Rebecca

Old fashioned glamour, ritzy locations and handsome leads, but the latest Rebecca is a tame adaptation of a gaslight classic

M, 121 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For anyone longing for a dash of old-fashioned movie glamour, the courtship in Monte Carlo that kicks off Rebecca is just the place to start. There are racy drives along the Corniche, risqué picnics in secluded coves, and meandering walks through lush gardens that cling to the cliffs.

There are also elegant 1930s fashions and cars, and lots of old-fashioned crane shots to take in the view.

Vertiginous cliffs feature, signifying risk and vulnerability. And they are even more striking when the location moves to Cornwall. The film is a visual feast.

Rebecca is a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic of the same name that won the best film Oscar in 1940. With Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in the lead roles, it was the director’s first Hollywood feature.

There is, almost inevitably in any text influenced by Hitchcock, a vulnerable blonde. Lily James (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, and Baby Driver) steps into the role of potential victim here.

Since it was published in 1938, the Daphne du Maurier Gothic novel on which the film is based has never been out of print. It is a psycho-drama of passion, lust and jealousy, themes that never date. Every new generation needs its Rebecca re-envisaged.

James’ character, who is nameless until she marries and becomes a Mrs, has arrived in the luxe resort with her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Ann Dowd). She is the older woman’s paid companion.

James plays a girl who is well read, can sketch and drive a car. Not an everyday skill in the 1930s when Rebecca is set. But she is poor, a sin in those days, and not terribly welcome in the ruling class.

Critically, she is without parents or other family. As a woman alone in the world, she is prey to the worst of the worst kind of rogue and villain.

The two women are staying at a ritzy hotel, the type of place that attracts anyone who is anybody, like wealthy English widowers who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Since his wife drowned in a boating accident a year ago, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) has found little to keep himself amused, until an awkward, self-conscious English girl (Lily James) appears.

There is a whirlwind romance and the new Mrs de Winter is carried off to the remote pile in Cornwall that her husband calls home, Manderley.

It is classic entrapment. Mrs de Winter’s creeping self-doubt spirals as the mansion’s small army of servants sideline their new boss and show how inadequate she is for the role she finds herself in.

Audiences new to the Rebecca story might expect Max de Winter to be the source of danger. Du Maurier’s Rebecca was born into the same era as the original  ‘gaslight’ book and film, after all.

But no. Threats to the new Mrs de Winter emanate from the grave. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is spooked by the black hair of her dead rival that’s still entangled in a hairbrush. By the elegant copperplate ‘R’ on objects scattered around, a sure sign that nothing of what she seems to own, can or ever will belong to her.

As head of the household staff, Mrs Danvers – Kristin Scott Thomas icy tough in the role – leads the charge, humiliating and undermining her new mistress. Danvers even gets her to think of throwing herself out the window.

It is ‘Danny’, loyal to her dead mistress to the end, who is the arch manipulator, and the bitter rival. With her minimalist acting style, Scott Thomas is very effective as the housekeeper, though I would have thought her character was ripe for some re-interpretation in the early 21st century.

This classic tale of female insecurity and jealousy has been directed by Ben Wheatley, from a screenplay written by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse.

It’s a traditional but unadventurous adaptation. The murder that didn’t make it into the film in 1940 is there but it is surprising that it has not had a tweak so it speaks more directly to our times.

It’s hard not to wonder why Wheatley, who is a critically acclaimed British indie director, didn’t give today’s audiences more to think about in his Rebecca. Didn’t the production’s financial backers allow him the scope to do so? Some surprises wouldn’t have been too big a risk.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 October 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

Feature image: Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca. Courtesy Netflix

The Leadership

M, 97 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Taking a group of professional women on a three-week cruise combined with a leadership workshop was an inspired idea. No doubt about it. The trip to the exquisite, endangered wilderness of Antarctica would be a reminder of what science was fighting for.

The journey would offer a fundamental reset for the participants who had been selected from the fields of science, engineering, technology, mathematics (STEM) and medicine.

It was designed to help them become the sort of the leaders they ‘hoped to be’, honing the skills necessary for contributing to meaningful and necessary policy change around the world.

Course leader, Fabian Dattner, had lofty hopes that were even underpinned by a great quote from poet T S Eliot. The prominent businesswoman, leadership consultant, and self-described dreamer, has a background in corporate consultancy.

No doubt the women participating who paid $30,000 each for the trip, had high hopes too. In 2016, they were the first tranche of a program that is now established and ongoing.

The opportunity to film this maiden voyage burgeoning with possibilities fell to Australian documentary filmmaker, Ili Baré. The writer and director was to make a record of the inaugural event aboard the Argentine-based icebreaker, Ushuaia.

Multi-award winning photographer Peter de Vries was also on board. His location vision would be interspersed with cinematography from director of photography, Dale Cochran, who covered the group interaction.

I was all set to go too, up for virtual adventure, when at one of the early group sessions, Dattner upbraided the late arrivals.  The public ticking off for professional women and the manner in which it was done is uncomfortable viewing. Where were we headed?

