Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: "Man Down"

“Man Down” presents us with a dystopian nightmare, interspersed with flashbacks to what preceded it, and dares us to try to find where the true horror lies.

This ambitious but wandering war drama from director Dito Montiel (“Empire State”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Adam G. Simon, stars Shia LaBeouf as Gabriel, a young but hardened Marine who is searching for his son. As the story opens he and fellow soldier/best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) are wandering a blasted landscape of crumbled buildings and reeking death. Their uniforms are mostly tatters, their buzz cuts have given way to long hair and beards.

Their mission, whatever it once was, is now centered on reuniting Gabriel with his family. We know from flashbacks that they previously served together in Afghanistan, but some colossal misfortune has since befallen the world. They whisper about infections, interrogate a scatterbrained scavenger (Clifton Collins Jr.) for information, and keep going.

Meanwhile, we see snippets of Gabriel’s seemingly idyllic life before the war, marriage to spunky, strong Natalie (Kate Mara) and tranquil father/son bonding with Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell). Plus the easy camaraderie with Devin, how they grew up practically as brothers.

But there are also scenes of Gabriel being interviewed by a Captain Payton (Gary Oldman), who keeps pressing him to talk about “the incident.” What at first seems to be a military debriefing becomes something like a counseling session, and we wonder how this question-and-answer duel fits in with his life before and after the apocalypse.

LaBeouf has grown thicker and grimmer after his early spate of roles as the fresh young thing, and he wears it well. He chews his dialogue, playing Gabriel as a guy who’s not terribly bright but earnest and true. When he tells the captain he feels “betrayed” by what went down in that sandy village, it exposes all sorts of emotional roots sunk deep.

LaBeouf has gotten a lot more attention for his publicity stunts/performance art/whatever you want to call it the last few years. But here is an actor with talent and dedication, searching for the right role. This one isn’t it, but in his screen presence we sense that yearning.

I can’t say more about “Man Down” without dissecting it into death. There are some surprises that aren’t terribly surprising if you’ve been paying attention, as well as some things we expected that don’t come to pass. It’s a well-meaning film but not an especially well executed one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: "The Eagle Huntress"

Aisholpan is a pretty typical 13-year-old kid. She likes prattling with her friends, putting on fingernail polish and brags about out-wrestling all of the boys in her class. Her mom’s on the traditional side and worries about her being too bold and reaching too high, but her father is very proud and supportive, constantly encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

The difference, of course, is that Aisholpan lives in Mongolia on the steppes of the fierce Altai mountains, and her dream is to become an eagle hunter – the first female to do so in a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

This new documentary, directed by Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, follows Aisholpan over the course of several months as she strives to learn the ways of her forefathers, who were elite eagle hunters going back generations. Her dad was even twice champion at the annual Eagle festival, where dozens of the best gather to compete in a series of competitions.

The film is an eclectic step back in time, watching these people exist much as they did a hundred years ago, living in fur-lined tents on the plains, riding horses and hunting for foxes and other mountain critters. They train the eagles to swoop down upon the beasts, procuring the precious meat and fur to their human masters.

Bell emlploys a lot of impressive camera work – cinematography by Simon Niblett -- including drone photography, to capture the mighty birds in flight, often looking down upon the yawning expanse of the Mongolian plains below. This is well complemented by Jeff Peters’ thrumming musical score.

There is some conflict about Aisholpan being a gender pioneer, with Bell milks for every ounce (perhaps overplaying at times). Elder eagle hunters tut-tut and offer their archaic wisdom – “Women are meant to stay indoors and quarrel for the catch,” one says – but no serious effort to discourage her ever arises. She’s even allowed to compete in the Eagle Festival, making quite the impression.

Probably the most thrilling section is capturing her bird. The Altai hunters must personally climb into the nest of some eaglets and spirit one away before the mother bird returns. Watching Aisholpan scramble down an unstable mountainside, we are awed by this rite of passage.

Some might fret about the hunters exploiting the eagles, but they seem to share a largely symbiotic relationship. Aisholpan hand-feeds her bird until it’s old enough to fly on its own, cementing the bond. They are fawned and revered like an honored guest. Otto also opens the film with a wizened hunter releasing his eagle back into the wild after years of service – something mandated by their traditions.

“The Eagle Huntress” is less a straight journalistic exploration and more a celebration of one girl’s journey into womanhood, and history. With her strong, broad face and unflappable courage, Aisholpan has broken her nation’s last proverbial glass ceiling, leaving a heavenly sky open to all possibilities.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: "Moana"

I’ve always thought “Pocahontas” was one of the weakest Disney animated films because it seemed like it simply wanted to present a multicultural experience and didn’t care about what story they used as the vehicle to do it. “Moana” stands as stark counterpoint, a completely enthralling, original tale that just happens to immerse us in the vibrant traditions of Polynesia.

Disney has hit another home run with the story of Moana (voice of Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho), a teen who breaks the grip of her people’s land-bound laws to go out into the deep seas and try to restore the dying lands. Part anthropology, part mythology and pure imagination, it’s an action-filled musical romp that will delight parents as much as kids (and possibly more).

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Princess and the Frog”) are old Disney hands who came up in the hand-drawn animation tradition and with this picture segue completely into CGI. Jared Bush’s screenplay employs actual Polynesian history and lore to come up something old and something new.

According to the epilogue, the far-flung islands of the Pacific were created by the goddess Te Fiti. But when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui, she began to slowly die, with the festering creep gradually spreading to the other lands. Maui, who wields a massive magic fishhook that grants him the power to shapeshift into multitudinous creatures, was lost after a battle with a terrible demon that desired the heart for itself.

The brave and pure-hearted Moana is chosen by the ocean itself -- represented as tentacles of glowing water -- to take the heart, find Maui and compel him to heal the rift he caused.

Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui is presented as a gargantuan man, almost as broad as he is tall, his body covered in tattoos that chronicle his Herculean exploits. One of his tats, a miniature version of himself, even moves around and acts as the fool whispering in the king’s ear.

Maui is quite full of himself, but not necessarily a bad guy. He stole Te Fiti’s heart because he wanted to give humans the power to create life itself. True, upon meeting Moana he traps her in a cave and steals her boat, but the relationship improves -- gradually.

Other voices include Rachel House as Moana’s wise but kooky grandmother, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as her parents and Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken who stows away on Moana’s journey, so dumb he has to be continuously rescued from certain demise.

Jemaine Clement has a funny, memorable turn as Tamatoa, a massive crab who dwells in the realm of monsters and has a personal history with Maui. He sort of looks like the massive mutated cousin of Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid,” and has a penchant for collecting trinkets.

The music is just terrific -- rollicking, hummable and helps carry the story along. Songs were written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. The three best are “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana’s dreaming of a life beyond; “We Know the Way,” a paean to their tribe’s voyager past; and “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s signature self-introduction.

And yes, in case you’re wondering -- Johnson, formerly “The Rock,” shows off an unexpectedly fantastic singing voice.

The movie even displays some sly humor goofing on past Disney movies, like when Moana protests Maui’s assertion that, as the daughter of a chieftain, she constitutes royalty: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he says.

Fun and funny, full of adventure, a sense of danger and a deep feeling of hope, “Moana” is Disney’s next animated classic.

Video review: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite animated film of 2016 so far, but it didn’t fare very well at the box office. I think people may have seen a story set in medieval Japan and dismissed it as anime. (Which in of itself is a terrible reason to avoid a movie.) So I’m genuinely hoping people will check it out on video, so more flicks like “Kubo” will be made.

Art Parkinson provides the voice of Kubo, a boy filled with loneliness and magic. With only one eye and a banjo, he trudges into town every day to spin his fantastic tales for the villagers, complete with sheets of paper that come to life, then returns to his seaside cave to care for his mother. A sorceress who fought a terrible long-ago battle with her own family, she’s nearly catatonic – but still has some magic up her sleeve

Later, Kubo is banished to the distant Farlands, placed on a quest to gather three mystic pieces of armor in order to take on the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) – who happens to be his own grandfather. His aunts, known as the Sisters (Rooney Mara), are fearsome witches on the hunt.

Kubo’s only companions are Monkey (Charlize Theron), a protective charm brought to life as be his guardian, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a cursed former samurai trapped in the body of a bug.

The stop-motion animation is just astonishing, with a battle with a giant skeleton standing out especially. The depictions of ocean waves and crackling magic are astonishingly life-like.

Director Travis Knight and screenwriters Chris Butler and Marc Haimes continue the fine tradition of stop-motion animation – “Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls,” “The Night Before Christmas” – that’s seen a terrific run the last couple of decades.

Go see/rent/buy “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and let’s keep this ball rolling.

Bonus features are quite good, including a feature-length commentary track with Knight. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also come with three making-of documentaries, focusing the Japanese inspiration for the story, varied landscapes and the mythology behind Kubo.

Upgrade to the 3D combo pack and you add five more featurettes, including ones on monsters and music.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (1974)

If "Easy Rider," "Vanishing Point" and "Two-Lane Blacktop" form the triumvirate of iconic counterculture road pictures of the late 1960s and early '70s, then "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" is the sellout poseur, tagging along in their wake with hollow mimicry.

Made in 1974 with a budget of $2 million -- extravagant compared to those other films -- it rode the popularity of Peter Fonda at its zenith, pairing him up with a hippy chickie blonde in a denim halter top (actually British actress Susan George, well concealing her accent but not wonky teeth).

The title and the posters of the comely couple, perched on top of their getaway car or running from a police helicopter, make it seem so exciting and even romantic: impetuous race car driver on the lam with beautiful petty thief. The combination made it a successful commercial hit.

Except there's a third character in the car with them the whole time, and he's actually the most interesting person in the movie.

But I guess "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Taciturn Deke" doesn't make for a very memorable title.

Played by Adam Raorke, Deke is the mechanic to Fonda's wheel man Larry, much like the clearly demarcated roles in "Two-Lane Blacktop." They have dreams of getting to the NASCAR circuit. Deke's already been there, but drank his way out. Larry has the talent and the requisite complete lack of fear. All they need is money for "real speed."

They steal $150,000 from a supermarket by Deke holding the wife and daughter of the manager (Roddy McDowall) captive at home while Larry saunters into his office for the cash out of the safe. They don't even have guns, or bother to wear masks/disguises, using a fancy phone voice message machine to make the manager think they've still got his family.

A couple of questions:
  • 150 grand is $732,000 in today's dollars. What the hell kind of grocery store keeps that kind of cash on hand?
  • If their scheme is successful and they make it big in NASCAR, wouldn't that mean Larry would at least get famous enough to be recognized as the perpetrator?
You could ask these sorts of questions all day long about the movie. Larry makes a terrible effort at being inconspicuous on the road, jumping his blue 1966 Chevy Impala off a tractor ramp right after the robbery, and otherwise tearing up the street wherever he goes. You get the sense of it's part of his impulsive nature and desire to be a show-off, but that doesn't make the repeated willful stupidity of his actions any easier to swallow.

Later Deke and Larry switch to another car they thought ahead to have ready. Except they apparently parked it 50 miles away in the middle of a small town. When they arrive to retrieve it, there's a large street market going on to draw a lot of attention. If that weren't enough, the other car is a bright yellow 1969 Dodge Charger that any half-blind cop could see coming a mile away.

Often, it seems like they're trying to get caught.

(The Charger's color was actually Citron Yella, which has a lot of green in it, and indeed one police officer describes it over the two-way radio as "light green." Interestingly, the technicians who developed the film thought the greenish tint was a mistake and incorrectly corrected it -- so the movie was always presented with the wrong color palette. It was finally fixed for its DVD release in 2005.)

Larry and Deke's relationship is fraught. They clearly respect each other's skills, but Deke resents Larry's gregarious recklessness while Larry sees Deke as a killjoy, often derisively addressing him as "Bunky." Deke is supposed to be much older (though the actors were really on three years apart in age) and world-weary. Neither ever really tries to order the other one around.

When Larry pulls one of his frequent just-for-the-hell-of-it maneuvers, like slaloming between two semis and earning a cracked windshield in the process, Deke just shakes his head and frets about the damage.

Mary shows up right after the robbery. Much like the Girl in "Two-Lane Blacktop," she squats in his car uninvited and gets sucked up into the action. As she herself says, she didn't really have anything better to do.

She's not a stranger, though: Larry just had a one night stand with her, and she's pissed about being dumped and seeks him out. How she found him, other than his rather ubiquitous-looking Chevy, is left a mystery.

The relationship of the trio gradually evolves as the miles go by. Mary initially finds Deke creepy -- we get the sense most people do -- but comes to resent Larry for making his disdain for her clear. She's a fiery ball of independence who secretly wants desperately to be needed by somebody. When her confrontation with Larry reaches a point of (mild) physical violence, it's Deke who comes to her defense.

The other major character is Captain Franklin, played by Vic Morrow. He's a surly state patrol officer who refuses to wear a badge or gun, talks back to his superior (Kenneth Tobey) and grows his hair out long  underneath his cowboy hat. But he's got serious law enforcement know-how, and leads the chase to catch the miscreants, eventually climbing into a helicopter to personally take on Larry's yellow Charger.

Soon Franklin figures out that the robbers have been monitoring his orders over the CB, and they start to have a running game of taunts and one-upsmanship. It's fun, for a little while.

Larry and company also get a (brief) challenge in the form of an aggressive young cop with a talent behind the wheel named Hank (played by Eugene Daniels, who could be Channing Tatum's dad for the eerie resemblance). Initially crashed by Larry, Hank gets himself a new souped-up police Interceptor and makes a go of it after the robbers flee into a labyrinth of walnut groves.

Director John Hough has a decent eye for the action scenes and car chases. He had a quirky career, mostly bouncing back and forth between horror films and family-friendly stuff for Disney, including both the "Witch Mountain" movies later in the '70s.

Based on the novel "The Chase" by Richard Unekis, which came out in 1963 at the dawn of the muscle car era, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" helps mark the end of it. Big V-8 engines would soon go underground for awhile, so neither cops or robbers had them to command.

It would take until the "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball" movies for car chase flicks to become popular again, this time as escapist entertainment rather than commentary on America's competing appetites for freedom and law & order. "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" serves as something of a bridge between the two.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Video review: "Hell or High Water"

I’ve seen a lot of great movies so far in 2016, but “Hell or High Water” still rests at the top of the list for me. It’s a combination of old-school Western, film noir potboiler and modern parable. It’s an action-heavy picture that has something thoughtful to say about the banking crisis and how it’s affected dirt-poor folks in hardscrabble rural states.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, rough-hewn brothers who came up on a farm in West Texas. Tanner went the outlaw route, spending most of his adulthood behind bars, while Toby’s had a rough go with his job, marriage and surviving parent all lighting out on him. Now the siblings are robbing banks at an astonishing clip -- two, even three a day.

They seem to be out for some purpose other than just money, seeing as how they target only banks in small towns. Marcus, a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger played with authority by Jeff Bridges, is put on the case since it seems too insignificant to get the federal authorities involved. Marcus and his partner (Gil Birmingham) start making the rounds, lackadaisically interviewing witnesses, etc.

Marcus has been phoning it in for years, but his dormant instincts get peppered up by the prospect of going out in a blaze of glory. A widower with no family and no real life outside the law, he’s in some ways less afeard of going down in a gunfight than rocking his way to senility on a lonely front porch.

The men gradually converge toward a dark reckoning, in which crimes will be punished and familial struggles played out. It’s a film that feels both urgent and sprawling, iconic and fresh as a daisy pushing up through parched prairie soil.

Bonus features, which are identical for DVD and Blu-ray editions, fall into the decent range. There’s a Q&A with filmmakers, footage of the red carpet premiere and three making-of featurettes: “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water.”



Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

 The act of watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is like riding an amusement park ride with the speed set way too fast. There are indeed many amazing creatures in the movie, but they whiz by so quickly they barely have time to register. Characters are introduced and misplaced in a flash. Storylines stretch out before us like a tangle of vines, and we must step lively to figure out which ones lead to dead ends.

Even Eddie Redmayne as the main character, Newt Scamander, does not seem entirely there. Chin perpetually in his chest, eyes averted, he stammers and fidgets like a fourth-rate Hugh Grant character in a romantic comedy, minus all the charm. He’s dizzy and ditzy, a mop-headed sorcerous dipstick who’s more a set of quirks than any attempt to build a character.

(His mushed-mouth line readings don’t help, either.)

“Fantastic Beasts” was a 2001 novel by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that purported to be the textbook written by Newt, a famed “magizoologist,” that Harry and the gang read their first year at Hogwarts. It wasn’t actually a tale of his adventures, more a creature compendium complete with doodles and scribbled notes.

Now Rowling takes her first stab at screenwriting to chronicle Newt’s adventures as a young man in 1920s New York City. David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies, is brought in for continuity.

Newt arrives in the Big Apple after a year abroad, studying and collecting magical creatures in the hopes of keeping them safe from wizards and witches who might do them harm out of fear. He carries a magical suitcase that he can step into and out of, and inside is his zoo full of critters. It’s enormous in there -- complete with different ecosystems for the various beasts’ needs -- but some of the naughtier ones have a tendency to escape.

Indeed, the entire manic story is about creatures getting loose from the suitcase as Newt and his companions race around to recapture them. Of course, they also deliberately free some others as circumstances demand, so the whole thing turns into a bizarre offshoot of “Ghostbusters.”

It’s stuff like this that drives me buggo. If Newt is a talented enough wizard to create a whole world inside a bag, why couldn’t he make a decent lock to keep them sealed in and safe? Also, since we know about wizards/witches living separately from the non-magical humans, how would these creatures exist in the wild next to regular critters without ever being discovered?

