Movie Review ~ Breathe

The Facts:

Synopsis: The inspiring true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Diana Rigg, Miranda Raison, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hugh Bonneville

Director: Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If Breathe seems a bit familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve also seen The Theory of Everything.  That film, about the life of Stephen Hawking, has similar themes and won star Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his miraculous portrayal of a man whose body is failing him with a mind still sharp as a tack.  I found that movie to be filled with good performances (co-star Felicty Jones was also Oscar-nominated for Hawking’s strong-willed wife) but lacking in overall emotional heft.  While Breathe was always bound to draw comparisons, the surprising news is that it has the same memorable performances and the resonance The Theory of Everything lacked.

Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man) is a newlywed living with his pregnant wife Diana (Claire Foy) who contracts polio before he has turned 30.  Paralyzed from the neck down and given mere months to live, Robin is resigned to his fate and unable to even look at his infant son.  Not content with letting her husband fade away without a fight, Diana becomes his advocate and helps him leave the hospital ward and into their house in the English countryside.

Over the next several decades Robin will defy all expectations for those with his same affliction and become a rare voice for patients with conditions that left them unable to move or enjoy the world like everyone else.  With advancements in technology that Robin played a part in helping to design, he is able to live a full life as a husband and a father.  There are setbacks along the way and painful realties that have to be dealt with, instances that the film doesn’t totally gloss over but does treat them as speed bumps instead of potholes.

The first film directed by actor and famed motion-capture performer Andy Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Breathe looks wonderful and has grand performances as well.  Garfield is charming throughout, even when he’s at his depressive worst, and he’s balanced nicely by Foy’s stalwart acting that maintains the dignity in both her character and Garfield’s.

It would be easy to let Breathe slip through your grasp and if you happen to miss it in theaters keep your eyes, ears, and heat open for it to pop up for home consumption.

 

Movie Review ~ Unbroken

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi

Director: Angelina Jolie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’m still kicking myself for not finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel about the life of Louis Zamperini but time just got away from me.  Unlike most films based on books that I’ve seen before reading the source material, the film treatment of Unbroken actually makes me want to go back and read the book.

The story of Zamperini’s fight for survival first on his 47 days on a raft in the ocean and then as a POW in WWII is the stuff that should have made for a movie with more impact than the one presented here on screen.  With a script from Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) in the director’s chair I really expected this to be more of a winner than it winds up being.

It’s a strange occurrence, really, because Jolie has herself a strong leading man (Jack O’Connell) handling the life-changing moments of Zamperini with a believable air of resilience and an unbelievable true-life story with a seemingly endless supply of emotional twists.

All through the film I kept waiting for a time when I was moved to feel something beyond what was being presented in the current scene.  Several weeks after screening the film I’m still struggling to find where the film missed the mark or, perhaps, where I missed that moment.

Maybe it’s because aside from (and in addition to) O’Connell the rest of Jolie’s cast is filled with GQ-ready soldiers that look as if they were picked from an MTV casting session.  With their chiseled jaw-bones, washboard abs, and hair that stays perfectly coiffed even after two months exposed to the elements, Jolie’s soldiers felt like play-actors rather than true face of WWII soldiers.

The central villain of the piece also fares poorly on screen with Miyavi (a rock star in Japan) playing his devious Japanese guard more like a Bond villain than the unyielding tyrant Zamperini encountered.  Actually, Miyavi’s performance reminded me more of Jolie herself in Maleficent with his lines delivered in a soft purr that I’m guessing were intended to convey more of a sense of terror than they do.

On the production side, Unbroken’s atmosphere hits a bulls-eye.  From the striking costumes of Louise Frogley (Flight) to the production design of the various camps Zamperini encounters to Roger Deakins (Skyfall) sumptuous cinematography to Alexandre Desplat’s (Godzilla) unobtrusive score the effect really makes you feel like you’re watching a film of that time and era.  Even some muddled special effects somehow are forgivable.

Though I feel the film is missing a chunk of time to connect a few dots, it’s when we see the real Zamperini near the end when I felt that lump in my throat I’d been missing the last 120 minutes.  Perhaps Unbroken would have been better served going the documentary treatment rather than a dramatized one.  While it lacks overall impact and doesn’t exactly signal Jolie’s arrival as a significant director, it’s a story worth taking in. Reading the book may be a better option, though.

The Silver Bullet ~ Unbroken

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Unbroken

Synopsis: A chronicle of the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: A film with such pedigree comes along once in a blue moon so even if this trailer for Unbroken had been two minutes of orange juice being poured I still would have this on the tippy top of my most anticipated films of 2014.  Directed by Oscar winner Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis) adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s blockbuster bestseller, Unbroken could appear to some as the most tasty of Oscar bait treats.  However, seeing that it’s based on the incredible true story of a P.O.W. during World War II and his journey toward forgiveness, I just can’t deny the classic feeling the movie invokes within me.  Fingers, toes, and eyes are crossed that this impressively moving trailer is backed up by an equally worthy film.

Movie Review ~ Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

mandela_long_walk_to_freedomThe Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto

Director: Justin Chadwick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s worth it to admit that I wasn’t very well versed in the life story of Nelson Mandela before I saw this film at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Fest.  Though I was aware peripherally of his imprisonment for 27 years and his rise to power as President of South Africa, I didn’t have the knowledge of his journey before he was jailed and what moved the man to become a voice of his people.

Though portions of Mandela’s life have been committed to film before (2009’s snoozer Invictus and 2011’s barely released and badly received Winnie, among others), no film had truly gone into detail on the man who led a nation out of apartheid.  After taking in this biopic adapted by William Nicholson (Les Misérables) from Mandela’s own autobiography I’m not sure the full story has been told, or could be told, on the life of a great leader.

It could be that the life of Mandela (who died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95) was just too big to be confined to one film and perhaps two separate movies were warranted to really get to the heart of the man.  Though director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) does a good job of keeping several large pieces in play the film does have the tendency to get away from all involved which can leave the audience coughing up dust as years fly by in rapid succession.  More than a few times I lost track of the timeline, relying only on the impressive age make-up to help pinpoint where in Mandela’s life we were.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of British actor Idris Elba (Prometheus, Pacific Rim) and the actor disappears fully into the character even though he rarely, if ever, resembles Mandela.  It says something about the strength of a performance if an actor can convince you they are playing a real life historical figure without bearing much resemblance to said person.  (For the other end of the spectrum look at Tom Hanks’s off the mark performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks).  Elba is aided by having Mandela’s speaking voice down pat and some very fine prosthetic make-up but he doesn’t rely on either, um, either.  Elba continues to be one of the more underrated actors working in Hollywood today and I’m waiting for the actor to truly get his big break.  The strength of his performance here is akin to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, that is to say he’s giving a great performance in what amounts to an average film.

Giving great support to Elba is Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela.  The film is best when Elba and Harris are on screen together and we can watch how the two were initially attracted to each other and how their political beliefs eventually drove them apart.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t get sidelined with any sort of love story angle but it succeeds in giving equal time to Winnie’s own struggles during the time that Mandela was imprisoned.

At 139 minutes, the movie doesn’t feel long but comes up short with content that fails to go any deeper than anything you could have read in a book or an online resource.  It all felt very book report-ish rather than plumbing the depths of a true biopic of a man with many layers.  Mandela’s early years are given short shrift in favor of a more politic heavy final three quarters and I found myself wanting to know more about his family and origins because these tend to be the parts of a life that are least reported on.

When all is said and done the film is worth a watch for the performances of Elba and Harris and the chance to learn more about Mandela himself during his later years…but viewers looking for an in-depth look at Mandela’s life as a whole will be left wanting more.

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2012)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

ReviewFair Warning Note:  It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers.  I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…

 

In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be.  In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.  As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.

Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought.  Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself?  Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.

If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded.  Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.

Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here.  What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him.  Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.

Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner.  A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again.  The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.

Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie.  Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost.  Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character.  My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud.  Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs.  “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.

In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for.  He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it.  Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me.  His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.

Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together.  London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late.  She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”.  Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers.  Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.

Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie.  I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her.  Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work.  She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film.  If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.

Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes.  Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is.  I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever.  Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.

Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences.  A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for.  Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.

As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me.  What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.