Lion

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A little boy lost with no way home. As he wanders through throngs of strangers in the streets of Kolkata, several things can happen. None of them is good.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar) had clambered onto an empty train, fallen asleep and woken up a thousand miles from his village. Alone, he is at such risk, it is, for anyone who recognises that heart-stopping moment when a child disappears, hard to bear. At five years of age, speaking Hindi not the local Bengali, mispronouncing his own name, and without any clue of the name of his village, what are his chances?

As we watch his unfolding nightmare, it is a relief to see he has a sixth sense attuned to danger. He knows when to run. And he can run like the wind from the dangers that try to coax him with false comforts or grab him and carry him off.

Eventually he is taken to an orphanage, only to escape those particular horrors when an Australian couple adopts him and takes him home to Hobart. A cloud hovers over the family, when it is clear that Saroo’s new brother, the second child that John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley adopt, was a victim of institutional abuse. As we see, a home in paradise does not necessarily bring out the best in everyone.

To be spared such a fate, to be adopted and taken to a life of privilege in Tasmania, what incredible luck. And then to re-unite with his birth mother 25 years later. It is almost too much of a good thing to be true.

I wonder how Lion would have survived out there had it been a fiction feature movie, without its grounding in reality. I doubt it would have lasted long in cinemas. Suspension of disbelief would have been at issue. The second and third acts are so improbable. Yet, as is well-known, it is based on the facts in the book, A Long Way Home, written by the real-life Saroo Brierley, who lived to tell his tale.

It is the telling of the tale, as much as the tale, that audiences are responding to.  Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis, the excellent cast, and Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Bright Star) on camera, have achieved, in deft and understated ways, a big, bold, good hearted film.

Davis recently worked alongside Jane Campion on Top of the Lake. He has also worked in commercials. It has all served him well, and he is in good company like director Ridley Scott, Ray Lawrence, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Sophia Coppola who also have track records in advertising.

And Lion is another great career choice for Dev Patel, who has played a bit part in other contemporary feel-good charmers like Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

If I had a problem with this supremely uplifting film, it is a minor one. The brisk way it deals with Saroo’s transition to awareness. It is difficult to accept that he only began to wonder about his origins when he moved away from his idyllic coast home and went to study in Melbourne. It seems unlikely. Interesting that the filmmakers chose to change the location where Saroo studied. It was actually Canberra.

I didn’t mind the long search via Google. Had Saroo’s life not straddled the digital revolution he would have been plodding through all the villages of India that were located 1,600 km from Kolkata, the distance he calculated he had travelled on his fateful journey.

The reason for the title of the film remains one of its best kept secrets, only revealed after all is over, beyond the final frame. The timing is all, and you take it away with you and enjoy the luxury of its significance by reading it back into what you have just witnessed.

There has been the odd cynical review of this outstanding film, but it has, in the main, met with the tsunami of goodwill that it deserves.

 

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

La La Land

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La La Land poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Why this? Why now? A singing-dancing entertainment brimming with optimism to close a tough, unruly year and open a new one that will take us who knows where? What timing.

It is curious that Hollywood musicals first blossomed in the 1930s along with gangster films, so James Cagney could cross genres and play either a gangster or a tap dancer. They coincided with times of social upheaval in the US and in Europe, enjoying a good run until they were seen off in the 1960s. Not that the musical has ever disappeared. Viva Las Vegas, Saturday Night Fever or Moulin Rouge anyone? While in Bollywood, the musical has long been part and parcel of the mainstream.

La La Land could usher in a new generation of musicals. While a single film doesn’t a revival make, we can expect to see more of them in the wake of this exuberant, uplifting new film from Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with Whiplash a few years ago. Light and airy until things become a bit serious, La La Land demonstrates how a 21st century musical can be contemporary, honour the classic tradition and still have a life of its own. And this is an original musical, not a film of a stage production. Terrific as they were, Les Miserables and Chicago of recent times had already proved their worth on the stage.

At the start, La La Land is determined to be upbeat and take us with it. We lurch into an improbable set piece at the start with the camera swooping through and around dozens of singing, dancing commuters during gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. We could be forgiven for thinking the film is playing back-to-front, and the spectacle is the final curtain. After this, things settle down, as the set pieces are largely integrated and advance the narrative.

As jazz musician Sebastian and aspiring actor Mia, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a very appealing and plausible 21st century couple. They begin as the classic screwball mismatch, but there is common ground. Both are rigorous in their standards and look with nostalgia to the past, as Seb adheres to jazz traditions while Mia reveres the character actors of the Hollywood golden age. In the flat she shares with girlfriends, her room is dominated by a huge close-up of the actors’ actor, Ingrid Bergman.

LA may be the city of sun as the opening number declares, but it’s also a conduit to something else—a career. Mia’s job in a café on the Warner Bros lot allows her to eyeball some of the stars who drop by for takeaway, and to duck out when she gets a call from casting. Seb wants his own jazz club to showcase the music he admires, but he eventually bows to compromise when he joins a jazz-funk band that gives him steady pay, even agrees to bite his lip and look moody for photo shoots.

Dancing may be the vertical expression of horizontal desire, but their relationship looks charmingly chaste, so contrary to today’s mores. That emerald green dress than Mia wears on the couple’s first date recalled for me Cyd Charisse in green when she performs a smouldering showstopper with Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing like that happens here.

It may be unfair to compare, though hard not to, the singing and dancing in La La Land with the work of Kelly, Astaire, Rogers and the set pieces Busby Berkeley created. Stone and Gosling are very talented dramatic actors who dance and sing well, and it’s great to see how accomplished Gosling is on keyboards, but it’s more story and less spectacle here and where we have singing and dancing sequences, they are spectacular because of the staging, production design and the beautiful cinematography.

Of course, La La Land is also an ardent love letter to the movies. To mount this terrific production, the American movie industry has mustered generous resources and assigned them to a relative newcomer. Faith rewarded.

It is easy to point to a certain self-regard in this homage to the dream factory, but writer-director Chazelle, the son of  professors, doesn’t treat us as mugs. He reminds us we can still be lulled into fantasy with the brilliant ‘might have been’ montage that flashes before Mia’s eyes five years later. It’s not exactly an alternate ending, but the film is having a bit of fun with the wishes and expectations that we unconsciously create at the movies, anyway.

4.5 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

The Legend of Ben Hall

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A refusal to submit to authority has pride of place in movies from down under. Here we expect a film about a 19th century bushranger, who robbed the banks and the filthy rich, to be a spirited journey with a man of the people. A man like Ben Hall, whose reputation has for some reason faded over time against that of bushranger turned folk hero, Ned Kelly.

When at large, Australian bushrangers were feared for the brutal criminals they were, but some were charismatic rogues who people were prepared to hide when the police came knocking. And the authorities weren’t clean skins either which helps explain why early last century when bushranger films appeared on screen, the audience cheered them on. So boisterously, the authorities banned them. Too popular.

Some of the bushranger—mostly blokes, though there is at least one woman on the record—weren’t complete blaggards either. Hall, who was mown down by police in 1865, had some land he leased and a wife and child before he took to a life of crime. He has some cachet in having never shot a policeman dead, though the same cannot be said for other members of his gang, John Gilbert and John Dunn.

The newspapers of the day reported quite a crowd at Hall’s funeral in Forbes, NSW. A revealing observation. Hall was on the wrong side of the law, but he was reputedly courteous, brazen, loyal and often a step ahead of the police. Moreover, he was handsome and a daredevil horseman. All in all, an appealing package. It explains why Hall became an object of interest for writer-director Matthew Holmes and the subject of his recent film, The Legend of Ben Hall.

Unfortunately, the fascination does not translate into the result the filmmakers clearly hoped for. The action-adventure locations look fabulous but, critically, Ben Hall’s character is seriously underwritten. As for the case for Ben Hall as legend? We’re not there yet.

As the central character, Jack Martin does his best to be well-meaning and dashing, but he doesn’t have good dialogue to work with, and nor do most of the others. A hold-up of Cobb & Co coach, a key dramatic moment, is heavily over-played failing to ignite much tension. Nor do the scenes of the gang when they have their guard down inject the rollicking, irreverent humour we could all have done with. For a period film, the contemporary tone of the dialogue is jarring, and at odds with the effort that has been put into making costume and other period detail visually authentic.

The film achieves its vision to some degree with the action, in the stirring scenes of men on horseback, galloping through bushland and across high country. In this way, it becomes a valentine to the magnificent bush wilderness, like The Man from Snowy River, but falls short of showing us what Ben Hall means to us today. The film’s visual grandeur and lush heroic score insist on the man as legend, but it’s more a question of ‘tell’ than ‘show’.

The Legend of Ben Hall arrived on screen late last year and had a limited release. If the filmmakers are planning companion bushranger films as reported, they would do well to go for it by building flesh and blood characters of complexity and contradiction, and leaving the myth-making alone. There’s no reason to think the bushranger genre has played itself out yet.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Top Films 2016: 20 of the Best

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… in no particular order:

 

  • Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)
  • Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)
  • The BFG (dir. Steven Spielberg)
  • Goldstone (dir. Ivan Sen)
  • The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)
  • Joe Cinque’s Consolation (dir Sotiris Dounoukos)
  • Elle (dir Paul Verhoeven)
  • Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Erguven)
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (dir David Yates)
  • Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
  • Truman (dir. Cesc Gay)
  • The Revenant (dir. Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu)
  • Youth (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
  • The Measure of a Man (dir. Stephane Brize)
  • The Fencer (dir. Klaus Haro)
  • La La Land (dir. Damian Chazelle)
  • A Month of Sundays (dir. Matthew Saville)
  • Son of Saul (dir. Laszlo Nemes)
  • Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Paterson

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Review © by Jane Freebury

 

Would this film have attracted much attention without the name of Jim Jarmusch attached to it?  About a loving and contented couple, each with creative aspirations, it is just a gentle story devised to remind us of the secret to a good life. Which is not to say that Paterson doesn’t have its qualities.

This independent writer-director will be noticed whatever he does. Since distinctive films like Ghost Dog, with its samurai-inspired hitman, and Dead Man, a postmodern take on the western, his reputation has been secured, but he leaves us with too little to work with here. With simplicity the guiding principle in style and subject, this is the story of a modest man who only needs life’s simple pleasures, however, it leaves you feeling a bit bemused and unconvinced, against your better instincts.

So Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and resident of Paterson, New Jersey (a bit cute), wants nothing more from life than to go home in the evening for dinner with his wife, to enjoy a beer at the local, and have the steady job which affords him creative outlet. While at work he can eavesdrop on his passengers’ conversations, meditate on his own life and find the head space for creative reverie. He also writes poetry.

For a few short minutes while alone in the cab of his bus each day, Paterson distils the feelings that have arisen in him. His poetry probably won’t go anywhere, even though Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) encourages him to publish. We see this confirmed when at his invitation, a schoolgirl reads a poem about falling water from her own collection. It is superior. Even so, you gotta have a dream to sustain you in the humdrum everyday.

Laura’s aspirations are loftier. She would love to be a country and western singer, and spends her day at home learning guitar and giving everything in their cottage a makeover in black and white. The black and white cupcakes she cooks for the local fair are snapped up and there is perhaps is the inkling of a suggestion that one day in the future, she will want more from life.

Paterson is nothing like the apocalyptic, digitised, de-sensitising fare that the US movie industry has been feeding into the mainstream for years, and I am grateful for it. There’s no crime, period.  No bus hijacking here, just some mechanical problem for which Paterson has to call the depot. In a context like this, Jarmusch’s film is a standout.

Time has passed Paterson’s residents by, yet the film searches for dignity in its circumstances. There is crumbling infrastructure, there are tall weeds, and some of the people seem to have lost the vitality of their former selves.  Yet the city has a proud industrial past. Its famous sons include Lou Costello of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, the great poet William Carlos Williams, boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The idea for the film was apparently precipitated by Jarmusch’s visit there to research Carlos Williams, one of his favourite poets.

The film’s treatment of Laura is problematic, in my opinion. Her character isn’t well drawn. In an effort to stress the importance of simple pleasures in life, Jarmusch has written Laura as child-like, though undoubtedly not intended that way. The relationship between Paterson and Laura at times resembles that of parent and indulged child, patron and fledgling artist. It is also entirely chaste, which is rather difficult to figure, given Farahani is gorgeous. Perhaps the writer-director’s self-confessed disinclination at representing sex on screen has contributed to this.

So, Paterson, in its determination to make its point about the importance of simple pleasures and the life well lived, strives too hard to bend its material to make it. A pity, because the point is right.

3 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan: friendly people Iran’s main attraction

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By Jane Freebury

As I look around on the flight to Tehran, none of the other female passengers is wearing a headscarf. Not yet, anyhow, and not until we land. And Argo, the movie about US Embassy hostages escaping post-revolutionary Iran, seems a rather surprising in-flight entertainment option as we make a low-key entry into the Islamic Republic.

So day one and here goes. I drape a scarf over my hair. There will be two weeks of this imposition, but with the prospect of ancient palaces, a caravanserai on the fabled Silk Road, the heady experiences of Persian bazaars, and romantic Shiraz and Isfahan all ahead of me, it will surely be well worth it. …

 

The full article is in The Weekend Australian 17-18 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals

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Review © by Jane Freebury

Nocturnal Animals is without question a transporting tale, stylish and clever, but it is also an onslaught of cruelty, yearning and pathos. A waking dream that niggles away.

At its core, it is about the things that really matter in life, the things that take some of us a lifetime to figure out. Art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) once left behind her loving relationship with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer, for a callow businessman more acceptable to her conservative establishment family. For Edward, there was never any doubt about what he wanted, and he remained true to himself as a teacher of literature at a school in Dallas. It has been the kind of life that Susan dreaded living alongside him, and he has nursed the devastation of their split some 20 years ago.

Their lives intersect again when he sends Susan the draft of his new novel. It is dedicated to her. What an incentive to begin reading! She settles down with it over the weekend after the opening night success of her exhibition, an installation of naked female figures, dancing and at rest.

We were thrown into this event with the opening credits. It is a vision of unfettered female flesh that the late Federico Fellini could have been created, or the figurative artist Patricia Piccinini. The director, Tom Ford, has said that his moving statues, the naked and obese older women, were meant to signify freedom of expression, freedom from constraint. Well, I don’t really buy that.

It has instead the chill of the fastidious fashion and style guru. With little effort made to tie these nudes into the narrative, it’s just looks like shock value. And it is surprising when so many of the aesthetic choices—like all those match cuts that draw the parallel narratives together, and the plangent string motif—make such an elegant tapestry. However, a steeliness is what you might expect in a tale of revenge.

So, alone behind the gates of the LA bunker she calls home, Susan begins to read. The book is about Tony (Gyllenhaal as well), husband and father, who is on a family road trip, making his way through the desert in West Texas at night. He is forced off the road by two carloads of hoons who appear to be so malevolent that a passing police car speeds up as it passes, rather than stop for Tony trying to wave it down. In an old-model Mercedes a million miles from anywhere and beyond range of cell phone coverage, Tony and his attractive wife and daughter are exceptionally vulnerable.

I can honestly say that these scenes of hijack and abduction are some of most terrifying I have ever witnessed on screen. Ford also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from a novel of the 1990s, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright.

Events take their inevitable course, and Tony is left utterly devastated and alone, and the investigation drags on inconclusively. The local detective (a wonderful performance from Michael Shannon) seems slow to accept his version of events, though scepticism would have served him among the folks he operated among, and then proves to be terminally ill. It begins to feel incumbent on Tony to step in. His eventual metamorphosis into pitiless avenger is one of the powerful and convincing since Dustin Hoffman became a terrifying force to be reckoned with in Straw Dogs all those years ago.

For this ultra-intense tale to work as well as it does, we have immaculate direction by Ford, and fine, measured performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal, as the two characters who matter most. Shannon and many of the West Texan yahoos are also excellent. However, others slip in and out of caricature, including Amy’s heavily overdrawn mother, a Republican dowager played by Laura Linney.

For the locations from the sterile interiors and LA to the Texan desert emptiness, director Ford also wears his fashion designer credentials on his sleeve. At the same time, he sure knows how to tell a story and has stitched the blistering tale together to form a tapestry of some power.

‘Last summer while driving at night on the interstate, I was forced off the road…’ It’s a haunting refrain from a brilliant piece of cinema. Primal terror: beware.

Four Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

Bushranger Movies: past and present

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Published in print and online in the Canberra Times, 2 & 3 December:

The Legend of Ben Hall: new film about outlaw Ben Hall shows Australia’s taste for bushranger films has never diminished

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Feature © Jane Freebury

Such is life, or is it? Bushranger films, one of the most popular films ever made in Australia, were banned in three states by the police in 1912, for fear of their impact on law and order. And yet the figure of the strapping, bearded outlaw who emerged from the bush and melted back into it just as quickly, may have been erased from the cinema screen but he was never killed off.

The bushranger never quite vanished from local popular culture. His (and on occasion, her) exploits outside the law continued to be celebrated in ballads and in theatre and on occasion there were relatively bland bushranger roles in films about squatter’s daughters or robberies under arms during the decades before the ban was lifted in the early 1940s.

Things were however never quite the same as they were at the start. Neither for bushrangers, nor for the local film industry. It is a widely-accepted fact that Australia’s first narrative feature, The Story of the Kelly Gang of 1906, wasn’t an isolated event. Australia was making a lot of feature-length films at that time, and in 1911 it made more than any other country in the world. Fifty-two movies were released, many of them bushranger stories, made before Hollywood began exporting its westerns in deadly earnest, and these bushranger films were a direct response to audience demand. An output of 50-plus films was not attained again until the 1970s when local film production began to re-emerge from decades of inactivity.

It was during that decade that bushrangers began to re-emerge in title roles. Ned Kelly made a bizarre re-appearance on the screen, in the form of a slight and effete rock star in 1970. It did not go down well. The swaggering Mick Jagger just didn’t cut it as the iconic outlaw, his attempt at an Irish accent didn’t work, and the production was beset with problems from the start.

Much better received were the series on the bushranger Ben Hall that appeared on Australian television a few years later, and the movie about bushranger Dan Morgan in 1976.  Philippe Mora, the director of Mad Dog Morgan director, apparently thought that his lead actor, Hollywood wild man Dennis Hopper, identified with the role. High on drugs and booze, Hopper threw himself into the part, and took his method acting to an extreme. He didn’t wash, and got so drunk after the shoot that he was arrested with a blood alcohol reading that belonged to the clinically dead.

There was a further hiatus in bushranger movies until the better behaved and milder-mannered Heath Ledger donned the metal mask in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly in 2003. Still today, the bushranger show just keeps rolling on, attracting new generations of filmmakers. A new independent Australian film, The Legend of Ben Hall, directed by Matthew Holmes, has opened with screenings across the bushranger’s patch in country NSW, and beyond.

ben-hall-4 TLOBH is the result of tremendous commitment by its dedicated team of young filmmakers. I interviewed key cast and crew as they made their way across Ben Hall country to open their film in cinemas from Griffith to Tamworth and Wollongong, and from Melbourne to Adelaide during November. The was financed with crowdfunding through Kickstarter. ‘It would not have been possible to make it without social media’, says Holmes.

A new take on Ned Kelly is also likely to make a reappearance at some point soon. There are reports that Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders; Macbeth) is working on an adaptation of the book by expatriate Australian novelist Peter Carey, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Booker Prize in 2001.

When audiences clamoured for more anti-authoritarian bushranger fun early last century, they got their wish, but within two years, bushranger film production was suppressed. The ban of 1912 effectively removed bushranger folklore from popular cultural expression. The police considered they made a mockery of the law and glorified the highwaymen to audiences largely composed of young adults and children.  The genre became a victim of its own popularity. Impossible to imagine the impact of such a draconian move. Was the mood early in federation really so febrile?

Besides being skilled horsemen, Australian bushrangers had little in common with the characters who took part in the American western. It wasn’t the frontier that they sought to extend or tame. Their patch was the bushland peripheral to settlement that gave them cover, beyond the arm of the law.

Ned Kelly, whose iconic status was certainly contributed to by the famous series of Kelly paintings by artist Sidney Nolan, has become a national icon, but there were other popular bushrangers besides him. Ben Hall for example. Alongside films about Kelly, Frank Gardiner, Captains Thunderbolt and Midnight, Hall was popularized in films as early as 1911, like Ben Hall and his Gang, and A Tale of the Australian Bush: Ben Hall the Notorious Bushranger. TLOBH director Holmes discovered during his research that none of the early films about Hall have survived.

Hall was born on the Liverpool Plains, NSW, in 1865, the son of transported convicts. He apparently took to bushranging when life turned sour for him but was a somewhat reluctant outlaw who is said to have taken up armed robbery after wrongful arrests, and his wife left him taking their child with her. During the three years that he was on the road he never took a life despite more than 600 crimes to his name and that of his gang. ‘He was definitely a criminal and his criminal career definitely exceeds Kelly’s by more than a country mile. He was definitely doing wrong, but there was also a decent man under it,’ says Holmes. It was the contradiction and the conflict that attracted him to the character.

Was there anything that Holmes and his team decided they would avoid, having seen what the other bushranger films did in the past? Without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Yeah, the Irish accent.’  As lead actor Jack Martin observes, ‘We talked about it ad nauseum and we are in total “agree-ance”.’

Early in the life of the colonies, it was convicts who escaped into the bush and became bushrangers. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the Australian-born who were holding up the coaches of Cobb & Co.

‘One of the things I have never liked about bushranger films—even The Proposition, which I love, was guilty of it—was that everyone’s talking like they were from Belfast. It grates because we have very strong evidence that the Australian accent was forming quite rapidly by the 1860s […] So what we decided with this film is that we were going to talk “Australian”.

‘It’s probably the biggest point of difference’, but then this latest version of the Ben Hall story may well be one of the first to pay much attention to the facts, as far as they can be known, anyway.

The Legend of Ben Hall premiered in Forbes on 12 November.

 

 

 

I, Daniel Blake

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Review © Jane Freebury

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It is clear that Ken Loach, who turned 80 this year, will never retire. Making films about people who are disadvantaged and dispossessed has been for him a life mission since his television work in the 1960s, and long before he started collaborating with his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty. Loach is a social justice warrior whose work is often gritty and confronting, but there have been lighter and tender moments that have shone through in love across the cultural divide (Ae Fond Kiss), with a sense of fun (Riff-Raff) and mischief (The Angel’s Share).

The task of standing up for people who have to struggle with injustice and lack of opportunity has not been getting any easier, or less relevant.  A tumultuous 2016 shows that fair outcomes for all, amongst other things, can’t be taken for granted in a democracy. No, it looks like the mission is only more pressing.

Someone suggested—was it Loach?—that Jimmy’s Hall in 2014 would be his last, but he has bounced back with one of his best. I, Daniel Blake won the director his second Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. And the first was only recent, 10 years ago.

When Blake (Dave Johns) experiences a heart attack, his doctor says he should give up work, but the welfare department decides otherwise, on the basis of boxes checked or unchecked, that he is not a suitable candidate for sickness benefit. It’s okay for him to go on jobseeker’s allowance benefit, however, though for Blake this means a never-ending round of failed job applications and workshops to improve his CV.

Everything has to be done online, and Blake doesn’t know the first thing about the digital world. What are the prospects of a joiner just shy of 60 years of age who is good at his job but doesn’t know how to use a computer? A lack of skills in IT today is close to illiteracy.

Age has little to do with his sense of helplessness, as Loach ably shows. Indeed, Blake looks to be in rude health. Johns, otherwise known as a stand-up comedian, makes his character alert and engaging and that bad heart doesn’t seem to be the result of poor habits or health management.

Blake encounters a young woman with two young children in tow at the department. She is protesting that she was late her appointment for genuine reasons and her desperation and the inflexibility of staff cause Blake to step in. Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires) has just arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, sent north because of the lack of social housing. They soon become firm friends.

Despite the feistiness, Katie cannot afford to feed herself and her two children at the same time, or put money aside for their school uniforms. Daniel can help her turn her new flat into a home. He has a few tips on how to save on heating, like covering windows with bubble wrap, and he looks after the kids and builds her a bookcase while she is out.

In different ways, however, the bureaucratic trap in which they are each caught eventually pushes them to the end of their tether. Both characters carry on courageously, though the underlying desperation shows through. Johns and Squires both keep it real, with wonderfully engaging performances.

The story of Daniel and Katie is told in Loach’s typical workmanlike style. It can be irritating to see how the director is pulls openly at his audiences’ heart strings and Loach has little time for the aesthetic possibilities of his medium. Yet this film demonstrates exactly why Loach keeps on working. His didacticism gets the better of him at times, making it easy for us to see what he’s up to, and we always know where he is coming from, but he is a master at eliciting empathy for his characters and their world, beyond the beltway.

Loach is as good as he ever was at drawing us into the frame, and at getting us involved and engaged on a deeply empathetic, humanist level.

4 Stars

 

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ROMAN: 10 x Polanski

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Published in print and online in the Canberra Times

on 19 November 2016

 

knife-in-water-2   Preview © Jane Freebury

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What are we to make of Roman Polanski? The gifted auteur behind some of the great films of modern times like Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. A man who has known tragedy intimately and as a result has needed all the fantasy he could muster, he says, ‘simply to survive’. Yet he is also someone who exploited a minor. If it’s not okay to use the artist’s life to interpret their work but the converse is okay, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the events of Polanski’s life while looking at his artistic achievements.

An opportunity to take another look at this perplexing filmmaker is on its way. During the last week in November, Palace Electric Cinema will be showcasing a retrospective selection of Polanski’s work curated by film scholar and former critic for the Age newspaper, Adrian Martin, and his co-collaborator Cristina Alvarez Lopez.

rosemarys-babyThe ten Polanski films due to screen are drawn from five decades, though the majority come from the 1960s-1970s, when his work was at its best. Also attached to the program is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), one of two documentaries made by Marina Zenovich on the statutory rape case that ultimately led to Polanski’s flight from the US to Europe in 1978.

Polanski has not returned since, not even to collect the best director Oscar for the holocaust drama The Pianist in 2003, an adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same name by a Polish Jewish musician and composer. It is well known that for this feature, Polanski drew on his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Jewish youth on the run from the authorities, and witness to Nazi atrocities.

The retrospective opens with Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great choice. His feature film debut from 1962, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. A tautly drawn suspense thriller, it involves three people caught in a web of deception and betrayal. Masterfully directed in handsome black and white, it is one of the best first films ever. Four years later, Polanski won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival with Cul-de-Sac, an original absurdist dark comedy with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve) about gangsters on the run, also screening.

The director had a penchant for appearing in his own films, chinatown-posteroften, but not always in minor roles for which he sometimes became notorious, like the thug who slits Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (also screening). He appears as the main character in The Tenant, in which he plays an alienated clerk who struggles to hold himself together after he moves into an apartment in which the previous tenant tried to commit suicide.

Polanski shares the lead in his genre spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), as assistant to a bumbling vampire expert. A damsel in distress that they set off to rescue is played by Sharon Tate, Polanski’s soon-to-be-wife. This penchant has resulted in a long list of acting credits, nearly as many as the films he has directed.

It was intriguing to see in Polanski’s most recent piece on sexual power games and role reversals, Venus in Fur (2013), his wife of nearly 30 years, Emmanuelle Seigneur. She plays opposite Mathieu Amalric, the slight, elfin-faced French actor who looks so much like Polanski when he was young. It has not been included in the retrospective.

Chinatown will need scant introduction, but it’s a rare opportunity to see it again on the big screen. This classic of 1970s new American cinema pushed the envelope in its day, from the chiaroscuro of its film noir origins and into the bright light of day. The youthful Faye Dunaway may have never been better and who can forget J. J. Gittes’ (Nicholson) response when asked if his slit nose hurt?  ‘Only when I breathe’.

Catherine Deneuve made an unforgettable appearance early in her career in Polanski’s Repulsion, as a timid, unstable young woman in extremis when left alone in a London flat for a few days. It is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual horror. No less disturbing is the nightmare of demonic possession, Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow appears as a young woman carrying her first child. Just who is the father? Both films helped to consolidate Polanski’s reputation for stylistic assurance and mastery of atmosphere. An aspect of the Polanski vision that Martin describes as ‘a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination’. And, as he also observes, few filmmakers ‘cherish the grotesque’ quite like Polanski, with films that ‘court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it.’ Here is a filmmaker with something to say. And he says it so well.

The season concludes with The Ghost Writer from 2010, a political thriller in Hitchcockian vein about a wordsmith (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghost the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). He learns, at his isolated seaside writer’s retreat, that the previous incumbent drowned in mysterious circumstances.

The chill of fear is never far away, and again and again, Polanski’s films convincingly assert that there is no safe refuge from the demons of our unconscious. Few filmmakers have routinely incorporated, so intensely and credibly, the nightmare world of dreams into the everyday. A very challenging filmmaker, indeed.

 

ROMAN: 10 x Polanski screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, Canberra between 24 and 30 November.