Pawno

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© Jane Freebury

It’s good to know that a hide like a rhinoceros isn’t a prerequisite for working in a cash converter business in multicultural Footscray. A thicker than usual epidermis helps ensure better than breakeven results, but the experience need not shrivel a bloke’s empathy or drain him of human kindness.

It seems it might even inspire creativity. This is the proposition in this good-natured study of people who are doing it tough and reflects the kind of optimism that probably helped get this entirely independently funded production get up in the first place.

Screenwriter and support actor Damien Hill, who lives in Footscray, has a surprise up his sleeve in the closing scenes that turns some of the grim things that you swear you saw on their head. The turn-around may not  work for everyone—it didn’t quite for me—but there’s no reason why the coda can’t, I suppose, when action is confined to a 24-hour period.

Indeed, it is not nearly long enough to get to know the characters who count in this ambitious drama that managed to get a Tom Waits track for next to nothing to set the tone.

John Brumpton brings a cynical but not unsympathetic tolerance to his character Les, the shop owner, a pawnbroker, a world away from the role made forever famous by Rod Steiger’s staggering treatment in 1965. If Les has anything to hide, you feel pretty sure it’s nothing more than some life choices that didn’t deliver. His best attribute is that he’s got time for folks, whatever their hard luck story. That said, right now he has a bad toothache.

His  assistant is young Danny (Hill), a bit of a day-dreamer with a crush on Kate (Maeve Dermody) who works in a bookshop nearby. Danny’s soft romantic heart is a push over for an earnest young man who wants to propose to his girlfriend that evening but can’t quite afford the diamond ring he finds on the tray and thinks will be perfect.

A film set in a pawnshop is ripe with possibilities.  Hill has built into his screenplay so many characters with hints at their own distinctive backstories that the narrative risks haring off in a dozen different directions. That this doesn’t happen is a tribute to the writer, and first-time director Paul Ireland. Is there a TV series in the offing?

A fair proportion of the action takes place outside the shop premises, grounded in the two men who hang out and provide comment, chorus-like, on the neighbourhood. Meet Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) and Pauly (Mark Coles Smith) who anchor the street as they bludge smokes and share meals from the Vietnamese takeaway owned by Lai (Ngoc Phan). Lai is one of the characters who has something to give back to the community, however the way this is expressed is a big misjudgment on a number of levels. On the other hand, the vignette about transgender woman Paige (Daniel Fredericksen) battling life with two young sons, is touching and makes you want to see more.

Pawno flaunts a bit of cheek with a title that sounds like the generic adult movie. There is a bit of sex and also a brutal violent interlude that I’m not convinced we needed, but the engaging cast, including Kerry Armstrong, too little seen these days, bring many of the stories to life.

3 Stars

A Bigger Splash

 

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© Jane Freebury

Sipping daiquiris, feasting on seafood, skinny dipping in the pool, away from it all on a remote Sicilian island. Just perfetto. Director Luca Guadagnino has exchanged the chill of wealthy establishment Milan in I Am Love, for a spell in Italy’s south with an odd assortment of foreigners vacationing in the summer sun.

In this idyllic location, in carefree mood, a pair of lovers, Marianne Lane (Swinton) who is recuperating from laryngeal surgery, and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are alone in a villa and with a housekeeper to take care of their needs.

Not for long, though. Not after Marianne’s old boyfriend Harry arrives with his daughter in tow.

With his tendency to play characters who are repressed or morose (The Constant Gardener) or malevolent and criminal (Schindler’s List), Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in this role. The actor we are used to on screen is almost unrecognisable here, filling the screen with his rambunctious, restless male energy. It’s a brilliant transformation.

We probably get to see more of him than is absolutely necessary. There is a lot of nudity, what you would expect really, but mostly when Harry is in view – and it tells us something of the man. Rock star Marianne, mostly mute as she is resting her voice, is the statuesque alabaster trophy for which Paul and Harry inevitably compete.

Director Guadagnino is mesmerised by Swinton, and has announced he will work with her again soon. He is not the only Italian who is fascinated by her. Although she is a remarkably  bold actress, her turn as androgynous rock star in  the mould of Bowie or Jagger is a bit of a stretch. There are only the briefest scenes of her in a glittery jumpsuit waving to thousands of fans and they are not hugely convincing, as though Guadagnino wasn’t quite convinced of it himself.

Way more relevant is the film’s intersection with contemporary politics when Paul and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) come face to face with a group of African men who have arrived clandestinely on Pantelleria’s rocky shore.

The island idyll begins to seem perilously vulnerable. Africa is tangibly close. The sirocco brings unwelcome hot and sandy winds and there are people arriving on its shores who seek a better life in Europe. In contrast with the hints about the past excesses of the rock era it is a potent real-world statement.

Long after this party is over, young Penelope remains an enduring mystery. Why did Harry bring her along and what business did she have there? Was Harry her real father? The karaoke with her dad ‘could be misconstrued’, after all. We will never know.

Since I Am Love, we would expect a Guadagnino film to have a sumptuous look, glamorous in a good way, however there is a certain awkwardness to his narrative and character development.  This time, however, Harry is the glue that holds it all together, as he prances about like a Bacchanalian satyr in the summer heat. It’s good he came to visit after all.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

The Daughter

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A forest of tall timbers. Valleys strewn with mist. How readily a Henrik Ibsen classic has been transposed to the wilds of Tasmania, to lend it a Nordic gloom.

Inspired by Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and from local theatre director, actor, writer and now very talented new recruit to the film industry, Simon Stone, The Daughter is domestic melodrama at its uncompromising best. It shows, as other dramas have shown, how well a dark strain of European drama adapts to the Australian landscape.

Here we have Hedvig (Odessa Young), a teenager with the good fortune of having loving parents who want to be together. The family represents a microcosm of happiness within a community depressed at the closure of its timber mill. Hedvig has a boyfriend, but is especially close to her grandfather whose main occupation, significantly, is rescuing injured wildlife and giving them a second chance. Walter (Sam Neill) is the good patriarch compared to the bastard of a mill owner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), who lives up the hill.

At first, family joy and harmony course warmly through this chilly drama. Miranda Otto and Ewen Leslie as Charlotte and Oliver, Hedvig’s parents, contribute marvellous natural performances, that are only matched by Young herself. Everything revolves around Hedwig, nature’s child in pink-tipped hair and ripped jeans.

Old Henry, a lugubrious and mannered Rush, is getting married again. The nuptials have lured his estranged son Christian (Paul Schneider) home from overseas, however he is unimpressed that his father’s bride is a much younger woman, formerly the housekeeper. Christian’s temper is made even worse when his own wife informs him via skype from the US that she is leaving him, and he quickly descends into a malevolent force. From this point on, his restraint drops away as he sets about wrecking things, starting with a revelation to Oliver, his childhood friend and mate from university days.

‘You do not need to be scared of the truth’. Christian tries to justify his actions by cloaking them in matters of honesty and principle. And surely rattling an old skeleton in the closet shouldn’t unseat such happiness. Unfortunately for everyone, the immensity of possible collateral damage is no restraint on Christian.

Were it not for the glory of vast exterior locations, the intensity of the enveloping catastrophe would have a dreadful inevitability. After scenes of weaving hand-held inside Henry’s manor, it is great to be able to step outdoors to take in some chilly mountain air. Tension between characters contrasts with the timeless stillness outside, captured time and again in stately location shot. In the editing department, the flourishes of deliberately mismatched image to dialogue is so elegantly done.

And one of the many strengths of this accomplished film is the exquisite naturalism of the interpersonal relationships. Interpersonal exchanges are so entirely believable, Leslie is exceptional here, except for those with Rush’s Henry, who seems to inhabit another film altogether.

The Daughter confirms the promise Odessa Young showed recently in Looking for Grace. The camera has simply to settle on her face to register how much is going on within. A few spare piano notes fill in the rest.

Ultimately, however, the sudden melodramatic turn in events veers away from some, in my view, interesting territory, and what Ibsen was talking about. Had Christian been seen as more the man of principle, however warped, than simply the villain he is here, something closer to the original issue of ‘living a lie’ would have got more of an airing. There was still some conversation here left to run.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

Hail, Caesar!

 

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Review © by Jane Freebury

A cast bristling with terrific actors has to be any director’s dream. By all reports, the talent in Hail, Caesar! were simply happy to work with the Coen brothers, whatever they were asked to do. So we have cameos to savour like Tilda Swinton’s nervy twin sister journalists each vying for the scoop, and Ralph Fiennes’ fastidious director coaxing a young cowpoke to act on a drawing room set. Performance is the thing, as it is for everyone. This is show biz.

The narrative tries to coalesce around one Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a none-too-sharp star in a biblical epic who is kidnapped by a shadowy group of conspirators and whisked off to a Malibu beach house. It turns out they are a Communist cell, more intellectual than the earnest industry types who become allied with Dalton Trumbo, in the screenwriter’s biopic that is also running in cinemas now and offers another angle on Hollywood in the 1950s.

Whitlock seems to somehow sleepwalk through it all and remains in costume throughout. That is, in breastplate and short leather tunic, and with sword that always gets in the way when he sits down. He engages with his captors and begins to show signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Very droll.

At another soundstage on the Capitol Studio lot, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) rehearses his song and tap routine with the rest of the crew, grinding away with a sailor’s number. He looks the matinee idol in the making but Gurney has some seriously subversive plans afoot.

Running parallel with this kidnap ‘drama’ is the plight of synchronised swimming star DeeAnn Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who is pregnant but has no husband. The bump in her mermaid costume will soon show and it spells catastrophe. In 1950s, Hollywood was nothing like the free-for-all it is today.

Back at the beach house, Whitlock comes to and stumbles woozily into a meeting of the cell. One of his captors asks if he is ‘wondering what’s going on’. You may be too. The device for holding it all together is studio troubleshooter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) whose job it is to set things right so that Capitol movies don’t get on the wrong side of the Hays code and its requirements for public morality. Deflecting noisy columnists away from any hint of scandal is all in a day’s work for Mannix.

Hail,Caesar! brings both the 1930s and the 1950s together in the frame with its Busby Berkeley-style set pieces and tap dance routines en masse, hinting at its origins. Apparently the Coens planned to set it in the 1930s when those dance extravaganzas were in their heyday and it seems they were unwilling to ditch the chance of staging them. The movie would have been the poorer without them and the energy and zest of old Hollywood that they convey. If Hail, Caesar! is a teeny bit anachronistic, who cares when there is spectacle, sharp writing and the talents of Johansson, Clooney, Tatum, Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich on show.

Alden who? He is Hobie Doyle the cowboy who Fiennes’ director can’t corral, though judicious editing seems to make it right in the end. This obliging boy is much more comfortable riding a horse, in any position, and is a wonder with a lasso. However, he has enough screen time in his small part to showcase his easy charm and more unusual skills. A spaghetti lasso, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the narrative coherence of, say, everyone’s favourite Coen comedy The Big Lebowski but it is also funny and sharp. A nonsense that is at the same time so clever. Quite an achievement.

4 Stars

Trumbo

 

 

Trumbo poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Only in Hollywood where life is performance art could a flamboyant screenwriter tell a government official to sod off in such style. Could it be only in America, the country of monumental contradictions, that a thinking man working in Tinsel Town, owner of a fine home with a garden lake, feels entirely comfortable in his conviction that he is a Communist?

Dalton Trumbo was such a man, both radical and rich, and it has been a pleasure to meet him in a movie that is surely overdue. He was the figurehead of the Hollywood Ten, practitioners blacklisted by their own industry in the 1940s-1950s on suspicion of being communist sympathisers, and is played by the small screen’s very naughty bad boy, Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad.

Trumbo’s response to the famous question ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ at the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearing was typically witty and informed, turning the question back on his interlocutors. It was 1947 and the world was being catapulted into the Cold War.

You can watch the HUAC exchange on YouTube, complete with cutaways that capture celebrities like Bogart and Bacall and the ripples of audience laughter that accompanied it.

Just as cheeky is his shirt-fronting of John Wayne (a fittingly lofty David James Elliott) while campaigning for the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment. Trumbo was a man who was true to his working class roots, ready to join the picket line in support of industry colleagues whose wages did not reflect their contribution to Hollywood as it straddled success during its golden era.

Trumbo was a man who took on what was wrong with the system, a hero at any time. It is easy to recognise that he was larger than life, though an enduring image from this film will be of him writing in the bath, cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, whiskey and amphetamines close at hand. Maybe it was the only oasis of quiet in a noisy family home, but some scenes suggest he could be a petty tyrant at home with his long-suffering wife (Diane Lane) and their children.

What matters more, I think, is the film’s portrait of the times that caused the bizarre proceedings at the HUAC to take place. I doubt that director Jay Roach was the man for this kind of subtlety, or of recognising the unique ability of mass communication, whatever side of politics you are talking about, to deliver propaganda and consensus in digestible form.

On the other hand we would be disappointed if a movie by Roach, essentially a comedy director, did not deliver. He had us bent over double with laughter in the first and best Meet the Parents, and has had the comic flair to make a success of the Austin Powers comedies.

Of the talent working with Roach here, Helen Mirren is a stand-out as gossip columnist and ideological enforcer Hedda Hopper. She seems to have had no trouble letting the juices flow, while Cranston maintains a tight, pained presence for the duration. The other great character is Kirk Douglas, played so well by New Zealander Dean O’Gorman. What an interesting man that actor was!

Some of the key moments in this film about a wordsmith are weak. Note to screenwriter John McNamara: sharing your sandwich at school does not make a Communist. However, some excellent moments include the final speech that Trumbo gives when he is at last formally acknowledged for his work is an absolute cracker.

