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United Skates (Brisbane International Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

For many, memories of skating rinks extend to gliding precariously around a well varnished floor to the sounds of the Top 40, whilst keeping one eye out for faster, bigger kids wanting to push you over. United Skates, the award-winning documentary from Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, will happily shatter your preconceived notions of what it is to skate.

Through the two filmmakers, we’re introduced to the concept of Adults Nights, evenings – often turning into mornings – where friends, family and strangers in the African American community get together and show off their moves. And what moves they are! Brown and Winkler capture truly spectacular acts, from ‘simple’ backwards skating through to numerous backflips and landing in the splits. That last one is called the nutcracker for obvious reasons.

However, it’s not all about watching annoyingly talented skaters, United Skates also highlights several issues that perhaps you wouldn’t imagine would be connected to this fun-loving world. Whilst skating is popular in the African American community, others are turning away. The land on which these rinks lie is being re-zoned to make way for wholesale stores who can afford the huge upturn in rent. One talking head within the film predicts that three rinks close in America every month. And as each one closes, it takes with it a community. In one of the film’s more emotional scenes, we witness the last night of one such rink, its patrons spilling out at the end of the night mourning as if having lost a friend. For some, this was a place where they went with their parents and where they took their children. This is history. If you didn’t think a documentary about roller-skating could make cry, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

From here, United Skates branches off into fascinating discussions which loop back to four wheels on shoes, such as the birth of hip hop, where Salt n Peppa, Dr Dre and Queen Latifah all made their names in rink-based gigs. The documentary’s more elderly subjects discuss their part in the civil rights movement and how their peaceful demonstrations simply to be allowed to skate with white people were met with fists thrown by surly, swastika carrying idiots. All of which sounds painfully relevant.

This brief dip into history may not satisfy those looking for more facts, but it does add weight to the stories of those we meet in the present day; highlighting why the skating rink is more than just a place to pass a pleasant afternoon. People like Felicia, who sees the rink as a way to keep her children off the streets. United Skates only touches upon why the rinks are being closed, but its insinuations are loud.

United Skates is an emotional film that will boil the blood. However, it is also a joyful celebration of a subculture many of us will not be familiar with.

Also playing at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney, between October 9 – 14, 2018




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Short Distance

Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

With the internet, social media apps and video calls, technology is certainly making it feel like the world is getting smaller. For those who are in long distance relationships, however, it can feel like the complete opposite. Marking his feature length debut, filmmaker Nic Barker explores the effects of a long distance relationship in this romantic drama.

Over the course of its brisk 60 minutes, Short Distance follows three couples whose relationship DNA has been altered by geography. Sensing his Queensland girlfriend is set to leave him, Max (Christopher Kay) sets up a romantic weekend when she comes to visit Melbourne. Meanwhile, Belinda (Gabrielle Savrone) seeks something hot and heavy when her partner’s constant travelling for work leaves her cold. Finally, and in perhaps one of the strongest tales in this trilogy, a young couple, played by Calista Fooks and Sam Macdonald, count down the hours until one of them must leave for greener pastures of employment in Perth. All of the tales will resonate with someone, but this last scenario manages to capture that bitter sweetness of two people plastering on brave faces when all they want to do is cry. Yeah, it gets emotional, people.

There’s a softness to Barker’s direction which does not mean he isn’t trying. Rather, it gives the film a dreamlike quality that adds to the suggestion that some of our lovers are sleepwalking through the motions in the hopes of maintaining the status quo. Waxing lyrical about trust, honesty and commitment, Barker’s screenplay is strong and shows off his background in short films; his short, Pint, having received a fair amount of praise.

Boiled down to their narrative bones, the three tales perhaps wouldn’t work indivually as features. However, mixed together and connected by a handful of characters, Short Distance successfully captures a snapshot of modern romance.

Watch Short Distance here for free.

