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: A Monster Calls

7 01 2017

A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.

Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.

But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.

His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+3stars





REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Non-Stop

10 06 2014

Liam Neeson’s career has taken one of the stranger trajectories in recent memory.  Beginning as a prestige dramatic actor whose stunning performance in “Schindler’s List” earned him an Oscar nomination, he was one of few with the gravitas to be the voice of God in the “Narnia” series.  Though he had a brief stint as a Jedi in the maligned 1999 “Star Wars” prequel, few would have thought of Neeson as an action star.

That was, until 2009’s game-changing hit “Taken,” the film that still sends chills down the spine of any student about travel abroad.  Playing the ultimate protective papa bear, Neeson channels Jack Bauer by way of Dick Cheney with such tenacity that it led to reprising various shades of the role in “Clash of the Titans.”  And “The A-Team.”  And “Unknown.”  (Heck, it’s already at the parodic stage as shown by “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”)  Neeson can now go on “Saturday Night Live” and threaten Vladimir Putin, presumptively as … himself.

Non-Stop” may well be the zenith of the Neeson craze, signaling the point at which pop culture accepts him as a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal-type figure.  His larger-than-life presence on the screen now apparently means we can and should accept a heightened state of suspension of disbelief.  Neeson might as well wear a cape because he’s a superhero in our real world that doesn’t involve aliens, time travel, or any other Marvel gimmick you can think of.

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REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

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REVIEW: The Grey

6 10 2012

At its core, Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” desperately wants to be a “127 Hours,” a deeply personal and intimate drama about the pitting of the human will against an unforgiving wilderness.  And while elements of that thematic narrative creep through the cracks at times, the movie falls far short of achieving any sort of meaningful revelations about our humanity at its most raw.

“The Grey” begins like the television show “Lost” – a bunch of strangers survive a plane crash in the desolate non-continental United States – but then proceeds like a “Final Destination” movie … with wolves!   If the movie didn’t have such a massive stick up its behind, it would have been a fantastic “Final Destination 6.”  (Or maybe more like a “Final Destination -1” since it’s so humorless.)

I mean, it’s just hard to take a movie seriously when it moves so predictably towards its end as everyone meets their end … one … by … one.  Carnahan’s uneven direction doesn’t help matters, dulling any chance of sympathy we might have for Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler ruthless daughter-saving dad John Ottway, the group’s de facto leader.  Sure, Neeson has some moments where he gets to curse God and his fate, but those aren’t anything new.  Just like the rest of the movie.

And then there’s the matter of the ending.  Some will praise it because they perceive it to be poetic, lyrical, beautiful in its ambiguity.  I found it inconsistent with the rest of the movie and a reprehensible attempt to turn a horror concept into art-house drama merely by refusing to come up with a satisfactory ending.  C





REVIEW: Unknown

23 06 2011

Half “Taken” and half “The Bourne Identity,” Liam Neeson’s latest thriller “Unknown” lacks the scintillating sizzle of such like-minded thrillers but will pass for decent entertainment.  If you want a rental that offers a tiny bit of mental involvement, a fair bit of thrills, and beautiful women named Diane Kruger and January Jones, this might be a decent way to spend a Monday movie night at home.  You won’t complain or be disappointed; you’ll just be content.

The high concept thriller follows Martin Harris (Neeson), who awakes from a coma after a car wreck in a Berlin taxi driven by Gina (Kruger) to find that his wife Liz (Jones) doesn’t recognize him.  In fact, there is nothing other than a lost passport to prove his identity.  In order to get his life back, Martin must get to the source of this deep running conspiracy, and he will stop at nothing to reclaim what was once his.

It’s really an intriguing premise, and if you watched the trailer (or saw it a million times in theaters during December 2010), you can basically skip the first hour.  The set-up was done perfectly in two minutes there, and it was a little unnecessary to prolong the trailer.  The second hour is where things get interesting, yet by the time the movie’s “twist” comes around, I was just ready for it to end.  The movie squanders an opportunity to really cash in on the idea, which is a little disappointing, but at least it doesn’t totally tank.  There are much worse thrillers than “Unknown;” then again, there are also much better.  C+ /