The Square

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Review by © Jane Freebury

As he is portrayed by the Danish actor, Claes Bang, Christian is assured, sensitive and genial. He is the head curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, with the jaunty name X-Royal Museum, and he is also a caring father to the two little daughters he sees on time-share and is an engaged global citizen who drives a Tesla.

Not the kind of man likely to land himself in deep trouble.

One day out and about in the city on foot, however, he is drawn into helping a young woman screaming for help. A cry for ‘help’ is one of the film’s central motifs. It is scattered throughout in different situations, some of which would work extremely well in a thriller by Hitchcock. The upshot is that he is pickpocketed during this incident and comes away from his charitable act minus mobile phone and wallet.

With location finder activated, he and his assistant at work, Michael (Christopher Laesso, another Danish actor in this European coproduction), hatch a devious plan to prompt the thief to return the stolen goods. The phone signal is blinking from an inner city high-rise that looks like social housing. The pair drive to the apartment block with leaflets to post in every letterbox, but it’s the kind of place Christian would never enter, and some very funny scenes ensue.

Miraculously, the plan works and the goods are returned, in a drop off at the local 7 Eleven. It puts Christian in even closer touch with one of numerous people begging on the street. But leafleting an entire apartment block of tenants with the threat of public exposure, draws ire from an unexpected quarter.

Work is giving him grief, too. The museum’s latest acquisition is ‘The Square’, an installation created from cobblestones dug up from the museum courtyard and self-consciously re-laid within a 4 x 4 metre LED square, a designated ‘sanctuary of trust and caring’. The millennial marketing team hired to help launch this bland artwork have an arsenal of shocking ideas that Christian has to keep pouring cold water on, until one of these concepts escapes unapproved while he is distracted, and it goes viral.

American actress du jour, Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale and more), has a small but pithy role in The Square as a journalist. The naïveté she suggests at the start in a sharp, amusing interview asking Christian to explain – better still, to decipher – the jargon in museum marketing material, quickly falls away to reveal an astute and practised player. Why she keeps a pet chimpanzee in her apartment is still a mystery to me, but I take it as a given.

Poor Christian. He has so much going for him it is quite impossible to feel sorry for him. What brings him a world of trouble has more to do with his gender, class and ethnicity than with faults of his own.

In this sharp and savvy social satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund, Christian’s peaceful, refined and ordered world descends into chaos, for minor errors of judgement, none of them hanging offences. The downwards spiral is replete with telling scenes of embarrassment but the tone is almost always light and the treatment kept brisk.

If anything, there are too many strands for drawing it all together and there is a bit of slump at the end.

It is a mark of Ostlund’s considerable skill, however, that the tense scenes in The Square would work equally well in a thriller, including a  quite terrifying scene of performance art that runs amok at a sedate dinner.

The Square has many attributes. Witty, smart, original, and delivered with airy panache – just for starters.

Rated MA15+, 2 hours 31 minutes

4 Stars

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

Lady Bird

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This lovely, low-key, authentic tale of coming-of-age from Greta Gerwig, one of the most talented actresses in US indie cinema, has its own particular shock value. Awful behavior and poor attitudes are par for the course when teens behave badly. Here the shocks arise from angry arguments that seem to ignite in a flash, out of nowhere. On a scale of zero to ten.

Take the first scene in Lady Bird. It unspools before the credits even begin, where a mother and daughter are in the car together on a trip looking at local colleges. As the teen finds the discussion heading in a direction she rejects—that is, not endorsing her fervent wish to go to university on the enlightened east coast—she dives out the door of the moving car. We catch our breath.

Lady Bird is a loosely autobiographical drama, with Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress a thoughtful choice, in the lead role as the eponymous heroine.

Writer-director Gerwig has brought excellent actors together for her film, her second as director, and inspired them to give her their best. Ronan, who has already made quite a name for herself in a long list of films, including Atonement and Brooklyn, has perfectly captured the ‘rebel without much cause’ heroine.

Little is made of the act of self-harm but we know that it wasn’t a youthful revenge fantasy, because Lady Bird appears in subsequent scenes with a jaunty pink cast on her arm. A similar striking moment of incandescent anger takes place when mother and daughter go to thrift shops to find a prom dress, though on this occasion the conflagration is quickly extinguished as they make up over a luscious, pink lace number that they both adore.

Will Lady Bird’s beau for the evening find her irresistible in this gown? Her latest, Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet (who recently come to our attention in another coming-of-age, Call Me by Your Name), is gorgeous, but moody, self-absorbed and a bit of so-and-so. Lady Bird has only recently taken up with him since she found her former beau (Lucas Hedges, in another fine performance) on intimate terms with another boy.

If the boyfriends disappoint, the break-ups may have been lucky escapes, in fact, from the lie Lady Bird that she told each of them about herself, by not owning up to her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ background. It’s not only boyfriends she deceives, either. She has kept her struggling family a secret from the new best friend, also from a wealthy family.

If prom night doesn’t work out the way Lady Bird hoped and imagined, it becomes at least a watershed moment in which she realises which relationships really matter to her.

The problem for Lady Bird is that she would desperately rather be anywhere but Sacramento, in northern California, which is for her the ‘mid-west’ and all that implies. That’s too bad, when it seems her parents have her best interests at heart, supporting her in her senior year at a private Catholic school.

Unfortunately, the stakes have just risen because her programmer dad (Tracey Letts), has lost his job in IT and her mum (Laurie Metcalfe) has to double up on her shifts at the hospital, nursing in psych ward. Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalfe are both convincing as the long-suffering parents, Larry and Marion, with Metcalfe outstanding.

Anywhere but here. It is the adolescent catch-cry, and it strikes a chord with everyone. Having discarded her given name Christine, she had insisted that everyone at home and at school address her as Lady Bird.

Gerwig has revealed that the name isn’t a reference to a former first lady, ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, but drawn from a rather sinister little nursery rhyme ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’. Intriguing, but difficult to explain, as the ditty seems to speak to her mum Marion best of all.

Lady Bird is essentially about mothers and daughters. Even though they drive each other to distraction, the bond between them is rock solid.

Gerwig has received an Academy Award directing nomination for this film. It is also in the running for best film, though it seems unlikely to win a category that tends to go for the big vision rather than the small and intimate. Let’s however not Moonlight.

Were Gerwig to win best director it would be only the second time in the history of the Oscars that a woman has won the award. Indeed, it is only the fifth time a woman has even been nominated for an Oscar in 90 years.

Rated M, 94 minutes

4.5 Stars

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

Happy End

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die. He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke’s latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

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

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Sweet Country

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a burning intensity to Sweet Country, a tale of revenge in the Australian outback where men turn against each other with guns and are violent with women and children. Although much of the violence is not shown in the frame, it is not this that gives the film its intensity as much as it is the passionate outrage that director Warwick Thornton brings to his work.

It was the same with Samson and Delilah, the breakthrough feature for the Indigenous writer-director, a film that took the breath away with its exquisite and forlorn beauty. It won Thornton the prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2009.

Although the focus in Samson and Delilah was on the impact of social dysfunction and neglect on two teenagers in Alice Springs, it spared its young people from despair. Sweet Country is a tougher film and the mood less compromising.

In the far reaches of the outback, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a veteran of the Great War, is struggling to get his cattle run established – and to pull himself together. A kindly neighbour, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), sends his Aboriginal farm hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to help him out with his cattle yard. If only the neighbourly act could have turned out as it was intended. Kelly’s wife is raped.

While Smith, a mild man of god, is away in town, March arrives at his neighbour’s house in search of an mischievous Aboriginal boy he chained up, suspecting him of theft. March fires into the house several times. The boy is hiding nearby, but Kelly is inside and he shoots back in defence of himself and his wife, killing March outright.

Kelly has shot a white man and knows he is doomed. It was the ultimate sin in the outback even late in the 1920s. Like the popular folk hero whose name he shares, he heads into the wilderness all the same, as he and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) make a run for it.

They remain on the run until they realise that Lizzie is pregnant with March’s child (the result of the rape) and they return to town to submit themselves to white justice. One of the film’s most powerful scenes captures this return, as they sit in the dust of the main street waiting in the early morning for the police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to arrive at work.

