The very nature of the ‘underground film’ ensures that opinion will be both passionate and divided as to the artistic worth of films wearing that badge. The line-up for this year’s Brisbane Underground Film Festival is as eclectic as any in the 3-day event’s history. SCREEN-SPACE was very kindly afforded access to a cross-section of this year’s feature entries and found the 2016 mix just as invigorating, engaging and, well, ‘divisive’ as we could have hoped for…
600 MILES (Dir: Gabriel Ripstein / U.S., Mexico; 85 mins)
Gabriel Ripstein’s slow-burn desert-noir thriller presents a compelling narrative; a hardened ATF agent (Tim Roth, superb) finds himself on a knife-edge odyssey as the prisoner of a low-status arms runner (Kristyan Ferrer). Set against the border tensions that pit corrupt officials, Mexican cartel ethics and Gringo arrogance against each other, the debutant director’s low-key aesthetic and ultra-realism proves gripping and insightful. Despite the potential for the film to degenerate into B-movie posturing and familiar ‘Mexican bad-guy’ tropes, 600 Miles remains steadfastly a character piece, dissecting both the shared journey of the dual protagonists and the culturally imbalanced discourse between nations north and south of the border. The film misses Harrison Thomas as Carson, a short-fuse white trash big talker whose procuring of illegal arms opens the film with a unique, pulsating intensity. Alongside the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land, Ripstein’s vision suggests US filmmakers are considering a new perspective on the Mexican-US drug war.
GIUSEPPE MAKES A MOVIE (Dir: Adam Rifkin / U.S.; 82 mins)
The destinies of Adam Rifkin and Giuseppe Andrews seemed inexorably aligned. Sensitive and appealing on-screen, Andrews was on course to stardom, after parts in Never Been Kissed, Independence Day and Pleasantville; Rifkin rattled cages with the cult shocker The Dark Backward, then went mainstream with The Chase and scripts for Mousehunt, Small Soldiers and Underdog. Hopes were high when Rifkin and Andrews teamed on 1999’s Detroit Rock City, but it bombed. Thirteen years later, the pair are reunited for this idiosyncratic, deeply personal work. Rifkin's verite camera tracks a dishevelled but vibrant Andrews, who now lives amongst the down-on-their-luck denizens of a trailer park in Ventura, as he directs his new opus, 'Garbonzo Gas'. The work is the latest of many coarse, crazed character studies starring the drunks, drug addicts and manic-depressives he calls his neighbours. Rifkin clearly understands the boundless drive and feverish creativity that fuels Andrews. Giuseppe Makes a Movie celebrates the redemptive essence and raw power of barebones filmmaking and the meaning it can bring to damaged lives.
UNCLE KENT 2 (Dir: Todd Rohal / U.S.; 73 mins)
Only diehard Joe Swanberg completists will recall his 2011 film Uncle Kent; the notion of a sequel seems particularly odd (Ed: we’ve not seen it). But Uncle Kent 2 is not the usual Hollywood cash-grab follow-up. Swanberg’s collaborator Kent Osborne (pictured, right) plays a version of himself, a fringe industry presence desperately trying to a) gather the approval of his Uncle Kent co-stars (including Swanberg) for the new project, and b) struggling with writer’s block as the world literally comes to an end around him. Of all the BUFF 2016 films, director Todd Rohal’s proves the most energetically subversive; Osborne’s not really an actor and the film never entirely commits to any conventional notion of a narrative, but both prove beguiling and compelling. Recalling The Coen Brother’s Barton Fink in its soul-crushing study of ‘The Block’, Uncle Kent 2 is fearless, farfetched and very funny.
NASTY BABY (Dir: Sebastian Silva / U.S. , Chile; 101 mins)
A trio of natural performances imbued with real-world chemistry highlight Sebastian Silva’s New York-set drama. The writer/director takes centre stage as Freddy, a highly-strung artist in a committed relationship with boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) and a loving friendship with the free-spirited Polly (Kristen Wiig). She wants a baby by Mo’s seed, and the majority of the film’s first half focuses in on the comedy/drama inherent to that plotline. But the presence of neighbourhood nuisance ‘The Bishop’ (a terrific Reg E. Cathey) is impacting their lives; from revving his leaf blower at dawn and judging sranger’s parking skill to increasingly disturbing and intrusive acts, The Bishop is proving to be Freddy’s neighbour-from-hell. So light and natural is Silva’s take on Big Apple life, the encroaching menace that The Bishop represents and the rage he inspires in Freddy proves particularly disconcerting and, ultimately, shocking. After the off-kilter weirdness of Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus, the Chilean director returns to the dark-shaded humanity of his breakout hit, The Maid. Nasty Baby is his most satisfying work to date.
A FEAST OF MAN (Dir: Caroline Golum / U.S.; 82 mins)
Never as clever or funny as it thinks it is, director Caroline Golum’s tone-deaf riff on social manners and class mores pits a bunch on annoying one-dimensional constructs against each other in a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ spin on the ‘would you rather…’ game. Reuniting after the death of a mutual friend at his extravagant estate (one of many irksome nods to America’s entitlement culture), the shrill, false personalities work through some not very interesting issues while musing over whether or not they do what the dead friend’s will asks of them – eat the corpse to get a slice of the millionaire’s bank balance. Sometimes Golum plays it uninspiringly broad, like an old bedroom-hopping/door-slamming farce; sometimes she strives for whitebread chamber-piece wit, a ‘la Whit Stillman. Very little of it works, the ultimate failing a final act twist in which the denouement betrays those patient enough to have stuck with the premise. Produced by Fifth Column Features, an initiative that boasts of an anti-establishment agenda…while indulging in the same tired ‘Lloyd Kaufman cameo’ schtick as fifteen(!) other 2016 B-pics.
Unpreviewed: APPLESAUCE (Dir: Onur Tukel / U.S.; 91 min, 2015)
Read the SCREEN-SPACE Preview: 2016 Brisbane Underground Film Festival here.