Never Look Away

Rated M, 3 hrs 9 mins

Dendy Cinema Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It isn’t possible to look away from this imposing film for long. Maybe to check the time―it does run for over three hours―or to block out a harrowing moment, but it has a commanding and sensual beauty that isn’t around much at the moment. Top marks to the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And like writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, it has something serious it wants to say.

The central character, Kurt Barnert, is a little boy when we meet him on a sunny day in beautiful Dresden in 1937, visiting an art exhibition with a lovely young woman, probably too young to be his mother. As they stand in wrapt attention in front of the Kandinskys and Picassos on display, the tour guide launches a rant denouncing degenerate modernism. The child hardly notices, he is entranced.

The paintings captivate his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) too and she assures Kurt he should trust his curiosity and never avert his gaze, because ‘everything true is beautiful.’ It’s all he needs to know.

Averting the gaze takes on wider implications as the narrative progresses, and is caught up in the obscenities of the Nazi regime.

At home later that day, Elisabeth’s heightened awareness turns bizarre and there is an episode of self-harm. Kurt’s beloved aunt is schizophrenic, eventually brutally eliminated by the Nazi regime for what is judged her unsuitability to bear children.

After the war, Kurt (played by Tom Schilling) is studying art, but he struggles to find meaning in the Socialist Realism he is required to produce in Communist-era East Germany. The role of the artist in society is of course what this is all about, as Kurt tries to work out his own style and vision while living through his country’s turbulent recent history.

At this time, he falls in love with another Elisabeth (Paula Beer), who he nicknames Ellie. A fashion student, an uncanny doppelganger for his late aunt, who is the daughter of a highly-ranked medical officer with a shadowy Nazi past. The ‘reveal’ as he leans towards his daughter’s bedside lamp is one of the best there is.

Sebastian Koch had a key role in The Lives of Others, as a playwright under surveillance by the Stasi. Here, as Professor Carl Seeband, he is another compelling character, and really more interesting than Schilling’s Kurt, who doesn’t have the same presence or complexity. A game something like ‘cat and mouse’ develops between Kurt and Carl, and the two generations they represent.

It has been well-documented that von Donnersmarck based this fascinating story loosely on the life and work of the German artist Gerhard Richter, and many of the details match. But it is probably safe to say that both filmmaker and artist have been at pains to distance themselves from direct attribution. This is no biopic.

Never Look Away feels like a labour of love from von Donnersmarck, who both wrote and directed, and it is so good to see his return as a filmmaker after his last film, The Tourist. A dull romantic thriller with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, it also brought beautiful people together on screen, but gave them nothing to do.

When the Nazis were consolidating their power in 1937, they understood only too well the importance of mind control. An exhibition of degenerate art famously represented much of what was wrong with the old order: individual expression, artistic freedom, and ‘dangerous’ things like that.

In its original German language version, the title for Never Look Away is Work Without Author. There is a documented reason for this that is part of the production backstory, rather than an invitation to consider any ‘death of the author’, but it adds an intriguing dimension to ways to respond.

Never Look Away or Work Without Author, what you will, it’s going to stay with you, long after viewing.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM MHz 92.7/90.3

Tolkien

Rated M, 1 hr 52 mins

Capitol Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In this new biopic about a major creative talent, actor Nicholas Hoult’s arched eyebrows and bowed mouth suggest something impish, if not elfin, about J. R. R. Tolkien. He doesn’t look one bit like Tolkien, but the popular actor has been versatile, cast in action franchises like X Men and Mad Max, and in indies like The Favourite where he lit up the screen.

Hoult would have been well suited to a part in the fabulous series that Peter Jackson created of Tolkien’s novel, Lord of the Rings. Perhaps he could make it work.

Author, poet and scholar, Tolkien is said to have single-handedly revived the fantasy genre, with a self-contained  world of myth and legend, furthermore. His lifelong career in academe may not have offered exciting material for cinema but the books he wrote sure did, most specially his imagined universe of hobbits, elves and orcs et al, complete with language.

His creative vision took millions of readers with him. Completed in 1949, LOTR, the book, has become one of the highest selling novels of all time.

he comes across as more romantic lead than great writer of high fantasy

Where did this imagined universe come from? It’s the obvious question that filmgoers will take with them to Tolkien.

