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eagle_74151933_82“THE EAGLE HUNTRESS”   My rating: B (Opens Dec. 7  at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

87 minutes | MPAA rating: G

It has great cinematography. Deep connections between humans and animals. And a ton of female empowerment.

All good.

Still, “The Eagle Huntress” is troubling when it comes to documentary authenticity: Chunks of this “nonfiction” picture feel as if they were re-staged for the camera.

Set in the mountains and rolling plains of Mongolia, Otto Bell’s doc follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, the daughter of the nomadic herder Nurgaiv. Like countless generations before him, Nurgaiv puts food on his family’s table by capturing and training golden eagles that act like highly skilled hunting dogs.

It’s a father-to-son tradition that is about to get a swift kick in the keister. Aisholpan — with her doting father’s cooperation — is determined to own and train her own eagle. Moreover, she plans on competing in a sort of raptor rodeo that attracts participants from hundreds of miles.

So this sweet, totally inoffensive youngster is about to weather not only the rigors of eagle hunting but the disapproval of the patriarchal society into which she was born.

After an introductory segment that explains the eagle hunting tradition (“Star Wars” actress Daisy Ridley provides the narration) and some of the details of Aisholpan’s life (she attends a boarding school in a regional town and only gets home on the weekends) the film captures the efforts of Aisholpan and her father to descend down a cliff face on ropes to snatch a baby eaglet from its aerie.

The idea is to grab a young bird when it’s strong enough to survive outside the nest but not yet able to fly. (Though it’s not explained in the film, this was the first scene shot by Bell and his crew, who fortuitously visited Nurgaiv’s campsite on the very day the father and daughter were planning the adventure.) [to capture an eaglet.)]

This is followed by months of bonding and practice, a visit to the big eagle festival — where Aisholpan and her bird stun the competition — and on to a winter hunt that will prove once and for all whether this teenage girl has the right stuff.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article117762098.html

Sonia Braga

Sonia Braga

“AQUARIUS” My rating: B (Opens Dec. 2 at the Tivoli)

140 minutes |MPAA rating: R

On one level, “Aquarius” is about growing old…or older, anyway.

Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film stars Sonia Braga, the Latin American sex symbol of the late ’70s and early ’80s, as a 65-year-old widow living in a Brazilian coastal city.

With its late-in-life-but-still-vibrant leading lady, “Aquarius” seems poised to fall into familiar territory, that of an older woman proving to herself and others that she’s still got some fire down below (see Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” or Pauline Garcia in the Chilean “Gloria”).

And the film works just fine on that level. It unhurriedly follows Braga’s character, Clara, through the ins and outs of her daily life  — drinks with the girls, time spent with children and grandkids, friendships with the other residents of her beachfront neighborhood…even a hot encounter with a male gigolo recommended by a gal pal.

But there’s a whole lot more going on.

On a second level the picture is what might be called a real estate thriller. Clara is the last remaining resident of a low-rise apartment condo — the Aquarius — whose units have been bought up by a big construction firm. The plan is to raze the old edifice and go with a sleek new skyscraper…except that Clara refuses to sell her condo. Continue Reading »

Samantha Robinson as "The Love Witch"

Samantha Robinson as “The Love Witch”

“THE LOVE WITCH” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 3 at the Screenland Tapcade)

120 minutes | No MPAA rating

Solidly ensconced in the so-bad-it’s-almost-good end of the movie spectrum, “The Love Witch” is a spoof of late ’70s exploitation cinema shot through with feminist philosophy.

Anna Biller’s film parodies cheap horror movies and cheap sex flicks. It features acting that is either very bad or spectacularly good at approximating bad acting.

At the same time, it has been painstakingly designed.  You can see that  from the first scene when the “love witch” of the title, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), pulls into a new town in a Mustang convertible whose paint job is perfectly matched by her lipstick, crimson dress and blood-red luggage.

