‘The Purge’ – Call it ‘After Midnight’ whereby Ethan Hawkes leaves Julie Deply and Europe to return to the U.S. to sell home security systems. And be in a really bad movie. Written and directed by James DeMonaco, ‘The Purge’ works better as an 85 minute home insurance advertisement than as a commentary of the animalistic urges of man. For those who haven’t seen the trailer, the setup is this: It’s the year 2022 and things are looking good – unemployment is at 1% and the crime rate is comparably low. These optimal economic conditions are well maintained because the government has instituted an annual 12-hour period called “The Purge” during which all criminal activity becomes legal. The Purge is designed as an act of catharsis for the American people, allowing them to vent all negative emotions however they desire consequence-free.
Do I believe such a solution would work effectively in the real world? No, but that doesn’t matter. I do think that the setup of this picture is promising enough to explore some very dark and serious issues. After all, this model assumes that crime is cathartic, but is it really? How exactly does someone transform into a monster during this 12 hour period? Are they able to revert back to their prior self without any feelings of remorse? Such questions aren’t explored – this is because the movie simply devolves into a standard home-invasion picture and completely forgets about its own premise.
Here is what ‘The Purge’ is really about (rather than what it pretends to be about): James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has made a fine living selling home security systems. While he’s out on the road trying to surpass his sales quotas, his wife Mary (Lena Headey) struggles with her defiant teenager daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and young tech-obsessed son Charlie (Max Burkholder). You see, Charlie is just a kid – the concept of “The Purge” is just too advanced for his feeble mind; proof of this is demonstrated when he lets a panicky and bloodied stranger into their home. What complicates matters further is a group of Purge participants and their leader (Rhys Wakefield) show up at James’ front door demanding that the stranger be released back to them (the stranger is referred to as a “homeless filthy swine”). If James doesn’t comply, the gang will breach the property’s security, enter and kill everyone in the house.
Mr.DeMonaco’s is very fluent in cliché-speak – this is not a close call, this is a very bad screenplay. After the teenager daughter witnesses a horrific act of violence (a situation in which she was rescued from), she responds to her protector with “Things will never be the same ever again.” When James finally makes a decision on how to deal with the unexpected developments that have taken place, he says “This is our home!” What did the injured stranger even do? There are restrictions in terms of the class of weaponry that can be used for “The Purge” – but who enforces this law? Why would Ethan Hawke’s character (who specializes in security) leave his second floor windows unlocked? When a character is forcefully bound to a chair, why would anyone leave a knife on the floor just meters away from him – do they want him to escape? And worst of all, this is a very hypocritical movie asking viewers to take sheer pleasure in the brutal deaths of these home invaders until it concludes with a “Violence is not the answer” message. Mr.DeMonaco penned the screenplay for the remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (also with Ethan Hawke) – I didn’t like that movie, but I doubt that script was worse than this.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no characterization – everyone is a caricature. A better picture would have given us a little more understanding as to Charlie’s open-handed motivations. As written, however, he comes off as moron who can’t let go of his pacifist mentality – I’m sorry if that is mean but he insists on helping this stranger (who has a knife in his hand and will use it against any of the boy’s family members if he needs to). The Purge participants outside James’ door are a bunch of killer rich kids who look like they belong to a Delta Sigma Pi fraternity. They utter the sort of the pseudo poetic banalities that would force a high school English teacher to assign a failing grade at their attempts at artistic expression and send them off to the psychiatric ward for evaluation. The “gang leader” doesn’t even have a name – according to IMDB, he is credited as “Polite Stranger”.
To add insult to injury, ‘The Purge’ isn’t even well made. With a budget of $3million, it looks $2.9million cheaper than it should. With its dimly lit settings and rapid camera movements, it’s hard to see what is actually transpiring – this is particularly true in its moments of action which are so poorly edited, it’s next to impossible to derive any detail. A tripod shouldn’t be outside of the scope of a $3million production.
The best thing that can be said about ‘The Purge’ is that it is mercifully short at 85 minutes (though it does feel twice as long). It was the #1 film at the box office last weekend, because of an effective marketing campaign which sold viewers on the setup of the picture. But, this is an essentially a second remake of ‘Straw Dogs’ with a socioeconomic hook that dismembers itself after the opening credits. Here’s hoping this weekend’s ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘This Is The End’ have much more to offer – I’m certain they will. QED.
Back in 2001, who among us thought that the wheels of the ‘Fast and the Furious’ series would still be in motion twelve years later (with a sixth entry with the seventh entry being released in Summer 2014)? The best way to enjoy ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is to pretend that it is a sequel to ‘The Avengers’. Newton’s Laws of Motion may not have any bearing here, but it doesn’t need to if we can accept that this movie is essentially a live-action cartoon (albeit a very good one). If you can leave your critic’s brain at the door, I think you will find yourself (as I did) having a tremendous amount of fun. Contradictory to the laws of probability as well as the laws of diminish returns, this is a series that is picking up a great deal of momentum (with this picture and the last one), and ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is my personal favorite in the series. This is spectacular summer entertainment! I have no reservations in saying upfront that I love this movie!
Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Dwayne (formerly “The Rock”) Johnson feel the need – the need for speed. Taking up where ‘Fast Five’ left off, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), and Dominic ‘Dom’ Toretto (Vin Diesel) are enjoying the fruits of their labour from the previous heist that made them and the rest of their crew fabulously rich. All retired, Brian and Dom receive a surprise visit from Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) with a proposition to stop an ex-military terrorist from getting his hands on the last piece of a powerful weapon he’s going to use on the world. Soon, the entire team is reunited. Most of the picture’s comic relief rests of the shoulders of Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris. There is also a new member – a CIA operative played by Gina Carano. She could send The Rock home crying after a fight. No, really! Luke Evans is fine as the villain, but these special ops turned ruthless crime lord types are starting to become a cliché.
Does the story really matter? The plot is just at the service of the revved-up engines and adrenaline-pumping action sequences. If you’re on the lookout for sharp dialogue, and fine performances, well, what the hell are you doing at ‘Fast & Furious 6’? This is about color, movement, technique – and on that basis, it operates terrifically. Despite pretty much hating the first four entries in this series, the opening credits (which plays off well on the nostalgia factor for fans of this series) made me realize how much I’ve grown to enjoy these characters; yes, even when they talk about the importance of family, and working as a team (usually exchanged over the obligatory barbeque montage which has become a staple of this series). Also, the picture’s notions of masculinity would make Howard Hawkes blush.
Whether we are looking at stunt-work, CGI, or a combination of the two, director Justin Lin (who worked on two other films in this series – ‘Tokyo Drift’ and ‘Fast Five’) raises the bar with one action sequence following another and another… If you’re laughing at the movie, I can almost guarantee the laughs are intentional – the vehicular manoeuvrings are impossible (and just before the end credits, we get a disclaimer stating that the stunts should never be replicated by the viewers). Humans fly in the air, land on hard surfaces with very loud thuds, and just brush themselves off and carry on with only a few bruises – like I said, this is a cartoon.
One thing that needs to be said about ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is that it is, by far, the most honest movie of the year. It has no delusions of grandeur; it knows exactly what it is and fully embraces the ridiculousness of it’s gleefully over the top ever-escalating action sequences. This includes an OMG finale that I won’t even begin to describe – except that it involves a number of four-wheelers, a cargo plane that is about to take off, and four-wheelers contained within the cargo plane. Most action pictures make the choice of delivering sensation at the expense of characters and plot – I’m not saying that ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is an exception to this category; but I am saying that Mr.Lin has done an exceptional job in crafting a motion picture experience that is among the best of its kind. Even among the hardest of cynics, I defy anyone to come out of this movie saying they were bored.
Despite its 130 minute runtime, this was a movie that does not wear out its welcome; I didn’t want to see it end – a joyous experience that you could file under “Guilty Pleasure”. Except that I won’t. I feel no guilt in giving ‘Fast & Furious 6’ a very strong endorsement. This is the sort of picture that demands to be seen on the big screen. Thankfully, the movie is not in 3-D. QED.
Starting today (and going forward), I will include a ‘Three to See’ section at the bottom of my reviews, which list out my three favorite movies playing in theaters (or that are newly available on DVD/Blu-Ray).
Three to See: ‘Lore’ (TIFF Bell Lightbox), ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ (Cineplex Yonge/Dundas, Famous Players Canada Square, Magic Lantern Carlton Cinemas), ‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Wide-release)
In its second week of release, ‘The Great Gatsby’ has already split critics, with just as many upward thumbs as downward thumbs. For the record, mine is up. The best way to enjoy ‘The Great Gatsby’ is to forget about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel which you were forced to read in high school (or in college/university if you were a slacker). Gatsby, like any literary work, isn’t scripture – filmmakers have to right to take artistic liberties with the source material. For those who can’t bare the sight of the slightest deviation – and, mind you, this is directed by Baz Luhrmann (‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’), well, there’s no convincing you.
For those who didn’t submit their end of term paper but somehow managed to eek a passing grade, this is the story of an unassuming young man (Tobey Maguire) who gets pulled into the roaring twenties world of the wealthy when a mysterious millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to rekindle his romance with the man’s married but equally wealthy cousin (Carey Mulligan).
The Great Gatsby’ is splashy with lots of glitter and the picture seamlessly combines old-fashioned production values with new-age digital filmmaking – it is even released in 3-D (which I can’t really comment on, because I attended a 2-D screening). Those two dimensions were enough to take in all the artifice, which is suitable for the illusionary world it creates. If you didn’t think the book worked as a commentary on American consumerism, wait til you see what Luhrmann’s created.
Luhrmann does respect the source material – some lines are taken straight out of the page, while others are improvised by the performers. But, his craftsmanship as a filmmaker is evident –juxtaposing present-day hip hop imagery on its 1920 jazz-era setting (unless of course I’m mistaken and Jay-Z’s ‘No Church in the Wild’ was released nearly a hundred years ago). And in doing so, he’s created a mood for the times that unfortunately no living person can accurately verify, but we can accept it as presented.
Gatsby is first seen through the window of his mansion – and to both the Tobey Maguire character, and to the viewer, he is an enigma. He has got money, flashy cars, and the liquor bill for his parties must be in the six-figure category. Yes, he is a rich man and his wealth makes a striking contrast against the poverty of two other supporting characters in the picture – George and Myrtle Wilson. But, his past remains something of a mystery. Leonardo DiCaprio is a charismatic screen presence but this role requires more of him – it is tricky to walk the line between confidence and desperation.
The film’s climactic moment, a scene set in the Plaza Hotel, shows how great Luhrmann and these performers really are. Everyone takes full advantage of the moment. And while the performances do get showy here, take quiet notice of the fact that there isn’t any music, and watch camera cuts across these individual’s faces after their truths have been revealed.
