Sydney Film Festival 2018 – Week 1 (and a bit)

Sydney Film Festival 2018 – Week 1 (and a bit)

Ryuichi SakamotoThe Sydney Film Festival has got off to a slow start this year, for me at least. But at the half-way point there are a few highlights. Documentaries have, as always, been a stand-out, and there have been a couple of other films worth noting. Here’s a run-down of my hits to date, including some honourable mentions…and a miss.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

An intimate and mesmerising portrait of an artist. Originally a member of the ground-breaking Japanese synth-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto has created beautiful scores for many films. His cinematic work began almost by chance with Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (in which he also starred as Captain Yonoi).  More recently he scored The Revenant, and some pieces for Call Me By Your Name.  His passion for sound and his connection to cinema is clear. Watching this film I felt fortunate to have such a fascinating insight into Sakamoto’s creative process, and I admire him and appreciate his work even more as a result.

China  Love

The first feature of an Australian stills photographer based in Shanghai, Olivia Martin McGuire, this is a great piece of work that creeps up on you like good documentaries do. At first it seems like a fun look at the business of the completely over-the-top pre-wedding photo industry in China, but it soon digs deeper. Ultimately this in-depth  story of a growing, multi-billion dollar industry is the story of the Chinese people past and present. The cultural revolution, the impact of the one-child policy, the economic revolution that is currently underway, as well as Chinese emigration, and the place of women and men in Chinese society, China Love touches on all of these themes and more. The film reflects on the impact of these from very personal perspectives, within the context of weddings and marriage. It is an interesting view of China today, part economic powerhouse with scars of the past, and strong ties to tradition, for better or for worse. A highlight from the festival so far, and scheduled for a (probably limited) cinema release in August.

Three Identical Strangers

Imagine if you turned up to your first day of college, only to find everyone thought you were someone else… and actually it turned out it was your identical twin brother you never knew you had. Well, that happened to Bobby Shafran. Only it turned out he wasn’t a twin, he was a triplet. All had been separated at birth and adopted, and none of the parents had known about the others. It’s 1980 and the newspapers and talk shows love their story. The triplets become the talk of the town. They’re funny, they’re charming, they’re great talk show guests. They look the same, speak the same, have the same mannerisms, even though they’ve been raised separately and in very different environments. But, guess what? There’s way more to this story. An extraordinary tale, very well told, with more twists than a Twistie.

The Venerable W.

An eye-opening documentary about an extremist Buddhist monk in Myanmar, by film maker Barbet Schroeder (who originally won acclaim as the director of Reversal of Fortune back in 1990). The documentary introduces us to monk Ashin Wirathu, one of the founders of the populist 969 movement in Myanmar. His beliefs are frighteningly familiar and strongly reminiscent of the emerging Nazi movement in 1930s Germany. This documentary is a fascinating and upsetting insight into the dark side of Buddhism, and also explains the ethnic violence and persecution against the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar that has been reported in recent times. The current wave of violence is not a new phenomenon, but is gaining momentum. A documentary of our time, unfortunately. This one is not for the squeamish, but important to watch.

The Line

Borderlands tend to be cinematic grey areas, full of moral ambiguity and shady dealing. And certainly this applies to The Line. After the fall of the Soviet block, smuggling just about everything from east to west became a goldmine for anyone with the right contacts and minimal scruples. And so it has been for the Krajnak family, led by Adam, who runs a business smuggling cigarettes across the Slovakian-Ukranian border. But it’s 2007 and the Slovak Republic is preparing to join the Schengen zone, which may end a very profitable business for the Krajnaks and many others. With time running out, some of the team want to make extra cash by smuggling drugs or people, which Adam refuses to do. That’s the (metaphorical) line he won’t cross, although he’ll cross plenty of others. The pressure is on, and things are getting complicated. While The Line tells the story of the Krajnaks, it also gives a compassionate glimpse into the sad, desperate and deadly world of refugees and people smuggling. The cinematography in The Line is beautiful and sometimes meditative. Each shot, each sequence, carefully framed to tell the story in the most interesting way.

The Kindergarten Teacher

A very very strange and uncomfortable story, but with a poignant, if somewhat depressing subtext. Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a happily married and dedicated Kindergarten teacher whose own kids are growing up and leaving home. She goes to poetry classes at night, but no-one really likes what she writes. A five-year-old boy in her class, Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) starts spontaneously composing extraordinary poems, and only Lisa can see she has a prodigy on her hands. From there things start to get increasingly weird. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic in this strange role.

Special Mentions

Juliet Naked

Based on a story by Nick Hornby, Juliet Naked is about Annie (Rose Byrne) who lives with her long-term boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), and soon realises she’s in a rut. This is everything you’d expect from a Nick Hornby story – a fun and funny romcom about quirky, but ordinary middle-aged British people trying to make life work for them. But actually, what I appreciated the most about this film was the appearance of former indie-pop heart-throb Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). This character is essentially the middle-aged incarnation of Ethan Hawke’s bad boy Troy from Reality Bites. By the time Troy hit his late-40s, he’d be a washed-up man-child with a lifetime of broken relationships and a set of disgruntled children to match, just as Tucker is. Troy, and Tucker, are not without their charm. And Tucker, at least, is trying to learn and grow. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few well-worn cliches about middle age and about women that bug me… But I’m willing to overlook those things, if only to see what happened to Troy (and to have a few laughs along the way). Nothing special, but a good time if you need a laugh and have nothing else to do.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

This was a good film, but I was quite surprised to learn it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. It’s the story of Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) who gets caught in the back of the car with the prom queen and is sent to a religious camp to pray the gay away. This is not new territory. It has been covered very well in other films, and this had nothing new to say. But it was funny and enjoyable to watch. I particularly liked Cameron’s friends at her re-education camp, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forest Goodluck). This will probably get a cinema release, but it’s really a movie to watch on a night in when you want something simple that will make you laugh, will make you feel a little nostalgic for 80s technology and music (not attitudes), but (probably) won’t change your life.

Holiday

While I have mixed feelings about this Danish thriller, it was well made. The lead actress, Victoria Carmen Sonne as young trophy girlfriend Sascha is exceptionally good. The story is tight, direction is good, acting is excellent, but there are disturbing things about this film that are difficult to get past. It feels dangerous from the very start, which a thriller should do, but it is disturbingly violent in ways I can’t mention without giving away too much. I’m not sure all the violence was warranted. The overall story is very dark… in a very messed up way. There were things I really liked about this film, and things I really didn’t.

Miss

Beirut

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a former American diplomat who is pulled in by the CIA  to help secure the release of one of their agents in Lebanon because of his ties there. This film is so full of cliché, for a moment I thought it was a parody. But no… it was just really really bad writing. The dialogue is terrible, and it really takes effort to care about the story. Not even Jon Hamm’s old-school handsomeness can salvage it. It seems like the story should be high-stakes, it’s a hostage situation after all, but we have no reason to care about the characters. The little we know about the guy who’s being held is that he seems like a bit of a dick. Watching this movie I felt a bit like I did when I watched Alien vs. Predator many years ago. Remind me, why do I care about what happens? Oh, that’s right, I don’t.