Hacksaw Ridge

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Robert Schenkkan

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Unlike the hero at the heart of Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade I went into battle fully protected by a weapon: my overactive imagination. Turns out, psychological preparation is kind of necessary as you enter the gauntlet of Hacksaw Ridge‘s final hour. Things become real, and in a hurry. Of course there is violence and gore characteristic of war films but this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about.

But this is also the Mel Gibson I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In spite of the way he once again seems to enjoy flagellating audiences with punishing sequences of human cruelty Hacksaw Ridge ultimately is worth the toiling. The paradoxical sense of uplift we feel in the moments where we are also suffering the most makes his return to filmmaking a welcomed one. I was so moved by this I couldn’t help but applaud during the credits. Meanwhile everyone else quietly filtered out. Did I feel awkward? Yes. Yes I did. But it was still the right thing to do.

Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield in one of the most sensational performances of the year) felt a tremendous sense of moral obligation — a sense of doing what is right not just for himself but for his country — when he enlisted as a medic in World War II. Hailing from a humble community tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 men off of Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Pacific Theater. A devout Christian whose violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic, war-scarred father irrevocably changed him, Doss’ enlisting became the stuff of legend when he told his commanding officers the Sixth Commandment forbade him from lifting a weapon; that he could serve his country by saving lives as opposed to taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge is somewhat a tale of two halves — one is noticeably stronger than the other and unsurprisingly the drama genuinely becomes compelling in the latter half, when we dive headlong into hell with Private Doss, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and a company of men who haven’t exactly taken a shine to the Bible-thumping pacifist. Like the brave men who took to the cargo net for the Ridge, Gibson’s cameras charge into battle with a gusto that’s immediately met with some of the most grisly war action you’re likely to ever see. It’s a breathless, chaotic and disturbingly realistic account of the bloody affront to the Japanese who were slowly losing control of the island, despite heavy losses on the American side.

While the film that precedes the fight itself feels much more compressed — particularly the budding romance between Doss and the nurse he meets at the town hospital where he decides he will donate blood, the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — there’s enough there to build a foundation for empathy. Perhaps this is a convenient time to forgive a film for being so contrived, but Palmer and Garfield’s chemistry feels appropriately based more upon a certain Look and Feel — both actors look of the era and their sweet romance feels unpretentious, genuine. They’re wonderful together. And while their passion for each other is palpable it’s more about the way the soldier was raised that offers the most compelling angle.

Gibson zeros in on two pivotal moments in Doss’ childhood — moments that, aside from his unwavering devotion to God, inform almost every decision he makes as an adult. One is an early scene in which Desmond and his younger brother Hal get into a play fight that turns ugly when the former smacks his brother in the head with a brick in an attempt to claim victory. Young Desmond, haunted by the fact he could have killed Hal, instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror takes a long hard look at a picture on their living room wall, a list of the Ten Commandments in a moment of silent and sincere repentance. Then, later, Doss finds himself stepping in between his father (a heartbreakingly good Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths) during yet another bout of domestic violence. A pistol becomes involved. Plagued by his experiences in World War I, Tom Doss embodies the soul-crushing effects of survivor’s remorse. Desmond seems to take more after his mother, who is a strong and positive influence, despite her suffering at the hands of an unstable husband.

There’s an argument to be made against Gibson injecting blood and violence into almost every possible scene — did we need to see the needle pierce the skin? Ditto the leg injury sustained by the local mechanic, did we really need that? Words like gratuitous, self-indulgent and perverse frequently have popped up, but I’d wager this grim foreshadowing is actually not only creatively inspired but it helps prepare the viewer mentally as we leave behind the quaint Virginian town and journey out onto a smoky battlefield. Those spurts of violence are perpetuated as Doss’ idealism is met with hostility by his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers at boot camp. Watching him getting harassed unmerciful isn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact much of Hacksaw Ridge is far from comfortable viewing. As it should be. Gibson brings the horrors of war, and particularly this violent confrontation to life in a stunningly authentic and emotionally robust portrait. His first film in 10 years reminds us what made him a compelling filmmaker: his passionate touch, his ability to channel emotion through the lens, his eye for the beautiful as well as the barbaric. Amidst the loss of life there grows a flower. Doss’ heroic actions deserve to be celebrated and it would be something of a disservice not to show us precisely what kind of odds he was up against. What a powerful story.

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Recommendation: As both a tribute to a real war hero and a bloody depiction of war, Hacksaw Ridge manifests as one of the most punishing but ultimately rewarding film experiences of the year. The emotional and visual components match up favorably with Steven Spielberg’s seminal war film Saving Private Ryan, though I personally stop short of saying it tops that epic. I just have to recommend you bear down and watch this one. It’s an important film and a remarkable true story of courage and remaining true to one’s self.

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Lord, help me get one more. One more.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lights Out

'Lights Out' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater*]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: David F. Sandberg

In Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg’s feature debut, an expanded realization of a short film he made in 2013, something sinister lurks in the absence of light and enjoys tormenting anyone unfortunate enough to be in the same room with it. That is, of course, unless those people have a flashlight or bright cell phone screen handy and they can wield it like Father Merrin does the cross before Pazuzu himself: “Go away! Go away, you!”

Lights Out is a family drama dressed up as a fright fest. It’s well-acted and on-the-rise Aussie actress Teresa Palmer makes much of it worth your while. She’s certainly easier on the eyes than she is on your heart, a kind of bratty youth who blames her attitude on daddy walking out on the family so long ago. Her mother (Maria Bello) has lost her mind and become reclusive. After many years she’s still haunted by the disappearance of childhood friend Diana.

Her daughter Rebecca (Palmer) can’t seem to get a grip on her own life. She lives alone in her apartment and doesn’t want to call the guy she’s been seeing for eight months her boyfriend. Bret (Alexander DiPersia)’s not going anywhere though, not even after he’s finally met Rebecca’s crazy mom. Heck, especially after. Rebecca has a younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who still lives at home but soon it becomes clear that that situation can no longer continue, what with mom talking to herself late at night and haunting the poor boy with stories of her past. Stuff about Diana. Other gibberish.

One thing that Lights Out has going for it is a strong sense of family. That manifests despite the brokenness of this particular household. Whether it’s Rebecca’s instinctive protectiveness of Martin — she attempts to take him in and care for him at her own apartment before a child care specialist shows up and impresses upon her the actual, transformative reality of becoming a caretaker — or Bret’s inexplicable devotion to his not-girlfriend; even Sophie, the sick mother, has a deep love for her son and daughter. The film is wisely, and arguably, more intimately concerned with human relationships than it is with things going bump in the night. Bello in particular manages to really dial in on the emotional heft of her character experiencing some low moments.

Palmer is less interesting, as is her boy-toy. Both actors are likable enough but the latter barely leaves his fingerprints on the story. Rebecca never really seems to change, as circumstances force her to get back in touch with her mother despite years of tension and weirdness. As Martin, the young Bateman has presence but more importantly he spares us from yet another shrieking, generally irritating cinematic creation who serves no greater purpose than to put everyone in needless danger.

Less interesting than any of these is the antagonist, some haunt that has roots in the history of this once-upon-a-time happy family. Frustratingly Lights Out is another case in which evil appears and acts only when the script finds it convenient. This would also explain the apparition’s obnoxious inconsistencies, like being able to shut down power to an entire building but not having the fortitude to withstand an attack from the light of a cell phone. Something interesting does come out of the invention — it’s creepy watching the thing move in between flips of a light switch — but if you’re in it for the wickedness awaiting all those who have trespassed, you’re in the wrong movie.

If you’ve come for the jump scares, you’ve come to the right place. That’s all Lights Out does, even if it does it well. I hope it doesn’t become Sandberg’s calling card. Despite the quality of a handful of those moments, I gotta say a person’s healthy fear of darkness is actually more intense than the fear of what Sandberg’s film has laying around in it. I can’t help but feel like we would understand the function of so many repeated jump scares if the threat were more real. Without a compelling villain behind everything the technique just feels lazy and uninspired. Repetitive.

When it comes right down to it, decent ghost story; not so good movie.

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* I have never walked out on a movie because of other people in the theater being too loud. Lights Out broke that streak. I went to check it out on Friday but there were two very intoxicated guys in there who genuinely just didn’t realize how loud they were being. Unfortunately this was after they and two other groups came in after the movie had begun (like, tape rolling not the credits and stuff). I got a pass for another time, came back Saturday. I was alone in the theater (11:15p) until a rambunctious little group of teens came in and they proceeded to talk through the entire movie and were probably even louder than the guys the night before. I almost left again. So it is quite possible that this review doesn’t accurately reflect how I might have felt about it had I been able to fully concentrate on the film. So, I thank those individuals for that. Thanks for the distractions. 


Recommendation: The strong sense of family is what makes Lights Out worth sitting through at all. The steeped-in-reality tone and settings feel very James Wan but there’s little evidence of his influence elsewhere. I suppose the script isn’t the worst you could find either. But come the end of it  you’re left wanting a lot more. That’s a shame when everyone seems so committed. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Hey Martin, what’s up? Did we wake you?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Kill Me Three Times

Release: Friday, April 10, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: James McFarland

Directed by: Kriv Stenders

Simon Pegg embraces his inner baddie and Kill Me Three Times is somewhat better because of it.

‘Somewhat’ is the operative word here as Pegg, even in a killer role (e-hem), isn’t enough to make the film worth watching. Too choppily paced to be considered an intentional slow-burner, not parodic enough to warrant comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, and not poorly acted enough to generate entertainment of a purely schlocky nature, Australian writer/director Kriv Stenders’ thriller regrettably makes precious little out of its great potential.

Unsurprisingly, Pegg’s presence affords the adventure most of its enjoyability. Opening on one of its most memorable lines, the film finds a stupefied Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) recounting how he could have possibly gotten into the situation he now finds himself. Before he can say another word — flashback! Yes, we are watching that kind of movie, where the introduction teases a history of events that are, apparently, best left in non-chronological order. Or at the very least, left until later.

We go back to where this botched crime began, like, a couple of days ago. A young woman named Alice (Alice Braga) has a dental appointment to repair a chipped tooth she received after the last altercation with her husband, but unbeknownst to her she is about to be drugged and kidnapped by the surgeon (Sullivan Stapleton) and his assistant/wife (Teresa Palmer). After becoming suspicious about his wife’s recent behavior, Jack (Callan Mulvey), a sleazy motel proprietor, hires a hit man to follow Alice around. Jack’s worst fears are realized thanks to video evidence of her sleeping with another man. Obliged to act betrayed but not really look it — I think this is just bad acting at this point — Jack finds himself requiring Charlie’s full range of services. Apparently this couple is well past resolving their differences with words.

Charlie is amused when he comes upon the dentists carrying out the act themselves, transferring her unconscious body into a different car that they light on fire and send over a cliff. However, he is not aware that their actions are being dictated by a completely different set of motivations. Of course, the sloppiness of the pair’s execution leaves a loose end. When Charlie goes back to Jack, satisfied that the job has been done and wanting to collect his payment (but not admitting that he didn’t have any involvement), Jack discovers he has been robbed.

While all this is going on the dentists, who aren’t really dentists but in fact horrible people with really nice teeth, are attempting to pull off an insurance scam by replacing the receptionist’s dental records with their most recent patient (Alice)’s, hoping to collect on the fake death that was staged with Alice in the flaming car. A corrupt local cop (Bryan Brown) catches on to the scheme-hatchery pretty quickly and demands he be paid half of the settlement. This, despite the fact Nathan is up to his neck in gambling debts and insists he can’t afford to lose a cent.

Kill Me Three Times weaves three tales of betrayal and murder that are all inextricably linked to one another, with Pegg’s contract killer coming right in the middle of it all. What the story ultimately boils down to is a simple case of infidelity and it is one you have seen countless times before. It’s a movie almost worth your while for Pegg’s atypical role playing but he’s deceptively peripheral given the amount of space he occupies on the theatrical release poster. Stenders packs the narrative with twist after twist, and endless scenes of double-crossing and back-stabbings, of both the literal and figurative sort. There is no particular point of view from which the story is told; Stenders instead relies on multiple perspectives by cutting back and forth between parties. Unfortunately very few developments are unforeseen or even very entertaining, the story bogged down in homage and triteness.

And yet, if you can spare some empathy for these underdeveloped characters — the good ones, that is — which will not only be a hell of an effort but likely one that’s more than what this film deserves, you might just be able to eke out some laughs while watching Pegg strut his stuff around the screen dressed to the nines and armed with a serious rifle. Personally, I was more inclined to review his mustache than the film he starred in. Upper lip hair is far more of a sinister characteristic than his all-black attire. For what it’s worth, Pegg pulls off the mustache and the antagonist look well enough. It’s just a little disappointing these are the kinds of cliches Kill Me Three Times is completely satisfied with justifying as its main source of entertainment.

Recommendation: A whodunnit in which we have a decent idea very early on who’s gonna do it, Kill Me Three Times also isn’t very funny. It had a huge opportunity to be something special with Simon Pegg in a different kind of role but unfortunately much of it is squandered in a boring story that does nothing with its solid cast and very little with its gorgeous Australian locales. This one boils down to a film to watch for completionists — if you have to see Pegg in everything he’s done then this should be on your list. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “This place is like a f**king open air insane asylum!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com