Magda’s comedy tribute to mum

THROUGH TV shows such as Fast Forward, Big Girls Blouse and Kath and Kim, Magda Szubanski has long been loved and admired as one of Australia’s funniest woman.

But according to Szubanski herself — and many of her comedian mates — she is just a “pale version” of her mother, Margaret, who died last year at the age of 92.

Szubanski says her mother, who emigrated to Australia with her Polish father at the age of 24, was one of the funniest women on the planet who gave her daughter not only her sense of humour, but also a penchant for doing a Scottish accent that’s so chumpy you could carve it.

“My great regret is that she never met Maggie Smith,” says Szubanski. “I had a night out on the town with (Maggie) once and we bonded over the Scottish accent. I said ‘your Scottish accent is so good, you must have Scottish blood’ and she said ‘yes, my mother’. And we started comparing notes on the things that Scottish mothers said.

“If I ever did a film I would get her to play my mum — there was that dry and hilarious humour. If you were to ask any of my famous comedy friends who know my mum, they would agree with me. And right to her death, still with the humour — it was extraordinary.”

That ear for an accent has made Szubanski the “go-to person” for all things Scottish, and her Celtic characters from the ridiculous, hard-drinking Wee Mary McGregor in Fast Forward right through to The Butcher, in the new Aussie comedy The BBQ have been in part a tribute to her mother. Szubanski also maintains “it’s hard to be unfunny in a Scottish accent” and over the years has gleefully mined her mother’s rich array of incomprehensible Scottish phrases such as “haud yer wheesht, ye wee bizzum” (translation “be quiet you little brat”).

“It’s a great character — really eccentric,” says Szubanski of The Butcher, a rough-hewn meat specialist who helps Shane Jacobson’s character exact revenge over Manu Feildel’s smarmy Frenchman in a cooking competition.

“And frankly, any chance I get to trot out my Scots accent, I am more than happy. I feel very at home in it. A lot of my most fun characters, I seem to end up with red wigs and if it’s not a red wig it’s a Scots accent. And this time it’s both. It’s playing to my strengths. And there are really not a lot of feature film comedy scripts out there — it’s not something we are terribly dedicated to in this country. So it was that, and that Shane was involved and it was just a fun film and a fun role.”

Although she’s best known for her TV roles, Szubanski has also appeared in a steady stream of films since making her feature debut as Esme Hoggett in the 1995 smash hit comedy, Babe. Most recently she had a small role in Ben Elton’s Three Summers and jumped at the chance to be in The BBQ, lamenting the scarcity of Australian comedy films.

“There are very few things that come to me — they are just not happening,” she says. “I don’t know why — I think funding for things has gotten very tight — and I think we have squandered a lot of the skills that we had that were built up through those years of variety television and then sketch comedy. Because there is a particular way of shooting and editing and pacing comedy and I think we don’t treasure talent and skill here in the way they do in the US. We sort of piss it up against the wall at times. And it’s such a shame because we have so many talented people here and that’s why there is the drain that goes to the US because there are just not the opportunities here.”

Next up on Szubanski’s dance card is her role as the host of the SBS coverage of next month’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. As strident advocate of LGBTQI rights since coming out on Valentine’s Day six years ago, and a prominent proponent of the Yes vote in the recent marriage equality plebiscite, Szubanski is expecting this year’s 40th anniversary event to be particularly special.

“Oh God yes,” she says with a laugh. “Imagine if it had been a no. It would have been like a wake.”

She says that two of her closest gay friends have already been married and hopes that the coming event will help bring together even those who voted No in the divisive campaign.

“We come in peace, the LGBTQI people, we are not coming with a wrecking ball, we want to add what we can bring to what has sometimes become quite a meaningless contract,” she says. “And because we have had to fight so hard for it, boy it means a lot to us. So coming up to Mardi Gras — it’s huge.”

The BBQ opens on Thursday. Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, March 4, SBS, 8.30pm.

J-Law flaunts her nudity on set

THE 27-year-old actress recently told Entertainment Tonight, she wasn’t shy about baring her bod while shooting the forthcoming thriller, in which she portrays a Russian spy.

“Everybody made me feel so comfortable that I probably at a certain point started making everybody else uncomfortable,” Lawrence explained. “Because I’d be like, ‘I don’t want the robe. I’m hot. I’m eating.’ Everybody’s like, ‘She needs to cover up.’”

Though filming intimate scenes made Lawrence anxious in the past, the decision to take on future risqué roles will no longer weigh heavily on her heart.

“I don’t have the same fear and insecurity in that one specific area that I used to,” she said. “So you know I’m always gonna take on roles for the same reason, you know, the character speaks to me and the director and the story. But I’m no longer gonna let that be a factor in my decision-making.”

This story was originally published by Page Six and has been republished with permission.

Lady Bird an instant coming-of-age classic

Rating: five stars (5 out of 5)

Director: Greta Gerwig (Nights and Weekends)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts.

Before her life can start movie, she must stop and grow

Let the record show we are currently embedded in the richest vein of quality movies on offer for well over a decade.

Since Boxing Day, the overall calibre of titles gracing our cinemas has been resoundingly high. It is not going to last. So please, make the most of it while you can.

While you’re at it, make sure you get along to Lady Bird, one of the most graceful, funny, alert and alive coming-of-age pictures you will ever have the good fortune to see.

Goes without saying this is already a lock for one of the best movies of 2018.

“I wish I could live through something,” says 17-year-old Christine McPherson (played by the incomparable Saoirse Ronan) on the eve of commencing her final year of high school.

Make no mistake, her wish will be granted by film’s end. And you will be living through it right along with “Lady Bird”, the name by which Christine prefers to be called by everyone she meets.

(Those inverted commas are deliberate by the way. That’s exactly how Christine “Lady Bird” Johnson writes it down. You know, just like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.)

Yes, Lady Bird is a real character alright. However, being a distinct one-of-a-kind isn’t doing her any favours in her dreary, home town of Sacramento.

This bastion of Californian conformity feels like a conspiratorial practical joke against Lady Bird, and her ambition to be accepted into a fancy college on the other side of the country.

There is the ferociously fractious relationship Lady Bird shares with her perpetually exhausted and dissatisfied mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

One or the other may not last the year ahead. In their very first scene together, a blissful listening session to an audiobook suddenly escalates into a bitter argument, which ends with Lady Bird leaving via the nearest door.

At this point, I should mention Lady Bird and Marion have this disagreement while in a car travelling just beneath the speed limit.

Later in the movie, Lady Bird finds herself drifting further into that cavernous unmarked territory between the cool and the uncool at her rigorously Catholic high school.

There will be a so-right-it-just-has-to-go-wrong romance with one boy (Lucas Hedges), and a polar-opposite dalliance with another (Timothée Chalamet, star of the sublime Call Me By Your Name).

I could go on and on about the love of clever conversation this film sincerely promotes, its rare ability to pull a moment of palpable poignancy out of thin air, the magnificent performances of Ronan and Metcalf, and the miraculous writing and direction of Greta Gerwig.

But I won’t. For you’ll find yourself doing that anyway once Lady Bird has taken flight before you.

Black Panther breaks superhero rules

EIGHTEEN movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and you’re pretty familiar with the ground rules.

You should expect a two hours-plus runtime with four or five high-octane action sequences, smartarse quips and cheeky banter, speeches about heroism and sacrifice and a villain bent on some sort of ill-defined world-conquering quest.

What you don’t expect is a thoughtful story steeped in political parallels and the historical baggage of racial discrimination and suffering. That’s what makes Black Panther so unique among a teeming movie universe of extraordinary beings.

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, the wunderkind filmmaker behind Creed and Fruitvale Station, Black Panther will go down as more than another instalment in the MCU.

That this movie, with this cast who look like they do, speaking the way they do, is breaking all kinds of early ticket sales records is significant, and a triumph. Like Wonder Woman before it, its success is another refutation in the narrative that big budget blockbusters need to feature primarily white male protagonists to be financially viable.

The character of Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War two years ago to wide acclaim and the action here picks up a week after the events in that movie which saw T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, killed by a bombing.

T’Challa hails from the fictional West African nation of Wakanda, a country that appears to be a third-world state to everyone else but is secretly the most technologically advanced civilisation on Earth thanks to its natural stores of vibranium.

T’Challa’s teen sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is kind of like his Q, outfitting him with gadgets and tech that makes Tony Stark/Iron Man look like Billy Madison. In fact, all the female characters, including super spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), are so compelling to watch, whether they’re throwing spears or throwing shade.

Wakanda has hidden its development from the world, afraid of tainting what makes it special and much of Black Panther is dedicated to this debate over isolationism or global engagement. It’s a timely plot point with American political rhetoric trumping protectionism and an inward-looking mentality.

Black Panther’s daring to be more than its genre conventions is a credit to it.

During the transition of power to T’Challa, Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) an assassin with a connection to Wakanda turns up with dangerous though appealing ideas, threatening a war that will spill well beyond its borders.

While Killmonger’s thirst for violent revolution is alarming, his experiences growing up in America as a black person inform him and his motivations. He’s more complex than your average comic book villain, even if the way he’s sometimes written doesn’t always gel.

Wakanda is vividly rendered by Coogler and his production designer Hannah Beachler, and lensed by his cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Coogler had worked with both women previously on Fruitvale Station and it’s a collaboration that clearly works.

The Wakanda you see on screen glimmers, an effortless blend of colourful African aesthetics and hi-tech utopia, and owes more than a touch to legendary comic artist Jack Kirby. Every character that inhabits this world, which vary from the plains of the border tribes to the snowy gorges of the mountain clan, undeniably belongs to it. That Coogler is able to evoke such a strong sense of place is a testament to the combined talents of the team.

There are missteps along the way — the pacing is inconsistent with long sequences that stretch on needlessly and the dialogue sometimes veers towards clunky.

Black Panther can’t hope to represent the experience of all black people around the world — it’s not an all-encompassing pan-African representation of it or its diaspora. But it makes bold declarations about representation on film and how blockbusters can literally look. What we see reflected back at us matters, and it matters to kids who pay for a ticket to watch superheroes battle it out on screen.

While Australians with sub-Saharan African heritage is small compared to other backgrounds, Black Panther is a reminder for all that the monopoly is ending.

Also, it’s still a fun, fresh superhero movie with some really kinetic action sequences.

Rating: 3.5/5

Black Panther is in cinemas from Thursday, February 15.

Share your movies and TV obsessions with @wenleima on Twitter.

Lady Bird breaks new ground

AS an actor, Greta Gerwig is mistress of the awkward moment.

Her self-absorbed characters’ social gaffes cause us to blush with shame.

At times, Gerwig’s on-screen persona is almost too raw to bear.

Stay with her for the duration, however, and the pay off is commensurately rewarding.

Gerwig’s characters resolve their ordinary, everyday crises with a very particular kind of grace (Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with her partner, the director Noah Baumbach, is a good example.)

Their ferocious appetite for life also helps to offset their abundant human flaws.

Gerwig’s directorial debut as a feature filmmaker is similarly up close and personal.

Starring Irish American actor Saoirse Ronan as Gerwig’s on screen alter ego, it’s an unflinchingly intimate coming-of-age story about a senior high school student who can’t wait to escape the “suffocating” confines of suburban Sacramento circa 2002.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, who has presumably renamed herself after US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s formidable wife, has a complex relationship with her outspoken mother (Laurie Metcalf) who pulls double shifts as a nurse to support the family in the wake of her husband’s (Tracy Letts) redundancy.

Overworked and over protective, Marion McPherson’s love, concern, anxiety for, and exasperation with, her youngest child, who has a rather inflated sense of her own self-importance, often translates as nagging and constant criticism.

Lady Bird, unsurprisingly, responds with insolence, impatience and ingratitude.

There is genuine affection in their relationship — played out, for example, in their shared shopping trips to thrift stores to up cycle prom dresses.

But it’s also volatile — during one fight, Lady Bird leaps out of a moving car, breaking her arm in the process.

She’s not the sort of girl to do things in half measures. And Marion is not the sort of woman to hold her tongue.

Lady Bird’s peer group relationships are similarly conflicted.

She doesn’t even try to conceal her lack of enthusiasm when her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) wins the lead role in the school musical instead of her.

And the manner in which she later ditches Julie to join the cool gang is shockingly cavalier. (Gerwig deftly underplays their later reunion.)

Lady Bird’s romantic escapades — with a gay fellow student and a privileged malcontent — play out in a similarly unsentimental manner.

In the past, Gerwig has been described as Baumbach’s muse.

Here, she steps out of his shadow to further develop her own distinctive voice, a choice that has paid dividends for her personally with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and one Golden Globe.

Lady Bird also feels like a watershed moment for female audiences in general, offering mothers a working, warts-and-all screen version of themselves that they actually recognise.

Their daughters will surely be emboldened by a lead character capable of acts as small and mean as they are, but who is also bold, smart, funny — and determined to take charge of her own destiny, mistakes included.

LADY BIRD

Four stars

Director Greta Gerwig

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts

Rating M

Running time 94 minutes

Verdict Debut director takes flight

Opens on Thursday (February 15).

Fifty Shades Freed is ‘irrelevant’

*

Director James Foley

Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

Verdict Strictly for masochists

BONDAGE, blackmail, babies, bubble baths … and a home invasion.

The first few months of married life are extraordinarily eventful for Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

And that’s after the broodingly handsome billionaire has carried his new wife over the threshold of his private jet for a dream honeymoon in Europe.

As well as wrestling with ordinary, everyday dilemmas such as whether or not Anastasia should keep her own name at work (Christian has rather firm opinions on the matter) and whether Anastasia should go topless on the beach (Christian is unequivocal on this point), the newlywed couple must deal with the clear and present danger of a vengeful character from their past.

And Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s former boss and stalker, turns out to be extremely resourceful.

It’s as if E.L. James was so conscious of her limitations as a writer, she threw the entire plot book at the third and final instalment of her best-selling erotic romance in the hope audiences wouldn’t notice.

In between the kidnap attempts and car chase sequences, the overheated melodrama pauses frequently for sex — blindfolded, in handcuffs, with ice cream.

Almost all of it comes across as fake.

Striking the one true note in this prurient potboiler is lead actor Dakota Johnson who embraces her thankless role with such conviction that she emerges from the project with her dignity intact.

This is no small feat for a woman so thoroughly objectified on screen.

As Anastasia, Johnson must express constant surprise without coming across as awkward or gauche, she must appear childlike while also convincing us that she is emotionally mature, nail subservience without compromising her character’s free spirit. And all of this in a constant state of arousal.

Jamie Dornan doesn’t fare nearly so well. Christian is jealous, needy, controlling. The only thing he has going for him is his wealth and good looks.

There might have been a temptation to remind our daughters to run a mile from such a character in real life — had Dornan’s rendition of Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed not already taken care of that

Many of the women at the screening I attended responded to Fifty Shades Freed as if it were a comedy. Perhaps they are on the right track.

Is the final instalment in the franchise better or worse than its predecessors? The bar has been set so low, that question is as irrelevant as the pop culture phenomenon itself.

Fifty Shades Freed is now screening.

Dakota’s on-set kink adviser

BOTH on screen and off, the world is a decidedly different place for Dakota Johnson since the release of Fifty Shades Of Grey three years ago.

In the sexually provocative Fifty Shades trilogy — critically derided but box office dynamite — her character Anastasia Steele has evolved from impressionable ingenue in the first film, to a steely, married woman of some gravitas in the final chapter, Fifrty Shades Freed, which releases tomorrow, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

And in real life, Johnson’s own evolution has been substantial, thanks to the huge box office success and glare of the spotlight that accompanies it. The explicit sex scenes as Steele fell under the spell of Jamie Dornan’s domineering Christian Grey were confronting to Johnson at first, but she soon came to realise there was more to the role than just bare skin.

“When I started making these movies I was 23 turning 24,” says the now-assured 28-year-old. “I had never done a sex scene in a film and I had not been nude. It was scary but it was a story I wanted to tell.

“Initially, one of the biggest draws to me was Anastasia’s emotional, intellectual and sexual arc over the course of three films. She grows into a fierce young woman who discovers that perhaps her sexual preferences are more similar to Christian Grey’s than what she initially expected.”

But, she hastens to add with a laugh, this is not a case of “life imitating art off screen”.

“This is not what’s going on [with me] and hopefully at the end of the day people will remember that this is a character who is completely separate from me and my life.”

Johnson became an overnight success when Fifty Shades Of Grey raked in $721 million at the box office, from a modest $50 million budget. She was already making her own way in Hollywood, and won good reviews from films and TV shows, such as the 2012-13 TV comedy Ben and Kate, in which she played a young single mum living with her brother, played by Nat Faxon. They were winning siblings and both obviously destined for bigger and better career things.

Even so, her Fifty Shades casting surprised everyone, including Johnson, whose relatively anonymous life as the daughter Hollywood stars, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson respectively, was swiftly relegated to the past.

“Through the success of the [first Fifty Shades] film I had to figure out how to balance my work and my life. I felt vulnerable, physically and emotionally, and then dealing with the massive success, which could have been a very invasive and scary moment. I learned how to compartmentalise it. I have had to remind myself that I do have a lot more [roles] to do.”

Given her family background (her grandmother is Alfred Hitchcock favourite Tippi Hedren), Johnson was inevitably afforded a first-hand education about the world of celebrity and its pitfalls. Even so, does she feel her success was too much too soon?

“No,” she says firmly. “I think that jobs come to you when you’re ready for them or when you’re ready for the experience or the journey.”

The franchise is based on the novels by British author E.L. James about a young woman in a controlling relationship, sexually and emotionally. For Johnson, such a scenario would be unthinkable.

“I don’t do well with that kind of relationship,” she says. “If the other person is fairly controlling I try to figure out how we can collaborate together. I don’t believe there has to be a power struggle.”

She has been in relationships with actor Jordan Masterson, Welsh singer Matthew Hit and was revealed just last month to be dating Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, who appears to fit her ideal bill: “I love to be with someone [who] is supportive and respectful of my job equally as he is of his.”

Her romantic life is not a subject open for discussion today, however.

“I’ve discovered that protecting my privacy is probably the most important job I’ll ever have in my life.”

There has been some debate on the marketing of the latest Fifty Shades film, given its release in the time of #Metoo and Time’s Up and a new-found focus on female empowerment in Hollywood and beyond. But Johnson, understandably, doesn’t really want to focus on that either.

“I can’t speak on behalf of that because it’s not my decision,” she says. “I’m glad everyone’s talking and there’s a sense of solidarity in Hollywood that I haven’t experienced before. It’s a very interesting moment and it’s not going to go away.”

Johnson, meanwhile, came away from the franchise well versed in the art of BDSM through the help of an ‘onset kink adviser’.

“I was taught everything I needed to know and I wanted to know as much as I possibly could. Jamie had to spend more time on this kind of research because my character doesn’t know about this genre of sex prior to meeting him.”

Many actors will regale you with stories of fans confusing them with someone else. Johnson’s tales though are of fans confusing her with her screen self.

“People have thanked me for helping them feel sexually liberated. I don’t think that that’s something to thank me for. That’s definitely something for E.L. James,” she smiles. “I was just a conduit.”

Fifty Shades Freed opens tomorrow.