SILENCE (2016)

January 5, 2017

silence Greetings again from the darkness. Martin Luther King said “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. Martin Scorcese’s esteemed film career could be described as unveiling that staircase, one step/film at a time. Religion, spirituality and yes, faith, have played a key role in his life and his films – most notably, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, but also most of his other projects.

A high-ranking priest (Ciaran Hinds) is meeting with two younger Portuguese priests and informing them of the rumor that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has reportedly renounced his faith and is now living as a Japanese Buddhist in Nagasaki. The two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this and request to be allowed to track down Ferreira and bring him home. It could be termed a rescue mission, and the two men could be called missionaries, but what follows is an excruciating test of their own faith.

Martin Scorcese has been working on this passion project for more than two decades – ever since he read the Shusaku Endo novel (published in 1966). Cast members have changed through the various iterations of the project, but after the box office success of The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese received the financial backing to bring his vision to the screen. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) and the result is the visual and emotional epic that you might expect from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

17th century Christianity in Japan might be a difficult subject to sell to the general movie-going public, and Scorcese goes out of his way to leave unanswered the multitude of questions the film raises. Rather than wrapping it up with a clean ending, he leaves viewers craving further discussions, clarity and explanations. In other words, it lacks mass appeal and shouldn’t be confused with light-hearted entertainment.

Rodrigues is resolute in his belief that God is the answer … even when the film’s title is at the forefront. As Rodrigues and Garupe minister to the village of secret Christians (led by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto) at night and hide during the day, we learn of the Japanese state’s commitment to eradicating Christians and Christianity to ensure the power and isolation of the country. The oddest character in the film is that of Kichijiro (an excellent Yosuke Kubozuka). He is both guide to the priests and a constant challenge to their faith, while also providing moments of comic relief in a film with very few. Were this a Kurosawa film, this role would have been a perfect fit for the great Tishiro Mifune.

The most obvious adversary for the priests is the Japanese elder known as The Inquisitor. Issei Ogata excels in the role as a wily, half-smiling, quite knowledgeable wartime (a war on Christianity) leader intent on creating the most painful and public extermination of Christian believers and those priests who dare to infect his country (Japan’s 1614 Edict of Expulsion). The torture and persecution is too much to detail here, but it portrays how even the most ardent believers could choose life over faith.

The film blends fiction with some true-to-life aspects, and is most effective at asking questions and spurring thought. Which is more crucial – public or private faith? Is doubt allowable and even understandable? Is Rodrigues so committed to faith or is there also an element of martyrdom present? How about the “Judas” sub-plots? Is it betrayal if it saves one’s own life? Just where is that line? Is Ferreira a disgraced priest or simply a man valuing survival? The film is beautiful to look at (superb work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker) while being exceedingly tough to watch (and quite long). Be prepared to set aside time for reflection and discussion … you may even discover some surprises in your views and beliefs.

watch the trailer:

 


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


99 HOMES (2015)

October 8, 2015

99 homes Greetings again from the darkness. Thumping music, the aftermath of a suicide, and an arrogant and immediately dislikable real estate agent fill the screen in a tension-packed opening sequence. This is how writer/director Ramin Bahrani begins our descent back to 2010 during the severe housing and economic crash. While the foundation of the story is the “system” that screwed over so many homeowners, it’s really more a tale of morality and how we react during desperate times.

Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a skilled construction worker scrounging for jobs as he tries hard to make ends meet in the house-building industry so devastated by the economy. He lives in his childhood home with his mom (Laura Dern) and his young son. In an attempt to stave off foreclosure, Dennis goes to court pleading his case. See, he received contradictory instructions from his bank, and he ends up on the wrong end of the bailout. Watching a family getting booted from their home is excruciatingly emotional, and we empathize with the anger, frustration and helplessness of Dennis as realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and the Sheriff’s department execute the eviction.

In an odd turn of events, Dennis ends up working for Carver and quickly becomes addicted to the money. As Carver pulls him deeper into his scheme of bilking the banks and government agencies, Dennis rationalizes with the knowledge that he is providing for his family and on track to get his family house back. Watching Garfield’s emotionally vulnerable character interact with Shannon’s brutal businessman is pretty fascinating. It’s a bit Faustian as Dennis basically sells his soul to the devil (Carver), though he continually struggles with the moral issues until the final act … where the true line in the Florida sand is drawn.

Garfield makes the acting transition to adult in a fine turn, but it’s Shannon’s creepy Realtor who dominates the picture. From the beginning, we don’t like him – but we find ourselves better understanding his motivations after we finally get his personal explanation. The film does a nice job pointing out all parties who are somewhat responsible for the horrific housing downturn, and does so without sermonizing on the evils of big banks. In fact, it could be taken as a reminder that the “system” so many love to bash is actually made up of individuals who, in the words of Rick Carver, have learned to go “numb” rather than show emotion or respect. It’s a tough movie to watch, but a needed reminder of the importance of humanity during desperate times.

watch the trailer:

 


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

May 11, 2014

spider 2 Greetings again from the darkness. This follow-up to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) seems to have the mission of throwing as much onto the screen as possible. There are not one, but three key villains, a teenage love story, a deathbed scene, numerous moments of soul-searching, a stream of wise cracks and puns, the most outrageous laboratory setting, a cartoonish evil doctor accent, the constantly furrowed brow of Aunt Mary (Sally Field), flashbacks and video of the mysterious father, teasers for future movies, and of course, enough action and special effects to ward off any thoughts of peace.

Personally, I find Andrew Garfield to be a nice fit as Spidey, but I just can’t buy him as ultimate science geek Peter Parker. He bumbles about and bats his eyes too much for my tastes, and can’t stand toe to toe with Gwen Stacy (real life squeeze Emma Stone) in scientific banter. Still, the original story is interesting enough that any minor issues are easily overlooked.

At its core, this entry is a story of revenge. The foundation for Peter Parket’s troubles all stem from Oscorp, so we are treated to some behind the facade sets that will keep viewers on their toes. After an initial face-off with bad guy Aleksei Sytsevich (a maniacal Paul Giamatti), we see the transformation of goofy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the shocking (get it?) Electro. If that’s not enough, childhood buddies Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) are reunited to set the stage for more good vs evil.

The story would have benefited from more concentration on any of these three stories, while dropping one altogether. The viewer would have benefited from a slower jolt (one more!) in the transformation of Max to Electro. We needed to find the humanity, rather than just desperation. The same goes for Peter and Harry. The dots are a bit too far apart for connection, though DeHaan (so good in Lawless and Chronicle) is a striking contrast to the doe-eyed, beautifully coiffed Garfield.

It’s nice to see Stone’s Gwen portrayed as a smart, ambitious young woman who also understands how demanding a relationship is, and the responsibility that goes with dating a superhero. Speaking of responsibility, the lack of Uncle Ben’s influence here is disturbing, though probably necessary given the exploration of backstory on Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz).

When Paul Giamatti reappears near the end as Rhino, it’s a bit difficult to not think “enough is enough”. And oddly, this fight sequence ends abruptly, evidently setting the stage for future Spidey. And speaking of the future, the end credits scene plays as nothing more than a teaser trailer for the next X-Men movie, while robbing us of any details to the Sinister Six.

Admittedly, I feel somewhat overdosed on Superhero and Comic book adaptations, yet the action and effects are still quite fun to watch, even if director Marc Webb (Ok, that pun is just too easy) seems to jumble up too many story lines.

***NOTE: I find humor in the fact that both lead actors from Sideways (2004) have now played villains in Spider-Man movies. Paul Giamatti in this one and Thomas Haden Church in Spider-Man 3 (2007)

***NOTE: fans of The Matrix will experience deja vu as Peter Parker discovers his father’s laboratory

watch the trailer:

 


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

July 7, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The big debate seems to be whether it is too soon for the Spider-Man franchise to be re-booted. It was just 10 years ago when Tobey Maguire first appeared as Spidey and a mere 5 years ago when director Sam Raimi delivered the last leg in his trilogy. Obviously the reason to re-boot starts with “doll” and ends with “ars”. It is more interesting to decide if this is an improvement over the previous series.

We must first look at Spider-man himself. Played here by Andrew Garfield, we get a more thoughtful Peter Parker and a more athletic Spidey version than we had with Maguire. As usual, my pet peeve is that Garfield is a 28 year old man cast as an 18 year old high school science nerd. Looking past that, Garfield manages to pull off the stunts without looking too much like a real super hero. So that’s a plus. Luckily for him, his scenes with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) work because Ms. Stone is such a super talent. She makes everything she is in, just a little bit better.

Next we look at the villain. Rhys Ifans plays scientist Dr Curt Connors, who transforms into Lizard in the quest to regenerate growth of his lost right arm. He was once partners with Peter’s dad in their research into reptilian genetics. While Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2 is still my favorite villain in the series, it’s clear that Lizard is certainly capable of frightening the younger viewers, so parents beware. It should also be noted that Dr Curt Connors was played by Dylan Baker in the Sam Raimi trilogy.

 Lastly, we look at the story. This take is much more personal and provides detail to the backstory of Peter Parker. We learn how (but not exactly why) he lost his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) and see how he came to be raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). We see how Peter and Gwen Stacy come together and learn that she is every bit his equal intellectually, if not a notch above. Casting Dennis Leary as Gwen’s Police Chief dad works as Leary and Garfield exchange barbs at the table. Peter is still a photographer, but this time for the school instead of The Daily Bugle … whose logo makes an appearance on TV.

Director Marc Webb was somehow selected for this despite his only feature film being (500) Days of Summer … not exactly a film known for its CGI. Admittedly, the CGI used here is less rushed and cluttered than in previous Spidey films and many of the stunts look to be real stunts instead of the fake stuff. The closing credit cookie clearly sets up the sequel, though I can only guess that the shadowy figure is Norman Osborn. That’s still up for debate.

** NOTE: fear not, we get the now expected Stan Lee cameo

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of comic book heroes and simply enjoy the bigger than life films, even if it’s not at the level of The Avengers (it’s still better than Green Lantern)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are limiting yourself to one super hero movie this year … if so, make it The Dark Knight Rises

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

October 2, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a film with good genes. It’s based on Ben Mezrich‘s novel “The Accidental Billionaires”, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) and directed by one of the best directors working today, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac). The film is dialogue driven and my advice is to shift your ears into turbo-mode to keep up. These Harvard types never stammer and are quite speedy in making their oh-so-clever points.

This film is not so much the history of Facebook as it is a glimpse into the individuals behind the idea. Foremost, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg (played with rapid-fire tunnel vision by Jesse Eisenberg). The programming guru behind the code, Zuckerberg is depicted as a guy who is not just socially inept, but also unaware of social mores and code. I am not sure if he is best described as a prodigy, genius or even (possibly) a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome. Whatever he is/was, he became a billionaire in his early 20’s by proving he could put together the world’s dominant social network while having no redeeming social or relationship skills of his own. Fascinating.

Zuckerberg’s best and only friend (and business partner) is Eduardo Saverin (played by the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield). Saverin fronted the money to get Facebook started and was one of the parties who brought suit against Zuckerberg, claiming he was cheated out his place in the company.

The third key player is the infamous Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake). Founder of Napster and Plaxo, Parker manages to get his hooks into Zuckerberg and apparently was behind the snubbing of Saverin. This is the most charismatic role in the film (and real life), yet also the role that may have the most dramatic license taken in the film.

The story is told in non-linear form, weaving multiple depositions from different lawsuits. One includes the Winklevoss twins from Harvard who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. They later settled for millions.

As I said, this is not so much a history of Facebook as it is a display of the characters involved. These are all brilliant people who are also ignorant to the ways of the world. It seems they all have significantly different goals, yet never really stop to agree on strategy. Instead, the site growth is non-stop, as is the back-stabbing.

Interestingly, the film uses a girl (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene as the single biggest influence on Zuckerberg’s brainstorm. Her rejection of his self-centered speed-talking kicks his creative wheels into motion and his relentless energy never slows for the rest of the story. One thing is clear, Zuckerberg did not single-handedly create Facebook and there is little doubt some key people were given short straws along the way. No way to discern what really happened as all that was battled out behind closed doors in sealed records and settlements. What we do know is that Facebook now has over 500 million users worldwide.

This is an extremely well crafted movie, though in my opinion, none of the acting is up to the script. It’s a film that provides enough insight into the players and enough entertainment for the ticket. That’s really sufficient. Some are proclaiming this as a Best Picture contender.  It may very well get enough momentum to be nominated, but here’s hoping this isn’t the year’s best.  Coming next … David Fincher is set to direct and Rooney Mara is cast as Lisbeth in the Americanized version of the fabulous Swedish hit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So enjoy this one and look forward to that!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the 500 million Facebook users OR you thrill to the challenge of high-voltage, college-genius dialogue that always instantaneously delivers the single best comeback possible.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think every person has redeeming value OR you have to ask “What is Facebook?”


NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

September 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let me say that it’s great to have Mark Romanek back directing films. His most recent feature was 2002’s One Hour Photo which I found masterful. Here he has source material from the acclaimed novel of Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and does an admirable job depicting this underground world of test tube-grown replacement parts. Despite the numerous opportunities for moral and philosophical statements, the film does a nice job of staying true to the novel and avoiding the soapbox.

We are introduced to Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. They are 3 friends being raised at Hailsham – a cross between an orphanage, boarding school and laboratory. The kids have no idea of their purpose in life and just go about their days as instructed – never really finding a need to question their existence … though many “stories” of the place have evolved over the years.

One day, a teacher played by Sally Hawkins breaks the code and explains to the children that their sole purpose in life is to be harvested for body parts. Sure this theme has been explored previously, but not really from the kids’ perspective. Ms. Hawkins’ character is instantly relieved of her duties by the cold-natured head mistress played perfectly by Charlotte Rampling.

Flash forward a few years and the three are played by Carey Mulligan (Kathy), Andrew Garfield (Tommy) and Keira Knightley (Ruth). We see a romance develop between Ruth and Tommy, though it’s obvious the real connection is between Kathy and Tommy. As they move to “the cottages” (a middle step in development), they learn a bit more about the curious real world.

It’s not until a few years later when we see how two of them have fulfilled their obligation, while one has delayed by playing a “carer” to donors, that we see just how bleak this existence is. The real questions are raised by Kathy as she wonders just how different their lives are than those in the real world. It seems both sides have regrets, unrealized dreams and a shortage of time. Here endeth the lesson.

This film is gathering a bit of Oscar buzz from the critics, but I must admit that I found it leaving entirely too much up to the audience. There are too many gaps to fill and not really much conflict or drama. It is finely made and well acted, but comes up short of what I would expect from a true Oscar contender.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the novel and/or are intrigued by the idea of creating replacement parts for humans OR you just want to see the guy replacing Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your films on the cheery side of the emotional scale