Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

Review by © Jane Freebury

Unless I blinked and missed it, there wasn’t a subtitle or intertitle in sight during this two-hour tribute to the late Joe Strummer, the lead singer and lyricist for the British punk rock band The Clash during the 1970s and 80s. Someone at one point said their sound was the roar of the city. A good metaphor, I think.

It would be easy to get lost on the tide of information if it wasn’t expertly put together. However, this remarkable documentary journey through several decades of popular culture – and the lifetime of one of its leading figures – is smoothly and expertly orchestrated by director Julien Temple, who did such a good job with The Filth and the Fury doco on the Sex Pistols some years back.

Strummer died in 2002 at the age of 50, unexpectedly and of natural causes, the film is at pains to point out. By all account he was a complex man who tried to make sense of his contradictions. The son of a diplomat and a former public schoolboy, he became one of the founders of punk. An art-school ‘malingerer’ and a ‘mouthy little git’, he went on to make good, but when he was at the height of his fame he was dismayed by his success. At least, that’s what he says, though others would disagree.

His early life is told with snippets of home movies, images from abroad where the family lived on postings, clips from movies like Animal Farm and Lindsay Anderson’s public school drama If, and other fragments that build a mosaic of influences the singer was exposed to from a young age.

When he and his elder brother were still in short pants their parents sent them ‘home’ to boarding school in England. It was where the revolt began for Strummer and school grades were abysmal, though he did enjoy Scouts and took a penchant for building campfires for community get-togethers into later life. It is the motif throughout the film, with interviews from friends and acquaintances recorded at gatherings around communal campfires.

Celebrities like Steve Buscemi, Johnny Depp, John Cusack appear in the glow of firelight – somewhere above Los Angeles by the look of it – to talk about the influence Strummer had on their world. Another campfire near the Thames with the squatters, former partners and friends from the years prior to international fame give other insights.

If this film were hagiography, it would be strictly for the converted, but it is a documentary in the best sense – observational, dispassionate and really well researched – and it is terrifically well made.

4 stars

Romulus, My Father

Review by Jane Freebury

I imagine that we all feel privileged when invited to share the intimate details of someone’s childhood, and most especially when the story is difficult to tell. Raimond Gaita’s book on which this film is based bravely shared with the world the turmoil in his life when he was a vulnerable ten-year-old.

His parents, Romulus and Christina, had emigrated from post-war Europe to make a new start in a new land. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for them, a migrant story that would repeat itself many, many times over across the country.

As the adults in his life came undone, young Rai was witness to betrayal and violence that resulted in mental illness and suicide. It is so sad that a child had to make sense of devastating events so early in his life. But at the same time it is inspiring that he did, and was able to move on to become the eminent professor of philosophy he is today.

Did the wonder of summer nights under the stars and of hazy days in dry fields studded with eucalypts offset the sadness Rai saw around him? The images on location in the Bendigo region of Victoria, a stone’s throw away from the very spot where the Gaita home once stood, seems to suggest that it did.

Aside from life in the countryside, the strong bond is the one between father and son. Romulus (Eric Bana) and Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sit together in silence over a dinner inside their isolated homestead, but it isn’t an uncomfortable silence, just the quiet that develops when two people understand each other.

Clearly someone is missing and when she (Hanka Potente) arrives, she is full of restless vitality. Whatever she hankers for, it can’t be found on Romulus’ small acreage and after re-establishing intimacy as wife and mother, she leaves them again for Melbourne.

In the hands of actor-turned-director Richard Roxburgh and veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, this is a sobering and reflective tale, free of artifice and dependent on performance, which is very good all round.

It contains one or two hints about the trajectory that Rai is to take in life, but I wanted more of a sense that this young boy was developing inner resources that would see him through in the end. Still, it’s a powerful and ultimately uplifting experience.

4 stars

As It Is In Heaven

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s hard not to think of the figure of Ingmar Bergman towering over Swedish cinema still, especially when you see a configuration of figures set in a stark, white landscape. Nor can I imagine a good Swedish movie without a peak into the bedroom with some of that inimitable Scandinavian frankness. As It Is In Heaven has these traits and more, and some spellbinding moments that underline the redeeming and empowering qualities of song.

Finding that he can no longer make sense of his life, a famous conductor returns to his roots in a township in the northernmost reaches of Sweden. Daniel Daréus (Michael Nyqvist) seems to have banished everything from his life, even his music, though it quickly reasserts itself when he takes over the local choir.

He buys the vacant schoolhouse and moves in. It’s a building crowded with childhood memories though devoid of course of material comforts. And though he could buy himself a battered Volvo he opts for a bicycle instead—but he will have to learn how to ride it first. Raw experience is the order of the day.

Occasionally the camera pulls back to observe him scuttling through the snow with an armful of firewood, or revelling in the solitude he has created for himself inside the Folkskol. If his actions are a touch eccentric, they seem quite endearing alongside the behaviour of several of the local menfolk who like shooting hares for sport or getting blind drunk.

