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Saturday, 23 November 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

The history of showbiz is littered with stories of talented people left out of the limelight – valiant professionals whose unsung efforts enabled brighter stars to shine. In this excellent documentary, directed by Morgan Neville and produced by the late A&M Records executive Gil Friesen, the spotlight is turned onto background vocalists, or ‘backup singers’ – the artists whose voices we’ve all heard, bringing life to the hits, but whose faces we’ve never seen.

Those faces, it turns out, are mostly female and mostly black. The daughters of preachers and churchgoers, these women learnt their trade harmonising in choirs and singing Baptist hymns, where the focus was on ‘the blend’ – the joining of many individual voices into a sweet-sounding whole. This mysterious merging is effectively illustrated in the film by a scene featuring the synchronised patterns created by a flock of black birds swooping in unison through a blue sky.
Read the full review by Rochelle Siemienowicz here at SBS Film online.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Farewell My Queen

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

Why do we continue to be fascinated by the doomed and decadent French queen, Marie Antoinette? Cinema and literature keep finding fresh angles to explore and exploit her ongoing charisma, and Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen provides all the pleasures –  and more – that we expect from this subject. There are extravagantly beautiful costumes, stunning cinematography and visions of lavish excess and emotional intrigue. Most importantly, the film offers insights into the (possible) personality and motivations of Marie, that frivolous and pitiable creature whose pretty neck will always be on the edge of the guillotine when we watch her from our historical vantage point.

Watching the queen is also the chief pleasure and obsession of the film's central character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young girl employed in the palace library and called upon regularly to read aloud to the queen. Sidonie's devotion is wonderfully portrayed by Seydoux, whose full-lipped, unmade-up beauty and candid intensity recall a very young Scarlett Johansson (especially in Girl With a Pearl Earring). Rushing along corridors, falling over her skirts in her desperation to please her majesty, Sidonie lives and breathes for the moments she spends in the queen's presence. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) lives and breathes to see and touch her own best friend (and perhaps lover), the pragmatic and cat-eyed Mme. de Polinac (Virgine Ledoyen).
The Sapphic love-triangle element of this plot is never overplayed, though both Sidonie and Marie are shown experiencing all the breathless desperation and anguish of women in love with someone who doesn't return, or deserve, their level of ardour and the final betrayals are breathtaking. Kruger is brilliant at portraying the young queen's nervy absorption in her own romantic dramas, even as the palace walls are crawling with political turmoil and rumours of beheadings.

Filmed on location at the Palace of Versaille (with cinematography by Romain Winding), and set over the course of a few days leading up to the fall, Farewell My Queen is particularly good at suggesting how separate and removed Versaille remains –  a complex social world unto itself, far from the concerns of the French people, right up until the moment when the gates collapse.

A worthy addition to the collection of films about Marie Antoinette, this one succeeds as the ultimate costume drama  one where the clothes are both sublimely pleasurable to look at and also irreducibly meaningful to the story's progression. The sumptuous costume design is by Valérie Ranchoux & Christian Gasc, with every element describing the characters' journey and psychology, from the single dress owned and adapted by the servant Sidonie, to the fine white linen nightdresses donned by the queen as she lolls about in bed. A special mention has to go to that poisonous green gown (it's almost chartreuse, but not quite) worn in the movie's final scenes and featured in the promotional poster. It's well worth seeing the film to find out exactly why it matters.

(Farewell My Queen - released in Australian cinemas by Transmission on Thursday 6 June 2013)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Rust and Bone

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

When disaster befalls us, the pity of others is sometimes the hardest burden to bear. This simple truth forms the premise for Rust and Bone, a sublimely beautiful and surprising tale of friendship, violence, disability and love. When Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) first meets boxer-cum-bouncer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) they have little in common. He’s a brutish single father on the verge of homelessness; she’s a beautiful and haughty whale trainer. But after a tragic accident, Stephanie finds Ali’s no-nonsense physicality and lack of sympathy a blessed relief. An understanding develops between them, but the progress of this couple’s journey towards intimacy is anything but predictable.

Set in the French Riviera town of Antibes, the film revels in both the sparkling seaside and the ugly economic underbelly of the region. Such contradictions and contrasts abound, for director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), together with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Alexandre Desplat, has created a work of art that is simultaneously realist and expressionist; shockingly blunt at times, yet mysterious and profoundly romantic. 

(This review previously appeared in edition 429 of The Big Issue magazine: 29 March - 11 April)

Friday, 15 March 2013

Film review: 21 and Over

Hang on a second: when did March become the month for party movies? Last year we had the aimless, pointless and dull Project X, and this year come March* we get 21 And Over, in which the writers of The Hangover prove they’re not just one-trick ponies by writing (and directing) a movie that’s nothing like The Hangover. For one thing, those guys in The Hangover are way older than 21, right? And sure, this is also a movie about a totally crazy party night in a bunch of guy’s lives, but in The Hangover they were just flashing back to the party the day after, whereas here the party is happening right here and now. Oh, wait, the very start of the movie shows the guys at the end of the night so yeah, in a way this is all one big flashback too.

But this time there’s only two guys: Miller (Miles Teller), the wild, crazy, Jim Belushi knock-off one, and Casey (Sylar Astin), the uptight sensible one. So that bit’s more like Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. They’ve turned up on campus to help their old high school buddy Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) – you won’t forget that name, as they say it at least sixty times during the course of the movie (I counted) in the kind of running joke that’s not really a joke but they sure run with it – celebrate his 21st, even though his evil dad has told him he has to get up early for a big interview so NO PARTYING. But one drink won’t hurt, right? 

Yeah, right: before long it’s the end of the night, Jeff Chang has passed out (okay, that bit’s like The Hangover too) and his surprisingly sober buddies have to find out where he lives, which is the bit of the film that’s kind of like Dude, Where’s My Car?. Crazy things then happen, but guess what? All the movies this movie is ripping off are better than it, so you’re better off watching them instead. A lot of the crazy stuff here isn’t even that crazy: they have to complete a variety of drinking games to make their way through a multi-story party house, but because our heroes never seem to be affected by alcohol, where’s the drama? 

Various dark hints about Jeff Chang’s current situation (why is he carrying a gun, for starters?) are more dramatic and funny, only the film then wimps out on even the mild drama it’s created for a resolution that’s just a whole bunch of hand waving. But they throw an unconscious guy out a window onto a pool and he goes flying into the bushes! So that bit’s like Weekend at Bernies. On the plus side, Teller is pretty good at selling the average material he’s stuck with here, and there’s just enough chemistry between him and Astin to make it plausible that they’re friends who’ve drifted apart since high school. Oh wait, that doesn’t require any chemistry at all. But they do get to make a couple of hot, blindfolded sorority girls make out! Which is totally worth buying a movie ticket for if you’ve never seen the internet.

*presumably these movies are released in March to teach new university students what is expected of them re: their partying responsibilities. Or, more likely, to torment them with a lifestyle they'll never have, what with having to actually study if they want to have the slightest hope of "making it" in today's post-employment work environment.