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

Interview With Writer/Director Cate Shortland

Credits include Somersault and Lore

By the time this piece goes to print, there won’t be anybody left who doesn’t know that film director Cate Shortland, in her mid 30s, is originally a Canberra girl. Her film Somersault has screened at the Cannes and Edinburgh festivals this year, and been very well received. For some reason, I suggest, it seems like a long way from Duffy in the ACT, further away than it is for someone from Randwick or Brunswick in our big cities to the international film festival circuit. But what does Cate think?

‘I think we’re really lucky in Canberra because even though when I grew up there was a lot of drugs, there was also an amazing creative, angry youth culture that pushed people to excel in what they were doing. You wanted to know things. You were never complacent.’

‘It wasn’t daggy to have read (Flaubert’s) Madame Bovary or (Dostoyevsky’s) The Idiot and it was, like, if you hadn’t by the time you were 16, there was something wrong.’ And thinking it over a bit more she said, ‘because there was nothing to do (in Canberra), you always had to … find something to do.’

Because her family lived in Weston Creek, she was always on the buses. ‘That’s what I remember of Canberra.’ There’s frequent laughter during our interview, and this point is followed by another peel of laughter. ‘Hanging out at the interchange in minus eight degrees waiting for the last bus home.’

From when she was small, her parents took her to the drive-in and she saw The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure which both left a big impression. She can recall seeing her first art-house movie at Electric Shadows. It might have been an introduction to Luis Bunuel’s surrealism but she thinks it was most likely an Andy Warhol season. ‘All that white trash desolation – it really stayed in my mind’.

We then move on to the main female character in her new film. Sixteen-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) leaves home for Jindabyne when she’s caught making a pass at her mum’s boyfriend. In the mountains she gets a job at the servo and falls in love with Joe (Sam Worthington). Why did Cate choose the name Heidi? Was it anything to do with the Joanna Spyri childhood classic about a flaxen haired girl who lived in the Swiss Alps? ‘It’s funny because when it started it wasn’t set in the mountains, she just happened to be called Heidi after someone I knew.’ It was later, when the location was moved to Jindabyne, that Somersault took on this resonance.

Yes, Cate loved books like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did Next, Little Women and ‘all of that really, really girlie, girlie stuff’. She always wanted the emotion, and a book wasn’t any good unless you had a good cry.

This takes our discussion to melodrama. It might had been synonymous with the ‘woman’s weepie’ but melodrama has such a strong presence when you think about it. What about all those Indian movies from Bollywood to Mira Nair, French films, English (think Mike Leigh), and Spanish (think Almodovar) Then there’s the The Piano.

Cate mentions some of the directors who have influenced her, directors famous for their melodrama such as Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes and Fassbinder, and recalled: ‘I love Fassbinder films like Ali (aka Fear Eats the Soul) The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and also Sirk’s Written on the Wind.’

Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, a classic Australian melodrama, was an early influence, and in fact the rambling rural homestead where Joe’s family live in Somersault is the same house that featured in My Brilliant Career. A film called Jesus’ Son by New Zealand filmmaker Alison Maclean was also a great influence on Cate. Having not seen it myself, I make a mental note to catch up with it.

Somersault is just lovely to look at, with its cold palette and bleached out high country landscapes. Of the photographers Cate mentions as influences on her, like Nan Goldin and Bill Henson, what was it about their work that captured her imagination? ‘It’s probably the sense of drama in their images, a sense of narrative in the landscape – and a sense of foreboding.’

Does Cate think there’s a women’s language in film? Most definitely. ‘I was talking to Jan Chapman (the producer) about it the other day. Like for most of the women that we’re friends with, there’s a longing. Jan said it’s one of the things that’s in all women filmmakers’ work and it’s really true.’

Cate wanted to be a painter, then a photographer before she took up film directing. She’s been quoted saying she is happy to leave the technical issues to her crew, but she says her next project will be very technically demanding. ‘You’re forced into changing and learning the technical side, even if it’s not your forte.’

Closing, there’s more laughter. ‘I can’t even drive a car, so Canberra’s like – ‘bloody hell’. More laughter.

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

Dinner Rush

Review by Jane Freebury

Early in Dinner Rush a man is gunned down in the street. When this happens and when so many movie elements are slick, handsome and intelligently written there’s the danger it will move into a warehouse and Reservoir Dogs territory. But Dinner Rush takes place in a busy restaurant.

From the very start Dinner Rush looked like it was going to be interesting. A few deft strokes with slow-motion, long shots out-of-focus, and searching camera movements got things off to a good start, and then the questions presented themselves. Where is it all going? How are these people connected? Isn’t someone going to punch that appalling art buff/gallery owner in the nose? Please?

It’s an Italian trattoria that attracts customers from all walks of New York life. Not for the sauteed spicy sausage and sliced capsicum that restaurant owner Louis (Danny Aiello) enjoys but for the nouvelle cuisine that his chef son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) whips up with his team below stairs. Cuisine preferences are not the only things father and son disagree about.

Udo’s flair with food is famous and his customers are quite prepared to book three months in advance, but when a food critic (Sandra Bernhard) arrives to sample the fare, everything that leaves his kitchen must be perfect, even more perfect than usual. Two thugs from Queens arrive, resplendent in their gold chains and awesome in their bulk, and curiously they meet with similar attentiveness, and an NYPD detective also gets this treatment. Other individuals seem to receive special attention from the camera, but you don’t know why until Dinner Rush comes together, impeccably, like Udo’s lobster tails on deep fried spaghetti.

This is only director Bob Giraldi’s second feature film, but he has 2,500 TV commercials to his credit. This and the fact that he is also a successful restauranteur certainly shows. The camera swoops and pans around all the frenetic dinner rush activity, hitching a ride on a platter here, scuttling up and downstairs with waiters there, all the while expressing its love of good food in luscious close up.

All the characters are expertly handled by his actors, though the dialogue does get lost occasionally in the naturalistic overlapping soundtrack. But this film is handled with panache and creative skill, and is thoroughly impressive.

In a capsule: Rush hour in a popular family-owned New York restaurant becomes a little too exciting when two thugs on the take show up.

4 stars

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

Interview (abridged) With Jeremy Irons

Credits include Lolita; Damage; Reversal of Fortune; The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The voice is thoroughly English, authoritative accents delivered in a languid manner. A deep voice, all port and cigars, in tones that suggest the oak-panelled interior of a gentlemen’s club. Its owner, actor Jeremy Irons, was in Australia recently for the opening of two of his new films. Chinese Box (directed by Wayne Wang) has opened in Sydney […] and Lolita (directed by Adrian Lyne) has been passed for showing in Australia with an R rating by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but the Howard Government is considering banning it.

Irons’ voice and persona signify an iconic Englishness that has informed films from The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Irons’ first starring role in 1981) to Louis Malle’s Damage, from television’s Brideshead Revisited to the recent The Man in the Iron Mask and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. On occasion, it has been his cultured English voice that has distinguished the evil-doer from the rest (a device not uncommon these days) in the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (with Irons the mad bomber) and The Lion King (with Irons voicing the part of the soured and treacherous Scar).

How English is the man behind the voice? The response is swift: ‘I live in Ireland.’ Then, reconsidering: ‘I don’t think I’m typically English, really. I’m not sure who the typical Englishman is now, though I think he lives in Essex, aspires to driving a Porsche and earning lots of money…We still live with the Thatcher legacy in England (sigh)…’
‘I don’t know, I hope I’m broad-minded, a gentleman, that I believe in fairness and justice – all those things that I hope remain English characteristics. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner, never liked being a club-member.’ (Scotch that image of the gentlemen’s club!) ‘I think English people like being club members. They like to know which niche they fit into and I’ve always avoided all of that. My pleasures are somewhat solitary, you know. I’m not a golfer and I like horse-riding, sailing and skiing.’

Travelling is a pleasure too. He has been here a number of times, and likes to visit Sydney. He was here early in the 1980s to film an Australian version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Liv Ullman, directed by Henri Safran.

Of solid middle-class background, Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948, the son of a chartered accountant. ‘I had no desire to keep playing charming Englishmen. I’d die of boredom if I did that,’ he says. ‘I felt there was more interesting ground to cover.’ Instead, he has found ways of escape from the apparent sobriety of his background, and made a virtue of film roles of some thoroughly unpleasant people, such as the arrogant, self-serving (and sensitive) twin brother in Dead Ringers (directed by David Cronenberg, 1988). With Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) Irons won an Academy Award for his performance as the morally corrupt millionaire who may or may not have tried to kill his wife, and in Damage he played a Tory politician who indulges in a rabid affair with his son’s fiancée. His paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita has just joined the list.

Lolita, completed three years ago, is a second adaptation of the book by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958 while the author was professor of Russian literature at Cornell.

Irons is keen to emphasise that Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged European man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old American girl, with its overlay of satire on American cultural values, is the proper starting point. Not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly satirical film of 1962, based on a screenplay by Nabokov, which the author later disowned. ‘The original is of course the book, don’t forget that! Kubrick’s attempt was the first attempt, ours the second.’

Irons was active with director Adrian Lyne in defence of the project from the start, and threatened to leave England (he later said it was only a throwaway line) when it looked as if Lolita might not gain distribution there. In an interesting set of parallels, Stanley Kubrick before him felt compelled to leave his country of birth when censorship problems dogged his Lolita in the early 1960s. He transferred his centre of operations to Boreham Wood studios in England, where he remained till his death last Sunday, days after completing his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. After publication of his novel, Nabokov moved to Switzerland in 1959 and lived out the rest of his life there.

In the US, Lolita lost out on theatrical distribution and went to Showtime cable. It can be sensed that, throughout the saga, Irons has been asked one too many questions.
How does he feel about the role now? There’s a pause. ‘I’m rather proud of it. I think it’s a very complex role and it turned out to be a very interesting and fascinating movie. A very well-made movie.’ Technically, we’re on safe ground. ‘I’m pleased with it. I’m a little bored with people’s reactions.’ The voice has gone languid again. ‘All those people who haven’t seen it – their reactions. I quite like the reactions of people who have seen it.’

A moral tale? ‘It shows what happens if we do something wrong, as Oedipus does, as Titus Andronicus does, as Macbeth does, as all great stories do, or many great stories. If you step outside the bounds, you will be punished.’

What did he think about the representation of sex scenes in Lolita? ‘I think it’s pretty tactful, and not titillating and fairly strangely unnerving. There’s actually very little of it.’
Did he consider that he had taken a certain risk with this film, subject matter aside at this point, but in relation to its representations, given that Adrian Lyne had made films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, films that had brought the director to prominence because of the very nature of their sexual representations?
‘We talked a lot about that, how he wanted to cover that area of the film. I thought he was basically an honest man and that he’d probably do his best by me, which is what he did. I was a great admirer of Fatal Attraction which I thought was a film that dealt with an area of phobia rather well, and I was also an admirer of Jacob’s Ladder (about a Vietnam veteran and made in 1990).

‘It’s always a risk when you make a film because you’re out of control of it when it starts to cut, but I thought he’d take care of me, which he did.’

[…]

Has Irons any personal project that he would like to bring to life? ‘At the moment I don’t have a story I want to get up and run with. Doesn’t preclude it happening in the future.’
‘At the moment I’m involved in a vast rebuilding project in Ireland which I’ve been doing since last June and that’s what is using my energies at the moment. It’s an old Irish tower house in Cork, a castle, built in about 1410 and ruined in 1600. We’re rebuilding it, to make it a place of refuge again, which is what it was originally.’ It is planned as a youth refuge.

Any particular character Irons still covets now? ‘There are many, many areas I’d like to work in [still]. The problem is I’m known for certain sorts of roles.’ Male obsessives? ‘Male obsessives, and slightly quirky, dark guys, enigmatic guys.’ Pause. ‘I’d like to do something different, you know, kick in with a comedy.’

[…]

Has he ever been directed by a woman? Lengthy pause. ‘I’ve been directed on stage by a woman but not in film. Why?’
Women screenwriters and directors, this could be your chance.

Interview with Samantha Lang

Credits include The Well; The Monkey’s Mask

Photography was film director Samantha Lang’s first career choice. Was it a natural progression to film? From an early age she’d been interested in film but felt she needed life experience first. It wasn’t until after her first degree, a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication (UTS) that she began to think seriously about moving from the individualist craft of photography to collaborative filmmaking.

After a prize-winning short fiction film, Audacious (1995), and her comic short drama Out, Lang’s first feature film was invited to screen in Official Competition this year at Cannes, the only Australian film to do so. The Well, with its strenuous visual language has all the conviction of silent film, the sophisticated visual language of the films of the silent era in the late 1920s. A photographer’s control? Perhaps, but critics have applauded the lead performances of Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto, clearly not dominated by the mise-en-scene. ‘The right balance is something you pray for’.

The lean, clean images in The Well are really arresting too. Author Elizabeth Jolley on whose book The Well is based, has a liking for the use of objects with metaphorical applications. To take things one step further, there is the visually evocative screenplay from Laura Jones and then Lang’s own aesthetic strategy which is ‘always to communicate with an image rather than words. Show, don’t tell’.

Lang’s work looks really well thought out in advance, before the shoot. ‘I’m very controlling in a way. Because I come from a background in photography, I know that an image has the opportunity to communicate so much and you shouldn’t waste that opportunity.’

‘I’ve always been very open in telling the actors how I was going to shoot the scenes. On the day, I’d think how can I get that [improvisation]. In preparing a film I’m very controlled and organised, so when I’m actually shooting I can use what happens in the moment, then the process feels more organic.’

‘Laura Jones writes dialogue very economically, precise and to the point. Pamela and Miranda found a way to be those characters, to speak in the way those characters speak….In editing I cut some of the words out – I don’t know if I should say that – but if I’ve got it in a look, then I’ll cut the words out.’

What other choices was Lang entertaining at the time she decided on the location in the Monaro region of ‘rocky outcrops and treeless plains’ near Cooma, southern NSW? There weren’t any others. Monaro was somewhere she’d visited as a child. She did a location reconnoitre on the basis of the feelings it had evoked. It was just right. The region’s shapes lent themselves to a semiotics of colour, or rather absence of it, to connote aridity and isolation.

Has there been any contact with Elizabeth Jolley? Not until after The Well was finished. When Lang got back from Cannes, Jolley had written with her response to the film. Last week in Perth they met and had dinner together after Samantha gave the Elizabeth Jolley lecture at Curtin University. ‘Jolley was wonderful.’
So, a woman novelist, a female producer (Sandra Levy), screenwriter, female leads, a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker), some of the key creative personnel – what is the sum of these female parts? ‘Yes, it is about a female world, but this (the composition) wasn’t intentional.’

So many recent Australian films focus on women. Why is women’s cultural production so fertile at the moment? ‘I’m not sure how to explain. There seems to be a confidence among women in terms of telling their own stories. And it’s of interest to men.’

The complicity of two women alone, a man is despatched – some comparison could be made with Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade. ‘It’s not a comparison that is drawn that often, but yes they are both about the disturbing side of the female psyche.’ It’s no accident that a marauding male is thrown dead down the well, a location for both horror and desire.

The Well is rather like a fable. Is it a cautionary tale? ‘I was interested in the way that here were two people who connect desperately for love but when they get it, it corrupts them. I liked that idea – We want something, and then we get it and then we’re corrupted by it – and I wanted to play with that and what basically motivates Hester to commit murder and what it is to have this relationship with this girl to the exclusion of all others.’ And later, ‘I love that passion, her intensity.’

Lang went to university in France for a year after high school. On another later occasion she was in Europe, on an arts scholarship. It was during this period that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She moved on from Germany to film school in Prague and was there during the turbulent collapse of the Czech government. She graduated from the Bachelor of Arts course in Directing at the Australian Film, and Television and Radio School in 1995.

Is she taken with German cinema? She likes Fassbinder (though there’s no mention of Fritz Lang) a lot but admits she tends to being Francophile, though she does understand ‘why Hester liked German music and culture.’

Favourite directors? ‘I very much like Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his absurd and perverse depiction of the middle class and his non-romantic portrayal of poverty. He’s probably the major one I always come back to. I also like French filmmaker Robert Bresson who had interesting ideas about cinema.’ An influence on the other side of the world is the work of Japanese director Mizoguchi, compelling and ‘exasperating’.

