Movie Review: Unbroken (2014)

February 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Angelina Jolie has been tipped as a filmmaker to watch for the future, so I was naturally drawn to her third and latest directorial effort, Unbroken, a biopic about the remarkable life of US Olympian and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

To be frank, I was a little disappointed with Unbroken given its subject and celebrated director and screenwriting team (that includes one of my faves, the Coen Brothers). It’s solid, there is no denying that, though I don’t think the film did very much in elevating Zamperini’s inspirational life significantly above what one would have expected simply from reading a basic bio of his experiences. While it depicts Zamperini as an amazing individual, Unbroken fails to distinguish itself from all of the other POW stories.

Jolie begins with a typical in media res approach that introduced Zamperini as a member of a US bomber squad on a mission against the Japanese-occupied Island of Nauru in 1943. As expected, the film reverts to flashback mode shortly after, showing Zamperini’s childhood in California as a troubled kid. From there, Jolie adopts a surprisingly linear, conventional narrative, focusing on Zamperini’s Olympic career before moving onto his role in WWII.

Zamperini is indeed worthy of respect for his astounding resiliency and will to survive, but the film focuses too much on this one aspect of his personality. The narrative is pretty much just him overcoming one hardship after another. He’s like a human version of that annoying Chumbawamba song — he gets knocked down but he gets up again, and again and again and again. Jolie doesn’t do much to mix things up other than emphasise the sadistic nature of his Japanese captors (in particular a one-dimensional corporal known as “Bird” played by Japanese recording artist Miyavi) and play up Zamperini’s glorious moments of triumph.

The problem, I think, is that Jolie was too in awe of her subject, whom she has met and was still alive during filming. As a result, the film became essentially a work of hero worship that never really managed to explore his character like it should have. It’s strange, but even though it is a biopic I still don’t feel like I really got to know Zamperini as a person other than that he he managed to live through a lot of terrible things. I can only imagine how much edgier and how much more depth the film would have had had Jolie been able to maintain a bit of distance from her protagonist.

Failing to meet expectations aside, Unbroken is a well-intentioned effort and a very watchable film. Jolie’s direction is not flashy, though she infuses her images — some handsome, others bleak — with passion and control. Shades of Clint Eastwood, perhaps? And the story is undoubtedly inspirational because its true; the performance of Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is quite good, and the supporting cast featuring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney all fill out their respective roles impressively. The film has moments I really liked and found emotionally rewarding, but also others (including the final climax) that were heavy-handed and too obviously geared towards sentimentality. On the whole, I still think it’s a film worth watching because Zamperini’s story is such an extraordinary one, though it’s a shame Jolie could not have wielded her Malificent magic to turn it into something special.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

February 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was surprised to see that Fury has received generally positive reviews and performed very well at the box office — not because it’s a crap film, but because I’ve heard almost zero buzz about it since its release. Indeed, the film has been overlooked completely at the upcoming Oscars, and no one is calling it a snub.

After finally watching the film with tempered expectations, I’m calling Fury a borderline snub. It might be treading on familiar territory, and it’s certainly not be the most memorable war film out there, but the overall production — from David Ayer’s script and direction to the performances from the all-star cast — is simply too good for Fury to be called anything but an A-grade movie.

As with most coming-of-age war movies, Fury is told from the perspective of a young and naive young man not prepared for the horrors of war. In this case the protagonist is Norman (Logan Lerman, aka Percy Jackson), who is assigned to the crew of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), chief of the fictional WWII tank Fury.

Together with a veteran crew — played by an interesting ensemble featuring Shia LaBeouf, typically comedic actor Michael Pena and Walking Dead alum John Bernthal –Norman is thrown into the deep end, where he must learn to kill or be killed.

Those who have seen Ayer’s previous films (End of Watch, Sabotage) know they’re in for a gritty, violent experience that puts an emphasis on realism and well-rounded characters. Fury is a visceral affair, with plenty of explosions, ripped limbs, bodies getting shredded by bullets and exploding heads. It heightens the sense of reality and also offers a sobering reminder of how cheap life is in times of war.

Both the Americans and Germans are depicted as humans as opposed to WWII stereotypes, with even individual members of the Fury crew showing shades of good, bad and in between. When it comes to the battlefield, however, there is a camaraderie and trust that allows them to put their differences aside, adding further depth to the narrative and the characters.

As expected, the cast delivers, with Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy standing out as a complex leader hardened by the realities of war, his ruthless exterior mixed in with moments of tenderness and kindness. And as much as he might be a douche in real life, Shia LaBeouf demonstrates once again that he’s one of the most remarkable young actors of his generation, even with that horrible moustache on his face. Logan Lerman has been the lead in coming-of-age dramas before (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), so he’s right at home as the innocent Norman. Michael Pena showed he could do drama in End of Watch, which is probably why Ayer brought him back, and we all know after The Walking Dead that Jon Bernthal can play an a-hole to perfection. It’s a superb cast, with each member of the crew having moments that belong exclusively to them.

The only real knock I have against the film is that it doesn’t tell us anything new or offer anything we haven’t seen before. It doesn’t exactly try to avoid war cliches, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it embraces them. It’s as though the film had ambitions to be great, but didn’t quite know what to do to get there. Having said that, I can’t deny Fury succeeds as an engaging war drama fuelled by strong performances and tense, realistic battle sequences. It might not be one of the best war movies of all-time, but it’s certainly one of the better war movies in recent years.

4 stars out of 5