Tag: based on true story

Movie Review: The Sapphires (2013)

887570-the-sapphires
Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

Loosely based on the real-life singing group (and written by the lead singer’s son), The Sapphires follows four musical Koori women- three sisters and their cousin- who tour Vietnam in 1968 to perform for American troops. They are accompanied by their drunken manager, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who is generally useless but seriously believes in their talent. While traveling the young women experience various ups and downs: the oldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), fights to protect everyone else in an unfriendly environment; her sister Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) embarks on an affair with a handsome soldier; Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest, suddenly finds herself in the spotlight due to her strong singing voice; and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), struggles with her conflicting identities as an Aboriginal woman who was forcibly raised in white society due to Australia’s aggressive anti-aboriginal policies.

With a fun, soulful soundtrack and a really likable cast, The Sapphires is a darned enjoyable musical that also offers a glimpse into a specific historical moment that I admittedly know little about. It is made clear early on how these girls have grown up: as Koori in a country that resents their people so much that the government sought to eradicate them through forced indoctrination and child-stealing (of course, to an American this does sound familiar). Gail and her sisters are strong-willed, incredibly motivated, and fiercely loyal to their family and community. They take a stand against the racist rules of their country by refusing to be ignored, and their efforts to be heard are rewarded with a terrifying but significant opportunity to perform for huge crowds in Vietnam. What’s interesting about this movie is that, while the protagonists’ struggle against prejudice and hatred is of course a major factor, the story never leans on it as a defining plot point. This is about individuals whose Koori background is integral to their identity but not their defining feature, resulting in a multi-layered and often lighthearted script that explores how these women react and adapt to their unique situation.

While I think in many ways this is History Lite, I was so charmed by The Sapphires that I didn’t really care. It balances humor and romance (led by Dave and Gail’s adorable interactions) along with tragedy and social commentary, peppered heavily with excellent musical sequences. I loved the cast, especially O’Dowd and Mailman in the leads. It’s a little cheesy at times and seems so intent on keeping things upbeat that the more seriously emotional points aren’t always effective, but I did enjoy myself immensely. And now I’m encouraged to learn more about this moment in Australia’s history, and indeed more about USO performers in the Vietnam War. Yay learning!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Another musical about a girl group, perhaps? I still haven’t seen it but I imagine Dreamgirls might fit. Or maybe Linda Linda Linda. Alternatively, there’s The Boat That Rocked for another look at a real life rock music thing in the 60’s, but with mostly white British dudes. And Chris O’Dowd again.

Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)

bling-ring-emma-watson-600x350-03
Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

With sexy teens, high fashion, celebrity burglary, and a based-on-a-true-story plot worthy of a Lifetime Original Movie, Sofia Coppola’s latest offering The Bling Ring has a lot going for it. It centers on a group of privileged California teens who dream of becoming a part of celebrity culture, and find that breaking into famous stars’ homes and “going shopping” brings them artificially closer to their goal. The high of committing a crime and the bonds that form between the group keep them reaching for more and more scores, until, of course, they get caught.

Told primarily from the point of view of Marc (Israel Broussard), an insecure teen who changes high schools and falls into a friendship with the glamorous (and effortlessly immoral) Becca (Katie Chang), the story moves back and forth between Vanity Fair interviews, sweaty club nights, and criminal extravaganzas. Marc is the most sympathetic of the characters, with the girls mostly reading as vapid self-absorbed jerks, but hey, it’s a satirical portrait of wealthy, pretty youth. These kids have been fed a bullshit American Dream and they learn they can succeed on their looks, their shows of material wealth, and some good old-fashioned law-breaking, all to an ultimate end of sexy drug-fueled excess and the push for their own reality show. It’s ridiculous and sad, and more so because it feels utterly realistic. Not to rag on teens, I know they get enough shit as it is, but Sofia Coppola has definitely tapped in to that reality show culture that’s erupted in the past decade, planting seeds of forced melodrama and hopes of unwarranted fame in the minds of impressionable youngsters. And encouraging lots of Facebook selfies.

The script is light and funny, and the cast is all-too-comfortable in their shallow, ludicrous roles; Emma Watson especially is hilarious as the ultra-ditzy Nicki, along with Leslie Mann as her doofy New age mom. I loved the high-glam interior sets and close camera work through various stars’ mansions. It gets a little repetitive with so many scenes of breaking and entering, but Coppola films each one a little differently and managed to keep up the visual interest even if narratively there’s something of a drag. I especially dug the silent, one-shot sequence for Miranda Kerr’s house. For Coppola the film is a bit of a break from her traditional approach, in that it’s less concerned with existential angst and more focused on the humor and over the top elements of celebrity culture today. It is definitely her funniest movie, and I was enjoying it so much that I found I could give it a pass for the off-kilter storytelling and lack of emotional depth. The Bling Ring has its faults, but it also has some (albeit fucked up) virtues. Her camera and soundtrack combine to atmospherically create a portrait of a certain kind of American youth, that while exaggerated, does hold some abominable truth.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The breaking-and-entering with hip young people subject reminded me of The Edukators, which is more political but fun, or if you wanted more teenage girls being hilariously entitled there’s always Mean Girls.

Movie Review: Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up) (1990)

close-up

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

I feel lately I’ve fallen off in watching foreign films, which has always been a resolve of mine though I don’t always keep to it. I’ve had several bumped up my netflix queue so hopefully I can get back into it this summer. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up seemed like a good place to start, since I’ve heard it praised quite often, and have always been intrigued by the premise. Using careful re-enactments that feature the actual people involved as well as courtroom footage with some scripted speeches, the film examines the actions of Hossain Sobzian, a mild-mannered film buff who impersonates noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makmahlbaf. For about a week he ingratiates himself with a well-off family, saying he wants to make a film with them. His deception is revealed after a few days and he is put on trial for fraud, at which point director Abbas Kiarostami hears the story and decides to film the proceedings. He also recreates the events leading up to the trial, from various perspectives.

Innovative in its structure and storytelling, Close-Up is a strange and compelling film that rides the line between documentary and drama in unexpected ways. What sounds like a weird, somewhat sensational premise turns into an introspective study of obsession and creative desire. As far as I can tell, Sobzian is not some malicious con artist, but rather a lonely, dissatisfied man who stumbles upon a way to live within another person’s greatness. His Makmahlbaf persona allows him the confidence and social fluidity that he seems to lack in his own life, and while his actions are misleading and suspicious, it’s not hard to see why he might maintain this charade for the Ahankhah family, whose friendliness and cinematic enthusiasm immediately bond him to them. It’s a no-win situation, basically, and I could understand the reactions of all sides, with everyone seeking some sort of personal fulfillment through an association with fame but no one attaining it.

Though the story and character investigation are fascinating on their own, it is Kiarostami’s interesting narrative techniques that elevate the film to something truly special. Using the actual people involved in these events to act out their own story leads to a kind of distanced documentary feel, with the performers knowingly creating a copy of the real thing. The long shots and real-time scenes that cover different elements in Sobzian’s story are pieced together non-linearly, cutting back and forth from staged memories to courtroom footage that is obviously affected by the presence of Kiarostami’s cameras. It is never entirely clear if Sobzian is simply putting on an act for the cameras, and indeed I think it’d be naive to assume he wasn’t to some extent, but his deep respect for film as a medium and his regret that the Ahankhah family felt wrongs seem genuine. The long-form coda brings some satisfaction to all parties, a sort of sigh of relief after building tension between parties both seen and unseen. It’s just a really beautiful, memorable film, a reminder that there are so many ways one can tell a story.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m honestly not sure what films are similar to this, but I can say that now I’d like to see any of Makmahlbaf’s films, especially The Cyclist, which is referenced a few times.

Movie Review: Goodfellas (1990)

goodfellas

Seen: On dvd on my laptop, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

Ok let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like this movie. I know it’s held in high esteem by so many people, and I know Martin Scorsese is Important and everyone loves gangster movies with Italian-Americans, but this is not for me. I watched it because I was commissioned to design a poster for it, which I enjoyed making, but since I watched it in full I also have to review it. So here we are. Just wanted to start with that so you won’t be aghast at my negative reaction to a movie that honestly isn’t very good. Here we go. Inspired by true events, Goodfellas traces the rise and fall of gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he becomes part of a major New York criminal enterprise. He’d always dreamed of being a gangster, and believes the respect and wealth that he gains are worth the murders and threat of imprisonment and all that. As the years pass he starts a family, does some time, gets deep into drug trafficking, and eventually becomes an informant when several of his friends are killed.

The thing about Goodfellas is, I don’t care about it, like at all. I don’t care about any of the characters, I don’t care about the story, I don’t care about the visuals or the music or the production. So little about it interests me. I know it’s not a poorly made film, and I know the cast is generally strong, and that to a lot of viewers this type of story is important, but honestly I can’t believe so many people can sit through 146 minutes of this, and like it so much. Despite narrating almost every single scene (except for a few segments when his wife abruptly narrates), the protagonist is strangely flat. I felt like I knew very little about his personality even though this was his biography, and wondered if the narration was meant to haphazardly give him some dimension. I didn’t understand his motivations or his feelings. The bulk of the charisma is handled by Joe Pesci, who is unexpectedly terrifying as loose cannon Tommy DeVito, and Robert De Niro, who is sinister as the deceptively friendly James Conway, but their roles are limited. Suffice to say I hated all of the female characters, but I won’t pretend that that’s a surprise. One of the few times this movie caught my interest was when Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) threatened to kill the adulterous Henry, which I was ALL FOR, but then she wimps out and goes on some monologue about how she couldn’t leave him because she was still attracted to him. Whatever.

Admittedly I am definitely not the audience for this type of movie, which is why I wouldn’t completely write it off. I don’t even know that I hated it, I just couldn’t care less about it, really. It’s not offensive or anything, and there are some things about it I liked, like the aforementioned performances of Pesci and De Niro, plus all the discussion of Italian food (I was even making a good pesto while I watched it, so I felt very connected to my Italian roots). But there’s really so little here that interests me, and yet somehow SO MUCH movie, it just went on and on and I was constantly checking how much time was left. The narrative is poorly paced, and I felt like there was no drive, no direction, no oomph. And the face that I didn’t care about any of the characters, and indeed found most of them reprehensible, didn’t help matters. I honestly don’t know if we were supposed to be rooting for anyone, because I sure as hell wasn’t. They’re all just bullies who think they deserve an inordinate amount of wealth just because they, what? Threaten people? Wear nice suits? Speak Italian? I have no idea what gave them all such big heads. And if we’re not supposed to root for them, that’s ok, but then at least make them more compelling characters.

In the end it all boils down to boredom. Goodfellas is boring.

2/5

Pair This Movie With: I don’t know, other boring manly gangster movies I guess. It’s not my field.

Movie Review: Bernie (2012)

bernie

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from netflix instant.

A polite, effusive, intelligent assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is beloved by all in the small city of Carthage, Texas. He is very socially active in the community, especially in church and theater, but it is his unlikely friendship with wealthy, surly widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) that eventually immortalizes him. The questions surrounding their relationship (at times manipulatively romantic, at others bordering on indentured servitude) are explored, as are the strange events surrounding Marjorie’s (premeditated?) death at the hands of Bernie himself. Told in a semi-documentary style, their tale is elaborated upon by actual denizens of Carthage through interviews, with key players depicted by actors.

Quirky and a little bit weird, Bernie is a fun and somewhat sad slice-of-life offering from Richard Linklater, whose films I’ve realized I’ve never reviewed on this site since I guess I watched several of his movies before starting a blog. Oh well. I loved the half-documentary, half-acted style of filmmaking, fusing fact and fiction and a whole lot of supposition. Jack Black is fantastic, funny and kooky and warm, with this slight hint of pent-up frustration that really does make you wonder, even though by the end you’re with everyone in the town and you want to believe him to be a good guy. He even gets to sing a bunch, and after seeing his rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones” I’m convinced a Jack Black-starring Music Man is an excellent idea. MacLaine and McConaughey give great supporting performances, but their roles are limited. Also what the hell did they do to McConaughey’s hair? Seriously, he looks like shit and it’s unnerving. Is his hair the source of his power or something?

The story is a bit meandering, which I understand makes it more realistic since real life doesn’t follow the standard points of a fictional narrative, but it does make the movie drag at certain parts. But overall it’s charming for its earnest characterization, innovative stylization, and unexpected plot developments. Though I don’t know how much he adhered to the known facts of the story, Linklater seems intent on delivering some semblance of honesty and objectivity when representing this town and its inhabitants- at least I hope that’s true.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The sensationalist real-life story and questionable events made me think of Tabloid, the memorable 20120 documentary from Errol Morris.