Mel Gibson

Review – Hacksaw Ridge

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Review – Hacksaw Ridge

By guest columnist my_year_in_movies.

Of all of this years Oscar nominated movies, this was one that I’ve really been looking forward to and it didn’t let me down. Hacksaw Ridge really is a story of two halves. The first half is kind of like a well-made Nicholas Sparks movie with a bit of ‘Private Benjamin’ thrown in for good luck. That might sound like an insult but it really isn’t meant to be. It does a great job of explaining Doss’s situation and his beliefs, so that by the time the second half of the movie starts you’re fully invested in his story, it’s believable and you’re with him. There are some strong dramatic moments and also a fair smattering of comedic moments and by the end of the first hour I had been pulled into quite a nice comfortable place.

Then they go to war.

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Conspiracy Theory

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The best things about this movie are not the things the studio wants you to want to see the film for- the story is interesting but not all that spectacularly innovative. The script is clever and Mel Gibson’s performance is really excellent. More on that in a bit. Lots of things happen on screen that the average moviegoer (naturally, I am above average – :) ) would not notice but the discerning viewer can appreciate them – little conspiracy culture in-jokes (some of which are partially explained later in the film) and so forth. The opening sequence is a delightful paranoid rant by Jerry (Mel’s character) to various cab customers of his, edged visually with a film noir sensibility. According to director and cab passenger cameo Richard Donner, that rant is Mel in a nutshell – it was no doubt all improv, and it’s quite funny. The score by the inestimable Carter Burwell (he did the scrumptious Hudsucker Proxy score, and other Coen Brothers films) contributes significantly.

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Say what you might about Mel Gibson’s personal peccadillos, but the guy knows how to make an action adventure movie. For those of you repelled by the violent brutality of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, rest assured that Apocalypto is only as violent as his Braveheart (and without steel weapons, I might add). Interestingly, Gibson manages to take another group generally considered the victims of a dominant group of whites, and paint them as the bad guys who needed conquering. (See 2000 articles about the Jews in Passion and the native Mayan residents of present-day Mexico in Apocalypto.) To be sure, city life in Mayan civilization has proved to be extremely bloody and seemingly capricious, but the over-industrialization of the environment and the coming of Cortez and his small pox blankets and metal weaponry was much more devastating to the region.

Despite its advertising, Apocalypto (Greek for “an unveiling and a new beginning”) is really about the heroic struggle of one man, Jaguar Paw, to save his family from marauding city Mayans. His hunter-gatherer village in the Yucatan rain forest is attacked by the more organized and modern Mayan civilization, one that developed writing and pyramids and slavery and agriculture and husbandry. The attack seems motiveless, needlessly savage, and wasteful of the resources that could have been plundered. The after-attack movie shifts gears into an intense adventure film centered on Jaguar Paw.

I have to say, if Apocalypto isn’t nominated (if not victorious) for an Oscar for hair and makeup, I will be extremely disappointed. Everyone has an interesting body modification of some sort, and the designs are very consistent with Mayan art and symbology; the different social strata are clearly defined as well. It’s an incredibly gorgeously made film, and the rigors associated with it are also very evident.

Some have said that this film is Gibson’s allegory to the tendency (explored in Jared Diamonds book Collapse) of great civilizations inevitable collapse, hinting by implication that western industrial society is on the same path. Corruption from within undoing us more than throughout, the ease with which an outsider (Cortez) can take us down if we are chaos inside (Mayans). To debunk this theory on the movie, check out Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel. We get an extremely limited and savage view of the accomplished Mayan world, one rivaling the ancient Egyptians in construction, culture, language, mathematics, and astronomy, but without benefit of metallurgy or the wheel. I believe we are meant to applaud this culture’s downfall, but despite Jaguar Paw’s experience, I feel the global loss was very great.

As Jaguar Paw, Rudy Youngblood carries the bulk of the movie on his rangy shoulders. His friend, whose name was too swiftly heard and too infrequently repeated, hinted at being a martyred hero at every turn, but Jaguar Paw runs away with the real glory. The whole film is performed in the Yucatec Maya language, which is more modern, but still tied to its ancient roots. Like with Passion, it is fascinating to watch actors perform so well speaking an entirely alien language to themselves. While the sacrificial practices are more a reflection of the Aztecs than the Maya, most of the film feels very well researched and intensely real.

