The Truffle Hunters

Exquisitely made doco exploring the eccentricity, humour and doggedness in a breed of man as rare as hens’ teeth

M, 84 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the opening birds-eye shot above a damp, tangled forest in Piedmont, the camera is too high to show what is happening beneath. Until we home in on a man and his dogs hunting for truffles down below. It is an exquisite start to this documentary about the age-old tradition of hunting for the prized white Alba truffle, found only in this mountainous region of northern Italy.

The Alba truffle has defied science, bless it. It appears this rare fungus has not yet disclosed its secrets, and cannot be cultivated. Although it is surely only a matter of time before these are revealed, the scientists had better get their skates on. The Truffle Hunters suggests that the elderly men who know how to harvest them are a dying breed.

The focus of the doco, written and directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, is on four truffle hunters. One of whom is retired, a dissenter resisting efforts to get him back in the game.

Each of the men uses dogs. Dogs need to be trained but at least they don’t eat the truffles when they find them, as pigs apparently do.

Aurelio and Birba in The Truffle Hunters

One of the touching things revealed here is the symbiosis between the men and their dogs. Other ‘man’s best friend’ movies have nothing on this, in which a truffle hunter shares a bath with his dog, even giving him a back rub. Another shares his dinner table with his dog, even allowing it to lick the plate.

Yet another, Carlo, would prefer, it seems, to spend his evening hunting for truffles rather than share it with his wife. The 87 year old, a youthful, quiet soul, seems to prefer rambling through the oaks and hazelnuts to the dulcet sound of the night owls.

A fourth man, Angelo, has retired from the game altogether. A former acrobat with a juicy romantic past he likes to tease us with, has to fend off agents who want him to share his prized specialist knowledge before taking it to the grave. He became fed up with how consumer greed impacted his livelihood. His dogs were poisonned.

To alleviate the tensions and stresses that he endures, Sergio, a younger man, takes his anger and frustration out while playing drums. His second dog is poisoned during the course of the film, and he looks into buying his remaining dog a muzzle. Perhaps the only way to prevent it being poisoned by strychnine-impregnated

Specialist knowledge is something the men refuse to share, despite being harassed for it. Aurelio has never married and has no children, but at 84 won’t share the prized knowledge that he is likely to take with him. He wants to find someone to look after his dog, Birba, when he goes but it’s hard to imagine he will.

examines the role of the truffle hunter, fast disappearing, but not so much the consumers, like ‘the president’, on the other side of the equation

The contrast drawn between the old truffle hunters and the agents they supply is sharply drawn.

There is a scene where a key intermediary enjoys fried eggs topped with shaved truffle with a glass of red. As the still camera watches head on as he eats, the gastronomic experience could hardly look less appealing.

Another scene in which prospective buyers file past a big, regal truffle to sniff its aroma is a gently humorous take on the hallowed ritual of truffle culture.

The film has elected to examine the role of the truffle hunter, fast disappearing. But not so much the other side of the equation, the consumers, like ‘the president’ referred to in one early scene.

The people who drive the insane prices for these epicurean curios are largely unseen. At least acquiring truffles doesn’t involve killing an entire animal or sea creature to obtain it.

The four men’s lives and livelihoods are marked by the tolling of the village church bell. The writer-directors, who are also the cinematographers, have recorded most everything with a stationary camera in a series of beautifully framed shots where the movement occurs only in the frame.

There is a funny exception. Midway, there are a number of scenes filmed from the perspective of the dogs, scampering through the forest, sniffing the ground for the tell-tale pungent scent as they go.

This exquisitely made doco is as light as air and, like its subject, an eccentric, humorous rarity.

First published in the Canberra Times on 21 February 2021

*Featured image: Truffle hunters at large

Long Story Short

Good lead performances but they do not lift a screenplay with a tricky premise and strained humour

M, 95 minutes

2 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

What if you woke up one day with a whole year gone, just like that? We just did, I hear you say.

A young husband goes to sleep on his wedding night, waking up the next morning to discover a year has passed. His wife is 18-weeks pregnant, their home has had a makeover and he can’t remember a thing.

Engaging Rafe Spall, Timothy’s son, plays the part of newly wed Teddy who always seems a bit frantic and confused. He met his wife quite by accident on New Year’s Eve. Mistaking her for his dark-haired partner in the same red dress, and sharing a midnight kiss before they realise that they don’t know each other.

Turns out he and new lady Leanna (Zahra Newman) are much better suited. They marry without delay, which is unusual for chronic procrastinator Teddy, and set themselves up in a property with ocean views in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

It’s not far from spectacularly positioned Waverley Cemetery where Teddy’s father lies buried. On one of Teddy’s visits to his grave he has a strange encounter with an older woman (Noni Hazlehurst) wandering among the headstones.

Writer-director Josh Lawson takes a risk with her character. She has no name, is simply The Stranger who delivers Teddy a cryptic message. This is reinforced when her present appears amongst the wedding gifts, with a cautionary ‘Do not open for 10 Years’ message attached.

Is she a kind of wicked fairy godmother who shows up during festivities to lay a curse on happy newlyweds? Or is she a wandering lost soul, wanting to share her life’s learned wisdom?

The problem with Teddy, it becomes clear a short while into the marriage, is that he spends too much time away at the office. Leanna and little Tallulah (played as the years fly past, by a series of beguiling little girls) don’t see enough of him.

We get it. While it’s not a patch on one of the best time-travel movies ever, Groundhog Day, it’s the familiar story of fathers spending long, long hours at work, away from home. Teddy sees so little of his daughter he barely recognises her.

So, what does Teddy do? We know what he doesn’t do. His love of photography is on hold. Leanne, however, aspires to become a novelist and by the end of the decade she is established.

It must be some job that Teddy has, to be able to afford the property they share. How else could he and Leanne afford to live where they do?

unintended irony of living in a great location they can only afford through Teddy’s long hours at the office

This creates in the film an unintended irony. A couple living in the great location that the film is keen to display to best advantage, can only afford to pay for it if Teddy works hard. Consequently, he is rarely seen.

The city’s glorious Eastern Suburbs, including Bronte Beach, and possibly Rose Bay and South Head too, are showcased in the location shots that boost the city’s beachside lifestyle.

The opening shot of the Harbour Bridge lit up to party on NYE looked like a promotional tourism video. For this former Sydney-sider, the endowments of Sydney keep cropping up here in ways the narrative doesn’t always support.

What about all those young Sydney couples who pay massive mortgages for homes they can barely afford? No wonder Teddy has to spend his life at the office, coming home to find his baby daughter has grown into a little girl and the potted ficus plant stands 10 feet tall.

This is the second feature for Josh Lawson, after The Little Death.  The writer-director and actor makes a cameo appearance here as Patrick, Leanne’s new boyfriend. His schtick as a psychiatrist is doubly challenging for the ex-husband Teddy having a bit of a meltdown.

Long Story Short has a cute, high concept that meshes with many young couple’s reality. The lead actors, Spall and first-time feature actor Newman, who has a strong track record in television and theatre, are fine.

The best thing going for Long Story Short is how well they both inhabit their characters. It’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t have enough humour or spirit or surprise to keep us interested in them.

First published in the Canberra Times on 14 February 2021

Another Round

Is life better when we’re a little bit drunk?

M, 116 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Provocation is something some filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg take to with ease and skill. The Danish writer-director has made gentle adaptations of classic Thomas Hardy novels, but he also has a knack for treating contemporary social issues in his modern dramas. Asking questions that can be confronting and make us really think.

When his film Festen appeared in 1998, it was arresting to see a story about sexual predation in a family gathered to celebrate the patriarch’s birthday. The Hunt of 2012 had the title of a vigilante western, but was about a kindergarten worker wrongly accused of child sexual molestation.

director Vinterberg likes asking confronting questions, and making us really think

It is hardly surprising when a film about a tough subject arrives with the Vinterberg tag, because he was one of the co-founders of Dogme 95.

The Danish film movement was all about filmmaking eschewing special effects and returning to the basics, concentrating on narrative and performance. It hasn’t been so hugely influential, but it’s an excellent touchstone to contrast with effects-driven cinema. And some of its most talented practitioners do make great movies.

Vinterberg is in the same company as Dogme 95 co-founder Lars von Trier who has consistently made films that unsettle, disturb and question. Some of von Trier’s confronting – some would say shocking – body of work includes films like Dogville, Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac.

The more sensational work by von Trier work may have overshadowed Vinterberg’s nuanced and intellectually testing films, but Vinterberg is hardly less challenging.

In Another Round, Vinterberg takes a look at drinking culture in his country. Does everyone there drink ‘like maniacs’ as someone says? Druk, ‘binge drinking’, is the title of the film in Danish.

Another Round kicks off with deliriously joyful, drunken opening scenes of young people partying by a lake to Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What a Life’ on the soundtrack.

