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Unbroken

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unbrokenDirector: Angelina Jolie

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson

Released: 26th December 2014 (UK)

Unbroken is perfectly positioned and has every credential imaginable to become a classic Hollywood drama like those of years gone by. It is the kind of film that wins awards and pleases crowds as it not only serves as a testament to the will and strength of the human spirit, but chronicles a difficult road to overcoming impossibilities that should redeem our faith in ourselves and our race. Based on a New York Times best seller by Laura Hillenbrand, adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, shot by Roger Deakins and directed by Angelina Jolie this film truly has everything going for it and while it may be intentionally old school in its structure and execution in this day and age it ends up feeling a little too calculated and at times way too amateurish for the talent it has behind it. That said, this is only Jolie’s second directorial effort and her first of this scale and so it is to be understood if some of the choices here feel safer than necessary. Where Jolie the director and Jolie the storyteller differ though are in their passion for the story and their ability to strongly convey all that it holds. It is obvious this is an inherently amazing story, one any filmmaker would be happy to try their hand at. What Jolie has brought to the project is the aforementioned classical approach that beautifully captures the scope and horror of the situations our hero fell into, but what it lacks is any real insight into the mind of this man who was pushed to his limits. Technically, everything looks great and is cohesive to the point that those watching will understand what is going on and even gather a deeper meaning from it to a certain extent, but only if you’re looking for it. Otherwise, Unbroken is unfortunately little more than surface deep. Again, it’s understandable given this undertaking comes from someone accustomed to solely focusing on one aspect of a production transitioning to a role where they are looked at to be something of an expert in all areas so if there is good news to take away it is that the film ends better than it starts. Almost as if it were shot chronologically and Jolie became a better director as the film went on. That may be something of faint praise, but despite the content of the film not being nearly as engrossing as it has the potential to be it is the good intentions and admirable effort that allow forgiveness for the moderate results of an extraordinary story.

As Jolie is trying to play with multiple strings in the beginning she does so in a way that doesn’t bode well for what I thought the film might turn out to be. She seemed to be trying so incredibly hard in fact that she was forcing Alexandre Desplat’s overwhelming score to overpower the subtle moments of realization in O’Connell’s performance while relying on a priests homily to convey the main ideas of the piece and voice over from announcers at Zamperini’s track meets to tell of his accomplishments that move the backstory forward. It makes the film feel cheesy and melodramatic to the point it seemed the remainder of the film would be a hokey and manipulative drag rather than the sincere, tough watch this story deserved to be. It is when Zamperini and his two fellow survivors are stranded on the ocean for a month and a half that it feels Jolie finally begins to hit her stride. She is given limited things to work with aesthetically and smartly strips the rest of her elements down so as to not become overbearing on this simple human story of survival. While all of this occurs within the first hour of the film it bodes well for where things are heading in that Jolie allows the actors to bring the hardships and struggles of surviving for that long at sea to the forefront of our consciousness. O’Connell is especially compelling in these scenes for, despite the fact we still feel we don’t know the character personally, we begin to at least see a side of him that speaks to his instincts. He is optimistic under the given circumstances even if he doesn’t secretly believe the odds are in their favor. He naturally assumes a leadership role and while he can do little more than the average man to keep he and his comrades alive he almost makes those around him believe he can. It is in this section of the film that, while naturally being something of a tedious exercise as we know what comes next, is also the most compelling as it gives the men nowhere to go and forces them to create the dynamic that hurtles Zamperini through the even tougher challenges that lie ahead.Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is first presented to us as a soldier of World War II in the role of a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber. He rides alongside the likes of pilots Hugh Cuppernell (Jai Courtney) and Russell Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) as well as fellow bombardier Mac McNamara (Finn Wittrock). As per the old school template of how to make a Hollywood hit Jolie opens her film with an aerial fight as O’Connell as Zamperini divulges his pension for heroics and lighting things up like Christmas. Already, there is an opportunity to delve into the psyche of this character and give the audience a better look at his mentality or state of mind, a place to show where he’s at now and then in the inevitable flashbacks display how far he’s come. Instead, Zamperini drops bombs with no hesitation, not even a highlighted facial expression and thus we have no idea where this character is at in terms of headspace. Maybe he really didn’t have any hesitation in leveling cities, maybe he didn’t consider the lives he would be taking out in the blink of an eye, but the film being about the will to survive, the resilience of the human spirit and the redemption of this life derailed I doubt that was the case. After our initial introduction we are sent back to when Zamperini was a young troublemaker who hid alcohol, gawked at women and got into fights. He was on the fast track to nowhere, but thanks to his older brother Pete (John D’Leo and Alex Russell) he takes up running track and begins to excel in ways Pete didn’t even imagine. Pete pushes Louie, makes him work at what he comes to love and keeps him on the straight and narrow. Louie becomes so good at his craft he would go on to run in the 1936 Olympics before enlisting in the Air Force in 1941. This is all a precursor to the bulk of the story told in Unbroken though as much of what the film focuses on is his survival of a plane crash in the Pacific where he spent forty-seven days drifting on a raft. He, along with Phillips were then rescued (ehh) by the Japanese only to spend more than two and a half years living in prisoner of war camps.

Once Zamperini reaches Tokyo and is forced into the prisoner of war camps Jolie not so much shifts tone, but keeps her stripped down mentality intact while building back up to where she thinks she needs to be. If anything, there is a strong sense that the direction and composition are more than competent, but what is actually being captured is undermined by a lack of confidence. These camps are essentially places where Japanese soldiers force their enemies into slavery and beg them to challenge their authority so they might revel in the pleasure of punishing them. Why the Japanese keep so many men alive in these camps is a question I’m sure could be answered easily, but is not covered in the film and so I began to wonder not only what their motivation was for keeping so many pawns, but why Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) aka “The Bird” singles Zamperini out as well. The punishment of the camps and the constant picking on of our main character becomes repetitive to a point that we understand the extent of the damage being done, but never do we really see the repercussions. There are only a few select shots where late at night, after the days work is done that we see Zamperini laying in his bed, staring off into the night and no doubt contemplating how much more torture is worth what might be the rest of his life. The problem is, if you’re not looking for that, if you’re not actively searching for the depth to the lead character then you will blink and miss them. There is nothing wrong with subtlety and of course it is appreciated in many films with as obvious a message asUnbroken, but for being concerned wholly with this man and the trials of his life it never feels there is a strong arc to how these events affect him. Throughout the film never does O’Connell’s interpretation of Zamperini sway and so neither does who Zamperini is to us ever change. He is a man with his feet firmly planted in his beliefs (with a religious aspect meant to be significant that we don’t realize until the end credits) and so despite the film most definitely taking us on a journey the surrogate we take it with is just that, never giving us an inclination to his position, but letting us decide what we would do were we in his shoes which doesn’t completely make sense given it is this particular man’s story.

Editor-in-Chief of Movie Marker. Likes: Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino Dislikes: The film 'Open Water' I mean, what was that all about?

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Beautiful Boy ★★★★

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Released: 18th January 2019

Directed By: Felix Van Groeningen

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

It was his tender infatuation with Armie Hammer’s sun-kissed research assistant, in the exquisite Italy-set romance Call Me By Your Name, which allowed Timothee Chalamet to emphatically march into many a cinema goer’s heart. Now he seems determined to shatter them in this affecting portrait of a young man torn apart by crystal meth addiction, based on the best-selling memoirs written by David and Nic Sheff.

Fusing the separate father and son perspectives into a singular vision. Felix Van Groenigen’s Beautiful Boy plays out like a slideshow of a photo album, leaping between various stages of Nic’s (Timothee Chalamet) upbringing in San Francisco, with the emotional pulse of the film quickening as his troubles deepen.

Applying significant strain on his relationship with his dad David (Steve Carell), who goes to remarkable lengths to garner a thorough understanding of this drug epidemic and how it tortures one’s self in both body and mind, whilst his son struggles to articulate his emotions. It only ripples throughout the family unit, slowly severing the ties with stepmother Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s LA-based birth mom Vicki (Amy Ryan). Encompassing them all is a real air of desperation, as they look to salvage their home life and drag their eldest back from the brink.

Arguably intentional to mirror the often disorientating state of Nic. The narrative structure adopted by Van Groenigen allows heady highs of intimacy and unflinching honesty, making continuous leaps within the time frame. Yet it does hamper the film’s early attempts to build emotional momentum, surprisingly leaving you distant as you look to engage in this family’s plight. The musical choices seem intent to compliment this approach too and whilst some are inspired in their beauty, there is the occasional song that creates a sense of intrusion.

A theme that is prominent throughout Beautiful Boy is the perception of control, established by Nic’s growing discontent towards David and Van Groenigen utilises this visually in its confined and open-aired spaces. One fine example being through an intense cafe exchange, as Nic laments the great expectations placed on him, with both figures captured at a lower angle to emphasise their descent into hopelessness. What becomes clear and almost tangible is Nic and David are both addicts in their own way, unable to break respective habits and methods in order to move forward.

The great comedian who for me has become superior in far more dramatic works. Steve Carell is quietly impressive as David, remaining remarkably centred as he’s driven down a road he never envisaged for his son. With such a sharp focus on the father/son dynamic, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are somewhat sidelined, but both provide moments of potent poignancy when called upon. Of course, the film truly belongs to a stunning Timothee Chalamet who is fearless in representing the true horror and heartbreak of such a debilitating condition.

Brimming with sensitivity in its handling of an admittedly brutal subject matter. Beautiful Boy is painstakingly brilliant in its sincerity and authenticity.

To quote the trailer. When Carell and Chalamet share the screen. It’s… everything.

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Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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