Trumbo is less a tribute to a fascinating man and his turbulent times, than it is terrific entertainment. Played more for laughs than for raising the inherent issues about freedom of speech that are of relevance to us today.

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for Grace

Looking for Grace poster        Review by © Jane Freebury

In the three feature films that Sue Brooks has made so far, we have driven into the wide, open spaces of the inland to look at what makes us tick. It’s a canny strategy, this journey into the red heart, and the two first films that Brooks has to her name, Road to Nhill and Japanese Story, show it has been a popular one. The journey as motif, a road trip towards the centre with a motley crew of characters, their panoply of quirks on display, can hold a mirror to us all.

In Road to Nhill, a party of lady lawn bowlers are upended on an outback road in north-west Victoria and have to wait ever such a long time for help. In Japanese Story a young woman accompanies a visiting businessman through the ancient, red bluffs of Pilbara when their burgeoning relationship is suddenly over before it has begun. Brooks has a knack for making strange.

A montage of gorgeous natural textures opens Looking for Grace, in which we head out on the road again. Among them a bird’s eye view of stretch of road bisecting the wheat belt of Western Australia, on its way east. We track a bus with a couple of runaway teens on board, apparently headed for a concert in Ceduna. Sixteen-year-old Grace (newcomer Odessa Young who could pass for Miranda Otto’s other younger sister) and her friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson).

Before Grace’s devastated parents, Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh), set out from Perth to find her—with retired detective (Terry Norris)—friends gather at their home to provide comfort. It’s here you realise there is something odd going on. The words are tumbling out but they never get a grip. No one is really connecting.

If we have moved on from the gruff, monosyllabic retorts that passed for conversation in Australian films in earlier times, the communication here is not a lot better. Is there really still so much left unsaid between us? The spaces between characters is signified in images of a vast desert emptiness, and by the beige and bland interior of the family home.

In transit, the girls split when Grace is attracted to the handsome young stranger who boards the coach and begins exchanging glances with her. Three’s a crowd and Sappho opts out. But in an instant there is only one when Jamie (Harry Richardson) sneaks out the next morning, making off with thousands of dollars in cash. Grace had emptied the safe at home.

For most of the time we can only speculate on the reasons why Grace stole her dad’s business takings and ran away. It was no problem for her: she had helped him set up the combination and considered it her money too! The ‘Sorry Mum’ note she left behind could seems a teasing McGuffin until the resolution, when motivations are revealed. Withholding the reasons for Grace’s escape as adeptly as it does, is one of the film’s triumphs.

The flat and uninflected exchanges between people that leave so much unsaid are less effective, although they make a point. Whether or not you agree with Brooks’ perspective, a rather out-dated one I think, there is comedy here too and a gimlet eye for what can be satirised in our personal interactions.

Having key characters tell the story of Grace’s leaving home from their perspective, provides some insight, importantly into Dan’s character. However the diverse points of view in the narrative structure are not as revelatory as you would hope. A kind of restraint holds things in check until that final devastating rupture.

This change in direction reminded me of the jolt I experienced with Japanese Story. It takes a brave filmmaker to attempt it, but the point that life can be like that is hard to deny.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol

index        Review © by Jane Freebury

It’s good to be reminded of why we said goodbye to all that in the 1950s. When advertising had women appear in high heels and tailored dresses to sell washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and the term gender equality scarcely existed. Although the decade is a byword for repression in western culture, it must have been more complex than that during the time that saw the birth of rock’n’roll.

So director Todd Haynes is on the money in his new movie, exploring the churn beneath the surface when homosexual relations were illegal. In this story based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of 1952, two women embark on an affair but social expectations eventually cruel their happiness and fulfilment.

The women are so different, but both are cool on marriage. Carol (Cate Blanchett), is an aloof wealthy woman who is divorcing her husband, and young Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store sales clerk, not at all sure about accepting her boyfriend’s proposal and without much clue yet about what she wants. In their different ways, resisting or escaping, they are pushing back on marriage.

As an openly gay man, Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There.) would be interested in the climate that led to today’s gay rights movements and perhaps also not entirely disinterested, as he showed in Far From Heaven, in observing the fractures and contradictions of heterosexual partnerships. With this tale of a love that once dared not speak its name, how well has he managed?

Great choice of actors. Mara, without a hint of the oomph on display in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a resolutely demure, doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn type. Blanchett, who confirmed in I’m Not There she can do anything, plays it cool and predatory and not hugely sympathetic. With a bit too much posturing and hair flicking in the mode of Hollywood’s great screen vamps, I think. And, as if the red talons didn’t make the point already, there is a brief and distracting clip of Gloria Swanson, the ultimate aging vamp in Sunset Boulevard.

The women’s eyes meet across a busy toy department. Does anyone think of sex at Christmas shopping for their kids? Anyway, so begins the long journey towards each other, before they take off on the road and finally sleep together. As need and commitment see-saws between them, choices inevitably have to be made. It is of course a timeless love story.

The romance is expressed in the most beautiful cinematic language, and on celluloid too, it’s worth noting. So gorgeous that it is easy to be diverted by the ‘look’ created by cinematographer Ed Lachman. The images float past as the camera rounds the curve of marble on the corner of a building, as it swoons before Carol’s mink coat and red cloche outfit and that draped chocolate brown number. And there are exquisite long shots of Carol and Therese reflected in mirrors and framed through windows and doors as they meet in public spaces.

We are in for the slow burn but there’s plenty of time. A contemporary director for once in no hurry to get his two romantic leads into bed together. That’s OK, and true to the times for all I know, but it doesn’t explain why this romantic liaison has so little tension and passionate urgency about it. Desire just hasn’t found compelling expression here. The cowboy lovers in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain were so much more convincing.

Why so? We know that Blanchett and Mara, are totally marvellous. All that attention to period detail and the glories of celluloid (Carol was shot on super 16 mm) and self-conscious cinematic awareness but the actors seem smothered by those exquisite surfaces, or the direction, and unable to throw themselves into their roles. It’s a very beautiful and delicate, but somewhat suffocating experience.

3.5 Stars

 

The Revenant

revenant-poster-leonardo-dicaprio1         Review by Jane Freebury

An epic about survival against all odds is timeless and borderless. How fascinating that both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, each nominated for numerous awards at this year’s Oscars, make wide appeal in their different ways to similar primal instincts.

In 1823 American frontiersman Hugh Glass was left for dead by his fur trapping company after a grizzly mauled him to within a whisker of his life. Alone in winter in the mountains somewhere between South Dakota and Missouri, without supplies or weapons, his throat torn and his back ripped to the bone, he was still able to get himself to the nearest American settlement. The wilderness disgorged him after he had crawled, trudged and floated downriver, a 300 or so kilometre trek to safety.

It’s no surprise that this story has been told and re-told in print and on film since but really the optimum moment for the re-telling is now with the technology onside. A digital camera to shoot in freezing wilderness conditions and CGI to make scenes with the bear terrifyingly real. So real you may want to turn away.

