Movie Reviews - 2016 postsFriday April 07, 2017
Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is long, beautifully photographed, often silent, and mostly pointless.
Two 17th-century Jesuits from Portugal, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), hear about the torture and killing of their fellow priests in Shogun-era Japan—which is resisting the conversion of its people by any means necessary—as well as the supposed apostasy of their mentor, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), who, it is rumored, has not only renounced Christ but taken a Japanese wife, and ... they don’t buy it. They demand to travel to Japan to see and possibly rescue their mentor.
Everyone in the audience: “Bad idea.”
The rest of the movie, 2 hours and 40 minutes worth, is about what a bad idea it is.
Fire and water
We’ve already seen some of the torture—the modern-day crucifixions at the hot springs, in which scalding water, drip by drip, is poured onto the priests—but our guys haven’t, and they’re somewhat naïve. They’ll soon lose that. Along with everything else.
They’re guided to the coast of Japan by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a begrimed, half-mad Japanese they meet in Hong Kong, who lost his wife and family years earlier. In flashback, and in a test we see repeated throughout the movie, officials demand that they prove they’re not Christians by stepping on an image of Christ. Kichijiro does, the rest of his family doesn’t; so he goes free and they’re wrapped in hay and burned alive on the beach. For all that tragedy, Kichijiro winds up almost a comical figure in the movie: ready to traduce the priests and renounce Christ one moment, then unable to live with himself and scurrying back for absolution.
In Japan, the Jesuits are greeted gratefully and reverently by the villagers, who, it turns out, are often better Christians than they are: feeding, sheltering, sacrificing. But word gets out, and officials, led by the grunting Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and the initially silent, increasingly creepy Inoue (Issei Ogata), descend. Rodrigues has already counseled the village elders to step on the image of Christ to save themselves, and they do. But it’s all so easy. So Inoue changes the rules: They must spit on the image and curse the Virgin Mary as a whore. This they cannot do—except for Kichijiro, of course. The other three are tied to crosses and left to die of exposure and/or drowning with the coming tide That’s basically most of the movie: die by fire or water. Pick your poison.
After the two priests split up, we follow Rodrigues, who is betrayed by Kichijiro, captured, and broken down over months and years. Rather than kill him, and thus martyr him, the officials kill helpless Japanese because he’s not submitting to their will. At one point, from a distance, Rodrigues sees Garupe on the beach sacrifice himself for his flock, who are wrapped in hay, rowed into the ocean, and tossed overboard to drown. Garupe swims to save them but is drowned himself. Rodrigues cries to the heavens at the injustice.
That’s one of the oddities for me. Given the alternatives, Garupe’s death isn’t bad: It’s for a cause and doesn’t involve bodily torture. Yet there’s Rodrigues, crying to the heavens. This happens often. Rodrigues’ emotional reactions don’t quite mesh. At one point he seems to go mad—briefly—and I’m not sure why. Were scenes cut?
Eventually, Rodrigues comes face to face with Father Ferriera and learns that all the rumors are true: a wife taken, Christ renounced. Then Ferriera tries to convince Rodrigues to follow the same path of apostasy. We get more torture of others. Meanwhile, despite Rodrigues’ fervent prayers, God is silent.
But God, or at least Scorsese, gets in the last quiet word.
Silence vs. Waiting
At the very end, after Rodrigues’ conversion, and after he and Ferriera become, in essence, border agents for the officials—ensuring that no Christian icons, not to mention Christians, make it into the country—and after Ferriera’s death, and while Rodrigues himself is dying, once again we hear Rodrigues’ complaint about God’s silence. But then we hear another voice telling Rodrigues what he can’t hear: That He was never silent; that He was always next to him; that He suffered along with him. It’s the voice of God.
That’s an answer to the dilemma, I suppose: God hears, we can’t. It’s not a bad answer for someone like Scorsese, who once considered becoming a priest, and who has grappled with religious issues in both life and on film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun”). It may even be true. But it’s not particularly satisfying to a secularist like me.
