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Entries in Underground (4)

Monday
Sep182017

KUSO

Stars: Iesha Coston, Zack Fox, The Buttress, Shane Carpenter, Oumi Zumi, Mali Matsuda, Tim Heidecker, Hannibal Buress, Donnell Rawlings, Anders Holm, Regan Farquhar, David Firth and George Clinton.
Writers: Steven Ellison, David Firth and Zack Fox.
Director: ‘Steve’, aka Flying Lotus.

CONTENT WARNING: Some details in the review may offend.

Reviewed at The Factory Theatre as part of Sydney Underground Film Festival; Closing Night selection, Sunday September 17, 2017.

Rating: 2.5/5

When John Waters asked Divine to eat a fresh dog poo in Pink Flamingos (1972), or Pier Paolo Pasolini tortured the innocents in Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), it was cinema that confronted its own power to influence and defied standards of decency within society. They were frames of an altered reality, a dangerous and challenging new use of the art form. The most important (frankly, only) consideration that arises after watching Kuso is, ‘Can cinema still perform that function?’

The debut feature from musician and hip-hop artist Steve Ellison, a.k.a. ‘Steve’, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, features a scabby, pustule-covered young man having sex with the mouth of a cancerous talking boil that has grown on the neck of his equally putrid girlfriend. The sequence comes after 90-odd minutes of raucous bad taste; penises are pierced, faeces are smeared, eyeballs are consumed then regurgitated, all set to a soundscape of screeching incoherence. Kuso is an anthology film, the segmented narrative able to afford Ellison greater opportunity to explore his scatological, menstrual and anal fixations.

Of course, that all sounds pretty ‘shocking’, as was certainly his intention above all else. There is very little indication this film has any greater ambition than to disgust and disturb the audience that will seek this out when search engines turn up…oh, let’s go with ‘Giant Anus Cockroach,’ or ‘Laser Ray Abortion’. It is all set in a post-earthquake L.A., where the freshly scabby population has turned moronic (turned?) and transdimensional portals exist that allow hairy creatures with TV monitor faces to live amongst us. Maybe Ellison is working some satirical angle, commenting on the nature of modern living or the destruction of society by the media or something like that, but it seems unlikely.

But is it possible for cinema that sets out to shock to achieve the genuinely shocking anymore? Kuso is certainly distasteful, but can make-up and prop department versions of shit, piss, cum and blood really disturb when those who seek those diversions can surf all night to their heart’s content. Society’s standard bearers for ‘goodness’ will feel compelled to rise in defiance of ‘art’ like Kuso, whether that be the current generation of trigger-happy PC-enriched snowflakes or the ageing ultra-conservative baby boomers that initially embraced then abandoned counterculture principles. But is the content worthy of their fight? Might they just be wagging fingers at a naughty little boy who drew the movie equivalent of a pee-pee on the wall with his new box of digital crayons?

The film’s debut at Sundance was met with walkouts, although subsequent reports indicate this was less about paying customers being rattled by the content and more about industry types realising there was little more to Ellison’s film than bluster and bravado.

In all fairness, there is a little bit more. The various narrative strands are bookended by some wildly imaginative montage animation, as if Terry Gilliam had helped Charles Manson with his film school assignment, and one truly beautiful CGI-rendered sequence features frozen chickens being launched by an immense spacecraft over Los Angeles (pictured, above). In 'Smear', the best of the anthology segments, a diarrheic mutant schoolboy connects with a giant sphincter in the woods as a sort of surrogate father, affording Ellison a modicum of sentimentality to fill his frame with some warm composition. There is no denying that some passages achieve the truly nightmarish, though that accomplishment brings further disconnect from character engagement, an element desperately lacking in most of the film.

Loud, objectionable, occasionally funny but mostly trying, the visual experimentation and adherence to all things ugly quickly grows tiresome. By the time Ellison unveils the ‘neck boil sex’ moment, Kuso has devolved into a filmic manifestation of a high school boys’ diary, filled with gross, puerile wanderings of the mind that might shock the kid’s mom, but just bring raised eyebrows from everyone else.

 

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.

 

Wednesday
Feb032016

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: BRISBANE UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016

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.
Rating: 3.5/5

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.
Rating: 4/5

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.
Rating: 4/5   

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.
Rating: 3.5/5  

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.
Rating: 2/5 

Unpreviewed:   APPLESAUCE (Dir: Onur Tukel / U.S.; 91 min, 2015)

Read the SCREEN-SPACE Preview: 2016 Brisbane Underground Film Festival here.

Thursday
Nov192015

THE SECOND COMING VOLUME 1

Stars: Michael Tierney, Richard Wolstencroft, Gene Gregoritis, Kim Fowley, Kristen Condon, Boyd Rice, Shannon Goad, Larry Wessel, Tora Wessel, Giddle Partridge, Brianna Garcia and Pete Doherty.
Writer/director: Richard Wolstencroft.

Screening at Sydney’s A Night of Horror/Fantastic Planet Film Festival; visit the official website for details.