As the plot thickens, the images of pristine snowbound wilderness are unspeakably beautiful. High-angle drone shots as the Ushuaia ploughs through the ocean were magnificent, but the images of life beyond the events onboard are ultimately, inevitably, too few.

The small representative group that writer-director Baré has selected to be the film’s focus include a wildlife population modeller, an environmental scientist, a climate change activist, a soil scientist, a krill biologist and a science communicator. We learn of their particular workplace issues, and get a sense of their career journey before and beyond the film timeframe.

participants urged to allow transformational change to propel them forward

From time to time, there are intertitles with juicy facts such as female participation in STEM careers after having children. The global gender pay gap, the percentage of publications in female-driven scientific research, and more confirm the inequities for women in their particular fields.

One of the participants reported her experience of sexual assault when she was the only female among 40 men at an isolated site. A disturbing percentage of the women reported sexual harassment, even assault, in the field.

Dattner’s leadership style and philosophy begin to come into question during these sessions. At her insistence, the women should delve into themselves in order to let go of stuff that had been ‘holding back’ their careers, and allow for the ‘transformational change’ that could propel them forward.

the wonder of the wilderness failed to divert from difficulties on board

Some of the participants pointed out there were other ways of looking at structural inequality in their chosen fields. It was not just up to them to fix things. Some of Dattner’s responses to their criticisms are startling.

It becomes painfully clear that Dattner’s mentoring style and conceptual approach do not sit well with the women in science. By the time the cruise has reached the seas around Paulet Island, she was being seriously challenged.

Through the portholes, whales could be seen breaching the sea surface and penguins were tumbling into the water as the Ushuaia travelled past, but the wonder of it all failed to divert from the difficulties on board.

As a strategy facilitator observes, the leader did not have the capacity to manage what had come up. A clinical psychologist was installed for subsequent cruises.

This maiden voyage of the Homeward Bound project was certainly not an unqualified success. But it grew an international network and that is definitely a positive outcome.

At a time when leadership is on everyone’s mind, when the contrast between different styles couldn’t be more stark, there is growing interest in observing women in leadership roles.

It’s a pity this doco, though released at a timely moment, does not tackle the really big issues that are involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2020

The High Note

A rambling, amiable comedy romance that hits the right light notes while making a point about women in the music industry

 

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A rambling, amiable, upbeat story set in a sunny, glitzy Los Angeles, The High Note is, as you might expect, about the music business. No ‘high note challenge’ here though. It’s about how to find a way into the business, how to stay there, and knowing when to retire.

For celebrated rhythm-and-blues superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), it’s crunch time. She has to decide whether to stop touring, whether to launch a new suite of songs or stick to the tried and true and take up a residency at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.

She has a stash of Grammys – a total of 11, she is happy to remind people – but she hasn’t released a new album in a decade. Her agent Jack (Ice Cube) is agitating for her to accept the offer from Caesar’s. It would make life easy for both of them, but Grace doesn’t want to finish up performing in front of people who need reminding ‘she’s still alive’.

Grace’s does have some of the best lines in this gentle comedy romance that is kind to everyone. And that’s saying something these days.

As we would expect from her work in TV, Tracee Ellis Ross is a commanding presence as the R&B diva. Her talent and elegance allude to the many great women singers who have topped the charts over the years. The Arethas, Whitneys, the Chers and Adeles. And Tracee is in real life the daughter of the fabulous Diana Ross.

Maggie wears her fandom on her fringed  suede jacket sleeve

For a young music industry hopeful like Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson, who happens to be Melanie Griffith’s daughter), Grace’s personal assistant, it’s about how to find her way in. She has talent, informed opinions on the greats, and wants to build a career as a music producer. Brought up on 70s vinyl by her DJ dad (Bill Pullman), she wears her fandom on her fringed suede jacket sleeve.

But when Maggie drives to the airport to pick up her boss, she is a little late and gets a dressing down, that seems to be par for the course.

The rust bucket Maggie drives and her taste in clothes, are they a reflection of personal style or a reflection of her pay scale? When Grace registers the state of Maggie’s car, she tells her she should ask her boss for a raise. A shared joke, or is it?

Maggie has been three years in the job, but High Note doesn’t seek to make a point of this, or remind us of anything that might look like inter-generational inequity.

Johnson’s doe-eyed looks made me feel uncomfortable when I watched her in Fifty Shades of Grey, too. Her look here is retro 70s, but the timidity is not quite plausible in a modern-day top-flight PA.

Not everyone wants to get into the music business. Talented singer-songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr), isn’t sure he doesn’t just want to sing in public when he feels like it.

As a love interest and with music Maggie would love to produce, David takes the narrative in a new direction, but the couple who join hands at the conclusion are not who you might expect. Yet another plot twist, the final big reveal is pretty implausible.

The High Note, is based on a screenplay by first-time feature screenwriter, Flora Greeson. It needed a tough edit to eliminate rambling threads and lift the dialogue.

