Fatima

a faith-based story for believers that attempts to interrogate its subject, but never follows through

M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A love of the visual steeps every frame of this lushly photographed story directed by Marco Pontecorvo. Fatima capitalises on locations set entirely in picturesque Portugal, a country that has sidestepped some of the excesses of modern development and where the Christian wayside shrine is still a commonplace.

And it is located in the very place where the events it recounts took place a little over a century ago.

The year was 1917 when the First World War was still laying waste to Europe. Portugal had only just begun to send troops to the front.

Lucia dos Santos (Stephanie Gil, the actor who was young Grace in the latest Terminator) would accompany her mother regularly to the village square to hear the Mayor (Goran Visnjic) provide the latest updates on battle casualties.

So long as they didn’t hear the name of Lucia’s older brother read out, there was always space for hope.

It was around this time that Lucia and her two cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco Marto (Jorge Lamelas), aged 7 and 9 respectively, reported receiving visions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions, which the audience is also allowed to see in the shape of Portuguese actor Joana Ribeiro, came to them while they were out tending the family’s sheep.

It was a sensational claim. Both officials of the Church and of the government of the new Portuguese republic that was founded on enlightened, secular principles, queried it. As did the children’s families, strenuously.

Lucia had instructed her cousins to keep it quiet, but it was too much of a secret for little Jacinta, who told her family straightaway.

Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, in particular, has anticipated the trouble it would cause. Lucia Moniz in this key role, provides one of the film’s most convincing performances.

The interrogation of the children was ongoing. They were subjected to stern parental disapproval, interrogation by the Mayor, a staunch republican and anti-cleric, and the regional Catholic monseigneur.

Watching a pallid Stephanie Gil during these sessions, my cinematic memory wandered over briefly to Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and other films since 1973 that have been about pre-pubescent girls claiming to have seen visions.

exchanges between the professor and the nun do little to challenge this faith-based story

For viewers like me, secular and sceptical, Harvey Keitel’s character, Professor Nichols, provides welcome outsider perspective. Nichols, an academic who is researching the events in Fatima many decades later, pays a visit to the beautiful university city of Coimbra. There he interviews Lucia (Sonia Braga), who joined the church and become a nun.

It is an intriguing footnote to history that Lucia doc Santos lived on until 2005, while her two little cousins died very young, during the post WW1 global flu pandemic.

The exchanges between Nichols and Sister Lucia constitute the framing story and are some of the liveliest in the film. However, entertaining and thought-provoking as they are, they are not permitted to provide much of a challenge to the central faith-based story.

The Fatima screenplay is the work of Pontecorvo, together with Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi.

It is no surprise to read that Pontecorvo entered the screen industry as a cinematographer or that he was a stills photographer before that. It is clear that the creation of visuals is a strength and a preoccupation. He has worked on productions like Games of Thrones.

However, in this secular age, his take on the story of the Marian apparitions of Fatima is very literal. Although there is a brief and intriguing scene of Hell, as conveyed to the children by Mary, the film steers well clear of sensation.

The film takes few chances, on the look or the content. It deploys few FX tricks of the film production trade now available, and concludes with footage in the closing credits of the centenary mass of 2017 conducted by Pope Francis that was held in the town of Fatima. A statement in itself.

If the name Pontecorvo sounds familiar, you may have come across it before in one of those best film lists of all time. Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco’s famous filmmaker father, directed The Battle of Algiers of 1966 which to this day remains a stirring cinema masterpiece about the resistance forces in Algeria that overthrew their French colonial masters.

Marco’s film, his fourth feature, is a much quieter project though it’s a story about the popular expression of conviction as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2020

Les Misérables

MA15+

104 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the summer of 2018, when France beat Croatia in the FIFA World Cup, the people of Paris went out on the streets, ecstatic with brotherly feeling. As throngs of fans crowded the Champs-Elysees, the Marseillaise erupted in a shared golden moment, but it was followed by serious rioting in the city.

This film is inspired by those events, a first fiction feature from documentary director Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti, one of the lead actors.

the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised

It is well made, compelling and, as it turns out this year, highly relevant. An invitation to outsiders to familiarise themselves with a district of extreme disadvantage, a city within a city with a rhythm and feel all its own.

The son of immigrants from Mali, Ly grew up in Montfermeil. After the Paris riots of 2005, he decided to turn the camera on his own neighbourhood, notably in the documentary 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil.

Not long ago, Montfermeil was a no-go zone, awash with drugs, and run by competing ethnic groups. A district home to immigrants of Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghrebi origin that have lived there since it was the location of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, Les Misérables. Other immigrant groups have made their way there since.

Ly has called his fiction feature Les Misérables in a deliberate nod to Victor Hugo. The director enjoys an advantage that the author didn’t have. The cinematography by Julien Poupard, the bird’s eye drone shots and travelling shots along the streets, makes a strong contribution to atmos of the Montfermeil location.

Ly knows the area intimately, with its eclectic mix of socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse people. And he clearly understands the liberating possibilities of filmmaking for the socially marginalised.

Ly’s Les Miserables foregrounds three policemen who work in the district’s anti-crime brigade.

Policeman Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just arrived. Experienced and credentialled, he had transferred there to be nearer to the young son who lives with his estranged wife.

It doesn’t take Ruiz long to size up the other two he has been assigned to work with. Unit leader, Chris (Manenti), is proud of his reputation ‘100% swine’, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), much quieter, is a man of Muslim background.

They take Ruiz on a tour of the hood. There is a lot to absorb, along with an introduction to the team’s methods. Chris dubs him ‘Greaser’, a derogatory nickname that appears to be part of the deal.

Chris (Alexis Manenti), unit leader in the Anti-Crime Brigade. Courtesy UniFrance

Actor Manenti, in a challenging role, is particularly convincing, as are many of the ensemble of actors who portray the various community leaders. Ly has drawn excellent performances from the youngsters too.

On tour Chris and Gwada introduce Stephane to a man who behaves likes a long lost friend, although they helped put him in prison for four years. An encounter with a trio of teenage girls is more disturbing. Chris moves in on them threateningly but partner Ruiz manages to coax him away before things escalate further. It’s a genuinely chilling close call.