Rating: 3.5/5

The urge to apply a conventional critical eye to The Second Coming Volume 1 is damn near overwhelming; your critic (who has viewed it twice) regularly muttered to himself, “this needs tightening” and “should’ve cut that out” and “what the hell just happened?” But underground icon Richard Wolstencroft’s ‘vision’ compellingly demands that you accept it on its own terms, in its own voice and at its own pace. Whether you find it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess (as it occasionally seems) or an auteur’s bold, deeply personal interpretation of the classic art that inspires him (which it certainly is), there is no denying that Wolstencroft has crafted a vast, ambitious, truly independent piece of free-spirited cinema.

The Melbourne-based director’s muse is poet William Butler Yeats, whose post-World War 1 poem The Second Coming has been embraced as a mystical musing on mankind’s demise. Wolstencroft utilises the poem’s opening lines to chapter-title his own apocalyptic narrative and arrange his mosaic of key players. ‘Part I: Turning and turning in the widening gyre’ introduces Michael (Michael Tierney), who, having wandered his personal desert and  sought heavenly guidance, unwraps his Baphomet idol and re-engages with his favourite book, Aleister Crowley’s 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings, before heading for the red-light districts of Thailand; ‘Part II: The falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ is set largely in Los Angeles, where hot-tempered author Gene (Gene Gregoritis) is pitching a Charles Manson project, while becoming quietly consumed with the notion that the cult leader’s vision for global mass-murder is nigh; and, ‘Part III: The blood dimmed tide is loosed & everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned’, which relocates the production to London and invokes the unsettled spirit of Marc Bolan as it peaks inside the drug-fuelled existence of dark spiritualist, Jerome (Jerome Alexander; pictured, above). The director casts himself as Owen O’Hearn, a shadowy facilitator-of-sorts, bringing together all the disparate personalities in service of the end-of-days prophecy.

In addition to Yeats, Wolstencroft has cited American iconoclast Kenneth Anger as a key influence. The underground filmmaking legend’s predilection for frank depictions of sexuality in his landmark shorts is echoed in Wolstencroft’s casting of such adult industry figureheads as longtime collaborator Tierney (aka, retired X-rated woodsman ‘Joe Blow”) and William Margold, legendary 70’s performer and porn industry historian (he thematically binds the sex-and-violence inherent to the premise when he screens a clip from Teenage Cruisers, a 1977 x-rated pic featuring an alleged Manson disciple). Also echoing Anger’s oeuvre is Wolstencroft’s use of occult imagery, a recurring motif in many of Anger’s most revered works. The use of a vast bibliography of reference works in the end credits is a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who did the same in Salo.

Despite boasting of sequences shot on four continents, The Second Coming Volume 1 is a guerrilla effort that was clearly realised on a shoestring budget with a ‘one take’ guiding principle. One can assume from the footage taken in restaurants, airports, hotel lobbies and, quite unexpectedly, the UCLA campus and Manson’s infamous compound Spahn Ranch, were accessed sans permission; Wolstencroft takes a co-writing credit with ‘The Cast’, mostly non-actors forging ahead with improvised dialogue (Gregoritis gamely unravels ‘forgitton’ back into ‘forgiven’ and ‘forgotten’ in one memorable fluff); on more than one occasion, shots are sourced through a dirty lens. But the rough edges, unstructured plotting and no-holds-barred staging Wolstencroft captures bristles with a beat poet/jazz musician energy that services his aesthetic genuinely.  

There’s no denying the film does occasionally run off the rails in spectacular fashion, most notably when a confluence of eccentrics meet up in a flouro-tinged LA living room. Along with the increasingly unhinged Gregoritis, Wolstencroft unleashes such anti-establishment giants as the late Kim Fowley (ex-manager of girl punk group The Runaways and infamous LA debaucher) and bombshell Giddle Partridge, reimagining 80’s alt-scene great (and Gregoritis’ real-life ex), Lydia Lunch; as the improv restraints crumble, Fowley starts ranting straight to camera as his scene partners try to be heard off-screen. Similarly abstract (but, it must be said, very beguiling) are the free-style lyrics of Brit pop bad-boy Pete Doherty, who oddly materialises late in the third act.

Wisdom dictates that a Volume 2 shouldn’t be necessary. Even at 85 minutes, a great deal of footage could have been excised, especially a lot of scenes of people walking. One understands Wolstencroft’s desire to honour Yeats with an epic modern dissection of the Irish wordsmith’s great poem, but a single film clocking in at two hours (and providing the barely-glimpsed Kristen Condon time to expand on her role) may have sufficed.

What Wolstencroft and his dedicated team have produced is a flawed but fascinating low-budget genre work with high-brow ambitions; a deconstructed reworking of vital existential themes that a great artist explored a century ago and whose words can clearly still inspire today.

READ the 2014 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Richard Wolstencroft here.
READ the 2013 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Michael Tierney here.
READ the 2015 SCREEN-SPACE interview with Kristen Condon here.