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Rating History

Searching for Sugar Man
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Take a look-see at the nominees for Best Documentary from this past year. They include AIDS epidemics, the Israeli secret service, familial turmoil in the West Bank and the cover-up of rape victims in the US military. Difficult subjects of depth, intrigue and emotional weight. So who ended up taking home the trophy? A movie about the mysteriously short career of a Detroit based musician. While the film ducked under the same radar as its subject, a viewing will prove the Academy made the right choice this year. Searching For Sugar Man is a profoundly human story full of mystery, surprise and some of the best music you've likely never heard before.

Ever hear of a seventies era folk rocker named Rodriguez? Just Rodriguez? Before Searching For Sugar Man, neither did I. This Swedish doc explores the extraordinarily brief career of the Detroit based singer/songwriter. In the Motor City, he cut a pair of records, released them to a public ripe for his Dylan-esqe protest sound and sold about ten copies before fading into obscurity. So why didn't he hit it big during an era of unrest? How come his biggest fan base resided a continent away? Why did he disappear into the ether, leaving behind fractured stories of his suicide? The answers to these questions are most of the fun in this doc, full of twists, turns and redemption

Right off the bat, the music is placed front and center throughout the film and for good reason. Even with only a sampling of songs, the craftsmanship and tenacity of the recordings are astounding. Socially conscious folk with a revolutionary edge, the music of Rodriguez catches your ear and never lets go. In fact, the opening thirty minutes of the movie almost comes off as a strange episode of VH1's Behind The Music but as the mystery unravels, you get sucked into the personal story of this mysterious artist. As the cliché goes, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

It also doesn't hurt the film is beautifully photographed, using a combination of 8 mm film, animation and an iPhone app after director Malik Bendjelloul ran out of money. From the gritty exteriors of Detroit to the streets of South Africa, Searching For Sugar Man is well framed and for the most part, well paced. The only low points are some obvious filler between the opening and the central reveal but when the movie hits its stride around the fifty minute mark, it never looks back. You can also make the argument the director really pushes his subjects to amplify the drama, but all that is forgivable given the care he gives the mysterious guitarist.

Filmed on a shoestring budget, simply for the love of the material, Searching For Sugar Man is a touching and empathetic piece of filmmaking. With a fascinating and exceptional central subject, the movie becomes a celebration of talent and beauty in a year full of bitterness and pain. While the doc may not pack the punch of the other nominees, I walked away happy to have met somebody so quietly wonderful, both behind the guitar and in everyday life. A lovely film about an extraordinary person.

Django Unchained
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Over New Years Eve, I sat on the floor of my good friend's apartment and got all "film critic-y" about Quentin Tarantino. Fellow movie fans were all a-flutter about the auteur director's latest film, Django Unchained. They and the rest of the film going community loved it, but the trailer had me less than psyched. My 1:00 AM reasoning? As a Quentin fan, I want more. Making his career off the videotaped memories of a young adulthood spent staring at picture shows, Tarantino uses his remarkable skills to make souped up genre flicks. The Pulp Fiction phenomenon aside, his movies range from good to great. Selfishly, I want him to take the artistic leap to exceptional. Django's trailer seemed to offer more of the same and my pre show expectations were low.

And why wouldn't they be given the setup? Essentially a spaghetti western Kill Bill, Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who's freed from bondage by bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). With the help of the good doctor, Django embarks on a mission to free his wife from the same chains he found himself in for years and years. The man holding the key is the affluent Calvin Candie (Leonardo DeCaprio). Can Django and Shultz infiltrate the racist aristocracy of the 1860's Deep South to save the woman he loves? Anybody with a brain in their head could answer that question but the point isn't the threadbare story. It's all about the strange, violent and oddly magnetic journey Django and company take during the film's 165 minutes.

As of late, Tarantino has been seen as style over substance and the 8th fiick in the director's filmography is pure tooth rotting deliciousness. Quentin colors Unchained with his usual winks to the genres he loves while maintaining genuine intrigue throughout. Foxx is cool yet menacing in his portrayal of the educated slave and has a likability that undercuts the rampaging action. Waltz is also fine as the gun toting dentist, despite his character wearing thin around the two and a half hour mark. The real surprise is DeCaprio as the master of the house. Leo does his best work when he loves the role and he has so much fun with the Southern accents and over the top monologues, it's naturally infectious.

Of course, nothing exceeds like Tarantino excess which is where Django Unchained shines brightest. Watching Jamie Foxx dispatch hordes of racist baddies is good cathartic fun, made more so by Tarantino's knack for pacing and timing. While gun slinging doesn't have the visual impact of sword play or kung fu, Quentin makes it work with stylish camerawork and his usual flair for the absurd. The movie also has genuine comedy to rinse off the bloodshed. Many of the moments from a Clan meeting gone bad to the more subtle bouncing tooth on Schultz's dentist's wagon are hilarious, reminding the viewer they're in a Tarantino world.

In fact, when thinking back on Django Unchained, I'm reminded that Tarantino isn't just another auteur. He's a cubist painter who takes familiar film archetypes and bends them to his own strange vision. Everything is slanted left of center and the result is an experience that doesn't break new ground yet still feels fresh. The film isn't perfect. There's no sense of connection between Django and his love interest, there are some questionable musical choices and, for God's sake Quentin, don't ever make a cameo in your own film ever again. Still, the end result is full of sugary, pulpy goodness. Tarantino wisely doesn't try to resolve race relations from 150 years ago. He blasts them in the face with gunpowder and surrealist mayhem. Django Unchained isn't the masterpiece us Taran-taniacs have been looking for, but so long as the director continues to make entertaining and well made films, maybe that's more than good enough.

The Expendables 2
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

If you follow my reviews with any regularity, you know how I feel about the original Expendables movie. Look back at that review from two years ago, and you'll read about "the defining moment", the point where the movie completely leaps over the proverbial shark and swan dives into a lake of ridiculousness. Expendables 2 has a very similar moment.

Forty five minutes into the second installment in Sly Stallone's latest grab for a paycheck, there's a very tense and teary scene. After a moment of "terrible tragedy" featuring an actor we've spent a total of eight minutes with, Stallone reminisces to the crew about the nature of their deadly business. With as many tears as his crinkled face can muster, Stallone delivers a line to Jason Statham that resembles something heartfelt. A rumination. A genuine thought through the blood, bullets and CGI smoke. Statham's deadpan response? "What's the plan." Stallone's brilliant response?

"Track him. Find him. Kill him."

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Expendables 2.

The story behind Expendables 2 is irrelevant. Tough guys battle a group of not as tough guys headed up by a plutonium seeking Jean-Claude Van Damme. The baddies are looking for a ridiculous amount of the nuclear stuff to sell to an unnamed buyer and it's up to the Geriatric Rambo's to stop them. The streamlined story actually works better than the convoluted government / general's daughter claptrap of the first and allows the audience to think less about what's going on and just enjoy the ride.

Wait. Aren't we supposed to think at movies? Honestly, sometimes no. Commando remains one of my all time favorite "dumb movies", because it's pure escapism. Where the first Expendables took itself entirely too seriously, Number 2 succeeds in its simplicity. No goofy love story. No feigned political intrigue. Just guns, fists and a sound awareness that it's exactly as dumb as you would expect it to be.

And with a cast this epic, how could it not be. Last time around, the story centered around Jason Statham and Stallone with the rest of the billboard names acting as scene specific filler. This time around, everyone gets a bit more time, creating a slightly more realistic team. Of course, the film features plenty of nostalgic fan service, mostly featuring actors who clearly showed up for a day, shot their scenes and left, but the cameos are better integrated into the main story. There's also a smattering of decent acting, mostly by newcomer Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) and a surprisingly funny turn by Dolph Lundgren as a chemical engineer / professional killer. Lundgren has a great deal of screen time, and nearly every joke he's a part of works perfectly. Van Damme is also a well cast villain's Jean Claude freaking Van Damme.

