H is for Happiness

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The advance media for this new film for young adults suggests it’s about a girl with a knack for persuading other people to her brightly coloured, optimistic view of the world.

It concerned me a bit. Would I meet a Pollyanna type, sunny to a fault? Well, I didn’t. Candice Phee, the main character played by Daisy Axon, is more nuanced and interesting than that.

Candice first appeared in Barry Jonsberg’s popular novel from which this film has been adapted, My Life as an Alphabet. It has been popular with YA readers around the world. I don’t know the book at all, but Daisy Axon, all red hair and freckles, makes a lovely Candice on screen.

Since the death of her younger sister, Candice has been the only child at home with her parents. It’s not exactly a broken home, but in a sense, it is, with Candice the ham-in-the-sandwich of family relations turned sour. She is just a bright and precocious 12 year-old who wants to set things right again.

Mum Claire (Emma Booth) is depressed and dad Jim (Richard Roxborough) is dejected and when they’re not brooding, they are arguing behind closed doors. In the four years since sister Sky died, mum Claire, once a lively country and western fan, has fallen into deep despond.

Jim can barely bring himself to talk to his brother, businessman Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) because he believes his sibling robbed him of the intellectual property he is owed on a deal they did together. When family is a mess, who wouldn’t try to set it right?

Yet everything Candice tries to get her parents to perk up and get on together falls flat, even cooking dinner and arranging surprise trips.

Overachiever Candice is a bit uncool among her classmates, and it’s another issue. Perhaps the amazing vocabulary she has at her disposal is annoying? She uses words like ‘pizzazz’, ‘breach’, ‘schism’, ‘whopping’, and ‘lack thereof’, and she pronounces the letter H as ‘aytch’, not ‘haytch’.

The next class assignment seems made-to-measure for Candice. Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes makes an unforgettable though very brief appearance) sets class the task of a presentation about a letter of the alphabet. Candice is assigned the letter ‘h’.

Thankfully, she has become besties with another strange kid at school, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, the only kid who willingly sits next to her in class. As they explore a nearby pine forest, creaking and sighing in the wind, they can let their imaginations rip. Wesley Patten as Douglas is really good too.

A white miniature horse keeps them company. It’s no unicorn, and if not exactly magical, it could have drifted in from another world, perhaps the dimension that Douglas wants to revisit?

Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, has issues of his own but his kind mother, played by wonderful Deborah Mailman, has warmth and empathy to spare for Candice.

The film looks great. I loved the occasional symmetry of the framings. A richly imagined world thanks to art direction (Marita Mussett) production design (Nicki Gardiner) and the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott and Rick Rifici (Breath), all brought together by director John Sheedy who is highly regarded in the world of theatre and opera.

Although the book is set in Queensland, the film is set in the southernmost tip of Western Australia. Candice lives in Albany, but despite the endless stretch of perfect beach, could almost be anywhere.

There are scenes of Candice cycling past wind farms and spectacular coastline, but no particular effort has been made by the filmmakers to underline the fact that the film is set in Australia. The suburban gardens have as many exotics as they have bush plants, and it is stately pines that grow in a nearby forest. H is for Happiness has a sort of placelessness, and it is refreshing to see an Australian film that doesn’t feel the need to proclaim its cultural identity.

H is for Happiness is a first feature for theatre director John Sheedy, though he does have an award-winning short, Mrs McCutcheon, in his back pocket. He has brought a fresh YA angle to the Aussie coming-of-age comedy, and the entire production is a credit to everyone involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2020

Parasite

MA 15+, 2 hrs 11 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Writer-director Joon-ho Bong makes bold and confident films with tremendous visual flair. The Palme d’Or he received at Cannes for this film last year suggests that the venerable film festival is at last catching up with the quality of cinema from South Korea.

Films by female directors are taking a little longer.

As you might expect from a best film at Cannes, Parasite looks good, very good. Even the scenes that take place below street level, in the basement where Ki-taek (popular actor Kang ho Song) lives with his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and two adult children, are constructed with visual flair and in long takes that allow the details to resonate. And it is shot through with Bong’s bleak humour.  He co-wrote with Jin Wan Han.

Bingo! Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and Ki-jung (So-dam Park) find wifi

The family lives pretty much hand to mouth, scrounging and swindling. The best place in their flat for using their neighbours’ wifi involves a squat near the toilet. Fumigation from the street is another opportunity. They leave the windows open for the fumes to billow in to rid their home of pesky bugs, though they will contaminate the pizza boxes they are folding for a bit of cash.

they are a family of consummate grifters, fun to watch as their moves go undetected

No sooner does the son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) get a job tutoring in a wealthy family, the Parks, than the rest of his tribe pile on board. Ki-taek replaces the driver, Chung-sook the housekeeper and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park), whose forging skills enabled the opening for her brother in the first place, also nabs a job tutoring the Park’s little boy.

The Ki-taeks are a family of consummate grifters, fun to watch as their moves go undetected by the Parks, who seem to operate in a world of their own, which is, of course, the point.

One day, Mr (Sun Kyun Lee) and Mrs Park (Yeo-jeong Jo) leave their extraordinary modernist marvel of a home in the care of their servants. It seems they don’t suspect the Ki-taeks belong to the same family, even though little Da-song (Jung-heon Jun) remarks that all of them smell ‘the same’.

Then, during a downpour, the former housekeeper returns to feed her husband who lives hidden in the bomb shelter below. The encounter between the grifters and this pair, their class allies, is rich with savage social satire. Below ground or under the radar, it’s the only way to survive.

a vertiginous descent from high society to the underclass below

Then, the Parks return early, their camping holiday washed out by the heavy rain, but the servants just still manage to escape detection.

The moment of reckoning arrives at a very fancy party in the Park’s garden when vicious violence erupts. All the more ghastly for taking place in a garden in bright daylight and within a colourful, celebratory mise en scene.This is another film from a director whose social satire carries a sharp edge. Bong’s futuristic thriller in 2013, Snowpiercer, saw social privilege get its just deserts, though who deserves what here will be more debatable.

And like another recent South Korean film, Burning (that used the same cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo), Parasite makes reference to the widening social divide in Korean society and societies everywhere.

With its graphic violence and creepy threat from the basement, Parasite could easily have tipped into horror mode. Awards for genre at Cannes are rare, but this is largely black comedy with wit and humour, and enthralling camerawork that takes in the vertiginous descent from  high society to the underclass below.

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

Breath

Review by © Jane Freebury

Surfing makes for elegant and beautiful spectator sport, as those of us who stick to land know only too well.

Ever since I lived on the coast south of Sydney I have thought that surfing was out of this world but that it needed patient dedication and a kind of insanity to pursue. Day in, day out, the surfers were there, floating in a heaving expanse of blue or grey as they waited for the big one.

Communicating the visceral experience of surfing is one of Breath’s triumphs, pitching us into deep water to show what the struggle to survive in another world can feel like. Early scenes are in still water, with Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) exploring a river, but soon transition to the ocean beaches in the Great Southern region of Australia.

Water cinematography by Rick Rifici brings the experience home with beautiful and enthralling vision, above and below the surface.

In the remote corner of the continent where they are growing up, there’s not much for these two teenage friends to do. They can go to the beach, ride around on their battered bikes, or they get up to no good spooking truck drivers on the highway.

On a trip to the coast they encounter a hardcore surfer, Sando (Simon Baker, who is also director), who gives them rides to and from the beach in his – yes, you guessed it – Kombi van. He and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) can help out by letting them leave their gear at his house. It saves them the trouble of cycling to the water with their heavy fibreglass boards under one arm while negotiating the road with the other.

It turns out that Sando, a laconic, unfettered 70s man, has a bit of history. His reputation in the surfing world is on the record on old magazine covers, catching waves from Mexico to Indonesia. If he wasn’t already a surfer to look up to, he certainly is now, though hardly the best role model.

Sando opens a window to a world that neither of the boys knew existed. The treacherous offshore breaks, the remote beach patrolled by a great white shark, and the wide world beckoning from across the sea. There is the strange world of adults, their losses and coping mechanisms and their various addictions.

When Sando and Loonie head overseas together on a surfing holiday, the void throws Pikelet into a relationship with Eva who limps from an injury that has put an end to her career as an extreme ski jumper. It opens a window on yet another space, dark and dangerous, and is another occasion when boundaries are crossed. It’s not just the sex.

This is not the first occasion that Simon Baker has directed. He has drawn naturalistic performances from his two untested leads, and he makes a very convincing Sando. Winton has also invested much of himself invested in this journey.

I hesitate to describe Breath as a coming-of-age film, but there is no getting away from its place in this popular local genre. However, it is in very good company, and among the best. Appearances and labels can be deceptive, anyway.

A film about surfing and surfer culture may not appear to speak to people who grew up in the inner city, or who have only lived on the land, or who think of the 1970s as a kind of dark ages.

There is nothing routine about this visually superb treatment of the subject that explores the liminal moment when young people choose their direction. And, it is of course based on the novel of Tim Winton, who also worked with Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie) on the screenplay.

Breath may not touch everyone, but it would be a pity if that were so. It is about so much more than blokes on boards.

Rated M, 115 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-new-poster

Review © by Jane Freebury

Nocturnal Animals is without question a transporting tale, stylish and clever, but it is also an onslaught of cruelty, yearning and pathos. A waking dream that niggles away.

At its core, it is about the things that really matter in life, the things that take some of us a lifetime to figure out. Art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) once left behind her loving relationship with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer, for a callow businessman more acceptable to her conservative establishment family. For Edward, there was never any doubt about what he wanted, and he remained true to himself as a teacher of literature at a school in Dallas. It has been the kind of life that Susan dreaded living alongside him, and he has nursed the devastation of their split some 20 years ago.

Their lives intersect again when he sends Susan the draft of his new novel. It is dedicated to her. What an incentive to begin reading! She settles down with it over the weekend after the opening night success of her exhibition, an installation of naked female figures, dancing and at rest.

We were thrown into this event with the opening credits. It is a vision of unfettered female flesh that the late Federico Fellini could have been created, or the figurative artist Patricia Piccinini. The director, Tom Ford, has said that his moving statues, the naked and obese older women, were meant to signify freedom of expression, freedom from constraint. Well, I don’t really buy that.

It has instead the chill of the fastidious fashion and style guru. With little effort made to tie these nudes into the narrative, it’s just looks like shock value. And it is surprising when so many of the aesthetic choices—like all those match cuts that draw the parallel narratives together, and the plangent string motif—make such an elegant tapestry. However, a steeliness is what you might expect in a tale of revenge.

So, alone behind the gates of the LA bunker she calls home, Susan begins to read. The book is about Tony (Gyllenhaal as well), husband and father, who is on a family road trip, making his way through the desert in West Texas at night. He is forced off the road by two carloads of hoons who appear to be so malevolent that a passing police car speeds up as it passes, rather than stop for Tony trying to wave it down. In an old-model Mercedes a million miles from anywhere and beyond range of cell phone coverage, Tony and his attractive wife and daughter are exceptionally vulnerable.

I can honestly say that these scenes of hijack and abduction are some of most terrifying I have ever witnessed on screen. Ford also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from a novel of the 1990s, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright.

Events take their inevitable course, and Tony is left utterly devastated and alone, and the investigation drags on inconclusively. The local detective (a wonderful performance from Michael Shannon) seems slow to accept his version of events, though scepticism would have served him among the folks he operated among, and then proves to be terminally ill. It begins to feel incumbent on Tony to step in. His eventual metamorphosis into pitiless avenger is one of the powerful and convincing since Dustin Hoffman became a terrifying force to be reckoned with in Straw Dogs all those years ago.

For this ultra-intense tale to work as well as it does, we have immaculate direction by Ford, and fine, measured performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal, as the two characters who matter most. Shannon and many of the West Texan yahoos are also excellent. However, others slip in and out of caricature, including Amy’s heavily overdrawn mother, a Republican dowager played by Laura Linney.

For the locations from the sterile interiors and LA to the Texan desert emptiness, director Ford also wears his fashion designer credentials on his sleeve. At the same time, he sure knows how to tell a story and has stitched the blistering tale together to form a tapestry of some power.

‘Last summer while driving at night on the interstate, I was forced off the road…’ It’s a haunting refrain from a brilliant piece of cinema. Primal terror: beware.

Four Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle