The Death of Stalin

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 47 minutes

4.5 Stars

With not much to do one evening, the staff at Radio Moscow only have to adjust the audio settings and enjoy a Mozart concerto while watching the beautiful pianist (Olga Kurylenko).

Then the phone rings. It’s Chairman Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), calling to say his guard are on their way to pick up a recording of the live performance that is on air. Recording, what recording?

Knowing Stalin the way they do, it’s a mad scramble to set things right. The audience is stopped from leaving, and passers-by are press-ganged to fill in for those who did.

The musicians take their places again, but who will replace the conductor, who happened to knock himself out when he tripped over a fire bucket? All the other good conductors are in the gulag or otherwise disappeared.

One is found, eventually. He arrives in pyjamas and dressing gown, convinced he has been rounded up to be shot like numerous neighbours in his apartment building who, as it happened, were being carted off when he answered a knock at the door.

For the unprepared, this farcical political satire based on historical fact about one of the 20th century’s most barbarous regimes, could be a queasy cocktail. Unless you are prepared to go along with a feature length lampoon of a preposterous, vicious clique that once ran the USSR. The Death of Stalin is set in 1953.

Stalin receives his newly pressed recording, but tucked inside the sleeve is an unwelcome surprise which gives him such a turn that he has a stroke. This isn’t discovered until the next morning, the guards at his door too cowed to investigate the thump they heard as he hit the floor. The position of Russian leader is up for grabs.

As the great man lies prone, dead or dying, it’s over to the inner circle to try to work out succession. Seems there’s no plan.

It could be the dim, lugubrious party deputy, Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Moscow party head, a toey Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi, complete with New York accent), head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Shakespearian actor Simon Russell Beale) – or foreign secretary, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), though he has only just been added to a list to be eliminated.

Now they can emerge from their sycophantic obedience and show their true colours. When Stalin finally dies, it’s game on.

Not one of these acclaimed actors has been required to speak with a Russian accent, though each of them surely could without any effort. It helps to set the tone for this wonderful absurdist political farce from Scottish director and co-writer, Armando Iannucci (In the Loop).

The humour owes much to the great British comedic tradition, and yet the original source material is French. The graphic comic book of the same name on which it is based, is due for release in English.

Two of Stalin’s progeny, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), also try to take charge of the situation to hilarious effect, but too little of the old man has rubbed off for either of them to have any impact.

The medals strung across the chest of field marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), on the other hand, really do mean something, and he ensures that a baleful chapter in Russian history is put to an end.

This is brilliant, wicked, eviscerating entertainment—a comedy of terrors, indeed.  In throwing a spotlight on the perversity and cruelty of Stalin’s regime, Iannucci shows no restraint as he lampoons each of his targets mercilessly.

A recent ban on this film in Russia is a delicious footnote. On our current understanding of the skills on hand in that country, we trust that The Death of Stalin may still be doing the rounds, circulating as an illegal file.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

The Shape of Water

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review by © jane freebury

Guillermo del Toro had the actor Sally Hawkins in mind for this sensuous dark fantasy from the beginning. Once, when he bumped into her at a party, he told her he was writing a film about how a woman falls in love with a fish. She said ‘great’, though she might have wondered what this director famous for gothic horror could have possibly have been planning.

The director has conjured up some dark fantasies, like the political allegories The Devil’s Backbone and the very wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, but this time it’s different, as he says himself. And surely, Hawkins has no regrets at all about signing on to this dazzling adult fairy tale. It is outstanding on many levels, reflected in the number of Oscar nominations.

The Shape of Water is set in a shadowy, green-tinged world – that is, early 1960s America in the grip of Cold War paranoia – where everyone, from the janitor to the boss, has a secret. The mood is perfectly rendered in expressionist chiaroscuro though the palette warms when Elisa (Hawkins) is on screen.

Elisa has her own sweet approach to life even though she had the misfortune to grow up an orphan and she cannot speak. A creature of habit, she cleans her shoes every day before work and takes a bath. She times this – she is obviously a water person – but is regularly a little late in clocking on for work at the research facility where she is a cleaner, for reasons that will become apparent.

