Saturday, April 22, 2017

Silence (2016)

rating: *****

the story: Two Jesuit priests investigate the disappearance of their mentor in 17th century Japan.

what it's all about: I almost regretted having read the book before watching the movie, this time.  Usually, I can't abide people who suggest such things, because the two mediums are two very different creative expressions, and there's no reason to split hairs between them.  They have their different strengths.  But Silence is a particular story, in both prose and film form, where the same thing seems so similar in both forms, you begin to wonder what's lost in translation.  In the book, it's very important what Andrew Garfield's character thinks, and not so much only what he does or says.  Martin Scorsese, surely now and forever a master of filmmaking, knows this, and so there are a few voiceovers meant to fill the void a little, but he also knows that the story means the same thing, in the end, regardless of what is lost along the way.

That's what's truly remarkable about Silence, that it tells such an unexpected story, one that seems totally contrary to established narratives.  It seems to be a rebuke of criticisms on two scores, both in the context of the story, and what commentators today have attempted to say about the Christian faith, too.  It runs counter to everything Hollywood has been attempting to do in recent years.  Scorsese is a famously pragmatic Catholic, and that makes him the ideal adapter of such material.  It abhors mindless reverence, but it also embraces a level of faith totally unknown to most adherents.  How's that for a paradox?

Garfield, whom I know from a few movies (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the two Amazing Spider-Man films), emerges as a new breed of lead actor in it.  At first he seems like the last actor capable of pulling off the "Jesus look," the long hair and beard.  He's made a career of looking young, right?  He doesn't seem to possess the right amount of gravitas.  Yet he and Scorsese use these apparent limitations to their advantage.  His character is meant to be totally self-assured and yet na├»ve at the same time.  After watching Silence, you'll be convinced that Garfield has found a new archetype.  He seems to have played something similar in Hacksaw Ridge, also released last year, but the results couldn't seem to be more different.  Mel Gibson's movie (it's funny, Garfield starring in the films of two Catholics) is pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it.  Silence is anything but.

Adam Driver continues to be a fascinating discovery in his own right.  My personal experience with him had previously been limited to The Force Awakens and Midnight Special.  Almost more than Garfield, he manages to bring a mature presence to his role, so effortlessly that again you aren't surprised in the least that he and Garfield are leading a new generation of actors.  Liam Neeson, meanwhile, in a supporting role again confirms that he's capable of anything.  Here he seems to contradict everything you might have seen him do previously, in a long series of mentor roles he's done over the years, and no doubt that was a deliberate casting effect. 

Even if you don't care for the religious elements, Scorsese still presents a look at life in Japan in the century before the world had finished expanding.  Japan, in fact, was in the midst of shrinking back, headed toward a period of isolation that would have a perilous effect not just on itself but many other countries besides.  Silence becomes a story of self-justification, the things we tell ourselves to try and make sense of the irreconcilable.  If you find yourself siding with the Japanese over the priests, which is valid, you may still end up wondering if you were right, knowing what was to come.  This doesn't even mean the priests were right, either, but that this was an untenable situation, which Scorsese no doubt meant to parallel secular matters in today's world, too, of Muslims and the West and where things continue to stand between them.

I chose Arrival as my favorite movie of 2016 before having seen Silence, but I'll still stand by that now.  The two movies, however, stand together as among the smartest filmmaking I've ever seen, and that's extremely good company.  Both came from books.  What does that matter?  The story resonates.  That is all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ben-Hur (1959)

rating: ***

the story: Ben-Hur witnesses the rebellion against an empire begin.

what it's all about: After watching the 2016 version recently, I felt compelled to watch Charlton Heston's 1959 Ben-Hur, which I suppose I must have seen when I was a kid, since watching the famed chariot race sent vague memories firing through my head, memories that had rattled there since I first saw it, actually.  I just didn't remember watching the movie itself  Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Heston in the later Ten Commandments, thanks to an annual Easter broadcast.  Ten Commandments, although clearly filmed thanks to the success of Ben-Hur, ended up supplanting it in the popular culture.  Today, both Ben-Hur and the 19th century book upon which it was based have been somewhat lost to history.  Again, the massive failure of the 2016 version is evidence enough of that.  Critics will claim it's because the new one simply can't match up with the old one.  Having seen it (again), I will venture to say the new one doesn't have that much competition.

The 1959 version is long, like Ten Commandments.  It actually skips out on the kind of context storytelling the 2016 version explores, the full history of the foster brothers who end up competing in the chariot race.  Heston skips right to his Roman rival returning home and slowly realizing the old adage, you can't go home again.  It's almost funny to watch Heston in it, because he carries none of the gravity he brought to Ten Commandments, which I suppose is testament enough to his acting and his ability to bring different approaches to different characters (and also his increased profile).  Still, he and the movie equate well of themselves.

The gravity, actually, comes from a Star Wars connection, much as I'd read into the 2016 version, where I thought I saw a new version of source material George Lucas seemed to draw on for the prequels.  Yet the 1959 version reads a lot like a rebellion against an empire (as I noted above), full of Romans who sound English saying "rebellion" and "emperor" exactly as Star Wars characters would in the later original Star Wars trilogy.  It can't be coincidence, right?  Lucas was born in 1944,and so that would've made him fifteen in 1959, plenty impressionable enough for a big hit movie coming into his imagination.  Everyone knows Hidden Fortress helped form the basis of Star Wars in the 1977 first film of the saga, but it seems to me that Lucas borrowed heavily from Ben-Hur as he conceived the rest of it.

This is a movie that is what it is, and watching it again, I'm still inclined to consider the 2016 version better worth a rewatch, but that doesn't make the Heston film less memorable. Watching it I can even see little musical cues John Williams likely borrowed for Star Wars, too.  For these associations alone, it will remain fascinating, worth revisiting in the future.  The chariot race, which critics insisted looked far more realistic than its 2016 counterpart, doesn't hugely hold up, by the way. You can tell where parts were filmed separately and then spliced together.  It kind of takes you out of the moment.  But that's okay.  There are other things to love about it.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

5 Word Movie Reviews

Posting here what I compiled for a comment on Stacy's blog.

50 First Dates (2004) Adam Sandler is somehow charming.
(500) Days of Summer (2009) This whole movie is charming.
A Home at the End of the World (2009) Colin Farrell earns indy cred.
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) A truly hilarious Western satire.
Touch of Evil (1958) Heston competes admirably with Welles.
American Hustle (2012) Bad '80s hair steals movie.
Argo (2013) Alan Arkin steals the show.
Avatar (2008) Sam Worthington proves he's worthy.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Tom Hardy outsmarts a gag.
Black Swan (2010) Natalie Portman drives herself crazy.
Blades of Glory (2007) Makes figure skating less glorious.
Bridesmaids (2011) Depressing but incredibly funny, too.
Clash of the Titans (2010) I discovered Gemma Arterton here.
Couples Retreat (2009) Will make you retreat, too.
Cowboys and Aliens (2011) Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
Dead Poets Society (1989) O captain, my captain.  Indeed.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Watch it again. And again.
Epic (2013) Poor crazy dad finds redemption.
Everybody's Fine (2009) Even grumpy dads need love.
Flight (2012) Watch for James Badge Dale.
Freedom Writers (2007) Patrick Dempsey will depress you.
Frozen (2013) Let it go; just enjoy.
Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Hugely enjoyable romp; that's all.
Gravity (2013) Sandra Bullock's day really sucked.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) Emma Watson, audio book reader.
Horrible Bosses (2011) But really fun to watch.
I Love You, Man (2009) Had poster on my wall.
Ice Age (2002) Caution: will spawn endless sequels.
Inception (2010) Welcome to the show, Tom.
Interstellar (2014) It's all related, you'll find.
Iron Man 2 (2010) Sam Rockwell really rocks, baby.
Iron Man 3 (2013) The Mandarin is a rip-off.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) Rollicking nonsense, but please enjoy.
Knight & Day (2010) Cruise and Diaz: poor showing.
Larry Crowne (2011) Everyone's charming, but also low-key.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009) But you'll wish he weren't.
Les Miserables (2012) Damn, Anne Hathaway can sing!
Looper (2012) Look for the other gimmick.
Man of Steel (2013) Superman's dads are Robin Hood.
Manhunter (1986) Unsatisfying once you see Hopkins.
Midnight in Paris (2011) The best of times, too.
Primary Colors (1998) Wait, Clinton is the hero?
Puss in Boots (2011) Antonio Banderas as Zorro, III.
Ratatouille (2007) A truly exquisite dish, darling.
Red (2010) Better off retired after all.
Red Eye (2005) A thrilling flying experience, unfortunately.
Salt (2010) Angelina is an action hero.
Serenity (2005) Makes you suffer their pain.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) I liked Watson better, alas.
Shrek 2 (2004) Fiona is an ogre, okay?
Shutter Island (2010) Leo is crazy, right?  Right???
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Jennifer Lawrence is crazy, right?
Skyfall (2011) This one was too slick.
Star Trek (2009) Old Spock was the cherry.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) His name is Khan, okay?
State of Play (2009) Politics as usual, poor guy.
Step Brothers (2008) Ridiculous and yet still affecting.
The A-Team (2010) Over the top, wobbly landing.
The Avengers (2012) Good for quips, at least.
The Big Lebowski (1998) The Dude abides, still loses.
The Blindside (2009) Don't mess with Sandra Bullock.
The Book of Eli (2010) He's blind; it still works.
The Bounty Hunter (2010) His charm is his weapon.
The Expendables (2010) They all are, turns out.
The Fighter (2010) Christian Bale falls in trash.
The Hangover (2009) Good friends form memories together.
The Hangover 2 (2011) They do it again, somehow.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) Singing dwarves save the day.
The Hunger Games (2012) Jennifer Lawrence is really grim.
The Island (2005) Pleasurable but you'll forget why.
The King's Speech (2010) It's not really worth it.
The Hurt Locker (2008) Elegiac and heartbreaking, a must-watch.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) Did this really happen, dude?
The Number 23 (2007) Jim Carrey: his own warm-up act.
The Right Stuff (1983) You'll believe astronauts can fly.
The Shining (1980) All work and no play.
The Soloist (2009) Actually there's two of them.
The Town (2010) Ben Affleck regains his credibility.
This Means War (2012) Pine and Hardy are excellent.
A Thousand Words (2011) Eddie Murphy: words can't describe.
Trouble with the Curve (2012) A heart-warmer with Clint Eastwood.
Twilight (2008) Making sparkly vampires cool, obviously.
Two Lovers (2008) Joaquin Phoenix was really depressed.
Unknown (2011) Liam Neeson is a problem.
Up in the Air (2009) George Clooney unloads his backpack.
Valkyrie (2010) Tom Cruise seeks new credibility.
Wall-E (2008) A pantomime with a message.
Winter's Bone (2010) It ain't easy being poor.
Winter's Tale (2014) Colin Farrell: kind of magical.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Note to Jessica Chastain: dark.