‘Hacksaw Ridge’ a heroic story that should be honored always

hacksaw-ridge

BY ROGER THOMAS

A friend of mine had seen a documentary about a real hero on “The History Channel.” This friend invited another friend and me to his home to watch “The Conscientious Objector- Private Desmond Doss: The Fearless Warrior without a Rifle.” That documentary is on “YouTube” and it is worth seeing.

The same is true about the new film “Hacksaw Ridge” which also tells the amazing story of Desmond Doss. Mel Gibson, who won an Oscar for directing “Braveheart,” is once again telling a historical story. And this new film is better than his previous award-winning effort.

The film tells of a young man who wants to serve his country during World War II. However, he does not want to carry a gun. The Army wants to dismiss him, but Doss refuses a discharge.  Eventually, Doss is granted the right to go into battle without any firearms. 

I liked almost everything in this film. I like the opening which dealt with young Desmond and his brother acting violently as boys often do. I like the romance that develops between Doss and a nurse played by Teresa Palmer. The film develops their relationship well. The film also develops the various soldiers. By the time these young men go into battle, the audience cares about these characters. It makes the carnage that follows all the more effective, and the actions of Doss all the more powerful. 

Then there are the scenes of conviction. Doss will not relent when he is ordered to take and use a gun. He will not relent when his fellow soldiers beat him for not cooperating. He will not relent even when his is locked up or facing a trial. We need more films that tell true stories of conviction. Stories of people who stand for something and do not falter. The cinema is filled with “superheroes” but not enough real heroes like Desmond Doss.

The battle scenes are very brutal and gory. Comparing “Hacksaw Ridge” to “Saving Private Ryan” this film matches the harshest moments from Spielberg’s epic. The effects of the battle are quite amazing. The visual effects, the production design and the cinematography are some of the best of this year. The documentary described this horrific scene, but Gibson has brought it back to life in his film.  Seeing the carnage creates an even stronger respect for a man who refused to carry a gun, yet stayed on to save others while many were retreating.

One other strength in the film is Andrew Garfield’s incredible performance. I have watched Garfield since his debut in the film “Boy A.”  He has been “Spider-Man” twice; he is the heart of “The Social Network,” the conscience in “99 Homes” and one of the stars of Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence,” due out before the end of this year. He has become an diverse actor who is always exciting to watch.   

The one flaw I found in the film happens early. Two thirds of the film are the battle which is nearly perfect in every way. There is the short intro when Desmond is very young and the n a little later, meets with his future wife. Then there is boot camp. There were a couple of things about those boot camp scenes that did not fit with the solemn story that is presented. These moments are there for humor and levity. I felt they were out of place. I will not describe them here, but you will know when you see them. The true events may be exactly as they are portrayed, but I found them to be the weakest moments of the film.

However, that is a very minor complaint considering the power of this story, and the fact that it is one of the best films of 2016.

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Truth in ‘Denial’ is very powerful

denial

BY ROGER THOMAS

Schindler’s List” is my all-time favorite film. There are many reasons for that, but I will not list them all here. I will admit that before Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, i knew about the Holocaust, but did not ponder it the way I have since 1993. Since I first saw the film, I have been much more interested in this darkest of world events.

Denial” is the most recent film that deals with the Holocaust. The film is based on a true story. A professor at Emory University, Deborah Lipstadt, has spent her career studying and writing about the events of the Holocaust. One day when she is giving a lecture about her latest book, she is asked about a historian, David Irving. Irving says the Holocaust never happened. Lipstadt condemns Irving, not knowing he is among those gathered for the lecture. Irving goes back to the United Kingdom and sues Lipstadt. What follows is a captivating trial drama that is constantly surprising and intelligent.

Oscar- winning actress Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt. Weisz depicts Lipstadt as a strong person who begins to struggle especially when the trial continues over several weeks. Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson plays Richard Rampton, Lipstadt’s British Attorney. Among the gifted cast, the stand-out performance is from Timothy Spall as Irving. There is no more vicious villain in any film this year. Of course, it would take a lot to find a character more evil than one who denies that Holocaust ever happened. Spall really deserves an Oscar nomination.

Beyond the performances, there are many other strengths in this film. I often complain about screenplays not explaining what is happening on screen. There is a lot of legal jargon in this film, but I always felt like I understood at least most of their conversations. Occasionally, some things are kept hidden for dramatic effect, but overall, the filmmakers and the screenplay do an excellent job of making all things clear. 

I also appreciate that the film includes the reality that there are still people in  Britain and sadly in our country as well, who celebrate the atrocities Hitler and the Nazis participated in. The trial presented on screen actually occurred in 2000, but I doubt much has changed in fifteen years. Hate still exists, and that is one of  the most powerful truths of the film.

There are many powerful scenes in the film that stand out. The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is an emotional event in the film, but I found other moments that created even stronger passions. There is a moment when Lipstadt discovers just how good her lawyer is, which is priceless. If you have ever needed to trust a lawyer, you understand the power of the moment when you realize that you can securely place your case in his hands. That moment in this film is very authentic. There are others, many other strong moments, but that one stands out.

I often write that the best films are about ideas. When I compile my list of the best films of 2016, “Denial” will be on the list. It has strong performances. The story is both frustrating, because of the actions of people filled with hate, and fascinating because the British court system is so different than our own. The film is also outstanding because the screenplay allows for novices to keep up. Then finally, there is one perfect line of dialogue that comes late in the film but sums everything up in a perfect way. It is my favorite line from a 2016 film thus far: “Not all opinions are equal.”  What a simple profound truth. 

In a world where hate is still often organized, for some persons prejudice is justified, and there are even those who lie and deny, let us not forget, “Not all opinions are equal.”