The space between words was so powerful in Samson and Delilah too. Here again, the Aboriginal people have little to say in their own defence, the sad fact being that they expect to be ignored.

Working from a script by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton tells another 20th century story of the impact of white Australia on the Aboriginal people. It is drawn from fact and took place within the lifetime of people who are still with us.

Rolf de Heer’s brilliant film, The Tracker (2003), with David Gulpilil covered similar territory, also drawing attention to the hunting parties and retributive justice on the frontier early last century.

In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.

Although the red centre can be appreciated in all its glory through Thornton’s images – he is also cinematographer – ‘sweet country’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.

The title could mean several things. It is heavily laced with irony. As a place where one can find sanctuary or solace, it exists only in the imagination. As a place that could be great, maybe it ain’t just yet. Not until some things are fixed.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 50 mins

4 Stars

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

 

Other films to catch this week:

I, Tonya showcases an outstanding performance from Australian actress Margot Robbie. Made in faux documentary style it is loosely based on the story of an American Olympian figure skater who had all the moves, but never quite made it. The film shows why, taking us behind the scenes into the dysfunction and disadvantage of her family life and marriage, the circumstances that betrayed her shot at fame. 3.5 stars

All the Money in the World is among the best work ever by the veteran director Ridley Scott. Based on a vicious 1970s kidnapping and extortion, it is a great example of the kind of serious drama that Scott excelled in before he succumbed to the lure of digital possibilities and CGI armies, undermined by weak narrative and characters. No such problems here. 4 stars

Darkest Hour

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Review by © Jane Freebury

If the impression we get is really true, rather than chosen for dramatic effect, Winston Churchill behind the scenes was not the type of person who was exactly inspiring. He was prone to being intemperate and disinhibited, an unabashed eccentric who it is hard to imagine could survive today’s social media.

Darkest Hour, from Joe Wright who directed the wonderful film Atonement, is about a low point at the beginning of WWII when Britain was at its most vulnerable.

Who would be leader? Should the country broker for peace? The film focuses on how Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister in the dark early months of the war, when how he led it to victory over the next five gruelling years is the more familiar story.

Churchill had always been a controversial figure, dividing political opinion, until he spoke of course, or wrote. There were numerous books and newspaper articles as he languished in the political wilderness while Hitler rose to power.

His appointment as PM seemed like an act of desperation, in the absence of anyone else prepared to take the job. While others were unwilling to take the lead, he could at least unite parliament.

Appeasement appeared to be the only option in 1940 and a peace treaty was possible, brokered through Mussolini. It even seemed an attractive safer option, as the British people could hardly be expected to give up another generation of their young.

It is fascinating to see in this fine film how difficult it was for Churchill in the first weeks of office to actually turn down the offer of a peace deal with Hitler. Darkest Hour concentrates the mind on that moment at the crossroads when Britain very nearly went under the wave of the fascism that was engulfing Europe.

The dedication and zeal that we have become accustomed to from actor Gary Oldman dominates the screen in his central role, as it should. It is a remarkable, immersive performance, and a feat of endurance to appreciate when we understand how long it took to apply the prosthetics in the morning and carry the weight for the rest of the day’s shoot.

But does the performance provide much more insight into Churchill’s personality? Perhaps not. Albert Finney also portrayed Churchill very convincingly in the recent The Gathering Storm.

The appearance of Ben Mendelsohn, however, as King George VI, that other wartime leader who was also loved, was a welcome surprise. Mendelsohn once again shows range and depth.

To move the action out of dusty rooms and corridors of power full of indistinguishable men in suits, Wright takes the camera into London’s streets. Some signature long tracking shots capture the daily life that must go on: the commuters, the shoppers and the vendors—and the three boys larking around in Hitler masks.

A shorthand for showing how Churchill understood the mood of the people was his relationship with his staff, especially those intimately connected with events that he had a hand in directing.

However, in the fictional sequence in which he nips down to the Underground and takes the train to Whitehall to gauge public opinion or, more to the point, to confirm his understanding of it, the film makes an awkward turn. Churchill musters a straw poll that today’s politicians would die for, but the film suffers a minor lapse in credibility.

Leaving off where the recent Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk begins, Darkest Hour closes around the time a little armada of citizen boats sets out across the Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of troops trapped on the beach in France. It’s a stirring sight against a background of white cliffs that signifies a general resolve, and worth contemplating that the event might quite easily have never taken place.

Rated PG, 2 hours 5 minutes

4 Stars

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

The Midwife

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Two well known films by writer-director Martin Provost, Seraphine and Violette, are about creative women who suffered for their art. The French filmmaker gives us another version of this woman in his latest film, The Midwife, about a woman committed to practising her profession according to certain principles, against trend.

It is also known by its French title, Sage Femme, referencing the rare skill that women in labour have depended on since  antiquity. In passing, it takes aim at how the new techno-language has transformed the secret women’s business of midwifery into the ‘birth technician’.

Claire (Catherine Frot) is a highly experienced, committed and competent midwife managing the precarious birthing business on a daily basis. Professionally, she has arrived, and is in no need of validation.

She is a single mother who has made a modest success of her life, however Provost has decided to play the devil’s advocate with her. Maybe there’s a thing or two that Claire could learn from her father’s former mistress, Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), who is a very naughty girl indeed.

What fun it is to watch the ice queen Deneuve as an unrepentant life-long smoker, a drinker, and a card sharp. She reaches out to the daughter of one of her former lovers – a swimming champion who shot himself when she left him – when she is in need of a friend. It’s the first contact the women have had in 30 years.

They meet at Beatrice’s place, or where she is camped temporarily. Looking as much a fright as it is possible for Deneuve to look, she greets Claire in her dressing gown, lights up her first cigarette of the day, and offers her guest whisky and peanuts. How old are you now, she asks. ‘Forty nine is the answer. ‘Ooh la la, you always did look older than your age!’ We get the picture.

When they go out for a snack together Beatrice orders an omelette, fries and red wine for lunch, and proffers an expensive ring signalling she wants to make amends for the hurt she once caused. She is really trying to buy her support. Beatrice has discovered she has brain cancer.

The scene looks set for an inter-generational battle, between the freewheeling Beatrice and the uptight and serious – one might say, humourless – Claire. Her abstemiousness (no drugs, no alcohol, no television, and no fun), is tinged with a certain unbending, moral superiority. Beatrice believes in the power of pleasure while Claire feels she doesn’t need or have time for intimacy.

An icon of French cinema, Deneuve, has for decades maintained her sang-froid as a unattainable beauty who seems remarkably in control. A part she played in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way a few years ago was similar in some ways, but she is less in control here and cries a number of times on screen, which is most unusual.

Filmgoers may be feeling a bit emotional themselves. The film starts with some real-life birthing scenes with plenty of close-ups. Instead of the naturalism he maintained in Seraphine, Provost peppers the narrative with actuality images of births, including the administration of an epidural.

Beatrice brings chaos into the younger woman’s orderly, clinical life. Claire allows herself to be plied with vodka and caviar by the amorous truck-driver working the neighbouring allotment, she adjusts well enough to her son dropping out of university, and she even undertakes to get rid of her sensible trenchcoat.

The writing is both sharp and wise, and the key characters  very well-observed as Provost gives us all something to reflect on.

From the birthing clinic, to the gambling den, from the spare apartment where Claire lives, to the allotment where she grows her flowers and veges, this surprisingly engaging drama weaves its way along the highways and the byways to its inevitable conclusion.

Rated PG, 117 Minutes

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Vincent

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

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

 

 

Mountain

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

A modest 74 minutes long, this new documentary from local filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, is actually one continuous montage of fabulous, indomitable mountains and the people who interact with them.

A wealth of gorgeous mountain wilderness images flashes by. You could say it is on the brisk side. But to take in its immense beauty and power, there is nowhere else to see it but on the cinema screen.

Mountain is a unique collaboration between the filmmaker—who is Canberra-born, by the way—and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti created the glorious score, including the music of Vivaldi, Arvo Part, Beethoven and Grieg, and pieces that he composed himself.

Peedom and Tognetti worked on the film together for a number of years, creating a unique fusion of image and music that explores the hold that mountains have had on our imagination.

Our guide throughout the journey is Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind, a book that was a major literary success a decade or so ago.

In many ways, the images speak for themselves, but the lines from Macfarlane’s book that provide the occasional commentary and food for thought are voiced by actor Willem Dafoe, who is a bit of a survivor of the extreme on screen himself.

‘Mountains live in deep time in a way we do not’ the voiceover intones, and they make us humble and are a reminder of our insignificance. What is it that draws men upward? What is the allure in the danger? Is there a drive to oblivion?

Vision of Alex Honnold on his free solo climb up El Sendero Luminoso, Mexico, is seen in Mountain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After a pre-credit sequence with the ACO limbering up, Mountain opens with a bird’s eye view, an extreme high angle shot looking down at a young man flattened against a sheer rock wall, hundreds of metres high. It is vertiginous and spellbinding. He has no safety ropes, he is free climbing and he flashes a smile for the camera. Ecstatic is the word that comes to mind. Crazy is another.

Further in, there are heart-stopping moments of frenzied extreme sports.

Set to some glorious Vivaldi, adventurers dangle above the precipice, walk across it on high-wire stretched between mountain mesas, while skiers tumble down mountain sides a hair’s breadth ahead of an avalanche, others using the back ends of their skis to break their fall.

And there are cyclists zipping along the spines of high ridges toward the cliff edge over which they tumble into free-fall before their parachute—you didn’t know it was there—opens.

Life on the literal edge certainly sharpens our sense of being, but there are times to pause for thought at the awesome views on top of the world – or for contemplation as the Tibetan prayer wheels spin.

The images are largely the work of cinematographer and adventurer Renan Ozturk, who has the mountaineering bug himself. His work is breathtaking, and the situations he films verging on the surreal, and the sublime.

The flow of the images as they have been edited together doesn’t always work entirely smoothly, however. Although the vision is intrinsically so powerful you hardly notice, the juxtapositions are nonetheless sometimes a bit clunky. It wouldn’t work quite so well as a silent film.

Clambering up a dangerous peak may have once been considered some kind of lunacy. Today the extreme sports risk-takers are doing it all the time, responding to the ‘siren song of the summit’.

Eventually, the film begins to ask a few questions. Why, as our everyday life becomes more comfortable do we court danger? Has risk become its own reward? What’s so great about a selfie at the summit, when the climbing experience has meant ‘queueing’ for one’s turn?

Peedom saw at first hand the costs of the modern obsession with mountains, as a witness to the calamitous avalanche at Everest in 2014. ‘Sharpening our sense of being’ is one thing, but at what cost?

The spirit of Sherpa, Peedom’s 2015 doco, a winner of the very prestigious Grierson award in the UK, is never far from the surface in Mountain. After the thrills, it gives us food for thought.

This film is a magnificent collaboration and a monumental achievement, and it is not to be missed.

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound and published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ali’s Wedding

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Smitten by a lovely girl at the local mosque and eager to make his father and family proud, a young man tells a lie. It’s such a colossal deception that he couldn’t possibly get away with it, but he’s such a guileless, pure-hearted dreamer that the few people who want to exact shame and punishment for it end up looking like the bad guys.

Ali (Osamah Sami) reaps his just desserts anyway.

Romantic love and filial duty are rather old-fashioned virtues for propping up 21st century romantic comedy, yet the conflict between them may be back with boy meets girl from a different cultural background. Like the popular American rom-com The Big Sick, this terrific film co-written by actor and stand-up comic Sami and award-winning screenwriter Andrew Knight, and directed by Jeffrey Walker, makes them front and centre here.

Set in the Muslim community of north Melbourne, Ali’s Wedding is based on Sami’s own life, ‘unfortunately’.

Humour from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself

What a story it is. To begin with, Ali is born the son of a Muslim cleric, an Iraqi, in the Iranian holy city of Qom where he spends his early life. When he is 12, the family emigrates to Australia.

The humour of Ali’s subsequent life adventures derives less from the fish-out-of-water possibilities of living in a different culture than from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself.

