As I enter the final third of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, still with a loaded schedule, here are some of the films I watched on Days 5-8.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
Alejandro Jodorowsky and his assembly of creative geniuses/spiritual warriors reflect on the most ambitious film never made. After blowing audience’s minds and broadening the boundaries of the possibilities of filmmaking with El Topo and The Holy Mountain, AJ became obsessed with adapting Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bible, Dune. His unbridled ambition, a god-like desire to ‘change the world’ through art, involved a longer long-take than Orson Welles ‘A Touch of Evil’, forcing his son through years of combat training in prep for a role, the casting of Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger, and incorporating the music of Pink Floyd. His version, in 1975, involved a brutal multi-amputation and themes as grand as the Cosmos. Would it have changed the world if he pulled it off? Maybe. He certainly possessed the passion, and the madness, to do it.
One of the most fascinating things about this film is how the mammoth blueprint for this film, which was never green-lit, had a thumbprint on many later sci-fi epics (including Star Wars, 1977). The epic story-boarded screenplay and concept art is animatedly brought to life, and piece-by-piece we come to see the big picture as it was envisioned. We hear from critics, colleagues and fellow filmmakers (like Nicolas Winding Refn), but you cling to every word from the crazy 84-year-old. He’s a real marvel. His frustration at never being able to realize his dream has been bottled up inside all these years, and he exorcises all of those feelings here. He takes great pleasure in telling the stories of how he found the team to make that dream a reality, and can’t hide the pleasure he felt when he first realized Lynch’s version was a failure. With real insight into the creative process, this is a cinematic, briskly paced and thoroughly entertaining documentary about one of the industry’s eccentric geniuses.
20, 000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsythe, Jane Pollard)
A conceptually stunning film, we join musician, novelist and screenwriter Nick Cave for his 20,000th day on earth. Wonderfully photographed and edited, this is a philosophical study of Cave’s life and career through several inventive approaches. The archive-set reflection was fascinating, Cave’s narration a window into his creative soul, his discussion with a psychoanalyst about his childhood and relationship with his father powerfully insightful. Testimony from Ray Winstone, Warren Ellis and Kylie Minogue are cleverly incorporated too, and the musical performances (studio recordings and live shows) are chillingly good. This is a showcase of technical invention, and I felt encapsulated in the incorporation of media. Thematically rich – especially regarding the importance of memory, and how it influences art and an artist’s desire to transform themselves – if a little repetitive in conveying them. I love that the filmmakers, visual artists, used unconventional documentary methods, blending personal truths through a staged structure. I can’t call myself a Cave fan, though I do admire what I have been exposed to, but I found this a transcendent experience.
It has actually taken quite a while to process just how quietly stinging this beautifully crafted and emotional study of grief, sadness and displacement is. It is a showcase for the no-longer secret talents of a sensational Jessica Chastain, but the entire cast (including William Hurt, Viola Davis and James McAvoy) are excellent. Every relationship here is so accurately written and performed it is intoxicating to watch. As emotionally draining and devastating as much of this film is, there are joyous interludes of the central couple drunk in love, and some breaks for humour.
The opening sequence is a jolt to the system, and many questions are raised. Then, with effortless grace and through glamorous lenses, the answers are revealed. But, not too many answers, because we still haven’t seen the dismantling of the relationship – and the events that follow – from ‘His’ side. When I left ‘Her’ I wanted to see ‘Him’ immediately, I might add. I understand that ‘Them’ is a two-hour edited combination of the two 89-minute films. I can’t imagine what would be left out, this is a fully fleshed study, and an intimately rewarding drama about the tenuous relationship between the happiest and saddest moments in our lifetime, and how their unexpected closeness can drastically alter our lives forever. Some revelations will leave even the toughest of hearts swelling.
Locke (Steven Knight)
In Steven Knight’s boldly premised Locke, Tom Hardy stars as a fluey construction foreman, Ivan Locke, who has his formerly perfect foundations buckled on all sides and must deal with escalating personal and professional crises from the confines of a humid BMW. Concrete is the least of his problems.
I was moderately compelled throughout Locke, but never felt completely immersed in the narrative. As a technical achievement, unraveling in real time and set entirely within a single car on a lonely motorway, it is impressive. The speakerphone drama is vivid, and though we never see another actor’s face, we can visualize what is occurring on their end of the phone. I thought it got a bit too BIG, too hysterical, at times. Especially the situation at his destination.
Locke’s relationship with his father is also addressed throughout, and we learn what has influenced his destructive decision. While we cannot respect what Locke did, an unforgivable indiscretion as it turns out, we do sympathise with him and respect how he’s going about fixing things. Though he set himself on a one-way path, he is trying everything in his power to put out the flames behind him in the hope of returning. Hardy’s performance is excellent, but I will say his accent, and manner of speaking, is odd. Not quite sure what to make of it, but he seemed to be consciously ‘acting’ at times.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (David Zellner)
Hmm. When I read what this film was about I was instantly attracted. As a fan of the Coen Bros’ Fargo, I felt like it was made for me. What an unusual idea. Unfortunately, the odd premise is not wholly successful. Tremendously sad and troubling, but peculiarly funny and populated with strange characters, Kumiko scores marks for originality. This is the story of a lonely, alienated young Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with finding the suitcase of money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. With an unsatisfying job, a lone pet companion and consistent pressure from her mother to conform to social norms – marriage, professional ambition – she lives for ‘treasure’ hunts such as this.
With a map of Minnesota, nabbed from the library, and an embroidered map of the ‘spot’ she heads to the US. There, her journey takes her into the presence and care of several larger-than-life Minnesotans who are as baffled as we are about her mysterious obsession and how adamant she is that the ‘fake’ treasure is in fact ‘real’. She has gone so far into a shell and imprisoned herself within her fantasies that she just cannot understand.
The Zellner’s are indebted to the Coen Bros’ Fargo, and have tried to incorporate a similar brand of comedy to this despair-riddled drama. We sympathize with Kumiko for a while, but eventually her moral choices become questionable. Strangers help her out, and then she abandons them and often exploits their generosity. I loved the music, at times a haunting tweaked-cover of Carter Burwell’s famous score, and the striking cinematography, but the more I think about the film’s ending the less I like it. Pretty mixed on this one, still.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In the latest film from the great Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, The Kid With the Bike) Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Sandra, a still-depressed mother of two who decides to fight for her job by asking her colleagues to vote in favour of her returning to work and keeping her salary, over a generous and financially-cushioning bonus. On a Friday fourteen of her sixteen colleagues voted in favour of the bonus, but Sandra is convinced to fight for another chance and manages to persuade her boss to hold a blind, uninfluenced ballot on Monday. Over the course of the weekend, barely able to hide her shame and embarrassment, she pays each of them a personal visit, pleading her case (the importance of her salary, her improved health), but always with an understanding of their equally stressful financial situations. She asks them to make a very difficult decision, to take a sacrifice for her – for some, a friend – and the passing on a rare economic crutch.
In this film we see inspiring increases in Sandra’s self-worth, having been sidelined by depression, just as self-pity heartbreakingly brews with each encounter. Many of her work colleagues are not monsters; some felt guilty for taking the bonus and claimed to be pressured in, agreeing to vote in her favour, while others provide sound arguments why they won’t change their minds. There is a profound moral dilemma here, and an audience is challenged to consider how they would respond. There are several twists and turns that have huge significance, but save for one misfitting development with one colleague, the Dardennes are completely respectful of the sort of person Sandra is to the very end.
Throughout this film suspense builds whenever Sandra knocks on a door, or makes a call. We have no idea how this colleague is going to respond, and despite the repetitious structure there is tension throughout. This is a small film about a universal crisis. The Dardenne Bros use an intimate approach to telling their stories; lengthy, unbroken takes, an expertly controlled and curious camera that eavesdrops on these conversations. The musical accompaniments work brilliantly. But it is their script, their core character and the tenuous conflict that emerges through an unfortunate economic landscape that makes this film wholly affecting.
Ruin (Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Michael Cody)
Two youngsters in Phnom Penh leave behind their troubled, violent lives, finding brief refuge together in temporary safety and solitude and falling in love. They find that they cannot individually outrun the ugliness of the world, but together they escape their nightmare. As punishingly bleak as they come, this film is not kind to the characters. I’d argue unjustifiably so. The electro soundscape is effective, as are brief moments of photographic beauty. This is a pretty thin story, given visceral and original treatment, and though I admired Courtin-Wilson’s bold and audacious last film, Hail, I find it hard to recommend this. Tough, almost excruciatingly repellent, viewing.
[rating=1] and a half
Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
It is still too early to comment with calm thought about this wonderful film, but Blake has reviewed the film here (link) and covers all of the bases. If you asked me what I loved about it I’d say: “everything”. With a ratio half the size of the screen (for the most part), composition is so imperative, and not an inch of screen is wasted. Dolan forces you to watch nothing else but the subject and it is never limiting and always stunning. As are the complex relationships and characterizations, the stirring use of music, and the outstanding acting by Dorval, Pilon and Clement. I was an emotional wreck at the end, completely captivated by the lives of these characters. If I were to give out my Sydney Film Festival awards right now, most of them would go to this film.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Yi’Nan Diao)
I loved the look and use of the icy, bleak setting of Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice, a crawling but often uncomfortably tense procedural that ultimately wraps up it’s mystery pretty quickly and then keeps going. Dismembered body parts are found all over the city, the unsolved case from 1999 remains so in 2004 and the assigned detective, now a washed-up alcoholic, pursues a promising lead off-the-books. Despite being genuinely boring in places and far too long, there are some really well directed sequences. I didn’t care enough about this guy, or his relationship with the ‘femme fatale’, to be invested. Also, I have to mention a dance sequence taken straight out of ‘Beau Travail’.
[rating=2] and a half
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22