Sunday, 23 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - The Souvenir

Honor Swinton Byrne at her typewriter - The Souvenir
The Souvenir by UK film maker Joanna Hogg won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. Why ? This rather muddling film which apparently is based on aspects of Hogg's own life is neither particularly 'dream-like' or visually arresting but rather stretches the level of credibility of the plotline and the characters. This is a pity as the film has considerable potential which is unrealised in many respects.

The plotline follows  Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student from a privileged background  who meets Anthony (Tom Burke) an older, somewhat charismatic man who claims to work for the Foreign Office. Anthony seems to be interested in the subject matter of Julie's proposed film on the harsh social situation in England under Thatcher. Unknown to Julie, Anthony is a heavy heroin user which seems to register very little with Julie when the truth is revealed to her. Does she understand the drug scene ? Does she know what heroin is ? She is seemingly unaware throughout this story.

In terms of performance, the blank shopfront mannequin expressions of Swinton Byrne convey very little in meaning and emotion. Tom Burke is a more interesting performance as the foppish conman Anthony however his mannerisms become increasingly irritating. Julie's mother (Tilda Swinton, the real life mother of Honor Swinton Byrne) is wasted by being given a vacuous, unworldly character. All in all, the film looks and feels more like a graduate film student work rather than one for cinema release.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - The Dead Don't Die

(left) Adam Driver and Bill Murray - The Dead Don't Die
Independent director and screenwriter, Jim Jarmusch has created his own version of the zombie genre with this strange, oddly humorous and bizarre film set in the fictional town of Centreville, population 738. Not much happens in Centreville with its one diner, one motel and enormous funeral parlour.  The world has become unbalanced due to polar 'fracking' according to the new reports and  the local police led by Bill Murray feel something odd is going on. As the zombies arise from their graves, the townsfolk arm themselves for the apocalypse.

In addition to the key cast of Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigy and Bill Murray as the local police, there is a parade of characters with well established names including Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Luka Sabbat, Iggy Pop, RZA and Tom Waits. Tilda Swinton swings through as a samurai sword wielding funeral director (reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill) decapitating zombies before being whisked off in an UFO.

Jarmusch devotees will recognise his unique social observational almost spoofish style with this film that should be viewed more than once due to the multi-layering of the script. 

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - Palm Beach

Palm Beach 
Director and screenwriter, Rachel Ward commented on stage at the Sydney Film Festival, that the idea for this film came from holidaying overseas with friends where they were discussing  the topic of entering the last quarter of their lives and all the aches and pains which comes with the stage of life.

So this film is essentially about a group of grumpy middle-aged couples and others swanning around in Palm Beach  (a Northern beachside suburb of Sydney for the rich and famous and the rich and not-so-famous) at a three-day party, reflecting on their expanding waistlines and building an outside pizza oven in the garden in the one of the principal characters of the story. The ageing males in this film had once had a one-hit wonder band (called 'The Pacific Sideburns') hence their association with each other.

In essence this film could be better titled 'Friends and acquaintances' for essentially it's a group of the in-crowd of the Australian acting profession. The cast includes Bryan Brown (husband of Rachel Ward), the perennial honorary Australian, Sam Neill, Greta Scacchi, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Heather Mitchell and the non local, Richard E Grant. The film is described as a light-hearted, uplifting drama/comedy but really its a bit tedious and seems more representative of the social bubble that is Palm Beach. The  scripting is very so-so and fully predictable. Bryan Brown acts, well... as Bryan Brown. Sam Neill is present on-set. Perhaps the party was real and there was bit of acting thrown in for good measure ?

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - Children of the Sea - Japanese Anime

Director Ayumu Watanabe's visually beautiful, Children of the Sea illustrates the mastery of this form of animation by the Japanese industry with the anime genre. The film presents a magical seascape for the setting of an adventure of momentous proportions for the young girl Ruka and her new and mysterious friend Umi, a boy who seems strangely at one with the sea. Umi is not alone for he has an older brother, Sora who is weak and sickly yet both he and Umi possess powers of affinity with sea creatures far beyond a normal person. All of them notice a strange song traversing the oceans, luring all sea creatures to a specific location in the ocean. The importance of the impending event is the focus of this film.

Watanabe's work not only has exquisite detail in the background and settings but portrays all manner of ocean life from the well-known to the recently discovered species by marine biologists. This is a well research film. The voice-overs for the characters are provided by experienced child actors Mana Ashida, Hiiro Ishibashi and adult musician, Goro Inagaki.

Although classified as a film for all ages, the mythical story telling and use of science is better suited to the teen and adult market. At 110 minutes running time, the film is well paced, magnificent adaptation of the original manga of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - Monos

Colombian director, Alejandro Landes skilfully brings the reality of civil war, the use of child soldiers and the plight of many Latin American nations to the screen in his provocative film Monos. Set in an unnamed country with lush visuals in cloud top mountains and dense jungles, the film follows a troop of teenage fighters who have been tasked with guarding a hostage adult prisoner (a female engineer referred to as 'Doctora') whilst also protecting a ruined defensive concrete bunker complex.

Answering to a shadowy group called 'The Organisation' and an adult controller (who operates more as a drill instructor and ideological cadre) order and discipline in the troop breaks down after a series of missteps and the escape of their hostage. Left much to themselves with only occasional contact from their controller and communication via a military radio, a Lord of the Flies feral theme becomes the foundation of this story.

The seriousness of their situation becomes only too apparent when an Army offensive forces the larger adult resistance fighters to retreat back to the bunker complex and the young fighters are instructed to fall back to a position deeper in the jungle. This is film which displays raw emotion, high level but not gratuitous violence and masterful portrayal of the breakdown of inter-relationships. A young cast provide the realism needed for the story set to the backdrop of stunning visual photography and an evocative music score by Mica Levi.


Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - Never Look Away

Tom Schilling as Kurt - Never Look Away
German director and screenwriter, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has delivered another masterful film with his sweeping perspective of three eras of German history spanning the period from Nazi Germany to a post-war resurgent West Germany. This film is equal in quality to his Academy Award winning work, The Lives of Others and tackles a different subject area with clarity and understated horror.  The film plotline follows the life of aspiring artist, Kurt from his early childhood in Nazi Germany to being a young adult in Socialist East Germany (the GDR) traversing the different societal and political standards which must be navigated during this complex part of history. 
Sebastian Koch as Professor Seeband - Never Look Away
Kurt's life intersects with Professor Seeband, whom unbeknown to Kurt was a doctor in the SS involved in Germany's eugenics program and ultimately was responsible for the sterilisation and death of Kurt's young eccentric aunt, Elizabeth. As fate would dictate, Kurt meets and falls for Seeband's daughter, Ellie who is attending the Dusseldorf Art Academy after the end of the War. Seeband has carefully disguised and hidden his Nazi past yet his racial beliefs remain unchanged and he seeks to break-up the relationship between Kurt and Ellie.

At 189 minutes running time this is a long film yet expert scripting, acting and imagery never lets the film slip in its paces. Inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter, Never Look Back is an excellent period piece and provides another cultural insight into Germany's difficult history in the middle part of the 20th Century.  

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - The Final Quarter

Adam Goodes - Sydney Swans - The Final Quarter
Ian Darling's documentary on the final three years of the playing career of indigenous leader and star player for the Sydney Swans, Adam Goodes provides a clear portrayal into the polarised nature of the public discourse which characterised the controversy into Goodes treatment. Goodes was consistently booed by the large fan bases of opposing teams at every single game where he played with elements of racism displayed by a small number of people including a much publicised name-calling incident involving a 13-year old girl.

Although the film was deliberately crafted using archival footage only, it is a major weakness with the absence of any direct face-to-face interviews with key people or indeed club fans to obtain their views and insights into the behaviour which was exhibited. A complete reliance on clips from AFL game broadcasts, football panel show commentators and 'shock jocks' provides a very superficial overview. Was it only racism ? Or an attempt to distract a highly effective player on the field (the Sydney Swans with Goodes were top of their game and winning premierships) ?  Had fans from the opposing clubs simply reached a point where they were 'booing' without even knowing why they were expressing it, as one commentator and Goodes himself questioned ?

