Thursday, January 8, 2015

Movie Review: Unbroken

Directed by: Angelina Jolie.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
Starring: Jack O'Connell (Louis Zamperini), Domhnall Gleeson (Phil), Garrett Hedlund (Fitzgerald), Takamasa Ishihara (Watanabe), Finn Wittrock (Mac), Jai Courtney (Cup), Maddalena Ischiale (Louise), Vincenzo Amato (Anthony), John Magaro (Tinker), Luke Treadaway (Miller), Louis McIntosh (Harris), Ross Anderson (Blackie), C.J. Valleroy (Young Louie), John D'Leo (Young Pete), Alex Russell (Older Pete).

There is no question that the real Louis Zamperini lived an extraordinary life – and survived an extraordinary ordeal during his service in WWII. This is a man of humble beginnings – the son of Italian immigrants in America, who became one of the best high school track athletes in America – went to compete at the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin, before joining the army. While working as a bombardier, his plane goes down, and he spends weeks barely surviving on a raft alongside two friends. He is then captured by the Japanese – and undergoes a horrible ordeal in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Most people would never have survived what Zamperini did – and he went onto live decades after that (to sometime in 2014 in fact). But the question about Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the movie based on Zamperini’s wartime experience, is whether his story provides the basis for a very good movie – and I don’t really think it does. A more accurate title for the more would be One Damn Thing After Another – because that is pretty much how the movie is structured – it moves from one trying ordeal to another. There is no real structure to the movie – it never really flows from one part to the next. It sprinkles flashbacks haphazardly throughout the film – and then essentially abandons that when it no longer serves a neat dramatic purpose. The screenplay is the work of four Oscar nominated writers – the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson – and I have a feeling that the reason why it went through so many talented writers is because no one could really crack the movie. Instead of realizing that, and ditching the movie, they just went ahead and filmed it as is.

All of that probably makes it sound like I hated Unbroken – which I really didn’t. But I was frustrated by it, because there are individual things about the movie that are actually quite good. As always, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is excellent – especially in the protracted segment of the film on the raft. Deakins is one of the great cinematographers working today – and his work here does at least make the film look great at times. The score by Alexandre Desplat is good as well – yes, it pulls at the heartstrings and tries for unearned uplift at times -  but it never seems too overbearing. Jack O’Connell, who plays Zamperini, is one of the most promising young actors working today – see his performance in Starred Up for example of this. He isn’t great here like he was there – but he’s solid, and he anchors the film for its entire running time. The rest of the cast isn’t given very much to do. Domhnall Gleeson is fine as  Zamperini’s best friend – although he spends much of the movie either unconscious, or close to it. Takamasa Ishihara, better known as Japanese pop star Miyavi, plays Zamperini’s chief antagonist and tormentor in the final act in the Japanese prison camp – but he’s given no shade of grey or any trace of humanity to play. He’s a horrible human being from the start, and is essentially given that one note to play.

The film has a tendency to drag. Its well over two hours, and there seems to be long stretches where not very much is happening. As a director, Jolie doesn’t seem to have much sense as to how to keep the film moving – to keep the pace from flagging. There are moments of promise in Unbroken (and her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which I never saw, is fairly well regarded). I hope she makes a better film the next time out. However, here, I think she was too in love with the story to really see that it wouldn’t really make an effective movie. It’s not a bad movie – but it just isn’t very good either.

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