I have to confess that I'm not a fan of the cutesy canine images used as marketing this and last year's Sydney Film Festival, nor the move towards categorising the program according to emotion-based “pathways” (“Fire Me Up,” etc). But in fairness the cinemas have consistently been packed since last weekend, so whether or not this strategy appeals to the cinephiles like me is probably beside the point. This more populist approach may or may not be attracting a new audience but it's clearly not putting off most filmgoers.
A sign of that was the huge turnout at the 2000-seat State Theatre on Wednesday for the Australian premiere of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (directed by Thailand's Apitchatpong Weerasethakul). This was quite a programming coup for director Clare Stewart, given Sydney has traditionally had a hard time getting hold of titles that have screened at Cannes, which takes place only a month beforehand.
Set in rural eastern Thailand close to the Laos border, the film is arguably closer to a series of loosely-linked gallery installations that quietly drift into one another than a coherent narrative feature. As a viewing experience Boonmee proved by turn enchanting, inert, mysterious, perplexing and eyelid-closing.
Afterwards some viewers were asking “what was that about?” I thought the answer was clear: with sequences involving among other things a catfish spirit making love to a princess and the appearance of a black wookie representing a monkey spirit, the central theme of death and Buddhist reincarnation is unmistakable. But when the director cheerfully admitted to the BBC recently that he isn't very good at storytelling, he wasn't joking. Sure, the sound design is striking and a couple of sequences are strikingly beautiful, but there's nothing wrong with Uncle Boonmee that a greater sense of story structure or elementary dramatic grammar wouldn't improve.
After that, something punchy was needed to blast wake-up energy into the auditorium, a role that rock 'n' roll biopic The Runaways filled to unvarnished perfection. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi's story of the 1970s teenage all-girl LA band didn't put a step wrong, with Dakota Fanning giving a knockout performance as lead singer Cherie Currie (the pretty girl) and Kristen Stewart in strong support as Joan Jett (the tom boy).
I especially liked the film's exploration of the paradoxical sexual politics surrounding the group. These proto-riot grrrrls were exploitatively set up as “jailbait” by a male, their producer-manager-svengali, Kim Fowley (played with mischievous relish by Michael Shannon) – a dynamic that Jett, in particular, resists.