“Hacksaw Ridge”

“Jeez, Mel!” I wanted to say this during every gory death and religious metaphor in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is the only soldier in history to enter battle unarmed. His superiors (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) think he’s a self-righteous coward, but Doss proves his worth, saving 75 soldiers in Okinawa. It’s based on a true story.

As a lifelong Mel Gibson fan, I can separate art from artist. He is an artist behind the camera. “Hacksaw Ridge” is directed old-fashioned and colorful in its cinematography. Not a single shot of shaky cam is in play, even during battle sequences.

The battle scenes are relentlessly brutal and have horrific attention to detail. Between maggots and rats feasting on corpses, brain matter splattering on another soldier’s face, and dozens of men burned alive by a flamethrower, Gibson doesn’t restrain himself (he did direct “Braveheart” after all).

Gibson is also unrestrained with religious metaphors and symbolic shots, but I can forgive this overkill because Doss was a religious man. Doss doesn’t shoot, stab, or punch anyone. He bandages them and ropes them out of battle, praying to save one more each time.

Andrew Garfield delivers a career-defining performance as Doss, making him likable, questionable, and compassionate. He makes Doss’s fears and beliefs believable, whether he gives a monologue about saving the world or saving an enemy soldier.

It’s bold to produce a war movie that is about conscientious objectors rather than pro-combat soldiers, but that’s what makes “Hacksaw Ridge” great. It’s not for the faint of heart and Gibson haters will boycott it. Regardless, I strongly urge film-goers to give this ambitious war epic a shot.

Grade: A

“Spotlight”

“It’s not just sexual abuse, it’s also spiritual abuse,” a sexual assault survivor tells the Spotlight news team (Michael Keaton, Rachel MacAdams, Mark Ruffalo, & Brian d’Arcy James). This is one of many key lines in “Spotlight” that make it one of the year’s very best films.

It’s 2003 and the Boston Globe has a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). An outsider for cultural reasons, he appoints his investigative Spotlight news team led by Robby Robinson (Keaton) to investigate child molestation accusations against the Catholic church. This stirs up personal and societal tensions as Robinson and his team dig deeper into a shocking story bigger than any other story.

Each member of the team has something at risk in writing this story. Robinson’s friendships with several attorneys and detectives become strained. Mark Rezendes (Ruffalo) questions his own religion. Sacha Pfeiffer (MacAdams)  knows her relationships with her priest brother and religious grandmother will be damaged. Matt Carroll (d’Arcy James) discovers a confirmed sex offender priest lives around the corner from his house, but can’t take action until after the story prints.

These conflicts depicted in “Spotlight” are what drive the film into being one hell of a character piece. Brilliant, terrific, important, powerful, and fascinating are just understatements here.

Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) uses subtlety to build up tension with background shots of churches during interviews and crosses featured in interview scenes, giving us the impression the Church is watching our heroes. Further emphasis is made as attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) reluctantly aids the team, stating the Church is watching him.

Keaton, Tucci, Schreiber, MacAdams, and d’Arcy James all deliver career-defining performances, but Ruffalo steals every scene as the socially withdrawn Rezendes. He’s a loner in the midst of a divorce who becomes increasingly emotional as he gets further invested in the story. I don’t like to say things like this, but Ruffalo deserves an Oscar for his performance.

“Spotlight” is likely the most serious award contender this season, and I strongly urge everyone to give this movie a chance.

Grade: A+