Early in his formative years, Tolkien is played by Harry Gilby. Ronald, as Tolkien was known, and his younger brother, became orphans at a young age, but their mother’s mentor, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) became their guardian ensuring they had a good education, continued their affiliation with Catholicism and found a new home for them in a Birmingham boarding house.

Although the influence of his mother, who had adored myths and legends was over, Ronald’s new school paved the way for friendships with other creative types. Tolkien and a clique of like-minded friends, aspiring artistic personalities, would meet to share their work at their Tea Club Barrovian Society.

Around the same time, a friendship with another boarder, also orphaned, began to blossom. Edith Bratt is beautifully played by Lily Collins.

Tea Club Barrovian Society friends (Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Nicholas Hoult)

Like many of his generation, he experienced World War I. Though he survived, sent home with trench fever, he lost two of his closest friends.

Tolkien opens at the Battle of the Somme, in the mud and carnage and pitiless grind of trench warfare. These are powerful combat sequences and no doubt the horror of war contributed to the imaginative vision of LOTR, but we remain curious.

The lives of other writers and artists explored on screen recently may have had more filmic potential to begin with, but a dearth of strange behaviour or drunken binges, doesn’t excuse Tolkien from not trying harder to get to grips with what made Tolkien tick. A professor of philology and Anglo-Saxon, an academic over thirty years, but J. R. R. Tolkien had a vivid, let’s call it wild, imagination, a rich inner life. Just where did The Hobbit and LOTR come from?

Problem is that the screenplay that Finnish director Dome Karukoski had to work with is short on insight and imagination.  Indeed, Nicholas Hoult’s character comes across as more romantic lead than great writer of high fantasy.

This cautious and respectful biopic, leaves us needing to know more about the pipe-smoking, avuncular looking man who unleashed his imagination and inspired generations of fantasy writers.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Red Joan

Rated M, 1 hr 50 mins

Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

2.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Any film with Judi Dench commands attention. She  has brought a mix of authority, vulnerability, and humour to every role, from James Bond’s boss, M, to author Iris Murdoch, to a couple of Queen Victorias, to older women who age disgracefully or with regret. It seems we are still up for more, even while Dench is in her mid-80s.

In Red Joan, directed by veteran theatre director Trevor Nunn, she is a Soviet spy working against British interests, a tricky part to play sympathetically. When M15 bursts in on the retirement she spends gardening and painting and begin quizzing her, it is hard not to feel outraged for her character, Joan Stanley. What could such a homely, gentle woman have done to deserve such treatment?

The interrogation immediately plunges into her past, shown in extensive flashback as actor Sophie Cookson takes over as young Joan, a student of physics at Cambridge in the 1930s.  She falls under the spell of a pair of fervent young Communists who seduce her studious young self with their flamboyant foreign ways. The attempted induction at a screening of the propaganda masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, where Sonya (Tereza Srbova) introduces Joan to Leo (Tom Hughes), is not successful. Joan falls in love, but does not become a party member.

As young Joan, Cookson makes an appealing, intriguing character, a scientist who leads with heart and mind.

the spy who inspired this film, the late Melita Norwood, was a lot clearer about where she stood

After graduating with a first, Joan lands a job with a team engaged in top secret nuclear research, the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, based in London. It’s a secretarial and admin position, until her bosses discover – in one of several toe-curling moments – she can actually make a contribution to the science.

While in thrall to Leo, she copies secret material about the development of the atomic bomb for passing on to the Soviet Union. She also has an affair with her insipid, married boss, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The flow of secrets to the Soviets continued and she managed to avoid detection for nearly 40 years until finally arrested in the  1990s. She admitted what she had done and remained unrepentant, declared her internationalist outlook was founded on a level playing field that would give the Russians and their new system an equal chance. Eventually, the British government released her without charge.

it won’t be surprising if you feel you have been had

Joan (Judi Dench) with her barrister son (Ben Miles)

The Soviet spy who inspired this film, the late Melita Norwood, was a lot clearer about where she stood and was indeed a member of the Communist Party. She also had a daughter, not a barrister son who stood by her as the film imagines.

Unlike ‘red Joan’, Norwood did not study physics, nor go to Cambridge. She studied Latin and logic briefly at the University of Southampton, which the filmmakers may have decided was not quite as picturesque. At least the look of this British period drama, the sets and costumes, is impeccable.