In her life she has her loyal friend at work Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a kind neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and in between she can romance herself with Hollywood musicals and absorb the ambience of the cinema downstairs. The sensitivity of Hawkins’ performance and del Toro’s skills orchestrate the utterly plausible—she falls in love with a scaly creature from a lagoon in the distant Amazon. The amphibious man has been captured and is a ‘top secret’ asset in a tank at the lab.

More man than fish, the hunky creature she falls for has a humanoid face, arms and legs and can live on land for limited periods. Inside his skin-tight scaly suit, with webbed, clawed hands and dorsal spine, the actor Doug Jones creates a marvellously imposing figure, frightening but obviously terrified.

Showing little interest in this extraordinary creature and treating it as a threat, CIA officer Strickland (Michael Shannon, performing even more extreme than usual) wants to beat it into submission and then dissect it. That is before he has worked it over with a cattle prod.

His attack on ‘amphibious man’, fuelled by irrational fear, is the complete antithesis of Elisa’s approach. From the very first, even when the creature lashes out at her from behind the glass of his tank, she doesn’t seem to have the slightest fear—which is rather surprising, really. They have things in common, and with boiled eggs and a bit of jazz from Glenn Miller, she brings him round.

The Shape of Water becomes a love story that transcends difference, and we are all in raptures over the gorgeous monster from the deep. Glorious to look at and experience as an integrated sensory experience, the film leaves behind an afterglow, even if the good and evil binaries of the fairy tale leave little to mull over after the closing credits. It’s all about feeling, and is a swooning, romantic experience that is rarely seen on screen.

Although del Toro does not let us off entirely lightly in the few moments of savage violence here, it is only as a brief interlude. There is wit and humour and other means of seduction to show that this master of gothic horror and dark fantasy, who cut his directorial teeth on monster movies, knows exactly how to keep his audiences under his spell.

Rated R,  2 hours 3 minutes

4.5 stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Florida Project

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s summer holidays in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is just over the road, and out of reach. What is there to do when there’s no money to spend? It does not present any problem for three young children who are living at the Magic Castle motel, because they make their own fun.

There’s a holiday ambience in the backdrop of cheery, candy-coloured structures that dot the neighbourhood outside the Disney precinct. An orange juice dome, a gift shop in the shape of a witches’ hat and a soft-serve kiosk supposed to make you think of a dollop of ice cream. The names of places like Futureland and Enchanted Inn help impart a bit of holiday zing too, confected as they are. The images are especially apt with jaunty angles and fish-eye frames to accentuate a child’s point-of-view. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is superbly sensitive to the innocence and magic of childhood.

One of the buildings is a long, low three-storey motel that looks like a slice of layered lilac cake with cream trim – Magic Castle is home to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is struggling to make ends meet but at the same time determined that her daughter should never want for anything or feel she is missing out.

Halley’s one great skill is shielding her young daughter from their seriously disadvantaged predicament, teaching her how to turn a dismal situation on its head and find joy in things. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday with cupcake and candle on a picnic in a field while watching Disney fireworks, or cheering a helicopter as it takes off on a joy ride, something they could never afford.

They are far from the minority at Magic Castle, which appears to be home to low-income and no-income individuals and families, many single-parent units. Some of them bond by helping each other out, minding each others’ children, pilfering food at work or turning a blind eye. Motel manager Bobby, a principled, patient and caring man, becomes surrogate parent to the children. It is a wonderful role for Willem Dafoe, who shows the other side of his chiselled-jaw persona.

The centre of her mother’s world, Moonee has confidence in spades. She is never short of a good idea either as she and her little gang roam around unsupervised all-day long. Miraculously, and unlikely as it seems, they stay safe and never get into serious trouble beyond a telling off from Bobby when he catches them on CCTV entering the amenities room before the power goes out. He doesn’t take kindly to ice cream spills in motel reception either, or to staking out an observation point when a guest sunbakes topless at the pool.

While inventive, cheeky Moonee is a rascal, and we enjoy hanging out with her, the film is of course underlining its point with this delicate material. That childhood is a special time, and each child has a right to experience the magic, to be free-spirited and give flight to the imagination.

Unfortunately, there are limits. Halley is a product of a system but she also has responsibilities as a mother. The idyll cannot last. Baker’s film offers a tranche of life, a last stand at the inn, as it steps back from making any judgement.

