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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Miles Davis could just as easily use his windpipes to revolutionise music as he would use his raspy voice to describe someone as a motherfucker.

Through archival audio narration from Davis himself, as well as various music commentators (including previous colleagues and ex-partners), Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool documents Davis’ musical ability as a medium for black expression and an outlet to release his indignation.

Davis’ contribution to music history is one for the ages. From Davis’ early days living in Jim Crow America, to his involvement with the music scene in 1940s NYC, it’s clear that Davis was an artist whose dedication to jazz would become an outlet for his hardships, creating a place where he could get some relief. Ongoing racial mistreatment and the abuse he witnessed in his childhood, through to his difficulties with substance addiction in adulthood, all fed into his music and mythology.

Davis’ commitment to innovation, wherein he famously improvised his jazz recordings, often fusing other genres of music in with the freeform nature of jazz, is explored in vivid enough detail that those unfamiliar with Davis’ contributions to music can appreciate its significance. His prodigious talents saw him capable of creating work that spoke to great pleasure (“music people could play and make love to” as described by one commentator) and underlying struggle. This musical duality was counteracted by Davis’ acid-tongued-personality and his uncompromising veracity that was motivated by the inequality stitched into the American social fabric.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool finds its relevance as an examination of African American mistreatment; a mirror from the past that reflects into the now. Race relations had always been a defining aspect of Davis’ career: this ranges, but is not limited to, the appropriation of black identity, casual racism being accepted by society and Davis’ experiences with the police, which despite his success still saw him unable to escape racist encounters.

Commentators celebrate Davis as a pioneer within the field of music, not just as a maestro jazz artist but a musician unafraid to experiment with genre. Their admiration for Davis is spoken to with intelligence, recognising the work of a talented musician that influenced other greats; yet looking at his transgressions towards women as though they were iridescent. In the documentary, Davis’ acceptance of his wrongdoings is earnest, but is underscored by Stanley Nelson’s direction – a somewhat abnormal feat as Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool exists in a period where the condemnation of celebrities is considered entertainment.

A musical genius whose demeanour was as unpredictable as the jazz harmonies he produced, Miles Davis Birth of the Cool provides an explicit account of a musical legacy that refused to be restricted by genre.

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The Eyes of Orson Welles

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Analysing the thematics of Orson Welles’ oeuvre is no mean feat. Finding a through-line that cuts to the core of who the man was, that hasn’t been ground into a well-worn path by biographers and documentarians over the years, seems a tall order indeed.

Enter Irish film critic/author/filmmaker Mark Cousins, who earned his bones introducing cult films for BBC TV on a show in the ‘90s called Moviedrome before graduating to interviewing filmmakers (like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese) for the TV series Scene by Scene. He’s favoured the visual essay documentary format in recent years (in similar territory to Jean Luc Godard), where he re-frames the subjects of his documentaries via his personal perspective on them, addressing the subject of the documentary in the first person within the narration, posing questions to the subject that hang in air, unanswered. In his recent What Is This Film Called Love? he chronicled a three-day ramble around Mexico City, having a ponderous ‘conversation’ (of sorts) with a picture of Sergei Eisenstein.

The success of his softly spoken Northern Irish lilt, narrating in a ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion, depends on how you react to the documentary’s subject matter. In the ground-breaking series The Story of Film: An Odyssey or the wonderful A Story of Children and Film, it works remarkably well, with an almost ethereally beautiful synergy. In the films he’s made that don’t gel as successfully, it can tip over into self-indulgent wankery, with sharp rapidity.

In The Eyes of Orson Welles, Cousins stays true to form and steams in with his signature style and perspective, to wrestle with the core themes in Orson Welles’ filmmaking, drawings and paintings. He breaks the documentary into five thematic segments, numbered like chapters.

This rigidity in categorising an artist’s intent and thought process seems to draw a long bow but Cousins has a considerable amount of insight to offer on Welles’ work. There are truly fascinating observations put forward, particularly when he looks at the ‘facelessness’ of characters sketched or painted by Welles after the period that saw the rise of authoritarian leaders like Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. This concept of ‘facelessness’ became Welles’ go-to motif in films whenever alluding to corruption, loss of humanity and power and there are notable examples in Citizen Kane, Macbeth and The Trial.

Cousins also talks to Welles’ third daughter, Beatrice, who sheds light on her own relationship with her iconic father. However, it’s when Cousins uses Welles’ paintings and drawings (Welles trained to be a painter at the Chicago Art Institute) to find the connective tissue that linked his films, his romantic life and his political views, that the film soars. Using Welles’ artworks as a way in to examining his inner life is an inspired move, though it does shift the focus of The Eyes of Orson Welles, seeing it become less a dissection of a filmmaker than it is an overall reflection upon the creative impetus of an iconic artist.

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Gay Chorus Deep South

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In response to legal reforms that jeopardise the livelihoods of members of the LGBTQI+ community, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir embark on a tour of the American Bible Belt as documented in Gay Chorus Deep South.

The choir, comprising of people from differing backgrounds, use performance as a medium to instigate discussion amidst a heated political climate – a form of peaceful protest that bellows as powerfully as the choir songs.

Going as far as to label Gay Chorus Deep South as an angry film would misrepresent the sincere intentions of the choir using their voice to spread messages of unity. At the same time, Gay Chorus Deep South demonstrates discourse through anger laced rhetoric – a flat note that sees the film become blinded by the same misguided attitudes that it wishes to fight.

Gay Chorus Deep South acknowledges the choir can only appeal to those that are willing to listen. Whether or not the choir, or the film, recognises that their platform will reach those they are looking to persuade appears to have been overlooked and creates a misalignment between the choir’s objective with their execution.

A willingness to investigate the motives of the choir, to help or to intervene, creates a fascinating dissection on liberal values in America – particularly those belonging to Americans on the West Coast. Gay Chorus Deep South drills deeper into the complexity of the issue because of this, though, renders itself incapable of recovering from heavy blows against the choir’s involvement being counterintuitive, elitist and imposing.

It’d be remiss to discuss Gay Chorus Deep South without mentioning its release being timed with abortion reforms in the American South (or that its premise is not unlike Oscar winner Green Book); exemplifying how politics is riddled with religious foundations that disadvantage women and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

It is important however to recognise that religion is never presented as the villain, with Gay Chorus Deep South at the very least offering solidarity to marginalised communities whose political freedoms are compromised.

For others, Gay Chorus Deep South preaches to the already converted.

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The Nightingale

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With 2014’s The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent crafted a superbly realised allegorical horror movie that delivered genuine scares and quality drama. While typically underperforming at the Australian box office (a story all too familiar for homegrown content), it nonetheless did well in overseas territories and is frequently referenced in popular culture. Hell, it even spawned a queer-friendly meme that casts the titular baddie as a gay icon.

In terms of a follow up film, Kent could pretty much write her own ticket, and cinemagoers were curious as to where this superb director might go next. The Nightingale answers that question and while it’s a quality film, crikey, it’s unlikely to spawn any memes.

The Nightingale tells the grim tale of Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who lives in Tasmania in 1825. Clare wants nothing more than to be free with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and baby. However, British officer and manipulative sociopath, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) has other ideas, and one dark night he murders Aidan and the baby and rapes Clare and then leaves her for dead. Clare, injured but alive and incandescent with rage, enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and heads off into the bush to take her revenge.

As you can probably gather from the above description, The Nightingale is a dark and nasty film. However, as audiences at various film festivals have discovered, even with your loins girded you may not be prepared for just how disturbing things get. Put simply, The Nightingale is extreme cinema, every bit as horrifying and impactful as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave. The difference here is that Kent is attempting to portray a semi-realistic picture of one of Australia’s most shameful periods, the attempted genocide of the indigenous people, and expose the very real horrors of colonialism in a brutal, unflinching fashion.

The resulting film is a ferocious and unrelenting piece, and while the violence and rape are never gratuitous per se, it’s certainly going to test the nerves of cinemagoers. In terms of performances, the movie absolutely belongs to Franciosi and Ganambarr, the unlikely pair soon becoming friends as they each empathise with the suffering colonialism has brought the other. Slightly less successful is Sam Claflin, whose character is written so over-the-top evil he threatens to become a caricature at times. Kent’s direction is assured as always, this time shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio, with every frame dripping with atmosphere and darkness. Her script, however, is a little less deft, with the ultimate message feeling a tad contradictory in some of the final moments.

Ultimately, The Nightingale is a bold and savage film, dealing with issues that haven’t been explored in such an incendiary fashion since Fred Schepisi’s notorious The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). Boasting strong performances and superb direction, this is an important Australian movie that is very much not going to be for everyone. If, however, you can handle this dark trip back into Tasmania’s bloody history, it’s a journey very much worth taking.

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Standing Up for Sunny

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Films starring characters who have a disability can sometimes be maudlin or looking to play for the sympathy vote, despite themselves. Standing Up for Sunny at least refuses that tendency and manages to stay, somewhat relentlessly, upbeat. It is directed by ubiquitous TV actor Steve Vidler, and it is very much a local Sydney film in feel and location. Vidler hasn’t directed a feature since the rather effective Black Rock (1997). One wonders what has kept him from stepping behind the camera in between. This one he wrote as well as directed, so it is clearly something of a passion project.

The film centres on Travis (RJ Mitte, best known perhaps for Breaking Bad). Travis (like Mitte in real life) has cerebral palsy. He is supposed to have an anger problem but really – apart from the odd outburst – he seems remarkably even tempered. He can’t earn much money though, so when a pushy but charming blind Samoan called Gordo (a scene stealing turn from NZ actor Italia Hunt) offers to share the rent, Travis has to accept.

Travis is attracted to Sunny (Philippa Northeast). She is trying to break into the local stand-up comedy scene as a route to becoming a radio host/personality. Sunny has a poisonous boyfriend called Mikey (a thankless role for Sam Reid). She is also bulimic, partly because she had a traumatic childhood, and so she can empathise with Travis’s sense of being broken or rejected by society. When Travis becomes her sort of comedy coach, the arrogant Mikey resents their friendship and does his best to get Travis out of the picture.

The film is certainly amiable, and the low budget gives it a sense of immediacy and authenticity. The Inner West Sydney locations are clearly close to the director’s heart and he uses them effectively. There are some obvious problems though. When films feature people doing stand-up, the actual routines (and the audience’s wetting themselves) rarely convince. The other problem is the one that haunts many a rom-com. The arc of the narrative is so plainly in view from the very beginning that no amount of obligatory obstacles-to-love can persuade us from mentally jumping to the end.

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Hot Mess

Australian, Comedy, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Australia is busting at the seams with talented young filmmakers creating content for TV and the web, all off their own steam, and with seemingly little financial reward. Though high quality material is abundant, much of this work fails to break through into the mainstream, which is, to put it mildly, a damn shame. Hopefully, the utterly delightful comedy, Hot Mess, will buck the trend and capture hearts on the large scale that it truly deserves.

Written and directed by Lucy Coleman (whose web series, On The Fringe, is online now), this thoroughly contemporary tale of love, desperation, and misplaced priorities has the smarts and savvy to make its non-existent budget an instant non-problem, and even a strange kind of strength.

At the centre of this finely judged piece of comedic economy is 25-year-old Loz (Sarah Gaul is an absolute revelation here, expertly navigating a difficult but truly loveable character who bounces all over the emotional map), a burgeoning writer who seems intent on sabotaging her own success. Hotly touted to be awarded with a coveted writer-in-residence gig at a theatre run by the no-nonsense Greg (a nice turn from Sydney acting school godfather, Terry Serio), the talented Loz constantly jeopardises her chances by coming up with increasingly graphic and confronting feminist-minded material. Harangued by her concerned and disapproving mum (well played by Zoe Carides), the hopelessly adrift Loz sees an anchor in Dave (the gifted and charismatic Marshall Campbell), a nice guy who might just be the answer to her romantic dreams. Unless he’s not…

Cleanly but imaginatively shot by DOP, Jay Grant, and boasting a just-right musical score by Jack Hambling and Tom O’Dea, Hot Mess really sings when it comes to performance and script. Lucy Coleman’s dialogue is loopily of-the-moment, but it never feels cloying or contrived. Her characters speak like smart, thoughtful young people do in “real life”, and the creation of such pitch-perfect dialogue is no mean feat indeed. It’s helped to no end by the actors speaking it, all of whom ring and sing with wit and authenticity. Effortlessly current but undeniably timeless, Hot Mess is a warm and wonderful work from a very exciting new voice in Australian comedy.

