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


© 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

Clouds of Sils Maria

Review © Jane Freebury

Fading stars facing tough new realities is a subject that has been worked to brilliant effect on screen. It received definitive, hysterical treatment in black-and-white in Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Ingmar Bergman also touched on the subject in his startling, minimalist masterpiece about a former actress, Persona. There is, however, always more to say.

The French screenwriter-director Olivier Assayas has certainly found more mileage in it in this lithe and supple study of a mature actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) in a quandary about a part she has been asked to play. In a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years ago as an alluring young woman who disarms and destroys the older woman who is her boss, Enders has been asked to play the older woman this time round. Oh, how quickly the tables turn on screen.

The ageless Binoche, still looking superb at 50, plays opposite Kristen Stewart, already a big star because of the Twilight series, if not a fully credentialed actress. The young American has already surely made her fortune, but we are now seeing more of the range already glimpsed in On the Road.

In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is Maria’s personal assistant, Valentine. A cool and confident operator, managing the affairs of a star in demand smoothly, and lending a wolf whistle to the applause when Maria wows an audience in a plunging Chanel gown.

It becomes clear that it is actually Valentine who will become Maria’s nemesis, not the scandal-prone young actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will take the role that the young Maria once played. We never get to see precisely how that dynamic works, though there are hints that Maria sees versions of her former, reckless, life-embracing young self in both of the young women.

Assayas, a veteran director best known for Irma Vep, admired for his Summer Hours and a former contributor to the esteemed Cahiers du Cinema, is also a screenwriter of some note. He has created a wonderful character study here of two women a generation apart who, at pivotal times in their lives, can see themselves in each other. I is also possible to see beyond the angst of celebrity that Maria is just another older woman faced with the challenge of letting go of her younger self.

The look of the film is the work of Yorick Le Saux, a cinematographer with an interesting filmography that includes I Am Love, Swimming Pool and Only Lovers Left Alive. In intimate style here, he has broken through the aura of the star, with hand-held, immediate and reactive camerawork.

Set in the Alps and in trains and cafe-bars, Clouds still manages to feel very intimate. A nebulous title, two powerful women and a thoughtful, sensitive and at times elusive screenplay make for a very good film indeed.

4 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

It takes a brave and confident filmmaker to begin with so little information in frame. Leviathan begins with breathless long shot of a seaside village at dawn, a single boat speeding along the breakwater. In the midground a figure emerges from a house with lights on, but heads back in to turn them off before leaving. It’s a minor detail but intriguing as we strain for clues with the growing sense that something momentous is about to happen.

The concept ‘leviathan’, or monster of the deep, a reference to giant serpents and whales, has been a bit of favourite with heavy metal bands. Some powerful scenes here capture the presence of the great whales that swim offshore, but in this new film from Andrey Zvyagintsev, who brought us stunning contemporary visions of his native Russia in Elena and The Return, it also alludes to the book by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Is it not, he asks, the role of government to protect the interests of the common man?

The man in long shot is Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a car mechanic whom everyone is after for his services. For the moment, though, he has other fish to fry. This morning he is picking up an old army buddy of his, a Moscow-based lawyer, from the station. Their drive back into town passes the hulks of abandoned fishing boats and derelict buildings and other signs that the world has moved on. A small fishing industry seems to be the only thing that is keeping the village going.

No wonder Kolya and his friends like to go out on boozy shooting picnics, emptying the bottles they stand in a row as quickly as they shatter them. No problem when they run out of targets. There’s a bunch of framed portraits of former Russian leaders in the car boot that will serve as substitutes. That portrait of a young Vlad Putin glimpsed on the wall of the mayor’s chambers can wait. It needs time to ripen.

Kolya’s lawyer friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), so polished and professional, seems everything that he isn’t. He has come to try to help Kolya keep the family home, a property with commanding views of the sound. The town mayor (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt official if ever there was one, has grand designs for the property and he will stop at nothing to ensure he gets it. Unfortunately for Kolya, others have design on his lovely wife too.

In this backwater where tempers flare and vodka and firearms are within easy reach, filmmaker Zvyagintsev can still occasionally offer us the funny side as he presents a tragedy of the Russian everyman. His ambitiously scaled panorama of life in his home country is as enormously impressive as it is deeply human.

In a capsule: A panorama of ordinary life in a remote fishing village in contemporary Russia, from a master filmmaker. Grand, slow cinema, deeply humanist.

4.5 stars

Red Dog

Review by Jane Freebury

Based on a tall tale with a bit of truth to it, this is a home-grown version of the story of the dog that will follow its master anywhere, and he really did exist. There’s a statue of him in Dampier, the town where he was most at home, and books about him too, including one by British author Louis de Bernières who is of course author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In its way Red Dog, based on the de Bernières book, is a touching love story too, of the doggy devotional variety.

Back in the good old days in 1971, a kelpie cross arrived in the mining community of Dampier in our far north-west. He was a cheeky dog, a “pushy bloke” some would say, that hitched a ride into town with the publican and his wife and then hung around the nissen huts becoming everyone’s friend and nobody’s pet in particular

One of the many likeable things about this Kriv Stenders film is the feisty community of multicultural characters who the films treats with quizzical amusement, along with the locals of the Karratha. Under the blazing sun, covered with fine red dust, every man is equal, except perhaps for the invisible representatives of Hamersley Iron whose presence we feel but do not see.

Red Dog was so popular with the locals that they made him an honorary member of the union and he became the community mascot. Until one day a stranger on a motorbike rode into town and Red chose him for his master. This man John (Josh Lucas) is an American and I expect the filmmakers are hoping the film will travel with a name actor from the US. A familiar ploy though it is for a moment a bit cringe-worthy. Not that the north-west then and now doesn’t attract people from everywhere in the world, and it’s funny seeing most everyone stripped down to the common denominator – tank tops, sunhats and regulation stubbies – in the workplace.

One of the very best things about this new film from Stenders (Boxing Day, Lucky Country) is the clever way it has rounded up some of old Aussie clichés and delivered them sparkly and new, crisply and amusingly edited by the sure hand of Jill Bilcock. The script is good too, pulling back on sentiment and ensuring we get the most out of the humour. Nor is a wandering dog an excuse for extended location scenes of the outback to remind us of our heartland.

PG films don’t often come along as good as this. For an interview with the star, I would recommend the clip of Stenders talking Koko through his ‘lines’. Find it on the IMDb website.

In a capsule: A tall but true tale about a kelpie-cross that became part of the community in the mining town of Dampier in the 1970s. At once familiar and fresh, this is entertainment for everyone.

4 stars