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


Posted on April 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the DVD
Date Released to Theaters: NA
Date Released to DVD: April 26, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B004HJ0ZM8

The DVD pick of the week is Tikki-Tikki-Tembo and More Stories of Asian Heritage, another from my very favorite series for young children and their families. This one arrives in time for May’s celebration of Asian Heritage Month in May, with some of the all-time greatest children’s classics, gorgeously illustrated and gently animated to encourage young readers. The title story is about a boy with a very, very long name — quite a problem when he falls down a well and someone has to get him some help.


The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks (Written by Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon, narrated by B. D. Wong) A compassionate couple risks their lives to reunite a pair of Mandarin ducks.

Grandfather’s Journey (Written and illustrated by Allen Say, narrated by B. D. Wong) A touching story about Grandfather’s travels from Japan to the United States and back again.

The Stonecutter (Written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott) Tasaku is a lowly stonecutter who longs for more power in this Japanese folk tale.

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (Written and illustrated by Ed Young, narrated by B. D. Wong) This Asian version of the classic fairytale brings lessons about strangers, trust, and courage.

Sam and the Lucky Money (Written by Karen Chinn, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, narrated by Ming-Na Wen) On Chinese New Year Sam meets a stranger who helps him make the perfect decision on how to spend his lucky money.

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Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Early Readers Elementary School Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families Preschoolers


Posted on March 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

Hayao Miyazaki has produced another trippy fantasia, this time a fish out of water story along the lines of “The Little Mermaid.” A little girl goldfish with magical powers loves a little boy and turns herself into a human, by ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny-mode stopping at a few evolutionary species along the way and sometimes reverting back to chicken feet in times of stress.

The boy is Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and he dubs the fish Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus). In a bit of stunt casting, both main character voice talents are the younger siblings of Disney mega-pop stars. Ponyo’s father (voice of Liam Neeson), angry over the human’s mistreatment of the oceans and concerned that her leaving may upset the balance of the world, wants her back in her original fishy form. A storm rises and creates enormous flooding. While Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey) is taking care of the wheelchair-bound elderly women at the nursing home (voices include Betty White and Cloris Leachman), Ponyo uses her magic to enlarge Sosuke’s toy boat and they go out onto the water.

Stunning bursts of imagination and sensational, almost psychedelic images make the film a garden of unearthly delights. The undersea settings, including the flooded village, are filled with intricate detail and grand concepts, like waves that turn into enormous leaping fish. Ponyo uses her new feet to race across the tops of the waves in a moment of pure exhilaration. The images are visually rich and engrossing and the tenderness between the two children is affecting. But they are also at times disconcertingly grotesque and as in past films Miyazaki cannot make visual splendor compensate for moments in the storyline that are random and inconsistent.

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Animation Based on a book For the Whole Family
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