HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence including Grisly Bloody Images

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Directed by: Mel Gibson

Written by: Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh & Luke Pegler

World War II was a horrible time in human history that contained many fascinating true stories. One of these stories is that of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever receive the Medal of Honor during WWII. Working off a well-crafted script from Andrew Knight (who previously wrote 2015’s substandard WWI drama THE WATER DIVINER) and Robert Schenkkan, director Mel Gibson delivers a triumphant movie about unbelievable courage, inner strength and the horrors of war. Like many WWII films, HACKSAW RIDGE isn’t exactly the most pleasant movie of the year as there are harrowing moments of carnage and scenes of breathless tension. For those who want to see a rousing story of an unlikely hero, HACKSAW RIDGE is one hell of an emotional ride.

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Raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a deeply religious man who finds himself tested by the arrival of World War II. Despite seeing what the horrors of World War I did to his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), Desmond can’t sit idly by while others are fighting the war for him. To the dismay of his loving fiancé Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond volunteers to fight in World War II…but there’s just one stipulation. He refuses to touch a weapon. This puts Desmond in a tough spot with his superiors and in greater danger on the shores of “Hacksaw Ridge” during the Battle of Okinawa. Instead of taking life, Desmond Doss intends on saving it.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is split into two distinct halves. The first half focuses on Desmond’s home life, the events that drove him to enlist, his deeply held religious beliefs, and the turbulence he encounters at boot camp for his pacifist stance on the war. The second half is where the Battle of Okinawa comes into play and we actually see Doss at work in some of the most heroic acts that have come from one extraordinary human being. The first half allows the viewer to get to know the characters and presents a layout of the story, so we totally sympathize from where Doss is coming from.

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The slower first portion was a smart move, because it also causes the audience to let their guard down and makes the violent second half that much more shocking. Soldiers we’ve followed through boot camp are killed in mere seconds, whilst we root for Doss to save as many as he possibly can. The Battle of Okinawa sequences are gory, intense and assault the viewer’s sensibilities. Those three qualities are absolutely called for in a film about World War II. Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War and Mel Gibson does his damndest to capture the sheer terror of it all. Lots of smoke obscures figures in the distance, causing many threats to go unseen. The Japanese kamikaze tactics are shown in shocking fashion. The battle scenes don’t shy away from severed limbs, rat-eaten corpses, and graphic wounds. The details are appropriately horrific and make Doss’s courageous acts of bravery seem even more heroic in comparison.

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In the role of Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield delivers his finest performance yet. I mostly know him as Peter Parker in the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies, but Garfield disappears in the role of good-hearted Southern boy Doss. He slips right into the part and I completely forgot that I was watching a performance until the end credits rolled…and we’re treated to actual footage of the real Doss. Vince Vaughn gets lots of laughs and great scenes as Doss’s strict drill sergeant. His performance reminded me of a less-harsh R. Lee Ermey. Sam Worthington is mostly regulated to the sidelines as frustrated and undermanned Captain Glover, but receives a couple of powerful moments in the final third. Luke Bracey is well-cast as a soldier who understandably opposes Doss’s “cowardly” ways, Teresa Palmer is great as Doss’s understanding fiancé, and Hugo Weaving is outstanding as Doss’s abusive father.

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Taken purely on a technical level, Mel Gibson has crafted one hell of a war film. The battle sequences look realistic, pack serious tension into the bloody chaos (to the point where I was on the edge of my seat multiple times), and seem massive in scope. Detailed cinematography adds a beautiful look to the proceedings, while intricately layered sound design adds a believable sense of confusion to the combat scenes. If I have any complaints they come from an out-of-place dream sequence and the sudden ending. I expected this film to run longer than it actually did, but that gripe might be taken as a positive for how amazing and compelling this movie’s quality is. I wanted it keep going beyond the end credits.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is a compelling, deeply emotional war movie. The performances are stellar across the board, with Andrew Garfield disappearing into the role of a real-life heroic character. The story’s two-act structure ultimately makes the entire film feel more realistic and moving. The combat sequences are rough and horrific, as they should be. The film also looks and sounds amazing on a technical level. With his fifth feature, Mel Gibson has brought cinematic life to an incredible true story that’s bound to move even the hardest of hearts. If you’re into history, war films or just great cinema, HACKSAW RIDGE is must-see!

Grade: A

HART’S WAR (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong War Violence and Language

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Directed by: Gregory Hoblit

Written by: Billy Ray & Terry George

(based on the novel HART’S WAR by John Katzenbach)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures, Linus Roache, Rory Cochrane & Sam Worthington

The poster for HART’S WAR would suggest that this is just another WWII movie laced with combat and heroism, but this film is actually a courtroom drama set within a POW camp. There’s nothing wrong with shaking up of the well-worn war movie formula in an unconventional way. For a while, HART’S WAR captured my attention. The film has positives in being well shot and ambitious, but also encounters a lot of shortcomings in wasting a solid A-list cast and jumbling up its narrative into a melodramatic bore.

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Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) is a privileged intelligence officer who falls into a Nazi trap near the end of World War II. After breaking down under brutal interrogation tactics, Hart is shipped off to Stalag VI-A and is assigned to the enlisted soldier bunks by high-ranking Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis). After encountering tensions with his fellow prisoners, Hart finds himself sympathizing for two African-American pilots who are being openly persecuted by the other POWs. When a racist POW turns up dead and Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) is accused of murder, Hart is roped into an amateur trial within the camp. Defending Scott, Hart soon finds a darker side to McNamara and is faced with a difficult ultimatum.

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In regards to the wasted A-list cast, every performance in this film is of the exact same quality, which is to say that every actor is stone-faced, uninspired, and wooden. Colin Farrell plays Lt. Hart as a bland protagonist going place to place and interacting amongst talking heads of both sides. Despite Farrell’s efforts to make Hart into a sympathetic protagonist who’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, he just comes off as imitating every other big actor he’s seen in other (better) courtroom dramas and war movies (A FEW GOOD MEN kept coming to mind). Bruce Willis takes a step away from his usual smart-mouthed action movie persona to play Colonel McNamara as a man with two sides, both of which feel clichéd. His final scenes are satisfying, but everything leading up to them is simply dull.

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Terrence Howard delivers brief levity to his role of Lt. Scott. Howard seems to be the only actor to bring a couple of believable emotions to the screen in the space of 125 minutes. The usual (and realistic) speeches about how difficult it was to be black in America during WWII are employed and these are the easily the best scenes in this otherwise stagey production. Marcel Iures plays the Nazi camp commandant as an interesting character who sees his prisoners as somewhat human, but still isn’t above shooting them to prove a point. This mutual respect might have been explored further with a better script. Also in the side characters are Rory Cochrane, Cole Hauser and Sam Worthington as interchangeable faceless POWs.

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The most frustrating thing about HART’S WAR is how good it looks and how there were pieces for a solid story to be told. The way in which this plot plays out makes it thoroughly uninteresting and downright boring. I didn’t care about these characters and I certainly didn’t care how everything would turn out. The film contains a small handful of effective scenes (one of which near the beginning has the POW train under fire from their own side), but the film never maintains a solid momentum to keep things chugging along at a reasonable pace. Add into all of this an A-list cast delivering wooden performances and you’ve got yourself one hell of a stodgy war/courtroom drama. HART’S WAR should have been good. It should have conveyed a sense of honor trying to survive in hopelessness conditions and racial tensions being prevalent in a war that was being fought by many nationalities and races. Instead, HART’S WAR is entirely forgettable.

Grade: D+

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

TERMINATOR: SALVATION (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and Language

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Directed by: McG

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander & Helena Bonham Carter

THE TERMINATOR is a fun, cheesy 80’s action flick. TERMINATOR 2 is one of the best sequels of all-time and manages to top the original in every conceivable way. TERMINATOR 3 is a cheap, studio cash-grab that did its best to tarnish the series and slap fans in the face. In 2009, TERMINATOR: SALVATION opened to the middling excitement and so-so reviews. Where does this fourth film fit into the series, it feels like a stand-alone post-apocalyptic war film that’s relatively harmless. Though it manages to botch a number of things, SALVATION is tolerable entry that can be enjoyed in stupid guilty pleasure sort of way.

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Judgement Day has long since passed and John Connor is rising to the top ranks of the Resistance against Skynet. When his superiors reveal a secret weapon, Connor is more than a little eager to test it out and has a limited time period to do so (as Skynet has marked him on their hit list). Meanwhile, former prisoner Marcus Wright awakens from a coma into the post-apocalyptic wasteland. His survival is aided by teenage fighter Kyle Reese. Connor, Reese and Wright find themselves on a collision course that could spell fate for all three in this wasteland of robotic killers and freedom fighters.

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Though everything doesn’t quite work in this film (more on those problems in a moment), SALVATION gives fans what they’ve been told about for three solid movies. We get an entire feature centered in a post-Judgement Day world. There’s no end to the compliments I can throw on the ultra-bleak, smoggy wasteland atmosphere being brought to life. Not to mention that there are a handful of decent action scenes that aren’t totally neutered by an unneeded PG-13 rating. The landscape of this rubble-filled world is highly enjoyable to look at, not to mention the various Terminators that we get to see. Previously, all of the machines in the TERMINATOR films have been humanoid designs. In SALVATION, there are self-driving motorcycles with guns mounted to their sides, tentacle-like assassins, giant machines built for capturing humans, and plenty of other cool robots. Even though this movie has it’s faults, I won’t knock the atmosphere or the many creative machines on display.

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Story-wise, this script is from the same pair of writers that brought us the disappointing TERMINATOR 3. This screenplay is ever so slightly better than the third film, but that could be attributed to the many forced rewrites after its inception. There are a number of coincidences and plot holes on display. Connor’s quest to find Kyle Reese seems to be using circular logic that’s much more annoying than other plot holes involving time-travel throughout the series. Also, there’s an obvious twist that was revealed in multiple pieces of marketing and isn’t to hard to figure out (even if you haven’t seen any trailers for this film), but it’s played off as a huge ground-shaking revelation. The PG-13 rating tones down scenes that could have been far more intense or violent. This feels like a cop-out as well when you consider that every TERMINATOR film up this point was rated R. It’s the same dumbass studio logic that was used while making 2004’s ALIEN VS. PREDATOR.

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Though his on-set freakout nearly overshadowed the promotion of this entire movie, Christian Bale is only so-so as John Connor. He’s miles better than Nick Stahl and falls short of Edward Furlong (still a weird sounding complaint). Bale is pulling his typical action-hero role with a deep, growling voice that sounded like a cross between his Batman and his Moses. Anton Yelchin is underwhelming as Kyle Reese, though I never thought the character was that well-developed to begin with. Bryce Dallas Howard is wooden as Connor’s wife, who was also a hollow character to begin with. The best of the character of the bunch comes in Sam Worthington’s Marcus. Though he only shows up for this film, I found his performance to stick out in a good way and his storyline was the most interesting part of the film.

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TERMINATOR: SALVATION is not a good movie. It’s plays out like any standard action flick that happens to have a cool backdrop. I enjoyed the setting and various Terminators, even if the latter are arguably underused. The performances are nothing to write home about and the script is full of circular logic and coincidences. However, I think that this fourth film can be enjoyed as pure spectacle. This is definitely nowhere near the quality of the first two installments, but it’s far better than the disappointing third entry. TERMINATOR: SALVATION is heavily flawed, but okay.

Grade: C+

SABOTAGE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Sexuality/Nudity and Drug Use

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Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: Skip Woods, David Ayer

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan

SABOTAGE has been marketed as the complete opposite of what it is. Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger attempting to get his action movie cred back in recent years, one might expect a giant action extravaganza loaded with plenty of over-the-top violence and cheesy one-liners. However, David Ayer (HARSH TIMES, END OF WATCH) is behind this flick. That alone speaks volumes about the type of tone it hits. SABOTAGE is actually dark gritty thriller that has somehow attracted the names of a few big action stars to headline it. Judging from the trailers this looked like just another action B-flick so it hasn’t done too well in its opening weekend.

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A crack DEA team (led by Schwarzenegger) make a massive bust on a cartel’s property. They burn the money they find, but not before putting a little down the sewer for themselves. When they go to retrieve the stolen cash, they discover it’s missing. Someone knew about their plan and has taken the drug money for themselves. The stolen cartel cash attracts some unwanted attention and the DEA agents find themselves being offed one by one. A special investigator is called in to identify suspects and discovers that the list is plentiful. The script basically plays out like AND THEN THERE WERE NONE with DEA agents and with a significant amount of more blood.

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Taken on its own merits, SABOTAGE is serviceable as a thriller. It’s got big problems that ultimately leave it as a middle-of-the-road experience, but you could certainly do far worse. I found the most fun part of the film was guessing which character would get killed off next and which suspect was most likely to be doing the dirty work. For a film that goes into by-the-numbers territory come the final showdown, director/writer Ayer and co-writer Woods kept me slightly off as to my guess where things would turn next. The ultimate pointless decisions come in showing unnecessary exposition. There was an entire flashback sequence with Arnold that could have been clipped out in editing and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference to the plot at hand.

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While it plays out like a solid (at times, grisly) crime story, the film takes a sudden swerve into over-the-top action territory near the ending that felt like it didn’t belong in the slightest. The reasoning may have been that Arnold was headlining this film, so there needed to be a some sort of massive gunfight and a few car chases. These scenes didn’t fit the mood that the rest of the film seemed to be aiming for. The characters are all scumbags, but enjoyable to watch for the suspense factor of who may or may not be manipulating the other agents. Arnold Schwarzenegger also puts in a serious attempt to give a dramatic role, but he simply can’t deliver it. God bless him, he’s trying. It seems that he was never meant to give a genuinely good performance. He’s the big goofy Austrian action star and that’s probably all he’ll ever be.

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The real mood killer comes in the reveal of who took the money/who did the killing being underwhelming too. This double-twist didn’t offer any closure, but instead opened a new array of plot holes. This effect probably wasn’t intended by Ayer or Woods. The film can also be downright unpleasant to watch in points. There’s a graphic gore factor (seriously, some scenes felt like they were from a SAW movie) and one car chase has a bunch of needless casualties that are in poor taste. I’m far from a prude and love good violent action sequences, but the action in this film wasn’t fun or enjoyable. The epilogue also drags the film out longer than it needed to be and didn’t benefit the story in the slightest.

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SABOTAGE is a dark thriller that has been marketed as an action film. It’s bound to disappoint some with its deliberate pacing and has a climax that nearly destroys all of the good things the film had going for it (some sustained tension, freaky moments, and guessing of which character might be evil). It may also be Schwarzenegger’s first ever crack at a serious performance. It stumbles though and winds up just being a serviceable crime thriller, rather than the unrealized creepy one it was building on for a majority of the running time.

Grade: C

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