Petit Paysan (aka Bloody Milk)

Subtle, taut drama that resonates beyond the family farm

M, 86 minutes

Streaming on Stan

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This is an impressive, subtle drama that was invited to Critics Week at Cannes in 2017 and has subsequently appeared at French film festivals. An unusual piece made by relatively unknown talent, it could easily have disappeared from view, but it has turned up on streaming services.

It is good to see a film about the travails of a young French dairy farmer re-surface in this accessible way, because it is terrific film making featuring a fine central performance by Swann Arlaud. As it turns out, three years after it was released, Petit Paysan is timely and topical as well.

The writer-director Hubert Charuel grew up on his parents’ dairy farm but he quit the land to study film at the prestigious French film school, La Femis, in Paris. This, a first feature that was filmed on the family farm, is likely to contain a lot of autobiographical elements.

At the age of 35, Pierre (Arlaud) has sole responsibility of the family farm and its top-ranked herd. He has an exacting milking schedule and of an evening, has dinner with his retired parents who still live on the property, or eats alone in front of the screen.

Conversation with an equable dad and difficult-to-please mum  (Isabel Candelier) is entertainingly combative and packed with rueful insights, like so many of the interchanges between Pierre and the other characters in his world. A sceptical gendarme, the bunch of burly mates he never has time to socialise with, the Belgian dairy farmer he watches on YouTube, and the pretty, dimpled baker his mother wants him to pair up with.

The screenplay by Charuel and co-writer Claude le Pape brims with humour and insight into its cast of characters.

surrealist touches to thriller tropes

Pierre has just learned over the internet that entire dairy herds have been put down after they were found to be suffering from a highly infectious disease, a dorsal haemorrhagic fever. He is starting to freak out at this news, even though events in  Charente are some distance away.

Without overplaying its hand, Petit Paysan displays some inspired cinematic touches that reflect Pierre’s state of mind. From the surrealist dream sequence of him asleep while his cows are milling around inside his house, to the thriller tropes that come into play when lives are dispatched in the barn.

Pascale the vet (Sara Giraudeau) and Pierre the farmer (Swann Arlaud)  Courtesy: UniFrance

Pierre’s sensible, down-to-earth sister, Pascale (Sara Giraudeau, also marvellous), is a local vet. He calls her in to check on Topaz, one of his Friesians who is with calf. She hasn’t been herself lately. Both Pascale and her assistant dismiss it as a case of mastitis, brought on by E. coli infection.

Like the bracing and unsentimental exchanges between Pierre and his parents, the exchanges between him and his sister are just as salty, brisk and amusing. Pascale is disinclined to take her brother’s early concerns as seriously as she might, and is clearly exasperated.

Blood along the spine means ‘DHF’  contagion, the ‘Belgian disease’

Pierre has phoned her 15 times, in perhaps as many minutes. Why should she respond in a timely fashion when Pierre’s behaviour is becoming stranger by the day?

Yet there is a suggestion that for all Pascale’s learned experience, Pierre’s lived experience is on the money this time. Anyway, he knows his beloved cows best. The next day, when he strokes Topaz along the spine his hand comes away smeared with blood. Yes, she has it, ‘DHF’, the ‘Belgian disease’.

As Pierre takes desperate action under the cover of night, the suspense grows as we find ourselves with some sympathy for the young farmer who is in fact breaking the law. His elderly neighbour may have witnessed something so Pierre coaches him in the correct response. Should someone ask, it’s ‘something that stinks but we don’t know what!’

Trapped between family loyalty and professional ethics, Pascale inevitably becomes compromised by what she knows and she and Pierre try to send their parents away on holiday in Corsica so they won’t suspect anything.

It’s a debacle that only makes sense in the context of Pierre’s dread of losing his entire herd, his reputation and his livelihood, and has some resonance with the strange times we find ourselves in.

Petit Paysan, a portrait of rural life that is free of sentiment, is a quiet achievement with characters that live on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 June 2020 and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

The King

A brilliant, brooding adaptation of Shakespeare on leadership and power

MA15+, 140 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Now the streaming platforms are windows on the world in our shuttered lives, movies that were at the cinema a few months ago are re-appearing on our TVs. Giving The King a second chance if you missed it last October is a good bet.

It’s an Australian film from David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) that had a short release last year. There were favourable reviews, it did some business at the box office and then it joined the Netflix stable from whence it came.

Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity

Like The Irishman and Roma, it is a Netflix production. Much of its budget would have gone into the impressive historical detail, including lavishly mounted battle scenes with full-scale catapults hurling fireballs, and hordes of extras in clanking armour.

Filmed in cathedrals and castles in England and Hungary, The King has an authentic period look that has been handsomely photographed by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, Macbeth). In its stern way, it looks great.

The filmmakers have also invested a great deal in actor Timothée Chalamet in the title role. Only 24 years old and hot property since his leading role in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), his ambiguously gendered beauty is not what we might expect in a celebrated warrior king, and is a destabilising factor that keep things interesting.

Catherine de Valois (Lily-Rose Depp) who will become Queen

In recent times, it’s been good to see young filmmakers prepared to give Shakespeare a go. Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet, directed by Australians Geoffrey Wright and Baz Luhrmann respectively, each struggled in different ways with the language, but The King is based on a completely new screenplay and I’m happy to say that it works.

the simple and naturalistic take on Shakespeare’s language has considerable power

Shakespeare’s observations and insights on leadership, power and when to go to war are still there, told in simple and naturalistic language that has considerable power.

Michôd co-wrote his screenplay with actor-director Joel Edgerton, who has the key role of Hal’s constant companion, Falstaff, a dream part for any actor.

Their screenplay is drawn from the three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, that trace the career of one of England’s most popular kings. It was Henry V who defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, a victory that joined the French and English thrones, for a short time at least.

The uniformly fine cast comprises Australian, American and British actors, some in memorable cameo roles.

The Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), heir to the French throne

Ben Mendelsohn appears as Henry IV, the king who will not acknowledging his elder son, Hal, until his dying breath. Robert Pattinson appears in a scene-stealing role as the Dauphin, the vicious, wily heir to the French throne. Lily-Rose Depp’s appearance as Catherine de Valois is only brief but big on impact.

Chalamet himself is very good as the wayward prince who morphs into a great king, though I have some reservations about casting him in this role.

The King tells a story for modern audiences.  It’s quite unlike Henry V starring Laurence Olivier in 1944. While that film was made to revive the war effort, Michôd’s film asks questions about leadership in time of war, and other calamity.

There is nothing glamorous about warfare here. When Prince Hal takes down rebellious young Hotspur (Tom Glyn-Carney), there is nothing valiant about one-on-one combat either. Their swordfight finishes in a grim, desperate wrestling match.

At Agincourt, the French and English armies slog it out in what must have been total mayhem. How would the combatants have known who was who as they struggled in the mud?

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the fictional character of Falstaff into his Henry plays, the king has been in danger of being upstaged by his mischievous, wassailing companion. Edgerton clearly enjoys himself as the bad influence who constantly leads the young prince into trouble.

the changes that risk upsetting the purists are nothing if not bold

However, The King has elevated Falstaff’s standing, giving him a role of consequence as a royal adviser. No longer simply a comic character who keeps Henry in touch with the common man, Falstaff can advise on military strategy too.

All these changes risk upsetting the purists around the Anglosphere, but The King is nothing if not bold.

Kings and kingship are not in themselves such a fashionable subject for audiences today. But the question of good leadership and how to govern is as relevant today as it has always been, and it will not go away.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 March 2020. Also broadcast by ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, and published by the Film Critics Circle of Australia

*Featured image: Timothée Chalamet as Henry V

Queen & Slim

Combines style and charisma to make the point

MA15+, 132 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

The date at a diner wasn’t going well. She had only responded to his request on Tinder after a bad day at work. His attempts at conversation were getting a curt response, his easygoing manner was irritating.

They would soon discover just how different they really were. He, a teetotaller and a devout Christian, who wears a crucifix and drives a car with the registration plate TrustGod. She has no truck with religion.

She is a defence attorney, an excellent one, mind you, and it isn’t completely clear what work he does. Perhaps he sells shoes. There is a collection of boxed Nikes in the boot of his car.

The only things that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) do appear to share besides profiles on Tinder, is being residents of Ohio and African Americans.

Turner-Smith is a relatively recent arrival on screen but Kaluuya made his name in the smart, brutal horror film Get Out. Like this film, Get Out has something serious to say about contemporary race relations in the US.

Queen and Slim are not, by the way, the real names of the protagonists, but everyman and everywoman descriptions. Their real names are revealed at the end.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and the blue Pontiac Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

It’s the colour of their skin that prompts an aggressive encounter with a white police officer while Slim is driving his date home. Something is said about swerving and failing to indicate, but it’s a set up. Queen and Slim are cooperative and reasonable, but this law enforcement officer is only looking for an excuse to use his gun.

He finds one. As Queen retrieves her mobile to record the event, telling the officer all the while what she is doing, he fires at her. Slim and the policeman wrestle to the ground, the gun slips out of the policeman’s hands, and the precipitous descent into a life and death situation concludes with the policemen lying on the ground, lifeless. Slim shot the officer in self-defence with the policeman’s own weapon.

From bitter experience as a defence attorney, Queen knows exactly what to expect from the Ohio justice system There’s nothing for it but to leave the scene and take to the road. While heading south along the highway they might come up with a plan.

It’s no coincidence that their journey begins in Ohio, the point at which escaped slaves who had travelled the ‘underground railroad’ in the 19th century, could leave its network of support for freedom.

When the fugitives run out of fuel after crossing into Kentucky, an off-duty sheriff gives them a lift. He is all cheery bonhomie until he realises who he has on board his pick-up. A black Bonnie and Clyde.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty made counter-culture heroes of the outlaw couple in the 1960s film, Bonnie and Clyde, and inevitably, Queen & Slim invites comparison with the iconic Arthur Penn film. But the similarities are superficial. The original couple, whose Depression-era crime spree across the American South ended in a hail of bullets, were small-time criminals.

Although Queen and Slim agree to have their photo taken in front of their car, just like the original Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, they are a law-abiding couple. Queen and Slim are caught up in the climate that has seen innocent black Americans die at the hands of police.

Once the couple are on the road in their sleek blue Pontiac, dressed in gear they found at a brothel where they hid briefly, their new look fools no one. They are folk heroes known to all. The cop who was shot was a bad cop. They have appeared on YouTube in film uploaded from his dashcam and have become celebrities among their own.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) Image: courtesy Universal Pictures

As they make their way through the backblocks on their way south they are safe, protected and supported by the poor, black communities. They even find a moment to dance to the blues, and the freedom to fall in love.

Music is the language of the director Melina Matsoukas, who has won multiple top awards as a director of music videos. Her feature debut here with screenwriter Lena Waithe, also a black American, is striking. Activist cinema that combines charismatic leads, stylish visuals and great music usually never looks and sounds this good.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 March 2020

*Featured image: Slim (Danieal Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith). Courtesy Universal Pictures

Honeyland

M, 86 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A wild and rugged landscape, a cast of thousands of airborne extras and their solitary beekeeper feature in this engaging and unusual observational documentary. It hails from Macedonia.

It was first conceived of as an official documentary on the Balkan region where it is located. But when the filmmakers came across a woman of Turkish descent whose livelihood was harvesting honey, they decided to focus on her instead.

She is touted in promotional material as the last of the traditional beekeepers. Whether she is or not, she is certainly one of a kind.

In the opening frames, Hatidze Muratova is a speck, a figure in a headscarf walking through a majestic mountainous landscape. Ethereal music combines with capella singing on the soundtrack to make this an entrancing invitation into another world.

Hatidze is crossing the high plateau because it is harvest time. After scrambling along a narrow track above a steep drop, she removes a slice of rock from the mountainside. It opens like a door, revealing a hive of bees.

Mashallah, she whispers, the Arabic expression for giving thanks. The hive is dripping with honey.

Her presence and purpose are not unwelcome, it seems, as she collects honey with her bare hands, murmuring half for you, half for me as she does it. Her age-old traditions are the very definition of sustainable.

After the autumn harvest, Hatidze takes her jars of honey into town. Although Skopje, the capital, is not so very far away, it’s a nine-hour journey for her, by train and on foot.

At the city markets she haggles with stall owners, bargaining hard with the best of them. There is the added incentive of being able to afford some bananas, a special treat, and a sachet of hair colour. Her preference is for chestnut brown, a modest choice, but who is there to appreciate it back at the ghostly hamlet that is her home?

Hatidze’s adventures out and about are punctuated by scenes of her in the cottage that she shares with her 85-yeqr-old mother, a dog and a couple of cats. Old Nazife is bedridden and only has sight in one eye. She and her daughter are blunt with each other, and they bicker constantly, but their interdependence is stark.

They are the only inhabitants of their hamlet, a clutch of stone houses that has been abandoned for quite some time. There are no roads, and no running water or electricity. Jet aircraft that are seen occasionally high in the sky are a remote sign of the 21st century modernity that exists elsewhere.

The cycle of life continues without incident until the day that Hussein Sam, his wife Ljutvie and their seven boisterous children drive in and make it their home, for now. The tribe of kids and the herd of cattle and chickens and general chaos and commotion are a major disruption for two women.

Hatidze welcomes the family of nomads and maintains her forbearance despite this though mum shows less tolerance. But then would, wouldn’t she? Moreover, Hatidze shares her knowledge on beekeeping with her new neighbour, Hussein. He sets up his own hives, seriously messing with Hatidze’s work.

Hatidze with the neighbours

All the goings-on observed in this documentary amount to great theatre. The squabbling adults, the siblings at play or having it out, and the creatures on four legs and two create a tapestry of small, dramatic incidents, that are sometimes hilarious.

The kaleidoscope of vignettes is a tribute to the insight and intelligence of the two Macedonian filmmakers, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

They spent three years with Hatidze, camping at her village, earning the trust that allowed them special access to the intimate lives of others, while also absorbing the rhythms of their remote Balkan world.

The process has really paid off. Kotevska and Stefanov amassed hundreds of hours of footage and have allowed the vision to speak for itself. The result is a superior documentary, without voiceover.

