Friday, January 07, 2011

Bitesize Reviews of "Burlesque" & "The Way Back" (2010)

Directed by Steve Antin
Starring: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Kristen Bell
Grade: B -

"Burlesque" will probably be most famous because it should have been awful and actually manages to survive, despite being the brazen, contrived vehicle for Christina Aguilera that one might suspect. It sidesteps a lot of eye-rolls and shaking of heads through being so upfront, bold in its all-guns-blazing approach to, not only the musical showpieces, but the steadfastly-thundering, admittedly modest plotline. Aguilera's Ali, for instance, isn't given an abusive spouse, a mob of gangsters, or some other clichéd reason to escape from her small, gloomy hometown, because there doesn't need to be a demon to evade. Purely and simply: she has talent, and it isn't serving her where she is. Hello the bright lights of L.A., and the Burlesque club run by the formidable Cher, occasionally great in a role that resembles that of a brothel Madam.

Kristen Bell's jealous alcoholic tramp and Cam Gigandet's gratuitously naked barman are very standard representations of the "bitch" and the "boyfriend" respectively, and Eric Dane's sleazy businessman recalls the worst parts of The Devil Wears Prada (i.e. Anne Hathaway's tryst with Simon Baker.) But even as it compartmentalises its peformers, the film shows them on the edge of their abilities, capabilities, existence, and promotes these people in a way that you rarely see anymore. They're often celebrated for their flaws rather than chastised for them, and "Burlesque" ingratiates itself by not taking its characters or their hangups so seriously until it needs to manoeuvre the romance and triumph in the narrative.

"Burlesque" stays afloat mainly because it sells every bit of its premise, enjoyably infatuated with its setting, the theatricality of the art its depicting, and resoundingly fierce about the near-extinct status of the art form in contemporary culture. It's invigorating to see a film with this amount of passion in it.
Not immaterial but forgivable, the flaws of "Burlesque" read as a confession that showcase is the primary concern, and that's a difficult value to begrudge.

The Way Back
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan
Grade: C+

It isn't really perceptive — or even informative — to divulge that Peter Weir's "The Way Back" is a true story, given the obvious allusion of the film's staunchly-laid sentiment. Chronicling the escape of prisoners in a Soviet POW camp during World War II, the film features familiar archetypes of men drawn together through imposed confinement: the whiter-than-white hero, the wise old owl, and the opportunistic villain. Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell play their roles very well; the modest, careful approach towards the casting perhaps only blighted by an intermittently shaky showing from Ronan.

The problem with "The Way Back" is that the nature of the story isn't a novel one, and the lineated storytelling is desperately short of incisive drama. The journey that the group make across the borders of Russia, Mongolia and Tibet feature perfectly legitimate pitfalls of hunger, thirst, and the struggle against torrid weather and terrain, but these elements aren't enough to sustain much interest. It reads as too faithful to the story, too cloudy when it comes to certain characters, and often feels only concerned with Sturgess's Janusz. With a narrative this traditional it needs to be immersive for the viewer, and "The Way Back" really never gets there, familiar and fatefully plain in expressing humanism.

For all of the faults of Stephen Daldry's The Reader it at least manages to manipulate an already strongly-founded relationship and create an investable arc. "The Way Back" employs similar techniques in its closing act to illicit emotive response: a result that sees it limp across the finish in a marginally more competent manner than its weary protagonists, and almost as aimlessly.

1 comment:

Brittani Burnham said...

Dang, I'm sorry to hear that about 'The Way Back.' I really want to see that.