The Shape of Water

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review by © jane freebury

Guillermo del Toro had the actor Sally Hawkins in mind for this sensuous dark fantasy from the beginning. Once, when he bumped into her at a party, he told her he was writing a film about how a woman falls in love with a fish. She said ‘great’, though she might have wondered what this director famous for gothic horror could have possibly have been planning.

The director has conjured up some dark fantasies, like the political allegories The Devil’s Backbone and the very wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, but this time it’s different, as he says himself. And surely, Hawkins has no regrets at all about signing on to this dazzling adult fairy tale. It is outstanding on many levels, reflected in the number of Oscar nominations.

The Shape of Water is set in a shadowy, green-tinged world – that is, early 1960s America in the grip of Cold War paranoia – where everyone, from the janitor to the boss, has a secret. The mood is perfectly rendered in expressionist chiaroscuro though the palette warms when Elisa (Hawkins) is on screen.

Elisa has her own sweet approach to life even though she had the misfortune to grow up an orphan and she cannot speak. A creature of habit, she cleans her shoes every day before work and takes a bath. She times this – she is obviously a water person – but is regularly a little late in clocking on for work at the research facility where she is a cleaner, for reasons that will become apparent.

In her life she has her loyal friend at work Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a kind neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and in between she can romance herself with Hollywood musicals and absorb the ambience of the cinema downstairs. The sensitivity of Hawkins’ performance and del Toro’s skills orchestrate the utterly plausible—she falls in love with a scaly creature from a lagoon in the distant Amazon. The amphibious man has been captured and is a ‘top secret’ asset in a tank at the lab.

More man than fish, the hunky creature she falls for has a humanoid face, arms and legs and can live on land for limited periods. Inside his skin-tight scaly suit, with webbed, clawed hands and dorsal spine, the actor Doug Jones creates a marvellously imposing figure, frightening but obviously terrified.

Showing little interest in this extraordinary creature and treating it as a threat, CIA officer Strickland (Michael Shannon, performing even more extreme than usual) wants to beat it into submission and then dissect it. That is before he has worked it over with a cattle prod.

His attack on ‘amphibious man’, fuelled by irrational fear, is the complete antithesis of Elisa’s approach. From the very first, even when the creature lashes out at her from behind the glass of his tank, she doesn’t seem to have the slightest fear—which is rather surprising, really. They have things in common, and with boiled eggs and a bit of jazz from Glenn Miller, she brings him round.

The Shape of Water becomes a love story that transcends difference, and we are all in raptures over the gorgeous monster from the deep. Glorious to look at and experience as an integrated sensory experience, the film leaves behind an afterglow, even if the good and evil binaries of the fairy tale leave little to mull over after the closing credits. It’s all about feeling, and is a swooning, romantic experience that is rarely seen on screen.

Although del Toro does not let us off entirely lightly in the few moments of savage violence here, it is only as a brief interlude. There is wit and humour and other means of seduction to show that this master of gothic horror and dark fantasy, who cut his directorial teeth on monster movies, knows exactly how to keep his audiences under his spell.

Rated R,  2 hours 3 minutes

4.5 stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Darkest Hour

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Review by © Jane Freebury

If the impression we get is really true, rather than chosen for dramatic effect, Winston Churchill behind the scenes was not the type of person who was exactly inspiring. He was prone to being intemperate and disinhibited, an unabashed eccentric who it is hard to imagine could survive today’s social media.

Darkest Hour, from Joe Wright who directed the wonderful film Atonement, is about a low point at the beginning of WWII when Britain was at its most vulnerable.

Who would be leader? Should the country broker for peace? The film focuses on how Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister in the dark early months of the war, when how he led it to victory over the next five gruelling years is the more familiar story.

Churchill had always been a controversial figure, dividing political opinion, until he spoke of course, or wrote. There were numerous books and newspaper articles as he languished in the political wilderness while Hitler rose to power.

His appointment as PM seemed like an act of desperation, in the absence of anyone else prepared to take the job. While others were unwilling to take the lead, he could at least unite parliament.

Appeasement appeared to be the only option in 1940 and a peace treaty was possible, brokered through Mussolini. It even seemed an attractive safer option, as the British people could hardly be expected to give up another generation of their young.

It is fascinating to see in this fine film how difficult it was for Churchill in the first weeks of office to actually turn down the offer of a peace deal with Hitler. Darkest Hour concentrates the mind on that moment at the crossroads when Britain very nearly went under the wave of the fascism that was engulfing Europe.

The dedication and zeal that we have become accustomed to from actor Gary Oldman dominates the screen in his central role, as it should. It is a remarkable, immersive performance, and a feat of endurance to appreciate when we understand how long it took to apply the prosthetics in the morning and carry the weight for the rest of the day’s shoot.

But does the performance provide much more insight into Churchill’s personality? Perhaps not. Albert Finney also portrayed Churchill very convincingly in the recent The Gathering Storm.

The appearance of Ben Mendelsohn, however, as King George VI, that other wartime leader who was also loved, was a welcome surprise. Mendelsohn once again shows range and depth.

To move the action out of dusty rooms and corridors of power full of indistinguishable men in suits, Wright takes the camera into London’s streets. Some signature long tracking shots capture the daily life that must go on: the commuters, the shoppers and the vendors—and the three boys larking around in Hitler masks.

A shorthand for showing how Churchill understood the mood of the people was his relationship with his staff, especially those intimately connected with events that he had a hand in directing.

However, in the fictional sequence in which he nips down to the Underground and takes the train to Whitehall to gauge public opinion or, more to the point, to confirm his understanding of it, the film makes an awkward turn. Churchill musters a straw poll that today’s politicians would die for, but the film suffers a minor lapse in credibility.

Leaving off where the recent Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk begins, Darkest Hour closes around the time a little armada of citizen boats sets out across the Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of troops trapped on the beach in France. It’s a stirring sight against a background of white cliffs that signifies a general resolve, and worth contemplating that the event might quite easily have never taken place.

Rated PG, 2 hours 5 minutes

4 Stars

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

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Review by @ Jane Freebury

When a grieving mother in rural Missouri tries shock tactics to get results from police investigating the rape and murder of her daughter, she takes things into her own hands. It’s understandable. She has been waiting for months for the police to trace the person responsible and they haven’t come up with anything and don’t seem motivated to solve the case.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) tries to stir them out of their inaction by hiring a set of billboards on a remote stretch of road near her home. In big bold letters on red background, they read: ‘Raped while dying.’, ‘Still no arrests’ and ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s a brilliant move, and the film begins in outstanding fashion as the billboards are revealed one by one.

In bandanna and blue denim, Mildred combines the image of battle-scarred vigilante and embattled working class, and she owns the role. While Mildred doesn’t set out to take the law into her own hands to begin with, she will eventually, in the tradition of American cinema whereby things are sorted out single-handedly, often with a gun.

Except that here, the tale of an individual going it alone is delivered here through the medium of Irish playwright and screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, who had us holding our sides with his hilarious black farce, In Bruges.

 

 

 

 

Naming and shaming Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) makes for a promising setup, a contest between a righteous, angry mother and a law enforcement officer at death’s door. Essentially good people they have each been pushed to the brink. I don’t know why McDonagh had to end things so abruptly for Willoughby when these two sparring partners could easily have carried the movie.

When Willoughby leaves the sceme, his passing strikes a sudden sentimental note in a game that has been played fast and hard, strictly for laughs and probably at everyone’s expense.

During In Bruges, two hit men hide out in Belgium’s perfect medieval jewel, creating pure amoral mayhem. In Three Billboards, there is a strange impulse towards a kind of redemption.

Does McDonagh want to say something serious about the American condition? We are pushed up then down as the gears shift, anticipating but never quite comfortable in the humour, the laughs dwindling as the plot advances and morphs into a story of redemption.

Our attention turns to police Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted racist bigot who lives with his awful mom. The joke is that for all the swagger, he is actually quite ineffectual and possibly harmless.

Either way, he is no match for Mildred who seems to get on everyone’s wrong side, including those who are sympathetic – her son (Lucas Hedges) and the young man who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones).

Just about everyone is taken down here. From the lackadaisical, loopy police to the excessively dim-witted zoo attendant that Mildred’s ex has taken up with (Samara Weaving), to Rockwell’s reformed racist goon, to Mildred herself. She doesn’t think twice about kneeing a couple of teenagers in the groin to teach them a lesson.

