Phil on Film Index

Monday, February 06, 2017

My Week in Cinema: January 28th to February 3rd

New Films Seen This Week
Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)
Hacksaw Ridge opens with a prayer over images of warfare, which might suggest a kinship with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but Mel Gibson’s vision has always been driven by punishment and sacrifice rather than the divine beauty of God’s grace. His extraordinary new film presents the Battle of Okinawa as hell on earth and he places the viewer right in the middle of it, surrounded by death and stumbling over bodies that have been blown to pieces, but the man whose perspective we are sharing in the midst of this carnage is not responsible for any of it. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlisted for the military in 1942 but as a Seventh-day Adventist and a pacifist he refused to take up arms against another man, telling his superiors that he wanted to be a medic to save lives rather than take them; "With the world so set on tearing itself apart, doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together," he says. As in Silence, the impressive Garfield is playing a man who goes to Japan and finds his faith tested, but whereas Scorsese’s film was about wrestling with doubts, Gibson is telling a story of unshakeable faith here. Even when his fellow soldiers turn against him for his perceived cowardice, Doss remains steadfast in his beliefs, taking their insults and beatings and turning the other cheek. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge emphasises Doss’s goodness, via his corny-but-sweet courtship of a nurse (Teresa Palmer) and the conviction that carries him through basic training, while the second half pummels us with the brutality of war. Doss is credited with hauling 75 injured men from the battlefield singlehanded; an act of astounding, superhuman heroism that is brilliantly orchestrated by Gibson. The battle for Hacksaw Ridge is structured in three movements, each with its own specific goals and individual dramas, and while it feels necessarily intense and chaotic, Gibson orchestrates it with a clarity and purpose that ensures we are always involved in the action and conscious of where the danger lies. Hacksaw Ridge is an engrossing and deeply moving film, and a sensational feat of filmmaking that is full of indelible images – a terrified eye peering from beneath the mud as an enemy walks past; two soldiers screaming into each other’s faces before a grenade blows them both to oblivion; the close-ups of Garfield’s exhausted face after hauling another wounded man to safety, as he pleads, "Lord, please help me get one more."

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
A sequel to Trainspotting has been talked about and rumoured for so long that eventually it felt like something that just had to happen, rather than something that anyone has a burning desire to see happen. Now the film is finally here, under the cumbersome title T2 Trainspotting, and it unsurprisingly feels like a film that has no real reason to exist. The scraggly plot (loosely drawn from Irvine Welsh’s Porno) is torn between constructing a contrived caper that can pull the four key characters together, and giving each of them an opportunity to wallow in the past, with the film emerging as a consideration of its own legacy more than a distinct new story. In truth, the young men who blazed a trail in 1996 have become bores in middle-age, stuck in the same situations and constantly gazing inward, and while the film makes a half-hearted attempt to critique this nostalgia, it doesn’t quite come off. “Where I come from the past is something to forget but here it's all you talk about,” they are told by Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who looks understandably disinterested in their company. Danny Boyle tries to inject some energy into the film with a pumping soundtrack, canted angles, colour-saturated images and – God help us – Snapchat filters, but the film’s narrative is too stop-start and scattered to generate any momentum. A blackmail plot shown at the start of the movie is abruptly recalled and then just as abruptly dropped, just to bring Kelly Macdonald back for a pointless cameo, and by the time Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) inexplicably decided to take heroin halfway through the picture – while a now-clean Spud (Ewen Bremner) watches – I realised I had no idea who these characters are anymore. Even the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is prone to ridiculous changes of heart, with his daddy issues and subsequent softening towards his own son coming out of nowhere late in the film. Perhaps it was always going to be like this. Trainspotting was a film of its moment, and this sequel was never going to surprise, inspire or energise audiences in the same way, but it’s disappointing to see the filmmakers more concerned with rekindling memories than trying to forge new ones. As Tony Soprano sagely put it, “Remember when” is the lowest form of conversation.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Journey Into Light (Stuart Heisler, 1951) BFI Southbank, 35mm
I’d never even heard of Journey Into Light before it appeared in the BFI’s programme as part of the 'Martin Scorsese Curates' season, but it’s easy to see why Scorsese is a fan. This is a crisis of faith story made in a classical fashion; in fact, as pointed out in the programme notes, it stands as one of the rare Hollywood forays into religious filmmaking. Sterling Hayden is the Reverend John Burrows, a passionate clergyman admired for his powerful rhetoric and considered a rising star in the church. Things aren’t as rosy at home, however, with the very public alcoholism of Burrows’ wife causing consternation among the congregation, and when she kills herself he falls into a spiral of despair, renouncing God and ending up on Skid Row. From there, the only way is up, and Burrows’ eventual redemption comes via the love of a blind woman (Viveca Lindfors) who helps him see the light. It’s a straightforward tale that doesn’t deviate far from our expectations, but Stuart Heisler’s direction is tight and sometimes potent (Peggy Webber’s suicide scene is very powerful), and the film’s portrait of Skid Row is vividly realised through Elwood Bredell’s atmospheric cinematography. It’s the quality of performance that Heisler gets from his actors that really distinguishes the film, though. Hayden’s strong lead turn is complemented by the ever-excellent Thomas Mitchell, as a conniving bum who sees in this talented orator the makings of a great conman, while Ludwig Donath and Viveca Lindfors are both excellent as the father and daughter who take Burrows in and treat him with a kindness and respect that penetrates the wall he has constructed around himself. Even the actors portraying the bums and drunks Burrows meets along the way – such as H.B. Warner, John Berkes or Billie Bird  bring a great sense of character to their roles. Journey Into Light is a film about what it means to truly understand the word of God and to act on it as opposed to simply standing above the masses and preaching the gospel from behind a pulpit, and while it’s not necessarily a great film, it is a compelling and often impressive curio.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Raising Cain (Brian De palma, 1992) The Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
When I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s Split last week I suggested that it failed because he was simply the wrong director for that material. Split needed to be made by somebody who could embrace the craziness of the premise, who could develop and sustain a thrilling momentum, and who could explore the film’s enclosed environment with real cinematic verve and imagination – somebody like Brian De Palma, for example. Raising Cain is the film that I wanted Split to be; a wild and unpredictable ride that is completely nonsensical but you don’t care because it has been orchestrated with such intoxicating style. Emerging from the wreckage of The Bonfire of the Vanities, it was perhaps wise for De Palma to get back to doing what he does best, and in this case that meant basically ‘doing De Palma’. As much an homage to his own work as it is to Hitchcock, Raising Cain is almost self-parody, recycling ideas and images from his earlier films (particularly Dressed to Kill) and pushing his trademark elaborate set-pieces to absurd lengths. Right from the start, with the way he teases out the possibility of Dr. Carter/Cain (John Lithgow) being discovered in a car with an unconscious woman by two joggers, De Palma delights in playing with our expectations and finding novel ways to introduce tension through his staging and editing. Even a dry scene of expository dialogue is transformed into a convoluted tracking shot, with De Palma following the characters into elevators and down stairs (the camera tilting in line with the staircase) with Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) almost wandering out of the frame as she delivers her diagnosis. The coup de grĂ¢ce is the beautifully constructed climactic sequence, with action unfolding on multiple levels in slow motion, and being orchestrated with such flair and elegance that the ridiculous nature of much of it (“Careful with that sundial!”) never even registers. This directorial panache is the main reason Raising Cain’s shlocky, barely coherent narrative holds together, but the other key factor is Lithgow, whose brilliantly unhinged, campy performance(s) is one for the ages.