In recent times, the forces of law and order and the people of Montfermeil had reached an accommodation presided over by the so-called ‘mayor’ (Steve Tientcheu).

a minor theft drives the film to its tipping point

But when a juvenile of African descent, Issa (Issa Perica), widely known as a troublemaker, steals a lion cub from a gypsy circus troupe, the precarious peace in Montfermeil careens out of control.

The theft is a relatively minor incident that could be amusing, but it drives the film to its tipping point when the police tracking down the culprit make a serious tactical blunder. This is captured by a drone controlled by a local kid and he understands its serious potential.

All the complexity is masterfully handled by Ly, whose documentarian skills come into play as the various threads of the action are brought to a cliff-hanger conclusion.

Leaving the narrative ‘unfinished,’ can be a risky way to close a film, but it can work and certainly does here. It is the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that precipitate the events that are the point here.

As even-handedly as he can, Ladj Ly has skilfully shown in this important, award winning film, how community tensions can quickly escalate to a point of no return. How everyone makes a contribution, good and bad, to this outcome is rivetting.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 August 2020

*Featured image: flics on the beat in Montfermeil, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Stephane (Damien Bonnard). Courtesy UniFrance

The Swallows of Kabul

M, 81 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Swallows of Kabul is set in the summer of 1998, a couple of years into Taliban rule in Afghanistan. This is strong stuff of course, yet not live action.

It is delicately packaged instead as an attractively rendered 2D animation in subdued pastels that look like a watercolour painting. A profoundly sad tale is told with a simple, light touch.

The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Mohammed Moulessehoul, under the name of Yasmina Khadra. The award-winning author Moulessehoul adopted this nom de plume for his writing while serving in the army in Algeria. He has talked since about how he has drawn on his experiences in the field.

Essentially, The Swallows of Kabul is a narrative involving two couples whose lives intersect, but is at the same time alive with many characters who are well-defined, interesting, sometimes even amusing.

At the time, the Afghanis are of course living in fear. Public executions frequently take place in the city squares and sport stadiums, and people cower in their houses during curfew as the Taliban hoon around in pick-ups, firing at random.

The main character, Zunaira (voiced by Zita Hanrot), is the artist wife of Mohsen (voiced by Swann Arlaud). She is free inside her home, happy working at her charcoal sketches while listening to banned musicians on her boombox turned down low.

Although the book sets events in 2001, the film has located them earlier during the Taliban regime. This works better.

Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, the women bear the brunt of the regime

It is easier to believe that Zunaira, still full of vitality and hope, could be as she is. She is depicted as sumptuously beautiful, has to borrow a chador to go out, and would surely have been pulled up by the Taliban before 2001.

Every now and again a flock of swallows appears in the frame but they are not the birds the film title refers to.

It is the local women draped in their blue chadors who are the swallows, and it is their lot to be utterly unfree. Featureless and undifferentiated in their billowing gowns, they bear the brunt of the regime.

Mohsen and Zunaira met at university and can recall the time when women wore skirts, and when they could go out to the cinema. She believes in a future that could return to those freedoms. Mohsen is unfortunately no longer sure.

In one of the film’s early scenes, we see understand why this has come about for him.

Early one day, vendors were slicing fruit and grilling brochettes in the city square. The traffic was wending its way through the general chaos, and the market was alive with the seductive sights and sounds typical of a Middle Eastern souk. Then it became apparent there were men standing around with Kalashnikovs. Sounds of digging could be heard, and a pile of stones was delivered.

In the stoning that follows, Mohsen casts a stone too. It is the action of a sensitive man in a loving relationship who unaccountably succumbs to mob control. It seems even worse than the street urchins who get in on the act as well.

This very impressive animated feature about a recent dark chapter in Afghani history has clarity and compassion

From this point, a string of consequences cascade. Ultimately, Zunaira is taken to the women’s prison, formerly a wing of the university, where she comes under the watchful eye of Atiq (voiced by Simon Abkarian).

The former army veteran has reached a low-point in his life. He and his wife Mussarat (Hiam Abbass) have been childless and now she now is suffering from a terminal illness. He feels helpless. The older couple’s plight is a poignant counterpoint to the loving, young partners, Mohsen and Zunaira.

It is only the swallows, swooping and banking above the city, that are living free. When a soldier takes a pot shot and one falls from the sky it is a shocking act of casual cruelty but of a piece with everything else the regime is remembered for.

Moulessehoul’s highly regarded book has been brought to the screen by two female directors, Zabou Breitman, who contributed to the screenplay, and animator Elea Gobbe-Mevellec. It was screened at Un Certain Regard at the Cannes in 2019.

This very impressive story about a dark chapter in recent history has a clarity and compassion that lives on after the credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 August 2020

La Belle Epoque

M, 110 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicious tale of lovers a half century apart is a postmodern romance. Part your own romantic adventure in an era of choice, part relationship drama.

Stalwarts of French cinema, actors Fanny Ardant and Daniel Auteuil, feature as a jaded older married couple, in a story intertwined with an affair in crisis between a young couple. As an entrepreneur and one of the actors he casts, Guillaume Canet and Doria Tillier play the latter.

The two veterans, Ardant and Auteuil as Marianne and Victor, are great foils for each other. She is utterly believable as the vibrant, frustrated psychoanalyst wife, while the chameleon Auteuil is spot on, unrecognisable in beard and moustache. A political cartoonist still valiantly wielding pencil and paper in the online world.

The new digital reality is something Victor doesn’t get, or want a part in. As a technophobe who doesn’t even own a cell phone, he is the butt of endless jokes, from the earliest (somewhat off-putting) scenes.

The crisis in their marriage has reached a nadir but it is made-in-heaven for the scenarist of La Belle Epoque, young director Nicolas Bedos. One of the funniest scenes takes place as they drive home in their Tesla. The self-drive vehicle lets them argue face-to-face, while GPS is telling Victor to extinguish his cigarette.

Marianne and Victor are the best of sparring partners. They have many difficulties including her open affair with, of all people, the editor, Francois (Denis Podalydes), who fired Victor from his job as a cartoonist.

At home in bed, Marianne is immersed somewhere inside her 3D goggles when Victor attempts to read his book. Things escalate cruelly for him and he is sent packing.

a meltdown with humour, generosity and wistfulness for what is past

It’s a sharp, witty screenplay from Bedos that plays both sides of the fence. It also steps back for perspective on how times have changed for each of them since they met.

