Hacksaw Ridge Review

When Mel Gibson releases a film, people sit up and pay attention. Ever since Braveheart back in 1995, which he directed, starred and produced, Gibson has been one whose films are shocking and controversial, while also receiving high critical acclaim. Does his new film Hacksaw Ridge follow the great string of films before it?

Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington and Teresa Palmer and is directed by Mel Gibson. The film follows the true story of Desmond Doss (Garfield) a contentious objector during the Second World War. He volunteers as an army medic instead and is sent out during the battle of Okinawa, in which he saved the lives of seventy-five men.

If Mel Gibson’s films are known for anything is their almost pornographic depictions of gore and violence and the sometimes heavy-handed religious metaphors and aggrandising of the main character. In terms of the former, Hacksaw Ridge has the blood and bodies turned up to eleven. This isn’t the bloodless fights of Marvel, or the rather scaled-back violence in Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge paints the screen red with blood. It’s an odd balance of sickening and gratuitous; a solider picks up the corpse of a comrade and uses him as a shield, we get several body pans focusing in on missing legs and the Japanese soldiers use samurai swords when finishing off the barely surviving soldiers. The start of the film is an almost Nicholas Sparks-style romance film, with Garfield’s Doss falling in love with a nurse. When it comes time for the battle to start, the switch to dismemberment is a tonal whiplash, leaving you completely open to the vile amount of gore on stage.

Garfield is near perfect in his role as Desmond Doss. Most people only really know Garfield as the second Spiderman, a character known for being quiet and unassuming. He brings that, along with a childhood innocence and naiveté to the role, leading to a main character that you root for and understand his motivations. His religion is not over-played, it’s just another layer to the character. My only flaw would be his “aw-shucks” accent, which makes him sound like he’s talking with a mouth full of food. The rest of the cast are good, even if most of his fellow soldiers are one-word stereotypes. And who knew that Vince Vaughn, the guy from Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball would do a good job in an action role? And Sam Worthington could actually emote?

The accompanying score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is an excellent addition to the film. It has the hallmarks of a war movie; the marching drums and the bold brass for the action heavy second half, but evens it out with some beautiful string and woodwind solos during the beginning and the downtime in between the fights on the battlefield. It’s easily one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time, not since Bridge of Spies have I been blown away by the score of a film.

The film does have some minor faults. While it was important to establish Garfield’s character’s optimism and innocence, the first half feels both overlong and cut short at the same time. It’s pretty much the first hour, but most of the scenes that are a good few weeks apart are shunted together like they are happening in the same day. As I said before, the romance sometimes comes off a little corny, with cheesy one-liners being most of Garfield and Teresa Palmer’s dialogue together. The film also ends with actual interview footage with Doss and his fellow soldiers, which feels a bit at odds since we’ve just got done watching a dramatisation of the events. Maybe it was to show that some things depicted in the film actually did happen, but I got that from the “this is a true story” at the beginning.

In the end, Hacksaw Ridge completely blew me away. While it may not reach the cultural heights of Braveheart (everyone knows the “they may take out lives” quote), it’s still a bombastic, violent depiction of the Second World War. It’s definitely not one for the squeamish.

Score: 8/10 A cinematic tour-de-force on the brutality of war and the power of the human spirit.

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xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage Review

The first xXx came out back in 2002. I vaguely remember it; explosions, stunts and Vin Diesel in a fantastic fur coat. I know even less about the sequel xXx: State of The Union, save for that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel’s character) had apparently been killed off so instead Ice Cube was brought in to fill the gap. Now, fifteen years after he first starred in the role, Vin Diesel comes back for more extreme stunts.

xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage stars Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by D.J. Caruso. The film follows extreme sports star Xander Cage (Diesel) as he is brought out of the retirement by the CIA to stop a rogue faction from destroying the world.

I’ve given the most blandest of synopsis I can, because this a film without a story. Oh sure, there is a lot of nonsense about crashing satellites and covert-government types, all interchangeable and doesn’t do much apart from set up to some crazy stunts. And really, I’m okay with that. So many films nowadays take themselves too seriously, it’s good now and again for a film that just leans right into the madness and has some fun to it.

Vin Diesel does his usual grumble-mumble and cute one-liners, no different from the fifty other Vin Diesel roles he has. It’s the newcomers that are the most interesting characters. Ruby Rose gets to show off her action chops while flipping the table of what an “action heroine” should be, Donnie Yen get’s to kick ass in his style but has an actual backstory and motivations, Deepika Padukone is a freedom fighter who is conflicted over how to achieve liberty, this is all cool stuff in an industry that just labels characters as “the Asian One”, “The Girl” and “The Other Girl.” Granted, the other actors; Tony Jaa, Rory McCann, Kris Wu and Michael Bisping don’t have much to them apart from a name and a one-line backstory, but it’s still an improvement over Hollywood.

The other major point I want to show off is how diverse the cast is. It’s cool to see these big actors from Chinese, Thai and Indian cinema get some major roles and screen time in an American blockbuster.

I was drawn to xXx 3 because I was promised action, and damn if it isn’t filled to brim with stunts. While there is noticeable instances of green screen, most of the action seems to be done for real. Even with the use of handheld cam, the action is bone-crunching and visceral. This is why you get Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in; these guys know how to fight, how to pull off stunts and make it look good. The plot enables these top notch performers to just let loose, with Jaa having an excellent parkour-infused chase on a freeway, while Yen get’s to show off his martial arts in a six-on-one fight in the finale. The finale ratchets up the ridiculous to eleven, with zero-gravity plane rides and robot boxing gloves, but is it still filmed relatively well, not obscuring any of the over-the-top action.

The film has downsides. I’ve talked about the plot, it’s got so many holes and loops that there is no point trying to figure out how and why things happen. This is one of those “plot armour” situations, just go with it. The film does start pretty slow, with at least an hour before it becomes a full-on action fest, with only minor action sequences to tide us over. Also, near the beginning of the film there are so many navel shots and full-body pans, it’s just tasteless. Refreshingly the main female characters aren’t sexualised in any way, but there is still a romance sub-plot that comes out of nowhere.

In the end, I left xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage with a huge grin on my face. For those looking for some good action and fun characters, but zero plot, this is one for you. I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again.

Score: 7/10 Over-the-top fun for the action fans.

La La Land Review

Damien Chazelle blew onto the mainstream circuit with Whiplash two years ago, an excellent film about the passion of musicians, with great performances from Miles Teller and JK Simmons. After writing the script for the lauded 10 Cloverfield Lane in 2016, all eyes were on him for what he would produce this year.

La La Land stars Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend and Rosemarie DeWitt and is directed by Damien Chazelle. The film follows an aspiring actress (Stone) and a jazz musician (Gosling) in Los Angeles who meet one day and fall in love.

You don’t see many musicals these days. After a certain Golden Period in Hollywood, musicals were quickly picked up by Disney. But seeing as the House Of Mouse are now aiming for more standard animation (along with remaking their classics), it falls to new talent to bring back the musical. And Damien Chazelle has made La La Land a smash hit.

The film starts with a song and dance number along the LA freeway, setting the stage for the old-school romance that is going to unfold. It’s an excellent opening, with hundreds of extras dancing on the roofs of cars. And due to some excellent cinematography by Linus Sandgren and editing by Tom Cross, it all looks like it’s done in one sweeping shot. All the dance numbers are done in a similar way, all being performed in a couple or sometimes one long take, with the performers dancing around the entire set. It’s the sort of performance that makes you want to give the film a standing ovation.

The songs and music were all done by Justin Hurwitz (who worked previously with Chazelle on Whiplash) and certainly deserve the high praise it has been given. Jumping from the melancholic piano solos to upbeat trumpets and saxophones to a full orchestra in the final act, it’s a film that needs not only to be seen, but to be heard in the cinema.

The two leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast in the film. We see Stone get shunted from audition to audition, showing the brutality of casting directors. Her soliloquy that we see her practising early on the film is performed in one take, and is masterful show-off of her acting ability. Gosling is his usual quiet but passionate self, and their chemistry is electric. When they perform together, you get this sense that they are channelling the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they are perfectly in sync and react well to each other.

La La Land is set in the present, but it’s whole shtick is an affinity for the yesteryear of Los Angeles. The film name-checks and references a lot of the films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stone and Gosling talk about Casablanca and go watch Rebel Without a Cause, their dance numbers have inflections of Singin’ In The Rain and they obviously pay homage to the previously mentioned Astaire and Rogers, with their tap-dancing duet. It never feels like they overshadow the actual film though. The references are there for those who know them, and don’t distract or make the film seem like it’s showing off (much like how I thought Hail, Caesar or Café Society did).

If there were any misgivings I had they would be the age rating. The film has a 12A, for infrequent strong language. It’s so sporadic that it seems a bit jarring when it’s used, and it’s annoying that it’s been bumped up to a 12A when it could easily be a U, and fun for all the family, with its great song and dance numbers. Another small nit-pick, the second half takes a little time going, but that maybe due to the fantastic dance number that precedes it, knocking a bit of the wind out of the film’s sails for the second act.

In the end, La La Land deserves all the praise you’ve been hearing about it. Everything from the cast, to the songs, to the choreography to the cinematography and the overall vibe is astounding. This is definitely not one to miss.

Score: 10/10 A superb, swinging, sexy dream of a film.

Assassin’s Creed Review

I’ve been waiting for this film for well over a year. After last year’s Macbeth (which had all the same technical crew and actors), I was super excited for Assassin’s Creed. Could it shake the video game-curse, or is it another one to throw on the pile?

Assassin’s Creed stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed and Charlotte Rampling and is directed by Justin Kurzel. The film follows Callum Lynch (Fassbender) who after being saved from death row by a mysterious company, has to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) from the Spanish Inquisition.

When I first heard about the Assassin’s Creed movie, I was excited when I heard they were moving away from the story of the games. This is what the film does right, it moves away from the story gamers would know and creates it’s own Assassin and setting, but leaves little hints for the eagle-eyed fans. Kenway’s flintlocks, Connor’s bow, Baptiste’s descendants, they make the world feel rich with history and lore that could be explored in sequels.

Sadly, the film also takes the modern day approach to the story. Instead of it just being about the Spanish Assassin’s, the film splits itself between that and the modern day wider narrative. We spend more time in modern day than in the Animus (the machine that allows Callum to relieve his memories), which for me was a problem. I came to see 1500s Spain, not Michael Fassbender walk around minimalistic settings. The film only goes back to Spain three times, each only lasting around twenty minutes at the most. There is a reason Desmond Miles (the modern day character from the game) is never on the front cover, because we shouldn’t be focussing on him, so why are we focussing on Callum rather than Aguilar?

The actors aren’t doing their best work either. Michael Fassbender flits from cracking jokes and madness to being stoic and brooding with no reasoning behind it. Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons look vacant for most of the film, with Cotillard only getting some character development near the end. The most interesting character is Maria (played by Ariane Labed), an Assassin that works with Aguilar. Through subtle looks and gestures, it feels like there was a relationship building up between her and Aguilar, but it never builds to anything. Credit to Fassbender and Labed though, for learning Spanish for the sections in the past.

The part that annoyed the most was the camerawork. I do not for a second believe that Adam Arkapaw, the man that was responsible for the beauty of Macbeth, True Detective and The Light Between Oceans signed off on these shots. The trailer showed off long extended shots and excellent cinematography, but there is none of that in the actual film. Fight scenes are incomprehensible, parkour chases lack cohesion, and everything is shrouded in fog. Every time the Animus is booted up, we have a long sweep of the area from above, but it’s hardly visible due to the fog and clouds. The best shot is the one of Maria killing two guards, but it was in the trailer. The fight scenes also cut between the action unfolding in the past and then Callum doing the action in the Animus. Cutting between two plains of action is just confusing and takes away from what we actually want to see.

It really is a shame. With Fassbender, Cotillard, The Kurzel brothers and Arkapaw all working together again on a film, it shouldn’t be bad. But there is none of that spark from their earlier films here. I will say, it’s a film that gets better as it goes on. It’s only in the final third where true character development happens and we get some of those action scenes we were promised, but it’s too little too late. I do wish for a sequel though. Hopefully they will take heed of the criticism and develop the film based on the feedback of both fans and critics (of which I am both).

Score: 4/10 Not truly terrible, but not great by any stretch.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

And it starts. With a Star Wars film being promised every year until the foreseeable future, there will come a time when Star Wars will start losing audiences and eventually stop. But as we are just at the beginning of this saga, I guess these first ones will be good? Let’s go see.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, with Riz Ahmed and Forest Whitaker and is directed by Gareth Edwards. The film follows a band of fighters from the Rebel Alliance as they track down the plans for the newly developed Death Star, hoping to find a weakness in its design.

Rogue One had many things I liked. Rogue One builds on one of my main gripes with Ep. VII, it extends the universe and giving us some diverse planets. Episode VII gave us the same look as the others; desert planet, snow planet and forest planet. Rogue One has rolling green hills, island resorts, LV-426 and Mordor. It keeps the visuals fresh and pretty, even if we do go to ANOTHER BLOODY DESERT PLANET near the beginning, one that looks exactly the same as Tatooine and Jakku. They even have the same backstreets and architecture of previous planet settlements, give it a rest.

Another good thing were the fight sequences. Director Gareth Edwards said this would be a war film, and the extended running battles are excellently filmed. The final battle, set on that previously mentioned island resort, is a highlight of the series, with Stormtroopers and Rebels running through the undergrowth, across beaches and through shallow water, blasting anyone in their way. The inclusion of Donnie Yen as a fighter was perfect, and he used Kung Fu to defeat his enemies. I was extremely annoyed at the waste of The Raid stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Ep. VII, but Donnie Yen using wushu was enough to make me forgive the complete waste of talented actors in previous films.

Now onto things I didn’t like. While I was a fan of the story, the characters were boring. The film is full of questionable actions, with good guys doing bad things “for the rebellion”, but these feel like trappings. It’s a known fact that Rogue One went into reshoots for being in Disney’s words “too dark”, and it feels that the characters were meant to go through a bit more of a story arc before the film ended. Diego Luna’s character flits from being able to kill enemies to craving the sanctity of life, with no explanation in between. Torture is used on one character, but it’s after-effects aren’t dwelled upon at all. It feels like it’s on the cusp of something, but doesn’t have the will to see it through.

With Rogue One being set in between Episode III-IV, the film is full of little references to the larger series. To me, these were awful additions, and really drag the film down. (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Evazan and Ponda bumping into our heroes, Red and Gold Leader appearing for no reason, Bail Organa talking about how he must return to Alderaan to warn them of the Death Star, they are put in as a nudge and a wink to the audience, killing all dramatic tension or build-up for a one-second gag. There were multiple guffaws from my audience when these characters turned up, cementing the fact that these were put in for a “oh, I know them!” from the hardcore crowd.

Rogue One tries it’s hand at a few jokes, most of them landing flat. Even Darth Vader gets a zinger in, with it coming off more like a Schwarzenegger one-liner than anything the famous Sith Lord would say. Grand Moff Tarkin is recreated with CGI, and while it looks uncannily like Peter Cushing, you can tell it’s fake. It might be his eyes, or the faint rubbery-ness of is skin, but something is off.

Finally, the film ret-cons integral parts of the series. It’s a small complaint and one that uber-fans will probably skip over, but the film starts messing over established points of the Originals and Prequels, which really annoyed me.

In the end, Rogue One has left me in two camps. While I enjoy the explosive set-pieces and the extension of the universe, I have to criticise the poorly written dialogue and the “keeping it safe” approach. While Ep. VII was a good re-introduction for the newbies, Rogue One feels like one for the hardcore fanbase.

Score: 6/10 Good moments let down by a script and characters that aren’t involving.

Allied Review

Yeah, I don’t have a Fantastic Beasts review yet. A mixture of being swamped with university work and large dose of apathy to watching the latest offering from JK Rowling means that it will be possibly a few weeks after it has come out when I finally get round to it. So instead, this week I have a film that I actually did have a passing interest in, from the director Forrest Gump and Back To The Future.

Allied stars Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard and Jared Harris and is directed by Robert Zemeckis. The film follows Canadian spy Max Vatan (Pitt) and French Resistance fighter Marieanne Beausejour (Cotillard) in Nazi-occupied Morocco. After falling in love and successfully completing their mission, they marry and move to London, but their life is shattered when rumours about Marieanne’s allegiance to the Allied Forces is questioned.

I was looking forward to Allied. There haven’t been many films set in the North African Theater of World War Two (the only ones I can think of are the fabulous Casablanca and Ice Cold In Alex), making Allied stand apart. While the opening half hour is set in Africa, the second part is relegated to London and French countryside. It’s such a let-down to move to an overused setting of WW2, and the film never really recovers. It’s also annoying that incredibly shoddy back projection has been used. It’s so easy to see that Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are sitting in front of a green-screen rather than an actual sand dune, and makes the film worse for it.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are fine in their roles. They have an old-school glamour about them, easily fitting into the time period and setting, but they aren’t helped by the script. It’s extraordinarily hammy, while also managing to be boring at the same time. There are moments of tension, but the script can’t keep the mystery of Marieanne’s allegiance going. One mystery, however good it maybe, cannot sustain a film’s runtime. You need other story arcs to be invested in, but Allied doesn’t deliver the latter part.

Due to both characters being fighters in the war, I was expecting some action scenes. We only get a measly two, and even those weren’t that long or thrilling. The assassination sequence and ensuing escape are barely built up, leading to a lacklustre climax. It would have been cool to see these two highly trained killers cause havoc inside the Nazi compounds, with some nice tracking shots of them moving through the buildings to their escape vehicle. But no, instead we have an incredibly short action sequence, a shame for how good it could have been. We have another action segment in the French countryside, but isn’t even worthy of merit to even talk about.

It’s not all bad. The film has its individual moments of brilliance, reminding us how good a director Robert Zemeckis is. The good parts are mainly in the Casablanca section; the first few hectic moments of the assassination and Marieanne and Max making love in their car while a sandstorm rages around them. The film has scenes with visual flourish, but can’t sustain them throughout an entire film.

It’s shouldn’t be hard to film a tense war-time thriller. Hollywood has been doing it since the 1950s. Heck, we just had one a few months ago in Anthropoid. And due to the lack of chemistry between the two stars, I’m not even interested in the ‘romance’ side of the ‘romantic-thriller’ that Allied has been billed at.  Unless you truly love the actors, or have an affinity for war-time aesthetics, this one should be a miss.

Score: 5/10 Early good looks and scenes give way to a dragging second half.

The Light Between Oceans Review

I saw the trailer for The Light Between Oceans several months ago, and I wasn’t too interested. Romance films have never been my thing, but after hearing that Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander were starring, and Derek Cianfrance (director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines) was behind the film, my interest piqued up. Let’s see if these three can bring me into the genre.

The Light Between Oceans stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz and Jack Thompson and is directed by Derek Cianfrance. The story follows lighthouse keeper Tom (Fassbender) and wife Isabel (Vikander), who are constantly trying for a baby with little success. One day a baby washes up on shore and they raise it as their own. A few years later the real mother comes looking for her baby.

The Light Between Oceans came to my attention due to the leads being two of my favourite actors, and neither of them disappoint. Fassbender is a man haunted by his role in World War One, which is conveyed through incredibly expressive eyes, empty and vacated, wanting to get away from the world. Vikander is the complete opposite, young and starry-eyed, with hopeful ideas of romance and having children. Their blossoming romance and chemistry is enrapturing and believable, making the first hour a joy to watch. But that joy is shattered when the film goes through not only one, but two miscarriage scenes, and both Vikander and Fassbender give heartbreaking performances during the same opening act. That dissonance should be something no film would be able to come back from, a tonal whiplash that would kill off any audience enjoyment, but the arrival of the baby in the dinghy both gives Isabel and the film a new lease on life, with the romance film now becoming something much more mature and harrowing to go through.

The cinematography is a highlight of the film. Adam Arkapaw, (another favourite creator of mine), the cinematographer of Macbeth and the first season of True Detective, creates some excellent compositions. Due to the film being about a lighthouse keeper, the surrounding landscapes are sand dunes and open ocean, easy work for a DP as accomplished as Arkapaw. It’s a film that revels in the wilderness of the island and seas, with Fassbender or Vikander standing small in the frame, just to show the expanse of nature in comparison to them and their lives. The music adds to the sense of loneliness. Created by Alexsandre Desplat, the score is simple but memorable, with either a lone piano or a few strings moving in and out of key scenes. It elevates several moments and really brings out the emotion by the end of the film.

There were a few moments I was a bit at odds with. The start of the film is chopped together rather quickly, with Tom’s initial three months on the island and courtship of Isabel being no more than fifteen minutes. It would have been nice to extend this out, instead of just the two leads falling in love with each other at the outset of the film. Another reason was the story. While the film has long extended sections of excellent drama, sometimes it would drop into Nicholas Sparks levels of melodrama and clichés. It was rather annoying that the film would build up and have emotional resonance, but then would fall because of a scene that we’ve seen a million times before. I know that it’s based off an original book (written by M.L. Stedman), but it could have been handled better.

All throughout 2016, I’ve been complaining that this has been a terrible year for films, full of unnecessary sequels and movies not quite living up to hype. But I think with The Light Between Oceans, I think I find myself coming round to the idea that 2016 has gotten better as we’ve gone through.

Score: 8/10 Striking, haunting and wonderfully performed.