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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    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

Spotlight

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spotlight poster

Review © Jane Freebury

Just before 9/11, the Boston Globe was about to publish revelations of long-term and systematic child sexual abuse by rogue priests in the Catholic Church. The story was eventually published in 2002 and the newspaper’s investigative work honoured with a Pulitzer Prize. The impact of the revelations still continues today, and it makes Spotlight a timely reminder of the importance of tough, investigative—and old-fashioned—journalism as we revisit it today.

What was the Church in Massachusetts doing to stem the abuse that was perpetrated for decades by a small but significant percentage of its priests? Did it say it was working to address ‘unacceptable’ behaviour? Not even that. It was reshuffling the deck and moving priests on to other dioceses, as it did here in Australia and other countries around the world.

A cracking screenplay by West Wing writer Josh Singer and a very talented cast including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber makes for a rivetting drama. The director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, who has some low-key, sensitive adult films like The Station Agent and The Visitor to his name, has managed to handle this highly combustible material deftly and still keep the drama extraordinarily immediate and real. I guarantee you will feel dismayed, angry and outraged.

We already know about the abuse, but the extent to which other institutions cooperated with the Church is the important point here. Few if any in the city establishment classes appeared willing to upset the applecart.

It took a new editor at the Globe, Marty Baron (Schreiber) to get things rolling. He arrived alone and his last known address was Florida. It just so happened that he was Jewish and he asked the question that no one else seemed able to. Being an outlier brought both advantage and disadvantage, however. Not being a Boston native, he could see things for what they were and name them with impunity, no love lost. But his outsider status could also be used against him. Keep an eye out for the machinations of city elite.

The question the film asks is how can serious crimes against children remain undetected year upon year? The pattern the journalists found explains. The victims were selected because they were perceived unlikely to tell on anyone. If they were socially disadvantaged they were fair game. If they came from single parent families, were emotionally vulnerable and likely to be overwhelmed even by the unwanted attention of a man of god, they were fair game. Spotlight is, you might say, a creepy experience.

Using cool judgement, director McCarthy keeps the mood calm, balanced and very low key. Spotlight is a powerful statement on one of the most terrible crimes of the last century.

Alex Gibney’s brilliant documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2012, was another fine film on these issues. It never got hysterical either. A brief moment in Spotlight when Ruffalo’s tenacious journalist Mike Rezendes loses it in righteous anger, somehow gives expression to what we feel and want to express. The actor has made interesting perceptive comment about Spotlight in a recent Guardian interview.

The church hierarchy had, as we now know, been putting priest perpetrators on ‘sick leave’, hiding them away ‘unassigned’, and eventually moving them on to other dioceses where the abuse began all over again. Lawyers who they hired to assist with victim compensation—a meagre $20,000—obliged by keeping no records. And the Globe itself passed up on the story when it first arose, though it got it right in the end.

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Review © Jane Freebury

Finding a space on screens crowded with cataclysm and ultra-violent action, in an industry that waits for no one, the new Mad Max has had a thing or two to deal with. Substituting Tom Hardy for its former star was also needed, as digital enhancement doesn’t work on reputations. For now at least, however, Max has had the last word.

Fury Road is a terrific achievement in imaginative kinetic screen action, and still the work of the original creative. Director George Miller was pushing 70 during production. Expect nothing nuanced about the human condition, but a deliriously wild ride through demon hordes that spill from the recesses of our nightmare unconscious onto vast desert plains, in a compelling, ultimately exhilarating dystopic vision.

Miller is in commanding form. Yes, a few support actors were unconvincing, and more work could have gone into the script. However, the mayhem that begins with a crazy brave act of insubordination – when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) kidnaps the overlord’s wives, including one with child – has tremendous drive, and is decisively and positively concluded. Something unusual these days.

Wickedness is hard to disguise in Fury Road. In this adult fairy tale it is manifest in ghastly disfigurement and grotesquerie like the pustules sported by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his followers. Everyone in the Citadel, bloated or emaciated, is at death’s door. Repudiating the cult, however, positive human attributes return.

In this fourth instalment, thirty years on from the last, Miller has moved with the times by posing a credible alternative protagonist. A one-armed, tough as nails female road warrior who can man a giant rig. Emerging with indomitable spirit from a lair of evil, Theron’s Furiosa is an exhilarating protagonist. Allowing her to step in while Max (Hardy) hobbles around handcuffed, a garden rake or something muffling his words, makes the exchange of baton possible. At least until Max can get his act together and when he does, his physicality is commanding.

Fury Road is Furiosa’s story, while Max (no doubt a ‘man with no name’ hommage to Eastwood) helps out in a riff on the westerner who arrives in town, sets things right, only to disappear over the horizon, or melt into the crowd as he does here.

The stunning visuals are the work of veteran Australian cinematographer John Seale, whose extensive portfolio includes Witness, and The English Patient. From wide-screen grandeur to disconcerting close-up, beautiful and bizarre in equal measure, the film looks great.

The stunts are also a triumph. Miller was right to sense that interest in CGI has waned somewhat and that audiences would appreciate a return to action that at least looks raw and real.

The result is a consummate stunt-driven actioner, pared-back to its elements and gloriously cinematic, mindless yet serious, that works, big time.

4 Stars