WAR AS HEAVEN AND HELL! HACKSAW RIDGE (2016) REVIEW
What is it with Andrew Garfield and his battles with the Japanese, armed only with his faith? In a thematic replica of the compelling drama, Silence (2016), Garfield leads the cast of Hacksaw Ridge (2016) by portraying 7th Day Adventist, Desmond Doss, who while compelled to serve his country during World War II, declines, on principle to pick up a rifle and kill. He wants to save lives not end them. Now, I, as a screenwriter feel this is a fantastic base for drama and suspense; and so it turns out to be, in a rip-roaring, inspirational, bloody and heroic war film.
Hacksaw Ridge is classic Hollywood filmmaking par excellence. Andrew Garfield’s Doss is a humble everyman we can all root for as he contends with a drunken father, and then with army training as colleagues and superiors fail to recognise his religious stance. In the final lengthy battle scenes he then faces the Japanese, along with his unit, as they clamber the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge in an attempt to gain control of Okinawa. This is where the action really takes off as the gruesome war scenes create an astounding flurry of bombs, shots, bullets-on-tin-and-bone and whooshing flame-throwers searing the skin of men. All produced by both sides apart from Doss who, incredibly without a rifle, saves many, many lives.
Mel Gibson the storyteller doesn’t do grey areas in his narratives. Black is black; white is white; good is good and the Japanese are just plain bad. Indeed, this film reminded me of the good old-fashioned war epics of yesteryear such as Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) starring Gary Cooper. Moreover, the brilliant constructed action sequences echoed the kinetic majesty and orgiastic bloodbaths of Saving Private Ryan (1998); as well as the director’s own work in Braveheart (1995).
Andrew Garfield inhabits the character of Doss perfectly exuding a homespun goodness and religious core which at no time feels sappy. He is ably supported by an excellent cast including: Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Bracey and scene-stealer Vince Vaughan. While the characters are essentially binary archetypes, the film stands ultimately as a formidable war film with suspense elements. Because we care so much about Doss, the tension is incredible during many nerve-jangling moments; and especially when he’s in the rat-infested Japanese tunnels.
Given Mel Gibson’s controversial history especially when it comes to alcohol-related domestic fights, rants and convictions, he is no doubt looked at suspiciously by the public and filmmaking community. Thus, it meant he would have to produce something special to redeem his reputation in Hollywood; so a Best Oscar Director nomination aids his comeback. Yet, while this film does not represent total redemption for Gibson personally, he once again proves his value as a worthy movie-maker. Overall, via Doss’ heroics, Gibson, his writers, cast and crew demonstrate that war is hell but with such acts of compassion for humanity, Doss showed, it can represent a fragment of heaven too.
R.I.P – JOHN HURT (1940 – 1977) – PICTORIAL OBITUARY
The masterful actor John Hurt passed away today and to celebrate his works as a stage and screen performer I pay homage with some pictures and videos of his work. He was always able to imbue a character’s worth and emotion on screen and gave some incredible performances over the years. Rest in peace John Hurt who was never ever less than brilliant whatever the role.
In light of the FOURTEEN Oscar nominations from the Academy who am I to go against the tide of musical loveliness that is La La Land. Indeed, while I dislike all kinds of award ceremonies per se it does deserve most of the accolades coming its way. Because as the Trump puppet rears his huge, ugly head in the United States and Brexit looms large in the UK we all need something feel-good and nostalgic to lift us; especially amidst the bitter cold of winter.
Damian Chazelle, who wrote and directed the exceptional drama Whiplash (2014), has sculpted a sunny post-modern musical which soars throughout paying tribute to both Los Angeles and Hollywood. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as an uncompromising jazz pianist and Emma Stone as a sensitive, budding actress who meet in a contemporary yet somehow old-fashioned vision of LA; where magic and love are in the air and the potentialities of dreams are a palpable force.
Stone and Gosling are a stunning couple and while Chazelle’s leads may not have the strongest voices they serve the songs exceptionally well with an ordinary wonder. The chemistry between the two sparkles as the story entwines their characters within a “follow your dream” narrative. Arguably there could’ve been slightly more differences between the two than the “I hate jazz” tension; but as in the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Stone and Gosling sail through the film with confidence and profound likeability.
Chazelle throws everything at the story employing jazz, 80s pop, old band numbers, R and B, and ballads. Moreover, all manner of parody, pastiche and cinematic devices are employed to echo the classic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear; the formidable work of Jacques Demy; plus the more modern pop promos of recent times. The opening Another Day of Sun traffic sequence is a real showstopper as Fame-like dancing and singing on motors in an LA highway jam brilliantly establishes the hyper-real and fantastical elements to come.
