Guest Review: JACKIE (2016)

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Directed By: Pablo Larraín
Written By: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Great Gerwig, John Hurt
Runtime: 1 hr 40 minutes

History and drama often make awkward bedfellows as you might find in the bio-pic Jackie (2016). The assassination of JFK is one of the defining moments of the 20th century and any dramatization of the immediate aftermath is a risky venture. History buffs may fault it and others may struggle with its melodramatic interpretation of Jaqueline Kennedy’s life-defining event. But look beyond the cinematic limitations and you find a complex portrait of a remarkable person who endured an unimaginable horror with rare strength and dignity.

The film’s starts with the motorcade in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated and ends with his funeral. The narrative is framed around a journalist’s interview conducted a week after the event and a confessional talk with a priest at the funeral. It uses their questions and comments to trigger flashbacks to the short JFK presidency, with dramatisations that craft together archival footage and historical photographs. The title of the film makes it clear that this is a portrait of Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) so her words, her emotions, and her actions are the primary focus. The film’s narrative tension comes entirely from the depiction of her inner world of private trauma and her struggles with the political and public reaction to the event.

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The most striking aspect of Portman’s portrayal is her ability to present several sides of the one persona as if she and Jackie shared multiple personalities. Once you recover from the distraction that Portman barely resembles Jaqueline Kennedy, she takes you on an emotional roller-coaster, from terror, anger, hate, confusion, mental vacillation and disorientation to calm resolve about her role in history. Throughout it all she remains committed to turning a tragedy into national mythology based on political heroism, the Kennedy legend, and the Camelot fairy tale. While there is a commendable support cast, this is a one-woman performance and Portman’s portrayal is a tour de force.

Some will find this film an unflattering interpretation of Jaqueline Kennedy while others will find that it helps them to sympathetically understand the person behind the mask. The film steers a fine line in avoiding judgement and it is Portman’s dramatic ability to step into Jackie’s soul and to capture her mental trauma that ultimately shines. No bio-pic is perfect and you need to overlook scenes where the film struggles with period authenticity. Set this aside and you will be rewarded with a memorable performance about an unforgettable event.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘JACKIE’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: ELLE (2016)

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Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Written By: David Birke
Runtime: 2 hrs 10 minutes

The women’s film genre covers the spectrum of feminine empowerment to absolute degradation and several can be read both ways. Elle (2016) is an ambivalent film that can be read as a tale of self-assertion or, equally valid, about victimhood, transgressive sexuality and gender disrespect. The story is framed against the violent porn video game industry where women are routinely sacrificed to male gratification and dominance. Porn video games normalise sexual assault and other forms of humiliation and this cyber reality merges with the Elle narrative on fantasy and victimhood.

Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful Parisian video game entrepreneur who leads a company of testosterone-fueled hipsters whose job it is to hyper-stimulate young males into doing things to women in video cyber-worlds. The film’s opening scenes are both disturbing and banal: Michelle appears to be violently raped by a masked intruder and then proceeds to tidy up the mess with barely more than an air of inconvenience. No, it is not a video game, and yes, it happens again as do several other normalised sexual transgressions. For example, when she discovers the staffer who pasted her face onto a video game assault victim she asks the person to expose his genitals in her office. Rather than an opportunity for reverse humiliation or worse, she only says “pretty” and walks off leaving us wondering if she is seriously cool or seriously damaged.

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Divergent plotlines fill out the character of Michelle to explain the reasons for her impassivity. Her father is in prison for crimes against children and her mother pays for sex with younger men. She sleeps with her business partner’s husband and lusts for her neighbour, and compulsively tells lies in her twilight world between video game brutality and real-world morality. While appearing indestructible in her business life her emotional world is a fragile void that cannot be filled with normal relationships. The several scenes that dwell suggestively on her face oozing repressed sexual desire hint darkly of a deeply troubled soul.

This is a compelling film that examines the parallel universe of a woman who is both a perpetrator and a victim of sexual transgression and who lives under the guise of wealth and respectability. As such, it is also a portrait of hypocrisy and moral extremities with audience voyeurism forming the picture frame. Isabelle Huppert pushes this role to its limits while showing little emotion beyond what she can say with her expressive eyes. It is hard to judge a survivor like her, and we can only guess what keeps her head together. This film is one of many that push back the cultural envelope that has kept women’s sexuality on a pedestal.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia

 


Have you seen ‘ELLE’? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF 2015 Review: The Connection (La French)

MSPIFF15reviewsTheConnectionBnrIncluding many homages to past crime films, The Connection is an interesting procedural with too few surprises until its final act. At the film’s beginning, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin, excellent) is a hard-working cop investigating youth drug-related crimes. His effectiveness gets him promoted to magistrate, where he is tasked with investigating France’s organized crime network, led by Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche, also excellent). Upon his promotion, Michel proves skilled, not least because he’s willing to bend the rules, sometimes even to break the law, all in the name of justice. That Michel is unreasonably obsessive about catching Zampa is of no concern to him, but is still a source of severe worry for his family.

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Dujardin & Lellouche

Which brings us to The Connection’s greatest merit: its characters. Writer/director Cédric Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan layer both Zampa and Michel, crafting each man as complex human beings with merits and flaws aplenty. Here Zampa being on the “wrong” side of the law does not mean we dislike him. And, though we can certainly root for Michel, we do not necessarily approve of everything he does. By making both men complex, Jimenez and Diwan hold our attention. That they develop several secondary characters well also helps.

The Connection’s second greatest merit: some of it’s filmmaking technique. Its production design mirrors 1970s era crime films. And it’s costuming is genius. As the plot’s era shifts from ‘70s to ‘80s, so too does the style of characters’ outfits.

TheConnectionStill2The film’s biggest weakness? The plot. For much of the picture’s run-time it is borderline boiler plate, including many seemingly obligatory scenes.

Yet, this flaw is of relatively minor consequence, partially because the actors and characters are so good we accept predictable developments. For example, we always know Pierre’s wife Jacqueline (Celine Sallette) will eventually express unhappiness with her husband’s choices, but Dujardin and Sallette sell the conflict so convincingly that we don’t mind the moment’s predictability.

TheConnectionDujardinSalletteThen comes the finale, about which I will say very little, except this: it is at least a little surprising. And also terrific, in all regards. Yes, at times The Connection is too procedural, but it is quite good all the same.

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What are your thoughts on The Connection?