The Devil Wears Prada

Review by © Jane Freebury

There are some delicious put-downs lines in this movie, but you have to listen closely to hear them. They’re mostly spoken sotto voce by Meryl Streep, where any lesser actor would shout to get the point across. Instead of having a tantrum, Miranda Priestly, power-addicted doyen of the New York fashion publishing world, delivers a brisk ‘no, no, no and no’ and a sweet ‘that’s all’ as she cuts her minions off mid-sentence.

When Miranda strides into work of a morning she rattles off instructions – collect items from Dolce & Gabbana, get the order right for her compote and bagels, or send messages to husbands past and present – as her staff scamper around to do her bidding.

Could Andy (Anne Hathaway of the Princess Diaries) survive Miranda? When she lands a job as her new personal assistant – a job everyone tells her a million girls would kill for – she tells herself she only wants to work at Runway fashion magazine for the experience. After that she will get a real job, in serious journalism.

Feeling she is keeping her integrity while selling her soul she arrives for work each day in clumpy shoes and shapeless skirts and suppresses a giggle when Miranda compares the qualities of the latest accessories. The grand dame turns on her. Doesn’t she realise that the shade of blue in the sweater she’s wearing is five seasons old? That it was the shade Miranda herself selected before it filtered down from couturier designs to the clothes rack where she bought it.

Other hardened Runway staff share some of the waspish lines. Nigel – a splendid Stanley Tucci – who works in the art department and Emily (Emily Blunt), Miranda’s other put-upon assistant, but it’s Streep’s show and another Oscar nomination to add to her record list for sure.

Like Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, it’s a light-hearted satire of the fashion world that isn’t indignant about its subject. Actually, I thought it was in two minds about fashion, there were so many costume changes.

Being skinny is a favourite theme. Heard the latest diet? You don’t eat anything until you feel faint then you have a cube of cheese. You can enjoy the parade while the jokes keep coming.

3.5 stars

Macbeth

Review by Jane Freebury

The stories behind the infamous gangland murders in Melbourne are worth a movie or two in their own right and hardly need the overlay of Shakespearean tragedy to conjure up a welter of blood and guilty anguish. There’s been plenty of theatre in those media images of dark-suited men in their wrap-around sunglasses bearing the coffin of the latest gang-war victims to the grave.

If setting this new Macbeth in the urban underworld was a good idea, it isn’t a new one. Over the years others have pitched Shakespeare’s play, 400 years old this year, into the murky realm of crime bosses and their henchmen. There’s even a Hindi version, Maqbool, set among the Mumbai mafia.

But there really are exciting new ideas here and Geoffrey Wright, best known for Romper Stomper, the film which cast Russell Crowe as a skinhead, lets rip, pitching the action into a world of brooding darkness that even the odd shot in daylight can’t lift. This time Sam Worthington is at the film’s violent centre.

Not a word is spoken during the opening scenes, as we get used to the look and feel of the modern milieu and trappings first – sleek black cars, guns and drugs. And it isn’t until after Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) is seen weeping at the grave of her only child, and a bloody shoot out in a car park, that the talk begins. The witches, ready to ensnare him with their riddles of deceit, are nymphettes in school uniform. A much more plausible metaphor for temptation than hags on a wintry heath.

If the words for which the play is famous get lost in the action – just as they got lost in the spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – the demographic this movie is aimed at probably won’t miss them all that much. Neither what has been left out, nor the delicious contradictions in the language that remains, in all the bloody violence.

Wright could never be accused of restraint, full-tilt is more like it, but he could have exercised it in the scenes where Duncan is murdered, and when Macduff’s wife and young son are dispatched.

And he should have got better performances from his actors who are not entirely comfortable with their lines. John Bell could have helped out with that.

3.5 stars

Kenny

Review by Jane Freebury

Shit happens. Kenny and his crew know all about that, because their jobs depend on it.

Kenny (Shane Jacobson) half-heartedly tries to pass himself off as a plumber, but he’s only vaguely interested in what other people think, gives in to the inevitable and admits that his business is portaloos. He works for Splash Down Corporate Bathroom Rentals – more euphemisms, yes, but a real company – a service provider that makes big events possible with umpteen cubicles for the convenience of the public.

