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

Sometimes Always Never

PG, 1 hr  27 mins

4 Stars

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Words, words, words are at the heart of the matter in this offbeat tale of a fastidious man, a retired tailor who has lost one of his sons. He is a fiend at Scrabble who can get a triple word score but he is at a loss with people he cares for.

In the striking opening scene, Alan (Bill Nighy), still as a statue, gazes out to sea. He is dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella, and as solitary as the other iron men statues at Crosby Beach near Liverpool that are scattered across the shore.

For many years, Alan has been searching for the elder son who stood up from a scrabble game one evening and left, over a word dispute, never to return. His other son, Peter (Sam Reilly, so great in Control), is the one who stayed behind in Liverpool, married, lived a steady life and now has a son of his own, teenager Jack (Louis Healy).

However, Alan is forever gazing into the blue yonder, on the lookout for the prodigal that got away, failing to appreciate what he has. This elision and under-appreciation has turned his son Peter a touch sour.

Things get going with a trip to the morgue, of all places, where there’s a body that might be the missing Michael, and just when that macabre movement of revelation seems about to occur, the film pulls back. Sometimes Always Never is like that, skidding across those hard and difficult surfaces while keeping the tone light, making the film an unexpected pleasure.

a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with an oblique, jaunty eccentricity

When the body proves to belong to someone else, Peter and Alan continue their trip together to follow up more leads. At a hotel, the indefatigable Alan the chance to rip a bloke off at Scrabble and somehow, we don’t see how exactly, make a pass at the mans’ wife (Jenny Agutter). The interlude brings into the focus the gap between father and son.

The search is quickly abandoned and on their return home, Alan is politely offered a place to stay. In no time, Jack has turfed Jack out of his bunk bed and taken over his computer, the gateway to a world of Scrabble partners online. Peter is very put out but his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) doesn’t seem to mind that much and Alan, sartorial snob that he is, has a transformational impact on his grandson.

what’s with these adverbs of frequency?

Laced with observations on the English character and sensibility, Sometimes Always Never is a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with that an oblique, jaunty eccentricity that only the British can manage without cloying sentimentality. An accomplished balancing act.

The film is a quest to find the prodigal becomes a quest to find what’s missing in the ones who are left behind. Based on a short story by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and illustrated with wonderful, imaginative production direction by Tim Dickel, it is superbly well directed by first-timer Carl Hunter.

So what’s with these adverbs of frequency in the title? Are they rules for life? It’s something along those lines, but the lesson takes an unexpected turn, which is one of the many gentle surprises and delights on offer here.

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

FCCA awards outstanding achievement in Australian film

Film Critics Circle of Australia awards are held annually to recognise outstanding achievement in Australian film. This year’s contenders for best fiction feature are Breath, Cargo, Ladies in Black, Strange Colours and Sweet Country.

The awards recognise the best in direction, performance, script writing, musical composition, editing and cinematography, and in feature documentary filmmaking.

Backtrack Boys, Ghosthunter, Gurrumul, Have You Seen the Listers?, Island of Hungry Ghosts and Midnight Oil 1984 are nominated for best documentary feature.

FCCA awards recognise excellence and originality in all categories of Australian film, and reflect the views of FCCA film critics without input from industry or the film-going public.

Awards night is Thursday 4 April 2019, at Paddington/Woolahra RSL from 6.30 pm for a 7.15 pm start

For booking information visit the FCCA website

Swimming with Men

M, 1 hr 37 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 Stars

Angst and how to lose it. Swimming with Men is pool immersion therapy that pokes fun at itself and encourages us to have a good laugh at its expense.

Synchronised swimming works wonders for a harried accountant, Eric (Rob Brydon of The Trip comedy series with Steve Coogan), who does laps at the local pool, but the silent blue world, counting tumble turns and following the black line up and down, doesn’t seem to soothe the work and relationship worries. These are mostly of Eric’s own making, but with little help from his busy wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) or his bemused teenage son, he is heading for a mid-life crisis.

