Hollywood always releases at least a half-dozen potential blockbusters between T-day in late November and New Years Day. Last year’s films I found particularly good. I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it was my mood—a bit melancholy, and with no great expectations—that this film so captivated me. I left the theater with a warm glow and praising God for this magical film. I saw it two more times. Another viewing a few weeks later and then again during the first week of March when some friends were down visiting. We saw it at the dollar theater. Within a couple days of Walter Mitty I saw another I’d place on my top-10 list: Saving Mr. Banks. That film was about Walt Disney, the author Pamela Travers and the making of her books into the Mary Poppins movie. It also had a magical quality to it. A couple other memorable films of last year’s holiday season were The Book Thief and Nebraska.
This year, I saw Unbroken on the day that it opened, Christmas Day. I’d seen the previews a half-dozen times and I was well-primed for the movie. The film is based on the best-selling biography of Lou Zamperini written by Laura Hillebrand. I’d read the book in the past year, and enjoyed it tremendously.
For those unfamiliar, Lou Zamperini was an authentic American hero who lived an epic life at an epic time in our country’s history. As the rebellious child of immigrants he became an incorrigible delinquent. His family spoke Italian at home and because of that he didn’t feel accepted by his peers. It was during the Great Depression and to enjoy treats that his family couldn’t afford he became an accomplished thief. However, to give his life a more positive direction, his older brother Pete got him interested in running. He became so good in high school that at barely 19 he competed in the 1936 Olympics.
During WWII he served as a bombardier on a B-24. On a search and rescue mission his plane went down in the Pacific due to mechanical failure. He and two other men survived 47 days on a raft only to be “rescued” by the Japanese. He survived gruesome torture and after the War suffered severe PTSD. He became an alcoholic and a wife-abuser. In 1949, he reluctantly attended a Billy Graham crusade and quite unexpectedly gave his life to Jesus. Then in 1949, he traveled to Japan to personally forgive his captors, and eventually he started a home for troubled youth and became an evangelist of sorts.
Lou died in the past year at the age of 97, but he did get to see the movie Angelina Jolie made about him before he graduated. Both he and his son approved of the way she handled his story. However, it was roundly criticized by Christians for glossing over what they considered the most important part of the movie—his “born-again” experience. Christians always want the punch line in BIG LETTERS so everyone gets it. I dunno, it wasn’t a perfect movie. It would be a challenge to summarize an epic action-filled life and a very detailed biography in two hours. But I too was a bit disappointed in the way his life after the war was handled. I got the feeling that Jolie didn’t want to jeopardize her standing with the H-wood establishment by making an openly Christian statement. Still, there was more spirituality and statements of faith than your average movie.
For me, some of the movie’s most indelible scenes were inside the B-24 while under attack by Zeros, and then later during the search and rescue mission when it suffered mechanical failure and crashed into the Pacific. For my money it had some of the best aerial combat sequences ever filmed, and I was impressed with the way this was handled by a lady director.
I kept thinking I’d liked to have taken my 95-year old neighbor Angelo to see Unbroken. I’ve blogged about Angelo before several times. He has a lot in common with Lou—about the same age, Italian, WWII survivors and both very Christian. Angelo also flew on a B-24 as a gunner. But Angelo is such a sensitive guy that I’d worry he might have a stroke during the action sequences on the IMAX screen with wrap-around sound. Most of his vivid memories of The War are bad ones. However, I might ask him if he’d like to watch the DVD when it comes out.
A few days after Unbroken I saw another true story Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton. Throughout the 1960s walls everywhere were adorned with the schlock prints of waifs with gigantic haunting eyes. They were all signed “Keane.” The “artist” became a bit of a celebrity, but it turns out that Walter Keane was basically a raging narcissist and a cunning sociopath to boot. The art was created in a basement studio by his very insecure wife, Margaret, but he took all the credit. In the movie she is played by Amy Adams, and Keane by Cristolph Waltz. They are both brilliant. Adams does vulnerable and insecure better than any other young actress, and Waltz’s sociopath is slime sublime. It is a stunning portrayal of how the self-possessed can manipulate and control the insecure. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. I don’t usually care for Tim Burton’s deliberate weirdness, but this is the sanest movie he’s ever done. He even treats religion respectfully. There are not many films in which I can both laugh and get teary-eyed—but this is one.
The other memorable film that made me laugh and cry was Birdman directed brilliantly by Alejandro Inarritu. This came out around T-day, and I have already reviewed it under the name of its subtitle: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. For my money the best picture of the year and one of my all-time Top-10. A tremendous cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone. Birdman soars!
The runners up:
Selma ~ The biopic of MLK and the fight for voting rights in Alabama in 1964-65. Well done but not brilliant. Directed by a first-timer. The man with the unpronounceable African name was brilliant as King, and I cannot fathom him not receiving an Oscar nomination. The movie had its moments of greatness but overall was uneven. It’s an important movie about our nation and how far we’ve come in the past five decades and everyone under age 50 should see it. The film score detracted from the action. It ends with somebody I’ve never heard of doing rap. Aaaarrghh.
The Imitation Game ~ Another biopic. This one about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Nazi Enigma Machine code during WWII. Turing was part of a team employed by Britain’s MI6 at Blechley Park. He was an eccentric genius and more than any other human responsible for the invention of the computer. The movie portrays him as eccentric to the point of autism—pretty much totally devoid of normal feelings or social skills. It is a brilliant portrayal, if not an accurate one, by Benedict Cumberbach. It makes me want to read the book that the film was based on. Spoiler alert: It does not have a happy ending, but it is an excellent movie.
Wild ~ Based on the biography by Cheryl Strayed. Set in 1995, a falling-apart young lady mourning the death of her mother, a divorce and a descent into promiscuity and heroin abuse tries to redeem her life by hiking the Pacific Trail from the Mexican Border to Canada. Winsomely played by Reese Witherspoon—and Laura Dern as her mother. At times painful to watch and at time triumphant, but overall a very good movie. Unfortunately, there’s an underlying message that ones redemption is all about what I can do for me and not about God.
The Hunger Games ~ Part IV I think, the Mockingjay ~ Just plain terrible. It was a fight to stay awake. I kind of liked the first Hunger Games movie but they’re steadily going down hill.
Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ Didn’t see the movie, read the book. It got terrible reviews and even the previews were awful. Maybe I’ll see it when it come to the dollar theater.