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Entries in Documentary (28)

Sunday
Dec102017

PERFECT BID: THE CONTESTANT WHO KNEW TOO MUCH

Featuring: Theodore Slauson, Bob Barker, Roger Dobkowitz, Drew Carey and Kevin Pollak.
Director: C.J. Wallis

Rating: 4/5

The curious case of Theodore Slauson and the role he played in one of the most remarkable moments of television history is examined with an acutely insightful eye and jaunty rhythm in director C.J. Wallis’ hugely enjoyable doc, Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much. The 52 year-old survivor of game show infamy proves to be droll and delightful frontman for his own story, which Wallis recounts utilising first-person recollections, archive footage and some stylishly employed bridging animation.

A head for mathematical detail served Slauson well when his obsession with the iconic game show The Price is Right took full flight during his teenage years in the 1970s. The middle child of a middle class family raised in household where television was the centrifugal force, young Ted began to notice that the prizes on offer to contestants would often be repeated. Slauson took notes, first mentally and then electronically; by the mid 80s, with more than a decade of episodes logged, he knew the exact make, model and, most importantly, price of the entire prize catalogue.

The first half of Wallis’ charming, personality-driven profile affords insight into the rare depths that this brand of fandom occupies. There is not a judgemental frame of footage in Perfect Bid, which could have easily taken a mocking tone towards a man who spent the best part of four decades fixated on a daytime game show. In recounting his time spent lining up for a shot at player stardom and the special brand of ‘audience celebrity’ he became in his own right, Slauson’s ingratiating, self-effacing self-awareness proves entirely disarming.

Of course, most obsessions reveal a dark side. For Ted Slauson, it was in the form of Terry Kniess, whom Slauson befriended while waiting in line in September 2008. Kneiss would become the first contestant in the history of The Price is Right to place a perfect bid in the showcase round, with Slauson screaming numbers in support from the front row of the audience (participation encouraged as part of the show’s appeal).    

At the time, the ‘Perfect Showcase’ was deemed an impossible act; new host Drew Carey, in footage gleaned from his appearance on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show podcast, recalls how production was halted when the numbers revealed the anomaly and the consequences of such an event were weighed.

Thematically, Wallis touches on the notion of ‘careful what you wish for’. The fan mantra “Loyal Friends and True” that was preached by the show’s producers was severely tested in the wake of the Kniess incident. For Slauson, any notion of aiding in a scam to cheat the show was mortifying, as was the preposterous notion of a vengeful conspiracy in the wake of the sacking of veteran showrunner Roger Dobkowitz and the departure of beloved host Bob Barker (both of whom lend their beaming personalities to the film; pictured, above, l-r Dobkowitz and Barker).

Wallis’ account of the super-fan’s journey guided, in part, by the power of television proves a joy. In relating an everyman’s life altered/enriched/elevated when it crosses paths with his obsession, Perfect Bid: The Contestant That Knew Too Much will speak with a very clear and relatable voice to those who seek it out. However unwittingly, Theodore Slauson dictated his own destiny through a lifetime of commitment and dedication, two of the key components of the great American dream. As is winning one’s fortune on a game show.

Saturday
Nov182017

KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN

Featuring: Larry Cohen, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, John Landis, Fred Williamson, David J Schow, Eric Roberts, Michael Moriarty, Traci Lords, Barbara Carrera, Laurene Landon, Yaphet Kotto, Nathaniel Thompson, Paul Kurta, Rick Baker, J.J. Abrams and Martin Scorsese.
Writer/Director: Steve Mitchell.

AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Saturday November 25 at 11.00pm at Melbourne's Lido Cinema.

Rating: 4/5

Hagiographic as hell and fiercely proud of it, Steve Mitchell’s wildly entertaining bio-doc King Cohen hurtles through the life of showman director Larry Cohen with a rat-a-tat urgency and ‘get the shot and move on’ attitude. If it was Mitchell’s intent to mirror the work ethic, rough-hewn edges and on-set energy of Cohen’s great, ‘guerilla-style’ B-epics of the 70s, such as Black Caesar, God Told Me To and Q The Winged Serpent, he nails it.

An introduction by J.J. Abrams recalls that defining LA-moment when he met Cohen at an LA bus-stop, an encounter that the ageing director recalled 30 years later when the young Hollywood prince lunched with the old-school industry icon. Cohen proves a mensch, a naturally kind and accommodating type all too rare in the industry, while also being a results-driven multi-hyphenate pro, able to read and respond to both the artists with whom he creates and the audience he seeks.

After some upbeat retro opening credits, Mitchell (still best known as the writer of the 1986 home-vid schlockbuster, Chopping Mall) calls upon peers, academics and, most refreshingly, The Man himself to reflect. With no inherently artistic family members (save for a banjo-playing grandfather), it was up to the young Cohen to forge a career in storytelling, a path that began with an obsessive passion for the picture palaces of New York City. There is room for turgid sentimentality in this type of rose-coloured recollecting, but Mitchell and Cohen bounce through the childhood years buoyantly, exhibiting little melancholic regret or unfulfilled yearnings.

From his role in the ‘golden days’ of television to the decision to direct after watching so many of his scripts ruined by hacks, Cohen is portrayed as an inventive filmmaker of unparalleled integrity. That quality remains intact even when his powers of recollection are questioned, albeit light heartedly, by the likes of actor Fred Williamson, the star of Cohen’s 70’s blockbusters Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, and Michael Moriarty, his 80s muse in cult films Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. (Pictured, above; Cohen, right, directing Eric Roberts and Megan Gallagher in 1990's The Ambulance)

Most endearing is the closeness Cohen shares with the cinematic greats of his childhood, both professionally and personally. Director Samuel Fuller, comedian Red Buttons and, somewhat less warmly, an ageing Bette Davis have been central to Cohen’s remarkable career and feature in some of the most charming and insightful passages of Mitchell’s film. Enduring respect is a key thematic component of Mitchell’s account of Cohen’s life; first wife and producing partner Janelle Webb and current spouse Cynthia Costas-Cohen both wax lyrical about their man.

The modern-day Larry Cohen hawks his memorabilia at fan cons, his self-deprecating drollness helping him cope with the industry today. Mitchell doesn’t skimp on that footage, instead allowing the 80 year-old director’s indomitable spirit and quick wit to guide us through his twilight years (he still writes feverishly, in long hand). He is not accepting the industry’s lifetime accolades he so richly deserves, but nor is he seeking them. Larry loves the industry and yet, barring the adoration offered by hardcore fans and like-minded cinephiles such as Joe Dante, John Landis, Mick Garris and Martin Scorses, gets little love in return. Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen does a great deal to redress that imbalance.

Read the Screen-Space feature THE BEST OF LARRY COHEN here.
Read Screen-Space editor Simon Foster's interview with Larry Cohen here (courtesy of SBS Movies)

Wednesday
Nov012017

CONOR MCGREGOR: NOTORIOUS

Features: Conor McGregor, Dee Devlin, Dana White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Aldo and Nate Diaz.
Director: Gavin Fitzgerald.

Rating: 3.5/5

Whether you are of the ‘fairytale rise to his generation’s greatest athlete’ view or bend more towards the ‘self-proclaimed messiah of bro-culture arrogance’ stance, there is enough to please/infuriate both extremes in Conor McGregor’s lovingly authorised bio-doc, Notorious. Is it a hagiographic monument to the true potential of unyielding egotism, capturing hubris as ‘high cinematic art’? Or is it just clip-after-clip of an over-groomed dude living well between beating people up? Two camps…

A celebration of the man, the mission and the material spoils of 'only-in-America' size success, director Gavin Fitzgerald and editor Andrew Hearne (both countrymen of McGregor), weave a mythological narrative that determinedly honours the MMA brawler’s Irish roots yet portrays little of his life prior to climbing into that first octagon. Footage has been gleaned primarily from the last four years, covering the period from when he and his loyal girlfriend Dee Devlin were shacking up with the fighter’s mother to the monstrous circus and massive wealth of the Las Vegas fight scene.

The first words spoken are “Let’s school this mother****er”, a declaration of intent from McGregor to the audience. Notorious works to both strengthen his existing brand power and let those new to the Conor-verse know what they are in for. Structurally, the film is pure sports fairy tale; the rise, fall and resurrection of a champion, achieved through hard work, self-belief and a lot of people telling you how great you are.

It is a vision of a world that adores the alpha-male, which will play as tone-deaf to some given the current climate. The only woman afforded any significant minutes in the film is the charming Devlin, yet she is given little backstory; her support is clearly integral to his success, though she's rarely seen doing more than existing in McGregor's shadow. The filmmakers also appropriate African-American culture, while not really featuring any African-Americans; from the connotations associated with the film’s title to the overuse of rap/hip-hop language, Conor and his very white entourage assume mannerisms stereotypically ‘street’. 

