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The Sapphires

10 Apr


Synopsis: “It’s 1968, and four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain the US troops in Vietnam.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

This movie was a big hit back in Australia, but really flew under the radar in America – as most “foreign” films do. In this case there’s no excuse by people who don’t like to read subtitles, because unless you have an American brain that’s unable to process accents, there should be no problem. (On a side note, am I allowed to write that it sounds ignorant when people state that they “don’t like foreign films”? Is that supposed to be another way of saying “I don’t like to read”?)

This likable little movie is based on the true story about a white drunk man who sees the potential in a group of Aboriginal girls to turn them into a singing group, and take them to Vietnam to perform for the troops. This being the 1960’s the movie obviously involves strong elements of racism, but the movie focuses less on the external elements against them, and is more about their own internal dynamics. For American audiences, seeing Aboriginal actresses will be less familiar, and it was quite refreshing to my eyes; and of course Chris O’Dowd continues to be extremely likable and funny. (Two of his more well-known roles would be the Irish cop in Bridesmaids, and as Jessa’s husband in Girls.)

The movie was a cute little “rise to stardom” story which was made solidly and competently, and packaged this true story dramedy-musical into an enjoyable flick. If you’re curious to know more about these girls, here is a “where are they now” story for your reading pleasure. It wasn’t anything you needed to see in theaters, but is certainly a decent option for an iTunes download.

The movie was better than Joyful Noise, a completely boring flick that is also about a group of people trying to move from gospel to popular music. The movie wasn’t nearly as good as That Thing You Do! Admit it, the second I mentioned That Thing You Do! you were already humming this song in your head.

Quality Rating: B (Everything about it was competent, and interesting, but it was basically a really good TV movie.)

Boaz Rating: B+ (Put Chris O’Dowd into a movie and it gains a bit of an edge.)

42 (My First Attempt At A Short Review)

31 Mar


Synopsis: “The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours, 8 minutes)

The first of MANY movies I am behind on reviewing since my blog-hiatus. Now to see if I’m actually capable of making good on my promise from a few days ago: keeping them SHORT. One thing going in my favor is that all of this time removed from actually seeing the movies makes me forget so many details, so I must have less to say, right?!

This movie – by now out on DVD – is an extremely well made, likable and earnest biopic about Jackie Robinson. I point out its earnestness because that is a trait that (with good reason) can take away from the quality of a movie. To give you examples of the spectrum of schmaltz versus rawness:

Schmaltz – Most Spielberg movies, as previously discussed in my review of (the very good film) The Impossible

Rawness – One of my favorite movies of the past few years, End Of Watch.

To best put a finger on one versus the other, an earnest movie with schmaltz will usually swell the music during key moments, and make sure that there are lines throughout the movie that really…put…a…lump…in…our…throat. The raw movies, on the other hand, usually rely on the story and images to speak for themselves, and when they are effective they can wow me like no other.

This isn’t to say I consider one to be “better” than another, they are simply very different techniques, and some people will argue that schmaltz is a lazy way to manipulate the audience, I would argue that one of the reasons I GO to the movie theater in the first place is to be manipulated by the filmmaker… within reason.

So what about 42, which contains impassioned speeches, swelling music, and earnest acting performances? I really enjoyed it, from start to finish. An interesting movie that allowed me to learn more about the man who “crossed the color barrier” in my favorite sport, all done with really solid acting. Far and away the most memorable performances came from Harrison Ford and Alan Tudyk. Harrison Ford is an actor I really miss. Two of my favorite all time roles are Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and I can’t even start to imagine anyone else with the charisma or machismo to fill those shoes as perfectly. But for the past 17 years or so he’s really done nothing memorable (yes, Air Force One was 17 years ago). Since then he grumbles his way through roles the same boring way he grumbles his way through real life interviews, and it’s frustrating for a fan like myself. (Here is a blurb that awesomely sums it up.) In 42 however he was funny and I actually found myself rooting for him to get his first nomination since 1985 (for Witness).

Alan Tudyk, on the other hand, is always amazing, and usually he’s amazingly FUNNY (if you haven’t yet seen the maddeningly short-lived Joss Whedon show Firefly, go rent/stream it now). In 42, he plays the horribly racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, and in one particular scene it’s actually hard to believe just how far he took his words, and you can actually get a vicious TASTE of the power of hateful words. It’s a scene that probably leaves most audiences stunned, and Alan Tudyk really nailed it. Here is a blurb that describes the authenticity of that historic scene.

Overall I really enjoyed watching this inspiring movie with Adi and Cindy, and I believe we all left with relatively similar thoughts: it was schmaltzy, but still quite good.

The movie was better than For Love Of The Game, a really forgettable Kevin Costner baseball flick, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to Field Of Dreams, a Costner baseball movie that is INCREDIBLY schmaltzy, and will make most grown men cry.

Quality Rating: A- (I would give it a B+, but the Tudyk scene was too good to brush off.)

Boaz Rating: A-

Review Rating: F (I failed at my task to actually write a SHORT review – better luck next time!)

Emperor (“My Thoughts On Movies Being ‘Based On A True Story'”)

22 Mar


Synopsis: “As the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Gen. Fellers is tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya, an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 38 minutes)

There is a certain phrase all of us have seen in countless previews, posters and taglines for movies: “Based on a true story”. How much impact do those words have on your desire to see it? Do they actually affect your final judgment of how the movie made you feel, and how much you enjoyed it?

I have asked the question to dozens of friends over the years, when I have my typical “what movies do you like?” conversation. (You think I don’t know what flicks each of my movie-buddies will be interested in before they are released to theaters? Trust me, I quickly figure it out!) About half of my friends have replied that they love watching this type of film. In fact I have come to realize that along with comedy, drama and horror, being “Based on a true story” has become its own genre as much as the others. I have then followed up the questioning with, “What if the movie was exactly the same, and the ONLY difference was that it was completely fictional?” The answer by those same people more often than not: “In that case it depends if the movie is actually good”. Wait a minute, so a movie based on a true story doesn’t have to be any good to be of interest? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most movies – even many of the lousy ones – but I’m supposed to be the exception; I have a movie obsession after all! The rest of the movie-going world is supposed to have more discerning taste, but it appears that many fans of biopics and “true stories” simply want a good old-fashioned history lesson, whether it’s about getting six Americans out of Iran (Argo), the unlikely story of a Jamaican bobsled team (Cool Runnings), or  the American deliberation about whether to arrest Japanese Emperor Hirohito immediately after World War II (Emperor). 

If I had to admit where I fall in this debate, I’d say that I’m somewhere in the middle. If the historical topic simply isn’t of interest to me, then I will not be swayed in the slightest by the fact that it happens to be a true story. I will enjoy or be bored by the movie solely based on the quality or entertainment-value of the movie itself, no differently than if it was a work of fiction. An example of this would be Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, a true story about a golfer which doesn’t perk my historical interest, and the movie actually bored me when watching it. On the flip-side the film Miracle is about hockey, which interests me about as much as golf, but it is such an inspiring and exciting one that although it was wonderful knowing it was true, that is certainly not WHY I enjoyed it. At the same time, if I have a preexisting interest in the subject matter, then I will absolutely love the movie if it’s done well (i.e. Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), and I will cut it a lot more slack than I otherwise would if it is only mediocre, as with Emperor.

This is a subject I felt completely ignorant about when entering the movie: post-war Japan, and America’s role in deciding who was going to be charged with war crimes and who could be left in power. Japan had recently surrendered, and much of the USA was looking for “justice” from anyone responsible for the devastation wrought by the Japanese (in particular Pearl Harbor). As such, Matthew Fox’s character of General Fellers is tasked by Tommy Lee Jones’s General MacArthur to determine whether Japan’s highly revered Emperor Hirohito should be arrested and tried for war crimes. From the moment the movie began I was absolutely riveted because I felt completely clueless about this important part of our history, and everything else was seen through those biased eyes as a result. (I watched it with my friend Pamela, and it turned out she was on the exact same page about the movie, for entirely the same reason.)

I will therefore attempt to break down the technical merits or negatives of the movie, with as little bias as possible:

Acting – Tommy Lee Jones is always dependable, solid, and rarely out of his comfort zone as a serious, authority figure. He is just as good and unsurprising as ever as the iconic General MacArthur. Matthew Fox is certainly the focal point of the film, and does a solid, earnest, but somewhat safe and boring job investigating the potential crimes of the Emperor. I kept thinking about how much more dynamic Tom Cruise was in a similar role interviewing and investigating people in A Few Good Men. The most interesting roles of the movie come from some of the supporting Japanese characters who are being investigated. They are portrayed with a delicate balance of severe nobility, where you could sympathize with their inner sense of pride and honor that played such a huge part in their psyche during the war, but also doesn’t let them off the hook for their own brutal atrocities. Honestly the Japanese characters are probably portrayed with more depth and range than most of the one-dimensional Americans in the movie.

Romance – Lest I forget, the major subplot threading throughout the movie is Matthew Fox’s character searching for his long-lost Japanese love. This should have been the emotional core of the movie, but it is never developed well enough to make me care. Through a series of flashbacks that mostly made me wish I was watching Fox in Lost again, you see their characters meet-cute, and you kind of see them get together, but you never get that key scene where you feel WHY they love each other so much. That is simply the key to making the audience care about the characters, and it simply is missing from the movie. Thus the rest of the movie which hinges so much on this romance is simply not emotionally involving, and that’s a shame since it would have been so easy to add that one extra scene that could have connected them to the audience and avoided this emotional disconnect.

Direction – The director Peter Webber does not do anything particularly memorable here, but also does a competent job throughout the film. It felt like watching a really solid TV-movie about a fascinating subject. Peter Webber made two movies of note in the past: the very good little art-house film Girl With A Pearl Earring, and the disappointing but still interestingly made Hannibal Lecter prequel, Hannibal Rising. I feel like Webber went from having some sort of style and signature on his previous movies, to completely playing things safe with this one, which could have been made by anybody out of film school.

Story – This is what it all boils down to: the story was absolutely fascinating. I realized that the writing and the characters were often clichéd, and the romance didn’t reach me emotionally, but I just loved watching this under-reported (in movies at least) piece of history. I loved the detail put into the casting of each character and the intricacies of their clothing, something you can totally appreciate when the film ends and the real people are shown in photographs on the screen. It’s a history lesson I’m surprised I haven’t seen in movies until now, and it really poses quite the dilemma: On the one hand if the Emperor would be found liable for war crimes, much of the world would celebrate his demise much like they did with Saddam Hussein’s. On the other hand, if you took Japan which had surrendered and was being peacefully compliant, and arrested a man who they saw not only as a ruler but as somewhat godlike, then how much damage could that do to the fragile peace that had been achieved? And on top of that of course lies the question of what his actual guilt and culpability truly was during the war.

This brings me back full circle. I was absolutely fascinated, because it is a part of history that was of huge interest to me. I enjoyed watching it from the second I learned it was “Based on a true story”.

The movie was better than Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers, an earnest but surprisingly boring true story of the American/Japanese conflict in WWII. The movie wasn’t nearly as great as Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s companion piece about the same conflict, but from the Japanese point-of-view. That was not only a fascinating look into the mindset of the Japanese, but it was done absolutely magnificently.

Quality Rating: B- (Competent film-making and acting plus a good story helped make up for its many ordinary flaws)

Boaz Rating: B+

Gangster Squad

26 Jan


Synopsis: “Los Angeles, 1949: A secret crew of police officers led by two determined sergeants work together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs the city.” (Rated R; 1 hour 53 minutes)

This movie has everything going for it:

Based on a true story about a notorious Jewish gangster

-A kick-ass cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn and Emma Stone

-Great costumes and overall visual aesthetic to give a convincing setting of LA in the late 40’s

So what the heck made it such a pile of dreck?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll skip ahead and tell you that it’s not boring, and both Adi and I had fun watching it, but it was a pile of garbage due to the hokiest script in ages, and a director who seemed to not mind that the character development made no sense and were borderline laughable.

How do I write this without giving away spoilers as I’ve promised to never do???
Okay, for one thing let’s start with the dialogue. Every…single…line uttered in this movie sounds like it’s supposed to be this amazingly clever barb like we’re watching the newest great film noir. Just to throw out a random example, at one point Mickey Cohen (played by Sean Penn) says, “A cop that’s not for sale is like a dog that’s got rabies. There’s no fixing him, so he’s gotta die”. And that’s actually one of the better lines. Imagine an ENTIRE movie of dialogue like that, it’s meant to be clever but instead it starts to sound more like The Naked Gun, where one of my favorite Frank Drebin lines was, “Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes!” The difference is, that was brilliant and MEANT to be funny, this was a movie that didn’t realize it was making fun of itself throughout.

And not only was the dialogue over-the-top ridiculous, but the plot and character development was crazy. Early in the movie Josh Brolin’s character is tasked with getting together a top-secret crew to go after the mobster Mickey Cohen. Crucial to get the right people for the job, and super important! So what happens? His wife at home tells him that the people he’s choosing are dumb choices and literally one by one by one chooses each and every person for him by going through their files. Basically, he’s an idiot, and she’s apparently an amazing cop herself, except she’s not. Huh? No, it makes no sense. And then when they actually gather each individual member who’s perfectly chosen for one reason or another, someone else sees them, wasn’t part of the carefully chosen crew, and says he wants to join. Okay, you’re in too – that was easy after all! 🙂

I recently made similar points about Jack Reacher, which also made a strange attempt at some film noir dialogue, the difference is that didn’t do it with EVERY line, and it also was simply better overall, in every way.

I hope I’m getting my point across, if not let’s give you another example of how bad this was: Mickey Cohen is Jewish, in the first scene of the movie when Sean Penn opens his mouth you hear this Eastern European Jewish accent, or something like that. It’s interesting, I’m immediately thinking that it’ll be cool hearing a guy who sounds like he runs a butcher shop who’s a Jew and super evil in post WWII Los Angeles. Then, 20 seconds later, he has a thick American accent, Chicago I believe, and for most of the movie THAT’S how he speaks, though every now and then you hear his Jewish immigrant accent again. Make up your mind Sean Penn, I mean if you were talented enough to single-handedly figure out that we shouldn’t be in Iraq on your brilliant “fact-finding mission”, you should be able to decide on a single accent in a movie. Not even talking about someone’s accent which slips every now and then, I’m talking about full on switch from one to the other.

I said to Adi that I NEED to know who directed and wrote this garbage, because I had to imagine it was people who have only done previous garbage, or their first movie. I was only partly correct. The writer has only written for TV, and so his first big screen attempt gets a huge F, though I noticed on IMDb that he’s credited for the upcoming Lethal Weapon 5, maybe he’ll make me like Mel Gibson again if he writes him so badly that I actually laugh at him?

But the big shocker was the director, Ruben Fleischer not only has made previous movies, but ones I LOVE. He directed Zombieland, one of the funniest and most clever movies of 2009! He also made 30 Minutes or Less, a better than average little action-comedy. I actually think he’s shown some real talent, good range for comedy and action, so I don’t know how he read this script and decided it was worth making. Though I will say that it’s possible that he took the laughable script and still managed to direct some fun action and some intentionally funny moments, but for the most part the laughter was at the movie, not with it. I literally laughed at a scene that was supposed to be a sad moment, and I’m a sucker for those scenes even when predictable.

I think most people who see this will have a good time overall as we did, but I just can’t imagine many people thinking it’s actually anything more than a really guilty pleasure.

The movie was better than The Black Dahlia, another movie about cops from the same era that simply suffered the worst fate of movies, it was boring (this never was in spite of and because of its silliness). It was much, much, MUCH worse than The Untouchables, a great movie about cops fighting another gangster from that era. Duh.

Quality Rating: D+ (I was gonna give it a C just for its good costumes and imagery but Adi convinced me that even that was too generous given the rest)

Boaz Rating: B+ (Had I seen this with a crowd that was laughing along with me I’d actually give it an even higher rating for fun, but for some reason the audience seemed into it, going to prove that even I am not always the easiest audience to please)

The Impossible

16 Jan


Synopsis: “An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour 47 minutes)

This movie is nuts. And mostly in the best of ways…

Had this movie been fictional, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, but would have definitely felt quite different throughout, and I would have found the overall premise to be as absurd as a Michael Bay disaster movie.

The tsunami hits Thailand – we all know this really happened in 2004. But the events that this one family went through seem too crazy to be true, but yet somehow they did. And that took me from simply enjoying this heart-wrenching movie, to making me care about every moment as a “OH MY GOD” experience.

The special effects were amazing. Let me put that another way: I see so many movies and am jaded by how most movies end up looking, and can spot most CG effects a mile away. The tsunami sequence that happens was done SO well that I genuinely can’t understand how they made it. It was terrifying. And incredibly real.

The actors were great, Naomi Watts deserved the Oscar nomination that she’s gotten, and the eldest son in the movie (Tom Holland) did a hell of a good job. I say that acknowledging that most kid actors annoy me.

Nit-picky criticisms:

-The actual family was from Spain. It’s a bit disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t find the funding to make it with Hispanic actors and had to whitewash it, but then again it doesn’t make their story any less real or meaningful. And the way I see it, if making it with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor meant it could have the budget and visuals that it had, it was WELL WORTH IT.

-It had a Spielberg level of sentimentality. Both in the acting, the music swelling at times, and some of the dialogue. It definitely could get sappy, in the way that most of Spielbergs’ movies tend to do, but then again, I LOVE most Spielberg movies in spite of that, and who knows, maybe also because of that. And besides, when you’re basing something on an insane true story, I think you can be given a nice amount of leeway to be sentimental.

As always, I will NOT be giving any spoilers, certainly nothing you can’t see in the previews (since I detest seeing spoilers when I haven’t seen movies or TV yet), so I won’t say what happens at the end and who lives or dies in spite of the fact that you know if you’ve read about the actual family. But I will say that I cried a few times during it which is somewhat meaningless since I cry easily even in stupid movies, but my girlfriend Adi does NOT cry in movies (we have that ironic role-reversal there as you can see) but yet she was bawling throughout the movie, both in sad as well as cathartic moments.

Yes I recommend it if you can handle some tough imagery, and I absolutely encourage you to see it on a big screen if possible, as you’ll be blown away by the actual tsunami scenes.

The movie was better than Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s movie that also takes place during a tsunami (where the special effects were awful in comparison), but it isn’t great as Titanic, a movie that I saw again on the big screen this past year, and reinforced that in spite of it being derided as a teenage girl movie fixation, really was a great movie.

Quality Rating: A (Loses just a notch for some of the more contrived, sentimental movie moments discussed earlier)

Boaz Rating: A+