Tag Archives: 4.5 Stars

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Review by © Jane Freebury

As it turns out, the director of this film is an American who learned French to make it, because he felt the story would work best in its original language. Julian Schnabel really has got it right. The New York visual artist has only made a couple of other films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, both with a distinctive touch, and now his new work dares to go where few others have.

It’s a superb film, unsentimental and robust, adapted by Ron Harwood (The Pianist) from the book of the same name published in 1997, the memoir of a former editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke and became a prisoner inside his own body, only able to communicate with the blink of an eye. A system worked out by his therapist involved identifying letters of the alphabet so that one blink recorded a ‘yes’ while two blinks meant ‘no’. It’s no stretch to imagine how long it took to write the 139-page book.

It is a deeply engaging. Without preliminaries to set the scene, it opens up in a visually arresting way behind the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric, a lively, faunlike face when we see him in flashback) who is becoming conscious again after weeks in a coma. As focus drifts in and out and neurologists and therapists peer into his eyes for signs of life it becomes apparent that the patient is ‘locked-in’. The way the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski conveys his condition is a marvel.

Jean-Do’s predicament is a desperate one, similar to what we remember only too well in films like ‘The Sea Inside’ and plays like ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway?’ but gloom is only fleeting and the film bounces along as the patient lets his imagination take him wherever it fancies. Faces come and go – hospital staff, family, friends –looking earnest and strained. If only they could hear the conversation inside Jean-Do’s head.

An attractive blonde therapist arrives to teach him how to swallow again and Jean-Do, who was in the prime of life at 43 years of age and a magnet for beautiful women, mocks himself gently. Such a glorious vision, up close, rolling her tongue and tilting her head back! ‘It’s not fair’ for a man in his condition.

For someone who must have been the most self-assured and extrovert of men, his predicament was almost ridiculous. Yet it’s fine to laugh with him about it – and also to see life for a while as Jean-Do saw it, as an outsider, and appreciate its beauty.

4.5 stars

Pan’s Labyrinth

Review by Jane Freebury

If the point of fairy tales is to frighten small children into doing as they’re told or the bogeyman will get them, then this richly embroidered fantasy from Spain turns the lesson on its head. As its MA rating suggests, it contains harsh violence, and is a fairy tale strictly for adults.

We are never too old for fairy tales. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is completely attuned to this and has created a drama set in vicious fighting during the Spanish civil war in 1945 which develops in parallel with a young girl’s retreat into a fantastical world inhabited by monsters, fairies and an ogre that eats little children. The result is an astonishing film that is an entry in the best foreign film award at this year’s Oscars.

Set in the adult drama that is the framing story that prompts Ofelia’s surreal imaginings, the movie begins with the story of a princess of the underworld, who left in search of the sunlight in the world above. Although lost, she is still sought and it seems that this brave 11-year-old could embody her spirit.

She has travelled with her pregnant mother to a remote corner of Spain where her stepfather is leading a military campaign of fascist oppression against a guerrilla stronghold. Violence surrounds her in the above world.

Near her new home there’s a stone labyrinth she explores, an adventure that brings her in touch with a seven-foot tall cloven-hoofed faun who gives her a book with a set of tasks to follow.

There’s a key to find, and chalk to draw a door in the floor and there are horrors when she enters a chamber in which an eyeless figure – think of one of Goya’s most horrifying images – sits at a table laden with luscious food. In the corner is a telling pile of shoes.

It’s a grave and touching performance from Ivana Baquero who observes the world of adults and besides the compassionate housekeeper (Maribel Verdu from Y Tu Mama Tambien) finds it particularly unlovely. She is on the cusp of womanhood, rejects her evil pistol-toting stepfather, explores slimy underground passages and is in conversation with someone who seems to be the god Pan. You can do the symbolic interpretation from here, and be prepared for a compelling tale by a very skilful storyteller.

4.5 stars

Jindabyne

Review by Jane Freebury

It would be interesting to see what director Ray Lawrence could do with a genre thriller, because he is a master of suspense. The prelude to murder on a quiet country road in the opening moments of Jindabyne spills over into subsequent scenes, infecting the innocence of everything that follows with a sense of dread.

So by the time a group of friends are making their way through the bush to their secret fishing spot in the upper reaches of the river valley, even a twig snapping underfoot sounds sinister. From the very start I was hooked, no question.

This is the third feature film director Ray Lawrence has made in twenty or so years, and it is another rich and rewarding experience. His 1985 movie Bliss, based on the Peter Carey novel, was a bold but uneven work, but Lantana was a triumph.

Here again, the drama involves a terrific collection of characters, each of them quite recognisable and beautifully observed—all three generations.

Claire Kane (Laura Linney) is dealing with an unwelcome pregnancy and issues that have been lingering in her marriage while husband Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is feeling his age and has started to dye his hair. Their fey young son is easily led by a strange little playmate who is disturbed by her mother’s recent death. Hovering on the margins, Claire’s Irish mother-in-law is a disapproving presence who doesn’t help ease matters much.

Their fishing friends, the townsfolk and other characters are all vividly alive and the movie digs deep into their psychological makeup to stoke the drama that develops when Stewart and his fishing mates delay making a report they’ve found a dead body. The fat trout in the headwaters take priority.

If this sounds like a heavy scene, it is leavened by the wit and intelligence of Beatrix Christian’s screenplay, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

Jindabyne tells its story at many levels. There’s marital strife, some strained friendships, and the divide between Aboriginal and white Australia is explored, while it also acknowledges the ‘drowned town’ of old Jindabyne under the lake, and the sweeping Monaro landscape that has seen so much over time.

Ultimately it is about the need to take responsibility, something which cannot be shirked by putting up a sign to say ‘Gone fishing’.

4.5 stars

The Proposition

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s said that one of the reasons Hollywood has snapped up Australian cinematographers to shoot movies like Dances with Wolves, Chicago and Cold Mountain, is because they bring a new perspective to quintessential American stories. This came to mind when I saw that Frenchman Benoit Delhomme was behind the camera for this new Australian film, The Proposition.

Filmed in the outback 900 kilometres west of Rockhampton, the terrain looks marvellously harsh and inhospitable, and it’s interesting that through Delhomme’s lens it looks both strange and familiar at the same time.

Add to this the haunting and pulsing music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a mix of Celtic songs of lament with Aboriginal rhythms, and you have a richly textured fabric for the human drama that unfolds.

This tale from the Australian frontier begins when a police captain (Ray Winstone) makes a deal with the devil. He will spare the life of young Mikey Burns if his brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) will agree to track down and kill their older brother, a wild and murderous Irishman who is holed up with his gang in the distant hills.

The good captain is aware of the dangerous charisma of bushrangers, and he is determined to bring Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) to justice, and show he’s a man like any other. Stanley’s grim vow to ‘civilise this place’ is vain hope from the start, and you fear for his frail wife (Emily Watson).

Charlie has nine days to find his brother if the youngster is to be saved from the gallows. It involves a trek through treacherous country, outwitting the bounty hunters who also want Arthur, and avoiding the indigenous inhabitants who have seen one white man too many.

Some of the movie’s scenes of brutality are hard to stomach, but they seem to me to be in keeping with the time and place. I was reminded of films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Wake in Fright, and also some of the most elegiac and troubling of American Westerns, The Searchers and Shane.

The anticipation of violence stalks you from the start and who could be surprised by this mood from the makers of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead. But Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have done better this time – this is a fine movie.

4.5 stars

2046

Review by © Jane Freebury

The year 2046 is the last of the ‘50 years without change’ that China promised Hong Kong from 1997. It’s also the number of the room Mr Chow wants to move into when he arrives at the Oriental Hotel from Singapore, and it’s the name of a sci-fi novel he starts writing with the hotel owner’s daughter Jing Wen.

Director Wong Kar Wai has said the idea for this film came from China’s undertaking, but in the spectacular metropolis created in the opening sequences, the year becomes an imagined destination for time travel, a future moment where memory stays the same. This hasn’t been confirmed, however, because no one has ever returned from 2046. And the movie takes place in 1960s Hong Kong, to confuse things.

Events take place in the 1960s and intertitles are thrown in to assist, but clear exposition and sequential development matter little to this director. With his filmmaking partner, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar Wai has built a well-earned reputation for beautiful, moody films in the vanguard of visual experimentation. 2046 gestures towards the future throughout, but it soon turns its attention to what it really wants to talk about—romantic love. Anticipation of love or loss of love are the themes that Wong Kar Wai keeps returning to every time he makes a film.

If you saw Wong Kar Wai’s exquisite In the Mood for Love, which segues into 2046, you will know that when last seen Chow was getting over a failed love affair. The Oriental Hotel where Chow (Tony Leung) now lives and works is low-rent, with peeling paint, bare globes and thin walls, and houses a collection of characters just like him, romantic questers. Holed up writing pulp fiction and newspaper articles by day, Chow plays the field with beautiful women at night. Gong Li, Zhang Yiyi, and Maggie Cheung have parts.

Again and again this playful, eccentric and ravishing movie, is deliciously inventive. The fetish with shoes, whatever that meant, the shots through floors and windows, the scenes with the beautiful android lover ‘with delayed reaction’. It’s just beautiful, infused with yearning and even has an occasional hint of droll humour.

The director of Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, and Chungking Express has done it again.

3.5 stars

Downfall

Review by © Jane Freebury

The face of actor Bruno Ganz, his gentle, impish features transformed by the intensity of performance in this portrayal of one of the monsters of history, is unforgettable. Bruno Ganz who was the gastronome and lover in Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and the beneficent angel hovering above Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, does Adolph Hitler brilliantly.

It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s also a brave one, to show the man as human like the rest of us, not incapable of affection nor of choosing a new secretary who’s pretty rather than skilled, and not the raving loon of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Yet in delivering a portrait of Hitler as recognizably human rather than a caricature of evil, the film has been controversial at home in Germany.

Some of the criticism has been from none other than director Wenders, who has expressed the surprising view that Downfall lacks a strong moral position on Hitler. But it’s not the villains with cloven hooves and tail, or disfigurement like Richard III that are the most dangerous ones, it’s the seductive ones that have the capacity for inspiring blind faith in millions of others, like the fanatic Magda Goebbels who couldn’t bear to see her six children live in a world without National Socialism.

It’s a little disappointing that director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a television director of good repute, has been so literal in his approach. However this film’s production, undertaking the re-enactment of the last days of Hitler’s regime as it took place in his bunker system under Berlin would have required grim determination in itself. When we occasionally step out for air above ground to walk the dog with Eva Braun or visit the band of children who are in the last line of defence, it’s an infernal wasteland of walking dead.

Direct mention of the Nazi past was long repressed in German cinema, though this began to change in the 1970s with films from Wenders, Sanders-Brahms and others. But since The Great Distator, conceived and filmed in 1939 while Neville Chamberlain was still making up his mind, there’s been little besides a 1955 film by Pabst. In Downfall, Hitler is centre-stage and the secretary on whose book this is partly based is interviewed, delivering a coda that offers responsibility for the cataclysm of war.

4.5 stars

Million Dollar Baby

Review by Jane Freebury

Million Dollar Baby sounds more like a romantic romp, a battle of the sexes, or a doco about IVF than a drama about a young waitress who wants to be a boxer. So it was hardly surprising to see that the international movie database has movies listed under the same name, such as a romantic comedy made in 1941, with Ronald Reagan.

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby ain’t no comedy. Yet there’s rueful humour in his beautifully nuanced film as a relationship begins to emerge between boxing aspirant Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, so good in Boys Don’t Cry) and the veteran trainer and gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who finally agrees to take her on.

We’ve been here before in Rocky, Raging Bull, Girlfight and Fight Club and more, with boxing as metaphor for life in a highly competitive society, but this movie reads like a lesson in living for the underclass, namely white trailer trash who see boxing as the only option for getting a shot at success. Motivational posters on the walls of the Hit Pit gym shout that ‘tough ain’t enough’. Intriguingly, Frankie reads Gaelic in his spare time.

Both Maggie and Frank are noble loners. Frankie is estranged from his daughter and a few devastating encounters with Maggie’s family suggest that she’s better off looking to her roots for inspiration than to her thankless, grasping family.

Hilary Swank is terrific again at last, however it is the old warrior Eastwood whose presence is absolutely everywhere. In front of the camera and behind it, in the vintage Hollywood aesthetic and the elegiac tone also seen recently in Mystic River. Once again, Eastwood is credited with the music.

Eastwood has never been credited with screenwriting on any of his films, but it’s hard to believe he hasn’t had a hand in the words here. Frankie can’t find what he needs in institutionalized religion and makes a devastating stand for euthanasia against established medical practice. Here is a man contemplating his own mortality.

Boxing’s not my thing, but from the iconic shots in silhouette against the white walls of the gym, to the graceful slow fades to the lightly applied guitar strings, Million Dollar Baby doesn’t strike a false note. And is another powerful and moving movie from the 75-year-old who’s still one of the best directors working today.

In a capsule: So soon after Mystic River, another moving and majesterial film from Clint Eastwood shows everyone how it’s done.

4.5 stars

The Motorcycle Diaries

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the middle of last century, two young Argentinians set out on a journey of discovery to explore the South American continent. It was a road trip on which they turned their back on privilege, a gesture that many young people in subsequent generations would emulate as they embraced the politics of the left and the needs of the third world.

Medical student Ernesto (‘Che’) Guevara de la Serna was only 23, and his traveling companion, biochemist Alberto Grenado nearly 30, both shared a restlessness and a love of the open road. It wasn’t the first time Ernesto had taken to the road. And the two young men also had a common professional interest in the treatment of leprosy.

Their motorcycle itself didn’t last the distance, but it carried them through Patagonia, across the Andes and past the vistas of Machu Picchu. The glorious, rolling landscapes are a gift to this journey of discovery, inspiring in themselves and inviting a reading beyond the personal to the general.

During the early stages of the trip the two men bicker like a mismatched married couple. Ernesto/Che, the asthmatic medical student, is honest to a fault, and Gael Garcia Bernal, rising Latino star who we saw in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros, makes him a rather vulnerable, brooding, but winning character. Out for a good time but not at the expense of his Hippocratic oath, with his garrulous, party-animal friend Alberto.

Once the men begin to hitch rides and travel on foot they join the world of the dispossessed of Chile and Peru, and the trip becomes a turning point in their lives.

One enthusiastic critic hailed the book of Che Guevara’s writings on which this film is based as Das Kapital meets Easy Rider. However, the film relates the early stirrings of political consciousness and it only covers around eight months of Che Guevara’s life.

This period was clearly a defining moment that gave birth to Che’s view that the continent of South America, from Mexico to the Magellan Straits, was home to ‘a single mestizo race’. In three short years he would be on his way to meet Fidel Castro.

There are some terrific road trip movies that map a turning point in political consciousness — Thelma and Louise, Phil Noyce’s Backroads and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road are outstanding examples. This fabulous journey by Walter Salles, the Brazilian director who made Central Station, is another absolutely stirring stunner.

4.5 stars

The Hours

Review by © Jane Freebury

This beautifully constructed film and its fragile characters will delight its audiences, even though it is profoundly sad. It glides effortlessly backwards and forwards across the decades that separate three women, a shuttle weaving thread across a loom, as it connects disparate lives lived decades apart. In contemporary Manhatten, in southern England 1921-41, and on a palm-lined Californian avenue in 1950s America.

Each of the women from these different moments in time, including their muse Virginia Woolf, is struggling with life in similar ways. And where connections seem tenuous, the fabric of the film suggests a single life. And that life belongs to Mrs Dalloway, created in the fiction of Virginia Woolf as a London hostess whose holds constant parties ‘to cover the silences’.

New Yorker Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has earned the nickname Dalloway, while Laura (Julianne Moore, a 50s housewife again) reads Mrs Dalloway while she contemplates ways of escape. While the stories of these two women are the main event, we keep returning to Woolf pacing the floor at her Sussex home, or becalmed in a sea of manuscript papers when the words start to flow.

Beautifully matched action of daily domestic rituals draws the lives of the women together. With the flower arrangements plopped into vases, with cakes baked, with a lingering glance in the mirror first thing in the morning, and coiling hair in a bun before the day begins. It’s intoxicating to watch the tapestry develop as actions of the characters are mirrored and matched across the decades.

Such a restless narrative needs nimble fingers to stitch it seamlessly and writer David Hare (screenwriter of Wetherby, and Plenty which also starred Streep) has created something special here. And the swelling piano notes of the Philip Glass score are a glorious background.

Yet for all this meticulous control of mise-en-scene and montage, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is still an actor’s director, drawing exquisite performances from his three lead women actors and their partners, Ed Harris’ tortured character included. Even minor characters resonate.

Sally Potter’s grand and gorgeous folly Orlando some years back turned Woolf’s ideas into mere spectacle. Even though they come to us via the writing of Michael Cunningham on which this film is based, in The Hours they are given life of their own.

3.5 stars