Christmas biopics. Movies reviewed: Unbroken, Mr Turner

Posted in 1940s, Art, Biopic, Cultural Mining, Movies, UK, Uncategorized, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 26, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Happy Boxing Day! This week, I’m talking about two biopics, both historical dramas, both starring great actors from the UK. But they are as different as two movies could possibly be. One’s a young soldier captured and kept in the dark; one’s a painter trying to capture the light.

10403575_781275515276942_5431011275441931839_nUnbroken (based on a true story)
Dir: Angelina Jolie

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the child of Italian immigrants in small-town pre-WWII America. He lives on the wrong side of the tracks and is bullied by neighbouring kids. He’s often knocked down, but always gets up for another fight. Running away 10372750_782974231773737_321939819595855320_nfrom bullies also makes him a good runner. With his older brother’s help, he trains as a sprinter, competing at the Berlin Olympics. It’s his endurance and surprising reserves of adrenaline that set him apart. Later, he joins the Air Force in WWII and is stationed in the Pacific. His plane crashes into the ocean which he manages to survive… only to find himself captured by the Japanese, and thrown into a POW camp.

So basically The Unbroken is three movies. One is about Louis and two other men: the laid-back Phil (Domhnall Gleeson: Frank) and the nervous Mac (Finn Witrock). When their plane crashes, they have to survive in an 10409502_786380204766473_4227359387414983355_ninflatable life raft in the middle of the Pacific. Slowly starving to death, they fight off sharks, and inclement weather as they test their ability to endure… against all odds. They hang on by listening to Louis describe his mother’s gnocchi. But as days turn to weeks, can they survive on just hope and a tale? (If you’ve seen the Norwegian drama Kon Tiki, this might seem familiar to you.) I liked this part of the movie.

Then there’s Louis’ stay in a POW camp in Japan. It is run by Corporal Watanabe aka “The Bird”. (played by musician/actor Miyavi). Watanabe comes from a rich family, but never makes it as an officer. Now he’s a cruel but effeminate NCO who struts around in his khakis, carrying a bamboo stick. He takes out his frustrations on the prisoners, especially poor Louis. 1450190_785235881547572_7880022996659246521_nIs he jealous of his fame as an Olympic champion? Or is he secretly in love with him? If you’ve ever seen Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, then, again, this may all be familiar to you.

Finally there’s Louis’ boyhood as a competitive teenaged runner, which appears as a series of flashbacks. This is the weakest part of the film, one of thousands of heartwarming stories about plucky immigrant kids who make good.

This movie isn’t terrible. I like Jack O’Connell a lot and he’s plays the role well. And great supporting cast – Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, Domnhall Gleeson — are all really good.

1970439_620940031310492_633068160_nBut can you believe this was written by the Coen Brothers? But there’s no irony, no humour, just straightforward storytelling. And it’s filled with fake profundities, like If you can take it, you can make it. Sounds like a Tony Roberts motivational speech. I get it – Zamperini did great things but survived. But the pounds you over the head with it, with its unrelenting suffer, suffer, suffer theme. The rest of the prisoners look vaguely familiar after a while, but they’re basically just faces in the background. It’s all about Louis vs Watanabe. Not a terrible movie, but disappointing and unsatisfying with an abrupt ending.

7b7c3e5e-dbbb-4a5d-b69b-f8e6d4637e0eMr Turner
Dir: Mike Leigh

Mr Turner (Timothy Spall) is a successful businessman in Victorian London, who lives with his dad (Paul Jesson), a retired barber. He lives a good life, doesn’t worry about money. What does he do? He’s a painter. He visits the seashore to observe and take notes. He finds the right pigments in the market to match them. Later, he paints what he sees. On canvases, big ones, lots of them.

Breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, cloud and light, maybe a steamship, and here and there a ruined castle or a train. He daubs on oil paint, fa38e7e5-08c2-407b-86a0-49e8653ac8adsmooches it around, and spits on it, blows at it! The results are spectacular and impressionistic, like nothing anyone had ever seen. And ethereal watercolours. Turner becomes famous in his own time, and quite rich — aristocratic artists are forced to come by to ask him for money. But he’s not from titled gentry. He’s frequently snubbed by the snooty upper-class, and not allowed into the principal art salons, only the outside rooms. Queen Victoria is not amused by his paintings. And he had to suffer the comments of insufferable art critics like John Ruskin (wonderfully played by Joshua McGuire).

At the same time, he’s a selfish, loathesome boor, who chews on pigs’ heads and belches. He has abandoned his common-law wife and daughters. He has a shy maid, Mrs Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). When Mr Turner feels like it, fdff8789-10b2-466c-81ae-6ba2bcce7189he’ll sneak up behind her, raise her petticoats and grunt a few times. That’s “sex”. How, you wonder, can such a disgusting, depressed and ugly man create such beautiful art?

Whenever he has a chance, he revisits a seaside town from his youth. There he meets an older woman, a landlady, named Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Will she help him out of his perpetual blue funk?

Mr Turner is a very long, slow moving and subtle film, filled with skillfully-crafted characters. They’re not loveable people but not hateable ones either. They seem all completely real. The photography in this movie is just e671af49-baab-4efe-b119-952b2968e98famazing. If you’ve ever seen Turner’s paintings, now you get to see the skies, the clouds and the light that actually informed his art. Beautiful. Spall, Bailey and Atkinson play their parts with all their weird tics and eccentricities in place. It’s quite long, but I liked it a lot.

Mr Turner and Unbroken both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. Also opening today is Imitation Game, a fantastic biopic thriller about Alan Turing, the man who invented the computer an broke the German code known as Enigma. Definitely a must-see.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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