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Cuckold (The Sydney Film Festival)

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Smanga (played by Cuckold’s director and writer, Charlie Vundla) has been living at the bottom of a bottle ever since his wife left him for another man. After losing his job as assistant professor at a prestigious South African university, he invites an old school friend, Jon (Louis Roux), to live with him in the hopes that Jon’s positive outlook will somehow rub off on him. When his wife, Laura (Terry Pheto), returns, Jon continues to live with the couple, and an unusual threesome blossoms.

And whilst Cuckold is ostensibly about a polyamorous relationship of sorts, the narrative is focused squarely on Smanga. Which is a problem, as Smanga is so deeply unlikeable that it’s hard to feel anything close to sympathy for him. When we first meet him, he punctuates his alcoholic stupor by firing off rounds into the bush, hiring callgirls, and watching aggressive porn on the internet. Rarely does he come across as someone that Laura would marry, let alone return to. Equally, Vundla’s flat performance doesn’t warm us to Smanga. We learn nothing about Jon and Laura that isn’t there to service the plot and place the film’s protagonist on a pedestal. We never get an understanding of why either of them would ever jump at the chance of being in a threesome with someone so utterly self-centred.

Vundla attacks his own film with a scattershot approach that sees story threads being picked up and dropped on a whim. Take for example, the films’ Breaking Bad moment when Smanga and Jon decide to deal marijuana to help pay the bills. It’s a subplot that infuriatingly goes nowhere and is completely forgotten about upon Laura’s return. There is, however, a small moment of restraint in the film’s closing moments that suggests that more focus from the director will reap better results. The film screens at The Sydney Film Festival as part of this year’s festival focus on South African cinema.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

 
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A Fish (The Sydney Film Festival)

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A university professor (Jang-Hoon Lee) runs out on his class when evidence about the whereabouts of his missing wife (So-Eun Choi) surfaces. Meeting with a private detective (Sun-Bim Kim), who takes a less than professional glee out of his client’s dilemma, he sets off for an island where the professor’s wife is now reportedly a shaman. When the professor arrives at his wife’s new home, he becomes reluctantly involved in a watery ritual that harks back to Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, and soon he finds himself struggling to make sense of his betrothed’s new life. Elsewhere, two men enjoying some male bonding over a session of fishing experience an existential crisis after a recently caught fish begins to beg for its life. This is A Fish, and it’s okay to be confused right now.

The feature length debut of South Korean director and writer Hong-Min Park is a confident and complicated piece that will certainly reward with repeat viewings. At first glance, A Fish tackles themes of loss and acceptance, and how grief can consume us. In one key scene, the professor breaks down into a childlike tantrum, begging for inclusion in his wife’s new life. Elsewhere, in the second, and admittedly weaker, story thread, the idea of belief and identity is brought to the forefront as the two fisherman struggle to remember what brought them to fish in the first place.

You’re invited to unpack what’s going on, and in doing so, the film washes over you, keeping you fully engaged whilst ensuring that you always stay at arm’s length. The director publicly sidestepped questions about the meaning of his film when it played at other festivals. And it’s understandable; exposing too much of the film’s secrets takes away the power of the mystery that the filmmaker has laid out.

Cuckold screens at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. To buy tickets to Cuckold, click here.

 
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Coconut Hero

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Mike Tyson wants to kill himself. No, not that Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson, the simple and sweet 16-year old misfit of Faintville. But when a malignant tumour is discovered in his brain, all Mike needs to do is wait. With a hook like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Coconut Hero was all doom and gloom, a barrage of misery about a suicidal teenager. But in a manner similar to last year’s Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, the film tackles a morbid subject in a light-hearted and quirky fashion. But unfortunately, in the end, what we get is a confused mix of genre and tone.

Directed by German-Israeli, Florian Cossen, Coconut Hero certainly has its fair share of effective moments. From Mike’s decidedly courteous efforts to save his mother the trouble of cleaning up in the event of a successful suicide attempt, or his testing of potential caskets like one would a mattress, the film imbues these instances with dry humour and wit. However, as the film progresses, and a potential love enters Mike’s life, Cossen lets it devolve into a clichéd, contrived, melodramatic mess, with a final 20 minutes excessively filled with obnoxious slow motion and stretches of silence.

