Hacksaw Ridge


War is a dirty business.

War is a dirty business.

(2016) True War Drama (Summit) Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Jacob Warner, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Dennis Kreusler, Nathaniel Buzolic, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Luke Bracey, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole. Directed by Mel Gibson

 

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but at the same time there really isn’t a whole lot of room for religion in war either. When one is called upon to kill for king and country (or queen and country as the case may be) one must set aside some of the basic commandments of most religions, as well as the moral compass of society. We generally frown upon killing but wartime gives those who take human life a bit of a pass, although not without consequence. It can take a great deal of courage to set aside one’s morals for the sake of one’s country but it can take a great deal more not to.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is just an ordinary country boy from the hill country of Virginia back in 1944. He has a deep faith and participates at his Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His father Thomas (Weaving) came back from the Great War traumatized and sometimes violent with his family, particularly with his mother Bertha (Griffiths) whom he loves with a fierce devotion. He rough houses with his brother Hal (Buzolic) – sometimes a little too rough – and pines after the sweet nurse Dorothy Schutte (Palmer) whom he knew from the moment he saw her that he was going to marry her. Well, maybe one day soon.

But there’s a war going on and Desmond doesn’t feel right staying at home while others fight and die for his freedom. He knows he needs to go out there and defend his country, but there’s one problem – his religious beliefs prevent him from killing anyone. In fact, Desmond refuses to even touch a gun. He takes this quite seriously; in fact, he has become a vegetarian (a rarity in that era) because of his beliefs. He therefore decides to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Medic.

The trouble is that somewhere along the line the lines got crossed between Desmond and the military. He is sent for combat training, and combined with his slight frame and his refusal to even defend himself with violence puzzles Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) who is training him, as well as Captain Glover (Worthington), his commanding officer. It also infuriates his fellow soldiers who see it as cowardice and beat him up something fierce.

At last he is given a direct order to shoot a gun, a command he refuses. He is summarily put in the stockade, on his wedding day to make matters worse. He will go up for court martial, which carries with it prison time at Leavenworth. All the boy wants to do is serve his country, and eventually with the help from an unexpected source, he is allowed to do that and for his efforts is shipped off to Okinawa where he will finally get a chance to do exactly what he intended to; to save lives. In the process he will win the highest award our country bestows upon its citizens; the Medal of Honor.

Gibson is not a director who shirks at showing the uglier side of humanity. We see limbs blown off of soldiers, rats gnawing on fresh meat on the battlefield, innards sliding out of horrendous wounds, blood soaking everywhere, bodies blown to bits and the most brutal and savage hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see. This isn’t for the faint of heart.

Yet at the center of the film is a heart filled with grace. Say what you want about Desmond Doss; he is a man of his word and watching what he did in real life (from most of the sources I’ve read Gibson has stuck pretty close to what Doss really did – even leaving out some feats because he felt that nobody would believe it really happened) is truly inspiring. Heroes wear uniforms, it’s true, but they don’t always beat up the bad guys.

Garfield, who took a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films, has been receiving some end-of-the-year awards attention. His portrayal of Doss is simple and to-the-point. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here and Gibson sometimes goes a little bit over-the-top as when he shows Doss being lowered off the cliff face of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa as almost an ascension to heaven. Garfield didn’t need that kind of cinematic excess to make the point for Gibson.

Although Vaughn is the only American in the cast (nearly everyone here is Australian with Garfield and a couple of others who are Brits) the film captures the tones and rhythms of American speech from the era nicely. Gibson also makes the pastoral setting of Lynchburg extremely appealing, as anyone who has visited the town can tell you (yes, we’ve made our pilgrimage to the Jack Daniels distillery – deal with it).

In fact, that setting and pace of life actually slows the film down a bit at the beginning. It really isn’t until the movie gets to Okinawa that things really start to shine here and Gibson shows why he is a very talented man behind the camera. The war scenes are quite simply the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. It certainly will stay in your memory for quite a while.

Mel Gibson has had a checkered career to say the least. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he showed every indication that he was going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Legal issues and some fairly unsavory comments on his part derailed both his acting and directing plans; in fact, this is his first stab at directing in a decade. That Summit has kept quiet his participation, not mentioning by name Gibson’s involvement is a testament to how much of a pariah he became in the industry. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of cinematic self-flagellation going on here. Armchair psychology aside, this is Gibson’s return to form and hopefully he’ll get some opportunities to continue to direct some films that showcase his talents. He certainly has plenty of it to showcase.

REASONS TO GO: A criminally little-known and inspiring story. It might be the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. This is a return to form for Gibson.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit slow in the first third. Some of the images here might be too much for the overly-sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Prolonged sequences of graphic war brutality including grisly images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doss was the second registered conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor – the first was Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. However, while York carried a weapon into war, Doss did not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flags of Our Fathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Best and Most Beautiful Things

Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack


"Yeah, I voted for Trump. What of it?"

“Yeah, I voted for Trump. What of it?”

(2016) Western (Cinedigm) Trace Adkins, Judd Nelson, Kim Coates, Michelle Harrison, Helena Marie, Claude Duhamel, John Emmet Tracy, Garry Chalk, Ethan Harrison, Adam Lolacher, Philip Granger, Artine Brown. Directed by Terry Miles

 

When you do bad things, those deeds tend to cling to you like leeches. You may try to rid yourself of your past but it has a habit of catching up to you, and almost never in the way you would expect.

Nathaniel Reed (Adkins) has made a living robbing stagecoaches. However, he yearns for a life on the straight and narrow with his new wife Laura Lee (Harrison) and gives up his outlaw ways. It is not easy; his small farm is about to be foreclosed on by a sympathetic bank manager (Tracy). Still, Reed is determined to make it work.

That all changes when Frank Bell (Duhamel) who used to ride in his old gang shows up. Hot on his trail is U.S. Marshal Calhoun (Coates), whose eye had been shot out by Reed during a stagecoach robbery back in the bad old days. Bullets fly, and Reed is forced to flee his home. Anguished after Bell tells him he saw Laura Lee shot dead, Reed decides to go back to his old outlaw ways. Not wanting Laura Lee’s memory to be tainted, he adopts a new nickname – Texas Jack, after the state they are pulling their jobs in and after Apple Jack whiskey, their adult beverage of choice.

It takes awhile but Calhoun and his sadistic partner Bonnie Mudd (Marie) figure out who Texas Jack is but once they do the chase is on. Calhoun is relentless in his pursuit of vengeance, not caring if he is following the letter of the law or not. There is going to be a reckoning of Biblical proportions and not everybody who rides with Texas Jack can be considered trustworthy – who’d have thought an outlaw wouldn’t be loyal?!?

This Canadian film feels almost like a direct-to-cable affair. Production values are minimal and while this looks in no way, shape or form like Texas the scenery is nonetheless pretty. Unfortunately, the film lacks that epic feel that make good westerns memorable and the energy is somewhat diminished as well.

Adkins with his gravelly baritone and long hair looks the part of a Western hero, but he is more of an anti-hero here, more like Waylon Jennings than John Wayne. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He looks a little worn and tired here, which might be a by-product of the character’s stress but still with the right material he could have a lucrative side career in the cinematic saddle.

The acting in general is pretty solid; Coates has played bad guys before and he does so with gusto here. Nelson as another of Nathaniel’s old gang seems to be having the most fun; the film could have used more Sid for the energy component. Marie, who is best known from the Supernatural series, turns Western conventions on their ear as a sadistic, brutal gunslinger who is as trigger-happy as any man.

It’s a nice idea, combining the anti-hero elements of spaghetti westerns with traditional western values of John Ford (whose classic Stagecoach is name-checked here, a rather bold move) and even the “deserve has nothing to do with it” speech from Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven is referenced, again a rather bold move. Note to filmmakers – if you’re going to reference classic movies in your film, you’d better make damn sure it measures up.

Not that this isn’t without its own charm but it really is more of a time-killer than something to seek out. Some of Adkins country music fans might be moved to give this a try as eager genre fans whose appetite for Westerns is all-too-rarely given even a marginal meal. There is  some meat on its bones here but not a ton and it is likely that Western fans will be left hungry after watching this.

REASONS TO GO: Elements of spaghetti westerns and traditional westerns are combined. Adkins makes for a natural Western hero. Coates is especially gleeful as the villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The energy and epic quality of a good western is missing here. Really a bit by-the-numbers as Westerns go. Quotes elements of much better films which is never a good idea.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence here and some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nathaniel Reed is based on an actual person who robbed stagecoaches in the late 19th century and lived until 1950, publishing an autobiography in 1936.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hacksaw Ridge

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Raise Your Kids on Seltzer


Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

(2015) Drama (Public Shores) Penny Werner, Jeff Kao, Nancy Kimball, Barry Newman, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, William Cully Allen, Alanna Blair, Mark Zucker, Daniel Kremer, Rob Nilsson, Josh Peterson, Pamela Ambler, Leoni Figueredo, Dana Lorena Leon, Natalie Echols, Solomon Zucker, Aaron Hollander, Maryelle Turner. Directed by Daniel Kremer

 

Sometimes we put things behind us for a reason. Maybe the events of the past are just too painful, but other times we’ve simply moved on. Either way, we never completely escape our past.

Terry (Kao) and Tessa (Werner) Wasserman-Wang are a middle-aged couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They make their living as corporate videographers which isn’t the most exciting gig in history. Nowhere near as exciting as what they used to do for a living – cult deprogrammers.

They get a letter out of the blue from a former client that tells them that the daughter they rescued from a cult has recently committed suicide, naming the Wasserman-Wangs as the reason for her drastic action in her suicide note. Terry won’t let Tessa read the entire letter, which upsets her even further. Terry seems to be unaffected, busy working on the book he is writing about their years together working in the lucrative but not quite legal trade of what they prefer to call “exit counseling.”

Tessa’s twin sister Willa (also Werner) is getting her son’s bar mitzvah planned and abruptly informs Tessa that Terry is “uninvited.” Tessa is understandably hurt but Terry’s reaction (or lack thereof) further bothers Tessa. She also objects to Terry’s increasing tendency to make decisions for her.

Terry is feeling increasingly constricted by their corporate videography work and the book is stalled by the overbearing daughter (Blair) of Terry’s co-author (Allen). When he is contacted by a friend who has a potential client willing to pay $50,000 to get young Chloe (Kimball) out of a cult, Terry is willing to jump at the chance, particularly since finances are tight. Tessa, on the other hand, is horrified – she thought they’d agreed to leave that life behind and the letter has further strengthened her resolve. The cracks in the facade of their marriage may be deepening into canyons that may not be able to be resolved.

This isn’t Kremer’s first rodeo and there is some self-assurance to the direction. The relationship between Terry and Tessa is strained and feels it, sometimes almost too well; one feels that awkward moment at a party when a couple snipe just a little too personally at one another. While that may make the viewer feel a little bit put off, that’s as it should be; if you’re going to make a movie about a relationship that is strained, the viewer should feel that strain as well.

Werner is mainly at the front and center as the emotional focus of the film. While Kao plays things close to the vest, Werner is outgoing and an open book in many ways. Her Tessa is the kind of Jewish woman that makes the world a better place; she’s funny, pretty and pragmatic. She knows how to have fun but she knows what’s right for her family too. I found myself relating more to Tessa than to Terry, who is very emotionally closed-off.

The script has a tendency to meander a bit and not always in a good way. There are periodic insertions of interviews with the lawyer (Newman) for a cult leader that do nothing for the story and just serve to pad the running time. There are also little bits, like an obsession with a Siamese pickle and the whole bar mitzvah subplot that really distract from what is the most compelling story in the film – the relationship between Terry and Tessa. That distraction really hurts the overall experience and is the one factor I think that damages the film the most.

I like the cult deprogramming angle and how it affects those who do the deprogramming but Kremer doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it surprisingly. Then again, that might be a different movie than the one Kremer wanted to make although I think that would be a fascinating movie as well. Still, one can look at the relationship between Tessa and Terry and find a lot that is fascinating, and a lot that is insightful about long-term relationships. I just wish there had been less distracting the audience from finding those insights.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is intriguing. The dialogue between Terry and Tessa is completely authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-written. The performances can be stiff at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Tessa is watching on TV is A Cool Sound from Hell by director Sidney J. Furie, whom Kremer has written a biography on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Nocturnal Animals

Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

Gimme Danger


Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it's 2016.

Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it’s 2016.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Magnolia/Amazon) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Danny Fields, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Ewan McGregor, Ed Sanders. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

The aphorism is that true artists are not appreciated in their own time. That is certainly true of the Stooges, a seminal Midwestern hard rock band that erupted from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 60s only to self-destruct in 1971, only to return a year later like a bad penny, then break up again for nearly 30 years in 1973 until a resurrection in 2003.

Their music received scathing reviews from critics who didn’t know what to make of them and the public took little interest; their record sales were tepid at best. Still, they became one of the founding influences of punk rock and their music influences nearly every heavy music artist of the 80s and afterwards.

Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is a clear fan of the band, having cast frontman Iggy Pop in two of his movies and it is equally clear that this is essentially a love letter to the band. Although incomprehensibly Jarmusch begins his film with the 1973 break-up, he then goes back to their roots and tells the story in a more linear fashion from there.

Mostly told through the music documentary tropes of talking heads interviews interspersed with performance footage and animated recreations of events, the movie captures the band’s management woes along with their descent into drug addiction – nearly the entire band was at one time on heroin which led to missed gigs, sloppy performances and poor decisions. In their glory, the band was raw and primal, a kind of primitive rock and roll which would have been equally at home with banging on rocks as it was with electric guitars.

Pop was the consummate front man, performing shirtless and dancing like an epileptic male exotic dancer whose DNA was equal parts Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. His bandmates – guitarists Ron Asheton and James Williamson, bassist Dave Alexander, saxophonist Steve Mackay and drummer Scott Asheton – tended to stare at the floor and move very little allowing their frenetic frontman to do the heavy lifting.

Pop and Williamson are the only surviving band members of the band’s glory years and each of them is compelling in their own way (Mackay and the Asheton brothers both lived into the 21st century and there are plenty of interview clips with them; Alexander passed away in 1975 and as a result we see him only In performance clips and publicity stills). Pop is surprisingly intellectual and a pretty entertaining raconteur; Williamson, who spent most of their post-breakup era as a software engineer for Sony, has a much more objective perspective of the band.

The solo career of Iggy Pop, which netted classic rockers like “Lust for Life,” isn’t mentioned here although the post-Stooge efforts of the other band members is gone into in some detail. There is also little outside perspective of the band itself; nearly all of the interviews are with the band members, Danny Fields and Kathy Asheton, sister to the Asheton brothers. Only bassist Mike Watt, who performed with a 21st iteration of the band, is interviewed.

There is also surprisingly little of their music used on the soundtrack. We do get to hear those magnificent opening chords to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” but we hear it several times during the film. I get that there is precious little performance footage from the band’s 1970s era but one gets a sense that what we’re seeing here is pretty much readily available elsewhere, or at least that’s what I get from Internet comments on the documentary by fans of the group.

I was a bit surprised at how ordinary the documentary was. Jarmusch has a reputation for turning convention on its ear, but this is as conventional a music documentary as you’re likely to find. Maybe Jarmusch is too close to the subject; they are surely worthy of a documentary but this is one of those occasions where the subject of a documentary isn’t done justice by the documentary itself. Still, the Stooges are so compelling a story, Pop so entertaining a storyteller that I can freely recommend this to not only fans of the group but students of rock music history in general.

REASONS TO GO: The Stooges make for compelling subjects and Iggy is an interesting storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is disturbingly light on actual music.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of profanity and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Danny Fields had been sent by Elektra Records to scout the MC5 for which the Stooges were opening; impressed by both Michigan groups, he signed the MC5 for $20K and the Stooges for $5K.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We are Twisted Fucking Sister
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Doctor Strange

Denial (2016)


Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the "Fantastic Beasts" film series.

Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.

(2016) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss, John Sessions, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Pip Carter, Jackie Clune, Will Attenborough, Max Befort, Daniel Cerqueira, Laurel Lefkow, Elliot Levey, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Andrea Deck. Directed by Mick Jackson

 

The trouble with history is that people are constantly trying to rewrite it. Sometimes that’s in an effort to interpret the significance of events but sometimes it’s in an effort to promote a point of view.

Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) is a professor of Jewish history from Queens teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. She is promoting a book entitled Denying the Holocaust in which she discusses how an insidious effort is being made to discredit the pain and suffering of millions of Jews. At a lecture promoting the book, she is confronted by David Irving (Spall), a British historian who had enjoyed a lucrative career on the basis that he claimed there was no evidence that Auschwitz had any gas chambers. An unabashed admirer of Hitler, he offers $1,000 to anyone who can conclusively prove that the Holocaust happened. Lipstadt refuses to debate him on the basis that she doesn’t “debate facts.”

xzSo Irving sues the American academic and her publisher (Penguin Press) for libel, but he does so in a British court because under British law, the burden of proof rests with the defense rather than the accuser. In other words, Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust happened and then on top of it, that Irving knowingly distorted the facts otherwise. Penguin agrees with her that this suit must be fought and so they hire a British dream team; solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson). Incidentally, the film explains the two roles; the solicitor researches the case and the barrister argues it in court.

The strong-willed and often just plain stubborn Lipstadt immediately begins to butt heads with her defense team. She wants to take the stand but they refuse to put her there and she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. They absolutely refuse; for one thing, the charismatic Irving, who is acting as his own barrister, would use the opportunity to shame and abuse the survivors and in the words of Julius, “they’ve suffered enough already.” Lipstadt begins to have serious doubts that she is being well-represented.

Although this was fairly big news when it happened less than ten years ago, the details are not well-known particularly in America where knowledge of news going on across the pond tends to be less well-reported. While you may know how the trial turned out (and in case you didn’t I won’t mention it here) how it got there might be a bit less well-known.

Weisz has a tendency to play somewhat strident characters and certainly Lipstadt qualifies. While I’m not sure she’ll get Oscar notice since the role is somewhat similar to ones she’s done before, it certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that she will. I’d also put up Wilkinson and Spall for nomination consideration as well.

Strangely, Weisz was one of the things I liked least about the film. She whines quite a bit through it and often comes off as condescending to the British legal experts who I would think know her system much better than she does. I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the real Lipstadt this is but if it is, she’s not a very pleasant person to know. It isn’t until the end of the film that she forms even a glimmering of a relationship (with Rampton) that isn’t confrontational and judgmental.

Even though the material is fairly dry – unlike how they’re portrayed in the movies most court cases are unexciting and even dull – Jackson does a good job of keeping things lively and even interesting. He manages to explain most of the ins and outs of how the law works in Britain to us ignorant Yanks without talking down to us. I am curious if it played differently in the UK where they’d understand the system somewhat better than we do.

There are some things in which the filmmakers acquitted themselves – ‘scuse the pun – well as well as others in which the jury is still out on. Weisz can be an acquired taste as an actress, particularly in roles like this which aren’t necessarily likable. Those who don’t like courtroom dramas might also think twice about this, even though the courtroom scenes are staged better than most. And some people just plain get uncomfortable around the holocaust. You know who you are.

At the end of the day, this is not necessarily a triumph so much as a success. I liked the movie overall and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it but at the same time it’s not the kind of movie that’s going to end up being one of the movies that this year is remembered for, at least by me. Check it out if you have the chance but I think that you may wait and see if the Academy gives it any love before you do.

In these uncertain times with a climate seemingly skewed towards bigotry and hate, it is somehow comforting to see truth and justice win over those things – perhaps it still can. I like to think so. It takes people like Deborah Lipstadt, standing up for those who would lie and obscure and diminish and in so doing, relegate an entire race to second-class status. It’s a lesson that all of us should take to heart.

REASONS TO GO: Most of the performances here are strong. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Weisz is a little shrill here.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult concepts here that might be too much for the sensitive sorts; there’s also some fairly strong profanity from time to time.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the dialogue in the courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial transcripts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man in the Glass Booth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gimme Danger