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Here Comes Hell

Comedy, Festival, Horror, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Screened at Sydney Film Festival, in the Freak Me Out program strand, Here Comes Hell is a genre mash-up debut feature effort from UK Director Jack McHenry and co-writer Alice Sidgwick. Having worked on music videos and short films before this, McHenry shows confidence in his style. His previous short film, Dungeon of Vampire Nazis showcases his crew’s filmmaking style and passion for cinema, which also shines through in Here Comes Hell.

Hell does a great job of capturing an early cinema aesthetic by paying homage to classic filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle. From the opening shot, the mood is set, when the audience is greeted by a man talking directly to camera and introducing the film. To top it off, it’s also filmed in black and white and presented in the boxed 4:3 format.

This film knows exactly what it is and uses all the classic tropes of ‘50s B movies while mashing it with other genre film styles. The actors crank their performances up to 11 and at no point are they, or the film, afraid to be cheesy. The accents are hammy and over the top, just like the performances. If you can imagine a ’50s B movie classic with the slapstick gore of Evil Dead, this is what Here Comes Hell delivers.

The plot is familiar and simple, an old haunted manor house with a group of young people playing around with the occult and opening up a gateway to hell. There are plenty of laughs and scares, as the guests have to put down their wine glasses and pick up weapons with every man (and woman) for themselves in a fight to make it out alive before dawn.

Even though the runtime is short, it does take what feels like a very long time to get into full swing. Like two completely different movies, for the first 35 minutes you’re watching a social drama and for the rest it’s a 1980s horror flick, complete with one liners and crash zooms. The film becomes more entertaining once the gates of hell have been opened but before that there isn’t enough to cling to; the film would have benefited from spending the first act fleshing out characters, and there are plot points that are hinted at but never fully explored, such as the intertwined past relationships between the guests.

Mixing practical and visual effects to achieve a look that is both pleasing to fans of genre and general audiences, the filmmakers have made their modest budget work, and the passion behind the project shows on screen.

With its cheesy dialogue, hammy accents and stereotypical characters, Here Comes Hell does everything short of wink directly to camera. It’s refreshing when a director knows the ins and outs of the genre he’s trying to recreate, and McHenry shows a lot of promise with his obvious love for cinema and knowledge of its clichés and techniques. Parody films usually have a paper-thin premise and a style that is not unique, but Here Comes Hell is thankfully one of the exceptions.

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The Wandering Chef

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

The Wandering Chef is the kind of left-field, ethereal pleasure only found at film festivals: a documentary on a chef who roams the country, monk-like in his devotion to the search for rare ingredients. Less an exhibition of culinary pyrotechnics, this is more an expression of food as an experience, rooted in culture and tradition.

The subject, Im Jiho, is also a fascinating and compelling individual. Implicit in his solitary journeys is a rejection of modern society and contentment with loneliness unusual in Korea’s collective culture; yet he is also emotionally vulnerable and generous-hearted. The film transports him from rural Korea to international cooking shows and back again, but you get the sense Im is most in his element engaging in earthy banter with other Koreans – usually elderly – on folk remedies. One of the film’s pleasures is watching him get excited about an obscure wild herb and list its medicinal properties, and the scene in which he debates whether moss can or cannot be eaten is a highlight. Im’s vocation draws him close to forgotten, timeless lifestyles: the weather-beaten haenyeo (female divers) of Jeju, and a grandfather hauling stones on his back to a mountainside home. This is as much an ode to Korea’s wild landscapes, with casually stunning cinematography to match, as it is a cooking documentary.

One would have been perfectly happy for The Wandering Chef to be a visual encyclopedia on Korean cuisine and ingredients. However, first-time director Hye Ryeong Park, who filmed the documentary over the span of several years, chooses to push the material in a more narrative direction. The film gravitates increasingly towards Im’s friendship with an elderly lady and her husband, treating it as a quasi-redemptive arc. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is deeply touching, and adds depth to Im as a character. It’s just that everything else comes to feel increasingly peripheral, and out of place structurally.

While not quite the out-and-out masterpiece it had the potential to be, The Wandering Chef is still a terrific heart-warmer, captivating in its detail, and a reminder that all the world’s great cuisines are the accumulation of informal knowledge and folk tradition.

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A Dog Called Money

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

Two-time Mercury Award-winning musician PJ Harvey is an artist less interested in producing hard-bodied rock’n’roll anthems than she is addressing the plight of those living without privilege.

To draw parallels in Harvey’s career with Bob Dylan would misinterpret her bold lyricism as being songs of protest – a notion that Harvey would sooner shake off than she would rest on her shoulders like a guitar strap.

A Dog Called Money documents Harvey as an artist now, and follows her journey ‘collecting lyrics’ for her 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project.

The journey, which takes her to the streets of Afghanistan and Washington DC, highlights a political discourse through its documentation of the negative impact western influence – mainly American – has on the quality of life of people throughout the world.

It is here where director Seamus Murphy harmoniously intertwines footage of Harvey’s experiences on the streets with her work in the recording studio; allowing Harvey to demonstrate her musical virtuoso by translating the mood of the people into lyrics and sound.

Witnessing Harvey as an artist at work is spellbinding. Pundits in the film, fortunate enough to watch Harvey create music, are left captivated as she intricately weaves profound lyrics with beautiful tones that are delicately ethereal yet brutally haunting.

There is a fine line trodden in A Dog Called Money’s exploitation of misfortune, with Harvey being the first to acknowledge her own privilege standing in expensive sandals in a house recently occupied by people who had to flee. Murphy is effective in his ability to establish Harvey’s intentions as not being commercially motivated, allowing the musician’s unassuming demeanour to carry through in front of the lens and not present her actions as something colonial.

Capturing the humanity of people living in war-torn and impoverished areas, A Dog Called Money is a conscientious and raw documentary that verges on visual album.

A Dog Called Money is also playing at the Revelation Film Festival Perth in July.

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The Kleptocrats

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Did you know The Wolf of Wall Street was funded by Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund? The Kleptocrats wants to make sure you never forget. This documentary on the ongoing, messy saga of 1MDB, the scheme that brought down Malaysia’s government and was so corrupt it could have made Hun Sen blush, is cleverly structured like a heist: the yellow titles even mimic Wolf of Wall Street.

The film is the product of years of investigative reporting by a motley crew of journalists, US Department of Justice lawsuits and persistent discontent from the Malaysian population. It must be the first film to lasso together the seemingly disparate worlds of the Hollywood entertainment industry and Southeast Asian crony politics. On the style front, it’s tremendously entertaining, flitting between the Cannes Film Festival and million-dollar Vegas parties (“I thought he was like Malaysian royalty, whatever that means,” drawls one entertainment promoter), and dominated by giddy overhead shots of New York and Kuala Lumpur.

A glance at the careers of directors Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking reveals much of their previous work has been on documenting white-collar crime, from jewellery theft to art fraud. The Kleptocrats glimmers on a surface level of personalities and intertextuality: it doesn’t have a lot of depth or thoroughness on a forensic level. An obvious drawback of that approach is that it privileges the voices of the investigative reporters who pursued and broke the story. The Malaysia material is touristy, with a few talking heads around the edges; virtually the only non-political voice comes from a student driven towards activism, and her presence is so fleeting as to feel like an afterthought. And who is Malaysia’s disgraced former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and what drove him? The film doesn’t offer any answers, even though it scores an interview with his brother, who you’d expect to be able to provide at least a few pointers.

Still, this is a story amply worthy of cinematic treatment, the outrageousness of the conspiracy outdone only by the clichéd way in which it was perpetrated.