Monday, November 13, 2017

The Ornithologist: Bizarre Flights of Fantasy

The Ornithologist is an intriguing Portuguese contribution to the latin magical realism genre. Its opening's stunning scenes of birdlife along a river near the Portugal/Spain border have the quality of a David Attenborough nature classic.

João Pedro Rodrigues pulls off a hat trick: director, screenwriter and actor. Auteur with attitude. This film has echoes of some of the work of Federico Fellini.

Unfortunately, the film loses much of its meaning and impact if you don't know the religious backstory. It is difficult not to slip into spoilers. Our birdman Fernando, played convincingly by Paul Hamy, has a tortuous journey along the river after a mishap. It draws on a bizarre mixture of elements: pilgrimage; Greek epic; and even the John Boorman classic Deliverance.

He faces a series of trials that ultimately produce a phantasmagorical transformation. The range of languages used gives an indication of the strange characters we encounter: Portuguese, English, Mandarin, Mirandese, Latin. We are taken somewhat seductively somewhere between a spirit world and a spiritual one.

Rodrigues has called his intentions blasphemous and irreligious. There is little doubt he meant to offend some and delight others. If you're looking for something a bit different, then join his flight of fantasy.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Darkest Hour: "Here's to not buggering it up!"

Darkest Hour joins Dunkirk and Churchill, as the third major film this year to tackle World War II from a British perspective. [At this stage your reviewer has foregone the pleasure of the other two war sagas but couldn't resist the free preview seats from NBCUniversal.]

Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have skilfully recreated the world of Westminster in May 1940, as Winston Churchill achieved arguably his finest hour. Not only did he have to grapple with Germany's seeming military invincibility. He was determined to torpedo negotiations with Hitler, without losing his newly won and long coveted prime-ministership. Both his predecessor Neville Chamberlain and his main rival Viscount Halifax favoured peace talks with the Nazis.

It is a familiar story for many baby boomers. The wartime Prime Minister had mythological status in our formative years. The filmmakers faced the difficult task of appealing to a wide audience with very different levels of knowledge and understanding of either the man or the moment. [Film reviewers face the same challenge.] How many millennials would know about Churchill's role in the Gallipoli debacle, for instance.

A tight script and coherent direction weave considerable personal and political detail into the 125 minutes. His iconic speeches are handled economically and we spend a minimum in the map room or following Winston's relentless pacing with cigar and cane at the ready.

The film covers much of his legend: the heavy drinking and depression; his aristocratic eccentricities and remoteness from ordinary Britons; his stubbornness and recklessness; his iron will and temper; and his theatrical self-promotion.

Overall it is visually engaging: his private lift rises through a black screen, taking the solitary PM up to 10 Downing street; Churchill is driven to Westminster through busy London streets, cocooned from the frenetic life outside. The atmosphere is often claustrophobic, underlining both the pressures and his political isolation.

Inevitably, the movie is trite and clichéd at times. The trailer shares an almost identical opening scene with the movie Churchill, as his Rolls Royce/Bentley arrives at the arched entrance to parliament. Gary Oldman's mimicry of the old man is quite effective, though he is sometimes put in situations that can only be described as caricature at best. The meet-the-people scene on the London underground is hyper-melodramatic, going way beyond disbelief. It sets the record for the longest journey between two adjoining tube stations. The stale joke about babies is unforgivable, as is the overacting.

His interactions with wife Clementine (played with her usual flair by Kristin Scott Thomas) and personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) help to humanise his titanic personality. So do the glimpses of his humour, toilet jokes and all. It is disappointing that there are no exchanges with Winston's ally of the time, Anthony Eden, who grins or frowns silently throughout the cabinet room battles.

Australian Ben Mendelsohn does a very serviceable job as King George VI. His strong frame and presence more than fill the role, seemingly at odds with king's character. Nevertheless, his relationship with Winnie is one of the more endearing aspects of the film.

The blurred line between apocrypha and actual events is inevitable in historical fiction. The first tense encounter between Winston and Elizabeth is apparently based on fact. It's a pity that she did not join his staff until the following year. Stephen Dillane (Halifax) gets to deliver journalist Ed Murrow's famous line that Churchill had "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle".

Nevertheless, most of the story seems an accurate representation of the actual machinations within cabinet and the parliament. Wikipedia has a thorough article on the May 1940 War Cabinet crisis.

Finally, the safe, somewhat conservative approach to this crucial episode in twentieth century history may be explained by the Churchill family toast on his accession: "Here's to not buggering it up!"

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Queen of Ireland: Champion of Same Sex Marriage

We were on our way to see The Queen of Ireland at Carlton's Cinema Nova when we came across a political march in Melbourne's CBD. Seems everything is connected these days.

This documentary is promoted by Transmission Films as 'An uplifting documentary about Ireland's superstar drag queen Panti Bliss as she rises from ‘giant cartoon woman' to one of the highest-profile activists in the LGBTIQ community.'

The film is actually about Rory O'Neill whose occupation is that of old fashioned drag queen. His life intersects dramatically with the successful Irish referendum on marriage equality in 2015. The connections between his private story and his public exposure as a champion of the cause climax in his triumphant return to his hometown of Ballinrobe.

