Film reviews: The Sapphires | People Like Us | Alps | My Brother the Devil

Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks star in 'People Like Us'
Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks star in 'People Like Us'
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Alistair Harkness reviews the latest cinema releases.

The Sapphires (PG)

Directed by: Wayne Blair

Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell

* *

THIS desperate-to-please Australian comedy about an all-girl group of soul-singing Aboriginal sisters who secure a gig entertaining the troops in Vietnam plays like mix of The Commitments and Good Morning Vietnam with all the rough edges and emotional complexities smoothed away. A resting-on-his-laurels Chris O’Dowd takes the lead as Dave, a boozy keyboard player who stumbles upon harmonising sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) at an Outback talent contest in which their victory is denied on overtly racist grounds. Despite existing in a semi-permanent alcoholic fuzz, Dave recognises a good thing when he sees it and agrees to be the girls’ manager, changing their name to The Sapphires and their style to Supremes-style soul. It being 1968, there’s certainly demand for their brand of earthy entertainment – the trouble is that the demand for it is in war-torn Vietnam, not the regressive, racist provinces of the Australian Outback. Adapting the film from a musical loosely inspired by the experiences of co-writer Tony Briggs’ own mother and auntie, director Wayne Blair sticks rigidly and depressingly to formula here. Never missing an opportunity for a feelgood montage, his characters’ spiky attitudes, diamond-in-the-rough talent and romantic inclinations are telescoped into palatable narrative chunks all soundtracked to a greatest hits collection of heard-them-a-million-times-before soul standards. In between the film pays lip service to racial issues, particularly as one character’s backstory is tied up with the Australian government’s despicable policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families and placing them in care (a policy that wasn’t ended until 1971). Alas the film has about as much interest in using this in any meaningful ways as it does in exploring the complexities of the war in Vietnam. True, that’s perhaps asking too much from a film intended as a feelgood bit of fluff, but exploiting a tragic backdrop purely to add some interest to the otherwise dull love story unfolding between the gobby Gail and the sweet-underneath-it-all Dave leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s too bad because the cast are immensely likeable, which makes the poverty of ambition in telling the story all the more galling. It’s a film that could easily be modified to take place anywhere, which isn’t so much a sign of its universality as its lack of the one thing that should be integral to this specific tale: soul.

People Like Us (12A)

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman

Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfieffer, Olivia Wilde


MORE used to scripting mega-grossing movies for Michael Bay, Transformers screenwriter Alex Kurtzman’s directorial debut is the sort of transparently over-determined family drama that slick Hollywood screenwriters more used to crafting explosion-heavy action tend to think constitutes truthful human storytelling. Essentially a sub-Cameron Crowe vomit-fest, it stars Chris Pine as Sam, a career-obsessed corporate facilitator who reluctantly returns to LA from New York for the funeral of the semi-famous, record-producing father he grew to despise. Already up to his eyeballs in debt, his opinion of his deceased dad doesn’t improve much upon learning that all he’s been left in the will is a collection of vinyl and an instruction to deliver a soap bag containing $150,000 to Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mother who in her own way is as screwed up as Sam. The film reveals the precise relationship between these two early on, but delays the revelation for Frankie by having Sam insinuate himself into her life without letting on who he really is. In other words, he operates for most of the movie like a psycho, but because Kurtzman is setting up a honking emotional pay-off, we’re expected to find his behaviour adorable. It’s that sort of movie.

Alps (15)

Directed by: Giorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Stavros Psyllakis, Johnny Vekris

* * *

GREEK director Giorgos Lanthimos follows up the strange, brilliant (and bizarrely Oscar-nominated) Dogtooth with an even more out-there slice of weirdness. Once again taking place in a world that seems familiar if a little off-kilter, Alps constrains its characters not so much by their physical surroundings (as was the case with Dogtooth), but by the situation in which they find themselves. Working under the auspices of the eponymous organisation, the film’s group of oddballs – comprising a gymnast, a coach, a paramedic and a nurse – are encouraged to interact with the public as part of a service that amounts to an extreme form of grief counselling: for a fee they will pretend to be the recently deceased relatives of paying clients, living in their house, walking in their shoes and effectively filling an emotional void in order to ease the suffering of their nearest and dearest. But as soon becomes clear, they may also be unwittingly facilitating their clients’ less-than-savoury desrires. Lanthimos explores all this in oblique fashion and while the concept is ultimately a little too abstract for its own good – rarely does it connect the way Dogtooth did – no-one else is making films like him.

My Brother the Devil (15)

Directed by: Sally El Hosaini

Starring: James Floyd, Fady Elsayed, SaÏd Taghmaoui

* * * *

TAKING its cues from La Haine (right down to the casting of Saïd Taghmaoui in a supporting role), Sally El Hosaini’s debut film offers a more nuanced and enlightened take on urban youth culture than the crop of “Broken Britain” exploitation films that have sprung up in recent years. Set on a crime-ridden Hackney estate, it revolves around siblings Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed) as they negotiate the tricky path to adulthood without falling victim to the usual gang-related traps into which the sons of Muslim immigrants – at least according to this film – so often fall. If this sounds achingly predictable, though, Hosiani keeps things interesting by throwing a curveball into the mix in the form of a sexual awakening that threatens to tear these siblings apart with more force than the drug dealers eager to capitalise on their potential earning power can muster. Keeping melodrama at bay with a poetic visual style that takes care not to simply present the characters’ environment as an urban jungle from which there’s no escape, Hosiani also gets a remarkable performance from first time actor Fady Eslayed, whose rawness compliments the more experienced Floyd in a way that further freshens their fraternal dynamic.