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[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Teenage Paparazzo

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Teenage Paparazzo (USA)

Next screening: Thursday June 12/ 8:30pm/ Event Cinema

Adrian Grenier (of Vince Chase Entourage fame) was fascinated when one night, amongst the usual paparazzi circus he spotted blond-haired, braced-toothed youngster, Austin Visschedyk, snapping away. Grenier sought out the 13 yr old photographer, deciding to make a film about the teenage paparazzo.

This documentary is really about the concept of fame in the 21st Century. Where Perez Hilton is both celebrity commentator and celebrity and stars such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (all interviewed during the film) seem to almost exist because of the paparazzi gaze.

While Grenier’s aim as filmmaker is to investigate this child paparazzi phenomena,  Grenier the celebrity seems intent on turning the tables on the paparazzi and focusing the camera on them; a change the photographers don’t seem to enjoy or appreciate.

Using a mixture of celebrity interviews (Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria Parker, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin and the Entourage cast) as well as media insiders insights and media commentators analysis, Grenier’s film looks at why we have become a celebrity-obsessed culture.

The problem with this sort of social commentary is that Grenier is a celebrity and this impacts on not only the film, but also on its subject, Austin.  Precocious to start off with, this coupled with ineffectual parenting and celebrity attention, Austin transforms into a monster during the documentary. With offers of his own reality TV show and Teen Vogue shoots, he decides that he too wants to be ‘famous’, like Grenier.

Unsurprisingly Grenier comes off well in his documentary, and is able to see that as much as he would like to think he was only observing and helping Austin, he has also exploited him. Like the photo-ops that Grenier fabricates for the film, it is hard to say to what extent this film, whilst very entertaining, is also a manipulation of sorts. [BW]


[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Police, Adjective

In Arts, Blog, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

Police, Adjective (ROMANIA)

Next screening: Friday June 11/ 2:15pm/ The State Theatre

New Wave Romanian cinema has hit Sydney Film Festival, marking growing international interest and appreciation of Eastern European films. Along with the official competition pick, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Florin Serban), the program also includes Police, Adjective/Politist, Adjectiv from writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu.

Winning the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes 2009, Police, Adjective follows the case of detective, Cristi (Dragos Bocur), a loner cop who works by his own rules, ignoring or avoiding his Captain (Vlad Ivanov). After the denouncement (a word with huge connotations in ex-communist countries) of one friend Victor, for being a drug dealer, by another- Alex, Cristi puts the boys under surveillance. But finding little more than a bit of recreational hashish smoking and a third female friend, Cristi is reluctant to arrest Victor, who could face a seven year sentence. Instead Cristi continuously trails the trio in an effort to find the real supplier.

The use of time in this film is very different from what we are accustomed to in English-language cinema. Especially in what is essentially a police procedural film. Porumboiu unapologetically uses long scenes of Cristi’s surveillance with no dialogue and often little movement.

It is however the character interactions between long, drawn-out scenes which make this film. Cristi’s conversations with colleagues, his discussion of semantics with his Captain and his witty repartee with his wife (Irina Saulescu) are all cinematic gold. The dialogue is funny, clever and insightful.  You spend the time during the film’s tortuous stretches of silence hoping for more human interaction on screen.

Police, Adjective is both comedic and tragic, with the central character, Cristi’s modern understanding of police work, and the recent history of Romania’s oppressive state firmly in opposition. This is a police drama without guns, violence or urgency- instead a slow-burning tale about the power of words. [BETH WILSON]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Last Train Home

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Last Train Home (CANADA-CHINA)

Next screening: Thursday June 10 / 2.30pm / Dendy Opera Quays

Qin is faced with a dilemma. Raised by her grandmother in rural China’s Sichuan province, she only sees her parents when they travel back from their monotonous Guangzhou factory work for Chinese New Year. They encourage her to study hard so she can find a well-paid job to support herself and her family. But Qin feels closer to her grandmother than her parents, and she resents the burden of responsibility – shouldn’t a teenager be allowed to have fun, not work, and shop for fur coats?

As the harsh reality of life for these struggling Chinese migrant workers dawns on Qin, it dawns on us, too. A multiple award-winner, Last Train Home is a powerful documentary. It excels in largely wordless montages of the workers, who send over 90% of their earnings back home to support the families, with the meagre remainder providing necessities such as food and clothing.

