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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Lebanon

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Lebanon (ISRAEL)

Lebanon - takes claustrophobia to new heights.

Unlike many war films, writer/director Samuel Maoz’s claustrophobic chronicle of his experience in the 1982 Lebanon war presents protagonists who are neither highly motivated nor well-trained soldiers. They’re just kids – Israeli conscripts thrown into an iron ‘can’ without the skills, emotional hardiness or experience to deal with the terror that ensues.

Of course, one could argue no-one is prepared to deal with the experience of war, something explored elsewhere in the festival in the extraordinary documentary,

Here Maoz succeeds in capturing the confusion and the horror but is somewhat undone by the gimmick of constraining the camera to within the tank walls. Nightmarish outside visions – such as that of a naked, distressed woman staggering through the chaos – are only glimpsed through the gunsight, the camera’s pans or tilts accompanied by the whirr of the turret’s motors. The device creates the necessary claustrophobia – it’s like Das Boot inside a tank – but it’s also so contrived that it distracts from the otherwise unsettling sense of realism.

Like, presumably, Maoz’s real experience, Lebanon is a film of fragmented moments and incomplete explanation. There’s no story here other than a sketchy mission to reach a rally point across a town controlled by the hostile Lebanese, conveyed to the four men inside the tank by occasional visits from the sketchy commander, Gamil, who treats them like scum. The morals of what to do with a captured Syrian prisoner offers some moral complexity, but Lebanon is above all a visceral experience that succeeds within its own narrow frame of reference. (JOSHUA BLACKMAN)


[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Robber

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 3:07 pm

The Robber / Der Räuber (GERMANY)

The Robber

Friday June 11 @ 4.35pm
Sunday June 13 @ 9.15pm

Benjamin Heisenberg has based his glacially cool second feature on Michael Prinz’ novel about Austria’s notorious bank robber, ‘Pump-gun Ronnie’. Keeping dialogue and character exposition at a minimum, the film follows marathon runner Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust – Revanche) after his release from prison, for attempted armed robbery.

During his incarceration Rettenberger has kept to a rigorous training schedule, and upon his release into society, he intersperses his fitness regime with brief, cardio-vascularly-intensive bouts of bank robbery. Neither winning the prestigious and highly competitive Vienna Marathon or making away with hundreds of thousands of Euros ever seems to satisfy our protagonist, who continues to train, and rob banks (without ever spending the money). He begins an affair with an old acquaintance, who allows him to stay in her flat – until she realises what he is up to; even then, the prospect of losing the one friend or human connection he has, can’t divert him from his course.

While seducing you with its icy visuals, and keeping you hooked with Rettenberger’s increasingly extreme exploits, Heisenberg’s film is at heart a fascinating (and often chilling) case study: although ostensibly a specific tale about a real life ‘adrenaline junkie’, the film also feels as though it is pointing a finger at a broader pathology – whether it’s Germanic or purely athletic, I’m not sure. This probably won’t get a release, so see it at the festival. [DJ]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Bill Cunningham New York

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Bill Cunningham New York (USA)

Bill Cunningham spots an exotic pair of stems...

Bill Cunningham is 80 years old, and can be found most days poised on street corners, waiting for what he calls a “bird of paradise” – an elegant woman, or anyone wearing something fabulous. He has been photographing interesting fashion since the 1960s, when he was given a camera by a professional photographer, who told him to use it like he used his pen – to take notes.

This doco takes us inside a New York personality, someone who has become a fixture in social and fashion scenes – despite being intensely private, and living a steadfastly Spartan lifestyle. This is the interesting paradox at the heart of Bill: while he describes fashion as “the armour that allows us to get through the everyday”, and has a love affair with the eccentric outfits of others, he himself wears a blue cotton workers’ jacket at all times. When it rains, he wears a disposable rain poncho, which he has patched-up with electrical tape, to extend its lifespan.

Bill is the man behind two of the New York Times’ most popular columns – ‘On The Street’ and ‘Evenings’ – one documenting the philanthropic/social/political movers-n-shakers at black-tie functions, and the other following trends that he notices happening on the streets. That, for him, is where he discovers the truth: what people are wearing, and who they are. He is so dedicated to the task, that one colleague compares him to a war photographer – he’ll go out in all weather (preferring it when it’s a blizzard), and will do anything for the shot.

