Ocean’s Eight

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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

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Tully

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a film that shows what’s possible on screen with a good idea that is well thought through and delivered in a confined space.

Clarity of purpose can make for some engrossing drama. Even the necessary period detail here that makes a drab contribution to production design, doesn’t get in the way. In fact, the clashing varieties of 1960s wallpaper are rather funny.

As it happens, The Teacher is based on the lived experience of the filmmakers, director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky, who grew up together behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe.

It is set in a school in Bratislava, now within Slovakia, when the Communist system was ticking away and the fall of the wall in Berlin was still seven years off. A new teacher has arrived and she is making herself acquainted with her class.

Maria Drazdechova is plump, bespectacled and looks friendly enough. As played by Zuzana Maurery who won an award at Karlovy Vary for the role, she is bright and brisk. Compared to the other two teachers we see, she is vivacious with a tendency to make the most of her allure. The head teacher and her assistant look far the more likely contenders for the role she occupies as chair of the Communist Party at the school.

In my experience, teachers in films tend to be inspirational figures, the Robin Williamses and Denzel Washingtons of this world, especially if they understand how their charges tick. But it’s not always the case, and this film has to belong in that dubious category.

To kick off the introductions, Drazdechova flips her notebook open to take down details about each student. First salient fact is what their parents do for a living. Always on the lookout for an opportune angle, she takes notes as she goes around the class.

This scene is cut into a later event, a meeting that the head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened for parents to see if there is enough support to mount a petition and oust the controversial new recruit. Cutting backwards and forwards, we weave around the room, filling in the backstories behind the students’ families with deft camerawork and editing.

It would be funny – and it is, mildly – if it weren’t also serious.

Drazdechova exchanges a free session at the hairdresser for some advice in passing on where the hairdresser’s child can improve in tests. Another parent can fix her washing machine, and another could smuggle a cake into Moscow for her.

Worse still, she gets her students to do chores for her after school, robbing them of the time they need for their extra-curricular activities and their homework. When it is revealed that student attainment in her class is poor, no one can be surprised.

The airport accountant (Csongor Kassai) declines the mission to smuggle cake only to find himself ensnared in an even more compromising position. Though not as tricky as the place that diffident, former astrophysicist (Peter Bebjak) finds himself in when he becomes a twinkle in Drazdechova’s eye.

When the promising young gymnast tries to take her life, the message about the pernicious influence of the teacher on her students’ well-being is brought home.

Further to that, the difficulties the parents have in speaking up, in making a complaint and thereby extricating themselves when they have bought into such a system, is clearly demonstrated.

Czech director Hrebejk shows a remarkably deft hand and he has a superior cast to work with, including young Richard Labuda as  the principled and conflicted son of a man who beats him.

Screenwriter Jarchovsky and director Hrebjek also created the excellent, Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall, set in Nazi-era Czechoslovakia. Here they set out to demonstrate how the ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ mentality, the antithesis of a meritocracy, is ruinous for student educational attainment, not to mention how it distorts social relations.

It’s really the system that Hrebejk and Jarchovsky take aim at, rather than its said representative, the unsinkable Ms Drazdechova.

3.5 Stars

Rated M, subtitled, 1 hr 43 mins

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Standard

 

  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