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1 star

As a director, Mel Gibson has visual chops, but that’s about the whole of it.  Accordingly, unless someone writes him something of value, it can be a long slog.  Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the incredible story of WWII conscientious objector medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as he staves off court-martial and saves75 lives on a hellish plateau in Okinawa, is that slog.

First, to the history.  After Hidden Figures and Sully, I smelled a rat, and sure enough, most of the particulars of those stories – which could have and should have stood on their own – were b.s.  After Hacksaw, I was sure I’d hit the trifecta.  I was wrong.  Doss’s story is basically retold straight.  The problem is that his story is so incredible, Gibson should have said, “You know, let’s leave this part out, or people are going to start rolling their eyes.”  For me, the part when Dawes has a grenade thrown at him, and he wheels around and gives it a back-kick reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or top form Pele’ – that was the moment.  But hell if Doss didn’t do just that.  From History v. Hollywood:

On the night of May 21, 1945, just a half mile past the escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit inadvertently walked into a company of Japanese soldiers. The unit engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and Desmond scrambled to treat the wounded. “They begin to throw these hand grenades,” recalled Desmond. “I saw it comin’. There was three other men in the hole with me. They were on the lower side, but I was on the other side lookin’ when they threw the thing. I knew there was no way I could get at it. So I just quickly took my left foot and threw it back to where I thought the grenade might be, and throw my head and helmet to the ground. And not more than half a second later, I felt like I was sailin’ through the air. I was seein’ stars I wasn’t supposed to be seein’, and I knew my legs and body were blown up.” The blast left 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in Desmond’s body, mostly in his legs. The Conscientious Objector Documentary

 Now, to the film.  I don’t know what to say about the non-combat portion, where we see Desmond as a boy and later in basic training.  As dewy-eyed hokum goes, this is buffed to almost the point of art form.  Garfield is so damned earnest in his role he threatens veering into Gomer Pyle and even Forrest Gump territory, but to his credit, his ardor actually works.  He inhabits the role fully and effectively communicates the viewpoint of a simple, decent and brave man.  Unfortunately, those around him are so melodramatic or stock, it is hard not to stifle a laugh.  His sweetheart (Theresa Palmer) is the vintage beauty in the gleaming white nurse outfit, the sun streaming through her lovely hair.  His mother and father (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths – Mel takes care of his Aussie own) are damn near operatic.  And my God, his introduction to his unit threatens to break into song, as every stereotype steps up to say “Hey, I’m the Italian/Hollywood/Tough/Nice/Shy/Hick guy” and “Howya doin’, goodtomeetcha’, heytheresport, getalookatdosegams, fuggedaboudit”

“WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . .

OFF TO FIGHT THE JAPS!

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE SOME ACTION

IN TOJO’S ASS WE’LL PUT SOME CAPS.

WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . . . .”

After this incredibly uncomfortable segue, the scenes of Doss’s trial by fire to get him to quit and his convictions being challenged during basic training are perfunctory.  One gets the sense Gibson wants to get to the battlefield.  Understandably so. Mel does maelstrom and carnage better than most, and the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are fluid, inspired and riveting.

But that ain’t nearly enough.

I looked at the IMDB description for this film, and nearly did a spit-take when I saw it categorized under “Comedy.”  A woman estranged from her family for years, clearly mentally disturbed and also a recovering substance abuser, arrives at her sister’s massive Thanksgiving get-together in Texas, where we get to watch every holler and stomp destabilize her like a gut punch, as she repeatedly retreats to the bathroom or patio to pop pills, smoke and/or eventually, booze.

Hilarious!

What follows is an intense exploration of the sufferings of a sick mind as it shimmies and shatters and the shards go flying into the innocent bystanders.  Krisha Fairchild is riveting as the poor wretch, but I’m simply too old for this kind of film.  One reviewer noted: “The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying.”

Not so.  I don’t care about her and i don’t want to care about her.  She’s a narcissistic cancer and it’s neither fun nor interesting to watch the world try to pull her from a dizzying descent down the crapper.

Winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Jury Award and Audience Award, available on Amazon Prime, and as entertaining as orange juice on a canker sore.

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Three extraordinary African-American women work in segregated Hampton Virginia to assist NASA in its endeavors to put a man in space. Along the way, they confront everyday casual racism, structural impediments imposed because of their color and gender, and the general pressures of life. There are sweeping moments, a few speeches, some comic relief, and some genuinely tender exchanges (the best bits are between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, respectively, underling and her supervisor, as they negotiate their roles, hidden frustrations and biases). At its best, this is a pleasant and occasionally winning semi historical drama. At its worst, it is Hallmark Channel tripe, uneven (the insistence on telling three stories short-changes all of them; there is just too much going on, giving the characters short-shrift) and unoriginal.

It took me a little time to find the analog to this picture, but eventually, I settled on it. Hidden Figures is very much like another inferior film that was all the buzz at Oscar time but proved entirely underwhelming in the viewing: The Imitation Game . That film was loaded with melodrama and schmaltz, and it too played fast and loose with the history in an effort to elicit an emotional response that, upon reflection, seemed the product of manipulation rather than honest presentation. In the process, it jettisoned a much more interesting reality – that protagonist Alan Turing’s homosexuality was not as closeted and did not create the frailty depicted in the film – to serve a well-worn narrative, the long-suffering, noble and unheralded hero, maligned for his essence whilst saving England from the Nazis.  Snooooorrrrreeeee.

In researching the fact versus fiction aspects of this film, I was struck by the following in History v. Hollywood:

Did Katherine Johnson feel the segregation of the outside world while working at NASA?

No. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research,” says the real Katherine G. Johnson. “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Even though much of the racism coming from Katherine’s coworkers in the movie seems to be largely made up (in real life she claimed to be treated as a peer), the movie’s depiction of state laws regarding the use of separate bathrooms, buses, etc. was very real. African-American computers had also been put in the segregated west section of the Langley campus and were dubbed the “West Computers.” -WHROTV Interview

In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, she writes about a cardboard sign on one of the tables in the back of NASA Langley’s cafeteria during the early 1940s that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” This particularly struck a nerve with the women because it seemed especially ridiculous and demeaning in a place where research and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

Now, juxtapose this extremely interesting recitation of what actually happened from Johnson with the cookie cutter incidents used in the film. A colored only coffee pot – untrue.  Johnson having to go to the bathroom in a separate place – nope, she used the unmarked whites bathroom. Being mistaken for a janitor on her first day working with a made up character played by Kevin Costner – made up.  The smashing of a “Colored Only” sign with a sledgehammer by Costner – untrue (and at the expense of the great story about the cardboard signs so persistently and surreptitiously discarded by the real life figure).

So, the real Johnson states that she didn’t really even feel segregation in her workplace yet the screenwriters make it a factor in every single aspect of her work life. These decisions are bad decisions for two reasons. First, we have seen all of the standard tropes before. They tell us nothing new. They are boring. And they are so stale they feel counterfeit.  Second, and most importantly, they substitute Katherine Johnson’s real story, which sounds interesting as hell and very nuanced, with this comforting and comfortable pap written by these two:

(Writers of Mean Girls 2 and St. Vincent)

As with The Imitation Game, everyone applauded at the end, so, there’s that.

 

Viggo Mortensen, a survivalist and Noam Chomsky acolyte (not a snide dig using Chomsky; Chomsky is literally the spiritual and intellectual leader guide to Mortensen’s character), lives in the woods with his six children where he home schools and nature trains them (in the first scene, his teen son jumps a deer, stabs it for dinner and is rewarded with “man” designation).  Their mother, however, is away, battling mental illness.  When she passes, the modern Swiss Family Robinson treks to the home of her father (Frank Langella) who is the bad guy because he has dough, lives on a golf course and wants to take the children away from Viggo.  Along the way, Viggo condescends to his sister about what dullards her two boys are; prattles on about the empty consumerist nature of the United States; and sits the kids down at a diner, dangling awesome food possibilities in front of them, only to leave in high nutritionist dudgeon.

Mortensen, who is nominated for best actor, does the best with a character who is constantly whipsawed between rock-solid moral assuredness and deep doubt, such that at best, he seems like a mercurial preener and at worst, a total dick.  He constantly craps on the mores and standards of his sister and in-laws, only to give half-assed apologies, and his crashing of his wife’s funeral is an exercise in narcissism that makes any further action on his part highly suspect.  The kids are brilliant and self-sufficient but so underdeveloped that when they start to share their take on their current condition, it all comes from nowhere.

The family is laughably Hollywoodized – the girls don’t have hairy armpits, the kids don’t stink (they should) and the tenets of their creed are easily discarded for a few cheap yuks.

The ending is gruesome schmaltz, a family sing-along/send off for Mom to a tribal acoustic version of Sweet Child  O’ Mine.

I like this family’s version much better.

My son and daughter have impeccable taste in films, so the other night, I bowed to their wishes and watched Captain America: Civil War, which was streaming on Netflix.  I do not want to put the recommendation squarely on their shoulders.  A colleague who has his own movie podcast and my nephew, who are much more attuned to this genre than me, also dug the movie.  It rates a 90% on rottentomatoes.com.

