Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Two war films, directed by two Oscar-winning directors, Hacksaw Ridge (Icon Films), by Mel Gibson, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures), by Ang Lee, couldn't be more different: the former an old school Hollywood film based on a true story of one soldier's beliefs under fire in WW2; the latter embracing new technology to tell a fictional tale of one soldier's struggle to come to terms with his worldview after deployment in Iraq in 2004.

Based on the exploits of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in World War II as a medic, saving 70 lives in one day during the battle of Okinawa, and several more in the ensuing days - and all whilst refusing to carry a gun -- Hacksaw Ridge plays like a propaganda film, one as much about patriotism as it is faith; perhaps more so the latter given it is a Mel Gibson film, and its lead is played by Brit, Andrew Garfield. (The film was also shot in Australia, and boasts an extensive local cast in supporting (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths plays Doss's parent) and minor roles.)

That casting is both distracting and a little cringe-inducing (more so, one suspects, for Australian audiences) in the film's first half, which concerns itself with Doss's domestic life and his romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).

Ostracized by his platoon, and sounded out for abuse by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), Doss refuses to quit, even when imprisoned and threatened with a court marshal.But it's in the theatre of war where Doss excels. So, too, the film. As the bullets fly and various limbs do, too, Hacksaw Ridge -- and Gibson -- comes into its own. Brutal and bloody, Gibson doesn't skimp on the horrors of war, and it's a good thing that the director chose to be old fashioned in his approach and didn't follow Lee down the 3D route.

Based on the novel by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is more of a satire of the propaganda surrounding war, and the need to sell it to the folks back home. But Ang Lee's film isn't quite as barbed as one would hope; the director more concerned with exploring new film technology than critiquing America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since winning an Oscar for the 3D visual extravaganza Life of Pi (2012), Lee has wanted to further push the envelope; choosing to shoot Billy Lynn not just in 3D but at 120 frames per second, for a more immersive and 'real' experience. (The 120fps won't be too immersive for those of us who found Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy to be an ugly, over-lit eyesore.)

For better or worse, Billy Lynn will not be shown in Australian cinemas in its 120fps, 4K or even 3D format, so the technology is really neither here nor there, and Lee's film will have to rely solely on story to engage its audience. (Why Lee felt this story required the new technology to tell it may only be answered by seeing it in the intended format.)

Private Billy Lynn (also played by a Brit, newcomer Joe Alwyn), following his heroics in Iraq which were captured on film and went viral, has been brought home, along with his Bravo platoon, for a victory tour culminating in a halftime celebration at a Dallas football match. Set over the course of a day, Billy flashes back to events in Iraq, and that fateful day, as well as to his homecoming in Stovall, Texas, and his chats on the porch with his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), who feels partly responsible for Billy's enlisting in the first place.

Ultimately, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk delivers a 'support the troops, not the war' kind of message, with the uncomfortable suggestion that having seen action, the only place a soldier will ever truly feel at peace again is at war, and with their fellow soldiers.

That's a common theme in both films, for even the initially despised Desmond Doss comes to be embraced by his platoon. And it's pretty hard not to embrace Garfield's 'aw shucks' portrayal of Doss, giving us much more to work with than Alwyn's mostly internalized performance as Billy.

And as a side-by-side comparison of war films, Hacksaw Ridge is the slightest of victors.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


Transmission Films

The title for Ken Loach's latest social drama, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty and winner of this year's Palme D'or, reads like the opening line to someone's last will and testament.

But the death being examined by Loach isn't that of the titular Daniel, a widower recovering from a heart attack and caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to government assistance. It is the death of compassion in a country where conservative bureaucracy rules and duty of care has been abandoned; its citizens are no longer seen as people but clients, mere numbers.

Ruled unfit to work by his doctor, Daniel (a terrific 'every man' performance by Dave Johns) must apply for unemployment benefits. But the welfare department's own health care professionals have deemed him fit to look for work (You can raise your arms abover your head? You're good to go!), which he must do in order to receive financial aid.

It's during the first of many frustrating visits to the employment office where he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), who, with her two young children, has been relocated to Newcastle from London; social services unable to find her accommodation in that city and prepared to move her north in spite of existing family connections in one place and no job prospects in the other. She, too, is just a number.

Daniel and Katie form an instant friendship: the elder man finding purpose in repairing her rundown apartment and helping out with the kids; she with not just a babysitter but a father figure who encourages her job search efforts and desire to continue her studies.

But if the system is frustrating for Daniel, its effects on Katie are worse. Unable to afford enough food she often goes without meals, leading to a heartbreaking scene in a food bank. The situation gets even worse for Katie, her suffering not unlike that of a heroine in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.

But what is melodrama but heightened reality? Loach and Laverty are very much focused on the reality of modern Britain, and a bureaucracy where every decision seems to be ruled upon by 'The Decisionmaker'; an anonymous entity like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

Not that I, Daniel Blake is all doom and gloom; the film celebrates the little guy and grassroots community support. But it has no sympathy for big government, nor should it. It's an angry film, and Australian audiences will not be able to comfort themselves with the thought that 'at least it's not like that here'. Too late, Australia, we're already there.