Rejoice! This year's Sydney Film Festival (running 8-19 June) is the most genre friendly in years. They're offering up a varied platter of cinematic goodness ranging from exploitation gorefests to metaphysical mindfucks and everything in between. Samurais, vampires, hitmen, trolls, hillbillies, mutants, paranoid survivalists and a shotgun toting Rutger Hauer... they're all here! Below you can find my selection of the best of the fest. I'll be lurking at 13 Assassins, Kill List, Take Shelter, Elite Squad, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Tree Of Life, Stake Land and Hobo With A Shotgun, so if you spot a guy with a very bald head and a horror, punk or metal t-shirt, come over and say hi!
Get all your info and tix at the SFF site right here, and BE THERE OR BE SQUARE!
Prolific Japanese movie maverick Miike Takashi shifts gears from his usual hyper-violent style with this classy remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 film, set in the twilight of Japan's feudal era. The sadistic brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu, satisfies his bloodlust by brutally terrorising the people and gets away with it because of his political connections. Master samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho of Tokyo Sonata, SFF 2008) is summoned to assassinate him and is pitted against his old friend and sparring partner Hanbei, who now leads the evil Nartisugu's personal army and must rigidly observe the samurai code regardless of his own principles. Shinzaemon bands together a motley crew of 12 men and begins to plan a complicated ambush. The meticulously designed slow-burn set up ultimately leads to a breathtaking 45-minute battle sequence that combines the mastery of Akira Kurosawa with the in-your-face excesses of Quentin Tarantino - and yes, the blood does flow!
Jay's got problems. His marriage to Shel has descended into a screaming match, his £40,000 stash has disappeared and he hasn't worked in eight months. A former soldier who hasn't recovered from a 'stormy' mission in Kosovo, Jay's a hit man and he's hit rock bottom. Opening as a confronting domestic drama, director Ben Wheatley's stunning second feature spins off in strange, unpredictable and entirely pulse-pounding directions once Jay and best mate/army buddy Gal start working for a particularly sinister client. Pulling the tired old 'troubled hitman' formula by the scruff of the neck and propelling Gal and the increasingly unhinged Jay into a nightmare you won't soon forget, Kill List marks Wheatley as a talent to watch.
THE TREE OF LIFE
The elliptical narrative of Terrence Malick's rapturously beautiful, emotionally arresting film audaciously segues between the particular (the repressed desires and shimmering aspirations of the O'Briens, a middle-American family in the 1950s) and the universal (the continuous cycle of existence, from the age of the dinosaurs to the new world). "There are two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace," says the voice of Jack's mother in the opening moments, and while young Jack (Hunter McCracken) must choose a path - between father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), competition and allegiance, success and happiness - old Jack (Sean Penn) has lost his way and is searching for permanence in a gleaming, chaotic modern city. Dreams and memory collide in Jack's spiritual, emotional and intellectual journey as he seeks to reconcile with the past, to reclaim his relationship with his father and to properly mourn the loss of his brother. More densely labyrinthine than any of Malick's previous films (The New World, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands), the slippery editing is in absolute collusion with Alexandre Desplat's soaring music and Emmanuel Lubezki's glorious cinematography. The result is a commanding cinematic paean to life - its intimacy, messiness and grandeur.
With a script as sharp as the fangs on the vampire hordes it lets loose, Stake Land is one mighty meaty and exciting horror pic. Striking the perfect balance of bloody thrills and pungent social commentary, ace director and co-scripter Jim Mickle (remember that name) centres his tale on teenage orphan Martin and his tough-as-nails vampire-slaying guardian, 'Mister', surviving on the road after America is overrun by bloodthirsty beasts. What separates this film from the pack is the added threat posed by Jebediah, a fanatical Christian fundamentalist whose followers believe the monsters have been sent by the Almighty himself. At once a crunching gore-shocker and a potent critique of intolerance and extreme right-wing conservatism, Stake Land keeps the pupils popping from get-go to fade-out. And if that's not enough, Kelly McGillis makes a fabulous return to features after a decade's absence - as a nun!
CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL
Before CGI-laden monster movies, high-concept horror films and cautionary tales of teenagers gone bad, there was Roger Corman. Now in his sixth decade of producing low-budget genre quickies like Monster From the Ocean Floor, The Wild Angels and Rock 'n' Roll High School, Corman is also noteworthy for giving early breaks to aspiring filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. They join a substantial roster of the Corman faithful and beloved genre stalwarts - Dick Miller! Mary Woronov! Eli Roth? - in singing the praises of Corman and his utterly unique brand of soft-spoken pragmatism in this documentary tribute. Credit writer-director Alex Stapleton with pulling revelatory backstage stories from everyone (particularly Nicholson) and stuffing his film to the gills with astutely selected and remarkably well-preserved clips. For fans convinced true genre filmmaking died by killer shark and skywalking space operas, the King of the Bs welcomes your fealty.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Having already received a directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Sean Durkin's stunning debut feature is one of few films in history to be subsequently included in the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Elizabeth Olsen (the captivating younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) plays Martha, a young woman who reunites with older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) after she mysteriously escapes from a bucolic commune. Lucy's materialistic husband (Hugh Dancy) and their nouveau riche estate prove suffocating and oppressive but Martha (whose identity slips between each of the titular names) stays, terrified that the enigmatic leader of the collective (John Hawkes) will track her down. Rippling with a permanent sense of threat (Michael Haneke's Funny Games provides more than tonal reference) Durkin's filmmaking and Jody Lee Lipes' exquisite cinematography are perfectly attuned to both beauty within the frame and the power of what to leave outside it.
If Ingmar Bergman had wandered into rural Tennessee and downed a few too many shots of moonshine he might have made something like this bizarre and compelling family drama. Mixing elements of Southern Gothic, sports drama, situation comedy and backwoods horror with biblical overtones, Septien takes us to the very strange farmhouse of the Rawlings brothers. Cornelius (played by writer-director Michael Tully), a Christlike figure and brilliant sportsman, has returned after an 18-year absence. Amos creates grotesque art in the barn, while Ezra dons a frock and does the housework. Then there's Wilbur Cunningham, who lives in a tyre in the backyard. When a plumbing problem needs fixing the you-know-what really hits the fan. A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic portrait of family ties, obsession and redemption, Tully's movie is an American original that's not to be missed.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN
Cult kingpin Rutger Hauer is baaaack! Starring in the sleaziest piece of gutter trash to hit the screen in years, the 67-year-old is dynamite as an unnamed Skid Row bum who arrives (on a freight train, natch) at the hellhole of Hope Town and doesn't like what he sees. Helped by hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Abby, the pissed-off pensioner swaps his walking stick for a shotgun and points it in the direction of the nastiest crime family you're ever likely to meet. The second spoof 'trailer' from Grindhouse to evolve into a feature film, Hobo is a stylishly assembled, extremely violent and grimly humorous throwback to the glory days of 70s exploitation cinema. Is this the ne plus ultra of vigilante movies? Gather your guts if you dare and decide for yourself.
Jeff Nichols' daring psychological thriller stars Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon (who also gave a knock-out performance in Nichols' debut film, Shotgun Stories, SFF 2007) as Curtis LaForche, a working man living in small-town Ohio with his beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their young, hearing-impaired daughter. When Curtis's recurring dream of an ominous storm becomes increasingly vivid, he fears for both his sanity and the safety of his family. Internalising his anxieties, his outward behaviour becomes progressively stranger to his wife and fellow workers, and then the hallucinations start to invade his waking life with terrifying consequences. Is Curtis experiencing deranged visions or premonitions? David Wingo's broody, foreboding score and Nichol's exacting script allude to the possible origins of Curtis's psychic malady - impending ecological disaster, economic uncertainty and threatened masculinity - all the while, like Todd Hayne's Safe, maintaining a slippery and perfectly measured ambiguity. As dramatic metaphor, his disruptive behaviour holds a mirror to the fears and contradictions pervasive in contemporary life. With a performance reminiscent of James Mason's in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, Shannon is totally transfixing as the unhinged everyman.
The legendary Scandinavian monster is the star of this scary and funny conspiracy chiller. Presented as surviving footage shot by a student documentary crew investigating the mysterious deaths of bears, André Øvredal's nail-biter goes deep into the woods to discover something at once scary and magical at play. The key to unlocking the activities of Norway's secretive Troll Security Service is Hans, a 'bear hunter' who reluctantly allows the ambitious filmmakers to chronicle his activities. The result is a captivating, frequently amusing and surprisingly touching series of encounters with monsters far more complex and formidable than the dim-witted creatures of Norse folklore. Exciting and hugely entertaining, The Troll Hunter is quite possibly the finest entry yet in the found-footage documentary cycle triggered by The Blair Witch Project.
ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN
Now the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time, José Padilha's (Bus 174, SFF 2003) high-octane follow-up to his controversial 2008 Berlin Film Festival-winner Elite Squad (SFF 2008) is also a nail-biting standalone thriller drawn straight from the headline news. More than a decade has passed and Nascimento (Wagner Moura) has been promoted from captain of BOPE - the rabid military police who shoot first and don't give a damn about questions - to Chief of Rio's intelligence bureau. His ex-wife is remarried to ambitious human rights advocate Fraga, and his relationship with his teenage son is faltering. In a narrative move that reflects the popular TV series The Wire, the professional and personal changes in the life of Nascimento broaden the perspective of the original film, shifting the focus from the drug wars in the favelas to police vice and political corruption, making for a film that is just as relentlessly paced as its predecessor and dramatically even richer.
TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL
In this rib-tickling reversal of horror movie conventions, Tucker and his best buddy Dale are sensitive, kind-hearted hillbillies. But try telling that to the college kids camping near the duo's shack deep in the Appalachians. Convinced they've stumbled into The Hills Have Eyes territory, fratboy Chad and his panicked pals decide attack is the best form of defense and launch a hilariously inept 'kill-them-before-they-kill-us' assault on their supposed enemies. A treat for dedicated gorehounds and serious film buffs alike, this terrifically topsy-turvy take on the 'spam-in-a-cabin' horror cycle of the 70s and 80s comes complete with the most eye-catching use of a wood chipping machine since Fargo. Winner of the Midnight Movie audience award at SXSW, this is splatstick of the funniest kind.
MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD
You've never seen a coming-of-age story like this before. On her sixteenth birthday, mousey schoolgirl Rin discovers she's part of a mutant clan at war with humans. Suddenly sprouting a Freddy Krueger-like hand and an attitude to match, Rin slips into a spangly silver jumpsuit and joins a fighting force of foxy mutant femmes in a blood-drenched battle for nothing less than the survival of her species. Produced by Sushi Typhoon, the geniuses behind Alien vs Ninja and Karate-Robo Zaborgar, this example of Extreme Asian entertainment proudly goes where X-Men dares not tread. Non-stop comic-book carnage doesn't get much better than this.
All film info courtesy of Sydney Film Festival