Tag Archives: B-

THE SAPPHIRES

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A musical crowd-pleaser that hits every predictable note in working its way to a triumphant conclusion, “The Sapphires” replaces the Irish background of “The Commitments” with one focused on Australian Aboriginal culture but is obviously cut from the same cloth. But it’s not a bad pattern, and it’s easy, and relatively painless, to be won over by the picture’s good-heartedness—and its stream of irresistible tunes.

Aboriginal writer Tony Briggs has teamed with Keith Thompson to adapt his play, based—very loosely, it appears, on the experiences of his mother—for the screen. It concerns a quartet of young women who combined to form a soul group that toured US army bases in Vietnam during the 1960s. That tour represented a triumph for the struggle against long-standing prejudice against Aborigines in Australia and, at least in this telling, brought romance to some of the girls.

The members of the Sapphires, as the “Cummeraganja Songbirds” came to be called, were three sisters—feisty, abrasive Gail (Deborah Mailman), submissive Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and teen Julie (Jessica Mauboy)—who all live on the equivalent of a reservation, and mixed-race cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), whose lighter skin took her away from her family to a state-operated school that taught her a sense of condescension toward her extended family. They’re brought together—and cajoled from their preference for country-western repertoire to the Motown sound—by Irish expatriate Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a boozy keyboardist who hears the three sisters at a local talent contest where they were dissed by the bigoted crowd and thinks they have promise.

It’s Dave who persuades their dubious parents to allow the sisters to go off to Melbourne for an audition before military types and who molds the four girls into an ensemble in which Julie, who has the strongest voice despite being the youngest, becomes lead singer. He also must serve as a reluctant referee between Kay and Gail, who resents her cousin for having distanced herself from her roots and “passed” for white.

And it’s O’Dowd who serves as the real sparkplug of the movie, tossing off humorous lines with deadpan glee while maintaining a nice balance between quirkiness and warmth. He also manages to make Dave’s relationship with Gail—which formulaically mutates from snarky hostility to love—engaging, if only barely credible. Meanwhile Kay strikes up a romance with an American pilot (Tory Kittles) whose skin is much darker than hers, while Julie’s central position in the group begins to go to her head and she finds herself courted by a major promoter.

While the more intimate material progresses—not entirely smoothly, from a narrative standpoint—the girls and Dave are hopping from camp to camp, allowing for a succession of toe-tapping musical numbers that will bring a smile to the faces of the nostalgically inclined. And in the end they’re the soul of the movie, in more ways than one. The technical package—including Warwick Thornton’s cinematography and Tess Schofield’s costumes, which contribute enormously to the period detail—is excellent even when the picture stumbles in terms of background historical accuracy.

“The Sapphires” doesn’t always mix its anti-prejudice message and its feel-good nostalgia with complete smoothness. But despite some ragged edges it provides a reasonably good time.

BLANCANIEVES

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This isn’t your great-grandfather’s “Snow White,” but formally it certainly resembles the sort of movie he might have seen back in the day—a silent, black-and-white melodrama filled with heightened emotion and eye-catching use of light and shade. In that respect “Blancanieves” is essentially a cousin to “The Artist,” but it’s too strange and moody piece to replicate the success of that crowd-pleasing (and Oscar-winning) Parisian homage to early Hollywood filmmaking. Cinema buffs will find it an intriguing curio, though.

The setting is 1920s Spain, and the heroine a little girl named Carmencita (Sofia Oria), daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and flamenco dancer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta). When Antonio suffers a crippling injury at the horns of a bull in the ring, Carmen goes into labor and dies giving birth to the child, who’s turned over to her grandmother Dona Concha (Angela Molina) to raise. Meanwhile Antonio, confined to a wheelchair, foolishly weds Encarna (Maribel Verdu), the nurse who turns out to be more interested in his money than his companionship and fools around openly with the chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce).

Carmencita has a carefree childhood with her grandmother and her favorite pet, a scene-stealing rooster named Pepe, until Dona Concha dies and the girl falls under the control of her wicked stepmother, who becomes a Cinderella-like servant. But though she’s forbidden access to her invalid father, she sneaks into his room in one of the picture’s most entrancing scenes, and they develop a secret bond. No sooner does Antonio die, however, than Encarna directs Genaro to kill the girl (now played by Macarena Garcia). The sequence in which he attempts the deed is pretty terrifying, but she’s rescued by a travelling troupe of little people, who give comic shows as the Bullfighting Dwarves; and though she suffers amnesia as a result of her near-death experience, watching them leads her, now called Blancanieves, to remember the tips her father had given her, and she enters the ring herself, soon becoming a celebrity in her own right.

That attracts the notice of Encarna, now the very model of an ambitious pop-culture icon, and she plots to do away with the girl using a poisoned apple. She doesn’t quite succeed, however, and in a poignantly elegiac finale, the sleeping beauty is an attraction in a travelling carnival, lovingly tended by Jesusin (Emilio Gavira), the dwarf most devoted to her, while customers are invited to pay for the privilege of trying to awaken her with a kiss.

Obviously writer-director Pablo Berger has toyed with the element of the original tale, giving them a strongly Iberian cast and a tone very different from the Brothers Grimm. But most of the adjustments work well enough, juggling humor, pathos and menace to good effect, and Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography artfully employs the conventions of early twentieth-century filmmaking to give the film an entrancingly antique texture. The performances represent major contributions to the overall effect, with Oria and Garcia equally magnetic as the title character at different ages and Gavira nicely leading the colorful band of travelling players. Of course, as in a Disney cartoon, the quality of the villain is an important consideration, and Verdu’s extravagantly evil Encarna certainly fills the bill, with Ponce an able factotum in her malevolent plans.

As with “The Artist,” there’s a self-conscious artificiality to “Blancanieves” that keeps it from becoming a more than a cannily calculated stunt. But especially for those who appreciate actual silent films, it should prove an engaging one.