In America’s current political climate, where walls are being built to keep people out and bans are being enforced to stop diversity from getting in, it is important to remember that despite our differences, there is one universal feeling that unites us –love. And it is this theme that is at the centre of Peter Berg’s latest biopic, Patriots Day, a vivid and captivating retelling of the hundred hours that followed the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013. What defined that day, according to the film, was not the fear, hatred and anger that spilled blood onto the streets and plastered despair onto televisions around the world. Instead, it was the reactions of a broken and battered city that refused to let themselves be victims. It was the response of the townspeople that ran towards the bomb sites instead of away. It was the bravery of single, unarmed and untrained Chinese immigrant that had the courage to stand up for his new home. Simply put, it was the idea that we are greater together than we could ever be alone.
The film picks up in the early hours of the morning before the race, as Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a composite character used to represent the Boston police force, sneaks home to grab his uniform before heading out on the beat to work off his suspension. Patrolling the finish line Saunders has a front-row seat to the attacks and from the moment the bomb blasts rip through the unsuspecting crowds he is the audience’s connection to the action. Helping the wounded, re-tracing the bombers footsteps and ready to run in guns blazing, he bears the burden that many officers endured that day. Representing the bureaucracy a tier above him is FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), who is brought in after the explosions to run the show. Quick to point out that ‘the moment we label this terrorism, everything changes,’ it is not long until everyone is readying themselves for a fight, from John Goodman’s Commissioner Ed Davis to J.K. Simmons Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. With Boston on lock-down and the two Chechen bomber-brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev still on the loose, it is a race against time for the taskforce to take them down and prevent more lives lost.
Despite the bombings taking place just three years ago, Patriots Day is no mere rush job; instead layered with extensive research, first-hand accounts and the balls to tell it how it happened. Berg’s emphasis on a structured storyline provides audience members the grounding needed to navigate multiple subplots and scene-changes with ease too. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes of such catastrophic crimes and for once we are allowed backstage, privy to the recreations and analysis necessary to thwart such terror attacks. Making a movie about provocative and atrocious real-life events is something that will always prove challenging and Berg treads the fine line he is given with respect and compassion. With a history of big-budget biographical films and a box office of more than $250 million to live up to, it’s incredible that he managed to stay true to the emotional and human element rather than go for the obvious blockbuster set pieces.
One of the biggest let-downs for Patriots Day though is that it maybe goes too far in trying to prove itself accurate. Real CCTV footage is mixed in with actor recreations and moving from the rich, warm tones of film to the cold, fragmented security footage is jarring. And while emotionally affecting, when the film’s real-life counterparts appear interview-style in the final moments, they are so far removed from their previous depictions that we are again left feeling disjointed. With all the chaos and confusion Berg plays it relatively safe, jumping back and forth between good and bad while refusing to question how the film could provide a voice in the wider geopolitical sphere. He doesn’t want to look at why the brothers became radicalised. He doesn’t want to know whether it could have been prevented. But I wouldn’t say he is downplaying or dismissing it. Instead, it is simply that Patriots Day is the story of two men who did horrible things based on their beliefs but found they couldn’t defeat the strength of a town that refused to be silenced. The words ‘Boston Strong’ are never spoken during the film’s 133-minute runtime, but they are there in every tear, every defiant stare and every drop of blood.
The supporting cast certainly help carry the film from tele-movie territory to a multiplex-worthy drama. From Kevin Bacon’s no-nonsense FBI director to Michelle Monaghan’s worried wife, everyone pulls out their A-game and shares the spotlight. While Wahlberg is clearly pitched as the centre of attention, there is a reason neither he, nor any of the remaining cast, were ever going to be front-runners come awards season. Because no single person is meant to shine alone here, the ensemble instead representing the heart of Boston’s community. As for the terrorists in question, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff prove resounding new talents, innately aware of both the passion and rage their counterparts must have had to orchestrate such horrible events. While they never go so far as to treat them as innocent, they push it just far enough to remind us they were human too. This is particularly noticeable Wolff’s portrayal of Dzhokhar, juxtaposing the tender moments he played with his niece against the knowledge it was just a room over from where he was researching bomb-making. Or when he asked whether the car he and his brother had just stolen to carry out more attacks happened to have an auxiliary cable for playing music.
