Our Artist-in-Residence Program 2012-2016 & Beyond

I gave a talk to the VALA AGM earlier this week on our Artist-in-Residence Program: the thinking behind it, who has been involved, what has been produced and why we think it is a good thing. Below are the slides I used (29 MB PDF) and in many of the images there are links that take you much deeper into the works created by those artists.

UTS AIR Program for VALA short version

Closet Monster – review #SydFilmFest

Closet Monster was my final film for this festival and so it ended as it began, on a high. It is a wonderfully told queer coming of age story that apparently is based on writer/director Stephen Dunn’s own experience as a teenager.

There is a lot to enjoy in this film. Our hero Oscar, excellently played by the talented-beyond-his-years Connor Jessup, has a pet hamster called Buffy who provides companionship and dispenses wisdom (via the voice of Isabella Rossellini). Oscar’s interactions with Buffy are a delight every single time. Connor Jessup almost seems born to play this role, but I thought the same about his acting in the second series of American Crime. He’s simply brilliant.

Stephen Dunn brings so much imagination to his story telling. He drops magical moments throughout the film to light up the tale and to bring Oscar’s lingering childhood horror to life. And he perfectly balances the emotional core of the film with his amusing and refreshingly different creative style. This could so easily have failed.

It is all so well done. As well, it is beautifully shot in several memorable scenes that serve to underline Oscar’s journey in life, his relationships and his developing sexuality.

I hope that both Stephen Dunn and Connor Jessup keeping making films. Talents like theirs keep us going to the cinema.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 4+/5 (Most people would think this to be very special.)

Teenage Kicks – review #sydfilmfest @TeenageKicksMov

Teenage Kicks is probably the best made and most memorable queer movie that I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not saying this because it comes from Australia. I didn’t like the film Holding the Man at all. It just didn’t do the book any justice. Writer/Director Craig Boreham’s film is very well put together. It is an ambitious and complex story that is very well told.

The beautiful and very talented Miles Szanto stars as Miklós Varga a young man from a migrant family who thinks he is in love with his best friend Dan (Daniel Webber). Mik is also carrying around the guilt associated with the recent death of his brother Tomi (Nadim Kobeissi) and even more baggage from a complex family history. His mate Dan has just found a girlfriend and this greatly disappoints Mik because he was hoping to escape to the North soon with Dan and their surfboards. 

Mik, however, faces even more complex challenges as he starts to develop his own sexual identity. There is Dan’s new girlfriend Phaedra (Charlotte Best) who confronts him about his love for Dan and then tempts him in a park.  Tomi’s very pregnant partner Annuska (Shari Sebbens) seems to transfer her affection and love to Mik, and Shari Sebbens portrays this with much skill and sensitivity. Then the many issues he is dealing with come to a head when he almost drowns in a pool at Phaedra’s home but he is saved by Dan who later rejects Mik’s drunken confession of his love very violently. As he starts to burn some bridges to his family and friends, Mik explores his gay sexuality, with some gay web-cam boys he meets in Kings Cross and a blow-job in a park from Sam (played by the gorgeously sensual Joshua Longhurst). More dangerously, he also experiments with some strong drugs. It all looks to be heading towards an inevitable cluster-fuck …

The acting is all very good, particularly from Miles Szanto who does carry the major load. Mik’s character is a very challenging role and it could easily have been either over-played, stilted or degenerated into that of a good looking soap opera character. Along with this, there is some beautiful cinematography of Sydney’s stunning southern coastline and of some close and genuinely tender moments between Mik and several other cast members.

I have just the one criticism of the film. I didn’t find Miles convincing as a teenager, let alone as a school aged boy. The actor is actually 24. I don’t think the film needed Mik to be a teenager or at school and it isn’t a critical element of the story. One’s sexual immaturity isn’t limited to defined by a school uniform. Mine certainly wasn’t. And even today I think that accepting one’s queer identity can take a lot longer than your experience at school.

What is great about this film, especially for queer youth, is that ultimately Mik isn’t doomed by some poor choices, nor consumed by his perception of guilt over his brother’s death. He proves to be resilient to the brutality he suffers, retains his tender loving nature, doesn’t burn all his bridges before him and then gets on with his life. Hopefully he hooks up again with Sam, but maybe that is just me dreaming.

A memorable and enjoyable queer film about choices, love and hope.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 4/5 (Most people would think this to be special.)

The Endless River – review #sydfilmfest

The Endless River begins by rolling screen credits in almost sepia tones and a typeface that are both reminiscent of most of those old Westerns from Hollywood. I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because that is where the director, Oliver Hermanus, thinks that South Africa is up to with respect to racial integration and the development of a moral code beyond an “eye for an eye”? It certainly made me think. (Possible spoilers ahead.)

We are soon introduced to the two lead characters: Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) whose husband Percy (Clayton Evertson) has just been released from a four-year prison stint for gang activity; and the Frenchman Gilles (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who suffers the loss of his entire family in a brutal home invasion, rape and series of murders at their farm. Many seem keen to think that Percy was involved in these murders and a local policeman gives Gilles far too much of a tip about the possibility of his involvement, and Percy too is killed on his way to rob the farm that has been isolated as a crime scene.

Things are moving along very quickly in these two opening chapters and just when we are wondering whether naughty Gilles was involved in Percy’s murder as an act of revenge, he and Tiny become involved. I thought it was quite engrossing up to this point.

Disappointingly, it all gets a bit lost and self-indulgent in the third and final chapter, like the film has become bored with telling its own story and more fascinated by the scenery that the two lead characters escape to. This soon became boring to me. There are some short flashbacks to what look like headlights in the rain and Gilles standing over something, but to me it isn’t enough to conclude that Gilles took his revenge on Percy who, it turned out, wasn’t involved in the murder of Gilles’ family.

Then, with Gilles and Tiny still on their escape and processing their thoughts, it all concludes. Without a real ending. DIY. Again. Nooooooo! A cardinal sin in a story like this in my opinion. GIVE ME AN ENDING.

Good in part, but ultimately not at all satisfying.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 3/5 (Not especially special.)

Desde allá (from afar) – review #sydfilmfest

I read another review of this film that concluded that the reality of life is too cruel for hope. Yeah, no. I didn’t like this film because there was no hope and I’m tired of seeing movies with a strong GLBTI theme that have no hope. We’re not all that grey, sad and hopeless.

At a big film festival you’re fortunate enough to witness the story telling efforts and methods of many different directors and those who are successful really stand out. This effort from Lorenzo Vigas isn’t one of them. I saw his film Desde allá after seeing the work of the amazingly talented John Michael McDonagh (War on Everyone), Ivan Sen (Goldstone), André Téchiné (Being 17) and Frederikke Aspöck (Rosita) to name just a few. These films are all entertaining and well-told stories. Lorenzo Vigas holds far too much back in Desde allá, but it is also far too depressing.

The actors can only work with what they’ve got but the well regarded Chilean star Alfredo Castro as Armando, gives us nothing. He shows hardly any emotion in the entire film and he does have a fair bit to be emotional about. He plays an older man with some issues who seeks sexual gratification by cruising for and then watching naked or near-naked youths undress in his apartment while he jerks off. His co-lead as the younger man, Luis Silva, manages to show a wider range, including some tenderness and vulnerability. He also adds some much needed colour in this largely colourless film. Maybe Castro just isn’t allowed to respond, but it would have worked better if he did, regardless of all of Armando’s unidentified issues.

The film is set in Caracas, Venezuela and I acknowledge that the film also highlights the differences between the haves and have-nots. It certainly made me feel a lot luckier with my own lot, but to some extent Rosita also dealt with a bleak economic environment and some unrequited love and still managed to leave the viewer with some hope and inspiration.

I was disappointed.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 2 (Pretty ordinary really.)

 

Demolition – review #sydfilmfest

Mal: In Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his wife in a car accident in the opening scene. We soon learn from several confessional letters written to the customer service department of a faulty vending machine’s company that Davis is an investment banker who works in his father-in-law’s firm somewhere in Wall Street. Not surprisingly, Davis quickly loses the plot, but through the letters he writes it seems that he may not have had a firm grip on it in the first place. He certainly looks the part, wearing fitted shirts, shaving his chest and trimming his eyebrows. He and his wife have a great house in the ‘burbs with lots of space and nice appliances, apart from a leaky fridge.

Frank (an imaginary rabbit): All is not as it seems. I liked the mattress salesman line.

Mal: Davis, however, starts to wonder whether he really loved or even knew his wife, perhaps whether she loved him and questions why they got together in the first place. He seems stuck in the weird-reactions-to-everything stage of his grieving process, starts to notice things he never had before and eventually tells a counsellor that he is numb from his head to his knees and has been so for about the last 12 years (see trailer above).

 Frank: zzzzzzzzzz

Mal: Along the way he eventually hears from the vending machine customer service department he has been writing to in the form of a phone call from Karen (Naomi Watts). Davis eventually tracks Karen down and soon after meets her probably-gay son Chris (Judah Lewis) who uses the f-bomb far too much and gets suspended from school for mixing science experiments with the politics of war in Afghanistan.

Frank: He is definitely gay.

Mal: It was about this point in time that I started to think that Demolition was just a little bit Donnie Darko all grown up. Did Karen and Chris really exist or were they just imaginary friends in Davis’ mind?

Frank: No, that’s a stupid proposition, but at least I now know how I got mixed up in this. Of course Karen and Chris are real. You probably think I am imaginary!

Mal: Unfortunately, father-in-law Phil gives Davis/Grown-up-Donnie some dangerous advice that to repair something (e.g. a human heart): you need to take it all apart, strip it down and then you can put it all back together again. Davis quickly proves interested in and reasonably skilled at taking things apart. When it comes to the putting back together again, not so much.

Frank: He really sucks at the putting back together again, but at least he is proud of his work in the firm’s wash-room.

Mal: The random demolitions soon get ridiculously out of hand as Davis and Chris start dealing with their demons and learning about themselves.

Frank: Yeah and I was particularly fond of their shooting practice scene in the forest with a hand-gun and bullet proof vest. Don’t try that one at home!

Mal: Karen and Chris introduce Davis to other elements of life, including the music of Heart (Crazy on You), and his road to recovery begins.

Frank: Karen, Karen, Karen. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

Mal: I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say that we do get one. This is not common these days and I for one really appreciate not having to make up my own or phone a friend.

Frank: You tiny brain. Have you no imagination at all?

Mal: Demolition is billed as a darkly comic drama, but I don’t think it is that dark and it isn’t all funny. It is very entertaining and refreshing.

Frank: I don’t know, I found that Republican Party convention in Phil’s house a bit dark.

Mal: I liked it a lot. I’m sure it’ll be successful at the box office and Jake will probably win some kind of award for his performance. It is good to see that the US can still make films like this. Go away Frank.

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 4/5 (Most people would think this to be special.)

 

Rosita – review #sydfilmfest

This is a gentle film about Ulrik, a father, played by the wonderful Jens Albinus, longing for love after the death of his wife. Like many in his small village in Denmark’s Jutland he goes for an arranged marriage with Rosita, a much younger woman from the Phillipines, played well by Mercedes Cabral. Ulrik has two sons and the younger, Johannes (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) still lives with him at home. Johannes is a bit of a local lad, a fisherman and has a girlfriend who clearly loves him a great deal.

Rosita is ultimately a film about whether we accept the cards we are dealt in life or make some difficult choices and it is also a film about hope and love. Johannes certainly isn’t happy with his lot and when Rosita comes along he soon thinks he has found the love of his life and wants to escape with her. Ulrik, however, is having none of this and the older lion still has the smarts to run his pack.

Johannes has to decide what he really wants and whether this choice will include the burning of some bridges to his family. A few words from his father right at the end of the film soon sort that out and I am reminded of the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards:

Oh, you can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need

My Bruce McAvaney Specialness Rating*: 3+/5 (Somewhat special.)