REVIEW: Silence

16 04 2017

Like I do with many great films, I approached reviewing Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” with a reverence tinged with trepidation. No matter how many seemingly objective angles I took to evaluating it, I could not find a path that did not somehow cross with my own experiences and beliefs as a person of faith. Though this underscores just about every review I write, rarely does it bubble up to the surface. But since today is Easter, I thought it made sense to craft a hybrid akin to Scorsese’s work: a personal statement and a prayer.

I’ve been grappling with the film for the past three months; as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely observed, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” Scorsese himself has wrestled with Shusaku Endo’s novel for longer than I have been alive. Christian thinkers themselves have wrestled with these issues since the religion began two millennia ago. To project any kind of intellectual authority or issue some kind of vast, sweeping statement about the ideology and thematics of “Silence” is naive and preposterous. In its searing specificity, the film gets beyond the simplistic discussions of religion that predominate our polite culture and delves headfirst into the questions that demarcate contemporary Christianity.

It goes without saying that Scorsese’s involvement in the film ensures “Silence” does not issue the kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back and reaffirmation of most religious films. He zooms past the “what” of faith and immediately wades into the murkier waters of the “how,” specifically as it pertains to evangelism and discipleship. 17th century Portuguese fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail for Japan, where their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) disappears and allegedly disavows the Catholic religion.

Their rescue mission brings them into contact with persecuted Japanese Christians practicing their faith in private, an experience that tugs the fathers’ beliefs at opposite directions with equal force. On the one hand, their torture at the hands of Japanese inquisitors makes the abstract concept of martyrdom painfully real, humbling them tremendously. Yet these supplicants also view the priests as direct conduits to God to the point that they take on a God-like status, inflating the latent self-righteousness undergirding many of their actions.

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REVIEW: Paterson

28 12 2016

patersonHouston Cinema Arts Festival

I suspect like many in the blogosphere, I write not for a living but because it gives me some purpose to my passion. There’s a tendency among those us who keep up such a habit to compartmentalize life into the daily, the mundane, that which pays the bills … and the time for doing what brings true, deep, intrinsic satisfaction. These dual spheres are seemingly always battling for influence, the ideal scenario being one where the time allotted to one’s avocation can supersede that given to their vocation.

With his latest narrative film “Paterson,” however, writer/director Jim Jarmusch envisions a different way. His subject, Adam Driver’s Paterson, is a bus driver by trade in the carcass of the old industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey. Not for a second do we pity what appears on the surface to be a humdrum existence. It’s the presence of a steady routine – his morning mosey to work, his regular route, his late night dog walks, his quiet evening grabbing drinks at the bar – that allows him the headspace to write great poetry. In the absence of disruption or chaos in his life, Paterson can easily nestle his calling within his career.

This does not mean that Paterson skips merrily to get behind the wheel each day. His face lights up at any occasion to discuss poetry or writing, and such animation is hardly ever visible when he dons a stoic expression to face down another day of his regular routine. Paterson does not so much resign himself to this fate as he makes peace with it, and 2016’s struggling artists in films from “La La Land” to “Don’t Think Twice” as well as “Maggie’s Plan” would be wise to take a page from his playbook. In his own way, he has found contentment and seems quite happy with it.

Foil that with Paterson’s girlfriend, Golshifteh Farahani’s warmly supportive Laura, who appears allergic to anything resembling order or stability in her schedule. “Paterson” follows a little over a week with these characters, and no day is ever the same for her. She’s always following a new whim or passion, never fully gratified by her last pursuit. She can create cute tchotchkes, perhaps, but she moves too fast to notice the vibrant life surrounding her. Thanks to Jarmusch’s understated but steady vantage point into their world, we get to notice the unexpected virtue of stability and the joy that comes from having the perception to notice the variations and deviations that break up the monotony. A-3halfstars

REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 12 2015

J.J. Abrams is perhaps the chief nostalgist of our time, and he often executes this fascination with such panache that we might as well call him a classicist. The reverence he pays to the films that inspired his own work serves to elevate those movies to a higher cultural plateau. And, as if anyone had not noticed the influence of “Star Wars” on a generation of moviegoers, they have definitive proof in the second relaunch of the franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Abrams, working with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, finds that sweet spot between paying homage to the old and forging ahead with the new. The film’s action is primarily driven by two new heroes – the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon to discover extraordinary powers and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who gains a conscience after witnessing the slaughter of innocence. They go up against a new sinister antagonist in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who works in tandem with the eerily fascist politician General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Yet for all these new characters, there are also the old ones there in supporting roles – Han Solo, Luke and Leia Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are all back. John Williams’ score livens up the film. The Millennium Falcon is back. Heck, Abrams even maintains the distinctive wipes and editing transitions from the original Lucas films. Anyone who feared drastic change in the series with the passing of the reins ought to be more than reassured by “The Force Awakens.”

The coexistence of the old and the new provides every bit as much tension as the plot, which I will continue to avoid discussing in any depth lest I reveal a spoiler. (I kept my head in the sand as much as possible regarding “Star Wars” news in order to experience the film with as fresh of eyes as possible, and it paid off.) Yet even with Rey and Finn as the primary engines of action in “The Force Awakens,” the film feels practically like a mirror image of the original 1977 “Star Wars.” This was no doubt intentional, I assume, but the amount of bowing Abrams performs before the mythology of the franchise keeps his film from standing as tall as it could.

Certainly future installments in the new “Star Wars” will go deeper and bolder, making an even greater case for the series’ relevance and importance. For now, though, this served its purpose to reawaken the vanguard of longtime fans and excite a new generation. I must say, I am on board for what comes next. B+3stars

REVIEW: Hungry Hearts

30 06 2015

Hungry HeartsSaverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts” pits two philosophies of child-rearing against each other to haunting effect.  After a meet-cute while trapped in the restroom of a Chinese restaurant, Adam Driver’s Jude and Alba Rohrwacher’s Mina begin a relationship that inadvertently spawns a child (and thus a marriage). Jude indulges some of his wife’s whims while pregnant, assuming she will return to a less heightened state of being once she delivers.

But Mina only firms in her resolve to practice unconventional and hyper-protective parenting once their child is born.  She wants the baby on a vegan diet and cannot bear the thought of him leaving the house and receiving exposure to the outside world’s toxicity.  After nine months protecting him in a womb, she feels the need to extend that shelter.  In other words, Mina is the kind of enlightened ignoramus who reads one email and decides not to vaccinate her child.

In theory, helicopter parenting has the best of intentions, but Jude sees its negative externalities whenever the baby appears malnourished and underweight.  Parenting quickly becomes a competition, not a collaboration, as Jude starts taking definitive steps to ensure the security of his offspring.  The claws come out as the couple manipulates the legal system to get their way with the child.

This duel of the fates feels so momentous because of the powerful acting of Adam Driver, who recalls vintage DeNiro in his releases of righteous aggression.  Many roles over the past three years have hinted at this pent-up rage, and “Hungry Hearts” finally provides the vessel for it to reach the surface.  Rohrwacher, while spookily compelling in her own right, far too often relies on playing an absent-minded fruit loop to really give her on-screen counterpart a run for his money.

Costanzo’s film mostly matches their intensity, though hints at a supernatural dimension like “Rosemary’s Baby” that he never intends to portray get a little frustrating.  His film is at its best when the camera, with shakiness and grain, captures the unbearable tension and claustrophobia between two radically different people tied together by the one thing that drives them apart.  B+3stars

REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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REVIEW: Tracks

23 09 2014

TracksLondon Film Festival, 2013

Maybe this is something I will grow out of as I get older, but I have always identified most with the wandering protagonists of the cinema.  From Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” to Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air,” these perpetual seekers seemed to forge the strongest and longest-lasting connection with me.

So I seemed predisposed to click with Robyn Davidson, the protagonist of the film “Tracks” who perilously treks with camels through the Australian desert just to learn something about herself.  I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the film’s epigraph from Davidson, “Some nomads are at home everywhere.  Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”

Yet once the film began in earnest, I related to Davidson’s journey with mild intensity at best.  I felt distant from her the entire way, kept at arm’s length by Mia Wasikowska’s generic performance.  She and the film meander towards no particular destination, although that wouldn’t be a problem if the journey yielded any significant personal developments (and “Tracks” really doesn’t).

The film is still interesting to watch, even if it doesn’t inspire reflection at the level suggested by its opening quotation.  The cinematography by Mandy Walker captures all the sweeping beauty of the inhospitable outback, and Adam Driver (from “Girls”) makes for some amusing comic relief as Rick Smolan, a National Geographic photographer who sporadically documents her progress.  But sadly, “Tracks” never satisfyingly captures the psychology of its subject.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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14 08 2014

What IfRomantic comedies have been all but abandoned by major studios since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” leaving any filmmaker with an itching to tell a love story to develop their project with independent financing.  In that realm of moviemaking, the rom-com is either being outright lampooned (as in “They Came Together“) or struggling to escape the trappings of post-“(500) Days of Summer” ironically detached revisionism (like “Ruby Sparks“).

What If,” from director Michael Dowse and adapted from a stage play to screen by Elan Mastai, feels odd to watch in 2014 because it falls into neither predominant trend.  The film is unabashedly earnest as it tells the tale of Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace as he struggles with his romantic feelings for Zoe Kazan’s Chantry, a close personal friend who happens to be in a long-term relationship.

In other words, it’s the kind of film that might have seemed quite redundant if it were wedged between, say, “27 Dresses” and “Definitely Maybe” in 2008.  But in today’s moviewatching climate, it’s a refreshing reminder of the kind of movie that’s been largely pushed out of the market by tentpole comic book flicks.  Say what you will about “Guardians of the Galaxy” being fun, but you could probably use the lessons from “What If” in your daily life much more easily than anything from the aforementioned space caper.

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REVIEW: Frances Ha

16 06 2013

Frances HaFrances Ha” may be a comedy, but it’s a movie that gives me nightmares.  Along with the equally uproarious “Girls,” writer/star Greta Gerwig gives me little reason to be optimistic for the future.  Heck, after watching this movie, I wondered why I’d ever want to graduate college.  (Don’t worry, mom and dad, I’ll still be done in four years!)

This recent explosion in cultural narratives coming from frustrated twentysomethings has given me a new greatest fear that far exceeds needles and heights.  It’s the idea that my destiny is to end up overeducated and underemployed.  Especially now that everyone has pegged down us millenials as “entitled” and “narcissistic,” it’s like the walls are closing in on me/us.

Gerwig’s Frances, a 27-year-old still getting adjusted to the pressures and demands of adulthood, is a particularly aimless meanderer.  She knows that she needs to make major  changes in order to get her life together, but she lacks a lot of the drive or capacity to follow through on any of them.  As a result, she makes the best of the mess and lives to make the best of her situation with little regard for its future implications.

On her best days, Frances is a joyful opportunist.  Meanwhile, on her worst days, she’s a sloth that borders on being completely unsympathetic.  Perhaps why I had trouble embracing Frances is that she does hit rather close to home.  Unlike the characters on “Girls,” who often find themselves thwarted by unfortunate circumstances or society as a whole, “Frances Ha” is a grimly humorous reminder that many of our issues are thanks to our own doing.
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