THE LAST FIVE YEARS (2015)

February 12, 2015

last 5 years Greetings again from the darkness. Adapting a hit stage production to the big screen is always a bit challenging. When it’s a full blown musical, the challenge grows exponentially. Throw in a highly unusual story-telling structure and limit 99% of the screen time to two characters and, well, a filmmaker is either off-the-charts ambitious or one who truly enjoys suffering for art.

Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You) brings the hit off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown to the screen, and features Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie, respectively. Ms. Kendrick has become the go-to actress for musicals with Into the Woods (as Cinderella) and the Pitch Perfect movies. She is a wonderful singer and a fine actress. Mr. Jordan is best known for TV’s “Smash” and for “Newsies” on Broadway.  He too is a talented singer.

Surprisingly, it’s not the talented leads that provide the most interest here … it’s the story structure. As per the title, the story follows the couple’s relationship over a five year period. The opening scene features Cathy reading and reacting to the break-up note left by Jamie. The second scene features Jamie describing his joy when he first falls for Cathy, as they romp in bed. See, Cathy’s story goes from the end to the beginning, while Jamie’s story goes from the beginning to the end … intersecting only at the marriage proposal in the park.  It’s a fascinating way to tell a story – not just two perspectives, but also in reverse order of each other!

The song lyrics act as the dialogue, and that’s where the transition from stage to screen falls a bit short. While the lyrics are clever and adequately describe each relationship change, those same lyrics and the non-stop singing, prevent the viewers from ever connecting to the characters … and more importantly, prevent us from understanding how these two characters ever connected to each other. Rather than a love story, it comes across as a moment of passion that turns into a relationship between two people who don’t have much in common and don’t particularly care for each other. And the real crux of the tension stems from Jamie’s skyrocketing novel writing career versus Cathy’s going-nowhere-but-Ohio acting career.

Cathy starts sad and ends happy, while Jamie starts happy (he found a Shiksa princess!) and finds a way to end his misery (writing a Dear Jane note). It’s Sunset to Sunrise, and Sunrise to Sunset. The “goodbye” finale is very creative and well done. This unusual story structure is quite interesting, and the lyrics are sharp … it’s the lack of spirit in the music, and the 90 minutes of the same two voices that prevent this from being something special.

watch the trailer:

 


UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.