The Queen far exceeded my expectations. Plain-clothes Rory is a thoughtful, engaging person, quite unlike his alter ego in many ways. Director Conor Horgan gives us a very sympathetic portrait. The documentary deserves the praise it has received.

The Australian situation, with a proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage, appears to parallel Ireland. However, having this vote has been opposed by most of the LGBTIQ groups down under. A referendum is not required to change the law, as was the case in Ireland. Nor is a plebiscite binding on the Australian parliament. Former PM Tony Abbott and opponent of same sex marriage adopted the policy as a tactic to delay giving his government members a free parliamentary vote. His successor Malcolm Turnbull supports marriage equality but agreed to the proposal to placate the right-wing of his party.

The Labor Party opposition has rejected the proposal, arguing for a free vote in parliament, citing both the cost ($A 200 million) and the negative social and psychological impact on gay people and their families. The plebiscite bill is likely to be blocked in the Senate. The Guardian reported recently:
Advertisements for the anti-marriage equality case in the Irish referendum caused a majority of LGBTI people to feel angry and distressed, according to a new study.

The survey of 1,657 Irish LGBTI people also found that only a minority of respondents would be prepared to face the referendum again if they did not know about the eventual successful outcome.

Rory/Panti refers to this aspect when meeting referendum supporters after the result.

His journey is one that is well worth following.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Spotlight: Suffering the Silence

Spotlight is an old-fashioned movie about an old-fashioned craft - investigative journalism. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has stuck to the proven formula for this kind of story telling so effectively mastered in All The President's Men forty years ago. It is based on actual events and keeps to a straightforward narrative.

The Boston Globe's 2001 Spotlight team is bigger and has a woman on board (Sacha Pfeiffer well played by Rachel McAdams). A quick scan of the cast shows how nearly all aspects of this shameful epidemic were male-dominated. Clergy and laity, police, lawyers and judges, and journalists: all played their part in the systemwide sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the collusion or silence of those who should have made it their business to expose it.

The two Spotlight male leads, Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes and Michael Keaton as Wally 'Robby' Robinson, give very creditable performances. Liev Schreiber as the new Jewish outsider newspaper editor Marty Baron is hardly recognisable as his character from Wolverine. The beard helps.

This isn't a film about paedophile priests or its coverup by the highest levels of the Catholic church. Nor is it about "a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry". It is a story about journalism, its power and importance. The sort of journalism that is much less common now under the current financial and other pressures on newspapers and other old media.

IMDb has tagged the film as Biography, Drama, History and Thriller. It is primarily a crime investigation. As the credits indicate, it has been a global crime wave. Its 'survivors' suffered a long time in the silence that denied them justice.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict #FilmReview

I certainly wasn't looking for twentieth century art when visiting Venice in June 1980. But wandering the backstreets I stumbled across a house that seemed to double as an art gallery. The name Guggenheim rang bells but Peggy had not been on my philistine radar. We went in not knowing what to expect. The place was deserted much like the rest of Venice in early June in the good old days. It was a delight beyond imagining. Picasso, Pollock, Miro and Marcel Duchamp were just a few amongst a feast of modern artists in her Collection.

It was still very much a home as well as a personal museum. Peggy had died only six months earlier. My strongest recollection over the years has been of the courtyard garden where the ashes of many of her dogs were buried. She has since joined them in the wall. It was a secluded spot then.

On a return visit in October 2015, being the first there was not enough to avoid the crushing crowds that packed the place by mid-morning. A gate now leads from the garden to the temporary exhibition rooms and a restaurant. The house has been extended by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Foundation to display more recent artists' work.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland's documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict helps to give some idea about whether Peggy would have approved of the changes. The film covers her very full life of 81 years in considerable depth. 95 minutes is not enough to mention all her lovers, not even the famous artists but Peggy wrote detailed accounts for those interested (now in a single edition): Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. Must get a copy, if only for the Gore Vidal foreward.

Peggy is not spared the criticisms of some of her contemporaries. Some of the more biting comments on her personality and her artistic endeavours probably tell us more about art connoisseurs and critics. Two of her regular guests in Venice confirm that the catering at her palazzo left much to be desired.

The discovery of interviews taped by her authorised biographer, Jacqueline Bogard Weld, gives the documentary a personal, winning touch. Peggy claimed that she was never "afraid". Her art collecting campaign in Paris at the outbreak of the second world war attest to her courage, drive and determination.

Her rich and famous family had an exceptional number of tragic deaths but she reveals very little in the interviews. Director Vreeland commented in an interview about her film, "she wasn't someone who was especially expressive; she didn't have a lot of emotion". Nevertheless, her sharp sense of humour is evident throughout.

What is revealed about Peggy explains how she left such a spectacular legacy: "It was really ballsy of her to have been so open about her sexuality; this was not something people did back then. So many people are bound by conventional rules but Peggy said no. She grabbed hold of life and she lived it on her own terms." This was especially true about the art and the artists she collected and promoted. "Peggy's life did not seem that dreamy until she attached herself to these artists. It was her ability to redefine herself in the end that truly summed her up".

A life definitely worth sharing.

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