Canopy is High Above the Rest

Canopy begins with a five-minute sequence that sets the scene splendidly for the film to come, but may also test the patience of many viewers. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear of people leaving during it if for no other reason than nothing much happens. In fact, the first minute or two are a completely blank, black screen. This isn’t an oversight, however, but rather an effective way to instantly bring audiences into the world of Aaron Wilson’s film. Canopy is a movie rich of its own world, an 80-minute work of filmmaking that rises above mere war or survival films and becomes something unique. A rare film of the digital age that truly uses the medium to its advantages by crafting a work that is all-consuming and while perhaps minor in its dramatic aspirations – compare to, say, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, also dealing with WWII in the South-East Asia region, but doing so on a more heightened, sentimental fashion – is nevertheless a vital film and one that suggests a fresh point of view from a debut director.

Having ejected himself from his plane, an Australian flyboy (Khan Chittenden) lands in the canopy of the Singapore jungle. Quickly freeing himself from the parachute chords that have entangled themselves in the long-limbed trees of the Singapore jungle, he sets out on a course to somewhere he probably doesn’t even know. He finds a stream of dirty water and looks rather aimlessly at his military-provided waterproof map that does little to help his sense of direction. As night falls he runs – literally – into a Chinese soldier (Tzu-yi Mo) and as the two realise they are on the same side of the war (Japanese soldiers are rarely seen above chest-height) they forge ahead, eventually building an unlikely friendship that may or may not develop into a more deeply-felt companionship. The two don’t share a language, and in fact the entirely of Canopy’s dialogue could probably be written on a napkin, and it isn’t until several days into their journey that they decide to share names: Jim and Seng. Despite having a wife at home, Jim’s eyes tell a different story and this gives the film an extra layer to which its minimalist tale can unfold.

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Through a Lens Darkly Offers Insight, but Little Art

Thomas Allen Harris’ Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People feels more like an element of an art exhibit more than a stand-alone film. It’s unsurprising to learn that it is adapted from a book (Deborah Willis’ Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present – Willis is also a co-producer on a film), and even the film’s title recalls that of an educational essay. And given the nature of its subject I can’t help but agree that it would probably work best as a feature of an art gallery. The imagery featured within Harris’ documentary is so captivating, so educational, so powerful that I wished I had the chance to view it for longer and notice more of the fine details that the film eloquently describes. As it stands the photographs that Harris chooses to show – and there are many – frequently go by at such a pace that their impact threatens to get lost.

The narrative of African American representation in society from the 19th to the 21st is a fascinating one and telling it through the disparity between white and black photographers is unique and one ripe for examination. Likewise, the Harris has assembled a fine collection of talking heads even if his own silky-voiced narration of the film occasionally goads the audience into slumber. Given its 90-minute runtime, I wish that some more attention had been given to more recent photography. As it stands the 1980s and later aren’t represented in any great dimension, which is a shame given the number of advancements that have happened in that time (hip-hop, social change, President Obama).

Through a Lens Darkly then is more a success for its subject than its filmmaking. Harris shines much-needed light on certain hidden corners of artistic history, but at times feels all too much like a supplemental part of a larger whole. Disappointingly, the subject is so under-represented (hardly surprising, sadly) in cinema and any mainstream way that the film, despite its shortcomings, is still a must-see for anybody interested in the history of race as well as those fans of the photography medium. I just wish that, given it’s a film about art, Through a Lens Darkly had taken a bit more of an artistic method to its message. It’s a filmed essay, and luckily for them the essay is one that we need to hear about.

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Falling for Fell

The way the Australian film industry is at the moment, it’s hardly surprising that there have been several filmmakers this year alone that are finding exceptional and even complex ways of telling minimal stories. One such film was Aaron Wilson’s Canopy, which had a brief Australian theatrical run earlier in the year and will receive the same in New York City at the end of August. Another title is Kasimir Burgess’ Fell, which receives a month-long release at ACMI starting this week through to September 27. While it’s not as strong as the aforementioned Canopy, nor Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook that were also released this year to box office grosses that did not reflect their superb qualities, Kasimir’s film is poignant and beautifully constructed film that once upon a time may have been seen as what was right with the local industry rather than a telltale sign of, supposedly, what’s wrong.

Fell isn’t exactly feel good, but it is certainly good, which is the most important thing of all. Kasimir and his screenwriter Natasha Pincus (both have music video experience, but you wouldn’t know it from the final product) explore grief, redemption, and forgiveness in the harsh Victorian hinterlands as two men, both mentally paralysed by a tormented soul attempt to forgive themselves and others following the death of a young girl. Thomas (Matt Nable), the girl’s father, retreats from society where his (ex?) wife appears briefly to lash out her grief onto him before a failed sexual encounter, eventually ending up working in the same logging district as the newly-released Luke (Daniel Henshall), who has done his time for the hit-and-run accident and now extols the almost born again virtues of being a father, having recently taken back care of his own five-year-old.

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Thomas simmers, quietly observing Luke as he picks his daughter up from school and then later leaves her alone at night and visit the local pub and have sex on a car with a local woman. The two eventually find themselves working one-on-one with precarious ethics always in the forefront of Thomas’ mind. Does he have it in him to enact revenge?

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The Boys of Summer… Suddenly, Last Summer.

I wonder if it’s for the best that the trilogy of acclaimed Tennessee Williams plays of the 1950s were all directed by different people, lest their power with themes of the repressed queer, simmering madness, and familial tensions be put into a lone director’s wheelhouse and criticized for repetitiveness. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought to Suddenly, Last Summer the most overtly camp and over-the-top sensibility of the three in what is actually also my favourite of three. I like how he doesn’t try to plaster over the inherent goofiness of the story – Homosexuals! Cannibals! Incest! Lobotomy! Peadophilia! – but rather finds wildly expressive ways to show it while keeping the story true to its relatively confined minimalist structure (Williams’ play was a one-act play consisting of two monologues).

That Suddenly, Last Summer got made at all so soon after its original production in 1958 is a testament to Williams’ material and his stature. That they were able to get an Oscar-winning director (for All About Eve) and three of the best actors to have ever lived (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor – both Oscar nominated for Best Actress for their performances, although Hepburn would surely be “supporting” in today’s world – and Montgomery Clift) is even crazier to consider. “These are powers and passions without precedent in motion pictures” exclaimed the deliciously salacious poster, and it’s hard to argue.

As always when it comes to doing this feature, and especially so when it involves one of my absolute all-time favourite films, I had to whittle it down from several.

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Perhaps the obvious choice, but a worthy one. With Katharine Hepburn’s familiar voice, fragile and shaking and yet regal, having been heard off-screen for mere seconds already makes so many images appear in one’s mind that seeing her actual face for the first time nine minutes into the picture is almost calming. The framing of cinematographer Jack Hildyard (who won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai just two years prior) is really sublime in this shot as Hepburn’s Violet “Aunt Vi” Venebal descends into view and into the world of the audience and Clift’s Dr Cukrowicz never to be forgotten. Camera tilted slightly upwards, Clift’s body taking up the left third of the screen because Hepburn needs that make space to make her entrance. It’s a shot worthy of an entry for both an actor and a character of this esteem.

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California Dreamy in Curio L for Leisure

A hipster’s paradise. A societal mix-tape art project that utilises dream-like ‘90s aesthetics to tell the seemingly disconnected lives of young people at leisure. Set to the cooing sounds of a retro synth-pop soundtrack by John Atkinson and highly stylized, stilted dialogue, it’s the sort of film that begs for silly comparisons. “Baywatch meets Rohmer” said BAM when the film premiered there at their recent Cinemafest. “Like if Alex Ross Perry remade Spring Breakers”, noted David Ehrlich in his review out of the same festival. An anthropological experiment where The Room meets The OC was my initial mode of comparison given its deliberate self-conscious take on the easy-living lifestyles of its predominant water-based twenty-something Californians. Whatever form you think it takes, there’s certainly something altogether curious about its 16mm vignettes.

L for Leisure is a film that is blissfully in its own head and never for a second peeks out from behind itself to let viewers in on the gag. If there is a gag. Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s debut feature-length film (their prior effort, Blondes in the Jungle which I have not seen, runs a scant 48-minutes) certainly has an odd sense of humour about itself that too often gives way to pure weirdness. It’s bonkers, but that’s not necessarily a good thing when dealing with a structure such as this where one story can hold more interest than another. “I get bored and distracted easily”, says one character as she discussed tree spirits (because why not) and it’s a comment that could easily apply to many viewers. There will be times where they struggle to remain focused on anything but the style. And while I am very much a defender of style-for-style’s-sake films with no substance, a bit more of a narrative context may have helped keep the still relatively scant 72 minutes of L for Leisure from drifting off to the beat of its own synthetic drum.

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As it stands, the film’s most memorable image for me was that of lasers striking through smoke in a dark room. Recalling the rave culture of the early 1990s setting of the film as well as science fiction of the decade prior, it’s evocative without calling attention to itself like so much of the rest of the film. Likewise, an extended sequence involving two groups of friends – one of men, another of women – meeting in a fast food restaurant carpark and engaging in a series of sexual dares, including a dance sequence that recalls Spring Breakers and has a woozy ease that feels like capturing magic in a bottle, was my favourite of the nine or so mini-movies that make up Kalman and Horn’s feature. It feels like a part of a greater whole as opposed to a fractured puzzle piece that doesn’t belong. It was transfixed by it, refreshed by its lack of irony (oh man, the rollerblades from the opening segment!), and could have easily watched more.

L for Leisure is a difficult film to get my head around. It has so many elements to beguile me and I frequently found myself taken in by this outré Palo Alto of sorts, but too often found it didn’t quite know what to do with the various successful elements. The parts that I liked I like a lot. The parts I didn’t care for I struggle to even remember; they slide out of the memory like the water off of a surfer’s wetsuit clad body like the man at film’s end. L for Leisure will likely be a film for cinephile hipsters who found Miranda July’s The Future just too mainstream for their tastes and who want to relive the era of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, but if its characters went to the beach and acted like aliens who had only observed human interactions from episodes of Saved by the Bell and MTV (hello most random Mariah Carey musical performance you’ll ever see). As its frequently inebriated (“I’m feeling really mellow” say multiple un-connected characters, the closest this film gets to a catch phrase, I guess) character drift wistfully about throughout each other’s’ existence, L for Leisure’s period comedy never really feels like it comes together. I don’t believe the filmmakers mean for any of the socio-political mumbo-jumbo to be taken seriously, it’s hard not to view it all as just a big joke.

 

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Buying and Selling in Ukraine

The necessity for and the corruptibility of modern political activism is portrayed with beautiful formal imagery and slick editing in Ukraine is Not a Brothel. An Australian and Ukrainian co-production is directed by Kitty Green – whose only previous credit was as the stills photographer on Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Dieman’s Land and various ABC documentary content; auf der Heide is a producer on this film – who only learned of Femen, the nude protest group at the center of her debut film, after spotting an article about them in discarded newspaper on a train in Melbourne. Being the home of her ancestors, Green obviously had a personal stake in the state of the Ukraine, but the film is ultimately much more than just an expose on the state of women’s rights and feminism in this nation, nor is it simply a behind the scenes look at a radical protest movement.

Watching Ukraine is Not a Brothel and one can really get a sense of how far the documentary ‘genre’ has come as an artform. This is a debut film made in a country where running water isn’t even necessarily an expected right, and yet Green’s film is a beauty to the eyes. She and her cinematography Michael Latham have composed beautiful images one right after the other that do more than just document the action. Rather, they help inform the drama and allow audiences to see a side of the Ukraine that they may otherwise not expect. It would have been easy to drown the film in ugly, realist tones of grey and brown, but they find interesting ways to view their subjects with a keen eye and it allows the film to remain a far more interesting visual experience than one might expect from a film about naked feminists, the sex trade, and patriarchy societies run amok in Eastern Europe.

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As an Australian film it also warrants strong mention. Like Kim Mordaunt’s narrative feature The Rocket last year, as well as Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Warwick Ross’s Red Obsession, Genevieve Bailey’s I Am Eleven, it goes further afield to find its story. In all the hubbub over what constitutes an Australian film or not (is it mere funding or a distinctly Australian story?), I think we should definitely be proud that we are building up filmmakers who can see beyond short-sighted patriotism when it comes to what is or isn’t worth of discussion and debate.

The true wonder of Green’s film that it is one that morphs from being about one thing into another thing right in front of your very eyes. The spectrum of topics all come with an inherent power, but while the message is important thankfully, much like the idea behind Femen’s naked anarchists, the vessel to tell it is one of unique beauty and surprising skill. By going inside Femen she has revealed more than anybody more interested in their bodies than their messages, but has also helped reveal the alarming ways that contemporary political movements have not learned from their forefathers and that despite all the good they can do and have done, internal squabbling and bickering may very well be an element of this world that is impossible to change. If Ukraine is a nation on the frontier of social change then the brash, bold protests of Femen would certainly be a world first method of getting there, but Ukraine is Not a Brothel it ultimately not about the protests themselves, or even about Ukraine, but rather the open and honest subjects of Femen that she has surrounded herself with. They make for funny, hypocritical, confused, sad pieces of a global puzzle. All with a soundtrack by – who else? – Boney M.

 

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Wallowing at Willow Creek

By pure definition, a “found footage” film implies something that Willow Creek ultimately fails at. The basic idea behind of these films is that something terrible has happened and all that remains is videotape and that that videotape has then been found and assembled into a film by some invisible being that audiences are meant to watch and hopefully be terrified by. Obviously, we all know this isn’t how found footage horror movies actually work, and that they can be just as meticulously crafted and thought out as any other film, aiming to manipulate the viewer in ways that other films can or won’t, but it bears mentioning. They don’t always work for various reasons, but I find myself defending many of them. Not only for providing an effective way of eliminating the hurdle of disbelief that can come with films about ghosts, possessions, or – in this case – Bigfoot and putting an audience directly in the action, but also for the way they shirk the high-gloss HD digital look of their brethren. Today any film can look a million bucks, whether it’s detrimental to the film’s effect or not. Willow Creek certainly does not look a million bucks, nor should it. Thankfully.

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If we’re to believe this line of thinking with found footage, however, then whoever found the footage of Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) out in the woods of California mustn’t have had much to work with. Willow Creek is 80 minutes long, but only 30 of that are actually scary. Or designed to be scary. Or attempt to even get to scary. The rest is made up of a seemingly endless prologue involving Jim’s intentions to make a movie about Bigfoot, and a second act of casual repartee between its (admittedly likable) leads. Furthermore, if Jim is wanting to make a film about Bigfoot then why didn’t he bring a tripod? Or proper sound recording products? And why keep filming the girlfriend if she doesn’t want to be in it. Willow Creek lacks real world logic, which is usually one thing that the found footage concept allows a filmmaker to circumvent to focus on other, scarier things.

I liked many individual aspects of Willow Creek, but I just wished they came together as a whole better than they do. I respected that the film is basically one big essay on why The Blair Witch Project still works so well and how it’s impossible to recreate it (attention Hollywood, I guess). I also thought the dynamic between Johnson and Gilmore was fun, which is important given how shapeless much of the film is. Without their personalities this film would be dead long before the end credits. The two share some funny dialogue that has the air of improvisation about it (I particularly enjoyed their riffing on a Bigfoot mural) and the progression of their relationship is in retrospect far more interesting than anything else in the film. Especially as director Bobcat Goldthwait appears far more interested in them than anything involving Bigfoot. Their scenes have a certain Joe Swanberg observational quality to them that would make for a nice film if Willow Creek weren’t also trying to be a horror film, which is ultimately where Goldthwait trips himself up. It’s all well and good to want to say things using the world of a horror movie, but it’s even better when you don’t forget to try and be scary for 75% of the runtime.

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These elements are strung together in 50 minutes that barely even attempt at creating atmosphere and tension. At least the film’s final 30 minutes are excellent in the way sound is used to create a sense of dread and terror. One scene that runs for nearly 20 minutes, and will remain this film’s calling card for as long people remember it, in particular makes a perfect case for horror filmmakers only really needing a decent sound designer to send chills up an audience’s spine. Something like The Conjuring breaks records by throwing everything at the screen, but when Willow Creek works it does so by stripping everything away and relying on the things that in our own homes would scare us the most. The rustling of an unfamiliar sound, an unexpected animal cry, things that literally go bump in the night.

The end is abrupt and doesn’t have half the power of The Blair Witch Project’s (an image that haunts me to this day), but at least does something interesting and effectively scary. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie is a limp attempt at recreating old glories. Goldthwait appears to be attempting at shoehorning subjects into the narrative like relationship isolation and the cost of mythbusting to storytelling most prominently, but as a horror film, there is not enough meat on the bones to justify its few moments of greatness. As a piece of found footage horror, it lacks its own internal logic and reason to work more than fleetingly.

 

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