May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, Dean Daley-Jones, Lucas Yeeda)

There’s a scene near the start of this Aboriginal drama when a muscly indigenous man gets into a vicious bar-room fight. For a moment it looks as if director and co-writer Brendan Fletcher’s debut feature is going to turn into an Australian answer to 1994 Kiwi hit Once Were Warriors – an unflinchingly powerful “social problem” picture focusing on the indigenous underclass.  Actor Dean Daley-Jones even looks remarkably similar to that film’s male lead, Temuera Morrison, who played a Maori given to fits of domestic violence. But soon the energy levels relax and the film turns into a gentle road journey in which TJ (Daley-Jones) travels from Perth to the remote Kimberley to see his estranged son Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). In a parallel plot strand, Bullet is arrested for a petty crime and sent to a training camp where juveniles are taught traditional desert survival skills. The film suffers from its too-understated narrative instincts, which see the twin stories often drifting and allows tuneful song interludes by the Pigram Brothers to interrupt the story flow. But there’s no denying the film has real heart, buoyed by surprisingly strong performances from a mostly inexperienced cast who drew on their own lives in creating their…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Pianomania (featuring Lang Lang, Pierre Laurent-Aimard)

This documentary could just as easily have been called “monomania”. It is a character study of obsessive Steinway technician Stefan Knüpfer, a virtuoso among piano tuners. He prepares the instruments for the actual virtuosi, responding with inexhaustible patience to their often nebulous requests. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for instance, wants a piano with two contrasting soundworlds for a recording of The Art of Fugue – an effect Knüpfer attempts to realise, in a rather Chaplinesque episode, with the help of removable sound absorbers and glass sound mirrors.  Knüpfer’s mishaps continue when Lang Lang announces that the piano tuned especially for his solo concert is better suited for chamber music. Comedy duo Igudesman & Joo draw a welcome spark of levity from the technician, whose implacable earnestness does grow a bit dull at times. In fact, the film’s only shocking moment is when we learn Knüpfer has a family. What? A life away from Steinway?  Knüpfer is not the most charismatic linchpin for a documentary, but by god, he’s definitely the man you’d want tuning your piano. And that’s what this documentary is really about – the quest for the perfect piano sound, and the men who devote their lives to it. A…

April 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The King’s Speech: original motion picture soundtrack (Alexandre Desplat)

This Alexandre Desplat score was unfairly passed over for the Best Soundtrack gong at the Oscars. It’s a lovely score: light and airy, but not insubstantial – think creamy butter spread onto a scone. With a simple piano melody and just a whisp of strings, Desplat manages to convey the restrained angst and regal grandeur of the film’s hero. This ability to convey character musically is Desplat’s great strength. He has also created what many film composers think they can do without – a hummable, catchy melody in the title track.

April 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Tempest (Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Ben Wishaw)

Shakespeare’s final play has inspired several films, including the science-fiction Forbidden Planet, Paul Mazursky’s contemporary Tempest, and versions by Peter Greenaway (Prospero’s Books) and Derek Jarman. Now comes a new version from Amercian director Julie Taymor, known for her visually supercharged productions The Lion King on stage and, on film, Titus Andronicus and the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe.  You could be forgiven for anticipating a visually rich experience. After all this is a play set on an exotic island filled with strangeness and magic. It’s disappointing then to see how bleak Taymor’s vision so often looks, and feels. Breaking cleanly away from her trademark extravagance, Taymor conjures up an island that’s nothing but craggy rocks and wind-swept desert. Balancing up the ledger are some imaginative visual effects and bold casting decisions. The protagonist becomes Prospera, played splendidly by Helen Mirren. Russell Brand makes a lively Trinculo in the comic sub-plot, and the casting of African-born Djimon Hounsou as Caliban keys into interpretations of the play as an allegory of colonialism. But in the end the film is rarely transporting; it’s something that feels good for you rather than a poetic marvel to sweep you away.  

April 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Never Let Me Go (Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Mark Romenek)

Based on a novel by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is an intelligent science fiction story that steadfastly refuses to obey genre rules and instead plays out as the high-toned literary adaptation it is. The film is set in an alternate version of England during the 1970s through to the 1990s, a country in which most major diseases have been banished via a social mechanism that only gradually becomes clear. Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley play pupils at a very strict but undeniably strange boarding school. It takes a while to figure out the truth of their situation but discover it they eventually do. The casting is first-rate (Charlotte Rampling plays the girls’ strict headmistress) and the scenario powerful and thought-provoking. At first the film’s subtlety works in its favour by lending it an enigmatic creepiness. In the longer term, however, it tends to stifle the drama. Mark Romenek’s cautious direction is one cause, but you can also blame characters who too often surrender to their preordained fates – they have little to do dramatically other than act out a conventional lovers’ triangle (Andrew Garfield plays the linchpin). Only when the girls team up does the…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Black Swan: original motion picture soundtrack (Clint Mansell)

Clint Mansell is the former frontman of UK band Pop Will Eat Itself and the composer of cult scores for Darren Aronofsky films Pi, Requiem for a Dream and, now, Black Swan. The soundtrack to this ballet thriller is a bold reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  Mansell doesn’t quite have the musical chops to take Tchaikovsky’s score apart himself – but, with the help of arranger-conductor Matt Dunkley, he has concocted 16 tracks of atmospheric instrumental music which dance around moments of high drama in Tchaikovsky’s score. These are given rather silly names – Opposites Attract, A Room of her Own, It’s My Time – which relate to the movie, but say nothing about the music. Still, on the whole, this is an interesting undertaking – Swan Lake seen through a glass darkly. And Mansell has the good judgement and taste to let Tchaikovsky’s music speak for itself when necessary.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up where the previous film left off – with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in hospital with gunshot wounds. Charged with the attempted murder of her father (she planted an axe in his head), she relies on her old friend and lover Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to prove her innocence, to take down the authorities who conspired to keep her locked up and silent since she was 12 years old. There are Russian defectors, dodgy psychiatrists, courtroom antics and more.  Containing none of the excitement or even the elegance of the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hornet’s Nest is cumbersome and way too long. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it’s as though the filmmakers were afraid to upset the book’s squillions of fans by condensing the narrative to make a more intriguing and enjoyable experience.  The performances are all good and there are thrills to be had, but with the book being adhered to so closely there is little chance of getting under the skin of any of the key characters. If I hadn’t seen the previous films, or read the books, I would have been confused.

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