Each year, the pilgrimage the family makes back to rural Sichuan is a journey made by millions of others in this Chunyun period. In 2008, the number of rail passenger journeys during these holidays hit 2.26 billion, greater than the country’s population. The first year we see the Zhang parents travel back, it’s with relative ease. But the following – once Qin has abandoned her schooling to join them in the factories – they’re swamped in a flood of people clambering desperately to board the scarce trains.

The desperation on people’s faces is dreadfully moving, as is the tension in the fractured family unit – especially in an horrific scene between Qin and her otherwise subdued father – an explosive moment captured extraordinarily by director Lixin Fan. “You want to film the real me?” a furious Qin cries to the camera, “This is the real me!” It’s not every day you see such raw, authentic emotion captured on screen. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: City of Life and Death

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 9, 2010 at 5:50 pm

City of Life and Death (CHINA/HONG KONG)

This harrowing film is to the war in the East as Schindler’s List was to the Holocaust. Like Spielberg’s opus, City of Life and Death is shot in magnificent black and white, which gives it a surreal dreamlike quality. It’s more than just an aesthetic choice too: the images and acts on screen are so brutal – women raped, men mowed down by machine guns and unarmed Chinese POWs coldly executed – that if it were in colour it would be intolerable.

Director/writer/producer Lu Chaan struggled for five years to get his retelling of the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre to the screen, and the result is relentless. The opening sequences depict the Japanese invasion with a Saving Private Ryan shaky-cam realism that doesn’t sacrifice spatial coherence, and from then on the atrocities only escalate.

After the Japanese capture of the city and the defeat of the Chinese defenders, Japanese commander Ida (Ryu Kohata), a psychopath even more banal and unhinged than Amon Goeth, presides over the mopping up operation. During this ‘Rape of Nanjing’, hundreds of thousands of POWs and civilians were murdered and thousands of women were raped. The largely fictional characters caught up in this horror include Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a cuddly man with kewpie-doll features who acts as the assistant to real-life Nazi, John Rabes’ (John Paisley), and a thoughtful Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is kind (at least, by comparison) to one of the hundreds of women selected to ‘comfort’ the Japanese victors.

The film has caused considerable controversy in China for the decision to forefront a Japanese soldier, and critics have debated whether it falls into the same ‘wish-fulfilment’ trap as Schindler’s List. Space prevents me from weighing in on that discussion – but suffice it to say, as a piece of cinema, City of Life and Death is an essential war film. Powerful, draining and provocative. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: GasLand

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

GasLand (USA)

Next screening: Saturday June 12 / 2:00pm /  Dendy Opera Quays

Josh Fox’s GasLand, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance 2010, joins a host of recent films designed to scare the bejesus out of their viewers; Inconvenient Truth, The End of the Line, Food inc.. Taking us on a pollution road trip, the very likeable documentary-maker tours natural gas drilling sites in 24 States across America, looking at the consequences of the under-regulated practice of hydraulic fracturing on local water and air quality.

Fox’s documentary undertaking is a direct result of proposed drilling in his area (Catskills/Poconos region of Upstate New York and Pennsylvania). When a natural gas company offers him US$100,000 to lease his land, this puts Fox slap-bang in the centre of the issue. As the film’s protagonist he examines the environmental and social impacts of drilling.

His investigation takes him to many housholds affected by having drilling on their properties or in the vicinty.  Their tapwater is flamable- infused with toxic chemicals used in fracing, victims live with chronic illness and their pets and livestock also suffer. Despite a wealth of damning evidence, natural gas companies remain wilfully ignorant and the government refuses to intervene.

This documentary explores how the industry was and is able to expand so quickly and importantly how laws were manipulated to expediate the flow of natural gases in an attempt to counterbalance America’s reliance on foreign oil. The film also highlights the tragic reshaping of the natural environment across America, with its beautiful mountainous landscapes dotted with drills and heavy machinery.

GasLand should anger, exasperate and shock its audience. Co-presented by the City of Sydney’s Green Campaign and the SFF, the problems revealed in this film may exist much closer to home than we would like. Visit the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance to see what is happening in our own backyard. [BETH WILSON]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: New Beijing: Reinventing a City

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

New Beijing: Reinventing a City (AUSTRALIA)

Screened Sunday June 6, no repeat.

As we discover in Georgia Wallace-Crabbe’s brisk 52 min doco, the metropolis of Beijing is currently in a state of flux. Like many large cities, it’s a city of levels. On one, there’s the architectural splendour of the Olympic “Birds Nest Stadium,” the Watercube and the National Theatre dome, buildings which represent the prosperous, world-superpower image of China the government wants you to see. On the other, there’s the slums, traditional areas with hundreds of years of history that are slowly being swallowed up by this rapid development.

