filmfest 2017 roundup

Another filmfest finished. I run out of puff toward the end and didn’t manage to write up film reviews for the final two days. I was also conscious of needing sleep as I anticipated a busy time at NLS8 the following weekend; in hindsight that was a very wise move as NLS8 was exhausting. I have a conference mode where I somehow assume the guise of someone vaguely extroverted and throw myself into things and chat to as many people as I can. However in doing so, sucks the energy out of me and I have felt rather fatigued in the days since.

Back to filmfest and I think I managed 28 films this time, slightly up on 27 from last year. It was almost 29 but I chose not to go to a 9.30am screening on the final morning and chose a decent sleep-in and a casual brekky. That film would have been a doco on NASA’s Voyager programme, The Farthest, which I gather was really amazing.

Some things don’t change, the app is still dodgy, the search is still dodgy and the website is still dodgy eg the app has several search options except title search. My partner and I have different android phones, and when she hit the back button to return from ticket to movie list, whereas for me the back button returned me to the home screen. The desktop version of the website only displays the search option if your browser is a particular width, too narrow and and it won’t work.

Tech issues aside, filmfest remained generally excellent and I think this was the first year I managed to avoid a dud film altogether, though Ms16 was less successful alas. This is a list, in alphabetical order, of all the films that stood out for me:

playing with editions

I was a little late to the party on “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline. It was first published in 2011 and I finally got round to reading it last year and the movie is coming out in 2018. It was a fun read full of 1980s pop culture references. I initially came across it because Subterranean Press released a limited edition in 2015 which quickly sold out.

Now I’m sorta wondering whether it’s worth grabbing a nice edition myself. The limited edition initially sold for US$75 from Subterranean Press and the cheapest I can find on abebooks is US$275 and they go higher, much higher. Curiously, I came across the first printing of the first edition on ebay and it was only US$125, however it’s not pristine and looks well read. I am amused the first edition is cheaper than the special edition. With that said, I’m not particularly interested in first editions myself (well unless they’re Biggles of which I have a bunch of first editions) and like to buy pretty editions, well bound with nice typesets.

A row of books on a shelf - Biggles.

It’d be nice to have a decent copy of Ready Player One but I reckon I’ve missed the boat and when the movie comes out next year, the prices will likely skyrocket. If I was in to making money, it might be worthwhile picking up a few copies now, even if they’re a little eccy and then sell them at substantial profit when everyone’s riding high on the movie release. But I’m not that sort of person and not into that whole investing thang. I like to buy nice books because I like to read nice books.

sff 2017 day 9

Combining filmfest and work’s end of financial year and a systems migration to boot, gets a wee bit exhausting. To be honest, I’m usually getting exhausted by this point of the festival. I dashed from work to Dendy Newtown for a doco on Julian Assange at 6pm, Risk (Germany, USA). This film charts Assange from the release of lots of US files, touches on the court cases and throughout his continuing time in the Ecudorean embassy. Mostly it’s footage of Assange himself, talking with friends and others as he goes about his trapped life. He seems mostly detached and distant. I found the soundtrack rather muddy and hard to follow the dialogue, and of course I may have nodded off once or twice. It wasn’t bad but I didn’t feel particularly engaged with it, nor were others.

Following Risk was Mayhem (USA) was another thing altogether. Hello! Joyously violent with an excellent sense of humour, and the female co-lead, Aussie actor Samara Weaving seemed to be enjoying herself a little too much :) There’s a nasty drug in the air, literally, that removes everyone’s inhibitions, so the building is locked down for the 8 hours required for the antidote to take effect. It’s established early on that you can’t be gaoled for any crimes committed while you’re under the drug’s influence. That sets the scene nicely for people who have been done over by the company to fight their way to the top and take on the big boss. This was violent, bloody and gory…and so so excellent. Several scenes had me laughing loudly. The film had energy, a good script and actors in good form.

