Unbroken


I've got some good news and some bad news...

I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

(2014) True Life Drama (Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Louis McIntosh, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Jordan Patrick Smith, Spencer Lofranco, Stephen J. Douglas, Morgan Griffin. Directed by Angelina Jolie

Live doesn’t treat us all the same way. Some people it throws greater challenges to than others. While we often think of the things life hurls at ourselves personally as things that are enormous obstacles at least to us, there are people who, when we see what life has thrown at them we can all agree they had a really rough time of it.

Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II. Before that, he had been something of a hooligan as a child (Valleroy), picked on for his Italian heritage but convinced by his brother Pete (D’Leo) to try out for the track team. Louis is a strong runner and eventually makes the U.S. Olympic team and has the highest finish of any American in the 5,000 meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He’s expected to medal in 1940, but by then the world was otherwise occupied.

While out on a search and rescue mission, the plane he’s on basically falls apart, three of the four engines fail and the pilot is forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Three crewmen survive the crash – Pete (Gleeson), Mac (Wittrock) and Louis. The men are adrift for 47 days and are eventually picked up. Unfortunately, they are picked up by the Japanese navy.

Taken as prisoners of war, the men are separated and Louis is sent to a camp where the vicious Corporal Watanabe (Ishihari) is in charge. A petulant man used to wealth and privilege, he is seething that he couldn’t get an officer’s position and is instead relegated to duty he considers beneath him. He takes it out on Louis, an Olympic athlete who is already far more successful in his life than Watanabe, whom the prisoners have nicknamed the Bird, has been. Louis is often singled out for savage beatings and cruel punishments. What he endures is far more than most of us would be physically able to and survive, but Louis isn’t like most of us.

Jolie had been taken by the bestselling book based on Louis’ experiences and had been amazed to find out that Zamperini’s home was in sight of her own Southern California abode. The two became friends and Jolie was determined to make this movie about his life. Unfortunately, the real Zamperini passed away in 2014 well before the film was released, although he did live long enough to see a rough cut of the film in the hospital shortly before he passed away.

Jolie has a good eye as a director and her first film in that capacity, In the Land of Milk and Honey was an encouraging debut. There were some decisions here that she made that I don’t think worked in the film. For example, the first sequence in the movie is Louis and his crew on a bombing run. The scene highlights Jolie’s strengths as a director, keeping the camera inside the plane for the most part, giving us an idea of what it’s like to be in a tin tube being shot at while trying to complete a precision bombing run. The scene is very compelling and tense and yet Jolie chooses that moment to break away and do a flashback of Louis’ boyhood shenanigans. That’s all well and good but what she wound up doing was undercutting the audience’s connection to the scene. She would have been better served in this case to tell the story in a more linear fashion and skip the flashbacks but in her defense, flashbacks have become a much more common element in films over the past few years. Some films shouldn’t have them.

O’Connell has to carry the film and he does a credible job. He shows a great deal of potential (and has already gotten a couple of high-profile roles in upcoming movies largely due to his performance here) and while he didn’t knock it out of the park completely, he did get a solid base hit and I don’t doubt there are some good things to come from this young English actor.

The mostly-male supporting cast has some good young talent, including Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a sympathetic American officer in the P.O.W. camp. A lot of focus will be on Ishihara as Watanabe; the baby-faced young actor brings out the monster in Watanabe, giving him three dimensions when the tendency would be to make him less human. Making him more human really makes him more of a monster, in my opinion.

This has to be one of the bigger disappointments of 2014. I was really looking forward to this film and thought it might well be an Oscar contender, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of people hated on this movie which was why we got to this movie so late in the season, but it was a lot better than I’d heard it was, but still not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Zamperini was an extraordinary man and definitely deserved to have his story told. I just wish that the movie based on his life could have been a bit better.

REASONS TO GO: O’Connell does a fine job. Zamperini was an amazing gentleman deserving of a cinematic biography.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks aren’t as organic as they should have been. Too many platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence including scenes of intense brutality in the POW camp along with some brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ishihari is actually the Japanese pop star Miyavi but his iMDB credits list him under his given name. He actually had a very difficult time with some of the cruelties he had to perform and actually vomited on-set during one scene. The real Watanabe was unrepentant about his actions in a 1998 interview on the occasion of the Olympic torch run depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Railway Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blackthorn

The Wolverine


Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

Hugh Jackman is pissed off they started shooting the new X-Men movie without him.

(2013) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, Will Yun Lee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Ken Yamamura, Nobutaka Aoyagi, Seiji Funamoto, Shinji Ikefuji, Qyoko Kudo, Nobuaki Kakuda, Chiharu Mizuno, Conrad Coleby, Taris Tyler. Directed by James Mangold

Nobody wants to live forever. Just ask somebody who actually might, like Logan – better known as the Wolverine (Jackman).

He is in self-imposed exile, sleeping in the frigid cold and rain, staying away as much as possible from other humans. After the death of his love Jean Grey (Janssen) at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand he has come to realize that he is going to watch everyone and everything he loves die, and in some cases be responsible for those deaths. Eternity can be long and slow and painful.

But he is found by a red-headed perky Japanese woman named Yukio (Fukushima) who is quite handy with a blade herself. She’s got that mischievous schoolgirl quality that Japanese women are fond of cultivating these days but she has an offer for Logan – to accompany her to Japan to bid farewell to her employer, Yashida (Yamanouchi) who had been a guard at the POW camp Logan had been interred in near Nagasaki and whose kindness had saved Logan’s life – a favor which the Wolverine felt obliged to return.

Yashida is dying but his doctor – who we will come to know as the Viper (Khodchenkova) – has discovered a way to transfer Logan’s mutant healing power to Yashida. Logan is skeptical and decides to pass. As he stays the night he meets Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Okamoto) whose brutal father Shingen (Sanada) will inherit the multi-billion dollar tech company Yashida built.

But Yashida had other plans for his money  and his company – he means to leave them to his granddaughter which throws things up into disarray. The Japanese Yakuza stage an attack at a sacred ritual in an attempt to kidnap Mariko. She is protected by her childhood friend and expert archer Harada (Lee) but  the numbers are overwhelming and Logan, who had sworn to forego his heroic past is sucked into the fray.

Based on one of the most popular storylines of the Wolverine’s four-color career, this portrayal of the X-Man is to my mind the closest to how the character behaves in the comic book. Not only did Jackman bulk up severely (which I’m sure the ladies will appreciate during his many shirtless scenes) but he is accessing a darker side of the character; not quite the anti-hero he would become but certainly a character with a rigid code that is mirrored by that of the Japanese samurai and ninja codes.

Unfortunately not all of the other characters hold up to Jackman’s Wolverine, particularly Mariko whose character is a typical damsel in distress. Of course, Wolverine develops a thing for her but for the life of me I can’t really figure out why. Rebound relationship, I guess. Yukio is far more interesting and in many ways, more suitable as a romantic partner for Logan but love doesn’t always go in the obvious direction.

There are plenty of terrific action sequences, particularly a chase scene on a bullet train in which Wolverine and several Yakuza assassins do battle on top of the train whizzing at 300 mph through Tokyo. It’s one of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences you’re likely to see all year. There are several others which are nearly as good.

Unfortunately there are also long dry spells in which Logan seems to be recovering from injuries (his healing abilities are compromised during the film) and time after time we see blurry pictures of a wobbly Wolverine as he comes close to passing out. No mas, amigos.

While some of the conceits of the movie stretch believability quite a bit, still this is a slam-bang action movie that not only fleshes out the character of Logan quite a bit but also explores mortality and the culture of honor which is often circumvented by ambition. While standouts have been few this summer, this is a solid action movie that will keep you well-entertained and might resonate enough to warrant adding it to your home video collection when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Better and more faithful to the four color version of Wolverine. Amazing action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Silly in places. Drags a bit. Mariko comes off as bland.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, a small amount of gore, some sexuality and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is being released in Japan a month after it is in most of the rest of the world to avoid coming out near the anniversary of Nagasaki which figures heavily in the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Rain

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Brothers (2009)


Brothers

Tobey Maguire reactsas Natalie Portman gives him the news that she likes Thor far more than Spider-Man.

(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan

 

The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).

Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.

But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.

Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.

Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.

Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.

This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.

In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.

Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.

Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.

For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.

Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Scream 4