For the people of Boston, Patriots Day 2013 was not simply a horrifying ordeal but a violation of everything their community represented. But instead of letting mania, fear and violence take over, they fought back with the one thing that was left to them - love. Patriots Day may not be a perfect film, but it is a worthwhile one, if only because Berg makes sure we see that love in every angle, every scene and every goddamn shot. From a policeman saluting the body of eight-year-old victim Martin Richard as he is taken away, to Saunders sobbing on his wife’s shoulder and apologizing for asking her to come down the finish line. It sounds cliché to say that love is the answer. That’s something poets write about or rock stars’ croon. For most people, love is seldom seen and rarer felt. But Patriots Day challenges us to recognize that love begets love just as hate begets hate. So, despite trying times, like the people of Boston we need to stay strong. Run towards the fear, not away from it.
Rating: 3.5 Shoe Hearts out of 5
Grace under pressure, courage under fire, call it what you will but the ability to keep a level head when bullets fly or hell rains down from the heavens is something that just can’t be taught. From Saving Private Ryan (1998) to American Sniper (2014), in the war genre bravery is almost always represented by a character that faces extreme loss and threatened principles, only to rise from the ashes in glorious fashion. While Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is no different in its determination, it takes the phrase to a whole new level, showing the steadfast resolve of a man who would not quit or compromise in his belief that raising a weapon was not the only way to win a war. When biology conditions us to freeze, fly or fight in the face of fear, one man proved that there is another option. An option we can only call faith.
A film more than 14 years in the making, Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who after serving in World War II received the highest award that can be bestowed on a serviceman - the Congressional Medal of Honor – having singlehandedly saved approximately 75 men yet never raised a rifle in the process. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, when we first meet Doss he is a country kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains, already drawn to helping people after saving a young man crushed beneath a car. Wanting to do his part in the war and follow in the footsteps of his brother and father, he begins to read up on healing practices and enlists to become a medic. Refusing to carry a weapon based on his beliefs, when he is assigned to an infantry unit Doss is faced with overwhelming ridicule and persecution, not just from his company, but from the army itself. To them, it seems that he goes against the golden rule of American warfare; that of protecting your fellow soldier’s back, just as they protect yours. Steadfast in his stance, he is eventually sent to the battlefield at Okinawa, sans gun, where he is finally able to prove just what protection he can afford, going from believer to hero and ultimately, legend.
A lot has been said about the film’s director Mel Gibson in the last few years, but for all the anger and intolerance he has thrown around it cannot be denied that he does not bear at least some of the same courage and conviction of his lead character. His first film since 2006’s Apocalypto, it might be his best yet, if only for the fact he has dug through the proverbial dirt and grime of his own life to carry it to victory. The sentimentality is overwhelming at times, the score swelling with every emotional moment and slow motion camera shots lingering over our heroic angel-esque lead. But there is a distinct sincerity in the way Gibson handles this, crafting a slow burn build-up that helps us understand why Doss takes Pearl Harbour personally, but still wants to save lives instead of take them.
A scrawny Brit best known for his turn as The Amazing Spiderman, Andrew Garfield sinks his teeth into portraying a different kind of superhero here. Despite the sickeningly sweet nature of his character, one who sets his heart on marrying a nurse the first moment he meets her, Garfield is able to tread a miraculously fine line in proving that even the most pious among us can still have darkness within. For Doss, the real battle is rising above, ensuring his violence never bubbles to the surface like it did for his abusive and alcoholic father. Supporting him on that journey is an exemplary cast, each giving it their all to ensure our eyes never leave the screen. Vince Vaughn is reserved as Sergeant Howell, a man quiet in his ferocity yet instantly likeable in his devotion. Similarly, the bevy of Australian actors who round out the roles all manage solid performances, including Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker, elevating their angry and villainous stereotypes into well-rounded characters.
The visuals are incredible, roaring to life with a grim relentlessness that drums home the reality of war. It is bloody, it is violent and above all, it is not something to glorify as many directors often try to do. Instead, it is bodies lying broken in the mud, tourniquets that can’t save people and the rush of heat as flesh is set on fire. As an audience member it is such a spiritually draining experience we are left questioning just how the men were able to go through it themselves. Staged, choreographed and shot beyond precision, the camera never shies away from the nightmare, providing one of the most detailed and unflinching portrayals of war put to screen. Thankfully, buried beneath the bloodshed there is also an incredible humanity to the battle, with friendships forged in the bowels of the staggering violence and the ‘no man left behind’ mentality pushed to its extreme. Gibson’s propensity for gore in almost unrivalled in Hollywood, however here it never feels overdone or thrown in for the pure shock value. It would be a dishonour to those that fought in the Pacific theatre to depict it any other way.
Careful and calculated in its every move, Hacksaw Ridge is at its purest a look into the human soul. Even without the strong religious connotations it imbues, one can sense a power and poignancy to such sacrifice. It is, after all, an innately human thing to summon the courage to run back into the fray over and over, with only the mantra ‘help me get one more’ to keep you safe. This is perhaps best exemplified by video of the real Doss at the end of the film, recalling those same words in his American sprawl and looking like your average 87-year-old. For us audience members, we are just thankful he got there.
Rating: 5 Saved Lives out of 5
If it weren’t for the horrifying reality of the utter devastation the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused, the Hollywood restaging of the event could easily be called a work of art or a rollicking ride. But with 11 men dead, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the open ocean and the tagline of the biggest ecological disaster in American history, it is not a film one can cheer on, without feeling like a horrible person. That being said, it is a moving and resounding film that boasts stunning visuals, top-notch acting and a script that never treats the audience like their idiots. It is, arguably, everything you could want in a movie but there is such a dark sadness in that, it is hard to put into words.
The film follows the real-life story of the infamous and titular Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil-rig in the Gulf of Mexico that suffered a catastrophic tragedy in April 2010. As chief electrical engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigational worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez) and general operation supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) fly out to the rig to spend 21 days away from family and friends, trouble is already beginning to brew beneath the surface. Ominous underwater shots show us fissures in the giant concrete seal keeping the pipe’s contents in place and as the bubbles rise so do our heart rates. While the crew set about their technical and tedious trades, two visiting BP executives frustrated at the project’s long delays decide to make up for lost time by ordering some skewed system tests. When the pressure builds and the drill overflows, the structural flaws turn tragic and a full-scale blowout ensues. Cue one of the most impressive explosions ever put to film and the subsequent hour of gut-wrenching tension it brings with it, before the film finishes on the sombre note that even those who walked away were never quite the same again.
What makes Deepwater Horizon (2016) a standout, if not quite award-worthy, is the mesmerizing quality of its special effects. When the mud boils over and the fire rages, it feels like the hairs on the backs of your arms will singe with the sheer force and power of such catastrophe. Once the action starts it never grants us a moment to breathe either, as body’s slam into metal and quick cuts are choreographed in a complex dance of disarray. Backing up this frenetic feel is an incredible sound design, which provides the creaks and groans of mutilated metal, as well as the fear of a quiet, still moment. There is elegance amidst the chaos, no motion or music added simply for the sake of it and it’s great to see such control invoked. The acting too is exemplary, a credit to the real-life counterparts they convey. Where John Malkovich’s BP oil executive Donald Vidrine could easily have served as the stereotypical villain of the piece, he is humanised in his inability to understand the carnage around him. Similarly, Wahlberg is not your normal hero either, simply a man going about his business and lend a helping hand. Along with Russell and Rodriguez he proves that the real weight of sacrifice is a calm façade in the face of overwhelming terror.
The movie marks the second collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after the atmospheric army piece Lone Survivor (2013), the duo bringing the same intelligent and visceral style this time round. This is best exemplified by their choice to bookend the film with video from the real-life deposition of a man who was never able to go to sea again. Working from a smart and slick script by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the two never let us forgot that beneath the awe-inspiring action there is a tragic realism to such calamities. Interestingly the film manages to hold back, for the most part, in demonizing parent company BP, instead focusing on the intrinsically human element amidst the overwhelming spectacle. There are no ‘heroes’ here, simply the believable behaviour of people who made the right decisions at the right time and shared in the payoff of sheer dumb luck. The script is not without its flaws though and this comes in its limited and fraught ending, which, while poignant, pays little attention to the ongoing aftermath. Having stayed with the characters throughout their ordeal, we are never granted the option to leave their side to look at the long-term problems that day caused and that is a tragedy in itself.
Like most disaster films there is a moral undercurrent that lurks beneath the surface of Deepwater Horizon. Thankfully though, Berg never really takes the cheap shot of throwing it in our face. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which chastised us for ruining our planet, Deepwater Horizon uses an extended scene of an oil-covered bird thrashing about to do its talking for it. Its incredible visuals and storytelling provide the sheer force and destruction to humble us in ways you couldn’t imagine too. This was no hurricane, no typhoon, no cyclone, volcano, twister or earthquake. This was a man-made accident that permanently scarred the ecosystem and took lives. We seem to forget that in our constant effort for innovation and advancement we are as much our own destroyers as we are our saviours and Berg plays on this in the arresting image of the American flag surrounded by fire and smoke and death. Everything comes with a price.
Explosive, intelligent and genuinely sobering, Deepwater Horizon may not a perfect film, but it is a profound one. It is almost cathartic in how it traverses the fine line between eliciting emotion and playing on our sentimentalities. Because with tragedy, so too is there human spirit, and that stays with us long after the credits role. It is a touching tribute, in its own way, to those who went to work and never made it home, never striving to label itself as heart-warming and heroic piece, but achieving it nonetheless, and for that Deepwater Horizon is well worth the watch.
Rating: 4 Destroyed Lives out of 5
Superhero films are about a dime a dozen these days, the caped crusaders battling it out on the big screen and saving people like it’s simply an everyday occurrence. Amidst all the flashy CGI and awesome action though, we sometimes forget that it doesn’t always take idealised characters to pull off such extraordinary acts. That is where Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic Sully (2016) comes in, delivering us what could arguably be the seventh superhero film of 2016, detailing the complexities of the event the world dubbed the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. Despite the obvious outcome of the titular character’s quick judgement, just like the heroes in Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), our real-life protagonist was measured on how he executed his good deed, instead of simply the fact that he did. Like the line goes, he’s had forty years in the air, but in the end he’s going to be judged on 208 seconds. And judged he was.
For those that don’t know the story, on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1459 left New York’s LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it was set to stop over before flying on to Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Just three minutes into the flight and only 2,800 feet into its ascent, a flock of Canadian geese struck the plane causing critical engine loss. As the aircraft began to lose altitude Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) considered their options to return to LaGuardia Airport, land at nearby Teterboro airport or make the difficult decision to ditch the airliner off Midtown Manhattan in the Hudson River. They chose the latter. All 155 souls on board, including 150 passengers, 3 crew and 2 pilots survived the forced water landing of the Airbus A320, evacuating the partially submerged plane as it began to sink into the river, before being rescued by a number of nearby watercraft. In the days after the crash however, the National Transportation Safety Board began to look for a scapegoat amidst claims a safe landing could indeed have been possible at either of the nearby landing strips, leaving everyone wondering whether the right choice was indeed the one made.
Sully is a complex tale that develops from a seemingly clear-cut event. While many would simply see the incident as the act of heroism it is, director Clint Eastwood takes the opposite approach, sowing the seeds of doubt as to whether a safer and more viable option was available and turning achievement into government persecution. Over 35 films as director Eastwood has developed a tendency to villainise one group to ensure the valour of another and in a film that sees one man almost singlehandedly save 154 others, it’s run its course as a petty payoff. Heroes do not always need to be torn down to rise to victory, sometimes their actions alone are triumph enough. Eastwood instead panders to the politics, with an extraordinary individual targeted by those in power simply for being himself. One is left to wonder just how much better the story could have been had it been anchored in the psychological trauma those involved were left to deal with.
While for the most part Sully launches well and lands strongly, that’s not to say there isn’t some turbulence along the way. For one, it suffers technical problems in the position of the highly anticipated crash scene. Opening with a clichéd ‘what if’ scenario to get us on edge, Eastwood saves his big reveal until halfway through the movie, making us wade through forty-five minutes of flashbacks and frenzied fame until we reach the inevitable climax. What’s worse though is that Eastwood recounts the scene again nearly cue for cue in the final moments of the film, taking away all the original impact and alienating the humanity he was trying so hard to invoke. That being said, considering audience members not only know the crash is coming but also its positive outcome, Eastwood works his magic to make it adrenaline pumping and heart-hammering, as we tense on the edge of our seats and pray we never have to go through similar events.
Incredible acting is arguably what holds the broken pieces of the film together, with both leading men doing an outstanding job and giving their utmost to honour their real-life counterparts with genuine emotion and charisma. While screen veteran Hanks boasts an effortless charm as the moustachioed, white haired hero, Eckhart manages an unshowy and unassuming turn as Sully’s support act, deserving just as much praise and acclaim. The remainder of the cast is solid too, rounded out by some acting greats, including Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley and Laura Linney. Although their performances are relegated to burn in the background, they are nuanced and tempered, bringing understated warmth to the film. It’s a shame therefore that Eastwood isn’t as generous with their time as he could have been. I mean, there has never been a more apt phrasing for Linney’s role than that of ‘phoned in’.
The shortest film Eastwood has directed to date, Sully is a portrait of how important humanity is to some of society’s most devastating catastrophes and near-misses. From the cabin crew who remain calm and call out commands, to the air traffic controllers, ferry operators and pilots who made crucial, split-second decisions that saved lives. You don’t have to be a superhero to work together. You don’t have to be a superhero to care about one another. No line from the screenplay paints the film’s picture better though than when you are brought to the realisation that New York is so often devoid of good news, especially when it comes to planes. Despite its flaws, Sully pulls no punches in hitting home just how heroic one man can be. If only Eastwood had done as good a job as Captain of the film, maybe all the cinemagoers would walk away feeling it a miracle, instead of simply a moving tribute.
Rating: 3 Window Seats out of 5
Despite only directing seven films in the genre, James Wan is undeniably a modern master of horror. His talent comes in taking simplistic stereotypes like brides and clapping games and making them the stuff of nightmares. His latest flick, scary sequel The Conjuring 2 (2016) continues the trend, making sure you’ll never think of nuns or British pensioners in quite the same way. Taut, tense and downright terrifying, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t quite scare up the same suspense as its predecessor, but damn it if it doesn’t come close.
Based on the true tale of the Enfield Poltergeist, the film follows the Hodgson family, made up of mum Peggy, daughters Margaret and Janet, and boys Johnny and Billy. Life is not easy for the British bunch, with no money for biscuits and young Billy picked on at school for his stutter. Things get a whole lot worse though when Janet finds herself teleporting around the house and hosting the deep voice of a 70 year old man named Bill Wilkins. Nearing the end of their tether, the family take their story public in the hope that someone will hear their plight and help. With their own personal problems, which become more evident as the film progresses, supernaturalists Ed and Lorraine Warren are reluctant to get involved when called in by the Catholic Church. However, reason gives way to heart, and they take up the cause to decipher whether it is one of the worst cases they’ve ever faced or one of the biggest wind-ups in paranormal history.
It’s a smartly scripted piece, bringing us full circle from the first film and again playing on the terrors that lurk out of sight rather than those we see. What’s even smarter this time round though is the strong focus on the children and in particular Janet, who are the only ones who witness the disturbances at the start before adults are gradually introduced to the terrors, thereby making us constantly question the validity of the ‘ghost’ story and the truth or trickery behind it. Sequels too often fall into the trap of trying to emulate their former films scene-by-scene that they forget to bring anything new to the plate. But what makes The Conjuring 2 succeed, is its inclusion of the opposing voice – the critics, non-believers and sceptics. Balanced films are so few and far between nowadays that it is a pure and simple joy when one finally surfaces. So much so that it is easy to forgive its weaker parts.
The film certainly has them though, notably in the rather long time it takes to really get rolling, with the Hodgson’s and the Warren’s not even meeting until after the first half of the film. When they do, it is still stand-offish, as any true bond between the families seems fractured until the inevitable denouement. What is also surprising is the fact Wan leaned on the same scare a number of times. Creepy turns around corners are indeed chilling for viewers to watch, but eventually what was once thrilling turns somewhat tedious. The other downside is the extreme variance in the ghosts and ghouls. Where the nun is perhaps one of the creepiest characters ever put to screen, the crooked man comes across as a laughable and cartoonic CGI caricature.
Wan proves his mettle though with some simply stunning shots, including a creative scene involving the unsettling nun, an establishing shot where we are guided around all the individual rooms of the Hodgson home to witness the inhabitants within, and another involving an eerie and evocative interview made with backs turned. He tests our sanity time and time again, building up anticipation, only to let it come crashing down around you. One of his best sequences has to be the moment Ed sings an impromptu Elvis concert, as you wait thoroughly prepared for the family night to turn south and instead are simply given the utter delight of Patrick Wilson’s voice. A good horror director knows when to scare you, a great one knows when not to, and the best understands the area in between. Horror aficionados and enthusiasts will certainly be pleased, with Wan creating a clear homage to the best of the best. Where Hitchcock mastered suspense at the turn of the 20th century and Craven turned schlock and slasher into something memorable in the seventies, Wan will be remembered for his stylish and sophisticated presence in the genre for many years to come.
Young actress Madison Wolfe proves her status as a rising star, with a controlled and compelling performance, donning an incredible British accent that will make you do a double take to believe she really is a bonafide American. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are also electric, cranking up the notch without succumbing to cliché, their chemistry eliciting genuine emotion from their audience by the film’s resolution. The only downside to this is the depth of their storyline sometimes stunts the films progression, as you become too rooted in their world and not in the connection they have with the family. They are, after all, at their best when they are answering their calling from God, and between the stories dual arc and the focus on questioning the validity of the girls account, we don’t see them unite enough.
One of the biggest problems fans might raise with the film though is its quick dismissal of iconic and well-documented Amityville case. The movie opens with the Warrens investigating the event, before strongly suggesting it was none other than a hoax. However, that is the beauty of The Conjuring 2, in taking something so cinematically infamous and turning it on its head, juxtaposing it with the film’s final climactic reveal and reminding audiences’ horror is so much more than blood, guts and gore. It is a sequel that does its predecessor proud, respecting the tone and style already established, yet remaining unique enough it to stand on its own feet. How lucky we are to have two such films now in this world…
Rating: 4 Crucifixes out of 5
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