Were things left at that level alone, we may feel we have squirmed in front of films like La Belle Epoque many times before. In the domestic battles that featured long ago in films like Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Ingmar Bergman’s haunting Scenes from a Marriage.

La Belle Epoque does not do that kind of total meltdown. It has humour, generosity and a wistfulness for what is past. This suits Auteuil’s dreamer who, although his satiric instincts are well honed, is not quite tethered to the new realities.

Time travel adds a delicious new dimension to this domestic drama.

Victor is offered a trip to an era of his choosing. It comes as a present from Antoine (Canet), who has been a friend of their son since childhood. He runs a business, Time Travelling Inc, that offers ‘tailor-made historical events’, professionally scripted and staged, for customers to take part in, travelling to a ‘belle epoque’ of their choice.

it flips back and forth between reality, artifice and the grey areas in between in a directorial tour de force

The tailor-made events could involve attending a party with William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway or playing the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette. Or might simply offer someone an evening of conversation with a parent who has passed away.

Antoine, a scenarist and director, has a sharp eye for actors that haven’t got themselves into character. He also has a sharp eye for anachronisms, which ensures that the immersive, attractively lit mise en scene constructed for these staged events enhances the total film experience for the cinema audience too.

Victor’s choice, as expected, is not wildly imaginative. He chooses the moment when he met Marianne at a bar in Lyon in 1974.

In another cross-current, Margot (Tillier), who Antoine is infatuated with, plays the part of the young Marianne. Antoine plays out his own feelings and manipulates her on screen.

Then Victor himself begins to develop feelings for Margot and tracks her down to the home she shares with a husband and baby. Or does she?

Time travel to the 1970s has some more entertaining possibilities than we see here, more than the boiled egg bar snacks. But the scenes in that decade are a fun and affectionate take on a decade swamped with change.

Keeping this ambitious and clever story together, flipping back and forth between the reality and the artifice and the grey areas in between is a directorial tour de force. Bedos’ next film will be eagerly anticipated.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 August 2020

*Featured image: With Margot (Doria Tillier) aboard, Victor (Daniel Auteuil) travels back in time

We’ll End Up Together

(aka Little White Lies 2)

M, 134 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In 2010, Little White Lies was an ensemble piece about a group of friends who decided to go ahead with their reunion even though one of their number had been critically injured in a motorbike accident. The bittersweet comedy about friendship hit the spot, and became a big hit in France and abroad.

We’ll End Up Together is the follow up to that film, picking up the story, not where it left off, but some years later. It is the next instalment of Little White Lies. Partners have changed or left, children have arrived on the scene, aspirations have adjusted and fortunes fluctuated.

a surprise birthday party that is neither nice nor convenient

Max (the very dependable Francois Cluzet), who has a holiday home on Cap Ferret, a spit of land on the French Atlantic coast, is once again the host, only he doesn’t know it this time. His friends arrive to spring a surprise 60th birthday party on him.

Marie (Marion Cotillard) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) join in ‘Who Am I?’

But Max is in the doldrums. His restaurant business has floundered, his marriage is over and he must now sell his holiday home at the trendy resort area. The surprise is neither nice nor inconvenient, because Max is on the point of selling up.

Well that’s too bad, I hear you thinking. And well you might, during the string of social and environmental upheavals that have marked 2020.

Max isn’t the most sympatico of people. More on the dour side. A wet blanket who puts the fire out while his friends are dancing because it’s time for him to go to bed. One wonders how he has actually kept the friends who have showed up. Then again, it has been seven years since they saw him last.

However, it’s not just about Max. It’s about friendship, the kind that lasts.

All of the characters, with the exception of several newcomers, are played by the same actors. Eric (Gilles Lellouche), who has become an established and successful actor, arrives with his baby daughter and a hilariously belligerent nanny, but, crucially, without his wife. She might be dropping MDMA in Ibiza, for all he knows.

And life has caught up with a toughened and disillusioned Marie (Marion Cotillard) who was in a partnership with Ludo (Jean Dujardin) at the time he died. Her son, who she has a tendency to forget about, is seven.

Vincent (Benoit Magimel), who had a big crush on the resolutely hetero Max in the last film, arrives with his new gay partner. His former wife, Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), has blossomed as a single and is into online dating. She is there too, with their son.

Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is the only one who apparently hasn’t much changed, and he remains the butt of most of the jokes, involving koalas, caterpillars, and other ephemera. It really is a wonder how different Lafitte is from the sinister and controversial character he once played in Elle opposite Isabelle Huppert.

Cluzet had the lead role in Canet’s murder mystery of 2006, Tell No One. It was the actor-turned-filmmaker’s second feature film and brought his work as director to international attention. His relationship with Marion Cotillard, with whom he has two children, has earned him some attention too.

a big-hearted film about friends, getting on 

It is amusing to read that Canet had to convince his fine ensemble cast to make this second film together. They didn’t sign on at first, but sent him back to do a redraft.

The first Little White Lies was compared with The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s classic American film about friends who also reunite over the death of one of their group. Canet readily admits that he admires it and has referenced it in both of his White Lies films.

He has certainly used some great American pop and rock music on the soundtrack, which I felt intruded on the francophone world. But the warm and affirming We’ll End Up Together engenders a completely different mood to the Kasdan film.

Developing the original Little White Lies was a tough experience for Canet. He wrote it quickly in six weeks, angry that friends had let him down when he landed in hospital with a life-threatening condition.

It’s interesting that We’ll End Up Together, a big-hearted film about friendship, can have begun in such a way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 August 2020

Litigante

M, 95 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Harried parents of young children know full well that some days everything seems to be happening at once. A trip to pre-school to sort out why your child has been acting like a toad can coincide with a clash with the boss who brushes your professional opinion aside.

It’s tricky, to say the least, when you are supposed to be providing him with legal advice that supports the standing of the agency you work for, and your professional future. For single mother, Silvia (Carolina Sanin), there is stress on many levels, at home and at work.

She is legal adviser to the commissioner of public works who refuses to terminate a project that has been inactive for years. A ‘huge advance’ has been paid to it and a follow-up is being considered, but Silvia is advising the commissioner terminate it. He is refusing her advice, outright.

lead actor, Carolina Sanin, is a prominent Colombian feminist

Sanin, a non-professional actor cast in the lead role of Silvia, is a prominent feminist in Bogota and, as local audiences might expect, her character isn’t going to take things lying down. She resigns her post as deputy director and quits the city department.

Columbia is a country that has, I’ve read online, one of the highest corruption indices in the world. Although corruption is woven into the fabric of the backstory, it is not one of the film’s themes.

Litigante is instead an intimate family drama set during the last weeks of life of a family matriarch, Leticia (Leticia Gomez), a vibrant, cranky former lawyer who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. She is mother to Silvia and her younger sister, Maria Jose (Alejandra Sarria), and a loving grandmother to little Toni (Antonio Martinez).

An early scene sets the tone. Silvia is driving her mother home after the MRI that showed Leticia has a tumour as well as pneumonia. She doesn’t want chemo again, Leticia declares as she lights up a cigarette. We get the picture. An ailing, forthright, headstrong lady who is hard work for those close to her.

The film is peppered with arguments, or robust exchanges of views. Many take place on a trip in the car, or in carparks. A sign, we suppose, of people living busy lives. The bitter arguments that can seem harsh at the time are always quickly overlain with genuine expressions of love and caring.

The stress of it all is nearly too much for Silvia. Soon after being subjected to an incriminating interview by journalist Abel (Vladimir Duran), Silvia meets him again while out one evening with friends. Silvia and Abel instantly discover their mutual physical attraction.

director Lillo has put a lot of himself into his film, including a role for his ailing mother

While it’s entirely plausible, the affair seems to be expedited for the sake of the narrative, in a rare unconvincing moment. When Leticia hears about it, she is horrified that her daughter has got together with the ‘jerk’ who ‘humiliated’ her in front of ‘all Columbia’. I was wondering the same thing.

Essentially, Litigante foregrounds a household dominated by three women, the ailing mother and her daughters and the supportive community to which they belong.

Director and co-writer Franco Lillo has put a lot of himself into this film. The actor who plays Leticia is his own mother, also a former lawyer, who was at the time of production in remission for a cancer of her own. Lillo is her only child.

The transcripts of interview with the filmmaker that accompany the film’s press kit are thoughtful and interesting, but I don’t think the results quite match the filmmaker’s brave aspirations, sensitive and sincere as they are.

Litigante reminded me of A Woman’s Tale by the late Dutch-Australian filmmaker Paul Cox. It also featured a performance by an actor who was, like the character she was playing, suffering from terminal cancer. Some people may feel uneasy about this.

However, it is primarily the story of a modern woman. It is Silvia’s story, the story of a woman who is juggling motherhood with her professional and personal needs.

The fact that it is set in Colombia isn’t really significant. Litigante, a family drama with universal themes, resonates with the complexity of modern life and it could have been set anywhere.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 August 2020

*Featured image: Sylvia (Carolina Sanin), Toni (Antonio Martinez) and Leticia (Leticia Gomez) relax at the pool

Babyteeth

with pitch-perfect performances all round, this is a beautifully crafted drama about a teenager’s last fling at life

M, 118 Minutes

Dendy, Palace Electric

5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Babyteeth has more than a few things going for it, including a terrific ensemble cast, cinematographer and director. Yet this family drama about a teenager with terminal cancer risks meeting a bit of resistance from audiences who may decide the subject is not for them.

It really shouldn’t deter them. This is an outstanding new Australian film, not to be missed. The director Shannon Murphy has suddenly emerged as an exciting new talent whose name appears on Variety’s top ten directing talents to watch in 2020.

Up to this point, Murphy has been making short films and working in television, here and overseas. She has distinguished herself on the hit television series Killing Eve, directing two recent episodes, balancing the droll, bleak humour and bizarre goings-on with great aplomb. I thought the way she handled Villanelle’s return visit to the family home in a Russian backwater hit just the right notes.

Babyteeth, her feature film debut, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, is never less than pitch perfect either. It’s about sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) who is receiving treatment for a rare cancer that will kill her. But she is still out and about. She continues to attend school, when she feels up to it, and her violin classes, and has her sights on the school formal.

Set during the time when the Finlay family prepares for impending loss, Babyteeth balances the joy and the fear, the grim with the humorous, and the mundane and the fantastical in life’s contradictions.

In the film’s arresting opening scenes, Milla is standing at the railway station one day, minding her own business, when a young bloke slams into her, giving her a nose bleed. After gallantly wiping her face with the shirt off his back, Moses (Toby Wallace) is in the next instant asking for money. She hands over $50.

What’s more, she takes Moses home to meet the parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna Finlay (Essie Davis). The visit culminates in a droll dinner scene with the two couples sitting opposite each other at table. If it wasn’t weird enough, Anna has mixed up her meds and is high.

Ben Mendelsohn in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

Moses quickly recognises an opportunity. It isn’t long before he is back, performing a break-and-enter to help himself to the prescription drugs that psychiatrist Henry prescribes and Anna uses.

her parents are trapped but relent, against their better judgement

Milla’s parents are trapped. They want to protect their vulnerable, fragile daughter but at the same time they want to allow her the chance to experience life. They capitulate to Milla’s wishes and, against their better judgement, invite Moses in.

In every conceivable way, the young, drug-dealing petty crim would appear to be a dreadful companion for Milla, but she is determined to have him around. The relationship develops through various stages, announced with inter-titles suggestive of diary entries, and Moses begins to reveal a better self.

It takes a special directorial talent to tell a story like this, and special skills to bring out the best in all the actors, each so individual, in this ensemble piece.

Toby Wallace and Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films

It is a good to see Emily Barclay (Suburban Mayhem) make an appearance as the very pregnant young mother who lives across the street from the Finlays. Her dog is always going missing, she always seems to be eating an ice cream and her function is to hint at the fragility in the Finlays’ marriage.

as married partners, Davis and Mendelsohn are beautifully matched

Essie Davis (recently in The True History of the Kelly Gang) and Ben Mendelsohn (an international star ever since Animal Kingdom) are beautifully matched as married partners. Wallace and Scanlen (Little Women) are also marvellous together as the two fragile young people. All the lead performances are superb, though I would have to say that Mendelsohn excels himself once again.

The ensemble cast is one thing, but Babyteeth would not be the film it is without the contribution of cinematographer Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate, The Rocket)

Whether his camera is rolling in tight, intimate close up or goes wide to take in the night lights of Sydney or a virgin beachscape, the beauty and poignancy of his images was constantly telling. The camera pausing on the eggshell of Milla’s perfect, shaven head said so much.

