I am Heath Ledger

Standard

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film.

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age.

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand.

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact.

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Things to Come

Standard

                          Review by © Jane Freebury

The future? Impossible to predict, we know that at least. There’s no way to escape it. And now  something they call disruption is taking place at every level. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? No way. It’s the more things change, they don’t remain the same.

What’s to be done? Whatever the answers are, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve shows that she is an old and wise head on young shoulders, unusually good at exploring the complexities and nuances of intimate relationships. Her second feature film, Father of My Children, told of a family tragedy in a bracing and unsentimental style and it still packed a wallop. Incisiveness is a distinctive trait of this filmmaker, and in Things to Come it is enhanced by the powerful presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert has been indomitable lately, maybe for as long as we can remember. Her character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a no-nonsense businesswoman who determined that a violent rape by a stalker would not knock her off course.  In White Material, in which her character represented some of the last vestiges of French colonialism in Africa, she gave director Claire Denis her complex, understated best. Here in Things to Come, Nathalie (Huppert) is facing the future at a difficult time. After suddenly discovering that her husband, a fellow philosopher, is leaving her, she carries on as usual, dealing with the decline of her demented mother and the demands of her job as a high school teacher.

As in Elle, the response of Huppert’s character is brisk and decisive. The sound mix ensures that we don’t miss Nathalie’s brisk, clipped walk in her apartment as she consigns her husband’s conciliatory bouquet of flowers to the bin or prepares Christmas dinner for her remaining family. The sound of Nathalie’s heels hitting the floor is an intentional, or unintentional, motif which is, somehow, amusing. Hansen-Løve and Huppert work perfectly in sync.

Nathalie once participated in the massive student demos of ’68 and was for three years a communist, like most of the French intellectuals at the time. But where does she stand now? Inter-generational philosophical exchanges in Things to Come give the film scope to comment more broadly on the state of French politics and society. Fascinating, and very much du jour. Both parents of the filmmaker are philosophy professors, and her mother contributed directly to some of the dialogue.

Events develop in surprising and satisfying ways, a tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent writing that underpins it, and the deft and fluid direction. An opportunity develops for Nathalie to explore her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student of hers. A little frisson of recognition there for French audiences, one supposes? The friendship leads to time spent in a remote corner of the beautiful French countryside, open spaces where anything is possible, but Nathalie’s journey is neither radicalised nor is the outcome quite as we might expect it. Only it’s better.

The trailer may have encouraged us to anticipate a certain kind of film, but Hansen-Løve has presented us with something else. It is a special experience, and there’s no also reason why this voyage of re-discovery to the inner self can’t appeal to everyone who has lived a little.

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Frantz

Standard

 

 

Review © Jane Freebury

Is peace between former enemies possible while the horror of war still haunts them? The process certainly gets complicated in the latest film from the urbane director, Francois Ozon.

Frantz is a loose adaptation of Broken Lullaby, an Ernst Lubitsch film of 1932 that was itself based on a play written in the 1920s, soon after the Great War. It is not the kind of film usually made by for Ozon, who is more inclined to the intimate, sexy, sometimes over the top, contemporary drama like (Under the Sand, Young and Beautiful) or the not so subtle comedy (Potiche). What is he up to here?

Lubitsch, one of the great directors of cinema’s golden age, had quit Germany after WWI and joined the coterie of the expatriate European creatives who flourished in Hollywood. He made his name with sophisticated, witty comedy. Broken Lullaby was atypical for him too, but more easily explained by his background.

Most of the action in Frantz takes place in Germany, embittered and defeated in 1919. A young Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney) has made a pilgrimage to the grave of a young German he once knew, a casualty of the Great War that had engulfed Europe. At Frantz’s graveside, Adrien encounters his former fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), and against all the odds, he begins to make a connection with her and the dead man’s grieving parents with whom she lives.

The relationship that develops between Adrien and Frantz’s relatives is at once intimate and impossible, not unlike the complicated personal bondings that characterise other films by Ozon, like the excellent Swimming Pool and In the House. Adrien is not what he seems. He is compromised and even if motivated by the highest of intentions, his actions imperil a fragile stability because of the terrible secret that he harbours.

