Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge



When Mel Gibson is the Director you know the action sequences are going to be full-on and in a WWII drama featuring close quarter hand-to-hand combat, the more visceral elements that literally flow from it, are going to be displayed with full and gory anatomical vibrancy! As striking as these images are - and as horrible as war is - even though viewers cannot un-see what they have seen, the most memorable thing that remains for me is the story of the central character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). This film is a biopic based on the heroics of Doss the Conscientious Objector and the significant contribution he made to the Battle of Okinawa.

This is the kind of film that Clint Eastwood usually Directs. Had he done so, Hacksaw Ridge would have been a radically different film - a jingoistic celebration of a war hero showing the tolerance and diversity living the American Dream can deliver. Instead, we have a thoughtful and heart-warming film which roots the central character in his home context and which links the legacy of WWI to the second generation as demons, guilt and regret enslave those who fought in France and survived.

Garfield's Doss delivers a subtle blend of strength and vulnerability which is wonderfully matched by the captivating and inspiring Dorothy Shutte played by Teresa PalmerGarfiled's performance has won him an Oscar nomination - the film has five other nominations, including best picture. Hugo Weaving also manages to blend subtleties together in his wonderful portrayal of Doss' father Tom.

I heard the good Dr Kermode reviewing this film and for once I disagree with one of his main criticisms. He was complaining that he first half of the film (in total it's 139 minutes!) is too slow as it laboured to establish the central character as a believable and morally upright guy from which the foundation for his conscientious objecting springs. I think that this was necessary and yes it is a film of two halves - but both are essential if Doss' story is to be told. We needed to see the playfulness side of him with his brother, the struggles with his father, the domestic violence and the love of his mother. We needed to see his commitment to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and his ability to think quickly and save a life even before he enlists. But most of all, the first half of the film is necessary as it gives the US Army the opportunity to learn what a Conscientious Objector really are and what to do with them!

There were many passages of this film that brought a tear to my eye because the heart-break, sacrifice and emotional connection of the characters was so real. There were some great examples of editing that made me jump out of my seat! The brutality of war and especially the totality of Japanese combat ethos were repeatedly displayed in graphic technicolor which was reinforced by a deafening soundtrack. This film is very well shot and is completely at home on the big screen.

Overall the film does not paint the US Army very favourably. Slow to catch on, lacking in resources and combat strategies and quite often playing catch-up where Desmond Doss was concerned. The company of which Doss is a part contains the predictable blend of stereotypical men - I wonder how many of them were real and how many were Hollywood inventions? Nevertheless, this is an excellent film and deserving of some recognition in the forth-coming awards ceremonies. Almost worthy of a 9 but scoring a very strong 8/10 here. Do go and see it if you can - unless you are a squeamish pacifist!


Friday, 10 February 2017

I Origins



This is the fourth Brit Marling film I have reviewed on this site and like the others (Sound of my Voice, Another Earth, The East) it is clever, has a good story, draws you into the plot and leaves unanswered questions for you to ponder at the end. I like Brit Marling's acting and the films she makes. Find out more about her work here and here.

This film explores the contrast between life which bases reason solely on scientific processes and life which is open to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. The battleground on which this is fought out is the lab of Dr Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) who is trying to chart the evolution of the eye in a bid to 'disprove' the validity of the concept of intelligent design. In the mind of Gray, science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Gray's fascination with the unique character of the iris of the eye began at an early age and he has built up a large collection of photographs of eyes. His research is in the field of biometrics and branches out into tracing the evolution of the eye through different species who increasingly required the agency of sight to function within their natural habitat. Human eyes being at the pinnacle of the scientific process of the evolution but also being seen by some as the gateway to the soul or embodying the blueprint of a Creator.

Gray's life is impacted by two women - a first year lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling), sent to him on rotation and a woman called Sofi (Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey) with incredible eyes (see above) who grabs his attention at a halloween party and then begins to seduce him before running away. Gray is infatuated with Sofi and whilst Karen is left to develop the research in the lab, Gray takes off on a stalking odyssey to hunt down Sofi guided by random occurrences of the number 11. Science and seemingly irrational coincidences from a world beyond what we see conspire to give the narrative its spine.

The fact verses faith debate is played out well between the main characters although once or twice it all gets a little bit formulaic. Spirituality is presented as a pastiche of faiths with reincarnation and karma being prominent motifs. This may be an intentional nod towards the generality of faith and the variety of ways in which different cultures and faiths express their beliefs, or simply a function of Sofi's nomadic and eclectic upbringing.

Whilst telling you what the film is about I have not told you how it explores these themes which is original and delivers a worthy film. It's not without it's shortcomings and I felt that the characters could have undergone fuller development. It lacks the impact of Another Earth which was also written and directed by Mike Hill but he still delivers a film that can be either watched and enjoyed at face level or used as a springboard for deeper reflection on important metaphysical themes. I liked it and will award it 8/10 even if its ambition isn't quite matched by its delivery. I'm looking forward to the next offering from Brit Marling.



Thursday, 2 February 2017

Lion



This is a wonderful and uplifting film based on a true story. It is a film of great generosity. The trailers and advertising make the plot clear - there are no surprises but this film's worth is in the journey not only of the central character but also the viewer's journey as you get sucked in - totally. I don't know when a film last made me cry so much!

Five year-old Saroo and his older brother Guddu find work as they can - mostly along the railway. One day whilst waiting for Guddu to return a tired Saroo wanders onto and empty train and wakes up the next day as it speeds ever Eastward ending up 2 days later in Calcutta more than 1500 miles away. Not knowing the language, he has to live on the streets by his wits and is eventually taken to an orphanage from where he is adopted by a couple in Tasmania and brought up as their son.

As a fully integrated Aussie, Saroo heads off to College in Melbourne but begins to be plagued by flash-backs to his early childhood. He becomes obsessed with finding his home but keeps his research secret from his adoptive parents wishing to spare their feelings. He spends hours piecing together the flashbacks and constructs a virtual world inside his head where he knows every alleyway and junction. He recreates home internally. The obsession begins to affect Saroo's relationships and he drops out of studies and work. Eventually he works out where he is from and is reunited with his mother. I will give nothing more away about the plot - there is still plenty more to see.

Some have argued that because the narrative arc is so simple, why does it require a film of 2 hours duration to tell the story. The answer is because this film does so much more than just tell a story. The cast is top-drawer - Dev Patel plays the 25 year old Saroo, Rooney Mara his girlfriend and his adoptive mother is played by Nicole Kidman whose beauty, vulnerability and compassion are simply enchanting. The film is also beautifully shot - the opening aerial sequences of India and Tasmania highlight the contrast between the two. The way the warmth or coldness of the light is used to reinforce the mood of a scene is also masterful and belies the fact that this was Director Garth Davis' first feature film.

This film is about the need to connect with home - our origins, the place and people that formed and shaped us. It also explores, loss, love, hope and familial responsibility. All good themes that contribute to the uplifting nature of this film. Even as his obsession drives him to dark places, Saroo is never beyond the forgiveness and love of those around him.

The train is more than a metaphor for the journey Saroo undertakes. As well as the physical journey from Ganesh Talai to Hobart and back again, this film takes the viewer on an emotional journey where we befriend and want only the best for Saroo. The scenery is varied as is the pace of the film. Windows and reflections in glass feature regularly as Saroo tries to reflect on who he is and where he has come from. Occasionally we are given a precious insight into the psychological state of Seroo and those around him.

There is little if anything to dislike in this film. If the pace or length of the film had been altered in any way, it would only have been to make the film poorer than it is. The contrast between eking out a subsistence living in India and enjoying the world of plenty and privilege in Australia cannot be over-stated but Saroo's cheerful happiness with either circumstance discloses that a lesser person would probably have succumbed to some nefarious activity along the way and have ended up dead or addicted to something.

Where do you come from and what has contributed to making you the person you are today? Fundamental questions that we need to explore if we are to have any chance of being at peace with ourself. When dislocation accidentally occurs, or someone's upbringing was highly transient (as was my experience) notions of home and the identity that flows from it can be missing and our sense of self eroded as a consequence. heavy stuff.

As you will have gathered, I really liked this film - in spite of the emotional work out it gave me. I will seek to add the disc to my library as soon as I can. In the meantime I will award it the rare accolade of 9/10. This film is a gift - receive it with enthusiasm.