The King’s Choice

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Not too many monarchs appear on screen in foetal pose, the way the King of Norway does in early scenes in this wartime drama. Another oddball monarch with issues, looking for escape from the world? It is a bit disconcerting until you hear mention of his back problems.

He has trudged through the snow playing hide and seek with his grandchildren, and now lies on his side on the floor in his study, clutching his shins. Behold, an ordinary man!

Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), was Norway’s king during World War II and for most of the first half of last century. It’s intriguing to read that when Norway dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905 and opted to become a constitutional monarchy, the crown went to a prince of Denmark who became the country’s first king.

Another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks

Long before April 1940 when the German war machine rolled, sailed and flew in demanding he and his government collaborate or be swept aside, Haakon VII was firmly established in the affections his people.

This intimate and engaging film directed by Erik Poppe is eager to affirm Haakon’s reputation as a man of the people. And to show how little say he had in negotiating with the invading German forces or in maintaining the neutrality Norway wished to preserve. It certainly succeeds.

Joining a sudden plethora of World War II films opening this year—Churchill, Dunkirk and the soon-to-be-seen Darkest Hour—it is another war film, yes, and another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks of hostilities. The narrative covers just three days.

From the start, the drama that engulfs Haakon and his family, including Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), his government and the people, is about how to respond to the German forces that enter Norway demanding collaboration.

Should he agree to the urgings of the German ambassador Bauer (Karl Markovics) and cooperate? Or stand his ground and refuse to surrender sovereignty? To complicate things, a Norwegian politician by the name of Quisling has stepped into the breach of indecision and is offering to collaborate.

Weaving handheld camera is neither superfluous nor exaggerated, but integral to the drama

During these events, the handheld camera closely shadows Haakon and key personalities like Olav, in disagreement with his father, and Bauer, odious yet oddly pathetic. Close ups and a weaving handheld camera are neither superfluous nor exaggerated but integral to the drama, enhancing its impact to great effect.

A couple of military encounters, both of which heighten tensions significantly, are telling. When the Norwegians, scarcely prepared for war, take aim at the invaders entering Oslofjord, and when the Norwegian resistance assembles hastily at a crossroads.

As Haakon drives through the checkpoint, trying to keep himself ahead of the invading forces until he has decided what to do, the camera focuses on one of the men assembled. Young Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), is overwhelmed to find himself face-to-face with the king. It seems to speak for the nation.

Seeberg is then seriously wounded in the ensuing skirmish, his fate dangling in the balance until final moments. In its subtle and engrossing way, this film has us on tenterhooks till the end.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Trip to Spain

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Review by © Jane Freebury

For a road trip to work, so much depends on who you are with. So, if you’re thinking of being the third party aboard a Range Rover with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a restaurant tour from Santander to Malaga, it’s wise to revise what you know.

As this is the third in the popular series, you’ll most likely know what you get for your money. I hopped on board with some reservations.

The earlier ‘trip’ films, one to England’s north and the other to Italy, are a reminder that it’s true what they say. People can be quite revelatory when they are facing the road ahead, rather than each other.

Unscripted,  improvisational, that is the thrill

The formula has worked well. Coogan and Brydon pass the time on the highway or waiting for meals to arrive, by being entertaining, er, sometimes just showing off. We just happen to be watching. They riff off each other with celebrity impersonations, exchange snippets of trivia and reveal things about their personal lives that may be true to themselves or their personas. A bit of enhanced reality keeps it interesting.

Few filmmakers besides Michael Winterbottom can afford the risk of setting forth with so little prepared and get such good results. Unscripted,  improvisational, that is, in essence, the thrill of The Trip films. It feels so immediate, as though you are actually present on set, wondering what they will come up next.

Can we look forward to trips beyond the road and on the waves, as they join the cruise set?

As the pair sat in restaurants carrying on at high volume while other diners pretended not to notice, my thoughts went to director Michael Winterbottom and his team. Were there free meals for the other diners if they undertook not to look at the camera? Was there the promise of being glimpsed in a popular film?

