Loving Vincent

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

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

 

 

Suburbicon

Standard

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

It can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I mean, Suburbicon is directed by the sophisticate George Clooney. Those brilliant, witty purveyors of comedy noir, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote the original screenplay and Matt Damon is in the lead. All are men of discernment, with talent to spare.

Yet the news just in from the box office this week is that ticket sales for Suburbicon are poor. The reviews aren’t good either. Something has gone quite wrong here.

It’s not like Clooney is an inexperienced director. This is the 6th film he has directed in a decent body of work, of which Good Night and Good Luck is the standout.

As an actor in the Coen brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and most recently on Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has worked a treat. One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to their collaborations is their work together seems organic, probably because they have a shared vision.  One can only imagine what a hoot it is on set.

From an original Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s, developed by Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov, Suburbicon knocks down the picket fence and strips the neat and tidy surface off contented domesticity in the typical, unremarkable suburban bungalow. To show us what suburbanites are really like. Welcome to Suburbicon, the ‘perfect place to raise a family’.

Located in the 1950s America, when vast tracts of new suburbs were spreading outside the cities, attracting residents with the promise of affordable housing and the benefits of city life without the disadvantages, the film really looks the part.

From the featureless suburban streetscapes to the television sets and kitchen utensils inside the home, the meticulous sets and period perfect detail are a joy. From the tie that Gardner Lodge (Damon) keeps on at home, to the striped t-shirts worn by his son Nicky (Noah Jupe, an excellent young actor), to the heels and flared skirts that women wear as they do the housework and the grocery shopping.

It might be a problem for Gardner and his family that the new neighbours over the back fence, the Mayers and their young son, are African-American. But he doesn’t actually connect with this, a situation that is a critical issue for the rest of the neighbourhood – and the shopkeepers and the postman. Small town racial prejudice is rife in Suburbicon, and it’s not at all pretty.

Like the main character in the Coen brothers’ classic dark comedy, Fargo, Gardner is preoccupied with how he can get rid of his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), wheelchair bound as a result of an accident when he was driving, and install her sister Rose (also played by Moore) in her place.

To achieve this, he and Rose descend into a murderous mayhem, even despatching one of the film’s best characters, the insurance assessor played by Oscar Isaac. Young Nicky bears witness to it all.

Suburbicon is sometimes hard to watch, with its 1950s television score on the soundtrack, underlining critical points with heavy handed emphasis.

When all is done, a neighbour complains that none of this sort of thing happened before the Mayers moved in.

As that’s the point Clooney says he wants to make to bring the film into the current day – that mainstream American society blames the minorities for its own issues – then why didn’t he work the Mayers into his narrative, instead of leaving them in the background with barely any speaking roles?

Clooney has said he didn’t feel qualified to write narrative for African-Americans, and it has turned out a misjudgement because this timidity has skewed his film. He doesn’t have the Coen brothers’ light comedic touch either.

Mob at the fence taunts Mrs Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) Source: Google Images

Suburbicon is set in the pre-dawn before the sixties civil rights movements that swept the country. Unmasking the evil in suburbia is nothing if not a familiar trope in countless films, and that includes teen horror films.

Some films like American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Pleasantville, and The Truman Show have made satirising suburbia an art form. Suburbicon is instead a harsh lesson with heavy messaging, the kind of thing that rarely works.

Rated MA 15+, 105 minutes

2.5 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mountain Between Us

Standard

Review © Jane Freebury

After a hasty set-up at an airport closed due to bad weather, The Mountain Between Us delivers us onto a snowbound mountainside when a small plane crashes in the wilderness. The first and pressing challenge for the two passengers who survive is finding their way down to safety.

The second order challenge, as the title suggests, is getting to know and understand each other along the way.

It was an unscheduled flight, risky in bad weather, and the aging pilot who succumbed to heart failure died in the crash. The two survivors have landed in the middle of nowhere with the pilot’s pet labrador for company, a welcome valiant third party, there to help.

I guess we could call this uncertain venture a romance adventure. It certainly has two handsome leads up front: Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex, and Idris Elba as Ben, a British neurosurgeon. They start out as total strangers. Alex was on her way to her own wedding while Ben had an urgent assignment to attend to.

Neither has that much time for the other to begin with. Alex is a rather noisy, emoting, headstrong American, while he’s more introspective and withholding. A typical bloke or typical Brit?  Was this was going to become a battle of the sexes in wild and wintry conditions?

Alex is frustrated by Ben’s non-disclosure. After all, they only have each other for company and could well die together.

If the occasional mountain lion, bear or wolf doesn’t find them, then they will surely succumb to the freezing temperatures, slip off a treacherous slope or slip into an icebound lake.

Although the situation the pair find themselves in is dire,  The Mountain Between Us doesn’t deliver on that score. This is despite Mandy Walker on board as cinematographer. She is Australian and the cinematographer behind Lantana, The Well and Tracks. Despite her powerful images of the grand mountain wilderness of Columbia, the drama doesn’t engage.

To its great credit, The Mountain Between Us makes absolutely nothing of race, the most obvious difference between the pair. Perhaps the fact that Ben is British gets around this, somewhat.

The mountain between them has nothing at all to do with race, and everything to do with personality and temperament. To a lesser extent it’s about being female and male.

If it had been a battle of the sexes, with a Cary Grant and a Katharine Hepburn, how much more entertaining it could have been.The Mountain Between Us was an opportunity for some sparring between the male and the female of the species.

If a battle of the sexes is your thing, go see the excellent current The Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell, while it’s still screening.

It is interesting that the director, Hany Abu-Assad, was brought on board. The credits of this Dutch-Palestinian fiction feature and documentary filmmaker include an astonishing film, Paradise Now, about Arab suicide bombers preparing themselves.

His wasted presence and that of his stars and cinematographer all go to show that you can bring promising elements together, but you can’t guarantee anything without the underpinning of a good screenplay.

The Mountain Between Us is old-fashioned, clunky action adventure with romance thrown in for good measure. It feels so by the book with thrills that only occasionally feel real.

The dull writing doesn’t offer two terrific actors very much to work with. Why they each became involved in the project is difficult to understand.

Rated M, 1 hour 52 minutes

2 Stars

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

 

 

 

 

Final Portrait

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

Final Portrait, from the actor and occasional director Stanley Tucci, is a footnote to the life and work of sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. It spans a few days in 1964, and is confined to the studio except for a few exterior scenes in Paris, the Swiss artist’s home since the 1920s.

Geoffrey Rush is an excellent casting choice as Giacometti, as he keeps his theatrical instincts under wraps. And he looks so much like the artist did in later life.

Writer and director Tucci is unduly interested in what the artist didn’t accomplish, in the self-doubt and angst he experienced taking his work to completion. Neither agony nor ecstasy, just messy.

On the home front, his domestic life involves a put-upon wife (Sylvie Testud) and the young prostitute who lived nearby. Bi-lingual actress Clemence Poesy lights up the screen as Caroline the flighty lover who Giacometti is obsessed with.

A brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), a fellow artist who lives upstairs, has some countervailing influence.

Most of the screen time is spent in Giacometti’s studio, where his spindly, sculpted figures stand around in various stages of completion, waiting for final sign off.

At the heart of it all, is the relationship with James Lord (Armie Hammer), a writer and art critic visiting Paris at the time. Giacometti has asked Lord if he can paint his portrait, because, he says, he looks ‘interesting’.

The painting will only take a short while, perhaps an afternoon.

But soon he is grumbling crossly at Lord that he’ll never be able to paint him as he sees him,’ as though his subject’s matinee idol good looks were his fault. Lord takes his manly self to the swimming pool to settle his nerves.

Was Giacometti trying to disassemble those good looks, but found he couldn’t credibly do it? It’s a bit of a shock when he tells Lord with some antipathy that he has the head of ‘a brute’, and it needs a hint of explanation.

In fact, it eventually took 18 sittings to paint Lord who we see re-scheduling and re-scheduling yet again his flight back to New York.

In between times, the two men stroll through Pere Lachaise cemetery and drop into bars, while work on the portrait is deferred, or simply erased before the next sitting session.

Did Giacometti revel in difficulties he was unable to resolve? Seems he had a perverse determination ‘to remain unsatisfied’.

