Tag Archives: 4 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Never Look Away

Rated M, 3 hrs 9 mins

Dendy Cinema Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It isn’t possible to look away from this imposing film for long. Maybe to check the time―it does run for over three hours―or to block out a harrowing moment, but it has a commanding and sensual beauty that isn’t around much at the moment. Top marks to the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And like writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, it has something serious it wants to say.

The central character, Kurt Barnert, is a little boy when we meet him on a sunny day in beautiful Dresden in 1937, visiting an art exhibition with a lovely young woman, probably too young to be his mother. As they stand in wrapt attention in front of the Kandinskys and Picassos on display, the tour guide launches a rant denouncing degenerate modernism. The child hardly notices, he is entranced.

The paintings captivate his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) too and she assures Kurt he should trust his curiosity and never avert his gaze, because ‘everything true is beautiful.’ It’s all he needs to know.

Averting the gaze takes on wider implications as the narrative progresses, and is caught up in the obscenities of the Nazi regime.

At home later that day, Elisabeth’s heightened awareness turns bizarre and there is an episode of self-harm. Kurt’s beloved aunt is schizophrenic, eventually brutally eliminated by the Nazi regime for what is judged her unsuitability to bear children.

After the war, Kurt (played by Tom Schilling) is studying art, but he struggles to find meaning in the Socialist Realism he is required to produce in Communist-era East Germany. The role of the artist in society is of course what this is all about, as Kurt tries to work out his own style and vision while living through his country’s turbulent recent history.

At this time, he falls in love with another Elisabeth (Paula Beer), who he nicknames Ellie. A fashion student, an uncanny doppelganger for his late aunt, who is the daughter of a highly-ranked medical officer with a shadowy Nazi past. The ‘reveal’ as he leans towards his daughter’s bedside lamp is one of the best there is.

Sebastian Koch had a key role in The Lives of Others, as a playwright under surveillance by the Stasi. Here, as Professor Carl Seeband, he is another compelling character, and really more interesting than Schilling’s Kurt, who doesn’t have the same presence or complexity. A game something like ‘cat and mouse’ develops between Kurt and Carl, and the two generations they represent.

It has been well-documented that von Donnersmarck based this fascinating story loosely on the life and work of the German artist Gerhard Richter, and many of the details match. But it is probably safe to say that both filmmaker and artist have been at pains to distance themselves from direct attribution. This is no biopic.

Never Look Away feels like a labour of love from von Donnersmarck, who both wrote and directed, and it is so good to see his return as a filmmaker after his last film, The Tourist. A dull romantic thriller with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, it also brought beautiful people together on screen, but gave them nothing to do.

When the Nazis were consolidating their power in 1937, they understood only too well the importance of mind control. An exhibition of degenerate art famously represented much of what was wrong with the old order: individual expression, artistic freedom, and ‘dangerous’ things like that.

In its original German language version, the title for Never Look Away is Work Without Author. There is a documented reason for this that is part of the production backstory, rather than an invitation to consider any ‘death of the author’, but it adds an intriguing dimension to ways to respond.

Never Look Away or Work Without Author, what you will, it’s going to stay with you, long after viewing.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM MHz 92.7/90.3

Woman at War

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Of the various women warriors on the big screen this week, Woman at War is the most unusual. It is a clever balancing act that is both playful and serious, while suggesting that Icelandic humour and world view can hit the spot at times.

In Captain Marvel, a young female warrior played by Brie Larson is learning to unleash her powers and take her place in the pantheon of superheroes. The biggest blockbuster of the year so far and still going strong, it has quite a smart, witty script and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance to recommend it.

Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, barely recognisable if not fully convincing, certainly packs a punch. As a driven LAPD detective on a vendetta, Kidman is tracking down a vicious criminal mastermind who has escaped justice. It is one of those interesting films that really divides critics and audiences, and it is as gritty and grim as Captain Marvel is as fun and forgettable.

A very different kind of quest motivates Woman at War, a comedic drama from Iceland that is directed with wit and brio by Benedikt Erlingsson, who also co-wrote it with Olafur Egilsson.Woman at War plots the course of an environmental activist who, like David to Goliath, confronts a giant multinational corporation, Rio Tinto in fact, that is ruining the pristine countryside. In her efforts to stop it building another aluminium smelter, with Chinese backing, she becomes an enemy of the state in this engaging and eccentric film, right out of left field.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), raises her long bow and fires in the first scene. Bullseye. Single-handedly – well almost, a couple of others are in the know – she closes down vast sections of the grid and holds an entire country, albeit a small one, to ransom.

When not moonlighting as a committed activist, Halla is a healthy, energetic choir director who fits in well with her community. She is single, and at 49 years waiting to hear whether her application to adopt an orphan from the Ukraine has been successful. She had all but forgotten about it, but it comes through and hears that a little girl is waiting for her.

Now what does she do? How to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood with militant activism to save the planet from environmental disaster? These are weighty issues. Perhaps the pacifist strategies of the heroes she has on her wall at home, Mandela and Gandhi, will inform her.

Along the way on Halla’s journey, a trio of musicians has been playing in the background and sometimes in Halla’s own home, even turning on the telly. It is a marvellously eccentric interpolation. Later on, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers share the frame with Halla. What an inspired idea, to have the score played and sung by performers who appear in the same space as the actors.

Another diverting device that keeps the mood buoyant is the hapless Spanish tourist cycling around the country. He keeps being found by the police in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Halla’s acts of sabotage. It is an hilarious incidental detail.

When Halla’s twin sister, also played by Geirharosdottir, unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is indeed the other side of the coin, looking for fulfilment and inner peace and harmony in her yoga and meditation. Asa’s appearance means even more screen time with this excellent lead actress.

In less deft and subtle hands this funny fable from a remote and idiosyncratic land could have turned out differently. Woman at War could have been simply weird, but it is an unequivocal success instead.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz/90.3MHz Tuggeranong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Always Never

PG, 1 hr  27 mins

4 Stars

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Words, words, words are at the heart of the matter in this offbeat tale of a fastidious man, a retired tailor who has lost one of his sons. He is a fiend at Scrabble who can get a triple word score but he is at a loss with people he cares for.

In the striking opening scene, Alan (Bill Nighy), still as a statue, gazes out to sea. He is dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella, and as solitary as the other iron men statues at Crosby Beach near Liverpool that are scattered across the shore.

For many years, Alan has been searching for the elder son who stood up from a scrabble game one evening and left, over a word dispute, never to return. His other son, Peter (Sam Reilly, so great in Control), is the one who stayed behind in Liverpool, married, lived a steady life and now has a son of his own, teenager Jack (Louis Healy).

However, Alan is forever gazing into the blue yonder, on the lookout for the prodigal that got away, failing to appreciate what he has. This elision and under-appreciation has turned his son Peter a touch sour.

Things get going with a trip to the morgue, of all places, where there’s a body that might be the missing Michael, and just when that macabre movement of revelation seems about to occur, the film pulls back. Sometimes Always Never is like that, skidding across those hard and difficult surfaces while keeping the tone light, making the film an unexpected pleasure.

a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with an oblique, jaunty eccentricity

When the body proves to belong to someone else, Peter and Alan continue their trip together to follow up more leads. At a hotel, the indefatigable Alan the chance to rip a bloke off at Scrabble and somehow, we don’t see how exactly, make a pass at the mans’ wife (Jenny Agutter). The interlude brings into the focus the gap between father and son.

The search is quickly abandoned and on their return home, Alan is politely offered a place to stay. In no time, Jack has turfed Jack out of his bunk bed and taken over his computer, the gateway to a world of Scrabble partners online. Peter is very put out but his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) doesn’t seem to mind that much and Alan, sartorial snob that he is, has a transformational impact on his grandson.

what’s with these adverbs of frequency?

Laced with observations on the English character and sensibility, Sometimes Always Never is a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with that an oblique, jaunty eccentricity that only the British can manage without cloying sentimentality. An accomplished balancing act.

The film is a quest to find the prodigal becomes a quest to find what’s missing in the ones who are left behind. Based on a short story by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and illustrated with wonderful, imaginative production direction by Tim Dickel, it is superbly well directed by first-timer Carl Hunter.

So what’s with these adverbs of frequency in the title? Are they rules for life? It’s something along those lines, but the lesson takes an unexpected turn, which is one of the many gentle surprises and delights on offer here.

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

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

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

The Children Act

M, 105 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 stars

A good story about a moral dilemma is hard to beat. The English novelist Ian McEwan has a steady supply of them with characters caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with moral choices at once as intractable as they are desirable.

If humour is wanting – his novel Solar was perhaps an exception – you could not complain about McEwan’s lack of complexity as he challenges his characters with far more than they bargained for. Many literary awards testify to the compelling achievements of this Booker Prize winning author and influential thinker.

He’s a novelist but has on occasion also written just for the screen. The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983 was based on his screenplay but now he tends to write screenplays based on his own books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

These recent films have taught us what we can expect of McEwan – a forensic dissection of human relationships. The film of his book The Children Act is no exception.

Directed with nuance and grace by Richard Eyre, The Children Act repays the viewer with its complexity and a stupendous performance by Emma Thompson, as high court justice Fiona Maye. And Stanley Tucci in excellent form too as her husband Jack, a classics professor.

 A case comes before her involving a young man not quite 18 whose Jehovah Witness family is refusing to allow him a blood transfusion because it’s contrary to their beliefs.The hospital where the boy is languishing with leukemia is suing the parents for the right to pursue treatment – transfusion followed by drug therapy – and an 11th hour decision is required.

Over and above his parents’ wishes, the boy’s life is already protected by the Children Act, but Maye makes an impromptu visit to the boy in hospital. What does he want?

It turns out Adam (Fionn Whitehead),  haggard and handsome, has the sensibilities of a romantic poet. He responds fulsomely to Fiona when she reveals her own interest in poetry and that she is a musician too. It seems as though he represents the passion that is missing from the well-ordered, work-oriented life that she leads as she shuttles between a Gray’s Inn apartment, her rooms and the court. Nor do she and Jack have children.

What’s more, Jack has just left, declaring he’s going to have an affair. It looks like Fiona has taken her demonstrative, sensitive husband for granted, but she changes the locks all the same.

As milady the judge becomes increasingly isolated, Adam becomes more and more obsessive, not entirely unlike the Rhys Ifans’ stalker in Enduring Love, also based on a McEwan book.

That’s one way of looking at it. I found myself wondering where social services were when we needed them. But that, of course, would have been prosaic and not have allowed the dramatic potential of this unusual situation to evolve.

Trust McEwan to throw another curved ball at us.

 

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

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