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A Moviebriefs Roundup: Hacksaw Ridge, Doctor Strange, Moonlight

Moviebriefs

Mel Gibson seems to be back in the industry’s good graces with this adaptation of the remarkable story of Desmond Doss. “Hacksaw Ridge” is one of those cinematic true stories where all the basic facts are reasonably accurate but all the people are much better looking. Andrew Garfield stars as Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II but refused to carry a weapon. After training as a medic, Private Doss and his rifle company are deployed at the Battle of Okinawa where they are tasked with climbing an enormous cliff-face to tackle the Japanese forces entrenched at the top. The first half of the film deals with Doss’ upbringing and his fight to serve in an unarmed capacity and the second half depicts the brutal carnage on Okinawa. Somewhat heavy-handed at times, the film succeeds in telling what is an extraordinary story in any medium. Doss was the only conscientious objector of WWII, and the only surviving one, to win the Medal of Honor, in large part for his actions in personally rescuing and lowering 75 injured comrades down that cliff-face. As such it’s the better superhero story of the week.

The seemingly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch now has a hold on the Marvel universe, appearing as “Doctor Strange” in the latest from that film franchise. Stephen Strange is indeed a strange heroic figure, having recklessly endangered himself and others in a car accident that renders him unable to continue as a gifted and narcissistic neurosurgeon. This causes him to travel to the Himalayas to train in the mystic arts, but primarily so that he can heal and return to that lucrative profession and presumably his inconsiderate driving habits. Training in remote Asian locations has become a bit of a film cliché, made worse here by having a white European as “The Ancient One” – albeit a strong female character (Tilda Swinton). The film is visually remarkable but also rather repetitive with a relatively simple storyline. It looks like an Inception-esque M. C. Escher fever dream filmed through a kaleidoscope and feels like Marvel’s Adventures of Jamiroquai.

Moonlight” is a harsh tale of clinical repression, following the life of a young African American as he grows into manhood on the tough streets of both Miami and Atlanta. Constantly bullied as a child and barely raised by his drug addict mother, he’s befriended by a local dealer who welcomes him into his home, somewhat unwittingly becoming a later role model for his behavior. The film is shot in three chapters, with three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) playing the lead role at different ages. They’re not especially similar in appearance but the quiet and understated acting from all three carry this powerful story of sexual awakening and identity formation, as he comes to terms with both his circumstances and his sexuality. I was reminded of the recent “American Honey” as this film unfolded, mistakenly expecting more of a climactic third act rather than the quiet and subtle development of the character arc. The film ends up mirroring the same restraint as the older character and, while some may wish for a few scenes more, it’s effective as a journey of self-discovery and identity even if the journey itself may not be over.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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