‘Hacksaw Ridge’ a strong, if familiar, war film

A pacifist who enlisted in World War II? That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Yet it actually happened.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is the true story of Army Medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who refused to carry a gun yet survived World War II through ingenuity, saving dozens of soldiers along the way during one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war, and becoming the first man in American history to win the Medal of Honor without firing a weapon.

Director Mel Gibson brilliantly captures the titular battle in the South Pacific, utilizing a wide range of cinematic skill to evoke the horrors of war. Indeed, if the film had just been the battle, it would have been great, but the first hour of the movie, setting up Desmond’s character and his backstory, is very slow and filled with cringe-worthy “dramatic moments” (the awkward love storyline with a personality-less woman, the standing up to authority speech, the oppressive father figure who just needs to understand his son). It’s a shame that the characters in the film are one-dimensional and that the script is just so-so. It is a rather cheap way to establish empathy with a character.

Garfield is fine in the lead role, held back by that on-the-nose script. You wouldn’t consider the experience a waste of time; it just is very familiar and blatant. If you walk in expecting a war drama with strong action and don’t mind the rather shallow characters, you won’t be disappointed. Anyone looking for something a little bit deeper or more interesting will be left wanting.

Oscar Predictions 2017

Best Picture

  • Hidden Figures
    • Going for the upset here. I’m thinking politics will ultimately win out over heart.

Best Director

  • Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
    • He’s won the DGA. That usually leads to success.

Best Actor

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea”
    • Denzel has already won, and that might be enough for Affleck to sneak a win.

Best Actress

  • Emma Stone, “La La Land”
    • She’s won everything. This is the easiest category of the night.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
    • He’s won the SAG and is the favorite.

Best Supporting Actress

  • Viola Davis, “Fences”
    • She also won the SAG and has no real competition.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Moonlight
    • Any of the nominees could realistically win. “Moonlight” might win by a hair.

Best Original Screenplay

  • Manchester by the Sea
    • It’s seen as a writer’s film, but watch out for La La Land if it sweeps.

Best Animated Film

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
    • “Zootopia” should put up a fight, but the beauty of the animation of “Kubo” might sway the voters.

Best Cinematography

  • La La Land
    • Alternative: Arrival

Best Costume Design

  • Jackie
    • Alternative: Florence Foster Jenkins

Best Documentary

  • OJ: Made in America
    • Alternative: I Am Not Your Negro

Best Documentary Short Subject

  • The White Helmets
    • Alternative: Watani: My Homeland

Best Editing

  • Arrival
    • Alternative: La La Land

Best Foreign Language Film

  • The Salesman
    • Alternative: Toni Erdmann

Best Makeup

  • Star Trek Beyond
    • Alternative: A Man Called Ove

Best Original Score

  • La La Land
    • Alternative: Lion

Best Original Song

  • “City of Stars”, from “La La Land”
    • Alternative: “How Far I’ll Go”, from “Moana”

Best Production Design

  • Arrival
    • Alternative: La La Land

Best Animated Short Film

  • Piper
    • Alternative: Pearl

Best Live Action Short

  • Timecode
    • Alternative: La Femme et le TVG

Best Sound Editing

  • Arrival
    • Alternative: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing

  • La La Land
    • Alternative: Arrival

Best Visual Effects

  • The Jungle Book
    • Alternative: Doctor Strange

‘Zootopia’ a deeper Disney flick

The theme of just about every Disney movie is “follow your dreams.” It’s sweet, timeless and, by now, pretty boring. So it is great that with “Zootopia”, the filmmakers haven’t abandoned that concept but added a much-needed dose of reality and racial diversity into the equation.

“Zootopia” tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a young bunny who dreams of being a police officer in the sprawling city of Zootopia, a place where predator and prey live together in peace. There has never been a bunny cop before, and she faces all sorts of prejudice for being perceived as less than bigger animals. As she tries to prove herself, she meets a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist she enlists to help her get to the bottom of a case of disappearing predator animals.

The story takes a film noir approach (with a child-appropriate tone) towards the investigation and examines some poignant race-relation issues in the world today. The discrimination of predator to prey and prey to predator imbues the story with a deeper level of meaning than that of a standard Disney film. The characters must work through their own prejudices of the world to gain true understanding.

Real time and energy went into making the film not only fun and entertaining, but also different and deeper. It’s great to see an animated film, especially from Disney, tackle some prominent modern-day issues.

“Zootopia” is one of the better films of the modern Disney era. It is fun, insightful, heartfelt and memorable.

‘Sully’ a traditional, solid movie

“Sully” tells the story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where a commercial airliner, under the navigation of Chesley Sullenberger, performs an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City after it loses its engines in a bird strike.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is a sturdy crowdpleaser, building up subtle moments to Sully’s vindication that he did indeed do the right thing. Tom Hanks is great in the central role, showing his unease about being called a hero and the exploration into that label from the world.

It is not especially showy, but that may be to the film’s betterment. Too often directors go for the big moments, showing off rather than letting the story speak for itself, but Eastwood has always gone with a very workmanlike approach, carefully constructing each moment to last as long as it needs to. The execution of the landing is wonderfully realized, using all of Eastwood’s cinematic technique.

If there is a detriment however, it is that there is not a lot of story to actually hold the film together. The crash landing occurs, there’s an investigation, the results of that investigation, and the end. It goes by rather breezily and barely clocks in at 90 minutes.

At its core, the film is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not necessarily as individual heroes, but collectively. It is a film worth remembering for substance rather than flash.

‘Manchester by the Sea’ a miserable experience

Sitting through Manchester by the Sea is about the equivalent of a visit to the morgue. It is a joyless slog filled with despair, misery and regret.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor in Boston. When Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), dies from his heart condition, Lee is forced to return home to care for his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a high school kid. Patrick is a  brat who juggles two different girls and just wants to get laid and stay in town. Lee tries to convince Patrick to move back with him to Boston and, over the course of the story, we learn why he doesn’t want to stay, as his tragic backstory involving his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and his three children unfolds.

It is now common knowledge that drama movies are consistently rated higher by critics than comedies. As so, if the quality of Manchester by the Sea was translated into a comedy, it probably would have been panned, but since it is a ‘thought-provoking drama’, it gets Oscar-nominated instead. Just because a film has dramatic moments and deals with heavier issues does not mean that it is a quality work.

Sure, Casey Affleck is great in the lead role, and there are some good moments of the characters on boats, but the film is just a depressing experience. There are not enough happy moments to counteract the misery, and you don’t really care about the characters that much. With a bloated run time of over two hours, it’s just misery, misery, misery, leaving you unable to take anything from the experience.

For those looking for a good time at the movies, Manchester by the Sea is not for you. For those looking for a thought-provoking drama, Manchester is still not for you. For those who would like the equivalent of a battering ram to the heart for two hours with no apparent hope for the future, go see Manchester by the Sea. You’ll love it.

‘Moana’ beautiful, fun

Boasting beautiful animation, an engaging (if familiar) story and strong musical numbers, Disney’s Moana is an enjoyable cinematic experience.

Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) is destined to lead her Polynesian island community, but the island’s resources are drying up. The sea calls to Moana, who must embark on a quest to return the heart of the goddess Te Whiti before the darkness overwhelms her home. She enlists the help of the demigod, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson).

Directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (past credits include Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog among others), the film features several of the traditional Disney tropes: a princess, the bumbling sidekick, the quest, nature as a guide, the biased father-figure, the helpful grandmother. But while the story is rather so-so in terms of creativity, the songs and the visuals are great. The water in particular looks terrific and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tunes are sure to stick in your head for better or worse long afterwards.

The film does an excellent job of really utilizing its location to tell its story. You can practically smell the sea-breeze off the screen. It is to Musker and Clement’s credit that they imbue the film with such energy and really bring Polynesian culture to life.

When given the choice between the familiar told well or the unfamiliar told poorly, telling stories smartly always wins. While Moana is nothing that new, it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it is another strong Disney entry in its recent revival (started not-so-coincidentally when John Lasseter took over as head of Disney animation).

‘Doctor Strange’ a worthy addition to MCU

Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.

Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.

But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.

Understanding films from all angles