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SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 1999: A PREVIEW

DIVERSE AND CONTROVERSIAL
It has a new director (Gayle Lake), a new look and it's shorter. One of Sydney's premiere cultural events is back: welcome to the 46th Sydney Film Festival, June 11 - 23, 1999.   PAUL FISCHER presents a preview of this year's edition, defined by its diversity.

The Phantom Menace notwithstanding, Sydney's stately 2000-seat theatre, the State, will no doubt be packed to the rafters, as eager movie lovers gather with their thermos flasks and cut lunches to attend one of the most significant film events of the year, seeing films that (in many instances) will never be screened outside the festival.

"It's entertaining, provocative, satisfying, funny and certainly a very sound program."

But this time around there are changes. Not least of all, Gayle Lake succeeds Paul Byrnes as Festival director. Lake, whose background is in film distribution and marketing, had eight short months to come up with a program for the 46th festival, and try and make it her own. Speaking from the Festival's Glebe office, Lake admits that with the time she had, "there are glimpses of me in this Festival, but I don't think the full me will be evident till 2000." In defining what it is that will ultimately define a Gayle Lake festival, she says that she likes films "that question, that are a little bit edgy, and, like the next person, I like a happy ending. Film festivals have a diverse range of parameters in which they exist, and certainly I don't believe that everybody has to absolutely love every film - that's not necessarily the role of the Film Festival. It's as much to provoke discussion and an appreciation of films, as it is showcase a world perspective, and what is stimulating filmmakers."

This year's program represents greater diversity than we've seen at this festival for years and Lake is unapologetic if some of her choices generate a degree of controversy. "That's the fun of a festival," she says.

Part of that controversy gets off and running right from opening night. This non-subscription event is the new John Sayles film, LIMBO. This adventurous drama tells the story of people trying to reinvent themselves in the Southeastern islands of Alaska. The story revolves around Joe Gastineau, (David Strathairn) a fisherman traumatised by an accident at sea years before, singer Donna de Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her disaffected daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) who come into Joe's life. When Joe's fast-talking half-brother Bobby returns to town and asks Joe a favour, the lives of the characters are changed forever. From all accounts, Limbo was booed when screened at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, but Lake is not concerned. "That doesn't surprise me. I actually think the film is very clever and quite an incredible piece of film making", she says unequivocally.

Some may also question the inclusion of Neil Jordan's universally panned IN DREAMS. The film deals with Claire Cooper (Annette Bening), a New England housewife who finds herself mentally linked to a serial killer, sensing his every thought. Slowly going insane from the experience, Claire attempts to find and confront the killer, with whom she has a personal score to settle. Jordan's least successful film and his most maligned, Lake is more than happy to defend this mainstream thriller. "It's very much about that notion of unconscious and conscious psyche. It's his investigation of dreams and how they mirror, or not, a society. There are themes that emerge through films as I watch them over the eight months, and if there's one theme you could link most of the films with, it is about a search for place and identity."

Of course, while it's true that festival-goers may not approve of every film screened, this festival is defined by its diversity.

2 SECONDS is a sweet, interesting little film from Quebecois director Manon Briand, and tells of Laurie (Charlotte Laurier), a cyclist, who waited two seconds too long in a sport in which a millisecond can mean a mile. She is fired by her boss, and returns to Montreal to live with her socially inept brother Steff (Yves Pelletier). There she signs away her life (or so it seems), in order to become a bicycle courier, to get back into the thrill of riding. She finds a cycleshop tucked off in a corner, owned by a gruff Italian named Lorenzo (Dino Tavarone) who also used to race. At first their relationship is antagonistic, but they eventually find out that they have a lot in common. The film is part of a strong evening of lesbian cinema, and is a deftly made comedy-drama with broad audience appeal.

Larry Clark's powerful ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE, which premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival, tells of Bobby (Vincent Kartheiser) a teenage thief whose idea of a big score is emptying the coins out of a cigarette vending machine. When he gets caught in the act and is brutally beaten by a security guard, his girlfriend, Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) is forced to call for medical help. Enter ‘Uncle’ Mel (James Woods), who arrives with advice and drugs to dull the pain. Later, after Bobby has recovered, he and Rosie join Mel and his girlfriend/partner, Sid (Melanie Griffith), in a life of crime. When Mel asks Bobby if he's ready "to graduate from the world of screwdrivers and vending machines to some really serious larceny," the budding criminal can't refuse the lure of big money. At first, everything is great, with Mel and Sid acting like parents to their youthful friends, but, after a drug deal goes bad, the relationship becomes strained. This is an extraordinary work from Kids director Larry Clark, a new take on the gangster thriller. Flashy, darkly funny and full of memorable, powerhouse performances, Another Day in Paradise is audacious and gripping.


From Iran comes the critically acclaimed CHILDREN OF HEAVEN, directed by Majid Majidi which opens in the poor quarter of an Iranian city. There we meet Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian), a 9-year old boy going home with his sister's worn, pink shoes, which he has just taken to a cobbler for repairs. On the way, he stops at a fruit and vegetable stand to buy some potatoes. He puts the shoes down, and, while he's sorting through a bin, a rag picker mistakenly takes the shoes, thinking they're part of the stand owner's refuse. When Ali arrives home empty-handed, his 7-year old sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddigi), is in tears. What will she wear to school? Iranian cinema is often defined by its simplicity, and Children of Heaven is no exception. It's a heartfelt, beautifully realised work.

