Saturday, December 27, 2014


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Louis Zamperini started life as a rebellious, short-tempered boy, the frequent target of bullying and discrimination due to his Italian heritage. His older brother Pete saw that Louie had a natural talent for running and encouraged him to join the high school track team. He advised him, "If you can take it, you can make it." Louie was soon shattering records. His lightning-fast feet carried him all the way to the Berlin Olympics. Little did Louie know how true his brother's words would be.

When World War II began, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was trained as a bombardier and assigned to a B-24 Liberator. The movie opens with a harrowing plane crash sequence. The Liberator, nicknamed Superman, is totaled; several of the crew members are dead. Louie and his pilot friend Phil are sent off on another mission, this time in a Liberator called the Green Hornet that barely passed its last inspection. The Green Hornet is shot down by Japanese fighter pilots; the three survivors Louie, Mac, and Phil are left adrift on an inflatable raft.

The trouble begins almost immediately. Louie finds out that Mac ate all the chocolate bars, the only food aboard the raft. Water is extremely limited. The three men spend 47 hellish days lost at sea, but the ordeal has only just started. A Japanese ship happens upon the raft; Louie and Phil are taken prisoner. Throughout the movie, Louie is sent to three different P.O.W. camps. He suffers extreme mental and physical abuse, yet Louie refuses to give in to his captors or betray his country.

The cinematography and special effects are some of the best I've ever seen. You feel as if you're in the cockpit experiencing the Green Hornet's death roll. Jack O'Connell's performance as Louie must be seen to be believed; he goes from a healthy young athlete with the world on a string to a malnourished captive barely clinging to hope. You wince for every blow and indignity he suffers. Takamasa Ishihara is equally good as the sadistic P.O.W. camp guard nicknamed "the Bird," who wages psychological and physical warfare on Louie at every opportunity. I will be truly astonished if no Oscars for acting result from this movie.

I am surprised that the reception for such a powerful true story has been so lukewarm; the New York Times review contains the particularly scathing line: "the [Olympic] race is so excessive that it competes with, rather than complements, the war scenes and ends up being another clip in what increasingly will feel like one man’s extended highlight reel." Adapting Willenbrand's book of the same title, which clocks in at 406 pages, cannot have been an easy task; Jolie and her writing team should get a pass for that. The Times review also goes on to say "[Jolie's] good with the actors, even when platitudes gush from their mouths along with the blood." That's insulting enough to say about a regular movie, let alone one based on things American servicemen suffered through, many of whom died in the camps. Rotten Tomatoes gives Unbroken 2.5 stars out of a possible 5; IMDB ranks it about the same.

Before this movie was announced, I had never heard the name Louie Zamperini. Having read watched his story, I can't believe that I hadn't learned about him in school. He was a remarkable person and a true American hero. Everyone in America should see this film; the biography it is based on should be required reading for high school and/or college students. His story will make you gain a greater appreciation for simple things in life: food, shelter, clean water, and freedom.

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Rest in peace                    Image source

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"

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I saw this movie during its original theatrical run in 1998. Even as a an 8-year-old who loved Disney and absolutely everything about Christmas, I didn't really enjoy it. I decided to revisit it through Netflix Instant and what a difference 16 years makes!

The movie centers around Jake, played by young Simba himself: Johnathan Taylor Thomas. Originally from upstate New York, he's now a college freshman in Southern California. He has no intentions of a white Christmas, largely because he doesn't like his new stepmother. Jake cashes in his plane ticket up north in favor of tickets to Cabo San Lucas for himself and his girlfriend Allie (Jessica Biel). Allie also hails from back east and has already promised her parents that she'll be spending Christmas with them. Jake considers going to Mexico by himself until he gets phone call from his dad, who promises that if Jake is home by 6 PM on Christmas Eve, he'll give Jake the keys to Dad's pride and joy: a red 1957 Porsche convertible. Jake agrees and lets Allie know that he'll be able to drive her home after all.

The couple goes to an end-of-semester party. Some jocks are unhappy with Jake because the beepers he gave them to cheat didn't work, causing them to fail a final that they were gonna fail anyway. Jake also sold them some fake IDs that were instantly spotted by the bouncer at the famous Viper Room. They slip something in Jake's eggnog and he wakes up in the desert dressed up like Santa Claus. Allie waits for Jake, but he doesn't show up at the promised time; she gets a ride from another classmate, Eddie (Adam LaVorgna), who has a not-so-secret crush on her.

Jake manages to find his way to a road and hitches a ride with a car full of little old ladies going to a Tom Jones concert. This sets off a National Lampoon's Vacation style cross-country road trip, during which Jake cons and charms his way out of any and all trouble he gets himself into. He also (slowly) begins to realize that there are things in life that are more important than classic luxury cars. In the meantime, Allie is stuck on the road with Eddie and fending off his advances.

Johnathan Taylor Thomas's character Jake is, quite simply, a spoiled brat. It would be easy to take that and go completely over-the-top with it. Fortunately, JTT was smart enough not to play him that way. There's no question that Jake is more than a little selfish and immature, but in a very realistic 18-year-old kid way. Parents introducing this movie to their kids and childless young adults watching it for nostalgia reasons will be able to connect with what Jake is going through and that's what makes it work. Jessica Biel is good as the feisty girlfriend who wants nothing to do with the other guy and you can almost feel the slime coming off Adam LaVorgna's Eddie.

I'll Be Home For Christmas is somewhat edgy for a 1990's Disney family comedy. For example, one member of the Tom Jones fan club apparently tries grope Jake; they end up unceremoniously booting Jake out of their car because the hungover student vomits into one woman's purse. At a Bavarian village tourist trap, Allie remarks to Eddie, "Look, the clock man is sexually harassing the clock lady." There's also the interesting song that a minor character sings to win back his estranged wife. Don't worry if your kids are under 10 years old or so; all that stuff went way over my head when I was 8. In fact, not getting the jokes is why I thought it was stupid.

I'd recommend this for a family gathering because everyone loves Disney and also, this is basically a grade-schooler-appropriate version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. However, shut it off before you get too far into the end credits or you will never get NSYNC's "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" out of your head. For added fun, see if you can spot Disney's clever nod to JTT's voice work as Simba.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Christmas Mail"

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A good Christmas movie should make you laugh, believe in magic, appeal to your inner child, and maybe shed some tears of joy. The operative word in this scenario is "good." This direct-to-TV romantic comedy offers none of the above.

The central character is Matt (A.J. Buckley), a mailman who is unsatisfied with his life and lacking Christmas spirit. Once a talented guitarist with dreams of being a rock star, fate made him an instant parent when his sister and brother-in-law died in an unspecified accident. His sister's will named him guardian of his 8-year-old niece Emily. Weeks before Christmas, there's a new coworker at Matt's post office, an irritatingly bubbly blond woman named Kristi North. She's there on a special assignment: answering letters that children write to Santa Claus. She takes her job very seriously, decorating every surface in her office with Christmas knickknacks.

Emily's letter to Santa crosses Kristi's desk. The little girl's only wish is for her uncle to be happy and not lonely anymore; she wants him to have "a special friend to kiss and stuff." Kristi suggests Emily help her uncle find his own happiness, which the girl takes to heart. Matt comes home from work one day to find his niece has set him up for a romantic dinner with their elderly neighbor. Days later while picking up Emily from a friend's house, Matt stumbles into a support group meeting for single parents. Of course, everyone else present is a single mother. The group leader invites Matt to join them and proceeds to ask about his sex life.

Matt's boss from hell at the post office, Mr. Fuller, somehow gets the idea in his head that Kristi is trying to sabotage the mail system and asks for Matt's help in digging up dirt on what she's up to. Kristi's behavior is very odd, crossing the line to mentally unbalanced at times. Although in her 30s, Kristi does not own a car, have a driver's license, date, or have a permanent address. She spends a couple of months every year in a different place answering Santa letters; nobody seems to know what she does the other 10 months. She only seems to have ties to her large sheepdog Rudy and wears sweater sets better suited to the 1950's or a much older woman. Kristi speaks various languages, including Cantonese and Mandarin, and can talk to animals.

Despite the fact that she apparently hails from Crazy Town, grumpy Matt is smitten with her. Matt's fellow mail carrier Sally sees this and tries to get them together. Almost instantly, there's a romantic comedy cliche: Matt's former bandmate Heather comes to visit him and Emily; Kristi sees them together and assumes Heather is Matt's wife. They smooth things out and Matt invites Kristi over to meet Emily.

She, Emily, Heather, and Matt have a grand old time baking Christmas cookies and having a food fight with the colored decorating sugar. Kristi spots Emily's doll-size table and tea set and gushes that it "reminds her of home." They wind up eating dinner at said tiny table. Afterward, Kristi is treated to a truly horrible rendition of "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" by Heather and Emily, Matt accompanying them on his guitar. Matt even offers to let Kristi move in!

Happiness, of course, can't last. Mr. Fuller gets Matt and Kristi in the same room to reveal his scheme. He makes the classic bad guy move of implying that Matt doesn't love Kristi. Matt is to get promoted to Mr. Fuller's job if he finds something on crazy Kristi that Mr. Fuller can use to fire her. Matt tells his boss that Kristi is special and that he loves her. He rejects the promotion to go back to being a mailman. Kristi is dismissed. At this point, my mom, a former UPS employee, commented, "You can't fire federal workers like that. There's a union."

Several extremely unlikely things happen in the next several minutes. The postmaster general in Washington DC gets wind of what evil Mr. Fuller has done, demotes him, and offers Matt a promotion. Matt turns down the promotion because his band has announced that they're going on tour starting Christmas Day. He decides to uproot his fragile young niece and pull her out of school to go on the road. Equally wacky Heather has offered to be the little girl's personal tutor. Following his dreams apparently takes a backseat to his new responsibilities.

Kristi has realized that Matt is her One True Love and must catch up to him before he leaves town. Without a driver's license, she relies on the kindness of Sally. They hit the streets in a mail truck, searching for Matt's car. But how will they find him when they don't know where he's gone? "Follow Rudolph!" Kristi says breathlessly, pointing to a decoration on a nearby lawn. The couple ends up together and going on tour despite knowing each other all of 2 months. Heather stays on as a third wheel. Oh, and spoiler alert, the mysterious Kristi turns out to be the daughter of Santa Claus himself.

The plot could have been cute if Kristi hadn't seemed mentally ill from the beginning. Ashley Scott played her about as subtly as Clark Griswold decorated his house. The child actress cast as Emily was not cute and hopefully some time and lessons will turn her into a better actress. A.J. Buckley is wasted in this movie and I know he can do so much better. His OCD lab tech character Adam Ross was one of my favorite parts of CSI: NY. He made me laugh in his guest appearances as Ed Zeddmore, head of the Ghostfacers, on Supernatural. A.J. expanded his range last year with a recurring role on Justified as scruffy, ill-tempered, dog-loving criminal Danny Crowe.

If you really want to watch a Christmas rom-com, I have no real suggestions for you other than to stay away from this movie.