The Children Act

M, 105 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust McEwan to throw this curved ball at us.

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

Widows

 MA 15+, 129 mins

Capitol Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A heist movie has to be fun. It needs to be, to join company with so many brilliant examples from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, to the Pink Panther movies, to The Italian Job, original and remake, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

What better fun then than watching a group of women, partners in crime, bent on turning the tables?

Hang on a minute. As you scroll down the ‘best of’ lists for the genre, you find that the heist has been the province of men, decorated by a glamorous woman or two. Films about women getting away with the equivalent of Britain’s great train robbery are few and far between.

It won’t be surprising if people leave Widows wondering why the film doesn’t match their sense of anticipation – or the hype of the trailer. No, Ocean’s Eight didn’t do it for us, but Widows doesn’t gel despite promising ingredients either. The new film from director Steve McQueen doesn’t live up to its promise.

It’s disconcerting, when everything necessary for success is there. An Oscar-winning director, a black British man and a visual artist whose track record includes films like 12 Years A Slave and Hunger. McQueen had the Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn write his screenplay too, and this was developed from a miniseries that was a hit on British television in the 1980s.

Widows opens on scenes of marital bliss, the mature kind. Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings is just about to leave for work – that is, he is about to commit a robbery – and dallies with his lovely wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) in moments soon cross-cut with blistering scenes of a violent heist gone wrong. All perpetrators, including Harry, are killed, and the peace in the neutrality of early morning in their luxury apartment erased.

The death of a partner is one thing. Veronica is soon under threat herself, unless she repays the $2 million that her husband apparently owed to a local crime boss, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), who needs it to—wait for it—enter local politics. This is Chicago.

Jamal’s threatening visit, when he handles Veronica’s little white dog, is almost as hard to watch as later scenes of torture. There are some moments of violence in Widows that don’t hold back, with Jamal’s brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), in on the act too.

To repay this debt, Veronica recruits the three other women also widowed by the botched robbery, for a new heist she plans based on notes that Harry left behind. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are widows like her, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a beautician who is enlisted as their driver. Significantly, the fourth widow, does not elect to take part.

Debicki’s character Alice steals the show. The few seconds spent on a conversation between her and her Polish mother – Jacki Weaver here – were worth so much more.

Far too little time is spent on the women as characters and group. There was so much to capitalise on here, but Widows has too little faith in the dynamic value of their personalities and relationships. That little smile shared at the end is intriguing, it may even signal a sequel, but it also suggests there was more to play with here.

Far and away, it was the concept that grabbed us. The very idea of a band of women who join forces for a heist should have been a winner, especially in this #MeToo moment.

The payback moment arrives for Veronica when discovers howshe was fundamentally betrayed by Harry, playing into issues of gender and racerelations. However, with WidowsMcQueen hasn’t yet found a way to combine his social activism with the thrillsof the cheeky, brazen plan that we hopped on board for.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7, ArtsCafe

First Man

Rated M, 2 hrs 21 mins

All Canberra cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

4.5 Stars

 

The final frontier gets rather mixed treatment from Hollywood. The studios have had a penchant for filling the void with monsters and other extra-terrestrials but now it’s the scale and sheer emptiness that are scary, while it’s hard to ignore the prospect of travelling towards infinity and perhaps never coming back.

Space on screen is a broad canvas where just about anything goes, from thoughtful to grand to spoof, so it’s a surprise to see a film like First Man that is serious, low key, compelling and based on the real thing, when man first stepped on the moon, an event captured on grainy television images 50 years ago. Ancient history for many, but it has to be as remarkable today as it was then, decades before the digital age.

When we meet the famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong ­- Ryan Gosling in the role – it is some years before the moon mission, when he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are having a terrible time, facing the loss of one of their small children to cancer. An aeronautical engineer and test pilot, Armstrong is struggling to do his job effectively but his cool head does eventually prevail and he applies to join the new team that will attempt a moon landing within the time frame that the late President Kennedy nominated. A ‘fresh start’ Janet says, after their little girl has died.

This story of the Apollo 11 mission is told from inside a marriage, a good marriage, and Janet has a pivotal role in it. The obligatory scenes of national pride and the global impact of the event are delayed until towards the end, and portrayed like a postscript. Such restraint.

First Man still makes clear that the pioneer astronauts were highly skilled, brave men who understood the risks involved. They were asked to approve their obituaries before they left.

The fine screenplay is by Josh Singer, and is based on an authorised biography of Armstrong by James R Hansen. It is worth knowing that two of Singer’s recent screenwriting credits are for The Post and Spotlight, each of which concerns pressing issues of our time – a free press and institutional child abuse – and critiques the way they were dealt with in America.

Recent impressive films set in space like lnterstellar, Gravity and Arrival invite you to think and they are gorgeous to look at, but results are mixed. First Man does away with visual extravagance, and declines to philosophise about the void out there and what it might mean for us. The focus is instead on the astonishing feat of putting men on the moon, a story that is delivered with impeccable naturalism.

The emphasis on authenticity is crucial, though I don’t quite understand why the equipment had to look a little  dated, as though it had been brought in from a space museum. No doubt, everything was brand new in 1969. The production design is also sombre, without a hint of triumphalism.