The partying teens are drinking as much as they possibly can, and more. On the train back into town they trick one of the ticket collectors who intervenes to turn the rowdiness down a notch, handcuffing him to a passenger rail.

The exhilarating mood comes to an abrupt halt as their teachers are introduced, in particular the four middle-aged male colleagues who are also friends outside school. Without any competition, the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair, The Hunt, and Casino Royal) comes to the fore as lead character, Martin. He teaches history.

Martin is at this point a rather indifferent teacher, one has to say. In the scenes with his wife and young sons, it is clear that he is not in a good way outside the classroom either. Stuck in mid-life doldrums, he asks his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), if he has become boring. Silly question.

Out with his teaching friends for a 40th birthday dinner, the lads, feeling flat about turning 40, hit on an idea. Why not test the hypothesis of (an actual) Norwegian philosopher and psychiatrist Finn Skarderud that human beings would benefit from always being a little bit drunk?

It’s Skarderud’s theory that the blood alcohol count we are born with is too low and that we should drink to maintain 0.05% to bring out the best in ourselves. A very seductive proposition to a group of chaps who fear their best years may be behind them.

Why not test it out? Why not take the benefits that Skarderud claims and become more relaxed, poised, musical, open and creative? Social and professional performance could only improve.

it hasn’t been just the creative geniuses in history who drank a bit

As Martin explores his more relaxed and creative self in the classroom, he shares interesting facts about significant historical figures and their alcohol use. It hasn’t been just the creative geniuses who drank a bit.

Another Round is structured as a dairy of events, with the men taking a swig on the job. Hard to believe it could go unnoticed for so long, but then there’s a point or two for the story to make as it develops.

Despite the serious topic, some gloomy interiors and the film’s dedication to Vinterberg’s elder daughter who was to have a key role as Martin’s concerned teenage daughter, Another Round ends on a high. It concludes with an exuberant dance performance, an expression of freedom, by Mikkelsen. The very talented actor started out as a gymnast and jazz ballet dancer. Surprise, surprise.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2021

The Nest

Plenty of atmosphere and an interesting set up, but hints at malevolence lose momentum and early promise leads nowhere

MA15+, 107 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s hard to see how many of the things that happen in this movie set a short while ago could happen today. The gift of a full-length mink coat, introductions that elide a wife’s first name, smoking in restaurants. It’s all so yesterday.

Not that this is any problem. It’s just all the more reason to visit the 1980s and ruminate on how that decade got us to the place we are in now.

The technological revolution was coming, but hadn’t arrived. No one is to be seen on a smart phone.

The giver of the fur coat is Rory O’Hara, an Englishman of obscure origins played by Jude Law.  He is a high-flying entrepreneur who started out on the trading floor of the stock exchange. His American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), who trains young equestrians and breeds horses, is as down-to-earth as her husband is big picture.

A snippet from the radio news places The Nest in Ronald Reagan’s America. Which of course means that the American President’s ideological soulmate of laissez-faire capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, is ensconced at Number 10 Downing Street.

It’s important backstory to the drama. The O’Haras and their two children are moving from East Coast US to a mock Tudor pile in the Surrey countryside. Allison has no say in the decision to relocate to another country, nor does she have a say in the kind of house they live in. The family have already moved a number of times in the last ten years.

But it’s not her job to worry, her mother tries to reassure her, it’s her husband who makes the decisions. Even as she has to wear the consequences, like dealing with unsettled, confused kids. Writer and director, Sean Durkin, who experienced a family move to England during his own childhood, is apparently speaking from experience.

No pre-teen like Ben (Charlie Shotwell), Allison and Rory’s son, is going to be impressed by wooden floors in the house that were laid down during the 1700s, not if his new home gives him the creeps. His older sister, Sam (Oona Roche), is also deeply unimpressed, but then any mid-teen forced to live in an isolated country manor is likely to be.

Rory is so busy at work trying to identify the next best business opportunity that he barely notices how his wife and children are struggling in their splendid new setting. Too big and draughty? All they need do is close the doors of the empty rooms.

Rory has big plans for restoring the manor house and building new stables, but gets drawn up short when he finds he cannot pay the bills. The tradesmen stop work, the landline connection is cut. Allison starts diving into her secret supply of cash, and goes to work at a nearby farm.

Rory likes taking Allison out to impress his colleagues. Some of the film’s best scenes take place when she refuses to play along. Lead actors Coon and Law are each very convincing.

Durkin’s first fiction feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, his haunting drama about not knowing who you are, was genuinely impressive. It was, like The Nest, a mystery thriller that relied heavily on excellent acting to generate real disquiet, rather than a razzmatazz of special effects.

the dimly lit country mansion never looks like anything less than a crime scene, whoever the perpetrator may be

That’s not to say The Nest doesn’t create powerful ambience. It is very atmospheric. The dimly lit country mansion never looks like anything less than a crime scene, whoever the perpetrator may be.

Several solo musical instruments, including a spare moody piano, set us on edge with the film’s original score. Minimalism demonstrating, yet again, that less is more.

But as tensions mount, the film is never quite sure whether it wants to be a mystery thriller in the gaslight mode, or a thoughtful marriage drama set at the time of Reaganomics. Returning expat Rory has plenty to say about the ‘small country’ mindset of the land of his birth, compared to the  bold risk-taking and dynamic entrepreneurship back in the US. Durkin’s screenplay is nothing if not thoughtful.

And yet, the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Allison’s prized horse and the scenes suggesting Allison is being observed or stalked by a malevolent force lose momentum. The Nest sets the scene but it doesn’t go anywhere.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 February 2021

High Ground

MA15+, 105 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

High Ground has been a long time in the making. Twenty years, the filmmakers say. People like David Gulpilil were once attached to the project. It world-premiered in Berlin just before Covid hit, then had to wait out the year as the cinema release stalled.

It is well worth the wait. A collaboration between Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land and top film creatives brought together under the direction of Stephen Maxwell Johnson, a filmmaker who hails from the Top End.

The immensity of the controversial task at hand – a drama set during the frontier wars in the 1930s – could have robbed it of essential dramatic tension, of narrative drive. A couple of the actors do overplay their hand but the film’s objectives in depicting both Indigenous and settler point-of-view is achieved, overall.

Furthermore, High Ground is rich with moments of sensuous beauty and power. Not since Rolf de Heer’s memorable Ten Canoes of 2006 have we been so completely immersed among the magpie geese, the paperbark eucalypts, the pandanus and the crocodiles of Arnhem Land.

There is irreverent humour too. The screenplay is the work of Chris Anastassiades. He was the screenwriter for Johnson’s first film, Yolngu Boy in 2001, and is also responsible for The Wog Boy and assorted other comedic adventures.

it takes a risk with a young unknown in a key role

Andrew Commis (Babyteeth, Beautiful Kate) wields the camera, BAFTA and Oscar-nominated editor Jill Bilcock has presided in the editing suite. Talent in front of camera includes the familiar faces of Aaron Pedersen and Simon Baker. Jack Thompson is there too.

Jacob Junior Nayingull in High Ground

At the same time, High Ground takes a risk with a young unknown in a lead role.

Jacob Junior Nayingull who plays opposite star of the international screen, Simon Baker, is surely set to become the new Gulpilil. This is the first appearance in a feature film for the young man who works as a ranger in East Arnhem Land. Graceful in his movements, a natural on horseback, nuanced in his facial expressions and with a beautiful, strong face, Nayingull is a tremendous find.

The film’s opening sequences at a secluded waterhole set the tragic events in train. It becomes apparent a group of Aborigines is being scoped by a distant sniper, and the mood flips to menace. The subsequent police raid is bungled, leaving many dead and one child orphaned. Travis (Simon Baker), from the raiding party, hands the boy over to Christian missionaries.

The narrative then jumps 12 years to 1931. It has relocated to the East Alligator River area, where Gutjuk (Nayingull now in the role) has been brought up by Father Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister, Claire (Caren Pistorius).

Travis comes back into the young man’s life when the authorities instruct the former policeman-turned-bounty hunter to track down a renegade mob of Aborigines. They are led by Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) an uncle of Gutjuk’s who also survived the family massacre. Gutjuk will be used as ‘bait’ to bring Baywara in.

The scene that speaks to the title of the film takes place on the summit of a rocky outcrop with a 360 degree view of the floodplains, savanna and sandstone tors of Kakadu. While we swoon at the glorious views from Commis’ camera, we hear Gutjuk getting instructions on how to shoot from the former World War I sniper, Travis.

To occupy the high ground means you control everything, it’s what you want to aim for, he says, ever invoking the language of war. The expression, of course, need not be applied in this sense, and invites other interpretations.

intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged

Whose justice will Baywara face if he is captured? Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika, co-founder of the breakout Indigenous rock band, Yothu Yindi) lends his dignity and presence to the scenes that involve a fierce debate about the law. Should First Nation or Balanda (white man) law apply to Baywara?

Simon Baker in High Ground

Johnson is likely better known for his direction of Yothu Yindi music clips than he ever was for his first fiction feature, Yolngu Boy. Yes, the famous track Treaty was directed by him.

High Ground will surely change all that for the director. His new film, more outback western than thriller, is more arthouse than genre, despite his intentions. It is intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged and a stunning reminder of the magnificence of the natural world.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 January 2021

*Featured image: Jacob Junior Nayingull and Simon Baker in High Ground

The White Tiger

Bristling, fast-paced, witty satire of contemporary India delivers the pleasures of cinema at its best

 

MA 15+, 131 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It all began for Balram during an evening out with the boss and his wife, celebrating her birthday. The couple were intoxicated but birthday girl was nevertheless behind the wheel. The streets of Delhi were virtually empty, after all, so driver Balram was relegated to the back seat, a maharajah for the night.

A flash of consternation crosses his face as they fly past a bronze Gandhi and his followers, and then another as the 4WD swerves to miss a cow. Balram Halwai’s turban is slipping by now. Then a figure steps onto the road out of nowhere, with a sickening thump.

Balram, the eponymous ‘white tiger’, soon discovers that in modern India there are many ways to serve his masters, the unfortunate Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). By telling them what they want to hear, but also by taking the rap.

What, after all, is a servant without a master? For Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger, the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2008, and co-writer of this adaptation to screen, it is the servant-master relationship that still underpins Indian society, holding it back.

In Balram, a son of the rural poor, The White Tiger has a most unlikely protagonist. He is by turns sly and sincere, someone who plays it both ways to survive. In his skilful performance, Adarsh Gourav makes Balram an engaging screen presence and a significantly more empathetic character than the book ever quite manages.

A sweetmaker destined to stay in the family village, Balram realised one day that his prospects within the Indian system were no better than that of a rooster in the coop. Why wait placidly to have one’s head removed and one’s body cut up into useful culinary portions? That’s no way to live.

So, he inveigles his way into a job as driver for a rich family. It’s his first step en route to joining the burgeoning ranks of Indian entrepreneurs.

Adarsh Gourav and Priyanka Chopra in The White Tiger (2021). Courtesy Netflix

Balram asks that we do not prejudge him for his crime, the nature of which is not made entirely clear, until we have heard his ‘glorious’ tale in its entirety.

Adhering to the structure of the book, his story is presented as a letter to the Chinese Premier of the time. With an invitation to compare the outcomes of development in democratic India with those of its neighbour, communist China.

Now that America has become so ‘yesterday’, with the rest of the West in decline, the dawning 21st century would surely prove to be the time for China and India to come into their own.

But look at the infrastructure shambles and widespread poverty in India, compared to the relative elimination of these problems in its autocratic neighbour?

The White Tiger shows how the Indian system works, when it really shouldn’t. Who needs democracy when there is no transport system, no drinking water, no electricity, no sewerage system ­ and ‘no manners’?

One of the film’s many enduring images captures Balram and another driver squatting opposite each other in broad daylight. The camera pulls back to reveal they are defecating behind tall grass in a vacant lot, barely hidden from their wealthy clients who enjoy the luxury of life in the gleaming tower blocks in the background.

Back in 2009, Adiga nominated Ramin Bahrani as his director of choice were his novel to be adapted for the screen. This has come to pass. The screenplay is a collaboration between Adiga and his Iranian-born friend. The writer-director has built a highly-regarded, socially and politically conscious filmography including features like 99 Homes and Fahrenheit 451.

Furthermore, in Bahrani’s hands the characters lose the cartoonish tendencies of the novel and acquire the heft and dimension they lacked on the page. The cinematography by Paolo Carnera and the editing by the director and Tim Streeto also greatly enhance the narrative.

Satire can be tricky, but The White Tiger maintains its wicked and darkly humourous tone throughout. From the brisk opening scenes, Bahrani has ensured that his film makes its political point while also delivering on the pleasures of cinema.

The White Tiger, a tough and savage tale about advancement by hook or by crook in modern India, has been turned into a terrific film. Angry, nuanced, entertaining.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 January 2021

 Dreamland

MA15+, 101 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Two attractive young people on the run from the law is a movie journey many of us have long loved to sign up to. All aboard with Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise and countless others, from the heroes on the other side of the law in True Romance to A Bout de Souffle to Read My Lips.

Earlier this year Queen & Slim brought the ‘lovers on the run’ formula into the present with its two black American leads in a blend of romance, road movie and crime thriller.

an engaging, if familiar, exercise when people work masks and the land ‘turned on them’

Dreamland is set in the mid-1930s, the era when two memorable movie outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were of course on the loose too. Who can forget the chutzpah that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty brought to their characters in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde? Or the slow motion blood-spattered finale when the pair were gunned down by police?

We don’t believe we’ve heard of the main characters in Dreamland before, Allison Wells and Eugene Evans. They are played by Australian actor Margot Robbie, one of the producers, and British actor Finn Cole (from TV’s Peaky Blinders).

The camera always loves Robbie, who is of course the star, but Cole is touching as the impressionable young man who falls for her. Despite the price on her head after being involved in a bank robbery that left five people dead.

Eugene joins the bounty hunters and searches high and low. If he found Allison Wells and won the $10,000 bounty, he would leave Texas behind. There isn’t much for him there and he isn’t happy at home on the farm with his mother, young half-sister and stepfather.

The nineteen-year-old has no job and likes to lose himself in illustrated detective story magazines. It is his dream to travel to Mexico, the place where his father was last heard of.

Rural Texas in the 1930s Great Depression was a pitiless place. Over-grazing and severe drought had degraded the great South Plains region, the agricultural heartland, and brought it to its knees. Not only was there chronic unemployment and desperate poverty, but dust storms of biblical proportions that swept across the broken land.

Allison turns up, not unpredictably, in the barn on the family farm. She has a bullet in her slim thigh, that she took at the bank during the recent encounter with the police. It is a handy spot to draw attention to, and when she asks Eugene to help her take it out and treat the wound, the wide-eyed young man can hardly say no.

The seductive fugitive has the attributes and the wiles of a femme fatale, when she puts her mind to it, and she needs help to get out of her predicament. As the occasional narrator observes, Allison would tell her story with her audience in mind, and make adjustments accordingly.

Even though Allison had turned up in the maw of the law, that is the barn of Eugene’s step-dad, Deputy Sheriff George Evans, she can talk her way out of it too.

The film’s villain, the pugnacious deputy sheriff, is played by Travis Fimmel, another Australian. He sports a brutal pudding bowl haircut and reads the riot act to Eugene while skinning a rabbit.

Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in Dreamland

This Depression-era story was written by  Nicolaas Zwart and directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, who has been an award-winning director at Sundance.

It’s an engaging but too familiar exercise. Despite the strong performances and the insights into another time and place when people wore masks and the land ‘turned on them’.

There is a lot to like about the cinematography by Lyle Vincent, from the interesting  drone angles, camera angles and subjective images framed like the old box camera. The location shots of mountainous dust storms billowing above the dustbowl, look just like photographs of the 1930s dust storm events themselves. They are not the product of the filmmakers’ imagination.

The story is bookended and intermittently narrated by folksy voiceover from Eugene’s younger sister Phoebe, when she is all grown-up. She is seen here played by Darby Camp, another good performance, as his pesky kid sister.

Dreamland adds little if anything to a familiar genre story. A screenplay with more zest to it, or a twist in the tale would have made a difference.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 December 2020

Featured image: Margot Robbie in Dreamland

The Dry

MA 15+, 117 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The details of Jane Harper’s bestselling novel are known to many readers the world over, yet the film adaptation with Eric Bana is no less likely to be a success. Even though we know in advance what happens.

Purists may resist the imposing presence of Bana as Aaron Falk. He is a different physical type from his character on the page. In Harper’s words, her protagonist is pale, blond and freckled, burdened with a complexion that presents a distinct disadvantage under the harsh outback sun.

Bana, on the other hand, is a good fit for man of the land. He hasn’t been cast as a Hollywood superhero for nothing, and he fits equally well as a federal police officer here, the financial crimes analyst from the city.

Aaron goes back to Kiewarra, the town where he grew up, to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke.

On return, Aaron is made to feel he no longer belongs. As an outsider from the metropolis, as a representative of overarching authority but also as a person with a smear against his name.

There is the suspicion that he didn’t say all he knew when a local girl, Ellie Deacon (BeBe Bettencourt), was found drowned 20 years before.

In The Dry, the people of Kiewarra have had a brush with the apocalypse, and they are toughened. From relentless drought, the existential glow of bushfires on the horizon and the plume of dust that rises behind everything that moves. It has not rained in 324 days, and there are no prospects it will any time soon.

In his (fictional) hometown in regional Victoria, Aaron is a five-hour drive from Melbourne but light years away from the world he knows. Suddenly pitched back into the bush, he comes alive to it for the first time in 20 years, and it is sensory overload.

Memories triggered by a return to place, can be so powerful. Nothing else has been laid down there since they were formed, and they are as fresh as yesterday.

Aaron discovers he remains implicated in what happened to Ellie, so he has an investment in the truth, even if ‘isn’t something you can expect to find in this town’, as someone says. But Aaron is not a member of the town ecosystem and he has clarity of recall.

After attending the funeral of former friend Luke Hadley, shot dead along with his wife and young son, Aaron decides to stay on, despite the glacial welcome he has received. He will take more leave and remain in town because the more he hears about the shootings, the less convinced he is that Luke was to blame.

A visit to Luke’s grieving parents is met with suspicion by grieving father, Gerry (Bruce Spence). The teenage girl found drowned at a popular swimming spot was a friend of his and Luke’s, so what more does he know?

At the hotel where Aaron is grudgingly given a room, the hotelier in wild bushman’s beard and several hostile others, had me wondering whether The Dry was going to veer into ‘outback gothic’. The atmosphere has more than a touch of Wake in Fright, the brawling, brutal classic Australian outback thriller of 1971.

No night-time kangaroo hunts or drunken games of two up, just a mood of menace

The town schoolteacher here, John Polson’s conflicted Scott Whitlam, is an after-hours pokies addict. It’s a difficult role to play.

The Dry screenplay, a collaboration between Connolly and Harry Cripps, stays true to the book, however. There are no night-time kangaroo hunts or drunken games of two up, just a pervasive mood of menace.

Not everyone spurns Aaron. Gretchen (a lively Genevieve O’Reilly) doesn’t. She signals her interest, and there is a short-lived flirtation. O’Reilly’s performance is very engaging, but also well-judged where I found some minor characters overdrawn.

About what it means to return to place, where you grew up

The director, Robert Connolly (Balibo, Paper Planes) has observed that his film is a story about what it means to returns to the place where you grew up. As such The Dry is a story about ‘staying or leaving’, something many can respond to.

Connolly has kept the lid on things, ensuring his story remains character-driven when it could have become melodramatic, even over-wrought. Ensuring the narrative works as a crime thriller and not an outback gothic drama. The Dry is a compelling film that has really enhanced its source.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 January 2021

How to Be a Good Wife

M, 108 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

How to Be a Good Wife opens at the crack of dawn, as everyone gets ready for a busy day. The new school year is about to begin with a fresh intake of girls who will learn the ‘pillars of wisdom’ for successful household management and a happy marriage.

In 1967, the universities in France may have been festering with revolution but there were other options for parents who wanted to prepare their daughters for life. There were more than 1,000 institutes across the country like the Van Der Beck Institute that offered courses for educating teenage girls on how to become the perfect homemaker and wife.

a surprising footnote to the 1960s turned into marvellous farce

Writer-director Martin Provost has turned this surprising footnote to the end of the 1960s in France into a marvellous farce, just what the 2020 silly season needs. A comedy set in a school of good housekeeping and good manners in a walled town known best for its vineyards and strudel. Far from the ructions in Paris in the lead-up to May 1968, but not quite far enough.

As the cock crows, head instructor Paulette Van Der Beck (Juliette Binoche) is already dressed, looking snappy in a pastel pink fitted number, high heels and string of pearls. One last spray of lacquer to her rigid hair and she’ll be ready.

it has been easy to forget Binoche is a really good comedienne

From the outset, Juliette Binoche is wonderful in this central role. With so many serious and occasionally devastating roles she has played over the years, it has been easy to forget that she is a really good comedienne. Matched with Provost’s snappy lines and direction, her work here is a triumph.

An extended opening montage that introduces the institute and its assorted characters is one of the film’s delights. Paulette’s introduction to the new students is set off against an amusing series of vignettes that show how things work in practice.

Paulette’s ‘pillars’ of wifely wisdom are reminiscent of 1950s manuals for good housekeeping, full of advice on how to keep hubby happy, that do the rounds online. They contain advice about making hubby comfortable after a long day at work, plumping up pillows, offering to remove shoes, while speaking in a soothing voice. One I’m thinking of ends with the maxim ‘a good wife always knows her place’.

There are other signs that there is fun ahead. Sister Marie-Therese (Noemie Lvovsky, of Camille Rewinds) is sprung with her ciggie. A former member of the French Resistance, she now seems to have a debilitating superstition of redheads. A new redhead has enrolled, and they have never had one before.

Yolande Moreau and Noemie Lvovsky in How to Be a Good Wife. Courtesy Unifrance

The third whacky female is Gilberte Van Der Beck, the headmaster’s unmarried sister, played by Yolande Moreau. Her performance was commanding in Provost’s most highly awarded film, Seraphine.

After a few comic scenes of Paulette’s husband, school principal, Robert Van Der Beck (Francois Berleand) ogling then new student body, he is swept from the frame by a cardiac arrest.

Then Gilberte and Paulette discover that Robert has left the school’s finances in ruins. They seek advice from banker Andre (Edouard Baer), who turns out to be Paulette’s long lost old flame.

Their renewed attraction takes HTBAGW n a whole new direction. The pacing changes awkwardly as scenes of romantic drama ensue. However, a light farcical tone is restored as Andre proposes while hanging from a downpipe and reciting a recipe to prove his credentials.

Paulette, Gilberte and Marie-Therese have their work cut out with the class of ’67, who are in many ways a more feisty, worldly bunch than their cloistered teachers. They don’t need liberating like their seniors do and it’s their generation that will carry feminism forward, after all.

The bumbling adults are the main event, with the girls relegated to subplots. However, a young Brigitte Bardot lookalike (Marie Zabukovec), and two in a tentative romance (Anamaria Vartolomei and ‘the redhead’ Pauline Briand), bring a heap of verve and brio along that the film benefits from enormously. Zai Zai Zai Zai!

Schools of etiquette and deportment haven’t disappeared, of course, and today no doubt teach with gender equality in mind.

Farce doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the French do it brilliantly when they do it well. Despite a few diversions into other territory, this film is very entertaining, and turns its title on its head.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2020

Featured image: Noemie Lvovsky and Juliette Binoche in How to Be a Good Wife. Courtesy Unifrance

A Call to Spy

M, 124 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This handsomely produced American film is set in Europe during World War II, when things were going badly for the Allies. It was looking likely Hitler’s forces would cross the Channel at any minute.

A Call to Spy was filmed in Philadelphia and Budapest. Locations that pose as France and London, in subterfuge entirely appropriate to a tale about espionage.

Based loosely on the remarkable facts, it is about women who became British spies early in 1940-41, when Britain’s prospects of survival had hit rock bottom.

The British did not send women into the field, until then. When some gutsy and dedicated women responded to Churchill’s call for women to join a ‘secret army’ working undercover in Nazi-occupied Europe. This was the same organisation that Nancy Wake, the ‘white mouse’, belonged to.

A Call to Spy isn’t a million miles from the film Charlotte Gray, released in 2001 with Cate Blanchett’s character a blend of famous female spies.

A Call to Spy is directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, whose filmography mostly includes production credits. Her direction is fine, and the high production values have contributed to convincing sets and costume that evoke the wartime period well enough. However, there are other weaknesses to this, a story whose telling is long overdue.

The main character here is Virginia Hall, a woman who lived for danger. She was American, a brave woman who tried to enter the US foreign service but was rejected because of her disability, a wooden leg that was the result of a hunting accident.

Here she is played by actor Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay.

Hall eventually opted for espionage, joining up to Churchill’s Special Operations Executive that worked in the field with the French Resistance. The SOE was sometimes dubbed the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ due to its clandestine existence.

After service in the field, Hall slipped into the obscurity she seemed to choose, but still received medals for outstanding service including the French Croix de Guerre. A glance at her Smithsonian entry online confirms an extraordinary wartime record. Her prosthesis, a wooden leg known as ‘Cuthbert’, has even been honoured.

Postwar, she tried again to become a diplomat.  Eventually she joined a newly formed agency known as the CIA, becoming one of its key operatives.

In addition to Hall, the central character, there is another woman of great potential interest, Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), apparently the daughter of the man who introduced Sufism to the West. A pacifist Sufi Muslim who joined the SOE, she was an able radio operator, the first to be sent into occupied France.

Why, with such a scintillating backstory, is it low on dramatic tension?

Noor ended up on her own in France, as did Virginia. She showed exceptional courage during Gestapo torture and was eventually shot in Dachau.

She became the first Muslim female to be decorated as a British war hero, receiving the highest civilian medal, the George Cross, posthumously.

The facts are all extraordinary.

So why, with such a scintillating backstory, is the film rather bland and low on dramatic tension? The writing is pedestrian and there is little that shows how remarkable these women and Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the woman who recruited them, really were.

Unfortunately, there are also too many moments when the performances of key characters don’t ring true. Apte as Noor and Thomas as Virginia and many others are fine but there are scenes between Katic’s Atkins and Linus Roache’s Maurice Buckmaster (Law and Order), her boss, that let the ensemble down. Very clunky performances.

The screenplay needed more research built into it, to make clear the significance of these women and their unique stories. There is instead a screed of stunning facts left for the very end, before the final credits.

The historical background is riveting. Wish I could say the same of the film.

This true tale of espionage, little known, has managed to beat the latest James Bond fantasy to the cinema screen. Another better film may come along that does justice to this remarkable story.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2020

The Furnace

MA 15+, 116 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

 

Among the memorable moments in the classic film, Gallipoli , there’s a standout that is set in the desert, the Australian heartland. Two young men on their way to enlist in Perth are having a chat with a cameleer they have just run into.

It’s worth revisiting this conversation for its observations on our place in the world, and for the ambivalence it expresses about our Red Centre. It can of course be found on YouTube.

The cameleer doesn’t know that World War I is underway and hasn’t the foggiest idea why countries are fighting. When the pair tell him they are going to join up and travel to Turkey so the enemy won’t end up here, he pauses for a think. Squinting as he surveys the desert plain, the camel driver observes ‘And they’re welcome to it’!

The Furnace, a remarkable first feature from writer-director Roderick MacKay, is set in 1897, a short two decades earlier. A time when whole teams of cameleers plied the vast deserts of Western Australia, carrying supplies to remote mining settlements when the state was in the grip of gold fever.

From incidental character to the centre of the frame, the cameleer emerges as protagonist in The Furnace. The young Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek in the role of Hanif, a camel driver from Afghanistan, brings impressive nuance and depth to this home-grown, gold rush Western.

David Wenham and Ahmad Malek in The Furnace

At the tender age of 15, Hanif had been sent abroad by his family to work. He is clearly still a boy, just as the others say, and has yet to learn to learn how to negotiate the adult world. His expressive features betray his confusion and dismay too well.

His close friend, Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr, from The Nightingale), is a Badimaya man of similar age who helps him find food. Hanif fumbles while handling his rifle. It’s the first thing we find out about him.

Hanif had been safe under the wing of Jundah (Kaushik Das), his avuncular Sikh foreman, until the day a white settler shot him dead. The settler objected to Hanif using water from a well to wash his feet for the Muslim prayer ritual, and Jundah was shot in the process of trying to divert attention away from the boy.

Suddenly alone, Hanif comes across a man badly wounded in a skirmish that left a number of Chinese dead in mysterious circumstances. Hanif’s world truly starts to unravel when he takes up with Mal (David Wenham), purportedly a prospector but, as he carries no tools, most likely a common thief. Wenham’s character doesn’t, unfortunately, extend much beyond caricature.

It transpires that the ‘crazy white man’ is a marked man. Mal has stolen gold in his possession. Two bars’ worth that inconveniently carry a Crown stamp, a dead giveaway.

Incapacitated by his gunshot wound, Mal needs help for the next stage of his plan and inveigles Hanif to be his partner to achieve it. The boy will help Mal reach his destination, a clandestine furnace, in return for one of the bars.

So Hanif becomes an unfortunate partner in crime, indentured to a criminal on a journey through the outback to an undisclosed location. All for the price of the trip home to Afghanistan.

The Furnace is set in Kalbarri, WA, and on location in the Mount Magnet area of the state’s Mid West, home to one of the state’s longest continuously operating goldmines. Mount Magnet began operating in the 1890s.

Another aspect of the film’s authenticity, is the use of languages. Pashto, Punjabi, English, Indigenous Badimaya (an endangered language) and Cantonese would have been heard in WA at the time.

In the 19th century, before rail and road infrastructure in the outback, the camel trains provided a lifeline for remote communities. The cameleers, collectively still known as the ‘Ghans’, came from many countries – Pakistan, Persia, Turkey, India, and Afghanistan – providing indispensable transport and supplies.

Despite the scale of the film’s narrative, with twists and turns and an abundance of characters moving around the landscape, the dramatic tensions hold tight.

The Furnace is impressive, an engrossing and compelling tale. An ambitious undertaking, yes, with many players and conflicting angles. It could have come asunder but a compelling central character, who is engaging, unaffiliated and ready to learn, was a discerning place to start.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 December 2020

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

M, 107 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The song in the title of this doco about one of the biggest pop music groups ever, may not be the one that comes to mind first when thinking about the Bee Gees, but it is certainly apt. For all the amazing successes they had, the Gibb brothers had more than their fair share of heartache.

Another way of looking at it was that How Can You Mend a Broken Heart was a comeback single. It was one of the first tracks from the Bee Gees, brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin, when they got back together again in 1971 after their break up two years earlier. And it was the first to reach No 1 for them in the US.

The Bee Gees were particularly good songwriters. A very talented, versatile and enduring success in pop music but it seems despite all the awards and the accolades they still get a hard time of it in the court of received opinion.

The anti-disco movement that began in the late 1970s was tough on the Bee Gees, and other, mainly Black American performers. Perhaps this doco will help bring a re-assessment of the Bee Gees and the many fabulous songs they wrote, for themselves and many other performers.

An interview with the last remaining Bee Gee at home in Miami bookends the story. Even Barry Gibb, the tall, good-looking one with even teeth and a mane of brown hair, has come to look his age. He is of course the only one of the four brothers still with us.

But what a journey it was. Right at the start, footage from a concert in Oakland, California in 1979 is a reminder of how big they were. ‘Classic sixties pop’, someone observes. They may have started surfing the same wave as the Beatles et al, but they outlasted the fab four, with hits in every decade since to the 1960s when they began.

In Oakland they were riding high on the massive success of their soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever which earned them, for better and worse, the enduring moniker Kings of Disco. Prep for a ‘disco demolition’ night that would go some way towards trashing the Bee Gees’ reputation was well underway in Chicago, spearheaded by a local radio DJ.

Barry, Robin and Maurice had certainly come a long way since calling Australia home. After the Gibb family migrated here from Britain in 1958, they were only here a short while.

Were they part of a Pommie diaspora of pop celebs who stayed and made their name here? No, in less than a decade, the Gibbs were back in the UK, though not before they had had laid down a local hit single, Spicks and Specks.

Doco director Frank Marshall, who does a decent job, is known mostly as a producer has directed a few high-impact titles like Arachnophobia and Congo but he did have a great team of key creatives assisting. Documentary writer Mark Monroe (Chasing Ice, and The Cove among the many titles in his filmography) and editors Derek Boonstra, in particular.

The film is the usual meld of archival images and interview material, a little rigidly matching image to narration until the clips lengthen, the rhythm relaxes and the film hits its stride.

We hear assessments of the Bee Gees’ contribution to music from the likes of Eric Clapton, Justin Timberlake and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.

the revelations are mostly about the bond between the men themselves

We also hear a bit from the brothers’ partners. But the doco’s personal revelations are mostly about the bond between the men themselves, including the bond with much younger Andy who developed his own career. Brotherhood brought the usual fraternal rivalries but it also brought the gift of compatible voices and a natural synchronicity.

It is said by interviewees on more than one occasion that had the Bee Gees not been brothers they would never have stuck together.

The pop idols’ struggle with fame, the substance abuse, the internecine squabbles, and the strain of wanting independent recognition, all have a familiar ring. As does the usual excess, like one of them, Maurice perhaps, owning six Rolls Royces before the age of 21.

The Bee Gees’ flamboyance is superficial and easy to shoot down. The catalogue of great songs is another matter entirely.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 December 2020

Featured image: Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb in their heyday

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

M, 151 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The subject of this fine documentary was one of society’s eccentrics. A medical doctor and a writer of books with whimsical titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. He was the kind of person whose life story is, I’d say, best told in the documentary film genre.

His lust for life, restless curiosity and pioneering spirit built many dimensions into the man. Dr Oliver Wolf Sacks was bundle of contradictions. Too many, it seemed, for a single individual. Who would believe this life story in any other form but documentary?

If truth is indeed stranger than fiction idea, it has made this film from distinguished New York- based documentarian Ric Burns so much more successful than the fiction feature Awakenings of 1990. That film was loosely based on Sacks’ first book and starred the late Robin Williams as the mercurial medical doctor and writer of renown and Robert De Niro.

Shortly after Sacks announced in 2015 that he had terminal cancer and six months to live, he agreed to become the subject of this new doco. A portrait while dying was another bold move from an unorthodox individual.

a doco in which a gay man gets the straight treatment

Sacks grew up in London during WWII, the youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family who eventually became a doctor like his parents. After receiving his medical degree from Queens College, Oxford, he left home and Britain for good, and sought freedom in America after his parents cruelly rejected him when he revealed he was gay.

Arriving in California as a 27 year old, he interned at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Outside of work hours, he threw himself into what 1960s California had to offer. He became a biker who loved to drive his BMW into the desert at night, he got into amphetamines in a big way and naturally he fell in with the gay scene.

Then it suddenly all stopped. Sacks became celibate, and remained that way until he met Bill Hayes, a writer, who was his partner during the last six years of his life.

Crucially, Sacks had moved to New York in the mid-1960s and started work at the Beth Abraham Hospital for chronic disease. Some of his patients there had been in a catatonic state since they contracted lethargic encephalitis in an epidemic during the 1920s-30s. It was a turning point in his medical career.

In his best-selling novels and essays, Dr Sacks devoted himself to documenting the strange ways and byways of the human mind. His work was based on his clinical experiences treating patients with chronic conditions like Tourette’s, dementia and Asperger’s.

He became a pioneer in helping patients long deemed brain dead to respond to music by singing or dancing, thereby shedding their frozen states and demonstrating that their minds were still responsive.

It is hard to square the interview scenes in this doco of the frail and elderly Sacks chatting with close associates with the famous images of him as a leather clad biker. Or even the muscled man emerging more recently from the river in the Bronx after a long distance swim. He was a lifelong distance swimmer who took to the water every day.

That familiar shot astride his BMW motorbike, looking quite the stud, was published on the cover of his book On the Move: A Life. The doctor also wrote of his own issues.

There seem to be many reasons why this British-educated, US-based neurologist became famous. There’s his clinical, ground-breaking work with his patients with chronic conditions, then there is the man himself. All good reasons for seeing this documentary on one of life’s true eccentrics who believed that it was the fate of every human being to be singular and unique.

The man was many things, all bundled together in the one burly body. Doctor and patient, all in one. And yet, despite his many sides, he says he feels he is ‘a single person’.

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and prolific author, is a gay man who gets the straight treatment here in this doco directed by Ric Burns. Hopefully Sacks’ life story won’t be made into a fiction feature, though it seems inevitable it one day will. Hard to imagine it could be more revelatory than this excellent documentary about one of life’s true individuals.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 December 2020

Misbehaviour

M, 106 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

When organisers were getting ready for the Miss World contest in 1970, there were plans afoot to gatecrash the televised event and spoil their party. A group of radical young feminists in another part of London were hatching a plot to disrupt it as the winner was announced with the world media watching.

Misbehaviour, based on true events, is about the main players in the story. The group of radical young women and some of the key contestants, and others too. American comedian Bob Hope who officiated and the British entrepreneur behind it, Eric Morley.

It is delicious to watch the two opposing forces, the organisers and the disrupters, on a collision course during the set-up in the early scenes.

I thought the very versatile Rhys Ifans might have done more with his role as Morley, but thought again. As a recent owner of the sister contest in the US, Miss Universe, Donald Trump has probably already done enough to besmirch the name of men in the beauty business.

Girls misbehaving stop the world

The male characters are fascinating, especially the pageant host Bob Hope. Greg Kinnear is outstanding as the very dubious king of comedy, an embodiment of 1970s male chauvinism. A flagrant womaniser who thrived on the opportunities afforded him, but the Misbehaviour story belongs to the women.

To the protesters who got themselves arrested and to the contestants. In particular the bolshie favourite Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager), the winner Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the blow-in, Miss (Black) South Africa (Loreece Harrison).

As Sally Alexander, a single mother and mature age student at University College London, Keira Knightley has the lead role.

A few early scenes explain her personal journey and convey the tenor of the times. The way the interview for a university place is conducted by a panel of male academics, and her experience in tutorials once she gets in.  Sexist foibles were not confined to men in show biz.

Serendipity connects Sally with a collective of radical young women who deface and subvert advertising posters. They turn them into feminist messages of protest, when they’re not producing their own campaign posters demanding equal rights for women. One of the women is Jo Robinson, played by the terrific Irish actor, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things).

It’s Knightley’s character, a single mother with a male partner, who supplies the narrative focus and the glue between the world of academia and radical collective that believes that television is an arm of state oppression.

Women’s liberation was, of course, one of many activist movements afoot in 1970. The movement against the Vietnam War was huge, and the anti-apartheid movement was big too.

The year, 1970, was pivotal for people of colour in the beauty pageant too. Not only did the Miss World organisers have angry feminists to deal with, they had activist Peter Hain (played here by Luke Thompson) to answer to as well.

There is a small scene in which the white South African anti-apartheid protestor who had spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement collars Morley. He wants to know why there is no black South African contestant at Miss World, to reflect the reality that 80 percent of the country’s population was black. Morley quickly sends South Africa a request for a black contestant to stand alongside the white woman already in attendance.

makes its points with sharp writing, spirited performances and a light touch

The year that the Miss World contest was besieged by feminist protests was the year that the first black woman won the contest. It makes for an interesting exchange in the ladies powder room between Knightley’s Sally Alexander and Mbatha-Raw’s Miss Grenada, a dignified Jennifer Hosten.

At the film’s conclusion, the filmmakers include present-day cameos of Hosten and other key characters. It’s good to see that the experiences in 1970 did no one any professional or personal harm.

Many of the key creatives on Misbehaviour were women, from the producers to the co-writers, Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe. Director Philippa Lowthorpe has a background in directing documentaries and in television film (The Other Boleyn Girl) and episodes of popular series (The Crown and Call the Midwife).

It’s an all-girl show, in front of the camera and behind it. And it’s a really good story that makes its points with sharp writing, spirited performances and a light touch.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 November 2020

In the Name of the Land

3 Stars

M, 103 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

French farmers sure know how to stage a media event. In recent times, they have let sheep loose at the Louvre, dumped tonnes of pumpkins and manure at the doors of government buildings. A recent demo saw a battalion of tractors from around the country descend on Paris to protest about falling prices and the EU common agricultural policy.

The French agricultural community seems to be able to make its voice heard, however In the Name of the Land is the story of an individual farmer who kept his worries to himself.

a proud and self-reliant individual who felt driven to battle on alone

It’s the heartfelt story of Pierre Jarjeau (played by the popular Guillaume Canet) a devoted husband and father of two, who loved the land but the farming life got the better of him. Canet, not instantly recognisable in a wig with a bald patch, has rarely been better in the role of a proud and self-reliant individual who felt driven to battle on alone.

In the Name of the Land is written and directed by Edouard Bergeon, the son and grandson of farmers. He quit the land to become a photojournalist, though he has in a sense returned with a feature film that is based on the story of his own father and his travails with the family farm.

In the late 1970s, Pierre had recently returned from several years in the US. Spending his time among cattle ranchers who ran herds of 10,000 head in the wide open, sparsely populated spaces of Wyoming.

Pierre reclaims his sweetheart, Claire (Veerle Baetens), and takes over the family farm, Grands Bois, undertaking to buy it from his father, Jacques (Rufus), a steely-eyed, implacable old autocrat, as hard as his son was gentle and loving. When Pierre was signing on the dotted line committing to the purchase, why was I having a sense of déjà vu?

French rural dramas sometimes speak of quiet desperation and read like Greek tragedy

Ah yes. It took me back to a film in 2011, another devastating portrait of rural life, You Will Be My Son. That film was about a winemaker (Niels Arestrup in the role) who also made his son’s life hell and selected the son of his steward to take over the business.

From time to time, a gothic strain emerges in French rural dramas, like the recent Bloody Milk, that speaks of quiet desperation and reads like Greek tragedy.

With its big country canvas and optimistic opening mood, In the Name of the Land starts out rather like a Western. Whether riding his BMW motorbike or striding through the rich earth of his fields, Pierre seems like a man with a future.

The confidence is offset by a slight but growing sense of dread. Whether it is the risk of injury through careless use of machinery, or the chance that Pierre’s teenage son Thomas (Anthony Bajon) has an accident while tearing through the countryside on his new mountain bike. When disaster does arrive, it seems inevitable from the start.

Despite his innate cockiness, it seems Pierre is in over his head, heavily invested in yet another new scheme to pull him through. Whether it’s goats or chickens, each bold new business plan seems to fall short of the objective.

As Pierre becomes a chain-smoker with blood pressure going through the roof, and impossible for his family to deal with, a palpable sense of impending disaster is taking hold of the narrative.

When Pierre pays his father a visit, a rare event since the old man became a widower, Jacques never thinks to suspend loan repayments or offer support. All he can say is ‘work is the only cure’.

Jacques was farming in the early days of the EU common agricultural policy, when there was less competition, and less regulation. His son was a dedicated and competent farmer like him, but more inclined to be entrepreneurial and accept more risk.

What exactly made for different career outcomes for the two men is never entirely clear. More backstory would have helped this intimate, sad tale.