And yet Notorious remains an admittedly compelling story. The man himself is a polarising and fascinating personality, presented here as being consumed by a rare determination to achieve success for the sake of success. During an interview, he provides a PR-friendly soundbite that suggests he courts untold wealth so that his kids and grandkids can live well, yet nothing in Fitzgerald’s film supports that claim. The film is all about a working-class man’s ascension into the top-tier tax bracket, of that fantasy moment when your new wealth allows you to shout your family a new car.

Notorious revels in capturing Conor McGregor as he seeks fame, achieves fame and flaunts fame. It is crass and cringe-y cinema at times – like an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians with more punches and blood - but it is also textbook bigscreen fantasy fulfilment for those who have hitched their fandom to McGregor’s star. And for the star himself.

 

Wednesday
Oct182017

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE

Featuring: Brian Hooker, Doreen Granpeesheh, Mark Blaxill, Polly Tommey, Bill Posey, Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Written by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree.
Directed by Andrew Wakefield.

Rating: 3/5

When it was bumped from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival amidst claims ranging from bogus science and conspiracy theorising to conflicts-of-interest and political grandstanding, the anti-MMR inoculation tirade Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe earned far more headlines than it ever would have received as a documentary of any note. Such notoriety proves a double-edged sword; the dissenters helped promote the film and its cause, but it also muddied serious consideration of a competently presented piece of investigative filmmaking, albeit one buoyed by the typical heavy-handedness of a heart-over-head polemic.

First time Brit director and deregistered gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield (pictured, below) flaunts long-held beliefs and his own softly-spoken public-school charisma in his often compelling postulating of how Big Pharma and The Centre for Disease Control colluded to silence findings that linked the combined measles-mumps-rubella injection with the onset of autism. Unlike the thundering chorus of disapproval that greeted his film, Wakefield works hard to pinpoint and present his ‘facts’; that being, a significant sample of toddlers around twelve months of age vaccinated with the MMR drug began exhibiting symptoms associated with developmental abnormalities (the statistics when applied to the African American community are even more worrying).

The claims do not suggest the individual vaccines are dangerous, but that the combined dosage at a certain point in a child’s growth has caused damage to a large enough percentage of children to warrant investigation. Wakefield crafts a timeline, employs the impassioned vocal theatrics of journo (and co-writer) Del Bigtree and tugs at the heart with video footage of young sufferers in staking his position. Scientific data and media grabs are utilised in much the same way as in most ‘agenda docs’; just as Al Gore, Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza (director of the pilloried 2016 hard-right rant, Hillary’s America) did before him, Wakefield employs cable newshounds and whitecoaters in a manner that best serves his message. To decry his film’s credibility based upon bias is to tar every modern doc with a fatal imbalance.

He none-to-subtly employs rhetoric and conjecture to draw lines between a self-serving medical profession, the billion-dollar insurance sector and the legal fraternity, all of whom may or may not be in cahoots to protect shared interests. Wakefield proves less adept at drawing together these elements, which proves frustrating. It is entirely plausible that, given the immorality and avarice being revealed every day under the current administration of ‘Big Business’ puppets the industrial practices of the sector are reprehensible, but it is hard to draw that conclusion based on Wakefield’s version of events.

Wakefield’s own discrediting did not help his cause; having published widely read findings on the alleged dangers of MMR vaccination in Britain’s esteemed medical journal Lancet, the scientific integrity of the report and ultimately the reputation of the man himself were called into question once too often. As its title suggests, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe indulges in hyperbolic fear mongering at the expense of hard science more often than it should. 

Which, Mr De Niro, was no excuse to deny the film screens; such a reaction from the Tribeca head was clearly preposterous. Films like Vaxxed should be seen so as to kick start discussion, if only for contrary, more informed voices to prove their claims false.

VAXXED: FROM COVER-UP TO CATASTROPHE screens at The Melbourne Underground Film Festival on October 29 as part of 'The Golden Age of Censorship' strand with Cassie Jaye's men's rights advocacy documentary, The Red Pill. For ticket and session details visit the event's official website.

 

Tuesday
Sep262017

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE

Featuring: Craig Anderson, Gerard Odwyer, Bryan Moses, Robert Anderson and Dee Wallace.
Director: Gary Doust

Rating: 4/5

Eighteen years after the soul-crushing realities of self-funded film production were exposed in Chris Smith’s landmark documentary American Movie, director Gary Doust puts a warm but no less anxiety-inducing Australian spin on the tribulations faced by the next-to-no-budget auteur in Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare.

Craig Anderson had runs on the board after the TV comedy success Double the Fist (he earned a 2015 AACTA Award for Best Comedy Directing), but the dream was to helm his horror feature script Red Christmas. Nearing 40, Anderson’s life was moribund, reduced to sleeping on the floor of his small office studio surrounded by his VHS tapes and (admittedly impressive) collection of Stephen Pearson prints. Existence hits a low point when a painful condition demands mature-age circumcision. Anderson is frank and funny about the increasingly dire state of his life, which bottoms out with the pathetic reality of having to have his adult foreskin removed while still on his mother’s Medicare card.

Doust had exhibited a natural talent for capturing the torment of a low budget shoot as far back as 2002 with his own award winner, the terrific Making Venus. His affinity for and incisive understanding of the filmmaker’s experience, nurtured during his tenure as head of the film collective Popcorn Taxi and in his doco series Next Stop Hollywood, affords him a sweet and trustful rapport with his subject. Footage inside the Anderson family home, where the desperate director asks his financially stable brother for a loan, provide for a rare kind of awkward intimacy; Anderson’s snowballing anguish over budget/crewing/schedule/union conditions make for some truly stomach-tightening and heart-tugging moments of factual filmmaking.

By the time the Red Christmas shoot gets underway in regional New South Wales, Doust and his camera are deeply embedded within the on-set dynamic. Personalities emerge that bring Anderson into sharper, deeper focus – actor Gerard Odwyer, a Down Syndrome sufferer who proves to be accomplished actor and strong emotional core, for both productions; first AD Bryan Moses, often the voice of reason amidst the madness (he and Anderson co-directed the 1999 Tropfest winning short, Life in a Datsun). Not for the first time in her career, leading lady Dee Wallace (pictured, above) proves a winning (and suprisingly sweary) presence and inspires her director to stretch his talents.

The final stages of Anderson’s Red Christmas journey provide insight into the end-to-end process of envisioning, realising and selling your work (including a post-production stretch on a cruise ship that seems slightly incongruous given the penny-pinching woes that make up so much of the film). In practical terms, Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare should be required viewing in film schools nationwide for its matter-of-factness. The film truly soars as an endearing character study; an examination into the determination and borderline delusion it takes to make one’s vision a reality. In Craig Anderson, Gary Doust honours the archetypal passion-fuelled dreamer of great cinematic lore.

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE will have its World Premiere at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the event's official website.

(Footnote: SCREEN-SPACE attended 2016 Sydney Film Festival screening of Red Christmas, but did not publish a review. We did provide a 2.5 star rating on our Letterboxd page.)

Tuesday
Aug292017

COALESCE: A CITY COMPOSED

Featuring: Megan Jonas and Jordan Ignacio.
Director: Joshua J. Provost.

WORLD PREMIERE: Fer Film International Film Festival, September 2-6, Ferizaj, Republic of Kosovo.
AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE: flEXIff Experimental Film Festival, September 23-24, Sydney, Australia.

Rating: 4.5/5

The connectivity of creation that artists share is examined with profound beauty and sensitivity in Coalesce: A City Composed, the inspiring debut feature from Phoenix-based filmmaker, Joshua J. Provost. An intimate account of the formation of a uniquely envisioned art installation in the Arizona capital, the film can rank amongst its many fine accomplishments the re-imagining of the director’s rather unremarkable hometown as, in the eyes of these beholders, a place actually quite beautiful.

Imbuing Provost’s work with a spiritual centre are his subjects, artist Megan Jonas (pictured, top; on location in Phoenix) and composer Jordan Ignacio. Born-and-bred Arizonian Jonas creates unique and beautiful landscapes of Phoenix’s most mundane features; telephone wires, traffic intersections, footpaths, fuse boxes and alleyway weeds are all featured in her paintings, which Provost’s tight but non-intrusive camera captures from blank canvas to stunning life. East Coast muso Ignacio (pictured, below), aka The Languid Current, is a self-taught instrumentalist and master of the atmospheric aural soundscape.

Coalesce: A City Composed features four works by Jonas that capture her city as it transitions daily between light and dark. The artist forwards stages of her paintings to Ignacio, now embedded in his own Phoenix digs, who uses her work to inspire music that would eventually accompany the paintings during a season at Phoenix’s Grand ArtHaus Gallery, from December 2016. In hushed, intimate tones, Provost’s on-screen collaborators speak of that which inspires, influences and ultimately determines the essence of their art, all while it finds form before our eyes.

Provost is clearly in the same creative headspace as his subjects; from capturing their inspiration with a precise insight to giving over his film to their commentary unhindered by clunky voice-over, Provost affords Jonas and Ignacio the space and respect needed for true freedom of expression. Rarely has a film been so in tune with the ‘artistic process’, or conveyed with such clarity the workings of the artist’s mind.

Coalesce: A City Composed ends with a flourish of bravura film-making that is a breathtaking coming-together of all three art forms. Each painting takes shape before your eyes, via daring post-production wizardry, to the compelling strains of the richly-realized soundtrack; three distinct disciplines creating one beautiful piece of art. A final nod to the locations that inspired the paintings/music/film is a heartfelt touch by Provost, who has crafted a deeply engaging film of intelligence, integrity and sincerity.

Saturday
Jul082017

FIVE FAVOURITES FROM MELBOURNE'S FESTIVAL OF FACTUAL FILM

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Festival Director Lyndon Stone and his programming team have collated a catalogue of factual films that have wowed audiences at the planet’s most prestigious 2017 documentary showcases. SCREEN-SPACE got a peek at this year’s line-up and offers our opinion of five films that deserve attention, discussion and sold-out auditoriums. Each is a unique vision, certain to engage, infuriate, inspire and enlighten, as all good documentaries should…

MISS KIET’S CHILDREN (Dirs. Peter Lataster, Petra Lataster-Czish; The Netherlands, 115 mins; pictured, above)
A Dutch school marm exhibits a warrior’s spirit, a saint’s heart and...well, a great teacher's patience in this understated yet soaring study of what the term ‘assimilation’ means to a classroom in Holland. Refugee children, each displaying resilience and depth of character beyond their years, are captured with an extraordinary intimacy by the lens of husband/wife filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czish. The politics of age and gender are glimpsed in the kids’ behaviour; most profoundly, the impact of the conflict they have fled is slowly expos ed by the filmmaker’s sublime technique. When awkward pre-teen Jorg reveals why he might be less studious than is expected of him, have the tissues ready.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 13 @ 6.30pm.

PLAY YOUR GENDER (Dir: Stephanie Clattenburg; U.S.A.; 80 mins.)
While the gender divide within the American film industry has made headlines of late, little mention has been made of the fact that only 5% of the producers working the panels in the music industry are women, or that only 20% of published songs are by women lyricists. Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr and first-time director Stephanie Clattenberg pair up to pile revelation upon revelation in this blood-boiling expose of the music sector’s traditional gender bias and ‘glass ceiling’ mindset. That such a film needs to exist in this day and age is outrage enough; that it runs rich with passionate, talented, intelligent woman who have seen their careers hindered by sexism and misogyny demands action. Features such groundbreaking artists as ‘Hole’ bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and drummer Patty Schemel; Sara Quin of ‘Tegan and Sara’; and, ‘The Stolen Minks’ frontwoman Stephanie Johns.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 1.45pm.

THE ROAD MOVIE (Dir: Dmitrii Kalishnikov; Belarus; 67mins)
The dashcam phenomena has swept Russia and its territories; insurance scams, police misbehaviour and road rage incidents has led to almost every car being fitted with a windscreen lens. So director Dmitrii Kalishnikov had a lot of footage to work with when he conceptualised a vision of modern Russian life as captured by the population itself. Of course, he indulges in the extraordinary – truck crashes, speedsters on snowy roads, cows being hit (they walk away, incredibly) and the ‘comet footage’ that went viral. But The Road Movie is at its most compelling when it focuses on the voices of the unseen within the vehicle. Waves of emotion emerge in an instant; moments of terror, exhilaration, hilarity, even first love unite in a flowing cinematic essay. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Russia’s favourite dashboard gadget has delivered a forceful social experience.
Rating: 4.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 9.30pm.

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (Dir: Leslie Iwerks; U.S.A.; 96 mins.)
She is La grande dame of the American restaurant landscape, the matriarch of a New Orleans culinary clan that has shaped the nation’s cuisine for a century. Ella Brennan makes for a mighty cinematic figure, her iron-willed charisma ideally suited for Leslie Iwerks’ boisterous celebration of spirit, showmanship and determination. Occasionally it teeters on hagiography; viewers aren’t left wondering what a wonderful time is to be had at Brennan’s legendary Big Easy establishment, Commander’s Palace. It’s a minor complaint; one can’t begrudge the party atmosphere Commanding The Table captures and the extraordinary legacy Ella and her clan have forged.
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 12 @ 6.00pm.  

