‘Defending Jacob’

A slow mystery drama, Defending Jacob is a character-driven drama as an upper middle-class family find themselves embroiled in a murder case; 14 year-old son, Jacob, is the accused.

As leading Assistant DA, a driven Chris Evans (Captain America, Knives Out) heads the case of the murder of Ben, a 14 year-old at the same school as Jacob (Jaeden Martell – Knives Out, It), stabbed to death in a local park. But he’s quickly removed when evidence piles up against his son – in spite of suspicion falling on a local sex offender.

Over its eight episodes, Defending Jacob goes back and forth in relation to the boy’s innocence or guilt, keeping the audience guessing. It’s a slow reveal, told in flashback. This is as much about the impact of the accusations as it is about the killing itself.

There’s no question in the mind of Chris Evans about his son’s innocence – a stance not wholly shared by his wife, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey, The Gentlemen). With Jacob’s cold hearted lack of empathy and questionable sense of humour, along with results from tests being run with a biological psychologist (Poorna Jagannathan – TV’s Messiah, Big Little Lies), mom is beginning to think her son is a possible sociopath. Laurie’s uncertainty is tearing herself and her family apart.

Shot in Boston’s early winter, lensed with a blue filter to emphasise the coldness of the world the narrative is set within, Defending Jacob is a polarising experience for viewers. Too slow for many, the ending is certainly questionable (and different from William Landay’s book).

As a determined father out to provide the evidence needed to free his son, Evans is excellent: he struggles, however, over the extended run of the series with the more intimate family moments. Dockery conveys the change from comfortable mother and wife into a nervous, guilt-ridden wreck well – not surprising given the enigmatic, disturbing Jaeden Martell, a perfect mix of innocence, coldness and confusion.

Engaging, engrossing if overlong (the energy palls after three or four episodes) and a little too much artifice and design rather than good old-fashioned emotional transgression, Defending Jacob is nevertheless a superior piece of streaming television.

An AppleTV+ original.

Rating: 72%

‘Doing It In Public: the Kaldor Projects’

Celebrating 50 years in bringing 34 projects of public art to Australia, John Kaldor has a special place in the cultural make-up of the country. From the controversy of the first, Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney by Christo & Jeanne-Claude in 1969, through to preparations for the 34th, Asad Raza’s Absorption (and, as the film evolved, 35th), private and public moments are revealed in this 60 minute documentary.

The film weaves together past and present stories of ephemeral works, with archival footage of bemused audiences watching Gilbert & George and The Singing Sculpture (Project 03, 1973) or art student volunteers clambering the two-and-a-half kilometres of coast and cliffs carrying fabric and rope a decade before Christo became the renowned artist. Interviews with the likes of Kantor himself, former employees, critic Julie Ewington, artists Marina Abramovic (Project 30, 2015), Jonathan Jones (Project 32, 2016), Jeff Koons (Project 10, 1995) and others provide an insight into a different kind of public artwork with different audiences being created (Ewington).

The documentary (directed by Samantha Lang, Carlotta, The Well) provides a more accessible and condensed celebration of the 50 years of the Kantor Public Art Projects than Project 35 itself – a hybrid retrospective developed with UK artist Michael Landy and the Art Gallery of NSW.

But the original It All Started With a Stale Sandwich was a better title!

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

It may be regarded as one of the Hollywood classics of the Studios’ glory days, but an overloud, cloyingly sentimental feature is its reality – with the central performance by James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, Anatomy of a Murder) the main problem.

From an early age, golden-hearted George Bailey cannot escape hometown Bedford Falls, no matter how hard he tries. Now married (Donna Reed – From Here to Eternity, They Were Expendable) with kids, Bailey finds himself heading for financial ruin. An angel (second class, so no wings) is sent to help the businessman see what impact he has had on the world around him.

Nominated for 5 Oscars in 1947 (including best film, actor & director) but failed to win any).

Rating: 54%

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Whilst not as irreproachable as memory serves, Hollywood’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel remains an important milestone in socially aware commentary.

As Depression-era south warms itself in the coming summer months, Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters – Star Trek IV, The Pawnbroker) against a charge of the raping of a white woman. But in the racially divided Alabama town, with the majority having already decided Robinson is guilty, Finch needs to also protect his two children from prejudice.

Gregory Peck (Gentleman’s Agreement, Roman Holiday) won the Oscar for his role as the empathic, popular lawyer, but director Robert Mulligan’s (Summer of ’42, Same Time Next Year) feature is an equally haunting nostalgic portrayal of childhood. Mary Badham, memorable as daughter Scout became, at 10, the youngest nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar award (she lost that position to Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon 10 years later).

A superior (Oscar-winning) script from Horton Foote (Tender Mercies, Trip to Bountiful) adds to the impact of a perfectly balanced narrative.

Nominated for 8 Oscars in 1963 (including best film and director, won 3 – Peck, Foote and black & white art direction).

Rating: 73%

‘Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart’ by Joyce Carol Oates

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy white heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

So begins Joyce Carol Oates’ intricate, richly textured novel, a novel shortlisted for the best work of fiction in the 1990 National Book Awards.

It’s no great mystery as to what happened to Garlock. But this one, violent, tragic act irrevocably bonds together the two perpetrators, altering their destinies and destroying lives in the small, 1950s working-class, industrial town of Hammond in upstate New York.

Iris Courtney is an only child: Verlayn ‘Jinx’ Fairchild is a rangy, star basketball player heading for college and possibly glory. In a town where racial divide and prejudice is habitual, their two lives would ordinarily barely cross. Yet witness to the violent fight between Jinx and Little Rock, the burgeoning sexuality of the teenage girl creates an almost unspoken passion and desire within Iris. Little Red was killed as Jinx protected her from potential threat. They keep their secret, but it simmers: the guilt destroys Jinx. Instead of sporting acclaim, he drops out and settles into an unhappy marriage and fatherhood. Iris, meantime, leaves Hammond to study at nearby Syracuse.

Spanning some 10-15 years, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart is a narrative of small town America, of a time at the beginning of the narrative of possibilities, expectations and potential but which ends with the assassination of JF Kennedy and Vietnam. During that time, Iris witnesses the disintegration of her parents marriage – two beautiful people deeply in love out for a good time. But Duke Courtney is a victim of the American Dream and pushes his luck a little too far with alcohol, women and horses. The Courtneys are forever on the move around town – and always into shabbier and shabbier apartments. Following the break-up of the marriage, Persia Courtney finds solace in bourbon, gin – and beer for her everyday.

It’s a powerful and moving story of unfulfillment, longing and isolation. Iris and Jinx are connected by their secret and by an unspoken love. Both look for atonement – and each, in their own self-destructive way, find it. They rarely meet after that fateful night: they are aware of the need to conceal their feelings from themselves – and from others. In a seemingly safe haven of academia and her history of art research, Iris can never tell Alan Savage, her husband-to-be, of events in Hammond a decade earlier.

‘The Little Death’

Hands up who had even heard of dacryphilia (sexually aroused by tears and sobbing) or somnophilia (the desire to have sex with someone who is asleep). Well, with five seemingly ordinary couples in a suburban Sydney neighbourhood, The Little Death will not tell you much in terms of the medical conditions. But it will provide you with 90 minutes or so of (mostly) light entertainment played for laughs in its multi story narrative of sexuality, relationships and taboo.

From the deeply questionable rape-fantasy storyline through to the (short) highlight, that of the Sam and Monica video chatline with a twist, The Little Death skims the surface of its subject, resulting in the sum of its parts funnier than the whole. Slick and smartly acted, it’s all a little flimsy and lightweight – but there are times when writer/director Josh Lawson’s debut feature is genuinely laugh out loud.

Rating: 55%


An average to extraordinary middle class family into which god saw fit to throw a hand grenade is how Brett Whiteley described himself and his early childhood. At least until he and his sister witnessed his mother cracking a frying-pan over their father’s head. Boarding school for the kids followed, with an eventual divorce for the parents and Beryl Whiteley heading back to the UK.

Yet the artist later renowned for his drug and alcohol addiction as much as his art was something of a clean-cut young man, working in advertising before, in 1959, winning a prestigious Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship at just 20 years old.

Told through a series of interviews (both archival and current), photomontages, voice overs, home movies, reenactments and archival footage accessed with the collaboration of ex-wife Wendy Whiteley, James Bogle’s documentary Whiteley is an engaging and fairly intimate exploration of the artist at work.

Florence, London, Paris and New York: Brett and Wendy Whiteley were the coolest of Aussie expats during the 1960s and ‘70s. Twice winner of all three of the renowned Australian prizes awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW (Archibald, Wynne and Sulman), Brett Whiteley is the only artist to have been awarded all three in the same year (1978).

But alcohol and drug addiction was the price paid. A respectful documentary, Whiteley offers insight into a complex life of highs and lows. A fitting homage.

Rating: 63%

‘The General’ (1926)

One of the great silent comedies (and one of the most expensive), Buster Keaton as writer, director, stuntman and star comes to grips with the hijacking of his train during the American Civil War.

A spectacle involving up to three speeding locomotives, extraordinary stunts, explosions, burning bridges, slapstick comedy, sight gags, Keaton looks to save the woman he loves (Marion Mack – Mary of the Movies), who finds herself hostage on the train.

Rejected by the Conferderates on the outbreak of the war – as an engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, he is more valuable where he is than in uniform – Keaton sets out to prove he is no coward. Based on a real-life Civil War era story of The General, a steam locomotive, the engineer spoils the Union Army’s plans to mount a surprise attack – and win the heart of the woman he loves.

Like the best silent films, the lack of dialogue is almost irrelevant. The General is a goodly mix of comedy, drama, thrills and adventure – all delivered at breakneck speed.

Rating: 77%

‘The Call of the Wild’ by Jack London

A classic of early 20th century literature, The Call of the Wild is drawn from London’s own experience of the Klondike Gold Rush in the frozen wastes of Canada and Alaska – an adventurer and a man of action as few writers have ever been (George Orwell). But this American pastoralist novel is no high yarn human adventure. Instead, The Call of the Wild is the tale of Buck, a St Bernard-Scotch collie cross, who must challenge, conquer and survive the harsh conditions he suddenly finds himself thrust within.

Pampered and domesticated, Buck spends his early days in the Californian home of Judge Miller. But kidnapped and sold, he is dragged away to be a sledge dog in the harsh and freezing cold Yukon. From the outset, Buck is taught the law of club and fang – severe beatings to keep him in his place: lose a fight and the pack will finish you off.

What follows is a series of owners, some good, ploughing across the frozen wastes. A quick learner, Buck becomes progressively feral in the harsh environment, forced to fight and dominate other dogs to survive. After the killing by the indigenous Yeehats of his final master, the much-loved John Thornton, Buck finally succumbs to the call of the wild. Man, and the claims of man, no longer bound him.

The Call of the Wild is a superbly written piece of fiction with its dramatic instinct and sense of character: the reader feels wholly involved in Buck’s journey and the symbolism of London’s own worldly view as society moved into the new century. The sledge dogs are characters in their own right: the dog owners equally so. But it the descriptions of the harsh conditions, the stunning beauty, the cold, the fights that are so vivid and so fresh.

The particular version was (Penguin English Library 2018) published with three other (shorter) stories: To Build a Fire (1908), Batard (1904) and Love of Life (1907). Batard is a deeply unpleasant descriptive story of a near wild dog and an equally vicious owner. To Build a Fire is an extraordinary piece of writing of a man walking, alone with his dog, in temperatures that are dropping to 70 below freezing…

First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild has never been out of print – indicative of its reputation in the annals of literature.

‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’

A key stalwart of 1960s British New Wave social realism, the adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s short story of the same name marks the film debut of Sir Tom Courtenay (The Dresser, Doctor Zhivago) as Colin Smith.

A juvenile offender sent to a remand home, Smith catches the eye of the Governor, Sir Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra, The Browning Version), for his running abilities. Smith uses the solitude for reflection on politics and class injustices: a pompous toff himself, the Governor looks to victory at the forthcoming sports day against the local private school.

With flashbacks of a grim working-class family existence in Nottingham alongside a lonely figure cutting through bleak countryside, Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, A Taste of Honey) teases out a superb central performance from a surly and angry Courtenay. The language is, at times, dated and Richardson guilty of occcasional gimmicks, but filmed in raw black and white (cinematographer Walter Lassally – Zorba the Greek, Heat & Dust), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a classic of the ‘kitchen-sink dramas’ of British film. It very much wears its politics on its sleeve.

Rating: 81%