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Film review

September 11, 2018

Ladies in Black
PG ****

For those of us ancient enough to vaguely remember Sydney in 1959, Ladies in Black should be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. For me, the early scenes on the ground floor of the fictional Goodes department store evoked delicious aromatic memories of chocolate and perfume. Director Bruce Beresford and co-producer Sue Milliken have skilfully adapted Madeleine St John’s classic coming of age novel for the big screen. Impeccable production design and the seamless interweaving of archival footage with that of cinematographer Peter James makes the whole film look like it was shot in Technicolor circa 1959.

Although this is a shamelessly feel-good film, it is relevant in many ways to contemporary Australia where refugees are regarded with suspicion and women are still fighting for equality. Yet, the minimal conflict is resolved without undue angst. The narrative centres around 16 year old Lisa’s (Angourie Rice) Christmas job on the fashion floor of Goodes department store, where all the sales ladies wear black, except Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazlehurst), who wears a tailored grey suit.

Lisa aspires to study Arts at Sydney University, despite her father’s (Shane Jacobsen) misgivings. To the surprise of the permanent sales ladies, exotic Magda (Julia Ormond), a Slovenian “reffo” takes Lisa under her wing and introduces her to other European immigrants. Through Lisa, the prejudice with which the other ladies in the fashion department regard Magda is gradually replaced by empathy and tentative friendship.

While the relationship between Lisa’s mother (Susie Porter) and her husband is glaringly unequal, like the romantic sub-plots regarding Fay (Rachael Taylor) and Patty (Alison McGirr), it reflects the social and sexual mores of that time. So too do the brief but explicit glimpses we are given into the private lives of Miss Cartwright, and Mr Ryder (Nicholas Hammond). Also indicative of the time is Fay’s innocent assumption that the only profession for a female university graduate should be teaching.

The casting of all the characters is inspired. Vincent Perez as Magda’s husband and Ryan Corr as their friend Rudi exude continental charm, while Luke Pegler is endearingly gormless as Patty’s husband. Special mention must go to Genevieve Lemon for her cameo as wealthy Mrs Wentworth.

This is indeed a film with heart.

Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot
M ***

Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot, is based on a crucial period in the life of his friend, the late paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan. The film opens with Callahan relating how he had been given up for adoption at birth by his mother, an unwed red-headed Catholic named Maggie Lynch.

It is not until much later in his life that he acknowledges the fact that she really had no alternative back in 1951 Oregon. Until then, he continues to use it as an excuse to behave irresponsibly. At his best, he is a larrikin in a wheelchair. At his worst, he is an obnoxious drunk.

In flashback we see his fateful meeting with Dexter (Jack Black), with whom he spends an evening party-hopping and drinking, which results in a car accident that leaves Callahan paralysed.

Upon his release from hospital, Callahan continues on his self-destructive way, until a chance meeting with Swedish Annu (Rooney Mara), an idealised amalgam of various women in Callahan’s life, who seems too perfect to be true. Around the same time, Willamette Week begins to publish his cartoons, which was to lead to syndication of his work, 10 books, two animated television shows and a short film. In the short term, these events encourage Callahan to finally seek help for his alcoholism. Under the sponsorship of incredibly wealthy, effete Donnie (Jonah Hill), Callahan achieves sobriety.

Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt were evidently aiming for a documentary feel to the film, which they do more or less achieve in the AA group scenes, those showing his cartoons and those with his long-suffering case-worker (Carrie Brownstein), whereas the rather romanticised scenes with Annu and Donnie jar.

One wishes that the film overall had more of the spirit of Callahan’s irreverent cartoons.

Three Identical Strangers
PG ****

This internationally acclaimed documentary from Tim Wardle details the scandalous research study uncovered when triplets Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman are accidentally reunited in 1980, at age 19. While the boys are overjoyed at discovering one another, their adoptive parents want to find out why Louise Wise Adoption Services had separated the babies.

Subsequently, various sets of twins are reunited, having also been separated at birth. After the initial euphoria, the subsequent realisation that their children had been treated like rats in a science experiment impels their families to investigate how and why this duplicitous and unethical behaviour occurred. The further they and investigative journalist Lawrence Wright delve into the matter, the more incredible the story becomes.

They discover that this complex research study was designed by Dr Peter Neubauer, a Freudian psychiatrist and sponsored by the powerful Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Whether the goal was to determine the effects of nature, nurture, class, parental profession or parenting style upon the developing child remains unclear, as any findings are stored in 66 sealed boxes at Yale University, not to be opened until 2066. Although limited access to the triplets’ study records was finally granted, they were so heavily redacted that they revealed little.

The effect of all this upon the subjects and their families has been immense. A further tragic fact is that at least four people may not yet know that they have a twin.

This engrossing documentary is on limited release at the Orpheum Cinema.

Ghost Hunter 20/9
M ****

Another fascinating documentary is Ben Lawrence’s Ghost Hunter. In 2010, Lawrence and cinematographer Hugh Miller, began filming Jason King, a security guard and ghost hunter. Armed with a variety of cameras and sound recorders, Jason and his team conduct these ghost hunts free of charge.

Jason’s belief in the paranormal stems from his firm conviction that he had seen his brother’s ghost after the latter had been killed in a car accident. Jason had only known his brother briefly, as his mother had never told him and his sister that she had a son before marrying their father. However, when Lawrence realises that Jason appeared to have repressed any memory of his own childhood, the documentary becomes a seven-year hunt to uncover the ghosts of Jason’s past.

Through accessing child welfare and hospital records, Lawrence discovers that Jason’s childhood had been one of chronic neglect and abuse by his parents. Although his parents divorced, his father still lived with his ex-wife and children on and off, yet Jason still can’t remember him. Out of the blue, Jason is contacted first by a childhood friend, and then by a detective from Marrickville Police, both of whom are also looking for Jason’s father.

Gradually the truth about Jason’s childhood is revealed. With sensitive assistance from the film makers and those close to him, the damaged man is finally able to lay to rest the ghosts of his own past.

He can now resume hunting other people’s ghosts.

Leave No Trace
G ****

This deeply affecting film from director Debra Granik recounts the story of father Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live hidden in Forest Park outside Portland, Oregon. What they don’t grow or source from nature, they buy when they venture into Portland to collect his disability allowance. Will does not neglect his daughter’s education, home-schooling her in the wild.

After their discovery and removal from the park, well-meaning social service workers find Will employment on a farm. Although Tom enjoys the novelty of living in a house and meeting other people, her father finds it impossible to adjust to social interaction and the two hit the road once more. Eventually they wind up living in an isolated trailer community of similarly disaffected people.

Granik explores various social issues, such as governmental abandonment of traumatised veterans and the nature of community, but it is Tom’s journey from child to independent young adult that is the central thread of this provocative narrative.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are utterly believable as father and daughter. Outstanding as usual in a supporting role is Dale Dickey, here playing the empathetic trailer park resident who takes Tom and her injured father in.

The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini was inspired by Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, itself inspired by a similar real life incident.

Provocative.

Tricia Youlden is currently on long service leave