DOGS OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Mary Zournazi; Australia/Greece; 58 mins.)
They have become the spiritual symbol of modern Athens, guardians of the streets who exist with dignity intact and the acceptance of the population. First-time director Mary Zournazi captures the stray dogs of the Greek capital with a deeply respectful and compassionate lens, acknowledging the hope they represent to a people who themselves are often portrayed as the ‘stray dogs of the EU’. Most affectionately, Zournazi relates the legend of Loukanikos, a magnificent beast who would fearlessly lead those protesting the government’s austerity measures against riot squad heavy-handedness.  
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 16 @ 9.30am.

(SCREEN-SPACE Managing Editor Simon Foster is a judge at the 2017 MDFF and will be a guest of the festival)  

The 2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL screens from July 9-16. Session, venue and ticketing information can be found at the events official website.

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.

Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

Screens at Sydney Film Festival on June 7th and 9th, then in national wide release from June 15.

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Thursday
May182017

LOVE AND SAUCERS

Featuring: David Huggins.
Director: Brad Abrahams.

Rating: 4/5

Director Brad Abrahams makes a lot of smart storytelling decisions from the very first frame of his documentary Love and Saucers, an account of one man’s ongoing and intimate experiences with beings of unidentifiable origins and of the struggle to reconcile a ‘normal’ life with the intrusion of denizens from beyond our realm.   

From his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, 72 year-old artist David Huggins makes the fantastic claim directly to camera that, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial.” A natural camera presence that imparts his abduction memories with a compelling earnestness, Huggins timelines key moments from his childhood during which groups of ‘greys’, mantis-like insectoids and hairy beasts with glowing eyes would visit him on the grounds of his family home in rural Georgia. The purpose of the visitations is finally revealed when, alone in a wooded clearing, a pale-skinned seductress named Crescent engages the teenage Huggins and the coming-together of human and alien species takes place. 

Abrahams is entirely aware that such claims are usually met by the wider population with derision and only serve to conjure notions of B-movie/pop-culture silliness. His camera floating towards the front door of Huggins’ home just as the visitors might, the director’s opening salvo of imagery and audio cues embraces this cynicism, interspersing recollections of the encounters with zooms and jump-cuts that play like comic-book panels.

He reveals that Huggins is a sci-fi nerd, with a collection of over 2000 films (on beautiful VHS, no less), many of which deal directly with themes of alien visitation (Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, 1951), interspecies genealogy (Bernard Kowalski’s Sssssss, 1974) and otherworldly home intrusion (Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, 1944). The filmmaker almost seems to be setting his subject up for a takedown, positioning Huggins’ as a man living a sheltered life, perhaps unable to disengage from some form of childhood trauma (a boozy, womanising father who tended towards intolerance and violence is recalled).

But the Canadian-born director, who brought a level-headed decency to his 2015 swamp-monster doco short Swan Song of The Skunk Ape, has loftier ambitions than scorn and cheap thrills. As hinted at by the title, Love and Saucers is a heartfelt profile of an entirely ordinary man, albeit one whose life has been shaped by extraordinary events. Abrahams curbs the stylistic flourishes of his first act and embraces the softer, genuine emotions and real-world sensations that Huggins lives as his relationship with Crescent extends into adulthood. Although claims of hybrid children and visitation phenomena in the heart of New York City are no less astonishing, the human bond that Huggins shares with his decidedly non-human circle of friends dissolves any remaining fissure of viewer disbelief or ridicule.

Love and Saucers also speaks directly to the curative relationship between the artist and his art. Huggins recalls his relationship with the visitors via canvas, his simple yet striking surrealist oils capturing the detail behind the encounters and freeing him of deeply embedded memories. These include some graphic renditions of the intricate physical relationship he shared with Crescent; the X-rated Files, as it were.

Abrahams doesn’t ignore the abduction phenomena, acknowledging that much of the imagery and emotions that Huggins imparts is common amongst abductees. The production references the works of the late author and experiencer expert Budd Hopkins and the observations of Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Texas’ Rice University to give credence to the details in Huggins’ recollections and to counter any concern that his beliefs are the result of emotional or psychological stresses.

Ultimately, these sequences merely enhance the purely humanistic perspective that Abrahams seems most determined to impart. As intrinsically fascinating as first person accounts of extra-terrestrial interaction prove to be, it is how one man has dealt with such moments that most enthuse the filmmaker. In a film with an act of intergalactic seduction at its core, it may be the image of an elderly man sitting contentedly in a car after his first gallery showing that resonates most profoundly.

Love and Saucers: Trailer from Brad Abrahams on Vimeo.