The self-inflicted humour in scenes with Peter Dinklage (everyone’s favourite Lannister) is somewhat toe-curling. Yet another instance of how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a high percentage of terrific actors, but the characters writer-director McDonagh has created for them are close to cartoon.

If Three Billboards were anything like as funny as In Bruges, all might be forgiven. But it ain’t, and veers closer to McDonagh’s heavy-handed Seven Psychopaths from 2012 that I was unlucky enough to review on release.

Although he shows the same cinematic tendencies, McDonagh is no match yet for the brilliant Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan – and their incomparable oeuvre that includes Fargo, Burn After Reading, and The Big Lebowski. They are still the masters of neo-noir black comedy set in middle America.

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 55 minutes

3 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Florida Project

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s summer holidays in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is just over the road, and out of reach. What is there to do when there’s no money to spend? It does not present any problem for three young children who are living at the Magic Castle motel, because they make their own fun.

There’s a holiday ambience in the backdrop of cheery, candy-coloured structures that dot the neighbourhood outside the Disney precinct. An orange juice dome, a gift shop in the shape of a witches’ hat and a soft-serve kiosk supposed to make you think of a dollop of ice cream. The names of places like Futureland and Enchanted Inn help impart a bit of holiday zing too, confected as they are. The images are especially apt with jaunty angles and fish-eye frames to accentuate a child’s point-of-view. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is superbly sensitive to the innocence and magic of childhood.

One of the buildings is a long, low three-storey motel that looks like a slice of layered lilac cake with cream trim – Magic Castle is home to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is struggling to make ends meet but at the same time determined that her daughter should never want for anything or feel she is missing out.

Halley’s one great skill is shielding her young daughter from their seriously disadvantaged predicament, teaching her how to turn a dismal situation on its head and find joy in things. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday with cupcake and candle on a picnic in a field while watching Disney fireworks, or cheering a helicopter as it takes off on a joy ride, something they could never afford.

They are far from the minority at Magic Castle, which appears to be home to low-income and no-income individuals and families, many single-parent units. Some of them bond by helping each other out, minding each others’ children, pilfering food at work or turning a blind eye. Motel manager Bobby, a principled, patient and caring man, becomes surrogate parent to the children. It is a wonderful role for Willem Dafoe, who shows the other side of his chiselled-jaw persona.

The centre of her mother’s world, Moonee has confidence in spades. She is never short of a good idea either as she and her little gang roam around unsupervised all-day long. Miraculously, and unlikely as it seems, they stay safe and never get into serious trouble beyond a telling off from Bobby when he catches them on CCTV entering the amenities room before the power goes out. He doesn’t take kindly to ice cream spills in motel reception either, or to staking out an observation point when a guest sunbakes topless at the pool.

While inventive, cheeky Moonee is a rascal, and we enjoy hanging out with her, the film is of course underlining its point with this delicate material. That childhood is a special time, and each child has a right to experience the magic, to be free-spirited and give flight to the imagination.

Unfortunately, there are limits. Halley is a product of a system but she also has responsibilities as a mother. The idyll cannot last. Baker’s film offers a tranche of life, a last stand at the inn, as it steps back from making any judgement.

However, it is Bobby who takes action when enough is enough. Halley turns on a friend, a fellow struggling mother, violently and then turns to desperate measures that put Moonee in moral danger.

A young mother, barely an adult herself, without life skills or life options, or much sense of responsibility, Halley is certainly trapped. Her daughter runs around without supervision but Halley is the first to lash out and blame others when Moonee runs away.

In the end, her sense of entitlement and sense of grievance leave Halley isolated, stuck in a cul-de-sac where fantasy is the only sanctuary and the only way to escape.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 51 mins

4.5 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a film that shows what’s possible on screen with a good idea that is well thought through and delivered in a confined space.

Clarity of purpose can make for some engrossing drama. Even the necessary period detail here that makes a drab contribution to production design, doesn’t get in the way. In fact, the clashing varieties of 1960s wallpaper are rather funny.

As it happens, The Teacher is based on the lived experience of the filmmakers, director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky, who grew up together behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe.

It is set in a school in Bratislava, now within Slovakia, when the Communist system was ticking away and the fall of the wall in Berlin was still seven years off. A new teacher has arrived and she is making herself acquainted with her class.

Maria Drazdechova is plump, bespectacled and looks friendly enough. As played by Zuzana Maurery who won an award at Karlovy Vary for the role, she is bright and brisk. Compared to the other two teachers we see, she is vivacious with a tendency to make the most of her allure. The head teacher and her assistant look far the more likely contenders for the role she occupies as chair of the Communist Party at the school.

In my experience, teachers in films tend to be inspirational figures, the Robin Williamses and Denzel Washingtons of this world, especially if they understand how their charges tick. But it’s not always the case, and this film has to belong in that dubious category.

To kick off the introductions, Drazdechova flips her notebook open to take down details about each student. First salient fact is what their parents do for a living. Always on the lookout for an opportune angle, she takes notes as she goes around the class.

This scene is cut into a later event, a meeting that the head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened for parents to see if there is enough support to mount a petition and oust the controversial new recruit. Cutting backwards and forwards, we weave around the room, filling in the backstories behind the students’ families with deft camerawork and editing.

It would be funny – and it is, mildly – if it weren’t also serious.

Drazdechova exchanges a free session at the hairdresser for some advice in passing on where the hairdresser’s child can improve in tests. Another parent can fix her washing machine, and another could smuggle a cake into Moscow for her.

Worse still, she gets her students to do chores for her after school, robbing them of the time they need for their extra-curricular activities and their homework. When it is revealed that student attainment in her class is poor, no one can be surprised.

The airport accountant (Csongor Kassai) declines the mission to smuggle cake only to find himself ensnared in an even more compromising position. Though not as tricky as the place that diffident, former astrophysicist (Peter Bebjak) finds himself in when he becomes a twinkle in Drazdechova’s eye.

When the promising young gymnast tries to take her life, the message about the pernicious influence of the teacher on her students’ well-being is brought home.

Further to that, the difficulties the parents have in speaking up, in making a complaint and thereby extricating themselves when they have bought into such a system, is clearly demonstrated.

Czech director Hrebejk shows a remarkably deft hand and he has a superior cast to work with, including young Richard Labuda as  the principled and conflicted son of a man who beats him.

Screenwriter Jarchovsky and director Hrebjek also created the excellent, Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall, set in Nazi-era Czechoslovakia. Here they set out to demonstrate how the ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ mentality, the antithesis of a meritocracy, is ruinous for student educational attainment, not to mention how it distorts social relations.

It’s really the system that Hrebejk and Jarchovsky take aim at, rather than its said representative, the unsinkable Ms Drazdechova.

3.5 Stars

Rated M, subtitled, 1 hr 43 mins

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Midwife

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Two well known films by writer-director Martin Provost, Seraphine and Violette, are about creative women who suffered for their art. The French filmmaker gives us another version of this woman in his latest film, The Midwife, about a woman committed to practising her profession according to certain principles, against trend.

It is also known by its French title, Sage Femme, referencing the rare skill that women in labour have depended on since  antiquity. In passing, it takes aim at how the new techno-language has transformed the secret women’s business of midwifery into the ‘birth technician’.

Claire (Catherine Frot) is a highly experienced, committed and competent midwife managing the precarious birthing business on a daily basis. Professionally, she has arrived, and is in no need of validation.

She is a single mother who has made a modest success of her life, however Provost has decided to play the devil’s advocate with her. Maybe there’s a thing or two that Claire could learn from her father’s former mistress, Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), who is a very naughty girl indeed.

What fun it is to watch the ice queen Deneuve as an unrepentant life-long smoker, a drinker, and a card sharp. She reaches out to the daughter of one of her former lovers – a swimming champion who shot himself when she left him – when she is in need of a friend. It’s the first contact the women have had in 30 years.

They meet at Beatrice’s place, or where she is camped temporarily. Looking as much a fright as it is possible for Deneuve to look, she greets Claire in her dressing gown, lights up her first cigarette of the day, and offers her guest whisky and peanuts. How old are you now, she asks. ‘Forty nine is the answer. ‘Ooh la la, you always did look older than your age!’ We get the picture.

When they go out for a snack together Beatrice orders an omelette, fries and red wine for lunch, and proffers an expensive ring signalling she wants to make amends for the hurt she once caused. She is really trying to buy her support. Beatrice has discovered she has brain cancer.

The scene looks set for an inter-generational battle, between the freewheeling Beatrice and the uptight and serious – one might say, humourless – Claire. Her abstemiousness (no drugs, no alcohol, no television, and no fun), is tinged with a certain unbending, moral superiority. Beatrice believes in the power of pleasure while Claire feels she doesn’t need or have time for intimacy.

An icon of French cinema, Deneuve, has for decades maintained her sang-froid as a unattainable beauty who seems remarkably in control. A part she played in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way a few years ago was similar in some ways, but she is less in control here and cries a number of times on screen, which is most unusual.

Filmgoers may be feeling a bit emotional themselves. The film starts with some real-life birthing scenes with plenty of close-ups. Instead of the naturalism he maintained in Seraphine, Provost peppers the narrative with actuality images of births, including the administration of an epidural.

Beatrice brings chaos into the younger woman’s orderly, clinical life. Claire allows herself to be plied with vodka and caviar by the amorous truck-driver working the neighbouring allotment, she adjusts well enough to her son dropping out of university, and she even undertakes to get rid of her sensible trenchcoat.

The writing is both sharp and wise, and the key characters  very well-observed as Provost gives us all something to reflect on.

From the birthing clinic, to the gambling den, from the spare apartment where Claire lives, to the allotment where she grows her flowers and veges, this surprisingly engaging drama weaves its way along the highways and the byways to its inevitable conclusion.

Rated PG, 117 Minutes

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Boy Bubby re-visited

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©  Jane Freebury

Text of a talk introducing Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby when it screened in the Banned + Beautiful season at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, in 2017

The first time I saw Bad Boy Bubby was in Indonesia in 1993. It was on laser disk, pirated copy of course. I’m afraid that was the only way there to keep up with new Australian film while overseas.

To say that it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Also, away from Australia I had missed out on a lot of the fun. Missed out on David Stratton’s astonishing 5 stars—something, as he said, to offend just about everyone—and the controversy it generated.

I had really liked de Heer’s  Incident at Raven’s Gate, a science fiction genre film set in the outback that was released in 1988, though was subsequently a bit disappointed by a languid Dingo, featuring jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, a few years later.

Bad Boy Bubby was de Heer’s fourth film, and he threw everything at it.

His first film had been in 1984, a sweet children’s film, Tail of a Tiger, about a boy dazzled by an old Tiger Moth airplane.

Each of these films had achieved respectable critical notices, if they had not done so well at the box office, nor marked the filmmaker out with the critics.

Bad Boy Bubby was a huge calculated risk. Either de Heer was going to make his name with this one, or give the game away.

At same time, risk became integral to his praxis. For a film to work had to be ‘out there’.  From Bad Boy Bubby on, he built risk into each film he made.

He has since said that as a filmmaker you are doomed to fail unless you go absolutely ‘all out’. It was his will to be ‘extreme’.

To quote the filmmaker: ‘If I was just going to do with ordinary thing then that’s the most risky thing you can do, because just by simple statistical analysis you can work out that only one film in seven even breaks even. And so the chances are that unless you take profound risk, you are going to fail.’

Rolf is very talented, but this is also the view of an artist who is a pragmatist.

When Rolf made Bad Boy Bubby, he had reached his early 40s, and was already ten years in the industry. There is, I think a hint of ‘do or die’ about this film.

The Bubby idea had been brewing for a long time – a ‘no budget’ film, with a two-year shoot.

Originally, it was going to be about child abuse, but de Heer decided to make the protagonist an adult and ditched altogether the idea of using a child actor.

Bad Boy Bubby took around 10 years to gestate, and de Heer returned to it from time to time to add some new outrageous idea—like that of the wheelchair bandit of Adelaide. De Heer, who grew up in Sydney and studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, moved to South Australia in 1989.

Rolf had in mind to persuade his friend Ritchie Singer to take the lead role, but Singer politely declined when he read the script, so the filmmaker turned to Nicholas Hope, an English-born theatre actor, resident of Adelaide, who had appeared in one other film. Confessor Caressor, a faux documentary about a psychopath who conducts tours of the lair where he disembowels his victims.

