Blade Runner 2049

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It took a decade to perfect the original Blade Runner by jettisoning the voiceover and upbeat ending and restoring some scenes that had landed on the cutting room floor – as they did in those days. Even though the film was first released in 1982, it wasn’t until after its re-release as a director’s cut in 1992 that it began to take on the burnished glow of a science fiction classic.

Despite VO and optimism tacked on at the end, the success of the original Blade Runner had earned its director, Ridley Scott, the right to have his way and take full creative control.

The compelling beautiful/horrible vision in the original film of a Los Angeles in 2019: a city riddled with rogue androids (replicants) and detectives (blade runners) hunting them down, a city some citizens had quit for a better future in colonies off-world.

It may have taken some time to catch on, but catch on it did and generations of filmgoers have been keenly anticipating this sequel.

It opens with high impact. Police Officer K (an overly impassive Ryan Gosling) is cruising through the sky on his way to eliminate, or as they say ‘retire’, a rogue replicant living in remote seclusion. With the help of his drone, as obedient as a pet dog, K unearths a secret that could bring the whole house of cards down. It may be that replicants can reproduce.

Rather than mooch off with this intel somewhere, as his famous predecessor Deckard might have done, he faithfully reports his find to his boss, Lieutenant Joshi, a scary, slicked-back Robin Wright. He’s told to destroy the evidence and go find out more. This eventually leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) who’s hiding out in a nuclear devastated Las Vegas.

A stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision

Blade Runner 2049 is a breathtaking, fascinating vision of dystopia, a little further advanced. Plant and animal life have all but disappeared, the rain brings acid with it instead of life’s promise, the golden voice of Frank Sinatra is on a loop. The Asian market-themed streets are busy with hookers and addicts, and the LAPD inhabits one of the biggest high rises in town.

A few brands project their logos into the night sky – Sony, Atari, Coca Cola, Peugeot – and it’s eerie beautiful. At least someone can keep their lights on.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and the team – including Ridley Scott as producer and one of the original writers, Hampton Fancher –  remains faithful to the brilliant and suggestive production design of the original with a stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision.

The vision a world in the grip of drastic climate change, and human exploitation on a vast scale with hundreds of skinny, scrappy boys at work in a sweatshop as wide as the eye can see. A vast scrap metal dump that hides an underclass left behind by technology and shunned by the corporate creatives shaping a fascist future.

Nearly a century has passed since Fritz Lang made his science fiction classic Metropolis but the influence of his vision with its skyscrapers, highways in the sky, capitalists above and workers below, is still discernible.

From the late 1970s until the early 2000s, the English filmmaker Ridley Scott was probably at the height of his powers with work such as Alien (the original), Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Each of those films told a compelling story and delivered it with powerful atmospherics. I can’t say he has shown his knack for a strong story with fabulous visuals as often since, though he was in fine form making The Martian.

It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway

Blade Runner 2049 only makes a marginal advance on the narrative of the original, and it doesn’t really fire. Most of the US $150+ budget went into the compelling visuals, thundering sound and disturbing ambient score (Hans Zimmer collaborated on the music). Not enough went into concept and script development.

The characters are functions of the meagre plot and their interactions lack emotional punch. It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway.

If the director Villeneuve has the opportunity of a director’s cut what changes might he make? At close to 3 hours running time, it wouldn’t get any longer, but he might swap some scenes like those portentous ones inside Wallace Corp – with the boss played by Jared Leto, the inventor who may be mad but is also blind – for more with Harrison Ford. The exchanges between Ford and Gosling were some of the best by far.

As were the scenes in Las Vegas where K finds Deckard, alone apart from a mangy dog, forced to drink whisky because that’s all there is to drink, and obliged to read books, because that’s all there is to do. In these scenes, with holograms of Sinatra, Presley and Liberace performing in the background, wowing the casino crowd, there is at least something that comes close to mood.

Here it’s nostalgia for a world that is lost. And it’s touching to realise that the quest overall is for something like our lost humanity.

Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel to look at, but its people are one dimensional. It’s a problem common to much of the tentpole cinema aimed at the core audiences today, but here we might have expected something more.

3.5 Stars

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

 

 

The Beguiled

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Review © Jane Freebury

Like so much, it all depends on point of view. Is it the male of the species or is it the female who is beguiled, mind and body a welter of desire? This simmering drama of sexual repression set during the American Civil War begins with a delicate balancing act when a wounded Union soldier is found in the woods and taken into a seminary for Southerner women to recover. To begin with, the interactions are a delicate balancing act.

There is much to make of the location in Virginia, knowingly chosen we can be sure. Near a wood where mosses hang from lofty trees, stands a mansion fronted by a row of massive columns. There’s plenty for the semiologists to work with here. At the same time, it’s easy to discern within, the kernel of a contemporary fairy tale warning young men to stay away from the evil witches in the forest who will consume them then cast them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Behind the high gates and overgrown garden, a small group of women and girls, two teachers and five students, have remained during the long years of war with only each other for company. Now there is a desirable, willing male in the form of Colin Farrell in their midst. The man himself, in a waking dream of possibilities that float around him in pale gowns as they minister to his needs, might think he’s never had such luck.

As they watch over him, drifting in and out of consciousness, a perfect specimen apart from his wounded leg, desire awakes in them too in the subdued lighting of candle-lit interiors, the way it was at the time.

Things get rolling when the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) bathes him while he is unconscious, or may be foxing. Soon he receives visits from a flustered but aroused Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a very saucy Alicia (Elle Fanning) drops by to plant a kiss while he sleeps. Corporal John McBurney opts for a strategy of divide and conquer.

For some reason, key scenes – like the moment McBurney propositions Edwina –  develop in a rush that wrong-foots the drama and truncates delicately unfolding tensions. The direction of some crucial scenes sees the drama lose some of its power. If Coppola was working with suggestions that she be less indulgent while developing atmosphere, something she was so good at in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, then she shouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice here. When the director was camping up the gothic with Kidman asking for the anatomy text before she got to work, the sudden appearance of the book would have been more fun.

I’m probably not the only one to have seen a Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in  Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.

Clearly accustomed to ruling the roost where women are concerned, McBurney has just to turn his big brown eyes in the direction of any of the women, and he could have his way with them. The other four are too young and thankfully not part of these games. Writer-director Coppola has veered away from the moment of pre-pubescent sexuality of her film’s 1971 predecessor with Clint Eastwood. The children watch on, pliant and observing until they become players themselves, in ultimately disconcertingly effective ways.

It was common human decency that got the rooster into the hen house in the first place, quickly followed by charity that decided he could stay until recovered, but it is desire, and with it comes competition, that quickly takes over as he becomes step-by-step a prisoner. That’s not to say he isn’t happy to remaining in his conveniently safe haven and wait out the end of the war, but the pale gowns the women and girls wear signify an innocence that masks darker feelings beneath.

Over recent months we have watched My Cousin Rachel—did she or didn’t she?—followed by an indomitable Lady Macbeth and now The Beguiled. It’s interesting times we live in.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

I am Heath Ledger

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film.

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age.

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand.

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact.

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

The Country Doctor

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  Reviewed by Jane Freebury

If Irreplaceable, the original title of this genial tale seems a bit over-stated, the title for English speaking audiences, The Country Doctor, doesn’t do the film justice either. As people are discovering.

Jean-Pierre (Francois Cluzet) is an exemplary physician. All things to all the people who need his attention, including his elderly mother. A source of medical expertise as well as solace and kinship, he’s been the town doctor for around three decades. Far, but not that far from the glittering attractions of Paris, to which his wife and son returned long ago.  He has also managed to sidestep the digital revolution, still referring to patient records on index cards kept in cumbersome filing cabinets.

Everyone who is ill and frail needs him, and him alone. He has promised Monsieur Sorlin (Guy Faucher), a 92-year-old who needs full-time care that he won’t send him to hospital, and he has endless patience for everyone’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. He’s a great guy.

Jean-Pierre has come to realise that something is wrong with him. His specialist informs him his problem with field of vision—he sees only half the food on his dinner plate—is because of the presence of a brain tumour. Inoperable, of course.

Being the kind of man he is, Jean-Pierre has every intention of soldiering on. Chemo? Non! Radiation? Non! His medical colleagues know they must act, and so they send along a new colleague who will eventually replace him. In perhaps the gentlest of ripostes to his former profession, writer-director Thomas Lilti demonstrates that no one is irreplaceable.

The medical authorities have the nous to appoint a mature woman who won’t take non for an answer. Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt) worked as a nurse for a decade before she became a doctor, but she is a city girl with a bit to learn about the country. That you need to allow people time to tell you what’s wrong. That you need to show a gaggle of geese you pass in the barnyard who’s boss, for example.

Patients must have been flocking to the surgery of writer-director Dr Thomas Lilti when he practised medicine. He has a light and empathetic touch here, and makes us feel so present in the scenes as each of the doctors do their rounds.

When the village community kicks up its heels it holds a line-dance where it’s stetsons, fringed jackets and the whole bit. Really? How surprising. Reflecting on this, I realised there hadn’t been at some point one of those big traditional lunches on long trestle tables laden with the local food and wine.

Another surprise was the happy ending, the cardinal sin of the dream factory in the 1950s, but why not? It makes a change from the prolific alternative.

In films, there are directors from other professions who have made their mark with distinctive visions. James Cameron once a truck driver, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu once a merchant sailor, and George Miller, of course, also once a doctor. This tender, empathetic film shows that whether Lilti steps away from things medical or not, he will be worth watching.

3.5 stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Silence

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review by © Jane Freebury

Here’s one from a director we can expect to throw us a curve ball. Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who enter Japan illegally during the 17th century in search of a former mentor thought to have abandoned his faith. They find shelter among coastal villagers who are clandestine Christian converts but are betrayed and turned over to the authorities. Some scenes of exquisitely cruel torture follow.

Celebrated for his brilliant films steeped in machismo, violence and crime, Scorsese turns to the ascetic world of faith, men of god and would-be saints. Perhaps there was nowhere to go after the heady extravagances of Wolf of Wall Street. There’s a pretty good chance its excesses exhausted us all.

However, Silence very nearly got the green light back in 2007.  Scorsese had read the Shusaku Endo novel on which his film is based, decades ago, and seen the original film. The book is a work of fiction loosely based on historical fact.

It’s not the first time Scorsese has adapted religious fiction. The Last Temptation of Christ, with Willem Dafoe’s Christ a stricken figure full of self-doubt, is also adapted from a novel. Kundun, a hypnotic, sensory biopic of the Dalai Lama, is a glorious cinematic work that did not prompt controversy.

Setting aside the astonishing background fact that Catholic missionaries first entered Japan a century before the film is set, the difficulties that missionaries experienced in far-flung countries is not the kind of subject likely to strike an immediate rapport with today’s audiences. Even for Martin Scorsese, this is a tricky one. As ever, he rises to the occasion.

After all, he has form with a gallery of riveting, monumentally flawed characters. The kind of guys once the stuff of B-movies, and he gives them the big-screen treatment, amplifying everything that’s wrong for all to see. It can look like he’s glorifying them, aroused by their bad ass natures, though he isn’t, but some ambiguity on that score leaves us a feeling bit uncomfortable.

Besides the obvious skill, intelligence, beauty and sensory pleasures of Scorsese’s work, it isn’t always easy justifying the attention he lavishes on his sinners who indulge their violence, misogyny, and various psychopathic tendencies. Sometimes, Scorsese has pulled back, indulging his love of music with a great rock documentary or illicit love (The Age of Innocence) but he usually doesn’t make it easy for us as he tosses around his ideas.

To hold our attention and focus our pleasure, Scorsese has made some of his best movies with hunks like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe he figures it’s easier to spend time on screen exploring difficult subject with the support of matinee idol looks.

In Silence, we have popular young actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver inside cassocks and behind bushy beards, as the two priests Rodriguez and Garupe respectively. Introducing the mainstream by the side door has its risks. Gaunt and bare chested, they may look the part—headed for martyrdom—though I wonder if other people had the trouble I had completely dissociating the young stars from their blockbuster and indie personas.

The rugged coast of Taiwan that stood in for the coast of southern Japan is utterly compelling with the result that Silence is gloriously powerful on atmosphere and very visually compelling. Battering waves, secretive coves, swirling sea mist, the mud and the rocks evoked a strong sense of man at the edge of survival, spiritual and physical.

Although Silence is over-long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it did leave me with time to think in between the spare, furtive exchanges and gave distraction from some harrowing torture scenes. I got to wondering why the Japanese people gave their lives for their faith and the funny-looking strangers who embody it. It could only make a brutally hard life and the contempt of their overlords more difficult. Most importantly, Silence asks when does humanity finally intervene and replace religious strictures.

The unwavering faith of the poor Japanese villagers makes them the true believers. They had the dignity to remind the ravenous priests to say grace while tucking into welcome food. Although the traitorous, pathetic outsider Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) totally undermines the act of communion, by absolving himself of wrongdoing by seeking it.

Strong stuff? Yes, definitely. If we’re talking the director who unleashed Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and a truly terrifying remake of Cape Fear on us, what can we expect?

3.5 Stars

 

Also published at Canberra Critics’ Circle site

 

 

 

 

 

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     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    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.

 

 

Elle

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Review by Jane Freebury ©

This graphic and unsettling film from an arch provocateur known for Hollywood blockbusters is not without its director’s signature high-level sex and violence, despite the art-house credentials. Elle, a first in French language for Paul Verhoeven who brought us Basic Instinct and Robo Cop, is set in the affluent world of bankers and entrepreneurs, and it begins with a vicious rape.

On the basis of this opening scene and several others, recommendations for Elle have to be made with caveats. Some will loathe it. Yet it isn’t a film to write off on account of its violence (you may have to turn away) or for the very contentious space it throws open to discussion.

On the face of it, there is an older professional female executive who may be in some way undone or ‘set free’ by her experience of violent sex. There is also a dangerous proposition that ‘no’ can mean ‘yes’ and assent may not be necessary. Both are outrageous propositions, and while it might be reasonable to read Elle this way, it is more complex and layered than that. Elle is based on a popular French novel by the name of Oh… .

The rape victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert), is the chief executive of a video games firm that she has herself built. It creates lurid, violent graphic fantasy material for gamers. The built-in contradiction that she peddles violent pornographic video and winds up being a victim of a hideous fantasy herself is obvious, but the film is hardly making a point of it.

Michele’s complex, layered character is inhabited by one of few actors suited to tackle her. It is no surprise that Huppert, always interesting and often minimalist and inscrutable, has often been cast in her long career as a cool customer, a difficult and complicated woman. She has been directed by the likes of Claude Chabrol, Michael Haneke, and Claire Denis and on one occasion by Paul Cox. She played a woman dealing with blindness for the late Australian director in Cactus (1986).

After the rapist leaves, Michele tidies up. She sweeps up the glasses and other items broken during the assault, has a soothing bath, orders sushi takeaway and goes to bed. Her facial bruising will be explained as a fall from her bicycle and she will not inform police. But it becomes clear that she intends to find her assailant. To then do what? Does she even know?

It is revealed that Michele is not a popular boss, more likely actively disliked, but business is thriving. For her young male employees, imagining grotesque rape fantasies and stripping young women for motion capture imagery is a daily function in their line of work. Behind closed blinds in her office, Michele conducts an affair of her own with a married colleague.

At the same time, Michele expresses withering disapproval of her ex-husband’s new young girlfriend, her aging mother’s gigolo and of her son’s vituperative, pregnant girlfriend. Why is everyone in her life so hopeless? She may have a point, and we may laugh at their expense, but she is way out of line, and controlling. It becomes increasingly clear that self-control has been her means to survival.

The eventual revelation of a ghastly past that she has had to leave behind provides more than enough explanation as to why Michele won’t inform the police and invite public scrutiny into her life again. Given the appalling media exposure victims can receive after violent assaults, her bleak past is unnecessary backstory. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that she decides to go about things her own way, and won’t accept the role of victim.

For Michele, it is all about control over her privacy. Even where it might mean risking more violent intrusion into her personal space. It is a tribute to the contrarian intelligence behind the film, that Elle is able to offer its controversial agenda.

Circumstances have brought the esteemed Huppert and controversial director Verhoeven together to explore how a successful self-made businesswoman, sexy and single by choice, can opt for full control and risk the consequences. It’s a provocation that suits them both.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

Embrace of the Serpent

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Embrace of the serpent poster 2

© by Jane Freebury

Against expectations, this journey set in the Amazonian wilderness is almost entirely told in black and white. The filmmaker, young Colombian Ciro Guerras, wanted to show the river and its peoples the way they were depicted in the photographic record of explorers early last century. He also thought it was not possible to capture the magnificent tropical rainforest in all its diversity and detail, nor do justice to the 50 words the indigenous peoples had for green, so he opted for monochrome. Does it work?

For those approaching this film with other spectacular cinematic visions in mind, a reversal in expectations is no bad thing. In years past, John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest took us into the Amazonian jungle in search of a white child left behind. Werner Herzog has taken us through there twice. In his film Fitzcarraldo we goggled at the ruthless folly of men aiming to set up a rubber industry, and in Aguirre, the Wrath of God we joined conquistadors on the trail of El Dorado, the elusive city of gold. Each of these films left an abiding impression of dense and intense, lush tropical jungle that tested mind, body and spirit of any outsider who dared to enter. In Guerra’s film, we join a gentler expedition, the search for the ‘yakruna’, a plant that possesses medicinal, healing properties.

Combining fact and fiction, Embrace of the Serpent is loosely based on the diaries of two scientists who entered the Amazon, years apart, during the first half of the 20th century.

Theodor Koch-Grunberg was a German explorer and ethnologist who studied the river’s indigenous peoples, and eventually died there in 1924. American botanist Richard Evans Schultes followed in his footsteps in the 1940s, searching for the yakruna as well.

Schultes eventually became more besides. In 1979 he co-authored a book on plants, their sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers, with a scientific colleague who is regarded as the father of LSD.

Explorers working in the name of botanical and ethnobotanical science are not as discredited as the plundering foreigners of Herzog’s tales, but in Embrace of the Serpent they still must carry the guilt of their tribe. An interloper is an interloper and nature will exact its price from those who don’t belong. embrace of the serpent poster 3 Guerra’s white male protagonists bear witness to the sins of those who preceded them, who brutally extracted the resources of the Amazon basin and corrupted and decimated its peoples. ‘Theo’ (Jan Bijvoet) and ‘Evan’ (Brionne Davis) are on a picaresque journey into the dark heart of colonialism that reaches its nadir with a visit to a mission, where abused boys turn into frightening acolytes of a deranged Christ-figure.

Most interesting is the relationship that both men, on their respective journeys have with their indigenous guide, Karamakate, played by young Nilbio Torres and by Antonio Bolivar in old age. Karamakate is the last of the Cohuiano, the last of his people and Torres’ proud strong figure adorns much of the advertising, looking straight to camera, fearless, disdainful and resolute.

Like Rolf de Heer’s contemplative The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, that also takes place (in full colour) in another part of the mighty Amazonian system, Embrace of the Serpent is journey of the mind, not action adventure.

The river and rainforest in Embrace of the Serpent definitely has visual power, and the -black-and-white is a thoughtful and interesting aesthetic choice for what is at one level a psychodrama exploring the labyrinthine passages of memory, individual and cultural. It is, however, curiously distancing and some of the interpellated natural images frustratingly haphazard. Despite my fondness for black-and-white, this monochrome jungle doesn’t fully convey the intoxicating, seductive power of nature, that winds around men and robs them of their faculties.

Many appear to have found this film spellbinding. Despite its international accolades, I thought it fell short of transporting experience, though it is still a powerful tale of colonial incursion in the Amazon basin, told by a shaman and survivor of its impact. The Amazon strikes back? Yes, it does.

3.5 Stars

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

A Bigger Splash

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© Jane Freebury

Sipping daiquiris, feasting on seafood, skinny dipping in the pool, away from it all on a remote Sicilian island. Just perfetto. Director Luca Guadagnino has exchanged the chill of wealthy establishment Milan in I Am Love, for a spell in Italy’s south with an odd assortment of foreigners vacationing in the summer sun.

In this idyllic location, in carefree mood, a pair of lovers, Marianne Lane (Swinton) who is recuperating from laryngeal surgery, and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are alone in a villa and with a housekeeper to take care of their needs.

Not for long, though. Not after Marianne’s old boyfriend Harry arrives with his daughter in tow.

With his tendency to play characters who are repressed or morose (The Constant Gardener) or malevolent and criminal (Schindler’s List), Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in this role. The actor we are used to on screen is almost unrecognisable here, filling the screen with his rambunctious, restless male energy. It’s a brilliant transformation.

We probably get to see more of him than is absolutely necessary. There is a lot of nudity, what you would expect really, but mostly when Harry is in view – and it tells us something of the man. Rock star Marianne, mostly mute as she is resting her voice, is the statuesque alabaster trophy for which Paul and Harry inevitably compete.

Director Guadagnino is mesmerised by Swinton, and has announced he will work with her again soon. He is not the only Italian who is fascinated by her. Although she is a remarkably  bold actress, her turn as androgynous rock star in  the mould of Bowie or Jagger is a bit of a stretch. There are only the briefest scenes of her in a glittery jumpsuit waving to thousands of fans and they are not hugely convincing, as though Guadagnino wasn’t quite convinced of it himself.

Way more relevant is the film’s intersection with contemporary politics when Paul and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) come face to face with a group of African men who have arrived clandestinely on Pantelleria’s rocky shore.

The island idyll begins to seem perilously vulnerable. Africa is tangibly close. The sirocco brings unwelcome hot and sandy winds and there are people arriving on its shores who seek a better life in Europe. In contrast with the hints about the past excesses of the rock era it is a potent real-world statement.

Long after this party is over, young Penelope remains an enduring mystery. Why did Harry bring her along and what business did she have there? Was Harry her real father? The karaoke with her dad ‘could be misconstrued’, after all. We will never know.

Since I Am Love, we would expect a Guadagnino film to have a sumptuous look, glamorous in a good way, however there is a certain awkwardness to his narrative and character development.  This time, however, Harry is the glue that holds it all together, as he prances about like a Bacchanalian satyr in the summer heat. It’s good he came to visit after all.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

The Daughter

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A forest of tall timbers. Valleys strewn with mist. How readily a Henrik Ibsen classic has been transposed to the wilds of Tasmania, to lend it a Nordic gloom.

Inspired by Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and from local theatre director, actor, writer and now very talented new recruit to the film industry, Simon Stone, The Daughter is domestic melodrama at its uncompromising best. It shows, as other dramas have shown, how well a dark strain of European drama adapts to the Australian landscape.

Here we have Hedvig (Odessa Young), a teenager with the good fortune of having loving parents who want to be together. The family represents a microcosm of happiness within a community depressed at the closure of its timber mill. Hedvig has a boyfriend, but is especially close to her grandfather whose main occupation, significantly, is rescuing injured wildlife and giving them a second chance. Walter (Sam Neill) is the good patriarch compared to the bastard of a mill owner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), who lives up the hill.

At first, family joy and harmony course warmly through this chilly drama. Miranda Otto and Ewen Leslie as Charlotte and Oliver, Hedvig’s parents, contribute marvellous natural performances, that are only matched by Young herself. Everything revolves around Hedwig, nature’s child in pink-tipped hair and ripped jeans.

Old Henry, a lugubrious and mannered Rush, is getting married again. The nuptials have lured his estranged son Christian (Paul Schneider) home from overseas, however he is unimpressed that his father’s bride is a much younger woman, formerly the housekeeper. Christian’s temper is made even worse when his own wife informs him via skype from the US that she is leaving him, and he quickly descends into a malevolent force. From this point on, his restraint drops away as he sets about wrecking things, starting with a revelation to Oliver, his childhood friend and mate from university days.

‘You do not need to be scared of the truth’. Christian tries to justify his actions by cloaking them in matters of honesty and principle. And surely rattling an old skeleton in the closet shouldn’t unseat such happiness. Unfortunately for everyone, the immensity of possible collateral damage is no restraint on Christian.

Were it not for the glory of vast exterior locations, the intensity of the enveloping catastrophe would have a dreadful inevitability. After scenes of weaving hand-held inside Henry’s manor, it is great to be able to step outdoors to take in some chilly mountain air. Tension between characters contrasts with the timeless stillness outside, captured time and again in stately location shot. In the editing department, the flourishes of deliberately mismatched image to dialogue is so elegantly done.

And one of the many strengths of this accomplished film is the exquisite naturalism of the interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal exchanges are so entirely believable, Leslie is exceptional here, except for those with Rush’s Henry, who seems to inhabit another film altogether.

The Daughter confirms the promise Odessa Young showed recently in Looking for Grace. The camera has simply to settle on her face to register how much is going on within. A few spare piano notes fill in the rest.

Ultimately, however, the sudden melodramatic turn in events veers away from some, in my view, interesting territory, and what Ibsen was talking about. Had Christian been seen as more the man of principle, however warped, than simply the villain he is here, something closer to the original issue of ‘living a lie’ would have got more of an airing. There was still some conversation here left to run.

3.5 Stars