The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

Ben Mendelsohn, larrikin no more

By © Jane Freebury

New work by actor Ben Mendelsohn can be easy to miss. Not often the lead, he can pop up in unexpected places, like Buckingham Palace where he was an elegant and diffident George VI opposite Gary Oldman’s Churchill in the Darkest Hour.

In this role, as with most, he appears to be completely comfortable in his character’s skin. It also has to be said that the effect on Mendelsohn of groomed hair and a well-tailored suit can be transformative. His flair for accents, probably from having lived in both the US and Britain during his childhood, counts for something too.

Since 2017 when he played the British monarch, Mendelsohn has shown up in surprising places. In a Steven Spielberg science fiction (Ready Player One), as the sheriff in the latest Robin Hood, as a pustulent King Henry IV (The King), in a relationship drama directed by his former wife (Untogether), and as the villain Talos in two Marvel superhero blockbusters.

In The Land of Steady Habits, by Nicole Holofcener, a creator of subtle relationship dramas, his performance as a feckless father and husband is a very rewarding, if discomforting experience. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

A memorable performance by Ben Mendelsohn as ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom

Ever since 2010, when David Michod’s very impressive crime drama Animal Kingdom (streaming on Stan) catapulted Mendelsohn – and his compatriot the redoubtable Jacki Weaver – into the international film industry, he has been in high demand.

Only three years after its release, the Washington Post was declaring that ‘Ben Mendelsohn was everywhere. Finally’. People in the US had begun to take notice.

They certainly took notice when he appeared in Season 1 of the television series Bloodline, in which he played the wayward elder son of the wealthy Florida establishment. His performance that garnered a Golden Globe nomination and won an Emmy was mesmerising.

Since the chilling menace for his character in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has slipped into roles that have offered him an opportunity to do more of same. He has done so with relish, including his portrayal of a hopeless, sleazy heroin addict in Killing Them Softly.

Since he joined the A-list stars on screen, actors like Ryan Gosling (in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in (The Dark Knight Rises), Mendelsohn has moved on from the local industry where he began as a teenager.

However, his first Australian film in nearly a decade, Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is due for release this year.

It is generally agreed that the beloved Australian classic of 1987, The Year My Voice Broke, by writer-director John Duigan, was Mendelsohn’s breakout role in the Australian film industry. Though he wasn’t the main character, he was memorable as Trevor, the roguish risk taker fatally drawn to danger.

Noah Taylor was the lead as Danny, as socially awkward as Trevor was confident, and representing the sensible devoted alternative for love interest Freya (Loene Carmen).

Back then, fans tended to confuse Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, who are the same age and somewhat similar physically, despite their different roles. It’s amusing to hear that today Mendelsohn is still being mistaken for Taylor. Fans have been asking him for his signature because they think it was him playing Locke in the television series Game of Thrones. It was, of course, Taylor.

That Mendelsohn can inhabit a small or support role, and still leave filmgoers with the overwhelming impression of his presence has become something of a pattern during his career. He has managed to make a little go a long way.

He is best known internationally for his villainous characters, but he wasn’t always the bad boy. There is a sweet side  too. In The Big Steal of 1990 directed by Nadia Tass he shows considerable natural charm as the lead character opposite Claudia Karvan. They were both teenagers at the time.

With Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal

Just after this film, Mendelsohn had a role in the film Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert) directed by Mark Joffe. It starred an as yet little known, mild mannered Welsh actor who would traumatise the filmgoing world with one of the screen’s most enduring and grotesque villains, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, opposite Jodie Foster.

In a recent interview posted online, Mendelsohn cites Anthony Hopkins as one of his most important mentors. It is an intriguing comment. Did the idea of becoming a supervillain take shape after that encounter?

Both GQ and Slate magazine have nominated Mendelsohn as the new, favourite bad guy, while the Financial Times wrote last year that he had become the king of villains.

What does it take to be really good at villainy? Gravitas, he says.

Perhaps he was on his way to something different before he moved to the US. In Beautiful Kate, the fine dark family drama by Rachel Ward, that was released in 2009, he was a complex and ambiguously drawn character. Of course, we will never know because in 2010 Mendelsohn’s world changed in a very big way with Animal Kingdom.

The trajectory his screen persona has taken, especially overseas, is a big step away from the type of knockabout, roguish Aussie bloke, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Away from the larrikin roles of his early career during the 1990s-2000s, in films like Idiot Box, Return Home, and Mullet. It is a big step but it isn’t entirely inconsistent.

He’s moved on. Larrikin no more.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

*Featured image: Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), a troubled man, in The Land of Steady Habits

 

Without going ‘the full Mendo’, here are some of Ben’s best

Compiling recommended viewing is tricky because, Mendelsohn may be the best thing in a small role but the film hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Ridley Scott’s disappointing Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Mendelsohn plays an Egyptian viceroy, is a case in point.

He is, however, a fine villain in Spielberg’s typically polished space adventure, Ready Player One, and in Orson Krennic’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which he shows great sartorial panache.

A look backwards at The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) makes for a charming introduction to the sunny side of the Mendelsohn screen persona. It is also a very good film, with a sweetness not often found in Australian film these days.

Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990) is also well worth a look, a fine contemplative study of suburban life.

See The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) if you haven’t yet. A landmark film of the early industry revival with Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor when they were just starting out long, light years from their international careers.

Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), a docu-drama about an intriguing, entrepreneurial local filmmaker, is a small favourite Mendelsohn film of mine.

Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) is an exquisite dark family drama with excellent performances from everyone, including Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn apparently shocked himself by his own performance in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), that superb noir about a Melbourne crime family.

Mendelsohn makes a strong impression in the early scenes of The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). Not an easy thing to do when playing opposite Ryan Gosling.

In Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017), he appears as the King of England during World War II. He fully matches the very good performance from Gary Oldman as Churchill.

Mendelsohn is in very good form in the finely tuned drama, The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018), as a wealthy Connecticut businessman who lets his family down.

Mendelsohn, almost a bit too convincing as an ailing monarch in David Michod’s latest, The King (2019), is a scene stealer till his death bed.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

Revisit Catch-22 in 2020

By © Jane Freebury

Odds are that someone somewhere has already come up with a phrase to nail the international health emergency that we are living through right now.

A pernicious little virus has caught us in a trap with a catch-22 all its own. The film Catch-22, 50 years old this year, resonates with a time when contradictory choices seem necessary.

‘A catch-22 situation’ derives, of course, from the impossibly circular and wonderfully entertaining Joseph Heller novel of 1961, on which the film is based. It is a great read from beginning to end, even though the story starts in the middle.

It charts the dilemma of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) who has been posted to a Mediterranean island during the last months of World War II. He is desperate to get out of the bombing missions he is being sent on into France and Italy.

Alongside him, new recruits, younger than ever, are getting killed on pointless missions. Sometimes they are killed before they even begin their tour of duty. What is the sense in that? It’s a fair question.

Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins)

The film’s key scene where Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford), explains to the squadron captain that claiming he is crazy to be released from duty would cut no ice, is as fresh as ever. Because of bureaucratic regulations, there is no way for Yossarian out of the conundrum he finds himself in.

Director Mike Nichols had a dream cast besides Arkin to work with. Orson Welles was on board in a small role as a pompous general. Jon Voight is unforgettable as motormouth Milo Minderbinder, the profiteering mess officer, and Anthony Perkins, the creepy Norman Bates from Psycho cast against type, is the chaplain.

Art Garfunkel appears in his first film role as Nately, a good natured 19-year-old. A conversation on nationalism that he has with an old man feels like it could have been written today as the film gives full measure to the book’s prophetic words. They hang in the air, full with irony. The film’s screenplay was written by Buck Henry (The Graduate).

For its time, Catch-22 was very expensive to make but the studio had so much faith in its director, Nichols, who had just had huge success with The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Cinematography by David Watkins and editing by Sam O’Steen are top class, but Catch-22 flouts a convention or two. It is like a series of disconnected, absurd incidents, strung together. The scenes are gems in themselves that accrete over time so that this dark, anti-war satire eventually makes sense.

From the moment Catch-22 begins the experience borders on the surreal. Dawn approaches with scattered bird song, and then the spell ends violently as a squad of B-25 bombers roar across the frame. The bombers were the very thing according to the production history.

Unfortunately for Mike Nichols he was beaten to the post. Robert Altman’s uproarious, frenetic anti-war satire M.A.S.H. came out in January 1970 and enjoyed huge success at the box office just months before Catch-22 opened the same year.

What a coincidence. You might think that both rode high on the anti-war sentiment of the times as the Vietnam War trundled on, but no, Catch-22 tanked at the box office.

Despite the no-expense-spared budget, audiences in 1970 may have got bored with the elliptical story-telling in Catch-22. Or by the time they’d seen  M.A.S.H. they may have felt that, as far as anti-war movies went, they’d seen it all. Yet both films are so very different.

It could be that for many people today the films Catch-22  and M.A.S.H. have merged into one long, indistinguishable anti-war epic.

When the book Catch 22 was published in 1961 it captured the futility and absurdity of war. Which war was that, exactly?

Joseph Heller had begun writing his landmark novel sometime in 1953 when the Korean War was settled, but he had actually set his story in the last months of World War II. When the film of the book appeared in 1970, it was taken up by the Vietnam War generation.

Slowly, over time however, Catch-22 has managed to catch up with M.A.S.H. in the critical stakes. A television series co-produced by George Clooney came out last year, but Mike Nichols’ film is better than it, and a cut above M.A.S.H.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 April 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image:  Alan Arkin and Art Garfunkel in Catch-22 (1970) Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Six Degrees of Separation, revisited

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Six Degrees of Separation, a film from 1993, had a catchy idea and title to match that has had the distinction of becoming part of our lexicon. Other movies come to mind, like Groundhog Day and Bucket List, but there aren’t that many.

A name for a list of must-see travel destinations before you kick the bucket has caught on, as has the idea of being caught in a time loop of repetitive routine.  And there’s another one that’s trending, from the title of George Cukor’s 1944 thriller, ‘gaslight’ has become a shorthand for an insidious type of psychological abuse.

Six Degrees of Separation, currently streaming on Stan, proposed the idea that people are only six connections away from each other. In the age of a corona virus pandemic, the idea that we are interconnected to a degree we had never realised doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

It wasn’t a new idea when screenwriter John Guare put it forward in his play of the same name, on which this film is based. There have been media reports since that the thesis is verifiable and correct, and that we are connected, by 5 to 7 informal acquaintances, to every other person in the world.

a satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart

Six Degrees of Separation, directed by expat Australian director Fred Schepisi, is sharp, funny, and acutely observed comedy of manners. Its theatrical roots are very apparent, but it is well worth revisiting not just because of the intriguing take up of its title, but for its satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart.

Upper East Siders, Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) Kittredge are an affluent couple who have reached the pinnacle of success. With their adult children away at college, their life is a constant round of art deals and dinner parties.

They live on Fifth, of course, in a high-rise apartment crowded with artworks that reflect their taste and their cultural capital, but they are liberal, decent folk, wanting to do the right thing.

Geoffrey (Ian McKellen) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing)

So, they are seriously challenged when an attractive young stranger with a knife wound to the stomach arrives at their front door, requesting refuge. He was mugged, he says, then saw the name Kittredge downstairs and realised they were parents of friends of his at college.

His name is Paul, he says, and he is the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Flan and Ouisa and their guest, Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), are sceptical but intrigued by their uninvited guest, who is so confident, articulate and, well, charismatic. When he steps up to prepare their dinner, he shows he’s no slouch in the culinary and sommelier arts either.

The role of Paul, a wily and plausible imposter, is a gift for any young actor. It was the first major film role for Will Smith, and some would say that despite the star he has become in years since, this early role is still his best.

After Paul brings a hustler back to the apartment, Flan and Ouisa chuck him out, then regale their friends with anecdotes about him at their dinner parties. The film is structured around flashback as friends and acquaintances respond with similar stories about how Paul infiltrated their lives too, took up offers of free bed and board, and stole opportunistically.

Paul has been working his way through the Upper East Side. The Kittredges can count themselves lucky that he left the Cezanne and the Kandinsky behind.

Curiously, there is a running joke about an upcoming movie version of Cats. If only they knew in 1993 how funny that turned out to be in 2019.

Ultimately, the idea of six degrees of separation is more device than underlying theme. It’s an idea that Ouisa muses about, fascinated to think that ‘a US president could be connected with a gondolier in Venice’. Our take-up of the expression seems to indicate that we like the idea too.

not in the cast, but Kevin Bacon is also connected

After Six Degrees of Separation came out in the 1990s, some Pennsylvania students invented a parlour game they called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Bacon didn’t mind. He ran with it, founding a charitable trust based on the notion that what you do in an apartment in Manhattan will inevitably affect people in Bangladesh, because we are all connected.

Are we ever.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 April 2020, and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Who am I? Will Smith as Paul

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970)

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Every now and then, our most popular folk hero is taken out of storage, dusted down and given new clothes. This year saw the release of Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and it marks the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly with rock legend Mick Jagger in the lead.

Intriguing. While his story in other media has been well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled

Both of these titles are currently streaming on STAN, and are very different takes on a young bushranger of Irish stock who was either a class warrior and proto-republican, or a lowly horse thief. You can take your pick.

Many interpretations have tended to have a bet both ways. Hardly a homage, Peter Carey’s wonderful, prize-winning book that Kurzel’s film is inspired by was wildly successful, and artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series from the 1940s have become canonical works.

It is intriguing that, while stories of Ned in other media have been very well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled. Since Jagger did his turn in 1970, the part of Kelly has been played by two fine actors. In 2003, Heath Ledger had the main role in Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan. George MacKay has played him in Kurzel’s recent film.

The film medium is, unfortunately, demanding and exacting in its particular way, and from the first moments in the Tony Richardson film, there is obviously something missing. It opens on Kelly in prison, on his way to the gallows where he utters his famous parting words, ‘Such is life’.

It isn’t just the moustache that’s missing, it’s physical presence. In his chinstrap beard, Jagger looks more like a member of the Amish than the swashbuckling outlaw whose manly image in full beard we are accustomed to.

Is this the Rolling Stones frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either

More than this, it’s his flat, uncertain voice trying to project and the wavering accent. He tries whatever he can manage – Cockney, Australian, Irish – and the pub singalong featuring The Wild Colonial Boy is only faintly rousing. Is this the charismatic outlaw, a man of the people, who we are invited to celebrate?

Is this the Rolling Stones’ frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either.

Any Ned Kelly films needs a robust central performance. The lack of a compelling central presence in Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is a weakness there to, and significantly subverted by having the male actors so frequently crossdress.

Serious shortcomings aside, the script, which was the work of director Richardson and local Kelly expert, the late Ian Jones, is packed with characters among the downtrodden Irish, and with incident. The sense of community is strong, especially compared with the bleak Kurzel version of a family isolated and vulnerable.

When there are more characters in the frame, and attention is not directed solely at Mick Jagger’s Ned, the film comes alive with the jauntiness that Richardson could do so well. The rollicking tone that dominated one of his most famous films, Tom Jones, is in the ascendant. If I turn a blind eye to the lead actor, this is what the film does best.

The ravishing location shots by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, are another plus. They capture the individual character of the Australian bush and rural landscapes in their many moods. As many Canberrans know, Ned Kelly of 1970 was made in and around Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands.

Just a hint of homoerotica is implied when Kelly accepts a drink from Constable Fitzpatrick (the late Martyn Sanderson) at the pub. I also recall a brief scene of a man in a dress riding a horse, but nothing like the liberties taken in Kurzel’s film.

Mick Jagger has flirted with many things, including an acting career. He beat Ian McKellen for the part of Kelly but this performance probably buried any further ambition to act in feature films.

In 1970 the Australian film industry was on the cusp of a revival that would see classics later in the decade like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Bilateral government support for subsidising a local industry was nearly, but not quite, there.

Richardson’s Ned Kelly was a big budget international coproduction that swept into town and made off with generous Federal Government funding. For this and other reasons, it was not received well. On the up side, it did at least convince Australian filmmaker Michael Thornhill and his contemporaries that they could do a lot better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 April 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Ned Kelly, 1946, from Ned Kelly Series by Sidney Nolan, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Sampling movies on SBS OnDemand

By © Jane Freebury

There is a trove of quality films to watch free-to-air on SBS OnDemand, 650 titles to revisit or catch up with.

An astounding range of quality films that SBS has curated in a variety of ways for niche appeal. Feature docos, movies about feisty females, movies for gay audiences, cinema classics, animation, and as yet little known ‘hidden gems’.

With so much bewildering choice, here are 15 titles I can recommend.

The category ‘the Oscar goes to’ guarantees a film that’s good on one level at least, having achieved an Oscar nomination, not necessarily for best film.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), an Oscar foreign language film nominee, is a powerful, atmospheric drama about Canadian siblings who travel to the Middle East to solve a family mystery. Villeneuve has since directed outstanding films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, and his take on Dune is due to release this year.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) takes you along on a meandering road trip through South America with a young Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) as the Marxist revolutionary. It won an Oscar for its music, and could easily have won for cinematography.

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) is an account of the final days of Adolph Hitler and inner circle in his underground bunker. A provocative, thoughtful perspective on an arch-criminal guilty of heinous crime.

Talk to Her (2002), from the wonderful Spanish writer-director, Pedro Almodovar, whose unique vision creates a sensual, extravagant world of its own.

From the young Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), stars Mia Farrow as a pregnant wife fearful that a coven of witches plans to steal her child. Its menacing atmosphere and disturbing psychology are unforgettable.

Alain Becourt with Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle (1958), a classic of French cinema created by Jacques Tati that won the best foreign language Oscar. It’s a witty, gentle send-up of bourgeois pretention that is a classic of comedy in any language.

In the ‘World Movies’ section there’s Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011) with Rhys Ifans demonstrating surprising depth. This is a clever concoction for those who enjoy an enduring mystery. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course, he did but it’s still good fun exploring who else might have done it.

Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012). This story about a young queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) who falls for the court physician (Mads Mikkelsen), is a thoughtful, delicate romance that deserved more recognition on its release.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), is a strange, striking film that features a mercurial performance from David Bowie as a British major in a Japanese prison of war camp in World War II.

A Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2019) offers a light, whimsical touch on weighty subjects as a woman archer steps up to take on corporate vandals destroying the Icelandic environment.

Ali’s Wedding (Jeffrey Walker, 2017) is a terrific Australian comedy, a tricky genre to get right these days. At its heart is a smart, funny performances from co-writer and lead actor Osamah Sami as the dutiful young Muslim struggling with life choices.

Capharnaum/aka Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018) is the powerful, haunting story of a 12 year old living in a Beirut slum who sues his parents for neglect. It’s said to have become the highest grossing Arabic films ever.

Filmed in the palace of Versailles itself, Farewell My Queen (Benoit Jacquot, 2013) it is told from the perspective of a court reader (Lea Seydoux). A sumptuous period drama on the last hours of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

The niche category ‘Essential 70s’, revisits the decade when some of cinema’s top directors did their outstanding early work. The seventies are not well represented by the films in this SBS category, but it does offer two of the best.

The Conversation (1974) a highly esteemed thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It lost the best film Oscar to The Godfather Part II, that Coppola also directed.

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) is based on the true story of a New York cop who exposed corruption among the force. Al Pacino is ferocious and righteous in the lead role, in what is still one of his best performances.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 March 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum

The King

A brilliant, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare on leadership and power

MA15+, 140 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Now the streaming platforms are windows on the world in our shuttered lives, movies that were at the cinema a few months ago are re-appearing on our TVs. Giving The King a second chance if you missed it last October is a good bet.

It’s an Australian film from David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) that had a short release last year. There were favourable reviews, it did some business at the box office and then it joined the Netflix stable from whence it came.

Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity

Like The Irishman and Roma, it is a Netflix production. Much of its budget would have gone into the impressive historical detail, including lavishly mounted battle scenes with full-scale catapults hurling fireballs, and hordes of extras in clanking armour.

Filmed in cathedrals and castles in England and Hungary, The King has an authentic period look that has been handsomely photographed by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, Macbeth). In its stern way, it looks great.

The filmmakers have also invested a great deal in actor Timothée Chalamet in the title role. Only 24 years old and hot property since his leading role in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), his ambiguously gendered beauty is not what we might expect in a celebrated warrior king, and is a destabilising factor that keep things interesting.

Catherine de Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) who will become Queen

In recent times, it’s been good to see young filmmakers prepared to give Shakespeare a go. Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet, directed by Australians Geoffrey Wright and Baz Luhrmann respectively, each struggled in different ways with the language, but The King is based on a completely new screenplay and I’m happy to say that it works.

the simple and naturalistic take on Shakespeare’s language has considerable power

Shakespeare’s observations and insights on leadership, power and when to go to war are still there, told in simple and naturalistic language that has considerable power.

Michôd co-wrote his screenplay with actor-director Joel Edgerton, who has the key role of Hal’s constant companion, Falstaff, a dream part for any actor.

Their screenplay is drawn from the three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, that trace the career of one of England’s most popular kings. It was Henry V who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, a victory that joined the French and English thrones, for a short time at least.

The uniformly fine cast comprises Australian, American and British actors, some in memorable cameo roles.

The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), heir to the French throne

Ben Mendelsohn appears as Henry IV, the king who will not acknowledging his elder son, Hal, until his dying breath. Robert Pattinson appears in a scene-stealing role as the Dauphin, the vicious, wily heir to the French throne. Lily-Rose Depp’s appearance as Catherine de Valois is only brief but big on impact.

Chalamet himself is very good as the wayward prince who morphs into a great king, though I have some reservations about casting him in this role.

The King tells a story for modern audiences.  It’s quite unlike Henry V starring Laurence Olivier in 1944. While that film was made to revive the war effort, Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity.

There is nothing glamorous about warfare here. When Prince Hal takes down rebellious young Hotspur (Tom Glyn-Carney), there is nothing valiant about one-on-one combat either. Their swordfight finishes in a grim, desperate wrestling match.

At Agincourt, the French and English armies slog it out in what must have been total mayhem. How would the combatants have known who was who as they struggled in the mud?

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the fictional character of Falstaff into his Henry plays, the king has been in danger of being upstaged by his mischievous, wassailing companion. Edgerton clearly enjoys himself as the bad influence who constantly leads the young prince into trouble.

the changes that risk upsetting the purists are nothing if not bold

However, The King has elevated Falstaff’s standing, giving him a role of consequence as a royal adviser. No longer simply a comic character who keeps Henry in touch with the common man, Falstaff can advise on military strategy too.

All these changes risk upsetting the purists around the Anglosphere, but The King is nothing if not bold.

Kings and kingship are not in themselves such a fashionable subject for audiences today. But the question of good leadership and how to govern is as relevant today as it has always been, and it will not go away.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 March 2020. Also broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, and published by the Film Critics Circle of Australia

*Featured image: Timothée Chalamet as Henry V

Queen & Slim

Combines style and charisma to make the point

MA15+, 132 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

The date at a diner wasn’t going well. She had only responded to his request on Tinder after a bad day at work. His attempts at conversation were getting a curt response, his easygoing manner was irritating.

They would soon discover just how different they really were. He, a teetotaller and a devout Christian, who wears a crucifix and drives a car with the registration plate TrustGod. She has no truck with religion.

She is a defence attorney, an excellent one, mind you, and it isn’t completely clear what work he does. Perhaps he sells shoes. There is a collection of boxed Nikes in the boot of his car.

The only things that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do appear to share besides profiles on Tinder, is being residents of Ohio and African Americans.

Turner-Smith is a relatively recent arrival on screen but Kaluuya made his name in the smart, brutal horror film Get Out. Like this film, Get Out has something serious to say about contemporary race relations in the US.

Queen and Slim are not, by the way, the real names of the protagonists, but everyman and everywoman descriptions. Their real names are revealed at the end.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and the blue Pontiac Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s the colour of their skin that prompts an aggressive encounter with a white police officer while Slim is driving his date home. Something is said about swerving and failing to indicate, but it’s a set up. Queen and Slim are cooperative and reasonable, but this law enforcement officer is only looking for an excuse to use his gun.

He finds one. As Queen retrieves her mobile to record the event, telling the officer all the while what she is doing, he fires at her. Slim and the policeman wrestle to the ground, the gun slips out of the policeman’s hands, and the precipitous descent into a life and death situation concludes with the policemen lying on the ground, lifeless. Slim shot the officer in self-defence with the policeman’s own weapon.

From bitter experience as a defence attorney, Queen knows exactly what to expect from the Ohio justice system There’s nothing for it but to leave the scene and take to the road. While heading south along the highway they might come up with a plan.

It’s no coincidence that their journey begins in Ohio, the point at which escaped slaves who had travelled the ‘underground railroad’ in the 19th century, could leave its network of support for freedom.

When the fugitives run out of fuel after crossing into Kentucky, an off-duty sheriff gives them a lift. He is all cheery bonhomie until he realises who he has on board his pick-up. A black Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty made counter-culture heroes of the outlaw couple in the 1960s film, Bonnie and Clyde, and inevitably, Queen & Slim invites comparison with the iconic Arthur Penn film. But the similarities are superficial. The original couple, whose Depression-era crime spree across the American South ended in a hail of bullets, were small-time criminals.

Although Queen and Slim agree to have their photo taken in front of their car, just like the original Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, they are a law-abiding couple. Queen and Slim are caught up in the climate that has seen innocent black Americans die at the hands of police.

Once the couple are on the road in their sleek blue Pontiac, dressed in gear they found at a brothel where they hid briefly, their new look fools no one. They are folk heroes known to all. The cop who was shot was a bad cop. They have appeared on YouTube in film uploaded from his dashcam and have become celebrities among their own.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

As they make their way through the backblocks on their way south they are safe, protected and supported by the poor, black communities. They even find a moment to dance to the blues, and the freedom to fall in love.

Music is the language of the director Melina Matsoukas, who has won multiple top awards as a director of music videos. Her feature debut here with screenwriter Lena Waithe, also a black American, is striking. Activist cinema that combines charismatic leads, stylish visuals and great music usually never looks and sounds this good.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 March 2020

*Featured image: Slim (Danieal Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith). Courtesy Universal Pictures

Rolf de Heer’s outstanding contribution to Australian film

ROLF DE HEER

FCCA 2019 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AWARD

Australia’s premier association of professional film critics, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), has presented a special award to filmmaker Rolf de Heer.

The Acknowledgement Award for Excellence recognises his unique body of work, and exceptional contribution over many years to Australian cinema and culture.

The award was made at the recent FCCA Awards for 2019.

Rolf de Heer – international auteur, Australian provacateur

This piece by Jane Freebury, author of Dancing to his Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, was printed in the commemorative material distributed at the FCCA Awards for 2019:

Rolf de Heer learned his craft when the Australian films that reached the international festival circuit had a reputation for high production values and were often seen as vehicles for endorsing the official view of cultural identity. They were good to look at, but safe and non-confronting. It was a reputation that some local commentators, and the late, formidable Pauline Kael in New York, were impatient with.

Then along came Bad Boy Bubby in 1993, a rude retort to the polite reserve that characterised Australian cultural production. A pitch black comedy that was really out there, it had something to offend just about everyone. Even Rolf took a step back at one point and wondered aloud ‘Where the hell did that come from?”

It refused outright to be culturally enhancing and legitimising. Rolf’s films have never made us look that good.

The rest, of course, is history. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and took out two other prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, won other awards in Seattle and Valenciennes, and was an AACTA nominee for best film.

Notoriety went with the acclaim. Censors in the United Kingdom cut the scene with the cat, leaving other scenes of incest or matricide alone.

So persuasive did Rolf’s films become that we came to find ourselves celebrating more crimes and misdemeanours. The entombment of an errant husband in the family home, the extra-judicial killing of a homicidal, racist coloniser, and so on. A step too far? De Heer made a habit of daring his audiences to take it with him.

In the new millenium, he has become known for his magnificent Indigenous stories in the outback wilderness, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country, that gave rare prominence to Aboriginal protagonists in Australian film.

However, Rolf has ranged freely across genres, from Bubby’s man-child coming-of-age, to silent comedy in B&W, to intense psychodramas set in the domestic space, to science fiction, and more.

It will surprise some that he has also made two international coproductions with romantic protagonists in pursuit of their passion. The outback trapper fond of jazz in Dingo is a perennial favourite, while The Old Man Who Read Love Stories in the Amazonian jungle is less well known.

Ever since that career-defining moment when Rolf first courted creative risk, it has continued to define him. He has been willing to take risks with projects, even extreme risks, and it has seen him develop a profile as a filmmaker who is bold, innovative, unorthodox and unpredictable.

I believe that his bold and spirited approach has given heart to many young emerging filmmakers In Australia. Yes, it can be done.

The result is a body of work over the last three decades that few contemporaries in the Australian film industry can match for range, ambition and audacity.

Over the course of his filmmaking career – in which he has more often than not been writer/direct/ and producer of his work – he has become adept at the art of bricolage, of using the materials at hand and transforming it. It is his form of creative risk.

Some incident energised him, sparked his curiosity and his imagination, or his indignation, and set him on a course of action in support of social justice. The bricolage has determined the character of the film in production and fixed the de Heer brand.

While refusing to accept the apparent limits imposed by a low budget, he has taken a chance on the very element that presented risk for his production­­. The wheelchair-bound lead actor only able to speak with a voice synthesiser (Dance Me To My Song), shy or incapacitated child actors (The Quiet Room), alternatives to prohibitively expensive filmstock (Alexandra’s Project and Dr Plonk), unwillingness to represent live-action violence (The Tracker), or to manage a large crew (the genesis of Bad Boy Bubby), moving house (The King is Dead). Then turned it into an essential building block.

The restriction or obstacle that might hold another director in check seems to supply the essential energy to this filmmaker’s creativity. A negative is transformed into a positive. Something comes from nothing.

While Australia certainly lays claim to Rolf de Heer, his singular cinema maps a country all its own. Like many auteurs he has created a body of work that is its own country, a place and people of the imagination to which each new de Heer film adds a further dimension. Identifiably Australian, yet refusing to endorse any notion of a national identity, the territory he explores lies at the margins of the mainstream. Inhabited by outliers, marginalised protagonists who effectively and comprehensively turn the table on their oppression.

As Rolf has developed a distinctive authorial signature, he has been a pioneer, revealing to our industry what is possible with limited tools. He has become an inspiring role model for emerging filmmakers working within constraints.

The success of his work is best measured by the admiration, respect, provocation and debate that it has generated.  Rolf is an internationally recognised auteur whose invigorating, challenging work has achieved high standing in world cinema.

 

Drawn from: Freebury, Jane (2015), Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, Currency Press / Currency House, Sydney

 

 

*Featured image: Actor Gary Sweet (on left) congratulates Rolf de Heer on his FCCA award

Honeyland

M, 86 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A wild and rugged landscape, a cast of thousands of airborne extras and their solitary beekeeper feature in this engaging and unusual observational documentary. It hails from Macedonia.

It was first conceived of as an official documentary on the Balkan region where it is located. But when the filmmakers came across a woman of Turkish descent whose livelihood was harvesting honey, they decided to focus on her instead.

She is touted in promotional material as the last of the traditional beekeepers. Whether she is or not, she is certainly one of a kind.

In the opening frames, Hatidze Muratova is a speck, a figure in a headscarf walking through a majestic mountainous landscape. Ethereal music combines with capella singing on the soundtrack to make this an entrancing invitation into another world.

Hatidze is crossing the high plateau because it is harvest time. After scrambling along a narrow track above a steep drop, she removes a slice of rock from the mountainside. It opens like a door, revealing a hive of bees.

Mashallah, she whispers, the Arabic expression for giving thanks. The hive is dripping with honey.

Her presence and purpose are not unwelcome, it seems, as she collects honey with her bare hands, murmuring half for you, half for me as she does it. Her age-old traditions are the very definition of sustainable.

After the autumn harvest, Hatidze takes her jars of honey into town. Although Skopje, the capital, is not so very far away, it’s a nine-hour journey for her, by train and on foot.

At the city markets she haggles with stall owners, bargaining hard with the best of them. There is the added incentive of being able to afford some bananas, a special treat, and a sachet of hair colour. Her preference is for chestnut brown, a modest choice, but who is there to appreciate it back at the ghostly hamlet that is her home?

Hatidze’s adventures out and about are punctuated by scenes of her in the cottage that she shares with her 85-yeqr-old mother, a dog and a couple of cats. Old Nazife is bedridden and only has sight in one eye. She and her daughter are blunt with each other, and they bicker constantly, but their interdependence is stark.

They are the only inhabitants of their hamlet, a clutch of stone houses that has been abandoned for quite some time. There are no roads, and no running water or electricity. Jet aircraft that are seen occasionally high in the sky are a remote sign of the 21st century modernity that exists elsewhere.

The cycle of life continues without incident until the day that Hussein Sam, his wife Ljutvie and their seven boisterous children drive in and make it their home, for now. The tribe of kids and the herd of cattle and chickens and general chaos and commotion are a major disruption for two women.

Hatidze welcomes the family of nomads and maintains her forbearance despite this though mum shows less tolerance. But then would, wouldn’t she? Moreover, Hatidze shares her knowledge on beekeeping with her new neighbour, Hussein. He sets up his own hives, seriously messing with Hatidze’s work.

Hatidze with the neighbours

All the goings-on observed in this documentary amount to great theatre. The squabbling adults, the siblings at play or having it out, and the creatures on four legs and two create a tapestry of small, dramatic incidents, that are sometimes hilarious.

The kaleidoscope of vignettes is a tribute to the insight and intelligence of the two Macedonian filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

They spent three years with Hatidze, camping at her village, earning the trust that allowed them special access to the intimate lives of others, while also absorbing the rhythms of their remote Balkan world.

The process has really paid off. Kotevska and Stefanov amassed hundreds of hours of footage and have allowed the vision to speak for itself. The result is a superior documentary, without voiceover.

Honeyland was nominated for a best documentary and a best international feature award at the recent Academy Awards. Hatidze’s character and situation may not appeal to everyone, but those who tune in to it will recognise that Honeyland is a rare achievement.  Even the wait for the little surprise at the end of the credits is worth it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

*Featured image: Hatidze shares her knowledge

Undertow

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Big on atmosphere, light on plot

MA 15+, 95 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The backstory to this atmospheric, moody psychodrama is the dark side of football culture. The very serious issue of bad off-field behaviour by male players is overlain here with the delicate story of a woman, grieving for the loss of her baby, who fears she may never conceive again.

As a solace and distraction, photojournalist Claire (Laura Gordon) takes herself to the beach, where she captures with her camera images of life and death on the shore. The coast is spectacularly beautiful, but it’s clear that all is not well with her.

Out to sea: Claire (Laura Gordon)

Although she and husband are close and attend a grieving parents support group, there is some strain in their relationship. Then suddenly it looks like Dan is seeing someone else. There he is, in plain sight as Claire drives past, at the entrance of a Corio Bay motel with a skimpily dressed young blonde. Is this all the evidence that Claire needs?

Masters of the thriller form, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, would have had a field day with this material, tweaking the dangerous, voyeuristic and confronting elements. However, writer-director Miranda Nation shows a mature, assured hand with this first feature, relying on the strong central performances from her lead actors rather than ramping up the sensational potential of the film’s scenes of drugs, sex and nudity.

Neither Dan (Rob Collins from Cleverman) nor his good mate since childhood and footie bad boy Brett (Josh Helman) are demonised. They might be. Sporting Pain + Glory tatts on his pectorals, Helman naturally imports some of the vibe he had in roles in recent Mad Max and X-Men films, but the wild man image is left understated.

Dan told Claire that he was at a fundraiser that afternoon. As a football official, this was entirely plausible, but she had spotted him at a motel with another woman. Later that evening, she doesn’t confront him with the lie, but it is soon apparent that she has embarked on an investigation of her own instead. With telephoto gear in hand, she becomes something of a stalker.

When Claire tracks her down, she finds that the focus of her obsession is just a young girl, who declares she is 19, but later admits to being 16.  Angie (Olivia DeJonge) is mouthy and full of attitude and doesn’t really mind the attention. Not a talent scout, are you? And she tosses her hair and adopts a more photogenic pose in case the hunch is correct.

Angie confides that she is pregnant to Dan’s friend Brett. The teenager’s unwanted pregnancy is a cruel irony for Claire who is desperate to become pregnant again. Her obsession with Angie seems to turn sisterly, looking out for the health of the teenager’s unborn baby.

As a relationship develops between them, Claire’s actions become more and more bizarre, and Angie, for all her issues seems the stronger. Certainly she is the more interesting.

Undertow is shot in Geelong, the home town of the writer-director on the glorious surf coast of south-west Victoria. It’s understandable that the director may have wished to exploit its natural, untamed beauty. Images of the city’s degrading, old industrial areas are juxtaposed with the windswept cliffs and curling surf.

As it gets harder and harder to distinguish between what is real and what is Claire’s subjective reality, the images of water become more dominant. We have drifted a long way from a backstory set in football clubs, locker rooms, drug-fuelled parties and sweaty, sexist bars.

Rob Collins is very good as Dan, the sports administrator with a successful career and a designer house and Mercedes to match. But his pastoral actions on behalf of his mate Brett seemed implausible to me. I think that the development of Dan’s character, so important to the drama too, needed more work at writing stage.

Despite these reservations, Undertow is in many ways an impressive achievement, and it augurs well for director Nation’s next project.

An unusually high proportion of female creatives provided input here, included ace cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who has made Undertow look outstanding. Women creatives shared the roles of editor, composer and producer roles as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2020

*Featured image: Claire (Laura Gordon) with Angie (Olivia DeJonge)

Motherless Brooklyn

Pet project made with a free hand

M, 144 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which it is based.

It’s said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.

Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.

The shift to the fifties also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings. That sort of thing.

Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In his hands, Lionel’s character has a dignity that a less skilful actor might not have achieved.

Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with, nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a ‘freak show’.

Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.

Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in emergency.

It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development. Forcing minority communities out of their homes then demolishing them to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph’s grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a controversial figure at the time.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) confronts Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)

One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent beaux-arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenity. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets.

No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs. The period look seems authentic, though sharp eyed citizens will be able to spot anything that isn’t, a production designer’s and art director’s nightmare.

Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump, is also great as Randolph.  The self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is however a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.

Motherless Brooklyn is such an ambitious undertaking. A big city story that champions the people versus the developers, a really important, ongoing subject that impacts everyone.

I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written, performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run to too long. It would have been better with a tight edit, but ,as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 February 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Edward Norton as gumshoe Lionel Essrog

In My Blood It Runs

Difficult questions, no easy answers

PG, 90 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In September last year, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy from Alice Springs, Dujuan Hoosan, was invited to make a brief address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. His short statement, easily found online, begins with him saying that the government in his country isn’t listening to Indigenous people.

The particular point that Dujuan wants to make at the UN is that there should be an end to the incarceration of 10-year-old children in Australia.

In all Australian jurisdictions the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age. This despite recommendations from a royal commission, medical doctors’ associations, and other professionals, that the age be lifted to 12 or 14 years.

In his short statement to the Human Rights Council, Dujuan also spoke of his people’s dreams, hopes and rights, and the need for Indigenous youth to learn their history, language and culture from their elders.

This is the documentary feature about him and his life with his family in Alice Springs, In My Blood It Runs, that set him on the road to the UN.

When he was 10, Dujuan (aka Dujuan Turner), was nearly locked up himself. And, as he notes, were he in prison at 13, he would have been eligible to be placed in solitary confinement. But for an intervention by members of his family, in particular his grandmother, Carol Turner, he too could have entered a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory, where nearly 100% of detainees are Indigenous.

What led to this? In My blood It Runs, a delicate observational documentary that was three years in the making, tells the story of Dujuan and his family. A presentation of Indigenous disadvantage in the first person.

Dujuan was doing poorly at school, scoring ‘straight Es’, feeling badly about himself and he mucked up. How surprised should we be by this, when we see scenes from his school. A lesson in Australian history is about the First Fleet, using a textbook dredged up from the distant past, that makes no meaningful mention of Aboriginals. It is startling.

In another class, a teacher reads an Indigenous story, saying at the same time that she doesn’t understand it. How insensitive, and disrespectful.

Add to this, some cringeworthy voiceover from old black-and-white newsreel clips intoning about the Aboriginal population. Inserted within the realities of Dujuan’s life on screen, they are a reminder that current prejudice reveals traces of the worst of old racist attitudes.

In observational style, we watch and listen as Dujuan shows the way. As the camera follows him around, he talks to us, directly and in voiceover, about what he thinks and feels. He would like to become a healer, and pledges he will never drink alcohol or fight.

He has learnt how to control his anger by going bush each week with his elders. The best place to learn is on country at Sandy Bore, his grandmother’s place, 100 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

In My Blood It Runs, a collaboration between the filmmaker, Maya Newell, and Dujuan’s family members, was filmed in the homelands of his Arrernte and Garrwa families.

Before film production was underway, director Newell – also a producer, and cinematographer – had developed intimate knowledge of the Indigenous communities through a long association extending back years.

This helps explain the depth and breadth of her collaboration with Dujuan’s family. In particular with mother Megan and grandmother Carol, who also have director credits.

It’s Nanna Carol who speaks to the film’s key issue, education.

When she takes Dujuan and the other children to her Sandy Bore homelands she insists they speak in Arrernte language. But she also wants Indigenous kids to grow up learning both ways, Indigenous and mainstream Australian. How can Indigenous people represent themselves in society without a command of English too?

In My Blood It Runs, a quote taken from Dujuan himself, has won local and overseas awards. It raises critical questions, questions raised by Indigenous people themselves.

With its quiet and non-confronting style, its commitment and sincerity, the film makes an important contribution to the debate on Indigenous disadvantage. It raises difficult questions to which there are no easy answers.

How does Dujuan envisage his future? He just wants a normal life. Just wants to be himself, an Aboriginal.

If only it were that straightforward.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 February 2020

*Featured image: Dujuan with his mother Megan Hoosan

The Call of the Wild

A wild journey with a pretend dog

PG, 100 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

By the look of the bio of the American author, Jack London, there was a time when he answered the call of the wild himself. After many adventures on the road and the high seas, he decided to settle for earning his living as a writer. It was only after he had done a lot of living.

A high school dropout at 14, he worked as a sailor in San Francisco Bay, then travelled to Japan. On his return to the US, he rode freight trains across the country with the down-and-out, educating himself at public libraries, and became a socialist along the way.

At 19 years of age he entered university after a cram course but quit his studies again to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. It was his muscular adventure stories set in the Yukon, like The Call of the Wild (1903) and its reverse narrative companion piece, White Fang (1906), in which a wild dog is domesticated, that first made him popular with the reading public.

One wonders what London would have made of the latest movie version of The Call of the Wild, in particular what they’ve done to the dog Buck.

The film written for the screen by Michael Green (who co-wrote Blade Runner 2049) and directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch) sticks to the original story. There are some changes to the ethnicity of several key characters that will make it acceptable to 21st century filmgoers.

Nothing about the main character, Buck, a Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie cross, needed changing. He was the best of loved pets and had the perfect life with kind and caring owners on a farm in California until he was stolen by one of their staff who was short of cash. Buck changes owners a couple of times, is taken north and ends up on a team of sled dogs, delivering the US Mail in the Yukon.

As luck would have it, his newest owner is a good and kind man. Omar Sy (such a likeable presence in The Intouchables), a French actor of African descent , plays Perrault, the dog sled master. His companion Mercedes is played Canadian first nations actor, Cara Gee. They make a far more attractive, winning couple than the pair who drove the sled in the novel.

Buck has adjustments to make in his new life. He has to learn to be part of a pack dog and resist haring off after the first rabbit he sees, and he has to toughen up, and overcome his ‘Californian’ paws, and get used to running on snow and ice.

Buck, a massive 140 pound pooch who is all heart and courage, should be totally endearing. The problem is he is totally CGI and looks real enough but has been given a range of cute facial expressions from concerned to kind to quizzical to forlorn to crestfallen that are nothing more than CGI visual effects. It looks so fake.

Since London’s novel was first adapted for the screen in 1923 there have been a number of film and TV versions. A recent film was in the 1970s with the late Charlton Heston, the embodiment of rugged frontiersman, who became a high-profile proponent in the US for the right to bear arms.

As you might expect, Buck, was then played by a dog with four-legs. Here Buck has been played by Trevor Notary, an actor with a gymnastics background who is known for his motion capture performances as creatures in Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and The Hobbit.

Perhaps the kids won’t notice or mind that this doggy protagonist has been anthropomorphised so much you can hardly recognise him.

It’s good, though, to see Harrison Ford again, looking hirsute and homespun here, as John Thornton, the man who forms a close bond with Buck and takes him on the last leg of his journey into the wild.

Ford also provides the voiceover with lines that help reinforce the moral points that this family-friendly film wishes to make for children. Things like something like ’we come and go, but nature’s wilderness is always here’. Fair enough.

If this is a journey to find Buck’s inner wolf, why make him so fake?

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 February 2020

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2020

By © Jane Freebury

During the Academy Awards this year, when a foreign language film from South Korea carried off the top awards, it seemed a watershed moment for Hollywood.  The time to invite the rest of the world to the red carpet had at last arrived.

Let’s also remember that in 2011 Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist won a best film Oscar, the first French feature to do so. A black-and-white silent film, it broke with tradition too, but it was also a love letter to Hollywood. That same year, Michael Scorsese returned the favour with Hugo about the French pioneering filmmakers, the Melies brothers.

France is, of course, the country where cinema began and though it has a studio system as well, it has a particular focus on making films for artistic and cultural reasons, not only commercial entertainment.

The Swallows of Kabul

Back in France, it’s a two-way street. The national cinematheque in Paris runs a full daily program of movie classics, featuring classic films from around the world, including Hollywood, that are shown in original language.

As everyone knows, the French are mad for movies, but then so are we. Cinema attendance in Australia and in France is among the highest in the world and filmgoers in both our countries are spoilt for choice with an abundance of movie screens per head of population.

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is the biggest foreign film festival in Australia. Every year we make space in our calendars during March-April for movies from France. The festival is bringing 48 films to audiences this year, selected from the 200 or so films that French industry makes annually. Our challenge is navigating our way through the vast program.

Recent figures from the industry’s promotional arm, UniFrance, show that the French film festival circuit does well in lots of countries. It’s not just a Canberra thing, and it’s popular across Australia­­­­­­­­­­­­­, screened in eight cities and four satellite locations. Audiences at the French film festivals in Mexico, by the way, have surged recently too, as in Australia.

What are filmgoers looking for? Now there’s a question.

Gemma King, a senior lecturer in French at the ANU, sees a mutual fascination between Australia and France, with cultures ‘different enough to seem exotic, but similar enough that we see ourselves in one another’.

Each year France produces its staple of romantic dramas and family comedies and romantic comedies and family dramas. That always draws the crowds at festivals, but there is something else.

School Life

There is a willingness on the part of the French filmmaker to go there, to explore challenging, tough subjects that are easier to elide or to shy away from altogether. Dr King mentions the themes of multiculturalism, migration, language in French society, with recommendations for Les Miserables and School Life (La Vie Scolaire).

The great Catherine Deneuve makes more than a few appearances this year. Actors Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Omar Sy, and Jean Dujardin can also be found on the cast lists, as we might expect. But I am also interested in hearing how the festival caters for youth, especially the 16-24 year old demographic that is so successfully targeted by Hollywood.

French cinema has resonated with young audiences for decades, ever since the New Wave/Nouvelle Vague (the original!) films in the 1960s, with a group of young directors, who were published film critics and enthusiasts for the best work of the Hollywood directors. Pioneer auteur, still working today, Jean-Luc Godard among them. They reacted against the stuffy, traditional French studio system. A spirit of rebellion, experimentation and resistance continues in French cinema today.

This year’s patron, young Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (who made impressive films Snowtown, Macbeth), credits the French cinema with having had a massive influence on his practice. What he has admired most is its pride in its history and cultural traditions, while at the same time forward leaning with risk and inventiveness.

How would Patrice Gilles, director of the AF in Canberra and national coordinator of the network, characterise the program for 2020? What, in his opinion, are some of the representative patterns and themes that have emerged among the films curated?

Spread Your Wings

‘There is quite a lot going on in terms of social movements or reflections upon how society should be organized at large.’ Climate change, the economic system, the education system, and also, for instance, the issues identified in France by the ‘gilet jaunes’. The ‘yellow jackets/vests’ are a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in 2018, whose members wear the hi-vis yellow vest that is mandatory for drivers to have in their boot in case of an emergency.

The Invisibles (Les Invisibles), set in an illegal women’s shelter, is a good example. Women living on the streets were cast with professional actors, and it is no surprise to hear that this drama achieves a striking authenticity, but a pleasant surprise to hear about its light touch. This genial social comedy has done well outside France too.

In the Name of the Land (Au Nom de la Terre), another framed in social relevance, is an intimate drama about a rural family that deals with issues of inheritance and succession. It was also popular at the French box office last year.

Les Miserables is another one that takes a stance on the social and political. Borrowing the title of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, it is a hard-hitting drama set in similar Parisian locations.

While social relevance is evident in this year’s line-up―the movements, issues, and reflections on what is happening in French society―it would not be a French festival without a strong focus on personal relationships and intimacy. Love at Second Sight (Mon Inconnue) is based on the intriguing scenario of a man who wakes in a parallel universe where his beloved wife does not recognise him and his professional achievements have vanished.

There are many other romance titles to track down, with an online tool useful for searching categories.

In 2011, The Intouchables was a huge hit about a quadriplegic and his carer directed by filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Their latest film, The Extraordinary (Hors Normes), stars Vincent Cassel as a man who runs an informal shelter for autistic youth. The Extraordinary was the closing night film at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Only the Animals

A quite different experience, a tightly woven noir thriller with an intriguing premise, Only the Animals (Seules les Betes), looks promising. It is a favourite of Patrice Gilles.

For my part, an animated drama called The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul) is intriguing, and Spread Your Wings (Donne-Moi Ton Ailes), is a captivating adventure of a 14-year-old boy, an ultra-light and a gaggle of geese. How to Become an Astronaut (Thomas Pesquet, L’Etoffe d’un Hero, is a diverting documentary about a Frenchman training to walk in space and The Mystery of Henry Pick (Le Mystere Henri Pick) stars Fabrice Luchini as a jaded critic with a nose for a literary fraud.

Amusez vous! Bonne chance with your choices.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, between 12 March and 8 April

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020 

*Featured image: Josephine Japy and Francois Civil in Love at Second Sight. Courtesy Eric Bouvet @ericbouvet

Emma

PG, 125 minutes

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Emma Woodhouse, created by the 19th century novelist Jane Austen, is blessed with beauty, intelligence and personal wealth. At 21 years of age she is mistress of her household, has an inheritance of £30,000, wealth that is all her own, and only her doddery old dad to look after.

Since her mother died when she was very young, and her older sister left home to marry and have children, and her beloved governess left to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston, she has been alone at home with her father.

Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), obsessed with his minor ailments, is not great company. ‘Do you feel a draught about the knees?’ is the perennial question to companions in the drawing room. Nighy, who hardly speaks a word here and is all the funnier for it, is the perfect choice for the role.

The classic novel Emma, a comedy of manners, has been made and re-made countless times as theatre, film and television. Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, a relative unknown at the time, was cast as Emma in a new film by writer-director Douglas McGrath. That Emma knew how to shoot an arrow from a bow, like Cupid the mischievous, meddling matchmaker, and the willowy American actor has defined the character ever since.

This new version of Emma takes more risk with this possibility of another side to Emma, a side that may even be a little bit cruel. While developing her novel, Austen acknowledged that she might be the only person who would much like this protagonist.

A 23 year old newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy, makes for a terrific new Emma in this new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is the first feature for this director who has a background in photography and short film.

Taylor-Joy is an interesting casting choice. Though she  has a track record in horror film, she makes a feisty, prickly Emma, totally convincing in the role. She also has the long neck you need to look good in bonnets and Empire-line dresses. It’s a clever casting choice, that hints at a side to Emma that Paltrow’s sunny smile could chase away.

The peppery screenplay, a considerable improvement on the screenwriting in 1996, is the work of Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealander, a Booker prize-winning author.

In 2020, the character of Emma is clearly as compelling as ever. Lively and charming company on one hand, but opinionated and arrogant by her own admission, sometimes insensitive on the other.

No doubt, these traits are the reasons why she lives on 200 years after her character was born. The nuance, insight, wit and wisdom of Jane Austen the author who created her probably has something to do with it too.

Emma has declared she has no interest in marrying. She says she can’t see the sense in it when the married women she observes aren’t half the mistress of the household that she is.

She has convinced herself instead of her talent for matchmaking on behalf of others. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young local woman, comes into Emma’s orbit and becomes devoted to her, following her advice in all manner of things, including choice of husband.

The local vicar comes a courting, a handsome young farmer drops by as well. Emma doesn’t encourage Harriet’s interest in either man, getting things very wrong on her best friend’s account and ultimately her own.

Lightning strikes: Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) Image courtesy Box Hill Films – © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Will no one set her straight? Only close family friend, neighbour and brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) dares criticise her behaviour. When everyone else tell Emma she is perfection, he reminds her of her faults and shortcomings. Their combative relationship is very entertaining.

With its grand manorial interiors, picturesque village and rolling green fields, de Wilde’s film looks gorgeous. On that score it meets the standard for English period film, but a light, mocking tone is anything but traditional. Emma 2020 is a delicious send-up of the Regency upper classes and their silly manners. In this sense, it reminded me of another recent period drama, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

In recent weeks, a snappy, funny trailer has announced this new Emma on our screens. Like its protagonist, the latest Emma shows a deft hand, is sharp, good to look at, and confirms once again that she is a timeless heroine.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020, also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: friends Harriett (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)

Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards 2019

 

The Nightingale won best feature film at the recent FCCA Awards 2019 in Sydney.

The film’s star Aisling Franciosi received the award for best actress.

Damon Herriman picked up the best actor award for his role in Judy and Punch.

David Michôd won best director for The King.

Michôd and Joel Edgerton won the award for best screenplay.

Ursula Yovich won best supporting actress for Top End Wedding, while Joel Edgerton won best supporting actor for The King.

Danger Close: The Battle Of Long Tan won three craft awards. Best cinematography to Ben Nott, best original score to Caitlin Yeo and best editing to Veronika Jenet.

The award for best feature documentary was shared by The Final Quarter and Martha, A Picture Story.

Director, producer, writer Rolf de Heer was honoured with a special FCCA award in recognition of a unique body of work and its contribution to Australian cinema.

H is for Happiness

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The advance media for this new film for young adults suggests it’s about a girl with a knack for persuading other people to her brightly coloured, optimistic view of the world.

It concerned me a bit. Would I meet a Pollyanna type, sunny to a fault? Well, I didn’t. Candice Phee, the main character played by Daisy Axon, is more nuanced and interesting than that.

Candice first appeared in Barry Jonsberg’s popular novel from which this film has been adapted, My Life as an Alphabet. It has been popular with YA readers around the world. I don’t know the book at all, but Daisy Axon, all red hair and freckles, makes a lovely Candice on screen.

Since the death of her younger sister, Candice has been the only child at home with her parents. It’s not exactly a broken home, but in a sense, it is, with Candice the ham-in-the-sandwich of family relations turned sour. She is just a bright and precocious 12 year-old who wants to set things right again.

Mum Claire (Emma Booth) is depressed and dad Jim (Richard Roxborough) is dejected and when they’re not brooding, they are arguing behind closed doors. In the four years since sister Sky died, mum Claire, once a lively country and western fan, has fallen into deep despond.

Jim can barely bring himself to talk to his brother, businessman Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) because he believes his sibling robbed him of the intellectual property he is owed on a deal they did together. When family is a mess, who wouldn’t try to set it right?

Yet everything Candice tries to get her parents to perk up and get on together falls flat, even cooking dinner and arranging surprise trips.

Overachiever Candice is a bit uncool among her classmates, and it’s another issue. Perhaps the amazing vocabulary she has at her disposal is annoying? She uses words like ‘pizzazz’, ‘breach’, ‘schism’, ‘whopping’, and ‘lack thereof’, and she pronounces the letter H as ‘aytch’, not ‘haytch’.

The next class assignment seems made-to-measure for Candice. Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes makes an unforgettable though very brief appearance) sets class the task of a presentation about a letter of the alphabet. Candice is assigned the letter ‘h’.

Thankfully, she has become besties with another strange kid at school, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, the only kid who willingly sits next to her in class. As they explore a nearby pine forest, creaking and sighing in the wind, they can let their imaginations rip. Wesley Patten as Douglas is really good too.

A white miniature horse keeps them company. It’s no unicorn, and if not exactly magical, it could have drifted in from another world, perhaps the dimension that Douglas wants to revisit?

Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, has issues of his own but his kind mother, played by wonderful Deborah Mailman, has warmth and empathy to spare for Candice.

The film looks great. I loved the occasional symmetry of the framings. A richly imagined world thanks to art direction (Marita Mussett) production design (Nicki Gardiner) and the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott and Rick Rifici (Breath), all brought together by director John Sheedy who is highly regarded in the world of theatre and opera.

Although the book is set in Queensland, the film is set in the southernmost tip of Western Australia. Candice lives in Albany, but despite the endless stretch of perfect beach, could almost be anywhere.

There are scenes of Candice cycling past wind farms and spectacular coastline, but no particular effort has been made by the filmmakers to underline the fact that the film is set in Australia. The suburban gardens have as many exotics as they have bush plants, and it is stately pines that grow in a nearby forest. H is for Happiness has a sort of placelessness, and it is refreshing to see an Australian film that doesn’t feel the need to proclaim its cultural identity.

H is for Happiness is a first feature for theatre director John Sheedy, though he does have an award-winning short, Mrs McCutcheon, in his back pocket. He has brought a fresh YA angle to the Aussie coming-of-age comedy, and the entire production is a credit to everyone involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2020

For Sama

MA15+, 84 minutes

Dendy Canberra Centre

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This documentary is a letter for a little girl who was born during the conflict in Syria and now lives with her parents in London. She grows up on film, smiling occasionally but with that look infants can have, taking it in.

When the conflict began her mother, Waad al-Kateab, had all but completed economics studies at Aleppo University. She became a citizen reporter instead, via the camera on her mobile, sending images of the attacks on civilians to the media overseas. As the rebellion gathered strength, her eye-witness accounts were filmed on a video camera, but lose none of their immediacy.

Aleppo University is the second oldest in Syria, after Damascus University where Assad obtained his own degree in medicine. Students became radicalised after a bombing during the exam period in 2013.

For Sama is shot from a different type of frontline. Not the place from which despatches from war are usually sent, like the location of David Bradbury’s classic 1981 documentary Front Line, but from her home at the hospital where her husband Hamza works.

It was probably just as dangerous, in a hospital in the rebel-held area of Aleppo getting bombed by the Russian planes sent in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

A new graduate in medicine, Hamza, was one one of a few doctors who remained in rebel-held territory where schools were closed and emergency and essential services non-existent. His first wife had fled the country to safety, but Hamza stayed on, deeply committed to the cause.

The university bombings were swiftly followed by a massacre of handcuffed civilians, a warning to the rebels who were shocked by the lengths the regime would go to stay in power.

As Waad tells her little daughter in the voiceover, she and husband Hamza had no idea their old lives would be swept away that year. Her parents had wanted her to leave Aleppo and return home, but she is ‘headstrong’. She is also rather lively and attractive. Easy to fall for, it’s no wonder Hamza did.

However, for Hamza, the loss of friends made it even more important to go on. Could Waad do that too? She had begun crying while doctors were trying to save the life of a boy. Hamza tells her off, he can’t bear to see her break down.  And can’t she tell he is in love with her?

It’s one hell of a proposal, but the marriage takes place with Waad and Hamza pledging to walk the road to freedom together. It’s a Christian wedding, complete with confetti, in a safe room, when they were still sure they would win in the end.

Soon the celebrations are overlain with more destruction and atrocity. Two little boys bring their brother in to the hospital, a life hanging by a thread.

On another occasion, a pregnant woman wounded by shrapnel, is brought in. Caesarean section is performed, then eye-watering attempts made to save the young life. Hamza is by now in charge of what amounts to an ED that takes nearly 300 patients a day.

Searing footage is captured by Waad, but there are also moments of sharp contrast, such as planting a garden, fooling around in the snow, and at impro playgroup in the battle zone. Laughter with friends in the midst of everything, is all the more poignant for its fragility among the horrific realities beyond sand-bagged walls.

The final film is a collaboration between Waad and English documentary filmmaker, Edward Watts. The look has been significantly enhanced by an interesting score, and by atmospheric location shots from a drone that counteract the impact of some erratic but utterly convincing handheld camera.

For Sama has multiple international awards and was one of five films nominated for a documentary Academy Award.

Watching their belief in the rebellion, their desperation as it becomes obvious international support is not on its way, is difficult to watch in light of what we have seen and know since.

For Sama comes with a strong warning, but it is still an amazing document. A sensory and immersive as any war film, filmed and voiced by from the frontline by a young wife and mother.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 February 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM

Seberg

M, 103 minutes

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric Cinema

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the French film that made Jean Seberg famous, she was an exchange student in Paris having a languid affair with a petty crook she eventually betrayed. Scenes of her in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, strolling along the Champs Elysees while touting the New York Herald Tribune, have etched themselves into our collective cinema memory.

In Godard’s iconic New Wave film, Seberg sporting the striped Breton t-shirt and a short pixie haircut was all light and air and mischief. A different take, but a take nonetheless on the luxuriant femme fatale. Were it not for Audrey Hepburn, she might have been the original alluring gamine on screen.

Kristen Stewart, a very talented and versatile actress, is an inspired choice for the role of Jean Seberg. She has also had something of a trans-Atlantic career, with roles in French films too.

In this new film from Australian director Benedict Andrews (who directed Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara), Stewart looks quite a lot like Seberg. Though she brings more steel to the role than you would suspect the late American actress had.

makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve

After a disturbing start, a flashback of Seberg at the stake in Saint Joan, her ill-fated first film, events kick off in Paris during the foment of student unrest that was 1968. The actress is saying goodbye to her husband, French author and former diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and young son to fly to America and take up her role in Paint Your Wagon. She was to star opposite Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.

Screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel have made FBI surveillance rather than Seberg’s career the focus of this story. Seberg was identified as a high-profile subversive by the FBI when she became associated with Black Power groups in the late 1960s-70s.

It would have been difficult to ignore the salute she gave in support of black activists at the airport after she flew in from Paris. She was never one to try to conceal anything.

She had met activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the plane and there was an instant connection, though he was married too. Soon she was giving donations to the Black Panthers and to childcare centres for African-American children and holding civil rights fundraisers at her mansion in Coldwater Canyon. This girl from the Midwest yearned to make a difference.

Waterhouse and Shrapnel created a fictional character whose story runs in parallel with Seberg. Young  FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose wife (Margaret Qualley) is pursuing her own career as a doctor, starts out gung-ho but becomes conflicted about his role. It makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve.

Under orders from the top, Solomon and his colleagues begin to surveil and discredit their high-profile target. Her phone is tapped, her home bugged and in particular her bedroom. When officers hear she is pregnant from an affair they try to besmirch and discredit her by leaking the news to gossip columns. The illegal actions of the FBI were shocking, and creating a fictional character like Solomon, the human face of the FBI, affords the organisation a kind of rehabilitation.

The goons at J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, including Vince Vaughn as a particularly hard case, are completely out of step with the progressive forces of the times. They even go to a family barbeque in shirt and tie.

a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice

Their tactics played a big part in Seberg’s mental decline. Shortly after she died in 1979 – the French authorities said it was ‘probably’ suicide – the FBI acknowledged it had had a role in destroying her reputation. It also announced that some of its activities targeting Seberg were illegal and that it no longer conducted them.

A brief clip simulated from Breathless makes an appearance. It’s where Patricia looks straight to camera and runs her thumb around her mouth, the way her lover (Jean Paul Belmondo) used to do. It’s a clip that doesn’t make any particular point in a film that doesn’t show much interest in what really made Seberg famous.

Although Stewart’s performance is typically edgy and intelligent, this film is a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice, and treats her career as a footnote. The full, fascinating story of the poster girl of the French New Wave is still to be told.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 February 2020

*Featured image: courtesy 2019 Amazon Studios