The Long Run

One of the most durable and prestigious genres in film is the biopic. The Story of Louis Pasteur, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Patton, Funny Girl, Coal Miner’s Daughter, My Left Foot, Boys Don’t Cry, Erin Brockovich, Capote and most recently Lincoln all yielded Oscar Gold for actors. (And there are still people upset that Raging Bull isn’t on that list.)  Other biopics have tugged at our heartstrings: Pride of the Yankees can still cause even a Boston Red Sox fan to shed a tear at the end, and it’s hard for music lovers not to get choked up at the end of The Glenn Miller Story. It would be easy to list a hundred lesser biopics that have played in theaters over the years. The newest addition to the list, Unbroken, may not capture gold at the Oscars, but it’s a worthy example of the genre.

The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book that has spent 4 years on the NY Times bestseller list. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a boy from Torrance, California who was well on his way to becoming a delinquent in his early teen years. Louis’ life was turned around when he focused himself on running on the track instead of running from the police, and he was eventually chosen for the 1936 US Olympic team that competed in Berlin. Those games belonged to Jesse Owens, but it was viewed as a tune-up for Zamperini who would then play a major part in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.

The outbreak of World War II canceled those games. After Pearl Harbor, Louis joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater. While on a mission, the plane had to ditch in the ocean and only 3 of the crew made it out alive, with Louis among them. Louis survived for over 50 days at sea, an incredible accomplishment in itself, but then the survivors were found by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as POWs in Japan.

That all is given away in the trailer, since you don’t see a biopic because of the plot twists. It is how the story is presented as well as the main actor’s performance that drives the box office. Angelina Jolie, in her sophomore directing effort, takes a straightforward approach that’s more in line with the biopics of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s not a bad thing. The opening sequence, where Louis’ plane is part of a large raid on a Japanese manufacturing target, is one of the more intense bombing scenes ever put on film. The B-24 was notoriously for its light constructed, which was good for its operating ceiling and range, but bad for the crew when enemy fighters were around. It was one reason among several that the plane was nicknamed the “Flying Coffin.” From that beginning the story of Louis before the war is told through a couple of extensive flashbacks.

The majority of the film focuses on Louis’ survival in shark-infested waters (including one scene that could be titled “turnabout is fair play”) and the even more horrific time spent as a Japanese POW, during which he was singled out by the camp’s commander for physical torture. In this, Jolie is assisted by her lead actor Jack O’Connell. The 24-year-old was an unknown outside his native England before he was cast, but he brings to the role an intensity similar to Tom Hardy or a young Al Pacino before he started chewing the scenery in almost every film.

The film also benefits from Takamasa Ishihara’s performance as Watanabe, the sadistic camp commander who is nicknamed “The Bird” by the inmates. When Louis asks why they gave him that nickname, the other inmates explain that the English-speaking Watanabe listens to their conversations, and if he heard what they really wanted to call him he’d kill them. Ishihara’s actually a rock star in Japan, and this is only his second film role. He carries it off with a quiet intensity that is all the more frightening. What begins as a physical battle between the two morphs over the course of the film into a psychological war.

The adaption of the book boasts some unusual suspects, in that Joel and Ethan Coen were two of the four writers who worked on the script. While it’s nowhere near the off-beat film you’d expect from the Coen brothers, you can see their touch throughout the movie. The other screenwriters who contributed to the movie were Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables).

This was a story long in coming to the screen – Universal had bought the rights back 1957 – but thanks to the success of the book, it finally made. Louis passed away earlier this year, though not before Jolie screened a rough cut of the film for him on her laptop in his hospital room. That’s fitting. In the end, Louis Zamperini’s story transcends the historical and becomes a spiritual one, and that’s where its power lies – not in the broad panorama of history and war, but in the personal determination to remain unbroken.

 

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Winging It

Maleficent is the latest example of taking a well-known story and looking at it from a different perspective. Drew Barrymore did it in 1998 with Ever After, a realistic take on Cinderella, while the musical Wicked puts a different spin on Frank L. Baum’s Oz stories in live theaters all over the world now. Last year’s Oz, The Great and Powerful did that as well. With Maleficent, the different perspective is based in motivation.

In the 1959 Disney animation classic, the only motivation given for Maleficent’s cursing of Princess Aurora is that she wasn’t invited to the party – definitely a case of anger management issues. Audiences accepted it unquestioningly, mostly because of the way Maleficent was drawn. She looked so evil it was understandable – even expected. The horns, the black gown, the cheekbones that could cut paper; it plays upon the audience’s visual prejudices so they know she’s B-A-D. As Jessica Rabbit said, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton knows about animation, having written both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Scar in The Lion King could be an uncle of the animated Maleficent with the way he looks and his smooth voice. For Maleficent, though, Woolverton draws on  the lesson of Beauty and the Beast – looks are deceiving. She creates a full backstory that begins during Maleficent’s childhood. There are two lands that exist side by side but who are in conflict – one the land of men, the other one called the Moors, the province of wondrous creatures. It works as a metaphor as well as a geographical description. In the Moors, the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) is a benevolent protector of the realm. When Stefan (Michael Higgins), a young boy from the kingdom, trespasses in the Moors looking for treasure, Maleficent forgives him and the two become close friends for years. He awakens feelings of love within the teenaged Maleficent, but then Stephan returns to the world of men.

Years later the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) is a page for the king when the sovereign decides to invade the Moor and gain control of its wealth. He marches his army up to the border, but there the adult Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and an army of Moor creatures make their stand and rout the army. Maleficent soars through the battle on her wings and personally defeats the king. When the injured king offers his crown to whoever will destroy Maleficent, Stephan returns to the woods. While he can’t kill her, he does maim her, and then collects his reward, including the hand of the King’s daughter.

From the christening scene on, the film almost recreates scenes from the ’59 version, even the green haze during enchantments. You have the trio of pixies who raise Princess Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple), and the handsome prince (Brenton Thwaites) who finds Aurora in the woods shortly before her 16th birthday. But Woolverton makes Maleficent an active player who watches over Aurora as she grows from baby to toddler (played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) to beautiful teenager (Elle Fanning). She also gives Maleficent’s crow Diaval a human version (played by Sam Riley).

Jolie handles “evil” side of her character with a light touch that’s wonderful to behold, but her interplay with Fanning is beautiful in the depth of conflicted emotion. Fanning has stepped out of big sister Dakota’s shadow and is now a powerhouse performer in her own right. This movie passes the Bechdel test on gender bias with flying colors. (The test is that a work must have two women who talk to each other about something besides a man; in the course of a year there aren’t many major movies that pass it.)

It’s hard to tell that this is the first directing assignment for Robert Stromberg, although he’s done over 90 films in the visual effects department and has won two Oscars for art direction (for Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). The visuals for the film are stunning, but they serve the story rather than overwhelming it.

During the end credits there’s a melancholic version of “Once Upon A Dream” from the animated movie, performed by Lana Del Ray. The video combines footage from both films and provides an interesting comparison of the styles.

Over the course of its history, Disney has done much to perpetuate the idea of romantic “true love” as the goal for young women, which has skewed many a person’s understanding of love. Now they appear to be correcting the perception, both earlier this year with Frozen and now with Maleficent. It’s good to see this trend developing, and hopefully it will continue.

Anticipation – Summer ’14

Rather than make a long list of movies for my summer preview blog this year, I’ve decided to focus on the films I’m excited about seeing. These are the movies I’d line up to watch on their opening day over the course of the next four months, in the order of their release dates. At the end I’ve included the titles of some movies I may also see, as well as a few that strike me already as turkeys.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)

With the reboot of Spider-Man two years ago starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, director Marc Webb cut out the camp of the Sam Raimi films and replaced it with a harder edge. This time you have three excellent actors – Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Dane DeHaan – as the bad guys Spidey must defeat. DeHaan was excellent in Chronicle, which was something of a deconstruction of the genre – super powers won’t solve your problems, it will just super-size them. He’s an actor to watch.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

After the classic The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer made the first two X-Men movies, which were wonderful. His recent oeuvre (Valkyrie, Superman Returns, Jack the Giant Slayer) hasn’t done well. After Singer, the X-Men series made a bad misstep (“Curse you, Brett Ratner!”), but came back strong with X-Men: First Class. Now we have the best of both worlds, with Singer directing members of his original cast as well as their earlier versions from First Class. Days of Future Past is based on a classic story line from 1980, so it has a strong plot as a starting point. The first trailers look like it’s a winner.

Maleficent (May 30)

This movie does a “Wicked” twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by giving us some sympathy for the Devil – or at least the delightfully devilish Angelina Jolie. It gives backstory that makes the cursing of Princess Aurora more understandable than simply an overlooked birthday shower invitation. Elle Fanning plays the teenaged Aurora, while Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt plays the princess as a toddler.  Vivienne had to take the role since all the other children who auditioned for it were completely freaked-out by Angelina in full Maleficent mode. Audiences may be as well.

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)

One of the pleasures of The Descendants was Shailene Woodley as George Clooney’s eldest daughter. Woodley not only held her own with Clooney, but matched him in magnetism on screen. Now she’s starring in this movie, based on the Young Adult bestseller. Usually in the summer there’s a movie that breaks the blockbuster format for releases, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel three years ago. The Fault in Our Stars may be the movie for this summer.

Begin Again (July 4)

And if The Fault in Our Stars isn’t the antidote to movies filled with explosions, then this one might be it. Director John Carney scored a few years back with the movie Once, that has now become a hit as a musical on Broadway. Here he again explores music and the effect it can have on people. (The original title for the film was “Can A Song Save Your Life?”) He has a wonderful cast to work with: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and “Maroon 5” frontman Adam Levine.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully rebooted the series, after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes crashed and burned. The advances in CGI, as well as Andy Serkis’ incredible ability with performance-capture special effects, made Caesar believable as an ape with enhanced intelligence. In this sequel, humanity has been decimated by a pathogen. The survivors in San Francisco, led by Gary Oldman, come into conflict with Caesar’s clan of intelligent apes.

A Most Wanted Man (July 29)

This thriller is based on a John le Carre novel and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles. That’s enough to make me to want to see this film, though it also stars Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Bruhl. One caution, though, is that it’s directed by Anton Corbijn, who made the George Clooney misfire The American. Hopefully Corbijn learned from that experience.

Get On Up (August 1)

The trailer for this bio-pic of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is reminiscent of Ray and Walk The Line, but with better dancing. It stars Chadwick Boseman, who had a star-making turn in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 last year. The movie also has The Help of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively.

What If (August 1)

This movie was originally titled “The F Word” and was shown at some festivals last year, but is only now being released. It stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two people who form a platonic bond of friendship. Radcliffe moved on from the Harry Potter series with an effective performance in The Woman in Black, but the real attraction here is Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of Elia Kazan wrote and starred in the excellent and inventive film Ruby Sparks. Apparently much of the dialogue for What If was improvised on the set, which with Kazan could be a strength.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August 22)

The original Sin City opened the door for semi-animated movies both good (300) and bad (Sucker Punch). Now co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez have returned to town to deliver another story from Miller’s series of illustrated novels. Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba reprise their roles from the original movie, and are joined by Eva Green, Lady Gaga and Josh Brolin.

Others movies that I’m on the fence about: Godzilla, Jersey Boys, Edge of Tomorrow, A Hundred Foot Journey, The Giver, Guardians of the Galaxy, Lucy, and If I Stay.

And there are some movies this summer that you’d have to pay me to see: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Haven’t they reached their twenties yet?), Transformers: Age of Extinction (This franchise should have reached the age of extinction two movies ago), The Expendables 3 (More expendable than ever?) and Hercules (The Rock should have rolled past this one).

Agree? Disagree? Are there other films on your list? Please feel free to leave a comment.