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Entries in Documentary (16)

Saturday
Feb182017

GIVEN

Featuring: Aamion, Daize, Given and True Goodwin.
Writers: Jess Bianchi, Malia Mau and Yvonne Puig.
Director: Jess Bianchi.

Rating: 4/5

The ambitious scale and humanistic themes of Jess Bianchi’s Given come through with dazzling clarity from the opening frames of his beautiful familial odyssey. The debutant director’s chronicle of discovery and humanity is a wake-up call – an early close-up of a rooster in full morning voice attests to that. This is followed by images of a father, enigmatic surfing great Aamion Goodwin, and his 6 year-old son, Given, soaking themselves in the muddy goodness of the earth, while heavily pregnant wife and mum Daize swims deeply and naturally in the pristine ocean, the birthplace of our species.

The sequence sets in motion a grandly mounted, profound celebration of the family unit and the importance of the people and planet with which they share life’s path.

As the title suggests, the focal point of the narrative is Given, for whom the journey – 15 countries over 14 months – is tethered to his father’s own naturalistic upbringing and a mystical quest for ‘The Big Fish’, a symbol of fulfilment and goal attainment for the family. While the occasional use of  ‘movie magic’ undoubtedly helped create the angelic wonder with which he and his newborn sister True embrace the patience-testing nature of global travel, Given proves an engaging screen presence, for whom the wonders of the world hold infinite awe. His wise observations, often dreamlike in their interpretation of his journey’s arc, are mature beyond his years; the measured tone and philosophical musings feel very much of the filmmaker’s doing, but prove tonally appropriate and in line with the heightened reality of Devin Whetstone’s exquisite camerawork.

Bianchi embraces the tried-and-tested surf doco formula of utilising minimal on-screen dialogue, instead letting the boy’s narration and the stunning images do the talking. Most affecting are direct-to-camera portraits of people from countries as far afield as Iceland, Israel, Thailand, Senegal and Peru, to name just a few of the destinations for the cast and crew. The eyes of the world staring into Bianchi’s lens reinforce that regardless of cultural trappings and vast distances, a soulful singularity exists between us all.

The breathtakingly immersive, free-flowing lensing and the central parent/child dynamic recall Terence Malick’s infinitely darker drama The Tree of Life, which also examined the legacy of patriarchal influence. While that work focussed on the transference of demons between generations, Given portrays a more enlightened, wondrously unified bond between father, son and Mother Earth. Bianchi’s capturing of a family’s reconnection with nature, both their own and on a planetary scale, provides a bracing refresher course on the goodness of humanity.

Given will have its Australian premiere as the Opening Night feature at the Byron Bay Surf Festival. Full details can be found at the events official website.

Wednesday
Feb152017

UNDER THE GUN

Narrated by Katie Couric.
Featuring Mark Barden, Jackie Barden, Pamela Bosley, Shannon Watts, Richard Martinez, Sandy Phillips, Lonnie Phillips, Gabrielle Gifford, Mark Kelly, Victoria Montgomery, Michael Pfleger, Mark Follman, William Vizzard, Robyn Thomas, Tom Diaz, Michael Waldman, Richard Feldman and Robin Kelly.
Writers: Brian Lazarte, Mark Monroe and Stephanie Soechtig.
Director: Stephanie Soechtig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The form and functionality of the modern ‘advocacy documentary’ genre reaches tragic and infuriating new heights in the heartbreaking arms-control exposé, Under the Gun.

Combining layered research, focussed discussion and harrowing accounts of shootings and their devastating aftermath, director Stephanie Soechtig and narrator/EP Katie Couric construct an indelibly moving and quietly shattering examination of the state of firearm violence and the fight for regulation in the wake of a wave of horrific mass shootings. Having shed cold light on the fast food industry in 2014’s Fed Up, the pair employs a similarly fearless tact in their dissection of the social, industrial and political forces that continue to obstruct the legal and constitutional reform needed to bring about common-sense change.

No study of the impact of guns on American society could be complete without insight into the upper echelon role of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the fear baiting 2nd Amendment rhetoric of its leader, Wayne LaPierre. Also revealed in full is the extant of arms manufacturing industry funding that flows into the Association's coffers and the long history of powerbrokers sitting in the NRA boardrooms, from where some of the most hardline lobbying, political influence and legal maneuvering in American social history has been formulated.  

Under the Gun is not the first documentary to point out that rich, white men working in a moral vacuum and motivated by profit are a primary source of America’s ills; most recently, Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated (and stylistically similar) 13th noted historical precedent in the ongoing oppression of and subsequent commercial gain from locking up America’s black population. Alongside angry works like Richard Todd’s Frackman (2015), Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989), Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), and Josh Fox’s Gasland, Parts 1 (2010) and 2 (2013), a picture emerges of a modern society misused and abused in the name of capitalism, careening towards an inevitable restructuring on the back of a new wave of activism.

