Wednesday, 9 May 2018

May 10
American Essentials Film Festival
On Body and Soul
Midnight Oil: 1984

I lead off this week with a festival that I simply love every year. It's a great opportunity to catch the best of US indie film making, and this year music figures strongly. Keeping to the theme, I also review an Aussie doco on "the Oils" so it's a treat for music lovers. Also a couple of strong feature films. 

American Essentials Film Festival
Melbourne May 10-20
Palace Kino, Astor

This festival is among my favourites. It always reaffirms my faith in the American film industry, as being something far greater than the usual highly promoted, stereotyped mainstream offerings, featuring comic heroes, ditzy girls, and all manner of sloppily written scripts (which is not to say there aren't some great mainstream films.) But here are films with a sensibility more akin to European arthouse - smart, often understated, low budget, and just the best of independent US film-making. As well as two films from years ago, focussing upon the LA Afro-American community, there are also three old classics: Chinatown, Heat and Shampoo. 

How They Got Over

Oh the joy!! so many wonderful films about music, 
black culture and so much more in this splendid
I love music documentaries. Here the director traces the origins of African-American gospel groups, especially the quartets. There are interviews with now aging or dead members of the groups, along with some very rare archival footage. The sound that became so popular on the so-called "chittlin circuit" of the 1930s and 40s was a precursor to the early rock n roll, soul and RnB sound. Those individuals, like Sam Cooke, who escaped the gospel groups and went over to the the "dark side" - namely pop music - were the ones who "got over". The harmonies and finger-clicking rhythms are mesmerising. making this a music lovers' must-see movie.  

Outside In
Indie director Lynn Shelton has co-written this story with her lead actor, Jay Duplass. It is the story of Chris (Duplass) who has just got out of jail serving 20 years for a crime he didn't commit. He re-connects with his old high school teacher Carol (Edie Falco) who was instrumental in fighting for his release. Lost and unsure of his place in the world. Chris develops an intense bond with Carol. This is subtle and moving story-telling with strong lead performances and a theme that is as challenging as it is compassionate. 

Humour Me
Nate, impressively played byFlight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement, is a writer in crisis - his latest work is getting nowhere, and his wife has decided to leave him taking their young child. With nowhere to go except his father's home in a retirement village, Nate feels his life has lost all purpose. But when he is co-opted by the residents to produce a version of The Mikado, things look up. Elliot Gould as the incessant joke-telling father, Bob, is a terrific foil for Clement, and all the other "oldies" play their parts with alacrity. Although the story is reasonably predictable it's told with affection, humour, and a goodly dose of pathos.

Killer of Sheep
Made in 1978, this film won a major festival prize three years later. Made in gritty black and white, it is a searing insight into Afro-American life in Watts, a poor suburb of LA in the 70s. It's possibly as authentic a vision of black life in that era as you've ever seen on screen. Stan works in a slaughterhouse, and becomes increasingly jaded with his work and his family. Intellectual critics (unlike moi)  liken it to Italian neorealistic cinema. Not a lot happens - it's more a series of vignettes of the monotony of daily life and the emotions and relationships of the characters. (If you're squeamish about abbatoirs, beware!)

The Los Angeles suburb of Watts was the scene of violent rioting in the mid 1960s. Seven years later, Stax Records put on a concert, and this is the footage of that concert, along with a vision of the era in which the "black is beautiful" movement had its upsurge. Again, it is a rare view into black culture and black music of the era, and fans of 70s rock, soul and blues can hear some mighty fine music. 

The stage musical of the same name has been turned into a film, about six strangers trapped in a temporarily stalled train in the New York subway. There's the homeless man, an America-Korean ballet dancer, a young artist who seems to be stalking the dancer, a young black woman, an illegal Mexican labourer and an older white woman. Gradually their life stories are revealed, through dialogue and songs. It's a salutary lesson on not judging books by their covers. The songs are seriously good both musically and lyrically and the number of weighty themes that are covered in a 90 minute film are surprising. This is a treat for lovers of a thought-provoking musical, and features a stand-out performance by Giancarlo Esposito as the homeless man. 

Pet Names
This is a bitter-sweet drama/comedy about Leigh, a young woman who has dropped out of college to care for her dying mother. Needing a break, and having no-one to accompany her on a short camping trip, she invites Cam, her ex boyfriend along. This could sound hackneyed, but it is anything but. The acting is compelling, the characters feel absolutely real, and as an audience we feel deeply for them all. The film features stunning cinematography which pays homage to the beauty of American national parks.  

American Folk
Two real-life folk singers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth portray Elliott and Joni who are on a plane which is turned back to LA after the 9/11 attacks. In a desperate effort to get back to New York for their various commitments, they get into an old van and head off cross-country. En route they meet a variety of eccentric folk, get to know each other and sing up a storm. Nothing highly dramatic happens, but fortunately also nothing very predictable - just some splendid big country scenery, a gentle plot, and a lot of songs that pay tribute to the fine old tradition of folk.
4.5 - American Essentials Film Festival  is wholeheartedly recommended!

Director: John Curran
Length: 101 min
© Transmission - terrific look at yet another 
tragedy for the ill-fated Kennedy family
Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) made headlines in 1969 when he drove his car off a bridge, killing a young campaign strategist Mary Joe Kopechne (Kate Mara). Kennedy failed to report the crime for nine hours, leading to cover-ups, lies and a media feeding frenzy. Even though the facts of the film are part of history, this is a gripping recreation of the events, and a timely look at the corruption and ambition that invariably goes with politics. Clarke's portrayal of Kennedy is of a man who felt he lived in the shadow of his brothers, and was treated as a disappointment by his father (an excellent Bruce Dern). It's a smart performance from Clarke, as the senator lurches from evoking the audience's sympathy, through to their contempt. This is yet another intriguing look into past political scandals, with resonance, as always, for current times. 
4 - highly recommended!

On Body and Soul
Director: Ildiko Enyedi
Length: 116 min
© Paricheh  - about as unusual a romance as 
I've seen in a long time
This beautiful and strikingly unusual Hungarian film won three major prizes at the Berlin Film Festival last year. Introverted Enre is the administrative head at an abattoir in Budapest. When socially awkward Marika comes to work as a quality controller, the two discover, unbelievably, that each night they share the same dream. One is a stag, the other a doe, sharing life in a snow-bound forest. The revelation leads them to attempt to connect, but life is not always as easy as dreams. The dramatic, disturbing juxtaposition of the brutal slaughter scenes, with the delicate naivete of the shy couple is confronting. Somehow it works as a strange metaphor for the polarities and contradictions of life. One can't help but compare human disconnect from the animals so  heartlessly butchered, with the disconnect in relationships. While not totally comprehensible, this is an intriguing romance with exquisite attention to detail in the cinematography. (A word of warning: here's another film depicting animals going to the slaughter, so not for everyone!) 
4 - highly recommended!

Midnight Oil: 1984
Director: Ray Argall
Length: 90 min
© Madman - love 'em or hate 'em, it's a great doco
about an iconic band and an invigorating time
in Australian politics
In 1984 rock band Midnight Oil embarked upon a national tour to launch their new album. The band already had strong support since the late 70s, their music giving a voice to issues of concern to young fans: indigenous problems along with environmental and nuclear threats. At the same time an emerging political group, The Nuclear Disarmament Party, approached the Oils' lead singer Peter Garrett to head up their election campaign. Footage never seen before from the '84 concert tour is mixed with insightful commentary from band members in the present day. They reminisce on the band's history, their commitment to issues within their music, and how Garrett's role as a potential politician nearly brought them to a premature end. There are megawatts of high voltage energy in the film, great music, and a fascinating reflection upon an era which changed much of Australia's political landscape, as young people energised themselves to get involved with the world around them.
3.5 - well recommended!

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