Film Carew

7 June 2012 | 3:54 pm | Anthony Carew

This week revealing that Michael Fassbender manages to keep his pants on in Prometheus and that the Greek Weird Wave is alive and kicking in the Sydney Film Festival.

There's a great running-gag in the short-lived cult television comedy Party Down, where Martin Starr's wannabe-writer —stuck, with the rest of the cast, at a catering company— forever defends his writerly turf: he pens “hard sci-fi”, the stuff of quantum physics and trigonometric calculations, not glorified fantasy. Perhaps Prometheus authors Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof had to make the same proclamations with their eggheady picture, which serves as origin story for the Alien empire, yet doesn't function as a well-behaved prequel. Some would say prequelising is, in this case, the ultimate overshare: the original Alien worked so wondrously because it went so light on the exposition; interested only in creating a tense, locked-room thriller from which there was no escape. With Prometheus things are far wider-ranging: the script's nerdy tendencies tending towards abundant explanation, in which jargon-ish dialogue delivers ponderous proclamations on life itself; the story wanting to explain away the miracle of human existence with a mixture of scientific reasoning and cod-mystic philosophising. Here, all the big questions on any sentient mammal's mind —the meaning of life, the origin of the species, the vastness of the universe, mortality— are thrown into a think-piece, in which a pair of archaeologist adventurers, or something, blast off —with a rag-tag crew!— in search of extraterrestrials who've made historical contact with man (one of these scientisty peeps being Noomi Rapace, graduating to global leading-lady status whilst wielding a weird accent that sounds like she learnt English by studying Charlotte Gainsbourg talk). Once in space, we get Michael Fassbender —pants, sadly, on— as a creepy robot, Charlize Theron as ballbreakin' corporate stooge, and a cast of skin-deep archetypes —Scot, Asian, tattooed dude, black guy, etc— who'll be disposed of one-by-one, horror-movie style. Yet this need for the machinations of genre never sits with the film's dream of addressing the very essence of human-existence. Sometimes the thrills/chills/splatterings feel incongruous, but, even worse, often they feel perfunctory; as if Ridley Scott is quickly skipping through the gory bits to get back to the scenes where Rapace, in labcoat, breaks down genomes and hypothesises on the genesis of the naked ape. This makes for a picture unsatisfying at essence. Prometheus is not big or loud or stupid or relentless enough to please the popcorn set, but its hard sci-fi is too flaccid to pass muster with more-discerning, eggheaded viewers.

The Sydney Film Festival gets into full-swing today, and there's plenty of motion-pictures of interest in the program. Some of the most mind-alteringly exciting flicks're Michael Haneke's Amour, Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory, Christian Petzold's Barbara, and R. Alverson's The Comedy; yet I can't, in good critical conscience, recommend them sight unseen. But, fear not, Ye Olde Homie Film Carew has already witness a whole pile of SFF flicks, and, here, then, are ten that I can definitely recommend.

Alps marks Giorgos Lanthimos' follow-up to his brain-breakingly good Dogtooth —one of the greatest films of the new millennium, and the saltiest cinematic parables ever— and a lil' slippin' is expected; it's a steep slope coming down from such an artistic apex. Still, there's plenty to love and/or puzzle over, here, as the Greek Weird Wave continues apace: Alps chronicling a bizarre 'grieving support group' who act out roles as the recently departed. Lanthimos again goes for an alienating deadpan tone, and when the actors herein are acting herein, it's deadpan squared, or cubed, or something; the emotionless, monotonous, robotic delivery symbolising an era happy to swallow the inauthentic, contrived, and play-acted as if genuine experience.

