Unbroken

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Among the end-of-year cinematic powerhouses competing for Oscar nods this year, Unbroken is unquestionably the runt of the litter. As you might be aware, the film is based on the World War II exploits of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, subsequently purchased by Universal for a tidy sum, to be sure. From the word ‘go,’ Unbroken is in the unfortunate position of having to be compared to other war-dramas like Fury, and intimate biopics like Selma, and dramatically intimate biopics centering around war like The Imitation Game, all three of which are vastly superior.

The film marks Angeline Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort, after her 2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. Now, I could take or leave Jolie as an actress, and I generally find her performances to be serviceable, but as a director I find her work incredibly bland. Far more interesting than the direction, however, is the screenplay and those who contributed to it. There are a few guys responsible, including Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King), William Nicholson (Les Miserables, Gladiator), and—get this—the fuckmothering Coen Brothers; Joel and Ethan themselves. Now, it remains up for debate how much input the Coens actually had, but I’m willing to bet that they were included mainly for the publicity and to make the production as high profile as possible. There are some really basic problems with plotting and characterization that the Coens could have, and indeed would have, spotted in their sleep. The whole business just makes me weary, mainly. It’s one of those insidious little Hollywood tricks, but I guess it something that we all have to suffer through, especially as we get closer to awards season.

The acting? Yeah, it’s okay, I guess. And I know that sounds like a noncommittal answer, but despite the fact that the actors did the best they could with the material they had, the plot was so insubstantial and one-notey that it all faded into white noise by the end. They’re still letting Jai Courtney be in movies, I see—his diligent efforts at ruining pretty much every film he’s been in notwithstanding.

The main issue I’ve got with Unbroken is that there’s no character arc to speak of—meaning, subsequently, that there’s no reason for the audience to remain invested in the struggles of the protagonist. Neither the main character nor his comrades grow or evolve or learn anything over the course of the film, bringing into relief the main misconception that the writers where under; specifically, that “strength of character” is synonymous with “getting the shit kicked out of you.” Indeed, the characters are beaten up pretty badly throughout the film and subjected to some pretty inhumane treatment, but brutality alone does not a compelling story make. I consider it a symptom of lazy writing when a plot hinges mostly on happenstance as opposed to the choices and decisions of the characters, which, in my opinion is one of the film’s major shortcomings. I think I counted two actual choices over the course of the film, both of which were entirely predictable and only served to drag out a story already suffering from a meandering, go-nowhere structure.

Unbroken is the hardest kind of movie to write about because it’s so mediocre from almost every perspective. It’s neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It just sits there like a grey, flavorless blob of tofu amid a spectacularly extravagant buffet. It’ll likely be swiftly forgotten amid the shuffle of more impressive films this year. All in all, it’s boring, predictable, monotone, lukewarm, boilerplate, run-of-the-mill, average, humdrum, unexciting, routine, dull, tedious, uninteresting, insipid, standard, common, lackluster, dreary, mind-numbing, arid, tame, plain, mundane, toothless, and frankly, I’m tired of writing about it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Big Eyes

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Big Eyes is one of those movies that managed to fly right under my critical radar until shortly before its release, despite it having been stuck in development hell since I was thirteen. The property changed hands a number of times, until it finally landed in Tim Burton’s lap in 2010, and it would take another few years and multiple actors slated and scraped for the lead roles until finally arriving at its present state with Burton at the helm and Christoph Waltz playing opposite Amy Adams. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Big Eyes proves to be not only Burton’s most grounded and sober film to date, but succeeds in its attempt at telling humanistic, engaging, and often hilarious biographical drama.

In what I view as a positive development in Burton’s artistic maturation, Big Eyes takes a slightly more realistic approach to its visual style and tone, while still managing to distinguish itself unquestionably as “a Tim Burton film.” Likewise, Danny Elfman’s instantly recognizable score serves to reinforce the idea that we’re dealing with the same old Burton that we all know and love. Though a lot of Burton’s characteristically dark and surreal imagery has been restrained in order to facilitate an emotional connection with the characters, Burton is by no means afraid to dive right back into his comfort zone when it serves the story, like when Amy Adams’ character undergoes a bit of guilt-induced paranoia, for instance.

Adams, portraying the aspiring artist Margaret Keane, gives a praiseworthy performance, thanks in large part to her open, expressive face, which allows the audience to guess what her character might be thinking and feeling, even when there is little-to-no dialogue—an especially crucial trait during Adams’ many introspective scenes. The real breakout star, however, is undoubtedly Waltz, who steals every scene he’s in and seems incapable as coming across as anything other than incredibly genuine, even when he’s lying through his teeth. By the end of the film, Waltz’s character is so gleefully despicable that I was captivated simply by the prospect of what he might do next. In my humble opinion, Waltz has absolutely earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of one of the best antagonists in film this year. Also worth mentioning, simply because I’m personally a huge fan, Jason Schwartzman appears in a cameo for about four minutes, and it’s just as glorious as you would expect.

A couple of aspects that I especially enjoyed about the film were the full and compelling emotional arcs undergone by both of the lead characters. What’s more, there were no exposition dumps and just a smattering of expository dialogue, and the audience got a sense of who the characters were through their interactions with one another. The interplay between Adams and Waltz and the strange, emotionally taxing dichotomy between the two was more than enough to keep the film going on its own, but the fact that we gradually begin to see Waltz’s true Walter Keane emerge from beneath the layers and layers of cons and façades, and Adams’ Meagan Keane as her own guilt and unfulfilled aspirations begin to chip away at her.

A few relatively minor criticisms include the third act digressing a bit and dragging on a tad too long for my taste, as well as the establishment of a frame narrative told from the perspective of a minor character. It’s strange, because I don’t think that the narration, sparse as it is, doesn’t seem particularly relevant or necessary, and really only succeeds in adding another degree of separation between the characters and the audience.

These quibbles are fairly easy to overlook, however, and didn’t detract from the film’s strong and engaging story. Big Eyes might stand as my favorite (and probably the best) of Tim Burton’s movies to date, and thanks to the forceful focus afforded to the characters and their struggles, I’m quite interested to see what Burton comes up with next.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Fury

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World War II, as we know, is the best war, because all the good little countries of the world put aside their differences to go stomp all over an unambiguously evil enemy. That being said, if you have the good judgement to set your story during the war, it generally means that there’s a whole mess of ready-made context, meaning that you don’t have to justify anything the heroes do. The pitfall, of course, is that you have to work extra hard to make the good guys not come across as repugnantly patriotic, glory-boy assholes. Fury, to it’s credit, takes full advantage of the myriad Nazi-killing possibilities, and tells a story that, though simplistic and worn, is still a good bit of fun to watch.

Fury comes to us from director David Ayer, formerly responsible for the fairly decent End of Watch, as well as the hyper-violent Sabotage of recent memory. A veteran of the macho action movie genre, Ayer has expressed his ambition in recent years by focusing his attention of more character based pieces as opposed to the pulpy action flicks that make up the bulk of his résumé. At heart though, Ayer is still a dyed-in-the-wool director of action films, and Fury, likewise, is essentially a action movie with some interesting character moments threaded across a cohesive narrative.

Acting is pretty strong across the board here with Brad Pitt in the leading role, supported by Shia LeBeouf, Michael Peña, and the always excellent Joe Bernthal. Even LeBeouf, who has spent the better part of the last few years trying to live down his participation in the Transformers franchise. With a seasoned veteran like Pitt in the starring role, who played a very similar role in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds, it’s no great leap to assume that he was instrumental in assuring that the members of his supporting cast were performing to the best of their abilities.

The fact that Fury has become a critical success is due in large part to its retelling of a tale we’ve all heard before, albeit in a fresh an interesting way. Indeed, the general setup is nothing more than the typical war movie trope—namely an ill-provisioned heroic force facing an enemy that vastly outnumbers them—but the film shines when it comes down to the technical execution and pacing of that very simple idea. Likewise, the characters and interpersonal relationships between them are archetypical and a little cliché, but the sheer level of excitement and dramatic tension that Ayer weaves into the narrative keeps the audience fully invested for the duration.

While the film is undeniably hyper-violent and uses the placement and portrayal of that violence to great effect, it almost feels as though the film is trying to hide behind that violence in an effort to distract the audience from the rather scarce plot. Admittedly, it mostly succeeds, and the more incongruous and slightly more unbelievable of the character-building sequences placed in the middle of the film are easily glossed over and mostly spring to mind in retrospect, after the film has ended.

Despite a plot that remains a little wanting, Fury is an incredibly fun and expertly paced action-packed character drama, and though there are certainly tropes and characters that we’ve long since been accustomed to, the sheer adrenaline rush of watching Pitt and company steamroll over some Nazis is well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #1: Primer

While Netflix has a wide variety of fantastic films, sadly many films on the site are often hidden from users who are not actively searching for that film.  The point of this new weekly posting is to suggest interesting and great movies that are available for streaming on Netflix that many readers would not ordinarily be exposed to.  With that in mind, the first Netflix movie of the week is the sci-fi thriller Primer.

Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2004, Primer is the debut film from writer/actor/director Shane Carruth.  Primer is a mind bending film about two engineers who inadvertently create a machine that allows them to travel back in time. Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) use their new machine in order to make money on stock trades from the previous day. However, as they go deeper into experimenting with the mechanics of time travel, their relationship becomes strained as the two have different ideas on how to use the technology.

There are essentially two aspects of this film that make it so incredible.  First, it succeeds as a solid sci-fi film even though it was made for a virtually non-existent budget. In addition, the level of detail that went into the script and plot of this movie is astounding, as all the time travel makes sense without pandering to the audience in any way. The film is very heady and sometimes a difficult movie to keep up with as it is often hard to keep up with just how smart the film is.  Anyone who says they completely understand Primer after just one viewing is simply lying.

Even though the film can be challenging to keep up with, this should not be a deterrent.  It is a nice change of pace from many films that spoon feed you the plot twists to ensure that no one will ever be confused at the end of the movie. While the film is not incomprehensible, it is something that will take a little googling afterwards if you hope to fully appreciate the intellectual depth of the movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Take This Waltz Review

Sarah Polley’s sophomore film, Take This Waltz, is a far cry from the weighty and affecting movie I had expected after reading early reviews.  In fact, for much of the movie I found myself at a loss for words, as I tried without success to find anything to justify watching this film.  By the end of the movie I had exactly two positive things to say.  The film had a strong cast, and it contains one memorable and mildly amusing practical joke.

Strangers Margot (Michelle Williams) and Daniel (Luke Kirby) find an immediate connection with each other after meeting on a plane, only to discover they’re actually neighbors.  This budding romance proves to be an issue for Margot as she begins to reconsider her marriage to Lou (Seth Rogan).  The fundamental problem with this movie is the story telling is too weak to actually make you sympathize with Margot and her conflicted emotions, and instead, I ended up feeling sorry for Seth Rogan whose wife has just started treating him like dirt for no apparent reason.  The characters are poorly realized, making nearly all the emotional payoffs for this movie fall flat.

Take This Waltz exemplifies everything that is wrong with indie films. Of course it feels obligated to fill itself with obnoxious moments that serve little purpose other than making the movie apear “cutesy” and instead come off as intensely annoying.  Rather then constructing the relationship between Margot and her husband, Polley instead gives us a plethora of scenes consisting of the two playing cute little games, and I would argue the two don’t have one real conversation during the entire movie.  While directors like Wes Anderson effectively use color schemes to add a tone to their movies, Polley drowns this film in an awful rainbow of color, most likely to distract the reader from the terrible writing and ridiculously unrealistic characters.

While the actually writing is not always dreadful, it clashs with the tone of the film so drastically that it cannot possibly be overlooked.  The dialogue is fantastical and extremely unrealistic, which wouldn’t be inherently bad if it weren’t for that fact that Take This Waltz tries to present itself as an emotionally realistic relationship drama.  The movie fails on both levels, as it is neither realistic nor particularly thought provoking, although the film clearly believes it is both.

This movie is technically listed as a drama/comedy, but it’s a horrible drama, and could only be considered funny if the entire film was a big practical joke Polley was playing on the audience.  The attempts at humor throughout the film fall flat, and most of the “jokes” consist of Williams and Rogan graphically describing how they would kill each other, you know, like real couples do.  If you can’t tell by now, I would recommendation you don’t see this movie, and to paraphrase a line from the movie, by the end of this film I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a melonballer.

Rating: 1 out of 5