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.

 

 

 

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The Light Between Oceans

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From picturesque period romance to morose melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s very fine latest film is suffused with melancholy, regret, and torment as it depicts the ethical dilemma of a couple transformed by love. Beginning in 1918, returning soldier, war-scarred loner Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is happy to fill the breach when a lighthouse keeper position becomes available off the Western Australian coast. Nursing psychological scars from his time abroad, he yearns for a kind of therapeutic isolation. The methodical approach needed to perform his daily duties on Janus also has its attractions. In the closest town, where his arrangements are made, he’s drawn to the daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), of a prominent local, Bill Graysmark (Garry McDonald). Before ever admitting to their feelings face to face, the pair exchange correspondence of the course of many months. Eventually, on one of his breaks from the lighthouse, Tom summons the courage to ask Isabel’s hand in marriage.

Initially their life on Janus is idyllic with location work at Cape Campbell in Marlborough, New Zealand providing a stunning, wind-blown backdrop. In time Isabel becomes pregnant. Their existence, though a secluded one, couldn’t be more filled with optimism. Naturally, though, a cruel twist of fate will irrevocably alter their lives when Isabel experiences difficulty at the end of her pregnancy and, isolated from Tom in the lighthouse during a massive storm, can’t get the help she needs to save her unborn child.

Based on Australian author M.L. Steadman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans (2016) is beautifully produced, beginning like a classic romantic epic before the bells of impending doom begin to sound. It’s at the midpoint that this key plot contrivance serves to completely alter the tone of the film. There’s no doubt that it’s a blatantly ludicrous event, but Cianfrance’s involving, earnest adaptation has already dragged us deep enough into its soulful clutches that audiences will likely overlook and forgive this unlikeliest of occurrences.

As he displayed with his last two features, firstly his anatomy-of-a-relationship-breakdown, Blue Valentine (2010) and then the ambitious but deeply flawed The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Cianfrance’s visual style is always noteworthy. With the aid of another brilliant Australian artist, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, they often use gritty, handheld work, regularly shooting the actors in telling close-up, an emphatic style leavened by non-artificial light. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox but striking approach to her Wuthering Heights (2011) adaptation, though not nearly as experimental. This intense scrutiny also accentuates Tom and Isabel’s harmonious but precarious relationship with their surroundings against which perspective can change quickly, putting a vastly different slant on the enormity of the natural world and the power it unconsciously wields.

Fassbender, especially, proves remarkable again for his ability to extract a deep well of emotional detail out of a few words or a glance. His presence is magnetic but never distractingly or overpoweringly so. At times there’s a picturesque emptiness to Vikander whose clearly lacks her co-star’s range but is still a believable embodiment of Isabel who undergoes quite a few emotionally- transformations. The introduction of the third main character, Hannah Roennfeldt, played typically with class and conviction by Rachel Weisz, is another positive.

Working in a realm in which he thrives and is now much sought after, composer Alexandre Desplat provides another classy score. It’s melodically sumptuous and yet a model of restraint, never allowing the emotional latitude of the narrative to inflect his themes with obvious, manipulative intent. Though there, is to some extent, a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, Cianfrance still has the ability to wring a few genuine emotional tugs of the heart out of us. In some ways The Light Between Oceans feels like a natural progression for him and perhaps his most mature work to date.

Goldstone

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Ivan Sen’s sequel of sorts to the excellent Mystery Road (2013) only enhances his reputation as one of our finest current directors. Using social commentary in subtle, intelligent ways, he returns us to the life of troubled detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he enters the sparsely populated Goldstone district on a missing person’s case. Here, corruption is the underlying force determining the nature of interactions and, inevitably, the outcome of all things. A mining deal framed by a sleazy head of operations (David Wenham) and his co-conspirator, dodgy Mayor (Jackie Weaver), hinges on the assent of an Aboriginal elder (David Gulpilil), complicating Swan’s discovery of a link between his own case and the secret spiriting in and out of town of young Chinese women to use as prostitutes. Swan’s progress is interrupted by his battle with internal demons and an ambitious young local cop, Josh Waters (Alex Russell), full of natural suspicions about interlopers and living well off strong personal relationships with the townsfolk.

Pederson has been gifted the role of a lifetime by Sen. Swan is a fascinating, compelling character, flawed in obvious ways and psychologically wounded by past events but possessing an iron-will determination to do his job even if he gets side-tracked in an occasional alcoholic fog. His belligerence and resistance to the authority of the land are never exhibited in clichéd, overly demonstrative ways. Sen’s dialogue, as it was in Mystery Road, is superb, distinguished by its economy and a rare ability to create credible, animated moments for even brief characters. His subtly inflected social commentary is telegraphed through Swan who, with just a handful of tossed barbs, provides a heartfelt, corrosive reminder of alternate views of unacknowledged aspects of our country’s past and present.

It’s a testament to both director and actor that Swann resonates as he does; as a powerful voice of reason and conviction, compelled by a social imperative, an internalised agony and a sense of aching with the impotence generated by casually cruel injustices. Russell is superb as the confident but malleable young cop, whilst Weaver and Wenham are an acidic duo as the instigators of the town’s descent into a cesspool of degenerative greed and exploitation; neither is above remotely decided upon ‘elimination’ as a means to an end.

Sen’s vision for his characters in Goldstone (2016) is deeply embedded in the context of their surrounds; the landscape binds every perspective with reminders of the harsh and barren place into which anything, including moral perspectives, can evaporate without a trace. Working as his own D.P., Sen propels his camera skyward to further impel us with a bird’s eye of this often falsely beautiful terrain traversed by Swan. His now trademark overhead view – employed judiciously and to delirious effect on occasion – feels remarkably fresh and organically empowering as a descriptive tool. It’s also sensuously inclusive of his audience who are never jolted out of the film’s narrative slipstream in which immersion becomes natural and willingly sought. Sen, as with previous films, composes his own score, and his work here – sparsely used for maximum impact – is his finest yet. It brings moments of transcendence and pain alive with vivid, evocative aural colours that tap into Swan’s fluctuating emotional states within key scenes.

One quibble about the film might be Sen’s slight concession to the creation of a stock action scene moment; it mostly plays out without a hitch even if a couple of slightly unfeasible scenes around it put the most minor dent in the compellingly strong narrative. Otherwise, Goldstone works on almost every level; the material is confidently handled by Sen, the sobering tale full of complexity, nuance and rendered with a deep respect for history, his land and an eternal, soul-searing pursuit for justice. Here’s hoping for Swan’s return in a third feature.

A Month of Sundays

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A real estate agent is suffering through a mid-life crisis. And what – we’re supposed to care? Well, thanks to a beautifully understated performance by Anthony LaPaglia, returning to his home town of Adelaide, and the skill of writer-director Matthew Saville, A Month of Sundays (2016) does indeed achieve the near impossible, eliciting sympathy for a member of one of the most derided, disreputable professions on God’s green earth.

Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is wavering on the verge of a terminal fadeout. Having recently lost his mother, he’s become utterly listless, exhibiting little or no enthusiasm for his work. Going through the motions one evening after another blandly successful auction he couldn’t care less about, he receives a strange phone call from a woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who sounds eerily close to his mother and who addresses him as son. Disorientated, Frank loses himself in the moment and continues the surreal exchange before the truth finally comes to light. It’s a wrong number, a strange miscommunication. But Frank is intrigued by this woman and calls her again the next day before arranging a lunch engagement. Their initial meeting becomes a regular one during which more detailed aspects of their troubled lives come to light.

Saville’s two previous features both dealt with characters attached to the police force. His impressive debut Noise (2007) was followed by the equally noteworthy accident cover-up tale of Felony (2013) in which a trio of officers with very different agendas attempt to juggle damaging ethical compulsions with a hard-edged loyalty to their own kind. A Month of Sundays is impressive for many reasons but mostly because it strikes such a perfect balance between drama and a previously unrevealed vein of black humour, often interspersing scenes with Frank’s boss Philip Lang, played to perfection by John Clarke. The film often has a wonderfully pensive, slowed-down, unrushed feel to it as well. Most refreshingly, Saville allows, at times, real-world sounds and uncomfortable silences to carry scenes in which Frank is drawn into an internal examination of his troubles.

It’s an impressively crafted portrait and LaPaglia, with intuitive skills and a subduing of Frank’s emotional register, allows us a telling, often moving glimpse of his struggles with reasoning and inspiration. His interactions with his teenage son and ex-wife (Justine Clarke) occasionally hit upon the odd wrong note but at the core of A Month of Sundays is Frank’s tale and it’s one told with great conviction by an emerging young Australian filmmaker.

 

Ruben Guthrie

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Brendan Cowell’s feature debut, drawn from autobiographical sources that he initially honed into a play, seems set to become a compelling, admonishing tale about the woes and general social digressions negatively associated with excessive alcohol assumption. But the thematic concerns of Ruben Guthrie (2015) are mostly nothing so sincere; in fact it’s just a tidy-up-my-life-for-a-year-before-getting-back-on-the-bandwagon kind of film, though full of sharp, witty verbal interplay, overdrawn, close to cartoonish characters and a leg on either side of the fence.

Sure, Cowell takes pains to emphasise, we all get a little stupid with extreme drinking at times, but if you’re just willing to pull your head in, then the world and all its fringe benefits will slow become realigned and you can jump right back into the sea of demon beverages. On one level, you have to admire Cowell’s attempt to open up the eyes of his main character Guthrie (Patrick Brammell), a cocky advertising whiz who tosses down bottles of anything at hand as if they were flavoured lollies. His long-time model girlfriend Zoya (Abbey Lee) has finally reached the end of her tether however after he ends up in hospital after an inelegant swan dive off the roof of his building and into his pool.

She walks out, telling him that if he stays off the booze for a year she’ll reconsider a return. So into self-defence mode goes Ruben, his eyes opened to his own recklessness and a wider perspective of what he really holds true in life. He signs up for AA and despite staying the path and ignoring liquid temptation, finds himself instead falling in and out of bed with another member of the regular group, Virginia (the excellent Harriet Dyer).

Drinking has genuine destructive power when uncontained and relationships suffer. Inverting such a notion, Ruben’s mother Susan (Robyn Nevin) later has difficulty coming to terms with his sobriety after being the one to hold his hand at his first AA meeting. Cowell has relevant things to say about the stigma of drinking too and conversely, the heave of a cultural bias that expects men of real substance to be regular imbibers or forfeit their masculinity. Ruben’s dad (Jack Thompson) thinks his wagon-jumping is some kind of sick joke; his superior Ray (Jeremy Sims) admits that his star executive is notches below scratch without a drink to fire up his creative juices, whilst a ludicrously over-the-top gay friend Damian (Alex Dimitriades) does everything he can to incorporate a saunter down memory lane with he and Ruben’s most notorious drinking misadventures from days gone by.

The entire narrative is certainly strung together in an entertaining fashion, excesses and brash characterisations aside. Brammell, so fine in the recent mini-series Glitch as an everyman town police officer dealing with the inexplicable return from beyond the grave, is equally good here. He basically makes an obnoxious arsehole empathetic to a large degree, and even if Cowell’s motives in putting Ruben through his paces are less than sincere in tackling larger themes in an honest, dramatic way, Brammell still manages to make us care about Ruben’s fate and a reconciliation with Zoya for the right reasons. The final scenes are a letdown however; depending on your perspective, they either offer us the blessed relief of an inevitable capitulation or a bleak, throwaway reconsideration of what truly constitutes manhood in Australia.

 

Ruben Guthrie is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray through Madman Entertainment. More details HERE.

 

Partisan

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Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature, Partisan (2014), a portrait of a commune living under the influence of a lone male figurehead, Gregori (brilliantly portrayed by Vincent Cassel), maintains a convincingly bleak tone but lacks a more defining, narrative substance. Gregori seems a personable leader and calming influence on his community of women and their children. An instructive father and dispenser of pearls of wisdom, he may be, but furtively he is also moulding and altering the psychology of the older boys, in particular, in sinister and disturbing ways.

Much of his focus is on son Alexander (the impressively clear-eyed, stone-faced Jeremy Chabriel), who begins to take on a more important role in acting out Gregori’s unspecified rage against those living the illusion of ‘normality’ beyond their own. The world in which this community exists is given little context. Is it the past, the future? Impossible to glean from the isolation in which they live, and this undoubtedly allows Kleiman and co-writer Sarah Cyngler a lot of freedom from dealing with potential real-world consequences. These people exist in a bubble, in other words, well apart from any accountability.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Partisan, beyond the subtly charismatic performance of Cassel, is the choice of locations. It’s remarkable to think of some of these places as being Australian; the few wider, broader shots give the strong impression of a burnt-out, post-war Eastern European city sheeted in layers of bleak decay. At the other end of the scale, the plotting is so subdued that is never catches fire despite some evocative, expertly executed individual scenes.

So much of the burden of the film is carried by Cassel and our faith in bold presumptions as to where this often infuriatingly low-key drama might be headed. Then there’s the community of women, all of whom are beholden to Gregori, who are so fragmentarily depicted, meaning that they never register in any plausible way. The strange mix of European accents only confuses matters. I’d still rate Partisan as a work of great promise despite its obvious shortcomings. Kleiman displays a keen sense of tone and real skill in his handling of young actors, but just comes up short in a stricter storytelling sense.