Silence (*****) victory in defeat


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 *****)


The Hustler (****) / The Color Of Money (*****): Who owns this place?

The Hustler

The Hustler – 1961

Director Robert Rossen
Starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton, Jake LaMotta, Michael Constantine
Screenplay Sidney Carroll & Rossen based on The Hustler by Walter Tevis

In an era where film was often an extension of the stage, The Hustler plays as exactly that. It is an exceptional meditation of the challenge of a man to overcome himself as his biggest obstacle. Paul Newman is “Fast” Eddie Felson, a young, hot-headed pool shark who is working a series of short cons with his partner Charlie (McCormick) across the country from Oakland to challenge the legendary champion “Minnesota Fats” (Gleason). After running up $18,000 over Fats, his hubris, ego and alcohol all get the best of him, eventually losing it all except for $200.

He leaves Charlie behind, heading to the local bus terminal, where he comes across Sarah (Laurie), a lame young drunkard, with whom he ends up staying. During his stay, he comes across Fats’ bankroller Bert Gordon (Scott), who tells him he is someone who looks for a way to lose, but he could come out ahead if he works for Gordon for a 25% stake. Eddie opts to go his own way at first. Events occur to change his mind, but that is only the beginning of his regret.

Fast Eddie: Maybe I’m not such a high-class piece of property right now. And a 25% slice of something big is better than a 100% slice of nothing.

Newman and Gleason are spectacular in their respective roles opposing one another at the pool table. It’s an amazing transition to see where Newman starts and ends. Contrast this with the somber sobriety on Gleason’s countenance, where essentially he has the same worn out look, but we understand it completely differently. Laurie is truly a wounded soul. It’s no accident that Sarah and Eddie end up with one another. Where it ends up is heartbreaking, but it, too, seems inevitable.

George C. Scott creates a unique twist on his intimidating self through the story’s evolution. He is a dangerous man, but the change in the last act is something that many actors would not feel comfortable portraying.

Rossen allows the first half of the film to build slowly, seeming somewhat conventional and perhaps even bordering on contrivance at times. Laurie’s character is a tough sell, though, given the limitations placed on female characters in the 60’s. Eddie’s counterpart Janelle shows as much depth in 10 minutes 25 years later. She prevails in a powerful third act, however, leaving an indelible impression on each character. His work with Oscar nominated (and future winner) editor Dede Allen is artful and daring, leaving the viewer with a rich landscape that is dark, isolated and seething with doubt.

Fast Eddie: Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
Minnesota Fats: So do you, Fast Eddie.

This is Newman and Gleason’s show, however. Strange thing is, they go about it in different ways. Newman grabs the screen in an almost Shatnerian manner. I know Shatner hadn’t hit it big at that time, but his was a stage acting style quite prevalent in the 50’s and 60’s for the flair of emotive responses to seemingly calm situations. Newman pulls it off, though, particularly in the strength of Eddie’s last matchup versus Fats.


It would not have worked, however, were it not for the simmering soul of Fats provided by one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, Jackie Gleason. When watching Gleason work, get worked and working over Newman at first, he seems like a secret weapon. By the end of the story, once he somberly informs Felson that he better pay up, it’s clear he is a beaten man on more than just the table. He is a dog on a leash. It is really two sides of the mirror and a remarkable performance. It’s a spare performance that has a universe of depth just under the surface.

One wonders what might have happened had Scorsese opted to make The Color of Money closer to the story that Tevis had written for it. It is pretty certain that the ailing Gleason would not have been up for the role as written in the novel, what with going back on tour and all. The minimal role he presented was rejected by Gleason as “an afterthought.” In watching The Hustler, it’s clear that Gleason left Tevis’ best representation of the fictional pool legend on walking away from the table in the last frame.

Tevis’ work is finely represented here, and even if he has little overall influence on the follow-up, the framework for his wonderful central character is thoroughly improved upon in the Scorsese film.

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

Color of Money

The Color of Money – 1986

Director Martin Scorsese
Starring Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, Forest Whitaker, John Turturro
Screenplay Richard Price

Everything that is good about The Hustler is made great in The Color of Money. The story continues 25 years later with Felson as a liquor distributor bankrolling a pool player (Turturro) on the side. After Vincent (Cruise) and Carmen (Mastrantonio) shut down his player, and Felson takes Vincent on as his stable horse. Things get off to a rocky start, and inevitably, he starts to feel the urge to try hustling for himself again.  His efforts to teach Carmen and Vincent the concept of the long con is agonizing for all parties. The addiction is so strong for Eddie, he treats every painful drawback as inspiration to go forward.

For a movie with so many bodies moving through it, the cast is remarkably concise. In many ways, The Color of Money plays more like a stage performance than the original. Gretchen Rennell brings in several actors at the top of their form. Helen Shaver plays Janelle, Eddie’s beautiful (and age appropriate) lover. She runs one of the bars he sells to, but sees a world beyond booze and billiards. Something with which her man struggles. Her eyes drink in the dreams that his words create, but her feet are solidly on the ground.

Eddie: You’re some piece of work… You’re also a natural character.
Vincent: [to Carmen] I been tellin’ her that. You know? I got natural character.
Eddie: That’s not what I said, kid. I said you *are* a natural character; you’re an incredible flake.

Tom Cruise, coming off the biggest film of his young career in Top Gun, is expanding his repertoire. In allowing himself to play the fool, he also is allowed the furthest room to grow. His performance would be easily dismissed if one does not absorb the conclusion. This film began a long string of movies in which his fame colored critical reception of his ability.

Eddie: Do you smell that?
Vincent: What, smoke?
Carmen: No, Money…

Mastrantonio is one of the great actresses of her generation. There has been a void in the film industry since she made her last film in 2004. Carmen is one of her signature characters. She is at once too much for Vincent and not enough for Eddie. Or is she? Only revealing the cards that she wants us to see, we see more in her depth in her character than any of the others. She is the closest correlation to Bert Gordon in this story. Eddie and Vincent concern one another with a game, and she plays them both while taking on the role of quiet woman in the background. There is no way she will ever reveal more than she must to either of them.

Eddie: Human moves, kid. You study the watch… while I study you.

In a career of incredible performances, this is Paul Newman’s finest. As little as Mastrantonio gives of Carmen’s true character, the opposite happens with Eddie. Newman lays it all out. As the story begins, it looks like he’s in charge. The story is a series of events that show how little he grasps any situation. By the end, he’s at ground level, but fully comprehends the gravity of his position in life. And he’s grateful for it. The show Newman puts on is brave and fully realized. It takes someone with the utmost confidence in who they are to give Eddie the depth required to fully connect with who he was in The Hustler. He’s not the same desperate and over-emotive young man he was before. You can tell that man is where he came from.

Even though 25 years is a long time, Newman, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price understand the concept that he is still the same basic person. He may be wise, but he’s still vulnerable. He’s not stuck either. That this didn’t amount to a series of straight betrayals and showdowns gives Newman the grist to show real development.

Eddie: It’s even, but it ain’t settled. Let’s settle it.

Scorsese moved from a career of personal projects into the mainstream with The Color of Money. His work with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker is invigorating and as tense as the original, even if it has an entirely different feel. It’s mixture of staccato jumps and drawn out torturous shots is a combination that is intentionally nerve-wracking. We’re never supposed to feel comfortable in this world.

The soundtrack, compiled and produced by Robbie Robertson, is an integral piece of the film. Robertson is a fine musician who had a stellar career scoring soundtracks (aside from his marvelous work with The Band). Only his work on Phenomenon approached anything this remarkable. Everyone remember’s Clapton’s It’s In The Way That You Use It. The first meetup with Grady Seasons (Robert Palmer’s Let Yourself In For It) is a great example, but the movie is filled with remarkable mood setters. Don Henley, Willie Dixon, Mark Knopfler, Warren Zevon and B.B. King all have exceptional tunes on the album. Even if Zevon’s Werewolves of London is from an earlier work, it totally fits with the work. Best of all is Robertson’s own compositions, Modern Blues and even more, The Main Title. The latter shows at once the depth, desperation and yearning of Eddie on his journey.

Scorsese has made better films, but this one is near the top. It’s as personal as it is professional. It has style, flash, intensity and depth. The decision to forgo the original Tevis material seems the only possibility, given Gleeson’s failing health, but the story pushes forward the character of Eddie Felson by making him even more human than he was in the original.

This is the movie and performance that Fast Eddie deserves even if it takes until the end for him to get back.

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

A Most Violent Year (****1/2) is a good story excellently told


A Most Violent Year – 2014

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

 A Most Violent Year is a fascinatingly simple story that underlines the strength of a man and all the things that contribute and detract from it. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the owner of the small but thriving home heating oil company called Standard Oil. As the story begins, we see Abel on the verge of completing a deal that will vault his company into the big leagues. Now, at the moment of his business life, he is served notice that his company will soon be under investigation by the feds. Before he can wonder why, his company is beset with a series of gas truck robberies which are an equal threat to the future of Standard Oil.

His wife, Anna (Chastain) has a straightforward approach to the situation.  Give the Feds nothing and go right after the guys stealing the trucks. Fight fire with fire, literally. She seems to know what the Feds are looking for, but will not admit anything. That her father was well acquainted with the process might have something to do with it. Abel’s Attorney (Brooks) is somewhere in the middle, of course. Abel wants to go about things the right way. When the attacks escalate, he starts talking to his competition, asking what they know. They are less informative than Anna, and not even remotely looking to his best interest.

One of his drivers who’d been attacked earlier takes things into his own hands and the results are disastrous for the company. Now his primary lender is out of the picture and he must now find other means.

As a pure character portrayal, A Most Violent Year is fascinating. Isaac’s performance it note perfect. We can see his shifting state of mind with every frame, whether by his facial or verbal expressions. He is not an unreasonable man, but he is tested on all sides beyond his sense of that reason. His relationship with Anna is a brilliant examination of dichotomy. Always on the edge of an explosion, she is constantly pushing his buttons to incur action on his part. The tension is palpable through most of the film. Still, they are clearly in love, and her support comes across as genuine interest in defending the family and her husband’s honor. That he doesn’t go to Pacino or De Niro levels of intensity in this role shows that he understands Abel’s motives, morality and his want to rise above the aspersions cast upon him. Not every actor needs to explode in every movie. Seeing Abel plug a bullet hole with his hand kerchief in an oil storage container after a tragic occurrence tells you everything you need to know about his character. It is a more powerful statement than any scream.

For Chastain, the character of Anna presents a complete switch from her stellar performance in Take Shelter. Her Samantha would do anything to make sure Curtis knew she supported him, even though her husband’s behavior is completely erratic. Abel is pensive and deliberate in his actions, and Anna pushes him forward with no regret or hint of humility. That she can reveal both characters so believably is a testament to her unparalleled skill in acting. If there is a better actress working today, I am unaware of her.

Oyelowo, as the Federal Agent hovering in the background, gives a silent menace with minimal screen time and dialogue. He has a powerful charisma that gives this small role the appropriate heft. Albert Brooks as a lawyer is not a stretch for him. He does not do much beyond just being Albert Brooks. That’s enough to get by.

Although this is primarily a drama, the few action scenes are revealed in a such a raw way, it feels like we are watching real life. Chandor’s pacing and intensity is often as awkward as it is violent, echoing John Sayles’ approach in movies like Matewan. He’s got an understanding for creating tension in a scene that is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese pre-Cape Fear. There is no question that he knows how to tell a story in an intriguing and quiet way which serve to make the occasional outburst more jarring. Kind of like Sidney Lumet. If it seems like I am mentioning a lot of directors, it is obvious that Chandor is as much a student of art as he is an artist. This desire will be crucial to his growth and our continued enjoyment of his work. If there is any sort of drawback, it’s that the story is pretty straightforward, with turns that are predictable.