Over the years, he has documented the fashions of Anna Wintour and Iris Apfel. Wintour will stop on the street to be photographed by him (but no-one else) – and says “we all get dressed for Bill”. [DJ]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Loved Ones

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 2:04 pm

The Loved Ones (AUS)

Prom can be hell. Really.

Take the Twihard phenomenon to its obsessive and murderous extreme and you’d arrive somewhere close to this gleefully nasty Aussie horror. Actually Lola, the pretty-in-pink psycho at its centre, would devour them before breakfast. Robin McLeavy is magnetic as that wannabe queen bee, and none too pleased when Brent (Xavier Samuel, soon to vamp it up in Twilight: Eclipse) refuses her prom-date invitation. He’s soon abducted by her loyal and subservient father (John Brumpton) and, under the skittering lights of a disco ball, sets about teaching him the error of his ways.

What could have been an exercise in torture-porn nihilism is redeemed by a wicked sense of humour and beautiful, stylized visual palette – somehow all the colourful prom-queen imagery makes the violence easier to take. First time writer/director Sean Byrne skilfully creates a distinct, twisted universe and builds an unbearable level of suspense while drawing on, among others, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carrie.

Lola is one of the most demented of movie characters, fixated on her wish for the perfect night and drunk with hormonal glee over her barely contained sexuality (one that’s sometimes directed in rather unpleasant directions). She’s so mental you have pity for her – one of the reasons the movie is such a success. Despite the shocks and blood, there’s an odd identification one has with this bizarre world of heightened teenage emotion. It’s not for the squeamish, but unlike its recent Hollywood siblings, it’s a horror movie that actually delivers on expectations. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Runaways

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 2:00 pm

The Runaways (USA)

Joan Jett and her gang of Runaways.

In 1975 an all-girl rock group called The Runaways formed in LA. Until then, women playing hard rock was rare in mainstream music. Fronted by guitarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie, the five-piece – most just 16 at the time – braved it out until 1979, released four records, and were supported by bands like Van Halen and The Ramones. The Runaways tells this story with Twilight star Kristen Stewart playing Jett, and child star (now teen star) Dakota Fanning as the band’s manufactured ‘sex kitten’, Currie.

Based on Currie’s autobiography and sporting Jett as executive producer, The Runaways should ooze authenticity. Director Floria Sigismondi has an impressive background directing music videos for stars like David Bowie and Marilyn Manson, and for once (hallelujah!) Hollywood is telling its own stories rather than clumsily fingering someone else’s. What could be more quintessentially LA than a band of teenage Valley Girls gone wild, set at the time when the Sunset Strip was about to explode with the glitter and glam of hair metal?

Yet none of this helps make The Runaways more credible. The filmmakers boast the movie is “gritty” and “raw”. If they truly believe it is then it’s an extraordinary example of filmmaking in the bubble; of Hollywood on Hollywood. Fanning and Stewart are convincing but their skills are wasted within clichéd scenes and tired compositions. Fanning, 16-years-old now, depicts Currie as a vulnerable girl who’s all eyes, seeking approval by plunging too far, too fast into a sexuality beyond her age. Currie’s real-life decline into drug addiction is well documented – hopefully Fanning has more resilience to the damaging glare of the spotlight.

The most successful aspect of the movie is also the saddest. For all their tough girl attitude, The Runaways were pushed around terribly by men, most notably their poisonous overlord and manager, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who verbally abused, manipulated and financially deprived them. The girls’ attempt to play it cool and tolerate Fowley’s misogyny – rarely stepping in to defend each other – is painful to watch. [KATE HENNESSY]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 1:42 pm

The Most Dangerous Man in America (USA)

Daniel Ellsberg exposes the Vietnam War.

“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side, we were the wrong side,” says whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg of the Vietnam war, words that have eerie resonance to the complicated modern day conflict in the Middle East. Ellsberg, government employee and idealist, was responsible for turning over the top secret ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the press in 1971, and he is both subject and narrator of this fine Oscar-nominated documentary.

Directors’ Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith stylistically unremarkable but compelling narrative charts Ellsberg’s transition from toeing the public service line to reformed anti-war protestor. Ellsberg describes this epiphany himself, which occurred while listening to draft dodger Randy Kehler calmly announcing to a protest group how he would soon be joining his friends in prison. This idealism struck Ellsberg; 7,000 photocopied pages later, The New York Times found themselves with a document describing the government’s plans for the secret expansion of the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg’s leak indicted administrations as far as back as Harry Truman’s, and stated inexplicably that 70% of the reason for American’s maintained presence in Vietnam was only to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat – in other words, to save their nation’s public image. As equally astonishing is the attitude of President Nixon, represented in real Oval Office tapes, who offhandedly recommends the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam to a more cautious Henry Kissinger.

The documentary is not a groundbreaker, but a timely reminder of a government’s responsibility to its people, and a fine portrait of a government stooge turned activist. [JOSHUA BLACKMAN]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Game of Death

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on May 31, 2010 at 1:33 pm

The Game of Death (FRANCE)

Heard of a tough crowd?

TV is evil! Not only does it consume all of our time, deaden our brain cells and fatten our waistlines, it also turns us into willing torturers. That’s the premise of this provocative French documentary that recreates the famous 1961 ‘Milgram experiment’ as a television game show.

Its premise was simple: volunteers were instructed by a benign authority figure to administer electric shocks to another sitting in an adjacent room if they failed to answer questions correctly. Each wrong answer would cue an increase in shock severity. The test was designed to discover how many people would obediently follow instructions rather than follow their more compassionate instincts.

The trick, of course, is that it was staged – the ‘victim’ was an actor and the cries of were pre-recorded. Milgram was inspired by the trial of Nazi final-solution mastermind Adolf Eichmann, and in this updated version television is depicted as the new fascist method of control. The experiment is recreated by subjects now also faced with glaring lights, audience cries of “punish them!” and attractive French TV personality Tania Young as their commandant. In the original test, 62.5% of subjects saw it to its end – will the result be any different given these new conditions?

Writer/producer Christophe Nick has no qualms in making sweeping claims about the obedient nature of the human condition, and The Game of Death is riveting as both a social experiment and piece of filmmaking. Paradoxically, it also entertains by simultaneously criticizing and drawing upon the people-in-pain reality TV spectacle at which it takes aim. (JOSHUA BLACKMAN)

Film Review: Fish Tank

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:27 am

Fish Tank
Released May 27

Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank.

Set within the same socio-economic ballpark as Harry Brown’s housing estates, Fish Tank looks like a picnic by comparison. Whereas Daniel Barber shows us the hellish underbelly of London’s infamous ‘Elephant and Castle’, rife with pitiless violence, underage prostitution and the pointy end of the drug trade, Andrea Arnold is more interested in the casual neglect that afflicts a large swathe of the UK’s youth; and Fish Tank is a far richer film in terms of character and construction.

Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is fifteen, a highschool drop-out, and pops cans of lager like most kids her age pop cola. She lives in a tiny flat in a housing estate, with her booze-soaked mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler. In her spare time Mia sneaks off to an abandoned neighbouring high-rise and practises her dance moves – relentlessly. Her one spark of sunshine is the promise of a better life that this one talent holds forth.

As with her Oscar-winning short Wasp and her Cannes-winning debut feature Red Road (both visions of women surviving the physical and emotional minefields of life in a low-income and high-crime urban jungle), Arnold excels as a storyteller within this territory. Bolstered by Katie Jarvis’ incredibly natural performance, the director creates a heroine who is vulnerable, cheeky, tough and fragile – no mere cipher; even the film’s most potent symbol (the horse chained-up in an abandoned lot) feels natural, rather than laboured.

Fish Tank is most confronting when it explores the usually-taboo area of underage sex. When Joanne brings home Connor (Michael Fassbender – Hunger), a laid-back lover twice Mia’s age, awakening sexuality and desire for a father figure push Mia into his arms; the emotional fall-out for mother and daughter pushes the teen to make a tough decision, at a turning point in her life.

Mercifully, Arnold’s mood is optimistic; Mia is a survivor, with 150% spunk – despite a total lack of parental affirmations and institutional guidance. When she is unexpectedly put in her mother’s position, Mia manages to make better decisions. Mia’s life might be bleak, but things are definitely looking up.

4/5 Dee Jefferson

Film Review: The Secret in Their Eyes

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:23 am

The Secret in Their Eyes
Released May 27

The winner of the 2010 Best Foreign Language Oscar, Argentinean thriller, El Secreto de Sus Ojos is a rich, textured look at love, loss and memory. Set in 1999 Buenos Aires, the film looks at the people involved in a criminal case twenty years earlier, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, that was hampered by political and personal vendettas.

Popular Argentinean actor Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens – 2005) plays Benjamin Espósito, a retired state prosecution investigator. Still haunted by a 25-year-old case, he tries to exorcise his demons by writing a novel about the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old schoolteacher and the subsequent messy investigation. The story unfolds in flashbacks, edited through Benjamin’s memories, to reveal a plot that is about so much more than one miscarriage of justice.

The lives of Irene Ménendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) Benjamin’s superior and love interest, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) the teacher’s bereaved husband and Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) Benjamin’s alcoholic work colleague are all forever interwoven through this murder enquiry, with tragic consequences.

The Secret in Their Eyes has been masterfully structured by screenwriter/director Juan Jose Campenella, with each layer of memory peeled back to reveal something new, making the film completely compelling for its long 126 mins running time. The camera work is remarkable especially in the huge football stadium scene and in the smaller intimate lift sequence. Both scenes ramp up the film’s suspense, leaving you breathless for very different reasons.

Adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, the film, while uniquely Argentinean in its setting, offers universally understood insights into memory and regret. Campenella has embedded very real menace and intrigue into a protracted love story, aided by the impressive ensemble cast. This is a film capable of completely absorbing you into its twists and turns as it explores the intricacies and extremities of what the search for justice truly means.

Beth Wilson

Film Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

In Arts, Brag 364 (May 31), Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:20 am

A Nightmare on Elm Street
Released May 20.

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep,” said Nancy in the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street – advice that must be heeded if one is make it through this dour reimagining of Wes Craven‘s classic.

It’s not that the concept hasn’t more mileage – even after eight films (if you count Freddy vs. Jason), the stripey-jumpered, bladefingered, disfigured Freddy Krueger remains as iconic as ever, and the dream-stalking premise offers endless scope for visual ingenuity. It’s more that this movie is a victim of the Michael Bay’s homogenising horror remake machine, Platinum Dunes, the production company that’s already sapped the audacious low-budget character from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and Friday the 13th.

Similarly this new version of Nightmare feels less like the work of the stylish musicvideo director Samuel Bayer than that of a committee, rehashing the expected slasher tropes with little originality. Even the famous set pieces, such as the iconic telekinetic bedroom slaying and the vision of Freddy’s hand emerging from the bathtub are mishandled in the absence of Craven’s specific timing. Worse, the film fails to deliver scares beyond the lazy and predictable loud noise-designed-to-make-you-jump gimmick, which quickly becomes more grating than frightening.

Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger, scary in the original, a one-liner joke machine in the sequels of diminishing returns, is replaced here by Jackie Earle Haley’s more sinister and realistic creation. Oddly though, Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer’s script has made him more sympathetic than mythical, turning the kids’ parents – those responsible for Krueger’s burn-victim appearance – into the real villains. Like the feeble attempts to characterise the 20-somethings targeted by Freddy, this is a thread that’s left hanging.

Haley, rehashing his Rorschach growl from Watchmen is, however, solid as Kruger, and Rooney Mara is effective as protagonist Nancy. The rest of the cast are merely non-descript fodder for Krueger’s knives; there’s no future Johnny Depp lurking in the background here. Regrettably too, this version also removes any is-it-or-isn’t-it a dream ambiguity that made the original so compelling, completely wasting what is still one of the most intriguing premises of any horror. This new Nightmare is just that.

Joshua Blackman