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A change is as good as a rest for many, allowing us to step away from crushing stagnation of our supposedly dull lives. In Trench, the Melbourne mystery from Director Paul Anthony Nelson, the change is a whole new career and the stagnation comes in the form of the comedy circuit and toxic masculinity.

Marking Nelson’s feature debut, after several shorts for the independent company Cinema Viscera, Trench takes a blanket of film noir tropes and casts it over a modern Aussie cityscape. Trudging through this landscape is stand-up comedian Sam Slade (Samantha E. Hill) and writer Becky Holt (Perri Cummings, who also helped write Trench), two women trapped within their own lives. For Sam, this means shedding the shackles of her microphone and reinventing herself as a private detective, and Becky is going to be her first case.

Filmed in sumptuous black and white, Trench uses this initially simple premise to subvert the detective genre. Gone are the dames who teach you how to whistle, and being handy with your fists is no longer a suitable substitute for conversation skills. Investigating strange things happening in Becky’s flat, the progressive Sam crosses paths with the kind of arched brow, public face misogynists that have taken an unfortunate front seat in the current political climate. Ostensibly set up as interrogations for Sam to gather clues, Trench explores why these archetypes – from ‘ironic’ funny men to sleazy raconteurs in ‘negging’ – they do what they do, and in doing so, manages to flesh them into real people. It is, to be fair, only a light grilling, played mostly for laughs, but it is an interesting way to wrestle with this particular mindset.

For all its modernism, Trench is equally comfortable falling back on some good old fashioned storytelling; with the film’s denouement seeing the unmasked villain donning black gloves and detailing their masterplan like they’re in a Bond film. To some this might be a little played out, but it highlights Nelson’s desire to emulate cinema from the likes of Howard Hawks.

Whilst Cummings and Hill play well off each other, Sam’s picking apart of Becky’s life means we never really get to know much about our hero outside of being exceedingly broke. There are some lovely flourishes that show a Sherlock Holmes just simmering under her surface – using her deductive powers to blag free lattes – and it would have been interesting to see Sam apply more of the skills of her former trade to her new career.

When all is said and done though, Trench is a slick looking piece of independent cinema that mines laughs out of its premise, whilst biting its thumb at the kind of people who were never going to take a female detective seriously in the first place.

Melbourne’s Lido Cinemas is hosting a special Q&A screening of Trench tonight, May 17, 2018. Click through to book your seats

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Between Land and Sea

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In the Irish town of Lahinch, filmmaker Ross Whitaker finds a community of surfing enthusiasts drawn there because of the town’s craggy rocks and killer waves. The documentary follows these folks for 12 months, and sees how they keep their heads above water, recreationally and financially, when both are dependent on the country’s erratic seasons.

Signs the locals of Lahinch are a people who have to adapt comes in the film’s first shot; a sign at the front of a milkshake bar informs its patrons of its closure and that it’ll return in the summer. As grey clouds loom over, it’s obvious to most that there’s probably not much current demand for Coke spiders.

Whitaker meets a surf teacher whose very career choice relies on tourists, and whilst they can sort of hibernate for the winter, the summer means a lot. Which is why you will feel for them when the ‘sunny’ season does arrive, bringing with it miserable weather. During these times, Whitaker never plays up their stress – and it’s clear they are – instead choosing to focus on their pragmatic nature to muscle through the days.

And that’s what Between Land and Sea is about; like surfing itself, you must adapt and change to suit your environment. Whether it be the surf teachers, the charity swimmer who refuses to let his age affect his hobby, or Fergal Smith, the professional surfer who went full The Good Life and dived into organic farming. Narration free, Whitaker lets his subjects tell their stories and for the most part it’s engaging. Even if it never feels like Whitaker is really digging deep and that he may have missed an opportunity in not talking to Lahinch’s less sporty citizens, who may have something to say about this influx of outsiders.

Where Between Land and Sea really shines is through its cinematography and the way it captures the thrill of surfing. These scenes are the strongest parts of the documentary and manage to translate to non-surfers what makes the sport so intoxicating. Definitely worth a watch.