Category: Film/TV reviews

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) lives in isolation from the outside world amongst her female tribe on the island of Themyscira. A princess of an Amazon warrior culture, Diana is destined from birth to protect humankind and conquer evil, as represented by the fallen god of war, Ares. Diana’s idealistic philosophy revolves around defending humanity from harm, believing that people are inherently good and are simply corrupted by society.

One day, Themyscira is penetrated by the outside world – in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American undercover agent, who crashes his plane offshore. World War I is raging in Europe, and Trevor has been working for British intelligence services, attempting to infiltrate the Germans and their attempt to develop new chemical warfare. While undercover, Trevor was able to steal some vital information from Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), one of the German scientists, but was discovered and had to escape by stealing a plane, which eventually took him to Themyscira.

Trevor is interrogated by the Amazons and tells them of “the war to end all wars.” Diana is disturbed by Trevor’s stories of carnage and desires to help, despite her mother’s warnings. Eventually, she joins Trevor and leaves her homeland for the first time.

The two arrive in London, where Trevor reports of his findings to the British high command. Trevor believes that the Germans can change the course of the war in their favor with their plans for chemical weapons, but his superiors dismiss him, as they’re tantalizingly close to negotiating the armistice. Frustrated, Trevor assembles a rogue group of mercenaries to join him in his attempt to take down Dr. Maru and her superior, General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Meanwhile, Diana is absorbing the reality of the new world she finds herself in and how she can find a place in this environment — while also holding true to what she holds near and dear and fulfilling her destiny.

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Wonder Woman was released earlier this month and is already the first big summer blockbuster of the year, and with good reason. It’s also a big return to form for DC’s Expanded Universe, which got off to an inauspicious start last year with the massively disappointing Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. 

While I’m generally not a huge superhero movie guy, when are done right, they’re frequently done REALLY right. And Wonder Woman is no exception. This film has everything a summer blockbuster should have: tons of awesomely epic fight scenes, great music and cinematography, solid acting, and a compelling and engrossing story.

The film succeeds as an awesome re-introduction to Wonder Woman as a character — someone who is naïve and idealistic, but also heroic and complex. It’s also really cool that they took the the time to look at her origin story without dragging it out too much. Wonder Woman is also surprisingly funny, as it’s two fish-out-of-water stories rolled into one. There are plenty of humorous moments as Trevor tries to understand who Diana actually is and where she comes from, while Diana also attempts to familiarize herself with the real world.

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Despite receiving criticism when she was cast, Gal Gadot nails the role of Diana. In addition to balancing the aforementioned character traits of naïveté and courage, she just has the presence and charisma for the role. Her chemistry with Pine is truly outstanding and is the emotional core of the film. We see how they’re both heroic in different ways — Diana being the idealist and Trevor being the pragmatic one. It’s worth mentioning that Gadot can certainly pull off the physicality of Wonder Woman, too, as she gained 17 pounds of muscle for the production and even has a military background herself (three years in the Israeli Defense Forces).

Now, as always, on to the negatives. Wonder Woman‘s villains are — in a word — “meh”. This is hardly new with DC, but all of the principal villains in this film just don’t feel good. They’re underdeveloped and heavy-handed in their motives, and while I didn’t find their acting super hammy, they were still very underwhelming as a group.

The action sequences in this movie are really awesome as a whole, but there’s a ton of CGI towards the climax and there’s also the occasional overuse of slow motion. I get it — she’s Gal Gadot, and you want to make her look awesome, but it can still get tedious.

Overall, the dual fantasy-reality setting works pretty well. Wonder Woman is a great-looking movie, and the film’s soundtrack is euphoric. I think there’s a lot to like here, simply because there’s an emotionally-involving story, fun action, and strong performances. I’m glad to see Gadot finally come into her own as an up-and-coming A-lister, and I feel like director Patty Jenkins has a bright future, too (it’s only her third feature).

As far as the rest of DC’s filmography goes, Wonder Woman certainly is up there. It’s definitely not in the same league as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but this works as both a standalone superhero film and as a gateway to other DC films, like the upcoming Aquaman and Justice League. There are certainly some aspects that needed to be fine-tuned, but if there was ever a film to help get this genre back on track, this is the one you want.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Patty Jenkins
  • Screenplay by Allan Heinberg
  • Story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs
  • Based on a character created by William Moulton Marston
  • Produced by Charles Roven, Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, and Richard Suckle
  • Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
  • Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content.

The Neon Demon (2016)

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Orphaned as a child, sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) longs for a career as an LA fashion model while living on the bare-bones essentials at a seedy Pasadena motel. She impresses at a handful of photoshoots, which leads to an unexpected offer from talent agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who is impressed with her looks but convinces her to lie about her age in order to get more jobs.

Along the way, Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), her lesbian makeup artist, and begins seeing Dean (Karl Glusman), an old-school Southern boy who likes her, but dislikes the shallowness of the fashion industry. Jesse must also avoid the creepy manager of the motel, Hank (Keanu Reeves) and navigate photoshoots with the stern Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington) and the pretentious Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola).

Jesse’s fellow models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), attempt to understand what makes Jesse so special that she can score major gigs right off the bat. Intense jealousy and violence ensues, while Ruby, who has been much more open and kind with Jesse, reveals disturbing secrets of her own. In the end, they’re all sucked into the dark underbelly of the fashion industry with shocking results.

 

The Neon Demon is directed by acclaimed arthouse maestro Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve long been an admirer of the Danish director’s previous works, including Drive and Only God Forgives, both action-thrillers which starred Ryan Gosling.