Was it in fact bullying rather than racism or a reaction to the infamous Australian 'tall poppy syndrome' which lay at the base of the reaction (as Goodes himself also wondered) ? Goodes was on the verge of retirement from being a first grade player and had looked forward to winning one last premiership before exiting the game.

The failure of the AFL to manage the situation at a much earlier stage and take stronger measures is well demonstrated in the documentary. Overall, notwithstanding the limitations with content it is a well developed work of film making and editing in particular.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival 2019 - Film Review - Mystify: Michael Hutchence

INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence
The talent, rise and ultimately tragic end of INXS lead singer, Michael Hutchence is the subject for this documentary by Richard Lowenstein. Using archival public and previously unseen private footage with voice-over narratives delivered by the key people in Hutchence's life, his boundless energy and talent is demonstrated over the period of his performing career.

The narratives, linked to specific periods of time with appropriate film clips, are provided by his parents, his brother and sister, the band members of INXS, Bono of U2 fame, producers and agents and most tellingly by his lovers, Kylie Minogue and Helena Christensen. There is genuine affection held by all and not a little sadness about the past particularly from Kylie Minogue.

The magnitude and ultimate impact of the brain injury which Michael Hutchence sustained with an unprovoked assault by a taxi driver in Denmark, is given the importance it demands. Hutchence had wanted the diagnosis kept as secret as possible but the effect was clear to all those around him.

This documentary is essentially a tribute film which touches on, but does not go into too much depth on the intense controversies in his life particularly the use of drugs, his relationship with the late Paula Yates and his ultimate death in Sydney in 1997.

With a running time of 110 minutes, the film is not long or too short with good pacing and music by Hutchence which has not previously been broadcast or released.

Friday, 31 May 2019

'Brief Answers to Big Questions' - Stephen Hawking's final book

The Summer reading list for 2019 included the final book of renowned physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking who had died in March 2018.  The book is essentially a collection of answers to various critical questions drawn from Hawking's archive and accumulated over many years. In addressing the varied issues, Hawking and his assistants have sought to compile answers to complex yet widely asked issues such as: is there intelligent life in the universe ? Can we predict the future ? Is time travel possible ? Will artificial intelligence outsmart us ?

Most telling, Hawking also confronts the most immediate concern of climate change  and the environment directly by asking - can we survive on Earth and should we colonise space ?

With his characteristic humour, the book is full of quirky quotes - for the question as to whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, he concludes " must be a very long way away otherwise it would have visited Earth by now. And I think we would've known if we had been visited: it would be like the film Independence Day".

In confronting the biggest threat to planet Earth, Hawking concludes that while an asteroid collision is possible, the last big event was sixty-five million years ago. The immediate threat is runaway climate change. As he concludes, "A rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus, but with a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius".

This book is made for a non-science reader with the extra treat being that it includes Hawking's work on black holes and the relationship between Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and the later theory of Quantum Mechanics  - explained in clear, simple language. This is a must read book confronting some of the major science and ethical questions of the era.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Anzac Day 2019

Australian War Memorial: Ambulances with wounded members, 9th Division, Adelaide 1943
On  25th April, as Australia commemorates and remembers those members of the community who served during various armed conflicts, particularly the fallen on the battlefield, there is also the need to recognise the many often badly wounded who survived the conflicts. Suffering either physical injuries or psychological effects or both for the rest of their lives, they often constitute twice the number compared to those lost in action.

During the First World War 1914-18, Australia's population was less than 5 million of which 416,809 men enlisted to serve. Of these 60,000 were killed, and 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. The casualties and POWs combined constituted 51% of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). A staggering number.

In the Second World War 1939-45, Australia had 993,000 serving in the armed forces from a population of 6.9 million. Of these 27,073 were killed in action or died with 23,477 wounded and 30,560 taken as prisoners of war. Of the POWs, 8,296 died in captivity mainly in Japanese camps.

Lest we forget.

Anzac Cove 1915: Wounded being transferred to Hospital ship Gascon