A more satisfying rationale comes from someone I know, Craig Wright, a playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and minister, who, 20 years ago, wrote a song called “Heaven,” in which the singer asks the same question Rodrigues does. Except the metaphor is different: not silence but waiting:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
The answer, an alley-oop, doesn’t come via an 11th-hour deus ex machina, as Scorsese’s does, but through the singer’s own thought processes:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
That thought turns the bad into the blissful. “Silence” doesn’t do that for me. The final shot of Rodrigues, dead and stuffed into a barrel-sized Japanese coffin, but still, unseen, clutching the homemade crucifix in his hand, is that ... redemption? It indicates the Japanese didn’t break his spirit. Just everything else.
Movie Review: Frantz (2016)
At first I thought he’d killed her fiancé (and their son) during the Great War, and that’s why this almond-eyed, sensitive Frenchman was visiting the grave of Frantz Hoffmeister in Quedlinburg, Germany in the spring of 1919. But after he told them the story about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war—seeing the Louvre together, and Manet’s painting of the man “with his head back”—and you realize the grief he’s feeling and the secret he still seems to be keeping, I wondered “Maybe they were lovers?”
Turns out it’s Door #1.
I liked “Frantz” a lot but didn’t quite love it. The French academy seems to feel the same way. It was nominated for 11 Césars and won one: cinematography.
It’s based on the 1932 Hollywood movie “Broken Lullabye,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which was based on the 1925 play by Maurice Rostand, L'homme que j'ai tué, or The Man I Killed. Both earlier versions focus on the French soldier seeking absolution, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”), but “Frantz,” written and directed by François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “8 Femme”), and filmed in black and white, makes the smarter decision, I believe, to focus on the girl, Anna (Paula Beer), the fiancée to the dead soldier. It adds mystery. It makes us wonder what the Frenchman is up to.
I was pulled into the post-Great War world right away. Anna buys flowers, looks at the new dresses in the shop window but walks away, down the street, past the two former soldiers who comment on how pretty she is, and into the cemetery ... where she finds flowers already on the grave of her fiancé. She asks a caretaker about them, and he says they were placed there by a Frenchman. Then he spits in contempt. “Right,” I thought. “That hatred doesn’t go away.”
Anna is still living with Frantz’s parents, Dr. and Frauline Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), and being pursued by Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who offers little but financial stability. Like much of the world at this point, she’s engaged to the dead.
The mystery of the Frenchman, and his connection to Frantz, wakes her up. She opens up, particularly to him, even as he seems wary of her, forever backing off. We get a beautiful scene where he agrees to play Frantz’s old violin for the family, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, and Ozon allows color to creep back into the film. It’s a bold move but it works. When Adrien faints, the world goes to black-and-white again. Eventually he tells Anna the truth: He was the French soldier who killed Frantz; he’d come to Quedlinburg to ask forgiveness. In the wake of this revelation, she turns cold, refuses to forgive him, but maintains the illusion of “Frantz’s friend” for the Hoffmeisters. He returns to France.
The second half is all Ozon—it wasn’t in the play or the original movie—and it doesn’t quite work.
Anna’s despair is so great—the man she was falling in love with killed the man she loved—that she tries to drown herself. A local saves her. Bedridden, she begins to contemplate settling for Kreutz when Mrs. Hoffmeister dismisses the notion. They had hoped, she says quietly, that Anna might wind up with Adrien. Caught in the illusion of “Frantz’s friend,” maybe even beginning to believe it herself, Anna travels to Paris to find him.