Apparently, some don’t like the fact that director Damien Chazelle and his team decided against showing the planting of the US flag. Looking at the names of those who have complained and called it an omission, First Man is better off without their endorsement.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

British Film Festival 2018

Makes its return to Canberra on 24 October with a selection of the best of new cinema from the British Isles.

There is plenty of variety.

Stan & Ollie, about the one-half British comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, Keira Knightley as a French novelist (Colette), a high court drama with Emma Thompson (The Children Act), the latest socio-political drama from Mike Leigh, Peterloo, and Pin Cushion with young Lily Newmark, are among program highlights.

The festival retrospective includes a tribute to actor Michael Caine, who also features in My Generation, an exuberant new documentary about London in the swinging sixties.

The British Film Festival screens at Palace Electric, NewActon, Canberra, until 13 November.

For more information follow this link

 

Jirga

Rated M, 1 hr 18 mins

Screening at Dendy, Canberra

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Obstacles that directors face on film shoots range from the trivial to the legion that sink projects altogether. They very nearly sank Benjamin Gilmour’s project when he arrived in Pakistan with lead actor Sam Smith only to discover that permission to film was withdrawn and funding for cinematographer and crew had evaporated.

Gilmour could have at this point declared the difficulties ‘insurmountable’ but instead acted swiftly and decisively. He bought a second-hand camera and crossed the border to do the shoot in Afghanistan, which was, after all, where his narrative was set. Pakistan was only meant to be a stand-in.

This is some backstory. It points to a rivetting tale beyond the frame, the stuff of difficult shoots that have great documentaries made like Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. However, the long list of people Gilmour thanks in the credits also points to a big collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, crowd-sourced funding and a degree of luck.

Set in the streets of Kabul and in remote villages and caves in the mountain regions, Jirga tells of the journey made by Mike Wheeler (Smith), a former Australian soldier, to find the family of a man he shot by mistake during a raid three years earlier. The simplicity of this journey of the soul, a return to the heart of darkness of Mike’s military career, suits it well.

After a frenetic opening flashback in lurid green night vision accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of small arms fire, the pace slows as Mike finds his way around in Afghanistan, second time round. His journey takes on more insidious dangers as he negotiates the markets and cafes to get transport from Kabul to Kandahar. No, no, and no, his hosts and helpers say, the province is crawling with Taliban. It’s just too dangerous.

Needless to say, like the filmmaker, Mike won’t take ‘no’ for an answer either and finally manages to persuade his taxi driver to drive him beyond, Bamyan, the first destination agreed to. Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was the father in Gilmour’s first film Son of a Lion (2007), makes a very personable taxi driver.

It isn’t long before Mike becomes a guest of a group of Taliban (played by former Taliban). Instead of killing him or taking the wads of useless dollars he has brought with him, they deliver him to the very village he has been looking for. There he puts his fate in the hands of the Afghan court of tribal elders, the jirga.

However, it is not the elders who have the last word. They leave it to the most directly affected to decide Mike’s fate. Not a thoroughly convincing outcome, however, but where else could it conceivably be taken?

What is remarkable in Jirga is the journey through the magnificent landscapes of Afghanistan, and the connections that are made along the way.

In some scenes, the camera goes extremely wide as Mike’s taxi beetles past brooding, hulking mountain ranges that look older than time. In other scenes, he is in two-shot with his redoubtable driver, tapping tin bowls and plucking guitar strings as they make music for each other, because it is the only language that they share.

The wonderful score by AJ True is another pleasure, as are the surprises.  Such as another contribution, that comes from Smith, who plays a composition of his own to his driver on an old guitar he bought along the way. When words can’t be found, music says it all.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated M, 1 hr 54 mins

Screening at Dendy and Palace Electric

 

The cartoon that lends its caption to this Gus Van Sant film shows a sheriff’s posse staring at an empty wheelchair among cactus in the desert. The rough line drawing instantly conveys a lot about the artist and the bleak, irreverent humour that made him famous. The American cartoonist, the late John Callahan, also chose it for the title of his autobiography in 1990.

Callahan was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident while on a bender with a friend when they were young and reckless. Miraculously, his mate, Dexter (Jack Black), who was at the wheel, walked away from the overturned VW Beetle with a few scratches, but the misadventure turned John into a quadriplegic. Eventually he recovered limited use of his arms.

If he wasn’t already prone to a bit of self-destruction, this convinced young John that there wasn’t a lot of point to it all. The hapless 21-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with. Struggling with feelings of abandonment – he’d been adopted, never knew his birth mother – John (Joaquin Phoenix in the role) was going nowhere, a flask of tequila for company.

The late Robin Williams was once keen for this role, but I can’t see that he could have worked as well as Phoenix. In unkempt, ginger wig, flip-flops and the flares of the day, his performance as Callahan is pitch-perfect.

And Phoenix has form in this kind of character – remember the execrable I’m Still Here – but he is talented and versatile with substantial range. Compelling as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or as reclusive writer (Her), and both as Jesus (Mary Magdalene) and evil Roman emperor (Gladiator).

