Hacksaw Ridge (Summit, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 139 min.). For his first directing effort since 2006's "Apocalypto," Mel Gibson turned to the incredible true story of Desmond Doss (a terrific Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who nonetheless volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II as a battlefield medic. His remarkable heroism -- he single-handedly evacuated 75 wounded men during one of the bloody battles on Okinawa's Hacksaw Ridge, without firing a gun or carrying a weapon -- and the fact that he survived the carnage serve as proof that God exists. Gibson has handled faith-based themes before, most notably in "The Passion of the Christ," and battle sequences in "Braveheart," making him the perfect director for the film.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Garfield), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The latter two are well deserved due to the battle sequences. After a tease battle sequence to open the film, there are three more battle sequences in the film's second half. The first is a 10-minute battle with no music, only sound effects. The second adds music to the sound effects, while the third is mostly music. The wonderful score, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, was created in only five weeks, as Gregson-Williams was a replacement for James Horner, who died in a plane crash after agreeing to score the film.
After the opening brief battle sequence, which includes soldiers on fire, Gibson tells the story of Doss' upbringing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, including a key violent incident involving his brother that helped inform his devout belief in the commandment of Thou Shalt Not Kill, as well as his courting of his future wife (Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Shutte, a hospital nurse) and his military training at Fort Jackson, where his refusal to bear arms and beliefs caused strife with his fellow trainees and led to a court martial as his commander tried to dismiss him from the Army. In the latter portion, Vince Vaughn is good as the stereotypical hard drill sergeant, Sgt. Howell. Doss' parents, Thomas, a World War I veteran, and Bertha are played by Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths.
After this opening hour has established Doss' character, the film turns spectacularly to the war. Hacksaw Ridge faced the ocean on Okinawa. The cliff top had to be accessed by rope netting, such as would be found on a ship. However, up on the ridge, the Japanese soldiers had created a system of tunnels and bunkers. Six previous attempts to take the ridge had failed, as would this seventh, but the Army felt if the ridge could be taken, then the rest of Okinawa would fall. The battle sequences are harrowing, very visceral, with bullets whizzing by, penetrating skulls, and bodies blown apart and set on fire. The Japanese seem to have an incalculable amount of men to throw at the Americans, recalling the large hand-to-hand combats of the first World War.
Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist, remained on the battlefield after the American troops withdrew down the cliff. Through the night, he searched out the wounded and lowered men via rope down the cliff to safety. His actions saved 75 men, even though he was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. Doss became the first conscientious objector to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. He felt war was just, but that killing was wrong, that he had to serve, like other men of his generation, but serve while saving lives during all the destruction. Some of the real participants speak briefly during the film's ending.
Doss' story was not that well known because he refused the limelight and would never sell the rights to his story. In the Blu-ray exclusive making-of feature (69:45), those interviewed include Gibson (disconcertingly, sometimes with a large beard, other times clean-shaven), screenwriters Robert Schenkkan (the initial drafts) and Andrew Knight (he pumped up Doss' father's role and made other adjustments as the filming progressed in Australia and New South Wales), the actors (particularly a reflective Garfield) and Desmond Doss Jr., who tells what it was like seeing his parents portrayed on the big screen. Interestingly, Gibson said he dared not use all of Doss' real heroics, as they would have been unbelievable. For example, he said one time Doss was being carried on a stretcher after being injured and he saw a man with a head wound, jumped up to take care of him and then put the man on his stretcher. Doss was then struck by a sniper and had to crawl 300 yards to safety.
Gibson had been offered the film in 2002 and 2010, declining both times, before he finally took on the project. Of the battle sequences, 90 percent were achieved with practical, in-camera stunts. Both versions also contain six deleted scenes (4:32), including Doss talking about religion with another trainee soldier and the deal he was offered to escape the court martial, plus a Veterans Day greeting by Gibson (1:02). Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 112 min.). This is the fictional tale of 19-year-old Texan Billy Lynn (an impressive debut by Joe Alwyn), who become a Silver Star recipient after a photo of him trying to save his staff sergeant (Vin Diesel as Sgt. Breen, aka "Shroom") on the battlefield in Al-Ansakar, Iraq went viral. Lynn and the remaining seven other members of his Bravo Squad are brought home for a two-week victory tour, culminating in an appearance during the Destiny's Child halftime show at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game. Lynn, old enough to kill for his country, but still a virgin, may be suffering unknowingly from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Director Ang Lee (Best Director winner for both "Brokeback Mountain" and "Life of Pi") made the film in 3D and 4K, using a rare 120 frames per second rate (the normal is 24), giving the film a "you-are-there" quality, but only a couple of theaters in the country were able to display the film properly and no home systems can. Thus, there are an unusual number of what I call talking-head close-ups here, particularly the one when Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) delivers his hard-ass businessman speech. Albert Brown (Chris Tucker in a straight role as well) has been trying to broker a movie deal for the soldiers' story, and Oglesby is willing to make the film but only pay the soldiers a pittance.
The film successfully integrates the now of Thanksgiving Day with the flashbacks to Iraq and to Lynn's brief visit home, during which his anti-war sister, Kathryn (played by Kristen Stewart in only three scenes), creates some discord with her remarks at dinner. Throughout the film, she pushes Lynn not to go back to Iraq, to get discharged based on a PTSD medical determination. The film really succeeds in presenting a realistic, albeit jumbled atmosphere of the soldiers' stadium experience. The highlight is the halftime show itself, co-produced by a real Super Bowl halftime producer. One bit of humor has Lynn imagining his fellow soldiers giving "real" answers during a press conference, before they deliver less controversial ones.
Alwyn , who was hired right out of drama school in England, is quite impressive, but all the young actors who play the other Bravo Squad members do well. Garrett Hedlund plays their Sgt. David Dime. Makenzie Leigh is given a lot less to do as the cheerleader Lynn connects with at the stadium. It's true love for him, but she seems taken aback when he hints he might not go back to Iraq. Guess, she just wants to "date" a soldier. This is one of the places the satire of the original novel by Ben Fountain shows up.
Bonus features include seven deleted scenes (10:18; including a montage of TV interviews given by the squad members as they toured the country); a making-of featurette (9:21) that discusses the new technology used to make the film); a look at the cast (11:29); recreating the halftime show (6:27; Lee wanted "North Korea meets Las Vegas"); and the actors going through boot camp and bonding (4:24). The 4K Ultra HD version (not seen) is presented in 60 frames a second and has an exclusive featurette with Lee and editor Tim Squyres discussing the film's groundbreaking frame rate technology. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars
Trolls (DreamWorks, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 92 min.). Image, this is a film, intended for children, about one race of creatures (Bergens) who eat another race (Trolls) just so they call be happy once a year. Yes, the film has bright colors, playful animation and many (15) peppy songs, but it has a very sick core. Decades ago, mini-troll "dolls" with lengthy hair were quite the rage, especially as pencil toppers (as I recall, the hair felt awful). This film is giving them a new life, even though the film itself is rather bland beneath all its bright colors.
Trolls like to sing, dance and hug. They even have watch alarms that signal the time to hug every hour. On the other hand, the very miserable Bergens found that if they eat a Troll, they can become happy for at least one day. Troll King Peppy (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) leads all the remaining Trolls to safety, but now, 20 years later, Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick of the "Pitch Perfect" films) holds an overly-loud, overly-enthusiastic party, complete with fireworks that draw the attention of Bergen King Gristle's Chef (Christine Baranski). Chef captures eight of the Trolls so she can create a feast for her dour king -- in hopes of becoming his queen. Christopher Mintz-Plasse voices King Gristle. Poppy is determined to rescue the eight Trolls and forces curmudgeonly Branch (pop star Justin Timberlake, who also served as the film's musical director and co-wrote some of the new songs) into helping her. Due to an incident in his past, explained late in the film, Branch has vowed to never sing again. He is not big on hugs either, and spends most of his time outfitting his underground bunker for when the Bergens attack.
To rescue all the taken Trolls, Poppy hatches a plot to help King Gristle's scullery maid, Bridget (voiced by Zooey Deschanel), win the affections of the King. They do so by having several Trolls turn into her new, colorful hairdo. There are shades of "Cinderella" here, and a bit later a musical nod to the Flying Monkeys of "The Wizard of Oz." Highlights include Poppy's journey in song ("Get Back Up Again") and a version of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." In all, there are five original songs written for the film, including two versions of "Can't Stop the Feeling," which just won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media and which is among the nominees for the Best Song Academy Award.
Extras include Cloud Guy (Walt Dohrn) hosting an exploration of Troll Village (4:43) and a look inside Branch's bunker (2:54); three deleted scenes with introductions by director Mike Mitchell and co-director Dohrn (7:24; includes a fun song sung by villain Chef); a behind-the-scenes look and stop-motion tutorial (5:06); production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin leading a kid-friendly exploration of her role and highlighting four key stages of creating the animation (5:21); and Troll 2 Troll friendly debates by Poppy and Branch on such topics as cat vs. dog (4:46). In addition, the Blu-ray comes in a "Party Mode," in which the viewer can interact with the film by showering the screen with glitter during party scenes, drop cupcakes when things get scary, high-five Cloud Guy and join Mr. Dinkles for "Oh Snap" moments. Surprisingly, there are no features on the voice cast nor the award-winning music. Grade: film and extras 2.5 stars