1917

MA 15+, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For whatever reasons, World War I doesn’t figure nearly as much as World War II on the movie screen. Maybe because it was years ago and there have been so many other wars and quasi wars in between. Or maybe it’s because in WWI much of the conflict was confined to the trenches for months on end, a scenario that can have limited visual and dramatic appeal.

Either way it doesn’t really explain why the first global conflict hasn’t been mined more for its story-telling potential.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) saw the potential. He collaborated with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to develop a script from a piece of family history. A story his paternal grandfather, Alfred, told him about a young soldier who was sent across enemy lines alone to warn a British battalion that they were heading into an ambush.

It’s a slight story based loosely on fact. A race against time, a picaresque journey across the front, and a powerful re-creation of the conditions in the field for the millions of young men on both sides who sacrificed their lives.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) cross no-man’s land

1917 begins in spring on the edge of a grassy field, where lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake  (Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping in the sunshine.  The countryside looks just like what tourists see today. Broad, green fields that were once the battlefields of WWI extending as far as the eye can see. How could such a beautiful, peaceful setting have once been the backdrop to scenes of extraordinary carnage?

Their nap is interrupted. Blake suddenly gets orders to report to General Erinmore (an economical appearance from Colin Firth). He is told to take a mate along with him so his friend, Schofield, goes too.

Their secret assignment is to let Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, another celebrity cameo) know that although it looks like the Germans have retreated, they have laid a trap and any advance will end in a catastrophic defeat.

And there is a further incentive. If they reach the battalion in time, Blake will also be able to save the life of his older brother, a lieutenant. It’s no coincidence that Blake sets the pace. The two men leave immediately, in broad daylight.

swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up

Schofield and Blake pick their way across no man’s land and enter the trench system the Germans left behind. It is infested with fat rats and set up for unsuspecting enemy soldiers and they barely escape with their lives. They are safer travelling above ground, picking their way through the ransacked farms and burning villages  to their destination.

From beginning to end, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the young soldiers firmly in its sights. One of the best in the business, Deakins has always been up for a challenge. He has shot 1917 in what looks like a single continuous take. If you search for them you could probably pick the edits, but the overwhelming impression is of being swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up. Immersion is total.

It’s the impression you get in other films shot in a single take, or something like it. Hitchcock’s body in the trunk thriller, Rope, is a famous one, though the cuts have been skilfully buried. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a more recent example,  in which a trip through the Hermitage is actually managed in a single continuous shot.

had Schofield gone home a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him

Mendes’ 1917 is the boy’s own story. Neither fresh-faced young actor, Chapman nor MacKay, are as well known as the stars with bit parts, and that’s as it should be. 1917 commemorates the generation of young lives that were lost to the war machine.

Some of the classic films about the 1914-18 war, like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the 1980s carry a strong anti-war message. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s superb archival documentary on WWI released last year, sends a similar powerful message of the loss of young lives.

Young George MacKay is simultaneously appearing in the lead role in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the latest film about the local folk hero who refused to take orders from anyone. Had MacKay’s character Schofield gone home to England a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him?

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 January 2020, also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Schofield (George Mackay) negotiates a ruined town

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

M, 119 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

A boat with a young female passenger on board makes its way along a rocky coastline. When a piece of luggage falls overboard she jumps in to rescue it, petticoats, boots and all. It might have been end of story in late eighteenth-century France where this film is set but, surprisingly, she can swim.

Artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is on her way to take up a new commission, painting the portrait of a young aristocrat who lives in a chateau on an island off Brittany. The new client, the Countess (Valeria Golino), needs a likeness of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) to send to a prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman, so the wedding can go ahead.

it’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of The Piano, but there are significant differences

An arranged marriage in times past, stirring scenes on a beautiful, empty beach, a woman who expresses herself in the arts. It’s not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of Jane Campion’s The Piano. But there are significant differences. This is a love story between two women, and as the filmmaker points out, they are equals.

Correcting the pose: Heloise (Adele Haenel) on left and Marianne (Merlant)

It seems to me no accident that the writer-director, Celine Sciamma has set her story before the onset of the French Revolution, at a liminal moment for freedom and equality. She makes nothing of it, however.

Heloise, just out of a convent is refusing to marry, and she won’t cooperate for any portrait because the result will be marriage. Marianne learns that her elder sister didn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman either, and it seems she took her life on a walk along the cliff edge.

With instructions from the Countess to become her daughter’s companion, Marianne spends her days observing Heloise and taking mental notes as they go on walks together. She then paints by candlelight in the evening.

With little else to do but walk, talk and read, a relationship begins to develop between the artist and the aristocrat. In particular, they love to read and re-read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wondering about the motivations behind the tragic ending.

Although Heloise becomes aware of the deception she agrees to be painted anyway and during the sittings the two women spar, circle each other and eventually fall in love. The scenes as their relationship develops are exquisitely written by Sciamma, who won best screenplay at Cannes.

men are scarcely present, though still operating outside the frame

We don’t see much of men here. After Marianne’s arrival at the isolated castle, they are scarcely present though they are still operating outside the frame. Like the Milanese nobleman directing events from afar, or the local swain who has made the diminutive maid, Sophie ( Luana Bajrami), pregnant.

The absence of men allows Portrait to concentrate exclusively on a world of women in which the female sensibility and solidarity rules. It is expressed with intensity one evening when Marianne and Heloise join a group of local women gathering in the fields around a bonfire. It isn’t really clear what the gathering is about, but when the women join in an exquisite capella chorus and sing in Latin, it becomes a moment of surreal beauty and a celebration of feminine unity.

The painterly imagery is beautiful if rather stern and uncluttered and the soundtrack, with little music, is simply content to heighten the realism of the domestic world the women inhabit, with its crackling hearth and rustling, breathy silences. It is all the more powerful for it, more than making up for the minimalism with a few sublime musical moments like the ethereal capella singing.

On another occasion we hear ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when Marianne bumbles through it on a harpsicord. She doesn’t do it  justice, but the scene lays the foundation for the amazing and intense concert finale.

The sea plays its part: can Heloise (Adele Haenel) swim too?

This intelligent and sensuous film is special. An intimate and delicate study of how two people can fall in love. Marianne and Heloise could be any two individuals who fall in love, and the world that their story builds is rich reward to those who are willing to enter.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019. Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Truth

PG, 106 minutes­­­­­

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicate, relatable family drama with a mother-daughter relationship at its core is set in the warm tones of a Paris autumn. A New York-based screenwriter flies in for a visit as her mother, a screen actress, is having her memoir published.

With husband and daughter in tow, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives at her childhood home. Not far from the metro but a world unto itself, set amongst lawns and trees, it holds an abundance of memories for her. It looks like a castle her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) observes. There’s a prison behind it, Lumir rejoinders.

it’s a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed through a translator. You could never guess

Within the old family home, the imperious matriarch, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), awaits them. She is a vision of establishment glamour. Perfectly proportioned features discretely made-up and a coiffured mane of blonde hair. Her daughter looks drawn, wears hardly a skerrick of makeup, and the hair needs attention.

It’s not just a contrast between lifestyles either. Fabienne is also a working woman, currently in the role of a daughter with a time-travelling mother in a faintly absurdist science fiction film ‘Memories of My Mother’.

So far, so clear. Things get going when Lumir protests  that there are lies in the memoir about watching  school plays and meeting her daughter at the school gate. Fabienne’s riposte? As an actress, she will never tell the naked truth, and isn’t a little neglect better than interference in Lumir’s private life?

The memoir also states that Lumir’s father, Pierre, is dead. Perhaps it’s all in a manner of speaking, as there is a giant tortoise that lives in the shrubbery that goes by the name of Pierre. The man himself (Roger Van Hool) comes knocking sometime later, looking mischievous and very much alive.

But for Fabienne, Pierre no longer exists – she now has a partner in her bed and a male assistant Luc (Alain Libolt). The beleaguered Luc resigns dramatically, then returns to his duties during the course of events.

Fabienne can’t recall which other actors of her generation – let’s call them rivals – are still alive either. At least, it may not be intentional but a cultivated absent-mindedness. Writer, editor and director Hirokazu Kore-ada has instilled a strong undercurrent of humour in this gentle, witty study of a family dominated by two strong women.

This is not the first time, and surely not the last, that Deneuve will be cast as the estranged mother we have seen her as in Claire Darling, in The Midwife, and in On My Way. While The Truth plays with perspectives on the critical parent-child relationship, it is also about ageing actresses, their rivals and those set to inherit their legacy who wait in the wings. But that’s a secondary theme.

Catherine Deneuve: a Vertigo moment?

The men in the story, especially self-described second-rate TV actor Hank (Ethan Hawke) helps with rapprochement, and makes for some amusing interchanges over the dinner table. Maybe all the blokes, like Hank, have a bit of a crush on Fabienne. Even the director who likes those shots of the whorl of hair in a bun above the nape of her neck. A reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

by the end, family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters

Over the course of the film, the two sparring partners, Lumir and Fabienne, grow closer and when they finally hug, it is genuinely touching. They even share confidences about their male partner’s love-making, how it might compare to their cooking. By the end, the family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters, that won Kore-ada the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.

Making The Truth was both a departure from, and a challenge to Kore-ada’s cultural sensibility. His characters speak up rather than remain silent as they might be inclined to do in his home country. In this sense, the film actually needed characters to be French.

It is a wonder that Kore-ada has brought two major French actors, Binoche and Deneuve, together like this for the first time. It was entirely his idea, and a ‘wild’ one at that, as far as his French crew were concerned.

It’s also a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed this warm and witty family drama through a translator. You could never guess.

An earlier version of Jane’s review was first published by the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019

  • Featured image: family gathering: from left, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Hank (Ethan Hawke), Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and  Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Sorry We Missed You

MA 15+, 100 minutes

3 Stars

Review by  © Jane Freebury

Ken Loach is into his 80s now, still powering on as a firebrand for social justice with films about ordinary people up against the system. He has been an activist all his life, from the theatre, to TV to the cinema. No story has been too big or too small, as long as it got the point across.

Director Loach and his frequent collaborator and screenwriter here, Paul Laverty, have a reporter’s instinct for the social realist stories that will expose injustice and tell it how it is. They are directed with a naturalistic aesthetic as though they were the unvarnished truth, just like documentary.

There have been exceptions, like the charming love story Ae Fond Kiss and hallucinating soccer fandom in Looking for Eric, but Loach is strict with himself and likes to keep clear of indulgences that filmmakers allow themselves with sound, or music or special effects.

When he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago for I, Daniel Blake, it was the second time he had received the honour. The first was a decade earlier for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, set at the time of Irish independence and the ensuing civil war.

on the other side of the desk sits Gavin who is right across hollow management­-speak

If the accolades in 2016 were like the culmination of a life’s work for Loach, and the moment to put his feet up, he didn’t. The gig economy is upon us and he has found that there is still no time to rest, and with this painful and touching story about a delivery van driver and his family, it’s hard not to agree. Like I, Daniel Blake, it’s set in Newcastle, England.

From the moment Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) has his interview to join parcel delivery company PDF as a courier, it is impossible to imagine that things could go well for him. Predictability in the narrative is the big problem here.

On the other side of the desk sits Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster) who is right across hollow management­-speak. Ricky won’t be working ‘for’ PDF, he’ll be working ‘with’ them. As an owner-driver he will get a ‘fee’ for his services, rather than a wage, but it’s all spin that hides the fact that Ricky has to put $1,000 down on the van he will drive, work 12 hour shifts during which his movements will be reported by his tracker or ‘preciser’, and he will be treated as though he has no life outside work.

To get set up with the van, Ricky and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) must sell the car that she relies on for her work as a home-care nurse. She sees elderly clients who are difficult to manage, and now she has to take the bus. The upshot is a lot less family time with their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).

 in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears set to inherit his father’s disadvantage

This saddens Liza while it angers Seb. He skips even more school and spends even more time on his graffiti rounds. Of all the family members impacted by Ricky’s job, it is Seb’s plight that speaks the loudest. Caught in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears to be heading out of school without quals, and set to inherit his father’s disadvantage.

At home for curry: (from left to right) Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) and son Seb (Rhys Stone)

It’s a relief when the gloom and mounting tensions clear once in a while. With a family get-together over a takeaway curry when a vindaloo gets the better of Ricky, and when proud dad takes his daughter along on his delivery rounds. It is, however, only a temporary diversion with a trajectory primed from the start. There are few energising surprises for audiences here.

Were Loach to be anything other than true to his socialist worldview, we would be surprised, and he’s hit on a rich, new seam here with people like Ricky who are entrapped on the service economy roundabout. It also shows how, in a wider sense, workers with pride and aspiration can get crushed by an automated system which elides rights and entitlements, operates strictly by the book, and refuses to acknowledge that ‘service providers’ have a life and responsibilities outside work.

Sorry We Missed You has that blunt urgency Loach often displays, but his actors are very good, and with this forensic job on the system, he has made his point.

This review, first published in the Canberra Times on 31 December 2019, is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

  • Featured image: a lighter moment for Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)

At home with The Truth: interview with director Hirokazu Kore-ada

By © Jane Freebury

After winning the top prize at Cannes festival last year for his film, Shoplifters, the director Hirokazu Kore-ada went to work on a new project in France.

He had something quite different up his sleeve. It was to be set in a grand old Parisian home with a leafy garden, the domicile of someone rich and famous, and a world away from his impoverished band of thieves who live together as family on the fringes of society in Tokyo.

Actually, The Truth had been in development for some time with Juliette Binoche, the French star of renown. And Kore-ada had a screenplay to polish up and already one or two other actors in mind. American actor Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise trilogy), who is an ease in French language cinema, for starters.

Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) with daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Kore-ada’s other idea was getting Catherine Deneuve on board. An icon of French cinema since the 1960s, Deneuve is an imposing 76 years old, with a leonine head of hair and a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ expression on her classic features.

He wanted her for the character Fabienne, an ageing film star still performing who is estranged from her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), who lives in New York. Things come to a head when Lumir returns to France to celebrate the publication of her mother’s memoir.

A French person would never think of that. That’s wild

How did Kore-ada get the two of them, Binoche and Deneuve, in their first ever collaboration on screen?

‘I was developing this with Juliette Binoche for years. When I suggested that we ask Catherine Deneuve to play the mother, Juliette said it would be a big challenge for her, as well as a great honour.

‘When I told the French staff it was the direction I wanted to go in, they came back and said, you know, a French person would never think of that. That’s wild.’

Wild, indeed. Yet there is ample space for both onscreen in this subtle, layered family drama. The Truth is an intriguing double act with two iconic French actors, a generation apart, who share the screen. Ethan Hawke is there too, as Hank, Lumir’s husband, a TV actor as often at rehab as he is in work.

What was it like working with Deneuve? ‘She will always be able to give you the take you want,’ says Kore-ada. ‘The really interesting thing is that she knows when she has given it to you. She’ll have a moment of inspiration, then, bang, it will come out, and she’ll tell you “oh, that was the one”’.

I have read elsewhere that she tends not to arrive on set until noon and prefers to work in Paris, though Kore-ada does not mention this.

Bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent

In The Truth, Binoche and Deneuve each play both a mother and a daughter at different points. Lumir has arrived with her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) and Fabienne’s current role is as a daughter in a time-travelling story, ‘Memories of My Mother’, a tale with a far-fetched plot that pokes a bit of fun at the high seriousness of science fiction.

The beauty of Kore-ada’s films is their exploration of family, family in its many manifestations, family with blood ties and ‘families’ without. He has observed that one of his major realisations in life is that bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent, and that the concept of family needs constant reaffirmation. Will he continue exploring this fundamental human relationship?

‘It’s one of those subjects that you never arrive at a final definitive answer.’ But we shall see.

Kore-ada, incidentally, speaks neither English nor French. This interview a couple of weeks ago was conducted through an interpreter.

How is it possible to make a film in France when you don’t speak French, or English? Kore-ada works closely with his Japanese-French speaking translator, Lea Le Dimna, who he met at the Marrakech film festival. ‘In the past five years since I met her, I’ve consistently hired her services.’ Her familiarity with how Kore-ada communicates his working methods has made her indispensable.

How did he find it working with a French cast and crew? ‘One of the key differences working with French people is that they pretty much say what they think and tell you face to face, whereas if you are Japanese you might hold back, and stay silent about those things.

‘I was sort of aware of that difference and wanted to incorporate it, that they would say what they think, and that much is a very integral part of this film.’

It’s such an interesting observation that seems to fit with the observation that Shoplifters offers another perspective on the official narrative about well-being in Japanese family and society.

I suggest that The Truth plays with the naked truth, the embellished truth and the unspoken truth, while it develops a recognition of the position that each character is coming from.

‘You’re absolutely right,’ he says, to general laughter. It’s more important than agreeing on the truth.

‘The story as I approached it was that there was this daughter who was to confront her mother with the truth. Whatever it was. Yet when she recounts her own history, she realises there are other truths or things that have been glossed over.

‘So, that’s the account I really wanted to cover. That she does have these moments where the trick is that the truth is actually less important than finding out where she stood in relation to her mother.’

‘In the story, it is the performance that actually helps heal those gaps.’

The Truth was selected to open the Venice International Film Festival in August this year. It opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

The Two Popes: a mixed blessing

M, 126 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s an irresistible pleasure watching veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce together on screen as Pope Benedict and his successor, the head of the Catholic Church today, Pope Francis.

Each Welshmen has a commanding presence, and despite a lingering hint of some character or other they once played who was mad, or bad or downright dangerous to know, they are each thoroughly believable as good men of god. Everyone is saying that Pryce is a dead ringer for Pope Francis, and he is.

In the hands of another director, this drama about the struggle between Benedict and Francis, between the conservative and the liberal forces they represented in the church, could have been dull and unenticing. In the hands of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, it is anything but.

Two well-known films by Meirelles convey his range. He made that stunning, kinetic, crime drama, City of God, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as well as The Constant Gardener, a contemplative study of a man who avoids involvement with the world by immersing himself in his plants.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) watches soccer with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins)

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has had his fair share of success recently with Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, has done lively and engaging work here. It is not known what Benedict and Francis actually said to each other during the three conversations they had in 2013, but McCarten has some engaging views on it.

Music direction is lively too. In an early scene set in 2005, when the Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) bumps into Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) in the washroom, he is humming a pop tune. The same tune, ABBA’s Dancing Queen, is the soundtrack when cardinals from around the world assemble to elect their next pope.

irresistible performances though acknowledgement of issues of child abuse far too brief

Playful brio in this Meirelles film, from the variety of camera angles and positions to the soundtrack, is everywhere.

Back in 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the church was looking at its options in challenging times. Would it continue with the process of liberalisation that the late pope had overseen, or revert to a more stringent traditionalist approach?

It chose to install the conservative bishop from Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, as its new leader and re-affirm the church’s fundamental doctrine. Benedict XVI brought more Latin back in again, and the traditional red papal shoes re-appeared on his feet!

The Church’s new conservatism under Benedict caused the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio to fly to Rome to offer his resignation. The popular, liberal cardinal hadn’t even reached retirement age.

What Bergoglio didn’t know was that his pope, who was more advanced in age than most popes had ever been to hold office, was planning to step down. He wanted to persuade Bergoglio, his strongest critic, to succeed him.

Benedict had a plan, but his house guest at the papal summer residence had yet to become a willing participant.

Benedict was taking the all but unprecedented decision in 2013 to resign the papacy, stepping down before his maker claimed him. A pope or two had stepped down before, but the last one to resign on his own initiative did so back to the 13th century.

As to be expected, the worldly archbishop from Argentina and the former academic from Bavaria are worlds apart. Benedict reveals another side as the musician who enjoys playing his favourites on piano, including Berlin cabaret music. Bergoglio’s loves soccer, and as a dancer of tango he must of course practice. How else but with a partner?

The film delves into Bergoglio’s past when as a young man just about to marry he makes a U-turn into the confessional box and joins the Jesuits. Another B+W flashback shows his shameful actions under the Argentinian junta.

Yet, despite some conversation about child abuse in the church between Benedict and his cardinal, this moment is far too brief. You only have to be reminded of the Australian royal commission held into institutional responses to the abuse, or the devastating 2012 doco, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.  A missed opportunity.

The Two Popes is still a rich and entertaining experience. A terrific extended conversation despite wasted opportunities, bringing an engaging, humanistic perspective to the issues the church faces in the modern world.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

Mrs Lowry & Son: more about mother than son

PG, 91 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

Make her happy. Find another ‘hobby’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Featured image: Timothy Spall as Laurence Lowry

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

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

a family schism that has never healed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 November 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marty Scorsese among the Superheroes

The director’s director up against the comic book heroes

By © Jane Freebury

Every city has to have one. A film festival.

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

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

Film festivals happening everywhere yet superheroes dominate box office

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

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

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

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

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

After endgame and apocalypse, where to from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2019. Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

* Featured image: Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011)

The Report: a record too hot to handle

M, 120 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

Based on real events post 9/11

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

Adam Driver hits the spot as Dan Jones

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

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

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

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

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

CIA videotape records had been disappeared

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stain on American history and values

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

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

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 November 2019