Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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In 2004, when soldiers from Bravo company return to the States as part of a victorious tour, private and public perceptions about what the war and true heroism really means, collide head on. Ben Fountain’s superb source novel did an excellent job of piercing the heart of the hypocrisy and condescension that sees prominent businessmen and political figures lining up to besiege the soldiers with plaudits and commendations of heroism. And yet they do so without ever truly comprehending the psychological impact of the soldiers’ existence in a place where danger can be lying in wait, quite literally, around every corner.

Despite some occasional stilted dialogue, director Ang Lee generally does a fine job of both staying true to Fountain’s story and interweaving the time strands with the transition from the present day’s hectic schedule at n NFL match in Dallas often dissolving into flashbacks from the company’s time in Iraq. Lynn’s story, in particular, is placed under the microscope. Footage of his defining, courageous act of close combat whilst attempting to save the life of superior officer, Shroom (Vin Diesel), has gone viral, giving the nation of point of focus for its nationalistic fervour.

The other side of the coin is the lack of respect given these men who are placed on a pedestal and idealised, very briefly, to sustain momentary blasts of patriotism but will soon be yesterday’s news. We get an especially telling insight into these fickle attitudes when the choreography of a show stopping spectacle needs to be rigidly adhered to. In the mayhem of the pre-show the soldiers become just a minuscule part of the ‘event’, in which crassness, ratings and celebrity power are what provide the real currency for a society sick on its force-fed idealisations of the kind of greatness they should truly aspire to.

Mostly from Billy’s eyes we see how manipulated Bravo become, their status as heroic figures quickly diminishing. Visions of Iraq and the loss of Shroom pouring through Billy’s haunted eyes provide a powerful juxtaposition against the mechanical, forgettable role they’re asked to play. The immersion of Bravo into this elaborate schematic fluff is almost painful to watch.

First time performer Alwyn is a revelation, surrounding to the need to make Billy an inward-gazing young man doesn’t deny him an inherent goodness and craving for the binding safety of family. His most important relationship however is with sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), still healing from a car crash and yearning for his return to re-centre her own life and that of their family. It’s the increasingly impressive Garrett Hedlund who steals the show however as Bravo’s forthright, vocal leader.

Important to the film is the real sense of camaraderie created between the men of Bravo. They act like fools at times and are blissfully ignorant about how to act in participating in this charade, but their sense of humour humanises them and as the film draws to a close with Billy teetering on the verge of an important decision, we feel the bond he feels with both the men and the duty he wishes to uphold. It’s complicated stuff, a torturous state of emotional turmoil that sees him weighing the pros and cons of staying home to tend to his family’s pain or fulfilling the expectations of his brothers and by extension, an entire nation – as ignorant and clueless as they may be. Adding further complication is the cheerleader he’s fallen for, Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), and the allure of another alternative life that she represents if he’s brave enough to take a wild, impulsive chance.

The final scenes, despite a couple of unconvincing moments, generally feel credible and right somehow, and not a betrayal of everything we wish for Billy as his revelatory day is reduced to its most crucial moment. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), despite its flaws, is a restrained, humanistic portrayal of the terrible burden placed on young men tossed into the cauldron of a battleground on foreign soil. I admired it for an ambition that never strangles the film with expectation and yet allows Lee to find interesting ways to impart this important, gently moving story without it ever requiring empty spectacle to contextualise it.

Morgan

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Though it mostly skirts around more interesting core themes to build its narrative with constituent parts closer in relation to generic thrillers, there are still striking elements in Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016). This is a film that concerns itself with that obsessive contemplated theme of Philip K. Dick’s about what it really means to be human. It begins on a remote compound where a group of scientists have been conducting an elaborate, highly evolved experiment with a new life form. But now an ‘incident’ has occurred in which their biologically engineered star pupil Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has lashed out at the woman seen as her ‘mother’ figure, Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

In the wake of this anomalous event, ‘Corporate’ has dispatched a handpicked representative, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to review the group’s processes and make a determination about the future of Morgan. Seemingly chosen for her cool composure and hard-nosed objectivity, Weathers immediately rubs the site’s leaders, including Dr. Simon Zeigler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), the wrong way, with suspicions arising that the project that they’ve devoted so much time and dedication to, may now be in jeopardy.

This is an excellent debut for Scott, son of Ridley, though it seems strange considering his lineage that it’s taken until the age of 48 for him to get his first feature into production. Written by Seth Owen, Morgan develops intrigue before gaining decent momentum, if somewhat artificially generated. The twists that follow evolve from what is perhaps the film’s standout scene in which Morgan is interviewed for pysch-evaluation purposes by a late-arriving analyst, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti.

As it develops, Morgan becomes another cautionary tale about how humanity’s obsession with scientific progress, though it can initiate stunning, rapid change and advances for the species, may also bring about its ultimate downfall. Messing with the gene pool is fraught with danger, as is a desire to explore far scientific horizons whilst simultaneously exposing the depths of man’s monumental hubris. Screenwriters have become adept at showing us how horribly pear-shaped these scenarios eventually turn out with Alex Garland’s superb recent effort Ex-Machina (2015) perhaps the finest example to date.

The two female leads are the standouts, with Mara playing the steely Weathers with great conviction and a strong sense of the ambiguity attached to her motivations and ultimate agenda. Taylor-Joy is even more impressive; this fine young actress, who was easily the best thing about Robert Eggers’s otherwise messy, mediocre and overrated The Witch (2015), brings a mesmerising stillness to her performance; it’s a convincing reflection of Morgan’s superabundant, radically advancing intelligence. Yet her reactions are also suffused by a streak of emotional abstraction. She may be engineered out of a test-tube but she possesses a well-honed conception of what constitutes a human’s emotional range. But can she rationalise and express these emotions with authenticity or only imitate them for the purpose of pulling the wool over her creators’ eyes?

Morgan ultimately feels a need to bring tropes – like a car chase and hand-to-hand combat – into play instead of conjecturing, theorising and seeking a generally deeper probing of the central themes though this, of course, may have denied the narrative its pace, energy, visceral gut-punching and commercial prospects. Despite this conscious dumbing down to accommodate broader appeal, Morgan is nevertheless a very solid piece of speculative fiction and a strong debut from a director with a rich cinematic heritage attached to his name.

Hell or High Water

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Bringing an astute outsider’s perspective to the barren expanses of the impoverished Texan Badlands, British director David Mackenzie’s new film is a near-flawless crime gem. Hell or High Water (2016) is the second produced screenplay of actor turned writer Taylor Sheridan who retains his strike rate after Sicario (2015) his multi-layered drug cartel drama so brilliantly brought to life by Denis Villeneuve last year.

The narrative is split into two strands, the first featuring brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) who go on a small-town bank-robbing spree in the west of the state, ostensibly to save their family farm. They pick up slim pickings in the first two before Tanner decides on an impromptu raid later in the day after lunch in a diner across the road when he decides they need to top up their funds. On the case is a battle-wearied veteran officer Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who, with his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are handed what seems like a straight-forward case.

Every facet of this production is first-class, with the quartet of lead performances all exceptional. Foster is no stranger to playing men liable to lose their heads under some kind of psychological duress. Tanner is a loose cannon but he and Toby, despite their propensity for criminal behaviour, are never portrayed as potentially evil. For Toby, child-support issues are also a factor in motivating a desire for quick cash. Both actors ensure that we retain an essential empathy for the brothers; we can’t even despise them when they do, on rare occasion, resort to violence. They’re flawed anti-heroes of sorts, with Toby’s admission of his qualities never to be emulated and shortcomings to his son one of the film’s most sobering moments.

On the other side of the coin, Bridges gives a superb performance as the undeterred, easy-going Hamilton. Though jaded and on the verge of retirement he presents a calm, collected, easy confidence from having encountered every quirk attributable his fellow human beings, especially those with a distinctly West Texas flavour. He shares an easy camaraderie and witty self-effacement with Alberto whose mixed cultural background is a source of just some of the amusing repartee between the two.

Though it counts down to an inevitable confrontation, it’s the finer details that make Hell or High Water great, with Sheridan’s exceptional screenplay jam-packed with observational dialogue and subtle detailing that provides the film with texture, connecting both the people to the land and to one another as credibly portrayed human beings. Mackenzie’s direction is superb, deploying minimalism to allow richly-grained transitional scenes to move and expand at their own pace, whilst shaping other ‘bigger’ scenes with dazzling skill, in a way that never draws attention to them as showy set-pieces. Mackenzie’s last film, the claustrophobic prison drama Starred Up (2013) was an incredibly intense, impressively authentic piece of cinema. Though a world away from that, Hell or High Water is every bit as impressive and almost certainly his finest film to date.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

The Girl on the Train

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Though it ultimately unravels in a predictable ways, resorting to standard thriller tropes to sustain its narrative, The Girl on the Train remains compelling throughout. Though it oscillates in time and between various strands, the main focus is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a single woman who travels by rail to New York every day for work. It just so happens that her train line passes by her old street where she’s afforded expansive views of her former home and her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) who now lives with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).

Just a couple of doors along, there’s the couple’s babysitter Megan (Haley Bennett) whose seemingly idyllic existence is the rabid focus of Rachel’s daydreams of a return to happier days. Then one day she notices Megan on the balcony of her house in the embrace a man other than her husband Scott (Luke Evans) just before she goes missing.

Rachel, battling alcoholism amongst other internal demons is sucked into a whirlpool of confusion as she attempts to insert herself into the drama. Simultaneously, she can’t be sure of anyone’s reality, especially her own, not with fractured memories rising to the surface to haunt her. But are these memories genuine or just a concoction of her troubled, slowly disintegrating mind? Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and events are presented in such a way as to make them as ambiguous as possible, deepening the mystery of Megan’s vanishing and who exactly has played a role in proceedings.

Certainly, you can pick the film to pieces for its diminishing credibility, fall back on clichéd thriller elements and hackneyed plot deviations, however two things greatly distinguish it. Firstly, there’s Emily Blunt’s simply astonishing performance. We witness her channeling an array of bleak emotional colours in her riveting portrayal of Rachel; the woman’s psychological disarray is captured with genuinely unnerving intensity at times. Tate Taylor’s direction is excellent too; he’s acutely aware this isn’t a dazzlingly original or profound screenplay but he take interesting chances visually, directing the film with an impressive assuredness and invention. Wisely, he makes the most of Blunt’s gifts by very frequently allowing us distressingly close-up coverage of her expressive face and Rachel’s damaged psyche.

Based on Paula Hawkins’s stupendously best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train obviously has a guaranteed built-in audience curious to see if this latest breakout crime thriller has been as successfully adapted for the big screen as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which landed in the hands of director David Fincher in 2014. It has resonant themes placed in palatable contexts, like those dangerous perversions that flourish behind the curtains in middle-class suburbia. And even if none of the other performers can come close to matching Blunt’s formidable range, this is definitely a commute worth undertaking.

The Infiltrator

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The torturous plight of undercover workers constitutes an increasingly stale sub-genre of its own. Cinema is littered with dramas depicted police offices or special agents burrowing deep behind enemy lines to gain and then betray the trust of unconscionable criminals, all the while surrendering their domestic lives to the dogs as an inevitable payoff. Thankfully, Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator proves to be a cut above the competition in this crowded field. Adapted from former Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book about his 80’s exploits posing as a businessman attempting to gain access to the top financiers a level below the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Furman’s film is stacked with credible layers whilst boasting a slick, high-gloss aesthetic, an economical screenplay – by partner Ellen Brown Furman – and a brilliantly chosen cast led by the imposing Bryan Cranston as Mazur.

In the film’s opening sequence we get a glimpse of the agent at work, easily able to immerse and ingratiate himself into an inner circle of lowlifes. But when the war on drugs requires a radical escalation, Mazur is chosen by his superior Bonni Tischler (a bland, wasted Amy Ryan) to weasel his way into the outer circle of narcotics players. Assuming the alias Bob Musella, he reluctantly takes on fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) as his partner and co-conspirator in attempting to gain traction with the money men whilst climbing the step ladder to the vicinity of Escobar’s lair.

The film’s more generically captured family dynamics, namely the strain placed on Mazur’s marriage to Evelyn – wonderfully underplayed with an increasing apathy by Juliet Aubrey – tilt The Infiltrator into familiar territory but the film’s striking visual texture has a genuine magnetism about it. The crisp cinematography by Joshua Reis, who uses coloured lighting in a manner reminiscent of some of Steven Soderbergh’s best work, gives the film a richly enhanced visual exoticism whilst never betraying Furman’s credible re-creation of time and place.

The exceptional support players complement Cranston brilliantly, especially Benjamin Bratt as Escobar’s charismatic underling Roberto Alcaino who is utterly convinced by Mazur’s act. The two become very close and the genuine mutual respect shared by the pair has us almost dreading that the deferred moment of come-uppance will arrive with a strangely bittersweet charge. Most memorable of the criminal faction is Yul Vazquez’s hilariously eccentric Javier Espina who more than once rattles Mazur with his untoward attentions. The always entertaining Leguizamo tears it up as the mouthy, rabid dog Abreu whose alignment with the white hats is, nonetheless, never under scrutiny. Diane Kruger also makes a noteworthy contribution as the agent drafted to take part in the ruse as Musella’s fiancée, whose convincing role-playing becomes just as crucial to getting a result as Mazur’s dynamic wheeling and dealing.

With his latest film, Furman makes a lie of any notion of him being a one-hit wonder after his superb Michael Connelly adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer back in 2011. He most recently made the bland Runner Runner (2013) which went down that most hopeless of routes, trying to convince audiences that Justin Timberlake can strike a single credible chord as a dramatic actor. Though The Infiltrator looks great, it avoids being tainted by commercial-minded approach. Flawless cast aside, it has humour, grit, complexity and integrity and even when delving into familiar places, it manages to mostly put an entertaining and interesting spin on the material.