Honeyland was nominated for a best documentary and a best international feature award at the recent Academy Awards. Hatidze’s character and situation may not appeal to everyone, but those who tune in to it will recognise that Honeyland is a rare achievement.  Even the wait for the little surprise at the end of the credits is worth it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 March 2020

*Featured image: Hatidze shares her knowledge

Motherless Brooklyn

Pet project made with a free hand

M, 144 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which it is based.

It’s said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.

Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.

The shift to the fifties also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings. That sort of thing.

Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In his hands, Lionel’s character has a dignity that a less skilful actor might not have achieved.

Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with, nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a ‘freak show’.

Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.

Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in emergency.

It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development. Forcing minority communities out of their homes then demolishing them to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph’s grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a controversial figure at the time.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) confronts Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)

One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent beaux-arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenity. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets.

No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs. The period look seems authentic, though sharp eyed citizens will be able to spot anything that isn’t, a production designer’s and art director’s nightmare.

Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump, is also great as Randolph.  The self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is however a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.

Motherless Brooklyn is such an ambitious undertaking. A big city story that champions the people versus the developers, a really important, ongoing subject that impacts everyone.

I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written, performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run to too long. It would have been better with a tight edit, but ,as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 February 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Edward Norton as gumshoe Lionel Essrog

Emma

PG, 125 minutes

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Emma Woodhouse, created by the 19th century novelist Jane Austen, is blessed with beauty, intelligence and personal wealth. At 21 years of age she is mistress of her household, has an inheritance of £30,000, wealth that is all her own, and only her doddery old dad to look after.

Since her mother died when she was very young, and her older sister left home to marry and have children, and her beloved governess left to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston, she has been alone at home with her father.

Mr Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), obsessed with his minor ailments, is not great company. ‘Do you feel a draught about the knees?’ is the perennial question to companions in the drawing room. Nighy, who hardly speaks a word here and is all the funnier for it, is the perfect choice for the role.

The classic novel Emma, a comedy of manners, has been made and re-made countless times as theatre, film and television. Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, a relative unknown at the time, was cast as Emma in a new film by writer-director Douglas McGrath. That Emma knew how to shoot an arrow from a bow, like Cupid the mischievous, meddling matchmaker, and the willowy American actor has defined the character ever since.

This new version of Emma takes more risk with this possibility of another side to Emma, a side that may even be a little bit cruel. While developing her novel, Austen acknowledged that she might be the only person who would much like this protagonist.

A 23 year old newcomer, Anya Taylor-Joy, makes for a terrific new Emma in this new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. It is the first feature for this director who has a background in photography and short film.

Taylor-Joy is an interesting casting choice. Though she  has a track record in horror film, she makes a feisty, prickly Emma, totally convincing in the role. She also has the long neck you need to look good in bonnets and Empire-line dresses. It’s a clever casting choice, that hints at a side to Emma that Paltrow’s sunny smile could chase away.

The peppery screenplay, a considerable improvement on the screenwriting in 1996, is the work of Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealander, a Booker prize-winning author.

In 2020, the character of Emma is clearly as compelling as ever. Lively and charming company on one hand, but opinionated and arrogant by her own admission, sometimes insensitive on the other.

No doubt, these traits are the reasons why she lives on 200 years after her character was born. The nuance, insight, wit and wisdom of Jane Austen the author who created her probably has something to do with it too.

Emma has declared she has no interest in marrying. She says she can’t see the sense in it when the married women she observes aren’t half the mistress of the household that she is.

She has convinced herself instead of her talent for matchmaking on behalf of others. Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a young local woman, comes into Emma’s orbit and becomes devoted to her, following her advice in all manner of things, including choice of husband.

The local vicar comes a courting, a handsome young farmer drops by as well. Emma doesn’t encourage Harriet’s interest in either man, getting things very wrong on her best friend’s account and ultimately her own.

Lightning strikes: Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) Image courtesy Box Hill Films – © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Will no one set her straight? Only close family friend, neighbour and brother-in-law, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) dares criticise her behaviour. When everyone else tell Emma she is perfection, he reminds her of her faults and shortcomings. Their combative relationship is very entertaining.

With its grand manorial interiors, picturesque village and rolling green fields, de Wilde’s film looks gorgeous. On that score it meets the standard for English period film, but a light, mocking tone is anything but traditional. Emma 2020 is a delicious send-up of the Regency upper classes and their silly manners. In this sense, it reminded me of another recent period drama, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

In recent weeks, a snappy, funny trailer has announced this new Emma on our screens. Like its protagonist, the latest Emma shows a deft hand, is sharp, good to look at, and confirms once again that she is a timeless heroine.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020, also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: friends Harriett (Mia Goth) and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy)

Just Mercy

M, 137 Minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It took more courage than many of us would have thought necessary 30 years ago to leave home in Delaware and get set up in Alabama as a civil rights lawyer. Fresh out of Harvard, and with backing to set up a centre for equal rights, young black lawyer Bryan Stevenson may have been surprised by the reception he received.

a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night

With a welcome straight out of the Rod Steiger playbook from In the Heat of the Night and threatening worse still, State forces of law and order were ready to greet the upstart Northerner with tactics of intimidation and humiliation.

Stevenson had to endure a strip search in order to visit inmates on death row. The agonising scene is played out in what feels like real time. And he was pulled over and searched with a gun to the head, before police laughed and drove away, never explaining why.

Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is the basis for this film, is alive and kicking today. Dividing his time as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative he founded with the responsibilities of a law professor at New York University.

He is played here by Michael B. Jordan, recently a charismatic villain in Black Panther. Here, charisma helps his character too, though not as much as the dignity, restraint and the earnestness with which Jordan has invested his role.

Brie Larson as his partner at the EJI centre, also based on an actual person, Eva Ansley, has a minor support role.

Meetings are held with inmates on death row, long-stay and short-stay guests of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Although the film doesn’t make a point of it, Stevenson reviews the cases of black and white inmates, focusing in particular on the cases of two black men, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Walter ‘J. D.’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx).

without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with a recent murder

Traumatised Vietnam vet, Herbert, who admits his crime, though not apparent intent, has never had adequate legal representation. Walter, on the other hand, admits nothing. He has been framed, but doesn’t expect an iota of justice in a state where you are ‘guilty the moment you are born’.

Self-employed, he had been driving his own new pick up when the police arrested him.  Without any white boss to support his alibi, he could be framed with the recent murder of a white teenage girl. The judge overrode the jury’s decision that he serve life with the death sentence. Only in Alabama, apparently.

On Stevenson’s journey in search of the truth he meets Walter’s family and friends in the local black community. Walter’s alibi was solid.

Courtroom drama: Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Further details of the conviction emerge. The only evidence the court had permitted was that of a single key witness, a convicted felon who was coerced by police with incentives to give false evidence against Walter. Up to a dozen black American family and friends could testify he was at the fish fry fundraiser that day. African Americans were disbarred from the jury too.

It’s an ironic indictment on the corruption of legal processes in Monroe County, the very county where Harper Lee wrote her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film’s finest achievement is demonstrating just how justice can so easily and breathtakingly be perverted and just how critical legal assistance is for those who can’t afford it. They are the most vulnerable group when it comes to equality before the law.

