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First Man

Rated M, 2 hrs 21 mins

All Canberra cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

4.5 Stars

 

The final frontier gets rather mixed treatment from Hollywood. The studios have had a penchant for filling the void with monsters and other extra-terrestrials but now it’s the scale and sheer emptiness that are scary, while it’s hard to ignore the prospect of travelling towards infinity and perhaps never coming back.

Space on screen is a broad canvas where just about anything goes, from thoughtful to grand to spoof, so it’s a surprise to see a film like First Man that is serious, low key, compelling and based on the real thing, when man first stepped on the moon, an event captured on grainy television images 50 years ago. Ancient history for many, but it has to be as remarkable today as it was then, decades before the digital age.

When we meet the famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong ­- Ryan Gosling in the role – it is some years before the moon mission, when he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are having a terrible time, facing the loss of one of their small children to cancer. An aeronautical engineer and test pilot, Armstrong is struggling to do his job effectively but his cool head does eventually prevail and he applies to join the new team that will attempt a moon landing within the time frame that the late President Kennedy nominated. A ‘fresh start’ Janet says, after their little girl has died.

This story of the Apollo 11 mission is told from inside a marriage, a good marriage, and Janet has a pivotal role in it. The obligatory scenes of national pride and the global impact of the event are delayed until towards the end, and portrayed like a postscript. Such restraint.

First Man still makes clear that the pioneer astronauts were highly skilled, brave men who understood the risks involved. They were asked to approve their obituaries before they left.

The fine screenplay is by Josh Singer, and is based on an authorised biography of Armstrong by James R Hansen. It is worth knowing that two of Singer’s recent screenwriting credits are for The Post and Spotlight, each of which concerns pressing issues of our time – a free press and institutional child abuse – and critiques the way they were dealt with in America.

Recent impressive films set in space like lnterstellar, Gravity and Arrival invite you to think and they are gorgeous to look at, but results are mixed. First Man does away with visual extravagance, and declines to philosophise about the void out there and what it might mean for us. The focus is instead on the astonishing feat of putting men on the moon, a story that is delivered with impeccable naturalism.

The emphasis on authenticity is crucial, though I don’t quite understand why the equipment had to look a little  dated, as though it had been brought in from a space museum. No doubt, everything was brand new in 1969. The production design is also sombre, without a hint of triumphalism.

Apparently, some don’t like the fact that director Damien Chazelle and his team decided against showing the planting of the US flag. Looking at the names of those who have complained and called it an omission, First Man is better off without their endorsement.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

British Film Festival 2018

Makes its return to Canberra on 24 October with a selection of the best of new cinema from the British Isles.

There is plenty of variety.

Stan & Ollie, about the one-half British comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, Keira Knightley as a French novelist (Colette), a high court drama with Emma Thompson (The Children Act), the latest socio-political drama from Mike Leigh, Peterloo, and Pin Cushion with young Lily Newmark, are among program highlights.

The festival retrospective includes a tribute to actor Michael Caine, who also features in My Generation, an exuberant new documentary about London in the swinging sixties.

The British Film Festival screens at Palace Electric, NewActon, Canberra, until 13 November.

For more information follow this link

 

Jirga

Rated M, 1 hr 18 mins

Screening at Dendy, Canberra

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Obstacles that directors face on film shoots range from the trivial to the legion that sink projects altogether. They very nearly sank Benjamin Gilmour’s project when he arrived in Pakistan with lead actor Sam Smith only to discover that permission to film was withdrawn and funding for cinematographer and crew had evaporated.

Gilmour could have at this point declared the difficulties ‘insurmountable’ but instead acted swiftly and decisively. He bought a second-hand camera and crossed the border to do the shoot in Afghanistan, which was, after all, where his narrative was set. Pakistan was only meant to be a stand-in.

This is some backstory. It points to a rivetting tale beyond the frame, the stuff of difficult shoots that have great documentaries made like Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. However, the long list of people Gilmour thanks in the credits also points to a big collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, crowd-sourced funding and a degree of luck.

Set in the streets of Kabul and in remote villages and caves in the mountain regions, Jirga tells of the journey made by Mike Wheeler (Smith), a former Australian soldier, to find the family of a man he shot by mistake during a raid three years earlier. The simplicity of this journey of the soul, a return to the heart of darkness of Mike’s military career, suits it well.