It seems obvious to say that the music in La La Land is to the fore, but Chazelle and the ultra-talented composer Justin Hurwitz commit a verve and soul to the songs and direction. Clearly the characters and lyrics reflect their own personal emotions, dreams and desire to escape everyday existence. While much of the film skims a stylish surface of colour and verve, numbers such as City of Stars and The Fools Who Dream really touch the heartstrings and draw out the internal emotions of the characters.
It’s hard to criticize such a funny, feel-good movie and as a musical it is probably a masterpiece, however, while the love story served the musical structure really well, I felt that, compared to say Funny Girl (1968), Grease (1977) and Half-A-Sixpence (1967) it arguably lacked a bit of dramatic tension. Indeed, the break-up itself was under-baked and latterly covered by a have-your-cake-and-eat-it “what could have been” fantasy flashback. Yet, this is a minor critique of an incredibly well realised escapist joy.
So, roll on the Oscars where the film will almost certainly win best film and direction, plus accolades, no doubt, for the musical and technical achievements. The wonderful Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are certain to be in the fray too. However, while I have seen other more dramatically impactful films such as: Arrival (2016), Manchester by the Sea (2016) and Silence (2016) (not even nominated!!), this remains one terrific musical that will lift the spirits even on the darkest day.
My blog strand of collating six of the best of something or other continues with a breeze through a series of disgusting, vile and horrific movies that it’s best not to watch while eating.
**CONTAINS SPOILERS & DISGUSTING IMAGES**
Peter Jackson’s monstrous rom-zom-gore-fest is an utter joy from start to finish. A rabid monkey bite sets in motion a series of flesh-eating zombie attacks as carnage ensues with lawnmowers, death, intestines, blood and dog-eating mothers in 1950s New Zealand.
EVIL DEAD (1981)
Sam Raimi’s debut feature is a low-budget horror treat. But be warned as Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) battles his friends and girlfriend — who all become demons — the bloodletting, decapitations and violent deaths are enough to put you off your pudding.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (2010)
We all like to connect with people socially but this film takes the cake. Watch and learn as an insane German scientist stitches two American tourists and a random Japanese bloke together. Both grim and hilarious at the same time and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Eat shit and die!”
ICHI THE KILLER (2001)
The site of a man cutting off his own tongue is enough to have you reaching for the remote; as Takashi Miike’s off-the-wall-manga-gangster-mash-up really tests the boundaries of taste. My favourite image is a sliced face slamming and sliding down the wall following one particularly offensive fight scene.
Morgan Spurlock’s brutal documentary takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe visiting New York, Reading, Rajasthan, Cambodia and so on. Amidst the rat-catching, baiting and butchering we are also witness to scientific examination of rats. Most disgustingly the eating of rodents in Vietnam is considered a delicacy. Gross!
While Irvine Welsh’s classic novel was a dark, violent, black-humoured yet grim portrayal of heroin addiction in Edinburgh; Danny Boyle’s adaptation entertainingly presents it as a fast-paced-rock-and-rolling-drug-lifestyle-sketch-show! Nevertheless, with scenes that involve: the dirtiest toilet in Scotland; Tommy’s toxoplasmosis squat death; and Spud’s shit being flung across the breakfast table, make this one to avoid while tucking into a Friday night curry with your partner.
HOW’S YOUR CATHOLIC GUILT? REVIEWING THE YOUNG POPE (2016)
Having recently reviewed Martin Scorcese’s Silence (2016) I thought it apt to follow it up by looking at a more contemporary vision of religion and faith with a review of Paulo Sorrentino’s HBO produced The Young Pope. Created, co-written and directed by uber-Italian-auteur Sorrentino it stars the impressive Jude Law as the eponymous lead protagonist. Law’s Lenny Belardo, rather than the crusty-almost-dead-looking-Popes we’re used to seeing behind bulletproof glass or delivering sermons from the Vatican, is in fact a younger, muscular and even sexy Pope.
Now, while I respect an individual’s right to believe what they want to, be it the teachings of Christ or Mohammed or Obi Wan Kenobi for that matter, I’m not a great fan of ‘Organized Religion.’ Indeed, ‘Organized Religion’ must be up there, along with global governments, Hitler, Spanish flu, and bubonic plague, as the main cause of wars, death and the suffering of millions. More specifically, Catholicism and its representatives have been at the forefront of negative events down the years including the Medieval Witch Hunts; Spanish Inquisitions; the tragedy of the ‘Fallen Women’ in 1920s-1950s Ireland; general acquiring of huge wealth while followers live in poverty; anti-gay and Pro-life ideologies; and as most recently seen in the film Spotlight (2015), a worldwide cover-up of paedophilia by Catholic priests. So how does Sorrentino approach such issues?
Well, his creative team’s approach to the material is not one of demonization but rather playful satire, wistful respect and a formidable testing of the Vatican as an institution. His desire it not to bring down the Catholic Church but rather purge the old and modernize its way of thinking and how it represents itself. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that it held my interest throughout and this was essentially down to the incredible characterisation and performances from Jude Law, Diane Keaton, James Cromwell and incomparable Sivio Orlando as the devious but ultimately soft-hearted-Napoli-fan Cardinal Voiello.
Over ten episodes of high quality dramatic analysis Sorrentino presents many of the issues facing the Catholic church now including: the paedophilia cases charged; the sexual behaviour, addictions and sins of Priests; the financial and political machinations of the Vatican; the importance of public relations and marketing the Vatican; and of course the very nature of faith and what it means to be a Catholic. These are indeed heavy subjects yet while serious like Scorcese’s Silence, The Young Pope contains some wry and delicate humour too. I mean ten episodes of a Vatican-based comedy it isn’t, but Paulo Sorrentino’s skewed look shows the priests and nuns, not as higher beings but rather flawed humans like the rest of us.
None are presented as more human than the lead character Lenny Belardo. Jude Law’s character is a surly, sarcastic and snappy dude from the start. He smokes and shows little respect for the elder priests, led by Cardinal Voiello and his prior mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) who are as surprised as him that he somehow won the Papacy due to an advantageous split in the votes. Belardo vows to break the “old boys” network and spends much of the season locking heads with Voiello and Spencer in a bitter series of power plays. This young Pope does not suffer fools and refuses to be seen in public and reneges on his public relations duties. He even at times “jokes” about not believing in God; while his first speech delivered in silhouette is an unmitigated PR disaster.
Yet, at Belardo’s heart is a dark sadness due to his abandonment by his hippy parents, who while a young boy, dumped him at an orphanage run by Sister Mary (Keaton). Keaton portrays the surrogate Mother to Lenny and his best pal, Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) as she supports him admirably during his papal duties. We see Belardo battle his elders, his faith, his anger, loneliness and sexual temptations which are put before him; all as he finds his voice as the Pope. It is a fascinating journey which really pulls you into the Pope’s internal and external strife.
Overall, this was a heavy yet rewarding series to watch. The scenery and imagery on show dazzle as Sorrentino and his cinematographer conjure some startling holy visions and beautiful architectural compositions. The writing is also of the highest quality with some magnificently lofty, pious and poetic speeches throughout. Being very clever Sorrentino both pokes a teasing stick at the Vatican but also praises the Lord in his own inimitable way, creating several fascinating characters in the process. Jude Law has never ever been better in a show which while initially testing rewards those who keep the faith.
Rather than review every single thing I have seen in one monthly instalment I have decided to theme my reviews concentrating on quality rather than quantity in 2017. So, here I go with a light essay on the nature of the existence of God, the relevance of religion in today’s world and at the same time give my humble opinions on Martin Scorcese’s passion project Silence (2016).
In my mind I do not believe in God. I do not believe in a higher-power that created Earth and oversees our everyday lives. I believe Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed existed in some form or another in the past and their philosophies and teachings laid the groundwork for Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; plus many of the other religions that are followed today. Personally, I believe in all that I see and hear and experience in life and while I respect other people’s faith, commitment to an all-powerful being is not for me. Each to their own I reckon.
A belief in Heaven and God certainly explains many things such as why are we here? And what happens when we die? Because let’s face it the threat of a never-ending abyss of no consciousness is a terrifying thought after all. I mean, I lived and studied in Stoke-on-Trent for three years so have seen the void and it is frightening. So, I get that people need some comfort and answers to difficult questions. It’s just a shame that religion, organized or otherwise, has been used historically for not only good but also something that has caused: torture, war, murder, inquisitions, control, heartache and division etc. But, hey, that’s more of a critique of humanity rather than faith.
Thus, while I respect individual’s choice of faith or politics or ideology, religion and prayers are not for me. Having said that, I’m not a fundamental atheist looking to attack those believers and when reputed filmmakers such as Martin Scorcese embark on personal journeys into their own faith it certainly makes one have a look and reconsider your own perspectives. Indeed, Silence features a lead character which clearly acts as Scorcese’s personal conduit as Rodrigues journeys into the heart of darkness and faces a horrific test of faith.
Like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), Martin Scorcese is no stranger to broaching heavy and powerful subjects relating to religion. Of course, it’s easy to say I prefer his stylised, violent and darkly humorous gangster films as they are eminently watchable with kinetic camerawork, great soundtracks and brutal men taking each other out in all manner of bloody ways. Having said that these films still ring true to Scorcese as he grew up in a tough Italian neighbourhood where more often than not the choice was to become a gangster or a priest. What a choice!
Silence is set as far away from New York as you could get: in 17th century feudal Japan. It concerns two priests Rodrigues and Garupe (brilliant portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who venture into the heart of darkness to attempt to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is a long film which requires much stamina in both heart and mind and at times certainly tested my faith in the director. However, after it had ended it left me with so much to think about I knew it was worth the journey. It’s a story that you absorb through your psyche and physicality. It does not strike any easy notes as it discordantly pulls at your cerebral sinews.
The first act quickly establishes the drama but I felt that the second thirty minutes was arguably too slow as I was very keen for the quest to find Ferreira gain some pace. Yet, when the film focusses on Andrew Garfield’s character and the testing of his faith Scorcese really got to the heart of the narrative. Moreover, there was much in the film which reflected today. The priests are captured, humiliated and tortured in a Japanese equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. But the Japanese were not stereotypical or evil for evil’s sake. Their motivations of protecting their culture and own religion were well argued. In fact, it’s an important theme in the film where, in testing Rodrigues’ faith, are they not perhaps right to protect their way of life? Especially given they may have some knowledge of the violence committed by Westerners and Christians in the name of God.
Overall, Silence is a reflective and personal film about faith and culture clashes. Over the running time Scorcese, through the characters, questions his beliefs and how he should best go about praising the Lord. Scorcese’s soul is in many characters notably Rodrigues but also Neeson’s Ferreira. Most importantly he is also present in a fascinating sin-confess-repent-Judas character called Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka). While moving at a meditative pace Silence possesses some wonderful cinematography, sterling performances and a brooding score. Ultimately, faith is a personal choice and whether you believe in God or not an individual must choose their own path of faith even if it is silence.
THE FRACTURED BUT TROLL! SOUTH PARK – SEASON 20 REVIEW
The latest season of South Park ended mid-December time and so I’m a bit tardy with the review. This is mainly because I decided to watch all ten episodes back-to-back over the Christmas holidays, and in some ways, this was a mistake. I say this because I think sometimes as viewers we have to take some criticism too. In hindsight I definitely should NOT have binge-watched this season as it was so complex and plot-heavy with many themes and interlinking plot strands. In fact, similarly to the more satisfactory Season 19, this season transcended the usual mix of puerile and satirical comedy it’s known for, to become something much more.
**SCREW YOU GUYS – THERE ARE SPOILERS!”
Over ten episodes South Park once again became a huge mirror that reflected many of the events occurring in the USA and the world in general. The biggest event was of course, the Presidential elections which saw Mr Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner representing the Trump/Republican side and Hilary Clinton, of course, representing the Democrats. Amusingly they were referred to as Douche and Turd Sandwich respectively; calling back the classic episode where Stan is banished for refusing to vote.
Garrison soon realises he’s made a terrible mistake in running as he has NO policies and tries to extricate himself from the race. Thus, much of the comedy deriving from this narrative strand was brilliant and made me laugh throughout the season; especially during the episode Oh Jeez when Garrison won and went into full Trump mode. By the end of the season he’s shown to be a complete buffoon open to manipulation by Mr Slave and Kyle Broflovski when it comes down to the bombing of Denmark. But, hey, that’s a whole different story!
A TROLL IN THE PARK
The second major narrative line in this season was Gerald Broflovski (Kyle’s Dad) being revealed as an uber-Troll online called Skankhunt42. He begins by trolling his son’s school before moving onto cultural icons and then the whole of Denmark itself. Gerald, who usually represents the liberal side of the show, is seen becoming a vicious sneak who enjoys bullying for the humour. However, being the intellectual hypocrite he distances himself from the nerdy-no-life-outcasts he ultimately gets lumped in with.
Gerald’s actions eventually spiral totally out of control by the end and, while South Park itself has been a massive critic of celebrities and government figures in the past, it is quite justified in lampooning the cowardice of online trolls. These sad individuals hide under the bridges of social media feeding their tethered egos and weak personalities for the benefit of either humour, revenge or to obtain some idea of power.
In the episode The Damned, Gerald is literally pissed on by his wife in order to extricate himself from being rumbled as an online troll. That online bullies are shown to be mainly shut-in losers as opposed to Jocks, demonstrate that bullying can be done by anyone and needs to be pissed on from a great height. Lastly, the monstrous rise of Garrison to power also highlights the fact that hair-brained Trump has become the biggest troll in the world.
The theme of hyperbolic social media behaviour was supported by the further strand of South Park Elementary School students committing “suicide” by leaving Twitter. A character named Heidi is even mourned by her class during the episode Skankhunt even though she is actually in the class! Also, believing Cartman to be the troll ‘Skankhunt’ the kids gang up and ‘kill’ his electronic devices, burying them in an Evil-Dead-Cabin-in-the-Woods-horror-film-homage. The internet and social media is therefore cast as an extension of the playground; with kids and adults giving their social media live’s more importance than real life and move away from actual intimacy and human contact.
Consequently, Cartman himself goes the other way and falls in love with Heidi and their relationship is quite touching over course of the season. It’s especially funny as it plays with the audience’s expectations and the other kids think it’s all part of some Cartman uber-plan. Indeed, Cartman’s arc in this season is interesting as it seems they tried to make him more sympathetic. At first his feminist leanings are part of some scheme to undermine the girls’ sit-down protests during the opening Member-Berries episode. But eventually it turns out he does find Amy Schumer’s “vagina” comedy actually funny. Alas, the storyline kind of runs out of steam by the episode 9, Not Funny.
Gender politics and the boy-versus-girls dynamic further complicate the narrative when Butters leads a protest against the girls. Butters and the boys who have all been revenge-dumped by the girls because of ‘Skankhunt42’s vicious actions decide to protest too. So, they get their dicks out during the U.S. national anthem; which in itself satirized last year’s “sit-down” protests that occurred during U.S. college sporting events. I myself was not as educated about these particular occurrences but as usual Parker and Stone went to ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that however noble the cause, once everyone jumps on the bandwagon the protests become diluted and lose their power. Moreover, such stands against authority can also be wiped by a simple rewrite of history or rebooting for the future.
‘MEMBER WHEN. . .
Rebooting the present or future was yet another thematic present within this packed season. The “Member-berries” introduced in the first episode are a super-food which while innocent at the start become evil-humanized-nostalgia-fruit hell-bent on ensuring humanity lives in the past and doesn’t move on with any new ideas. Indeed, in the final episode The End of Serialization the “Member-berries” even end up in the White House. While not always convinced by these turn of events I can see the satirical point being made that living in the past remembering: Star Wars, Chewbacca, Tie-Fighters, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Flash Gordon, Superman, Reagan, the 80s, sugar from your neighbour, feeling safe, Stormtroopers etc. can be culturally dangerous and lead to the excavation of archaic politics hence the rise of Trump and the perceived right-wing Brexit vote.
Yet, nostalgia can also be a positive thing too and paradoxically I do at times hanker after the simpler, yet brilliantly effective South Park episodes which were perhaps more focussed and arguably funnier. But one cannot fault the programme makers for aiming higher than the usual shit you get on television. Plus, the “Member-berries” plot line did rightly put the boot into the ridiculous eulogizing of J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens which definitely wasn’t as good as people made out. So, in that respect, the show made a very valid cultural point. But while going back can be a negative force it can also help us learn from our mistakes, however, given President-Trump’s about to enter the White House it seems humans just love making the same mistakes over and over again.
CONCLUSION. . . FRACTURED BUT NEARLY WHOLE!
While Season 19 became arguably the most coherent, incisive, funny and complex narrative out of all Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s previous work, Season 20 had a lot to live up to. However although the riotous narrative strands represented a major strength I don’t feel, overall, this season had as many gags or classic episodes. I would say that it worked best as an accomplished serialized conceptual satire with a few piss and dick jokes as opposed to the fast-paced-gag-filled-stand-alone-episode format of the earlier seasons. Still, while it may not have had many stand-out classic episodes, Season 20 was still a blast of wonderful filthy satire and due to the complex density of the storylines will no doubt improve with further viewings.
As I have attested on this blog many times, South Park is the greatest comedy of all time and shows no sign of losing its comedic and satirical power. The bar was raised SO high by Season 19 that perhaps ambition to beat that was always going to be tough. Still, I still respect Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s multi-skilled “authoritah” in using the inhabitants of South Park to rip into the world, media, politics, culture and religion with hilarious effect.
My favouritest ever episodes up to Season 17 can be found here: