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.

Trump Wins: Stephen King’s ‘The Dead Zone’ for Real (Editorial)

The Dead Zone Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson

After living in England for over three decades, I returned to a country that was beyond recognition.  January 2014 saw me landing in Las Vegas and starting a new job that would fizzle out in a years time.  I had not been privy to a stateside election in years and already the country was rumbling about 2016.

Leaving Vegas, and winding up in the last resting place of an immigrant camel drover, I found myself surrounded by snowbirds who all seemed to be republican. This did not bother me to any great extent as I had lived in country where the two main parties were mirror images of the Donkey and the Elephant: Labour and Tories.

I favor neither party but instead have always looked to the “runner.” In the UK it was more important to vote for the party. The Prime Minister was sort of an addition to the whole thing.

Donald Trump, this country’s president elect, was, in essence, a television reality star. The orange male equivalent of Kim Kardashian without the sex tape. A loud mouthed goon who was rude, crude and a man who obviously appealed to a large amount of people.

The moment I realized that this man with the ridiculous hair and bullying attitude was being taken serious, I thought of Greg Stillson from Stephen King’s 1979 b00k, The Dead Zone.

Stillson was a buffoon, a joke to the people of the country and yet when the book’s protagonist, poor doomed everyman John Smith,  touched the candidate he saw him starting World War III; with nuclear missiles.

The picture was perfectly formed in my head as I watched small clips of Trump’s rallies. Surely, I thought,  this man will not last long in the final stages, there must be someone more  qualified. Alas the republican party chose this lunatic to be their presidential candidate and once again I thought of King’s madman Stillson.

For those who have not read King’s book, Greg Stillson was mad, not “angry” mad but nutty as a box of frogs mad. He had an anger management problem and some severe wiring problems under his bonnet.

I cannot for the life of me remember what colour his hair was but it is not important. What is important  is that in my mind, from the first televised appearance of Trump, he was, and is, Greg Stillson.

There was no hard hat, or throwing hot dogs to the crowd, but Trump fit the bill of the madman who would bring an apocalyptic end to America like a tailored glove.

This is not the first time that someone has made the connection. Google “The Dead Zone” and Trump’s name comes up. (Sorry, but I cannot for the life of me refer to this man as president.) This entire election has been  surreal and this has been a nightmarish end to a vicious election. One where both sides played the internet like an instrument.

Perhaps this has been on the cards for a long time. I truly do not know. I had taken on another country as my home and never envisioned coming back.  The return home was not planned.

It was odd coming back to the country that spawned me. The whole place was different and PC mentality was making everyone touchy and overly protective.  The racist card was being thrown down everywhere and an entire political party was backing a homophobic, misogynistic reality television star with multiple bankruptcies to his name to run the country.

Now it is over.

Stillson  Trump is in. The man who cannot, apparently afford the good tanning gel, the kind that does not turn your skin orange, is the 45th president of the United States.  He has chosen a vice president who echoes his sentiments exactly in regards to the LGBT community, minorities and immigrants.

History has been made here. The electoral college, not the people they chose Hilary by popular vote, God help them,  have put Trump in charge of the country.

Young people are taking to the streets to protest Trump as president on the same day he was announced the winner of the race. This has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever happened before. (Of course it might have but living in the UK I might have missed it.)

Despite all the Pollyanna’s out there who now say we have to grin and bear it and that we must stick together, I hope you remember that when this once mighty nation has crumbled under one man’s lunacy.

The electing of Trump has been called a “white lash” by Van Jones. With all due respect sir, I disagree. I think this was a “Black lash.” Caused by far too many people who were upset over an eight year time period that the president of the US was a black man.

Before signing off and leaving politics behind for another four years, I would like to point something out. This election was massively influenced by social media. Each side promoted enough vitriol to damage the most secure of egos.

On Facebook alone there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth and a common misconception. Younger members of the American public seem to believe that a president serves eight years. Not so, my dear Millennials. A presidential term is still and always will be, four years.

With two American presidents serving two terms in office, it is easy to see where the confusion started. It is also the sort of ignorance that enabled someone less qualified than your cousin Murray, the city dog catcher, to be elected president.

 

The Crown: Netflix Does the Queen For American Audiences (Review)

Logo for The Crown on Netflix

It is difficult not to be overly cynical about Netflix’s latest offering.  The Crown appears to  have been cast with it’s intended audience in mind; the Americans with their total fascination with all things royal. The former Dr. Who, another American fixation, Matt Smith is Prince Philip.

Another familiar face comes from the modernized series  Upstairs Downstairs, which may rank right up there with Dr. Who as an addiction for the US. (Although nowhere near as popular as Downton Abbey.)   Actress Claire Foy made a name for herself in this program playing Lady Persephone Towyn.  Both actors are as English as fish and chips and both are well known for their work in the United Kingdom’s entertainment industry.

Jared Harris, son of the late great Richard Harris, is King George VI. Yet nother familiar face lately seen in SyFy’s The Expanse and from any number of films and television shows.  The London born actor has worked in a number of American productions and is equally familiar to the targeted demographic. 

All three make perfect sense in terms of casting. The only confusing factor in this series is the casting of John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. He is, beyond a shadow of doubt, an expert craftsman. Lithgow has been nominated twice for an Oscar and has chops for days. But…Winston Churchill?

He may well look the part but he does seem to be an odd choice. More to the point, Lithgow does not sound like Churchill. It takes the viewer right out of the moment.

On the plus side, the dialogue is wonderfully spot on. Lines like “Chance would be a fine thing,” the naughty limerick that the King indulges in and Prince Philip’s “Bugger” are all delightedly on point.

Sadly the one thing missing is that nasal twang that the Queen is so well known for.  It is also unfortunate that so little time is spent on the Queen Mother.  This tiny woman was revered by the entire nation while she lived. We get a brief glance of her, with a feathered hat, and that is it. She may well turn up later in future episodes.

One can only hope.

(On a sidenote: It was wonderful to see good old “Inspector Boney” aka Kiwi actor James Laurenson who has been treading the boards since 1965. Laurenson plays Dr. Weir in three episodes.)

This historical look at the woman who is Britain’s longest reigning monarch should be, at the very least, educational. The writers have included some vernacular specific to the time period and the country.

Elizabeth II became queen in 1952 after King George died of consumptive heart failure.  She was crowned over a year later on 2 June 1953.

The Crown is reported to be the most expensive Netflix Original series to date. The budget per episode is rumored to be in the $5 million mark.  The slightest things in each scene are said to be authentic as possible. This inflated price tag for set dressing and costumes may explain the lack of more “name” actors in key roles.

Peter Morgan is the show’s creator and he has come up with a loving tribute to the Queen spaced out over 10 episodes.  There are rumors that there will be another season as well. 

The Crown looks brilliant. It feels as English as afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam.  The casting, withholding all that previously mentioned  cynicism, is pretty much spot on.  With the exception of Lithgow, each performer fills their character’s shoes rather well.

Claire Foy has the thankless job of portraying Her Majesty, the Queen, and she does come very close to matching the sheer beauty that Elizabeth exhibited “back in the day.’

Smith seems to be laying the  groundwork for Prince Philip as the man who, in later years, give the PC crowd heart palpitations when speaking his mind. His most infamous, in recent years, was his warning to British students that they would “become slitty-eyed” if they stayed too long in China.

Phillip is just passing on a tradition started by his father-in-law King George VI. The man obviously loves a good, or not so good,  joke. It would not be surprising to learn that the prince likes “dirty” limericks as well.

The Crown has all 10 episodes streaming on Netflix.  Fans of The King’s Speech and, as mentioned above, Downton Abbey, will love this look at Queen Elizabeth.

 

The American West: Custer Dies, Earp Arrives – Historical Shorthand

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AMC continues their historical shorthand version of the American west.  In the last two episodes Custer dies and Wyatt Earp arrives on the scene as an effective lawman.

Episode four followed the attack on Little Big Horn and the disastrous consequences for the 7th Calvary.

It also continued  the Jesse James story by recreating the James-Younger  gang’s  failed bank robbery at Northfield, Minnesota.   The robbery netted the gang a “bag of nickels” according to some reports after a Swedish employee refused to open the already unlocked vault door. (Clearly, like most criminals, the robbers were not the sharpest tools in the shed that day. Had they tried the door the gang would have taken over $15K.)

The townspeople reacted to the gang’s attempt to intimidate the populace by shooting back and killing two members.The two he Younger brothers were  also captured and imprisoned as a result of the unsuccessful bank robbery.

Out west, Custer splits his forces and sends Major Reno out to flank a huge Native American encampment.  Although the series mentions only the Sioux Nation and the Cheyenne,  the Arapaho were also involved in the battle.

The episode ends with Custer dying, possibly shooting himself, as the rest of his troops lay dead around him. Jesse and Frank go into hiding after the Northfield bank robbery fiasco and Sherman has initiated his policy to eradicate the buffalo in order to starve out the Sioux.

Episode five finally introduces Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. The American West stays on the course of picking and choosing the information provided for each “historical legend.” It also covers the surrender and murder of Crazy Horse.

Wyatt Earp is set up as an upcoming legend in his own right and no mention is made of the brothers who were already lawmen in their own right.  Perhaps this will be mentioned later but necessarily.  This “history” show is providing a very narrow version of the events that created legends.

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Jonathan C. Stewart as Wyatt Earp

Take, for example, the Billy the Kid portion which excludes the fact that John Henry  Tunstall was English. The actor playing him sounds very ‘merican and not English at all.  It also never mentions that “The House” was comprised of two ranchers, JJ Dolan and LG Murphy, who were not pleased with the completion from, not only, Tunstall but ranchers Alexander McSween and John Chisum as well.

The trio of cattle barons all helped to heat up the Lincoln County range war.  (Another small point is the depiction of Tunstall’s death. The rancher and his men, including Billy, were approached by Murphy and Dolan men. Being outnumbered the Tunstall faction retreated, except for Tunstall who rode up to the larger group to complain that they were on his land. The English cattle baron was shot dead.

(Not to be picayune but the real life Billy the Kid was a freckle-faced, buck-toothed charmer whose personality could change in an instant to from friendly chappy to deadly killer.)

Thus far this history lesson from Robert Redford and AMC has been very narrow in focus and not overly factual.  It also seems to owe much to popular history. Sure there are a few “historical” writers and experts to weigh in on the proceedings but the lack of certain names spells inaccuracy or censorship.

It will be interesting to see if The American West continues to practice this form of  tunnel vision in the final three  episodes.   Granted the show is attempting to show how certain individuals influenced the American way of life, but in most cases it is a stretch.

One question that arises when watching this series is why this particular group of “legends” were chosen.  There are many more heroes and villains in the history books and none of these get a look in.  Certainly  Jesse James was the US “Robin Hood’ but at the end of the day, this myth was self generated as yet another excuse to rob and kill.

The American West airs Sundays on AMC. Tune in if you want a very narrow history of the wild west.

CAST:

Narrated by Bert Thomas Morris