With the Christmas holidays in full-swing, I, like most people, had some amount of free time in the last week. As a freelance designer, I tend to work when my clients need me, and since most of them took the holidays off, so did I.
It hasn’t always been like that, however. In college I worked for a movie theater, a job, as you might imagine, I thought was awesome. It did have one drawback, however. No holidays off. I remember our grouchy manager barking at an employee who had the temerity to ask for Thanksgiving off. “We work when everyone else is off! If you want holidays off, get another job!”
She wasn’t an incredibly popular boss, but she was right. The movies are on when everyone else is off. I took advantage of that fact last week to see three new films — employing a whole staff of homesick teenagers.
2 hours, 17 minutes
The first film I saw was Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the bestselling non-fiction account of the life of Olympian Louis Zamperini and his experiences in World War II. “Unbroken” is one of those movies that seems tailor made to win Oscars but, because it’s been generating Oscar-buzz for so long it started to suffer from some backlash before it ever came out. It’s one of those too-amazing-to-be-true kind of stories, and for once it doesn’t look like Hollywood had to really add anything to make the story more cinematic. Zamperini, a child of immigrants, looks to be on the road for reform school and an eventual life on the streets until his brother gets him interested in running track. Years later, as a rookie athlete he runs in the Olympics in Berlin alongside Jesse Owens, and sets a lap record for the 5,000 meter, despite not medaling.
Zamperini’s big chance for glory was going to be the Olympics in Tokyo in 1940, but world events took a hand and everyone’s destiny was changed. The war found our hero as a bombardier flying missions in the Pacific. When his plane goes down in the ocean, Zamperini and two crewmates have to survive nearly two months at sea before they are rescued, ironically by the Japanese Navy. He spends the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp under a sadistic warden nicknamed “The Bird.”
I think the backlash on this film is unfortunate because it’s top-notch. Not showy or especially creative, necessarily, but “Unbroken” feels like a bit of a throwback to the kind of spectacle biopics of the past. It’s not as good as “Ghandi” or “Lawrence of Arabia,” but the style is much the same, and the story is rich enough to more than fill the two-and-a-half hour runtime. I thought the acting was very good, especially from relative new-comer Jack O’Connell as Zamperini. Also very good is Takamasa Ishihara, a Japanese actor and composer who plays “The Bird.” He makes an excellent villain, his youth and delicate features playing well against his apparent madness.
There is nothing surprising in the film — it’s by the numbers, admittedly, but with a story this good, why muddle it with a lot of flash and style. I think Jolie makes a wise choice to play it straight. Zamperini died this year at age 97, remarkable for anyone, never mind all he went through in his life. I think he’d be proud of Hollywood’s depiction of it.
1 hour, 58 minutes
My wife and I took the kids to see “Annie,” a modern re-telling of the classic musical with Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks and young Quvenzhané Wallis in the title role. In this version, Foxx is Will Stacks, a cell-phone mogul running for Mayor who sees a political advantage in helping out a young orphan. The movie isn’t great, but it’s definitely fun. Foxx and Cameron Diaz, who plays the erratic foster mother Mrs. Hannigan, are excellent comic actors, are extremely affable and have great chemistry.
The supporting players, Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, and especially David Zayas as wacky shopkeeper Lou, are all very funny. Wallis gives it her all and while her performance may not be one for the ages, it’s adequate for a cute family musical.
I only wish the musical portion of this musical had been better. I don’t know if it’s a problem at the theater I was in, or if it was the studio mix (I suspect the latter), but the songs are hard to hear, are auto-tuned to death, and have a disconnected feel that makes the performers lip-synching entirely obvious. It’s a shame because the rest of the film is a lot of fun and a great opportunity for a family outing.
1 hour, 51 minutes
Finally, I took in “The Gambler,” the tense drama from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” director Rupert Wyatt, starring Mark Wahlberg in yet another proving his formidable acting chops. Ostensibly a film about a man desperate to get out from under gambling debts to three very nefarious gangster types, “The Gambler” is more of a writing/acting showcase with a number of excellent scenes wrapped around a fairly basic plot.
Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson, and Michael Kenneth Williams share a number of crackling, powerful interactions. If Wahlberg’s depressed English professor Jim Bennett’s motivations seem a bit oblique, the movie makes up for it with some excellent performances. Admittedly, the film is a bit of a downer for most of it’s two hour runtime, but not as grim or nihilistic as you would imagine at first glance. I was a little confounded for a while, but I ended up quite liking this intense, intimate film.
“Unbroken” is rated PG-13 for disturbing scenes of torture and mild language. “Annie” is rated PG for mild rude humor. “The Gambler” is rated R for violence, pervasive language, and nudity.