The profits-over-people approach of the gun industry is brought into sharper focus when viewed through the prism of soul-crushing grief. Soechtig and Couric (who remains off-camera) capture the fragile existential void being lived by: The Barden family, who lost 7 year-old son Daniel, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook; Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, parents of slain Aurora theatre patron, Jessica Ghawi; Pamela and Tom Bosley, whose son Terrell was shot in a Chicago church carpark; and, Richard Martinez, father of murdered 20 year-old college student Chris, one of six people killed in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Exhibiting the determination of spirit required to recover from the impact of a shooting is former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of 19 shot in January 2011 outside a Tucson grocery store; six died.

Footage of the mass murders and other gun violence (including one blackly funny moment of self-inflicted pain) is used with the utmost respect by the production, yet remains truly shocking and deeply affecting. In particular, CCTV footage of patrons fleeing the Aurora cinema complex to the audio of the 911 pleas of those trapped inside (“I’m only seventeen,” screams one caller) are impossible to forget. 

Detractors will cite an unevenness of debate; that the NRA members may not have been afforded fair right of reply or been misrepresented.* But the NRA has wielded its influence with a loud voice for more than 145 years. It would be an act of callous inhumanity to cry foul of Soechtig’s methodology, given the means by which LaPierre and his organisation have manipulated the right of the American population (including felons, terrorists and violent re-offenders) to bear as many arms as they can find room for.

Under the Gun exists for those that do not have the network of Washington swamp dwellers who call LaPierre ‘friend’ or ‘contributor’. It is a film to inspire anger and incite change and emerges as one of the best of its kind. 

*The producers acknowledged that an early version of the film did feature one sequence edited to imply pro-gun advocates struggled with one line of enquiry.

Help take action against gun violence by visiting a member of the Under the Gun partnership network:

Wednesday
Dec072016

THE RED PILL

Featuring: Cassie Jaye, Paul Elam, Warren Farrell, Marc Angelucci, Harry Crouch and Dean Esmay.
Director: Cassie Jaye.

Rating: 1.5/5

The jagged histrionics of documentarian Cassie Jaye’s disjointed pro-Men’s Right advocacy film, The Red Pill, serves two masters well. Her softly-softly proselytizing and spurious arguments serve to sweeten the image of Men’s Rights mouthpieces and the ‘regressive progress’ platform they present. And speaking directly to her own camera as she journeys from feminist to ‘enlightened humanist’ serves Jaye as well, her frowns and tears recalling an acting class show reel.

As she painstakingly overstates, Jaye’s body of work outwardly presents an empathetic view of society – patriarchal rule within dogmatic Christian lives, with specific adherence to pre-marital abstinence (Daddy I Do, 2010); the impact of ‘food insecurity’ on the upper-middle class and those that serve them in Marin County (Faces Overlooked, 2010); and, the struggle of two gay white guys to raise a family as California’s Proposition 8 debate raged (The Right to Love: An American Family, 2008). But even if you include a couple of shorts about women’s issues (Blackeye, 2009; The Story of GoldieBlox, 2012), her oeuvre is one of narrow experience rife with hot button issues and moderate-right conservatism.

Jaye would have her audience believe that she stumbled upon the Men’s Right Movement with a wide-eyed innocence; we get to see her literally type ‘Men’s Rights’ into a search engine. She barely registers vile online misogyny (the kind that has seen MRA advocates labelled ‘rape apologists’) as if it was a dirty limerick. In no time at all, she is in warm conversation with the likes of Paul Elam, President of A Voice for Men, a voice that spoke the now infamous call-to-action quote, “I am proclaiming October to be Bash a Violent Bitch Month”; Dr. Warren Farrell (pictured, top; with Jaye), author of the MRA diatribe, The Myth of Male Power and spouter of wisdom pearls like, “Women are the only 'oppressed' group that is able to buy $10 billion worth of cosmetics each year,”; and, Harry Crouch and Marc Angelucci, executives from The National Council for Men, MRA heavy-hitters who once lobbied to defund domestic violence programs if men’s rights were not addressed.

So follows a whirlwind of male-perspective theories and twisty statistics eager to convince how work place deaths, suicide rates and financial hardship have impacted men since the Women’s Liberation uprising of the 1960’s (seen as a monochrome montage of screeching girl-power rallies with some laughable hippy-funk backing track). Elam and his brothers are presented as warm, composed, homely types; in one moment of un-ironic inspiration that could have come from a Christopher Guest-penned satire, Farrell (who greets his director with, “I thought you’d be a man! But I’m glad you’re a woman!”) all but serenades his director in his living room ‘man-cave’, striving to convey a portrait of perfect patriarchal stability yet coming off as desperate and smug.

Jaye will claim that non-MR dissenters are giving equal voice in her film. The likes of Feminist Majority Foundation executive director and MS. magazine editor Katherine Spillar and USC academic Dr Michael Messner get air time, but are portrayed as tsk-tsking, head-shaking elitists who simply perpetuate anti-MRA myths about it being a ‘man’s world’ and how the white male paradigm is more powerful than ever. More troubling is the footage chosen of anti-MR rallies, seemingly peopled solely by extremist gay and/or ‘feminazi’ activists bent on some form of pro-feminist anarchy. Or the extreme close-up afforded ‘male genital mutilation’, aka circumcision, used to convey how abhorrent MRA guys find it to have the fate of their body parts dictated by standards and traditions (a view probably shared by pro-choice supporters and those who have had their p***y grabbed by The President-Elect).

An extended mid-section about the lack of balance in the U.S. family court system seems to be from another documentary entirely, legitimately raising issues of gender inequality. But any insightful analysis is muted by the purely outrageous, none more so than the ‘Disposable Male’ theory. It posits that because only men traditionally take on roles such as soldier, fireman, oil rig worker, coal miner, etc., the male of the species is now perceived as disposable. A litany of statistics are presented, indicating the greater mortal sacrifice men have made in the last 100 years of societal formation (the disrespect afforded slain U.S. female soldiers, their deaths reduced to a percentage to drive home how many more men died, is breathtaking).

What Cassie Jaye and her all-white male chorus wilfully ignore is that the patriarchal stronghold on modern western life was not dictated by women or gays or lefty academics or any one else at whom Elam or Farrell or Cassie Jaye wag a disingenuous finger. It was determined by those in power i.e. the straight, white men of means who were the very forefathers of the MRA executives, who deemed that men of lesser standing be the ones who fought and died, worked and died. Once, men were viewed as warriors, not whiners, sent to die for the society, however flawed, that their leaders were forming. The best of these bygone men fought and died for the rights of every man and woman in a unified society. Cassie Jaye’s men, and by association the filmmaker herself, are not serving a greater good or inspiring discourse, but instead fuelling a social divide and dishonouring their respective genders.

Sunday
Sep182016

57 LAWSON

Featuring: Sara Armanfar, Carolyn Athan, Lou Athan, Mary Athan, Melissa Athan, Hussein Atik, Anthea Hewitt, Marta Klimenko, Gary Lonesborough and Olga Markovic.
Director: Ben Ferris.

Reviewed at the World Premiere at The Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday September 16; screened in Cinema 4 at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

Rating: 4/5

An unwavering focus records seemingly random but deeply honest, inherently captivating moments in time in Ben Ferris’ 57 Lawson, a study in humanity set against the backdrop of an ageing unit precinct in Sydney’s inner city. From the very first frame, which captures the low-rise towers as their day fades into night, the director’s docu-drama masterfully draws upon the objective observational cinema of Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker and Frederick Wiseman in examining the inevitability of change while archiving the latest redefinition of the role of ‘people’ in the city landscape.   

The multi-level apartment complex of the title was borne of an era when inner city population growth was high on the State government agenda. In 1941, the New South Wales Housing Commission was formed to encourage settlement in the area and provide homes for a burgeoning population; in 1965, the three apartment blocks named Kendall, Gilmore and Lawson, aka ‘Poets Corner’, that are featured in the film were opened. By 2016, the occupants are at the mercy of a new local government agenda, one that is handing these prime pockets of city real estate over to billionaire developers with no consideration for heritage or, more importantly, the residents.

Revealed in long, unbroken takes, the lives of the apartment dwellers are both unremarkable and beautiful in their apparent anonymity. Among them are a matriarch and her family, downplaying a traumatic hospital stint; a woman, dipping in and out of her native tongue while reading a cake recipe; and, an Iranian student, living a modern life while remaining respectful of her ancestry. Some of the extended takes are frustratingly abstract; a cruise ship passing the Opera House is a particularly bewildering insert. Yet the engagement between Ferris’ lens, the footpaths and corridors of the complex and those that call it home remains endlessly captivating.

The mosaic of everyday life begins to unravel when Department of Family and Community Services officials arrive at 57 Lawson to begin the relocation process of the longterm tenants. These scenes are staged, but they are realised with no less of an impact than the observational factual footage; particularly heartbreaking is the ageing Turkish man and the moment of realisation that the two women in his home are preparing to move him after 40 years of living at Poet’s Corner.  

