The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 3-June 14, screening a plethora of fantastic films from around the world. The opening night film is Brendan Cowell’s Rueben Guthrie. There are lots of guest filmmakers introducing their films and attending Q&As.


This eye opening documentary is an expose of Scientology and its unscrupulous practices, its unique approach to spiritualism, and it is also a frightening profile of its powerful leader David Miscavige. Scientology itself was created by L Ron Hubbard, a prolific author of science fiction novels and pulp fiction in the 50s who went on to create the self help philosophy of Dianetics. He managed to spin this form of mental healing and coping with stress into a religion that has attracted high profile followers and adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who have swallowed the cool aid and raised awareness of the Church. But is Scientology a bon fide religion or is it just another nutty cult? When one of the tenets of the church is that they believe that man descended from an alien race of Thetans then one has to wonder. Another aspect of the Church is its code of silence. Going Clear is based on the revealing book written by Lawrence Wright and it is the starting point for this film from prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets, etc). Gibney previously probed the darker side of religion in his 2012 documentary Silence In The House Of God, which looked at the systematic cover up of child abuse within the Catholic Church, and here he probes beneath the surface of another church and what he discovers is truly scary. Gibney uses a deft mix of revealing interviews and archival footage to paint a rather sinister picture of the church and its activities under its powerful leader. Miscavige took on the IRS with a combination of blackmail, threats and law suits to guarantee they gained exemption from paying taxes by being recognise as a church, thus protecting their millions of dollars in assets. Gibney talks to some disillusioned former Scientology members such as Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, etc) who dishes the dirt on the church and their controversial “auditing” process via which the leaders learn personal secrets which they use as blackmail to silence potential critics. No-one from the church agreed to be interviewed for the documentary which means that they don’t present their side of the story or put a more positive spin on the church and its philosophies. But like a lot of documentaries, Going Clear is a little too long and some of the information is repetitive in nature. However, it will effectively deter most right thinking people from ever taking one of those personality tests or free stress tests ever again!




Sex, drugs and disco?
The popular New York disco Studio 54, run by entrepreneur Steve Rubell, epitomised the hedonistic life style of the late 70s. Rubell’s aim was to create a place where ordinary, but good looking people, could mix with celebrities for a party that would never end. He created a place where the rich and famous and the beautiful people converged to party, and the famed nightclub became a symbol of the excesses of the late 70s and early 80s. The club was also a magnet for star struck youngsters, attracted by the allure of fame and fortune. But they all learned at personal cost the pitfalls of compromising one’s values for success.
One such star struck youth was Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillipe, in one of his earlier roles), a naive but handsome teenager from New Jersey who is initially drawn to the club by the allure of excitement and escaping his dreary existence and working class background. He captures Rubell’s eye and is quickly invited into his inner circle, where he is seduced by the drugs, money and sex on offer.
Although he never attended the club in its heyday, Texas born writer/director Mark Christopher explores the excitement of this era through the eyes of a number of fictional characters whose lives intersect at Studio 54. Christopher captures the decadent atmosphere beautifully. The club comes alive, and the pungent sweaty smell of sex and corruption virtually leaps off the screen. Christopher’s film about the last days of disco covers much the same territory as Whit Stillman’s 1998 talkfest titled The Last Days Of Disco, but is is far more enjoyable as it lacks the pretensions and emotional emptiness of that film. Although it covers some of the same territory – the garbage bags of money disappearing and the IRS probe that eventually closed down the influential club – it is far more entertaining and moves along with more energy.
Christopher directs with an assurance that belies the fact that this is his debut feature. When it was first released back in 1998 though, producer Harvey Weinstein cut about 20 minutes from the film, which caused much friction between him and Christopher, whose career never quite recovered. Now Christopher has released the director’s cut of the film, restoring it to his original, grittier vision. Importantly he restores the homoerotic tone of the material, as it explores the relationship between Shane and Greg in more depth. It also explores Shane’s rise and dramatic fall from grace in more detail.
Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski’s suitably dark visuals give the film the atmospheric visual style of classics like Cabaret and Cruising, which was a big influence on Christopher’s vision for 54.
Christopher crams the soundtrack full of disco hits that recall the era, and it will resonate strongly with audiences. 54 will strike a responsive chord with those old enough to remember those glory days. It does for the disco era what Boogie Nights did for the porn movie industry.


A quirky and atmospheric take on the traditional western, Slow West is a British/Australian co-production that was shot entirely in New Zealand.
Jay Cavendish (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young actor who is amassing some impressive credits) is a naive and love lorn teenage aristocrat from Scotland who has come to Colorado to find the lost love of his life. Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father fled to America following an incident in Scotland, but Jay is determined to find her. He finds an escort in the form of the laconic Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bounty hunter who has his own agenda. The pair face a number of dangers along their journey, including indians and the villainous Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) and his posse of gunslingers. Life is cheap in the wild west, and Jay learns some brutal lessons about trust and love and human nature along the way.
Slow West is the debut feature from John Maclean, a Scottish musician turned filmmaker, who has put a fresh spin on the usual cliches of the genre. He strips the plot back to the bare essentials, giving the material a more melancholy tone. The violence, when it comes during a climactic gunfight, is brutal and realistic. The film itself is reminiscent of some of the revisionist westerns from the great Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, etc), albeit populated with some eccentric and quirky characters, touches of Coen brothers like black humour, and a coming of age tale about unrequited love.
The prickly odd couple relationship between the inexperienced Jay and the cynical, world weary Silas drives the movie, creating much of the dramatic tension and offbeat comedy.
Although not quite the iconic and majestic Monument Valley landscapes beloved of the John Ford westerns, the flat open plains, the mountains in the background, and the forests of New Zealand perfectly capture the wide open spaces of the Colorado badlands of the late 19th century. The stunning widescreen cinematography from Robbie Ryan captures some beautiful and poetic scenery, giving the material a superb visual surface.


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