Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Rapid Reviews: Hacksaw Ridge and American Pastoral

Despite Mel Gibson's personal controversies, as a filmmaker he's managed to deliver impressive features like Braveheart, Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ. This November Gibson returns with the war drama, Hacksaw Ridge. While the film doesn't quite measure up to the director's most notable works, its incredible true story makes for an engaging cinematic experience.

After a near-fatal accident as a child, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) makes a personal vow to never physically harm another human being. And following an attack on Pearl Harbor, young men all across the country are enlisting in the army to help America win World War II. Doss decides to join the army as a medic, but encounters the vitriol of his fellow fighters when he refuses to carry a weapon on the battlefield.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film about convictions, a theme that's obviously near and dear to Mel Gibson's heart. And while Andrew Garfield reaffirms his ability to carry a film, there are countless elements to the storytelling that fail to capture the viewer. There's a sentimental love story that feels superficial and the mistreatment of Doss by his fellow infantry division and high ranking army officials is merely glossed over, Oddly, within the blink of an eye, all is forgotten and Doss becomes accepted with open arms. Eventually, the film picks up steam when Gibson transports the audience to the Battle of Okinawa, where a gruesome and graphic account of World War II reminds us all of the brutality of war. Hacksaw Ridge unveils some grisly imagery that makes for a puzzling complement to its earlier tempered tone. Yet, as you witness the bravery of Doss that earned him a Medal of Honor, the film immediately becomes a more satisfying endeavor. Hacksaw Ridge comes with its fair share of flaws, but there's a wonderful true story nestled within that's undeniably remarkable.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

It's impossible to overstate my admiration for Ewan McGregor. The brilliant actor has impressed the masses in big productions like Moulin Rouge!, but his most treasured work comes from the numerous indie films where he absolutely commands the screen. Lesser known gems such as The impossible, Beginners, Perfect Sense and I Love You Phillip Morris serve as shining examples of his unique ability. Needless to say, when I was given the opportunity to catch McGregor's anticipated directorial debut, American Pastoral, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, it pains me to admit that the film is an obvious mess.

Based on Philip Roth's 1997 novel of the same name, McGregor stars as Swede, a middle class factory owner in New Jersey who lives with his former beauty queen wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter Dawn (Dakota Fanning). Yet, as Dawn becomes involved with radical groups during the Civil Rights movement in the late 60s, Swede watches his seemingly perfect life fall victim to her rebellion.

There are countless odd aspects to the story and complexities surrounding American Pastoral. It opens with a peculiar Electra Complex that paints a portrait of Dawn's infatuation with Swede and a complete disregard for her mother. This element and other occurrences push her into a radical belief system that turns depressingly violent and shatters this once ideal family situation. A weak screenplay merely offers paper-thin characters and melodrama galore. As a result, decent performances and mediocre direction aren't enough to save the film from falling terribly flat. There's little connection bridged between viewer and character, leaving American Pastoral as a sad directorial debut for a true acting talent.

Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: C-

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