However, it is Bobby who takes action when enough is enough. Halley turns on a friend, a fellow struggling mother, violently and then turns to desperate measures that put Moonee in moral danger.

A young mother, barely an adult herself, without life skills or life options, or much sense of responsibility, Halley is certainly trapped. Her daughter runs around without supervision but Halley is the first to lash out and blame others when Moonee runs away.

In the end, her sense of entitlement and sense of grievance leave Halley isolated, stuck in a cul-de-sac where fantasy is the only sanctuary and the only way to escape.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 51 mins

4.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dunkirk

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Review © by Jane Freebury

With films about perception, memory, and fluctuating identity, Christopher Nolan has carved out a very particular space for himself on the big screen. His interests could so easily have confined him to the indie sector, but he has had the confidence and the narrative and stylistic brio to crash through, taking narrative jigsaw puzzles like Inception and Memento straight to the mainstream.

A war film determined by the facts of the famous evacuation from France early in World War II might seem like a bit of a straitjacket. Not that Nolan doesn’t have plenty of cred as an action director—his Batman trilogy was outstanding—it’s just that he’s at least as interested in the tricks the mind can play as in representing the action up on screen.

As it turns out, his approach, another occasion on which his direction is based on his own screenplay, has resulted in a really distinctive war film. And a very good one. The evacuation from Dunkirk is brought to life with little of the usual battle mayhem, but with a lot of stillness, silence and participant point-of-view that encourages us to reflect on what was going on within the men who waited, hoped for and despaired of deliverance.

Sheer luck propels us to the beachhead in the first scenes, on the back of the only soldier to survive an ambush in the streets of Dunkirk town. There were six of them, scrounging for cigarettes, drinking from a garden hose, needing to relieve themselves, when enemy snipers opened up and took them all down, bar one (Fionn Whitehead). He is known as Tommy, a sufficiently generic name, once slang for an ordinary soldier, that resists marking him out as an individual either.

At the beach there is line upon line of men waiting to be rescued. Around 400,000 of the remaining (mostly) British Expeditionary Forces in retreat, queueing on the sand and along the breakwater. So British to queue.

The surrender of France is only days away. Trapped by German tanks, strafed by the Luftwaffe, the forces had but a thin khaki line of French soldiers between them and the enemy.

Neither the German ground troops nor pilots are given any identity either. They are unnamed, and virtually unseen. It could almost be a one-sided war, without the binaries, were it not for the relentlessly accurate assault largely from offscreen.

So much else has been elided. There is hardly any blood or viscera. There is no perspectival privilege, so the audience has no more knowledge of what’s going on than the participants on screen. None of the characters has a backstory and there is no light-hearted banter, to lower the tension. There are no scenes of Churchill, only a couple of weeks into his role as Prime Minister, in the war room.

In keeping with this approach, the evacuation strategy is only overheard by two soldiers hidden under the breakwater. They have positioned themselves there so they can climb onto a rescue boat, rather than wait their turn.

Against the implacable beauty of a seaside landscape, thousands of soldiers await rescue like skittles in a bowling alley, lined up to be mown down. Somebody says it feels like being a fish in a barrel, somebody else wonders where the RAF has got to.

It’s chaos within the awful stillness of a vacuum. Assisted by Hans Zimmer’s powerful and insistent score, film ensures that we experience the full catastrophe, from the unendurable wait to the confusion, desperation and terror that the soldiers felt. It leaves an indelible impression.

4.5 stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Things to Come

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                          Review by © Jane Freebury

The future? Impossible to predict, we know that at least. There’s no way to escape it. And now  something they call disruption is taking place at every level. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? No way. It’s the more things change, they don’t remain the same.

What’s to be done? Whatever the answers are, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve shows that she is an old and wise head on young shoulders, unusually good at exploring the complexities and nuances of intimate relationships. Her second feature film, Father of My Children, told of a family tragedy in a bracing and unsentimental style and it still packed a wallop. Incisiveness is a distinctive trait of this filmmaker, and in Things to Come it is enhanced by the powerful presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert has been indomitable lately, maybe for as long as we can remember. Her character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a no-nonsense businesswoman who determined that a violent rape by a stalker would not knock her off course.  In White Material, in which her character represented some of the last vestiges of French colonialism in Africa, she gave director Claire Denis her complex, understated best. Here in Things to Come, Nathalie (Huppert) is facing the future at a difficult time. After suddenly discovering that her husband, a fellow philosopher, is leaving her, she carries on as usual, dealing with the decline of her demented mother and the demands of her job as a high school teacher.

