FILM REVIEW: THE PRICE OF FAME (La rançon de la gloire)

ThePriceofFame

 

The Price of Fame (La rançon de la gloire) has an interesting-enough hook. It is based on some true events that occurred in the seventies when two desperate crooks decided to steal the body of the legendary, Charlie Chaplin and hold it to ransom. The film is ultimately a letdown that is plagued by problems with its execution because it is overlong and has an uneven tone.

The award-winning, Xavier Beauvois (who won the Grand Prize Jury Award at Cannes for his film, Of Gods & Men) makes his first foray into comedy here. But The Price of Fame shows that jokes are a lot harder to execute than they initially appear. The film does take some liberties with the truth (the nationalities of the thieves are switched from Eastern Europeans to a Belgian and an Algerian) but it also attempts to have the audience empathise or understand why they undertook such a bizarre act.

We are initially introduced to Osman Bricha (Roschdy Zem), a hard-working local labourer and his wife (Nadine Labaki) who is in hospital because she requires expensive hip surgery that neither of them can afford. Osman’s friend meanwhile, is Eddy Ricaart (Benoît Poelvoorde). Riccart is released from prison and comes to live with his mate and Osman’s bright-eyed daughter (Séli Gmach) to help the latter with her homework as she has big ideas of going to university to become a vet. It is Eddy who has the harebrained idea to steal Chaplin’s body for ransom and Osman reluctantly agrees after facing up to his dire financial situation.

The best-laid plans don’t always work and this is the case here. The events in real-life didn’t succeed and nor does the depiction of these events on film. The pacing is tediously slow and the scenes are far too bland and verbose to sustain your attention. There are some jokes but most of these aren’t particularly funny and the dramatic elements are lacking suspense and emotion and really do not hook you in.

Beauvois also tries to marry up the story with some aspects of Chaplin’s life and even forces one of his characters to play the clown in a plotline that feels needlessly tacked on. The best part of this latter aspect is that it does mean the audience gets to see scenes from Chaplin’s silent films. But the overall execution feels quite heavy-handed and while this is an attempt to act as a tribute to Chaplin, the film boasts anything but a reverential air for the subject matter.

The Price of Fame is very weird but it had an intriguing-enough idea. The film is ultimately letdown by some adequate performances, long dialogue-driven scenes and a plot that seems a little to lightweight to carry a two hour film. At best this movie is inconsistent and it is as bumbling and strange as its two hapless protagonists.

Originally published on 15 June 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/06/15/sydney-film-festival-review-the-price-of-fame-la-rancon-de-la-gloire-france-belgium-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: TEHRAN TAXI

tehran

 

When veteran, Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi was jailed in 2010 and banned from making films this made him even more determined to carry on doing just that. In this time he has made not one but three movies, the most recent being Tehran Taxi. This one sees fiction dressed up as a documentary and it won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. While it’s no perfect film and it does require a suspension of disbelief at times, it is a testament to creative expression and innovation.

Panahi is the writer, director and star of this piece. He plays a taxi driver that is disguised and riding through the streets of Tehran (in some ways the plot, staged reality and minimalist approach are similar to Abbas Kiarostami’sTen). Along the way Panahi meets some very colourful characters who discuss topics that range from the frivolous to those that are more substantial and meaningful.

A teacher and a “freelancer” (read: thief) discuss whether capital punishment is an appropriate crime for theft. Two old superstitious women show how determined they are to release two fish into a spring at noon to escape death while a film school student asks for some advice for ideas when everything seems to have been done before. A man who bootlegs DVDs tries to justify his trade because without him “There would be no Woody Allen (in Iran)”.

A lawyer also features in this cab but it is Panahi’s niece who steals the show. She goes through the strict rules that her teacher has set for her school film project. It actually echoes the Iranian government’s sentiments on adhering to the Islamic Republic’s standards of good taste. The irony that Panahi has been punished for making films that don’t necessarily fit this mould is not lost here.

Tehran Taxi is an amiable enough film with Panahi mostly being good-natured and staying relatively quiet (his most explosive comment is when he thinks he hears his interrogator off in the distance). This guerrilla filmmaking takes place in simulated real-time and the lines are blurred between fiction and real-life interviews depicting a virtual reality. The result is an energetic film showing a humanistic take on life in Iran. It is mischievous and crafty and it makes you think about bigger issues than some private exchanges held in the backseat of a cab. Panahi therefore excels as the driver of this film and remains a determined and entertaining storyteller who can offer moments of breezy and light comedic episodes and others that depict real melodrama. It’s great.

Originally published on 10 June 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/06/10/sydney-film-festival-review-tehran-taxi-iran-2015/

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FILM REVIEW: DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON

national-lampoon

 

Before the National Lampoon lent their name to some terrible straight-to-video films they were ground-breaking. This comedy institution started as a spin-off magazine; graduated to books, radio and stage revues; and eventually yielded cult comedy films worthy of inclusion in Hollywood. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is a funny and energetic documentary that celebrates the riotous history of this brand.

The film is directed by Douglas Tirola and is very well put together. It expertly goes through the background history and chronologically tells the group’s story. There is some swift-pacing, modern-day talking head interviews and lots of actual content from the National Lampoon- like fun photographs taken from the magazine, animations of some of these jokes and snippets from their live revues and radio programmes. Some of this footage is rare or has never been seen before and it shows how fearless, creative and funny the group were in their heyday.

The National Lampoon started after three Harvard graduates named Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman decided to do a spin-off of the Harvard Lampoon, the world’s oldest humour magazine. The founders were all very different characters and a lot of the magazine’s look and feel is attributed here to the late Kenney, a renowned workaholic with an intuitive sense for comedy. Many of the surviving writers, editors, comics and animators associated with the National Lampoon are interviewed for this film and they prove to be candid and naturally hilarious.

The alumni of the National Lampoon reads like a who’s who of comedy with: Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and John Belushi just three actors to have appeared in their works. The writers meanwhile, boast no less than P.J. O’Rourke, Saturday Night Live’s Michael O’Donoghue, and Simpsons’ producers, Mike Reiss and Al Jean. The group’s biggest fans include: Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Judd Apatow, John Goodman and Billy Bob Thornton and they appear here and offer their praises.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon may not be the most comprehensive documentary but it is still an excellent look at the phenomenon that was the National Lampoon. It threads together lots of disparate elements and does this very well. It mostly revels in the glory days of the brand but it is also a cautionary tale of the destructiveness of fame and fortune. This film is ultimately a fun ride through sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It is also a colourful and funny as it tracks the group’s subversive beginnings through to its shocking irreverence to eventually show the influential institution it became. In all, it’s a smart film that fits its creative and clever subject matter.

 

Originally published on 8 June 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/06/08/sydney-film-festival-review-drunk-stoned-brilliant-dead-the-story-of-the-national-lampoon-usa-2015/

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FILM REVIEW: MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN

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Get on Up was the entrée, a biopic on the inimitable, James Brown. But Oscar-winner, Alex Gibney’s documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is the more substantial, main course. For over two hours the audience is treated to a film that is full of music and flamboyance, from old performances on stage and TV as well as a look at the complicated musical icon.

Both Get On Up and Mr Dynamite were produced by Mick Jagger who appears here as a talking head describing Brown’s incendiary performance on the T.A.M.I Show. He is joined by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Ahmir Khalib Thompson (Questlove) (who was influenced by Brown) as well as the Godfather of Soul’s tour manager, Alan Leeds. The long-suffering bandmates of Brown are also featured including: Clyde Stubblefield, Melvin Parker, Maceo Parker, Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis and Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic). Bobby Byrd- the man who took in Brown after his arrest at age 20 and introduced him to The Famous Flames also appears here.

This film is not a warts and all documentary nor is it pure hagiography. The documentary lives up to its title in that it pays more attention to the glory days and rise of Brown and does not mention his later decline into drug addiction and additional jail time. It means there is no real muck-raking but at the same time the filmmaker is at least honest enough to reference Brown’s brutal childhood in the segregated South where he was abandoned by his parents and living with his aunt in a brothel (where she brewed moonshine) as well as Brown’s distrusting and violent nature.

James Brown was a man of many contradictions. He commanded strict discipline and respect from his band and fined them for mistakes even though he often failed to pay them. He was an activist who helped galvanise support for the black power movement but then alienated this same audience when he supported Richard Nixon’s political campaign. The man was difficult and an enigma but his performances were certainly magnetic with his singing and dancing like a thousand watts of electricity.

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is no more perfect a film than its subject was a perfect man. There are some things left unsaid but the good outweighs the bad and this often adds to the mystery and mystique of this wonderful, soul man. James Brown was larger than life and worthy of a big documentary and for the most part this film does that as it’s a fitting reminder of his power and influence and shows one of the few people worthy of the title, “musical genius”.

 

Originally published on 8 June 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/06/08/sydney-film-festival-review-mr-dyanmite-the-rise-of-james-brown-usa-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: MADAME BOVARY

Madame-Bovary

 

Madame Bovary is a pleasant film but it’s an unnecessary adaption. The iconic novel by Gustave Flaubert has been adapted multiple times for film and television over the past few years. But what distinguishes this latest offering is that it is the first one to be directed by a female (Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls)). Here, the story focuses on the female protagonist’s perspective but the result is often a little too slow, nuanced and flat as far as period dramas go.

Our very own, Mia Wasikowska stars and absolutely shines as Emma Bovary. She is a conflicted woman and a heroine that is sometimes a little difficult to relate to. She has humble beginnings as the daughter of a farmer but her hopes and expectations are very high when she marries a small town doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).

Married life is not bliss as far as Bovary is concerned. Her husband proves to be rather boring and safe even though he is also quite logical and practical. What Bovary is left with is a sense of longing for something more. She embarks on some extra-marital affairs with the handsome Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) and a sweet and ambitious young law clerk (Ezra Miller who proves to be an interesting choice). Bovary also attempts to fill the void in her heart and existence by buying too many pointless things from the manipulative and shrewd Monsieur Lheureux (an unrecognisable, Rhys Ifans).

It is obvious that Bovary will eventually become undone by this self-destructive and pleasure-seeking behaviour as this only offers temporary relief of her depression. Things spiral out of control to become a tragic romance story. But this film does take a lot of time to get there and it really only picks up in the final act.

Madame Bovary attempts to remain faithful to the source material insofar as the costumes and settings feel authentic. There have been some changes made to the plot with the most noticeable difference being the omission of Bovary’s child from the story and the shift away from the husband’s perspective. A drawback is that all of the actors use a hodgepodge of different accents from English to American and French. This does leave things feeling rather muddled at times and this is tough because it also feels like a story spanning multiple years has been shoe-horned to fit a period that feels like months.

The film does succeed by having a wonderful score and the sparse dialogue only adds to the intense and lyrical feel overall. There is a lot of silence and close-ups on offer, which lends it a personal and intimate touch. But for all of the positives of this film (not least some good performances from the ensemble cast) this period drama only feels like a decent one and at times this can be chalked up to something being lost in translation.

 

Originally published on 5 June 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/06/05/sydney-film-festival-review-madame-bovary-usa-germany-belgium-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: THE GOLD SPINNERS

TheGoldSpinners1

 

Peedu Ojamaa once had the world’s greatest job. He was the founder and boss of the only commercial film studio in the Soviet Union at a time when the iron curtain ruled and there was a strictly planned economy. Advertisements were unnecessary as there was a shortage of goods due to government controls, but these same rules also specified that one per cent of a company’s budget had to be dedicated to advertising. This was like a licence to print gold and The Gold Spinners (Kullaketrajad) is an Estonian documentary that looks at this strange period in more detail.

The film is directed by Kiur Aarma (Disco and Atomic War) and draws together staged voice overs of Ojamaa as well talking head interviews with some of the directors from the period as well as a pop culture expert, a copywriter, and a model and singer who appeared in various commercials. Eesti Reklaamfilm studios were the brainchild of Peedu Ojamaa who had shown an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age when he asked for the discarded film negatives from the movie, Tarzan, and processed these into photographs, which he sold to his school friends.

From there, Ojamaa worked at the Evening Post as an on-scene reporter before being invited to cover a story on a film studio. When the Soviet Union granted a permit to make advertisements, Reklaamfilm studios was front and centre, as their ads used music, were more sharply edited and contained the things that people actually wanted to see. It didn’t matter if the products weren’t real or available for sale.

For a few seconds before film screenings, viewers were able to escape to the likes of: Paris, London, Finland, Italy or some other magical land. Another strange thing is that the Soviet governments over the years were paranoid about war secrets being released and checked things, but there were no rules or other censorship (like stopping nudity from being shown). The film ultimately reads like the perfect fodder for a segment or episode of The Gruen Planet.

The studio would make some 11,000 commercials and one of the directors even won a Bronze Lion award at Cannes. This documentary looks at capturing some of the more colourful advertisements- like one that was a “Thriller” music video parody, another featuring the Benny Hill theme, a commercial for motorcycles where an animation was used (as there was no bike) and one that even turned up in the film, Borat.

The Gold Spinners is an absurd, quirky and fun film. It could’ve been improved had a little more narrative been added to the story and context, but this is a minor quibble. Ultimately, this documentary is as bizarre as the creative work of the Soviet directors of the time and is easily the most upbeat set of newsreels and archive footage ever. Period.

 

Originally published on 19 June 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/06/19/sydney-film-festival-review-the-gold-spinners-kullaketrajad-estonia-2013/

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FILM REVIEW: DIOR & I

DiorandI

 

Dior & I could be renamed “Dior & Co.” or “Dior & Us”. The documentary film goes behind the scenes at the French fashion house as the new creative director for Dior Haute Couture, Raf Simons prepares his debut collection. After John Galliano was unceremoniously fired amid controversy (he’d made anti-Semitic comments at a Parisian café), the new designer was given just five weeks to create a collection that would normally take around five months to prepare. Luckily, Simons had a small army of dedicated, charming and funny assistants, designers and ateliers (seamstresses) who put in the hard yards.

The film’s title is actually taken from Christian Dior’s own autobiography where he examined himself as both a man and a style icon in detail. Passages from his memoir appear hear in voiceovers. Archive footage and photographs are also worked in seamlessly, meaning the film’s namesake is never too far away.

Dior passed away suddenly in 1957 but his legacy has endured. There are workers at Dior who still believe his ghost haunts the organisation. There is also one scene in this film where Simons visits the founder’s childhood home and reveals that he had started reading Dior’s biography. But he had to stop reading it because he felt intimidated. He needn’t have worried, because the final, 54-piece collection would ultimately be respectful to the past but with enough modern twists and ideas to maintain its current relevance.

Dior & I marks the directorial debut of Frédéric Tcheng who is no stranger to fashion documentaries. The director had previously produced and edited Valentino: The Last Emperor and wrote and co-directed, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. But if there’s any documentary that Dior & I closely resembles then it is The September Issue and not just because Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington make cameos. Like the latter, Dior & Igives us a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the fashion world and shows just how much painstaking work, thought, analysis, creativity and effort goes into haute couture.

Simons’ collection ultimately has pieces that use A and H lines and borrow from Dior’s famous, 1950s silhouettes. The pieces are feminine, romantic and youthful and a big part of this is thanks to the ateliers/craftspeople at Dior. Simons used an unconventional method in designing. He didn’t draw sketches and instead gave his employees 10-12 concepts and had them draw up some 150-200 ideas that were eventually whittled down. The film looks at the whole process from concept to catwalk and focuses heavily on the easy-going, Florence and the anxiety-ridden, Monique who head up two teams of ateliers as wells as Simons’ affable, long-time assistant and collaborator, Pieter Mulier.

At the outset of the film it was difficult to know whether Simons would be able to rise to the challenge of creative director and Dior & I captures this tension beautifully. Simons had the added time pressure and was an unexpected choice at Dior as he had come from ready-to-wear fashion and had built a reputation as a minimalist who helped revive the skinny, black suit for men. But the pressure and stresses captured in this film pay-off with a momentous and gorgeous show at the climax, as walls of a townhouse are decorated with flowers (just like Jeff Koon’s puppy sculpture which sits outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain) and lots of exquisite outfits are shown.

Tcheng’s documentary is ultimately a respectful homage to the Dior name and the colourful employees that work there. The film is as crisp and clean as the immaculate outfits that were shown and the film is full of care and pride for the creative process. The audience will get the sense that this collection was a labour of love by Raf Simons and his merry workers and the same can also be said for this subtle, clever and artistic documentary.

 

Originally published on 15 June 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/06/15/sydney-film-festival-review-dior-i-france-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: GABRIELLE

Gabrielle

 

The theme of two lovers kept apart from their families or individual circumstances is hardly anything new. But Gabrielle is a film that deals with another rarely discussed subject and one that is infrequently depicted in cinemas. It is the love lives of the disabled and this film shows this with dignity and for the most part, it handles things with a deft touch.

The film’s star is Gabrielle Marion-Rivard – who like the character she is portraying – has a rare neurodevelopmental disorder called Williams Syndrome. As a result, she has learning difficulties which prevent her from living the “normal” life we all take for granted. But her redeeming features are that she has a loveable personality, a talkative and effervescent spirit and a passion for music.

Gabrielle lives in a group home which offers her the appropriate level of care and structure for her disability. She also works in an office and is a member of the choir, Les Muses de Montreal, which is led by Remi (Vincent-Guillaume Otis). All of the choir members are disabled and they have a great show to look forward to as they will be joining Quebec singer, Robert Charlebois in concert in the summer.

Through the choir, Gabrielle meets and falls in love with Martin (Alexandre Landry) (his character’s impairment is not revealed in the film). As their relationship blossoms, Martin’s harsh and over-protective mother, (Marie Gignac) tries to stop the pair from seeing one another. Gabrielle’s mother (Isabelle Vincent) is largely absent but her doting sister, Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is supportive of the romance and Gabrielle’s determined quests for independence (even though she has limitations).

This film has a big heart and it offers a sympathetic and dignified portrait of two young people who must deal with society’s prejudices as well as their own challenges to living independently. Marion-Rivard proves a captivating lead and is engaging as she portrays some very relatable and normal human urges like: the need for autonomy, control and independence over one’s life. It means the film is sweet, nuanced and tender and it uses a lot of musical numbers to uplift and reinforce the mood at various points.

But Gabrielle is not without its fair share of pitfalls. The film is set over a few days in the lead character’s life and these episodes (working, going to choir rehearsals, being at home, etc.) have a tendency of being long, tedious and repetitive. It means the story is not as tight as it could be and this results in it lacking strength overall. Another problem is that there are times when the sound is completely silenced. This has a jarring effect on the audience and serves no obvious purpose except to make viewers as agitated and frustrated as the characters at that particular moment.

Gabrielle is an endearing family drama that is led by a courageous, determined and stubborn young woman who deserves full credit for carrying the weight of the film on her small shoulders. The story is deliberately low-key and it is raw in its depiction of the conflict and challenges that befall disabled people. It should also be commended for its choice of subject matter and the affectionate depiction of the characters. But one can’t help but feel like an opportunity has been lost along the way and stopped this film from being the stirring and poignant character study it should be.

 

Originally published on 13 June 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/06/13/sydney-film-festival-review-gabrielle-canada-2013/

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FILM REVIEW: PULP: A FILM ABOUT LIFE, DEATH & SUPERMARKETS

Pulp

 

Pulp are a band of the people. So it should come as no surprise that the film about their last concert performance in their Sheffield hometown is at times more about their fans and the locals then the self-deprecating group itself. Florian Habicht’s (Love Story) documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets plays out like a humorous love letter to Sheffield as well as playing tribute to its most famous exports.

The film is far more offbeat and crazy than Blur’s No Distance Left To Run or The Stone Roses: Made Of Stone. But Pulp’s biggest success is in the fact that it sets off the beaten track, avoids hagiography and rock star clichés of chorus-verse-chorus concert films and talking head celebrities praising the band’s every move. Instead, Habicht takes the microphone to the common people Jarvis Cocker was singing about and lets them give an insight into life in a Northern English town and the eccentric genius of the band.

Pulp’s biggest pitfall is that a lot of their career is simply alluded to and much of the story is actually glossed over. The group are interviewed and keyboardist, Candida Doyle gives a revealing insight into her rheumatoid arthritis. Drummer, Nick Banks also lets us in to see a part of his family because the band sponsors his daughter’s football team (the teenager actually calls the group, “crap”).

But the show really belongs to the star, Jarvis Cocker, or the man that guitarist, Mark Webber describes as having the “potential” to be a common person. The gangly front man is frequently at hand with a funny quip or aside, whether it be taking us through his cold, flu and incontinence medication he packs away on tour to changing a tyre to feeding the ducks in the park. It’s amazing that this shy, awkward and clever man who expresses himself so strongly in concerts and commands your attention so easily, has such difficulty communicating whilst he is in a relationship. The concert footage of their final show on 8 December 2012 proves that this man is a star, albeit an unconventional one.

In addition to learning about disastrous shows and university subjects dedicated the band, the audience is also treated to footage of a colourful group of eccentrics from Sheffield. These include a number of older women (one claims to like the group over Blur while another pair brazenly claim that Jarvis Cocker is Joe Cocker’s son when he’s not). There’s vox pops with Terry the local newspaper seller, a keen knife-maker and two young children who are introduced to “Disco 2000” for the first time. It’s interesting to see some reinterpretations of the band’s music, from a local dance outfit doing a routine to the aforementioned song, to Sheffield Harmony singing “Common People” and perhaps the most striking scene, a group of older people singing “Help The Aged” in a greasy spoon café.

Pulp’s farewell performance is electrifying and is at times at odds with the quieter, observational stories and interviews that pepper this film. The exclusion of many important cuts from the band’s discography may leave some fans reeling while others will no doubt be swept away by this oblique, distinct and imaginative portrait. Pulp were never a conventional band and they were always artists that were difficult to pigeonhole and this concert film/music documentary/mockumentary/bizarre travelogue/rockumentary suits these quintessential British oddballs to a tee.

 

Originally published on 10 June 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/06/10/sydney-film-festival-review-pulp-a-film-about-life-death-supermarkets-uk-2014/

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