Elaine is a whack job who uses black magic to find true love…although her efforts have been less than fruitful to date.  She murdered her husband with a homemade potion (she steeps her used tampons in urine). Now she’s come to a picturesque college town for a fresh beginning.

Of course things go south. She kills a  professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) with whom she shares a night of passion and bizarre brews, then goes after the straight-arrow and sexually under-satisfied husband (Robert Seeley) of one of her new friends. Post-Elaine, the poor schlub is a weeping, suicidal mess.

Even the homicide detective (Gian Keys) who comes snooping around isn’t immune to Elaine’s charms.

Men don’t do well in this world. Guys, according to Elaine’s philosophy, are “fragile and can be crushed if a woman asserts herself in any way.”

So she does everything she can to please her victims, to play to their childlike egos and fulfill their sexual fantasies.

There’s some wonderfully dopey stuff going on here, like a girls’ night out at a burlesque club, a tea house where the patrons and employees all show up in Victorian-era dress, and an erotically-charged Renaissance fair that is a cover for a coven of witches.

Not great, but a diverting goof.

| Robert W. Butler

Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney...patrolling an a post-apocalyptic wasteland

Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney…patrolling a post-apocalyptic wasteland

“MAN DOWN”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Dec. 2)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s enough to admire in Dito Montiel’s “Man Down” that the film’s final reveal — a big fat slice of narrative cheese — feels like even more of a con job than it already is.

Montiel’s screenplay (with Adam G. Simon, who came up with the story) offers no fewer than six different “realities” for its Marine protagonist, Cpl. Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf).

The first of these realities unfolds in a post-apocalyptic near future. Here Gabriel and his Marine buddy and best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) pick their way through the ruins of an American city.  Bearded and dirty, they are looking for Gabriel’s young son John, who may be the captive of a group of feral survivors.

There are flashbacks to Gabriel’s peaceful home life with his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and little John (Charlie Shotwell).  Gabriel will soon be shipping out, and he spends as much time as possible with his son.  They even come up with their own military-style code words for “I love you”:  Man Down.

Other passages are devoted to Gabriel and Devin’s basic training under the demanding Sergeant Miller (Tory Kittles), a sado-maso experience that will turn them into efficient fighting men.

One of the movie’s realities takes place in a dusty Marine outpost in Afghanistan where Gabriel is being counseled by Peyton (Gary Oldman), a military shrink.  It appears that Gabriel has undergone a  traumatic experience — and yet another “reality” depicts the day that Gabriel and Devin’s unit was ambushed by enemy fighters.

Continue Reading »

Warren Beatty

Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty

“RULES DON’T APPLY”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Nov. 23)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

If “Rules Don’t Apply” is a comedy, why aren’t we laughing?

If it’s a romance, why don’t we feel something?

If it’s a tragedy, why don’t we care?

Warren Beatty’s latest feature as writer/director (his fifth, and the first since “Bullworth” in 1998) might be charitably described as a highly polished question mark.

It’s good looking,  competently acted and mildly affable. Basically it’s two hours of narrative  noodling that never scores an emotional or intellectual point.

Ostensibly the film provides an opportunity for Beatty to tackle the character of real-life  billionaire Howard Hughes — though Beatty doesn’t make an appearance as the nutjob recluse until nearly 40 minutes into the movie.

“Rules…” is, at its most basic level, a love triangle involving Hughes and two of his employees.

Marla (Lily Collins), a virginal Virginia beauty queen, has come to late-‘50s Los Angeles  after being signed to an acting contract by the mysterious Mr. Hughes.  (In addition to his oil and aviation interests, Hughes is a Hollywood producer.)

Lily is but one of two dozen aspiring actresses stashed by Hughes in posh digs all over LaLa Land. These stars of tomorrow — or harem members , if you will — are given a weekly stipend, acting and dance classes, and are ferried around town by a small army of limousine drivers whose behavior is strictly proscribed (no canoodling with the girls, no talking about Mr. Hughes’ business, etc.).

Marla and her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), have enough in common — including a shared religiosity — that Marla’s hovering mom (Annette Bening, aka Mrs. Warren Beatty) warns her daughter against any attraction to the handsome young chauffeur.  Continue Reading »

Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

“LOVING”  My rating: A (Opens wide on Nov. 23)

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

An emotional powerhouse that will leave audiences drained and exultant, “Loving” is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016.

This latest film from Jeff Nichols, the poet laureate of rural Southern life (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), is a lightly fictionalized depiction on the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, who in 1959 were convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Eventually their case led to a Supreme Court decision that dismantled legislation banning mixed-race marriages.

“Loving” works so well as much because what the film isn’t as for what it is.

Writer/director Nichols eschews courtroom maneuvering and big speeches about civil rights. “Loving” is almost exclusively told from the vantage of the Lovings, two unremarkable individuals in extraordinary circumstances.

The film may be about big issues, but it is a spectacularly intimate experience.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (he’s white, she’s black and Native American) grew up in a corner of Virginia where different races were united by limited educational and economic opportunities.

Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a crew-cut bricklayer who spends his weekends backroad drag racing with his African American brother-in-law.

Mildred (Ruth Negga) is an expectant mother radiating quiet grace and dignity.

They know Virginia law bans mixed-race unions, which is why they drive to nearby Washington D.C. to be married. But, really, who in their bucolic backwater cares?

That complacency is rudely shattered one night when police officers storm into their rural home, drag them from their bed and lock them up in the county jail.

Richard — shy and unassertive — is shamed by the sheriff (Marton Csokas) for betraying his race and violating God’s law: “He made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason.”

Richard can only hang his head and take the abuse. He hasn’t the intellect or the words to defend his love. Continue Reading »

handmaiden“THE HANDMAIDEN”  My rating: B+ (Opens Nov. 18 at the Tivoli)

145 minutes | No MPAA rating

Profoundly disturbing, shockingly kinky and filled with “Sting”-worthy plot twists, “The Handmaiden” is a seductive/repellant tale of debauchery, betrayal and sadism.

In other words, a good time at the movies.

Those familiar with the work of Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance”) know he’s got no problem shocking his audience. With “The Handmaiden” he metaphorically throws us up against an electrified fence.

Adapting Welsh author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park has moved the action from Victorian England to the 1930s and Japanese-occupied Korea.The story is told in three parts, each one concentrating on a different character’s point of view.

Our tale begins in a literal den of thieves.  Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman working for a gang of criminals. Though illiterate, she’s ambitious and dreams of great wealth.  So she’s instantly on board when one of her colleagues (Jung-woo Ha) recruits her for his plan to infiltrate an upper-class home and make off with a king’s ransom.

It seems there’s a perverted old Korean widower, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who is planning to wed Hideko (Min-hee Kim), his Japanese ward and niece-by-marriage.  A collector of rare pornography, Kouzuki has little money of his own and cannot wait to get his hands on Hideko’s fortune. This won’t be difficult because the girl is an emotional and mental wreck.

But he has competition.  Sook-Hee will take a job as the young lady’s handmaiden, working behind the scenes as her colleague, posing as the Japanese nobleman Count Fujiwara, seduces Hideko and elopes with her.  Then the unstable girl will be committed to a madhouse and the crooks will divide up her inheritance, which now will be controlled by her betraying new spouse.

Part I follows Sook-Hee as she enters the household — a vast estate dominated by a mansion that is half traditional Japanese home, half Victorian castle. Over time she befriends her new mistress and starts to feel sorry for the emotionally-tormented Hideko.  While during the day the Count woos the young woman under the guise of giving art lessons, at night Sook-Hee becomes the girl’s lover.

Big question: When the time comes, will she be able to put aside her romantic inclinations and condemn Hideko to a life of insanity?

Continue Reading »

Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Nov. 18)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s some magic in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” but it’s all courtesy of the special effects and design departments.

Dramatically speaking, this attempt to expand the “Harry Potter” franchise is stillborn. Not even the usually screen-dominating Eddie Redmayne can give it a compelling head or heart.

Based on an original screenplay by “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling (who also produced this film),  “Fantastic Beasts…” is a prequel unfolding in the 1920s. This setting gives the set and costume designers plenty to play with, and their vision of Jazz Age New York City — and the parallel wizarding world that coexists with it — is rich and evocative.

Would that the same could be said for the story and characters.

Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a British wizard who comes to the Big Apple with a small suitcase filled with fantastic creatures. Eventually we learn that he’s a sort of Marlon Perkins on a mission to preserve magical species on the verge of extinction. Much of the film consists of chase scenes in which Newt tries to recapture escapees from his luggage.

Colin Farrell

Colin Farrell

The first one, involving a platypus-like creature that gobbles up jewelry and precious metals, is mildly amusing. Things go downhill from there.

Newt finds that America’s wizarding world is in crisis. The Magical Congress of the U.S.A., the governing institution, has been fighting a losing battle to keep wizardry a secret from the Muggles (only the Yanks call them No-Mags…as in “no magic”). But their cover is being blown by the depredations of some sort of malevolent magical creature that is leveling entire blocks of Manhattan.

Newt’s guide through North American wizardry is Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a sort of bob-coiffed lady detective who has taken it upon herself to police these mysterious happenings.

And he unwittingly gets a sidekick, a roly poly and somewhat bumbling human named Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, who immediately begins stealing scenes from his Oscar-winning costar. In fact Fogler’s disbelieving No-Mag is the single best thing in the film, and his romance with Porpentina’s psychic sister  Queenie (Alison Sudol) provides the only charm and genuine emotion.

Something’s amiss when the second bananas eclipse the leads.

Continue Reading »

Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld

“THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 18)

204 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Teen angst has always been with us, but it’s rarely been captured on film with the insight  and hilarity on display in “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Hailee Stienfeld, who won an Oscar nomination for her first movie (2010’s “True Grit”), seems likely to snag another one for her performance as  Nadine, a 16-year-old whose emotional wisdom lags way behind her book learning.

“I just had the worse thought,” she confides. “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Nadine joins a short list of adolescent film heroines (like those of “Juno” and “Ghost World”) who have done heroic battle with the inanities of teenage life. And she has more than little of Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield percolating through her bloodstream.

But as with those characters, behind Nadine’s assured bluster there’s an awkward child utterly terrified at the notion of adulthood.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s film starts with a backstory — how Nadine lost her beloved father to a heart attack. She resents his absence every single day, and the injustice of his passing leaves her riding an emotional razor blade.

She has found a substitute of sorts with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her history teacher, whom she engages in combative, provocative banter. He finds Nadine exasperating and self-absorbed, but keeps being drawn back to her sardonic wit. These two could trade verbal punches all day long.

“The Edge of Seventeen” (a generic title that sounds like something generated by a computer program) centers on two major plot lines, neither of which may seem like a big deal to adults but which to Nadine are the alpha and omega of her existence.

The first is a betrayal by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has had the temerity to fall for Nadine’s big brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian is a handsome senior jock — probably a Republican for crying out loud. He represents all the things about high school that Nadine despises.

And now Krista has gone over to the enemy.  It’s enough to make a girl act out in inappropriate ways. Continue Reading »

Amy Adams

Amy Adams

“ARRIVAL” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Nov. 11)

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“ARRIVAL”   3 1/2 stars   116 minutes   PR-13

In “Arrival,” space aliens — as they have so often in our cinematic past — come to Earth with questionable intentions.

Only this time their reception is less Ridley Scott than Stanley Kubrick.

“Arrival” may be the most thought-provoking science fiction film since “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Like Kubrick’s cryptic classic, it will leave some viewers puzzled and perhaps dissatisfied. In lieu of ray guns and souped-up space jalopies, director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Sicario”) depicts massive societal and personal dislocation and ruminates about the very nature of time.

Happily, “Arrival” does all this with a final emotional jolt that will linger in the viewer’s mind for … well, maybe forever. Great movies can do that.

The adventure begins with a dreamy, time-leaping sequence of a mother (Amy Adams) interacting with her daughter from infancy to adolescence. On the soundtrack this woman, Louise, talks about beginnings.

Then we’re taken to the present day where Louise, a world famous linguist, arrives in her college lecture hall to find that practically nobody has come to hear her talk about the Portuguese language. The absences are soon explained — 12 magnificent spaceships (they resemble gigantic elongated eggs, or maybe black mango seeds) are now hovering at various points around the globe.

In just a couple of brilliantly conceived and edited minutes Villeneuve evokes the shock and widespread disruption caused by the realization that we are not alone.

Populations panic. Stock markets tumble. There are runs on bottled water and batteries. Looting and rioting.

Yes. This is exactly what would happen.

For Louise it gets personal when a military bigwig (Forest Whitaker) arrives at her doorstep to announce that her country needs her. Mankind must figure out how to converse with the newcomers. Continue Reading »

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

“CHRISTINE” My rating: B (Opens Nov. 11 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An almost unbearably sad story well told, “Christine” hovers on the nexus of individual mental illness and societal insanity.

But however painful this yarn may be, it offers an acting showcase for Rebecca Hall, the Brit actress who here dowdies herself down to portray real-life TV reporter  Christine Chubbuck with a quiet anguish and growing desperation that can make your skin crawl.

Set in the early ’70s in a TV station in Sarasota, FLA, Antonio Campos’ film (the screenplay is by Craig Shilowich) follows
Christine’s personal and professional meltdown as she is beset both by inner  demons and what she sees as an unconscionable deterioration in local TV news.

She’s a workaholic…perhaps not by choice. Christine has  no personal life to speak of.  She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and hasn’t had a proper date in years — though she has a clumsy case of the unrequited hots for the station’s preening anchorman (Michael C. Hall).

When she has a spare moment she puts on hand puppet shows for elementary school kids — shows that are a lot heavier on moral instruction than entertainment value.

And that’s Christine’s dilemma at work as well.

She is forever battling her news director (Tracy Letts), whose mandate is to beef up the station’s pitiful ratings. That means minimizing the thoughtful reports in which Christine specializes and leaning heavily on “juicy” topics: crime, violence and the outrageous.

“If it bleeds,  it leads,” he advises the staff.

Continue Reading »

20s

Trevante Rhodes as the twenty something Chiron

“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Think of  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.

The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.

Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.

It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.

At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.

In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.

He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).

Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his  increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).

Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing.  Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.

Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.

Other life lessons follow.  “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares.  “We were the first people here.”

And especially:  “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

“DOCTOR STRANGE” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Nov. 4)

115 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

At this stage of the game Marvel movies have fallen into a predictable pattern, especially the third-act city-leveling smackdown (it’s like it’s guaranteed in the Constitution or something).

About two years ago I decided I was over the whole superhero thing. Unless, of course, you can show me something new.

“Dr. Strange” takes me halfway there, giving us a spell-casting protagonist who has more in common with Harry Potter than your usual Spandexed bicep bulger.

It’s got a solid first hour in which our ego-driven hero (see “Iron Man”) recognizes  the errors of his ways and gets his head turned around.

And a second hour in which a lot of shit gets blown up.

The wild card here is Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS’s current Sherlock and an actor of such range and integrity that I’m willing to give a chance to just about any project to which he lends his name.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. Even among his self-aggrandizing colleagues he’s noted as a self-serving asshole who peers down his aquiline nose at lesser mortals and lives the life of a solitary genius.  In the past he had a fling with surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his most enduring relationships are with his fancy sports car, plush apartment and his own self.