As in Elle, the response of Huppert’s character is brisk and decisive. The sound mix ensures that we don’t miss Nathalie’s brisk, clipped walk in her apartment as she consigns her husband’s conciliatory bouquet of flowers to the bin or prepares Christmas dinner for her remaining family. The sound of Nathalie’s heels hitting the floor is an intentional, or unintentional, motif which is, somehow, amusing. Hansen-Løve and Huppert work perfectly in sync.

Nathalie once participated in the massive student demos of ’68 and was for three years a communist, like most of the French intellectuals at the time. But where does she stand now? Inter-generational philosophical exchanges in Things to Come give the film scope to comment more broadly on the state of French politics and society. Fascinating, and very much du jour. Both parents of the filmmaker are philosophy professors, and her mother contributed directly to some of the dialogue.

Events develop in surprising and satisfying ways, a tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent writing that underpins it, and the deft and fluid direction. An opportunity develops for Nathalie to explore her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student of hers. A little frisson of recognition there for French audiences, one supposes? The friendship leads to time spent in a remote corner of the beautiful French countryside, open spaces where anything is possible, but Nathalie’s journey is neither radicalised nor is the outcome quite as we might expect it. Only it’s better.

The trailer may have encouraged us to anticipate a certain kind of film, but Hansen-Løve has presented us with something else. It is a special experience, and there’s no also reason why this voyage of re-discovery to the inner self can’t appeal to everyone who has lived a little.

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

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     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    Their Finest

A spirited romantic comedy set during the London blitz when scriptwriters at the Ministry for Information (read propaganda) had to deliver movies the British public could feel good about despite being down to the wire. Sweet characters with sharp dialogue plus some British farce at its silly best, and one for the forgotten women who helped win that war.    3.5 Stars

 

    Colossal

Everything is connected. The premise that underpins this tale of small-mindedness in small town America, gets a bold workout here, weaving the lives of a bunch of slackers with the supernatural threat in a foreign city. Improbable at the very least, but it works. Cutting across genre boundaries, it’s witty, clever and really different.    3.5 Stars

 

    Beauty and the Beast

Everything has been thrown at this, but for all the talent, the  SFX and CGI, and motion capture to nail the Beast’s facial expressions, it isn’t as thrillingly entertaining as it should be. Over-produced, and not as good as its original, the animated version from 1991.    2.5 Stars

     

     Loving

If US civil rights history makes us think only of freedom marches and passionate speeches, then this understated story of an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia makes us think again. Inarticulate or reticent characters aren’t always compelling on screen, but the loving couple whose story this is based on never wavered, finally won the day, and it’s moving and impressive.   3.5 Stars

 

    The Eagle Huntress

A tale of equal opportunity for Kazakhi girls set against the beautiful Mongolian steppe stretching to infinity. It’s a grand vision, but let down by clumsy handling. Occasional voiceover directs us towards the big finish, with ‘you can do anything’ lyrics over final credits, but the doco seems put together as a crowd-pleaser rather than for the authentic deal.     2.5 Stars

 

       Toni Erdmann

Goofball, unhinged antics abound from a dad desperate to re-connect with his daughter, a corporate professional who has lost touch with him, and herself. Although some improv work needed a stern edit, it is funny, sad, touching, and one of the most unusual films you’ll see all year.    4.5 Stars

 

             Moonlight

It finds something lyrical, beauty and poetry, in coming-of-age for a young man who is gay, black, poor and without prospects. It’s no American dream and it finds a role model where you’d least expect to, a bit of a stretch. Naturalistic dialogue sometimes hard to understand, but feelings unmistakable.   4 Stars

 

     Hidden Figures

Plenty to feel good about in this traditional Hollywood quest with radical and such surprising outcomes. Based on historical facts, loosely assembled, the uplifting story of the first ‘computers’ at NASA, the African-American women who knew their math and helped get the US into space. A hearty 3.5 Stars.

 

 

Lion

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A little boy lost with no way home. As he wanders through throngs of strangers in the streets of Kolkata, several things can happen. None of them is good.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar) had clambered onto an empty train, fallen asleep and woken up a thousand miles from his village. Alone, he is at such risk, it is, for anyone who recognises that heart-stopping moment when a child disappears, hard to bear. At five years of age, speaking Hindi not the local Bengali, mispronouncing his own name, and without any clue of the name of his village, what are his chances?

As we watch his unfolding nightmare, it is a relief to see he has a sixth sense attuned to danger. He knows when to run. And he can run like the wind from the dangers that try to coax him with false comforts or grab him and carry him off.

Eventually he is taken to an orphanage, only to escape those particular horrors when an Australian couple adopts him and takes him home to Hobart. A cloud hovers over the family, when it is clear that Saroo’s new brother, the second child that John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley adopt, was a victim of institutional abuse. As we see, a home in paradise does not necessarily bring out the best in everyone.

To be spared such a fate, to be adopted and taken to a life of privilege in Tasmania, what incredible luck. And then to re-unite with his birth mother 25 years later. It is almost too much of a good thing to be true.

I wonder how Lion would have survived out there had it been a fiction feature movie, without its grounding in reality. I doubt it would have lasted long in cinemas. Suspension of disbelief would have been at issue. The second and third acts are so improbable. Yet, as is well-known, it is based on the facts in the book, A Long Way Home, written by the real-life Saroo Brierley, who lived to tell his tale.

It is the telling of the tale, as much as the tale, that audiences are responding to.  Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis, the excellent cast, and Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Bright Star) on camera, have achieved, in deft and understated ways, a big, bold, good hearted film.

Davis recently worked alongside Jane Campion on Top of the Lake. He has also worked in commercials. It has all served him well, and he is in good company like director Ridley Scott, Ray Lawrence, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Sophia Coppola who also have track records in advertising.

And Lion is another great career choice for Dev Patel, who has played a bit part in other contemporary feel-good charmers like Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

If I had a problem with this supremely uplifting film, it is a minor one. The brisk way it deals with Saroo’s transition to awareness. It is difficult to accept that he only began to wonder about his origins when he moved away from his idyllic coast home and went to study in Melbourne. It seems unlikely. Interesting that the filmmakers chose to change the location where Saroo studied. It was actually Canberra.

I didn’t mind the long search via Google. Had Saroo’s life not straddled the digital revolution he would have been plodding through all the villages of India that were located 1,600 km from Kolkata, the distance he calculated he had travelled on his fateful journey.

The reason for the title of the film remains one of its best kept secrets, only revealed after all is over, beyond the final frame. The timing is all, and you take it away with you and enjoy the luxury of its significance by reading it back into what you have just witnessed.

There has been the odd cynical review of this outstanding film, but it has, in the main, met with the tsunami of goodwill that it deserves.

 

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

La La Land

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La La Land poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Why this? Why now? A singing-dancing entertainment brimming with optimism to close a tough, unruly year and open a new one that will take us who knows where? What timing.

It is curious that Hollywood musicals first blossomed in the 1930s along with gangster films, so James Cagney could cross genres and play either a gangster or a tap dancer. They coincided with times of social upheaval in the US and in Europe, enjoying a good run until they were seen off in the 1960s. Not that the musical has ever disappeared. Viva Las Vegas, Saturday Night Fever or Moulin Rouge anyone? While in Bollywood, the musical has long been part and parcel of the mainstream.

La La Land could usher in a new generation of musicals. While a single film doesn’t a revival make, we can expect to see more of them in the wake of this exuberant, uplifting new film from Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with Whiplash a few years ago. Light and airy until things become a bit serious, La La Land demonstrates how a 21st century musical can be contemporary, honour the classic tradition and still have a life of its own. And this is an original musical, not a film of a stage production. Terrific as they were, Les Miserables and Chicago of recent times had already proved their worth on the stage.

