Silence (*****) victory in defeat

silence

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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Frozen: I love warm hugs!

FrozenPoster3

Frozen – 2013

Directors Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Edie McClurg
Screenplay Jennifer Lee based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

I hope I never get too old to appreciate the effect of a magical story on a child-like heart.  Watching this movie with my daughters was a transformative event for me. It brought me out of the long week made into a working weekend.  It removed the pressure of needing to clean a lived in house before a big party.  It’s warmth helped me to fight the effects of a bitter, unrelenting cold.  To look over and see a smile and some amazement.

Our youngest daughter, El, is in the best possible place for a child to be.  Her mind still understands possibilities and her heart still believes.  She is the embodiment of Anna.  She believes in Santa, and even the Elf on the Shelf, Thimble.  Her belief spurs our belief.

Elsa, in our house, is our daughter Em.  She’s the one who has seen some things first, and subsequently, has a harder time believing.  The cold tree of knowledge has affected her, and its obvious she wishes it hadn’t.  She’s beautiful to the core, sadly so.  

Em is battling the future she sees but does not understand.  The result is a frustration that reveals itself with unintended consequence.  She loves her sister, but is filled with envy for what she perceives El doesn’t know.  This lashing out feels like sheets of ice spreading out from their lives.

Just like the heroines in Frozen, there is a closed door between our girls.  It was closed by the parents in the story, as a good-intentioned but poorly thought out form of protection.

“What if I don’t believe in Santa Claus,” Em asked her mother last Christmas.

It was kind of a threat, which my wife handled with aplomb.

“If there is no Santa, then I guess you won’t be getting any gifts from him any more.  You definitely won’t if you ever say that to your sister.”

It’s no small thing, the chasm that develops between siblings just by the natural course of life: growing older.  Big events unfold at different times, and often out of the reach of the parents to control.  Someone got to our oldest child and gave her the icy touch of doubt.  She was showing signs of questioning even before she reached the age of her younger sibling.  As much as I wish they hadn’t, we have to move on with her, and keep preserving what we can of her innocence.

I remember the Christmas that I started to question the existence of Santa.  There was a tremendous amount of pressure for the last of 8 kids.  Not wanting my parents to know I had doubts, but not wanting to play the fool that my siblings must know I had been.  It was the start of a long dark winter of thought, and I never once felt the unbearable pressure that my eldest must feel keeping up this possible charade.

Somehow, our children have to meet in the midst of all the emotional chaos, and I think this film might lay the groundwork for this to happen.  This is easily the best film I have seen this year, and the best Disney film I have seen since Mulan.  Disney has found a path to the heart of girls, and by direct extension, the hearts of those who love those little girls.

Having only the barest connection to one of Hans Christian Anderson’s most lauded stories (and, sadly, no overtly Christian references),  Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck have managed to turn the Disney convention of love on its ear.  There is a nod to the traditional concepts that we have been the bread and butter of the Princess trade that has had its share of critics and devotees.

The story is an amazing accomplishment.  After the tremendous success of Tangled, it would have been easy to release a couple of decent Princess in peril films.  Disney always gets a pass for those, even if the Princess always finds “true love’s kiss” on the lips of a Prince or Han Solo like rapscallion.  The evil character, no matter the situation or the misdeeds, usually meets their end falling off a cliff of some kind.  It’s like clockwork.

Frozen wisely threw that clock out.  The result is a timeless story that gives a refreshingly apt definition of love.  Two sisters, the afore-mentioned Anna (Bell) and Elsa (Menzel) separated by powers that they cannot comprehend, even if one of them thinks she knows the sad answer to the predicament.  She is wrong, of course.  The power is a plot device, but also an effective metaphor.  Both girls are worthy of love, but unaware of the gift that they are kept from.  Malificent has nothing on the problems well-meaning parents can impart on their children.

The big day arrives.  The reason for the big day is not nearly as important as what happens on that day.  The younger sister finds a wonderful surprise when the door opens on her life, and when her older sister tries to slow her roll, a premature winter strikes, afflicting everything and everyone around them.  Elsa decides that her power is so abhorrent that she needs to remove herself from everyone and live in isolation.  Anna knows there is something wrong with that, and follows her sister, pushing her way through the storms she creates.

Along the way, Anna meets some delightful characters, including Olaf (Gad), the enchanted and literally lovable snowman, who craves “warm hugs.”  This character could have been a complete disaster, but instead, it is a beautiful addition to the story.  The magic that creates him comes at a crucial point of the story.  If you aren’t watching closely, you could miss it.  There is a definite and resonant reason that he exists.  He’s not just an opportunity for some comic actor to tell a few jokes and do animated pratfalls.  This character is literally the embodiment of love between two sisters.

Olaf is what we all wish we could always be.
Olaf is what we all wish we could always be.

The boys in this film are also essential, but not for the reasons that one might expect.  Mountain man Kristoff (Groff) and Prince Hans (Fontana) are perfectly presented as potential answers to the predicament that the girls find themselves in.  They are such comfortable characters, it is difficult to envision the twists as they approached.  Most, including yours truly, would have been perfectly willing to accept what Disney usually offers here.  Baited breath escaped the lips of most viewers as the characters approached what seemed to be a typical type of ending.  The surprise is daunting and it was a breath of fresh, crisp, cold air.

The Trolls of Frozen are also given a facelift from the original story, where they are presented as evil characters.  Here they offer some helpful advice, a little magic of their own, and a telling assessment on how the cold can affects us:

“The heart is not easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.”

The animation of Frozen is the best I have seen since Mulan as well.  There are some breathtaking traverses that elevate the tension, but nothing so overwhelming as to inundate one with an ocular migraine blast of special effects.  Buck and Lee understand the beauty of landscape, both visually and story wise.  The kingdom of Arendelle exists to all who survey it and will for some time after.

An astounding collection of unforgettable images like this one.
An astounding collection of unforgettable images like this one.

The soundtrack has original songs composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband, Robert, and a score composed by Christophe Beck.  It’s wonderful all the way through, but “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” “For the First Time in Forever,” and especially, Menzel’s powerful “Let It Go,” are the ones we’re all going to hear in our mind for years to come whenever we think of Frozen.

The simple message of love between two sisters is the best thing I have seen derive from a Disney film.  It could not have come at a better time, too.  My girls have their battles, and they have some doubts about one another.  It’s not that I think this movie will magically bring them together this week.  It’s an image that I hope won’t leave their minds, though.  With any luck, it has planted a seed that will germinate later.

“Dad,” she asked, as we drove home from the movie last night after 9pm, “Is it possible for someone to do what Elsa does; to have that cold come from them?”

“No,” I replied, “It’s just a good story.”

“Good,” she said, “Because I don’t want my children to have that.”

I smiled to myself, knowing that by the time she gets to my age, she’ll have her kids asking her a variation of that question.  It will mean at least two things to her then, even if she gives one answer.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is good, old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon hi-jinks

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – 2011

Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, Simon McBurney
Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré

There is a intimidation brought on by the specter of a bunch of British actors sauntering through the big screen, speaking calmly of deception, spying and murder.  The feeling that, if my mind drifts for just a half-minute, or even a second, one could miss a word, a wink or even a stare that would set them sideways.  The first half hour of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy plays this way.  At one point, we see Control, played effortlessly by John Hurt, across from his right hand man, Smiley, who is Gary Oldman in another one of his wonderful turns, out in the middle of a sidewalk.  They have just been “retired” by a job gone wrong.  No words are exchanged, but they know exactly what’s being said.  Within a couple of scenes, Control lay dead in a hospital bed.

Why would a film have to be remade, after such a wonderful job first time around, capped by Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.   One quickly arrives to the other types of films that are remade in the U.K., namely, Jane Austen films.  There is plenty of scenery chewing to go around.  Anyone who sees Firth, Jones, Hurt or Oldman swap concerned looks and Cumberbatch, Hardy or Strong do yeoman’s work can understand why so many decent actors take second bill in films like this.

Oldman gives a wonderful performance, giving as much gravitas as Smiley requires.  More impressive, however, is the performance of Mark Strong.  Often the bellwether antagonist for bad films, he gets to play a true believer with a fair amount of integrity.  His effort is unexpectedly interesting and rewarding.  Tom Hardy is fast becoming one of the best character actors in the business.  Within 3 years he should be a regular Oscar nominee.  Cumberbatch has a considerable presence that should bode well for the next Star Trek film.

The amount of enjoyment one can get from watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is directly proportional to how much one listens to the film.  Nothing is obvious to the casual observer and many clues happen as tape rolls, which is what counted for spy gear in the early 1970’s era Cold War.

If you are trying to decide for an alternative to Mission Impossible, Bourne Identity or James Bond, this only works if you don’t expect to see or hear any explosions.

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