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Mel Gibson makes the same film over and over. Nothing wrong with that
as long as each successive mix of his favorite ingredients (brutish
violence, morality, vengeance for wrongdoing, exhausting feats of
endurance all seasoned with humor) adds depth to what we have
already experienced. With "Hacksaw Ridge" Gibson sheds the more
cartoonish excesses of his previous blockbuster, "Apocalypto," and
manages to hold our hearts and minds for more than two grueling hours.
Perhaps the last ten years of his public excoriation have taught him
something pertinent to his art.
This true story of a conscientious objector (7th Day Adventist variety) who as an unarmed medic saved a staggering number of lives while under fire on the island of Okinawa in the closing days of World War Two is just as brutal as other Gibson epics and also contains a compensatory number of tender and quiet moments between parents, siblings and lovers on the home front. The pattern of "Hacksaw" is set early in the main character's childhood during one of those typical Gibsonian horseplay sequences when the hero-to-be nearly kills his brother by slamming a rock against his skull during a roughhousing episode. The shock of what he has almost done shakes him to his core and contributes to his understanding of the fragility of human life and his conviction that killing is a primary evil. His ordeal begins in basic training when his fellow soldiers ridicule, taunt and even assault the rather scrawny fellow who carries a Bible and refuses to even touch a gun. One by one they realize what an extraordinary human being is in their midst as his strength of character and valor are revealed by degrees through basic training, near-court martial and eventually to the shattering test of battle.
His relationship with his father (Hugo Weaving), an emotionally damaged, alcoholic World War One veteran, expands the story's perspective, setting the son's experience in a larger context of how each generation has to come to terms with war - that ugly primal fact of civilization.
Some negatives: Although the movie's opening seems off-puttingly reminiscent of the sentimental 70's TV series "The Waltons," it goes its own way soon enough. One line you could anticipate: Son, commenting on the father's nastiness: "Why does he hate me?" Mother: "He doesn't hate you, he hates himself sometimes." Or this unlikely line: Sergeant, after soldiers have arrived on the smoldering shores of Okinawa: "We're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy." (Was that line really common jargon so soon after "The Wizard of Oz"s initial theatrical release? Didn't it really catch on later after the Baby Boom generation embraced the film on TV?) The netting of thick rope that enables Doss's company of soldiers to climb up and down the titular ridge somehow remains intact from day to day despite fierce and stubborn Japanese resistance. What prevented the Japanese from destroying this means of access during lulls in fighting?
A note on gore, which "Hacksaw" displays dozens of times: Global popular culture has become so saturated with images of dismemberment, death and decay that the only way an audience nowadays can be jolted by the sight of rats gnawing on blackened corpses or a pile of guts lying where there was previously a torso is when the editing introduces them by surprise, perhaps with a synthesizer blast as accompaniment. As with most extended battle sequences in movies, the explosions and blood spouts become a tedious blur and come to life only when the focus narrows to an individual or two making their way through the pandemonium. One of the more effective of such points in "Hacksaw" is when Doss conceals a wounded soldier by covering his head with dirt and all we see is a naked blue eye staring out in terror and wonderment at the passing thud of Japanese boots.
There are so many excellent performances by charismatic actors that it's hard to single one out over others. Teresa Palmer shines as Doss's wife; Vince Vaughn is very entertaining as the borderline sadistic wisecracking sergeant, who like a whole succession of characters slowly succumbs to the radiating power of Doss's singular faith. Several blond actors who play Doss's fellow soldiers give effective performances but after the movie ends it's hard to recall one from another.
Andrew Garfield as Doss just happens to be on screen most often and is definitely the center of the experience. He looks a bit like the young Richard Benjamin and as many have said, also resembles young Anthony Perkins, particularly Perkins as the Quaker Civil War soldier in "Friendly Persuasion," another movie about a pacifist caught in war.
Most of all "Hacksaw Ridge" is about the triumph of an underdog, courage, love, faith, human potential (from frailty and baseness to redemption and forgiveness) and how they are intertwined. And all of these themes are touchingly tied up at the end in a way I will not discuss here.
