Friday, June 10, 2016

Sydney Film Festival 2016, Days 1 and 2: A Complex Crime Thriller, A Quiet Masterpiece, and Weird Cartoons

Greetings from Sydney! I'm excited to attend my first film festival, and I want to share this experience with all of you. I'm a little bit behind on reporting here, but now that the Sydney Film Festival is underway, I will report back here every day with what I've seen. I'm currently scheduled to see a total of 22 films at the festival, many of them this first weekend as a result of my unwitting front loading. The films will be a wide variety of new and classic Australian films, recent competitors from other major festivals (including several that just played at Cannes last month), and a few odd films from around the globe. I will be seeing at least one film a day for the next 12 days, so be sure to come back daily for updates!

Me on Opening Night

The opening night film for this year's festival, Goldstone (grade: B), is an appropriate introduction to contemporary Australian film: a standard genre piece enlivened by cultural issues and a slightly askew style.

More after the jump.

The film - a sequel to director Ivan Sen's previous film, Mystery Road (2013) - follows Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Indigenous detective investigating the disappearance of a Chinese girl in the remote Queensland mining town of Goldstone. Local sheriff Josh (Alex Russell) arrests Jay for driving drunk and initially warns him from looking too deep into the disappearances. But when Jay is awoken by gunshots into his hotel room, it becomes clear that something sinister is happening in the town, and the missing girl is only the beginning.

Anyone familiar with the crime thriller genre will be able to see where this is going, and sure enough the resolution to the mystery is not terribly surprising. Instead, the film succeeds on the strengths of its cast and cultural complexity. The former is not universally strong - Russell never embodies a character so much as a symbol of white negligence, Jacki Weaver's shady mayor is derivative of her monstrous matriarch in Animal Kingdom, and Cheng Pei-pei is given nothing to do as a brothel owner. However, Australian film mainstay David Gulpilil does great work with his brief role as an indigenous leader, and Pedersen delivers an astonishingly thoughtful and complicated performance as Swan. It's a star-making turn.

Pedersen's performance is important to the film's cultural complexity. For as standard as the plot elements are, they're bound in the complicated racial relationships of contemporary Australia, where white Australians seek to remove the indigenous population from their traditional lands by any means necessary, and where Asian immigrants are treated with equal hostility. The problem is that the film struggles to consistently explore these issues, which admittedly are unwieldy for a single film to tackle. The results are uneven, meaning that a fair number of powerful scenes - including the breathtaking final scene - feel unearned. Goldstone is a solid film, but not necessarily a great one.

A great film, on the other hand, is Kelly Reichardt's new film, Certain Women (grade: A+). Based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy, the film presents a triptych of stories set around Livingstone, Montana. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer struggling with a difficult client (Jared Harris), Gina (Michelle Williams) attempts to buy sandstone from an older man (Rene Auberjonois) so she can build a house for her family, and Jamie (Lily Gladstone) develops a crush on a new teacher (Kristen Stewart) at night school. The stories lightly intersect, but each is designed to stand on its own.

If those plot descriptions sound particularly meager, it's because they are. Reichardt is not interested in narrative events so much as she is in the emotional relationships between people, and thus the emphasis here is on the acting. Everyone here is operating at the top of their game: Dern and Williams both haven't been this good in ages, Stewart continues to prove that her reputation for blankness was a Twilight-based fluke, and Auberjonois is heartbreaking in his few scenes. Gladstone, however, is the real find: she plays Jamie with such quiet determination and melancholy that it's remarkable she's a relative newcomer. Every one of these performances is quiet and unfussy, but so carefully calibrated that they hardly seem like acting. The emotional impact is cumulative and devastating, not from histrionics but from recognition.

This isn't to suggest that Reichardt simply sits back and points the camera at her actors. The film is visually dazzling, capturing the gorgeous Montana landscape in naturalistic wonderment. Her use of long takes allows for maximum emotional impact, including an absolutely devastating finale that should rank among the most beautiful extended shots in recent years. Reichardt's style may not be loud or eclectic, but make no mistake: she is a unique filmmaker with a very distinct, very important voice, and Certain Women is another incredible film on a resume already littered with them.

Part of the fun of a film festival is finding a special event that you wouldn't necessarily have access to otherwise. For example, Thursday evening I attended the Animation After Dark Showcase (grade: N/A), a collection of animated shorts from around the world that, let's just say, you won't find preceding a Pixar movie anytime soon. The films ranged in time, country of origin, and style, and, as can be surmised, some were certainly better than others.

from "Violet"

The highlight of the showcase was "Violet," an outrageously funny dose of schadenfreude from American animator Ryan Ines. Estonian animator Ave Taavet's "Senior's Choice" is a visually-distinctive film set in a nursing home, while French animator Hannah Letaif's "A Slice of the Country" is a deliciously dark fable with a hint of a political message. On the other hand, "Walked Dog, Dog's Dead. Sorry" (Dermott Lynsky, Ireland) adopts the logic of a Don Hertzfeldt film without the latter's heart, "Bump Classique" (Ben Wheele, United Kingdom) feels more like a demo reel than a short film, and "Don't Tell Mum" (Sawako Kabuki, Japan) feels like it's trying to hard to be sexually outrageous.

Overall, the showcase was a mixed bag, something that could be felt in the audience - for the most part, the people around me didn't seem to have a reaction at all, with only a few of the shorts provoking any laughter or gasps. The experience, however, was unique and satisfying, making the 80 minutes of obscenity worthwhile.

Tomorrow: Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar's latest film and a documentary about Madonna's backup dancers.

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