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Admission (“My Take On A Bipolar Film”)

16 Apr


Synopsis: “A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 57 minutes)

It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama…It’s a comedy AND a drama!

Sometimes you can’t have it both ways. You just need to stand your ground, choose a direction to take, and run with it. Otherwise you find yourself stuck in the weird purgatory of a dramedy that doesn’t quite work, and you’re left with a so-so movie that nobody sees or talks about like Admission. It’s a shame, because it’s a movie that actually has so much going for it:

-The actors are popular and extremely well-liked. This includes Tina Fey, who as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, or Sarah Palin on SNL, has become America’s (goofy) Sweetheart . It’s hard not to find her both funny and endearing. You also have Paul Rudd who seems like one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood today with 3 movies last year plus a stint on Parks & Recreation (possibly the funniest show on network TV today). Is it even possible to dislike the guy? I’m definitely a big fan, whether he’s playing a sweet guy as he did in I Love You, Man, or even when he’s playing a bit of a jerk as he did in Role Models; he’s always so entertainingly charming and funny.

-Director Paul Weitz is someone I REALLY want to see make a great movie again. He started with American Pie which everyone enjoyed (assuming they had a raunchy sense of humor), and soon made two movies in a row which were rare dramedies that worked incredibly well. The first was About A Boy, arguably Hugh Grant’s best work, an absolutely hilarious and touching film that fired on all cylinders. If you have never seen it you should make that a priority. (SIDE NOTE: Nicholas Hoult, the little boy from that movie has grown up to become the lead actor in two movies I have reviewed and enjoyed this very year: Warm Bodies, and Jack The Giant Slayer.) Weitz then made another very good dramedy starring Dennis Quaid  and Topher Grace, called In Good Company. Unfortunately, that was back in 2004, and he hasn’t impressed anyone with a movie since.

-A dramedy is a difficult genre to master since you don’t want to be too funny and you lose your authenticity, and you can’t go too serious or it becomes an unfunny drama. But since this same director had made a few successful ones (as mentioned above) I was hoping he of all people could make it work. Unfortunately, something in the direction of the performances, or in the actual writing didn’t translate onto the screen, and the actors were left being their usual charming selves in a movie where that created a confusing tone that just didn’t work.

Allow me to bring in a personal example that perfectly illustrates what happened. This week my friends Chari and Sara organized an extremely creative surprise party for Chari’s husband Eli, where some friends competed in a version of Chopped, while others including myself were the judges. In this game the contestants were given a few seemingly random ingredients and were then given 10 minutes to gather supplies, followed by 20 minutes to create some sort of concoction out of those ingredients. The result ideally must work as a creative and tasty dish. Some were better than others, but at one point possibly the most delicious creation came from my friend Noah, who can cook most people under the table. The trouble was, he and his teammate took the ingredients that don’t easily work together, and actually made two different dishes. Each morsel was separately scrumptious, but we realized that they didn’t actually make it one single dish because it would be difficult to make those tastes work together as one. Admission took its two different tastes, and just threw them in a pot together and hoped for the best. (SIDE NOTE: We felt awful doing it since it was absolutely delicious, but we “chopped” Noah’s dish due to what we decided was deviating from the rules, even though it was culinarily the right choice!)

Not that this is what happened, but in my imagination the studio had a serious script, hired a few box office draws who are AMAZING with comedy, and someone freaked out when they weren’t utilizing those comedic actors; thus they went back and peppered the script with some silly and zany scenes that took full advantage of Rudd and Fey. The trouble was that those scenes just didn’t work in the context of a woman dealing with her mother (played as an eccentric feminist by Lily Tomlin) having  a mastectomy, or a  dull British professor (played by the usually wonderful Michael Sheen) leaving Tina Fey for another woman. Every time you saw Michael Sheen on the screen, it involved some sort of bumbling, unfunny slapstick; and Lily Tomlin was meant to be a comically eccentric woman, but you couldn’t get past the fact that she was a sad, sad character. (In one awful throwaway gag of “what were they thinking?!”, Tomlin’s fake replacement post-mastectomy breasts slid over, so she looked “hilariously” funny. Except the movie wasn’t enough of a comedy to make a rare cancer joke work, and instead you were left wondering what the hell the writer was thinking.

Karen Croner had last written a movie 15 years ago in 1998, the solid Meryl Streep cancer drama One True Thing, and somehow landed the job as the only screenwriter for this dramedy. It felt like she didn’t know whether Admission should be serious or funny, so instead she made it a bit of both, where you were meant to care about the characters in the way a drama wants you to care, but then Tina Fey still said inane things as if she was back in 30 Rock. As the viewer you just KNEW it wasn’t authentic – it completely clashed with the tone.

