Saturday, January 28, 2017


SILENCE (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

In SILENCE Japanese authorities are persecuting priests and their Christian converts. Particularly distressing to those outside the country is the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard from in years and is rumored to have apostatized. Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are convinced that their mentor would have never denied his faith in public and set out on a mission in 1639 to find their missing colleague.

Their guide into the hostile land is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). Although his manner causes them to question his honesty, he is their only option for sneaking into Japan, which has banned Christianity. Kichijiro brings them to a community of secret Christians that they minister to as possible until the villagers fall under suspicion of the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Rodrigues and Garupe go their separate ways to protect the people and to continue their search for Ferreira.

SILENCE has been a longtime passion project for director Martin Scorsese, who co-wrote the adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel with Jay Cocks. It is sort of the inverse of the filmmaker’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which sought to understand Jesus as a human. In SILENCE Scorsese tackles the impossible struggle of a person to live according to the model of the divine. The trials and tribulations Rodrigues experiences are at first an affirmation of what he believes and bring him closer to God. He is following the example set for him and takes glory in being able to live and prove his beliefs in such an immediate way. The more he strives to be an imitation of Christ, especially as the challenges increase, the more he realizes that he is incapable of enduring such burdens.

Scorsese doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrible executions and torture of avowed believers, but for Rodrigues and the other priests the Japanese are abusing, the mental and spiritual suffering is as bad, if not worse. If God’s love is real, why would he allow such awful things to be heaped on those who worship him? Rodrigues is also faced with the question of whether it would be so unforgivable to make a public demonstration of rejecting Christianity by trampling a fumie if it means avoiding death or severe punishment. Is placing one’s foot upon a carving of Jesus or the Virgin Mary while under extreme duress something God cannot pardon, especially if humans were created as fallible? Rodrigues decides that it is OK for the Japanese Christians to deny their faith if it means saving themselves, yet his refusal to do the same means that miseries will be visited upon all of the people he sees himself as serving. Is he not exhibiting the sin of pride by not apostatizing and thus perpetuating the persecution?

Scorsese uses the sound of crickets and its absence to suggest something all around us whether it can be seen or not. The silence does not necessarily indicate something is not present, but it also doesn’t mean that it is there. For those who apostatize, they have acted in a way that says one thing, yet it is not possible to know what exists in their hearts. SILENCE studies religious commitment as a personal matter, one between a believer and the deity, regardless of the declarations in the square or the temple. Certainly such demonstrations cannot be discounted, but are they the only things that matter? Scorsese has made a monumental work of faith that defies easy answers to theological questions yet cuts to the quick of what it means to believe.

Grade: A

Friday, January 27, 2017

20th Century Women

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (Mike Mills, 2016)

Fifty-five-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on her own in 1979 Santa Barbara, but as he is coming of age in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, she worries that she isn’t doing enough to help him become the man she would like him to become. The only man with any consistency in her life is William (Billy Crudup), a handyman renting a room in Dorothea’s large home. While he is the kind of masculine and thoughtful type she’d like Jamie to model, her son doesn’t really have anything to do with him.

Instead Dorothea turns to the two other female presences around Jamie on a daily basis. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her mid-twenties, is also a boarder and fulfills something of a cool older sister role. Seventeen-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s closest friend. She often sneaks into his room late at night to talk and sleep by his side. Although Jamie wishes they were romantically and physically involved, Julie insists that their closeness is strictly friendship. Jamie listens closely to the guidance of these women, hoping in part that taking their advice will help him develop a closer relationship with his mother.

The communal atmosphere in Dorothea’s house extends to the perspectives the film collects. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN unspools like a memoir with multiple authors, as the most central characters contribute voiceovers about the situation at this specific point in time and what the future holds for them. Dorothea and Jamie are the nucleus, but those orbiting them for this fleeting moment adopt a primary role from time to time. Writer-director Mike Mills builds the fluctuating dynamic by being deliberate in revealing the protagonists’ connections, which often aren’t what they might appear to be on first glance.

Mills jettisons some of the affectations that marked his previous film, BEGINNERS, resulting in a looser tone that rides the wave these characters have caught. Although he shares how things will turn out for those in the household, there’s no sense of grand design in getting them there. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN takes a snapshot of a pivotal time but not one with an accompanying a map to follow. All of the characters share a rudderless quality as they live through a transition they might sense but are impotent to steer through.

Despite the stylistic flourishes that might stake a directorial voice, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is rooted in the performances. As a first-time mother at 40 and a child of the Depression who feels attracted and resistant to a more freewheeling life, Dorothea straddles the generational line. She wants to understand the appeal of Black Flag but is more partial to the more tuneful songs of Talking Heads. Bening displays Dorothea’s struggle to integrate open-minded and more rigid parenting as loving and present yet emotionally cool and inexplicably distant. It’s a hard balance to strike but one that shows why Jamie searches for a tighter bond with his mother. Zumann plays Jamie with a sponge-like quality that is endearing rather than needy. Fanning finds the perilousness of the idealized, self-possessed girl who is racked with her own neuroses. Gerwig inhabits the restlessness of not yet living how you envisioned adulthood. Crudup exudes the nature of a blue collar sage, yet like everyone else, William is merely drifting. For as much uncertainty and tension they face, Mills uses the voiceovers, with their future knowledge, to reassure that it’s OK if we can’t plot every step through the world.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 26, 2017


SING (Christophe Lourdelet and Garth Jennings, 2016)

Theater-owning koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is on the verge of losing his prized performance space. Buster puts on a singing competition as a last-ditch effort to save the theater in SING, but a mistake on the flyers promises $100,000 for the winner than the intended thousand bucks.

The purse attracts all sorts of wannabe stars to the auditions. Among those making the final cut are Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who is unfulfilled as a mother and housewife; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who’d rather be singing than helping with his mobster clan; heartbroken rocker porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson); and Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a crooning mouse with gambling debts. Shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) really wants to participate, but her stage fright holds her back.

SING is an animated comedy for two groups: those who love hearing five- or ten-second snippets of popular songs in celebrity karaoke and those who are really invested in AMERICAN IDOL’s audition episodes and storylines. It’s not bad per se so much as it is perfunctory. SING has a good tempo and enough familiar songs--or their hooks--to seem pleasantly mediocre. As it can be cut up almost infinitely into bite-size portions to promote it, a cynical view might lead one to see its value as a product to help pad a studio’s bottom line, not as anything with aspirations of being more than content. All it needs to do is look sufficiently cute amid the clutter of advertising to take the kids to it.

Some of the voice casting choices are curious, especially McConaughey as a koala. Wouldn’t Chris Hemsworth have provided the star power and a more geographically sensible pick? But then this feels like something created and assembled by a computer algorithm than by artistically motivated people. SING is the simulation of what blockbuster children’s entertainment is supposed to look and sound like.

SING's best joke by far is that brief moment when a sheep bleats the first word of the chorus from Seal’s "Kiss from a Rose", although the animal chosen to perform seems like a missed opportunity for the type of inside joke for adults that these movies love to wink with. The hammy, German-accented pig Gunter (Nick Kroll) is sporadically amusing. Parents who want to get out of the house or distract the kids would be better served going to MOANA again than patronizing SING.

Grade: C

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hidden Figures

HIDDEN FIGURES (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

The space race with the Soviet Union is at fever pitch in HIDDEN FIGURES, a historical drama that helps give due to some African-American women key to the United States effort in John Glenn’s launch into orbit. The three featured in the film work at NASA in a segregated pool where they are known as computers, meaning they confirm the math in the calculations. When the need arises for someone skilled in analytic geometry, Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson) gets called up to a branch where she’s doing critical checks for manned rocket launches. Although she knows her stuff, Katherine still runs up against racism and underestimations of her abilities.

Back at the computer pool, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is struggling to get recognition for being the supervisor in everything but title and compensation. She also foresees the installation of new IBM hardware as the imminent obsolescence of everyone in her unit, so Dorothy sets to learning how to program the computers that will likely replace her. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is encouraged to become an engineer but cannot take the necessary classes because they are taught at a whites-only school. She pursues legal means to allow for her professional advancement.

HIDDEN FIGURES gives the conventional treatment to the stories of three exceptional women whose contributions to the space program aren’t widely known. Like following the steps to solve an equation, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi executes a methodical approach. The technique in achieving the result can’t be blamed for getting the job done effectively. HIDDEN FIGURES is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser operating within the standards of prestige cinema, but a little more creative risk-taking would have been appreciated among the familiar rhythms and character arcs.

Henson, Spencer, and Monáe anchor the film with intelligence and appeal. Henson projects strength and resourcefulness as Katherine strives to do her best for the team. Even when she goes against the grain, it’s rooted in the mission, not her own acclaim. Spencer conveys a sharp, ingenious mind attuned to the surroundings. She’s not a fighter per se, but she perceives how to win the battles in a less combative manner. In small roles in HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, Monáe hints at a cinematic personality that can leap off the screen if given bigger parts. She doesn’t ooze attitude for its own sake but as a weapon and armor.

While there is a broad quality to how HIDDEN FIGURES depicts the open racism of the time, Melfi does well in allowing audiences to recognize what was considered acceptable without engaging in excessive scolding from today’s perspective. It’s more powerful to watch Katherine break down to her supervisor about the overt indignities and microaggressions she faces on a daily basis that the white men and women she works with don’t notice. Dorothy’s white counterpart played by Kirsten Dunst addresses her by first name while Dorothy responds with her co-worker’s title and surname. Melfi doesn’t draw attention to this distinction, yet it’s clear what the difference in how they refer to one another means in regard to power and respect.

Grade: B

Friday, January 13, 2017

La La Land

LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Through the unchanging seasons of Los Angeles the musical LA LA LAND follows the romantic ups and downs between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Although their paths cross knowingly and unknowingly, their friendship doesn’t blossom into a love story until music and the movies brings them together in a way that seems predestined. Neither is living their dreams. Mia is auditioning for likely lousy television shows. Sebastian broods over his desired location for the jazz club of his dreams being occupied by a trendy business.

Together, though, they push each other to make strides toward what they want. Sebastian encourages Mia to write the one-woman show that can showcase her abilities. She persuades him to take a job in a band whose music doesn’t meet his purist standards but pays well enough so he can save toward opening the club he envisions.

An original musical for the screen and an unabashed throwback to those from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the French New Wave, LA LA LAND bursts with color and energy. The ebullient opening number, a single unbroken take on a gridlocked highway, serves as a dazzling introduction, and the staggering finale, which reimagines the film’s key moments, sends one reeling out of the theater from writer-director Damien Chazelle’s deft touch and Justin Hurwitz’s music. Everything in between proves swoon-worthy too, with the standout being Mia’s sung audition that puts the final act in motion.

Talk of the magic of the movies can be deserving of eyerolls, especially at awards time, but LA LA LAND merits such effusive praise. Through theatrical lighting, judicious editing, and heightened or fantastical sequences, it envisions a world of promise and joy even among the disappointments and hardships. The lighter than air spirit and exquisite beauty caress the mind and the heart, transforming LA LA LAND into an instant mood-lifter.

Part of the tension in LA LA LAND comes from Sebastian’s insistence on jazz continuing to exist per the terms of an old ideal. While the film may appear to side with his snootiness as he holds his nose playing more contemporary and accessible music, Chazelle challenges the notion that something was better or purer way back when. After all, jazz as Sebastian prefers it is more of hobbyist’s curio that is destined to near-extinction if it doesn’t adapt to the times. LA LA LAND views the film musical in similar terms, that without accounting for the tastes and realities of today, it too is as good as dead. Gosling and Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, but they are serviceable dancers and singers, with Stone the more at ease of the two. The system that existed for screen hoofers and belters has not been in place for a long time. Casting stars rather than more gifted but unknown performers is a compromise, but it’s one that allows something as wonderful as this to be made.

Grade: A+

Thursday, January 12, 2017


PASSENGERS (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

Everyone aboard the spaceship Avalon in PASSENGERS is to be in a state of hypersleep for most of the 120-year journey to Homestead II. Unfortunately for Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), he is accidentally awakened about thirty years into the voyage, meaning that if he can’t get back in that suspended state, he will live the rest of his life and die before anyone else comes out of their hibernation chambers. Jim has his run of the spacecraft, for the most part, but the company of just humanoid bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) and the servant robots.

For a year Jim studies and works to no avail to figure out how he might save himself. Inconsolably lonely, he becomes enchanted with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer and fellow passenger he learns everything about. Finally Jim decides to awaken her so that he will have someone to share this doomed time with. Aurora doesn’t know that he is responsible for what has happened to her. She and Jim don’t become close right away, but considering the circumstances, their bond naturally becomes tighter, with Jim’s secret just waiting to be exposed and ruin everything.

The early section of PASSENGERS with Jim on his own cuts to the humor and terror in his predicament. He is relieved to send a message to someone who might be able to help, but the punchline is that it will take decades for his distress call to reach anyone. Jim essentially has his run of the ship, but he’s still at the mercy of the automated access provided by the price level at which he booked his ticket. Everything is so close and yet so far away in this TWILIGHT ZONE-like scenario.

That Jim would choose to subject someone else to the same fate is understandable even if it is a morally indefensible choice. Desperation can make fools of us all, and his situation would be enough to push anyone to the edge. The problem for PASSENGERS is not the decision Jim makes but how it deals with the repercussions of his actions. Morten Tyldum’s direction and Jon Spaihts’ screenplay view Jim as a romantic hero. They allow Aurora to have her time to feel angry and betrayed, but ultimately the film treats Jim as Adam if he didn’t need God’s intervention to provide him with a companion. PASSENGERS implicitly states that Jim deserves Aurora, an aspect that gets magnified with Pratt’s puppy dog charms.

PASSENGERS also bungles the ending. Even being exceedingly generous in allowing how Aurora might come to reevaluate the state of things, what she decides rings false. On a dramatic level it also clanks because the opportunity for Jim to atone for his sins is dismissed in favor of rewarding him. PASSENGERS’ tone deafness mistakes feelings of male entitlement for romance. The saying goes that all’s fair in love and war, but that sentiment can justify horrors. If the film were capable of viewing the story through Aurora’s lens, PASSENGERS might have succeeded. Instead it doesn’t notice the warped perspective.

Grade: C