The local pastor drops in on the celebrated stranger, sniffing out a potential recruit for his dwindling congregation, but it is Arne (Lennart Jahkel) who runs the local choir and is someone who can always scent a winner when he’s on to one, has better luck. Daniel agrees to listen to their rehearsal, and though he leaves in embarrassment, he eventually comes back and asks for the job of cantor.

Then Daniel’s unconventional methods are viewed with suspicion as husbands become jealous of their wives’ passion for a newfound form of expression. Singing brings out long suppressed feelings in everyone really, a mood that turns into a challenge to the status quo in a community where the Lutheran religion has a firm hold.

The transcendant power of choral music has been demonstrated beautifully in movies as different as Paradise Road and the recent French film The Chorus, and there are some glorious moments here too.

When this Academy Award best foreign film nominee came out in 2004, it was the first film Kay Pollak had directed in eighteen years. He may only occasionally take up filmmaking, but he has drawn touching and natural performances from his cast. The rhythms of ordinary life he has created are also very satisfying.

It appears that the title of the film is a fragment of a line in the Lord’s Prayer. The repressive and punitive aspects of religion certainly get a serve here, but the joyful community practices that affirm its humanity are celebrated.

4 stars

Razzle Dazzle

Review by Jane Freebury

Catering to backstage mums with big aspirations would have to be one of the hardest jobs around, even worse than being a portaloo cleaner, but Mr Jonathon, is still a pretty decent guy. He’s courteous, earnest, utterly committed and I only saw him really lose his temper once in this sharply observed and amusing mockumentary about the world of dance competition.

And like it or not, I think we have a special flair for mockumentary. Think back to The Magician, and to last year’s Kenny.

As the eve of the Sanosafe Dance Spectacular drew close he was poring over his desk, looking for ideas for a showstopper to win him and his Jazzketeers a first place, once and for all. It was hard to think of anything with kaboom when you’ve already created a dance routine on capitalist industrial oppression, the Kyoto Protocol, dolphins getting caught in nets and skin cancer. He and his costume queen Marianne (Tara Morice, from Strictly Ballroom) had to get 5,000 melanomas sewn on the costumes for that one.

Marianne is McCartney to his Lennon, he says, in a rare moment of hubris. Most of the time he’s a paragon of patience with pushy mums to deal with like Kerry Armstrong’s Justine whose 10-year-old daughter Tenille is a member of his dance troupe.

Mr Jonathon comes up with all the best routines but he keeps losing out at the competitions to Miss Elizabeth who only ever serves up old standard routines like ‘Big Spender’. And she admits to being totally non-PC and doesn’t mind telling any aspirant that they’re ‘fat, lazy and untalented’.

British actor Ben Miller is a treat as Mr J – are there any other actors with doctorate in physics? – and veteran local actors Toni Lamond, Barry Crocker, Noeline Brown have cameos. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear they were all seduced by the sly yet affectionate humour in the script.

Paul Mercurio plays himself in another brief scene, and the dozens of young dancers give exuberant performances, but the queen bee is Kerry Armstrong.

All those years ago in 1992, when a little-known director called Baz Luhrmann made a movie about suburban dance competitions, who would have picked it for a lasting favourite? Strictly Ballroom captured a mood and perhaps Razzle Dazzle could too.

If you need some razzle dazzle, you need look no further.

4 stars

Babel

Review by © Jane Freebury

This international story takes place over a few days, linking locations deep in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, with the desert and towns around the US border with Mexico, and the cafes and bars where teenagers hang out in Tokyo. Moving from the inside out, rather than from start to finish, it is boldly assembled and vivid cinema that tries to tell a story for our times.

It opens on two young Moroccan brothers minding a herd of goats on windswept, treeless slopes where the sight of the occasional vehicle beetling along the road below is the only sign of the outside world.

Their father has just given them an old rifle to shoot the jackals that menace their animals, and because they are unsure about its range they shoot at moving objects to test it. That’s when a bullet pierces the window of a coach in the valley below and enters the neck of an American tourist (Cate Blanchett).

In breathtakingly confident style, the film leaves her behind at this point with her husband (Brad Pitt) shouting for help. It cuts across to a game of volleyball in Tokyo, introducing Cheiko, a rebellious deaf-mute teenager who refuses to accept authority and betrays acute psychological vulnerability. She has been turning for solace to promiscuity, only none of the boys will have her, put off by her disability.

It’s no surprise meanwhile that the shooting has sparked an international incident with claims of terrorism. Enough for one movie you might think, but director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who worked together on the unforgettable Amores Perros and 21 Grams, have added two others, as is their habit.

The American couple were in North Africa on a holiday to get over the recent death of an infant child. Their two older children are back home in the care of their Mexican nanny who takes them with her overnight to Mexico so she can attend her son’s wedding. It’s a fateful decision.