The film is, however, filled with great performances. Alex Ozerov is endearing as the innocent and straightforward Mike, though it is never made abundantly clear exactly why the teenager wants to kill himself. Bea Santos charms as love interest, Miranda, while Sebastian Schipper and Krista Bridges do solid work in a hackneyed and unresolved subplot surrounding Mike’s warring parents. Surrounding them is an eccentric band of supporting characters, who provide many of the film’s highlights.

Coconut Hero will screen at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. For ticketing, venue, and session info, head to The Sydney Film Festival.

 
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Europe, She Loves

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This documentary from Swiss director, Jan Gassman, offers a startlingly intimate look at the daily struggles of a collection of twentysomething couples during a seemingly pivotal moment in Europe’s history.

Each of the film’s candidly depicted couples are at varied stages of their respective relationships. In Seville, Juan is desperate for a job while Caro is trying, and failing, to further her education; in Dublin, Siobhan and Terry fell in love with each other and with heroin, and, now sober, their relationship has hit a bizarre crossroads; Veronica and Harri are raising a blended family in Tallinn, and Veronica yearns for Harri to love the son she has from a previous relationship as much as the baby they have just had together; and finally in Thessaloniki, Penny and Niko are handling the breakdown of their long-term relationship, and Penny’s imminent move to Italy, with differing techniques to say the least.

The subjects’ ability to almost completely ignore the camera and live out their most vulnerable moments on screen is admirable. The backdrop to all this is Europe itself, and it’s obvious that Gassman’s intention was to make Europe, a continent in the midst of economic and social transformation, as prominent a character as the four young couples. But despite the use of archival footage and voice-over intended to provide context to the time in which these people are living in, it is the human struggles that are inherently more fascinating – in this film at least – than the cities in which they are occurring.

Europe, She Loves will screen at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from June 8-19. For ticketing, venue, and session info, head to The Sydney Film Festival.

 
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The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

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Directed by Ronald Neame, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie was the film which won Maggie Smith her first Oscar. And understandably so, as playing the fire haired flamboyant titular character, she speeds her way through daily life at the conservative school that she works for, Marcia Blaine For Girls. To her female colleagues, she is a confronting dichotomy to the school’s principles. To her male colleagues, she is something to lust after. To her students, whom she refers to as “Brodie’s girls”, she is inspiring, delightful, and someone to seek affection from. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she states boldly in her first scene, “and she is mine for life.”

Following the footsteps of four girls under her care, particularly from the point of view of studious Sandy (Pamela Franklin), their feelings for their daring teacher begin to change as they themselves begin to grow up. The once rambunctious one-liners that Miss Brodie would deal out to great mirth when they were younger, begin to sting as adolescence sets in. The fanciful gossiping that they shared about her relationship with the male teachers darkens when, as teenagers, she encourages them to flirt with one of her ex-lovers, played by Robert Stephens.

The film is as much about putting away childish things, as it is a portrait of an eccentric and often sad individual. As Jean Brodie, Smith is a powerhouse of romanticism, sly wit, political naivete and loneliness. She has built an “envious” lifestyle for herself upon the adulation of her students; for as soon as they grow up, there will be others to take their place. Smith was rightly commended for her performance, but Franklin must also be applauded, showing herself, even at the age of just sixteen, to be formidable in her final scenes with Smith.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will screen as part of David Stratton’s The 2nd Great Britain Retro Film Festival at The Hayden Orpheum in Sydney’s Cremorne, which runs from May 12-June 1. For full programme information, dates, tickets, and sessions, head to The Hayden Orpheum.

 
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The Ladykillers

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Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (Whiskey Galore!) and written by William Rose (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), The Ladykillers is one of the finest comedies to come out of Ealing Studios during its heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Despite being over 60 years old, it still resonates with modern audiences because of its exquisite performances and tar black sense of humour, even inspiring The Coen Brothers to a 2004 remake with Tom Hanks.

There are those who say that it’s Alec Guinness’ iconic performance as the nefarious “Professor” Marcus that makes this film so joyful. Rumoured to be an impersonation of critic, Kenneth Tynan, who once described the actor as being so “nondescript” that he could be a murderer, Guinness is gleefully monstrous as he takes up residence in the home of the sweet but prying Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), using it as a base of operations for he and his gang to plan the ultimate bank heist, whilst under the guise of middle class amateur musicians.

That said, to single out one person does a disservice to the whole, in what is really an ensemble piece that includes Peter Sellers’ teddy boy, Harry; Danny Green’s simplistic One-Shot; Herbert Lom’s surly Louis; and Cecil Parker’s cowardly Major. All of whom are held together by the glue that is Mrs. Wilberforce, who admonishes and dotes on her tenants like the sons she’s never had. The Ladykillers is a perfectly constructed piece of cinema composed of well-thought out dialogue and scenes – including a hilarious tea party where the men must play nice around Mrs. Wilberforce’s equally patience-testing friends; all of which culminates in the classic murderous finale. It’s a cliché to say that they don’t make films like this anymore, but with an experience like The Ladykillers, it’s hard to refute the suggestion.

The Ladykillers will screen as part of David Stratton’s The 2nd Great Britain Retro Film Festival at The Hayden Orpheum in Sydney’s Cremorne, which runs from May 12-June 1. For full programme information, dates, tickets, and sessions, head to The Hayden Orpheum.

 
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NotFilm

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“I’ve never quite trusted films about film,” says filmmaker, Ross Lipman, who with his new documentary has curiously attempted to create a film about film. The result is NotFilm, a two-hour plus deep dive into the only cinematic undertaking of acclaimed Irish writer, Samuel Beckett. Film, a simply-titled experimental film written by Beckett and, somewhat surprisingly, starring silent film actor, Buster Keaton, was released in 1965 at The Venice Film Festival to simultaneous acclaim, controversy, and confusion.

Throughout the documentary, Lipman explains that despite Beckett being hugely successful in his creative endeavours, when he set out to make Film, he in fact had very little knowledge of film production. He assembled what on paper appeared to be a super-team of talented people. First and foremost, there was Beckett himself, a writer so celebrated that he would go on to win The Nobel Prize for Literature four years after the release of Film; there was theatre director, Alan Schneider, who directed the 1956 American premiere of Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting For Godot; Boris Kaufman, a cinematographer who in 1954 won an Academy Award for his work on Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront; and finally Buster Keaton, a genius silent film actor, albeit one whose star had declined by the time Film was made. When it came time for them all to work together, the collaboration wasn’t as smooth as you would imagine. Beckett’s vision was singular and uncompromising, and the film itself, with a running time of just over 20 minutes, was seen by many as flawed. Keaton openly admitted that he didn’t understand the script, but accepted the role because he needed the money.

Lipman does a respectable job of making the inaccessible seem accessible, and his fascination with Beckett’s project and its place in cinematic history shines through. NotFilm is at its best when it is alluding to the many and varied production troubles that were encountered during the making of Film, and you can’t help but be intrigued by the relationships of the four aforementioned men involved. In its final third, the film strays more toward the bizarre and, at times, downright confusing structural aspects of Film, and leaves the viewer trying to decode the philosophical aspects of Beckett’s film that perhaps only he fully understood.

NotFilm will screen as part of Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now which runs from May 17-June 8. For full programme information, dates, tickets, venues, and sessions, head to Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now.

 
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The Keeping Room

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In the dying days of The American Civil War, three young women are forced to take up arms and defend both themselves and their property from a pair of Union soldiers, bent on violence and destruction. Directed by Daniel Barber, The Keeping Room is a bleak, brutal and solid entry into the revisionist Western genre.

The film is anchored by Brit Marling’s superb performance as Augusta, the tough yet loving older sister turned surrogate mother figure. Hailee Steinfeld, meanwhile, marks her third appearance in a western as younger sister, Louise, though this is not quite as impressive as her outstanding turn in The Coens Brothers’ 2010 film, True Grit. Instead of the proud and confident Mattie Ross, Louise is far more on the sullen side. Finally, Muna Otaru brings a stoic strength to the sisters’ dutiful slave, Mad.

Deliberately slow paced, and broken only by brief, explosive bouts of violence and blood shed, The Keeping Room doesn’t create the simmering tension that it is attempting to. Barber unfortunately lets the film dawdle too much, sapping its narrative thrust. That is, however, with the exception of a stand-out sequence in which the two Union renegades (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) besiege the trio’s house at night. Here, the slow, escalating dread works wonders, and will have you on the edge of your seat. The unconventional approach of heading a western with three female leads offers fertile ground to examine interesting ideas regarding women, the cruelty that they endure, and the breaking of their traditional roles and expectations. The Keeping Room does a good job of this. But when it hints at its most intriguing notion, the film ends, leaving a potentially fascinating avenue of exploration tragically untapped.

The Keeping Room will screen as part of Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now which runs from May 17-June 8. For full programme information, dates, tickets, venues, and sessions, head to Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now.

 
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The Bad Kids

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You can’t help but smile as the students and teachers of Black Rock High School line the corridors in applause. Another of their schoolmates has graduated. It’s a rare moment of joy amongst a seemingly endless barrage of hardships for the attendees of the Mojave Desert-based institution. Abusive and absent parents, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, and extreme poverty have left them with nowhere else to go.

However, as directors Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe set out to show in this sombre yet powerful documentary, there is hope yet. Headed by the optimistic and compassionate principal, Vonda Viland, Black Rock provides the troubled kids with a progressive and empathetic pathway to a high school diploma.

Taking an observational, vérité approach, Fulton and Pepe (who most famously made the Terry Gilliam doc, Lost In La Mancha) follow three of these kids in particular, detailing their individual struggles and successes. Doing so, the pair allow for lengthy periods where the camera lingers on its subject, providing much needed breathing room to contemplate the often disheartening realities of the students’ situations. A stand out sequence sees us gaze upon the crowded halls of the school, while a cacophony of voice-overs piles up – each another story of despair.

While undoubtedly affecting, one can’t help but wonder if the film might have been even better served had its focus been with the principal. Viland’s incessant selflessness is truly captivating, and yearns to be detailed further. At school before daybreak, she prepares for the day’s work, and then calls individual students to ensure their attendance and greets them as they step off the school bus. It’s moments like this that give the film its power, moments that suggest that despite a seemingly overwhelming tide of hardships and heartache for these kids, not all is lost. “This town swallows people up and brings them down,” explain Joey, one of the three main focuses of the film. The Bad Kids suggests that, perhaps, it doesn’t need to.

 

 
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GTFO

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GTFO is confronting, frightening and, at times, disheartening, yet it’s ultimately optimistic and needs to be seen. Directed and produced by Shannon Sun-Higginson, GTFO delves into the systematic and institutionalised discrimination and misogyny present in the video game world. From the perpetuating cycle of the gaming industry’s “boys’ club” and the sexualised and objectified presentation of the female form, to the shocking treatment of the female gamer online, Sun-Higginson crafts an intensely distressing portrait of life as a female gamer.

Yet despite what could easily have been a merciless crusade against wrongdoers is, instead, a surprisingly objective and balanced investigation into the root causes that result in such a culture. Assembling an array of casual and professional gamers, game designers, and creators, Sun-Higginson allows each to tell their story, providing valuable perspectives that are all too often silenced.

Beginning its life as a Kickstarter project, the film’s low budget hurts, but it’s by no means a barrier to achieving its goals. In fact, the film creatively and cleverly delights in its unsophisticated approach, at times utilising rudimentary gaming graphics to cheekily highlight the challenges facing female gamers.

What may outwardly appear as a depressing presentation of a haunting reality is, in fact, precisely where the value of the film lies, and this is something that should be celebrated. This documentary is, in the end, about starting a conversation, and a dialogue. It is about bringing awareness to something that so desperately needs it. As one commentator in the film says: “That’s where the human aspect comes in. If you can explain these more human stories, you can produce empathy, and if you can produce empathy, maybe then they will bend their ear and try and understand.”