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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews, November 4

MML

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS **** (133 minutes) M

All pity to those who remain unmoved by the emotional intimacy and visual sweep of this absolutely beautiful, superbly directed romantic tragedy.

Set immediately after World War 1 – signified by a train platform peppered by the walking wounded – Tom (Michael Fassbender) desperately needs stability, structure and solitude.

With the horrors of battle bouncing around his head he finds great solace in the prospect of a new job as the lone lighthouse keeper in a remote part of the West Australian coast. The isolation and constant vigilance suit him to a T.

So, too, does Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a local lass who happily marries him so she can join him.

Despite the toil required, they are so happy together and untroubled by the outside world that their wind-swept home takes on the quality of a romantic weekend getaway that never ends, with verdant vistas and the magnificent, ever-changing seascapes giving God-given splendour to their illusion.

When it comes to children, however, cruel reality steps in to deny them the one thing they desire to make life perfect. Isabel appears increasingly damaged and fragile with each failed attempt.

Having tested their resolve, Fate then delivers them a gift – of sorts. Mysteriously, a boat washes ashore. Aboard is a baby girl, still alive. They can’t believe their good fortune. Unfortunately, it is accompanied by the corpse of a man, presumably the father.

In any other circumstance they would have had no choice but to alert the authorities, yet their utter isolation offers them an attractive, life-changing alternative.

Out here, away from the laws of society and with nobody watching, who would know the child is not theirs? As for the corpse, the one thing their lovely home has in abundance, apart from gorgeous scenery, is burial ground.

Yet contact with the real world is unavoidable and matters of conscience are inevitably brought into play as the reality they so want to ignore forces itself upon them, with very unpredictable results.

Adapted from the novel by M.L. Stedman, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) simply does an exquisitie job. The lead performances are subtle and magnetic, the landscsapes full of detail and deft symbolism, with kudos going to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom; Macbeth; True Detective; Top of the Lake) and his crew. The front-bench supporting cast include Jack Thompson, Rachel Weisz and Bryan Brown, all in top form.

Shot in New Zealand and Tasmania, the film feels throughout like a major, moody serving of classic period Australiana. It’s an emotionally absorbing, deeply moving drama. Don’t miss it.

HACKSAW RIDGE ****1/2 (131 minutes) MA

Whatever one thinks of Mel Gibson the loud-mouthed, fast-drinking, party-loving celebrity trainwreck, Hacksaw Ridge – his extraordinary, explicit, fact-based, value-driven World War 2 film – proves, once again and beyond any reasonable debate, that he is an exemplary director, a cinematic artist capable of great subtlety, insight, complexity and, above all, humanity.

It’s an early call, but it’s hard not to see Hacksaw Ridge joining the pantheon of classic war films that champion the human spirit amidst the blithely inhumane slaughter of war. It’s that good.

The film is based on the true-life story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist from the bible-belt state of Virginia who is compelled to join the fight in the Pacific provided the army can honour his pacifist beliefs, instilled in him as a boy. Thus he becomes a medic.

Flung into the prolonged horror of the battle of Okinawa, which took place between April and June 1945, Doss holds on to his values in the face of overwhelming carnage, plucking wounded men from the blood-soaked battlefield and dragging them to safety.

In charting the evolution of Doss from child to battlefield savior, Hacksaw Ridge sports a simple, almost fable-like three-part structure.

The first shows the formative events of his boyhood that resulted in a repulsion for violence and a love for a local nurse (Teresa Palmer).

The second details his army training with a tough drill sargeant (Vince Vaughn, proving here that he doesn’t do enough drama) and a tolerant company commander (a terrific Sam Worthington, brandishing a convincing American accent).

The third part, which takes up a good part of the film, is simply battle – and if you were waiting for a war film to match the scale and unholy slaughter unleashed by Steven Spielberg’s 1998 classic Saving Private Ryan, this is it.

Make no mistake: Gibson mounts his battle scenes as a gruesome rhapsody of explosions, chattering machine guns, spurting blood and flying limbs. As with Ryan, the bullets here don’t make neat little holes, they shred bodies.

Yet through all the visceral overload, Gibson avoids getting lost or carried away by the logistics and manages to keep laser-like focus on the underlying emotional beats of the story, vivdly capturing the fear and unfathomable courage as men face down murderous odds.

Is Hacksaw Ridge an anti-war film? The answer is simple: yes and no. In one of the films few light moments, Doss jokingly protests his description as a ‘conscientious objector’, instead calling himself a ‘conscientious co-operator’. He wants to be part of the fight, just not the kill.

The film does not challenge either the popular notion of World War 2 as ‘the good war’ or the historical necessity of the battle – Japan had to be defeated – but, as with most good war movies (including many of the John Wayne ones that are often unfairly dismissed) it does not flinch from showing the ghastly, horrific human cost that even so-called ‘good’ wars exact.

Filmed entirely in Australia, the film’s first-class production values are matched with a  first-class cast that includes Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths (playing Doss’s parents), Luke Bracey (Home & Away; November Man), Ryan Corr (Holding the Man) and Richard Roxburgh.

Already up for a swag of AACTA awards, it’ll be a big surprise if Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t feature at the up-coming Oscars. Watch  it and you’ll not only see why, you’ll feel it.

THE ACCOUNTANT ***1/2 (128 minutes) MA

One of the main joys of this terrific, unusual action thriller is seeing just how fascinating a screen presence Ben Affleck is when he shuts up. Typically verbose and just a notch over-the-top, here he is meek and taciturn – and deadly.

