Atlanta Film Festival Retro Spotlight: THE SAPPHIRES

Posted on: Mar 19th, 2013 By:

Ed. Note: THE SAPPHIRES played Sunday at The Plaza, but with the Atlanta Film Festival running through Sun. March 24, there are still plenty of movies to come. Check out our top Retro picks here.

Retro Review by Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Wayne Blair’s THE SAPPHIRES is a true-life story about race, war, music and love, a tale about four Aborigine women who rose above hatred and tragedy to represent Australia to the world just months after the country began acknowledging their people’s rights. It’s an incredibly compelling story that’s unfortunately resulted in a less than compelling film that distills the events down to their most obvious, predictable bullet points. The movie carries a tune, but there’s no feeling in the song.

Late-60s race relations in Australia weren’t much better than in the United States, and in some respects, the situation in Australia was worse. A government policy (dubiously presented as protecting black culture) endorsed the outright theft of fair-skinned Aborigine children, who were then raised in the cities as whites—the so-called Stolen Generations. Two 1967 amendments to the Australian constitution granted Aborigines a bank of basic human rights, as up to that point, the official position of Australia, dating back to colonization, was that the people were part of the country’s “flora and fauna.” Unfortunately, there as here, progress was slow to change minds. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell star as a quartet of rural Aborigine country and western singers struggling to find a white audience for their music in 1968. An Irish musician (BRIDESMAIDSChris O’Dowd, playing the Buttermaker role of the curmudgeonly drunk) discovers the girls at a talent show, and the group is soon off to Vietnam to entertain the American troops, but not before using a montage to learn the far sexier and, as the movie puts it, blacker sounds of soul music.

Audiences in love with soul will have the most fun with THE SAPPHIRES as the soundtrack of period tunes is by far the most engaging part of the film, and the production doesn’t skimp on period costumes and 60s flair. Unfortunately, as drama, the movie doesn’t offer very much. THE SAPPHIRES is built as a pleasant crowd-pleaser, coasting along on charm and good music, without a hint of dramatic urgency. Blair and Briggs thankfully ditch the band movie tropes, so there’s no big venue the girls are trying to reach, no agent to impress and no money needed to save the farm. But the filmmakers never find another story on which to hang the film’s characters and themes. Instead, once the gang arrives in Vietnam, the story splinters out into a series of romantic subplots that all play out more or less as you expect. Only once in the film do the girls brush up against the reality of war in Vietnam, and the rest of the time is spent romancing soldiers, singing songs and bickering about who’s in charge.

The Sapphires perform. Hopscotch Pictures, 2013.

Which is a shame, because the film does boast some fine performances from actors who deserved more to do. There’s no movie star, no Beyonce, hiding in the group of girls, and so they’re allowed to blend together as a true ensemble. If there is a standout, it’s Mailman, who plays the toughest of the women and the least willing to be bullied by a world that she sees as inherently unjust. She makes for an unlikely and refreshing romantic lead, and her pairing with O’Dowd is charming and believable. Also making an impression is Shari Sebbens as a person struggling with her racial identity after growing up in Melbourne as one of the stolen children, and her racially-charged tension with Mailman’s character provides an occasional dramatic spark.

In fact, THE SAPPHIRES is most affecting when it takes the time to explore the thorny racial issues of the 60s, including one touching scene that shows the reaction in Vietnam to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, a reminder that the path of racial justice here in the south had many observers around the world. Unfortunately, the film never quite finds its footing in the personal stories as it does in the grander themes. The performances and music are nice enough, but those looking for a deeper or more enriching experience may be disappointed. THE SAPPHIRES is all melody in search of a hook.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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From Robert Mitchum to The Fab Four: A Guide to Going Retro at the Atlanta Film Festival

Posted on: Mar 15th, 2013 By:

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The wait is over as the Atlanta Film Festival returns to screens today, kicking off 10 days of programming (March 15-24, 2013) for all the cinema junkies who need a fix (or merely a break from the cold wasteland known as March at the multiplex). As per usual, the festival is overflowing with content from new feature films, documentaries and shorts to seminars on the business and craft of filmmaking, and meet-and-greets around town. If you’re reading this, the safe money says that you’re looking for retro options, and as the title up there suggests, we’re here to oblige.  Here’s a quick guide to what’s retro at AFF this year, which by the way is headquartered at the historic Plaza Theatre.

Let’s start with the true retro bits of cinema history. The AFF is an Oscar-qualifying festival, so it caters primarily to new films, but a retro gem occasionally makes it onto the schedule. This year, you can get your fix at a must-see screening of THUNDER ROAD (1958). This Robert Mitchum moonshine exploitation flick is a ridiculously fun and culty movie, and it’s playing in its natural habitat at the Starlight Drive-In on Thursday, March 21 at 8:45 pm. There will likely be plenty of audience participation at the screening, and the same can be said of the THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), playing at two midnight shows on consecutive Fridays, March 15 and 22 at its home turf of the Plaza Atlanta, featuring the usual antics of the Lips Down on Dixie crowd.

The Plaza is also hosting an unusual new film with a connection to an odd relic of the early 80s. William Friedkin’s  CRUISING (1980) is something of an embarrassment today, a movie that purports to take a serious look at gay culture but winds up taking several ugly steps in the wrong direction. The cut released in theaters is bad enough, but rumors linger of a much-longer version containing 40  minutes of explicit gay sex and S&M material that would have taken the film to an X rating. The footage is lost, but actor and professional-insubordinate James Franco is teaming with director Travis Mathews to imagine that missing material and explore the nature of filming controversial, or even blatantly harmful, art in INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR, a piece of “docufiction” playing at the Plaza’s upstairs screen on March 21 at 9:15 pm, or directly opposite the THUNDER ROAD screening, so some choices are going to have to be made.

If you’re interested in new films with a retro angle, you’ll want to look out for the Australian film THE SAPPHIRES, an adaptation of a play (itself based on a true story) about a group of Australian indigenous women who become a singing group for the troops in Vietnam only a year after a referendum expanded indigenous rights. The film stars Chris O’Dowd, the funny cop from BRIDESMAIDS (2012), as the group’s manager and has a fairly awesome late-‘60s style soundtrack that’s already found a lot of success in its home country. THE SAPPHIRES is playing the Plaza’s upstairs screen on Sunday, March 17, at 6:00 pm. Moving forward a decade, the new Canadian film BECOMING REDWOOD orbits around a young boy in 1975 who decides to beat Jack Nicklaus at golf as a play to get his parents back together. The quirky dramedy was a big hit at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and  makes its Atlanta debut at 7 Stages on Saturday, March 16, at 2:45 pm.

If you’re into documentaries, consider OUR NIXON, a new doc assembled from an astonishing find of home movies shot by some of President Nixon’s closest aides, like H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. The FBI seized the Super 8 films as part of its investigation into Watergate, and they’re only now being seen by a public that long ago closed that chapter of American history. The footage is incredibly intimate and personal, showing a side of Nixon that’s literally never been seen before on film until now. OUR NIXON plays at 7 Stages on March 21 at 8:30 pm. For a hustler of a different variety, ICEBERG SLIM: PORTRAIT OF A PIMP presents a comprehensive look at the late pimp and author who helped illuminate a shadowy profession and redefine urban style and culture for a generation of young men. The Hughes Brothers once tried to mount an adaptation of Slim’s novel PIMP:THE STORY OF MY LIFE, but the project fell apart. Now producer Ice-T and his longtime manager Jorge Hinojosa bring Slim’s story to the screen. It arrives on Tuesday, March 19, at 7:15 on the Plaza’s main screen.

If you’re familiar with writer and all-around-badass George Plimpton, you know that his resume reads like one of those Most Interesting Man in the World commercials, which makes PLIMPTON! STARRING GEORGE PLIMPTON AS HIMSELF the world’s ballsiest documentary for attempting to fit the story of his life into a mere 86 minutes. They’ll give it a shot on March 23 at 10:45 am at the Plaza. Film nuts will also want to keep an eye out for CASTING BY, a new documentary about the hidden world of casting directors, and how some of the legends in the field helped to shape the film renaissance of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The doc unspools at the Plaza on March 20 at 7:00 pm.

Music lovers will want to look out for two documentaries that shed some light on a couple of major figures. GOOD OL’ FREDA tells the story of Freda Kelly, a girl who started working for a local band and then spent a decade as The Beatles’ fan club secretary” as they became the world’s biggest band. GOOD OL’ FREDA, a film that began life as a successful Kickstarter project, plays at 9:15 pm on March 16 at Druid Hills Baptist Church. Meanwhile, SCARRED BUT SMARTER tracks the career and roots of Atlanta indie rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’ with two screenings at the Plaza’s main screen on Friday, March 22 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, March 24 at 6:30 pm. There’s also an after-screening party happening at the Highland Ballroom, although AFF’s website isn’t clear about whether or not party access is covered in the cost of your movie ticket. Stay tuned.

There’s plenty more happening at the festival, so for further information and scheduling, definitely take a spin on the AFF’s official website. Frankly, it’s exciting to see the AFF fully embrace the city’s many retro venues this year. The Plaza has had a strong relationship with the festival, but 7 Stages, Goat Farm Arts Center and the Starlight are all a part now, making the fest feel even more closely tied to the pulse of the city and its growing film community. ATLRetro will be present at a bunch of screenings, so keep an eye out and introduce yourself! We’d love to hear from you. See you on the other side!

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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