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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47 Ronin is not quite enough when you have too many F/X

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47 Ronin – 2013

Director Carl Rinsch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kou Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Haneda, Hiroshi Sogabe, Neil Fingleton, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Rinko Kikuchi, Yorick van Wageningen, Rick Genest
Writer Chris Morgan, Hossein Amini

The late Sam Kinison had a routine regarding Jim and Tammy Faye Baker’s take on Christianity in which he, as the voice of God, feigns a search through the pages of the Bible, saying aloud to himself “Where did I say build a waterslide?”  Movies based on legend often seem to have the same very loose connection to the source.  As they say in the beginning of the film, to know the story of the 47 Ronin, is to know the story of all Japan.  This story, put very simply, amounts to a grudge between two daimyo, where one (Kira), essentially, called the other (Naganori) “country,” and the insulted one took offense.  This lead to disgrace for afore-mentioned bumpkin, which lead to his honorable suicide and his samurai warriors becoming leaderless, also known as ronin.  The aggrieved warriors seek revenge, but whether they get it depends on one’s point of view.

Nowhere in this legend are there mentioned demon half-breeds, witches, ogres and antlered beasts with several rows of eyes.  There is no mention of the Tengu forest, for that matter, but without this, we wouldn’t have Keanu Reeves to kick around and, eventually save the day.  As Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese boy turned to humble man, it’s Reeve’s job to take crap from the good guys, until they are outsmarted by the bad guys, and then help the good guys redeem themselves.  The good Naganori’s daughter Mika takes a liking to Kai, but so does the Kira.

After insulting her honor in front of her father, Kira begs forgiveness and a chance to make up for this slight.  What he’s really asking for is time for his witch Mizuki to work in a plot to dishonor Naganori, which brings about the fateful chain of events.  Afterwords, the domain becomes Kira and the samurai become stained in disgrace.

This is where Oishi (Sanada), who was second in command for Naganori, moves up to second billing.  He endures a year of punishment literally being thrown into a well, and then he starts planning revenge.  Oishi is blinded when he needs to be, honorable always, and smart enough to realize that his name is not on the tip of the bill.  When the time comes, he picks up Kai, who is living as some sort of imprisoned gladiator, and collects all of his old ronin pals and they plot a revenge.

The first thing that drew me to this, the fifth filmed version of the story, was the prospect of seeing Reeves playing someone who, like himself, is half-white and half-Japanese.  Regardless of whether this was actually part of the story, someone trapped between two worlds would be an interesting vantage to say the least.  His performance is the same kind of  deer in the headlights one might expect at first.  When the year goes by and he spends the time honing his skills, he rejoins the domain with more confidence.  There is a genuine change in demeanor which is welcome.

Sanada was another draw for me.  I enjoyed him immensely for the short time period he was in Lost, and wished that his role could have been more substantial and less foolish there and in The Wolverine.  He must have the face of someone who finds out the truth a little too late, because it happens here, too.  He gets to spend the latter half of the film making good decisions, my favorite being the one he makes in the cave in the Tengu forest, which is reminiscent of Yoda’s challenge to Luke on Dagobah.

Shibasaki, as Mika, is given the story’s weakest role as, essentially, a damsel in distress.  Her helplessness is off-putting and somewhat annoying, given Reeves’ character’s obligation to be in love with her.  There is no chemistry there, and it is unsurprising.

The high points to the movie don’t involve effects.  Scenes where there is straight up fighting with no Harryhausen looking ogres, unreal beasts or mystical dragons are more comical than interesting.  In all this time since Terminator 2, it’s harder than ever to make the unreal seem real.  The best moments happen when it is tied to character development of some sort, to make up for the skill that is lacking.  This is Rinsch’s first feature film.  Although much of the budget was wasted on delays, reshoots and close-ups, it’s still hard to believe that they gave this much money to a first time director.  It may have been more successful had they concentrated more on story and less on the same crappy computer effects that we get in so many other films.

How much one likes this film will probably depend on what they expect from a film.  If you want storytelling, this one is half the way there.  If you want acting, it’s not quite that far.  If you want visual effects, you have them, however unnecessary and poorly drawn.  If you want to see Keanu Reeves, or, in my case, Sanada, this is the film for you.

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

CPE, Em & El: Thor: The Dark World: More Loki, anyone?

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Thor: The Dark World – 2013

Director Alan Taylor
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Screenplay Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

It’s no surprise that Loki is one of the first characters that you see after the prologue of Thor: The Dark World.  It’s a short scene, with a scolding from father Odin (Hopkins) and a wayward look from his mother Frigga (Russo).  It feels like a tag along scene, after the events of The Avengers.  We already knew he was going to be locked up, so why do we need to see it played out this way?

The answer is obvious.  Hiddleston, the big surprise from the first film, is so good as the villain, the film struggles to move forward without his gracefully devilish grin.  For this reason, we have many scenes with him locked up, even seeing a bunch of other goons broken out of jail.  He even helps the bad guy (Kurse, played unrecognizably by Akinnuoye-Agbaje) escape, while he remains behind.

We are treated to the obligatory “If you betray me, I will kill you,” scene before his brother, Thor (Hemsworth) lets him out of his imprisonment.  After this, we get to see this same sequence repeated ad nauseam with seemingly every supporting character down the line.  This scene is a waste of time for any actor, but at least Hiddleston seems to enjoy the attention, no matter how it is received.  Thank goodness for that.

Thor’s second time out may not be Shakespearian masterpiece that the first film almost was, but it is not bad, in any sense.  It suffers from the strength of its superhero, who we discover from Odin is not actually part of a race of Gods, but rather just a strong race of individuals who can endure for 1000’s of years.  If he is not unbeatable, that hammer sure is.  The thing about Loki is that he doesn’t use his brawn.  Up to this point, the filmmakers of the Thor films have not had to worry real hard about creating a nemesis.  This method worked well in his first two appearances.  Now, as we see Thor’s foes, Kurse and Eccleston’s Malekith, we anxiously wait for him to find a reason to do something other than swing that huge hammer.

Sadly, any thought that is required of the good guys comes in the form of the same braintrust that they had in the original.  This means plenty of face time for Portman and, more unfortunately, seeing Skarsgård in various states of disrobe.  Supposedly it helps him think more clearly when he acts like a loon.  Portman is a little less annoying this time through, even if she still is not a believable genius.  Dennings is still more than capable comic relief as an intern, this time with one of her own (Jonathan Howard).

The screenwriters and Taylor tone down the Hamlet this time, of course that story has been told.  Taylor’s talent for utilizing characters employed so effectively in Deadwood works on Asgard.  Russo leaves a mark in her brief turn, and it is a nice surprise.  Hopkins seems more baffled with each movie, and that suits the aging Odin just fine.  Thor’s band of misfit warriors are briefly used once more, but at least they seem to have a place in Asgard as something other than merry men (and one stoic woman).  It’s nice to see an expansion of Alba’s Heimdall, as his one action scene is an intense moment.  

The weakest part of the story is the megalomaniacal nature of the foe (is there any other in Thor’s universe?).  The plan to take over the “9 realms” has more to do with timing than anything, and the convenience of it all gives nothing at all as grist to the plot.  It all leads to a battle that is loony toon to the point where one wishes the hammer could end it all.  Instead, we get to see the puny humans run around looking frail, weak, and even worse, like Skarsgård.

There is a new mcguffin in the form of a red liquid called Aether.  That, with the Tesseract +3 other elements will get you something in a future film, no doubt.  Do we get more Loki?  If we do, we’ll definitely be entertained to an extent that he is on the screen.  Hemsworth has shown a capability to wear Thor’s wig and not look too much like a fool.  He needs more than what we’ve seen as a supporting cast on Midgard to make it work.

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

El’s Review

I thought THOR DARK  WORLD  was fine I liked the  funny parts.  The  next  one will probably be better.  Part 3.

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

Em’s Review

I liked Thor Dark World.  It was really funny.  It had the right amount of action.  I did not like the things what were creepy, though.  The dark elves.

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