Meryl Streep adds another rich characterization to her matchless resume
with Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded patroness of the arts whose
singing voice could have found a happy home in a Three Stooges
featurette but whose entourage didn't dare let her know how bad she was
for reasons varying from true love to pure greed. Streep, whose own
singing voice is sound and trained, has a grand time imitating someone
who could barely hit the easiest notes. Jenkins sincerely believes she
is technically proficient. Her supportive husband (an excellent Hugh
Grant) is also a wannabe artiste, in his case a failed actor, formerly
an impoverished illegitimate son of an English earl, who enables his
older wife to live out her fantasies by encouraging and promoting her
concerts and recordings.
There are times in this rather overlong trip back to 1944 New York City when "Jenkins" feels like a standard Woody Allen comedy same era, background music, social set, cultivated banter but the actors liven it up. In a scene set at Carnegie Hall, director Stephen Frears and his team create a good sense of the bacchanalian and heady atmosphere of the Big Apple at the beginning of its heyday as the greatest city on earth, the virtual capital city of the big victor in World War Two, a cultural energy center enlivened further by swarms of soldiers on leave. Viewers with some musical background, of course, will be the ideal audience for this film because they will be better able to appreciate the nuances of Jenkins's vocal efforts.
Based on a story by none other than its lead actor, John Gilbert
himself, and coupled with his distinctive performance, "Downstairs"
shows what a fertile creative mind Gilbert had and what a loss it was
that he self-destructed before he got a chance to get a second wind
going after a career slump. Coulda happened to anyone. In any event,
this wickedly decadent tale set in an Austrian country estate examines
the interactions between upstairs (Reginald Owen as a baron and Olga
Baclanova as his philandering wife), and downstairs, kicking off with
the wedding of the head butler (Paul Lukas) to innocent young maid
(Virginia Bruce) with Gilbert as the newly hired chauffeur who shows up
at the reception. Right off the bat he is revealed as a slick weasel.
When a countess at the reception (Hedda Hopper) recognizes him she
loses her cool in such a way that we know there was some hanky-panky in
their history; when guests line up to kiss the bride Gilbert delivers a
seriously inappropriate lip lock and later arrives uninvited to the
newlyweds' bedroom to continue the dalliance while the husband is
momentarily absent. And that's just for starters. In fact, the
unmitigated rottenness of Gilbert's character borders on camp but is
somewhat justified artistically the way the whole thing wraps up
(something I won't reveal here).
For Gilbert to have written this character and then played him must have taken guts. Long after his loathsomeness has been established, we are treated to an extended scene in which he clips his nose hairs and picks at his ears and fingernails. He has the chiseled sexy good looks, cultivated speech and dapper sartorial sense of a worldly gentleman but the physical manners of a vulgar lout: he has a habit of lolling on table tops and indiscriminately gulping liquids and wolfing down food wherever he finds them. These two sides of his nature fuel the volatility of his relationship with Bruce who resents his aggression but succumbs to his skillful lovemaking. She has a very effective angry monologue about this matter during a climactic confrontation with Lukas whose devoted, martinet-ish butler is the straight-arrow opposite of Gilbert. Lukas is at his best when he too is consumed with rage.
The downstairs Gilbert turns the tables on the upstairs crowd, playing by their own rules in his own way.
The Coen brothers return to the olden days of Hollywood with a witty
and eye-pleasing comedy that recycles several legends familiar to
antique movie buffs but mixes them up just enough to hold the interest.
"Hail, Caesar!" is set in 1951 at the height of the Red scare and Cold War, and follows a tough but sympathetic hands-on studio producer (Josh Brolin) whose responsibilities include, in addition to budget, casting and moral code enforcement, defusing potential scandals that could damage Capitol's reputation and box office. He also happens to be a by-the-book Catholic who regularly goes to a priest to confess minor sins like cigarette smoking.
There is not a single boring or bad performance by any of the huge cluster of actors. Clooney as the doofus leading man whose kidnapping drives much of the plot, gives an inspired performance. Alden Ehrenreich is impressive on all levels as the wholesome and good- natured singing cowboy. Allison Pill is the embodiment of classic pre-feminist womanhood as the pretty, positive, loyal, uncomplaining, blonde cupcake of a wife who maintains the home front for the rugged breadwinner Brolin.
Many characters loosely suggest real figures of the studio era: George Clooney = Clark Gable; Tilda Swinton as twin-sister gossip columnists = not only Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (who were definitely not sisters) but also carrying a whiff of rival siblings Olivia deHavilland and Joan Fontaine, born of British parents in the Far East, who famously hated each other throughout their parallel star careers; Scarlett Johansson = Loretta Young who covered up her out-of-wedlock birth by disappearing for a few months and resurfacing with an "adopted" daughter; Ralph Fiennes = a British variation on director George Cukor who was rumored to have had sex with pre-stardom Clark Gable; Alden Ehrenreich = Roy Rogers (whom he actually resembles); Channing Tatum = a dash of Gene Kelly and a dab of Dick Powell. And others.
This is not the first Coen film to incorporate musical performance and begs the question, why doesn't this team make an all-out film musical? The Channing Tatum song-and-dance number, vaguely reminiscent of Busby Berkeley's "Shanghai Li'l" from "Footlight Parade" and Ehrenreich's pitch perfect warbling in a Western musical scene are high points.
Memorable and brilliantly written scenes include a theological roundtable of religious leaders assembled by Brolin to vet the production of the titular film-within-the-film, a "Ben-Hur"-ish epic about a Roman centurion's encounter with Jesus Christ (the scenes from which are stylistically dead-on perfect take-offs on the post-WW2 widescreen ancient epics); and a parallel gathering of Hollywood Communist Party screenwriters strategizing philosophically about ways to use dialectical materialism as a guide to insert Party propaganda into film scripts and hasten a new world (goof: a Communist refers to making a cash "contribution to the Comintern" which had been long dismantled by the time this film takes place); a fey director's frustrated attempts to coach the miscast cowboy actor's delivery of high-toned cocktail party dialogue.
Finally we are reminded that movie-going in studio-era Hollywood was a kind of organized religious experience; no matter what traditional religious practices moviegoers or producers may have observed, the paganism of the screen experience was an equal influence on their lives.
Alejandro Inarritu has made gripping movies set in such places as
Mexico, Tokyo, Morocco, Barcelona and Manhattan and now he conquers the
Canadian Rockies and Tierra del Fuego (standing in for the U.S.
Rockies) in winter with this tale of brute survival, loyalty to loved
ones and humane principles and the limitations of revenge.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives another of his super-charged performances as a white fur trapper who, in the company of his half-breed son and other trappers hunts for a fur trading company in the years immediately following the Lewis and Clark Expeditions that jump started U.S. expansion west of the Mississippi. En route he runs afoul of an emotionally damaged and brutal fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and encounters a sympathetic Indian who is looking for the killers of his family.
There are similarities in look, theme and situation to earlier Westerns ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Searchers," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Jeremiah Johnson," "Dead Man") and even an Eastern ("Dersu Uzala") and a Mid-Eastern ("The Passion of the Christ"). The mostly male cast is appropriately grizzled, bearded, unkempt and squalid, with Hardy notably vanishing into grungy dishevelment with a dead-on Texas accent to boot.
Gore is everywhere from the earliest scenes, as is fantasy. It is impossible to believe that DiCaprio or any human being, no matter how fit, could survive the bear attack that sets the tone for the grueling survival narrative that follows. Further tests and trials are no more convincing, but DiCaprio gives it all his actorly oomph to make it seem believable. His struggle takes on a mythological quality after a while; you don't believe the literalness of it but you are carried by the spirit of it. Over the course of more than two hours he is repeatedly mangled, frozen, crushed, starved, drenched, sliced and punctured. He probably even dies for a while before emerging reborn from the bloody slit of a horse carcass he has gutted and into which he has crawled naked to keep from freezing after the animal and he fall off a cliff into a snow bank.
The sparsely swelling chords of Ryuichi Sakamoto's musical score complement the intensity and obsession of the journey.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Francis and Margaret Macomber, a wealthy, sophisticated American couple
whose marriage is on the rocks, go on an African safari under the
supervision of Robert Wilson, a professional game hunter. All Macomber
wants to do is to be a "real man" and prove it to his wife by facing
and killing dangerous wild animals in her presence. But then boom, she
"accidentally" shoots him in the back while trying to protect him from
the charge of a wounded buffalo. This moment is the culmination of two
days of anguish during which we have learned about Mr. Macomber's fears
and obsessions, from his panicked reaction to a charging lion, his
subsequent turmoil and feelings of personal redemption after a
successful buffalo hunt. Finally he is happy, for the few minutes
before his death. Hence Hemingway's brilliant original title, "The
Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
This adaptation is virtually spoiler-proof because it gives away the ending at the beginning. On paper it was a tersely told tale with deep subtext to which the screen version adds dollops of Freudian-tinged expository and explanatory dialogue. For a Hemingway-based film, it's quite talky. Substantial framing material has been added at the beginning and end to explain the Macombers' unstable relationship and a scene midway is awkwardly extended into physical violence to emphasize Macomber's insecurities about his manliness.
Wilson has been Americanized and prettified by the casting of beautiful young Gregory Peck, who actually better fits Hemingway's description of Macomber (played ably but unexcitingly by Robert Preston). Trevor Howard would have been a closer match; the character's colonial- era Brit-flavored dialogue, retained intact in the screenplay, often falls flat delivered in Peck's American accent and he is just too clean-cut cute to convince as a veteran hunter in the hot and dusty wilds. (It is said that Hemingway based this character on Denys Finch Hatton, the real-life big-game-hunting English lover of "Out of Africa" author Isak Dinesen; coincidentally, in the glossy 1985 screen adaptation of Dinesen's story Hatton was effectively Americanized and glamourized by the miscasting of Robert Redford.) Also retained from the original story are numerous remarks about the fair-skinned Wilson's "red face" which make no sense because (a) the film is in black-and-white; (b) Peck's complexion does not lend itself to redness, even theoretically; he is basically as cool as a cucumber throughout. Margaret Macomber's screen embodiment is straightforward and loyal to the source: a glamour puss with attitude, just beyond the flush of youth, played appropriately by Joan Bennett during that interesting phase of her career when she was working with Lang, Renoir and Ophuls.
The outdoor hunting scenes look authentic. Miklos Rozsa intensifies the proceedings with strong musical strokes, but they sound like borrowings from his "Double Indemnity" score from a few years earlier.
"Why Be Good?" is a cultural treasure, not only because it's one of the
few extant Colleen Moore features of the silent era, but because it has
been crisply restored and boasts one of most voluptuous synchronized
soundtracks of any late silent feature. As Leonard Maltin explained in
his post-broadcast discussion on Turner Classic Movies which aired
Sept. 28, 2015, the soundtrack musicians included such jazz greats as
Joe Venuti and Tommy Dorsey. Vintage numbers including "I'm Thirsty for
Kisses and Hungry for Love," "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have
the Rain," "Tall, Dark and Handsome," "Flapperette," "Changes," "Le
Chant des Boulevards" and "That's Her Now" as well as era-evocative
nuggets by William Axt, Hugo Riesenfeld and others, accompany the
jaunty proceedings. If Moore was was ever better I'd like to see
evidence. She had the face, the hair and the attitude that have come to
epitomize "flapper." In early talkies WBG's leading man, Neil Hamilton
had a stodgy presence, but is more palatable in silence; if Moore was
the ultimate flapper of her time, Hamilton was her equal in the young
WASP romantic lead department. Louis Natheaux as a vainglorious
would-be dance hall Casanova is the most entertaining supporting player
in the early scenes, while Bodil Rosing and John Sainpolis serve the
scenario effectively as Moore's parents.
The film showcases in a well-appointed and neatly packaged way the controversies about the role of women at the time. Objecting to her father's strictures about dress code and leisure activities, Moore argues that if she works to contribute to household upkeep, then she has a right to look like she wants (bobbed hair, lipstick, revealing dresses) and do what she wants (stay out half the night dancing, drink illegal alcohol, smoke cigarettes and ride around with men she's just met in moderation, of course). These conflicts had been hashed out in countless films , including Moore's own "Flaming Youth" (1923) before this one was released. WBG then could well be characterized as the Last Word on flappers.
Though not a part of the soundtrack, the popular song of the time "She's a New Kind of Old Fashioned Girl" perfectly suits the Moore character ("Underneath the paint / You will find a saint ")
This crime-doesn't-pay melodrama features a pyrotechnical performance
by Charles Laughton as an impoverished bank clerk who poisons and robs
his wealthy nephew, using the spoils to speculate with great success on
the currency exchange, sending him into a high income bracket virtually
The exposition is glaringly obvious and contrived, especially the key sequence of the murder itself which is right out of a 1909 two-reeler. Yet it's all gripping because you can't help wondering how it will all work out.
Surrounding the main course of Laughton's steaming spiced ham are plausible performances from Dorothy Peterson as his timid, long-suffering wife, Maureen O'Sullivan as his innocent, earnest daughter, Ray Milland as the ill-fated nephew who shows up out of nowhere just when the plot needs him, and last but not least Miss Veree Teasdale in her element as a cold, greedy, calculating shop owner who develops a sudden interest in Laughton when she learns of his newly acquired wealth.
One can only surmise that the source play developed the situations more convincingly because the essential arc makes sense: a desperate man commits a crime and gets away with it for a while, only to pay for it later in an unexpected way. Between these two high marks we see the corrosive effect of sudden monetary gain on the mores of a lower class family unit.
Finally, Laughton gets to indulge in a spell of insane cackling as he did in another 1932 release, "Devil and the Deep."
It's no wonder that "The Struggle" flopped when released in late 1931. Even for that time it was considered stagey and out of date. When you consider that it was the work of veteran innovator D.W. Griffith it's all the more surprising that it is so humdrum in cinematic technique. It's about a factory worker (Hal Skelly) who struggles with alcohol addiction, gradually alienating his wife (Zita Johann) and daughter and sliding into impoverishment and dementia. Skelly is excellent as the drunk, as great a physical actor as he was in "The Dance of Life" a couple of years earlier. Johann seems uncomfortable. In general the direction of the actors, particularly the timing of their dialogue, is stiff. The scenes where Skelly hits rock bottom in a dark hovel are hideously effective but even the lighter scenes are dreary, taking place in drab apartments, barrooms and work places. The daily life of the characters as depicted in these scenes would drive anyone to drink.
In this painfully drawn out bedroom farce, set in Paris, Frank Fay is
miscast as the titular love object, a descendant of Don Juan, who is
smitten with a young American in Paris (Laura LaPlante) but in order to
win her must extricate himself from the tangled web of his long- term
intrigues with a virtual harem of lovers (played by Joan Blondell,
Margaret Livingston, a sadly underused Louise Brooks and others).
The set up is amusing and deftly staged by Michael Curtiz, but once the direction of the plot becomes clear it bogs down in long, boring and insultingly stupid gag sequences, one upon another, involving Fay's diagnosis with a potentially fatal illness; eventually the viewer can only long for this character's demise.
The fine lineup of female supporting players is wasted as are Charles Winninger as LaPlante's suspicious and protective father and Alan Mowbray as (what else?) the butler. Tyrrell Davis gets to wrap the whole thing up with a decadent chuckle, foreshadowing his even more unusual closing moment in "Our Betters" two years later.
Frank Fay's trademark casual banter works against him here because it only adds to the already sluggish pace.
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