Boychoir

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s just as well this 12-year-old is a fast learner. For a boy who could be headed for institutional care after his mother, a single mom, dies suddenly, he has to make some massive life changes in the first half hour of this film’s life.

Stet (Garrett Wareing) is snatched off the slippery slope of disadvantage because he can sing, like an angel. It’s a gift that sees him placed in a national choral boarding school, Boy Choir, after his father, who has a wife and other children, hands the academy a big fat cheque.

Not only does Stet have to enunciate clearly, read music and learn music theory, he has to fit in, the hardest of hard tasks when the rest of the boys are from backgrounds of privilege. If the academy’s crusty principal (played by Kathy Bates) finds waiting for bad-tempered colleagues like Drake ( Eddie Izzard) to retire ‘a special kind of torture’, then fitting into the hallowed halls at Boy Choir would be just as taxing for a Texan kid with attitude like young Stet. It is surprising that the film doesn’t make as much of this personal journey as you might expect.

Even more pleasing than Bates on screen again, is Dustin Hoffman as the choirmaster Carvelle. Hoffman also gives his character the grit the film needs. He does a less convincing job of a flinty old fossil because, of course, he isn’t as hard as he appears, the point being that he expects high standards and has no time for anything less. The performances by screen veterans Bates and Hoffman, as well as young actor Kevin McHale in the part of house master Wooly, are the backbone of the film.

The other good thing is the choral singing, the film’s expected centrepiece. In particular, there’s a sequence when the boys practise in a chapel with the camera panning the space as they pick up their parts. It’s also the moment when Stet, skulking in the shadows, appears to experience his Damascus moment and is finally inspired to join in.

There are signs like smart phones and rap that this coming-of-age drama is in the present, but the film has a fusty, cloistered look and feel. It could be set in the 1950s like its cousin-in-spirit from 1989, Dead Poets Society was. Why? When the message is clearly an attempt to connect with youth and demonstrate the importance of hard work and discipline. It just ain’t enough to have talent.

Quebecois filmmaker Francois Girard did interesting work on Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould in the 1990s, but his direction is less interesting here. When the singing takes over, however, and when Hoffman steps into frame, we soar to another level.

3 stars

The Age of Adaline

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, being tall, willowy and perfectly proportioned, with lustrous hair and perfect skin is not always the distinct advantage you might think it is. Not if you never age, anyway. It’s a shaky premise to build a movie on, but more preposterous ideas can sometimes work, so why not?

Lovely Adaline (Blake Lively) had an accident early last century and is still alive because it has stopped her aging. Still looking youthful has not conferred the kind of advantage one might imagine, because she doesn’t fit her ID profile and it has made people suspicious. So she has had to live on the run, a fugitive from intimacy—after a few early mistakes—except for the succession of King Charles Spaniels that she keeps for company.

Where, oh where, does Hollywood get its movie ideas from? A silly premise, but the dream factory knows full well that there’s nothing like a good romance to make sense of things.

One New Year’s Eve when Adaline is out and about, though it’s uncharacteristic behaviour. Her eyes lock with a handsome stranger across the room. Despite the lengths she goes to fob him off we know they are destined for each other, in the short term at least. Adaline has already dropped the broad hint that she is resolved to live the new year as though it is her last.

Ellis (Michiel Huisman, who was in Wild and is in Game of Thrones) woos and wins her and they attend his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary upstate. It’s a ‘meet the parents’ when things really start to unravel, ushering in a terrific turn by Harrison Ford as Ellis’ dad.

This could have been a halfway decent romantic drama, had it not taken itself seriously. The writing is tolerable and it is tastefully and intelligently produced. However, from the start events are explained in voiceover, a sign that the narrative is having trouble explaining itself. The ‘voice of god’ leads us through the early scenes and then returns at the end to ensure all makes sense.

Director Lee Toland Krieger, still in his early 30s, an award winner for earlier lower budget work, has done a reasonable job with Adaline, and (almost) saved it from itself. In the lead, Lively doesn’t exactly live up to her name but we suppose that experience has taught her character to be a cool customer. Huisman is fine, as is the earnest message not to mess with nature, but the whole enterprise is cut off at the knees by the silly premise. It does nothing but bestow on Adaline a wardrobe down the decades to die for.

In a capsule: A nearly decent film has emerged out of material based on a silly premise, which is a shame for Harrison Ford who is great in a support role.

2.5 stars

Focus

Review by © Jane Freebury

In this romantic crime caper, Margot Robbie and Will Smith are well cast as a glamorous pair of grifters, Jess and Nicky, who look like they really should be together. They look great together, two beautiful people in exotic locations like New Orleans and Buenos Aires who can work the floor superbly, picking pockets with guile, style and charm.

After they meet in a bar it turns out they are in the same sort of business. Nicky takes Jess under his wing until she becomes so good he inducts his star intern into the firm, a multi-million dollar industrial scale army of scammers and pick-pockets. No, Nick is not aiming for the one big hit on which he can subsequently retire in Antigua, he’s into ‘volume’.

Jess is all ears and eyes at Nicky’s tutorials in crime. There are a myriad ways to distract and divert attention like wearing a low-cut slinky dress or having someone fake a heart attack while someone else on the team can empty pockets or slip rings and watches away from their moorings. A montage of subliminal messages on the way to a major scam at the Super Dome shows Nicky is into amateur psychology too.

It’s all in the name of fun and co-directors John Requaa and Glenn Ficarra, who have partnered before on Bad Santa and Crazy Stupid Love, keep it light at all times. They had a ‘theatrical pickpocket’ called Apollo Robbins advising them. Robbins has a standalone end credit as the ‘con artist and pickpocket designer’. He is apparently famous for pick pocketing a guard on the security detail for President Carter, so we can imagine that he would know what’s what. (The character with the same name of Apollo is one and the same.)