Babyteeth had its world premiere in official competition at the Venice International Film Festival last year. It’s one of the best Australian films we have seen in some time.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 July 2020

Featured image: Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth.  Courtesy IFC Films

House of Cardin

a fascinating tribute to Pierre Cardin, fashion visionary, whose work is ‘never done’

G, 97 minutes

Palace Electric

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

How famous people start out in life is fascinating, all the more for the fact that it can offer few clues about what they become later in life.

Pierre Cardin, a legend of French fashion and an international celebrity who has really earned his fame, is still working at 98 years of age. He is one such person, and the subject of this documentary.

There are some 800 products and businesses that carry the Cardin brand, from men’s and women’s fashions and accessories to pens, cars and furniture, to hotels and restaurants. You need only glance at eBay to confirm that the Cardin name is still everywhere.

an extrovert in his career, reclusive in his private life

He was the youngest of nine children born to a wealthy Italian wine merchant. As a child he apparently liked to create costumes for dolls. I get that, but where did the vision come from?

We will never quite know. This internationally celebrated fashion and lifestyle designer presents the riddle of an extrovert in his working career and a recluse in private life.

Naturally, the first question the film poses is ‘who is Cardin’? A subversive, a socialist, a futurist…always ahead of his time. There are a few, scintillating details like his long affair with French cinema actor Jeanne Moreau and his friendships with other creatives like Jean Cocteau, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marlene Dietrich.

The place to look for answers is, however, his work. He explains his appetite for his chosen vocation like this, ‘whatever I start, I have to finish’.

Some of the relatives and associates interviewed here call him an enigma, others refer to a very secretive side, and a penchant for referring to himself in the third person.

He has not and never will write an autobiography, but Cardin has authorised this documentary feature of his enthralling life and career. It is directed by gay partners in life and work, P David Ebersole and Todd Hughes.

The first two years of Cardin’s life were spent on a rural property near Venice, before the family moved to France to escape the rise of fascism. His father hoped that his youngest son would work in the family business, or train to become an architect.

Cardin became apprenticed to a tailor instead, then found employment in the houses of Schiaparelli and Dior in Paris before he launched his own fashion house in 1950. It’s like he never looked back.

His career presents a string of bold experiments from his ‘bubble dress’ in 1954, to dashing little numbers with bold geometric shapes and mouldings that freed women up during the 1960s, to the fashion parade on the Great Wall of China in 2018, and more.

He always thought big, really big. His achievements are hard to credit to a single person, long lived as Cardin is.

Early on he was denounced as a fashion socialist, but it is his democratisation of fashion, making his designs accessible to everyone everywhere, that speaks to the world we live in today.

He introduced his work to India, Russia, and China and the Philippines, and was the first couturier to employ a Japanese model.

his fashions, freed of bespoke tailoring constrictions, offered women freedom of movement 

The burgeoning Cardin archive could have sunk any filmmaker. Ebersole and Hughes have handled it adeptly, though at a rather fast clip.

A few more dissenting voices from the cut-throat world of haute couture, however, would have counteracted a tendency to hagiography, when the fashion icon hardly needs it, with such an outstanding record.

Before watching House of Cardin, I would have offered the view that his women’s fashion ideas, with their geometric shapes and mouldings, made few concessions to the female figure. But I discover that it is exactly the point. His fashions, freed of bespoke tailoring constrictions, offered women freedom of movement.

Cardin was the first couturier to offer pret-a-porter fashion for men, who he put on the catwalk for the first time. He was himself once a male model.

An early adopter of just about everything, Cardin’s drive has had a visionary bent, perhaps explained by snippets like this, ‘I am very happy with my present, but I am never done’.

An internationalist, an innovator and a futurist, there is much more to the man than clothes. House of Cardin is an unexpectedly fascinating record, well worth a look.

First published in the Canberra Times on 25 July 2020

Shirley

A convoluted, eerie psychological drama about reclusive writer of gothic horror

 

M, 107 minutes

Palace Electric

4 Stars

Review by ©

Jane Freebury

 

When the actor Elisabeth Moss appears on screen, it’s often as a character to be reckoned with. In this atmospheric, convoluted psychological drama about the life of American horror and gothic fiction writer, Shirley Jackson, it is no different.

In big hair, owlish spectacles and the worst mid-20th century ladies’ fashion, Moss looks just like the images online of the reclusive woman who became a nationally acclaimed writer, best known for creepy mysteries with high impact.

This film, part biopic and part gothic mystery, is set just after Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, was published to acclaim in The New Yorker. In the early 1950s she was at the start of her career.

the moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in a story that Shirley Jackson wrote herself

It is also early in her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg is great in the role), but she is already struggling with her demons.

The screenplay by Sarah Gubbins is based on a recent thriller written by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley: A Novel takes place over a few months, at home with the writer and her critic husband while a couple is staying.

A young couple are of course a device to reveal the intimate workings of their hosts’ marriage and to explore the writerly imagination.

At the time, Jackson is developing a second novel that is based on the mystery disappearance of a young woman in the area. Her second novel, Hangsaman, about a young woman who disappeared from a liberal arts college in Vermont, appeared in 1951.

When Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife arrive in the college town of North Bennington, Stanley invites them to stay a while in exchange for help around the house. Stanley is supervising Fred’s PhD.

Shirley and Stanley like to show off their bohemian tendencies, mocking the idea of a clean and tidy house, ‘a sign of mental inferiority’, when the mind should be occupied with higher things, but it’s okay if someone else does it for them.

Moreover, despite her recent literary success, Shirley is letting herself go in a haze of booze and cigarettes, and showing signs of agoraphobia that plagued her later life.

The deal that Stanley and Fred cut is a dud for Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) but, good faculty wife that she is, she acquiesces to what will help advance her husband’s career. Besides, a baby is on the way.

And yet, Rose is no pushover. Australian actor Odessa Young brings depth to her role as a young married woman confronted with the inequality of women at the time, and she gives a stand-out performance.

On better days when the inspiration flows, Shirley spends the afternoon tap-tapping at the typewriter, and makes for a spikey companion at the dinner table with husband and house guests. On some other days, she can’t seem to get herself out of bed.

The writer’s waspish character, an amalgam of Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf and a Bette Davis’ super bitch, loves to play bait the guest, especially one as pretty and vulnerable as Rose. It doesn’t help that husband Stanley, a flagrant womaniser, fancies her either.