For the amusement and instruction of his congregation, Ali’s father (played by Don Hany), wrote a musical comedy called Saddam: the Musical, with him in the title role. Really. It went down well and the production travelled to the United States. Well almost. Ali’s encounter with Homeland Security makes for some classic humour of miscommunication. Proving the adage that there are times when you gotta laugh, or you cry.

Bolstered by impulse rather than design, Ali gets into a pickle when he lies about his score at the university entrance exam for medicine. With the crowd assembled for prayers at the mosque, women to one side and men to another, Ali steps up to the challenge to his family honour thrown down by the rival cleric and his high-achieving son, declaring he achieved the highest score.

What’s touching is it seems what he really wants is for everyone to acknowledge that the stunning score Dianne (Helana Sawires) achieved in the same exam has actually tops them all.

It’s Dianne who Ali really fancies, even though the girl his family intends him to marry is really sweet. Dianne is Australian-born, and you know what that means, even if Ali’s younger sister is too! Life for Ali has become beyond complicated.

It’s not another predictable, dull exercise pushing the right buttons, it makes you laugh

Yet neither Ali nor his cheerfully Aussie mechanic brother Mohsen (Robert Rabiah)—one of many delightfully overdrawn characters—look like they would sink into deep depression if they fell short of family expectation. Laid back, you would say. Their baby sister looks all set to make up for any family shortfalls anyway.

Ali’s Wedding caught me unawares. Expecting another dull exercise pushing the right buttons rather than making me laugh, I found instead a genuinely engaging heart-felt comedy showing how people and families can be just the same everywhere.

The characters live, the feeling is generous and humanistic, and I’m glad to say that unlike some of the movies that pass for comedy these days—Girl’s Trip anyone?—it’s funny.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The King’s Choice

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

Not too many monarchs appear on screen in foetal pose, the way the King of Norway does in early scenes in this wartime drama. Another oddball monarch with issues, looking for escape from the world? It is a bit disconcerting until you hear mention of his back problems.

He has trudged through the snow playing hide and seek with his grandchildren, and now lies on his side on the floor in his study, clutching his shins. Behold, an ordinary man!

Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), was Norway’s king during World War II and for most of the first half of last century. It’s intriguing to read that when Norway dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905 and opted to become a constitutional monarchy, the crown went to a prince of Denmark who became the country’s first king.

Another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks

Long before April 1940 when the German war machine rolled, sailed and flew in demanding he and his government collaborate or be swept aside, Haakon VII was firmly established in the affections his people.

This intimate and engaging film directed by Erik Poppe is eager to affirm Haakon’s reputation as a man of the people. And to show how little say he had in negotiating with the invading German forces or in maintaining the neutrality Norway wished to preserve. It certainly succeeds.

Joining a sudden plethora of World War II films opening this year—Churchill, Dunkirk and the soon-to-be-seen Darkest Hour—it is another war film, yes, and another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks of hostilities. The narrative covers just three days.

From the start, the drama that engulfs Haakon and his family, including Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), his government and the people, is about how to respond to the German forces that enter Norway demanding collaboration.

Should he agree to the urgings of the German ambassador Bauer (Karl Markovics) and cooperate? Or stand his ground and refuse to surrender sovereignty? To complicate things, a Norwegian politician by the name of Quisling has stepped into the breach of indecision and is offering to collaborate.

Weaving handheld camera is neither superfluous nor exaggerated, but integral to the drama

During these events, the handheld camera closely shadows Haakon and key personalities like Olav, in disagreement with his father, and Bauer, odious yet oddly pathetic. Close ups and a weaving handheld camera are neither superfluous nor exaggerated but integral to the drama, enhancing its impact to great effect.

A couple of military encounters, both of which heighten tensions significantly, are telling. When the Norwegians, scarcely prepared for war, take aim at the invaders entering Oslofjord, and when the Norwegian resistance assembles hastily at a crossroads.

As Haakon drives through the checkpoint, trying to keep himself ahead of the invading forces until he has decided what to do, the camera focuses on one of the men assembled. Young Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), is overwhelmed to find himself face-to-face with the king. It seems to speak for the nation.

Seeberg is then seriously wounded in the ensuing skirmish, his fate dangling in the balance until final moments. In its subtle and engrossing way, this film has us on tenterhooks till the end.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle