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Brand New Testament

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If asked to picture God, most of us would conjure up images of a charismatic Morgan Freeman or a cantankerous Graham Chapman peeking out from behind a cloud to berate King Arthur. Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film, The Brand New Testament, challenges this by positioning God (portrayed with detestable aplomb by Benoit Poelvoorde) as a Belgian slob with anger management issues – and an unquenchable desire to see humanity suffer.

Dissatisfied with her father’s uncaring and cruel lordship over the Earth, Ea (portrayed by the superb Pili Groyne) takes matters into her own hands; she sabotages his outfit, recruits a handful of apostles, and sets about penning a “brand new testament” for the people of Brussels to live by.

The morbid humour and morose aesthetic may feel a million miles away from the sunny Garden Of Eden, but a deft screenplay from Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig finds room to inject gentle flecks of hope. The string of encounters (or “gospels”) that follow Ea’s flight into the world showcase the length and breadth of Van Dormael’s proclivity for mixing touching human stories with absurdist comedy and abstract visual metaphors. Whether it’s a life-long sex pest (Serge Larivière) pining after a childhood crush, or a bored housewife (Catherine Deneuve) committing adultery with a gorilla, Van Dormael’s eye for the unsettling and the striking never fails to disappoint.

The meandering second act might test the patience, but a sweet seaside finale sees everything tie together for a touching and suitably strange conclusion. The central message – what would you do if you knew the hour of your death? – is delivered in rousing fashion. If you can wrap your head around Van Dormael’s surrealist imagination, you’ll find a confounding and uplifting tale of love, compassion, and morality.

 
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Naz & Maalik

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Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) are a couple of teenage kids with their sights set on college. They spend their days at school and their afternoons fund-raising on the streets of Brooklyn, selling lotto tickets, trading cards, and anything that could earn them a little extra cash. Being black in Brooklyn doesn’t draw attention, but being Muslim does, most notably from the new FBI officer on the block, who starts trailing the young men. So starts this gentle coming-of-age tale which harkens back to indie films of the early nineties with its gentle pace and guerrilla spirit. It’s coupled to a stripped down, trip-hop soundtrack that makes an evocative pairing with the unpretentious urban landscapes in which the story unfolds. This oozes laidback cool as the film goes about its business, ticking off social issues without making them the focus of the narrative.

Stepping up the action is racial profiling by the FBI, a line of enquiry which exposes a secret that Naz and Maalik had hoped to keep to themselves. In fact, the film is in no hurry to confirm their relationship with the audience either, to its credit. This isn’t the kind of film that screams GAY from the outset, and speaks to a new generation of filmmakers for whom sexuality is just part of the story, and not the story.

Naz & Maalik is the first feature from writer/director, Jay Dockendorf, whose film, as charming as it is, rides on the charisma of his leads. They’re very appealing company, and they help us through the more abstract, meandering moments of Dockendorf’s story. Add a sidebar of New York crazies who inhabit the margins, streets, and subways, and you’ve got a compelling day in the life of Brooklyn.

 
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Departure

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Coming-of-age tales generally come in one flavour – charming. There might be angst along the way, and a couple of sensual diversions, but for the most part, they’re wrapped up in a bow. First-timer, Andrew Steggall, sees it differently, and Departure is a very different kind of film. Although framed, paced, and shot in a classical three-act style, it is the rewarding drama that gets heavier and heavier as it runs toward the end which makes this such a challenging – but highly captivating – film.

In the south of France, teenaged Elliot (Alex Lawther) is helping his mother, Beatrice (Juliette Stevenson), empty their holiday home after his parents’ divorce. Beatrice’s increasing sadness is exacerbated when Elliot befriends a local boy, Clément (Phenix Brossard). Their friendship leaves her even more isolated. It’s here that Departure becomes particularly interesting, as Steggall plays mother and son against one another, not in a combative way, but as two people about to walk into a new world: mother as a single woman, and Elliot as a gay man. They’re both coming-of-age, but for Elliot, the greatest challenge is not about being gay – he seems pretty comfortable with that – but in handling his crush on Clément. This is uncharted territory.

As a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the always excellent Stevenson is, well, truly excellent. She has just the right measure of a person being torn apart by the need to be a mother and carer while she’s losing her identity as a wife and mentor. It’s heart-breaking stuff. Lawther is no slouch either, and is a strong, appealing presence in what is ostensibly the film’s lead role. Add the moody elegance of Brian Fawcett’s cinematography, and you have a very rewarding film. Heavy, certainly, but rewarding. Charming even.

 
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Chemsex

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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 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 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 there would be. This isn’t a self-help guide but a discussion starter for a conversation 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.

Ticket information here and trailer below.

 
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Scare Campaign

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Back in 2012, The Cairnes Brothers brought us the grisly horror comedy 100 Bloody Acres, which did nothing for relations between farmers and tourists. And now they’re back for more scares albeit with a decidedly more severe tone in Scare Campaign.

Scare Campaign, within the film, is the biggest prank show in Australia and for the last five years its director (Ian Meadows) and his team have been scaring the bejesus out of unsuspecting stooges. Faced with cancellation for no longer being relevant, the production team, including jobbing actress Emma (Meegan Warner) decide on one last hurrah that will put the show back in the public consciousness. Setting themselves up in an abandoned hospital, things descend into a bloodbath when their latest victim turns out not to be who he seems.

Scare Campaign is a dark labyrinth of a movie that subverts the standard slasher formula. The Cairnes Brothers have evidently had a lot of fun twisting their story into knots and keeping their audience on its toes, with the dark corridors of the hospital acting as a perfect stage for their mayhem. Equally, there appears to be, if not so much a yearn for the horror movies of yore, at least an acknowledgement of their influence on modern horror and what makes them classics. ‘You need more than blood and gore if you want to be remembered’ the director cries out at one point.

Modern horror, after all, can swing heavily in favour of bloodshed over storytelling; a visceral thrill for the audience before they catch the bus home. The filmmaking brothers try to recapture that balance; even as heads fly and rooms are filled with screams, they want to keep you guessing. A suitable contrast to their previous work, Scare Campaign is a hefty slab of Aussie horror that fans will lap up.

Scare Campaign is screening on February 14 (an “anti-Valentine” alternative!) at various cinemas and at the Gold Coast Film Festival in April.

 
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Whoever Was Using This Bed

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Like Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver made a career out of impeccable miniatures; short, self-contained stories wherein impact belies length. Anyone who ever sat down to write a short-story knows the challenge of economy. The succinct condensation of ideas to their minimum is a difficult art which typically goes against the nature of the writer whose instinct is to use everything and waste nothing.

All this bears similarly on film, and particularly in its short form. Typically, films based on short stories tend to embellish their source; sometimes necessarily; sometimes to the point where resemblance with the source becomes mostly incidental.

Whoever Was Using This Bed is a twenty-one minute short film by Andrew Kotatko based on the Raymond Carver story of the same title.

Jean-Marc Barr and Radha Mitchell play a neurotic middle aged couple whose marital malaise is interrupted only by a mysterious telephone caller (Jane Birkin). While Barr is both ashamed and excited in his response, Mitchell, whose outward reaction is jealously, seems peculiarly relieved by the interruption of monotony. Once they unplug the phone and remove their disturbance, this dialogue quickly devolves to a preoccupation with illness and death.

As an adaptation Kotatko’s film replicates the story in a nearly verbatim sense. While it chooses not to embellish the text in any way which would reconceptualise it in terms of character or motivation, it does expand upon it in a subtle manner. Principally this happens through the shift in medium, the necessity of a visual space and the implications of body language.

Barr and Mitchell are superbly cast, tremendously able in their portrayal of deeply fatiguing loneliness; while Birkin’s inimitable voice carries with it the right amount of sensual ambiguity necessary to its purpose.

Whoever Was Using This Bed is an impeccably well-made short film, deeply melancholic and enriched by its superb performances. While Carver’s story is open enough to interpretation that it could be done very differently, it is difficult to think of how it could be done much better.

Following its premiere at the Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, let’s hope we see more of this film on the festival circuit, and more films from Andrew Kotatko.

 
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Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer

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“She’s a professional provocateur, as well as a professional revolutionary.” Yvonne Rainer levelled Western dance history in the sixties, and her influence is felt to this day. Certainly her contemporaries think so, as revealed in this thorough documentary by Jack Walsh. Fully aware of her own potential, the uncompromising young woman fled San Francisco in the fifties, arriving in New York just as its expressionist art movement took hold. Using her “recalcitrant, undancerly body”, she would carve her own way as an artist, shocking the establishment and firmly planting herself in the avant-garde.

Rainer’s work placed her on the leading edge of contemporary minimalism, where choreography and theory became one. She and colleagues at the renowned Judson Dance Theatre fused disciplines, broke rules, and developed the “No Manifesto” (think Lars Von Trier for theatre): no spectacle, no make believe, no glamour, no to camp, no to seduction, no to virtuosity. Certainly no entertainment, and nothing that “charmed an audience.”

