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2013 Sydney Underground Film Festival Diary Day 4

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Come Day 4 I was starting to get tired, and Sam (my partner) and I had lined up another busy day. After visiting the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) open day to inquire about a Screen Culture course we are interested in taking, we stocked up on supplies in preparation for our four film final day. On tap: A Band Called Death, which I had heard amazing things about, including Nick Brodies 5-star review here on Graffiti With Punctuation, Unlawful Killing, a controversial probe into the truth about the death of Princess Diana and one of the world’s first screenings in its uncut form, The Final Member, the second documentary about penises, this time focusing on a curator of a penis museum and his search for a human specimen, and The Canyons, the trashy LA-set tale of passion and revenge from writer Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader.

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Review: A Band Called Death

In the early 1970’s, before The Ramones and punk there was Death, a Detroit-based group made up of three African American brothers – David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney – who started out by jamming in a tiny room on the second story of their family home. Already influenced by The Who, after attending an Alice Cooper concert they decided to alter their approach to music – to pure rock-and-roll. At this time, rock-and-roll was white folks music, but these guys were good enough to take off against the odds. In a line of successful recent music documentaries – the Academy Award-winning Searching For Sugar Man most obviously – A Band Called Death eclipses them, I feel. This extraordinary story has it all; natural artistic vision, devastating sacrifices and missed opportunities, unshakable loyalty to family and unexpected second chances. It is the kind of life-affirming tale you won’t want to shake.

Death made demos and sent them off to distributors and contacted various studios in the hopes of sealing a deal. The key roadblock on their path to stardom was ‘Death’, their unpopular band name. This was an important detail to the spiritual visionary (and band leader), David, and something his supportive brothers backed, albeit reluctantly. David refused to sell out, and though they had a collection of songs that could have formed an amazing record, Bobby and Dannis eventually formed their own band, Lambsbread.

David became the goofy uncle who drank a bit too much and had his guitar everywhere, while the other brothers achieved moderate success in their musical pursuits. They had kids and they were bred musos too. Throughout the second half of this documentary I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had chills all over my body as this amazing story reveals itself. Through times both tragic, the death of David in 2000, who struggled with alcoholism for the better part of his life, and jubilant, Bobby’s son exclaiming: “Dad, why didn’t you tell me?” in response to finally learning about Death, which was making a triumphant return at underground parties, I was engrossed.

In addition to being a beautifully edited documentary, the band’s music is used wonderfully, and the Hackney brothers are larger than life characters you could listen to all day. There is also a spiritual element to this family that would even challenge an atheist to reconsider. David’s death affected the brothers immensely. In his final days he believed that someday people were going to come looking for their Death recordings and told the others to keep their master copies safe. They were put in the attic, where they remained until someone did come looking.

Bobby’s sons have formed their own band, at first paying tribute to their father and uncles, but are now supporting Death, who have been resurrected with a stand-in guitarist. Back in 1973 these kids were in their late teens and on the cusp of becoming a phenomenon. Now, forty years later, they have become that. Who knows what would have happened if they had changed their name when they initially encountered problems. It certainly wouldn’t have made for a story like this.

[rating=4] and a half

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Review: Unlawful Killing

Directed by Keith Allen, the largely unseen Unlawful Killing first premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, but has since been denied a release in the United Kingdom unless 87 cuts are made, sacrifices that Allen has been unwilling to make. He mentions on occasions that he was told not to include some testimonies and yet here they appear. There is some very damning evidence presented in this documentary and one can certainly understand the desired censorship. It suggests that French and British authorities covered up suspicious facts about the crash that killed Diana Princess of Wales and that members of the Royal Family may have been involved in her timely elimination.

 

There is certainly an audience for a film like this, which Allen has sought in the US. Conspiracy theories are popular, and this is one of the highest profile deaths in recent history. Unfortunately, along with all of these shocking facts – Diana feared that her life was in danger and her written prediction of how she would be killed was kept quiet by two Police Commissioners – and some pretty strong evidence to back them up, this is a haphazardly assembled film. Though divided up by ideas, it isn’t cohesive and often repetitious. There is also an air of self-importance about Allen, who seems very proud of himself for putting this film together and unveiling what he has.

What was going on with the re-enactments? Not only is the inquest recreated – I believe acted out from accurate transcripts – but the curious activities in an accompanying media tent too. These are unconvincing, and the impact of what Allen is suggesting is lessened. It is claimed that some Royal journalists, in the pocket of the family, had already made up their mind that it was an accident and weren’t even listening to any other evidence. One major player apparently fell asleep. Any suspicious theories or damning evidence were not going to be reported. Even the actual Jury verdict – an unlawful killing by the following vehicles, not exclusively the Paparazzi – was initially reported incorrectly.

Other avenues addressed in the film include the status of driver Henri Paul’s alcoholism, whether he was intoxicated on the night of the accident and even whether he was working with French Secret Service, the role the pursuing motorcycles and car played in the accident and the unfathomable period of time it took the ambulance to escort Diana, then alive, to hospital. Her relationship with Dodi Fayed – a film producer, and the son of business magnate Mohammed Al-Fayed, who was unconvinced by the verdict and has remained adamant that Diana and his son were murdered – as well as her involvement in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines may have contributed to a plot. Though heavy-handed and tonally suspect at times, this is a powerful and shocking documentary sure to spur much debate and discussion. Kudos to the Sydney Underground Film Festival for screening the film, one of the world’s first.

[rating=3]

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Review: The Final Member

Another documentary, and would you believe, it is another one about penises. Having been introduced to Sigurdur Hjartarson, the proud founder and curator of an Iceland-set penis museum for four decades, we learn that he has collected penis specimens from almost every mammalian species. Though his museum has become a world-renowned tourist attraction he has yet to include the elusive homo sapien specimen. It becomes his life mission, but who would volunteer?

Well, one of the most famous men in Iceland is Mr Pall Arason, a renowned adventurer and notorious womanizer. He has a diary full of his sexual exploits – something in the vicinity of 400. Impressive. At age 95, he has volunteered his penis to the museum on his death, a great coup for Sigurdur. The only hitch, due to Arason’s age, is that Sigurdur is not convinced it will meet the essential ‘legal length’.

But what if there was another volunteer, an American named Tom? What if he was so determined to make his penis famous that he has the stars and stripes tattooed on it and is so willing to be the first to donate that he would have it cut off while he was still alive? This man, who has named his penis Elmo, is crazy. He is convinced that he wants nothing more than a celebrity penis – one that makes its way into comic books, even. He becomes obsessed with the idea of having his penis proudly on display in Sigurdur’s museum, sending lengthy emails with ideas for prototype cases, methods of display, and tweaked ownership contracts.

While these eccentric individuals are the source of amusement for a while, I began to get uneasy. It treads a fine line between mocking and being sincere. On one hand Sigurdur’s push for someone to donate their penis was something I found somewhat immoral. Then, the fact that Mr Arason’s personality became just as important as the specimen wasn’t comforting either. Then there is Tom, whose attitude and motivations were concerning, and a little angering. I began to feel quite bad for him. I felt the filmmakers took a manipulative approach to all of these figures, attempting to transform this incredible but threateningly bland story into something a bit more provocative and celebrating the absurdity. After a while something clicked in me and I wanted no more of it. This is a personal reaction to a largely well-praised and liked film. It is hard to explain, but there it is.

[rating=2]

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Review: The Canyons

I had heard grumblings about this film, which got off the ground through a Kickstarter and was made on a budget of $260,000, but I remained intrigued by the unlikely team of Bret Easton Ellis, renowned novelist of The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, turned screenwriter, Paul Schrader, co-writer of Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo, and troubled young actress Lindsay Lohan. I did not expect…this. Some horrendous acting, a shallow screenplay with stinking dialogue and lackluster direction all contribute to this lengthy midday soap opera-esque thriller about a privileged, uber-sexed Hollywood producer, his gold-digging partner and a talentless actor willing to do anything to make it in the business.

This tale of lust, manipulation and revenge is set over the course of a few days, and while Schrader ‘seems’ to be trying to make a comment about the death of cinema as we know it, the Hollywood lifestyle and the types of individuals who work in the industry these days, he has only resulted in creating a hollow and incompetent work. While unashamedly trashy – one of the pastimes of Lohan and her co-star, ex-porn actor James Deen, is group sex with invited guests from the internet – The Canyons is a dull affair that only keeps a viewer remotely alert by consistently offering up [unintentionally] hilarious sequences.

Basically, the premise is this. Deen stars as Christian, a trust fund baby who produces independent films to ensure the money keeps rolling in. He would much rather invite strangers to his house to participate in group sex with his trophy partner, Tara (Lohan), and sleep with his yoga instructor than work, though. He lives in a towering condo, adorned with shelves of books he will never read, a piano he never plays and useless things like TextTV (wait until you see that one). If this isn’t enough we learn that he is a jealous psychopath, a lifelong member of the bowels of humanity. He is producing a film – and that’s all we ever hear about it – and he has just hired a talentless actor, Ryan (Nolan Funk), the partner of his assistant and the film’s director, Gina (Amanda Brooks), to star. Ryan and Tara have history and have been recently sleeping together. As Christian makes their lives hell –having Ryan followed and threatening his career etc. – Tara desperately tries to avoid detection.

Lohan’s comeback performance isn’t a fail. In fact she has a few strong scenes towards the end, and Brooks is impressive in a role relegated to supporting. Funk is awful (simply) and Deen in his portrayal of this despicable elitist alpha male gets it wrong. Some handsome photography (you forget about that budget at times), and some strong musical choices are other elements to praise, but I think the problems rest with the script. It is a seedy world out there, and no doubt this sort of philandering is common, but I ceased to care about any of the comings and goings here. I’d like to say it was a good attempt at something different, but the results aren’t.

[rating=1]

Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

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