Top Ten… Christmas Films

Christmas is a time of year at which we often find ourselves watching some truly terrible films in order to satisfy our friends and relatives, occasionally resulting in heated post-luncheon arguments. In fact, the very definition of what constitutes a “Christmas film” is a contentious issue (just ask anyone what they think of Die Hard). Thankfully, there are some genuine classics to be enjoyed over the holidays. The following list is a selection of the best Christmas films I have watched over the last month. From action, to comedy, to romance, there’s a choice for every mood.

10) Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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The only film on the list to feature a masked illuminati orgy, Eyes Wide Shut isn’t the sort of Christmas film you can watch with your Nan. Nevertheless, it provides a dark and eerily erotic take on the season of goodwill, skewering the fiercely exploitative nature of modern consumer culture in the process. Stanley Kubrick’s final work, it makes for an intoxicating experience as we follow Dr William Hartford (Tom Cruise) on a journey of self-discovery amidst New York’s sleazy and surreal underworld. It’s a complex film with myriad implications and interpretations, revealing more upon each viewing. What better way is there to escape the monotony of a family Christmas than to immerse oneself in Kubrick’s final, erogenous misadventure?

9) Joyeux Noel (2005)

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Chronicling the 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War, Joyeux Noel follows the experiences of British, French, and German soldiers as they come together in No Man’s Land. The film lacks the battle sequences and destruction of other films set during WWI, and instead focuses on a moment of peace. The result is a touching and ultimately tragic film which provides a testament to the strength of human compassion amidst the most inhumane of conflicts.

8) Home Alone (1990)

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Home invasion films aren’t typically a barrel of laughs, but the brilliance of Home Alone is that it essentially functions as a live-action Disney cartoon. As eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) defends his home from violent burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), the invaders are set on fire, beaten, shot, and pierced with spikes, but quickly bounce back without any serious injuries. It doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, but this is slapstick comedy in its purest form, elevated by charismatic performances from Culkin and Pesci. Several lacklustre sequels have since followed, but none have dampened the appeal of this anarchic original.

7) Trading Places (1983)

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Director John Landis’ last great comedy before his subsequent decline into mediocrity, Trading Places is a wonderfully subversive Christmas romp. Drawing from Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince and the Pauper, the film sees a wealthy business executive (Dan Aykroyd) exchange lives with a poor street hustler (Eddie Murphy) in order to satisfy a bet between two aristocratic brothers. Both Murphy and Aykroyd are at the height of their comedic powers, complemented by scene-stealing turns from Jamie-Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliot. Dealing with issues like racism, drug abuse, prostitution, and inequality, it’s an atypical Christmas comedy which delivers laughs year-on-year.

6) Carol (2015)

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Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol is the story of a yuletide romance between an unhappily married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a young, aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara). It’s an achingly tender film, in which every glance and touch is palpably weighted with unspoken longing. Edward Lachman’s sumptuous 16mm cinematography transports the viewer to the early 1950s, capturing an idealised vision of a snow-swept New York. All this serves to underpin the fizzling chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, resulting in a Christmas love story which speaks to anyone who has ever found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly in love.

5) Brazil (1985)

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Depicting a deeply bureaucratic and consumerist dystopia, it’s no accident that Brazil takes place around Christmastime. Hymns, Christmas trees, and men in Santa costumes provide an inane and incongruous backdrop to the futuristic tyranny of the film’s world, but it also provides a commentary on the hollow materialism which often characterises Christmas in the real world. Deftly swerving between comedy and horror, the film makes a rewarding change of pace from the forced sentimentality of more conventional Christmas classics. Beside its festive credentials, Brazil remains the pinnacle of director Terry Gilliam’s career – an intimate study of the human condition in a world devoid of humanity.

