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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Heartbeats

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm


Heartbeats (CANADA)

Saw Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats tonight at the State Theatre – was curious to see what this precocious 20-year-old would do with his second feature, which was billed as a queer love triangle based on his own experiences. The basic premise is two best friends, Marie and Francis, who both fall for the same guy the instant they lay eyes on him – Nicolas, a golden, tousle-curled nymph that would probably make Apollo feel jealous. No sooner do they set their sights on him than they both begin to get the ‘crazies’, and the friendship starts to splinter under the crushing weight of petty jealousy and distrust.

Dolan himself takes the role of androgynous cutie Francis, while Niels Schneider and Monia Chokri take the other points in the triangle. The clothes are predictably fabulous – throw together Dolan’s metrosexual fashion sense, the op-shop hipster threads of Montreal and Marie’s penchant for vintage, and you get an ultra hip aesthetic, which matches a luscious colour palette of reds, blues, greens, and the yellowing leaves of countryside Quebec.

Dolan’s approach is super stylised, with lots of slow-motion action set to a killer soundtrack that jumps easily between a Spanish version of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ and House of Pain’s hip hop classic ‘Jump Around’. The camera lingers lovingly on beautifully composed shots, vivid fantasies of Nicolas set against a blue sky that is raining marshmallows, and titillating details such as the effect of a pair of red patent stilettos against the green-yellow leaves of a woodland pathway.

It’s not all style, however; Dolan’s thesis, though simple, is powerful – the more so because it is so familiar to us all: you fall in love, and suddenly your whole perspective is in tunnel vision, and nothing else matters; you become consumed by anxiety, excitement, passionate urges, confusion. More significantly, perhaps, is Dolan’s addition to the canon of young, queer cinema – anyone who has ever heard those painful, disdainfully uttered words “how could you think I was gay?” – will appreciate seeing the moment writ large, and beautiful, on screen.

I think the reason this film kept the State Theatre audience happy – with its diverse demographics – is its incredibly universal subject matter, and its unfailing sense of humour. The main story is interspersed with ‘vox-pop’-style interviews with various young lovers, sharing all the excruciating details of their past romances: the obsessive-compulsive attention to email, the humiliations of unrequited feelings, the irrational rationalisations. It’s all so funny, because it’s all so very true. [DJ]

NB – Xavier Dolan’s debut feature, I Killed My Mother, is also screening at Sydney Film Festival, on June 4 & 8.

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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Restrepo

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 3, 2010 at 9:49 pm


Restrepo (USA)

Fictional war films have a different kind of impact than that imparted by Restrepo, an intimate documentary that follows the skirmishes of Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade in the notorious Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Rarely have we seen such a raw portrait of the soldiers’ experience, from the rawness of combat to the scattered moments of boredom and quiet reflection.

Journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made ten trips to the valley beginning in 2007, and named their film after the platoon’s first casualty, ‘Doc’ Restrepo, also the name of the critical hill-top outpost named in his honour. It’s from that 14-man stronghold that we see the guerrilla conflict with the Taliban.

The two sides often would exchange fire four or five times a day to seemingly no consequence. Now and again, A-10 Thunderbolts and attack helicopters whirl in to reign fire down on suspected strongholds, but the overwhelming feeling is one of pointlessness – the remarkably candid American soldiers not focussed on any kind of objective but simply trying to reach the end of their 15-month rotation so they and their friends can go home.

It’s clear from this well-produced portrait – which also concentrates on the failed ‘Rock Avalanche’ expedition in which the platoon is ambushed by the enemy – why the conflict has lasted so long. But Restrepo sidesteps these ideological issues entirely, instead focussing on rarely seen moments of mid-combat grief and the troubled eyes of the interviewed soldiers on their return home, which speak volumes. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: The Oath

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Osama bin Laden's ex-bodyguard, Abu Jandal.


The Oath (USA)

The second in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy exploring post 9/11 America and its policies (after My Country, My Country), The Oath is a bleak but fascinating trip into the mind of Osama bin Laden’s ex-bodyguard, Abu Jandal. By limiting her influence to an abundance of text-title cards – there’s no voice-over narration – she lets this Al Qaeda man-turned-taxi-driver speak for himself in copious face-to-face interview footage.

Despite shepherding the 9/11 hijackers on their arrival to bin Laden’s training camp, now, he claims, he “carries a pen instead of a gun”. Later, he dismisses terrorist martyrdom, but claims Islam should “confront them on the battlefield, soldier to soldier”; them, of course, being the Western infidels, whom he claims can nonetheless manufacture goods with “sincerity and conscience”.

Jandal is maddeningly contradictory, provocative and often sympathetic, especially when he speaks of his family and young son. Poitras is not interested in offering explanations for his latter day mellowing; he was reportedly transformed by a re-education program post-imprisonment (‘The Dialogue’), which is frequently mentioned but never explored. Instead, Jandal’s often eloquent and passionate ramblings stand on their own as a complex portrait of a dedicated jihadist also conscious of family security and the civilian careers of young Yemeni youths.

Conversely, what speaks for the film’s other subject, Guantanamo detainee and Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan – heard but barely seen – are the fallacious US policies that would keep him imprisoned for five years without trial, despite a Supreme Court ruling citing Geneva convention violations; as always, for both sides, there’s no such thing as black and white. [JB]