Movie Review: Stand By Me Doraemon (2014)

January 30, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Doraemon was probably the first manga and anime I was exposed to as a child, so it made sense for me to choose Stand By Me Doraemon — the first 3D computer animated Doraemon feature — as my three-year-old son’s first cinematic experience.

It’s a good choice, because unlike other Doraemon feature films that depict standalone adventures, Stand By Me Doraemon is an origins story that takes us right back to the beginning and features some of Doraemon’s best known gadgets. While there are original elements, many of the subplots, including the ending, are borrowed directly from the manga/anime, though due to time constraints some classic chapters were condensed into montages.

For those who don’t already know the story, it’s about a loser kid named Nobita who is in the very bottom percentile in terms of both intellectual and athletic ability. To change his fortunes, Nobita’s great-great-great-grandson from the 22nd century sends him Doraemon, a lovable robot cat with a pocket full of handy futuristic gadgets. With Doraemon’s help, Nobita sets out to alter his future and win the affections of Shizuka, the perfect girl-next-door, while also fending off his friends, the bully Gian and the show-off Suneo.

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It’s a good-looking movie, with smooth 3D computer animation that pays homage to the simplicity of the original anime. As such, there aren’t many eye-popping images, though old fans should be content with the faithful transition from 2D hand-drawn animation to 3D CGI.

As a cynical adult, I have a few problems with the story’s logic and its underlying messages, some of which could be construed as shallow. As a kid, however, all I cared about was how cool Doraemon’s gadgets are and how much I wish I had them, so I’m not too concerned about my son being led astray.

Ultimately, notwithstanding the complexity of all the time travelling, Stand By Me Doraemon is a story that’s easy to follow and like if you enjoy rooting for the underdog. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia flooding back, but I was actually very moved by the movie in the end. The final message teaching kids to be independent and that having a kind heart is the best attribute of all is something even adults can appreciate.

My son loved the experience and I had a pretty good time too. We’re already counting down the days until the next Doraemon feature.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

January 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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You know what’s awesome? Watching a movie you expect to be very good, and then having those expectations shattered because it’s even better than you thought it would be. That’s essentially what happened when I watched The Imitation Game, the amazing true story about how British prodigy Alan Turing cracked the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code during the Second World War.

I had heard mostly rave reviews about the film, especially after it received eight nominations at next month’s Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. Usually when a film is overhyped, the ensuing viewing experience will inevitably turn into (at least) a mild disappointment. Case in point: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another British flick that received overwhelming praise but put me into one of the best sleeps I’ve had in years.

And so I was shocked that discover that The Imitation Game is the real deal. The film had it all — a riveting “true story” premise, a fascinating central character, stylish execution, wonderful performances and plenty of excitement and thrills. And to top it off it wasn’t “too British” at all.

The story is clearly and cleverly told through three time periods — in 1951, when police start probing into Turing’s life after an alleged break-in at his house; in the early 1940s, when Turing is hired by the British government to crack the Enigma code used by Nazis to encrypt their messages; and during Turing’s school years, when we learn how his genius is also his curse. I was really impressed by how each time period served a distinct purpose, both in terms of plot and characterisation, and how everything would come together for viewers in the end like solving a giant puzzle, much like how Turing cracks the code in the film.

I had fears that the movie would be flat despite its premise because, let’s face it, watching people sit around trying to crack a code on screen could be kinda boring. This was one of the fatal flaws of one of Cumberbatch’s other “true story” films, 2013’s The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch was great as Julian Assange, but none of the films’ digital wizardry could make typing on keyboards and online chats feel exciting.

The masterful script by Graham Moore and the crafty delivery by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum avoid such pitfalls by explaining just enough for audiences to understand the task at hand but without losing them through over-complicating things. They fill the movie with constant sources of tension, from Turing’s tenuous relationships with his colleagues and his superiors in the British government to the moral quandaries of war and hiding his deep dark secret. There’s even a Russian spy in there to keep things interesting, and it also helps that there is actually a big physical machine with gears and the whole shebang that churns through the code combinations as we wait with eager anticipation.

Cumberbatch deserves the acclaim for his portrayal of Turing, and I would not be at all upset if he takes home the Best Actor gong next month. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s performance, The Imitation Game is as much a biographical character study of Turing as it is a film about breaking a Nazi code. Not very many actors could have done what he did, and that’s to make audiences not just sympathise with the tragic character, but root for an arrogant, socially inept loner who challenged the Enigma code more for ego than to save lives. And yet Cumberbatch manages to win us over very early on with his charm and witty delivery.

Kiera Knightley, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nod as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke, is also very good, as is the rest of a quality ensemble cast featuring the likes of Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance.

I can’t think of anything negative to say about this movie. Award bait or not, The Imitation Game is an instant classic that tells an important story about a forgotten hero but doesn’t forget to educate us, excite us and captivate us along the way. Hands down one of the best movies of 2014.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

January 28, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I must admit I was not all that enthused about seeing The Hundred-Foot Journey, even though it’s supposedly a comedy about an Indian restaurant opening next to a Michelin-starred one in France. And being the pig I am, that should have made it a must-see. The poster, however, just made it look…boring, and it didn’t help that it had Helen Mirren acting all Queen-like on it.

Anyway, I ended up watching the movie on my flight back to Sydney because I had more or less seen everything else on offer. The premise is better thought-through than I imagined: an Indian family that ran a restaurant in Mumbai is forced the leave India for the UK due to civil unrest, and then relocates to France because English vegetables suck. They eventually settle near the village Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and decide to open a loud Indian restaurant in the abandoned building across the road from an upscale French restaurant owned by Helen Mirren (who plays an English-speaking woman with a French accent), sparking a competitive “war” between the two sides. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, though I will say I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there’s a lot more to the story than this initial chapter.

It’s never a bad thing to have Helen Mirren in any film, and she is as brilliant as you would expect as the seemingly stuck up Madame Mallory. Indian-American actor Manish Dayal plays the central character, the culinarily gifted Hassan, with veteran Om Puri playing his traditional yet feisty father. French actress Charlotte Le Bon plays the attractive sous chef at the French restaurant who develops a friendship with Hassan, though I found the chemistry between them to be somewhat lacking.

The weird thing is that while the film turned out very similar to what I had expected, I actually ended up quite liking it.  Not that I would have minded, but the film is nowhere near the food porn that Jon Favreau’s Chef is because it’s all about the characters and their respective journeys. It’s mildly amusing but not super funny. And the romance(s) isn’t a central focus of the film, so it’s never given proper attention.

It’s really a mish-mash of several ideas that can’t really decide what it wants to be (as reflected in at least two direction changes in the plot), and yet the final product is undeniably likable. The food is nice, the story is pleasant and the characters are affable. Nothing about it will blow you away, but it’ll more than do the trick if you’re simply after a feel-good experience. If we’re comparing it to cuisine, The One-Hundred Foot Journey is no Michelin star banquet, but it’s a lovely and warm home-cooked meal some might find just as enjoyable.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Good Lie (2014)

January 28, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Good Lie is probably the best of all the films I caught on two red eye flights recently. Starring Reese Witherspoon, it tells the story of four Sudanese refugees after they win a lottery for relocation to the United States. Sure, it’s a Hollywood production, but for the most part this is an educational, eye-opening and deeply moving drama with fundamental themes that anyone should be able to appreciate.

The movie starts off with a recount of the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005, and how the four protagonists — three boys and a girl — became a part of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, basically tribal children who were displaced or orphaned during this period and ended up in refugee camps.

The foursome are given a second chance at life when they win the relocation lottery to the US, and the next part of the movie details their profound culture shock after their arrival. Some of it is quite amusing, though I wonder how much of it was exaggerated for effect.

With the help of Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a woman with a job placement agency, the boys (the girl was separated from them for stupid bureaucracy reasons) start working in menial jobs in factories and supermarkets, wondering if this is all their lives in this strange and new land will offer them.

I had concerns that The Good Lie was going to be one of those “Americans are so awesome for helping out these refugees” type of movies, with Witherspoon’s character as some sort of selfless hero, though I’m glad to say this was not the case. The focus of the film is firmly on the four refugees (in particular the three boys), who are all well-developed, strong characters with individual personalities. The film is seen through their point of view, and the the bond that they have growing up together is the true heart of the story. Even their little frictions and fights are fascinating to watch.

The acting from the largely unknown cast is superb, and Witherspoon delivers a steady performance that doesn’t steal the limelight. It helps that her character is seemingly normal and doesn’t have a god complex. It was also good to see House of Cards and The Strain’s Corey Stoll in a supporting role as helpful friend Jack.

I was really touched by this film despite its fairly by-the-numbers approach. It’s heartbreaking but does not come across as manipulative, with light bits of humour sprinkled throughout. While there are some inevitable cliches, the depictions of both the Sudanese and American characters are executed with respect thanks to the steady hands of director Philippe Falardeau and the script by Margaret Nagle. It’s an honest story with a lot of hardships and reminders of the brutal reality of the world, but ultimately it also delivers a warm message of hope.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

January 27, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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As a fan of baseball, cricket, true stories and Hollywood movies, I was naturally attracted to Million Dollar Arm, the biographical sports drama about the discovery of Indian baseball pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel by sports agent JB Bernstein via a reality TV program.

The true story is out there for people who want to learn about their incredible journey, but for the sake of those interested in watching the movie I will keep spoilers — including whether they actually succeeded or not — far far away.

The film stars Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as Bernstein and comedian Aasif Mandvi as his business partner, with Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma playing Singh and Lake Bell playing Bernstein’s love interest. Alan Arkin co-stars as an ancient baseball scout, while Bill Paxton plays real-life pitching coach Tom House.

The premise is that Bernstein comes up with the idea of finding baseball pitchers in the world’s last untapped talent market — India — and convinces a financier to create a reality TV show that can help the winner rake in potential prize money of up to a million US dollars (hence the title). After a long and arduous search, he finds Singh and Patel, and brings them back to the States to train, with the aim of having them participate in a Major League tryout within a year.

What should be noted upfront is that Million Dollar Arm is a Disney production, meaning it’s very pleasant, family-friendly, safe and sappy, with some bits of light humour that won’t risk offending anyone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this is not where you will find gritty, hard-hitting drama that pushes the envelope. This is one true story that feels pretty made up.

In some ways, Million Dollar Arm is like a Disney version of Jerry Maguire, where a down-and-out sports agent tries to revive his career with a potential star(s), except he kind of loses his way along the journey and must find himself before it’s too late.

The entire ensemble cast is very good, though there is nothing particularly special about the script or the direction of Craig Gillespie (Aussie director of the 2011 remake of Fright Night), which treads on the safe side in delivering themes and an overall trajectory that will feel eerily familiar if you’ve ever seen any American sports movies.

I found it interesting that the film change the backgrounds of Singh and Patel to make them cricket players, when in real life they were javelin throwers. Perhaps it was a marketing decision to appeal to all the cricket fans in India. Those who want to know just how faithful the film is to real events can check out this very informative link.

Anyway, Million Dollar Arm is what it is — a Disney-fied inspirational true story with likable actors that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Despite the overlong running time of 124 minutes, this is definitely a fastball right down the middle of the pitch for those don’t mind the family-friendly feel and the typical sports drama manipulation.

3 stars out of 5

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