Hacksaw Ridge (2016): I Got You (Review)

Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss

Mel Gibson may well have clawed his way out of the Hollywood “doghouse” with Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel and based on a screenplay co-written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight the film tells the “true” story of Desmond T. Doss. Doss was the first medic to win the Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot in the battlefield. 

Somewhat amazingly, this over two hour film cracks along at a pace that never really lets up. We follow Doss as he fights the system and a group of Army colleagues who take forever to understand his beliefs. Andrew Garfield plays Doss (and got a BAFTA for his portrayal) in the Oscar winning film and his utterance of “I got you,” to each man he treats becomes a mantra of sorts to the audience. It also allows a certain amount of truth to shine through his performance and must be based on the real Doss and his time in the field. 

The editing, which won an Oscar, and the practical FX steal the show here as the battle sequences and the horrific injuries suffered by the men on Hacksaw Ridge while taking on an almost overpowering enemy are spectacular.  They are also hard to watch.

This could be said of the whole film. It is difficult to see Doss get a dose of barrack room justice – when his fellow soldiers follows the sergeant’s and the captain’s orders to make Doss see the “error of his ways.” It is just as difficult to see the death of the first man who really understand’s the conscientious objector.

Gibson’s film shows us many instances of discomfort, suffering and visceral wounds that, if real, would turn the stomach over with revulsion and horror. This may well be the real triumph of Hacksaw Ridge; it is not just the re-telling of the first decorated non-combative hero but a testament to the bloody and terrible toll of war in general.

(This was Mel’s chance to follow up the 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli, another film that focusses on the horrors of war. Gibson was in the film playing Frank Dunne an Aussie soldier.)

As an action film, Hacksaw Ridge, delivers on many levels. The battle on top of the ridge is intense and practically non-stop. Even the fall of night only delays the advance of the enemy for a short time.

In terms of performances, Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington both deliver admirably and Hugo Weaving is brilliant as the alcoholic WWI veteran who goes to bat for his son.  

The film is a white knuckle ride, including Doss’ expected hell in boot camp, and only the hardest heart would not get a lump in their throat at some of the more touching scenes. There are moments where the horrific injuries and the sounds of battle are almost too much and one can only imagine the bravery of those concerned at the actual event.

Mel Gibson’s ticket to redemption, in the eyes of Hollywood, is a full 5 star effort. There are mistakes, historical and otherwise, but these do not diminish the power of the film and its story. This is a brilliant counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film, American Sniper; which glorified the killing aspect of war.

Hacksaw Ridge is available on DVD and various online streaming platforms. Check out the trailer below:

Hidden Figures (2016): Touching Unsung Heroes (Review)

The three hidden figures relaxing

Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, (Allison Schroeder was the joint author of the screenplay), Hidden Figures The Help can be seen as goes to NASA.  It peripherally tackles the same issues of inequality of race and looks at the double struggle that these real-life protagonists faced as women.

The film, and presumably the book, really has one message underneath the touching and inspiring stories of these three remarkable ladies: Education is the real key to equality. At least it was back before IBM and it’s temperamental keypunch cards and the advent of home computing. Back in the day, that university degree made the difference for intelligent women who would have been trapped in the world of “The Help” without it.

(The talented Octavia Spencer also appeared in”The Help.” The 2011 film, which also starred Viola Davis and Emma Stone, as well as Bryce Dallas Howard, also attempted to show what being black, and a woman meant in the shameful days of a segregated South.)

NASA did not see colour, however, and hired a great many black Americans to work as “computers.”  History backs this up but it also glosses over the contribution that these particular women made towards winning the space race. This was initially a one-sided contest that began in 1958 when the Russians took to the skies in an attempt to control space be getting there first.

Hidden Figures stars Spencer, as the self-taught computer “expert,” Taraji P. Henson, plays the mathematical wunderkind who grows up to become a crucial part of the early days of NASA; Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the first black female allowed to study at a white school (she then went on to be the first female engineer at NASA).

Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, the man tasked with getting those “All the Right Stuff” astronauts off the ground and getting ahead of the Russians. Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory) plays a snotty character who very reluctantly accepts the new computer, Ms. Johnson to his team and Kirsten Dunst is the disagreeable Vivian Mitchell, a woman who tries very hard to hold Spencer’s character back. 

Melfi gives us an accounting that is clearly embellished in places, like the very funny and pertinent scene with the policeman at the start of the film, but it may not be too far off the mark after all. For example, Harrison’s frustration at the treatment of his math genius is played out with a simple scene.  Al smashes the “coloured” restroom sign off the wall and with a look of distaste removes another sign from Mary’s segregated coffee pot.

Hidden Figures is about much more than the racial issues of the day. It is also about the looming change in society with the new IBM computers, the move of other technology to a new high and life in a segregated world. (This too would change, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.)

What the film does best is give us a front-row seat at the business end of NASA. (On a sidenote here, the film allows for two splendid cameo performances from Glen Powell, better known as Chad Radwell in Fox’s “Scream Queens” and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who worked with Monáe in the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight.)

Hidden Figures may be the shorthand version of Shetterly’s book, as many have claimed, but it tells its story well. The time period looks authentic, the performers do not put one foot wrong and the film manages to be touching and, in spite of knowing how the first mission of John Glenn ended in real life, throws in a touch of suspense.

The film is a full 5 star effort. Any movie that can induce a lump in the throat while also evoking anger and sheer joy at the advancements made by the heroine’s in this recounting of a hidden history, earns every accolade it gets.

This was, apparently, a labour of love for all concerned and rightly so. It was a story that needed telling and Melfi, along with everyone else involved with this project, did a brilliant job presenting it.

Arrival (2016): Amy Adams and the Hectapods (Review)

Amy Adams

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (the chap who helmed “Prisoners” and “Sicario“) with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer – based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life – Arrival is a slow, moving and methodical delivery of almost unconsciously epic proportions. It features the ever watchable Amy Adams meeting some “hectapods” and Jeremy Renner in a different mode than his usual heroic onscreen presentation.

Some critics have commented on the uniqueness of the aliens in the just under two hour film and stated that they are unlike other alien depictions in the past.

Oh, contraire, ‘mes amies.’

Monsters, the 2010 guerrilla-made-on-a-budget film featured multi-limbed creatures that were huge and looked not too dissimilar from these aliens. “Battle for Los Angeles” also had multi-legged, or armed (it was hard to tell) aliens who took on a squad of Marines and one Air Force Technical Sergeant.

Leaving aside the small duplicity issue of this film’s version of little green “men” Arrival manages to hit a lot of notes in the time given. It stresses the need for communication above all else and throws a game changer into the mix with a time conundrum of sorts.

The film starts with what we assume to be memories (although in essence they really are just “future” remembrances) of a daughter who dies an early death and the mourning of the parent left behind. It then moves into the day of linguistic professor Jesse Banks (Adams) going to work and finding her class decimated.

Turning on the news, we learn that 12 alien spacecraft, looking like ovoid versions of Kubrick’s obelisk from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” have arrived, hovering above the earth in odd locations across the globe. In short order, Banks is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who wants her to translate the newcomers version of language and she is joined by Ian Donnelly (Renner); a scientist.

The build up to the underplayed epilogue of the film is slowly paced. This gives us an idea of how long it would take to learn an alien communicative system as well as giving us a reason why the creatures write in a circular manner.

Non-linear time-lines are the basis for the language and the gift that the visitors mean to bestow on a hostile planet. It is the crux of the plot and the thing that drives Banks throughout the film. Somewhat amazingly, for what is in essence, a science fiction “creature feature” Arrival is a bit of a “tear jerker.”

This is only accomplished by a subtle delivery of moments of truth along the film’s own timeline. Renner’s character’s clear excitement and delight at the prospect of entering the alien spacecraft.  Adams’ tough fragility and the emotions that she displays while “remembering” her dead daughter are just part of the mixture that really sells the film and its off-center plot twist.

Even the moment where Abbott, or Costello, tap the glass with one hectapodal limb (a clear gesture meaning, “it’s behind you” toward the end of the film) feels true and rational. After all, in terms of non-verbal communication, it makes sense that even aliens could point at something and it would mean the same thing in any world: “Look at that.”

The ending is sad, yet defining, and perhaps only Adams could have pulled this one off so perfectly. Renner makes the perfect partner for the actress in this scenario and he plays the enthusiastic scientist to perfection. At no time do we confuse Ian with that arrow slinging Marvel hero that the actor is so associated with.

Villeneuve has managed to put together a tale that relies on memory of things to come with a major plot device of “seeing” things in the future at the “right time” to affect the present.  The editing and the pacing of the film makes everything come together beautifully at the end. 

Arrival conveys the strictness of a military response to an alien visit adroitly. The humorless approach, by personnel used to dealing with threats, mixed with the more aesthetic players on the team works well and also has that ring of truth to it.

Somewhat surprisingly, Arrival only garnered one Oscar (for Best Achievement in Sound Editing) as it is a full 5 star film.  It never really misses a beat and hits all the right notes throughout. It is available to watch via streaming online or on DVD.

Catch this one if you can and have a box of tissues handy just in case. Check out the trailer below:

The Accountant (2016): Ben Affleck’s Rain Man (Review)

Ben Affleck as the accountant

The Accountant, written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor, could well be dismissed by some as Ben Affleck’s “Rain Man” film. His character either has Aspergers, or, as the film seems to indicate, a high functioning form of autism. The characters in the action thriller never actually come right out and give a direct diagnosis. 

Having a heroic protagonist with some sort of “disability” is not overly unique in the film world. The Pang Brothers (The MessengersRe-cycle) created a hitman in the 2000 film Bangkok Dangerous who was a deaf-mute (they then inexplicably remade the feature in 2008  with Nicholas Cage who played the same character only this time he was neither deaf nor mute. A real shame as he could have been better in the role if that had been the case…)

Another film that had the main character as a kick-arse hero was the Thai martial arts film Chocolate. The female protagonist, like Affleck’s character, is never diagnosed as being either autistic or having Aspergers although it was clear that she was, in that film, a savant in terms of martial arts and did have the condition.

There is no real other comparison to be made with Affleck’s hitman/mathematician Christian Wolf. Wolf can, and indeed does, kick arse physically. He is as deadly with hand-to-hand combat as he is lethal with weapons. In “Chocolate,” Zen (played by JeeJa Yanin) is a savant in every sense of the word. She picks up her skills by some sort of odd osmosis, by watching the martial arts being executed, and Wolf was trained by his father. 

Wolf’s brother, Braxton; played brilliantly by former The Walking Dead regular  Jon Bernthal (Bernthal is about to hit screens in the Netflix adaptation of The Punisher, this year), is as deadly but he lacks the autism which makes Christian that bit more dangerous.

Anna Kendrick plays Dana the accountant who finds out someone has been systematically stealing from her bosses company and John Lithgow is said boss. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons is the IRS treasury agent who enlists an underling to find out who “the accountant” really is and Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays the analysis agent forced into action by Simmons’ character Ray King.

For all the “big” names in the film, Jeffrey Tambor plays Wolf’s old cell mate in prison, the movie is not “high-brow.” While it is not a bog standard thriller by any means, there is enough action and plot to keep even the most jaded movie goer interested.

Even viewers who are not fans of Ben Affleck, like my friend the local librarian – who cannot abide Affleck’s “lack of talent” – enjoyed the film and thought he brought much to the role. Granted, the level of interaction between Affleck’s character and others in the film is subdued. However, the most endearing part of the film occurs when the two brothers meet up later in the film. “Hello Braxton,” says Wolf in a way that is sweet and completely incongruous with the scenario. (It is one of the best bits of the film.)

There is a humorous attempt at a burgeoning romance between Wolf and Dana. It works, but only just, and quite wisely the film lets this matter drop without too much fanfare.

To be perfectly honest, the movie delivers more on the action sequences, and Christian’s almost super-human prowess as both an accountant for the world’s most dangerous people and hitman than it does on the character development department.

Affleck does well as does Bernthal, although the only real disappointment here is that the “twist” reveals itself all too early in the film. The constant flashbacks, despite the lack of time spent on Wolf’s brother make this a no brainer.

Simmons brings his usual workmanlike performance and Addai-Robinson gets too little screen time, as does Kendrick, but overall the cast deliver adequately although Lithgow seems to be relegated to two dimensional baddie who panics in the end.

The Accountant delivers and fires on most cylinders. It is a solid 4 star film that relies on the action to entertain. There are  few laughs, mainly the interaction between Kendrick’s character and Affleck’s but, once again, this is forgivable as the film really is more action than anything else.

Affleck does well in the fight sequences and director O’Connor puts everything together nicely.  There is no sign of the star’s Batman persona, he manages to perform his deadly tasks with all the emotion of a dead-eyed doll, and he only shows any real emotion when he cannot finish any job at hand.

It is well worth a look and can be watched on Amazon, iTunes, Google play and so on. Have a look at the trailer:

The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.