Sydney Film Festival Preview

5 June 2012 | 12:18 pm | Anthony Carew

As exciting as the prospects of Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory, Michael Haneke's Amour, Christian Petzold's Barbara, Wes Anderson's Moonlight Kingdom, R Alverson's The Comedy, etc, etc, are, films arriving at the Sydney Film Festival unseen are hard to actually recommend. Or, indeed, warn against. Most may only be getting their minds around the program, but Drum's already leapt in deep. Here's the early form-guide for things-we've-already-seen...

Crazy Horse is direct-cinema don Frederick Wiseman's latest observationist portrait of an institution, a noble niche he's stuck to for nigh on 50 years. Where his work can be – as mental hospitals and domestic violence shelters dictate – oft ascetic, this is brightly-coloured bubblegum; the 82-year-old courting raincoaters as he rolls cameras on naked burlesque babes backstage.

Faust finds Aleksandr Sokurov in fruity form; the stilled minimalism of his better pictures – like Mother & Son and Moloch – long forgotten with this super-theatrical Goethe adaptation, all eyeball-buggin' grotesquerie and funhouse mirror visual effects.

Marley is an ultimately-mediocre documentary from Kevin Macdonald, which lacks the moments of transgression, inspiration, or insight to push it beyond the functional. Chronicling the life and times of Bob Marley, it'll play best to casual listeners who know nothing of Marley's life and/or have never thought of its socio-politico ramifications.

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 its swift, brutal descent feel personally punitive.

Monsieur Lazhar is an excellent example of a usually-lamentable immediately lands near the top of one of cinema's most lamentable genres: the inspirational teacher movie. Here, an Algerian refugee in French-Canada helps a classroom of pre-teen tykes overcome their grief, in a sweetly-written fable devoted to the most noble notions of the teaching profession.

Not Suitable For Children's sitcom set-up – 20-something party-dude must father a child ASAP before testicular cancer surgery – and opening night spot suggest bawdy entertainment, but Peter Templeman's surprisingly-good picture has a gentle, noble, downbeat edge to it; never forsaking character or story for a cheap laugh.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia makes the hoariest of dramatic devices – the police procedural – a potent symbol of a nation; ever-grim Nuri Bilge Ceylan making his body-hunt in the wilds of the country an exploration into Turkish culture, with an autopsy (a scientific disfiguring of what is holy) used as unflattering metaphor for progressiveness. As its title suggests, the film is about storytelling: and, here, folkloric tales are undone by science's clinical coldness.

Pink Ribbons Inc is a welcome teardown of the corporatised breast cancer movement, which denies righteous anger at a deadly disease by a marketer's mindless, pink-clad, positivity-spouting “tyranny of cheerfulness” used to shill products. And funds raised by pink-washing promotions universally submit to the idiocy of gunning for a Cure rather than searching for a Cause.

Polisse is utterly awful; a multiple-storyline melodrama populated by an unending cast of famous French actors over-emoting in every single hysterical scene. At 127 tawdry minutes, it's like the Love, Actually of faux-edgy-movies-about-anti-paedophile-police-units, only instead of love, every storyline is united by that oldest cliché in the cop-movie closet: this time, it's personal!

Postcards From The Zoo mixes rural naturalism, hypnotic minimalism, and magic-realism to paint a sweet tale of a girl who grew up in a Jakarta Zoo. Self-styled mystical director Edwin (yes, iconic singular!) sees the zoo as a place of wonder and imagination, a symbolic enclave for shielded dreamers amidst a hateful culture.

Rampart finds Oren Moverman – and his pointlessly-wobbly camera – failing to recapture the moving-macho form of The Messenger. Here Woody Harrelson chews the scenery in a famous-actor-riddled tale of cops both dirty and dirtier, caught in a downward spiral utterly tedious.

Side By Side features no less than Keanu Reeves – cue: laughter, sad memes, “I am an FBI agent!”, etc – waxing philosophical with various Hollywood heavies/tech nerds in a thoughtful – if not particularly artful – documentary on digital-imagery's effects on the cinematic arts. The “yay, movies!” vibe and busy edits court casual channel-surfers, but bona fide cinephiles will be plenty entertained, too.

Under African Skies initially seems mere crowd-pleaser: a talking-headsy portrait of Paul Simon making his cross-cultural classic Graceland, then returning to South Africa for a 25th-anniversary tour. But the rock'n'roll nostalgia stirs up old ghosts, and Simon and Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo debate Graceland's conflicted place in the struggle for freedom.

Woody Allen: A Documentary was made for PBS TV in the states, and it never quite rises above those televisual origins. Robert B Weide ably works through Allen's hyper-prolific career and respectfully deals with the super-creepy Soon-Yi scandal, but anyone expected anything unexpected will be disappointed.

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.