Babel is striking and sensuous, challenging our understanding of the conventions of cause and effect in film grammar, but it could have gone deeper into the individual lives it touches on. Like the biblical tower that is the cause of misunderstanding among the peoples of the world, it is bold and ambitious – but it could have said more.

4 stars

Hunt Angels

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s good to see Ben Mendelssohn return to the big screen in Hunt Angels as he’s mostly been in television since his last local film, Mullet in 2001. He looks relaxed in his 1930s suit, hat and haircut and his take on the maverick Sydney filmmaker Rupert Kathner is thoroughly accomplished, in this unusually staged, clever and entertaining movie that could be called documentary, although it’s largely dramatised.

Rupert was a bit of a scoundrel, always looking for a business angle, never at home with his wife and child. His passion was for making movies, Australian movies, and once he met his soul-mate Alma Brooks (Victoria Hill) she became his muse and partner in filmmaking.

It has never been easy getting film projects up, one at a time, and when Rupe was trying to follow his dreams, there were some additional constraints. A blanket ban on the bushranger films for instance was still operating, their popularity made the authorities uneasy, and the newsreels only showed the good news stories. Real-life crime was never shown.

Being a resourceful scoundrel with a nose for a good story, Rupe and co. managed to make 19 movies, including a film about an infamous unsolved murder of the time, the case of the Pyjama Girl, the first true crime movie ever made here.

It was, you see, his mission in life to resurrect the Australian film industry – when only ‘bugger all were ours’ on screen. He would attract investors, his hunt angels, by whatever means possible and on a shoot he might use an actor in 27 different roles, or even himself in shot-reverse-shot in the action of Rats of Tobruk.

Filmed in black and white, by a witty and assured camera with a mind of its own, in a style which evokes movies of the time, Hunt Angels cheerfully celebrates its artifice. I particularly like a shot of Rupe stealing across a sawtooth building under a cheesy moon, on their way to the studio to break in and film a pilot.

At one level, Hunt Angels is a step-by-step lesson, with many asides to the audience, on how to succeed in the movie business, but by really trying. Rupe was never inhibited by any doubts about his own capabilities, and it’s hard not to like him all the same.

4 stars

Suburban Mayhem

Review by Jane Freebury

If you just closed your eyes and listened to the blonde in black bustier, nails like bloodied talons and killer stilettos, there’d be time you thought this young single mum, living at home with her dad, was a pillar of society among the brick veneer and tidy lawns of suburban Golden Grove, NSW.

“All I’m trying to do is keep this family together,” Katrina huffs at her father over dinner though she has already hatched plans to murder him. And to her beautician she complains that he doesn’t appreciate how hard it is to be a full-time mother for her baby daughter. “These are impressionable years.”

Declarations like these only add to the irony, and there’s plenty of it in this pitch black comedy about a brutally amoral 19-year-old who knows exactly how to play the system and how to get what she wants from everyone around her. Only her brother Danny seems to have a hold on her, but he’s been parked in prison indefinitely for slicing someone’s head off with a samurai sword.

Kat Skinner is a bad girl of the worst kind, created by writer Alice Bell who has done a terrific job with the screenplay, and Emily Barclay (In My Father’s Den) brings her to life, a screen sister to Juliette Lewis of Natural Born Killers.

Perched on the bonnet of a yellow Valiant Charger, swigging a bottle of bourbon, she’s a Janice Joplin of the noughties, and the dark side of girl power. I can already see fights break out over those striking movie posters and but I can’t imagine what sort of reception the same movie would get if the anti-hero was a promiscuous manipulator instead who had his mother killed so he could inherit her house.

The movie tries too hard at times to empower Katrina with a pounding soundtrack, but otherwise the direction from Paul Goldman (who directed the very funny The Night They Called It A Day) is nimble and assured and his comic timing faultless. And none of his actors let him down.

One thing worries me though. Not to take anything away from the script – even minor characters like Kenny’s sister get good lines – the plot points are almost identical to a recent murder case in Wollongong. Shouldn’t it have been nominated for adapted screenplay in the AFI awards?

4 stars

Little Miss Sunshine

Review by © Jane Freebury

Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen on screen nowadays. Then, just when you think the movies have milked all they can from the comedy and tragedy of families that don’t work, along comes Olive, a little miss muffet from Albuquerque, to chase that notion away.

We are introduced to her family by way of her Uncle Frank, played by Steve Carell, who I remember with affection in The 40-Year Old Virgin. Here he’s a bearded gay, who used to be the foremost authority on Proust, until he lost out to an academic rival. To add insult to injury, Frank lost a young lover to him too.

Olive’s Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has brought him home to stay with the family while he recovers from an attempt at suicide, and Olive is curious about his bandaged wrists. Dad (Greg Kinnear) tries to gag discussion, but he has as much chance of stemming it as of stopping Grandad (Alan Arkin), his live-in father, from spluttering profanities and detailing his sex life.

Olive’s brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence in response to family life until he is accepted for flight school. He reads Nietzsche and declares he hates everyone, and that means his family too.

