Saturday, January 24, 2015

Drum & Drummer: The Thrilling “Whiplash” is a Riveting Crowd Pleaser

If you were to tell me that you could turn the story of a student studying to be a jazz drummer into a exhilarating thriller of a film I’d say you’d be full of it. And then there’s “Whiplash.” A “music drama” that is every bit as exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, moving, and feels nothing you’d ever seen before. It’s almost Hitchcockian in its approach to enthrall you with this fascinating cat and mouse game between a borderline sadistic college music professor and an in-it-to-win-it student.

“Whiplash” is a movie about a young man who wants to be a great musician that shockingly isn’t even based on a true story. It stars the always charming Miles Teller (who constantly seems to play a similar, likeable character but brings something extra to this role) as Andrew Niemann who is a first year student at a prestigious music conservatory ready to fulfill his dream of being a great jazz drummer. He gets an opportunity to be an alternate drummer in the school’s jazz band headed by feared instructor Terrence Fletcher (a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons). Fletcher has interesting teaching methods to say the least. He’s a mean guy who’s all about no BS. We’re talking swearing, insulting, and borderline assaulting his students. Of course to say anything more about the relationship between Fletcher and Andrew would be spoil the suspenseful fun of the film.

The film is outstanding in a number of nearly perfect technical ways. The film has terrific direction from the relatively unknown Damien Chazelle who wrings out terrific, and captivate performances from its stars. As a director he makes every right decision at every possible moment. The camera placement, the colors, the editing: all top-notch. He wrings suspense out of scenes you’d never expect to be suspenseful. The tension that is created by the actors is palpable. We’re talking sweaty palms here. Simmons commands the screen and instantly goes down in cinematic history as portraying one film’s greatest onscreen villains. Of course, there’s a lot more to him than initially meets the eye. This is far from a one note performance. Teller is really a breakthrough as well, when Andrew’s hands bleed, you feel it too.

“Whiplash” is something truly to behold and a film that transcends the genre. When the film ends (and we’re talking a taut and perfectly paced 106 minutes, none of which are wasted) you want to applaud at the end. And it has enough suspense to fill three Marvel films. Everything about it is superb from the terrific jazz music and pitch perfect performances and deserves every single one of its Oscar nominations. It’s a thrilling delight whether you know anything about music or not; in other words, it’s a must-see.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Whiplash on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

All You Need is Kill: Politics Aside, “American Sniper” is a Disturbing and Visceral War Film

No one will or should ever question whether Chris Kyle is a brave man. It takes a bold person to sign up for the military and to actually go into combat. Some will argue whether certain soldiers are truly “heroes” or whether they’re just a small part of a larger body of people sent to do a job by those in charge with questionable motivations. Having said that, “American Sniper” is a film that has courted debate recently in how the controversial war and its real-life protagonist are portrayed. It’s important to note that the film isn’t a documentary, nor does it pretend to be, therefore there are always going to be Hollywood embellishments (It’s also worth noting this is the only film financed and released by a major film studio nominated for Best Picture this year). Kyle, a Navy SEAL, (portrayed here by an amazing Bradley Cooper) served four tours of duty in Iraq and has 160 confirmed sniper kills according to military record. He’s considered the deadliest sniper in US military history; whether that title is actually something to be proud off is something I personally have issues with though there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the man is certainly courageous.

“American Sniper,” politics aside, is actually a very good film. Its scenes of combat are equally terrifying and exhilarating. It must be said that you’d never really know Clint Eastwood directed this film as it’s unlike anything he’s given us before (though it’s the same cinematographer he’s used since 2002’s Blood Work). The editing is intense and scenes are rather riveting if overly disturbing (the intense music is also perfectly paired with the onscreen action). We’re given point of view shots as Kyle (Bradley Cooper) focuses on a target, some of which are people he actually doesn’t want to have to kill such as an Iraqi woman giving a young boy an explosive device. Moments leading up to whether he pulls the trigger or not are completely nail-biting. Eventually Kyle seems to have met his match in a rival Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik).

Whatever political beliefs you bring to the table is what you’re going to get out of the film. As someone who doesn’t quite get the “pro-America” mentality (yes America is great and I love the freedoms of living here, however I don’t believe we’re necessarily “superior” to every other country on the planet) it was sort of hard to connect with Cooper’s character. The film feels like it’s pro-war and pro-military, (though it’s at least ten times more realistic anything Michael Bay has given us) which doesn’t automatically make it horrible, though other war films tend to lighten up on the pro-America agenda and show more from the other side. Even so, Kyle’s arch is rather fascinating to watch. Even if you’ve read passages of his book where he allegedly declares that he loved to kill, you don’t necessarily take that away from the film. With every pull of the trigger it’s like a little part of Kyle is dying on the inside. He’s a changed man when he returns home to his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, but not necessarily for the better. He’s psychologically damaged.  You see the toll the war is taking on him. You get the sense that even if he’s a “hero” for killing so many of the “enemy” that he’s really destroying a part of himself in the process. Unfortunately in Jason Hall’s script it doesn’t quite go far enough, so in the end, I wasn’t quite as moved as I could have been.

I’m willing to forgive some of the film’s more conservative elements in favor of some of its extremely well-staged and realistic combat sequences. They’re not necessarily fun to watch but I feel like it does a rather good job depicting the disturbing, scary, and distressing aspects of combat during the Iraq war. Yes movies like “The Hurt Locker” are technically better but Eastwood hasn’t made a film this taut and just generally well-made in years.  I actually don’t find the film to be as extremely right wing and glorying patriotism as many have claimed but despite whatever side of the political line you fall on the film is well-crafted, acted, and extremely intense.  GRADE: B

Feature Trailer for American Sniper on TrailerAddict.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Walk the Line: A Terrific Reese Witherspoon Goes Into the “Wild”

I can confirm that after watching director Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” he’s slowly becoming one of my new favorite directors. All of the interesting visual vitality he brought to last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club” he has brought to “Wild” as well. The film presents the true story of Cheryl Strayed who after a experiencing  tough personal loss, went on a downward spiral of depression and climbed out of it by taking a physical and emotional hike over 1000 miles from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border along the Pacific Crest Trail. As Strayed, Reese Witherspoon gives another outstanding performance as a woman overcoming grief. “Wild” could have easily been a Lifetime movie but the performances, spot-on script, and authentic direction help it rise above standard made-for-cable material.

Besides the fact that the film is a visual spender as Strayed embarks on her emotional and extremely physical journey, the film’s script (by writer Nick Hornby) throws narrative convention out the window. The film is almost shot like a dream, with random images and memories to Cheryl’s life breaking up her present day hiking journey. And these scenes don’t naturally flow into each other, sometimes a character will have passed away only to be shown alive in Cheryl’s memory a few scenes later. It’s pretty audacious and shows impressive editing prowess by Martin Pensa and Vallée himself (credited as John Mac McMurphy). From the very beginning we’re shown just how difficult a journey Cheryl’s trek will be. In a wonderful scene, we’re shown her packing for her trip and attempting to put on her pack. She can’t even lift it off the ground, which shows that she’s obviously “too prepared” and obviously somewhat of a novice because she doesn’t know what to leave behind.

“Wild” works tremendously well as a road picture. She meets interesting people along the way not unlike characters we met in 2007’s "Into the Wild." One man she comes across who she asks for help seems like he’s going to kidnap her but he turns out to be just a nice, friendly guy. The flashback sequences, presented in no obvious chronological order, fill us in on the trouble life of the film’s heroine. Laura Dern (who’s not much older than Witherspoon in real life) plays her spunky mother in a small role with big significance to the main character.  Their storyline is touching and moving and hits all the right buttons.

I loved the docudrama look and feel of “Wild.” It was the same approach that worked wonders for “Dallas Buyers Club.” You get fragments of Cheryl’s life without much context and from there you’re able to piece together this woman’s life, and what lead to her downward spiral and partaking in questionable, self-destructive behavior. And it’s fascinating seeing her on her journey with all its ups (meeting interesting people) and downs (forgetting the wrong kind of gas for her hiking stove). It’s as rewarding for the audience as it was for the woman who really took the trip.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Wild on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2015 Oscar Nomination Predictions

updated, Thursday morning: It's hard not getting your hopes up, but the Academy offered little mercy. Not only did Nightcrawler get one sole nomination (for original screenplay) and with the exception of Best Actress, Gone Girl got completely shut out. Selma was nominated for Best Picture... and best Song. That's IT. There were major omissions in almost every category: Life Itself in Documentary, Interstellar in Cinematography, Birdman in Editing, Jennifer Aniston in Cake, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, The LEGO Movie in Animated Feature, etc. But there were some interesting surprises such as PT Anderson for adapted screenplay for Inherent Vice (and a surprise costume design nomination too). In one of the biggest shocks Bennett Miller is now the first director to be nominated for Best Director without a coinciding Best Picture nomination since the category expanded to up to 10 nominations. I'd say Boyhood is still looking like the front-runner though the Imitation Game also has the requisite editing and directing nominations (for the record so does Budapest Hotel). See you on Feb 22!

Here are all the nominees...

The nominations for the Academy Awards will be announced Thursday morning. I give you my somewhat fearless predictions of who’s names will be called in those wee hours. This is an interesting year in that there are many films that seem to be dominating. There are many sure things, many sort-of-sure-things, and many on the bubble for nominations. One thing’s for sure: there will be lots of surprises. Some categories are stacked and will only lead people to complain about who got left out. And there’s a reason for it: this was an incredible year for great films! Le't get to it!

Best Picture
American Sniper
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
(alt. Foxcatcher)

We have a situation where there are 12 films fighting for 10 possible slots. I believe there will definitely be at least nine nominees which is the same number of nominees for the past three years (there can be anywhere between five and ten).  Numerical Oscar experts have gone on to say it’s almost impossible for there to be ten nominees so we’ll see what happens. Out of the ten I’ve mentioned above I’d say Nightcrawler, American Sniper, and Gone Girl feel the most vulnerable. If any of the others weren’t nominated I’d be genuinely surprised. The big question mark remains Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, a film poised, since conception, to be a frontrunner has basically become an also ran. It earned tepid reviews (did they even see it?) though movies with bad reviews have shown up here (here’s looking at you Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). It has everything Oscar voters want in a Best Picture, so we shall see what happens (and it really could happen). Ditto, Foxcatcher from Bennett Miller, who’s last two previous directorial efforts both reaped Best Picture nods.

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
(alt – Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game)

I still don’t get this whole Selma snub thing. The movie was poised to be a solid Oscar contender. The movie came out very late and the studio only sent screeners to Academy members. It didn’t show up in the guilds AT ALL. I still have a feeling the Academy will want to honor Ava DuVernay who would be the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Director. I’m not 100% sold on the practically unknown Mr. Tyldum though he did get a DGA nod which helps; I can’t imagine The Imitation Game having much of a chance for Best Picture without a directing nod. It’s no Argo. The big question is what curve ball will the Director’s branch throw this year? I going with Damien Chazelle to make it in the “helmer-of-random-indie” slot.  Also, never count out a well-respected Clint Eastwood film (would would make history as the oldest Directing nominee). But that’s all beside the point because I think this is Linklater’s to lose.

Best Actor
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
(alt. Bradley Cooper, American Sniper)

This is one of the tightest Best Actor races in quite some time. Any of these five could win in a given year. The question is whether all of them get in. Jake Gyllenhaal seemed like a sure thing back when his movie was released to great success in October. But then the field got crowded and he seemed like he’d probably be the victim of overcrowding. But then a strange thing happened: he has been nominated in every major precursor award: SAG? Check. Golden Globes? Check. Critic’s Choice? Check. BAFTA? Check. At this point he’s way more of a lock than David Oyelowo who only has a Globe nod to be proud of. And what of Steve Carell? He could very much bump someone out (or perhaps strangely enough, appear in Supporting like at the BAFTAs). Either way any of these guys would deserve to be here.

Best Actress
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
(Alt – Amy Adams, Big Eyes)

To be honest, I think this five has it locked down. I’d be genuinely shocked if there were any surprises here. I can’t really imagine anyone else besides Adams breaking in, though people like Marion Cotillard, Shailene Woodley, and Hilary Swank have been mentioned previously, I think their chances have come and gone.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J,K. Simmons, Whiplash
(alt – Steve Carell, Foxcatcher)

I really want to believe that Steve Carell would get placed here instead of in Lead but I think it’s sort of crazy talk. If not him I guess Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice, or even Tom Wilkinson in Selma, would make it in though it remains to be seen how many nominations Selma will actually receive. I wouldn’t be completely surprised to find a random supporting player from The Grand Budapest Hotel show up and pull a Jonah Hill.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightly, The Imitation Game
Rene Russo, Nightcrawler
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
(Laura Dern, Wild)

