Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Image result for portrait of a lady on fire movie poster

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma.

I saw a trailer for this late last year and thought it would be worth my time. Since seeing it last night, I literally can’t stop thinking about this film. Like my last review Jojo Rabbit (2019), I find myself wondering if I’ve seen one of the best movies of my year at the start of January!

In a nutshell, this French period piece sees Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrive on an island off the Brittany coast. Her brief is to act as companion to young noblewoman Heloise (Adele Haenel) by day and paint her portrait by night.  During this time, they discover in each other friendship and love.

Of course, it is far more complicated and nuanced than this, and I found it much more than the sum of its quite straightforward parts. Sciamma’s script won the screenplay award at Cannes last year (as well as the Queer Palm) and it’s easy to see why. It is economical, almost minimal but even in translation, full of subtext and rich in meaning. Apart from being very beautiful, the two leads are incredibly powerful and have great on screen presence. They are ably supported by Luana Bajrami as the young maid Sophie, and Valeria Golino as Heloise’ mother, the Countess, who pines for a better life for both her daughter and herself in Milan.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon is breathtaking – from beautifully framed exteriors on the cliffs and beach to luminous interiors, full of candle and firelight. The costumes designed by Dorothee Guiraud range from the sumptuous to the simple and add a great deal to a film that relies so heavily on themes of art and painting. Like the screenplay, the sound design is also minimal, with very little incidental music. Most of it is diegetic, from within the world of the film – fires crackling, footsteps on floorboards, the ocean breaking on the beach. There is a particularly arresting scene of women around a bonfire singing, which I found especially moving.

Ultimately, this is a love story, a film made by, about and featuring women – there are no major male characters on screen but it does nothing to exclude male audiences. At just over two hours I can see that some people would find it slow but I loved the gradual build and found myself happily immersed in this female world. Overall, Sciamma offers us a quietly elegant and ultimately satisfying movie that takes period drama to the next level.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is currently playing at the State Cinema in Hobart but wherever you are in the world, seek it out! I wholeheartedly recommend it as a wonderful respite to the pace of modern life.

Jojo Rabbit

Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

JoJo Rabbit (2019)

Directed by Taika Waititi

I really like Taika Waititi’s films. Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) in particular remain firm favourites and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) injected more depth in the titular character than two previous outings managed. But when JoJo Rabbit first came up on my radar I have to say I was skeptical. A movie about a 10 year old Nazi in late WWII with an imaginary friend who is Adolf Hitler seemed a little too off beat even for Waititi. I’m happy to admit I was utterly wrong. 

I saw this at the State Cinema in a fairly packed daytime screening and there were many laugh out loud moments. But the laughter is tempered by tragedy, loss and pathos. Adapted by Waititi from the 2004 novel ‘Caging Skies’ by Christina Leunens, (which I haven’t read but I understand is a very serious work) the screenplay is a total joy. There is a scene at the end of the second act that gives so much narrative depth through fairly innocuous dialogue that I was still discussing it an hour after I’d watched the movie. Without giving any spoilers, it involves Stephen Merchant, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davies, offering layers of information, drama and tension in a simple setting. 

The titular character is played with wide-eyed innocence by Roman Griffin Davies and his best friend Yorki, by Archie Yates and this was their first big screen experience – well done boys! Scarlett Johansson is Rosie, JoJo’s mother and I think this one of her best performances in a very long time – but I haven’t seen Marriage Story yet. Thomasin McKenzie is excellent as Elsa, the Jewish girl Rosie is sheltering and Taika Waititi is suitably outrageous as the Adolf of Jojo’s imagination. The entire cast works very well and special mention must go to Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant who are excellent supporting players. Much of the location shooting was done in the Czech Republic and it is beautifully filmed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. Some of the framing in the outdoor scenes are particularly glorious and I loved the costumes from Mayes C. Rubeo. As I expect from Waititi, the editing is precise and, at times reminded me of Edgar Wright, particularly in conjunction with the excellent music choices. 

After the phenomenal mainstream success of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi has proved he is no flash in the pan director and his handling of what is at times, very difficult material shows tremendous empathy and maturity – a director at the height of his craft. Along with many in the audience, I laughed often, but I was also moved to tears and Jojo Rabbit will stay with me for a long time. 

It’s really difficult when my first trip to the cinema for 2020 is something this good, and I already predict this will be one of my favourite movies of the year. I just hope the rest of the releases I see over the next 12 months are as brilliant.

One Last Radio Interview for 2019 & Seasons Greetings

Rainbow across kunanyi/Mt Wellington from my backdoor a few weeks ago

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I probably won’t be writing much for the blog between now and next year. 

But I have been asked to come in and talk to the wonderful Ryk Goddard on ABC Radio Hobart about the year in film, my high points and what I’m looking forward to seeing next year. If you’re not in Hobart (or even Australia) the ABC offers excellent ways to listen online, either through their app or via the website for Ryk’s program (which also has an archive of shows). I’ll be on air about 9:10 am (Australian Eastern Summer Time) if you’d like to listen in live or catch the interview afterwards. 

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you all for bothering to read my meandering musings – more about films at the moment than anything else! – but there are other exciting (to me at least) projects on the horizon for the new decade, so stay tuned. All in all, it’s been a tough year and your ongoing support means so very much to me – so huge thanks from me!

Over the southern summer, I’ll still be watching movies in between harvesting fruit and vegetables, making pesto from the jungle of basil and reading books for pleasure again – probably in my old deckchair under the chestnut tree. There might even be blog posts about some of my other creative pursuits – who knows?

Meanwhile, I wish you all a peaceful and relaxing holiday wherever you are on this wonderful planet ❤ 

 

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker *NO SPOILERS*

Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Keri Russell, Oscar Isaac, Jimmy Vee, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Daisy Ridley, and Naomi Ackie in Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019) *NO SPOILERS*

Directed by J.J. Abrams

The Star Wars franchise has become so big it’s difficult to really discuss objectively – everyone has a position on which of the nine films are best, favourite characters, etc. As a film scholar, I tend to look more at how scenes are handled, shot, lit, if the music intrudes or enhances, if the editing/pacing hits or misses, if the narrative makes sense. But as a film fan, I’m old enough to remember going to the cinema to see the original trilogy, so for me it’s always going to be Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Often cited as the first true transmedia narrative, the Star Wars saga has been told in graphic novels, animation, books, video games, fan fiction as well as the films. Add on the thousands of toys that fueled the imaginations of children for the past four decades and there’s a cultural icon of truly epic proportions. 

So it’s really appropriate that this final film in the most recent trilogy, the ninth movie overall, ties up all the loose ends and draws a final line under the Skywalker story. And for the most part, it does a pretty good job. 

The first act is (to put it mildly) hectic and altogether rather messy, deviating a little too much from the standard Star Wars formula of big opening set action piece to draw in the viewer and then a short (and usually) more static interlude before settling into its own groove. Here, the action goes on – a little too much for me – and gets in the way of the narrative flow. I should also warn that this is one of those movies that is difficult to see in isolation – I doubt it would make a lot of sense to anyone who hasn’t much background in the story world or has at least a modicum of interest in the other films. 

As a whole, it rides high on nostalgia and the central themes of family and redemption. There was a moment at the end of the second act when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the film – and I was perfectly happy to shed tears! The production design is superb (hats off to Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins) and there are easter eggs galore, oozing out of almost every scene and often, embedded in the set design. The sound design is also right on target and the visual effects are everything I want from a Star Wars movie. Once again, the young cast are perfectly fine, with Daisy Ridley perfect as Rey, but it’s Adam Driver who stands out (despite being in everything at the moment!), delivering a memorable performance as the conflicted Kylo Ren. I have to mention one of my favourite actors Richard E. Grant too, who looks like he’s having way too much fun as General Pryde. 

Without giving anything away, I found this a mostly satisfying conclusion to a very big story but I have to admit, I prefer the often derided The Last Jedi (2017) for its much bolder approach to both narrative and direction. My prediction is that in years to come, Rian Johnson will be vindicated in his choices and The Last Jedi will be reassessed far more favourably. In the meantime, J.J. Abrams delivers a workmanlike film that doesn’t have the flair of the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Endgame (2019) but is infinitely better than any of the Star Wars prequels.

I’m very interested to see where the property lands next, as there’s so much great material in the extended universe. Rest assured, just because the Skywalker story has finally come to an end, don’t be fooled into thinking there won’t be more from this fertile story world.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) 

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 

There’s been a great deal said and written about this film since it’s Australian release in August and I thought it was high time to join in. I should say from the outset I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino’s more recent work, I find it mostly too overblown and disconnected. And this saddens me, I feel Tarantino is one of those directors I really want to like more than I do. There are always characters, set pieces and key scenes that I really love but they are always lost in the morass of pop-culture or cinephile references that surround his work and I end up feeling a distinct emptiness – similar to feeling hungry soon after eating junk food. Not that Tarantino is junk food – I have too much respect for him and his craft to say that! Jackie Brown (1997) has been my favourite Tarantino film since I first saw it over 20 years ago and despite the ultraviolence, I really like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). As a child of the 60s and a similar age to Tarantino, I hoped Once Upon a Time would push all the right nostalgia buttons and really work for me. 

Sadly, I was disappointed yet again. 

There are of course, many good things about this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as the tragi-comic Rick Dalton, desperately trying to hang on to his flagging career in an industry that feeds on youth, always looking for the ‘next big thing’. His anxiety is almost palpable at times and juxtaposes well with his stunt double Cliff Booth, played with skill by Brad Pitt. The older Pitt gets, the more I like him as a screen presence, and here he shows considerably more range than he was permitted in Ad Astra (2019). Across the board, the casting is uniformly excellent and there are some quite genius casting decisions throughout, particularly in smaller roles from the likes of Al Paciono, Michael Marsden, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern and Damian Herriman (from Judy & Punch). 

Sadly, women are for the most part, poorly served here. As can be expected of the period, women perform very stereotypical functions and are mostly depicted as decorative good girls (Sharon Tate and her cohort) or decorative bad girls (Pussycat and the Manson girls). The only ones who are permitted to push beyond this are Margot Robbie’s luminous and endearing Sharon, (she does so much to elevate her role), Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and Julia Butters as the child actor who brings Rick Dalton to tears. There is also some very pointed racism, directed at native Americans and Mexicans that I know can be fobbed off as true to the period but still made me cringe and the less said about the Bruce Lee scene the better!

As to be expected, Tarantino’s attention to period detail across all media – television, advertising, film, fashion and music – is simply staggering, adding a rich depth and texture to the film style that for me, offered moments of incredible nostalgia – both good and bad. Sadly, that also fuels what I think is the film’s biggest problem – its uneven and meandering tone. 

In almost three hours running time, I got bored with so many establishing shots of people driving and walking. Above all, it is difficult to find a narrative through-line and when tension is built, it is removed just as quickly until the very final scenes. This left me with feelings of empty dissatisfaction because, like Rick Dalton’s acting, I’m certain there is something great lurking in there, waiting to get out. 

Okay – but not as great as I wanted it to be.

The King

The King (2019)

Directed by David Michod, written by Joel Edgerton and David Michod

Currently doing the rounds on Netflix, this ambitious and quite long film was the brainchild of Australian creatives, David Michod and Joel Edgerton, part of the Blue-Tongue Films collective – which also includes Michod’s partner, Mirrah Foulkes, director of Judy & Punch (2019). 

I love a good historical drama and this was based partly on real life events and the Shakespearean Henriad. After seeing Timothee Chalamet, who was so perfect as Laurie in Little Women earlier this week, I thought this would be a good vehicle for him. Sadly, I found it largely a disappointment. 

While the production design by Fiona Crombie (The Favourite) is stunning, the score by Nicholas Britell and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw excellent, I found the colour palette a little too sombre – like being hit over the head constantly about how drab life was in the 15th century. But it was the  dialogue and delivery that lacked most for me. 

Having a long love affair with Shakespeare’s plays, I found the script and acting not up to the lofty standards set by Branagh’s epic Henry V (1989) and more recently, The Hollow Crown (2014) and overall, it seemed that this generation’s ‘bright young things’ were having a stab at something deeper than a teen drama. 

Having said that, it does have some good moments. The Battle of Agincourt is very well done, delivering all the mud and blood in a style obviously borrowed from Game of Thrones’ season 6 ‘Battle of the Bastards’ – which was itself, inspired by Agincourt. Ben Mendelsohn (who seems to be in everything at the moment) was great as Henry IV but didn’t have a lot of screen time, as did Thomasin McKenzie as Hal’s sister, Phillipa. Sean Harris who I first saw in The Borgias was excellent as Henry V’s advisor, William and could convey more with a glance than many with a page of dialogue. Unfortunately, Robert Pattinson’s Louis was more comical than lethal and Joel Edgerton reminded me more of a young Russell Crowe than Falstaff. Lily-Rose Depp, looking gorgeous as ever is suitably decorative as Catherine but above all, I felt Chalamet was out of his depth with this role, never really conveying the inner conflict that Hal undergoes in becoming Henry. In fairness, I don’t think the script served him particularly well in that quarter.

In conclusion, it’s okay and I’m sure with the added push of Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company and Netflix, it will get a lot of coverage and hopefully, bring younger audiences to this classic story. But overall, at nearly two and a half hours, The King made me pine for Tom Hiddleston’s version of Hal and especially, Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff.

Little Women

Little Women (2019)

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

I cannot overstate how much I love going to the movies. Even after six years of study and a double major in Creative Writing and Screen Studies, my fascination with visual storytelling and the moving image hasn’t waned. 

Narrative film still delights and moves me, and this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic text is a great example of why. Last night I went with a girlfriend to a member’s pre-screening of Little Women at the State Cinema in North Hobart and we were thoroughly entertained. 

If anyone was in any doubt of Gerwig’s credentials as a director or screenwriter, this should put them to rest. Using multiple elements of fabulous casting, a great script, believable costuming, subtle lighting, excellent framing and editing, Gerwig offers a reimagined version of the March sisters that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

From the outset, the most notable difference is that Gerwig skews time and tells the story in a series of flashbacks, usually triggered by something Jo has seen or heard. Once I got into the rhythm of this, it gave a far more satisfying experience than a standard linear narrative remake, and offered a lot more depth to the character’s development from adolescent girls to young women. This is particularly relevant to the often maligned Amy, the youngest sister, who Florence Pugh masterfully takes from a mischievous girl trying to keep up with her older sisters to an accomplished and determined young woman. 

The cast are uniformly excellent and the magic between Timothee Chalomet’s Laurie and Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is delightful as ever, but the scenes between Jo and her mother, played by Laura Dern are truly powerful. Emma Watson is delightful as good-natured Meg (though I felt she wasn’t as well served in the script as Jo, Beth and especially Amy), and Australian actor Eliza Scanlen takes the difficult role of Beth and makes it believable rather than melodramatic and maudlin. Throw in Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Bob Odenkirk and it’s a killer line up! My only real casting criticism is James Norton and Louis Garrel are too young and far too good looking for John Brooke and Friedrich Bhaer respectively – but it’s minor! 

Overlaid with a beautifully balanced score from Alexandre Desplat, and period-appropriate costumes from Jacqueline Durran I think Gerwig’s adaptation is a triumph. Overall, this is a fine reworking of a much loved classic that captures much of the free spiritedness of Alcott’s book, bringing the March family squarely into the 21st century. Although the ending isn’t strictly true to the original text, it fits well in Gerwig’s reimagined world, bringing new life and empowerment to the sisters. 

Little Women opens 1 January 2020 at the State Cinema and would make a perfect mother/daughter or sister’s date.

Joker

Joker (2019) 

Written and directed by Todd Phillips

There is something surreal about sitting in an empty cinema during the day, but I really like it if it’s the right film. Today I did just that, to see Joker, right at the end of its cinema run – and I’m really glad I did. 

From the outset, I have to admit I’m no fan of Todd Phillips’ work as either a writer or director. I found the Hangover movies (what I’ve seen of them) puerile and the less said about Starsky & Hutch (2004) the better. But I am a big fan of Joaquin Phoenix, particularly Walk the Line (2005) and more recently The Sisters Brothers (2018). You Were Never Really Here (2017) still sits atop my movie list of shame! 

There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion globally about Joker and it’s warranted. As an origin story it’s very good mainstream filmmaking and undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen recently with an official DC affiliation. The diegetic or narrative space is beautifully realised, the never ending piles of garbage in Gotham City and the squalor of the apartment building Arthur Fleck lives in with his mother are beautifully crafted. Combined with the shot framing, lighting (production designer Mark Friedberg) and cinematography by Lawrence Sher, there is some excellent editing from Jeff Groth, building an all too real world for the story to play out. 

There are a few clear framing nods to Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and some of The King of Comedy (1982) references/homage were a bit too fawning for my taste. (Just for the record, The King of Comedy remains my favourite Scorcese film ever.) But this is clearly Joaquin Phoenix’s film and with awards season looming, I predict he’ll clean up. It is a truly stunning performance!

Overlaid with a stunning soundtrack from the always wonderful Hildur Guðnadóttir and a script that cuts and bites through the banality of everyday life in Gotham, Phoenix makes what would otherwise be a very creepy, mentally unstable man into a very sympathetic character. Yes, it is very male narrative and at times, extremely violent. And I can see why this would make some people uncomfortable, particularly those who still insist that our cultural products – movies, music, video games – can incite us to violence, rather than looking at the society that underpins that cultural production.

As I emerged into the sunlight of a mild Australian December afternoon, I was full of sadness for Arthur, lost in his own mind. I’ve known people like him, those souls who don’t fit, discarded by a society and system that fails them utterly. The sad thing is, as services in Australia and elsewhere are cut back and worse, disappear altogether, there will be more like Arthur – hopefully not as outlandish and ultra-violent – but still falling between the cracks.

Judy & Punch

Judy & Punch (2019)

Written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes

I’ve come to this late in its cinema run (blame uni!) and I’m very glad I caught it on the big screen. I knew from the opening shot that Judy & Punch was going to be a very un-Australian Australian film. Rather than the archetypal bush or outback setting, this cleverly used an artist colony in Eltham and heavily forested areas in the Dandenongs, both less than an hour from the Melbourne CBD. Combined with some excellent lighting and cinematography by Stefan Duscio this brings a Gothic tone.

Set in the mythical town of Seaside, the film opens with Judy (played by the always excellent Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (an outstanding Damon Herriman) putting on their puppet show for the townsfolk. The grime amid the greasepaint is evident, giving the film a fairytale, magical feel – part Dickens, part Shakespeare with a terrified Gothic heart – something I’d expect from the best of Terry Gilliam’s work. There is comedy here too, and it’s black – especially the scene where Punch ‘loses the baby’ – not for the faint hearted! 

Seaside is a town that will not tolerate difference or deviance from the norm, and particularly suggested to me, a society in fear of women – which in 2019 Australia is disturbingly familiar. There are regular ‘stoning days’ and a colony of outcasts that takes Judy in after Punch leaves her for dead in the forest. Punch is always on the edge and Herriman plays him to perfection, with all the charm, anger and fear one expects from a character such as this, constantly dancing between extreme narcissism and self-loathing.  

The final act of the film is a revenge motif and, for the most part works quite well, though for me, it wasn’t as satisfying as the first two acts. I found the examination of domestic violence and the politics of difference a little heavy handed at times but maybe that’s just what we need right now. I live in a country where (on average) one in three women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner. As a survivor myself, I think this is an important shift in film narrative that is long overdue in Australia. 

Finally, I think it’s important to remember this is Mirrah Foulkes’ first feature length film – and what a stunning directorial debut! While it has gained accolades and awards overseas, I hope this film reaches an audience beyond the festival and arthouse circuit – especially here in Australia, where we need to have a serious conversation about Mr Punch.

Honeygiver Among the Dogs

Honeygiver Among the Dogs (2016)

Written and directed by Dechen Roder.

This award winning film from Bhutan meanders between gorgeous rural landscapes and the relative bustle of town life. Its languid pace lulled me and drew me into its web of desire, corruption and ultimately, a strong environmental message. It is the story of a policeman, sent to a remote rural community to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of an abbess. He is warned about the local demoness, the key suspect in the case, who is young, very beautiful and (to my western eyes at least) evolves into a kind of spiritual femme fatale figure against the anti-hero detective when the action moves to town.

While it certainly falls into the Asian ‘slow cinema’ category, stylistically I felt Roder clearly had her eye on festival audiences, trying to bridge the gap between eastern and western cinema. This is particularly evident in the noir/city half of the film where the detective story takes over. It’s an inventive way to incorporate the exoticism of dakini stories from Buddhism into noir crime fiction and although the transitions are sometimes a little forced, for the most part, it pays off.

Personally, I preferred the rural scenes, where the landscape is a character and the power of Choden brings a dreamlike, magic realism quality to the screen. These sections are sublime in their beauty, with exceptional cinematography by Jigme T. Tenzing and enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack by Tashi Dorji.

It has its flaws but for a debut feature from Roder (who previously worked in advertising and music videos) it’s a pretty solid way to start. I’m keen to see what she comes up with next!

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