shortcuts

Standard

    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.

 

 

The Legend of Ben Hall

Standard

 

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

 

The Age of Adaline

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, being tall, willowy and perfectly proportioned, with lustrous hair and perfect skin is not always the distinct advantage you might think it is. Not if you never age, anyway. It’s a shaky premise to build a movie on, but more preposterous ideas can sometimes work, so why not?

Lovely Adaline (Blake Lively) had an accident early last century and is still alive because it has stopped her aging. Still looking youthful has not conferred the kind of advantage one might imagine, because she doesn’t fit her ID profile and it has made people suspicious. So she has had to live on the run, a fugitive from intimacy—after a few early mistakes—except for the succession of King Charles Spaniels that she keeps for company.

Where, oh where, does Hollywood get its movie ideas from? A silly premise, but the dream factory knows full well that there’s nothing like a good romance to make sense of things.

One New Year’s Eve when Adaline is out and about, though it’s uncharacteristic behaviour. Her eyes lock with a handsome stranger across the room. Despite the lengths she goes to fob him off we know they are destined for each other, in the short term at least. Adaline has already dropped the broad hint that she is resolved to live the new year as though it is her last.

Ellis (Michiel Huisman, who was in Wild and is in Game of Thrones) woos and wins her and they attend his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary upstate. It’s a ‘meet the parents’ when things really start to unravel, ushering in a terrific turn by Harrison Ford as Ellis’ dad.

This could have been a halfway decent romantic drama, had it not taken itself seriously. The writing is tolerable and it is tastefully and intelligently produced. However, from the start events are explained in voiceover, a sign that the narrative is having trouble explaining itself. The ‘voice of god’ leads us through the early scenes and then returns at the end to ensure all makes sense.

Director Lee Toland Krieger, still in his early 30s, an award winner for earlier lower budget work, has done a reasonable job with Adaline, and (almost) saved it from itself. In the lead, Lively doesn’t exactly live up to her name but we suppose that experience has taught her character to be a cool customer. Huisman is fine, as is the earnest message not to mess with nature, but the whole enterprise is cut off at the knees by the silly premise. It does nothing but bestow on Adaline a wardrobe down the decades to die for.

In a capsule: A nearly decent film has emerged out of material based on a silly premise, which is a shame for Harrison Ford who is great in a support role.

2.5 stars

Fifty Shades of Grey

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, after weeks of pre-release sales, it’s here at last, the film of the international best-selling novel translated into more than 50 languages. The story of a virginal undergrad who is introduced to the world of BDSM by her corporate high-flyer boyfriend, it has brought whips and handcuffs into the movie mainstream with a new challenge to the liberal, the feminist, and the young person working out how to be.
Maybe a challenge to the odd parent too. Our PM has read the book—he’s done better than me—and says he prefers Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare. With you there.

It’s not as though BDSM doesn’t have a measure of arthouse cred. We’ve seen elements of sexual bondage, sadism and masochism there for ages, from titillation to outright provocation. A whippet slim Charlotte Rampling shocked audiences with her S&M affair in The Night Porter, Catherine Deneuve’s character sought rough and tumble outside marriage in Belle de Jour. Meg Ryan’s character solicited mortal danger in pursuit of great sex during In the Cut. In a more recent film, Venus in Furs, Polanski again, the traditionally male-female, dominant-submissive roles are reversed.

Though Fifty Shades is the work of talented director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), the glossy patina is solidly mainstream. Knowingly and artfully well made, it comes perilously close at times to luxury goods advertising as the camera caresses the polished interiors of the real estate owned by telecoms magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Each new day, Christian faces the challenge of deciding which shade of grey tie he will privilege.

Things are grounded by young Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, an ingénue with a natural presence. Though she could have chewed her lip less, even if there are supposed to be hints of a modern day Victorian heroine, lost in the books of Thomas Hardy. Johnson reminds me of the Anglo-French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg who Lars von Trier put through the mill in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. Casting may have been aware of this resemblance, as it was surely aware of Dornan’s serial killer character in The Fall on TV.

We would agree that people’s intimate fantasies are their business alone, and they have every right to explore to find someone to share them with, so long as there’s no harm done. However, there’s something essentially creepy hearing Christian, the young man with everything, mind you, say to Ana: “I have rules. If you follow, I’ll reward you. If you don’t, I’ll punish you”.

Erotic? Not in the same league as the arthouse there. The filmmakers have obviously deemed it more lucrative to pitch their work at the broader MA 15+ audience rather than consign it to the R-rated ghetto. Hey folks, that’s show business.

In a capsule: A knowing and artful rendition of the international best seller has pushed BDSM into the mainstream, that is explicit and tasteful while borders on luxury goods advertising.

2.5 stars

Diana

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

It can take an outsider to reveal what we cannot see for ourselves. So the news that German film director Oliver Hirschbiegel was making a film about the people’s princess, weak link in the British royal chain, sounded more than promising. That Hirschbiegel had succeeded with other material best left alone—the last days of the Hitler in Downfall—boded well. It was also encouraging that Naomi Watts, a mix of vulnerability and steel, would be in the lead.

The last days of an icon have a certain fascination. What was Hitler doing holed up in his bunker as the Allies closed in, what was Kurt Cobain doing before he apparently shot himself, and what was Princess Diana up to in the  two years before she died? The events here are based on a book by Kate Snell, Diana – Her Last Love, about her relationship with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, relation of the cricketer politician Imran. In this post 9/11 world it’s fascinating to wonder what we would have made of a British princess married to a Muslim.

Simply calling the film Diana is confirmation she needs no introduction. The princess was a phenomenon, a celebrity superstar whose appeal had global reach, and I don’t think commentators have really got to the bottom of it yet, not even Camille Paglia. This film reveals little new and also fails, I think, to give Diana her due.

Inevitably, Hirschbiegel’s film critiques the royals. It leaves the terrible probably erroneous impression that Diana had access to her sons only every five weeks. Stripped of her honorific, she was still trapped in the gilded cage of Kensington Palace. Who wouldn’t smuggle a boyfriend in under a blanket in the back of the car? Outside the gates the media scrum waited, yet the film shows that she had considerable responsibility for attracting the swarms of paparazzi that stalked her.

It was around the time of the sensational revelatory television interview that precipitated her divorce from Charles, that Diana fell for Khan, played here by Naveen Andrews. Doctor, can you mend a broken heart? She was in her mid-thirties, but one-on-one here she is portrayed as a blank slate, a breathy ingenue keen to do homework on Khan’s interests rather than introduce him to some of her own.

It is hard to credit there wasn’t more to her than we see here, the vivacious young woman who went to lunch with Clive James, stood up to ‘the firm’, and gave tender comfort to AIDS sufferers.

This bland and well-intentioned film has got it badly wrong. Hirschbiegel says the British are not yet over their trauma regarding Diana. No, actually he hasn’t given us new insight into her character and what she came to mean for people, just more fuel for the gossip mongers.

In a capsule: Sympathetic and well-intentioned, but it reveals little that is new, fails to give Diana her due, and there’s little insight into the phenomenon she became.

2.5 stars

Red Hill

Standard

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s one helluva first day at work for a young policeman who has moved to a quiet country town to improve his wife’s health during her pregnancy. His first call is to a property where a horse lies disembowelled, the farmer wittering about phantoms on the prowl.

The rookie policeman’s second task is to intercept an escaped prisoner that his new colleagues will meet with a mixture of dread and bloodlust the moment he arrives in town, as he surely will. Welcome to Red Hill, a boomtown gone bust where folk don’t mind if it stays that way, especially policeman, Old Bill, played by Steve Bisley in excellent form. No wine and food festivals here, it’s a rural backwater and proud of it.

Before very long at all it’s clear that Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) has wandered into a time-warp and will ‘wake in fright’. Richard Morecraft is reading the news on the ABC but it could be the 50 years ago, rather than 15. Shane is nothing but a ‘blow-in from the big smoke’ for this hard-bitten bunch, so he’s sent to intercept the escapee at the least likely point of entry, the gully of Skins Creek.

Of course, it’s where the escapee Dural ‘Jimmy’Conway shows up first. We have seen him many times before on screen, but most especially we remember Tom E. Lewis (aka Tommy Lewis) as Jimmie Blacksmith, the young Aboriginal in Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film who tried to do right until he could take it no longer and took to his oppressors with an axe. Red Hill writer/director Patrick Hughes has joked that his movie is aka ‘Jimmy Chants Again”.

It is, and broaching controversial territory again, with Lewis’s silent and methodical avenger as inexorable a force as Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men. But here events are eventually explained.

Some difficult issues get a mention here – environmentalism, the city/country divide and the generational divide – though none of them get much of a workout. But hey, this is entertainment, and Red Hill proclaims its gothic western genre roots from the start.

If we don’t mind the clichés of the lone horseman riding into town and picking off the gunmen he can see through eyes in the back of his head, we do mind the symbolism. It’s over-determined and heavy-going, particularly the black panther on the loose.

With its soundtrack things get laboured too so the film can’t sustain tension, and the weak performances among the straw men in Old Bill’s posse detract. First-time feature director Patrick Hughes just tries to push too many buttons, too hard, at once.

In a capsule: A gothic western with an implacable avenger set in a sleepy and possibly sinister township in rural Australia. Steve Bisley in fine form as a grizzled copper in this ‘wake in fright’ and though all’s good in the technical areas, it overplays its hand.

2.5 stars

Sex and the City

Standard

Review by Jane Freebury

OMG, a review of SATC when I haven’t paid attention to the series on TV! What to say? Much of my thirties spent in t-shirts, flat shoes and in the company of small children, might disqualify me from the show’s demographic of swinging singles in four-inch heels and designer dresses. Can only fess up.

So that’s me. Now for the movie. For the initiated, it’s probably a welcome return after four years of reruns since the series finished. And as a stand alone for the uninitiated, the opening montage and voice-over explains enough about the four girlfriends, their lives in New York and how things have panned out since we last heard from them. You don’t need to be a fan to get it.

I had thought the movie would be a yawn, something to be feared when you embark on two hours and half hours of running time. The first hour was indeed vacuous, but then Mr Big (Chris Noth) – seriously, what a nickname! – did what Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) feared he would, again. At last, the girls had an excuse to bond anew with a holiday in luxury resort in Mexico.

The bonding is what SATC does best, I think, showing how women can really care for each other, and be generous and kind. Though I wonder how well this intimacy, normally shared with viewers huddled around the telly, translates to the big screen.

Up to Carrie’s heartbreak, SATC seemed to care only for designer labels and outlandish earrings. When a walk-in-robe or a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, was more likely to bring on orgasm than a clinch with a good man. The endless parade of brand names is a reminder that product placement is self-regulated in the US – and doesn’t it show!

If the fashions were compensatory, I have to say I agree with the girls, because most of the men they know lack substance, after all. Miranda and Charlotte are married to decent blokes, but they don’t have much profile and the other male characters are written with so little to them. Including the amply proportioned Mr Big, who has all the personality of a shopfront mannequin.

As expected, the girl talk is frank, the sex is explicit and the men don’t get much of a say. I wonder how the fellas like Dante (Gilles Marini), the object of Samantha’s desire, feel about how they are represented as hunks without much in the top paddock. Over 40 years have passed since Helen Gurley Brown’s book Sex and the Single Girl first tried to turn the tables. They’re pretty well turned in SATC, that’s for sure.

2.5 stars