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DVD Review: Silence

silence

Adan Driver (left) and Andrew Garfield are Portuguese missionaries in Japan whose mission is a huge test of faith in Silence.

Learning of Martin Scorsese doing Silence caught my intrigue: Scorsese doing a film about Catholic missionaries. The big question would be how would it turn out? Would it be pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or something else entirely?

It it the 17th Century. Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe  are sent to Japan to spread the faith and to find Father Ferreira. Ferreira was sent as a missionary from Portugal, but has been forced to watch the brutal executions of people he helped convert to the faith and has since apostatized. In their first stop in Macau, they came across one of the converts who himself watch executions happen. He’s now a paranoid alcoholic.

Once they arrive in Japan, they arrive in the village of Tomogi. They learn that Catholics have resorted to an underground church. The people are relieved to see they have a full priest available but the priests learn of the samurai searching out Christians to execute: commonly called ‘The Inquisitor.’

Both priests go to different islands. Garupe goes to Hirado Island to avoid having the village threatened and Rodrigues goes to Goto Island in search of Ferreira. He comes across the man from Macau who betrays him in front of an old samurai. The samurai has Rodrigues and the Catholic converts arrested and taken to a prison in Nagasaki. The samurai warns Rodrigues to renounce his faith or else the other captured Christians will be tortured. The samurai give the Christians a chance to step on a rudely-carved crucifix to renounce their faith. One man refuses and he’s beheaded on the spot. Rodrigues has to witness this from his prison cell. Later, Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline where three Christians from Hirado and even father Garupe are to be executed by drowning. Even though Garupe refuses to apostatize, Rodrigues is horrified by what he witnesses.

Finally Rodrigues gets to meet up with the apostate Ferreira. Ferreira tells him after 15 years in Japan, Christianity is futile in Japan. It’s best that he apostatize. They day before Rodrigues goes on trial, he hears the torture of five Christians who had apostatized. Then the day comes. Rodrigues is brought to trial by the shogun and is presented the chance to step on the crude carved crucifix to apostatize. Rodrigues appears to hear permission from Christ and steps on it. He is distraught. Rodrigues spent his remaining years in Japan married and searching out goods from ships incoming from Europe. His job was to identify Christian items from non-Christian items. The ending will definitely lead to a lot of conversation.

We should keep in mind this is not exactly a true story. Instead this is a film adaptation of a book of the same name written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Whatever the situation, this is a film that presents a huge challenge to one’s faith. Even one with the strongest of faith and convictions can find themselves questioning what they would do in a situation like this. We should remember this is not a case of Christian martyrdom where the priest is the first to be executed. The followers are executed first as a pressure to get the priest to apostatize. The methods of execution are also horrific such as slowly dousing prisoners in hot spring water slowly and painfully to burning them alive wrapped in grass. I’m sure some would ask what would they do in this situation? Is it a selfish thing to hang on to one’s faith while the others are tortured and killed?

I’m sure a lot of people would be suspicious of a film like this coming from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has had a reputation of a lot of negative and even blasphemous depictions of Catholicism and the Catholic faith. The biggest controversy was in 1988 when The Last Temptation Of Christ hit the theatres and there were protests galore. This film does not give a negative depiction of the priests. Instead it presents the challenges of faith such as the pressure to apostatize or the treatment of sacred images. One thing about the film is that the ending of the film is sure to give a lot of discussion of the final fate of Rodrigues. They say endings should have you asking questions rather than give you answers. It sure worked here as a lot of debate of the ending has sure come about. Even the end scenes after Rodrigues apostatized prompted a discussion between me and another person. This film will have you talking.

One thing it goes to show about this film is that it shows just how difficult it is for a director to make a labor-of-love film. No matter how many hit movies a director may produce, they still have stories deep in their heart they can only dream of putting on film. Even a renowned director like Scorsese would face such challenges. It’s not just in the amount of time it would take to develop such an idea on film– this film is 25 years in the making– but also the willingness of executives to allow it. We forget that film making is a business first and foremost, and business is ruthless. Even after all is completed, it’s then up to how the general public will receive it. In the end, Silence became Scorsese’s lowest-grossing film since 1997’s Kundun. It is a shame because the film is wonderful to watch and showcases a lot of excellent aspects. The film did make the AFI’s annual Top 10 list of the best films as well as the Top 10 list of the National Board of Review.

Martin Scorsese does another good job of directing, even if it’s not his best. He works the film very well and presents it well without his usual trademark of over-the-top blood-and-guts. Sure, there were torturous scenes, but they were a far cry from what you’d normally see in Scorsese film. I feel the adaptation he wrote along with scriptwriter Jay Cocks included the right parts and right moments from the novel as none of the scenes seemed pointless. Also he did a good job of maintaining the dignity of the priests and of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is a change in Scorsese.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job in his portrayal of Rodrigues. This was one year where Garfield played roles of people with strong faith. First was Hacksaw Ridge and now this. He did a very good job in presenting a man with a huge spiritual struggle. Adam Driver was given less screen time and it didn’t allow well for his part to develop. He did do well with what he had. Lia Neeson was also good in his part despite how brief and how limited it was. If there was one supporting actor who could steal the film from Garfield, it’s Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue. He came off as cartoonish at the odd time but he succeeded in making you hate him. Other great works in the film include the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. He did a lot of good shots in creating the drama and even capturing the beauty of the scenery. Also worth noting is the excellent production design from Dante Ferreti in both the natural and man-made settings and the costuming also by Ferreti which were top notch.

Silence will most likely go down as Scorsese’s most overlooked masterpiece. It was a labor of love of his that didn’t pan out at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s a good think he made this film as it features a lot of cinematic qualities and gives a lot to marvel at.

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Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 1

I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.

ARRIVAL

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Amy Adams knows how to communicate with aliens in Arrival.

When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.

This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.

Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.

Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.

The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.

Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.

HACKSAW RIDGE

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Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield) in both his convictions and his sacrifice.

Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.

This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.

One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.

I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.

This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.

In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.

Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.

MOONLIGHT

 

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Mahershala Ali (right) portrays a mentor to a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert at left) in Moonight.

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.

The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.

The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.

The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.

The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.

The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.

Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.

And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.