Hacksaw Ridge Review: In good faith


Director: Mel Gibson

Writers: Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer

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Release date: November 3rd, 2016

Distributor: Summit Entertainment, Icon Film Distribution

Countries: USA, Australia

Running time: 131 minutes


4½/5

Best part: The battle sequences.

Worst part: The CGI vistas.

Over the past decade, actor, director and trainwreck Mel Gibson has had massive highs and lows. His homophobic/sexist/racist/anti-semitic comments and unapologetic attitude destroyed his reputation. However, to quote South Park: “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, the son of a bitch knows story structure”. The controversy magnet is back in the spotlight with war-drama Hacksaw Ridge.

The once-great leading man was the king of 1990s and 2000s action-drama. 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart, adding to his preceding successes, paved the way for A-list actor/directors like Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Jodie Foster. His other directorial efforts, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, were also major talking points. Hacksaw Ridge a necessary jolt of adrenaline for Gibson’s career. This war-drama covers a shocking true story. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), after a violent incident involving brother Hal years earlier, lives a peaceful life in Lynchburg, Virginia. Desmond and Hal’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is haunted by World War I. The boys’ religious Mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) bares Tom’s wrath. The boys, much to their parents’ disdain, enlist to fight in WWII. Desmond falls for local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before being shipped off for military service.

Hacksaw Ridge develops multiple unique and intriguing identities. Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan provide solid groundwork for Gibson and the cast. The narrative itself is split down the middle. The first half develops Desmond as both lover and fighter. Gibson depicts Des’s home life with short, heart-wrenching moments. Des, essentially, is middle America’s more content side. Whereas Hal jumps at the opportunity to leave, Des contemplates everything and everyone before making fateful choices. His relationship with Tom is utterly necessary. That all-important decision – whether to join up with his comrades or leave other young Americans to fight – defines their dynamic. Our hero (despite being your average white, religious young protagonist) is never cloying or irritating. He is a blank canvas for everyone to project their views onto. Unlike many Hollywood-ised war-dramas, Des and Dorothy’s budding romance never jars with the tone.

After the brisk first half, Hacksaw Ridge takes swift turns throughout the second. Gibson and co. keep the politically-and-socially-charged fires burning. Throughout basic training, Des’s religious, anti-violent beliefs – as a conscientious objector following the Sixth Commandment of the Old Testament – rustle many feathers. In particular, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) seek to eject him on psychiatric grounds. Gibson’s handling of tension and drama is sublime. He gives each party their due whilst fleshing out Des’s training and court proceedings effectively. Also, interactions between Desmond and fellow soldiers are tightly wound. The movie soars during its Battle of Okinawa recreations. Each set-piece is shockingly violent, throwing buckets of blood and guts in our faces. Within seconds, machine gun fire and grenades obliterate whole battalions. Gibson fills every frame with stunning practical effects and stunt work.

Overshadowing 2016’s slew of bland blockbusters, Hacksaw Ridge provides genuine chills and thrills. Gibson is let off the leash here. Thanks to his command, the drama, comedic moments and action never distort one another. Indeed, his cast and crew bring their A-game to every scene. This could win big come Oscar time.

Verdict: A triumphant war-drama.

Deepwater Horizon Review: Rolling in the Deep


Director: Peter Berg

Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand (screenplay), David Barstow, David Rohde, Stephanie Saul (book)

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez

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Release date: October 6th, 2016

Distributor: Summit Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 107 minutes


3½/5

Best part: The strong performances.

Worst part: The slimy BP characters.

Docudrama/disaster epic Deepwater Horizon chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most devastating true stories. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig explosion and fire, on April 20th, 2010, killed 11 people and spilled 210 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The investigation pointed the finger at petrol conglomerate BP’s lackadaisical actions before and after the incident.

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, re-teaming after 2013’s docudrama Lone Survivor, deliver the second in their unofficial based-on-a-recent-true story trilogy. Later this year, the duo re-team again for Patriots Day – based on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and seceding manhunt. Here, Berg and co. divert their attentions to oil drilling. The plot chronicles the professional and personal lives of driller Mike Williams (Wahlberg). Kissing his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter goodbye, Williams hits the Deepwater Horizon for a mission seemingly like any other. Supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) scalds BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) over dangerous shortcuts. Engineer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) looks after the nitty-gritty details. In addition, youngster Caleb (Dylan O’Brien) and Jason (Ethan Suplee) protect the drill itself.

Deepwater Horizon, from start to finish, delves into core drilling’s ins and outs. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand drew inspiration from Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours (written and researched by three people). Clearly, they and Berg became infatuated with the event in question. Like Lone Survivor, Berg’s latest effort is almost too infatuated with the topic. It pars down the drilling and engineering jargon for a wider audience (the A to B to C explanations are worthwhile). However, slower pacing was still required. The walking-down-hallways moments see characters bounce jargon off one another. Although realistic, the gobbledygook is difficult to comprehend. With that said, the effort is greatly appreciated. In fact, the first half shows every square inch of every department on said monolithic structure.

However, modern audiences aren’t interested in engineering discussions or BP representative/stock market drivel. All hell breaks loose once the second half ticks over. Berg – an action-direction master thanks to Welcome to the Jungle and The Kingdom (and difficult to trust after Hancock and Battleship) – ratchets up the tension to 11. Of course, this story deserves respect (Hollywood gleam is a little unsettling here). However, the explosive moments are worth the admission cost. The second half/final third is one extended rescue mission. Gripping set-pieces and solid practical effects turn it into edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Berg and the cast pay respects to all involved. Wahlberg expertly portrays the everyman hero. Russell, back with a vengeance, is at his charismatic best. Rodriguez and O’Brien overcome generic characterisations. However, Malkovich lends his bad-guy schtick to an already absurd role.

Deepwater Horizon is almost a great movie. The action, special effects and direction got me excited for Patriots Day and Berg’s ongoing future. More so, the cast sink into their roles and pay tribute to all whom served. However, broad characterisations and messages almost ruin good work.

Verdict: A tight, taut docudrama.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation Review: Basic Instinct


Director: Sotiris Dounoukos

Writer: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Rubinstein (screenplay), Helen Garner (book)

Stars: Maggie Naouri, Jerome Meyer, Sacha Joseph, Gia Carides

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Release date: October 13th, 2016

Distributor: Titan View

Country: Australia

Running time: 102 minutes


3/5

 Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation

 

Snowden Review: Story half told


Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Luke Harding (book), Anatoly Kucherena (book)

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto

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Release date: September 22nd, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 134 minutes


3/5

Best part: Levitt and Woodley’s chemistry.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

There are many words to describe whistleblower Edward Snowden. Descriptors like patriot, terrorist, rebel, whistleblower and tyrant have been used by all manner of people. In spite of finger pointing and name calling, there is no doubt this is a fascinating tale. 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour exposed the truth behind one of the 21st Century’s most alarming leaks of classified information.

As Citizenfour proved, the fiery debate over cyber-security, privacy and whistleblowing rages on. So, with the documentary and internet providing maximum information, what does docudrama Snowden do differently? Not much. We first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being kicked out of special forces for dodgy legs. A devastated young Snowden joins the CIA under Corbin O’Brian(Rhys Ifans)’s watchful eye. The computer genius rises up the ranks and delves further into the system. He finds the government and security agency NSA’s secrets. His discoveries affect his and long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills(Shailene Woodley)’s relationship. Years later, he reaches out to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for help.

Obviously, Snowden finds the dirty details, steals secrets then leaks them to the press before going into exile in Moscow, Russia. This ongoing story is far from reaching a peaceful conclusion. A better docudrama would have detailed the journey’s ethical, emotional and psychological toll. Sadly, like The Fifth Estate, Snowden becomes a straightforward, useless stunt. Unlike Citizenfour, or anything the internet would provide, its delivers little information about Snowden’s identity, job or life-changing events. Each sub-plot and conflict merely blurs together. Set to a sluggish 134-minute run-time, it shifts lackadaisically between life moments. Instead of building drama and dread, he moves between jobs and countries without any impact. For better or worse, the narrative explores the nitty-gritty of analyst/spy work (finding contacts, moving between outposts etc).

Oliver Stone is a veteran director out of his league. He began with jagged-edge thrillers (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and war-dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). However, his last few (from Alexander through to Savages) have bitten the dust. Like the latter efforts, Snowden drags a top-notch premise and cast through the mud. Being one of Hollywood’s most opinionated filmmakers, Stone’s interest in Snowden seemed promising. However, his paranoia is almost laughable. The second act, when not languishing in Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship politics, delivers extended montages about cyber-security. His old-man-yells-at-cloud approach broadly targets the US Government, multi-million dollar corporations and those behind the scenes. Stone clumsily attempts to jazz up desk-jockey work and hacking with flashy visuals. Levitt and Woodley escape unscathed, delivering stellar impersonations of real-life counterparts.

Snowden had potential to tell a detailed story, bring Stone back from career suicide and showcase a quality cast. Instead, it’s a meandering, boilerplate procedural with little insight or even basic information. Stone’s out-of-touch direction and point of view deliver a snooze instead of a success.

Verdict: A wasted opportunity.

Sully Review: Soaring Above


Director: Clint Eastwood

Writers: Todd Komarnicki (screenplay), Chesley Sullenberger, Jeffrey Zaslow (book)

Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn

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Release date: September 8th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 96 minutes


4/5

Best Part: Hanks’s reserved performance.

Worst part: The occasional flashbacks.

Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is a national acting treasure and all-around nice guy. Since the late 1980s, he has mastered roles of immense passion and of varying genres. His down-to-earth attitude and raw charm engage audiences across multiple generations. In an age of brand recognition over movie-star prowess, the 60-year-old still delivers results. His work in Sully is no exception.

Sully centres on a story about an American hero, told by an American hero whilst starring another American hero. Hanks teams up with Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood for this 21st Century tale of hope. It details the events before, during and after the famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident. On January 15th, 2009, Airline pilot Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger began his day at work like any other. He and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) boarded US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport, outside New York City, with ease. However, three minutes into the flight, a flock of geese tore apart both engines. Unable to make it back to LaGuardia or to any other airport, Sully and Skiles made a forced water landing on the freezing Hudson River and saved the 155 souls onboard. Witnessed by New York and the world, the rescue efforts included the pilots, cabin crew, passengers, ferry/coastguard crews and police.

Docudramas generally involve war, conflict, and heartache to create drama and begin discussion. So, how could anyone make a Hollywood feature out of said good news story? Sully resembles a detailed and fascinating piece of investigative journalism. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, adapting Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book about the event, capture the biggest and smallest details. The pair raise the tension and stakes with every new detail. Eastwood’s directorial filmography includes several hits and misses. The 86-year-old filmmaker and outspoken Republican puts everything aside for ol’ fashioned authenticity. His previous directorial efforts, from docudramas (Letters From Iwo Jima, J. Edgar) or character pieces (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino), steadily portray the ins and outs, from go to woe. Here, he crafts a peculiar non-linear sequence with painstaking intensity.

The opening scene is a twisted dream sequence. Setting the audience on edge, the scene hurls us into the hero’s inner turmoil. It leaps between the incident, Sully’s loneliness, the air crash/insurance investigation, his wife back home (Lorraine (Laura Linney)) and flashbacks. Sully could have been a long and meandering mess preying on basement-level fears. However, the movie sways gently between intensifying dread and hope against the odds. Eastwood and co. present the incident itself from multiple points of view (a mother and daughter, golfers late for the fight etc.). The entire set piece makes for, arguably, the year’s best movie moments. This flawless recreation proves truth really is stranger than fiction. Hanks may get his latest Oscar nomination. Prone to playing nice guys and real-life heroes, the legend provides raw passion and cutting humour.

Sully showcases some of Hollywood’s best in fine form. Eastwood’s silky-smooth direction pays off tremendously. Meanwhile, Hanks and Eckhart bounce off one another with ease. Like its titular hero, the movie is a tough, powerful and interesting ode to human spirit.

Verdict: Heroes talking about heroes.

The Infiltrator Review: Bryan the Boss


Director: Brad Furman

Writers: Ellen Brown Furman (screenplay), Robert Mazur (book)

Stars: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Broad Green Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 127 minutes


3/5

Review: The Infiltrator

 

Free State of Jones Review: Captain Confederacy – Civil War


Director: Gary Ross

Writer: Gary Ross

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: STX Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 140 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Matthew McConaughey.

Worst part: The courtroom-drama sub-plot.

No other Hollywood A-lister has experienced more critical and commercial ebbs and flows than Matthew McConaughey. The man’s man went from dumb action flick/romantic-comedy lead to crime-drama superstar. True Detective Season 1, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club showcase his range and commitment. Free State of Jones continues the McConnaissance’s post-Oscar run.

Like Interstellar and Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones is sure to divide critics. Based on an inspiring true story, it’s another docudrama more necessary than worthwhile. The plot chronicles the timeline of events in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War and following years. As a Confederate Army battlefield medic during the 1862 Battle of Corinth, Newton Knight (McConaughey) becomes desensitised by bloodshed and chaos. The former farmer snaps after his nephew Daniel’s death. He defects and returns to his homestead and wife Serena (Keri Russell) before befriending slave girl Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

The best docudramas explore one part of a famous person’s life, expanding upon their social and cultural relevance. The worst ones, however, stretch from birth to death. The latter approach makes Free State of Jones one of 2016’s biggest disappointments. Based on two major texts, its reach well exceeds its grasp. Sure, writer-director Gary Ross’s pet project has good intentions. Stories about Civil War history, important historical figures, slavery in America and American politics resonate with wide audiences. This one is a high school student’s ultimate cure for insomnia. Ross captures enough material for a HBO mini-series. The plot takes multiple turns after Knight’s return home. He, seeing poor men fighting a rich man’s conflict, plans revenge on his former army. He, fellow defectors and runaway slaves take down Confederacy taxation agents and give back to local farmers. As a mix of Defiance and Glory, the first half is peaks the interest levels.

However, the second half features several underdeveloped subplots ripe for parody. The three-way romance – between Knight, the slave, and his frustrated wife – is worth its own movie. Worse still, the courtroom scenes – chronicling Knight’s ancestor fighting for rights in the 1950s – adds nothing to the narrative. The Ross packs in an exorbitant array of dot points including the Ku Klux Klan’s formation, freedom and voting rights for slaves, the Census etc. His stylistic choices merely pad out the running time. Title cards, delivered every 10 minutes, halt proceedings to display real-life footage and paragraphs’ worth of text. However, the battle scenes unleash an eye for period detail and unflinching violence. The performances also shine. McConaughey, bouncing off quality character-actors, is a charismatic force.

Free State of Jones is an example of potential ruined by execution. Stuck between gargantuan historical epic and TV mini-series, it contains too much and too little. McConaughey still gets away Scot-free. 

Verdict: Disappointing but worth watching.