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Hacksaw Ridge – Director, Mel Gibson

I have to admit I was sceptical about this movie when I went to see it. Mel Gibson has been, let us say, controversial in recent years although I have always been fan from the days of Gallipoli, Mad Max, and Lethal Weapon to name but a few. My philosophy has always been to like the actor’s roles if not the actor’s real persona (i.e. Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey etc). But Directors are something else. Gibson however dazzles in this film. A warning to those who do not like graphic violence or depictions of battle, you may not enjoy some of the scenes. The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in the Second World War who enlisted and served as a medic. He refused to carry a weapon which cost him much respect from his fellow soldiers and commanders during his training and initial deployments. At the battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa, he redeems himself in the eyes of his comrades. As the marines were beaten back by Japanese troops he remained at the top of the ridge and single handedly rescued 75 wounded soldiers one by one including his commanding officer. He is the only medic to receive the Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery under fire. The story of his struggle and the respect he won for his bravery and his refusal to carry a weapon and kill others is exciting and moving. At the end of the film some of the characters who are alive are interviewed and lend reality to what is a remarkable film. It has five nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and three technical awards for Sound and Editing all deserved. The fact that it has not received any acting nominations is somewhat disappointing. I thought the performance of Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Hugo Weaving as his father were superb. The editing nomination is also well deserved as you sit on the edge of your seat during the rescue of the 75. Clearly Mel has learned something after all these years of film making.

Hell or High Water – Director, David Mackenzie

I was a bit surprised that this film made it to the list of Best Pictures, not because it doesn’t deserve recognition but because it is a low budget film ($12 Million) It also grossed less than $30 million so while it made money it was not exactly a box office hit. Still to be fair the Academy nominated a number or small budget films this year of excellent quality. Hell or High Water is a superb film, beautifully filmed and acted with star turns by Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges who managed a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It also managed a nomination for Best Screenplay as well. The film is set in rural Texas. Chris Pine owns a farm on which oil has been found but on which the bank holds a mortgage and who are keen to foreclose. To avoid this and take some revenge Pine recruits his ex-con brother to rob a series of the bank’s branches to pull together the money needed to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. Jeff Bridges is the cop who is out to track them down. Of course you are rooting for the brothers but Bridge’s character is also worthy of sympathy for reasons that will be revealed to those of you who see this film. No spoilers here. I really enjoyed this movie and highly recommend it. It will not win Best Picture but is definitely worth the nominations it received.

Arrival – Director, Denis Villeneuve

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This movie has been very well received and is nominated for eight Oscars, five of which are technical for design, sound, editing etc. The three big ones are Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Okay… all that said I am very nervous to write this review. I did not like this movie. It I like Close Encounters of the Third Kind in terms of the message but is not nearly close to being as good. I think some critics like it because it is not Alien or other thriller type Sci-Fi. It has pretensions of being cerebral but it was boring, contrived, and the ending was just stupid and really disappointing. Amy Adams is the lead and her performance has been praised but thank God the Academy had enough sense not to nominate her for Best Actress because while good, she is not amazing and the role is dumb like the movie. Villeneuve is Canadian and I have liked and disliked his films. Sicario is very good but Prisoners was really disappointing. Incendies which made his career was okay. He is working on a sequel of Blade Runner, not a remake but a story set 30 or 40 years in the future from the original. It will star Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. I am worried because Blade Runner was awesome but this?… I am not sure this is wise.

Fences – Director, Denzel Washington

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This film is all about Denzel Washington. He produced, directed and acted the lead role. He managed to capture three Oscar nominations: Himself as Best Actor, his co-star Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress and for August Wilson for the screenplay based on his Broadway play of the same name. Wilson passed away in 2005 and I have to assume the script for the film is very close to the original. Both actors performed the same roles in a Broadway revival a few years ago earning Tony awards for their portrayals. The movie covers a few months in the lives of a black family in Pittsburgh in 1957 and, like Manchester by the Sea, is difficult to watch as the family self destructs around the actions of Washington’s character who plays the father but comes together again at the end by the strength of the mother. Her soliloquy at the end of the film as she confronts her son’s anger reminded me in power at least of Linda Loman at the end of Death of a Salesman. The knock on the film has been that it fails to adequately transform the story from the stage to the screen but this is picky. The performances are all very good and while I do not expect them to win Oscars to put beside the Tony awards, they are compelling. I hesitate to recommend films like this because it is not escapist entertainment but will leave you thinking and if you are up for that kind of entertainment don’t hesitate to have a look.

Manchester-by-the-Sea – Director, Kenneth Lonergan

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This is maybe the best movie I have seen in a very long time. My favourite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia which is something I can watch over and over again but while Manchester-by-the-Sea is now up there with my top 10 I will not. It is far too powerful and draws you in very personally. I went to see this with a full house at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Very briefly it is the story of a man played by Casey Affleck who is a handyman for a sort of marginal landlord in Boston when we meet him. He has a brother who is a single dad and a nephew in the picturesque town of Manchester. As the film opens he receives news that his brother has passed away and there is a will and the 16-year-old nephew needs support.  Among the challenges left by his brother is the request for Casey Affleck to be his nephew’s guardian.  Already it is complicated but as the film unwinds it becomes even more and more complex. The story is totally engaging and so real that I think the audience all find someone to identify with and enter into their emotional struggles. The film does not end sadly or unresolved but rather you know the characters will all carry on but you have had a chance to gain a glimpse into them and their lives deeply and personally. Lonergan uses both humour and pathos to make his story come alive.  It is this that leaves the audience sitting quietly and reflectively.  I won’t say any more or the film would be spoiled. Enough to say that at my viewing, when the final credits ran, literally no one in the audience moved or said anything for what seemed like several minutes. We were all just stunned by the power of the film, the acting and the story. Casey Affleck turns in a performance that must win him an Oscar. He has already won several best actor awards for this role including a Golden Globe and is nominated for a BAFTA award as well. Having seen all the other contenders, I would be amazed if he does not win the Oscar. I recommend this film without reservation and just note that you will not be entertained so much as enter a complex and deeply emotional world that will not devastate but nonetheless will draw out a strong emotional response. Be prepared.  Kleenex for some is recommended.

Gaza Surf Club, Directors — Philip Gnadt and Mickey Yamine

Last film of the festival and one of the more interesting. It is a documentary about a group of Palestinians who have a Beach Boys urge to surf but who have no access to boards, teachers or a safe beach. The Israeli occupiers will not allow surf boards to be imported because they fear they will be used to smuggle in weapons from the sea to terrorists on shore. Boats for fishing are allowed because they can be tracked on radar but surf boards are invisible being so small and low to the water. The Surfers must therefore make their own but the club members do not have the knowledge or skills they need to make good quality boards. While on the surface this movie is about a small band of friends who wish to bring surfing to the Palestinian youth stuck on the Gaza Strip, it is really a window on a small oppressed population who endure the constant threat of war and yet try to hold on to their traditions and a reasonable life in an isolated, war torn part of the world. We gain insight into the place of women in that society and a traditional way of life that conflicts with the freedom of the surfing culture they dream of in far off Hawaii. One of the members of this small Surf Club escapes to Hawaii to learn new skills and how to build and repair surf boards. He however decides returning to Gaza is not for him and remains in the US at least at the time the movie was completed. This is not the best documentary ever made but it is nonetheless a unique view into a part of the world most of us never see. Worth the price of admission should you get the chance.

The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America, Director — Paul Dugdale

This is a documentary about the Rolling Stones recent concert tour to Latin America that ends with their historic first ever concert in Havana Cuba. The film follows the band around from Rio, to Montevideo to Peru and finally to Havana. In course of the journey we see the band members interacting including a great back stage performance of Honky Tonk Women with Keith Richards on acoustic guitar and Mick singing just the two of them. Keith and Mick are the leaders and they have the most screen time between them. The concerts are loud and entertaining the fans scream throughout often drowning out the music. The director clearly has a great relationship with the band and you get some wonderful moments with them all. The movie progresses but the Havana concert is the ongoing story as preparations are made. The date of the concert has to be moved eventually because it conflicts with President Obama’s visit to Cuba, the first of a US President in 80 years. The concert is moved 5 days ahead and is now scheduled on Good Friday. Not a huge issue in a communist country but the Pope gets involved and the whole thing is nearly cancelled. Thankfully the Cuban government intervenes and the concert goes as scheduled. The final scenes of the concert are an absolutely great performance of I Can’t Get No, Satisfaction. It is loud, it is great, the crowd is screaming, Mick is screaming and you just get totally absorbed into one of the archetypal rock songs of the 60’s. Great stuff. You have to remember these guys are all in their 70’s and the energy they exude would make any 20 year old jealous. Mick is stunning as he races around the stage, dancing and singing. The only member who acts his age at all is Charlie Watts and he is still a classic rock band drummer. So much fun.