Sydney Film Festival 2016

June 17, 2016
Pedro Almodóvar's 'Julieta' (2016)

This is the closing weekend of the Sydney Film Festival and I’ve managed to see 22 out of 254 films. A paltry score, but enough to get the general flavour of proceedings. Some of those films such as Goldstone, Everybody Wants Some!!, Demolition and The BFG will be released in the near future, so it was good to catch an early glimpse.

Other movies bound to appear at the cinemas include Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, and Marc Abrahams’s I Saw the Light. As my other option for a review this week is Warcraft – a movie based on a video game – I’m going to look a little more closely at some of these Film Festival entries then move on to Don Cheadle’s new Miles Davis biopic.

The first thought I took away from Julieta, is what a mature, assured filmmaker Almodóvar has become. No-one would have predicted as much on the basis of his first feature, Pepi, Luci Bom and Other Girls Like Mum (1980). The not-so-inspired anarchy, the desperate urge to offend, has gradually worn off over the years. Nowadays the director is a master story-teller who knows how to capture and hold the viewer’s attention. Even a romp such as I’m So Excited! (2013), which was mauled by the critics, was a more intelligent proposition than most so-called comedies.

Julieta is based on three stories by Canadian writer, Alice Munro, which have been woven into a single narrative. Years ago it would have been inconceivable to mention sensitive Munro and extrovert Almodóvar in the same sentence, but the Spaniard has developed an uncanny sensitivity for female lives and sensibilities.

The film begins with the middle-aged Julieta, played by Emma Suárez, preparing to leave Madrid with her partner, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), and relocate to Portugal. These plans are upset by a chance meeting with a young woman who was once the best friend of Julieta’s daughter, Antia. Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Julieta becomes obsessed with the past, and the daughter she know longer knows.

We trawl back over the years, with Julieta being played by the young and glamorous Adriana Ugarte. We learn about her romance with a fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao), and the tragedy that tears their family apart. In a trick worthy of a stage magician, Ugarte vanishes and – hey presto! – we are back with Suárez for the final chapter.

The director’s greatest trick is that he makes us share Julieta’s anxiousness to resolve the mystery that haunts her daily existence.

There is no mystery to John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, a violent comedy about two bent cops in Albuquerque, who are mostly concerned with getting drunk, getting stoned, and getting their cut of any stolen loot. Bob (Michael Peña) is the family man of the duo, although his parenting skills leave much to be desired. Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) is a bachelor who gets his kicks from beating up crooks, and sometimes from being beaten up. If they still manage to be vaguely sympathetic it’s only because everyone else is so appalling. If you thought Nice Guys was a neat parody of the American buddy film, War on Everyone takes matters much further.

I enjoyed Elvis & Nixon more possibly than anything else at the SFF. Based on an actual meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, which took place in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970, the film adds a lot of absurdly plausible detail to our limited knowledge of what the King and the President actually said to each other.

In his irreverent biography of Elvis, Albert Goldman confirms much of the story. The meeting was initiated by Elvis, who was envious of a federal agent’s badge shown to him by a two-bit entertainer. As the supreme entertainer in the United States, if not the world, he felt that he too should have such a badge. Furthermore, his patriotic feelings had been stirred up by the disrespectful things said about America by such enemies of the state as Jane Fonda and the Beatles.

Nixon’s aides saw this as an opportunity to show their boss was right on-side with a pop idol. Elvis pronounced that he was ready to go “undercover” to fight the war on drugs, even though with his quiff, his cape, and his big gold belt, he was probably the most recognisable man in America. In Goldman’s words he was also “as high as a kite” on pills when he visited the White House. Even without the chemical supplements Elvis seems to have had the mind of a pampered child who had difficulty distinguishing his fantasies from reality. Nixon was delusionary in a more paranoid manner.

One of the pleasures of this film is watching two great actors, Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, bringing these famous characters to life through speech, body language and mannerisms. Neither bears much physical resemblance to the protagonists, but the portrayals are irresistible.

I wish I could be as positive about Tom Hiddleston’s impersonation of Hank Williams in I Saw the Light. Alas, British-born Hiddleston never captures the ornery personality of the “Hillbilly Shakespeare”, or reproduces that characteristic southern twang in his singing voice. Elizabeth Olsen is no more convincing in the role of Hank’s missus, Audrey Mae, who was utterly ferocious in real life.

“Me and that sweet woman’s got a licence to fight,” Hank sang, and the fights were legendary. So was Hank’s capacity for self-destructive behaviour. When he died of heart failure in the back of his cadillac in 1953, he was only 29 years-old. His physical condition – thanks to the drink, the drugs, a chronic back complaint, and a punishing concert schedule – was that of an elderly man.

We tend to forget how young Williams was. All those songs about walkin’ the floor, cryin’ all night long, feelin’ blue, raisin’ hell, were the product of a mind that never achieved emotional maturity. Yet the lyrics and that voice spoke a truth to millions. Williams was more like Rimbaud than Shakespeare – a dangerous, youthful, prodigiously talented time-bomb. From the raw timber of country and western he created something new. Lovesick Blues was arguably the greatest game-changer in the history of popular music.

Very little of this is conveyed in Abrahams’s lukewarm biopic, which dutifully tells the story of his subject’s life, but never comes to grips with Williams’s complexities. A life lived at such intensity deserved a better memorial.

Sydney Film Festival 2016
8 – 19 June
www.sff.org.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th June, 2016.