66th Sydney Film Festival - Six picks!



Sat 8 June, 8.30pm (Ritz), The 13 June, 8.30pm (HOC) & Sat 15 June, 9pm (EV4)

For her second feature Aussie director Sophie Hyde has adapted the novel by Emma Jane Unsworth about two Dublin women hitting the dirty 30s and all the emotional baggage and excess luggage that comes with shared accommodation with your twenty-something’s BFF. It’s been ten years in a booze-soaked and recreational drugged haze. Laura (Holliday Grainger) is a wannabe author. She’s been working on her first novel since the beginning of time. She has a journal full of scrawled observations on her chum, Tyler (Alia Shawkat), who lies in the gutter staring wistfully at the stars. There’s no immediate rush to give up their hedonistic lifestyle. Or is there? 


Whilst bohemian ex-pat American Tyler takes a one-night stand where she can, which is probably far more occasionally than frequently, it is ginger-haired, cherub-faced Laura who gets the more regular attention, and seems to be the one who quietly hopes to be swept off her feet. Enter classically-trained ruggedly handsome Jim (Fra Free), who tickles her ivories something wicked. Before the girls can quote anything remotely witty Laura is hitched and shacking up on the other side of town. “The night is a zoo and the next day is its museum”.

“Just what are an animal’s primary needs?” slurs Laura after a botched poetry session. Food, sex, and safety. But the necessarily in that order. Animals is a beautiful slice of life. The resemblance to Withnail and I can’t be ignored, but from a female perspective. The central performance from Grainger is terrific, and one of my faves for the year, but all the acting is top notch, and the dialogue bristles with loose precision. A movie that captures those delicate moments between the moments, that reckless confidence and awkward naivety that follows some of us well into adulthood. 


This Is Not Berlin

Mon 10 Jun, 3.45pm (EV4)

No, it’s Mexico City, 1986, and teenage Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) is in limbo. Most of his school mates spend their extracurricular activity involved in fights with rival school kids. But Carlos is more interested in electronics. He finds inspiration from his uncle (played by director Hari Sama), and with his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) the two lads discover a hedonistic escape in an underground nightclub and the pan-sexual counter-culture that inhabits it. Carlos is attracted to Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo), but the attention of Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) sways his behaviour. 

Essentially a coming-of-age drama This Is Not Berlin exhibits a fearless approach to the fickle nature of adolescence, to the troublesome issue of peer pressure, and the social politics of sexual libration and individuality. Apparently based on the director’s own experiences, as is often the case with resonant drama like this. The movie is gifted with a great soundtrack of pulsating new wave music. Rita is the singer and front person to a progressive rock band, trying to cut a swathe through the punk rock. Rita spouts socio-political diatribes, and Carlos, who fixed the keyboardist’s synth, and Gera tag along. 


Sama elicits powerful performances from his young cast, especially León and Romo. The camera roves in and around the action like a restless panther. It’s a heady mix of elements, from the mostly implicit violence that seethes, to the sexual tension and release (there’s a genuinely charged encounter near movie’s end). This Is Not Berlin is as much about the apathy and disenfranchised of yesteryear as it is of the here and now. 


The Wedding Guest

Fri 7 June, 6.30pm (Ritz)

From Michael Winterbottom, probably Britain’s most prolific director, comes a thriller, and a damn fine one too. It has a romantic undercurrent, but calling it a romance would be misleading. It’s primarily a story of love unsatisfied, desire at a close distance. Someone once said, there’s no such thing as love and romance, only trouble and desire. The Wedding Guest is exactly that. Dev Patel (the ethnic Ryan Reynolds) plays Jay, a man on a mission. It’s easy to work out that his job is not above board. Radhika Apte plays Samira, the woman he must safely collect and deliver. But, there are other players involved, and nothing ever goes to plan. 

A kind of Indian-Pakistan travelogue fused into the mechanics of a thriller, The Wedding Guest is essentially a two-hander, with Jim Sarbh as the third wheel. Soon enough it becomes difficult to work out who is leading who. The heart is a lonely hunter. Jay and Samira are forced to cohabit as they make their passage out of harm’s way, and as sure as the sun sets in the west, they will find each other’s pretence as a couple something more than a guise for safety. 


Winterbottom never fails to get great naturalistic performances. Most of his best work is imbued with an immediacy and cinema verité attention to detail. It’s a drama, but it feels raw and real. The production values are never over-stated, but assist the movie in the most genuine, authentic way. The movie is a UK production, but feels like a co-pro. Winterbottom is excellent at entrenching his directorial style into the lay of the land. The Wedding Guest might not offer anything entirely new in the traditional style of the twisty pursuit thriller, but it’s done with such a strong, solid hand, and Patel and Apte are not only very easy on the eye, but they deliver compellingly. 


Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

Fri 7 June, 8.50pm (HOC), Sat 8 June, 7.45pm (DNEW), & Sat 15 June, 9pm (DOQ2)

Ben Wheatley is one of my favourite contemporary British directors. His hit list (pardon the pun) is terrific (Kill List, Sightseers, and Free Fire, for example). He is adept at both intense drama and action and the blackest of comedy. With his latest he employs the humorous hand to great effect, taking a fantastic ensemble cast and letting them have a right old go at each other. You could refer to this as Festen In England (referencing one of my favourite familial disaster movies), as it takes place on the year’s most anticipated let’s get plastered day and night, almost entirely in one location, and features the extended relations in full attack and defence mode. 


Neil Maskel is the titular Colin. He’s hired a huge country manor to host a NYE bash for his entire family and their immediate loved ones. This happens to include the estranged brother David (Sam Riley), who has been haphazardly invited by sister Gini (Hayley Squires). It becomes quickly apparent that everyone is reluctant to entertain David, let alone humour him. There is a lot of bad blood under the bridge, shall we say. So, without further adieu, let the festivities start, let the shit hit the fan! Pop the bubbly, pour the gin, slosh the Scotch, and scull the beer. 

Wheatley wrote the script, and also edited the movie, and the editing is very much a central player, as the narrative frequently cuts between the various conversations and confrontations, including the sheepish Lord of the Manor (Richard Glover) and the anxious caterer Lainey (Sinead Matthews). Special nod to Charles Dance who is a delightful surprise in the guise of Uncle Bertie, and to classy fraulein Hanna (Alexandra Maria Lara), David’s girlfriend, who observes the entire calamity with bemusement, then delivers a little Marlene. Wheatley indulges himself at movie’s end, during the credits, pushing the Brechtian envelope. It’s a nice touch. 


Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool

Sat 8 June, 6.35pm (EV3)

It’s about time someone made a definitive documentary about the legendary musician who irrevocably changed the face and feel of jazz more than once. Director Stanley Nelson has amassed a stunning collection of photographs that he uses to tell one part of the life and career of Miles Davis. He also utilises the voice of Carl Lumbly to read passages from Davis’ autobiography (which was published in 1989 - Davis passing away only a couple of years later). Together, with the music of the maestro, and occasionally a tune from someone else as context, they form the amazing story of this extraordinary game changer, a musical maverick who has provided the world with some of the most gorgeous jazz, both modern and classic. 

Relaxin’, workin’, cookin’, and steamin’, Miles laid down the blueprint. And he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He wasn’t an easy man to be with either, as many will verify, especially the women in his life. As is often the case, those that are truly gifted, are often chased by demons, and lash out at those they supposedly cherish. Davis had his fair share of demons. He was a smack addict in the 40s, and a coke addict through the 60s and 70s. Booze also hounded him. But he managed to still make countless albums of rare beauty, and nearly always inspired his fellow musicians and collaborators to greatness. 


Birth Of The Cool (a reference to the compilation album he released in 1957, but just as pertinent a description of his own legacy) is essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in modern music. The impact Davis had on modern jazz in the 50s and 60s, especially improvisation, and the influence on funk and hip-hop, again through improv in the early 70s, cannot be overstated, especially on the albums “Bitches Brew” and “On The Corner”. With close friends, ex-lovers, and collaborators waxing lyrical (shame Betty Davis didn’t chime in), a deeply etched, warts and all portrait of the artist is formed and framed, and it’s one for the ages, one to be cherished.


Martha: A Picture Story

Sat 8 June, 6.30pm (EV5) & Mon 10 June, 6pm (DNEW)

Martha “Marty” Cooper had her first camera at eight, and dreamed of being a photographer for National Geographic. But instead of composing elegant photographs of wild beasts on the savannahs she ended up capturing the streetwise animals in the urban jungle of New York, and in the process she discovered her passion and vocation. After a stint as the first female staff photographer for the New York Post in the late 70s, being told to cover Olympic athletes and look for cleavage, she found solace in doing the “weather shots” (filler using ordinary folk), often in the Bronx, where she discovered the illegal graffiti artists bombing and tagging trains. 

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It was her obsession with photographing this burgeoning subculture that would become her legacy. Although she wasn’t accepted into the photography community for her “snapshots”, and her work was criticised by the media for encouraging vandalism, she eventually had her photography - along with fellow street art eye Henry Chalfant - immortalised by a small German publisher in a book called Subway Art in 1984. Only 3000 copies printed, it would become a bible amongst street artists and the hiphop community, to this day. 

Director Selina Miles, who focuses her docos in the street art world, has made a thoroughly captivating and inspiring portrait, not just of Marty, the gung-ho traveler and adventurer with a sly sense of humour, but also the wilderness of Brooklyn and the Bronx in the late 70s and 80s, and the gentrification that followed. Baltimore also features, as Marty spent a lot of time photographing its locals. Now at 75, with numerous books under her belt, Marty, still the loner, challenges herself by running with the hoods, tackling the modern world of street art, transmogrified by social media, and she still struggles with acceptance. But, as this wonderful documentary illustrates, if you follow your passion, however big or small or improper, happiness will find a way to follow. 

For complete Sydney Film Festival program please click here.