Ida

Review by Jane Freebury

This solemn, spare and beautiful personal journey begins in a house of silence, a convent, where a young woman is preparing herself for the vows that will commit her to a life of chastity and prayer. She is obliged to make a visit to family before she makes the irrevocable life choice. Family, it transpires, is an aunt, the only living relative, who discloses to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) that her real name is Ida and that she is in fact Jewish.

The impact of the revelation is consigned to the place where Ida has learnt to contain her feelings. It is not hard to imagine that this is the way she has learned to cope, when all she has ever known in life is the convent where she was left as an orphan at the end of WWII. For all the emotional churn going on beneath its surface, Pawel Pawlikowski’s entire film is a model of restraint, told in exquisitely composed black-and-white images inside a 4:3 frame, like old ‘Box Brownie’ family photos from the 1950s. The camera barely seems to move. An austere, locked-down approach that could work against the flow of a journey that takes place largely on the road, but it doesn’t.

With her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) behind the wheel, Ida travels to the farm that was once her family home. She encounters the father and son, now its owners, who know about the fate of her parents. Wanda, a judge, has just the right skills for getting at the truth, however her interrogations also reveal that she nurses a terrible secret of her own. It provides additional backstory to the road trip, which is quite possibly as important for her as it is for her young niece.
Set early in the 1960s, the world of the film looks to both the past and to the future. The scars of war remain but western jazz is seeping through the cracks of the communist Poland and getting picked up by youth culture.

While it is Ida whose composed and lovely features, complete with dimple on the chin, whose face the camera studies, it is Wanda who takes the hit, on a journey of her own. A firebrand of the new regime in her youth, ‘Red Wanda’ on the bench from which she dispensed a fiery justice to regime recalcitrants, she drowns her emotions in cigarettes, booze and men. Not necessarily the best alternative role model for a young novitiate.

Along the way, Wanda stops to pick up a handsome young hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a saxophonist in a jazz group. Now he does offer an attractive alternative. Or does he. The final frames are, one would hope, left open, but a cryptic and unsettling ambiguity remains.

In a capsule: In exquisitely composed B&W, this is the solemn and thoughtful personal journey of a young novitiate about to enter a convent in post-war Poland.

4 stars

Belle

Review by Jane Freebury

A portrait of the woman who inspired this film, the daughter of an English sea captain and a black woman held in slavery, was painted around 1780. The canvas hangs today in a Scottish castle. It isn’t any wonder that the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle has finally arrived on screen, only that it has taken quite so long to reach us. Here in this delicate, intelligent film she is brought to life by screenwriter Misan Sagay, director Amma Asante, and actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role.

By any measure Belle’s life story is fascinating. After her mother died, her father took her to live with his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are perfect) in Hampstead. There she was raised as a gentlewoman and a companion to her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), also adopted. She is the other subject in the portrait that hangs in Scotland. Belle learned to speak French, to play musical instruments, and to pursue her education through reading, though not too adventurously.

As loving and well-meaning as her adoptive parents are, Belle finds she inhabits an awkward kind of social limbo. Too high in class to dine with the servants, and too low to dine with visitors, and far too exotic for some society matrons like Miranda Richardson’s Lady Ashford and their sons. Could she find a suitable husband?

It transpires that Belle is not without suitors, but she becomes a heiress on her father’s death at sea and does not necessarily need one. With a bit of tweaking by the filmmakers, she discovers she is free to marry as her heart desires, or follow in the footsteps of the snippy maiden aunt who resides with the Mansfield household. It seems a bit unlikely that Belle and the young man who takes her fancy would have spoken quite so frankly to each other in the late 18th century, but writer Sagay has scripted her characters to speak to modern sensibilities.

Themes of equality and emancipation extend to race as well. As Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield has to review a decision that required insurance companies to pay compensation to the ‘Zong’, a vessel that claimed it had been necessity to throw chained slaves overboard on its way to ports in North America. Outrage over the atrocity helped get the abolitionist movement started.

One of the pleasures of the best of the Merchant Ivory period dramas was, besides meticulous attention to wardrobe and sets, the insights they offered, and of course the same is true for the Jane Austen adaptations. Delicate, intelligent and moving, Belle is a feast for the eyes and a nuanced slice of history.

In a capsule: Delicate, intelligent and moving period drama with contemporary relevance. A mixed-race woman raised within the English establishment during the early years of the anti-slavery movement.

4 stars

Hannah Arendt

Review by Jane Freebury

This could have gone wide as a more conventional life story of influential 20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, the first to write on the Third Reich in the context of western civilisation. Instead director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta has homed in on the four-year period that brought about the phrase that Arendt is widely and controversially remembered for, ‘the banality of evil’.

In 1961 the editors at The New Yorker magazine couldn’t quite believe their luck when Arendt (a transformed Barbara Sukowa) contacted them, suggesting she cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who had major responsibility for the holocaust. Eichmann had been discovered in hiding in Argentina and was due to stand trial in Israel for crimes against humanity.

Here was Arendt, distinguished academic, author of tomes on totalitarianism etc, offering to do some long-form journalism for them. With her nicotine habit she certainly looked the part. In any event, she didn’t meet the deadlines, if she ever had any, but she certainly made their commission worthwhile.

The conclusions that she reached observing Eichmann in the dock ran counter to orthodoxies about the nature of evil. The experience of watching Eichmann conduct himself at the trial led her to conclude he ‘wasn’t spooky at all’ but ‘a nobody’ who spoke in awful administrative jargon, claiming he was only following orders.
This reminds me of how some filmgoers responded to that excellent film of 2004, Downfall, an account of the last days Hitler spent in the bunker before he took his life and ended WWII. The portrayal of the fuhrer as functioning human being rather than monster or brute caused offence. That such a man could appear terrifyingly normal was impossible to accept.

