Silence (*****) victory in defeat

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Silence – 2016

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Scorsese based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō
Starring  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto

Silence is a powerful story that will evoke strong feelings for those who absorb its message. What that message is can depend on what you bring to the film. Most people like Scorsese for the bigger films he’s made. Many who love The Wolf of Wall Street have never even heard of Kundun. All this tells us is that Scorsese has to make a lot of garbage to get the freedom to do passion projects.

For me Martin Scorsese is an amazing worker. His skill is extraordinary no matter what he does. When it is matched by inspiration, like he does in Goodfellas, The Aviator, Hugo and here, the effect is stunning. That it won no extraordinary amount of notice is not much of a surprise, though.

Silence measures the meaning of its title very carefully. The story starts with two Jesuit priests, Garupe and Rodrigues (Driver and Garfield) on a quest to find Father Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira had gone to Japan years earlier on a mission to convert Japanese people from Buddhism to Catholic Christianity. No one has heard from him in years. News returns that he has renounced the faith. Due to their special relationship with Ferreira, it is important to the young men that their hero in the faith be either found a martyr for the faith or alive and well, preaching the Gospel.

When they arrive in Japan, they are greeted by a translator  / guide named Kichijiro (Asano) who leads them to a village filled with people worshipping in secret who are overjoyed to finally see representatives of the church who can now give blessings and hear confession.Kichijiro lingers in the background, seemingly faithless.

There are many periods of daily silence for our priests as they wait for news in hiding. After the wait becomes unbearable, they decided to take a chance. To say that it backfires is an understatement. The result is not without its own form of stumbling progress. The meaning of the word silence takes a different form now with Rodrigues.

Discovering that Kichijiro has a secret past brings a new form of hope that – like everything in this film – is mixed with despair. Rodrigues is on the run from the Japanese shogunate but still seeking to find converts and therein the possibility of news of Ferreira. He also wants to hear from God.

After enjoying Garfield’s performance in Hacksaw Ridge, it is quite possible indeed he exceeds that performance here. The passion he pours into the performance is a remarkable raft in a story that is deliberately slow at times in an effort to show the hopes of communing with the Lord in the most desperate circumstances. His efforts to understand the meaning of suffering and the silence match ours. He is the best possible performer for his ability to make us feel the experience for ourselves.

His performance by no means the only great one in the film. Asano is remarkable in his ability to evoke repulsion and sympathy at once. In his face we see the true impossibility of those to be saved. His is truly a journey of Job, much more akin to the way some of us might falter along the way and shine at other times.

For his limited role in the film, this may be Neeson’s finest work. The nuance of his positions and whether they are the result of his condition or the architect of those conditions is an incredible intricacy that should stop most viewers in their tracks with passionate internal debate.

Driver  gives great, if limited performance of one who is allowed a sort of cruel mercy, when taken in the context of the other characters.

The last act of the film gives us a grueling sort of hope in the appearance of comfort. We see the final meaning of the titular silence and we hold out that somehow there will be a ray of light. Whether there is or not depends on one’s viewpoint.

And that is the pleasure and pain of watching Scorsese at his best. He lays it out there, with an abundance of passionate footage. Somehow, he is able to take a step back and let the viewer figure out how they feel about what they are seeing.

This film will be quite boring to some viewers who don’t have the requisite patience to understand why they are being subjected to the slow scenes. It’s a journey inward as much as it is outside in a foreign land.

The cruelty of the overlords is quite shocking as well. It’s not as simple as martyrdom, and that makes it impossible to endure quite intentionally. It is obvious to most viewers that oppression of another faith is by no means a ringing endorsement of the power of your own. This is about as close as we get to a statement. Where you go beyond this is up to you.

There is much to appreciate in the career of Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for the message medium of celluloid is unparalleled. I hope he has many more years of making movies like this. If it means I have to wade through commercial dreck every few years, it’s worth it.

(***** out of *****)

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Midnight Special (****) has a familiar shine

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Midnight Special – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

“…Where heading for the day of reckoning
I’m telling ya, it’s all building up to something
Something that can be repeated with fire…”

Pete Townshend – Give Blood

Jeff Nichols career has been a steady uphill climb until now. His simple approach with complex characters in more complex situations has been a recipe that no others in his field have come close to matching. Each of his first three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, have reached the classic status. This time out, he was given a budget to match his rising esteem in the business. What he did with it borders on great, but fails in the one aspect that seems irrelevant to his talent – special effects.

The story revolves around a family that is reconstructing after being separated by a cult. The father, Roy (Shannon) has just procured his child, Alton (Lieberher) with the help of his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton). That his friend willingly surrendered his career as a state trooper exemplifies the importance of the mission. The cult had excommunicated Alton’s mother (Dunst) whilst its leader took the role of Alton’s father, even going so far as to adopt him. All of this happens offscreen before  we ever see any of the characters.

Now the men and boy are on the run. They encounter some dangerous circumstances, even from those that they are supposed to trust. Some of this is extremely surprising, more for what happens than who it happens to. At the same time, the federal government has gotten wind of the disappearance and take advantage of the situation to close in on the cult.

Alton, we discover, has certain abilities that have brought concern to those who keep secrets. At the same time, his gifts have convinced the cult that something is going to happen within days. Both groups have sent forces out in an attempt to reacquire Alton as he and his now reunited family make their way to a set of coordinates ordained by the boy.

Paul Sevier (Driver), who is working for the government, is trying to piece it all together. His efforts within the reach of the government, the forces of the cult and the family must converge at some point. All of this is plays out in a fascinating way.

As with every Jeff Nichols story, the story, acting and dialogue are superb. Michael Shannon is the engine and is once more the de facto altar ego for Nichols. His fierce determination to get his son to where he needs to go pervades every scene. Shannon has had a wonderful career, but he reaches another level working with Nichols. It’s a partnership that one has to hope is rewarded one day.

His son gradually grows in understanding of his ability and his role in life. Lieberher has the gravity to evolve before our eyes in a believable way. His Alton is childlike and wise at once: a tough trick to pull off for a child actor, much less someone writing for and directing the actor.

Edgerton gives a great performance in what would be a throwaway role for most stories of the kind. His motivations are rarely clear, but his loyalty is unquestionable. He has an incredible Texas accent, given his Australian heritage. It’s a character that should be just the driver, but in Nichols’ and Edgerton’s hands, he is a person we come to know, if not entirely understand.

Dunst is to be commended in her performance. She totally disappears into the character. We feel the guilt, elation and a connection to the reality of this most spectacular series of events. It’s tough to imagine her kissing Spider-man with the feeling one possesses while seeing her attempt to reconnect with a son she is seeing change even in the short time they’ve reconnected.

Driver here plays the Charles Martin Smith role in the story. We see his dedication to curiosity and what is right even through the machinations that seem oblivious to good as a concept. That he is better here than he is as Kylo Ren should not be a surprise. Here’s hoping he can apply some of the depth to his next outing donning the mask and saber.

Many of the elements and filming methods of the story are borrowed from other movies. We feel an obvious connection to Starman and Close Encounters. The strangest similarity is perhaps the one least intentional. Everything works for the most part until we find this similarity in the midst of the confusing final act. It makes one wonder if the reason for the delay in releasing the film (from November 2015) is due to how closely it resembles a film that was released last year. It’s too close for comfort even now. Despite that drawback, the final shot of the film succeeds for those who enjoyed the way Take Shelter ended.

Nichols succeeds with this story, but not to the level of his previous work. The pace works, and the effects are in keeping with the rest of the story up until that big reveal. If you loved what Nichols has done before, you will like this one. That it’s not the groundbreaking work one would hope for feels like a disappointment, and that’s a little unfair. If you hadn’t seen the previous work of the director with his number one actor, you’d think this film is more than fine.

(**** out of *****)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (***1/2) There’s always another weapon

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt

Everyone wants Star Wars to succeed. Heck if I had never seen the first film (Episode IV) at age 7, this blog wouldn’t exist. That would only cause the small ripple in the force. Really tiny. Teeniny. In one fell swoop George Lucas blew the doors off of theaters and changed the landscape of our cinematic future. This, like the rest of his journey, is part of the cultural fabric of the world, even if each film after The Empire Strikes Back lessened its impact. None of this being news, the history stops here.

The future began today. It is hopeful, bright, awkward, and full of good intentions. That it fails almost a third of the time is of little effect to the power of that other two-thirds. The best thing possible arrives in this new package, and that is the hope of new and unfamiliar faces in a familiar, lived in world.

The film makes a bold statement by giving us no one we recognize for the first 30+ minutes. The Stormtroopers are new, their commanders are new. The hotshot pilot (Isaac) and his cute little robot is new. Two other new heroes emerge from the events.

Finn (Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who, in the midst of action, finds his conscience. This does not go unnoticed by Kylo Renn (Driver) and Captain Phasma (Christie). Their suspicions are not acted on quickly enough, though, and soon he is on the run with some valuable cargo.

Something even more precious, BB8, comes across a young scavenger named Rey (Ridley). It takes a while, but the two become aware of one another when Finn recognizes the droid, just before a good portion of The New Order (read: “Nazis…I hate those guys…”) comes down to the planet Jakku and forces them to fly off in garbage.

This is as far as I go in this spoiler free review. From here I will discuss the intent, execution and effect of the film on this lifelong fan.

The point of this film is to re-establish a universe familiar to most people past voting age. I could go earlier, but that depends on your parenting style. The purpose of this story is to open doors that our mind has wanted to see ever since the last Ewok sacrificed his life to bring down the Empire. In this, the filmmakers succeed.

The worlds – even the new ones – are all comfortably familiar, and it’s inhabitants seem to feel the weight of gravity. This is an important touch overlooked in the prequels and it does much in the way of restoring the viewer’s sense of the world of Luke, Leia and Han. The new characters have talent, power and they have flaws. They start here, but we have the sense that they are going to grow…fast.

We need the older cast to act as a bit of a salve to smooth over the rougher, unfamiliar parts. Think of it as Bill Shatner in Star Trek Generations. Maybe with a little less horseback riding and wood chopping.

The biggest success of The Force Awakens comes in the form of the characters of Rey and Finn. Both have big questions in their background that the film wisely avoids lingering on. We get it, there is something more. Both actors feel raw, but are deceptively polished. For the first time since A New Hope, we have an infusion of energy.

Ridley is an absolute find. Her character Rey is given the best storyline and she acts the hell out of it. As a father of two girls, I am overjoyed that there is a heroine for them to rally behind in this story. She completely captures the wonder, the despair and the sense of duty with an absolute minimum of cheese. Star Wars at its best has always been about true hearts and they found one here. She is not without her complexity, however. There are some delightfully big gaps in her history. For no other reason than this, The Force Awakens succeeds.Rey

There is another reason: John Boyega as Finn. The thought of bringing one of the guys out from the daunting white suits and making him human is an inspired one, and they got his reasoning behind it right, for the most part. The way he plays off of the original cast feels much like the way anyone could imagine when working with a legend. He provides intensity and a klutziness that works with the best traditions of the franchise. Finn is buoyant, terrified and bold all at once. That he knows what type of enemy they are facing is a benefit, even if they use that point to create unnecessary drama later. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is palpable and I hope the friendship blooms.

Finn

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a nice, if somewhat underdeveloped character. He is given some good one liners that are not wasted. It would have been nice to see more of him, even if he’s not on the main stage with the kids. An actor the level of  Oscar Isaac deserves some more scenery to chew, and they are wasting him if they don’t do this in the next film.

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His droid, BB8, is an absolute wonder and something very identifiable for all of those that need a parent to accompany them to the movie. The execution of the character as well as the practical application of effects for many of its scenes is remarkable. For those who never thought R2 could be replaced, they are right. C3P-O sure can be, though.

Not as easy is the handling of Kylo Ren (Driver). We want menace, but end up with something bordering on petulant and whiny. He aspires to be Darth Vader, but ends up somewhere below Anakin. Perhaps it would be more effective were he to show a level of competence to approach that of his rage. It’s is understood that he is lacking skill, but his training in the force seems to be at about the level of, let’s say Tom Cruise in Risky Business.  There is a reason for this that is alluded to in the story. In all, Driver has one or two very effective moments. There are more moments to make one wonder if anyone on either side takes him seriously. This is not a good thing for the main villain.

Kylo

Behind the scenes we have the looming figure of Admiral Snoke. His size is distorted by the fact that he is a hologram. He is intended to give us the feeling of menace on the level of Palpatine in Episode I. Not really sure if it works, but at least they leave enough out that there is something to build towards. My personal hope is that he ends up being Darth Plagueis reborn afterall.

The rest of the cast is represented in a sadly predictable way. What have they done after 30+ years of trying to tie the Republic back together? They’ve all gone their separate ways of course. This ties up the “what should we do with these guys?” part of the story by just bringing them back together.

Han is doing what he does best…smuggling and wandering with Chewie. Then, whenever someone needs something, well, Han knows someone…

Seeing Han and Chewie back together is a thrill when one doesn’t get the sense that they haven’t much seen one another lately. There are several moments involving Han’s discovery of his partner’s Bowcaster that make one wonder. How is it after all of this time, this hasn’t happened before? A little too much force applied in the search for a joke.

For his part, Chewie is funny as usual. His timing is sublime and his heart is our heart when it comes to caring for the characters. If all of his moments are not perfect, it doesn’t matter. Chewie will always be there.

Han is not the elder statesman, but he is a vehicle for exposition, and he does this well enough. His interplay with Rey is unique and somewhat thrilling. The time he spends with Finn is not wasted either. The best line about the force happens here. There is one more relationship that is pretty underdeveloped. The lack of chemistry shows and hurts the effort at poignancy.

As Leia, Carrie Fisher is the film’s biggest weakness. She and Ford show almost no believable affection towards each other. Her character, sadly, is essentially the same as we saw in the latter half of A New Hope. When one sees her (try to) act, it’s a wonder she had that many lines. Her ability to show sarcasm and intensity is gone, replaced by a look of weariness. She literally has no range of expression and this really hurts during key moments. Admiral Ackbar shows more range than she can at this point. I can’t see them using her even this much in the subsequent films if they want to keep the mood from approaching moroseness.

Artoo and Threepio don’t add much, and really they don’t need to with BB8 around. The reasoning behind having less Threepio is understandable, and the lines they fed him are more groan inducing than funny. It would have been nice to have the R2-D2 around more and it’s kind of an insult the way they treat him. His utility far exceeded most of the characters in the first 6 films, and it’s apparent that this was forgotten.

This all goes to exemplifying the biggest frustration: the script. What a shame after all of the years they had to make an Episode VII, once Disney got their hands on the property, they didn’t do more to develop the story. They get several elements right, especially when it comes to developing side characters like Maz Kanata (Nyong’o). The story comes off as more a landing pad than an intentional point A to point B thing.

When original writer Michael Arndt told Disney he needed 18 months to develop something, they called it creative differences and put him to the side. They should have kept him. For all the waxing poetic about Kasdan and his magical ability, he and Abrams didn’t do anything special at all with this story except leave some questions to be answered, hopefully by better writing. Kasdan is spoken of like some lost Jedi writer, but if you’ve seen his career since Grand Canyon, you’d think we have Luke Skywalker, the Vegas years. If you don’t believe me, try watching The Bodyguard. Heck, try French Kiss. Just try to get through Darling Companion. I dare you.

Abrams, for his part, shows that his hot streak was definitely over at Star Trek Into Darkness. What he brings to this universe is the same thing he brought to that film: incredible style. His propensity to use practical effects is a definite win for fans of the original series. His intention to give us back the bright, but still lived in Star Wars universe works where his and Kasdan’s ability to rework original ideas into old characters and plotlines fail.

Fans of his first Star Trek reboot will recognize elements of the big weapon here. Fans of the original trilogy will react about the same way Han Solo does when he learns about it. This is not a good thing. Why does there always have to be a big weapon? As bad as the prequels were, at least they didn’t go that route.

The last act of the film really writes itself, Griffin Mill style. It makes all of the effort to build something at the outset feel insincere, even with the last image we see.

Star Wars is back. This is a good thing. That there is room to improve can also be seen as a positive. A new director and new writers for each successive film is a good thing too. I just hope they eventually find time to fully develop a story worthy of the characters.

(***1/2 out of *****)