Last weekend I ventured back to sleepy Dungog for the inaugural Dungog Festival. Similar events have been held in the rural town in previous years, like the Dungog Film Festival. It’s a great idea and the town certainly has enough venues to facilitate a range of interesting events. There was some great music on offer too, from Tim Rogers to Husky, Meg Mac and Paper Kites. Sadly, each music event attracted a large number of locals who seemed content just to drink and chat during the bands. That was a shame. But the movie program was superb. The James Theatre is a really beautiful venue and between there and the local RSL, there were many feature films, documentaries and shorts to view.
I checked out the following three movies. Here’s my reviews:
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Directed by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement
On Friday night was the Australian premier of the hilarious new comedy from Eagle Vs Shark and Boy director Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords star Jermaine Clement. The mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows sees a camera crew follow the exploits of three childish yet fiercely debonair vampires who live in a Wellington share flat. There’s 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) who enjoys sexual deviancy and torture. Then there’s the polite, motherly vampire 379-year-old Viago (Waititi) and 183-year-old slobbish vamp Deacon (Jonathan Brugh). The fourth house mate, the 8000-year-old Peter, lives in the basement and is a creepy, Nosferatu-style vamp. They are soon joined by a freshly created vampire, Nick, whose generational angst soon causes friction in the household.
As the vampires prepare for the legendary annual inhuman event The Unholy Masquerade, which sees all sorts of creatures converge for a night hedonistic frivolity, we slowly learn the back stories of our vampire protagonists and meet a pack of werewolves, led by Rhys Darby.
What We Do In The Shadows is built around the deadpan humour that Clement executes so superbly with Bret McKenzie in Conchords. When Nick’s character introduces anachronisms into their gothic pad, like the internet, the writers find endless material for gags (when Vladislav does his “dark bidding” online it’s actually on eBay). Viago’s desire to keep an orderly household includes suggestions to put newspaper on the furniture and floor before his flatmates bite their victims, and to maintain chores like washing the dishes. These ideas are met with scorn. Scenes in which the characters try to convince security guards to “invite them in” to nightclubs, in accordance with vampire legend, are also laugh-out-loud funny.
The special effects and gore are also well-considered and perfectly timed, with the audience in hysterical fits of laughter when Viago accidentally bites into a victim’s main artery and paints the room red. Transformations into bats also reap some great comic moments.
In a time when vampires are, dare I say it, being “done to death” in mainstream cinema, What We Do In The Shadows has enough laughs to make it fresh and very re-watchable. It is a low-budget comedy that is worth sinking your teeth into.
Directed by Jody Shapiro
Finally making its way to Australia is Burt’s Buzz, the Jody Shapiro-directed documentary about Burt’s Bees icon Burt Shavitz. The film explores the eccentric 76-year-old beekeeper who co-founded the world-famous honey-based balm and cosmetics brand, and how his role has changed in the multi-billion dollar company.
The documentary could have been shortened by about 10 minutes, and often labours its points, but Shavitz, a man of very simple pleasures, is certainly a fascinating subject. He is a private, eccentric individual who lives without electricity and hot water in a small shack in Maine. His best friend is a golden retriever. Shapiro does her best to find out what’s going on inside the mind of the bearded Shavitz – what’s ticking behind those sad eyes? – but with mixed success. Burt remains a mystery.
But, luckily, there is an interesting story here. As a young man Shavitz moved to New York and documented ’60s counter-culture as a photographer for both Life and Time magazines. In 1970 he moved to the country side and learned the art of beekeeping. He sold honey by the side of the road and became a recognisable figure around town. Shavitz then met single mother of two Roxanne Quimby, with whom he would form boutique honey products company Burt’s Bees. With Quimby’s massive ambition as its driving force, the brand grew into the world-wide multi-billion dollar company that it is today.
Shapiro explores the fallout of Shavitz and Quimby’s separation (the latter does not take part in the movie, but is represented by her son Lucas St. Clair). We learn that Shavitz was manipulated out of the company before the business grew into the mountainous wax pile it is today. Now Burt is wheeled out by the company and paid to be a marketing tool, maintaining the public’s perception that Burt of Burt’s Bees is a real person – a country bumpkin who created an international brand. We follow him on a visit to Taiwan where he is greeted by hordes of screaming fans and treated like a rock star. He is a long way from his Maine meadow. Shavitz is a fish out of water and a man with a life that’s certainly worthy of a documentary.
The dichotomy of Shavitz’s values, of how we need to appreciate the simple things in life, seems so at odds with his decision to keep promoting a conglomerate cosmetics brand. Shapiro struggles to dissect this contrasting ideology but does a fine job of documenting it.
20,000 DAYS ON EARTH
Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard
A popular film on Dungog Festival’s Sunday program was 20,000 Days on Earth, a pseudo-documentary about a day in the life of writer and musician Nick Cave. It is an atmospheric hybrid of fact and fiction, as the audience gets to be a fly on the wall of a constructed, fictional day in Cave’s career. We follow him as he visits a shrink, has lunch with collaborator Warren Ellis, works on the Bad Seeds’ record Push The Sky Away and visits a British national archive to discuss personal artefacts housed there. He attempts to explain his motivations and creative processes. But will we get to find out what really drives this influential man?
Cave co-wrote the screenplay with his two directors and delivers voiceovers that are written in his direct style of deftly illustrative prose. It’s a documentary that is atmospheric and abstract, a framework that certainly suits the fascinating man at its centre. But hardcore fans of Cave’s work will not learn anything new about him. True insights are really hard to find. Even as Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld appear for brief conversations and then disappear, as if they are figments of Cave’s subconscious, you get morsels of revelation. But not much more.
The most sincere, revelatory moments are those in which Cave is talking to famed psychoanalyst Darian Leader about his childhood. There are also anecdotes delivered in the darkened basement of the British national archives in which the songwriter looks at old photographs from his days with The Birthday Party. Wonderful, too, is the live performance footage towards the film’s climax in which Cave intimately sings to girls in the front row, who appear to hastily melt beneath their skirts.
20,000 Days on Earth is a must-see for his fans, and will perhaps be an eye-opener for casual listeners, but is best as a cinematic companion to both his novel and song catalogue. Cave is captured in prosaic shards of stunning cinematography and glimmers of introspection. It leaves you wanting more and has a mesmeric quality. But you never feel like Cave is anywhere but the driver’s seat, steering you through bends he has chosen.