Yet the effort is misplaced. If the film had stuck to the true story of the Soviet’s longest serving British spy, who passed top secret information to the KGB from the 1930s until the 1990s, that would have been a better bet.

Something far closer to the truth deserved to be told. There is a fascinating true story of Melita Norwood that the film gives little credit to, and it won’t be surprising if you feel you have been had.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

2040

Rated G, 1 hr 32 mins

Dendy Cinema Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In a couple of decades, twentysomething Australians may be turning to their parents to ask: what were you thinking? why didn’t you do something?

Velvet Gameau is a likely exception. Her dad, Damon, has made this film, and the committed parent and high school science teacher in him has persuaded us to think again about what can be done about climate change.

Despite it being a key issue for voters at the recent federal election, it seems to have paralysed government as politicians duel for political ascendancy, though business is at least being pro-active.

2040 is based on ‘what if’. What if we adopted projects for combatting climate change that are already operating, here and overseas, and made them mainstream? What if we grew well-being and health instead of inequality and pollution? These are simple and powerful questions.

Without hammering away at proving the issue exists, 2040 makes anthropomorphic climate change a given and demonstrates what can be done to help mitigate it.

Feeling helpless and hopeless is not an option for Gameau, an actor and activist filmmaker, whose feature documentary That Sugar Film in 2014 exposed the hidden sugar content in processed food, even food labelled healthy, and had a big impact here and overseas. Making himself the guinea pig to prove the thesis, he ate ‘healthy’, low fat food and within 60 days had acquired symptoms of liver disease.

Like then, like now, inaction is not an option for Gameau, and citizen activism the way to go. 2040 is structured around visits to experts and practitioners who are showing how practical measures can mitigate climate change. First stop on Gameau’s fact-finding tour is Bangladesh. Over there, de-centralised renewable energy micro-grids that connect household solar panels are opening up possibilities hitherto undreamed of.

The grid system explained by a 23-year-old Bangladeshi is impressive, underway, and one of the most striking take-home points of this ‘science lesson’. Universalising the education of girls is another.

A varied list of promising developments is presented that includes regenerative farming, greening inner city spaces, ride-share, autonomous electric vehicles, and farming fast-growing kelp to drawdown carbon from the atmosphere. And maybe eat it too. It’s all food for cautious optimism, and that’s not even taking Australia’s potential as a renewable powerhouse into account.

The thesis that we already have at our disposal the tools for a just and resilient zero-carbon economy underwrites Gameau’s vision for what the world could look like in 2040. He calls it ‘fact-based dreaming’, and it’s a timely intervention among the ‘end of the world’ blockbusters that seem to have gripped our collective imagination. Apocalyptic dystopias give special effects and computer generation image artists exciting licence, but too often they run the show with spectacle taking precedence over plot and character.

Back in 2002 there was a moment in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker when Gameau’s docile character wrested control from rampaging fanaticism. Working with his own script and under his own direction, Gameau’s film 2040 is another surprising, spirited intervention.

The futuristic scenario in 2040 recognises the powerlessness and disillusion brought about by a lack of imagination, political will and leadership, and shows what can be done, and what is being done. Australians, especially young Australians, are likely to take this film to heart.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

Rated MA15+

2 hrs 12 mins

Palace Electric

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This film is from the Middle East, written and directed by Rami Alayan and Muayad Alayan, and about infidelity.  An affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who met as he made deliveries at her café in West Jerusalem, and the consequences of the liaison in a place where fidelity to one’s tribe is paramount.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem was made with the assistance of production finance from countries like Germany and the Netherlands, as the Palestinian film industry is virtually non-existent.

It opens at the home of bakery delivery driver, Saleem, making tea for himself and his wife. The image of domestic harmony is suddenly ruptured, like a fist through a wall, in a raid by security forces who drag Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) away to interrogate him about an Israeli woman that he is supposed to have recruited.

What could the man have done to deserve such treatment? Flashbacks explain, as by that point the affair is over.

One night after meeting and making love in Saleem’s delivery van, as per usual, Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), had accompanied him on a delivery run into the West Bank, with hiding in the back of his van. The risky venture accomplished without incident, Saleem suggests a drink at a Bethlehem bar. Sarah agrees reluctantly, but they are betrayed by another patron who realises that she isn’t Dutch at all, as she claims, but Israeli.

