TagReview

Boychoir

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s just as well this 12-year-old is a fast learner. For a boy who could be headed for institutional care after his mother, a single mom, dies suddenly, he has to make some massive life changes in the first half hour of this film’s life.

Stet (Garrett Wareing) is snatched off the slippery slope of disadvantage because he can sing, like an angel. It’s a gift that sees him placed in a national choral boarding school, Boy Choir, after his father, who has a wife and other children, hands the academy a big fat cheque.

Not only does Stet have to enunciate clearly, read music and learn music theory, he has to fit in, the hardest of hard tasks when the rest of the boys are from backgrounds of privilege. If the academy’s crusty principal (played by Kathy Bates) finds waiting for bad-tempered colleagues like Drake ( Eddie Izzard) to retire ‘a special kind of torture’, then fitting into the hallowed halls at Boy Choir would be just as taxing for a Texan kid with attitude like young Stet. It is surprising that the film doesn’t make as much of this personal journey as you might expect.

Even more pleasing than Bates on screen again, is Dustin Hoffman as the choirmaster Carvelle. Hoffman also gives his character the grit the film needs. He does a less convincing job of a flinty old fossil because, of course, he isn’t as hard as he appears, the point being that he expects high standards and has no time for anything less. The performances by screen veterans Bates and Hoffman, as well as young actor Kevin McHale in the part of house master Wooly, are the backbone of the film.

The other good thing is the choral singing, the film’s expected centrepiece. In particular, there’s a sequence when the boys practise in a chapel with the camera panning the space as they pick up their parts. It’s also the moment when Stet, skulking in the shadows, appears to experience his Damascus moment and is finally inspired to join in.

There are signs like smart phones and rap that this coming-of-age drama is in the present, but the film has a fusty, cloistered look and feel. It could be set in the 1950s like its cousin-in-spirit from 1989, Dead Poets Society was. Why? When the message is clearly an attempt to connect with youth and demonstrate the importance of hard work and discipline. It just ain’t enough to have talent.

Quebecois filmmaker Francois Girard did interesting work on Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould in the 1990s, but his direction is less interesting here. When the singing takes over, however, and when Hoffman steps into frame, we soar to another level.

3 stars

The Age of Adaline

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, being tall, willowy and perfectly proportioned, with lustrous hair and perfect skin is not always the distinct advantage you might think it is. Not if you never age, anyway. It’s a shaky premise to build a movie on, but more preposterous ideas can sometimes work, so why not?

Lovely Adaline (Blake Lively) had an accident early last century and is still alive because it has stopped her aging. Still looking youthful has not conferred the kind of advantage one might imagine, because she doesn’t fit her ID profile and it has made people suspicious. So she has had to live on the run, a fugitive from intimacy—after a few early mistakes—except for the succession of King Charles Spaniels that she keeps for company.

Where, oh where, does Hollywood get its movie ideas from? A silly premise, but the dream factory knows full well that there’s nothing like a good romance to make sense of things.

One New Year’s Eve when Adaline is out and about, though it’s uncharacteristic behaviour. Her eyes lock with a handsome stranger across the room. Despite the lengths she goes to fob him off we know they are destined for each other, in the short term at least. Adaline has already dropped the broad hint that she is resolved to live the new year as though it is her last.

Ellis (Michiel Huisman, who was in Wild and is in Game of Thrones) woos and wins her and they attend his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary upstate. It’s a ‘meet the parents’ when things really start to unravel, ushering in a terrific turn by Harrison Ford as Ellis’ dad.

This could have been a halfway decent romantic drama, had it not taken itself seriously. The writing is tolerable and it is tastefully and intelligently produced. However, from the start events are explained in voiceover, a sign that the narrative is having trouble explaining itself. The ‘voice of god’ leads us through the early scenes and then returns at the end to ensure all makes sense.

Director Lee Toland Krieger, still in his early 30s, an award winner for earlier lower budget work, has done a reasonable job with Adaline, and (almost) saved it from itself. In the lead, Lively doesn’t exactly live up to her name but we suppose that experience has taught her character to be a cool customer. Huisman is fine, as is the earnest message not to mess with nature, but the whole enterprise is cut off at the knees by the silly premise. It does nothing but bestow on Adaline a wardrobe down the decades to die for.

In a capsule: A nearly decent film has emerged out of material based on a silly premise, which is a shame for Harrison Ford who is great in a support role.

2.5 stars

Focus

Review by © Jane Freebury

In this romantic crime caper, Margot Robbie and Will Smith are well cast as a glamorous pair of grifters, Jess and Nicky, who look like they really should be together. They look great together, two beautiful people in exotic locations like New Orleans and Buenos Aires who can work the floor superbly, picking pockets with guile, style and charm.

After they meet in a bar it turns out they are in the same sort of business. Nicky takes Jess under his wing until she becomes so good he inducts his star intern into the firm, a multi-million dollar industrial scale army of scammers and pick-pockets. No, Nick is not aiming for the one big hit on which he can subsequently retire in Antigua, he’s into ‘volume’.

Jess is all ears and eyes at Nicky’s tutorials in crime. There are a myriad ways to distract and divert attention like wearing a low-cut slinky dress or having someone fake a heart attack while someone else on the team can empty pockets or slip rings and watches away from their moorings. A montage of subliminal messages on the way to a major scam at the Super Dome shows Nicky is into amateur psychology too.

It’s all in the name of fun and co-directors John Requaa and Glenn Ficarra, who have partnered before on Bad Santa and Crazy Stupid Love, keep it light at all times. They had a ‘theatrical pickpocket’ called Apollo Robbins advising them. Robbins has a standalone end credit as the ‘con artist and pickpocket designer’. He is apparently famous for pick pocketing a guard on the security detail for President Carter, so we can imagine that he would know what’s what. (The character with the same name of Apollo is one and the same.)

Nicky, nickname ‘Mellow’, would be the man but for two fatal weaknesses, gambling and now that he’s met her, Jess. Robbie’s Jess is at the heart of the film too, the object of desire in her elegant retro wardrobe like a latter day Grace Kelly.

However, ’tis a pity that in her first lead role since her cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, the Australian actress didn’t pick a project with better results. There’s one too many twists and turns generating a bit of a narrative wobble a couple of key parts that are clumsily overplayed. Robert Taylor’s turn as a crude Australian race driver doesn’t add much either.

Yet, the film’s cheerful theme that everyone’s ‘an easy grift’ makes for buoyant light entertainment, even when it skirts briefly into sex and violence. Focus is not going to stay with you indefinitely, but it is a welcome retrospective on the old movies that did petty crims and swindlers with charm and style.
In a capsule: A romantic old-style crime caper with a few too many plot twists and turns but there’s plenty of style and charm in its lead couple, Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

3 stars

Fifty Shades of Grey

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, after weeks of pre-release sales, it’s here at last, the film of the international best-selling novel translated into more than 50 languages. The story of a virginal undergrad who is introduced to the world of BDSM by her corporate high-flyer boyfriend, it has brought whips and handcuffs into the movie mainstream with a new challenge to the liberal, the feminist, and the young person working out how to be.
Maybe a challenge to the odd parent too. Our PM has read the book—he’s done better than me—and says he prefers Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare. With you there.

It’s not as though BDSM doesn’t have a measure of arthouse cred. We’ve seen elements of sexual bondage, sadism and masochism there for ages, from titillation to outright provocation. A whippet slim Charlotte Rampling shocked audiences with her S&M affair in The Night Porter, Catherine Deneuve’s character sought rough and tumble outside marriage in Belle de Jour. Meg Ryan’s character solicited mortal danger in pursuit of great sex during In the Cut. In a more recent film, Venus in Furs, Polanski again, the traditionally male-female, dominant-submissive roles are reversed.

Though Fifty Shades is the work of talented director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), the glossy patina is solidly mainstream. Knowingly and artfully well made, it comes perilously close at times to luxury goods advertising as the camera caresses the polished interiors of the real estate owned by telecoms magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Each new day, Christian faces the challenge of deciding which shade of grey tie he will privilege.

Things are grounded by young Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, an ingénue with a natural presence. Though she could have chewed her lip less, even if there are supposed to be hints of a modern day Victorian heroine, lost in the books of Thomas Hardy. Johnson reminds me of the Anglo-French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg who Lars von Trier put through the mill in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. Casting may have been aware of this resemblance, as it was surely aware of Dornan’s serial killer character in The Fall on TV.

We would agree that people’s intimate fantasies are their business alone, and they have every right to explore to find someone to share them with, so long as there’s no harm done. However, there’s something essentially creepy hearing Christian, the young man with everything, mind you, say to Ana: “I have rules. If you follow, I’ll reward you. If you don’t, I’ll punish you”.

Erotic? Not in the same league as the arthouse there. The filmmakers have obviously deemed it more lucrative to pitch their work at the broader MA 15+ audience rather than consign it to the R-rated ghetto. Hey folks, that’s show business.

In a capsule: A knowing and artful rendition of the international best seller has pushed BDSM into the mainstream, that is explicit and tasteful while borders on luxury goods advertising.

2.5 stars

Mortdecai

Review by © Jane Freebury

An upper-class twit played by Johnny Depp? Why not. As Lord Mortdecai, mortgaged to the hilt to maintain his magnificent pile in the counties, he has handy expertise in the visual arts and can recognise a forgery when Russian hitmen, Syrian terrorists and English coppers can’t. So he agrees to hunt down a mysterious Goya that’s gone missing, to help out his mate in M15 (Ewan McGregor).

With a couple of other class acts like Gwyneth Paltrow as Lady Mortdecai and Paul Bettany as Jock his manservant, you’d think this could be a goer as an action comedy. However, it’s not long into things before the eye begins to start checking the time.

Much of the humour depends on Depp sending up his own character, a tactic in this actor’s hands that earned squillions for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Surely it’s time he left his over-worked odd-ball screen persona behind and did something different? Now that light touch that drove audiences to the box office to see Jack Sparrow in 2003 has a deliberate and calculated feel, and is undermined by pretty dreadful writing.

The filmmakers obviously thought that a daft English dandy would be hilarious. Mortdecai tells Jock that their escape at high speed in Moscow was ‘dashed exhilarating’, then instructs him to hasten to the British Embassy ‘chop, chop’ before the Russian thugs find them again. People are referred to as ‘old beans’ or ‘silver-tongued scalliwags’ and there’s plenty more. Maybe the joke works in some markets in the world, but it sounds very tired here. Besides, humour at the expense of the English is probably best left to them and the Rowan Atkinsons and John Cleeses of this world. Another tired joke is Mortdecai’s moustache, recently cultivated, to which he is very attached. He won’t shave it off, even to get his gorgeous wife to sleep with him again.

Director David Koepp has quite a Hollywood pedigree. His filmography glitters with co-writer credits like Jurassic Park, Million: Impossible and War of the Worlds, but he has done a lot less directing. He directed Depp in a modest film called Secret Window that came and went in 2003, another strange collaboration that did the actor few favours.

Despite its $60 million budget, it’s hard to imagine a sequel to Mortdecai, unless it does brilliantly in the rest of the world, even if there’s plenty more ‘Mortdecai’ comic thriller novels where this came from. It all comes down to the fact that as a comedy it’s a major mis-step for Depp. Koepp’s rigorous direction with abrupt and laboured location changes, ostentatious zooms in and out, and general heavy handedness could all be forgiven if he had managed to make us laugh a lot.

In a capsule: A major comic misfire for Johnny Depp who hams it up as an upper class twit more fond of his moustache than his wife, even if she is Gwyneth Paltrow.

1.5 stars

Wild

Review by © Jane Freebury

Wild opens at the top of a rocky outcrop in stunning mountain wilderness. If the lone hiker who has earned herself the view is going to walk on, she’ll have to do something about the pain in her big toe. Out comes the nail but at the same time her boot goes tumbling down below. She chucks the other boot after it and lets out a primal scream for everything that went wrong with her life. It’s a great start.

The journey is, of course, well underway. A trek through thousands of kilometres of wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada. The mantra ‘I can quit any time’ had long ceased to have any meaning for Cheryl Strayed, the author and trekker played by Reese Witherspoon, and there was no turning back on this self-inflicted journey. Despite the forks in the road she could have taken. We can only wonder how the real Cheryl did it, setting out without trekking experience, without any prep training, and with a pair of boots a size too small.

On the trail she walked alone and in silence but we hear Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, etc on the soundtrack rich with recent pop memory. It reminded me that when I interviewed the Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee in 2012 he acknowledged he was something of a frustrated DJ.
All Cheryl has is a loop of painful memories—her mother’s death to cancer, a recent divorce, a lot of casual sex and heroin addiction. All come crowding in, but are told in crisply edited flashback. It’s one hell of a backstory, deftly inserted in the present, and the indomitable Witherspoon is great in her role. Here Vallee has directed her to some of her best work since Walk the Line.

It was a tremendous tribute to director Vallee, the director of Dallas Buyers Club, that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won best actor and best support actor Oscars last year. Under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy (Hullo Jack Nicholson!), Vallee also achieved an Oscar nomination for editing on Dallas Buyers Club with Martin Pensa.

The dramatic tension evoked in Wild comes from our anxiety that this is an attractive young woman alone in the wilderness. If she isn’t going to topple over trying to walk under that enormous backpack—huge on Witherspoon who stands at only 1.56 metres—then surely there’ll be an encounter with some kind of predator, beast or human.

This young woman’s journey back to health walking the spine of the west US is as much about ridding the mind of its demons as it’s about a gruelling trek. It’s an interior mission deftly and sensitively told with a terrific central performance.

In a capsule: A terrific evocation of a journey of body and spirit as a young woman treks the US Pacific coast alone, brought home by a strong performance from Reese Witherspoon.

4 stars

Unbroken

Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the ironies of this WWII film whose director’s name precedes it, is that the young American airman at the centre of the things, was an athlete who aspired to take part in the Olympics that were to be held in Japan in 1940. He made it to Tokyo early in the 1940s, not as an Olympian but as a prisoner of war.

If it is harder to tell a tale of raw heroism these days, and as memories of the terrible tribulations of the generation who fought WWII disappear as the veterans pass away, it has become easier to engage us on screen in a visceral way with what they went through. Director Angeline Jolie ensures that we share what bombardier Louis Zamperini (a solid performance by English actor Jack O’Connell) experiences, intimately, earnestly. From the early scenes in the B-24 as it takes part in a bombing raid over Japanese-held Nauru to its last sortie, a rescue mission that ends in the ocean killing eight of the 11 crew, to the long days as sea in a life raft, awaiting rescue.

The two survivors, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Zamperini, spend a month and a half at sea, surviving on shark flesh caught with albatross meat. After the chocolate ran out, any creature that flew onto their life raft or swam too close to it was fair game.

Unbroken is rather too long at nearly 140 minutes, but the sharper edge and dash of gallows humour in the screenplay helps. It is surely the work of co-screenwriters the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who had a hand in the adaptation of the book by Laura Hillenbrand to the screen. Visuals also benefit from the fine work of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, a favourite collaborator of the Coens.

For most of the time, Jolie is content to let her protagonist Zamperini remain a face in the crowd, no braver than his fellow survivors or prison inmates. However, it was the bombardier’s misfortune to be recognised as a former Olympian. He is ‘picked on’ by the vicious Japanese corporal, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), again and again. It becomes clear his sadistic persecutor has some issues of his own, though I felt that Ishihara was allowed to overplay his hand here.
It’s also an irony that Zamperini was introduced to Hitler, apparently, when the runner represented his country at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Wisely, the film doesn’t go there.

Unbroken isn’t a new twist on the battle genre but it is handled pretty well, and it is handsomely mounted. While the simple dialectics of a WWII film dominate, they are inevitable. And then, like The Railway Man, Unbroken provides a coda of peacetime forgiveness and reconciliation that works for the sensibilities of today.

3 stars

Mr Turner

Review by Jane Freebury

Of all the times in an artist’s life to choose from, director Mike Leigh has chosen to portray the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner after he turned 50. Albeit Turner was at the top of his game, but he had already made it, was an exalted artist, held an academic post and was also a wealthy man. Could it be that Leigh divined that the last third of the painter’s life would unearth more pronounced eccentricities of character? Given Leigh’s appetite for people of character, I think so.

Thinking back over recent film portraits of the artist like Frida, Pollock and the story of Vermeer’s The Girl With a Pearl Earring, the essence of the story has been the development of a vision. How artists drew on life experiences, and had wellspring moments that saw them master their technique. Leigh has chosen to consider Turner in rather different territory.

A son of the working classes, Turner made few if any concessions to the social circles he entered as an artist of the Royal Academy. Not given much to verbal expression anyway, he continued by all accounts with his curmudgeonly ways.

Timothy Spall’s interpretation of one of Britain’s greatest-ever artists precedes the film with his Best Actor prize from Cannes. His Turner grunts and grimaces, even scrapes and spits at his work on occasion, and seems much less the artist famed for ethereal seascapes and the way he captured light, than a rough tradesman. Similar, perhaps, to the barber his father who practised his technique on pig’s heads. And yet there are moments when another man shines through, like the delicate, brief interlude at Petworth with a woman playing the piano. There is the sublime and then there’s the rough and crude: the two sides to the man.

This is a vibrant, robust and richly observed portrayal of character, sometimes even a startling and dismaying one too. A cock-a-snoot to the critics and the arts establishment then, and one suspects, now.

Leigh first made a name for himself with beautifully observed character studies of ordinary people. Detailed miniatures, studies in the round like his recent Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky that are of a piece with the earlier work like Secrets & Lies and Life is Sweet that made him famous.

When news was out in 1999 that the remarkable Mike Leigh was tackling Gilbert and Sullivan, the fabulous exponents of 19th century British comic opera, I had my doubts but Topsy-Turvy turned out to be a triumph. It was rich with period detail, dominated by robust, larger-than-life characters including Jim Broadbent as the librettist Gilbert, and bursting with wickedly subversive humour. Leigh had burst out of his kitchen sink naturalism with gusto. He’s done it again with Mr Turner.

In a capsule: Richly observed biopic of the great 19th century landscape artist, curmudgeonly hero of the British cultural establishment, with an unforgettable performance by Timothy Spall.

4 stars

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Review by Jane Freebury

For the second time this year, a blockbuster about the miraculous deeds of a man ‘chosen by god’ has arrived on screen, courtesy of armies of CGI specialists. Darren Aronofsky brought us Russell Crowe in grizzled beard as Noah, the man who saved the world in a boat. Now Ridley Scott, never one to shirk a challenge, brings us Christian Bale as Moses who leads a half million Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.

Despite a penchant for expansive subjects that could go badly wrong, Scott is impossible to ignore. The veteran British director has made some of the really big, defining films of our time—Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator. Critical and commercial successes all. It’s a filmography that commands respect, even though there are turkeys in there, perhaps a little more frequent of late.

It’s not just that some of Scott’s cinema is boldly conceived and thoroughly immersive, it’s that he doesn’t baulk at having a go at the seminal stories, the meta narratives and the grand themes. And his film are always good-looking. He wasn’t once in advertising for nothing. Of all the hubristic filmmakers who go high and wide, he’s the one I’d choose to see part the waters of the Red Sea or bring the tablet down the mount.

Adopted into the Egyptian royal family as a foundling from the bullrushes, Moses has grown up to become a favourite of the aging pharaoh (John Turturro) who prefers him as his successor over his own son (Edgerton). With head shaven, a transformed Joel Edgerton makes his brutal, indolent Rameses, Moses’ adoptive brother, an impressive performance.

After the revelation of his identity and his banishment, Moses returns to Egypt and eventually turns the people against their new pharaoh Rameses II. If the decent but spare script didn’t build a very strong case for the leadership qualities in Moses that the old pharaoh so admired, then the scenes of Moses organising Hebrew sedition and the subsequent flight out of Egypt do.

As the androgynous and corrupt viceroy who sidles up to the pharaoh’s ear, Ben Mendelsohn is another good casting choice. Sigourney Weaver is seen very briefly as a vengeful queen mother, but it is a cipher role only. And Bale does what we would expect Bale to do.

Taking ‘rest of the world’ into account, Exodus wouldn’t have made a silly business case. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ did astonishing business in 2004, and Noah earlier this year. A $200 million project like Exodus might be a less of a risky venture than it might appear at first. Wiley old Ridley Scott has delivered this time. Exodus: Gods and Kings is high, wide and handsome with some terrific if controversial casting choices, well deployed CGI and excellent action.

In a capsule: Hubristic choice of subject, and fraught with controversial casting choices, but it delivers with some curious characters, excellent action and a sea of spectacle.

3.5 stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Review by Jane Freebury

The story of a teenage girl fighting to save the world as we no longer know it, instead of worrying which of the handsome guys hovering around her is ‘the one’, has emerged as another compelling 21st movie phenomenon. Move over Twilight, there’s nothing passive or vaguely insipid about this young woman, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s nothing less than the digital poster girl for the revolution.

Katniss and her generation have inherited an awful mess since war annihilated the states of North America. The cataclysm has let a brutish plutocracy take over, that retains its dominance with an annual gladiatorial ritual that compels each state under its control to sacrifice a young man and woman in a fight to the death. Horrifying as it sounds, let’s not forget that it’s like what the Romans used to do. Like many screen dystopias today, the movie posits two extremes. That of a highly evolved but utterly morally bankrupt elite versus the desperate, half starved masses.

The filmmakers have also raided the postmodern icebox for the ‘look’ of totalitarianism. Looming, oppressive interiors of films set in the Third Reich abound and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis isn’t so far away either. It’s surprising that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his strategists at the Capitol haven’t thought of introducing a fake Katniss to dupe the masses. But then, of course, director Francis Lawrence didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in a movie based on the bestsellers by Suzanne Collins that first appeared in 2008.

Like the Roman goddess Diana, with bow and quiver to hand, Katniss is handmaiden of the justice that has been destroyed in the wars. She is also a champion for the democracy that no longer exists, and brimming with righteous anger. People inside the frame respond to her with the three-fingered salute, a gesture that can get you into trouble in Thailand. Only this week protesters who used it publicly as code for political oppression were, astonishingly, detained.

The series is blessed with the presence of Lawrence whose turns in American Hustle, Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook, easily demonstrate that she is one of the best young American actors of her generation. It was also smart casting to support her with other fine characters like Philip Seymour Hoffman , Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Sutherland too. But why Lawrence is accepting roles in so many action blockbusters now means we won’t see her best work until she gets the genre out of her system.

As a stand-alone, Part 3 (a) of The Hunger Games is heavy on atmos and light on story. More series filler than narrative developer, it relies heavily on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

In a capsule: Heavy with dystopian atmos and light on story, this installment relies more on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

3 stars

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