There is a lot at stake for all in what seems like an impulsive intrusion, and the two young actors, Niney and Beer, convey the vulnerability of youth, especially after the trauma of war. Niney doesn’t quite convince this viewer in his role, but Beer is especially effective, her naturalistic performance offering what contemporary audiences are most comfortable with.

And Anna is bold. She follows Adrien when he returns to Paris and eventually tracks him down at his family home, with more surprises to follow. Adrien is never quite what he seems. Anyone familiar with Ozon’s body of work might be looking for a homoerotic sub-text there too. Could be, but it never seems explicitly articulated.

The film is lovely to look at. A few flashbacks in colour signal the exuberance of pre-war Europe and the promise of new hope in the present, otherwise the aesthetic is monochrome.  Perhaps with black-and-white Ozon wanted to honour the great age of silent cinema when expressionism was in its prime in Germany.

Whatever he intended here, his historical drama in classic early 20th century studio style, is thoughtful, subtle and rather exquisite. It could seem dated with its precise plot twists and turns and self-conscious resolution, but the traditional narrative suits Ozon surprisingly well, and it is endowed with a wonderful central performance from newcomer Beer. Her character gives it heart and soul.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Country Doctor

Standard

 

  Reviewed by Jane Freebury

If Irreplaceable, the original title of this genial tale seems a bit over-stated, the title for English speaking audiences, The Country Doctor, doesn’t do the film justice either. As people are discovering.

Jean-Pierre (Francois Cluzet) is an exemplary physician. All things to all the people who need his attention, including his elderly mother. A source of medical expertise as well as solace and kinship, he’s been the town doctor for around three decades. Far, but not that far from the glittering attractions of Paris, to which his wife and son returned long ago.  He has also managed to sidestep the digital revolution, still referring to patient records on index cards kept in cumbersome filing cabinets.

Everyone who is ill and frail needs him, and him alone. He has promised Monsieur Sorlin (Guy Faucher), a 92-year-old who needs full-time care that he won’t send him to hospital, and he has endless patience for everyone’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. He’s a great guy.

Jean-Pierre has come to realise that something is wrong with him. His specialist informs him his problem with field of vision—he sees only half the food on his dinner plate—is because of the presence of a brain tumour. Inoperable, of course.

Being the kind of man he is, Jean-Pierre has every intention of soldiering on. Chemo? Non! Radiation? Non! His medical colleagues know they must act, and so they send along a new colleague who will eventually replace him. In perhaps the gentlest of ripostes to his former profession, writer-director Thomas Lilti demonstrates that no one is irreplaceable.

The medical authorities have the nous to appoint a mature woman who won’t take non for an answer. Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt) worked as a nurse for a decade before she became a doctor, but she is a city girl with a bit to learn about the country. That you need to allow people time to tell you what’s wrong. That you need to show a gaggle of geese you pass in the barnyard who’s boss, for example.

Patients must have been flocking to the surgery of writer-director Dr Thomas Lilti when he practised medicine. He has a light and empathetic touch here, and makes us feel so present in the scenes as each of the doctors do their rounds.

When the village community kicks up its heels it holds a line-dance where it’s stetsons, fringed jackets and the whole bit. Really? How surprising. Reflecting on this, I realised there hadn’t been at some point one of those big traditional lunches on long trestle tables laden with the local food and wine.

Another surprise was the happy ending, the cardinal sin of the dream factory in the 1950s, but why not? It makes a change from the prolific alternative.

In films, there are directors from other professions who have made their mark with distinctive visions. James Cameron once a truck driver, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu once a merchant sailor, and George Miller, of course, also once a doctor. This tender, empathetic film shows that whether Lilti steps away from things medical or not, he will be worth watching.

3.5 stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Land of Mine

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

A rag-tag bunch of German soldiers, some barely men. A beautiful beach on the Danish coast, and it’s spring. Now that the war is over, is it time for them to head home to their families, and live the dreams that kept them going? Not quite yet. First, they have to clean up the mess their army left behind. Underneath the pure white sands, the beach is riddled with land mines.

During World War II, the German army planted mines all along the European coastline and with landfall in Denmark so close to Berlin, it anticipated the Allies would land there. In the end, of course, the Allies opted for a landing in France, leaving the evil ordnance under Danish beaches undisturbed for the time being.

Up to 2,000 German soldiers were conscripted to do the clean up. It is not entirely clear how old they were, what kind of action they had seen beforehand, or whether they were in any sense ‘volunteers’ for this fearful work. It is hard to imagine any were, though who knows what sleight-of-hand was involved.

The writer-director of this powerful drama, Martin Zandvliet, has chosen to focus on the resolution of this dreadful situation, an evil dilemma, in very human terms rather than investigate it forensically. With his young, innocent looking actors, Zandvliet proposes that the mine clearers were too young to be guilty of Nazi atrocities, and were conscripted into the task of mine clearance illegally. Their youth and vulnerability make watching the scenes of them prone on the sand detecting and defusing the mines gingerly, one-by-one, often excruciatingly difficult, even in the safety and comfort of a darkened cinema. Who will the grim reaper select as his next victim in this dreadful game of chance?

Against a setting of stark natural beauty, Zandvliet has created a drama from bare essentials, so the performances really count. The actors are often shot in close up and are very convincing, including Roland Moller as the Danish sergeant in charge of the young men, the most difficult role. I did, however, wonder if the characters did full justice to the complex and conflicting emotions that must swamp former combatants at the end of hostilities.

In 1945, it was against the Geneva Convention to expose prisoners of war to dangerous or unhealthy work. It may be that Denmark contravened this, along with the British command, despite a record of heroic resistance to Nazi activities in relation to its Jewish people. Perhaps we can never know the full story now.

Light on facts, it is nonetheless a powerful drama of rapprochement, opting for empathy rather than analysis in a familiar terrain of having to carry out orders that contravene humanity. In some ways, it seems like a cop out. In others, it seems like the only way forward.

Land of Mine – what a good title – joins impressive drama we’ve seen from Denmark in recent years. Films like The Hunt and Brothers and television like The Bridge that have the courage to get themselves involved in daunting moral complexity. Denmark has some form in this space.

Where does responsibility lie? It’s a fair question. What would an EU have done about the problem in 1945?

A Danish-German production from 2015, Land of Mine has finally reached Australia.

4 Stars

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Salesman

Standard

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

The films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi are taut, tense, obliquely scripted and immaculately performed. His latest film in similar vein won best foreign film Oscar this year, just five years since the director won the same award for A Separation.

I wouldn’t say that his meticulous work is the most cinematic. There is sparing though powerful use of all the expressive elements of his chosen medium, yet he is still one of the best around. Social constraint and strict censorship in Iran have served him well, too.

The Salesman was screening in Tehran when I was a tourist there last year. Our guide said it was doing well, though she seemed a little puzzled by its success. It may not be the sort of entertainment that the young and unattached would go out of their way to see.

Marriage is a central motif for Farhadi, and in the world that he has created in A Separation, The Past and now The Salesman, it is a difficult and pretty joyless business. This is a filmmaker with a gift like Ingmar Berman’s for creating immersive experience, pitching his audiences deep into the bracken of complicated, compromised interpersonal relationships. It is up to audiences to make what they will of this microcosm and its wider social significance.

The Salesman opens at the theatre where Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are the lead actors in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. Garish neon signs and an unmade double bed turn out to be theatre props. If there is some resonance between the disillusionment and betrayal of dreams in Arthur Miller’s iconic study of the mid-20th century US and the present-day in Iran, it is obliquely stated, but damn intriguing all the same.

All of a sudden, a life change for the couple. Deep cracks appear in the walls and windows of their apartment and they are forced to move out and into another apartment. It doesn’t have a bulldozer digging next door, but turns out to be a lot less secure. The previous tenant has not fully vacated, and has left a bedroom locked, filled with her belongings. A visitor who calls is expecting that she will still be there.

Meanwhile, in the scenes of Emad and the teenage boys in his literature class we are on reassuring solid ground. This interlude is a welcome window on his character outside the home. At school, he is genial and kind, an effective and popular teacher who can be a buddy to his students but knows where to draw the line. It is a significant insight into his character that we don’t get for Rana.

The former tenant in Emad and Rana’s new home ‘lived a wild life’ – code for prostitute. Emad realises that the couple has been betrayed through information withheld, but it is already too late. Without any knowledge of previous comings and goings, Rana has no need for caution, and she lets in an unidentified person who she believes to be her husband, then proceeds to the bathroom for a shower.

Rana is assaulted by this stranger, an attack that is neither seen, heard nor explicitly defined. How could it be otherwise? We only see she is severely traumatised.

Unwilling to allow the details of the assault to become public, she refuses Emad’s request they go to the police. The rift that opens between them only widens with Rana in retreat and Emad tracking down the assailant, impatient for justice. Rana even accuses him of seeking revenge. Complication and compromise follow when the attacker turns out to be someone with vulnerabilities of his own.

If the difficulties this couple face cannot be fully appreciated outside Iran, The Salesman explores territory that can, while rape is one of the least reported of crimes. With handheld camera, a modest set, excellent actors and a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, Farhadi has covered some very difficult territory and got us all thinking.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Jasper Jones

Standard

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

The film of the popular novel by Craig Silvey is not so much about Jasper. It’s about his loyal, younger friend during a life-changing moment while growing up. So, it’s yet another Aussie tale about coming-of-age? Yes, but the difference is that it firmly references the here-and-now and what is shaping our lives today.

Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is a 14-year-old with his life choices ahead of him. Right now, what exercises him most is what book to read and how to bump into a certain young lady, accidentally on purpose.

Then Jasper (Aaron L. McGrath) comes tapping on his bedroom window, a pair of eyes peering through the louvre window one evening. It’s an odd shot that hovers between the dramatic and the comic, and the scenes that ensue are a rather wobbly beginning that pitches Charlie into a deeply compromised situation. We never get to fully understand his motivations. The assistance he provides Jasper implicates him in ways he could not begin to imagine at his age.

The two teenagers live in a town somewhere on the wheatbelt in Western Australia where Jasper, the child of a white man and Aboriginal mother, is deemed an outsider. In 1969, it has been a short while since the referendum that fully recognised Australia’s Aboriginal people.

Corrigan is relatively prosperous, a comfortable, seemingly safe place where people can afford a Holden car and their own house. Some of the outside world intrudes, however. There’s a war in South East Asia and the Vietnamese family of Jasper’s good friend Jeffrey is having a terrible time at the hands of town racists. Sweet, young Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), Charlie’s crush, is reading Truman Capote.

It is a telling moment in history to return to. Not so long ago, but it seems like absolutely ages since the closed-in verandahs, the neatly-mown front lawns, and the jaunty cars of the 1960s. On one level this can be a nostalgia trip. On the surface, Corrigan is the kind of place that lives in the collective memory of people of a certain age. But below the images of old Australia beautifully captured in the cinematography, the film exposes harsh and shocking truths that challenge the impulse to nostalgia.

The kids have to deal directly with the town’s problems, while the adult characters seem somehow absent without leave. Hugo Weaving’s ‘Mad Jack’ is also an outcast living on the outskirts of town, but conflicted and ineffectual. Toni Colette, all beehive and bold eyeliner, does a familiar turn as Charlie’s mental mum, a woman unhappy in her marriage—though again we don’t quite understand why. Dan Wyllie, sympathetic as Charlie’s dad who spends most of his time closeted away writing his novel, is the good patriarch in absentia when all goes wrong.

On the other hand, the terrific young actors, Miller and Rice in particular, have to convince us they have been witness to horrific of events that must remain secret while they go about their business. They give little sign of being traumatised by it. Strange. Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) did not pursue the dark subtext of this story for all it was worth, choosing instead to keep things light where possible, but therein lies some incongruity.

Jasper Jones is a mixed bag, satisfying in parts. What a different story it would have been, if it had been Jasper, the kid of colour centre frame, with his friend Charlie on the sidelines.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

Silence

Standard

 

review by © Jane Freebury

Here’s one from a director we can expect to throw us a curve ball. Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who enter Japan illegally during the 17th century in search of a former mentor thought to have abandoned his faith. They find shelter among coastal villagers who are clandestine Christian converts but are betrayed and turned over to the authorities. Some scenes of exquisitely cruel torture follow.

Celebrated for his brilliant films steeped in machismo, violence and crime, Scorsese turns to the ascetic world of faith, men of god and would-be saints. Perhaps there was nowhere to go after the heady extravagances of Wolf of Wall Street. There’s a pretty good chance its excesses exhausted us all.

However, Silence very nearly got the green light back in 2007.  Scorsese had read the Shusaku Endo novel on which his film is based, decades ago, and seen the original film. The book is a work of fiction loosely based on historical fact.

It’s not the first time Scorsese has adapted religious fiction. The Last Temptation of Christ, with Willem Dafoe’s Christ a stricken figure full of self-doubt, is also adapted from a novel. Kundun, a hypnotic, sensory biopic of the Dalai Lama, is a glorious cinematic work that did not prompt controversy.

Setting aside the astonishing background fact that Catholic missionaries first entered Japan a century before the film is set, the difficulties that missionaries experienced in far-flung countries is not the kind of subject likely to strike an immediate rapport with today’s audiences. Even for Martin Scorsese, this is a tricky one. As ever, he rises to the occasion.

After all, he has form with a gallery of riveting, monumentally flawed characters. The kind of guys once the stuff of B-movies, and he gives them the big-screen treatment, amplifying everything that’s wrong for all to see. It can look like he’s glorifying them, aroused by their bad ass natures, though he isn’t, but some ambiguity on that score leaves us a feeling bit uncomfortable.

Besides the obvious skill, intelligence, beauty and sensory pleasures of Scorsese’s work, it isn’t always easy justifying the attention he lavishes on his sinners who indulge their violence, misogyny, and various psychopathic tendencies. Sometimes, Scorsese has pulled back, indulging his love of music with a great rock documentary or illicit love (The Age of Innocence) but he usually doesn’t make it easy for us as he tosses around his ideas.

To hold our attention and focus our pleasure, Scorsese has made some of his best movies with hunks like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe he figures it’s easier to spend time on screen exploring difficult subject with the support of matinee idol looks.

In Silence, we have popular young actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver inside cassocks and behind bushy beards, as the two priests Rodriguez and Garupe respectively. Introducing the mainstream by the side door has its risks. Gaunt and bare chested, they may look the part—headed for martyrdom—though I wonder if other people had the trouble I had completely dissociating the young stars from their blockbuster and indie personas.

The rugged coast of Taiwan that stood in for the coast of southern Japan is utterly compelling with the result that Silence is gloriously powerful on atmosphere and very visually compelling. Battering waves, secretive coves, swirling sea mist, the mud and the rocks evoked a strong sense of man at the edge of survival, spiritual and physical.

Although Silence is over-long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it did leave me with time to think in between the spare, furtive exchanges and gave distraction from some harrowing torture scenes. I got to wondering why the Japanese people gave their lives for their faith and the funny-looking strangers who embody it. It could only make a brutally hard life and the contempt of their overlords more difficult. Most importantly, Silence asks when does humanity finally intervene and replace religious strictures.

The unwavering faith of the poor Japanese villagers makes them the true believers. They had the dignity to remind the ravenous priests to say grace while tucking into welcome food. Although the traitorous, pathetic outsider Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) totally undermines the act of communion, by absolving himself of wrongdoing by seeking it.

Strong stuff? Yes, definitely. If we’re talking the director who unleashed Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and a truly terrifying remake of Cape Fear on us, what can we expect?

3.5 Stars

 

Also published at Canberra Critics’ Circle site

 

 

 

 

 

shortcuts

Standard

 

     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    Their Finest

A spirited romantic comedy set during the London blitz when scriptwriters at the Ministry for Information (read propaganda) had to deliver movies the British public could feel good about despite being down to the wire. Sweet characters with sharp dialogue plus some British farce at its silly best, and one for the forgotten women who helped win that war.    3.5 Stars

 

    Colossal

Everything is connected. The premise that underpins this tale of small-mindedness in small town America, gets a bold workout here, weaving the lives of a bunch of slackers with the supernatural threat in a foreign city. Improbable at the very least, but it works. Cutting across genre boundaries, it’s witty, clever and really different.    3.5 Stars

 

    Beauty and the Beast

Everything has been thrown at this, but for all the talent, the  SFX and CGI, and motion capture to nail the Beast’s facial expressions, it isn’t as thrillingly entertaining as it should be. Over-produced, and not as good as its original, the animated version from 1991.    2.5 Stars

     

     Loving

If US civil rights history makes us think only of freedom marches and passionate speeches, then this understated story of an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia makes us think again. Inarticulate or reticent characters aren’t always compelling on screen, but the loving couple whose story this is based on never wavered, finally won the day, and it’s moving and impressive.   3.5 Stars

