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Fursonas (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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The geek may very well be inheriting the earth right as we speak, going by box office receipts and cultural trends, but there are still many pockets of fandom that are a long, long way from mainstream acceptance. Dominic Rodriguez’s documentary, Fursonas, expanded from his earlier short film, sheds light on one of them, and the topic is right there in the title.

A “fursona” is an animal identity taken on by a “furry” – someone who is into dressing up as anthropomorphic animal. Furries are pretty much the bottom of the nerd totem pole, looked down upon and derided by even the sweatiest of Magic the Gathering players, but Rodriguez attempts to show us the human faces behind the cartoon masks. There’s the guy who discovered his predilection in a flash of insight when he performed as a football mascot, the woman who wonders if her daughter will follow her into furry fandom, the guy obsessed with the early ’80s family TV show Here’s Boomer, and more.

And yeah, there are the people who are into the furry scene for sexual purposes, and that’s where the squick factor may kick in for viewers whose experiences of outre sexuality don’t go much beyond Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a lot of kink in the furry community, but the abstract knowledge of that fact may not stop your eyebrows from raising when you see the handiwork of sex toy manufacturer, Bad Dragon, who helps make furries “fully equipped” for after hours activities.

Where the film gets bogged down is in its investigations of the often fractious internal politics of the furry world, which seem to centre on the figure of Uncle Kage, runner of furry convention AnthroCon and self-appointed arbiter of the furry community and its interactions with the media. Kage is extremely protective of furry-doms image to the point of socially shunning furries who go against his wishes (our man Boomer earns his ire for a variety of reasons). What perhaps should have been a brief side excursion takes up far too much time, and for the uninitiated it’s pretty impenetrable stuff.

Which brings us to the key question: who is Fursonas for? Members of the furry community surely don’t need the Furry 101 explanations of the film’s first half (although a little balanced representation is a good thing) , while non-furries may be baffled or even bored by the minutiae of their social jostling. It’s definitely worth your time – if nothing else it’s a good litmus test of how accepting you really are – but its thesis is obscure and it’s perhaps not the definitive statement it could have been.

 
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Art of the Prank (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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You may not know Joey Skaggs, but odds are good you’ve come across his work, whether you knew it at the time or not. The irreverent art prankster has been doing his thing for decades now, sticking his middle finger up at the mainstream and the media through a series of audacious performances that blur the the line between political act and public nuisance. Director Andrea Marini builds a broad look at Skaggs’ life and career around his latest project, a fake documentary designed to provoke reactions to issues concerning genetically modified crops,the military-industrial complex and Hawaiian sovereignty (Skaggs likes to spread a wide net). But is there space for a guy like Skaggs to operate in the 21st century, where the online world makes fact-checking so quick and easy?

Well, yes, to be blunt – we’re just as credulous as we ever were, and the voracious content demands of the 24 hour news cycle means that due diligence is often abandoned in favour of timeliness – fertile ground for Skaggs, who since the late 1960s has convinced all manner of highly respected news organisations the veracity of such oddball ephemera as brothels for dogs, a celebrity sperm auction, and a portable confession booth for political delegates too busy to go to church. He does all this with the help of a small army of volunteer co-conspirators – writers, artists and actors who share his disdain for the middle of the road. Martini interviews a number of these, many of whom have worked with Skaggs for years and profess undying loyalty to their leader, noting that any journey with Skaggs, no matter how absurd the central conceit, is an adventure into creativity, comedy and anarchy.

Marini approaches Skaggs’ irreverence with reverence, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it all. Skaggs himself comes across as an affably angry individual who is fighting back against what he sees as pervasive institutional evil and corruption with the tools at his disposal, a hippie Quixote hoaxing monolithic media windmills. There are hints of dissatisfaction here and there – Skaggs, long a resident of New York and Hawaii, now lives in Kentucky for family reasons and is none too happy about it – but the film by and large prefers to lionise.

And why not? After decades working under various noms de guerre to further his plots, Joey Skaggs deserves a little time in the sun, and Art of the Prank is a fitting tribute.

 
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NotFilm (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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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.

 
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Chemsex (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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This gruelling documentary by William Fairman and Max Gogarty takes a look at the impact of “party” drugs (notably crystal meth and GHB) on the sexual lives of gay men in the UK. Arguably a promotional vehicle for the work done by 56 Dean St, a sexual-health outreach centre in the heart of London, it is a provocative, often shocking exposé about a “new norm.”

Talking to perceptions around happily coupled gay men and drugged up party boys, Australian health-worker, David Stuart, is emphatic that “there are no ‘good’ gays and ‘bad’ gays. It’s not binary.” His mission is to help people escape an addiction that he believes is consuming (decimating?) the community. This unflinching documentary would support that belief as we’re taken into basements, bedrooms, and bars across London to watch intravenous drug use and weekend-long sex parties first hand. It’s not for the squeamish. Out in the world, those same men – some psychotic, some suicidal – talk about the physical and mental health impacts that chemsex has had on their lives. Stuart is a voice of reason that puts balance to these distressing interviews.

Excellent production values and the unfiltered honesty of the documentary’s participants sets Chemsex apart. It asks big questions – notably, why? – for which there are no easy answers. Not that it pretends that there would be. This isn’t a self-help guide, but a discussion starter for a conversation that few people are willing to have. Fairman and Gogarty don’t pass judgement: Chemsex simply offers a glimpse into an otherwise hidden sub-culture of men in danger of killing themselves. Stuart argues that they’re not “greedy, promiscuous, self-indulgent gay boys”, but a generation of self-medicating men emerging from trauma. It’s a serious problem about which no one seems to care.

 
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REVIEW: Swiss Army Man (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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Film critics love it when movies have off-the-wall, absurdist plots like Swiss Army Man. It gives the writer license to make glib, hacky bon mots like, “If you only see one curiously uplifting, farting Harry Potter corpse movie this year… make sure it’s this one!” In the case of Swiss Army Man, however, there is pleasure beyond the premise, and depth that belies the absurdity.

The film opens as Hank (Paul Dano), marooned on a deserted island and desperately alone, prepares to hang himself. Just as he attempts to do so (poorly), a corpse, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), washes up on the beach and begins farting. He farts an awful lot. Propulsively so. Within five minutes of fart-based awkwardness, Hank rides Manny’s bottom-burping body like a human jet ski to escape the island and launch into further adventures.

This all happens before the opening title card, so as you’re watching the movie, you’re thinking, “Sure, that’s funny and weird, but where do they go from here?” Without spoiling what occurs later in the piece, quite a lot happens, and it’s strangely moving and occasionally wonderful. Manny has many useful, supernatural abilities, and as Hank makes his way through the woods, searching for civilisation, he even begins to talk. The conversations between Hank and Manny make up the heart of Swiss Army Man, as Manny’s innocent queries about life, death, love, masturbation, and farts all have a whimsically allegorical quality without becoming overly twee or heavy-handed.

The performances from both leads are superb, which helps lend gravitas to the more bizarre occurrences. Dano, in particular, does some of his finest work, at times sympathetic or just plain pathetic, but always likeable. Radcliffe takes a huge risk with this role, and it pays off: Manny is an inspired performance and an unforgettable character. Helping the tone of farty fairy tale fun are directors, Daniels – Scheinert and Kwan – who keep the pace energetic and the tone buoyant. Swiss Army Man doesn’t so much embrace absurdity as it takes absurdity behind the bike sheds and pashes it for 95 solid minutes. It’s a slight but utterly compelling tale that charms and surprises in equal measure. So when we say the following, understand that we mean it sincerely and without irony: If you only see one curiously uplifting, farting Harry Potter corpse movie this year… make sure it’s Swiss Army Man.

 
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The Yard (The Scandinavian Film Festival)

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After deriding his own book via his position as a literary critic, the unnamed protagonist at the centre of The Yard is, understandably, dismissed. Now, forced to take up a position within the menial and machine-like entity of a car import yard, a role mockingly labeled as an “immigrant job”, where workers’ names are merely the numbers that they were assigned, he is faced with increasingly tempting moral quandaries and bouts of misfortune. What results is a terrific examination of the challenges in maintaining one’s integrity and dignity in the face of the corporate mandate.

Directed by Måns Månsson and adapted from the novel of the same name by Kristian Lundberg, The Yard is a character piece at heart. Anders Mossling, a long serving figure in Swedish theatre, is key to this and the film’s success, bringing a sympathetic and world weary quality to the single father, resigned to reading extracts of his poetry to single figure audiences and scattered applause, and eventually designated with the name ‘11811’.

But the film is far from all doom and gloom, with Månsson injecting much needed levity via a number of darkly comedic moments. These droll interludes help to assuage the film’s measured pacing. Månsson portrays the existence of our protagonist and the migrant workers with mundanity and monotony. Cinematographer, Ita Zbroniec-Zajt’s cool, naturalistic images simultaneously generate empathy and, ironically, a feeling of alienation. Complementing the brilliant visuals is the equally affecting sound design. Stark by most standards, the austere audio cues are nonetheless decidedly impactful.

 
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The Wave (The Scandinavian Film Festival)

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Norway is perhaps not the first country that thoughts travel to when the subject of disaster movies is brought up. Often we think of the blockbuster behemoths of America, ploughing through multiplexes, taking with them any and all national landmarks that may happen to be in the way. In The Wave, directed by Roar Uthaug, the narrative is steered away from big cities, like LA and New York, and focuses instead on the small Norwegian village of Geiranger.

In real life, Geiranger is under constant threat of a nearby mountain eroding into a fjord on the edge of which the village sits, resulting in a catastrophic tsunami. And it’s this threat of imminent disaster that makes up the main danger of the film, as geologist, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), tries to convince his team and, indeed, the entire village that the mountain is likely to erode sooner rather than later. Of course, like any good disaster flick, Kristian is absolutely right in his hypothesis, and the village is soon caught in the shadow of a roaring tsunami.

Being the kind of film that it is, The Wave dabbles in the deaths of unlucky bystanders by CGI waves, but the events still remain surprisingly emotional, which can be traced back to the film’s more intimate setting. When the villagers help each other out during the crisis, there’s a true sense of community under pressure, which you perhaps wouldn’t get if the narrative was moved to a buzzing metropolis. Away from the trappings of Hollywood tropes, The Wave works so well because of its firm focus on Kristian and his family before, during and after the disaster, sharing enough time with each them that it’s not hard to become protective when things start getting a little tense and wet.

 
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The Idealist (The Scandinavian Film Festival)

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Decades on from a disaster which saw an American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crash near Thule Air Base in Greenland, young, hot-shot radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg), uncovers evidence of a conspiracy. With dozens involved in the clean-up operation potentially left with devastating defects, Brink embarks on a dogged crusade against those seeking to hide the truth. Based on true events, The Idealist is a passable, if slightly underwhelming entry into the political thriller genre.

Directed and co-written by Christina Rosendahl, The Idealist attempts to cover a lot within its runtime. Spanning a number of years and interspersed with a good deal of archival footage, the film moves at a breakneck pace in its efforts to detail it all. Unfortunately, and quite unexpectedly, this fixation on the story leaves the man at the centre of it all – the idealist – dreadfully under developed. What we’re left with is a film much more concerned with events than the characters caught up in them. Additionally, those events depicted are not the most gripping in the traditional thriller sense, leading to a film lacking in any real menace or threat.

Nevertheless, the story is interesting enough, and Peter Plaugborg is solid as the tenacious, if somewhat naïve, investigative journalist at the centre of it all. An exploration into governmental corruption and cover-ups, and the little man fighting against it, The Idealist is by no means original, but is done within a context that many will be unfamiliar with, making it worth a watch. It’s a shame, however, that a more dynamic presentation wasn’t employed. What we get feels more akin to a telemovie than a feature film.

 
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Gold Coast (The Scandinavian Film Festival)

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Gold Coast follows a Danish botanist (Jakob Oftebro) in 1836 who travels to Africa to coordinate the royal plantations, only to discover the true nature of his country’s slave trade on the continent. This is no Surfer’s Paradise – here, Gold Coast refers to the colonies controlled by Denmark during the 1800s, in what is now modern-day Ghana.

Norwegian actor, Jakob Oftebro, plays the idealistic Wulff Frederik Wulff, who leaves his fiancée (Luise Skov) behind in Denmark to work in Africa. He forms a close bond with his young personal slave, Lumpa (John Aggrey), and the other slaves, whom he ultimately wishes to give the plantation to.

The race politics and Denmark’s position within Africa is fascinating subject matter, as Danish law had abolished the slave trade years before the film is set, yet quickly the audience is exposed to its true brutality. Despite poignantly addressing the issues of slavery and racism, the film takes a few irrelevant tangents – an alcohol-fuelled dream sequence; a preachy monologue about the nature of life and death – which dilute its powerful central story. Ultimately, Gold Coast feels like two different films, which could have ended with its second act, which is filled with action, a thrilling shoot-out, and an intriguing twist.

 
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Absolution (The Scandinavian Film Festival)

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Two women’s lives dovetail after a serious accident in this Finnish drama from Petri Kotwica (Black Ice). Starting with a disjointed narrative that settles down once introductions are made, the film sees a heavily pregnant woman, Kiia (Laura Birn), go into labour whilst driving her pastor husband home from a wedding. Speeding through the night, she strikes something with their car, but under the guidance of her husband, Lauri (Eero Aho), who claims that it was a deer, she continues on their way to the hospital. Unbeknownst to Kiia, she has in fact hit the husband of Hanna (Mari Rantaila), who witnesses the car pulling away but not who was in it. When Kiia finds out the truth of what happened that night, she sets about trying to absolve her sin by making friends with Hanna at the hospital, lavishing her with gifts and money, but never letting her know what she’s done.

Absolution is a thematically heavy film that not only looks at forgiveness, but also, perhaps unsurprisingly, at religion and its potential to be used as a quick fix to get one out of any moral maze. In one key moment, pressure mounts as the police become involved, and Kiia’s husband remains so defiant that he did the right thing that she starts to believe it herself. Whilst heartbreakingly, Hanna, still unware of what her friend has done, is just grateful to have some kind of support during troubled times.

All three leads are frankly superb, whilst Kotwica never knowingly allows them to stumble into melodramatic territory. A third act revelation, however, sparks a violent act and further conflict, leading to an ending that doesn’t quite stick, which will be a problem for those who will have already decided who should be forgiven and who should not.