You will know by now the intriguing background to this film. That it is based on a recent book by a US trade official, Michael Punke, an ambassador to the WTO, who has made the survival epic turn on revenge. While loosely based on known facts—a 19th century trapper survives a savage encounter with a grizzly and treks alone through snow-bound wilderness to safety—beyond that, the quest for revenge appears to be fiction.

The will to live was probably reason enough for Glass himself to keep going and perhaps, as has been suggested, he just wanted his equipment back. However this revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio hidden under beard, grime and animal pelts, is motivated by more than survival. He wants payback against the perfidious Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy very effective here), one of the two men into whose care he was entrusted as he lay close to death. In his impatience to leave the wounded man behind, Fitzgerald despatched his half-Indian son and nearly killed Glass too. It is perhaps at this point that Glass goes over to the native American side, and fully identifies with his dead son and the Pawnee wife killed by soldiers.

The Revenant is a survival tale that is raw, visceral, immersive in the extreme and gorgeous to behold. In the hands of director Alejandro Inarritu, the author of striking films like Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) – with whom he made Birdman – it has become a staggering cinema experience, by turns beautiful and brutal.

On Glass’ journey back to base camp, the tests of endurance just keep coming. His need to eat, drink and heal while keeping clear of predatory animals and hostile Arikara Indians makes his decision to live an act of courage. There are few places of refuge besides the friendly Pawnee man who builds him a sweat tent to help him rid himself of the toxins still coursing through his blood. The interlude is brief and tribulations resume when hostile Arikara chase him over a cliff. A tree breaks his fall —really?—but his horse is killed, though the animal’s hollowed out carcass subsequently gives him shelter and warmth.

By this point, the unremitting onslaught of hardship is taking its toll. The Revenant’s two plus hours of experiential cinema will be gruelling for some. If there was more insight into Glass’ character and the impact of his experience —DiCaprio might have helped here—it would have improved the narrative out of sight.

The Revenant can be tough going, but the scenes of wilderness are sublime and the sense of adventure palpable. If you aren’t cowering in your seat ringside as a man takes punch after punch in his private hell, you will be in awe of the majesty of nature that offsets man’s puny struggle to survive.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

Youth

youth-movie-poster  Review by © Jane Freebury

Either you have it or you don’t. And is there nothing in between? Poised at the age of 45, the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino may well be asking himself this question in his new film, a lushly orchestrated sojourn in a retreat in the Swiss Alps that only the old can afford and the young can manage if they are rich and famous. The director took us into similar territory in The Great Beauty with an older man contemplating his younger years, yet this gesture across a much broader canvas, is different and better.

Here in Youth are two old friends united by age and stage of life. They have met up at a luxury establishment encircled by snow-capped mountains, a grand old pile from the time when there was prestige in building wide rather than high, and intend to rejuvenate physically and intellectually. Film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel has returned to the screen, at last) is at the resort and health spa with his team of collaborators workshopping his next work. He wants it to be his testament. His friend, retired conductor and composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, now 82), only wants peace while he goes through a thorough health check. Even an emissary from the Queen cannot compel him to accept an invitation to perform his own work in the royal presence. In their different ways it seems Mick and Fred search for solace in each other’s company along with some fresh, new direction from well-trodden paths.

So, there’s just two old geezers one step away from an old folks’ home…? No, even though the trailer give this impression, Youth casts widely across the micro-culture of hotel guests with vignettes of other much younger lives. As disaffected Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree, Paul Dano appears to have something in common with his elders, wishing he could change his legacy, that of robot ‘Mr Q’, the only role he seems to be remembered for. While Fred’s daughter and personal assistant, Leda (Rachel Weisz), is there her husband – who also happens to be Mick’s son – leaves her for another woman, a pop diva. Like the soprano Sumi Jo who sings a stunning ‘simple song’ of Fred’s at film’s close, Paloma Faith plays herself in a key role in which the known world intersects with Sorrentino’s narrative, bursting into the rather chilly, ascetic fictional world with passionate promise. A Maradona look-alike lolls around when he’s not signing autographs across the perimeter fence or kicking tennis balls, and a stunning girl who would do perfectly well for Miss Universe is in there too.

There is much to surprise and enjoy as the laughs creep up on you and the ravishing images hold you in their spell. Instead of confining itself to masculine angst, Youth gives voice to women like Leda and a young girl who speaks up in a cuckoo clock shop. Although my mind kept wandering back to The Lobster, Weisz has a fairly straight role among the quirky ones here, and the way her unlikely relationship develops with the mountaineer is a deadpan delight. Jane Fonda appears as an aging diva (not herself) who visits to turn Mick down, although his film was written with her in mind, and gives him a piece of her mind. Despite the promise, the scenes with Fonda worked least well.

Yet a niggle here and there doesn’t take away from this meditation on life and personal endeavour, told with wit and skill. The blending with surrealistic sequences show Sorrentino a master of his craft and Keitel and Caine are a delight together. Sorrentino has involved himself with similar themes before, and even if he has taken a leaf from the cinema autobiographies of the masters like Truffaut and Fellini, here he has excelled himself.

4.5 Stars

 

 

 

Suffragette

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Review by Jane Freebury

As arguments for human rights go, this is in its quiet way a powerful one. All the more for the way it draws us into the life of a laundress (Carey Mulligan) with lots to lose when she joins the activists in London demanding suffrage for women in 1912.

Hard to credit that a hundred short years ago, few countries besides Australia and New Zealand had given women the vote. Until the list of dates for women’s suffrage scroll by country at the end of the film show how slow the emancipation process has been.

Why would someone like Maud Watts (Mulligan) join the women demonstrating in the streets? Risk a beating at the hands of truncheon-wielding police, risk losing her job at the laundry, and being cast out of home? The explanation provided by screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) is that her path to activism is an accident, getting caught up in a suffragette demonstration and then filling in at the last minute for a friend and laundry colleague making a submission to a parliamentary inquiry about health and safety conditions at work.

Maud tells the inquiry that she hopes there is a chance to live a better life and not have to follow in the footsteps of her mother who worked at the same laundry and died young. Women of her class who spoke up and demonstrated risked far more than their establishment sisters like Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst who makes a brief appearance on a balcony to deliver a rousing speech. Once Maud has spoken up, there’s no way back.

Although the film doesn’t say as much, the burgeoning suffragette movement that has attracted the interest of police and security forces – personified in Brendan Gleeson as Inspector Steed – isn’t the only source of civil unrest at this time. There were anarchists, communists and other political activists making their presence felt. Yet in such turbulent times the violence inflicted on the demonstrating women is genuinely disturbing. Another jolt is the developing-world workplace conditions were the lot of Britain’s working classes a short while ago too.

Tight and intimate framing pitches us into things from the start as the hand-held camera weaves around the characters, creating an immediacy and involvement that would have been technologically impossible, a century before you could just whip out your mobile phone to capture vision for the news. Eduard Grau’s camera draws you in with subtle purpose.

Maud is one of those fictional characters intended to bear witness to events, and Mulligan’s interpretation a delicate and determined portrayal. I didn’t think the actress was right for Far From the Madding Crowd but she is perfect here.

Maud is not as brusque as Helena Bonham-Carter’s, a chemist busily involved in ‘deeds, not words’, but still strong. No hint of suffragette leanings, nothing much bolshie about Maud at the laundry where the lecherous boss (Geoff Bell) prowls the women for sport, or at the home with her gentle but sulky husband and co-worker (Ben Whishaw) and beloved young son.

Director Sarah Gavron has pitched her period drama at a slightly less strident level than one might reasonably expect, compared say to stories about other heroes of the civil rights movements. However, she has still managed to create something powerful. And still relevant.

4 Stars

Truth

Truth poster Redford

Review @ Jane Freebury

Movies featuring journalists have a way of looking at the best or the worst of the profession with little shading in between. It makes for some memorable characters.

If you saw Jake Gyllenhaal as the gutter rat in Nightcrawler or can remember Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now you get my meaning. It’s just as hard to forget Robert Downey Jr as the Australian journalist with a dark cloud of implications swirling around him like flies in Natural Born Killers.

Then there are the shining lights. Cate Blanchett as the crusading Irish journalist Veronica Guerin who dies for her craft. And Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, as a golden boy of journalism, one of the famous duo who exposed the Watergate conspiracy in the heady days of truth to power in the 1970s.

In this fine new film about how dedicated journalists can come undone, Redford has emerged from semi-retirement to play real-life CBS anchorman Dan Rather, a veteran journo who in 2005 resigned after his involvement in a controversial news item on TV’s 60 Minutes. It’s another story from the annals of journalism that broke at the time of a pivotal presidential election – which election isn’t? And it feels safe to assume that Redford got involved because it meant something special to him, like his other recent work like All is Lost and The Company You Keep.

It also feels fairly safe to assume that Cate Blanchett, who has the role of Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, also felt personally drawn to this intelligent exploration of the quest for truth. Her commitment and passion combine with a fine script from director James Vanderbilt (screenwriter for Zodiac) that is based on Mapes’ book about her ordeal when she was hung out to dry by CBS for not subjecting her sources to the scrupulously rigorous check she should have. Like going into typefaces and superscripts and acronyms of the day in the early 1970s when a young George W. Bush became a member of the Texas Air National Guard instead of getting himself swept up in the draft for Vietnam.

That said, Truth is not about exposing journalist error or even journalist bias particularly. Though there are rivetting scenes when Mapes defends herself in front of an inquiry, with her lawyer’s advice ringing in her ears – there is no truth, only opinion and it was her job to sway it. Here, in a counter-point to the case for a forensic approach to detail, we are about how the bigger picture, the underlying truth, can so easily be lost in skirmishes over detail. This is the film’s strength, the way it gets you thinking.

By now it’s well known that the shoot was conducted in Sydney’s CBD. A testimony to Blanchett, who agreed to take part if it was filmed here, and her star power. Cinematographer Mandy Walker was behind the camera and plenty of local talent appeared in support roles. Noni Hazlehurst has a small but significant role as the wife of a key witness, National Guard veteran Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), for Mapes and her team, who suddenly delivers a blistering speech in his defence.

Vanderbilt has persuaded actors with real integrity and screen cred for his key roles, though I wish he hadn’t made the mood quite so ponderous, or felt the need to genuflect whenever Redford appeared in frame. The swelling score didn’t serve Redford or his character well. Anyway, Blanchett is on fire in her role, as she was in Blue Jasmine, ablaze here with professional indignation at the idea that the voting public were likely being duped. It was the sense that someone very important was being protected and covered up for that led Mapes to forget to cover her own back and go for broke.

No doubt the stopwatch at 60 Minutes ticks for its staff just as loudly as it does for the people in its crosshairs. The news magazine juggernaut waits for no one, even journalists Rather and Mapes who had only just broken a story about torture at Abu Ghraib.

3.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dressmaker

 The Dressmaker POSTER

Review © by Jane Freebury

Once upon a time in the Wimmera, a stranger comes to town. The twang of guitar and low-angle framing suggest that this someone means business. The main street is empty, more a case of it being the dead of night than townsfolk getting out of harm’s way. It’s welcome to Dungatar, one lonely corner of the wheatbelt, a land of spectral trees and granite outcrops.

More spaghetti western than the classic western—more Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven—this is a triumphant return to the screen by director Jocelyn Moorhouse who started out with promise 20 or so years ago with films like Proof here and How to Make an American Quilt over there in Hollywood. One senses, in this extravagant and improbable blend of revenge western, romance and biting social comedy, a filmmaker’s declaration of purpose. She is back too and in business.

The glamorous stranger, Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet), a vision in 1950s haute couture, has been away quite a while, most of her life actually. Off to boarding school from where she made her way to the fashion houses of Europe. She can’t recall the exact details of the terrible event that forced her to leave town when she was little, and she has returned to find out how she came to be blamed for the death of Evan Pettyman’s son, Stewart.

She soon finds that little in Dungatar has changed and what has, only for the worse, like the dilapidated cottage that was once home. Her mad mother Molly (Judy Davis) pretends she doesn’t know her at first, and the town women shun her cruelly. Until they see what Tilly can do for them with a Singer sewing machine and a roll of fabric, and Trudy (Sarah Snook) is made over into a proposition for the town’s most eligible bachelor.

With few exceptions, the small-minded townsfolk of Dungatar are a particularly gruesome lot, from the schoolmistress (Kerry Fox) to the wife-beater pharmacist (Barry Otto) to the town heavyweight Pettyman (Shane Bourne). As the town policeman who also has his secrets but is a good guy, the wonderful Hugo Weaving is a cross-dresser who goes weak at the knees at the sight and scent of gorgeous fabrics. Was it really two decades ago that the outback last saw him in a Priscilla frock?

Although Tilly herself snares Teddy (Liam Hemsworth) and things go off on a romantic tangent for a while, it is the relationship with Molly where sparks really fly and where the fun is. Davis is terrific form as the irascible hag with lascivious tongue who pushes Tilly Teddy’s way – to the strains of Bali Ha’i from South Pacific – and she stands up for her when it matters.

I have to admit that the trailer did make me nervous. Could be clunky. Haute couture in the 1950s outback, another tale of high culture to the plebs? Risky.

It works just fine, a tribute to the director and the great team who put it together, including cinematographer Don McAlpine who has a knack for balancing style and sophistication with the beauty of the Wimmera’s arid, vast emptiness. A western with a sewing machine? Yes, it is.

4 Stars

 

 

The Martian

martian-560x224
Review by Jane Freebury

A mission on Mars is aborted during a wild storm. One crew member is left behind, presumed killed by flying debris, but the rest of the crew escape and begin their long journey home. At NASA they notice that equipment at the abandoned habitat is being moved around. It can mean only one thing. The man left for dead is still alive.

A rescue mission would probably arrive too late to save him. Stuff of legend? Enter distinguished director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down).

So how does the stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) feel about his predicament? Once he has operated on himself to remove a piece of equipment that lodged in his gut during the storm, he can focus. And once he’s recognised the imminent perils of suffocation, dying of thirst, starvation, implosion, and going crazy—’Yeah, I’m fucked’— he’s remarkably cheerful. He sets to with the math: there’s no time to spare.

How many days does he have until a rescue—we’re talking a four-year wait—and how many meals to go with it? Figuring out there’s a pretty big shortfall, Watney plants a potato farm within the habitat, fertilising it with his own poo and watering it by burning rocket fuel. It’s a cool ad for the benefits of survival training — and for knowing your science, which when one’s life depends on it, is suddenly rivetting. Although we may not have expected it to be, sharing Watney’s plight is fun.

His sense of humour helps. After all, what’s not to like about being ‘the first person alone on a planet’, first to climb that hill, first to plant crops? First at everything? Watney keeps his own company pretty well. He starts a video diary, sharing a joke with us and the screen, refusing to be overwhelmed by the situation. It’s some situation, you have to admit.

Damon as a stoic, sensible biologist is the perfect foil for the dramatic excesses a story like this can induce. The grandeur of the locations (many shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan) is stunning, but Scott has mostly gone against his instincts for glory this time.

Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a loved one at home to help keep him going, though parents get a mention. And whether he survives or not is in the hands of the team. We could have done with a lot less from the characters back at HQ, when it’s his fellow crew still travelling through space who rise to the occasion.

The Martian is a surprise from a director who likes to tackle the grand questions. When bombastic past ventures from Scott like Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven struggled with weak writing, his new film obviously benefits enormously from the novel of the same name by Andy Weir on which it is based. A great image isn’t necessarily worth a thousand words.

This struggle for survival, day by day, when each tiny mishap could spell the end is far from grim or apocalyptic. The Martian turns out to be a refreshing surprise, not least for its jovial 1970s can-do pragmatism and often jaunty soundtrack. And Damon makes it real.

It’s taken me a little while to get to see this. I thought the solitary survival thing had been really well done by Sam Rockwell in Moon, and at sea with Tom Hanks in Cast Away and Robert Redford in All is Lost, so why rush to see another? Turns out it’s worth it.

3.5 Stars

Macbeth

Macbeth Poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

The last time I saw Macbeth on screen it was set in the ganglands of Melbourne. Geoffrey Wright’s film was not the first to opt for a mobster interpretation either, but I think it misses the point that you don’t have to be a gangster to behave like one. The ruling classes can behave just as ruthlessly as the mob in their pursuit of power.

So in this most recent take on the Bard’s dour and bloody tale of regicide, it is Scotland’s craggy peaks, desolate moors and wind-pummelled coast, rather than an underworld milieu, that bear witness to the barbarity of man.

The original economy of one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays has been opened up for striking visual interpretation here. Some judicious pruning by the screenwriters has also made more space for the images to speak for themselves, and how eloquent they are. As the camera goes wide and grand, director Justin Kurzel has seen to it that the homeland has more than a bit part.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw worked with director Kurzel on Snowtown and has made quite a name for himself in the True Detective series, also with terrific Australian films like Animal Kingdom and Cate Shortland’s remarkable and little known Lore. From exteriors to candle-lit interiors, he has done wonderful work again here.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard pair very well as partners in crime. She is all guile and seduction while he is the more impulsive and reactive, a man built for battle but not for courtly intrigue.

The underlying reasons why Macbeth murders Duncan remain, as ever, somewhat elusive. That ‘blood will have blood’ can only be taken so far, it seems to me, and the question of fundamental responsibility appears to have exercised scholars for a very long time. For all I know it’s been an enduring source of fascination since 1606 when Shakespeare wrote ‘fin’ and put down his pen.

Instead of the traditional trio of toothless hags, and instead of an array of nubile adolescents as in Wright’s interpretation in 2006, the witches here could blend into the crowd. They are even accompanied by children. Taking heed of tantalising prophecies from women such as these might not be so deranged.

It is of course the figure of Lady Macbeth to whom we look once again for more answers. What drove her in the first place and how much was she responsible for making her man screw his courage ‘to the sticking place’? The theme of manliness and Lady Macbeth’s observations on the manly spirit are intriguing to hear down the centuries.

In a nuanced and delicate interpretation of the character sometimes seen as the real villain of the piece, Marion Cotillard is a compelling blend of steely, mannish determination and maternal feeling. She is wrestling with grief — a creative interpellation here — and is she persuading her husband to take action where it may be a question of kill or be killed in Scotland’s own particular game of thrones? The ending suggests as much.

The Macbeths have lost a child, seen buried at the start, and are dealing with childlessness while other lords have been able to produce offspring and ensure their line. It is a convincing starting point for diminished responsibility, but less convincing as the trigger for a bloodbath. However, that’s not the adaptation, it’s the play and could be a good reason for its continuing fascination.

This is a visually stunning and intelligent Macbeth from Kurzel and his creative team. Another study of power in personal relationships like his fiercely chilling first feature, Snowtown.

4 Stars

The Gift

the gift posterReview © Jane Freebury

Gifts are not always welcome, nor freely given. The well known subtext to giving and receiving gets a thoroughly sinister workout in this accomplished first feature from Joel Edgerton, one of the many fine Australian actors on screen.

There are interesting dimensions to Edgerton’s creativity. He has writing credits for local features like The Rover, Felony and The Square, and recently put in especially good performances in big international screen events like The Great Gatsby and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Now he shows his talent for directing in this, his first feature.

As both writer and director here, Edgerton knows precisely when and how to turn the screws, and delivers major discomfort to his audience, if sometimes a little over-emphatically. With precision and assurance he has created a psychological thriller that strikes at the heart of coupledom and a tainted professional class.

In a home in the leafy hills of LA, a young husband and wife from Chicago, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), have re-located to the West Coast to make a new life—leaving initially unspecified difficulties behind. Early on they cross paths at the supermarket with a strange character by the name of Gordo (Edgerton).

Their chance encounter is a neatly ironic comment on the impossibility of trying to escape one’s past. Gordo went to high school with Simon, and it eventually transpires that there is much more to it than that.

If Simon isn’t keen on being re-aquainted, Robyn finds it hard to send Gordo away when he turns up at the house announced. Though there is something passive aggressive about the solicitude and surprise visits, and Gordo’s face, a mask that barely registers any expression, contributes to a primal sense of unease. News that he has done two tours of duty doesn’t help either. He and his gifts of koi carp for the empty pond, fish food and window cleaner would be welcome, if only he wasn’t so creepy, so needy. The asymmetrical ‘friendship’ is hard to end, as gifts with signature red bows begin to signal an unspecified dread, and the lovely airy open home begins to feel like a type of prison.

The ultimate dark secret revealed in The Gift’s denouement would have done Michael Haneke proud. His chilling films like Funny Games and Cache strike at the heart of complacent privilege too. And there were several occasions – beside instructions to pay video tapes – when I was reminded of Rolf de Heer’s chilling Alexandra’s Project as well.

It’s great to see multi-talented Edgerton starting out with such a strong, assured statement in America, though it’s a bit of a pity the project lost its working title along the way. The original title ‘Weirdo’ would have done more justice to the film’s sly complexity.

4 Stars

Ricki and the Flash

Review © Jane Freebury

As the mum who didn’t show up for her daughter’s wedding then arrived in time for the divorce, Ricki Randazzo (Meryl Streep) could expect children to have a few issues with her. When she comes back into their lives, they’re all grown up. Can she reach them still?

Back home in Tarzana, California, where she moonlights as lead singer with her band, she has a knack for working a crowd. The patrons at her regular gig are an appreciative lot, cheering on the mix of Springsteen, Stones and Pink. And you have got to hand it to Streep as she prowls the stage and lets rip with a dirty chuckle. She looks and sounds like she’s been strapped to a guitar all her life.

Ricki is an endearing reminder of free-wheeling times past, even if her politics don’t fit. In an aside she mentions she voted for George W. Bush — twice. Give her back the good old days, when going through security checks at the airport didn’t mean you had to remove all your chunky necklaces and rings, and people didn’t look sideways at your barely tamed hair and hippie weeds.

Responding to a call from her former husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter in real life) has attempted suicide after her husband left her, Ricki makes the journey to be by her side. The tidy hedges and gated communities of Indianapolis where Ricki’s ex lives with his new wife, is a foreign country until she bonds with the family poodle and spies some pot in the freezer.

It’s not as though Ricki doesn’t carry her share of maternal guilt for having deserted her children when they were little, just a lot less than most. The drama makes way for this to be beautifully expressed in her performance of ‘Cold One’, a song she wrote and sings to Pete and Julia one evening, before stepmom Maureen (Audra McDonald) returns home after a few days away.

We’ve known since Postcards from the Edge that she could sing and since Mamma Mia! that she could groove, but here she is quite the Linda Ronstadt or the Chrissie Hynde. One of the screen’s gifted chameleons—think Iron Lady, Evil Angels, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman — Streep is, as always, utterly convincing. Having established her credentials in serious roles, she can afford to let her hair down as an aging rocker.

The screenplay is the work of esteemed creatives behind the camera too, the talented writer Diablo Cody (Juno, and episodes of TV’s United States of Tara) and director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and The Manchurian Candidate).

There is a big singing and dancing finale. It is, after all, a wedding reception, and as such a gesture of hope towards the future, however Ricki and the Flash could have done with a brisker wrap. We’ve seen that Demme has a soft spot for Neil Young, and music is perhaps his indulgence, but contemporary audiences have a low tolerance for things being drawn-out or for a great deal of sentiment in their melodrama either.

It’s worth remembering, however, that we tend to allow Bollywood the same indulgence in the big singing and dancing wrap, and anyone knows that the relationship difficulties aren’t usually resolved on the dance floor. So enjoy.

3.5 Stars

Far from Men

Review © Jane Freebury

Far from men but not entirely without company, a teacher lives and works alone at an isolated school. There are children, girls and boys of mixed ages, who happily attend his lessons, even though the content is set by distant colonial masters. In the Atlas Mountains of north Africa, a geography lesson on the major rivers of France smacks of irrelevance, but it is 1954 and Algeria is still in French hands. Though not for much longer.

Like some of the best movies, this was inspired by a short story. The Host—the title is a play on a word that in French can mean both host and guest—is the work of the great French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus. It is also interesting to hear that this project has a family connection for the film’s writer/director David Oelhoffen. His father once worked as a teacher in colonial Algeria.

A peaceful, neutral existence is ruptured when Daru is ordered to deliver a young Arab man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to French justice in a nearby town. The unfortunate prisoner stands accused of the murder of a cousin, but he admits the crime and accepts his fate. Daru is put out by this unwelcome intrusion and impatient with the young man’s pitiful state, and also understandably wary of him. On their journey through the mountains, the prisoner explains that it is better to be dealt with by the French and put a stop to the endless cycle of revenge. It is a startling revelation, on which the narrative turns.

With its desert wilderness location and minimalist action, this is a film that might have emerged from the same existential 1970s roots as Antonioni’s The Passenger in which Jack Nicholson is a journalist – or perhaps an arms dealer – trying to lose himself in the African desert. Despite the guns and men on horseback in a struggle over right and wrong on the frontier, this is less a western than it is existential drama set in the shifting sands of the last days of colonialism. And it’s not a gun that has the final say.

As the two men travel together, mutually dependent in a hostile landscape, they inevitably bond, and sometimes even find a joke to share, albeit a rueful one. Details like those of the life that Daru (Viggo Mortensen) left behind emerge only when they must be revealed in this slow-paced, magnificent and timeless drama.

The ending of the film diverges from Camus’ story, making way for muted hope though Daru finds that neutrality, however strenuously sought and however one is distant from the fray, is not necessarily an option. Nevertheless on the empty spaces of the frontier far from men and their fractious tribal loyalties, it’s possible to find a shared humanity.

4.5 Stars

Amy

REVIEW BY JANE FREEBURY

Everyone knew what had happened to her, Amy Winehouse, but many of us may have forgotten how good she was when she started out. The gifted jazz stylist, Tony Bennett likened to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but substance abuse and bulimia made her a media sensation for all the wrong reasons: hey, watch her going down. Why did this young entertainer with a great voice, retro style and creative potential to burn, leave us so soon? And for her to die at the age of 27, it seemed such a cliché.

It has taken the filmmaker Asif Kapadia, a boy from more or less the same ‘hood in North London, to help us understand what happened to her, even if knowledge and understanding do not necessarily bring peaceful resolution. With his fine documentary he has sensitively and skilfully constructed an engrossing record of the performer’s life, though he never interviewed the singer, never saw her sing live, and they never met. In similar vein to Senna, Kapadia’s doc about Ayrton Senna, the Formula One racing driver who died at 34, this is also a post-mortem.

In the interests of understanding why, it’s good to begin at the beginning. Kapadia makes it the moment caught on home video when as a 14-year-old she sang ‘happy birthday’ to a friend, a lollipop standing in for a mike. A typical mid-teen, by turns shy and precocious, she lets rip with that voice. With a smooth edit, she is the next moment performing in front of the national youth jazz orchestra at age 16. From living room to national stage, and suddenly a star.

Her legacy as a singer-songwriter deserves more of these early years. When she made her first CD, Frank, in 2003 she was appearing all over the place at gigs and on TV, a sassy, breezy, confident girl, on the surface at least, with the nous to know when someone was having a go and the wit to put him/her back in their box. Before she morphed into the celebrity waif, with the 1960s beehive and the winged kohl-black eyes of ancient Egypt.

Then it crumbled away under the sway of the young man who she would marry, and the hard drugs he introduced her to. Although her decline seems to have begun when they met, it seems she was a handful as a youngster and boundaries were an issue. Her mother Janis’ recent book reveals she was ‘Hurricane Amy’ at home.

In time, she seemed to take on the persona in her songs: the woman who suffered in love, who experienced pain and loss, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. True to her lyrics, Winehouse succumbed and lost control of her life.

Amy’s father Mitch also has a book out and his film on his daughter soon will be. The film shows him an opportunist who came back on the scene to capitalise on his daughter’s fame, but we see too little of her mother who had found herself a single mum when Amy was eight. She held more clues to the way Amy was, with her irrepressible, crash-through nature, ‘Hurricane Amy’, and to the kind of woman she would become.

More about the musical influences too. Amy Winehouse didn’t arrive on the scene out of nowhere. She grew up listening to the greats like Frank Sinatra – no wonder she had impeccable timing – as others in her family were into music too.

Like Senna, this doco represents a meticulous forensic examination of a young life cut cruelly short, and a massive research effort. Kapadia and his editor have wrangled everything from home video and mobile footage to audition tapes, studio recordings and TV live chat shows, bringing them together into a coherent narrative.

The film’s second half is full of paparazzi material showing her helpless or is it unresisting as the media jackals film her demise, and her death from alcohol poisoning/heart failure has a sad inevitability about it. It’s hard not to feel, on her behalf, indignation and dismay at it all.

4 stars

Wild Tales

Review © Jane Freebury

Lions, cheetahs, wildebeest and birds-of-prey grace the opening credits of this giddily extravagant Argentinean anthology of tales of revenge. By film’s close, well may we wonder the lengths to which men and women could go to avenge injured pride, social injustice and corruption. If it’s true that animals can hold grudges too, we are surely the only species to make it an art form.

This collection of very dark comedies, six in all, takes retaliation to its logical/illogical conclusion. There are no half measures.

First off, passengers on a place discover that they are each connected, not in a good way, to the person who is alone in the cockpit. The elementary teacher who’d thought he had issues, the former girlfriend, and the music critic who gave his work a lousy review. This art-mirrors-life tale is more than a little disturbing, though it predates this year’s Lufthansa tragedy.

Without a moment to draw breath, the second tale opens in a seedy, isolated diner presided over by a chef with more than a few grudges to spare. The young waitress recognises a customer as the man who drove her father to suicide, evidence enough for the chef who opines that although everyone wants wrong-doers to get what they deserve, no one is willing to lift a finger. The eggs on fries receive a dusting of rat poison, but then the man’s son arrives to share his meal.

Road rage gets a serve. A duel on a remote road between two macho males, one behind the wheel of a sleek sporty number, the other in a daggy, slow pick-up. The sports inevitably speeds past, but not before an angry verbal exchange. ‘Redneck’ vs ‘pussy’ battle it out, as tit-for-tat turns homicidal. It’s probably the most telling example of why naked revenge is self-defeating. ‘Of Revenge’ by Francis Bacon, anyone?

Two very bleak tales show how a corrupt system makes social justice impossible. The car of a mild-mannered demotions engineer is towed away from an unmarked zone. Car retrieved, he is caught in gridlock that ensures he is completely out of favour when he eventually arrives home for his daughter’s birthday. His attempts to seek redress against an inefficient bureaucracy fail miserably, and things descend from bad to worse, until payback. And there’s the teenager who takes the family Beemer for a spin. He arrives home with a damaged vehicle and admits to a hit-and-run that has taken the life of a pregnant woman. His family is however rich and influential enough to broker a deal.

Just when you’re reeling from the wild recklessness of it all — revenge in the first degree — the last tale opens on a wedding reception in a grand city hotel. The bride realises her new husband has cheated on her with a colleague from work. In no mood for appeasement she utterly loses it before she rallies and unleashes the full armoury. The groom realises why he’s married her in a comic, poignant and lusty conclusion.

Despite the lack of continuity in all but theme, these wonderfully extravagant tales of ‘wild justice’ segue with total fluidity. The fine cinematography and editing, the terrific performances and excellent score by Gustavo Santaolalla are all of a piece. It says a lot for the skills of the writer-director Damián Szifron. His name appears in the opening credits next to the fox.

4 Stars

Spy

© Jane Freebury

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. As CIA agent Susan Cooper, Melissa McCarthy does.

Just last year we saw her in St Vincent as a struggling single mum living next door to lonely old codger Bill Murray. Any chance that they might get together was put paid by his relationship with a pregnant, pole-dancing Russian prostitute played by Naomi Watts. Good as McCarthy is, I doubt this role did much for her career, despite the company she kept. Playing a kindly, put-upon women with a heart of gold only makes her somehow invisible.

It’s no place this actress wants to be. ‘People don’t stop at size 12,’ McCarthy says that she can’t shop at the mall with friends when her store is upstairs hidden behind the shop selling tyres. Even unscripted this actor clearly has a way with words.

Mainstream Hollywood comedy is where she best belongs for now, pouring all her stand-up live comedy experience into support roles that steal the show. Now that she’s in the lead role in this hoot of a James Bond spoof she can say thanks, but no thanks to any other self-effacing parts in second-rate movies that happen to drift her way, like her sad loser in the woeful Identity Thief.

The more room she has to move the better. Then she can stand proud in her plus-plus-size outfits and let rip with her lacerating humour, which isn’t easy when as an agent in the field, your cover is frumpy outfits and wigs of bad hair. As agent Cooper in Spy, McCarthy has a knack for delivering sharp, self-deprecating lines — ‘Why are you being so nice to me? It can’t just be because I remind you of some sad, Bulgarian clown..’ — and still coming out on top.

That said, she is no slouch when it comes to putting the opposition down either, even when it takes slim and beauteous form in Rose Byrne’s arch-villain Rayna Boyanov, a deadly arms dealer whose organisation Cooper must infiltrate. Or the form of gorgeous Morena Baccarin’s double agent and CIA colleague, the competition that confined Cooper to the backrooms at work.

And when the chips are really down, McCarthy does hand-to-hand combat with whatever is at hand in a hotel kitchen in great style. This extended fight scene adds an unexpected dimension of thrilling action to the gags and slapstick. Writer-director Paul Feig, who helped McCarthy to a ‘best support actress’ nomination at the Oscars for her role in Bridesmaids in 2011, has some surprising talents up his sleeve too.

Spy is one of the better Bond spoofs by far, and very good fun. The upcoming all-female remake of Ghostbusters isn’t the only reason we will be hanging out for the next Paul Feig film with Melissa McCarthy.

3.5 stars