Chuck Koplinski: Old-style 'Sapphires' shines

Chuck Koplinski: Old-style 'Sapphires' shines

While it might seem like a backhanded compliment to call a film "old-fashioned" or "charming," Wayne Blair's "The Sapphires" displays these qualities with a sense of pride that's far from disingenuous.

Based on the lives of four members of an Aborigine singing group in the late 1960s, the movie feels like it could have been made on the back lot of MGM during the 1940s: It has such a "let's put on a show" vibe to it that you marvel at the chutzpah it has to take such a tone for a story that uses the Vietnam War as its backdrop.

Yet somehow, it all works, primarily due to the performances of the four young ladies who make up the title singing group and Chris O'Dowd, the Irish actor who has made a name for himself stateside as a scene-stealer extraordinaire in films like "Bridesmaids," and "This is 40." While the story is a rote exercise, these five attack it as if it were as fresh as a newborn babe — and as if their careers depended on being as vibrant as possible.

Based on a 2004 Australian stage play (think "Dreamgirls" down under) that was a runaway success, the film follows the meteoric rise of a quartet that gets a big break entertaining troops during the Vietnam War. It goes without saying that these young women are determined to rise above their station, and who can blame them?

Sisters Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Gail (Deborah Mailman) know they're talented and realize they can do far better than just putting on shows for the locals in the Outback; they just don't know how to do it.

However, fate answers their prayers in the unlikely person of Dave Lovelace (O'Dowd), a lay-about with no direction but a passion for soul music who eagerly takes them under his tattered wing after seeing them perform at a talent contest.

After convincing them that stardom awaits and minimizing the dangers of performing in a war zone, Dave whisks the girls to Saigon, where they pick up their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was taken from the family as a youngster to be raised in white society due to her lighter skin. There's no shortage of animosity between her and Gail over their social differences, but all of that disappears once they hit the stage and wow the troops with their soulful rendition of Motown hits.

As you can see, there's nothing remotely new here, and it should come as no surprise that three of the women have love affairs to contend with while Dave gets involved with one of his singers. Drama of this sort is part and parcel in films of this nature, and credit should be given for making the Vietnam War more than a mere backdrop for the action as it actually intrudes on the group's quest for stardom with one of the characters getting wounded in action.

What the movie could have used more of was a closer examination of the racial divide between the Aborigines and whites in Australia. The subject rears its head at times just to remind the girls — and us — that they face an uphill battle both on and off the stage, yet it's treated here as a cursory plot device and not as the defining social issue of their age, which should be driving the narrative.

No, Blair & Co. are much more concerned with delivering a feel-good story in which music proves to be the bridge over which the Sapphires cross so that they can go from being outcasts to, at the very least, entertainers of the ruling class.

"The Sapphires" is a bit too naive where matters such as these are concerned, but there's no denying that you'll be smiling during most of the film's running time as it gets you to swallow its bit of social awareness medicine with a heaping spoon of musical sugar. Far too many movies only wish they could make such a claim.

'The Sapphires' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville and Don Battee.

Directed by Wayne Blair; produced by Rosemary Blight; screenplay by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson.

A Goalpost Pictures release. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking.) At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Epic" fails to live up to title. (2 stars) It's hard not to be impressed with most of the animation that comes from major studios anymore. Since Pixar raised the bar, others have had to keep pace with the ever-expanding technology in computer animation. The minute details that are painstakingly included, the natural movements of the characters and the spectacular use of color make this a golden age for animation.

So it comes as no surprise that "Epic" from 20th Century-Fox and Blue Sky Studios is a visual knockout. Focusing on tiny creatures that live in the forest and get around on the backs of hummingbirds, among other things, the movie places itself squarely in an environment with the potential to deliver a great many "Oh wow!" moments, which it does. As far as this is concerned, the film is just as good as many of the other genre entries in the last five years.

Too bad its script is a cobbled-together collection of plot devices from other movies, and try as he might, director Chris Wedge fails to generate a sense of urgency in what ultimately plays out like a generic story. Some of the film's troubles might be attributed to the "too many chefs in the kitchen" theory, as five writers are credited with having worked on the screenplay. It isn't that the story is weighed down with detail — kids are smart enough to keep up with a multi-layered plot — but there are differing tones at odds here that make for a film that never hits its stride due to its ever-shifting mood.

The film begins, as nearly all tales of this sort must, with a young teenage girl thrust into an unknown environment. In the case of M.K. (voice by Amanda Seyfried), this happens twice — first, when she's forced to go live with her estranged, addled scientist of a dad (Jason Sudeikis) after her mother dies, and then when she's shrunken to the size of an ant and finds herself in Moonhaven, a sub-sub-subsection of our world in which tiny warriors wage a battle to keep our very planet alive.

Seems things have aligned in such a way — there's a full moon during the summer solstice, a once-in-a-century occurrence — that it means that Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles) must choose a successor in the form of a flower bud that will blossom and contain the power to allow the Earth to keep regenerating.

Lord Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) of the Rot is none too keen for this to happen as he would much rather see decay and blight spread so that he might rule what would be left. So it is his intent to steal the fledgling bud and have it bloom under a dark sky, something the leader of the Queen's guard, Ronin (Colin Farrell) will stop at nothing to prevent.

Yeah, there's an awful lot going on, especially when you throw in the teenage love story that develops between M.K. and Nod (Josh Hutcherson), another warrior of the Green who has yet to find his way.

But none of this really matters as the film lacks any zip. It's as if Wedge & Co. approached the material as an oft-told tale in which the audience already knows the ending and decided to tell it as imaginatively as possible. Even the smallest viewer will be able to see the path the story is taking, and while it's easy to predict the outcome of most Hollywood-made films these days, there's little enthusiasm to make "Epic" seem like anything special.

That's not to say there aren't some highlights along the way. O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari provide wonderful comic relief as the snail Grub and the slug Mub, respectively, while a show-stopping sequence toward the end that finds M.K., Ronin and Nod trying to outrun a three-legged dog as it destroys a living room and science lab in the process is a visual tour-de-force.

"Epic" will entertain those 10 years old and younger, but anyone older than that will be left with the sort of feeling you get after having eaten a horrible meal: You're still hungry, and darned if you know why.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and read his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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