sff 2017 day 8

Wow! Home by 10, a little late for whisky though it would be nice to have a wee drop. Still managed to squeeze in two excellent films, starting with The Party (UK), written and directed by Sally Potter. One of Potter’s earlier films, Orlando, screened at my very first filmfest in 1993 and I loved it as I have loved several of her films, especially her later work, The Tango Lesson. The Party was a tightly written tale of a dinner party conversation going really wrong with secrets exposed, all unfolding in effectively one, long chat and still managed to surprise with its twists right up to the finale. It reminded me a little of an Ian McKewan novel, such as Amsterdam; short, sharp and twisty. Brilliantly acted with various tensions at play, and an insightful, witty script.

Final film was a more relaxing heartwarming film set amongst the vineyards of France, Back to Burgundy (France). The basic story is of 3 siblings, one of whom returns from 10 years away in Australia and other places, dealing with their family’s vineyard after their father passes away. The story is simple, with heart, and I s’pose has that sense of a quote later in the movie that french wines are planned for 10 or 20 years later whereas Oz wines like to be fresher, both approaches are different forms of pleasure and love, like wine takes time to mature, to improve, not necessarily to decay. The movie was focused on the interplay of the 3 siblings, and progressed through a full 4 seasons, ie a full year, in the cycle of the vineyard: starting with when to harvest, to breakdown, to prune, to grow, and back to harvest. It was never schmaltzy, nor too heavy, and conveyed a strong sense of family.

sff 2017 day 10

Friday night, one movie and I was home by 9.30. Was supposed to be in Newtown much, much earlier but all city trains were stopped due to a fatality at Granville. While I am saddened at the loss of life, I am also concerned that it could bring most of the trains to a standstill. It took around half an hour to move one station from Town Hall to Central, at which point I got off and got a taxi to my car. The advantage of living in the inner west is taxis aren’t too expensive but it’s not something I’d want to do too often. 

Friday night’s movie was the world premier of an Australian SF movie, called Otherlife (Australia). This was really good and they made it work, and even seemed to have a reasonable budget. Interestingly some of the bits I’ve read about it note that it actually had a very low budget. The basic idea is the development of a software based chemical that messes with the chemicals in your head, launching you into a virtual experience that feels totally real and lasts for hours, while only seconds pass in the real world. Throw into that a sub-plot around funding and you have a decent thriller in the making. There were sections of the movie I was unsure whether they were real or virtual/imagined; there was just enough of a suggestion that I was on the edge of “I don’t know”. Cleverly done and good SF.


sff 2017 day 7

Back to work post long weekend and one film on Tuesday night, that being the amazing Liberation Day (Norway, Latvia), about a Slovenian band that was invited to perform In North Korea for the 70th anniversary of their liberation from Japanese rule. The band is Laibach and I’d never heard of them and now I love them and feel I have been missing out. They sort of look like an industrial version of Devo and sound amazing with a male lead vocal with a guttural growl that reminded me a little of Lemmy from Motorhead, in fact here’s a clip of a song that was in the movie, Life is Life. Anyways, they were invited to play in North Korea, and significantly for me, were invited to play tunes from one of my favourite movies, The Sound of Music; as it turns out this movie is a popular favourite there. Who knew! Aside from my fascination with Laibach, the movie itself was fascinating, both for its own views and takes on North Korea, as well as its portrayal of how complicated it can be to stage a show and the amount of negotiation required, not to mention changing lyrics and visual effects in accordance with recommendations from Nth Korea’s censorship committee. Included were plenty of discussion with various officials around what was acceptable and ensuring respect was maintained. All in all, I really enjoyed this doco in a bunch of different ways.

sff 2017 day 6

The sixth day of fest was a fuller day than Sunday and no sleep-in and no lazy breakfast. Alas, woe is me. Once more we made the trek to the Art Gallery of NSW for two more films from Kurosawa. I gotta say I am particularly enamoured with the seats though they are cushioned but they’re not really suited for my usual film-watching slouch…and you did need to develop a slouch to be able watch films from the front row. First cab of the rank and one of Kurosawa’s that I think I have seen before, The Hidden Fortress (Japan), which in turn inspired George Lucas to go on and “create” Star Wars. This was very good and there were many similarities between the two movies though they differ somewhat too.

