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: Before the Flood

19 11 2016

before-the-floodAdmittedly, I know fairly little about climate change apart from what I learn in documentary films. (You didn’t ask for this, but I’ll provide two recommendations anyways – “Merchants of Doubt” in regards to the science, and “Chasing Ice” to cover the effects.) But I do know quite a bit about Leonardo DiCaprio and his celebrity. The man loves disappearing into roles while almost never letting his private life become public. Maybe that’s because he allegedly vapes and puts on headphones during sex, but that’s neither here nor there…

Anyways, back to climate change! Leonardo DiCaprio shows us more of himself in “Before the Flood” than most people have seen in decades of stargazing. We see his fire for the issue like nothing else before, where he can come across as disengaged or disinterested. If he’s willing to shatter the barriers between us and his classic film actor persona to talk about climate change, then we all ought to listen.

The documentary itself treads standard ground for advocacy. It details the problem, shows the corrosion of the earth already well underway in the glaciers, talks to pundits working to turn back the tide, and gives a faint glimmer of hope. The thread running through most of the film’s scenes is DiCaprio, the fully present activist who listens, absorbs and reacts. From his early days of concern in the ’90s to the troubling shoot of “The Revenant,” where climate change necessitated the shoot switch hemispheres to find icy temperatures, climate change has always motivated him. “Before the Flood” sometimes feels like a concerted PR puff piece for DiCaprio, though his genuine passion really does shine through. Perhaps to the point that it even obscures the real discussion topic. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Hitchcock/Truffaut

12 12 2015

Hitchcock:TruffautThough Kent Jones’ documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” may bear the name of two deceased titans of the cinema, but make no mistake about it: this film is focused on those still living and producing vital work.

Of course, the consummate critic and historian Jones does present the the subject in more than sufficient detail. French New Wave founding father Francois Truffaut idolized the British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, whose work was popular yet not necessarily given much clout as art. Truffaut set out to prove it was just that in a series of conversations with the Master of Suspense, which he later transcribed into “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The book became a seminal text in the field of film studies and, as Martin Scorsese personally attests in the documentary, inspired the next generation of filmmakers.

In recounting the making of the book and the influence which it exerted, Jones himself crafts a documentary likely to be studied as often as “Visions of Light.” (That reference means everything to anyone who has taken an Intro to Film class and nothing to everyone else, by the way.) “Hitchcock/Truffaut” provides an excellent primer on auteurist theory while also delving into Freudian, historical and economically determinist readings of Hitchcock’s work. If any of this sounds complex, it all feels effortless to understand when explained by today’s masters David Fincher or Wes Anderson.

The most exciting moments of the documentary come from hearing these contemporary filmmakers delving into the theoretical questions raised in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation. Plenty of times, these directors have to answer questions about the influence of cinema’s giants, but it is usually only in conjunction with how it manifests in their latest film. Here, people like Richard Linklater and James Gray, two directors who rarely make films that resemble Hitchcock’s suspenseful thrillers, can talk about the surprising ways in which his work and his methods affected the way they understand their own work.

This kind of in-depth discussion gives “Hitchcock/Truffaut” a profundity far beyond the sound bites we normally get from filmmakers on a press tour. At times, Jones seems to lose sight of the original conversation in favor of letting Scorsese geek out over “Psycho,” but these joyful nuggets prove his point that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s dialogue is one still worth studying. This celebrated past has clearly exerted its influence in the present, and now, thanks somewhat in part to this documentary, it will continue doing so in the future. A-3halfstars





Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 1

29 08 2014

12:45 P.M.:  TGIF, everyone!  I’m headed into a packed day that will have me at some incredible events.  For all those who are really dying to know, here’s the schedule I’ve been given for the festival.

TFF Schedule

As far as I can tell, I will be at the world premiere of “The 50 Year Argument” (which is Martin Scorsese’s latest documentary) and the North American premiere of Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”  And then … a 35th anniversary tribute to “Apocalpyse Now” will have Francis Ford Coppola in person along with several below-the-line talent.  Incredible.  Geeking out so much.

1:00 P.M.: Ken Burns in the house!

1:49 P.M.: Only had about 20-25 minutes with Ken Burns, but he certainly had quite a lot to say! I’ll write up some of his profundities later. But meanwhile, I’m now at the 35th anniversary screening of “Apocalypse Now” with Francis Ford Coppola in the house!

2:00 P.M.: Spotted Mike Leigh at the “Apocalypse Now” screening.

5:30 P.M.: Left In stunned silence once again by “Apocalypse Now.” And learned so much about its construction and intention from FFC and gang.

5:50 P.M.: Now at the “feed” for the festival (basically a picnic for all badge holders, including talent). Free dinner and drinks. Plus sightings of Ken Burns again on a business call – and Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow.

6:50 P.M.: Spotted Jon Stewart. Some people went to bother him in conversation, and apparently he was receptive enough to take a picture. I was not so bold, though.

9:22 P.M.: Just emerged from the Scorsese documentary on the New York Review of Books, “The 50 Year Argument.” Mike Leigh was sitting behind me, and after the film, he seemed to linger a tad bit when he heard me discussing the film with others.

This documentary is going to be broadcast on HBO in a few weeks, and I advise you to skip it. Or do laundry while you watch it. Unless you have a connection to the Review, you’ll probably find this self-congratulatory anniversary celebration a tedious and slow paced history lesson. (Still deciding whether or not I’ll give it a full review since it’s not made for a theatrical release.)

Anyways, back in line now for Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.” Quite excited for this one, which took home the Jury Prize at Cannes this May.

12:45 A.M.: Wow, what a long and draining day. I must say, I did prefer “Mommy” when Xavier Dolan called it “I Killed My Mother” five years ago.





REVIEW: Life Itself

10 07 2014

Life ItselfFilm critic Roger Ebert inspired many people and touched countless lives, ranging from saving Martin Scorsese from self-implosion to many much smaller-scale interactions.  One such example is a brief response to a blog comment he made to a then-sixteen year-old movie writer who had just decided to try his hand at scribbling down his opinions about film.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that writer was me, and I still count that sentence among the greatest compliments I have ever received.  (It still, to date, features underneath the name of my site in the header of my blog.)  It likely didn’t take him more than five seconds to write, but it may very well have provided the fuel to sustain the site beyond just dipping my toe in the uncharted waters of the blogosphere.

Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary on Ebert, provides the ultimate celebration of his life and work.  He gathers an eclectic group of friends and admirers, a tribute to just how wide-reaching Ebert’s influence and esteem truly was.  Anecodotes and commentary range from members of the critical establishment like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss to filmmakers who he befriended over the years, such as Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price“), and Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere“).

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REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

11 01 2014

Sex. Cocaine. Hookers. Profanity. Quaaludes. Destruction. Money. Orgies. More profanity. More sex. More cocaine. More destruction. More money.

Normally these are the kinds of things that liven up a movie, but in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s pretty much all that’s being served. The movie is three hours of high-intensity bacchanalia in the life and work of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. With a piece being played at such a prolonged forte, it’s quite frankly an exhausting and draining film to watch. While obviously satirical and darkly comedic in tone, the sheer amount of repetition dulls outrageousness into monotony.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is not without its profound moments of insight, however. Yet I was so exhausted by the relentless onslaught of anarchical madness that I lacked the stamina to really analyze Belfort’s speeches and Scorsese’s curious stylistic choices. Screenwriter Terence Winter and Scorsese present Wall Street as a synecdoche for America, and I’d be curious to re-watch some scenes again and subject them to further criticism.

But that dissection is going to have to be on video or as YouTube clips because I simply don’t think I could sit through “The Wolf of Wall Street” in its entirety again. The film may not condone the behavior it presents on screen, yet it’s so drunk on its own energy it luxuriates in all these obscene shenanigans. It doesn’t really matter if Scorsese communicates disgust for Belfort’s actions; by including such a large volume of his antics, he glorifies Belfort’s narrative over those left ruined in his calamitous wake.

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LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

2 01 2013

I’ll still be stuck in 2012 at least until the Oscars are handed out and until then will be filling in with reviews of some of the movies I missed from the year.  But it’s time to move forward and look ahead to 2013, which could be a great year for cinema.  Several of my favorite filmmakers have projects due this year, which is what I will have to remind myself as I have to slog through a year that reportedly will give us 31 sequels and 17 reboots!

I had originally prepared a top 10 list for my most anticipated of 2013, but then I realized that since so many were TBD, there’s a chance we won’t see some of these movies until 2014.  So I added three movies at the beginning of the list that premiered on the 2012 fall festival circuit but will hit theaters for paying audiences in 2013.

Without further ado…

To The Wonder

#13
“To The Wonder” (April)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko

A year ago, Terrence Malick was critical darling with his “The Tree of Life.”  Yet when “To the Wonder” arrived at Toronto and Venice, you’d have thought they were reviewing a Michael Bay movie.  How someone goes from hero to zero that meteorically is curious.  If nothing else, “To the Wonder” could be the most anticipated disaster of the year.

Frances Ha

#12
“Frances Ha” (May 17)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver

Upon its many festival stops in 2012, it was called a mixture of French New Wave with early Woody Allen.  Combine that with the fact that it’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose “The Squid and the Whale” knocked me off my feet, “Frances Ha” sounds like a movie custom-made for me.

The Place Beyond the Pines

#11
“The Place Beyond the Pines” (March 29)
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes

They called it a sprawling, multigenerational epic when it played Toronto.  And from the trailer for Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the harrowing “Blue Valentine,” it looks ambitious.  And honestly, I may be looking forward to this far more than several of the movies that made the ten.

Nebraska

#10
“Nebraska” (TBD)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson
Starring Devin Ratray, Bruce Dern, and Bob Odenkirk

Alexander Payne’s “Election” alone makes anything from the director worth anticipating.  After a second writing Oscar back from a seven-year hiatus for “The Descendants,” he shortens his gap with a new movie within two years.  I’m a little skeptical, though, since the cast lacks some of the pop of Payne’s previous films, and he also didn’t write this one.

Inside Llewyn Davis

#9
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (TBD)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake

The Coens have gone from 1960s Jewish suburbia in “A Serious Man” to the 1880s Wild West in “True Grit.”  And now … back to the 1960s for the folk music scene of Greenwich Village?  They sure like to keep us on our feet.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#8
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey

Scorsese.  Enough said.  I suspect this will be the role that wins DiCaprio his Oscar, provided he doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor for “Django Unchained” this year.  With “The Great Gatsby” (see below) moving back to 2013, it assures us yet another fantastic one-two punch within the same year from DiCaprio.  “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”  “Shutter Island” and “Inception.”  Boom, Leo comin’ at ya!

Catching Fire

#7
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (November 22)
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth

I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” this year, though I do see room for improvement in sequels.  Hopefully the writer of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” as well as the writer of “Toy Story 3” can elevate it because I’m certainly not expecting much from the director of the middling “Water for Elephants.”  And I just kind of need something to fill the void left from “Harry Potter.”

Elysium

#6
“Elysium” (August 9)
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley

Anything shrouded in secrecy is enough to get me interested; that’s why “Prometheus” was at the top of this list for me in 2012 (that list was just mental).  And I think “District 9” could be merely scratching the surface of what Neill Blomkamp is capable of.  With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining a sci-fi class warfare pic, this could be other-worldly levels of awesome.

Gravity

#5
“Gravity” (TBD)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, and Rodrigo Garcia
Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock

Speaking of other-worldly levels of awesome, let’s talk Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”  He hasn’t released a film for 7 years, but his last three films were the incredible stretch of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “Children of Men.”  His “Gravity” has been described as “if ‘Avatar’ had been released in 1927 a week after ‘The Jazz Singer.'”  What.  Warner Bros. pushed it back from 2012 for what I imagine was fine-tuning, which just has me all the more on pins and needles.

Labor Day

#4
“Labor Day” (TBD)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Tobey Maguire

Jason Reitman, on a subjective and personal level, is probably my favorite director.  He’s had a flawless 4-for-4 stretch of films in his career, and though “Young Adult” might have been a step down from “Up in the Air,” that’s because the latter was basically perfect.  I’m fascinated to see what he can do with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Twelve Years a Slave

#3
“Twelve Years a Slave” (TBD)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and John Ridley
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” was pretty good, but his “Shame” was an absolutely ingenious triumph.  I can only imagine how he plans to top it in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of a New York man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It’s got one heck of a cast, from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry’s first roles post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Is it too soon to cry Oscar?

Star Trek

#2
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (May 17)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Abrams did one heck of a job turning around the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009.  And from the superb trailer, it looks like he plans to boldly go into Christopher Nolan territory with a beautifully lensed and incredibly emotional follow-up.  I can’t wait.

Gatsby

#1
“The Great Gatsby” (May 10)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire

I heard today that Jay-Z is going to be scoring Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.”  My first reaction was to rethink my placement of the movie as my most anticipated of 2013.  Then, I thought about it and realized that it might be a stroke of inspired brilliance that makes the movie even better.  Luhrmann is unparalleled in his ability to take old texts and make them feel alive, modern, and relevant.  Just look at how he took Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and made it relevant for a post-MTV audience.  And think about how he seamlessly integrated pop songs into “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1900!  Luhrmann’s flair for the theatrical and opulent borders on gaudy on several occasions  but I think he’s the perfect match for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of the rich and the glamorous.  I have no doubt his use of 3D will serve the movie well too.  All in all, his “The Great Gatsby” will most definitely be for and by our times … and could wind up being the movie that defines 2013.