 No questions asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret

There’s a group of men who meet at the pool for synchronised swimming. They have also hit the wall and recognise their symptoms in a glimpse of Eric at the pub, tossing back double G&Ts.  They offer a gentle invitation to join them for a little camaraderie with the exercise, no questions will be asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret and it is all about a focus on the swimming.

Eric Rob Brydon) caught practising moves at work

There is basis in fact for this apparently daft idea. Swimming with Men, with deft direction from Oliver Parker and engaging screenplay from Aschlin Ditta, is a riff on a documentary from 2010 about a team of middle-aged Swedish men who eventually took their hobby to competition to find, just like the characters do here, that they were in competition with teams from countries like Japan, the Czech Republic and Italy. The idea has already caught on.

Although it doesn’t have the same energy and grist and grind as that fave feel good movie The Full Monty, Swimming with Men has the same heart for its motley crew of characters. Including the wayward young Tom (Thomas Thurgoose) who the cops are after.

And a couple of the men are simply there, ‘new guy’ and nameless, caught by the camera doing funny things in the background. Change rooms offer such possibilities.

Basis in fact for this apparently daft idea

Synchronised swimming may look silly, but I discovered online that an it was an Australian, Annette Kellerman, who pioneered both water ballet, as it was once called, and the one-piece bathing suit, her design. Nothing silly there. It has been an accredited Olympic sport for decades.

However, this is not a review to give water ballet/synchronised/or artistic swimming a boost. This is to say that Swimming with Men is sweet silliness, even if it doesn’t always maintain the hilarity, and is most definitely feel good. If this is what’s needed during this dark month, then go see it.

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

 

Green Book

M, 2 hrs 10 mins

Capitol Cinema Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

A highly entertaining movie released weeks ago and in a major upset won the Oscar for Best Film. Green Book has since had a new lease of life at the box office, which was to be expected. Although it can’t be deemed a progressive film, on the strength of its performances the award is very well deserved.

Made on a relatively small production budget, it was cruising along well enough before the Oscar windfall, attracting some negative reviews but strong word of mouth, for its humour, its humanity and outstanding lead actor performances.

Indeed, it has had surprising box office success around the world, where it is well ahead of other best film nominees, BlakkKlansman, The Favourite and Vice. It has been doing well in China, which is interesting.

A key issue with Green Book is that it could so easily have been made 50 years ago, during the decade of civil rights movements

The film’s title appropriates the name of a travel guide for black Americans in the Deep South that infamously identified the places where they would be welcome. There are some scenes demonstrating the appalling depths to which racial prejudice can stoop, but the title Green Book is in my view a clumsy attempt to attach a kind of high seriousness to itself that it doesn’t actually have.

When In the Heat of the Night came out in 1967 it was a riveting, indignant crime drama combining Sidney Poitier’s elegant black northerner detective with Rod Steiger’s rough, racist southerner policeman. They were investigating a murder together in Mississippi. That film showed how mutual, professional and personal respect could grow and prosper across the racial divide, something that Green Book does as well.

If Green Book isn’t alert and ‘woke’ enough to racial injustice in society, its qualities need not be dismissed for these reasons alone. It is a gentle, odd couple relationship comedy in which the lead character has the opportunity to improve.

Based on true events, it tracks a 3-month trip undertaken by Tony ‘The Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a rough and tumble bouncer from the Bronx, and the elegant black American concert pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who hired him as a driver and minder for a concert tour of the American South.

It is a road movie and hence belongs to that genre that narrates a quintessential journey towards understanding, enlightenment, or disillusion – what you will.

Mortensen’s character, a crude, casually racist and rather ignorant person, gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it

Despite the reservations, Green Book has a lot going for it. Namely, a truly outstanding character study of a rather crude, casually racist and ignorant person, Mortensen’s character, who gets the chance to learn about himself, and to his credit he takes it.