4) The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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There is a sequence at around the halfway point of The Bishop’s Wife, lasting about ten minutes, in which three characters go ice-skating on a frozen lake. It’s a spellbinding chapter which acts as a useful demonstration of what makes this film so magical; this is Christmas as it appears in children’s picture books, a fantastical ideal of snowbound streets and icy parks. This serves as the perfect backdrop for a funny and charming story of romance and the true meaning of Christmas. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as Dudley, a suave angel sent to provide guidance to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), an overworked clergyman who is losing touch with his faith and, more crucially, his wife Julia (Loretta Young). Grant oozes the charisma which defined his on-screen career, and it’s worth watching for the immaculate contours of his haircut alone – perhaps explaining why the film was retitled Cary and The Bishop’s Wife for some US markets.

3) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

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For my money, this is the finest cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ widely filmed novella, and the best entry in the Muppet franchise. The tunes are all appropriately catchy and the Muppets are as hilarious as ever, but it’s Michael Caine’s central performance as Ebenezer Scrooge which elevates this film into the classic it is. Despite acting against the surreal and slapstick stylings of Kermit and gang, he plays his part entirely straight, injecting genuine tragedy into the character of Scrooge. His journey from pitiless miser to benevolent altruist is entirely believable, as an icy exterior slowly thaws with feelings of sorrow, regret, and finally compassion.

2) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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It’s easy to understand why this film continues to resonate with audiences over 70 years since its release. Dealing with the same doubts and fears which we all face throughout our lives, It’s a Wonderful life is an archetype of life-affirming cinema. James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as George Bailey, a down-on-his-luck family man who considers suicide on Christmas Eve – that is, until a guardian angel arrives to show George what the world would be like had he never existed. It’s a film which affirms our collective responsibility towards our fellow man and the dangers of greed and cynicism. Most importantly, a Christmas viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life serves an annual reminder that your life matters, and that every act of kindness, no matter how small, helps to make the world a better place.

1) Die Hard (1988)

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Over the past few weeks, an irritating assembly of naysayers have tried to argue that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film at all, but merely an action movie which happens to be set on Christmas Eve. It must be asked whether any of these dullards have actually watched Die Hard – this is a quintessentially festive tale of redemption and rekindled romance, which happens to take place during a terrorist siege. The hero of the film, NYPD Officer John McClane, is a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge; a cranky misanthrope more concerned with catching crooks than being with his estranged family. Over the course of an explosive Christmas Eve, he begins to recognise the error of his ways and eventually finds redemption in the arms of his wife. The fact that he blows up a few people doesn’t detract from the film’s essentially festive themes. Die Hard is a timeless reminder that Christmas is a time to reconnect with those you love, even when Alan Rickman is trying to shoot you.

Baby Driver Review

Sleek and exhilarating, Baby Driver is a wholly original heist movie for the Spotify generation – an unadulterated treat for the eyes and ears.

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Baby Driver feels like the culmination of director Edgar Wright’s career so far – as if every film he’s ever made had been in some way preparing him for this spellbinding climax. With the shell of a chase movie and the heart of a romance, Baby Driver is as exciting in its surface as it is rewarding in its depth. With a clear reverence for action cinema, the film pays homage to a different genre classic at every turn, from Walter Hill’s The Driver to Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, but the final product feels refreshingly original. For anyone who’s ever felt joy or love, it’s not to be missed, and should be seen at a cinema with the highest quality speakers available.

At its core, Baby Driver is structured around a series of sensational heist sequences, while an eclectic soundtrack provides an ever-present bed of diegetic pop tunes. Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a young getaway driver in debt to the criminal underworld and armed with a fully loaded iPod. Thanks to Wright’s heartfelt script and typically slick direction, what may sound like a one-note revision of the crime genre is given real emotional weight, and I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear or two along the way. Fundamentally, its cinema at its most affecting; an elegantly coordinated symphony of sound and visuals to stimulate the senses and satisfy the soul.

Clocking in at slightly under two-hours, Baby Driver thunders past at a breakneck pace, never losing momentum nor coherence. The opening chase sequence is an adrenaline-fuelled masterclass in vehicular ballet, and stakes are continually heightened with each successive action set piece. The stunt coordination, whether on two feet or four wheels, is consistently impressive, and there’s an obvious reliance on practical effects and choreography which brings a palpable sense of weight and peril. Some sequences bring to mind the exhilarating physicality of William Friedkin’s The French Connection or John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, and they act as the perfect antidote for a generation raised on Fast and Furious.