Instead of an actor in the role of Eichmann, von Trotta has the man play himself. Black-and-white television footage of the trial blend with her staged drama as the former Nazi ducks and weaves under questionning. Have to agree that von Trotta made the right decision here, though this is just about the only risk she takes in the area of craft.

Despite the narrow window, much of Arendt’s remarkable life gets a mention. The affair as a student with philosopher Martin Heidegger, the flight from the march of Nazism in Europe, and her new life as an esteemed academic in the US. Touchingly, von Trotta, who is adding yet another story about a strong woman to a filmography that includes The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Rosa Luxemburg, has allowed us to see that Arendt was fortunate in marriage (her second), and secure in her husband’s affection. It adds a homely touch to this sober study of a big name in political theory.

In a capsule: A fine sober study, if conventional technically, of a key political theorist of last century who challenged orthodox thinking on the nature of evil.

4 stars

Tracks

Review by Jane Freebury

Exactly what possessed a young woman to decide she was going to trek with camels across Australia may be something we’ll never quite understand. The author Robyn Davidson recalls that 40 years ago she was fed up with the self-indulgent negativity of her generation. Yes, we get that. And that she wanted to prove ordinary people could do extraordinary things. That, too. However, we can hazard a safe guess that the spirit of extreme adventure came to her more readily than to other mortals and was in her DNA. Her father had walked across the Kalahari alone in Africa in 1935.

With actor Mia Wasikowska as the author in this film of her best-selling book, it somehow just adds to the mystery. No one is allowed under her cover and she gives little away, except with an impatient click of the fingers, and a turn of the head that means ‘end of conversation’. Wasikowska is, as always, really good, but I think the part is underwritten, especially when there is an entire book about the camel trek to draw on.

While motivation is difficult to fathom, walking 1,700-kilometres from our red centre to the Indian Ocean is a marvel of single-mindedness. Davidson took herself and her dog Diggity to Alice Springs with a plan to find some wild camels, endured an apprenticeship to the oafish owner of a local camel farm, and then agreed, reluctantly, to sponsorship from National Geographic magazine. It meant photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver) would drop in on her at intervals. An interruption to her isolation that was both welcome and unwelcome.

It takes a bold team to make a film of a book at any time, and this is such a personal and internal quest as well as a grand physical adventure. The ‘camel lady’ of 1977, was one of the original gutsy travellers, and her stories of survival in central Australia and Rajasthan (Desert Places) have become the stuff of urban legend as we sipped on our lattes.

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is imaginative and the material has been beautifully edited by Alexandre de Franceschi, who has worked with Jane Campion quite a bit. However, the experience is not as compelling as you would expect, which is surprising from John Curran, the director of Praise. Also, the score seems odd and out of touch with the vision from time to time.

Although it’s a treat to see this journey through our desert heartland, Tracks may not enjoy the longevity of defining outback features like Wake in Fright, Walkabout, The Tracker, to name some of the most obvious, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And yetTracks is still an extraordinary story and the film has a lot going for it in its quiet and composed way.

In a capsule: The extraordinary story of a young woman’s trek across central Australia has much going for it in its quiet way, though is not as compelling as it might have been.

4 stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Review by Jane Freebury

‘Who wouldn’t want to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest? It’s an institution.’ The answer that nails it for the new lobby boy shows that even if he doesn’t have any experience, or any education or family, he can show a deft hand. The guests at the grand old hotel, once a jewel of a seat of empire, can be a cranky, touchy lot, difficult to please and their secrets must be carried to the grave.

This madcap comedy, the latest from the very talented Wes Anderson, is set in a fictional European country called Zubrowka, which, although a republic, is stratified by class. At the centre of the grand old hotel is M. Gustav, played by Ralph Fiennes in very silky form—no shades of Basil Fawlty here. This concierge of unknown background and indeterminate gender preferences knows exactly how to be all things to all people. Daubed with six or seven different kinds of scent, one for every eventuality, but always wearing his l’Air de Panache, he is a marvellous creation, and perfect role model for aspiring lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).

Zero isn’t long in the job before Gustav drags him off to say goodbye to Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, what can I say?), an 84-year-old who enjoyed his hospitality regularly. The dear old dame has already died, but her will is about to be read. Gustav is bequeathed a priceless renaissance painting, the only thing of any worth in the estate, and it sets the picaresque narrative rolling. Gustav and Zero sequester the art treasure to protect it from the woman’s greedy children, led by Adrien Brody’s Dmitri.

Complete with brush back and a moustache with waxed ends Dmitri cuts the perfect figure of a villain in amongst the stylistic touches that are a hommage to cinema at its start – iris in, intertitles, a squarer framing ratio and music to match.

Gustav is subsequently arrested by an incompetent military (Edward Norton’s Henckels is in command) for Madame D’s murder instead. His imprisonment and subsequent escape set in motion madcap pursuits involving estate lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), an inmate with an escape plan (Harvey Keitel), a scary private detective (Willem Dafoe), a monastery of complicit monks who try to help Gustav prove his innocence. All the while, Anderson keeps everything working smoothly like gloriously calibrated clockwork.

This film is a wonderfully inventive experience, bursting with ideas, light and deft, and graced by cameos by some of the best actors around. How does director Wes Anderson do it? Why do actors like Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, actors who could easily command a film by themselves, agree to take part in his vision? Maybe, like the rest of us, they just want to have some fun.

In a capsule: A delightful, inventive comic experience told with distinctive panache. Brimming with ideas and with terrific cameos from some great acting talent.

4.5 stars

Noah

Review by Jane Freebury

A big screen treatment of the life of a key prophet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is one helluva big undertaking, destined for controversy. Noah has already run into a bit of trouble in its international release. It has been banned in Indonesia and certain Muslim Gulf nations. Who knows what kind of response, from audiences—secular, sceptic or believer—awaits it here in Oz.

Any filmgoer who goes to see this epic with the intention of checking its religious credentials will find a curious stew. Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Black Swan) has the chutzpah to carry it all off, but has had trouble wrangling the different elements into a strong and solid whole.
During the early stages, things don’t travel that well. When Noah and his family encounter marauding Canaanites on the vast desolate steppes it’s not particularly urgent and compelling, and when the Watchers arrive things seriously teeter on the brink. These Watchers, stone CGI giants who look like extras who escaped from The Lord of the Rings, provide the family with protection, but the superhuman element robs the ark construction phase of drama. The moments when the birds, reptiles and beasts descend on Noah’s ark are magical, however.

Another area robbed of its dramatic potential is life on board the ark with all god’s creatures. We all remember vividly how much trouble it was wrangling a single tiger at sea in Life of Pi, but here a drug-induced sleep keeps the creatures docile. It doesn’t however stop tensions building between Noah and his family.
The family drama is primal and keenly felt, in particular between Noah (Russell Crowe) and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and second son Ham (Logan Lerman) who realises it is destined he will never have a wife. Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and the depraved hordes who have missed out on being chosen people also take the fight to Noah but he remains strong despite the pressure, until his mission becomes dangerously fanatical.

The moment that Noah loses touch and he finds himself a stranger to compassion and love, things become really interesting—and Crowe is in great form here. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have taken liberties with the biblical text, and with others too for all I know, to explore the dilemma of a man torn between an obsession with principles and his humanity.

With this uneasy balance of human drama, action adventure and internal struggle, the image of a rudderless ark full of every creature known to man, bobbing around on the high seas until it comes to ground seems the perfect analogy for this epic from Aronofsky and his A-list cast. There are only a few shots heaven-wards, and with a $130 million budget, the producers will be praying that on release it all stays afloat.

In a capsule: An unwieldy mix of dramatic elements pinned to the mast of an ancient biblical story that comes to life when the battle over principle takes over.

3 stars

Le Week-End

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s some time into this remarkable film about a lived-in relationship that we actually find out what the couple who’ve been married for ever actually do. He’s a philosophy professor, she’s a teacher. Not that we couldn’t have guessed, but it says something about how irrelevant the trappings are in relationships. Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and his screenwriter collaborator Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) are trying here to get at where we live here with results that ring uncomfortably and pleasurably true.

Recent empty-nesters Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) travel to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in the city where they spent their honeymoon. Indeed, in the very same hotel, until Meg takes a turn over the decor—beige—and they veer off to an establishment they can ill afford. In no time at all it’s clear that the niggling and surface tensions mask deep underlying dissatisfaction that needs to be worked out. What better time than a romantic weekend set aside for rejuvenating the marriage?

The precise reasons for their marital difficulties are vague. Have they just been married too long? The film is not saying that either. Lack of physical intimacy is clearly one, brought to a head in a rare awkward scene when Meg gets into dominatrix mode in black stilettos.

If this were set back home in Britain, it could have been a tiresome domestic as Meg and Nick air mutual resentments then laugh them off, and bicker and make up. Sometimes you just want to look away, but the writing is so brilliant and the observations so acute that it’s impossible to. Besides, the Parisian ambience is a counterpoint to any of the gloom that Nick occasionally lets slip and it works on Meg, a fluent French speaker, like a tonic.

Who doesn’t love Paris? The city and its people float by, tantalising the senses and rich in cultural memory with its Haussmann facades, beckoning bistrots, and shimmering tower of light.

The turning point involves an old university friend of Nick’s, the unctuous Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who has left his old life in New York behind and set up with a much younger new wife and entourage who idolise him. It’s a reality check, and the beauty of the moment is that it doesn’t resolve as it might be expected to. Like life.

That grand old cineaste, Jean-Luc Godard, made a film called Weekend in 1964, but the references imported here are largely from another of his films, like Bande à Part. It’s a bit on the self-conscious side, but at the same time the line dance at the end hints at new beginnings and other possibilities and leaves you with a spring in your step.

In a capsule: A terrific film about a couple who reach their 30th wedding anniversary. Sensitively observed, beautifully written and brought to life by very impressive performances.

4.5 stars

The Past

Review by Jane Freebury

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has a gift for offering an apparently simple premise only to tease it apart, strand by strand, and reveal it in all its glorious complexity. Two years ago, A Separation wowed audiences and earned Farhadi some glittering international awards, including an Oscar for best foreign language film. Although there were detractors on twitter it was popular in his home country too, so everyone was happy. An excellent result in a country where cultural expression is severely censored and filmmakers can find themselves under house arrest and their work banned for decades, like the estimable Jafar Panahi.

The Past is another superb, finely wrought drama about one of life’s great mysteries, the married couple, with a hint of cross-cultural stuff thrown in for good measure. It is made with French money, and represents the first time the director has worked in France, but it is hard to dismiss the hunch that a secret to Farhadi’s success, and the success of many highly-regarded contemporary Iranian filmmakers today, is their creative response to the particular political environment in their home country.

On this occasion the couple has agreed to divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has just flown in to France from Iran for the settlement. His estranged French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, you will remember her from The Artist) is picking him from the airport to drive him back to what was once their home, but has failed to let him know in advance that she now shares it with another man. Samir (Tahar Rahim),who is of Arab descent, and his young son. More revelations will unfold.
Like Ahmad, we experience a slow dripfeed as important background information about the various characters trickles in, but this journey of surprises is told with great skill. Whoever said ‘what’s past is past’? Certainly, if there’s any equivalent saying in farsi, Farhadi would beg to differ. I wonder what his take would be on the concept of ‘closure’, a cliche that is so overworked in our conversations today?

Farhadi has suggested that A Separation and The Past are ‘siblings’, one male the other female. He consistently shows respect for the positions of all his characters but it tends to be Ahmad’s story, if it is anyone’s. No sooner is Ahmad back than he assumes a paternal role, getting along with the kids, resolving disputes, shopping and cooking dinner, and there is clearly still affection between himself and Marie, although she will gradually reveals her shortcomings.
This is slow cinema, a subtle, elegantly handled exploration of relationships between adults and their children. The conflation of past and present in a final scene in the hospital ward is quite a punchline.

In a capsule: Past and present conflate in this subtle, elegant study of intimate relationships from the Iranian filmmaker who impressed us with A Separation.

4.5 stars

Enough Said

Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the best things about this mid-life romantic comedy from writer-director Nicole Holofcener is the way it’s told. There’s wry humour, insight and a generosity that is kind about the light and dark in all of the characters, including its fumbling mature-age leads.

Another good thing is the presence of (the late) James Gandolfini who shows how a leading man in a romance can still display charm and charisma even if he is, well, obese, careless about his appearance and clearly getting on. There’s also the issue of ear hair and a missing molar, but enough said. We find out more about his character Albert than we need to know. Perhaps it’s part of his charm that he’s not out to impress.

Albert, a curator in a cultural institution, has become used to life without a partner since he split from Marianne (Catherine Keener) some years ago. He’s fun to be with, a fount of knowledge about American popular culture and can peg the names and episodes of programs that were screening on TV decades ago with the exact time of day they were on air.

A spark of interest ignites between Albert and Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), another divorcee, when they meet at a party.  Perhaps it’s the prospect of soon becoming empty nesters that has made it possible for them to put out feelers. Both of them have college-age daughters who are about to leave home for the first time. After some awkward first moves, the scenes of Albert and Eva getting to know each other are especially touching and real. The scenes with Eva’s friend Sarah (Toni Collette) involving her imploding marriage and grating treatment of the maid, I found less charming.

The complicating factor to the unlikely romance is Eva’s new friendship with Marianne, a published poet and a woman of style who lives in an immaculate house—and is enviably free of cellulite. Eva, a masseuse, notices these things and is flattered by her new client’s need of friendship, but Marianne seems to need to offload negative memories about her former husband, some of them very petty criticism, especially the whinge about the way he eats guacamole. In a gotcha moment Eva finds herself caught in a pincer. Should she keep listening to Marianne go on and on about Albert or should she declare her hand, perhaps declare it to each of them?

Like all of Holofcener’s films,  Enough Said gives us a contemporary moral dilemma or two to chew on. It’s not as nuanced as others like Lovely & Amazing have been, but it has some sweet and delicate moments and lovely performances by Galdolfini and Louis-Dreyfus.

In a capsule: Some sweet, delicate moments in this mid-life romantic comedy and a moral dilemma or two to chew on. Also a touching farewell from James Gandolfini.

3.5 stars

Diana

Review by © Jane Freebury

It can take an outsider to reveal what we cannot see for ourselves. So the news that German film director Oliver Hirschbiegel was making a film about the people’s princess, weak link in the British royal chain, sounded more than promising. That Hirschbiegel had succeeded with other material best left alone—the last days of the Hitler in Downfall—boded well. It was also encouraging that Naomi Watts, a mix of vulnerability and steel, would be in the lead.

The last days of an icon have a certain fascination. What was Hitler doing holed up in his bunker as the Allies closed in, what was Kurt Cobain doing before he apparently shot himself, and what was Princess Diana up to in the  two years before she died? The events here are based on a book by Kate Snell, Diana – Her Last Love, about her relationship with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, relation of the cricketer politician Imran. In this post 9/11 world it’s fascinating to wonder what we would have made of a British princess married to a Muslim.

Simply calling the film Diana is confirmation she needs no introduction. The princess was a phenomenon, a celebrity superstar whose appeal had global reach, and I don’t think commentators have really got to the bottom of it yet, not even Camille Paglia. This film reveals little new and also fails, I think, to give Diana her due.

Inevitably, Hirschbiegel’s film critiques the royals. It leaves the terrible probably erroneous impression that Diana had access to her sons only every five weeks. Stripped of her honorific, she was still trapped in the gilded cage of Kensington Palace. Who wouldn’t smuggle a boyfriend in under a blanket in the back of the car? Outside the gates the media scrum waited, yet the film shows that she had considerable responsibility for attracting the swarms of paparazzi that stalked her.

It was around the time of the sensational revelatory television interview that precipitated her divorce from Charles, that Diana fell for Khan, played here by Naveen Andrews. Doctor, can you mend a broken heart? She was in her mid-thirties, but one-on-one here she is portrayed as a blank slate, a breathy ingenue keen to do homework on Khan’s interests rather than introduce him to some of her own.

It is hard to credit there wasn’t more to her than we see here, the vivacious young woman who went to lunch with Clive James, stood up to ‘the firm’, and gave tender comfort to AIDS sufferers.

This bland and well-intentioned film has got it badly wrong. Hirschbiegel says the British are not yet over their trauma regarding Diana. No, actually he hasn’t given us new insight into her character and what she came to mean for people, just more fuel for the gossip mongers.

In a capsule: Sympathetic and well-intentioned, but it reveals little that is new, fails to give Diana her due, and there’s little insight into the phenomenon she became.

2.5 stars

Gravity

Review by © Jane Freebury

The vast emptiness of space is now lodged in our collective imagination as a pretty unsettling concept. Maybe even harder to accept than extra-terrestrial monsters or alien forms of life. The idea that we may be alone in the void, with only a few microbes buried in soil some millions of light years away for company, is hard to get your head around. Is there anybody out there, please?

Nothingness doesn’t seem to bother medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), rookie member of a NASA team sent aloft to work on a Hubble telescope. It’s the silence she likes the most, though we do learn later why the lady wants to be alone. After a horrifying, deadly encounter with speeding debris the team is reduced to two, Stone and the mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran intent on marking his last mission with a space walk for the record books.

Bullock and Clooney make an intriguing combination but the screenplay doesn’t much capitalise on this odd couple of the sensible, congenial and sometimes dogged female persona and the gorgeous and effortlessly suave male. It could have been mined for more. Indeed the writing by director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas is the weak point here. It also struck me that Bullock was very breathy in the early scenes for a cool-headed professional, but maybe it was the Clooney effect after all. However, when she finds herself entirely and perilously alone, a little heavy breathing is to be expected.

The very best thing about this movie is not the stars but the simulated experience of space where the life and death struggle takes place in a terrible awesome silence. How wonderful to watch extended sequences uncut. So immersive.

Stanley Kubrick gave us a Strauss Waltz to watch as space stations spun in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cuaron gives us some country and western, until Stone asks Houston to switch it off, but it is the silence in the elemental setting that is so powerful as Stone and Kowalski tumble around like flotsam in a fathomless sea. Six hundred kilometres above earth, where there is zero oxygen and nothing to carry sound, is so brilliantly created it must be close to the real thing.

It is not surprising to hear that Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut. What boy who watched the first walk on the moon live on TV didn’t? Anyway, he soon became an aspiring film director and has brought us terrific films like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of God. I don’t think that his latest film tops the human drama in either Moon or Apollo 13, both wonderful space adventures, but for sheer immersive visual pleasure Cuaron’s Gravity is really something.

3.5 stars

Stories We Tell

Review by © Jane Freebury

Former child actor Sarah Polley made her fiction feature debut with distinction in 2006 when she directed Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s in Away From Her. Her new film, a distinguished debut in the documentary genre, is also about a woman whose absence has left an emptiness for those around who knew and loved her.

When her mother Diane died of cancer at 53, Sarah was just eleven years old. It is little wonder that she sought to discover a sense of what she had missed growing up, by rummaging around in the memories of her brothers, sisters, her father Michael and others. We hear that her mother embraced life, had an infectious personality, that her heavy walk made the ‘records skip’, but who was she? One of the revelations of this delicate, persistent and almost intolerably intimate investigation is that the woman is not dissected and that she not belong to anyone exclusively in memory–child, husband or lover.

There are several reveals that should remain secret, but the main revelation, already public property, was discovered by the filmmaker in between making Away from Her and Take This Waltz. While on set made up as a Neanderthal cavewoman, she took a call on her mobile to hear that she wasn’t Michael’s biological daughter. An ongoing family joke since she turned 18 was that she didn’t look anything like her father. ‘Who do you think your father is this week?’ her siblings would tease. It suddenly became the painful truth.

There are many strands to this wonderful film besides the stock straight-to-camera interviews with family and friends, mercifully deftly edited. Most beguiling is the meld of faked Super 8 footage, presented as excerpts from home movies featuring Diane played by Rebecca Jenkins, with actual archival footage, one in black-and-white with the real Diane singing a version of Ain’t Misbehavin’.

In cutaways to director Polley on set, mixed reactions flit across her composed features, but the person on whom impact seems most pronounced is her father. An actor of Canadian stage and TV screen who continued to raise her alone, as her older siblings had already left home. The more we see of him and how he has coped with the revelation of his daughter’s paternity, the taller Michael Polley grows in stature.

From the start this fascinating forensic study declares its interest in discovering the significance of narrative in our lives, how it is wheeled in to make sense of the nonsensical. I kept wanting to add ‘and the secrets we keep’ to the film’s title. A final reveal will explain why.

In a capsule: A fascinating, forensic documentary exploring relationships within family after the loss of a mother and the tsunami of revelations brought on by her death.

4.5 stars

Blue Jasmine

Review by © Jane Freebury

The opening credits are unexceptional before we get down to business but it’s impossible not to feel excitement about seeing the work of two great talents on screen, Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett. How will he use her gifts? A sashaying jazz score draws you in and you know you are in good hands.

As anyone who has watched the rivetting trailer knows, this is about relationships,  infidelities and neuroses. Standard for Allen, though much less so for Blanchett. It’s also about class as it manifests in the US and the pains an aspirant, Jasmine (Blanchett), will go to to insert herself into high society. Even when she’s supposed to be bankrupt she flies first class as she leaves New York to find anonymity living at her sister’s. It will be a new start on the west coast, with a little help from Xanax.

Her sister Ginger, played with disarming  honesty by  Sally Hawkins, is everything Jasmine is not. She lives happily with her two sons in San Francisco, works as a checkout chick in a grocery business and is in and out of boyfriends who adore her all the same. Some of the funniest scenes involve Ginger and her crazy boyfriends, and it crossed my mind that she would have made an even better subject for our attention.

As a representative of the moneyed classes, Jasmine’s ex Hal  is a seedy Alec Baldwin special. The two of them are phonies and writer/director Allen has made Hal the type that we hold responsible for the GFC. His wife Jasmine turned a blind eye to the high stakes financial chicanery, but one affair too many spurs her into action.

Allen has said when he got Blanchett for the his film it felt like scoring an atomic weapon, but  I don’t think her portrait of mental collapse can become legendary like Gloria Swanson’s turn in Sunset Boulevard, or Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, or Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Blanchett is wonderful but the film just doesn’t feel that distinctive.

Over a 43 film career, Allen has had the most marvellous actors work with him. Yet, there’s something disposable about Allen, despite his brilliance as a writer-director. The feeling that he just tosses his work off with such ease, reliant on the old proven moves. His protagonists, male or female, can seem like iterations of the Allen persona.

Blanchett is brilliant in meltdown,  more the victim of her own delusions than much else. We know that this actor can do anything, even Dylan, but if she’d been Ginger with a pesky, self-obsessed sister down on her luck there would have been a more interesting and less travelled story path there.

In a capsule: Blanchett is brilliant in meltdown, but this latest Woody Allen relies too heavily on her firepower and doesn’t offer a character interesting enough to engage with.

3.5 stars

Mary Meets Mohammad

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s got such a biblical ring to it yet Mary Meets Mohammad is as 21st century as you can get. How else would it be possible but in a shrinking world for a 70-year-old woman, a member of a knitting circle in Tasmania, to cross paths with a 26-year-old Hazara refugee? Writer-director-producer Heather Kirkpatrick has recorded the development of this unlikely relationship in a gently observed documentary that packs a steely punch.

Like others whose views were captured in the media in 2011 when the Pontville detention facility was established, Mary was against it. There was an eruption of raw feeling at the announcement that asylum seekers would be housed on the outskirts of Hobart, and frankly she couldn’t see why these Muslim men should be made welcome when Australian solders were on the ground in Afghanistan. She felt they were cowards to leave their embattled homeland behind then gradually she got to know an individual buried in the statistics.

The friendship comes about when Mary’s knitters make beanies for the newly arrived asylum seekers, a charitable act like many of their other craft activities. For the first part of the doco at least, the women visit the facility but the men behind the double-wire fence under guard by Serco are unseen. Asylum seekers may not be filmed. At this point Mohammad only has a presence through voiceover as he tells us his life story. Having left for Pakistan when young and spending most of his life a refugee it is a surprise to discover a certain equanimity when we meet him.

It transpires that the knitters and the men in detention have something important in common, a shared love of handicraft. Some of the men have made prayer mats and knitted scarves, the latter with wooden meat skewers in place of needles. One wonders whether knitting needles were prohibited for the same reason it was not recommended the knitters make scarves, for fear someone might hang himself.

Intermittent establishing shots of the detention centre, Serco-run, forbidding and surrounded by a double-wire fence, have a chilling effect, a scar on a sleepy rural landscape among rolling hills with people locked away inside. The figures on the mental health of detainees kept in these circumstances are shocking. There must be a better way to deal with this intractable problem.

Over a period of 16 months prejudices are broken down and hearts soften but Kirkpatrick’s camera does not avert our eyes when Mary shakes her head a little as she watches Mohammad unfurl his prayer mat and say his prayers. Only a moment ago we watched her say grace as they sat down to a meal together. It is a reminder of the honesty of this terrific humanist story about what’s possible.

In a capsule: A gently observed doco about a friendship between a 70 year old Tasmanian woman and a Hazara asylum seeker. It packs a steely punch.

4 stars

Before Midnight

Review by © Jane Freebury

In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first two films of what has become an exquisite trilogy, time was of the essence. Money too. In the first brief encounter between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Vienna, it kept them on the streets, and talking, always talking. Second time around in Paris, after the designated nine-year interlude, things ended much less ambiguously, with the romantic couple alone in her apartment and the evening ahead.

Before Midnight, the third of the Before series starts as they near the end of a six week holiday together in a writers’ retreat in the southern Peloponnese under the laser light of the Mediterranean summer sun. There is still the sense of some sort of deadline, but on this occasion the couple have been together since last we met.

There is an imminent departure, but it’s Jesse’s 14-year-old son, who is leaving, flying home to his mum in Chicago. Dad (Hawke) and he are saying their goodbyes at the Kalamata airport, in a sequence that perfectly captures the dynamic of caring parent trying to assuage guilt in last-minute interaction with a child who is preoccupied with other matters anyway. Jesse walks out of the airport and towards the four-wheel drive where his partner awaits him, with a pair of beautiful blonde children asleep on the back seat. The last nine years since Before Sunset are revealed in single shot and it packs a wallop.

The drama proceeds to unfold on the front seat on the drive back to the retreat, with the camera sitting on the bonnet capturing it in the first of many long takes. With an absence of cuts, director Richard Linklater likes to immerse his audiences in his characters and their problems—without prioritising either character’s point-of-view—and the reality of the dramatic moment. Welcome to the talkfest that is the Before trilogy.

All the talk is however quite wonderful and one of those rare films where the acting brings to life the brilliant emotional honesty of the script as the conversation, delivered every which way, with love, humour or snarky payback, cuts through. The latest collaboration between Linklater and his two lead actors, it is a mirror for the unruly bundle of intimate needs and professional ambition, emotional dilemmas, compromises and triumphs of contemporary life.

Delpy’s beauty has had a kind of iconic status on screen since her appearances in Krysztof Kieslowski’s own trilogy Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Rouge and Blanc. The less said of Hawke’s scruffy appearance the better, but he is perfect for his role too. The two of them have given so generously of themselves in this rare treat of a film that just wants to explore, gently but incisively, how we really tick.

In a capsule: An exquisite study of mature romance, exploring the Before Sunset relationship many years on to discover what has changed and what remains the same.

5 stars

The Loneliest Planet

Review by © Jane Freebury

Trekking through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia with the one you love may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. Fine, though, if you have a well-honed sense of adventure, are strong and fit, and don’t mind sleeping on slopes in a flimsy tent. Russian filmmaker Julia Loktev explores the effect a trip into the unknown can have on a pair of seasoned travellers who are unprepared for the unexpected.

Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) make a great romantic couple, 21st century style. They can’t get enough of each other which is just as well because they depend on each other intimately to get by. And they are an engaging couple, though they would have been even more so with less impro or better dialogue.

Both are strong and fit – especially her – and with their friendly style get by with hand gestures and a smattering of local language. We know the routine. Although they move around in their own bubble they do also make connections with the locals.  And they know their limits.  They hire Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), a local guide, to take them through majestic valleys right up to the snowline.

Sometimes, it’s just all about the scenery. Majestic mountain vistas fill the screen to a gorgeous cello score. Nature dwarfs the intrepid trekkers. They shrink to specs for which we have to search, walking along from right to left then from left to right. Other times it’s about Nica’s red hair. Sometimes that fills the screen too, in wavy abundance.

The guide Dato has some diverting chat and he keeps it light. “Life is good but the good life is better”  earns a laugh but his doleful look and the conditions in his country only underline the good fortune of the young backpackers and their carefree outlook. So the occasion when the trekking party comes up against danger shatters the mood, and it’s shocking because there is no warning.

It’s a sadder and a wiser pair of lovers on holiday in the second half. Loktev’s film, which reminds me of some writing by Hemingway,  is based on a short story by Tom Bissell, with the intriguing title Expensive Trips Nowhere.

While Loktev’s film turns a few deftly handled plot points, she chances too much with her naturalism in the final scenes. Then the limitations of Gujabidze’s acting skills become apparent and the film’s subtleties are lost in awkward conversation. I didn’t mind the inconclusive final scene, but the film had already lost its way at the campfire.  Loktev’s storytelling is often subtle and compelling, but long improvised and banal conversation, although it may be just like backpacker talk around the campfire, spoils the magic.

In a capsule: A trek into the Caucasus wilderness has unexpected consequences for a pair of young backpackers soon to marry. In many ways, this distinctive and subtly told story has a raw power, despite the impro.

3.5 stars

Searching for Sugar Man

Film review by © Jane Freebury

Born in the same year as Jimi Hendrix, singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez turned 70 this year. The music careers of both men burned briefly in the 1970s however Rodriguez’s has miraculously come back to life and is the subject of this remarkable musical detective story by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul.

Rodriguez? No, I hadn’t heard of him either until recently, though his haunting signature song, Sugar Man, is faintly familiar. He released two albums early in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, but never got to make a third when he was dropped by his record label. So he took up blue collar construction work where he could find it in his hometown of Detroit.

Where did the extravagant rumours of Rodriguez’s suicide on stage come from? That he’d shot himself, that he’d set himself on fire. Is it something to blame on a certain cultish disposition of the times when he disappeared from view? The man himself lives simply, has helped bring up three daughters and studied philosophy at university after his musical career finally folded.

Clearly he was done over by the music industry. If he is bitter over the lost royalties, we would never know. Somehow, as we shuttle between the US and South Africa the many superb location shots, some beautifully photographed with time lapse, and some gorgeous CG animation recreations lend aspiration and dignity to what must have sometimes been a hard slog.

Rodriguez’s songs meantime took on a life of their own. Far from the home of Motown and Ford Motor company, his music took off in the troubled state of South Africa where its counter-cultural, anti-establishment messages had deep resonance among white liberal youth trying to divest themselves of an ugly apartheid regime.

It would have been better to hear more of this music on the soundtrack, to share the experience and understand what it represented. A bit too long is spent on the talking heads of record producers, other musicians, journalists and too little time allowed to the music to speak for itself.

At the height of his popularity in South Africa, tracks were banned—sharp implements crudely applied to vinyl—but still Rodriguez managed to become bigger than Elvis and the Stones there, and was apparently right up there with the Beatles. The connection that Rodriguez’s music built, entirely without his knowledge, with the forces for change there in the 1970s, is a minor miracle.

The doco doesn’t mention that his work also had some following here in Australia, where he has toured and will tour again soon. It’s a slightly annoying omission, but it need not detract from an astonishing story of a superstar who had no idea how his music had contributed to social change in a country far, far away.

In a capsule: The story of a modest superstar who had no idea how his music contributed to social change in a country faraway. Gorgeously made and with a subject entirely worthy of our attention, though the music itself could have done with more airing.

4 stars

 

The Sessions

Review by © Jane Freebury

Is it possible to get to know a woman in the biblical sense? That’s quite a question from a man whose encounter with polio at 6 had left him a quadriplegic confined to an iron lung. The question is directed at his priest, and quite an ask of him too, confined as he is by the church’s view of sex outside marriage. However, in this gentle, frank exploration of the possibilities of human intimacy, anything seems possible.

It had been many years since expat Australian writer-director Ben Lewin had made a fiction feature, when he came across the story of Mark O’Brien, an American poet and writer who died in 1999, who lost his virginity at the age of 36 during sessions with a sex surrogate. O’Brien’s story spoke to Lewin, not least because Lewin had also been incapacitated by polio too and still needs to use crutches, though it has not stopped him from building a life-long career in film and TV with credits like The Dunera Boys, The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish and episodes of Sea Change.

You would think the subject of a relationship between the able-bodied and the totally disabled was a very big ask. How could it be done without the audience feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic? How would a frank approach work or would sentiment serve it better?

The Intouchables currently in cinemas starts out determined to avoid the pitfall of an excessive compassion. Rolf de Heer’s approach in his film Dance Me to My Song was remarkably frank in its time.

Lewin has gifted his story with a wonderful cast. Helen Hunt, who showed us a thing or two about relationships with difficult men in What Women Want and As Good As It Gets, is the sex therapist Cheryl, played much of the time completed naked. At 49, she looks amazing, though it would have been interesting to know more about how her character’s psyche, and why it was that she crossed the line with her client. As Mark, actor John Hawkes, the weirdo in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, is very likable, keeping things buoyant with self-deprecating humour. Both characters keep things airily free of bathos.

The role of facilitating priest who gives O’Brien a ‘free pass’, with a ‘go for it’, is occupied by William H. Macy. His furrowed features betray the contradictions he may have experienced in free-wheeling 1970s California when the story is set.

The Sessions is a delicate, witty, heart-warming relationship comedy based on a very unlikely premise, where ‘the gimp’, as O’Brien once calls himself gets ‘the beautiful blonde’. It offers access to some very private spaces that any adult, of any age and physical condition, can relate to. A remarkable achievement.

In a capsule: A delicate, witty, heart-warming relationship comedy about a quadriplegic, a life-long victim of polio, who hires a sex therapist. Based on a true story, it is very frank, there’s full-frontal nudity, and despite the unlikely premise, is something any adult can relate to.

4 stars

You Will Be My Son

Review by © Jane Freebury

A picturesque French vineyard on rolling hills sets the scene for this taut family drama. It’s a glorious setting where you might expect to see languid lunches on sunny days to celebrate the ripening fruit, but pretty soon it’s clear this isn’t going to happen.

The tension builds slowly, pacing itself to reveal in full measure the relationship between the owner of the estate and the son destined to take over the business. Father-son relationships are often in the spotlight these days in films like The Road and The Pursuit of Happyness (sic) where sole fathers were fending for young sons, and Life as a House and Beginners where fathers have to work things out with their teenage and young adult sons. In this Gilles Legrand film the relationship is especially toxic.

The patriarch, Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup), is an eleventh generation maker of fine wine in the prestigious Saint-Émilion area, a choice spot for growing grapes since Roman times. He has the pedigree, but regrettably he has formed the view as he nears retirement that his son Martin (Lorànt Deutsch) does not.

It’s Paul’s little joke that though Martin has neither the nose nor the palate for wine, he might have the ear, a reference to the iPod Martin uses while on his runs around the estate. Not only is Martin fit, he has a degree in viticulture and speaks four languages, yet his father treats him with contempt, mainly because the reticent young man is not like him—brash, confident, a real operator. To be fair, Paul doubts his bookish son has the innate appreciation or creativity necessary to sustain the business if he succeeds him. But little excuse for being such an awful person, taking every opportunity to humiliate his son. One wonders what the absent mother might have been like.

When Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), the son of Paul’s ailing associate, arrives home from Napa Valley where he had a job at the Coppola winery, Paul recognises the new arrival’s potential. A far superior heir for his business, whose only fault is a lousy taste in shoes. But that’s easily sorted. Paul cultivates the young man, and even begins to talk of adopting him, a bit rich when Philippe already has a father, albeit one who is terminally ill.

Paul is a petty despot, a King Lear of the vineyard who would disturb the natural order of things. At first it seems the only person to stand up to him is his daughter-in-law Alice (Anne Marivin), who the film gives some of the best lines. The dispirited Martin can make things feel flat some of the time, but the film has a big finish up its sleeve.

In a capsule: A taut family drama set on a picturesque vineyard in southern France. A father wants to disinherit his son and adopt a new one, and overturn the natural order in an interpersonal struggle that develops slowly for a big finish.

3.5 stars

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Review by © Jane Freebury

Thousands of little girls were auditioned for the lead role in Beasts before the filmmakers found their Hushpuppy in Ouvenzhané Wallis.  Just  six years old during the shoot, she conveys a sense of indomitable spirit and has the bearing of a leader in the making, even though an occasional smile reveals that all her big teeth have not yet come through.

Although young, Hushpuppy lives on her own with mementoes of her absent mother around her. Besides herself, Hushpuppy has a few animals to care for, and she keeps an eye on her ailing dad Wink (Dwight Henry) who is not far away, just next door in fact. He tries to be fatherly with a ‘Don’t worry. I’m the man’ routine, but Hushpuppy knows, and he knows, she has to learn to look after herself.

The good thing is that there are friendly folk near at hand. The community, a mixture of black and white people, lives in the bayou known as Bathtub on the wrong side of an enormous levee that separates their homespun happiness from the steely efficiencies of the industrial complex on the other side. The people of Bathtub know how to party and know what’s best in life. Holidays, lots of fresh seafood, and rollicking good music.

It is not surprising to learn that the young writer/director Benh Zeitlin, formerly of New York, is now settled in New Orleans, a convert to its brand of joie de vivre. He says he finds fascinating the sense the community has that it lives on a precipice.

It’s is not so much hurricanes like Katrina that the people of Bathtub fear, its rising sea levels as global warming melts the polar ice. Hushpuppy and the other kids in her class, however, are not as afraid of this as of the ‘aurochs’ their teacher has told them about, a kind of mammoth tusked boar—a magic realist touch that seems to represent fear itself. Aurochs, altogether more frightening than Maurice Sendak’s ‘wild things’, will be released to roam again as their frozen tombs melt.

In the powerful film of the Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, another father figure is afraid he can no longer protect his child. The main thing Wink wants as his own health fades is also for his child to survive, yet Zeitlin’s vision is not bleak and it insists on the vitality of characters who know best how to live in the first place, and on the power of a young child’s imagination.

Handheld and shot on 16mm like the ultimate home movie, Beasts is a genuine indie, and some.  Looking at the long list of community credits, it surely also represents something of the exuberant spirit of New Orleans.

In a capsule: A coming of age tale set in a community on the bayou in Mississippi on the wrong side of the levee.  Indie filmmaking at its best. Confident of its original vision and free of the constraints of its limited resources.

4 stars