Andrew Garfield plays a different kind of superhero in Hacksaw Ridge

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Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair after a gap of 10 years with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor. The commercial and critical success of this film is also a sort of redemption for Gibson after being a Hollywood pariah for several years following his various domestic and personal issues which were acted out very publicly.

Gibson’s film is about real-life American Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious objector’ who was a medic in World War 2 and performed such feats of heroism in the Pacific theatre that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. Interestingly, although this is a film about an American Infantry division, most of the key actors are not American. Doss is played by Englishman Andrew Garfield and in order to qualify for tax incentives while shooting in Australia, the film features a predominantly Australia/ NZ cast with the likes of Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffith, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy and even Gibson’s own son Milo. The most significant American actor in the film is Vince Vaughn in a welcome departure from his usual low brow roles; he plays the Army sergeant Howell, the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold who is part of some genuinely entertaining moments in the early part of the film while Doss is in Army training camp. In some real-life footage at the end of the film, we see the real Desmond Doss and if anything he is even skinnier and lankier than Andrew Garfield. When Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) first sees Doss at the training camp he says, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques!” and then turns to his assistant saying, “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.”

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As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield plays a bigger superhero than he ever could have in any number of Spider-Man films. In a squirm-inducing and almost unwatchable battle scene in the final act, Doss keeps going and going, like the Eveready bunny; powered by prayer and determination, he rescues more than 75 wounded soldiers from the top of ‘Hacksaw ridge’ on Okinawa island while under constant fire and bombardment. Like a marathoner who thinks “just one more stride”, Doss says “O Lord, help me get one more, just one more” and then goes back into the battlefield to find another wounded man. Garfield is perfectly cast and I can’t think of any other A-list actor who can play a character who is so pure and uncomplicated in his beliefs.

Hugo Weaving, who film fans will know as Agent Smith from the Matrix films or Elrond from Lord of the Rings does an outstanding job playing Doss’ alcoholic father, a WW1 solider whose self-hatred and violent nature was one of the key factors that fuelled Doss’ determination to follow a non-violent path as an adult.

Gibson as director brings several different moods and tones into this film. There is a lovely romantic interlude in the first act as Doss courts his wife-to-be, a nurse at the nearby hospital. Then there are the very entertaining training scenes in the 2nd act featuring Vince Vaughn’s Sgt Howell familiarising himself with the company of new recruits. This quickly morphs into intense drama as Doss stands his ground while the Army tries to get him discharged and court-martialled for failing to pick up a weapon. The battle scene in the 3rd act plays like something out of Starship Troopers or Aliens, with Doss’ company virtually overrun by hundreds of Japanese troops who keep coming and coming and coming. I felt it was even more brutal than the opening Normandy beach scenes in Saving Pvt. Ryan (and I know that film kept me awake the whole night). And then at the tail end of the movie, in the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson injects a sort of spiritual mysticism into the scenes of the troops going into battle seemingly protected by the aura of Doss’ presence and his prayers.

At a time when the world is polarized into opposing camps with rigid beliefs and unyielding positions, this film throws a light on the power of a person’s convictions and how far he will go to safeguard them. It asks the question of what is right and what is wrong. Is right and wrong determined by the number of people who believe in that position? Can a man be right about something even if he is in the minority or perhaps, the only person who believes in it? History has shown us that indeed this can be the case, with philosophers, scientists, religious and social reformers all having had to wade against the tide of public opinion to put forward a new idea or be given the freedom to live by their beliefs.

With the stiff competition at the Oscars this year, I suspect it will be Moonlight or La La Land taking away best picture and best directing Oscars and I think Casey Affleck should pick up the statuette for Best Actor. So it’s possible that Hacksaw Ridge will come away empty handed although it could be a front runner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, given all the sound engineering required for the battle scenes. Irrespective of the outcome of the Oscars, this film is a must-watch, both for its story, for Mel Gibson’s mature directing and for the fact that it forms part of the increasingly impressive body of work that Andrew Garfield has built up in the past few years, starting with The Social Network in 2010, the 2 Spider-Man movies (in which he was the saving grace), 99 Homes and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. All this by the age of 33. Next is another possible ‘award-magnet’ role as a paralyzed polio survivor in Breathe directed by ‘Gollum’ actor Andy Serkis. As for Mel Gibson, I am so thrilled to see him return to the mainstream and that too with such success. I’ve loved all the movies he has directed (except Passion of the Christ which I haven’t seen), his visceral style and look forward to what comes next.


Three feel-good/ coming-of-age films from around the world

In October 2014, I wrote about a new crop of ‘coming-of-age’ films that were launchpads for future movie stars. The movies I covered in that post featured actors like Ellen Page, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. More than two years later, all of their faces would be recognized by most movie goers and they are all getting opportunities to work on bigger (not necessarily better!) movie projects.

In the past few days, I’ve watched four very different coming-of-age films. One of them is Moonlight, which I wrote about earlier today. The other three are set in three different continents – Africa, Asia and Australia – and feature young protagonists who overcome social and cultural barriers to achieve their dreams. Although one might say that the challenges of growing up are universal across cultures, these films showcase those challenges in the unique framework of each culture (African, Indian and New Zealander).

Queen of Katwe

This is as much a coming-of-age story as an inspirational sports drama. Set in Uganda and based on true events, Queen of Katwe tells the feel-good story of a 10-year-old girl Phiona Mutesi who goes from a life of poverty in the slum of Katwe to becoming one of the first female players in Uganda to be awarded a FIDE title. The film is directed by Mira Nair and is anchored by two well-known actors of African origin – David Oyelowo (Nigerian parents) and Lupita Nyong’o (Kenyan parents). Oyelowo plays the coach who teaches slum kids chess as part of a missionary outreach program. And Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, a single parent who strives hard to keep her dignity while raising her kids in dire poverty. The star of the film of course is first-time actress Madina Nalwanga who plays Phiona, with great spirit and authenticity…well she would, she herself comes from a poor neighborhood of Kampala and grew up struggling to make ends meet. The film chronicles the many trials – both physical and emotional – that Phiona has to go through before she can realize her potential.

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Very similar thematically to Queen of Katwe is Indian crowd-pleaser Dangal (“wrestling competition”), the latest film from producer-actor Aamir Khan. This too is based on a real-life story, of two sisters Geeta and Babita, from a conservative part of India who are coached by their ex-wrestler father to become world-class wrestlers, eventually winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. The film is marketed as an inspirational sports drama, but it is as much a story of the girls’ rite of passage…dealing with teenage angst, rebelliousness and search for identity, they also have to manage the physical rigors of training and the emotional expectations of their father. The movie features standout performances from the young actresses who play the two sisters as pre-teens and as teenagers; Geeta is played by Zaira Wasim and Fatima Shaikh; Babita is played by Suhani Bhatnagar and Sanya Malhotra. Like all good Indian melodramas, there are equal measures of laughter, tears, drama and intense emotion.

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Last but not least comes this quirky film from New Zealand. Billed as a comedy, it’s another feel-good story anchored by a respected actor (Sam Neill from Jurassic Park) and featuring an eye-catching and assured performance from a young talent (14-year-old Julian Dennison). Released in NZ in March 2016, it went on to become the highest grossing local film, has a Metacritic score of 81 and has picked up various awards at film festivals around the world. Dennison plays a troubled juvenile delinquent, Ricky who is assigned a foster home in a remote ranch managed by the affectionate Bella and her grouchy husband Hec. After some initial issues, Ricky settles in and builds a strong bond with Bella. But then she unexpectedly passes away and Ricky learns that child welfare services are coming to take him away again, because he cannot be in a home without a female guardian. Ricky and Hec, who initially dislike each other, end up going into the wild bushland and spend 4 months on the run from a comically evil child welfare worker and a posse of law enforcement officials. During this time, the young boy learns to take on responsibility and the old man gets some of his rough edges smoothed off. Eventually the chase comes to an end and Ricky is back in the hands of child welfare and Hec is stuck in an old-age home. But soon after, Ricky finds a new foster family and he asks Hec to join them and go back to the bush for some new adventures. Director Taika Waititi handles action and comedy with equal ease and so I am looking forward to seeing him apply that wry comic sensibility to the relationship between Thor and the Hulk in his next film Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel Studios!

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Moonlight shines with soul-stirring performances

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Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.

Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.

The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.

I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.

The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.

At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.

This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.

Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster

I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.