Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Focus

Review by © Jane Freebury

In this romantic crime caper, Margot Robbie and Will Smith are well cast as a glamorous pair of grifters, Jess and Nicky, who look like they really should be together. They look great together, two beautiful people in exotic locations like New Orleans and Buenos Aires who can work the floor superbly, picking pockets with guile, style and charm.

After they meet in a bar it turns out they are in the same sort of business. Nicky takes Jess under his wing until she becomes so good he inducts his star intern into the firm, a multi-million dollar industrial scale army of scammers and pick-pockets. No, Nick is not aiming for the one big hit on which he can subsequently retire in Antigua, he’s into ‘volume’.

Jess is all ears and eyes at Nicky’s tutorials in crime. There are a myriad ways to distract and divert attention like wearing a low-cut slinky dress or having someone fake a heart attack while someone else on the team can empty pockets or slip rings and watches away from their moorings. A montage of subliminal messages on the way to a major scam at the Super Dome shows Nicky is into amateur psychology too.

It’s all in the name of fun and co-directors John Requaa and Glenn Ficarra, who have partnered before on Bad Santa and Crazy Stupid Love, keep it light at all times. They had a ‘theatrical pickpocket’ called Apollo Robbins advising them. Robbins has a standalone end credit as the ‘con artist and pickpocket designer’. He is apparently famous for pick pocketing a guard on the security detail for President Carter, so we can imagine that he would know what’s what. (The character with the same name of Apollo is one and the same.)

Nicky, nickname ‘Mellow’, would be the man but for two fatal weaknesses, gambling and now that he’s met her, Jess. Robbie’s Jess is at the heart of the film too, the object of desire in her elegant retro wardrobe like a latter day Grace Kelly.

However, ’tis a pity that in her first lead role since her cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, the Australian actress didn’t pick a project with better results. There’s one too many twists and turns generating a bit of a narrative wobble a couple of key parts that are clumsily overplayed. Robert Taylor’s turn as a crude Australian race driver doesn’t add much either.

Yet, the film’s cheerful theme that everyone’s ‘an easy grift’ makes for buoyant light entertainment, even when it skirts briefly into sex and violence. Focus is not going to stay with you indefinitely, but it is a welcome retrospective on the old movies that did petty crims and swindlers with charm and style.
In a capsule: A romantic old-style crime caper with a few too many plot twists and turns but there’s plenty of style and charm in its lead couple, Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

3 stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Review by Jane Freebury

The story of a teenage girl fighting to save the world as we no longer know it, instead of worrying which of the handsome guys hovering around her is ‘the one’, has emerged as another compelling 21st movie phenomenon. Move over Twilight, there’s nothing passive or vaguely insipid about this young woman, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s nothing less than the digital poster girl for the revolution.

Katniss and her generation have inherited an awful mess since war annihilated the states of North America. The cataclysm has let a brutish plutocracy take over, that retains its dominance with an annual gladiatorial ritual that compels each state under its control to sacrifice a young man and woman in a fight to the death. Horrifying as it sounds, let’s not forget that it’s like what the Romans used to do. Like many screen dystopias today, the movie posits two extremes. That of a highly evolved but utterly morally bankrupt elite versus the desperate, half starved masses.

The filmmakers have also raided the postmodern icebox for the ‘look’ of totalitarianism. Looming, oppressive interiors of films set in the Third Reich abound and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis isn’t so far away either. It’s surprising that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his strategists at the Capitol haven’t thought of introducing a fake Katniss to dupe the masses. But then, of course, director Francis Lawrence didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in a movie based on the bestsellers by Suzanne Collins that first appeared in 2008.

Like the Roman goddess Diana, with bow and quiver to hand, Katniss is handmaiden of the justice that has been destroyed in the wars. She is also a champion for the democracy that no longer exists, and brimming with righteous anger. People inside the frame respond to her with the three-fingered salute, a gesture that can get you into trouble in Thailand. Only this week protesters who used it publicly as code for political oppression were, astonishingly, detained.

The series is blessed with the presence of Lawrence whose turns in American Hustle, Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook, easily demonstrate that she is one of the best young American actors of her generation. It was also smart casting to support her with other fine characters like Philip Seymour Hoffman , Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Sutherland too. But why Lawrence is accepting roles in so many action blockbusters now means we won’t see her best work until she gets the genre out of her system.

As a stand-alone, Part 3 (a) of The Hunger Games is heavy on atmos and light on story. More series filler than narrative developer, it relies heavily on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

In a capsule: Heavy with dystopian atmos and light on story, this installment relies more on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

3 stars

Noah

Review by Jane Freebury

A big screen treatment of the life of a key prophet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is one helluva big undertaking, destined for controversy. Noah has already run into a bit of trouble in its international release. It has been banned in Indonesia and certain Muslim Gulf nations. Who knows what kind of response, from audiences—secular, sceptic or believer—awaits it here in Oz.

Any filmgoer who goes to see this epic with the intention of checking its religious credentials will find a curious stew. Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Black Swan) has the chutzpah to carry it all off, but has had trouble wrangling the different elements into a strong and solid whole.
During the early stages, things don’t travel that well. When Noah and his family encounter marauding Canaanites on the vast desolate steppes it’s not particularly urgent and compelling, and when the Watchers arrive things seriously teeter on the brink. These Watchers, stone CGI giants who look like extras who escaped from The Lord of the Rings, provide the family with protection, but the superhuman element robs the ark construction phase of drama. The moments when the birds, reptiles and beasts descend on Noah’s ark are magical, however.

Another area robbed of its dramatic potential is life on board the ark with all god’s creatures. We all remember vividly how much trouble it was wrangling a single tiger at sea in Life of Pi, but here a drug-induced sleep keeps the creatures docile. It doesn’t however stop tensions building between Noah and his family.
The family drama is primal and keenly felt, in particular between Noah (Russell Crowe) and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and second son Ham (Logan Lerman) who realises it is destined he will never have a wife. Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and the depraved hordes who have missed out on being chosen people also take the fight to Noah but he remains strong despite the pressure, until his mission becomes dangerously fanatical.

The moment that Noah loses touch and he finds himself a stranger to compassion and love, things become really interesting—and Crowe is in great form here. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have taken liberties with the biblical text, and with others too for all I know, to explore the dilemma of a man torn between an obsession with principles and his humanity.

With this uneasy balance of human drama, action adventure and internal struggle, the image of a rudderless ark full of every creature known to man, bobbing around on the high seas until it comes to ground seems the perfect analogy for this epic from Aronofsky and his A-list cast. There are only a few shots heaven-wards, and with a $130 million budget, the producers will be praying that on release it all stays afloat.

In a capsule: An unwieldy mix of dramatic elements pinned to the mast of an ancient biblical story that comes to life when the battle over principle takes over.

3 stars

The Cup

Review by Jane Freebury

It is the season for thoroughbred horses, outlandish hats and a lot of money changing hands and just the right moment for veteran producer and director Simon Wincer to make a splash with a movie about the Melbourne Cup. If anyone was going to do it, it had to be him. He has after all built his career on more movies with horses and with men who spend a lot of time in the saddle than anyone I can think of right now, with Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen, Quigley Down Under, and various TV work in American westerns.

The Cup is like movies once used to be, a big statement that is proud to be Australian, wearing its heart on its sleeve, taking itself a lot more seriously in these matters than Red Dog.

It tells a decent story, that of the jockey who won the cup in 2002 two weeks after his elder brother died in a race fall. If you remember, it was jockey Damien Oliver, played here by Stephen Curry, who had a magnificent win on Irish horse Media Puzzle and dedicated his success to his brother. The horse also had a challenge of its own to overcome, a broken pelvis the previous year.

Thoroughbred racing is one of the most dangerous sports there is, with more fatalities than sky-diving or boxing, and the film’s terrific racing sequences help to explain why this is, as the camera and sound recordist takes us right up to the surging gallopers and their pounding hooves. The intensity of it when the horses are at full stretch is a far cry from official racing vision in long shot.

The Oliver family story is set against the broad canvas that is the international racing scene, from Europe, to Dubai, to Australia, to the US, and, rather surprisingly, against the events of the 2002 Bali bombing which took place in the same momentous month as Jason’s death. This draws football into the story too, and the link with the local players who lost their lives then. As I said, it’s a broad canvas.

The film does get a little muddled trying to pack in a variety of characters and connections across continents, but suffice to say that Brendan Gleeson, who is currently still packing them to the rafters in The Guard, plays Dermot Weld, a character big enough to hold things together. Weld was trainer for Media Puzzle who allowed the grieving Damien to ride, if he wished.

Last point to make is that this is Bill Hunter’s last movie. He plays Bart Cummings, so he gets to say: “You gotta remember. Anything can happen. It’s the Melbourne Cup.” Onya Bill.

In a capsule: The story of the jockey who won the Melbourne Cup in 2002 shortly after his brother died in a race fall. Told against a panorama of Australian sporting life, this is expansive filmmaking in an old-fashioned way, but enjoyable enough.

3 stars

Dinner for Schmucks

Review by © Jane Freebury

The received wisdom that foreign language Hollywood remakes are a pale imitation of the original is usually true, but not always. An exception to the rule is always refreshing, especially if you had been expecting the worst on account of (a) the received wisdom, and (b) when you’d found Francis Veber’s original The Dinner Game (Le Diner de Cons) cruel rather than funny – though it did good business in the home market, France.

So what is different about this Hollywood remake? The Steve Carell character, Barry the schmuck, the idiot, le con of the original French farce, and the embodiment of ignorance is bliss. Barry simply can’t think badly of anybody, neither the wife who’s left him, the boss who heavies him with mind games or the young exec in the silver Porsche who runs him down, then calculates he can use him to get a leg up the corporate ladder. That’s Tim (Paul Rudd).

The way to the top at Tim’s firm, a private equity business that specialises in distressed assets – or is that poor schmucks? – is participating in dinners for winners, a euphemism for the eponymous dinners for schmucks. You take along some dumb chump as your guest to a high level corporate dinner. The bigger fool they make of themselves, the more entertained your bosses, and the better your chances of rising quickly up the company ranks.

Tim recognises that Barry will be perfect for his purposes. An employee of the US equivalent of the Tax Office who poses no threat whatsoever to anyone’s tax evasion schemes, Barry practices taxidermy in his spare time. While Pignon, le con in The Dinner Game original, made matchstick miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and other great edifices, Barry builds dioramas of stuffed mice representing big moments in art. One of the artist Van Gogh and his paintings, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Munch’s The Scream, more often than not accompanied by a lame joke.

It’s pretty unlikely material really, but somehow director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, and the Austin Powers films), Carell and others – including a hulking Kiwi comic actor called Jemaine Clement as a priapic artist and Lucy Punch who makes quite an impression as Tim’s crazy stalker – manage to pull it off. Roach generally underplays his hand, and Carell’s interpretation of Barry steals the show.

Since I reviewed the original Dinner Game late in the 1990s we’ve seen many more examples of the comedy of humiliation. This remake follows the original storyline more or less, but it manages to turn the tables on the organisers of the nasty dinner game, while the original didn’t and the silly schmuck remained the butt of the cruel joke.

In a capsule: A Hollywood remake more entertaining and nothing like as cruel as the original. Steve Carell’s considerable comic talents get an airing, and good cast and director turn unlikely material into something surprisingly funny.

3 stars

South Solitary

Review by Jane Freebury

Even at the best of times lighthouse keeping would have to be a tough call. The isolation on an inhospitable outcrop in the ocean, with only mutton birds for company. A life without creature comforts that would suit only the hardy few, like Barry Otto’s head keeper George Wadsworth in this new film from Shirley Barrett.

It’s great to see something from this writer/director again. She made the wonderful Love Serenade in 1996, best first feature prize winner at Cannes, but we haven’t seen nearly enough of her since.

It is the late 1920s. The new head keeper Wadsworth, imperious and haughty, arrives at South Solitary Island in the wake of the previous head keeper topping himself. There have been reports of the light going out, and he will put things right. His niece Meredith (Miranda Otto), 33 and unmarried, has come along with him to help with the paperwork.

As soon as she steps ashore she makes the acquaintance of Netty, a strange little girl who is the daughter of an assistant keeper. Keen to make a connection, Meredith asks her to look after the lamb she has brought with her. The child agrees, and names it Lucille after her other pet lamb that ended up on the dinner table.

Next time we see the poor animal, Netty (Annie Martin) has dressed it up in crochet baby’s bonnet and jacket. Like the people on the island, the birds and animals have developed their quirks too, like the horse that gallops away at any hint of work, and the carrier pigeons that just won’t fly. The humour is a bit hit and miss.

Quirkiness is offset by the magnificent old lighthouse and the romantic isolation of the location. There is a South Solitary Island off NSW, but the movie was filmed on Victoria’s awesome shipwreck coast overlooking the Southern Ocean.

Meredith is an unsinkable character, more schoolgirl than a woman who lost her man in the Great War and had affairs that cost her dearly since. She finds it really hard to fit in. Even the only other woman (Essie Davis) is a cold fish, but then she knows all too well what her husband (Rohan Nichol) intends to do with the pliant Meredith.

It’s best not to divulge too much when the plot is already stretched over the two hours of running time. Nothing much happens around isolated lighthouses, anyway. Instead, I can say that the romance between Meredith and the other assistant keeper, Fleet (Marton Csokas) who is severely traumatised by his war experiences, is a very slow burn indeed, but that the final scenes between them are truly inspired.

In a capsule: A young woman in the 1920s joins her uncle, a head lighthouse keeper, on an isolated island off Australia’s southern coast. The quirky humour, awesome location and slow burn romance are not compelling as they should be, but it’s a cheerful tale.

3 stars

I Am Love

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s something about Tilda Swinton. The way she looks and the characters she plays have an ethereal quality, like something from far away or long ago. With her alabaster skin and dark green eyes fringed by pale brows and lashes, she was Narnia’s White Witch incarnate. And when we first noticed her in Sally Potter’s Orlando she was an Elizabethan nobleman who lived for centuries and morphed into a female. You know what I mean.

Here she is Emma Recchi, the perfect matriarch in a fabulously wealthy Italian dynasty, orchestrating family occasions like a maestro, as her extended family and servants glide around her. Everything is perfetto in her Milan villa, and she enjoys good relations with everyone from her husband to her grown-up children and her staff.

She even manages to rub along with her mother-in-law, played by Marisa Berenson, who looked so lovely in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but now appears a veteran of a few facelifts too many.

There is however nothing plastic about Swinton’s Emma. She is the real deal – genuine, kind, loving, and attentive – and especially close to her daughter, who confides in her that she is gay, and son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti). He has plans to run a restaurant with his good friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), in between helping his father manage the family fortune.

The restaurant idea is not just some cash cow for the city’s wealthy, but a risky venture out of town that patrons will have to make an effort to reach. When they do, it will be worth it, because Antonio’s food is sensational.

In a scene with a loud and insistent score that you will think is either overwrought or mock serious, Antonio’s succulent prawn dish unlocks Emma’s passionate heart and precipitates a clandestine affair that precipitates family tragedy. It’s one of a number of occasions when the former advert director in writer-director Luca Guadagnino gets the better of him.

And yet, for all the ecstatic lovemaking al fresco, I Am Love is not so much a story about crazy love as it is a story that captures a grand old establishment family teetering on the brink when the world is ripe for change.

With its fabulous visuals and intrusive score, it is an operatic film, as fond of the fabulous art deco architecture of establishment Milan, as it is of Swinton’s unusual and striking appearance. And yes, her character is from somewhere else in this movie too.

I Am Love has something in common with those flamboyant melodramas from Hollywood by director Douglas Sirk or even the televisions series Dynasty and Dallas. But clearly, it isn’t just froth. It has a turn-of-the-century point to make.

In a capsule: Tilda Swinton in another iconic role as the centrepiece of a fabulously wealthy Milanese family who falls in love with a young chef. A flamboyant melodrama, with a point to make.

3 stars

Van Diemen’s Land

Review by Jane Freebury

The Tasmanian tourism industry won’t be thanking our film industry for its interest in an Irish convict called Alexander Pearce who was hanged in Hobart in 1824 for murder and cannibalism. Then again, maybe it will. After all, watching either of the two feature films or recent telefeature about Pearce could lend a gothic chill to camping out in those dense, dark Tassie forests.

While it’s hard to explain this sudden rush of interest in Pearce over the last year, it is also surprising that his story hasn’t inspired other movies before now. It is, after all, quite some years since Hannibal Lecter and his Academy Award, when the subject of cannibalism went a little bit mainstream.

I missed The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce on TV but did catch Dying Breed when it had a brief season in cinemas late last year. Set on the Pieman River in the state’s northwest it was naturally full of fantastic location shots as a group of city kids in a 4WD wind their way deep into the wilderness. Unfortunately for them they run across an isolated settlement of snaggle-toothed descendants of the convict, who are soon smacking their lips over the well-fed human quarry that has fallen into their clutches.

Unlike Dying Breed, this latest film on Pearce is not a candidate for an ‘after dark’ horror fest. Made with due attention to historical detail—no descendants of Pearce exist—and filmed in a naturalistic style, Van Diemen’s Land travels deep into our heart of darkness, which in this case is deep into the glorious Tasmanian wilderness.

Director Jonathan auf der Heide, who co-wrote the screenplay with his lead actor, Oscar Redding (Pearce), has achieved a very grim and moderately interesting film, if not a really compelling one. The gruff camaraderie between the eight men who escape together holds the group together to begin with. There are even some jokes and they swap advice about women, but when the last of the flour is used for damper and in the apparent absence of any local fauna to hunt, the weakest, youngest and least iron-willed in the party start to look very vulnerable. And when the last vestiges of civilisation are stripped away, there are only two men left, too afraid to sleep, who watch each other in the light of their campfire.

There is great scenery and a convincing naturalistic approach in this vivid account of the months desperate men spent in the wilderness as they made their way from the notorious Macquarie Harbour penal settlement to the settled lands in Tasmania’s east. But the film forgets to ask why these awful events took place. A question worth exploring.

In a capsule: A very grim account of an escaped convict charged with cannibalism in Tasmania in the early 19th century. Great scenery, a convincing naturalistic approach, but this tale of man stripped of civilisation invests so much on realism, it forgets to explore what lay behind the awful events.

3 stars

La Vie en Rose

Review by © Jane Freebury

There were lovers and husbands, triumphs and catastrophes, illnesses and addictions, and highs and lows enough in the life of singer Edith Piaf to fill several lives by the time the French chanteuse died at the age of 47 in 1963. Her life was packed with improbabilities, a chaotic journey that destroyed her health yet even when she was ailing the show went on.

You would think Piaf’s tumultuous life would be daunting for any sensible filmmaker, and perhaps that’s why only a handful of biopics have been made. Getting Edith right is the other problem.

Piaf only stood a little over 1.4 metres in her stockinged feet, and there was an unusual pugnaciousness about her, arms akimbo, defiant and ready to take on the world. But camera positioning, prosthetics and wavy-haired wigs do wonders with Marion Cotillard in the role of Piaf, while dubbing gets around the problem of the voice.

Ultimately however it’s performance that counts and Cottilard, last seen in A Good Year with Russell Crowe, has thrown herself into this role with an abandon that would have made Piaf proud. Her performance is definitely the best thing about the movie.

With a flurry of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film covers Piaf’s early years when she was passed around between her cabaret singer mother, her acrobat father, and the grandmother who ran a brothel. From when she is discovered busking by an impresario who runs a cabaret – an obligatory appearance by Gerard Depardieu, who had to be in there somewhere – her star begins to rise.

But too little about her celebrity years is acknowledged, when she became the darling of the French and eventually a star in America too. Nor is there any mention of her continuing to perform during the Nazi occupation, though she apparently helped the Resistance. A lot of interesting stuff goes unmentioned.

Despite the rich source material at hand, director and co-writer Olivier Dahan has elided much that was fascinating and complex about his subject. Her affairs and patronage of singers like Yves Montand, the influence she had on Charles Aznavour and others, and that she wrote many of her own songs.

It is regrettable the director chose to make his film in the random and distracting way he did. Watching Piaf aged and frail one minute and a grieving mother the next could have been okay but the structure of the film overall lacks internal logic.

Piaf’s life was like that anyway – grasping the moment, terrified of the abyss below – but it’s the figure of Piaf that stands tall here among the muddle.

3 stars

The Oyster Farmer

Review by Jane Freebury

The last time I remember being on the Hawkesbury River in an Australian movie was afloat in that fantastic glass church, the centrepiece in Oscar and Lucinda. This time the winking river slides underneath the hull of a tinny runabout, past the endless bushland along its banks. No sign of habitation except for an occasional fibro house punctuating the shoreline.

The Oyster Farmer has a great sense of place, and projecting a majesterial and boundless landscape is what works best in this latest flagship for Australian cinema, a UK-financed production. Interludes in long shot that admire the scenery are stirring, and meant to be, with a lilting Celtic score on the musictrack. I predict a holiday rush on Hawkesbury houseboats in the near future.

The Oyster Farmer has been getting a warm critical reception but for me it was a gentle, good natured and meandering entertainment, with little dramatic development to speak of, little that was convincing anyway. The eccentric Aussie types adrift from the mainstream – the oyster farmers and their itinerant workers, a gang of Vietnam vets who’ve gone bush, various odd bods like Slug whose job is sewerage, and stoic women who would rather be somewhere else – are loosely connected through random events, but these are characters who have little impact on each other to speak of.

They’d just jostle each other irritably here, like the river’s flotsam and jetsam, and there hasn’t been such a display of the colourful local vernacular in many a year.

Which is disappointing when there are lively and novel ideas at work in writer/director Anna Reeves’ screenplay – and I don’t just mean the fruit-wrap balaclava, the lobster cosh, and the bath lined with marbles. Also the young couple Pearl and Jack are played with engaging natural charm by newcomers Diana Glenn and Alex O’Lachlan.

Kerry Armstrong is always good, and Jim Norton as Brownie’s garrulous Dad is fun, but the other types on parade are rather shop-worn. Like little Aussie battler Brownie and the biffo who needs anger management therapy.

The Oyster Farmer ultimately suffers from its disinclination for getting under the skin of its characters to find out what really makes them tick. Some might feel this patchwork piece has a good-natured ramshackle charm, but haven’t we been here and done that – over the last thirty years of the Australian film revival?

3 stars