Kenny started life as a prize-winning comedy short. Melbourne portaloo company Splash Down provided backing finance for a feature, which is directed by Shane’s brother Clayton. Their own father has a spot as Kenny’s bloody-minded old dad.

As soon as the sun comes out everyone, muses Kenny, has a festival. He and the lads service musical festivals, flower shows, and the Melbourne Cup, and even have to save the loos from being set on fire by the ‘pinheads’ at the drag races. The ensuing fight is shot and edited with a sharp eye for the humour in the situation – like the rest of the movie.

Rarely out of his khaki dungarees, Kenny squarely fills the frame of this funny, touching and original mock doco, as a man comfortable with himself and his lot in life, even if others aren’t. Another inspired Aussie mockumentary with a great central character, like last year’s The Magician.

Sometimes people don’t want to shake his hand – you never know where it’s been – and his own dad makes him strip off his clothes when he visits him at the caravan park.

Kenny gets a raw deal but he just moves unscathed and undeterred from one encounter to the next while those who put him down, like his former wife or an elderly lady all dolled up at the Cup, look silly. Only time I saw Kenny agitated was when someone forgot to load the rolls in the ladies.

Contrary to expectations, there’s hardly a trace of faecal matter in sight. If you’re thinking of the comedy gross-out like Robin Williams standing under a shower of excrement in RV – think again.

The narrative has as many twists and turns as the large intestine, and I think the blonde air stewardess was ill-advised, but it still holds together and Shane Jacobson’s turn as Kenny is full of heart.

4 stars

Jindabyne

Review by Jane Freebury

It would be interesting to see what director Ray Lawrence could do with a genre thriller, because he is a master of suspense. The prelude to murder on a quiet country road in the opening moments of Jindabyne spills over into subsequent scenes, infecting the innocence of everything that follows with a sense of dread.

So by the time a group of friends are making their way through the bush to their secret fishing spot in the upper reaches of the river valley, even a twig snapping underfoot sounds sinister. From the very start I was hooked, no question.

This is the third feature film director Ray Lawrence has made in twenty or so years, and it is another rich and rewarding experience. His 1985 movie Bliss, based on the Peter Carey novel, was a bold but uneven work, but Lantana was a triumph.

Here again, the drama involves a terrific collection of characters, each of them quite recognisable and beautifully observed—all three generations.

Claire Kane (Laura Linney) is dealing with an unwelcome pregnancy and issues that have been lingering in her marriage while husband Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is feeling his age and has started to dye his hair. Their fey young son is easily led by a strange little playmate who is disturbed by her mother’s recent death. Hovering on the margins, Claire’s Irish mother-in-law is a disapproving presence who doesn’t help ease matters much.

Their fishing friends, the townsfolk and other characters are all vividly alive and the movie digs deep into their psychological makeup to stoke the drama that develops when Stewart and his fishing mates delay making a report they’ve found a dead body. The fat trout in the headwaters take priority.

If this sounds like a heavy scene, it is leavened by the wit and intelligence of Beatrix Christian’s screenplay, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Jindabyne tells its story at many levels. There’s marital strife, some strained friendships, and the divide between Aboriginal and white Australia is explored, while it also acknowledges the ‘drowned town’ of old Jindabyne under the lake, and the sweeping Monaro landscape that has seen so much over time.

Ultimately it is about the need to take responsibility, something which cannot be shirked by putting up a sign to say ‘Gone fishing’.

4.5 stars

Interview With Writer/Director Deepa Mehta

Credits include Water; Earth; Fire; and Midnight’s Children

Over the phone her voice came across as authoritative, warm and good-humoured during our interview earlier this month. It was not hard to imagine her holding together a difficult shoot, just like the experience she had during production of her latest film, Water, the last of her controversial trilogy.

Indian film director Deepa Mehta has built an international reputation for bold and beautiful filmmaking with her intimate stories about people in crisis at times of great social upheaval. She is renowned for the way she has brought particular attention to the plight of women in Indian society, and her latest film, now in release, is no exception.

It is set in a holy city in colonial India in 1938, just as Ghandi was rising to prominence, and tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow forced to join an ashram or retreat for women who have lost their husbands. A pauper’s life is one of the three choices that widowed women were faced with at the time. It was either their husband’s funeral pyre, marriage to his younger brother or a life of penitence and renunciation.

I ask Deepa about widowhood, a subject on which there are a number of books in India. ‘Child marriage is not possible now and if it occurs it is against the law, but then it was possible for a female child to be married at 3 and kept in her family until puberty.’ The idea for Water came to her when she was in the holy city of Varanasi ten years ago and saw an elderly woman, a Hindu widow with shaven head, scrambling around on all fours looking for something, and hardly anybody paid any attention to her.

Each of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of films – Fire, Earth, Water – look at the character of Indian society. Fire (1998) is about a lesbian relationship that develops between women in loveless arranged marriages within a family in modern India. It famously caused fundamentalist Hindu groups to riot when screened yet it reputedly enjoys high sales there as a pirated DVD. Earth (1996) is the story of a mixed-faith friendship group and the effect on their lives of the sectarian wars on the subcontinent during Partition. Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy.

I am intrigued by her casting choices for her new film. John Abraham has the part of the young Brahmin who falls in love with a beautiful young widow, Chuyia’s friend in the ashram. He is a handsome Bollywood star whom I last saw as the leader of a bikie gang in the movie Dhoom.

Another woman at the ashram is played by Seema Biswas, who had the role of the ‘bandit queen’, in Shekhar Kapur’s unforgettable 1994 movie about an Indian woman folk hero.

And then there’s editor Colin Monie (The Magdalene Sisters) who was chosen to edit because Deepa felt his work had the right balance of sensitivity and passion. ‘I didn’t’ want the woman to be seen as victims, and didn’t want the shots to be held too long’.

Water was filmed in Sri Lanka, after rioting Hindi fundamentalists made production impossible in India. In fact ‘it was wonderful filming in Sri Lanka. (There) they are just as enamoured with film as we Indians are, but they don’t hang around and make life miserable for anybody, especially when you strike to synch sound, it becomes slightly difficult in India. It’s the reason most Bollywood films are dubbed.’

It is sometimes said that Indian cinema can be divided between the arthouse stream and the Bollywood musical extravaganzas. Deepa, who directed Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), could perhaps be said to have a foot in both camps. What are her thoughts on Bollywood? ‘I definitely consider it good entertainment and there’s a place for that in our lives.’

Just bread and circuses for the masses? ‘No, it’s harmless. To be judgemental about entertainment is not to take it for what it is. But put it this way,’ she pauses ‘there’s so many you can see before you just say “Oh my God!”‘

Now Kapur’s serious and potent drama Bandit Queen was a film that ran into trouble with the censors in India, but your film Water didn’t, it just … Deepa finishes the sentence ‘ran into trouble before it got made’. A Canadian production, it received its approvals from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but when production began, more rioting Hindu fundamentalists trashed the sets.

Water is very beautifully shot and edited, what was the aesthetic you had in mind when you were making it? ‘I was wanting to capture the flow, the lyricism of water. That was what we were going for. I don’t feel nostalgic about India at all. You have to be away from it to feel nostalgic about it.’

Where is she based? Mehta lives between Canada and India, where she lives three to four months a year.
Fire was officially banned as a public safety risk, and Water couldn’t be made there, but Deepa Mehta will be working in India again. Sometime soon.

The Proposition

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s said that one of the reasons Hollywood has snapped up Australian cinematographers to shoot movies like Dances with Wolves, Chicago and Cold Mountain, is because they bring a new perspective to quintessential American stories. This came to mind when I saw that Frenchman Benoit Delhomme was behind the camera for this new Australian film, The Proposition.

Filmed in the outback 900 kilometres west of Rockhampton, the terrain looks marvellously harsh and inhospitable, and it’s interesting that through Delhomme’s lens it looks both strange and familiar at the same time.

Add to this the haunting and pulsing music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a mix of Celtic songs of lament with Aboriginal rhythms, and you have a richly textured fabric for the human drama that unfolds.

This tale from the Australian frontier begins when a police captain (Ray Winstone) makes a deal with the devil. He will spare the life of young Mikey Burns if his brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) will agree to track down and kill their older brother, a wild and murderous Irishman who is holed up with his gang in the distant hills.

The good captain is aware of the dangerous charisma of bushrangers, and he is determined to bring Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) to justice, and show he’s a man like any other. Stanley’s grim vow to ‘civilise this place’ is vain hope from the start, and you fear for his frail wife (Emily Watson).

Charlie has nine days to find his brother if the youngster is to be saved from the gallows. It involves a trek through treacherous country, outwitting the bounty hunters who also want Arthur, and avoiding the indigenous inhabitants who have seen one white man too many.

Some of the movie’s scenes of brutality are hard to stomach, but they seem to me to be in keeping with the time and place. I was reminded of films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Wake in Fright, and also some of the most elegiac and troubling of American Westerns, The Searchers and Shane.

The anticipation of violence stalks you from the start and who could be surprised by this mood from the makers of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead. But Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have done better this time – this is a fine movie.

4.5 stars

Last Days

Review by © Jane Freebury

Clambering through leafy woods and taking a dip in a mountain stream is not what you’d expect a drug addled rock star to be doing, and yet these activities mark the last days of Blake (Michael Pitt) in this film dedicated to the memory of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. While his hangers-on danced and swapped partners, the man himself went into retreat, as dislocated from others as a person could be.

If writer/director Gus Van Sant has been careful to cover himself with a disclaimer in the end titles, he tells the story of Cobain’s last days with considerable felicity to details on record, while offering no answers to the question ‘who killed Kurt Cobain?’ He also hasn’t used the opportunity to delve into a self-destructive mind, just as he avoided a similar opportunity in his film Elephant, when a Columbine-type of massacre in the schoolyard cries out for explanation.

For all that, this is an intriguing exercise. It may be annoying for those who have firm ideas about camera position and framing, about how dialogue should be recorded and what should in the end be revealed, but Last Days belongs to that modernist cinema tradition that refuses to dramatise ‘real’ life and prefers long takes to quick edits.

An old stone mansion with rotting timbers and peeling paint is Blake’s husk of a home, and its owner all hollowed out, old beyond his years, hunched and demented with drugs. Nothing glamourises addiction here, unlike Oliver Stone’s high camp tale about the demise of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors. Blake’s house guests pause but briefly from their fun to feel his pulse, and occasionally complain there’s no food in the house or that they haven’t the money to fly to Utah.

There’s no Nirvana music to be heard, though we do hear grunge and capella voices bookend the film. Church bells, barking dogs and other incidentals can be heard, though little from the man himself, besides barely audible mumblings. The only time his voice comes loud and clear is when the camera dollies back from an open window as Blake sings and plays, alone in the room with his musical instruments.

Random players come and go, bible bashers, Yellow Pages reps, and assorted others, but the central issue will stay with you after the lights come up.

3.5 stars

Little Fish

Review by Jane Freebury

Little Fish heralds the very welcome return of two talented Aussies to the big screen in a fine Australian film. Cate Blanchett needs no introduction though Rowan Woods might. He directed The Boys, an uncompromising drama that examines distorted family life in a prelude to murder, and this is his first feature since that quite outstanding debut in 1998, though he’s been busy in television.

I couldn’t resist noticing some similarities with Little Fish, like a little Aussie battler mum Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) and the uneasy social ambience in ‘struggletown’ suburbs. Though simmering violence is not the issue here, both her grown up children, Ray and Trace (Blanchett), as well as her former live-in boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving) have been dependent on heroin. Her daughter’s rehabilitation is a beacon of hope.

Tracy has had a steady job for four years in a Vietnamese video shop and she appears to have swum free of the net of addiction in a way her brother and stepdad haven’t. Every now and then there are images of her doing laps in the suburban pool—a world away from the high-density streets—or of her as a youngster bathed in bright sunshine at the beach. The great Aussie beach experience shimmers in the background, as does the football in Lionel’s past, another motif.

While generally managing to avoid crudely drawn cultural stereotypes, this movie integrates the lives of Sydney westies with the Vietnamese of Sydney’s little Saigon, the suburb of Cabramatta. Khoa Do managed to combine the two in his unusual docudrama The Finished People last year, and indeed, one of his actors, Anh Do has found his way into this movie.

I wondered what I was listening to behind the dialogue – which is too heavily laden with expletives, in my view – it was interesting to see that a number of the tracks were Vietnamese. It only adds to the tapestry.

Blanchett proves her chameleon skills once again, and has slipped back into the broad ocker accent with ease, though there was a Kath & Kim moment with mum Janelle early in the piece. Martin Henderson is totally authentic as her brother, and a lean and bearded Hugo Weaving is quite striking as the addict who can’t kick his habit.

Rowan Woods is back with another strong movie that talks directly to us now.

4 stars

The Beat My Heart Skipped

Review by © Jane Freebury

The world of real estate doesn’t seem to lend itself to cinema particularly, though it worked well enough for Glengarry Glen Ross, and Annette Bening sent it up wittily in American Beauty too. In this new film from French director Jacques Audiard and screenwriter collaborator Tonino Benacquista it presents one of two life choices, whether to stay in property or move over to the sublime world of classical music. The problem for the movie is how to get there.

A young Parisian calls himself a broker but he really operates as a debt collector and an evicter, with a kit bag of rats and baseball bats to chase squatters from rental apartments. The hardman role of Tom is new for Romain Duris, who’s usually seen in amiable roles in films like Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment, but he certainly rises to the occasion.

In a chance encounter with his late mother’s musical agent, it becomes clear there’s another side to him. Techno might fill his head while out and about, but at home he plays recordings of the work of his mother, a classical concert pianist, and he’s beginning to want to play again himself after a 10-year break.

A young Vietnamese woman recently arrived in Paris becomes his teacher. It is a challenging relationship, as the few words they share are English, which also happens to be the language Tom uses when he is at his most threatening as an enforcer.

Tom’s affair with Miao-Lin develops off screen, but the core relationship in The Beat My Heart Skipped is really between fathers and sons. Tom has two life choices – whether to follow his father’s dangerous occupation as a wheeler and dealer or to pursue a life in music.

Jacques Audiard’s last film Read My Lips was a brilliant contribution to the tradition of French thrillers with convincing characters and great style, though The Beat My Heart Skipped doesn’t reach quite the same heights. Romain Duris as Tom, one-part gangster one-part artist, is tortured and riven and The Beat is made with real flair but it doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the problem it sets itself.

I haven’t seen the Harvey Keitel original, Fingers, on which this is based, but maybe that movie was more convincing at finding a way for its protagonist to shed skins and find another way.

3.5 stars

The Oyster Farmer

Review by Jane Freebury

The last time I remember being on the Hawkesbury River in an Australian movie was afloat in that fantastic glass church, the centrepiece in Oscar and Lucinda. This time the winking river slides underneath the hull of a tinny runabout, past the endless bushland along its banks. No sign of habitation except for an occasional fibro house punctuating the shoreline.

The Oyster Farmer has a great sense of place, and projecting a majesterial and boundless landscape is what works best in this latest flagship for Australian cinema, a UK-financed production. Interludes in long shot that admire the scenery are stirring, and meant to be, with a lilting Celtic score on the musictrack. I predict a holiday rush on Hawkesbury houseboats in the near future.

The Oyster Farmer has been getting a warm critical reception but for me it was a gentle, good natured and meandering entertainment, with little dramatic development to speak of, little that was convincing anyway. The eccentric Aussie types adrift from the mainstream – the oyster farmers and their itinerant workers, a gang of Vietnam vets who’ve gone bush, various odd bods like Slug whose job is sewerage, and stoic women who would rather be somewhere else – are loosely connected through random events, but these are characters who have little impact on each other to speak of.

They’d just jostle each other irritably here, like the river’s flotsam and jetsam, and there hasn’t been such a display of the colourful local vernacular in many a year.

Which is disappointing when there are lively and novel ideas at work in writer/director Anna Reeves’ screenplay – and I don’t just mean the fruit-wrap balaclava, the lobster cosh, and the bath lined with marbles. Also the young couple Pearl and Jack are played with engaging natural charm by newcomers Diana Glenn and Alex O’Lachlan.

Kerry Armstrong is always good, and Jim Norton as Brownie’s garrulous Dad is fun, but the other types on parade are rather shop-worn. Like little Aussie battler Brownie and the biffo who needs anger management therapy.

The Oyster Farmer ultimately suffers from its disinclination for getting under the skin of its characters to find out what really makes them tick. Some might feel this patchwork piece has a good-natured ramshackle charm, but haven’t we been here and done that – over the last thirty years of the Australian film revival?

3 stars