In some cases, it’s clearly pointless – the facades of buildings on an historical boulevard have been knocked down and replaced by tacky Hollywood-style versions, turning history into a tourist attraction. In others – such as the skewering Z-shape of the CCTV (state television network) building – the audacity of the design is a powerful symbol of innovation and progress even if some others would prefer they’d instead “just make better television programs.”

Whether or not that “progress” is a reality is another matter. One such dissenting voice comes from photographer Zhang Jinqi. He runs the “Memories of China” photographic project which documents the precious historical areas of Beijing still remaining. He’s our spokesperson in this debate, an endearingly funny chap with a real love for his city and memories of his childhood. And when ones sees Arup engineering execs gloating over frivolous gifts while nearby locals are forced to prop up their homes’ unstable walls with girders, it’s not hard to be sympathetic with his point of view.

As Wallace-Crabbe, on hand to field questions after the screening, revealed, the film was pulled from competition mid-way through a festival in China; it seems the communist government knows these engineering marvels, layered against the patchwork Beijing skyline, are as much wish-fulfilment as symbols of the real China. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: The Waiting City

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 8, 2010 at 11:19 am

The Waiting City (AUSTRALIA)

Next screening: Wednesday June 9 / 8.00pm / George St, Event Cinema 9

India seems to hold a certain attraction to Westerners unused to the chaotic bustle of the city streets, the huge divisions of class and wealth, and their culture’s underlying spirituality. For the Aussie couple at the centre of Claire McCarthy’s second feature (the first, Cross Life, featured at the festival in 2007), it takes a while for those charms to take hold.

Aussie Hollywood star Radha Mitchell plays Fiona, a hotshot lawyer who’s travelled to Calcutta with her chilled muso-boyfriend, Ben (Joel Edgerton), to rendezvous with their newly adoptive daughter. They’ve been waiting two years, and are understandably miffed when the adoption agency keeps delaying their appointments. But as in Australia, bureaucracy is bureaucracy, only more so, and in the anxious wait, unresolved relationship issues begin to emerge.

The Waiting City bares the stamp of someone familiar with India’s charms, quirks and relativistic sense of time – and it is: McCarthy spent months working in orphanages and Mitchell was raised in the Hindu-Vaishnavite tradition by her parents, but the narrative is uneven. For every astute moment of observation – mostly from hotel clerk Krishna, played delicately by Samrat Chakrabarti – there’s a jarring transition in the central couple’s relationship. Part of the problem is McCarthy’s overly vacuous dialogue, which, with all its, “well, you know,” daily-colloquialisms feels underwritten.

But the lensing by Denson Baker, using the RED digital camera, is exquisite, and, when not short-changed by the plot, Mitchell and Edgerton are believable as two ultimately vulnerable people, outside their comfort zone, searching to give their lives meaning.

Isabel Lucas also stars as an attractive ex-pat musician. [JB]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Kawasaki’s Rose

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Kawasaki’s Rose (CZECH)
Next screening: Saturday June 12 / 12.15pm / State Theatre

Director-writer team Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovský have made a bunch of successful ‘festival’ films together, the best known (in Australia) being Divided We Fall (2000), and Beauty in Trouble (2006). This latest, reportedly inspired by Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, explores memory and guilt in the post-communist Czech Republic – but with a great deal more humour; despite the heavy subject matter, Hrebejk and Jarchovský mine the darkly comic potential of dysfunctional families throughout the film.

Just as East Germany had the Stasi, Czechoslavakia’s communist government had not-so-secret police, who identified and weeded out dissidents, often with the help of citizen ‘collaborators’ (many of whom are alive and powerful in the modern Czech Republic). Kawasaki’s Rose explores this situation through the microcosm of a three-generation-strong family, whose patriarch – Pavel (Martin HubaI Served the King of England, Beauty in Trouble) – is being honoured with the annual ‘Memory of the Nation’ award, for standing up to the Communist state, and being part of the Velvet Revolution.

However, when a film crew (which conveniently includes his son-in-law) set about documenting Pavel’s life, they discover that his past has been ‘airbrushed’, to cover up a period in his early career where he was a collaborator. The filmmakers uncover new, conflicting, narratives – an old friend of Pavel and his wife, who was exiled to Sweden in the ‘70s; a former State interrogator, who suggests Pavel was directly responsible.

The film takes us on a somewhat circuitous route towards its final destination, dropping clues along the way, and taking detours into the collapsing marriage of Pavel’s daughter Lucie and son-in-law Ludek (who is cheating) – the point being that lies and guilt on any level, if covered up, have the potential to corrode a person (or a state’s) soul. It is an early conversation between Pavel and his granddaughter Bara which first alerts us to the rot: she has just been arrested for petty theft; her grandfather is trying to persuade her why confessing her crime to her parents is not just a moral obligation, but imperative for her mental health.

The film lightly touches on how memory and morality intersect within psychiatry, different religious philosophies (Buddhism), ideologies (Communism or Nazism), and even the documentary filmmakers’ ‘production of story’. Finally, Pavel – a professor of degenerative brain diseases, by the way – is forced to admit that if memory is lost, we cease to exist; and the only way to preserve memory is to acknowledge it (cue climactic scene).

At the heart of Kawasaki’s Rose is this profound but simple thesis; but what makes it so compelling is the richly created family situation. By sucking us into the different relationships, which shift and shudder as their foundation stones – memory, family history – are re-examined, the filmmakers make their point. Interestingly, the film ends on an unsettling note: a single shot of the birthday party of Kafka, the elderly ex-interrogator – which suggests that for every repentant from Pavel’s generation, there is another who is equally remorseless. [DJ]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 7, 2010 at 11:52 am

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (UK)

Next screening: Tuesday June 8 / 8.45pm / Dendy Opera Quays

It is quite frankly nice to see Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia) not in a mythical-themed film. This stunning British actress has for the past few parts played little more than a prop for her leading men, with her obvious talent going to waste. In this British thriller, Arterton, as the title character Alice, is one of only three actors on screen, with her cast-mates Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Vic and Martin Compston (Red Road) as Danny, her two kidnappers. This film shows not only how good Arterton truly is, but also how much can be done with a small budget, committed actors and an excellent script.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is tense and enthralling viewing. Set almost entirely in a flat with three rooms, writer/director J Blakeson plays a clever psychological game with his audience, utilising a basic crime premise. Rich girl, Alice is kidnapped and is held for a two million pound ransom by two ex-cons, who have meticulously planned the crime. But as with all of the best laid plans, in practice everything starts to slowly unravel, as the characters’ motivations become increasingly convoluted and entangled.

The fact that as a viewer you are unable to leave the flat, much like Alice, lends suspense to the film as you ponder what is happening outside. This heightened level of claustrophobia is intensified by the menace exuded by Vic and the jittery energy of Danny. Each actor gives as good as they get in this brutal, shocking and at times darkly funny film.

If you get the chance to watch The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which is J Blakeson’s feature debut, take it- you won’t be disappointed. [BW]

[Sydney Film Festival 2010] Review: Moloch Tropical

In Arts, Film Reviews, Sydney Film Festival 2010 on June 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

Moloch Tropical (FRANCE/HAITI)

Haitian director Raoul Peck was at one time his country’s Minister for Culture, which makes watching his latest film, a scathing political satire, all the more intriguing.

Covering a 24-hour period, which also marks Haiti’s Independence Day, President Jean de Dieu (French actor, Zinedine Soualem) is having a major meltdown. His people no longer want him in power, he is dangerously close to losing the vital support of America, he has a media personality to torture and he is severely sexually frustrated. Set in the stunning mountainous fortress of Citadelle Laferrière of Henri Christophe (a key figure in the 1804 revolution, who became King Henri I) this film critically looks at the perversion of power within the politics of modern democracies.

Although there are obvious similarities between Haiti’s first democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the central character, Jean de Dieu, this film’s criticism is not confined to the Haitian experience and also takes direct aim at American and European leaders.

The corrupting influence of power and the extent that political language can be manipulated are explored through Peck and Jean-René Lemoine’s biting script. The lengths that politicians go to to maintain the status quo is laid bare (at time literally) on screen. Although exaggerated beyond the point that the film could be read as a true account, its cast of players certainly have a disturbing basis in reality. Peck, who has accompanied his film to Sydney, asked Soualem to channel certain well-known politicians for different key scenes in the film; Clinton, Sarkozy, Berlusconi – these analogies come through loud and clear.

Moloch Tropical’s visual beauty is in sharp contrast to the grotesque nature of its characters. This film shows that when the gap between the theory of democracy and its practice is scrutinised, none of the players can escape untainted.

Raoul Peck will be talking with Jason di Rosso (ABC National Radio, Movietime ) about his career as a filmmaker at 12:15pm on Monday 7th June at the Statement Lounge. This free talk is an excellent opportunity to hear from the engaging director. [BW]