Some good moments. Manet’s painting in the Louvre turns out to be “Le Suicide,” and she worries Adrien has taken his own life. Through the hospitals she discovers the suicide-death of Rivoire. At this point I thought the movie would be bookended by Anna’s graveyard visits: first her fiancé, then the man who killed her fiancé. But that Rivoire turns out to be a colonel who lost his legs. She finds her Rivoire living in a country estate, with a prim mother and a fiancée of his own, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing, looking like Marion Cotillard’s not-as-pretty younger sister). Anna agrees to stay but, mirroring his fainting spell, she flees an evening piano recital. The next day at the train station, Anna forgives Adrien for Frantz’s death, while Adrien reveals that he’s getting married mostly for his mother, and Fanny, but not himself. They finally kiss, and for a moment he tries to change the course of events but she tells him it’s too late. We last see her back in the Louvre, at the Manet painting, telling another young mustached man that she likes the painting because it makes her want to live.
Shape of things to come
“Frantz” is gorgeously photographed, and has a deliberate pace and seeming simplicity. Another scene I loved is when Dr. Hoffmeister confronts Kreutz’s pro-German meeting group, who condemn his friendship with the Frenchman, saying: We celebrated when we slaughtered them and they celebrated when they slaughtered us. We cheered the death of children.
Stotzner is magnificent as the doctor—his bedrock gravitas, his searching eyes—and Beer is quite lovely as Anna: her neck; the way she moves. But the ending doesn’t resonate. More, what drives the plot, Adrien’s need for forgiveness from the family of the man he killed, is, to me, so monstrously selfish that I lost interest in the character. When it turns out he’s living on a country estate, my contempt doubled.
It’s worth seeing, though. I'd like to see more movies like it. Hovering in the background throughout is not only Frantz (as palpable a presence as Rebecca in “Rebecca”) but the war to come. Even if “Le Suicide” makes Anna want to live, we know she will live long enough to see more death than she can imagine.
Movie Review: Rules Don't Apply (2016)
He waited too long.
Principal shooting on “Rules Don’t Apply” took place in 2014, but writer-director Warren Beatty kept tinkering with it throughout 2015, and the movie didn’t open until November 23, 2016—two weeks and a day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And these are the first words the still-shellshocked citizens of the U.S. got to see on screen:
“Never check an interesting fact.”
— Howard Hughes
(names and dates have been changed)
What’s supposed to be a sly wink at the audience, something to make us laugh at the chicanery of it all—and maybe even recall one of the most famous lines in movie history: “When the legend becomes fact ... print the legend,” from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—instead, post-Trump, comes off as a kind of horror about what we’ve allowed everyone to get away with, the truth-less, factcheck-less world in which we now spin. It immediately sets the wrong tone.
Then it get worse.
To be honest, I don’t know what Beatty was thinking. I don’t know what he thought the story was.
Here’s the story as I see it: In 1958, two kids fall in love but Howard Hughes (Beatty) gets in the way. She gets pregnant (by Hughes), he stays employed (by Hughes), and then six years later, in Acapulco, they rally ’round the old man enough that he’s able to rise up from his dementia and beat back a charlatan autobiographer. Yay! Then boy and girl go off into the sunset—with Hughes’ now 5-year-old kid in tow—even as the old man sinks back into silence and darkness.
The girl is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) a devout Baptist and the “Apple Blossom Queen” of Virginia, who arrives in Hollywood in 1958 with her suspicious, demanding mother, Lucy (Annette Bening, wasted), ready to take a screen test for the Hughes-produced film “Stella Starlight.” The boy is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a devout Methodist low-level employee of Hughes and wannabe real estate tycoon who drives Marla and 25 other Hughes starlets to and from school, dance lessons, auditions, etc., even as he’s constantly warned by his superior, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), not to get involved with them—and even as Levar does his level best to do just that. To no dramatic effect. Or plot point. Or anything.
There’s a great early shot of, I guess, Sunset Boulevard in 1958, done with, I imagine, lots of CGI, that made me happy. This is what CGI is for, I thought: resurrecting history. There’s also a nice montage of picking up the va-va-voomy starlets, as well as a fascinating moment when the girls get their weekly paychecks via clipboard dropped from a second-floor window like—as Lucy accurately states—a fishing line. But the movie loses itself quickly. The early scenes are rushed through. In one seven-minute stretch, I counted 14 separate scenes—three involving Frank’s visit with his girl and her family back in Fresno, which could’ve been cut altogether. But Beatty keeps them while giving short shrift to the others.
Where’s the emotional resonance? At one point, Lucy is lambasting Frank again from the backseat about how it’s been two weeks and Hughes hasn’t even seen Marla yet, and when is she going to get her screentest, and why isn’t he, Frank, doing something about it? Finally fed up, Fred pulls over, turns, and tells her he’s never seen Mr. Hughes, either. Ah ha! Except we’re already aware of this. Painfully so. The scene might’ve worked, if, say, the point-of-view had been Marla’s throughout, with Hollywood a dreamscape, and the driver mysterious and handsome, and then ... Oh! He’s just like me. He’s just another employee in the dark. Instead, this clunker.
We get a lot of clunkers. There’s a Bobby Darin joke that falls flatter than almost any line I’ve heard. Then it’s repeated 10 minutes later.
It all builds toward finally seeing the reclusive Hughes. She goes first, meeting him in his darkened bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel, where she anticipates a pass or worse. Instead, he’s a Warren Beatty character: distracted, kooky, harmless. She’s served a TV dinner rather than a sumptuous meal, and sax rather than sex, and when he looms close and points to her chest it’s to talk about the Rayon in her blouse rather than paw at what’s beneath it.
Then it’s his turn, meeting Hughes for 3 a.m. burgers on folding chairs in front of Hughes’ massive airplane, The Hercules—just one of the many Hughes bio bits Beatty tries to pack in. In this six-year period, 1958 to 1963, we get references to Jane Russell’s bra (really from 1943) as well as the faux autobiography (really from 1972). Hughes is in a plane crash, Hughes is testifying before Congress, Hughes exhibits the OCD habits that will undo him. He’s increasingly paranoid that his underlings will declare him mentally incompetent and put him in an institution. Then he learns that if he’s married, he can’t be committed without his wife’s approval. And that sets up the movie’s turning point.
Here’s how it’s set up:
- Frank and Marla finally give in to their lustful passions (think: “Splendor in the Grass”) but it ends abruptly, even before clothes are removed.
- Immediate after, Levar takes her to Hughes’ bungalow because Hughes requested a tryst with “the MM girl”—but Beatty meant Marilyn Monroe.
- Marla, feeling guilty over the makeout session with Frank, discovers the champagne there, and gets bombed while waiting.
- He discovers the thing about the wife.
- He proposes to her.
- They have sex.
Apparently Beatty first thought of this project back in the 1970s, and if he’d pulled it off earlier, with him in the lead, it might’ve worked. I mean, Hughes in ’58 was relatively young: 53 years old. He was Brad Pitt’s age now. But Beatty at the time of filming? 77. Worse, he was 52 years older than the female lead. Again: Ick. Sorry, Warren, but some rules do apply.
Hughes, scatter-brained and unethical, winds up marrying Jean Peters and escaping to Las Vegas, then Nicaragua, then London. Marla winds up pregnant. She and Frank wind up on the outs because 1) he sees the engagement ring and assumes there’s another guy, 2) she doesn’t tell him about Hughes, 3) he doesn’t figure it out until the 11th hour. Quarter to midnight, more like.
What a mess. I get the feeling Beatty wants us to cheer as, buoyed by Marla’s sudden reappearance in Acapulco with her son, whom he recognizes as his son, meaning his DNA will continue on and he can live forever (don’t ask), buoyed by this, the clouds in his mind momentarily dissipate, he comes alive again, and he unmasks his biographer—the spurned boyfriend of one of his starlets six years earlier—as a charlatan. But ... he’s still Hughes. All that shit still happened. There’s no Hollywood ending here, but Beatty, or Fox, makes one out of it—right up to the boy chasing after the girl to let her know, finally know, how much she means to him.
You know what would’ve made a better movie? The story of another 1958 ingénue from Virginia, Warren Beatty, landing in Hollywood just as the old studio system was dying; and how he and his generation, via “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” created, for a time, what took its place: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
When the legend sucks, print the facts.
Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
There is an early exchange between our main character, a kid called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who has begun to act as his big brother. We wonder for a time whether Juan has an ulterior motive. Is he trying to turn Little into a corner kid? Something worse? But doubts about Juan are extinguished by the doubt we see in Juan’s own face. Even he can’t fathom why he’s doing it. He seems confused by his own actions. Sure, the kid reminds him of himself as a boy, but don’t others? Why this one? I guess that’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we fall in love: Why this one?
The exchange is mostly monologue—Juan’s. That’s true of most of Little’s exchanges. He doesn’t say much. But when he does it has impact. It hits you in the gut.
Juan is telling Little about his experience coming to Miami from Cuba, running around, not knowing any better. He recalls a time when an old lady stopped him and said she would call him “Blue,” because, she says, in the moonlight black boys look blue.
Little: Is your name Blue?
Juan [laughs]: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
Much of the rest of the movie is how Little lets everyone else make that decision for him.
Who he’s going to be
The movie is split into three parts, each named for either the nickname or real name of our main character:
In the first, he’s about 10. The second ... 16 or so? By the time he’s Black, he’s in his late 20s and no longer little.
Does it lose something in the third act? For me, for a time, it does. For a time, Chiron lost my sympathy. He had it in the first two.
He’s small and picked-upon, living in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict who is too busy looking for her next fix to look after, or even care about, her own son. It’s up to others to do it for her: Juan, who teaches him to swim, and his girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feeds him and cares for him, and Little’s friend Kevin, who gives him advice: “See, you just gotta show them niggas you ain’t soft.” That’s the key to Kevin, who’s bigger, louder, occupies his space in the world. Little retreats from the world. He takes baths. I identified.
One of Little’s hit-you-in-the-guts lines is near the end of the first act. Juan has just had a showdown with Teresa, who, against neighborhood etiquette and common sense, is smoking crack in a car near the drug dealers, and Juan is ready to rip her a new one. But she senses his vulnerability; her son is his vulnerability, and she uses it. She uses the fact that he cares and she doesn’t, and back at his place, Juan and Teresa and Little sitting around the dining table like a family, Little drops a non sequitur like a bomb: “Am I a faggot?” I thought Juan’s response was a little cautious, a little PC, but then he’s hit in the gut with the next question: “Do you sell drugs?” Little is making sense of the world. The man saving him is the man destroying his mother. Juan owns to it but the admission, and Little’s quick exit, crumples him.
By the next act Juan is gone—a funeral is mentioned in passing—and his place in the story is taken by what Juan kept at bay: the bullies of the world, specifically Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his toadies, who pick on Chiron (Ashton Saunders) in class and in the schoolyard and follow him home, mocking his mother, his pants, his supposed sexual preference. Kevin isn’t part of that; he’s just nearby, bragging about this or that girl he did this or that with; then suddenly he’s at the beach with Chiron, who fled there at night, and the two share a joint and a sexual moment. You sense the world opening up to Chiron: Maybe it can be this; maybe it can be beautiful. The next day it slams shut. Terrel demands Kevin pick a fight with Chiron, and he does. Kevin gives in to the demands of the world, Chiron doesn’t and gets hurt for it—both physically and emotionally—and he snaps. I had friends in high school who snapped in similar ways, but less violent ways. Chiron busts a chair over Terrel’s back, and the authorities, who never acted throughout Terrel’s long reign of terror, now act: They put Chiron in juvey.
By the third act, the skinny kid is gone. Now he’s got a body like a superhero, and a grill like a drug dealer. He is a drug dealer. In Atlanta. It’s how he survived. We get the story piecemeal after Kevin (Andre Holland, Wendell Smith in “42”) phones out of the blue, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now Black—Kevin’s nickname for him in Act II—goes to see him in the Cuban restaurant Kevin runs in Miami. It’s a small place but I like the atmosphere of it and Kevin’s pride in it. That said, this part drags a bit. Maybe because I don’t identify with Black here? We don’t know exactly what he’s up to—Love? Revenge? Both?—and it’s pulling teeth getting anything out of him. I wonder where the kid I identified with went.
Where did he go? He went to a harder place and became a person who could survive there. That, too, when I figured it out, I identified with. The hardest thing is to remain sensitive in a hard world. The world closes you off, bit by bit, or all at once. It happened to me on some level and it happened to Chiron.
Eventually, back at Kevin’s place, he reveals where Little and Chiron are—still inside—when he says the most devastating line of the year:
You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.
The mind reels at the sadness of it all.
And the Oscar goes to...
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is as beautifully structured as a short story or novella. It deserves its accolades and awards. It’s even more powerful during the second viewing.
I particularly like how intimately it’s photographed. We’re never far away from our lead—Little, Chiron, Black. We often seem to be following right behind him as if we’re bullies following him home from school or guardian angels looking after him. Helpless guardian angels.
Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2016)
Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the quintessential grumpy old man with a heart of gold—Swedish version. He’s a widower who spends his days nitpicking over minor violations in block association rules, visiting his wife’s grave, and trying to kill himself. The neighbors keep interrupting these attempts to ask for favors. They keep blithely assuming he’s a sweetheart even though he’s shown them nothing but contempt.
It works. During the course of the movie, amid his grumblings, Ove: helps his new neighbors back their trailer into their driveway, loans them a ladder, drives them to the hospital, babysits their kids, fixes their dishwasher, teaches the Iranian wife to drive, repairs a bike, takes in a stray cat, takes in a gay kid who’s been kicked out by his homophobic dad, and saves the life of a stranger about to be run over by a train.
Then in the final showdown, he rallies the neighbors to prevent social services from taking Rune (Börge Lundberg), his onetime friend and rival for block association president, now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, and placing him in an institution against his and his wife’s wishes.
With grumpy old men like this, who needs friends?
You see early on where the movie’s going, and it gets there without many surprises. It’s about simple joys, loves, lives. Tragedy keeps intersecting with joy, but none of it feels particularly real.
- Tragedy: His father is proudly showing his teenage son’s grades around the railyard when he gets run over by a train.
- Heroism/tragedy: Shortly thereafter, he runs into a burning building to save his neighbors’ lives but gets no praise or backslaps, simply a sneer from social services, the villainous “Whiteshirts” of his imagination, who allow his own home to burn to the ground because they’re going to demolish it anyway.
- Joy: Now homeless, sleeping on a train, he runs into a beautiful, intelligent woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, looking like a “Twin Peaks”-era Sherilyn Fenn), and she does most of the heavy lifting to get them to the altar. What does she see in him? Who knows? He’s a tall hayseed, not particularly attractive, who can barely string two words together. But the movies are the movies.
- Tragedy: In a tour group in Spain when she’s six months pregnant, the bus goes over an embankment and Sonja loses the baby and the ability to walk.
- Overcoming tragedy: Denied teaching positions because she’s in a wheelchair, Ove builds a ramp in the rain that finally gets her the job.
None of it is grounded. The tragedy isn’t painful, the joy isn’t uplifting. It’s not life; it’s life packed in styrofoam peanuts.
There’s a kind of connective tissue between the tragedies and his old-man persnicketiness, since if people had simply been more careful most of the tragedies could’ve been avoided; but it’s not deep. There’s a kind of humor in the world’s various intrusion into his many failed attempts to kill himself, but it wears fast.
I did have one moment of true joy watching the film. Ove is reminiscing about first meeting, and discovering a kindred spirit in, Rune. Both are sticklers for block association rules, neighborhood enforcers who chase after scofflaws, and on their way to a great friendship. “Until,” Ove narrates, “we finally discovered the small difference.” Then we get a scene where young Ove, his face a mixture of confusion and betrayal, realizes Rune prefers Volvos to Saabs. That was brilliant. I laughed so hard at that.
But there wasn’t enough of it. I’ve heard the novel is better, as novels tend to be.