The opening chase sequence is an adrenaline-fuelled masterclass in vehicular ballet

Of course, to focus solely on the action would be to ignore a script which is as hilarious as it is moving. Much of this success hangs on the shoulders of Ansel Elgort, who provides an enigmatic presence at the centre of the film. His near-mute exterior quickly gives way to a character of depth and warmth, particularly when faced with a love interest in the shape of Lily James’ Debora. The chemistry between these two performances is electrifying, and grounds the film in some satisfyingly human drama. Indeed, the action always functions as an extension of their story, meaning that character development is never lost amongst the clamour of engines, wheels, and gunfire.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, are pitch perfect at every turn. Jamie Foxx stands out as Bats, a ruthless career criminal who operates without fear or moral scruple. He makes for a terrifying and commanding presence, reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s Oscar-winning turn as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Kevin Spacey similarly captivates in his most energetic big-screen appearance in years as Doc, the charismatic crime boss who coerces Baby into one last job. This collection of shady cohorts is rounded off by John Hamm and Eiza González as married couple and partners-in-crime, Buddy and Darling. It may be a somewhat cartoonish interpretation of Atlanta’s crime scene, but this heightened reality never comes at the cost of a sense of danger.

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Attention must be given Baby Driver’s soundtrack, as it weaves itself into the fabric of almost every scene. The film’s central conceit – that all the music is heard through Baby’s iPod – never falls into the realm of gimmickry, and the role of the music is given proper justification by the script. Curated from Wright’s favourite tracks, the score ranges from classic hits to deeper album cuts, but each one complements the action perfectly. Anyone familiar with the recent Guardians of the Galaxy films, or the final pub brawl in Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, will understand the intended effect, but Baby Driver sees the music take on a far greater prominence within both the action and the story. It works to establish a unique tone which sets the film apart from its forbears, and it’s a rare pleasure to see a police chase accompanied by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Baby Driver, then, is Edgar Wright’s most mature and ambitious film yet, perhaps occasionally too ambitious. González is given relatively little to do in her role as the gun-toting Darling, acting primarily as a foil for her on-screen husband, and the third act occasionally drifts into incredulity. But the film exercises a charm which is irresistible, and it’s difficult not to be swept up by the wit and spectacle of its execution. After a delightfully violent climax, Baby Driver will leave you elated and exhausted. A delightful serving of escapist entertainment with its head firmly screwed on, this is a heist movie like you’ve never quite seen before.

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Top Ten.. War Films

War films have always been a huge part of why I love cinema. I spent a large portion of my childhood watching old war movies with my Grandad, and that probably explains why I came to be so fascinated by both history and film. Next month sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s new war epic, Dunkirk, and to celebrate I thought it would be appropriate to assemble a list of my top ten favourite war films.  I’ve loosely and arbitrarily defined the genre as “films which are about war”, rather than films which happen to have a bit of war in them or use war as a setting (so Dr Zhivago, Casablanca, and Barry Lyndon, for example, did not qualify). I also can’t claim to have been in any way objective or comprehensive – this is an entirely subjective collection of the war films which I enjoy the most. My honourable mentions go to The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Thin Red Line, which just failed to make the cut.

10. Das Boot (1981)

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No film has ever established a sense of claustrophobia as effectively as Das Boot. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a German U-Boat in the Second World War, the film examines the psychological toll of intense confinement at sea, and strikingly captures the excitement and terror of naval combat. It’s the distant nature of submarine warfare which gives Das Boot its unique character, as glimpses of the enemy are fleeting. Instead, the camera remains trapped within the oppressive metal hull of the U-Boat, forced to exist intimately alongside the crew just as they live and work alongside each other. It’s a heady and immersive atmosphere which benefits from authentic set design and ingenious use of sound, bringing the audience constantly closer to the actors on screen; tension becomes suffocating while brief moments of relief are jubilant. Director Wolfgang Petersen has gone on to helm a number of American action films, including Air Force One and Troy, but none have come close to this maritime triumph.

9. Zulu (1964)

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Zulu is the quintessential film about a siege, a classic tale of outnumbered heroes desperately defending themselves against overwhelming odds. The film avoids the jingoistic trappings which could so easily have defined it, and the bloody consequences of battle are never shied away from. The result is a three dimensional and often melancholic tale of heroism, punctuated by rousing battle scenes and superlative performances. Michael Caine is a revelation in his first major role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an upper-class officer whose preconceptions about his enemy and the very nature of war are rapidly challenged. Meanwhile the South African locations are vividly captured in bold technicolour photography as John Barry’s iconic soundtrack swells underneath. Zulu adopts an unrelenting pace almost immediately, and the first act is a masterclass in building tension. The taut structure unsurprisingly served as the inspiration for, among others, the Battle of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan and the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An undisputed classic of British cinema, Zulu remains a touchstone within the war genre.

8. Land and Freedom (1995)

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Land and Freedom is an atypical film from Ken Loach, a name usually associated with kitchen-sink dramas about tragedy in the North of England. This story focuses on the tumult and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, told through the experiences of a Liverpudlian, David Carr, after he volunteers to fight in late 1936. Although historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of drama or the director’s political leanings, it’s one of the few English-language films to address the Civil War in Spain, and isn’t afraid to confront its political complexities. Indeed, the film’s central characters spend more time debating land collectivisation than they do fighting fascists, but Loach never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of his story. Thus, with Land and Freedom, a human perspective is given to a conflict which is often confusing and opaque, and the result is an emotionally affecting and heart-wrenching experience.

7. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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The last of the truly epic war films, it would be impossible to make a movie like this today. Chronicling the last major allied defeat of the Second World War, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far plays out with a mind boggling scope. The screen is decorated with unquantifiable numbers of aircraft, troops, and ground vehicles, while the credits are the stuff of fantasy; Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Liv Ullman, Hardy Kruger, Elliot Gould – the list goes on and on. The film undeniably creaks under its own weight at times, and Robert Redford’s late-70s hairdo is one of many anachronisms, but the immense scale of A Bridge Too Far remains an impressive achievement. Above all, it demonstrates the potential of film to transport audiences to another time and place, communicating history as a living, palpable reality.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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It is difficult to overstate the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the war genre, or even cinema as a whole. Steven Spielberg’s visceral style captured the brutal sights and sounds of battle with a greater verisimilitude than had ever been seen before, and in doing so reinvented the popular understanding of the Second World War. Bookended by two combat sequences which remain as shocking today as they were almost twenty years ago, Saving Private Ryan exposed war for the hell that it is; an unrelenting and confusing frenzy of gore, death, and destruction. However, to define the film by its moments of violence is to do it a disservice. At its core, Saving Private Ryan is the story of men at war, and how they are able to come to terms with, if not justify, their actions whilst remaining in touch with their own humanity. The film’s most effecting moments are not firefights, but conversations, a fact which been largely missed by its many imitators. An overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality undeniably creeps in at times, but the movie remains a mature reflection on the corrupting and dehumanising influence of war. The pervasive influence of Saving Private Ryan may be observed as recently as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but Spielberg’s anti-war epic remains unmatched.

5. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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Not every war film can be a profound, anti-war lecture on man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes, watching people pretend to kill each other can actually be a lot of fun, and this is never truer than in Brian G Hutton’s Second World War thriller, Where Eagles Dare. In 1944, an allied commando team is parachuted into the Austrian Alps in order to rescue a captured American general, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Twists and double-crosses ensue as a complex and rewarding plot unfolds, which goes far beyond the usual expectations of escapist entertainment. More importantly, Where Eagles Dare combines an infinitely hummable soundtrack with an array of superbly executed action set pieces, whilst Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood offer effortlessly charismatic lead performances.  The ultimate “blokes-on-a-mission” movie, this is the best example of a genre which includes classics like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Inglourious Basterds – a perfect accompaniment to a lazy bank holiday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now often feels more like an ordeal than a movie. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, this film is the definitive cinematic treatise on the Vietnam war; a bloody, surreal, and darkly comic odyssey down the Nung River. At every turn, Coppola fills the frame with iconic images, from the opening shot of a jungle doused in napalm to a swarm of helicopter gunships descending on a beachside village. The eclectic soundtrack relies as much on The Doors as it does Richard Wagner, providing a perfectly intoxicating backdrop for the increasingly hellish events on screen. By the time of the climactic montage of death, it’s difficult to argue with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz as he whispers his final words; “The horror. The horror.” Perhaps more impressive than the film itself is the story of how it was made, an astounding tale which is excellently chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

3. Paths of Glory (1957)

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Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama spends most of its time in a picturesque chateau far behind the front lines, but still provides a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and callousness which guided the so-called Great War. The first act of Paths of Glory contains one of the most visceral sequences of trench warfare put to film, showcasing Kubrick’s rarely observed talent as a director of action. Kirk Douglas has never been better than in this dominating performance as Colonel Dax, a French officer who defends his three of his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice. The emptiness of death hangs over the film like an unbearable stench, serving as a constant reminder of the utter hopelessness and terror of war. Despite its cynicism, however, the film’s final moments are a plea to the essential goodness of the human spirit – a much needed tribute to humanity within an atmosphere of oppressive inhumanity.

2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Set in a Japanese forced labour camp in Burma during the Second World War, Bridge on the River Kwai serves as a powerful testament to the madness and futility of war. What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than compensates for in drama, as the perilous construction of the eponymous bridge is contrasted against the allied commando unit who are despatched to destroy it. Alec Guinness stars in an Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson, a British commanding officer who’s pride and upper-class fortitude lead him to unwittingly collaborate with his Japanese captors. It’s a brave and complex story for a film made so shortly after the war’s end, and was not without controversy upon its release. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson’s script deals in weighty and existentialist themes, but they’re packaged within an exciting World War Two adventure and complemented by David Lean’s characteristically stunning cinematography.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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David Lean’s finest cinematic achievement and probably the most beautiful film ever made, it feels like a disservice to call Lawrence of Arabia a “war movie”. Of course, this First World War drama deals heavily and effectively in epic battle sequences and sweeping desert panoramas, but these serve as an accompaniment to the nuanced character study which forms the centre of the film. Peter O’Toole’s performance as the enigmatic and controversial TE Lawrence is rightfully iconic, masterfully moving between charisma, melancholy, and madness, while the camera lingers lovingly over his absurdly striking features. Over the nearly four-hour runtime, Lawrence remains a frustrating and impenetrable figure, a perfect cipher for the confusion of war and what it does to the human soul. In its final act, Lawrence of Arabia moves beyond the personal to cast a cynical eye over the political machinations which control and manipulate conflict for their own benefit. It’s a multi-layered experience which reveals more upon every viewing, and should be seen on the largest screen possible.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
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Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
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Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.

Hacksaw Ridge Review

Occasionally rousing but mostly unexceptional, Mel Gibson’s battlefield drama is a confused tour of war movie clichés.

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Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss. Copyright 2017 Lionsgate.

When Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, it revolutionised the modern war film. It was by no means the best that the genre had to offer, but the first to convincingly capture the shattering sights and sounds of the battlefield. Spielberg launched a generation of imitators, from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to David Ayer’s Fury. Following in the same tradition, Mel Gibson has returned to the director’s chair with Hacksaw Ridge, a bloody and visceral tale of courage in the face of incomprehensible horror. Ultimately it’s a messy, if ambitious, film which stumbles upon moments of greatness in an otherwise by-the-numbers tale of the Pacific war.

Hacksaw Ridge focuses on the remarkable true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a profoundly religious young man who enlists in the US Army during the Second World War but refuses to carry a weapon into battle. We follow his journey from small-town Virginia to the battlefields of Okinawa, where his bravery as a combat medic made him the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

From its opening frames to the biblical final shot, Hacksaw Ridge is laughably heavy-handed, which is not always a terrible thing. The central cast of characters, including Garfield’s Doss, are all fairly one-note, but just about well-drawn enough to be worth investing in. Dialogue is consistently on the nose and the soundtrack is always sure to remind the viewer how they should be feeling. It’s compelling enough and never quite insults the viewer’s intelligence, but don’t expect to be dealing with complex moral dilemmas.

Structurally, the film is split very clearly into two halves, spending time to introduce Doss’s home life before he ships off to the Pacific. This first portion of the film follows a series of familiar clichés, all of which call to mind other, better films. There’s a portrayal of a naïve young romance which would feel at home in The Notebook, so suffocating is the layer of schmaltz. Then comes a brutal boot-camp training sequence, borrowing heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but accompanied by an extra side of cheese. Following this, the film even collapses into a predictable court-room drama for an inexplicable ten minutes. These early vignettes aren’t poorly done, but disappointingly simplistic; it feels perfunctory and a little bit useless, as if Gibson is itching to get the boring stuff over with before the violence starts.

And blimey, does it start. More or less from the moment the film shifts to Okinawa is the audience thrown into the maelstrom of battle. The carnage and bloodshed of war are represented here in unrelenting detail. Desperate young men are riddled with bullets and blown to pieces with abandon, while the camera repeatedly switches to slow motion as squads of Japanese soldiers are engulfed in flames. At times, these combat sequences feel like they would be more at home in a horror film, and it’s to Gibson’s credit that he creates such an overbearing sense of confusion and dread. His obsession with graphic violence, exemplified in his previous work from Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ, remains as present as ever, but it’s just nauseating enough to avoid feeling pornographic. At its best, Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most impressive reproductions of war ever put to film, which is why it’s such a shame when it falls into incredulous moments of action movie cliché. A superfluous duel with a Japanese sniper is just one forgettable encounter which feels tonally incongruous with the rest of the film, and it diminishes the otherwise immersive effect.

Despite its eccentric protagonist, then, Hacksaw Ridge is relentlessly conventional. Gibson clearly has a story to tell, and he does so without complication or restraint. Punctuated by spells of excellence and a convincing central performance (Garfield’s Oscar nomination is well deserved), Hacksaw Ridge is a worthy entry in the war movie annals, but as a whole it fails to move far beyond mediocrity.

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Silence Review

Simultaneously pensive and abrasive, Silence is an uncompromising and richly rewarding tour of the human condition.

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Liam Neeson as the enigmatic Father Ferreira. Copyright 2016 Paramount Pictures.

The latest film from director Martin Scorsese, Silence, begins with a relatively simple premise. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Japanese government has outlawed Christianity and instigated a purge of all Christian influence. News reaches Europe that an experienced Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been subjected to torture and forced to apostatise. Fearing for their mentor’s soul, two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), risk their lives and make the journey to Japan, determined to discover the truth. What follows is a dark and thoughtful tale of religious persecution and personal determination. It’s a film to be endured more than enjoyed, an immersive assault on the senses that reaches to the most innate of human longings; the desire to amount to something greater than oneself. Silence is unflinching in its brutality and bold in its ideas – and it’s unmissable.

It should come as little surprise that Martin Scorsese had hoped to join the priesthood before he found his true calling as a film maker. Themes of religious devotion and doubt run throughout the director’s expansive body of work, from his feature-length debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), to his Oscar winning crime-caper, The Departed (2006). While most of these films relegated religion to their subtext, Scorsese’s controversial biopics The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) were audacious in addressing the complexities and contradictions of spiritual belief. In much the same vein, Silence arrives as a methodical meditation on what it means to hold faith, and how it can possibly be reconciled with the reality of human suffering.

Silence is unflinching in its brutality and bold in its ideas

Andrew Garfield takes centre-stage with a convincing performance as Father Rodrigues, a complex role on which much of the film hinges. Rodrigues is a character who appears outwardly impenetrable, defined by his fanatical devotion to God’s word, but his internal monologues provide an insight into a fractured mind, full of doubts and desires. Likewise, Garfield instils the character with a growing vulnerability as the events unfold, making for a sympathetic protagonist despite his questionable philosophy. From the Japanese cast, Issei Ogata regularly steals the show as a fearsome local inquisitor, providing an effectively sinister riposte to the Christian devotion of the Jesuits and their followers.

Visually, Silence owes a clear debt to the work of Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, bringing to mind the colourful vistas of Ran (1985) and the rain soaked bogs of Seven Samurai (1954). To this end, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has delivered a beautiful and visceral depiction of seventeenth century Japan. Sitting in the audience, it’s as if one can feel the mud soaking into their pores and the heat beating down upon them. Meanwhile, Scorsese has largely dispensed of his usually stylised directorial technique, opting for a flatter approach that emphasises the story and characters over visual indulgences. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is similarly restrained, and the result is a film that fully immerses the viewer into its world, refusing to let go until the final moments. It’s exhausting, but the story has enough weight to feel worthy of such a treatment.

Delivers a beautiful and visceral depiction of seventeenth century Japan

Scorsese makes little effort to examine the wider, historical implications of his subject matter – the root causes of the persecution, for example, are only briefly alluded to. Instead, Silence uses it’s setting to deal with broad themes of faith, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness. It posits questions on the endurance of the human spirit and how far one will go for what they believe in. These struggles are represented through the personal trials of Garfield’s Rodrigues, culminating in a harrowing final act which treads similar ground to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or even George Orwell’s 1984. As the protagonist tries to cling desperately to his own idea of the truth, his world view is both brutally and casually eroded before him.

The result of a decades-long labour of love, Silence feels like Scorsese’s final word on a subject he holds dear. Indeed, for all its pontificating, the film acts as a conversation rather than a sermon; one is invited to ponder and explore its mysteries, while definite answers are rarely suggested. It’s easy just to marvel at its beauty, but Silence should be digested and discussed. At times it might feel like hard work, but this is cinema at its most rewarding; a meaty treat of a film, both technically and philosophically. In the commodified atmosphere of today’s movie industry, it’s a relief to see Scorsese dedicate himself to a project so personal and affecting. With a career stretching back half a century, he remains one of the screen’s greatest craftsmen.

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Rogue One Review

Rogue One breaks with the curse of the Star Wars prequel, making for a valuable and exciting entry in the aged saga.

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The Rogue One cast – think Kelly’s Heroes, but in space

When put together, the terms “Star Wars” and “prequel” are likely to send chills down the spine of any self-respecting film-goer. Rogue One, a fresh spin-off from director Gareth Edwards, happily breaks with this unfortunate tradition. Set almost immediately before 1977’s Star Wars, Rogue One is a gritty and exciting exploration of an otherwise unseen chapter in a galaxy far, far away. The story here focuses on a plucky band of rebel fighters as they pursue the plans for the all-destructive Death Star, and bring hope to an oppressed galaxy in the process.

Rogue One invites direct comparison with classic war films of ages past. In the vein of Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, or Kelly’s Heroes, it’s the story of a small, ragtag collection of foot soldiers and unlikely heroes, all playing their part within a much larger conflict. Tackling Star Wars from such a grounded perspective makes for a refreshing adventure, so much so that’s it’s almost a shame when the final act descends into the massive, effects-laden spectacle that we’ve seen so many times before. A more intimate finale would have made for a rewarding conclusion to the story, and helped to further distinguish the film from its forbears.

This is not to say that the action is poorly executed – it’s all as coherent and exciting as one could hope for, and the denouement is packed with enough crowd pleasing moments to be worth the price of admission alone. But Edwards is a director who seems more interested in his characters than the multitude of TIE fighters and X-Wings above them. For the first two thirds of the story, the film takes its time in establishing personalities and building relationships, suggesting an intimacy that is somewhat lost in the mayhem of the last battle. Admittedly, the script is a little over-eager to leap into lengthy monologues, but the pace is kept tight enough to avoid weighing the film down. Felicity Jones makes for an excellent and wholly sympathetic lead as Jyn Erso, a disillusioned fighter who is initially more concerned with staying alive than defeating the Empire. She’s supported ably by Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, a cynical agent of the rebel alliance and a veteran of the battle against tyranny.

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Felicity Jones takes the lead as the heroic Jyn Erso.

Both these leads and their diverse supporting cast, including the superb Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, are pleasantly well-drawn and complex. The script even makes an effort to blur the lines between good and evil, a welcome innovation that acknowledges the unsavoury reality of an insurgency war. This is not to say that the righteous ideals of the Rebel Alliance are ever brought into question, but they are forced to consider how far the ends justify the means. It’s not the subtlest of writing, but it gives a new perspective on a well-trodden conflict that has often been represented in black and white terms.

In this vein, Rogue One embraces an impressively dark tone, probably the series’ bleakest since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a bold choice after the fun and frolics of last year’s The Force Awakens, and one befitting the forlorn state of the film’s universe. In keeping with this milieu, Ben Mendelsohn makes for a thoroughly sadistic and unsettling villain in Director Orson Krennic, callously instructing massacres as if he were ordering lunch. Of course, this ruthlessness is balanced by judicious comic relief, mostly provided by a sarcastic droid sidekick, K-2SO. His acerbic humour doesn’t always hit the mark, but Alan Tudyk’s endearing voice performance makes up for the script’s few failings.

As has been well commented upon, Rogue One is a film for fans, first and foremost. Obviously there’s plenty for all to enjoy, but the uninitiated are liable to find themselves lost, particularly with the lack of an opening text crawl this time around. References and homages to past films come thick and fast – such fan-service is never as uncomfortable as in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, but some moments are a little on the nose. A brief appearance from two familiar droids edges into eye-rolling territory.

The biggest disappointment, however, comes in the form of Michael Giacchino’s score. For a composer with such an impressive back-catalogue (The Incredibles, Up, Star Trek) this soundtrack feels less than half-hearted. The only recognisable cues are borrowed from John Williams’ existing motifs, while the rest blends noisily into the background. It gives the impression that a keyboard was switched to the “Star Wars” setting and then played indiscriminately. The cacophony is particularly egregious, since the film’s rich selection of new characters and environments are so deserving of their own themes. The feeble soundscape is likely explained by the untimely departure of original composer, Alexandre Desplat, but it’s nevertheless grating.

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Ben Mendelson is an evil presence as Director Orson Krennic

Controversy has already been sparked by Rogue One’s use of CGI, particularly in rebuilding the faces of seventies-era actors who have since died or aged beyond recognition. Viewers will disagree on the success of this technique, and its moral implications, but the technology still has some way to go before computer generated people can blend seamlessly with physical actors. Elsewhere, the special effects are generally excellent, as many of the ships and space-stations exhibit a photorealism reminiscent of classic models.

Although it’s often subdued, the film’s photography and set design are deserving of individual praise. Edwards frames a diverse range of locations and sets, all of which have a distinct atmosphere. From sun-baked deserts to rain-soaked ravines, there is a consistent level of artistry that gives each setting a character of its own. The subtle but visceral effect will be familiar to the fans of the director’s prior work on Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) – it’s an approach that elevates some mundane material into cinematic delight.

Despite occasional missteps along the way, the final few moments of Rogue One will leave most Star Wars fans punching the air for joy. At its core, here is a film made with an obvious love for its heritage and an understanding of what makes it so appealing. Perhaps the script should have been stronger in its convictions, but it feels sincere in its effort to take the Star Wars franchise in a new direction, whilst still sitting comfortably next to the tone and aesthetic of the original trilogy. It’s easy to nit-pick, but the truth is that Star Wars hasn’t been this fun in a long time. Relax, and enjoy it while it lasts.

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