Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Dolittle

PG, 101 minutes

Review by Jane Freebury

3 Stars

The Dr Dolittle character was first created by a young British engineer while fighting in the trenches in World War I. Army engineer Hugh Lofting was appalled by what he saw on the battlefield and concocted the stories in his letters home, rather than relate the horrors that he had witnessed.

It set in train a popular series of children’s books, but the first Dolittle film with a stellar cast in 1967 failed to launch at the box office.

a champion of the environment and everything in it, could be just the guy to have around right now

Eddie Murphy turned that around in the late 1990s with back-to-back Dolittle comedies. Critics didn’t care for them but the movies were hits everywhere.

Now you might think that someone who talks to animals could be just the guy to have around right now. A champion of the environment and everything in it, an eccentric in touch with his evolutionary DNA. Time will tell.

Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) in 2020 has become quite the recluse. He lives in isolation on a country estate, preferring the company of Poly the parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), and Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena) and others. All creatures are CGI.

It can’t last, of course. Some pesky kids come knocking. There’s a local lad, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collet), with an injured squirrel that needs treatment and a chirpy girl who brings an urgent message from Buckingham Palace. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), lady-in-waiting to the queen, tells Dolittle that the monarch (Jessie Buckley) is gravely ill and asking for him, actually her veterinarian. Queen Victoria has sensed she is not in good hands while Lord Badgely (Jim Broadbent) and physician Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) hang around.

Though he resists and adopts a foetal pose, Dolittle is drugged, shaven and dragged off to the palace. Becoming aware of a plot against Victoria’s life once there he undertakes to save her life. He will need to find the antidote to poison that she needs to live, found in an exotic fruit in a far-away land. Something vaguely like a rambutan, from somewhere vaguely like the Indonesian archipelago.

The fruit of the Eden Tree is the very fruit that Dolittle’s wife, Lily, died trying to find seven years before. Dolittle sets sail with his menagerie for crew and young Tommy, who has enlisted as his apprentice.

it’s the creatures with fur and feathers that don’t engage, a fatal flaw

In this animated and live action kids’ adventure, Downey is always watchable and just fine as the doctor. Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, king of the bandits, is a gravely-voiced menace. No issues with the dodgy, plotting courtiers played by Broadbent and Sheen either.

It’s the creatures with fur or feathers or fins that don’t engage. It’s a fatal flaw. They are there for the kids.

A long list of top actors including Emma Thompson, Marion Cottillard and Ralph Fiennes and more lined up to voice parrots, foxes, monkeys, tigers, gorillas, polar bears and ostriches. If only their characters were more fun.

It’s fine for the animals to look cartoonish, not particularly lifelike. It doesn’t undermine the live action in a kids’ show.

Dolittle has been slow to arrive on screen. There are stories of re-writes and re-shoots and other delays. The critics, sensing a production unsteady on its newborn legs, have piled on one by one.

It doesn’t deserve the universal panning it has been getting. Though the characters don’t exactly come alive, the jokes, visual and verbal, do pull some surprises.

When it was over, children near me didn’t muck up or run from the cinema shrieking. They stayed to dance during the jaunty final credits.

They would have loved the look. The study in Dolittle Manor with its high-line model train track, musical instruments and wacky décor is great. Adventures on the high seas aboard the Water Lily and the visit to Rassouli’s island hangout would have been thrilling to watch too.

It may be the adults who can’t accept Downey Jr, best known as world-weary Iron Man Tony Stark, as a weirdo who just wants to speak to animals.

From director Stephen Gaghan (writer of serious films like Traffic and Syriana, and co-writer here) this adventure fantasy has its daft heart in the right place. It’s not hilarious but it is cheerful, good to look at, and has surely at least managed a pass.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 January 2020

Sorry We Missed You

MA 15+, 100 minutes

3 Stars

Review by  © Jane Freebury

Ken Loach is into his 80s now, still powering on as a firebrand for social justice with films about ordinary people up against the system. He has been an activist all his life, from the theatre, to TV to the cinema. No story has been too big or too small, as long as it got the point across.

Director Loach and his frequent collaborator and screenwriter here, Paul Laverty, have a reporter’s instinct for the social realist stories that will expose injustice and tell it how it is. They are directed with a naturalistic aesthetic as though they were the unvarnished truth, just like documentary.

There have been exceptions, like the charming love story Ae Fond Kiss and hallucinating soccer fandom in Looking for Eric, but Loach is strict with himself and likes to keep clear of indulgences that filmmakers allow themselves with sound, or music or special effects.

When he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago for I, Daniel Blake, it was the second time he had received the honour. The first was a decade earlier for The Wind That Shakes The Barley, set at the time of Irish independence and the ensuing civil war.

on the other side of the desk sits Gavin who is right across hollow management­-speak

If the accolades in 2016 were like the culmination of a life’s work for Loach, and the moment to put his feet up, he didn’t. The gig economy is upon us and he has found that there is still no time to rest, and with this painful and touching story about a delivery van driver and his family, it’s hard not to agree. Like I, Daniel Blake, it’s set in Newcastle, England.

From the moment Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) has his interview to join parcel delivery company PDF as a courier, it is impossible to imagine that things could go well for him. Predictability in the narrative is the big problem here.

On the other side of the desk sits Gavin Maloney (Ross Brewster) who is right across hollow management­-speak. Ricky won’t be working ‘for’ PDF, he’ll be working ‘with’ them. As an owner-driver he will get a ‘fee’ for his services, rather than a wage, but it’s all spin that hides the fact that Ricky has to put $1,000 down on the van he will drive, work 12 hour shifts during which his movements will be reported by his tracker or ‘preciser’, and he will be treated as though he has no life outside work.

To get set up with the van, Ricky and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) must sell the car that she relies on for her work as a home-care nurse. She sees elderly clients who are difficult to manage, and now she has to take the bus. The upshot is a lot less family time with their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) and 11-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).

 in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears set to inherit his father’s disadvantage

This saddens Liza while it angers Seb. He skips even more school and spends even more time on his graffiti rounds. Of all the family members impacted by Ricky’s job, it is Seb’s plight that speaks the loudest. Caught in between sounding like a man and looking like a boy, Seb appears to be heading out of school without quals, and set to inherit his father’s disadvantage.

At home for curry: (from left to right) Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) and son Seb (Rhys Stone)

It’s a relief when the gloom and mounting tensions clear once in a while. With a family get-together over a takeaway curry when a vindaloo gets the better of Ricky, and when proud dad takes his daughter along on his delivery rounds. It is, however, only a temporary diversion with a trajectory primed from the start. There are few energising surprises for audiences here.

Were Loach to be anything other than true to his socialist worldview, we would be surprised, and he’s hit on a rich, new seam here with people like Ricky who are entrapped on the service economy roundabout. It also shows how, in a wider sense, workers with pride and aspiration can get crushed by an automated system which elides rights and entitlements, operates strictly by the book, and refuses to acknowledge that ‘service providers’ have a life and responsibilities outside work.

Sorry We Missed You has that blunt urgency Loach often displays, but his actors are very good, and with this forensic job on the system, he has made his point.

This review, first published in the Canberra Times on 31 December 2019, is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

  • Featured image: a lighter moment for Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor)

Ailo’s Journey

G, 86 minutes

3 Stars

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

It’s often hard to see how creatures born in the wild, just a bundle of knobbly limbs and eyes and ears, can ever survive. How those baby seals can get safely past the orcas lurking in the shallows, or how hatchling turtles dodge the predators on shore to reach the sea.

This wildlife documentary for children recounts a year in the life of a reindeer fawn, born before its mother reaches the summer pastures with the rest of the herd. Alone with her for the first days of its life, Ailo has to learn quick. Stand, walk, then run and swim. His mother nearly leaves him behind to follow the herd but the maternal instinct prevails and she stays, lowering her antlered head, nudging him to copy her. Yes, female reindeer, at least these ones in the Lapland region of Finland, grow an impressive rack just like the males.