Lord admired Giacometti, and was probably flattered by the interest that the artist took in him. From the perspective of a gay man, Lord may have been intrigued and privately amused by the knots that the artist and his retinue had made for themselves.

Tucci, whose fifth turn at film directing this is, allows the interactions to develop at a leisurely pace in his elegant, gentle but slight film.

Final Portrait is based on the book by Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, which was published in 1965, a year after the events of this film. Lord subsequently wrote a full biography of the artist twenty years later.

Perhaps Tucci should have used that as his inspiration. Final Portrait is on the slight side, and barely engages.

I admired the first film Tucci directed, Big Night. It had verve and vibrancy, while Final Portrait is contemplative, with an altogether different mood.

It wants us to consider an artist and his foibles, and the torturous artistic process behind those spindly sculpted figures that Giacometti is famous for. But at the end of it, this portrait of the artist as an older man doesn’t reveal a character much more fleshed out than his sculptures.

Final Portrait is rated M, and runs for 90 minutes

3 Stars

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

Blade Runner 2049

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

It took a decade to perfect the original Blade Runner by jettisoning the voiceover and upbeat ending and restoring some scenes that had landed on the cutting room floor – as they did in those days. Even though the film was first released in 1982, it wasn’t until after its re-release as a director’s cut in 1992 that it began to take on the burnished glow of a science fiction classic.

Despite VO and optimism tacked on at the end, the success of the original Blade Runner had earned its director, Ridley Scott, the right to have his way and take full creative control.

The compelling beautiful/horrible vision in the original film of a Los Angeles in 2019: a city riddled with rogue androids (replicants) and detectives (blade runners) hunting them down, a city some citizens had quit for a better future in colonies off-world.

It may have taken some time to catch on, but catch on it did and generations of filmgoers have been keenly anticipating this sequel.

It opens with high impact. Police Officer K (an overly impassive Ryan Gosling) is cruising through the sky on his way to eliminate, or as they say ‘retire’, a rogue replicant living in remote seclusion. With the help of his drone, as obedient as a pet dog, K unearths a secret that could bring the whole house of cards down. It may be that replicants can reproduce.

Rather than mooch off with this intel somewhere, as his famous predecessor Deckard might have done, he faithfully reports his find to his boss, Lieutenant Joshi, a scary, slicked-back Robin Wright. He’s told to destroy the evidence and go find out more. This eventually leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) who’s hiding out in a nuclear devastated Las Vegas.

A stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision

Blade Runner 2049 is a breathtaking, fascinating vision of dystopia, a little further advanced. Plant and animal life have all but disappeared, the rain brings acid with it instead of life’s promise, the golden voice of Frank Sinatra is on a loop. The Asian market-themed streets are busy with hookers and addicts, and the LAPD inhabits one of the biggest high rises in town.

A few brands project their logos into the night sky – Sony, Atari, Coca Cola, Peugeot – and it’s eerie beautiful. At least someone can keep their lights on.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and the team – including Ridley Scott as producer and one of the original writers, Hampton Fancher –  remains faithful to the brilliant and suggestive production design of the original with a stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision.

The vision a world in the grip of drastic climate change, and human exploitation on a vast scale with hundreds of skinny, scrappy boys at work in a sweatshop as wide as the eye can see. A vast scrap metal dump that hides an underclass left behind by technology and shunned by the corporate creatives shaping a fascist future.

Nearly a century has passed since Fritz Lang made his science fiction classic Metropolis but the influence of his vision with its skyscrapers, highways in the sky, capitalists above and workers below, is still discernible.

From the late 1970s until the early 2000s, the English filmmaker Ridley Scott was probably at the height of his powers with work such as Alien (the original), Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Each of those films told a compelling story and delivered it with powerful atmospherics. I can’t say he has shown his knack for a strong story with fabulous visuals as often since, though he was in fine form making The Martian.

It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway

Blade Runner 2049 only makes a marginal advance on the narrative of the original, and it doesn’t really fire. Most of the US $150+ budget went into the compelling visuals, thundering sound and disturbing ambient score (Hans Zimmer collaborated on the music). Not enough went into concept and script development.

The characters are functions of the meagre plot and their interactions lack emotional punch. It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway.

If the director Villeneuve has the opportunity of a director’s cut what changes might he make? At close to 3 hours running time, it wouldn’t get any longer, but he might swap some scenes like those portentous ones inside Wallace Corp – with the boss played by Jared Leto, the inventor who may be mad but is also blind – for more with Harrison Ford. The exchanges between Ford and Gosling were some of the best by far.

As were the scenes in Las Vegas where K finds Deckard, alone apart from a mangy dog, forced to drink whisky because that’s all there is to drink, and obliged to read books, because that’s all there is to do. In these scenes, with holograms of Sinatra, Presley and Liberace performing in the background, wowing the casino crowd, there is at least something that comes close to mood.

Here it’s nostalgia for a world that is lost. And it’s touching to realise that the quest overall is for something like our lost humanity.

Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel to look at, but its people are one dimensional. It’s a problem common to much of the tentpole cinema aimed at the core audiences today, but here we might have expected something more.

3.5 Stars

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

 

 

Beatriz at Dinner

Standard

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

Think ‘when worlds collide’ with this one.

Unexpected dinner guests can create quite a stir. There is something of a cinema sub-genre out there that shows how they can seriously upset the status quo. From Wetherby, to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to last year’s Get Out.

In Beatriz at Dinner, Salma Hayek is in the lead role as a Mexican immigrant who winds up as an unexpected guest at an elegant, intimate dinner party at a mansion in Southern California.

She’s not exactly uninvited. Her well-meaning host, Kathy (Connie Britton in a sympathetic role), invites her to stay for the dinner her husband has organised for business colleagues. This happens when Beatriz finds herself stranded at their home with a car that won’t start.

As the other couples arrive, Beatriz looks predictably out of place in her jeans and shirt—it was her choice to remain dressed in her own clothes. She’s even at one point predictably mistaken for the help.

Kathy (Connie Britton) tries to make Beatriz (Salma Hayek) feel at home

Earlier in the day, she was at the cancer treatment centre where she works as a holistic health therapist. Beatriz and Kathy had become and remained friends when Kathy’s teenage daughter needed cancer treatment.

This particular evening, it’s Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who is guest of honour. He’s the man. A real estate development mogul, he is an obnoxious, odious loud-mouth, but everyone defers to him because he holds the purse strings for the deal that’s on the verge of being done.

Beatriz keeps asking if she knows him from somewhere, and there is a strong hint that some of Doug’s business activities, in Mexico at least, have been outside the law and morally reprehensible.

Jeana (Amy Landecker), who is wife number three, does her best to smooth over the dozens of offences—large and small— that Doug causes in conversation.

I was expecting Chloe Sevigny to have more impact in her role as one of the wives, but not on this occasion. Instead, the floor belongs to Beatriz who loses her cool when Doug boasts about a forthcoming holiday in South Africa, where he will go big game hunting again. He passes an image around on his mobile of the magnificent creature he shot on the last occasion. ‘Disgusting’, Beatriz shouts and throws the phone back at him.

In an instant, Doug is not just a clone of Trump, but a reminder of that millionaire dentist from Minnesota who paid big money last year to shoot an African lion, to universal dismay.

The role of a woman of principle who confronts attitudes she finds disreputable and appalling, was created with Hayek in mind by writer Mike White, who has written a few comedies, including School of Rock. There is some incisive writing here from White, especially for the characters of Doug, Beatriz, Kathy and Jeana.

Beatriz at Dinner is described by some as a comedy-drama. I didn’t see much comedy, except the rueful, sardonic kind in this modest, earnest and disturbing film, directed by Puerto-Rican born American Miguel Arteta.

It’s well known in film and in life, that the pleasant, planned dinner party, can bring heads together in a monumental clash of minds. At loggerheads, anticipated and unanticipated.

The conversation at this dinner is urgently worth having, but the schism between characters only deepens. The declarations of views lead nowhere, except into a wider divide, leaving worlds as far apart as ever.

Beatriz at Dinner had the potential to extend and expand the important debate on our responsibilities to others and the world we share, but it winds up a missed opportunity.

3 Stars

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM

Victoria & Abdul

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

With a cheeky play on names, Victoria & Abdul hints that Queen Victoria so missed her late husband and consort Prince Albert that she looked for ways to replace him. The title of the 1997 film in which she befriended another servant of the royal household earlier on in her widowhood was similarly suggestive. Her Majesty, Mrs Brown.

