Tag: mel gibson

Dragged Across Concrete

Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.

This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.

These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.

Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.

Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

His superiors and fellow soldiers believe there is no room for a conscientious objector in the army. After all, how could a person who is opposed to violence able to protect and serve alongside his fellow men in the face of war when such an individual wouldn’t even pick up a gun, not even to practice how to load one, let alone shoot one? So, hoping he’d leave training, they intimidated him, put their hands on him, court-martialed him. Still, they couldn’t rid of him. His name is Demond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and he wishes to serve as a medic in the U.S. Army during World War II. He ended up saving 75 lives—including of those who put in the effort to get rid of him out of fear that he would only serve as a liability.

“Hacksaw Ridge,” based on a true story adapted to the screen by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, is a war picture that engrosses the heart and mind from the moment it begins until the actual footages of the survivors are shown. Although there is gripping action in which not one moment is wasted, most important is that we understand the subject fully: his religion and his beliefs—the writers make the correct decision to take the time to unspool the difference—and why Doss feels the need to participate in a war that he doesn’t necessarily support from a moral standpoint. This is a film for people who appreciate nuance.

War sequences are intense, thrilling, and horrifying. Several images stick in the mind like gum. For instance, a soldier using a fellow soldier’s upper torso, completely detached from its lower half, as a shield against rapid-fire bullets; flamethrowers being used on the enemy as if the latter were simply roaches to be exterminated; Doss scouring the ridge at night for broken men long after his allies have retreated… while the Japanese are on the lookout for American survivors, wishing to finish them off.

Mel Gibson directs the picture with a keen eye and fresh perspective. There are numerous excellent war pictures, some from America and many around the world, and yet I believe he is able to put a stamp on why this story is worth telling. He personalizes it. For example, notice how there is a very limited number of times where a bird’s-eye view is utilized to depict conflict—certainly less than five. This technique works because by choosing not to pull out of the action, increasingly we feel as though we are one of the soldiers. When someone gets shot in the chest, when a grenade goes off from less than fifteen away, when someone’s face is blown off, we experience the complete horror. Once violence starts, it does not allow us to take a break from the action.

There is a weakness in the film, which I find to be negligible because everything else functions on a high level, and it is in the portrayal of Desmond’s personal life, making up the first act. While scenes at home serve to provide some of the subject’s background information, particularly possible reasons why Desmond is against practicing violence, the parents (Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths) leave a lot to be desired in terms of a full, well-realized characterization. A similar criticism can be applied to the girlfriend named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The performers are up to the task but the material does not give these characters enough depth. As a result, the parents and the girlfriend are somewhat interesting but they do not turn out to be compelling.

Yet despite this shortcoming, “Hacksaw Ridge” is essential viewing because it is able to capture one man’s heroism, without turning him into a Christ figure despite his belief in God, amidst the bleakness of war. Unlike some terrible war movies or movies about war, this particular story is composed of different notes as opposed to simply delivering a hopeful story or, worse, propaganda in sheep’s clothing. Broken down to its most basic element, the film, I think, is about one man’s morality—we may not agree with him completely but we walk in his shoes regardless.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since the fall of modern society, gasoline has become a most valuable commodity. Competition is ferocious and just about anybody is willing to kill for it. When a group of men, women, and children has taken control of an oil refinery in the desert, a gang led by a muscular man named Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) offers a deal: Walk away and their lives would be spared. But these are dishonorable men, not above utilizing lies and deceit to get their hands on gasoline. Max (Mel Gibson), held prisoner in the refinery, offers to help in exchange for his freedom, beloved car, and as much gas as he can carry.

Written by Terry Hayes, George Miller, and Brian Hannant, “The Road Warrior” is a clear example of a movie being about its stunts than plot, story, and dialogue. Although the latter elements are present, these are solely utilized as a means to get to an action sequence. It is neither the most intellectually stimulating nor the most emotionally captivating film, but it is highly entertaining because director George Miller knows how to execute and put together a good-looking action picture with verve.

Notice how the first ten minutes is made up of only images and sounds. There is a lot of violence but the violence is never gratuitous, meant to disgust, or make us look away. On the contrary, it makes us want to know more about this post-apocalytic world. We take note of the kind of vehicles used, the types of clothes the characters wear, their hairstyles. We consider that perhaps these people at war probably have not bathed in weeks, maybe they have not had a proper meal in weeks. We look at the surroundings. They are orange-yellow, barren, heat emanating from rocks and small hills.

There is a saying that we can tell a lot from a movie by watching its first ten or fifteen minutes. In this case, that saying holds true. At one point, I wondered if the picture would still be effective given that the dialogue were completely taken out. I tried to imagine this alternative avenue by really focusing on the images and sounds when no one is speaking. The roars of the vehicles, shrieks of excitement, and screams of pain move to the forefront and then we truly appreciate the sound production and design.

I went a bit further in order to really test its strength. I focused on the images—especially the bodies and faces of the characters that just so happens to be in a frame. For instance, Gibson has a way of communicating a tormented past—one that Max does not wish or that he is too numb to deal with—with only using his eyes. Notice the calculated use of close-ups. When there are people in danger or Max feels guilty for not doing what he knows is right, there is a mix of determination and sadness in those eyes—important because that look is very reminiscent of another version of Max, one found in the predecessor. That familiar humanity is what connects the two films.

There a few weaknesses in the action scenes. Although the chase scene involving the tanker is a standout, there are shots where it looks as though the vehicles are not moving very fast. It is off-putting at times because the close-ups command a sense of danger especially when the villains begin their climb on the truck. Then comes the wide shot of the tanker, motorcycles, and cars racing down the road—together in one shot—and suddenly it is less exciting. Perhaps if these wide shots were sped up a bit during editing, it might have maintained that special excitement throughout.

Nevertheless, “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” is a well-made action film with very few, if any, visual effects when it comes to vehicular slaughter. We see real metal pounding against one another, real explosions, real people on top, on the side, or underneath of a moving vehicle. About thirty-five years later, it still holds up against the best of the genre.

Mad Max

Mad Max (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the screenplay by James McCausland and George Miller, “Mad Max” starts off weak—a confusing, unexciting exercise in stunts while showcasing awkward, barely comprehensible dialogue. But something happens during the final third. Suddenly, it begins to gather focus, tension escalates to near unbearable levels, and there is creativity in how action scenes unfold. There is a reason why it is remembered decades after its release.

Max (Mel Gibson) is one of the many patrol cops in the Outback who is constantly on the lookout for the troubles motorcycle gangs create. A man named Nightrider (Vincent Gil), the leader of the gang, has escaped prison, leaving all sorts of raucous in his wake. When Nightrider is eventually indisposed, his followers, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), end up terrorizing everyone they come across.

The story is replete with colorful performances. Although none of the characters are well-developed, once in a while they are given a line or a shot that ends up being milked to perfection. Keays-Byrne, for example, clearly has fun with the role. Although his presence is not especially intimidating, there is a quality in his performance that reminds me of a dog in the process of becoming fully rabid. Toecutter is unpredictable and it makes him quite entertaining. Toecutter’s right-hand man, Bubba (Geoff Parry), is also interesting, but I was at a loss as to why he wasn’t given more to do or say.

I grew tired of the so-called romantic exchanges between Max and his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel). Not once did I believe they are a believable couple. However, the actress is wonderful in portraying a woman who is scared for her life and her baby’s. She is front and center during the film’s most tension-filled scenes. The trick she manages to pull off is feeling scared and coupling that fear with a whiff of surprising toughness. As she runs in a forest suspecting that the men she came across the day before has found her, we anticipate what will happen to her. I enjoyed that women in this picture do more than cower and squeal.

Although the material offers violence, it knows when to pull back. Notice it does not show gruesome details—like a hand being cut off, a body being run over by a motorcycle, a driver hitting the dashboard as one vehicle collides with another. It gives us a chance to imagine the brutality, in parts, which makes it more engaging. Instead, effort is put into how to frame tragedies, like where the camera should be placed when a character we have grown to like meets an untimely demise.

It is a lot to ask of someone to sit through about forty minutes of rather uninspired scenes, but I believe that the final thirty minutes is very strong, it makes the film worth seeing. Even though it is unpolished (I think that quality is a part of the work’s appeal), “Mad Max,” directed by George Miller, is directed with enthusiasm and vision not only when it comes to the action but also of the lonely scenes of endless roads in the Outback. It is set in the future but it has the soul of a western.

The Expendables 3

The Expendables 3 (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Clearly the weakest of the first three films, “The Expendables 3,” directed by Patrick Hughes, is not only plagued by a wasteland of crippling boredom after the first and final action sequences—each, by the way, is composed of only about fifteen minutes of good material—but it also suffers an identity crisis so severe that audiences coming into it expecting one thing will be gravely disappointed because they are handed another.

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) leads a mission in Somalia which goes horribly awry when he and his men (Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews) discover that a war criminal believed to be dead is very much alive. Stonebanks (Mel Gibson—who gives a performance worthy of the series), an arms dealer, critically injures one of the Expendables which leads Ross to disassemble his current team of muscles in favor of new blood—a younger group with the potential to be as good, if not better, than his former crew.

The premise itself is a serious miscalculation. I suppose that part of the idea is the passing of the torch which implies that the younger characters recruited by Ross are to be played by action stars of the future. Kellan Lutz is the most high-profile name of the young bunch but even then I do not consider him to have the potential to become a bona fide action star—and I suspect others are likely to feel the same.

Though he and his co-stars have the physicality, they command neither the charm nor the intensity of the following pool of actors that perhaps should have been cast instead: Channing Tatum, Jeremy Renner, Iko Uwais, Gina Carano, Michael B. Jordan, Tom Hardy. Given that the casting directors are able to employ big names into the franchise, to expect the hiring of the aforementioned names is not at all unjustified.

What makes the series so enjoyable is the old-fashioned style of action. It is all about the big menacing guns, the deafening explosions so closely and so expertly shot that we feel the heat approaching our seats, the bone-crunching mano-a-mano, and the cheesy one-liners as chaos unfolds all around. Instead, we endure scenes and tech talk involving security grids, surveillance videos, CCTV systems—elements that belong to another picture completely. As a result, the work is reduced to a forgettable, standard modern action movie.

The script has never been the series’ strongest asset but it is most unbearable here. Speeches concerning the leader not allowing his team to go down with him is laughable. By the end of the epic talk, the implication is this: younger lives are more expendable than older lives. Clearly, Ross is convinced that any mission involving the capture of one of the deadliest men he knows is suicide.

So, pragmatically, shouldn’t he be striving to keep his current team because they have experience together, that they share awareness down to one another’s rhythms? Thus, employing a new team, aside from being nonsensical, comes across as nothing but a convenient and lazy device to allow the minutes to trickle away. What I detest most are movies whose filmmakers are fully aware that they are wasting everybody’s time and it is so apparent that it should be criminal.

The Beaver

The Beaver (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) had been suffering from major depression for two years. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), could no longer put up with his illness because it began to affect their kids, Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), so she decided to kick him out of the house. Right after a failed suicide attempt, Walter began to speak through a hand-puppet called The Beaver. With a promise to make his life better, Walter agreed to all of Beaver’s demands. Written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, “The Beaver” was an honest look at how depression could demolish even the strongest families. It was challenging because we were asked to identify with a character who took the puppet everywhere, British accent and all, and somehow take him seriously. It could have been a disaster in less capable hands. However, the writing and direction were focused on the human elements rather than the inanimate object. Foster was wonderful as the wife and mother who clung onto any hint that maybe her husband was getting better. We stuck with her because we knew as well as she did that, deep down, Walter’s condition was getting worse as long as he had the puppet in hand. Denial was her greatest coping mechanism. Foster excelled in reaction shots in which she had to shift from one side of the emotional spectrum to another. For instance, the happiness she felt when she saw her husband finally spending time with their youngest up until she realized that trigger of the sudden change in Walter wasn’t quite normal. I wouldn’t necessarily have made certain decisions she took on, but it was difficult not to be reminded that she was an exhausted wife and mother and perhaps she needed to escape. There was subplot that involved Porter, very angry but a smart and sensitive young man, and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the valedictorian of their graduating class. Although interesting because of their atypical chemistry, their relationship was less powerful and less urgent than the family that was essentially rotting from the inside. When the film switched to the teenagers’ emotional struggles, I questioned where it was ultimately heading. Though the reward was present at the finish line, we received it too late. Perhaps if Porter and Norah were not always front and center, the material’s momentum would not have staggered. Furthermore, the heavy symbolism weighed down an already astute material. Images involving a broken wall, roller coasters, and someone floating passively on water felt forced. It might have sounded great on paper but it verged on melodrama on screen. “The Beaver,” Gibson’s notoriety aside, deserves to be commended because of its strong performances and its fearlessness in portraying depression as a contagion. That is, if gone untreated, a downward spiral was inevitable. A snide “Get over it” doesn’t help anybody.