Of course, we don’t have the same patience as Ailo’s mother while he learns essential skills. While the lessons take place, the entertaining antics of a white stoat come into view as it tries to raid a nest of eggs just out of reach. It’s one of many cameos of the other animals that share the taiga with reindeer. Lemmings, snowy owls, bears, wolves, wolverines, and arctic foxes.

I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images

In three days, Ailo and mum trot out of the forest, making their way down into the lower lying land. When he is five days old, they have caught up with the herd. This is when the narrator informs us that, not only has Ailo discovered how to use his limbs, he has learnt perseverance, courage and self-confidence.

There’s often some anthropomorphising in wildlife docos, even David Attenborough’s, but this was too much. From this point, I took only a little notice of the voiceover and concentrated on the images. While the writing by Morgan Navarro and Marko  Rohr can be silly and condescending, the cinematography by Teemu Liakka is great. The images from this white world just below the Arctic are lovely, some spectacular.

It’s not just a reindeer story. The arctic fox that is desperate for a mate, the snarling she-wolf training her cubs in the hunt. We are spared the actual kills.

And the wolverine that has such fun doing somersaults in the snow forgets he is courting the female, and she stalks off. By the way, if you ever thought Hugh Jackman’s wolverine claws were over-the-top, check out the claws on this little creature.

There is plenty of interesting wildlife behaviour to watch too, and, given the young audience this documentary is aimed at, the filmmakers can be excused for trying to turn it all into a story. The editor would have been working hard on bringing the raw material together, constructing a single character from disparate vision, and eliminating any images that gave the game away, but the result is a sweet story.

Ailo’s Journey, from first-time feature director Guillaume Madatchevsky, is about the right length for children. The images of the snowy wilderness will be compensation enough for the adults who go along with them.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 November 2019

Balloon

Up, up and away to freedom lends new meaning to balloons aloft

M, 125 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is the story of two young families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, and a brightly coloured hot air balloon. It’s fantastic but true that in 1979 they used one to escape from East Germany, the former GDR, a daring act that lends new meaning to the image of balloons aloft.

On a September night when conditions were right, a balloon with eight on board, four adults and four children, drifted across the border into Bavaria. It flew at a height above 2,000 metres, high enough to be detected but not identified and out of reach of the guns of border guards. It landed just over the border.

East Germans who left were by definition enemies of the state

Before the Berlin Wall was torn down 30 years ago, the news about people being shot by East German border guards as they tried to escape to the West was a regular occurrence. After this, the revelations about the activities of the Stasi, the Communist regime’s secret police, were just about as bad.

Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) in a race against time

East Germans who took it upon themselves to leave were by definition enemies of the state, to be ‘apprehended or liquidated’. It’s ironic that as she and husband, Peter (Friedrich Mucke), are  on the point of leaving their home in the GDR forever, young wife and mother, Doris Strelzyk (Karoline Schuch), tidies up before she turns to leave. Says she can’t bear to be thought of as a bad housewife once she has gone, but she is destined to be thought of as far, far worse.

The incredible escape story has been made into a film before so I went along thinking it might have already had its day. Disney released Night Crossing with British actor, the late John Hurt, in 1982, just a few years later. But as I watched this German-language drama unfold, I came to think about its relevance differently.

It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that the families made it. That’s well known. It’s the journey that counts here, and knowing the ending doesn’t detract from this well-constructed and tense drama about a highly improbable flight to freedom from a totalitarian regime.

Get out or get arrested, there was no alternative

However, when they realise that the Stasi will discover Doris’ medication in the balloon’s wreckage and eventually be able to trace them, and when Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) and his family realise they have also been compromised, it becomes a matter of urgency. Get out or get arrested. There was no alternative but to start again.

Buying vast quantities of fabric,  some 1,300 metres, is difficult without inviting curiosity. Just how many tents or flags could you claim to be making? Then there’s the challenge of sewing it together and giving it a test run on the quiet somewhere. The odds against getting the work done and kept a secret from small children, nosey neighbours and government spies alike, were huge.

Actor Thomas Kretschmann, (pictured), seen in American action films and on TV in Berlin Station, is the Stasi lieutenant in charge of operations to track down the elusive balloonists. His character’s moral complexity suggests Balloon could have been taken in an even more interesting direction had it played the story less for its action and thrills and more for its political and psychological drama.

Still, it’s a remarkable story about the lengths people will go to, for freedom.

Balloon is directed by Michael Herbig, a well-known German comedian and director/producer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Roscheisen. It is a gripping drama with solid lead performances about a crazy-brave feat of courage.

A version of this review was first published in the Canberra Times on 3 Nov 19. It is also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

Ophelia

Rated M, 1 hr 46 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

The true story of Ophelia is a ripe, juicy fruit that has been hanging low for the picking for a very long time. Four hundred or so years, actually.

Other characters from Hamlet like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have had their day on stage, but the tragic young woman who went mad when the Prince of Denmark rejected her, hasn’t had quite the same attention.

Sure, Ophelia has inspired novels and a multitude of references in art, literature and music since Shakespeare’s play was first performed, but this new feature film, based on a novel by Lisa Klein and directed by Claire McCarthy, takes her into the mainstream on screen with Daisy Ridley who is terrific here as the feisty heroine..

McCarthy is an Australian director whose previous work includes the sensitive and underrated film, The Waiting City, released in 2010.

Ophelia opens with that indelible image of her drowning in the river,  flowers floating around her as she sinks to her death. It references the famous painting by artist John Millais.

Once the moment on the river is past, a very different story begins to unfold in flashback in a Danish royal court where there is witchcraft, drug addiction and potions that people can use to play dead. While the state of the kingdom was a matter for debate in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, here it is clearly rotten.

a street-smart Ophelia for the 21st century

Although Ophelia is noble born in Shakespeare, here she is a pert street kid dressed in sackcloth. An urchin who catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who is not such a bad sort here, and she is brought into the royal household at Elsinore, to the delight of her ambitious father Polonius (Dominic Mafham).

The new king Claudius (Clive Owen)

Ophelia’s new backstory hints broadly that as a young girl she learned some useful things about resilience. She will need it if she isn’t going to be a victim at the court presided over by the new king, Claudius (Clive Owen, in a terrible lank wig, looking suitably evil) who murdered his brother to gain the throne and delectable Gertrude.

Hamlet’s character is necessarily backgrounded on this occasion but young British actor George MacKay still manages to put in a very good performance as the conflicted prince, fatally disillusioned, thoughtful and hesitant, losing his mind.

gorgeous costumes and lush production design can’t overcome dull writing

As a lady-in-waiting, Opheliahas become an auburn-haired beauty who is spirited, sexual and ultimately the agent of her own destiny. It is, after all, the only way her story can be told anew in the era of #MeToo.

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) and Hamlet (George MacKay) together

The young adult audience that Ophelia is aimed at will embrace this revisionist female protagonist and swoon over the gorgeous clothes and lush postmodern production design but won’t find it particularly compelling. Although Ophelia’s story moves in some bold new directions, the unimaginative and prosaic writing by screenwriter Semi Chellas doesn’t make the most of its opportunities.

Now that this new Ophelia offers a fresh, 21st century take on her, we wonder why it has taken so long to rescue her from her long-suffering image, as the ultimate victim. And we wish that this key female figure had been resurrected with a stronger and wittier, story.

If ‘to be or not to be’ was the question about the tragic heroine, we’ll have to wait for a better answer.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7

All is True

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is Shakespeare as you have never seen him before, and might find hard to believe. It takes place during the last three years of his life, when he had returned from London to live at his family home in the countryside, working on the garden. There is not a jot of creative writing in sight.

When the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, after a canon misfire during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, he retreated to Stratford-upon Avon, to live with his wife and daughters.

a tantalisingly vacant space to fill

Little is known about him during the years before his death, a relatively sudden event, at 52. It is a tantalising vacant space to fill in the Bard’s life, into which steps veteran actor Kenneth Branagh.

The only portrait we have of Shakespeare depicts a man with a sensual mouth and a wide intelligent brow. In his period wig and beard, the appearance of a heavily disguised Branagh with prosthetically lengthened nose, is a close enough to the mark.

Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) with daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson)

Ben Elton’s screenplay imagines the great man in everyday life, in a contemplative frame of mind, even getting an occasional reproach for absences and lapses from his wife, Anne Hathaway (played here by the redoubtable Judi Dench), and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson).

An occasional visitor brings the outside world in. His patron, the Earl of Southampton (a sprightly Ian McKellen), the ‘fair youth’ who inspired Shakespeare’s poetry, arrives for a chat in one of the film’s highlights.

This intimate meeting, like all other interactions indoors during the evening, takes place in candlelight. The production designer has kept all the period detail authentic, without concessions to modern cravings for atmosphere or expressive lighting.

Shakespeare is less pleased to see a young admirer and aspiring writer who drops in. It interrupts his gardening, and the youth is given short shrift with the advice to simply get started if he wants to write.

dismissive of his own legacy, consumed by the loss of his son

Some of the film’s key moments are filmed from a very low angle. It might be meant to signify Shakespeare’s greatness, to remind us of his lofty stature as a poet and dramatist for all time, but it just looks a bit odd.

While Shakespeare is dismissive of his own legacy in this life story, he is consumed by the loss of his son, 11-year-old Hamnet who died many years before, while he was away.

Few of us may have known that he had a son, and the fact of it makes an interesting focal point of this homecoming by a man so absent from family, and so much of the world.

All is True is the alternative title of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, a collaboration with one John Fletcher, who doesn’t get a mention here. It’s a playful title for a film founded on conjecture rather than fact.

All in all, it’s a slight piece, and tends to sound contemporary, to help make the great man more accessible. He had family issues like everybody else, but I’m not convinced that Shakespeare’s family would have communicated with him the way they do during very different times, four centuries ago.

Shakespeare (Branagh) and wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench)

Production design and costumes and candle-lit interiors give the film a strong sense of authentic period detail, despite doubts about the authenticity of language, and of manners and family relationships.

The mystery that is William Shakespeare may never be resolved. Perhaps the intellectual acuity, wisdom and poetry of his plays and sonnets, a contribution to the English language that none can match, is all we need to know and better kept that way.

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

Top End Wedding

M, 1 hr 53 mins

All Canberra cinemas

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Everything was good to go and to go well. He had proposed on bended knee, she had accepted and even her intimidating boss had given her 10 days’ leave.

The wedding was to be held at short notice in Darwin, the bride’s home town, but when the pair arrive, they catch up with developments that put a stop to everything.

The bride’s mum has cleared out and is gallivanting around, who knows where. An enigmatic note she left offers no clue, while her dad cannot remember to get out of his pyjamas and keeps disappearing into the pantry where he keeps the Chicago ballad ‘If You Leave Me Now’ on rewind.

Now Lauren, played by the dynamic and very talented Miranda Tapsell, is as decisive as she is big-hearted, and immediately declares the wedding on hold. Her fiancé Ned, a laid-back Englishman played by Gwilym Lee, simply adores her and will do what needs to be done to make her happy.

As the pair search high and low for Lauren’s mum, Daphne (Ursula Yovich), across Kakadu, through the Katherine Gorge and other stunning Northern Territory locations, she leads them a wild goose chase that includes an hilarious encounter with a hunky helicopter pilot who specialises in tours for mature female clients.

It is a pity we do not actually meet Daphne until the end, because Yovich brings so much to the role in the short time she has on screen and it would have been interesting to know more of her character’s story. The film’s first scenes are a flashback of her aboard a runabout, escaping to the mainland as her wedding party stand helplessly on the shore. Daphne has form at clearing out.

On the other hand, we could have done with less or, at least subtle, product placement. It is actually quite obtrusive here.

The high point in Top End Wedding is clearly the return to country, in the beautiful Tiwi Islands just north of Darwin. A joyous reunion is the beating heart of this film, a rousing finale brimming with goodwill for all. We would expect nothing less from Wayne Blair, who directed the outstanding musical comedy, The Sapphires, a huge success in 2012.

Miranda Tapsell was in that too, as one of a group of four Indigenous Australian singers who entertained troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. Here in Top End Wedding she is just as natural and charming, and shows how well she can carry a film on her own. What’s more she co-wrote it, with Joshua Tyler.

It is also terrific to see Kerry Fox as Hampton, the slave-driving boss who finds her heart, but some of the other characters in Top End Wedding are overdrawn and clichéd, a reminder that less is more. If the storytelling is at times a bit clumsy, at its best, this new romantic comedy is a frothy, feel-good treat.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Swimming with Men

M, 1 hr 37 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 Stars

Angst and how to lose it. Swimming with Men is pool immersion therapy that pokes fun at itself and encourages us to have a good laugh at its expense.

Synchronised swimming works wonders for a harried accountant, Eric (Rob Brydon of The Trip comedy series with Steve Coogan), who does laps at the local pool, but the silent blue world, counting tumble turns and following the black line up and down, doesn’t seem to soothe the work and relationship worries. These are mostly of Eric’s own making, but with little help from his busy wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) or his bemused teenage son, he is heading for a mid-life crisis.

 No questions asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret

There’s a group of men who meet at the pool for synchronised swimming. They have also hit the wall and recognise their symptoms in a glimpse of Eric at the pub, tossing back double G&Ts.  They offer a gentle invitation to join them for a little camaraderie with the exercise, no questions will be asked as their manifesto states that private and professional lives are kept a secret and it is all about a focus on the swimming.

Eric Rob Brydon) caught practising moves at work

There is basis in fact for this apparently daft idea. Swimming with Men, with deft direction from Oliver Parker and engaging screenplay from Aschlin Ditta, is a riff on a documentary from 2010 about a team of middle-aged Swedish men who eventually took their hobby to competition to find, just like the characters do here, that they were in competition with teams from countries like Japan, the Czech Republic and Italy. The idea has already caught on.

Although it doesn’t have the same energy and grist and grind as that fave feel good movie The Full Monty, Swimming with Men has the same heart for its motley crew of characters. Including the wayward young Tom (Thomas Thurgoose) who the cops are after.

And a couple of the men are simply there, ‘new guy’ and nameless, caught by the camera doing funny things in the background. Change rooms offer such possibilities.

Basis in fact for this apparently daft idea

Synchronised swimming may look silly, but I discovered online that an it was an Australian, Annette Kellerman, who pioneered both water ballet, as it was once called, and the one-piece bathing suit, her design. Nothing silly there. It has been an accredited Olympic sport for decades.

However, this is not a review to give water ballet/synchronised/or artistic swimming a boost. This is to say that Swimming with Men is sweet silliness, even if it doesn’t always maintain the hilarity, and is most definitely feel good. If this is what’s needed during this dark month, then go see it.

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

 

The Mule

Rated M, 1 hr 57 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Capitol Cinema Manuka, Hoyts Woden and Belconnen, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

This is the latest film from an actor whose career began in the 1950s. He has maintained a high profile as a performer and filmmaker each decade since which in itself it gives us pause for thought. That’s a very long time in the public eye, but Clint Eastwood has kept ahead of the curve.

What has he in store for us this time?

As Eastwood approaches his 90th year, he has done his own version of ‘breaking bad’, in which he repeatedly commits execrable crime but justifies it to himself – we surely can’t believe he is duped – with largesse for family members and worthy organisations like veterans of foreign wars.

The Mule is the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a grandfather and noted horticulturist, who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel, making deliveries to Chicago. How could anyone suspect that such a venerable person might have cocaine stowed in duffel bags among the pecans in the back of his pickup truck?

No one could suspect him because of his age and clean record, and it gives him a free pass on the highway, working under the nose of the team from the DEA, led by Bradley Cooper’s agent Colin Bates. Even the ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) who we expect knew him well doesn’t catch on when Earl tells her the truth.

The concept is not a fanciful, either. The Mule is based on a media report that is hard to improve upon.

In 2014, The New York Times ran the story of one Leo Sharp, a veteran and horticulturist famous for his day lilies who became a drug mule, and eventually the cartel’s star recruit. Sharp’s name is changed to Earl Stone in the film, written by Nick Schenk, the screenwriter Eastwood worked with on Gran Torino, another film in which he plays, with some alarming ease, a bigoted old codger.

It’s a role tailor made for Eastwood. Relaxed, behind the wheel of his Ford he looks the part as much as he did on the back of a horse. The laid-back soundtrack suits the languid pacing, though running time is indulgently long. As a crime drama it is largely amiable and easy going, with little tension, and nothing like the high-stakes game that drug running is in real life.

This is because The Mule, with its incidental threesome and gun-toting criminals, is less crime drama than it is a family drama. Earl regrets his failures as a husband and father. It is noteworthy that Eastwood’s daughter Alison has a key role as Iris, who is—wait for it—Earl’s estranged daughter.

Earning a small fortune with every delivery, Earl uses it to buy back the family home and to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, but he also gives of his time, the thing that was so much harder for him to yield to those who needed him.

Eastwood so often manages to weave social commentary into his films. It’s what that makes them resonate, time and again. Here he is an elderly, working class male with racist and chauvinist attitudes, who is trying to learn a few life lessons in a fast-changing world that offers shrinking opportunity to him and his kind.

An eye to the big picture seems to me why, over the long years, Eastwood often has something to say beyond the plot and character. This is not his best work, but it encourages thought rather than satiation. When you think about it, the simple cowboy of Rawhide has come a long way.

Jane’s reviews can also be read at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Diaries)

 

 

 

 

Vice

M, 2 hrs 13 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 stars

 

Controversial and reviled, American politician Dick Cheney is fair game for filmmaker Adam McKay who had his say on bad corporate behaviour in The Big Short, in 2015. Very entertaining it was too. A deft explanation of how the global financial crisis came to pass, leaving us in no doubt about the amoral behaviour in financial services that had such a big hand in it.

For former Saturday Night Live writer, McKay, a natural satirist who knows exactly how to take down anybody and anything, Cheney presents rich material.

Despite a long career in politics – notably as a chief of staff, a former defence secretary and a vice president  – and a key role in US strategies leading to and after the Iraq War, Cheney has apparently had little to say for himself.

Vice gleefully and unreservedly makes the most of this with Christian Bale as Cheney, big as a whale, filling the screen. However, little else emerges from this opaque political personality, who is presented yet again as a shadowy space that others have become accustomed to filling.

I went along to Vice to get the goods, as I had in The Big Short. Who was this man, committed Republican and Washington insider during the most controversial and destructive period in recent US political history? On the man and his view of the world, Vice offers scant insight.

Turning to the internet, I found there was more to him. It’s interesting to see that aside from a penchant for pastries, a predisposition to heart attacks and getting pulled over while driving under the influence when young, he has been elected five times to the US House of Representatives.

In its errors of omission, Vice would have us believe that Cheney was a bit of a no-hoper, a no-hoper with an ambitious wife. Someone who somehow or other struck it lucky after he failed at Yale (twice actually), after which he took a job as a linesman, before he proceeded, inexplicably, to an internship in the US administration.

Actually, Cheney has two degrees in political science, and was once registered for a doctorate. His formidable wife Lynne, played here by Amy Adams, went on to get hers, and has subsequently written a raft of books on American history.

Coy disclaimers at the start of Vice, that they did their ‘f—-ing best’ to present the facts, only sidesteps the issue of omission here.

Entertaining and audacious it is, with a brave central performance from Bale (also in The Big Short) as the dubious ideologue and with terrific support from Adams as his wife and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Much of the early low-angle camerawork ensures that everyone looks their least attractive. While Sam Rockwell, apparently without any prosthetic at all, nails it as George W Bush.

So who, in an unfortunate sign of these times, wants to complain when a film is this entertaining? It depends on what you are looking for.

Ultimately, Vice, in the style of broad brush cartoon, rehearses the widely held view that Cheney is an opaque politician, a behind-the-scenes operator who is insufficiently accountable. We have been aware of this reputation for a long time so more insight into his way of thinking, his world view, would have been welcome.

I thought that in the era of fake news we were all agreed that the facts must matter again. So, what has happened here?

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (Critics’ Voices) and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)