Now that they’re in the early 50s, Coogan and Brydon are paying more attention to their health, cycling and running. As they get bit by bit older, how far they will be prepared to go with Winterbottom, I wonder. Can we look forward to trips beyond the road and on the waves, as they join the cruise set?

To some extent too, we are prepared to accept Winterbottom’s approach to filmmaking – lots of improv, topical subjects, and an approach that is skilful, witty and urbane.

The downside is that it sometimes feels like a throwaway line or two, and too superficial by half. For that reason, I rather liked the unsettling and unexpected ending.

Though the upshot is that after this cock-and-bull story you may, like me, be hungry for more, after only having sampled the tapas.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

Dunkirk

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Review © by Jane Freebury

With films about perception, memory, and fluctuating identity, Christopher Nolan has carved out a very particular space for himself on the big screen. His interests could so easily have confined him to the indie sector, but he has had the confidence and the narrative and stylistic brio to crash through, taking narrative jigsaw puzzles like Inception and Memento straight to the mainstream.

A war film determined by the facts of the famous evacuation from France early in World War II might seem like a bit of a straitjacket. Not that Nolan doesn’t have plenty of cred as an action director—his Batman trilogy was outstanding—it’s just that he’s at least as interested in the tricks the mind can play as in representing the action up on screen.

As it turns out, his approach, another occasion on which his direction is based on his own screenplay, has resulted in a really distinctive war film. And a very good one. The evacuation from Dunkirk is brought to life with little of the usual battle mayhem, but with a lot of stillness, silence and participant point-of-view that encourages us to reflect on what was going on within the men who waited, hoped for and despaired of deliverance.

Sheer luck propels us to the beachhead in the first scenes, on the back of the only soldier to survive an ambush in the streets of Dunkirk town. There were six of them, scrounging for cigarettes, drinking from a garden hose, needing to relieve themselves, when enemy snipers opened up and took them all down, bar one (Fionn Whitehead). He is known as Tommy, a sufficiently generic name, once slang for an ordinary soldier, that resists marking him out as an individual either.

At the beach there is line upon line of men waiting to be rescued. Around 400,000 of the remaining (mostly) British Expeditionary Forces in retreat, queueing on the sand and along the breakwater. So British to queue.

The surrender of France is only days away. Trapped by German tanks, strafed by the Luftwaffe, the forces had but a thin khaki line of French soldiers between them and the enemy.

Neither the German ground troops nor pilots are given any identity either. They are unnamed, and virtually unseen. It could almost be a one-sided war, without the binaries, were it not for the relentlessly accurate assault largely from offscreen.

So much else has been elided. There is hardly any blood or viscera. There is no perspectival privilege, so the audience has no more knowledge of what’s going on than the participants on screen. None of the characters has a backstory and there is no light-hearted banter, to lower the tension. There are no scenes of Churchill, only a couple of weeks into his role as Prime Minister, in the war room.

In keeping with this approach, the evacuation strategy is only overheard by two soldiers hidden under the breakwater. They have positioned themselves there so they can climb onto a rescue boat, rather than wait their turn.

Against the implacable beauty of a seaside landscape, thousands of soldiers await rescue like skittles in a bowling alley, lined up to be mown down. Somebody says it feels like being a fish in a barrel, somebody else wonders where the RAF has got to.

It’s chaos within the awful stillness of a vacuum. Assisted by Hans Zimmer’s powerful and insistent score, film ensures that we experience the full catastrophe, from the unendurable wait to the confusion, desperation and terror that the soldiers felt. It leaves an indelible impression.

4.5 stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Churchill

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Review © Jane Freebury

The title doesn’t give much away. Just that it’s about the wartime leader, the lion of Britain during the winter of World War II. We can be reasonably sure though that he won’t get the ‘great man’ treatment, and we expect to see what’s under the bowler hat and behind that set expression of grim determination. Someone all too mortal.

The tidy title also suggests bio pic but this Churchill, directed by expat-Aussie Jonathan Teplitsky, with veteran Scottish film and television actor Brian Cox in the lead role, covers just a few short days in the life. The lead up to the D-Day invasion that spearheaded the Allied push into Europe and eventually won the war in 1945.

A film from another key point in WWII, the early evacuation of troops, Dunkirk, is coming very soon. It is directed by action supremo and cine-stylist, Christopher Nolan.

The story of Winston Churchill, voted in 2002 the greatest Briton of all time, ought to be immensely interesting. Maybe even more so with a forthright Scot and an upstart Australian in key creative roles. The Indian director Shekhar Kapur and Australian actress Cate Blanchett did a striking version of Elizabeth, England’s iconic sixteenth century queen. And that worked, no question.

Churchill, scripted by a young British screenwriter and historian, Alex von Tunzelmann, has fairly predictably earned itself a bit of controversy. We have come to expect the knives to come out to excise factual errors, correct perspectives and maybe do worse damage, but the film seems to have come through fairly unscathed.

What struck me is how little we learn about Winston, really. We knew he liked his booze and tobacco, but the film wants us to believe that he was terribly haunted by the debacle of Gallipoli, that he was in charge of in WWI. It was a monumental disaster, but that can’t have been all there was to his issues.

Even a casual reading of his life hints at all sorts of other demons. Neglected as a child, a poor student, questionable judgement during his political career. He suffered from depression and a deep-seated fear of failure. It’s well-known that Churchill was a handful for his darling wife Clemmie, and many others besides. The film could have given all this more coverage, rather than sheeting most of it back to Gallipoli.

Director Jonathan Teplitsky is a talented director with some outstanding work behind him—Better Than Sex, Getting’ Square and Burning Man. He also had substantial international success with Railway Man. It was sensitively made, if given a fairly conventional treatment, and with excellent performances. If only he could have been more flexible and light of foot here.

Apparently Teplitsky was brought on board later in project development. I have a hunch it may have had something to do with the sensitivity he has shown in his films for blokes with issues. Burning Man was about a young man behaving badly as his wife succumbs to terminal cancer, and Railway Man about a traumatised former soldier and prisoner-of-war.

Cox is an excellent Churchill and Miranda Richardson is terrific as his remarkable wife, but the film falls short for lack of insight. Sometimes it lags and feels as though the filmmakers didn’t have quite enough material to work with. The immensity of the subject was a bit daunting after all.

3 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

Frantz

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Review © Jane Freebury

Is peace between former enemies possible while the horror of war still haunts them? The process certainly gets complicated in the latest film from the urbane director, Francois Ozon.

Frantz is a loose adaptation of Broken Lullaby, an Ernst Lubitsch film of 1932 that was itself based on a play written in the 1920s, soon after the Great War. It is not the kind of film usually made by for Ozon, who is more inclined to the intimate, sexy, sometimes over the top, contemporary drama like (Under the Sand, Young and Beautiful) or the not so subtle comedy (Potiche). What is he up to here?

Lubitsch, one of the great directors of cinema’s golden age, had quit Germany after WWI and joined the coterie of the expatriate European creatives who flourished in Hollywood. He made his name with sophisticated, witty comedy. Broken Lullaby was atypical for him too, but more easily explained by his background.

Most of the action in Frantz takes place in Germany, embittered and defeated in 1919. A young Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney) has made a pilgrimage to the grave of a young German he once knew, a casualty of the Great War that had engulfed Europe. At Frantz’s graveside, Adrien encounters his former fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), and against all the odds, he begins to make a connection with her and the dead man’s grieving parents with whom she lives.

The relationship that develops between Adrien and Frantz’s relatives is at once intimate and impossible, not unlike the complicated personal bondings that characterise other films by Ozon, like the excellent Swimming Pool and In the House. Adrien is not what he seems. He is compromised and even if motivated by the highest of intentions, his actions imperil a fragile stability because of the terrible secret that he harbours.

There is a lot at stake for all in what seems like an impulsive intrusion, and the two young actors, Niney and Beer, convey the vulnerability of youth, especially after the trauma of war. Niney doesn’t quite convince this viewer in his role, but Beer is especially effective, her naturalistic performance offering what contemporary audiences are most comfortable with.

And Anna is bold. She follows Adrien when he returns to Paris and eventually tracks him down at his family home, with more surprises to follow. Adrien is never quite what he seems. Anyone familiar with Ozon’s body of work might be looking for a homoerotic sub-text there too. Could be, but it never seems explicitly articulated.

The film is lovely to look at. A few flashbacks in colour signal the exuberance of pre-war Europe and the promise of new hope in the present, otherwise the aesthetic is monochrome.  Perhaps with black-and-white Ozon wanted to honour the great age of silent cinema when expressionism was in its prime in Germany.

Whatever he intended here, his historical drama in classic early 20th century studio style, is thoughtful, subtle and rather exquisite. It could seem dated with its precise plot twists and turns and self-conscious resolution, but the traditional narrative suits Ozon surprisingly well, and it is endowed with a wonderful central performance from newcomer Beer. Her character gives it heart and soul.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Country Doctor

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  Reviewed by Jane Freebury

If Irreplaceable, the original title of this genial tale seems a bit over-stated, the title for English speaking audiences, The Country Doctor, doesn’t do the film justice either. As people are discovering.

Jean-Pierre (Francois Cluzet) is an exemplary physician. All things to all the people who need his attention, including his elderly mother. A source of medical expertise as well as solace and kinship, he’s been the town doctor for around three decades. Far, but not that far from the glittering attractions of Paris, to which his wife and son returned long ago.  He has also managed to sidestep the digital revolution, still referring to patient records on index cards kept in cumbersome filing cabinets.

Everyone who is ill and frail needs him, and him alone. He has promised Monsieur Sorlin (Guy Faucher), a 92-year-old who needs full-time care that he won’t send him to hospital, and he has endless patience for everyone’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. He’s a great guy.

Jean-Pierre has come to realise that something is wrong with him. His specialist informs him his problem with field of vision—he sees only half the food on his dinner plate—is because of the presence of a brain tumour. Inoperable, of course.

Being the kind of man he is, Jean-Pierre has every intention of soldiering on. Chemo? Non! Radiation? Non! His medical colleagues know they must act, and so they send along a new colleague who will eventually replace him. In perhaps the gentlest of ripostes to his former profession, writer-director Thomas Lilti demonstrates that no one is irreplaceable.

The medical authorities have the nous to appoint a mature woman who won’t take non for an answer. Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt) worked as a nurse for a decade before she became a doctor, but she is a city girl with a bit to learn about the country. That you need to allow people time to tell you what’s wrong. That you need to show a gaggle of geese you pass in the barnyard who’s boss, for example.

Patients must have been flocking to the surgery of writer-director Dr Thomas Lilti when he practised medicine. He has a light and empathetic touch here, and makes us feel so present in the scenes as each of the doctors do their rounds.

When the village community kicks up its heels it holds a line-dance where it’s stetsons, fringed jackets and the whole bit. Really? How surprising. Reflecting on this, I realised there hadn’t been at some point one of those big traditional lunches on long trestle tables laden with the local food and wine.

Another surprise was the happy ending, the cardinal sin of the dream factory in the 1950s, but why not? It makes a change from the prolific alternative.

In films, there are directors from other professions who have made their mark with distinctive visions. James Cameron once a truck driver, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu once a merchant sailor, and George Miller, of course, also once a doctor. This tender, empathetic film shows that whether Lilti steps away from things medical or not, he will be worth watching.

3.5 stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

The Salesman

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Review by © Jane Freebury

 

The films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi are taut, tense, obliquely scripted and immaculately performed. His latest film in similar vein won best foreign film Oscar this year, just five years since the director won the same award for A Separation.

I wouldn’t say that his meticulous work is the most cinematic. There is sparing though powerful use of all the expressive elements of his chosen medium, yet he is still one of the best around. Social constraint and strict censorship in Iran have served him well, too.

The Salesman was screening in Tehran when I was a tourist there last year. Our guide said it was doing well, though she seemed a little puzzled by its success. It may not be the sort of entertainment that the young and unattached would go out of their way to see.

Marriage is a central motif for Farhadi, and in the world that he has created in A Separation, The Past and now The Salesman, it is a difficult and pretty joyless business. This is a filmmaker with a gift like Ingmar Berman’s for creating immersive experience, pitching his audiences deep into the bracken of complicated, compromised interpersonal relationships. It is up to audiences to make what they will of this microcosm and its wider social significance.

The Salesman opens at the theatre where Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are the lead actors in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. Garish neon signs and an unmade double bed turn out to be theatre props. If there is some resonance between the disillusionment and betrayal of dreams in Arthur Miller’s iconic study of the mid-20th century US and the present-day in Iran, it is obliquely stated, but damn intriguing all the same.

All of a sudden, a life change for the couple. Deep cracks appear in the walls and windows of their apartment and they are forced to move out and into another apartment. It doesn’t have a bulldozer digging next door, but turns out to be a lot less secure. The previous tenant has not fully vacated, and has left a bedroom locked, filled with her belongings. A visitor who calls is expecting that she will still be there.

Meanwhile, in the scenes of Emad and the teenage boys in his literature class we are on reassuring solid ground. This interlude is a welcome window on his character outside the home. At school, he is genial and kind, an effective and popular teacher who can be a buddy to his students but knows where to draw the line. It is a significant insight into his character that we don’t get for Rana.

The former tenant in Emad and Rana’s new home ‘lived a wild life’ – code for prostitute. Emad realises that the couple has been betrayed through information withheld, but it is already too late. Without any knowledge of previous comings and goings, Rana has no need for caution, and she lets in an unidentified person who she believes to be her husband, then proceeds to the bathroom for a shower.

Rana is assaulted by this stranger, an attack that is neither seen, heard nor explicitly defined. How could it be otherwise? We only see she is severely traumatised.

Unwilling to allow the details of the assault to become public, she refuses Emad’s request they go to the police. The rift that opens between them only widens with Rana in retreat and Emad tracking down the assailant, impatient for justice. Rana even accuses him of seeking revenge. Complication and compromise follow when the attacker turns out to be someone with vulnerabilities of his own.

If the difficulties this couple face cannot be fully appreciated outside Iran, The Salesman explores territory that can, while rape is one of the least reported of crimes. With handheld camera, a modest set, excellent actors and a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, Farhadi has covered some very difficult territory and got us all thinking.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Jasper Jones

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Review by © Jane Freebury

The film of the popular novel by Craig Silvey is not so much about Jasper. It’s about his loyal, younger friend during a life-changing moment while growing up. So, it’s yet another Aussie tale about coming-of-age? Yes, but the difference is that it firmly references the here-and-now and what is shaping our lives today.

Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is a 14-year-old with his life choices ahead of him. Right now, what exercises him most is what book to read and how to bump into a certain young lady, accidentally on purpose.

Then Jasper (Aaron L. McGrath) comes tapping on his bedroom window, a pair of eyes peering through the louvre window one evening. It’s an odd shot that hovers between the dramatic and the comic, and the scenes that ensue are a rather wobbly beginning that pitches Charlie into a deeply compromised situation. We never get to fully understand his motivations. The assistance he provides Jasper implicates him in ways he could not begin to imagine at his age.

The two teenagers live in a town somewhere on the wheatbelt in Western Australia where Jasper, the child of a white man and Aboriginal mother, is deemed an outsider. In 1969, it has been a short while since the referendum that fully recognised Australia’s Aboriginal people.

Corrigan is relatively prosperous, a comfortable, seemingly safe place where people can afford a Holden car and their own house. Some of the outside world intrudes, however. There’s a war in South East Asia and the Vietnamese family of Jasper’s good friend Jeffrey is having a terrible time at the hands of town racists. Sweet, young Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), Charlie’s crush, is reading Truman Capote.

It is a telling moment in history to return to. Not so long ago, but it seems like absolutely ages since the closed-in verandahs, the neatly-mown front lawns, and the jaunty cars of the 1960s. On one level this can be a nostalgia trip. On the surface, Corrigan is the kind of place that lives in the collective memory of people of a certain age. But below the images of old Australia beautifully captured in the cinematography, the film exposes harsh and shocking truths that challenge the impulse to nostalgia.

The kids have to deal directly with the town’s problems, while the adult characters seem somehow absent without leave. Hugo Weaving’s ‘Mad Jack’ is also an outcast living on the outskirts of town, but conflicted and ineffectual. Toni Colette, all beehive and bold eyeliner, does a familiar turn as Charlie’s mental mum, a woman unhappy in her marriage—though again we don’t quite understand why. Dan Wyllie, sympathetic as Charlie’s dad who spends most of his time closeted away writing his novel, is the good patriarch in absentia when all goes wrong.

On the other hand, the terrific young actors, Miller and Rice in particular, have to convince us they have been witness to horrific of events that must remain secret while they go about their business. They give little sign of being traumatised by it. Strange. Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) did not pursue the dark subtext of this story for all it was worth, choosing instead to keep things light where possible, but therein lies some incongruity.

Jasper Jones is a mixed bag, satisfying in parts. What a different story it would have been, if it had been Jasper, the kid of colour centre frame, with his friend Charlie on the sidelines.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

shortcuts

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     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    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.

 

 

Truman

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Truman poster 2

© by Jane Freebury

Of all the titles to choose for a film about a man facing his premature demise, Truman takes its name from a saggy, baggy old boxer dog in need of a good home. A vague connection with former American presidents or celebrity writers is no guide to what we find within, though breaking the name down into its components gives a sense of what the film is on about.

As a companion for Julian (Ricardo Darin), Truman has been as faithful, steady and reliable as a pet could be during his master’s closing act. In truth, the dog doesn’t seem long for this world either. Julian’s cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julian’s closest family in Madrid, is fond and caring but seems rather duty-bound to her irascible and difficult relative, a theatre actor who arrived from Argentina long ago, and never returned home.

When Tomas (Javier Camara) flies in from Canada on a surprise four-day visit, Truman has to play second fiddle while the two old friends get out and about. There’s an appointment with Julian’s doctor, a visit to the vet, some research at a bookshop, a visit to the funeral parlour, but there are diverting outings too. All the while, the tone is kept light, as Julian remains stoic, ironic and emotionally honest.

Slowly – slyly? – the film reveals the facts. That Julian is terminally ill with cancer, that he is a working stage actor still (he says he wasn’t any good on screen), that he remains on excellent terms with his former wife, and that he perhaps hasn’t a lot to show for his life except a string of affairs and a middling career. It’s not that writer-director Cesc Gay makes a fetish of withholding important information, it’s just that there is only so much we need to know at any one time. It’s up to us to keep up.

Tomas has flown in from Canada on a mission, but as soon as he sees his old friend he knows that it is futile. Julian has decided he won’t continue chemotherapy. His sole remaining goal in life is to find Truman a suitable home.

What really matters is the two blokes in frame and in close up, and their friendship in hard times. Darin and Camara are both superb. In one particular scene, they ask what they have learned from each other. Apart from the illegal things, courage, says Tomas. Generosity, says Julian. Yes, we’ve noted that Tomas pays all the bills.

Julian has a knack for drawing Tomas out, encouraging him to recognize his feelings. Perhaps this accounts for the jarring moment when Tomas and Paula sleep together. Or is it to show the paradox of the loyal friend who can also be the faithless husband?

In 2013, I found Gay’s comedy of gender relations, A Gun in Each Hand an initially promising but frustrating experience. It also featured Darin and Camara. This time, Gay has absolutely nailed it with Truman, a deeply satisfying mature drama liberally sprinkled with humour, wit, warmth and insight.

4 Stars