The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.

Fences

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Director: Denzel Washington

Writer: August Wilson


Cinema and theatre are both very different mediums and the transition between the two is never seamless. Both have different means and limitations in how they can tell their stories which have a significant effect on their respective forms and structures. Film has a more fluid relationship with space and time than theatre does, but the stage allows for a greater level of intimacy and immediacy than film. Film is a constructed medium, one that is inherently abstract and artificial, whereas theatre is an altogether more physical and sensuous medium. Neither is superior to the other, but their differences mean that some stories work better on screen than they do on stage and vice versa. These differences were especially apparent for me when I saw Fences, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Even if I hadn’t known beforehand that the film I was watching was an adaptation of a theatrical production, it would have become completely apparent to me within the first five minutes.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53-year-old ex-con struggling to make a living for his family. He lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and works as a trash collector with his friend of many years Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Other family members include Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was left mentally impaired by a head injury he sustained in the war, and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s estranged son from a previous relationship. Troy is an astoundingly charming and charismatic man who can talk for hours on end, recounting tales from his youth about what a great baseball player he was or about the one time he beat Death in a fistfight. Bitter about how he was turned down for the chance to become a professional baseball player, Troy forbids his son to meet with a college football recruiter. When Cory is caught neglecting his chores so he can attend football practice, Troy demands that Cory help him build a fence around the house as punishment.

Apart from the opening sequence right at the start where Troy and Jim talk while riding on the back of a garbage truck performing their rounds, just about every scene in this film consists of characters standing and talking. This is the kind of set-up that works far better in theatre, where the story exists entirely in the present and where the actor plays a far greater role in conveying the story than they do in film, than it does in the cinema. This set-up certainly can work in cinema, as it did in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but a translation has to take place that allows the set-up to be viewed in cinematic terms if the film is to truly flourish. In other words, there is a difference between a filmed play and a play that has been adapted into a film. In Fences the performance of each scene and the transitions between them have an inescapably stagey feel to them, such as in the way that characters enter and exits their scenes almost as if they were just off-stage waiting for their cues. This doesn’t by any means make Fences a badly made film (far from it), but it did make me wish that I could have seen it on stage where the theatrical qualities would have been less distracting and perhaps even more affective.

There is plenty to admire in this film, not least of which are the powerhouse performances delivered by Washington and Davis in their Tony Award winning reprisals. Washington plays the role of a deeply angry, prideful and stubborn man with all of the presence and swagger that he’s known for. Denzel is able to make Troy remarkably likeable and relatable while also maintaining a clear dark side that comes out when Troy is at his most enraged or vulnerable. Davis is every bit his match as the steadfast Rose, a woman who loves her husband dearly and who has had a strong influence in tempering his lesser qualities but who also has her limits. Whether she’s crying in an impassioned plea towards her husband or coldly dismissing in the wake of his betrayal near the end, Davis is utterly astounding. There is also August Wilson’s astonishing screenplay, a breathtaking exploration of legacies and how they are formed, shaped and remembered, with a strong racial context.

Through Troy and his family Wilson has provided an perceptive insight into how our environment shapes us and how inescapable our legacies can be. Troy grew up in a broken home with an abusive father and escaped as soon as he was old enough. He’s lived his life being held back by his circumstances, whether it’s his social class, his race, or his responsibilities, and getting trampled on. As a father he is a strict disciplinarian, showing no love or affection as he tries to teach both Lyons and Cory to take responsibility for themselves and to live their lives decently and honestly. His own failed ambitions however lead him to sabotage whatever chance Cory might have to make it as a football player, leading to deep resentment in their relationship. However noble his intentions Troy, in his harshness and inflexibility, is in many ways as abusive to Cory as his father was to him. Here Wilson finds that people cannot escape where they come from or how they grew up. We are either the products of our parents’ worse qualities, or we are the rejection of it. Cory learns to hate his father and resolves to reject the horrifying influence he’s had on him, but eventually finds that by doing so he perhaps learned some of his father’s lessons too well. Watching all of this unfold in the film was a powerful experience, how I wish I could’ve seen it on stage.

★★★★

Hidden Figures

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell

Director: Theodore Melfi

Writer: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi


One of the main messages driving this film, the message alluded to in the movie’s title, is how behind every great story in history are a dozen smaller stories we never hear about. Whether they’ve been overshadowed by the larger narrative, side-lined due to the prejudices of the time, or just plain forgotten, these are the stories that remain hidden in the past, waiting to be rediscovered. All too often these forgotten stories are those that involve historically marginalised groups such as women and people of colour (in this case both!). However impressive or significant these stories can be, it can take a long time for them to attain the publicity and recognition they deserve. Cinema is a great tool to bring these stories into the spotlight and Hidden Figures has a great one to tell. It concerns a division of NASA made up of African-American women whose efforts contributed towards what is arguably mankind’s single greatest 20th century achievement, the Moon Landing.

The film focuses on three women in particular who worked on the Mercury 7 mission in 1961 that allowed John Glenn (Glen Powell) to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), an exceptional mathematician, is assigned to the Space Task Group directed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costenr) as a computer. She is met with derision by her white male colleagues, most notably Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and finds her job to be nearly impossible under the Segregationist conditions she must follow. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), an aspiring engineer, finds that she must attend night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain her degree and must therefore go to court to get permission. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) oversees the coloured women’s sector at NASA in an unofficial capacity with the responsibility of a supervisor but not the recognition or salary. When her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) condescendingly denies her appeal for a promotion, Dorothy directs her efforts towards making her girls crucial to NASA’s mission.

In American history there are two particular social causes that made significant strides over the course of the 20th century: feminism and civil rights. This movie focuses on both and what it does very well is illustrate what a tremendous uphill battle these ladies had to fight on both fronts. While NASA was pragmatic enough to understand that they need to use every resource at their disposal if they want to beat the Russians to the moon, they weren’t progressive enough to extend the same rights and respect to the ‘coloured computers’ as to their white colleagues. Upon being reassigned to a department where she is the only person of colour, Katherine discovers that there are no bathrooms in the building that will accommodate her, leading her to take exhaustingly lengthy detours just so she can relieve herself. While some of the race and gender discrimination displayed can be somewhat simplistic (Parsons character is particularly cartoonish in his derision), the film does a good job of establishing the systemic and institutional nature of these inequities, calling out the white men and women who may not have necessarily advocated segregation but who also did nothing to combat or protest it. One scene I especially liked was when Vivian insists to Dorothy that her harsh attitude is not because she’s prejudiced, to wish Dorothy replies “I know. I know you probably believe that”.

Henson, Monáe and Spencer are the stars of the show and each one of them shines. As Katherine, Henson portrays both the determination and frustration of someone who’s just trying to do their job and is being punished for it at every turn. This climaxes beautifully in Henson’s majestic outburst where she delivers an enraged monologue to her callous co-workers and Costner’s reasonable but preoccupied boss, about the unjust bathroom situation. Henson can be fiery and passionate like nobody’s business and this is one of her finest moments. Monáe excels as the glamorous, self-confident Mary whose charming yet assertive petition to the judge is one of the movie’s most memorable and satisfying moments. Spencer’s Dorothy has perhaps the biggest burden to bear as she must stand up not only for herself but for all the women under her supervision. Fortunately she is as astute as she is capable and when she realises that the newly installed IBM computer will make her division obsolete, she set outs to make her girls indispensible by learning before anyone else how the machine actually works.

Although the movie can be simplistic and a little too on-the-nose at times, that can be forgiven in a film as crowd-pleasing as this. The film takes its subject seriously but injects some humour as well, allowing for a playful, upbeat tone that saves this movie from being as preachy or as sombre as it could’ve been. This isn’t a movie that simply sets out to let us know that discrimination is bad, nor does it present a revisionist narrative that dares to paint racism and sexism as relics of the past that don’t exist in modern society anymore. Hidden Figures is a tale of empowerment about three strong, courageous women who challenged a system that was rigged against them and achieved their own personal triumphs. Their victories may have gone unsung for too long and the inequalities they battled may be very much still around, but that’s exactly what makes films like these so important and so satisfying. Hidden Figures is well-written, well-acted, and well worth watching.

★★★★

The LEGO Batman Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Chris McKay

Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington


It’s interesting how in the space of a single year we saw the release of two films about Batman that could not be more different. One is a mature, gritty thriller in which Batman is portrayed as a brutal, grizzled warrior with a severe attitude and lethal methods. The other is a light-hearted animated family picture where the Caped Crusader is a narcissistic jerk who secretly just wants a family. What really surprised me when I saw both was how much better the ‘kids’ movie understood the character than the ‘grown-up’ film. Batman v. Superman was an altogether more serious film but its characterisation of Batman suffered from an inconsistent tone and an overly complicated plot. LEGO Batman is streamlined and simplified and it has a clear idea about the approach it wants to take with its main character. Following the success of Nolan’s trilogy, there emerged this view that ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘serious’ equals ‘better’. To me this silly, childish, over-the-top romp is proof that this simply isn’t the case.

The film starts with a typical day in Batman’s life as he beats up bad guys, foils the Joker’s latest plot, and is celebrated by the people of Gotham City as a hero and an all-round cool guy. Afterwards he retreats from the exaltations of his adoring fans and returns to his solitary life in Wayne Manor. There, without any companions save his trusty butler Alfred, Batman spends his nights feasting on lobster and watching rom-coms, all by himself. As Bruce Wayne he attends the city’s gala where the new commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to restructure the police force so that they might serve without Batman’s help. This announcement is interrupted some of Gotham’s most prominent (and also some hilariously obscure) villains, led by the Joker who then immediately surrenders. A suspicious Batman determines that his arch-rival must have some secret plot and sets out to stop him with the help of his accidentally adopted ward Dick Grayson.

As a film in its own right, LEGO Batman is an utterly enjoyable and hilarious movie. It doesn’t quite have the timeless quality of The LEGO Movie but its jokes are a laugh a minute and it can be surprisingly poignant in its quieter moments. As a Batman movie it works both as a parody and a tribute. The Batman canon has a long and colourful history and this film embraces every side of it, including the campier side of West and Schumacher that directors like Nolan and Snyder might have preferred to brush under the rug. It’s easy to forget that Bob Kane’s character started out as a children’s comic book action hero before writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore discovered his darker side and reinvented him for a more adult audience. This film understands intuitively what works and doesn’t work about each incarnation and pokes fun at them all in equal measure. It speaks to the strength of the character that he can be subjected to this level of satire and still be treated with a deep level of sincerity, seriousness and respect, and that’s exactly what the film does in its characterisation of Batman.

The movie’s version of Batman is the same macho, egotistic Master Builder we met in The Lego Movie who believes he’s brilliant at everything and who rejects any kind of human attachment in all of its forms. Not only does he always work alone, he refuses to even acknowledge that he and the Joker are nemeses who share any kind of a special bond. His solitude is challenged both by the unintentional adoption of the wide-eyed and insufferably annoying Dick, whom we all know will later become Robin, and by the plan hatched together by the bitterly rejected Joker, desperate to prove that the unhealthily co-dependent relationship he shares with Batman is real. As Batman recklessly pushes himself further into this pursuit to stop whatever it is the Joker really has planned, it is Alfred who must try and reel him in. It is he who observes that his rejection of attachment is driven by the same fear that compels him to dress like a bat and beat up bad guys, the trauma of losing his family.

There is a lot going in The LEGO Batman Movie with jokes being fired on all fronts and a legion of characters to balance, but the movie knows when to keep things simple. Batman wanting a family is more than enough material for an enjoyable and compelling family adventure and the film uses it well. The movie is dumb and self-aware enough that it never demands to be taken too seriously. It’s a film which understands (in the same way that Deadpool understood) that superhero movies are inherently kind of silly and that’s okay. Unlike Batman v. Superman this movie isn’t ashamed to call itself a superhero movie and isn’t embarrassed of being childish, campy or light-hearted. The movie may have more in common with Adam West’s wacky adventures than it does with Nolan’s epic saga, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of the Batman name or any less of a treat for fans. This is not the Batman movie we need; it is the Batman movie we deserve.

★★★★

T2 Trainspotting

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: John Hodge


The big dread that comes with revisiting a film of this kind, an iconic, generation-defining film that was such a staple of the time when it was released, is that it won’t be artistically justifiable. Too often filmmakers revive old classics when they should’ve left well enough alone in the interest of cashing on the original’s popularity. Movies like The Godfather Part II, Chinatown and Wall Street all fell victim to this, receiving sequels that, while not necessarily awful, were just not necessary. In all of these cases, so much time had gone by that the sequels turned out to be too far removed from their predecessors. Part of this comes from an inability to recapture what was good about the originals, but part of it also comes from irrelevance. Unless the film is able to age with the audience, it loses any sense of relevance for them, even if they were alive at the time the original was released. This is the reason why T2 Trainspotting succeeds where many others gave failed.

It’s been 20 years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) left his friends and made off with the money they made in the drug deal. Now living in Amsterdam, he returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with the people from his past. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, which has now estranged him from Gail Houston (Shirley Henderson) and his son. Simon (or Sick Boy as he was formerly known) (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a cocaine-addicted pub owner scamming rich men with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a 25-year sentence in prison and has been denied parole due to his volatile temper. As Mark reconnects with the past, he is drawn back into the crazy, chaotic life he’s spent the last two decades trying to escape.

What this sequel captures that so many others have not is that delicate balance between respecting the original film without being defined by it. This is not a remake of Trainspotting because the youthful energy and 90s edginess that it had is something that can never be recaptured, at least not by the same cast and crew that originally made it. They’re all older now and the world is a different place from what it was 20 years ago. They’re not the angsty young guys who lived their days precariously with the fiery rebellious spirit of youth any more. They’re old, wearied men who’ve found themselves in dejected states and are looking into the past, wondering how they got here. The triumph of this film is it takes these wretched, downtrodden characters that the first film did such a great job of portraying and embraces their aged conditions, bringing a strong sense of pathos to their stories. Trainspotting ended with a hopeful prospect, suggesting that things might get better for some of these characters, that Renton might turn his life around and make something worthwhile out of it. Now he’s two decades older and, apart from his sobriety, has nothing to show for it but disappointment, emasculation and disillusionment.

As we are reintroduced to Mark we find that he is certainly healthier than he was twenty years ago, but not much happier. He still feels lost and dissatisfied with the state of the world and now finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He returns to Edinburgh, whether to find comfort, understanding, or escape isn’t clear, and learns that his old mates aren’t faring much better. His reunion with Spud turns out to be a traumatic one as he walks in on him trying to end his miserable existence with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. His reunion with Simon doesn’t turn out much better as the two come to blows. A reunion with Begbie meanwhile is the last thing in the world that Mark wants, and it is one that promises to be as unpleasant as it is inevitable. Anyway, whatever it is that Mark is looking for by returning home, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in a web of blackmail, prostitution and revenge.

The film reunites the original cast and they all assume their roles in fascinatingly compelling ways. McGregor is great in his return to the role that made him a star, playing the recovering addict who finds himself drawn back to his former demons and wondering whether life had actually made more sense back in the day. Miller’s Simon is now a deeply bitter, resentful man, harbouring a grievous grudge against his former best mate whom he blames for his station in life. Carlyle plays the psychopathic Begbie with all the ferocity he brought the first time round, except this time there’s an extra layer of weariness and melancholy, much of it due to being estranged from his son, that makes the character more pathetic, and yet somehow sympathetic, than before. The standout performance however is Bremner as Spud, who emerges as something of a secret protagonist. As the most wretched of the four, Bremner is both comically and tragically fragile and resilient and ends up becoming the emotional centre of the film as he is encouraged to chronicle his life in a memoir, thus becoming the author of his own story. Boyle also returns as the director and does an admirable job of reviving the movie’s style with its frantic cuts and stark colours while still giving it a modern edge.

Although the film frequently features brief flashbacks and nods to the events of the first film, it never feels like an attempt to use that film as a crutch or to score nostalgia points. T2 is very much its own film, one that doesn’t need to rely on its predecessor. The allusions to the past are all there to serve the story and are all properly motivated by what the characters are going through. There’s a scene where Mark is on the run through the streets of Edinburgh and we see a quick glimpse of him sprinting down that very same road as seen in the opening scene of the 1996 film. The flashback works the way a memory might, coming into view for a couple of seconds and then disappearing just as quickly, giving us an idea of some of the thoughts going through Mark’s head and making us all the more aware of how far he has come just to end up in (literally and, in some ways, figuratively) the same place. It is astonishing to me that this film was made at all and, even though it might lack some of the bite of the classic, I found it to be an engrossing watch and entirely worthy as a sequel.

★★★★

Hacksaw Ridge

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Theresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving

Director: Mel Gibson

Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight


Hacksaw Ridge is a chaotic movie, full of sudden shifts and contradictions, but that’s probably to be expected from a director like Mel Gibson. Despite his overtly messy personal life and his infamous ravings (which really aren’t worth getting into at this stage) it would seem that with this movie Gibson has been welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms. A man with deeply held religious beliefs and an apparent addiction to havoc, the film falls snugly in line with his filmography of extremely violent films with themes of spirituality and faith. The question of whether these two extremes can be reconciled is a part of what makes his films fascinating. Here he has taken the story of a devoutly religious man, averse to the very act of killing, and yet has incorporated scenes of such great carnage and savagery that they make Saving Private Ryan look positively tame. The movie, in a way, is the clash of two conflicting extremes and the result is a fascinating mess.

After a traumatic childhood experience Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) grows into a pious Christian with a staunch belief in the seventh commandment. When the Second World War breaks out Doss is compelled by patriotism and duty to serve, but his morals will not permit him to hold a gun or to kill a human being. His solution is to enlist as a medic, so that his only role shall be save lives rather than take them. Doss is greeted by his training officer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and his fellow trainees with nothing but contempt as they see his choice as little more than cowardice. Even his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), himself a veteran of the Great War, is unsettled by Doss’ decision. Supporting him as he is subjected to this animosity is his fiancé Dorothy Schutte (Theresa Palmer). Despite suffering pain, torment, scorn and humiliation, Doss perseveres and completes his training. Thus he is shipped off to Okinawa and, without a weapon, must rely on his wits, strength, and faith in order to survive the horrors of war.

The first half of this film is classically idealistic and romantic often to the point of schmaltz. The town Doss lives in is quaint suburban America, something straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Doss is a good-looking, athletic and upstanding young man with a picturesque sweetheart whom he sweeps off her feet in that old-fashioned Hollywood way. When the war breaks out, Doss enlists as a “conscientious collaborator” (not objector) and stands firmly by his convictions in the face of adversity. The moral exchanges he shares are unambiguously black and white, painting Doss as the remarkable, admirable man who will one day become the first soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honour without ever firing a shot. Garfield’s performance as the mythologised Doss is strong, solemn and feels utterly sincere. The character he creates is an admirable one, so admirable that the movie itself often finds that it cannot live up to his example.

With all the intensely and graphically violent content that Gibson portrays in the film’s latter half, one must ask whether he is undermining the message of his own pacifist picture. A statement often attributed to François Truffaut famously claims that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because cinema cannot help but make combat look glamorous. While I’m not convinced this statement is true for all war movies (Come and See is one film that I would hardly describe as glamorous), it seems to ring true in this case. For all of Doss’ talk about peace and morality, Gibson revels in the brutality and bloodlust of the battle scenes every bit as much as he did in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. The wounds suffered by the soldiers are shown in full, gory detail. A heroic act in the heat of combat is showcased by majestic slow motion. Even in one scene when Doss drags a fellow soldier away from the field of battle on an improvised sled, Gibson cannot resist having that soldier scream triumphantly as he fires at the pursuing Japanese soldiers. These battle scenes are thrilling, marvellous and exquisitely shot, and that is both a strength and a flaw.

With that said, the movie seems aware of its inability to join Doss in his aversion to violence. One could almost imagine Gibson himself as one of the soldiers, both confounded and astonished by Doss’ morality and pacifism and thus resentful towards him because of it. The film believes in the rightness of Doss’ morals, but lacks his resolve and endurance. Gibson is an addict and the draw of cinematic violence is more than he can resist, even at the detriment of his own story. In fact the movie itself is in many ways far deeper than the very story it’s trying to tell, which is actually rather hackneyed and simple. The film is astounding yet flawed, compelling yet misguided, masterful yet clumsy. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson at his best and his worst and is more interesting in its concept and execution than it is in its viewing.

★★★

Lion

Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Luke Davies


When I saw Lion I thought of it as the quintessential ‘movie your mum will love’. It is heartrending film with a happy ending, it’s based on a true story, and it contains emotionally powerful moments that will open the floodgates for many viewers. Oftentimes tearjerkers can be rather manipulative, preying on the audience’s sentimentality and eschewing the kind of honesty and insight that makes for great storytelling. Telling an audience to feel sad for a little boy who is alone and lost and far away from home is easy. Allowing us to understand and feel the depth of that boy’s fear, despair and confusion both as a child and as an adult, the enormity and impossibility of the task facing him, and the ambivalent pain and guilt he feels as he goes behind his adoptive parents’ backs to try and find his home and family, that is much more difficult and much more rewarding.

The first half of the film follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who follows his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a job and is separated from him when he falls asleep on a train that he is unable to exit. When the train reaches its destination in Calcutta days later, Saroo finds himself lost in a strange city where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language, and is unable to find a way back home. After months of struggling through hunger, poverty and nefarious characters with sinister intentions, Saroo ends up in an orphanage and before long is adopted by a generous and loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Years later, when Saroo has grown up to become Dev Patel (star of the film’s spiritual sister Slumdog Millionaire), a party with his college classmates triggers a remembrance of his childhood and a longing to reconnect with his roots. Thus he embarks on a quest to search for his hometown and find his mother, brother and sister.

The film shows great patience in telling its story, opting to follow the young Saroo throughout its first half, trusting the audience not to lose interest before the first English word is spoken or the first recognisable, bankable star enters the plot. I’m glad that’s the approach they chose because this first half is easily the most compelling part of the film. One reason for this is Davis’ direction, where he adopts a Spielbergian child’s-eye-view to emphasise Saroo’s smallness and sense of feeling lost. Another is the performance of newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young boy, whose expressive face and childish energy allowed him to convey a wealth of emotions, even in scenes where he doesn’t speak a word, and to carry the entire film almost completely by himself (between Pawar, Jacob Tremblay and Millie Bobby Brown, it seems that child actors today are much better than they used to be). With all due respect to Patel, his performance would not have been half as affective if Pawar hadn’t been there to lay the groundwork for him.

The second half is when the plot really kicks off, as the now grown up Saroo becomes determined to find his home. While the scenes of him staring intently at Google Earth aren’t exactly what one might call cinematic, I found that I was emotionally invested enough by this point that I wanted to see where his search would lead him. It is during this portion of the plot that the film is able to raise some truly compelling questions. Questions not only concerning how Saroo can find his family, but also about whether he should. His adoptive parents have after all given him everything from unconditional love to a bright future. When Saroo makes the decision to search for his home he also makes the decision to keep it a secret from them, fearing that his pursuit would be regarded as a rejection of their love and generosity. The emotional payoff for this conflict comes in a remarkable scene where Sue, in a moment of profound vulnerability, explains to Saroo the exact reason why she and David decided to adopt him. Kidman, no doubt drawing from her own experiences as an adoptive mother, earns her Oscar nomination in this scene.

Lion is a thoroughly moving and sincere film. It can be sentimental, but only when it has earned the right to be. It is a film about identity and belonging and the estrangement that comes with not knowing who we are. Even with a family whom he loves, a place he can call home and a life of infinite possibilities, Saroo is still lost and it tears him up inside. So great is his anguish that he is ready to give up on his promising future as a hotel manager and his caring, supportive girlfriend Lucy (played by a largely underused Rooney Mara) in pursuit of the life he lost. The thought of the mother who stays up at night crying out for him and the brother who is tormented by the act of leaving him alone on that fateful night is more than he can bear. There is a stunning human story being told here and one would have to be inhuman not to be touched by it.

★★★★

Jackie

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Noah Oppenheim


Of all the American presidents, Kennedy is perhaps the most mythologised. After a less than three-year presidency that came to a sudden, tragic end, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest in the country’s history. The Kennedy administration is often seen as a lost golden age for the country, a time of hope and endless possibilities. So strong is his this idea that the spots on his record such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his notorious womanising have done nothing to tarnish it. Kennedy’s legacy has been such a driving force in American history that it’s easy to forget that it is ultimately a myth. Although Kennedy was indeed an impressive man and a good president with great ideas, his legacy carries a sense of idealism and romance that no real person could possibly embody. Camelot, as it came to be called, is an idea that his since immortalised the memory of John F. Kennedy. This film tells the story of the legend’s author, Jackie Kennedy, the President’s beloved and equally impressive First Lady.

Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set out deliver this message to the world when she summoned Life journalist Theodore H. White for an interview a week after her husband’s death. The film provides a fictionalised version of this interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. Thus we are given an account of Jackie’s days as the First Lady. The film follows her from the early days to her famous TV tour of the White House to the day of the assassination. As her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) takes control of the situation, Jackie must all at once process the terrible shock that has occurred, work out how best to mourn the man who has inspired so many conflicting emotions within her, and decide what role she must play in defining the late president’s legacy. To this end she seeks guidance from such confidantes as Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

In the days following the President’s assassination the First Lady’s state of mind is disordered and fragmented and the story’s structure reflects that. The film jumps back and forth in time and creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman going through an unimaginable crisis. Before, she was a dutiful wife whose whole identity was defined by her husband’s pursuits and ambition. Upon his death she no longer knows who she’s supposed to be, she only knows that she cannot be her own person. She still has a duty to perform and her grief and distress is secondary to that of the country. Privately she finds that she must confront her feelings towards her husband, a man whose life dominated her own and who was unfaithful to her, in order to grieve and mourn him. This is something she has to do alone as she finds herself largely neglected by those who are more concerned with the political effects of this tragedy. Upon the death of the nation’s leader the need to swear in his successor as soon as possible is so paramount that hardly anyone notices the widow sitting in the adjacent room on the plane still wearing the dress stained with her husband’s blood.

Natalie Portman is a tour de force as the bereaved First Lady. Her speech and expressions are wonderfully deliberate as she conveys a character putting on a performance, donning a number of masks depending on who Jackie needs or is required to be. In the 1961 documentary she is the gracious, glamorous host introducing the world to a new kind of White House with a new kind of president. At Kennedy’s funeral (which she makes sure is elaborate enough for the President to be remembered like Lincoln, rather than forgotten like Garfield and McKinley), she is the strong, devoted wife putting on a brave face for her children and the public. With the journalist she is the composed, antagonistic narrator, adamant that not a single word will be printed without her approval. The moments when her masks drop and we see her true vulnerable self are devastatingly affective as are her moments of endurance and determination as she takes control of her own life and her husband’s legacy. The astonishing layers Portman brings to the character as she balances the complex, often-conflicting motivations and emotions are simply breathtaking.

“This will be your version of what happened” says the journalist as he begins his interview with the First Lady. This is a film that has set out to tell Jacqueline Kennedy’s story on her own terms and it does so without convention or sentimentality. Oppenheim’s screenplay is startling in the liberties it takes, depicting Jackie in her most private, vulnerable moments. The movie is by all means a fiction, in that it isn’t based on any credited sources, but the profound insights it conveys through this complex, fascinating woman are still deeply moving and strikingly authentic. Equally striking are the visual aspects from the beautifully intimate cinematography to the alluring costumes, as well as the mesmerising score accompanying them. Jackie is a wholly remarkable film that defies the conventions of the traditional biographical films that tend to emerge around awards season. It is a captivating, challenging and stunningly sincere picture of grief, identity and myth.

★★★★★

La La Land

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


There’s a reason why La La Land is being regarded as a return for the movie musical, even though musicals have never really left the movies. La La Land was made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musical, which has its own distinctive look and style unlike the musicals of recent years. These are the films which first showed how some thoughts and feelings are too powerful and overwhelming to be conveyed in mere words and expressions, they need to be expressed in song and dance. Recent musicals like Les Misérables and Moulin Rouge! have kept the tradition alive but have tended to place more focus on songs that advance the plot, thus robbing us of the pure expression of music and movement that made the classics so wonderful. The scores and choreography in such movies as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and West Side Story were just as essential as the lyrics (if not more so) in making this genre the Hollywood landmark that it is. Chazelle has sought to recapture that spectacle with La La Land.

The story follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress trying to make it in show business, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist trying to keep the music alive. Both live in LA, a city of dreamers and believers all looking for their big breaks. The first time they encounter each other, Mia overhears Sebastian improvising a romantic piece on the piano, which gets him fired from his restaurant job, leading him to brush off Mia when she attempts to talk to him. They meet again months later at a party where they spend the night expressing their disdain for each other despite the clear attraction between them. In typical Hollywood fashion, the two get together and fall in love. In the months that follow the two share their dreams and wishes with one another and try to help each other achieve them. After a series of failed auditions Sebastian encourages Mia to write a one-act play telling her story so that she might get herself noticed while she encourages him to join a band led his former classmate Keith (John Legend) in order to advance his career and earn a steady income. As the two work to make their dreams come true, the struggles and disappointments they encounter threaten to drive them apart.

When a film is universally lauded the way La La Land was, there’s always a chance that audience’s expectations will be skewed, which is probably what motivated some of the backlash from viewers who felt that the movie did not live up to the hype. Speaking for myself, I don’t think La La Land is the best movie of the year but I do think it is a wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable film that too many people have unfairly criticised (for the most part). For musical spectacle alone, this movie deserves to be celebrated. Chazelle brings such energy and creativity to the musical sequences, favouring prolonged, wide, sweeping shots that allows us to see the beautiful sets and superb choreography in full form. The film makes exquisite use of colour with its lighting, costumes and production design and has such a magical feel to it I couldn’t help but feel awestruck throughout. Whether the leading couple were dancing in the light of a beautiful sunset or amongst the stars, I was enchanted.

One crucial element that made the classic Hollywood musicals so successful was the magnetic attraction of such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn, and both Gosling and Stone have that star power. He is cool and smooth and she is witty and glamorous. That neither of them is a particularly great singer or dancer doesn’t matter. I suspect that Chazelle wanted to prioritise sincerity over polish and here it really works. The singing doesn’t always have to be pitch perfect or the dancing flawless if the performances and chemistry are strong enough and here the two stars more than deliver. Towards the end when Stone sings her audition song, she doesn’t hit every note but her performance is so heartfelt and vulnerable in that moment that I was mesmerised all the same.

There are some issues I could pick at if I really wanted to, but they would be little more than nit-picks. One criticism that comes up quite often is how the film is essentially a self-indulgent portrait of Hollywood, a movie revelling in its own glamour that doesn’t stand on its own two feet the way the movies it pays tribute to do. I disagree. There are certainly plenty of homages towards the movies of classic Hollywood throughout but it still manages to do its own unique thing without directly imitating them. I never saw this film as a celebration of itself but as a celebration of the movies and the joy and wonder they can inspire. It’s too early to tell whether the film will be remembered as a classic or whether it really does mark a return for the Hollywood musical, but I for one think it’s marvellous. The look of the film is stunning, the music is delightful and the magic of it all is entrancing. When everything came to a head in a magnificent climax that gave movies like An American in Paris and The Red Shoes a run for their money, I was spellbound.

★★★★★

Manchester by the Sea

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Writer: Kenneth Lonergan


One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.

In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.

For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.

Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.

★★★★★