Category Archives: Film Reviews

Million Dollar Baby

Review by Jane Freebury

Million Dollar Baby sounds more like a romantic romp, a battle of the sexes, or a doco about IVF than a drama about a young waitress who wants to be a boxer. So it was hardly surprising to see that the international movie database has movies listed under the same name, such as a romantic comedy made in 1941, with Ronald Reagan.

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby ain’t no comedy. Yet there’s rueful humour in his beautifully nuanced film as a relationship begins to emerge between boxing aspirant Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, so good in Boys Don’t Cry) and the veteran trainer and gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who finally agrees to take her on.

We’ve been here before in Rocky, Raging Bull, Girlfight and Fight Club and more, with boxing as metaphor for life in a highly competitive society, but this movie reads like a lesson in living for the underclass, namely white trailer trash who see boxing as the only option for getting a shot at success. Motivational posters on the walls of the Hit Pit gym shout that ‘tough ain’t enough’. Intriguingly, Frankie reads Gaelic in his spare time.

Both Maggie and Frank are noble loners. Frankie is estranged from his daughter and a few devastating encounters with Maggie’s family suggest that she’s better off looking to her roots for inspiration than to her thankless, grasping family.

Hilary Swank is terrific again at last, however it is the old warrior Eastwood whose presence is absolutely everywhere. In front of the camera and behind it, in the vintage Hollywood aesthetic and the elegiac tone also seen recently in Mystic River. Once again, Eastwood is credited with the music.

Eastwood has never been credited with screenwriting on any of his films, but it’s hard to believe he hasn’t had a hand in the words here. Frankie can’t find what he needs in institutionalized religion and makes a devastating stand for euthanasia against established medical practice. Here is a man contemplating his own mortality.

Boxing’s not my thing, but from the iconic shots in silhouette against the white walls of the gym, to the graceful slow fades to the lightly applied guitar strings, Million Dollar Baby doesn’t strike a false note. And is another powerful and moving movie from the 75-year-old who’s still one of the best directors working today.

In a capsule: So soon after Mystic River, another moving and majesterial film from Clint Eastwood shows everyone how it’s done.

4.5 stars

The Motorcycle Diaries

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the middle of last century, two young Argentinians set out on a journey of discovery to explore the South American continent. It was a road trip on which they turned their back on privilege, a gesture that many young people in subsequent generations would emulate as they embraced the politics of the left and the needs of the third world.

Medical student Ernesto (‘Che’) Guevara de la Serna was only 23, and his traveling companion, biochemist Alberto Grenado nearly 30, both shared a restlessness and a love of the open road. It wasn’t the first time Ernesto had taken to the road. And the two young men also had a common professional interest in the treatment of leprosy.

Their motorcycle itself didn’t last the distance, but it carried them through Patagonia, across the Andes and past the vistas of Machu Picchu. The glorious, rolling landscapes are a gift to this journey of discovery, inspiring in themselves and inviting a reading beyond the personal to the general.

During the early stages of the trip the two men bicker like a mismatched married couple. Ernesto/Che, the asthmatic medical student, is honest to a fault, and Gael Garcia Bernal, rising Latino star who we saw in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros, makes him a rather vulnerable, brooding, but winning character. Out for a good time but not at the expense of his Hippocratic oath, with his garrulous, party-animal friend Alberto.

Once the men begin to hitch rides and travel on foot they join the world of the dispossessed of Chile and Peru, and the trip becomes a turning point in their lives.

One enthusiastic critic hailed the book of Che Guevara’s writings on which this film is based as Das Kapital meets Easy Rider. However, the film relates the early stirrings of political consciousness and it only covers around eight months of Che Guevara’s life.

This period was clearly a defining moment that gave birth to Che’s view that the continent of South America, from Mexico to the Magellan Straits, was home to ‘a single mestizo race’. In three short years he would be on his way to meet Fidel Castro.

There are some terrific road trip movies that map a turning point in political consciousness — Thelma and Louise, Phil Noyce’s Backroads and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road are outstanding examples. This fabulous journey by Walter Salles, the Brazilian director who made Central Station, is another absolutely stirring stunner.

4.5 stars

Garden State

Review by © Jane Freebury

Every once in a while a feature comes along that signals a fresh, new creative voice that makes filmmaking look effortlessly fluent and inventive. Writer/director Zach Braff has achieved this with his first feature.

In his personal tale about homecoming and falling in love it’s clear the inhabitants of New Jersey have become gentle caricatures for New Yorkers, in the way that ‘Taswegians’ or ‘banana benders’ have for smug south-eastern metropolitans. Add to this the fact that the central character ‘Large’ is heavily medicated and pretty much out of it as well, and you’ll get the idea, but Garden State has a heart.

New Jersey boy Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is summoned home when his mother dies. He has lived about as far away as he can get in the ten years since he last saw his parents, but he decides to fly out of LA for a while to attend his mother’s funeral. It’s not exactly a wrench, leaving behind a television role as a retarded quarterback and a job as a waiter in a restaurant.

He arrives home to find that old friends have become gravediggers or graverobbers, policemen and one has even become a millionaire, living in a mansion he can’t be bothered furnishing. Large’s visit home is an utterly picaresque trip through bizarre encounters that when annotated can give the impression this movie is straining for effect. But the scenes at the family funeral, the reunions with friends, the visit to the neurologist and many more all work, are funny, inventive and told with visual flair.

Stranger than strange is Andrew’s relationship with his father, the psychiatrist who has had him medicated since he was nine years old. Played to a tee by gnomic Englishman Ian Holm – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins – it’s plain to see father and son have never hit it off.

The tone of Garden State is spot on. It could so easily have slipped into an objectionable and self-satisfied parody of the wierdos in Newark, but this never happens. This has a lot to do with the character of Large himself, who is often the butt of jokes, and the really sweet performance from Natalie Portman as the girl he falls for.

4 stars

The President Versus David Hicks

Review by Jane Freebury

Since this remarkable documentary on David Hicks was completed, the young Adelaide man who needs no introduction has finally met with his father Terry, and the military tribunal process by which he will be tried has begun. So how did a South Australian stockman end up in Cap X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay?

The President Versus David Hicks attempts to answer this question with its account of the journey made by Terry Hicks, retracing David’s steps through Pakistan and Afghanistan and his conversion to the radical Islamist cause. Clearly, people who are close to David, his father, stepmother Bev and his lawyer, are determined to provide support as best they can, whatever he has done, and Terry says that all he asks for is due legal process. He and the filmmakers Curtis Levy and Bentley Dean, and the locals who assisted them along the way, took considerable risks – we’ll never know how dangerous.

David’s physical absence is compensated for to some extent by the text of David’s letters, frequently heard in voiceover, as the dignity and forbearance of Terry Hicks, a stock figure topped with a baseball cap, fills centreframe. But what about Terry? Much remains opaque.

Why did David Hicks re-invent himself and join the Taliban? Neither the grand barren vistas of Afghanistan, nor the madrassas or fellow detainees offer up any explanation. David’s letters suggest that something important took place in Kosovo, which he elides with a significant ‘don’t ask’.

In one of his letters David says there were two things his dad prefers to avoid: religion and politics. It’s a gentle rebuke, but it comes, ironically, with the announcement that David has suddenly acquired a whole new world view that would be inexplicable to anyone back home, least of all his uncomplicated dad. What do we make of that?

The crimes of international terrorists are once again monstrous this last week, but it’s not possible to feel comfortable about the process when claims are made that the US has sacrificed the rule of law in Guantanamo. Director Curtis Levy has built a distinguished reputation as a documentary filmmaker with films like Riding the Tiger and High Noon in Jakarta, and now has made another important film for our time.

In a capsule: A disturbing film for our time, though David Hicks, his life and his cause remain a mystery.

4 stars

Fahrenheit 9/11

Review by © Jane Freebury

The deliberations of the jury at the Cannes film festival this year aren’t on public record, but it’s hard to imagine how Fahrenheit 9/11 could have beaten the pick of the pack when new work from the best of the world’s directors was in competition. Critics enthused over Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 and Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, but the doco won.

Jury leader Quentin Tarantino surely has a story to tell, but to the media he says disingenuously that the decision to award Michael Moore the Palme D’Or wasn’t political. With a war being waged a short distance away across the Mediterranean, were the jurists feeling they should brush the usual aesthetic criteria aside and pass the prize to an angry polemic against the Bush administration? This precedent will surely be felt at Cannes for years to come.

The early sequences are telling and well constructed, revisiting the election events that saw Bush take office, and recalling the awful moment of 9/11 when the screen goes black, the audio stays on and the camera turns to eyewitnesses in the streets for a reaction shot. But after this initial restraint, it begins to feel like everything is being thrown into service for Moore’s argument, including the kitchen sink.

As a compilation of actuality footage with TV and fiction feature interposed, Fahrenheit 9/11 can claim to fit the documentary category, but it pushes the generic envelope for all it’s worth. While it’s refreshing to see audiences addressed in this gutsy way by a single voice (Moore wrote, directed and produced), and it’s a tribute to American democracy that such a film can be produced and exhibited (Disney notwithstanding), it’s a movie that’s partial and selective use of the truth comes closer to political propaganda material. And that’s exactly what Michael Moore said he wanted, a campaign to dislodge Bush from the presidency.

It is a devastating portrait of Bush, a lampoon really, which will be wounding for Americans who respect the presidency. Nonetheless the choice bits of footage that Moore has used to represent Bush project a cocky, elitist and shallow man, more interested in his aim on the golf course or at the shooting range, than in affairs of state. And Moore’s right to ask what the President was thinking in those seven minutes that ticked away after he’d been told of the second plane hitting the WTO towers.

During Reagan’s presidency there was a film called Being There, in which Peter Sellers had the role of a do-nothing, say-nothing character who became a serious presidential candidate. But Bush has quite a bit to say in Fahrenheit 9/11, and in fact Moore attributes his funniest lines to him.

Yes Moore gets lots of laughs out of George W – this director is a talented satirist – but after a while uneasiness about tendentiousness, selectivity, and archival snippets out of context starts to grow.

There’s much been written on the assertions that Moore makes about the Unocal pipeline, a US visit by the Taliban, the background of Hamid Karzai, the satirical national caricatures of the Coalition of the Willing (perhaps we should be grateful were we left out) and how and when the decision that allowed Saudis to fly out of the US was made. Can anyone afford to be an uncritical viewer in these times?

When Moore declares his roots in Flint, Michigan and gets to know a grieving mother who has just lost her son in Iraq, and when he follows a pair of marine recruitment officers doing their creepy work around the shopping mall where the socially disadvantaged hang out. The film moves away from agit-prop and is on much firmer ground as a documentary.

This is a Battleship Potemkin or a Battle for Algiers of our time. You have to see it, but you don’t have to buy it.

3.5 stars

Team America: World Police

Review by © Jane Freebury

A little while back, before terrorism became an everyday word, the South Park team launched a rough and rude feature animation from their TV series, which they gleefully subtitled Bigger, Longer and Uncut. In that movie there was a guest appearance from Saddam Hussein and the United States went to war against Canada because it exported cultural trash and depraved the youth of America. Thinking back to that nonsense scenario now it doesn’t seem quite so silly. Is reality just doing catch up?

In the times we live in, the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have plenty to get stuck into now and they let it rip with cute little puppets who mow each other down with submachine guns and wreak destruction on the world’s great cultural landmarks. Not a pretty picture, and I can ruefully imagine the extraterrestrials on other planets are queueing up right now for ringside seats for the greatest show here on earth.

From their HQ inside Mount Rushmore, the crack commandos of the team fly out from the US to the world’s hot spots to root out the troublemakers. When a gang of terrorists are causing mayhem in Paris they step in to help and manage to blow up the Louvre and topple the Eiffel Tower in the process. After all, as they say in their motto, their job is to ‘protect, serve and care’ and their theme song is ‘America, F**k Yeah’.

Now it’s North Korea’s Kim Jong-il who is the new arch villain, selling off WMDs to terrorists around the globe, so he can create equality – where everyone lives in a third-world country. This new jowly-cheeked villain is really very funny.

I liked the puppets and sets too – a step up from 2D South Park – and the songs too, most of which are accomplished and original in their way, but it’s the usual cynical cop-out from the South Park team.

Everything and everyone is fair game, from the US hawks to the liberal Hollywood establishment and the movie seems to reserve an especially nasty end for the puppet ‘actors’ – with names like Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Samuel Jackson – who visit Jong-il and offer appeasement. For a movie that wants to have it both ways, this was rather surprising.

In a capsule: A world of puppets where everyone gets a serve – for South Park fans only.

3 stars

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Review by © Jane Freebury

If you’re wondering why the words don’t roll off the tongue, the title is a quote from 18th century man of letters Alexander Pope, drawn from a his poem about Eloise and Abelard, two of the world’s most famous lovers. In its twenty-first century way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also about the exquisite sorrow of lost love.

It’s another eccentric movie experience from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) that delves into the persistence of memory when a love affair is over and sweet nostalgia lingers. Mind is the operative word here, just as it was in Kaufman’s screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and for Being (inside) John Malkovich (‘s mind).

So it’s a very different Jim Carrey here from almost any other film by the comic madcap you care to name, with strong affinities with The Truman Show.

Here as Joel he’s strongly introverted and would rather read or sketch than chat a woman up at the train station, or the beach, or the library, or wherever it was that he and Clementine (Kate Winslet) met. It takes a woman with blue (sometimes red, orange, even grey) hair, the mind of a grasshopper, and a devil-may-care extrovert to break through his defences.

She draws him out of his emotional torpor, lures him into doing crazy things with a frisson of risk so that for a while time spent feels like he’s really living. Too bad it’s all over before the introductory credits begin – but I don’t want to put you off, it’s a jolt that’s one of many surprising and exhilarating moments in this Michel Gondry film.

After Clementine leaves, Joel discovers she’s had her memories of their affair erased so that she can ‘move on’. He decides to submit to treatment too – call it ‘brain damage’ – delivered by the shonky outfit at Lacuna (Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is effortlessly freewheeling as it dips in and out of Joel’s memory, pausing briefly in the present and then heading back to the past again, just before it disintegrates under the Lacuna cat scan. It’s such a technical achievement that it could leave you impressed but cool, however Carrey and Winslet are really interesting together, and turn out to be a wonderful pair of lovers.

In a capsule: A brilliantly free-wheeling technical exercise from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, that’s actually also a very touching love affair.

4 stars

Monster

Review by Jane Freebury

A highway prostitute who in the late 1980s became a serial killer is now the subject of three films. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos over the course of her 12-year imprisonment on death row, and now writer/director Patty Jenkins’ film – and Charlize Theron’s Oscar – has brought the desperately sad story of the woman’s life into the mainstream, some 16 months after she was executed in a Florida prison.

How did Wuornos, one of life’s victims, become so compelling for these filmmakers? They would have known she was the daughter of teenage parents, adopted by her grandparents as an infant, and became a mother herself before age 14 before she began to work the streets full-time.

This unfortunate early life featuring a pretty little blonde is summed up briefly, before the movie turns to Aileen, still a hooker and in her early thirties, now contemplating suicide. In a chance visit to a gay bar, she meets a much younger woman, Selby (Christina Ricci), who is fascinated by the bedraggled, emotionally wounded, tough talking older woman.

Is this another crime duo on the run? Another Natural Born Killers or Thelma and Louise? Not exactly. It’s the story of Aileen and Selby’s time together as lovers, when Aileen took on the role of bread winner and murdered her clients and stole their cars and cash.

Monster is simply told in an unobtrusive style that gives way to two astonishing performances. Patty Jenkins’ screenplay has drawn very heavily on Wuornos’ own point of view (that concerns me a bit), sourcing her thousands of letters, excerpts of which we hear in voice-over.

It’s all so well handled, however, from the scene where Aileen lashes out at the ‘dyke’ buying her a drink, to the tears she sheds as they part at a bus stop. Theron is amazing throughout (forget the prosthetics!) as the swaggering and vulnerable Aileen, and it’s hard to think of another recent performance by a female actor that quite comes near it. Ricci is very good too.

When Aileen throws us a look over her shoulder as she walks to her death, it’s an accusatory look at the society that brought her to this. The fatuous clichés we hear on the voice-over have finally let her down.

In a capsule: Charlize Theron is totally deserving of her Oscar in this desperately sad story of a hooker who pays a heavy debt to society.

4 stars

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a picture is worth a thousand words it can also prompt a good story, something shown recently by the success of a novel that invents the circumstances behind an exquisite painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s the Girl With a Pearl Earring who looks over her shoulder at us from across the centuries, like a close-up before cinema invented them, captured in an unguarded moment yet returning the onlooker’s gaze.

The recent Tracy Chevalier novel capitalized on the fact that little is known about Vermeer, though it’s recorded he had a large family like J.S.Bach, but he worked far more slowly than that prolific composer to support them. In the film eleven urchins crowd the Vermeer house, with yet more on the way. No wonder Colin Firth’s Vermeer looks frazzled when he’s not in his studio.

But his artist remains a somewhat shadowy figure throughout, a presence in silhouette in doorways or collapsed moodily into a chair, who is surrounded by women, his numerous daughters, his wife and mother-in-law, and the maids. As the new maid Griet, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) is a picture of rosy promise, hovering on the edge of womanhood.

Though she is bonneted, keeps her head bowed and is never included in any conversation, Griet does not escape the notice of Vermeer’s lusty patron, Van Ruijven, (a bewhiskered Tom Wilkinson) either, and he commissions the artist to paint her, so that he can at least take her home and possess her image for his gratification.

It’s a starched and cloistered world the Vermeer women inhabit but there’s a robust physicality to acknowledge too, in the way, for instance, we hover over a painting of a flushed young woman drinking wine (yes!) and another cleaning window panes. I feel that Vermeer reflected this in his paintings

Director Peter Webber hails from television, but he and his team have created an enthralling and beautiful film. It could be said that nothing much happens, but the movie’s recreation of life in 17th-century town of Delft is wonderfully alive. And there’s such a vivid sense of intimacy in the piercing of Griet’s earlobe, the exposed nape of her neck, that the Girl With a Pearl Earring is almost intoxicating.

In a capsule: Exquisite film based on a book based on a painting by Vermeer, with Scarlett Johansson as the object of desire.

4 stars

The Hours

Review by © Jane Freebury

This beautifully constructed film and its fragile characters will delight its audiences, even though it is profoundly sad. It glides effortlessly backwards and forwards across the decades that separate three women, a shuttle weaving thread across a loom, as it connects disparate lives lived decades apart. In contemporary Manhatten, in southern England 1921-41, and on a palm-lined Californian avenue in 1950s America.

Each of the women from these different moments in time, including their muse Virginia Woolf, is struggling with life in similar ways. And where connections seem tenuous, the fabric of the film suggests a single life. And that life belongs to Mrs Dalloway, created in the fiction of Virginia Woolf as a London hostess whose holds constant parties ‘to cover the silences’.

New Yorker Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has earned the nickname Dalloway, while Laura (Julianne Moore, a 50s housewife again) reads Mrs Dalloway while she contemplates ways of escape. While the stories of these two women are the main event, we keep returning to Woolf pacing the floor at her Sussex home, or becalmed in a sea of manuscript papers when the words start to flow.

Beautifully matched action of daily domestic rituals draws the lives of the women together. With the flower arrangements plopped into vases, with cakes baked, with a lingering glance in the mirror first thing in the morning, and coiling hair in a bun before the day begins. It’s intoxicating to watch the tapestry develop as actions of the characters are mirrored and matched across the decades.

Such a restless narrative needs nimble fingers to stitch it seamlessly and writer David Hare (screenwriter of Wetherby, and Plenty which also starred Streep) has created something special here. And the swelling piano notes of the Philip Glass score are a glorious background.

Yet for all this meticulous control of mise-en-scene and montage, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is still an actor’s director, drawing exquisite performances from his three lead women actors and their partners, Ed Harris’ tortured character included. Even minor characters resonate.

Sally Potter’s grand and gorgeous folly Orlando some years back turned Woolf’s ideas into mere spectacle. Even though they come to us via the writing of Michael Cunningham on which this film is based, in The Hours they are given life of their own.

3.5 stars