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In his engaging, remarkably frank memoir Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies, Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman reveals the five trade secrets that have helped him cope with what he calls “festival fever”. After 24 years as the founding movie critic at Entertainment Weekly and in his current gig as one of the last paid film commentators on Earth, he knows the pitfalls of film festival overload, declaring in Chapter 17 that “After six or seven days, I’m sated, bloated, reduced to the movie equivalent of a food coma.”

On the eve of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, SCREEN-SPACE looks to the author’s experience and festival survival criteria to help navigate the twelve daunting days of the 65th anniversary program. We hope that drawing upon incisive passages of Gleiberman's brilliant prose (Ed: a dog-eared copy of Movie Freak never leaves my desk) will ensure our Emerald City readers maintain good movie-going mental health in the weeks ahead... 

Gleiberman has deduced that, “three movies a day…creates a nice sustainable flow.” Four movies is doable but not advised (“…it’s not bricklaying, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to feel good.”) He recounts the first time he tried to conquer a four-movie sit-in - a retrospective marathon of Beatles films, when he was 12. “Halfway through Let It Be, I felt my interest dissolving faster than the Beatles’ love for one another,” he writes. Sydneysiders might be tempted to multi-movie quadrella one of the weekend days; for example, Saturday, June 9 has 46 films scheduled across 14 locations, starting with a 10am session of the 234-minute Chinese drama An Elephant Sitting Still (pictured, right). Best not to, though; as Gleiberman concludes, by the seventh or eighth hour of film immersion, “your system is literally fed up with images.”

The shared rhythmic urgency of great (and/or loud) music and great (and/or loud) sex makes for rousing movie watching. Or, as Gleiberman pens it, “it’s a way of revitalizing the primacy of your responses.” Throughout his book, he cites moments in his musical education that have impacted his worldview (jump ahead to page 257 for his account of how Nina Simone changed his life). And the title ‘Movie Freak’ carries its own double meaning, given the open-door authorial policy re his psycho-sexual complexities. So it is no surprise that the cinema of ‘sex’ and ‘rock’n’roll’ should so energise Gleiberman. SFF programmers get the music part; one of the festival’s most popular strands has always been Sounds on Screen, which in 2018 includes Bad Reputation, a bio-doc on hard-rock goddess Joan Jett, and director Travis Beard’s Muslim-metal odyssey RockAbul. Porn, not so much, although there’s promise in Sari Braithwaite’s [Censored], a montage-doc made entirely of frames excised by Australian censors, and the late inclusion of Gaspar Noe's (non-doc) Cannes sensation, Climax.   

Oh, we are so on board with this! Writes Gleiberman, “Watching movies is all about pleasure, and so is evaluating them, so I say that you need to remain in a constant dialogue with your pleasure centers.” His global standing as a critic means he has gorged on the best festival food options the world over, from Sundance (“…Burgie’s, the low-down grease-pit burger diner on Main Street [it closed in 2005]…the Vietnamese place up the block… Davanza’s, where the ground-beef-and-mushroom pizza is an orgy of crusty tasty delight”) to Cannes (“…where you can have the greatest pizza you ever tasted…Even the name of the place is perfect: It’s called…La Pizza”). Rookie festivalists in Sydney may find themselves drawn to the fast food haunts of George Street (don’t…just, don’t). Instead, stick to the ‘three films a day’ rule and use the down time to partake of the event’s restaurant partners, which include Abode, Bloodwood, Bar Machiavelli, Azuma (pictured, right), Chef’s Gallery or The Ritz Bar. Most have specials for fest patrons; all will hurry you through if a session beckons. 

In Movie Freak, Gleiberman's favoured festival bud is Elvis Mitchell (pictured, right), one of America's finest film critics (Movieline; The New York Times), scholars (lectures at University of Nevada), broadcasters (hosts KCRW’s The Treatment podcast) and curators (oversaw LACMA’s Film Independent series). “An exciting bebop maestro of a critic,” says Gleiberman. But Mitchell won't be at SFF 2018, so who can you hang with to ensure that, in Gleiber-speak, “you will always wind up at a better party or be privy to more gossip - and film insight – than you would with anyone else”? Debonair festival director Nashen Moodley, ideally, but penetrating his high society realm and unforgiving schedule is tough, so ingratiate yourself with this lot – Mathieu Ravier, tireless social gadfly and film sector advocate who in past years has overseen the after-hours hangout, 'The Hub'; Garry Maddox, veteran critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and one of the festival’s favoured Q&A hosts; and, Lisa Malouf, contributor to The Limerick Review site, ebullient lover of classic film culture and the savviest person with whom to spend ten minutes if you need a 'Best of the Fest' update.


One of the key messages in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies is ‘Back Your Own Voice With Conviction.’ Gleiberman has found himself at odds with editors and audiences alike, his observations often running counter to popular opinion. To wit, his inherent dislike of ‘the Sundance crowdpleaser’, or in his words, “watchable polished-turd entertainments posing as organic movies”. Here’s what he wrote about that flag-bearer for Sundance sweetness, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine: “…each of its characters – loser dad! surly teen son who refuses to speak! schticky naughty grandpa played by Alan Arkin! – a walking, talking screenwriter’s index card.” We’re not so on board with his ...Sunshine bashing, but we essentially agree with him; in our 2016 SFF wrap, we gave ‘Worst of the Fest’ to an awful, already-forgotten Sundance spawn, Coconut Hero. SFF 2018 programmers weren’t swayed from their sunny Sundance predilection. The festival closes with a Sundance premiere, Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud (we’ll hold judgement, but…wow, that title); there are Sundance-endorsed pics such as Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Grand Jury Prize winner; pictured, right), Jesse Peretz’s Juliet, Naked, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel (uh-oh) about a romance in the indie-rock scene (UH-OH!) and Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher (US Dramatic Directing Award). They are probably fine films, but if not, we’ll speak up, as should you. Don’t be afraid, writes Owen Gleiberman, of “branding yourself as the kind of curmudgeonly pariah who doesn’t know how to run with the crowd. Because you’re right and they’re wrong.”

THE 65th SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL runs June 6-17. Ticket and session details are available at the official website.

MOVIE FREAK: MY LIFE WATCHING MOVIES is currently available via Amazon (Australia/US) in print and audiobook and wherever all good books are sold.



Australian exhibitors could not be more grateful for the annual Easter Holiday box-office surge. With the award season favourites closing out their runs and the American summer blockbusters just around the corner, the March/April window would be bring patchy revenue if not for the Easter break and the accompanying school holidays (the rainier, the better). From virtual realities to gay romances to prehistoric soccer, the Easter 2018 line-up offers an eclectic mix. SCREEN-SPACE reviews eight new bigscreen entries vying for your non-chocolate Easter dollars (with apologies to SHERLOCK GNOMES, but you kinda know what you’re in with the punny sequel)…

Director: Kay Cannon
Stars: Kathryn Newton, John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, Gideon Adlon, Geraldine Viswanathan (pictured, above).
Plot: Julie, Kayla and Sam are three high school seniors who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Lisa, Mitchell and Hunter are three overprotective parents who flip out when they find out about their daughters' plans. They soon join forces for a wild and chaotic quest to stop the girls from sealing the deal - no matter what the cost.
Verdict: The ‘capital-C’ comedy moments deliver the pacing and skill that have become de rigeur in this post-Apatow movie world; anything goes, if the timing is right. But the narrative works best when debutant director Kay Cannon applies her understanding of strong independent women; she wrote the Pitch Perfect films and was a key creative on TV series 30 Rock and Girl Boss. Leslie Mann gets an all-too-rare shot at a leading role, and nails it; John Cena and Ike Barinholtz share scene-stealing honours. Admirably, the teen characters are as fully-fleshed out as the protagonists. Middle section sags, but Acts 1 and 3 are hilarious. RATING: 3.5/5

Director: Ava Duvernay
Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey (pictured, right), Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Levi Miller.
Plot: Meg Murry and her little brother, Charles Wallace, have been without their scientist father ever since he discovered a new planet and used the concept known as a tesseract to travel there. Joined by Meg's classmate Calvin O'Keefe and guided by the three mysterious astral travelers, the children brave a dangerous journey to a planet that possesses all of the evil in the universe.
Verdict: The desperation of all involved to make this adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved YA fantasy novel soar infests this monumental dud. From director Ava Duvernay’s heavy-handed direction to the suffocating special effects to the cumbersome, plodding sentimentality and bloated self-importance that imbues the grinding plot, A Wrinkle in Time throws everything at the screen with no idea as to how to make it gel. A lifeless lead performance from Storm Reid and utter lack of humour doesn’t help; garish set/costume/production design proves nauseating. RATING: 1.5/5  

Director: Armando Iannuci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor.
Plot: Moscow, 1953; Soviet leader Joseph Stalin collapses unexpectedly of a brain haemorrhage. A frenetic surge of raw panic spreads like a virus amongst the senior members of the Council of Ministers, as they scramble to maintain order, weed out the competition, and, ultimately, take power. In the end, who will prevail after the death of Stalin?
Verdict: There is ‘political farce’ and then there is Armando Iannuci’s The Death of Stalin, a comedy so black as to almost absorb one’s capacity for laughter. Iannuci’s past pointed barbs designed to tear apart the hypocrisy and immorality of our leaders (TV series Veep and The Thick of It; the feature In The Loop) did the job but left us with one finger grasping humanity; not so The Death of Stalin. It’s funny, but in the same way that joke about the uncle who walks into the woods with his nephew at sunset is funny; we laugh, and we get why we laugh, but everything about the humour is painfully uncomfortable. RATING: 3.5/5


Director: Greg Berlanti
Stars: Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner, Tony Hale, Katherine Langford.
Plot: Everyone deserves a great love story, but for 17-year-old Simon Spier, it's a little more complicated. He hasn't told his family or friends that he's gay, and he doesn't know the identity of the anonymous classmate that he's fallen for online. Resolving both issues proves hilarious, terrifying and life-changing.
Verdict: Far too many contemporary teen comedies anoint themselves as ‘Hughes-ian’, desperate to align themselves with the smart, sweet, insightful teen movies of the genre’s golden years, the 80s. Finally, a film earns the accolade; Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon is a deeply moving, genuinely funny, gorgeously cinematic film that recalls the iconic filmmaker’s outsider classics Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful, as well as Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. That Berlanti’s film might also be at the forefront of the next great teen film era – in which teenage protagonists alter how their world understands and accepts who they are on their terms – makes it an extraordinary achievement. RATING: 4.5/5   

Director: Aki Kaurasmaki
Stars: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Ilkka Koivula.
Plot: When the authorities turn down his application for asylum, Syrian refugee Khaled is forced underground, where travelling-salesman-turned-restauranteur Wikström finds him sleeping in the yard behind his establishment. He offers him a job and a roof over his head and, for a while, they form a Utopian union with the restaurant's waitress, the chef and his dog.
Verdict: The best films from Finnish director Aki Kaurasmaki find the faintest glimmer of hope amongst the darkest deadpan melancholy (Leningrad Cowboys Go to America; The Man Without a Past; Le Havre). The Other Side of Hope may be his most effortlessly constructed yet deeply affecting film to date; it won him the Best Director Silver Bear in Berlin last year. One immigrant’s seemingly insurmountable struggle to deal with his new life in modern Helsinki is real-world funny; there is not a false note in the film’s humanity, despite a reality that at times seems entirely cinematic. RATING: 4/5

Director: Nick Park.
Voices: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade
Plot: Plucky caveman Dug, his sidekick Hognob and the rest of their tribe face a grave threat from Lord Nooth, who plans transform their land into a giant mine. Not ready to go down without a fight, Dug and Hognob must unite their people in an epic quest to defeat a mighty enemy - the Bronze Age. The field of battle – the newly-invented realm of the soccer pitch.
Verdict: The Aardman Animation oeuvre aren’t the films you go to for gut-busting laughs. Curse of The Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run and their masterpiece, Shaun the Sheep, were sweet, gentle, character-driven charmers; when Aardman went for broad schtick, with 2012’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits, it produced their least satisfying film. Early Man falls somewhere in between. The high concept comedy seems to circle around inspired moments of mirth; one senses there is a better movie lurking inside director Nick Park’s hit/miss grab at World Cup football fever relevance. The stereotypically ethnic bad guys feel anachronistic in 2018, too. RATING: 2.5/5 


Director: Andrew Hyatt
Stars: James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Oliver Martinez, John Lynch, Joanne Whalley.
Plot: Risking his life, Luke ventures to Rome to visit Paul -- the apostle who's bound in chains and held captive in Nero's darkest and bleakest prison cell. Haunted by the shadows of his past misdeeds, Paul wonders if he's been forgotten as he awaits his grisly execution. Before Paul's death, Luke resolves to write another book that details the birth of what will come to be known as the church.
Verdict: The resurgent faith-based film genre grows sturdier with Andrew Hyatt’s retelling of the story of apostle Paul and his mentoring of friend and follower, Luke. Well-crafted and solidly dramatic, the film rises above recent shoddy, preachier Biblical renderings (notably the God-awful Samson, featuring Billy Zane and Rutger Hauer). Not likely to convert any heathen non-believers; the narrative feels deceptively fictitious, which may not please the devout. It is, however, an immensely watchable story, with solid performances from Jim Caviziel (returning to the flock 14 years after his iconic role in The Passion of The Christ), Oliver Martinez and the terrific James Faulkner. RATING: 3/5

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Ben Mendehlson and Hannah John-Kamen.
Plot: In an overpopulated 2045, people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant if eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg, hidden somewhere in the OASIS. When unlikely hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger.
Verdict: Should Steven Spielberg, arguably the most influential pop culture figure of the last 40 years and inspiration for much of what author Ernest Cline celebrated in his bestselling novel Ready Player One, be the filmmaker that oversees the blockbuster adaptation? Of course he should; who better to reflect upon the decades that made Spielberg the most successful filmmaker of all time than Spielberg himself. The result is the most playful, exciting and beautifully envisioned Spielberg-directed movie since 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. The great director has some issues wrapping up all the strands of the story; the last half-hour is a bit clunky and he allows some awkward sentimentality to seep in. The journey, however, is filled with some truly wondrous sequences that confirm the director can still craft thrilling popcorn entertainment better than anyone on the planet. RATING: 4/5