Tag Archives: Sydney Film Festival

SFF 2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

earl poster

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) got an interesting reception at the Sydney Film Festival. The crowd around me were rapturous. Tears flowed and raucous laughter was commonplace. So it was not surprise that the film took out the audience award. But amongst some of the more ‘hardcore’ festival attendees, the film was pretty much dismissed as a poorly written hipster piece.

Whilst I really like the film, I can respect the latter point of view. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did not particularly feel like a ‘festival’ film, particularly not a competition entrant, lacking the requisite toying with the form or serious exploration of theme that one expects. There is also little doubt that some aspects of the film scream indie charmer 101, especially early on. A voiceover, some claymation touches and Be Kind Rewind (2008) style remakes make the early sequences overly contrived. But the film quickly settles in and for the most part feels a lot less cloying. The film focuses on Greg and his friendship with the titular dying girl, Rachel. Greg’s mum (played by Connie Britten one half of the greatest cast parents in film history alongside Nick Offerman) forces Greg to reach out when Rachel contracts cancer. Their forced alliance gradually gives way to genuine friendship as Greg manages to provide Rachel with exactly what she needs. Earl is the main supporting character, played by RJ Cyler. Earl is Greg’s best mate who assists him to make a series of comedic, very low budget home movie remakes of arthouse classics. Perhaps more than anything it is this succession of amusingly titled remakes that make the film a good fit for the festival, putting the film’s love of cinema front and centre. The film was also a good fit for the 9:30am timeslot I saw it in. It is uproariously hilarious as well as emotionally resonant. The energy, whilst it shifted, was always there. Helped along by a score which I really dug, that turned out to be from the rather unlikely source of Brian Eno!

earl room

The film tells two stories, though both of them are from Greg’s point of view. The first is basically a teen film with him as the protagonist. He goes about trying to remain invisible and just survive the torrid high school years, whilst also attempting not to be too much of a self-centred asshole along the way. The second story is that of Rachel’s battle against illness, which contains the real emotional heart of the film, though still always seen from Greg’s perspective. Greg is a very sharply written character, the script and Thomas Mann’s performance combining to really nail the awkward jokiness of a teenager. The whole film is really well performed. The potential of Britten and Offerman as a couple is wasted a little, but they both do predictably very well with what they have. Cyler is really hilarious as Earl, one of the better best friend sidekicks for a while. But the real star is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Hers is a really genuine performance, especially in the big emotional moments. Whilst the script occasionally veers toward the manipulative, the performance never feels that way and she is the real heart of the film. The plot suffers when her character disappears for a stretch through the middle of the film, which is one of the few failings of the script. Actually the script also delivered my major issue with the film. I can’t go into specifics without giving away spoilers (can discuss in the comments if you’ve seen the film) but basically I think the script betrays the audience in a very major way. In the immediate aftermath of seeing the film, it actually kind of ruined the experience for me, though that has faded quite a bit and I reflect a lot more positively now.

Verdict: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the kind of film to see in a big crowd. Get swept up in the love of cinema it has and the feelings it draws out of people. Occasionally its indie charm crosses over into insincerity, but when avoiding that the film is a real joy. Pint of Kilkenny

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: The Look of Silence and SFF 2015: These are the Rules.

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SFF 2015: These are the Rules

Rules poster

These are the Rules (2014) is a film that was not on my radar heading into the Festival. It just so happened that I had an unexpected gap in my schedule and decided to add another film in… I probably should have just gone and had a couple of beers to be quite honest.

