illusionist
An unexpectedly bittersweet tale from the maker of The Triplets of Belville, based on an unfilmed screenplay by Jacques Tati, with perhaps the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever seen, and a surprising storyline, looking at the travails of a down-at-heel illusionist in the age of vaudeville, which beguiles you into thinking that it’s one kind of narrative before gently twisting into another.

Daniel Monzon – Cell 211
A taut, intense and brutal Spanish prison drama with some nasty twists. Reminiscent of the finest moments of Oz.

Sascha Bader – Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae
A documentary on an unjustly neglected era of Jamaican music, sandwiched between the better-known ska and roots reggae, this film takes as its central premise a rocksteady reunion concert featuring various luminaries of the era, including Dawn Penn, Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Stranger Cole, an irresistible eccentric who serves as narrator. Every fan will have some favourite rocksteady moments which are left out (for me, where is the Techniques’ Queen Majesty?) but overall, a joyful and overdue celebration of an important moment in musical history and in the development of a globally influential Jamaican music scene, placed in the context of a particular moment in the development of historical, political and racial consciousness.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
An interesting failure – the use of Lynchian devices of fantasy weirdness mixed with domestic normality and hints of darkness to tell a tale based on Thai legend, mythology and religion. Particularly impressive was a central set-piece of stills from a repressive future (one wonders whether this was subversive political commentary), but ultimately an unrealised mélange whose triumph at Cannes is inexplicable.

James Rasin – Beautiful Darling
An ultimately tragic homage to Candy Darling – a dark fable of the unfulfilling nature of a life as an artwork and the cruel vagaries of Warhol’s Factory – but as a documentary, this work was itself equally unfulfilling inasmuch as the reason for the fascination Darling seems to have held for her contemporaries is never quite apparent in the film’s material.

Todd Solondz – Life During Wartime
A not-quite-worthy sequel to the stunning Happiness – some fantastic lines and domestic grotesque set pieces, with impressive performances by Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams in particular – but a confection which is ultimately light and unsatisfactory in comparison to its predecessor.

Ben C. Lucas – Wasted On The Young
A high-school film which looks at the timely issue of the dark side of the Australian obsession with sporting heroism and its golden boys, along with the ramifications of a crime reminiscent of the reagic and horrific Leigh Leigh case (later filmed as Blackrock) – but one which, despite some beautiful camerawork and an interesting and innovative incorporation of digital technology (one which the film industry in general ahs been behind the times in adopting) fails to move and descends to the level of troublesome gender politics in a rape-revenge story in which the female remains a fantasy object motivating male action stemming from pure love or pure lust, rather than a complete human being.

Patrick Hughes – Red Hill
A seemingly promising premise – an Australian Western/slasher genre pic set in small-town Victorian high country and starring Ryan Kwanten. But a promise which goes unrealised – despite the heavy-handed race politics twist, a film with a menacing indigenous killer who remains silent throughout? Really? No, really? Can anyone see the problem with that?

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