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2013 Sydney Underground Film Festival Diary Days 1 & 2

Thursday September 5

Fighting off a wave of tiredness brought on by the day job, I made my way to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville on Thursday for the opening night of the 2013 Sydney Underground Film Festival. This setting is perfect for a festival such as this. With a wealth of weird, wild indie features and controversial documentaries, I embraced this challenge and set out to take full advantage of the opportunity to catch some of the talk-of-the-town films that screened recently in Melbourne. Drinks and pizza were supplied and consumed and we made our way into Cinema 1, the largest, for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality.

The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad)

REVIEW: The Dance of Reality

As you watch a film like El Topo, one of the many questions you ask yourself is: what sort of person could have made this film? Well, in The Dance of Reality, the expectedly bonkers return of veteran Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky to the screen for the first time since 1990, we are privileged to an autobiographical insight (with many an imaginative, mythological twist) into his childhood and family. While the crazy genius has remained a mystery for some time, I wonder how much we really learn about him in this film, and how much has been augmented to keep up the grand illusion of his life. In the realm of Jodorowsky, responsible for some of the most searing cinematic images I have ever seen – his films are an example of gluttonous surrealism, indulgent but calculated – this is actually pretty accessible. Having said that, he doesn’t skimp on the strange stuff.

The film is a childhood story of Jodorowsky (portrayed by Jeremías Herskovits), growing up in small Chilean seaside town. His father Jaime (played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis – the naked kid in El Topo) is a Stalin-worshipping tyrant who wants to make a man out of young Alejandro, while his mother (Pamela Flores), theatrically melodramatic, is a more nurturing influence who amusingly sings every word operatically. We see young Alejandro gradually shaped by these two figures in a time of national political unrest, with his father fueled by his strict ideologies, undertaking a personal mission to change the fate of his Nation. As a result of this pilgrimage, he returns a changed man – a family man, more accepting of both his wife and his son.

This is a conjuring of bizarre, disturbing and hilarious images; it is a film that is constantly alive and rich with striking beauty. Tocopilla is especially vibrant. There are also some amazing score progressions – and if this wasn’t already a family affair, another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Adan, is the man responsible. If you leave a Jodorowsky film feeling that your senses haven’t taken a beating, you may not have been paying attention, but this deeply personal story offers a one-of-a-kind cinematic trip.

While still a Jodorowsky novice – I have seen the baffling, stupendously ambitious pair of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the latter I found intermittently brilliant, but an almighty struggle – I was intrigued to watch a film released by the provocative director during my lifetime. While the story wearyingly meanders a little in the latter half, tracking Jaime’s spiritual rebirth, I remained riveted. Fans will embrace this grand, surreal reflection no doubt. It is incredible that he still has such stories to tell and such a unique way to tell them.

[rating=3] and a half

 

Friday September 6

 

Not much to say in between the days. I went home, had not enough sleep, went to work and returned to the Factory Theatre for Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a film I heard about earlier in the year from Robbie Collin. Images from The Dance of Reality were percolating in my head all day, which attributed to my warped sanity all day. Following Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction we lined up Magic Magic, Sundance favourite Sebastian Silva’s psychological horror. Had heard high praise for the vision and the performances.

Harry Dean Stanton Poster 

REVIEW: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

I think it is a pretty universal belief that a Harry Dean Stanton cameo gives any film a lift. You can’t mistake that weathered, expressive face and those sad, tired eyes. His enigmatic presence – whether it is Brain in Escape From New York or as Robert Plath, the man who invented the wheeled suitcase, in This Must Be The Place – is always welcomed. Theatrically trained, his is a gifted actor with the skills to transform into many different characters. He has been credited so many times even he has lost track. He has a wealth of stories, of course, and while it was a rare sight to see his name in the headlines, he was out of the Hollywood limelight but actually at the social centre. He has forged lifelong relationships with actors Sam Shepard, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, the latter of whom he reflects on with deep sorrow, directors David Lynch and Wim Wenders, who cast him for perhaps his most famous role – his first (and only?) lead role in the masterpiece, Paris, Texas – and even reveals that he was instrumental in Kris Kristofferson launching his acting career. Watching these two reminisce and share stories is truly a sight, while the questions Lynch asks him are hilarious.

Photographed predominantly in stunning black and white photography from Seam McGarvey, much of the documentary is drawn from a single interview, with an emphasis placed on Harry Dean’s face. Everything is written there. Cut into these fascinating revelations are interviews with filmmakers and friends – Wenders, Shepard, Deborah Harry – and Harry Dean’s renditions of his own songs, revealing a passion for music that even outweighs his own for acting.

One gets the sense that he very rarely opens up about his life or reflects on his career, but in Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction Sophie Huber has provided honest, insightful coverage of the man, revealing a sense of sadness (and regret?), but a humbleness you can’t help but fall for. Harry Dean is a man of few words, but when he speaks we listen. It is hard to fault a documentary which understands the subject so well, and through a delicate, intimate approach – never pushing to squeeze in as much as possible, content to photograph his belongings, follow him as he sits at a bar and orders his usual drink and observe him as he sings – Huber allows the quiet magic come through the man himself.

[rating=4]

magic_magic 

REVIEW: Magic Magic

Chilean director, Sebastian Silva, who has developed a winning combination with Michael Cera this year, also bringing out Crystal Fairy, caused quite a stir at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with his haunting psychological thriller, Magic Magic. Delving into the various anxieties of traveling, the mounting psychological trauma that accompanies the warped consciousness associated with insomnia, and the degradation of a young person from bouts of shame and embarrassment.

Alicia (Juno Temple, consistently impressive and outstanding here) arrives in the south of Chile to holiday with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning). Tagging along are Sarah’s boyfriend Agustin (Agustin Silva), and friends Brink (Michael Cera) and Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno). When Sarah leaves the group to complete an exam, Alicia is left alone and grows increasingly uneasy in the presence of the others. Jetlagged and unable to sleep, Alicia’s sanity takes crippling hits, her behaviour becomes erratic and her grasp on reality unstable.

The mood of this film quickly gets under your skin. There is an immediate sense of a threat associated with everything – the lakes, trees and animals included. There is often something initially unnerving about a foreign country, but where this group shacks up is even more so and Alicia is given no time to get her bearings or be eased into the lifestyle. The environment established for these situations to fester didn’t quite rub with me, though. There was something off – and ultimately inconsequential – about Sarah’s secrets, and a little incredible about the creepy weirdness of Cera’s character. The others speak largely in Spanish, a language Alicia doesn’t understand, which I also found horrifically selfish. I felt like Barbara was a weak character, repeatedly used as a trigger to further accentuate Alicia’s alienation. Surrounded by people whom we know don’t want her around, we grow very concerned for Alicia.

Temple is scarily convincing and the against-type Michael Cera is a slimy little weasel whose character we learn is somewhat of a chameleon. These performances and the breathtaking photography are just some of the elements I admired about this film. I also liked that Alicia’s descent into paranoia and madness was accompanied by encounters with animals and the natural environment – a shot bird, which attributes to Alicia’s feeling of being alone in a crossfire, a horny dog a stand-in for Brink’s unsettling sexual deviancy and a rocky precipice challenges her to take a bold plunge.

Tension is built as we struggle to determine what is real and what is not – whether an amateur attempt at hypnotism is successful, and whether Alicia is actually lying awake at night, or dozing off and waking up disoriented. I think the film raises some interesting ideas about how to treat mysterious illness. Pill pushing is the norm. You can’t sleep, take sleeping pills or muscle relaxers. Her traumas were deeper than that, and the truth behind the distressing final sequences is left open to interpretation. A concoction of factors are at play here and while Silva’s ideas are great, I wasn’t wholly satisfied that they all gelled cohesively. But, I am still in the process of considering this film. I had a pair of chats immediately following it. One was focused on a lot of the negative elements, the other on the positives. I have continued to appreciate it more since then, and I’d like to revisit it again in the future.

[rating=3] and a half

Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

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