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

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

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

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

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

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

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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.

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Australian, Festival, Review, short film, This Week Leave a Comment

Writer and director Nora Niasari’s taut and thought-provoking thriller Tâm vividly describes a young woman’s horrific experience as she wakes up into a literal nightmare.

It opens as its protagonist awakens in an alien and foreign hotel room, confused about the night before, trying to figure out how she got there. She’s still wearing the same dress she was wearing previously, having been clubbing the night before.

As she quickly starts to put the pieces together of where is she and how she got there, the reality of her situation begins to become apparent to Tâm and viewers.

As she grapples with her circumstances, the grimness of what she faces is plainly laid out.

This is the premise which begins the visceral short film Tâm, by Iranian-Australian filmmaker Nora Niasari.

Unvarnished in its depiction of the struggle endured by its principal character, whilst not shying away from the questions and ramifications this raises; Niasari’s film is an arresting portrait of a fearsome ordeal.

The film is also intensely executed and shot, giving it an atmosphere of terror and peril, which permeates the narrative.

Methodically photographed by Sherwin Akbarzadeh, who has collaborated with Niasari twice before on The Phoenix and Waterfall, the film is composed entirely of one shot – evoking the claustrophobic experience of its protagonist.

For much of the film, the camera is often focused tightly on Tâm’s eyes; the angst and dread in her face. That sense of fear is distilled in a honed performance by young actor on-the-rise Jillian Nguyen (Hungry Ghosts, the upcoming Loveland), encapsulating the titular character’s total panic and disbelief.

This is the fourth short film by the promising writer-director Niasari and it feels deeply linked to her previous work, which is more interested in empathising with characters and in social and political concerns than hollow, big stories and budgets.

Packing a timely punch from beginning to its intense and thought-provoking end, Tâm is an incisive and acute portrait of a harrowing encounter.

 Tâm is currently screening digitally at CinefestOz which runs from August 25 – 30, 2020. Tickets are available here.

The film has also been shortlisted in the 2020 AACTA Award Category for Best Short Film and is available to AACTA members for viewing and voting until September 14 2020

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Moon Rock For Monday

Festival, Review, This Week 5 Comments

There is a consistently fascinating tier of filmmaking at work in Australia: small features financed independently of the government funding bodies that boast an undeniably commercial streak, often working in genres that our bigger budgeted films seem to assiduously avoid. The likes of Watch The Sunset, The Taverna, Burning Kiss and more have all punched impressively above their weight, and another contender to add to this list is Moon Rock For Monday, which announces an exciting new cinematic voice in writer/director Kurt Martin, who blends the coming-of-age and criminals-on-the-run genres with a real sense of style and assurance.

Pre-teen Monday (Ashlyn Louden-Gamble) has a medical condition that will likely take her life before she hits sixteen. Her approach to life, however, is sunny and upbeat, but you can see the deep well of sadness that pulls at her protective, home-schooling father, Bob (Aaron Jeffery). Desperate for adventure, Monday falls easily into the orbit of reckless but inherently decent criminal, Tyler (George Pullar), whose impulsivity and poor instincts have seen a jewellery store robbery devolve into a cop killing, which has him on the run and racing against a very sharply ticking clock. Tyler and Monday share an instant sibling-style bond, and decide to light out for The Northern Territory. The detective brother (David Field) of the murdered cop, however, has other ideas, while the distraught Bob begins his own fraught journey to get his daughter back.

Anchored by two truly superb leading performances – first-timer Ashlyn Louden-Gamble is a revelation, while George Pullar (TV’s Playing For Keeps and Fighting Season) is a wonderfully loose-limbed, charismatic and authentic screen presence – Moon Rock For Monday is a beautifully shot road movie. It veers through poetically lensed locations and drops in on various oddball characters (Nicholas Hope and Clarence Ryan are amusingly out there), but never loses sight of the two lost souls at its core. Tyler and Monday are astutely drawn characters, and effortlessly draw audience sympathy, making the film’s impending sense of doom even more heartbreaking. You hold out hope that these two will make it, but the odds are well and truly stacked against them. It’s here that Moon Rock For Monday really sings: while its technical achievements are all top-notch, it’s the emotion that really kicks. Sad, funny, heartbreaking and true, Moon Rock For Monday won’t release you from its grip for days.