There is some initial promise as the film sets up its drab, washed out cityscape, all urban sprawl painted in greys. However after the film establishes this nice sense of place, it quickly gives way to a boring few rooms where the action takes place, discarding the cityscape. The film does succeed in painting that overt suburban aspect though. Familial dramas that escalate as the film progresses, at least somewhat. The script lumbers along though, not always feeling real to life, which you suspect is much of the point. Plot wise, the film focuses on a family, a teen returns home after a night out having been bashed. As his condition worsens, his parents attempt to ascertain exactly what happened to him, and to get some people to care about it. It is from this perspective that the film does make some interesting societal points. In particular Croatian bureaucratic institutions – ambulance, police and hospital – are derided in a somewhat effective way.

rules kid

Stylistically the film is naturalistic on a number of levels. It is shot simply and competently, though it never makes you feel like you are watching something any more cinematic than a run of the mill TV drama.  The acting is similarly understated but at least on this front that assists the film meet its goals. In particular the Peter Lorre lookalike Emir Hadzihafizbegovic as a concerned father is very good, managing to convey the emotional torment he is suffering through relatively well. There is a weight hanging over the film, the whole thing has a sad atmosphere to it. Which is in and of itself not a criticism but it never feels meaningful under that weight, not helped by the fact the film is totally humourless. Overall any impact the film manages to have simply comes from that inherent in the situation being depicted. Not the skill of the filmmaking or storytelling.

Verdict: Ultimately, These are the Rules is nothing more than a slow domestic drama, heavy on the domestic and low on the drama. Feels like a million other films you’ve seen before at a film festival and I was simply not at all fussed by the whole thing. Bland. Schooner of Carlton Draught

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: The Look of Silence and SFF 2015: Love and Mercy.

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SFF 2015: The Look of Silence

silence poster

Director Josh Oppenheimer burst on the scene with The Act of Killing (2012) a devastating and creative documentary that challenged a lot of notions about objectivity in the doco space. Now he returns with The Look of Silence (2014) continuing his cinematic exploration of the horrific and under-told story of the Indonesian genocide.

The Look of Silence, at least on a surface level, takes a more conventional approach to exposing these dark chapters of Indonesia’s past. Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist whose brother was murdered during the genocide. Oppenheimer and Adi meet the men who killed his brother and follow the leads up the chain of command. Adi is an incredible character, retaining a quiet resoluteness in the face of revelations that would break pretty much all of us. Adi’s silent stoicism, oozing grace and strength, contrasts starkly with the murderers he confronts. They bluster, trying to intimidate him with swagger and bravado, but in doing so they merely reveal the depths of their cowardice. When he refuses to run away scared, they basically shit themselves, unable to own the sins they committed.

silence old lady

It is interesting to consider the film in relation to how it interacts with the first one. It is focussed on the same genocide and in similarly graphic detail on specific murders. It also retains the horrifying absurdity of the earlier film. Though this time that absurdity comes not from the challengingly playful style of The Act of Killing, but simply thorough the horrific callousness and overwhelming meaninglessness of the crimes. There is something almost muscular about this film and perhaps the most powerful moment of all comes in the closing credits. Just like in The Act of Killing, they are peppered with numerous appearances of ‘Anonymous’ throughout the crew. It speaks to how suppressed and systematically frowned upon any truthful discussion of the genocide remains in Indonesia remains some 60 years after the events took place.

silence adiAnother exhibition of the pervasiveness of the official narrative comes when Adi lays down a ‘people’s history’ for his son. He subverts the official narrative and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment the little kid’s mind is blown. It feels almost like the moment you found out Santa Claus is not real (spoiler alert), but just on a much more important and weighty matter. This is one of many moments that make The Look of Silence a much more personal film than its predecessor. Much of this is down to the fact that the film focuses so heavily on Adi and the murder of his brother. It is a much more comfortable in for the audience. It is easier to identify with a man who has lost his brother compared to a mass murderer (though I acknowledge we are in no way meant to sympathise with Anwar and co in the first film).

What sets Oppenheimer apart from mere mortal documentarians is his power as a storyteller. He is able to see the facts, see the injustices. But he does not simply put them on screen, he creatively interrogates them and brings out specific points for the audience to be shocked and challenged by. In this film, the themes of violence, the dangers of the concentration of power are greatly enhanced by his phenomenal storytelling nous. It is that skill which allows him to make universal points out of very specific incidents. Not sure that anyone has ever captured pure evil onscreen quite like him, at least not in a very long time.

