Tag Archives: 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

Fahrenheit 9/11

Review by © Jane Freebury

The deliberations of the jury at the Cannes film festival this year aren’t on public record, but it’s hard to imagine how Fahrenheit 9/11 could have beaten the pick of the pack when new work from the best of the world’s directors was in competition. Critics enthused over Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 and Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, but the doco won.

Jury leader Quentin Tarantino surely has a story to tell, but to the media he says disingenuously that the decision to award Michael Moore the Palme D’Or wasn’t political. With a war being waged a short distance away across the Mediterranean, were the jurists feeling they should brush the usual aesthetic criteria aside and pass the prize to an angry polemic against the Bush administration? This precedent will surely be felt at Cannes for years to come.

The early sequences are telling and well constructed, revisiting the election events that saw Bush take office, and recalling the awful moment of 9/11 when the screen goes black, the audio stays on and the camera turns to eyewitnesses in the streets for a reaction shot. But after this initial restraint, it begins to feel like everything is being thrown into service for Moore’s argument, including the kitchen sink.

As a compilation of actuality footage with TV and fiction feature interposed, Fahrenheit 9/11 can claim to fit the documentary category, but it pushes the generic envelope for all it’s worth. While it’s refreshing to see audiences addressed in this gutsy way by a single voice (Moore wrote, directed and produced), and it’s a tribute to American democracy that such a film can be produced and exhibited (Disney notwithstanding), it’s a movie that’s partial and selective use of the truth comes closer to political propaganda material. And that’s exactly what Michael Moore said he wanted, a campaign to dislodge Bush from the presidency.

It is a devastating portrait of Bush, a lampoon really, which will be wounding for Americans who respect the presidency. Nonetheless the choice bits of footage that Moore has used to represent Bush project a cocky, elitist and shallow man, more interested in his aim on the golf course or at the shooting range, than in affairs of state. And Moore’s right to ask what the President was thinking in those seven minutes that ticked away after he’d been told of the second plane hitting the WTO towers.

During Reagan’s presidency there was a film called Being There, in which Peter Sellers had the role of a do-nothing, say-nothing character who became a serious presidential candidate. But Bush has quite a bit to say in Fahrenheit 9/11, and in fact Moore attributes his funniest lines to him.

Yes Moore gets lots of laughs out of George W – this director is a talented satirist – but after a while uneasiness about tendentiousness, selectivity, and archival snippets out of context starts to grow.

There’s much been written on the assertions that Moore makes about the Unocal pipeline, a US visit by the Taliban, the background of Hamid Karzai, the satirical national caricatures of the Coalition of the Willing (perhaps we should be grateful were we left out) and how and when the decision that allowed Saudis to fly out of the US was made. Can anyone afford to be an uncritical viewer in these times?

When Moore declares his roots in Flint, Michigan and gets to know a grieving mother who has just lost her son in Iraq, and when he follows a pair of marine recruitment officers doing their creepy work around the shopping mall where the socially disadvantaged hang out. The film moves away from agit-prop and is on much firmer ground as a documentary.

This is a Battleship Potemkin or a Battle for Algiers of our time. You have to see it, but you don’t have to buy it.

3.5 stars

Mullet

Review by Jane Freebury

When Mullet returns home to the small coastal town he left behind three years before, family and friends are somewhat underwhelmed. All of a sudden Mullet (Ben Mendelson, with a tousled look, rather than mullet strands) turns up again, on the back of a pick-up truck with a cattle dog and some road kill, but folk have closed ranks over his absence.

Three years incommunicado, what can he expect? The Judy Davis character in High Tide and the prodigal brother in Return Home – two Australian films with similar themes – both got similar treatment when they suddenly showed up again. But here the issue seems to be that people like having him around, not the perturbation that goes with it. Mendelson i¬s Mullet – daggy, difficult and down on everything.

Seems he had this practice of beating a retreat to the bush, where he could enjoy his own company while fishing. So, a ‘what are you doing back?’ is about the best he could expect when he wandered in.

The welcome to the family consists of a handshake from Dad, and hug from Mum , and the feeling he’s never been away as he telegraphs messages back and forth between his non-speaking parents. (See, he would probably say, you don’t even need to go to Sydney to stop talking to people!) Welcome home from former girlfriend Tully (Susie Porter) shows less restraint.

The best scenes occur in the family kitchen, where Kris McQuade and Tony Barry do a wonderful duet as Mullet’s parents, and at the family BBQ, when all the cross currents surface and everyone is glowering in no time flat. All Mullet’s fault, of course.

Filmed in and around Kiama, Gerringong and the Illawarra region, there’s a poignancy to documenting aspects of life in little towns (Mullet’s hometown is fictitious) apparently without prospects. If you were to compare it with films like The Castle, this betrays real affection for the people represented, without condescension.

David Caesar (director of the excellent Idiot Box) has a reputation as a critic of being a hard man to please (Race Around the World) and his own works reveal a filmmaking sensibility that likes its images uncluttered and well-composed. Pretention is out. With Mullet, I don’t know how much further the industry has come since the Gillian Armstrong and Ray Argall films mentionned above. However, the experience is still worth having, and its social relevance probably even more urgent.

3.5 stars