After Saleem is hauled in for questioning and Sarah’s husband, a colonel in the Israeli army on undercover assignments, becomes aware of his wife’s infidelity, there is hell to pay. It is clear that no one can believe that the affair is just an affair, there has to be more to it.

It’s hard to imagine a worse predicament. Ensnared in a web of misunderstanding and paranoia, Sarah and Saleem become trapped between sides in the vicious and intractable feud that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How the affair had begun is not explored, unfortunately, only explained by scenes showing how the couple met across the counter at the café that Sarah runs. The opening titles claim the film is inspired by true events, so more insight into such risky liaisons would have been interesting. If relationships like this can and do happen, can we imagine there is hope yet for ending conflict?

Saleem’s wife Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi)

It was also surprising to learn that alcohol is served at bars with intimate dance floors in the Palestinian Territories. A vigorous sex scene or two in the back of the van is another surprise.  A lot less pleasant is the jolt when, on the road to Bethlehem, Israel’s massive security wall suddenly looms into view, a foreboding and futile barrier to interaction.

All actors are captured up close and personal and they do a great job,  though the film style is a bit prosaic way and some scenes are needlessly long.

Towards the end, however, the deliberate pacing seems spot on. As our attention turns more and more to Saleem’s pregnant wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), and as a relationship develops between her and Sarah, the film becomes very moving and powerful.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

All is True

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is Shakespeare as you have never seen him before, and might find hard to believe. It takes place during the last three years of his life, when he had returned from London to live at his family home in the countryside, working on the garden. There is not a jot of creative writing in sight.

When the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, after a canon misfire during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, he retreated to Stratford-upon Avon, to live with his wife and daughters.

a tantalisingly vacant space to fill

Little is known about him during the years before his death, a relatively sudden event, at 52. It is a tantalising vacant space to fill in the Bard’s life, into which steps veteran actor Kenneth Branagh.

The only portrait we have of Shakespeare depicts a man with a sensual mouth and a wide intelligent brow. In his period wig and beard, the appearance of a heavily disguised Branagh with prosthetically lengthened nose, is a close enough to the mark.

Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) with daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson)

Ben Elton’s screenplay imagines the great man in everyday life, in a contemplative frame of mind, even getting an occasional reproach for absences and lapses from his wife, Anne Hathaway (played here by the redoubtable Judi Dench), and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson).

An occasional visitor brings the outside world in. His patron, the Earl of Southampton (a sprightly Ian McKellen), the ‘fair youth’ who inspired Shakespeare’s poetry, arrives for a chat in one of the film’s highlights.

This intimate meeting, like all other interactions indoors during the evening, takes place in candlelight. The production designer has kept all the period detail authentic, without concessions to modern cravings for atmosphere or expressive lighting.

Shakespeare is less pleased to see a young admirer and aspiring writer who drops in. It interrupts his gardening, and the youth is given short shrift with the advice to simply get started if he wants to write.

dismissive of his own legacy, consumed by the loss of his son

Some of the film’s key moments are filmed from a very low angle. It might be meant to signify Shakespeare’s greatness, to remind us of his lofty stature as a poet and dramatist for all time, but it just looks a bit odd.

While Shakespeare is dismissive of his own legacy in this life story, he is consumed by the loss of his son, 11-year-old Hamnet who died many years before, while he was away.

Few of us may have known that he had a son, and the fact of it makes an interesting focal point of this homecoming by a man so absent from family, and so much of the world.

All is True is the alternative title of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, a collaboration with one John Fletcher, who doesn’t get a mention here. It’s a playful title for a film founded on conjecture rather than fact.

All in all, it’s a slight piece, and tends to sound contemporary, to help make the great man more accessible. He had family issues like everybody else, but I’m not convinced that Shakespeare’s family would have communicated with him the way they do during very different times, four centuries ago.

Shakespeare (Branagh) and wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench)

Production design and costumes and candle-lit interiors give the film a strong sense of authentic period detail, despite doubts about the authenticity of language, and of manners and family relationships.

The mystery that is William Shakespeare may never be resolved. Perhaps the intellectual acuity, wisdom and poetry of his plays and sonnets, a contribution to the English language that none can match, is all we need to know and better kept that way.

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

Top End Wedding

M, 1 hr 53 mins

All Canberra cinemas

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Everything was good to go and to go well. He had proposed on bended knee, she had accepted and even her intimidating boss had given her 10 days’ leave.

The wedding was to be held at short notice in Darwin, the bride’s home town, but when the pair arrive, they catch up with developments that put a stop to everything.

The bride’s mum has cleared out and is gallivanting around, who knows where. An enigmatic note she left offers no clue, while her dad cannot remember to get out of his pyjamas and keeps disappearing into the pantry where he keeps the Chicago ballad ‘If You Leave Me Now’ on rewind.

Now Lauren, played by the dynamic and very talented Miranda Tapsell, is as decisive as she is big-hearted, and immediately declares the wedding on hold. Her fiancé Ned, a laid-back Englishman played by Gwilym Lee, simply adores her and will do what needs to be done to make her happy.

As the pair search high and low for Lauren’s mum, Daphne (Ursula Yovich), across Kakadu, through the Katherine Gorge and other stunning Northern Territory locations, she leads them a wild goose chase that includes an hilarious encounter with a hunky helicopter pilot who specialises in tours for mature female clients.

It is a pity we do not actually meet Daphne until the end, because Yovich brings so much to the role in the short time she has on screen and it would have been interesting to know more of her character’s story. The film’s first scenes are a flashback of her aboard a runabout, escaping to the mainland as her wedding party stand helplessly on the shore. Daphne has form at clearing out.

On the other hand, we could have done with less or, at least subtle, product placement. It is actually quite obtrusive here.

The high point in Top End Wedding is clearly the return to country, in the beautiful Tiwi Islands just north of Darwin. A joyous reunion is the beating heart of this film, a rousing finale brimming with goodwill for all. We would expect nothing less from Wayne Blair, who directed the outstanding musical comedy, The Sapphires, a huge success in 2012.

Miranda Tapsell was in that too, as one of a group of four Indigenous Australian singers who entertained troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. Here in Top End Wedding she is just as natural and charming, and shows how well she can carry a film on her own. What’s more she co-wrote it, with Joshua Tyler.

It is also terrific to see Kerry Fox as Hampton, the slave-driving boss who finds her heart, but some of the other characters in Top End Wedding are overdrawn and clichéd, a reminder that less is more. If the storytelling is at times a bit clumsy, at its best, this new romantic comedy is a frothy, feel-good treat.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Burning

Rated M, 2 hrs 28 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s good to see a film like this, an all too rare event. A simmering drama from South Korea that slowly and inexorably turns the screws as a young man searches for clues about a young woman who has disappeared.

Maestro of psychological thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock built a career on stories like this, with characters who didn’t know what was going on, who were trapped and compelled to unravel the mystery, if they could. The classic Vertigo in which Kim Novak’s blonde vamp leads James Stewart’s retired detective astray is for many the acme of Hitch’s tales of disorientation and obsession.

As with Vertigo, the audience for Burning will need to be patient and settle to its unhurried rhythms while being fed information, possibly inconclusive and even contradictory, one pellet at a time. If film goers entrust themselves to Chang-dong Lee’s direction, slow paced and nuanced, the rewards will be worth the wait.

Drawn from a short story by the master Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, it is based a screenplay the director developed with co-writer Jungmi Oh.

Burning is framed by a search for a story. Aspiring writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has completed his studies and really wants to find a good story to launch his career. While doing his rounds as a deliveryman, he bumps into a Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who he knew at school but seems to have forgotten. She seems rather flaky, but it seems she has not, however, forgotten him.

There is a little time to get acquainted before she leaves for a holiday in Africa. Jong-su agrees to drop in to her apartment to feed her cat. However, it never makes an appearance and Hae-mi returns with another man in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun), a suave and cultivated Porsche-driver whom she met at the airport in Nairobi.

an aching sense of interpersonal, inter-generational and social alienation readers of Murakami’s writing will recognise

Ben is an enigma. There is backstory to Jong-su, that includes a violent father and an isolated, dilapidated home in farmland on the outskirts of Paju, but there is little to learn about Ben. Except that for him work is ‘play’. Why is he, rich and idle, spending time with Hae-mi, a shopgirl so unlike the people he consorts with? Does he amuse himself with girls like her then move on?

Before she went to Africa in search of the meaning of life, Hae-mi had a job gyrating in skimpy clothes at a store to lure customers inside. Ben observes her isolation, but for all three young people there is an aching sense of interpersonal, inter-generational and social alienation that readers of Murakami’s writing will recognise.

Sense of place is strong, from Hae-mi’s tiny apartment, to Ben’s affluent home to the rundown farm where Jong-su lives. The backstreets of the city and the byways of the country take on a malevolence as Jong-su stalks Ben into the countryside and the old industrial areas beyond.

With Hae-mi disappeared and with Jong-su having little to lay claim to, Burning seems to be asking why the idle rich can strip ordinary working people of all they own.

Is a Jong-su’s obsession reality or fiction? On more than one occasion, a teasing cut suggests the aspiring writer is waking from a fevered dream.

While the truth is elusive in this atmospheric mystery drama, there is no doubt at all about the very visceral way that it all ends.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Woman at War

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Of the various women warriors on the big screen this week, Woman at War is the most unusual. It is a clever balancing act that is both playful and serious, while suggesting that Icelandic humour and world view can hit the spot at times.

In Captain Marvel, a young female warrior played by Brie Larson is learning to unleash her powers and take her place in the pantheon of superheroes. The biggest blockbuster of the year so far and still going strong, it has quite a smart, witty script and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance to recommend it.

Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, barely recognisable if not fully convincing, certainly packs a punch. As a driven LAPD detective on a vendetta, Kidman is tracking down a vicious criminal mastermind who has escaped justice. It is one of those interesting films that really divides critics and audiences, and it is as gritty and grim as Captain Marvel is as fun and forgettable.

A very different kind of quest motivates Woman at War, a comedic drama from Iceland that is directed with wit and brio by Benedikt Erlingsson, who also co-wrote it with Olafur Egilsson.Woman at War plots the course of an environmental activist who, like David to Goliath, confronts a giant multinational corporation, Rio Tinto in fact, that is ruining the pristine countryside. In her efforts to stop it building another aluminium smelter, with Chinese backing, she becomes an enemy of the state in this engaging and eccentric film, right out of left field.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), raises her long bow and fires in the first scene. Bullseye. Single-handedly – well almost, a couple of others are in the know – she closes down vast sections of the grid and holds an entire country, albeit a small one, to ransom.

When not moonlighting as a committed activist, Halla is a healthy, energetic choir director who fits in well with her community. She is single, and at 49 years waiting to hear whether her application to adopt an orphan from the Ukraine has been successful. She had all but forgotten about it, but it comes through and hears that a little girl is waiting for her.

Now what does she do? How to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood with militant activism to save the planet from environmental disaster? These are weighty issues. Perhaps the pacifist strategies of the heroes she has on her wall at home, Mandela and Gandhi, will inform her.

Along the way on Halla’s journey, a trio of musicians has been playing in the background and sometimes in Halla’s own home, even turning on the telly. It is a marvellously eccentric interpolation. Later on, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers share the frame with Halla. What an inspired idea, to have the score played and sung by performers who appear in the same space as the actors.

Another diverting device that keeps the mood buoyant is the hapless Spanish tourist cycling around the country. He keeps being found by the police in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Halla’s acts of sabotage. It is an hilarious incidental detail.

When Halla’s twin sister, also played by Geirharosdottir, unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is indeed the other side of the coin, looking for fulfilment and inner peace and harmony in her yoga and meditation. Asa’s appearance means even more screen time with this excellent lead actress.

In less deft and subtle hands this funny fable from a remote and idiosyncratic land could have turned out differently. Woman at War could have been simply weird, but it is an unequivocal success instead.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz/90.3MHz Tuggeranong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Film Festival 2019

The Spanish Film Festival 2019 is book-ended with comedies. It has opened with Champions and will close with Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 30 years young this year.

Javier Fesser’s critically acclaimed Champions was the biggest hit at the Spanish box office in 2018 and Spain’s entry for best foreign film at the Oscars.

The best in new Spanish cinema on the 32-film program includes works by female directors, like Yuli (directed by Iciar Bollain) about a legendary Cuban dancer, the first to perform some of ballet’s iconic roles, and The Chambermaid (directed by Lila Aviles).

The best new work from the Spanish-speaking world is showcased as well in Cine Latino, with work from Mexico and Central and South America, such as The Quietude (by Argentine director, Pablo Trapero).

In 2019, the Moro Spanish Film Festival is screening across Australia until 26 May. It is hosted by Palace Electric Cinema in Canberra, where it screens until 8 May.

Follow this link for more information