The Sydney Film Festival 2016 has begun very, very well. Tickled and Goldstone are sublime. Certain Women is alright, but a very strange pick for the Competition.
****1/2 (out of five)
It’s a difficult – perhaps stupid – thing to give a “star rating” to a documentary. (You could say the same about any film, or any work of art, but it’s a requirement of my particular gig and I actually don’t mind it as a point of focus.) Some docos have subjects so compelling that you’re partially awarding your prize to the subject, not the artist; but then, it was this artist who “found” the subject, or at least went to the effort of making a film about it, or at least went to the effort of making a really good film about it… You see the dilemma.
Regardless, Tickled is so compelling, so thoroughly engrossing, so totally enjoyable, that it deserves the kind of praise that accompanies the big important docs – you know, the ones that change your life and get the big star ratings. See this movie. It’s amazing, astonishing, jaw-dropping, revelatory, brilliant.
You’ll notice I’m avoiding talking about the film itself; that’s completely deliberate, for the less you know, the better. Ostensibly it’s about the dark underbelly of competitive endurance tickling. Say what? Exactly.
New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier goes noodling about looking for his next fun, light, easy-going story, finds an audition notice for competitive endurance tickling, thinks “WTF??”, follows it up, and gets hit with hateful correspondence about his own sexuality of such mind-boggling nastiness that he simply has to go deep, enlisting his filmmaking buddy Dylan Reeve to join him. And that’s all in the first 300 or so seconds of the film. Things get weirder from there.
If the definition of a good film is one that keeps you wanting to know what happens next, Tickled is among the greatest ever made. You cannot look away. Don’t drink a batch of water, coffee, beer, whatever before you go in, because woe-be-tide you have to go to the toilet and miss a moment. This is breath-taking stuff. The only reason I can’t give it five stars is that I feel like it could’ve gone an extra mile in really relating its findings to the grander human condition; regardless, this is a genius piece of documentary filmmaking. I want it to be nominated for Best Feature Length Documentary at the next Academy Awards. That may sound like a long shot, but only because of the subject matter’s inherent weirdness. In terms of proficiency and engagement, Tickled is an instant classic, one that will appear on “Top 50 Documentary” lists forever.
****1/2 (out of five)
Now showing at the Sydney Film Festival
Opening across Australia 7 July
Three years ago Ivan Sen’s film Mystery Road opened the Sydney Film Festival. This year his new film, Goldstone, did the same. It was a great show of respect for Sen – and indeed, on stage, Festival Director Nashen Moodley called Sen “one of the greats.” But it was also deeply thematically and contextually satisfying, because Goldstone continues the story of Detective Jay Swan, played in both films by Aaron Pedersen, a supremely talented actor and also a true “movie star”, possessing that undefinable “it” – you only know it when you see it, especially on the big screen. He’s incandescent.
You don’t need to have seen Mystery Road to appreciate Goldstone, and indeed, there’s no reason not to see Goldstone as soon as you can and then check out Mystery Road, at home, as a prequel – it would work well that way, as Goldstone is to Mystery Road as The Road Warrior was to Mad Max: the first film in each case (Mad Max and Mystery Road) sketches everything in beautifully, while the second is some sort of masterpiece.
Jay Swan is the ongoing detective Australia needs. He’s Indigenous, for a start, and he’s also tall, strong and handsome. He’s got issues, but his brain never falters, and nor does his aim with a rifle. He’s heroic, a cross between Sam Spade and pretty much any character ever played by John Wayne. And Goldstone is very much a cross between the hard-boiled detective story and the western, with the vast desert outback as its milieu.
And what a milieu. This is the most beautiful movie – along with The Revenant – I’ve seen in years. Like that movie, a lot of Goldstone was shot at “golden hour”, the crew meticulously planning all day then shooting like hell for a couple of hours as the sun set. It’s like a negative image of The Revenant; that film was all snow and trees and water, while here is all sand and sky and not a drop to drink, except beer, which, like in all good outback Aussie tales, is a character unto itself.
Sen might shoot beautifully but Goldstone, unlIke the shallow Revenant, is also thematically rich and deep. Favoring image and physical performance over dialogue (again like Revenant) but utilizing a twisty, sophisticated plot, Sen delivers an artful pot-boiler, a boiling, roiling poem of callousness and intrigue that operates as a very direct but never “on-the-nose” metaphor for no less than the history of Australian white settlement. This, while also having the best gunfights since… Mystery Road.
Sen is not afraid of ambiguity, and as such, in the detective story arena, Goldstone is reminiscent of The Big Sleep: not everything gets answered, there are red herrings and loose ends and scenes simply for the sake of themselves. But, in the western arena, Goldstone aspires to The Searchers: it is about a lot more than guys and guns. Simultaneously a small story set against a massive landscape and a huge story told within the world’s smallest community, Goldstone is a stunning, original piece of cinema and not to be missed on the big screen.
*** (out of five)
Taking the concept of “low-key” to new heights, Kelly Reichardt’s new film is not for my student who commented, after watching Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (which I consider rapidly paced), “It’s like the stuff they cut out of normal films”. Slow to the point of being provocative (“Can you take it? Can you sit still?”) Certain Women manages to be engrossing almost entirely due to milieu.
That milieu is Montana, a part of the world that has been alluded to or portrayed in gun-totin’ westerns but rarely as a minor hotbed of extra-marital affairs, lesbian crushes and personal injury lawsuits. That makes the film sound exciting, which it is not. Certain Women is determinedly “slice-of-life”; the acting is straight modern realism, the stories all entirely possible in the real world (they’re adapted from three short stories by Maile Meloy), and the shooting and editing style slow. Like, really slow. At one point there is a shot of a horse barn (is that what they call a house for horses?) that goes on, with minimal human interaction, for about nine hours. I jest, of course, but seriously, did the editor leave the room?
It’s all highly intentional, of course, and thank goodness. Reichardt is no slouch and she has a strong, personal voice. The film has an internal belief system, a structure that you’re either gonna get on board with or not. I did. But be warned. It’s a very, very quiet, deliberate and precious piece of cinema. It’s entertaining in the barest sense of the word, but it is thought-provoking, eye-opening and intriguing in the quietest. Why in the world it is in contention for the Sydney Film Festival’s Prize – which awards “the most courageous, audacious and cutting-edge new cinematic creations” – is beyond me. It is none of the above.