Triumph of the Human Spirit Isn’t Triumphant Enough in Unbroken

One of the biggest problems in Unbroken – and trust me, there are many – is that director Angelina Jolie and presumably her screenwriters (which include the Coen brothers and Richard LaGravanese) assume a sort of WWII shorthand with audiences. The central character of Louis Zamperini isn’t much of a character at all, but merely a vessel with which little is done yet with whom we are immediately meant to resonate with because he is a) American, b) handsome, and c) the lead character in the movie. Despite being played by the talented Jack O’Connell – so good in Starred Up and ’71 – the character is fairly interchangeable with all of the other young, handsome males of the cast (which includes Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Alex Russell, and Luke Treadaway. The role likely could have been played by any of those actors, too, and not been any different. Louis Zamperini at times feels like a supporting character in his own story and I guess it was just because he wrote a book about his experiences that they made the film about him and not one of the other equally resilient characters. Certainly, in her desire to make this character as above-average as possible, Jolie pads the runtime with the film’s most laborious and unnecessary passage wherein Zamperini competes in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win a medal, but it’s presumably shown to prove how much of the Human Spirit he has within him.

And, oh boy, is the Human Spirit alive and well in Unbroken. The entire film’s purpose appears to be to bask in the glow of this man’s Human Spirit. The cinematography of Roger Deakins even mimics this glow by positively roasting the actors in hideous Olympic-golden hues that appear to have been overly rendered in post-production to the degree that nothing quite looks real. It’s a visual concept that is as treacly as the material, slopped on thick like maple syrup. At least one can give the film points for consistency as this humdrum sentimentality certainly extends to the music with an appalling, pandering original credits song by Coldplay. Even Alexandre Desplat, usually a reliable bet to be better than the material, drowns in the banality of the film with a musical score of such bland unoriginality that it doesn’t sound just phoned in, but rather faxed. From 1984.

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Of course, much of one’s satisfaction with the film will come down to an audience member’s hero-worship. Does merely fighting in and surviving WWII make Louis Zamperini one? And why, other than having written a book to base it on, does he get a film made about himself when there are surely plenty of other (yes, less straight, white and male) stories to be told about this oft-represented period in history? It’s especially curious since Jolie is at the held. Her last film was a Bosnian refugee drama spoken in a language other than English, and yet Unbroken is about a white guy who, much like Fury and Monuments Men also from this year, finds the courage to survive. Given the size and her obvious desire it’s mostly just disappointing that she didn’t take her moment of directorial courage to tell a story that doesn’t feel like it’s already been told many times before. I certainly knew every beat of what was going to happen long before it occurred on screen, and that was even without knowing much of his story. The way the material is handled doesn’t exactly give the impression that it could go any other way.

It would be easy to dismiss Unbroken‘s very blatant sentimentalism as lazy if it weren’t obvious that Jolie was trying so very hard. Jolie has assembled a top notch collective around her, but nobody around her seems to be trying as hard as she is and that chasm of a disconnect reflects badly. She does everything in her power to wring every potential last teardrop from the audience, but it falls flat. In one instance when Louis Zamperini attempts to prove once and for all that the evil, leering Japanese solider can’t break him, characters stand around and recite dialogue like “You can do it!” It’s nauseating. Then again, the film fits smack bang in the bland, featherweight territory that Jolie is mining these days. It’s the same direction that saw Maleficent become a film about a woman who realises the beauty and sacrifice that comes with being a mother. One needs a healthy dose of the Human Spirit to get through Unbroken, well, unbroken. It would seem that I am not that strong.

 

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The Elements of Control in Before I Go to Sleep

In this past month we’ve seen both David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure examine the relationships between men and women and the ways in which both parties delicately handle control. In both cases, those films feature male protagonists who think they’re in control as their spouses attempt to turn the screws (in polar-opposite ways) around them in order to confront their failures. While not in the same realm of dramatic scope or just plain old cinematic quality, Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep also plays its hand at this concept of a husband believing he is in control of a woman who has stepped out of her society-bound role as masculine-observant to seek her own truth. It’s pulpy, but Joffe – who also adapted the screenplay from S.J. Watson’s novel – does a good job at giving his actors a playground that adheres strongly to genre conventions, but with a bit more mature leeway.

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Nicole Kidman stars as Christine, a woman who suffered a head injury and now awakes every morning believing the man next to her is a one-night stand from her 20s. It’s only upon looking in the mirror and seeing the photographs on the bathroom wall that she realises something is amiss. “I’m your husband”, says Ben, played by Colin Firth in a quick return to the screen for The Railway Man pairing. Once he has spelled out the morning routine as he always does, he heads to work, which is when Christine receives a call from Dr Nasch, played by Mark Strong, a neurological specialist who has been secretly helping Christine without Ben’s knowledge. He informs her that she has been keeping a video diary of the clues and information she has been discovering on her quest to find out the truth of what happened to her.

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78 Years of Horror Reaches The Town That Dreaded Sundown

“Wow, look at this place. It’s like The Town that Dreaded Sundown.”
“Yeah I saw that movie. It’s about a killer in Texas, huh?”
-Sidney Prescott and Deputy Dewey, Scream

 

There’s certainly something to be said about expectations. I think everybody assumed The Town that Dreaded Sundown was a remake, and bound to be a decidedly average one at that, but it is actually a meta-sequel of sorts yet also works as a reworking of the Charles B. Pierce original from 1976. It in fact didn’t just overtake my expectations, but exceeded any possible best case scenarios I may have hazarded to predict.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 38-years-later return to the town of Texarkana – half on the side of Arkansas and half on the side of Texas that’d sound like a neat gimmick of a location if it weren’t actually a real place – and plays devilish games with the idea of remakes and sequels, making his film a surprisingly twisty revisit to both the original “Phantom” serial killer story and the 1976. Taking a similarly murderous winking tact to the original that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had to its own franchise starter, it posits that the original Pierce film was in fact a real movie production that blew in to the town and made a film that capitalized on their very real grief. All of these years later, local teens consider the film a rural rite of passage rather than a horrific account of their hometown’s past. Little more than a moving picture postcard of their grandparents’ day for their amusement as they take dates with the hope of getting laid once the credits have rolled. For another example, the 1976 film is to the 2014 film as Stab was to the universe of Wes Craven’s Scream series, and I certainly didn’t expect that when I sat down in my nearly vacant Saturday afternoon cinema.

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Much like 1994’s New Nightmare and 2011’s Scream 4, Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown tries to examine the link between on screen violence and real-life violence when filtered through the prism of retrospection and nostalgia. Through a plethora of red herrings, it suggests that somebody from the past isn’t happy with either the film’s representation of the Phantom case (a real unsolved case from the ‘40s) or how much people in the town have turned the film into a reverential joke.

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Kristen Stewart Finds Autonomy in Self and Character with Camp X-Ray

I recently caught up with John Curran’s Tracks and found myself marveling at star Mia Wasikowska. Not so much for her performance, although she is great in it, but rather how the Australian actress has somehow been able to carve a strong, viable, and successful career for herself making predominantly independent movies with the likes of David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), and Richard Ayoade (The Double). And that’s just in 2014. Oh sure, she has Alice in Wonderland to keep a steady big paycheck coming in, but she has become a sort of emblem for the way a generation of new filmmaking avenues – digital, independent, VOD, etc – when combined with the ever-expanding online news cycle granting wider coverage of an industry with a shrinking audience size, has allowed for her and other performers like her to have a newfound level of dictatorship over their own careers.

I thought similarly after having watched Peter Sattler’s debut film, Camp X-Ray. It’s a small movie and one that wouldn’t have gotten the amount of press it has received if it weren’t for starring Kristen Stewart, who, like Wasikowska, has a few giant blockbusters to her credit and is now parlaying that fame into a career that in 2014 has included an indie alzheimer’s drama gaining her Oscar buzz, a female-centric film from a French auteur, and this, a study of human moral conflict within the confines of Guantanamo Bay.

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I am currently reading a Bette Davis biopic from the early 1980s, and it describes in details the many struggles that the famed actress had in finding films that she actually wanted to make. Held back, she felt, by a team at Warner Bros – the studio that had, in essence, purchased her in the day of star contracts – that were giving her bad scripts and not properly capitalizing on the fame she had amassed. I know it’s a long bow to stretch, but I find them a curious comparison, seeing how Stewart appears to be utilising her fame (even the face of sexist and ridiculous “just smile!” complaints) to now take on roles that challenge her idea of self and the narrative of her career.
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Trainspotting with Stations of the Elevated

I have been lucky in the last 12 months to have been able to see Wild Style, Beat Street, and Style Wars on the big screen. They are all exceptional films in their ways, and especially when viewed together they provide a wholly fascinating glimpse into a singular world – that of the Bronx in the mid-‘80s. A world of colourful graffiti, emerging hip-hop sounds, and people who don’t quite believe that they have the ability to be more than they’ve been assigned simply because they live where they do.

Offering a similar, and yet altogether different view of this landscape is Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated. Filmed in 1977, released in 1981, two years before Wild Style and Style Wars shined a mainstream-leaning spotlight on the scene. Kirscheimer, a German native but raised from a young age in New York City, brings a clinically observational eye to his 46-minute film, beautifully restored and projected on screens again.

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He appears far less interested in the people behind the images with his camera only occasionally drifting into the same orbit as human beings. Instead, Kirchheimer appears more interested in the way the subway interacts with urban life, cutting through neighbourhoods like a scalpel through flesh and how people have taken to the individual subway cars as canvases to educate, provoke, and infuriate. By painting these cars, these people are forcing those in the richer Manhattan to acknowledge them and to not act as if they don’t exist. Juxtaposing the so-called vandalism of subway cars with the far more respectable art of billboards (still hand-painted in that time), the film asks viewers to contemplate why it is that we think these graphic images aren’t valid art. Stations of the Elevated doesn’t say this explicitly of course – it doesn’t “say” anything – but the idea is explicitly there.

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Canopy is High Above the Rest

Canopy begins with a five-minute sequence that sets the scene splendidly for the film to come, but may also test the patience of many viewers. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear of people leaving during it if for no other reason than nothing much happens. In fact, the first minute or two are a completely blank, black screen. This isn’t an oversight, however, but rather an effective way to instantly bring audiences into the world of Aaron Wilson’s film. Canopy is a movie rich of its own world, an 80-minute work of filmmaking that rises above mere war or survival films and becomes something unique. A rare film of the digital age that truly uses the medium to its advantages by crafting a work that is all-consuming and while perhaps minor in its dramatic aspirations – compare to, say, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, also dealing with WWII in the South-East Asia region, but doing so on a more heightened, sentimental fashion – is nevertheless a vital film and one that suggests a fresh point of view from a debut director.

Having ejected himself from his plane, an Australian flyboy (Khan Chittenden) lands in the canopy of the Singapore jungle. Quickly freeing himself from the parachute chords that have entangled themselves in the long-limbed trees of the Singapore jungle, he sets out on a course to somewhere he probably doesn’t even know. He finds a stream of dirty water and looks rather aimlessly at his military-provided waterproof map that does little to help his sense of direction. As night falls he runs – literally – into a Chinese soldier (Tzu-yi Mo) and as the two realise they are on the same side of the war (Japanese soldiers are rarely seen above chest-height) they forge ahead, eventually building an unlikely friendship that may or may not develop into a more deeply-felt companionship. The two don’t share a language, and in fact the entirely of Canopy’s dialogue could probably be written on a napkin, and it isn’t until several days into their journey that they decide to share names: Jim and Seng. Despite having a wife at home, Jim’s eyes tell a different story and this gives the film an extra layer to which its minimalist tale can unfold.

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Through a Lens Darkly Offers Insight, but Little Art

Thomas Allen Harris’ Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People feels more like an element of an art exhibit more than a stand-alone film. It’s unsurprising to learn that it is adapted from a book (Deborah Willis’ Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present – Willis is also a co-producer on a film), and even the film’s title recalls that of an educational essay. And given the nature of its subject I can’t help but agree that it would probably work best as a feature of an art gallery. The imagery featured within Harris’ documentary is so captivating, so educational, so powerful that I wished I had the chance to view it for longer and notice more of the fine details that the film eloquently describes. As it stands the photographs that Harris chooses to show – and there are many – frequently go by at such a pace that their impact threatens to get lost.

The narrative of African American representation in society from the 19th to the 21st is a fascinating one and telling it through the disparity between white and black photographers is unique and one ripe for examination. Likewise, the Harris has assembled a fine collection of talking heads even if his own silky-voiced narration of the film occasionally goads the audience into slumber. Given its 90-minute runtime, I wish that some more attention had been given to more recent photography. As it stands the 1980s and later aren’t represented in any great dimension, which is a shame given the number of advancements that have happened in that time (hip-hop, social change, President Obama).

Through a Lens Darkly then is more a success for its subject than its filmmaking. Harris shines much-needed light on certain hidden corners of artistic history, but at times feels all too much like a supplemental part of a larger whole. Disappointingly, the subject is so under-represented (hardly surprising, sadly) in cinema and any mainstream way that the film, despite its shortcomings, is still a must-see for anybody interested in the history of race as well as those fans of the photography medium. I just wish that, given it’s a film about art, Through a Lens Darkly had taken a bit more of an artistic method to its message. It’s a filmed essay, and luckily for them the essay is one that we need to hear about.

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