Affleck plays Chris Wolff, a subdued suburban accountant with high-functioning autism. He has interesting hobbies – high-powered firearms and unarmed combat – and an interesting sideline: organised crime figures open up their books to him when they suspect somebody is stealing from them.

This makes for very lucrative moonlighting, and being a smart accountant he hides his untaxable riches inside a hidden mobile home, which contains wads of money, works of art and, of course, a cache of guns that would make James Bond drool.

When he is brought in to inspect the accounts of a robotics company, however, things start going screwy in his otherwise ordered life. People start trying to kill him and daffy fellow accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick).

The cleverly cobbled plot of The Accountant takes in his strict childhood as an army brat, his penchant for extreme violence when good accounting practices fail and the official government pursuit for him, lead by JK Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson over at the Bureau.

The Accountant delivers a highly enjoyable action adventure and certainly redeems Affleck after the monstrosity of Batman vs Superman.

DOCTOR STRANGE **1/2 (115 minutes) M

That vast legion of filmgoers who have not been losing any sleep in anticipation of the latest serving of Marvel franchise extender will have their lack of expectations duly met by this visually distinctive, largely underwhelming throwaway spectacle.

Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant yet egotistical New York neurosurgeon whose hands get mangled in a car prang.

With conventional medicine unable to help him he does what we all do – head to Nepal to seek out a mystic with a miracle cure.

He finds one (played with straight-faced earnestness by Tilda Swinton) who not only promises Strange that he can fix his hands himself through the power of his own mind, but that – and here’s a classic case of over-servicing – he also has the potential to mess around with the space-time continuum and travel through the multi-verse to other dimensions and planets. (There’s a nifty VFX sequence that vividly demonstrates this.)

Dr Strange is full of tangled, abstract concepts like that, and there are a lot of overlong, rather dry exposition scenes to go with them.

But never mind. The main thing you need to know about the basic premise is that while The Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, et al) protect the Earth from physical threat, Tilda presides over a team tasked with protecting the Earth from metaphysical threats.

Precisely how seriously you choose to take all this folkloric superhero babble will depend largely on how compelled you are by the legend of Dr Strange and by Cumberbatch’s rather stolid, green-screen performance.

There is a bit of bounce to him when he’s dealing face-to-face with other characters – such as his pleasantly clueless medical colleague (an under-used Rachel McAdams) – but when harnessing golden energy spheres between his newly renovated hands and engaging in close-quarters combat with metaphysical bad guys, his scowl suggests he’d rather be doing an art film.

The visual effects that drive this time-killer contain all the requisite cliches we’re now used. What sets them apart, however, are those sequences where battles take place in alternate realms. These are marvellously conceived so that a city such as New York will appear as an infinite set of constantly morphing cubes. It’s as though the makers saw the ‘folding city’ effect in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and fed it steroids. It’s quite impressive.

The rest of the cast includes such prestige actors as Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Benjamin Bratt and Swedish actor Mads Mikkelsen. That adds up to quite a powerful troupe. So the question: what are all these A-grade talents doing in a bloated B-grade popcorn pusher like Dr Strange? The likely reason has much to do with the allure of the franchise.

It seems the lot of the young up-and-coming 21st century actor that hitching on to a franchise not only ensures a steady, life-long stream of royalty cheques (at least until the merchandise runs out), but blockbuster cred, which boosts your brand and greenlight power. So if there’s an available seat on the nearest franchise train only a fool wouldn’t hop aboard.

It’s just a little unfortunate that such a good cast bless a film that’s essentially multiplex mulch as Marvel begins strip-mining its catalogue of second tier superheroes. And while this film contains no fewer than three endings – including a teaser for an adventure where Dr Strange teams up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – it’s unlikely anyone will be losing sleep waiting for the next installment.

HELL OR HIGH WATER ***1/2 (102 minutes) MA

In the dying, dusty heartland of America pitted with foreclosed farms and greedy banks, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) engage in a series of daring, economically driven bank raids to save their own family property.

In pursuit is a typically laid back sheriff (Jeff Bridges in super-fine form) who is enjoying one last thrill before retiring. He deduces the motive behind the robberies but his duties as a lawman make him as determined to catch them as they are to complete their fund-raising scheme.

British director David Mackenzie (Hallam Foe), working from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), elicits fine performances throughout and evokes a badlands landscape populated by disaffected folk who don’t mind seeing banks get robbed.

It’s especially good seeing Foster, a terrific character actor (The Messenger; Lone survivor; 3:10 to Yuma) paired up with Pine, who really shines when not playing Kirk on Star Trek.

THE NEON DEMON **1/2 (117 minutes) R

Style-obsessed arthouse director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive; Only God Forgives) turns his attention here to the soul-puncturing world of LA modelling where envy, ambition, desire and plain old bitchiness swirl around the arrival of Jesse (Elle Fanning), who is quickly seen as the next big thing.

With his love of heightened lighting and stark set design, there is something very seductive in the film’s look and long takes as it explores the power and destructive force of beauty.

Likely to upset feminists with its depiction of ruthless men and vile women, the film does go off the rails in its last act as the style switches from David Lynch-lite to early David Cronenberg.

Still, for the most part at least it does offer a compelling visual treat for those in an arthouse frame of mind, with one of the oddest girl-on-girl ‘love’ scenes we’ve seen for a long time thrown in for those with a taste for the perverse.

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