Dreams Of A Life largely gets by on the stranger-than-fiction story at its core. In 2003, an Englishwoman was found alone in her apartment, sitting dead in front of her blaring television. She had been there for three years, undiscovered,and was now a skeleton. Police couldn't track down any next-of-kin or friends, but director Carol Morley does; and via talking heads, dramatic recreations, and flights of fantasy, she assembles a half-glimpsed portrait of a woman who took an eternal mystery to her grave. The best part of the film isn't the film, though; it's how it serves as the ultimate discussion-starter, prompting examinations of social alienation, narrative resolution, mortality, and secrecy.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Headshot finds Pen-Ek Ratanaruang returning from the quizzical (Ploy) and mystical (Nymph) brands of narrative-razing art-movie he's recently forged into, going back to a pulpy crime tale that recalls his earlier, less-enlightened work (Fun Bar Karaoke, 6ixtynin9). There's an awesome device where its main hitman suddenly sees the world upside-down after being shot in the head, but the requisite delirious POV aren't used another for my tastes; the timeframe-juggling, artfully-drawn narrative hewing too close to genre to let an audience's whole experience get turned upside-down.

The Law In These Parts is a fascinating study on the place of morals, ethics, and legality in a military occupation; Israeli documentarian Ra'anan Alexandrowicz interviewing the legal minds entrusted with establishing, maintaining, and interpreting law in the Disputed Territories. The subjects on hand range from the morally-torn to the unashamed, but there's never an easy reading on anyone, or any fact that arises; the law, as ever, an interpretive dance through a range of greys.

Miss Bala is described in the SFF program as an 'action-packed thriller', which is true in theory, but wildly inappropriate in spirit. Gerardo Naranjo drops viewers into a cops/cartel scorched-Earth skirmish in Tijuana, in which exposition is minimal but tension is plentiful. Just as our titular lead —an aspiring beauty-queen— is kidnapped by a kingpin, so, too, does Naranjo take the audience hostage, trapping the perspective from behind our heroine, and making her journey the viewer's; amounting to a swift, brutal descent that feels personally punitive.

Monsieur Lazhar is an excellent example of a usually-lamentable genre: the inspirational teacher movie. Here, an Algerian refugee in French-Canada helps a classroom of pre-teen tykes overcome their grief. For the most part, this sweetly-written fable is devoted to the most noble notions of the teaching profession, but there's also a pretty brutal emotional undercurrent, as the kids in question refuse the hush-hush platitudes of school-appointed psychologists and seek places to genuinely vent.

Moonrise Kingdom has made a pretty early film-of-the-year case; Wes Anderson's seventh picture clearly his magnum opus. Anderson uses so many of his same storytelling quirks (though there's no Futura, nor British Invasion pop-songs), but the irony of past pictures gives way to a astonishing beauty; the film's tale of 12-year-old runaways told with astonishing tenderness. The reason it works so well —so wonderfully, so magically— is the way Anderson's own aesthetic matches with his star-cross'd kids; the retreat of the troubled child into elaborate fantasy worlds mirroring the filmmaker's.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia finds ever-grim Nuri Bilge Ceylan making a twin study of storytelling traditions and changing Turkish society; staging a police procedural as a slow descent into the darkness, and wielding an autopsy —a scientific disfiguring of what is holy— as an unflattering symbol of social progressiveness. The desolate stretches of barren Steppes and tendency towards loaded silences speak thoughtful volumes; Ceylan, as ever, showing an auteurist command steeped in a love of Tarkovsky.

Pink Ribbons Inc. is a welcome teardown of the corporatised breast cancer movement, which denies righteous anger at a deadly disease by creating a stifling culture centered around a marketing campaign's mindless, pink-clad, positivity-spouting “tyranny of cheerfulness”. Which is used to shill all manner of insidious products, like, say, Estée Lauder cosmetics, which come loaded with carcinogens long linked to cancer. And funds raised by pink-washing promotions universally submit to the idiocy of gunning for a Cure rather than searching for a Cause; Léa Pool's documentary touching on the blanket language-of-war —the Battle against cancer— whose history was so carefully chronicled in Siddharta Mukerjee's astonishing tome The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer.

Wuthering Heights finds Andrea Arnold fearlessly flaying the frockery from Emily Brontë's eternal text, this unfaithful but full-blooded adaptation embracing the brutal ferocity of charged, passionate, possessive love. It's effectively dank, dirty, foul-mouthed socio-realism on the wiley, windy moors: naturally-lit, free from score, and almost without dialogue. It's a work of immaculate sound-design (oh, how that wind howls) and glowing cinematography; a piece of pure cinema whose radical adaptation of canonical classic-lit deserves unending plaudits.