Friday, 10 November 2017

Three Summers (2017) - Movie Review

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve looked at an Aussie film, so let’s rectify that by looking at today’s film by that fabled Australian filmmaker… Ben Elton. Okay, to be fair, this is a primarily Aussie production, full of premier Aussie actors and it’s set in the outback; it’s just directed by a British guy. But not just any British guy but one of the UK’s foremost satirists. Behind such classics as The Young Ones and Blackadder, Elton’s bombastic and scathing approach to satire is genuinely impressive. Whether it was looking at 80’s punk culture with Young Ones or basically the whole of history with Blackadder, the man had a definite knack for the work, which considering how fiddly true satire can be is commendable. It also helps that he had a hand in the greenlighting of Red Dwarf, not only a strong force of sci-fi satire in its own right but an all-out classic piece of British pop culture.
With this kind of pedigree, and taking into account what Australian media is often best at (cultural examination), this should turn out pretty good… right?

The plot: At the Western Australian music festival ‘Westival’, fiddle player Keevy (Rebecca Breeds) and theremin player Roland (Robert Sheehan) have a chance encounter. Over the next three years of the festival, they and the other regulars of the Westival interact, counteract, argue and play music. Relationships are torn, boundaries are pushed and the cultural fabric of the Westival and Australia at large is tested. Unfortunately, I’m probably making this film out to be a lot more interesting than it actually is, but all in good time.

Well, this cast is… interesting. Sheehan as the linchpin musical hipster is easily the most entertaining presence in the film, being funny in a rather douchebag kind of way but severely lessened than I’m used to seeing from him. That, and he is surprisingly adept at the theramin. Opposite him, Breeds is competent as the female lead, even if the resolution to her character is more than a bit suspect, but she’s bubbly enough to keep things interesting. Trust me, in a film with this many floundering actors, that energy ends up helping a lot of the film.
Magda Szubanski as the overzealous radio host who wraps around a lot of the film’s set pieces hits intentionally annoying but not to the point where you want to pull the plug on her microphone. John Waters (no, not the guy who did Pink Flamingos) works nicely as the hard-drinking leader of the band, and his solo moment is probably the only dramatic moment that actually stuck. Kelton Pell as the indigenous leader gets some good quips in, Michael Caton is the only actor given a full arc to work with and it would have been effective if he didn’t sacrifice his dignity to have it, Deborah Mailman as the runner of an AA group is nicely downplayed and is one of the more effective because of that, Jacqueline McKenzie’s hoity-toity teacher of a music academy hits that one note as well as can be expected, and Peter Rowsthorn sits in a chair with wine and says “It’s so good that things are still the same” in every scene he’s in. Literally nothing else to say on that point.

Since this film is centred on a music festival, and it’s been a while since I’ve devoted a whole section of a review to the soundtrack of a film, how does the music turn out? Well, it’s an intentionally mixed bag but one that does end up working rather well. Enjoyability on this front will depend on one’s own taste for folk music, but even as someone rather indifferent to that style, seeing Waters and Breeds as part of the WArrikins is pretty cool, honestly. Breeds’ energy on stage makes their live sets rather fun, especially when she plays opposite Sheehan on the theramin. As for the TheraMan himself (quote from the film, don’t shoot the messenger), his “electro folk-funk” does show a serious amount of experimentation that ends up lending itself well to the film’s core message, and it’s doofy enough to enjoy on its own terms.
Similar to the folk singer Diamond who keeps presenting ‘contemporary’ versions of Aussie folk classics, only making them all about the social and political issues of today. It is exceptionally cringey in that Idina Menzel in Rent “Moo with me!” kind of way, but as a parody of hard-left political pundits disguised as musicians, it still works out. Feminasty, while only getting one song to work with, highlights a similar notion of how modernising certain styles probably isn’t the best idea but without any of the memorability. It’s down to personal preference as to what is funnier: Folk song about drug use or folk song about how the kookaburras are dying. Yeah, this film’s sense of humour is… interesting, but I’ll get to that. As for the music, it covers a decent surface area and the different approaches to the same genre allow for cohesion without monotony.

What is monotonous, however, is this film’s approach to writing. Elton’s wheelhouse is cultural satire, and given our country’s knack for openness when it comes to what gets the piss taken out of it, this should be a good fit… except for a pretty major hitch. Elton works with comedic exaggeration, showing the extremes of a cultural mindset to comment on what is wrong with the moderate of that same culture. Over here, we tend to stick to more down-to-earth depictions, sticking as close to reality as possible while making the same point. These two worlds don’t go together that well, if this film is any indication.
I say this because, through the regulars of the Westival, we get a decent cross-section of Australiana to work with. Between the indigenous dancers, Caton’s racist folk dancer, and the general sense of tradition floating around all the characters we see, the notion of tradition is constantly questioned. However, that is honestly all that this film does: Question. It continually points out how deep-set certain behaviours are, from nationalism to cultural adherence to alcoholism, and mockingly points out that things are good when they stay the same. And that’s it. It just repeats that same point over and over again for the entirety of the film, not once really extrapolating that into something meatier and, more importantly, practical. The closest we get is with Caton, and even then the major turning point for his character is brought about through a literal reluctant slow-clap moment. Everything attached to his character is dated as hell, and whether that was intentional or not, it still sucks.

But all of this is river-dancing around the more obvious problems with this self-supposed romantic comedy; the romance is weak and the comedy is dead on arrival. On that first point, the relationship between Keevie and Roland not only feels stilted in its progression, there isn’t a whole lot to make audiences think that they should be together in the first place. In fact, given the prevalence of a romantic coupling being the ‘reward’ for female characters in fiction, or just them being rewards for men, it would’ve been better and made the whole “let’s shake up the old traditions” message have more weight if they didn’t.
As for the comedy… wow, there’s a lot of dead air in this thing. Elton’s history with comedy is mainly in television and that area of experience shows, both in the episodic nature of the plot and the very sitcom-style of humour. Here’s an example: Michael Caton talks about how the indigenous dancers are rubbish and what their culture can’t be compared to his own. He then says that they are “ridiculous” and walks off with tambourines wrapped around his legs and a flower-studded hat. You can almost see the sign lighting up with “Laugh” for the studio audience to read. I can count a good three laughs this film actually got out of me in its 90-minute running time, and all of them were from Sheehan making some rather valid points concerning music; nothing to do with the cultural satire at work around him. The caricature nature of the satire makes it particularly difficult to vibe with, especially when it’s expressed through jokes that are this dated, and it ultimately makes this a rather frustrating watch. Mainly, because I want to like this a hell of a lot more than I do.

All in all, this is legitimately disappointing. A cast stuffed with veteran Aussie talent combined with a good ear for folk music and a definite intent to shine a light on Australian multiculturalism are all let down by the painfully awkward attempts at comedy and half-hearted attempt at commentary. I’ll admit to having a bit of fun at certain moments of the film, but it’s nowhere close to consistent, and given this film by a British filmmaker manages to tap into a truly Aussie mode of storytelling, that being examination of the cultural melting pot, I genuinely wish that this film was better than it was. Rarely does a film get me to that specific point, given how I tend to take most films on their own terms, but there’s a serious feeling that there’s a far better and cleverer film hidden underneath all the cringe.

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