There has been something of an orgy of adulation from critics and public over "Unbroken," citing it as inspiring and uplifting. Mine is a contrarian view; I fear a great many people are mistaking the undeniable greatness of the subject – Olympic gold medal winner and World War II hero Louis Zamperini – with the film's distinction. The film begins with a bombing raid on Japanese targets during which the plane is damaged by enemy fire. It's a tremendously exciting sequence that director Angelina Jolie never tops or even equals in the rest of the film (and I question just how much can be credited to the work of the effects crew). Still it reveals one problem with the film's approach as Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) scampers through the plane doing his Clara Barton thing (he's the bombardier not the medic) – Jolie isn't going to be content merely to salute her protagonist; she intends to deify him (there's a heckuva lot of Christ imagery before all is said and done). Flashbacks reveal how Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent and his brother turned the kid's ability to run like a cheetah into Olympic gold (in the same games where Jesse Owens gave Adolph Hitler heartburn). In the film's present, a plane crash has Zamperini and two others (soon to be only one other) the only survivors in a raft that after over a month is "rescued" by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp.
While all the captured soldiers are treated harshly Zamperini is singled out for special abuse by the commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara aka Miyavi) for unknown reasons though casting two men of more than average good looks (and that's putting it mildly) suggests suppressed homoerotic desires on the part of the Nipponese officer. How the U.S. flier endures all this punishment is equally unexplained other than in bromides (and you can bet that "If you can take it, you can make it" is already being imprinted onto bumper stickers somewhere). Perhaps such things can't easily be depicted onscreen (but why then make a film with them at the center?) but the fact is that all the characters are emotionally blank and so is the film. Jolie brings nothing but competence to her film; there is no voice here – this could just as easily have Ron Howard's signature on it – and no indication why the subject matter interested her. Once Zamperini is in the raft the film becomes little more than a catalogue of dreadful events and, with a running time of nearly two and a half hours, it gets fairly boring. Jolie's inability to get below the surface or pare her production down to a reasonable running time results in a tepid tribute.
2015 / Universal Studios Home Entertainment / 138m / $34.98 DVD+BR+digital [PG-13]
GONE WITH THE POPE
The best thing about "Gone with the Pope" is that, having reviewed Duke Mitchell's only other vanity project, "Massacre Mafia Style," a couple weeks back, no more of his productions will ever darken my transom again. Here Mitchell is once again on the wrong side of the law and about to be released from prison. The departure takes a while because it seems he has to say goodbye to every other inmate before finally walking out the front gates. Once out he hooks up with an old lady love who just happens to have a fabulous – if tackily decorated – house. Then, with an old chum (who quickly vanishes from the movie), he kills a roomful of gangland types so as not to have to turn over a briefcase full of money he's supposed to deliver. He needs this moolah to buy the boat onto which he now loads three other associates and sets off from California to Italy with a plan to kidnap the Pope. (Note that it's 30 minutes into an 82-minute movie before the plot rears its ugly head.) The idea is to ransom His Holiness for a dollar from every Catholic – when informed of just how many Catholics there are in the world Mitchell magnanimously decides to charge only half a buck each.
That touch may be as close as "Gone with the Pope" gets to wit (I'm still trying to decide if Mitchel playing Paul and his confederates being Peter, Luke and John qualifies). Even though the production was shot partly in Italy this is still every bit as much a home movie as Mitchell's previous outing, with insipid photography (some of it not even in focus) and mediocre acting. And what does it say about Mitchell that the best performance comes from a black woman who Paul calls "a spook" and who isn't named in the credits. Credit is given another female performer who has no lines as the "Fat Woman" in a sequence as pointless as it is grotesque. Most of this mess is comprised of pointless sequences – if there's even 30 minutes of movie within the running time I'd be very much surprised. The main plot is dispensed with pretty quickly leaving 15 or 20 minutes afterward in which Paul and his squeeze prepare for Christmas crosscut with Paul killing some more people (I never did figure out why exactly) leading to a WTF? conclusion in a church. It has to be seen to be believed – but don't take that as anything remotely like a recommendation.
1976 / Grindhouse Releasing / 82m / $29.95 DVD+BR combo [NR]
A friend and colleague of mine recently noted that the chief drawback to documentaries is that the filmmaker(s) assume you are as fascinated by the topic under scrutiny as they are. The form is the ultimate example of preaching to the choir. (Or maybe penultimate with faith-based productions taking top honors.) Now I admit to some interest in the Kaballah; I've come across references in various things I've read but they went intio scant detail. I kept hoping for some sort of Cliff's Notes to the thing because the idea of actually wading through the various texts (Chiefly the "Zohar") seemed a bit daunting. I hoped that "Kabbalah Me" might serve an introductory purpose. The documentary follows filmmaker Steven Bram, a non-observant Jew and maker of sports documentaries, who feels a spiritual void in his life after 9/11 and begins a journey to fill it. While the study of the Kabbalah, rooted in the writing of the Torah and the Talmud, has occupied some Orthodox Jews for centuries it remains unknown the majority of Jews, much less to the rest of the world. Surprisingly, though there have been a good many celebrities (starting with Madonna) who claim to be immersed in it.
While the film follows Bram's exploration it does little to enlighten the newbie and this may be because Kabbalah's meaning varies according to the tradition of whoever is interpreting it. Literally the word translates as "to receive" and it's a guide on how to receive fulfillment in our lives and to explain the relationship between an unchanging infinity and the finite universe created by God. But the interpretation can change depending on whether it is filtered through a Hasidic, Christian, New Age or Occultist perspective. This may explain why the various rabbis that Bram consults don't always offer consistent wisdom. Boiled down however there doesn't appear to be much difference between it and Sufism, Buddhism or other faiths that teach opening up the mind and seeing how everything in the universe is related. For that matter, some people who claim to be UFO contactees state they have been given nearly identical messages to the phrases uttered here. This makes "Kabbalah Me" not too terribly enlightening on the titular work and for that matter the only change I perceived in Bram was his decision to keep kosher in his food choices. The viewer must take it on faith – and faith is after all very much what this documentary is about – that he has drastically changed by finding something to believe in. If you're hoping for something a tad more informative exploring the subject (as I was) you'll have to seek elsewhere.
2014 / First Run Features / 80m / $27.95 [NR]
Subway musician Henry (Ben Rosenfield) gets run over by a cab and goes into a coma. His sister Franny (Anne Hathaway, who also produced) is summoned back from her anthropological studies in Morocco to join mom Karen (Mary Steenburgen) to await his recovery – should there be one. This is a family that is prone to going its own way and neither woman has been in touch with Ben for six months. Karen has been working on a book while Ben has dropped out of college to pursue his dream of being a musician. Franny and he had a terrific argument over that decision and she hasn't opened his emails or listened to any of the CDs of his compositions he's mailed her. The guilty young woman discovers his journal and, based on what she reads, travels around Brooklyn recording the sounds of his favorite places, playing them back to him in an attempt to reach into his dormant consciousness. She also attends some of the music clubs he was fond of to find out something of the brother from whom she cut herself off. Appearing at one venue is his favorite singer, James Forester (Johnny Flynn), and the concert Franny tells the young man of her brother.
You can probably see where this is going and utter predictability is the chief flaw of "Song One." Franny and James will of course fall in love and Ben will wake from his coma at the end. There's no impediment to the love affair, no medical setbacks – in short there's no drama. Oh, Karen has a brief flare-up at Franny over her argument with Ben but it quickly subsides. The story is interlaced with a great deal of second-rate music except for a black woman who really scores with a blues number; of course the film cuts away to something else after a single verse and before things get too exciting. Kate Barker-Froyland has written and directed a film guaranteed not to get any pulses racing. It's also difficult to get involved with its characters because the finale is so obviously pre-ordained. It isn't a complete waste – the acting is top-notch, Flynn has an amazing voice and the small quiet moments are beautifully observed. There just needs to be some bigger noisier moments as well.
2014 / Cinedigm / 86m / $19.97 BR [PG-13]
STAR TREK, THE ORIGINAL SERIES
Captain Kirk's Boldest Missions
We're about a year shy of the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original series of "Star Trek." For those of us who were sitting in front of the boob tube on that first night, that's a sobering thought. While science fiction was not unknown on television in 1965 the only attempts at episodic series (as opposed to anthologies such as "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits") were purely kiddie affairs such as "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," "Fireball XL5" and "Tom Corbett – Space Cadet." (I bet you think I'm making that last one up.) Gene Roddenberry's creation promised to be more adult and in fact it often got in trouble with the network's censors for being too topical, pushing the envelope too far. (Consider that the first interracial kiss on U.S. television happened on "Star Trek.") Time has not been entirely kind to the series. The special effects were pretty good for the time – especially considering the budget – but they mostly look pretty rinky-dink now except for the shots of the Enterprise orbiting planets. The sets looked more than a tad sparse even at the time; the circular bridge in particular looks downright dinky compared to the newer series. Technically, what remains impressive is the lighting, especially in the first year; "Star Trek" was probably the most beautifully photographed series on TV in the late 1960s.
The writing however remains notable in most of the episodes and shines particularly here in "Balance of Terror" – where the Enterprise engages in a battle of wits as well as weapons with a cloaked Romulan ship – "The Doomsday Machine" – where guest star William Windom is obsessed with destroying a planet-devouring machine – and the acclaimed "The City on the Edge of Forever" – where several of the crew are hurled back in time. The collection also includes "Space Seed" – the first appearance of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) – and "The Corbomite Maneuver" – which has the Federation crew tested by a superior being, a theme revisited in "Next Generation" with the character of Q. The series regularly used some of science fiction's most notable writers at the time; Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon all contributed scripts to the show. My only quibble with this collection is that I question how it is possible to call it "Captain Kirk's Boldest Missions" and not include "The Trouble with Tribbles?"
1966-68 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 403m / $16.99 [NR]
The spectre of "Westworld" looms over "Vice," a science fiction thriller set in a dystopian future. Bruce Willis portrays Julian, an unscrupulous businessman who has acquired via hostile takeover a cybernetics company that has devised artificial intelligences that are part electronic and part clone. He has used this technology to create the titular Vice, a vast amusement center where people can live out their darkest fantasies, most of which seem to involve murder and/or abusive sex. Because the "staff" at Vice are, at least partly, real people their emotions while being abused are real and they actually die, which is so much more satisfactory than artificial reaction from androids. Julian maintains that his resort offers the opportunity for people to get their antisocial impulses out of their system. Police detective Roy (Thomas Jane) is of the opinion that Vice gives people a taste of transgressive behavior that they take out into the real world, leading to the city's high crime rate. Roy's boss is cognizant of all the tax dollars Vice contributes to the municipal coffers and has no inclinations toward shutting the place down.
Roy isn't Julian's biggest problem, however; one of his replicants, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), has become self-aware and the technicians aren't able to delete her memories of being raped and killed so she can go about doing it all over again. The other cyberpeople may well follow suit. Andre Fabrizio's and Jeremy Passmore's script isn't interested in examining this intriguing idea, however; they have Kelly escape into the city, pursued by Roy who thinks she is his ticket to shutting down Vice and both are chased by Julian's gun-happy thugs. Lots of gunplay along the way leads to a shoot-em-up finale. While "Vice" may be stitched together from several other science fiction movies, it still begins in an interesting fashion so it's sad that it degenerates into action clichés. Jane may not bring much beyond charisma to his role but he owns the movie. I'm trying to decide if Willis' apparent boredom was an acting choice or his reaction to the project. Director Brian A Miller displays more than mere competence at putting together a film – for one thing he actually knows how to stage action sequences. "Vice" isn't an awful film but thanks to a script that wallows in its lack of originality it isn't anywhere near as interesting as it might have been.
2014 / Lionsgate / 96m / $24.99 BR [R]