Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Unbroken (2015) - Movie Review

As Oscar season comes along in Australia, we of course have a period drama set in World War II. That's not to say that that automatically means it'll be bad; just that I have grown savvy enough in my short foray into film criticism to know that war stories make for great Oscar bait. With Angelina Jolie at the helm as director, a fact that blindsided me so much that I didn't even find out until recently that this isn't her directorial debut, and the Coen brothers as co-writers on the script, this film at least has some talent at its core. But how does it fare against its usually lofty competition?

The plot: Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete and a soldier in World War II, has his plane crash over the ocean and spends several weeks on a raft with two other survivors. After their raft is found by enemy soldiers, Louis then spends the proceeding years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp under the watchful eye of Corporal Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe (Miyavi). As he suffers at the hands of his captors and his will is tested, Louis is determined to see this war to the end.

While not having the most recognisable names in the world, the main actors here do very well. Jack O’Connell may have made me question his casting initially, given the strangely glamour shot driven casting decisions at times, but he sells it as the lead character. Louis gets put through hell in this movie and Jack is able to portray all of that hardship, all of that suffering without losing his footing. Miyavi is a little too good as the outright slimy Watanabe, being able to send shivers down the spine whenever he’s on screen by his presence alone. I say ‘too good’ because in one of the many, many scenes where Watanabe beats Louis (it's from the scene in the trailers where Louis is holding up a large plank of wood), it seriously looks and sounds like he is moments away from orgasm. It’s bizarre as hell, but I have to admit that it fits with how his character is played like someone that escaped an 80’s B-movie.

In the minor cast, we do have at least one recognisable name: Jai Courtney… and it is here that the air raid sirens go off and audiences run for cover. I really hate picking on Courtney, as the guy is by no means a bad actor and I honestly want to support a Sydney-born actor, but the guy is terrible at picking screenplays if the previously reviewed I, Frankenstein and The Water Diviner are anything to go by, not to mention being in Divergent, my worst film of 2014. Now, in all fairness, this film is nowhere near as bad as those films. However, we still have quite a few problems to deal with here.

First and foremost, the script; the credits list the Coen brothers, legendary filmmakers in their own right with classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski under their belts, as co-writers on the film which is the main thing that initially got me excited to check it out. It soon became apparent, even before I found out that they were re-writers on the movie, that this is a very muddled script even with that in mind. It constantly feels like bits of character development and plot details are left out (and in some cases flat-out retroactively ignored), leading to some rather flat notes at times. I mentioned before that Miyavi does a good job at playing the very slimy Watanabe; well, it seems that the character wasn’t entirely meant to come across this way. During the aforementioned ‘orgasm’ scene, the dialogue is written in such a way that comes across like we’re supposed to sympathise with him as he realises what a monster he’s been to Louis, which is reinforced by his being mentioned in the "Now Where They At?!" end credit slide show. The character is that one-note that any form of character progression is completely invisible, and that’s going by best case scenario in that I’m assuming that we were supposed to see guilt in his character. Maybe Miyavi just had a Roots moment and thought he was being too cruel to O’Connell but the filmmakers left it in anyway, I don’t know. All I know is that his character feels mishandled, despite how Miyavi makes the character at least entertaining to watch.

There is also a matter of the weird detours the movie will make for seemingly no reason. The best example of this happens about halfway through the film when Watanabe tells Louis that he has been promoted and has been stationed at another camp. Now, thematically, this exchange is supposed to show how Watanabe has formed a sort of uneasy respect for Louis, hence why he would bother to tell him at all. Where they decide to stage this scene, on the other hand, is during a Kabuki rendition of Cinderella with some of the other prisoners as the actors. This seriously feels like a scene I would make up in a frenzied fever dream because the film was so dull at times, but this is an actual thing that happens in this WWII drama. When I said that 12 Years A Slave was too bleak and needed something to lighten up the tone at least a little, I didn’t think a film would come along and make me take that back out of fear of what else may crop up.

What makes this even worse is that, while this may be the most extreme example in the film, it isn’t the only example either. Of course, there’s also the matter that these weird moments are only mild diversions to distract from the fact that this is a very paint-by-numbers story as the script tells it. When it isn’t taking cues from several prisoner of war films, it’s taking cues from several underdog sports stories. This film’s plot, in how it tries to meld both parts of the real Louis Zamperini’s life as an Olympian and as a soldier, doesn’t juggle both sides that well and honestly comes across like the director should have done a Kill Bill and split it into two tonally different films.

Now, with all that said and done, this film still has some good points to it. The scenes with Louis and the two other survivors in the raft are very well done, as the acting enhanced by the superb makeup job really get across the experience rather effectively. Watching these scenes, which despite what the trailer may have you think takes up a decent portion of the film’s running time, will undoubtedly have audiences reaching for their drinks to fight the dehydration. Actually, speaking of what the trailer shows us, the scene where Louis is punched by the other prisoners is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and I mean that as a compliment. As punishment for Louis’ insubordination and refusal to aid the Japanese government with a fake radio broadcast, Watanabe orders every other prisoner in the camp to form a queue and each punch Louis in the face in turn. The scene is harrowing enough on its own, as the sound editing and acting sell each punch as hard as humanly possible, but it hits even harder within the film’s context as we see just how brutal Louis’ conditions are and what is asked of him.

All in all, this may not hold up as Oscar bait but it is still a decent movie. While held back by an underwhelming script, the acting is good, the cinematography is decent and the depictions of the conditions that Louis Zamperini had to experience are shown in rather disturbing detail which adds a lot to the film’s atmosphere and tone.

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