Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

Revolutionary Road

Review by Jane Freebury

Since the 1950s became a byword for stifling conformity, there have been so many movie references to that unfortunate decade that nothing, not even rock and roll or Presley’s pelvic gyrations, can rehabilitate it. Now here is the film adaptation of a novel that must have had a bit part at least in giving the decade a bad name.

Revolutionary Road is a stark and strong film, based on a novel by Richard Yates that was published early in 1961, a year after the contraceptive pill was approved for use in the US. In two years, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique would find its way to housewives’ bedside tables as second wave feminism began to get going.

British director Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Road to Perdition) has shown a bit of a penchant for exploring the underside of American society since his brilliant first film American Beauty. In Revolutionary Road we have returned to the burbs where novelist Yates believed the brave revolutionary spirit of the American War of Independence had come to a dead end.

Something of a cliché, but then Yates’ book would have been among the first to say it.

At issue is the plight of the Wheelers, a golden couple, full of promise, who have settled down in comfortable suburbia and had a family. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) had imagined they were different, special even, compared to the suburbanites around them, but the film mercilessly peels this protective layer away.

Despite his promise, Frank is just another business suit who works in a cubicle 9 to 5, and despite her aspirations to act, April has become another housefrau standing at the sink in apron and heels, peeling potatoes.

With its conservative editing and long takes, Revolutionary Road reflects the aesthetic of the time, though fifties’ melodramas were full of vibrant colour, even where lives were dull. Here the muted palette of beige, pale grey and off-white underlines the point that lives have failed to bloom.

I don’t think this intense study of two people in free fall has the same raw power the original book would have had in 1961. Mendes’ baleful tale of American society is handsomely mounted and lead performances are strong, but other recent films set in the same time and place, films like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, have added further dimensions to the cliché of bored housewives and frustrated husbands. Revolutionary Road would have done better not to stick to the bare essentials.

In a capsule: In 1950s style, a film about a golden couple in post-war suburbia, whose marriage implodes. A handsome, stark tale with strong performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but it adds little new to the suburban cliché of bored housewives and frustrated husbands.

3.5 stars

Unfinished Sky

Review by Jane Freebury

One of the ‘user comments’ posted on the web with this movie’s production details calls the plot device that brings an Aussie sheep farmer and Afghani illegal immigrant together a ‘MacGuffin’. Hardly. The circumstances that have thrown them together really do matter and are not simply engineered for the sake of creating a romantic couple. There’s a big political backstory pulsing behind the tranquillity of life on the farm, and a vivid and haunting score serves to remind us of that.

Unfinished Sky is set in a corner of rural south-east Queensland, which is a still and silent place, except for the drone of a fly and the caw of crows, music to the Australian ear. John Woldring (William McInnes) lives there, alone on his farm and slumped in a slough of despond. Out of nowhere, an Afghani woman, Tahmeena (Monic Hendrickx), a refugee from the Taliban, staggers onto his property, on the run from who knows what, and deeply traumatised. He’s not in the best shape himself, for reasons we discover later, and can offer little more comfort that clean sheets, a peaceful night’s sleep and a freshly opened can of spaghetti in tomato sauce. His blue heeler, Elvis, on the other hand, has lots of comfort to offer Tahmeena, and they quickly become firm friends.

Filmgoers who enjoy iconic images of the countryside will find lots to like here. As the cool blue palette develops a bit of warmth, the characters edge closer together over an unfinished jigsaw puzzle in the candlelight. And they share similar tastes in pop music, the universal language, that somehow found its way into the Afghani heartlands when Tahmeena was growing up.

The story of how they grow close could have been a touch predictable if that were all there was to it, how John and Tahmeena draw closer. But there are some surprises down the track, when writer/director Peter Duncan (who made Children of the Revolution back in the 1990s) gives his mature drama a bit of bite, like the sting of the barbed wire, and some flashes of homegrown humour along the way too.

Monic Hendrickx played a similar role in a Dutch film ten years ago. It is no coincidence. Unfinished Sky is mainly made with Australian finance, but is a collaboration with Netherlands, and a re-working of the original concept for The Polish Bride, where a woman on the run finds safe harbour with a lonely Dutch farmer.

But there’s nothing second-hand in this mature drama about two lonely people, each with a past that threatens to overwhelm them. With an intelligent script, sensitive performances, this finely crafted movie is a story for today.

In a capsule: A finely-crafted mature Aussie drama set in the an apparently peaceful corner of rural south-east Queensland, where two different lives collide when an Afghani illegal immigrant finds refuge with a lonely Aussie sheepfarmer.

3.5 stars

Dr Plonk

Review by Jane Freebury

After a few films you can get to know a director and the private obsessions and personal politics that set up a conversation with audiences who recognise the promise in the filmmaker’s byline. They know that they can expect stylish uber-violence from Tarantino, that Woody Allen will be talking about his hang-ups again and that Wong Kar-Wai will deliver a dreamy experience with a bit of a story attached.

Others are much less easily pegged and keep re-inventing themselves defiantly, always a step ahead of the journalist trying to net the essence of their work with a neat turn of phrase. Clearly Rolf de Heer is one of these.

A new film by de Heer has become an event, as we’ve come to expect the unexpected from this maverick Adelaide-based director and we anticipate a good yarn from him because he tells a great story, where others flounder. There’s often a good yarn in the story behind his films too.

There was some old filmstock way past its use-by-date lying at the back of the fridge during the making of Ten Canoes, and it gave him the idea for a silent B&W comedy. A film like the Chaplin and Sennett silent comedies that he’d enjoyed as a child.

Next he found himself some actors who could do slapstick. Adelaide street busker Nigel Lunghi plays Dr Plonk with acrobatic skill and flair, slipping on banana skins, climbing steel girders and nimbly dodging policemen in some classic chase sequences. And he is ably assisted by Paul Blackwell as his assistant, Magda Szubanski as his winsome wife and Tiberius the dog, who very nearly steals the show.

After calculating that the end of the world is nigh, Dr Plonk builds a time machine to confirm that his predictions are correct. It lands him the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is nearly swarmed at a girl’s school, and nearly roasted by cannibals wearing grass skirts over their shorts. Then towards the end there’s a run in with the anti-terrorism squad, introducing a more serious mood, though the wonderful jaunty score continues.

A B&W silent comedy isn’t such a crazy idea either when you hear about the revival of interest in silent cinema, with established festivals in the US and Europe. There’s even one dedicated to silent slapstick in Bristol, UK. And besides this, the slapstick comedic tradition has been carried into sound movies and TV by the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Jacques Tati.

Dr Plonk is made with great skill and verve and is a fine new edition to the silent comedy tradition. I think audiences will catch on.

3.5 stars

Noise

Review by Jane Freebury

This new Australian film has moved the bar for the local policier several notches higher. Writer/director Matthew Saville is an exciting new feature filmmaker, and his script is one of the film’s strong points, rich with the colour of local idiom and pulling back from the tough talk that screenwriters feel they need to capture the intensity of police work.

Another thing that softens the police profile is the disability of the main character Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell) who is assigned to lighter duties after his doctor has diagnosed his tinnitus. If he’d a club foot or a scar chiselled into his cheek it could be a sign he had cause to behave badly. But this constable with a ringing sound in his ears, who gets the shakes when he has to use his gun, and can barely be bothered to do his duty is not particularly interested in solving crime. ‘Slack as’, would be about right.

That doesn’t make him hard to like a little. Even his girlfriend, a colleague in the force, doesn’t mind too much about his lack of drive. Not a patch on the commitment we see at home to cricket however, as he stands at an invisible set of stumps, playing shots in front of a full-length mirror.

