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With four biopics out of this week’s six movie releases and a further two DVD releases we review dealing with real people, it’s a feast for those who, like our editor Andrew L. Urban, love biopics.

Biographies are the ultimate movie genre; a bit like opera, they potentially combine the rich texture of real life, which often swings from drama and comedy to tragedy and farce, from romance to betrayal, jealousy, greed …. and everything else until death. (I’m not necessarily referring to my own life here … ) I love the biopics genre, even if not every one of its films; indeed, I love movies based on fact for the obvious reason that I’m strange and fact is stranger than fiction. I’m right at home there.

And while on the subject of strange, let’s start with Sagan, the biopic of Francoise Sagan, who shot to fame in 1959 aged just 19, with her debut book, Bonjour Tristesse. This would not be quite as remarkable today, given our constantly renewable need for energetic young people who can be made famous for one reason or another. But in 1959 …. And Sagan went on to live the kind of life rock n’roll people soon adopted: sex, drugs and everything else. Sagan won and lost fortunes at the roulette table, bought and crashed superb sports cars, drank, danced, snorted cocaine and partied, leaving a trail of lovers – male and female - in her wake.

French actress Sylvie Testud plays Sagan; if you saw the acclaimed La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, you’ll recall Testud as Momone, her best friend.

"wild as a mountain river, crazy as a cut snake"

The great thing about biographies is that no two are the same. Take another one that opens this, week, also about a wild woman: Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg are given extraordinary access to Joan during her 75th year, and come away with a piece of work of their own. Joan Rivers is a live running gag, wild as a mountain river, crazy as a cut snake – yet behind the bravura front is an insecure and misunderstood artist. She is a comedic icon who resents that she has never been taken seriously as an actress.

Not even an opulent lifestyle in a New York apartment (Marie Antoinette would live like this if she had money) and a career that threatens to keep going for plenty more years make up for that.

"an explosive mix of taboos and expletives"

This is not a film for those easily offended; her kind of comedy is an explosive mix of taboos and expletives. But she moves us by the end with her sensitivities under the hard make up and plastic skin grafts.

The third movie out this week that falls into the biopic category is the dramatisation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s widely read and highly acclaimed book of self discovery (whatever that means), Eat, Pray, Love. Julia Roberts dresses up as Elizabeth Gilbert and travels to Italy, India, Bali. All the richness of the prose that brings to life her world is lost in a movie that barely satisfies as a visual version of the experience.

"Glenn Gould is the subject of an intimate doco"

But it’s not all about women: Glenn Gould is the subject of an intimate doco (Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould) by Canadian filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont. Toronto-born Gould died from a series of strokes shortly after his 50th birthday in 1982. He had become something of a legend, an eccentric and a man of mystery. Above all, he was one of the greatest pianists of all time, celebrated, adored and very private. And strange.

This portrait is complex, prying into his personality and his character, his strange aloofness coupled with bursts of intimacy. We learn about his hypochondria, his fanatical attention to detail, his imposing control over everything – especially the recordings of his works. Yet no-one speaks ill of him; even those who couldn’t live with him make a point of explaining how decent he was.

Being a fan, I now hear his work in a new, rich context.

"newly remastered Breaker Morant"

Another man who has made his mark in history is the subject of the newly remastered Breaker Morant (on DVD), Bruce Beresford’s outstanding 1979 film starring Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, John Waters, Terence Donovan, Vincent Ball, Ray Meagher, Chris Haywood, Rod Mullinar.

During the bitter South African Boer War in 1901, the (mostly Dutch) Boers are desperate to retain their independence from Britain and mobilize ‘commando’ forces with hardline tactics. A unit of the Bushveldt Carbineers, mainly Australians, are ordered by the British High Command to take the fight to the Boer - and take no prisoners. The order proves fatal to a man they call “The Breaker” – Lieutenant Harry Morant (Edward Woodward) an Englishman whose nickname was earned in the Aussie bush as a horse wrangler, and for Lt Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown). Along with Lt George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), the men are court martialled, and junior lawyer Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) is assigned to defend them.

Released as a premium edition double disc with the whole second disc devoted to extras, this is a collector’s item, worth many repeat viewings.

Gillian Armstrong contributes another – perhaps last – chapter with her fifth film in the award winning documentary series about the lives, hopes and dreams of three lively, working class Adelaide girls, having started when they were 14 in 1976. Over more than thirty years, Kerry, Josie and Diana’s struggles have been recorded for this series. They are now 47 and two are grandmothers.

"genuine and meaningful insights into human nature"

Real life, unlike ‘reality’ shows on TV, offers genuine and meaningful insights into human nature and makes all our strangeness somehow understandable and acceptable … most of the time.

Published October 7, 2010

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Genius Within - The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Eat, Pray, Love

Breaker Morant

Love Lust and Lies

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