Lest I be accused of too many Santa Claus star ratings, let’s get to the bad stuff.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked out 60% of the way through Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” a misconceived triumph-of-perseverance saga whose recipe calls for ten tons of suffering per ounce of hope. Wank-worthy young English actor Jack O’Connell is miscast as Torrance’s own Olympic runner turned Italian-American war hero (world’s shortest book?) Louis Zamperini. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard O’Connell tell his Air Force crewmates about his mamma’s feather-light “knee-occhi.”
After the crew’s questionably airworthy Bombardier goes down, we spend 47 long days – and about as many minutes – with Louis and his two fellow survivors (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) aboard a life raft somewhere in the Pacific. These scenes range from dull to disgusting. In one, the three men grab a gull that lands on the raft by its legs and kill it by pummeling it with their fists, then eat what they can of it before turning the ocean green with their vomit. Some time later, they do the same with a huge fish. All the while, sharks circle underneath, waiting to be used for moments of B-grade horror. Contrast this portion of the movie with last year’s genuinely exciting and smart “Kon Tiki,” which knew what it meant to spend weeks at sea low on provisions and in constant mortal danger.
Over an hour into the movie, the men are finally picked up by a Japanese warship and taken – to separate camps – as prisoners of war. It is here that the brutal guard known only as “the Bird” (Japanese entertainer Miyavi) will unleash his unholy wrath on Louis in the form of countless beatings, floggings and pistol-whips directly to the head. Now, I’ll admit I’m on the squeamish side, but I sat by for several of these scenes. Eventually, though, as my friend and I simultaneously looked away from the screen and cringed for the umpteenth time, I asked myself what I was doing there and couldn’t find an acceptable answer.
This isn’t what I go to the movies for: to be vicariously beaten into submission by a directrix hoping for awards recognition. What made the brutal lashing of Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” so effective by comparison? Besides the artistic sensibility that Steve McQueen possesses and Jolie lacks, it’s knowing to limit the most extreme physical violence to a single, unforgettable moment. Repeated scenes of Zamperini’s torture have the effect of reducing their impact and producing in the audience only the most instinctive of reactions.
Real people aren’t Tim Burton’s thing. For his first true-life directing project in two decades, he’s chosen “Big Eyes,” the saga of the Bay Area painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams), whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), a painter of Parisian street scenes, claimed credit for her big-eyed waifs and made himself the face of a minor artistic empire in the 1960’s. Burton doesn’t look past Margaret’s complicity in the fraud, but gives her a free pass owing to the male-dominated tenor of the times. A more interesting movie would have held her feet to the fire on that.
Adams does what she can with the part of Margaret, but as written there’s not much substance to it, just a set of circumstances ready-made for modern sensibilities. The real story here is Waltz, who in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” has given us two of the indelible characters in contemporary cinema, and split my sides in Roman Polanski’s film of “Carnage.” As Walter, he turns in maybe the worst performance of the year, mincing, preening, with a desperate quality that causes him to pitch every line reading past the balcony and into the projection booth (though he does get one hypoglycemically hilarious line that left me light-headed with laughter). Together, they would walk away with a Razzie for Worst Screen Couple; there's less than zero chemistry between them.
A plot twist involving Walter’s actual authorship of those Parisian paintings will come as a surprise to any member of the audience who may have been stillborn (or just didn’t see the “I Love Lucy” European vacation episodes). And while I’ve seen more than my share of far-fetched trial sequences, the one in a Honolulu courthouse here (with Walter representing himself and running back and forth between the counsel table and the witness stand) may be the dumbest, with a “Solomonic” order from the judge that should have been obvious to everyone from the beginning. Give the “Batman” franchise back to Burton; his “Batman Returns” remains its high point. Or maybe the “Beetlejuice” sequel will recapture the original’s cockeyed charm. In any case, he doesn’t have enough in common with real people to know what to do with them.