Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Redemption. That’s the word that conjures the ambit of this film’s scope. The true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who rescued 75 colleagues on the eponymous battle site at Okinawa, a guy who enlisted in order to serve as a medic to redeem his own feelings of violence, because of almost killing his brother as a child, because of wanting to shoot his drunken WW1 vet father (Hugo Weaving) to stop his attacks on his mother (Rachel Griffiths), because of an obligation to serve his country and stand up for the values in which he believed. Andrew Garfield gives a heart-stopping, fully realised performance as the conflicted soldier and the film’s first hour delineates his family relationships, his meeting with the woman of his life, nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) in the local hospital, and his awful training at the hands of a bullying Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), a tough Captain (Sam Worthington) and a bunch of fellows who like to beat the hell out of him. His Seventh Day Adventist beliefs lead him to a court martial but his father’s intervention with a former colleague saves the day. And he arrives in Japan. By 95 minutes we are entering the second wave of assaults and it is brutal and ferocious and horrifying. “They don’t care if they live or die,” exclaims one vet of the 96th whose battalion has basically been wiped out by the Japs. The action is reminiscent – inevitably – of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening sequence:  we are completely immersed  in a kind of hell with killings as unimaginable as have ever been put on screen. Doss and his mate Smitty (Luke Bracey) look out for each other – they’ve overcome their initial differences and bond at night, when Doss has a terrible nightmare. And then they go back in, and the results are awful. Doss hangs around, against all the odds, rescuing whoever he can.  He has prayed for help, not knowing any more if, as Dorothy accused him, his conscientious objection to combat is merely pride. He asks God for direction. So he saves lives. So many lives. One more, he keeps telling himself. One more. Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, adapted from this incredible true story of one man’s courage, photographed by Simon Duggan, with a rousing score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, this is a return to the fold for Mel Gibson, the meta story at work here:  a man who burned a lot of boats in Hollywood is now in the running for Best Director awards and they are fully deserved. There is a bravery about bringing Christianity to the forefront of any film at present and it is remarkable that Garfield has been the lead in both outstanding recent releases. His performance here is more complete than in Silence thanks to the writing and the expansiveness of the explosive setting. Yet nothing feels forced or exceptional because every man is sharply written and there is a sense of bringing it all back home with the standout Australians in the cast (it was eventually co-financed through tax incentives there.) This story took a long time to reach the screen, with Audie Murphy expressing interest in it several decades ago, and Bing Crosby’s grandson Gregory eventually developing an  initial treatment. Randall Wallace took a pass at the screenplay at one point but you have to admit that this is just right: the right people making the right film at the right time. Quite remarkable.

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Most remakes are redundant. Philip Dunne did a cracking adaptation (1936)  of this captivity tale, the second of the Leatherstocking series by Fenimore Cooper that has occupied the minds of so many children. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe took this classical Hollywood adventure and brought it up to date for the Nineties without losing any of its great elements – and adding an eroticism that is modern and eternal plus a portrayal of violence that is truly gruesome in its realism. It’s the middle of the eighteenth century and the Anglo-French wars are underway in the Colonies. Colonel Munro’s daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are being escorted to safety by Cora’s wannabe beau Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) through the Adirondacks when they are set upon by a Huron war party led by French scout Magua (Wes Studi). They are rescued by Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), adoptive son of the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to his son Uncas (Eric Schweig). They return them to Munro at Fort William Henry, under siege from the French and Cora and Hawkeye consummate their overwhelming attraction to one another. Munro wants Hawkeye hanged for sedition after Heyward lies about what they’ve seen done to a settler family whom Hawkeye knew well. Hawkeye is imprisoned. The French offer a peaceful and honourable surrender, having intercepted a message from Fort Webb stating that no English troops are coming to the aid of the garrison. But Magua has sworn revenge against Munro and raids the departing troops, carrying out his threat to take out Munro’s heart – while it’s still beating. He also wants to kill his seed because of what Munro did to his tribe, his wife and his family.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas rescue the women and take off in a canoe, catching up with Heyward, who has taken off without them. Their escape to a cave and waterfall leads to an inevitable outcome, Heyward continuing to wish Hawkeye hanged, jealous of what he deems to be Cora’s infatuation, with Magua and his men fast upon them … This is simply stunning. The cinematography (Dante Spinotti)  brings together a palette of scarlet uniforms in bright, musket-fired daylight with autumnal daubs appropriate to a landscape of the period; there’s a pulsating, throbbing score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) that tightens the vise-like effect of the narrative; and there is a devastating eroticism between Day-Lewis and Stowe the likes of which hasn’t been seen this side of Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. Have there ever been more romantic lines than those of Hawkeye to Cora, No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you?! Beautifully made and performed, this is brutal, brilliant filmmaking from a master director at the height of his considerable powers. See it on the biggest screen you can. Breathtaking.

 

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

Frightmare (1974)

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Aka Cover Up. And on this eve of lost souls it is only right to return to the world of Pete Walker, that sleazy trash maestro of Britcult, encompassing cannibalism, lunacy and serial killing. As you were.  Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) has been dreading the release from a mental asylum of her father Edmund (Rupert Davies) and stepmother Dorothy (Sheila Keith) who apparently ate 6 of their victims in a 1957 killing spree. Now they’re back. And a lot of young people are disappearing in the neighbourhood. Time for Jackie to turn Nancy Drew with her boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood). The complicating issue in her quest to stop the driller killers is her stepsister Debbie (Kim Butcher!) who wanders  off at night with a biker gang and appears to have a genetic predisposition to human flesh …  Written by Walker and David McGillivray with sounds by Stanley Myers (any relation to Michael?!) in an outing which boasts the usual Walker flourishes and desposits what Rosemary Woodhouse might call a sort of chalky undertaste. Notable for an appearance by the lovely Leo Genn in his second last screen appearance ever, as psychiatrist Dr Lytell. Care in the community? Psycho on the streets! Happy Halloween!

Wake In Fright (1971)

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Aka Outback. The infamous Australian film got a restoration in 2009 and is one of only two films shown twice at Cannes. It’s an adaptation by Evan Jones of the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, and it had long been in development hell, starting with a proposed version by Joe Losey set to star Dirk Bogarde. It was finally put together at the end of the Sixties with Canadian Ted Kotcheff in the director’s chair. Gary Bond plays John Grant, a teacher stuck in the boondocks in a teaching job which he wants to leave but he put up a bond of $1,000 for the State position and can’t pay his way out of what seems like slave labour. He takes a train to the Yabba for the only flight to Sydney and gets waylaid by the local copper, Jock (Chips Rafferty) and drawn into the hyper-masculine world of drinking and gambling and losing everything he owns, leaving him stranded. An encounter with a disenchanted alkie Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) makes him want to jump ship but he gets caught up with another drinking buddie Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) and back at his meets his wife and the two try to have a sexual encounter outside the house which he can’t carry through beset both by vomit and images of his girlfriend. He gets taken out on a kangaroo hunting trip with Tim’s ultra macho mates and is goaded into murderous behaviour, stabbing a poor young roo to death. After consuming more drink he wakes up following what appears to have been a gay encounter with Doc and hitches a ride to ‘the city’ which turns out to be another outpost and not Sydney, where he’s aiming to spend Christmas with his girlfriend – with just a dollar in his pocket. He kills a rabbit and then sits it out in Doc’s house with a gun – and puts it to his own head …  This portrait of Aussie men outraged people upon release and is a truly transitional film in the antipodean canon, symbolised by the last screen appearance of Chips Rafferty (he died just before it was released) and the first of Jack Thompson, who plays one of Tim’s gun-toting friends. It did well overseas but not at the domestic box office. Wonder why! Grant’s slide into utterly degrading indecency is graphically portrayed – and for the most part Bond’s performance is one of almost amoral passivity, until push really comes to shove. The kangaroo hunt is awful and virtually impossible to endure. It was apparently carried out by so-called professional hunters whose glee was too much for the crew, who pulled the off switch on the gennie to get them to quit. (Director Kotcheff was vegetarian.) There is a note from the producers at the end of the film stating that it is shown following consultation with animal welfare groups to raise awareness of the dangers to kangaroos …  This is certainly not a film that would persuade one to travel 24 hours to meet these kinds of people. Having said that, I live in the countryside and the guys here are probably nicer than any of my neighbours who lamp badgers and other unfortunates with equanimity. Men, eh.  Bond had a short but startling career and was a well-known performer in musicals. He died aged 55 of AIDS in 1995, just a month after his former partner Jeremy Brett.

Misery (1990)

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This film has a very special significance for me. And for that reason it’s hard to watch. I approached very gingerly for the first time in years. Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has written his last romance novel and wants to get started on a Great Work as he tells agent Lauren Bacall from his mountain hideaway. Trouble is, he crashes en route to the airport and is rescued by his Number One Fan, nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who kidnaps him and refuses him all contact with the outside world. Her twisted obsession becomes violent when she learns he’s killing off Misery Chastain and she takes drastic action to keep him imprisoned … Cards on the table.When I first saw THAT scene (you know the one I’m talking about) I practically died. I had just learned to walk again after my ankle became ‘detached’ from the rest of me and I was refused surgery by a hospital in London… The pain… Was.Is. Indescribable. I didn’t get put back together for 12 days. And it was done WITHOUT ANAESTHETIC. The free-floating emboli in my leg have caused my near-death, oh, four times now. I am aware that Stephen King wrote this as a way of describing the monkey on his back – addiction. But aside from the brilliant adaptation of his fantastic book by William Goldman, the stunning direction by Rob Reiner and the unforgettable performances by Caan and Bates (who won the Oscar), this is particularly painful for me in ways you simply CANNOT IMAGINE. The horror. The horror.

A Hologram for the King (2016)

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If you’re going to have a midlife crisis, have it in a country thousands of miles from home while you’re on a career-saving business trip and make sure to have a medical emergency that requires the services of a beautiful native doctor who’s also freshly divorced. Tom Hanks stars in this adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel which enquires about globalisation, out-sourcing and the destruction of American industry. Which sounds very dull – except this is very personal. Hanks is on a hiding to nothing, as it were, with a local taxi driver ferrying him to and from a tent (literally) outside where the action is really happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and little does he know that his and his colleagues’ brilliant innovation is being tendered in a competition in what seemed a done deal. He has flashbacks occasioned by his daughter’s internet contact, constant jet lag not helped by the alcohol furnished by Sidse Babett Knudsen (how I prefer her voice in English) and when he performs a drunken surgery on that vicious lump on his back it’s the wonderful Sarita Choudhury who intervenes. Tom Tykwer directed as well as writing, and his career continues to confuse:  he started with a masterpiece in Winter Sleepers, had a monster hit with the fashionable Run Lola Run …and is on this peripatetic path with this Mexican co-production. If it’s not action-packed, that’s relief, of a kind. Big issues but on a human level. And Hanks? Give him the phone directory, and I’m there. What do you mean there’s no such thing any more? Sheesh.