The movies have looked to the news for inspiration almost since the first time film was projected on screens.
As far back as 1899, a film called Major Wilson’s Last Stand dramatized scenes from the First and Second Matabele Wars, including the death of Major Allan Wilson and his men in Rhodesia in 1893.
The trend of reel life emulating real life continues this weekend with The 33, an Antonio Banderas film based on a famous mining accident. In 2010, 33 men spent 69 days trapped underground in a copper-gold mine located near Copiapó, Chile when a rock the size of the Empire State Building blocked their exit.
“I can’t think of a better story than this one to bring to the screen,” says producer Mike Medavoy.
The trick is getting the story right. Director Patricia Riggins worked with the miners, Medavoy and screenwriters to create a story that, according to everyone involved, features more fact than fiction.
That isn’t always the case.
According to IMDb the Jim Sturgess movie 21 calls itself a “fact based” story about a group of MIT students who used a complicated card-counting system to fleece Las Vegas casinos for millions of dollars.
The bare bones of the story are true — blackjack was played and MIT students counted cards — but Hollywood diverged from reality when casting the leads. In truth the main players were mainly Asian-Americans, including ringleader Jeff Ma who consulted on the movie.
Ma called the controversy surrounding the casting of Sturgess and Kevin Spacey “over-blown,” adding “I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.”
The Michael Bay film Pain & Gain is listed as an action-comedy and stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie certainly play up the jokes. Everyone laughed, except for Marc Schiller, the real-life inspiration for the film’s kidnap victim.
“It wasn’t that funny when they tried to kill me,” he said. “They did run me over with a car twice after trying to blow me up in the car. The way they tell it made it look like a comedy. You also gotta remember that not only I went through this, but certain people were killed, so making these guys look like nice guys is atrocious.”
Last year’s Oscar winner Whiplash saw Miles Teller as a young drummer driven to extremes by a fanatical music teacher played by J.K. Simmons.
The movie draws parallels to the famous story of Jo Jones and Charlie Parker. The legend goes that Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head after a lackluster solo, prompting the sax player to go away, practice for a year and return as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Trouble is, the story isn’t true. A cymbal was let loose, but according to eyewitnesses it was dropped on the floor at Parker’s feet and not at his head.
“Not attempted murder,” wrote Richard Brody in the New York Times, “but rather musical snark.”
How does Hollywood get away playing fast and loose with the facts? Black Mass director Scott Cooper says, “I don’t think people come to narrative features for the facts, or for truth. I think you go to documentaries for that. What you do come to narrative features for is psychological truth, emotion and deep humanity.”
Wondering what “Kidnapping Mr. Heineken” is all about? The title says it all, which is too bad because it feels like they left out the most interesting part of the story.
Set in 1982, this true crime drama stars Sam Worthington as Willem Holleeder, Jim Sturgess as Cor van Hout, Ryan Kwanten as Jan Boellaard and Mark van Eeuwen as Frans Meijer, down-on-their-luck owners of a construction company. To raise some quick cash they turn to a life of crime and kidnap one of the richest people in the Netherlands, Freddy Heineken (Anthony Hopkins), chairman of the board of directors and CEO of Heineken International. They’re chuffed when the news refers to them as dangerous, professional crooks but amateur mistakes and personality clashes ultimately put an end to their newfound criminal careers.
Since this is based on true events, the movie ends with updates as to what all the characters got up to after the kidnapping caper. Some went to jail, one escaped from a mental institution and fled to Paraguay while Holleeder and van Hout went on to become the notorious Godfathers of the Netherlands, as in Dutch crime kingpins. That sounds more interesting than the kidnapping story and yet it is only alluded to in the film’s closing moments.
Instead we’re told a movie-of-the-week kidnapping story about a group of wannabes torn apart by greed and paranoia. Heineken, trying to get under the skin of his captors, tells them, “There are two ways to be rich in this world. You can have a lot of money or you can have a lot of friends—but you can’t have both.” He’s right. The 35 million guilder ransom cleaves the tight knit group, but despite the film’s prominent heart-pounding score, there’s no real drama to much of it. There are car chases and rubber masks, which all feel like movie action circa 1982 when the film is set, but the story is as flat as an open Heineken left in the midday sun.
Producers of “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” probably hope their film will do for owls what “Happy Feet” did for penguins. That is, make their stuffed character counterparts a must-have gift for the little ones come this Christmas. The mix of cute owls, action and goofy humor has made the Guardian books a hit with the kids, but I fear the movie isn’t likely to inspire the same kind of warmth.
Based on the first three books of the fifteen novel series by children’s author Kathryn Lasky, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” begins with Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess) a young barn owlet and his older brother Kludd (voice of True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten) are kidnapped by the Pure Ones. Taken to the remote isle of St Aggie’s they discover the evil Pure Ones are building a slave army of “moon blinked” owlets with the intention of taking over all owl kingdoms in the world. With the help of some new friends, but minus his brother who joins the Pure Ones, Soren escapes and alerts the Guardians of the island of Ga’Hoole to the wicked scheme.
The first thing you’ll notice about “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is how beautifully animated it is. The owls and owlets are photo realistic, and the wonderfully rendered backgrounds are moody and atmospheric. In fact, one sequence of Soren flying through some extremely rough weather is as visually spectacular as anything we’re likely to see this year. It’s just too bad you’re unlikely to give a hoot about the story.
The story is as standard as it gets. The addition of Lord-of-the-Rings-esque character names like Eglantine and Allomere and some owl on owl violence can’t disguise the fact that this is a story that never really takes flight. Mix and match Cain and Able with a taste of “The Lion King” and you get the basic story outline.
Perhaps director Zach Snyder was trying to keep it simple after his last film, “The Watchmen,” earned savage reviews for its abundance of story, or perhaps he underestimated his audience, assuming that children would be wowed by the visuals and don’t need a great story.
The film does have its pleasures. The voice work is uniformly good, although some of the English accents might be tough for little, unaccustomed ears to decipher, and the 3D action sequences are quite good, although, again, perhaps a bit violent for young eyes.
In the end “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is undeniably a big handsome picture that is, unfortunately, more style than substance.
The subtitle for “One Day,” a new romance starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, should be “Carpe Diem!” Seize the day, it seems to be telling us, particularly if you’re in love.
Sturgess and Hathaway each affect English accents for their roles—his is real, her’s clearly isn’t—of people who meet on July 15, 1988 and play romantic cat and mouse for almost twenty years. In the beginning Hathaway is an earnest poet who thinks she can change the world. How earnest is she? She plays Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” as seduction music. That’s pretty earnest. He’s a rich kid with a yin yang symbol, representing the perfect union of opposites, tattooed on his ankle and, as it turns out on his heart. This pair of opposites spend most of their lives trying not to fall in love until one day, July 15th, no less, they take the leap.
“One Day” is many things. It’s a style parade of hair and clothes from the past twenty years and it’s an interesting take on how to tell a story but it’s also a little disconnected. I think the year-by-year format—we drop in on Jim and Anne every July 15 for twenty years—is the culprit. It begins to feel gimmicky by the early nineties and by the millennium almost feels as though it is playing out in real time.
Luckily the story is rescued by the chemistry between the leads. Sturgess brings an easy charm to the character, and his transformation from happy-go-lucky student to lounge lizard TV presenter is effective. Hathaway’s charm lies in the intelligence she brings to her characters. Here she plays a smarty-pants young woman set adrift in life, someone who is slowly finding thye self confidence to be who she really wants to be. In Hathaway’s hands you never doubt that she’ll get there.
The decades long dance they do as they pretend not to be in love shows the chemistry between the two. The film has some serious structural flaws but the spark between the two of them forgive many of the film’s sins.
We’ve seen the ‘can men and women be friends’ thing a hundred times before but “One Day’s” “whatever happens tomorrow… we’ve had today” theme is effective and may even wring a tear or two from the most hard hearted of viewers.
Ever since Broadway producers figured out that nostalgia starved baby boomers would pay big bucks to see the songs of their youth reinterpreted for their old age, shows based on rock and pop songs have sprung up with the frequency of grey hairs on Grace Slick’s head.
