Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2020

By © Jane Freebury

During the Academy Awards this year, when a foreign language film from South Korea carried off the top awards, it seemed a watershed moment for Hollywood.  The time to invite the rest of the world to the red carpet had at last arrived.

Let’s also remember that in 2011 Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist won a best film Oscar, the first French feature to do so. A black-and-white silent film, it broke with tradition too, but it was also a love letter to Hollywood. That same year, Michael Scorsese returned the favour with Hugo about the French pioneering filmmakers, the Melies brothers.

France is, of course, the country where cinema began and though it has a studio system as well, it has a particular focus on making films for artistic and cultural reasons, not only commercial entertainment.

The Swallows of Kabul

Back in France, it’s a two-way street. The national cinematheque in Paris runs a full daily program of movie classics, featuring classic films from around the world, including Hollywood, that are shown in original language.

As everyone knows, the French are mad for movies, but then so are we. Cinema attendance in Australia and in France is among the highest in the world and filmgoers in both our countries are spoilt for choice with an abundance of movie screens per head of population.

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is the biggest foreign film festival in Australia. Every year we make space in our calendars during March-April for movies from France. The festival is bringing 48 films to audiences this year, selected from the 200 or so films that French industry makes annually. Our challenge is navigating our way through the vast program.

Recent figures from the industry’s promotional arm, UniFrance, show that the French film festival circuit does well in lots of countries. It’s not just a Canberra thing, and it’s popular across Australia­­­­­­­­­­­­­, screened in eight cities and four satellite locations. Audiences at the French film festivals in Mexico, by the way, have surged recently too, as in Australia.

What are filmgoers looking for? Now there’s a question.

Gemma King, a senior lecturer in French at the ANU, sees a mutual fascination between Australia and France, with cultures ‘different enough to seem exotic, but similar enough that we see ourselves in one another’.

Each year France produces its staple of romantic dramas and family comedies and romantic comedies and family dramas. That always draws the crowds at festivals, but there is something else.

School Life

There is a willingness on the part of the French filmmaker to go there, to explore challenging, tough subjects that are easier to elide or to shy away from altogether. Dr King mentions the themes of multiculturalism, migration, language in French society, with recommendations for Les Miserables and School Life (La Vie Scolaire).

The great Catherine Deneuve makes more than a few appearances this year. Actors Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Omar Sy, and Jean Dujardin can also be found on the cast lists, as we might expect. But I am also interested in hearing how the festival caters for youth, especially the 16-24 year old demographic that is so successfully targeted by Hollywood.

French cinema has resonated with young audiences for decades, ever since the New Wave/Nouvelle Vague (the original!) films in the 1960s, with a group of young directors, who were published film critics and enthusiasts for the best work of the Hollywood directors. Pioneer auteur, still working today, Jean-Luc Godard among them. They reacted against the stuffy, traditional French studio system. A spirit of rebellion, experimentation and resistance continues in French cinema today.

This year’s patron, young Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (who made impressive films Snowtown, Macbeth), credits the French cinema with having had a massive influence on his practice. What he has admired most is its pride in its history and cultural traditions, while at the same time forward leaning with risk and inventiveness.

How would Patrice Gilles, director of the AF in Canberra and national coordinator of the network, characterise the program for 2020? What, in his opinion, are some of the representative patterns and themes that have emerged among the films curated?

Spread Your Wings

‘There is quite a lot going on in terms of social movements or reflections upon how society should be organized at large.’ Climate change, the economic system, the education system, and also, for instance, the issues identified in France by the ‘gilet jaunes’. The ‘yellow jackets/vests’ are a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in 2018, whose members wear the hi-vis yellow vest that is mandatory for drivers to have in their boot in case of an emergency.

The Invisibles (Les Invisibles), set in an illegal women’s shelter, is a good example. Women living on the streets were cast with professional actors, and it is no surprise to hear that this drama achieves a striking authenticity, but a pleasant surprise to hear about its light touch. This genial social comedy has done well outside France too.

In the Name of the Land (Au Nom de la Terre), another framed in social relevance, is an intimate drama about a rural family that deals with issues of inheritance and succession. It was also popular at the French box office last year.

Les Miserables is another one that takes a stance on the social and political. Borrowing the title of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, it is a hard-hitting drama set in similar Parisian locations.

While social relevance is evident in this year’s line-up―the movements, issues, and reflections on what is happening in French society―it would not be a French festival without a strong focus on personal relationships and intimacy. Love at Second Sight (Mon Inconnue) is based on the intriguing scenario of a man who wakes in a parallel universe where his beloved wife does not recognise him and his professional achievements have vanished.

There are many other romance titles to track down, with an online tool useful for searching categories.

In 2011, The Intouchables was a huge hit about a quadriplegic and his carer directed by filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Their latest film, The Extraordinary (Hors Normes), stars Vincent Cassel as a man who runs an informal shelter for autistic youth. The Extraordinary was the closing night film at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Only the Animals

A quite different experience, a tightly woven noir thriller with an intriguing premise, Only the Animals (Seules les Betes), looks promising. It is a favourite of Patrice Gilles.

For my part, an animated drama called The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul) is intriguing, and Spread Your Wings (Donne-Moi Ton Ailes), is a captivating adventure of a 14-year-old boy, an ultra-light and a gaggle of geese. How to Become an Astronaut (Thomas Pesquet, L’Etoffe d’un Hero, is a diverting documentary about a Frenchman training to walk in space and The Mystery of Henry Pick (Le Mystere Henri Pick) stars Fabrice Luchini as a jaded critic with a nose for a literary fraud.

Amusez vous! Bonne chance with your choices.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, between 12 March and 8 April

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020 

*Featured image: Josephine Japy and Francois Civil in Love at Second Sight. Courtesy Eric Bouvet @ericbouvet

Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards 2019

 

The Nightingale won best feature film at the recent FCCA Awards 2019 in Sydney.

The film’s star Aisling Franciosi received the award for best actress.

Damon Herriman picked up the best actor award for his role in Judy and Punch.

David Michôd won best director for The King.

Michôd and Joel Edgerton won the award for best screenplay.

Ursula Yovich won best supporting actress for Top End Wedding, while Joel Edgerton won best supporting actor for The King.

Danger Close: The Battle Of Long Tan won three craft awards. Best cinematography to Ben Nott, best original score to Caitlin Yeo and best editing to Veronika Jenet.

The award for best feature documentary was shared by The Final Quarter and Martha, A Picture Story.

Director, producer, writer Rolf de Heer was honoured with a special FCCA award in recognition of a unique body of work and its contribution to Australian cinema.

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

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

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

First Man

Rated M, 2 hrs 21 mins

All Canberra cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

4.5 Stars

 

The final frontier gets rather mixed treatment from Hollywood. The studios have had a penchant for filling the void with monsters and other extra-terrestrials but now it’s the scale and sheer emptiness that are scary, while it’s hard to ignore the prospect of travelling towards infinity and perhaps never coming back.

Space on screen is a broad canvas where just about anything goes, from thoughtful to grand to spoof, so it’s a surprise to see a film like First Man that is serious, low key, compelling and based on the real thing, when man first stepped on the moon, an event captured on grainy television images 50 years ago. Ancient history for many, but it has to be as remarkable today as it was then, decades before the digital age.

When we meet the famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong ­- Ryan Gosling in the role – it is some years before the moon mission, when he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are having a terrible time, facing the loss of one of their small children to cancer. An aeronautical engineer and test pilot, Armstrong is struggling to do his job effectively but his cool head does eventually prevail and he applies to join the new team that will attempt a moon landing within the time frame that the late President Kennedy nominated. A ‘fresh start’ Janet says, after their little girl has died.

This story of the Apollo 11 mission is told from inside a marriage, a good marriage, and Janet has a pivotal role in it. The obligatory scenes of national pride and the global impact of the event are delayed until towards the end, and portrayed like a postscript. Such restraint.

First Man still makes clear that the pioneer astronauts were highly skilled, brave men who understood the risks involved. They were asked to approve their obituaries before they left.

The fine screenplay is by Josh Singer, and is based on an authorised biography of Armstrong by James R Hansen. It is worth knowing that two of Singer’s recent screenwriting credits are for The Post and Spotlight, each of which concerns pressing issues of our time – a free press and institutional child abuse – and critiques the way they were dealt with in America.

Recent impressive films set in space like lnterstellar, Gravity and Arrival invite you to think and they are gorgeous to look at, but results are mixed. First Man does away with visual extravagance, and declines to philosophise about the void out there and what it might mean for us. The focus is instead on the astonishing feat of putting men on the moon, a story that is delivered with impeccable naturalism.

The emphasis on authenticity is crucial, though I don’t quite understand why the equipment had to look a little  dated, as though it had been brought in from a space museum. No doubt, everything was brand new in 1969. The production design is also sombre, without a hint of triumphalism.

Apparently, some don’t like the fact that director Damien Chazelle and his team decided against showing the planting of the US flag. Looking at the names of those who have complained and called it an omission, First Man is better off without their endorsement.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

British Film Festival 2018

Makes its return to Canberra on 24 October with a selection of the best of new cinema from the British Isles.

There is plenty of variety.

Stan & Ollie, about the one-half British comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, Keira Knightley as a French novelist (Colette), a high court drama with Emma Thompson (The Children Act), the latest socio-political drama from Mike Leigh, Peterloo, and Pin Cushion with young Lily Newmark, are among program highlights.

The festival retrospective includes a tribute to actor Michael Caine, who also features in My Generation, an exuberant new documentary about London in the swinging sixties.

The British Film Festival screens at Palace Electric, NewActon, Canberra, until 13 November.

For more information follow this link

 

Jirga

Rated M, 1 hr 18 mins

Screening at Dendy, Canberra

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Obstacles that directors face on film shoots range from the trivial to the legion that sink projects altogether. They very nearly sank Benjamin Gilmour’s project when he arrived in Pakistan with lead actor Sam Smith only to discover that permission to film was withdrawn and funding for cinematographer and crew had evaporated.

Gilmour could have at this point declared the difficulties ‘insurmountable’ but instead acted swiftly and decisively. He bought a second-hand camera and crossed the border to do the shoot in Afghanistan, which was, after all, where his narrative was set. Pakistan was only meant to be a stand-in.

This is some backstory. It points to a rivetting tale beyond the frame, the stuff of difficult shoots that have great documentaries made like Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. However, the long list of people Gilmour thanks in the credits also points to a big collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, crowd-sourced funding and a degree of luck.

Set in the streets of Kabul and in remote villages and caves in the mountain regions, Jirga tells of the journey made by Mike Wheeler (Smith), a former Australian soldier, to find the family of a man he shot by mistake during a raid three years earlier. The simplicity of this journey of the soul, a return to the heart of darkness of Mike’s military career, suits it well.

After a frenetic opening flashback in lurid green night vision accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of small arms fire, the pace slows as Mike finds his way around in Afghanistan, second time round. His journey takes on more insidious dangers as he negotiates the markets and cafes to get transport from Kabul to Kandahar. No, no, and no, his hosts and helpers say, the province is crawling with Taliban. It’s just too dangerous.

Needless to say, like the filmmaker, Mike won’t take ‘no’ for an answer either and finally manages to persuade his taxi driver to drive him beyond, Bamyan, the first destination agreed to. Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was the father in Gilmour’s first film Son of a Lion (2007), makes a very personable taxi driver.

It isn’t long before Mike becomes a guest of a group of Taliban (played by former Taliban). Instead of killing him or taking the wads of useless dollars he has brought with him, they deliver him to the very village he has been looking for. There he puts his fate in the hands of the Afghan court of tribal elders, the jirga.

However, it is not the elders who have the last word. They leave it to the most directly affected to decide Mike’s fate. Not a thoroughly convincing outcome, however, but where else could it conceivably be taken?

What is remarkable in Jirga is the journey through the magnificent landscapes of Afghanistan, and the connections that are made along the way.

In some scenes, the camera goes extremely wide as Mike’s taxi beetles past brooding, hulking mountain ranges that look older than time. In other scenes, he is in two-shot with his redoubtable driver, tapping tin bowls and plucking guitar strings as they make music for each other, because it is the only language that they share.

The wonderful score by AJ True is another pleasure, as are the surprises.  Such as another contribution, that comes from Smith, who plays a composition of his own to his driver on an old guitar he bought along the way. When words can’t be found, music says it all.

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

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated M, 1 hr 54 mins

Screening at Dendy and Palace Electric

 

The cartoon that lends its caption to this Gus Van Sant film shows a sheriff’s posse staring at an empty wheelchair among cactus in the desert. The rough line drawing instantly conveys a lot about the artist and the bleak, irreverent humour that made him famous. The American cartoonist, the late John Callahan, also chose it for the title of his autobiography in 1990.

Callahan was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident while on a bender with a friend when they were young and reckless. Miraculously, his mate, Dexter (Jack Black), who was at the wheel, walked away from the overturned VW Beetle with a few scratches, but the misadventure turned John into a quadriplegic. Eventually he recovered limited use of his arms.

If he wasn’t already prone to a bit of self-destruction, this convinced young John that there wasn’t a lot of point to it all. The hapless 21-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with. Struggling with feelings of abandonment – he’d been adopted, never knew his birth mother – John (Joaquin Phoenix in the role) was going nowhere, a flask of tequila for company.

The late Robin Williams was once keen for this role, but I can’t see that he could have worked as well as Phoenix. In unkempt, ginger wig, flip-flops and the flares of the day, his performance as Callahan is pitch-perfect.

And Phoenix has form in this kind of character – remember the execrable I’m Still Here – but he is talented and versatile with substantial range. Compelling as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or as reclusive writer (Her), and both as Jesus (Mary Magdalene) and evil Roman emperor (Gladiator).

The same can be said of filmmaker, Van Sant, who has been giving us food for thought over the years with his distinctive explorations of the private worlds of creative types, often musicians, often marginalised, and other characters at the crossroads.

John (Joaquin Phoenix) and Donny (Jonah Hill) in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

In Don’t Worry, Donny (Jonah Hill), the silky voiced leader of the alcoholics recovery group that Callahan has signed up to, becomes just about as interesting as Callahan. Maybe more so.

Actor Jonah Hill, in heavy disguise in long blonde wig and beard, and 70s smart casual, demonstrates, with perhaps a hint of menace, the subtle art of influence and persuasion, and how folks can be shown how they themselves contribute to their predicament.

It is less easy to believe in Rooney Mara’s character, Annu, a Swedish physiotherapist who has a big hand in Callahan’s rehabilitation, but her romance with him is at least a welcome diversion after some gruelling early scenes of Callahan in disarray. Curiously, Van Sant was able to make scenes of flying along the pavement in a  wheelchair uplifting too, and that’s before we even get to the humour.

How did Callahan find his mojo and become a famous cartoonist in America and overseas? His path to fame and some version of happiness is revealed in this touching, free-wheeling character study, that feels authentic and has no truck with feel-good homily. It shows, once again, Van Sant’s flair for drawing his audience into a private world and convincing them, for the duration, that they are experiencing it too.

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra and 90.3 Tuggeranong

 

Ladies in Black

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated PG, I hr 49 mins

All cinemas

 

Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.

How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.

The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.

Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.

Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.

Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.

The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.

For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.

Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.

The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.

There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juliet, Naked

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Screening at Palace Electric

This romantic reboot for two who could have done better in life is based on a book by Nick Hornby, the English novelist with a happy knack for making us feel good about ourselves. It is brought to life on screen by Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne, actors who bring a sense of lived experience well suited to the backstory of foibles and wrong moves that make them and us human.

It’s probably fair to say that these days it takes a fair effort for filmmakers to forgo the cynicism and the lucrative crudity in so much of the product aimed at the young demographic.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked is, on the other hand, about honesty, hesitation and vulnerability, a light comedy with an M rating. It’s also about music.

The set-up by which the couple meet involves Annie (Byrne) writing a stinking review online of the new CD from Tucker Crowe (Hawke). She only does it because the singer-songriter is the music idol of her long-time partner Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and the focus of his tiresome pedantry.

When the review appears, Tucker drops an email to Annie to say that he agrees with her about the CD. He didn’t like it much either! This doesn’t, unfortunately, do anything to lower Duncan’s enthusiasm for Crowe, enthusiasm already so great that he has an entire room in the house that he and Annie share devoted to Crowe memorabilia.

Earnest and awkward, Duncan is another of those male characters from Hornby who are totally captured by their interests, be it football (Fever Pitch) or music (High Fidelity), while they struggle in their romantic relationships. Fixations like these are common to Hornby’s work, and here the team of four writers who adapted Juliet, Naked for the screen have let it run parallel with the romance.

Hawke is the embodiment of cool, totally at ease in his own skin. It’s fair to say that his talents haven’t received the recognition that he has deserved since his breakout role, while still in school, in the marvellous Dead Poet’s Society. Perhaps a rich personal life got in the way, perhaps he hasn’t made enough strategic choices. Perhaps he has never sought more than he has attained, anyway. This raffish actor has an effortless ability for convincing audiences that his characters are authentic, no more so than in the Before trilogy opposite Julie Delpy.

The same can be said of the talents of Rose Byrne, an actor from Sydney who lives in New York. Her private life might be less spectacular, but she has been consistently so good all her career and she is especially adept at comedy. She has not, to my knowledge, felt the need to change the colour of her hair!

Because they work well together, it is a treat to watch these two actors, as people who have given up on love but find it again. Because of their engaging chemistry on screen, a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable film has a touch of the certain something that the best romantic comedies have managed to lay claim to.

Duncan, meanwhile, barely notices what he’s lost. When his idol embarks on a new, more mellow direction in his music, it seems to cause Duncan more angst and disappointment than when the guy takes his girlfriend away.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Jirga director

Jirga, a new fiction feature from Benjamin Gilmour, is about a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to ask forgiveness of the family of a civilian he accidentally killed three years earlier. Writer-director Gilmour (Son of a Lion) filmed clandestinely on location.

A Q&A with director Benjamin Gilmour will be held at Dendy Cinema, Canberra Centre after Jirga screens at 7 pm on Friday 21 September.

Italian Film Festival 2018

The Italian Film Festival screens in Canberra at Palace Electric Cinema from 12 September until 7 October. Now in its nineteenth year, the IFF celebrates Italian culture, language and lifestyle with around 30 films.

Highlights include the life and times of Silvio Berlusconi in Loro, Cannes festival award winners Happy as Lazzaro and Lucia’s Grace, films that reference the elusive internationally best-selling author Elena Ferrante, as well as selected classics of Italian cinema.

For more information, visit the festival website

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