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Quick Flick Reviews- Biopic Edition

 

Unbroken– Angelina Jolie focuses on the stories big feats as if they’re boxes that need to be checked off. Save me the typical inspiring beats I see all the time. Show me the small complex moments and be different than every other POW movie I’ve seen. Unbroken falls into the roll your eyes category a few times with it’s 50’s sincerity. I greatly admire the passion behind this but it’s misguided direction to me. Although Jack O’Connell is so likable that I was able to tag along for the entirety. I think the main problem here for me is that the protagonist only reacts to things and simply is their to “inspire” us. It’s a film designed to appeal to as many people as possible and in doing so it becomes a shell of the story they’re telling. The main Japanese POW leader overacts the point of becoming a caricature. Not sure if that’s what Jolie wanted, but the film feels like someone trying to capture 50’s idealism and then trying to apply it to a dark POW survival story with modernism, which leaves it in limbo. Roger Deakin’s usually great cinematography is actually pretty standard and lackluster here save maybe 3 or 4 shots. There are so many interesting ways to tell this story and Jolie, whose likely in over her head, tries to do as many as possible. The end result jumps from overly inspiring story beats to sappy forgettable storytelling. Jolie doesn’t bring anything particularly interesting to the table to push this past a mediocre prisoner of war film. An incredible story that isn’t done proper justice. Just go watch Rescue Dawn. (C-)

The Imitation Game– At once an engrossing story with a strong lead performance from Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch and also a safe and bland biopic. Cumberbatch infuses Alan Turing with a mathematical emotionality that creates a flawed and interesting enough person for us to follow. There’s not a ton of wiggle room for this to be a character study because the script is more interested in giving us a history lesson on the man himself, which actually ends up holding back the depth of the character a bit. Tyldum’s direction and the cinematography as well are restrained to the point that the film feels placid. The film hits its beats and tells us a story about this man. I eventually viewed it for what it’s trying to be which is a stage play or classical film, and it worked better for me because the actors are able to hold attention. Still I wish they would’ve done more with the camera because it’s almost never used outside of basic shots. The resolution comes 3/4ths of the way through and we coast along until the end with Turing. Never does the film get above entertaining commercial filmmaking. Nor does it ever reach any higher. It mostly just goes through the motions of a biopic, which is fine because that’s what it’s goal is. I just want more. I mean, during montages the same shots from earlier are literally used again… I enjoyed the lead performance and learning about this incredible man, but the filmmaking is safe and bland far too often. I wish it had dug into Turing’s life even more because the character has amazing potential. Beyond Cumberbatch’s performance and Keira Knightley, I think it’s a movie I’d have a good time watching on a Saturday night. Still a solid enough film that will get showered with awards because it’s about an important person and Harvey Weinstein produced it. UGHHHHHH (C)

American Sniper– I hate to be the bearer of bad news but American Sniper does not live up to the fantastic marketing campaign that Warner Bros. launched into the TV’s of America, which is precisely why it’s gotten a lot of awards love. This film lingers between almost coming together with a vision of domestic horror and then back to standard biopickyness. Altogether it’s a fine enough film that’ll please people but I fear for the wrong reasons… It’s sometimes engaging filmmaking, but then treads back to a simple and by-the-numbers biopic that drags down Bradley Cooper’s fantastic performance. The script doesn’t help him much either because it is full of interesting ideas but it doesn’t entirely execute them. There is fascinating nuggets of ideas here that are never taped into. It veers into action movie territory at times and simply pits the American good guys vs. the bad guys with standard action scenes. It’s not overly jingoistic and straight up racist like Lone Survivor, but I think there’s a lot of complexity missing outside of Kyle. The Iraq people are pretty much just there to be shot as “bad guys” rather than human beings although it is all told from Kyle’s point of view. That action nonsense doesn’t mesh well with the core of the film, which is supposed to be about a deeply troubled and flawed man. At times the film seems to think that the character is interesting because he’s shot more people than anybody. You can’t rely on a stat to make an interesting story. There’s touches of questioning if a bad man can become a hero, and moments where Chris Kyle wrestles with himself. Even the people around him hail him as a hero, but there’s always a look on his face that shows conflict and this is the best part of the film. And this is the truth. He’s a man that was painted as a hero that was given orders to kill people by business men, politician, and oil profiters. I wish they had dug into heroism more because this story is prime for depth. The script only ever glosses over the more dark aspects of Kyle so it’s completely on Cooper’s shoulders to make him interesting. Cooper’s great enough to make the film watchable along with the help of Sienna Miller, who plays the typical army wife. Eastwood’s direction is often flat and lacks energy. The structure is poorly constructed and I think mostly it has to do with the poor editing. There’s some really good scenes, but just as many poor ones. The flashbacks are extremely jarring and have little purpose other than to give the character a light back story so we can root for him. If the script had focused on the stateside PTSD elements more and really dug into the character I think it could’ve been one of Eastwood’s best. It’s much like Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven in that it questions morality, myth, and heroes. The difference is that film dug into those themes and it was great filmmaking on every level. This is often propaganda and a misfire, which is unfortunate, but if you love war movies then give it a shot. Excuse those terrible puns and just go watch Unforgiven. (C)

Wild – Those 3 films above should take notes from Wild on how to make a great biopic. This is beautiful and cathartic cinema. Jean Marc-Valee, who directed Dallas Buyer’s Club, directs this literal journey through nature and metaphorical journey into the nature of a woman whose lost hope in herself. Valee seamlessly merges the environment, character, music and flashbacks to create a cathartic odyssey for the character of Cheryl Strayed and also the audience. Reese Witherspoon brings nuance, beauty and insight into a woman whose been divorced, a heroine addict, and torn apart after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). With a lesser actor there are big chunks of this that would’ve fallen flat. Reese has the ability to demand attention simply with the look on her face. The flashbacks don’t feel forced but rather completely natural to the events happening and that’s quite an incredible feat. It’s quite cinematic, which biopics rarely are. The use of music (Simon and Garfunkel!) mixed with colorful imagery and textured environments creates a soothing experience. We enter Cheryl’s head and her problems resonate because they feel honest and organic rather than plotted out. Valee and Witherspoon strike gold here more than once and elevate it above the usual pitfalls of biopics. My only issue with it is that the flashbacks are about the usual things we see in movies. A bit more originality would’ve pushed this into greatness, but nonetheless there’s a specificity to the flashbacks that makes it work. The use of music to merge memories with the environment and what’s happening to Cheryl on her hike is seamless and deserves recognition. The environment changes as Cheryl confronts her demons through this journey of self discovery. It is Reese Witherspoon’s greatest performance. Tied with Legally Blonde and Election of course! Go out and see it before it leaves theaters. A beautiful film about healing and self discovery. One of the best movies of the year. (B+)

 

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