CategoryFilm Reviews

La Spagnola

Review by Jane Freebury

This spirited, compassionate and stylish movie begins in Australia in 1960 and is told from the point of view of Lucia, fourteen years old and the daughter of a Spanish woman (La Spagnola) married to an Italian man.

This migrant family living in pre-multicultural Australia own a sparse little home snuggled up against an oil refinery. It has a watertank, outdoor dunny, and aviary where pigeons roost, but it looks more like a halfway house that all three would like to fly away from if they could. Like living on the moon, snaps La Spagnola, and who would disagree.

Lucia’s Papa, hat clamped on his head and toiling through the dust, is the first to leave. La Spagnola (Italian for Spanish woman) his fiery wife tries everything to stop him, and even lies down in front of the family car, as friends and neighbours get drawn into the brawl too.

Lucia (a beautiful performance from 17-year-old Alice Ansara) watches the departure with anguish, perhaps even (is it possible?) a hint of wry amusement. It’s as though she has already put years enough between herself and her distress to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Anna-Maria Monticelli’s script and Steve Jacobs’ direction work together on this, drawing wisdom and warmth from Lucia’s story.

Lola (Spanish actress Lola Marceli) is crazy with fury that her husband has left her for ‘that Australian’, a blonde with a 1960 Woman’s Day look (to quote the filmmakers), but someone who can’t cook. She sets to rubbing him out by scrubbing the lino, cooking his pigeons – and trying hard to lose his newly conceived baby.

Where it comes to points scored in this Latin battle of the sexes, it’s truly comic. When Lola’s sister-in-law Lourdes arrives from Melbourne, the flamenco tempo of the editing (which is a bit too rapid in some important places, however) steps up and Lucia’s life is filled with fun and food.

But this is about two strong women, mother and daughter, and how they fight and in the end, achieve a sort of forgiving. In this year’s AFI awards it has received the second highest number of nominations, two of which are best female actor nominations for both Ansara and Marceli.

La Spagnola is delivered in 3 languages – Spanish, Italian and English – and will represent Australia in the Best Foreign Language film at the next Academy awards.

4 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Review by © Jane Freebury

Having set the publishing world ablaze with her four books about an English schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard in need of a little tutoring to hone his craft, author J.K. Rowling has already shown that there is much more mileage yet to be made from fantasy. Many familiar elements – magic potions, wands, goblins, centaurs and spells – are there, but there’s nothing musty or dusty about the world of Harry Potter. It’s just alive with imaginative new ideas.

You’ll know what I mean when you see letters delivered by flocks of owls, the game of quidditch (polo astride flying broomsticks), the trip to the goblin bank, the quite frightening game of wizard chess, and even the nature of the arch villain when he finally reveals himself. This is narrative wizardry itself.

Everyone knows about Harry, orphaned since birth, who lived in a broom cupboard under the stairs in a house in Little Whinging, Surrey until Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) the groundsman of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry comes to take him away. Harry’s appalling rellies – aunt, uncle and cousin Dudley – had treated him like a servant (‘bred in captivity’) until rescued from his Dickensian circumstances and sent to Hogwarts to become a wizard.

Some distinguished faces of English film and theatre were on the staff at the Hogwarts School: Alan Rickman a shifty-looking professor, Maggie Smith ever prim and kindly as the deputy head, and the headmaster played by Richard Harris, with a vague air and much longer hair and beard than last time I saw him. Julie Walters appears briefly as a flustered mum and John Cleese doffs his severed head at us.

Daniel Radcliffe as Potter and the two other children who are his constant companions Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are each very engaging, though these friends do upstage Harry a bit. Harry never really gets to find out it’s okay to get a little mad at people if they annoy him. Probably his upbringing.

It’s my hunch that the virtual fan-vaulted dining hall at Hogwarts, the staircases that swing around at will and attach themselves to new landings, the living portraits, the game of wizard’s chess will not disappoint the legions of young readers in their transference to the screen.

Harry Potter is a richly enchanting experience. Some might find it rather long at 2½ hours running time, but this movie and its sequels and the three new books that J.K. Rowling is writing will fill the gap in entertainment for this age group for years to come.

4 stars

Mullet

Review by Jane Freebury

When Mullet returns home to the small coastal town he left behind three years before, family and friends are somewhat underwhelmed. All of a sudden Mullet (Ben Mendelson, with a tousled look, rather than mullet strands) turns up again, on the back of a pick-up truck with a cattle dog and some road kill, but folk have closed ranks over his absence.

Three years incommunicado, what can he expect? The Judy Davis character in High Tide and the prodigal brother in Return Home – two Australian films with similar themes – both got similar treatment when they suddenly showed up again. But here the issue seems to be that people like having him around, not the perturbation that goes with it. Mendelson i¬s Mullet – daggy, difficult and down on everything.

Seems he had this practice of beating a retreat to the bush, where he could enjoy his own company while fishing. So, a ‘what are you doing back?’ is about the best he could expect when he wandered in.

The welcome to the family consists of a handshake from Dad, and hug from Mum , and the feeling he’s never been away as he telegraphs messages back and forth between his non-speaking parents. (See, he would probably say, you don’t even need to go to Sydney to stop talking to people!) Welcome home from former girlfriend Tully (Susie Porter) shows less restraint.

The best scenes occur in the family kitchen, where Kris McQuade and Tony Barry do a wonderful duet as Mullet’s parents, and at the family BBQ, when all the cross currents surface and everyone is glowering in no time flat. All Mullet’s fault, of course.

Filmed in and around Kiama, Gerringong and the Illawarra region, there’s a poignancy to documenting aspects of life in little towns (Mullet’s hometown is fictitious) apparently without prospects. If you were to compare it with films like The Castle, this betrays real affection for the people represented, without condescension.

David Caesar (director of the excellent Idiot Box) has a reputation as a critic of being a hard man to please (Race Around the World) and his own works reveal a filmmaking sensibility that likes its images uncluttered and well-composed. Pretention is out. With Mullet, I don’t know how much further the industry has come since the Gillian Armstrong and Ray Argall films mentionned above. However, the experience is still worth having, and its social relevance probably even more urgent.

3.5 stars

The Iron Giant

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Iron Giant, based loosely on a story written by the late Ted Hughes, former poet laureate, and directed by Brad Bird who has worked on The Simpsons, is not just another routine children’s cartoon feature. There’s a developed story here, there are characters who are genuinely appealing , and there’s a barrel of laughs.

When an extra-terrestrial iron giant crash lands near Rockwell, USA, it’s lucky for him he’s in backwoods country because he can lay low, temporarily undetected at least. Were a local yokel to contact the authorities and report a chunk that looks like a bite had gone from his car, or that he’d just seen a giant man chomping on the railway track, who in Washington would believe him?

The giant is a windfall for nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes as he’s been wanting a new pet, something different. He finds him in the forest, after he’d followed the giant’s trail, making its way to the power station in search of food—metal, that is.

A 50-foot high incredible hulk that seems peaceful and is willing to follow instructions? Hogarth is thrilled. What’s more it’s assembled like a Transformer, and he discovers later that it can repair itself, like a Terminator. Only trouble is, unlike a squirrel in a shoebox, he’s too humungus a pet to conceal. Then there’s that other problem – Kent Mansley.

While the authorities have been a bit slow on the uptake over reports from the backwoods and all – once they’ve figured something is up, they won’t let go. Hogarth can hide his whopping secret from his Mom, but when government internal security sleuth Kent Mansley, lantern-jawed and narrow between the ears, descends on Rockwell to investigate, things get tricky.

Hogarth is forced to share his secret with Dean, Rockwell’s ultra-cool, bike-riding beatnik (this is the 1950s) and he isn’t too fazed. But others are.

For adults in the audience, The Iron Giant pokes fun at 1950s America with its ‘Reds under the bed’ scare-mongering (ever checked out the sci-fi movies of the 1950s?) and its ‘Duck and Cover’ public information campaigns about what to do in an atomic blast (ever seen Atomic Cafe?). For kids, the movie is superior animated fun. The Iron Giant succeeds on both levels, at being two movies in one.

4 stars

Incident at Raven’s Gate

Review by © Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine, May 1989

Incident at Raven’s Gate, a new science fiction thriller by Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer, was about to enter the market by the side door as a video. Until recently, that is, when a short limited theatrical release was negotiated. It will now be released more or less simultaneously on both the big and small (video) screens—but it deserves better than this. It’s a strenuously good sci-fi movie, far more satisfying than Barry Peak’s As Time Goes By, a rather loosely worked piece straggling around the robust central performance of Max Gillies, and it should have been given a proper theatrical release —with a respectable pause between going into the cinema and going on to video.

It’s been a time for strange moves. Nadine Garner won her Best Actress award from the Australian Film Institute six months ago, but Mullaway, the film she won it for, is only now being released. At the time of writing it was only planned for screening in Melbourne. Last year Mullaway also won the special AFI Members’ Prize, which had previously gone to The Year My Voice Broke.

When the very rococo Boulevard of Broken Dreams went quickly under—unfortunately taking John Waters’ award-winning role with it—we didn’t mourn its loss; but Mullaway deserves far better than a two-note fanfare and a sideshow screening (apologies to the Melbourne exhibitor).
What is going on? It’s not as though the industry is so sanguine it can afford to be blase about getting the odd prize here and there.

Then there’s Scott Murray’s outstanding Devil in the Flesh. Completed in 1985, highly praised at Cannes the following year, Murray’s film somehow lost its way between France and home. It was finally released only recently in an Australian cinema. Devil in the Flesh, with its measured elegance and sensitive attention to the details which communicate so much, is far away from the fast-cutting and self-conscious modishness of many current films, and is entirely a treat to watch.

Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer didn’t need to wait three years for a theatrical release, but it did take them seven years to make Incident at Raven’s Gate. It couldn’t have taken too long to shoot—it can boast a modest budget—but apparently, like numerous sci-fi concepts, it had been around the traps for quite a number of years before it finally managed to bring itself into being. Other ideas may have been too expensive to film.

In an earlier life it was known at The Bronte Invaders, a title that doesn’t work for the film nearly as well as Incident at Raven’s Gate. The new title conveys just the right sense of an isolated case rather than the wider conspiracy, the sense of incidental jottings from a policeman’s notebook, their wider significance unrealised, perhaps deliberately concealed.
In the 1950s, the new science fiction genre was popular along with anti-communism. Today the agents of fear and paranoia probably seem to be within society rather than without.

Incident at Raven’s Gate is something unspeakable that happens to an elderly couple at their small homestead in South Australia. Eddie (played by Steven Vidler) has only just arrived in the area and seems to be the first to become aware of it, or the first to be able to act or do anything about it. He is on parole and staying with his brother Richard (Ritchie Singer) and his wife Rachel (Celine Griffin), but runs into trouble after he beds the local barmaid and refuses to join the local football team. While working in his brother’s wheatfields he sees the signs of an alien presence—the scorched circle of earth, huge numbers of dead birds, the incandescence of the early night sky.

The world seems to be going crazy. Electrical equipment and engines unaccountably stop and start and water tanks dry up. The local policeman can’t take no for an answer and kills the barmaid, and the pet dog goes rabid and has to be put down. Richard hides his knowledge of Eddie’s affair with Rachel but the brothers seem to be cracking under the strain of it…or something else entirely?
The wide open emptiness of the farmlands is the perfect metonym for the eerie isolation that appears to have descended on the people around Raven’s Gate.

The interventions of astrophysicist Hemmings ensure that news of Raven’s Gate is stifled so that into the future Rachel and Eddie will only doubt their own memories. We did ‘our best’, says the perfidious doctor as big trucks roll away from the reconstructed homestead in a chilling coda. This is superior sci-fi.

© 2018 Jane Freebury

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