Author Archives: Jane Freebury

Back to Burgundy

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a familiar face in the background in Back to Burgundy. An actor often seen in French films, but his name may not be front of mind. It will be from now on, because Jean-Marc Roulot is a winemaker and this delicious new film from Cedric Klapisch was filmed on his estate.

Roulot is cast here as the estate manager. He is not a central character but he has supplied the vineyard location and intimate, vigneron knowledge to help make this blend of family relationships and vigneron documentary such an organic and authentic pleasure.

The director and co-writer Klapisch has shown great flair for stories about young adults, characters trying to work out how to live their lives. Romain Duris has featured in his best-known films – The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle – as a young man with one too many options. It’s the youthful dilemma that Klapisch gives such a generous and empathetic treatment.

The gentle hills of Burgundy are a long way from Paris and all that the city offers, but peaceful rural settings can have problems of their own. Here it’s the transferral of vigneron tradition on a family estate to three adult siblings.

Their father has just passed away. On a practical level, when is it best to harvest, this Thursday or next week? Where is the best spot to start? Stems on or stems off in the vat? And, who is in charge here anyway?

The eldest sibling, Jean (Pio Marmai), has just turned up unannounced after a long absence. He has a small vineyard back in his new home in Australia and a partner there and young son, he but cannot adequately explain away his silence over the last ten years. His sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot) and his brother, Jeremie (Francois Civil), the youngest, aren’t ready to forgive him straightaway.

Now back in France, Jean has a new set of issues to resolve long-distance, but he wields his phone this time, in endless conversations with Alicia (Maria Valverde) in Australia. It’s an opportunity to have a bit of fun at Jean’s expense.

Some of the family tension is deeply felt but a far cry from a recent French film set in a family vineyard, You Will Be My Son, directed by Gilles Legrand. It is also driven by a father-son feud and events there unfold in very chilling circumstances indeed. Jeremie’s father-in-law, Anselme (Jean-Marie Winling), is another exacting, autocrat of the vineyard. What is it with the older generation of vignerons?

Flashbacks in Back to Burgundy unpack the issues, more or less, but scenes set in the past have been thrown into the mix, without being coded past tense and it doesn’t make for awkward transitions between timeframes. I was also left wondering why the hand of the dying father – all we see of him in palliative care – is not the hand of an obviously older man. These visual points are not critical, but the casual airiness of the piece and its spirited ensemble performances are, in my view, let down by some lack of attention to detail.

In other ways, the film’s aesthetic contributes a great deal with beautiful exterior scenes, high-angle and from unexpected perspectives. The way the end of harvest party is captured is a triumph. Klapisch knows how to party.

Alexis Kavyrchine’s camera captures the tangled web of familial relationships, from tightly experienced interiors to the panoramas of vineyards spilling over rolling hills. With her documentary eye, she also captures aspects of the winemaking process in such a way that it is easily integrated into the narrative.

As Jean stays on over the course of a year, the camera goes wide to reveal the four seasons. As everyone gets on with the things that need doing, the seasonal rhythms seem somehow to help the healing process.

It’s easy to miss, but there is a little jibe: wine isn’t given enough time in Australia, Jean should know. Something for vignerons to argue over after the closing credits.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Brothers’ Nest

Review by © Jane Freebury

A couple of chumps, their evil plan and a long ‘to do’ list with little imagination for backup are all the ingredients necessary for a crime to go wrong.

It’s the substance of this new film from the Jacobson brothers, Shane and Clayton, who won our hearts twelve years ago with Kenny, ‘the toilet guy’. Brothers’ Nest makes a 180-degree turn away from those surprisingly entertaining portaloo jokes to bleak  black comedy. This is a genre that is building momentum as we speak.

It’s the simple plan that is the most seductive and once carried out the perpetrators just cannot shake themselves free.

We love to laugh from on high at the mess that mere mortals make—from the uncommonly lucky chump in Fargo on TV, to Norway’s gang of crooks in Headhunters. Once they’re sucked in, like the backwoods folk in Sam Raimi’s thriller, A Simple Plan, they just can’t wriggle free.

But with a difference here. Brothers’ Nest has more ‘family stuff’, with its two middle aged siblings who seem more motivated more by grievance than by cold-hearted greed. It takes things into other territory.

The film opens on the two large men cycling through peaceful  countryside at dawn. That’s a bit strange. Terry (Shane) and his brother Jeff (Clayton, who also directs) are more on the big and bearish side than lean and light, and each man carries a heavy dark backpack.

When they reach their destination, the homestead where they grew up, the place is empty, as expected. Their mother (Lynette Curran) is in hospital having treatment for terminal cancer, and their stepfather (Kim Gyngell) is out and not due back till later. There is time enough to set up for his return.

The intended victim, their stepfather, Rodger, may have spent too much time on his old radio collection than with them when they were young, but he is the beneficiary of their mother’s will. She doesn’t have much time left, and nor do the brothers, to work their way through the lengthy checklist.

The men kit up in orange suits and bumbags, with balaclavas at the ready. On hands and knees, Jeff does a spot of hoovering. It’s not clear why, but is likely a sign of his obsessive, task-oriented character.

Jeff also has his work cut out wrangling Terry, because ‘Tezza’ is a hopeless liar and hasn’t the least idea about how to avoid leaving clues. Why can’t he use the toilet or smoke his cigarette to relieve a bit of stress?

Just when it seems this murder cannot be managed, it is, almost by accident. Then worse still happens.

As Terry and Jeff duke it out among the old car wrecks and the mildly curious cattle, there is a touch of absurdity, and not a little realism, to this tale of family dysfunction.

A touch more brio and it would have been a pitiless, pitch black comedy. A touch more psychology and it would have been gothic horror. It hangs in the balance between horror and humour, and it works, in its inimitable own way.

It also looks great. Cinematography by Peter Falk, and the soundtrack with original compositions by Richard Pleasance make a great contribution to the strong atmosphere and general polish throughout.

Black comedy genre has become jet black since the Coen brothers, but Scandinavian countries have perfected it, and New Zealand does well at it too.

Out there in Australia’s back of beyond there can’t be any shortage of good warped stories left to tell.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scandinavian Film Festival

This popular event that began in 2014 showcases the best in contemporary cinema from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

There are 21 films on the program that range from new talent (Heavy Trip) to award-winners at home and abroad (Border and What Will People Say).

Bergman Revisited celebrates in short form the legacy of one of the world’s great director, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The Scandinavian Film Festival screens in Canberra  from 11 to 29 July. For information follow this link

Ocean’s Eight

Review by © Jane Freebury

Ever since Clooney and Pitt stepped up for a rat pack romp in Vegas it’s been clear that all you need to do at an Ocean’s movie is sit back and relax and let it wash over you. There’s nothing deep and meaningful, it’s just a fun bubble.

The panache that director Steven Soderbergh brings to the Ocean’s franchise seems to me to hark back to the good old days when Hollywood was full of fizz and sparkle, and that was enough to draw the crowds in. This is a filmmaker who makes smart and thoughtful movies, like Traffic and Che parts 1 and 2 for goodness sake, but he also likes to have his time out. The Ocean’s series is drunk on its dizzying sleight-of-hand and reflects our fantasies back to us.

No way can we say that we don’t know what to expect from Ocean’s Eight, except that the significant difference, no secret, is the team joining forces for one big, bad heist is 100 percent female. Footnote: exploits are no longer in Soderbergh’s hands either.

Not a token male in sight? Well, there was, but Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) is in a world of trouble now that Debbie Ocean, Danny’s kid sister played with steely resolve by Sandra Bullock, is out of the prison cell he consigned her to by dobbing her in to save his skin.

The girls have their sights on $150 million worth of necklace—diamonds and white gold—not a panther-like single stunner, but a Cartier necklace fit for a maharajah. Diamonds were once a girl’s best friend – just ask Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – and they still are, but the context is different. While each blonde and brunette bombshell in Howard Hawks’ effervescent Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was after a husband, the motivation here is getting back at Claude, the jerk. It’s a slick touch too that the necklace actually once belonged to a man, an Indian prince.

Debbie has had more than five long years in prison to stew and to refine a plan for a major heist. The plan is to lift a whopping diamond necklace from the neck of celebrity actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala, of all places.

It evolves as a minutely detailed, baroque plot indeed, as Debbie and her bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett, looking sharp in pant suits), and the rest of the team bring their individual skills to bear on its execution.

Rihanna’s rasta hacker and Awkwafina’s street grifter make their mark but among all the great talent. However, it’s Anne Hathaway who is able to make the most of her role as the celebrity-hungry model, on whose neck the jewellery is to hang and from which it is to be taken.

Piece by piece, the plan falls into place. Debbie’s gang operate like clockwork until the heist attracts another participant in a surprise turn of events. The follow-on might well be the best part of the movie.

A bit more fizz and bounce wouldn’t have gone astray, overall. A dramatic near-miss or a slip-up or two would have helped, but director and co-writer Gary Ross and team let these opportunities pass by. On with the show!

In more ostentatious and less liberated times, Monroe’s Lorelei believed a big diamond ring, a girl’s best friend. Insurance against misfortune.

In Ocean’s Eight, the sheer scale of the loot could pose a problem but the gang shows how diamonds today can still, with a little know how and a lot of teamwork, be any girl’s best friend.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Aurore

          Review by © Jane Freebury

You’re never too old to start again. If life starts unravelling, it’s what the baby boomers want to hear: there’s a new dawn.

As played by Agnes Jaoui, Aurore is as voluptuous and as statuesque as the Roman goddess of dawn, after all, though I think the original French title, I Got Life!, has the edge. Her husband has recently deserted her for a new arrangement, so she has to make a go of it again, at work and in love.

Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in France at the age of 50 or so, Aurore puts a brave, possibly even heroic, face on it and manages her life well with a positive attitude. I’ve found statistics that show France doesn’t do too badly on gender equality in comparison to its European neighbours, so perhaps things won’t be too hard for her, after all.

Aurore’s biggest problem seems to be her hot flushes. A ruefully funny one for women, and Aurore is beset with them, at home and out and even while asleep. It has to be said that the bravest thing about this gentle comedy directed by Blandine Lenoir, is its subtext: menopause.

Like every mother, Aurore is concerned for her daughters, Marina (Sarah Suco) and Lucie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The elder one has just become pregnant, and though she is around 30, she is a bit of a worry, while the boyfriend of her younger daughter doesn’t exactly fill mum with confidence. But there you go. Quoi faire?

Aurore’s best friend Mano (Pascale Arbillot), who works in real estate, has some dirty tricks up her sleeve for men she reckons deserve the treatment. When the two friends are at a café together, Mano spies an older man with a young woman who she reckons must be his lover. Mano leaps up and accosts them, throws her ring at him and stalks off. She didn’t even know him.

Nina Simone’s song lends the film a bit of backbone, but also hints at what it might have been

Aurore, however, doesn’t go in for payback and seems on peaceful and decent terms with just about everyone, former husband included.

She is comfortable enough with herself to go to a school reunion, even at this delicate time. There she encounters the man she was with before she married, and the film’s incipient spirit of independence, fierce or otherwise, veers towards mature-age romance.

The voice of Nina Simone singing the song that gave Aurore its French title, I Got Life!, lends the film a bit of backbone, but it also hints at what it might have been. Aurore has little to do with the sentiments expressed in Simone’s songs such as ‘Feeling Good’ or ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’.

Does Aurore really make a new start? You can be the judge of that, but don’t expect too much from this easy-going and mildly funny comedy.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Tully

Review by © Jane Freebury

Somehow or other, the South African-American actress Charlize Theron is able to switch between the most intimate of stories, like this one, Tully, and action adventure and make it work. As the one-armed road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, she nailed Imperator Furiosa with a steely performance while here she seems just like a woman feels after a new baby and a string of sleepless nights.

In a daring career move in her twenties, Theron took up the role of a serial killer in the film Monster (2003). It was a memorable performance as she negotiated the character, a former prostitute convicted of killing six men and executed for her crimes. She didn’t look good either, even though you might think it impossible of Theron.

This actress is clearly someone who loves a challenge and is able to live in the skin of her character—quite an asset. In Jason Reitman’s new film she is Marlo, a mother in her early forties who has just had her third child. To get into character she had put on weight again, as she did in Monster.

New baby Mia is adorable but demanding. Marlo is also coping with a son with behavioural problems and an unintentionally inattentive husband, Drew (Ron Livingstone). She is on leave from work in human resources—where she says, ruefully, her English literature degree got her—and there’s not much to go back to work for either.

Her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife seem to be on top of it all. So well organised are they, they have no difficulty in combining stylish dinner parties with family life. As a baby shower gift, he offers to pay for a night nanny, and it isn’t long before Marlo caves in and makes the call.

Night-time nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) also seems supremely in control of her life. She is everything Marlo is not. Single, slim, carefree, responsible only to herself.

Annoyingly upbeat, as played by Davis. Then again she underlines how new mothers, left wondering what happened to their bodies and when they will ever again sleep through the night, can perceive  themselves in a constant round of menial tasks.

This is another film from a director who has specialised in stories that dissect contemporary life choices and responsibilities, and it is very welcome.

Memorable characters Reitman has offered us are corporate downsizer (George Clooney) who comes face-to-face with his solitary existence in Up in the Air and pregnant teenager (Ellen Page) in Juno, who will go to term but won’t keep the baby. While Clooney’s character finds himself marooned as the result of life choices, young Juno manages to get through it all, and move on.

Although Tully explores the dilemma that many women have to confront as mothers, the narrative in the film falls short. It is frustrating, because the exposition is so authentic and promising, and is the work of screenwriter Diablo Cody, Reitman’s frequent collaborator.

The sequence where the two women go out together to experience Marlo’s old haunts in Bushwick when she was single, opens up a new dimension, but the narrative stalls. Both Juno and Up in the Air have a similarly modest running time, but they offer more complexity with more satisfying results.

The film’s imaginative fugue ends up being rather internalist. This is also its charm, but Tully would have benefited from more heft and with one or two other characters who were more layered too.

Rated M, 96 minutes

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Breath

Review by © Jane Freebury

Surfing makes for elegant and beautiful spectator sport, as those of us who stick to land know only too well.

Ever since I lived on the coast south of Sydney I have thought that surfing was out of this world but that it needed patient dedication and a kind of insanity to pursue. Day in, day out, the surfers were there, floating in a heaving expanse of blue or grey as they waited for the big one.

Communicating the visceral experience of surfing is one of Breath’s triumphs, pitching us into deep water to show what the struggle to survive in another world can feel like. Early scenes are in still water, with Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) exploring a river, but soon transition to the ocean beaches in the Great Southern region of Australia.

Water cinematography by Rick Rifici brings the experience home with beautiful and enthralling vision, above and below the surface.

In the remote corner of the continent where they are growing up, there’s not much for these two teenage friends to do. They can go to the beach, ride around on their battered bikes, or they get up to no good spooking truck drivers on the highway.

On a trip to the coast they encounter a hardcore surfer, Sando (Simon Baker, who is also director), who gives them rides to and from the beach in his – yes, you guessed it – Kombi van. He and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) can help out by letting them leave their gear at his house. It saves them the trouble of cycling to the water with their heavy fibreglass boards under one arm while negotiating the road with the other.

It turns out that Sando, a laconic, unfettered 70s man, has a bit of history. His reputation in the surfing world is on the record on old magazine covers, catching waves from Mexico to Indonesia. If he wasn’t already a surfer to look up to, he certainly is now, though hardly the best role model.

Sando opens a window to a world that neither of the boys knew existed. The treacherous offshore breaks, the remote beach patrolled by a great white shark, and the wide world beckoning from across the sea. There is the strange world of adults, their losses and coping mechanisms and their various addictions.

When Sando and Loonie head overseas together on a surfing holiday, the void throws Pikelet into a relationship with Eva who limps from an injury that has put an end to her career as an extreme ski jumper. It opens a window on yet another space, dark and dangerous, and is another occasion when boundaries are crossed. It’s not just the sex.

This is not the first occasion that Simon Baker has directed. He has drawn naturalistic performances from his two untested leads, and he makes a very convincing Sando. Winton has also invested much of himself invested in this journey.

I hesitate to describe Breath as a coming-of-age film, but there is no getting away from its place in this popular local genre. However, it is in very good company, and among the best. Appearances and labels can be deceptive, anyway.

A film about surfing and surfer culture may not appear to speak to people who grew up in the inner city, or who have only lived on the land, or who think of the 1970s as a kind of dark ages.

There is nothing routine about this visually superb treatment of the subject that explores the liminal moment when young people choose their direction. And, it is of course based on the novel of Tim Winton, who also worked with Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie) on the screenplay.

Breath may not touch everyone, but it would be a pity if that were so. It is about so much more than blokes on boards.

Rated M, 115 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Gurrumul

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

A few days before Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu passed away last year at the age of 46, he agreed to the release of this tribute to his life and work. It now arrives on screen just the way it was when last seen by the musician in July.

It is a beautiful documentary about a remarkable Indigenous man who sang, in his own language, songs that spoke to people the world over. Blind from birth, he had a gift for the universality of music, with a voice that seemed to touch people where they live.

His aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, who provides occasional insights over the course of the film, has observed that Gurrumul moved us deeply, often to tears, by simply showing us who he was.

Not long after Gurrumul’s death, his clan elders in East Arnhem Land also agreed to approve the film’s release. Yolngu lore forbids the name, image and voice of the deceased to remain in the public domain, so to be viewed it was an imperative to have the sign-off from the custodians of culture.

On this occasion, an important exception was made to Yolngu lore, and we are the lucky beneficiaries.

Sensitively paced and with an occasional fade out – a reminder of Gurrumul’s sightless world – this documentary is both subtle and intense.

Prior to taking on the project, director Paul Damien Williams had been working in remote Indigenous communities in the north of Australia for 30 years. It is impossible to imagine that such an organic and empathetic film could have been the result of any fly-in, fly-out arrangement.

There is priceless footage of the musician backstage while on tour overseas, either clowning around with people he felt close to, revealing his wit and mischievous sense of humour, or holding back during an interview that made him uncomfortable.

A trove of intimate moments from Gurrumul’s childhood and youth arrived one day during production, in a box of reels of Super 8 mm and Super 16 mm. The director was able to weave scenes from home movies into the tapestry of Gurrumul’s life as well.

And the filmmakers were permitted to shoot during the funerals of Gurrumul’s parents, who each died while production was underway.

Before his solo career, Gurrumul was a member of the exuberant Top End band Yothu Yindi, when a young double bassist out of Melbourne, Michael Hohnen, noticed the ‘quiet genius’ playing in the background. Hohnen would become Gurrumul’s musical collaborator. With Mark Grose, he subsequently formed the Skinnyfish Music record label in Darwin to work in partnership with Indigenous communities, help preserve their music and take it to the outside world.

Throughout the film there are many scenes of Hohnen and Gurrumul together and it is touching to see how close the bond had become between the two of them over the years. Hohnen and Gurrumul were considered wawa, the Gumatj word for brother.

Despite his beautiful, soaring voice, and mastery of keyboards, drums, didgeridoo and guitar, Gurrumul did not at first see the point in pursuing his own career. Family and community and maintaining culture at home among the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island were all that mattered, but eventually, he recognised the value of sharing his Yolngu culture and taking it to the world.

While Gurrumul’s voice was soaring, transcendent and unique, he was also his own man, someone who on occasion declined to meet celebrity expectations, the singing sensation who didn’t show up for his big American tour. He went home instead, to his island paradise home to attend his nephew’s initiation.

A left-hander who played a right-handed guitar upside down, a performer on the international stage who did a duet for French television but had little idea who his singing partner was. It was Sting.

It is difficult to imagine that a documentary like this could have been made about Gurrumul without deep understanding and mutual trust. It stands as a fine tribute to the man and his music, and is testament to the blackfella and balanda (whitefella) relationships that have made it happen.

Rated PG, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

German Film Festival

The German Film Festival is back in Canberra this year, on screen from 22 May – 10 June.

A diverse program includes 26 contemporary features, from award-winning dramas to box office comedies, as well as documentaries and selected short films.

For more information, follow this link

The Party

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Party brings a bunch of people together in the comfortable middle-class environs of London, at the home of Janet, Kristin Scott Thomas in the role, and her husband Bill, a more than usually lugubrious Timothy Spall. Everyone has a secret to divulge.

Each character represents a segment of the influential elite. There’s someone from financial services, there’s a politician, there are two academics, and there’s a wellness coach and on-trend chef.

Bill has a droll routine as he puts records on the turntable, then announces that he has a terminal illness. That is bad enough, but hey, there is more in store yet for Janet.

The posh environs in London today may be more polite than Hornsby, Sydney, in the late 1960s when the notorious election night classic, Don’s Party, is set. But it isn’t the restraint that makes The Party fall short. It simply doesn’t gel.

Although not about to celebrate a change of government, it still looks ahead to the prospect of political change. Sometime down the track when the newly created shadow minister for health, (Scott Thomas), and her colleagues are voted into government.

Some cross-cutting between scenes looks great in the trailer, but deft promotional editing has elided the gaps and awkward pauses. The party goers, supposed to get really mad at each other, barely connect. Instead, they lounge around or stand stiffly stating their positions, firing their lines off into the undergrowth.

Someone gets slapped, another brandishes a gun, but it doesn’t for engagement make, and prospects for good argument turn in a damp squib. Talk about atomised.

There is every reason why the ‘polite party to skewer the middle classes’ formula has held up well over time, but hard as the actors try, it doesn’t work here. Given too little to do, they are defeated at every turn, even the mouthy Patricia Clarkson character, Janet’s old friend April. Cillian Murphy as a disturbed banker, Emily Mortimer as a pregnant chef in a same-sex marriage, and Bruno Ganz spouting new age banalities fare no better.

Mercifully short at 71 minutes, and filmed in artful black and white, The Party could have been a deliciously cynical demolition job on the types it portrays but Bill as DJ produces one of its few pleasures—a great playlist includes tracks from Bo Diddley and John Coltrane.

Writer-director Sally Potter has had a knack for surprising us. She teamed up with Tilda Swinton to wow us all with time travel and gender switching in Orlando in the early 1990s, then followed up with a romantic Tango Lesson in which she herself starred as student of the dance.

The Party, on the other hand, needed more work, not by the actors on set but by the writer before they got the call. It seems dashed off, an addendum to the 2015 British election during which it was written, and why it earned four stars in so many reviews is a mystery to me.

It’s clear what Potter had in mind, but when top actors can’t make it work, our gaze shifts to the filmmaker.

MA15+, 71 minutes

2 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle