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Review: Duplicity, Adoration, The Spirit of the Marathon, The Merchant of Venice and Confessions of a Shopaholic

Duplicity posterYou’ll often find me railing against the Hollywood machine in these pages – the lifeless and cynical, the focus-grouped and beta-tested, the bandwagon jumping and the shark jumping – so it makes a pleasant change to loudly praise a film whose strengths are a pure expression of old-fashioned Hollywood virtues.

Duplicity is a star-driven caper movie, featuring terrific easy-going performances by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – playing two former spies now in the corporate security business. They team up to play their two clients off against each other for a secret formula that will change the world, and discover that big business plays for keeps.

It’s true that no one ever leaves the theatre humming the structure, but I must give credit to writer-director Tony Gilroy’s elegantly constructed screenplay and his (literal) ACE in the hole, editor brother John Gilroy. Duplicity is sharp, witty and very easy on the eye: great old-fashioned entertainment.

Adoration posterAtom Egoyan’s new arthouse mystery Adoration is, however, a huge disappointment. High School French teacher Arsinée Khanjian manipulates a student into pretending he is the son of a failed aeroplane bombing terrorist and the film is even more manipulative than that. Pretentious and not nearly as profound as it would like you to think it is, it isn’t the first time that a great director has tried to tackle the post 9-11 world and failed to find the appropriate vocabulary or tone.

The Spirit of the Marathon posterIf you are a long distance runner (or know one), you’ll get a kick out of The Spirit of the Marathon. It’s a straight doco about the people who run that 26 mile 385 yard race – from the elite runners with the freakish, zero fat, body shape to the average Joe and Joanne whose achievement is simply to complete the course. While the film ably showcases a cross-section of the entrants to the Chicago Marathon, it lacks the high drama that would allow it to really break out to the a non-running audience.

The Merchant of Venice posterAl Pacino may be better known these days for his scenery chewing antics in films like The Devil’s Advocate and Scent of a Woman, but he made his name in the 70s as a screen actor of rare power and control (check out the newly remastered Godfather Trilogy for proof). His heart has always been with Shakespeare, however, and his 1996 documentary Looking for Richard was a great illustration of how the Bard’s work can mean so much to a working-class kid from the Bronx.

Pacino gets to take on one of the great Shakespearean tragic villains, Shylock, in Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice (made in 2004 but getting a better-late-than-never release around the country now). Beautifully shot in crumbly Venice, this Merchant is a very well cut (only an hour and three quarters), well-spoken and quite gripping version of a play that is difficult to pull off for modern audiences (although the volume of bare bosomry may prevent this solid adaptation from achieving full currency in schools where it would most naturally dwell). The craggy ranges of Pacino’s countenance are well-suited to the role and he inhabits Shylock with great intelligence and sympathy.

The Jews of Venice were not permitted to own property and were locked up in a ghetto every night. One of the few ways they could make a living was by lending money – technically illegal but a blind eye was turned as they helped keep the wheels of commerce turning. Businessman Antonio foolishly lends money he doesn’t have to his ‘favourite’ Bassanio so that he can woo the fair Portia. He borrows the money from Shylock who instead of interest, or a financial penalty for non-payment, insists on a pound of Antonio’s flesh as bond. Of course, Antonio’s ships sink, his fortune is lost and Shylock (embittered by the loss of his only daughter to a christian) insists on his bond. It is typically Shakespearean that some of the most tricky legal and moral issues in drama should be resolved with the help of some cross-dressing.

Confessions of a Shopaholic posterIn Confessions of a Shopaholic, Isla Fisher is also pursued by a debt collector but, as you might expect, that is where any similarities end. A horrible, shallow, un-funny, rom-com with a mismatched pair of leads Confessions tells the Prada-like fairy story of a journalist who wants to work at Alette (one of the great fashion magazines) but instead finds herself working for a financial magazine on the floor below. There she meets a floppy-haired Englishman called Hugh (no, not that one – if only) and they fall in love. This Hugh is Hugh Dancy (The Jane Austen Book Club) and he’ll be better than this one day. Isla Fisher tries way to hard and she needs to see the Sandra Bullock trailer (playing before this film) to see how this sort of thing is done.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 March, 2009.

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