‘The Great Gatsby’ is lavishly presented, with perhaps the most costly production design cinema has ever known. This is an entertaining, big budget soap opera with fine acting and amazing visuals. Good Gatsby, not great. QED.
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve probably been waiting in anticipation for the great Jackie Robinson to get the big-screen treatment. But, ‘42’ isn’t a picture for fans only – if it isn’t already, I think this is going to be a crowd-pleasing hit. Even so, there will be some detractors, and I think one scene in particular is going to create a few haters. If you were offended by the overuse of the n-word in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’, you will probably be equally offended by a scene in ‘42’ where Philladelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) repeatedly slings racial epithets at Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). It’s a scene that will make you feel uncomfortable, but I think it’s very important – the scene reminds us of a time in American history when this racial segregation existed – blacks couldn’t even share the same restrooms as whites.
The color barrier in major league baseball was broken by Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickie (Harrison Ford). He set his sights on Jackie Robinson, a 26-year-old baseball player in the Negro leagues playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Branch didn’t believe Robinson was the best player at the time, but he was selected because Branch believed he would be able to withstand the racial and social repercussions that were bound to come his way.
The real-life Robinson is the true hero of this story but the best player in ‘42’ is Harrison Ford, giving one of the very best performances of his long career. Some may argue this isn’t a big stretch for Ford; that he’s tapping into his malcontent persona. Here, his character tries to align his personal Christian values of brotherhood with his ambitious professional targets. I think Ford is so good, he deserves Oscar consideration; though that isn’t very likely since Academy voters often have a difficult time recalling films released prior to September. Chadwick Boseman has the look of a professional athlete on the field, but more importantly, he is able to honor his real-life counterpart in those scenes where he absorbs a torrent of abuse from his white opponents, spectators, officials, and even his own teammates.
I did have a few issues with ‘42’ – we learn much about Jackie Robinson the baseball player, but very little about his life off the field; there are very few moments of Robinson with his wife and child and so we don’t really know how he was as a person, or as a husband or father. The movie would have received a stronger recommendation from yours truly had it further developed Mr.Robinson’s background. In the hands of another filmmaker – say, Spike Lee, or Martin Scorsese, ‘42’ would have given us a grittier, more intense account of the events that took place. Director Brian Helgeland plays it safe, giving us a film that very much admires the story’s hero, but in an honest, inspirational, and accessible manner. The end result is a good movie about a great subject; a competently made, historically accurate, and respectable motion picture, even if it remains trapped within the conventions of its biopic genre. QED.
It’s finally summer, woot! From the looks of it, there will be at least one major blockbuster release every weekend from now until the end of August, and I will do my best to cover them all. Kicking off this year’s summer blockbuster season is ‘Iron Man 3’, which would sound like it’s a sequel to ‘Iron Man 2’ but it feels more like a sequel to last year’s hugely successful ‘The Avengers’. Shane Black takes over the filmmaking reigns from Jon Favreau and this offering hits enough right notes and is good enough to warrant a passing grade.
The plot – by now, just about everyone knows that billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the man behind the superhero Iron Man. He recently saved the world from an alien invasion with the help of other superheroes, but is now suffering from anxiety attacks and insomnia. Compounding his problems is a mad, bearded jihadist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s recently surfaced and broadcasts some terrible executions. There’s also a creepy industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who has his own weird agenda.
Shane Black has penned some good scripts for action pictures of the 80s and 90s (the original ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Last Boy Scout’, ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, etc.). This is Mr. Black’s second outing as director (his first being ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ from 2005, which also starred Robert Downey Jr.). While that picture only earned $4.4M of its $15M budget, it did gain a cult following once released on DVD. This may seem like an odd choice by the studio – to pass the keys one of Marvel’s most successful film franchises over to Mr. Black. But, it works.
From the opening scene when Robert Downey Jr. starts saying something in voiceover narration, stops, and decides to start this story from a different direction – this is very ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’-ish and Mr. Black opens the picture in a knowingly, self-referential way. I do think this is a script that was made for Downey Jr. Very infrequently does there exist a perfect match between a performer and a screenwriter whereby the actor is able to spew out the writer’s dialogue in the perfect way – such is the case here. The banter between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is terrific and the early scenes with these two have a very old-school screwball comedy feel to them. I don’t think that Gwyneth Paltrow has really stood out much as an actress over the years but here she proves she can be quick and funny – again, this could be due to the matched pair factor; maybe Robert Downey Jr. brings out the best in her.
Stark appears to treat everyone (except Paltrow’s character) the same way. He does form an interesting relationship with a kid who helps him when he is desperate and doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. But, he doesn’t treat the kid any differently than he would treat anyone else – the kid is just another annoying adult in Stark’s eyes. I appreciated this element of the picture – most screenwriters would have been tempted to throw in a mushy subplot involving these two characters. How many among of us have fantasized about being able to tell a kid to shut up and stop being annoying? I doubt any of us have actually responded this way. Stark will call it as he sees it.
‘Iron Man 3’ is, however, first and foremost a big-budget summer blockbuster. Does it deliver on that level? Yes. There are some very cool individual moments; for example, each time Stark gets into his Iron Man suit – I won’t spoil this by describing it but each time it happened, I responded mentally with “Well, that was pretty cool.” The most recent Bond film, ‘Skyfall’, was what I like to call a back-to-basics Bond. The situation is this – the hero is stripped away of the tools he or she previously had in their possession. This requires the hero to be resourceful and to use their smarts to assemble something worthwhile. ‘Iron Man 3’ features a similarly cool scene where Stark has to go to a Home Depot-like store to purchase the raw materials needed to re-create a badass suit.
There are also some pretty incredible set pieces and, as one would expect, the film’s climactic action sequence is rather sensational. Let’s face it – summer audience members want to see stuff get blown up real good. ‘Iron Man 3’ doesn’t make the mistake that many big-budget action pictures make – providing viewers with non-stop, wall-to-wall action. Let’s think about that phrase for a moment. Do we want our action films to have never-ending action? When you see something get blown up real good, there should be something underpinning the explosions, or at least someone to care about so that when an explosion does go off, we don’t want to see our characters (that we have a rooting interest for) in harm’s way. It should also be clear why a structure is blowing up at the time it blows up. Thankfully, there are moments of pause between the extravagant set pieces for us to better know these characters.
But, this leads me to some of the weaknesses of the picture. I don’t think that Stark’s character changes here – he always has the perfect response to any situation. One of the joys of the original ‘Iron Man’ was being able to see the evolution of this character from weapons dealer to superhero. He needed to figure out what his true calling was. In ‘Iron Man 3’, it’s clear that he’s battling some internal demons. “Nothing has been the same since New York.” says Stark. Well, we know he’s referring to the events of ‘The Avengers’, but what of that? The fact that he was almost killed while trying to save the planet? I suppose it would be out of character for Stark to talk about his feelings; but, the film doesn’t make the reasons behind his anxiety clear to us. He doesn’t seem to learn from it either. ‘Iron Man 3’ had the stage to intelligently answer a difficult question posed by Captain America’s character in ‘The Avengers’ – “Take off the suit/armour and what are you?”
At one point, Pepper Potts gets to put on the armour, and it had me thinking that she would be more involved in the action this time around. Nope. I think she spends a huge chunk of the back half of the film either hanging upside down or trapped under a heavy structure. I don’t want to see her get rescued in ‘Iron Man 4’ – she’s no longer just a minor character. The bits involving The Mandarin are also very strange, but I also appreciate the inclusion of these scenes because they give ‘Iron Man 3’ its satirical edge.
There’s a lot going on in ‘Iron Man 3’, with its large cast, convoluted storyline, and equally convoluted subplots. I think that Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ was much better balanced. He was better able to handle the various moving parts – each character received the right amount of screen time needed to shine, and no one was lost in the shuffle. ‘Iron Man 3’ lacks the cohesion of ‘The Avengers’.
Still, ‘Iron Man 3’ is good enough to earn a recommendation from me because the parts that do work are so good; they make some of the lesser moments worth enduring. But, does my assessment really matter? At the point of writing this review (8:09 p.m. EST, May 9th, 2013), ‘Iron Man 3’ has already made $205M domestically, and $563.5M internationally. Those box office figures may have been sufficient enough for a review. QED.
I’m certain Nietzche, Aquinas, Kant, and Descartes are covered in every single undergrad Philosophy curriculum in existence, but how come there isn’t a Philosophy course on the filmmaker Terrence Malick? He has made a total of six full-length features in the last forty years – ‘Badlands’, ‘Days of Heaven’, ‘The Thin Red Line’, ‘The New World’, ‘The Tree of Life’, and most recently, ‘To The Wonder’. Three of these pictures were made within the last eight years, but all six of them pose an eternal philosophical question – “What is the meaning of it all?”
I’ve been a fan of Mr.Malick’s work for a long time. Upon its initial release in 1998, I even ranked ‘The Thin Red Line’ higher than Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – my moviegoing friends consider that statement as absurd today as they did fifteen years ago when I had to present my review in a Media Studies class.
‘To The Wonder’ is Malick’s weakest picture to date. While I’m not recommending the film, I should state right up front that it does serve as an efficient travelogue for those who are unable to travel this year. ‘To The Wonder’ is a romantic melodrama about two characters falling in and out love. Like most of Malick’s work, this one follows a nonlinear structure but the love story within the film appears to contain a through line. Oklahoman boy Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Ukrainian girl Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France. She has a ten-year old daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). We experience the first joyful stage of this relationship, with screensaver-esque backgrounds. Nothing is visually drab or ugly in this Malickian universe. With the help of his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski, Mr.Malick has created a world that is ravishingly gorgeous. The Parisian setting presents dream-like opportunities for visual artists – the limestone buildings, the architectural aspects of a cathedral (counterforts and conical spires), and cobblestone streets. Mr.Malick has always been able to find beauty anywhere, and these early moments of the film illustrate his gift wonderfully.
Eventually, these characters end up in Oklahoma. I didn’t think there would be nearly as much for Lubezski to revel in. But there are wheat fields, and creeks; also, less flattering geographical spots such as parking structures and supermarkets. Marina dances through these golden fields in the sunlight and through supermarket aisles. She does a lot of twirling; she is a carefree spirit and she can’t contain herself – of course, a guy like Mr.Affleck could have this effect on a woman. These blissful moments eventually expire and soon enough, there are feelings of resentment and hostility between these two. This causes Marina and her daughter to return to France. Neil then reconnects with a rancher he knew in childhood, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina also begins a bond with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who is struggling with his faith.
We seem to be tapping into Malick’s memories and I’m convinced most of what appears on-screen is autobiographical. I found a lot of the dialogue inaudible – much of it seemed to be quiet whispers; at times, I felt like I was being brought into a conversation between two people mid-way, and was lost at sea. That is the point, I suppose – not to listen, but to feel. The dialogue that was audible was nearly indecipherable with pseudo-poetic ideas about love - “Emotions, they come and go like clouds.” “You fear your love has died, it is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
These abstract qualities, however, made it very difficult for me to connect with the film. I admired much of what I saw, but I felt like I was being put through an academic exercise. As an example, I can’t even begin to explain the disintegration of the relationship between Neil and Marina – other than in terms of the metaphorical imagery which is often presented with muted colors. As mentioned before, Malick often poses an eternal question – “What does it all mean?” He may not have had a driving narrative in his previous work; what he did have were images which implanted provocative questions into the minds of its viewers. Never will I forget the composts and birth of the universe sequence in ‘The Tree of Life’ and wonder how this connected to a coming-of-age story (or a family in Waco, Texas). Or the first shot of ‘The Thin Red Line’ which shows a crocodile submerged in the jungle river – is nature at war with itself? Some have considered his work self-indulgent; I’ve always found it awe-inspiring. Which is exactly where my trouble with ‘To The Wonder’ lies – where is the sense of awe and wonderment? The images in this picture didn’t speak to me; Mr.Malick has made his point inaccessible and has forced me to endure this experience.
What exactly does the landscape represent? The emotions felt by its central characters? The emotions not felt by them? More importantly, how do we care about characters that appear to be theoretical constructs? I reiterate the fact that I probably wasn’t supposed to care; that I was supposed to delve into Malick’s philosophical world and derive a formula for “Higher Meaning”. But, the drama at the core of the film should support Malick’s philosophical leafage. I couldn’t make the connection. Same goes for Javier Bardem’s character – his story seems to be from another movie altogether.
Malick’s intentions are admirable, and if anything, ‘To The Wonder’ is ambitious to a fault. I don’t want to ask for a more conventional piece, but I think a little less wonder, and a little more story would have gone a long way. Marina’s daughter, Tatiana, has one of the film’s few audible lines of dialogue. This was the only universal truth I was able to leave with – “There’s something missing.” Yes, there is. QED.
‘The Sapphires’ represents the kind of film that is difficult for a critic to review. Is this great cinema? Not really. But it is a great 103 minutes at the movies. ‘The Sapphires’ possesses an exuberant, innocent fun that is simply infectious.
The picture is inspired by a true story - three aboriginal sisters and their cousin escape the racism of 1960s Australia and head to Vietnam as a singing group to entertain the troops. The group is known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds prior to being rebranded as The Sapphires; and in spite of internal discord, their singing voices remain in perfect harmony (typical of musical biopics).
‘The Sapphires’ was directed by first-time filmmaker Wayne Blair and was written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (Tony Briggs’ mother, Beverly Briggs, is one of the real-life Sapphires). On a very strange note, I must also comment on the fact the appearance of the real-life Sapphires, who we inevitably see photos of during the end credits. This is the first movie I can think of where the real-life women in which this story is based on turn out to be significantly be more attractive than the actresses portraying them on-screen.
Three of the four singers, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are sisters who live on a dusty Aboriginal reserve where they live with their parents, other family members and friends. Unfortunately, they’re forced to contend with the racism from the outside white population towards them. They perform at a local talent show, but they’re not welcome there. They’re greeted with racist remarks and are denied the victory they quite obviously should have earned. But, they catch the eye of David Lovelace (Chris O’ Dawd), a musical accompanist for the local signing talents. Two things appear to make his life worthwhile - booze and soul music. He reminds the girls that they are black, advises them to drop the country/western music routine, and to transition over to soul music. Of course, he sees this as an opportunity for him to become their manager and entertain the soul brothers serving in Vietnam. En route to Vietnam, the girls and their manager stop in Melbourne to pick up Sapphire #4, Kay (Shari Sebbens) – she was removed from the family as a child and sent to be raised by a white family due to her light skin color.
Kay’s story in particular gives the film some weight as she undergoes her own identity crisis. There is Gail’s resentment towards her but also the question of whether Kay thinks she has the upper hand over the other members of the group. After all, people don’t have racist feelings towards her due to her lighter skin, and she did have an advantageous upbringing relative to the other three Sapphires.
In a lesson he offers the girls, Dave states that country music dwells on failure whilst soul music embraces hope in the face of adversity. What ‘The Sapphires’ does well is take all of these elements of misfortune – racism, war, alcoholism, political unrest, family conflicts; and converts it into bubbly, nostalgic entertainment. We see footage of Muhummad Ali, JFK, Martin Luther King and we’re reminded of how significant these events were in American history. But, we’re also reminded of the days of Motown and how struggling African-American singers worked hard, very hard, to entertain the masses; and how some people chose to neglect their artistry and respond with racist taunts.
The Weinstein Company (the film’s distributor) was nice enough to supply us with a copy of the picture’s soundtrack on the way out of the screening. This could very well be Jessica Mauboy’s album – ten of the sixteen tracks are sung by her. Her (as well as the other cast members of The Sapphires) add a nice spin on 60s era classics such as ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Hunny Bunch)’, ‘I Heard It Through The Grape Vine’, and ‘What a Man’.
‘The Sapphires’ isn’t without its flaws – its tonal shifts from comedy to drama and back again to comedy are a little abrupt. The look of the picture is occasionally shoddy with some unpolished production. And, the main driving story about these girls’ rise to fame is both predictable and sentimental. But, even through all of its flaws, the film’s sincerity and charm stand out.
As I exited the theatre, I submitted a tweet-sized review which stated “’The Sapphires’ - Predictable but charmingly irresistible and filled with great performances; I think this is going to be a crowd-pleasing hit.” I might be wrong about this in the short run – the film is now playing in limited release (at the Varsity in Toronto). Will the picture get a wider release beyond that? I’m not sure; that is entirely dependent on the word-of-mouth it receives. This may happen during its theatrical run, or once it’s released on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/On Demand. Regardless of the channel, I do hope ‘The Sapphires’ finds an audience, and I suspect it will. QED.
There’s a story in the movie business about a wise old producer who used to applaud at the end of every movie because he knew how hard it was to make a movie, even a bad one. I don’t think this producer is alive today, but if he was, I’m convinced he wouldn’t applaud at the end of this film. ‘Identity Thief’ is my second zero star film of 2013 (the first being the horrendous ‘Movie 43’). I hadn’t given a single 2012 release zero stars (the last movie to receive this honour would be ‘The Human Centipede 2’ in 2011).
Jason Bateman plays a guy named Sandy Paterson and the movie thinks it’s hilarious that a guy’s name is Sandy. Things are going well for him until he’s duped on the phone by Diana (Melissa McCarthy) who has him believe that she is calling from a credit alert bureau. In reality, she is fishing for his private information, and once she has it, she creates a drivers license and credit card in his name and goes on a wild spending spree in Florida. Through a complicated series of circumstances, Sandy flies out to Florida with the intent of finding and returning Diana to Denver in the hopes that she’ll admit the truth and his name will be cleared. Of course, crazy road trip escapades ensure, none of which are remotely funny. This includes Melissa McCarthy being chased by inexplicable armed thugs – what do they even want from her? This is never explained in the movie.
What an incredibly stupid plot! Shouldn’t his credit card company have noticed something was wrong? How can the same credit card have a transaction take place in Florida and Denver within the same day? The Florida transactions are quite substantial – shouldn’t this raise a red flag? Aren’t we all forced to pay a monthly protection fee for each of the credit cards we hold? Is this the level of security we get in return? I expect to receive a call from my credit card company shortly for the $30 cheeseburger I purchased last night.
‘Identity Thief’ repeatedly circles back to same joke about Jason Bateman’s character having the name Sandy. Each time this happens, he responds with “It’s a unisex name.” Yes, it is! It isn’t that feminine a name – there’s Sandy Koufax, Sandy Berger, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Sandy Ward to name a few. Now, if his name had been Margaret, I might have laughed the first time the joke was made. But, this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what doesn’t work about the picture.
Let’s not forget that Melissa McCarthy is a brilliant performer – she was (rightfully) nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year for her work in ‘Bridesmaids’. If there’s one good thing that can be said about Identity Thief, it’s that Melissa McCarthy just goes for it – she’s a fearless comedienne. But, the script has her going through the motions with its repetitive gags – for example, her character has a habit of punching people in the throat; I didn’t laugh the first time, nor did I laugh the ninth time this happened. If this role had been played by Jim Carrey, Vince Vaughn, or Will Farrell – they would be able to take their outrageous comic antics and run to the end zone with them. But with Melissa McCarthy in front of the camera, the filmmakers undercut her, larger-than-life physical comedic talents – every fifteen minutes or so, the script requires her to cry about her upbringing, her sad life, and about how she doesn’t really have any friends. First world problems. In any case, we as audience members know what we would like to see – more so than the studios; and I think one of the many tweaks the script could have used would be to have Melissa McCarthy remain unremorseful and corrupt throughout. After all, if the character had been played by a male actor, that’s how it would have transpired on screen. I’m not being sexist - the screenwriters are.
As for Jason Batemen, this is his second collaboration with director Seth Gordon – they both worked on ‘Horrible Bosses’ previously (which I gave a rave 3.5/4 star review to). Bateman can play the corporate drone convincingly but I didn’t believe for a moment he would be willing to go on this crazy journey. He’s smart enough to know that this is a matter the authorities could deal with. Bateman, like McCarthy, is a likeable star – the script leaves them both are stranded in the middle of nowhere without any help in sight. These are two actors who should have been able to sense that this script was a stinker – can I really sympathize with them? To make matters worse, even the filmmaking is lousy. Gordon zeros in on these performers faces often; this telescopic method doesn’t give us enough space to actually see what is happening with these two actors. What we get is a game of cinematic Wimbledon with the camera shifting its attention between McCarthy and Bateman; why can’t we just see them in the same frame?
But, what do I know? Identity Thief is the second highest grossing film of the year so far – it’s brought in a total of $130 million and is among the leading films at the box office, even in its eighth week of release. This makes all of us a victim of an identity thief. I didn’t laugh once, either with or at these characters – I didn’t even want to laugh near them. Get the point yet? I didn’t laugh. ‘Identity Thief’ is a terrible movie – one of the worst moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. With a runtime of 111 minutes, this felt as long as the 5-day road trip Bateman’s character goes on – it is such a slog. I couldn’t wait for this to end. If there was a bright spot about it, it was that I got to see this movie with someone pretty awesome. But, even with great company, I just can’t bump the film’s score to 1/2star.
Being a film critic sounds like the best job in the world – you get to see every major movie that is released, and write about your experience in a darkened, air conditioned room. Truth be told, the job of a film critic sucks sometimes - a movie like ‘Identity Thief’ is proof of that. During my review of ‘Movie 43’, I stated that my chapter in life as an entertainment writer has probably reached its terminal end. Luckily, I saw ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ shortly after and all was right with the world. Here’s hoping I see another great picture soon. Else, this could be the end. If so, it’s been a blast. QED.
Park Chan-Wook makes his North American debut with ‘Stoker’, which is currently in limited release. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Mr.Chan-Wook is the filmmaker behind the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy – these pictures include ‘Sympathy for Mr.Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’, and ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’. ‘Oldboy’ was the most popular of the three and instantly spawned a vogue for all things Korean amongst stateside cinephiles. I happened to see ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Stoker’ on the same day and so I know that I’m already going to offend some moviegoers with this remark, but my honest reaction is this – I’d rank ‘Stoker’ higher than ‘Oldboy’ (which is currently sitting at #85 on the IMDB Top 250 List).
Why beat around the bush? I think this is one of the most chilling and disturbingly effective movies I’ve seen in a really long time. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a sullen high school student whose father dies mysteriously on her 18th birthday. On the day of his funeral, India discovers that she has an uncle she never knew she had - the stylishly-dressed Charlie (Matthew Goode). He has an uncomfortably creepy flirtation with India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and people start disappearing. But ostentatiously.
As he did in ‘Oldboy’, Park Chan-Wook’s technical skills and showmanship are on full display here with his use of bold colour and aberrant compositions. We first see India on the side of the road and Mr.Chan-Wook shoots this scene from a low angle; her dress flows in the wind and there’s a freeze frame during a moment I shouldn’t describe (except for the fact that it filled me with giddily perverse anticipation for what was to come). But the imagery within the opening shot lets us know that this story is going to end in an awful, bloody mess. Take for instance another scene during a long, tense dinner; the camera roams in a specific manner – only the person with something to say can be seen within the frame. If not for the plate of food in front of their clenched forks and knives, this dinner table could easily be mistaken for a poker table – who will be the first to reveal their tell? Or a scene in which a hairbrush runs through the Nicole Kidman character’s hair which then transitions into a blusterous field of grass. Or the visceral use of sound during the sharpening of a bloody pencil.
One shot shows India lying on her bed, seemingly circumscribed by boxes of identical shoes (with each box containing a different shoe size). The grand piano is positioned in the front room – and all three central characters have their moment to play; such moments emphasize sexual dread and yearning. There are also the echoes of footsteps on hardwood floor, and the foreboding creeks along the basement stairs under the swinging lampshade. This is a meticulously designed picture with every detail in the frame being fully realized. In this regard, Mr.Chan-Wook strikes a rare and delicate balance – but making his visual sensibilities appear outlandish yet restrained; gorgeous yet minimalistic.
In terms of the performances, the standout here is Matthew Goode – not to be confused with the rock singer, Matt Good. His character shifts from charming to creepy effortlessly. From the moment he appeared on screen, I knew there was something “off” about him and I couldn’t wait to find out what his deal was. Nicole Kidman has played this sort of damaged character with a bemused sense of self-preservation in ‘The Others’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’ and she is hauntingly good here too. And, she gets one showy scene towards the end when she lets her daughter India have it with a monologue about the impetus of parenthood. And I should credit Mia Wasikowska for picking mostly challenging roles – ‘The Kids Are All Right’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Albert Nobbs’. Her character’s arc of maturity, as uncomfortable as it will make some viewers, is so clearly defined by her performance. I have an enormous amount of admiration for her as an actress and can’t wait to see what she does next.
A word of caution – ‘Stoker’ won’t be for everyone. Certain scenes will have viewers walking, if not running out the exit door; such as a shower scene which shows a young girl masturbating (the scene is intercut with a grisly murder sequence). Some viewers are going to see this, like ‘Oldboy’, as a celebration of brutality and violence. I didn’t see it that way – I saw it as an intensely eerie examination of the darker side of human nature. The idea that some people could kill without any hesitation or remorse (and that such people may have been capable of it at an early age) is an unsettling thought, but Mr.Chan-Wook makes his audience members feel uncomfortable from the get-go. I suspect those who are able to stomach the unsavory material will be in for an aggressively creepy ride.
There appears to be a wave of foreign filmmakers making their excursion into Hollywood; in the last few months, there has been Park Chan-Wook with ‘Stoker’, Jee Woon-Kim’s ‘The Last Stand’, and Juan Antonio Bayona’s ‘The Impossible’ to name a few. Of the pictures I’ve seen, I’m impressed by the fact that these filmmakers don’t sacrifice their artistic sensibilities with the shift to American moviemaking. They remain firmly grounded in what they believe cinema should represent regardless of where the film is actually produced. But this begs the question – are North American audiences ready for these kinds of artful thrillers? The box office numbers suggest otherwise; but, of course, this could be due to the marketing of these pictures (after all, they contain the star-power necessary to draw in a large crowd, but they failed to do so). In any case, my hat is off to the filmmaker who sets out to make a “great movie” as opposed to the “great movie at the box office for the weekend”.
‘Stoker’ is beautifully photographed and tension-filled; outbursts of violence are unexpected and so their impact lingers. It’s very much in the spirit of movies such as ‘Badlands’ or ‘Natural Born Killers’ making us believe that these brutal murders aren’t the result of monsters or members of the mob, but by damaged souls who are absent of a conscience. ‘Stoker’ examines the artfulness of violence whilst simultaneously ensuring that its human element remains intact. I can already sense that this is going to be a very divisive film with just as many audience members pointing their thumb way down as those pointing it way up. I fall into the latter category, and to me, this was significantly more than a 2-hour perfume ad. ‘Stoker’ is such an extraordinarily composed piece – one that won’t escape my memory any time soon. QED.
Just this past Sunday, nearly 41 million American viewers tuned in to watch the 2013 Oscars. And despite people’s reservations about host Seth MacFarlene, most of us can agree that the Oscars were a celebration of some of the finest cinematic moments of 2012 (which was a fabulous year for cinema). And just days after the Oscars, Hollywood has decided to release ’21 & Over’ – a movie that celebrates youthful idiocy.
Here’s the story – what little there is. Straight-A student Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) and two best friends (Skylar Astin, Miles Teller) take Jeff Chang out for Jeff Chang’s 21st birthday. But, Jeff Chang has an important medical school interview the next day and Jeff Chang’s oppressive papa will be ready to pick up Jeff Chang at 7 a.m. for his interview. What was supposed to be a quick beer becomes a night of drunken humiliation, and utter debauchery. If you’re watching ’21 & Over’ in China or Hong Kong, you get a different story about a Chinese student who attends an American college and gets corrupted by our westernized partying ways.
Notice my overuse of the name Jeff Chang? You see, I thought if I said it over and over and over again, you would find it funny. Because the screenwriters of this picture seem to think so. Jeff Chang is the joke here as can be seen by the movie’s trailer. Can you guess how many times we hear Jeff Chang’s name being called out in ’21 & Over’? I lost count. Just once, couldn’t someone call him Jeff?
Assuming you’re watching the North American version of ’21 & Over’, you know exactly where this movie is going from the moment its characters and their situations are introduced. This is the directorial debut of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore – the screenwriting duo behind ‘The Hangover’ (which admittedly, I hated). We seem to be getting several of these crude R-rated comedies each year now. The problem is most are concerned with upping the gross-out factor; each film has to be more disgusting than the one that comes before it. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of the basic elements of screenwriting – you know, like, um, story and characters. And a note to all comedic filmmakers – never ever use shaky-cam. There is no need for a documentary-like “you are there” feel for a movie such as this. Please get a tripod.
There is nothing new here. This is the cinematic equivalent of concocting a recipe where the ingredients are far from other, far superior pictures. For example, the long-time buddy pair (one is a wisecracking horn-dog, the other is a nerd focused on the future) – ‘Superbad’. What about the strict, ethnic father who wants his son to practise medicine just like he did (without considering the alternative that his son may want something else for himself) – ‘Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle’? And what about the two blindfolded women who make out for the boys but get their revenge by forcing them to kiss each other afterwards – ‘American Pie 2’? ’21 & Over’ blends all these elements (and many more) together and the result is stale, unappetizing and hard to swallow.
As I mentioned before, there isn’t much of a story here. It is intended to be a series of vignettes – it’s all setup and payoff, setup and payoff. But, what’s at stake here? Are we worried that Jeff Chang is going to sleep in and miss his med school interview? Or that his father, Dr. Chang is going to be on the run for Jeff Chang and “honour-kill him” (as one character puts it). Given that Jeff Chang is passed out for most of the picture, the weight of the film lies on the shoulders of his two friends – this is a problem. There is no on-screen chemistry between the two and the script didn’t convince me (even for a moment) that these two would ever register as friends.
And if you’re going to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy – be a raunchy, R-rated comedy. The movie makes a 180-degree turn in its final act in a desperate attempt to give this mean-spirited picture some heart. But, these guys are jerks; I didn’t find anyone likable, and because I have no vested interest in any of them, I didn’t care about the life lessons they gained after this crazy night out. Worse yet, complications (such as Jeff Chang’s friends realizing that Jeff Chang is carrying a gun in his pocket) are resolved in overly-simplistic ways. Surely, this is a pretty serious issue, but ’21 & Over’ isn’t interested in addressing it in mature ways. The tonal shifts in the last act gave me whiplash.
Its primary focus is on grossing us out. And I have to admit, I did laugh a few times. But, there are significantly more misses than hits. I did laugh when Jeff Chang drunkenly yelled out that he was going to be 21 forever. But, for that one laugh, I had to later watch Jeff Chang munching on a tampon, believing it to be a candy bar. And then I had to witness two stoners strip a passed-out Jeff Chang, put him in a bra, and glue a teddy bear to his junk. And then, I had to see Jeff Chang run through the U.Washington campus like a screaming lunatic (and oh, that poor teddy bear). Your mileage may vary; there does seem to be an audience for fat jokes and vomit gags. But I’m so very tired of movies like these. So. Very. Tired.
The best thing that can be said about ’21 & Over’ is that it isn’t as abysmal as it could have been. And, well, at least it’s better than ‘Movie 43’. My suggestion is that you skip out on Jeff Chang’s invitation. Unless you personally know a Jeff Change. In which case you should definitely hang out with him this weekend – he has to be more likable than the Jeff Chang in ’21 & Over’. For sure. QED.