In the Name of the Land did big business at the French box office last year, but with audiences outside the cities. It suggests that empathy for the rural sector among city folk in France may still have a way to go.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 November 2020

Monsoon

M, 85 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The personal histories of two of the key creatives behind Monsoon, writer-director Hong Khaou and lead actor Henry Golding, make them uniquely qualified to tell this story. Monsoon explores displacement and cultural homelessness, a growing problem in the world today.

Both the filmmaker and the lead performer in this quiet, understated story of homecoming were uprooted from their homes in Asia when under 10 years of age. Golding, of mixed cultural heritage, moved from Malaysia to Surrey as a young kid. Khaou, of Cambodian origin, fled the Khmer Rouge with his family and lived in Vietnam before migrating to Britain.

Monsoon is their story of a young British man, Kit (Golding, the sleek, cool dude from Crazy Rich Asians) who returns to his homeland, Vietnam, only to find himself a tourist in the land of his birth, a stranger in a strange land. It is his first visit since he left, over 30 years ago.

Kit’s family fled Vietnam after the war. Most refugee families who had made it to Hong Kong opted to settle in places like Canada and Australia, but his parents chose England. Why so? He remembers that his mother had admired the Queen, because she seemed nice and polite, and it must therefore follow that the rest of England was too.

Now at last, after quitting his job in digital animation, he will return. There is a specific task to perform. The box he carries with him contains his mother’s ashes. His brother, who is bringing their father’s ashes, will join him soon. Before Henry (Lam Vissay) and wife and young family arrive, Kit is free to roam and explore on his own for a while.

Anyone who has visited Vietnam, and that goes for the 350,000-plus Australians who would visit Vietnam each year, will be familiar with the sights. The swirling swarms of motorcycles, the lively streets, the contrast of old Vietnam with the new. But Kit has booked a room in a high-rise hotel in Saigon so characterless he has to buy a couple of plants at the market to keep him company.

In the scene where a young staffer tells Kit about the hotel amenities in French-accented English, Kit responds in his British version. Two young ethnic Vietnamese speaking to each other in English is kinda droll.

During his visit to the southern capital, Kit connects with an old childhood friend, Lee (David Tran) for whom he has bought simple gifts, including a water filter bottle for which Lee has absolutely no need.

If the gaffe appears to drive a wedge between the two young men it doesn’t explain the uncomfortable, wary look on Lee’s face. Although this is eventually explained, I found aspects of performance in Monsoon rather stilted overall.

Monsoon is most at east with its travelogue sequences. In the attention to ambience in the long takes in widescreen of the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi, in which Kit cuts a solitary figure in the frame.

On a gay hook-up, Kit meets a lanky American, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), the son of a Vietnam vet. It transpires, that the young Black American is on an intense emotional journey of his own. He has inherited the guilt of a father who served three tours during the ‘American War’, and although nevertheless accepted as a Yank, his nationality does have a downside.

Lewis is in Vietnam for pragmatic and hard-nosed business reasons. On one level, he is there to capitalize on ‘cheap labour’ and ‘contribute to an expanding economy’, but he also takes an interest in the culture. After their one-night stand, Kit and Lewis unexpectedly meet each other again on an art tour.

The tour guide, Linh (Molly Harris), has her own backstory, and it adds another dimension to the fractured lines of the jigsaw that is modern Vietnam. Her parents want her to take over the family business making traditional lotus tea. She cannot see the sense in such a laborious process for a beverage that only old people drink.

In very different ways, Kit, Lewis, and Linh feel the weight of history and expectation that they have inherited in modern Vietnam.

It makes for quite an interesting journey, though Monsoon is studied and sombre. I missed the vitality and go-ahead energy of the vibrant Vietnamese people.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 November 2020

Hillbilly Elegy

Gutsy female lead performances lift all boats in this tale of backwoods America that is both vilified and embraced by a polarised public

M, 116 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Hillbilly Elegy, the book about growing up among white working-class communities in the Appalachians, was published in 2016. It was the year that Donald Trump became US President, a disruptive event if ever there was one.

Read avidly by a public searching for answers that helped explain the success of Trumpism, it became a New York Times bestseller. And it gave its author, J. D. Vance, profile as a social commentator, explaining Americans to themselves.

How could someone like Trump occupy the highest office in the land? Perhaps the autobiography of a man like Vance who came to have a foot in both camps, establishment and anti-establishment, could make some sense of it.

He eventually left the hill country of Kentucky for the hallowed halls of Yale and then joined the financial services industry in LA, but he was an unusual case.

His family home was in Middletown, Kentucky. J. D. was the son of a single mother who took heroin, stole meds from the hospital where she worked as a nurse, and unsurprisingly couldn’t hold a job. Eventually his grandmother took over primary care, and against the odds he finished high school and took a law degree.

The narrative is simply structured, moving backwards and forwards between J. D’s teenage and young adult selves, played by Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso, respectively.

Scenes of young J. D. growing up with his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) in their utterly chaotic household, is intercut with his older self, moving away from Middleton and building a new life with his supportive girlfriend and wife-to-be, former law school classmate, Usha, played by Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire).

Bent and bewigged, Glenn Close is almost unrecognizable as family matriarch Mamaw, J. D.’s maternal grandmother. As tough as old boots, with a ciggie permanently planted between her lips, Mamaw understands that she has to act to save her grandson.

One day, she just marches in, announcing she is taking J. D. away. His mother, her daughter Beverley (Amy Adams), was doing such a terrible job.

Basso, as the older version of J. D., has a more conventional and less challenging part to play than the actor who plays his younger self.

As the young J. D. Vance, Owen Asztalos articulates the complexity of his love-hate relationship with his mother. Bev was a woman who dragged him from one live-in relationship to the next, substituted his urine specimen sample for her own when she had been on drugs, and thought nothing of making a spectacle of herself in the street while she was having a meltdown. Family violence remained an ongoing tradition.

Volatile and quick-tempered, Beverley is also acutely aware of the opportunities that she has missed out on. Adams gives a remarkable performance here.

Curiously, Hillbilly Elegy is as much the story of J. D. as the story of his mother Beverley, who couldn’t realise her own promise as dux of her school year. J. D. is dangerously close to convincing himself, until Mamaw steps in, that his mother’s grades got her nowhere, so why should he make any effort?

Director Ron Howard, a versatile filmmaker across a range of genre, has a long list of acting credits among his body of work. His unobtrusive directorial style allows scope for actors to do what they do, as they have here in Hillbilly Elegy.

Howard has form in bringing out the best in his actors in films such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, too. I think one of his underrated triumphs is the film Rush about the rivalry between Formula One drivers played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl.

Hillbilly Elegy has the familiar clean style and high production values that I associate with Howard.

The score composed by Hans Zimmer, in collaboration with David Fleming, is more subtle than the usual from Zimmer. And French director of cinematography, Maryse Alberti, has struck a balance between the need for intimacy and wider statement.

Upward mobility in the US, is not like it used to be and if the American dream still works well for some, it certainly doesn’t for others.

This is ultimately a family drama, and the remarkable, inspiring tale of a young man, seriously disadvantaged as a complete establishment outsider, who manages to do good.

First published in the Canberra Times on  14 November 2020

Featured image: Superb performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. Courtesy Netflix

The Comeback Trail

 

M, 105 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It would be fun to know the insider gags that went into this remake of a film from 1982. It is, among other things, a comedic take on how the entertainment business can work at the murkier end of the scale.

A shonky producer in hock to the mob, is trying hard to avoid a shallow grave. He hatches a plan to sabotage the sets on his next film so his old lead actor has a fatal accident while doing his stunts. That way he gets a big insurance payout that will cover his debts.

Max (Robert De Niro) Barber’s most recent film, something about an order of lewd nuns, was such a flop that he must find $350,000 to repay his financiers as quickly as he can. Mafia boss, Morgan Freeman as Reggie Fontaine, is expecting results and the money owed returned to him, asap.

Reggie may be a movie buff who likes to trade film trivia with Max on classics like Touch of Evil and Psycho, but he has no time for anything that distracts him when debts remain unpaid.

The lengthy narrative set-up is a drawn-out affair with excruciating close-ups of De Niro mugging furiously to overcome the shortcomings in the script. In deerstalker cap, long grey curls and glasses, De Niro looks and behaves like a frenetic Woody Allen.

After Max has hatched his fiendish plan, he sets off with his nephew and fellow producer, Walter Creason (Zach Braff), to hunt for a suitable star. Max has not confided his evil covert plan to the young man.

Casting takes them to an aged care home full of retired actors. Max and Walter find themselves spoilt for choice as antique performers line up to show them they can still do the thing that they were in demand for 40 years ago.

When they are trying to escape, Max and Walter accidentally break into the room occupied by aging Western actor Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), and interrupt him playing Russian roulette with his pistol.

It’s a relief when Jones appears on screen. At last De Niro will have to share the space with someone else.

De Niro has been just right in some comedies like Analyze This and Analyze That, Meet the Parents and the Silver Linings Playbook, but has also been dreadful in others. His performance here in The Comeback Trail is best forgotten.

The comedy does get a fillip with Jones on screen, though not until he is in character. As the Duke – apologies John Wayne – he is a star of Western movies who no one wants to use anymore. Although Duke is the genuine article as a cowboy who does all his own stunts, no one wants to hire him.

The studios just don’t make Westerns anymore. This is historically correct. The Comeback Trail is set in the 1970s.

Against all the odds, Duke survives a fall from his horse. He gets thrown to the ground when Butterscotch stops shy of a jump over flaming covered wagons. On another occasion, his trusty golden lasso gets him out of a deep canyon as a bridge that Max has had sabotaged, collapses. These moments are funny, but the screenplay written by director George Gallo and Josh Posner is pretty pedestrian.

The idea of a slip of a girl directing Max’s ‘rootin tootin shootin’ Western is a contemporary touch. Megan, played by Kate Katzman, looks like she could be a walkover, but when she gets on set, in shorts and cute tops, she is the epitome of the decisive director.

Megan knows what she wants and she knows her stuff too. No doubt she’s a product of film school. She stands her ground. The wagons should look naturalistic and the star needs to be backlit to enhance his mythic status.

Zach Braff and Robert De Niro in The Comeback Trail

I have not seen the first Comeback Trail, in which Buster Crabbe, a former Olympian swimmer and superhero actor, performed his last role, as Duke Montana. It was directed by Harry Hurwitz, a minor director of the time.

It’s my hunch that the original was marginally more rewarding because expectations would have been lower without big name stars who agreed, for some reason or another, to take part in this remake.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2020

Brazen Hussies

M, 93 minutes

5 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

 

 

Brilliantly put together, this important doco tells a story about social justice for women that’s a likely eye-opener for millenials

When a couple of women chained themselves to the footrails in a Brisbane bar in 1965, it was a sign that something new was afoot. It was at the time illegal to serve alcohol to females in a public bar.

Women could order a soft drink or sit in their husband’s car and drink a beer, but it was illegal for them to join male customers for a drink inside. Unbelievable.

The men at the bar had their say that day, and the state justice minister had his: the women would ‘get over’ it. Although the media also trivialised the serious intent behind the protest, it was an early defining moment for the women’s liberation movement in Australia.

A decade of campaigns, feminist publications and consciousness raising groups later, International Women’s Year activities were receiving generous funding from the Commonwealth. And, with the appointment of Elizabeth Reid in 1973, Australia became the first country in the world with a female advisor to the government on women’s affairs.

The decade of dramatic change, 1965 to 1975, is framed by writer-director Catherine Dwyer in this outstanding documentary, her first feature. Brazen Hussies is a great story and a terrific achievement, amusing, insightful and entertaining.

An impressive crew of creatives, including editor Rose Jones, collaborated with the filmmaker in production. Producers of note, Sue Maslin and Philippa Campey, were also on board.

After working on She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry of 2014, Mary Dore’s doco history of the women’s movement in the US, Dwyer was drawn to tell the story of second wave feminism in this country. An untold story. It would be for the record, and it would show young women of today the social change that their mothers and grandmothers witnessed during their lifetime.

their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward

After some scene-setting of movie clips from Hollywood movies with the familiar idealised image of the housewives in the 1950s, Brazen Hussies roars into life.

There are lively and compelling interviews with twenty five or so women, including Elizabeth Reid herself, who experienced those heady times and share unique insights. It is fascinating seeing vision of their young selves, clear-eyed and articulate, fired up and driving things forward.

Former union activist, Zelda D’Aprano, recalls how she chained herself to the doors of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in protest over the inadequacy of its equal pay ruling. In 1969 it was just the beginning.

Writer and columnist, Anne Summers, recalls how as a graduate new to the ABC, she earned less than the male trainees with high school qualifications.

Jurist Pat O’Shane, the first Indigenous graduate in Australia, discusses how Indigenous women responded to the movement. A complicated story.

Eva Cox, Martha Ansara, Jeni Thornley, Margot Nash, Gillian Leahy, Barbara Creed, Suzanne Bellamy also appear. It is no surprise that many of these activist women went on to careers in journalism, media, filmmaking, academia, law and politics.

There is also a brief archival footage of my late mother, Julia Freebury, who campaigned for abortion law reform. Abortion was illegal then, only married women could access the pill and there was no pension support for single mothers.

many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’

Another chapter in the history of the women’s movement was the beginnings of developments in gay liberation. With the anti-war movement in top gear, 1965-75 was a time of such incredible foment.

In 1970 a slight young female student stepped up to speak at a moratorium demonstration on the front lawn at Sydney University. She and fellow Labor Club women were fed up with being held back, expected to do the menial tasks and never allowed a platform to speak. At the response of young men in the crowd to her inflammatory speech, many young women became converts to feminism, just ‘like that’.

The reaction of those young men to the women’s movement, especially young men of the Left, is shocking. Were they only waiting for ‘the revolution’, not interested in social justice for women?

So much has been achieved since then. Women don’t have to leave the public service when they marry, they can take out a loan on their own to buy property, and can stand at the bar and order beer instead of soft drink. And ASIO won’t open a dossier on them if they go out and burn their bra.

Cheers, and goodbye to all that!

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2020

Images courtesy State Library of NSW

Idiot Prayer – Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace

Singer-songwriter Nick Cave gives his all in a one-man concert, a soaring performance in a cavern of silence

 

M, 118 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

One man, one voice, a solo piano in the middle of a vast, empty space is the last word in simplicity. It might herald a new era for the performance of music in these times of Covid too.

Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace was originally sold as a one-off digital event, screened live in July this year to a ticketed virtual audience. Now called Idiot Prayer, the concert recording has become a movie, shifting from virtual gig to cinema. It certainly passes muster as an immersive and compelling audio-visual experience.

shifts between intimate gesture and soaring performance

In essence it is Cave’s performance, unaccompanied, of a selection of some of the best ballads from his repertoire. The one-man concert over nearly two hours shifts between intimate gesture and soaring performance.

Without introduction he walks into frame. A distinctive lanky figure in a Gucci suit, making his way through London’s Alexandra Palace. Along silent hallways and down empty stairs, to a waiting grand piano.

Not one footfall can be heard on this short journey but on the soundtrack we listen to the spoken lyrics of Spinning Song. It was released with The Bad Seeds last year on the album Ghosteen, their 17th studio album.

The remaining 21 songs for this two-hour set are performed in Cave’s familiar baritone voice, accompanied by his lush piano. They catalogue a lifetime of emotions. Love and pain, despair and regret, anger and jubilation, and everything in between.

For me, someone with only a casual acquaintance with Cave’s work, the concert is an overview of his creative range. Fans who know his work inside out may encounter something fresh or at least rarely heard. Euthanasia and the titular Idiot Prayer, get a live debut.

Naturally enough, I have got to know the ‘prince of darkness’ through the movies.

He wrote the screenplay for John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, a dark Australian western set in the outback that I admired a lot. Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, composed the haunting soundtrack, as they did subsequently for Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Cave had a cameo performance in The Assassination of Jesse James as a balladeer performing in a saloon. And he was also in the cast and one of the co-writers of Hillcoat’s first notable feature, a tough prison drama, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, released back in the bicentennial year, 1988.

But it was in 20,000 Days of Earth that I enjoyed Cave the most. He was  playing himself in a scripted documentary about someone called Nick Cave who had reached the 55 year/20,000 day milestone.

to show is not necessarily to reveal, and the most interesting artistic personalities are full of contradiction

Made some time before the tragic death of his 14-year-old son, it reveals an intensely private artist with a deep need to connect nonetheless with fans. To show is not necessarily to reveal.  The most interesting artistic personalities are full of contradictions.

Cave cuts a solitary figure in the frame throughout Idiot Prayer. The fourth wall is broken briefly with a high-angle shot that captures a cameraman nearby, but he is gone in the next frame from the same angle, slipped out of sight.

It’s a deliberate insert, of course. Probably a playful reminder that Nick did have company during the shoot. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, recently nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Favourite, was there of course, moving his cameras around from front and side to back and crane above, and back again.

Cave doesn’t speak a word throughout, preferring to let his music speak for him. There is a little laugh after ‘… (Are you) The one that I’ve been waiting for?’ A private joke?

Into My Arms, after all these years still a favourite track of mine, is performed around midway. Cave has nominated it as one of the songs he is most proud of having written, but it is given no special treatment here. Far From Me, Black Hair and a number of other songs from the album some regard as his best, The Boatman’s Call, from 2011, also feature.

Idiot Prayer is a solemn affair, but rewarding and moving. A performer without the goods as a singer-songwriter could not possibly stay the course, holding the audience over two hours with so little else going on. Pared-down, Cave shows he has talent in spades.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 November 2020