But don't let this review fool you into thinking this is an A+ movie. Fun doesn't necessarily translate to good and there are plenty of bumps in the rollercoaster. The main hiccup is the shocking amount of bad CGI going on here. Computer enhanced shots are commonplace in movies but someone needs to remind director Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic) that we can still create blood, bullet flashes and smoke (yes, smoke) via traditional means. Oh, and if you're going to do it with computers, don't make it looks like a Film 1 student's After Effects project. The characters, especially the new ones, are given the bare minimum of development, making the experience again suffer from the, "tons of action with no real stakes" syndrome. The movie also suffers from midway bloat and the scenes where things calm down are just as poorly written and acted as one would expect.

When I saw the original film, it was on a whim with a friend and it was so bad, we laughed hysterically. The sequel also had me cracking up but not because it was unassumingly poor. It was a genuine good time. While nobody featured in this flick is going to win any Oscars, the fights scenes are well done, there's nice mix of hand to hand combat with the gunplay and the whole feature flies by like a runaway tractor trailer strapped with machine guns speeding along a crowded highway. No worries, that's not a spoiler. The result is a fun filled thrill ride that raises some pulses while dialing down the brain stem, the most you can ask for with a trailer so full of long forgotten names. A good time for fans of good times.

Aladdin (1992)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[b][u]Review My Collection #30[/u][/b]

Before I take a look at my latest Review My Collection installment, let's take a trip to early nineties. Disney was the toast of the animated world with a series of films I call "The Disney Four". In order, the big D sent The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), the subject of this review and The Lion King (1994) to theaters and each film is regarded by many to be classics (with exception of Mermaid, but that's a conversation for another day). Aladdin was the third film in The Disney Four and while it doesn't reach the heights of the one that came before or after, it's a solidly entertaining piece of animation that still holds up in modern day viewings.

Framed in the setting of Arabian sultans and princess, Aladdin is the story of a young street urchin, a persnickety princess and a wisecracking genie. Aladdin and his faithful primate Abu are having a grand old time in Agrabah. Ducking guards, stealing apples and singing showtunes, life is rough but free-wheeling for the pair of pals. On the other side of the palace wall sits Princess Jasmine, a privileged yet imprisoned aristocrat who bemoans her station in life, especially the parade of potential husbands who come a-courting. According to law, she has to marry a prince but none of them spark the flame of independence that's smoldering inside her. Further complicating matters is the nefarious, pencil mustached advisor Jafar who looks to gain political advantage from Jasmine's indecision. How you ask? An ordinary lamp containing the cartoon embodiment of Robin Williams.

From the outset, everything seems in place for an early nineties Disney movie. Toe tapping tunes? Check. An off center setting that leaves plenty of room for creative license? Check. A romance that supports the underlying theme of acceptance despite cultural and sociological differences? Double check. Aladdin is an easily likeable protagonist, his monkey buddy provides some physical comedy and the villain, alongside the voice of Gilbert Godfrey as his parrot sidekick Iago, is evil enough to give the feature some genuine tension. The pieces all work to provide a very enjoyable if inoffensive joyride through the Arabian nights.

The real star of the film is Robin Williams as the free wheeling Genie. While I'm not the biggest fan of the comedian, he's a fine actor and lifts the film with some genuine laughs. Most of the characters in Aladdin can be kindly described as vanilla but Williams, with a nice combination of improv and good writing, gives the movie a jolt of energy. Unfortunately, Disney was still in that strange period where female protagonists were still stuck in the castle tower. This is prevalent here with Jasmine, a vapid and almost annoying character who whines her way through the feature. If it weren't for the great music and the likeability of Aladdin balancing out the privileged princess, the twosome may have sunk the entire feature.

Luckily, this not the case. While not on the level of either Beauty and the Beast or the best film in the foursome, The Lion King, Aladdin satisfies its intended audience with great animation, exciting action and the requisite love story Disney fans crave. Mostly by the numbers in terms of storytelling and characters, the over the top Genie gives the feature a distinct flavor that stills holds up today. A fun filled adventure for all ages.

[url=""]**Check out my RT blog entitled "Review My Collection" for the rest of the series!!**[/url]

A Beautiful Mind
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[b][u]Review My Collection #29[/u][/b]

When the phrase "Oscar nominated actor" comes up, Russell Crowe isn't the first name that springs to mind. But in a three year span from 1999 to 2001, the New Zealand born actor was the most decorated performer in Hollywood. The Insider gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, the new millennium saw him win the award for his starring role in Gladiator and one year later, he completed the nomination trifecta with his brilliant portrayal of mathematician John Nash in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. While many critics derided the film for its lack of historical accuracy, the fine acting, excellent script and heart-wrenching story makes it a success on nearly every level.

The film centers around the sorta-true life story of mathematician John Nash. The script follows Nash as he progresses from an eccentric Princeton graduate student searching for an original idea to his work with the government cracking codes. He's got a girl, a gig and limitless potential. All seems well in the life of the genius until the world he believes to be true comes crashing down around him. If I seem hesitant to do a plot synopsis, there's good reason for that. Much of the film's tension lies in a mid movie reveal that turns the entire story on its head. Suffice to say, this is a film that must be watched twice if only to capture the little hints and nods to the second act twist. Much of the film's success lies in its ability to surprise, a rarity in the usual staid biopic genre.

But the movie isn't all shocking reveals and plot twists. The core of the experience lies in the very realistic love story between Nash and his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Taking home a well deserved Best Actress Oscar for the role, Connelly is brilliant as the romantic interest. Rather than hot passion, Connelly's character serves as Nash's support system through the tough times in his life. The film is a bit of a brain bender and the choice to soften the experience with a genuine love story is a smart and effective one.

Naturally, when doing a film of this nature the toughest task goes to the lead. The line between parody and impersonation is a fine tightrope. Teeter either way and the film falls apart. Russell Crowe avoids this by balancing the mannerisms of the real John Nash with some strong character work, allowing him to absolutely disappear in the role. The Oscar winning makeup certainly helps in creating the illusion but it would just be fancy latex without the great acting by Crowe. The rest of the cast perfectly complements the principals, including fine work by Paul Bettany as Nash's friend Charles and the always reliable Ed Harris as Department of Defense agent William Parcher.

The main detraction most reviewers found with this movie in the large historical inaccuracies between the real life John Nash and the fictitious character. Remember all that talk about the realistic love story and his Fascism defeating code cracking? Fictitious. Biopics generally pride themselves in presenting their subjects in a realistic light, but A Beautiful Mind takes great liberties with the true story of John Nash. While purists may find these revisions almost offensive, I found the film conveyed the nature of his struggles in a visual and artful way, even if the specifics are largely manufactured. Think of it as sacrificing accuracy for the greater emotional good. If you want to learn about the real John Nash, rent the excellent PBS documentary A Beautiful Madness.

While many of the film's elements were invented to enhance the drama, the drama itself is excellent and well worth a watch. The movie theater is where I go to get swept away and in that respect, A Beautiful Mind does just that. Combining a fantastic ensemble cast, some amazing effects and more surprises than one would expect from a "standard biopic", Ron Howard's portrait of a burdened genius stirs the soul with a powerful yet hopeful message of triumph in the face of adversity. Winner of four Academy awards including Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind may not be 100% accurate in its storytelling but it captures the spirit of an inspirational person better than any biopic could ever hope for.

[url=""]**Check out my RT blog entitled "Review My Collection" for the rest of the series!!**[/url]