The same can be said of filmmaker, Van Sant, who has been giving us food for thought over the years with his distinctive explorations of the private worlds of creative types, often musicians, often marginalised, and other characters at the crossroads.

John (Joaquin Phoenix) and Donny (Jonah Hill) in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

In Don’t Worry, Donny (Jonah Hill), the silky voiced leader of the alcoholics recovery group that Callahan has signed up to, becomes just about as interesting as Callahan. Maybe more so.

Actor Jonah Hill, in heavy disguise in long blonde wig and beard, and 70s smart casual, demonstrates, with perhaps a hint of menace, the subtle art of influence and persuasion, and how folks can be shown how they themselves contribute to their predicament.

It is less easy to believe in Rooney Mara’s character, Annu, a Swedish physiotherapist who has a big hand in Callahan’s rehabilitation, but her romance with him is at least a welcome diversion after some gruelling early scenes of Callahan in disarray. Curiously, Van Sant was able to make scenes of flying along the pavement in a  wheelchair uplifting too, and that’s before we even get to the humour.

How did Callahan find his mojo and become a famous cartoonist in America and overseas? His path to fame and some version of happiness is revealed in this touching, free-wheeling character study, that feels authentic and has no truck with feel-good homily. It shows, once again, Van Sant’s flair for drawing his audience into a private world and convincing them, for the duration, that they are experiencing it too.

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra and 90.3 Tuggeranong

 

Ladies in Black

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated PG, I hr 49 mins

All cinemas

 

Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.

How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.

The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.

Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.

Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.

Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.

The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.

For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.

Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.

The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.

There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juliet, Naked

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Screening at Palace Electric

This romantic reboot for two who could have done better in life is based on a book by Nick Hornby, the English novelist with a happy knack for making us feel good about ourselves. It is brought to life on screen by Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne, actors who bring a sense of lived experience well suited to the backstory of foibles and wrong moves that make them and us human.

It’s probably fair to say that these days it takes a fair effort for filmmakers to forgo the cynicism and the lucrative crudity in so much of the product aimed at the young demographic.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked is, on the other hand, about honesty, hesitation and vulnerability, a light comedy with an M rating. It’s also about music.

The set-up by which the couple meet involves Annie (Byrne) writing a stinking review online of the new CD from Tucker Crowe (Hawke). She only does it because the singer-songriter is the music idol of her long-time partner Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and the focus of his tiresome pedantry.

When the review appears, Tucker drops an email to Annie to say that he agrees with her about the CD. He didn’t like it much either! This doesn’t, unfortunately, do anything to lower Duncan’s enthusiasm for Crowe, enthusiasm already so great that he has an entire room in the house that he and Annie share devoted to Crowe memorabilia.

Earnest and awkward, Duncan is another of those male characters from Hornby who are totally captured by their interests, be it football (Fever Pitch) or music (High Fidelity), while they struggle in their romantic relationships. Fixations like these are common to Hornby’s work, and here the team of four writers who adapted Juliet, Naked for the screen have let it run parallel with the romance.

Hawke is the embodiment of cool, totally at ease in his own skin. It’s fair to say that his talents haven’t received the recognition that he has deserved since his breakout role, while still in school, in the marvellous Dead Poet’s Society. Perhaps a rich personal life got in the way, perhaps he hasn’t made enough strategic choices. Perhaps he has never sought more than he has attained, anyway. This raffish actor has an effortless ability for convincing audiences that his characters are authentic, no more so than in the Before trilogy opposite Julie Delpy.

The same can be said of the talents of Rose Byrne, an actor from Sydney who lives in New York. Her private life might be less spectacular, but she has been consistently so good all her career and she is especially adept at comedy. She has not, to my knowledge, felt the need to change the colour of her hair!

Because they work well together, it is a treat to watch these two actors, as people who have given up on love but find it again. Because of their engaging chemistry on screen, a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable film has a touch of the certain something that the best romantic comedies have managed to lay claim to.

Duncan, meanwhile, barely notices what he’s lost. When his idol embarks on a new, more mellow direction in his music, it seems to cause Duncan more angst and disappointment than when the guy takes his girlfriend away.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Jirga director

Jirga, a new fiction feature from Benjamin Gilmour, is about a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to ask forgiveness of the family of a civilian he accidentally killed three years earlier. Writer-director Gilmour (Son of a Lion) filmed clandestinely on location.

A Q&A with director Benjamin Gilmour will be held at Dendy Cinema, Canberra Centre after Jirga screens at 7 pm on Friday 21 September.

Italian Film Festival 2018

The Italian Film Festival screens in Canberra at Palace Electric Cinema from 12 September until 7 October. Now in its nineteenth year, the IFF celebrates Italian culture, language and lifestyle with around 30 films.

Highlights include the life and times of Silvio Berlusconi in Loro, Cannes festival award winners Happy as Lazzaro and Lucia’s Grace, films that reference the elusive internationally best-selling author Elena Ferrante, as well as selected classics of Italian cinema.

For more information, visit the festival website

© 2018 Jane Freebury

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