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Posts Tagged ‘film review

Film | Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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George Lazenby as Bond in "Her Majesty's Secret Service"

Australian actor George Lazenby does his service for the Commonwealth as James Bond in Her Majesty’s Secret Service

This Bond lives up to expectations — it’s action-packed, entertaining and glamorous stuff.

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Written by Darren Smith

1 February 2009 at 12:46 am

Film review: Beowulf (2007)

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World of Warcraft meets Lord of the Rings in this retelling of the classic Old English epic using motion capture technology.

The story is set in Heorot, in ye olde Denmark, where King Hroðgar (Anthony Hopkins) reigns. One night, the King and his thanes are raucously celebrating their victories in the mead (beer) hall when they unwittingly awaken their neighbour, Grendel (Crispin Glover), the village monster and long-time curse for the King. Grendel pays them a surprise visit, and rather than tell them to keep the noise down, tears the hall (and its folk) to bits.

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Written by Darren Smith

6 October 2008 at 9:34 pm

Film review: Fracture

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Anthony Hopkins

If you’re planning a major career change or retirement in the near future, be prepared to meet your sociopathic nemesis. He’ll be cold, clever, calculating and have some kind of obscure hobby.

In courtroom thriller Fracture, Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson) encounters his nemesis in Ted Crawford, played by none other than Sir Anthony ‘Hannibal’ Hopkins. Beachum is just about to leave his district attorney’s office job to practise with major commercial law firm, Wotton Sims, when what seems to be a straightforward murder case lands on his desk.

Enter Crawford, who has shot his wife for infidelity and now faces trial. His prosecution should be a wrap because they have a motive, witnesses and a confession. There’s just one hitch and that’s Crawford himself, who has masterminded a plan for all the players to fall into, just like one of his ‘Mouse Trap’ contraptions. What ensues is a game of chess between Crawford and Beachum, who is desperate to find a chink in Crawford’s armour.

The encounter comes at a pivotal moment in Beachum’s career, just as he is about to make his move into corporate law. In some ways the film is about how Beachum discovers and maintains his integrity in the face of a successful corporate career. Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike, Die Another Day), Beachum’s Murphy Brown-esque senior associate boss at Wotton Sims (and love interest), is trying to get Beachum to drop the case. He has everything on offer, but the all-American Beachum goes for justice.

The storyline is not particularly new or fascinating and, at least for the earlier majority of the movie, quite tiresome. With Hopkins playing the villain, you can’t help but think of The Silence of the Lambs, where Hopkins played the sociopathic Lecter against Jodie Foster’s Clarice . While the relationships are similar (both characters having a curious admiration for each other), Fracture really lacks any of the tension, macabre and thrill of Lambs. The thrills really kick in at the last 15 minutes, and with what, in my opinion, was a rather unsurprising and banal twist.

The shining gold in this flick is the performances from Hopkins and Gosling. Hopkins played Crawford brilliantly — a soft, mild-mannered, somewhat anal and chilly monster, whose favourite past time is manipulation. Think Niles from The Nanny and you’re almost there. Like those glass ball contraptions (a great motif through the film), Crawford is almost endearing, absorbing and comical … but undeniably creepy. Gosling’s performance also stands out. You could pare the film back to these two interacting and it would be thrilling.

A major quibble for me was the romance plot, which was bothersome and tacked on. This part of the storyline seemed a little unbelievable (Gardner is Beachum’s boss and yet everything is quite hunky dory) and not followed up.

One other quibble — product placement. I don’t have a problem with product placement, but in Fracture it was so blatantly obvious that for a moment I thought I was watching an advertisement for Apple laptops.

If you want to see Hopkins playing another villain — get the DVD. Then, again you could just hire out Silence of the Lambs.

This film review was brought to you by an Apple Macbook.

Written by Darren Smith

26 August 2008 at 2:52 pm

Film | Dreamgirls

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The supreme rise of The Dreams

The supreme rise of The Dreams

Just when I thought I lost the capacity to cry and hoorah, after La Vie en Rose failed to summons any tears, along comes Dreamgirls.

A film adaptation of a book and broadway musical, Dreamgirls tells the story of the phenomenal rise of The Dreams, a three-piece RnB group of the 1960s/70s. The story is loosely based around The SupremesDiana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and (later) Cindy Birdsong. Instead, we have (respectively) Deena (Beyonce Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), Effie (Jennifer Hudson) and Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal).

But, Dreamgirls is more than just a story about The Dreams. It’s the story of the move of Afro-American music into mainstream pop culture, timed as it were with the emerging civil rights movement and turbulent race relations of the time, which background the story. At the centre of this story is Curtis Taylor Jnr (Jamie Foxx), manager of The Dreams and based on Mowtown records founder Berry Gordy. The mainstream music industry throws up its own set of challenges, and its Curtis that manages this.

The film owes a lot to the Effie White character, based loosely upon Ballard. Like Effie, Ballard was originally the lead singer of The Supremes until the decision was made to lead with the soprano voice of Diana Ross. Like Effie, Ballard was resentful of the change and ultimately left the group following increasing alcoholism and no-shows at rehearsals. Cindy Birdsong replaced Ballard, who would pursue a brief solo career. In 1974, Ballard was invited to join The Supremes on stage at a special performance. This she did and, although she chose not to sing, her appearance drew ovations from the audience. Tragically, Ballard died two years later aged 32.

The other curious character in the film was Curtis Taylor Jnr, manager of The Dreams. Both groundbreaking and opportunistic, Curtis knows what hand to play and when. Curtis is a contrast to the ‘I got soul’ of James ‘Thunder’ Early (played by Eddie Murphy), who is fun, if not off-the-rails. This is a slightly darker side of showbiz, with the drugs and commerciality that has its own victims. Note the hat-tip to the Jacksons.

The other characters, however, were disappointingly flat. Some character development in Deena would have been appreciated — it wasn’t until the pivotal song ‘Listen’ that some depth here came through, but too little too late.

There are a number of key songs in this movie for me, but my favourite was ‘Listen’, performed by Beyonce. I also thought Hudson’s version of ‘One Night Only’ was fantastic and touching, but surprisingly absent from the soundtrack, as was her ‘Love You I Do’. Hudson’s hit song was ‘And I am Telling you I am not Going’ and to be honest, I just wished she did go when I heard this song. The scene and song would be better given to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, because Hudson was getting a little meldramatically monstrous.

There are some campy and well-choreographed pieces, notably ‘Steppin’ to the Badside’ (another favourite) and The Dreams’ performance of ‘One Night Only’, when the movie remembers that it is a musical in the same vain as Chicago. And a musical it is, as dialogue grows into shudderingly fantastic numbers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, because the first half seemed relatively average. It was looking a lot like a slideshow of moments leading up to the rise of The Dreams, barely allowing me to take a breath — the switch between scenes was like being on a rollercoaster ride. The film needed to just sit with a few moments so they could resonate — a shame because there were some powerful moments.

Dreamgirls is a fun, glam picture, with great performances and numbers — just a little ambitious and glib. I cried, I clapped and I cheered, and for that I am grateful.

Written by Darren Smith

23 August 2008 at 9:42 pm

Film review: La Vie en Rose

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Marion Cotillard plays French chanteuse, Edith Piaf.

They’ve done it — a biopic about Edith Piaf. That small-framed, French chanteuse who I fell in love with as a kid, running into my bedroom dancing and miming to her songs. [Eds note: This is an old review I am posting.]

La Vie en BoozeRose opened recently in Sydney, kicking off the 2007 Sydney Film Festival at the State Theatre (which, for those outside of our city, is a grand old dame of a theatre with baroque trimmings both splendid and gaudy in one breath). And what a venue to see a movie about someone who was both splendid and gaudy.

I am not a huge fan of biopics. Birth, childhood, life and tragic death — we know the storyline and, at least in the case of a musician’s life, it is bound to end in their signature song as they die and a montage of their life plays across the screen (tissues please). So, no spoilers in this review. But being the fan of Edith, I did enjoy it.

Edith’s life reads like the character in Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume. Like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Piaf was born in the slums of Paris and her childhood was a struggle for survival. Her father was a soldier/contortionist and her mother a street urchin. When Piaf’s father went off to earn some money in the circus, he left Piaf with his mother, a madame at the local brothel. The child Piaf becomes attached to one of the workers. No sooner does she develop an attachment than Piaf is torn away again. This is kind of the pattern of her life. Her upringing is the inspiration and food of her music.

A key moment is when Piaf discovers not only that she can sing, but that she can be loved for it. Pauline Brulet, playing the young Piaf singing La Marseillaise was brilliant. Piaf then begins her singing career: first in seedy cabaret, then classier cabaret and then concert hall performances. (I always wondered why Baz Luhrmann never paid tribute to Piaf in his epic-epileptic Moulin Rouge.)

Piaf’s life is one fall after another, and often literally and on stage and on methadone (god knows they had her collapse at least 10 times throughout).

So there you go. Voilà!

Piaf was no glamour queen. She had a small frame, was’t particularly healthy, no stunner, walked around awkwardly and a little boorish. She was from the streets, kind of like J-Lo’s block. She was no Marlene Dietrich, who was graceful and glamorous and knew how to present herself (Lilli Marleen knew her best camera and lighting angles). Nor was Piaf really a performer — there are no grand stage shows here — and, in fact, she was portrayed in the film as being quite terrified of performing. This is all her appeal.

Marion Coterill (Big Fish), the actress who played adult Piaf, was outstanding in here Oscar-winning performance as Piaf. With gorgeous huge eyes (and shaved back hairline and shaved off eyebrows), you really got a sense of Piaf’s vulnerability, cheekiness and frivolity. And I think the great moment for me was when she is singing and you watch her eyes. Initially she is looking for validation, searching for it with her eyes. Then there is a change and she is so enjoying it, proud and confident.

The development of her understated and provincial image, how she deliberately chose to present herself in a very simple way, was fascinating.

Biopics generally tend to emphasise the tragic. The character’s flaws and tragique makes their greatness even more divine, much like a saint.

Sometimes the compulsion to emphasise the tragedy comes at a cost — in La Vie the price to pay was sacrificing some of her more heroic deeds (and less methadone/booze induced ones). One of the unfortunate absences from La Vie en Rose was any mention of her work during the Second World War and her involvement in the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. There are some interesting and funny stories about how she used her celebrity and popularity to help the resistance movement. Piaf has gained a lot of respect in France for her work in occupied France and many of her songs are tributes to the soldiers. It was a shame some time wasn’t devoted to that (in exchange for a couple of those scenes where she looked decrepit/drugged/drunk/collapsed … all what we expect from this kind of movie).

Also, Piaf’s career is presented in the film sometimes as made by men. Some mention of her relationship with Yves Montand (who would also become another major French export) and how she ‘discovered’ him, becoming both his mentor and lover, was needed.

So, yes all grand DIVA tragedy, but she was more than a messed-up bird on a stage.

From a film perspective I also found La Vie en Rose a little clunky and deliberate. It’s almost as if the film-maker went: ‘OK, we have to mention her relationship with Mr A because we have to tick that off the timeline’. So there were lots of really interesting relationships that I wanted to know more about, but alas the plot was driven by the demands of covering a lifetime in 2 or so hours. This is why I think movies like The Queen or Downfall or Capote or Wilde, offer really interesting insights into public figures in history and are so successful. They focus on specific moments where the character is making choices about how to deal with a compromising situation. Often, these moments can reveal more about the person than one hour of childhood explication. Another film is Gus van Sant’s Last Days, based on Kurt Cobain’s last days.

So, I think La Vie en Rose could have been more focused. Then I could read a biography of her life for the detail.

Piaf’s last performance, at age 47, was at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. If you check out the footage, this bird is still standing on the streets of Belleville, Paris, singing on the sidewalk. Piaf, her voice, passion and music makes this movie.

Written by Darren Smith

21 August 2008 at 11:31 pm

Film review: Take the Money and Run (1969; dir Woody Allen)

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Allen plays small time thief and cellist in a marching band, Virgil Starkwell.

Allen plays small time thief and cellist in a marching band, Virgil Starkwell.

Woody Allen plays small time thief and full-time anti-hero Virgil Starkwell, who’s forever slapsticking it up on his path to schmuck-cess

Take the Money and Run (1969) is one of director/actor Woody Allen’s earlier, highly slapstick films before the days of Annie Hall, which is lauded as the measuring point of all things Woody. In fact, it was his second film as director, following What’s up, Tiger Lily?. And, to be honest, it showed.

A mockumentary set in the 1950s, the movie traces the life of thief and social misfit Virgil Starkwell. A whole bunch of people from Virgil’s life are interviewed — his parents (protected from identification with Marx Bros glasses), wardens, psychologists, cello teachers … etc. The interviews really add commentary to a narrative with Virgil as protagonist. He was a petty crim at a young age, despite attempts to do good being a cellist in a marching band. One day, he meets a young Louise (Janet Margolin) and they become (unlikely) lovers after Virgil claims he plays for the philharmonic orchestra. Virgil gets caught up in his own addiction to lying and stealing as he tries to bring dosh into his new family. Each robbery attempt is an unfortunate mistake. In one attempt, he hands a written note to the bank teller demanding money — the teller doesn’t know what the note says (“gum” or “gun”?) and consults the rest of the bank staff. In between abortive robberies, is time in the clink.

This is all very Woody Allen stuff — Allen’s absurd anti-hero who is so convinced of his absurd fantasy that he is almost heroic. Virgil is one of the first. It’s all underscored by Allen’s casting of often younger, attractive female counterparts.

I love Allen’s movies, but I have to say I fell asleep through this one. The slapstick was a little OTT and grew tiresome. Allen’s earlier films were much more slapstick. Chaplin, Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton are his muses, and it certainly shines through in this movie. Gaffs, goofs and blunders. As he matured, the Allen of Freudian slips, Oedipal complexes and the obligatory Hitler joke emerges and marries with his slapstick. And it’s this that I love, but a little absent in this one.

Small Time Crooks (2000) revisits Take the Money, with Tracey Ullman. This is a much better film, no doubt with a bigger budget and after years of refining his art.

It will be a sad day when Allen departs the stage.

Written by Darren Smith

7 August 2008 at 11:34 pm

Film review: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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Isn’t it called PMS?
I’m taking a brief respite from Judgment at Nuremberg for something a little light.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is the 1993 Gus van Sant-directed feature-length female sanitary pad advert with a killer soundtrack that includes the stellar voice of k d lang.

Actually, it isn’t a tampon ad but it certainly had that feel. A feature-length tampon ad for the early 90s. Cowgirls is like a mix between The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and Cityslickers.

I thought the movie was very average. It had all the suggestions of being like My Own Private Idaho, with the kind of beautifully scenic photography one comes to expect from van Sant and a delicious soundtrack care of kd lang.

What is it about? Sissy (Uma Thurman), a woman with oversized thumbs (and I mean oversized) leaves home as a kid to hitchhike her way across the USA. She didn’t pluck her eyebrows and shave her legs, but was encouraged to model for The Countessa’s (John Hurt) new range of deoderant. The shoot takes place at a women’s health retreat in the desert, which is soon beseiged by a bunch of cowgirls with one of them falling in love with Sissy.

I give this 2.5 stars. The half is for the name of Sissy’s love interest – Bonanza Jellybeans.

Written by Darren Smith

22 July 2008 at 11:59 pm