Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Profanity: Some strong and offensive/abusive language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, characters injured, abused, and killed, some disturbing images, parent strikes a child with a belt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00HLTDC9O
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie breaks into the top ranks of American directors with “Unbroken,” showing an exceptional understanding not just of actors, but of tone, scale, and letting the camera tell the story. Working with the magnificent cinematography of Roger Deakins (“True Grit,” “Skyfall”), she adopts a classical style well-suited to the WWII setting, but every choice is careful, thoughtful, and powerful.

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, this is the story of Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants. He was a rebellious kid who became an Olympic athlete. His bomber plane crashed over the Pacific, and he survived for 47 days at sea, before being captured with one surviving crewmate, by the Japanese. In the prison camp, he was singled out for horrific abuse and repeatedly beaten.

The screenplay by the famously off-beat Joel and Ethan Coen is straightforward, direct, and sincere, keeping the focus on the war years, with the incidents from Zamperini’s past brought it primarily to show us how he relies on his memories to keep going. “Nobody’s chasing me,” he tells his brother who is urging him to run faster as he trains for a race. “I’m chasing you,” his brother tells him.

That internalized sense of mission helps him hold onto the idea of his own power as the brutal Japanese captors try to take everything away from him.

The opening scene puts us in the sky, and Jolie superbly evokes the thrill and the terror of flying on a bombing mission in aircraft that seem barely past the era of the Wright brothers. The crash scene is vertiginously disorienting. Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini with an effortless masculinity, understanding that it has nothing to do with macho posturing, just an imperishable sense of integrity, courage, and honor. O’Connell, Finn Witrock (“Noah”), and Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) perfectly capture the rhythms of an experienced crew, some amiable wisecracks and bravado to recognize the perilousness of their situation, but always focused, on task, and always, always, putting the team first.

We become so attached that it is sharply painful to see the characters experience such deprivation and abusive treatment. Japanese pop star Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) plays the sadistic Mutsushiro Watanabe, known as Bird. He knows of Zamperini’s celebrity as an athlete and sees that he is a symbol to the other prisoners.

If the Bird can break Zamperini, it will crush the morale of the whole camp. So, he singles Zamperini out for beatings and mind games. But Zamperini knows that “we beat them by making it to the end of the war alive.” He simply will not give up, and defining his own sense of what it means to win allows him to maintain a sense of control that is his most powerful weapon.

It is gorgeously filmed, superbly acted, and directed with great sensitivity and compassion, but the real impact of the film comes at the end, when we learn through a few simple titles, what happened to Zamperini after the war. Even Jolie recognizes that there is nothing she can put on screen to match the real-life footage of Zamperini, back in Japan at four days before his 81st birthday, running with the Olympic torch.

Parents should know that this movie includes very intense and disturbing wartime peril and violence, with a plane crash, an extended period lost at sea, and grueling prison camp abuse, and some strong language including racist epithets. School-age bullies harass and punch a character and a parent beats a child with a belt.

Family Discussion: What was the toughest challenge for Louis? Why didn’t he give up? Why did he forgive his captors?

If you like this, try: the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and Zamperini’s own book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, along with the films Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, also based on real-life WWII stories of American prisoners of war.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Sports War

Bessie Coleman: Pioneering Black Woman Aviator

Posted on September 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I am delighted that the small publishing firm I founded, Miniver Press, has produced our first Kindle ebook.  Today, on the anniversary of the first public flight of a black woman in the United States on this date 90 years ago, John B. Holway’s new book about Bessie Coleman is available for 99 cents. Bessie Coleman: Pioneering Black Woman Aviator is the story of a young woman from the cotton fields of Texas, half African-American and half Cherokee, who was told that the brand-new skill of flying was beyond the capacity of women and minorities.  When no one in the US would teach her to fly, she learned French and went to France to attend flight school.  When promoters told her that only white people could buy tickets to see her barnstorming shows, she told them they had to sell tickets to everyone.  She was romanced by a gangster, a prince, and the heir to a chewing gum fortune.  And no one knows if the plane crash that killed her was an accident or premeditated murder.

It is an amazing story, and it is thrillingly told by John Holway, author of many books about 20th century figures.  His book about the Tuskegee Airmen was the basis for the George Lucas film, “Red Tails.”  Coming soon from Miniver Press is a fascinating book by an insider about the recording of the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” in time for the 50th anniversary of the song’s release on October 5, 1962.  And I’ve got a new series called “Must-See Movies,” with the first three coming out before the end of September.  Stay tuned!

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Posted on February 3, 2010 at 8:59 am

Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator who was lost over the Pacific, is given the big Hollywood biopic treatment in a curiously retro film that feels like it was intended for Katherine Hepburn or Susan Hayward. It is not the 1930’s setting that makes it feel so old-fashioned; it is the traditional take on a very un-traditional life. Earhart’s passion and achievement are what make her most interesting to contemporary audiences. But this film never shows us why flying was important to Earhart or what made her so determined. It does not show us what she was good at. The first name-only title provides the first indication that like the recent “Coco Before Chanel” it will minimize and marginalize the achievements of a woman of enormous historic import by focusing on her love life.

And it’s dull.

Hillary Swank, who produced and stars, plays Earhart as a woman who keeps a lot inside. Much of the acting is done in the varying breadth of her toothy smile, with an occasional blinking back of tears. Earhart is unfailingly brave and game, whether taking first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (an engagingly game Cherry Jones) on a moonlight flight over the Capitol, posing for a luggage ad as a way to finance her flights, or feeling drawn to a man other than her husband (who happens to be, we are repeatedly reminded, the father of future author Gore Vidal).

The film spends too much time on Earhart’s romance with publisher/promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere) and dalliance with Vidal’s father. It feels like a string of incidents without any connecting theme. Even the usually able director, Mira Nair, seems to have her pilot light turned to simmer. As Earhart tries to land on a tiny island to refuel in her attempt to circle the globe for the first time by air, screenwriter Ron Bass (“Stepmom,” “Snow Falling on Cedars”) makes the mistake of trying for for suspense even though the one thing everyone knows about Earhart is that she does not land successfully. The best part of the film comes from the exquisite images from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production design by Stephanie Carroll; they make the backgrounds seem more alive and involving than the characters or the story. It just never takes off.

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Based on a true story Biography Drama
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