Verdict: The Look of Silence is the best film I saw at SFF and it is not even a close race. It is a great film, probably the best I have seen yet this year. An incredible companion piece to The Act of Killing, different and yet equally as good. Perhaps even better. This is a film that will affect you in a borderline physical manner. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: Tangerine and SFF 2015: Love and Mercy.

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SFF 2015: Love and Mercy

lovemercy poster

There are many Beach Boys fans out there and I suspect that these days there are even more Brian Wilson fans. So a biopic like Love and Mercy (2014) seems a no-brainer. Thankfully though, this film for the most part eschews the tired structure and beats of the music biopic.

There is no attempt to cover Wilson’s life from cradle to grave. Instead the film flits back and forth between two periods of Wilson’s life. In one, Wilson is played by Paul Dano, as he progresses from teen surf-pop hearthrob, to “Pet Sounds”/”Good Vibrations” sheer musical genius, to man struggling with a multitude of demons. In the second part of the film Wilson, this time played by John Cusack, is under the hold of rogue psychiatrist Eugene Landy (played with cartoon villain glee by Paul Giamattti) and finds hope through Melinda Ledbetter played by Elizabeth Banks. The narrative is a little patchy and occasionally it pitches into the other story thread just as you were getting really engrossed by the first. Despite those quibbles though, it is such a relief that the story is told with an attempt to tell something different to the biopic norm and to really get deep into the details of two parts of Wilson’s life. The film also ends on a totally pitch perfect note. As the credits roll, so does  a live performance of Wilson singing the song that the film takes its name from. Not his most famous track, but the simple beauty of it pierces through and reaffirms that all the horrible things that took place in the film, all the exploitation of a mentally ill man, happened to a real person. A really beautiful person with really beautiful art inside of him.

lovemercy beach boys

So much of the attention that Love and Mercy has attracted has focused on Paul Dano and John Cusack. With good reason as well, they are both excellent. It is Dano who grabs you first. His paunch and haircut are the perfect mimic of Wilson circa “Pet Sounds”. Dano is such an incredible actor that he immediately recalls Wilson, but thankfully does not simply lazily impersonate him, instead building the aura surrounding the musical genius, through his wild and utterly brilliant work in the studio. Conversely, Cusack as Wilson jars initially. Partly it’s because we have already seen Dano, so the initial reaction is a simple ‘that dude looks nothing like Brian Wilson’. But if anything, Cusack’s performance is even better than Dano’s. Without overplaying it or resorting to histrionics, Cusack conveys a broken man. One ravaged by mental illness who is desperate for a way out and sees it in Melinda. One who has creative brilliance and heart, but it is buried under decades of abuse. As good as both of those men are, for me this is Elizabeth Banks film. She is an utter star in it, taking what could have been a side character and turning her into the powerhouse heart of the film. An emotional, strong and resilient woman who literally saves the life of one of the greatest musicians of our time.

Verdict: Anchored by three strong performances from Dano, Cusack and the incredible Banks, Love and Mercy is well worth your time, especially as it does away with at least some of the formula you may expect. An affinity with the music of Wilson or the Beach Boys may help to engage you, but it is certainly not a prerequisite. Stubby of Reschs

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: Tangerine and SFF 2015: The Assassin.

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SFF 2015: Tangerine

tangerine poster

Tangerine (2015) was one of two official competition films that I saw at the Sydney Film Festival. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, a fact that frankly filled me with a fair bit of trepidation. For every interesting stylistic experiment we see released, it feels there are three or four gimmicky flicks that just look ugly.

Thankfully on that front the trepidation was unfounded. The film looks surprisingly good, dynamically shot, avoiding too much (or indeed really any) gimmicky shaky-cam. And indeed, the use of the iPhone is more than just a gimmick in this case. Director Sean Baker elected to use the everyday piece of technology in order to help put the inexperienced cast more at ease with what was going on. Initially the performances do feel a touch stilted. But I think it is actually more part of the audience getting used to the dialogue. It is not the overwritten, honed-to-perfection pitter patter we are used to. Rather, this feels authentic, the characters seemingly talking in their own voices, using their own lingo in conversational rhythm which is true to life, if not always true to cinematic convention. The use of the iPhone adds an additional layer of authenticity as well, with the grainy finish of the shots (that are never distractingly low in quality) feeling like it suits the story perfectly. The film doesn’t look boring either. The toying with shooting technique feels refreshingly playful, rather than being the point of the entire experience. Some scenes set to energetic music feel like really great music videos while the camera is sped right up in a couple of sequences to enhance what is taking place onscreen.

tangerine wideshot

The main plot of the film follows transgender sex worker Sin-Dee, who has just been released from prison, only to discover her boyfriend is having an affair with a ‘fish’ (a derogatory term in the trans community for a cis-woman). What follows is essentially a day long journey to try and find this woman and confront Sin-Dee’s boyfriend. Along for the ride is her friend Alexandra, an aspiring musician trying to keep Sin-Dee from getting herself into too much trouble, whilst attempting to drum up support for a gig she is playing that night. In terms of writing, the film is really well done. It elicited many a laugh from the big audience at the State Theatre, predominately through the building of characters and getting the crowd to love them or their approach to life. There is also a subplot involving an Armenian/American cab driver, who pays for sex with Alexandra and Sin-Dee. On the surface, an Eastern European family man frequenting transgender sex workers feels like it could be an overwhelmingly cloying narrative strand. It never plays out like that though. It is a really well written part of the film, and we get a sense of his journey beyond the span of this single day. He is also part of some of the best scenes in the film, including a sex scene in a carwash that is loaded with meaning to the plot. The result is that the film has three main characters to feel invested in and want a positive outcome for. There is an occasional emotional element that does not entirely ring true with what has come before. But that is a minor storytelling quibble in a narrative that is dominated by an original approach.

Verdict: Sharply shot and with a level of lightly drawn authenticity that is pretty rare, Tangerine is one of my most recommended films of the festival. To wrangle the elements together to something that looks so great without ever feeling the slightest bit gimmicky, is a pretty darn good achievement by Baker and co. Stubby of Reschs

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: Necktie Youth and SFF 2015: The Assassin.

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SFF 2015: The Assassin

assassin poster

I saw the second screening of Hsiao-hsien Hou‘s The Assassin (2015) at the festival. The reaction to the first screening was not particularly appreciative. So much so I did give some vague thought to bailing on my screening.

assassin dudeI hung tough though and was rewarded in my view. One major criticism of the film is that the plot is far too oblique. It is difficult to argue against that accusation, but it was just not a hindrance to my enjoyment of the film. Occasionally I just zoned out and enjoyed the experience of being at the festival and having these stunning images paraded in front of me, which was a joyful experience. This is certainly not traditional martial arts cinema. It has a slow and deliberate pace and the action sequences are relatively rare. When they do come, they are slower than the freneticism so emphasised by many of the biggest crossover stars of the genre. But there is such a deep level of thought in each one. The actions and moves of each character actually reflect the character and their predicament. The manner in which the combatants fiercely battle for control of the situation, desperation seeming to seep out of the screen, is something really rare. This approach to action plays into the tempo which is another major strength of the film. It takes its time to build both a strong visual sense and to tell the story, the long scenes strongly delineated from each other, causing the audience to pause and gather themselves before the film moves on.

assassin dancers

The Assassin is an utterly glorious looking film. There is a prologue shot in black and white, awash with shadow and contrast. It initially feels a shame when the film switches to colour. But Hou is able to elicit the same splendour from the new approach, with imagery popping off the screen. Even simply just sitting back and admiring the painting like composition of the shots is a treat. Seeing the brilliant choices of where to place the camera, admiring a shot from behind the camera, there is a lot to be gained from soaking in those scenes. There is a clean simplicity to the design which is maintained throughout the film. Even just simple costume touches, like the badass assassin being dressed all in black, making her instantly recognisable feel like they add a lot. There is a soundtrack that never feels intrusive but which adds to the feeling of being immersed in another time and place. Not to mention adding an exclamation mark where one is required – the swooshing of a blade as it slashes a throat for example. Conveying theme through action sequences is difficult, but here the role of human sentiments in warfare/martial arts is front and centre. Much of this comes from the fight scenes, though it is also prevalent in the plot and the evolution of the teacher-student relationship through the film as well.

Verdict: Plot-wise, there is no denying The Assassin is dense going, perhaps unnecessarily so. Having said that, it really didn’t bother me too much. Perhaps I was blinded by just how damn pretty the pictures were and the film containing some of my favourite martial arts scenes ever. Pint of Kilkenny

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: Necktie Youth and SFF 2015: Goodnight Mommy.

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SFF 2015: Necktie Youth

necktie poster

As one part of this year’s event, Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley delivered a focus on South African cinema. The only film of this program stream I managed to catch was Necktie Youth (2015) from young director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer.

The film focuses on a group of young affluent Johannesburg residents, going about their relatively shallow day to day lives, though with a pall cast over them following the suicide of a friend a year earlier. A suicide that was live streamed online no less. The film sets up the stark social strata of present day South Africa with a clear good and bad side of the tracks. Most of the film is spent with wealthy youth, essentially whiling their day away, drinking, smoking drugs and having sex. Some of the film consists of the various characters recounting memories of their dead friend direct to the camera. This allows a contrived air to seep into some of the film, dropping into cliché where there had been an aggressive lack of it before. There is also a struggle in that many of the characters in the film are really unlikeable, which when combined with some sections having that contrived feeling, means that some of this is a bit of a slog. Overall though, the story is not afraid to show the toughness that life can bring, to lay it out in the open before the viewer. It is at times an unflinchingly tough watch. It finishes on a bold note too. One that shocks initially and then leaves you contemplating the structure of the film and how the story came to be told.

necktie wide

There are some incredibly striking sequences in the film. It is shot in black and white which somehow makes the film feel more realistic, placing the viewer on the street with the characters without distraction. On a number of occasions Shongwe-La Mer employs the technique of having a succession of beautiful shots scroll through the screen whilst someone delivers something approaching a soliloquy via voiceover. Dialogue pieces such as these are incredibly hard to write, but they never feel tiresome or like they are trying to hard to convey a depth that is not there. At times they feel like a rapper at the top of his game, delivering an artistic, rapid-fire summation of life. But they always progress the story and the characters, never just being there for the writer-director-star to show off his chops. Overall the writing is both the major strength and weakness of the film. The quality of the writing in regard to the characters varies quite a lot. The best ones feel totally natural and engaging. But others feel overtly scripted and stilted. So when the film is following what I guess you would call the two lead characters, September and Jabz, it is utterly engaging and the writing so sharp that just chilling with them going about their day is worthwhile. Unfortunately the sections of the film focused on other characters feel like a chore in comparison.

Verdict: The best sequences of Necktie Youth were amongst the best I saw at the Festival. Unfortunately the writing is not able to maintain this level of excellence for the entire running time. But the lasting impression, due to the creative quality of what is on offer, is that Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is a talent to keep an eye out for. Stubby of Reschs

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: 54 Director’s Cut and SFF 2015: Goodnight Mommy.

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SFF 2015: Goodnight Mommy

mommy poster

All the hallmarks are there for Goodnight Mommy to deliver as a classically infused horror film. A mother returns home with a nightmarishly bandaged face, leaving her two children to question if this woman is really who she says.

Goodnight Mommy is very much a film of two halves. It opens rather moody and slow, remaining that way for a good portion of its running time. The focus here is on the mother’s erratic behaviour and the suspicion of her children, though for the most part in a low key manner. As the tension eventually mounts, the film shifts into an at times hard to watch, torture porn influenced last act. Especially in the first half, the film relies heavily on creating an ominous atmosphere. Unfortunately though the writing and narrative, aside from the wonderfully universal premise, are unable to build the atmosphere required to really chill. It’s unfortunate too, because when the film focuses more on visceral imagery, it creates some confronting stuff. There are a couple of sequences involving cockroaches that had the crowd squirming as well as an extended, brutal confrontation that it is perhaps difficult to see coming. These sequences got a great reaction, from a pretty big crowd with a few walkouts and a lot of people avoiding eye contact with the screen.

mommy pic

The film looks lush and expansive, helped along by the fact it was shot in 35mm (a fact raptourously cheered in the credits). There is a classical style to the visual approach, and even the very modern house where much of the action takes place in is shot in a way that makes it feel like a gothic haunted mansion. The sound design similarly takes what feels like a classic Hollywood approach, amplifying everyday sounds and tones so that they take on new, ominous meanings. Thematically the film touches on notions of motherhood and identity. Though not as much as you may expect and these are forsaken later in the film by a twist that feels rather familiar and which undercuts much of the interest. It is one of those twists that forces you to reevaluate everything that had come before it, which is not an entirely positive exercise and makes this a less interesting film.

Verdict: Goodnight Mommy looks incredible with classical stylings abounding. At times these stylings transfer over into the storytelling, but too often the requisite creepy atmosphere is not well drawn enough, resulting in a relatively limp experience. Schooner of Carlton Draught

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: 54 Director’s Cut and SFF 2015: Corn Island.

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SFF 2015: 54: The Director’s Cut

54 poster

Many people will recall the original version of 54 (1998), and even more will recall the theme song “If you could read my mind” which was a huge hit. Well now 54: The Director’s Cut (2015) has surfaced and gotten a fair bit of festival buzz. Let’s face it, Director’s Cut is more often than not a meaningless term. But from what I understand, this truly does reinstate director Mark Christopher’s more sexually complex original vision that was butchered by the studio.

54 hayekHaving never seen the original release, I was not entirely sure what to expect from this director’s cut, or even if it was worthwhile for me to see. Turns out that it really was a worthwhile film to make time for at the festival. For starters, this version of it is a bit of an interesting experiment. The film quality differs wildly between the sequences in the original release and those new to the director’s cut. As such, each new sequence is loudly announced by a pronounced drop in film quality. Whether or not this was a budgetary issue in putting out this version, or a conscious choice, the result is that the film feels almost experimental, a commentary on the concept of director’s cuts. At first the technique did not work at all for me, taking me out of the world of the film. That never really changes, but the announcing of the new scenes by the end of the film had me leaning a little closer to the screen, anxious to see what the studio had vetoed the first time around, in the knowledge that it would either be interesting in and of itself or at the very least, worthwhile to ponder more.

The very New York centric story follows Shane O’Shea, played by Ryan Philippe. At the start of the film, Shane moves from the much more suburban Jersey, to New York. There he finds himself right in the middle of the hottest club in the 70s, Studio 54, run by Mike Myers’ drug addled Steve Rubell. On one level the film tracks Shane’s fun and disco coming of age alongside the ups and eventual downs of the club. But it’s also about a societal awakening, a breaking down of barriers of sexuality, a time when a new paradigm was fast overtaking the tired old one. Though this pace would obviously slow, as we are still facing some of these tired old attitudes and perceptions today. The characters encompass sexual fluidity and ambiguity that is rarely seen in mainstream film and this is clearly something that has been re-emphasised by this cut. Thankfully too, because it is what sets the film apart from more conventional coming of age stories.

54 breckin

Ryan Phillipe seems to be a relatively maligned dude, despite the fact he has done good work in films such as The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and Stop-Loss (2008). But this is certainly his best performance. He nails that late-teen awkwardness, wanting to party and experiment but not being sure how. The character is a really well constructed and written one, the audience sympathising with his naiveté no matter how daft some of his life choices occasionally appear. Selma Hayek and Breckin Meyer are also good as the young couple who are Shane’s guides through this very new part of his life. They show him the ropes, invite him into their homes and prove staunch allies no matter what. Mike Myers and Neve Campbell were probably the biggest names on the cast, though their roles are smaller than the marketing of the time would have you believe. Both are good though, especially Campbell as a star who threatens to sweep in and provide the film with a much more conventional third act.

Verdict: Has this new cut of the film unearthed a long lost, stone-cold classic? No. But it does deliver a coming of age story you rarely see (read a bisexual one basically). It also delivers laughs, great music and the odd heartbreaking moment. A worthy watch, both for those who have seen the previous cut and folks like me who come to it having never seen the originally released version. Stubby of Reschs

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: The Forbidden Room and SFF 2015: Corn Island.

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SFF 2015: Corn Island

corn poster

The first film I saw when attending the Festival itself this year, was Corn Island (2014), which promised unique scenery and deliberate drama. The buzz from the first screening was strong, leaving expectations relatively high for this one.

Corn Island tells the story of an old man working a seasonal island on a river in a disputed region of Europe. He works this island in the hope of being able to grow enough corn to feed him and his family for the rest of the year. On the tiny island he is joined by his granddaughter, who helps him to work the plot of land. The film works best as a piece of agrarian portraiture. There is something scenic and intensely interesting about seeing them work. The scenes of the two of them slowly building a shack to live in, sowing the corn and tending to the crop that is so important to them are the most beautiful and effective of the entire film. Occasionally director George Ovashvili shows the entire island in a wide shot. It is tiny really and these shots reinforce the fragility of this tiny piece of land and its importance to this man.

corn boat

The second, less successful, strand of the story focuses on the blossoming of the man’s granddaughter into womanhood. The writing is far less assured here, clumsily establishing the innocence of the girl by having her carry a doll a girl her age would have long ago discarded (and one which predictably gets discarded later on in the film in a piece of overblown symbolism). The script then proceeds to foreshadow what is in store with her character, especially the way she is shot on occasions, the symbolism of the doll and how her dress changes especially a headscarf she dumps early on. But then after this somewhat clumsy setup, Ovashvili rushes through the actual meat of the situation to render it meaningless really. The film is almost dialogue free, but the dialogue that does eventuate is not particularly good. Some characters are sketched well in this human side of the story – the boorishness of the young soldiers is spot on for example. But it is any time that Ovashvili tries to go much deeper, such as the over protectiveness of the grandfather and the discussions they attempt to have regarding her ‘blossoming’, that he loses the material.

corn corn

One of the first ways in which Corn Island establishes the confined world it is set in is through the naturalistic sound design. As the old man ferries supplies across to the island, birds chirp loudly, the paddle sweeps through the water and we hear his footprints marking his temporary home. It sets up the idyllic, quiet nature of the place where the man is free to work. It’s an idyll that is very effectively broken later in the film by the buzz of a military outboard motor. Despite the film feeling almost portrait like, it is not shot in an at all stagnant style, with noticeable edits and varying shot lengths bringing attention to the man’s weather-beaten face, the scale of his work or the specific task he is undertaking. By making the film slightly more dynamic than he could have, Ovashvili makes the slower scenes much more easy to absorb and therefore effective.  Perhaps the best moment of the human side of the story comes at the conclusion, when the understated agrarian elements of the story culminate in a heartbreaking sequence as the old man’s island and crop are literally washed away. But once again, there is a misstep as the film ends on a contrived note, with overbearing music soaring a little too much.

Verdict: As a piece of agrarian portraiture, Corn Island is top class festival fare. Unfortunately the writing and execution of the human side of the story is a major let-down, making for a good, but far from great overall experience. Stubby of Reschs

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: SFF 2015: The Forbidden Room and SFF 2015: Slow West.

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