Following on from this was Yojimbo (Japan) and while it can be argued that Fortress inspired Star Wars, the comparison between Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is not quite so pleasant with the latter being a faithful reproduction of the former…without acknowledgement, no doubt assuming that audiences wouldn’t notice. Yojimbo is the tale of a mercenary samurai (read Gunslinger in American movies) who enters a town at the mercy of feuding gangs and ultimately plays each off against the other. Like Fortress, this is more action oriented with plenty of fights and encounters to maintain the excitement.

The third movie was Manifesto (Germany),starring Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett…and a few more iterations of Cate Blanchett…all up she plays 13 different roles throughout this movie covering and portraying, a broad range of artistic manifestos. I liked the idea of it and it was visually sumptious and intelligently done but at the same time it was a wee bit exhausting and it would have been nice to have sort of guide, or even chapter headings, as to the manifesto being represented. Some I was familiar with, some I lost track of, and may have nodded off to sleep once or twice or two…though that’s more filmfest exhaustion rather than a reflection on the film. Part of me, would have liked to see it more as a series of short films, not viewed at the same time. Heathen that I am.

Final movie of the night was a documentary on Johnny Rotten and Public Image Ltd, The Public Image is Rotten (USA). This charts Johnny and the development of Public Image Ltd (PiL) from the end of the Sex Pistols to present day and as Johnny comments early on, he’s one of those people who refuses to go away. I remember liking Sex Pistols back in the day and while I didn’t get into them, I was also fond of PiL, and am somewhat surprised at how many songs in the doco were familiar. While I enjoyed seeing all the old clips, listening to the sounds and interviews, at the same time I was little disappointed that it was such an old school, standard rockumentary for a band and a guy that were anything but standard and ultimately it was a little unsatisfying.

sff 2017 day 5

Having had a full day on Saturday, I had a very easy start on Sunday with a sleep-in, followed by a relaxing brekky over the paper at the cafe down the road. Then mid afternoon I headed into town for my 10th movie of the festival and my next Kurosawa flick, The Throne of Blood (Japan). This was Kurosawa incorporating western themes into his work and this was his take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. His approach was a merging of Japanese approaches with a foreign play and I think it worked well with the re-telling based around Japanese lords and leaders. In some respects, it was easier than watching Shakespeare in English as it was Shakespeare’s text translated into Japanese, then translated to regular english for the subtitles. For this reason I found Kurosawa’s version very accessible and may actually be my preferred version though I did miss the english enunciation of the witches’ chant “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble…”.

Movie #2 was my 11th of the festival and only my second at the State Theatre, a venue I am rarely at this time round. This was for The Other Side of Hope (Denmark, Germany) and geez it was good. The director, Aki Kaurismäki, is one that I have long been fond through previous works like Drifting Clouds (SFF 1997), and here he takes a gentle, though occasionally serious, humorous look at refugees in Denmark through the life of Khaled, a Syrian who arrives illegally, stowed away in a boat and applies for asylum. Asylum seekers are given accommodation with freedom to move around the city. Juxtaposed with Khaled’s story is that of a local who leaves his wife, sells his shirt business, wins massively in one night of cards, and buys an restaurant, later hiring Khaled who has run away from deportation. This a friendly film, full of optimism and a very Danish sense of humour.

Final movie of the day was a modern Japanese movie, Rage (Japan) which is described in the programme as a mystery thriller but I think that sells it short and understates its core. It starts with a murder scene and does track through searching for the suspect, throwing in some red herrings along the way and a few stories that seem somewhat unrelated. Ultimately, this film was much more an exploration of its title, of rage. Different people come to their point of rage, often with a long buildup, that sense of helpless screaming against their situation and inability to respond as events beyond their control push them to the edge. It explored different aspects of its subject with differing resolutions or no resolution at all. It wasn’t quite the film I expected and I liked it all the more.

sff 2017 day 4

Day 4 and it is the weekend at last. So too, a full day of filmfestivaling with 5 flicks ahead. The day started with a double serving of Kurosawa as part of a retrospective of his works. I think the festival is showing 10 altogether including many of the works best known to western audiences such as Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, the latter being the inspiration for Star Wars. David Stratton curated this retrospective and is on hand to introduce each movie.

The first movie of the day, and of the retrospective is Rashomon (Japan), the film that ultimately introduced Kurosawa to the rest of the world, via its screening at the 1951 Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion. This was an extraordinary film exploring ideas around the nature of truth and perspective. It’s set in a broken house where some people have sought refuge from the rain. Two of the three 3 men, share perspectives of a court case they had attended around a horrible murder. Ultimately 4 perspectives are shared of the circumstances around the murder, sharing common points but each point diverging in some way. This was in black and white with excellent use of light and shade. A strong start to the day.

That was at the Dendy Quays, and from there I strolled across to the Art Gallery of NSW for the second Kurosawa of the day, Ikuru (Japan), or Living (english). The success of Rashomon, gave Kurosawa more freedom to create other films and particularly this one which is about an ageing bureaucrat who discovers he has stomach cancer. He is unhappy with the life he has had looks to change direction in his remaining time. It’s also a film about how people are perceived with a long scene at the end of his colleagues arguing over his legacy and their different takes on what he’d done and who he was. A fascinating character study of sorts though I found it a wee bit long myself as Kurosawa allows plenty of time for character development to play out.

Third movie of the day was Mrs K (Malaysia, Hong Kong) which was a homage of sorts to its star, Kara Wei, a veteran performer in Shaw Brothers martial arts movies in the 70s and 80s. Since those times, she’s developed as a dramatic actor and Mrs K was both a return to action and also her last action movie as she’s in her 50s these days and doesn’t want to do action roles anymore. This was more of dramatic piece fused with occasional martial arts parts with a good story development, good engagement and humour and it flowed well.

I was intrigued that the programme description compared House of Others (Georgia, Russia, Spain, Croatia) to the likes of Tarkovsky and Bergman, but particularly the former. Set in the 90s in the peace following the Georgian civil war, it’s a story of families moving into a remote, deserted village. Gorgeously shot, this was very much about the people adjusting to this new life. Initially focused on a new family that moved in but broadening to a family of 3 girls and ultimately, perhaps about one. The film developed gradually as the viewer is drawn in and comes to know these people; there was something of the sense of the alien and belonging, or rather failing to fit in.

It was a proper filmfest day and I managed five films finishing with Ember (Turkey, Germany). Set in modern day Istanbul focusing on a mother coping in the absence of her husband. As the blurb notes, the film revolves around the clash of new and old Turkish values and particularly on how how women continue to be dependent on the men in their lives and struggle to achieve their own independence. The film had a slow burn (pun not intended) that ultimately didn’t quite grab me yet at the same time, it charted an interesting path through conflicting emotions while stepping around easy resolutions.

sff 2017 day 3

Friday night, post a long day at work, I managed a single film. Met up with the family for dinner after their first movie, we got the train down to Circular Quay for Czech flick, The Teacher, directed by Jan Hřebejk. I haven’t seen anything from Hřebejk in many years having loved his films, Cozy Dens (SFF 2001) and Divided We Fall (SFF 2001). The story of a manipulative teacher, getting parents to do her favours in return for special treatment for their kids, and poor treatment for the kids of the parents who don’t comply. While seeming light, the film touched on serious issues without getting bogged down and swapped back and forth between children and parents, past and present, as the story unwound. Hřebejk’s deft direction allowed the story to flow, managing to be light while not shying away from a broader commentary on society and community.