It is Christmas time in suburban Melbourne, when trees and lights and other signs of goodwill are going to twinkle with irony when man’s inhumanity to man asserts itself. ‘Some shithead goes mental on a train’ and shoots seven people dead. Inexplicably he lets the last remaining passenger in the railway carriage alive.

This survivor didn’t hear the slaughter because the music from her headphones was so loud – another candidate for tinnitus? – that she couldn’t. Though why she should have been spared is never really clear.

There are a few annoying loose ends, like the rego number, the burning ute, and the suggestion that people are being watched or tailed, when they probably aren’t. But Noise compensates for these inferences and dangling plot points with convincing performances, an exciting visual style and terrifically good sound design.

The chill and latent threat in empty suburban streets certainly brings back memories of The Boys in some respects but the fictional world that Saville has built isn’t quite as ‘on the money’.

3.5 stars

Paris Je t’Aime

Review by Jane Freebury

Although it sometimes overplays its hand, this is an ode to an iconic city which says most visitors find some romance at least. The French tourist bureau will be happy with this confection, though Paris hardly needs any help as Europe’s top destination.

It explores every aspect of love, every stage of love between men and women of different races and creeds, between parents and children, and even the undead.

Eighteen different international writer/directors – names like Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron and Tom Tykwer – have each created a five-minute story. Only one of the directors who has contributed to this omnibus feature is a local, Gerard Depardieu, though his Gallic perspective is tempered with a screenplay by Gena Rowlands.

As Gena and Ben, she and Ben Gazzara play a couple long estranged. He has flown in to ask her to sign divorce papers so he can re-marry and they trade a few gentle insults while Depardieu’s patron slides a glass of wine under their nose.

Just as salty is the exchange between Fanny and Bob, Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins who play a long-married couple too who visit the Pigalle to revive the libido, a visit with a twist.

The ‘piece de resistance’ is set in the Tuileries, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Steve Buscemi is only sitting on the metro bench minding his own business, when he locks eyes with a pair of lovers looking for fun at someone else’s expense.

Christopher Doyle’s flamboyant contribution is the least successful, so contrived it nearly sinks the project, though it is of course striking to watch. Instead of his proxy Asian perspective, a contribution from a Japanese, Korean or Chinese writer/director would have been interesting.

Wes Craven has set his piece in Pere Lachaise cemetery at Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which has become covered in red lipstick kisses since I last saw it.

It’s spot the stars as they drift past on screen. Marianne Faithfull flits by, Willem Dafoe rides in and out on a horse and Nick Nolte is mostly captured in long shot though his bad French accent is heard loud and clear.

If the overall coherence is defeated by an unevenness in some of the different stories, it’s still very pleasurable.

3.5 stars

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s nothing to feel too uneasy about when Borat opens the show from ‘home’ in Kazakhstan. Even if the people of the Romanian hamlet of Glod where this movie was actually shot weren’t exactly in on the joke – news is they are suing – they were clearly happy to be on TV.

Everyone everywhere wanting three minutes of fame might think twice about it now. Especially if it is offered by a beanpole in a bad suit and 70s moustache, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, best known here as Ali G.

In Glod it’s all in English and he seemed reasonably safe. But when he took to the road in the US on his odyssey of discovery from New York to California, I became a tad concerned. Yet what impressed me most was the politeness overall of many ordinary Americans, even when insulted and confronted. Two hirsute men in an elevator is one of many classic scenes.

There must be another movie in it. All those scenes that didn’t make it to the screen in this breathtakingly offensive and sometimes very funny mockumentary would reveal how Borat was dealt with by NYPD when he dropped his daks in the shrubbery in front of Trump Tower or chased terrified New Yorkers down the street for a kiss, or how he was howled off the rodeo arena in Salem after singing a bogus national anthem.

How did Baron Cohen get away with it? He could have been shot at or lynched. His hapless victims are now responding in the media and in the courts.

This is a road movie like no other, undertaken in an ice cream van because Borat’s manager Azamat (American comedian Ken Davitian) is worried about flying. It has the usual elements – innocents abroad on a journey through heartland country that reveals truths about society – and the main character himself is the boor, the racist, the anti-semite and misogynist.

