Good war-films can be very disturbing to watch. The dramatic realism of modern digital effects spares little and many audiences will find Hacksaw Ridge (2016) one of the most violent sensory assaults that can be experienced in a cinema. If it were not a true story that celebrates an unusual hero the film could have been accused of a gratuitous display of unrelenting carnage and military triumphalism.
The film plays in two halves: the early life and romance of Army Medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and the actual Battle of Hacksaw Ridge. Raised in bible best Virginia, Doss had a troubled upbringing under an abusive father. A devout Seventh-day Adventist, he swore never to commit violence or even carry a weapon but felt duty-bound to enlist in the Army. Not long after meeting the one love of his life, nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), he enlisted with the belief that he could serve his God unarmed and without killing enemy soldiers.
Branded a coward and bullied to leave, he was eventually granted conscientious objector status and became one of the troops sent to capture Hacksaw Ridge in the Battle of Okinawa of May 1945. While the assault was forced to retreat under overwhelming enemy fire, Doss remained behind and single-handedly evacuated 75 casualties, lowering them by rope from an escarpment over 100 metres high. The Ridge was eventually captured and Doss became one of the most decorated heroes of World War II.
The heroism depicted in this story is of such an extraordinary magnitude that it can easily overwhelm any consideration of the film’s merits. With an uncomplicated and factual narrative arc, the story rests on two pillars: acting and filming. On both scores, this film deserves high praise. While the early life and romance chapter drifts towards melodrama, Garfield is cast to perfection as the wide-eyed and straight talking man of unshakeable principle and Palmer convincingly plays his adorable emotional anchor. Together with a strong support cast that includes several big-name stars, this is a powerful ensemble that carries the story convincingly.
The most outstanding element of this film, however, is its powerhouse hyper-realistic cinematography and spectacular set constructions that relentlessly convey the brutality of war. While it is an outstanding technical production, giving spectacle precedence over narrative is the film’s Achilles Heel. One or maybe a few helmeted heads shredded or bodies bayonetted can convey much, but twenty deadens the senses. If ever there was a case where less could have been more, this is it. Otherwise this is a gripping film with forceful storytelling about a remarkable war hero.
Director: Mel Gibson
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington
The moral of most man-made disaster films is that when civilisation disrespects nature the results can be catastrophic. Such films work best when we get both sides of the story: the why and what happened on humanity’s side, and nature’s response and effects on the other. It is clear that big money was involved in the 2010 oil-rig disaster that is examined in Deepwater Horizon (2016). In fact, there is so much at stake that the most significant part is left out of the film: the immediate and long term effects of the worst ecological disaster in American history.
Instead of the full story, the film offers as spectacular a dramatization of an oil-rig explosion that digital effects allow. The one-day plotline is simple and tight. It starts with a human interest back story of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) having time off as boss of the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig, and his home life is sweet. Kissing wife and daughter goodbye, he heads off for a 21-day rig shift and on the helicopter ride we meet the British Petroleum bad guy executives. Tension lines are drawn immediately between Mike’s safety maintenance role and the ‘hurry up and make more money’ pressure from the company.
A great strength of this film is its ability to convey the dirty, claustrophobic and technology-dependent world of offshore oil-drilling. It is full of whiteboard diagram explanations, fear-inducing instrument dials with pointers drifting into red zones and grim-faced technicians who sense something calamitous is near. It also shows a grimy environment in which humans strip non-renewable resources from deep in our planet, all for profit. When poor safety and maintenance practices lead to the massive blowout and explosion, the film is at its best in portraying a veritable Dante’s Inferno on water. Hyper-realistic imaging conveys uncontrolled gushing oil, roaring flames, and flying bodies in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.
The camerawork draws you into the rig with a colour palette that leaves the taste of petroleum in your mouth, but the chaos during the worst of the explosion is beyond cinematic capture. For a large part of the film it is difficult to know what is happening, but that would have been the case when it really happened. If this film intended to be a tribute to the heroic crew, both those who survived and those who did not, then it falls short. Typecast performances are effective in distinguishing the good guys from the bad, but that is all. Nor does it acknowledge the devastation that followed the disaster. It does, however, fill a gap in public awareness about this catastrophic event and that is an achievement.
Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Douglas M. Griffin
Fantasy films work through a kind of free association logic where you join the metaphorical dots to create the story you want to see. They do not follow standard cinematic logic, like causation or narrative coherence, and younger and older minds can take away vastly different stories from the same film. This is fortunate in the case of Miss Peregrines School for Peculiar Children (2016), as audiences of all ages can enjoy a wonderful, magical and intriguing world of fantasy without the burden of actually seeing the dark and heavy hand of history that overarches this film.
The story of Miss Peregrines turns on a life-changing event for young Jake (Asa Butterfield) whose beloved grandfather dies in strange circumstances. Jake was raised on stories about an orphanage full of fantastically peculiar children and he embarks on an odyssey to find the truth. Guided by his grandfather’s dying words, he finds a gateway to another time and place full of children with special gifts under the guardianship of Miss Peregrine. The orphanage appeared to be demolished by World War II bombers but its headmistress Miss Peregrine reversed the passage of time an instant before a Swastika-labelled bomb struck. An endlessly repeating time loop keeps them frozen in history but not safe from the forces of darkness that would destroy the peculiars.
Jake discovers he has a special power that is needed to protect the peculiars: he can see enemies that are invisible to others. Torn between choosing past and future worlds, Jake navigates a journey that is rich in sub-plots and incidents, all woven together with shifting timeframes, Gothic mystery and deadly intrigue. The youthful cast give solid performances, although the acting benchmark for fantasy films is not high. The hyper-realistic 3D rendition is colourfully immersive and the action is fast-paced and engaging. Even the most serious-minded adults can enjoy this film.
Like in all creative art-forms, what you see depends on where you look. With the passage of time, history storytellers can no longer use conventional tropes to preserve the memories of humanity’s dark past, especially for younger generations for whom some parts of history are simply beyond belief. The deeper current running through this film is about real atrocities committed upon real people in order to preserve the genetic purity of a master race. The ‘time loop’ and the use of vintage photographs are figurative devices pleading for these memories to be kept alive, and the lovable peculiar children are a means for engaging young audiences to cherish and not reject others just because they appear different.
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson
The single most requested photograph held by the American National Archives is one of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon. That meeting has become the stuff of legend: a past-his-prime rock ’n roll star and an unpopular President, both destined to leave their mark on history for very different reasons. The film Elvis & Nixon (2016) is a humorous historical account of this unlikely encounter between soul-mates from different worlds. But that story is merely the picture frame, within which is a deep and brooding portrait of two troubled souls.
It’s a moment in time that speaks volumes for an era. By December 1970, the shining star that was the iconic Elvis (Michael Shannon) is beginning to fade. His marriage to Priscilla is on the rocks, the Beatles invaded then left America after making a fortune, and drugs and alcohol are taking their toll on brand Elvis. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) is an anxious president who desperately wants to be loved, and is quite possibly a lonely neurotic if Oliver Stone’s excellent film Nixon (1995) is to be believed. Despite Nixon’s misgivings, the two stars are fated to collide.
A few days before Christmas 1970, Elvis spontaneously composes an admiring letter to Nixon asking for a meeting and delivers it personally at the White House gates. Nixon is fretting about his rising unpopularity, particularly amongst the youth vote, and he grudgingly agrees to meet the music legend for a few minutes. The presidential staff are all over the place with excitement while the meeting becomes a prolonged chat between two people lightening each other’s personal baggage. And history was made.
There is much to enjoy in this film. Shannon and Spacey are so brilliant that it is easy to ignore how little they resemble Elvis and Nixon. Both portray emotional vulnerability to perfection, with Elvis borderline delusional about getting an undercover narcotics agent badge and solving the nation’s youth-drug problem, while Nixon obsesses about getting an autograph for his daughter so he can be a cool dad. While these two flawed yet powerful figures fret about how the mop-headed singers from England were mobbed by adoring crowds, the world was in the midst of a nuclear arms race, the black rights movement and the Vietnam War. This film captures it all, with broad brush-strokes that linger on funny details while it sweeps an era of history into a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining story.
Director: Liza Johnson
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon
You would not be entirely mistaken in thinking that Woody Allen has only made one film to which he has progressively added a variety of chapters on his way to becoming an 80 year-old filmmaker. So distinct is his style of humour that we all know what is meant by ‘a Woody Allen comedy’, a sub-genre characterised by the angst-ridden self-deprecation that the master of incongruity brings to his work. Cafe Society (2016) has all the hallmarks of Allen’s signature style plus a feast of visual pleasures that signal a career in full bloom.
As with many Allen films, the plotline is less important than the time and place, the characters and their emotions. Set in the 1930s, the story follows young Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) who leaves his father’s New York jewellery business for the promises and bright lights of Los Angeles. He lands a job with uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who runs a top-tier talent agency then falls in love with the boss’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart). But things turn messy when his love life becomes a love triangle and he is the odd man out. Bobby returns to New York and finds success in running a nightclub for the rich and famous but the triangle remains a spectre of happiness, so near yet out of reach.
The simplicity of this understated plot belies the craftsmanship that is obvious in the film. The period sets, costumes, and 1930s stylisation of both the high-life and the ordinary are sumptuously beautiful, with many scenes reminiscent of the colour palettes and opulent settings in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). The vibrant sound of the Jazz Age punctuates the narrative to lift its stories of love, greed, ambition and good old-fashion gangster high-jinx. In this heady mix, wealth and cultural power exist incongruously with the shallowness of the Hollywood dream factory, and all is mocked through the quirky lens of Woody Allen humour.
Jesse Eisenberg does Allen almost better than Allen. His down-beat facial expressions and body language evoke self-mocking humour, pathos and yearning to belong. Kristen Stewart matches him for emotional range and nuance, and lights up the screen whenever the camera dwells on her face. Their synergy spans the high idealism of youth to the low pragmatics of life in show-business, and throughout it all Eisenberg conveys the introspection that Allen perfected through a dialogue-rich script that is fast, clever and funny. This is an engaging and enjoyable film to inhale, one that roller-coasts from innocence to the melancholy of lost opportunity and bemused wonder over what life really means…just like all Woody Allen films.
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
At one level The Confirmation (2016) is a simple and endearing story of a young boy spending a weekend bonding with his recovering-alcoholic father. However, the Catholic ritual in the film’s title and the church confessionals that bookend the film suggest more serious themes. Although labelled a comedy, the story is really a dramatic portrait of the growing distance between traditional notions of morality and the ethical relativities of today’s post-GFC world.
Eight year-old Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher) has not spent much time with his father Walt (Clive Owen) since the divorce, and when mum has a weekend away with her new husband it is a rare chance for father and son to bond. Walt has a lot of issues, including alcohol, unemployment, a foreclosed mortgage and a broken down truck, so the weekend does not look promising for Anthony whose confirmation is only a week away. When thieves steal Walt’s specialised hand-made carpenter tools, the pair spend the weekend tracking them down and in the process get to know each other.
It is an emotional journey through neighborhoods that have hit hard times and where even thieves are pitiable and forgiven. There are several near-encounters with real danger and scenes of conventional comedy where many conservative parental boundaries are ignored. Through it all, it is a story about an irresponsible loser whose life is being turned around through the emerging relationship with his over-responsible son.
The film starts with an impatient priest urging an innocent child to confess his sins and ends with him amazed at just how many sins can be committed in such a short time. In between, of course, Anthony had a coming of age journey in the real-world. Some may think the narrative unoriginal and the adult-child inversion a predictable cliché. But it does not look or feel like that.
This is a heart-warming and tightly scripted two-hander with everything anchored by excellent acting performances that balance emotional insight with a well-paced plotline. Owen plays an unstable but good man, and his performance is pitched at just the right level to be both convincing and likeable. However, the real star is Lieberher who authentically plays wise-beyond-his-age innocence and growing understanding of his father. Their synergy together is delightful. The moral of the story is that what priests expect and life delivers are vastly different; young Anthony has learnt more about human values in a weekend than many learn in a lifetime.
Director: Bob Nelson
Stars: Clive Owen, Jaeden Lieberher, Maria Bello
The bio-documentary The Queen of Ireland (2015) originally set out to focus on drag queen Rory O’Neill and the role he played in Ireland’s referendum to approve same-sex marriage equality. As sometimes happens with good documentary, the film ended up being more than that. It has become a tale about a nation’s rite of passage, a celebration of diversity, and an example of the power of words to overcome entrenched bigotry towards people who appear different.
O’Neill’s stage persona is Panti Bliss, a flamboyant and highly articulate communicator both as a stand-up drag queen comic and a gay rights activist. Filmmaker Conor Horgan is a long time close friend, so O’Neill is comfortable in front of the camera and in turn the camera is kind to O’Neill. The film delves into O’Neill’s background via flashbacks of childhood videos and interviews with people who knew him as a young gay man struggling under the weight of Ireland’s oppressive homophobic laws. O’Neill’s angst-ridden story about coming out as a gay person is a common narrative but in his case he had the talent and family support as his defensive shield against the Irish Catholic bigotry that suppressed the LGBT community.
Two historic moments catapulted O’Neill to fame. He went from being just another ‘gay in the village’ to national attention when he was challenged on prime time television to name prominent homophobic figures…and he did. He skilfully channelled the inevitable media backlash to put gay rights on the national policy agenda, which then provided the platform for what became a globally viral landmark speech about gay rights. Even before the referendum, the public debate was won.
The film undoubtedly succeeds because O’Neill is a fascinating, dynamic and highly intelligent performer. It is skilfully crafted into a fast-moving bio-pic which has all the ingredients of a great ‘one man’s achievement’ story. That is also its greatest vulnerability. Hagiography is a documentary style which unduly reveres its subject. This is not to say that O’Neill is an undeserving hero, but rather one could be forgiven in thinking that he single-handedly changed a nation, without bigotry or insults being hurled by conservative opponents of equality. We know the world is not like that. In Australia we are gearing up for a national hate-fest of historic proportions and there are no inspirational leaders in sight. But lack of balance aside, Queen of Ireland is an important, enjoyable and engaging documentary.
Director: Conor Horgan
Star: Rory O’Neill