Category Archives: Film Reviews

Mrs Lowry & Son: more about mother than son

PG, 91 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It was lucky for the artist L .S. Lowry that his family fell on hard times and moved out of their leafy Manchester suburb to a new home near the city factories. Lucky, I think, because he was inspired to paint the everyday scenes that he saw all around him, showing how the working classes lived and worked, and made a name for himself.

A profusion of landscapes and seascapes were painted by artists in reaction to an Industrial Revolution grinding on, but Lowry faced it head on. It’s a neat coincidence that a much chubbier version of Timothy Spall played J. M. W. Turner in Mr Turner (2014), about the famous Romantic artist of the early 19th century.

It seems Lowry’s mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), never got over her fall from grace to the grimy industrial district of Pendlebury, but over time the change in circumstances turned into a windfall for the artist as a young man. He was drawn to the strange world of massive, humming factories and he saw a dignity in the people that the mills swallowed by day and spewed out at night. He felt there was a beauty in everything.

From the bed that she was confined to, from which she ran her family of one, Elizabeth was a force to be reckoned with. Domineering, class-conscious, undermining. And yet although Elizabeth was very hard work, her son and only child remained loyal, looking after her until she died.

For her part, Elizabeth couldn’t acknowledge that her son was an artist, though she appeared to like his more conventional paintings, like ‘Sailing Boats’, well enough.

Make her happy. Find another ‘hobby’

Elizabeth felt vindicated when a critic lambasted Laurie’s painting ‘Coming from the Mill’ as an ugly rendition of a squalid industrial scene with stick figures that looked like marionettes. It could have been painted by a child.

The label ‘naïve’ dogged Lowry’s reputation. Why didn’t Laurie give it up, she argued, for her sake, make her happy, and find another ‘hobby’?

Far from a hobbyist, Lowry had trained for 15 years at art school. After he returned home from his day job as a rent collector, he would cook the dinner that he and his mother ate together off trays in her bedroom. Then he would climb to his attic studio to work until the wee small hours of the morning. No Sunday painter this, he painted every day, an escape into the imagination from his life downstairs.

Too much on Lowry’s struggle with mother, too little on his struggle with his art

There were quite a few moments when I was reminded of another bickering pair, Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald in their roles in the fondly remembered old 1980s-90s TV sitcom, Mother and Son. But that was toe-curling and funny.

The issue with Mrs Lowry & Son, directed by Adrian Noble from a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, is that it spends way too much time with Elizabeth. There’s too much emphasis on Lowry’s struggle with his mother and too little on his struggle with his art, which is, after all, the main reason we watch the artist’s biopic.

At the close, the film skips to the present with some footage from The Lowry gallery, showing room after room of the artist’s paintings. It is a relief to see them there and realise he didn’t destroy them all in that bonfire in the garden, but it’s an awkward add-on at the conclusion.

A gaunt Timothy Spall is convincing as the odd, lonely artist who lived with his mother until she died in 1939, but the screenplay has given him restricted material to work with. I liked reading over the final credits that he refused to accept various honours, including a knighthood, from the Queen. But then we read he’d said that there was no point accepting them without his mother around to acknowledge this success.

It seems Lowry could be mischievous too, the sweet scenes with children early on held some promise. I’ve also read that his clock collection all told different times, just for fun, so he wasn’t without spark. There must have been other sides to this intensely inhibited, private man but Mrs Lowry & Son keeps them from us.

Also published by the Canberra Times in print and online on 1 December 2019

*Featured image: Timothy Spall as Laurence Lowry

Suzi Q: rock’n’roll pioneer in a leather catsuit

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the bad old days, rock stars were by definition blokes and a bit of poor behaviour went with the territory. It was then, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, that a girl playing a bass guitar, almost as long as she was tall, claimed a spot on a crowded stage.

Though Suzi Quatro did smoke and had plenty of attitude, this girl from Detroit, a music city if ever there was one, was wholesome by rock‘n’roll standards. The sex and the drugs were not for her, something she attributes to her strict mother and a Catholic upbringing.

Quatro appears in interview throughout this new music doco. It is directed by Liam Firmager and has been produced in Australia, a country she has toured many times. Her most recent visit concluded this month.

Suzi Quatro with fans. Image courtesy © The Acme Film Company

It seems fitting that a country that appreciates Quatro and where she has toured on some 30 occasions has made the first documentary about her.

a family schism that has never healed

Like some of the famous older rockers, Quatro just keeps on keeping on. Though it’s hard to attribute her longevity to clean living when other rockers, now septuagenarians who did it all, have lived to tell the tale.

As a teenager, she was performing on bass in the Pleasure Seekers, an all-girl band comprising sisters and friends, when she suddenly took herself off to London. It seemed to result in a family schism that has never healed.

Record producer Mickie Most recalls how he spotted her and launched her, re-packaged in a leather catsuit with her all-male support band, including husband-to-be Len Tuckey.

You couldn’t miss her. Long blonde hair flying, a pocket rocket in a leather jumpsuit, the first woman in front of a rock band.

Considering the number of docos on other rock stars that have been made, recognition for the indomitable Suzi Quatro is long overdue. This, the first doco of her life and career, is jam-packed with archival and interview material that perhaps helps to make up for this. However, not all is that insightful.

Her music regularly topped the charts in European countries and has had a particularly consistent fanbase in Australia, but it didn’t really catch on in her home country, and the question this raises remains.

Debbie (Blondie) Harry makes some interesting points, as does record producer and songwriter Mike Chapman, an Australian  who was a key player in the music industry in England in the 1970s. Was Quatro ‘too soon’?  Was something lost in translation? Or was it because the US didn’t take to glam rock. Mmm…but wasn’t she raw and hard rock rather than glam?

The ratio of talking heads to vision of Suzi in action is too high. Alice Cooper and Joan (I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll) Jett are good value but more vision of the performer’s concerts, more of the music, and even vision of quiet moments can go a long way.

On the other hand, the frank views of her sister Patti  and some other members of her family about her music and career make you wince. Her family who were also into music in a big way wrote her out of their lives, an estrangement that must have had a defining effect on her.

Suzi Quatro with the Fonz. Image courtesy of © Happy Days

Yet she seemed to want out. She went to work very young and was doing five shows a week, when she ‘should have been in school’. She has been indefatigable ever since. She has made guest television appearances as ‘Leather Tuscadero’ in Happy Days with the Fonz, appeared in Absolutely Fabulous with Patsy and Eddy, has hosted a chat show and was a hit in a starring role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black

In 2019, it’s a bit shocking to see her get her bottom slapped and pronounced ‘rear of the year’ before a TV interview. An in-depth report on how she survived the music industry could make interesting viewing.

She says that when there were no female rocker role models, her very first inspiration was Elvis. In 1973 she emerged a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black.

Bold, mouthy, a looker free of artifice, she was an original, the first woman to lead a rock band, sing lead and play an instrument. This is a very comprehensive tribute to her career.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 November 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marty Scorsese among the Superheroes

The director’s director up against the comic book heroes

By © Jane Freebury

Every city has to have one. A film festival.

Just about every region on earth hosts a film festival, including Oceania where there’s one for very short films in Vanuatu, and one for documentaries in French Polynesia. Antarctica has claimed one too, for filmmakers ‘left out in the cold’.

The festival and the space it makes is great for film creatives to open, and say what they think.

Film festivals happening everywhere yet superheroes dominate box office

Fall in the north marks the start of the season of international film festivals. Venice, Montreal and Toronto have been and gone, and New York and London have recently wrapped. It’s different Down Under, of course, where the superhero movies are out in force at the same time as the venerable big two, Melbourne and Sydney.

In 2019 movie studios outdid themselves, again, as Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, became the highest grossing film of all time

The names of marquee events roll off the tongue. It’s no surprise that the United States has the most, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Tribeca, SXSW and all the rest. Making movies on an industrial scale began in New York, before the entrepreneurs decamped to the West Coast for the sunshine and freedom from interference, from where today they still dominate the international box office.

Despite it all, the festivals known as the big three – Berlin, Venice and Cannes – take place over on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe, filmmakers have more scope to make movies the way they want to, putting a stretch of ocean between themselves and the home of blockbusters.

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time, beating Avatar and Titanic. Its sister film, released last year, Avengers: Infinity War is the fifth highest earner ever, and one of a handful that have grossed in excess of two billion in cinemas worldwide.

After endgame and apocalypse, where to from here?

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all timesuperhero apocalypse of endgames and wars into the ever after has won, hands down, but, honestly, where to from here?

Before this century when they began to appear in earnest, the movie superhero made an occasional appearance. Their goofy, impossible heroes could be treated with indulgence, but the explosion in pseudo-serious superhero in the 21st century is something entirely new, where plot and character driven by technology rather than story-tellers interested in human drama.

Why so? It’s a question for the sociologists, but interesting that they first appeared early in the early years of the Second World War when superheroes like Superman, a Batman, and Captain Marvel joined the war effort, one way or other.

As another summer of blockbusters draws to a close, the guardians of film culture have the opportunity to nurse serious cinema back to health. With injections of new work by the ingenue directors, with a selection of classics digitally restored, and with the latest work from the established auteurs.

Martin Scorsese in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (2014)

The red carpet rolls for films in competition, fans throng to see the talent in the flesh, and cineastes hang out to hear what the filmmakers have to say for themselves. This year we have heard from Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman opened the festival in New York (that I was able to attend in 2019), and closed the festival in London.

It is a rare treat to hear from filmmakers directly. Too often, new work is introduced to us by the marketers, by the jargon of the business, or by fragmented reviews that try to tell a complimentary story. When filmmakers with serious intent articulate what they were doing in their own words it is an altogether different matter.

A new outing from Martin Scorsese, generally considered one of the world’s greatest living directors, is a big event in any filmgoer’s calendar.

His Irishman takes place in New York, of course. The city that has been the set for more film and television than any other in the world, where, on any given day, New Yorkers can feel that they are on a film set. They can play it up and revel in the theatre of life in one of the world’s great megapolises, or play it down.

In an interview with Empire magazine at the time, Scorsese was drawn on the subject of superhero movies. The living godfather of modern cinema said what he thought, and then doubled down on it in London.

He had tried to watch them, really he had, but found he couldn’t. They were theme park experiences, they were not cinema, didn’t tell stories, and didn’t communicate emotional and psychological experience. With that, Scorsese drew a line in the sand.

The superhero movie industry may not much like what he said. Some like New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, who had the helm for Thor: Ragnarok and will direct Thor: Love and Thunder), have spoken up. Of course it’s cinema, you see it at the theatre, don’t you?

Fans of superheroes won’t be bothered, though they did Scorsese in media studies

Fans of the genre may not be much bothered by Scorsese’s views, even though his classics such as Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and The Departed will have been on their media studies curriculum.

Waititi is of course also the creator of the terrific indie hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It has been an interesting crossover. Why did the moguls ask him to direct? What were they looking for?

Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014)      Image courtesy Marvel Studios

He is not the only one, either. Talented indie writer-director originally from Canberra, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), has also been scooped up by the superhero industry. She is directing MCU’s Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz, due out next year.

In interview, Scorsese is a beguiling, mild-mannered man. Mild mannered for a man whose powerful, disturbing and beautifully made films about brooding, conflicted men have shaken us up, and he has stuck his neck out here.

The Irishman, a three hour thirty minute epic delving into the familiar subjects of organised crime, family and corruption, and is distributed by Netflix, the movie juggernaut for the small screen. The director’s latest film has benefited somewhat from this behemoth and other developments, like ‘de-aging’ visual effects, but no one could counter that his films skate the surface.

Reporting what Scorsese thinks about the competition at the box office for the movie dollar is a bit of a beat-up, but sincerity is a powerful tool these days. After all, there is only that much that you can say about movie superheroes, hey.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2019

* Featured image: Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011)

The Report: a record too hot to handle

M, 120 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The missing middle word in the title of this strenuous and thoughtful film is torture. The inconvenient truth of it redacted, just like the videotape records of CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ destroyed in the years after September 11.

No, not a spoiler. Just letting you know about the really unsavoury backstory to this 7,000 page report into CIA activities.

Based on real events post 9/11

Based on real people and real events, The Report is about how researchers working for the Senate Intelligence Committee compiled an official report inhouse into the methods used by the government’s intelligence agency while interrogating terrorists and terror suspects detained after 9/11.

Adam Driver hits the spot as Dan Jones

A lot of young Americans stepped up to join the defence forces or otherwise help after that national catastrophe, including a young graduate student, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who switched his studies to security overnight.

the real Dan Jones has set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance internationally

As a young everyman who wanted to help protect the homeland, Driver is an inspired choice. We already had him pegged as an engaging, versatile and intelligent actor, and though we get to see little other dimension to his personality outside of work, he is always interesting to watch. Late in the piece we see him jogging through a Washington park, and that’s about it, but Driver is a nuanced and expressive actor as the bureaucrat whose job became his all.

Incidentally, the real Dan Jones has left the public service and set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance around the world.

As a Senate staffer, Jones led the team investigating the CIA use of torture in the wake of 9/11. It may well have been the last thing a patriotically inclined young citizen sought, but he was lucky to be under the guidance of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), an admirable, thoughtful and supportive boss. After a long a distinguished career, the real Feinstein is the oldest serving member of the US Senate.

CIA videotape records had been disappeared

The tapes of interrogations had been disappeared or destroyed, but, incredibly, the written records still existed, and it was these that Jones and his tiny team trawled through for years to come up with the facts. It was no easy job. They had to face bureaucrats disinclined to help, or simply resistant, and work in the windowless bowels of some departmental basement.

When has torture ever worked? Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America?

What they found on the page is translated to scenes that are mercifully short. Feinstein and the team found themselves asking if torture ever worked. Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America? The film leaves you in no doubt, and has a dig along the way at Zero Dark Thirty for concluding that it had led to Bin Laden.

If waterboarding works, then why was it necessary for a prisoner to undergo it 183 times, Feinstein asks. A reasonable question, no one had thought to ask it of the two contract psychologists who were freelancing its use. This notorious method and mock burials and the rest has become ‘a stain on the values and history’ of the US in the years since.

The Report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, whose writing credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects and will soon include the new Bond film, No Time To Die.

Despite the welcome presence of Bening, there is nothing glamourous to this shadowy world of intelligence gathering. With its chilly palette and serious, weighty tone, The Report is in the tradition of work in the wake of the Watergate scandal, like All the President’s Men, and after the release of the Pentagon Papers (on US involvement in Vietnam), like The Post.  Typically, it’s mostly chilly interiors and the forbidding facades of impenetrable Washington government buildings in the frame.

A stain on American history and values

When the report is released, other senators, including the late John McCain, (famously a former long-term prisoner of the North Vietnamese) lend their support to it and condemn the use of torture, and its stain on American values and international standing. The noticeably warmer glow in the frame at this point, is unfortunately undercut by some final revelations.

This is smart stuff, wordy and engrossing – and non-partisan – with a great message for governments to own their mistakes. It can feel like sitting on a jury, listening to the arguments back and forth, but in the final analysis, The Report is in no doubt about the position it takes.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 November 2019

Ailo’s Journey

G, 86 minutes

3 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

It’s often hard to see how creatures born in the wild, just a bundle of knobbly limbs and eyes and ears, can ever survive. How those baby seals can get safely past the orcas lurking in the shallows, or how hatchling turtles dodge the predators on shore to reach the sea.

This wildlife documentary for children recounts a year in the life of a reindeer fawn, born before its mother reaches the summer pastures with the rest of the herd. Alone with her for the first days of its life, Ailo has to learn quick. Stand, walk, then run and swim. His mother nearly leaves him behind to follow the herd but the maternal instinct prevails and she stays, lowering her antlered head, nudging him to copy her. Yes, female reindeer, at least these ones in the Lapland region of Finland, grow an impressive rack just like the males.

Of course, we don’t have the same patience as Ailo’s mother while he learns essential skills. While the lessons take place, the entertaining antics of a white stoat come into view as it tries to raid a nest of eggs just out of reach. It’s one of many cameos of the other animals that share the taiga with reindeer. Lemmings, snowy owls, bears, wolves, wolverines, and arctic foxes.

I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images

In three days, Ailo and mum trot out of the forest, making their way down into the lower lying land. When he is five days old, they have caught up with the herd. This is when the narrator informs us that, not only has Ailo discovered how to use his limbs, he has learnt perseverance, courage and self-confidence.

There’s often some anthropomorphising in wildlife docos, even David Attenborough’s, but this was too much. From this point, I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images. While the writing by Morgan Navarro and Marko  Rohr can be silly and condescending, the cinematography by Teemu Liakka is great. The images from this white world just below the Arctic are lovely, some spectacular.

It’s not just a reindeer story. The arctic fox that is desperate for a mate, the snarling she-wolf training her cubs in the hunt. We are spared the actual kills.

And the wolverine that has such fun doing somersaults in the snow forgets he is courting the female, and she stalks off. By the way, if you ever thought Hugh Jackman’s wolverine claws were over-the-top, check out the claws on this little creature.

There is plenty of interesting wildlife behaviour to watch too, and, given the young audience this documentary is aimed at, the filmmakers can be excused for trying to turn it all into a story. The editor would have been working hard on bringing the raw material together, constructing a single character from disparate vision, and eliminating any images that gave the game away, but the result is a sweet story.

Ailo’s Journey, from first-time feature director Guillaume Madatchevsky, is about the right length for children. The images of the snowy wilderness will be compensation enough for the adults who go along with them.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 November 2019

Pain and Glory

MA15+, 114 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The actor Antonio Banderas and director Pedro Almodovar first worked together in the 1980s and helped make each other famous with sexy, taboo-breaking films like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was the post-Franco era in Spain and time to tear down decades of fascist repression.

Pain and Glory reflects on the central relationships in Salvador’s (Banderas) life – mother, lovers and actor collaborators. It’s a very personal collaboration between the actor and filmmaker, like a confessional from a couple of famous men of the big screen.

We first see Banderas, as successful film director Salvador Mallo, holding a pose while meditating at the bottom of a swimming pool.  The watery world draws memories of his early childhood to the surface, memories of laundry day at the river’s edge with his young mother (played in these scenes by another Almodovian muse, Penelope Cruz).

A gift for directors, fromTarantino to Almodovar, Banderas has had health issues of his own

As he catches up with an old friend, Salvador reveals that he has stopped writing and directing. Her surprise that he, of all people, has become reclusive and inactive, is a clue to the kind of person he was.

In later flashbacks, while in conversation with his elderly mother, he listens in such a touching way to her complaints that he disappointed her. Later, in a sweet scene between Banderas and Julieta Serrano, who plays Jacinta in her old age, she explains exactly how she wishes to be laid out when she dies.

In conversation with his long lost friend, Salvador recounts his various ailments, a list of enemies within that have beset him. His asthma, headaches, tinnitus and the sciatica that has given him a bad back. It’s a scary anatomical collage of medical imagery, almost as arresting as the opening titles over melting images that turn from solid to liquid before our eyes.

The state Salvador is in is a million miles from the irresistible hunk Banderas played in Almodovar’s early films, or from the swaggering hero he has played in Hollywood.

Another key relationship, not so explicitly referenced, is with the gay lover Salvador had when they were young men, before Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) left for Argentina and took a wife. The scenes between them 30 years later at Salvador’s apartment in Madrid, including the prominent kitchen with its bright red cupboards that looks a lot like the director’s own, are lovely to watch too.

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Alberto (Asier Etxeandia)

Yet another key relationship is the actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) from whom Salvador has also been estranged many years. Both Etxeandia and Sbaraglia give terrific performances too.

Handsome, tousle-haired, with a shy twinkle in his eye, Banderas has always been a welcome sight on screen. A gift for directors, from Quentin Tarantino to Almodovar, looking for a swashbuckler with devil-may-care (Desperado) or for a man for women to desire. Yet, here in Pain and Glory the presence we became used to is barely present. Banderas has been chastened by a real-life health issues of his own – a recent heart attack.

These life stories of these two creative collaborators, the film director and his alter ego, wind around each other like a double, double helix. Except that Banderas isn’t gay.

Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early work has developed and matured

It is like two of them put their heads together to create an intelligent, amusing and moving film with deep meaning for them both. Their energy coalesces around the wonderful performance that won Banderas the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year.

Since I became captivated by Almodovar’s witty, naughty, exuberant early films, he has remained one of my favourite filmmakers. All the while, his distinctive filmmaking – Volver and All About My Mother and Talk to Her among his best – has evolved, developed more depth and matured.

It isn’t surprising to hear in interview that another key relationship in Almodovar’s life has been the cinema, the world in which he says he still lives today. It’s a place of warmth and sensuality, of wit and wisdom, and as we see here, not without regrets.

Pain and Glory is a superior work from Pedro Almodovar with an intensely sensitive performance from Antonio Banderas. Both men may have been the bad boy and seen it all, but we didn’t know about this gentle, reflective side deep within.

First published in print and online by the Canberra Times on 9 November 2019

Balloon

Up, up and away to freedom lends new meaning to balloons aloft

M, 125 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is the story of two young families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, and a brightly coloured hot air balloon. It’s fantastic but true that in 1979 they used one to escape from East Germany, the former GDR, a daring act that lends new meaning to the image of balloons aloft.

On a September night when conditions were right, a balloon with eight on board, four adults and four children, drifted across the border into Bavaria. It flew at a height above 2,000 metres, high enough to be detected but not identified and out of reach of the guns of border guards. It landed just over the border.

East Germans who left were by definition enemies of the state

Before the Berlin Wall was torn down 30 years ago, the news about people being shot by East German border guards as they tried to escape to the West was a regular occurrence. After this, the revelations about the activities of the Stasi, the Communist regime’s secret police, were just about as bad.

Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) in a race against time

East Germans who took it upon themselves to leave were by definition enemies of the state, to be ‘apprehended or liquidated’. It’s ironic that as she and husband, Peter (Friedrich Mucke), are  on the point of leaving their home in the GDR forever, young wife and mother, Doris Strelzyk (Karoline Schuch), tidies up before she turns to leave. Says she can’t bear to be thought of as a bad housewife once she has gone, but she is destined to be thought of as far, far worse.

The incredible escape story has been made into a film before so I went along thinking it might have already had its day. Disney released Night Crossing with British actor, the late John Hurt, in 1982, just a few years later. But as I watched this German-language drama unfold, I came to think about its relevance differently.

It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that the families made it. That’s well known. It’s the journey that counts here, and knowing the ending doesn’t detract from this well-constructed and tense drama about a highly improbable flight to freedom from a totalitarian regime.

Get out or get arrested, there was no alternative

However, when they realise that the Stasi will discover Doris’ medication in the balloon’s wreckage and eventually be able to trace them, and when Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) and his family realise they have also been compromised, it becomes a matter of urgency. Get out or get arrested. There was no alternative but to start again.

Buying vast quantities of fabric,  some 1,300 metres, is difficult without inviting curiosity. Just how many tents or flags could you claim to be making? Then there’s the challenge of sewing it together and giving it a test run on the quiet somewhere. The odds against getting the work done and kept a secret from small children, nosey neighbours and government spies alike, were huge.

Actor Thomas Kretschmann, (pictured), seen in American action films and on TV in Berlin Station, is the Stasi lieutenant in charge of operations to track down the elusive balloonists. His character’s moral complexity suggests Balloon could have been taken in an even more interesting direction had it played the story less for its action and thrills and more for its political and psychological drama.

Still, it’s a remarkable story about the lengths people will go to, for freedom.

Balloon is directed by Michael Herbig, a well-known German comedian and director/producer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Roscheisen. It is a gripping drama with solid lead performances about a crazy-brave feat of courage.

A version of this review was first published in the Canberra Times on 3 Nov 19. It is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

Blinded by the Light

PG, 1 hr 57 mins

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Life was all mapped out. Young Javed would become an accountant, an estate agent, or even a lawyer, and would leave finding a wife to his parents. With his job and wife-to-be taken care of, all he had to do meantime was go along with his father’s wishes. At home, the opinions of his dad were the only ones allowed.

As a boy from a Pakistani family living in Britain in the 1980s, Javed (an engaging performance by Viveik Kalra) felt trapped, but it helped to write and he kept diaries throughout his teenage years.

This exuberant musical comedy, Blinded by the Light, is based on a memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, by Pakistani-British man, Sarfraz Manzoor, who became a journalist and broadcaster – not another taxi driver – and a lifelong fan of the music of Bruce Springsteen. To date, he has attended more than 150 live Springsteen concerts.

It was an ugly time in his adopted country. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, there was widespread industrial turmoil and unemployment, and the National Front was prowling the streets. In times like those, it wasn’t so silly of Javed’s father, Malik (Gurvinder Ghir), to insist his family – wife Noor (Meera Ganatra), two daughters and son – kept a low profile.

Javed (Viveik Kalra, centre) and friends, Eliza (Nell Williams) and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

The family lived in Luton, which didn’t help. With traffic on the motorway pouring past to the north or to the shimmering capital to the south, Luton felt on the way to somewhere else, an arrow to nowhere off the M1. Life must be happening somewhere, anywhere but here.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers

Even his good friend and neighbour, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an uninhibited Anglo, has a girlfriend, belongs to a band and his dad (played by an barely recognisable Rob Brydon) is cool. Though Matt, of course, doesn’t know it.

This was Javed’s lot. An outsider, until the day everything changed. In the school cafeteria, over baked beans and chips, the only other student from the Subcontinent, Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh, hands him a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes, saying ‘The Boss’ is ‘the direct line to all that is true in this shitty world’. Pretty soon, Javed is a convert too.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers, one Sikh and one Muslim, trying to make sense of life in Britain. Lines from Springsteen’s lyrics float around Javed’s head as he listens in private on his Walkman, as though it needed an explanation. It doesn’t. Music is the universal language.

The filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges collaborated with Manzoor on the screenplay. Blinded by the Light has her familiar distinctive touch, and the sly but generous humour typical of Chadha. She has a knack for keeping it light even though her focus is the on tricky subjects like relations between Anglos and Asians, and the need to reconcile tradition with modernity.

Chadha’s last film, Viceroy’s House in 2017, dealt with the weighty subject of the final days of the British Raj in India. It was probably notable for Gillian Anderson’s performance as Lady Mountbatten, but though well-intentioned it was surprisingly dull.

Chadha has been at her best with stories about immigrant families from the Subcontinent in Britain. Stories like Bend It Like Beckham in 2002, about a Punjabi Sikh girl infatuated with Britain’s football superstar, and Bhaji on the Beach, in 1993. These are films with a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of social customs and cross-cultural interaction and it’s what we see here in Blinded by the Light. Social commentary is Chadha’s forte.

The irrepressible Rob Bryden has a small role here but as Matt’s dad, who appeared to have a positive, liberal influence on both his son and Javed, but his character is under-developed.

At 117 minutes, Blinded by the Light is over-long, even though it is important to get to know the characters in stories like these, and see them in all their contradictions. Insights take time to develop, and to understand.

With people on the streets and governments locked in dysfunction, is it okay to have such playful, innocent fun with Javed’s ‘runaway American dream in Luton’? What a question.

First published in The Canberra Times on 27 October 2019, and also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Cinemas everywhere

4 Stars

Review @ Jane Freebury

It’s the start of another California day where careers are made, lost, or peter away under a peerless blue sky. The instant we hop into the back seat of a Cadillac and head down Cielo Drive, most of us have already given ourselves over for the ride. The vehicle careens wildly as it negotiates the traffic, but what the heck. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are in the front seat, and soul is on the soundtrack, so who’s asking questions?

Although Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) lives in a rambling bungalow with pool where posters of his success on screen plaster the walls, he needs work. Work that can resuscitate a career that has been waning since his star turn in ‘Bounty Law’, a TV western. In 1969 the movie world was turning, a new breed of auteur directors and anti-hero stars were stealing the march on the studio establishment.

Tate would surely scramble free of the bimbo roles the industry was insisting she was meant for

Like harbingers of a different future, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. By then Polanski had already had significant success with Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, while his wife Tate, an actor of talent, would surely scramble free of the bimbo roles the industry was insisting she was meant for.

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) at a Playboy Mansion party

At the bar where Dalton washes up with his stunt double and minder, Cliff Booth (Pitt, ‘too pretty to be a stuntman’), movie producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) advises him to answer the call and find himself a role in the ‘spaghetti western’ industry  in Spain and Italy.

Although Dalton is loosely based on some minor identity, many of us know that Clint Eastwood rocketed from  TV’s Rawhide to international success in Sergio Leone’s glorious tributes to the western, including Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone is also a director who, understanding the value of a great soundtrack, allowed the Ennio Morricone score the space to do its thing.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has given Tarantino an opportunity he’s been waiting for to play selections from his vinyl collection – but only up to 1969. The soundtrack is rich and evocative, including the sweet, sad strains of Jose Feliciano’s California Dreamin’, a signpost for the emerging counterculture.

Tarantino re-imagines Hollywood like an insider, though he was just six at the time

Tarantino has researched and re-imagined Hollywood here with the affection and knowledge of an insider, waiting for the big break and hanging out with mates like Rick and Cliff.  Hollywood in 69 wasn’t Tarantino’s lived experience, however much he would like it to have been. He was just a six-year-old in LA at the time.

Once Upon a Time is told from the fringe, from the point of view of those who missed out. Dalton and Booth aren’t alone here. The real Charles Manson (a small role occupied by Australian actor Damon Herriman) was on the fringe too, an aspiring singer-songwriter, and one of the many who never struck it lucky. The brief scene in which the cult leader is looking for a record producer who used to live at the Polanski address, has a factual basis.

spectacularly savage violence features, delivered as casually as takeaway

This filmmaker makes such exciting cinema, lavish, playful, and so gloriously cinematic that it seems mean to quibble, but he can’t resist that flash of R-rated, ultra-violence, that extravagant, spectacularly savage gesture that features in nearly every film, catching you off guard. It’s not for nothing that films are called Tarantino-esque. Jackie Brown in 1997 was a noble exception.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) runs the gauntlet at the Manson cult ranch

It is interesting to hear one of the Manson girls (Dakota Fanning) say that the TV/film industry had made her commit murder. It is sometimes said that, besides non-linear plotting, satiric black humour and playful intertextuality, the films of Quentin Tarantino ushered in new levels of graphic and stylized violence in the 1990s, delivered as casually as a burger takeaway.

And yet, Tarantino has found a very clever way of referencing the incredible violence of the Tate murders. Obliquely, using the lead up to the horror as a subtext to his story of knockabout lead characters. What’s disturbing though, is how the Manson acolytes themselves are dealt with, at least as savagely as the real-life murder victims themselves.

The mood of laid-back California cool that suffuses the film vanishes in the penultimate moment. And although the happy coda does its best, it can’t blot out what has already been seared into the retina.

Jane’s reviews are published at the Canberra Critics Circle, at the Film Critics Circle of Australia from time to time, and are heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, when she is in Canberra

Danger Close: the Battle of Long Tan

Rated MA 15+, 1 hr 58 mins

All cinemas

3.5 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

In 1966, Long Tan was just an abandoned village inside a rubber plantation not far from Saigon, today’s Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam. After 18 August that year, when Australian and New Zealand solders encountered Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops there, it became the scene of a pitched, three-and-a-half hour battle. There were many losses all round and both sides claimed victory at the time.

difficult and contested territory, the legacy for the US and its allies

An irony if ever there was one. No one really seems to ‘win’ in war. Though by 1975, the Vietnamese could at least claim their independence after centuries of wars during which they eventually saw off the Chinese, the French, and the Americans and their allies.

Any film about the Vietnam War enters the difficult and contested territory that is the legacy for the US and its allies. The American film industry is probably still recovering from the impact that the experience had on the national psyche.

The latest film from Kriv Stenders (who directed the beloved Red Dog), along with his team of writers including Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Tomorrow When the War Began) is a brave contribution that pretty well confines itself to events from the Australian perspective and avoids making judgements about our involvement. It is great to see a local film exploring a difficult period of Australian history.

Until the battle of Long Tan, as I understand it, conscripts could comprise a staggering 50 percent of troops on the frontline. It’s clear that Stenders wishes to honour the losses and the bravery of the men at Long Tan. They were recognised by the US and South Vietnam, but for many years elided by their home country.

Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber)

Conscripts like Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber), from somewhere beyond the black stump in northern NSW, who died that day aged 21. And he was one of the oldest. The youngest casualty among the 18 who died was only 19, like the voice in the Redgum song that has become an unofficial anthem for veterans.

A battle was not anticipated when, after an attack on the newly established base at Nui Dat, Brigadier David Jackson (Richard Roxborough), sent soldiers out to reconnoitre where the mortars were coming from. A platoon of the men were caught in a pincer of VC troops, and cut off from them the rest of the company. Seasoned officer Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel) and his inexperienced men were trapped and sure to die, but back at headquarters in the base, command feared that sending in reinforcements would expose the base itself to attack. The artillery saved the day.

it wouldn’t have been won without a level of disobedience

As this new film tells it, Long Tan was not the most glorious moment for Australian high command, suggesting it wouldn’t have been ‘won’ by the ANZACs without a level of disobedience. Orders are brushed aside at several key points, when men take action, risking their lives to support others in the field.

Entertainment for the troops

All this occurred on a day when singers Col Joye (Geoffrey Winter) and Little Pattie (Emmy Dougall) had been flown in to entertain the troops.  It is a bizarre interpellation of the look and feel of life back home, when it was a matter of life and death on the front.

If you take yourself along to this film—very well staged and nerve-jangling after a slightly awkward start—you may find yourself recalling Peter Weir’s ageless Gallipoli set in World War I, or aspects of Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Vietnam in his masterpiece Apocalypse Now.

Danger Close: the Battle of Long Tan, just like any good so-called ‘war’ film, has a message that is powerfully anti-war, highlighting the terrible human cost.

Jane’s reviews are published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz