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Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Week That Was: Classical Composers, Canadian Americana, Lipstick Lesbians, Crime-Scene Cleanups and Naff Holocaust Films. (Part 2)

OK, so, as per usual, I've fallen a bit behind here. The week that was is quickly becoming the week that was two weeks ago. As such, I'm going to keep the reviews of the three films that I want to talk about rather short - at least for the first two, any way.

Film of the Week: Sunshine Cleaning

Every poster, trailer and promotional item for this film have made it abundantly clear that it is by the same producer as Little Miss Sunshine. They even included the word "sunshine" in the title just in case you didn't yet understand that this was by the same people who brought you (in this case supplied the financing for, rather than actually making) that Oscar-nominated little indie flick from a few years back.

The good news is that it's actually a better film than the somewhat overrated Little Miss Sunshine. It is also much more noticeably a drama than its not-really-predecessor and I don't really understand why so many people have labelled it a "black comedy". Granted, it is a film about two sisters whose lives are somewhat less than idyllic that, in order to make ends meet, open up a cleaning service that specializes in mopping up the often gruesome messes that come in the wake of violent crimes, suicides and long-undiscovered dead bodies. As such, yes, there are some morbid - and some not so morbid - laughs to be had but the film's primary focus is on the two sisters, their relationship with each other and those around them and the way they find meaning in such an unsavoury occupation.

Sunshine Cleaning is a small, unassuming film that puts a very human, down to earth spin on an odd premise that could have spun wildly out of control. It is at times unfocused and messy and it doesn't go too far out of its way to tie up its loose ends but, in a way, that only makes it all the more human. It is sharply written and the direction is effective, if, again, unassuming but it's the performances that really sparkle. Alan Arkin, as the sisters' lovably off-kilter, if troubled father heads up a great supporting cast but the film really belongs to Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the lead characters. That Amy Adams was terrific is of absolutely no surprise to me - after all, in Doubt she managed to hold her own onscreen against veteran heavy-weights, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep - but the equally excellent Emily Blunt was a real revelation for me as I've somehow managed to miss most of her past performances.

Sunshine Cleaning may not be to everybody's tastes but if you're looking for a break from those soulless, mindless American summer blockbusters that are out this year (by the looks of things, aside for presumably Pixar's Up, this blockbuster season should have ended with the absurdly enjoyable Star Trek reboot), you could do far, far worse.

DVD of the Week: Amadeus

Milos Forman's excellent, if lengthy - though the director's cut is even longer - biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may be twenty-five years old but it overshadows even the best of today's music biopics. I may not be the world's greatest classical music fan - though, as long as its purely instrumental, I do like it - but I'm amazed at how much more lively this film is in comparison to something like the dreary Ray Charles biopic, Ray. Forman brilliantly abandons any and all of the seriousness and sobriety that is all too often associated with classical music. Amadeus is a rollicking, inordinately entertaining film as Mozart is portrayed as being every bit as much a character as the biggest personalities in popular music.

Most importantly, while the final hour does occasionally fall into the nasty trappings of the genre (substance abuse, failing relationships), Forman wisely keeps the focus on Mozart's music than his personal life. He does this by telling the story not through Mozart's point of view but through the eyes - and indeed ears - of Antonio Salieri (played superbly by F Murray Abraham), a man who loved and appreciated Mozart's genius like no other but who, as a composer himself, was at the same time murderously jealous of him. It's a fascinating and incredibly poignant point of view to tell the story from and it turns what could so easily have been a shallow telling of Mozart's story into something far deeper and far more profound.

Amadeus is not without its flaws but as both a massively entertaining piece of celluloid and a powerful, intriguing exploration of, among other things, music, genius, jealousy and love, it is a must see for lovers of both music and film.

Rant of the Week: The Reader

Just so we're clear, before I even attempt to rip the bloody thing several new ones, The Reader is a very well put-together and solidly acted film. I can't see this ending up on anyone's worst of the year list and, lets be honest, worse films than this are released pretty much every week of the year.

The Reader isn't a bad movie by any means but that certainly doesn't mean that it's a particularly good one. And it certainly doesn't mean that it deserved to be nominated for the best picture, actor, screenplay etc. of last year's Academy Awards over far more deserving fare like The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or two excellent Clint Eastwood films.

The Reader is a thoroughly mediocre bit of drama that commits the twin cardinal sins of thinking that it's far better than it really is and of being monumentally dull. It is the absolute worst kind of Oscar-baiting tosh that features a bum-numbing running time, a period setting, failed relationships, the Holocaust and that nauseating mixture of endless longing gazes at nothing in particular and earnest whispers. Oh yes, and totally silly faux-German accents that could sully even a good performance from someone as wonderfully talented an actress as Kate Winslet so clearly is. Speaking of Ms. Winslet that she won for acting in a holocaust film should come as a bitter dose of irony to anyone that has ever watched Extras - something that Ricky Gervais picked up on himself.

The film itself is entirely without even a spark of humour, its sincerity starting off dull but well intentioned before soon becoming teeth-gratingly obnoxious. It features characters that I don't care about, entering into relationships that I don't believe in, spouting dialogue that is as stiff as the direction is lifeless. It doesn't even bother to follow up on the occasional themes of interest that it does fleetingly raise in between all the lingering gazes and rubbish failed romances.

Ultimately The Reader is the sort of film that promises much but delivers very little. If you want a great holocaust film, there's an abundance of better options. Failed romances? Court-room dramas? Films of redemption and tragedy? For all of these there are far better options than the Reader.

As for the great Kate Winslet performance? Come on, we all know that she should have won for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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