Surely it wasn’t intended that the fictional support character of Rose would take over, but she has

Thrown together by day, the two women, bored housewives both, in time begin to bond. Rose becomes fascinated with ‘Paula’, the young local woman whose disappearance is the inspiration for Shirley’s new project and the film begins to take an interesting and unfathomable turn, as the younger actor steals the show.

After Peggy Olson emerged from her shell in Mad Men, Moss has been everywhere. Especially since the deeply alarming television series, The Handmaid’s Tale.

To my way of thinking, it is however Rose who becomes the story here. Odessa Young is on screen for a similar amount of time as Moss but the ambiguity of the character that she portrays, struggling with women’s issues before the second wave of feminism articulated them, is the most compelling.

With eerie atmospherics, complete with incidental notes from a few string instruments, it feels like we are right there in the frame too, alongside the rest of Shirley Jackson’s inner circle.

Director Josephine Decker’s moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in one of the stories that Shirley Jackson wrote herself.

Shirley is a compelling snapshot of an intriguing author’s troubled life. It surely wasn’t intended that the fictional support character of Rose would take over, but I believe she has.

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: the Story of Fire Saga

Despite the deadpan, Ferrell doesn’t sink his Eurovision caper entirely

M, 123 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Eurovision Song Contest scheduled for May this year was cancelled due to you know what, so all the fans around the world will have to make do with this instead. Trigger warning, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga stars Will Ferrell and he is not to everyone’s taste.

It’s hard to keep a good man down but seems it’s even harder to keep a dogged comedian from the fun he has dead-panning and making a mug of himself.

How did this movie happen? Ferrell has been a long-time devotee of Eurovision which he was apparently introduced to by his Swedish wife. So, there’s some truth to Lars Erickssong, the character he plays who has wanted to compete in the Euro-pop extravaganza since he was a kid.

Little Lars got hooked in 1974 when the Swedish supergroup ABBA had their famous win with their song Waterloo. He saw them win on TV when he was at his father’s local in the northerly Icelandic town of Husavik. Pierce Brosnan plays Lars’ dad Erick Erickssong, and he does looks positively resplendent in a long chestnut wig.

That was the 1970s and this is now. Lars is getting on, he is middle-aged and has a pretty bad case of ‘failure to launch’. His widowed father would prefer that he left home and got a real job on a boat, like the long line of fishermen that he comes from. His would-be girlfriend and partner in the duo Fire Saga, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), would like that too.

She’s probably not my sister. Probably?

We can see that Sigrit could love Lars to kiss her. It’s one of the film’s weak running jokes that he has plenty of opportunities but he doesn’t, and that people often mistake the pair for brother and sister.  ‘She’s probably not my sister.’ Probably? You can never be entirely sure in a small town like Husavik, nor with an old ladies’ man like Erick for a dad.

Full dress rehearsal: Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest. Image: courtesy Netflix

One wonders what the people of Iceland, home to wonderful composers and musicians like Bjork and Sigur Ros, make of these caricatures.

Like many of Ferrell’s characters, Lars is an inhibited, awkward fumbler, probably somewhere on the spectrum, with a preoccupation with the indices of manliness. I reckon this should have produced a better line in risque penis jokes than it has.

Casting McAdams as Sigrit was an inspired choice. She is such a warm, animated presence on screen. Here she offsets the wooden Ferrell comedic style which, in my opinion, is far better suited to the TV skit territory of Saturday Night Live from whence he came.

Dan Stevens performs Lion of Love. Image: courtesy Netflix

Predictably when Lars and Sigrit compete for the opportunity to represent Iceland with their song Double Trouble, their act unravels on stage. Not for the reasons we might expect, though. Lars in white catsuit and fluffy outsized apres-ski boots, and Sigrit with huge angel wings attached, are just the ticket for Eurovision, but it’s the technology that lets them down.

Things go much worse for the winning contingent. The boat where the after-party takes place explodes and everyone is lost, including Iceland’s newly endorsed official Eurovision entrant. Despite massive misgivings, the organising committee have to send Lars and Sigrit, who have qualified by default, instead.

At the Eurovision venue in Edinburgh the movie gets an instant boost as new characters enter the frame. Here the Eurovision Song Contest shoot was taking place at the actual event, in 2018. If you think you spotted past winners and runners-up flit by, like Conchita, Jamala or Alexander Rybak, you most probably did.

With lacklustre writing from Ferrell, and indulgent direction from David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, and not a lot else), Eurovision Song Contest was in the doldrums until the flamboyant Russian entrant, Alexander Lemtov, appeared on screen. Played by English actor Dan Stevens, the Russian is a man who is everything that Lars is not.

So it’s Lemtov, a support character, who succeeds in bringing the movie back to life during a long and uneven two hours. He also succeeds in turning Sigrit’s head with his performance of Lion of Love which makes him the competition favourite.

It’s ironic that Ferrell’s character is such a huge fan with so little to add on the subject of Eurovision. His Song Contest would have done better without him.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 July 2020

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.  Courtesy Netflix

It Must Be Heaven

A silent doco observes a world gone mad

M, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For obscure reasons, It Must Be Heaven begins during an Easter church service that doesn’t go according to script and the bishop leading the congregation has to kick down a door.

Perhaps kicking down a door is a good way to begin a film that few believed could work. The writer-director of It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman, must be gratified that it screened in competition at Cannes last year and was Palestine’s official entrant at the Academy Awards.

a Palestinian comedy, a contradiction in terms?

When most of what we hear from the Middle East is conflict and strife, a Palestinian comedy may sound to many of us like a contradiction in terms. Suleiman, an award-winning Palestinian filmmaker (Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) from Israel, shows how hard it is to pitch an idea that runs contrary to expectations.

If, as his friend Gael Garcia Bernal suggests in a cameo as himself, that Suleiman’s next film is about peace in the Middle East, that could be a tough sell too.

Human comedy with Elia Suleiman Image: courtesy Rectangle Productions

 

After the odd start, the protagonist ES – the filmmaker himself – is at home in his flat in Nazareth enjoying a quiet coffee on the balcony. What do you know, there’s a neighbour helping himself to lemons from his garden? ES doesn’t react or even offer a mild protest, he just observes, owl-like behind his spectacles and beneath his panama hat.

