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Vanessa Gazy: Highway to the Top

With her latest short, Shiloh, having just screened at MIFF and her first feature receiving development funds from Screen Australia, we check in with fast-rising filmmaker Vanessa Gazy.
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Under the Cover of Cloud (Brisbane International Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Test cricket is not always fast, quick or simple. Neither is returning to your home in Hobart. And neither is deciding what to do with the rest of your life. This is the possible line of thinking that may have engendered Ted Wilson’s impressive feature directing debut Under the Cover of Cloud.

Droll Ted Wilson has just lost his job writing a column for a travel magazine in Melbourne. A loyal Tasmanian and mad cricketing enthusiast, he cruises back to Hobart to visit his family, take in some bands, and try to decide what to do next; top of the list is to meet his hero David Boon, and to write a book about cricket that is more ‘literary’ than statistical.

This, in a nutshell, is the story. The film does not have a traditional plot. It is through minutes of talking endlessly about trees with his mother, low-key smiles and family meals, that his eternal light ‘Boonie’ presents himself almost by coincidence, without explanation. This allows Ted the intervention he was seeking. Although Ted revels in meeting his cricketing idol, the meeting doesn’t transform him. He goes back to Melbourne.

What is impressive about this first effort from Wilson is that so much is wrangled in so little, and it is in large swathes, a film about family, with the director’s actual family mostly making up the cast. Plot doesn’t matter.

The film was shot in 2016 with no backing or funding, with Wilson financing the entire film himself, using his own relatives, whittling down the running time from an original 15 hours. The territory is autobiographical, Cassavetes-like.

Working against the grain of rapidly-edited films and plot-driven stories, this is more about interactions, smiles, gentle exchanges. There are no plot twists. No plot.

One of the largest scenes is a conversation between Wilson and his mother, on how to deal with a problematic tree, among other subjects.

Wilson, who has cited Jarmusch and Ozu as references, and toyed with making the film similar in rhythm to a Test Cricket match, stated that the goal was to make an Australian film about people rather than landscapes. Here, he has made a meditation that is slow but steady; it’s about ambling along, surprising encounters, and family lunches.

Languidly paced, self-aware, and charming, like an engrossing Test Match even; Under the Cover of Cloud is a measured delight.

 

 
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Acute Misfortune (Brisbane International Film Festival and Adelaide Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Acute Misfortune tells the story of the later years of Archibald-Prize winning artist Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall, Snowtown, The Babadook), as chronicled by reporter Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace).

Cullen’s works have represented Australia all over the world. At 42 years old, he was the subject of a comprehensive career retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 – 4 years before his death in 2012.

Jensen was not yet 16 when he first got into journalism, going on to become the youngest news journalist to join the Sydney Morning Herald in two decades in 2007.

Based on his penned account, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, the film picks up in 2008, when the 19 year-old is invited to interview the divisive Cullen at his house in the Blue Mountains. Off that article, Cullen handpicked the fresh-faced aspirant to write his life story for a book commissioned by publisher Thames and Hudson – a deal, it turned out, never existed, one that was entirely made up by Cullen. In spite of the fact it became clear no manuscript was commissioned, Jensen spent four years on and off writing the book.

Cullen, depicted in the film, is a man who compares himself to Ned Kelly, and idolises David Wenham’s iconic performance of a Western Sydney suburbs hood in the 1998 film The Boys. (One of Cullen’s most famous pieces is a painting of Wenham.)

Cullen sits in his lounge chair, watching Wenham’s thug call himself a God, uttering “Wenho, Wenho, Wenho”, as Wenham grimly tars a cigarette on the car window. (The Boys producer Robert Connolly is heavily involved with Acute Misfortune.)

The comparison is apt. Here is another figure who lives by his own rules and vices.

Jensen is lured into the artist’s vacuum, moulded and exposed to Cullen’s literal and figurative nakedness. There is a scene where the painter arrives home at 1am, standing outside Jensen’s room, nude.

What follows is a strange, intense, dangerous relationship between the two, bordering on obsession; as the bright-eyed correspondent experiences skinned rabbits, drugs, being shot… Jensen is bruised, beaten up, pushed off a horse, continually threatened with his life – yet still, he sticks around Cullen’s house to get the story.

The performances are notable. Daniel Henshall, in particular, gives a lived-in portrayal, completely exhibiting madness and capriciousness.

The compositions of the film are arresting. Figures enter the frame, and dissipate. The photography by cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking ratchets up intensity. Shots of the Blue Mountains, where Cullen resided, vividly enhance the backdrop to the madness. Many scenes capture simple shapes, dots, figures.

Thomas M. Wright, an acclaimed actor (Top Of The Lake, The Bridge, Sweet Country), and co-founder of stage company The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, makes an impressive feature directing debut with the film. Not a standard, conventional biopic, Wright wisely chooses a poetic approach, interpreting moments and elements rather than taking a traditional route. It is more of a mosaic. The result is all the more fitting.

Written in collaboration by author Jensen and Wright, this is a film that, like The Boys, is not a pretty or beautiful portrait. Much of Adam Cullen’s behaviour is repulsive, and there are scenes of violence. But the way the ugliness is captured is striking, matching Cullen’s art.

A thought-provoking work executed powerfully, Acute Misfortune is an artistic, no holds barred depiction of madness.

Also screening at the Adelaide Film Festival, October 10 – 21, 2018

 

 
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Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (Melbourne International Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?

For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.

Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.

It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.

However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.

The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.

The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.

 
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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Melbourne International Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

11 year-old Mexican Estrella (Paola Lara) finds herself living on the street when her mother is kidnapped by the terrifying Huascas criminal gang. She is soon taken in by a gang of homeless young boys, but their lives come into peril when one of the boys impulsively steals a gangster’s mobile telephone and handgun. With the Huascas now hunting the children down, Estrella’s only hope may be her mother’s ghostly voice whispering in her ear.

The bleak lives of children orphaned by Mexican gangs collide with supernatural horror in Issa López’s confident and boldly directed Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film has already gathered widespread acclaim at film festivals around the world, as well as comparisons between López and fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. It’s an easy comparison to make: not only for their country of origin, but their manner of tackling human emotions via allegory. Here, the dozens of victims of a runaway criminal gang literally haunt the streets. The lives lost are visible, and they beg Estrella to avenge them. It is an uncertain haunting, however: are the ghosts real, or are they only in Estrella’s mind? Does she really have three wishes, or do her desires coincidentally align with real events? López plays her cards very close to her chest in answering that question.

Where López differs from Del Toro is in the much grittier and realistic world that the supernatural invades. Unlike Del Toro’s baroque environments and lyrical photography, López utilises a bleak and naturalistic aesthetic. Her ghosts are rotten cadavers. The environment is broken-down and unpopulated. It is a distinctive look that, when paired with the film’s urgent pace, makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a particularly original and effective slice of urban horror.

The representation of the dead is one of the film’s strongest assets. They are barely seen, most often represented as a soft voice and a thin stream of blood that follows Estrella along floors and walls. When they are more directly seen, they have a visceral impact. At the same time, some of the non-supernatural events provide the stronger horror. The gangsters mean business when tracking down the children, and not every child necessarily emerges safely by the film’s end.

López has found an exceptional juvenile cast for her film. As Estrella, Paola Lara delivers a superb protagonist and combines grit and vulnerability. The real highlight, however, is Juan Ramón López as “Shine”, the de facto leader of the abandoned children. Despite his young age, he shows off exceptional bravado in leading his friends. When Estrella joins the group, he is immediately resentful and makes certain she knows his feelings about her. It is a great performance, packed with resentment and a cocky front, and Ramón López is quite simply superb. Shine does not simply act as a leader either; he is effectively acting as father to his three younger friends – and particularly to the vulnerable Morro (Ney Arredondo), a traumatised four-year-old who wanders the streets tightly clutching a tiger soft toy. With Estrella’s arrival, the Peter Pan and Wendy comparisons become obvious.

Short, sharp and to the point, Tigers Are Not Afraid is an excellent work of supernatural horror with a distinctive setting and an uncompromising story. It is packed with powerful imagery. It does sensational work with a juvenile cast. It deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

 
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Climax

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Not enough people are going to talk about the dancing, but we will get to that shortly.

French film provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with what feels – at least on the first viewing – as the strongest feature he has directed to date. Climax does not deviate too far from his earlier works such as Love, Enter the Void and particularly his 2002 film Irreversible, but it certainly showcases how much his technique has been refined. Noé has always pushed boundaries of mainstream taste. His various scenes of graphic violence or sexual activity have earned him a reputation for controversy, and the discomfort created in those scenes leave his audience at a queasy crossroads between shock, inappropriate laughter – even anger at the director himself. He exploits an audience’s prurience and its desire to rubber-neck violence, and punishes those desires by lingering on them to interminable lengths. Then he will perversely break the horror with an absurd moment of levity and fool the viewers into lining up to be horrified again.

The remarkable part is that Noé only needs to present something horrifying a few times for the audience’s paranoia to do the rest of the job for him. One spends much of Climax in a state of constant rising dread. It is a hugely uncomfortable place to be. The film is enormously uncomfortable and tense. In one middle sequence, you feel actively nauseous. For a film to generate such a physical response in the viewer is a remarkable achievement. Most viewers likely will not enjoy it. Some will probably object to its having ever been made at all. For those with an interest at just how far motion pictures can affect the viewer, Climax is the best horror film of 2018 to date.

Climax features a group of contemporary dancers who have been assembled to perform on an American tour. In an isolated school building in the winter, they rehearse their collaborative work. Then they party, dancing and chatting late into the night while getting drunk on home-made sangria. The sangria has been spiked – whether with LSD or some other narcotic nobody knows – and trapped inside the building the party begins to go horrifyingly out of control.

The film is divided into two halves. The second, in which the drugs take effect and the paranoia sets in, is easily the half that everybody is going to talk about. The first, which kicks off with a series of interviews with the characters and centres on a bravura 15-minute dance sequence, is utterly remarkable and deserves as much praise as it can get. It is not just exceptionally performed, with choreography by Nina McNeely, it is also beautifully shot by regular Noé cinematographer Benoît Debie. It makes you long for the idea of a fully-fledged Gaspar Noé musical. It also does a tremendous job of developing the unexpectedly large ensemble cast; a process that continues with a sharply contrasting series of rapid-cut conversations between the characters as they party.

A second dance sequence, strikingly shot from above, cleverly shows the spiked sangria taking effect. The moves become more sexual and aggressive. The mood turns ever-so-slightly threatening. From here, the film descends headlong into a familiar Noé-esque Hell, in which the lightning changes to garish primary colours and the camera starts to pitch and yaw in a queasy fashion. The characters realise they’ve been drugged. Some sink into dream-like stupors. Others get angry – very angry – and for the two dancers that did not drink the sangria, the hunt for the one who spiked the drinks becomes genuinely terrifying. It is not the violence that makes Climax a harrowing experience, it is the potential for that violence. Every character becomes a potential victim, every character a potential assailant. As each shock incident assaults the viewer he or she becomes just as paranoid as the characters, imagining with every moment every potentially horrifying thing that might occur. Some of them do. Others come out of the blue. All of them arc up the harrowing, terrifying nightmare that is beginning to unfold. It is inescapable, unstoppable, and so seemingly unending that it begins to have a genuine physical effect on the viewer.

Climax is a film with niche appeal. It is unapologetic and pulls no punches. For many viewers it will be actively repellent, and even physically upsetting. When reviewing a film, however, there are always three key questions to keep in mind: (a) what is the director attempting to do, (b) do they succeed, and (c) is it well made? With Climax the answer to all three is a resolute ‘yes’. It is not just great at what it does; it is a provocative masterpiece.