There can’t be any doubt about the sincerity of Just Mercy, though it did not need to exceed two hours’ running time, however, to establish these points.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham for this traditional courtroom drama. The eloquent and compelling arguments against corruption of legal processes and the use of capital punishment that are no doubt set out in Professor Stevenson’s book, would have been a lot of help.

It is good to read that despite the use of capital punishment rising in certain countries, the global trend is actually moving away from it. Of the US States that still have the death penalty, there’s a list, including California, Kentucky and North Carolina, that have not used it in over a decade. No, the State of Alabama isn’t there yet.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 January 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy.  Courtesy of TIFF

1917

MA 15+, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For whatever reasons, World War I doesn’t figure nearly as much as World War II on the movie screen. Maybe because it was years ago and there have been so many other wars and quasi wars in between. Or maybe it’s because in WWI much of the conflict was confined to the trenches for months on end, a scenario that can have limited visual and dramatic appeal.

Either way it doesn’t really explain why the first global conflict hasn’t been mined more for its story-telling potential.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) saw the potential. He collaborated with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to develop a script from a piece of family history. A story his paternal grandfather, Alfred, told him about a young soldier who was sent across enemy lines alone to warn a British battalion that they were heading into an ambush.

It’s a slight story based loosely on fact. A race against time, a picaresque journey across the front, and a powerful re-creation of the conditions in the field for the millions of young men on both sides who sacrificed their lives.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) cross no-man’s land

1917 begins in spring on the edge of a grassy field, where lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake  (Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping in the sunshine.  The countryside looks just like what tourists see today. Broad, green fields that were once the battlefields of WWI extending as far as the eye can see. How could such a beautiful, peaceful setting have once been the backdrop to scenes of extraordinary carnage?

Their nap is interrupted. Blake suddenly gets orders to report to General Erinmore (an economical appearance from Colin Firth). He is told to take a mate along with him so his friend, Schofield, goes too.

Their secret assignment is to let Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, another celebrity cameo) know that although it looks like the Germans have retreated, they have laid a trap and any advance will end in a catastrophic defeat.

And there is a further incentive. If they reach the battalion in time, Blake will also be able to save the life of his older brother, a lieutenant. It’s no coincidence that Blake sets the pace. The two men leave immediately, in broad daylight.

swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up

Schofield and Blake pick their way across no man’s land and enter the trench system the Germans left behind. It is infested with fat rats and set up for unsuspecting enemy soldiers and they barely escape with their lives. They are safer travelling above ground, picking their way through the ransacked farms and burning villages  to their destination.

From beginning to end, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the young soldiers firmly in its sights. One of the best in the business, Deakins has always been up for a challenge. He has shot 1917 in what looks like a single continuous take. If you search for them you could probably pick the edits, but the overwhelming impression is of being swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up. Immersion is total.

It’s the impression you get in other films shot in a single take, or something like it. Hitchcock’s body in the trunk thriller, Rope, is a famous one, though the cuts have been skilfully buried. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a more recent example,  in which a trip through the Hermitage is actually managed in a single continuous shot.

had Schofield gone home a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him

Mendes’ 1917 is the boy’s own story. Neither fresh-faced young actor, Chapman nor MacKay, are as well known as the stars with bit parts, and that’s as it should be. 1917 commemorates the generation of young lives that were lost to the war machine.

Some of the classic films about the 1914-18 war, like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the 1980s carry a strong anti-war message. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s superb archival documentary on WWI released last year, sends a similar powerful message of the loss of young lives.

Young George MacKay is simultaneously appearing in the lead role in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the latest film about the local folk hero who refused to take orders from anyone. Had MacKay’s character Schofield gone home to England a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him?

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 January 2020, also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Schofield (George Mackay) negotiates a ruined town

The Truth

PG, 106 minutes­­­­­

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicate, relatable family drama with a mother-daughter relationship at its core is set in the warm tones of a Paris autumn. A New York-based screenwriter flies in for a visit as her mother, a screen actress, is having her memoir published.

With husband and daughter in tow, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives at her childhood home. Not far from the metro but a world unto itself, set amongst lawns and trees, it holds an abundance of memories for her. It looks like a castle her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) observes. There’s a prison behind it, Lumir rejoinders.

it’s a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed through a translator. You could never guess

Within the old family home, the imperious matriarch, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), awaits them. She is a vision of establishment glamour. Perfectly proportioned features discretely made-up and a coiffured mane of blonde hair. Her daughter looks drawn, wears hardly a skerrick of makeup, and the hair needs attention.

It’s not just a contrast between lifestyles either. Fabienne is also a working woman, currently in the role of a daughter with a time-travelling mother in a faintly absurdist science fiction film ‘Memories of My Mother’.

So far, so clear. Things get going when Lumir protests  that there are lies in the memoir about watching  school plays and meeting her daughter at the school gate. Fabienne’s riposte? As an actress, she will never tell the naked truth, and isn’t a little neglect better than interference in Lumir’s private life?

The memoir also states that Lumir’s father, Pierre, is dead. Perhaps it’s all in a manner of speaking, as there is a giant tortoise that lives in the shrubbery that goes by the name of Pierre. The man himself (Roger Van Hool) comes knocking sometime later, looking mischievous and very much alive.

But for Fabienne, Pierre no longer exists – she now has a partner in her bed and a male assistant Luc (Alain Libolt). The beleaguered Luc resigns dramatically, then returns to his duties during the course of events.

Fabienne can’t recall which other actors of her generation – let’s call them rivals – are still alive either. At least, it may not be intentional but a cultivated absent-mindedness. Writer, editor and director Hirokazu Kore-ada has instilled a strong undercurrent of humour in this gentle, witty study of a family dominated by two strong women.

This is not the first time, and surely not the last, that Deneuve will be cast as the estranged mother we have seen her as in Claire Darling, in The Midwife, and in On My Way. While The Truth plays with perspectives on the critical parent-child relationship, it is also about ageing actresses, their rivals and those set to inherit their legacy who wait in the wings. But that’s a secondary theme.

Catherine Deneuve: a Vertigo moment?

The men in the story, especially self-described second-rate TV actor Hank (Ethan Hawke) helps with rapprochement, and makes for some amusing interchanges over the dinner table. Maybe all the blokes, like Hank, have a bit of a crush on Fabienne. Even the director who likes those shots of the whorl of hair in a bun above the nape of her neck. A reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo?

by the end, family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters

Over the course of the film, the two sparring partners, Lumir and Fabienne, grow closer and when they finally hug, it is genuinely touching. They even share confidences about their male partner’s love-making, how it might compare to their cooking. By the end, the family seems like a unit, just like the band of thieves in Shoplifters, that won Kore-ada the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.

Making The Truth was both a departure from, and a challenge to Kore-ada’s cultural sensibility. His characters speak up rather than remain silent as they might be inclined to do in his home country. In this sense, the film actually needed characters to be French.

It is a wonder that Kore-ada has brought two major French actors, Binoche and Deneuve, together like this for the first time. It was entirely his idea, and a ‘wild’ one at that, as far as his French crew were concerned.

It’s also a wonder that the filmmaker, who speaks neither French nor English, directed this warm and witty family drama through a translator. You could never guess.

An earlier version of Jane’s review was first published by the Canberra Times on 29 December 2019

  • Featured image: family gathering: from left, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Hank (Ethan Hawke), Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and  Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

The Two Popes: a mixed blessing

M, 126 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s an irresistible pleasure watching veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce together on screen as Pope Benedict and his successor, the head of the Catholic Church today, Pope Francis.

Each Welshmen has a commanding presence, and despite a lingering hint of some character or other they once played who was mad, or bad or downright dangerous to know, they are each thoroughly believable as good men of god. Everyone is saying that Pryce is a dead ringer for Pope Francis, and he is.

In the hands of another director, this drama about the struggle between Benedict and Francis, between the conservative and the liberal forces they represented in the church, could have been dull and unenticing. In the hands of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, it is anything but.

Two well-known films by Meirelles convey his range. He made that stunning, kinetic, crime drama, City of God, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as well as The Constant Gardener, a contemplative study of a man who avoids involvement with the world by immersing himself in his plants.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) watches soccer with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins)

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has had his fair share of success recently with Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, has done lively and engaging work here. It is not known what Benedict and Francis actually said to each other during the three conversations they had in 2013, but McCarten has some engaging views on it.

Music direction is lively too. In an early scene set in 2005, when the Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) bumps into Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) in the washroom, he is humming a pop tune. The same tune, ABBA’s Dancing Queen, is the soundtrack when cardinals from around the world assemble to elect their next pope.

irresistible performances though acknowledgement of issues of child abuse far too brief

Playful brio in this Meirelles film, from the variety of camera angles and positions to the soundtrack, is everywhere.

Back in 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the church was looking at its options in challenging times. Would it continue with the process of liberalisation that the late pope had overseen, or revert to a more stringent traditionalist approach?

It chose to install the conservative bishop from Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, as its new leader and re-affirm the church’s fundamental doctrine. Benedict XVI brought more Latin back in again, and the traditional red papal shoes re-appeared on his feet!

The Church’s new conservatism under Benedict caused the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio to fly to Rome to offer his resignation. The popular, liberal cardinal hadn’t even reached retirement age.

What Bergoglio didn’t know was that his pope, who was more advanced in age than most popes had ever been to hold office, was planning to step down. He wanted to persuade Bergoglio, his strongest critic, to succeed him.

Benedict had a plan, but his house guest at the papal summer residence had yet to become a willing participant.

Benedict was taking the all but unprecedented decision in 2013 to resign the papacy, stepping down before his maker claimed him. A pope or two had stepped down before, but the last one to resign on his own initiative did so back to the 13th century.

As to be expected, the worldly archbishop from Argentina and the former academic from Bavaria are worlds apart. Benedict reveals another side as the musician who enjoys playing his favourites on piano, including Berlin cabaret music. Bergoglio’s loves soccer, and as a dancer of tango he must of course practice. How else but with a partner?

The film delves into Bergoglio’s past when as a young man just about to marry he makes a U-turn into the confessional box and joins the Jesuits. Another B+W flashback shows his shameful actions under the Argentinian junta.

Yet, despite some conversation about child abuse in the church between Benedict and his cardinal, this moment is far too brief. You only have to be reminded of the Australian royal commission held into institutional responses to the abuse, or the devastating 2012 doco, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.  A missed opportunity.

The Two Popes is still a rich and entertaining experience. A terrific extended conversation despite wasted opportunities, bringing an engaging, humanistic perspective to the issues the church faces in the modern world.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

Suzi Q: rock’n’roll pioneer in a leather catsuit

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the bad old days, rock stars were by definition blokes and a bit of poor behaviour went with the territory. It was then, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, that a girl playing a bass guitar, almost as long as she was tall, claimed a spot on a crowded stage.

Though Suzi Quatro did smoke and had plenty of attitude, this girl from Detroit, a music city if ever there was one, was wholesome by rock‘n’roll standards. The sex and the drugs were not for her, something she attributes to her strict mother and a Catholic upbringing.

Quatro appears in interview throughout this new music doco. It is directed by Liam Firmager and has been produced in Australia, a country she has toured many times. Her most recent visit concluded this month.

Suzi Quatro with fans. Image courtesy © The Acme Film Company

It seems fitting that a country that appreciates Quatro and where she has toured on some 30 occasions has made the first documentary about her.

a family schism that has never healed

Like some of the famous older rockers, Quatro just keeps on keeping on. Though it’s hard to attribute her longevity to clean living when other rockers, now septuagenarians who did it all, have lived to tell the tale.

As a teenager, she was performing on bass in the Pleasure Seekers, an all-girl band comprising sisters and friends, when she suddenly took herself off to London. It seemed to result in a family schism that has never healed.

Record producer Mickie Most recalls how he spotted her and launched her, re-packaged in a leather catsuit with her all-male support band, including husband-to-be Len Tuckey.

You couldn’t miss her. Long blonde hair flying, a pocket rocket in a leather jumpsuit, the first woman in front of a rock band.

Considering the number of docos on other rock stars that have been made, recognition for the indomitable Suzi Quatro is long overdue. This, the first doco of her life and career, is jam-packed with archival and interview material that perhaps helps to make up for this. However, not all is that insightful.

Her music regularly topped the charts in European countries and has had a particularly consistent fanbase in Australia, but it didn’t really catch on in her home country, and the question this raises remains.

Debbie (Blondie) Harry makes some interesting points, as does record producer and songwriter Mike Chapman, an Australian  who was a key player in the music industry in England in the 1970s. Was Quatro ‘too soon’?  Was something lost in translation? Or was it because the US didn’t take to glam rock. Mmm…but wasn’t she raw and hard rock rather than glam?

The ratio of talking heads to vision of Suzi in action is too high. Alice Cooper and Joan (I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll) Jett are good value but more vision of the performer’s concerts, more of the music, and even vision of quiet moments can go a long way.

On the other hand, the frank views of her sister Patti  and some other members of her family about her music and career make you wince. Her family who were also into music in a big way wrote her out of their lives, an estrangement that must have had a defining effect on her.

Suzi Quatro with the Fonz. Image courtesy of © Happy Days

Yet she seemed to want out. She went to work very young and was doing five shows a week, when she ‘should have been in school’. She has been indefatigable ever since. She has made guest television appearances as ‘Leather Tuscadero’ in Happy Days with the Fonz, appeared in Absolutely Fabulous with Patsy and Eddy, has hosted a chat show and was a hit in a starring role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black

In 2019, it’s a bit shocking to see her get her bottom slapped and pronounced ‘rear of the year’ before a TV interview. An in-depth report on how she survived the music industry could make interesting viewing.

She says that when there were no female rocker role models, her very first inspiration was Elvis. In 1973 she emerged a pioneer when other females in the business were singers like Lulu and Cilla Black.

Bold, mouthy, a looker free of artifice, she was an original, the first woman to lead a rock band, sing lead and play an instrument. This is a very comprehensive tribute to her career.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 November 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Report: a record too hot to handle

M, 120 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The missing middle word in the title of this strenuous and thoughtful film is torture. The inconvenient truth of it redacted, just like the videotape records of CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ destroyed in the years after September 11.

No, not a spoiler. Just letting you know about the really unsavoury backstory to this 7,000 page report into CIA activities.

Based on real events post 9/11

Based on real people and real events, The Report is about how researchers working for the Senate Intelligence Committee compiled an official report inhouse into the methods used by the government’s intelligence agency while interrogating terrorists and terror suspects detained after 9/11.

Adam Driver hits the spot as Dan Jones

A lot of young Americans stepped up to join the defence forces or otherwise help after that national catastrophe, including a young graduate student, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who switched his studies to security overnight.

the real Dan Jones has set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance internationally

As a young everyman who wanted to help protect the homeland, Driver is an inspired choice. We already had him pegged as an engaging, versatile and intelligent actor, and though we get to see little other dimension to his personality outside of work, he is always interesting to watch. Late in the piece we see him jogging through a Washington park, and that’s about it, but Driver is a nuanced and expressive actor as the bureaucrat whose job became his all.

Incidentally, the real Dan Jones has left the public service and set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance around the world.

As a Senate staffer, Jones led the team investigating the CIA use of torture in the wake of 9/11. It may well have been the last thing a patriotically inclined young citizen sought, but he was lucky to be under the guidance of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), an admirable, thoughtful and supportive boss. After a long a distinguished career, the real Feinstein is the oldest serving member of the US Senate.

CIA videotape records had been disappeared

The tapes of interrogations had been disappeared or destroyed, but, incredibly, the written records still existed, and it was these that Jones and his tiny team trawled through for years to come up with the facts. It was no easy job. They had to face bureaucrats disinclined to help, or simply resistant, and work in the windowless bowels of some departmental basement.

When has torture ever worked? Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America?

What they found on the page is translated to scenes that are mercifully short. Feinstein and the team found themselves asking if torture ever worked. Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America? The film leaves you in no doubt, and has a dig along the way at Zero Dark Thirty for concluding that it had led to Bin Laden.

If waterboarding works, then why was it necessary for a prisoner to undergo it 183 times, Feinstein asks. A reasonable question, no one had thought to ask it of the two contract psychologists who were freelancing its use. This notorious method and mock burials and the rest has become ‘a stain on the values and history’ of the US in the years since.

The Report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, whose writing credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects and will soon include the new Bond film, No Time To Die.

Despite the welcome presence of Bening, there is nothing glamourous to this shadowy world of intelligence gathering. With its chilly palette and serious, weighty tone, The Report is in the tradition of work in the wake of the Watergate scandal, like All the President’s Men, and after the release of the Pentagon Papers (on US involvement in Vietnam), like The Post.  Typically, it’s mostly chilly interiors and the forbidding facades of impenetrable Washington government buildings in the frame.

A stain on American history and values

When the report is released, other senators, including the late John McCain, (famously a former long-term prisoner of the North Vietnamese) lend their support to it and condemn the use of torture, and its stain on American values and international standing. The noticeably warmer glow in the frame at this point, is unfortunately undercut by some final revelations.

This is smart stuff, wordy and engrossing – and non-partisan – with a great message for governments to own their mistakes. It can feel like sitting on a jury, listening to the arguments back and forth, but in the final analysis, The Report is in no doubt about the position it takes.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 November 2019

Blinded by the Light

PG, 1 hr 57 mins

All Canberra cinemas

4 Stars

Life was all mapped out. Young Javed would become an accountant, an estate agent, or even a lawyer, and would leave finding a wife to his parents. With his job and wife-to-be taken care of, all he had to do meantime was go along with his father’s wishes. At home, the opinions of his dad were the only ones allowed.

As a boy from a Pakistani family living in Britain in the 1980s, Javed (an engaging performance by Viveik Kalra) felt trapped, but it helped to write and he kept diaries throughout his teenage years.

This exuberant musical comedy, Blinded by the Light, is based on a memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, by Pakistani-British man, Sarfraz Manzoor, who became a journalist and broadcaster – not another taxi driver – and a lifelong fan of the music of Bruce Springsteen. To date, he has attended more than 150 live Springsteen concerts.

It was an ugly time in his adopted country. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, there was widespread industrial turmoil and unemployment, and the National Front was prowling the streets. In times like those, it wasn’t so silly of Javed’s father, Malik (Gurvinder Ghir), to insist his family – wife Noor (Meera Ganatra), two daughters and son – kept a low profile.

Javed (Viveik Kalra, centre) and friends, Eliza (Nell Williams) and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

The family lived in Luton, which didn’t help. With traffic on the motorway pouring past to the north or to the shimmering capital to the south, Luton felt on the way to somewhere else, an arrow to nowhere off the M1. Life must be happening somewhere, anywhere but here.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers

Even his good friend and neighbour, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an uninhibited Anglo, has a girlfriend, belongs to a band and his dad (played by an barely recognisable Rob Brydon) is cool. Though Matt, of course, doesn’t know it.

This was Javed’s lot. An outsider, until the day everything changed. In the school cafeteria, over baked beans and chips, the only other student from the Subcontinent, Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh, hands him a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes, saying ‘The Boss’ is ‘the direct line to all that is true in this shitty world’. Pretty soon, Javed is a convert too.

For some reason, the film tries to explain how Springsteen, proud working class, Anglo man from New Jersey, could speak to a couple of South Asian teenagers, one Sikh and one Muslim, trying to make sense of life in Britain. Lines from Springsteen’s lyrics float around Javed’s head as he listens in private on his Walkman, as though it needed an explanation. It doesn’t. Music is the universal language.

The filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges collaborated with Manzoor on the screenplay. Blinded by the Light has her familiar distinctive touch, and the sly but generous humour typical of Chadha. She has a knack for keeping it light even though her focus is the on tricky subjects like relations between Anglos and Asians, and the need to reconcile tradition with modernity.

Chadha’s last film, Viceroy’s House in 2017, dealt with the weighty subject of the final days of the British Raj in India. It was probably notable for Gillian Anderson’s performance as Lady Mountbatten, but though well-intentioned it was surprisingly dull.

Chadha has been at her best with stories about immigrant families from the Subcontinent in Britain. Stories like Bend It Like Beckham in 2002, about a Punjabi Sikh girl infatuated with Britain’s football superstar, and Bhaji on the Beach, in 1993. These are films with a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of social customs and cross-cultural interaction and it’s what we see here in Blinded by the Light. Social commentary is Chadha’s forte.

The irrepressible Rob Bryden has a small role here but as Matt’s dad, who appeared to have a positive, liberal influence on both his son and Javed, but his character is under-developed.

At 117 minutes, Blinded by the Light is over-long, even though it is important to get to know the characters in stories like these, and see them in all their contradictions. Insights take time to develop, and to understand.

With people on the streets and governments locked in dysfunction, is it okay to have such playful, innocent fun with Javed’s ‘runaway American dream in Luton’? What a question.

First published in The Canberra Times on 27 October 2019, and also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Cinemas everywhere

4 Stars

Review @ Jane Freebury

It’s the start of another California day where careers are made, lost, or peter away under a peerless blue sky. The instant we hop into the back seat of a Cadillac and head down Cielo Drive, most of us have already given ourselves over for the ride. The vehicle careens wildly as it negotiates the traffic, but what the heck. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are in the front seat, and soul is on the soundtrack, so who’s asking questions?

Although Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) lives in a rambling bungalow with pool where posters of his success on screen plaster the walls, he needs work. Work that can resuscitate a career that has been waning since his star turn in ‘Bounty Law’, a TV western. In 1969 the movie world was turning, a new breed of auteur directors and anti-hero stars were stealing the march on the studio establishment.

Tate would surely scramble free of the bimbo roles the industry was insisting she was meant for

Like harbingers of a different future, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. By then Polanski had already had significant success with Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, while his wife Tate, an actor of talent, would surely scramble free of the bimbo roles the industry was insisting she was meant for.

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) at a Playboy Mansion party

At the bar where Dalton washes up with his stunt double and minder, Cliff Booth (Pitt, ‘too pretty to be a stuntman’), movie producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) advises him to answer the call and find himself a role in the ‘spaghetti western’ industry  in Spain and Italy.

Although Dalton is loosely based on some minor identity, many of us know that Clint Eastwood rocketed from  TV’s Rawhide to international success in Sergio Leone’s glorious tributes to the western, including Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone is also a director who, understanding the value of a great soundtrack, allowed the Ennio Morricone score the space to do its thing.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has given Tarantino an opportunity he’s been waiting for to play selections from his vinyl collection – but only up to 1969. The soundtrack is rich and evocative, including the sweet, sad strains of Jose Feliciano’s California Dreamin’, a signpost for the emerging counterculture.

Tarantino re-imagines Hollywood like an insider, though he was just six at the time

Tarantino has researched and re-imagined Hollywood here with the affection and knowledge of an insider, waiting for the big break and hanging out with mates like Rick and Cliff.  Hollywood in 69 wasn’t Tarantino’s lived experience, however much he would like it to have been. He was just a six-year-old in LA at the time.

Once Upon a Time is told from the fringe, from the point of view of those who missed out. Dalton and Booth aren’t alone here. The real Charles Manson (a small role occupied by Australian actor Damon Herriman) was on the fringe too, an aspiring singer-songwriter, and one of the many who never struck it lucky. The brief scene in which the cult leader is looking for a record producer who used to live at the Polanski address, has a factual basis.

spectacularly savage violence features, delivered as casually as takeaway

This filmmaker makes such exciting cinema, lavish, playful, and so gloriously cinematic that it seems mean to quibble, but he can’t resist that flash of R-rated, ultra-violence, that extravagant, spectacularly savage gesture that features in nearly every film, catching you off guard. It’s not for nothing that films are called Tarantino-esque. Jackie Brown in 1997 was a noble exception.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) runs the gauntlet at the Manson cult ranch

It is interesting to hear one of the Manson girls (Dakota Fanning) say that the TV/film industry had made her commit murder. It is sometimes said that, besides non-linear plotting, satiric black humour and playful intertextuality, the films of Quentin Tarantino ushered in new levels of graphic and stylized violence in the 1990s, delivered as casually as a burger takeaway.

And yet, Tarantino has found a very clever way of referencing the incredible violence of the Tate murders. Obliquely, using the lead up to the horror as a subtext to his story of knockabout lead characters. What’s disturbing though, is how the Manson acolytes themselves are dealt with, at least as savagely as the real-life murder victims themselves.

The mood of laid-back California cool that suffuses the film vanishes in the penultimate moment. And although the happy coda does its best, it can’t blot out what has already been seared into the retina.

Jane’s reviews are published at the Canberra Critics Circle, at the Film Critics Circle of Australia from time to time, and are heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz, when she is in Canberra

Never Look Away

Rated M, 3 hrs 9 mins

Dendy Cinema Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It isn’t possible to look away from this imposing film for long. Maybe to check the time―it does run for over three hours―or to block out a harrowing moment, but it has a commanding and sensual beauty that isn’t around much at the moment. Top marks to the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And like writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, it has something serious it wants to say.

The central character, Kurt Barnert, is a little boy when we meet him on a sunny day in beautiful Dresden in 1937, visiting an art exhibition with a lovely young woman, probably too young to be his mother. As they stand in wrapt attention in front of the Kandinskys and Picassos on display, the tour guide launches a rant denouncing degenerate modernism. The child hardly notices, he is entranced.

The paintings captivate his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) too and she assures Kurt he should trust his curiosity and never avert his gaze, because ‘everything true is beautiful.’ It’s all he needs to know.

Averting the gaze takes on wider implications as the narrative progresses, and is caught up in the obscenities of the Nazi regime.

At home later that day, Elisabeth’s heightened awareness turns bizarre and there is an episode of self-harm. Kurt’s beloved aunt is schizophrenic, eventually brutally eliminated by the Nazi regime for what is judged her unsuitability to bear children.

After the war, Kurt (played by Tom Schilling) is studying art, but he struggles to find meaning in the Socialist Realism he is required to produce in Communist-era East Germany. The role of the artist in society is of course what this is all about, as Kurt tries to work out his own style and vision while living through his country’s turbulent recent history.

At this time, he falls in love with another Elisabeth (Paula Beer), who he nicknames Ellie. A fashion student, an uncanny doppelganger for his late aunt, who is the daughter of a highly-ranked medical officer with a shadowy Nazi past. The ‘reveal’ as he leans towards his daughter’s bedside lamp is one of the best there is.

Sebastian Koch had a key role in The Lives of Others, as a playwright under surveillance by the Stasi. Here, as Professor Carl Seeband, he is another compelling character, and really more interesting than Schilling’s Kurt, who doesn’t have the same presence or complexity. A game something like ‘cat and mouse’ develops between Kurt and Carl, and the two generations they represent.

It has been well-documented that von Donnersmarck based this fascinating story loosely on the life and work of the German artist Gerhard Richter, and many of the details match. But it is probably safe to say that both filmmaker and artist have been at pains to distance themselves from direct attribution. This is no biopic.

Never Look Away feels like a labour of love from von Donnersmarck, who both wrote and directed, and it is so good to see his return as a filmmaker after his last film, The Tourist. A dull romantic thriller with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, it also brought beautiful people together on screen, but gave them nothing to do.

When the Nazis were consolidating their power in 1937, they understood only too well the importance of mind control. An exhibition of degenerate art famously represented much of what was wrong with the old order: individual expression, artistic freedom, and ‘dangerous’ things like that.

In its original German language version, the title for Never Look Away is Work Without Author. There is a documented reason for this that is part of the production backstory, rather than an invitation to consider any ‘death of the author’, but it adds an intriguing dimension to ways to respond.

Never Look Away or Work Without Author, what you will, it’s going to stay with you, long after viewing.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast by ArtSound FM MHz 92.7/90.3

Woman at War

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Of the various women warriors on the big screen this week, Woman at War is the most unusual. It is a clever balancing act that is both playful and serious, while suggesting that Icelandic humour and world view can hit the spot at times.

In Captain Marvel, a young female warrior played by Brie Larson is learning to unleash her powers and take her place in the pantheon of superheroes. The biggest blockbuster of the year so far and still going strong, it has quite a smart, witty script and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance to recommend it.

Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, barely recognisable if not fully convincing, certainly packs a punch. As a driven LAPD detective on a vendetta, Kidman is tracking down a vicious criminal mastermind who has escaped justice. It is one of those interesting films that really divides critics and audiences, and it is as gritty and grim as Captain Marvel is as fun and forgettable.

A very different kind of quest motivates Woman at War, a comedic drama from Iceland that is directed with wit and brio by Benedikt Erlingsson, who also co-wrote it with Olafur Egilsson.Woman at War plots the course of an environmental activist who, like David to Goliath, confronts a giant multinational corporation, Rio Tinto in fact, that is ruining the pristine countryside. In her efforts to stop it building another aluminium smelter, with Chinese backing, she becomes an enemy of the state in this engaging and eccentric film, right out of left field.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), raises her long bow and fires in the first scene. Bullseye. Single-handedly – well almost, a couple of others are in the know – she closes down vast sections of the grid and holds an entire country, albeit a small one, to ransom.

When not moonlighting as a committed activist, Halla is a healthy, energetic choir director who fits in well with her community. She is single, and at 49 years waiting to hear whether her application to adopt an orphan from the Ukraine has been successful. She had all but forgotten about it, but it comes through and hears that a little girl is waiting for her.

Now what does she do? How to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood with militant activism to save the planet from environmental disaster? These are weighty issues. Perhaps the pacifist strategies of the heroes she has on her wall at home, Mandela and Gandhi, will inform her.

Along the way on Halla’s journey, a trio of musicians has been playing in the background and sometimes in Halla’s own home, even turning on the telly. It is a marvellously eccentric interpolation. Later on, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers share the frame with Halla. What an inspired idea, to have the score played and sung by performers who appear in the same space as the actors.

Another diverting device that keeps the mood buoyant is the hapless Spanish tourist cycling around the country. He keeps being found by the police in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Halla’s acts of sabotage. It is an hilarious incidental detail.

When Halla’s twin sister, also played by Geirharosdottir, unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is indeed the other side of the coin, looking for fulfilment and inner peace and harmony in her yoga and meditation. Asa’s appearance means even more screen time with this excellent lead actress.

In less deft and subtle hands this funny fable from a remote and idiosyncratic land could have turned out differently. Woman at War could have been simply weird, but it is an unequivocal success instead.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz/90.3MHz Tuggeranong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Always Never

PG, 1 hr  27 mins

4 Stars

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Words, words, words are at the heart of the matter in this offbeat tale of a fastidious man, a retired tailor who has lost one of his sons. He is a fiend at Scrabble who can get a triple word score but he is at a loss with people he cares for.

In the striking opening scene, Alan (Bill Nighy), still as a statue, gazes out to sea. He is dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella, and as solitary as the other iron men statues at Crosby Beach near Liverpool that are scattered across the shore.

For many years, Alan has been searching for the elder son who stood up from a scrabble game one evening and left, over a word dispute, never to return. His other son, Peter (Sam Reilly, so great in Control), is the one who stayed behind in Liverpool, married, lived a steady life and now has a son of his own, teenager Jack (Louis Healy).

However, Alan is forever gazing into the blue yonder, on the lookout for the prodigal that got away, failing to appreciate what he has. This elision and under-appreciation has turned his son Peter a touch sour.

Things get going with a trip to the morgue, of all places, where there’s a body that might be the missing Michael, and just when that macabre movement of revelation seems about to occur, the film pulls back. Sometimes Always Never is like that, skidding across those hard and difficult surfaces while keeping the tone light, making the film an unexpected pleasure.

a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with an oblique, jaunty eccentricity

When the body proves to belong to someone else, Peter and Alan continue their trip together to follow up more leads. At a hotel, the indefatigable Alan the chance to rip a bloke off at Scrabble and somehow, we don’t see how exactly, make a pass at the mans’ wife (Jenny Agutter). The interlude brings into the focus the gap between father and son.

The search is quickly abandoned and on their return home, Alan is politely offered a place to stay. In no time, Jack has turfed Jack out of his bunk bed and taken over his computer, the gateway to a world of Scrabble partners online. Peter is very put out but his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) doesn’t seem to mind that much and Alan, sartorial snob that he is, has a transformational impact on his grandson.

what’s with these adverbs of frequency?

Laced with observations on the English character and sensibility, Sometimes Always Never is a family album of dysfunction and healing delivered with that an oblique, jaunty eccentricity that only the British can manage without cloying sentimentality. An accomplished balancing act.

The film is a quest to find the prodigal becomes a quest to find what’s missing in the ones who are left behind. Based on a short story by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and illustrated with wonderful, imaginative production direction by Tim Dickel, it is superbly well directed by first-timer Carl Hunter.

So what’s with these adverbs of frequency in the title? Are they rules for life? It’s something along those lines, but the lesson takes an unexpected turn, which is one of the many gentle surprises and delights on offer here.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and ArtSound FM 92.7

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

The Children Act

M, 105 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 stars

A good story about a moral dilemma is hard to beat. The English novelist Ian McEwan has a steady supply of them with characters caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with moral choices at once as intractable as they are desirable.

If humour is wanting – his novel Solar was perhaps an exception – you could not complain about McEwan’s lack of complexity as he challenges his characters with far more than they bargained for. Many literary awards testify to the compelling achievements of this Booker Prize winning author and influential thinker.

He’s a novelist but has on occasion also written just for the screen. The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983 was based on his screenplay but now he tends to write screenplays based on his own books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

These recent films have taught us what we can expect of McEwan – a forensic dissection of human relationships. The film of his book The Children Act is no exception.

Directed with nuance and grace by Richard Eyre, The Children Act repays the viewer with its complexity and a stupendous performance by Emma Thompson, as high court justice Fiona Maye. And Stanley Tucci in excellent form too as her husband Jack, a classics professor.

 A case comes before her involving a young man not quite 18 whose Jehovah Witness family is refusing to allow him a blood transfusion because it’s contrary to their beliefs.The hospital where the boy is languishing with leukemia is suing the parents for the right to pursue treatment – transfusion followed by drug therapy – and an 11th hour decision is required.

Over and above his parents’ wishes, the boy’s life is already protected by the Children Act, but Maye makes an impromptu visit to the boy in hospital. What does he want?

It turns out Adam (Fionn Whitehead),  haggard and handsome, has the sensibilities of a romantic poet. He responds fulsomely to Fiona when she reveals her own interest in poetry and that she is a musician too. It seems as though he represents the passion that is missing from the well-ordered, work-oriented life that she leads as she shuttles between a Gray’s Inn apartment, her rooms and the court. Nor do she and Jack have children.

What’s more, Jack has just left, declaring he’s going to have an affair. It looks like Fiona has taken her demonstrative, sensitive husband for granted, but she changes the locks all the same.

As milady the judge becomes increasingly isolated, Adam becomes more and more obsessive, not entirely unlike the Rhys Ifans’ stalker in Enduring Love, also based on a McEwan book.

That’s one way of looking at it. I found myself wondering where social services were when we needed them. But that, of course, would have been prosaic and not have allowed the dramatic potential of this unusual situation to evolve.

Trust McEwan to throw another curved ball at us.

 

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

Ladies in Black

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated PG, I hr 49 mins

All cinemas

 

Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.

How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.

The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.

Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.

Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.

Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.

The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.

For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.

Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.

The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.

There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.

4 Stars

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