Watching the world go by, ES is a silent witness. To customers in a restaurant who behave like gangsters when they don’t like the food. To the gang armed with baseball bats that roams the streets.

the absurd is sometimes tinged with menace

To two soldiers swapping shades in a speeding car, in which a young Palestinian woman with a halo of curly hair sits, sits blindfolded in the back seat. Sometimes the absurd is tinged with menace.

So much of the film would seem discontinuous were it not viewed through the prism of ES whose function is to hold it all together. For much, though not all of the time, he is a single organizing consciousness conveying to the rest of us a world gone mad.

Until we eventually learn what it is that he has planned.

This is silent comedy that draws on the tradition of comic greats Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. The images, beautifully composed by cinematographer Sofian El Fani, and their juxtapositions convey the humour. Dialogue is minimal, with ES saying barely a word. If this sounds lite or inconsequential, it isn’t. It Must Be Heaven carries a powerful political message.

With images of the tensions that characterise life in Israel firmly established in our visual memory, ES leaves for Paris, where, after a brief love affair with the beauty on parade on the boulevards, he finds things are not so dissimilar. There are tanks filing through the city and fighter jets in formation overhead, and the police are jumpy. He has arrived for Bastille Day and the city is in lockdown.

Once that’s over and life supposedly more tranquil, squads of Segway riding policemen patrol the streets and make a check of restaurant patio dimension compliance seem like they are pegging out a crime scene. The citizens of Paris themselves, instead of relaxing at the park, go to all sorts of lengths to keep a few seats in the sunshine to themselves.

ES wanders in and out of these scenes like an innocent, then we become aware of his purpose in being there. It Must Be Heaven could be the filmmaker’s own story about trying to get his film made. In a little joke for those in the know, a producer who rejects his project is played by Richard Maraval, co-founder of Wild Bunch, the international film sales company. It’s name is on the credits.

The journey to pitch a project doesn’t end there. In another deft segue for moving on, involving a sparrow and an open window, ES flies off again. Next destination, New York. There it is even less possible to ignore the militarization of the forces of law and order. What’s more, the citizenry are toting their own high-powered weapons. It would be funny, were it not also serious.

As a Palestinian who makes funny films, Elia Suleiman has his job cut out, but this gentle, observational comedy about our fractious world is on message, and at the same time a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 July 2020. Broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

Love Sarah

M, 98 minutes

2 stars

Palace Electric 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This letter to loved ones lost begins with a young woman on a mad dash across London. Cycling past the Thames and the Eye and other familiar spaces, she is clearly running late for something.

Sarah (Candice Brown) never makes it, and we take it that she is killed in a traffic accident.

Her death, implied not shown, is a risky way to begin a film but the effective opening montage tells us all we need to know. That her daughter is an aspiring dancer, that Sarah is going into the bakery business with her good friend, and that she and her mother have been estranged for a long time.

a family drama with a seriously sweet tooth

The family tragedy will have a big impact on the lives of these loved ones. For a moment, it seems to put an end to everyone’s hopes and dreams.

Best friend, Isabella (Shelley Conn), is also a professional chef, but the point of opening a bakery together was to draw on Sarah’s star power. ‘She’s famous. She trained with Ottolenghi.’

Daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is lost and can’t see the point in a dancing career, while Sarah’s mother Mimi (the redoubtable Celie Imrie) is full of regret for not having tried harder to connect.

The bakery premises in Portobello Road might be lost and open as a pop-up bar instead, but with financing from Mimi, something she had always intended, the venture is rescued. Clarissa, Isabella and Mimi, a trio of three generations of women, become business partners.

A professional chef, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), who was once close to Sarah, ambles onto the scene. He can also lend his expertise.

A neighbour, Felix (Bill Paterson), an eccentric inventor who can help in his own way, takes a shine to Mimi. She is the most engaging character, with a few surprises up her sleeve, including skills from her circus background.

Together, the team hit on the idea of baking treats for the expat communities that have made their home in Notting Hill. They turn away from the home-grown – a very hard sell, after all – and pan forte, Persian love cakes, strawberry fraisiere, rollet and Latvian kringeris start appearing in the window.

Even lamingtons appear on display, for the Aussie contingent.

The new bakery becomes a ‘home away from home’, in celebration of London’s multicultural community.

Based on a story by Eliza Schroeder that connects with the passing of her mother, and written by Jake Brunker, Love Sarah has a sweetness and simplicity but the script is lacklustre. A mood of uplift takes over, but this is bolstered by the appearance of one luscious treat after another, rather than the characters.

There are enough movies around that centre on food like Babette’s Feast, Dinner Rush or Chocolat that demonstrate this foodie formula can work, but what we have hear here is more confection, a patisserie menu, than something to get the teeth into.

Notting Hill was already a well-established melting pot in 1999 when the wonderful romantic comedy with Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant and Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill, was released.

It’s impossible not to think of this huge hit, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Curtis, also set on Portobello Road of course. Love Sarah has none of its star power, but none of its humour either.

good intentions don’t make it any less bland

This is a family drama with a seriously sweet tooth, indulging the senses in a bourbon tart, an orange semolina number, a basbousa, or a pistachio and rosewater number.

Celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi is listed in the end credits.

My foodie tastes tend towards the savoury, but I wouldn’t knock back that Japanese cake on special order. ‘Matcha mille’, a stack of pancakes interleaved with cream and flavoured with green tea.

And I like the way Love Sarah, a first feature film from a skilled young director, shows how the loss of someone dear can spur those who were close to realise their best selves however this doesn’t make it any less bland.

Comparing Love Sarah with such a beloved romantic comedy as Notting Hill is a tough call, but the filmmakers did locate it in the same street.

Then again, a sweet nothing may be just the thing for now.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 June 2020 and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

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

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

Taylor Swift and the pop music doco

M, 85 minutes

3 Stars

Streaming on Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

More often than not, a documentary about a pop star is a contradiction in terms. The film that is touted as a big reveal tends to be a tightly-managed affair, another aspect of the marketing, that discloses little about the subject in question. Except that they enjoy tucking into burritos or are fond of fluffy kittens.

Some of the stars have managed to sidestep the big reveal altogether. It is unlikely that the smokescreen around Bob Dylan, will ever clear. Not unless you take as a touchstone the early doco, Dont Look Back, that D. A. Pennebaker made while Dylan was touring in his early twenties, and still working out what he wanted to do.

