Sunday, 29 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

WWII American Army Medic Desmond T.Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

I am so glad to see Mel Gibson back to directing movies because ever since The Man Without a Face he has made many very good movies, among which my favourite has to be Braveheart, being an incredible film as well as Apocalypto, which is just as good. This time around, at the heart of this cinematic cyclone is a more conventional character study; of a man torn by his need to serve in a fight against Japan and a strict moral code that prevents him from taking life. Though, once on the battlefield the complexities of his moral fall away, replaced by the simple maths of saving lives. 

Andrew Garfield, former Spidey, is so good at being an optimist in life, he has this infectious smile, he seems to be such a sweet guy and you really root for his character. Garfield is the warm anchor the film needs. Between this film and Silence, two contrasting tales of faith in an unforgiving world, any memories of the sad end to his web-slinging days should be well and truly banished. Teresa Palmer gives also the best performance of her entire career, as a nurse who Desmond meets, they get to know each other and their relationship is genuinely sweet and charming. 

Vince Vaughn is in this movie and stole every scene he's in, as an aggressive motor mouth drill instructor. That casting choice is a reminder that Vince Vaughn is obviously very funny, but he also has some dramatic arcs. Moreover, Hugo Weaving gives one of the best performances in this film and I am so happy to see him again. I haven't seen him in a movie in a long time. He is always great, as his legendary roles can attest: Smith, Elrond, Red Skull or in V for Vendetta; this is what we love him for. In this film, he gives such a harden and emotionally powerful performance, as a man who has to deal with alcoholism. I am blown away by his work here. 

The slow-burn promise of the film's opening acts pays off in a fierce focus on characters we have come to know, from all of the above to Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey. Biblical themes resonate and Doss's faith and certainties are tested in the movie's second act, a shift happens from home-baked heaven to the purgatory of military training. Mel Gibson and his scribes: Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan's grip on a familiar material is firm; their images, motifs and structures lend purpose to a potentially cheesy material. 

The combat sequences, set on a blasted, blood-soaked Okinawan ridge in 1945, are filmed in Viscera Vision - they blaze and roar with the expression of pure violence. At some point, Mel Gibson leads us up a cliff and into a Bosch-ian nightmare. Between the mud, splayed bodies, bullet-pierced tin hats and torsos used as shields; the Battle of Okinawa pulverises. War has been hell in movies before, this is worse. What is impressive here, is how Gibson pushes his direction beyond the exploitative possibilities of raising hell. 

The war scenes are brutally realistic and you can see that nothing has been held back and they are very well done and not romanticised at all. This happened. This sucked and this is the story of a man who tried to do something good. This is effectively shocking. Finally, you don't need to be a religious person to appreciate the movie. It addresses strong perspective for the character but you don't need to be religious to appreciate the spirit of this film, and the eternal truth that Human spirit is the most powerful thing you can have.

Overall, Hacksaw Ridge is an old-fashioned story that Mel Gibson mainlines with bleeding-edge craft and technique - he has lost little of his knack for spectacle and has proved once again that he is a master behind the camera.  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Split: 23 Shades of Creepy

After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Think Room meets The Missing at 10 Cloverfield Lane. Having seen Split, it is a very good time to be a M. Night Shyamalan fan. Split might be M. Night Shyamalan most compellingly warped concoction to date its genre trappings, acting merely as gateway drugs to the altogether more insanely interesting thriller taking place in Kevin's head. Shyamalan puts all his trust in his audience as he sets up various story elements here and there that won't be fully understood till you have seen the full movie; we learn about characters and the big picture becomes so much more impactful afterwards. 

The more we learn, the scarier McAvoy's character(s) starts to sound. Split goes all-in on McAvoy slipping from persona to persona, and luckily the man has the acting skills to do so. Indeed, James McAvoy might be one of the most underrated actors nowadays. I loved him in every movie he has done so far, he is excellent, insanely courageous, fully committed and it pays off. Every personality is specifically distinguishable just by his different vocal pattern and his mannerism. Nominate this man right now. This is the role of his career. 

Usually, when a character talks to a shrink it is because the screenwriter couldn't find a more elegant way to weave in exposition. However with this film, despite being a horror-thriller, the most fascinating moments are the ones, McAvoy spends on Dr Fletcher's couch. Betty Buckley has an amazing character as she tries to cure Kevin. She shines and brings a lot to the proper film. Plus, Anya Taylor-Joy's character back story is beautiful and haunting. She was very impressive in The Witch and is even finer here as a deceptively docile captive whose passivity masks both intelligence and gumption. yet it would be foolish to suggest this is anything but McAvoy's movie. 

Here's where I mention that Split resembles Psycho when the screenplay makes some riskier moves. Shyamalan's love of tricks is very much alive and well. He also hired the director of photography of It Follows and it really paid off because Split has some brilliant claustrophobic camera work, the lighting is superb, this is a great looking movie. the score is refreshingly subtle. Sometimes you won't even notice how it will be creeping into a scene, while slowly building an intense aura of dreadfulness. 

Finally, I loved the ending, I won't spoil anything for you but you know I do love me some good ending. There's a neutron bomb dropped in the final scene that essentially reframes everything you just saw. It isn't a whopping reveal like the one in The Sixth Sense. For a movie nerd like me, it is extremely gratifying. For others, it will fly right over their heads and they will wonder why others in the audience are whispering, "Oh my God! NO WAY!". I am so genuinely excited by the ending of this movie, the implication it has and what it can mean for Shyamalan's fans, the future and what he can do with his career.

Overall, Split is a masterful blend of Hitchcock, horror and therapy session. The storytelling is amazingly brave because Night Shyamalan ultimately trusts his audience.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Live by Night (And Go See That Movie by Day)

A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the completion and the Klu Klux Klan.

Ben Affleck wrote, directed and stars in this retelling of a crime novel by Denis Lehane, who also wrote the source material for Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. That book provided Affleck with a compact narrative to weave into a solid neo-noir detective story. In ten years Ben Affleck has been directing movies, he has shown a rare ability to choose projects artfully and wisely, hitting creative and commercial growth rings with each new outing. He already has a sterling track record, which is why I am far from alone in stepping up to a new Ben Affleck movie with a tingle of anticipation.

Sienna Miller, outfitted in fabulous flapper chic makes a lively impression as a woman accustomed to using her sexual power to mask feelings of class inferiority, and the movie leaves you wanting a lot more of her. Ben Affleck is focused, sharp and looks great in those creamy period suits. 

His character, Joe, can be ruthless when he needs to but never does anything that shocks us. Here's the thing about Joe: for all his Mob rules he is really an upstanding guy who wants his cut, wants everyone to be happy and hasn't stopped looking for love. A movie gangster can - and should - be a morally complex figure; it is not like they all have to be Tony Montana. Ben Affleck has tried to craft a moral tale of a gangster's journey, but what that comes down to is that he is telling the story of a vicious man who is actually a Boy Scout. Moreover, Affleck is an amazing actor but I really do believe that he is at his best onscreen listening to others. When we can study his face as he reacts to the situation around him.

Though Live by Night works on a much larger scale, Affleck struggles to constrain its story into 130-minutes runtime. Resulting, some sequences seem heavily condensed, like Joe's early days in Boston and his doomed affair with the girlfriend of another gangster. This romance has an enormous impact on Joe's life but Affleck doesn't have enough time to let it amount to much. 

The key word of this film is episodes, as the movie wanders from one incident and set of characters to the next. When Ben Affleck ties them together, the playoff justifies some of the proceedings journeys. All of the points are here but the details and connective tissue that would give those plot points their emotional weight appear to have been left on the cutting room floor. Finally, the glossy old school Hollywood vibe is impressive, as are the costumes, props and sets. The cinematography by Robert Richardson, who shot Aviator and Django Unchained among other films and always delivers in movies with period settings. 

Overall Live by Night is solid enough entertainment. It is also very meticulously engineered but it lacks the nearly nasty edge or narrative muscularity to make it memorable.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

La La Land

A jazz pianist falls for an inspiring actress in Los Angeles.

There was a moment back in the 1970s when the image of people bursting into song and dancing in the middle of a motion picture wasn't simply cheesy, it had come to be seen as downright strange. But not anymore. Our era is immersed in a retro musical culture. Damien Chazelle wants to make a musical that celebrates the classic Hollywood vision of love as a spiritual perfection. This is is really quite beautiful and as another Oscar season begins, this time under a dark cloud of controversy, movies like this one take their natural place: escapist wonderment that reminds audiences and cinephiles like me why they bother staring at flickering images on a wall in the first place. 

The heart and soul of this movie are rooted in the past and so are its characters. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is a romantic that almost feels chemically balanced to perfection. These two belong together because of Gosling, his malice dipped in honey, and Stone, her vivacity and pensive awareness; creating a teasing romantic connection. But mostly they belong together because... they dance like this. They are the new Gene Kelly and Shirley McLaine. 

Their not-so-"meet cute" takes place on the freeway. Indeed, the film opens with one of the most extraordinary sequences in years: a musical number, set in the morning commuting and traffic jam along with a vast stretch of L.A. freeway. The camera hurls with astonishing choreography intricacy among the passengers on their way to work. Cinematically the sequence makes the impossible look easy. It also serves as a setting for optimism and emotional expectations. By staging this number Chazelle invites us to return and stay inside an enchanted romantic universe. In my opinion, Damien Chazelle's La La Land is the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time. An irony of ironies, that is because it is the also the most traditional one. 

Director pays an awe-inspiring homage to the look, mood and stylised trappings of the Hollywood musicals of the 40's especially, the 50's with starry nights and streets lamps lighting up the innocence of soft-shoe romance and two people who were meant for each other literally dancing on air. The "stroll" scene is one of my favourites as Damien Chazelle stages a gorgeous scene over a view of L.A.'s glittering carpet of lights that merges into pastel twilight. They sit, talk and start dancing, just like actors did on sets in the 1950s. Sooner, she lays her eyes on...him. Across a crowded room. A stranger playing the piano. Except that the look on her face tells you that he is no stranger at all. She is not just starring - she is falling. That is the sublimity of Old Hollywood where we believed that it could happen, just like that. 

Maybe only French cinephiles of a certain age will realise that the writer director's true inspiration here is not as much from vintage Hollywood musicals as from the late French director Jacques Demy's two landmark 1960s musicals with Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort - especially the latter which was far more dance and jazz oriented. What I love about Damien Chazelle's movies is that he incorporates music in his movies, he did that with Whiplash and he does that more than ever here. The music becomes a character among all other characters. Moreover, L.A. has rarely looked this gorgeous in films, a credit to the director's romantic imagination as well as to the technical expertise of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle)

Finally, La La Land is the story of old-school dreamers trapped in a world of entertainment commerce that is designed to crush the life out of you. It is a reminder that the often self-destructive act of dreaming is the very elixir of life. This film is a love story to passionate people, people who have a dream, people who want to succeed in doing what they love. Someone who is going to, no matter what anyone says, go ahead. This film grabs the shoulders of anyone who is passionate out there, shaking them until they get out there and follow their dreams.

Overall, La La Land is an unapologetically romantic tribute to classic movie musicals, splashing dream - chasing optimism everywhere. I was utterly absorbed by the film's simple storytelling and the terrific lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both excellent, particularly Emma Stone, who has never been better. They both carry Chazelle's musical numbers off with delicacy and charm.