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Sydney Film Festival: Unconventional Creature Features

Glenn here offering some final thoughts on films at the Sydney Film Festival...

Let's talk about a couple of new documentaries and a horror-romance hybrid. 

The Russian Woodpecker
Chad Garcia’s The Russian Woodpecker is fascinating. It’s a wholly unexpected surprise from this debut director that not only presents an involving story that links the nuclear devastation of Chernobyl to the modern day revolution of Ukraine with plenty of conspiracy theory intrigue, but also presents it in a formally adventurous way. The film’s central figure is the eccentric artist Fedor Alexandrovich and he’s the sort of man that would drift through a party before promptly leaving and making everybody turn to each other and say, “Well he was a character!” If this wasn’t a documentary he would almost be too hard to believe as he rattles off his (as it turns out, not entirely absurd) theory that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a planned plot by the Russian government to disguise the failure of a nearby Soviet-built radar tower that emitted a persistent clicking sound known as “the Russian woodpecker”.

Alexandrovich’s amateur sleuth skills are hardly credible, but his growing unease at his proposed discoveries – his interviews with former workers of the radar tower seethe with barely contained tension – leads brilliantly into a navigation of the current political unrest on the streets of Kiev and his growing unease with choosing to bring these Russian grievances to light. Visually arresting, Garcia’s film is an uncomfortable must-see.

Oscar? I'd like to think it can find a general release and compete for Oscar. After a few years of music and sport films winning, perhaps last year's win for Citizenfour will turn them back to politics. Barring The Look of Silence, nothing has emerged out of the festival circuit looking like a winner so it's an open playing field.

Horror on the Italian seaside and an elephant in Hawaii after the jump...

The horror genre hasn’t always been blood and guts, but it’s becoming increasingly common for the more acclaimed efforts to be those that blend their stories of macabre with the recognisable yet mundane drama of everyday life. Think of The Babadook, It Follows and now Spring, which stars Lou Taylor Pucci as an American tourist in Italy who falls in love with a beautiful woman played by Nadia Hilker who – well, wouldn’cha just know it – is not what she seems. As much as a romance as a horror, it somehow manages to explore its confounding tones with ease, building to an ending that, hardly in the great tradition of horror, has a real beautiful elegance to it.

The directing partnership Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have wisely kept what this Italian woman’s real identity consists of a secret throughout the film, allowing a series of potential red herrings to eventually give way to a field of imaginative effects (make-up and computer generated alike). Filmed in Italy, Spring certainly looks a marvel – Pucci and Hilker aren’t too bad to look at either – although it’s perhaps too restrained in its actual horror scenes to truly become truly visceral. While I have not seen the pair’s contribution to V/H/S: Viral (my displeasure with that franchise means I stopped at two), their smart storytelling abilities as demonstrated here as well as the inspirations that they have claimed to be behind Spring including Richard Linklater and H.P. Lovecraft certainly suggest that these directors could create something even more special in the future.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw
This Australian doc is chock-full of painful archival footage. It would be easy to call it indulgent and cynically attempting to wring tears out of its audience if the footage wasn’t so completely necessary in detailing the horrible years of abuse that were suffered by Tyke, a circus-owned African elephant that was eventually put down on the streets of Hawaii after stomping her trainer and escaping the circus grounds that they were currently working at to a crowd of hundreds. Much like Tilikum from Blackfish, Tyke was abused and along with other trained animals was forced to perform tricks for audiences in the brief moment of time that they were allowed out of their enforced captive cage.

I had tears in my eyes after five minutes, which is rare but for such a topic hardly surprising. Directors Susan Lambert (known for My Big Fat Bar Mitzvah and the brisk 1994 rom-com Talk) and Stefan Moore (Who Killed the Electric Car?) have created a moving look at the hows and whys of such an incident and if the world of animal circuses hadn’t already caved in on itself it would be a damning document for their closure. While the film’s construction may lack freshness, they have been able to assemble a group of vital talking heads and the editing is top notch at weaving the various strands into a compelling and damning whole.

More films that played Sydney's Film Festival...
Nicole Kidman in Strangerland
Mark Christopher's 54: The Director's Cut
Asif Kapadia's Amy

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