At the start, La La Land is determined to be upbeat and take us with it. We lurch into an improbable set piece at the start with the camera swooping through and around dozens of singing, dancing commuters during gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. We could be forgiven for thinking the film is playing back-to-front, and the spectacle is the final curtain. After this, things settle down, as the set pieces are largely integrated and advance the narrative.

As jazz musician Sebastian and aspiring actor Mia, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a very appealing and plausible 21st century couple. They begin as the classic screwball mismatch, but there is common ground. Both are rigorous in their standards and look with nostalgia to the past, as Seb adheres to jazz traditions while Mia reveres the character actors of the Hollywood golden age. In the flat she shares with girlfriends, her room is dominated by a huge close-up of the actors’ actor, Ingrid Bergman.

LA may be the city of sun as the opening number declares, but it’s also a conduit to something else—a career. Mia’s job in a café on the Warner Bros lot allows her to eyeball some of the stars who drop by for takeaway, and to duck out when she gets a call from casting. Seb wants his own jazz club to showcase the music he admires, but he eventually bows to compromise when he joins a jazz-funk band that gives him steady pay, even agrees to bite his lip and look moody for photo shoots.

Dancing may be the vertical expression of horizontal desire, but their relationship looks charmingly chaste, so contrary to today’s mores. That emerald green dress than Mia wears on the couple’s first date recalled for me Cyd Charisse in green when she performs a smouldering showstopper with Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing like that happens here.

It may be unfair to compare, though hard not to, the singing and dancing in La La Land with the work of Kelly, Astaire, Rogers and the set pieces Busby Berkeley created. Stone and Gosling are very talented dramatic actors who dance and sing well, and it’s great to see how accomplished Gosling is on keyboards, but it’s more story and less spectacle here and where we have singing and dancing sequences, they are spectacular because of the staging, production design and the beautiful cinematography.

Of course, La La Land is also an ardent love letter to the movies. To mount this terrific production, the American movie industry has mustered generous resources and assigned them to a relative newcomer. Faith rewarded.

It is easy to point to a certain self-regard in this homage to the dream factory, but writer-director Chazelle, the son of  professors, doesn’t treat us as mugs. He reminds us we can still be lulled into fantasy with the brilliant ‘might have been’ montage that flashes before Mia’s eyes five years later. It’s not exactly an alternate ending, but the film is having a bit of fun with the wishes and expectations that we unconsciously create at the movies, anyway.

4.5 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

Goldstone

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goldstone poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

In the space of the three years since we saw Mystery Road, detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) has buckled a bit under the pressures and contradictions of his job. The hair is lank, the shoulders slumped and the look vacant. Being an Indigenous police officer appears to have taken its toll, and more in gesture than in words, Pedersen makes us feel it.

As a stranger on official business, Swan drives into Goldstone drunk as a skunk and is deposited in the clink until blood alcohol levels recede. The town’s only policeman, young Josh (Alex Russell), is pretty new to town himself.

Swan is on assignment to locate a missing person. Had it been an investigation into a missing Aboriginal person, then this would have probably been an altogether different film. Indeed, it would have been Mystery Road 2, but here the filmmaker Ivan Sen has extended his themes of cross-cultural relations ambitiously. After the opening montage of black-and-white photographs from the gold rush era that depict the exploitation of Asians and Aboriginal people in the early days, he brings the issue to front and centre. Young Asian women are being deprived of their passports, held hostage to pay for their fare to Australia and forced to work in prostitution. Like the stunning drama, The Jammed, that hit the big screen a while ago, human trafficking is at the core.

It’s no stretch locating the root cause of evil in Goldstone. It’s the town’s power couple, mine boss Johnny and Maureen the Mayor, industry veterans David Wenham and Jacki Weaver, respectively. Maureen’s penchant for baking wholesome apple cakes and serving them up to those she intends to compromise makes sly mockery of homespun hospitality, while Johnny’s penchant for neat beige shorts and long socks belie the darkness within. More nuance written into these characters, like the treatment of Tom E. Lewis’s character, the corrupt head of the Land Council, would have served the film better.

Like Mystery Road and Toomelah before it, and his first feature Beneath Clouds before that, the new film from writer/director Ivan Sen is magnificently photographed and really impresses with its sense of place, a place that means freedom to some, entrapment to others, like the women at The Ranch. Goldstone occupies land that the Indigenous community call home, but there are others who are just passing through, like the fly-in-fly-out miners who sleep in temporary accommodation and Pinky the self-employed prostitute who sees clients in her mobile home. Inhabitants of demountables and caravans who are all set to move on the moment that vast hole in the ground, the Furnace Creek open cut mine, stops production.

In what is one of the most interesting and unexpected aspects of this strong, stylish and confident film, Jay and Josh slowly form a partnership as they find themselves covering each other’s back. Not one but two solitary western heroes putting things to right. Two lonely cops pitted against a technologically superior elite, doing corrupt business deals over the heads of ordinary people. A story for our time?

Sen sent his camera into the air, sometimes aboard a drone, as though segueing from wide shot to aerial shot was the most natural thing in the world. The very talented Sen was the film’s editor and composer too. No wonder the stringed instruments and the editing rhythms contribute to the organic whole.

Had Sen been unable to balance the intended social critique with what audiences expect of the generic conventions he has deployed, Goldstone might not have come together so well. However, like Mystery Road before it, the film is a superior fusion of outback noir thriller and contemporary western—and another story to lay down on an ancient land.

Goldstone could become a classic of the Australian screen.

4.5 Stars

Youth

Standard

youth-movie-poster  Review by © Jane Freebury

Either you have it or you don’t. And is there nothing in between? Poised at the age of 45, the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino may well be asking himself this question in his new film, a lushly orchestrated sojourn in a retreat in the Swiss Alps that only the old can afford and the young can manage if they are rich and famous. The director took us into similar territory in The Great Beauty with an older man contemplating his younger years, yet this gesture across a much broader canvas, is different and better.

Here in Youth are two old friends united by age and stage of life. They have met up at a luxury establishment encircled by snow-capped mountains, a grand old pile from the time when there was prestige in building wide rather than high, and intend to rejuvenate physically and intellectually. Film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel has returned to the screen, at last) is at the resort and health spa with his team of collaborators workshopping his next work. He wants it to be his testament. His friend, retired conductor and composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, now 82), only wants peace while he goes through a thorough health check. Even an emissary from the Queen cannot compel him to accept an invitation to perform his own work in the royal presence. In their different ways it seems Mick and Fred search for solace in each other’s company along with some fresh, new direction from well-trodden paths.

So, there’s just two old geezers one step away from an old folks’ home…? No, even though the trailer give this impression, Youth casts widely across the micro-culture of hotel guests with vignettes of other much younger lives. As disaffected Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree, Paul Dano appears to have something in common with his elders, wishing he could change his legacy, that of robot ‘Mr Q’, the only role he seems to be remembered for. While Fred’s daughter and personal assistant, Leda (Rachel Weisz), is there her husband – who also happens to be Mick’s son – leaves her for another woman, a pop diva. Like the soprano Sumi Jo who sings a stunning ‘simple song’ of Fred’s at film’s close, Paloma Faith plays herself in a key role in which the known world intersects with Sorrentino’s narrative, bursting into the rather chilly, ascetic fictional world with passionate promise. A Maradona look-alike lolls around when he’s not signing autographs across the perimeter fence or kicking tennis balls, and a stunning girl who would do perfectly well for Miss Universe is in there too.

There is much to surprise and enjoy as the laughs creep up on you and the ravishing images hold you in their spell. Instead of confining itself to masculine angst, Youth gives voice to women like Leda and a young girl who speaks up in a cuckoo clock shop. Although my mind kept wandering back to The Lobster, Weisz has a fairly straight role among the quirky ones here, and the way her unlikely relationship develops with the mountaineer is a deadpan delight. Jane Fonda appears as an aging diva (not herself) who visits to turn Mick down, although his film was written with her in mind, and gives him a piece of her mind. Despite the promise, the scenes with Fonda worked least well.

Yet a niggle here and there doesn’t take away from this meditation on life and personal endeavour, told with wit and skill. The blending with surrealistic sequences show Sorrentino a master of his craft and Keitel and Caine are a delight together. Sorrentino has involved himself with similar themes before, and even if he has taken a leaf from the cinema autobiographies of the masters like Truffaut and Fellini, here he has excelled himself.

4.5 Stars