The crux to this problem family is Richard (Kinnear), a motivational consultant and well-meaning pain in the neck whose motto is ‘refuse to lose’ – there are winners and losers but anyone can be a winner.

It’s a position from which he can’t resile when an opportunity arises for Olive to take part in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California – she’s a beauty pageant tragic – so they all set off together in an old VW kombi van, injected with a new lease of life by the toreador music on the soundtrack.

Hilarious moments along the way are pitch perfect dark comedy, as the clutch fails, the horn gets jammed and the kombi doubles as a hearse. And some of the biggest laughs still lie in wait at the end when they all find out what under-10 beauty contests really mean.

A chilling parade really, and topical too, but partner/directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and their team of terrific actors never lose their light touch in this black comedy on American mores. It’s spot-on.

4 stars

Kenny

Review by Jane Freebury

Shit happens. Kenny and his crew know all about that, because their jobs depend on it.

Kenny (Shane Jacobson) half-heartedly tries to pass himself off as a plumber, but he’s only vaguely interested in what other people think, gives in to the inevitable and admits that his business is portaloos. He works for Splash Down Corporate Bathroom Rentals – more euphemisms, yes, but a real company – a service provider that makes big events possible with umpteen cubicles for the convenience of the public.

Kenny started life as a prize-winning comedy short. Melbourne portaloo company Splash Down provided backing finance for a feature, which is directed by Shane’s brother Clayton. Their own father has a spot as Kenny’s bloody-minded old dad.

As soon as the sun comes out everyone, muses Kenny, has a festival. He and the lads service musical festivals, flower shows, and the Melbourne Cup, and even have to save the loos from being set on fire by the ‘pinheads’ at the drag races. The ensuing fight is shot and edited with a sharp eye for the humour in the situation – like the rest of the movie.

Rarely out of his khaki dungarees, Kenny squarely fills the frame of this funny, touching and original mock doco, as a man comfortable with himself and his lot in life, even if others aren’t. Another inspired Aussie mockumentary with a great central character, like last year’s The Magician.

Sometimes people don’t want to shake his hand – you never know where it’s been – and his own dad makes him strip off his clothes when he visits him at the caravan park.

Kenny gets a raw deal but he just moves unscathed and undeterred from one encounter to the next while those who put him down, like his former wife or an elderly lady all dolled up at the Cup, look silly. Only time I saw Kenny agitated was when someone forgot to load the rolls in the ladies.

Contrary to expectations, there’s hardly a trace of faecal matter in sight. If you’re thinking of the comedy gross-out like Robin Williams standing under a shower of excrement in RV – think again.

The narrative has as many twists and turns as the large intestine, and I think the blonde air stewardess was ill-advised, but it still holds together and Shane Jacobson’s turn as Kenny is full of heart.

4 stars

Little Fish

Review by Jane Freebury

Little Fish heralds the very welcome return of two talented Aussies to the big screen in a fine Australian film. Cate Blanchett needs no introduction though Rowan Woods might. He directed The Boys, an uncompromising drama that examines distorted family life in a prelude to murder, and this is his first feature since that quite outstanding debut in 1998, though he’s been busy in television.

I couldn’t resist noticing some similarities with Little Fish, like a little Aussie battler mum Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) and the uneasy social ambience in ‘struggletown’ suburbs. Though simmering violence is not the issue here, both her grown up children, Ray and Trace (Blanchett), as well as her former live-in boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving) have been dependent on heroin. Her daughter’s rehabilitation is a beacon of hope.

Tracy has had a steady job for four years in a Vietnamese video shop and she appears to have swum free of the net of addiction in a way her brother and stepdad haven’t. Every now and then there are images of her doing laps in the suburban pool—a world away from the high-density streets—or of her as a youngster bathed in bright sunshine at the beach. The great Aussie beach experience shimmers in the background, as does the football in Lionel’s past, another motif.

While generally managing to avoid crudely drawn cultural stereotypes, this movie integrates the lives of Sydney westies with the Vietnamese of Sydney’s little Saigon, the suburb of Cabramatta. Khoa Do managed to combine the two in his unusual docudrama The Finished People last year, and indeed, one of his actors, Anh Do has found his way into this movie.

I wondered what I was listening to behind the dialogue – which is too heavily laden with expletives, in my view – it was interesting to see that a number of the tracks were Vietnamese. It only adds to the tapestry.

Blanchett proves her chameleon skills once again, and has slipped back into the broad ocker accent with ease, though there was a Kath & Kim moment with mum Janelle early in the piece. Martin Henderson is totally authentic as her brother, and a lean and bearded Hugo Weaving is quite striking as the addict who can’t kick his habit.

Rowan Woods is back with another strong movie that talks directly to us now.

4 stars

Head-On

Review by © Jane Freebury

Experiencing this striking new movie from Turkish-German director Fatih Akin is like colliding with an artist’s pent-up fury and frustration. And it is impossible not to be reminded of the same white heat in the work of the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder who explored the spaces between parallel communities in German society.

