Monday, December 1, 2014


'Unbroken' Unveiled: Angelina Jolie's War Pic Finally Arrives

The story of the Olympic athlete-turned-WWII POW Louis Zamperini, adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling biography, could figure in plenty of categories

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken became the last of 2014's high-profile awards hopefuls to screen for awards pundits when Universal unveiled it through simultaneous screenings on both coasts Sunday — and, despite mixed advance buzz and competition that includes plenty of other extremely dark films structured around strong male performances, I suspect that it will be a key player throughout the remainder of the race to the Oscars.

Jolie's film about the Italian-American Olympic athlete-turned-World War II POW Louis Zamperini, who died earlier this year at 97, is only the second narrative feature ever directed by the 39-year-old (following her politely but not enthusiastically received 2011 Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey). Jolie was a fan of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the 2010 biography of Zamperini penned by Laura Hillenbrand (who had also written the book upon which best picture Oscar nominee Seabiscuit was based), and subsequently learned that Zamperini was her neighbor. Shortly thereafter, as Jolie described during a post-screening Q&A in Los Angeles, the two met and bonded, and she fought to tell his story.

In some respects, the Zamperini story would be hard to screw up: The man experienced more drama in one decade than most auditoriums full of people will ever collectively experience in their lifetimes. But, for that same reason, expectations for the film were incredibly high from the get-go, and doubters about Jolie's fitness for the job were not hard to find. Wisely, she surrounded herself with top-caliber people: The Oscar-winning brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen adapted Hillenbrand's book into a script; their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, joined the project; and Jack O'Connell, a twentysomething British actor who has displayed great promise in a few other very small films, was cast as the man himself. All of the above pulled their weight and will be strong contenders in their respective Oscar categories.

The major concern with the Zamperini story for many was its length. The book is packed with harrowing details of his experiences — both glorious and torturous — and it was clearly going to be a daunting task to do justice to all that he went through in a film of conventional length. Early reports, in fact, suggested that Jolie and no less a film editor than twice-Oscar-nominated Tim Squyres (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi) were finding the task impossible, resulting in an oppressively long film, which is why Oscar winner William Goldenberg (Argo) was brought on late in the game to re-cut it. Only the two editors, Jolie and perhaps Universal know what really happened. But the fact of the matter is that the finished, 137-minute film is not especially long, is completely coherent and doesn't seem to have any glaring omissions.

At the end of the day, the real make-or-break issue for Unbroken will probably be its depiction of brutality — which, by all accounts, is accurate, but will nevertheless prove tough for many people inside and outside of the Academy to watch. Some of its scenes — especially those featuring the androgynous-looking Japanese rock star-turned-actor Miyavi — are truly gut-wrenching. Just last year, The Railway Man, another film based on a true story of a POW tortured in Japan during WWII, encountered similar issues en route to a total Oscar wipeout, and many Academy members admitted to me that they couldn't bring themselves to watch 12 Years a Slave — although some still ended up voting for it because they felt it was of social importance, and the film wound up winning best picture.

Moreover, the film will reopen a lot of old wounds and restart a lot of old debates. As Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty recently pointed out to me, Germans today are, by and large, quick to acknowledge and apologize for their countrymen's misdeeds during WWII, but the Japanese, hailing from a different culture, have generally preferred to bury the past and avoid discussing it. (Even those who advised Hillenbrand for her book insisted upon remaining anonymous all these years later.) How will they react? Will Universal screen a different cut of the film in Japan? A studio rep tells me to expect an answer to that question Monday.

The bottom line, for the purposes of Oscar-watchers, is that Unbroken is a real contender and will get a major push from Universal — and from Jolie, who next heads to New York for a series of promotional events this week. It may or may not have the right stuff to grab the best picture Oscar away from Boyhood or The Imitation Game or Selma, three pics that seem to have both the gravitas and passionate support necessary to go all the way. But it is certainly a serious contender for nominations for best picture and best director — Jolie and Selma's Ava DuVernay could make this the first year ever to produce two female nominees in that category. In addition, it might figure in the categories of best actor (O'Connell could ride the film's coattails past bigger names from lesser films), best adapted screenplay (a category won by the Coens seven years ago for No Country for Old Men), best cinematography (Deakins is a perennial nominee and, unjustly, a perennial bridesmaid), best original score (the great Alexandre Desplat, who's also up for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel), best production design, best sound editing, best sound mixing and maybe even best film editing (I'm sure that one would be extra sweet) and best makeup and hairstyling. I'm not sold on a best supporting actor nom for Miyavi, but it's worth remembering that Sessue Hayakawa landed a nom for a similarly twisted performance in 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai — though, unlike Miyavi, he was a Hollywood veteran.

It's too bad Zamperini — who I had the honor of seeing in-person at the 2013 Academy Governors Awards — won't be around to see it.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg


Oscar Watch: Will Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Break Out Of The Best Picture Pack?

Angelina Jolie had one key goal, I believe, in bringing Unbroken to the screen, and that was to do right by the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini. Simple as that. And that she has accomplished  in every way. This was clearly evident as the film got its local sendoff Sunday afternoon with multiple screenings for guild and Oscar voters as well as the pundit crowd who couldn’t wait to jump on twitter to give an instant verdict on the film’s Oscar chances.  After all this one is a big target as it is the last realistic Best Picture contender to debut  , and it has been handicapped, virtually since it went into production, as the one to beat.  Is it?  Who knows? Some early viewers sent off mixed vibes afterwards, though most seemed at the very least to admire it. A  few cautioned about the realistic scenes of torture that Zamperini , played magnificently by Jack O’Connell, endured at the hands of the prison camp’s  evil officer known as  The Bird portrayed effectively by Japanese rock superstar Miyavi who admitted he had never before acted and didn’t even start to learn English until  a few years ago. Those scenes , while intense, seem wholly necessary to really show what this WWII hero and ultimate survivor went through. I sat transfixed throughout the two hour and 17 minute running time, although one person next to me complained about the torture. But hey, the movie is called Unbroken for a reason. Jolie thankfully doesn’t sugarcoat the violent aspects of the story (much like Steven Spielberg also refused to do in Saving Private Ryan’s harrowing D-Day invasion scenes). And nor should she. Zamperini lived through this all somehow. The least you can do is watch it to understand his incredible resilience.  It  gave me renewed respect for the horrors to which many of our fathers and grandfathers  were subjected  – and certainly even since then in numerous other wars right up to today and the unimaginable terror coming out of the Middle East.

But this movie is not primarily about the horrors of war. We have seen that many times. Unbroken is about so much more. It’s not just about the survival of this man, it is about  sheer willpower and belief in yourself. Zamperini’s incredible story brought me to tears at least twice, even more so for the exemplary life he led after making it through unspeakable conditions. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see it finally hit the big screen , though Jolie said at the post -Q&A she did show the film to him on her laptop shortly before he died earlier this year at age 97.  And what was his review?  She basically begged off that question saying, “you’re watching somebody at a certain point in their life, toward the end of their life, watching their whole life unfold. And you’re sitting there as they do it”.   Sitting directly across the aisle from me today was his daughter Cynthia, son Luke, and  Grandson Clay as well as documentary filmmaker Mick Garris, his son-in-law who originally made a non-fiction film on his Father-in-Law’s life. He is credited as an Executive Producer on this one as well.

That documentary version aside, Zamperini’s story has taken nearly 60 years to get to the screen as producer Matthew Baer said at the Q&A which in addition to Jolie included O’Connell, Miyavi and Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Co-stars Garrett Hedlund and Domnhall Gleeson (absolutely superb)  joined the earlier SAG Q&A.  Talk about perseverance.  At one time in 1957 Universal had planned to make it with Tony Curtis in thelead.  It was only when Laura Hillenbrand wrote the definitive book , and then Angelina Jolie found a cinematic way into it that we have finally  gotten this  version.  And what a movie. The sheer craft of filmmaking is all over this one. It is beautifully directed by Jolie who definitively proves, after a promising but largely unseen helming debut with In The Land Of Blood Of Honey, that she has the chops behind the camera as well as in front of it.  She pulls off highly difficult scenes in shark infested waters  as well as in the confined spaces of a B-1 bomber, not to mention finding just the right tone for those grim prison camp scenes. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have 11-time Oscar nominated Cinematographer Roger Deakins  as your DP. Or Tim Squyres (Life Of Pi) and  William Goldenberg (Argo) doing the editing. Or  Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson as the collective that turned out the sharp screen adaptation of Hillenbrand’s best seller. Or that Alexander Desplat contributes yet another great score. And on and on. Its awards prospects appear to be strong in a year where no clear front runner has completely dominated the conversation. There’s no question Universal plans to give this Christmas Day release their full firepower.

As WWII movies go I have a lot of favorites:  The Great Escape, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Guns Of Navarone, Patton, Pork Chop Hill, Saving Private Ryan,  King Rat and yet another from this year, Fury (ironically starring Jolie’s new husband , Brad Pitt). Add Unbroken to my list, and for a very different reason. This movie is inspiring  for the sheer way Zamperini conducted himself then , a spiritual approach that becomes very moving to watch , particularly in a scene where a beaten Zamperini is forced at gunpoint to hold an enormously  heavy object aloft without dropping it. Yes, it can be grueling but it is also remarkably life-affirming, something that instantly connected Jolie to an epic story that she has given a personal human touch. “Reading (Hillenbrand’s) book it wasn’t  about heroics and it wasn’t about this giant adventure this man lived. It was about what he came to understand in his life, and as I read the book I became inspired, and I felt better about life and I was reminded of the strength of the human spirit. And I was reminded that anytime I would see an obstacle  to try and smile at it and make me better. And this is what Louis gave us. And so I really wanted to be around this story , to understand his story, to honor walking in his footsteps. What would that be?  Really , I wanted to share his story and shout it from the rooftops,”  she said.

the wrap

Angelina Jolie Unveils ‘Unbroken,’ a Grim, Inspiring Awards Contender

The actress-turned-director earns ovation after showing her World War II story to awards voters and press in Beverly Hills
Angelina Jolie‘s “Unbroken” became the last major awards contender to be unveiled on Sunday afternoon, with the director on hand to  talk about her film depicting the heroic survival of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, who endured weeks adrift in the Pacific Ocean and years in a brutal Japanese prison camp.
She showed the film to an audience of awards season voters, press and two of Zamperini's children at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, drawing an ovation but also prompting an air of caution from those who'd labeled it an Oscar frontrunner sight-unseen. (The film had already screened in Australia, where it premiered, and Berlin, where Jolie went with stars Jack O'Connell and Miyavi, above.)

The early verdict from this corner is that the film is impressive and immersive, but also grim and grueling — an awards contender to be sure, but also a tough piece of work that doesn't necessarily provide the kind of experience that voters often embrace.
For Jolie, though, the most crucial audience may have come earlier, when she brought her laptop to the hospital to show an early cut to Zamperini before his death in July at the age of 97.

“You realize you're not going in to get a review from somebody,” she said of the hospital-room screening.  “You're watching somebody at a certain point in their life — toward the end of their life — watching their whole life. And you're sitting there as they do it.”
The vast majority of the film takes place during World War II, when Zamperini's bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and he and two other survivors spent 45 days adrift at sea before they were “rescued” by a Japanese boat and sent to a series of prison camps.

The film flashes back to Zamperini's childhood and to his career as a high school, college and Olympic runner, but it starts during the war and plunges the audience into a horrifying ordeal in which the only words Zamperini can cling to are “if you can take it, you can make it.”
The triumph in his story is from a distance; up close and onscreen, it's a grim and graphic tale of survival in the most hellish of circumstances. The audience was largely appreciative and admiring, though, at the way in which Jolie, in her second film as a director, handled both the moments of large-scale drama and the long stretches of quiet suffering.
Producer Matthew Baer, on hand for the post-screening Q&A along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and cast members O'Connell and Miyavi, said he acquired the rights shortly after seeing a documentary about Zamperini in 1998. But while several drafts of a screenplay were written and the project was taken to Universal, Baer said the studio didn't become really interested until “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand published her bestselling book, from which the film takes its title, in 2010.
Jolie said she was enthralled by Hillenbrand's book, and by Zamperini's story. “As I read the book I became inspired, I felt better about life … and I wanted to better understand this man, and to have the honor of walking in his footsteps.”

She also said that after reading the book, she wanted to “shout [Zamperini's story] from the rooftops — and it turned out that if I went on my rooftop, I actually see Louis, because we're neighbors.”
She didn't know this at the time, she added. It was only when she asked for a meeting with Zamperini and said that she didn't know where he lived, that she was told, “He knows where you live, because his wife used to look for Brad with binoculars.”

(But while hubby Brad Pitt was a lure for Mrs. Zamperini, he also learned his place: “Brad knew that if there was one man in the world he couldn't get in front of,” said Jolie, “it was Louis.”)
As for the actors, O'Connell said he was on an 800-calorie-a-day diet to play the emaciated, prison-camp Zamperini, though he preferred not to pay attention to how many pounds he lost. And in fact, he added, some of the weight loss was computer-generated: Because he had to shoot scenes as an Olympic athlete only nine days after shooting the prison camp scenes, he had to lose weight he could put back on quickly, and not lose muscle mass.

As his chief foe in the film, Japanese musician Miyavi makes a striking film debut playing the sadistic prison camp commander Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird” by the prisoners.
Miyavi said he was reluctant to take on a part that reflected poorly on the country where he was born and raised, from a controversial book that had never even been translated into Japanese.
And when it came time to film one particularly brutal scene late in the film, he said, he cried and threw up because he didn't think he was up to the task. Jolie, he said, coaxed him back by saying, “Just be yourself, just take your time, just accept yourself.
“So I was able to accept myself, and I went back to the set…and I threw up again.”


Jeff Wells

Unbroken Has Happened

I don’t know if Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken (Universal, 12.25), which everyone saw Sunday afternoon at the WGA theatre on Doheny, will nab a Best Picture nomination or not, although it could. It’s very well crafted. I can honestly call it admirable, grade-A filmmaking. Anyone would. And it comes straight from Angie’s heart and innards so you can’t call it dispassionate or cynical.

To be honest I began looking at my watch around the 60-minute mark, but I was never dozing or uninterested or bored — I just don’t like being tortured, starved and beaten for 27 months straight, which is what occupies the last 75 minutes.

Unbroken is basically a film about the nobility of long-term suffering, and how that can be (and can be made to seem like) a good thing in a spiritual sense. Or…you know, a good thing if you take the long God’s-eye view.

Because in a close-up view being tortured and beaten and deprived in three Japanese prisoner-of-war camps is a ghastly situation for Jack O’Connell‘s Louis Zamperini, a real-life guy and subject of Laura Hillenbrand‘s best-selling “Unbroken” who passed last July at age 97. And it’s really not that much of a swell picnic for the audience, truth be told. But it delivers a good kind of suffering. One that feels vaguely Christian and conservative on some level. Something tells me the Orange County crowd will find a place in their hearts for it.

I respect every technical aspect of UnbrokenRoger Deakin‘s cinematography, the performances, the verisimilitude of the flying and bombing scenes, the superb sound editing, Berlin Olympics, the teenage turbulence, etc. The prison camp material (jungle camp, Tokyo camp and a coal-mine camp, all of them colored by the same sadism and brutality) is well shaped and very nicely captured. Portions are oddly beautiful, or at least striking.

Common or rote or unremarkable things happen in this film in startling ways. There’s a Christ-like moment when Zamperini is forced to lift a heavy beam above his head and shoulders — surely his cross to bear for that moment. There’s another moment when a POW falls off a steep metal staircase and drops 25 or 30 feet to the ground…whumpf! (Good God.) There’s also a moment in which a shark suddenly leaps out of the ocean at the camera, one that rivals a similar moment in Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws.

On the other hand it’s odd that Jolie has decided to ignore Zamperini’s reluctant handshake with Adolf Hitler, which happened after his proud performance at the 1936 Olympics. It happened and it was Hitler…c’mon.

I choose to believe that Unbroken is essentially about two personal things. One is Angie’s obviously genuine admiration for Louis and the grand theme of his story, which is basically “if you can take it you can make it” but also “it’s good to have the cojones and the moxie not to let life get you down or make you cynical.” (Or something like that.) The other thing is Angie’s obvious interest in stories about people getting beaten and subjugated and put through hell.

Unbroken reminded me in some respects of Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ as well as Apocalypto, that other Gibson film about horrible gougings and slicings and beatings.
I’m not the only one who observed after today’s screening that the last 75 minutes of Unbroken are basically Christian torture porn. The notion seems to be that there’s something noble and cleansing and soul-soothing about prolonged agony at the hands of sadists.

I’ve said before that I understand the Angie ass-kissing factor. The BFCA wants her and Brad on their red carpet, and the Academy wants Angie and Brad on their red carpet. It’s quite possible that Unbroken will slip in at the very bottom of the balloting as a sixth- or seventh-place choice.

Nobody I spoke to today thinks Unbroken is a Best Picture nomination shoo-in. It could definitely make it, and I can understand, as noted, why it could. Nonetheless my basic feelings about the film are respectful. It is, make no mistake, an extremely personal, handsomely composed thing. Jolie’s instincts are direct and unflinching, and her eye (or Deakins’ eye, I should say) is tres elegant. I was a slightly bigger fan of Jolie’s In The Land of Blood and Honey, to be honest, but she’s definitely grown as a director in terms of confidence.

The bottom line is that as problematic as some aspects of Unbroken are for me, I respect Angie for her devotion to a story she cares about and believes in on more than one level, and the film for its honesty and craft levels.

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