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Frances Ferguson

Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Indie auteur Bob Byington’s (7 Chinese Brothers, Infinity Baby) latest feature Frances Ferguson lends itself to the ‘Mumblecore’ filmmaking style where actors mix with non-actors to create a sense of disarming naturalism. It’s the story of a small-town sex scandal, with Byington regular Nick Offerman narrating, or perhaps commentating, with a quirky style that gives the film many of its moments of comedy.

Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) lives a somewhat mundane life in small-town USA, North Platte, Nebraska. With a population of 8000, it’s hard not to know almost everyone. Frances finds herself in an unhappy relationship to Nick (another Byington regular, Keith Poulson) who she knew for only three months before marrying. They have a daughter Parfait (Ella Dolan) who’s 3, or is she 4? Her parents can’t quite agree on her age. Life’s become so insipid that when Frances spots Nick masturbating in his car to internet porn across the road from their house, the ensuing confrontation is more an eye-roll than an argument.

Frances doesn’t appear to have any friends and is bordering on an anti-social personality disorder, a woman cast adrift in the US Midwest, a loner. The relationship with her mother (Jennifer Prediger) reflects that of her husband and daughter, providing little intimacy or support. When Frances gets a job as a temp teacher in the local high school, she has no moral issue flirting with a 17-year-old school jock, ‘the boy’ (Jake French), setting up several indiscreet rendezvous’ with him – at one point meeting him at the local laundromat dressed as a cheerleader, only to be spotted by other students from the school. Frances has little to no feeling for the boy; she just wants to feel…something?

Offerman’s narration describes one encounter with him as ‘an idea, like a person interacting with a hologram’. After a tryst with the boy, she’s arrested and charged as a sex offender, the charge seeming to have little to no effect on her nonchalant demeanour.

Punishment follows crime and Frances cops 14 months in the big house followed by six months parole. Leaving prison, she becomes the local celebrity sex offender, not an experience to be relished. Attending group and cognitive behaviour therapy during parole she finally shows a little emotion and becomes a more rounded character. Coming out of her shell with the assistance of therapists (David Krumholtz, Dante Harper), she comes to the realisation that change is only possible when bad things happen, fondly looking back on therapy as a cathartic moment in her life.

Central to the work is Wheless’s laid back yet nuanced performance, driving the film to its amusing conclusion. Based on actual events, with a screenplay by Scott King, Frances Ferguson is a whimsical look at a serious subject, and well worth a look.

 
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Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

In a montage filmed at a horror convention in the middle of Whoknowswhere, USA, a group of Freddy Krueger fans gleefully tell the camera that 1985’s Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is by far the worst Elm Street movie of them all. A bold claim if we’re taking into consideration Parts 4 – 6 and the remake, but hey, people have opinions. What stands out during some attendees’ ribbing of the film are comments like ‘it’s little too gay for me.’ For the film’s star, Mark Patton, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his experience with homophobia.

Having walked away from acting soon after appearing in Freddy’s Revenge, Patton, now living in Mexico, had heard that the film gained a reputation for being one of the worst horrors ever. A quick search online not only confirms this, but it also triggered a lot of bad memories for the actor. Anonymous internet comments called the film ‘disturbingly homoerotic.’ His character, Jesse, was called every gay slur under the roof as well as, bizarrely, a paedophile.

Scream, Queen follows Patton attending a series of conventions, talking about his life before and after Jesse and discussing what it means to be gay in Hollywood in the ‘80s. This is an opportunity for Patton to exorcise some demons. He talks candidly about his strict religious upbringing, his hidden relationship with Dallas’ Timothy Patrick Murphy, and being diagnosed with HIV at the age of 40.

For Patton, Freddy’s Revenge is very much horror with a gay subtext. You can find hundreds of assessments online about how Jesse’s battle with Freddy Krueger is an allegory for our hero coming to terms with his own sexuality. As the film progresses, Patton’s co-stars Robert Rusler, Kim Myers and Robert Englund also acknowledge the hidden queerness in the film. The only people who don’t seem to follow suit are Freddy’s Revenge Director Jack Sholder and screenwriter, David Chaskin. While Chaskin has acknowledged that the film was written with a deliberate homoerotic context, he did so after nearly 30 years of denial. For Patton, this meant that all fingers were pointing at him as to why the film came out the way it did.

As Patton moves from convention to convention, Chaskin’s shadow looms heavy over Patton, and after a Freddy’s Revenge reunion, it’s suggested that he should confront the screenwriter. While the film doesn’t become the horror equivalent of Roger and Me, Scream, Queen clearly tries to shape the eventual meet up as a final boss confrontation. You can see this in the somewhat salacious montage that opens the film. However, the film doesn’t need to do this to keep us interested.

Narrated by the velvety tongue of Cecil Baldwin (Welcome to Night Vale), Scream, Queen is a historical document about Hollywood’s response to the AIDS crisis and how actors like Patton had to deny who they were so they could get ‘straight’ parts. It blossoms into a discussion about what it means to be a male ‘final girl’ and all the definitions of masculine and feminine that come with that.

In light of the US government’s recent response to the Trans community and Australia’s own omnishambles of a religious bill act, Scream, Queen reminds us that these conversations still, unfortunately, need to be had.

Back to the film’s biggest strength, which is Patton… Timid and self-deprecating, it’s clear that he has been through a lot. You don’t go through what he has and come out the other side unchanged. That he maintains a sense of humour and is willing to be out there for his fans is inspiring.

For a lot of people, Scream, Queen will be a comfort as it reinforces how important something like Freddy’s Revenge can be for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Now, if we must have a sequel to the Elm Street remake, Scream, Queen makes a solid argument for bringing Jesse back, you cowards!

 
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Morgana

Australian, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Sydney Film Festival, This Week Leave a Comment

Morgana Muses isn’t like other porn stars. In her mid-50s, the Sydney-born pornographer looks more like a cheerful great aunt or hipper-than-usual nanna, rather than the creator/star of numerous works of feminist porn with titles like Labia of Love and Ladies and the Tramp. The first time we see her, Morgana is chatting amicably with co-directors Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess about the best way to bury her in a shallow bush grave. Sure, it’s for a photoshoot, but it swiftly becomes clear that like its subject, Morgana isn’t like other documentaries.

Morgana tells an extraordinary story, the tale of a woman who found herself in a loveless marriage, alienated from friends and family and – after the inevitable divorce – decided to end her life. However, a final encounter with a sex worker, a sensual swan song of sorts, reinvigorated Morgana and after she discovered such a thing as “feminist porn” existed, the newly erotically emancipated diva decided to try her hand at creating some of her own. What follows is a story of love, loss, acceptance, the power of creativity and the often corrosive nature of mental illness. For even when Morgana’s DIY sex flicks have her travelling to Berlin film festivals and beyond, depression lurks in the dark corners of her mind.

Creativity and mental illness aren’t exactly new topics for documentaries, however where Morgana differs from most are the strange, art film-esque interludes used to illustrate the narration. Moody shots of Morgana’s eye staring from within a too-small house or lying in ashes painted with darkness, give the documentary an ethereal vibe, a dreamlike quality that’s more David Lynch than Michael Moore. Striking imagery and Morgana’s own words tell the story, in lieu of intrusive narration, which works for the most part. However, it would have been nice to see a little more of the shooting and distribution of the porn, with a deeper focus on the challenges of marketing such a niche product in a relatively isolated market like Australia.

Overall, Morgana is a great success. A poetic, moving, life-affirming yarn extolling the virtues of sex positivity and self expression. While the subject matter may cause discomfort to some, there’s a cheerful, inclusive universality to the piece and an impressive sense of style that will appeal to art wankers as much as the more literal kind. Much like its subject matter, Morgana is an engaging Aussie original and a film not to be missed.

 
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Trailer: Small Island Big Song – An Oceanic Songline

Australian filmmaker and music producer Tim Cole has made a documentary for our times, filming 33 Indigenous Nations of the Indo-Pacific with over 100 artists, taking a song across the ocean for artists representing their island to add to, all filmed in nature, sung in the language and played on the instruments of that land.
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French Films in Cannes Market

In the current COVID-19 climate, with fewer completed American films to buy, the French are set to have a field day in the international market. Here are five recently completed productions that are up for grabs.
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Higher Love

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

The title of this raw, fly on the wall doco from inner city America is from Steve Winwood’s much-covered song of the same name. In that song’s first verse, there is the following proposition” “There must be a higher love (..) without it life would be wasted time”. Not especially original sentiments, but not just a cliché either. The protagonists in this film are definitely getting wasted, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t glimpse the sheer uselessness of their current habits. In fact, it is when this truth flashes momentarily and brightly that we get the greatest pangs of sympathy.

It is set in a district called Camden. It is in New Jersey, but one could also suppose that it could be set in any number of poor, mostly black, run-down neighbourhoods in dozens of cities in the US.

We are flung more or less in the middle of it, with young woman Nani preparing a fix and then shooting up and drifting off. She has a partner, Daryl who was raised by a single (junkie) mother and who now has eight children of his own. He loves Nani. When she gets pregnant and, despites herself, can’t stop using, he begs her to break away and come with him to a better place.

The idea of generational disadvantage is openly discussed here, along with the ineluctability that guarantees the circularity and entrapment. The always-relevant, but recently near-universal Black Lives Matter movement cannot help but be in the viewer’s mind. Given that they alternate between heroin, crack and fentanyl, the scandalous epidemic of prescription opiates is also very much part of the picture.

Watching people get high on camera is not exactly edifying, and whatever negative glamour there is in drug taking for the crowd doing it, it is massively outweighed by the obvious sadness of the spectacle when you take in its full biographical meaning. More or less everyone in their immediate circle is either using or trying to stop. Everyone seems powerless or defeated in a way. As indicated, they all know it is a shit way of life but, unsurprisingly, they are sort of past caring. That is, after all, what the drugs are for; to dull the pain.

Director Hasan Oswald does take us up close and personal and that is part of the ‘appeal’ of the film. Its unedited rawness doubles for authenticity. He also refuses to editorialise or wag his finger. They know they are trapped, and it would be patronising to suggest otherwise.

Also, the film doesn’t go for easy answers, just as these are not available in real life. That said, despite small vistas of hope, we are stuck with the fact that this is quite a depressing watch.

 
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The Rise of the Synths

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

The chic 2019 documentary film The Rise of the Synths, written and directed by Iván Castell, takes viewers on a deep dive into a sub-genre of electronic music and the artists devoted to it. In it, Castell traverses the world to explore the origins and influences of Synthwave.

Guiding us on this journey is ‘The Synth Rider’ – some sort of mysterious loner figure from the future who navigates time driving a DeLorean in the desert. Charting his mythical quest, we occasionally hear (and see) narration from iconic filmmaker and composer John Carpenter.

Played by journalist and musician Rubén Martínez, ‘The Synth Rider’ is a tattooed tough guy. His mission is to uncover the origins of a worldwide grassroots music scene known as Synthwave, which is described as an irresistible blend of modern electronic compositions infused with ‘80s pop culture nostalgia. The film explores the origins and growth of this electronic music genre, charting its rise in popularity from the underground online music scene to its recent mainstream exposure following use in retro-themed soundtracks, notably the 2011 film Drive (directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn), and more recently the television series Stranger Things. In fact, Drive is frequently named as a catalyst, a defining moment for many of the musicians.

The film skips all over the globe, dropping into Nantes, Paris and Grenoble, as well as New York, Toronto and Antwerp, to conduct numerous interviews with both established and upcoming Synthwave artists. The conversations explore their respective sources of inspiration, which range from early electronic pioneers such as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream to a collective love of 1980s films and video games. The musicians are described as people that have abandoned the simplicity and limitations of pop music and are going for something more emotional, more atmospheric.

The doc does a good job of explaining how and why these specific sounds and iconic imagery hold such an alluring appeal. One of the most interesting things about this documentary is its nostalgia. The artists speak reverently about the ‘80s as if they’re intimately familiar with the decade, but most acknowledge they were not even born then.

One artist named OGRE Sound even describes having one foot in the past, one foot in the future and opining that what exists in the middle is Synthwave.

“The eighties were a less cynical time, a magical decade for film,” muses a member of the trio Gunship whole roasting marshmallows over an outdoor fire.

Carpenter relates his personal experiences, “as a guy starting out on the periphery of the film industry, making low-budget movies, I learned to do everything myself, including making the music for my films.”

He explains how others working with computers and electronics had come up with a computer that you could play; the first music synthesiser. “That gave someone like me an orchestra and sound effects,” says Carpenter.

Creating a moody atmosphere thanks to some stylish footage of glittering cityscapes and dark warehouses, as well as the pulsing soundtrack, we see interviews with the artists and composers in their homes or in gorgeous natural or urban locales, all over the world.

Some of the artists wistfully recall meeting up on Myspace groups and forming a collective of alternative music makers. Several of the musicians embrace their underground status and do not show their faces during the interviews.

The doco tracks how synth sounds fell out of fashion in the ‘90s with the emergence of the grunge sound. People grew weary of the abundant use of the DX-7 synthesiser sound in songs, in movies and commercials. Acknowledging the influence of metal and rock, one French composer named Perturbator remarks on how Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor “basically made fucking around with sequencers and drum machines cool again” in the ‘90s.

Then comes the Retrowave movement, when people start making music on personal computers on a wider scale and experimenting with sounds, which proved a lot cheaper and therefore more accessible than synthethiser-driven music. “To have synthesisers you needed money, gear, a studio…” Computers permitted the democratisation of music making. “Everything changed. We could make music in our bedroom,” recalls a French duo.

The old soundtrack of a new generation—The Rise of the Synths is both a documentary and a time travel capsule about the Synthwave Scene.

Artists featuring in the film include:

Carpenter Brut

Gunship

Perturbator

Electric Youth

The Midnight

NINA

Power Glove

Dance with the Dead

Robert Parker

Waveshaper

OGRE Sound

Miami Nights 1984

Valerie Collective (College, Maethelvin)

Lazerhawk

80’s Stallone

John Bergin

MPM Soundtracks

Night Crawler

Scandroid

Mecha Maiko