After a destructive night of drugs and binge drinking, Cahit (Birol Unel) is made to visit a psychiatrist and there he bumps into someone with an even more terrifying compulsion for self-harm, a restless young woman half his age who is trying to break away from her very strict, traditional Turkish family. Her brother broke her nose once just for holding hands with a boy.

Will Cahit marry her so she can escape, or will he watch her slit her wrists again? Cahit, a 44-year-old of Turkish immigrant parentage, was living on the outer perimeter of society anyway when Sibel came along. There’s nothing much to lose and they can divorce afterwards.

For the sake of Sibel’s family they marry in a traditional ceremony, which creates some wonderful opportunities for juxtapositions. Cahit in a dinner suit leaving his graffiti-spattered neighbourhood, the newly-weds sharing cocaine in private while the traditional ceremony continues outside, and Cahit carrying his bride over the threshold into his grungy apartment.

They argue and Sibel spends her ‘wedding night’ with a barman, as the freedom she seeks in this marriage of convenience is the freedom to sleep with whom so ever she chooses, to experiment with body piercings, to do drugs. It may sound as though Head-On is going the way of Angel Baby or Requiem for a Dream, but at the end of this journey, this movie is actually more about going home, to where the east meets west at the Bosphorus.

As the wild and willful Sibel, Turkish-speaking Sibel Kekilli brings tremendous conviction to her role. Birol Unel does well as the aging punkster, though his character is prone to posturing and not as satisfactorily developed as hers.

One can only wonder what the large Turkish minority in Germany thinks of Head-On, as one could only imagine what the Greek community in this country made of the terrific Australian film with the same name by Ana Kokinos. Both films are about young people in a dangerous struggle with their cultural traditions, and both are very compelling.

4 stars

Garden State

Review by © Jane Freebury

Every once in a while a feature comes along that signals a fresh, new creative voice that makes filmmaking look effortlessly fluent and inventive. Writer/director Zach Braff has achieved this with his first feature.

In his personal tale about homecoming and falling in love it’s clear the inhabitants of New Jersey have become gentle caricatures for New Yorkers, in the way that ‘Taswegians’ or ‘banana benders’ have for smug south-eastern metropolitans. Add to this the fact that the central character ‘Large’ is heavily medicated and pretty much out of it as well, and you’ll get the idea, but Garden State has a heart.

New Jersey boy Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is summoned home when his mother dies. He has lived about as far away as he can get in the ten years since he last saw his parents, but he decides to fly out of LA for a while to attend his mother’s funeral. It’s not exactly a wrench, leaving behind a television role as a retarded quarterback and a job as a waiter in a restaurant.

He arrives home to find that old friends have become gravediggers or graverobbers, policemen and one has even become a millionaire, living in a mansion he can’t be bothered furnishing. Large’s visit home is an utterly picaresque trip through bizarre encounters that when annotated can give the impression this movie is straining for effect. But the scenes at the family funeral, the reunions with friends, the visit to the neurologist and many more all work, are funny, inventive and told with visual flair.

Stranger than strange is Andrew’s relationship with his father, the psychiatrist who has had him medicated since he was nine years old. Played to a tee by gnomic Englishman Ian Holm – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins – it’s plain to see father and son have never hit it off.

The tone of Garden State is spot on. It could so easily have slipped into an objectionable and self-satisfied parody of the wierdos in Newark, but this never happens. This has a lot to do with the character of Large himself, who is often the butt of jokes, and the really sweet performance from Natalie Portman as the girl he falls for.

4 stars

The President Versus David Hicks

Review by Jane Freebury

Since this remarkable documentary on David Hicks was completed, the young Adelaide man who needs no introduction has finally met with his father Terry, and the military tribunal process by which he will be tried has begun. So how did a South Australian stockman end up in Cap X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay?

The President Versus David Hicks attempts to answer this question with its account of the journey made by Terry Hicks, retracing David’s steps through Pakistan and Afghanistan and his conversion to the radical Islamist cause. Clearly, people who are close to David, his father, stepmother Bev and his lawyer, are determined to provide support as best they can, whatever he has done, and Terry says that all he asks for is due legal process. He and the filmmakers Curtis Levy and Bentley Dean, and the locals who assisted them along the way, took considerable risks – we’ll never know how dangerous.

David’s physical absence is compensated for to some extent by the text of David’s letters, frequently heard in voiceover, as the dignity and forbearance of Terry Hicks, a stock figure topped with a baseball cap, fills centreframe. But what about Terry? Much remains opaque.

Why did David Hicks re-invent himself and join the Taliban? Neither the grand barren vistas of Afghanistan, nor the madrassas or fellow detainees offer up any explanation. David’s letters suggest that something important took place in Kosovo, which he elides with a significant ‘don’t ask’.

In one of his letters David says there were two things his dad prefers to avoid: religion and politics. It’s a gentle rebuke, but it comes, ironically, with the announcement that David has suddenly acquired a whole new world view that would be inexplicable to anyone back home, least of all his uncomplicated dad. What do we make of that?

The crimes of international terrorists are once again monstrous this last week, but it’s not possible to feel comfortable about the process when claims are made that the US has sacrificed the rule of law in Guantanamo. Director Curtis Levy has built a distinguished reputation as a documentary filmmaker with films like Riding the Tiger and High Noon in Jakarta, and now has made another important film for our time.

In a capsule: A disturbing film for our time, though David Hicks, his life and his cause remain a mystery.

4 stars

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Review by © Jane Freebury

If you’re wondering why the words don’t roll off the tongue, the title is a quote from 18th century man of letters Alexander Pope, drawn from a his poem about Eloise and Abelard, two of the world’s most famous lovers. In its twenty-first century way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also about the exquisite sorrow of lost love.

It’s another eccentric movie experience from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) that delves into the persistence of memory when a love affair is over and sweet nostalgia lingers. Mind is the operative word here, just as it was in Kaufman’s screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and for Being (inside) John Malkovich (‘s mind).

So it’s a very different Jim Carrey here from almost any other film by the comic madcap you care to name, with strong affinities with The Truman Show.

Here as Joel he’s strongly introverted and would rather read or sketch than chat a woman up at the train station, or the beach, or the library, or wherever it was that he and Clementine (Kate Winslet) met. It takes a woman with blue (sometimes red, orange, even grey) hair, the mind of a grasshopper, and a devil-may-care extrovert to break through his defences.

She draws him out of his emotional torpor, lures him into doing crazy things with a frisson of risk so that for a while time spent feels like he’s really living. Too bad it’s all over before the introductory credits begin – but I don’t want to put you off, it’s a jolt that’s one of many surprising and exhilarating moments in this Michel Gondry film.

After Clementine leaves, Joel discovers she’s had her memories of their affair erased so that she can ‘move on’. He decides to submit to treatment too – call it ‘brain damage’ – delivered by the shonky outfit at Lacuna (Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is effortlessly freewheeling as it dips in and out of Joel’s memory, pausing briefly in the present and then heading back to the past again, just before it disintegrates under the Lacuna cat scan. It’s such a technical achievement that it could leave you impressed but cool, however Carrey and Winslet are really interesting together, and turn out to be a wonderful pair of lovers.

In a capsule: A brilliantly free-wheeling technical exercise from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, that’s actually also a very touching love affair.

4 stars

Monster

Review by Jane Freebury

A highway prostitute who in the late 1980s became a serial killer is now the subject of three films. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield made two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos over the course of her 12-year imprisonment on death row, and now writer/director Patty Jenkins’ film – and Charlize Theron’s Oscar – has brought the desperately sad story of the woman’s life into the mainstream, some 16 months after she was executed in a Florida prison.

How did Wuornos, one of life’s victims, become so compelling for these filmmakers? They would have known she was the daughter of teenage parents, adopted by her grandparents as an infant, and became a mother herself before age 14 before she began to work the streets full-time.

This unfortunate early life featuring a pretty little blonde is summed up briefly, before the movie turns to Aileen, still a hooker and in her early thirties, now contemplating suicide. In a chance visit to a gay bar, she meets a much younger woman, Selby (Christina Ricci), who is fascinated by the bedraggled, emotionally wounded, tough talking older woman.

Is this another crime duo on the run? Another Natural Born Killers or Thelma and Louise? Not exactly. It’s the story of Aileen and Selby’s time together as lovers, when Aileen took on the role of bread winner and murdered her clients and stole their cars and cash.

Monster is simply told in an unobtrusive style that gives way to two astonishing performances. Patty Jenkins’ screenplay has drawn very heavily on Wuornos’ own point of view (that concerns me a bit), sourcing her thousands of letters, excerpts of which we hear in voice-over.

It’s all so well handled, however, from the scene where Aileen lashes out at the ‘dyke’ buying her a drink, to the tears she sheds as they part at a bus stop. Theron is amazing throughout (forget the prosthetics!) as the swaggering and vulnerable Aileen, and it’s hard to think of another recent performance by a female actor that quite comes near it. Ricci is very good too.

When Aileen throws us a look over her shoulder as she walks to her death, it’s an accusatory look at the society that brought her to this. The fatuous clichés we hear on the voice-over have finally let her down.

In a capsule: Charlize Theron is totally deserving of her Oscar in this desperately sad story of a hooker who pays a heavy debt to society.

4 stars

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a picture is worth a thousand words it can also prompt a good story, something shown recently by the success of a novel that invents the circumstances behind an exquisite painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s the Girl With a Pearl Earring who looks over her shoulder at us from across the centuries, like a close-up before cinema invented them, captured in an unguarded moment yet returning the onlooker’s gaze.

The recent Tracy Chevalier novel capitalized on the fact that little is known about Vermeer, though it’s recorded he had a large family like J.S.Bach, but he worked far more slowly than that prolific composer to support them. In the film eleven urchins crowd the Vermeer house, with yet more on the way. No wonder Colin Firth’s Vermeer looks frazzled when he’s not in his studio.

But his artist remains a somewhat shadowy figure throughout, a presence in silhouette in doorways or collapsed moodily into a chair, who is surrounded by women, his numerous daughters, his wife and mother-in-law, and the maids. As the new maid Griet, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) is a picture of rosy promise, hovering on the edge of womanhood.

Though she is bonneted, keeps her head bowed and is never included in any conversation, Griet does not escape the notice of Vermeer’s lusty patron, Van Ruijven, (a bewhiskered Tom Wilkinson) either, and he commissions the artist to paint her, so that he can at least take her home and possess her image for his gratification.

It’s a starched and cloistered world the Vermeer women inhabit but there’s a robust physicality to acknowledge too, in the way, for instance, we hover over a painting of a flushed young woman drinking wine (yes!) and another cleaning window panes. I feel that Vermeer reflected this in his paintings

Director Peter Webber hails from television, but he and his team have created an enthralling and beautiful film. It could be said that nothing much happens, but the movie’s recreation of life in 17th-century town of Delft is wonderfully alive. And there’s such a vivid sense of intimacy in the piercing of Griet’s earlobe, the exposed nape of her neck, that the Girl With a Pearl Earring is almost intoxicating.

In a capsule: Exquisite film based on a book based on a painting by Vermeer, with Scarlett Johansson as the object of desire.

4 stars

Dinner Rush

Review by Jane Freebury

Early in Dinner Rush a man is gunned down in the street. When this happens and when so many movie elements are slick, handsome and intelligently written there’s the danger it will move into a warehouse and Reservoir Dogs territory. But Dinner Rush takes place in a busy restaurant.

From the very start Dinner Rush looked like it was going to be interesting. A few deft strokes with slow-motion, long shots out-of-focus, and searching camera movements got things off to a good start, and then the questions presented themselves. Where is it all going? How are these people connected? Isn’t someone going to punch that appalling art buff/gallery owner in the nose? Please?

It’s an Italian trattoria that attracts customers from all walks of New York life. Not for the sauteed spicy sausage and sliced capsicum that restaurant owner Louis (Danny Aiello) enjoys but for the nouvelle cuisine that his chef son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) whips up with his team below stairs. Cuisine preferences are not the only things father and son disagree about.

Udo’s flair with food is famous and his customers are quite prepared to book three months in advance, but when a food critic (Sandra Bernhard) arrives to sample the fare, everything that leaves his kitchen must be perfect, even more perfect than usual. Two thugs from Queens arrive, resplendent in their gold chains and awesome in their bulk, and curiously they meet with similar attentiveness, and an NYPD detective also gets this treatment. Other individuals seem to receive special attention from the camera, but you don’t know why until Dinner Rush comes together, impeccably, like Udo’s lobster tails on deep fried spaghetti.

This is only director Bob Giraldi’s second feature film, but he has 2,500 TV commercials to his credit. This and the fact that he is also a successful restauranteur certainly shows. The camera swoops and pans around all the frenetic dinner rush activity, hitching a ride on a platter here, scuttling up and downstairs with waiters there, all the while expressing its love of good food in luscious close up.

All the characters are expertly handled by his actors, though the dialogue does get lost occasionally in the naturalistic overlapping soundtrack. But this film is handled with panache and creative skill, and is thoroughly impressive.

In a capsule: Rush hour in a popular family-owned New York restaurant becomes a little too exciting when two thugs on the take show up.

4 stars

La Spagnola

Review by Jane Freebury

This spirited, compassionate and stylish movie begins in Australia in 1960 and is told from the point of view of Lucia, fourteen years old and the daughter of a Spanish woman (La Spagnola) married to an Italian man.

This migrant family living in pre-multicultural Australia own a sparse little home snuggled up against an oil refinery. It has a watertank, outdoor dunny, and aviary where pigeons roost, but it looks more like a halfway house that all three would like to fly away from if they could. Like living on the moon, snaps La Spagnola, and who would disagree.

Lucia’s Papa, hat clamped on his head and toiling through the dust, is the first to leave. La Spagnola (Italian for Spanish woman) his fiery wife tries everything to stop him, and even lies down in front of the family car, as friends and neighbours get drawn into the brawl too.

Lucia (a beautiful performance from 17-year-old Alice Ansara) watches the departure with anguish, perhaps even (is it possible?) a hint of wry amusement. It’s as though she has already put years enough between herself and her distress to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Anna-Maria Monticelli’s script and Steve Jacobs’ direction work together on this, drawing wisdom and warmth from Lucia’s story.

Lola (Spanish actress Lola Marceli) is crazy with fury that her husband has left her for ‘that Australian’, a blonde with a 1960 Woman’s Day look (to quote the filmmakers), but someone who can’t cook. She sets to rubbing him out by scrubbing the lino, cooking his pigeons – and trying hard to lose his newly conceived baby.

Where it comes to points scored in this Latin battle of the sexes, it’s truly comic. When Lola’s sister-in-law Lourdes arrives from Melbourne, the flamenco tempo of the editing (which is a bit too rapid in some important places, however) steps up and Lucia’s life is filled with fun and food.

But this is about two strong women, mother and daughter, and how they fight and in the end, achieve a sort of forgiving. In this year’s AFI awards it has received the second highest number of nominations, two of which are best female actor nominations for both Ansara and Marceli.

La Spagnola is delivered in 3 languages – Spanish, Italian and English – and will represent Australia in the Best Foreign Language film at the next Academy awards.

4 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Review by © Jane Freebury

Having set the publishing world ablaze with her four books about an English schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard in need of a little tutoring to hone his craft, author J.K. Rowling has already shown that there is much more mileage yet to be made from fantasy. Many familiar elements – magic potions, wands, goblins, centaurs and spells – are there, but there’s nothing musty or dusty about the world of Harry Potter. It’s just alive with imaginative new ideas.

You’ll know what I mean when you see letters delivered by flocks of owls, the game of quidditch (polo astride flying broomsticks), the trip to the goblin bank, the quite frightening game of wizard chess, and even the nature of the arch villain when he finally reveals himself. This is narrative wizardry itself.

Everyone knows about Harry, orphaned since birth, who lived in a broom cupboard under the stairs in a house in Little Whinging, Surrey until Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) the groundsman of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry comes to take him away. Harry’s appalling rellies – aunt, uncle and cousin Dudley – had treated him like a servant (‘bred in captivity’) until rescued from his Dickensian circumstances and sent to Hogwarts to become a wizard.

Some distinguished faces of English film and theatre were on the staff at the Hogwarts School: Alan Rickman a shifty-looking professor, Maggie Smith ever prim and kindly as the deputy head, and the headmaster played by Richard Harris, with a vague air and much longer hair and beard than last time I saw him. Julie Walters appears briefly as a flustered mum and John Cleese doffs his severed head at us.

Daniel Radcliffe as Potter and the two other children who are his constant companions Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are each very engaging, though these friends do upstage Harry a bit. Harry never really gets to find out it’s okay to get a little mad at people if they annoy him. Probably his upbringing.

It’s my hunch that the virtual fan-vaulted dining hall at Hogwarts, the staircases that swing around at will and attach themselves to new landings, the living portraits, the game of wizard’s chess will not disappoint the legions of young readers in their transference to the screen.

Harry Potter is a richly enchanting experience. Some might find it rather long at 2½ hours running time, but this movie and its sequels and the three new books that J.K. Rowling is writing will fill the gap in entertainment for this age group for years to come.

4 stars

The Iron Giant

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Iron Giant, based loosely on a story written by the late Ted Hughes, former poet laureate, and directed by Brad Bird who has worked on The Simpsons, is not just another routine children’s cartoon feature. There’s a developed story here, there are characters who are genuinely appealing , and there’s a barrel of laughs.

When an extra-terrestrial iron giant crash lands near Rockwell, USA, it’s lucky for him he’s in backwoods country because he can lay low, temporarily undetected at least. Were a local yokel to contact the authorities and report a chunk that looks like a bite had gone from his car, or that he’d just seen a giant man chomping on the railway track, who in Washington would believe him?

The giant is a windfall for nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes as he’s been wanting a new pet, something different. He finds him in the forest, after he’d followed the giant’s trail, making its way to the power station in search of food—metal, that is.

A 50-foot high incredible hulk that seems peaceful and is willing to follow instructions? Hogarth is thrilled. What’s more it’s assembled like a Transformer, and he discovers later that it can repair itself, like a Terminator. Only trouble is, unlike a squirrel in a shoebox, he’s too humungus a pet to conceal. Then there’s that other problem – Kent Mansley.

While the authorities have been a bit slow on the uptake over reports from the backwoods and all – once they’ve figured something is up, they won’t let go. Hogarth can hide his whopping secret from his Mom, but when government internal security sleuth Kent Mansley, lantern-jawed and narrow between the ears, descends on Rockwell to investigate, things get tricky.

Hogarth is forced to share his secret with Dean, Rockwell’s ultra-cool, bike-riding beatnik (this is the 1950s) and he isn’t too fazed. But others are.

For adults in the audience, The Iron Giant pokes fun at 1950s America with its ‘Reds under the bed’ scare-mongering (ever checked out the sci-fi movies of the 1950s?) and its ‘Duck and Cover’ public information campaigns about what to do in an atomic blast (ever seen Atomic Cafe?). For kids, the movie is superior animated fun. The Iron Giant succeeds on both levels, at being two movies in one.

4 stars