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Films I Neglected To Review: A.K.A. No, No, Starbuck

by Peter Sobczynski

Short reviews of "Phil Spector," "The Sapphires" and "Starbuck"

"Phil Spector," now playing on HBO, has so many things going for it--screenplay and direction from the great David Mamet, a cast including the likes of Al Pacino, Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor and all the bizarre fright wigs that premium cable money can buy--that it would seem to be a can't-miss proposition but it never quite gets there. Instead of a traditional biopic, Mamet focuses on the time immediately preceding Spector's (Pacino) trial for the murder of starlet Lana Clarkson when attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren) arrives to his lead attorney, Bruce Cutler (Tambor), construct some kind of defense that would explain how Clarkson wound up with a bullet in her head during a visit to Spector's heavily fortified mansion. She hits upon a theory that would theoretically provide enough reasonable doubt to sway the jury but introducing it would mean putting her paranoid and admittedly weird client on the stand as well.

By focusing on such a brief period of time, Mamet has an interesting approach to the material but it ends so abruptly and with so much promising story material still on the table that instead of the expected Spector classics, I had the song "Is That All There Is?" playing on my mental jukebox. That said, Mamet's dialogue is as sharp as ever and as a director (where he has always been somewhat underrated), he keeps things moving along in a crisp and efficient manner and gets solid performances from his cast (Tambor is especially good at capturing the particular cadences of Mamet's writing). As for Pacino, I know he has received criticism in some parts for his histrionics in the title role but I thought his own personal Wall of Sound performance was a good and entertaining fit. If nothing else, he deserves points for not only donning the infamous wig seemingly inspired by Hanna-Barbera but for making it somehow work.

If you took pieces of films as varied as "Dreamgirls," "The Commitments," "Bend It Like Beckham," "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (to name just a few), throw in a soundtrack of the blandest and most played-out Sixties-era hits imaginable and place it all amidst a sociopolitical backdrop that runs the gamut from dunderheaded to actively condescending, you just might wind with something as shameless and shitty as "The Sapphires." Loosely inspired by a true story (and we all pretty much know what that means), the film tells the story of four aboriginal girls in 1968 Australia--three of them sisters living in virtual exile with their family and a cousin whose lighter skin caused her to be removed and placed with a white family as part of an official government policy designed to eradicate aborigines for good--who form a singing group under the tutelage of a cheerfully drunken stumblebum with a heart of gold (Chris O'Dowd) and get a job entertaining the troops in Vietnam. And yes, along the way, they learn lessons about Life, Love, Family, Racism and the Horrors of War in between their gigs.

There is not a single moment in this film that contains even a shred of recognizable human behavior and while the four leads look pretty and sing nicely enough (albeit in the overly plastic style favored by lower-ranked "American Idol" contestants), they display nary a shred of personality between them. Even worse, the end credits features a collection of photographs of the real people who "inspired" the story and the captions alone are infinitely more interesting than anything on display in the film proper. Basically, the whole thing plays like the film version of a stage musical that itself was based on a movie--the kind of thing where all the potentially intriguing rough edges have been removed or reduced to their blandest elements. If this doesn't wind up with a place of prominence on my eventual Worst Films of 2013 list, I will be very surprised. Alas, if this movie doesn't wind up becoming an unexpected hit among viewers who are willing to have their intelligence insulted as long as their sensibilities aren't offended in the bargain.

An enormous success in its native land, the French-Canadian comedy "Starbuck" tells the story of David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), a goofy slacker who is making his first long-delayed steps into adulthood when his girlfriend announces that she is pregnant. Right around this time, however, he gets word from the sperm bank that he donated to quite frequently back in the day that of the 533 people that he unknowingly fathered, 142 of them are filing a class-action suit demanding to know his identity. As a result, he begins to look up some of his "kids" and tries to find ways of helping them with their own personal problems without revealing his true identity to them. The film tries to negotiate a tricky tightrope between outrageousness and sentiment and while it isn't especially awful by any stretch, it never really catches fire either as a flat-out comedy or as something more heartwarming. In other words, when the inevitable American remake comes along--and when I say "when," I mean "in a few months with Vince Vaughn in the lead--my guess is that outside of the change in language, there will be hardly any difference between the two.

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originally posted: 03/29/13 09:23:34
last updated: 03/29/13 09:37:28
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