Sunday, December 21, 2014

UNBROKEN by Angelina Jolie

A great thing about American movies in the last ten years or so has been the number of films directed by women.  I mentioned this back in 2006/2007 when I worked on-air with Whoopi Goldberg on her syndicated weekday morning radio show -- if a woman had directed a Hollywood film or a network TV episode when Whoopi and I were kids, that woman was groundbreaking actress/director/producer Ida Lupino.  Things are different now.  Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director.  She won for 2008's The Hurt Locker.  That drama about the Iraq war also won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Also in 2008, Kimberly Peirce directed Stop-Loss, about the veterans of our Iraq war.  She directed Hilary Swank to a Best Actress Oscar victory for Boys Don't Cry.

Angelina Jolie won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted.  She went behind the camera as director and producer of the World War 2 biographical drama, Unbroken.  It opens Christmas Day.  Based on a best-selling book of the same name, it's the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a World War 2 veteran who passed away this year at age 97.  His life story was one of survival, resilience and redemption.  Not only was Lou in active combat, he survived beatings when he was a Japanese prisoner of war.  As Lou says in the film, "If I can take it, I can make it."

His experience in wartime truly was a living hell.  He kept his religious faith and forgave his enemies after the war was over.

How is the movie?  Big and impressive.  There are memorable scenes, such as the fighter plane sequences and the nearly 50 days of Zamperini being lost at sea.  Zamperini and two crewmembers fight starvation, storms and sharks.  British actor Jack O'Connell is terrific as Lou.  You'd swear he'd grown up in Southern California like Lou did.  I did wonder, before she cast O'Connell, if Jolie auditioned any young Italian-American actors in Southern and Northern California, West Coast guys who really had Italian immigrant relatives like Lou did.  Unbroken moves you, yet it falls short of being a classic -- like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

I don't think Jolie had a giant a budget like Spielberg may have had to do that 1998 Tom Hanks film.  However, she gets the most out of fewer extras and locations.  Remember how Saving Private Ryan opens with that graphic sequence of hundreds of G.I.s in battle during the D-Day invasion?  Jolie opens with a pilot combat sequence and concentrates on about a half dozen soldiers.  Very effective.  It's action-packed and focusing on fewer men hits you with the realization of how young our military men in WW2 were.  They were guys right out of high school or in their early 20s thrust into sheer horror and facing absolute evil as they bravely fought for freedom.  Jolie has a nice economy as director.
The movie is in three chapters after we're introduced to Lou, his home life and his athletic prowess.  There's air combat, there's nearly 50 days of sea survival after a crash landing, and then we're on land with Lou in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  He was a first generation Italian-American.  As a little boy, he spoke no English when he and his immigrant parents moved to Torrance, California during the Great Depression.   After he stopped getting in trouble and focused on his track skills, he was good enough to make the track team for the historic 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.  Adolf Hitler was in attendance.  Also on the track team was black American Jesse Owens.  You know how Hitler felt about Jews and black people.  The training Zamperini got for track taught him endurance.  That'll come in handy when he's a P.O.W.

As it turns out, a 1936 Olympics competitor is the cruel, jealous Japanese officer in the prisoner of war camp.  He's played quite effectively by actor Takamasa Ishihara.

I have a feeling that Jolie was influenced by the work of director David Lean, specifically his WW2 epic war drama, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  This film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1957.  But...the trailer for Unbroken gave me the impression there was going to be a track meet showdown in the Japanese prisoner of war camp.  Here's the trailer:
I expected some major Chariots of Fire action with Lou and his Japanese captors.
For all its good intentions, powerful scenes, exciting action and top-notch acting, Unbroken needs something more.  A touch more soul so that it doesn't seem like two hours with a motivational speaker. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean gave us duty, survival and resilience.  The soul was Alec Guiness  as the unflappable British colonel, a Japanese P.O.W. who says near the end, "What have I done?" as other officer sums up the essence of war when he looks on and states "Madness! Madness!"


Unbroken needed a touch of Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai or a final shot of the Japanese officer like that final shot of Marlene Dietrich's character, Madame Bertholt, in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg.  When the Nazi war crimes trial is over, she sits alone in silence, not answering her ringing phone.  Madame Bertholt was married to a Nazi officer.  She claimed to be unaware of Nazi crimes against humanity.
Unbroken is still a worth-while film to see.  It's the quality of film that would've made it a good field trip for high school students because of its inspirational messages.  With non-graphic violence, brief backside nudity and only about one four-letter latrine word, it's a PG-13 film.  The movie just needed a little more payoff from the screenplay in the last act, considering the long grueling, physical and emotional journey it took us on.  Plus, it feels its own importance.  However, Jolie did an admirable job as director.
Jesse Owens is a character in the early part of Unbroken.  This history-making, famous athlete is seen briefly in the film.  The legendary Jesse Owens deserves his own biopic.  I still say that Olympics champion should be played by one of the stars of The Hurt Locker, actor Anthony Mackie.


If you see Angelina Jolie on NBC a few times promoting this film, that's because Unbroken comes from Universal, the sister company to NBC.  On Sunday's edition of Today, Jolie talked about her affection for the real-life Zamperini.  He got to see a rough cut of the film before he died.  Angelina Jolie called him "a father figure" to her.
I've never heard her say that about her real-life father, actor Jon Voight.

Dig these Women in Film history facts:  The first person to get an Oscar nomination for acting thanks to a woman director was Ruth Chatterton, Best Actress Oscar nominee for 1930's Sarah and Son,  directed by Dorothy Arzner.  Italian actor Giancarlo Gianni was a Best Actor of 1976 Oscar nominee for the foreign film, Seven Beauties, directed by Italy's Lina Wertmüller.  For that same film, Lina Wertmüller was the first woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Barbra Streisand directed Amy Irving to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1983's Yentl.  Streisand directed Nick Nolte to a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Kate Nelligan to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1991's The Price of Tides, also nominated for Best Picture.

Tom Hanks was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for 1988's Big, directed by Penny Marshall.  Sofia Coppola directed Bill Murray to an Oscar nomination in the same category for 2003's Lost in Translation.  Patty Jenkins directed Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar win for 2003's Monster.  Lisa Cholodenko directed Annette Bening to a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Mark Ruffalo to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Kids Are All Right, also a nominee for Best Picture of 2010.

Meryl Streep has been a Best Actress Oscar nominee thanks to two female directors -- Nora Ephron of 2009's Julie & Julia and Phyllida Law of 2011's The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic that earned Streep her third Oscar.  

Those are some of the Oscar nominations that came for films directed by women.  Let's see how Angelina Jolie does with Unbroken when the Oscar nominations are announced January 15th.





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