MPAA Rating R-graphic violence and disturbing images
Release date 12/8/06
Time in minutes 139
Director Mel Gibson
Studio Buena Vista Pictures

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The Passion of the Christ

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All controversy and religious fervor or outrage aside, this film needs to be looked at as what it is: a movie. Despite the spectacular amounts of hype and hoopla, despite the lightning strikes (literally) and conversions, this is, after all, still a movie. Is it a good movie? I’ll tell you what I think.

First of all, I need to applaud the actors, all of them, for performing in languages not their own for the entirety of the film, against other actors doing the same, and being completely believable and emotionally rich. Jim Caveziel (Jesus) in particular has a lot to deal with in any given scene besides Aramaic inflection and he came off like a native. Secondly, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. I can’t say that everything captured on film is gorgeous, but even in our neck-cricked front row seats, every shot was really stunning.

I wonder how many people noticed the single frame blips of multiple red dots at different points on the screen during the first hour or so of the film. It was an interesting editing choice, a subliminal way to make you feel the immediacy of the event as if you are there – as if seeing flecks of blood on the camera lens right before a cut to another angle. And it is not at all unreasonable to think that the camera lens would be spattered with specks of blood, because every other available surface in the scene is.

Yes, the violence against the body of Jesus and the injustice of the charges is extreme. It is unspeakably uncomfortable to watch the scourging of this man. Regardless of who the prisoner might be in a historical or religious context (and I am not belittling or invalidating anyone’s faith here), you cannot watch what is being done to Caveziel and not feel waves of horror and empathy and numbing disgust at the cruelty of which man is capable. I felt the most sympathy when his mother Mary (aided by a flashback from Jesus’ childhood) is responding to the maternal fever to protect her son. After all that, does anyone even remember who ratted out who to whom in the actual arc of the film? No – it all fades under a torrent of blood.

As a film, well, if you hadn’t read the book, so to speak, you would definitely not get what the deal is. Director Mel Gibson and screenwriters Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald seem less concerned with The Greatest Story Ever Told and more concerned with showing the depths of the sacrifice that the human body of Jesus Christ underwent. They do succeed, but is a convincing snuff film really a good film? Whether he was Messiah or lunatic, man or god, the short version of the story is that his flesh was rent asunder by men and wept over by women. No matter what amount of good this act should have done the world, it is mortifying to realize he was far from the first or the last person to be mauled in such a way. Who to blame for killing Jesus or why they did pales beside how they did it. Do we feel the depths of his conviction (regardless of whether it comes from divine light or madness)? We do. Do we feel the depths of his torment? Oh my word we do. But do we come away with anything more than “that was some seriously unpleasant stuff I just sat through?” No. In that sense, the film failed me. And don’t get me started on why this movie has an R rating when sexuality in other films is given an NC-17.

The hype? Your own personal religious beliefs can tell you whether you should be outraged at the plot points as presented here; I am no Biblical scholar and I certainly don’t think anything about a death as charged as that of Jesus of Nazareth can be handled in such a brief time when there is flaying to be done. From a technical standpoint, the film is impressive. From a narrative or message-bringing standpoint, it left me wanting.

MPAA Rating R- insane, unrelenting graphic violence
Release date 2/25/04
Time in minutes 126
Director Mel Gibson
Studio Newmarket Films

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I am pleased to report that the incredibly effective music in the preview is in the film, a rarity. Also some of the takes used in the preview aren’t as good as the ones in the film; saving the effective stuff for the Real Show. My summary: Not as good as the Sixth Sense but much better than Unbreakable.

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What Women Want

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How is it than an international hunk of Mel Gibson’s caliber, who dances so divinely, has not managed to be in a real romantic comedy before now? I mean, seriously, Bird on a Wire aside, think about it – MEL GIBSON. Handsome, likable, funny, sexy, smart – seems pretty obvious. casting him next to the relatively uninteresting Helen Hunt is a bit of a waste, but at least she can keep up with him. The night we saw this, the film choices for my companions and I were this or Quills, the Marquis de Sade Oscar bait movie. I am sure Quills is great and I will see it but I am glad I rushed out and saw this early. It’s simple, great fun.

Mel, as you may have divined from the preview, is a man’s man, a total shlomo scammer pickup artist wham bam thank you man guy of the 80’s, and yes, it’s set in 2000. Luckily for him he looks like Mel Gibson, otherwise he would have a very hard time picking up anyone with his boorish, sexist behavior. “Think like a broad” – he is pure old school Frank Sinatra. Raised by Vegas showgoils, he apparently lives in an altered reality – but he sure can dance! I’m just going to keep mentioning his dancing skills and hope you will notice. Did I mention he’s in advertising, a smarmy offshoot of sales, the smarmiest profession on earth?

Yadda yadda yadda, cut to the chase, he can hear the thoughts of women. This is good for him, as it causes him to get into hilarious situations, moral quandaries, and ultimately grow as a man. This should not be a surprise, don’t groan “you gave it away!” at me! As it turns out, director Nancy Meyers makes sure it’s good for us, too, because not only do the women of the audience hear their own thoughts echoed in the minds of the silent ladies parading past on screen, but they get to see how men react to those thoughts. It’s quite amusing. An inexplicable cameo by Bette Midler as Gibson’s shrink makes the story turn a corner it definitely needed to turn.

Did I mention Mel has his shirt off for a good long chunk of this movie? This should help. Guys, Marisa Tomei is in it!

The short version – this is a delightful, funny movie, with nice smiley moments but mostly gamut-running laughs: a few intellectual jokes, a few shots of Macho Mel in toenail polish, and everything inbetween. The situation is screwball enough that it needed the 50’s crooner soundtrack to tie it to its gender gap roots, but updated to the almost-evolved Strong Women Are OK (As Long As They Still Melt In My Manly Hands) era of today. Nothing mind-bendingly brilliant here, but fun, charming (hey, it’s Mel, for goodness’ sake!) and a thoroughly enjoyable movie. I don’t know if I will see it 3 times in the theatres like Meet the Parents, but I will always welcome it if it crosses my path again.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/15/00
Time in minutes 120
Director Nancy Meyers
Studio Paramount

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Chicken Run

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If you have never seen work from Aardman Studios, you have to see Chicken Run, without hesitation. You have seen some if you saw the talking Chevron cars or pay attention to the animated short subject winners of the Oscars. Aardman is excessively famous for producing the three shockingly sophisticated Wallace and Gromit shorts (about 18-27 minutes long). No, it’s not a cartoon – it’s claymation. Plasticenemation, to be precise, and there is a difference. I could write a book about the intricate beauty, the realism, the depth, the craft of this kind of work, but you should just rush right out and see it. Chicken Run is Aardman’s first full-length feature, first wide distribution of big-screen plasticenemation, at least in America. I should also mention it’s billed as a comedy and a drama – yet it’s rated G. Catch an evening show so the gasping kiddies won’t drown out the rapid-fire dialogue.

Nick Park, the Oscar-weighted genius behind the Wallace and Gromit films (they only get better the more you watch them, and they are available for rental!), directs Chicken Run along with Peter Lords, who collaborated with him on the LipSynch series, the most famous of which is Creature Comforts. That is also available on video, by the way. Nick loves detail – and in claymation the crew has HOURS upon hours of intensive labor in which to fill the little clay world with detail and whimsy. I wouldn’t even try to claim I absorbed half of it – after 7 viewings of The Wrong Trousers I still noticed new things. Park is amazing – his sense of space and lighting and color and texture stuff the screen. Hysterically, he has chickens wearing glasses and instead of being accepted like Donald Duck’s pants, his characters are so marvelous that you are forced to laugh at the idea of them wearing glasses. Oh, drat, I am not explaining this well. It’s script, it’s character animation, it’s brilliant voice casting (IMDB is unhelpful here – Starring: Julia Sawalha , Mel Gibson , Miranda Richardson , Tony Haygarth and Phil Daniels is the cast credits), it’s inventiveness taken to new levels. Just go see it! You can catch images from the official site, perhaps that will help.

Did I mention it stars the voice of Mel Gibson? But that doesn’t make a difference, really. Mel is a charismatic hero, with a sense of humor, and that’s all you need to make Rocky Rhode Island Red a winning character (Mel is great, totally redeeming himself for Pocahontas). The voices that really fit the story are the English actors. Something about Aardman just feels weird pronounced in American – the Chevron cars were creepy and unpleasant, while Wallace is just as charming as can be. I realize this is turning into a big commercial for Aardman Animation, so I will reiterate that you should check out everything they have done and then run out to see this movie. Or vice versa.

The only reason it gets Matinee with Snacks instead of Full Price Feature is that it is a wee bit slanted toward, well, American children. It’s kind of simple, straightforward, it has a few sad puns and a little bit of mocking the odd one out (never cool). It is glorious to watch. Consider that film runs 24 frames per second, and in order to have really fluid motion, one must move at 16 frames per second. Sixteen frames per second. Some of the motions aren’t nearly so rapid fire as that – but consider also that Chicken Run is 4,980 seconds long (give or take), so picture the 12 hr day in the studio where they get about 10 seconds of action on film. Nick Park likes things to wobble, to settle after movement, to rustle, to look real. So even if we are seeing a close up of Mac (my favorite chicken, the Scot in glasses) speaking, her feathers are wiggling with her breath, something is moving in the background, etc. Never mind a yard full of panicking hens throwing their knitting about in terror! The sheer glee, the novelty of Park and Lords” inventiveness, is what makes this more than just that scary Rudolph claymation from the 1970’s.

It’s labor intensive, claymation is, and in this case, the results are more than worth it. Pay your money and support this kind of fine art.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/23/00
Time in minutes 83
Director Nick Park, Peter Lord
Studio Dreamworks

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Payback (1999)

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If I were the type to walk out of movies (which I am sure you all have surmised I am not!), and I had walked out in the first 45 minutes, I would have described this movie as a somewhat hokey film noir with a gravelly voiceover by Mel Gibson straight out of any pulp novel you can name, say, The Killer Wore Fishnets. The thing is (and I am ready to dive into my bomb shelter), ** I would have said the same thing about the first 45 minutes of L.A. Confidential.** Payback is not based on the most complex book ever written about Los Angeles, but it is a surprisingly delicious little action/seedy crime world movie with a simple, archetypal beginning and an interesting, whiz bang of an ending. Sure, it’s a little hard to believe that a superhuman like Mel wouldn’t have his limits, but you know what? It’s fun. Take this as you will, but it’s L.A. Confidential meets Conspiracy Theory, without Julia Roberts and with the screen writer of L.A. Confidential. Ah-ha! Hey, Guido, didn’t he win an Oscar that year? Yeah, Joey, I think he did.

It starts with a little twisty confusing timeline; but if you think about it, it works out, and certainly makes for some interesting revelations. After that, it gets going. My companion made me a bet that the music was by Carter Burwell (which is a supreme compliment to the actual composer) – it’s not, but it’s tasty. It’s a gritty Metropolis underworld syndicate kind of tough guy paean, with hookers and thugs, guns and drugs, the whole shebang. Gibson’s cigarette-roughened voiceover sets the tone (which actually, I commented early on that the script sounded like a film student trying to make Pulp Fiction or The Untouchables) and it dropped my expectations – then suddenly I was loving how cool everything was linked together by our man Mel.

First time director Helgeland was replaced in post-production by Gibson (producer) because Mel felt his character wasn’t sympathetic enough. If this is the Disneyfying of what Helgeland had before, I’d be afraid to see the director’s cut! Mel gets messed up worse than Bruce Willis in a Die Hard movie, and if that’s your cup of tea then by all means, line up for Payback! It’s got the goods, boss. Woo, and that foxy Ling broad from dat chick show about dem lawyers, boss!

I was also impressed by the machinations to make the city no city (much like they did in Seven), with no indication that it was anything but a Big City in America with drugs and crooked cops and cool old buildings like in NY but definitely not New York. Even the license plates were magically genericized…impressive, and subtle. Maria Bello, formerly of ER, plays against type as a high class hooker, and the woman we chicks know as Ling from Ally McBeal plays deep into her type as a sadist hooker. Very interesting that not one person in this movie is upstanding or socially redeemable in any way. It kind of forces you to make new moral distinctions between bad and worse. Speaking of Bad and worse, someone please send Kris Kristofferson some lotion before his eyes totally disappear into his weathered face. Warning – some torture scenes are not for the squeamish – they don’t show much but ow ow ow ow!!! “FREEDOM!!!”

It’s fun and it’s a nice little genre movie that doesn’t just lovingly photograph earnest-looking Mel. Buy some popcorn and chomp it happily.

MPAA Rating R-violence, language, and drug and sexual content.
Release date 2/5/99
Time in minutes 104
Director Brian Helgeland
Studio Paramount Pictures