I am Heath Ledger

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film.

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age.

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand.

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact.

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Things to Come

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                          Review by © Jane Freebury

The future? Impossible to predict, we know that at least. There’s no way to escape it. And now  something they call disruption is taking place at every level. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? No way. It’s the more things change, they don’t remain the same.

What’s to be done? Whatever the answers are, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve shows that she is an old and wise head on young shoulders, unusually good at exploring the complexities and nuances of intimate relationships. Her second feature film, Father of My Children, told of a family tragedy in a bracing and unsentimental style and it still packed a wallop. Incisiveness is a distinctive trait of this filmmaker, and in Things to Come it is enhanced by the powerful presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert has been indomitable lately, maybe for as long as we can remember. Her character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a no-nonsense businesswoman who determined that a violent rape by a stalker would not knock her off course.  In White Material, in which her character represented some of the last vestiges of French colonialism in Africa, she gave director Claire Denis her complex, understated best. Here in Things to Come, Nathalie (Huppert) is facing the future at a difficult time. After suddenly discovering that her husband, a fellow philosopher, is leaving her, she carries on as usual, dealing with the decline of her demented mother and the demands of her job as a high school teacher.

As in Elle, the response of Huppert’s character is brisk and decisive. The sound mix ensures that we don’t miss Nathalie’s brisk, clipped walk in her apartment as she consigns her husband’s conciliatory bouquet of flowers to the bin or prepares Christmas dinner for her remaining family. The sound of Nathalie’s heels hitting the floor is an intentional, or unintentional, motif which is, somehow, amusing. Hansen-Løve and Huppert work perfectly in sync.

Nathalie once participated in the massive student demos of ’68 and was for three years a communist, like most of the French intellectuals at the time. But where does she stand now? Inter-generational philosophical exchanges in Things to Come give the film scope to comment more broadly on the state of French politics and society. Fascinating, and very much du jour. Both parents of the filmmaker are philosophy professors, and her mother contributed directly to some of the dialogue.

Events develop in surprising and satisfying ways, a tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent writing that underpins it, and the deft and fluid direction. An opportunity develops for Nathalie to explore her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student of hers. A little frisson of recognition there for French audiences, one supposes? The friendship leads to time spent in a remote corner of the beautiful French countryside, open spaces where anything is possible, but Nathalie’s journey is neither radicalised nor is the outcome quite as we might expect it. Only it’s better.

The trailer may have encouraged us to anticipate a certain kind of film, but Hansen-Løve has presented us with something else. It is a special experience, and there’s no also reason why this voyage of re-discovery to the inner self can’t appeal to everyone who has lived a little.

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Land of Mine

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A rag-tag bunch of German soldiers, some barely men. A beautiful beach on the Danish coast, and it’s spring. Now that the war is over, is it time for them to head home to their families, and live the dreams that kept them going? Not quite yet. First, they have to clean up the mess their army left behind. Underneath the pure white sands, the beach is riddled with land mines.

During World War II, the German army planted mines all along the European coastline and with landfall in Denmark so close to Berlin, it anticipated the Allies would land there. In the end, of course, the Allies opted for a landing in France, leaving the evil ordnance under Danish beaches undisturbed for the time being.

Up to 2,000 German soldiers were conscripted to do the clean up. It is not entirely clear how old they were, what kind of action they had seen beforehand, or whether they were in any sense ‘volunteers’ for this fearful work. It is hard to imagine any were, though who knows what sleight-of-hand was involved.

The writer-director of this powerful drama, Martin Zandvliet, has chosen to focus on the resolution of this dreadful situation, an evil dilemma, in very human terms rather than investigate it forensically. With his young, innocent looking actors, Zandvliet proposes that the mine clearers were too young to be guilty of Nazi atrocities, and were conscripted into the task of mine clearance illegally. Their youth and vulnerability make watching the scenes of them prone on the sand detecting and defusing the mines gingerly, one-by-one, often excruciatingly difficult, even in the safety and comfort of a darkened cinema. Who will the grim reaper select as his next victim in this dreadful game of chance?

Against a setting of stark natural beauty, Zandvliet has created a drama from bare essentials, so the performances really count. The actors are often shot in close up and are very convincing, including Roland Moller as the Danish sergeant in charge of the young men, the most difficult role. I did, however, wonder if the characters did full justice to the complex and conflicting emotions that must swamp former combatants at the end of hostilities.

In 1945, it was against the Geneva Convention to expose prisoners of war to dangerous or unhealthy work. It may be that Denmark contravened this, along with the British command, despite a record of heroic resistance to Nazi activities in relation to its Jewish people. Perhaps we can never know the full story now.

Light on facts, it is nonetheless a powerful drama of rapprochement, opting for empathy rather than analysis in a familiar terrain of having to carry out orders that contravene humanity. In some ways, it seems like a cop out. In others, it seems like the only way forward.

Land of Mine – what a good title – joins impressive drama we’ve seen from Denmark in recent years. Films like The Hunt and Brothers and television like The Bridge that have the courage to get themselves involved in daunting moral complexity. Denmark has some form in this space.

Where does responsibility lie? It’s a fair question. What would an EU have done about the problem in 1945?

A Danish-German production from 2015, Land of Mine has finally reached Australia.

4 Stars

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silence

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review by © Jane Freebury

Here’s one from a director we can expect to throw us a curve ball. Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who enter Japan illegally during the 17th century in search of a former mentor thought to have abandoned his faith. They find shelter among coastal villagers who are clandestine Christian converts but are betrayed and turned over to the authorities. Some scenes of exquisitely cruel torture follow.

Celebrated for his brilliant films steeped in machismo, violence and crime, Scorsese turns to the ascetic world of faith, men of god and would-be saints. Perhaps there was nowhere to go after the heady extravagances of Wolf of Wall Street. There’s a pretty good chance its excesses exhausted us all.

However, Silence very nearly got the green light back in 2007.  Scorsese had read the Shusaku Endo novel on which his film is based, decades ago, and seen the original film. The book is a work of fiction loosely based on historical fact.

It’s not the first time Scorsese has adapted religious fiction. The Last Temptation of Christ, with Willem Dafoe’s Christ a stricken figure full of self-doubt, is also adapted from a novel. Kundun, a hypnotic, sensory biopic of the Dalai Lama, is a glorious cinematic work that did not prompt controversy.

Setting aside the astonishing background fact that Catholic missionaries first entered Japan a century before the film is set, the difficulties that missionaries experienced in far-flung countries is not the kind of subject likely to strike an immediate rapport with today’s audiences. Even for Martin Scorsese, this is a tricky one. As ever, he rises to the occasion.

After all, he has form with a gallery of riveting, monumentally flawed characters. The kind of guys once the stuff of B-movies, and he gives them the big-screen treatment, amplifying everything that’s wrong for all to see. It can look like he’s glorifying them, aroused by their bad ass natures, though he isn’t, but some ambiguity on that score leaves us a feeling bit uncomfortable.

Besides the obvious skill, intelligence, beauty and sensory pleasures of Scorsese’s work, it isn’t always easy justifying the attention he lavishes on his sinners who indulge their violence, misogyny, and various psychopathic tendencies. Sometimes, Scorsese has pulled back, indulging his love of music with a great rock documentary or illicit love (The Age of Innocence) but he usually doesn’t make it easy for us as he tosses around his ideas.

To hold our attention and focus our pleasure, Scorsese has made some of his best movies with hunks like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe he figures it’s easier to spend time on screen exploring difficult subject with the support of matinee idol looks.

In Silence, we have popular young actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver inside cassocks and behind bushy beards, as the two priests Rodriguez and Garupe respectively. Introducing the mainstream by the side door has its risks. Gaunt and bare chested, they may look the part—headed for martyrdom—though I wonder if other people had the trouble I had completely dissociating the young stars from their blockbuster and indie personas.

The rugged coast of Taiwan that stood in for the coast of southern Japan is utterly compelling with the result that Silence is gloriously powerful on atmosphere and very visually compelling. Battering waves, secretive coves, swirling sea mist, the mud and the rocks evoked a strong sense of man at the edge of survival, spiritual and physical.

Although Silence is over-long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it did leave me with time to think in between the spare, furtive exchanges and gave distraction from some harrowing torture scenes. I got to wondering why the Japanese people gave their lives for their faith and the funny-looking strangers who embody it. It could only make a brutally hard life and the contempt of their overlords more difficult. Most importantly, Silence asks when does humanity finally intervene and replace religious strictures.

The unwavering faith of the poor Japanese villagers makes them the true believers. They had the dignity to remind the ravenous priests to say grace while tucking into welcome food. Although the traitorous, pathetic outsider Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) totally undermines the act of communion, by absolving himself of wrongdoing by seeking it.

