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:

 


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

December 28, 2013

wolf Greetings again from the darkness. A brilliant and expertly made film that is excruciatingly painful to watch, yet impossible to look away. That would be my one line review. Of course, that line could be followed by a 10 page essay, to which I won’t subject you. How to do justice to this extraordinary three hours of excess and debauchery? How to give due credit the craftsmanship of director Martin Scorcese? How to acknowledge the pure physicality and kinetic energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance? How to heap praise on a project so lacking in morality and decency? There are no easy answers to these four questions, but there is plenty to discuss.

Let’s be clear. This is a vulgar film telling the disgusting story of a crude and egotistical scam artist who defrauded many innocent people. Jordan Belfort’s autobiography serves as the source material for the screenplay from Terrence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire“). Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorcese) portrays Belfort as the talented stock broker who soaks up lessons from both his mentor and the real world stock market crash of 1987. That Black Monday led him right into the world of penny stocks and huge commissions. Those commissions and his stunning sales skills take him right into a world that rivals that of Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon. This is certainly DiCaprio’s most free and limitless performance to date … it’s also his most comedic.

wolf5 Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. Sorry, that’s not enough for Belfort. He is also driven by money, greed, power and the need to take advantage of the weak. I lost count, but surely Belfort displays more than seven deadly sins. Everything is extreme. Nothing in moderation. Belfort is both smart and stupid. He is the worst of human nature, and when combined with his charisma, becomes very dangerous. Watching him give his invigorating and over-the-top pep talks to the team recalls the cult evangelists we have seen over the years. His religion is money and winning … never accepting “no”. His followers eat it up.

While most of the movie is pedal to the metal, there are two exceptional scenes that really stood out. When a young, eager, new to Wall Street Belfort has lunch with his mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), we sense him soaking up the lessons … we see the wheels turning to a new way of thinking. McConaughey is in top form here. The other standout scene takes place aboard Belfort’s yacht as he interacts with the FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. This agent is the closest thing to a moral barometer the movie allows and their dance of dialogue and acting is pure cinematic magic.

wolf6 Jonah Hill as Belfort’s business partner is his physical opposite, and possibly even less morally-centered than Belfort. He is also extremely funny in a demented way. Three very talented film directors have supporting roles. Rob Reiner (in a rare acting gig) plays Belfort’s bombastic dad and firm accountant. Jon Favreau is the high priced attorney fighting off the SEC and FBI. Spike Jonze plays the boiler room manager who first schools Belfort on penny stocks, and sets the wheels in motion. There is also a very sexy, funny performance from Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife.

My words don’t do justice to the manic existence and frenzied scenes of sex, profanity and drug use. The black comedy mixed in prevents this from being the bleak portrayal that it could have been, but don’t underestimate the depths to which the characters will stoop to get what they want. This one makes a similarly themed American Hustle look like a Disney flick. Consider yourself warned … and don’t think you can just turn away from the screen.

**NOTE: the soundtrack is quite diverse and complements the pace of the film.  The musical director is Robbie Robertson, who was part of The Band when Martin Scorcese directed The Last Waltz

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

 


GOODFELLAS (1990) revisited

February 7, 2013

goodfellas1 “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”  That’s how Henry Hill introduces himself.  He is the narrator and key figure in director Martin Scorcese’s 1990 masterpiece.  What follows Mr. Hill’s intro is the film version of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia Family (published 1986).  Every so often the perfect match of writer, director and cast occurs, and Goodfellas is one of those rare treats.

Viewing a 35mm print at the historic Texas Theatre just seemed apropo.  Knowing that this is the realized vision of Mr. Scorcese and his long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, caused the numerous VHS and DVD viewings over the years to simply fade away.  The silver screen works wonders for a film with such “big” characters, such startling violence, and such a perfectly inter-woven soundtrack.

Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, the real life gangster who ended up snitching on the mob and entering the Federal Witness Protection program.  This should not be considered a spoiler because Hill’s story is known worldwide and, well, the movie is 23 years old!  Liotta was a relative newcomer when he exploded onto the screen in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild in 1986.  His manic performance in that movie led Scorcese to cast him as Henry Hill.   The real life Hill spoke at length with Pileggi for the novel, and the result is a very detailed and nuanced look into the life inside a New York crime family.

goodfellas4 The fascinating aspects are too numerous to touch on them all, but there are some that really stood out in this latest viewing. First, Lorraine Bracco plays Hill’s wife Karen. Watching the development of her character is pure gold on screen. She starts out as a fresh-faced blind date, who pulls no punches in putting Hill in his place after he stands her up … and right in front of his fellow gangsters, no less.  Watching her fall for “the life” is like watching someone get gradually intoxicated.  She seems aware but numb to the rational side of her brain. As Karen develops, she battles through some really tough situations, continues to be Hill’s biggest supporter, and finally his cohort in crime near the end.  She is one of the most interesting and best developed female characters from any gangster movie.

Another really fascinating character to follow is that of Tommy Devito played by Joe Pesci. Tommy is a tough guy born into the life, but the prime example of just never being satisfied. His short fuse temper is responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in the movie.  The “funny like a clown” scene and the fallout from “go home and get your shinebox” are two of the more goodfellas2frightening sequences ever seen on screen, and are perfect examples of what a loose cannon Tommy is. This character is based on the real life Tommy “Two Gun” DeSimone, muscle for the Lucchese crime family.

In addition to Karen, Henry and Tommy, the other main character is Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro. Conway is based on the real life Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, who was supposedly the mastermind behind the infamous Lufthansa heist depicted in the movie.  The Conway character perfectly represents paranoia and greed, while hiding behind the mob loyalty pledge. DeNiro never once overacts here, but his Conway dominates the screen despite the strong presence of Liotta and Pesci … and even Paul Sorvino, who plays mob boss Paulie.  Paulie is based on Paul Vario, the head of the Lucchese crime family. Sorvino plays him as quietly powerful and a guy with a phone phobia (for good reason). Sorvino’s Paulie is the centerpiece of the mob and is totally believable as a guy you better not cross.

goodfellas One of the more memorable scenes features Jimmy, Henry and Tommy stopping off at Tommy’s mother house to pick up a shovel … and a large, useful knife.  While there, Tommy’s mother (played by Catherine Scorcese, Martin’s mother) not only makes them a huge 3 am Italian meal, but also shows off some of her artwork, and even tells a joke!

What’s really fun to watch as the film progresses is the change of pace and camera work. Watching young Henry earn his stripes is treated with a light, almost comical touch.  As he becomes fully entrenched, we see a young man enjoying the power and respect of his position. This is crystallized by Scorcese’s infamous long-tracking shot through the back entrance and kitchen of the Copacabana as Henry and Karen end up front row by the stage. The downward spiral is much more frenetic with fast cuts and a desperate feel. Scorcese helps us feel the drug-induced paranoia that dominates Henry.

David Chase has stated that Goodfellas had quite an impact and inspired him to create “The Sopranos”, and the marks are goodfellas3quite clear. There is even a significant crossover in the cast as both feature Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, Frank Pellegrino, Michael Imperioli and, of course, Lorraine Bracco (who was Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist).

Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Joe Pesci was the only winner (Best Supporting Actor).  It lost out in the Best Picture category to Dances with Wolves.  Scorcese has since directed two other critically acclaimed gangster films: Casino (1995, from another Nicholas Pileggi book), and The Departed (2006, which won Scorcese his first Oscar and also won Best Picture). You might also like to know that Pileggi is the creator of “Vegas”, the new TV show starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis.  The show is about the mob’s influence in the early “wild west” days of Las Vegas.

For years, movie lovers have been debating whether The Godfather or Goodfellas is the best gangster film. As much as I love debate, I see no reason to choose … they are both exquisite filmmaking, though quite different in style. Both films have provided us direction in life.  The Godfather informed us that “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business”.  Goodfellas counseled us “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”   Far be it from me to question the source of good advice!

***PROFANITY WARNING***  This is the unedited “funny like a clown scene” and it’s definitely NSFW!!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E84VqqCPI7w