A highway accident leaves Strange with crushed paws. Unable to hold a scalpel, he sees  his life dripping away and goes on an international hunt for some sort of treatment that can reverse his physical infirmities.

Which is how he ends up in Katmandu in an esoteric school run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and looking like a visiting space alien).  The Ancient One and her lieutenant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put our hero through a physical and mental marathon, breaking down his sense of self, opening him up to life on the astral plane, and filling his head — and the screenplay — with enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to make Scientology seem a viable option.

 

Continue Reading »

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss

“HACKSAW RIDGE” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Nov. 4)

131 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Old fashioned” in the best possible sense, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a real-life World War II combat drama that has it both ways.

It may be the most violent film ever released by a major studio, being horrifyingly realistic in its depiction of combat in the South Pacific.

At the same time it is soul-shakingly inspiring.

Brutality and spirituality are unlikely bedfellows, which makes the ultimate triumph of “Hacksaw Ridge” all the more remarkable.

In fact, the film instantly elevates director Mel Gibson back to his one-time status as a major filmmaker. Say what you will about Gibson’s misbehavior and misplaced beliefs, the guy has got the stuff.

Like “Sergeant York,” the reality-inspired classic about the World War I hero, “Hacksaw Ridge” centers on a conscientious objector who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. It even follows that earlier film’s basic narrative, dividing its running time between our hero’s life Stateside and his grueling combat experiences.

The difference is that unlike Sgt. Alvin York — who finally put aside his C.O. status and became a one-man juggernaut, killing at least 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others — Desmond Doss practiced non-violence even in the midst of the most ghastly carnage imaginable.

With bullets whizzing around him — quite literally up to his knees in blood and guts — this Army medic singlemindedly went about his business of saving his fellow soldiers.

We meet young Desmond (Andrew Garfield) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Dad (Hugo Weaving) is an unshaved alcoholic still tormented by the sight of his friends being blown to bits during the Great War. Mom (Rachel Griffiths) is often on the fist end of her husband’s anguish.

As a boy Desmond is traumatized after losing his temper and striking his brother  with a rock. Swearing to never again harm another human, he joins the the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose pacifist doctrines prohibit its members from carrying weapons.

Continue Reading »

Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

“THE BIRTH OF A NATION” My rating: B+

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The first provocation in Nate Parker’s provocative debut feature comes with the title.

“The Birth of a Nation” was, of course, the blatantly racist (though artistically daring) 1915 silent film that President Woodrow Wilson said was “like writing history with lightning.”

Parker’s film — he co-wrote it, directed it and plays the lead role — appropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s epic celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Except that Parker’s “Birth” is more a case of writing history with dignity and sorrow.

His subject is Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led a two-day rebellion that left as many as 60 whites dead. In the aftermath more than 200 blacks were murdered out of fear and retaliation.

It’s a fictionalized biography that follows Turner from childhood — he grew up playing with the white boy who would become his master, and despite his slave status learned to read and became an accomplished preacher — to his death on the gallows.

As with any film set in the antebellum South, we get plenty of pain (Jackie Earle Haley plays a slave catcher who exudes toxic cruelty).

But this “Birth” is no mere wallow in atrocity. Parker devotes much of the film to depicting familes and universal experiences.

So while the screenplay by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin follows Turner’s slow radicalization, it also deals with the tiny joys and pains of just existing.

That may be why, despite scrupulously accurate art direction, much of the movie is composed of close-ups. Parker appears obsessed here with the landscape of the human face and how it registers joy, pain, fear and yearning. Slavery cannot be blithely dismissed as a “peculiar institution” when you can look deep into the eyes of those on the stinging end of a whip.

Continue Reading »

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”  My rating: C+ 

  132 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-13

There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”

The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander.  If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.

The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.

For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.

What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized.  You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.

After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.

But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.

Fate has other plans.  Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child.  Things are looking pretty glum.

And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Continue Reading »