It Must Be Heaven

A silent doco observes a world gone mad

M, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For obscure reasons, It Must Be Heaven begins during an Easter church service that doesn’t go according to script and the bishop leading the congregation has to kick down a door.

Perhaps kicking down a door is a good way to begin a film that few believed could work. The writer-director of It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman, must be gratified that it screened in competition at Cannes last year and was Palestine’s official entrant at the Academy Awards.

a Palestinian comedy, a contradiction in terms?

When most of what we hear from the Middle East is conflict and strife, a Palestinian comedy may sound to many of us like a contradiction in terms. Suleiman, an award-winning Palestinian filmmaker (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) from Israel, shows how hard it is to pitch an idea that runs contrary to expectations.

If, as his friend Gael Garcia Bernal suggests in a cameo as himself, that Suleiman’s next film is about peace in the Middle East, that could be a tough sell too.

Human comedy with Elia Suleiman Image: courtesy Rectangle Productions

 

After the odd start, the protagonist ES – the filmmaker himself – is at home in his flat in Nazareth enjoying a quiet coffee on the balcony. What do you know, there’s a neighbour helping himself to lemons from his garden? ES doesn’t react or even offer a mild protest, he just observes, owl-like behind his spectacles and beneath his panama hat.

Watching the world go by, ES is a silent witness. To customers in a restaurant who behave like gangsters when they don’t like the food. To the gang armed with baseball bats that roams the streets.

the absurd is sometimes tinged with menace

To two soldiers swapping shades in a speeding car, in which a young Palestinian woman with a halo of curly hair sits, sits blindfolded in the back seat. Sometimes the absurd is tinged with menace.

So much of the film would seem discontinuous were it not viewed through the prism of ES whose function is to hold it all together. For much, though not all of the time, he is a single organizing consciousness conveying to the rest of us a world gone mad.

Until we eventually learn what it is that he has planned.

This is silent comedy that draws on the tradition of comic greats Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. The images, beautifully composed by cinematographer Sofian El Fani, and their juxtapositions convey the humour. Dialogue is minimal, with ES saying barely a word. If this sounds lite or inconsequential, it isn’t. It Must Be Heaven carries a powerful political message.

With images of the tensions that characterise life in Israel firmly established in our visual memory, ES leaves for Paris, where, after a brief love affair with the beauty on parade on the boulevards, he finds things are not so dissimilar. There are tanks filing through the city and fighter jets in formation overhead, and the police are jumpy. He has arrived for Bastille Day and the city is in lockdown.

Once that’s over and life supposedly more tranquil, squads of Segway riding policemen patrol the streets and make a check of restaurant patio dimension compliance seem like they are pegging out a crime scene. The citizens of Paris themselves, instead of relaxing at the park, go to all sorts of lengths to keep a few seats in the sunshine to themselves.

ES wanders in and out of these scenes like an innocent, then we become aware of his purpose in being there. It Must Be Heaven could be the filmmaker’s own story about trying to get his film made. In a little joke for those in the know, a producer who rejects his project is played by Richard Maraval, co-founder of Wild Bunch, the international film sales company. It’s name is on the credits.

The journey to pitch a project doesn’t end there. In another deft segue for moving on, involving a sparrow and an open window, ES flies off again. Next destination, New York. There it is even less possible to ignore the militarization of the forces of law and order. What’s more, the citizenry are toting their own high-powered weapons. It would be funny, were it not also serious.

As a Palestinian who makes funny films, Elia Suleiman has his job cut out, but this gentle, observational comedy about our fractious world is on message, and at the same time a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 July 2020

Love Sarah

M, 98 minutes

2 stars

Palace Electric 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This letter to loved ones lost begins with a young woman on a mad dash across London. Cycling past the Thames and the Eye and other familiar spaces, she is clearly running late for something.

Sarah (Candice Brown) never makes it, and we take it that she is killed in a traffic accident.

Her death, implied not shown, is a risky way to begin a film but the effective opening montage tells us all we need to know. That her daughter is an aspiring dancer, that Sarah is going into the bakery business with her good friend, and that she and her mother have been estranged for a long time.

a family drama with a seriously sweet tooth

The family tragedy will have a big impact on the lives of these loved ones. For a moment, it seems to put an end to everyone’s hopes and dreams.

Best friend, Isabella (Shelley Conn), is also a professional chef, but the point of opening a bakery together was to draw on Sarah’s star power. ‘She’s famous. She trained with Ottolenghi.’

Daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is lost and can’t see the point in a dancing career, while Sarah’s mother Mimi (the redoubtable Celie Imrie) is full of regret for not having tried harder to connect.

The bakery premises in Portobello Road might be lost and open as a pop-up bar instead, but with financing from Mimi, something she had always intended, the venture is rescued. Clarissa, Isabella and Mimi, a trio of three generations of women, become business partners.

A professional chef, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), who was once close to Sarah, ambles onto the scene. He can also lend his expertise.

A neighbour, Felix (Bill Paterson), an eccentric inventor who can help in his own way, takes a shine to Mimi. She is the most engaging character, with a few surprises up her sleeve, including skills from her circus background.

Together, the team hit on the idea of baking treats for the expat communities that have made their home in Notting Hill. They turn away from the home-grown – a very hard sell, after all – and pan forte, Persian love cakes, strawberry fraisiere, rollet and Latvian kringeris start appearing in the window.

Even lamingtons appear on display, for the Aussie contingent.

The new bakery becomes a ‘home away from home’, in celebration of London’s multicultural community.

Based on a story by Eliza Schroeder that connects with the passing of her mother, and written by Jake Brunker, Love Sarah has a sweetness and simplicity but the script is lacklustre. A mood of uplift takes over, but this is bolstered by the appearance of one luscious treat after another, rather than the characters.

There are enough movies around that centre on food like Babette’s Feast, Dinner Rush or Chocolat that demonstrate this foodie formula can work, but what we have hear here is more confection, a patisserie menu, than something to get the teeth into.

Notting Hill was already a well-established melting pot in 1999 when the wonderful romantic comedy with Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant and Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill, was released.

It’s impossible not to think of this huge hit, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Curtis, also set on Portobello Road of course. Love Sarah has none of its star power, but none of its humour either.

good intentions don’t make it any less bland

This is a family drama with a seriously sweet tooth, indulging the senses in a bourbon tart, an orange semolina number, a basbousa, or a pistachio and rosewater number.

Celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi is listed in the end credits.

My foodie tastes tend towards the savoury, but I wouldn’t knock back that Japanese cake on special order. ‘Matcha mille’, a stack of pancakes interleaved with cream and flavoured with green tea.

And I like the way Love Sarah, a first feature film from a skilled young director, shows how the loss of someone dear can spur those who were close to realise their best selves however this doesn’t make it any less bland.

Comparing Love Sarah with such a beloved romantic comedy as Notting Hill is a tough call, but the filmmakers did locate it in the same street.

Then again, a sweet nothing may be just the thing for now.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 June 2020

The Assistant

M, 87 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Her job begins at the office before dawn, making ready at the start of the working day. There are water bottles to replenish, scripts to print, IDs to photocopy and the usual general tidying up. All the miscellany that smooths the way for the high-powered dudes she works for in the entertainment industry.

Getting ready for a new day means picking up after others too. A quick spot clean of the couch in the manager’s office, an earring that had found its way to the floor is whisked away until its owner can be identified and the item returned.

silence is the name of the game

Jane (Julia Garner in the role), a newly arrived grad fresh from prestigious North Western, aspires to become a producer. Silence is the name of the game in this office. Question is, what is she going to do? She gives little away as she goes through her menial tasks.

Where might it all end? Students of the late Chantal Akerman will remember well how a detailed daily routine ended up for a Belgian housewife in Jeanne Dielman, but this accomplished doco is more subtle than that.

Later that morning there are coffees and pastries to get, lunch orders to take – Better not mix up the turkey with the chicken! – travel and hotel suites to book and drafts of revised screenplays to distribute.

A steady camera, moving very occasionally, absorbs every detail.  There are disturbing goings-on behind the scenes, but everything in front of camera is pared-back, minimal. Even the palette is locked-down in greys and muted pinks, as we follow her routine as an office assistant to a New York-based film industry executive, a serial sexual predator.

Jane (Julia Garner) and colleagues

The boss is heard but not seen, existing only as an imagined presence in his high-backed green leather chair, and yet his influence is everywhere. The power of absence in the frame.

they told me you were smart’

We never see him though perhaps there’s a partial glimpse as he passes by Jane’s desk. We hear his voice (Jay O Sanders) on the phone as he ticks her off for ‘interfering’ in his private life. That is, hearing his irate wife out over the phone, while trying to sound helpful. But, he says, ‘they told me you were smart’.

In the course of this single day, Jane must type two emails apologising for perceived misdemeanours. ‘I will not let you down again’. Her young male colleagues, consciously/unconsciously contributing to her humiliation while behaving solicitous, supply the right form of words.

All tasks are performed with brisk and bristly efficiency. While everyone else in the office is curt bordering on rude, unsmiling, and conspiratorial, Jane may well be on her way to signing on to that kind of schtick too. But today she will visit HR and make a complaint to the manager (Matthew Macfadyen). It is a charged interchange that concludes with the reassuring back-hander ‘don’t worry, you’re not his type’.

Before the Harvey Weinstein case blew up, we may have begun to wonder how big shot producers could have got away with so much. The Assistant shows how the industry supported it, how the system allowed it, while turning a blind eye.

Cover up and complicity are all in a day’s work for Jane too, up to this point. Will she be a part of it? What will she do to get ahead?

Julia Garner’s performance as Jane is impressive. So much is conveyed without words, in the slightest eyebrow lift, the expression of the mouth, the downcast eyes, the set of the shoulders. To see Garner in the TV drama series Ozark as a member of a hillbilly crime family reveals her astonishing range.

What an accomplished turn this is from doco maker Kitty Green too. It’s her first fiction feature, written and directed by her (with additional input from Ming-Zhu Hii). And it is beautifully shot, all horizontals and verticals, by Michael Latham, who was cinematographer on Buoyancy the compelling Australian film of last year directed by Rodd Rathjen.

The Assistant is a tour de force, as small and contained as last year’s Bombshell, directed by Jay Roach, was big and brassy. In their very different ways, both films are powerhouse #MeToo pieces.

First published in the Canberra Times on 14 June 2020

Available to rent on demand from 10 June via Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (PlayStation Network), Microsoft, Quickflix

Petit Paysan (aka Bloody Milk)

Subtle, taut drama that resonates beyond the family farm

M, 86 minutes

Streaming on Stan

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is an impressive, subtle drama that was invited to Critics Week at Cannes in 2017 and has subsequently appeared at French film festivals. An unusual piece made by relatively unknown talent, it could easily have disappeared from view, but it has turned up on streaming services.

It is good to see a film about the travails of a young French dairy farmer re-surface in this accessible way, because it is terrific film making featuring a fine central performance by Swann Arlaud. As it turns out, three years after it was released, Petit Paysan is timely and topical as well.

The writer-director Hubert Charuel grew up on his parents’ dairy farm but he quit the land to study film at the prestigious French film school, La Femis, in Paris. This, a first feature that was filmed on the family farm, is likely to contain a lot of autobiographical elements.

At the age of 35, Pierre (Arlaud) has sole responsibility of the family farm and its top-ranked herd. He has an exacting milking schedule and of an evening, has dinner with his retired parents who still live on the property, or eats alone in front of the screen.

Conversation with an equable dad and difficult-to-please mum  (Isabel Candelier) is entertainingly combative and packed with rueful insights, like so many of the interchanges between Pierre and the other characters in his world. A sceptical gendarme, the bunch of burly mates he never has time to socialise with, the Belgian dairy farmer he watches on YouTube, and the pretty, dimpled baker his mother wants him to pair up with.

The screenplay by Charuel and co-writer Claude le Pape brims with humour and insight into its cast of characters.

surrealist touches to thriller tropes

Pierre has just learned over the internet that entire dairy herds have been put down after they were found to be suffering from a highly infectious disease, a dorsal haemorrhagic fever. He is starting to freak out at this news, even though events in  Charente are some distance away.

Without overplaying its hand, Petit Paysan displays some inspired cinematic touches that reflect Pierre’s state of mind. From the surrealist dream sequence of him asleep while his cows are milling around inside his house, to the thriller tropes that come into play when lives are dispatched in the barn.

Pascale the vet (Sara Giraudeau) and Pierre the farmer (Swann Arlaud)  Courtesy: UniFrance

Pierre’s sensible, down-to-earth sister, Pascale (Sara Giraudeau, also marvellous), is a local vet. He calls her in to check on Topaz, one of his Friesians who is with calf. She hasn’t been herself lately. Both Pascale and her assistant dismiss it as a case of mastitis, brought on by E. coli infection.

Like the bracing and unsentimental exchanges between Pierre and his parents, the exchanges between him and his sister are just as salty, brisk and amusing. Pascale is disinclined to take her brother’s early concerns as seriously as she might, and is clearly exasperated.

Blood along the spine means ‘DHF’  contagion, the ‘Belgian disease’

Pierre has phoned her 15 times, in perhaps as many minutes. Why should she respond in a timely fashion when Pierre’s behaviour is becoming stranger by the day?

Yet there is a suggestion that for all Pascale’s learned experience, Pierre’s lived experience is on the money this time. Anyway, he knows his beloved cows best. The next day, when he strokes Topaz along the spine his hand comes away smeared with blood. Yes, she has it, ‘DHF’, the ‘Belgian disease’.

As Pierre takes desperate action under the cover of night, the suspense grows as we find ourselves with some sympathy for the young farmer who is in fact breaking the law. His elderly neighbour may have witnessed something so Pierre coaches him in the correct response. Should someone ask, it’s ‘something that stinks but we don’t know what!’

Trapped between family loyalty and professional ethics, Pascale inevitably becomes compromised by what she knows and she and Pierre try to send their parents away on holiday in Corsica so they won’t suspect anything.

It’s a debacle that only makes sense in the context of Pierre’s dread of losing his entire herd, his reputation and his livelihood, and has some resonance with the strange times we find ourselves in.

Petit Paysan, a portrait of rural life that is free of sentiment, is a quiet achievement with characters that live on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 June 2020

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

Taylor Swift and the pop music doco

M, 85 minutes

3 Stars

Streaming on Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

More often than not, a documentary about a pop star is a contradiction in terms. The film that is touted as a big reveal tends to be a tightly-managed affair, another aspect of the marketing, that discloses little about the subject in question. Except that they enjoy tucking into burritos or are fond of fluffy kittens.

Some of the stars have managed to sidestep the big reveal altogether. It is unlikely that the smokescreen around Bob Dylan, will ever clear. Not unless you take as a touchstone the early doco, Dont Look Back, that D. A. Pennebaker made while Dylan was touring in his early twenties, and still working out what he wanted to do.

The decades of stone-walling have eventually brought about the intriguing tribute, I’m Not There, a biopic involving six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, imagining facets of the man with the little we have been provided with.

Madonna’s raunchy exhibitionism has exactly the same effect. She’s not there. Madonna: Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) from 1991 masqueraded under the title documentary, when it was a promotional video over which she had executive control. Always a mistress of reinvention, with formidable ambition based on modest natural talents, it is still impossible not to admire the flair and the determined businesswoman in her, always a step ahead of the rest.

Madonna’s story is in striking contrast to that of Amy Winehouse, the wonderful singer-songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. The feature doco about her, Amy, now screening on Netflix, won just about every significant international award but I was dismayed by its exploitation of a fragile and troubled star. Amy should be remembered for her music, not for the train wreck of her life that is the focus of the film.

At least the Janis Joplin documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, allowed for many long sequences of her stage performances alongside the self-harm and personal desolation that were on the record.

Miss Americana, a new entry in the genre, takes a look at the pop megastar Taylor Swift. If the personal stories she tells with her music and flashy performances don’t grab you, the story of her journey as a celebrity most likely will.

Swift is the first artist since the Beatles to have four consecutive albums hold the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 200  for six or more weeks. So, who is she?

The singer-songwriter has become an immense star, but her journey is an object lesson in the perils of living for the approval of strangers. She also reveals the loneliness at the top, recalling how on receiving an album of the year award she’d had no one special to call to share her news.

It’s these moments captured by director Lana Wilson that make this doco interesting. Some of the raw emotion exhibited is surprising and touching, and it seems genuine.

During the golden years of her adolescence, Swift was as a coltish figure with masses of blonde curls, who won a major award for her debut country album. But the dream run stopped when she won the best female video award. After arriving at the awards in what could only be described as a fairytale glass carriage, shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkin, from which she emerged elegant in a silvery number, her hair up.

As she stood onstage about to make her acceptance speech, Kanye West crashed her party, grabbing the mike and announcing that Beyonce’s video was the best.

President Obama said West was a jackass, but the impact this had on the 19 year old was obviously profound.  She imagined the crowd was booing her, revealing here and elsewhere a tendency to be hard on herself, when it was actually booing at the interloper.

The incident put an end to her dream run. She wouldn’t be playing good girl anymore since she discovered there was no point in worrying if people didn’t ‘like’ her when there were other things in her life that really mattered, like her mother was battling cancer. She has ditched her long-held apolitical persona, and got involved in gender politics too.

Miss Americana reveals disturbing aspects of celebrity culture, how it can turn on its own.  It is good to see that this pop princess has seen through the fairytale and recognised celebrity for what it is.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7.

Jane’s reviews have also been published by the Canberra Critics Circle and the Film Critics Circle of Australia

 

The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

Ben Mendelsohn, larrikin no more

By © Jane Freebury

New work by actor Ben Mendelsohn can be easy to miss. Not often the lead, he can pop up in unexpected places, like Buckingham Palace where he was an elegant and diffident George VI opposite Gary Oldman’s Churchill in the Darkest Hour.

In this role, as with most, he appears to be completely comfortable in his character’s skin. It also has to be said that the effect on Mendelsohn of groomed hair and a well-tailored suit can be transformative. His flair for accents, probably from having lived in both the US and Britain during his childhood, counts for something too.

Since 2017 when he played the British monarch, Mendelsohn has shown up in surprising places. In a Steven Spielberg science fiction (Ready Player One), as the sheriff in the latest Robin Hood, as a pustulent King Henry IV (The King), in a relationship drama directed by his former wife (Untogether), and as the villain Talos in two Marvel superhero blockbusters.

In The Land of Steady Habits, by Nicole Holofcener, a creator of subtle relationship dramas, his performance as a feckless father and husband is a very rewarding, if discomforting experience. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

A memorable performance by Ben Mendelsohn as ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom

Ever since 2010, when David Michod’s very impressive crime drama Animal Kingdom (streaming on Stan) catapulted Mendelsohn – and his compatriot the redoubtable Jacki Weaver – into the international film industry, he has been in high demand.

Only three years after its release, the Washington Post was declaring that ‘Ben Mendelsohn was everywhere. Finally’. People in the US had begun to take notice.

They certainly took notice when he appeared in Season 1 of the television series Bloodline, in which he played the wayward elder son of the wealthy Florida establishment. His performance that garnered a Golden Globe nomination and won an Emmy was mesmerising.

Since the chilling menace for his character in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has slipped into roles that have offered him an opportunity to do more of same. He has done so with relish, including his portrayal of a hopeless, sleazy heroin addict in Killing Them Softly.

Since he joined the A-list stars on screen, actors like Ryan Gosling (in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in (The Dark Knight Rises), Mendelsohn has moved on from the local industry where he began as a teenager.

However, his first Australian film in nearly a decade, Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is due for release this year.

It is generally agreed that the beloved Australian classic of 1987, The Year My Voice Broke, by writer-director John Duigan, was Mendelsohn’s breakout role in the Australian film industry. Though he wasn’t the main character, he was memorable as Trevor, the roguish risk taker fatally drawn to danger.

Noah Taylor was the lead as Danny, as socially awkward as Trevor was confident, and representing the sensible devoted alternative for love interest Freya (Loene Carmen).

Back then, fans tended to confuse Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, who are the same age and somewhat similar physically, despite their different roles. It’s amusing to hear that today Mendelsohn is still being mistaken for Taylor. Fans have been asking him for his signature because they think it was him playing Locke in the television series Game of Thrones. It was, of course, Taylor.

That Mendelsohn can inhabit a small or support role, and still leave filmgoers with the overwhelming impression of his presence has become something of a pattern during his career. He has managed to make a little go a long way.

He is best known internationally for his villainous characters, but he wasn’t always the bad boy. There is a sweet side  too. In The Big Steal of 1990 directed by Nadia Tass he shows considerable natural charm as the lead character opposite Claudia Karvan. They were both teenagers at the time.

With Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal

Just after this film, Mendelsohn had a role in the film Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert) directed by Mark Joffe. It starred an as yet little known, mild mannered Welsh actor who would traumatise the filmgoing world with one of the screen’s most enduring and grotesque villains, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, opposite Jodie Foster.

In a recent interview posted online, Mendelsohn cites Anthony Hopkins as one of his most important mentors. It is an intriguing comment. Did the idea of becoming a supervillain take shape after that encounter?

Both GQ and Slate magazine have nominated Mendelsohn as the new, favourite bad guy, while the Financial Times wrote last year that he had become the king of villains.

What does it take to be really good at villainy? Gravitas, he says.

Perhaps he was on his way to something different before he moved to the US. In Beautiful Kate, the fine dark family drama by Rachel Ward, that was released in 2009, he was a complex and ambiguously drawn character. Of course, we will never know because in 2010 Mendelsohn’s world changed in a very big way with Animal Kingdom.

The trajectory his screen persona has taken, especially overseas, is a big step away from the type of knockabout, roguish Aussie bloke, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Away from the larrikin roles of his early career during the 1990s-2000s, in films like Idiot Box, Return Home, and Mullet. It is a big step but it isn’t entirely inconsistent.

He’s moved on. Larrikin no more.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

*Featured image: Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), a troubled man, in The Land of Steady Habits

 

Without going ‘the full Mendo’, here are some of Ben’s best

Compiling recommended viewing is tricky because, Mendelsohn may be the best thing in a small role but the film hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Ridley Scott’s disappointing Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Mendelsohn plays an Egyptian viceroy, is a case in point.

He is, however, a fine villain in Spielberg’s typically polished space adventure, Ready Player One, and in Orson Krennic’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which he shows great sartorial panache.

A look backwards at The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) makes for a charming introduction to the sunny side of the Mendelsohn screen persona. It is also a very good film, with a sweetness not often found in Australian film these days.

Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990) is also well worth a look, a fine contemplative study of suburban life.

See The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) if you haven’t yet. A landmark film of the early industry revival with Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor when they were just starting out long, light years from their international careers.

Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), a docu-drama about an intriguing, entrepreneurial local filmmaker, is a small favourite Mendelsohn film of mine.

Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) is an exquisite dark family drama with excellent performances from everyone, including Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn apparently shocked himself by his own performance in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), that superb noir about a Melbourne crime family.

Mendelsohn makes a strong impression in the early scenes of The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). Not an easy thing to do when playing opposite Ryan Gosling.

In Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017), he appears as the King of England during World War II. He fully matches the very good performance from Gary Oldman as Churchill.

Mendelsohn is in very good form in the finely tuned drama, The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018), as a wealthy Connecticut businessman who lets his family down.

Mendelsohn, almost a bit too convincing as an ailing monarch in David Michod’s latest, The King (2019), is a scene stealer till his death bed.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

Revisit Catch-22 in 2020

By © Jane Freebury

Odds are that someone somewhere has already come up with a phrase to nail the international health emergency that we are living through right now.

A pernicious little virus has caught us in a trap with a catch-22 all its own. The film Catch-22, 50 years old this year, resonates with a time when contradictory choices seem necessary.

‘A catch-22 situation’ derives, of course, from the impossibly circular and wonderfully entertaining Joseph Heller novel of 1961, on which the film is based. It is a great read from beginning to end, even though the story starts in the middle.

It charts the dilemma of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) who has been posted to a Mediterranean island during the last months of World War II. He is desperate to get out of the bombing missions he is being sent on into France and Italy.

Alongside him, new recruits, younger than ever, are getting killed on pointless missions. Sometimes they are killed before they even begin their tour of duty. What is the sense in that? It’s a fair question.

Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins)

The film’s key scene where Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford), explains to the squadron captain that claiming he is crazy to be released from duty would cut no ice, is as fresh as ever. Because of bureaucratic regulations, there is no way for Yossarian out of the conundrum he finds himself in.

Director Mike Nichols had a dream cast besides Arkin to work with. Orson Welles was on board in a small role as a pompous general. Jon Voight is unforgettable as motormouth Milo Minderbinder, the profiteering mess officer, and Anthony Perkins, the creepy Norman Bates from Psycho cast against type, is the chaplain.

Art Garfunkel appears in his first film role as Nately, a good natured 19-year-old. A conversation on nationalism that he has with an old man feels like it could have been written today as the film gives full measure to the book’s prophetic words. They hang in the air, full with irony. The film’s screenplay was written by Buck Henry (The Graduate).

For its time, Catch-22 was very expensive to make but the studio had so much faith in its director, Nichols, who had just had huge success with The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Cinematography by David Watkins and editing by Sam O’Steen are top class, but Catch-22 flouts a convention or two. It is like a series of disconnected, absurd incidents, strung together. The scenes are gems in themselves that accrete over time so that this dark, anti-war satire eventually makes sense.

From the moment Catch-22 begins the experience borders on the surreal. Dawn approaches with scattered bird song, and then the spell ends violently as a squad of B-25 bombers roar across the frame. The bombers were the very thing according to the production history.

Unfortunately for Mike Nichols he was beaten to the post. Robert Altman’s uproarious, frenetic anti-war satire M.A.S.H. came out in January 1970 and enjoyed huge success at the box office just months before Catch-22 opened the same year.

What a coincidence. You might think that both rode high on the anti-war sentiment of the times as the Vietnam War trundled on, but no, Catch-22 tanked at the box office.

Despite the no-expense-spared budget, audiences in 1970 may have got bored with the elliptical story-telling in Catch-22. Or by the time they’d seen  M.A.S.H. they may have felt that, as far as anti-war movies went, they’d seen it all. Yet both films are so very different.

It could be that for many people today the films Catch-22  and M.A.S.H. have merged into one long, indistinguishable anti-war epic.

When the book Catch 22 was published in 1961 it captured the futility and absurdity of war. Which war was that, exactly?

Joseph Heller had begun writing his landmark novel sometime in 1953 when the Korean War was settled, but he had actually set his story in the last months of World War II. When the film of the book appeared in 1970, it was taken up by the Vietnam War generation.

Slowly, over time however, Catch-22 has managed to catch up with M.A.S.H. in the critical stakes. A television series co-produced by George Clooney came out last year, but Mike Nichols’ film is better than it, and a cut above M.A.S.H.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 April 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image:  Alan Arkin and Art Garfunkel in Catch-22 (1970) Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Six Degrees of Separation, revisited

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Six Degrees of Separation, a film from 1993, had a catchy idea and title to match that has had the distinction of becoming part of our lexicon. Other movies come to mind, like Groundhog Day and Bucket List, but there aren’t that many.

A name for a list of must-see travel destinations before you kick the bucket has caught on, as has the idea of being caught in a time loop of repetitive routine.  And there’s another one that’s trending, from the title of George Cukor’s 1944 thriller, ‘gaslight’ has become a shorthand for an insidious type of psychological abuse.

Six Degrees of Separation, currently streaming on Stan, proposed the idea that people are only six connections away from each other. In the age of a corona virus pandemic, the idea that we are interconnected to a degree we had never realised doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

It wasn’t a new idea when screenwriter John Guare put it forward in his play of the same name, on which this film is based. There have been media reports since that the thesis is verifiable and correct, and that we are connected, by 5 to 7 informal acquaintances, to every other person in the world.

a satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart

Six Degrees of Separation, directed by expat Australian director Fred Schepisi, is sharp, funny, and acutely observed comedy of manners. Its theatrical roots are very apparent, but it is well worth revisiting not just because of the intriguing take up of its title, but for its satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart.

Upper East Siders, Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) Kittredge are an affluent couple who have reached the pinnacle of success. With their adult children away at college, their life is a constant round of art deals and dinner parties.

They live on Fifth, of course, in a high-rise apartment crowded with artworks that reflect their taste and their cultural capital, but they are liberal, decent folk, wanting to do the right thing.

Geoffrey (Ian McKellen) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing)

So, they are seriously challenged when an attractive young stranger with a knife wound to the stomach arrives at their front door, requesting refuge. He was mugged, he says, then saw the name Kittredge downstairs and realised they were parents of friends of his at college.

His name is Paul, he says, and he is the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Flan and Ouisa and their guest, Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), are sceptical but intrigued by their uninvited guest, who is so confident, articulate and, well, charismatic. When he steps up to prepare their dinner, he shows he’s no slouch in the culinary and sommelier arts either.

The role of Paul, a wily and plausible imposter, is a gift for any young actor. It was the first major film role for Will Smith, and some would say that despite the star he has become in years since, this early role is still his best.

After Paul brings a hustler back to the apartment, Flan and Ouisa chuck him out, then regale their friends with anecdotes about him at their dinner parties. The film is structured around flashback as friends and acquaintances respond with similar stories about how Paul infiltrated their lives too, took up offers of free bed and board, and stole opportunistically.

Paul has been working his way through the Upper East Side. The Kittredges can count themselves lucky that he left the Cezanne and the Kandinsky behind.

Curiously, there is a running joke about an upcoming movie version of Cats. If only they knew in 1993 how funny that turned out to be in 2019.

Ultimately, the idea of six degrees of separation is more device than underlying theme. It’s an idea that Ouisa muses about, fascinated to think that ‘a US president could be connected with a gondolier in Venice’. Our take-up of the expression seems to indicate that we like the idea too.

not in the cast, but Kevin Bacon is also connected

After Six Degrees of Separation came out in the 1990s, some Pennsylvania students invented a parlour game they called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Bacon didn’t mind. He ran with it, founding a charitable trust based on the notion that what you do in an apartment in Manhattan will inevitably affect people in Bangladesh, because we are all connected.

Are we ever.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 April 2020, and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Who am I? Will Smith as Paul

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970)

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Every now and then, our most popular folk hero is taken out of storage, dusted down and given new clothes. This year saw the release of Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and it marks the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly with rock legend Mick Jagger in the lead.

Intriguing. While his story in other media has been well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled

Both of these titles are currently streaming on STAN, and are very different takes on a young bushranger of Irish stock who was either a class warrior and proto-republican, or a lowly horse thief. You can take your pick.

Many interpretations have tended to have a bet both ways. Hardly a homage, Peter Carey’s wonderful, prize-winning book that Kurzel’s film is inspired by was wildly successful, and artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series from the 1940s have become canonical works.

It is intriguing that, while stories of Ned in other media have been very well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled. Since Jagger did his turn in 1970, the part of Kelly has been played by two fine actors. In 2003, Heath Ledger had the main role in Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan. George MacKay has played him in Kurzel’s recent film.

The film medium is, unfortunately, demanding and exacting in its particular way, and from the first moments in the Tony Richardson film, there is obviously something missing. It opens on Kelly in prison, on his way to the gallows where he utters his famous parting words, ‘Such is life’.

It isn’t just the moustache that’s missing, it’s physical presence. In his chinstrap beard, Jagger looks more like a member of the Amish than the swashbuckling outlaw whose manly image in full beard we are accustomed to.

Is this the Rolling Stones frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either

More than this, it’s his flat, uncertain voice trying to project and the wavering accent. He tries whatever he can manage – Cockney, Australian, Irish – and the pub singalong featuring The Wild Colonial Boy is only faintly rousing. Is this the charismatic outlaw, a man of the people, who we are invited to celebrate?

Is this the Rolling Stones’ frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either.

Any Ned Kelly films needs a robust central performance. The lack of a compelling central presence in Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is a weakness there to, and significantly subverted by having the male actors so frequently crossdress.

Serious shortcomings aside, the script, which was the work of director Richardson and local Kelly expert, the late Ian Jones, is packed with characters among the downtrodden Irish, and with incident. The sense of community is strong, especially compared with the bleak Kurzel version of a family isolated and vulnerable.

When there are more characters in the frame, and attention is not directed solely at Mick Jagger’s Ned, the film comes alive with the jauntiness that Richardson could do so well. The rollicking tone that dominated one of his most famous films, Tom Jones, is in the ascendant. If I turn a blind eye to the lead actor, this is what the film does best.

The ravishing location shots by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, are another plus. They capture the individual character of the Australian bush and rural landscapes in their many moods. As many Canberrans know, Ned Kelly of 1970 was made in and around Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands.

Just a hint of homoerotica is implied when Kelly accepts a drink from Constable Fitzpatrick (the late Martyn Sanderson) at the pub. I also recall a brief scene of a man in a dress riding a horse, but nothing like the liberties taken in Kurzel’s film.

Mick Jagger has flirted with many things, including an acting career. He beat Ian McKellen for the part of Kelly but this performance probably buried any further ambition to act in feature films.

In 1970 the Australian film industry was on the cusp of a revival that would see classics later in the decade like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Bilateral government support for subsidising a local industry was nearly, but not quite, there.

Richardson’s Ned Kelly was a big budget international coproduction that swept into town and made off with generous Federal Government funding. For this and other reasons, it was not received well. On the up side, it did at least convince Australian filmmaker Michael Thornhill and his contemporaries that they could do a lot better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 April 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Ned Kelly, 1946, from Ned Kelly Series by Sidney Nolan, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Sampling movies on SBS OnDemand

By © Jane Freebury

There is a trove of quality films to watch free-to-air on SBS OnDemand, 650 titles to revisit or catch up with.

An astounding range of quality films that SBS has curated in a variety of ways for niche appeal. Feature docos, movies about feisty females, movies for gay audiences, cinema classics, animation, and as yet little known ‘hidden gems’.

With so much bewildering choice, here are 15 titles I can recommend.

The category ‘the Oscar goes to’ guarantees a film that’s good on one level at least, having achieved an Oscar nomination, not necessarily for best film.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), an Oscar foreign language film nominee, is a powerful, atmospheric drama about Canadian siblings who travel to the Middle East to solve a family mystery. Villeneuve has since directed outstanding films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, and his take on Dune is due to release this year.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) takes you along on a meandering road trip through South America with a young Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) as the Marxist revolutionary. It won an Oscar for its music, and could easily have won for cinematography.

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) is an account of the final days of Adolph Hitler and inner circle in his underground bunker. A provocative, thoughtful perspective on an arch-criminal guilty of heinous crime.

Talk to Her (2002), from the wonderful Spanish writer-director, Pedro Almodovar, whose unique vision creates a sensual, extravagant world of its own.

From the young Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), stars Mia Farrow as a pregnant wife fearful that a coven of witches plans to steal her child. Its menacing atmosphere and disturbing psychology are unforgettable.

Alain Becourt with Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle (1958), a classic of French cinema created by Jacques Tati that won the best foreign language Oscar. It’s a witty, gentle send-up of bourgeois pretention that is a classic of comedy in any language.

In the ‘World Movies’ section there’s Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011) with Rhys Ifans demonstrating surprising depth. This is a clever concoction for those who enjoy an enduring mystery. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course, he did but it’s still good fun exploring who else might have done it.

Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012). This story about a young queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) who falls for the court physician (Mads Mikkelsen), is a thoughtful, delicate romance that deserved more recognition on its release.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), is a strange, striking film that features a mercurial performance from David Bowie as a British major in a Japanese prison of war camp in World War II.

A Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2019) offers a light, whimsical touch on weighty subjects as a woman archer steps up to take on corporate vandals destroying the Icelandic environment.

Ali’s Wedding (Jeffrey Walker, 2017) is a terrific Australian comedy, a tricky genre to get right these days. At its heart is a smart, funny performances from co-writer and lead actor Osamah Sami as the dutiful young Muslim struggling with life choices.

Capharnaum/aka Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018) is the powerful, haunting story of a 12 year old living in a Beirut slum who sues his parents for neglect. It’s said to have become the highest grossing Arabic films ever.

Filmed in the palace of Versailles itself, Farewell My Queen (Benoit Jacquot, 2013) it is told from the perspective of a court reader (Lea Seydoux). A sumptuous period drama on the last hours of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

The niche category ‘Essential 70s’, revisits the decade when some of cinema’s top directors did their outstanding early work. The seventies are not well represented by the films in this SBS category, but it does offer two of the best.

The Conversation (1974) a highly esteemed thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It lost the best film Oscar to The Godfather Part II, that Coppola also directed.

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) is based on the true story of a New York cop who exposed corruption among the force. Al Pacino is ferocious and righteous in the lead role, in what is still one of his best performances.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 March 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum

The King

MA15+, 140 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Now the streaming platforms are windows on the world in our shuttered lives, movies that were at the cinema a few months ago are re-appearing on our TVs. Giving The King a second chance if you missed it last October is a good bet.

It’s an Australian film from David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) that had a short release last year. There were favourable reviews, it did some business at the box office and then it joined the Netflix stable from whence it came.

Like The Irishman and Roma, it is a Netflix production. Much of its budget would have gone into the impressive historical detail, including lavishly mounted battle scenes with full-scale catapults hurling fireballs, and hordes of extras in clanking armour.

Filmed in cathedrals and castles in England and Hungary, The King has an authentic period look that has been handsomely photographed by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, Macbeth). In its stern way, it looks great.

The filmmakers have also invested a great deal in actor Timothée Chalamet in the title role. Only 24 years old and hot property since his leading role in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), his ambiguously gendered beauty is not what we might expect in a celebrated warrior king, and is a destabilising factor that keep things interesting.

Catherine de Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) who will become Queen

In recent times, it’s been good to see young filmmakers prepared to give Shakespeare a go. Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet, directed by Australians Geoffrey Wright and Baz Luhrmann respectively, each struggled in different ways with the language, but The King is based on a completely new screenplay and I’m happy to say that it works.

Shakespeare’s observations and insights on leadership, power and when to go to war are still there, told in simple and naturalistic language that has considerable power.

Michôd co-wrote his screenplay with actor-director Joel Edgerton, who has the key role of Hal’s constant companion, Falstaff, a dream part for any actor.

Their screenplay is drawn from the three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, that trace the career of one of England’s most popular kings. It was Henry V who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, a victory that joined the French and English thrones, for a short time at least.

The uniformly fine cast comprises Australian, American and British actors, some in memorable cameo roles.

The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), heir to the French throne

Ben Mendelsohn appears as Henry IV, the king who will not acknowledging his elder son, Hal, until his dying breath. Robert Pattinson appears in a scene-stealing role as the Dauphin, the vicious, wily heir to the French throne. Lily-Rose Depp’s appearance as Catherine de Valois is only brief but big on impact.

Chalamet himself is very good as the wayward prince who morphs into a great king, though I have some reservations about casting him in this role.

The King tells a story for modern audiences.  It’s quite unlike Henry V starring Laurence Olivier in 1944. While that film was made to revive the war effort, Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity.

There is nothing glamorous about warfare here. When Prince Hal takes down rebellious young Hotspur (Tom Glyn-Carney), there is nothing valiant about one-on-one combat either. Their swordfight finishes in a grim, desperate wrestling match.

At Agincourt, the French and English armies slog it out in what must have been total mayhem. How would the combatants have known who was who as they struggled in the mud?

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the fictional character of Falstaff into his Henry plays, the king has been in danger of being upstaged by his mischievous, wassailing companion. Edgerton clearly enjoys himself as the bad influence who constantly leads the young prince into trouble.

However, The King has elevated Falstaff’s standing, giving him a role of consequence as a royal adviser. No longer simply a comic character who keeps Henry in touch with the common man, Falstaff can advise on military strategy too.

All these changes risk upsetting the purists around the Anglosphere, but The King is nothing if not bold.

Kings and kingship are not in themselves such a fashionable subject for audiences today. But the question of good leadership and how to govern is as relevant today as it has always been, and it will not go away.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 March 2020. Also broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, and published by the Film Critics Circle of Australia

*Featured image: Timothée Chalamet as Henry V

Queen & Slim

Combines style and charisma to make the point

MA15+, 132 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

The date at a diner wasn’t going well. She had only responded to his request on Tinder after a bad day at work. His attempts at conversation were getting a curt response, his easygoing manner was irritating.

They would soon discover just how different they really were. He, a teetotaller and a devout Christian, who wears a crucifix and drives a car with the registration plate TrustGod. She has no truck with religion.

She is a defence attorney, an excellent one, mind you, and it isn’t completely clear what work he does. Perhaps he sells shoes. There is a collection of boxed Nikes in the boot of his car.

The only things that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do appear to share besides profiles on Tinder, is being residents of Ohio and African Americans.

Turner-Smith is a relatively recent arrival on screen but Kaluuya made his name in the smart, brutal horror film Get Out. Like this film, Get Out has something serious to say about contemporary race relations in the US.

Queen and Slim are not, by the way, the real names of the protagonists, but everyman and everywoman descriptions. Their real names are revealed at the end.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and the blue Pontiac Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s the colour of their skin that prompts an aggressive encounter with a white police officer while Slim is driving his date home. Something is said about swerving and failing to indicate, but it’s a set up. Queen and Slim are cooperative and reasonable, but this law enforcement officer is only looking for an excuse to use his gun.

He finds one. As Queen retrieves her mobile to record the event, telling the officer all the while what she is doing, he fires at her. Slim and the policeman wrestle to the ground, the gun slips out of the policeman’s hands, and the precipitous descent into a life and death situation concludes with the policemen lying on the ground, lifeless. Slim shot the officer in self-defence with the policeman’s own weapon.

From bitter experience as a defence attorney, Queen knows exactly what to expect from the Ohio justice system There’s nothing for it but to leave the scene and take to the road. While heading south along the highway they might come up with a plan.

It’s no coincidence that their journey begins in Ohio, the point at which escaped slaves who had travelled the ‘underground railroad’ in the 19th century, could leave its network of support for freedom.

When the fugitives run out of fuel after crossing into Kentucky, an off-duty sheriff gives them a lift. He is all cheery bonhomie until he realises who he has on board his pick-up. A black Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty made counter-culture heroes of the outlaw couple in the 1960s film, Bonnie and Clyde, and inevitably, Queen & Slim invites comparison with the iconic Arthur Penn film. But the similarities are superficial. The original couple, whose Depression-era crime spree across the American South ended in a hail of bullets, were small-time criminals.

Although Queen and Slim agree to have their photo taken in front of their car, just like the original Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, they are a law-abiding couple. Queen and Slim are caught up in the climate that has seen innocent black Americans die at the hands of police.

Once the couple are on the road in their sleek blue Pontiac, dressed in gear they found at a brothel where they hid briefly, their new look fools no one. They are folk heroes known to all. The cop who was shot was a bad cop. They have appeared on YouTube in film uploaded from his dashcam and have become celebrities among their own.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

As they make their way through the backblocks on their way south they are safe, protected and supported by the poor, black communities. They even find a moment to dance to the blues, and the freedom to fall in love.

Music is the language of the director Melina Matsoukas, who has won multiple top awards as a director of music videos. Her feature debut here with screenwriter Lena Waithe, also a black American, is striking. Activist cinema that combines charismatic leads, stylish visuals and great music usually never looks and sounds this good.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 March 2020

*Featured image: Slim (Danieal Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith). Courtesy Universal Pictures

Rolf de Heer’s outstanding contribution to Australian film

ROLF DE HEER

FCCA 2019 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AWARD

Australia’s premier association of professional film critics, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), has presented a special award to filmmaker Rolf de Heer.

The Acknowledgement Award for Excellence recognises his unique body of work, and exceptional contribution over many years to Australian cinema and culture.

The award was made at the recent FCCA Awards for 2019.

Rolf de Heer – international auteur, Australian provacateur

This piece by Jane Freebury, author of Dancing to his Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, was printed in the commemorative material distributed at the FCCA Awards for 2019:

Rolf de Heer learned his craft when the Australian films that reached the international festival circuit had a reputation for high production values and were often seen as vehicles for endorsing the official view of cultural identity. They were good to look at, but safe and non-confronting. It was a reputation that some local commentators, and the late, formidable Pauline Kael in New York, were impatient with.

Then along came Bad Boy Bubby in 1993, a rude retort to the polite reserve that characterised Australian cultural production. A pitch black comedy that was really out there, it had something to offend just about everyone. Even Rolf took a step back at one point and wondered aloud ‘Where the hell did that come from?”

It refused outright to be culturally enhancing and legitimising. Rolf’s films have never made us look that good.

The rest, of course, is history. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and took out two other prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, won other awards in Seattle and Valenciennes, and was an AACTA nominee for best film.

Notoriety went with the acclaim. Censors in the United Kingdom cut the scene with the cat, leaving other scenes of incest or matricide alone.

So persuasive did Rolf’s films become that we came to find ourselves celebrating more crimes and misdemeanours. The entombment of an errant husband in the family home, the extra-judicial killing of a homicidal, racist coloniser, and so on. A step too far? De Heer made a habit of daring his audiences to take it with him.

In the new millenium, he has become known for his magnificent Indigenous stories in the outback wilderness, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country, that gave rare prominence to Aboriginal protagonists in Australian film.

However, Rolf has ranged freely across genres, from Bubby’s man-child coming-of-age, to silent comedy in B&W, to intense psychodramas set in the domestic space, to science fiction, and more.

It will surprise some that he has also made two international coproductions with romantic protagonists in pursuit of their passion. The outback trapper fond of jazz in Dingo is a perennial favourite, while The Old Man Who Read Love Stories in the Amazonian jungle is less well known.

Ever since that career-defining moment when Rolf first courted creative risk, it has continued to define him. He has been willing to take risks with projects, even extreme risks, and it has seen him develop a profile as a filmmaker who is bold, innovative, unorthodox and unpredictable.

I believe that his bold and spirited approach has given heart to many young emerging filmmakers In Australia. Yes, it can be done.

The result is a body of work over the last three decades that few contemporaries in the Australian film industry can match for range, ambition and audacity.

Over the course of his filmmaking career – in which he has more often than not been writer/direct/ and producer of his work – he has become adept at the art of bricolage, of using the materials at hand and transforming it. It is his form of creative risk.

Some incident energised him, sparked his curiosity and his imagination, or his indignation, and set him on a course of action in support of social justice. The bricolage has determined the character of the film in production and fixed the de Heer brand.

While refusing to accept the apparent limits imposed by a low budget, he has taken a chance on the very element that presented risk for his production­­. The wheelchair-bound lead actor only able to speak with a voice synthesiser (Dance Me To My Song), shy or incapacitated child actors (The Quiet Room), alternatives to prohibitively expensive filmstock (Alexandra’s Project and Dr Plonk), unwillingness to represent live-action violence (The Tracker), or to manage a large crew (the genesis of Bad Boy Bubby), moving house (The King is Dead). Then turned it into an essential building block.

The restriction or obstacle that might hold another director in check seems to supply the essential energy to this filmmaker’s creativity. A negative is transformed into a positive. Something comes from nothing.

While Australia certainly lays claim to Rolf de Heer, his singular cinema maps a country all its own. Like many auteurs he has created a body of work that is its own country, a place and people of the imagination to which each new de Heer film adds a further dimension. Identifiably Australian, yet refusing to endorse any notion of a national identity, the territory he explores lies at the margins of the mainstream. Inhabited by outliers, marginalised protagonists who effectively and comprehensively turn the table on their oppression.

As Rolf has developed a distinctive authorial signature, he has been a pioneer, revealing to our industry what is possible with limited tools. He has become an inspiring role model for emerging filmmakers working within constraints.

The success of his work is best measured by the admiration, respect, provocation and debate that it has generated.  Rolf is an internationally recognised auteur whose invigorating, challenging work has achieved high standing in world cinema.

 

Drawn from: Freebury, Jane (2015), Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, Currency Press / Currency House, Sydney

 

 

*Featured image: Actor Gary Sweet (on left) congratulates Rolf de Heer on his FCCA award

Honeyland

M, 86 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A wild and rugged landscape, a cast of thousands of airborne extras and their solitary beekeeper feature in this engaging and unusual observational documentary. It hails from Macedonia.

It was first conceived of as an official documentary on the Balkan region where it is located. But when the filmmakers came across a woman of Turkish descent whose livelihood was harvesting honey, they decided to focus on her instead.

She is touted in promotional material as the last of the traditional beekeepers. Whether she is or not, she is certainly one of a kind.

In the opening frames, Hatidze Muratova is a speck, a figure in a headscarf walking through a majestic mountainous landscape. Ethereal music combines with capella singing on the soundtrack to make this an entrancing invitation into another world.

Hatidze is crossing the high plateau because it is harvest time. After scrambling along a narrow track above a steep drop, she removes a slice of rock from the mountainside. It opens like a door, revealing a hive of bees.

Mashallah, she whispers, the Arabic expression for giving thanks. The hive is dripping with honey.

Her presence and purpose are not unwelcome, it seems, as she collects honey with her bare hands, murmuring half for you, half for me as she does it. Her age-old traditions are the very definition of sustainable.

After the autumn harvest, Hatidze takes her jars of honey into town. Although Skopje, the capital, is not so very far away, it’s a nine-hour journey for her, by train and on foot.

At the city markets she haggles with stall owners, bargaining hard with the best of them. There is the added incentive of being able to afford some bananas, a special treat, and a sachet of hair colour. Her preference is for chestnut brown, a modest choice, but who is there to appreciate it back at the ghostly hamlet that is her home?

Hatidze’s adventures out and about are punctuated by scenes of her in the cottage that she shares with her 85-yeqr-old mother, a dog and a couple of cats. Old Nazife is bedridden and only has sight in one eye. She and her daughter are blunt with each other, and they bicker constantly, but their interdependence is stark.

They are the only inhabitants of their hamlet, a clutch of stone houses that has been abandoned for quite some time. There are no roads, and no running water or electricity. Jet aircraft that are seen occasionally high in the sky are a remote sign of the 21st century modernity that exists elsewhere.

The cycle of life continues without incident until the day that Hussein Sam, his wife Ljutvie and their seven boisterous children drive in and make it their home, for now. The tribe of kids and the herd of cattle and chickens and general chaos and commotion are a major disruption for two women.

Hatidze welcomes the family of nomads and maintains her forbearance despite this though mum shows less tolerance. But then would, wouldn’t she? Moreover, Hatidze shares her knowledge on beekeeping with her new neighbour, Hussein. He sets up his own hives, seriously messing with Hatidze’s work.

Hatidze with the neighbours

All the goings-on observed in this documentary amount to great theatre. The squabbling adults, the siblings at play or having it out, and the creatures on four legs and two create a tapestry of small, dramatic incidents, that are sometimes hilarious.

The kaleidoscope of vignettes is a tribute to the insight and intelligence of the two Macedonian filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

They spent three years with Hatidze, camping at her village, earning the trust that allowed them special access to the intimate lives of others, while also absorbing the rhythms of their remote Balkan world.

The process has really paid off. Kotevska and Stefanov amassed hundreds of hours of footage and have allowed the vision to speak for itself. The result is a superior documentary, without voiceover.

Honeyland was nominated for a best documentary and a best international feature award at the recent Academy Awards. Hatidze’s character and situation may not appeal to everyone, but those who tune in to it will recognise that Honeyland is a rare achievement.  Even the wait for the little surprise at the end of the credits is worth it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

*Featured image: Hatidze shares her knowledge