What’s ironic is that I actually enjoyed the two different types of movies that were there, but not both of them together. I liked watching two of my favorite actors on screen acting with one another, and being naturally funny. And I enjoyed the drama of a woman who has remained emotionally disconnected from students applying to Princeton for years, until she finally woke up and started to care TOO much when one could be her son. But melding those two movies into one was like watching a cautionary tale of what NOT to do in film school. That’s the thing with dramedies, it’s hard to put your finger on what makes one work authentically (Silver Linings PlaybookAbout A Boy), versus when the combinations of drama and comedy just create a bit of a mess.

The actor who played her son was Nat Wolff, lead singer and keyboardist of the Nickelodeon show The Naked Brothers Band. He played the role with a cross between cute awkwardness, and someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome. The problem is that I started off by accepting that he had Asperger’s, but soon realized he was just meant to be a sweet genius with nothing odd or “off” about him. Literally the first scene in the movie represented his personality one way, and the rest of the movie switched gears and he was totally “normal” (unless you consider “smart” to be abnormal), and it was Tina Fey who acted like a buffoon, creating yet another tonal disparity.

I didn’t actually dislike the movie. Being the rather easygoing movie-lover that I am, I had a good time watching it in spite of my many criticisms; but it had such potential to become a good movie with these same talented actors that I was really disappointed it didn’t come together properly. Every time I would finally start to get involved in the story, Tina Fey would suddenly have a comically (and pathetically) goofy run-in with Michael Sheen, and it would just lose me all over again.

The movie was better than Rob Reiner’s Alex & Emma, a forgettably bad movie that took the comedic Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, and didn’t know what to do with them in the dramatic scenes. It was however hugely disappointing compared to Paul Weitz’s brilliant About A Boy, which was part of the reason I felt so let-down by this one.

Quality Rating: C (The actors did a fine job across the board with the material they had, I just strongly question the material itself)

Boaz Rating: B-

Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor (“My Two Cents On Tyler Perry”)

9 Apr


Synopsis: “An ambitious married woman’s temptation by a handsome billionaire leads to betrayal, recklessness, and forever alters the course of her life.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour, 51 minutes)

Who watches this garbage? Okay, I realize that’s somewhat of a rhetorical question, because I’ve read enough articles about Tyler Perry to know that he promotes most of his movies with black, Christian church crowds, but by God, if this is what Jesus wanted he must have had awful taste in movies!

Okay, before I get myself into hot water with my humor (or I should say “crucified”), I realize something. I know that these movies are less works of theatrical art, and more ethical/moral life-lessons put together on the silver screen by Tyler Perry. They’re basically over-the-top, melodramatic PSAs (Public Service Announcements) where you don’t need to be a good actor, the script can be trite and hammer you over the head with obviousness, the plots can be contrived and straight out of Days Of Our Lives, and the acting can be as “HOLY COW, IT’S HIS BABY?!” sensational as a Spanish-language telenovela.

I have to give Tyler Perry credit, he’s literally created a new genre of movies. He’s taken the mediocrity of late night Skinemax movies (slang for Cinemax cable movies for anyone confused), added preachy life lessons to each one, and removed anything that warrants an R-Rating. Most people would consider that R-Rating to be the best thing about those Skinemax movies – since it allowed you to see scandalous silly things on screen uncensored – but Tyler Perry found a massive audience that loves seeing them, and continues to get church groups to organize outings just to watch them. When he started out these were live plays, and according to Forbes magazine in 2005, he was getting 35 THOUSAND people to watch those plays EACH WEEK (and had already sold over 100 million dollars in tickets)! He’s no dummy, he found his niche and was only just starting to run with it. His topics would often focus on infidelity, domestic violence, child abuse and people needing to improve their own self-worth. Basically, topics usually preached about in church but made into entertaining lessons on the stage and later the big screen. In fact, he is such a huge part of his products, that just about anything from him will start with the words, “Tyler Perry’s _____” or “Tyler Perry Presents ______”. Even Steven Spielberg doesn’t get such perpetual prominent billing!

Then, in 2005 he released his first motion picture, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman. I still remember seeing it with my friend Kristina, and how we couldn’t look away. It was like we were watching this crazy soap opera, with people pulling each other’s hair, saying over-the-top fiery things, and preaching life lessons. And in the midst of an absolutely dramatic, horrifying scene of spousal abuse, there would be this farcical, comic character Madea, who was played by Tyler Perry in old-lady drag. Talk about being totally incongruous with the rest of the tone of the movie, it would go back and forth between drama and slapstick. We hadn’t seen anything like it before. And the movie made tons of money in spite of being universally hated by critics. Since then he has made an endless slew of badly reviewed movies (including many others where Madea is either a supporting or main character), and done something on TV that NOBODY has ever come close to doing: He received 200 MILLION dollars in advance for 100 episodes of a new TV show on TBS. Seriously people, the best writers, directors and actors can rarely get 12 episodes guaranteed in advance; he got 100. Everything he touched (and continues to touch) is out of this world huge. And yes, even his books have been #1 best sellers, I think the only entertainment mediums he hasn’t touched are music and video games. Can that be far behind? (How about a first-person prayer game called Halo? You see a husband beating a wife and can choose to punch him or pray for him. Just throwing out ideas…)

It’s easy to throw hate and criticisms onto his movies, but you at least need to take a step back for a moment and see it through the eyes of his intended audiences. Seen by most people, these movies are awful in just about every way, because we are looking at them as movies, and we’ve come to expect and want our movies to be entertaining, well acted, surprising, and believable. Or some combination of those things depending on the genre. But what if his intention is not to make a movie, but to make a deliberately over-the-top story which has only one purpose: to teach in an entertaining manner? I believe that is what he has been tirelessly doing for years, and you can’t argue with his successful results. Many many movies later, Temptation was just as badly acted and crazy over-the-top as Diary Of A Mad Black Woman was 8 years ago.

I went to this movie much more prepared with what to expect, so I was looking forward to seeing it more as a guilty pleasure viewing. I mean c’mon, the complete title of the movie is Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor, everything about that screams guilty pleasure! I was looking forward to commenting and making fun of it with my friend Yoni, something I rarely do. (Just read my recent post about The Host and you’ll know I try to avoid talking while watching a movie, but there are these rare exceptions.) We were excited when we arrived that there was not a single other soul in the theater, but by the time the movie began 3 others had joined, so we had to be more careful with how quietly we mocked the movie out of respect for the other movie-goers. We still had a grand old time, and boy was there plenty of material to make fun of. For one thing, the main character, played by a sexy Jurnee Smollett-Bell, was the WORST employee of all time. From the start of the movie she worked at her job the way you’d expect to see a petulant teen do her homework when she’s grounded. She moped, scowled, and when told to do something by her boss (Vanessa Williams), she literally pouted and said, “I guess” while frowning. I have no idea why she wouldn’t be fired from that job from day one. It was so over-the-top unbelievable that we couldn’t stop laughing about her total lack of professionalism. And you’re supposed to be rooting for her because she’s bored at her job and she SHOULD be doing her dream job instead. Really, Tyler Perry, seriously?

What were other things we were cracking up about? She’s bored with her safe, nice, schlubby pharmacist husband, but when he takes off his shirt, the guy has a 12-pack. You could bounce a Tyler Perry DVD off his chest, that was precious. (By the way, that actor was played by Lance Gross who seems to be making a career out of acting in Tyler Perry movies, and he was arguably the only decent actor in the bunch, or so his numerous crying scenes would imply). And then there was Kim Kardashian, I just knew she was going to be an Oscar winner, and she sure didn’t let me down!  Let me put it this way: remember everything I said about Kristen Stewart being no better than a block of wood in that same review of The Host? If Kristen Stewart was wood, then Kim Kardashian was clearly plastic. Do I really need to go into the many reasons why this is the material of choice to compare her acting talents? As for the main devilish “temptation”, Robbie Jones looks like an alien. I couldn’t stop thinking that the next time they need to cast for a movie where aliens take the form of humans but still look “odd”…he needs to be cast. I couldn’t place why I recognized him the entire movie until I got home and saw that it was for a show I deserve to be ridiculed for watching, One Tree Hill. (On the show he played the part of the basketball player Quentin, who eventually got shot and killed on the show. I can’t possibly imagine that I needed to say “spoiler alert” in that one particular circumstance, right???) Oh, and Vanessa Williams as her boss spoke with the worst French accent you’ve heard in years. They try to justify that by the end of the movie but it’s still worth laughing at throughout the movie.

There are countless other elements of the movie that we had a great time poking holes at, but you should get the point. Tyler Perry makes bad movies, but if you see them as a completely different form of entertainment, it at least becomes interesting. Or you could always just watch them to make fun of them, I certainly won’t throw stones at any glass houses from where I’m typing.

The movie was better than…umm…I haven’t seen enough of his movies to compare it to, and the few I’ve seen are on just about the same level of quality. Sure, I could say it’s better than Movie 43 and worse than Zero Dark Thirty but that’s just pure randomness, and his movies should probably only be compared to each other.

Quality Rating: C-

Boaz Rating: B+ (Taking into account the great fun we had making fun of it)

The Host (“My Rant About The Twilight Movies”)

2 Apr


Synopsis: “When an unseen enemy threatens mankind by taking over their bodies and erasing their memories, Melanie will risk everything to protect the people she cares most about, proving that love can conquer all in a dangerous new world.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours, 5 minutes)

If going into a movie with lowered expectations was a goal, The Host achieved it perfectly. First of all, this is the movie adaptation of a book by Stephenie Meyer. As in the author of the Twilight novels. As in the person who wrote the books that I’ll admit I didn’t read, but that were made into some of the absolute WORST big budget extravaganzas I’ve seen in years. Every…single…one of them.

I saw each of those awful movies with my friend Ephraim. Let me explain: If there’s one friend who I have to be careful NOT to sit next to in a movie it’s Ephraim. He will talk, scoff, and make fun of just about any movie, and he won’t do it quietly. This makes him one of the most entertaining people to spend time and see movies with IF you don’t care about creating a Mystery Science Theater 3000 experience; but for someone like me who enjoys MOST movies, it isn’t exactly ideal. So I’ve learned that I need to make him promise not to talk if I’m sitting next to him in a movie, which results in him talking only slightly more than Adi watching a horror movie (“Don’t go in there!!!”). But the Twilight movies were SO bad that the only reason I actually enjoyed watching each one of them was because I WAS sitting next to him making fun of them each time. (I know, I know, this post will surely alienate me from a certain percentage of my audience who thinks that the Twilight books were Citizen Kane and would be offended if I gave them a “B” instead of an “A” grade. Sorry, I’m not going to pander to anyone, and to have given any of those movies anything above a C would have been as dumb as saying Back To The Future II was a bad sequel. Obviously that movie rocks…and clearly hover-boards are real…and where can I buy one???)

Where was I? Right. The Twilight movies (and presumably books) were terrible, and a waste of a few hundred million dollars. And nobody could have possibly been worse than Kristen Stewart, and her wooden performance. In fact, describing her that way may be disrespectful to all forms of wood (something Curb Your Enthusiasm taught us is a crime). In fact I’ll bring up something else: My friend Yoni likes to say that he’s willing to bet that he could shoot free throws better than certain awful NBA shooters, like DeAndre Jordan. I’d like to propose my own version of that bet: With absolutely zero acting experience I, Boaz Hepner, could have acted better than Kristen Stewart. I could have put on a dress, used a stereotypically dreadful, high-pitched voice to mimic a girl, and read my lines from cue cards…and still given a better performance. Now that I’ve successfully lost 20% of my readership just to make a point, please allow me to continue…

For all of these reasons, plus the fact that The Host was a far less successful book by Stephenie Meyer, PLUS overall lousy reviews (including Entertainment Weekly giving it a ZERO, and calling it “a dramatic sinkhole”)…I certainly went into the movie with lowered expectations. Thus how lovely it was when I ended up enjoying this sci-fi movie epic! It didn’t really even feel like a movie; it was much more like watching a sci-fi miniseries that’s made for television, but one that I’d really enjoy watching. First of all it wasn’t short, so it felt like the movie was able to take its time and develop the story. Please realize that when I write about developing characters, I’m still doing so on a TV miniseries quality level, something like the show V. In other words, there’s no great acting, the dialogue is simply adequate, but for a fan of sci-fi with an intense dash of romance (like many CW/WB shows) it’s a very appealing thing to watch.

First of all Saoirse Ronan is actually a good young actress. If you missed the movie Hanna, go see it. It was an exciting Bourne Identity-type movie starring a young girl, and done amazingly, thrillingly well. It was an absolutely underrated movie from 2011. She was also great in Atonement, another film that I think was fantastic. So having the lead actress be competent was already a step up from Kristen Stewart, and she was actually quite good…except for her voice-over. To be fair, it’s not her fault that the voice-over was an awkward device of the movie; it was the choice of the author and the director, but boy did it come across as hokey! Let me explain the basic premise of the movie so you’ll understand what I mean: When the movie begins her character is taken over by an alien parasite who body-snatches her. This has been happening all over the world to almost the entire human race; they have been body-snatched. What makes her unique is that her consciousness remains within her body, and throughout the movie you hear her voice talking to the (friendly) alien parasite and they literally have conversations. I can see how this device could work in a novel, but watching it unfold in a movie was somewhat painfully silly. And every time you’d see Saoirse Ronan on screen it would be this dichotomy of a good acting performance having a conversation with her own inner voice which would make you roll your eyes. Not the desired effect that director Andrew Niccol could have wanted.

Speaking of the director, he has made two very entertaining, underrated sci-fi movies in the past, starting with Gattaca, and most recently with the surprisingly fun In Time. I like his movies, and love the genre, but this was still the least good of those three. Nonetheless, he depicted a universe that intrigued the sci-fi fan in me, and I really enjoyed the movie in spite of its hokey voice-over device.

Another thing that I really appreciated was that none of it was ruined by the previews I’d seen. In previews you saw her as a free human, falling in love, eventually captured and taken over by the aliens, and finally fighting back from within her own body. A fair assumption would be that you just saw the first half of the movie. The good news was that this all happened within the first 5 minutes! Somehow the previews remained spoiler-free, and I was able to enjoy the movie much more as a direct result.

William Hurt played a major role, and you always get the feeling he’s method-acting every role. If so, he must have been holed up in the desert somewhere playing a crazy survivalist. And yes, he was good in the role as the caring leader of these few surviving humans. The three good looking young guys were all blonde-haired and hard to tell apart at times. Two of them became love-interests (Stephenie Meyer seems to have an inner desire for polygamy) and I kind of ended up rooting for the one who you’re clearly supposed to root for LESS. Kind of…you’ll see.

I saw it with Jared at the end, not Ephraim. And I’m glad it worked out that way since I actually did enjoy watching all of it uninterrupted, with all of its flaws (I didn’t even mention that the special effects were somewhat cheesy too). It won’t be for everyone, but hopefully I described it enough to know if it’s for you.

The movie was better than Twilight by a landslide. It wasn’t as good as the Steve Martin comedy All Of Me. Why do I make such a random comparison? Because throughout The Host, whenever the main character would talk to herself and you’d hear her talk back internally, I kept thinking of how funny it was in All Of Me where Lily Tomlin was trapped inside Steve Martin’s body, and you’d hear HER talking to him. That worked like a bizarre buddy-comedy, but I think in part it worked because it was not only a comedy, but also a different actor’s voice. It’s much tougher to take it seriously when the same voice talks back.

Quality Rating: B-

Boaz Rating: B+

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+

Warm Bodies

20 Feb


Synopsis: “After R (a highly unusual zombie) saves Julie from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour 37 minutes)

What an unusual movie!!! Where to even start…

First of all just thinking about the amalgamation of genres makes my head hurt, but in a good way. This was clearly a comedy, but it was also definitely a zombie horror movie with gruesome imagery, but it was also mainly a romance more than anything. Yep, a romantic horror comedy. And a very romantic one I might add, that was certainly the main theme of this bizarre, quite good movie.

There were certainly slow parts to the movie; in fact about a third of the way through I began to wonder if it was a one-note film that wasn’t going anywhere other than playing with the conceit of a zombie who for some reason, begins to care about life. But then the last third of the movie developed and added a whole new dimension of fun to the story, and it went from being a fun gimmick to a very creative experience. I mean, a young, pale zombie whose voice-over constantly shows the ideas and feelings he thinks but can never express…it may be really weird, but it’s also quite funny.

I didn’t realize it while watching, but the director Jonathan Levine also made 50/50, a dramedy that really impressed me. Now I see that he’s got an interesting and impressive range. And really surprising me even more was that the central character – the zombie protagonist – was played by Nicholas Hoult. Who is that you might wonder? He was the little boy opposite Hugh Grant in one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, About A Boy! My how he’s grown up, and apparently continued to choose quirky and interesting roles!

If you’ve seen zombie movies in the past, you will undoubtedly scratch your head and become confused as the “rules” that zombie-lore historically follow are bent, and there are certainly also inconsistencies throughout the movie. But since a major element of the story is about the development of those zombies, it kind of solves the problem of its own contradictions, and you can just smile and say, “Okay, I guess the logic of the movie works well enough!” In other words, don’t over-think things, and just accept that the movie is surprisingly sweet and only gets better as it goes along. And somehow, you will end up rooting for this bizarre relationship to succeed! (Don’t worry, the ridiculousness of the situation is played with fun tongue-in-cheek, and there is literally a tribute to Romeo & Juliet within the movie, as well as one of the funniest uses of the word “bitches” I’ve ever had the amusement of seeing.)

It may have begun as a movie that I thought would be better as a 15 minute short, but by the end I can report that Adi, Josh and myself were all quite happy with the full-length experience.

The movie was better than the Resident Evil flicks, which are a fun but lousy zombie video-game movie franchise. It wasn’t as good as Zombieland, an extremely clever and hilarious zombie horror comedy.

Quality Rating: B+ (Extra given purely for the inventiveness of the story)

Boaz Rating: B+ (I would have given it an even higher Boaz Rating, but the middle of the movie dragged a bit too much)

Beautiful Creatures

17 Feb


Synopsis: “Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours 12 minutes)

Marketing. Stupid, stupid marketing. As a movie-lover, it really makes me angry when a movie doesn’t get a fair shake thanks to lousy marketing decisions. This happened notably with John Carter, a movie which I ranted all over Facebook was a heck of a lot better than the Star Wars prequels, but was marketed as if it was a kid’s movie, with the title sounding like it was a Denzel Washington drama. The author of the novel was Edgar Rice Burroughs (who had also written Tarzan), and the book was part of the original inspiration for George Lucas to create Star Wars, but yet none of that was included in the marketing…and the movie bombed of course. It was like, what???

Beautiful Creatures is the latest casualty to be absolutely mis-marketed, and I really hope more people take a chance on it, because guess what? It’s good!

You’d think from watching the previews that it’s trying to cash in on the Twilight crowds running to see another piece of dreck about teenage love with the backdrop of fantasy and danger; and you see all of these over-the-top melodramatic moments that make you think it’ll be another movie to see and make fun of afterwards. But from the opening scene of the movie I knew it was actually a fun, witty, cleverly written movie, which just happens to be in the teenage setting of fantastical love. Did the movie simply focus on the monotonously bland expressions of the awful Twilight actors (I can not STAND the one-note acting performances of Kristen Stewart nor Robert Pattinson), where there was literally nothing to watch in the movies other than a tone and vibe of teenage longing and love? No, here in Beautiful Creatures the main character is an intelligent and hilarious protagonist who actually reads books and quotes Charles Bukowski and Kurt Vonnegut, and doesn’t talk down to the adults in the audience. It’s like watching a Pixar movie where the kids can love it but the adults should just as much, except this time it’s made for both tweens as well as adults; and thank you Richard LaGravenese for adapting and directing the book into this really fun film. Adi, Josh, Elizabeth and myself all laughed out loud at various witty lines, were impressed by some of the inventive directions the plot takes the magical story, and got to appreciate some darn good actors working the nifty dialogue.

That’s one sign that a script must have been pretty good; if a few quality actors sign onto a movie it’s either because tons of money is thrown at them,or because the script was appealing, and I have to assume it was the latter here. Emma Thompson was great at hamming it up as two different sorts of characters that I won’t give away here. But it was the most fun I’ve had watching her for years. Jeremy Irons did his usual solid work as the non-evil version of himself that he occasionally portrays (e.g. Eragon). Both are English actors putting on Southern accents, and they do a fine enough job with that. Emmy Rossum who I always enjoy seeing in the Showtime TV show Shameless was fun to watch playing against type as an evil, seductive witch (or as they prefer being called, “Casters”). But I have to admit, the lead actor Alden Ehrenreich, mostly unknown until now, gave one of these great little performances that really makes you hope that he’ll be around for a long time; he was just so likable in a nontraditional way. And not to be forgotten, Viola Davis gave her usual good performance, and was involved in a scene which stood out as a brilliant decision by either the director or the editor. This one late scene in the movie involves the main character (played by Ehrenreich) speaking to Viola Davis’s character and after a big reveal, instead of going back and forth with the cameras to each one as you’d normally see, the camera stayed on Viola Davis for an uncomfortably long time. It was actually an emotionally powerful moment that gave me the chills; it really impressed me, both because of her performance itself, and the decision to show it that way. (Yes I’m being vague so I don’t give away any awful spoilers!)

Did I see some of the main plot twists coming in a typically predictable way? Sure, I’m not saying the movie was a revelation, or the next Princess Bride, but I can see a wide range of audiences being just as surprised as we were and simply enjoying themselves with this one, and rooting for the main characters in their love against the odds. But alas, this blog isn’t read by nearly enough people to undo the damage already done by the marketing strategy discussed earlier, and the movie already bombed in its opening weekend, so my advice will likely come too little, too late.

The movie was better than every single movie in the Twilight series combined. It also was far better than all of Richard LaGravenese’s previous attempts at directing movies, including P.S. I Love You, an awful chick flick that Adi actually loves for some inexplicable reason. It was however not as good as a movie that LaGravenese WROTE years ago, The Fisher King, which was one of Robin William’s more clever movies.

Quality Rating: A-

Boaz Rating: A (Thought about giving an A+ here, since I genuinely enjoyed it all the way through for all of the right reasons, but can’t say I LOVED it like I do a few movies a year since it was really enjoyable, but still somewhat predictable)

Safe Haven (“My Take On Nicholas Sparks Movie Adaptations”)

14 Feb


Synopsis: “A young woman with a mysterious past lands in Southport, North Carolina where her bond with a widower forces her to confront the dark secret that haunts her.” (Rated PG-13; 1 hour 55 minutes)

I saw a chick flick on Valentine’s Day! What did Adi think of it you might ask? That’s a fair question, seeing as we just got engaged 4 days ago and it’s V-Day. But no, not only was she busy tonight, but she had absolutely zero interest in seeing another dramatic, run-of-the-mill Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation. I’m like an encyclopedia when it comes to movies, but even I have trouble remembering which is which! No, I went with Matti and continued our fun tradition of seeing mediocre chick flicks together, although to call this one mediocre may be kind.

To discuss this movie I first need to reiterate just how typical and formulaic Nicholas Sparks novels are. (To be fair, I haven’t read a single one, so technically all I can be sure of is how formulaic the movie adaptations of his novels tend to be.) I’d like to share a website with you that makes me laugh as it shows the posters for all of the ones that have been made. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but perhaps posters are the exception to that rule:

Seeing any lazy patterns? I sure am! Four of the previous six movies have posters which are simply closeups with one character nearly kissing another, his or her hand sexily embraces the other one’s face. This is what makes it fun for me to watch, it’s almost like a drinking game where you can go and set up the rules:

-Take a shot when you find out the main character has a dark backstory which gets revealed as the movie progresses (Safe Haven, The Lucky One etc.).

-Take another shot when they first clash but eventually start something romantic (Safe HavenThe Lucky One etc.).

-Continue to take shots as one character meets the adorable child of the other (Safe HavenThe Lucky One etc.).

-What? There’s a dangerous ex who you have to contend with at some point? Take another shot (Safe HavenThe Lucky One etc.)!

Actually, come to think of it, the most similar of all of his movie adaptations seems to be this latest entry and The Lucky One, which starred Zac Efron as a rugged loner – if you can believe that description of the High School Musical star.

They seem to only be getting more formulaic (and more like a Lifetime movie) as each new one comes out. Glaring plot points make no sense. I mean at one point in this movie, someone is stabbed in his side with a knife, and within the hour he is running around as if nothing happened…what?! Guys might make fun of The Notebook, but it was actually kind of an awesome, dramatic chick flick. Ryan Gosling is simply a really good actor, Rachel McAdams was delightful, James Garner and Gena Rowlands as old versions of Gosling & McAdams were fantastic, and the movie hit every emotional note necessary to make most grown men cry (at least that’s what I tell myself to justify how much it made ME cry)! But whatever was original or at least done really well there, has mostly been beaten over the head by Sparks and the filmmakers, and there’s basically nothing subtle or original left. What’s left is taking the pieces of what worked in previous ones, and patching them together like a quilt and hoping that the audience will swoon and laugh and cry at all the right moments: Adorable child gives the laughs and the “awwwww” moments? Check. Lead actor gives the “oh my God he’s SO hot” money shots? Check. Moment where they inevitably kiss passionately in the rain gives every girl in the audience, “why can’t my boyfriend be like that” thoughts? Check! All of these things and so many more will happen, few if any will be original, and people will be excited to see how it ends because they’ve been emotionally manipulated to do so. But hey, that’s film-making.  I don’t mind being manipulated into caring about characters in crappy movies; I’m a sucker for a bad movie, I just kind of hope that people who watch can realize how bad they are along the way.

Lest I get away from what’s specific to this movie…in the role of the dark, sexy drifter played by Zac Efron in The Lucky One, this time around it’s the female character played by Julianne Hough being all gloomy and mysterious (and sexy). The role of the hard-working, trusted member of the town with kids who the drifter falls in love with? That would be Josh Duhamel this time around. And let me just tell you that within the first minute of meeting his adorable daughter you will be melting – absolutely melting – because she is the cutest thing you’ve ever seen in all of its cheese-whiz glory.

What baffles me is that the director is Lasse Hallström, who made Chocolat as well as Cider House Rules. When his name first came up on the screen I laughed and exclaimed, “WHAT?!” He always made pretty, emotional, and slightly overrated movies, but they were still far better than Nicholas Sparks trash. This isn’t even his second one, he also directed Channing Tatum in Dear John it turns out. I’m not sure why he’s slumming it lately, but so be it. (I will give a small shout-out to a straight to DVD movie he made a few years ago which was actually REALLY GOOD. It’s called Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. It stars Richard Gere and is about him and his loyal dog, and everything about it should make it crap, but it’s ADORABLE, and the best tearjerker you’ve seen in a long time….I actually recommend that one.)

Finally, I won’t get into detail since I refuse to give spoilers in my reviews, but let me tell you that there is a twist at the end which I didn’t quite see coming, and it was crazy. I mean absolutely, bat-shit nuts, it makes no sense within its own genre, and makes me want to find Nicholas Sparks and just shake him and ask what the heck he is smoking when writing this stuff.

The movie was better than…geez, it may be the worst of his movie adaptations. I remember thinking that Message In A Bottle was terrible and boring, so let’s go with that one. And it’s worse than Dear John, which I found at least somewhat more interesting, and with two more captivating stars (Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried).

Quality Rating: C- (It gets some points since it’s still doing its job in a basic way to create this romance, however unoriginal)

Boaz Rating: C+ (Yes I still enjoyed watching it, and making fun of it throughout)

Amour (“My Conflicted Take On This Brilliant But Horrifying Movie”)

20 Jan


Synopsis: “Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.” (Rated PG-13; 2 hours 7 minutes)

There was a great movie starring Judi Dench called Iris, where she played the true story of an older woman slowly fading from Alzheimer’s. I remember seeing this movie and beyond realizing her performance was a tour de force, I was absolutely depressed watching the movie, and cried for much of it. When I think about that movie to this very day, I still feel the emotional ties of sadness of not only a human being fading away, but the emotional lynch pin of that movie was her husband (played by Jim Broadbent who was  himself fantastic) having to cope with watching his wife fade piece by piece in front of his eyes. 

Amour tackles much of that same concept, but in a less polished, less typical, and much rawer way. I’m not trying to knock Iris one bit by the way, it was a fantastic movie that continues to haunt me years later, but it certainly still felt like a movie, just as you would expect. The specialness of Amour is how real it all feels. You actually feel like you’re watching moments from the lives of two elderly people who have lived a full life together, and now start experiencing it all being ripped from the seams. It is beyond heartbreaking, as every audience member must feel like I did, identifying their own grandparents, or parents, or someone else in their lives who this absolutely could be. People who love each other for generations, and one dreaded day, become sick, and then sicker, until all you can see is their disease.
Not one moment in the movie is over-dramatized, not one line in the movie hits you over the head, no musical score plays to heighten your sympathies (something it has in common with the excellent movie I reviewed yesterday, Zero Dark Thirty).

At first I thought I was finding one fatal flaw, many scenes seemed to not only move slowly, but went on well past when most scenes would end. If the doting and care-taking husband would start doing the dishes, the scene would not end when he picked up the first dish as with a normal movie, but you would watch him actually wash the first 6. When he would be called from the other room by a noise his increasingly helpless wife would make, you wouldn’t cut to the next shot of him arriving at her, but would watch him move his rather slow body all the way there, never moving the camera away from him, experiencing every step he takes. The more scenes I would watch of this slowly paced crawl the more I realized that that was an incredible film-making choice, basically putting you right there in the moment, as if it was you taking care of her. Because truly life moves in real time, and movies don’t, but this movie took many individual scenes and made them feel all the more real by the talented director Michael Haneke’s work. I not only teared up and cried throughout this movie, but I felt sick to my stomach as if I was experiencing an actual loss.

How can I possibly recommend this movie to someone who is too sensitive a person? I can tell you that although Adi thinks the movie was fantastic, and amazing, and deserves every award it was nominated for, she absolutely wishes she never saw it because it made her feel sick inside in a way that stuck with her for the rest of the night. I literally had to apologize for taking her to see the movie because of the powerful effect it had on her.

I’m not saying that most people can’t handle this, I think it would be hit or miss depending on whatever else is going on in one’s life, the health of their parents, their grandparents, their loved ones, but it certainly is a movie capable of striking the loudest cord, and that’s something that’s quite a revelation when you realize how many movies we see all the time that involve death of likable characters but never affect you in an emotional way like this. I realized during the movie that it’s a damn good thing that as a nurse I don’t get to know my patients as well as you get to know these two characters, because I was watching her taken care of the same way I’ve cared for countless elderly patients thus-far; obviously I am able to take care of patients such as the character in this movie without it making me burst out crying, but this movie throws you in the deep end and I challenge you not to be affected.

Clearly the performances were perfect. Absolutely perfect. Emmanuelle Riva not only was nominated for her performance but may as well have actually been a dying woman and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Jean-Louis Trintignant was phenomenal himself as her husband who had become her caretaker.

An amazing movie that I will be very careful as to who I recommend it to!

The movie was even greater than the phenomenal Iris that I discussed above, only because I literally never felt like I was watching a movie – a very rare feat. The movie was less good than…why bother splitting hairs, it was painful but just about perfect.

Quality Rating: A+

Boaz Rating: A+ (For the emotional impact and connection I had to it. I’m tempted to punish it with an F for how it’s going to make me feel for the next few weeks!)