GODS AND MONSTERS has taken its time reaching Australian screens. The movie opens in 1957. Hollywood director James Whale (Ian McKellen) has been out of the movie industry for some 20 years. These days, he is tended by his fiercely protective Hungarian housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), and he is fascinated by the newly hired gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a handsome drifter who loves Whale's stories of the old days. During long visits with Whale, the younger man triggers painful memories for the old man. Remembering his losses, both professional and personal, Whale plunges into melancholy. Skilfully directed by Bill Condon, whose beautiful script won an Oscar, Gods and Monsters is an exceptionally crafted film.. With its subtle combination of dark humour, pathos and dramatic power, the film takes hold from the outset. Its attention to period detail is exquisite and the performance of McKellen nothing short of magnificent. Redgrave too is illuminating, and Fraser is superb. A true work of art, Gods and Monsters is an unforgettable experience, a highlight of this Festival.

Movie lovers will also revel in the feature documentary HITCHCOCK, SELZNICK AND THE END OF HOLLYWOOD, directed by Michael Epstein. This film traces Selznick's rise from spoiled rich kid to master of moviedom, and argues that Gone With the Wind's (left) triumph destroyed the producer when he realised he could never match it. Hitchcock chafed under Selznick's autocratic hand, and when the working relationship that produced Rebecca (right) finally sputtered out with The Paradine Case, the director felt liberated. Epstein offers archival footage, interviews, and lots of welcome commentary from film historian and Selznick biographer David Thomson. An absolute must!

Ken Loach's latest gem is MY NAME IS JOE, which revolves around a reformed alcoholic (Peter Mullan) who trains a local football team and becomes romantically involved with a social worker (Louise Godall). When one of his team (David McKay) falls into the debt of a gangster (David Hagman) who threatens to break his legs, Mullan agrees to work for him. This doesn't sit so well with Godall, and Mullan's newfound peace and security is severely threatened, leading to a confrontation with himself and his life with dramatic results. Another fine study of working class British society.

Another powerful British drama, screening on a special evening of British cinema, is Tim Roth's THE WAR ZONE. Dealing with incest in a family that has uprooted and moved to the country, the film has much in common with Nil by Mouth. Beautifully executed by actor-turned-director Roth, War Zone is uncompromising, haunting and powerful. It's not a film for everyone, but it deserves to be seen.

RUN LOLA RUN is a breathless, intoxicating film that charts one woman's desperate attempt to rescue her lover and has proven to be a huge success in Europe. Lola and Manni are in their early twenties and are in love. Manni has a shady job running money for his shady boss. One day, something goes wrong: he loses a bag filled with 100,000 Deutsche marks of the boss's money. He has 20 minutes to come up with the cash, and it's up to Lola to save him. A wrong decision can have terrible consequences. A gripping thriller.

The central figures of Chris Eyre's SMOKE SIGNALS are Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), two natives of the Coeur D'Alene Reservation in Idaho. Victor and Thomas aren't friends, but they have known each other since childhood, and they share a link. One night in 1976, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), Victor's father, saved the infant Thomas from a fire that killed his parents. Now, more than 20 years later, Arnold, who abandoned his wife, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal), and son for a life in Phoenix, has died, and Victor must make the trip to claim his ashes. Thomas, who is supplying the money for the journey, accompanies him.  Along the way, they teach each other life lessons. Another standout discovery from Sundance, Smoke Signals is a flawless masterpiece that has taken its time to get here. With its parochial content, it seems unlikely it will be released commercially, which is a tragedy. This is an exquisite work of sheer poetry and deep humanity.

The Festival will close with the world premiere of Australian director Christina Andreef's SOFT FRUIT. Not much is known about this film, except that word is very strong. Some 1400 films were submitted for consideration this year and Gayle Lake is happy at the final choices that were made. It is one of the most eclectic and exciting film events of the year. Lake sums it up as: "It's entertaining, provocative, satisfying, funny and certainly a very sound program."

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SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL
JUNE 11-23



STATE THEATRE
DENDY MARTIN PLACE &
ACADEMY TWIN.

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Festival office: 02 9660 9821 / 9826 / 3844
Ticketmaster: 13 61 66 (fees apply)
Tickets (no fees) from State Theatre Box Office –
9am – 5.30 pm, Mon – Fri;
10 am – 5 pm Sat.

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Opening Night Film: Limbo

Read excerpts from Andrew L. Urban's Cannes interview with
JOHN SAYLES

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STONE FOREVER

7pm, June 17: Academy Twin

Movie Show producer Richard Kuipers has been busy on another project for the past few months, making Stone Forever, a documentary on the seminal 1974 film, Stone, produced by David Hannay, directed by Sandy Harbutt, who plays Undertaker. Kuipers, who has just finished making three versions of the 25th anniversary doco, is said by Hannay to have done "a fantastic job, going into the culture of the film in intimate detail. It’s incisive and insightful…" The first version will screen at the Sydney Film Festival on June 17, in tandem with the film itself; another (56 minute) cut will be shown on SBS later, and a longer version will be out on video later still.

Starring Ken Shorter as Stone, the cop sent to investigate a series of violent murders in a motorcycle gang, Stone also stars Helen Morse as Amanda, his high society girlfriend. Stone Forever covers the times in which the film was made and the following it has generated in the 25 years since – culminating in the extraordinary run last year of over 30,000 roaring hogs took to the freeway.
ANDREW L. URBAN

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