Tag3.5 Stars

Jirga

Rated M, 1 hr 18 mins

Screening at Dendy, Canberra

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Obstacles that directors face on film shoots range from the trivial to the legion that sink projects altogether. They very nearly sank Benjamin Gilmour’s project when he arrived in Pakistan with lead actor Sam Smith only to discover that permission to film was withdrawn and funding for cinematographer and crew had evaporated.

Gilmour could have at this point declared the difficulties ‘insurmountable’ but instead acted swiftly and decisively. He bought a second-hand camera and crossed the border to do the shoot in Afghanistan, which was, after all, where his narrative was set. Pakistan was only meant to be a stand-in.

This is some backstory. It points to a rivetting tale beyond the frame, the stuff of difficult shoots that have great documentaries made like Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. However, the long list of people Gilmour thanks in the credits also points to a big collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, crowd-sourced funding and a degree of luck.

Set in the streets of Kabul and in remote villages and caves in the mountain regions, Jirga tells of the journey made by Mike Wheeler (Smith), a former Australian soldier, to find the family of a man he shot by mistake during a raid three years earlier. The simplicity of this journey of the soul, a return to the heart of darkness of Mike’s military career, suits it well.

After a frenetic opening flashback in lurid green night vision accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of small arms fire, the pace slows as Mike finds his way around in Afghanistan, second time round. His journey takes on more insidious dangers as he negotiates the markets and cafes to get transport from Kabul to Kandahar. No, no, and no, his hosts and helpers say, the province is crawling with Taliban. It’s just too dangerous.

Needless to say, like the filmmaker, Mike won’t take ‘no’ for an answer either and finally manages to persuade his taxi driver to drive him beyond, Bamyan, the first destination agreed to. Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was the father in Gilmour’s first film Son of a Lion (2007), makes a very personable taxi driver.

It isn’t long before Mike becomes a guest of a group of Taliban (played by former Taliban). Instead of killing him or taking the wads of useless dollars he has brought with him, they deliver him to the very village he has been looking for. There he puts his fate in the hands of the Afghan court of tribal elders, the jirga.

However, it is not the elders who have the last word. They leave it to the most directly affected to decide Mike’s fate. Not a thoroughly convincing outcome, however, but where else could it conceivably be taken?

What is remarkable in Jirga is the journey through the magnificent landscapes of Afghanistan, and the connections that are made along the way.

In some scenes, the camera goes extremely wide as Mike’s taxi beetles past brooding, hulking mountain ranges that look older than time. In other scenes, he is in two-shot with his redoubtable driver, tapping tin bowls and plucking guitar strings as they make music for each other, because it is the only language that they share.

The wonderful score by AJ True is another pleasure, as are the surprises.  Such as another contribution, that comes from Smith, who plays a composition of his own to his driver on an old guitar he bought along the way. When words can’t be found, music says it all.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated M, 1 hr 54 mins

Screening at Dendy and Palace Electric

 

The cartoon that lends its caption to this Gus Van Sant film shows a sheriff’s posse staring at an empty wheelchair among cactus in the desert. The rough line drawing instantly conveys a lot about the artist and the bleak, irreverent humour that made him famous. The American cartoonist, the late John Callahan, also chose it for the title of his autobiography in 1990.

Callahan was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident while on a bender with a friend when they were young and reckless. Miraculously, his mate, Dexter (Jack Black), who was at the wheel, walked away from the overturned VW Beetle with a few scratches, but the misadventure turned John into a quadriplegic. Eventually he recovered limited use of his arms.

If he wasn’t already prone to a bit of self-destruction, this convinced young John that there wasn’t a lot of point to it all. The hapless 21-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to begin with. Struggling with feelings of abandonment – he’d been adopted, never knew his birth mother – John (Joaquin Phoenix in the role) was going nowhere, a flask of tequila for company.

The late Robin Williams was once keen for this role, but I can’t see that he could have worked as well as Phoenix. In unkempt, ginger wig, flip-flops and the flares of the day, his performance as Callahan is pitch-perfect.

And Phoenix has form in this kind of character – remember the execrable I’m Still Here – but he is talented and versatile with substantial range. Compelling as Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or as reclusive writer (Her), and both as Jesus (Mary Magdalene) and evil Roman emperor (Gladiator).

The same can be said of filmmaker, Van Sant, who has been giving us food for thought over the years with his distinctive explorations of the private worlds of creative types, often musicians, often marginalised, and other characters at the crossroads.

John (Joaquin Phoenix) and Donny (Jonah Hill) in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

In Don’t Worry, Donny (Jonah Hill), the silky voiced leader of the alcoholics recovery group that Callahan has signed up to, becomes just about as interesting as Callahan. Maybe more so.

Actor Jonah Hill, in heavy disguise in long blonde wig and beard, and 70s smart casual, demonstrates, with perhaps a hint of menace, the subtle art of influence and persuasion, and how folks can be shown how they themselves contribute to their predicament.

It is less easy to believe in Rooney Mara’s character, Annu, a Swedish physiotherapist who has a big hand in Callahan’s rehabilitation, but her romance with him is at least a welcome diversion after some gruelling early scenes of Callahan in disarray. Curiously, Van Sant was able to make scenes of flying along the pavement in a  wheelchair uplifting too, and that’s before we even get to the humour.

How did Callahan find his mojo and become a famous cartoonist in America and overseas? His path to fame and some version of happiness is revealed in this touching, free-wheeling character study, that feels authentic and has no truck with feel-good homily. It shows, once again, Van Sant’s flair for drawing his audience into a private world and convincing them, for the duration, that they are experiencing it too.

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra and 90.3 Tuggeranong

 

Juliet, Naked

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

Screening at Palace Electric

This romantic reboot for two who could have done better in life is based on a book by Nick Hornby, the English novelist with a happy knack for making us feel good about ourselves. It is brought to life on screen by Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne, actors who bring a sense of lived experience well suited to the backstory of foibles and wrong moves that make them and us human.

It’s probably fair to say that these days it takes a fair effort for filmmakers to forgo the cynicism and the lucrative crudity in so much of the product aimed at the young demographic.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked is, on the other hand, about honesty, hesitation and vulnerability, a light comedy with an M rating. It’s also about music.

The set-up by which the couple meet involves Annie (Byrne) writing a stinking review online of the new CD from Tucker Crowe (Hawke). She only does it because the singer-songriter is the music idol of her long-time partner Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and the focus of his tiresome pedantry.

When the review appears, Tucker drops an email to Annie to say that he agrees with her about the CD. He didn’t like it much either! This doesn’t, unfortunately, do anything to lower Duncan’s enthusiasm for Crowe, enthusiasm already so great that he has an entire room in the house that he and Annie share devoted to Crowe memorabilia.

Earnest and awkward, Duncan is another of those male characters from Hornby who are totally captured by their interests, be it football (Fever Pitch) or music (High Fidelity), while they struggle in their romantic relationships. Fixations like these are common to Hornby’s work, and here the team of four writers who adapted Juliet, Naked for the screen have let it run parallel with the romance.

Hawke is the embodiment of cool, totally at ease in his own skin. It’s fair to say that his talents haven’t received the recognition that he has deserved since his breakout role, while still in school, in the marvellous Dead Poet’s Society. Perhaps a rich personal life got in the way, perhaps he hasn’t made enough strategic choices. Perhaps he has never sought more than he has attained, anyway. This raffish actor has an effortless ability for convincing audiences that his characters are authentic, no more so than in the Before trilogy opposite Julie Delpy.

The same can be said of the talents of Rose Byrne, an actor from Sydney who lives in New York. Her private life might be less spectacular, but she has been consistently so good all her career and she is especially adept at comedy. She has not, to my knowledge, felt the need to change the colour of her hair!

Because they work well together, it is a treat to watch these two actors, as people who have given up on love but find it again. Because of their engaging chemistry on screen, a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable film has a touch of the certain something that the best romantic comedies have managed to lay claim to.

Duncan, meanwhile, barely notices what he’s lost. When his idol embarks on a new, more mellow direction in his music, it seems to cause Duncan more angst and disappointment than when the guy takes his girlfriend away.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

RBG

Review by © Jane Freebury

3.5 Stars

At Palace Electric, and Dendy Canberra Centre

 

From the flamboyant outfits and fishnet gloves she wears for public events, to the lace collars worn to deliver opinion as a justice of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a sense of occasion. This distinguished gender equality crusader may have a reputation for being reserved but she sure seems to appreciate the importance of a bit of theatre, which comes as a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.

Justice Ginsburg, RBG for short, holds the seat on the bench that she was once nominated for by Bill Clinton. She is still going strong. Now in her mid-80s, she works out to maintain fitness for the career she is clearly committed to continuing. Scenes of her at the gym with her personal trainer open this engaging documentary film.

In a career that spans more than 60 years, Ginsburg won a group of landmark cases that helped build legal infrastructure for gender equality in the US. As the film documents her legal work, the wins in court and the odd loss, it provides a fascinating perspective on how crucial Ginsburg has been to the advance of equal rights and opportunities, and how progressive activism and social change occurs in the law.

  RBG gives new meaning to the idea of dissent

As directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the life and times of Ginsburg is zippy and entertaining and reveals how in recent years the judge has emerged as an American folk hero, the ‘notorious RBG’ widely celebrated in popular culture. There are t-shirts and plenty of other RBG paraphernalia in the US now that trumpet the achievements of this inspiring role model for young women.

There seems to be a sense of anticipation hovering too. Is there more to come from this supreme court justice who has openly declared her dismay with Trump and the new era in American politics?

Thus far she has become famous for the significant advances her work saw, particularly for women of course, ensuring that they receive treatment equal to men under the law. In some famous cases, she chose male plaintiffs where gender inequality was demonstrably harmful to both men and women.

While her sisters were brandishing banners in the street, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her case in the courts with persuasive and compelling clarity.

Personal style aside, there are other telling revelations about this diminutive legislator that give us pause for thought. Not least her close friendship with her colleague at the Supreme Court judge, the late Antonin Scalia, who was a notorious figure to many on the left.

Collaboration and respect for others whom she disagreed with were signature elements of Ginsburg’s style. She says she always lived by her mother’s advice and never got angry but worked hard to persuade and convince colleagues to support her case through legal argument. Her work ethic has been prodigious.

When Ginsburg entered the legal profession back in the 1950s, an American (or Australian or British) woman could lose their job when they became pregnant, and could not take out a loan without their husband’s approval. Gender equality had ever such a long way to go.

Her long and harmonious marriage to Marty, a fellow student who became a tax lawyer in New York, is another surprise. He stood back early on to allow his wife’s career to flourish, while he cooked (he was a great cook, apparently), cared for their two children—and cracked the jokes while leaving it to his wife to change the course of history.

RBG is an appealing doco though not a really probing one. The filmmakers have assembled much rich material, but they leave us wondering about the background to this brilliant, strong and private woman. What has motivated her? What inspired her to pursue her legal career in the way she did?

Even before we get to the t-shirts, the cartoons and comedy sketch, it feels more like RBG than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, more a zippy scamper across her life and work that a road map into deeper territory. Yet it is a stirring introduction to a superdiva who gives new meaning to the idea of dissent.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Brothers’ Nest

Review by © Jane Freebury

A couple of chumps, their evil plan and a long ‘to do’ list with little imagination for backup are all the ingredients necessary for a crime to go wrong.

It’s the substance of this new film from the Jacobson brothers, Shane and Clayton, who won our hearts twelve years ago with Kenny, ‘the toilet guy’. Brothers’ Nest makes a 180-degree turn away from those surprisingly entertaining portaloo jokes to bleak  black comedy. This is a genre that is building momentum as we speak.

It’s the simple plan that is the most seductive and once carried out the perpetrators just cannot shake themselves free.

We love to laugh from on high at the mess that mere mortals make—from the uncommonly lucky chump in Fargo on TV, to Norway’s gang of crooks in Headhunters. Once they’re sucked in, like the backwoods folk in Sam Raimi’s thriller, A Simple Plan, they just can’t wriggle free.

But with a difference here. Brothers’ Nest has more ‘family stuff’, with its two middle aged siblings who seem more motivated more by grievance than by cold-hearted greed. It takes things into other territory.

The film opens on the two large men cycling through peaceful  countryside at dawn. That’s a bit strange. Terry (Shane) and his brother Jeff (Clayton, who also directs) are more on the big and bearish side than lean and light, and each man carries a heavy dark backpack.

When they reach their destination, the homestead where they grew up, the place is empty, as expected. Their mother (Lynette Curran) is in hospital having treatment for terminal cancer, and their stepfather (Kim Gyngell) is out and not due back till later. There is time enough to set up for his return.

The intended victim, their stepfather, Rodger, may have spent too much time on his old radio collection than with them when they were young, but he is the beneficiary of their mother’s will. She doesn’t have much time left, and nor do the brothers, to work their way through the lengthy checklist.

The men kit up in orange suits and bumbags, with balaclavas at the ready. On hands and knees, Jeff does a spot of hoovering. It’s not clear why, but is likely a sign of his obsessive, task-oriented character.

Jeff also has his work cut out wrangling Terry, because ‘Tezza’ is a hopeless liar and hasn’t the least idea about how to avoid leaving clues. Why can’t he use the toilet or smoke his cigarette to relieve a bit of stress?

Just when it seems this murder cannot be managed, it is, almost by accident. Then worse still happens.

As Terry and Jeff duke it out among the old car wrecks and the mildly curious cattle, there is a touch of absurdity, and not a little realism, to this tale of family dysfunction.

A touch more brio and it would have been a pitiless, pitch black comedy. A touch more psychology and it would have been gothic horror. It hangs in the balance between horror and humour, and it works, in its inimitable own way.

It also looks great. Cinematography by Peter Falk, and the soundtrack with original compositions by Richard Pleasance make a great contribution to the strong atmosphere and general polish throughout.

Black comedy genre has become jet black since the Coen brothers, but Scandinavian countries have perfected it, and New Zealand does well at it too.

Out there in Australia’s back of beyond there can’t be any shortage of good warped stories left to tell.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ocean’s Eight

Review by © Jane Freebury

Ever since Clooney and Pitt stepped up for a rat pack romp in Vegas it’s been clear that all you need to do at an Ocean’s movie is sit back and relax and let it wash over you. There’s nothing deep and meaningful, it’s just a fun bubble.

The panache that director Steven Soderbergh brings to the Ocean’s franchise seems to me to hark back to the good old days when Hollywood was full of fizz and sparkle, and that was enough to draw the crowds in. This is a filmmaker who makes smart and thoughtful movies, like Traffic and Che parts 1 and 2 for goodness sake, but he also likes to have his time out. The Ocean’s series is drunk on its dizzying sleight-of-hand and reflects our fantasies back to us.

No way can we say that we don’t know what to expect from Ocean’s Eight, except that the significant difference, no secret, is the team joining forces for one big, bad heist is 100 percent female. Footnote: exploits are no longer in Soderbergh’s hands either.

Not a token male in sight? Well, there was, but Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) is in a world of trouble now that Debbie Ocean, Danny’s kid sister played with steely resolve by Sandra Bullock, is out of the prison cell he consigned her to by dobbing her in to save his skin.

The girls have their sights on $150 million worth of necklace—diamonds and white gold—not a panther-like single stunner, but a Cartier necklace fit for a maharajah. Diamonds were once a girl’s best friend – just ask Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – and they still are, but the context is different. While each blonde and brunette bombshell in Howard Hawks’ effervescent Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was after a husband, the motivation here is getting back at Claude, the jerk. It’s a slick touch too that the necklace actually once belonged to a man, an Indian prince.

Debbie has had more than five long years in prison to stew and to refine a plan for a major heist. The plan is to lift a whopping diamond necklace from the neck of celebrity actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala, of all places.

It evolves as a minutely detailed, baroque plot indeed, as Debbie and her bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett, looking sharp in pant suits), and the rest of the team bring their individual skills to bear on its execution.

Rihanna’s rasta hacker and Awkwafina’s street grifter make their mark but among all the great talent. However, it’s Anne Hathaway who is able to make the most of her role as the celebrity-hungry model, on whose neck the jewellery is to hang and from which it is to be taken.

Piece by piece, the plan falls into place. Debbie’s gang operate like clockwork until the heist attracts another participant in a surprise turn of events. The follow-on might well be the best part of the movie.

A bit more fizz and bounce wouldn’t have gone astray, overall. A dramatic near-miss or a slip-up or two would have helped, but director and co-writer Gary Ross and team let these opportunities pass by. On with the show!

In more ostentatious and less liberated times, Monroe’s Lorelei believed a big diamond ring, a girl’s best friend. Insurance against misfortune.

In Ocean’s Eight, the sheer scale of the loot could pose a problem but the gang shows how diamonds today can still, with a little know how and a lot of teamwork, be any girl’s best friend.

3.5 Stars

Screening at Dendy (Canberra Centre), Palace Electric (NewActon, Nishi) and Hoyts, Belconnen

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Tully

Review by © Jane Freebury

Somehow or other, the South African-American actress Charlize Theron is able to switch between the most intimate of stories, like this one, Tully, and action adventure and make it work. As the one-armed road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, she nailed Imperator Furiosa with a steely performance while here she seems just like a woman feels after a new baby and a string of sleepless nights.

In a daring career move in her twenties, Theron took up the role of a serial killer in the film Monster (2003). It was a memorable performance as she negotiated the character, a former prostitute convicted of killing six men and executed for her crimes. She didn’t look good either, even though you might think it impossible of Theron.

This actress is clearly someone who loves a challenge and is able to live in the skin of her character—quite an asset. In Jason Reitman’s new film she is Marlo, a mother in her early forties who has just had her third child. To get into character she had put on weight again, as she did in Monster.

New baby Mia is adorable but demanding. Marlo is also coping with a son with behavioural problems and an unintentionally inattentive husband, Drew (Ron Livingstone). She is on leave from work in human resources—where she says, ruefully, her English literature degree got her—and there’s not much to go back to work for either.

Her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) and his wife seem to be on top of it all. So well organised are they, they have no difficulty in combining stylish dinner parties with family life. As a baby shower gift, he offers to pay for a night nanny, and it isn’t long before Marlo caves in and makes the call.

Night-time nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) also seems supremely in control of her life. She is everything Marlo is not. Single, slim, carefree, responsible only to herself.

Annoyingly upbeat, as played by Davis. Then again she underlines how new mothers, left wondering what happened to their bodies and when they will ever again sleep through the night, can perceive  themselves in a constant round of menial tasks.

This is another film from a director who has specialised in stories that dissect contemporary life choices and responsibilities, and it is very welcome.

Memorable characters Reitman has offered us are corporate downsizer (George Clooney) who comes face-to-face with his solitary existence in Up in the Air and pregnant teenager (Ellen Page) in Juno, who will go to term but won’t keep the baby. While Clooney’s character finds himself marooned as the result of life choices, young Juno manages to get through it all, and move on.

Although Tully explores the dilemma that many women have to confront as mothers, the narrative in the film falls short. It is frustrating, because the exposition is so authentic and promising, and is the work of screenwriter Diablo Cody, Reitman’s frequent collaborator.

The sequence where the two women go out together to experience Marlo’s old haunts in Bushwick when she was single, opens up a new dimension, but the narrative stalls. Both Juno and Up in the Air have a similarly modest running time, but they offer more complexity with more satisfying results.

The film’s imaginative fugue ends up being rather internalist. This is also its charm, but Tully would have benefited from more heft and with one or two other characters who were more layered too.

Rated M, 96 minutes

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Review by © Jane Freebury

As the filmmaker behind every second person’s favourite comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the director Mike Newell has had a bit to live up to since 1994. This, his latest film, is in similar vein to that modern classic with a trans-Atlantic romance, an ill-matched couple, and a cosy sense of Englishness.

Initially, I hadn’t found the sound of it enticing, but when it began I was quickly won round by the lead character, the medley of endearing personalities, the old-fashioned charm, and the production polish. And once we move from London in the aftermath of WWII to the stone cottages and plunging cliffs of the Channel Islands, it looks beautiful too—with Devon and Cornwall standing in for Guernsey.

For those who have not read the book (of the same title), I can report that it involves a spirited young woman who earns an excellent living from her writing. No food stamps for Juliet (Lily James). She finds some of the fashions irresistible – who wouldn’t? – and she makes enough to afford a fine apartment too, but she rents a modest room in a boarding house instead. At the moment it is a sea of red roses sent by her boyfriend, a smooth American, Mark (Glen Powell).

Otherwise, she is alone, having lost her parents during the war, and tends  to follow her heart and instincts, rather than those of her business-oriented friend and publisher, Sidney (Matthew Goode). She is on the point of dropping the silly nom de plume, Izzy Bickerstaff, with which she became famous, and doing something serious.

James and a brace of the actors besides her have appeared in television on Downton Abbey, not everyone’s cup of tea. If this is a selling point it is lost on me and maybe others, but the performances (from Penelope Wilton and Jessica Brown Findlay, etc) are spot on.

As is Dutch actor Michiel Huisman – who others may know through TV’s astonishing Game of Thrones – the pig farmer, Dawsey, who writes to Juliet asking for help finding titles for his book club. It prompts her to visit.

Juliet’s welcome on Guernsey is uneven. The postmaster’s grandson is pleased to see her, but others—especially her landlady and the matriarch of the bookclub, Amelia (Wilton)—border on rudeness, and cannot bring themselves to welcome this stranger, however honourable her motives, into the insular community.

Such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone

In flashbacks early on, the film explains how it came by its incongruous title, and asks for our indulgence. The idea of a bookclub apparently came in a moment of desperation when a group of islanders were surprised by a Nazi patrol while making food deliveries during curfew.

The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, a British protectorate, from 1940-45, or for most of the war. To explain themselves, on the spot, the miscreants invent the idea of a bookclub and name it after the spud pie one of their number is carrying. Surely it wasn’t necessary to burden the film with it too.

And yet, despite this handicap and some risky nostalgia for an idealised past, Newell’s film has a winning combination of easy charm, lively characters and romance to more than make up for it.

A subplot involving a young German doctor stationed on Guernsey underlines the generosity and humanity of this sweet tale. It may be a confection, but a slice of such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Molly’s Game

Review © Jane Freebury

The bluff and counter-bluff of a poker game is no guarantee of a visually appealing and viscerally engaging experience, even if there’s something tangible at stake like a callow celeb losing a mountain of money. But if we’re watching the young entrepreneur who orchestrates these illegal events, then we’re talking.

Molly’s Game is an adaptation of a book by a young woman, Molly Bloom, who used to run clandestine poker games for wealthy and celebrity clients in Los Angeles and New York, high rollers with ten grand to spare for starters. Aaron Sorkin has adapted it for the screen.

The celebrated television and screenwriter behind The West Wing and The Social Network is in charge here as both writer and director. He is one of the best writers in the business, so who knows where this will project go.

The biggest surprise comes right at the action-packed start, revealing the trajectory that Molly (Jessica Chastain) was on before she became a poker entrepreneur. Before she left home in Colorado, Molly was a champion skier, Olympic material, but was badly injured in a jump on the slopes that put an end to her ambition, and that of her dad.

In a film that offers sparing insight into its main character, we see at least where the drive and ambition came from: her relationship with a terse, exacting, and emotionally withholding father. Larry Bloom, a psychology college professor, is played by Kevin Costner with some conviction. Although her mother was the skiing and snowboard instructor, she barely gets a look in.

After the accident and before taking up her place at law school, Molly leaves home. Declaring that she wants to experience more sunshine while she’s young, she heads for California.

While working as a cocktail waitress, she starts setting up poker games for her boss. Then she sets up her own, taking clients with her. Her great assets in this line of work, are not the obvious ones that she plays to – with plunging necklines, tight skirts and kohl eyeliner – but her quick intelligence and business acumen. Learning on the job, she googles poker terms and gamblers’ preferred mood music, and has soon worked out exactly how to do it all herself.

These developments would be, however, a lot more entertaining if Molly wasn’t in our ear telling us what she was doing all the while. Pervasive voiceover is one of the film’s problems.

Sorkin is obviously confident of his writing, and with very good reason. But in a medium more inclined to show than tell, the use of voiceover is excessive, even though Chastain is terrific in her role, delivering her lines brilliantly at breakneck speed.

What do we know about Molly? Her personal relationships barely develop, even with the personable lawyer, Idris Elba’s Charlie Jaffey, she approaches after the FBI catches up with her. He eventually agrees to handle her case and the ensuing relationship draws out some of the traits that evade us, but the veneer is barely lifted.

Sorkin could have opted for a light-headed crime caper but he seems more intent on extracting a serious point. But what point, exactly?

Molly is clearly a gutsy heroine, but the suggestion that she is in some way a feminist crusader seems misplaced. Sorkin’s main character might have prospered better in another field to stake this claim.

In her book, the real Molly Bloom had amazing opportunities to observe some very powerful men, clients the film declines to name. A few more are named in her book, but would this have made a difference to the film? It’s unlikely.

The problem is for me, that as it stands, this story of a questing young woman, a prime mover in a man’s world, lacks insight.

Molly is sharp and entertaining company but eventually there is too little depth to her and too much emphasis on the game—the game of life, perhaps?—and how it’s played to sustain the lengthy running time.

Perhaps one of Larry Bloom’s psychology colleagues could have been drawn in to help out.

Rated M, 2 hours 20 minutes

3.5 Stars

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

Phantom Thread

Review by © Jane Freebury

High end fashion is not a place to expect to find the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Over his long career he has fought on the American frontier alongside the Mohicans, he has led a vicious gang in 19th century New York and he has done ruthless business as an oil tycoon. Yet here he is, overseeing rippling lengths of silk and lace that are gathered into gowns for the rich and famous, a fastidious couturier.

The time is the 1950s, the place is London. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is the go-to designer of modish and extravagant gowns for high society customers. His tough-minded sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is in charge of the business, and to some extent she also runs her brother’s love life. When it becomes apparent that his latest conquest is boring him, she asks whether it’s time to have the lady move on.

With a sister prepared to do the dirty work for him, that whiff of danger in the Day-Lewis screen persona is kept in check in this role. Though Woodcock has mastered the sneer, and he doesn’t hold back when the tranquility of his creative space is interrupted. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a portrait of creative genius, after all.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships

The designer cannot abide the sounds his companion makes at breakfast, just buttering and munching her toast is enough to set his teeth on edge. Early morning is the best time for him to sketch out his ideas, so the racket – so subtly amplified by the sound department – is intolerable. In short, for all his suave charm, Woodcock can be a right pain in the butt.

An expose of the brittle character of genius is not new, and not so much the point here as the issue of control. Phantom Thread is about a new relationship that he embarks on, with Alma (Vicky Krieps) who is someone a bit different from the usual compliant and subservient woman, and someone whose character is not that easily read.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships, the co-dependency and the give and take.

On a visit to the country, Reynolds is smitten by a willowy waitress at a local restaurant. He is more interested in Alma for her modelling potential than he is in her as a conquest. He likes certain qualities, the hint of a tummy and the small breasts. She will inspire him. She has the faintest accent – where is she from? – and she speaks her mind. Without exactly talking back, she refutes the control he tries to exercise over her, and maintains his interest.

As her appeal finally does begin to wane, Alma musters resources in the dark arts that we could have never guessed she had to fall back on and the film drifts into the murky territory of intrigue and betrayal in romantic relationships where the master Alfred Hitchcock loved to work. Just where was it Alma said she came from? The film deftly touches on 1950s’ xenophobia and its fear of the unknown, with its echoes today.

The film doesn’t falter at the strange and unexpected turn in events in its resolution, because Day-Lewis and Krieps are both so good at maintaining the fiction. No doubt, it’s also due to writer-director Anderson, who directed Magnolia, There Will Be Blood (also with Day-Lewis), and The Master, keeping a firm hand on things.

There are some surprising moments of naturalism, in what looks like improvisation between the lead actors when the couple argue heatedly. Again, Day-Lewis and Krieps are so good they hold this risky new tonal register in check too.

Phantom Thread is an intriguing title for a film with one of the screen’s most successful and most elusive actors. Day-Lewis carries three Oscars under his belt. It is said it may be his last performance on the cinema screen, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Rated M, 2 hours 10 minutes

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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