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6 Australian films that have blown us away at MIFF (and one that completely misses the mark)

Written by
Time Out editors

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. MIFF 2017 has seen many Australian movies get an enthusiastic reception – not least the opening night movie Jungle starring Daniel Radcliffe. The following films are all worth catching in their repeat screenings. With one notable, disappointing exception.

1 Something Quite Peculiar: The Life and Times of Steve Kilbey

Mike Brook’s excellent documentary has the Church’s mercurial frontman opening up about the band’s biggest hit (he hates the large amount of space it takes up in his life); his heroin addiction (he regrets it but doesn’t apologise for it); and the insecurity in his youth that came across as extreme arrogance (he’s a lot more chilled out these days). The band became international superstars on the back of 1988’s Starfish album and the hit ‘Under the Milky Way’, but squandered the momentum with smack and a lacklustre follow-up record. A gimmicky voiceover in the film has ‘Under the Milky Way’ as a character in itself, lamenting in a woman’s voice that even though he gave so much to Kilbey, he doesn’t love her back. This doesn’t quite work, but the film is unfailingly entertaining in its portrait of a talented, fascinating and sometimes troubled man.

After the screening Kilbey, 62, shared some unguarded moments with the MIFF crowd, hosted by Time Out. Kilbey revealed he believes heroin should be legalised, everyone should a vegetarian and Molly Meldrum never fancied him, despite the infamous 1982 RAM article by Stuart Coupe that suggested otherwise. The same article quoted Kilbey boasting he was the greatest songwriter in the world; Kilbey did not deny saying as much, but pleaded the mitigating circumstances of the large amount of speed he had been snorting at the time of the interview. Film festival Q&As are rarely so enlightening – don’t miss your chance to see both the film and Kilbey at the second screening on Wednesday August 9. Nick Dent

2 Celia

The National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra has digitally restored the debut feature from Ann Turner, which received great reviews internationally back in 1989 but sits largely forgotten in the Australian canon. That all changes here: the restored Celia emerges as an out-and-out film masterpiece, one of the best films about childhood since The 400 Blows. Rebecca Smart stars as an eight year old in Surrey Hills in 1957 dealing with a series of reality checks, from discovering her grandmother dead in bed one morning to being told she can’t play with the kids next door because their parents are communists. The film’s iconic image is of Celia clutching her pet rabbit: domestic rabbits were banned at the time due to lapine infestation, and Celia cannot understand why her ‘Murgatroyd’ is being scapegoated any more than she can comprehend the one-sided sexual tension between her father (Nicholas Eadie) and her free-spirited neighbour Alice (Victoria Longley). She can understand fear, though, and scenes where Celia imagines troll-like creatures from a scary storybook coming to get her have the authentic chill of childhood imagining.

“I’m not really a rabbit person,” recalled Smart, now in her forties, following the screening, saying the uncomfortable weight of the bunny was her strongest memory of the shoot. Turner, meanwhile, explained that Celia was marketed as a horror film on VHS in the US – Celia: Child of Terror – and that its defiance of genre conventions made it a tricky sell outside of the arthouse market. Turner studied film at Swinburne in the 1980s where she was “taught to defy convention”: her extraordinary film certainly does that. It’s not getting a repeat screening at MIFF but is bound to pop up again soon – we urge you to see it any way you can. ND

3 That’s Not Me

A polished low-budget effort, That’s Not Me is a breezy comedy about showbiz wannabes, cooked up by actor Alice Foulcher and her director husband, Greg Erdstein. Foulcher is hilarious as Polly, a struggling Melbourne actress whose inability to land a part is made all the more painful by the fact her identical twin sister (Foulcher) is breaking through in Hollywood with a role opposite (and budding romance with) Jared Leto. Polly determines to get to LA for pilot season and crash with old friend Zoe (Isabel Lucas), but the trip doesn’t go according to script. Foulcher and Erdstein’s screenplay detonates truth bombs about the entertainment industry: the line “sorry, I don’t watch Australian films,” was one of several to get a big laugh at the movie’s Melbourne premiere.

Far from being starry eyed, That’s Not Me puts forward the radical notion that by being raised to believe that can do anything they want, millennials have been primed for disappointment. Andrew S Gilbert, a great actor who has never received his due recognition, brings class to the role of the twins’ supportive dad, and Rowan Davie is loathsome as a selfish hipster theatre director Polly hooks up with out of desperation. Foulcher, meanwhile, conveys low self-esteem with the comedic flair of a Kristin Wiig – in a reversal of the film’s premise, That’s Not Me seems bound to land her work in the US. The film’s two MIFF screenings are sold out but you can catch the film at Palace Cinemas when it releases on September 7. ND

4 Rabbit

There must be something in the water but every new Australian movie at MIFF seemed to feature twins. Luke Shanahan’s horror thriller Rabbit, completed with money from MIFF’s Premiere Fund, concerns a woman, Maude (Adelaide Clemens), studying medicine in Berlin and plagued by visions of her identical twin sister Cleo (Clemens), who vanished a year earlier. Returning home to a grey, Nordic-looking Adelaide, she joins Cleo’s fiancé (Alex Russell, also starring opposite Daniel Radcliffe in Jungle) and a burned-out, off-duty cop (Jonny Pasvolsky) to follow her visions of kidnap and torture to a caravan park inhabited by creepy types and a friendly European couple who are not what they seem.

Bombastic synthesizer music channeling both John Carpenter and the Suspiria score by Goblin assaults the ears, along with snatches of Beethoven and Mozart. Together with the use of livid red title cards, Shanahan brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and A Clockwork Orange with a large dose of Italian horrormeister Luci Fulci. Hats off to him for sheer unabashed style – catch the film in repeat on August 9 if you want your preconceptions about Oz cinema obliterated. It’s just a shame this tale of psychic connection and twisted science lacks strong villains and much suspense. Loud music too often substitutes for genuine shock moments – but admittedly, what awesome music (by Michael Darren) it is. ND

5 Hope Road

When so many documentaries twist reality to suit a preordained triumph-over-the-odds outcome, the films of Tom Zubrycki remain refreshingly true to the inconclusiveness of real life. His latest, Hope Road, depicts the efforts of a South Sudanese Australian, Zacharia Machiek, to build a primary school in the village he left behind as a refugee. A former child soldier, Machiek forms a committee of helpers and decides to walk from Brisbane to Sydney on a fundraising mission. But as the project drags on events intervene – both in South Sudan when civil war breaks out, and in Machiek’s private life. Zubrycki goes with Machiek to South Sudan and witnesses him being reunited with relatives after a 25-year absence, then follows him and dedicated committee member Janice on their epic east coast walk, capturing heartening scenes of the warm welcome they get from small towns and schools. But that’s not the end of the story by any means. Catch it on its cinema release later in 2017. ND

6 The Go-Betweens: Right Here

Director Kriv Stenders took to the podium at ACMI to introduce Go-Betweens founding member, Robert Forster. Forster took the opportunity to pay homage to the great producer and sound engineer Tony Cohen, who died just last week. The documentary portrays the creative journey kicked off by Forster and Grant McLennan in Brisbane in the late ’70s, when they were filled with youthful self-confidence, which would eventually be marred by heartbreak, disappointment and tragedy. The film offers archival footage and candidly honest recounts from the band’s original members (including drummer Lindy Morrison, along with other musical figures including Paul Kelly and Steve Kilbey) who deeply felt the influence of a band who arguably deserved much more recognition. Stenders celebrates a group that always seemed to be on the precipice of major success, but nonetheless made a lasting impact on music history. Catch the film in repeat on Thursday August 10 or in limited release from September 28. Jenny Vu

We also saw...

Australia Day

Director Kriv Stenders has two films at MIFF this year. As well as his well received Go-Betweens doco, there’s this attempt to grapple with the complex web of tensions that make up modern Australia, with the country’s most controversial day as its framework. The film (set in central Brisbane) interweaves three stories: an Indigenous teenager running from an abusive household in search of her drug-addicted mother; a Chinese woman who escapes sex slavery and meets a suicidal white farmer; and a young Middle Eastern-Australian man tortured by a group of racist white men for a crime he didn’t commit.

If the premise sounds a little overreaching, or like the bleakest possible version of holiday films like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Day, then you’re correct on both counts. In creating a film where the title alone is incendiary, director Stenders and writer Stephen M Irwin are stepping into difficult, ambitious territory – how can one film meaningfully and sensitively represent all of these complex issues and cultural tensions, without simply skimming the surface?

While Stenders and Irwin are commended for attempting such a feat, the result is wildly unsuccessful. Where Abe Forsythe’s Down Under focused in on the Cronulla Riots and gave it a darkly funny treatment to make a razor-sharp comment on racism, Australia Day overloads itself with plot and character. In trying to break racial stereotypes, the film actually enforces them. Ham-fisted moral lessons about unity and hope (delivered by Bryan Brown in a cringe-worthy voiceover at the end) do nothing to assuage the propagation of damaging clichés.

In the Q&A after the Melbourne premiere, Stenders said that he hoped the film is the “beginning of a larger conversation” about changing the date of our national holiday (most recently reignited with Triple J’s nation-wide survey about moving the Hottest 100). As a contribution to this debate, Australia Day falls disappointingly short. Rose Johnstone Screening on Foxtel later in 2017.

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