A Most Violent Year has been Chandor’s least successful film so far. One could reasonably entertain the notion that this is due to being thrust into the midst of the Holiday season with a million other art house films. The effect would seem confusing to the casual movie watcher when a film is not marketed heavily or cleverly. It’s a shame, too. Films like these, performances like these, stories like this need to be seen.

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

Life Itself is a story of success wrestled from a life of obscurity


Life Itself – 2014

Director Steve James
Featuring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Gregory Nava, Marlene Iglitzen, Errol Morris, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Ramin Bahrani
Screenplay based upon Life Itself by Roger Ebert

There is a scene in Life Itself where we see Roger Ebert taking a walk during a vacation with one of his step-grandchildren, Emil.  There is joy on both of their faces as he describes his grandson’s request for Roger to take a picture of the couple in front of them, who are holding hands.  When Ebert asks him why, his grandson says because they look happy.  He could have been describing the acclaimed critic’s relationship with Emil’s grandmother, Chaz.

I started watching this the crack of midnight, the day it was released and have seen it twice in the following 12 hours.  It is a wonderful and loving effort, bringing us to the place that Roger occupied in the lives of movie buffs.

To evaluate the effect of Roger Ebert’s life, one could almost divide it from the time before his wife, and the time after.  The man before Chaz had attitude and an ego that was at times educated, defensive and encouraging.  The serenity of his days after they crossed paths seemed more comfortable, resilient and confident.  And happy.

Throughout his life, Roger expressed his love for movies like no other critic before or since.  His consistent voice was not that of a detached omniscient observer.  It was, rather a more populist, immediate, and ultimately more socially intelligent voice.  It was the voice of a man who lived for movies, and wanted others to enjoy them the way he was able to.  It was his own voice.

His early years gave him success, but also a quest for more recognition.  One can imagine, even in a world where one gets more credit for doing than they do for discussing what has been done, why Ebert would occupy so much time boasting in local bars, drinking in courage and bellowing out from insecurity.

The bulk of filming for Life Itself takes place during Roger’s battle with cancer.  We see a vast amount of Roger convalescing, with his friends and family by his side. True to who he was, we see a majority of images with him in front of an Apple laptop pounding away on the keys. This is the Roger that many in the digital world grew fond of in the last decade.  He was ahead of the game when it came to online resources.  His reviews, projects and then a blog were all available and widely lauded on his site which has been available via link on this site since the very first day.

One thing the movie does not cover was the abortive attempt to bring Ebert back into television, Ebert Presents: At The Movies, which was a brief, if exceptional foray into the mind of a critic.  The show was powered in large part with the energy of he and Chaz, and it served as a final push into the world of his website, which has since become a haven for young critics.

It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality.
I would not want the be associated.
This is not only your film.

The scenes of his therapy, gradual decline and Chaz’ steadfast support for him are harrowing, and ultimately overwhelm the majority of the documentary.  This could be seen as a direct response to the secretive way that Siskel treated his own illness.  His promise was to go into the void sharing his gifts throughout.  True to the professional relationship that he shared with his brother, Siskel, Ebert was taking his partner’s viewpoint, absorbing it and countering it with his own.

That we see so much of Ebert after cancer had deformed his visage shows the courage that he with which he approached his life toward the end.  This courage was not all his own.  A large part of the courage derived from the power of his union with Chaz.

People would say, oh, don’t you get tired?  Yeah, I get tired sometimes.  But I never got so tired that I wanted to give up.  There are so many people out there taking care of people who are sick and disabled…we all go through the whole gamut of emotions.

What is clear in the work of James and the words of Roger and Chaz, is that Roger’s impact was as a person, and not a critic.  He touched those that he worked with, which is an interesting way to perceive his reviews. Many critics eschew personal relationships with their subjects, knowing how corruptible it can be, potentially. Ebert was an advocate and friend of many film makers, young and old.  So many testimonies of appreciation on how his reviews, positive and negative, were absent of derision and often filled with encouragement.  One such example is the review of Scorsese’s The Color of Money.

Among the highlights of the film is the contributions of Siskel’s beautiful wife Marlene, young directors, DuVernay and Bahrani and of course, his wonderful spouse, Chaz.  Iglitzen gives a unique perspective of a man who could take a taxi from a pregnant woman (Marlene herself) in New York City, to the man who, ten years after his death, gave a touching, on the hour tribute to his friend on his birthday.  Her perspective and her voice are at once eloquent, articulate and beautiful.

DuVernay tells a story of herself as a girl, being given a hug and a photo-op.  Years later, after she is a filmmaker by trade, she sends him a copy of the picture and thanks him.  From this, Roger writes the very next day a very touching story about each of their aunts.

Bahrani gives an astounding account of a gift he received from Ebert that has a long history of being given by those who love movies, starting from Hitchcock to Monroe, eventually to Ebert from Diane Ladd.

Through it all, we have Chaz and Roger, showing us that love is knowing that gifts are more than surface deep, and love flows from very deep water. James gives us a portrait of a man on his last physical legs, realizing that it takes more than a body to make a stand.  His wife, discovered by Roger at the age of 50, found value in Roger the very things that Ebert felt should be recognized.  Her gift was vision, to help others recognize his vision.  Not only this, though, she brought out of him a perspective that can only be achieved with the comfort of knowing one is valued and loved.

As an all-encompassing documentary, the subject is perhaps too vast. The work of Ebert and Siskel almost demand their own movie. Life Itself gives us an excellent picture of Ebert’s journey to the graceful man who will live on in the hearts and minds of those who shared his passion. I am as grateful as ever, for the life Ebert lived, and I am happy that his influence is as strong today as it was when he was here.

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


The Wolf of Wall Street is a worn out path



The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013

Director Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin
Screenplay Terence Winter based on the book by Jordan Belfort

All throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, I wondered who it was exactly Scorsese was appealing to.  It made a boatload of money and people were quoting it all the time.  But then, people use the F-word all the time anyway these days.  Maybe they weren’t talking straight from the screenplay.  To my count, this is the second time around Martin Scorsese has attempted to recreate the magic of Goodfellas.  The first time, with Casino, he made perhaps the most stupidly brutal films of his career.  This time, we have more drugs and senseless sex than has been seen in a film in who cares how long.

Leonardo DiCaprio, being as unhinged as he wants Scorsese to demand that he be, goes above and beyond Ray Liotta.  Jonah Hill is an overstimulated, overfed and overbited putz.  Margot Robbie goes from sex object to Lorraine Bracco within two scenes.  Rob Reiner stands there, incredulous to the stupidity that surrounds him. The overall effect is nil.  This movie is what Scorsese does in between movies like Hugo and The Aviator.  He should not be rewarded for sliding back into a comfortable spot.

For those unfamiliar with this type of Scorsese film, it’s based on a book covering true crime.  Goodfellas was East Coast Mobsters, Casino was Casino Mobsters, and this was Wall Street scumbags who cold call you and somehow talk you out of your hard-earned cash into buying worthless stocks.  In the first two films, you’d get a casual voice over explaining the illegal doings.  At this point, though, Scorsese estimates his crowd is not as interested in knowing how the crooks do what they do, but how brazen they were in the process of doing it.  For a movie that tops out at 3 hours, I don’t feel like I know any of the characters.  Only thing that resonates is that these aren’t the kind of people that anyone would like to know.

Goodfellas is one of my favorite films of all time.  At the time, I had seen nothing like it.  Since then, I have seen several attempts to replicate it.  It would be flattering if it weren’t for the fact that one of the guys doing it did the original.

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