Sydney Film Festival: Pluto

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Pluto, an intense, often brutal South Korean film, starts with the murder of top high school student Yujin (Jun Sung).  Fellow student June (Da-wit Lee) is hauled in for questioning and the tale is told via flashbacks, depicting a group of elite students and what they do to stay on top to ensure a university place. It’s a story about bullying, blackmail, hierarchy and the underbelly of human nature, but Su-won Shin – writer/director and former school teacher – does not judge her characters. She keeps a certain impartial distance as the story unfolds, yet there’s still some compassion here for the central characters, irrespective of how deeply flawed they are.

The film treads a surprisingly similar path to The King Of Pigs – a South Korean animated film from last year’s festival that saw two former classmates, now adults, reflect upon the hell that was high school  Pluto is also a fairly close relative of the Australian drama Wasted On The Young. Yet both Wasted On The Young and The King Of Pigs feel superior to this entirely bleak, although well made, offering. Those films both had a surreal edge, and Wasted had key characters that were easy to care about.  

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Sydney Film Festival: Stories We Tell

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Sarah Polley is a bona fide talent, both in front of the lens and behind it. The Canadian actress confirmed her writing and directorial skills with 2011’s Take This Waltz – a stunning meditation on long-term romantic relationships. She reconfirms herself as a filmmaker with Stories We Tell, a truly incredible and totally enjoyable documentary about her family.

From the start, you know there’s something not being told and it hooks you immediately. It’s impossible to explain why this film is so brilliant without giving something away – even when the central secret is revealed, Polley still has a cinematic trick up her sleeve. It’s masterful storytelling – revealing truths without the slightest whiff of self indulgence.

Here, she lines up her father, siblings and significant others to tell “the story”. They’re great interviewees, and their words are highlighted by super 8 family films which keep things visually interesting. Exceptionally well edited, the story flows effortlessly. Much of the doco revolves around Polley’s late mother Dianne. Dianne was a force of nature. Gregarious and outgoing, always travelling a million miles an hour. Yet those around her suspected there was something she wasn’t telling.

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Sydney Film Festival: This Ain\'t No Mouse Music

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The ‘less is more’ principle is amiss here. If you’ve got a hundred real life stories competing to squeeze into 92 minutes, the idea is tell a handful of those stories well.

This Ain’t No Mouse Music – a good-but-not-great documentary about the American roots label Arhoolie Records and its founder, Chris Strachwitz – tries to juggle too much. It speeds through Arhoolie’s massive catalogue, making it the cinematic equivalent of a scratched compilation disc. At its worst, it’s a list of artists with sound-bites. But at its best, it whets your sonic appetite and makes you want to find out more about these often wonderful sounds.

Strachwitz’s true character emerges too late in the film. He’s initially introduced as an almost avuncular type – the patron saint of roots music. It’s not until towards the end of this film that you understand he’s far more complex than initially presented. He’s not always Mr. Nice Guy. He’s idiosyncratic. He’s a perfectionist… He’s interesting. But due to the filmmakers’ hunger to touch on just about bloody everything Arhoolie’s released in 50 years, Strachwitz’s own story, to a certain extent, gets sidelined and the intricacies of his character are lost.

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Sydney Film Festival: Greetings From Tim Buckley

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No applause here tonight. Maybe you’ve been to festival films where no one has clapped, but I can only think of maybe one other (the very weird Faust from last year) – and even then, I’m not so sure. Applause at the festival – it’s customary. It’s the done thing. But tonight, silence.

There are reasons behind the silence. This is a movie centred on musicians Jeff Buckley and his father Tim, but with only a trace of Jeff’s music. It is, allegedly, a biopic, but one that’s seemingly made for people already familiar with these artists. It doesn’t really put anything in context. Its script is anaemic. It meanders about...

And yet I was happy to meander along with it. On the plus side, there’s atmosphere in Greetings From Tim Buckley, the filmmakers effortlessly capturing two very different time slices – the early ‘90s of Jeff Buckley, and the ‘60s/’70s era of Tim. Despite its many flaws, the film’s heart is in the right place. When all the meandering’s said and done, it moves you with a beautiful final scene.

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Game Review: The Walking Dead

A choose-your-own-adventure style game of the highest order in terms of action, suspense and emotional stakes.

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Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is not what you might expect it to be. It’s much, much better. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to churn out an uninspired FPS with a few voice actors from the TV series (we’re glaring at you, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct), however Telltale have aimed somewhat higher and crafted an experience that is, in its best moments, as good as the comic and TV show.

Crucially the title realises the venerable comic’s strength is not just shooting the heads off zombies but rather the choices these disparate, desperate characters are forced to make under hideous pressure and the specter of ever present demise. Also, save for a couple of comic book cameos in the early episodes, The Walking Dead eschews the narrative we’re familiar with and forges its own identity in the same world – a world overrun with the restless dead and the increasingly psychotic living.

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

An unmissable doco for music buffs that pays tribute to the enduring legacy of this sublime and under-celebrated power-pop quartet. Set to play at the ACMI.

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A complete manifesto of the most influential band you’ve never heard of, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is as much the story of the titular band as it is of the Memphis rock scene in the 70’s. Director Drew DeNicola has created a documentary that’s in turns flippant and poignant, from a compilation of interviews with everyone who played a part in the turbulent careers of front men Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The band faced more than its fair share of hardships with their unreliable record labels and bouts of drug abuse and religious fervour. However, they’re now touted as major influences on acts like R.E.M, Belle and Sebastian and The Flaming Lips and if that doesn’t ring any bells, their track “In The Street” was used as the theme song for That 70’s Show.

While the film becomes laborious in its adherence to the details, it does paint an energetic portrait of the eclectic mix of musicians, producers and rock writers who witnessed one of the scene’s most dismal stories. DeNicola avoids over-sentimentality with skill and instead imbues the story with sweet nostalgia, so that it feels a lot like Almost Famous.

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Fantastic Planet: Australian Sci-Fi and Fantasy Gala Shorts/Crawlspace

So this is the Australian slice of the Fantastic Planet film festival...

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It’s been said that local film critics and commentators can be too soft on homegrown produce (unless, that is, you happen to be talking about Australia or A Heartbeat Away).  So in writing this there’s a twinge of worry – you may think this blogger is being too kind, leaving the knives in the drawer until the next Hollywood rom-com. Or if I wrote something clichéd like ‘The future of science-fiction and fantasy is in good hands in this country’, you might respond with the sometimes justifiable, ‘They always say crap like that’.

Thing is, the cliché is true – if these two April evenings are a snapshot of the shape of things to come in local genre filmmaking, there’s much to get truly and madly excited about. The evening of Australian fantasy and science fiction shorts was, for me, the best of all the wonderful festival evenings at the Dendy. The wildly diverse bunch of films – many of them coming from the film schools – were all excellently made and acted, and all supremely entertaining. Nothing amateur about ‘em.

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Promised Land: Why You Need To See It

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Some films are just too good to be tucked away in the art house market. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land has an excellent script (from eccentric literary tyro Dave Eggers), fine performances and a solid issues-based dramatic narrative which is absolutely topical. If people go to see it they will surely come out of the cinema not only entertained but feeling fired up.

Many people will recall the documentary Gasland (made by Josh Fox in 2010). The film tackled the hot button issue of the extraction of natural gas by the process colloquially known as fracking. Because the gas deposits are miles underground the only way to release them is to inject water right down there and cause a mini earthquake which releases the gas stored in the shale. However, it is the chemicals that are pumped down with the water that can create environmental devastation when they leach back up to the surface. The one image people can remember from Gasland (which has aired on broadcast TV as well as being available on DVD) is where the residents show that you can put a lighter under the water tap and ignite a plume of flame. It is an indelible image about unintended consequences. Promised Land tackles exactly the same issues but, by placing it in the context of an engaging relationships-driven drama, manages to involve us via our hearts as well as our brains.

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Fantastic Planet: In space, no-one can hear you laugh...

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I’m pissed off with imdb.com. They’ve given Space Milkshake – one of the two solidly entertaining and frequently hilarious comedies to bookend the Fantastic Planet/A Night Of Horror film festivals – the thumbs down.

It’s rated a measly 4.6. What gives? The only bad news about Canada’s Space Milkshake is that you’ve missed it. An opening night film at the twin genre festivals, it’s a gloriously funny satire of Hollywood space dramas – the ones where the world’s about to end and everyone’s talking in meaningless jargon.

Set on a sanitation station in space, its heroes are high-tech garbage collectors – and ones with fine acting pedigrees. The faultless and funny cast includes Billy Boyd (Lord Of The Rings), Kristen Kreuk (Smallville) and Amanda Tapping (Stargate), while the legendary George Takei (Hikaru Sulu from the original Star Trek) lends his voice to a key character and provides much of the humour.

The first feature from writer/director Armen Evrensel, the story itself is crazy – it has something to do with a rubber duck and a device known as the ‘time cube’ and, of course, the world is about to end (or maybe it already has…). Silly but funny, in between the big bang laughs there’s just pure sit-back-and-relax entertainment. Feel god sci-fi.

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A Night Of Horror review: The good old-fashioned fright night of Sinister

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It opens with deathly and decidedly creepy home movie footage. Next, we see a seemingly carefree family move into a suburban house – a typical launch point for a supernatural horror tale. But rather than being clichéd and predictable, Sinister is something of a classic of its genre. It’s an old-fashioned mysterious yarn that uses the element of surprise – rather than blood – to scare the bejesus out of you (at one devilishly frightening moment, your correspondent actually gasped ‘f@%*’ a little louder than one should in public).

Sinister focuses on true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (a splendid Ethan Hawke). He had a bestseller called Kentucky Blood some 10 years ago and his career is at a dead end. But he senses another hit in the telling and unraveling of an unsolved crime involving the murder of a family – one where a child, Stephanie, remains missing.

The nuclear Oswalt family moves into the house that is the scene of the crime, where Ellison finds a box of home movies that have seemingly been placed there for him. The super 8 movies lead to more questions than answers about a series of mysterious deaths…

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