Category: Film/TV reviews

The Belko Experiment (2016)

 

A large group of international white-collar employees are forced into a game of kill-or-be-killed as part of a greater, twisted form of social Darwinism.

Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) works a desk job at an international company called Belko Industries with his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). The company employs numerous workers from a number of different countries and is located in a remote office building on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia. Due to the high rate of drug trafficking in the country, new employees at Belko are implanted with a type of tracking device in case they are kidnapped, and the office building is surrounded by high levels of armed security.

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Eighty employees work at the office on this particular day, and once the 80th arrives, a loud, monotone voice crackles over the intercom. The voice informs all of the employees that they have two hours to kill two of their co-workers, or else others will be killed at random. Most of the employees laugh it off as a prank, but soon, the windows and doors are shuttered with steel plates.

Suddenly, four employees are killed seemingly at random. While it first appears that they were shot, Mike soon realizes that their heads were blown apart by their tracking devices being detonated. The voice informs the group that they must kill 30 people within the next two hours, or else 60 will be killed. Mike and Leandra attempt to keep order amid chaos and flatly refuse to kill their innocent co-workers. Belko’s COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) feels that desperate times call for desperate measures, and eventually gives in to the voice’s demands. He, along with Wendell (John C. McGinley) and Terry (Owain Yeoman), attempt to take out their co-workers before the voice’s macabre deadline strikes. What ensues is a bloody free-for-all that will leave plenty of bodies in its wake.

The Belko Experiment premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, but didn’t get a theatrical release here in the States until March 2017. The film is the brainchild of acclaimed director James Gunn, who wrote the screenplay, and was directed by Greg McLean. I was very impressed by McLean’s first film, an Australian independent grindhouse feature called Wolf Creek, so I was intrigued to see The Belko Experiment when I picked it up at Redbox recently.

This film certainly has a number of strengths and weaknesses. It’s reasonably well-written and acted, and I love the way McLean builds suspense in the opening act. It’s both well-paced and has some pretty solid cinematography, despite being quite low budget ($5 million).

However, several characters aren’t very well-developed and, while the stakes are certainly high throughout, the film became a tad uneven towards the end. It’s also a premise that, while inherently entertaining, just might not be believable for certain audiences. The Belko Experiment is very gory and will certainly please fans of the psychological horror/slasher genre, but others might find it too depraved for their liking. Ultimately, the movie offered enough for me to appreciate it as a decent genre film and delivered pretty much what I expected.

Grade: B-

  • Directed by Greg McLean
  • Written by James Gunn
  • Produced by James Gunn and Peter Safran
  • Director of Photography — Luis David Sansas
  • Music by Tyler Bates
  • Edited by Julia Wong
  • Starring John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, James Earl
  • Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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Based on real-life events, Martin Scorsese’s black comedy focuses on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street mogul who operated a pump-and-dump scheme in the late 80s and was subject to FBI investigation.

Queens-born Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is young, handsome, and insanely ambitious. He comes from a modest background, but desires to get to the top as much as anyone. In 1987, he lands a stockbroker job at L.F. Rothschild, working for the charismatic Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who entices him with a win-at-all-costs attitude.

However, on Black Monday, the company suffers extreme losses and Belfort is out of a job. Discouraged and struggling to pay the bills, he catches on with a boiler room brokerage firm on Long Island that specializes in penny stocks. While a far cry from his previous job, the determined Belfort succeeds almost immediately and amasses a small fortune.

Soon enough, Belfort strikes up a professional relationship with his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and together with several of Belfort’s friends and colleagues, they start their own business. The basic method that they use is a pump-and-dump scam, artificially inflating stock prices and scamming investors in order to make quick cash. In order to avoid possible probes into their illegal activity, Belfort gives his new company the respectable-sounding name of Stratton Oakmont.

The firm starts out very successfully, and Belfort is soon the subject line of numerous articles and newspapers columns including a non-flattering portrait and exposé in Forbes. Nonetheless, 20-somethings and recent college grads flock to Stratton Oakmont in record numbers, wanting a piece of the action.

Belfort and his colleagues became astonishingly successful, raking in millions of dollars and indulging in decadent lifestyles of cocaine, prostitutes, and expensive yachts. The SEC and the FBI begin to take an interest in Stratton Oakmont, even going so far as to interview Belfort personally, but with little concrete evidence tying him to illegal activities, they’re unable to do anything further. Together with his new wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), Belfort develops more and more ambitious schemes to stay one step ahead of the feds and remain the head of his own personal kingdom.

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I recently rewatched The Wolf of Wall Street and I’ve gotta admit, this film is still one of Martin Scorsese’s best. It is one of the most entertaining black comedies of the past decade, while still having an emotional core and working as a pretty vicious satire. It also shows Scorsese’s versatility as a director; people always associate him with his award-winning crime/mafia films, such as Goodfellas, The Departed, and Casino, but Scorsese has made some outstanding films in many different genres.

The Wolf of Wall Street also marked the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, the latter of whom also co-produced the film. DiCaprio had secured the rights to Jordan Belfort’s memoir back in 2007 and had wanted to bring Scorsese onboard for quite sometime. The movie had been in pre-production for several years, and Scorsese had worked on several script rewrites with screenwriter Terence Winter. However, Warner Bros had not given the green light for production dates, frustrating Scorsese, and he eventually moved on to other projects, including Shutter Island and Hugo. In 2010, the studio offered it to Ridley Scott to direct, with DiCaprio starring.

Scott ended up passing on the project, and Scorsese came back on board when notable independent company Red Granite Pictures became involved; this gave Scorsese free reign without fear of studio censorship. Eventually, Paramount distributed the film in the North American market.

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The Wolf of Wall Street was a massive financial success when it was released in December 2013, and to this day is Scorsese’s highest-grossing film ever ($392 million worldwide). The movie received five Oscar nominations, including for DiCaprio and Scorsese, as well as Jonah Hill’s first nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. Numerous critics praised the film as a brilliant black comedy and it appeared on many end-of-year top ten lists. While DiCaprio did not win the Best Actor Oscar, he did win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.

While a resounding commercial success, The Wolf of Wall Street received some controversy from critics and audiences alike, focusing on the apparent morally ambiguous tone of the film. I disagree with this; I feel like Scorsese and Winter handled the source material very well and didn’t make excuses for the characters’ actions, and here’s why:

While based on a real story and real person, The Wolf of Wall Street does succeed as a smart, biting satire of Wall Street indulgence. Some people may feel that presenting such irresponsible actions as comedy is setting a poor example, but I don’t really feel that way. Yes, the movie has some serious adult content that is inappropriate for young viewers, but the fact of the matter is that this film is supposed to be over-the-top, because it’s a story that wouldn’t be considered believable if it took itself too seriously.

Several real-life victims of Belfort’s schemes (or relatives of victims) also criticized the film’s portrayal of the characters, feeling that they were simply portrayed as rowdy, coke-addicted fratboys rather than career white-collar criminals, as well as refusing to focus on the ruined lives of Stratton Oakmont’s victims. Both Scorsese and DiCaprio denied these allegations, arguing that focusing too much on the victims would distract from the actual actions that directly led to the downfall of Belfort and his empire.

The bottom line is that The Wolf of Wall Street is about a guy who wanted to have it all and eventually became obsessed to the point of destroying himself, his business, and his family. DiCaprio even mentioned that, in his performance as Belfort, he was inspired by another famously decadent, power-hungry film character — Malcolm McDowell’s Emperor Caligula in the infamous 1973 film of the same name.

Some might consider the film’s serious language, sexual content, and drug use to be a deal-breaker, and I understand that. But, to me, Scorsese balanced the line between satire and drama very well, aside from a few tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. The Wolf of Wall Street is also three hours long and may be difficult to sit through for certain people, but overall, this is another intelligent, entertaining achievement from Scorsese that still deserves the acclaim it initially received.

Rating: B+

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Terence Winter
  • Based on the book by Jordan Belfort
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, Ethan Suplee, Brian Sacca, Christine Ebersole, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, Cristin Milioti, Jake Hoffman
  • Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.

Flight of the Conchords

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Bret and Jemaine (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement) are a likable-but-awkward pair of New Zealanders attempting to make it as a folk music duo in New York. Calling themselves Flight of the Conchords, they attempt to land small-time gigs with the help of their oblivious band manager, Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby), who is also Deputy Cultural Attaché for the New Zealand Consulate.

Supporting characters include Mel (Kristen Schaal), the band’s obsessed — and only — fan, Eugene (Eugene Mirman), Bret and Jemaine’s quirky landlord, and Dave (Arj Barker), a local pawn shop owner who gives the two Kiwis humorous (and frequently terrible) advice about picking up American women.

In between unsuccessful romances, low-paying gigs, potential muggers, and confusedly racist street vendors, this is an offbeat comedy that blends the surreal with the sublime. Hilarity ensues as Bret and Jemaine attempt to find their way in the States as “New Zealand’s fourth-most popular comedy folk duo.”

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Flight of the Conchords was already a widely-acclaimed comedy music duo in their home country of New Zealand for many years before they were an HBO series. Clement and McKenzie were actual flatmates when they attended the Victoria University of Wellington, where they both studied film and theatre. The band itself originated in 1998 and gained a cult following after widely successful runs at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Coming off a successful run as a radio show on the BBC, Clement and McKenzie elected to bring their quirky lyrics and bluesy acoustic sets to American shores. The duo co-created the show alongside comedy veteran James Bobin, an Englishman who wrote and directed several episodes of Da Ali G Show. Bobin, Clement, and McKenzie wrote and produced nearly every episode.

The series ran for only two seasons (2007 and 2009) but received significant acclaim from both audiences and critics alike and got six Emmy nominations. It remains a cult classic to this day, with frequent reruns shown on HBO.

Every episode of the show features a song-and-dance routine from either Bret, Jemaine, or both, usually in the form of a stylish music video. These frequently serve as inner monologues for the characters and contrast with the normally subtle, deadpan humor. Some of the songs serve as pivotal to the plot, some deliberately blend reality with fantasy, and many also serve as tongue-in-cheek references to various artists and/or genres. Flight of the Conchords was also shot primarily on location in New York City, mostly in Queens, the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan.

“May well be the funniest thing you’ve seen in ages.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“TV’s most original and and irresistible comic concoction.” —The Detroit Free Press

HBO presents Flight of the Conchords

  • Created by James Bobin & Jemaine Clement & Bret McKenzie
  • Executive Producers — Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, James Bobin, Troy Miller, Stu Smiley, Tracey Baird
  • Starring Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal, Arj Barker, David Costabile, Eugene Mirman, Frank Wood, Sutton Foster
  • Rated TV-MA

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 does well at a handful of photoshoots, which leads to an unexpected offer from talent agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who is impressed with her beauty 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 and sweet love story mixed with graphic mafia violence. I didn’t like Only God Forgives — an experimental 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 (a frequent collaborator of Winding Refn), 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 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)