AuthorJane Freebury

The Insult

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Screening at Palace Electric

Rated M, subtitled

4.5 Stars

 

The Insult begins with a petty altercation over a drainpipe that escalates with punches thrown and insults traded. The issue goes to court, is picked up by the media and spills out into the street and across the country.

If it were a story from somewhere more peaceful, it might take the form of a farce or a satire, but this is from Lebanon, so often in the headlines with its bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. Old enmities are still deeply and fiercely felt.

Tony (Adel Karam) gives evidence

It is the job of Yasser (Kamel el Basha), to fix faulty construction in the district, so he attaches a new piece of downpipe to a balcony outlet, but without permission. Apartment owner, Tony (Adel Karam), immediately leans over his balcony and smashes it to smithereens. Yasser swears at him, you ‘f—ing prick, not an unreasonable response in the circumstances.

The matter might have stopped there, at least with the big box of chocolates proffered in apology, but this exchange between these residents of Beirut won’t rest. Tony, a Lebanese Christian, recognises the foreman’s Palestinian accent, and takes things to court after an attempt at conciliation at his workshop ends in Tony saying something really wounding and Yasser punching him in the ribs.

Despite attempts by his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) to make him see reason, Tony escalates the matter to a higher court, hires a counsel and has his mild-mannered assailant charged with assault and the potential charge of manslaughter because Shirine has suffered a miscarriage, and their baby daughter is being kept alive in a humidicrib.

It’s in the courtroom that things in The Insult get really interesting. A scintillating duel between Tony’s counsel (Camille Salameh), a seasoned barrister, and a glamorous young woman (Diamand Bou Abboud), who turns out to be his daughter. With Nadine, a Palestinian sympathiser acting pro bono, and her urbane father Wajdi sympathising with the Christians, it makes for thrilling exchanges between them. The performances here are a joy to watch.

The screenplay was written by the director Ziad Doueiri, of Palestinian background, and his wife, Joelle Touma, a Christian, while they were divorcing apparently. Surely the differences between these two, ethnic and personal, has something to do with the well-honed debate.

More is revealed about the dark intransigence that Tony harbours. So much so, that it mitigated my view that he was overplayed by Karam. The dignified Yasser, on the other hand, who says little but commands considerable attention, is played with great presence by El Basha. The optimism of the film’s resolution of a conflict that has endured for generations could be wishful thinking but if it really is possible, then bring it on.

This fine film, Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film awards at the Oscars, has much to say and put questions to us all. It is clever, passionate and entertaining and sometimes exhilarating, even for observers like me on the sidelines.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Summer 1993

Review © Jane Freebury

PG, Subtitled

Screening at Palace Electric

4 Stars

 

Without fanfare or introduction, a little girl wanders from room to room, looking dazed as she clutches her doll while adults pack up the contents of the flat that was her home. Snippets of conversation drift in, hinting at what has happened: her mother has died.

It’s a story from the heart by the writer and director Carla Simon. A study of loss and renewal that is loosely autobiographical and explores the journey she had to make to a new life.

Frida (Laia Artigas) is ferried off to the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle and little cousin who is close in age. Her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) live an idyllic, uncomplicated existence outside Barcelona on a rural property where they grow their own.

With a couple of years of age on her country cousin, Frida commands a bit of authority over her, and the moppet, Anna (Paula Robles), dutifully follows her around. But it is the older child who is watchful and insecure under her halo of brown curls, unsure of her place in her new family and jealous of how her cousin can take a close and loving family for granted.

Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving

Inevitably, the little girls compete. When they both hurry off to collect the lettuce that Marga has asked for, Frida brings back a cabbage instead. Anna arrives a few moments later with the correct item. She, of course, knows the difference.

It is said that the two young actors were cast because a power struggle quickly developed between them during auditions. It that did indeed happen, it is sensitively captured here, allowing for the perspective of both girls to be expressed.

It can be painful to watch Frida’s mis-steps on her journey as she figures out where she sits in her new family. In one scene that prompts an uneasy sense of anticipation she attempts to act the coquette in lipstick, feather boa and long adult boots, while in another she tries to lose her trusting cousin in the woods. When Frida packs up one night to leave, Anna wants to know why. It’s because no one loves her. Anna responds without a moment’s hesitation ‘I love you’.

Marga and her new ‘daughter’ also need to bond, and here again the filmmaker shows her considerable skill. How difficult a new arrival must be for a young mother with her own child to raise. For Anna’s parents, it’s a question of having hope and confidence in including Frida in their little family unit, while protecting what they already cherish, and it is not inconsiderable. The images of family life here are some of the loveliest I’ve seen on screen.

The delicate process of establishing a blended family that takes place before us is largely told from the perspective of a damaged and uncertain little girl, the odd one out. Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving.

The title also reminds us how many young lives were lost from AIDS-related illness, before there were ways to manage the disease. The point is made lightly, in a little scene in which Frida finally asks why her mother died. Was the doctor ‘new’?

Summer 1993 is an exquisite study of a young orphan who moves from grief and confusion to hope and belonging. A special film that the director has dedicated to her young mother.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

RBG

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

At Palace Electric, and Dendy Canberra Centre

 

From the flamboyant outfits and fishnet gloves she wears for public events, to the lace collars worn to deliver opinion as a justice of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a sense of occasion. This distinguished gender equality crusader may have a reputation for being reserved but she sure seems to appreciate the importance of a bit of theatre, which comes as a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.

Justice Ginsburg, RBG for short, holds the seat on the bench that she was once nominated for by Bill Clinton. She is still going strong. Now in her mid-80s, she works out to maintain fitness for the career she is clearly committed to continuing. Scenes of her at the gym with her personal trainer open this engaging documentary film.

In a career that spans more than 60 years, Ginsburg won a group of landmark cases that helped build legal infrastructure for gender equality in the US. As the film documents her legal work, the wins in court and the odd loss, it provides a fascinating perspective on how crucial Ginsburg has been to the advance of equal rights and opportunities, and how progressive activism and social change occurs in the law.

  RBG gives new meaning to the idea of dissent

As directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the life and times of Ginsburg is zippy and entertaining and reveals how in recent years the judge has emerged as an American folk hero, the ‘notorious RBG’ widely celebrated in popular culture. There are t-shirts and plenty of other RBG paraphernalia in the US now that trumpet the achievements of this inspiring role model for young women.

There seems to be a sense of anticipation hovering too. Is there more to come from this supreme court justice who has openly declared her dismay with Trump and the new era in American politics?

Thus far she has become famous for the significant advances her work saw, particularly for women of course, ensuring that they receive treatment equal to men under the law. In some famous cases, she chose male plaintiffs where gender inequality was demonstrably harmful to both men and women.

While her sisters were brandishing banners in the street, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her case in the courts with persuasive and compelling clarity.

Personal style aside, there are other telling revelations about this diminutive legislator that give us pause for thought. Not least her close friendship with her colleague at the Supreme Court judge, the late Antonin Scalia, who was a notorious figure to many on the left.

Collaboration and respect for others whom she disagreed with were signature elements of Ginsburg’s style. She says she always lived by her mother’s advice and never got angry but worked hard to persuade and convince colleagues to support her case through legal argument. Her work ethic has been prodigious.

When Ginsburg entered the legal profession back in the 1950s, an American (or Australian or British) woman could lose their job when they became pregnant, and could not take out a loan without their husband’s approval. Gender equality had ever such a long way to go.

Her long and harmonious marriage to Marty, a fellow student who became a tax lawyer in New York, is another surprise. He stood back early on to allow his wife’s career to flourish, while he cooked (he was a great cook, apparently), cared for their two children—and cracked the jokes while leaving it to his wife to change the course of history.

RBG is an appealing doco though not a really probing one. The filmmakers have assembled much rich material, but they leave us wondering about the background to this brilliant, strong and private woman. What has motivated her? What inspired her to pursue her legal career in the way she did?

Even before we get to the t-shirts, the cartoons and comedy sketch, it feels more like RBG than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, more a zippy scamper across her life and work that a road map into deeper territory. Yet it is a stirring introduction to a superdiva who gives new meaning to the idea of dissent.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Wife

Review by © Jane Freebury

She warns her husband there are crumbs in his beard, reminds him to take his medication, and is diplomatic towards intrusive journalists. Joe Castleman, played with ease by Jonathan Pryce, is a famous writer and as such he is allowed to be distracted from minor chores, besides his wife is a woman who has made a career out of smoothing his way.

Castleman is on the point of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will travel to Stockholm with wife Joan (Glenn Close) and son David (Max Irons) who is also a writer and has just had his first book published.

The film is specific about the year in which it is set. It is a quarter of a century ago. A long or a short time in feminism, depending on your perspective. There weren’t many young fathers to be seen pushing strollers through the streets back then.

The Wife is based on a recent novel but it is such a throwback to the 1950s that the filmmakers at least had the sense to put a woman like Glenn Close in the role. She makes this odd material work.

There is no doubt about the strength that Close brings to her characters on screen. Especially since the jilted lover in Fatal Attraction in 1987, she has brought extra flintiness to her roles like the leader of a prison camp choir in Paradise Road, as Hamlet’s mother 1990 and as the evil Cruella in 101 Dalmatians.

Working against type, Close finds herself here in the role of a wifely wife who has spent a lifetime nurturing her husband’s career, ostensibly doing the editing. In flashbacks to her younger self, as student and new wife to the ambitious young professor of creative writing, Joan is played by Close’s own daughter, Annie Stark.

Like Starke, young Max Irons, son of Jeremy, must have a take of his own on being the son of a famous actor.

From early in her marriage, Joan has learned to look the other way during Joe’s affairs. In Stockholm the aging lothario is at it yet again, with an attractive young minder.

The thing is, the film tries to convince us, that Joan is both doormat and indispensable to Joe’s career. The circumstances beggar belief. A nosy journalist, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), suspects the truth and wants to write Castleman’s biography, but he keeps getting the brush off, from both Joe and Joan.

The pact between this husband and wife is implausible, impossible to believe, and certainly doesn’t reflect the choices contemporary women are likely to make. It is inconceivable that a self-respecting woman would do what Joan has done, and yet Close gives it all she’s got, in a battened down, nuanced way, and it is this that makes The Wife worth watching.

3 Stars

 

Screening at Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric in New Acton, and Event Cinema, Manuka

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

See You Up There

Review by © Jane Freebury

A sensitive young soldier, an artist in civilian life, is wounded at the front during the final hours of war. It is a cruel irony that hostilities are officially over, and that the incident during which he sustains his devastating wound is engineered by a commanding officer who doesn’t want the fighting to stop.

The soldier, Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), was one of many thousands of demobbed soldiers who returned home to find they were good for nothing. Yet with acerbic wit style and humour, See You Up There reflects on the cost on a generation of young lives lost or destroyed by the war that was supposed to end all wars, World War I.

The book that the film is based on is only recent. Au Revoir La-Haut won its author, Pierre Lemaitre, the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015. With participation by Lemaitre, it has been adapted for the screen, by the marvellously talented Albert Dupontel, who also directs. As Albert Maillard, the narrator, he is in the key role of former bookkeeper who cares for Edouard after they return to civilian life.

On the battlefield, Edouard had saved Maillard’s life by hauling him out of a bomb crater. In the same instant the young man is hit by mortar and his own life ruined when his lower jaw is blown away. This eventually leads him to fake his own death.

When the two men return to Paris, joining hordes of returned soldiers, wounded, disabled and deranged, French society does not seem to know what to do with them. Plus ca change? After months of disillusionment trying to make an honest living, Maillard agrees to become Edouard’s business partner on a daring swindle. As dull foil to the Edouard’s mercurial brilliance, he is also staunch friend, and a father figure.

Edouard’s real father, Marcel (Niels Arestrup), is a beastly capitalist who had no time for his son’s artistic leanings. In the novel, Edouard was also gay, something the film has chosen to elide.

It just isn’t possible for Edouard to wear the grotesque mandible he has been issued with, so he creates beautiful masks, from the flamboyant to the minimalist, to express himself. He retreats from the world, behind elaborate creations that hide his disfigurement, and his despair.

The young Argentine actor, Biscayart, is wonderful as a man who can only communicate with the expression in his eyes and gestures. It is as though he is the sole silent actor working in a sound medium.

Although Edouard cannot bear to face his family again, his lovely sister is determined to find out about the circumstances of his ‘death’. This leads to revelations about her marriage to Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), of all people. Pradelle is the very lieutenant who, in a fit of spite when he heard the unwelcome order to lay down arms, organised a ruse that sent his men, including Edouard and Albert, over the top.

While dad is the subject of his son’s satiric drawings, a ‘gros con’, it is Pradelle, decked out in a bit, black vaudevillian moustache, who looks precisely like what he is. The out-and-out villain, the only character who is irredeemable and egregiously evil

See You Up There is bookended by scenes in Morocco, postwar. Here and elsewhere, the action is captured with terrific cinematography.

The early war scenes, beginning during an eerie lull when everyone is exhausted and fed up with fighting, we are told, even the German troops. A messenger dog runs across the deserted battleground, a sequence that is as contemplative and suspenseful an introduction to war as you could imagine.

This elegant film with its eloquent anti-war message is very accomplished in many ways. Ravishing to look at, by turns bleak and cynical but entertaining, it will find resonances for many in the mood of our own difficult age.

4.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

See You Up There is currently screening in Canberra at Dendy and Palace Electric cinemas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stronger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival

Stronger Than Fiction, dedicated to documentary film art, returns to Canberra in 2018 with a program showcasing quality films from around the world.

The docos, many with awards and nominations, are curated for individual quality rather than alignment with particular theme.

Around half of this year’s films are directed by women, including Christy Garland (What Walaa Wants), Catherine Scott (The Backtrack Boys) and Gabrielle Brady (Island of the Hungry Ghosts).

Stronger Than Fiction, now in its fifth year, screens at Palace Electric Cinema during 2 – 5 August.

For further information follow this link

Back to Burgundy

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a familiar face in the background in Back to Burgundy (Ce Qui Nous Lie). 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

Screening at Dendy, Canberra Centre, and Palace Electric, NewActon Nishi

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

Screening at Dendy (Canberra Centre), Palace Electric (NewActon, Nishi) and Hoyts, Belconnen

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

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