Nothing too hot about ‘Inferno’

inferno

BY ROGER THOMAS

I should begin with a confession. I have not read any of Dan Brown’s novels featuring Robert Langdon. I know many people who have read them and like them very much. I actually have a copy of “The Da Vinci Code” and I hope to find the time to read it one day.   

I have now watched the three film adaptions of Brown’s books featuring Langdon, and I have yet to be thrilled. In fact, I hardly remember the first two films which premiered in 2006 and 2014 respectively. I know Tom Hanks played Langdon and I know the first film came to some interesting conclusions, but overall, both films underwhelmed me.

And now there is the third. I suppose “Inferno” starts well. A man is lecturing about the destructive power of human overpopulation.  Not long after that, this same man is fleeing from other men. He climbs up in a steeple and commits suicide. All of that held my attention and I was ready for the rest of the film to be equally powerful. However, it is not.

Tom Hanks has created many wonderful characters but I would not put Robert Langdon among his best. However, in the beginning of “Inferno,” he has experienced something that makes him very confused. This creates confusion with the plot as well. I tried hard to keep up with what was happening, but I think much of my misunderstanding could have been resolved with a cleaner screenplay.

After seeing the film I commented to a friend who is a fan of Brown’s books and Ron Howard’s film adaptations. My comment was this: “Robert Langdon stories are like an intellectual James Bond series.” Langdon is a professor. He is very wise and knows a great deal about many things. I am in favor of more intellectual films, but the problem is that these films create a mystery like Bond films but forget that Bond stories are also fun. Action, humor, mystery all combine which is the reason that the Bond series has lasted more then five decades. 

Langdon stories have the various locations throughout the world. They have the mystery. They just do not have the fun. As I watched “Inferno” I wondered if anyone ever smiled in any one scene. Granted, the characters were facing the destruction of half the population, but still, at least a little levity would be good.

Which brings up another  question: I was never clear how the plan was to kill half the population. Why would it not just kill one fourth or three fourths? Once the villains let the toxic epidemic into the population, how were they certain it was only going to annihilate one half? Maybe I should not have been thinking about that. But if the film had engaged me more, I would not have had time to ponder any of these questions.

So here is what I liked. First, I thought the climatic scene involving water, an orchestra and of course, people fighting, was the best scene in the film. Well, that and the opening lecture about population growth. I did like the cinematography of the different cities the characters visited. I liked some of the history, when it was not being spouted at a rate to fast to actually contemplate. With those things in mind, it was not all bad.

In the end, I will not be looking forward to the next Langdon adventure. But then again, my friend who is a fan says that “The Lost Symbol” is the best book of the series. Could the fourth story be the one to finally transform me into a fan. I am not sure, but I will keep an opened mind. I am sure that is what Robert Langdon would advise.

‘The Accountant’ never quite adds up

the-accountant

BY ROGER THOMAS

There have been a few films through the years which demonstrated a gift for mathematics.  Two of those have won the “Best Picture Oscar.” 

The first one was “Rain Man,” which tells a fictional tale of an autistic individual who is brilliant when it comes to counting and calculating mathematical problems. Dustin Hoffman played the title character and won his second “Best Actor Oscar” for his portrayal.

Eleven years later “A Beautiful Mind” told the story of real-life mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., who struggled with schizophrenia. This film won “Best Picture” but Russell Crowe as Nash did not win “Best Actor.” He had won the year before for “Gladiator” and the Academy was just not ready to award him again so soon.

I raise the issue of films about math because there is another one playing in theaters now: “The Accountant” starring Ben Affleck. Affleck has given the film world great work through the years. He holds two Oscars: One for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting” which he co-wrote with Matt Damon  and the other Oscar as one of the three producers of “Argo,” a film that Affleck also directed and starred in. Beyond these accomplishments are his performances in other films such as “Gone Girl,” “Changing Lanes” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

However, this latest film about math and starring Ben Affleck, is not one of the better contributions to the history of film.  

The Accountant” is not a film that offers comfort. There are very few moments of calmness or humor. Perhaps the most comedic moment is when Affleck’s character, Christian Wolff, does the taxes for an older couple. Who would have thought that taxes could be funny? Later on Wolff fends off an assassin who wants to harm Wolff and the couple who were previously needing tax advice. That is the extent of humor and emotion in the whole film.

Overall the film has is a lot of gunplay. I am not opposed to films with violence. I recently described the new “Magnificent Seven” as a fun film even though a lot of bullets fly in the film. “The Accountant” is 95% fun-free. In fact the film is actually sad and depressing, but not in a powerful way like a good tearjerker; it is just a film that creates very few true emotions at all. 

There are also flashbacks that involve some of the characters as children;  these scenes offer mostly disturbing images. Those images is just other examples of how dense and harsh this film is.

Anna Kendrick’s character, and by the way she is a fine actress, becomes a friend to Wolff, at least as close a friend as Wolff is capable of having. Their relationship also offers very little light in a very dark film.  

There is also a lot of talk about numbers. There is a scene where Wolff is trying to solve an accounting problem for a large corporation that manufactures prosthetic limbs among other things. Wolff writes up numbers all over the wipe boards and windows. That scene made me think of John Nash and “A Beautiful Mind.” So perhaps, someone who is inspired by numbers may find more in this film than I did, but I would point them toward the titles above; two films that tell powerful stories with real emotion.

In the end, I found very little to like about this dense and chaotic film. I felt only a slight urge to root for the hero. I was surprised by one twist toward the end, but that was not enough to save the film. The filmmakers should have added more appealing characters for which to root. Or expanded Anna Kendrick’s role. Something to make the audience feel any emotion. 

A harsh story, such as this, can sill make one care. However, “The Accountant” never did and that was disappointing.