 

    The Eagle Huntress

A tale of equal opportunity for Kazakhi girls set against the beautiful Mongolian steppe stretching to infinity. It’s a grand vision, but let down by clumsy handling. Occasional voiceover directs us towards the big finish, with ‘you can do anything’ lyrics over final credits, but the doco seems put together as a crowd-pleaser rather than for the authentic deal.     2.5 Stars

 

       Toni Erdmann

Goofball, unhinged antics abound from a dad desperate to re-connect with his daughter, a corporate professional who has lost touch with him, and herself. Although some improv work needed a stern edit, it is funny, sad, touching, and one of the most unusual films you’ll see all year.    4.5 Stars

 

             Moonlight

It finds something lyrical, beauty and poetry, in coming-of-age for a young man who is gay, black, poor and without prospects. It’s no American dream and it finds a role model where you’d least expect to, a bit of a stretch. Naturalistic dialogue sometimes hard to understand, but feelings unmistakable.   4 Stars

 

     Hidden Figures

Plenty to feel good about in this traditional Hollywood quest with radical and such surprising outcomes. Based on historical facts, loosely assembled, the uplifting story of the first ‘computers’ at NASA, the African-American women who knew their math and helped get the US into space. A hearty 3.5 Stars.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

It is no small irony that the main character in Manchester by the Sea is a dependable handyman who can fix anything and everything. The problems that daily life present him with, like blocked drains and snowbound porches, are relatively simple and straightforward, requiring a bit of brawn and stoicism.

It’s when it comes to dealing face-to-face with clients that Lee (Casey Affleck) has difficulties. A blocked cistern or a leaky tap may be nothing compared with a testy female client looking for offence, or another one trying to flirt with him. Clients can be rude and demanding, or charming and welcoming but whatever they do, they get the same stony response. Over a series of interactions, we see that Lee has a bit of a problem. It comes into sharp focus when he throws a punch at strangers at a bar, for little apparent reason, a chilling reminder of the one-punch phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.

Life suddenly becomes complicated for Lee when his older brother dies prematurely. Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart failure, leaving behind his teenage son, his only child, in Lee’s care. Sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a bolshy pain in the neck, if ever there was one, who believes he has all rights and no responsibilities. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Patrick. Is he obnoxious because he can’t grieve properly for his dad? Maybe. Either way, it turns out that both he and Lee have trouble managing their emotions in dealing with pain and loss.

I’ve read that the idea for this film was taken to Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, by some high-profile friends of his in the business, including Matt Damon, with the request that he work on it and make it his own. Giving an emotionally traumatized young man the guardianship of a nephew who needs him is a great idea. When Patrick comes to understand that he can’t be close again with the mother (Gretchen Mol) who left the family years before, he sees that his Uncle Lee is all he has. Lee is it.

As the circumstances behind Lee’s withdrawal from the world are revealed, it is heart rending. He is broken and he can’t fix himself. Every now and then you hear about a trauma like this, and you wonder how the survivors could ever get over it. When Lee meets his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams) again, she has begun to rebuild. His own predicament is etched in stone.

Around ten years have passed since the family tragedy, and Lee still cannot move on. Will he heal eventually, the film asks? Lonergan, who has said he wanted to explore the limits to healing, hasn’t put a creative foot wrong.

Manchester by the Sea is a fine film that has been garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. As it didn’t speak to me as strongly as I expected it to, I’ve come to think that I needed to hear more from Lee, some of the inarticulate speech of his troubled heart. Even though the obvious point is that he cannot express or reach out, more of his inner life would have served the film well, with less of the reactive violence and more of Lee the person from screenwriter Lonergan. The filmmaker has the language—he is the son of psychiatrists—and co-wrote Analyze This, incidentally, the hilarious comedy with Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal as the mafioso and his psychiatrist. Lonergan had wonderful actors in Affleck and Williams. It would have worked.

The Massachusetts fishing village that serves as the landscape of a young man’s inner life, seems to be in a state of permafrost. I wonder how the community of Manchester by the Sea feels about this bleak tale of grief and loss that has brought it to everyone’s attention. It’s too bad that we never get to see the place in summer, but that would not have been true to the emotional arc of Lee’s journey.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle