Wetlands (2013) is a film that has garnered a fair bit of notoriety over the past twelve months or so. Mainly for the fact that it is prepared to show female sexuality in a way usually reserved for male – with humour, experimentation and gross out moments. The film has also provoked some feminist commentary and criticisms for the manner in which the male director has adapted the female written source novel.
The film starts as a kinetically plotted dark comedy following Carla Juri’s Helen throughout a range of teenage escapades. It works really well as a dark comedy as well I think and is also pretty original in its execution throughout this early period. A combination of bodily fluid obsessed gross out humour and insightful teenage awakening, mashed with flashbacks that initially feel too long and too serious, but over time are integrated relatively well into the film (note – I actually missed the big climactic payoff to all of the flashbacks toward the end, because someone had fainted in the screening). Following a shaving accident, Helen finds herself in hospital for a pretty extended period of time. There is more heart and more drawing out of the film’s themes here. Though her hospital stay does also contribute to the film going on too long and as a result losing some of the kinetic energy that was so apparent early on. And unfortunately for all the boldness through much of the film, I found the ending of Wetlands almost absurdly conventional in a way which deeply detracted from my overall satisfaction with the film.
Whether or not the depictions of sexuality in the film should confront or not, the bottom line is that they do. I found it a really interesting look at a sexual awakening. A storyline usually often told totally glibly, or if more uproariously, focused on the male experience. But this is a more frank look at a female sexual awakening. I think it is good that it is presented as straightforwardly and bluntly as it is. There was plenty of nervous laughter from the audience hiding the fact, but it is good that audiences have to re-examine their engrained opinions or expectations about these things and how they are showed on screen. Thematically, I think that the best realised and focal points of the film actually have little to do with sex or sexual liberation. Helen’s obsession with the ageing process and the progression of life carrying you away is the real core of much of the film. Bound up with this is the complexity of the central character, a child of divorce. And the fact that Helen is a child of divorce is not just plonked there and expected to provide ‘depth’. It actually affects and impacts on the entire film and every character in it. Helen is a wonderful central character and if you strip away much of what is ‘sensational’ about the film, it is this character that makes it really worthwhile and worth checking out.
Verdict: Wetlands is at times uncomfortable viewing. But it is also in many ways refreshing viewing as well, not shying from many things that so many films unnecessarily are too afraid to show. Despite the woeful ending, there is a bunch of complexity and sensitivity to go along with the more salacious aspects. Stubby of Reschs
The person who can break down what Why Don’t You Play in Hell is about in a couple of sentences is a far greater writer than I. Probably a far greater writer than just about anyone really. So in the absence of the ability to do the plot justice I’ll just say the following: it is kind of a gangster film; it is definitely a film about film; it is kind of a film about growing up; it is a film about the creative process; it is violent, at times cartoonishly so, at times more realistically and lastly it is utterly absurd. The film reminds me of one of those really absurd Japanese films that you are enraptured with initially, but then the shoddiness of it all overwhelms things. Dead Sushi (2012) springs to mind as a spot on example of that and this is that style of film done so, so right. But the reasons Why Don’t You Play in Hell is an exceptional film and quite how it manages to wrestle with this absurdism that should cause it to fail, but instead allows it to excel is beyond me. Though I do think that part of it is because it is one of the most creative films about film and the filmmaking process I have seen. And as a film buff, I loved that stuff so much. Also, the fact that the tone is not silly and absurd the whole way through I think makes those really over the top parts a little easier to enjoy, because they are snappier and there is some down time in between.
I feel pretty comfortable in saying that any real movie buff will love this film, because whilst it is many other things, it is as a film about film that succeeds best. More than simply being about the movies, this is also a homage or lament to film on actual film and an examination of what changing cinema technology means. Through a ‘kids making films’ subplot that smacks nicely of J.J. Abrams Super 8 (2011), the film also examines the struggle of an artistic life and the ultimate triumph of artistic success. There is a real kineticism to the energy of the film from the very get-go, especially in terms of plot and shooting style. There are quieter moments at times, but really the film does not let up. Same goes for the absurdism I have already mentioned. It is there right from the start, with absolute rivers of blood near the start and the strangest standing ovation you’ve ever seen right at the end. The acting is all really good and if nothing else, this is worth watching for the most brilliant Bruce Lee impersonator you are ever likely to see.
Verdict: Hopefully I have managed to convey a little of what makes Why Don’t You Play in Hell such a special cinema experience. Rare is a film that, like this one, is simultaneously a throwback but also something that feels utterly modern. It is one of my favourite films about film I have ever seen and also I think one of my favourite films of 2014 so far. As with Housebound (2014) see it, and see it with an audience to help you get swept up in the giddiness of it all. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Much of how you react to a film in a festival setting can depend on the synthesis of film and whereabouts in the festival program you are. I saw Suburban Gothic (2014) on the last afternoon of the festival, in no mood to think whatsoever or have my senses assaulted.
Thankfully then, the rather mild Suburban Gothic is a nice enough way to spend an afternoon. The film sees Raymond, played by Matthew Gray Gubler return to his small hometown after finishing up college and being unable to score a job. The film does a good job of magnifying that sense of feeling like you no longer belong where you grew up that I, and no doubt many more, have experienced. Once he returns home, Raymond falls in with Becca played by Kat Dennings, as he tries to avoid spending time with his parents at all costs. These two head off on some vaguely comedic and vaguely supernatural shenanigans, in a film that in the end could serve as the pilot for a pretty awesome TV show. There is not a whole lot of substance here. In fact there is barely any. There is however enough comedic style to make it watchable.
The film initially was so glossy that it made my head hurt. There is a definite sheen to the film that jarred during an underground film fest. But as the film went along, it was not quite as noticeable and thankfully the film does not end up feeling like you are watching an ad for 90 mins, which is an experience some overly produced films can render. The script is well written and moderately amusing. But the main attribute of the script is that it allows the perfectly cast Dennings and Gray Gubler to light up the screen. Both of them give really good performances and without those two onscreen, you suspect the film would have been far less appealing. Overall the film is an example of one of those horror-comedies I mentioned in my review of Housebound (2014) the other day. This is really a comedy film with some horror elements thrown in. It doesn’t actually work as a horror film, which is fine, because I don’t think it is particularly trying to.
Verdict: If you are in the mood for a comedy film that you don’t need to think too much about, then you can do much worse than Suburban Gothic. It won’t blow your mind with its hilarity or style, but it will while away a little time in a pleasant enough way. Pretty good Sunday arvo festival fare basically. Stubby of Reschs
“It’s an awful world to be born into an animal” – Interviewee in The Animal Condition
Straight off the bat, I think it needs to be said that The Animal Condition (2014) is a good film and as many Australians interested in food production should see it as possible. Local perspectives on these issues are hard to come by. It also needs to be said that, as many of you know, I am a vegan so much of my criticisms of the film come from that perspective. Though I would also add that I think the criticisms I make, about the lack of prodding and interrogation of sources, are true of all the participants in the film not just the industry personnel.
Recent years have seen a lot of documentary films made about animal agriculture, from health, environmental and animal rights perspectives. The most successful of these such as Forks over Knives (2011), Food Inc (2008) and Earthlings (2005) have sparked a lot of conversation and also led to in some cases large changes in personal behaviour. Unfortunately though, most of these films and associated writing as well, are very American focused. So it is great to see The Animal Condition come along, as for an Australian it gives a much more Australian focused perspective on animal agriculture. The film attempts to show all sides of the animal agriculture debate. The filmmakers travel with animal liberationists on welfare raids and talk to a lot of industry personnel. You know coming from my personal perspective it is at times kind of good to see industry figures given this platform to speak, as even when they are trying to gloss things over, they can’t help but let slip the insidious nature of it all. They talk about “control” of animals constantly, as if having absolute control over a living thing is a good thing. You have a farmer who supposedly loves his pigs refer to their odour as “the smell of money” gloatingly. Classy. It did jar a little bit for me some of the images and stories omitted from the film (though I do note that it is impossible to fit everything into a feature length examination of basically any subject). For example the film at one point ventures into an abattoir, showing the animals both pre and post slaughter. But tellingly no vision of the animals being slaughtered. Too thought provoking maybe? Similarly, the dairy industry and bobby calves are never discussed, nor the baby pigs taken from sows. Again, perhaps these potent parallels with the human experience were considered a little too touchy.
In the end, The Animal Condition plays a lot like fellow SUFF 2014 documentary American Arab (2013). There are plenty of interesting points made, but no real through line successfully binding it all together. Even more than American Arab though, I can’t help but fault the filmmakers a little more in this case. They seem to constantly flip flop from one side of the issue to the other. Grappling with major issues is understandable and makes for great cinema. Indeed to do anything else comes off as glib. But taking what every interest group (on all sides) says at face value does not make for great documentary filmmaking as it lacks the requisite interrogation of sources. There are too many opportunities for the participants to get in rehearsed sound bites without being challenged on what is being said. We have Australian industry figures telling us factory farming is a good thing because there are people starving in Africa. But they are never asked whether plant or animal based protein would be able to feed more of the world’s poor. Not to mention the fact they couldn’t give two shits about anyone except the Australians who buy their product. They don’t care about you if you are a starving African (they don’t about you if you are a starving Australian, cause you can’t afford their product). There are numerous instances such as this where more filmmaker intervention was required to actually get some depth into the discussion.
Verdict: Despite all my issues with the film The Animal Condition is still a relatively important one from an Australian perspective, as so much animal agriculture focused content is from an American context. It is a shame then that I feel too many parties in the film were allowed to get an unchallenged place to spread the ‘party’ line, without being pulled up on it. Without that challenging of what is being said, a lot of it does not ring true. Stubby of Reschs
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is generally considered a classic. As far as I can recall (and it has been a few years since I saw it, so I may just be forgetting), that film did not tell too much of the true story that inspired it. Documentary The Dog (2013) aims to fill that gap by telling the life story of John Wojtowicz, who was played by Al Pacino in the Lumet film.
The Dog tells of how Wojtowicz took the extreme step of robbing a bank so that he could pay for his wife’s sex change operation. Along the way it paints a broader picture of what it was like to be gay in that period and at times, provides an insight into Wojtowicz’s psyche. It also brings into more clarity some points that were either not clear or explained deeply in Lumet’s film, such as the shocking archival footage of the crowd yelling “queer” and “fag” at Wojtowicz during the robbery. So much for being on the side of this Robin Hoodish underdog, which is how I recall it being presented in the film. One of the strengths of the film also sort of highlights one of the weaknesses. The history of the Activist Alliance and broad history of the early gay rights struggle is really interesting and provides a lot of context. But it is also more interesting that the specific story of Wojtowicz and the bank robbery which is the main focus of the film. The film is very slick and professional looking. Not much more though, and the same is really true of all aspects of the film’s construction and look. All well done, but not overly creative.
One hurdle that many documentaries face is that they spend a lot of time in the company of deeply unlikeable characters. It is an issue that definitely impacts on enjoyment of The Dog as the hungry for attention Wojtowicz is a person who does not seem pleasant to be around. Given the reasons for his bank robbery, I was expecting something a little more romantic. The film, at least early on does give some interesting insight into the troubled aspects of Wojtowicz’s person. How he went to Vietnam and lost a whole lot of his friends. How that changed him from a staunch Republican to a “peacenik” (not suggesting that makes him troubled by the way). Periods in the second half though just feel like they are designed to give Wojtowicz a ranting platform rather than truly examining what he did and what has made him the person that he is. The best nuggets about his personality come early when he is not gloating about the robbery his sexual prowess. But when he is examining his early change and life, saying things like “anyone can be straight. It takes someone special to be gay.” Given he is so unlikeable, I would have perhaps liked the makers of this film to mix up their approach a little more. Even with more engaging or likeable people, it is difficulty to maintain interest at required levels when the film consists mostly of just a single talking head.
Verdict: There is plenty to hold your interest in The Dog, especially some of the broader history around the early gay rights struggles. If you are any fan of Lumet’s film, then this film helps to provide a lot more context for it as well. I would just have loved to see more people spoken to in order to mix it up a bit, or a little more creativity in the film. Stubby of Reschs
New Zealand horror-comedy Housebound (2014) was the opening night film for SUFF 2014. Unfortunately I was not able to be at the festival when it kicked off on the Thursday night. Thankfully though, the film played again on the Saturday night and the rapturous reception it had gotten on social media after the opening night screening had me very keen to take it in.
Right from the get-go, the festival crowd was totally into Housebound. Horror-comedy is a hard genre combo to nail. It is pretty rare for a film, even supposed classics of the genre, to actually elicit legitimate reactions to both the horror and comedy aspects of the film. Most attempts, even good ones, often end up being good comedies with smatterings of horror tropes. It is hard to maintain the stakes that are needed for a good horror film whilst keeping things light-hearted. This film though, had the crowd reacting with both huge laughs and literal screams of terror. The set-up for the film is one so fantastic, you wonder why it has taken for 2014 for someone to use it. Being stuck in a haunted house on house arrest is just so simple, yet has great potential as well, which the filmmakers mine all the way to a cracking film.
In the lead role Morgana O’Reilly as Kylie inhabits her under house arrest struggler with sass and a great screen presence. In fact all of the main performances, O’Reilly’s, Glen-Paul Waru as Amos the policeman who awesomely moonlights as a paranormal investigator and Rimi Te Wiata as Kylie’s mother make this so much more of a joy. That final character is so spot on and reminded me of my own mum and grandmother. She has the most frustrating aspects of both those generations amplified to hilariously frustrating levels – her refusal to shut up and horrendous casual racism. You can sense the infuriation Kylie feels at being confined to a house with her for six months, as if that may be the greatest horror of all. The characters and the narrative show really sharp, taut and clever writing from the filmmakers. The comedy is hilarious, being ludicrous without ever being so over the top that it’s distracting. And in terms of horror, there is plenty lot of really clever toying with and slight inversions of the genre’s cliché and foibles that will bring broad smiles to fans of the genre.
Verdict: Do your absolute best to see Housebound and you won’t regret it. If at all possible, see it with a rowdy, cinema loving festival crowd and get swept up in the reaction to both horror and hilarity that the film elicits. If I could really be fussed I could pick slight issues with the film. But simply, it’s probably the best comedy and the best horror film I have seen this year. Pint of Kilkenny
Film festivals often lead you to try films you would otherwise never have given a shot, and I think The Immoral (2013) fits that bill for me. For some reason I thought this was going be a horror film. It’s definitely not that, though it’s a little hard to tell exactly what it is.
One of the hardest tonal choices to pull off in a film is to make light of exceptionally serious or sad events. Actually there is perhaps nothing harder to script than truly bleak comedy that leaves you laughing at something you really shouldn’t be. When The Immoral tries to strike this balance, it is an example of how not to do it. The strange comedic tone jars and the dealings with sexual assault and child neglect don’t have the insight to prevent them from veering into the problematic or even offensive. Part of the issue is one of both narrative flow and character development. After the film has been meandering along for some time, vaguely but not really, introducing the two main characters, there is a quite confronting rape scene. Later the main male character tries to force (and later in the film succeeds) his partner into sex work to make them money. These plot points could work if there was a narrative build or depth to the characters to explain them. But there is neither and as such these instances sort of just sit there awkwardly, maybe slightly shocking, but not at all engaging.
Now of course plenty of films succeed with shallow characters and thin plots. But those films generally have to deliver either sheer fun and enjoyment, or exceptional craft. Neither of those are present to save The Immoral. The film is not fun at all, being actually actively not enjoyable to sit through. There is also very little craft to note, as the film is competently done at times, but often poorly done such as where there are flashbacks it is impossible to differentiate from the actual story. Which is all a bit of a shame, because on paper the film deals with issues (poverty, bad relationships, government intervention in the family) that could be insightfully and starkly examined. But the film just sort of flubs all of that and leaves a strange sort of erotic dramedy which namechecks these issues, but does not engage with them in any meaningful way. Add in a couple of distasteful rape scenes and a willingness to mock sex workers and this is a film I could have definitely done without seeing.
Verdict: At one point, my notes for The Immoral exclaim simply, “what exactly is this film!?!?” And I think that is a pretty accurate summation of my overall thoughts. It is totally unclear to me what the point of the film was. Even taking that into account, I am pretty sure the film failed at whatever it was it was going for. Schooner of Tooheys New
Life changed for everyone on 9/11. The world changed for the worse in one horrific morning. American Arab (2013) takes a look at the way life is for a group of people who were effected more than most that day.
There is a deep questioning of identity at the heart of this film that is not something I am really familiar with. I am for all intents and purposes, ‘Australian’. My father’s father was a migrant, but strangely it was something that we never really spoke about or acknowledged. I’m not entirely sure why that was. And now I am questioning my identity like I said was totally foreign to me. But the rest of my family have been here forever, some of them were convicts booted from the motherland for some pitiful crime or another. Director Usama Alshaibi’s family immigrated to America from Iraq and as such were well and truly subjected to the tide of anti-Islamic sentiment that swept across America (and most other ‘Western’ countries) in the wake of 9/11. A tide that has really continued unchecked to this day and seems to be gaining steam in my country over recent weeks. Being a migrant must bring about a deep interrogation of identity even without this additional aspect, but it is surely heightened in the face of it.
A lot of the craft on display in the film is a little crude. There are interview setups for example where you can plainly see the interviewer in the reflection of the hotel room glass. Little touches like that are a bit distracting. The other main criticism that could be levelled at American Arab is its lack of overarching thrust, or thesis if you want to use that term. There are plenty of really interesting and enlightening individual stories in the film. But they do not coalesce into a greater whole. There are hints of how this could have been done better. The (brief) examination of the effect that racist stereotypes in film has on people belonging to those races, hinted at the broader overarching American Arab experience that I would have loved to have seen explained more. Similarly there are some other good points raised, but too briefly. The fact that people of all races should be allowed to be complicated, not just put into narrow pigeon holes based on a single aspect of their person is another such example. Would have loved more of these kind of examinations of shared experience. That shouldn’t take away from some of the strong positives of the film though. Some of the personal stories, especially that of Alshaibi after he is beaten up in a racially motivated attack, are really enlightening. Especially for me as someone who has never been subjected to anything similar. It starkly illustrated the personal impact of racism and hate crimes that I can imagine, but not experience
Verdict: In the end, American Arab succeeds well as a collection of interesting insight and anecdotes of the life of an Arab American. It is perhaps a little less successful though at presenting a fully formed vision that we have come to expect from cinematic documentary. But at 63 mins, it is worth taking the short amount of time it takes to learn a little from some of these personal stories. Stubby of Reschs
As a fan of the works of people like Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, especially his 1943 autobiography “Bound for Glory”, I was really keen to see Daniel Skaggs’ documentary Freeload (2014). With all of the popular accounts of riding the rails being at least 50 years old now, it is easy to imagine that the practice does not really exist anymore, but Skaggs brings us a window into this throwback lifestyle.
Even the best accounts of riding the rails are embellished with romanticism to a degree. Working with the immediacy of a pretty mobile camera and within the confines of the documentary structure, Freeload totally strips away any sense of this romanticism. That is not to say that the film is bleak, it just presents the good and the bad of the lifestyle without the need or desire for sentiment. Don’t expect to see a portrait of a bunch of down on their luck dudes, lamenting what life has brought them here. Most of those profiled by Skaggs have made this choice willingly, either for philosophical reasons or simply because they want no part of what the world has become. Who can blame them on that latter point? In fact the psychological insight that the film brings to the decision to ride the rails makes it feel like a pretty logical choice for the most part. The bad of their choice is not shirked from either and we see squalor, alcoholism and a griminess to the lifestyle in the film as well. They are also aware of the history of their lifestyle, of those who have made these choices in the past, whilst also being aware of the differences that separate them such as the fact that most of them are not looking for work, like many of those who were forced onto the rails used to.
I would be amazed to see the practicalities of how Freeload was shot. Skaggs takes his camera into some really tight spots, spending long amounts of time in cramped and dangerous feeling places. So to do the rail riders’ dogs. They all seem to have one, and these generally (though unfortunately not always) well loved dogs are clearly used to sitting still for their own safety. Just like the shooting, the editing of the film is impressive as well. No doubt there were huge swathes of material shot and it is all condensed down into something coherent and broad ranging, without feeling slight. The way that the stories of the various people who are featured in the film are woven together to give a sense of an entire subculture does not feel forced at all and you still get a really good sense of who these people are as individuals.
Verdict: Freeload brings to life a way of living that is probably totally foreign to a vast majority of us. In borderline verite style, Skaggs has done this with an impressive lack of intervention or judgement, allowing these really interesting people and their choice to live this lifestyle speak for itself, good or bad. It’s great to see a film not obsessed with painting a lifestyle as either the depth of despair or a grand philosophical journey either. The film simply shows their way of being. Pint of Kilkenny
I generally hate it when a book is referred to as “unfilmable”, because cinema history has shown that no book is unfilmable. Perhaps it might not be possible to film some books well, but they can all be adapted.
Nova Express (2014) is an adaptation of a book that I would have put near the top of any list of impossible to film well books. But I would have been wrong, because this film does an exceptional job at moulding the scattershot “cut up” style of the book into something that both has a semblance of coherence whilst staying true to the book. As my tweet above mentions, the film through some intangibles as well as the comparison of images and sources, conveys and suggests the sci-fi vibe of the book. This is the type of film that your mind probably conjures up when you hear the words underground film festival. This is a genuine underground, avant-garde piece of cinema that feels like it is as much a collage as it is a film. In terms of structure, especially for the benefit of coherence, one of the best choices is to have a voiceover. Much of this is readings from the book, some by Burroughs himself. These readings help to not only amplify the narrative through line of the film as well as give it an almost hardboiled/noir vibe.
The film has gone through a number of iterations, and apparently even though he began the film in 1999, director Andre Perkowski is constantly refining and updating it. There exists a 3 hour version, though at SUFF we were shown a 75 minute one, for which i am pretty thankful. Whilst the 3 hour version is quite possibly amazing, I am not sure how I would have gone if it was crammed into a hectic festival schedule such as this one. The film at times feels like it is assaulting you, makes your head hurt a little. So 75 minutes was about spot on for me. The snappy run time also helps to keep you engaged in the thematic level of the film, something which for me felt steeped in a beat interpretation of Buddhism. Specifically the film addresses and confronts the deceptive nature of a surface level reality. It brings to life complex ideas of an image machine, a controlling machine that is both deceiving and oppressing us. I am not sure how easy it will be for you to get your hands on this film (I believe there are some extensive excerpts on Youtube). But if you have any interest in the beats or hell even in obscure sci-fi, it is probably worth making the effort.
Verdict: Against all odds, the truly underground and avant-garde Nova Express is actually a pretty fun watch. By wrangling the material into something with a level of coherence, though without ‘selling out’ the source material, director Andre Perkowski has done something that is worth both celebrating and watching. Pint of Kilkenny