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.

 

 

 

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.

Arrival

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An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

Nocturnal Animals

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An austere, bleak meditation on revenge and the blurred boundaries where fictional and non-fictional lives intersect, Tom Ford’s long-gestating second feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016) comes with high expectations after the excellent Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009). But the promise created by an interesting premise and a fine cast is gradually eroded as the film’s complexities are revealed to be skin deep, whilst narrative holes flower up like fresh wounds, exposing a paucity of credibility and leading to a wilting anti-climax.

Based on a novel by Austin Wright, Ford’s film quickly establishes the apathy and ennui of gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has emotionally disengaged, not only from her work, but also her relationship to husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Then she receives a manuscript from her novelist ex-partner Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has dedicated his latest work to her and named it ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a term he often used to describe Susan during their time together. The film then effectively transforms to a story within the story as she dives into the book; the disturbing story described within forms the basis of much of the film.

A man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal,) is driving through a rural landscape at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re almost run off the road by a couple of cars. Soon they’re hounded to a stop in the middle of nowhere and being physically and verbally threatened by a group of rednecks led by the recklessly dangerous Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Even worse is to come when Laura and India are abducted before Tony can escape and struggle to freedom where his case, through the course of time, is investigated by cancer-riddled detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

There’s a sense of aloofness established early on that distances us from these people, especially in the present world of Susan, their coldness permeating every verbal and physical inflection. Beyond these glimpses, the world of the novel brings the nightmarish existence of a single man into ever sharper focus as his torment grows exponentially. In some way, is this same striving for recompense also taking shape in the real world, with Edward using the novel as a way to ingratiate his way back into the Susan’s consciousness for some possibly sinister purpose?

The illusion of the fictional story prevents us from emotionally engaging with what we see on screen, as horrible as these events playing out are. The presentation of this story ‘within’ is also highly problematic in the most fundamental way with the ‘investigation’ becoming more ludicrous as it progresses. Unorthodoxy on the behalf of Bobby might be semi-credible but the method he undertakes is difficult to reconcile with any kind of believable notion of the measures and actions a police officer would take to solve a crime of this magnitude. Bearing witness to Bobby’s reluctant participation in Bobby’s displaced vendetta is both uncomfortable and grating for its blatant absurdity

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be a crushing disappointment, squandering talent in every aspect of the production. Composer Abel Korzeniowski, a rising star and shining light of film music in recent years, provides another classy, elegant score. The performances too are uniformly excellent with Gyllenhaal adding to his remarkable recent body of work, with another dark, powerful portrayal of a man driven to extremes. Adams has never given anything less than a great performance and she does her best work here in flashbacks which show the first blossoming of her relationship with Edward before external forces are set in motion, dooming their perfect love. But the drama fizzles out, the final scene a perfect encapsulation of sharply focused expectations tainted by an enveloping absence that pervades both narrative strands.

 

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

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.