Mortensen declined the fat suit option, by the way, and acquired 20 kilos for the role to help keep the production budget down.

Playing opposite him as the refined and educated black maestro, Shirley, Mahershala Ali won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance.

Given the popular contenders, A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, and other excellent nominees, Roma and The Favourite, Green Book’s Oscar for best film, was a surprise for all, not just Spike Lee. Granted, it’s not great cinema, but Green Book is a showcase for two outstanding performances – one formally recognised with the best supporting actor that also went to Mahershala Ali.

A best film Oscar is a major windfall for director, Peter Farrelly, who  contributed some of the earliest ‘gross out’ comedies like There’s Something About Mary and hasn’t exactly distinguished himself to this point. The direction is workmanlike, but he had a hand co-writing the lively and engaging screenplay with collaborators including Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son).

It is Viggo Mortensen who had the biggest hand in making Green Book the film it is.

The Academy may wake up to this a few years down the track and give him the Oscar that should be on his mantelpiece now. It’s the way it works.

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

 

 

Everybody Knows

Review by © Jane Freebury

M, 2 hr 13 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

3.5 Stars

In the ambience of the Spanish countryside, star couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, look so completely at home it is easy to forget that in Everybody Knows they are being directed by a filmmaker from a very different part of the world. Though he says that he felt very much at home in Spain when on a family holiday some years ago, the acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi hails of course from Iran.

Now who wouldn’t feel at home in Spain? Spanish people can be so warm, expressive and direct, and what’s not to love about a country so in touch with its past and with so much zest for life in the present.

Be that as it may, it’s wonderful that this celebrated filmmaker is able to work outside Iran. He has done so before. He worked with French actors on his film The Past set partly in Paris—though it may be a while before he works in the US. Despite his green card he will not be visiting the land of Trump.

In Everybody Knows, Farhadi remains in familiar genre territory, that is, exploring the tensions within couples and within families, but on this occasion his characters are not Iranian, but Spanish, and they are free to express. To audiences in the West at least, Farhadi’s finely wrought, unsettling Iranian melodramas have a restraint and an ambiguity that resists easy interpretation and provokes questions.

Not so, Everybody Knows. The psychological and covert here take second place to the overt, the expressive, and mystery pertains to characters out-of-frame.

Events revolve around the character of Laura (Cruz), who is visiting from Argentina with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding, though not with husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) for the time being. It is joyful reunion that culminates in a big dance party, captured on a hovering drone, in the village square. Farhadi, although from a country where singing and dancing in public are banned, handles these scenes with ease and confidence.

One by one the characters reveal their foibles. Family patriarch is a rather grumpy old man. Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (an exuberant Carla Campra), has a wild streak. Other associates of the family, like Paco (Bardem) and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie) who run a successful vineyard, we get to know more slowly.

When Irene disappears during the wedding celebrations and her kidnappers begin to send threatening messages, the family relationships are stripped bare. It’s when Cruz comes into her own as the distraught mother.

Initially, it is outsiders who come under suspicion. There are multiple possible suspects working among the migrant grape pickers in Paco’s vineyards. For some time, the film entertains this possibility, and it makes for tense kidnap drama, though the film falls short of the appellation of thriller.

If some family were apprehensive about Laura’s return, others were delighted to see her, while there were also those who, in their way, were prepared. There is a backstory that would have made Everybody Knows that much more interesting.

With its gorgeous leads and rural backdrop, it has convincing performances with tense moments. Only this film doesn’t have that finely wrought complexity so distinctive of Farhadi, in which much is actually left unsaid. That’s what is missing. Finely wrought, high intensity drama that unwinds like a coiled spring, leaving matters unresolved and leaving us high and dry.

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

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

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

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2019

You cannot take France out of cinema nor the cinema out of France. French filmmakers were among the pioneers, and from the very start in silent films to the ‘new wave’ and since, the movies have always been intrinsic to French culture.