Was Queen Victoria, widowed from her early forties and mother to nine adult children, still looking for some companionship in her sixties? Maybe, maybe not. Centuries earlier, Queen Elizabeth I spent a lifetime on the throne without a consort, and this is still a subject of endless fascination.

Victoria & Abdul is set during the last 15 years of the reign of Queen Victoria and is an encore in the role from Judi Dench, who was also ‘Mrs Brown’. It begins more or less the moment she claps eyes on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) as he backs out of her dining hall.

Under strict instructions not to look at the Queen when presenting her with a commemorative coin from India, the reason for his being at court, curiosity gets the better of Abdul and he steals a glance during retreat.

The elderly queen has no interest in her meal or her companions, but she perks up a bit when the jelly arrives at the end of a long and tedious meal, and then looks back at the newcomer, registering his height, his grace and dark eyes.

It might have finished there, had Abdul not seized this window of opportunity to regale the bored and listless queen with stories about India, a place she would never visit because her advisors feared she risked assassination there.

In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, Victoria stands tall

He feeds her interest, extolling the sublime beauty of the Taj Mahal (not wrong there), and that delicious queen of fruit, the mango, and at her request instructs her in Urdu. However, he lets her believe that he is a Hindu when he is a Muslim, with a wife or two back home in Agra.

As the odd couple spend more and more time together, Victoria’s entourage is apoplectic with indignation at the Queen’s choice of companion. Filmed from unflattering low-angles, her puffed-up flunkeys – Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her son and heir Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) – just cannot make the Queen see she is provoking a minor scandal. Just as she did with John Brown, though there may have been grounds for scandal there.

Victoria just won’t allow Abdul’s dark skin and low rank get in the way of a good friendship. In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, she stands tall.

If only this film had explored the personality of this surprising monarch. And if only it had delved into the way the British behaved towards the colonials, rather than given everything the light comic opera treatment.

So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians!

In this environment, the occasional acerbic comment from Abdul’s companion, Mohammed (Adele Akhtar), who is disconsolate in foggy, damp England and unable to turn his circumstances to advantage, is very welcome. So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians! All very funny, but we don’t hear enough from him.

Was Victoria a bit of a flirt? You get the distinct impression that she enjoyed unsettling her retinue, and enjoyed a bit of power play.

Under Stephen Frears’ direction, the diminutive Dench is in her imperious element as Victoria, the woman who once ruled around a quarter of the world. With pale blue eyes in locked-on stare and commanding if small in stature, Dench is the best reason to see Victoria & Abdul. Fazal is fine as Abdul, though it’s an undemanding role.

Victoria & Abdul has its moments but the fascinating backstory is still to be told. The friendship between the first British Empress of India and her Muslim servant deserved more in-depth treatment than the light and breezy comic touch it gets here.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Ali’s Wedding

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

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

Ali (Osamah Sami) reaps his just desserts anyway.

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

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

Humour from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Beguiled

Standard

Review © Jane Freebury

Like so much, it all depends on point of view. Is it the male of the species or is it the female who is beguiled, mind and body a welter of desire? This simmering drama of sexual repression set during the American Civil War begins with a delicate balancing act when a wounded Union soldier is found in the woods and taken into a seminary for Southerner women to recover. To begin with, the interactions are a delicate balancing act.

There is much to make of the location in Virginia, knowingly chosen we can be sure. Near a wood where mosses hang from lofty trees, stands a mansion fronted by a row of massive columns. There’s plenty for the semiologists to work with here. At the same time, it’s easy to discern within, the kernel of a contemporary fairy tale warning young men to stay away from the evil witches in the forest who will consume them then cast them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Behind the high gates and overgrown garden, a small group of women and girls, two teachers and five students, have remained during the long years of war with only each other for company. Now there is a desirable, willing male in the form of Colin Farrell in their midst. The man himself, in a waking dream of possibilities that float around him in pale gowns as they minister to his needs, might think he’s never had such luck.

As they watch over him, drifting in and out of consciousness, a perfect specimen apart from his wounded leg, desire awakes in them too in the subdued lighting of candle-lit interiors, the way it was at the time.

Things get rolling when the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) bathes him while he is unconscious, or may be foxing. Soon he receives visits from a flustered but aroused Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a very saucy Alicia (Elle Fanning) drops by to plant a kiss while he sleeps. Corporal John McBurney opts for a strategy of divide and conquer.

For some reason, key scenes – like the moment McBurney propositions Edwina –  develop in a rush that wrong-foots the drama and truncates delicately unfolding tensions. The direction of some crucial scenes sees the drama lose some of its power. If Coppola was working with suggestions that she be less indulgent while developing atmosphere, something she was so good at in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, then she shouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice here. When the director was camping up the gothic with Kidman asking for the anatomy text before she got to work, the sudden appearance of the book would have been more fun.

I’m probably not the only one to have seen a Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in  Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.

Clearly accustomed to ruling the roost where women are concerned, McBurney has just to turn his big brown eyes in the direction of any of the women, and he could have his way with them. The other four are too young and thankfully not part of these games. Writer-director Coppola has veered away from the moment of pre-pubescent sexuality of her film’s 1971 predecessor with Clint Eastwood. The children watch on, pliant and observing until they become players themselves, in ultimately disconcertingly effective ways.

It was common human decency that got the rooster into the hen house in the first place, quickly followed by charity that decided he could stay until recovered, but it is desire, and with it comes competition, that quickly takes over as he becomes step-by-step a prisoner. That’s not to say he isn’t happy to remaining in his conveniently safe haven and wait out the end of the war, but the pale gowns the women and girls wear signify an innocence that masks darker feelings beneath.

Over recent months we have watched My Cousin Rachel—did she or didn’t she?—followed by an indomitable Lady Macbeth and now The Beguiled. It’s interesting times we live in.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

A Quiet Passion

Standard

Review © Jane Freebury

In her day, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a kind of free thinker and early feminist, but she hardly crossed her front porch into the world. Later in life she hardly left her room. She lived through her words. The writer and recluse has been kept alive by posterity, and is now thrust into public view in this film by Terence Davies.

The filmmaker says that A Quiet Passion is his creative take on the eccentric literary figure, but the film sticks pretty closely to the known facts, and though Davies’ modesty may ward off the fulminating critics, there was little to work with anyway. Dickinson never married, she had a habit of wearing only white—an interesting juxtaposition—and remained in the family home in Massachusetts till her death.

During her lifetime fewer than a dozen of her poems were published and her younger sister arranged for the publication of the vast bulk of her work after she died.

Some of the poetry is heard in voiceover, and suggests valuable insights, but there is too little about her writing. Davies could have at least put more of those poems to work. After all, it seems to have been where she fully expressed herself and how she reached out to the world.

Otherwise, the ambience of mid-19th century piety and seclusion in the Dickinson household is very compelling. The austere and painterly look, the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, creates a cloistered private world in which little alters as the years pass.

However, a slow 360 ° panning shot around the parlour that takes in family members and objects registers subtle change. And at another point, the passage of time is deftly realised at a session with a photographer taking family portraits. This is where the family merges into their older selves, and when Emma Bell, the young Emily, leaves the frame and Cynthia Nixon takes over.

Emma Bell as young Emily

Though her lines can’t have been helpful, Nixon is great in a challenging role. The jarring dialogue and awkward interactions are a major part of the film’s distraction. When I suppose we are meant to lighten up, we are treated to the tiresome, formulaic wit of Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend who has an inexplicable knack for entertaining Emily and her devoted sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle).

It’s not unduly long. Most films seem to unspool at around two hours these days, and some of the best ever are still going strong well after that, with dialogue in a language other than English to boot.

There are lengthy deathbed scenes, and towards the end of Emily’s life the camera rubbernecks into her freshly dug grave. A strange shot that may coincide with the poet’s gloomy outlook. A home overlooking a cemetery would have had some impact, one imagines.

Aside from its impressive and uncompromising authenticity, A Quiet Passion is difficult and sometimes gruelling.  Veteran auteur Davies, the director of the wonderful Distant Voices, Still Lives, says he is an acquired taste, but may be asking too much of filmgoers here.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle site