In The Fade is a modern thriller set mostly in Germany, around Berlin I think. It is well worth seeing if you like this kind of thing. Diane Kruger plays a mother and wife who has her life torn apart when her husband and son are brutally murdered in a bomb attack. We witness her grief, the emotional ordeal of sitting through the trial of the suspected bombers, and her hunt for revenge following their acquittal.
I think Diane Kruger is brilliant. I’ve seen and enjoyed her performances in several other things, but she is again completely different in this: almost unrecognisable and convincingly German to my eyes and ears.
The story is well told and paced, but along the way we do see the director, Fatih Akin’s exploration of many things that are wrong with contemporary society: in particular the violence of radicalisation, the irrational fear of those who are different and the innocent lives lost as a result. We also observe a mother’s tragic unconditional love for her lost family. Entertaining with a strong message. 4/5
Pulse was billed as an intriguing mix of sci-fi, teen angst, queer drama and some body swap action thrown in for good measure (from Australia). It was on at Dendy Newtown and that is just a short walk away for me so I selected this film without another thought.
It turned out to be one of the best films that I saw at the Festival this year. It stars the amazing Daniel Monks as our hero. He also wrote the film, edited and co-produced it with the other key driving force Stevie Cruz-Martin who was also the film’s director and cinematographer. The crowd-funded budget for the film was less than $60,000 I think! The film very skilfully and frankly deals with some major issues in contemporary society: developing sexuality, identity and same-sex attraction; discrimination; dealing with a physical disability; and ultimately, learning what really matters in friendships and relationships.
Daniel’s character Olly is in love with his straight best friend at high school Luke (played by Scott Lee), but ultimately he realises that this cannot work out well. Olly eventually opts for a body swap into a girl of the same age which would have the potential to kill two birds with the one stone: his physical disability and his inability to be sexually attractive to Luke. After the body swap Olly’s character in the film becomes the sexually liberated Olivia (played Jaimee Peasley), but Olly’s conscience is still played by Daniel Monk. Putting all of this together without confusing the audience is quite simply a masterpiece in film editing. Is young Daniel the next star of the Australia film industry?
I should also commend Stevie Cruz-Martin’s wonderful and innovative cinematography which gave the film a very contemporary and personal feel.
The only disappointing aspect of this showing was that it was somewhat marginalised in one of the smaller strands of Sydney Film Festival – “Screenability”. Good on them for featuring it in this way, but really, it deserved a much bigger screening at one of the major venues. I saw quite a few big-budget foreign films at sold-out major venues that were nowhere near as good as this film. I hope that Pulse gains more exposure and attracts more attention at future festivals. A beautiful film that is thoroughly enjoyable. 4.5/5
Call Me By Your Name is a gay romance set in Italy. It is gently paced and beautifully set, but I think it runs far too long.
In the clip above you get a good feel for what is not so great and what is great about this film. Armie Hammer first talks about his own reaction to portraying male-to-male sex and then his younger less experienced partner in the film, Timothée Chalamet, really gets to the heart of what makes this film of the celebration of love special – the complete “lack of a violent oppressor or deterrent to this love”. Armie’s character in the film is ultimately uncomfortable with himself, but I think his portrayal also lacks the multiple dimensions that Timothée brought to his role.
I agree with Jordan Hoffman from The Guardian who highlighted the very supportive father-to-son exchange towards the end of the film. It is a wonderful moment and reinforces what Timothée says of the film above. Beautiful, but a little long. 3.5/5
Wind River is a very well-made and intelligent crime drama from the US that is filled with action and violence. It has a very strong cast with the two leads being Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Renner plays a wildlife officer and hunter who finds the dead body of a young Native American in the frozen Wyoming wilderness and he assists Olsen, who plays a rookie FBI agent, to track down the killer(s). Renner and Olsen are both convincing, but I was particularly impressed by Olsen’s acting which covered such diverse aspects such as authority, cockiness, nervousness, fear, anxiety, vulnerability, empathy and curiosity.
There is plenty of action and a big shoot-em-up towards the end, but there are also many sensitive and amusing scenes touching on the lives of Native Americans and others living in such harsh climates. It is also beautifully shot in what must be very trying conditions for film makers. Very entertaining. 4/5
Game of Death – well, no film festival can be complete without a decent splatterfest. This was pure escapism for me.
It was sandwiched between two serious films dealing with very real issues (civil rights and rape) and unfortunately it was not really up to the competition. It started well and showed early promise both from a comic and blood-and-gore perspective, but then it lost momentum and imagination and it was all downhill from there. I had a couple of laughs. Forgettable. 2/5
I Am Not Your Negro – is a documentary on the US civil rights movement told through the elegant words of the writer and activist James Baldwin. It is a story that focuses on the tragic murders of his friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers in the 1960s. The forces that drove those men and many others to their deaths many years ago still plague contemporary US society and I saw many parallels to racial fears, discrimination and xenophobia in our own society in Australia . Baldwin’s words are mostly voiced powerfully by Samuel L. Jackson, but there is also some footage shown of Baldwin at his elegant and eloquent best addressing TV hosts and a UK university crowd with such passion and his great facility with the English language.
What constantly came over to me from this film was a theme of willing or even wilful ignorance (of the plight of black Americans) in US society. This message isn’t brutally delivered but it is shocking and deeply disturbing nonetheless.
The original news footage, archival images and even Hollywood movie clips are selected and edited together beautifully. They greatly illustrate James Baldwin’s words and maintain the momentum and chronology of his message.
This is a most important documentary in the age of Trump and in a world that is dominated by media and politician fuelled fears of anyone different from the “norm”. I am really glad that I selected and saw this brilliant film. Stunning. 4.5/5
God’s Own Country is a wonderful film from the UK. It is reviewed and promoted as a British version of Brokeback Mountain, but it is actually much better than that film. I loved everything about this film right from the start: the setting in Yorkshire; the stoic nature of the locals; the cast and their acting; the cinematography; the story-telling; the tenderness of the developing romantic relationship between the two guys; the presentation and direction of the film itself; the weaving in of archival imagery; and the realness of such a situation.
I can see the resemblance to Brokeback Mountain, but I found this film to be far more believable and I empathised a great deal more with the leading characters. I thought they were much less wooden in this film. The performances by Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu are amazingly good and starkly different. I hope we see a lot more from both of them. One of the best gay-themed movies I’ve ever seen. Beautiful. 4.5/5
Una is a powerful drama from the UK. It seemed interesting to me and was adapted from a very successful play. The storyline is about child sexual abuse and revenge so it isn’t a pleasant experience that everyone will enjoy. It is, however, handled very delicately and we don’t really have to delve into a great deal of the ugliness. There are a number of tense scenes in the move and they do not always end predictably. Maybe that ambiguousness in its story-telling technique is what makes us think more deeply about blame, revenge, guilt and redemption. Is redemption from some offence like this even possible?
I found the acting from the two leads Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn to be very believable and they are well supported. Rooney’s character seems a bit confused and is sometimes less convincing in her purpose, but perhaps that too is how it might really be in this kind of situation.
I’m not going to put a spoiler on it, but I did talk to some friends who saw it on the same night and we came away with very different takes on the message left to us at the end of the movie. Is that based on our own life experience or the deliberate intent of the director Benedict Andrews? Good film making. 3.5/5
So the first few films that I saw didn’t amount to the best of starts for a film festival. These thoughts are just based on my preferences and opinions, so take them in that context. Here we go …
Ana, Mon Amour – This is a European drama with bonus sex scenes. I hated this film and would’ve walked out if I wasn’t sat right in the middle of a packed theatre. It was a sad tale about unhappy people, in an unhappy country, who are determined to lead unhappy lives. From memory there was even some hand-held moving camera work that was thrown in to make it look more “arty”, but that didn’t work for me. This is definitely a film to be avoided. How it was selected completely bemuses me and how it attracted such a large audience is also a mystery. Awful. Score: 0/5
The Ornithologist – I must admit that I was attracted to this one because “homoerotica from Europe”! Big mistake. This is a confused film and an even more confused story. It just didn’t work and I don’t say that because I am not clever enough to have followed the plot, if there really was one. I don’t think it knew what it wanted to be: a modern take on St Anthony; a transformation; a tragedy; a pilgrimage; or a surreal comedy. It failed to deliver in all of these aims. It had some potential but that all fell apart far too soon. Very disappointing. 1/5
Ellipsis – I saw this as it was billed as a love letter to Sydney and I thought it might reveal something of my home town that I had missed. It didn’t. David Wenham directed it and spoke for far too long in introducing it. I think that a good film should stand alone without an explanation about its process. The story is based on a night that the two lead actors, Benedict Samuel and Emily Barclay, spend together after an accidental meeting in the city. I didn’t find the chemistry between the two at all convincing and Emily’s character just became more and more annoying as it dragged on. Some of the scenes were a bit too cliched for me and others were just awkward. There is a side story about a dedicated phone repairman who is struggling with his citizenship test and I found that far more compelling than the main storyline. A little ordinary. 3/5
Closet Monster was my final film for this festival and so it ended as it began, on a high. It is a wonderfully told queer coming of age story that apparently is based on writer/director Stephen Dunn’s own experience as a teenager.
There is a lot to enjoy in this film. Our hero Oscar, excellently played by the talented-beyond-his-years Connor Jessup, has a pet hamster called Buffy who provides companionship and dispenses wisdom (via the voice of Isabella Rossellini). Oscar’s interactions with Buffy are a delight every single time. Connor Jessup almost seems born to play this role, but I thought the same about his acting in the second series of American Crime. He’s simply brilliant.
Stephen Dunn brings so much imagination to his story telling. He drops magical moments throughout the film to light up the tale and to bring Oscar’s lingering childhood horror to life. And he perfectly balances the emotional core of the film with his amusing and refreshingly different creative style. This could so easily have failed.
It is all so well done. As well, it is beautifully shot in several memorable scenes that serve to underline Oscar’s journey in life, his relationships and his developing sexuality.
I hope that both Stephen Dunn and Connor Jessup keep making films. Talents like theirs keep us going to the cinema.
My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 4+/5 (Most people would think this to be very special.)