The Wall: Movie Man Jackson

I’ll let someone else make a witty connection between this film’s title and the 45th president of the United States of America. In 2007, the Iraq War isn’t exactly over, but the pullout of American troops is beginning. Called to lookout after U.S. contractors building a pipeline are killed, Army sniper “Eyes” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and spotter Sergeant Matthews (John Cena), make a move away from their protected positions to scope out the site. It’s been 22 hours, and they’re ready to be evacuated.

Shortly after inspection, all hell breaks loose. Scrambling from the open space fire, Issac finds protection in the form of an unsteady wall. Desperately trying to request help, his radio is not only damaged in the attack, but tapped by the enemy sniper. It becomes clear that Issac and Matthews are in grave danger, but their stalking assailant wants to play wretched mind games before launching a fatal salvo.

In the vein of 2016’s lean thrillers such as The Shallows and Don’t Breathe is The Wall. Director Doug Liman’s most recent film uses the backdrop of Iraq and the war to provide a movie that is technically a war movie, but sharing much more in common with those aforementioned films than a Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, and the like. The Wall ends up summer 2017’s first 100% lean thriller.

Liman, who knows his way around big-budget features in The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, seems to relish in directing on this minuscule scale that The Wall carries, reportedly made somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-5 million dollars. The minimalist approach is deployed, and it does immerse the viewer into its setting rather quickly. Music is entirely absent in the movie; one may forget they’re watching one. Swirling winds, the desert heat, and just the general fear of being in a person’s literal crosshairs make for a harrowing viewing experience, and Liman chooses to give little away as it pertains to his villain’s position. It’s a clever use of space, illustrating that distance between characters may be far, but still very claustrophobic.

However, even at a tight 81 minutes, I’d be lying if I failed to say that The Wall did not meander occasionally. Gradually, the audience does find out more about Issac and his reason for still being in Iraq as the war is winding down, giving a little bit of an emotional component. As the film goes on, some attempts are made to parallel—and in the case of the antagonist, somewhat humanize—the characters who lie on each side of the wall divide through Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare lines. At best, these parallels are broad, at worst, nonexistent. Not exactly painful-to-listen-to dialogue, but the type of dialogue that doesn’t accomplish as much as it wants to, either. As for the ending, it’s a bold direction, if a little farfetched for a realism-focused movie.

Keeping up his hot momentum after his marvelous turn in Nocturnal Animals is Aaron Taylor-Johnson here. His performance isn’t so much character-driven, but draws more upon the overall fatigue and hopelessness, mental, physical, and emotional, soldiers may find themselves into. This is unequivocally his movie, with the bulk of the camera focused on him, though John Cena provides adequate dramatic support in what is easily his best dramatic performance to date. Laith Nakli is the standard, sinister voice that’s needed for this type of feature when a mysterious character is unseen, think Kiefer Sutherfland in Phone Booth and Ted Levine in Joy Ride.

The first real surprise of the year? With a pretty limited script, a good director and strong performances keep The Wall from toppling over, ultimately making for an efficient war-set thriller.

B-

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Hacksaw Ridge: Movie Man Jackson

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Going to need a strong drink after this one. Maybe four or five. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) has long been a God-fearing Christian, and all-around good guy, who’s seen a few things growing up that has shaped him to be who he is. Who he is happens to be a pacifist; he doesn’t believe in killing people or even handling a firearm.

Being a pacifist isn’t an issue…except when Doss decides to join the Army as a medic in an effort to serve his country during its most important time in World War II. Even carrying the status of a conscientious objector, many in his squadron don’t believe Doss will be there when the chips are down and bully him into quitting. But a man of such strong conviction is one people should want on their side when the going gets tough, and it gets no tougher than Hacksaw Ridge, a battleground on the island of Okinawa that could turn the tide of the war if won.

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There’s really no point in comparing the two, but I can’t help it, as it is something that has stuck with me since early in the movie. Isn’t Hacksaw Ridge sort of like The Birth of a Nation? Not story-wise or anything, but both movies arrived in theaters with biographical subject matter, as well as controversial actions done by their directors. It can be argued (even likely) that Mel Gibson, director of Hacksaw Ridge, is much more controversial than director Nat Turner, for the simple fact that he’s been in the limelight longer for his actions to be unfurled. But like many things in life, winning cures a lot of ill will, and the same goes in cinema. Mel Gibson has a winner in Hacksaw Ridge.

How does he do it? A multitude of ways, but it starts with the writing. Gibson’s not a writer in this, but co-writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are. Together, they pen a compelling story about being convicted in one’s beliefs. Though Christianity is an important characteristic of the main character Desmond, this isn’t a film that pushes that, it pushes more the strength of the human spirit, and how anything can be done with the right determination. Granted, it isn’t a groundbreaking story, but it feels very authentic. Know how true stories and stories about biographical historical figures can be very Hollywoodized? Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel as such, maybe because for all intents and purposes, this is a screenplay that is not exactly original, but by no means adapted, either.

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This does not mean that Hacksaw Ridge‘s screenplay is perfect, however. Some of the first third of the movie is a little too clunky for my personal liking. And though this is clearly a story about Doss, the second act of the movie (if ever so briefly but still) seems to want to explore a few other characters in the squadron, but the third act comes and hardly anything is known about any of them aside from some endearing nicknames. Otherwise, they are somewhat faceless entities.

So not every character gets a lot of meat. But character shortcomings are not due to any fault of the cast. As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield turns in the work of his career, and it comes across so effortless. Okay, his accent isn’t completely on point, but it is more than passable and after a while, you stop listening to vocal oddities because he just sinks into the role. Every other actor/actress around him is firmly of the support fashion, but all stand out in whatever screentime they possess. Teresa Palmer can do so much more, yet she very captivating the moment she steps on screen, and Hugo Weaving could have an entire film anchored by his character, he’s that good here.

One has to give it to Gibson to coaxing great performances from guys who aren’t known for dramatic work. The troika of Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey all fit in perfectly. Out of the three, Bracey is the only other character in the entire feature who gets somewhat solid development.

But being honest here, as great as the acting and as good as the overall story is, Hacksaw Ridge is going to be remembered for its unrelenting war action ultraviolence that dominates the 3rd act. It comes so sudden and doesn’t let up once it does. The Hacksaw Ridge battleground itself is extremely frightening, a mix of uneven geography, perpetual haze, and depressing grey. Gibson gets a little too slo-mo happy in the final moments, but otherwise, the comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are warranted.

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10 years is a long time to be away from the directing chair, but it’s clear Gibson hasn’t lost much, if anything. Succeeding as first a stirring drama and then a visceral wartime action, Hacksaw Ridge isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

A-

Photo credits go to metro.co.uk, theplaylist.net, and screencrush.com

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Beasts of No Nation: Movie Man Jackson

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“You fight and kill anyone who destroys the peace!”

The life of a youngster can change in an instant. In an unnamed African village, youngster Agu (Abraham Attah), lives a safe and reasonably good life with his father, mother, older brother, younger sister, and grandfather. Even in the midst of oncoming war, Agu and his family are very blessed.

With the incoming forces arriving in their village, all of the women and extremely young leave for safety, but the males stay back and defend what their forefathers left for them. Unfortunately, their defense is short lived, as all are captured quickly and slaughtered, including all of Agu’s family. Agu flees, but is soon found by a rebel squadron with many young boys, led by the “Commandant” (Idris Elba). Facing death, Agu has little choice but to join, and soon becomes exposed to all of the wretchedness of war.

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Let’s get this out of the way. Beasts of No Nation is a tough watch, made all the more impactful because even though it’s a fictional story (adapted from a fictional novel), it’s clear that its inspirations come from events in the past like Sierra Leone, and events that are probably ongoing now with little news coverage. It all equates to an unflinching portrait of war and the individuals, mainly the children, who are forced to partake in it.

BoNN is pretty straightforward, absent of a layered plot/storytelling, but the film doesn’t really need it. Early, the audience is shown the life of Agu, in his eyes. It isn’t anything revelatory, or even all that interesting, but I don’t think it is supposed to be. Essentially, its the life of a little kid, which is supposed to be normal and identifiable. Which makes the eventual story shift to the uneasy all the more sobering, because this is a world that few know about.

Written and directed by Cary-Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective season 1), there’s a real first-person documentary-ish feel in spots that lends to the feeling of authenticity, but also enough space to see the whole picture. For the bulk of the 137 minute runtime, there’s no hope or light at the end of the tunnel to be found, and it is just draining to view. Thankfully, the story isn’t a complete downer, and ends with the prospect of something positive.

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The whole cast, from the bit players to the people front and center, is outstanding. Everyone adds to this experience of being unwilling people in a most challenging scenario. But, there are two performances that stand out, and definitely make Beasts of No Nation resonate more soundly. The work that teenager Abraham Attah turns in for his debut is nothing short of amazing, and it ranks up as one of the best young thespian roles ever, as well as one of the best lead acting jobs of 2015. The way Attah moves from happiness to fear to a state of shocking steeliness often all at once is impressive. He’s got this expression that says a thousand words, and his narrating voice gives a lot to the movie in the way of what Agu is thinking.

As pure evil, Idris Elba is magnificent. It’s hard to find shred of humanity in him, but like almost all great leaders, he has a level of charisma and gravitas that is impossible to resist, shown most clearly in scenes where he’s addressing the entire battalion. It’s like Jordan Belfort, but with more menace. And while a definitive African accent doesn’t exist as there are many dialects, Elba sounds legitimate, never struggling with it. It’s a powerful performance that needs to be recognized.

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With Netflix being the distributor, not being able to find Beasts of No Nation shouldn’t be an issue. Multiple watches will surely be tough to do (I’m done with one, honestly), but the heavy content matter shouldn’t deter from being viewed.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to nydailynews.com, examiner.com, goodonnetflix.com, and thewrap.com.

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