Sunday, January 29, 2017


HACKSAW RIDGE is Mel Gibson's re-telling of the true story of Desmond Doss, a deeply religious US soldier who fought in the Pacific against the Japanese and won his country's highest military honour despite being a conscientious objector.  Doss refused to hold or fire a weapon but went into battle as a combat medic. And when his company was forced to retreat in ignominious circumstances, he stayed on top of Hacksaw Ridge and single-handedly rescued over seventy men.  He attributed his success and his survival to his faith, and overturned the prejudices of the men who thought him a coward.

It's easy to see why such material would appeal to Mel Gibson, a man whose faith is a quite extreme version of Catholicism, and whose films are obsessed with a close-up and cloying depiction of violence.   What Gibson isn't interested in are female characters or emotional nuance.  The result is a film, with a script by Robert Schenkkan (THE PACIFIC) and Andrew Knight (THE WATER DIVINER) that is heavy-handed, emotionally manipulative, and full of cliches and cheesy dialogue, and yet despite all this contains moments of great power and tragedy.

The first half of the film is a kind of PRIVATE BENJAMIN slash FORREST GUMP remake but with Andrew Garfield (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) cast as a kind of goofy simpleton.  He just wants to marry his gorgeous nurse sweetheart and protect his fellow soldiers in war despite his objections to holding a gun. We learn in flashback that this stems partly from a backyard scrap with his brother that nearly killed him, but also the example of seeing his father, traumatised by his experience of World War One, turn into a violent alcoholic.  In this section, Vince Vaughn gets to do his usual comedy schtick as the fast-talking mean Sergeant who wants to bully Doss out of the army.  Poor Teresa Palmer gets nothing to do as Doss' girlfriend except to look pretty and angelic and to be utterly supportive.  Indeed the only moment of real cinematic value is Hugo Weaving, who with his portrayal of the tortured ex soldier Papa Doss seems to be acting in another film entirely.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


Richard and Mildred Loving were a mixed race couple from rural Virginia who fell in love and wanted to make a life for themselves surrounded by family, on an acre of land on which Richard intended to build Mildred a house.  But in 1958, inter-racial marriage was illegal in Virginia, so they had to get married in DC, and even then, were victims of local police who imprisoned them and ran them out of the state.  And there they could've stayed were it not for this quiet and unassuming couple's deep desire to raise their children in their home town - their quiet stubborn refusal to be denied their dream.  So they returned, in subterfuge, and Mildred, the more vocal and gregarious of the two, wrote a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  This was then passed to the ACLU, who took up the case as a way of getting the Supreme Court to over-turn anti-miscegenation laws more generally.

The genius of writer-director Jeff Nichols' approach is to make a film that is an intimate portrait of a loving couple, and to follow their approach in being resolutely uninterested in the big courtroom drama that their marriage provoked.  There's a moment about half way through this film when the two young eager ACLU lawyers show up, full of glee and awe at being able to try what could become such a landmark case. But the Lovings themselves are uninterested even in attending the Supreme Court hearing.  They continue to do what they always wanted to do - just live a quiet married life in a quiet rural town.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


JACKIE is a mesmerising portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy.  It attempts to give us an intimate portrait of one of the most recognisable and yet most enigmatic women in history at both her most vulnerable and strong moments - when she's both dealing with her personal shock and grief, but also struggling to protect the legacy of her husband and to shape his place in history. We are left with a picture of a woman who is intelligent, fierce in her protective instincts, but not above sly manipulation - Jackie as a political player then, equal in her influence to Bobby Kennedy, and a match for LBJ and even General de Gaulle.  We get Jackie famously refusing to change out of her blood-stained clothes for the cameras as well as the less well known fight to have an Abraham Lincoln style full state funeral. But at the same time, we are given a tragic portrayal of just how quickly the machinery of power, rightly but savagely, moves to protect the new President, and just how quickly the old President's wife and children are cast aside.  

Screen-writer Noah Oppenheim's choice to focus on Jackie and to make JFK, who killed him, his actual politics, almost incidental is novel.  But so too is Chilean director Pablo Larrain's decision to tell the story using a complex non-linear structure.  We move back and forth from the assassination to the autopsy to the swearing in to the funeral arrangements to the interview Jackie gives to a journalist where she creates the myth of Camelot.  But even this dizzying back and forth is intercut with flashbacks to Jackie guiding TV viewers through the White House in meticulously re-created awkwardly staged black and white footage, not to mention White House recitals and balls. The vivid primary colours of the times of Camelot - Jackie in stunning ballgowns dancing with her prince, make a stark contrast with the dun-coloured scenes of Jackie alone in the White House after his assassination, and sitting in the dreary rain-soaked country house to give her interview.  Kudos to Larrain and editor Sebastian Sepulveda for managing to pull off this complex construction while but not losing the viewer.