Yet for all the unorthodoxy, Feelings Are Facts: The Life Of Yvonne Rainer is a conventional look at an unconventional woman. This is the kind of thing that you’d expect from PBS – archival footage and lots of talking heads, with Rainer doing most of that talking. As it progresses in chronological order through New York in the fifties and sixties, the artist’s embrace of feminism, multiculturalism, race, and sexual politics in the seventies, her expansion into film (avant-garde, of course) and eventual coming out, the documentary seldom wanders from Rainer’s rarified world. There’s not much in the way of external perspective about the legacy of her life or her work. Although Walsh forfeits balance for a singular focus, it is a detailed one, and if you’re seeking in-depth insight into the life of Yvonne Rainer, you’ve come to the right place.

 
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Coming In

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German director Marco Kreuzpaintner made a name for himself with 2006’s emotionally invested coming-out drama, Summer Storm. He took a detour with the Roland Emmerich-produced thriller, Trade, before returning to a gentle landing with this alternate rom-com. The twist is in the title. Uber-gay, über-hairstylist, Tom Herzner’s (Kostja Ullmann) celebrity life takes an unexpected turn when he meets hairdresser, Heidi (Aylin Tezel). He runs an upmarket salon in the moneyed end of Berlin, and has product and perfumes named after him. Heidi is quite the opposite, but when Tom’s marketing department want him to expand his reach, notably to women, he calls on Heidi for advice.

Coming In is framed in the conventional cross-cultural divide (a gay Alex & Eve if you will), the divide here being one of sexual orientation. Tom’s undercover research in Heidi’s salon places him in a less demanding, far less pretentious world, one in which, to his surprise, he finds himself falling for the young woman! Though it’s not that much of a surprise, it’s clear where this has been heading from the start.

There’s more than a touch of Almodovar-in-Los-Angeles about Kreuzpaintner’s film, one where reality is heightened and stereotypes pushed for comic effect. But it also lacks the emotional authenticity of his earlier work, notably Summer Storm. There’s a lot to like in the relationship between Tom and Heidi, much of which is best observed in the margins of the film. It’s here that the nuances of the script play out best, while centre screen is left to fairly routine plot mechanics. Helping ease us through it all are the leads: Kostja Ullmann is very easy to look at, while Aylin Tezel is very easy to like as the earthy hairdresser.           

 
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A Perfect Day

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A Perfect Day begins “1995… Somewhere in the Balkans,” and that’s about as much as we know about the situation taking place. Being incredibly vague about the war is what writer/director Fernando León de Aranoahas done so cleverly.

The particulars are irrelevant, as this film is about the lives of those people caught in the cross-fire. In this case the relief workers who are trying to support innocent locals, along with the politics and violence they encounter on a daily basis. But instead of making this a heavy affair, Aranoa uses humour and sharp dialogue to make his point – hence the ironically chirpy title.

This is achieved with the help of a likeable and off-kilter cast, in the form of Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Fedja Stukan and Mélanie Thierry.

Unfortunately for everyone else involved, it’s the two experienced male leads who steal the show, especially in their scenes together. Del Toro has fun playing the exhausted hero and Robbins is fast becoming a thinking man’s Bill Murray – as he continues to embrace these battier roles.

There are obvious comparisons with M*A*S*H and Catch-22 in its approach to black humour in war, and similarly David O. Russel’s Three Kings, but with an indie twist.

The plot revolves around a group of aid workers in the middle of a war-torn country, as they attempt to salvage a dead body from a well before it contaminates the water supply. This proves to be easier said than done, as they also need to comply with Government protocol and avoid being killed – not to mention the fact rope itself is extremely hard to obtain.

What lets the film down is that this really isn’t enough of a story to carry an entire film, and the many minor subplots are not given the time they need to balance the film as a whole. For instance, the inclusion of a local boy waiting for his parents is where most of the emotion sits, yet the conclusion comes and goes before it’s allowed to properly sink in.

Similarly, Del Toro’s relationship problems that are rising back in America probably aren’t needed. Obviously it was intended to establish some sort of love triangle but it actually distracts the audience from the problems arising in the moment.

Like most memorable war films this also has an amazing soundtrack – one that’s not tied to a specific decade. The inclusion of Velvet Underground in the film may hint at inspiration for the title, while Marilyn Manson’s cover of the Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” is truly haunting.

Much like Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines, A Perfect Day makes a powerful statement on war by disregarding the violence and focusing solely on the strength of regular people in extreme circumstances.

A Perfect Day is screening at Perth International Arts Festival from November 26 to December 6.