After a frenetic opening flashback in lurid green night vision accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of small arms fire, the pace slows as Mike finds his way around in Afghanistan, second time round. His journey takes on more insidious dangers as he negotiates the markets and cafes to get transport from Kabul to Kandahar. No, no, and no, his hosts and helpers say, the province is crawling with Taliban. It’s just too dangerous.

Needless to say, like the filmmaker, Mike won’t take ‘no’ for an answer either and finally manages to persuade his taxi driver to drive him beyond, Bamyan, the first destination agreed to. Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was the father in Gilmour’s first film Son of a Lion (2007), makes a very personable taxi driver.

It isn’t long before Mike becomes a guest of a group of Taliban (played by former Taliban). Instead of killing him or taking the wads of useless dollars he has brought with him, they deliver him to the very village he has been looking for. There he puts his fate in the hands of the Afghan court of tribal elders, the jirga.

However, it is not the elders who have the last word. They leave it to the most directly affected to decide Mike’s fate. Not a thoroughly convincing outcome, however, but where else could it conceivably be taken?

What is remarkable in Jirga is the journey through the magnificent landscapes of Afghanistan, and the connections that are made along the way.

In some scenes, the camera goes extremely wide as Mike’s taxi beetles past brooding, hulking mountain ranges that look older than time. In other scenes, he is in two-shot with his redoubtable driver, tapping tin bowls and plucking guitar strings as they make music for each other, because it is the only language that they share.

The wonderful score by AJ True is another pleasure, as are the surprises.  Such as another contribution, that comes from Smith, who plays a composition of his own to his driver on an old guitar he bought along the way. When words can’t be found, music says it all.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated M, 1 hr 54 mins

Screening at Dendy and Palace Electric

 

The cartoon that lends its caption to this Gus Van Sant film shows a sheriff’s posse staring at an empty wheelchair among cactus in the desert. The rough line drawing instantly conveys a lot about the artist and the bleak, irreverent humour that made him famous. The American cartoonist, the late John Callahan, also chose it for the title of his autobiography in 1990.

Callahan was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident while on a bender with a friend when they were young and reckless. Miraculously, his mate, Dexter (Jack Black), who was at the wheel, walked away from the overturned VW Beetle with a few scratches, but the misadventure turned John into a quadriplegic. Eventually he recovered limited use of his arms.

If he wasn’t already prone to a bit of self-destruction, this convinced young John that there wasn’t a lot of point to it all. The hapless 21-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with. Struggling with feelings of abandonment – he’d been adopted, never knew his birth mother – John (Joaquin Phoenix in the role) was going nowhere, a flask of tequila for company.

The late Robin Williams was once keen for this role, but I can’t see that he could have worked as well as Phoenix. In unkempt, ginger wig, flip-flops and the flares of the day, his performance as Callahan is pitch-perfect.

And Phoenix has form in this kind of character – remember the execrable I’m Still Here – but he is talented and versatile with substantial range. Compelling as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or as reclusive writer (Her), and both as Jesus (Mary Magdalene) and evil Roman emperor (Gladiator).

The same can be said of filmmaker, Van Sant, who has been giving us food for thought over the years with his distinctive explorations of the private worlds of creative types, often musicians, often marginalised, and other characters at the crossroads.

John (Joaquin Phoenix) and Donny (Jonah Hill) in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

In Don’t Worry, Donny (Jonah Hill), the silky voiced leader of the alcoholics recovery group that Callahan has signed up to, becomes just about as interesting as Callahan. Maybe more so.

Actor Jonah Hill, in heavy disguise in long blonde wig and beard, and 70s smart casual, demonstrates, with perhaps a hint of menace, the subtle art of influence and persuasion, and how folks can be shown how they themselves contribute to their predicament.

It is less easy to believe in Rooney Mara’s character, Annu, a Swedish physiotherapist who has a big hand in Callahan’s rehabilitation, but her romance with him is at least a welcome diversion after some gruelling early scenes of Callahan in disarray. Curiously, Van Sant was able to make scenes of flying along the pavement in a  wheelchair uplifting too, and that’s before we even get to the humour.

How did Callahan find his mojo and become a famous cartoonist in America and overseas? His path to fame and some version of happiness is revealed in this touching, free-wheeling character study, that feels authentic and has no truck with feel-good homily. It shows, once again, Van Sant’s flair for drawing his audience into a private world and convincing them, for the duration, that they are experiencing it too.

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra and 90.3 Tuggeranong

 

Ladies in Black

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated PG, I hr 49 mins

All cinemas

 

Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.

How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.

The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.

Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.

Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.

Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.

The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.

For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.

Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.

The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.

There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juliet, Naked

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Screening at Palace Electric

This romantic reboot for two who could have done better in life is based on a book by Nick Hornby, the English novelist with a happy knack for making us feel good about ourselves. It is brought to life on screen by Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne, actors who bring a sense of lived experience well suited to the backstory of foibles and wrong moves that make them and us human.

It’s probably fair to say that these days it takes a fair effort for filmmakers to forgo the cynicism and the lucrative crudity in so much of the product aimed at the young demographic.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked is, on the other hand, about honesty, hesitation and vulnerability, a light comedy with an M rating. It’s also about music.

The set-up by which the couple meet involves Annie (Byrne) writing a stinking review online of the new CD from Tucker Crowe (Hawke). She only does it because the singer-songriter is the music idol of her long-time partner Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and the focus of his tiresome pedantry.

When the review appears, Tucker drops an email to Annie to say that he agrees with her about the CD. He didn’t like it much either! This doesn’t, unfortunately, do anything to lower Duncan’s enthusiasm for Crowe, enthusiasm already so great that he has an entire room in the house that he and Annie share devoted to Crowe memorabilia.

Earnest and awkward, Duncan is another of those male characters from Hornby who are totally captured by their interests, be it football (Fever Pitch) or music (High Fidelity), while they struggle in their romantic relationships. Fixations like these are common to Hornby’s work, and here the team of four writers who adapted Juliet, Naked for the screen have let it run parallel with the romance.

Hawke is the embodiment of cool, totally at ease in his own skin. It’s fair to say that his talents haven’t received the recognition that he has deserved since his breakout role, while still in school, in the marvellous Dead Poet’s Society. Perhaps a rich personal life got in the way, perhaps he hasn’t made enough strategic choices. Perhaps he has never sought more than he has attained, anyway. This raffish actor has an effortless ability for convincing audiences that his characters are authentic, no more so than in the Before trilogy opposite Julie Delpy.

The same can be said of the talents of Rose Byrne, an actor from Sydney who lives in New York. Her private life might be less spectacular, but she has been consistently so good all her career and she is especially adept at comedy. She has not, to my knowledge, felt the need to change the colour of her hair!

Because they work well together, it is a treat to watch these two actors, as people who have given up on love but find it again. Because of their engaging chemistry on screen, a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable film has a touch of the certain something that the best romantic comedies have managed to lay claim to.

Duncan, meanwhile, barely notices what he’s lost. When his idol embarks on a new, more mellow direction in his music, it seems to cause Duncan more angst and disappointment than when the guy takes his girlfriend away.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Jirga director

Jirga, a new fiction feature from Benjamin Gilmour, is about a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to ask forgiveness of the family of a civilian he accidentally killed three years earlier. Writer-director Gilmour (Son of a Lion) filmed clandestinely on location.

A Q&A with director Benjamin Gilmour will be held at Dendy Cinema, Canberra Centre after Jirga screens at 7 pm on Friday 21 September.

Italian Film Festival 2018

The Italian Film Festival screens in Canberra at Palace Electric Cinema from 12 September until 7 October. Now in its nineteenth year, the IFF celebrates Italian culture, language and lifestyle with around 30 films.

Highlights include the life and times of Silvio Berlusconi in Loro, Cannes festival award winners Happy as Lazzaro and Lucia’s Grace, films that reference the elusive internationally best-selling author Elena Ferrante, as well as selected classics of Italian cinema.

For more information, visit the festival website

The Insult

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Screening at Palace Electric

Rated M, subtitled

4.5 Stars

 

The Insult begins with a petty altercation over a drainpipe that escalates with punches thrown and insults traded. The issue goes to court, is picked up by the media and spills out into the street and across the country.

If it were a story from somewhere more peaceful, it might take the form of a farce or a satire, but this is from Lebanon, so often in the headlines with its bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. Old enmities are still deeply and fiercely felt.

Tony (Adel Karam) gives evidence

It is the job of Yasser (Kamel el Basha), to fix faulty construction in the district, so he attaches a new piece of downpipe to a balcony outlet, but without permission. Apartment owner, Tony (Adel Karam), immediately leans over his balcony and smashes it to smithereens. Yasser swears at him, you ‘f—ing prick, not an unreasonable response in the circumstances.

The matter might have stopped there, at least with the big box of chocolates proffered in apology, but this exchange between these residents of Beirut won’t rest. Tony, a Lebanese Christian, recognises the foreman’s Palestinian accent, and takes things to court after an attempt at conciliation at his workshop ends in Tony saying something really wounding and Yasser punching him in the ribs.

Despite attempts by his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) to make him see reason, Tony escalates the matter to a higher court, hires a counsel and has his mild-mannered assailant charged with assault and the potential charge of manslaughter because Shirine has suffered a miscarriage, and their baby daughter is being kept alive in a humidicrib.

It’s in the courtroom that things in The Insult get really interesting. A scintillating duel between Tony’s counsel (Camille Salameh), a seasoned barrister, and a glamorous young woman (Diamand Bou Abboud), who turns out to be his daughter. With Nadine, a Palestinian sympathiser acting pro bono, and her urbane father Wajdi sympathising with the Christians, it makes for thrilling exchanges between them. The performances here are a joy to watch.

The screenplay was written by the director Ziad Doueiri, of Palestinian background, and his wife, Joelle Touma, a Christian, while they were divorcing apparently. Surely the differences between these two, ethnic and personal, has something to do with the well-honed debate.

More is revealed about the dark intransigence that Tony harbours. So much so, that it mitigated my view that he was overplayed by Karam. The dignified Yasser, on the other hand, who says little but commands considerable attention, is played with great presence by El Basha. The optimism of the film’s resolution of a conflict that has endured for generations could be wishful thinking but if it really is possible, then bring it on.

This fine film, Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film awards at the Oscars, has much to say and put questions to us all. It is clever, passionate and entertaining and sometimes exhilarating, even for observers like me on the sidelines.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Summer 1993

Review © Jane Freebury

PG, Subtitled

Screening at Palace Electric

4 Stars

 

Without fanfare or introduction, a little girl wanders from room to room, looking dazed as she clutches her doll while adults pack up the contents of the flat that was her home. Snippets of conversation drift in, hinting at what has happened: her mother has died.

It’s a story from the heart by the writer and director Carla Simon. A study of loss and renewal that is loosely autobiographical and explores the journey she had to make to a new life.

Frida (Laia Artigas) is ferried off to the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle and little cousin who is close in age. Her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) live an idyllic, uncomplicated existence outside Barcelona on a rural property where they grow their own.

With a couple of years of age on her country cousin, Frida commands a bit of authority over her, and the moppet, Anna (Paula Robles), dutifully follows her around. But it is the older child who is watchful and insecure under her halo of brown curls, unsure of her place in her new family and jealous of how her cousin can take a close and loving family for granted.

Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving

Inevitably, the little girls compete. When they both hurry off to collect the lettuce that Marga has asked for, Frida brings back a cabbage instead. Anna arrives a few moments later with the correct item. She, of course, knows the difference.

It is said that the two young actors were cast because a power struggle quickly developed between them during auditions. It that did indeed happen, it is sensitively captured here, allowing for the perspective of both girls to be expressed.

It can be painful to watch Frida’s mis-steps on her journey as she figures out where she sits in her new family. In one scene that prompts an uneasy sense of anticipation she attempts to act the coquette in lipstick, feather boa and long adult boots, while in another she tries to lose her trusting cousin in the woods. When Frida packs up one night to leave, Anna wants to know why. It’s because no one loves her. Anna responds without a moment’s hesitation ‘I love you’.

Marga and her new ‘daughter’ also need to bond, and here again the filmmaker shows her considerable skill. How difficult a new arrival must be for a young mother with her own child to raise. For Anna’s parents, it’s a question of having hope and confidence in including Frida in their little family unit, while protecting what they already cherish, and it is not inconsiderable. The images of family life here are some of the loveliest I’ve seen on screen.

The delicate process of establishing a blended family that takes place before us is largely told from the perspective of a damaged and uncertain little girl, the odd one out. Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving.

The title also reminds us how many young lives were lost from AIDS-related illness, before there were ways to manage the disease. The point is made lightly, in a little scene in which Frida finally asks why her mother died. Was the doctor ‘new’?

Summer 1993 is an exquisite study of a young orphan who moves from grief and confusion to hope and belonging. A special film that the director has dedicated to her young mother.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

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