Despite flagging a point-of-view with a pre-title quote from Mahatma Gandhi (“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”), Ferris’ methodolgy does not dictate a socio-political message. Instead, his camera is an observer of the existential complexity behind the case numbers and bureaucracy. The influence of Akerman’s ‘slow-cinema’ is obvious, notably her masterwork All One Night (1982); like the late director’s finest films, 57 Lawson is an exercise in minimalism to the point of near abstract detachment. Yet while the very presence of Ferris’ camera seems oblivious to his subjects, it achieves a gripping intensity of personal focus and tangible sense of time and place.

 

Monday
Aug012016

MONSIEUR MAYONNAISE

Featuring: Philippe Mora, Mirka Mora.
Director: Trevor Graham.

Rating: 4/5

The connectivity of memory, legacy and family is defined with a playful yet profound dexterity in Trevor Graham’s soulful, inspiring documentary, Monsieur Mayonnaise. A portrait of the immigrant experience that is both uniquely personal yet deeply honourable to a generation of ‘new Australians’, Graham’s account of filmmaker Philippe Mora’s search for insight into his parent’s journey from Nazi-occupied Europe to the suburbs of Melbourne deftly encompasses such diverse human experience as the creation of art, the horrors of genocide and the delights of condiment preparation.

Revisiting the same ties that bind the nourishing goodness of food with mankind’s appetite for self-destruction that he examined in his offbeat 2012 crowdpleaser, Make Hummus Not War, Graham has found a willing and compelling cinematic soulmate in Mora. The LA-based expat has embraced a new creative outlet as a graphic novel artist and painter, his broad brush strokes and bold colours recalling the aesthetic that he applied to much of his film oeuvre, several of which are legitimate and beloved cult items (Mad Dog Morgan, 1976; The Return of Captain Invincible, 1983; The Howling II, 1985; Howling 3: The Marsupials, 1987; Communion, 1989).

Graham’s camera travels with Mora to the Melbourne home of his vibrant octogenarian mum, Mirka, a prominent figure for over half a century in the southern capital’s artistic community. Central to their reconnecting is the legacy left by Mora’s late father George, which begins as a warmhearted and mouthwatering recounting of his skill in the kitchen (hinting at but not fully divulging the meaning of the title) before revealing a vast backstory set against the Nazi occupation of Paris and the role George played as the extermination of his people took place around him.

Employing a structure not dissimilar to that which has well served the heritage-themed TV concept ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, Mora’s journey of discovery proves a revelatory experience for both the subject and the audience alike. Having jetted into Paris, Mora travels deep into the countryside of Europe to visit people and places that forged his father’s destiny and the continent’s dark past. The horrors that befell the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign are afforded yet another chilling perspective when Mora finds a museum that honours the hundreds of children lost during the Holocaust, an unforgettable moment that becomes central to a moving final-reel reveal.

As he peels away the layers of family history, Mora also documents his experience on canvas, allowing the film to capture how the events that impact the artist impact his art. It is a meta-rich device that mirrors the experience of the documentarian, forming a triumvirate between the subject, the filmmaker and the audience that transcends the inherent objectivity of the documentary format. Most potently, it imbues the project with a personality and pulse every bit as vibrant and engaging as both Philippe Mora himself and the heritage he yearns to uncover.

Wednesday
Jul062016

SUSTAINABLE

Director: Matt Wechsler.

Rating: 4/5

Through strong voices and high production values, the modern documentary genre is demanding that the global population counter the abuse and exploitation of our resources by mass industry. It is the turn of the mega-farming practices of ‘Big Agriculture’ to be exposed in Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, an elegant, deeply empathic study of the Earth under corporate siege and the pockets of community landowners determined to turn the tide.

Over the last decade, potent statements have been made by factual filmmakers against the mining sector (Gasland, 2010; Frackman, 2015), the automotive industry (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), financial giants (Inside Job, 2010; Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2010) and technology manipulators (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013; Zero Days, 2016), not to mention the cage-rattling oeuvre of agitator Michael Moore. Industrial agriculture, such as that spotlighted by Sustainable, has come under fire before, in passionate works such as Fresh (2009), We Feed the World (2005), Food Chains (2014) and Food Inc. (2008).

Wechsler maintains the rage by highlighting nearly a century of chemical-based mass produce output and the shocking damage it has done to the American farming landscape. However, Wechsler and producer Annie Speichler, the principals behind Hourglass Films, hone their lens on the more personal narrative of Marty Travis, an Illinois farmer and businessman who has reclaimed his family heritage and undertaken to rejuvenate both the soil upon which he farms and the community in which he resides. The title implies hardline ecological beliefs, but also comes to represent a preserving and maintaining of America's proud farming history.

The filmmakers suggest that the future of America’s agriculture industry and, by association, the healthy longevity of the population is tied to men and women like Travis; masters of traditional farming methods that need to be re-employed with a smarter, more holistic approach to the paddock-to-plate cycle. This extends to big-city restaurant owners and chefs, who deal directly with the new wave of primary producers and take an active role in the production of their key ingredients and the lives of their suppliers. 

The film acknowledges that the crucial mechanisms necessary to fix the damage are in its infancy. The breadth of change required to feed the world via sustainable methods is unlikely to happen in the next half-century, but that the science and those willing to apply it do exist and are at the forefront of positive change. It also pitches a convincing line in economic attainability, in an effort to silence naysayers who say changing the industrial paradigm is beyond the nation's means.

Aesthetically, Sustainable is at the high-end of the talking-heads/advocacy genre. Fluid camerawork and golden-hued lensing capture the spiritual essence of the rural setting, further strengthening the key thematic strands of tradition, community and hope. Wechsler keeps the science garble to an effective minimum, often employing simple animation and strong personalities to get information across. The obligatory call-to-action interstitial that is de rigueur for the modern doco, often overstating a filmmaker’s agenda, feels entirely earned in this instance; Sustainable brings a level-headed, humanistic and vital perspective to mankind’s relationship with the planet.

Sustainable screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11. Ticket and session information can be found at the event's official website.

Friday
Jul012016

A BILLION LIVES

Director: Aaron Biebert.

Rating: 4/5

The solidly crafted three-act structure of Aaron Biebert’s A Billion Lives provides a compelling, infuriating case study in big business dirty tricks. That the tobacco conglomerates are guilty of poisoning the global population and crushing the potentially life-saving emergence of a smoke-free alternative won’t be fresh news to educated audiences who seek out these types of paradigm-shifting, talking-head advocacy efforts, but the slick visuals and thoroughly researched arguments make A Billion Lives one of the best recent examples of the booming genre.

The title is derived from the number of people that might have been saved had ‘Big Tobacco’ not conspired to kill off the e-cigarette, or ‘vaping’, industry in its infancy. The liquid-based steam inhaler movement, which emerged in the late 2000’s and boomed, briefly, in the first half of this decade, was finding favour as a far less toxic option for nicotine-&-tar traditionalists, the removal of the ‘smoke’ from smoking representing a seismic shift in health side effects. However, Biebert’s even-tempered diatribe convinces that the dreams of e-cig entrepreneurs were extinguished by corporations with vested interests all things traditional cigarette.

The first act is a pacey recounting of the birth of the global tobacco industry, entertainingly repackaging already widely known facts into a timeline that brings us to the present. The personal drama that drives the first 30 minutes and infuses the whole film is that of David Goerlitz, the macho face of smoking in the 1980s when he was the ‘Winston Cigarettes Guy’ and who now speaks loudly and proudly against the industry. The second act focuses in on the invention and expansion of e-cigarette technology, while the last act points a bitter, accusing finger at the forces that shut down the sector.

The director’s collection of experts runs the gamut from high-ranking bureaucrats in the health and primary industry sectors to everyman business people to everyday addicts. Each has their own spin on how billion dollar profits and the greasy-palm tactics of both commercial and governmental interests subverted vaping industry growth; most extraordinary are notions that even anti-smoking bodies favoured self-interest over the greater good and helped quash the e-cig momentum.

Biebert plays first-person narrator, posing on-camera observations that extend his voice-over contributions to fourth-wall breaking. Given the profile he affords himself, he may have declared whether the film is a personal plea; he never states what drew him to the e-cig debate or whether he is a ‘vaper’. Where he excels as a storyteller is in the balance he finds between issue-driven details and the more human aspects of the narrative.

A Billion Lives doesn’t quite impact with the knockout punch of Josh Fox’s Gasland or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the polished standard bearers for the ‘Big Business is Evil’ factual-film genre. But Biebert’s lean production team nevertheless land some telling blows against the global industrial complex that unjustly bolsters profits at great cost to the planet’s population. Even non-smokers, who may otherwise find it hard to sympathise with the nicotine addict, will be drawn into the injustice and dark manipulation Biebert captures.

Screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11 2016. Check the official website for session and ticket information.

Thursday
Jun022016

UNIQUE ARTISTRY FINDS LOVE AT MELBOURNE DOC FEST

From Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse to Crumb to American Movie; from Burden of Dreams to The Devil and Daniel Johnston to this years’ Oscar winner, Amy. Arguably, the most compelling sub-genre in the documentary field are the works that examine the complexities of the creative process and the fragile, brilliant psyches from which it emerges. Commencing its vast 2016 program on July 9, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival features four factual films that delve deep inside the artist’s mindset, probing the passion, ego and talent needed to leave a lasting impression…
MAD TIGER (Dirs: Michael Haertlein, Jonathan Yi / USA; 82 mins)
Proclaiming themselves the ‘Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander’, Peelander Z are a colourful cult oddity who spruik their punk-stunt brand of raucous J-music to loyal if dwindling numbers across the US. Led by charismatic, dictatorial frontman Kengo Hioki (pictured, above), aka Peelander Yellow, the band have been pushing their trademark Jackass-style stage show and Power Rangers-inspired aesthetic for nearly two decades, their alternative musical stylings enlivened by a not entirely self-aware parody element. Co-directors Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi capture Peelander Z as the band faces a crucial juncture – guitar hero Peelander Red (Kotara Tsukada) is leaving the band; Hioki is taking the departure with a mix of philosophical resignation and bullying petulance. Let’s face it, the music is awful, but the inter-personal drama and backstage dynamics ensure Mad Tiger is a tense, at times sad peek inside the ego and ambition that motivates the artist. A welcome reprieve from the band’s inner and outer turmoil is a softly-spoken interlude that follows Hioki back to his roots and the warmth of his religious family home (although it raises the question, ‘Why have they not sought fame in Japan?’)
RATING: 3.5/5

YOU BETTER TAKE COVER (Dirs: Harry Hayes, Lee Simeone / Australia; 29 mins)
When a music-quiz show innocently revealed that one of the most famous pop riffs in Australian music history was very similar to an Aussie bush ditty of yore, the monster that is litigious law was awakened. Men at Work’s iconic hit Down Under is filled with homage after homage to this great southern land, from Vegemite to combi-vans to ‘chunder’. But when composer, the late Greg Ham and the band’s production team settled on a flute interlude that referenced ‘Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree’, they had no idea that Larrikin Music owned the rights to what many assumed was a public domain property. Harry Hayes and Lee Simeone’s brisk, melancholy doc You Better Take Cover traces the origins of the song, the creative forces and fateful turn-of-events that propelled it to global recognition and, most winningly, the recollections of those that were there. Emotions run the gamut in this comprehensive account; local audiences will puff their chests with national pride during scenes of America’s Cup and Commonwealth Game jubilation, but expect teeth to grind when the details of the copyright law court case engineered by Larrikin are brought into cold, greedy focus. Chunder, indeed.
RATING: 3.5/5


ROOM FULL OF SPOONS (Dir: Rick Harper / USA; 113 mins; trailer, above)
That one of the worse films ever made should be the subject of one of the most comprehensive and insightful making-of docs in recent memories just adds to the myriad of ironies that have come to be associated with The Room and the enigmatic creative force behind it, Tommy Wiseau. Canadian alpha-fan Rick Harper knows the ‘Best Worse Movie Ever’ inside out; fans will appreciate that he gets into the minutiae of the wretched melodrama, referencing such crowd favourite moments as ‘the neck lump’, ‘the moving box’, ‘tuxedo football’ and ‘the crooked boyfriend’. Cast members prove open and endearing; key behind-the-scenes contributors (including Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor who argues that, in fact, it was he who directed The Room, not Wiseau) reinforce the tales of legendary, often hilarious ineptitude during the shoot. But Room Full of Spoons goes beyond fan-fact fun when it digs deep into such mysteries as the film’s funding and, above all else, the force of twisted nature that is Wiseau. His origins, inspirations and eccentricities are respectfully but determinedly dissected by Harper, who inserts himself into his narrative with appropriate succinctness.
RATING: 4/5
 
TODD WHO? (Dirs: Gavin Bond, Ian Abercromby / Australia; 58 mins)
The term ‘hagiography’ is too often used pejoratively, suggesting sycophantic bias. But what if the primary focus of a biography is to be wondrously, majestically hagiographic? With co-director Ian Abercromby pulling focus (literally and figuratively), Gavin Bond deifies low-key music industry visionary Todd Rundgren in his rousing, roughhewn love letter, Todd Who? Rundgren found fame in the mid 70s with his sweetly melodic yacht-pop hits Hello It’s Me and Can We Still Be Friends, before embarking a producing career that was filled with innovation and experimentation alongside the likes of Cheap Trick, The Tubes, The Psychedelics Furs and iconic Australian band, Dragon. Not that anyone knows it, except the likes of Paul Schaffer, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, Daryl Braithwaite and Jim Steinman, all of whom put their hands up to sing the praises of Rundgren (now in his 60’s, living in Hawaii and still touring). Bond’s larrikin charm sets the tone for the doco, before a stream of toe-tapping classics and fun, vital facts are employed to chart Rundgren’s influence and personality. Despite some tech shortcomings (mic placement and audio post is not the productions’ strong suit), this is a heartfelt, feel-good ode to a unique talent. If Todd Who? achieves its aim, and it deserves to, that title will become ironically redundant.
RATING: 4/5

The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is held from 9th – 11th July at Howler Art Space in Brunswick. Session and ticketing information can be found at the event’s official website.

 

Thursday
Apr282016

YOU AND ME

With: David ‘Barney’ Miller, Katherine Southwell, Mick Fanning, Drew Derriman, Ella Chowdhurry, Lara Sonntag, Tania Brown, Sharron Southwell, Jason Southwell, Ken Ware and Jan Carton.
Writers: Shaylee Gomes, Taylor Montemarano and Lorenzo DeCampos
Directors: Lorenzo DeCampos, Michael Lawrence and Taylor Montemarano.

Rating: 4/5

The bonding of two broken souls and the combined strength to survive that they inspire in each other makes for a heartfelt, deeply moving character study in You and Me. This stirring, superbly crafted feature deserves breakout success for its backers, Garage Productions, the Sydney-based action-sports distributor whose principal, co-director Michael Lawrence, oversaw the four year shooting commitment.

As the title suggests, You and Me is an ‘everyman’ narrative; the fate that befell David ‘Barney’ Miller, a larrikin Aussie surfing protégé struck down in his prime and Kate Southwell, the country girl who finds her own resurrection while sharing his struggles represents the type of interpersonal journey that will be familiar to many. To the great credit of Lawrence and his team of co-directors, You and Me finds the extraordinary in the everyday; the warm familiarity of the lives touched by the hardships faced by David and Kate ensures resonance and empathy.

Archive footage and first-person recollections paint a picture of the young Miller as a charming, blokish, decent teenager, well known and well liked in the New South Wales north coast surfing enclave of Sawtell. In 1999, a speeding car in which he was a passenger left the road and struck a tree, leaving him a C6 Quadriplegic with no chance of independent movement for the rest of his life. Home video of Miller’s rehabilitation and subsequent descent into self-medicated depression is gruelling to watch, rendered starkly real via the heartbreak conveyed straight-to-camera by the man himself.

At Miller’s lowest point, the film shifts focus to the inland township of Cowra where we meet the Southwell family and their vibrant little girl, Kate. A mixed heritage has made her the target of bullies and the teenager is soon sliding into her own alcohol haze and misguided life path. To save their daughter, her parents send her to family in Coffs Harbour, the largest regional centre nearest to Sawtell.

After a fateful meet-cute (Lawrence utilises his ‘stars’ to recreate sweet moments from their blossoming romance), the extraordinary details of their journey are pieced together with slick filmmaking clarity. The storytelling brio and passion for surfing culture that Lawrence oversaw as producer on the doco hits Bra Boys (2007) and First Love (2010) are keenly evident in You and Me, nowhere more so than in sequences featuring world champion Mick Fanning, whose mateship with Barney is conveyed in some of the film’s most endearing moments.

One cannot begrudge the production for laying on the inspirational music and sweeping coastline photography a little thick at times; at it's core, it is the true story of a deeply enriching, achingly sentimental journey. That it also serves to highlight the endeavours of such institutions as Project Walk, Wings for Life World Run and Aussie Ken Ware’s neurophysics functional performance initiative is to the film’s credit. The ‘advocacy documentary’ has become an overworked genre in recent years but when skilled filmmakers keep the focus on the human struggle, any inherent call-to-action is earned, even welcome.

The mending of Barney and Kate’s lives and the shared spirit they embody pulses through You and Me. As one of the family friends predicts early in the story, the feel-good crescendo to which the film truthfully soars will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Monday
Mar072016

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: MARDI GRAS FILM FESTIVAL 2016

As this year’s edition of the Mardi Gras Film Festival wraps its inner city run and prepares for regional screenings, one key programme strategy became clear. In the words of festival director Paul Struthers, “It’s important to choose films that cater for all aspects of the LGBTQI story, but also…cater for all cinema fans as well.” The vast range of narratives and themes that emerged over the 14 day celebration of diversity and inclusivity all shared a common human experience, contextualised by gay community issues. SCREEN-SPACE looks at five films from the 2016 festival line-up that challenged, engaged and entertained audiences…

A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS: THE AMINA PROFILE (Dir: Sophie Deraspe / US; 84 mins. Pictured, above)
Of all the repressed voices heard across the globe in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising, few found the immense audience that Syrian lesbian Amina Arraf did via her blog site, “A Gay Girl in Damascus.’ The deeply personal, regime defying content became cause celebre for the gay activist community, human rights advocates and global media giants. But when the site was revealed to be an elaborate fake, no one was as shattered as Canadian Sandra Bagaria, who had become intimate with the ‘Amina’ online presence. From its bare-skin opening shots and text-message grabs that allude to the frank honesty that lays ahead, Sophie Deraspe’s elegant, angry work is part doomed relationship saga, part searing insight into the identity manipulation inherent to the faceless impersonality of the www. A warm and empathic presence, Bagaria bravely steps before the cameras to face the man who perpetrated the hoax and broke her heart. “Am I a sociopath? A schizophrenic?” he poses. Deraspe’s film gives you a wealth of insight then lets you decide.
Rating: 4/5

BARE (Dir: Natalie Leite / US; 88 mins)
The restless small-town girl with a vague but compulsive yearning for more from love and life is a well-trodden path (notably, Donna Deitch’s 1985 arthouse hit, Desert Hearts). Yet writer/director Natalie Leite and her luminous leading lady Dianna Agron explore a fresh, captivating perspective in Bare, a bittersweet, low-key drama of a young woman grasping at any new life experience with an often reckless regard for the consequences. Graduating from the perky camp of TV’s Glee, Agron compels as Sarah, the Nevada dreamer coping with family loss and directionless friends. When drifter Pepper (Paz de la Huerta, enigmatic as ever) befriends Sarah’s kindred lost spirit, an enriching if dangerous new life of drugs, homosexual experimentation and strip-club melodrama takes hold. Leite’s direction is artful and insightful, her dialogue sparse and real; her debut feature signifies she is a talent to watch. The project’s greatest asset is Agron, the next-big-thing starlet exhibiting qualities that suggest a Michelle Williams and/or Sharon Stone trajectory.
Rating: 4/5

GAME FACE (Dir: Michiel Thomas / US; 95 mins)
Embracing one’s own sexuality or transgender nature can be challenging enough, but those hurdles prove nearly insurmountable when they emerge within the rigidly defined traditions of elite sport. The moving and even-handed doco Game Face presents two athletes struggling with their identities while striving to compete in their chosen fields: Fallon Fox is a transgender MMA fighter, while Terrence Clemens is a basketball protégé and gay African-American. Director Michiel Thomas, making his feature documentary debut, gamely balances ‘big picture’ issues (corporate backlash; community acceptance; team mate and competitor tolerance) with the personal cost to his protagonists; the resulting account of the acceptance of diversity in the sporting community, not too surprisingly, plays out as a microcosm of society at large. Both Fox and Clemens are not immediately easy to warm to (a result of a lifetime spent guarding their true selves, perhaps), but Thomas’ embedded camerawork and the hope his subjects inspire ultimately reveal their true nature, making for rousing factual filmmaking.
Rating: 3.5/5

NAZ & MAALIK (Dir: Jay Dockendorf / US; 86 mins)
Two gay teenage African-American Muslims struggle with their faith, feelings and New York’s post 9-11 prejudices in Jay Dockendorf’s debut feature. When not shilling perfume vials and lottery tickets to passersby, the chilled Maalik (Curtis Cook Jr) and the more orthodox, Kufi-adorned Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr) meander from corner to corner, acutely aware of the familial and societal consequences should their affection for each other be revealed. The passionate highs and tension-filled lows of their dynamic provide the essence of Dockendorf’s self-penned narrative, the spirit of Spike Lee’s NYC oeuvre in every frame. Other machinations utilised to structure a traditional three-acts (Anne Grier’s FBI agent’s surveillance of the pair; misbegotten plans to halal-kill a chicken) provide a change of tempo but little dramatic value. As the title suggests, the film is at its best when the focus is the existential struggles of the two leads. Bolstering the pic’s mood are the rich rhythms of Adam Gunther’s pulsating soundtrack.
Rating: 3.5/5

4TH MAN OUT (Dir: Andrew Nackman / US; 86 mins)
Smalltown USA is recoloured red-white-&-pink in 4th Man Out, a blokey coming-out comedy that proves to be both slyly insightful and broadly funny in equal measure. Buds since junior high, a quartet of mid twenty-somethings are confronted with an unexpected development when one of their own opens up about his homosexuality. As gay dude Adam, Evan Todd is likable and sweet; the real personalities in Andrew Nackman’s dramedy are his bros, led by Parker Young as Chris, the bestie who struggles with Adam’s secret and how it might redefine their dynamic. Social and religious prejudice are explored in a succinct comedic manner that doesn’t overstate the issues; ‘young guy’ problems, like sex and partying and parental hassles, are dealt with in a mirthful and perceptive mix of hetero/homo attitudes. Although a bit ‘sitcom-y’ at times, Aaron Dancik’s loose and free-spirited script never looses sight of its feel-good intentions and nails key moments with disarming charm. Despite appearing to be determinedly non-confrontational in its soft-hearted approach, the easy warmth of 4th Man Out ultimately challenges short-sighted bias with a potent effectiveness.
Rating: 4/5

Read our review of festival highlight CHEMSEX here.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival will screen a selection of its 2016 lineup at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre and and the Carrington Hotel in The Blue Mountains in the weeks ahead. Ticketing and venue information can be found at the official website