Peter M Howard ::

My SydFilmFest Ten

12Aug2010 [movies]

Because there's only so much one can say with 140 characters. What follows expands on my tweeted commentary from during the Sydney Film Festival.


great start to #sydfilmfest; I don't normally like horror but possessed was excellent — near pitch perfect, good balance shock/atmosphere[1]

All this time later and Possessed still ranks well in my mind. It's a solid horror film: follows the genre well, full of references to other films in the canon, but also brings its own unique view. It's especially interesting to see the conflicts between Western influence and indigenous Korean. It comes out both in the plot (with the traditional Christian interpretations up against the ideas of native spirits) and in its themes (obviously western/Christian imagery held up to both ancient and contemporary Korean imagery). It's clear that there's a discomfort, within the society, about the influence of Christianity, but at the same time a familiarity and a realisation that both Christian and native spiritualities can co-exist.

It's also great to see a horror film tell a suspenseful, frightening tale without relying (though certainly comes with its fair share of jumps).

Near Dark

saw kathryn bigelow's near dark last night; nicely structured, beautifully shot in parts, worthy inclusion in vampire canon #sydfilmfest[2]

Looking back I'm not so sure about Near Dark. It was certainly beautifully shot: Bigelow has a remarkable eye for the wide open countryside, with industrial artifacts puncturing the scene. There's a strong sense of industry sucking the life out of the environment, though that's entirely in the visuals and not the story itself. Without that, it's a terribly basic story with average acting. It probably didn't help that the print we were viewing was uneven, and the sound mix a little off, with voices jumping up and down in volume.

Au Revoir Taipei

au revoir taipei was a great, fun film; almost too cute but stayed on the adorable side of twee #sydfilmfest[3]

Au Revoir Taipei is definitely one for the collection, probably still my highlight of the festival. It's a fun ride, with a bunch of kids caught up with criminals — some innocent, some wanting to be bad but not knowing what they're playing at. Once it gets through the first act, most of the action takes place within a few hours, in the beautiful night-time streets of Taipei, punctuated with noir touches and backed with a great soundtrack. And it's a heart-filled coming-of-age tale as well, with adorable kids that somehow stay grounded and innocent.


lourdes is a great story, well told; I do like the RED cam; could've done with some more production attention and a tighter cut #sydfilmfest[4]

Lourdes tells the story of a group on pilgrimage to Lourdes. The group itself is a mishmash of people looking for a miracle, people doing charity work, and tourists. All are, in a sense, looking for some sort of healing. Things get particularly interesting when one non-believing wheelchair-bound woman, who only comes to these things "to get out of the house", gets up and walks. It's all very ambiguous though — there's talk of actual miracles along with temporary relapses, and it's unclear whether there's really anything permanently changed. A fascinating exploration of faith, hope, and love.

It is technically a little weak though, and obviously made on a low budget. The RED cameras are used to great effect — some of the cinematography is great, and some beautiful shots are squeezed out even in only natural lighting. The editing really could have been tighter too — it lingers too long at times, and there are a few slow moments that don't really add anything to the tale. For the most part though, the meandering adds to the realism, which makes the possibility of the miraculous all the more stark.


runaways audience either women fans of the band (me: who?) or girl fans of kristen stewart (me: twilight?); both were justified #sydfilmfest[5]

I expected Runaways to be decent, but was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. A great biopic and music movie — with the soundtrack of the band's songs interwoven well into the story. The music started out raw and amateur, with on-set recordings sung by the actors, and developed into strong studio recorded music that really sold the band. And I wasn't expecting much from Kristen Stewart, but she was amazing: the spitting image of Joan Jett and teeming with punk rage and girl power.

Teenage Paparazzo

adrian grenier's teenage paparazzo was really good; an exploration of the cult of celebrity told with surprising warmth and character[6]

Another I wasn't expecting a great deal from, though the premise was interesting enough: Adrian Grenier starts to look at the guys behind the lenses, and meets the titular Teenage Paparazzo. At one level, it was a fascinating exploration of celebrity — on how it's manufactured, and what it means for society. And at another, a remarkable relationship develops between Grenier and the kid, with Adrian trying desperately to prevent the guy from becoming chewed up and spat out by the celebrity machine. It's full of warm and funny moments — Grenier comes across as terribly fake and self-obsessed in his Entourage persona, but by the end of this becomes a real boy, warm and fleshed out. He's doing something right.

The Killer Inside Me

bit conflicted, but on balance I "enjoyed" killer inside me; predictable, shakespearean, brilliantly told and acted, visceral #sydfilmfest[7]

The Killer Inside Me is undeniably brutal, and at times gets very difficult to watch. But its cast is incredible, it's a really well told story. It's part crime, part tragedy. Once it gets going it becomes obvious where it's heading. There's a similarity to the Coen's No Country For Old Men, which was also brutal, though its twisted ending left me unsatisified. Killer provides a cleaner plot, even though there's no real satisfaction in the close.

I Am Love

my #sydfilmfest dud: I Am Love showed promise, but half way, things just started happening for no reason; it fell apart, not in a good way[8]

didn't help that the film's death highlighted that I really didn't care about the struggles of boring rich capitalists #sydfilmfest #iamlove[9]

I Am Love was really disappointing. I'd heard good things about it, and I'm a huge fan of Tilda Swinton, who does well here with very little material. And it starts out with promise: Swinton plays a housewife, cut off from her past and with no life outside her immediate family. Her son introduces her to his friend and business partner, a chef, who awakens passions in her — first through his food, later through a hidden affair. The cooking and the dishes are beautifully sensual. Everything looks amazing: from the opening titles to the scenery to the carefully observed cinematography and the costuming.

But halfway through the film it starts to fall over. A few dud cuts throw off the continuity (in its sense of time and of place). People start making decisions out of nowhere or out of context. It could almost have been a deliberate, and clever, observation of her world falling apart as she embarks on her affair. But that's giving it too much credit. Then later, someone dies, inevitably, and I found myself just not caring at all. All the characters are rich and self-absorbed and with almost no redeeming qualities. A few attempts are made to have us sympathise, but when they talk about how their patriarch used to "eat with the workers" to show he was one of them, it only highlights that they're just a bunch of exploitative capitalists. Again, there are potential elements of a great film in here, but it's so at odds with the pure, simple tale of sensual awakening that it just doesn't fit.

Wasted on the Young

wasted on the young was tough at times, very over-the-top, but incredibly well constructed, with gorgeous cinematography #sydfilmfest[10]

Wasted on the Young, an Australian film, premiered at the Film Festival. From the start, it was obvious that it wasn't a typical Australian film — that it was likely to be a good film in its own right, not with the qualifier "for an Aussie film". It's beautifully shot and designed, and told with a great eye and an understanding of the titular young.

The film tells a story of school bullying; it sets up a world constructed and run by the kids, with no authority figures ever actually appearing on screen. Parents, teachers, police, counsellors — all are only talked about or slightly off screen. Then it sets up a Lord of the Flies scenario for the modern world. Alpha males are loved, but brutal and callous. Rape is the fault of the girls involved. And the only form of justice is revenge. It's a deliberately over-the-top story and an over-the-top world, but it sets up its boundaries and plays out its story incredibly well.

It also invented a cinematic technique for dealing with text messaging that was the best I've seen yet (though some have done similar things with IM). Very early on, the first time someone receives a text message, text appears placed against the background. We get the obligatory POV shot of the phone to read the same message. But with this concept established, we never again have to get a POV of a mobile: text is placed against the environment; it even works incredibly well in sets of shots as the same message is broadcast to all the kids. As well as being an interesting visual trick, it really sells the idea of this interconnected messaging being completely a part of the world, not a disconnect.

Summer Wars

summer wars: good fun, scifi-lite set against family drama; creative (naïve?) online world; somewhat uneven storytelling #sydfilmfest[11]

Summer Wars was good fun, and for a light-hearted anime gives a pretty good show. It melds two worlds really well — there are a bunch of kids living second lives in a pervasive online virtual world; they're brought together for a big family reunion. One of the family's black sheep is responsible for an AI that gets loose and starts wreaking havoc in the online world, its effects leaking out into the real world as the nation's tech systems are all tied to it. Hijinks ensue.

In sum, it reinforces the importance of family and of communication. And interestingly, the web isn't blamed in it all. The online world is incredibly creative, but also seems really naïve compared to modern visions of the web. It reminded me of nothing so much as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which his online world is all virtual reality, populated by avatars, and mixing commerce and gaming. Back when the web was young it was all promise, and Summer Wars recaptures that sense of innocent wonder.

Sex and the City 2

Obviously not part of the festival, and not something I actually saw, but during those two weeks I spent an awful lot of time hanging around in cinema foyers watching people. And what I saw of people seeing SATC2 was incredible — almost entirely female, groups of girls getting dressed up, drinking cocktails or champagne, and making an event of going to the cinema. Odds are most of the people that saw SATC2 rarely actually go out to the cinema anymore, and this one movie managed to draw a huge number of people. Curiously, as critics, we tend to be forgiving of big budget boys' movies (Transformers, Iron Man) no matter their flaws — they're too obviously an escapist fantasy. Sex and the City drew all sorts of critical ire, despite being just as ridiculously escapist — because it's inescapably not a boys' movie. But as a filmmaker, I could only dream of having the appeal, and the pull that that had. And it is, of course, a studio and a cinema's dream, when both are struggling to make movie-going an event again.

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