Movie Reviews: Hacksaw Ridge, Sing, Denial 0 191

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Hacksaw Ridge

MEL Gibson steps behind the camera for the first time since 2006’s brutal Mayan action adventure Apocalypto for this similarly uncompromising gut shot of a WWII film. This isn’t an ordinary war film about brave men joining to fight for their country, bearing arms to do so. No, this is the tale of Desmond Moss (Andrew Garfield), an idealistic young man who wants to serve without firing a single bullet.

Despite pleadings from his battle-scarred WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) and distraught bride-to-be Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), he signs up and goes off to fight as a conscientious objector. However, his obdurate refusal to even touch a gun, much less take another human being’s life, causes troubles during his training – “You know, quite a bit of killing does occur in a war,” he is blankly told by his miffed Captain (Sam Worthington) – and he is even threatened with a military prison. But refusing to back down from his principals, he is eventually allowed to serve as a pacifist medic among the madness.

It’s an unashamedly idealistic film through and through. The earlier scenes almost feeling cosy (sometimes to a fault) as Desmond courts his future fiancé and speaks with pride about how, “while everybody is taking life I’m going to be saving it, and that’s going to be my way to serve”.

This is to reflect the principled path Desmond has set for himself: from the beginning right up until its credits – which inevitably show the real life man himself – the film holds him up as a special kind of war hero.

The Hacksaw Ridge of the title is the so nicknamed main battleground during the Battle of Okinawa and the centre-piece of Gibson’s unrelentingly brazen approach to wartime action. Although violence within his directorial work is certainly not a new thing – lest we forget how brutal and bloody the likes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ are – it nevertheless feels like a fresh and reinvigorated directorial style. The initial assault as the men climb up and over the ridge on a massed web of rope is a masterclass in horribly, unflinchingly realistic carnage: bullets whizzing and thudding against and through bodies as they run and shoot and fall and blow up, engulfing the frame to give a realistic sense of what it would have been like. It’s one of the best war movie sequences since the opening of Saving Private Ryan, one that contains some truly stark imagery that stays with you.

The film presents an interesting dichotomy between Desmond’s wide-eyed, almost romantic view of what war will be like for him and the horrors of what it’s actually like once he’s up on the ridge, scrambling with his medical kit among the bloodshed. Is it arrogant for him to think he can serve without firing a gun while other men gladly put their lives on the line at the barrel of one? And what happens when he’s posed an immediate him-or-me threat on the battlefield?

Set to an at once rousing and pounding score by Rupert Gregson-Williams and anchored by Garfield’s committed and powerfully moving performance, this is Gibson back after a decade to show that he can direct the hell out of any story. The fact that it’s such an incredible true one makes it all the more effective. 4/5

Sing

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IF last year’s Trolls didn’t give you enough brightly-coloured, peppy-animated energy then here to fill that void is Sing – the music-filled animation from Illumination Entertainment, aka the studio that the Minions built.

Matthew McConaughey leads an all-star voice cast as Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala bear who has the idea of holding a singing competition for every creature great and small of the city – from the tallest giraffe to the smallest mouse – in an attempt to save his struggling theatre from closing down.

When a harmless mistake occurs with the prize money amount on the fliers ($100,000 instead of just $100) he finds himself overrun with amateur singers all desperate to make the big time and claim the prize he can’t afford. These include Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton), Rosita the housewife pig (Reese Witherspoon) and Mike the con artist mouse (Seth MacFarlane).

Last summer’s mammoth hit Zootropolis – also about animals going about city life as if they were human – comes immediately to mind and it just doesn’t have the same sort of consistent wittiness and depth beyond its pretty single-minded concept. It’s essentially an animated X Factor but with singing animals and it plays that note to the Nth degree. But it’s a note that it hits with a polished slickness and enjoyable bravado.

There’s something inherently funny about seeing a pig, so fed up with her domesticated and repetitive housewife lifestyle, singing Shake It Off ;or a gorilla, desperate to avoid the life of crime his overbearing father has earmarked for him, belting out Stay With Me. It’s all a bit like being hit over the head with a jukebox but, you know, in a fun kind of way. 3/5

Denial

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DIRECTOR Mick Jackson’s courtroom drama – adapted by playwright David Hare from the non-fiction book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier – focuses on the quite galling true story of American writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz).

In 1996, she had a libel suit brought against her and her publisher Penguin Books by British historian and infamous Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Deborah is then forced from her relatively quiet teaching life in New York to the courts of London, where she is presented with a very different legal system to the one of her homeland; over here, the burden of proof is on the accused rather than the accuser.

With the help of a formidable but regulation-hampered legal team – including barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) – she mounts her case against a man she professionally discredited and personally loathes for denying an atrocity, the occurrence of which she can’t believe would ever be doubted.

Most of the film takes place in and around the court as the trial goes on, both sides adamant and presenting their case like fighters throwing punches in a ring. Their lightbulb moment of defensive approach is to make Irving’s prejudice and thinly veiled twisting of facts the thing on trial.

The talky drama presented by the rather pedestrian direction can feel stagey and televisual, like it belongs more as a multi-part BBC series than up on the big-screen. And it’s one of those films where the outcome – even if you don’t know the true story – is earmarked from the beginning. That and the general feeling that “of course he’s in the wrong” does drain a lot of the tension out of the unfolding drama.

But there are some excellent performances – particularly from Weisz as the inspirationally steadfast Deborah and Spall as the self-righteous Irving – and there’s no doubting its timeliness as a film about kindness and understanding going up against bigotry and hate. 3/5

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 355

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 382

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10