Strong stuff? Yes, definitely. If we’re talking the director who unleashed Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and a truly terrifying remake of Cape Fear on us, what can we expect?

3.5 Stars

 

Also published at Canberra Critics’ Circle site

 

 

 

 

 

shortcuts

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    Their Finest

A spirited romantic comedy set during the London blitz when scriptwriters at the Ministry for Information (read propaganda) had to deliver movies the British public could feel good about despite being down to the wire. Sweet characters with sharp dialogue plus some British farce at its silly best, and one for the forgotten women who helped win that war.    3.5 Stars

 

    Colossal

Everything is connected. The premise that underpins this tale of small-mindedness in small town America, gets a bold workout here, weaving the lives of a bunch of slackers with the supernatural threat in a foreign city. Improbable at the very least, but it works. Cutting across genre boundaries, it’s witty, clever and really different.    3.5 Stars

 

    Beauty and the Beast

Everything has been thrown at this, but for all the talent, the  SFX and CGI, and motion capture to nail the Beast’s facial expressions, it isn’t as thrillingly entertaining as it should be. Over-produced, and not as good as its original, the animated version from 1991.    2.5 Stars

     

     Loving

If US civil rights history makes us think only of freedom marches and passionate speeches, then this understated story of an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia makes us think again. Inarticulate or reticent characters aren’t always compelling on screen, but the loving couple whose story this is based on never wavered, finally won the day, and it’s moving and impressive.   3.5 Stars

 

    The Eagle Huntress

A tale of equal opportunity for Kazakhi girls set against the beautiful Mongolian steppe stretching to infinity. It’s a grand vision, but let down by clumsy handling. Occasional voiceover directs us towards the big finish, with ‘you can do anything’ lyrics over final credits, but the doco seems put together as a crowd-pleaser rather than for the authentic deal.     2.5 Stars

 

       Toni Erdmann

Goofball, unhinged antics abound from a dad desperate to re-connect with his daughter, a corporate professional who has lost touch with him, and herself. Although some improv work needed a stern edit, it is funny, sad, touching, and one of the most unusual films you’ll see all year.    4.5 Stars

 

             Moonlight

It finds something lyrical, beauty and poetry, in coming-of-age for a young man who is gay, black, poor and without prospects. It’s no American dream and it finds a role model where you’d least expect to, a bit of a stretch. Naturalistic dialogue sometimes hard to understand, but feelings unmistakable.   4 Stars

 

     Hidden Figures

Plenty to feel good about in this traditional Hollywood quest with radical and such surprising outcomes. Based on historical facts, loosely assembled, the uplifting story of the first ‘computers’ at NASA, the African-American women who knew their math and helped get the US into space. A hearty 3.5 Stars.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It is no small irony that the main character in Manchester by the Sea is a dependable handyman who can fix anything and everything. The problems that daily life present him with, like blocked drains and snowbound porches, are relatively simple and straightforward, requiring a bit of brawn and stoicism.

It’s when it comes to dealing face-to-face with clients that Lee (Casey Affleck) has difficulties. A blocked cistern or a leaky tap may be nothing compared with a testy female client looking for offence, or another one trying to flirt with him. Clients can be rude and demanding, or charming and welcoming but whatever they do, they get the same stony response. Over a series of interactions, we see that Lee has a bit of a problem. It comes into sharp focus when he throws a punch at strangers at a bar, for little apparent reason, a chilling reminder of the one-punch phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.

Life suddenly becomes complicated for Lee when his older brother dies prematurely. Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart failure, leaving behind his teenage son, his only child, in Lee’s care. Sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a bolshy pain in the neck, if ever there was one, who believes he has all rights and no responsibilities. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Patrick. Is he obnoxious because he can’t grieve properly for his dad? Maybe. Either way, it turns out that both he and Lee have trouble managing their emotions in dealing with pain and loss.

I’ve read that the idea for this film was taken to Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, by some high-profile friends of his in the business, including Matt Damon, with the request that he work on it and make it his own. Giving an emotionally traumatized young man the guardianship of a nephew who needs him is a great idea. When Patrick comes to understand that he can’t be close again with the mother (Gretchen Mol) who left the family years before, he sees that his Uncle Lee is all he has. Lee is it.

As the circumstances behind Lee’s withdrawal from the world are revealed, it is heart rending. He is broken and he can’t fix himself. Every now and then you hear about a trauma like this, and you wonder how the survivors could ever get over it. When Lee meets his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams) again, she has begun to rebuild. His own predicament is etched in stone.

Around ten years have passed since the family tragedy, and Lee still cannot move on. Will he heal eventually, the film asks? Lonergan, who has said he wanted to explore the limits to healing, hasn’t put a creative foot wrong.

Manchester by the Sea is a fine film that has been garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. As it didn’t speak to me as strongly as I expected it to, I’ve come to think that I needed to hear more from Lee, some of the inarticulate speech of his troubled heart. Even though the obvious point is that he cannot express or reach out, more of his inner life would have served the film well, with less of the reactive violence and more of Lee the person from screenwriter Lonergan. The filmmaker has the language—he is the son of psychiatrists—and co-wrote Analyze This, incidentally, the hilarious comedy with Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal as the mafioso and his psychiatrist. Lonergan had wonderful actors in Affleck and Williams. It would have worked.

The Massachusetts fishing village that serves as the landscape of a young man’s inner life, seems to be in a state of permafrost. I wonder how the community of Manchester by the Sea feels about this bleak tale of grief and loss that has brought it to everyone’s attention. It’s too bad that we never get to see the place in summer, but that would not have been true to the emotional arc of Lee’s journey.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Lion

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A little boy lost with no way home. As he wanders through throngs of strangers in the streets of Kolkata, several things can happen. None of them is good.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar) had clambered onto an empty train, fallen asleep and woken up a thousand miles from his village. Alone, he is at such risk, it is, for anyone who recognises that heart-stopping moment when a child disappears, hard to bear. At five years of age, speaking Hindi not the local Bengali, mispronouncing his own name, and without any clue of the name of his village, what are his chances?

As we watch his unfolding nightmare, it is a relief to see he has a sixth sense attuned to danger. He knows when to run. And he can run like the wind from the dangers that try to coax him with false comforts or grab him and carry him off.

Eventually he is taken to an orphanage, only to escape those particular horrors when an Australian couple adopts him and takes him home to Hobart. A cloud hovers over the family, when it is clear that Saroo’s new brother, the second child that John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley adopt, was a victim of institutional abuse. As we see, a home in paradise does not necessarily bring out the best in everyone.

To be spared such a fate, to be adopted and taken to a life of privilege in Tasmania, what incredible luck. And then to re-unite with his birth mother 25 years later. It is almost too much of a good thing to be true.

I wonder how Lion would have survived out there had it been a fiction feature movie, without its grounding in reality. I doubt it would have lasted long in cinemas. Suspension of disbelief would have been at issue. The second and third acts are so improbable. Yet, as is well-known, it is based on the facts in the book, A Long Way Home, written by the real-life Saroo Brierley, who lived to tell his tale.

It is the telling of the tale, as much as the tale, that audiences are responding to.  Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis, the excellent cast, and Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Bright Star) on camera, have achieved, in deft and understated ways, a big, bold, good hearted film.

Davis recently worked alongside Jane Campion on Top of the Lake. He has also worked in commercials. It has all served him well, and he is in good company like director Ridley Scott, Ray Lawrence, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Sophia Coppola who also have track records in advertising.

And Lion is another great career choice for Dev Patel, who has played a bit part in other contemporary feel-good charmers like Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

If I had a problem with this supremely uplifting film, it is a minor one. The brisk way it deals with Saroo’s transition to awareness. It is difficult to accept that he only began to wonder about his origins when he moved away from his idyllic coast home and went to study in Melbourne. It seems unlikely. Interesting that the filmmakers chose to change the location where Saroo studied. It was actually Canberra.

I didn’t mind the long search via Google. Had Saroo’s life not straddled the digital revolution he would have been plodding through all the villages of India that were located 1,600 km from Kolkata, the distance he calculated he had travelled on his fateful journey.

The reason for the title of the film remains one of its best kept secrets, only revealed after all is over, beyond the final frame. The timing is all, and you take it away with you and enjoy the luxury of its significance by reading it back into what you have just witnessed.

There has been the odd cynical review of this outstanding film, but it has, in the main, met with the tsunami of goodwill that it deserves.

 

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

La La Land

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La La Land poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Why this? Why now? A singing-dancing entertainment brimming with optimism to close a tough, unruly year and open a new one that will take us who knows where? What timing.

It is curious that Hollywood musicals first blossomed in the 1930s along with gangster films, so James Cagney could cross genres and play either a gangster or a tap dancer. They coincided with times of social upheaval in the US and in Europe, enjoying a good run until they were seen off in the 1960s. Not that the musical has ever disappeared. Viva Las Vegas, Saturday Night Fever or Moulin Rouge anyone? While in Bollywood, the musical has long been part and parcel of the mainstream.

La La Land could usher in a new generation of musicals. While a single film doesn’t a revival make, we can expect to see more of them in the wake of this exuberant, uplifting new film from Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with Whiplash a few years ago. Light and airy until things become a bit serious, La La Land demonstrates how a 21st century musical can be contemporary, honour the classic tradition and still have a life of its own. And this is an original musical, not a film of a stage production. Terrific as they were, Les Miserables and Chicago of recent times had already proved their worth on the stage.

At the start, La La Land is determined to be upbeat and take us with it. We lurch into an improbable set piece at the start with the camera swooping through and around dozens of singing, dancing commuters during gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. We could be forgiven for thinking the film is playing back-to-front, and the spectacle is the final curtain. After this, things settle down, as the set pieces are largely integrated and advance the narrative.

As jazz musician Sebastian and aspiring actor Mia, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a very appealing and plausible 21st century couple. They begin as the classic screwball mismatch, but there is common ground. Both are rigorous in their standards and look with nostalgia to the past, as Seb adheres to jazz traditions while Mia reveres the character actors of the Hollywood golden age. In the flat she shares with girlfriends, her room is dominated by a huge close-up of the actors’ actor, Ingrid Bergman.

LA may be the city of sun as the opening number declares, but it’s also a conduit to something else—a career. Mia’s job in a café on the Warner Bros lot allows her to eyeball some of the stars who drop by for takeaway, and to duck out when she gets a call from casting. Seb wants his own jazz club to showcase the music he admires, but he eventually bows to compromise when he joins a jazz-funk band that gives him steady pay, even agrees to bite his lip and look moody for photo shoots.

Dancing may be the vertical expression of horizontal desire, but their relationship looks charmingly chaste, so contrary to today’s mores. That emerald green dress than Mia wears on the couple’s first date recalled for me Cyd Charisse in green when she performs a smouldering showstopper with Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing like that happens here.

It may be unfair to compare, though hard not to, the singing and dancing in La La Land with the work of Kelly, Astaire, Rogers and the set pieces Busby Berkeley created. Stone and Gosling are very talented dramatic actors who dance and sing well, and it’s great to see how accomplished Gosling is on keyboards, but it’s more story and less spectacle here and where we have singing and dancing sequences, they are spectacular because of the staging, production design and the beautiful cinematography.

Of course, La La Land is also an ardent love letter to the movies. To mount this terrific production, the American movie industry has mustered generous resources and assigned them to a relative newcomer. Faith rewarded.

It is easy to point to a certain self-regard in this homage to the dream factory, but writer-director Chazelle, the son of  professors, doesn’t treat us as mugs. He reminds us we can still be lulled into fantasy with the brilliant ‘might have been’ montage that flashes before Mia’s eyes five years later. It’s not exactly an alternate ending, but the film is having a bit of fun with the wishes and expectations that we unconsciously create at the movies, anyway.

4.5 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

The Legend of Ben Hall

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A refusal to submit to authority has pride of place in movies from down under. Here we expect a film about a 19th century bushranger, who robbed the banks and the filthy rich, to be a spirited journey with a man of the people. A man like Ben Hall, whose reputation has for some reason faded over time against that of bushranger turned folk hero, Ned Kelly.

When at large, Australian bushrangers were feared for the brutal criminals they were, but some were charismatic rogues who people were prepared to hide when the police came knocking. And the authorities weren’t clean skins either which helps explain why early last century when bushranger films appeared on screen, the audience cheered them on. So boisterously, the authorities banned them. Too popular.

Some of the bushranger—mostly blokes, though there is at least one woman on the record—weren’t complete blaggards either. Hall, who was mown down by police in 1865, had some land he leased and a wife and child before he took to a life of crime. He has some cachet in having never shot a policeman dead, though the same cannot be said for other members of his gang, John Gilbert and John Dunn.

The newspapers of the day reported quite a crowd at Hall’s funeral in Forbes, NSW. A revealing observation. Hall was on the wrong side of the law, but he was reputedly courteous, brazen, loyal and often a step ahead of the police. Moreover, he was handsome and a daredevil horseman. All in all, an appealing package. It explains why Hall became an object of interest for writer-director Matthew Holmes and the subject of his recent film, The Legend of Ben Hall.

Unfortunately, the fascination does not translate into the result the filmmakers clearly hoped for. The action-adventure locations look fabulous but, critically, Ben Hall’s character is seriously underwritten. As for the case for Ben Hall as legend? We’re not there yet.

As the central character, Jack Martin does his best to be well-meaning and dashing, but he doesn’t have good dialogue to work with, and nor do most of the others. A hold-up of Cobb & Co coach, a key dramatic moment, is heavily over-played failing to ignite much tension. Nor do the scenes of the gang when they have their guard down inject the rollicking, irreverent humour we could all have done with. For a period film, the contemporary tone of the dialogue is jarring, and at odds with the effort that has been put into making costume and other period detail visually authentic.

The film achieves its vision to some degree with the action, in the stirring scenes of men on horseback, galloping through bushland and across high country. In this way, it becomes a valentine to the magnificent bush wilderness, like The Man from Snowy River, but falls short of showing us what Ben Hall means to us today. The film’s visual grandeur and lush heroic score insist on the man as legend, but it’s more a question of ‘tell’ than ‘show’.

The Legend of Ben Hall arrived on screen late last year and had a limited release. If the filmmakers are planning companion bushranger films as reported, they would do well to go for it by building flesh and blood characters of complexity and contradiction, and leaving the myth-making alone. There’s no reason to think the bushranger genre has played itself out yet.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Paterson

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paterson-poster

Review © by Jane Freebury

 

Would this film have attracted much attention without the name of Jim Jarmusch attached to it?  About a loving and contented couple, each with creative aspirations, it is just a gentle story devised to remind us of the secret to a good life. Which is not to say that Paterson doesn’t have its qualities.

This independent writer-director will be noticed whatever he does. Since distinctive films like Ghost Dog, with its samurai-inspired hitman, and Dead Man, a postmodern take on the western, his reputation has been secured, but he leaves us with too little to work with here. With simplicity the guiding principle in style and subject, this is the story of a modest man who only needs life’s simple pleasures, however, it leaves you feeling a bit bemused and unconvinced, against your better instincts.

So Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and resident of Paterson, New Jersey (a bit cute), wants nothing more from life than to go home in the evening for dinner with his wife, to enjoy a beer at the local, and have the steady job which affords him creative outlet. While at work he can eavesdrop on his passengers’ conversations, meditate on his own life and find the head space for creative reverie. He also writes poetry.

For a few short minutes while alone in the cab of his bus each day, Paterson distils the feelings that have arisen in him. His poetry probably won’t go anywhere, even though Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) encourages him to publish. We see this confirmed when at his invitation, a schoolgirl reads a poem about falling water from her own collection. It is superior. Even so, you gotta have a dream to sustain you in the humdrum everyday.

Laura’s aspirations are loftier. She would love to be a country and western singer, and spends her day at home learning guitar and giving everything in their cottage a makeover in black and white. The black and white cupcakes she cooks for the local fair are snapped up and there is perhaps is the inkling of a suggestion that one day in the future, she will want more from life.

Paterson is nothing like the apocalyptic, digitised, de-sensitising fare that the US movie industry has been feeding into the mainstream for years, and I am grateful for it. There’s no crime, period.  No bus hijacking here, just some mechanical problem for which Paterson has to call the depot. In a context like this, Jarmusch’s film is a standout.

Time has passed Paterson’s residents by, yet the film searches for dignity in its circumstances. There is crumbling infrastructure, there are tall weeds, and some of the people seem to have lost the vitality of their former selves.  Yet the city has a proud industrial past. Its famous sons include Lou Costello of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello, the great poet William Carlos Williams, boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The idea for the film was apparently precipitated by Jarmusch’s visit there to research Carlos Williams, one of his favourite poets.

The film’s treatment of Laura is problematic, in my opinion. Her character isn’t well drawn. In an effort to stress the importance of simple pleasures in life, Jarmusch has written Laura as child-like, though undoubtedly not intended that way. The relationship between Paterson and Laura at times resembles that of parent and indulged child, patron and fledgling artist. It is also entirely chaste, which is rather difficult to figure, given Farahani is gorgeous. Perhaps the writer-director’s self-confessed disinclination at representing sex on screen has contributed to this.

So, Paterson, in its determination to make its point about the importance of simple pleasures and the life well lived, strives too hard to bend its material to make it. A pity, because the point is right.

3 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle