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