What am I missing?

Some background.  Of Captain America, I wrote, “All characters are boring and stock, particularly Evans, who has the face and demeanor of soft butter. A lot of stuff happens after his transformation, but full disclosure – we turned it off after an hour.”

Of Marvel’s The Avengers, “The picture is dizzying, occasionally funny, well-paced but really, really long and immediately forgettable.”

Of Avengers: Age of Ultron, “Best part. A friend of Captain America asking if he’s found a place to live in Brooklyn yet, and Captain America responding that he doesn’t think he can afford it.  Because what’s missing from these films is the Avengers at a cocktail party.  Full disclosure: turned off at the halfway point.”

This flick did not represent a reversal in the trend.  You have scads of super heroes running around either intoning gravely over the issue of the day (should they or should they not place themselves under the command and oversight of . . . the U.N.?) and when they are not doing that, they are cracking wise.  They line up against each other and meet on an airport tarmac where they have a CGI rumble, a scrum made so  dull by their invincibility (after all, kill Ant Man and that’s like burning $650 million)  I was reminded of a time when the aforesaid nephew was playing a first person shooter video game (Doom?) and he was just tearing it up, knife through butter.  I was impressed by his prowess until I noticed that he wasn’t even getting nicked, despite being shot repeatedly.  It was then he informed me that he had a cheat, or a code, that allowed him to traipse through the game, unhurt.

For him, it was the journey, a pleasing way to pass time and explore the world of the game makers.  I was all like, “Kill or die!”

And I imagine that is a generational difference that explains my view of the film.

Now get the hell off my lawn.

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A pointless, narrativeless, droning visual feast. Terrence Malick’s internal monologues were sometimes overwrought and brazenly lyrical in The Thin Red Line and The New World but at least those films were, respectively,  a World War II drama and a historical venture into the unknown, where the inner thoughts of men in and at the edge of peril could naturally meander through subjects such as longing, love, fear, madness and the utter beauty and danger of their foreign surroundings.  Knight of Cups is about a wayward Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) who floats through the LA scene (mainly, the beach, parties, photo shoots, piers, hotel rooms populated by various attractive women, inexplicable rooftops, and the dreaded blue lit strip joint), a chic but shabby male model zombie. His inner monologue – heavy musings about lost family, his quest, his ruined life, and a lot of stuff that simply makes no sense whatsoever – rarely rises above the banalities of a Calvin Klein Obsession commercial.  The inner monologues of other characters – his father (Brian Dennehy), a party host (Antonio Banderas), a former wife (Cate Blanchette), various lovers – are no more compelling.  Vapid and self indulgent, though pretty and populated by stars eager to be part of Malick’s experiment.

Under normal circumstances, this is a 4, maybe even a 5 star film.  Clint Eastwood’s assured meditation on trauma and heroism is briskly plotted and Tom Hanks –as he often does with quiet, internal characters (see Apollo 13, Road to Perdition, Cast Away, Captain Phillips) – renders Captain Sully Sullenberger with poise and introspection.  As we all know, Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 crew and passengers by doing the near-impossible – landing his passenger aircraft on the Hudson River after a bird strike – and  Hanks shows all of the intricate frailties of the man as he weathers the resultant pressures of PTSD, a federal investigation, and his own self doubt.

Alas, I have to stick it to this film, because Eastwood cheats.  And he admitted he cheated.   Upon evaluating the story, Eastwood is reported to have said, “Where’s the antagonist?”  So he went hunting and found one, transmogrifying the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) – the governmental body charged with investigating the incident – into a panel of witch hunters.  Well, maybe that is too strong, but the performances by two of  the members – replete with sneering, condescending charges that Sully could have made Newark or Teterboro airports to land – veer into the cartoonish, and in something so instrumental to the story, that is really problematic.  Indeed, Eastwood did not use the real names of the NTSB panel, which speaks volumes.

In the critical scene, the NTSB uses a computer simulation to show that Sully could have landed at two airports rather than on the river.  But Sully, old salt that he is, demands they put in 35 more seconds for reaction time.  The bureaucrats reluctantly do so, and voila!  The planes crash.  Very dramatic, but in reality, the NTSB was the body that suggested the adding of time.  As reported by a member of the NTSB team, “There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him.  If there were questions, it was to learn things.” Another member stated, “I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here.”

The sad part is that the film didn’t need such an antagonist.  It’s a gripping, well-told, simple story that stands on its own without the bogeyman.  If you are not afraid of the bogeyman, I highly recommend the picture .