Team America: World Police

Review by © Jane Freebury

A little while back, before terrorism became an everyday word, the South Park team launched a rough and rude feature animation from their TV series, which they gleefully subtitled Bigger, Longer and Uncut. In that movie there was a guest appearance from Saddam Hussein and the United States went to war against Canada because it exported cultural trash and depraved the youth of America. Thinking back to that nonsense scenario now it doesn’t seem quite so silly. Is reality just doing catch up?

In the times we live in, the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have plenty to get stuck into now and they let it rip with cute little puppets who mow each other down with submachine guns and wreak destruction on the world’s great cultural landmarks. Not a pretty picture, and I can ruefully imagine the extraterrestrials on other planets are queueing up right now for ringside seats for the greatest show here on earth.

From their HQ inside Mount Rushmore, the crack commandos of the team fly out from the US to the world’s hot spots to root out the troublemakers. When a gang of terrorists are causing mayhem in Paris they step in to help and manage to blow up the Louvre and topple the Eiffel Tower in the process. After all, as they say in their motto, their job is to ‘protect, serve and care’ and their theme song is ‘America, F**k Yeah’.

Now it’s North Korea’s Kim Jong-il who is the new arch villain, selling off WMDs to terrorists around the globe, so he can create equality – where everyone lives in a third-world country. This new jowly-cheeked villain is really very funny.

I liked the puppets and sets too – a step up from 2D South Park – and the songs too, most of which are accomplished and original in their way, but it’s the usual cynical cop-out from the South Park team.

Everything and everyone is fair game, from the US hawks to the liberal Hollywood establishment and the movie seems to reserve an especially nasty end for the puppet ‘actors’ – with names like Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Samuel Jackson – who visit Jong-il and offer appeasement. For a movie that wants to have it both ways, this was rather surprising.

In a capsule: A world of puppets where everyone gets a serve – for South Park fans only.

3 stars

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Review by © Jane Freebury

If you’re wondering why the words don’t roll off the tongue, the title is a quote from 18th century man of letters Alexander Pope, drawn from a his poem about Eloise and Abelard, two of the world’s most famous lovers. In its twenty-first century way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also about the exquisite sorrow of lost love.

It’s another eccentric movie experience from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) that delves into the persistence of memory when a love affair is over and sweet nostalgia lingers. Mind is the operative word here, just as it was in Kaufman’s screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and for Being (inside) John Malkovich (‘s mind).

So it’s a very different Jim Carrey here from almost any other film by the comic madcap you care to name, with strong affinities with The Truman Show.

Here as Joel he’s strongly introverted and would rather read or sketch than chat a woman up at the train station, or the beach, or the library, or wherever it was that he and Clementine (Kate Winslet) met. It takes a woman with blue (sometimes red, orange, even grey) hair, the mind of a grasshopper, and a devil-may-care extrovert to break through his defences.

She draws him out of his emotional torpor, lures him into doing crazy things with a frisson of risk so that for a while time spent feels like he’s really living. Too bad it’s all over before the introductory credits begin – but I don’t want to put you off, it’s a jolt that’s one of many surprising and exhilarating moments in this Michel Gondry film.

After Clementine leaves, Joel discovers she’s had her memories of their affair erased so that she can ‘move on’. He decides to submit to treatment too – call it ‘brain damage’ – delivered by the shonky outfit at Lacuna (Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is effortlessly freewheeling as it dips in and out of Joel’s memory, pausing briefly in the present and then heading back to the past again, just before it disintegrates under the Lacuna cat scan. It’s such a technical achievement that it could leave you impressed but cool, however Carrey and Winslet are really interesting together, and turn out to be a wonderful pair of lovers.

In a capsule: A brilliantly free-wheeling technical exercise from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, that’s actually also a very touching love affair.

4 stars

Monster

Review by Jane Freebury

A highway prostitute who in the late 1980s became a serial killer is now the subject of three films. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos over the course of her 12-year imprisonment on death row, and now writer/director Patty Jenkins’ film – and Charlize Theron’s Oscar – has brought the desperately sad story of the woman’s life into the mainstream, some 16 months after she was executed in a Florida prison.

How did Wuornos, one of life’s victims, become so compelling for these filmmakers? They would have known she was the daughter of teenage parents, adopted by her grandparents as an infant, and became a mother herself before age 14 before she began to work the streets full-time.

This unfortunate early life featuring a pretty little blonde is summed up briefly, before the movie turns to Aileen, still a hooker and in her early thirties, now contemplating suicide. In a chance visit to a gay bar, she meets a much younger woman, Selby (Christina Ricci), who is fascinated by the bedraggled, emotionally wounded, tough talking older woman.

Is this another crime duo on the run? Another Natural Born Killers or Thelma and Louise? Not exactly. It’s the story of Aileen and Selby’s time together as lovers, when Aileen took on the role of bread winner and murdered her clients and stole their cars and cash.

Monster is simply told in an unobtrusive style that gives way to two astonishing performances. Patty Jenkins’ screenplay has drawn very heavily on Wuornos’ own point of view (that concerns me a bit), sourcing her thousands of letters, excerpts of which we hear in voice-over.

It’s all so well handled, however, from the scene where Aileen lashes out at the ‘dyke’ buying her a drink, to the tears she sheds as they part at a bus stop. Theron is amazing throughout (forget the prosthetics!) as the swaggering and vulnerable Aileen, and it’s hard to think of another recent performance by a female actor that quite comes near it. Ricci is very good too.

When Aileen throws us a look over her shoulder as she walks to her death, it’s an accusatory look at the society that brought her to this. The fatuous clichés we hear on the voice-over have finally let her down.

In a capsule: Charlize Theron is totally deserving of her Oscar in this desperately sad story of a hooker who pays a heavy debt to society.

4 stars

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a picture is worth a thousand words it can also prompt a good story, something shown recently by the success of a novel that invents the circumstances behind an exquisite painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s the Girl With a Pearl Earring who looks over her shoulder at us from across the centuries, like a close-up before cinema invented them, captured in an unguarded moment yet returning the onlooker’s gaze.

The recent Tracy Chevalier novel capitalized on the fact that little is known about Vermeer, though it’s recorded he had a large family like J.S.Bach, but he worked far more slowly than that prolific composer to support them. In the film eleven urchins crowd the Vermeer house, with yet more on the way. No wonder Colin Firth’s Vermeer looks frazzled when he’s not in his studio.

But his artist remains a somewhat shadowy figure throughout, a presence in silhouette in doorways or collapsed moodily into a chair, who is surrounded by women, his numerous daughters, his wife and mother-in-law, and the maids. As the new maid Griet, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) is a picture of rosy promise, hovering on the edge of womanhood.

Though she is bonneted, keeps her head bowed and is never included in any conversation, Griet does not escape the notice of Vermeer’s lusty patron, Van Ruijven, (a bewhiskered Tom Wilkinson) either, and he commissions the artist to paint her, so that he can at least take her home and possess her image for his gratification.

It’s a starched and cloistered world the Vermeer women inhabit but there’s a robust physicality to acknowledge too, in the way, for instance, we hover over a painting of a flushed young woman drinking wine (yes!) and another cleaning window panes. I feel that Vermeer reflected this in his paintings

Director Peter Webber hails from television, but he and his team have created an enthralling and beautiful film. It could be said that nothing much happens, but the movie’s recreation of life in 17th-century town of Delft is wonderfully alive. And there’s such a vivid sense of intimacy in the piercing of Griet’s earlobe, the exposed nape of her neck, that the Girl With a Pearl Earring is almost intoxicating.

In a capsule: Exquisite film based on a book based on a painting by Vermeer, with Scarlett Johansson as the object of desire.

4 stars

The Hours

Review by © Jane Freebury

This beautifully constructed film and its fragile characters will delight its audiences, even though it is profoundly sad. It glides effortlessly backwards and forwards across the decades that separate three women, a shuttle weaving thread across a loom, as it connects disparate lives lived decades apart. In contemporary Manhatten, in southern England 1921-41, and on a palm-lined Californian avenue in 1950s America.

Each of the women from these different moments in time, including their muse Virginia Woolf, is struggling with life in similar ways. And where connections seem tenuous, the fabric of the film suggests a single life. And that life belongs to Mrs Dalloway, created in the fiction of Virginia Woolf as a London hostess whose holds constant parties ‘to cover the silences’.

New Yorker Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has earned the nickname Dalloway, while Laura (Julianne Moore, a 50s housewife again) reads Mrs Dalloway while she contemplates ways of escape. While the stories of these two women are the main event, we keep returning to Woolf pacing the floor at her Sussex home, or becalmed in a sea of manuscript papers when the words start to flow.

Beautifully matched action of daily domestic rituals draws the lives of the women together. With the flower arrangements plopped into vases, with cakes baked, with a lingering glance in the mirror first thing in the morning, and coiling hair in a bun before the day begins. It’s intoxicating to watch the tapestry develop as actions of the characters are mirrored and matched across the decades.

Such a restless narrative needs nimble fingers to stitch it seamlessly and writer David Hare (screenwriter of Wetherby, and Plenty which also starred Streep) has created something special here. And the swelling piano notes of the Philip Glass score are a glorious background.

Yet for all this meticulous control of mise-en-scene and montage, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is still an actor’s director, drawing exquisite performances from his three lead women actors and their partners, Ed Harris’ tortured character included. Even minor characters resonate.

Sally Potter’s grand and gorgeous folly Orlando some years back turned Woolf’s ideas into mere spectacle. Even though they come to us via the writing of Michael Cunningham on which this film is based, in The Hours they are given life of their own.

3.5 stars

Dinner Rush

Review by Jane Freebury

Early in Dinner Rush a man is gunned down in the street. When this happens and when so many movie elements are slick, handsome and intelligently written there’s the danger it will move into a warehouse and Reservoir Dogs territory. But Dinner Rush takes place in a busy restaurant.

From the very start Dinner Rush looked like it was going to be interesting. A few deft strokes with slow-motion, long shots out-of-focus, and searching camera movements got things off to a good start, and then the questions presented themselves. Where is it all going? How are these people connected? Isn’t someone going to punch that appalling art buff/gallery owner in the nose? Please?

It’s an Italian trattoria that attracts customers from all walks of New York life. Not for the sauteed spicy sausage and sliced capsicum that restaurant owner Louis (Danny Aiello) enjoys but for the nouvelle cuisine that his chef son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) whips up with his team below stairs. Cuisine preferences are not the only things father and son disagree about.

Udo’s flair with food is famous and his customers are quite prepared to book three months in advance, but when a food critic (Sandra Bernhard) arrives to sample the fare, everything that leaves his kitchen must be perfect, even more perfect than usual. Two thugs from Queens arrive, resplendent in their gold chains and awesome in their bulk, and curiously they meet with similar attentiveness, and an NYPD detective also gets this treatment. Other individuals seem to receive special attention from the camera, but you don’t know why until Dinner Rush comes together, impeccably, like Udo’s lobster tails on deep fried spaghetti.

This is only director Bob Giraldi’s second feature film, but he has 2,500 TV commercials to his credit. This and the fact that he is also a successful restauranteur certainly shows. The camera swoops and pans around all the frenetic dinner rush activity, hitching a ride on a platter here, scuttling up and downstairs with waiters there, all the while expressing its love of good food in luscious close up.

All the characters are expertly handled by his actors, though the dialogue does get lost occasionally in the naturalistic overlapping soundtrack. But this film is handled with panache and creative skill, and is thoroughly impressive.

In a capsule: Rush hour in a popular family-owned New York restaurant becomes a little too exciting when two thugs on the take show up.

4 stars

La Spagnola

Review by Jane Freebury

This spirited, compassionate and stylish movie begins in Australia in 1960 and is told from the point of view of Lucia, fourteen years old and the daughter of a Spanish woman (La Spagnola) married to an Italian man.

This migrant family living in pre-multicultural Australia own a sparse little home snuggled up against an oil refinery. It has a watertank, outdoor dunny, and aviary where pigeons roost, but it looks more like a halfway house that all three would like to fly away from if they could. Like living on the moon, snaps La Spagnola, and who would disagree.

Lucia’s Papa, hat clamped on his head and toiling through the dust, is the first to leave. La Spagnola (Italian for Spanish woman) his fiery wife tries everything to stop him, and even lies down in front of the family car, as friends and neighbours get drawn into the brawl too.

Lucia (a beautiful performance from 17-year-old Alice Ansara) watches the departure with anguish, perhaps even (is it possible?) a hint of wry amusement. It’s as though she has already put years enough between herself and her distress to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Anna-Maria Monticelli’s script and Steve Jacobs’ direction work together on this, drawing wisdom and warmth from Lucia’s story.

Lola (Spanish actress Lola Marceli) is crazy with fury that her husband has left her for ‘that Australian’, a blonde with a 1960 Woman’s Day look (to quote the filmmakers), but someone who can’t cook. She sets to rubbing him out by scrubbing the lino, cooking his pigeons – and trying hard to lose his newly conceived baby.

Where it comes to points scored in this Latin battle of the sexes, it’s truly comic. When Lola’s sister-in-law Lourdes arrives from Melbourne, the flamenco tempo of the editing (which is a bit too rapid in some important places, however) steps up and Lucia’s life is filled with fun and food.

But this is about two strong women, mother and daughter, and how they fight and in the end, achieve a sort of forgiving. In this year’s AFI awards it has received the second highest number of nominations, two of which are best female actor nominations for both Ansara and Marceli.

La Spagnola is delivered in 3 languages – Spanish, Italian and English – and will represent Australia in the Best Foreign Language film at the next Academy awards.

4 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Review by © Jane Freebury

Having set the publishing world ablaze with her four books about an English schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard in need of a little tutoring to hone his craft, author J.K. Rowling has already shown that there is much more mileage yet to be made from fantasy. Many familiar elements – magic potions, wands, goblins, centaurs and spells – are there, but there’s nothing musty or dusty about the world of Harry Potter. It’s just alive with imaginative new ideas.

You’ll know what I mean when you see letters delivered by flocks of owls, the game of quidditch (polo astride flying broomsticks), the trip to the goblin bank, the quite frightening game of wizard chess, and even the nature of the arch villain when he finally reveals himself. This is narrative wizardry itself.

Everyone knows about Harry, orphaned since birth, who lived in a broom cupboard under the stairs in a house in Little Whinging, Surrey until Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) the groundsman of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry comes to take him away. Harry’s appalling rellies – aunt, uncle and cousin Dudley – had treated him like a servant (‘bred in captivity’) until rescued from his Dickensian circumstances and sent to Hogwarts to become a wizard.

Some distinguished faces of English film and theatre were on the staff at the Hogwarts School: Alan Rickman a shifty-looking professor, Maggie Smith ever prim and kindly as the deputy head, and the headmaster played by Richard Harris, with a vague air and much longer hair and beard than last time I saw him. Julie Walters appears briefly as a flustered mum and John Cleese doffs his severed head at us.

Daniel Radcliffe as Potter and the two other children who are his constant companions Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are each very engaging, though these friends do upstage Harry a bit. Harry never really gets to find out it’s okay to get a little mad at people if they annoy him. Probably his upbringing.

It’s my hunch that the virtual fan-vaulted dining hall at Hogwarts, the staircases that swing around at will and attach themselves to new landings, the living portraits, the game of wizard’s chess will not disappoint the legions of young readers in their transference to the screen.

Harry Potter is a richly enchanting experience. Some might find it rather long at 2½ hours running time, but this movie and its sequels and the three new books that J.K. Rowling is writing will fill the gap in entertainment for this age group for years to come.

4 stars

Mullet

Review by Jane Freebury

When Mullet returns home to the small coastal town he left behind three years before, family and friends are somewhat underwhelmed. All of a sudden Mullet (Ben Mendelson, with a tousled look, rather than mullet strands) turns up again, on the back of a pick-up truck with a cattle dog and some road kill, but folk have closed ranks over his absence.

Three years incommunicado, what can he expect? The Judy Davis character in High Tide and the prodigal brother in Return Home – two Australian films with similar themes – both got similar treatment when they suddenly showed up again. But here the issue seems to be that people like having him around, not the perturbation that goes with it. Mendelson i¬s Mullet – daggy, difficult and down on everything.

Seems he had this practice of beating a retreat to the bush, where he could enjoy his own company while fishing. So, a ‘what are you doing back?’ is about the best he could expect when he wandered in.

The welcome to the family consists of a handshake from Dad, and hug from Mum , and the feeling he’s never been away as he telegraphs messages back and forth between his non-speaking parents. (See, he would probably say, you don’t even need to go to Sydney to stop talking to people!) Welcome home from former girlfriend Tully (Susie Porter) shows less restraint.

The best scenes occur in the family kitchen, where Kris McQuade and Tony Barry do a wonderful duet as Mullet’s parents, and at the family BBQ, when all the cross currents surface and everyone is glowering in no time flat. All Mullet’s fault, of course.

Filmed in and around Kiama, Gerringong and the Illawarra region, there’s a poignancy to documenting aspects of life in little towns (Mullet’s hometown is fictitious) apparently without prospects. If you were to compare it with films like The Castle, this betrays real affection for the people represented, without condescension.

David Caesar (director of the excellent Idiot Box) has a reputation as a critic of being a hard man to please (Race Around the World) and his own works reveal a filmmaking sensibility that likes its images uncluttered and well-composed. Pretention is out. With Mullet, I don’t know how much further the industry has come since the Gillian Armstrong and Ray Argall films mentionned above. However, the experience is still worth having, and its social relevance probably even more urgent.

3.5 stars

The Iron Giant

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Iron Giant, based loosely on a story written by the late Ted Hughes, former poet laureate, and directed by Brad Bird who has worked on The Simpsons, is not just another routine children’s cartoon feature. There’s a developed story here, there are characters who are genuinely appealing , and there’s a barrel of laughs.

When an extra-terrestrial iron giant crash lands near Rockwell, USA, it’s lucky for him he’s in backwoods country because he can lay low, temporarily undetected at least. Were a local yokel to contact the authorities and report a chunk that looks like a bite had gone from his car, or that he’d just seen a giant man chomping on the railway track, who in Washington would believe him?

The giant is a windfall for nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes as he’s been wanting a new pet, something different. He finds him in the forest, after he’d followed the giant’s trail, making its way to the power station in search of food—metal, that is.

A 50-foot high incredible hulk that seems peaceful and is willing to follow instructions? Hogarth is thrilled. What’s more it’s assembled like a Transformer, and he discovers later that it can repair itself, like a Terminator. Only trouble is, unlike a squirrel in a shoebox, he’s too humungus a pet to conceal. Then there’s that other problem – Kent Mansley.

While the authorities have been a bit slow on the uptake over reports from the backwoods and all – once they’ve figured something is up, they won’t let go. Hogarth can hide his whopping secret from his Mom, but when government internal security sleuth Kent Mansley, lantern-jawed and narrow between the ears, descends on Rockwell to investigate, things get tricky.

Hogarth is forced to share his secret with Dean, Rockwell’s ultra-cool, bike-riding beatnik (this is the 1950s) and he isn’t too fazed. But others are.

For adults in the audience, The Iron Giant pokes fun at 1950s America with its ‘Reds under the bed’ scare-mongering (ever checked out the sci-fi movies of the 1950s?) and its ‘Duck and Cover’ public information campaigns about what to do in an atomic blast (ever seen Atomic Cafe?). For kids, the movie is superior animated fun. The Iron Giant succeeds on both levels, at being two movies in one.

4 stars

writer, journalist and author