Drive is one of my all-time favorite action films, featuring a relatable love story mixed with graphic mafia violence. I didn’t like Only God Forgives — a more traditional revenge story set in Thailand — nearly as much, but it also featured a good performance from Gosling and exquisite cinematography.

Speaking of which, that’s what The Neon Demon‘s biggest strength is — cinematography. The visuals are outstanding and create the appropriate atmosphere that we’re used to seeing from Winding Refn. I also loved the film’s score by Cliff Martinez, and most of the acting was solid.

The Neon Demon is also good simply because it knows what it is: a psychological horror-thriller. It’s not a catty whine-fest featuring hot girls vs. other hot girls, and it’s also not a self-righteous commentary on the superficiality and vapidness of the fashion industry. Think more of The Shining or Carrie mixed with a Calvin Klein advertisement.

Onto the negatives: the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they need to be, and the film lags at around the halfway point. There is some SERIOUS violence and sexual content in this film, and it will undoubtedly be disturbing to even some hardened viewers. The reason I can give these elements of the film a little bit of respect is because I know what Winding Refn was going for here. While some scenes veer dangerously close to exploitation film territory, overall, the graphic images are handled pretty well.

And to be fair, ever since the 70s, smart directors have known how to blend shocking, graphic violence and/or sexuality with enough artsiness to make it feel organic to the plot. Therefore, I didn’t find all of the content in The Neon Demon (or even most of it) to be 100% gratuitous — in the same way that (in my opinion) Straw DogsA Clockwork Orange, and Bad Lieutenant weren’t automatically gratuitous.

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Like Only God ForgivesThe Neon Demon received polarizing reviews and got nearly equal boos and cheers when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. I had briefly heard of the film when it came out last year, but, to my knowledge, it didn’t get a wide screening in a lot of area theaters. Heck, I didn’t even know Winding Refn directed it until I saw it at my local rental store. The Neon Demon flopped at the box office, grossing $3 million on an already-small budget of $7 million, and received mixed reviews from most notable critics (57% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And that makes sense — The Neon Demon is the antithesis of a mainstream film, despite featuring a recognizable cast and a well-regarded director. It definitely meandered towards the end, but overall, this is another good — but not spectacular — entry in Winding Refn’s diverse filmography.

This honestly is a very hard film to recommend, because there are definite negatives in terms of actual plot, content, and characters. While it’s a bold film visually and stylistically and the technicals are outstanding (especially directing, cinematography, and sound), The Neon Demon still doesn’t succeed on the grand scale it intends to. It might become a cult classic someday on the indie circuit, but I can see why it failed among most major audiences. Judge as you will.

Rating: 7/10

  • Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham
  • Produced by Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas and Vincent Maraval
  • Director of Photography – Natasha Braier
  • Music by Cliff Martinez
  • Edited by Matthew Newman
  • Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola
  • Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.

 

 

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)

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This film might just be the most unique thing I’ve ever seen.

Who Killed Captain Alex is a 2010 independent action film made by director Isaac Nabwana Godfrey. It was filmed entirely on location and released on DVD several years ago, after being made for $200.

Not $200,000. Not $2,000.

Two hundred dollars.

But more on that later.

I originally found out about Who Killed Captain Alex via the YouTube channel I Hate Everything (IHE). In case you aren’t familiar, IHE (real name Alex Horton) is a UK-based YouTube personality known for his deadpan comedy and humorous criticisms of films and pop culture trends.

One of IHE’s main series is “The Search for the Worst” – where he dissects the bottom 100 movies as rated by IMDB and attempts to find the worst movie ever made. Who Killed Captain Alex was on the list, but IHE took a different approach than usual, given the context of the film and how it was made. He ended up being fairly impressed (you can find his review of the film on the IHE YouTube channel).

Who Killed Captain Alex is very amateur-looking on a technical level, but that’s of little consequence due to the entertaining insanity of the film itself. The plot obviously focuses on the death of the eponymous Captain Alex, whose surviving group of commandos and mercenaries have been leading a fight against the fierce Tiger Mafia and its boss, Richard. Following Captain Alex’s death, Richard’s brother is captured and he mounts a guerrilla campaign in order to exact his revenge.

The film features outrageously choreographed stunts and kung fu fights, and while its meandering plot is a definite negative, the film is so entertaining and bizarre that you can’t help but smile. Given the insanely small budget, it’d be easy for Nabwana and Co. to use that as an excuse not to try their best. But they’re clearly having so much fun that all the significant flaws are footnotes. It soon becomes pointless to critique all of the technical flaws due to how fun and crazy it becomes.

And hey, for an amateur indie film, the cinematography and editing aren’t as bad as you might think, and I was actually fairly impressed with the sound. The acting isn’t great, but it’s passable. Given that Who Killed Captain Alex is shot entirely on location without any controllable conditions, the decent sound and editing are actually pretty admirable. Who Killed Captain Alex is silly, ridiculously entertaining, and quite charming, because it never takes itself seriously. These people are having so much fun, even though they thought no one would see their films.

One of the things that may or may not be a deal-breaker for English-language viewers is the presence of the so-called “video joker”, or VJ. Unique to Ugandan cinema, the VJ is essentially the MC/movie commentator, similar to what the guys do on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Rifftrax. 

The VJ can be a little annoying at first, but I feel like he’s actually very helpful and funny, considering that the plot is somewhat confusing at times and the characters speak the Luganda language with English subtitles. Still, I know that some moviegoers don’t like commentary on films at all, so not everyone will fully embrace this aspect.

Who Killed Captain Alex is one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen, and in the best possible way. So I had to find out more information about Isaac Nabwana Godfrey, the writer/director.

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As it turns out, Nabwana is a prolific Ugandan filmmaker based in Wakaliga, a slum on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Kampala. No one had ever heard of Nabwana when the trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex went viral on YouTube several years ago, advertising itself as “UGANDA’S FIRST ACTION MOVIE.”

But Nabwana has been making micro-budget films as a self-taught director for many years. He has no practical experience in directing and has never even been in an American-style movie theatre before. Several years ago, Nabwana took a computer repair course in college before he was forced to drop out due to lack of funds. While working as a bricklayer and masonry specialist, Nabwana was able to slowly raise money to purchase his own Sony camera. He purchased computer parts secondhand, building his own computer from scratch in order to edit his films.

Many of Nabwana’s previous films are lost in cyberspace, because he simply doesn’t have enough data on his hard drive to hold files for more than one movie. Given that he lives in a third-world country with inconsistent electricity, Nabwana does the best he can to edit all of his movies and eventually screen them to his friends and family.

Nabwana never thought that any of his films would ever be seen outside of his village. He estimates that he has made roughly 30 short or feature-length films, but Who Killed Captain Alex was the first to attract worldwide buzz. They’re calling themselves “Wakaliwood” and are trying to continue their prolific output by making more films, especially action movies. Their end goal to is start Uganda’s first action movie studio and get more actors and crew members to join their team. Since they went viral, Wakaliwood has been profiled in BBC articles and a Vice documentary, and they’ve even screened from of their more recent films to American and European audiences.

Before they went viral by accident with Captain Alex, Nabwana and his cast and crew went door-to-door in Kampala – sometimes in costume – selling their DVDs. Eventually, once they gained international notoriety, they started up their own website (www.wakaliwood.com) and launched a Kickstarter. Who Killed Captain Alex even has an epilogue in which Nabwana, standing in his village, introduces himself to audiences, promotes the website and Kickstarter page, and dedicates the movie to his recently deceased grandmother.

You can view Who Killed Captain Alex on YouTube, or buy a cheap DVD on their site, as well as Wakaliwood posters, t-shirts, and autographs. The Kickstarter isn’t operational anymore, but they do have a Patreon where they raise funds for the action movie studio and for distribution of their other films.

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It’s honestly so cool and touching to see how sincere and dedicated these Wakaliwood guys are. They had every excuse in the book to throw in the towel and make something lame or lazy, but they have a larger-than-life passion for the filmmaking process, regardless of money or resources. It’s admirable that, in a world where big-budget Hollywood action movies are getting churned out conveyor-belt style, that there are still people out there who love art for the sake of it – no paycheck required.

I tip my hat to Nabwana and his team of action movie goofballs. Given that they have to ration clean water and don’t even have consistent electricity or plumbing, you wouldn’t expect them to be able to do what they do. There was even significant unrest in Kampala at the time of filming, with some crew members and cast fearing for their lives due to violence in the area.

But they still made a film. So why can’t you?

  • Released 2010
  • Written, directed, produced, shot, and edited by Isaac Nabwana Godfrey
  • Executive Producer – Alan Hofmanis
  • Music by Vicent Kizito
  • Commentary by VJ Emmie
  • Starring William Kakule, Ernest Sserunya, G. Puffs, Isma Kasumba, Muhammed Faizat, Dauda Bisaso, Prossy Nakyambadde, Muhammed Kavubu, Swaib Ssenkugu, Bonny Kaggwa, Sumaiyah Nassali, Lukyamuzi Musomesa, Farouq Kakooza, David Musisi, Musoke Ssalongo, John Bosco Kasirye

HACKSAW RIDGE (spoiler review)

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I’ve already reviewed Hacksaw Ridge previously on my blog, but I rented it at my local Redbox recently and decided to rewatch it – and yes, it’s just as incredible the second time. I’d like to go a little bit more in-depth with this movie, which I regard as one of the best of 2016.

In case you missed it, Hacksaw Ridge grossed over $175 million worldwide, received six Oscar nominations (winning two), got a 10-minute standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and was listed as one of the top ten films of the year by the American Film Institute. It’s also a big comeback for its director, Mel Gibson, and has further cemented its star, Andrew Garfield, as a major Hollywood A-lister.

As mentioned in my original review, the plot revolves around the extraordinary true story of Desmond Doss, an Army medic who felt duty-bound to enlist in World War II – but as a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he refused to fire a weapon or carry a gun into battle. He ended up saving the lives of 75 men and became the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The film’s first half shows Doss’s childhood and upbringing in rural Virginia, including his relationship with his parents and brother. Doss is raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, avoiding all forms of violence and attempting to live his life according to his Christian beliefs. He also has a difficult relationship with his father Thomas, who served in WWI and suffers from PTSD and alcoholism.

One day, Doss comes to the rescue of a man whose leg has been crushed by a car, saving him by using his own belt as a tourniquet. After helping take the injured man to the hospital, Doss offers to donate some blood and begins to chat with a pretty nurse named Dorothy Schutte. They take a liking to each other and soon start a relationship, while Doss, intrigued by the medical field, wants to enlist in WWII and serve as an Army medic.

During basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Doss refuses to touch a weapon, drawing the ire of his superiors, Captain Glover and Sergeant Howell. They attempt to get Doss kicked out of basic training via a Section 8 psychiatric discharge, but he insists that he can serve as a medic while retaining his pacifist beliefs. Doss’s fellow recruits abuse him mentally and physically, considering him a coward. Despite encountering many hurdles, Doss relies on his faith in difficult times and is eventually allowed to serve in the Army without being rifle-certified.

The second half of the film focuses on the Battle of Okinawa itself. The Americans are attempting to reclaim the island from Japanese forces, and the key to doing that is to take the eponymous ridge and beat back the Japanese soldiers guarding it.

Easier said than done.

The film’s battle sequences are uncompromisingly graphic and harrowingly realistic; they might even be better than Saving Private Ryan. I can’t even describe how many times my jaw dropped during the Okinawa scenes and I actually lost track of the body count very quickly. The cinematography and editing are exceptional at capturing this visceral battle. We get to see the atrocities of war up close and personal, especially the real physical agony of Doss’s duties – while having no method of defense. Doss’s constant refrain is “Please, Lord, let me get one more” as he continues to head into the fray, rescuing his buddies, surrounded by flying bodies, explosions, and bullets. Even when his unit is forced to retreat for the night, Doss stays up on the ridge, tending to the wounded and carrying them back.

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One of the most powerful moments in the battle sequences is the culmination of Smitty’s character arc. Smitty (played by Australian actor Luke Bracey) is a hardcore, alpha-male soldier who has been one of Doss’s frequent tormentors, mocking him for his perceived cowardice. However, after seeing Doss rescue numerous men in the first assault on the ridge, Smitty sees the young medic’s value. The two men share a foxhole that night.

Smitty admits that he “learned how to hate quickly” growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage. Drawing upon a traumatic event in his childhood, Doss explains why his rejection of violence is an integral part of his faith and worldview. Smitty begins to begrudgingly give Doss some respect.

In the next assault on the ridge, Smitty is mortally wounded. And this tough guy is finally shown to have vulnerability, simply saying, “Doss, I’m scared” as Doss bandages his wounds and gives him a shot of morphine. Doss is then shown crying when he carries Smitty back down the ridge, knowing that his friend won’t make it. It’s such a simple and poignant scene that could have easily been overly melodramatic, but Gibson and his actors execute it so well.

Andrew Garfield is very good in this role. We see some film clips of the real Doss at the end of the film, and Garfield, in addition to the facial resemblance, really nailed the cadence of Doss’s walk and his charming country-boy personality.

Garfield was moved by the script and stated that he was drawn to Doss’s spiritual convictions. Previously well-known for playing Spider-Man, Garfield embraced the fact that he could play “a real-life superhero.”

“The fact that this man, who’s built like me, dragged men across the most rugged terrain under gunfire, the possibility of mortars and shells, and then lowered them down a 75-foot escarpment, not just once, but 75 times. It’s that kind of divine help,” Garfield remarked at the film’s premiere.

Garfield, a Brit, also does an excellent job with Doss’s thick southern accent. It’s common for actors to overdo regional accents like this – having grown up in Virginia and knowing how some people talk, I was initially afraid that the accent would come across as cheesy or overdone. But the real Doss had an extremely strong drawl, and Garfield nailed that part of the character, too. It’s worth mentioning that Doss’s son, Desmond Jr., saw the film at its premiere and was moved to tears by Garfield’s portrayal of his father.

“Mel makes films that, I think, get to the core of our humanity, and I think that everyone leaves his movies feeling deeply moved,” Garfield said in an interview.

Aussie actress Teresa Palmer was so excited to have the opportunity to work on Hacksaw Ridge that she auditioned simply by taking a video on her iPhone. After not hearing back for nearly a month, Palmer eventually got a Skype call from Gibson saying that she got the part of Dorothy Schutte Doss.

Meanwhile, Bracey read the script and was moved to tears. “I called my agent and said, ‘I’ll play a tree in this movie – anything just to be a part of it.’ Then I put myself on tape and luckily Mel responded to it,” Bracey said.

The entire film was shot in rural New South Wales – including the Blue Mountains, the outskirts of Sydney, and other locations. The filming schedule was only 59 days – half of the time Gibson had to shoot Braveheart. But the actors involved were always game to attack each day with intensity. “Everyone knew the importance of the story, and there were no egos on set,” remarked Bracey. “We were all aware of how lucky we were to be a part of this.”

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And now onto the man behind the camera.

I’ve long been a fan of Mel Gibson as an actor, but especially as a director. His love of slow-motion shots is on full display in Hacksaw Ridge, and the sheer epic scale of the entire film is very Gibson-esque, echoing Braveheart. Simon Duggan’s cinematography really gives the film a genuine period piece feel that is difficult to recreate.

Apocalypto was actually the last film that Gibson had directed before Hacksaw Ridge, back in 2006. I was a big fan of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, but Apocalypto is a criminally underrated, beautifully-shot action film that deserves more praise.

The reason I bring it up is because this film feels like it takes the best elements of all of Gibson’s best-known films – the heroism and inspiring tone of Braveheart, the in-your-face graphic violence of Apocalypto, and the powerful spiritual themes of The Passion.

However, Hacksaw Ridge is also a departure for Gibson, because the protagonist doesn’t engage in any violence himself – in fact, quite the opposite. That’s what makes the film so incredible: the fact that a skinny young man who was so far out of his element in every way still managed to save so many people. World War II represents the polar opposite of Doss’s values, but he still knows he must serve the best way he knows how. “While everyone else is taking lives, I’m going to be saving them,” Doss tells his skeptical father early in the film.

Film critic/YouTube personality Chris Stuckmann (one of my personal favorites) said in his video review of Hacksaw Ridge that he saw another review from a prominent critic which claimed that the movie contradicted its message by glorifying violence, even though its protagonist doesn’t believe in violence. Stuckmann responded:

I personally don’t feel that way; I think that this film depicted its war scenes almost like a horror movie. They are terrifying….the battle scenes in this movie are frightening and brutally realistic. Nothing has been held back, and nothing about about it seemed Hollywood-ized or glamorous. The message is ‘This happened. This sucked. But here’s one guy who tried to do something good.’

Gibson himself stated that his goal was to show the brutality of war, adding that he was very pleased and moved to see that groups of veterans had enjoyed watching Hacksaw Ridge, and that he hopes that the film can shed light on PTSD issues. As Gibson put it – hate the war, but love the warrior.

This story is truly amazing on multiple levels. But, alas, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I’d like to address (warning: spoilers).

  • Gibson actually modified the film’s ending, believing that audiences would find it too good to be true. In reality, Doss did not kick a grenade away from his fellow soldiers, wounding himself with shrapnel in the process. Actually, the story was even more amazing than that. Doss was, in fact, wounded in the legs by a grenade, but had to wait five hours before his fellow medics could reach him, during which time he dressed his own wounds. While Doss was being carried back to safety by three stretcher bearers, they were attacked by a Japanese tank. Doss crawled off the stretcher to a more seriously wounded man and insisted the others evacuate that soldier and then return for him. While waiting for the stretcher to return, Doss was shot by a sniper as another soldier attempted to come to his aid. This caused a compound fracture in his arm, for which he improvised a splint using a rifle stock before crawling 300 yards to an aid station for treatment.
  • Another plot point that I heard had confused some audiences was the controversy surrounding Doss not being allowed to graduate basic training without being rifle-certified. Hacksaw Ridge never explicitly states it, but the Army did have a procedure for conscientious objectors in place at the time. The film adds to the tension by showing Doss being court-martialed for insubordination, until his father steps in and declares that, under U.S. law, his son’s pacifist beliefs are protected under the First Amendment.
  • Other devout Adventists who served in WWII were classified as A1-Os, meaning that they were willing to serve in various capacities without carrying a weapon. The issue with Doss is that he wanted to directly serve on the frontlines with no weapon, which was unprecedented. Many other Christian pacifists – including Adventists, Mennonites, and Quakers – had volunteered as medics or nurses in previous wars without issue, but never in a combat unit.
  • The film also depicts Doss as being part of a unit that is sent straight to Okinawa. In reality, Doss had already served in battles at Guam and in the Philippines before he rescued 75 men at Okinawa. Doss himself estimated that he saved about 50 at Hacksaw Ridge, but some eyewitnesses claimed he saved 100 or more. Therefore, when Doss was given his Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman, they split the difference at 75. During all three battles (Okinawa, Guam, and the Philippines), it is estimated that Doss saved over 300 men combined.

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Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, I would occasionally hear the name Desmond Doss. In high school, I remember seeing that the section of U.S. Route 501 that runs through Lynchburg had been renamed the Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway in honor of him. Growing up, I loved history, but I wasn’t terribly informed about local war heroes and had no connection to Seventh-Day Adventism. Therefore, I was unaware of the true story behind Doss’s heroism, his faith, and his humility.

To put into context, Doss’s story was something that had eluded Hollywood’s grasp for many years. The real Doss never viewed himself as a larger-than-life figure and didn’t particularly care for Hollywood movies. Many producers had come and gone over the years, trying to recreate this incredible tale of faith and duty and translate it to the big screen.

Stan Jensen, a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, had tried to drum up support within his denomination for a movie about Doss, eventually enlisting the help of producer Greg Crosby, who met with Doss personally in 2001 and convinced him that making a movie about his heroism was the right thing to do. Eventually, Doss relented and appeared in a documentary called The Conscientious Objector shortly before his death in 2006 at the age of 87.

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Producers David Permut and Bill Mechanic became involved in the early 2000s, trying to secure finances and distribution rights for a film about Doss. After Doss’s death, the film rights were acquired by Walden Media, but they wanted the war violence to be PG-13 level, which severely disappointed Mechanic, and he spent many years trying to buy the rights back.

Gibson originally said no to the project when he was sent a script, but eventually reconsidered and decided to move forward with the project (coincidentally, he had done the same thing with Braveheart many years earlier). Given Gibson’s controversial status in Hollywood at the time, money was hard to come by, and the producers had to get creative with procuring the finances.

Eventually, Hacksaw Ridge was green-lit with a budget of $40 million after Permut and Mechanic took advantage of film tax incentives in Gibson’s adopted home of Australia. In addition to Mechanic, Permut, and Crosby, the film was also co-produced by Gibson’s long-time colleague, Academy Award winner Bruce Davey.

I’m so very glad I got to see Hacksaw Ridge and write about it in-depth here. If you haven’t seen the film, watch it now; you won’t regret it. I’m happy that a true hero like Doss finally had his story told accurately onscreen, and it’s great to have Gibson back making films steadily. I hope that this film continues to have a profound impact on many people.

  • Directed by Mel Gibson
  • Screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
  • Produced by Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut
  • Starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Young, Richard Pyros, Milo Gibson, Luke Pegler, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Jim Robison, Andrew Sears, Sam Wright
  • Director of Photography – Simon Duggan
  • Music by Rupert Gregson-Williams
  • Edited by John Gilbert
  • Production Designer – Barry Robison
  • Costume Designer – Lizzy Gardiner
  • Casting by Nikki Barrett
  • Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, including grisly bloody images.

AWARDS

(wins are in bold)

  • 6 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing)
  • 3 Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director)
  • 5 BAFTA nominations (Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Makeup & Hair)
  • 13 AACTA Award nominations (Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Hair & Makeup)
  • 7 Critics’ Choice Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Hair & Makeup, Best Action Movie, Best Actor in an Action Movie)
  • 9 Satellite Award nominations (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction/Production Design)
  • 2 SAG Award nominations (Best Male Actor in a Leading Role, Best Stunt Ensemble)

Boy (2010)

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In the summer of 1984, a young Maōri kid has the adventure of a lifetime and learns about his elusive father. 

Boy (James Rolleston) is an 11-year-old who lives a rustic life in Waihau Bay, a small village in Bay of Plenty, a region in the North Island of New Zealand. His mother is dead and he’s never met his biological father Alamein (Taika Waititi), so Boy lives with his grandmother, his cousins, and his timid younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), who believes he has magic powers.

Boy naturally yearns to know more about his dad. He imagines him as a war hero, a sports star, and many other fantastical stories. Boy is also a massive Michael Jackson fan and dreams that his dad will take him to a concert.

In between pining for a relationship with his dad, Boy deals with school bullies and struggles with his feelings for his pretty classmate Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell). When his grandma has to go out of town for a funeral, Boy is left in charge of the house for the weekend.

And then his dad comes back.

Alamein has apparently escaped prison with his two bumbling friends, who are part of a would-be biker gang and are hoping to locate some buried money. Alamein meets his two sons and tells them that he’s searching for buried treasure and he needs their help. Boy is thrilled that he can finally have a real relationship with his dad, but Rocky is more reluctant. Boy continues to want to believe that his dad is who he wants him to be, but is eventually forced to reconcile his view with reality.

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I had heard many positive things about this film before deciding to buy it on Amazon. Boy is the brainchild of writer/director/comedian Taika Waititi, whose other work I’ve admired. I saw Boy awhile ago and absolutely adored it.

Independent comedy-dramas are nothing new, but Boy really does break new ground in many different ways. It’s a very moving coming-of-age story with tons of humor and heart. Boy is easily relatable as a kid who is lonely and lacks fulfillment, living a simple life in a small town and navigating the road to adulthood.

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This film honestly portrays the joys and struggles of childhood in a way that few films do. I hate to say it, but if Boy was an American film, it would’ve tried too hard to be quirky. But as it stands, Boy‘s compelling story is both well-told and entertaining, with plenty of dry Kiwi humor to boot. Lead actor James Rolleston is among of the many debutants in this film, and he really is a very talented kid who captures all of his character’s emotions to a T.

Boy‘s cinematography is also really great. Obviously, it’s almost impossible to make New Zealand’s scenery look ugly, but the film really is shot very well. There are even some nice little stop-motion animation bits in Boy, as childhood drawings come to life to funny (and sometimes dramatic) effect.

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Waititi is also very good in his performance as Alamein and is an exceptional director, too. Boy made a massive impact when it was released in 2010 and helped establish Waititi as a giant in Kiwi cinema (the film was actually the highest-grossing New Zealand film ever at one point).

Go see Boy. It’s witty, charming, and emotionally gripping.

Rating: 9/10

  • Written and directed by Taika Waititi
  • Produced by Emanuel Michael, Cliff Curtis, and Ainsley Gardiner
  • Starring James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi, Cherilee Martin, RickyLee Waipuka-Russell, Pana Hema Taylor, Cohen Holloway, Moerangi Tihore, Haze Reweti
  • Director of Photography – Adam Clark
  • Music by The Phoenix Foundation
  • Edited by Chris Plummer

Note: this film did not get a wide release in the United States and was therefore not rated. In New Zealand it was given a rating of M (Mature), the equivalent of an American PG-13.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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Stanley Kubrick’s esoteric last hurrah finds the audience absorbing the public and private lives of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman). The couple have been together for several years now and consider themselves to be very happy, but at the NYC cocktail party of a wealthy patient of Bill’s, some potential cracks begin to show themselves in the marriage.

Bill reunites with Nick, an old medical school colleague who has since decided to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. Bill is also later occupied by a medical emergency upstairs, where his host’s girlfriend nearly overdoses on a speedball. Throughout the night, both Bill and Alice are approached when they’re alone – Alice by a middle-aged Hungarian man, and Bill by two young models. Both resist their respective advances.

The evening after the party, Alice asks Bill if he had sex with the two models, to which Bill reassures her that he didn’t. However, he is disturbed when Alice subsequently reveals that years earlier, she had come dangerously close to having an affair and willingly fantasized about such an encounter.

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Bill wanders around the streets of New York, distressed and disillusioned. He has an exchange with a prostitute, but eventually refuses to cheat after becoming ashamed and embarrassed. He then runs into Nick again at a local jazz club and discovers that Nick has a special engagement planned for the rest of the evening in which he must play piano blindfolded. Curious, Bill wants to see for himself, but Nick becomes terse and objects to Bill getting involved. Eventually, he relents and gives Bill the information that, in order to attend the event, he has to wear a costume, a mask, and must also have a verbal password to give when he arrives.

Bill’s web of intrigue eventually becoming a mysterious and harrowing journey into the underbelly of New York, potentially discovering disturbing truths about himself in the process and endangering both his marriage and his life.

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Eyes Wide Shut is a film by the legend himself, Stanley Kubrick. He’s long been a personal favorite of mine, but I had long resisted watching Eyes Wide Shut based on its reputation as an impenetrable, long-winded, bizarre film, as well as my general distaste for Tom Cruise’s filmography. Nonetheless, I gave in and gave it a watch about a month ago, and I genuinely enjoyed it.

The film’s unusually laborious production process rivaled even that of The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 epic horror film. Eyes Wide Shut holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot (nearly 15 straight months), with two supporting cast members – Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh – eventually leaving the production due to other acting commitments. Another actress, Vinessa Shaw, was initially contracted for two weeks of filming, but ended up working for three times that. Kubrick’s notorious perfectionism led to numerous script changes and an acute attention to production design and cinematography.

Speculation swirled about Kubrick’s film, which was adapted by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Traumnovelle by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick had first considered adapting Schnitzler’s work as far back as the early 70s, when he was searching for a novel to make into a film in a relatively short timeframe and on a tight budget (he made A Clockwork Orange instead). Still, this pet project of Kubrick’s had long fascinated him as an exploration of both fears and sexual desires.

By the time Eyes Wide Shut‘s production finally got off the ground, the elusive, enigmatic Kubrick hadn’t made a film in a decade (1987’s Full Metal Jacket) and many assumed that he had retired from filmmaking altogether.

Tabloids buzzed when it was revealed that then-real-life husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be starring in the film, with some speculating that it would be “the sexiest movie ever.” Kubrick, therefore, was smart about marketing the film, revealing very little, even in press kits and production notes.

(Side note: It’s worth mentioning that despite the potential titillation of seeing a real life celebrity couple nude on film, and large amounts of plot devoted to sexual issues, Cruise and Kidman never have sex onscreen. “No one familiar with the cold precision of Kubrick’s work will be surprised that this isn’t the steamy erotic thriller a synopsis (or the ads) might suggest,” remarked TV Guide at the time of the film’s release.)

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Once filming was finally completed, the lengthy post-production process began on Eyes Wide Shut, with Kubrick as involved as he had been an any of his previous films. On March 1, 1999, Kubrick screened a cut of the finished film to Kidman, Cruise, and a group of Warner Brothers executives, all of whom were very happy with the result. Six days later, the 70-year-old Kubrick died suddenly of a heart attack while in his sleep at his home in England. The film was released 151 days later.

The production design, costume design, and cinematography of Eyes Wide Shut are all outstanding. The cinematography captures a genuinely eerie atmosphere a lot of the time and builds mystery and suspense very methodically in a way that few films do. Kubrick pioneered the use of controlled natural lighting in Barry Lyndon and does the same in Eyes Wide Shut. Most obviously, there’s the glow of a Christmas tree in almost every room (the movie takes place during Christmastime in New York, not Vienna during Mardi Gras, as depicted in Schnitzler’s novel).

While the slow pace of Eyes Wide Shut may alienate some viewers, I felt like it wouldn’t have worked any other way. There are some occasions, especially early on, where the deliberate actions of the characters aren’t always believable and sometimes feel unnatural. However, I found Cruise’s character to be generally relatable and sympathetic, and the terror that he experiences at various points in the movie does feel well-crafted and creepy in the best ways.

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There remains a debate about whether Eyes Wide Shut was completed the way Kubrick had intended. The director was known for making both major and minor changes to his films up until the last minute, so whether Eyes Wide Shut was released 100% according to his vision is unknown.

Here’s what we do know:

  • Former Kubrick collaborator Michael Herr (co-writer of Full Metal Jacket‘s screenplay) said he received a phone call from Kubrick four days before his death, where he said that he had some misgivings about technical issues, particularly with color, sound, and music, but that the studio was happy with the result.
  • Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law, said that Kubrick was very happy with Eyes Wide Shut, as did one of the film’s supporting actors, Todd Field, and Kubrick’s daughter Katharina.
  • Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam and worked with Kubrick on The Shining, said he considered Eyes Wide Shut to be an unfinished product: “I think it was snatched up by the studio when Stanley died…it was three months before the movie was due to be released. I don’t think there’s a chance that was the movie he had in mind. It’s a great shame, because you know it’s out there, but it doesn’t feel to me as if it’s really his film.”

For what it’s worth, Warner Brothers insisted several times that Kubrick had turned in the final cut of the film before his death, and agreed to collaborate with Kubrick’s estate on actual completion of the film based on Kubrick’s production notes (although they did alter some sexually-explicit scenes to ensure an R rating). It’s generally believed that any further changes that Kubrick wanted to make were purely technical in nature, mostly centered around sound mixing, color correction, and other things that would not have necessarily needed his immediate input.

Certified “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes at 74%, Eyes Wide Shut was generally regarded as one of the best films of the year and was particularly acclaimed by Roger Ebert, who dubbed it “a worthy final chapter to a great director’s career.” The film performed averagely at the US box office, but did very well in Europe.

As I’ve mentioned already, Eyes Wide Shut is slow-paced – building mystery and suspense in a deliberate, sometimes plodding manner. However, this film very much rewards the patient viewer and even earlier scenes that don’t seem important end up coming full-circle later on. If you’re in for the ride, Eyes Wide Shut is chilling, compelling, and bizarre in all the ways that you expect a Kubrick film to be.

Combining the visual spectacle of Barry Lyndon, the slow-building tension of The Shining, and the abstract, open-ended storytelling of 2001Eyes Wide Shut is a terrific achievement and a suitable enough ending to Kubrick’s sterling career.

Provocatively conceived, gorgeously shot and masterfully executed.” —The Chicago Tribune

“A dead-serious film about sexual yearnings, one that flirts with ridicule yet sustains its fundamental eeriness and gravity throughout. The dreamlike intensity of previous Kubrick visions is in full force here.” –The New York Times

“Finally a film that is better at mood than substance, that has its strongest hold on you when its making the least amount of sense.” –The Los Angeles Times

“As rich and strange and riveting as any journey Kubrick has taken us on.” –The Seattle Times

“Thought-provoking and unsettling.” –James Berardinelli

 

Rating: 8/10

  • Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick
  • Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael
  • Inspired by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
  • Executive Producer – Jan Harlan
  • Director of Photography – Larry Smith
  • Editor – Nigel Galt
  • Music – Jocelyn Pook
  • Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Sky du Mont, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Leon Vitali
  • Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material

Gallipoli (1981)

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The year is 1915, in the thick of the Great War. In the remote outback of Western Australia, a young aspiring sprinter named Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) leads a simple life on his family’s farm. His hard-charging uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) helps him train against other local farmboys, but the young Aussies soon grow concerned over the war halfway around the world, and they all hold varying opinions on whether it’s worth fighting for their British overlords or not.

Archy signs up for a sprint at his town’s annual athletics carnival, where his primary competition is the charismatic Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a recently unemployed railway worker from Perth who places a bet to win the race. When Archy defeats him, Frank is bitter at losing the prize money, but they soon make peace. Lacking any substantial money, the two decide to catch a train to Perth in order to enlist in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) campaign.

Along the way, we begin to see the differences in the two men’s approach to enlisting. Archy is the optimistic idealist, believing that he has an opportunity to fight on behalf of his family and to serve Australia in the best way he can. Frank, an Irish-Australian, is more skeptical of the British Empire’s goals in WWI. Archy unsuccessfully tries to persuade Frank to join him in the light-horse brigade, but Frank instead joins up with some of his old railway buddies in the infantry. The young Aussies depart their ordinary lives back home and ship off to Cairo.

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Once in Egypt, Frank and Archy end up reuniting and are soon sent off to the Gallipoli Peninsula, where other ANZAC detachments are attempting to retake the territory from the Ottoman Empire’s forces.

The main objective of the campaign, ostensibly, is to secure a narrow strip of land called The Nek, but there are conflicts among the ANZAC commanders and the British Colonel Robinson. The once-innocent Aussies begin to get discouraged and jaded about their roles in the fight as the casualties mount and an uncertain outcome looms.

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This film is, to some extent, unusual for a war movie. For starters, there aren’t enough epic World War I films out there (the only other one that I’ve absolutely loved was 1941’s Sgt. York). And there’s a reason for that in this case, as both Australia and New Zealand hold WWI as more important to their history than WWII.

Also, while Gallipoli‘s battle sequences are very well-shot and acted, they don’t necessarily overwhelm the film’s overall message or take center-stage. Gallipoli is a coming-of-age story of both the characters in the film and Australia itself.

As mentioned previously, the young boys in the film hold a wide range of opinions on the war effort. They don’t really know why they’re fighting, only that they must, and the film shines much light on why the Gallipoli campaign failed. Still, in the midst of terrible losses and wartime atrocities, the character of the ANZACs shined through.

The campaign, therefore, served as a major catalyst for Australia to assert itself as its own country, as opposed to just a major chess piece for the Brits to use in their own wartime efforts. The camaraderie of the ANZAC troops was on full display, as they showed many of the qualities that, to this day, Aussies value.

In modern times, both Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC Day on April 25th; it’s their equivalent of Memorial Day. In addition to being a federal/bank holiday, nearly every city and town in both countries holds a sunrise ceremony and a moment of silence.

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Gallipoli is historically relevant as one of the primary films in Australian new wave cinema, marking director Peter Weir as a prominent leader in the movement (He went on to direct such international blockbusters as Witness, The Truman ShowDead Poets Society, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

Not surprisingly, Gallipoli only made a major financial impact in Australia. Filmed on only a $2.8 million budget, it went on to gross nearly $12 million at the Australian box office. Gallipoli was a major critical success in America, despite only grossing $5.7 million there.

It was also a major starring vehicle for then-relative newcomer Mel Gibson. Only 24 years old at the time, Gibson used Gallipoli as a springboard to establish himself as a serious dramatic actor as well as a budding action hero. Gibson and Weir also later collaborated on The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982 and are still considered pivotal figures in modern Australian cinema.

I really enjoyed Gallipoli, and it’s not just because I’m familiar with Australian culture. Like any good war movie, it’s simultaneously entertaining, inspiring, and bittersweet.

It’s worth mentioning that there are several historical liberties that are taken, specifically considering the British role in calling the shots in trench warfare. There are certainly some inaccuracies, and the filmmakers have admitted as much. Still, Gallipoli succeeds largely in what it attempts to do, and is considered one of the best Australian films of its time.

Rating: 8.5/10

  • Directed by Peter Weir
  • Screenplay by David Williamson
  • Story by Peter Weir
  • Produced by Robert Stigwood and Patricia Lovell
  • Director of Photography – Russell Boyd
  • Editor – William Anderson
  • Starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr, Harold Hopkins, Robert Grubb, Heath Harris, Tim McKenzie, Ron Graham, Charles Yunipingu
  • Rated PG