Half of the $800,000 plus budget was put up by Fandango, a production house based in Rome that would become of pivotal importance providing finance for de Heer’s films for years to come. The other half was put up by the Film Finance Corporation. It meant the budget was covered, and the shoot completed within a couple of months.

De Heer has noted that he declined a $3 million budget to make the film. He refused it on the grounds that it would not make the film three of four times better and that a low-budget aesthetic worked best with the subject.

It was also his determination to allow himself the freedom that low budget can afford, that he had not enjoyed during his work on French-Australian coproduction Dingo, despite its $5.6 million budget and big international crew.

After Dingo, de Heer was determined to go small, small as could be.

It is a point of honour for Rolf to work within budget.

The majority of his films have been made for under $2.5 million (well under the low budget ceiling), and most came in well under $2 million.

The Quiet Room, released in 1997, was made for under $600,000. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), shot in the jungles of South America, was a striking exception with its budget of $14 million.

In its original conception, Bad Boy Bubby would be made on weekends over a couple of years, shot by anyone free to do it. Hence, the credits for more than 30 cinematographers.

Bad Boy Bubby was to be made on a shoestring, with whoever was available to crew at the time. Cinematographers eventually did include famous names today—Geoff Simpson and Steve Arnold who both contributed scenes.

The logic for Bad Boy Bubby was that the protagonist character was a blank page. For de Heer, it meant a stylistic freedom because everything was new. Everything Bubby encountered was something he witnessed for the first time.

Ian Jones, de Heer’s usual cinematographer since Bad Boy Bubby, shot the opening and closing scenes, so you could argue there was a bit of continuity. Though de Heer recalls that all camera operators were encouraged to do whatever they saw fit.

And, the film does hang together. This has a lot to do with Hope’s performance. He is in almost every single frame. Bad Boy Bubby became a big hit in Norway, second only to Forrest Gump, and Hope an actor in demand there.

Source: Google Images

From the first scenes of mise-en-abyme of neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation, Hope’s performance and that of Claire Benito, as his mother, still stand as very brave, 24 years later.

And the cockroach scene … It’s real. According to  Hope, de Heer showed him how to swallow a cockroach by coating it in chocolate sauce. The filmmaker never refuted this.

It was in Italy that Rolf first had impact internationally. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at the Venice Film Festival.

It is intriguing that more of de Heer’s films have screened in Italy than in any other country, including the Netherlands.

Britain liked it too.

The Economist described BBB as the real triumph of the Venice festival. The esteemed critic at The Guardian, Derek Malcolm, described it as ‘the biggest surprise…astonishingly audacious and original’, while France – Le Soir reported that many considered it a ’revelation’.

Around this point, as a result of the critical acclaim, de Heer allowed himself and his team to believe that they actually ‘had something’.

Although he took out best director and best original screenplay—and the late Suresh Ayyar won best editor and Nicholas Hope won best actor—Bad Boy Bubby missed out on best film to Muriel’s Wedding at the Australian Film Institute awards back  home.

Nonetheless, the film was the game changer for de Heer. It began the career-long pattern of refusing to accept the limits imposed by a low budget. Going ‘all out’ every time.

Consider the bold and innovative concepts he has pursued to develop his films:

  • An in-country shoot for Ten Canoes. Actors not learning their lines, the main actor going walkabout, crocodiles in the swamp.
  • Using child actors too shy to act in The Quiet Room.
  • Using new motion control technology in Epsilon.
  • Interpellating paintings of atrocities against indigenous people—moments of still contemplation—into the live action of in The Tracker. Using buried history of the frontier wars.
  • Bringing Dr Plonk, a black and white silent comedy, into being.
  • Assigning the lead role in Dance Me to My Song to a non-actor, a woman with cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair
  • Collaborating inside prison while Charlie’s Country was in development.

The challenges that de Heer has taken on as a filmmaker since Bad Boy Bubby would sink the less determined, less skilful, less creative director.

It was with this film that de Heer began the praxis that makes his work distinctive.

It is as though he has forced himself each time to weave a new and different challenge into every new film. De Heer, the filmmaker, has never been one to make life easy for himself: the pattern that began with Bad Boy Bubby is what has defined him throughout his career.

His editor, the late Suresh Ayyar, called it an additional challenge, something ‘extra-textual’, in addition to the creative challenge of the film in development.

The innovative, creative solutions that de Heer has eventually found in his work, the way they work seamlessly within the film text, have become defining features, integral to the films themselves.

And he is living proof for the view that constraint works in the interests of creativity. Tell that to Hollywood.

Despite the controversy it generated, it is my understanding that Bad Boy Bubby was never censored in Australia.

Source: Google Images

One of the surprises of my research, however, was that the film was cut in Britain. Not for scenes of incest or matricide and patricide, but for the scenes that appeared to show animal cruelty.

Most at issue was the scene of the tabby cat tied to a chair with string, and clearly distressed. Excision of the scene even removed crucial dialogue confirming that there was an ‘outside’ where life could exist.

Animal welfare activists in Italy were also outraged and even campaigned for a ban on Australian products at the time of the film’s release.

When the DVD version of Bad Boy Bubby was released in Britain around ten years ago it was advertised as ‘completely uncut’.  In other words, the bit with the cat was back in. Nothing more: a clever bit of marketing.

Over the course of time, Bad Boy Bubby and Rolf de Heer’s other early films revealed traits that have become familiar throughout all his work:

  • Lean, unambiguous, direct visual language
  • Highly subjective soundtrack (established in Bad Boy Bubby with binaural microphones hidden in Bubby’s wig)
  • Narrative resolution that establishes a new order
  • Outsider or marginalised individuals in an intense personal or interpersonal struggle
  • Often a child or child-like protagonist, with a life lesson to learn
  • Quest for mastery over language (including female protagonists in Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project) that leads to giving voice to the voiceless.
  • Deep concern for the planet, the environment.

These have marked his work from the beginning.

Curiously, there has been nothing about the migrant experience. Not as yet, anyway.

So Bad Boy Bubby is strong stuff, even today. It is de Heer’s riposte to the sweet Australian coming-of-age film.

I mean, there had been a lot of Australian films in the 1970s-1980s about coming of age that Rolf would have been very familiar with: think My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke, Puberty Blues…and we’re still making them.

And yet Bad Boy Bubby is not solely aimed at the Australian coming-of-age drama.

Those scenes in which Bubby learns how to become a successful Aussie male, are some of the funniest in the film.

As one of the most effective satires of Australian society ever made, Bad Boy Bubby makes a very rude finger at us all.

******

 

Loving Vincent

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

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

 

 

Suburbicon

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

It can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I mean, Suburbicon is directed by the sophisticate George Clooney. Those brilliant, witty purveyors of comedy noir, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote the original screenplay and Matt Damon is in the lead. All are men of discernment, with talent to spare.

Yet the news just in from the box office this week is that ticket sales for Suburbicon are poor. The reviews aren’t good either. Something has gone quite wrong here.

It’s not like Clooney is an inexperienced director. This is the 6th film he has directed in a decent body of work, of which Good Night and Good Luck is the standout.

As an actor in the Coen brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and most recently on Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has worked a treat. One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to their collaborations is their work together seems organic, probably because they have a shared vision.  One can only imagine what a hoot it is on set.

From an original Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s, developed by Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov, Suburbicon knocks down the picket fence and strips the neat and tidy surface off contented domesticity in the typical, unremarkable suburban bungalow. To show us what suburbanites are really like. Welcome to Suburbicon, the ‘perfect place to raise a family’.

Located in the 1950s America, when vast tracts of new suburbs were spreading outside the cities, attracting residents with the promise of affordable housing and the benefits of city life without the disadvantages, the film really looks the part.

From the featureless suburban streetscapes to the television sets and kitchen utensils inside the home, the meticulous sets and period perfect detail are a joy. From the tie that Gardner Lodge (Damon) keeps on at home, to the striped t-shirts worn by his son Nicky (Noah Jupe, an excellent young actor), to the heels and flared skirts that women wear as they do the housework and the grocery shopping.

It might be a problem for Gardner and his family that the new neighbours over the back fence, the Mayers and their young son, are African-American. But he doesn’t actually connect with this, a situation that is a critical issue for the rest of the neighbourhood – and the shopkeepers and the postman. Small town racial prejudice is rife in Suburbicon, and it’s not at all pretty.

Like the main character in the Coen brothers’ classic dark comedy, Fargo, Gardner is preoccupied with how he can get rid of his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), wheelchair bound as a result of an accident when he was driving, and install her sister Rose (also played by Moore) in her place.

To achieve this, he and Rose descend into a murderous mayhem, even despatching one of the film’s best characters, the insurance assessor played by Oscar Isaac. Young Nicky bears witness to it all.

Suburbicon is sometimes hard to watch, with its 1950s television score on the soundtrack, underlining critical points with heavy handed emphasis.

When all is done, a neighbour complains that none of this sort of thing happened before the Mayers moved in.

As that’s the point Clooney says he wants to make to bring the film into the current day – that mainstream American society blames the minorities for its own issues – then why didn’t he work the Mayers into his narrative, instead of leaving them in the background with barely any speaking roles?

Clooney has said he didn’t feel qualified to write narrative for African-Americans, and it has turned out a misjudgement because this timidity has skewed his film. He doesn’t have the Coen brothers’ light comedic touch either.

Mob at the fence taunts Mrs Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) Source: Google Images

Suburbicon is set in the pre-dawn before the sixties civil rights movements that swept the country. Unmasking the evil in suburbia is nothing if not a familiar trope in countless films, and that includes teen horror films.

Some films like American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Pleasantville, and The Truman Show have made satirising suburbia an art form. Suburbicon is instead a harsh lesson with heavy messaging, the kind of thing that rarely works.

Rated MA 15+, 105 minutes

2.5 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mountain Between Us

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Review © Jane Freebury

After a hasty set-up at an airport closed due to bad weather, The Mountain Between Us delivers us onto a snowbound mountainside when a small plane crashes in the wilderness. The first and pressing challenge for the two passengers who survive is finding their way down to safety.

The second order challenge, as the title suggests, is getting to know and understand each other along the way.

It was an unscheduled flight, risky in bad weather, and the aging pilot who succumbed to heart failure died in the crash. The two survivors have landed in the middle of nowhere with the pilot’s pet labrador for company, a welcome valiant third party, there to help.

I guess we could call this uncertain venture a romance adventure. It certainly has two handsome leads up front: Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex, and Idris Elba as Ben, a British neurosurgeon. They start out as total strangers. Alex was on her way to her own wedding while Ben had an urgent assignment to attend to.

Neither has that much time for the other to begin with. Alex is a rather noisy, emoting, headstrong American, while he’s more introspective and withholding. A typical bloke or typical Brit?  Was this was going to become a battle of the sexes in wild and wintry conditions?

Alex is frustrated by Ben’s non-disclosure. After all, they only have each other for company and could well die together.

If the occasional mountain lion, bear or wolf doesn’t find them, then they will surely succumb to the freezing temperatures, slip off a treacherous slope or slip into an icebound lake.

Although the situation the pair find themselves in is dire,  The Mountain Between Us doesn’t deliver on that score. This is despite Mandy Walker on board as cinematographer. She is Australian and the cinematographer behind Lantana, The Well and Tracks. Despite her powerful images of the grand mountain wilderness of Columbia, the drama doesn’t engage.

To its great credit, The Mountain Between Us makes absolutely nothing of race, the most obvious difference between the pair. Perhaps the fact that Ben is British gets around this, somewhat.

The mountain between them has nothing at all to do with race, and everything to do with personality and temperament. To a lesser extent it’s about being female and male.

If it had been a battle of the sexes, with a Cary Grant and a Katharine Hepburn, how much more entertaining it could have been.The Mountain Between Us was an opportunity for some sparring between the male and the female of the species.

If a battle of the sexes is your thing, go see the excellent current The Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, while it’s still screening.

It is interesting that the director, Hany Abu-Assad, was brought on board. The credits of this Dutch-Palestinian fiction feature and documentary filmmaker include an astonishing film, Paradise Now, about Arab suicide bombers preparing themselves.

His wasted presence and that of his stars and cinematographer all go to show that you can bring promising elements together, but you can’t guarantee anything without the underpinning of a good screenplay.

The Mountain Between Us is old-fashioned, clunky action adventure with romance thrown in for good measure. It feels so by the book with thrills that only occasionally feel real.

The dull writing doesn’t offer two terrific actors very much to work with. Why they each became involved in the project is difficult to understand.

Rated M, 1 hour 52 minutes

2 Stars

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