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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Seven Sublime and Surreal Films to Stream During the 2021 Sydney Underground Film Festival

Spend more than a fortnight streaming exceptional music documentaries, out-there comedies and compelling dramas as Sydney's wildest film fest goes virtual.
By Sarah Ward
September 13, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
September 13, 2021
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There are few film festival experiences as fun as spending four days camped out at Marrickville's Factory Theatre during the Sydney Underground Film Festival. Attending this fest in-person involves hopping in and out of its makeshift cinemas, watching all manner of out-there and indie movies you won't see elsewhere, and spending plenty of time at the bar chatting about what you've just seen — and, whether you're a diehard cinephile and festival devotee, you're just sick of watching mainstream fare or it purely sounds like a great way to spend a weekend, it's a total and utter delight.

SUFF isn't playing out quite like this at the moment, however, for obvious reasons. Moving online for the second year in a row, it's hosting its 2021 edition virtually. Thankfully, while no one can enjoy the physical side of the fest between Thursday, September 9–Sunday, September 26, SUFF has brought its usual anarchic vibe to its 30-film program — all of which is now available to stream, and nationally as well.

Get ready for affectionate documentaries, weird and wild features that just keep getting weirder and more wonderful, and pretty much everything in-between, all while getting cosy on your own couch. And if you've not sure where to start, we've watched, picked and reviewed seven highlights from SUFF's 15th annual program. There's your viewing sorted for the next fortnight or so.

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POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLICHÉ

Add Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché to the list of exceptional music documentaries — and yes, that observation can end there and prove 100-percent accurate. That said, this excellent film also belongs among the ranks of standout docos about famous musicians that serve multiple purposes. For existing fans of Marianne Elliott-Said, the punk singer who fronted late-70s band X-Ray Spex, this is an unflinching love letter that dives into every facet of her life. Covered here: her rise to stardom at a pivotal time in music history, the way she was treated as a British Somali woman, her efforts to subvert every standard that applied to women and public figures, and the toll it all took. As co-written, co-directed and guided on-screen by her daughter Celeste Bell — as an act of embracing everything her mother was and stood for — the film also demonstrates again and again why its title couldn't be further from the reality. For newcomers to the woman best known under her stage name Poly Styrene (which she picked from the phone book), this loving feature acts as an entry point, too. Like fellow outstanding music doco The Sparks Brothers, it'll give some of its audience a new obsession. Via voice snippets rather than talking heads, the likes of Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore also offer their memories of and insights into all things Poly, but Bell and her co-helmer Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain) understandably push their bold, rebellious and inimitable central figure to the fore at all times — including via riveting archival footage, as well as potent and emotional snippets from her diaries and poems. cp-line

WONDERFUL PARADISE

No one will finish Wonderful Paradise wondering what writer/director Masashi Yamamoto (The Voice of Water) and co-screenwriter Suzuyuki Kaneko might've left out of their script. The pair throw everything they can into this absurdist Japanese comedy, and it shows — because this is the type of movie where giant coffee beans get ravenous, children segue from projectile vomiting to transforming into branches, pregnancies last around 20 minutes, and parties become funerals, then turn into big song-and-dance numbers. The premise: at a house in suburban Tokyo, Akane (Mayu Ozawa, The Happy Prisoner), her father (Seikô Itô, We Are Little Zombies) and her brother (Soran Tamoto, I Turn) are packing up their belongings. For financial reasons that involve big debts and shady figures who are keen to collect, they're moving out of the sprawling abode. But Akane decides to host one last party and, after she tweets out the details, friends, relatives and strangers alike — including her estranged mother Akiko (Kaho Minami, Oh Lucy!) — all start popping up. From there, anything that can happen does. Indeed, sharing the same kind of manic energy that also made fellow low-budget Japanese flick One Cut of the Dead a delight, this plays like a hallucinatory mind trip more than a movie. That isn't a criticism of Wonderful Paradise; this is just a film that sweeps you along for a strange and surreal ride, satirises everything it can while also making plenty of savvy statements, careens off in weird and wonderful directions, and also makes you adore every minute.

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LORELEI

Following an ex-felon who has just been released from a 15-year prison stint, as well as his former teenage sweetheart, Lorelei isn't in a rush to unfurl its dramas and dive to its deepest depths. Marking the feature debut of Sabrina Doyle, it's the type of film that needs that space and 111-minute running time to grow and breathe, and to build up to its surprises — and to earn the emotional journey that its standout lead performances slowly but commandingly convey at every moment. Orange Is the New Black's Pablo Schreiber plays Waylan, a small-town biker who didn't snitch when he was sent up for armed robbery. Keeping quiet cost him not only a decade and a half of his life, but his romance with Dolores (Jena Malone, Antebellum). His incarceration has saw their shared dreams dissolve, too, and led Dolores to have three children with other men since. The pair reunite after Waylan is released, crossing paths purely in passing. Quickly, staring into each other's eyes brings back old feelings, and also conjures up new regrets about the existence they always thought they'd lead together. Doyle is as concerned about the precarious situation that Dolores and her children Dodger (first-timer Chancellor Perry), Periwinkle (fellow newcomer Amelia Borgerding) and Denim (debutant Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) have endured over the years as she is with Waylan's route forward, and much of Lorelei thoughtfully dwells on the stark realities facing all of its characters. Indeed, there's not just empathy but a sense of rawness here — including when the film endeavours to leap into sunnier waters.

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ALIEN ON STAGE

It's one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and always will be. It spawned three sequels and two prequels over the course of four decades and, while many of those have been stellar themselves, it still remains the best film there is with xenomorphs at its centre. It made Sigourney Weaver not just a star but a legend, too — and, thanks to an amateur stage version of the iconic flick that was initially staged in Dorset, then hit London's West End, it gave a group of British bus drivers their time in the spotlight as well. The movie in question: Alien. It mightn't seem suited to the theatre, but that didn't stop Dave Mitchell and his friends. When they decided to turn the film into a stage production, they put their hearts and souls into it, and Alien On Stage tells their story. The show turns out exactly as you'd expect with a non-professional cast and crew at the helm, and with homemade props recreating the Nostromo and its unwanted stowaway. The same description applies to his loving documentary — because this is a movie made by fans, about a stage show made by fans, and the end result leans into all of those layers of affection. Back in 1979, Ridley Scott mightn't have ever imagined that his sci-fi/horror film could spawn this level of devotion, or give this much happiness to folks trying to follow in his footsteps — and to a room full of immensely entertained Leicester Square Theatre attendees, too. That's just one of the things that Alien has spawned, and everyone can hear this movie's screams of joy.

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SWEETIE, YOU WON'T BELIEVE IT

When Arman (Azamat Marklenov) and Murat (Erlan Primbetov) pick up Dastan (Daniar Alshinov, A Dark, Dark Man) for a day of fishing in Sweetie, You Won't Believe It, they're just trying to gift him one last moment away from his responsibilities. His girlfriend Zhanna (Asel Kaliyeva, The Secret of a Leader) is about to give birth to his first child, and this film subscribes to the idea that parenthood means kissing goodbye your old self. But, the trio have never cast a line into the water before. That's the excuse they've used to head away, though, so they decide to stick with it. They're soon fashioning a boat out of blow-up sex toys, but that's far from the worst that their day trip to regional Kazakhstan has in store. As they're floating and not really fishing, they witness gun-slinging gangsters (Alamat Sakatov, Yerkubulan Daiyrov and Rustem Zhaniyamanov) attempting to squeeze information out of another man in a violent fashion — and, soon, Dastan and his pals find themselves being pursued by the ruthless criminals as well. Then, complicating matters even further, a one-eyed, jaw-ripping psychopath (Dulgya Akmolda) on a quest for vengeance starts targeting everyone in sight. Sweetie, You Won't Believe It doesn't take any of its various parts seriously, thankfully. It's one part buddy getaway comedy, one part western slapstick, one part secluded horror and one part gory gangster flick, and it loves seesawing back and forth between all four. It also has ample fun satirising prevailing ideas of masculinity amidst the blood, guts and over-the-top silliness.

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CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST

When The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters chronicled Steve Wiebe's attempt to earn Donkey Kong's highest score ever — and oust Billy Mitchell from retaining that title in the process — it turned a slice of the gaming world into one of the must-see documentaries of the early 2000s. Well over a decade later, Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest mashes similar buttons, this time focusing on the eponymous Danish Gyruss devotee and his dream of clocking up 100 consecutive hours playing the 80s game. If successful, Kim aka Cannon Arm won't just claim the world record for his favourite shoot-'em-up title. Standing in an arcade for more than four days straight (with some canny plans around how to eat, nap and go to the bathroom, if you're wondering how that all works), he'd smash the existing feat by a whopping 41 hours. Sporting a greying mullet and noted for his lack of conversation, Kim himself approaches the possibility with few words; however, his friends and fellow games are eager to do anything they can to assist his quest. As this doco charts, achieving this kind of milestone isn't straightforward. Yes, Kim's health is considered in detail as first-time feature filmmaker Mads Hedegaard — who narrates as well — explains. All that gaming isn't the only focus of the documentary, though, with Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest smartly diving into what draws Kim and his Bip Bip Bar mates to their preferred pastime, what else they're fascinated with in their lives, and how gaming both parallels their other interests and provides a respite from their daily lives.

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DANNY. LEGEND. GOD.

If there's one thing that Bulgarian councillor Danny (Dimo Alexiev, A Hidden Life) isn't lacking, it's confidence. He isn't short on arrogance, either, or on the impulses needed to take the most corrupt, abhorrent, self-serving option at any possible juncture — and he's extremely unpleasant to be around even in small bursts. Danny is also the titular figure in mockumentary Danny. Legend. God., so he demonstrates his worst traits over and over, and for an extended period. First-time filmmaker Yavor Petkov wants viewers to feel uncomfortable, in fact, because that's the natural reaction to seeing someone who's little more than a crook throw their weight about in a position of power, care only about themselves and have zero regard for the long-term repercussions for everyone in their orbit. In other words, this is a film that proves particularly piercing given the current global political climate. It's darkly humorous, but in a savage, biting, only-two-degrees-removed-from-reality way. And if you're wondering why Danny is in the spotlight — and why Alexiev puts in quite the committed performance in the part — that's because the film revolves around a news crew visiting the character's home town to capture and ideally expose his wrongdoing. What starts out as an attempt to make a documentary about money laundering soon gets hijacked by their subject, though, as Danny demands that his freewheeling life is captured exactly how he wants it — no matter what he's doing, or snorting, or the cost of his actions.

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The 2021 Sydney Underground Film Festival runs from Thursday, September 9–Sunday, September 26. For further details, or to watch online, head to the festival's website.

Published on September 13, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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