Nicky, nickname ‘Mellow’, would be the man but for two fatal weaknesses, gambling and now that he’s met her, Jess. Robbie’s Jess is at the heart of the film too, the object of desire in her elegant retro wardrobe like a latter day Grace Kelly.

However, ’tis a pity that in her first lead role since her cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, the Australian actress didn’t pick a project with better results. There’s one too many twists and turns generating a bit of a narrative wobble a couple of key parts that are clumsily overplayed. Robert Taylor’s turn as a crude Australian race driver doesn’t add much either.

Yet, the film’s cheerful theme that everyone’s ‘an easy grift’ makes for buoyant light entertainment, even when it skirts briefly into sex and violence. Focus is not going to stay with you indefinitely, but it is a welcome retrospective on the old movies that did petty crims and swindlers with charm and style.
In a capsule: A romantic old-style crime caper with a few too many plot twists and turns but there’s plenty of style and charm in its lead couple, Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

3 stars

Fifty Shades of Grey

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, after weeks of pre-release sales, it’s here at last, the film of the international best-selling novel translated into more than 50 languages. The story of a virginal undergrad who is introduced to the world of BDSM by her corporate high-flyer boyfriend, it has brought whips and handcuffs into the movie mainstream with a new challenge to the liberal, the feminist, and the young person working out how to be.
Maybe a challenge to the odd parent too. Our PM has read the book—he’s done better than me—and says he prefers Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare. With you there.

It’s not as though BDSM doesn’t have a measure of arthouse cred. We’ve seen elements of sexual bondage, sadism and masochism there for ages, from titillation to outright provocation. A whippet slim Charlotte Rampling shocked audiences with her S&M affair in The Night Porter, Catherine Deneuve’s character sought rough and tumble outside marriage in Belle de Jour. Meg Ryan’s character solicited mortal danger in pursuit of great sex during In the Cut. In a more recent film, Venus in Furs, Polanski again, the traditionally male-female, dominant-submissive roles are reversed.

Though Fifty Shades is the work of talented director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), the glossy patina is solidly mainstream. Knowingly and artfully well made, it comes perilously close at times to luxury goods advertising as the camera caresses the polished interiors of the real estate owned by telecoms magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Each new day, Christian faces the challenge of deciding which shade of grey tie he will privilege.

Things are grounded by young Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, an ingénue with a natural presence. Though she could have chewed her lip less, even if there are supposed to be hints of a modern day Victorian heroine, lost in the books of Thomas Hardy. Johnson reminds me of the Anglo-French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg who Lars von Trier put through the mill in Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. Casting may have been aware of this resemblance, as it was surely aware of Dornan’s serial killer character in The Fall on TV.

We would agree that people’s intimate fantasies are their business alone, and they have every right to explore to find someone to share them with, so long as there’s no harm done. However, there’s something essentially creepy hearing Christian, the young man with everything, mind you, say to Ana: “I have rules. If you follow, I’ll reward you. If you don’t, I’ll punish you”.

Erotic? Not in the same league as the arthouse there. The filmmakers have obviously deemed it more lucrative to pitch their work at the broader MA 15+ audience rather than consign it to the R-rated ghetto. Hey folks, that’s show business.

In a capsule: A knowing and artful rendition of the international best seller has pushed BDSM into the mainstream, that is explicit and tasteful while borders on luxury goods advertising.

2.5 stars

Mortdecai

Review by © Jane Freebury

An upper-class twit played by Johnny Depp? Why not. As Lord Mortdecai, mortgaged to the hilt to maintain his magnificent pile in the counties, he has handy expertise in the visual arts and can recognise a forgery when Russian hitmen, Syrian terrorists and English coppers can’t. So he agrees to hunt down a mysterious Goya that’s gone missing, to help out his mate in M15 (Ewan McGregor).

With a couple of other class acts like Gwyneth Paltrow as Lady Mortdecai and Paul Bettany as Jock his manservant, you’d think this could be a goer as an action comedy. However, it’s not long into things before the eye begins to start checking the time.

Much of the humour depends on Depp sending up his own character, a tactic in this actor’s hands that earned squillions for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Surely it’s time he left his over-worked odd-ball screen persona behind and did something different? Now that light touch that drove audiences to the box office to see Jack Sparrow in 2003 has a deliberate and calculated feel, and is undermined by pretty dreadful writing.

The filmmakers obviously thought that a daft English dandy would be hilarious. Mortdecai tells Jock that their escape at high speed in Moscow was ‘dashed exhilarating’, then instructs him to hasten to the British Embassy ‘chop, chop’ before the Russian thugs find them again. People are referred to as ‘old beans’ or ‘silver-tongued scalliwags’ and there’s plenty more. Maybe the joke works in some markets in the world, but it sounds very tired here. Besides, humour at the expense of the English is probably best left to them and the Rowan Atkinsons and John Cleeses of this world. Another tired joke is Mortdecai’s moustache, recently cultivated, to which he is very attached. He won’t shave it off, even to get his gorgeous wife to sleep with him again.

Director David Koepp has quite a Hollywood pedigree. His filmography glitters with co-writer credits like Jurassic Park, Million: Impossible and War of the Worlds, but he has done a lot less directing. He directed Depp in a modest film called Secret Window that came and went in 2003, another strange collaboration that did the actor few favours.

Despite its $60 million budget, it’s hard to imagine a sequel to Mortdecai, unless it does brilliantly in the rest of the world, even if there’s plenty more ‘Mortdecai’ comic thriller novels where this came from. It all comes down to the fact that as a comedy it’s a major mis-step for Depp. Koepp’s rigorous direction with abrupt and laboured location changes, ostentatious zooms in and out, and general heavy handedness could all be forgiven if he had managed to make us laugh a lot.

In a capsule: A major comic misfire for Johnny Depp who hams it up as an upper class twit more fond of his moustache than his wife, even if she is Gwyneth Paltrow.

1.5 stars

Wild

Review by © Jane Freebury

Wild opens at the top of a rocky outcrop in stunning mountain wilderness. If the lone hiker who has earned herself the view is going to walk on, she’ll have to do something about the pain in her big toe. Out comes the nail but at the same time her boot goes tumbling down below. She chucks the other boot after it and lets out a primal scream for everything that went wrong with her life. It’s a great start.

The journey is, of course, well underway. A trek through thousands of kilometres of wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada. The mantra ‘I can quit any time’ had long ceased to have any meaning for Cheryl Strayed, the author and trekker played by Reese Witherspoon, and there was no turning back on this self-inflicted journey. Despite the forks in the road she could have taken. We can only wonder how the real Cheryl did it, setting out without trekking experience, without any prep training, and with a pair of boots a size too small.

On the trail she walked alone and in silence but we hear Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, etc on the soundtrack rich with recent pop memory. It reminded me that when I interviewed the Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee in 2012 he acknowledged he was something of a frustrated DJ.
All Cheryl has is a loop of painful memories—her mother’s death to cancer, a recent divorce, a lot of casual sex and heroin addiction. All come crowding in, but are told in crisply edited flashback. It’s one hell of a backstory, deftly inserted in the present, and the indomitable Witherspoon is great in her role. Here Vallee has directed her to some of her best work since Walk the Line.

It was a tremendous tribute to director Vallee, the director of Dallas Buyers Club, that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won best actor and best support actor Oscars last year. Under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy (Hullo Jack Nicholson!), Vallee also achieved an Oscar nomination for editing on Dallas Buyers Club with Martin Pensa.

The dramatic tension evoked in Wild comes from our anxiety that this is an attractive young woman alone in the wilderness. If she isn’t going to topple over trying to walk under that enormous backpack—huge on Witherspoon who stands at only 1.56 metres—then surely there’ll be an encounter with some kind of predator, beast or human.

This young woman’s journey back to health walking the spine of the west US is as much about ridding the mind of its demons as it’s about a gruelling trek. It’s an interior mission deftly and sensitively told with a terrific central performance.

In a capsule: A terrific evocation of a journey of body and spirit as a young woman treks the US Pacific coast alone, brought home by a strong performance from Reese Witherspoon.

4 stars

Unbroken

Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the ironies of this WWII film whose director’s name precedes it, is that the young American airman at the centre of the things, was an athlete who aspired to take part in the Olympics that were to be held in Japan in 1940. He made it to Tokyo early in the 1940s, not as an Olympian but as a prisoner of war.

If it is harder to tell a tale of raw heroism these days, and as memories of the terrible tribulations of the generation who fought WWII disappear as the veterans pass away, it has become easier to engage us on screen in a visceral way with what they went through. Director Angeline Jolie ensures that we share what bombardier Louis Zamperini (a solid performance by English actor Jack O’Connell) experiences, intimately, earnestly. From the early scenes in the B-24 as it takes part in a bombing raid over Japanese-held Nauru to its last sortie, a rescue mission that ends in the ocean killing eight of the 11 crew, to the long days as sea in a life raft, awaiting rescue.

The two survivors, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Zamperini, spend a month and a half at sea, surviving on shark flesh caught with albatross meat. After the chocolate ran out, any creature that flew onto their life raft or swam too close to it was fair game.

Unbroken is rather too long at nearly 140 minutes, but the sharper edge and dash of gallows humour in the screenplay helps. It is surely the work of co-screenwriters the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who had a hand in the adaptation of the book by Laura Hillenbrand to the screen. Visuals also benefit from the fine work of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, a favourite collaborator of the Coens.

For most of the time, Jolie is content to let her protagonist Zamperini remain a face in the crowd, no braver than his fellow survivors or prison inmates. However, it was the bombardier’s misfortune to be recognised as a former Olympian. He is ‘picked on’ by the vicious Japanese corporal, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara), again and again. It becomes clear his sadistic persecutor has some issues of his own, though I felt that Ishihara was allowed to overplay his hand here.
It’s also an irony that Zamperini was introduced to Hitler, apparently, when the runner represented his country at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Wisely, the film doesn’t go there.

Unbroken isn’t a new twist on the battle genre but it is handled pretty well, and it is handsomely mounted. While the simple dialectics of a WWII film dominate, they are inevitable. And then, like The Railway Man, Unbroken provides a coda of peacetime forgiveness and reconciliation that works for the sensibilities of today.

3 stars

Mr Turner

Review by Jane Freebury

Of all the times in an artist’s life to choose from, director Mike Leigh has chosen to portray the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner after he turned 50. Albeit Turner was at the top of his game, but he had already made it, was an exalted artist, held an academic post and was also a wealthy man. Could it be that Leigh divined that the last third of the painter’s life would unearth more pronounced eccentricities of character? Given Leigh’s appetite for people of character, I think so.

Thinking back over recent film portraits of the artist like Frida, Pollock and the story of Vermeer’s The Girl With a Pearl Earring, the essence of the story has been the development of a vision. How artists drew on life experiences, and had wellspring moments that saw them master their technique. Leigh has chosen to consider Turner in rather different territory.

A son of the working classes, Turner made few if any concessions to the social circles he entered as an artist of the Royal Academy. Not given much to verbal expression anyway, he continued by all accounts with his curmudgeonly ways.

Timothy Spall’s interpretation of one of Britain’s greatest-ever artists precedes the film with his Best Actor prize from Cannes. His Turner grunts and grimaces, even scrapes and spits at his work on occasion, and seems much less the artist famed for ethereal seascapes and the way he captured light, than a rough tradesman. Similar, perhaps, to the barber his father who practised his technique on pig’s heads. And yet there are moments when another man shines through, like the delicate, brief interlude at Petworth with a woman playing the piano. There is the sublime and then there’s the rough and crude: the two sides to the man.

This is a vibrant, robust and richly observed portrayal of character, sometimes even a startling and dismaying one too. A cock-a-snoot to the critics and the arts establishment then, and one suspects, now.

Leigh first made a name for himself with beautifully observed character studies of ordinary people. Detailed miniatures, studies in the round like his recent Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky that are of a piece with the earlier work like Secrets & Lies and Life is Sweet that made him famous.

When news was out in 1999 that the remarkable Mike Leigh was tackling Gilbert and Sullivan, the fabulous exponents of 19th century British comic opera, I had my doubts but Topsy-Turvy turned out to be a triumph. It was rich with period detail, dominated by robust, larger-than-life characters including Jim Broadbent as the librettist Gilbert, and bursting with wickedly subversive humour. Leigh had burst out of his kitchen sink naturalism with gusto. He’s done it again with Mr Turner.

In a capsule: Richly observed biopic of the great 19th century landscape artist, curmudgeonly hero of the British cultural establishment, with an unforgettable performance by Timothy Spall.

4 stars

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Review by Jane Freebury

For the second time this year, a blockbuster about the miraculous deeds of a man ‘chosen by god’ has arrived on screen, courtesy of armies of CGI specialists. Darren Aronofsky brought us Russell Crowe in grizzled beard as Noah, the man who saved the world in a boat. Now Ridley Scott, never one to shirk a challenge, brings us Christian Bale as Moses who leads a half million Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.

Despite a penchant for expansive subjects that could go badly wrong, Scott is impossible to ignore. The veteran British director has made some of the really big, defining films of our time—Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator. Critical and commercial successes all. It’s a filmography that commands respect, even though there are turkeys in there, perhaps a little more frequent of late.

It’s not just that some of Scott’s cinema is boldly conceived and thoroughly immersive, it’s that he doesn’t baulk at having a go at the seminal stories, the meta narratives and the grand themes. And his film are always good-looking. He wasn’t once in advertising for nothing. Of all the hubristic filmmakers who go high and wide, he’s the one I’d choose to see part the waters of the Red Sea or bring the tablet down the mount.

Adopted into the Egyptian royal family as a foundling from the bullrushes, Moses has grown up to become a favourite of the aging pharaoh (John Turturro) who prefers him as his successor over his own son (Edgerton). With head shaven, a transformed Joel Edgerton makes his brutal, indolent Rameses, Moses’ adoptive brother, an impressive performance.

After the revelation of his identity and his banishment, Moses returns to Egypt and eventually turns the people against their new pharaoh Rameses II. If the decent but spare script didn’t build a very strong case for the leadership qualities in Moses that the old pharaoh so admired, then the scenes of Moses organising Hebrew sedition and the subsequent flight out of Egypt do.

As the androgynous and corrupt viceroy who sidles up to the pharaoh’s ear, Ben Mendelsohn is another good casting choice. Sigourney Weaver is seen very briefly as a vengeful queen mother, but it is a cipher role only. And Bale does what we would expect Bale to do.

Taking ‘rest of the world’ into account, Exodus wouldn’t have made a silly business case. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ did astonishing business in 2004, and Noah earlier this year. A $200 million project like Exodus might be a less of a risky venture than it might appear at first. Wiley old Ridley Scott has delivered this time. Exodus: Gods and Kings is high, wide and handsome with some terrific if controversial casting choices, well deployed CGI and excellent action.

In a capsule: Hubristic choice of subject, and fraught with controversial casting choices, but it delivers with some curious characters, excellent action and a sea of spectacle.

3.5 stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Review by Jane Freebury

The story of a teenage girl fighting to save the world as we no longer know it, instead of worrying which of the handsome guys hovering around her is ‘the one’, has emerged as another compelling 21st movie phenomenon. Move over Twilight, there’s nothing passive or vaguely insipid about this young woman, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s nothing less than the digital poster girl for the revolution.

Katniss and her generation have inherited an awful mess since war annihilated the states of North America. The cataclysm has let a brutish plutocracy take over, that retains its dominance with an annual gladiatorial ritual that compels each state under its control to sacrifice a young man and woman in a fight to the death. Horrifying as it sounds, let’s not forget that it’s like what the Romans used to do. Like many screen dystopias today, the movie posits two extremes. That of a highly evolved but utterly morally bankrupt elite versus the desperate, half starved masses.

The filmmakers have also raided the postmodern icebox for the ‘look’ of totalitarianism. Looming, oppressive interiors of films set in the Third Reich abound and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis isn’t so far away either. It’s surprising that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his strategists at the Capitol haven’t thought of introducing a fake Katniss to dupe the masses. But then, of course, director Francis Lawrence didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in a movie based on the bestsellers by Suzanne Collins that first appeared in 2008.

Like the Roman goddess Diana, with bow and quiver to hand, Katniss is handmaiden of the justice that has been destroyed in the wars. She is also a champion for the democracy that no longer exists, and brimming with righteous anger. People inside the frame respond to her with the three-fingered salute, a gesture that can get you into trouble in Thailand. Only this week protesters who used it publicly as code for political oppression were, astonishingly, detained.

The series is blessed with the presence of Lawrence whose turns in American Hustle, Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook, easily demonstrate that she is one of the best young American actors of her generation. It was also smart casting to support her with other fine characters like Philip Seymour Hoffman , Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Sutherland too. But why Lawrence is accepting roles in so many action blockbusters now means we won’t see her best work until she gets the genre out of her system.

As a stand-alone, Part 3 (a) of The Hunger Games is heavy on atmos and light on story. More series filler than narrative developer, it relies heavily on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

In a capsule: Heavy with dystopian atmos and light on story, this installment relies more on its star and what she delivers as its clear-eyed, righteous heroine.

3 stars

The Drop

Review by Jane Freebury

A smoothly crafted tale of minor redemption that gives James Gandolfini his final bow, has a British and a Swedish actor in the lead roles and is directed by Belgian film academic Michaël K Roskam. The mean streets of NYC on screen belong to everyone now, not just the Chechen overlords seen here.

Cousin Marv’s Bar is at the film’s dark centre, a joint for heavy drinkers with brawny arms, and a world away from the wholefood joints and trendy bars that are proliferating in Brooklyn these days. It’s owner Marv (Gandolfini) has cut a deal with the criminal world, to help them do their dirty work. He keeps his hands clean, or seems to, helped enormously by his Father Christmas paunch and avuncular demeanour. His side kick is family, a young cousin by the name of Bob (Tom Hardy), who also in his way looks an innocent, until an information drop much further down the line.

While walking down the street in daylight—sunshine is a rare commodity here—Bob hears whimpering from inside a trash can, peers in and pulls out an injured puppy. A woman (Noomi Rapace) emerges from the backdoor. A world away from her signature role as the girl with a dragon tattoo, Rapace’s Nadia is wounded and nervous, but seems to know something about how to care for pets. Bob will need to buy a leash and poop bags, and he will have to put his shoes out of reach on a shelf.
As Bob’s relationship with her begins to grow, it’s clear that they are being watched. Various characters in dark clothes and beards drop in and out of frame. The threat of violence is never far away, enhanced with tight framing and gloomy streetscapes, the full panoply of generic signs.

Brooklyn is not exactly New Jersey, but Gandolfini is not so far away from the role that made him famous in television’s The Sopranos. The split between the private and the public persona, between family or tribe and the wider world where one operates is also at issue here, if to a lesser degree. Morality, loyalty and compromise and our drive for intimacy and warmth all get an airing here.

Tom is a curious character, distant and alone, though when we eventually do find out more it is like ‘too much information’. The police find him interesting too, not just because he goes to mass but never takes communion. It is interesting that the church has a presence, though it will soon be swept away by developers and replaced with a condominium.

The Drop is another screenplay from Dennis Lehane who wrote the excellent Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River. It’s great to be told a really robust story for a change.

In a capsule: A smoothly crafted, atmospheric tale from Brooklyn’s mean streets, about a man and a dog and his chance at another, better life.

4 stars

Pride

Review by Jane Freebury

This big-hearted sprawling movie shuttles between a grungy gay and lesbian bookshop in inner London and a mining village nestled in the rolling green hills of south Wales. The two locations and the communities that inhabit them would seem to have a pretty tenuous connection at best, but this feel-good British movie, the latest in a solid tradition of uplifting comedies set in times of dire straits, is loosely based on events that really happened. And we are all very familiar with the adage that fact is stranger than fiction.

Pride is about the solidarity that arose between striking coal miners and the lesbian and gay pride activists who raised funds to support them and their families during the notorious, year-long miners’ strike that shook Britain to its core in the mid-1980s. HIV/AIDS was on the horizon and it was early days for the gay rights movement. Besides the open hostility the activists had to deal with, they discovered that the mineworkers union didn’t actually want the money that had been raised, apparently uncomfortable with the association it made. So GLSM (gays and lesbians support miners) hit on the idea of helping a single community and they chose a village from the phonebook.

In their inconspicuous ‘Out Loud’ van, the GLSM manage to pick their way through the hedgerows and navigate the unpronounceable place names to reach the village of Ollwyn. There a few welcoming faces, mainly women, but in the main it’s a solid block of burly, male miners, who regard them with deep suspicion and are unwilling to accept any help. Bit by bit, though, they find common ground. Ata community dance a hot disco number from Jonathan (Dominic West) works on the women and does a lot to advance the cause.

There are many players in this tale. At first it’s Joe (George MacKay), still living with his very straight parents, who finds himself accidentally-on-purpose caught up in a gay rights march. Although the story tracks his coming-of-age as a gay man, other key characters also find themselves, including Mark (Ben Schnetzer), who quickly emerges as the activists’ natural leader. Both MacKay and Schnetzer are young actors to watch. Another actor to watch, as always, is Bill Nighy. He has a really quite small role, but makes it significant with some beautifully understated gestures.

As you would expect, a stake is driven once again through the heart of Maggie Thatcher, but that’s the serious side of this joyful re-enactment of a watershed period in British history. There are plenty of comic highlights, and even though it is slightly too long, Pride most definitely joins the Billy Elliot and The Full Monty tradition of feel-good in adversity.

In a capsule: A sprawling and heartfelt comedy with some serious undertones about a group of gay and lesbian activists who lend a hand to help striking miners in Thatcher’s Britain.

3.5 stars

The Hundred-Foot Journey

Review by Jane Freebury

In bringing the popular novel by Richard C Morais to the screen, Swedish director Lasse Hallström and the enthusiastic producers of The Hundred-Foot Journey have certainly got something right. There’s no better place for a clash of cultures than in the kitchen. Everyone’s a winner. And so it goes with this good-natured cross-cultural comedy of manners in which two restaurants, one a French establishment the other Indian, compete for customers while proclaiming their proud culinary traditions.

Lines of battle are drawn when an Indian family that has quit its home due to civil strife and left England to escape the bad weather, arrives in rural France. More by accident than design, they decide to open an Indian restaurant across the road from the elegant restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). As her sous chef Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon) observes, she’s not happy, no matter what. One Michelin star is simply not enough.

Chic and iron-willed, Mirren’s restaurateur dispenses the heights of French cuisine to the locals as though it were a miracle from the gods. Perhaps she’s not far wrong, but her rivals across the track, have a rather more entertaining approach, incorporating colour and movement, and they are just as serious about their food. A signature dish takes three days.

As the patriarch Papa (Om Puri) stands in the street to welcome his first customers to Maison Mumbai, or rather lure them inside, amplified Bollywood music shatters the bucolic tranquility. Quelle horreur! Mme Mallory is quite dismayed, and at such a time. When she and her team are working hard towards a second Michelin star.

This could easily have been a frothy, forgettable farce but there is more insight than expected, and some pithy remarks find their mark every now and then, with a touché. The problem is not the comedy but the leisurely direction. Events have reached some sort of closure several chapters before the films actually ends.
However, veteran actors Mirren and Puri are a joy to watch, as they manoeuvre around each other, fencing with words. The young romantic couple comprising Marguerite and Hassan (Manish Dayal, a very good newcomer) parry in more romantic settings by the river, while fishing, picking mushrooms, having picnics. The confected scenes with these two have much less interest though they revive memories of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in Chocolat, Hallstrom’s biggest hit with two impossibly beautiful people who fall in love in the midst of delectable food.

However, it’s these two, Marguerite and Hassan, who hit it off early on and they create the conditions for cultural fusion. I’d like to know what it was exactly about that omelette. Oh yes, the food doesn’t disappoint.

In a capsule: A cross-cultural comedy of manners that pits French cuisine against Indian as though our lives depended on it. Terrific lead performances amid the fine dining.

3.5 stars

Begin Again

Review by Jane Freebury

The hauteur that goes with Keira Knightley’s cheekbones in some signature roles has vanished in this fresh and engaging human drama set in the streets and intimate low-rent spaces that New York offers the up and coming. Here as Gretta, the actor shows another side of her persona, the gangly kid, the ingénue with more talent than she realises.

With an eye and ear for flow and judicious use of iPhone video, director John Carney seamlessly stitches together recent past with raw and painful present. Gretta has arrived in New York with her partner in life and work, Dave (Adam Levine), the public face of their creative collaboration. He is asked for his photo on the streets. She gets the coffees for the team in the recording studio. Her sunny, trusting nature keeps her in good stead here, as does her talent for composition, and it appears to outweigh his. Diverging approaches are emerging. Dave is being steered toward stadium pop by his producers, while Gretta wants authenticity, no gimmicks.

Out-of work-music producer Dan played by the wonderful Mark Ruffalo holds similar views. When he hears Gretta singing in a bar, he has had by any measure a terrible day. Thrown out of his job at Distressed Records label, which he co-founded, punched in the nose for ducking out of a cafe without paying–his disgrace witnesssed on both occasions by teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld)–Dan looks more the hobo than the music producer in stylish decline behind the wheel of his old Jaguar. Shouldn’t he be living off the fruits of success, like his rapper protégée Troublegum (Cee Lo Green)?

Dan may be down, but he’s not out. His knack for spotting talent is back. There’s a lovely scene when he straightens to attention listening to Gretta singing, perched on a seat. In his mind’s eye, Dan brings the silent cello, drums, keyboard and violin lying around idle to life to accompany her. Really, the entire film has lots of magic moments. Writer-director Carney has a deft touch, and a wonderful way for building music into the lives of his characters. It must be why his film Once from eight years ago still resonates.

Knightley has of course sung on screen before, even in the London underground during the blitz. She has a sweet voice, not quite compelling enough to justify Dan’s wild enthusiasm for her performance potential, but the imaginative incorporation of New York street life into the ‘outside album’ is as close to exhilaration that such an understated, charming film like this can get. Not only is it about real people falling in and out of love, it is about a vision for the music industry that is obviously dear to the filmmaker’s heart.

In a capsule: A really engaging experience with music industry creatives falling in and out love, and about the need for what’s authentic in the industry they work in.

4 stars

A Most Wanted Man

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s a tough ask, separating our response to the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in A Most Wanted Man from the knowledge that this classy political thriller is this great actor’s final curtain call in a lead role. As intelligence operative Günter Bachmann, Seymour Hoffman is as expected, giving his character the authenticity he has bestowed on everyone he has brought to life on screen, finding the humanity in every character he plays.

Located in the great port city of Hamburg that spawned the Islamist cell responsible for 9/11, Bachmann and his team have the job of making sure that nothing like that catastrophic intelligence failure ever occurs again. Theirs is a shadowy, extra-judicial role, not exactly sanctioned in law but nonetheless required by the state.

An Arabic-speaker, Bachmann keeps tabs on the Moslem community, pursuing a softly-softly, empathetic approach that is entirely at odds with the other organisations engaged in counter-terrorism that he works alongside. A tribute to Bachmann’s skill is the quality of his informants, even the closest of close family of some of the very big fish he is netting.

A new person of interest has recently arrived in town. A young Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) without ID who might be an escaped jihadist. He mingles among the homeless and eventually makes contact with members of the Muslim community who he hopes will help him locate a bank with a secret account created by the Russian who was his father. A beautiful human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) makes contact, and she too becomes a player in the final sting.

It’s no surprise that the grey world of spooks and counter-terrorism bureaucracy looks great here. The Dutch director Anton Corbijn, a professional photographer and video director has good-looking films such as Control and An American to his name. The script from Andrew Bovell (Lantana) is excellent too. The only problem for me was how important characters Karpov and Richter are insufficiently fleshed out, making Bachmann the sole person of interest. This is both the film’s greatest asset, and paradoxically, its minor weakness.

Seymour Hoffman is peerless, lifting the character of dishevelled investigator without a life who exists on cigarettes and junk food well beyond cliche. For a long time, this brilliant actor outshone his many small roles in films as disparate as Almost Famous, Happiness and Boogie Nights, until he became a charismatic leading man.

The environs of Hamburg, with sex shops, urban renewal and ethnic mix are thrown in, and the city is a living force. Other films based on John le Carré novels have clung to the dour and chilly aesthetic so characteristic of British political thrillers, but Corbijn and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme bring Hamburg to life in all its contradictions, its seediness and vitality. It’s a fine finale for Hoffman.

In a capsule: A good-looking, subtle and compelling political thriller with Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greats, as a burnt out spook. A brilliant last lead role.

4 stars

Venus in Fur

Review by Jane Freebury

To begin with, there’s a taste of Paris as we track down a boulevard, between rows of wintry trees. We turn off at a theatre that has seen better days and are swallowed up in the gloom of the empty auditorium. It’s a confident start from one of cinema’s masters of suspense, Roman Polanski. There inside, stage director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has had a frustrating day of auditions with actors of mediocre talent when a late arrival (Emmanuelle Seigneur) bursts in demanding her turn. She is bedraggled from the rain, her eye makeup is running, and she doesn’t appear to have been scheduled anyway.

Thomas needs an actor with subtle skills for the part of Vanda, a woman who seeks a man prepared to become her slave. Not this voluptuous blonde trussed up in leather with a studded collar around her neck. As events teeter between comedy and something darker that is unexpressed, Vanda takes charge.
Eventually she corners him into letting her audition with her relentless determination, wily strategies and total preparedness for the part. Moreover, she has arrived equipped with costumes, props. It is impossible to deny this queen bee what she wants.

The writing is wonderful, blending the lines of the play that Thomas and Vanda rehearse with their own interactions as the boundary between themselves and their individual characters melts away.

Co-written for screen by Polanski and David Ives whose recent Broadway play of the same name is itself derived from a late 19th century novel of the same name, Venus in Fur is a timeless exploration of dominance and submission, and pleasure and pain in the most intimate of relationships. Old style it may be, but it’s a psychodrama about sex and intimacy that today’s explicit sexual encounters on screen can’t begin to understand.

Does Thomas deserve what he gets? He doesn’t seem to want to take the liberties that certain directors have been notorious for. If anything, the casting couch idea has been turned on its head as Seigneur revels in her role with an commanding performance, showing terrific range as she alternates between bubblegum chewing bimbo and elegant, sophisticated vamp.

We have seen Amalric and Seigneur together as a couple on screen before. She had the role of his carer in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, taking dictation as he communicated with his eyelids, the only muscles in his body he could move. Entrapment of a very different kind is on show here, and both actors are wonderfully matched.

And is it not intriguing how similar Amalric looks here to the mop-haired Polanski when he was young? Nothing is an accident in the movies. No less the extra-textual bit of trivia.

In a capsule: Two terrific French actors match each other blow-for-blow in this psychodrama about dominance-submission in intimate relationships. Polanski’s wife is amazing as the queen bee.

4 stars

Jersey Boys

Review by Jane Freebury

Movie evergreen Clint Eastwood has recently been showing us other sides to himself besides the swaggering cowboy in buckskins that made him famous. The actor-director has long had a thing for music, however, and been heavily involved in soundtracks of the films he directs, often with son jazz musician Kyle. I don’t know if that makes him a natural choice for directing Jersey Boys, with its anthem of bright and bouncy pop hits from the early 60s, but it makes him an interesting one.

For those of us who missed the long-running stage musical, this is our chance to experience what it was like. We even get to enjoy John Lloyd Young as lead singer Frankie Valli, a role he has made his own in the stage musical, and he is joined on screen by actors from various other original stage productions. The stylistic asides to audience remain in the screenplay, also penned by writers who wrote the play and Eastwood himself has apparently tampered little with the package that’s been around a decade, though it is surprising that Eastwood hasn’t been more adventurous, a bit less stagey, and made it more his own.

This rags to not-quite-riches story, Jersey Boys, is of course the story of The Four Seasons, a big name in the 1960s. If you were from Jersey then in the land of the great second chance, you could either join the army, join the mob, or make yourself famous, but a pop band needed its gigs, which meant finding entree into the clubs and bowling alleys which meant you inevitably came into contact with the mob. The dark underbelly of Jersey is represented here by the creepy Christopher Walken, the sole star name, as crime boss Gyp DeCarlo.

In those early days of pop rock, a clean cut image mattered. How would you get a spot on the Ed Sullivan talk show or on American Grandstand if you didn’t pour yourself into a natty suit and flash a wide smile like the boy next door? But getting Jersey out of the boy, as Frank Sinatra also found, was easier said than done and it’s good to see that Eastwood has retained the tensions between the characters, their compromising backgrounds and their aspirations.

Who can resist a good melody? The highlights by far are the toe-tapping tunes that seem to work for Gen Y and their boomer parents. The Four Seasons had a surprisingly long list in their repertoire, and while Eastwood should have made the film more pacey, I was grateful that the songs were played out in full. And grateful that the lead Lloyd Young could still reach those falsetto notes even while the camera is trained on him in close up.

In a capsule: Exuberant 1960s pop hits strung together with the story of a band that hailed from the struggle streets of Jersey. A nostalgia trip, beautifully executed.

4 stars

Frank

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s such a short, no-nonsense name for a complete eccentric and it belies the weirdness and whimsy of his story, but what other shorthand is there for a film about a creative spirit who went around wearing a huge fake head? Every waking moment.

Oddly enough, Frank is loosely based on an honest-to-goodness English cabaret performer, stage name Fred Sidebottom/real name Chris Sievey, who wore a huge ellipsoid head with a cartoonish round eyes and slicked down hair while he performed. The screenplay is co-written by a close observer of this behaviour, journalist Jon Ronson who once played keyboards with Sidebottom’s outfit for several gigs.

There is never any satisfactory answer to the enigma of Frank in this off-the-wall tale, even when we meet the parents. Suffice to say that Frank, played by the remarkable Michael Fassbender, becomes a surprisingly tangible character, and although the other members of Frank’s band wear no disguise, each has cultivated a persona that’s hard to cut through. Especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, who contributes theremin to the group’s avant-garde rock. She has little to say, more than the group’s surly female drummer (Carla Azar) and disdainful French guitarist (Francois Civil) perhaps, but for unknown reasons Clara carries a lot of clout.

Our point of entry to this tribe of eccentrics is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who lives in an English coastal town and plugs away at a boring desk job while dreaming of being recognised one day for his compositions. He can play keyboards, well at least the three notes necessary to get him on board the band SORONPRFBS, so they take him with them to Ireland to make an album where he remains the outsider, the diarist who records their moves and builds them a following on his twitter account. Jon is the only one with any idea about how to get the music out there.

Why Frank never takes his papier-mache head off, neither to eat, drink, sleep, shower or anything, remains a mystery, and yet it is a surprise to find that eventually Fassbender’s voice and his body language seem to lend the blank wide-eyed face character and expression.

As the band work for months on end deep in the Irish woods, honing their creativity to release an album in time for the South by South West music festival in Texas, things become more and more extreme. Jon wants to understand what it is that Frank has and hangs in there to find out, but this story is set on the margins of celebrity, like the recent Coen brothers Inside Llewyn David, and eventual success is not what it is about.

Frank is one of the strangest experiences around, clever, crisply made and full of wonderful characters. The fake head should not put you off.

In a capsule: Michael Fassbender as you couldn’t imagine him, leads an eccentric rock group trying hard to find its inner creativity in this weird and endearing comedy-drama.

4 stars

The Rover

Review by Jane Freebury

As a vision of a lawless future, David Michôd’s eagerly anticipated new film is about as good as it gets. Set 10 years after ‘the collapse’, a somewhat mysterious but totally imaginable breakdown of economic systems, it takes place in the semi-arid landscapes of the Australian desert. A symbol, if ever there was one, for a harsh realities and meagre existences.

Fuel does not appear to have become much of a problem yet, as it was in that defining outback dystopia of Mad Max. There are other resources in high demand however. One of several memorable images is that of an endless freight train. The word Australia is proudly emblazoned on the engine and some muscled Aussie blokes ride gunshot to protect it, but all the cargo is clearly on its way to China. Another interesting sign is the penetration of Asian cultures deep in the Aussie heartland. Opium dens and bars of ill-repute have taken root in the old motels and farmsteads and shops formerly occupied by people who have long fled or are long dead.

This is not as nightmarish a vision as the breakdown of civilisation as The Road either, but is closer to home, as it were. Much of the action takes place in clear view under a bright sun. The violence is brutal and perfunctory, rather than hideously dragged out, which is more realistic too. And Guy Pearce as the elemental avenger at large is just the right mix of scruffy everyman and killing machine with fierce, dead eyes. Nut did anyone else find it oddly amusing to see a this roving avenger dressed in practical bushman’s khaki shorts rather than covering his legs with ubiquitous jeans. Taking realism too far?

The storyline is, unfortunately, as minimalist as the production design. While soundscape and cinematography have been lavished with attention and are quite wonderful, the basics of plot and character in the screenplay by Michôd and his collaborator Joel Edgerton have missed out on same attention. Some clever exchanges show there is a more interesting film in there somewhere. Such as the sparring between Eric and Sgt Rickofferson (Anthony Hayes in good form) during a routine prison interview. More of same would have served the film very well. And the unnerving frisson of danger that leaps off the screen during Eric’s confrontation with Grandma (Gillian Jones) as they talk at cross-purposes is just a one-off.

As it happens, the personality bypass of Pearce’s character means that Robert Pattinson’s drifter Rey, an American Southerner with a tricky accent, is the most interesting person on screen. Hey, even bad teeth can’t destroy the brooding looks, his fans will be pleased to see, though I don’t think he manages to nail the blend of guileless innocence and silky menace that was intended. Of his character or the film.

In a capsule: A dystopian vision of the Outback, a magnet for drifters from all over the world. Great on disturbing atmosphere but short on human dynamics.

3.5 stars

Ida

Review by Jane Freebury

This solemn, spare and beautiful personal journey begins in a house of silence, a convent, where a young woman is preparing herself for the vows that will commit her to a life of chastity and prayer. She is obliged to make a visit to family before she makes the irrevocable life choice. Family, it transpires, is an aunt, the only living relative, who discloses to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) that her real name is Ida and that she is in fact Jewish.

The impact of the revelation is consigned to the place where Ida has learnt to contain her feelings. It is not hard to imagine that this is the way she has learned to cope, when all she has ever known in life is the convent where she was left as an orphan at the end of WWII. For all the emotional churn going on beneath its surface, Pawel Pawlikowski’s entire film is a model of restraint, told in exquisitely composed black-and-white images inside a 4:3 frame, like old ‘Box Brownie’ family photos from the 1950s. The camera barely seems to move. An austere, locked-down approach that could work against the flow of a journey that takes place largely on the road, but it doesn’t.

With her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) behind the wheel, Ida travels to the farm that was once her family home. She encounters the father and son, now its owners, who know about the fate of her parents. Wanda, a judge, has just the right skills for getting at the truth, however her interrogations also reveal that she nurses a terrible secret of her own. It provides additional backstory to the road trip, which is quite possibly as important for her as it is for her young niece.
Set early in the 1960s, the world of the film looks to both the past and to the future. The scars of war remain but western jazz is seeping through the cracks of the communist Poland and getting picked up by youth culture.

While it is Ida whose composed and lovely features, complete with dimple on the chin, whose face the camera studies, it is Wanda who takes the hit, on a journey of her own. A firebrand of the new regime in her youth, ‘Red Wanda’ on the bench from which she dispensed a fiery justice to regime recalcitrants, she drowns her emotions in cigarettes, booze and men. Not necessarily the best alternative role model for a young novitiate.

Along the way, Wanda stops to pick up a handsome young hitchhiker, Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a saxophonist in a jazz group. Now he does offer an attractive alternative. Or does he. The final frames are, one would hope, left open, but a cryptic and unsettling ambiguity remains.

In a capsule: In exquisitely composed B&W, this is the solemn and thoughtful personal journey of a young novitiate about to enter a convent in post-war Poland.

4 stars