Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge" manipulates through cheesiness and hypocrisy



In director Mel Gibson's bloody historical war movie, Hacksaw Ridge, Christian fanaticism blends oddly with the patriotic needs to serve one's country to the point of both ideologies contradicting themselves.  The protagonist, Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), is your typical backwoods compassionate idealist, the kind who believes in the "Thou shall not kill" commandment to such an extreme that he actually refuses to carry a fire arm as an American soldier fighting the Japanese during World War II.

Having been raised in a Christian household where both his parents abhor war but worship the Almighty, young Desmond clashes with his Army superiors to such an extreme that he comes across as a delusional peace-corps servant whose beliefs are completely misplaced in an occupation that is all about death and destruction of the so-called-enemy.

The first half of the movie is sort of like Men of Honor lite; the second half is pretty much the opening fifteen minutes of carnage in Saving Private Ryan, but multiplied tenfold: it's bloody brutal.  Gibson here clearly explores his love of God and his passion for defending one's land, but he never considers the contradictions at play.  Even though Doss chooses not to commit murder himself, he clearly doesn't object to his soldier buddies slaughtering everyone and everything in sight, a gesture of hypocrisy very much in line with the faith of the so called hero (Wouldn't his anti-murder stance have had more impact if it included boycotting the military draft and avoiding enlisting altogether???  Just sayin').

Hacksaw Ridge is manipulative cinematic propaganda of the Christian ideals and the American need to engage in war, both of which come across as full of shit as its filmmaker's "tolerance" of the Jewish faith.
C-

Friday, January 20, 2017

"A Monster Calls" is an overly sentimental bore



The dramatic storyline in the fantasy-rich and visually stunning A Monster Calls is a bit too sentimental and sappy even for those who generally don't mind melodramatic fares.  Young Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a troubled boy whose mother is dying from cancer, and whose life at school is burdened by a mean bully (James Melville), a cliche of a character in every imaginable way.  So in order to escape his harsh reality, Conor uses his imagination to create a large tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), a creature whose purpose is to obviously mentor and tutor the boy in all the ways of life, and it comes across as an overly obnoxious teacher whose lessons are too old fashioned and preachy.  Director J.A. Bayona - whose creepy The Orphanage (2007) is one of the most under appreciated horror movies of this century - has made a film that is, I suppose, only half decent.  As much as it succeeds with incredible visuals and impressive effects, the film's screenplay drags with one too many tear-jerk moments, trying to leave its thematic imprint on the audience's brain like a scorching hot cattle-brand iron.  Resembling a more grown-up version of Spielberg's The BFG (another ambitious failure), A Monster Calls will likely confuse young audiences with all sorts of out-of-place emotions, all the while boring the adults straight to sleep.
C

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Patriots Day" is Berg's United 93



Peter Berg's Patriots Day is a taut and tense drama about the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attack that left numerous people dead and badly injured.  Unfolding very much like Peter Greengrass' similarly themed but superior 2006 film, United 93, it introduces us to several people early on that fateful day, then lets us follow them as each participates in the incident one way or another.  The movie wisely never preaches, but instead presents us with Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), who drops the F bomb like it's going out of style, and appears rather sympathetic as a limping officer who cares more about the victims than the FBI agent in charge of the operation, Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, looking like he just stepped into this movie from the set of Mystic River).  The fact that the bombings in question took place rather recently, and that its coverage by the media has already made most everyone well aware of who, what, when and how may keep the sense of suspense a bit lower than expected.  And even though the additional news footage and testimonies from the real-life characters prior to the end credits is superfluous and unnecessary, Patriots Day is still a well made film for everyone looking to wave their red, white and blue flag while honoring the victims of this horrific event.
B

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"God Country"'s ideal setting sizzles with mystique



The vast, wounded landscape in God Country is a sight to behold.  Barren and void of anything but dirt and wild mammals, with the storm of the century upon it, its mythical stature enough to inspire the unseen narrator to say, "This here story's been passed down in my family for generations now..."  Like a poem from a citizen of hell who's looking down at the decaying Earth, it sets up a scenario that is as grand as it is mystical.

God Country #1, written by Donny Cates and illustrated by Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie and John J. Hill (alternate cover by Gerardo Zaffino), centers on Roy Quinlan, a loyal son whose wife and young daughter have finally had enough with the belligerent threats spewed by Roy's father, Emmet, whose dementia is quickly turning him into a great liability for everyone around him.  Emmet's stature is large and in charge, his appearance resembling a deity of the highest order, while his mind is another matter altogether.  When an unprecedented storms crashes on their hometown in Texas, it triggers a chain of events that will challenge an otherworldly God to pick a bone with one of the aforementioned characters.

Resembling a Cormac McCarthy novel, God Country is a folk song as much as it is a comic full of elements both fantastical and Western.  The artwork is impressive and rich, while the writing is honest and the dialogue minimal, something that actually works in its favor.  Of all the recent Image comics debuts, this one should rank somewhere near the top.
A-

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Queen" uses chess as tool for escaping poverty



Just like previous chess themed movies involving child prodigies (Searching for Bobby Fischer) and inspiring adults who aim to teach the game to underprivileged youths (The Dark Horse), Queen of Katwe uses a board game - which many around the globe don't know how to play - in order to inspire its audience with an uplifting story of an underdog overcoming all odds in order to succeed as a champion at a very high level.  Young Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) begins to show serious understanding of the game under the tutelage of coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and soon her chess prowess may be her family's only ticket out of Uganda's slums and into bigger and better things.  Director Mira Nair (Salam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) has made a satisfactory, crowd-pleasing movie that even those who don't understand the game of chess will enjoy, and even though the story is your standard Disney sports cliche, there's a quiet, admirable wisdom quality to young Nalwanga's demeanor.  That may not be enough to place Queen of Katwe among the best movies of this sub-genre, but it's certainly the only one I can think of where succeeding in chess doesn't just mean notoriety and fame, but also a better life that includes typically taken-for-granted things such as running water and roof over one's head.  Literally.
B

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Lyrical "Moonlight" sheds poetic insight into seasons of a life



Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a poetic and often beautiful movie that evokes the early works of David Gordon Green. Shot in lush colors by cinematographer James Laxton, with a dactylic musical score (by Nicholas Britell) that even Terrence Malick might find admirable, the film explores three different chapters in the life of a bullied, insecure young man called Chiron, whose quiet and shy demeanor he embodies early on remain, more or less, the only unchanged characteristic traits as he grows up in his south Florida community.  As he deals with his crack addicted mother (Naomi Harris), meets a kind dope dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who shows a genuine father-like interest in him, and engages in matters of sexual curiosity with a classmate (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron boldly epitomizes a struggling teenager whose world can suddenly crash from delivering kindness to delivering blows that leave him bruised and bloodied.

The great Ali (House of Cards) is here, unfortunately, given too little screen time, and - just as he was the best thing about Netflix' Luke Cage, until he was so abruptly taken out - his departure from Moonlight's second and third acts feels even more surprising, especially given how heavily his presence can be seen in all the TV ads and promos for the film.  Also, if there is an element I could not altogether grasp, it's Chiron's transformation from a skinny, dorky teen to a muscular, body building, gold-mouthed, pistol carrying dealer; the man looks nothing like his younger on-screen alter ego - but we'll leave the petty nit picking for another time.

Moonlight doesn't have all the answers (the final scene is beautiful in its ambiguousness) but for a movie that explores the identity of a conflicted youth/teenager/adult, it goes about its business as lyrically as a piece of modern cinema can.
B+

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Supeman-like "Huck" is a hero constructed out of pure goodness



Huck is a very special superhero.  Resembling a football linebacker with a heart of gold, Huck is like Forest Gump with super speed, super strength, and an uncanny ability to find anything and anyone with little difficulty.  Having been abandoned as a baby orphan on a doorstep of small town Americana, he grows up to be a person of such compassion and consideration for others that his whole life revolves around committing good deeds for his fellow neighbors in the small Northeastern setting.  Imagine a simple minded man unable to form a single bad thought in his head, then add physical invincibility.  You'd have Huck.

Writer Mark Millar and artist Rafael Albuquerque (colors by Dave McCaig) have created an instant classic comic book that will surely be made into a big screen adaptation (at least one) some day.  The illustrations by Albuquerque resemble fine visual compositions of a Pixar animated feature (certain vignettes reminded me of The Incredibles), and Millar creates several multi-layered characters, both good and bad, and fuses the initial home-grown story with Russian spies and super-villains.  Especially exciting is the appearance of Huck's biological mom, a matriarch so tough and gifted that she makes Sigourney Weaver in Aliens look like a weakling in comparison.

Huck is basically a superhero comic for those who don't read superhero comics, a story that young and old should enjoy equally.  Its breathtaking visuals and honest portrayal of an incorruptible heart will soon elevate it to a universal fan favorite graphic novel.  Seriously: if you want to be charmed and experience some edge-of-your-seat thrills simultaneously, look no further than Millar and Albuquerque's Huck.
A