The decades of stone-walling have eventually brought about the intriguing tribute, I’m Not There, a biopic involving six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, imagining facets of the man with the little we have been provided with.

Madonna’s raunchy exhibitionism has exactly the same effect. She’s not there. Madonna: Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) from 1991 masqueraded under the title documentary, when it was a promotional video over which she had executive control. Always a mistress of reinvention, with formidable ambition based on modest natural talents, it is still impossible not to admire the flair and the determined businesswoman in her, always a step ahead of the rest.

Madonna’s story is in striking contrast to that of Amy Winehouse, the wonderful singer-songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. The feature doco about her, Amy, now screening on Netflix, won just about every significant international award but I was dismayed by its exploitation of a fragile and troubled star. Amy should be remembered for her music, not for the train wreck of her life that is the focus of the film.

At least the Janis Joplin documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, allowed for many long sequences of her stage performances alongside the self-harm and personal desolation that were on the record.

Miss Americana, a new entry in the genre, takes a look at the pop megastar Taylor Swift. If the personal stories she tells with her music and flashy performances don’t grab you, the story of her journey as a celebrity most likely will.

Swift is the first artist since the Beatles to have four consecutive albums hold the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 200  for six or more weeks. So, who is she?

The singer-songwriter has become an immense star, but her journey is an object lesson in the perils of living for the approval of strangers. She also reveals the loneliness at the top, recalling how on receiving an album of the year award she’d had no one special to call to share her news.

It’s these moments captured by director Lana Wilson that make this doco interesting. Some of the raw emotion exhibited is surprising and touching, and it seems genuine.

During the golden years of her adolescence, Swift was as a coltish figure with masses of blonde curls, who won a major award for her debut country album. But the dream run stopped when she won the best female video award. After arriving at the awards in what could only be described as a fairytale glass carriage, shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkin, from which she emerged elegant in a silvery number, her hair up.

As she stood onstage about to make her acceptance speech, Kanye West crashed her party, grabbing the mike and announcing that Beyonce’s video was the best.

President Obama said West was a jackass, but the impact this had on the 19 year old was obviously profound.  She imagined the crowd was booing her, revealing here and elsewhere a tendency to be hard on herself, when it was actually booing at the interloper.

The incident put an end to her dream run. She wouldn’t be playing good girl anymore since she discovered there was no point in worrying if people didn’t ‘like’ her when there were other things in her life that really mattered, like her mother was battling cancer. She has ditched her long-held apolitical persona, and got involved in gender politics too.

Miss Americana reveals disturbing aspects of celebrity culture, how it can turn on its own.  It is good to see that this pop princess has seen through the fairytale and recognised celebrity for what it is.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7.

Jane’s reviews have also been published by the Canberra Critics Circle and the Film Critics Circle of Australia

 

The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

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

Undertow

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Big on atmosphere, light on plot

MA 15+, 95 minutes

3 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The backstory to this atmospheric, moody psychodrama is the dark side of football culture. The very serious issue of bad off-field behaviour by male players is overlain here with the delicate story of a woman, grieving for the loss of her baby, who fears she may never conceive again.

As a solace and distraction, photojournalist Claire (Laura Gordon) takes herself to the beach, where she captures with her camera images of life and death on the shore. The coast is spectacularly beautiful, but it’s clear that all is not well with her.

Out to sea: Claire (Laura Gordon)

Although she and husband are close and attend a grieving parents support group, there is some strain in their relationship. Then suddenly it looks like Dan is seeing someone else. There he is, in plain sight as Claire drives past, at the entrance of a Corio Bay motel with a skimpily dressed young blonde. Is this all the evidence that Claire needs?

Masters of the thriller form, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, would have had a field day with this material, tweaking the dangerous, voyeuristic and confronting elements. However, writer-director Miranda Nation shows a mature, assured hand with this first feature, relying on the strong central performances from her lead actors rather than ramping up the sensational potential of the film’s scenes of drugs, sex and nudity.

Neither Dan (Rob Collins from Cleverman) nor his good mate since childhood and footie bad boy Brett (Josh Helman) are demonised. They might be. Sporting Pain + Glory tatts on his pectorals, Helman naturally imports some of the vibe he had in roles in recent Mad Max and X-Men films, but the wild man image is left understated.

Dan told Claire that he was at a fundraiser that afternoon. As a football official, this was entirely plausible, but she had spotted him at a motel with another woman. Later that evening, she doesn’t confront him with the lie, but it is soon apparent that she has embarked on an investigation of her own instead. With telephoto gear in hand, she becomes something of a stalker.

When Claire tracks her down, she finds that the focus of her obsession is just a young girl, who declares she is 19, but later admits to being 16.  Angie (Olivia DeJonge) is mouthy and full of attitude and doesn’t really mind the attention. Not a talent scout, are you? And she tosses her hair and adopts a more photogenic pose in case the hunch is correct.

Angie confides that she is pregnant to Dan’s friend Brett. The teenager’s unwanted pregnancy is a cruel irony for Claire who is desperate to become pregnant again. Her obsession with Angie seems to turn sisterly, looking out for the health of the teenager’s unborn baby.

As a relationship develops between them, Claire’s actions become more and more bizarre, and Angie, for all her issues seems the stronger. Certainly she is the more interesting.

Undertow is shot in Geelong, the home town of the writer-director on the glorious surf coast of south-west Victoria. It’s understandable that the director may have wished to exploit its natural, untamed beauty. Images of the city’s degrading, old industrial areas are juxtaposed with the windswept cliffs and curling surf.

As it gets harder and harder to distinguish between what is real and what is Claire’s subjective reality, the images of water become more dominant. We have drifted a long way from a backstory set in football clubs, locker rooms, drug-fuelled parties and sweaty, sexist bars.

Rob Collins is very good as Dan, the sports administrator with a successful career and a designer house and Mercedes to match. But his pastoral actions on behalf of his mate Brett seemed implausible to me. I think that the development of Dan’s character, so important to the drama too, needed more work at writing stage.

Despite these reservations, Undertow is in many ways an impressive achievement, and it augurs well for director Nation’s next project.

An unusually high proportion of female creatives provided input here, included ace cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who has made Undertow look outstanding. Women creatives shared the roles of editor, composer and producer roles as well.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2020

*Featured image: Claire (Laura Gordon) with Angie (Olivia DeJonge)

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