Hell or High Water (dir David Mackenzie)
A modern-day western set in a downtrodden West Texas, Hell or High Water tells he story of a man desperate to break the cycle of poverty, and provide for his family. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) needs to pay the debt owed on his mother’s mortgage, or they will lose the property to the bank, and with it the millions and millions of dollars of oil recently discovered on it. He turns to his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), recently released from 10 years in prison, for help. Together the pair commit a string of bank robberies, drawing the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who takes on the task of tracking them down.
This film is quite simply one of the year’s best. It’s a film where the bad guy isn’t so obviously the one with the gun, in fact we’re convinced that the banks and the economy are just as bad. It’s easy to put yourself in Toby’s shoes – he wants to be the man, the provider, and give his children something. The fact that this something is a contract with the bank and mere tens of thousands of dollars away is painfully frustrating, and thus we sympathise and even cheer him on. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham are wonderful, in fact this could be Pine’s best performace..ever? To top it all off, original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis reinforces the feeling that Texas is a land inhabited by outlaws.
Doctor Strange (dir Scott Derrickson)
Another dull origin story about a mostly unlikable male protagonist – thanks Marvel. When hot-shot neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the use of his hands, he travels to Nepal to find Kamar-Taj, a place he has heard is capable of performing medical miracles. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer with formidable powers, and equally formidable enemies to match. In order to restore the use of his hands he must first master the ancient arts and in doing so, he gains far more than he expected, including the immense responsibilities that go with having such knowledge.
Although many of the visuals appear to be taken from Inception, it’s the visual style and special effects which give this film some spark. While Marvel films have heroes with super powers, it’s less common for magical powers to be on show, and they’re done quite well here, particularly by Swinton as the Ancient One, who gets to put on quite the show. It’s a shame then that the screenplay was a lifeless affair, sticking rigidly to the well-worn origin story path and offering little in the way of comedy (I really didn’t find the cape stuff funny at all). The casting also felt rather off, with Cumberbatch particularly out-of-place speaking in an awkward American accent; while Rachel McAdams was also wasted in yet another disposable girlfriend role.
Hacksaw Ridge (dir Mel Gibson)
Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair has him telling the [true] story of Desmond Doss (played convincingly by Andrew Garfield), an American combat medic during World War II who became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. As a child Doss nearly killed his brother when fooling around, which led to him seeking solace and answers in religion and an absolute distaste for violence. He joins the majority of the men of his town and enlists in the Army, where he is faced with many challenges due to his beliefs and his refusal to use a weapon. When Doss eventually makes it to the frontline he is confronted by horrific violence, and he is forced to dig deep to survive and assist others.
Hacksaw Ridge‘s scenes of extreme violence are at odds with Doss’s pacifist beliefs, and it’s perhaps because of this that the film is so effective. Gibson knows how to shoot action – the war sequences are brutal, unrelenting, and extremely graphic in nature. There is absolutely no sugar-coating how awful the frontline was and this only emphasises the incredible bravery which Doss displayed. Vince Vaughan has an interesting turn as a platoon leader here, and his summing up of his troop is an incredibly entertaining and efficient way to introduce the many supporting characters in the film. The film does have a few bum notes, particularly in regards to Doss’s relationship with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and a ridiculous military court scene, but its main fault is to push the earnestness of Doss a little too hard. I can say that I walked away from the film with extreme admiration for Desmond Doss – what an absolute hero.