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Stay Out Stay Alive

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The scary yarn as morality tale is a human tradition that stretches all the way back to ancient times, when we’d huddle around campfires and hope we were safe from the creatures that crawled around in the dark. From folklore to fairy tales to books and now movies, morality or cautionary tales are a huge part of the way we share stories, partly to entertain, partly to share wisdom. Stay Out Stay Alive is definitely part of that tradition, although it proves to be an imperfect medium for its message.

Stay Out Stay Alive is the story of five friends who are heading out into the great outdoors to go camping and experience nature. Things turn dicey their first night out, when sensible loner Donna (Sage Mears) decides to go for a stroll… at midnight… in woods she’s never before explored. Shockingly, this turns out to be a bad idea, and she falls down a mine shaft and traps her foot. When the rest of the gang eventually find her, they also discover a nice surprise: there’s gold in them thar hills! But how to get it all before nosy Ranger Susanna (Barbara Crampton) pays their campsite a visit. And when some of our heroes begin to experience strange hallucinations and personality changes, you know shit’s about to get real.

Stay Out Stay Alive punches far, far above its weight in terms of aesthetics. Directed by Dean Yurke – who spent decades working in visual effects – takes full advantage of its remote locale, and brings the atmosphere in spades (and pickaxes). Sadly, the same deft touch doesn’t apply to the writing or acting which, while never downright awful, are consistently ropey. It’s hard to get completely engaged with a character’s descent into madness when they’re already acting bizarre and inconsistent long before any supernatural shenanigans take place. That said, the film’s third act is a winner, with Yurke’s visual panache in full flight, and a couple of the twists might manage to surprise even jaded genre veterans.

A gorgeous-looking flick in search of a better script, Stay Out Stay Alive is a mostly engaging experience. It’s not, perhaps, the most polished of cautionary tales, but a solid enough genre entry with a sting in its tail.

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Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club

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Rugby has a certain image tinged with toxic masculinity. One which hasn’t been helped by players such as Israel Falou and his homophobic vitriol disguised as freedom of speech. Steelers: The World’s Frist Gay Rugby Club looks set to bleach that image by dismantling stereotypes and perceptions, and acting as a joyful celebration of the sport.

Directed by former Aussie news reporter, Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, the film follows the trials and tribulations of the titular Kings Cross Steelers, a London based rugby team founded in 1995 at the Central Station gay pub. The team’s aim then, as it is today, was to give gay and bisexual men an inclusive environment in which to play rugby. Over 20 years later, there are now more than 50 LGBTQIA clubs in the world. Not bad at all.

Having experienced a concussion 6 weeks into a season playing for the Steelers, Ashton-Atkinson picks up a camera to film the team’s chances as they enter the Bingham Cup, a competition named after gay rugby player, Mark Bingham, who died on the ill-fated flight, United 93. With the team in Amsterdam, and going up against teams like the Sydney Convicts, the director follows three members of the team, including coach Nic Evans, as they talk candidly about coming out and their relationship with Rugby.

Ashton-Atkinson clearly cares for his subjects as much as he does his sport, perhaps to a fault. As he manages to get them to open up, he’s almost apologetic about how they’ll be viewed once the film is released. And to be fair, for players like Simon Jones, the documentary is just another way of putting yourself out there that has not worked out for him in the past.

However, Ashton-Atkinson really shouldn’t worry. Steelers is a life affirming film that manages to whack a great big smile on your face. The joy and love the players have for each other is infectious, and even if you have no particular interest in the sport, you’ll be hard pushed not to be cheering them on as they charge towards the Bingham Cup final.

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Even outside of lockdown conditions, watching certain independent features can instil one with a very specific type of jealousy. The kind where, after seeing a single name attached to so many aspects of a single production, you remember how much of a trek it was to get out of the bed that morning and become bewildered at how any one person can have that much energy.

And in the case of filmmaker/actor Matt Fifer, his feature debut has him firing on all cylinders, co-directing alongside Kieran Mulcare, writing the script with co-star Sheldon D. Brown, editing next to Kyle Sims, as well as carrying the bulk of the emotional load onscreen. The only thing better than seeing someone that motivated is seeing all that hard work pay off in such gratifying fashion.

What makes Cicada truly shine, for all the incredibly murky and uncomfortable material it delves into, is its remarkable deftness of touch. When showing Fifer’s Ben and Brown’s Sam’s budding relationship, the tenderness and genuine intimacy between them creates a healthy bedrock for their musings and confrontations with their respective traumas. And whether it’s providing montage material or simply gliding over these lovers in each other’s arms, Eric Schleicher’s camera work taps into the indie ideal of making the everyday look wondrous. The way he plays around with water and reflections, in particular, is captivating.

It all adds to the film’s intentions of realism, reportedly built out of Fifer and Brown’s own experiences, and the resulting depiction of trauma certainly gives that impression. Exploring notions of racial prejudice, the effects of sexual abuse (with the grim spectre of Sandusky looming over the film’s period setting), the apprehension about coming out (which, unfortunately, can still be a difficult task even today), and all the while keeping the strictly LGBT framing from descending into armchair psychology clichés.

That on its own is already an impressive move, but the film’s larger connections to the LGBT umbrella manages to improve on that. The inclusion of the fabulous Jason ‘Freckle’ Greene, who shines with one of the script’s purple-r moments, mingles with the recurring ‘abolition of gender’ imagery to reinforce genderqueer solidarity, and with Ben specifically – he marks one of the more complex depictions of bisexuality in modern cinema.

Fifer’s characterisation plays into mainstream stereotypes (where ‘can have sex with any gender’ gets conflated with ‘will have sex’), and yet through delicate thematic touches that involve, surprisingly enough, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, recontextualise it as simply part of the standard courting practice. With how much flak the Bs still get in the mainstream (and even within the LGBT grouping), that on its own makes this whole endeavour worthwhile.

Cicada is an indie romance that manages to cover a lot of ground, both sexually and psychologically, with a refined hand and playful direction, making for a progressive outing that feels like you really just watched two people learn to live and love happily.

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Gossamer Folds

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It’s 1986 and Young Tate (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) has been uprooted from his life in ‘the city’ to a more – let’s say – close-knit community on the outskirts. Unbeknown to him, this move is a last ditch attempt by his mum and dad, played by Sprague Grayden and Shane West respectively, to salvage what’s left of their marriage.

Things already don’t look good as the two argue openly in front of their son within 24 hours of stepping over the threshold. As his parents tear strips off each other, Tate becomes fascinated with his twenty-something neighbour, Gossamer (Alexandra Grey, Transparent) who lives with her retired father, Edward (Franklin Ojeda Smith) and somewhat dim friend, Jimbo (Ethan Suplee).

Gossamer is a Trans woman and noting this, or at least presuming she’s just a man in a dress, Tate’s father quickly forbids his son from interacting with the neighbours. This being the ‘80s, his demands are laced with homophobia and Tate looks like he’s destined to take on his father’s prejudices. However, Tate’s curiosity gets the better of him and after a disagreement over a skateboard, Gossamer takes him under her wing.

Being a person of colour, as well as a Trans woman, there’s an initial fear that Gossamer Folds could devolve into a white saviour tale or perhaps worst, fetishise its lead to make her the magical answer to all of Tate’s issues. Instead, thanks in part to Grey’s performance, Gossamer is allowed to be her own person in her own story. In one of the strongest scenes, finally alone with her thoughts after a troubling night, Grey manages to convey so much without saying anything. Equally, her relationship with Tate is, quite frankly, adorable to watch as they bond over David Bowie and silver nail varnish. For his part, Robert Scott handles the material well and is thoroughly charming throughout.

Whilst Tate and Gossamer’s relationship grows, director Lisa Donato and screenwriter Bridget Flanery hint at darkness lurking around the peripherals. And it’s here that perhaps the film falters slightly. Over the course of the movie, Gossamer and her friends discuss a series of bashings that are happening in town, whilst she regularly has to contend with her father dead naming and misgendering her. These are day to day occurrences in Gossamer’s life, but the film doesn’t feel as strong as its protagonist does in order to tackle these issues, or at least not successfully. These plot threads just sort of hang in the air without any real closure. Sure, life isn’t really a series of endings that wrap up neatly, but there’s a feeling of wanting from the film’s ending; as if it wasn’t really sure how it wanted to finish. A small shame when everything that came before it is so strong.  That said if your heart is looking to be warmed up this spring, Gossamer Folds is a treat for the emotions.

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Ahead of the Curve

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Mainstream success means more than financial reward for the people employed at fringe lesbian magazine Curve (formerly Deneuve): it means progress.

Curve magazine’s thirty-year history of championing lesbian voices is articulately explored in first time director Jen Rainin’s contemplative documentary, Ahead of the Curve.

The film follows the contribution made by founder and former Editor-in-chief Frances “Franco” Stevens. Her ambition is to advance lesbian representation in media, stemming from her frustration towards the suppression – if not erasure – of queer voices.

The film documents Stevens’ hardscrabble efforts to launch a publication – compounded by HIV/AIDs affected, Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell’ America – intercut with interviews from colleagues (well-known participants including Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria) and present-day efforts in understanding how the publication fits within wider queer media. These complexities are expressed as the side-effects of an overabundance of online queer content, a decaying magazine landscape, and Trumpian politics.

Where Ahead of the Curve finds its stride is in its comprehensive dissection of current lesbian identity. We learn through the eyes of the extremely personable Stevens who, despite being a pioneer in the advancement of lesbian visibility (her grounding based in the liberal attitudes of ‘90s San Fran), reflects on what female representation looks like within contemporary LGBTQ society.

This level of self-reflection allows Ahead of the Curve to comment on the present issues faced by queer identity: the terminology and use of language, particularly the divisiveness of the term lesbian. The film recognises the distinction (and overlap) between communities based on sexuality and gender. Their forever evolving definitions are revealing of a greater need for broader education on queer culture.

That said, the communities themselves are not without their destructive tendencies. The point made in the film is that by having these discussions, it hammers home the need for ongoing dialogue, and the importance in having safe spaces/outlets for communities to not only embrace their culture, but to preserve it.

Told with humour, intelligence and an abundance of personality, Ahead of the Curve posits that the spectrum of lesbian identity is greater than the product of its struggles. It is a stark reminder of the importance of visibility (particularly for women who remain under-represented at the best of times) in the fight for equality.

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Song Lang

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

This (2018) film quite literally looks beautiful from the first frame, and stays that way, whether the camera be focussed on hyper-colourful theatrical costumes or street life. The title – which translates as “two men” – incidentally refers to a Vietnamese percussion instrument, used in modern folk opera, whose rhythms are said to show a moral path for the musician.

The main protagonist Mr. Dung (Lien Binh Phat), a ruthless debt collector for loan sharks who is known as Dung the Thunderbolt, presumably because of his tendency to resort quickly to violence against those who don’t pay up. Phat has a smouldering presence, and his character has a cynical and sardonic attitude to life – devoid, it would appear, of both illusions and happiness.

But as we see in the effective and sparingly used flashbacks, it wasn’t always like that. Dung’s parents were musicians, and as a child he adored and rejoiced in traditional Vietnamese opera. Memories come flooding back when he has to collect from Linh Phung (Isaac), an actor and singer in one such production. The opera’s melodramatic excesses form a neat counterpoint to Dung’s still-waters-run-deep persona. Dung and Phung circle each other like rather benign sharks, playing video games, chatting with a mixture of mockery and curiosity, looking at the night sky, discussing a children’s book… If that’s starting to sound a tad sentimental, it simply isn’t; the dialogue and the acting make sure of that.

The homoerotic element in Song Lang is strictly sub-textual, but there’s no mistaking it. This is an entrancing and intelligent movie, with a cracker of an ending that you’re not likely to predict. Highly recommended.

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Breaking Fast

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Rom-coms may have a reputation for being the critic’s punching bag genre, but their general accessibility isn’t something that should be disregarded. Through all that cliché and trope-laden storytelling, they have the capacity to enlighten audiences in ways that other genres can’t. Whether it’s demystifying cultural norms (Crazy Rich Asians), making outsider notions of romance less intimidating (BDSM in Secretary), or even examining complex sexuality (Chasing Amy), when rom-coms are done right, they can be vehicles for the best kinds of stories.

A romance as informed by Islamic faith as it is by the WeHo gay scene, Breaking Fast tracks the romance between practicing Muslim Mo (Haaz Sleiman) and budding actor Kal (Michael Cassidy). Whether they’re bonding over Superman, famous musicals, or the parameters of Ramadan that serve as the plot’s main framing device, the protagonists are incredibly cute together and add a lot to clarifying how Muslim and non-Muslim relationships – and even Muslim and LGBT identities – aren’t as mutually exclusive as the cliched misconceptions would have us believe.

Indeed, the way that the script goes about depicting Ramadan, a month in the Islamic calendar devoted to fasting and abstention, ends up dispelling many of the surface-level perceptions of the practice. Right from the start, with the film’s explanation of both Ramadan and iftar (a nightly meal that breaks the fast, giving the film its name), it sets out to clear up the mainstream understanding of the faith.

From there, Mo’s intersectionality feels lived in and, in quite possibly the film’s most bracing quality, imperfect. Along with showing that living while Muslim and gay doesn’t make Mo automatically dhaal or zindeeq, it also admits that not every Muslim believes the same thing. It admits the good and the bad that has been committed in Allah’s name, showing a level of realism that a lot of well-meaning but, as the film puts it, “bright-siding” wannabe-allies end up missing. Essentially, the film argues that you can’t have the Last Temptation Of Christ without the God’s Not Dead, and that ignoring one for the sake of the other is theologically dishonest. It’s a showing of thematic maturity that not only adds to the film’s cultural texture, but makes Mo that much more fascinating of a main character.

Not that one needs to stretch to cultural appreciation to truly vibe with this romance, as the lead actors do that more than well enough all on their own. Watching Mo and Kal watch Superman on the big screen is a joy prescription that sells this film as is. It just helps that, along with all the natural sweetness, the realistically flawed characters, and the pleasing matter-of-factness that the gay scene is treated with, it also serves as another example of romance giving a misunderstood cultural perspective a chance to be seen.

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Hardcore comic book fans can be a gruesome lot at times. Overly obsessed with lore, frequently exhibiting gatekeeping tendencies and their personal hygiene – not always ideal. Still and all, they’re usually less terrifying than the main antagonist of Artik, the bracing horror flick from first time director Tom Botchii.

Our tale begins from the point of view of Artik (Jerry G. Angelo), a gruff mountain of a man who wants to raise his son, Boy Adam (Gavin White), in the proper way. Unfortunately, in the case of Artik, that means teaching the lad how to get away with murder, proper body disposal and some sketching to round out the skillset. Artik does this with the blessing of mother figure, Flin Brays (Lauren Ashley Carter), who appears to be all in with the bizarre plan, not to mention storing a barn full of feral kids used to keep the sunflower farm running smoothly. If all of that sounds bizarre to you, then congratulations on paying attention, because Artik is a strange trip.

Artik is an intense flick, with even the more mundane moments infused with menace, and Tom Botchii is clearly a director to watch. A solid, occasionally confounding, performance from Jerry G. Angelo anchors the film, with solid back up from Lauren Ashley Carter and Chase Williams provides an amiable, if unlikely, hero in the form of troubled straightedge mechanic Holton. At a slender 78 minutes, Artik certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, in fact you’ll probably find yourself wishing for an extra five minutes or so of explanation for Artik’s bizarre plans, although perhaps the madness is rather the point.

Ultimately, Artik is a wild ride. At times feeling like a punk rock Motel Hell, other times an intense character study, it’s the work of a fresh genre voice with a bright (but also dark) future; and a cracking little film in its own right.

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Ivan Ostrochovsky’s (2015’s Goat) sophomore feature Servants is hypnotic as much as it is visually arresting, in this story of corruption within a theological seminary in totalitarian Czechoslovakia.

The film’s monochrome aesthetic and classic aspect ratio is reminiscent of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2014). Similarly, both films raise questions of faith in times of repression. The former, however, takes on a decidedly more sinister tone.

Set in the early 1980s, two high-school friends, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) enter a seminary in hopes of becoming Catholic priests. As Czechoslovakian leaders demand the church’s strict obedience to Communist ideologies, students at the seminary are faced with the dark realities of a totalitarian existence.

We are made aware of this stifling formality during an exchange between two priests: “you have to understandwere not here to be happy”. While Michal is committed to his studies, Juraj becomes involved with the resistance in an underground church. Suspicion mounts when it is revealed that prohibited literature is being circulated at the seminary – an act that leads to shattering consequences.

Servants is neither didactic nor overtly polemical. Yet, it invites reflection on the oppressive conditions and fear permeating the Catholic Church. Much of this unease is expressed through the stark black and white cinematography, aided by the use of ominous non-diegetic sounds. Interestingly, Servants is almost entirely comprised of static shots – a technique that is impactful and further emphasises the film’s underlying tendency towards austerity. The fragmentary narrative and sparse dialogue, on the other hand, might irritate those not attuned to arthouse cinema.

Even so, it is difficult to fault Ostrochovsky’s stylistic choices in Servants. We can see that he prefers to tell the story through actions and steely gazes. These elements – combined with film-noir sensibilities and artfully composed shots – come together to intoxicating effect.

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A palpable stillness fills a lonely country road sitting outside of Wolfsburg, Germany.

As though the dead-silent streets weren’t eerie enough, the total darkness, illuminated only by the deceptively inviting lurid glow of a roadside caravan, does little to ease the mood.

It is women who occupy these caravans (known as Liebesmobiles); many of whom travel from afar to earn a living performing sex work.

The stories of these women and their systemic oppression are explored with a sympathetic gaze in hard-hitting documentary Lovemobil.

We spend most of Lovemobil inside a caravan belonging to Uschi; a former sex-worker who when not enforcing strict housekeeping demands upon her employees – Rita (from Nigeria) and Milena (from Bulgaria) – can be seen overwhelming her dogs with affection. It is a duality that expresses both desensitiaation and benevolence; the latter being a courtesy denied to the women she exploits to make a living.

For many of the women employed by Uschi, assault, neglect and death prove more than just concerns, but realities of their employment. Their dreams of freedom from a life of sex work, initially met with glowing optimism, become short lived when jolted back into the present. Forced isolation and financial captivity amplify their mounting trepidation; a byproduct calcified by the looming threat of danger which presents itself with each client.

Director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss does an exemplary job connecting the experiences of women with the institutionalisation (and commoditisation) of their abuse. The astute filmmaker directs with an incisiveness that not only respects and grants dignity to interviewees but presents the implications of their inequality in contrast to broader society.

It is considered documentary filmmaking at its most potent.