But why have only classic directors been nominated without mention of ‘the cinema du look’ of Luc Besson and others of the current generation of French filmmakers? ‘I guess it’s that when you’re learning it’s good to get a classical foundation. Then you can go anywhere. If your influences are based on your contemporaries, you don’t get a sense of perspective of where they’re coming from.’

Where would she like to go now? ‘I hope to continue making films, what I truly love doing, hoping to entertain people every two years or so’. Lang is currently making The Monkey’s Mask, based on a book of crime fiction told in verse by Australian writer Dorothy Porter. ‘A kind of contemporary film noir, similar to The Well as it also has strong female characters – and there’s love, lust and betrayal.’ Audience return looks guaranteed.

Diverging Australian cinematic futures (1991)

© Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine September 1991

The Sydney season of the 1991 Australian Film Festival opened with the striking juxtaposition of Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof and Rolf de Heer’s Dingo. Both nominated for best feature in the Australian Film Institute awards, they represent the wildly different directions filmmaking in this country is taking towards an uncertain future.

Proof is already well known. It opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes recently and has been sold extensively in Europe. An art-house success seems assured and it could well crossover to the mainstream. Dingo is the commercial vehicle made to a formula with a certain precedent — local yokel tries his luck overseas, which on this occasion is Paris, and is graciously received. As it is an international coproduction, its makers are undoubtedly expecting to find an audience in France as well.

Proof, it has been pointed out, is a European-style piece, with an inclination towards interior settings and the inner life. At its centre is the anomaly of a blind photographer (played by Hugo Weaving) whose spirit has atrophied in distrust of others. He needs to have a picture record of the world he moves in to lay claim to the perceptions which sight cannot support. What he doesn’t know is that there is someone who is taking pictures of him and covering the walls of her home with them so as to capture a presence she loves but cannot have…

Unlike the films of Paul Cox, which also have appear for the European art-house circuit, Proof has an artiness which isn’t so insistent, a certain lightness of tone and a sense of drollery which disguises the process and allows the basic contrivance to look uncontrived. The skill which Jocelyn Moorhouse invests in Proof is quite outstanding.

And on the other hand there is Dingo. Amiable enough, with Colin Friels and Helen Buday in the central roles, this film seems badly misjudged, despite the involvement of people whose work I have previously admired. De Heer and Marc Rosenberg collaborated on Incident at Raven’s Gate, a sadly underrated film.

Dingo is the story of John ‘Dingo’ Anderson, a dingo trapper who has yet to outfox a wily three-legged dog he is baiting. Husband (to Buday’s Jane) and father of daughters, he scratches away at a living in the dust of Poona Flat. Aspirations and ambitions are no burden, with the exception of one overreaching desire which he has had since he was twelve — to play trumpet with jazz musician Billy Cross, played by the enigmatic Miles Davis himself. This passion dates back to the occasion when Billy, on tour with his band, dropped out of the sky onto Poona Flat because their plane had to make a forced landing. With the entire population of the township standing agog at the runway, what else was there to do but a musical number for this improvised audience — and it was this moment which was to take root in John’s consciousness and grow into an obsession.

You might have thought that young John would want to become a pilot, considering the way the camera caresses the TNT jet along its gleaming length. Dingo is marked by rather florid camerawork: lots of crane shots, swoops, pans and 360-degree movements which seem rather ill-conceived and indulgent. The lazy curve of a languid camera movement is meant to give shape to the soundtrack and support the musical mood, but the over-developed style looks flowery. Were it not for the long sequences of jazz trumpet by Davis, or for the compositions which he wrote with Michel Legrand, the film would be as ricketty as that three-legged dingo that couldn’t be caught.

Dingo is too long, too improbable (more improbable than a blind photographer), too dependent on dusty mythology about the Australian character — and too costly. Why is there still the expectation that the big-budget production feature (co-production, vehicle for overseas actor, or whatever) will prevail, when the local low-budget production area is consistently more interesting?

Dingo was five times more expensive to make than Proof, which was made for a little over a million dollars. The government agency investment money that went into Dingo (the Film Finance Corporation’s contribution was over $3 million) could have got a cluster of films off the ground more engaging for home audiences. And the French will prefer Proof, anyway.

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.