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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Life During Wartime

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Timmy: almost a man, in Life During Wartime.


Life During Wartime (USA)

Todd Solondz takes Happiness from its New Jersey roots to Florida, and recasts with fresh actors – including three famous faces from the UK: Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, and Charlotte Rampling. The result is just as a Jewish, just as dysfunctional, and even more darkly comic.

However, Life During Wartime is also far more clearly about an issue than any of the director’s previous films – and the topic is ‘forgiveness’. The film opens with a scene that mirrors the opening scene of Happiness: Joy (Henderson) and her husband Allen (Michael K. Williams – a.k.a. ‘Omar’ from The Wire), in the same restaurant, and passing the same engraved replica antique ashtray gift between them. They’re talking about forgiving and forgetting. It’s a theme that recurs frequently and explicitly throughout the film.

After her husband was imprisoned for raping the neighbourhood boys, Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida, and convinced all the kids – Billy, Timmy and Chloe – that their father is dead. Billy is in college, studying homosexuality in the animal kingdom; on the brink of his bah mitzvah, Timmy is old beyond his years, and tolerates his mother talking about her sex life; Chloe (the youngest) is on anti-depressants, and takes karaoke classes after school.

Just as their father William (Hinds) is released from prison, their aunt Joy comes for a visit from New Jersey. Her marriage to sex-pervert Allen has collapsed, and she’s having semi-regular visitations from the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens – aka PeeWee Herman), who killed himself after she broke up with him. In search of support, Joy tracks down her glacial and self-involved sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), who has cut ties with the family and de-listed her contact details; she’s a big success now, and is going out with Keanu.

Solondz has a great visual sense of humour – Billy’s room is decked out in stock-standard freshman posters – an anarchy sign, Ché and Bob Marley; there’s a copy of Naked Lunch next to his bed. In all other respects, it’s the blandest, neatest room imaginable. Even while it’s funny, it’s also desperately sad – Rampling as an aging but aristocratic divorcee, desperate for a fuck, who when she catches William trying to rob her afterwards, says with resignation, ‘I understand, it was hard work; I’m old’.

It’s very different from Happiness – more stylised, but also more emotionally raw. I don’t think Solondz’ films are necessarily getting better, but they’re definitely evolving – which is a good thing – and becoming more humanist (which is even better). [DJ]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Ordinary People

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm


Ordinary People (FRANCE-SERBIA-SWITZERLAND)

Next screening: Monday June 7 / 9.00pm / Dendy Opera Quays

Serbian writer/director Vladimir Perisic’s debut feature is quietly devastating; a slow-burning fuse, that ends with an implosion of the heart and mind. Its object is the everyday inhumanity of war, and its laboratory is a day in the life of fresh young army recruit Dzoni (Relja Popovic) – who looks like he cannot be more than 18, and carries himself with the awkward, unsure gait of 16.

The day begins routinely, with room inspection, bathing, breakfast in the canteen. Then the seven men in ‘third unit’ are sent on a mission – but with no idea where or why they are going, Dzoni’s anxiety begins to build. On the bus trip, a radio crackles with army news bulletins about ‘a state of emergency’, a ‘terrorist threat’, and the need to avert a ‘humanitarian crisis’. They arrive at an abandoned collection of buildings in the countryside, where they escape the heat, sitting under trees, splashing themselves with water, smoking – and wondering what they are waiting for. By the end of the day, Dzoni will have transformed from an innocent to a cog in the wheel of war.

Perisic gives us plenty of room the breathe, and for the imagination to un-furl. His composition is dominated by long static shots, held interminably; the film opens with a pitch black screen, as noises fade in; a door opens, and someone yells into the pitch black room – ‘get up soldiers’; we begin to hear stirrings of men; we hold on this image, of light shining through a doorway, for exactly two minutes, before it cuts to the first shot of our protagonist.

Dialogue is at a bare minimum, and character exposition is slowly, subtly built – all we need to know is that Dzoni is young, inexperienced, basically humanitarian, and hasn’t had a good relationship with his dad. He joined the army because he couldn’t find work; when the army came calling, he thought ‘why not?’ He is one among many ‘ordinary people’ in his unit – called upon to extra-ordinary things.

Perisic’s thesis is simple, but powerfully constructed; although it is slow, there is no spare meat, and it runs only 80 minutes. The cinematography is spare but elegant, and colour palette of blues, greens and browns add to the generally glacial feeling. Economical, restrained storytelling, and with a real eye for composition – I’m so glad to have caught this filmmaker’s debut feature. [DJ]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Film Review: Cairo Time

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm


Cairo Time (CANADA-IRELAND)
Next screening: Monday June 7 / 6.45pm / Dendy Opera Quays

Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda (Sabah: A Love Story), Cairo Time is a sumptuous movie-going experience, with two amazing leads, a beautiful location and a simple but engaging story. Patricia Clarkson (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Shutter Island) plays Juliette, a western outsider holidaying in Egypt. Juliette is meant to be meeting up with her UN employed husband, Mark (Tom McCamus) but he his held up in a Gaza refugee camp. Instead Mark sends one of his ex-colleagues and Cairo resident, Tareq (Alexander Siddig, Kingdom of Heaven, Syriana), to pick his wife up at the airport. From here what transpires is a tender romance between two very different strangers.

This gorgeously shot film (thanks to cinematographer Luc Montpellier), makes excellent use of the stunning architecture, both ancient and not quite so old, of Egypt’s capital city. This added to Cairo’s evocative landscapes- makes the film exceedingly good armchair-travel viewing. And for a little while it feels like perhaps this is all the film is going to bring. But thankfully the uneasy beginning, which relies a little too heavily on fish-out-of water scenarios, makes way for the heart of the story, which is a charmingly choreographed holiday flirtation.

Clarkson is one of those actors with a natural screen presence, and this film makes full use of her innate likeability. Siddig is a revelation; the British-based actor has undeniable charisma, making Tareq an enigma of sorts. It is credit to both central performances that the film’s central love story is both morally ambiguous and touching. The film’s superb soundtrack, which includes original music from Irish composer Niall Byrne, enhances the story without interrupting what’s happening on screen. This added to the divine costuming (some of Clarkson’s clothes are to die for) makes this captivating film the full package. [BETH WILSON]