Tag Archives: 2 Stars

The Call of the Wild

A wild journey with a pretend dog

PG, 100 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

By the look of the bio of the American author, Jack London, there was a time when he answered the call of the wild himself. After many adventures on the road and the high seas, he decided to settle for earning his living as a writer. It was only after he had done a lot of living.

A high school dropout at 14, he worked as a sailor in San Francisco Bay, then travelled to Japan. On his return to the US, he rode freight trains across the country with the down-and-out, educating himself at public libraries, and became a socialist along the way.

At 19 years of age he entered university after a cram course but quit his studies again to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. It was his muscular adventure stories set in the Yukon, like The Call of the Wild (1903) and its reverse narrative companion piece, White Fang (1906), in which a wild dog is domesticated, that first made him popular with the reading public.

One wonders what London would have made of the latest movie version of The Call of the Wild, in particular what they’ve done to the dog Buck.

The film written for the screen by Michael Green (who co-wrote Blade Runner 2049) and directed by Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch) sticks to the original story. There are some changes to the ethnicity of several key characters that will make it acceptable to 21st century filmgoers.

Nothing about the main character, Buck, a Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie cross, needed changing. He was the best of loved pets and had the perfect life with kind and caring owners on a farm in California until he was stolen by one of their staff who was short of cash. Buck changes owners a couple of times, is taken north and ends up on a team of sled dogs, delivering the US Mail in the Yukon.

As luck would have it, his newest owner is a good and kind man. Omar Sy (such a likeable presence in The Intouchables), a French actor of African descent , plays Perrault, the dog sled master. His companion Mercedes is played Canadian first nations actor, Cara Gee. They make a far more attractive, winning couple than the pair who drove the sled in the novel.

Buck has adjustments to make in his new life. He has to learn to be part of a pack dog and resist haring off after the first rabbit he sees, and he has to toughen up, and overcome his ‘Californian’ paws, and get used to running on snow and ice.

Buck, a massive 140 pound pooch who is all heart and courage, should be totally endearing. The problem is he is totally CGI and looks real enough but has been given a range of cute facial expressions from concerned to kind to quizzical to forlorn to crestfallen that are nothing more than CGI visual effects. It looks so fake.

Since London’s novel was first adapted for the screen in 1923 there have been a number of film and TV versions. A recent film was in the 1970s with the late Charlton Heston, the embodiment of rugged frontiersman, who became a high-profile proponent in the US for the right to bear arms.

As you might expect, Buck, was then played by a dog with four-legs. Here Buck has been played by Trevor Notary, an actor with a gymnastics background who is known for his motion capture performances as creatures in Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and The Hobbit.

Perhaps the kids won’t notice or mind that this doggy protagonist has been anthropomorphised so much you can hardly recognise him.

It’s good, though, to see Harrison Ford again, looking hirsute and homespun here, as John Thornton, the man who forms a close bond with Buck and takes him on the last leg of his journey into the wild.

Ford also provides the voiceover with lines that help reinforce the moral points that this family-friendly film wishes to make for children. Things like something like ’we come and go, but nature’s wilderness is always here’. Fair enough.

If this is a journey to find Buck’s inner wolf, why make him so fake?

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 February 2020

Mrs Lowry & Son

More about mother than son

PG, 91 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It was lucky for the artist L .S. Lowry that his family fell on hard times and moved out of their leafy Manchester suburb to a new home near the city factories. Lucky, I think, because he was inspired to paint the everyday scenes that he saw all around him, showing how the working classes lived and worked, and made a name for himself.

A profusion of landscapes and seascapes were painted by artists in reaction to an Industrial Revolution grinding on, but Lowry faced it head on. It’s a neat coincidence that a much chubbier version of Timothy Spall played J. M. W. Turner in Mr Turner (2014), about the famous Romantic artist of the early 19th century.

It seems Lowry’s mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), never got over her fall from grace to the grimy industrial district of Pendlebury, but over time the change in circumstances turned into a windfall for the artist as a young man. He was drawn to the strange world of massive, humming factories and he saw a dignity in the people that the mills swallowed by day and spewed out at night. He felt there was a beauty in everything.

From the bed that she was confined to, from which she ran her family of one, Elizabeth was a force to be reckoned with. Domineering, class-conscious, undermining. And yet although Elizabeth was very hard work, her son and only child remained loyal, looking after her until she died.

For her part, Elizabeth couldn’t acknowledge that her son was an artist, though she appeared to like his more conventional paintings, like ‘Sailing Boats’, well enough.

Make her happy. Find another ‘hobby’

Elizabeth felt vindicated when a critic lambasted Laurie’s painting ‘Coming from the Mill’ as an ugly rendition of a squalid industrial scene with stick figures that looked like marionettes. It could have been painted by a child.

The label ‘naïve’ dogged Lowry’s reputation. Why didn’t Laurie give it up, she argued, for her sake, make her happy, and find another ‘hobby’?

Far from a hobbyist, Lowry had trained for 15 years at art school. After he returned home from his day job as a rent collector, he would cook the dinner that he and his mother ate together off trays in her bedroom. Then he would climb to his attic studio to work until the wee small hours of the morning. No Sunday painter this, he painted every day, an escape into the imagination from his life downstairs.

Too much on Lowry’s struggle with mother, too little on his struggle with his art

There were quite a few moments when I was reminded of another bickering pair, Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald in their roles in the fondly remembered old 1980s-90s TV sitcom, Mother and Son. But that was toe-curling and funny.

The issue with Mrs Lowry & Son, directed by Adrian Noble from a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, is that it spends way too much time with Elizabeth. There’s too much emphasis on Lowry’s struggle with his mother and too little on his struggle with his art, which is, after all, the main reason we watch the artist’s biopic.

At the close, the film skips to the present with some footage from The Lowry gallery, showing room after room of the artist’s paintings. It is a relief to see them there and realise he didn’t destroy them all in that bonfire in the garden, but it’s an awkward add-on at the conclusion.

A gaunt Timothy Spall is convincing as the odd, lonely artist who lived with his mother until she died in 1939, but the screenplay has given him restricted material to work with. I liked reading over the final credits that he refused to accept various honours, including a knighthood, from the Queen. But then we read he’d said that there was no point accepting them without his mother around to acknowledge this success.

It seems Lowry could be mischievous too, the sweet scenes with children early on held some promise. I’ve also read that his clock collection all told different times, just for fun, so he wasn’t without spark. There must have been other sides to this intensely inhibited, private man but Mrs Lowry & Son keeps them from us.

Also published by the Canberra Times in print and online on 1 December 2019

*Featured image: Timothy Spall as Laurence Lowry

The Party

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Party brings a bunch of people together in the comfortable middle-class environs of London, at the home of Janet, Kristin Scott Thomas in the role, and her husband Bill, a more than usually lugubrious Timothy Spall. Everyone has a secret to divulge.

Each character represents a segment of the influential elite. There’s someone from financial services, there’s a politician, there are two academics, and there’s a wellness coach and on-trend chef.

Bill has a droll routine as he puts records on the turntable, then announces that he has a terminal illness. That is bad enough, but hey, there is more in store yet for Janet.

The posh environs in London today may be more polite than Hornsby, Sydney, in the late 1960s when the notorious election night classic, Don’s Party, is set. But it isn’t the restraint that makes The Party fall short. It simply doesn’t gel.

Although not about to celebrate a change of government, it still looks ahead to the prospect of political change. Sometime down the track when the newly created shadow minister for health, (Scott Thomas), and her colleagues are voted into government.

Some cross-cutting between scenes looks great in the trailer, but deft promotional editing has elided the gaps and awkward pauses. The party goers, supposed to get really mad at each other, barely connect. Instead, they lounge around or stand stiffly stating their positions, firing their lines off into the undergrowth.

Someone gets slapped, another brandishes a gun, but it doesn’t for engagement make, and prospects for good argument turn in a damp squib. Talk about atomised.

There is every reason why the ‘polite party to skewer the middle classes’ formula has held up well over time, but hard as the actors try, it doesn’t work here. Given too little to do, they are defeated at every turn, even the mouthy Patricia Clarkson character, Janet’s old friend April. Cillian Murphy as a disturbed banker, Emily Mortimer as a pregnant chef in a same-sex marriage, and Bruno Ganz spouting new age banalities fare no better.

Mercifully short at 71 minutes, and filmed in artful black and white, The Party could have been a deliciously cynical demolition job on the types it portrays but Bill as DJ produces one of its few pleasures—a great playlist includes tracks from Bo Diddley and John Coltrane.

Writer-director Sally Potter has had a knack for surprising us. She teamed up with Tilda Swinton to wow us all with time travel and gender switching in Orlando in the early 1990s, then followed up with a romantic Tango Lesson in which she herself starred as student of the dance.

The Party, on the other hand, needed more work, not by the actors on set but by the writer before they got the call. It seems dashed off, an addendum to the 2015 British election during which it was written, and why it earned four stars in so many reviews is a mystery to me.

It’s clear what Potter had in mind, but when top actors can’t make it work, our gaze shifts to the filmmaker.

MA15+, 71 minutes

2 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Mountain Between Us

Review © Jane Freebury

After a hasty set-up at an airport closed due to bad weather, The Mountain Between Us delivers us onto a snowbound mountainside when a small plane crashes in the wilderness. The first and pressing challenge for the two passengers who survive is finding their way down to safety.

The second order challenge, as the title suggests, is getting to know and understand each other along the way.

It was an unscheduled flight, risky in bad weather, and the aging pilot who succumbed to heart failure died in the crash. The two survivors have landed in the middle of nowhere with the pilot’s pet labrador for company, a welcome valiant third party, there to help.

I guess we could call this uncertain venture a romance adventure. It certainly has two handsome leads up front: Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex, and Idris Elba as Ben, a British neurosurgeon. They start out as total strangers. Alex was on her way to her own wedding while Ben had an urgent assignment to attend to.

Neither has that much time for the other to begin with. Alex is a rather noisy, emoting, headstrong American, while he’s more introspective and withholding. A typical bloke or typical Brit?  Was this was going to become a battle of the sexes in wild and wintry conditions?

Alex is frustrated by Ben’s non-disclosure. After all, they only have each other for company and could well die together.

If the occasional mountain lion, bear or wolf doesn’t find them, then they will surely succumb to the freezing temperatures, slip off a treacherous slope or slip into an icebound lake.

Although the situation the pair find themselves in is dire,  The Mountain Between Us doesn’t deliver on that score. This is despite Mandy Walker on board as cinematographer. She is Australian and the cinematographer behind Lantana, The Well and Tracks. Despite her powerful images of the grand mountain wilderness of Columbia, the drama doesn’t engage.

To its great credit, The Mountain Between Us makes absolutely nothing of race, the most obvious difference between the pair. Perhaps the fact that Ben is British gets around this, somewhat.

The mountain between them has nothing at all to do with race, and everything to do with personality and temperament. To a lesser extent it’s about being female and male.

If it had been a battle of the sexes, with a Cary Grant and a Katharine Hepburn, how much more entertaining it could have been.The Mountain Between Us was an opportunity for some sparring between the male and the female of the species.

If a battle of the sexes is your thing, go see the excellent current The Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, while it’s still screening.

It is interesting that the director, Hany Abu-Assad, was brought on board. The credits of this Dutch-Palestinian fiction feature and documentary filmmaker include an astonishing film, Paradise Now, about Arab suicide bombers preparing themselves.

His wasted presence and that of his stars and cinematographer all go to show that you can bring promising elements together, but you can’t guarantee anything without the underpinning of a good screenplay.

The Mountain Between Us is old-fashioned, clunky action adventure with romance thrown in for good measure. It feels so by the book with thrills that only occasionally feel real.

The dull writing doesn’t offer two terrific actors very much to work with. Why they each became involved in the project is difficult to understand.

Rated M, 1 hour 52 minutes

2 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

Eat Pray Love

Review by © Jane Freebury

Eat Pray Love, the book an American journalist and author wrote about a year she spent overseas, was in the US top 10 bestselling list for more than three years. Elizabeth Gilbert’s personal story became, with a bit of help from Oprah’s Book Club, an astonishing success.

Of course, it’s not so much about travel as it is about her, and she says so right from the start. We’re talking self-help manual here, not travelogue. But the problem with this is that there’s not a lot to engage with, really, which doesn’t explain what all those nice men see in her either. Even Roberts’ wide, winning smile can’t compensate for the fact that the central character is dull and self-absorbed, and doesn’t make for a good travel companion. Dipping into extracts of the book online suggests to me that the voice in the book is a lot more lively and engaging.

Elizabeth’s personal quest for change begins with an epiphany one night – she needs to change her life, she has ‘no pulse’ – when she realises she wants out. So she leaves a husband and a newly acquired boyfriend behind, the first of a series of decent guys she leaves in her wake, and heads for Italy to immerse herself in its culture. Food takes precedence over the men here, and she tucks into the carbonara and the gelato with abandon.

Next shift of scenery takes us to an ashram in Kolkata, India, where it’s less about food and more about nourishing the soul. She is required to do ‘selfless devotional work’ i.e. scrubbing floors, meditate, and respect the code of silence, which is hard for a self-confessed chatterbox.

When another guest at the ashram, Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins) gives her a hard time then becomes a friend, it suddenly looks like things will become interesting. He does her the compliment of revealing his own pain, and it is a moment of truth in a sea of platitudes, but the screenplay sends him packing back to the States to sort out his life.

Final stop, beautiful Bali, and Elizabeth is on the point of finding herself, or restoring her balance, or whatever, when she encounters Felipe (Javier Bardem), a man to knock any girl off her perch. She certainly wasn’t going to be bowled over by the buff Aussie bloke she met at a party. Where did casting get its Australian actors?

It was however, a rare treat to see Christine Hakim, once a major star in Indonesia, in a small role as a traditional healer who develops a friendship with Elizabeth. Another interesting possibility that goes nowhere in this rambling odyssey of self-discovery.

In a capsule: An odyssey of self-discovery with Italy, India and Indonesia as background scenery. With a bland performance from Julia Roberts as the main character and interesting occasional characters who keep disappearing, there isn’t a lot to engage on this rambling journey.

2 stars