Borat brazenly crashes through. Poking fun at people is tightly policed in today’s culture of political correctness and perhaps Baron Cohen has gone too far, but he shows up the ignorance that underlies racism, and anti-semitism in particular. And bigotry isn’t sacrosant.

3.5 stars

The Devil Wears Prada

Review by © Jane Freebury

There are some delicious put-downs lines in this movie, but you have to listen closely to hear them. They’re mostly spoken sotto voce by Meryl Streep, where any lesser actor would shout to get the point across. Instead of having a tantrum, Miranda Priestly, power-addicted doyen of the New York fashion publishing world, delivers a brisk ‘no, no, no and no’ and a sweet ‘that’s all’ as she cuts her minions off mid-sentence.

When Miranda strides into work of a morning she rattles off instructions – collect items from Dolce & Gabbana, get the order right for her compote and bagels, or send messages to husbands past and present – as her staff scamper around to do her bidding.

Could Andy (Anne Hathaway of the Princess Diaries) survive Miranda? When she lands a job as her new personal assistant – a job everyone tells her a million girls would kill for – she tells herself she only wants to work at Runway fashion magazine for the experience. After that she will get a real job, in serious journalism.

Feeling she is keeping her integrity while selling her soul she arrives for work each day in clumpy shoes and shapeless skirts and suppresses a giggle when Miranda compares the qualities of the latest accessories. The grand dame turns on her. Doesn’t she realise that the shade of blue in the sweater she’s wearing is five seasons old? That it was the shade Miranda herself selected before it filtered down from couturier designs to the clothes rack where she bought it.

Other hardened Runway staff share some of the waspish lines. Nigel – a splendid Stanley Tucci – who works in the art department and Emily (Emily Blunt), Miranda’s other put-upon assistant, but it’s Streep’s show and another Oscar nomination to add to her record list for sure.

Like Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, it’s a light-hearted satire of the fashion world that isn’t indignant about its subject. Actually, I thought it was in two minds about fashion, there were so many costume changes.

Being skinny is a favourite theme. Heard the latest diet? You don’t eat anything until you feel faint then you have a cube of cheese. You can enjoy the parade while the jokes keep coming.

3.5 stars

Macbeth

Review by Jane Freebury

The stories behind the infamous gangland murders in Melbourne are worth a movie or two in their own right and hardly need the overlay of Shakespearean tragedy to conjure up a welter of blood and guilty anguish. There’s been plenty of theatre in those media images of dark-suited men in their wrap-around sunglasses bearing the coffin of the latest gang-war victims to the grave.

If setting this new Macbeth in the urban underworld was a good idea, it isn’t a new one. Over the years others have pitched Shakespeare’s play, 400 years old this year, into the murky realm of crime bosses and their henchmen. There’s even a Hindi version, Maqbool, set among the Mumbai mafia.

But there really are exciting new ideas here and Geoffrey Wright, best known for Romper Stomper, the film which cast Russell Crowe as a skinhead, lets rip, pitching the action into a world of brooding darkness that even the odd shot in daylight can’t lift. This time Sam Worthington is at the film’s violent centre.

Not a word is spoken during the opening scenes, as we get used to the look and feel of the modern milieu and trappings first – sleek black cars, guns and drugs. And it isn’t until after Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) is seen weeping at the grave of her only child, and a bloody shoot out in a car park, that the talk begins. The witches, ready to ensnare him with their riddles of deceit, are nymphettes in school uniform. A much more plausible metaphor for temptation than hags on a wintry heath.

If the words for which the play is famous get lost in the action – just as they got lost in the spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – the demographic this movie is aimed at probably won’t miss them all that much. Neither what has been left out, nor the delicious contradictions in the language that remains, in all the bloody violence.

Wright could never be accused of restraint, full-tilt is more like it, but he could have exercised it in the scenes where Duncan is murdered, and when Macduff’s wife and young son are dispatched.

And he should have got better performances from his actors who are not entirely comfortable with their lines. John Bell could have helped out with that.

3.5 stars

Last Days

Review by © Jane Freebury

Clambering through leafy woods and taking a dip in a mountain stream is not what you’d expect a drug addled rock star to be doing, and yet these activities mark the last days of Blake (Michael Pitt) in this film dedicated to the memory of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. While his hangers-on danced and swapped partners, the man himself went into retreat, as dislocated from others as a person could be.

If writer/director Gus Van Sant has been careful to cover himself with a disclaimer in the end titles, he tells the story of Cobain’s last days with considerable felicity to details on record, while offering no answers to the question ‘who killed Kurt Cobain?’ He also hasn’t used the opportunity to delve into a self-destructive mind, just as he avoided a similar opportunity in his film Elephant, when a Columbine-type of massacre in the schoolyard cries out for explanation.

For all that, this is an intriguing exercise. It may be annoying for those who have firm ideas about camera position and framing, about how dialogue should be recorded and what should in the end be revealed, but Last Days belongs to that modernist cinema tradition that refuses to dramatise ‘real’ life and prefers long takes to quick edits.

An old stone mansion with rotting timbers and peeling paint is Blake’s husk of a home, and its owner all hollowed out, old beyond his years, hunched and demented with drugs. Nothing glamourises addiction here, unlike Oliver Stone’s high camp tale about the demise of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors. Blake’s house guests pause but briefly from their fun to feel his pulse, and occasionally complain there’s no food in the house or that they haven’t the money to fly to Utah.

There’s no Nirvana music to be heard, though we do hear grunge and capella voices bookend the film. Church bells, barking dogs and other incidentals can be heard, though little from the man himself, besides barely audible mumblings. The only time his voice comes loud and clear is when the camera dollies back from an open window as Blake sings and plays, alone in the room with his musical instruments.

Random players come and go, bible bashers, Yellow Pages reps, and assorted others, but the central issue will stay with you after the lights come up.

3.5 stars

The Beat My Heart Skipped

Review by © Jane Freebury

The world of real estate doesn’t seem to lend itself to cinema particularly, though it worked well enough for Glengarry Glen Ross, and Annette Bening sent it up wittily in American Beauty too. In this new film from French director Jacques Audiard and screenwriter collaborator Tonino Benacquista it presents one of two life choices, whether to stay in property or move over to the sublime world of classical music. The problem for the movie is how to get there.

A young Parisian calls himself a broker but he really operates as a debt collector and an evicter, with a kit bag of rats and baseball bats to chase squatters from rental apartments. The hardman role of Tom is new for Romain Duris, who’s usually seen in amiable roles in films like Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment, but he certainly rises to the occasion.

In a chance encounter with his late mother’s musical agent, it becomes clear there’s another side to him. Techno might fill his head while out and about, but at home he plays recordings of the work of his mother, a classical concert pianist, and he’s beginning to want to play again himself after a 10-year break.

A young Vietnamese woman recently arrived in Paris becomes his teacher. It is a challenging relationship, as the few words they share are English, which also happens to be the language Tom uses when he is at his most threatening as an enforcer.

Tom’s affair with Miao-Lin develops off screen, but the core relationship in The Beat My Heart Skipped is really between fathers and sons. Tom has two life choices – whether to follow his father’s dangerous occupation as a wheeler and dealer or to pursue a life in music.

Jacques Audiard’s last film Read My Lips was a brilliant contribution to the tradition of French thrillers with convincing characters and great style, though The Beat My Heart Skipped doesn’t reach quite the same heights. Romain Duris as Tom, one-part gangster one-part artist, is tortured and riven and The Beat is made with real flair but it doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the problem it sets itself.

I haven’t seen the Harvey Keitel original, Fingers, on which this is based, but maybe that movie was more convincing at finding a way for its protagonist to shed skins and find another way.

3.5 stars