We Will Rock You stitches together Queen songs, Jersey Boys is the story of The Four Seasons, illustrated with the band’s top forty hits while Movin’ Out is the best of Billy Joel with dancers and an orchestra. The latest classic rock catalogue to be pillaged is one of the most sacred of all—The Beatles. Taking her lead from Broadway, director Julie Taymor takes us on a Magical Mystery Tour of the tumultuous late 1960s with a soundtrack by Lennon and McCartney in the new film Across the Universe. No actual Beatles were harmed in the making of this story, but I imagine Beatles’ purists will feel hard done by.
Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (the amazing Evan Rachel Wood) are from different worlds. He’s a dock worker in Liverpool who travels to America to find his estranged father; she’s a rich kid from Ohio whose brother Max (Joe Anderson) and boyfriend are drafted and sent to Vietnam. When her boyfriend doesn’t come back she becomes involved in the anti-war movement and along the way finds new love with the visitor from England.
The music of The Beatles is no stranger to the big screen. In recent years the I Am Sam soundtrack brimmed with covers of Beatle tunes while Happy Feet, Kicking and Screaming and countless others have cannibalized the Beatles catalogue. The most famous use of their tunes is likely the film that Across the Universe’s producers would most like us to forget—the ghastly, yet tortuously enjoyable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Where that movie featured the likes of George Burns warbling For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, the new film has bona fide rock stars Joe Cocker and Bono making cameo appearances.
Across the Universe, it has to be said, doesn’t look like any other movie you’ll see this year. Taymor’s trademarked visual sense is very much on display and will knock the eyeballs right out of your head. Colors pop, an Uncle Sam poster comes to life singing I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and football players bash one another in a hilariously over-the-top ballet of athletic grace. A draft induction scene is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, and the song fragment She’s So Heavy is so laden with metaphor it’s as subtle as a wallop from Maxwell’s fabled silver hammer.
Unfortunately the movie isn’t nearly as interesting sonically as it is visually. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set the bar very high in its use of pop and rock, grafting together songs and genres into a unique aural landscape that gave the movie much of its punch and vigor. Here the songs are laid out in a fairly straightforward manner. A gospel version of Let it Be is memorable, but many of the intpretations simply sound like Broadway fluff or, even worse, American Idol Does The Beatles!
The story lurches along, predictably, from one set piece to another, with no real purpose other than to give the exceptionally good looking cast a reason to burst into song. I’m still trying to figure out why the character of Prudence appears in the film other than to facilitate the singing of Dear Prudence. The underlying themes of the movie—the anti-war message and America’s renewed image as the beacon of violent imperialism—are timely for sure, but get muddled in the trite story and the haze of boomerititus that infects every frame of the film.
Given the success of other recent boomer rock musicals, the familiar tunes of Across the Universe should be enough to please fans of musical theatre and first generation Beatles’s fans, but it is the film’s visual flair that’ll make an impression.
For most of us Las Vegas can be summed up in two words: lost wages. Everybody knows that the odds favor the casinos, but a new movie from the director of Legally Blonde would have you believe that if you are smart enough and cunning enough you can beat the house. 21 is the based on the true story of five MIT students who use their mathematical skills to bilk the casinos out of millions of dollars. It’s part Good Will Hunting part Cincinnati Kid with a little taste of The Sting thrown in for good measure.
The caper begins innocently enough with Ben Campbell (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) applying for a scholarship to Harvard Med. He’s a cerebral stud who has spent his entire life with his face buried in a text book in preparation for his dream of attending Harvard. When it comes right down to it though, he knows his chances of admission and scholarship would be better if he had some actual life experience.
Enter Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), math teacher by day, gambling guru by night. He runs a club of super smart students who specialize in an elaborate method of card counting that is virtually guaranteed to pay off at the blackjack tables. Every weekend they make a quick trip to Vegas, don disguises and pump up their bank accounts.
Micky, sensing Ben’s card shark potential tries to recruit him for the club. Ben is reluctant to join, but soon sees the blackjack scam as a fast easy way to make the $300,000 he needs for tuition. Once the money starts rolling in his standard issue school outfit of jeans and t-shirts is replaced with Armani threads and his old nerdy friends get swapped for new high rolling acquaintances.
Of course it isn’t all aces and face cards. Professor Micky turns out to be closer in personality to tough guy Mickey Cohen than Professor Higgins and when an ill tempered specialist in “loss prevention” (Laurence Fishburne) gets on the case Ben soon realizes that success in Vegas comes with a dangerous price.
21 is actually a few movies in one. It’s a caper story, a true-life drama (although the details have been changed considerably from what actually happened), a suspense and even a romance as Ben falls for blackjack wizard Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth in her third film with Spacey). Director Robert Lucketic, best known for fluffy comedies like Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, deftly balances the film’s various tones, and nicely delineates the drab classroom drama of the MIT scenes from the considerably more glamorous “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” feel of the gambling story.
Of the older cast members, Spacey seems set to chew through the scenery but Fishburne brings just the right amount of old school Vegas menace to the role of a casino detective with a score to settle. Of course, nobody is going to see this movie for the senior members of the cast; this one is strictly aimed at a younger audience.
Heading the ensemble of card cheaters is Jim Sturgess, an unknown British actor who made a bit of a splash last year in Across the Universe, a little seen film based on the music of The Beatles. His odd, variable American accent notwithstanding, Sturgess does a nice job anchoring the cast with a performance that sees him change from nice guy to egomaniac blackjack stud. His appealingly Paul McCartney-esque good looks allow him to be believable as the nerdy student and the high roller, but it is his trip down the rabbit hole as he tries to cram a lifetime of living and frivolity into his weekend jaunts to Vegas that make his character interesting.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast of players aren’t quite as attention-grabbing. Kate Bosworth is pretty, but pretty dull as the, well pretty blonde member of the blackjack team, while Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira and Jacob Pitts aren’t given enough screen time to make much of an impression as the secondary members of the card counting crew. Only Josh Gad, a Jack Black look-a-like, stands out among Ben’s friends as a memorable character.
21 doesn’t roll as high as Ocean’s 11 but is a good bet for your weekend entertainment dollar.
Earlier this year a movie called Hunger took us inside Ireland’s brutal Long Kesh prison to illustrate how IRA volunteer Bobby Sands had starved himself to death for the right to be declared a prisoner of war rather than a criminal. It was an artful, yet fierce film set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles. More conventional, but equally as effective is 50 Dead Men Walking, a true story based on the life of Martin McGartland, a twenty-two-year-old recruited by the British police to infiltrate and spy on the IRA.
Set in late 80’s Belfast, as the story begins Martin (Jim Sturgess) is a two-bit hustler, selling stolen goods from door to door. He’s a charming apolitical rogue who’ll do anything to make a quick and easy buck. When a friend becomes the victim of violent IRA intimidation Martin becomes a person of interest to both the IRA and the British police. Siding with the police Martin takes on the job of double agent, joining the IRA, gaining their trust and reporting on their every move. Despite the constant danger of being found out and subsequently tortured and killed, Martin hands over information that saves the lives of at least 50 people. When his position is compromised, however, he must make the most difficult decision of his life.
Once you get past the heavy Irish accents—they’re as thick and rich as a pint of well-poured Guinness—the story unfolds in standard bio pic fashion, but never fails to maintain interest. The movie’s desaturated, grainy look gives the story a naturalistic, gritty feel and Canadian director Kari Skogland shows a steady hand at moving the story along while keeping it believable.
The film’s ferocious pace is slowed only by a love story that feels tagged on. The romance adds dashes of melodrama that marginally intensifies the film’s climax but adding a girlfriend and child and dwelling on the consequences they may suffer as the result of his actions doesn’t add much to the overall story.
At the center of it all is Jim Sturgess, a young British actor who is turning into one of the most versatile actors going, handing in solid work in everything from Julie Taymor’s frou-frou musical Across the Universe to period work in The Other Boleyn Girl and a convincing American turn in the big studio picture 21. Here he’s playing in an indie feature, one that relies on integrity and performance and he pulls it off. As the heat turns up on his character his sweaty veneer looks real and not spritzed on by an overly attentive make-up artist. It’s good work from an interesting new actor.
50 Dead Men Walking has been described as a Belfast Donnie Brasco, and while the two may share a similar storyline they are different beasts. Brasco is a crime drama, and an entertaining one, but 50 Dead Men Walking is something deeper. It offers up a slice of our recent, troubled history and is buoyed by good performances from Sturgess and co-star Ben Kingsley (unfortunate wig excluded) coupled with a provocative, powerful story.