Saturday, June 11, 2016

Sydney Film Festival 2016, Day 3: The De-Camping of Almodovar and Madonna

Today I experienced something that's common at festivals: the mad rush between screenings that are scheduled close together. As soon as the credits rolled on Julieta at the State Theatre in downtown Sydney, I was out of my seat and out the door with 10 minutes to make it to the Event Cinemas on George Street for Strike a Pose. Thankfully, the rest of my screenings for the festival are either spaced better time wise or in the same venue as the previous feature, so I shouldn't have to make that dash again. Still, it was in that moment that I felt like a true festival-goer embracing the insanity of it all.

Speaking of insanity, revered Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is famous for his madcap, campy sex comedies and dramas (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). His latest film, Julieta (grade: B+), however, is a markedly different from his previous films. In fact, it almost feels like Almodovar set out to make a non-Almodovar film.

More after the jump.

The film, based on a trio of Alice Munro short stories, follows Julieta (Emma Suárez in the present, Adriana Ugarte in flashbacks), who abruptly chooses not to move to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) and remains in Madrid. Flashbacks reveal that Julieta had previously been married to a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), and has a daughter, Antía (Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés at different ages). Antía has not spoken to Julieta in years, however, and a chance encounter with old friend leads Julieta on a path to discover where her daughter went.

Almodovar presents the film as an interesting mix of Hitchcockian thriller and Sirkian melodrama, but the film is never really either of those. The film has a cracker-jack opening scene - the decision not to move - that immediately grips, but instead of his trademark urgency, Almodovar proceeds to take his time weaving through the story. There's a splash of Sirk here (Julieta's meeting with Xoan on a train), a touch of Hitchcock there (Rossy de Palma's chilly maid Marian is cut from the same cloth as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca), with the narrative thrust of a Patricia Highsmith novel (Highsmith even gets name-checked). Yet, aside from a few bursts of garish color, it hardly seems like an Almodovar film. It's as if the esteemed filmmaker decided to be someone else in making this film, suppressing his own voice for someone else's.

Yet, as the grade suggests, that's not necessarily a detriment to the film. The film takes its time and even drags in some places, and Suárez and Ugarte are both fine even if they hardly resemble one another. But the film then reaches a third act that recontextualizes everything that came before it. To say too much more would spoil the effect, but what at first appears to be a pulpy romance turns into a character study of guilt, regret, and depression. As it turns out, at this point in his career being someone else suits Almodovar just fine.

Strike a Pose (grade: A-), on the other hand, is a film that is about unapologetically being yourself. Dutch filmmakers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan's documentary focuses on the six surviving male dancers from Madonna's 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, made famous by the concert film Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna). Popular voguing duo Jose Xtravaganza and Luis Camacho, classically-trained dancers Carlton Wilborn, Salim Gauwloos, Gabriel Trupin, and Kevin Stea, and hip-hop dancer Oliver Crumes were all selected personally by Madonna to dance on her tour, and the film visits them (and Gabriel's mother; Gabriel died of AIDS in 1995) to discuss how the tour affect their lives.

It's a testament to the filmmakers that the film doesn't play as a hagiography of either the dancers or of Madonna, who only appears in archival footage. Each of them discusses the positives and negatives of their time on the tour, and the difficulties of transitioning from being celebrities in their own right to relative anonymity again. Jose and Luis discuss the dissolution of their partnership and struggles with drugs and alcohol, Carlton reveals his struggles with his HIV diagnosis, and each of them take the opportunity to address the lawsuit they had filed against Madonna after the release of Truth or Dare in 1991 (essentially, Gabriel led the litigation for his "forced outing" in the film; he was not openly gay at the time, nor were many of the other dancers). The film's willingness to capture these moments gives it more dimension, and presents its subjects as people rather than figures from a popular concert film.

This is not to say that it's all dour and gossipy, of course. Each of the dancers gets their chance to tell their story, such as Oliver explaining how being on the tour demolished his homophobia, and affirm that the group, even if they don't see each other anymore, is still a family. The film's climactic reunion is powerfully cathartic. The film is a must-see for Truth or Dare fans, as well as anyone interested in LGBT film.

Tomorrow: a busy day with a Brazilian political allegory, an indigenous Australian documentary, and an eclectic concert film featuring David Byrne and St. Vincent.

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