HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


CAKE (2014)

January 30, 2015

cake Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.

Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.

Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).

Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girl as her best.

The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DEBT

September 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Espionage thrillers can be so much fun in both book and movie form. Movies actually have a little advantage for the action scenes. Books clearly have the advantage in details, backstory and character development. What is frustrating as a viewer is when a movie starts strong and then crumbles under the weight of expectation … sometimes trying to make a bigger splash than necessary. Such is the case with director John Madden‘s remake of the rarely-seen 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.

 

 The story is centered around a 1965 mission of a trio of Mossad agents. Mossad is Israel’s CIA. These three agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are to capture the notorious Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), and bring him back for a proper trial of war time atrocities.

 

 Flash forward to 1997 and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the daring mission and the three heroes. The older version of the characters are played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan) and Ciaran Hinds (David). We are treated to flashbacks of the mission and how things took a wrong turn, but ended just fine. Or did they? There seems to be some inconsistencies with the story told and the actual events that have created much strain between Rachel and Stephan, and life-altering changes for the more sensitive David.

 This is an odd film because the best story parts occur when the younger cast members are carrying out the 1965 mission. It is full of suspense and intrigue. The intensity and believability drops off significantly in the 1997 version, but oddly, the older actors are much more fun to watch on screen … especially the great Helen Mirren. I am not sure what all of that really means, but for me, it meant the third act of the film was a bit hokey and hard to buy.

Director John Madden is known for his fabulous Shakespeare in Love, but not much else. His films since then have all come up just a bit short of that very high bar he set 13 years ago. Jessica Chastain continues her fantastic 2011 season adding this performance to her more spectacular turns in Tree of Life and The Help. Sam Worthington is known for his role in Avatar, but his character here is so thinly written, I doubt any actor could have pulled it off. Jesper Christensen seems to usually play the bad guy and he is in full glory here as a Nazi war criminal with no regrets.

The first half will keep you on the edge of your seat, but by the end you will have a somewhat empty feeling. What a shame as this one teased us with much hope.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: espionage thrillers are your cup of tea and you can overlook a few exaggerated details OR you want to see Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain if full-fighting mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need the attention to meticulous detail of Tom Clancy in your espionage thrillers

watch the trailer:


CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)

April 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have a weakness for the 1981 version and still get a kick out of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-action art in that film, as well as the “Sinbad” films. One of my favorite trivia questions is “What film starred both Harry Hamlin and Laurence Olivier?”. That cracks me up, and stumps most people … even though most have seen the original.

Director Louis Leterrier provides a remake that is very much a film project of current day despite the mythology involved. Here, Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Finnes as Hades are (not so close) brothers supposedly battling for the same thing – getting those pesky humans back in line. This comes after the army of Argos gets fed up with the whims of the Gods and makes a move toward independence. You either know the story or not, but either way shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the movie.

Sam Worthington, fresh off his Avatar fame makes for a solid Perseus, the half-son of Zeus (thanks to an earlier trick, that most would call rape). However, I never could make sense of his perfectly barbered look of facial and scalp stubble, while those around him all sport the late-60’s Hell’s Angels look. Gemma Atherton (former Bond girl) plays the quasi-God who is to protect Persues, and Mads Mikkelson (former Bond villain) fights alongside him. However, this is not an actor’s film.

The special effects are bountiful. Hades comes and goes as a cloud of thick black smoke and is quite comfortable splitting himself off into a flock of evil-spirited flying dragon things. Pegasus, the flying horse is back, as are the giant scorpions, who are much bigger and badder than before. Still don’t understand how they went from mean to sweet between scenes. Of course, the coolest thing is Medusa and her hairdo of creepy, crawly snakes. That’s one bad chick. The most impressive special effect is the Kraken, Hade’s underworld pet who is “released” to destroy mankind (unless Perseus can stop him).

There is one humorous tip of the cap to the original, but most of the other shots at humor fall extremely flat. This is not a movie to see for the dialogue. The mythology and wonderment of the Gods have a certain appeal, though this one certainly falls short in providing us any real insight into the daily tasks of the lucky few on Olympus. So enjoy this one for what it is … a guilty pleasure.  And stump your friends with that trivia question!


AVATAR (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (12-20-09) Greetings again from the darkness. Any lover of movies has been anxiously awaiting this “next film” from James Cameron. If you have lost track of time, it’s actually been 12 years since Cameron’s “Titanic” became the ultimate mega-box office champion. Finally, people can stop asking him what he’s been up to!

This is a very difficult movie to review or critique, so here is how I will describe it: it is a Film spectacle … I mean that in a good way. “Avatar” is an event similar to “Star Wars” or even “The Exorcist”. Much anticipation for seeing something we had never before seen on screen! And make no mistake, there are MANY things in this one we have never before seen. You will not find the list here because I believe this one should be viewed with as little upfront knowledge as possible.

The star of the film is not the actors, and certainly not the script, but rather the technology and special effects. Be sure to see it in 3-D, the way Mr. Cameron meant for it to be seen. Some segments are breathtaking in beauty and creativity and splashes of color. I was fascinated by Pandora, the planet where most of the action takes place. The plant life, creatures and inhabitants are truly a new world from the mind of Cameron and crew. Wow.

On the downside, the story is ho-hum at best and downright cheesy in more than a few scenes. Fans will easily pick out the influence of “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, the “Terminator” series … heck, even the song over the credits reminds of Celine Dion’s claim to fame. Another negative is Sigourney Weaver’s completely over the top and unbelievable scientist, and Giovanni Ribisi’s mugging corporate puppet. Who would have even imagined the usual laconic Mr. Ribisi was capable of overacting? Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are actually very good as the leads. Especially Ms. Saldana, who emotes a wide range of emotions despite heavy make-up (an understatement), and is really the best non-technical thing about the film.

In a year of terrific, accessible sci-fi (Moon, Star Trek, Avatar), this one comes up short on story, but makes up for it with awe-inspiring imagery and visuals and sound.