Almost as soon as Newt steps off the boat, his wayward creatures are blamed for several disturbing incidents around the city -- described as a dark wind with glowing white eyes tearing up buildings and streets. He’s hauled in by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an interloping bureaucrat with the American magical authorities who’s been busted down rank for past transgressions. They’re briefly locked up by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security. With his martial bearing and contrasting black-and-grey hairdo, we just know he’s up to no good.

There are a lot of other characters in the mix -- too many to describe, and certainly too many for the filmmakers to adequately juggle.

There’s Porpentina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who’s got a Marilyn Monroe va-va-voom thing going on; she can read minds but isn’t bothered by the lustful thoughts men have about her. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a good-natured No-Maj (that’s American for muggle) who dreams of starting a bakery and gets unwittingly roped into the fray so he can ask lots of questions and carry the exposition.

Loitering around the edges of the story are the Second Salemers, who want to bring back the witch trials with a vengeance. They’re led by Mary Lou Barebon (Samantha Morton), a terrifying puritanical figure who adopts urchins off the street, then uses and abuses them. Credence (Ezra Miller) is her eldest and creepiest charge.

There’s also the rich and powerful Shaw family, with Jon Voight as the newspaper magnate patriarch, whose reason for inclusion in the movie remains a mystery till the end. A loathsome goblin gangster (voice by Ron Perlman) makes a brief impression with his backward-bent fingers.

I spent most of my time watching “Fantastic Beasts” just trying to catch up. What was the name of that creature? What did Newt just say? What’s this about a girl he once loved? What exactly are these fearsome “obscurials” we keep hearing about?

It’s often said that the main challenge in adapting a book to the screen is paring it down to size. This movie’s got a novel’s worth of imagination, all spun together in a less-than-magical vortex.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: "The Edge of Seventeen"

We see a lot of teenagers in the movies, but it’s almost always an ersatz version. They’re much smarter, braver, more beautiful and interesting than real teens. Not to mention, they’re generally played by actors ranging from mid-20s up to nearly AARP.

The last time I spotted a zit on the face of a movie teen, I considered it a major triumph.

Audiences are used to the chicanery and understand they’re watching Hollywood Teens, not any honest attempt to depict the real thing. That is what it is, but it does create an emotional disconnect from the people we’re watching.

“The Edge of Seventeen” is a keener and truer take on teendom than we’ve seen in a while.

Hailee Steinfeld -- actually a teenager -- plays Lakewood High School junior Nadine, who has but one friend in the world and trouble connecting to anybody else. Her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is frazzled and harried, and older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is handsome, popular and wants nothing to do with Nadine.

Nadine likes to wear weird clothes, trade insults with her burnt-out history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and fantasize about hooking up with local bad boy Nick (Alexander Calvert), whom she’s never even spoken to. She’s dorky, clever, wickedly funny and rather glorious. But she sees herself as awkward and unloved, and that’s a hard feeling to shake.

Things go from bad to worse when her best (really, only) friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), hooks up with brother Darian at a party. After an appropriate freak-out period, she’s willing to abide the episode as a one-off -- but then Darian and Krista decide to make it a permanent thing.

Seeing this as the ultimate betrayal, Nadine launches herself into a vortex of loneliness and increasingly bad behavior. She sees herself as an outcast who’s grown content with her small, stable patch of emotional turf. When that’s yanked away, Nadine feels homeless and alone.

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, “Seventeen” is narratively unstructured and messy, but it’s also dashingly original and full of juice. The characters behave in a way that’s consistent with their impulses rather than just to further the plot down the road.

Steinfeld is astonishingly frank and vulnerable as Nadine in a way that recalls Molly Ringwald’s better movies with John Hughes. There’s one scene where she’s peeing in a public restroom and suddenly looks up and asks God why he never gave her a break. It’s played for laughs, but also has unexpected poignancy.

Nadine’s relationship with Mr. Bruner also goes sideways from what we expect. Normally a caustic mentor type slowly warms to the youngster, but Harrelson always looks like he’d rather leave the room than bestow advice. Nadine berates him as a balding, lonely loser, and even goes so far as to offer the clich├ęd outcome herself: “You should date my mother!” But the movie keeps us guessing about him.

I also really liked Hayden Szeto as Erwin, a nerdy kid from school who has a huge crush on Nadine, but tries to play it off as coolly as he can – which is to say, not very much. He’s in many ways Nadine’s perfect male counterpart, trying to fake his way to social status and not fooling anyone. Like her, all he needs is to slow down, do what comes natural and don’t worry about the consequences.

You can pretty much say the same thing about teenager movies in general. Just allow the kids be kids … and maybe let them have a few pimples, too.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Video review: "Finding Dory"

If “Finding Nemo” was groundbreaking filmmaking, then the long-gestating sequel “Finding Dory” is cinematic comfort food. It’s not really necessary, and it certainly doesn’t match its predecessor, but we get a warm feeling just from having it around.

Set some time after the last adventure, the star here is Dory, the forgetful blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. We find out more about her backstory, such as the fact her funny/annoying short-term memory loss is not the result of some injurious experience, but something she grew up with as a little fishy.

My friend Ed Johnson-Ott of NUVO Newsweekly, a wonderful film critic and even better human being, correctly noted that this revelation irrevocably alters how we feel about Dory as a special-needs person, likening it to his own family.

“Dory is presented as what she is: an individual trying to work around her limitations. She assumes that most of those around her will help when they can, and most of the time she is right,” he wrote. “Individuals like Dory remind us that we are a community and, especially when one of us is a little more vulnerable, we need to behave like one.”

Dory, suddenly instilled with flashes of long-ago memories of her parents, determines to go on a quest to find them. Nebbishy clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) come along, too. They end up at the fictional Marine Life Institute, which first seems like a haven for injured sea life, but has a dark shadow just beneath the surface.

Many of the critters there display odd behavior as a result of their captivity. Some want to be free, but many others are complacent about their stable existence. One is Hank, a cranky octopus lovingly voiced by Ed O’Neill. He can change colors and mold his squishy body into all sorts of shapes, even operating human gizmos like a pro. He helps Dory and the gang, but only if they first scratch his back (so to speak).

A combination of slapstick antics and empathetic storytelling, “Finding Dory” will make us remember why we adored the original film so much, and fall a little bit more in love with Dory.

Bonus materials are extravagant, though you’ll have to buy the Blu-ray version for most of them. The DVD has only the short film “Piper” and a feature-length commentary track by director Andrew Stanton, co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins.

The Blu-ray adds nine deleted scenes and 10 making-of featurettes, touching on everything from creating Hank, the musical team, underwater explorations of real fish who inspired the onscreen ones, interviews with inhabitants of the Marine Life Institute, and more. Personal favorite: “Casual Carpool,” in which Stanton drives some of the key voice actors around.



Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review: "Arrival"

We don’t often see science fiction movies as cerebral as “Arrival.”

Even “Interstellar” relied on a certain amount of action scenes and contrived peril to keep the narrative moving. This film, directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is largely a rumination on how language affects our thoughts and perceptions. It’s an often exhilarating experience that largely eschews obvious thriller-movie moments.

If it’s possible to do a film on an alien invasion of Earth that’s the polar opposite of the “Independence Day” flicks, then here it is.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a language genius brought in by the military to help communicate with the extraterrestrials. Their ebony ships, shaped like large concave discs, suddenly appear one day, looming over a dozen spots on Earth. Banks is assigned to the team working the Montana ship, headed up by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, doing an annoying and entirely unnecessary accent of vaguely New England vintage).

She’s partnered up with Ian, a physicist played by Jeremy Renner. Normally in these types of movies the male character is the focus and the woman is relegated to the moon that reflects his light. Here it’s pretty much the opposite; Ian is constantly around and supportive, but he’s there to facilitate her journey.

They’re both lonely academic types, but she’s further burdened by some memories of a failed marriage and daughter, about which I’ll say no more.

The aliens are left deliberately vague. Described as “heptapods,” they appear to be giant seven-tentacled creatures with no visible faces. They are viewed only in shadowy fog through a glass wall inside their ship, into which the humans are permitted once every 18 hours. The aliens don’t appear to be violent, but nobody’s been able to get through to them. Their language appears to be a wave of rumbles and screeches that no one can figure out.

Louise determines to use visual aids, reckoning that written communication doesn’t always stand in for how it’s pronounced. The heptapods can produce strange, inky spirals that she and Ian begin to puzzle out.

Meanwhile, other nations are leery of the alien threat, egged on by a populace riven with paranoia. Are the aliens here to ask something of the humans? To give something? To provide a test of some sorts?

“Arrival” is the sort of the movie that’s challenging to review without giving too big a peek behind the curtain. It’s a slow-moving film that some people will find dreamy and intoxicating, and others may become bored with it. It stimulates the mind more than the heart, and that’s a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review: "Gimme Danger"

Let me tell you what I know of Iggy Pop. When I was in college in New York City 25 years ago, a classmate and budding photographer showed me some pictures she'd taken of the singer at a local club. She was obviously mesmerized by him, I had a bit of an unrequited thing for her, so naturally a sort of transposed resentment became baked into the pie.

Iggy is a famous musician without a single top-charting song to his name. He's known to most of the public for his stage persona -- always shirtless, seemingly whacked out of his gourd, doing weird contortionist dancing that he himself has described as an ape or monkey getting ready to fight.

He is believed to have pioneered the craft of stage-diving, aka jumping into a crowd of people -- full tilt, totally horizontal -- and hoping they catch him. Often they did not. Iggy has suffered smashed lips and noses, lost teeth and broken bones over the years. Still he keeps diving. There's sort of an insane poetry in that.

At the time, though, I was somewhat repulsed by this old dude who kept writhing around and pulling down his pants, threatening to show off his junk (though never quite going all the way). I should point out that Iggy then was about the same age I am now.

So I formed this dismissive impression of Iggy in my mind as one of those people famous for being famous. He showed up from time to time on TV and in movies, caterwauling atonally -- basically, this grotesque thing people pointed at for their own amusement.

"Gimme Danger" is Jim Jarmusch's piercing of that gaudy disguise. In examining his 50-year career, focusing mostly on the early days with The Stooges, a portrait emerges of a serious musician who was constantly absorbing from other talents, and forming their contributions into something new.

A working-class kid from Ann Arbor, Iggy grew up in a trailer home, pounding on drums so long his parents finally gave up the master bedroom just so they could put a door between them. Yet they were totally supportive and he still speaks of them with loving admiration.

Iggy and some other local teens -- notably brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, James Williamson and Dave Alexander -- started getting together in basements to practice, banging on oil drums or anything else they could to produce the harsh, percussive sound they craved. Their songs featured tight, hard beats that sometimes drifted off into psychedelic extended instrumentals.

Coming up during the age of gentle hippie music, Iggy and the Stooges formed part of the nascent backbone of hard rock. They put out three albums, none of them commercial successes, toured around, got hooked on drugs, and by the early 1970s the band broke up and most of the members went back home to live with their parents.

Jarmusch mixes archival footage and photographs with extensive modern interviews with Iggy, with whom he's enjoyed a long friendship -- addressing him by his given name, Jim Osterberg.

We learn things we never would've guessed, such as Iggy's penchant for simple, repetitive lyrics coming from TV personality Soupy Sales, who encouraged kids to write him letters of 25 words or less. Iggy shows himself to be an impressive mimic, able to imitate other singers or instrumental riffs on cue.

One of my favorite sections is about Iggy moving from drummer to lead singer, and developing his signature style. For awhile he put his drum set on a huge pedestal, 15 feet above the stage, so he could stand out. Clearly, here was a guy who felt the call of the spotlight.

"Eventually, I just got tired of looking at somebody's butt all the time," he snickers.

Like most observers of Iggy, Jarmusch is entranced by his body. His camera swoons admiringly over his lithe limbs and lean torso; he was rock 'n' roll's original six-packer.

Iggy just has one of those rare physiques completely bereft of fat, so his skin seems to barely contain his muscles, tendons and veins. It's like he's popping out at you like one of those medical specimen mock-ups. He says that he was entranced by Yul Brynner in "The King and I," the notion of kings always going around bare-chested.

Nearly 70 now, Iggy looks pretty much the same as he did in the 1960s, other than his flesh loosening up here and there to develop a bit of a wattle. I doubt he's ever lifted weights or done any kind of strenuous exercise in his life; the man just seems to burn from a fire within.

"Gimme Danger" is a probing look at a peculiar pop culture figure who turns out to be way more than skin deep.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Quo Vadis" (1951)

I didn't care for "Quo Vadis" much at all. It's a slow-moving bison of a movie, waddling through its nearly three-hour run time with no apparent sense of haste, or inspiration. Despite its epic scale -- it still holds the record for most costumes used on a movie: 32,000 -- it's often cheap-looking and fake, like the obvious matte paintings to depict ancient Rome.

Really, there are only two things about it that (somewhat) redeem it: Peter Ustinov's vamping portrayal of Emperor Nero, and the shifting perspectives of the numerous characters.

Ustinov was 30 years old and already an accomplished writer, playwright, screenwriter and director. But as an actor he'd mostly had bit parts in movies, often uncredited. Really, his only significant screen role was the titular one in "Private Angelo," a little 1949 war comedy that he also co-directed.

But director Mervyn LeRoy ("Mister Roberts") recognized the oddball charisma in Ustinov, and saw a good match with this over-the-top conception of Nero. The script, adapted by John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien from the historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, portrays Nero as a narcissistic adolescent sociopath, the "supreme artist" who literally sees the whole world as as the plaything for his whims, which shift mercurially between creation and destruction.

Ustinov is a sheer delight every time he's onscreen, with his velvety whine of a voice and googled eyes. Nero insists that his various hangers-on address him as "Divinity," and listen to his unceasing, awful compositions. He's pure malevolence, but in a less sinister way than a Hitler: he's simply unassociated with the concept of goodness. Anything or anyone that does not exalt him, he must deride and smash.

Think Donald Trump, but with better hair.

Hating the stench and squalor of the common folk of Rome, Nero comes up with a grand vision to rebuild the city in vaulting columns of marble. (Interesting footnote: the massive model Nero displays of his plans for Rome was a real one created by Mussolini; the studio borrowed it from a museum.)

Only one problem: the old Rome is still there. So Nero orders it razed with fire, people and all. Then he plucks his lyre from on high and composes a warbling sonnet dedicated to the greatness of the destruction he has wrought.

Thus we got the phrase, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned." It's become a metaphor for poor leadership, though the historical record is sufficiently muddied that it's hard to say what really happened. It may well be the fire was truly accidental, and Nero's government was simply ineffectual at preventing or stopping it.

The movie is unequivocal, depicting Nero intentionally setting Rome ablaze and then blaming it on the nascent "cult of Christians." This leads to Nero famously introducing them to some hungry lions in the Colosseum. Perched in his high seat, Nero titters at the dying pacifists and screeches at them for singing a hymn instead of begging for mercy.

Ustinov deservedly earned the first of his four Oscar nominations for his turn. The next two, also for Supporting Actor, he won both times, including a somewhat similar role in another sword-and-sandals epic, "Spartacus." He also got a screenwriting nomination for 1968's "Millions."

So whatever else the film's limitations, I think it's fair to say that "Quo Vadis" marked Ustinov's breakout.

The other thing I found interesting while watching it was the surfeit of characters, and how each of them holds the spotlight for a time. At its essence the story is about the excesses of the Roman Empire under Nero and its conflict with the rising church of Christ. Saint Peter (Finlay Currie) shows up about halfway through, and would seem to be the logical counterpoint to Nero, opposing him through a message of love in the face of cruel persecution, leading up to his infamous upside-down crucifixion.

(Currie's stunt double on the cross is quite obviously decades younger and dozens of pounds lighter.)

Thought it got a little "too much Jesus" for my taste, the film's emphasis on the plight of the Christians in the days after the fall and resurrection is not something you see a lot of at the movies. You could quite easily switch things around so Peter is the protagonist.

Or you could choose Petronius, the sardonic senator played by Leo Genn, who also earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nod -- a rare feat for two actors from a movie to be nominated in the same category. Petronius is Nero's chief friend and flatterer, who takes his sport from acting like a lickspittle while subtly mocking his patron.

Petronius is a fascinating, well-rounded character. He's a man of great intellect and ethics who threw it all away to be a cynical side player. He alone opposes Nero when he proposes to blame the Christians for his inferno, losing his status and, eventually, his life. He owns a beautiful Spanish slave (the stunning Marina Berti) who inexplicably falls in love with him, even after he has her (lightly) lashed for disobedience. He ends up returning her feelings, and the two embrace in a Romeo-and-Juliet type of death.

But it's actually Petronius' nephew who is the purported hero of this story. Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinicius, an army commander who has recently returned to Rome in triumph after three years at war. Taylor -- who was only six years younger than the man playing his uncle -- is a horrible stiff, a weak-chinned excuse for a main character.

He starts out arrogant and martial, and slowly and inevitably softens to the Christians' message of peace and tolerance. This is helped along by Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Roman hostage raised from childhood by a retired general (Felix Aylmer) and his wife, who converted to Christianity. Vinicius first tries to conquer her with his manly charms, and is rebuffed, and then arranges to have Nero grant her to him as his hostage/wife. The moment he gives up, though, she falls into his arms gratefully.

Kerr, of course, was one of the Golden Age's great talents. But even she can't rescue the plodding dialogue and bewildering character motivations.

Patricia Laffan plays Poppaea, Nero's conniving second wife -- he killed the first one, along with his own mother. Like Petronius, she carefully negotiates a dance of solicitude and manipulation with Nero. It's intimated that she feeds his nightly parade of bizarre sexual proclivities, while pursuing plenty of her own on the side. She lusts after Vinicius, and when he scorns her the empress vows revenge.

Again, it would've been fascinating to see this story play out from her perspective, instead of the one we do.

Finally, there's Ursus, the hulk-like bodyguard to Lygia played by boxer/actor Buddy Baer. He has very little dialogue, but he's often hanging around in the background of pivotal scenes, so you could easily make him the focal character. It's notable that in the culminating fight sequence in the Colosseum, where Lygia is tied to a stake and threatened by a massive bull, it is Ursus rather than Vinicius who protects her.

LeRoy lets the camera linger over Ursus' stone-hard face in close-up, and we are sucked into his peril. Wrestling the mighty beast bare-handed, he pins it to the ground and snaps its neck. Along with Ustinov crooning atonally as Rome burns, these are probably the best-remembered scenes from the film.

Baer's physique, which is much commented upon during the movie, is emblematic of sportsmen of this age. He's broad-chested with a thick waist, bull neck and arms that, while large, aren't bulging and veiny like you see in cinematic strongmen of recent vintage. At 6'7", Baer was the kid brother of heavyweight champ Max Baer, and when his own talent in the ring didn't measure up -- Joe Louis bested him twice -- he switched to movies, working steadily for nearly two decades.

 Like a lot of botched movies, there's a good one somewhere inside "Quo Vadis," a title that roughly translates as, "Where are you going?" -- a biblical reference to Peter meeting a resurrected Jesus along the road. The movie goes awry in its own journey, choosing a flat, generic romantic couple as the centerpiece of a story that has many much better routes it could have taken.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Video review: "Sausage Party"

I have heard “Sausage Party” described as one of the best movies of the year, by people whose opinion I respect. I’ve heard it called a smutty smear of cinematic excrement. Both descriptions leave me puzzled.

Certainly, “Sausage Party” is foul-mouthed, foul-minded, foul-humored, just… foul. It’s in the “dirty animated movie” tradition of “Fritz the Cat,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and the like. Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Salma Hayak, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera and a host of other big names give voice to pieces of anthropomorphized food living in the grocery store who dream of one day being bought and taken home with humans.

To them, it’s their very reason for existence, their ticket to “the Great Beyond.” Little do they know that their destiny involves being chewed up and swallowed. Of course, they soon find out about their gruesome fate and set out to escape it.

Rogen and Wiig are the centerpieces as Frank and Brenda, who are a hot dog and bun with a burning desire to one day be together. Along the way there’s plenty of violence, cursing, and the whole thing culminates in a massive food orgy. Yeah.

Let’s put it this way: the villain is a real douche -- as in, the feminine hygiene product.

There are certainly some funny moments in “Sausage Party.” And the movie is more thoughtful than you might initially think, with some clever observations on how our political, ethnic and religious divides are largely constructed illusions.

In the end, though, it’s a breezily entertaining flick that will pass the time, but deserves neither the accolades or vitriol that have been heaved its way.

Bonus features are pretty good, though some of them are only available as digital downloads available through certain retailers. These include an alternative ending that occurs in the real (non-animated) world.

The DVD comes with a making-of doc, “Animation Imaginatorium,” as well as three featurettes. The Blu-ray adds another featurette, appropriately titled, “Shock and Awe: How Did This Get Made?” Plus a gag reel and “Line-O-Rama.”



Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: "Doctor Strange"

“Doctor Strange” unwittingly serves as a good stress test on the state of the superhero genre as it approaches middle age. The thinking used to be that once you got past the A-list of heroes, the Spider-Mans and Captains America, it’s hard to get anyone more than fanboys to turn out. But with offbeat characters like Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy turning into huge hits, it seems that as long as you deliver an entertaining flick, people will come.

This film takes one of the oddest, most cerebral comic books ever and turns it into a bubble gum movie. It’s breezy and kooky, featuring some of the landscape-bending special effects we saw in “Inception” and turning the dial up to 11. It mixes hallucinogenic imagery with standard action movie fisticuffs.

Dr. Stephen Strange doesn’t get bitten by a spider or bathed in mutating radiation; he’s just a regular guy who becomes a sorcerer, wielding mystic energies and magical items, who travels through different planes of existence to battle creatures of dark power.

It has the most talented cast you’ve ever seen in a superhero movie: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg.

The question becomes if the mystic mumbo-jumbo replete in the Doctor Strange oeuvre sounds any better coming out of the mouths of Oscar-caliber actors: “sling rings,” the dark lord Dormammu, astral projection, Sanctums Sanctorum, the Eye of Agamotto, etc.

The answer: Not really.

Cumberbatch brings a winking charisma to the role, a guy who’s basically good but is rather full of himself. He’s an a-hole, but an a-hole in the Tony Stark mold.

The movie is directed by Scott Derrickson, known mostly for horror films, who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. They take some pretty dark material, about an arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident, and continually fluff it up with humor and levity.

For instance, when Strange reaches the remote retreat of Kamar-Taj in Nepal, hoping to heal his hands, the unctuous guide, Mordo (Ejiofor) hands him a cryptic piece of paper with something scribbled on it. What is it? Strange asks. “The Wifi password. We’re not savages,” Mordo quips.

Strange is trained by the Ancient One, an Asian man in the comics but a bald Caucasian woman here played by Swinton. It’s still the typical inscrutable mentor, constantly pushing her pupil but supplying few answers about what’s really at stake.

Strange is … not very good at magic. And not just at first. When the big battle with the bad guy starts to happen, he’s still seemingly little more than a novice. His basic spells -- represented here as sigils written in fire -- fizzle out on him. But we’re supposed to believe he’s the guy to take on Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), a fallen sorcerer who wants to turn over the Earth to Dormammu and stop the flow of time?

You wonder in these movies why the “chosen one” is always a new guy. Shouldn’t it be the person who’s been honing their powers for a really long time? Wouldn’t the Ancient One’s time be better spent preparing for the final showdown instead of training some jerk doctor?

(I call this Yoda Conundrum -- as in, why would a Master send a half-trained Jedi to confront Darth Vader instead of taking him on himself?)

“Doctor Strange” is a fun movie but not a particularly smart one. It takes the easy road when it had the tools and the talent to be more ambitious. It features characters who wield mighty magic, but settles for storytelling parlor tricks.

Review: "Trolls"

“Trolls” is bright, colorful, snappy and a chore to sit through. It’s one of those animated films crafted exclusively for little kids, who will enjoy it immensely, while anyone who counts their age in double digits will find themselves tapping their foot… and not necessarily to the pop tunes sung by the neon-haired little critters.

Yes, this is a musical based on the ubiquitous troll dolls, which are now owned by DreamWorks Animation. They tapped Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake to voice the main characters, and Timberlake also wrote a song and executive produced the music, which is a mix of modern beats and vintage pop hits.

The story seems like the barest contrivance wrapped around the talent.

Director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn, along with script men Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, set out with a simple idea in mind: assault the audience with cuteness. Every time we think the movie’s going to wander into a dark area, it’s quickly shoved back into the light by a song or spray of goofiness.

It’s almost like the film is bipolar; it can’t stand to be glum for even a moment.

Certainly that is the contrast between Princess Poppy (Kendrick), the pink-haired leader of the trolls, and Branch (Timberlake), the tribe’s resident Debbie Downer. He’s the only troll who has muted tones to his skin and hair, and eschews the singing, dancing and hugging -- every hour; they set their clocks by it -- that comprise troll culture.

Twenty years ago the trolls were the captives of the Bergens, nasty giant creatures who hate their lives and each other, and everything. One day of the Bergen calendar is set aside for happiness, Trollstice, when they get to eat trolls and know joy. But the brave troll king (Jeffrey Tambor) led a mass escape, and since then it’s been one long party.

The Bergens aren’t too happy about it, especially Chef (Christine Baranski), who prepared the troll meal and enjoyed wielding power. He manages to capture a handful of trolls after Poppy organizes an ill-advised party complete with fireworks, so she and Branch undertake a rescue mission.

The trolls look pretty much like the toys, though without those weird lifeless eyes. Their hair has magical properties -- Poppy is the best hair twirler, able to grab stuff and even create shapes with her ‘do. The supporting characters include twins whose hair is connected, a big friendly fella, one who looks like a troll lama and a silver guy who is always covered in glitter and is naked.

They make it to Bergentown, where things take a (not terribly) unexpected turn. The young Bergen king, Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is thrilled about finally getting his first taste of troll. Meanwhile, the scullery maid, Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), secretly pines for him and enlists the trolls’ help in capturing the heart of her rotund little Romeo.

(Odd aside: the Bergens look a lot like the Boxtrolls from the much better film from a couple years ago.)

It all falls into place with a sense of inevitability. The Bergens will learn you don’t need to eat a sentient being to find happiness, and the mopey Branch -- who refuses to sing -- will eventually find his voice, and his true hue.

“Trolls” isn’t a bad movie -- just not a very ambitious one. Take away the big names and top-drawer animation, and it’s not much of a step up from what you’d see while channel surfing past Disney Junior or Nick Jr.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review: "Hacksaw Ridge"

Though it’s a little too self-serious, and emphasizes the devastation of war to the extent it overshadows the grace of its pacifist subject, “Hacksaw Ridge” has immense and undeniable power. It’s a World War II drama about a man who refused to fight because of his religious beliefs, but whose heroism in combat earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a humble kid from backwater Virginia who enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor despite having vowed never to kill, or even touch a gun. Part of that comes from his faith, being a Seventh-day Adventist, but also having grown up to an abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who continually threatened him, his mother (Rachel Griffiths) and brother.

Garfield breathes life into what could have been one-note character, helped by a nuanced screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan (based on a book by Booton Herndon). He plays Doss as a man of tremendous conviction but little personal pride. His obstinacy in the face of officers threatening to court-martial him for refusing orders comes from the knowledge that he couldn’t live with himself having betrayed his beliefs.

I am certain Garfield's name will get tossed around during the awards season. It deserves to be. 

“Hacksaw” is being widely touted as Mel Gibson’s comeback. It’s been 10 years since he last directed a film (“Apocalypto”) after the gargantuan phenomenon of “The Passion of the Christ,” and the even larger impact of his hateful statements following a drunk driving arrest.

As before his filmmaking style is brash, energetic, unsubtle. If filmmakers could be classified by musical genre, Gibson falls closely to Oliver Stone: hard rock with lots of power chords and screaming guitar solos. After a while it can be overwhelming, but it’s hard to refute that his films thrum their way into your chest.

The combat section, which take up the second half of the film, is a belching apocalypse of smoke and fire, blood and torn bodies. Gibson’s camera lingers over pieces of men strewn across the titular ridge of Okinawa, which the Japanese fought to their last breath to keep in the closing days of the Pacific campaign.

He turns to slow motion again and again (and again), mesmerized by the ballet of death. As we know from “Christ,” Gibson has his fixation with the ravages of the flesh.

It gives the war sequence its verve, but also distracts too much from the plight of Doss. He flits from wounded man to wounded man, providing drugs, bandages, tourniquets. Only after the fighting has calmed and the Americans have fled does his true bravery emerge, and it’s by far the film’s shining apex.

It’s notable that Gibson, having spent his long career playing and directing men of violence, has presented us with a pacifist as his newest hero.

The other soldiers are given broad strokes, set apart by a few personality or physical traits to make them distinguishable. Luke Bracey impresses as Idiot, a hard-charging natural fighter who transforms from Doss’ chief bully to fiercest protector. Vince Vaughn brings comic notes to the role of the hardcase sergeant, and Sam Worthington plays the resolute captain who must deal with a very unique recruit.

The first half of the movie is a study in contrasts, a languid exploration of Doss’ early life, romance with a young nurse played by Teresa Palmer, conflict with his dad (a traumatized WWI vet) over enlisting and his tough go during basic training, where he is branded a coward. It works, but only because we know where it’s all heading.

As I was preparing to write this review, I was surprised to see “Hacksaw Ridge” described as a Christian film. It’s understandable, since “Christ” became a hit largely through underground screenings for church groups, and it gave faith-based moviemaking a jolt that continues today.

But I disagree with applying that label here. This is a movie about an exceptional Christian. It does not try to proselytize to the audience, but simply show Desmond Doss for who he was: a man of resounding faith who saw a world pulling itself apart and felt compelled to bind the wound.