Hillbilly Elegy

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

The  Mystery of Henri Pick

 

M, 101 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

 

smart and entertaining drama that takes an influential book critic to the provinces to dissect a snooty literary establishment

 

It’s no spoiler to reveal that before he was a best-selling author, Henri Pick was a pizza chef at a restaurant in a small town in Brittany. There was nothing mysterious about him at all. Until he died, leaving behind a wife, a daughter and grandson, some disappointed customers perhaps, and an unpublished novel that became a literary sensation.

Two years after his death he was a celebrity author with a brilliant, best-selling romantic novel to his name, but who knew he was a writer? Pick was obviously in no position to explain.

The manuscript was discovered by a young editor from Paris, Daphne Despero (Alice Isaaz), while she was rummaging around a bookstore in Crozon. Curiously, the store also housed a collection of unpublished manuscripts, a salon des refuses for manuscripts that had over the years been rejected by publishers.

a doyen so influential in publishing circles his reviews strike terror in the heart of new authors

Henri Pick’s novel, The Last Hours of a Love Story, goes ballistic with the reading public and the literary establishment. It confirms Daphne’s promise as an up-and-coming editor.

The author’s widow and daughter are invited to take part in a TV chat show about books. The host is literary critic Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini), a doyen so influential in publishing circles his reviews strike terror in the heart of new authors, like Daphne’s boyfriend Fred Koskas (Bastien Bouillon).

Rouche can barely contain his scepticism about the book’s authorship, and he reveals a lofty disdain for his two guests who he perceives as country bumpkins. He is rude to them and they walk out during the live broadcast. It sets in train Rouche’s quest to prove himself right about his hunch that Henri Pick was no author.

How could Pick have written a masterpiece, a one of a kind, a love story that ranges from scenes of sensual lovemaking to allusions to the great Romantic writer Alexander Pushkin? How could such a novel be the work of a pizza chef, an outsider to the cultural establishment who lived at Finistere, for heaven’s sake, at the end of the world? Rouche wants the literal truth when others seem prepared to let it go.

After the fiasco on air, things fall apart for him in rapid succession. His wife informs him that night that they are separating, and the next day he is fired, by text, from his job as book show host.

Let’s face it, Luchini’s Rouch is not the most engaging character. But he is an interesting one and there’s fun to be had as he gets his just desserts. As French character actors go, Fabrice Luchini is not a particular favourite of mine but he is absolutely right for this role. Just as his character Rouche is ripe for a kick in the pants.

Suddenly finding himself at a loose end, he heads off to the Finistere region of Brittany to snoop around and follow up on his hunch that there is something fishy is going on. The plot has certainly thickened. He has learned that Pick must have been fluent in Russian.

He drops in on Pick’s widow, Madeleine (Josiane Stoleru), trying to ingratiate himself with her, but she soon shows him the door, tossing the gift bouquet out after him.

Rouche has a bit more luck with Madeleine’s daughter. Josephine (Camille Cottin). She goes toe to toe with him, contesting his preconceptions about people who live at ‘the end of the world’. Her vast collection of books would probably rival his.

On Rouche’s crusade to uncover the true Henri Pick, the good people of Brittany lead him a merry dance with many false leads and narrative twists. The intricate plot runs like clockwork until the big reveal. It’s a shame the ending is a bit clunky, however the full, earnest explanation often is.

Henri Pick (Fabrice Luchini) following his hunch in Finistere

Based on a novel of the same name by award-winning author David Foenkinos, this arch French comedy was developed for the screen by Remi Bezancon, who has directed, and Vanessa Portal.

This is whip-smart comedy that celebrates the old-fashioned virtues of the murder mystery, without the murder. The Mystery of Henry Pick is a pacey whodunnit with great writing, brisk edits and an engaging original score by Laurent  Perez del Mar that sets the tone. A sparkling, wordy film, having a sly dig at the literary establishment.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 November 2020

Main image: Fabrice Luchini in The Mystery of Henri Pick. Both images courtesy UniFrance

Rams

A different take on the eccentric Icelandic drama that makes more of community, the challenging environment and laconic Aussie humour

PG, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Before the camera even begins to roll, feuding sheep farmers as woolly and muddle-headed as their flocks is funny in itself. The original version of this film is about a pair of curmudgeonly brothers who continue to behave like a pair of twits who haven’t spoken for 40 years, until events conspire to bring them together.

That was in 2015. Rams, written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, benefitted greatly from a crush that audiences have been having with things Nordic, and Iceland’s reputation as a land of fire and ice, the home of Bjork and Sigur Ros, an exotic subarctic outpost of distinct Nordic culture.

This is the English-language version, directed by Jeremy Sims, whose last film was Last Cab to Darwin. It was a frequent runner up to the original Icelandic version of Rams when they were competing on the international film awards circuit together.

a different take is the only decent excuse for a remake of a movie that was pretty good in the first place

Hakonarson’s Rams made off with Un Certain Regard, the award at the Cannes festival that prizes innovative and daring, unusual styles and non-traditional storytelling. It did well at the box office too.

Sims was offered the option of the English-language remake. Working with the screenplay by Jules Duncan, he has taken the story and turned it into an Australian bush saga. A different take is the only decent excuse for a remake of a movie that was pretty good in the first place. It is self-described as ‘based’ on the Hakonarson original.

The Aussie screenwriter, Duncan, has followed a similar trajectory to Hakonarson’s work but has taken events in a significantly different direction and changed the grim ending. There is a much lighter tone, a gentler humour and a narrative that includes wider community.

And there are several significant women, including Asher Keddie as a local woman widowed in a recent bushfire.

The role of the vet is given a boost. Kat, a newly arrival from Dorset, England, is played here by a feisty Miranda Richardson in a plum red bob.

This introduces a love interest. Kat has a thing for the less unreasonable brother, Colin Grimurson, played by Sam Neill. Though it’s too bad for her that he is totally focussed on his small flock. An exotic heritage breed. No garden variety merinos here and no time for girls. Farming is a full-time job.

Brother Les, played by Michael Caton, is the hopeless alcoholic, a miserable bastard if ever there was one. But he does have some luck with his prize rams, pipping his brother at the post in the local show when a ‘hindquarter muscle’ the deciding factor between two magnificent specimens.

As brothers on the land, Neill and Caton, look remarkably similar types to the characters played by Sigurour Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson, who are both well-known Icelandic actors. A cleanly shaven Sigurjonsson, was the lead in another recent Icelandic film, A White, White Day.

Neill and Caton each bring with them similar reserves of goodwill from decades on screen in popular film and television. Caton, of course, had a key role in one of the most popular Australian comedies ever, The Castle of 1997. He is great at both the killer glare, and at being delivered legless to the hospital in a tractor scoop.

After a slow, sometimes uneven first half, the film sets up a strong and engaging, sometimes moving, second.

it should go down well in the bush, and urban types may just have to live with their characterisations

As things get going, the film makes a very positive virtue of community and the laconic local humour, but Australians everywhere will relate to the existential challenges that the environment presents. The cycle of extremes has a very active role here. Bushfires, dangerous levels of smoke, devastating drought and communicable disease that have to be brought under control.

It all seems so much more relevant than when production wrapped late in 2018.

The city-bush divide is played for all its worth with some heavy-handed pub humour and a fair bit of bureaucracy and ‘useless bloody Pommie’ bashing. The Fed professionals are exemplified by Leon Ford in a thankless role as an insensitive bureaucrat who has to have things done by-the-book. Departments of agriculture may never look the same.

Rams should go down very well in the bush. Urban types may just have to live with their characterisations but all local audiences will warm to this timeless story of two brothers at loggerheads.

First published in the Canberra Times on 31 October 2020

Honest Thief

Another throwback to old-fashioned action hero for Neeson, who would have done better to send this well-worn character up

M, 98 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A film title with a contradiction in terms like this suggests we could be up for a fun ride. It stars Liam Neeson, a decent man behind the hunky screen presence and sonorous voice if ever there was one, so where are we going with this?

If it’s proposing that stealing from banks can be okay, it might get a tick because of recent revelations about the malpractices in the Australian banking system.

The idea of righting wrong by robbing banks is as old as a Ned Kelly or other folk heroes doing good when those in power were doing bad, by robbing the rich to give to the poor.

The honest thief in question, Tom, Liam Neeson in the role, is a former US Marine. A veteran of recent, drawn-out campaigns in sandy theatres of war a long way from home. He seems to feel he has little to show for it.

Worse still, he has felt really betrayed by the system that has denied his aging father the pension he deserved.

Honest Thief opens with a short montage of the robberies he has conducted over recent years. Breaking in is not as slick as the online fraud we have become accustomed to watching. What you might have been expecting in the digital era, right?

the ‘in-and-out bandit’, a throwback to old-fashioned action

No, this former military demolitions expert is using the expertise he gained in the Middle East to blow open safes and strong room doors. Noisy explosions are more attuned to the values of the good, old-fashioned action genre, after all.

Tom has earned the rather old-fashioned moniker of the ‘In and Out Bandit’. The script is the work of writers Steve Allrich and Mark Williams, who also directed. This nickname and some other aspects of their writing is unintentionally funny.

‘I’m the In-and-Out Bandit. I want to turn myself in’, Tom announces solemnly in a phone call to the FBI. The Feds have no idea of his identity, he has been a solo operator, and there are still no suspects for the many break-ins that Tom has made over many years. Just another unlikely aspect to the backstory.

Tom has become a changed man since a flirtation with a receptionist, Annie (Kate Walsh) at a storage and truck rental company where he is a customer. He is now a man in love and he wants to change his life. A year quickly passes, an intertitle announcement, and the relationship has deepened to the point where they are about to move in together.

The FBI doesn’t react to Tom’s announcement, and he has to hold the line a while. That’s amusing too. The bureau is obviously used to hoax callers or to members of the public with nothing to gain from being honest about themselves.

Tom has the full proceeds of crime, $9 stolen millions, untouched (‘It wasn’t about the money’) and wants to cut a deal with the authorities. Unluckily for him, he finds himself dealing with two corrupt FBI agents, Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos).

To his credit, Agent Hall is initially shocked by his colleague’s escalating violence. Somehow or other, Ramos, known for a recent lead role in the massively successful stage production, Hamilton, has strayed into this action flick.

Not only do the pair steal his stash, they stitch him up with the cold-blooded murder of another FBI colleague (Robert Carrick). He shows up in the right place at the wrong time.

a good man wronged, the place where Neeson’s characters prefer to be

Following on from this pivotal scene, in which he and Agent Nivens get into a fight and fall out of a second floor window together, Tom is on the run. A good man wronged. The place where Neeson’s characters prefer to be of late.

All this is very unjust treatment for a bank robber who wants to retire and return all his ill-gotten gains. It engenders feelings of outrage over mistreatment that are part of the essential backstory to any character who becomes a vigilante, as Neeson frequently has been in the Taken films and similar over the last decade.

This Mark Williams’ movie is storytelling by numbers. Routine and underwhelming. The filmmakers probably hoped that Neeson would lend their work some gravitas. The veteran actor’s time would have been better spent sending up his action hero persona instead.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 October 2020

I Am Greta

Greta Thunberg and the school strike for climate. Courtesy Hulu

M, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It was a tip-off that got him started. When filmmaker Nathan Grossman heard that a schoolgirl was campaigning for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament, he went along to take a look.

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg had set up camp on the footpath with her handmade sign ‘School Strike for Climate’. In her regulation shirt and jeans and with her long plaits, she did not necessarily look the tough campaigner but she would eventually demonstrate an amazing ability to cut through.

She had an armoury of facts and figures to support her protest and was fully prepared to engage anyone who wanted to hear more. Or wanted to take her on.

both character study and document on the rise of teenage climate activism

An elderly woman asked why she wasn’t in school. Greta retorted that there was no point in going to school if there was no future for her generation. The world’s leaders were ignoring the climate crisis.

Grossman could see how things might get interesting. Greta’s father Svante, an actor, was nearby and he allowed the filmmaker to begin recording. The start was impromptu, but the filmmaker eventually acquired funding so he could work on the project full-time.

In the year that followed, Greta became, of course, a celebrity who made speeches and met world leaders. A controversial figure who famously chose to sail the Atlantic rather than fly across it, so she could take up an invitation to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in NYC in September 2019.

Grossman’s doco is by turns intimate and inspiring. While it documents the rise of teenage climate activism that Greta Thunberg spearheaded across the globe, it is at the same time a character study.

We observe Greta take the stage and speak unscripted in front of thousands of supporters, but not before she has quarrelled with her father. He simply wants her to eat something healthy, like a banana, or to forget about perfecting her speech.

I Am Greta is a blend of private and public moments, some of it guided by voiceover. Greta confides quite freely that she has little interest in socialising, has no time for small talk, and has been beset with anxiety and depression since she was very young. When she had heard that the world was facing a new mass extinction, and that there was little or no time left to bend the emission curve.

She stopped flying, and stopped eating meat years ago. She was doing her bit, and had convinced her family, including her mother, an opera singer with an international career, to do theirs too.

There are several scenes, briefly sketched, that hint at the impact of Greta’s personality and activism on the Thunberg family.

Svante appears to have a significant presence in his elder daughter’s life, as chaperone on her travels and a full-time companion-carer. As is now well known, Greta has Asperger’s, but he confides that she also has OCD and selective mutism that has caused her in the past to stop communicating for many months on end.

the responses to Greta from world leaders are either memorable or shocking

There is a hint of these traits, those aspects of her personality that some political opponents have cruelly and immorally used against her in ad hominem attacks.

Greta Thunberg, a schoolgirl on strike. Courtesy Hulu

The responses to Greta from world leaders compiled here in montage are either memorable, or they are shocking.

Arnie Schwarzenegger declares himself early as a fan of someone who acts rather than complains. Pope Francis and the UN Secretary General are also encouraging.

A meeting is arranged for her with a slightly bemused President Macron who can’t disguise his surprise that he is the first leader she has met. No, she hadn’t even met the Prime Minister of her own country.

This delightful episode is followed by clips of other responses. Vladimir Putin imparts his views, as does Donald Trump, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. On this occasion, the Russian president’s observations seem more temperate than some.

Various media personalities, including Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, also have their say on Greta Thunberg, and it reflects so badly on them. They are taking aim at a girl who is barely 17 y o.

I Am Greta is a fascinating portrait of an angry young climate justice activist who calls out the global inertia in climate policy for what it is.

First published by the Canberra Times on 17 October 2020

Rebecca

Old fashioned glamour, ritzy locations and handsome leads, but the latest Rebecca is a tame adaptation of a gaslight classic

M, 121 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For anyone longing for a dash of old-fashioned movie glamour, the courtship in Monte Carlo that kicks off Rebecca is just the place to start. There are racy drives along the Corniche, risqué picnics in secluded coves, and meandering walks through lush gardens that cling to the cliffs.

There are also elegant 1930s fashions and cars, and lots of old-fashioned crane shots to take in the view.

Vertiginous cliffs feature, signifying risk and vulnerability. And they are even more striking when the location moves to Cornwall. The film is a visual feast.

Rebecca is a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic of the same name that won the best film Oscar in 1940. With Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in the lead roles, it was the director’s first Hollywood feature.

There is, almost inevitably in any text influenced by Hitchcock, a vulnerable blonde. Lily James (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, and Baby Driver) steps into the role of potential victim here.

Since it was published in 1938, the Daphne du Maurier Gothic novel on which the film is based has never been out of print. It is a psycho-drama of passion, lust and jealousy, themes that never date. Every new generation needs its Rebecca re-envisaged.

James’ character, who is nameless until she marries and becomes a Mrs, has arrived in the luxe resort with her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). She is the older woman’s paid companion.

James plays a girl who is well read, can sketch and drive a car. Not an everyday skill in the 1930s when Rebecca is set. But she is poor, a sin in those days, and not terribly welcome in the ruling class.

Critically, she is without parents or other family. As a woman alone in the world, she is prey to the worst of the worst kind of rogue and villain.

The two women are staying at a ritzy hotel, the type of place that attracts anyone who is anybody, like wealthy English widowers who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Since his wife drowned in a boating accident a year ago, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) has found little to keep himself amused, until an awkward, self-conscious English girl (Lily James) appears.

There is a whirlwind romance and the new Mrs de Winter is carried off to the remote pile in Cornwall that her husband calls home, Manderley.

It is classic entrapment. Mrs de Winter’s creeping self-doubt spirals as the mansion’s small army of servants sideline their new boss and show how inadequate she is for the role she finds herself in.

Audiences new to the Rebecca story might expect Max de Winter to be the source of danger. Du Maurier’s Rebecca was born into the same era as the original  ‘gaslight’ book and film, after all.

But no. Threats to the new Mrs de Winter emanate from the grave. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is spooked by the black hair of her dead rival that’s still entangled in a hairbrush. By the elegant copperplate ‘R’ on objects scattered around, a sure sign that nothing of what she seems to own, can or ever will belong to her.

As head of the household staff, Mrs Danvers – Kristin Scott Thomas icy tough in the role – leads the charge, humiliating and undermining her new mistress. Danvers even gets her to think of throwing herself out the window.

It is ‘Danny’, loyal to her dead mistress to the end, who is the arch manipulator, and the bitter rival. With her minimalist acting style, Scott Thomas is very effective as the housekeeper, though I would have thought her character was ripe for some re-interpretation in the early 21st century.

This classic tale of female insecurity and jealousy has been directed by Ben Wheatley, from a screenplay written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse.

It’s a traditional but unadventurous adaptation. The murder that didn’t make it into the film in 1940 is there but it is surprising that it has not had a tweak so it speaks more directly to our times.

It’s hard not to wonder why Wheatley, who is a critically acclaimed British indie director, didn’t give today’s audiences more to think about in his Rebecca. Didn’t the production’s financial backers allow him the scope to do so? Some surprises wouldn’t have been too big a risk.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

Feature image: Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca. Courtesy Netflix

The Leadership

M, 97 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Taking a group of professional women on a three-week cruise combined with a leadership workshop was an inspired idea. No doubt about it. The trip to the exquisite, endangered wilderness of Antarctica would be a reminder of what science was fighting for.

The journey would offer a fundamental reset for the participants who had been selected from the fields of science, engineering, technology, mathematics (STEM) and medicine.

It was designed to help them become the sort of the leaders they ‘hoped to be’, honing the skills necessary for contributing to meaningful and necessary policy change around the world.

Course leader, Fabian Dattner, had lofty hopes that were even underpinned by a great quote from poet T S Eliot. The prominent businesswoman, leadership consultant, and self-described dreamer, has a background in corporate consultancy.

No doubt the women participating who paid $30,000 each for the trip, had high hopes too. In 2016, they were the first tranche of a program that is now established and ongoing.

The opportunity to film this maiden voyage burgeoning with possibilities fell to Australian documentary filmmaker, Ili Baré. The writer and director was to make a record of the inaugural event aboard the Argentine-based icebreaker, Ushuaia.

Multi-award winning photographer Peter de Vries was also on board. His location vision would be interspersed with cinematography from director of photography, Dale Cochran, who covered the group interaction.

I was all set to go too, up for virtual adventure, when at one of the early group sessions, Dattner upbraided the late arrivals.  The public ticking off for professional women and the manner in which it was done is uncomfortable viewing. Where were we headed?

As the plot thickens, the images of pristine snowbound wilderness are unspeakably beautiful. High-angle drone shots as the Ushuaia ploughs through the ocean were magnificent, but the images of life beyond the events onboard are ultimately, inevitably, too few.

The small representative group that writer-director Baré has selected to be the film’s focus include a wildlife population modeller, an environmental scientist, a climate change activist, a soil scientist, a krill biologist and a science communicator. We learn of their particular workplace issues, and get a sense of their career journey before and beyond the film timeframe.

participants urged to allow transformational change to propel them forward

From time to time, there are intertitles with juicy facts such as female participation in STEM careers after having children. The global gender pay gap, the percentage of publications in female-driven scientific research, and more confirm the inequities for women in their particular fields.

One of the participants reported her experience of sexual assault when she was the only female among 40 men at an isolated site. A disturbing percentage of the women reported sexual harassment, even assault, in the field.

Dattner’s leadership style and philosophy begin to come into question during these sessions. At her insistence, the women should delve into themselves in order to let go of stuff that had been ‘holding back’ their careers, and allow for the ‘transformational change’ that could propel them forward.

the wonder of the wilderness failed to divert from difficulties on board

Some of the participants pointed out there were other ways of looking at structural inequality in their chosen fields. It was not just up to them to fix things. Some of Dattner’s responses to their criticisms are startling.

It becomes painfully clear that Dattner’s mentoring style and conceptual approach do not sit well with the women in science. By the time the cruise has reached the seas around Paulet Island, she was being seriously challenged.

Through the portholes, whales could be seen breaching the sea surface and penguins were tumbling into the water as the Ushuaia travelled past, but the wonder of it all failed to divert from the difficulties on board.

As a strategy facilitator observes, the leader did not have the capacity to manage what had come up. A clinical psychologist was installed for subsequent cruises.

This maiden voyage of the Homeward Bound project was certainly not an unqualified success. But it grew an international network and that is definitely a positive outcome.

At a time when leadership is on everyone’s mind, when the contrast between different styles couldn’t be more stark, there is growing interest in observing women in leadership roles.

It’s a pity this doco, though released at a timely moment, does not tackle the really big issues that are involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7

MA15+, 129 minutes

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a wildly ambitious film, compact and fast-paced over two hours. If wordy and a touch self-important, it is brilliantly written and performed, and the result is riveting.

It could easily have been a television miniseries. The backstory, for a start, is immense.

protesters singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson

It’s about events that took place in 1968, at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, as the anti-war movement gathered momentum. A group of men who were leaders of various groups of protesters were singled out by a corrupt justice system to be taught a lesson.

Early in the year, the draft call had doubled and the country was reeling from the daily death count. The 1968 Democratic Convention in August was a magnet for anti-Vietnam protesters of all stripes.

Chicago battened down, refusing permission for protest in its precincts, except for a space in one of the city parks. The police were out in force, 12,000 of them, the National Guard and others too.

History remembers the ‘seven’, but there were originally eight men on trial: Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The seven were represented by William Kunstler, played by the wonderful British actor, Mark Rylance.

Seale (Yaya Abdul-Mateen II), a co-founder of the Black Panthers, who was  unrepresented, was subjected to particular humiliation in court, gagged and handcuffed at the judge’s orders. Then the case against him was made separate, and charges against him, and Froines and Weiner were later dropped.

As a result of the riots that took place, these leaders of protesters who had bussed into Chicago were charged with ‘conspiracy to cross State lines in order to incite violence’. The trial before Justice Hoffman (Frank Langella) lasted six months, and his courtroom became a stage for the contest of ideas between Left and Right.

The prosecution was in trouble from the start. The charges that were brought against the group of men were not clearly indictable.

Then a key question emerged. Who had started the riots in the first place? The focus turned to the police.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin (the writer behind The West Wing and The Social Network) has managed somehow to wrangle the unwieldy details and present a coherent, tight narrative flipping between flashbacks to the protests and the courtroom setting presided over by Hoffman.

His screenplay was ready to shoot in 2007, with Steven Spielberg to direct, but production stalled. It was revived in 2018, at the halfway point of Trump’s presidency. The producers sensed the time was right and greenlighted the project.

And Sorkin, having shown what he could do as a director on Molly’s Game, would direct.

Sacha Baron Cohen was the only actor initially cast who was still attached to the project from 2007. Good thing too. His character Abbie Hoffman, a founding member of the Yippies and closely associated with Flower Power movement, is one of the most interesting.

It is good to see that the creator of the inimitable Borat and Ali G demonstrate that his range extends to characters who might melt into everyday society.

Tom Hayden, Eddie Redmayne in the role, a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, was a different breed of social activist altogether. He went on to serve in electoral politics, but is perhaps best known for once being married to Jane Fonda.

It is a tad disappointing that some of the more of the more theatrical aspects of the actual trial are left out. Those performances that contributed to the occasion dubbed the ‘Academy Awards’ for protest movements.

it’s a reminder that the US has been there before

‘Cultural witnesses’ who attended the trial, like Arlo Guthrie and Norman Mailer, don’t get a showing, though beat poet Allen Ginsberg does make a brief appearance. Perhaps Sorkin thought there were distractions enough from his serious intent.

For lots of reasons, many of them bad but some good, 1968 in the US is a year to remember. The Smithsonian calls it ‘the year that shattered America’.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the beginning of Richard Nixon’s presidency were low points. But the civil rights movement swelled, and the tide turned against continuing the war in Vietnam.

This terrific film is a  reminder, a half century on, that however divided and partisan the US looks now, it has been there before.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 October 2020. Broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Feature image: For Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) democracy had its place in the classroom. Courtesy Netflix

On the Rocks

An elegant, subtle and playful take on marital affairs with Bill Murray providing dubious advice as the aging playboy dad

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes all of twenty minutes for Bill Murray to bound onto screen in Sofia Coppola’s new film.  Before he does, the scene is set on the roundabout of routine so familiar to young parents who juggle their children’s needs with work or career and can’t find enough time for relationship intimacy.

It is big Bill, so good in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s best known film, that we have been waiting for. Big Bill all set to play up and goof around.

Felix (Murray) has a daughter who lives with her husband and two children in a trendy neighbourhood in Manhattan. Laura (Rashida Jones), is always on the go, shuttling between school gate and toddler group. Yet when she sits in the quiet stillness at home to write, she finds herself tidying her desk and sorting files.

Her career is doing great, and so is her husband’s with half a million followers online, but success breeds problems all its own.

Felix drops by in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and is all ears when Laura lets on that she is has the sense that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), may be having an affair. There was a female toiletry bag in Dean’s luggage, and he acted strangely towards her after arriving home late from a business trip to London.

We don’t know much of Dean’s side of the story because Coppola is a filmmaker who consistently prioritises the female point-of-view her focus. In films like The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides, she has taken us into a world made up almost entirely of women. It was the latter film that announced her arrival in early, heady ways back in 1999.

Jenny Slate and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks

The writer-director is a deal more playful here, and has a bit of fun with the doubts and fears of her female protagonist. Laura wonders whether she is in a rut, not putting her best self forward, and boy, does she let herself get an earbashing from that awful character (Jenny Slate) every time they meet at toddler group.

Then there’s the ‘innocent’, sly question from elsewhere at lunch ‘Is Dean still travelling a lot with that new assistant?’

Sofia Coppola has a keen eye for the small details that give people away

The new assistant, Fiona (the dazzling Jessica Henwick), is Dean’s new account manager. It happened to be her toiletry bag with pink hearts that was in Dean’s luggage.

A world away from the operatic, grand cinematic statements made by her famous father­­­­­­­­ – think The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now – Sofia Coppola always has a keen eye for the small details that give people away. And she has developed a deft hand at irony and subtle humour.

Indeed, she has two comedians in key roles to offset Laura’s frame of mind. The engaging, affable Wayans is a comedian in his own right and one of the stars of the Scary Movie franchise. And of course, we all know Bill.

Actor-comedian Murray, a star of the Ghostbusters franchise, has had a renaissance in recent decades, particularly since he became unforgettable as the bored weatherman in Groundhog Day, and the world-weary businessman in Lost in Translation.

Actor and director capitalise on the dead-panning persona in On the Rocks. If Murray does sound a touch uncertain at times, and doesn’t deliver his lines with quite the same assurance as before, he is perfectly cast as Felix. Moreover, he helps keep things light.

On the Rocks, despite the subject, has an airy lightness of being. Over the years, some critics have discounted her work for its interest in fashion’s froth and fizz, but it is one of the things that endears her to her female audiences.

Coppola can’t be accused of a focus on fashion here. Laura is seldom seen out of her working mother uniform, alternating subdued grey tees with her stripey ones.

Coppola is one of the most successful female indie directors ever with seven really distinctive fiction feature films to her name. On the Rocks is an elegant, wry and subtle play on relationships that has all the earmarks of Sofia Coppola.

The British Film Institute nominated it as one of top ten new films to watch in 2020. Only three of these, Tenet, Da 5 Bloods and On the Rocks, have reached us so far in 2020. As a film with a female perspective, the contrast with the other two releases, could not be more marked.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

The High Note

A rambling, amiable comedy romance that hits the right light notes while making a point about women in the music industry

 

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A rambling, amiable, upbeat story set in a sunny, glitzy Los Angeles, The High Note is, as you might expect, about the music business. No ‘high note challenge’ here though. It’s about how to find a way into the business, how to stay there, and knowing when to retire.

For celebrated rhythm-and-blues superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), it’s crunch time. She has to decide whether to stop touring, whether to launch a new suite of songs or stick to the tried and true and take up a residency at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.

She has a stash of Grammys – a total of 11, she is happy to remind people – but she hasn’t released a new album in a decade. Her agent Jack (Ice Cube) is agitating for her to accept the offer from Caesar’s. It would make life easy for both of them, but Grace doesn’t want to finish up performing in front of people who need reminding ‘she’s still alive’.

Grace’s does have some of the best lines in this gentle comedy romance that is kind to everyone. And that’s saying something these days.

As we would expect from her work in TV, Tracee Ellis Ross is a commanding presence as the R&B diva. Her talent and elegance allude to the many great women singers who have topped the charts over the years. The Arethas, Whitneys, the Chers and Adeles. And Tracee is in real life the daughter of the fabulous Diana Ross.

Maggie wears her fandom on her fringed  suede jacket sleeve

For a young music industry hopeful like Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson, who happens to be Melanie Griffith’s daughter), Grace’s personal assistant, it’s about how to find her way in. She has talent, informed opinions on the greats, and wants to build a career as a music producer. Brought up on 70s vinyl by her DJ dad (Bill Pullman), she wears her fandom on her fringed suede jacket sleeve.

But when Maggie drives to the airport to pick up her boss, she is a little late and gets a dressing down, that seems to be par for the course.

The rust bucket Maggie drives and her taste in clothes, are they a reflection of personal style or a reflection of her pay scale? When Grace registers the state of Maggie’s car, she tells her she should ask her boss for a raise. A shared joke, or is it?

Maggie has been three years in the job, but High Note doesn’t seek to make a point of this, or remind us of anything that might look like inter-generational inequity.

Johnson’s doe-eyed looks made me feel uncomfortable when I watched her in Fifty Shades of Grey, too. Her look here is retro 70s, but the timidity is not quite plausible in a modern-day top-flight PA.

Not everyone wants to get into the music business. Talented singer-songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr), isn’t sure he doesn’t just want to sing in public when he feels like it.

As a love interest and with music Maggie would love to produce, David takes the narrative in a new direction, but the couple who join hands at the conclusion are not who you might expect. Yet another plot twist, the final big reveal is pretty implausible.

The High Note, is based on a screenplay by first-time feature screenwriter, Flora Greeson. It needed a tough edit to eliminate rambling threads and lift the dialogue.

It has been directed by Nisha Ganatra, who directed Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in Late Night, released last year. Written by Kaling, that screenplay also pitted a successful older career woman with a sharp tongue, against her Gen Y assistant who wants what she’s got.

Late Night is by far the better film, though High Note does have its comic moments and its music is a bonus too.

The High Note is helmed by female key creatives, led by two good female actors and makes some useful points about women in the music industry too. However, it keeps things light and breezy and is easy to go along with.

Some of its best dialogue occurs when a minor character, Katie (Zoe Chao), enters the frame. As Maggie’s best friend, a doctor, she delivers a reality check, and cuts through the dull bits in the brittle, celebrity culture of the world that her friend has opted for.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 September and broadcast on ArtSound FM

Featured image: Ice Cube, Dakota Johnson and Zoe Chao in The High Note. Courtesy Focus Features

All Together Now

A glossily produced sugar hit, with serious backstory and talent on board, that sings its way out of issues it skirts

 

M, 133 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

After his debut novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, became a New York Times best-seller in 2008 and was turned into a hit movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, author Matthew Quick must have been in a pretty good place. The success of director David O Russell’s film of the book is the stuff of first-time author’s dreams.

His next novel appeared two years later. Now that book, Sorta Like a Rock Star, has now been adapted for the screen in this new young adult drama, All Together Now. It was directed by Brett Haley, and is another original from the giant of the small screen, Netflix.

Like Silver Linings, it features talented actors of all ages, including young Auli’i Cravalho who voiced Moana in the Disney animated feature of the same name. Her singing voice features here too.

All Together Now is about Amber (Cravalho), a talented high school senior who is mired in disadvantage. She is the daughter of Becky (Justina Machado), a single mum who holds a job driving a school bus but cannot keep a roof over their heads.

with mom and her pet chihuahua, Amber sleeps in the school bus mom drives by day

The things that Amber has going for herself are a happy, optimistic nature and the love and support of a great group of friends. It helps her deal with the fact that she, her mom and pet chihuahua Bobby bed down every night in the school bus that Becky drives by day.

Becky and Amber have an invitation to stay with Becky’s boyfriend, Oliver. Problem is that he has drinking issues, as does Becky, and he can be abusive. It’s a red alert for Amber that Becky refuses to acknowledge.

With all this going on, Amber manages to keep herself afloat and her home life largely private. She overlays the pain of it with the fun she finds working in a restaurant, volunteering in old folks’ care, and tutoring English as a foreign language to a jolly band of Korean ladies.

Does this all seem improbably cheerful? Perhaps so, but we are in aspirational adult fiction mode here.

The inevitable crunch comes when Amber confides in Donna (Judy Reyes), the mother of a friend, a good-hearted surrogate mother figure, of a decision she has made. She will not accompany Becky to Oliver’s place.

Stinging truths are exchanged in the altercation between the three women in Donna’s kitchen. It’s a brief moment of truth,  I thought, when the film was going somewhere real.

Although Quick contributed to the screenplay for All Together Now, along with director Haley and other writers Marc Basch and Ol Parker, the homelessness that Amber and her mother experience is barely explored. Why introduce such a big issue into the narrative if it is not going to exert a bit more influence?

Homelessness is of course a major issue in rich developed economies like Australia and the US, and the figures are startling. We hear that the number of young people represented in the stats is growing.

According to official figures from September 2019, over half a million Americans were homeless. A third of them living and sleeping in places not intended for habitation, like parks, abandoned buildings, and cars. Add school buses.

The Carol Burnett character, Joan, adds a bit of saltiness in her cameo as one of the elderly women who Amber cares for. Her sharp observations, like telling Amber her good cheer was ‘insufferable’, offsets some of the treacly narrative tendencies.

The veteran actor’s character is also a device that delivers Amber in the end. Another familiar face, Fred Armison, is there too in a minor role.

in aspirational young adult mode, but dashed off and underwritten

All Together Now is a glossy production that stands squarely in the aspirational YA fiction mode. It mentions some big issues in passing, but it basically wants to tell the story of a talented teenager who never gives up, despite what life throws at her. Nothing wrong with that.

Silver Linings Playbook was good at dissecting relationships, but All Together Now seems to have been dashed off and comes to our screens underwritten.

Auli’i is a lovely charismatic presence who fills the screen but this movie, easy to watch and forgettable, is too slight for her talents. Another one from the great American dream factory.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 September 2020

  • Feature image: Amber (Auli’i Cravalho and Bobby, homeless  Courtesy: Netflix

Fatima

a faith-based story for believers that attempts to interrogate its subject, but never follows through

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A love of the visual steeps every frame of this lushly photographed story directed by Marco Pontecorvo. Fatima capitalises on locations set entirely in picturesque Portugal, a country that has sidestepped some of the excesses of modern development and where the Christian wayside shrine is still a commonplace.

And it is located in the very place where the events it recounts took place a little over a century ago.

The year was 1917 when the First World War was still laying waste to Europe. Portugal had only just begun to send troops to the front.

Lucia dos Santos (Stephanie Gil, the actor who was young Grace in the latest Terminator) would accompany her mother regularly to the village square to hear the Mayor (Goran Visnjic) provide the latest updates on battle casualties.

So long as they didn’t hear the name of Lucia’s older brother read out, there was always space for hope.

It was around this time that Lucia and her two cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco Marto (Jorge Lamelas), aged 7 and 9 respectively, reported receiving visions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions, which the audience is also allowed to see in the shape of Portuguese actor Joana Ribeiro, came to them while they were out tending the family’s sheep.

It was a sensational claim. Both officials of the Church and of the government of the new Portuguese republic that was founded on enlightened, secular principles, queried it. As did the children’s families, strenuously.

Lucia had instructed her cousins to keep it quiet, but it was too much of a secret for little Jacinta, who told her family straightaway.

Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, in particular, has anticipated the trouble it would cause. Lucia Moniz in this key role, provides one of the film’s most convincing performances.

The interrogation of the children was ongoing. They were subjected to stern parental disapproval, interrogation by the Mayor, a staunch republican and anti-cleric, and the regional Catholic monseigneur.

Watching a pallid Stephanie Gil during these sessions, my cinematic memory wandered over briefly to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and other films since 1973 that have been about pre-pubescent girls claiming to have seen visions.

exchanges between the professor and the nun do little to challenge this faith-based story

For viewers like me, secular and sceptical, Harvey Keitel’s character, Professor Nichols, provides welcome outsider perspective. Nichols, an academic who is researching the events in Fatima many decades later, pays a visit to the beautiful university city of Coimbra. There he interviews Lucia (Sonia Braga), who joined the church and become a nun.

It is an intriguing footnote to history that Lucia doc Santos lived on until 2005, while her two little cousins died very young, during the post WW1 global flu pandemic.

The exchanges between Nichols and Sister Lucia constitute the framing story and are some of the liveliest in the film. However, entertaining and thought-provoking as they are, they are not permitted to provide much of a challenge to the central faith-based story.

The Fatima screenplay is the work of Pontecorvo, together with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi.

It is no surprise to read that Pontecorvo entered the screen industry as a cinematographer or that he was a stills photographer before that. It is clear that the creation of visuals is a strength and a preoccupation. He has worked on productions like Games of Thrones.

However, in this secular age, his take on the story of the Marian apparitions of Fatima is very literal. Although there is a brief and intriguing scene of Hell, as conveyed to the children by Mary, the film steers well clear of sensation.

The film takes few chances, on the look or the content. It deploys few FX tricks of the film production trade now available, and concludes with footage in the closing credits of the centenary mass of 2017 conducted by Pope Francis that was held in the town of Fatima. A statement in itself.

If the name Pontecorvo sounds familiar, you may have come across it before in one of those best film lists of all time. Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco’s famous filmmaker father, directed The Battle of Algiers of 1966 which to this day remains a stirring cinema masterpiece about the resistance forces in Algeria that overthrew their French colonial masters.

Marco’s film, his fourth feature, is a much quieter project though it’s a story about the popular expression of conviction as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2020

Les Misérables

MA15+

104 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the summer of 2018, when France beat Croatia in the FIFA World Cup, the people of Paris went out on the streets, ecstatic with brotherly feeling. As throngs of fans crowded the Champs-Elysees, the Marseillaise erupted in a shared golden moment, but it was followed by serious rioting in the city.

This film is inspired by those events, a first fiction feature from documentary director Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, one of the lead actors.

the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised

It is well made, compelling and, as it turns out this year, highly relevant. An invitation to outsiders to familiarise themselves with a district of extreme disadvantage, a city within a city with a rhythm and feel all its own.

The son of immigrants from Mali, Ly grew up in Montfermeil. After the Paris riots of 2005, he decided to turn the camera on his own neighbourhood, notably in the documentary 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil.

Not long ago, Montfermeil was a no-go zone, awash with drugs, and run by competing ethnic groups. A district home to immigrants of Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghrebi origin that have lived there since it was the location of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, Les Misérables. Other immigrant groups have made their way there since.

Ly has called his fiction feature Les Misérables in a deliberate nod to Victor Hugo. The director enjoys an advantage that the author didn’t have. The cinematography by Julien Poupard, the bird’s eye drone shots and travelling shots along the streets, makes a strong contribution to atmos of the Montfermeil location.

Ly knows the area intimately, with its eclectic mix of socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse people. And he clearly understands the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised.

Ly’s Les Miserables foregrounds three policemen who work in the district’s anti-crime brigade.

Policeman Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just arrived. Experienced and credentialled, he had transferred there to be nearer to the young son who lives with his estranged wife.

It doesn’t take Ruiz long to size up the other two he has been assigned to work with. Unit leader, Chris (Manenti), is proud of his reputation ‘100% swine’, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), much quieter, is a man of Muslim background.

They take Ruiz on a tour of the hood. There is a lot to absorb, along with an introduction to the team’s methods. Chris dubs him ‘Greaser’, a derogatory nickname that appears to be part of the deal.

Chris (Alexis Manenti), unit leader in the Anti-Crime Brigade. Courtesy UniFrance

Actor Manenti, in a challenging role, is particularly convincing, as are many of the ensemble of actors who portray the various community leaders. Ly has drawn excellent performances from the youngsters too.

On tour Chris and Gwada introduce Stephane to a man who behaves likes a long lost friend, although they helped put him in prison for four years. An encounter with a trio of teenage girls is more disturbing. Chris moves in on them threateningly but partner Ruiz manages to coax him away before things escalate further. It’s a genuinely chilling close call.

In recent times, the forces of law and order and the people of Montfermeil had reached an accommodation presided over by the so-called ‘mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu).

a minor theft drives the film to its tipping point

But when a juvenile of African descent, Issa (Issa Perica), widely known as a troublemaker, steals a lion cub from a gypsy circus troupe, the precarious peace in Montfermeil careens out of control.

The theft is a relatively minor incident that could be amusing, but it drives the film to its tipping point when the police tracking down the culprit make a serious tactical blunder. This is captured by a drone controlled by a local kid and he understands its serious potential.

All the complexity is masterfully handled by Ly, whose documentarian skills come into play as the various threads of the action are brought to a cliff-hanger conclusion.

Leaving the narrative ‘unfinished,’ can be a risky way to close a film, but it can work and certainly does here. It is the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that precipitate the events that are the point here.

As even-handedly as he can, Ladj Ly has skilfully shown in this important, award winning film, how community tensions can quickly escalate to a point of no return. How everyone makes a contribution, good and bad, to this outcome is rivetting.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 August 2020

*Featured image: flics on the beat in Montfermeil, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Stephane (Damien Bonnard). Courtesy UniFrance

The Swallows of Kabul

M, 81 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Swallows of Kabul is set in the summer of 1998, a couple of years into Taliban rule in Afghanistan. This is strong stuff of course, yet not live action.

It is delicately packaged instead as an attractively rendered 2D animation in subdued pastels that look like a watercolour painting. A profoundly sad tale is told with a simple, light touch.

The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Mohammed Moulessehoul, under the name of Yasmina Khadra. The award-winning author Moulessehoul adopted this nom de plume for his writing while serving in the army in Algeria. He has talked since about how he has drawn on his experiences in the field.

Essentially, The Swallows of Kabul is a narrative involving two couples whose lives intersect, but is at the same time alive with many characters who are well-defined, interesting, sometimes even amusing.

At the time, the Afghanis are of course living in fear. Public executions frequently take place in the city squares and sport stadiums, and people cower in their houses during curfew as the Taliban hoon around in pick-ups, firing at random.

The main character, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is the artist wife of Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud). She is free inside her home, happy working at her charcoal sketches while listening to banned musicians on her boombox turned down low.

Although the book sets events in 2001, the film has located them earlier during the Taliban regime. This works better.

Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, the women bear the brunt of the regime

It is easier to believe that Zunaira, still full of vitality and hope, could be as she is. She is depicted as sumptuously beautiful, has to borrow a chador to go out, and would surely have been pulled up by the Taliban before 2001.

Every now and again a flock of swallows appears in the frame but they are not the birds the film title refers to.

It is the local women draped in their blue chadors who are the swallows, and it is their lot to be utterly unfree. Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, they bear the brunt of the regime.

Mohsen and Zunaira met at university and can recall the time when women wore skirts, and when they could go out to the cinema. She believes in a future that could return to those freedoms. Mohsen is unfortunately no longer sure.

In one of the film’s early scenes, we see understand why this has come about for him.

Early one day, vendors were slicing fruit and grilling brochettes in the city square. The traffic was wending its way through the general chaos, and the market was alive with the seductive sights and sounds typical of a Middle Eastern souk. Then it became apparent there were men standing around with Kalashnikovs. Sounds of digging could be heard, and a pile of stones was delivered.

In the stoning that follows, Mohsen casts a stone too. It is the action of a sensitive man in a loving relationship who unaccountably succumbs to mob control. It seems even worse than the street urchins who get in on the act as well.

This very impressive animated feature about a recent dark chapter in Afghani history has clarity and compassion

From this point, a string of consequences cascade. Ultimately, Zunaira is taken to the women’s prison, formerly a wing of the university, where she comes under the watchful eye of Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian).

The former army veteran has reached a low-point in his life. He and his wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass) have been childless and now she now is suffering from a terminal illness. He feels helpless. The older couple’s plight is a poignant counterpoint to the loving, young partners, Mohsen and Zunaira.

It is only the swallows, swooping and banking above the city, that are living free. When a soldier takes a pot shot and one falls from the sky it is a shocking act of casual cruelty but of a piece with everything else the regime is remembered for.

Moulessehoul’s highly regarded book has been brought to the screen by two female directors, Zabou Breitman, who contributed to the screenplay, and animator Elea Gobbe-Mevellec. It was screened at Un Certain Regard at the Cannes in 2019.

This very impressive story about a dark chapter in recent history has a clarity and compassion that lives on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 August 2020

La Belle Epoque

M, 110 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicious tale of lovers a half century apart is a postmodern romance. Part your own romantic adventure in an era of choice, part relationship drama.

Stalwarts of French cinema, actors Fanny Ardant and Daniel Auteuil, feature as a jaded older married couple, in a story intertwined with an affair in crisis between a young couple. As an entrepreneur and one of the actors he casts, Guillaume Canet and Doria Tillier play the latter.

The two veterans, Ardant and Auteuil as Marianne and Victor, are great foils for each other. She is utterly believable as the vibrant, frustrated psychoanalyst wife, while the chameleon Auteuil is spot on, unrecognisable in beard and moustache. A political cartoonist still valiantly wielding pencil and paper in the online world.

The new digital reality is something Victor doesn’t get, or want a part in. As a technophobe who doesn’t even own a cell phone, he is the butt of endless jokes, from the earliest (somewhat off-putting) scenes.

The crisis in their marriage has reached a nadir but it is made-in-heaven for the scenarist of La Belle Epoque, young director Nicolas Bedos. One of the funniest scenes takes place as they drive home in their Tesla. The self-drive vehicle lets them argue face-to-face, while GPS is telling Victor to extinguish his cigarette.

Marianne and Victor are the best of sparring partners. They have many difficulties including her open affair with, of all people, the editor, Francois (Denis Podalydes), who fired Victor from his job as a cartoonist.

At home in bed, Marianne is immersed somewhere inside her 3D goggles when Victor attempts to read his book. Things escalate cruelly for him and he is sent packing.

a meltdown with humour, generosity and wistfulness for what is past

It’s a sharp, witty screenplay from Bedos that plays both sides of the fence. It also steps back for perspective on how times have changed for each of them since they met.

Were things left at that level alone, we may feel we have squirmed in front of films like La Belle Epoque many times before. In the domestic battles that featured long ago in films like Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Ingmar Bergman’s haunting Scenes from a Marriage.

La Belle Epoque does not do that kind of total meltdown. It has humour, generosity and a wistfulness for what is past. This suits Auteuil’s dreamer who, although his satiric instincts are well honed, is not quite tethered to the new realities.

Time travel adds a delicious new dimension to this domestic drama.

Victor is offered a trip to an era of his choosing. It comes as a present from Antoine (Canet), who has been a friend of their son since childhood. He runs a business, Time Travelling Inc, that offers ‘tailor-made historical events’, professionally scripted and staged, for customers to take part in, travelling to a ‘belle epoque’ of their choice.

it flips back and forth between reality, artifice and the grey areas in between in a directorial tour de force

The tailor-made events could involve attending a party with William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway or playing the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette. Or might simply offer someone an evening of conversation with a parent who has passed away.

Antoine, a scenarist and director, has a sharp eye for actors that haven’t got themselves into character. He also has a sharp eye for anachronisms, which ensures that the immersive, attractively lit mise en scene constructed for these staged events enhances the total film experience for the cinema audience too.

Victor’s choice, as expected, is not wildly imaginative. He chooses the moment when he met Marianne at a bar in Lyon in 1974.

In another cross-current, Margot (Tillier), who Antoine is infatuated with, plays the part of the young Marianne. Antoine plays out his own feelings and manipulates her on screen.

Then Victor himself begins to develop feelings for Margot and tracks her down to the home she shares with a husband and baby. Or does she?

Time travel to the 1970s has some more entertaining possibilities than we see here, more than the boiled egg bar snacks. But the scenes in that decade are a fun and affectionate take on a decade swamped with change.

Keeping this ambitious and clever story together, flipping back and forth between the reality and the artifice and the grey areas in between is a directorial tour de force. Bedos’ next film will be eagerly anticipated.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 August 2020

*Featured image: With Margot (Doria Tillier) aboard, Victor (Daniel Auteuil) travels back in time

We’ll End Up Together

(aka Little White Lies 2)

M, 134 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In 2010, Little White Lies was an ensemble piece about a group of friends who decided to go ahead with their reunion even though one of their number had been critically injured in a motorbike accident. The bittersweet comedy about friendship hit the spot, and became a big hit in France and abroad.

We’ll End Up Together is the follow up to that film, picking up the story, not where it left off, but some years later. It is the next instalment of Little White Lies. Partners have changed or left, children have arrived on the scene, aspirations have adjusted and fortunes fluctuated.

a surprise birthday party that is neither nice nor convenient

Max (the very dependable Francois Cluzet), who has a holiday home on Cap Ferret, a spit of land on the French Atlantic coast, is once again the host, only he doesn’t know it this time. His friends arrive to spring a surprise 60th birthday party on him.

Marie (Marion Cotillard) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) join in ‘Who Am I?’

But Max is in the doldrums. His restaurant business has floundered, his marriage is over and he must now sell his holiday home at the trendy resort area. The surprise is neither nice nor inconvenient, because Max is on the point of selling up.

Well that’s too bad, I hear you thinking. And well you might, during the string of social and environmental upheavals that have marked 2020.

Max isn’t the most sympatico of people. More on the dour side. A wet blanket who puts the fire out while his friends are dancing because it’s time for him to go to bed. One wonders how he has actually kept the friends who have showed up. Then again, it has been seven years since they saw him last.

However, it’s not just about Max. It’s about friendship, the kind that lasts.

All of the characters, with the exception of several newcomers, are played by the same actors. Eric (Gilles Lellouche), who has become an established and successful actor, arrives with his baby daughter and a hilariously belligerent nanny, but, crucially, without his wife. She might be dropping MDMA in Ibiza, for all he knows.

And life has caught up with a toughened and disillusioned Marie (Marion Cotillard) who was in a partnership with Ludo (Jean Dujardin) at the time he died. Her son, who she has a tendency to forget about, is seven.

Vincent (Benoit Magimel), who had a big crush on the resolutely hetero Max in the last film, arrives with his new gay partner. His former wife, Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), has blossomed as a single and is into online dating. She is there too, with their son.

Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is the only one who apparently hasn’t much changed, and he remains the butt of most of the jokes, involving koalas, caterpillars, and other ephemera. It really is a wonder how different Lafitte is from the sinister and controversial character he once played in Elle opposite Isabelle Huppert.

Cluzet had the lead role in Canet’s murder mystery of 2006, Tell No One. It was the actor-turned-filmmaker’s second feature film and brought his work as director to international attention. His relationship with Marion Cotillard, with whom he has two children, has earned him some attention too.

a big-hearted film about friends, getting on 

It is amusing to read that Canet had to convince his fine ensemble cast to make this second film together. They didn’t sign on at first, but sent him back to do a redraft.

The first Little White Lies was compared with The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s classic American film about friends who also reunite over the death of one of their group. Canet readily admits that he admires it and has referenced it in both of his White Lies films.

He has certainly used some great American pop and rock music on the soundtrack, which I felt intruded on the francophone world. But the warm and affirming We’ll End Up Together engenders a completely different mood to the Kasdan film.

Developing the original Little White Lies was a tough experience for Canet. He wrote it quickly in six weeks, angry that friends had let him down when he landed in hospital with a life-threatening condition.

It’s interesting that We’ll End Up Together, a big-hearted film about friendship, can have begun in such a way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 August 2020

Litigante

M, 95 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Harried parents of young children know full well that some days everything seems to be happening at once. A trip to pre-school to sort out why your child has been acting like a toad can coincide with a clash with the boss who brushes your professional opinion aside.

It’s tricky, to say the least, when you are supposed to be providing him with legal advice that supports the standing of the agency you work for, and your professional future. For single mother, Silvia (Carolina Sanin), there is stress on many levels, at home and at work.

She is legal adviser to the commissioner of public works who refuses to terminate a project that has been inactive for years. A ‘huge advance’ has been paid to it and a follow-up is being considered, but Silvia is advising the commissioner terminate it. He is refusing her advice, outright.

lead actor, Carolina Sanin, is a prominent Colombian feminist

Sanin, a non-professional actor cast in the lead role of Silvia, is a prominent feminist in Bogota and, as local audiences might expect, her character isn’t going to take things lying down. She resigns her post as deputy director and quits the city department.

Columbia is a country that has, I’ve read online, one of the highest corruption indices in the world. Although corruption is woven into the fabric of the backstory, it is not one of the film’s themes.

Litigante is instead an intimate family drama set during the last weeks of life of a family matriarch, Leticia (Leticia Gomez), a vibrant, cranky former lawyer who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. She is mother to Silvia and her younger sister, Maria Jose (Alejandra Sarria), and a loving grandmother to little Toni (Antonio Martinez).

An early scene sets the tone. Silvia is driving her mother home after the MRI that showed Leticia has a tumour as well as pneumonia. She doesn’t want chemo again, Leticia declares as she lights up a cigarette. We get the picture. An ailing, forthright, headstrong lady who is hard work for those close to her.

The film is peppered with arguments, or robust exchanges of views. Many take place on a trip in the car, or in carparks. A sign, we suppose, of people living busy lives. The bitter arguments that can seem harsh at the time are always quickly overlain with genuine expressions of love and caring.

The stress of it all is nearly too much for Silvia. Soon after being subjected to an incriminating interview by journalist Abel (Vladimir Duran), Silvia meets him again while out one evening with friends. Silvia and Abel instantly discover their mutual physical attraction.

director Lillo has put a lot of himself into his film, including a role for his ailing mother

While it’s entirely plausible, the affair seems to be expedited for the sake of the narrative, in a rare unconvincing moment. When Leticia hears about it, she is horrified that her daughter has got together with the ‘jerk’ who ‘humiliated’ her in front of ‘all Columbia’. I was wondering the same thing.

Essentially, Litigante foregrounds a household dominated by three women, the ailing mother and her daughters and the supportive community to which they belong.

Director and co-writer Franco Lillo has put a lot of himself into this film. The actor who plays Leticia is his own mother, also a former lawyer, who was at the time of production in remission for a cancer of her own. Lillo is her only child.

The transcripts of interview with the filmmaker that accompany the film’s press kit are thoughtful and interesting, but I don’t think the results quite match the filmmaker’s brave aspirations, sensitive and sincere as they are.

Litigante reminded me of A Woman’s Tale by the late Dutch-Australian filmmaker Paul Cox. It also featured a performance by an actor who was, like the character she was playing, suffering from terminal cancer. Some people may feel uneasy about this.

However, it is primarily the story of a modern woman. It is Silvia’s story, the story of a woman who is juggling motherhood with her professional and personal needs.

The fact that it is set in Colombia isn’t really significant. Litigante, a family drama with universal themes, resonates with the complexity of modern life and it could have been set anywhere.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 August 2020

*Featured image: Sylvia (Carolina Sanin), Toni (Antonio Martinez) and Leticia (Leticia Gomez) relax at the pool