It has been directed by Nisha Ganatra, who directed Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in Late Night, released last year. Written by Kaling, that screenplay also pitted a successful older career woman with a sharp tongue, against her Gen Y assistant who wants what she’s got.

Late Night is by far the better film, though High Note does have its comic moments and its music is a bonus too.

The High Note is helmed by female key creatives, led by two good female actors and makes some useful points about women in the music industry too. However, it keeps things light and breezy and is easy to go along with.

Some of its best dialogue occurs when a minor character, Katie (Zoe Chao), enters the frame. As Maggie’s best friend, a doctor, she delivers a reality check, and cuts through the dull bits in the brittle, celebrity culture of the world that her friend has opted for.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 September and broadcast on ArtSound FM

Featured image: Ice Cube, Dakota Johnson and Zoe Chao in The High Note. Courtesy Focus Features

All Together Now

A glossily produced sugar hit, with serious backstory and talent on board, that sings its way out of issues it skirts

 

M, 133 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

After his debut novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, became a New York Times best-seller in 2008 and was turned into a hit movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, author Matthew Quick must have been in a pretty good place. The success of director David O Russell’s film of the book is the stuff of first-time author’s dreams.

His next novel appeared two years later. Now that book, Sorta Like a Rock Star, has now been adapted for the screen in this new young adult drama, All Together Now. It was directed by Brett Haley, and is another original from the giant of the small screen, Netflix.

Like Silver Linings, it features talented actors of all ages, including young Auli’i Cravalho who voiced Moana in the Disney animated feature of the same name. Her singing voice features here too.

All Together Now is about Amber (Cravalho), a talented high school senior who is mired in disadvantage. She is the daughter of Becky (Justina Machado), a single mum who holds a job driving a school bus but cannot keep a roof over their heads.

with mom and her pet chihuahua, Amber sleeps in the school bus mom drives by day

The things that Amber has going for herself are a happy, optimistic nature and the love and support of a great group of friends. It helps her deal with the fact that she, her mom and pet chihuahua Bobby bed down every night in the school bus that Becky drives by day.

Becky and Amber have an invitation to stay with Becky’s boyfriend, Oliver. Problem is that he has drinking issues, as does Becky, and he can be abusive. It’s a red alert for Amber that Becky refuses to acknowledge.

With all this going on, Amber manages to keep herself afloat and her home life largely private. She overlays the pain of it with the fun she finds working in a restaurant, volunteering in old folks’ care, and tutoring English as a foreign language to a jolly band of Korean ladies.

Does this all seem improbably cheerful? Perhaps so, but we are in aspirational adult fiction mode here.

The inevitable crunch comes when Amber confides in Donna (Judy Reyes), the mother of a friend, a good-hearted surrogate mother figure, of a decision she has made. She will not accompany Becky to Oliver’s place.

Stinging truths are exchanged in the altercation between the three women in Donna’s kitchen. It’s a brief moment of truth,  I thought, when the film was going somewhere real.

Although Quick contributed to the screenplay for All Together Now, along with director Haley and other writers Marc Basch and Ol Parker, the homelessness that Amber and her mother experience is barely explored. Why introduce such a big issue into the narrative if it is not going to exert a bit more influence?

Homelessness is of course a major issue in rich developed economies like Australia and the US, and the figures are startling. We hear that the number of young people represented in the stats is growing.

According to official figures from September 2019, over half a million Americans were homeless. A third of them living and sleeping in places not intended for habitation, like parks, abandoned buildings, and cars. Add school buses.

The Carol Burnett character, Joan, adds a bit of saltiness in her cameo as one of the elderly women who Amber cares for. Her sharp observations, like telling Amber her good cheer was ‘insufferable’, offsets some of the treacly narrative tendencies.

The veteran actor’s character is also a device that delivers Amber in the end. Another familiar face, Fred Armison, is there too in a minor role.

in aspirational young adult mode, but dashed off and underwritten

All Together Now is a glossy production that stands squarely in the aspirational YA fiction mode. It mentions some big issues in passing, but it basically wants to tell the story of a talented teenager who never gives up, despite what life throws at her. Nothing wrong with that.

Silver Linings Playbook was good at dissecting relationships, but All Together Now seems to have been dashed off and comes to our screens underwritten.

Auli’i is a lovely charismatic presence who fills the screen but this movie, easy to watch and forgettable, is too slight for her talents. Another one from the great American dream factory.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 September 2020

  • Feature image: Amber (Auli’i Cravalho and Bobby, homeless  Courtesy: Netflix

Fatima

a faith-based story for believers that attempts to interrogate its subject, but never follows through

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A love of the visual steeps every frame of this lushly photographed story directed by Marco Pontecorvo. Fatima capitalises on locations set entirely in picturesque Portugal, a country that has sidestepped some of the excesses of modern development and where the Christian wayside shrine is still a commonplace.

And it is located in the very place where the events it recounts took place a little over a century ago.

The year was 1917 when the First World War was still laying waste to Europe. Portugal had only just begun to send troops to the front.

Lucia dos Santos (Stephanie Gil, the actor who was young Grace in the latest Terminator) would accompany her mother regularly to the village square to hear the Mayor (Goran Visnjic) provide the latest updates on battle casualties.

So long as they didn’t hear the name of Lucia’s older brother read out, there was always space for hope.

It was around this time that Lucia and her two cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco Marto (Jorge Lamelas), aged 7 and 9 respectively, reported receiving visions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions, which the audience is also allowed to see in the shape of Portuguese actor Joana Ribeiro, came to them while they were out tending the family’s sheep.

It was a sensational claim. Both officials of the Church and of the government of the new Portuguese republic that was founded on enlightened, secular principles, queried it. As did the children’s families, strenuously.

Lucia had instructed her cousins to keep it quiet, but it was too much of a secret for little Jacinta, who told her family straightaway.

Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, in particular, has anticipated the trouble it would cause. Lucia Moniz in this key role, provides one of the film’s most convincing performances.

The interrogation of the children was ongoing. They were subjected to stern parental disapproval, interrogation by the Mayor, a staunch republican and anti-cleric, and the regional Catholic monseigneur.

Watching a pallid Stephanie Gil during these sessions, my cinematic memory wandered over briefly to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and other films since 1973 that have been about pre-pubescent girls claiming to have seen visions.

exchanges between the professor and the nun do little to challenge this faith-based story

For viewers like me, secular and sceptical, Harvey Keitel’s character, Professor Nichols, provides welcome outsider perspective. Nichols, an academic who is researching the events in Fatima many decades later, pays a visit to the beautiful university city of Coimbra. There he interviews Lucia (Sonia Braga), who joined the church and become a nun.

It is an intriguing footnote to history that Lucia doc Santos lived on until 2005, while her two little cousins died very young, during the post WW1 global flu pandemic.

The exchanges between Nichols and Sister Lucia constitute the framing story and are some of the liveliest in the film. However, entertaining and thought-provoking as they are, they are not permitted to provide much of a challenge to the central faith-based story.

The Fatima screenplay is the work of Pontecorvo, together with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi.

It is no surprise to read that Pontecorvo entered the screen industry as a cinematographer or that he was a stills photographer before that. It is clear that the creation of visuals is a strength and a preoccupation. He has worked on productions like Games of Thrones.

However, in this secular age, his take on the story of the Marian apparitions of Fatima is very literal. Although there is a brief and intriguing scene of Hell, as conveyed to the children by Mary, the film steers well clear of sensation.

The film takes few chances, on the look or the content. It deploys few FX tricks of the film production trade now available, and concludes with footage in the closing credits of the centenary mass of 2017 conducted by Pope Francis that was held in the town of Fatima. A statement in itself.

If the name Pontecorvo sounds familiar, you may have come across it before in one of those best film lists of all time. Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco’s famous filmmaker father, directed The Battle of Algiers of 1966 which to this day remains a stirring cinema masterpiece about the resistance forces in Algeria that overthrew their French colonial masters.

Marco’s film, his fourth feature, is a much quieter project though it’s a story about the popular expression of conviction as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2020

Litigante

M, 95 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Harried parents of young children know full well that some days everything seems to be happening at once. A trip to pre-school to sort out why your child has been acting like a toad can coincide with a clash with the boss who brushes your professional opinion aside.

It’s tricky, to say the least, when you are supposed to be providing him with legal advice that supports the standing of the agency you work for, and your professional future. For single mother, Silvia (Carolina Sanin), there is stress on many levels, at home and at work.

She is legal adviser to the commissioner of public works who refuses to terminate a project that has been inactive for years. A ‘huge advance’ has been paid to it and a follow-up is being considered, but Silvia is advising the commissioner terminate it. He is refusing her advice, outright.

lead actor, Carolina Sanin, is a prominent Colombian feminist

Sanin, a non-professional actor cast in the lead role of Silvia, is a prominent feminist in Bogota and, as local audiences might expect, her character isn’t going to take things lying down. She resigns her post as deputy director and quits the city department.

Columbia is a country that has, I’ve read online, one of the highest corruption indices in the world. Although corruption is woven into the fabric of the backstory, it is not one of the film’s themes.

Litigante is instead an intimate family drama set during the last weeks of life of a family matriarch, Leticia (Leticia Gomez), a vibrant, cranky former lawyer who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. She is mother to Silvia and her younger sister, Maria Jose (Alejandra Sarria), and a loving grandmother to little Toni (Antonio Martinez).

An early scene sets the tone. Silvia is driving her mother home after the MRI that showed Leticia has a tumour as well as pneumonia. She doesn’t want chemo again, Leticia declares as she lights up a cigarette. We get the picture. An ailing, forthright, headstrong lady who is hard work for those close to her.

The film is peppered with arguments, or robust exchanges of views. Many take place on a trip in the car, or in carparks. A sign, we suppose, of people living busy lives. The bitter arguments that can seem harsh at the time are always quickly overlain with genuine expressions of love and caring.

The stress of it all is nearly too much for Silvia. Soon after being subjected to an incriminating interview by journalist Abel (Vladimir Duran), Silvia meets him again while out one evening with friends. Silvia and Abel instantly discover their mutual physical attraction.

director Lillo has put a lot of himself into his film, including a role for his ailing mother

While it’s entirely plausible, the affair seems to be expedited for the sake of the narrative, in a rare unconvincing moment. When Leticia hears about it, she is horrified that her daughter has got together with the ‘jerk’ who ‘humiliated’ her in front of ‘all Columbia’. I was wondering the same thing.

Essentially, Litigante foregrounds a household dominated by three women, the ailing mother and her daughters and the supportive community to which they belong.

Director and co-writer Franco Lillo has put a lot of himself into this film. The actor who plays Leticia is his own mother, also a former lawyer, who was at the time of production in remission for a cancer of her own. Lillo is her only child.

The transcripts of interview with the filmmaker that accompany the film’s press kit are thoughtful and interesting, but I don’t think the results quite match the filmmaker’s brave aspirations, sensitive and sincere as they are.

Litigante reminded me of A Woman’s Tale by the late Dutch-Australian filmmaker Paul Cox. It also featured a performance by an actor who was, like the character she was playing, suffering from terminal cancer. Some people may feel uneasy about this.

However, it is primarily the story of a modern woman. It is Silvia’s story, the story of a woman who is juggling motherhood with her professional and personal needs.

The fact that it is set in Colombia isn’t really significant. Litigante, a family drama with universal themes, resonates with the complexity of modern life and it could have been set anywhere.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 August 2020

*Featured image: Sylvia (Carolina Sanin), Toni (Antonio Martinez) and Leticia (Leticia Gomez) relax at the pool

Eurovision Song Contest: the Story of Fire Saga

Despite the deadpan, Ferrell doesn’t sink his Eurovision caper entirely

M, 123 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Eurovision Song Contest scheduled for May this year was cancelled due to you know what, so all the fans around the world will have to make do with this instead. Trigger warning, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga stars Will Ferrell and he is not to everyone’s taste.

It’s hard to keep a good man down but seems it’s even harder to keep a dogged comedian from the fun he has dead-panning and making a mug of himself.

How did this movie happen? Ferrell has been a long-time devotee of Eurovision which he was apparently introduced to by his Swedish wife. So, there’s some truth to Lars Erickssong, the character he plays who has wanted to compete in the Euro-pop extravaganza since he was a kid.

Little Lars got hooked in 1974 when the Swedish supergroup ABBA had their famous win with their song Waterloo. He saw them win on TV when he was at his father’s local in the northerly Icelandic town of Husavik. Pierce Brosnan plays Lars’ dad Erick Erickssong, and he does looks positively resplendent in a long chestnut wig.

That was the 1970s and this is now. Lars is getting on, he is middle-aged and has a pretty bad case of ‘failure to launch’. His widowed father would prefer that he left home and got a real job on a boat, like the long line of fishermen that he comes from. His would-be girlfriend and partner in the duo Fire Saga, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), would like that too.

She’s probably not my sister. Probably?

We can see that Sigrit could love Lars to kiss her. It’s one of the film’s weak running jokes that he has plenty of opportunities but he doesn’t, and that people often mistake the pair for brother and sister.  ‘She’s probably not my sister.’ Probably? You can never be entirely sure in a small town like Husavik, nor with an old ladies’ man like Erick for a dad.

Full dress rehearsal: Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest. Image: courtesy Netflix

One wonders what the people of Iceland, home to wonderful composers and musicians like Bjork and Sigur Ros, make of these caricatures.

Like many of Ferrell’s characters, Lars is an inhibited, awkward fumbler, probably somewhere on the spectrum, with a preoccupation with the indices of manliness. I reckon this should have produced a better line in risque penis jokes than it has.

Casting McAdams as Sigrit was an inspired choice. She is such a warm, animated presence on screen. Here she offsets the wooden Ferrell comedic style which, in my opinion, is far better suited to the TV skit territory of Saturday Night Live from whence he came.

Dan Stevens performs Lion of Love. Image: courtesy Netflix

Predictably when Lars and Sigrit compete for the opportunity to represent Iceland with their song Double Trouble, their act unravels on stage. Not for the reasons we might expect, though. Lars in white catsuit and fluffy outsized apres-ski boots, and Sigrit with huge angel wings attached, are just the ticket for Eurovision, but it’s the technology that lets them down.

Things go much worse for the winning contingent. The boat where the after-party takes place explodes and everyone is lost, including Iceland’s newly endorsed official Eurovision entrant. Despite massive misgivings, the organising committee have to send Lars and Sigrit, who have qualified by default, instead.

At the Eurovision venue in Edinburgh the movie gets an instant boost as new characters enter the frame. Here the Eurovision Song Contest shoot was taking place at the actual event, in 2018. If you think you spotted past winners and runners-up flit by, like Conchita, Jamala or Alexander Rybak, you most probably did.

With lacklustre writing from Ferrell, and indulgent direction from David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, and not a lot else), Eurovision Song Contest was in the doldrums until the flamboyant Russian entrant, Alexander Lemtov, appeared on screen. Played by English actor Dan Stevens, the Russian is a man who is everything that Lars is not.

So it’s Lemtov, a support character, who succeeds in bringing the movie back to life during a long and uneven two hours. He also succeeds in turning Sigrit’s head with his performance of Lion of Love which makes him the competition favourite.

It’s ironic that Ferrell’s character is such a huge fan with so little to add on the subject of Eurovision. His Song Contest would have done better without him.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 July 2020

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.  Courtesy Netflix

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

Taylor Swift and the pop music doco

M, 85 minutes

3 Stars

Streaming on Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

More often than not, a documentary about a pop star is a contradiction in terms. The film that is touted as a big reveal tends to be a tightly-managed affair, another aspect of the marketing, that discloses little about the subject in question. Except that they enjoy tucking into burritos or are fond of fluffy kittens.

Some of the stars have managed to sidestep the big reveal altogether. It is unlikely that the smokescreen around Bob Dylan, will ever clear. Not unless you take as a touchstone the early doco, Dont Look Back, that D. A. Pennebaker made while Dylan was touring in his early twenties, and still working out what he wanted to do.

The decades of stone-walling have eventually brought about the intriguing tribute, I’m Not There, a biopic involving six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, imagining facets of the man with the little we have been provided with.

Madonna’s raunchy exhibitionism has exactly the same effect. She’s not there. Madonna: Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) from 1991 masqueraded under the title documentary, when it was a promotional video over which she had executive control. Always a mistress of reinvention, with formidable ambition based on modest natural talents, it is still impossible not to admire the flair and the determined businesswoman in her, always a step ahead of the rest.

Madonna’s story is in striking contrast to that of Amy Winehouse, the wonderful singer-songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. The feature doco about her, Amy, now screening on Netflix, won just about every significant international award but I was dismayed by its exploitation of a fragile and troubled star. Amy should be remembered for her music, not for the train wreck of her life that is the focus of the film.

At least the Janis Joplin documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, allowed for many long sequences of her stage performances alongside the self-harm and personal desolation that were on the record.

Miss Americana, a new entry in the genre, takes a look at the pop megastar Taylor Swift. If the personal stories she tells with her music and flashy performances don’t grab you, the story of her journey as a celebrity most likely will.

Swift is the first artist since the Beatles to have four consecutive albums hold the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 200  for six or more weeks. So, who is she?

The singer-songwriter has become an immense star, but her journey is an object lesson in the perils of living for the approval of strangers. She also reveals the loneliness at the top, recalling how on receiving an album of the year award she’d had no one special to call to share her news.

It’s these moments captured by director Lana Wilson that make this doco interesting. Some of the raw emotion exhibited is surprising and touching, and it seems genuine.

During the golden years of her adolescence, Swift was as a coltish figure with masses of blonde curls, who won a major award for her debut country album. But the dream run stopped when she won the best female video award. After arriving at the awards in what could only be described as a fairytale glass carriage, shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkin, from which she emerged elegant in a silvery number, her hair up.

As she stood onstage about to make her acceptance speech, Kanye West crashed her party, grabbing the mike and announcing that Beyonce’s video was the best.

President Obama said West was a jackass, but the impact this had on the 19 year old was obviously profound.  She imagined the crowd was booing her, revealing here and elsewhere a tendency to be hard on herself, when it was actually booing at the interloper.

The incident put an end to her dream run. She wouldn’t be playing good girl anymore since she discovered there was no point in worrying if people didn’t ‘like’ her when there were other things in her life that really mattered, like her mother was battling cancer. She has ditched her long-held apolitical persona, and got involved in gender politics too.

Miss Americana reveals disturbing aspects of celebrity culture, how it can turn on its own.  It is good to see that this pop princess has seen through the fairytale and recognised celebrity for what it is.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7.

Jane’s reviews have also been published by the Canberra Critics Circle and the Film Critics Circle of Australia

 

The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

Undertow

∼∼

Big on atmosphere, light on plot

MA 15+, 95 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The backstory to this atmospheric, moody psychodrama is the dark side of football culture. The very serious issue of bad off-field behaviour by male players is overlain here with the delicate story of a woman, grieving for the loss of her baby, who fears she may never conceive again.

As a solace and distraction, photojournalist Claire (Laura Gordon) takes herself to the beach, where she captures with her camera images of life and death on the shore. The coast is spectacularly beautiful, but it’s clear that all is not well with her.

Out to sea: Claire (Laura Gordon)

Although she and husband are close and attend a grieving parents support group, there is some strain in their relationship. Then suddenly it looks like Dan is seeing someone else. There he is, in plain sight as Claire drives past, at the entrance of a Corio Bay motel with a skimpily dressed young blonde. Is this all the evidence that Claire needs?

Masters of the thriller form, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, would have had a field day with this material, tweaking the dangerous, voyeuristic and confronting elements. However, writer-director Miranda Nation shows a mature, assured hand with this first feature, relying on the strong central performances from her lead actors rather than ramping up the sensational potential of the film’s scenes of drugs, sex and nudity.

Neither Dan (Rob Collins from Cleverman) nor his good mate since childhood and footie bad boy Brett (Josh Helman) are demonised. They might be. Sporting Pain + Glory tatts on his pectorals, Helman naturally imports some of the vibe he had in roles in recent Mad Max and X-Men films, but the wild man image is left understated.

Dan told Claire that he was at a fundraiser that afternoon. As a football official, this was entirely plausible, but she had spotted him at a motel with another woman. Later that evening, she doesn’t confront him with the lie, but it is soon apparent that she has embarked on an investigation of her own instead. With telephoto gear in hand, she becomes something of a stalker.

When Claire tracks her down, she finds that the focus of her obsession is just a young girl, who declares she is 19, but later admits to being 16.  Angie (Olivia DeJonge) is mouthy and full of attitude and doesn’t really mind the attention. Not a talent scout, are you? And she tosses her hair and adopts a more photogenic pose in case the hunch is correct.

Angie confides that she is pregnant to Dan’s friend Brett. The teenager’s unwanted pregnancy is a cruel irony for Claire who is desperate to become pregnant again. Her obsession with Angie seems to turn sisterly, looking out for the health of the teenager’s unborn baby.

As a relationship develops between them, Claire’s actions become more and more bizarre, and Angie, for all her issues seems the stronger. Certainly she is the more interesting.

Undertow is shot in Geelong, the home town of the writer-director on the glorious surf coast of south-west Victoria. It’s understandable that the director may have wished to exploit its natural, untamed beauty. Images of the city’s degrading, old industrial areas are juxtaposed with the windswept cliffs and curling surf.

As it gets harder and harder to distinguish between what is real and what is Claire’s subjective reality, the images of water become more dominant. We have drifted a long way from a backstory set in football clubs, locker rooms, drug-fuelled parties and sweaty, sexist bars.

Rob Collins is very good as Dan, the sports administrator with a successful career and a designer house and Mercedes to match. But his pastoral actions on behalf of his mate Brett seemed implausible to me. I think that the development of Dan’s character, so important to the drama too, needed more work at writing stage.

Despite these reservations, Undertow is in many ways an impressive achievement, and it augurs well for director Nation’s next project.

An unusually high proportion of female creatives provided input here, included ace cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who has made Undertow look outstanding. Women creatives shared the roles of editor, composer and producer roles as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2020

*Featured image: Claire (Laura Gordon) with Angie (Olivia DeJonge)

In My Blood It Runs

Difficult questions, no easy answers

PG, 90 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In September last year, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy from Alice Springs, Dujuan Hoosan, was invited to make a brief address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. His short statement, easily found online, begins with him saying that the government in his country isn’t listening to Indigenous people.

The particular point that Dujuan wants to make at the UN is that there should be an end to the incarceration of 10-year-old children in Australia.

In all Australian jurisdictions the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age. This despite recommendations from a royal commission, medical doctors’ associations, and other professionals, that the age be lifted to 12 or 14 years.

In his short statement to the Human Rights Council, Dujuan also spoke of his people’s dreams, hopes and rights, and the need for Indigenous youth to learn their history, language and culture from their elders.

This is the documentary feature about him and his life with his family in Alice Springs, In My Blood It Runs, that set him on the road to the UN.

When he was 10, Dujuan (aka Dujuan Turner), was nearly locked up himself. And, as he notes, were he in prison at 13, he would have been eligible to be placed in solitary confinement. But for an intervention by members of his family, in particular his grandmother, Carol Turner, he too could have entered a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory, where nearly 100% of detainees are Indigenous.

What led to this? In My blood It Runs, a delicate observational documentary that was three years in the making, tells the story of Dujuan and his family. A presentation of Indigenous disadvantage in the first person.

Dujuan was doing poorly at school, scoring ‘straight Es’, feeling badly about himself and he mucked up. How surprised should we be by this, when we see scenes from his school. A lesson in Australian history is about the First Fleet, using a textbook dredged up from the distant past, that makes no meaningful mention of Aboriginals. It is startling.

In another class, a teacher reads an Indigenous story, saying at the same time that she doesn’t understand it. How insensitive, and disrespectful.

Add to this, some cringeworthy voiceover from old black-and-white newsreel clips intoning about the Aboriginal population. Inserted within the realities of Dujuan’s life on screen, they are a reminder that current prejudice reveals traces of the worst of old racist attitudes.

In observational style, we watch and listen as Dujuan shows the way. As the camera follows him around, he talks to us, directly and in voiceover, about what he thinks and feels. He would like to become a healer, and pledges he will never drink alcohol or fight.

He has learnt how to control his anger by going bush each week with his elders. The best place to learn is on country at Sandy Bore, his grandmother’s place, 100 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

In My Blood It Runs, a collaboration between the filmmaker, Maya Newell, and Dujuan’s family members, was filmed in the homelands of his Arrernte and Garrwa families.

Before film production was underway, director Newell – also a producer, and cinematographer – had developed intimate knowledge of the Indigenous communities through a long association extending back years.

This helps explain the depth and breadth of her collaboration with Dujuan’s family. In particular with mother Megan and grandmother Carol, who also have director credits.

It’s Nanna Carol who speaks to the film’s key issue, education.

When she takes Dujuan and the other children to her Sandy Bore homelands she insists they speak in Arrernte language. But she also wants Indigenous kids to grow up learning both ways, Indigenous and mainstream Australian. How can Indigenous people represent themselves in society without a command of English too?

In My Blood It Runs, a quote taken from Dujuan himself, has won local and overseas awards. It raises critical questions, questions raised by Indigenous people themselves.

With its quiet and non-confronting style, its commitment and sincerity, the film makes an important contribution to the debate on Indigenous disadvantage. It raises difficult questions to which there are no easy answers.

How does Dujuan envisage his future? He just wants a normal life. Just wants to be himself, an Aboriginal.

If only it were that straightforward.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 February 2020

*Featured image: Dujuan with his mother Megan Hoosan

Seberg

M, 103 minutes

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric Cinema

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the French film that made Jean Seberg famous, she was an exchange student in Paris having a languid affair with a petty crook she eventually betrayed. Scenes of her in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, strolling along the Champs Elysees while touting the New York Herald Tribune, have etched themselves into our collective cinema memory.

In Godard’s iconic New Wave film, Seberg sporting the striped Breton t-shirt and a short pixie haircut was all light and air and mischief. A different take, but a take nonetheless on the luxuriant femme fatale. Were it not for Audrey Hepburn, she might have been the original alluring gamine on screen.

Kristen Stewart, a very talented and versatile actress, is an inspired choice for the role of Jean Seberg. She has also had something of a trans-Atlantic career, with roles in French films too.

In this new film from Australian director Benedict Andrews (who directed Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara), Stewart looks quite a lot like Seberg. Though she brings more steel to the role than you would suspect the late American actress had.

makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve

After a disturbing start, a flashback of Seberg at the stake in Saint Joan, her ill-fated first film, events kick off in Paris during the foment of student unrest that was 1968. The actress is saying goodbye to her husband, French author and former diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and young son to fly to America and take up her role in Paint Your Wagon. She was to star opposite Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.

Screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel have made FBI surveillance rather than Seberg’s career the focus of this story. Seberg was identified as a high-profile subversive by the FBI when she became associated with Black Power groups in the late 1960s-70s.

It would have been difficult to ignore the salute she gave in support of black activists at the airport after she flew in from Paris. She was never one to try to conceal anything.

She had met activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the plane and there was an instant connection, though he was married too. Soon she was giving donations to the Black Panthers and to childcare centres for African-American children and holding civil rights fundraisers at her mansion in Coldwater Canyon. This girl from the Midwest yearned to make a difference.

Waterhouse and Shrapnel created a fictional character whose story runs in parallel with Seberg. Young  FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose wife (Margaret Qualley) is pursuing her own career as a doctor, starts out gung-ho but becomes conflicted about his role. It makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve.

Under orders from the top, Solomon and his colleagues begin to surveil and discredit their high-profile target. Her phone is tapped, her home bugged and in particular her bedroom. When officers hear she is pregnant from an affair they try to besmirch and discredit her by leaking the news to gossip columns. The illegal actions of the FBI were shocking, and creating a fictional character like Solomon, the human face of the FBI, affords the organisation a kind of rehabilitation.

The goons at J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, including Vince Vaughn as a particularly hard case, are completely out of step with the progressive forces of the times. They even go to a family barbeque in shirt and tie.

a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice

Their tactics played a big part in Seberg’s mental decline. Shortly after she died in 1979 – the French authorities said it was ‘probably’ suicide – the FBI acknowledged it had had a role in destroying her reputation. It also announced that some of its activities targeting Seberg were illegal and that it no longer conducted them.

A brief clip simulated from Breathless makes an appearance. It’s where Patricia looks straight to camera and runs her thumb around her mouth, the way her lover (Jean Paul Belmondo) used to do. It’s a clip that doesn’t make any particular point in a film that doesn’t show much interest in what really made Seberg famous.

Although Stewart’s performance is typically edgy and intelligent, this film is a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice, and treats her career as a footnote. The full, fascinating story of the poster girl of the French New Wave is still to be told.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 February 2020

*Featured image: courtesy 2019 Amazon Studios

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

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