‘The Kitchen’

Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton, World Trade Centre) makes her directorial debut with The Kitchen, a surprisingly inert drama considering its cast.

It’s 1970s Hells Kitchen, and as the Irish gangster husbands of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Bridesmaids), Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip, Like a Boss) and Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man, Us) are put away for a few years, so the three women take on the family business.

The Irish are pitted against Italians and orthodox Jews for control of construction and the streets but the women just aren’t wanted. And as a black woman, Tiffany Haddish more than confuses the traditional demarcation lines.

The problem is that in spite of an interesting premise, The Kitchen is neither dramatic nor comedic – a superficial veneer of its subject with the three women underchallenged in their roles.

Rating: 46%

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

An isolated coastal chateau is the backdrop of this simple yet stunning narrative of the relationship between an artist and her subject.

Commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel – Les combattants, Suzanne) in secret, Marianne (Noémie Merlant – Le ciel attendra, Les drapeaux de papier) discretely observes her subject on clifftop walks, painting by night. With poise, dignity and understated passion, the two develop a slow-burn love affair as Héloïse’s protective mother, La Comtesse (Valeria Golino – Miele, Respiro), needs to spend a few days away.

A stripped bare chateau, minimal costume change and an almost exclusive cast of just four women (the two lovers, the mother and Sophie, the young maid – Luàna Bajrami, Fête de famille, L’heure de la sortie) result in a visual treat of a film with few distractions. Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) looks to the enigma of passion in an intelligent, sensitively acted affair as seen from the female perspective.

Winner of numerous international film awards including best screenplay at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and European Screen Awards.

Rating: 89%

‘The Southerner’

One of only six films made in the US by award-winning French auteur Jean Renoir (La grand illusion, La regle du jeu) during his exile from war-torn Europe, The Southerner is regarded as his best, capturing a slice of rural, dirt-poor Americana.

Based on the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry, Zachary Scott (Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road) plays a sharecropper who moves his family on to Texan land believed to be unworkable. With grumpy gran Beulah Bondi (It’s a Wonderful Life, Of Human Hearts) always willing to give her opinion, the family struggles against disease, lack of drinking water, the soil and extreme weather conditions.

A film told with raw honesty and compassion, The Southerner won best film at the 1946 Venice Film Festival, was a surprise box-office hit but banned in some southern American states for its negative portrayal of life in the south. Scriptwriter Hugo Butler (Edison the Man, Lassie Come Home) was to be blacklisted a few years later by the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 1946 (including Renoir for best director).

Rating: 61%

‘Remastered: the Two Killings of Sam Cooke’

Soul legend Sam Cooke was shot and killed in 1964 at a seedy Los Angeles motel at the age of just 33. But the official version – justifiable homicide – has always been challenged by family and friends.

Theories abound, with few accepting that official version. Cooke’s manager, Allen Klein, tops many a list, a man who ended up with sole rights to all Cooke’s music. Klein spent time behind bars for tax misdemeanours, was involved in litigation with the Rolling Stones and, with creative accountancy skills, generally made a great deal more money than a number of the artists he represented.

But Sam Cooke was also regarded by some as the most dangerous man in America. The singer was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and had strong ties to Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King. Yet, full of charm, the sweet-voiced singer had become a pop and television icon in the US, accepted in both black and white family homes.

Director Kelly Duane (Better This World, The Return) looks to debunk the court decision with interviews with character witnesses such as Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones and Dionne Warwick. But Duane also gives more weight to the assassination conspiracy theory.

It’s well made and interesting for its telling, even if this documentary is not particularly innovative or groundbreaking.

Rating: 57%

‘Pather Panchali’

The debut feature of Indian filmmaker Satjayit Ray (Aparajitu, Seemabaddha), Pather Panchali is regarded as one of the greatest films in world cinema.

Three years in the making due to budgetary constraints, the 1955 film, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, features non-professional actors in its exploration of a small rural family living in penury in West Bengal. Having returned to the ancestral home, a small compound on the edge of the village, the family eke out survival on the scant earnings of the father as a priest and writer.

Focussing primarily on the two children of the family – Apu and his elder sister, Durga – Pather Panchali is achingly beautiful in its deeply-felt humanity and honest realism. Shot in high-contrast black and white with a soundtrack provided by the then little-known Ravi Shankar, the film mirrors its Italian Neorealist contemporaries as it looks to the everyday universal struggles of life, death and tragedy.

Rating: 90%

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

From Melbourne to Baghdad, South Dakota to Uluru, four disparate lives intertwine across time and place as each confront the past and its conflicts and contradictions in determining a sense of self.

Deeply traumatised by three tours, Toohey is an Iraq War veteran (literally) scarred from surviving a suicide bomber. Prone to intense mood swings and violence, Toohey’s home life in Melbourne unravels, with his son Gerry looking to find his own identity amidst the unstable aggression with the constant tension and conflict.

Robbie is a young indigenous woman who’s failing to deal with her much-loved father’s early-onset dementia. A Stolen Generation foster child, Danny had little connection with his own culture but his past and Robbie’s future become interlinked as distant family members, unknown before the illness, come to the fore. Danny’s hospitalisation causes a rift in the immediate family, it felt like they’d all turned into islands, no longer joined as Robbie’s (white) mother looks to a sense of normalcy within the reality of a living death, perceived by Robbie as a sense of betrayal.

From a privileged background, as a child Nasim benefited directly from the attentions bestowed upon her by Saddam Hussein (much to the horror and fear of her artistic, academic parents). But the rise of the dictator’s sadistic son, Uday, changed all that and as the regime fell, so Nasim found herself working as a prostitute and madam for those with connections. Act of grace: a payment made to the mother of a baby killed by an Australian soldier in Iraq. Nasim is the beneficiary of the payment – but she is not the mother. But, with the talent for surviving, the purchase of a dead woman’s papers allows her to escape.

We travel with these characters over a number of years with each connected in some way – tenuous or otherwise. Each is looking for greater understanding of themselves, their own conflicts as well as those within the world around them.

With both parents tortured and murdered, it is only as an adult that Nasim recognises their terrible fear for her and themselves as a result of those indulgent favours bestowed upon her as a child. Through art and time in Uluru with the First Nation local community, Robbie can deal with some of the conflicts within her family and her own sense of indigenous self-identity. And whilst Gerry and Toohey will struggle to connect, a discord that runs deep, their own personal reconciliations within themselves carry immense weight and value.

As a journalist, Anna Krien is not afraid to take on the bigger issues. In this, her first novel of fiction, she has expertly created empathic and sympathetic characters that enable her to explore those wider issues of social and environmental concerns – the invasion of Iraq, colonialism, racism, sexism, self-identity, family. It’s beautifully written with a straightforward prose that is refreshing in its telling, wholly propulsive, deeply thoughtful yet readily accessible.

It’s certainly up there in one of the best Australian novels I have read. Somewhat surprised, therefore, that it only made the longlist of the 2020 Miles Franklin Award.

‘The Invisible Man’

This took me by surprise. Whilst a big fan of Elisabeth Moss (TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men), the thought of her playing another victim as per Gilead did not appeal. How wrong!

Escaping from a controlling and abusive relationship, Moss finds haven in the home of police detective Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) and his daughter, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time, 12 Years a Slave). Then comes news of Adrian’s suicide (Oliver Jackson-Cohen – Faster, Despite the Falling Snow). Only Moss finds that piece of news hard to believe – especially when mighty strange things start to happen around her. But how can she explain the murder of her sister to Hodge, Reid and others when she’s caught with the knife and sitting in a very busy restaurant?

With a few unnecessary pointers and explanations, writer/director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, Insidious: Chapter 3) deftly handles the material with confidence and aplomb. It’s chilling.

Rating: 70%

‘Motherless Brooklyn’

A sublime, laid-back jazz-based soundtrack (Daniel Pemberton, Winston Marsalis, Thom Yorke and Flea) supports a quiet, lovingly-made mood piece of a feature.

Lonely, affected by Tourette’s, Ed Norton (American History X, Birdman) is a private detective out to find who killed his boss and only friend, Bruce Willis (Die Hard, the Sixth Sense). It’s 1950s New York and anything goes in the public planning offices. Corruption is rife as Norton finds himself supporting Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion) and a group involved in a battle against all-powerful official, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Departed).

A labour of love (written, directed and produced by Norton, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Lethem), Motherless Brooklyn, with its real sense of time and place, is a slow, gentle homage to its genre.

Rating: 73%

‘Packed in a Trunk: the Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson’

Packed in a Trunk is a well-meaning exploration of the fraud and intrigue surrounding early 20th-century American artist, Edith Lake Wilkinson.

Wilkinson’s great-niece Jane Anderson (an artist herself) determines to discover more about the woman responsible for the art surrounding her as a child. A member of the highly regarded Provincetown Art Colony, Wilkinson had been committed, at the age of 57, to an asylum in 1924. She died 33 years later never having painted again. All her works were packed into trunks and sent to a relative in West Virginia, where they remained untouched for more than 40 years. It was Jane Anderson’s mother who finally unpacked and revealed the extraordinary treasure in the attic.

Anderson and her partner, Tess Ayers, are determined to see Edith’s works once more exhibited in Provincetown and her ‘home’. But they also discover the machinations of attorney George J. Rogers. It was he who had Edith committed – it was he who had control of her large inheritance. Add the question of her closeness to long-time female companion, Fannie, and there’s more than a few suspicions raised about the behaviour and complicity of the authorities.

It’s an intriguing story but sadly not that well told: it becomes a little too much about Anderson rather than Wilkinson. There’s just not enough information to be found. The result is that the focus in director Michelle Boyaner’s documentary, which started as a woman’s life lost to time, concentrates on a child-like woman unwrapping Christmas presents.

Rating: 43%

‘All About Eve’

More than 70 years after it’s release, All About Eve continues to feature in the top 30 of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time.

A barbed tale of female ambition as engenue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter – The Razor’s Edge, Ten Commandments) inveigles her way into both the professional and personal life of successful Broadway star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis – Jezebel, Now Voyager). Initially charm incarnate, the true ambition of Eve slowly comes to the fore.

Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night is the famed Davis retort as the younger woman’s motives become apparent. But by then, Eve already has influential critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders – Rebecca, The Jungle Book) and Margo’s best friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm – Gentleman’s Agreement, High Society) in her thrall.

Exceptional performances and powerful dialogue (written and directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz – A Letter to Three Wives, Guys & Dolls) combine to provide the consummate backstage story of egos, tempers, conspiracies and back-biting. There’s even an appearance by a young Marilyn Monroe.

Nominated for 14 Oscars in 1951, won 6 (including best film, script, director and supporting actor. Only film in history to see four nominations in two categories for the four main actresses. Surprisingly, none of them won).

Rating: 89%