I know I know, let me explain. As Nightcrawler kept creeping up in many of the guilds it became apparent that the industry likes it. Some have even compared love the film to 2005’s surprise Best Picture winner Crash (hold your horses people, it ain’t gonna win) in that it has a connection to Oscar voters because of its LA setting. I can buy that. I even said to myself, “I wonder if Rene Russo could be this year’s Jonah Hill and get a nomination without any other previous recognition.” Just a few days later she shows up with a BAFTA nod (over Meryl Streep I might add). Yes it’s a crazy pick but it honestly COULD happen, though it’s about 30% wishful thinking. The safer pick would be either Jessica Chastain in “A Most Violent Year” or Laura Dern in “Wild” the latter having not received any nods from the popular precursors. So a nomination for Dern would be as surprising as a nod for Russo in all honesty. So there. (And I won’t even mention why Tilda Swinton doesn’t even appear to be in the conversation for “Snowpiercer.”)

Best Adapted Screenplay
American Sniper
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
(alt – Wild)

The Oscar prognosticators were thrown for a loop recently when it was announced that Original Screenplay contender Whiplash would be moved to the Adapted category at the Oscars because the film is based on a short film the director made in order to raise funds for the feature film. Therefore something’s getting knocked out because it’s certain to be nominated here. I’d say the final slot comes between Wild and American Sniper. I’m giving Sniper the edge since it’s more of a Best Picture contender than Wild.

Best Original Screenplay
The Grand Budapest Hotel
(alt – Selma)

I’s say it’s race between Selma and Foxcatcher for the fifth slot. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find Mike Leigh nominated here, yet again, for Mr. Turner.

Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
Song of the Sea
(alt – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)

The first four seem like guarantees, the big questions remains which of the many weird foreign and/or indie movies make it in. The easy choice is Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but since it’s not a guarantee I’m going with GKids’ Song of the Sea.

Documentary Feature
Keep On Keepin’ On
Last Days in Vietnam
Life Itself
(alt – The Overnighters)

The Documentary category is notorious for its random snubs. I’m talking Blackfish, Project Nim, Grizzly Man, or even The Thin Blue Line, and Hoop Dreams. The snub is usually one of the more well-known popular films, so I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see something like Life Itself kicked to the curb. My guess however is that The Case Against 8 will be sidelined for the more feel-good music film Keep On Keepin’ On.

Foreign Language Film
Force Majeure
Wild Tales
(alt – Timbuktu)

There is no populist choice this year which makes this category particularly tough to call. It’ll be even tougher in a month trying to figure out which one will eventually win.

Best Cinematography
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner
(alt- Gone Girl)

This feels like the one category that is guaranteed to have Unbroken show up due to the fact that legend Roger Deakins still doesn’t have a freaking Oscar. This category could surprise. Obviously visual wonders like Intersteller could find itself sidelined for quieter work like Gone Girl or The Imitation Game. It remains to be seen how much the Academy is going to go for such a divisive film even if its technical merits are unparalleled.

Best Costume Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner
(alt  - Big Eyes)

There finally isn’t an obvious British period piece/costume drama that will dominate this category this year. Look for more restrained work in something like Big Eyes to spoil, or even something not very well known like Belle or The Immigrants could be possible.

Best Film Editing
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
(alt – American Sniper)

This will be an interested category to look at. I could easily see something like American Sniper showing up especially since it feels wrong not having some kind of war movie in here. Though  Clint Eastwood films tend to not do well in this category (only Million Dollar Baby has shown up here since Unforgiven). Nightcrawler would deserve a nod but I’m still wondering how much love it’s gonna get.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
(alt – Maleficent)

I’m really curious how many technical nods Guardians of the Galaxy will get. On the surface it’s a really silly movie in a way and I’m not sure how much the Academy will go for it, however deserving it may be. Having said that I could easily see something more beloved sneaking in like The Theory of Everything. Even critical failures tend to make it in these technical categories which bodes well for Maleficient. Heck, if Click or Norbit can be nominated anything can happen.

Best Original Score
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
(alt – The Grand Budapest Hotel)

It must be said that Alexandre Desplat (who has yet to win even with 6 previous nods) could possible score THREE more nominations. I still don’t buy that could happen, he’ll very likely end up with just two, or even one. This is a rather tricky category to pick this year as anything can happen with that wacky music branch. I’d love to see a real shocker and have James Newton Howard’s awesome Nightcrawler score show up here, but that’s wishful thinking.

Best Original Song
“Everything is Awesome,”  from The LEGO Movie
“Glory,” from Selma
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” from Begin Again
“Split the Difference,” from Boyhood
(alt – “Big Eyes,” Big Eyes)

I don’t even wanna get into how crazy the Academy’s music branch is. After last year’s controversial situation with that random nomination for a movie no one has ever heard of that was eventually disqualified, anything can happen. All the popular songs you THINK will get nominated actually tend to get snubbed and songs you’ve never heard of make it in. So good look to anyone attempting to guess these right.

Best Production Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
The Imitation Game
(alt – Maleficent)

I’m actually pretty confident in this category. I don’t feel there’s much wiggle room. I could see Maleficent sneaking in, after all ifAlice in Wonderland could WIN this category, Maleficent could easy be nominated. Fun fact, if Big Eyes gets nominated it would unofficially mean it would win as Tim Burton films have a 4 for 4 record in this category.

Sound Editing
American Sniper
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
(alt – Fury)

Everyone knows that war and special effects extravaganzas tend to do really well in this category, though three war films feels like overkill to me. So it’ll be interesting to see which war films make it in. Also, most of the previous Transformers films have done well here so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up, the sound branch cares more about technical achievement than critical praise.

Sound Mixing
American Sniper
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Into the Woods
(alt – Whiplash)

Musicals do well in this category which is why Into the Woods feels like a shoo in here, as are the war films and special effects extravaganza. There’s also lots of cross over with Sound Editing, it’s just a question of which movies will get both nods.

Visual Effects
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Transformers: Age of Extinction
(alt- Godzilla)

There are sometimes some pretty head scratching picks in this category. No one really thought the bomb The Lone Ranger would make it in here which it did. Also, the third Transformers film showed up here back in 2012 so I can’t imagine this fourth installment not making it over more respected films. I still think this one is Interstellar’s to lose. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

All the King’s Men: “Selma” is a Moving Tribute to a Fallen American Hero

It seems odd that in the nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated there hasn’t really been a major movie about his life. This movie couldn’t have come along at a better time. In this post-civil rights movement society much progress has been made. In most areas of the country racism feels like a distant memory. And the thought of things like Black people having to drink from separate water fountains or sit in the back of the bus feels too ridiculous to have been true even if it was actually once a reality. But now there are things you hear happening around the country that make you wonder how much progress this country has really made. Racism will always exists, it’s sort of a reality of life, unfortunately, but those people who choose to be like that are obviously less than human themselves. Having said that, “Selma” does a terrific job showcasing an important moment in American history.

In a way, “Selma,” especially on paper, is every bit as much an “Oscar bait” film as “Unbroken” is, though with a much more relevant story to today’s current political and social climate. Just turn on the news and you’ll see that while so much progress has been made since Dr. King made his impact on this country there is still plenty of work to do. Things were different back in the 1960s when segregation in the south was at its peak. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was the voice of the African American people and believed in civil disobedience. Actor David Oyelowo plays him with confidence (I mean what serious shoes to fill right?) and he instantly takes control of the screen. “Selma” follows King right after accepting his Nobel Peace Prize (he had delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech the year before) where he organizes a series of peaceful marches in Alabama to help Black people win the constitutional right to vote.

Director Ava DuVernay, having rather diversified industry experience in journalism, film marketing, public relations, and filmmaking, has made a rather stunning film. Working from a script from screenwriter Paul Webb, DuVernay has let the important story elements do most of the heavy lifting. There’s nothing particularly distinct about her directorial style and the narrative takes a rather standard approach, but the proceedings are ultimately rather moving. We follow King as he organizes his group into peaceful marches that would consist of a 54 mile walk from Selma, AL to the capital of Montgomery. Their first attempt ends in a rather disturbing situation in which the peaceful protesters are met with violent opposition leading to basically the innocent death of a young man.

King is also in constant conversation with Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who many have criticized for his negative portrayal. Johnson’s main concern at the time, according to the film, was the country’s poverty problem. Johnson apparently made no opposition to King’s group though I never found Johnson to be portrayed in such a way. After all, this being a narrative film and not a documentary certainly liberties are always taken. There needs to be conflict somewhere though by the end of the film Johnson feels redeemed anyways.

“Selma,” while not necessarily the most visually striking or otherwise innovate film to come along, gets a lot of things right. It focuses on an imperative part of an important man’s life and sort of gives us a behind the scenes look at his group of followers who made it their goal to change things and make it happen in the most peaceful way possible. It also wisely focuses on a brief segment of his life rather than dwelling on his tragic end. Disturbingly, the film’s story feels as extremely relevant today as it would have been decades ago.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for Selma on TrailerAddict.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Frayed Runner: “Unbroken” is a Harrowing, Yet Undeniably Moving True Life Tale

It feels so rare today to see a female in the director’s chair ordering a bunch of guys around in a war film. Though it does happen: just as Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow who directed the male-centric Best Picture winning “The Hurt Locker.” This time Angelina Jolie steps behind the camera to bring us the real life story of former Olympian and POW war hero Louie Zamperini in one of the most emotionally charged and flat out amazing films of the year. Jolie directs with an emotional hand but it never feels manipulative. She also wisely never really makes an obvious political statement and would rather this just be a story from Zamperini’s point-of-view. It’s a dynamic piece of filmmaking and even if it hits all of the standard emotional beats. I found it to be simply enthralling – it grabbed me and never let go.

Jolie doesn’t show every single aspect of Zamperini’s life. We do get a flash back to his childhood and upbringing in Torrance, California. As a child the kid was picked on for being Italian and found himself always in trouble. His brother eventually discovered that Louie could run and began to train him in long distance running. Louie, played perfectly by Jack O’Connell, became known as the “Torrance Tornado” where he broken numerous records and his eventual participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany before eventually enlisting in the Army.

Jolie opens with a thrilling midair sequence and then uses a flashback device to fill us in briefly on Louie's background and former glory days as an athlete but that is sensibly abandoned once we get into what really made Zamperini’s story so special.  During one rescue mission as a bombardier in the Air Force, his plane crashed in the ocean due to mechanical failure which killed all aboard but him and two other soldiers. The plane’s captain Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and Francis “Mac” McNamara (American Horror Story: Freak Show’s Finn Wittrock) also survived with Zamperini whose survival aboard life rafts is rivetingly depicted. Once we get to the life raft section there are no more flashbacks; there is no relief from this terrible situation and we’re with these characters every step of the way. Starvation and thirst is portrayed realistically (the actors lost weight for their roles); and we see the men use clever techniques to survive including catching a bird which they use as fish bait. It’s hard to watch yet constantly fascinating.

As if spending more than a month starving nearly to death on the open ocean, weathering storms and curious sharks, Zamperini is captured by Japanese soldiers and sent to a hellish detention camp (is there any other kind?). The camp is run by Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Japanese rock star Miyavi) who proceeds to take particular pleasure in abusing Louie because he’s an Olympic athlete. The relationship between The Bird and Louie is a real mesmerizing aspect of this section of the film as it appears to be the Bird’s ultimate goal to make Louie completely break down but having a fighting spirit he refuses. These scenes of abuse and torture are difficult to watch, and certainly defies its PG-13 rating, but I like that the film refuses to sugarcoat any of what really happened to this guy.

The technical aspects of the film are simply wonderful. Workaholic composer Alexandre Desplat’s terrific score hits all the right emotional notes. The music helps shifts the film into outright triumphant territory. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins adds another beautifully shot film to his resume. This is a great looking film that features top notch music and sound design.

Some may even find it fun to know that the Coen brothers actually worked on the script though they did a rewrite of Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson’s original screenplay. There’s nothing truly “Coen brothers” about it though it takes the most fascination parts of Zamperini’s life and puts it on screen in a classic structure. And the film’s performances are nothing short of amazing. The camaraderie of the soldiers really works and O’Connell is so darned likable in his breakout role; you’re constantly rooting for him horrific ordeal after horrific ordeal. Miyavi is also a standout as the torturous “Bird.”

I loved everything about “Unbroken.” Even if it’s one of the more difficult films to really sit through I found it simply fascinating from beginning to end. And the film reminds much more of other survival tales like “127 Hours” or “Into the Wild” than it does like other war films like “Saving Private Ryan.” What a relief that all the so-called “Oscar bait” movies this year have actually been good. Angelina Jolie has crafted a simply sensational film that has stuck with me since I saw it. Some will see the film as a rewarding, moving journey and others will simply take it as a harrowing endurance test. Though, if you could make it through last year’s torture-porn-as-historical-drama “12 Years a Slave” you can easily make it through “Unbroken.” It’s a movie that hits all the expected beats but damned if I wasn’t extremely moved by it all.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Unbroken on TrailerAddict.