Today as filmmakers scramble to be cutting edge, digital technology can often drive what we see on screen at the expense of stories about real people. It is this humanist tradition that we can count on at the French Film Festival every year.

Juliette Binoche and Guillaune Canet in Non-Fiction

Highlights of the exciting and diverse program of 54 films include the latest from celebrated directors, like The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard), High Life (Claire Denis), Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas), By the Grace of God (Francois Ozon), and The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard). And there is a retrospective of Alain Resnais’ avant-garde classic, Last Year at Marienbad.

Otherwise you might home in on the latest films from exciting new talent like Amanda (Mikhael Hers), In Safe Hands/Pupille (Jeanne Herry), and thrillers Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzales) and Revenge (Coralie Fargeat).

Then again, there are plenty of opportunities to laugh with comedies that address various personal crises  light-heartedly, such as Sink or Swim, Kiss & Tell and The Trouble With You, or you can simply share the joy of the music festival in Le Grand Bal.

Each to his own.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is screening across Australia from 7 March to 10 April. In Canberra, the AFFFF is hosted by Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton

The Mule

Rated M, 1 hr 57 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Capitol Cinema Manuka, Hoyts Woden and Belconnen, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

This is the latest film from an actor whose career began in the 1950s. He has maintained a high profile as a performer and filmmaker each decade since which in itself it gives us pause for thought. That’s a very long time in the public eye, but Clint Eastwood has kept ahead of the curve.

What has he in store for us this time?

As Eastwood approaches his 90th year, he has done his own version of ‘breaking bad’, in which he repeatedly commits execrable crime but justifies it to himself – we surely can’t believe he is duped – with largesse for family members and worthy organisations like veterans of foreign wars.

The Mule is the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a grandfather and noted horticulturist, who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel, making deliveries to Chicago. How could anyone suspect that such a venerable person might have cocaine stowed in duffel bags among the pecans in the back of his pickup truck?

No one could suspect him because of his age and clean record, and it gives him a free pass on the highway, working under the nose of the team from the DEA, led by Bradley Cooper’s agent Colin Bates. Even the ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) who we expect knew him well doesn’t catch on when Earl tells her the truth.

The concept is not a fanciful, either. The Mule is based on a media report that is hard to improve upon.

In 2014, The New York Times ran the story of one Leo Sharp, a veteran and horticulturist famous for his day lilies who became a drug mule, and eventually the cartel’s star recruit. Sharp’s name is changed to Earl Stone in the film, written by Nick Schenk, the screenwriter Eastwood worked with on Gran Torino, another film in which he plays, with some alarming ease, a bigoted old codger.

It’s a role tailor made for Eastwood. Relaxed, behind the wheel of his Ford he looks the part as much as he did on the back of a horse. The laid-back soundtrack suits the languid pacing, though running time is indulgently long. As a crime drama it is largely amiable and easy going, with little tension, and nothing like the high-stakes game that drug running is in real life.

This is because The Mule, with its incidental threesome and gun-toting criminals, is less crime drama than it is a family drama. Earl regrets his failures as a husband and father. It is noteworthy that Eastwood’s daughter Alison has a key role as Iris, who is—wait for it—Earl’s estranged daughter.

Earning a small fortune with every delivery, Earl uses it to buy back the family home and to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, but he also gives of his time, the thing that was so much harder for him to yield to those who needed him.

Eastwood so often manages to weave social commentary into his films. It’s what that makes them resonate, time and again. Here he is an elderly, working class male with racist and chauvinist attitudes, who is trying to learn a few life lessons in a fast-changing world that offers shrinking opportunity to him and his kind.

An eye to the big picture seems to me why, over the long years, Eastwood often has something to say beyond the plot and character. This is not his best work, but it encourages thought rather than satiation. When you think about it, the simple cowboy of Rawhide has come a long way.

Jane’s reviews can also be read at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Diaries)