Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Newcastle

Dir. Dan Castle
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 107mins

A couple of years ago there was an Australian film called Tan Lines. It was a fairly dreadful look at homosexuality and Aussie surf culture, a thoroughly interesting topic I might like to add, that treated its queer topic with a strange pitched level of surprising earnestness and poor execution and unrealistic storytelling. It was further hampered by amateur acting and bad writing. It did, however, provide endless opportunities for queer audiences to fawn over shirtless male bodies (although their age sure was cringe-worthy at times) and that seems to be about the maximum depth you will find in many GLBT-themed movies.

Another Australian film that wades through similar territory, released late in 2008, was Dan Castle's Newcastle, which is a far more successful - and yet, at times, just as frustrating - attempt at the surfer-via-homos theme. While the queer angle is clearly not the film's prime reason for existing, it is actually the one aspect that really shines brightest. The film predominantly focuses of Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan of TV's Blue Water High so surfing experience comes with the package), but it is the relationship between his gay twin brother Fergus, played by the rising star Xavier Samuel (September), and one of Jesse's alpha surfer buddies that provide the thrust of the movie.

The character of Andy (Kirk Jenkins in his acting debut) is one of those incredibly unrealistic fantasy character that every socially awkward gay teenager daydreams about. He is sensitive, caring, incredibly dreamy in the looks department and acts all nice to the outcast. It's a character that almost every gay coming-of-age tale has, and yet I didn't feel that it derailed Newcastle. It's never made explicitly clear whether he is gay or not - Fergus most definitely is since he has purple streaks in his hair and, apparently, hangs around at beach toilet blocks - but he sure does come off that way. There is a scene on the dunes of a beach that is actually quite tender and beautiful. It's a fine example of the sort of thing movies like Another Gay Movie just do not understand. Just because your characters are gay doesn't mean a gay audience is going to want to watch them. Here they are well-formed and well-acted. I'm sure plenty of the film's gay male audience will swoon.

The film as a whole, despite not being entirely queer-centric, is very much queer-friendly. Scene after scene shows the pack of lithe and muscular young men (apparently all supposed to be 16 and 17 years old) pictured above sans clothes. Nudity is prevalent as, apparently, skinny dipping is a popular past time in Newcastle's surfing community. There's even one scene involving nude underwater wrestling between the two brothers that will provide some viewers with naughty thoughts. Even a scene in which the straight Jesse masturbates in his bedroom is intercut with as many shots of shirtless surfers as it is with shots of sexy women running along the beach with their tits bouncing about. Further to that point, for a film that I presume was supposed to be aimed at a teenage male audience, there are more shots of male posteriors and flapping dicks than there are shots of attractive women in bikinis.

Of course, the filmmakers have other more predominant issues on their brain and as soon as the third act comes around it all but ditches the queer subplot except for a quick reminder here or there plus a post-credits scene that seems to confirm what the audience surely suspected. Outside of this angle the film doesn't hold up quite as well. It is a fairly routine coming-of-age tale - that horror term that all followers of Australian film have grown to cringe at - about a younger brother emerging out of the shadow of his more successful older sibling (Reshad Strik). Jesse isn't a very likeable character - he's either angry or angry - which is why the subplots seem to be more interesting. The film's climax is sudden and seemingly unfinished. We don't even get to see Jesse's big chance at the surfing competition he's been working the entire film towards achieving. It just ends. Did they run out of money?

The photography by Richard Michalak is impressive as most surfing cinematography seems to be these days. Editing by Rodrigo Balark is equally good and continues his trend of being amongst the highlights of all his work after movies such as Black Water and The Eternity Man. The acting, too, is definitely worthy of mention and is one of the film's high points. Far too often in Australian films of this variety, the acting is as amateurish as the writing, but the actors fill their characters with spirit, playfullness and all have moments of note even if it is just a laugh or a single line of dialogue.

That writer/director Dan Castle is openly gay (his queer-themed short films have won awards) actually makes Newcastle more disappointing. It's obvious that the gay storyline is the film's most powerful asset, but I suppose it wasn't in the financiers best interest to ditch the less interesting Jesse storyline to focus on the Fergus/Andy one. Films that focus solely on a gay romance are all but always pushed aside and resigned to the queer festival circuit. As it stands though Newcastle is an impressive feature debut and a hopeful sign of an interesting new voice in both Australian and queer cinema. B

PS; I'm not just being a perv. There are seriously next to no stills from this movie that aren't of it's cast minus shirts.


richardwatts said...

I must be one of the only people in the world who liked Tan Lines. Despite all its faults, there was something about its deranged take on the Australian Gothic that I really enjoyed.

But I agree with you about Newcastle - the gay subplot is definitely the best thing about the film. I found myself really caring about Fergus and Andy and their developing 'relationship' (for want of a better word). And yes, it's beautifully shot.

Ben Rylan said...

I wouldn't call all of the acting in Tan Lines bad, some was merely underdeveloped (i.e. amateurs thrown in the deep end; "now act!"). The script was too weird, it tried way too hard to be all these strange things and ended up being too much of an anomaly.

I haven't seen Newcastle, but already I'm annoyed by the unrealistic dreamy character. There are so many good queer coming of age books, why do we have so few good queer coming of age films? Because the filmmakers always feel too much pressure to create a fairy tale of sorts? I don't know. It annoys me.

I'll see Newcastle though, it certainly is sparking my interest.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I imagine it is because movies are not cheap to make and when you're all but guaranteed that your gay coming-of-age movie is only ever going to play on the queer festival circuit then there are less people and funding bodies willing to shell out the cash.

The audience is so niche with these films. There's almost no breakout potential because mainstream audiences are just not interested in them (much like Australian audiences aren't interested in "urban" films or so on, nothing necessarily homophobic about it, it's just the way it is) and it's easier for filmmakers to get seen if all they do is throw some toilet jokes in with their barely dressed stars and you'll get praised by the GLBT media as "hilarious!" even though if it were filled with straight characters they'd hate it as purile.

Give Newcastle a go. The fantasy character isn't as annoying as you expect. It's not a case of the nerd getting high school quarterback (or whatever the Australian comparison is). It's actually quite sweet.

Anonymous said...

Is it really a fantasy to think in this day and age that a teen or young adult male wouldn't be freaked out about a gay guy having a crush on him? Maybe Andy just genuinely likes Fergus and likes the attention without it having to be a comment on his own sexuality.

I would like to hope that we are raising young men to get beyond some of the fear and machismo that makes folks assume Andy only exists in fantasies.

Yes, there was a time when the idea of a gay man and a straight man being close even flirty friends was impossible to conceive but I just don't think that assumption can be taken for granted for folks born in the last 20 years.

Glenn said...

While the scenario you raise is a very likely one in this day and age in society I felt that in Newcastle there was a clear difference between Andy merely liking Fergus and wanting to spend time with him. I mean, in all honesty, how many heterosexual men would hang out with their friends' gay brother and ask them to jack off with you if it's nothing more? I thought the movie was clearly portraying Andy as the fantasy boy and clearly portraying the fantasy boy as gay.

But that's just my interpretation. Anybody can take it any way they choose.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree, I don't think Andy is totally straight. The way he looks at Fergus, the easy familiarity, and asking if Fergus wants to jerk off with him is delightful.

If Andy is straight, he is the most open-minded straight boy I've ever seen. I'd say at least he is bi-curious and totally comfortable in his skin.

It's nice that this is accepted as totally normal. Quite refreshing.

KitchenGirl said...

Andy was intentionally left a cipher, per the filmmaker. I agree that its a pretty crappy film, although the surf cinematography was really beautiful.

I disagree in your assessment of the Andy / Fergus subplot -- that was by an order of magnitude the best part of the movie, and should have been its own film. Dan Castle said that "Shelter" already did the "gay surfer" thing so he didn't want to re-do it, but I feel like there's room for more than one. How many action films are there, and I have yet to hear an action-film director say "well, someone's already done the rogue-cop-saves-the-day movie, we dont' need another one!"

I wish the movie had been a little more explicit about what was happening there -- it seems clear to me that Andy was into guys to some degree (eyes sliding over Fergus at the saltwater-poolside, leaning into him in the jeep, *jerking off* with him in the dunes (ahem? doesn't that count?) and the underwater thing that seemed to be him just grabbing at Fergus' arms to touch him). And of course the post-credit "boyfriend" Easter Egg.

Look, sometimes the good guy wins even in real life. Sometimes the hot guy really does want to be with you (I say this as a very plain person who has caught the eye of the guy everyone wanted -- more than once!) If its OK to have the awkward teen girl have the boy of her dreams fall in love with her in *every* teen movie ever made, its OK to have the awkward teen guy have the boy of his dreams, too. Let romantic stories be romantic.