Saturday, January 21, 2017

Silence (2016)

"There is something more important than the judgement of the church"

This is a movie about a lot of things, but at its core it is a movie about faith. Early on it asks the question 'where is God when we suffer?' And it continues asking that question, over and over, until the touching final shot of the film, two hours and forty minutes after the first shot. 

The movie concerns a pair of jesuit priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who travel to Japan in search of a fellow priest, played by Liam Neeson, who went off the radar there some years before. 
The movie takes place in the 1600's, during a time when Christianity was outlawed in Japan and was punishable, for those who refused to renounce their faith, by death. This makes the journey taken by the pair especially perilous and they encounter a great deal of hardship along their quest.

This has been a passion project of Scorsese's for many years and it recalls the director's previous explorations of religious faith (Who's That Knocking At My Door, Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). In some ways Silence is a far purer distillation of that exploration, but it tackles the same two or three themes that are present in all of those films. Namely, faith, guilt and repentance. 

Faith: Is it enough to have faith alone? What do we do with our faith, what purpose does it serve if God is silent to our cries? Is the purpose of faith to carry us through God's silence? If we suffer, does God suffer beside us, or is our faith our intended companion amidst murky waters? 

Guilt: Or more specifically, am I worthy? Am I worthy of my faith, am I worthy of my God, of my belief in Him? If I am not worthy, as scripture teaches, then what is the point of my sufferance for God? If there is no point in ever being good enough for God's love, as a result of our inherently sinful nature, why does God bother with us at all? Perhaps He doesn't. Perhaps His silence is proof of abandonment. 

Repentance: I am sorry I was born a sinner. I am sorry for my sins and seek to right myself with Thee. But what is true repentance, if we repent knowing we will sin again? Why repent at all if there is no possibility of perfection? In life, when you do something wrong, you can ask forgiveness, or pay back your debt, vow never to do it again and succeed. You can cheat on your spouse or significant other, for example, and if they accept your apology and forgive you, it is entirely possible to live to your dying day being completely faithful to them. In the church, you can never be free of sin in this life. So why mend a fence that cannot be mended? Like fixing an airplane wing with scotch tape. It's only a matter of time before the tape gives and the wing breaks again.

These three themes and the questions they bring, along with an absence of resolution, are at the heart of Silence. Different people will read this film different ways. For me, it highlights the insanity of organized religion. The men attempting to wipe it out from their country, yes, but also the priests, whose stubborn, prideful faith causes the needless deaths and suffering of so many. Is it so important to stand tall in your beliefs and refuse to renounce your God, even if it means saving the lives of others? Why not just say you renounce your faith, even if you don't mean it? Will God, in His infinite wisdom, not understand? Does He not see the truth of what's in your heart? Can He not differentiate between the heart and the lips? 

And, finally, if religion was a scale, and on one weighing pan was all the good it has caused, and on the other pan was all the bad, in which direction would the beam tilt? And if it does tilt towards the bad, at what point do we admit that it is indeed, as Christopher Hitchens postulated, a poison? 

Tough questions from a tough movie. A movie I will have to return to a couple more times to fully grasp its breadth, both in narrative and scale. And while I did find the movie about thirty minutes too long, there was never a moment I wasn't moved by the quality of its images, by the immense talent of its actors, or by the calibre of its dialogue. 
Make no mistake, this is Scorsese at his most European, his most intentionally indulgent, but this is also Scorsese displaying all that makes him possibly our greatest living director. And his influence can be felt from far and wide. 
The influence of this film can already be seen on me and this intentionally indulgent review, which is probably about three paragraphs too long itself. But I could do worse as a writer than to take a page out of Martin Scorsese's book of the arts. 

Rating: ****

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Movies of 2016

I'm doing things a little different this year. Normally I give myself the first couple weeks of January to catch up on stuff I missed before I do my best of list, but this year I wanted the list out by year's end. Not only was it a busy year for me, but I was mostly underwhelmed with the movies that were coming out. So I went to the theatre a lot less and as such I wasn't able to catch many of the movies that are topping year end lists around the world, like Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester By the Sea. 

Here are the best movies I saw during the 2016 calendar year. Enjoy!

10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A touching, funny, unorthodox little flick out of New Zealand, which is quickly becoming a hotbed for such films. 

9. The Wailing. A dark, disturbing, gruesome little flick out of Korea, which has always been a hotbed of such films. This was the second most unsettling movie of the year. 

8. Zootopia. This movie came out at just the right time for me. The things it was saying about our society and about the people trying to waylay the progress we've made, disguised as a charismatic Disney outing. Zootopia is a place I wanted to stay in and explore after the movie was over. I'm pulling for a sequel. 

7. The Nice Guys. This one hit all the right notes for me. A hard charging, laugh a minute tribute to 80's buddy cop flicks. Gosling and Crowe are great, the direction is solid and the story is just that right mixture of nonsense and suspense. I'm pulling for a sequel. 

6. Cafe Society. Woody Allen is just too prolific, that's why he's taken for granted. This movie is a fantastic look at old school Hollywood and the egotistical knobs who populated (populate) it. It's as much Woody's tribute to the glitz and glamour, as his show of contempt for it. And of course, it's all wrapped in his particular brand of neurosis and romanticism. I love the Woody Allen universe and I will never take it for granted.

5. The Witch (The Vvitch). Remember how I said The Wailing was the second most unsettling film of the year? Meet Black Philip. This may be the most authentic, succinct, well crafted and believable film of its kind. It's certainly the most effective. If God smiles when another Alex Kendrick or Ray Comfort film gets made, Satan was grinning ear to ear when this puppy dropped. 

4. The Jungle Book. Of all the people who had a shitty 2016, Disney wasn't one of them. The studio rolled out a dozen movies this year that all made a boatload of money and most which were actually quite good. The best of the bunch was The Jungle Book though. Retaining all the charm and excitement of the original animated classic, while adding some unbelievable visual flair and a much needed dose of grit, this was one of the best theatre going experiences I had in 2016. 

3. O.J.: Made In America. Yes, there is some controversy about whether this is actually a movie or a miniseries, but it premiered as a seven hour film and the Academy is considering it for Best Documentary at the Oscars, so as far as I'm concerned, it's a movie. And it's the best documentary of the year. A greek tragedy of such ridiculous proportions, you wouldn't believe it happened at all if you weren't there to witness it yourself. A document of everything that went wrong with the 1990's and truly essential viewing. 

2. Sing Street. The feel good movie of the year is also the musical of the year (I haven't seen La La Land yet), the comedy of the year, the romance of the year and the coming of age story of the year. All of that and it takes place in Dublin. Sing Street, my heart is yours, be gentle. 

1. Arrival. The best movie of 2016. And the best thing about it? There isn't much I can tell you about it, and about what I love about it, without spoiling it for you. I like that. 

And the worst...

Suicide Squad. What an abysmal pile of crap. I liked nothing about this movie. In a year when I was definitely feeling superhero/comic book movie fatigue, this hit at just the wrong moment and scratched an open sore. I am definitely not pulling for a sequel. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Arrival (2016)

The story of your life

At one point in Arrival, Amy Adams asks Jeremy Renner, 'if you could see your entire life from beginning to end, would you change anything?' It's a deep question. And the more you think about it, the deeper it gets. If everything you do creates a butterfly effect, not only for you but for the people you interact with, then every good thing is a result of every bad thing. And vice-versa. The more I think about this, the more convinced I become that our inability to see the future is humanity's blessing, not our curse. 

Arrival is about the future, and the past. It's about communication and destruction and fear and uncertainty. It's about UFO's that appear in a dozen spot around the world and the aliens piloting them. But really, what it's really about, is America. Right now. And how important it is that Americans communicate with each other in a non-hostile way, lest they bring about their own nations self destruction. 

At least that's what I got out of it. You may see Arrival and only see the film's surface narrative, which goes as follows: Amy Adams is a communications expert. When twelve alien aircraft suddenly appear in different countries around the globe, the respective governments in these areas recruit their best and their brightest to enter the UFO's and attempt to communicate with the creatures onboard. As is the case in real life, if you get twelve different nations together to try to solve a common problem, they will go about solving it twelve different ways. For three of those nations, that means shoot first, ask questions later. 
For Amy Adams and scientist Jeremy Renner, that means attempting to teach the aliens our language, while attempting to learn theirs. 

That's as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoiling some of the best and smartest aspects of it, which I want you to experience for yourself inside the theatre. 
And I truly hope you do, because make no mistake, Arrival is the smartest, most emotionally affecting, most exciting, suspenseful and touching film of the year. 
Director Denis Villeneuve, fresh off his critical acclaim and Oscar noms for last year's Sicario, handles this sci-fi tale with his typically cold precision. But as clinical as his filmmaking may be at the outset, the deep philosophical ramifications of the plot and what it means to us, the viewer, and what we can learn from it, suck you in and wrap you up in a blanket of suspense and awe, a blanket that gets tighter and tighter the more the film unravels, until, by the end, you don't realize how tightly wrapped you were. 

Everything on display here is an example of top shelf filmmaking, but the true star of the show, other than Villeneuve himself, is writer Eric Heisserer, adapting the tale from the  story by Ted Chiang. Interestingly, Heisserers writing credits before Arrival include a rash of shitty horror remakes. This should see him on to bigger and better things in the future, as I can almost guarantee an Oscar nomination for his work. 

I could go on about this film, but I don't want to. Part of the fun and reward of the experience was not knowing what to expect. So I'll just say this and get out of here: 
Arrival is the best film of 2016. See it.

Rating: *****

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Stand for something

It's been a while since Mel Gibson was at the helm of a movie. Some would say it's been a while since Mel Gibson was allowed to be at the helm a movie, but that's neither here nor there. 
He makes his comeback with the true WWII story of Desmond Doss, a devoutly religious small town boy who enlists in the military as a medic after America is attacked by the Japanese. There is, however, one caveat to his participation in this war: he will not touch a firearm. That makes basic training a task for him and his commanding officers, who see his anti-firearm convictions as a sign of weakness and insubordination. Because Doss is protected by the 'conscientious objector' laws, his CO's and much of the rest of his squad instead put Doss through all manner of hell in an effort to force his resignation. 
But it doesn't work. Doss stands tall and sticks to his guns, no pun intended. After a great deal of strife, and facing the threat of imprisonment, he is finally allowed to participate on the battlefield of WWII as a medic without a single weapon to defend himself. 

That leads him to Hacksaw Ridge, a literal hell on earth, where wave after wave of American soldiers are being torn to pieces by the well placed and maniacal Japanese forces. Enter the battle scenes. 
Now because this is a Mel Gibson film, and Mel has a love affair with excessive and often stomach churning violence in his films, the Hacksaw Ridge set pieces are unbelievably gruesome. But it would be hard to imagine a WWII film, no matter how gory, that was as bad as it actually would've been to be there. So I don't fault Mel, or Spielberg, or anyone else who has depicted the horrors of war in such startling extremes, for their efforts. And speaking of Spielberg, the Hacksaw Ridge scenes are not unlike the Omaha Beach sequence that kicks off Saving Private Ryan. 
In fact, as much as I liked this movie overall, I would have to say that it's only downfall is that we've seen most of the stuff in it before. The battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan; the boot camp/war film split in Full Metal Jacket; the pretty wife, or wife-to-be, left waiting at home, expressing sentiments like 'you'd better come home to me', in, well, every war film ever. There isn't a lot here that will feel fresh or different. 

Except for the story of Doss himself. Owing to a promise he made to God some years ago, Doss swore he would never again touch another gun as long as he lived. And he was determined to keep that promise throughout the war, no matter the cost. 
What Doss was able to do without a weapon, the number of lives he was able to save and the bravery and courage he showed, he attributed solely to God, taking none of the credit himself. And make no mistake, this is a very God-filled film. In fact, it is so God and scripture focused, that I would say it belongs in the recent subgenre of films people have dubbed 'God-flix' (i.e; God's Not Dead, Left Behind, the new Ben Hur, War Room, those Tyler Perry movies, those Kirk Cameron movies), with the notable exception that Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, and those other films are crap (affectionately dubbed 'God-awful films' by snarky critics). 

Hacksaw is directed with typical precision and unbelievable skill by Gibson, one of the best filmmakers in the world right now, as far as I'm concerned. And Andrew Garfield is an absolute marvel as Doss. This could be his best performance, or at worst his second best performance, after The Social Network. 
And regardless of your own views on God and His place in popular entertainment, Hacksaw features a very uplifting story of selflessness in the face of horrors most of us in North America could never begin to imagine. 
It's a good message, one worth hearing. And Hacksaw Ridge is the perfect film for Remembrance Day. 

Rating: ****

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Super vs. Superer

There was a band, ironically named War. Ironic because they penned some of the most positive, upbeat tunes popular music has ever known. One of these tunes, the impossibly catchy and simple 'Why can't we be friends?', has been a staple of pop culture ever since its release back in 1975. That song rang through my head while watching Civil War. I was actually a little disappointed they didn't insert that melodic brosif fist pump into the new Cap A movie at some point. It could've been used to great ironic effect right about the time the Captain was attempting to bash his shield into Iron Man's face. But I suppose the filmmakers wanted to avoid that level of tension releasing levity and focus instead on the bigger themes of superhero ethics, morality and revenge that pump through this Marvel entry like blood through the arteries.

I remember not liking the first Captain America movie. I didn't find Captain Rogers all that interesting as a superhero and the movie felt too bogged down in backstory and patriotism. I did, however, love The Winter Soldier. With all that exposition out of the way, they were free to focus on the darker side of being a superhero and being a human being who feels feelings, and the result was one of the darker and more emotional entries in the Avengers filmography. 
This movie definitely continues on in that same vein. The Captain is again torn between his vow to serve and protect, and his loyalty to his friend, who is also a bad guy bent on destruction and chaos. It's an interesting conundrum and places pretty boy Rogers in some morally sticky situations. 
It also places him on Iron Man's shitlist. The Avengers, well, what's left of them (Thor and the Hulkster are M.I.A.) are in the midst of answering for the rampant amount of secondary death and destruction they have caused in the process of saving the world's ass a bunch of times and are in danger of being (*yawn) decommissioned. 
Tony Starks agrees that they should stand down for a while, Captain Rogers doesn't. They fight. Along for the ride are a rogue's gallery of Marvel super-dudes, who join in the battle on either Tony or Cap's side. Which side these special guests choose has less to do with who they feel is right in the fight, and more to do with whoever contacted them first. They end up serving little in the way of story or ethical gravitas, and are in the movie solely to provide it with opportunities for some big fat action extravaganzas. So as far as the narrative is concerned, their appearances are pointless. Fun though. 

Going into this movie, and even during its first half hour or so, I was suffering superhero movie fatigue. Too much too soon. Between the Avengers movies, the Batman/Superman reboots and re-reboots, the Marvel universe solo outings and all the super stuff in between, I'm feeling the way I felt about Vampires ten years ago and zombies five years ago. Go away for a while. And I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way. For the first time in this franchise, I truly felt like Robert Downey, Jr. was phoning it in on this one. I know he's spoken in the press a few times about wanting to retire the Iron Man thing in his career (but what are you gonna do when they keep backing dump trucks full of $100 bills up to your house?) But he just didn't seem like he wanted to be in this movie. He seemed bored. I don't know what his contract looks like these days, but as good as he has been in the role, move on RD,Jr. Move on. 
Still, Captain America brings its A game to the arena with Civil War and what results is a movie with the verve and energy of a movie that acts as if its the first in an entire franchise, rather than the first in the third phase (or fifteenth overall) in an entire franchise. 
It's deep, dark, gritty and booming. For those of you who are still loving this avalanche of super movies, there isn't much to deride in Civil War. For those you who are sick and tired of super movies, well, Jennifer Aniston's new movie is probably playing in the same multiplex. Have fun. 

Rating: ****

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

Jingle Jangle

I hesitate to say that The Jungle Book comes with an eco-friendly message about our endangered rainforests and jungles, but, the writing is on the wall, to coin a phrase. There is a lynchpin within this story of a boy who wanted to be a wolf, and it is the presence of man and the destructive force he represents within the delicate balance of nature. In the film man is represented by fire, more specifically, but the 'red flower', the only thing in the jungle more fearsome and deadly than the sociopathic tiger Shere Khan. 
To some, the red flower represents obliteration, plain and simple, to others, it is a tool with which to rule the jungle entire. In this way, it's not so far removed from the eponymous ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of fantasy adventures. 
So by the end of this particular yarn, the message is clear, and twofold: protect our jungles and forests, if not for the planet's sake, then at least for the sake of the animals that call them home; and be careful with fire. 

I hesitate to point this out not because it is a message we need not hear, we need to heed it, and quick, if our own ecosystem is to stand a chance in future generations. I hesitate because I don't want you to think that this is a film that goops the message on so thick it hurts the entertainment value. Truly, if the eco message in this film were honey, it would not be nearly enough to satiate, say, a sloth bear, as sloth bears like their honey very thick indeed. But for those of us for whom a little honey goes a long way, the spoonful we get in The Jungle Book is about perfect. 
Besides, there is so much beauty, adventure, excitement, humour and drama in this film, that any between the lines messages the filmmakers may or may not be including will be catalogued by the viewer fleetingly, if at all. 

I'm certainly not the first to say this and I won't be the last you hear it from, but allow me to announce, as officially as my amateurish standing within the world of film criticism will allow, that The Jungle Book features the best, most photorealistic CGI in any film up to this point in history. The animals that populate the story do not for a second betray their simulation. If you were to go to your nearest zoo today and the animals within began conversing with you as any flesh and blood human might, it would look exactly as it does in this movie. 
The dense, foliage packed jungles locations also give plenty of opportunity for the viewer to drop his/her jaw at the immense beauty of this film. 

Bolstering the story and providing a fun audience connection is the work of the actors and actresses in the film. The standout performance is, of course, Neel Sethi, as Mogwai, the boy who was orphaned in the jungle and raised by wolves under the watchful eye of a guardian panther. Sethi was selected as Mogwai after a worldwide search and audition of thousands of young hopefuls. It's not hard to see why he won the role. Mogwai goes through a great deal of emotional peaks and valleys. He interacts entirely with computer generated costars and settings and he runs, jumps, swings and sings his heart out from beginning to end. It takes a very special child to do all of this and make it look natural. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next. 
A piece of genius within the film is the voice casting. Every single role could not have been better chosen: Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Walken and Garry Shandling, in his final role (sniff), elevate this movie to exciting heights of wonder and fantasy. 

Jon Favreau, who directed the film, said in an interview that The Jungle Book was both an adaptation of the original novels, and a remake of the Disney classic from 1967. This explains why, seemingly out of the blue, Chris Walken, as colossus monkey King Louis, begins singing 'I Wanna Be Like You', in an effort to entice Mogwai to bring him the coveted red flower. It's a little more awkward and less refined than the way Favreau weaves 'The Bear Necessities' into the movie, but anytime a filmmaker wants to put Christopher Walken in their movie and have him sing a song is a-ok by me. 
Although I've never read the original books, I, like most of us, did grow up with the Disney version and I have to say the loving winks and nods to its influence are nostalgically pleasing and provide a nice springboard of levity with which to bounce the more intense aspects of the story from. 

The Jungle Book is an astounding film. The level of craftsmanship on display here at all levels of the filmmaking process is unbelievable. This is easily the best film I've seen so far this year and I can't wait to see it again. 
Really my only qualm with the film, and I almost never, ever, feel this way about a movie, is that it's too short. I wanted more of everything. More Shere Khan, more Kaa, more of the fascinating elephants and definitely more King Louis. The Jungle Book is an epic adventure and deserves an epic length. But it's marketed as a family film and family films are never three hours long. I'm sure to any studio head worth his salt, a three hour family film spells certain death at the box office. So here's hoping for a director's cut when the movie hits the home market. Or a sequel, or three. Hey, if Iron Man gets three movies, than Mogwai should too. It's only fair. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: The Night Before

Movie: Here's the good news: you already know if you want to buy The Night Before on blu-ray. Yes, you do. You know this because you know if you are a Seth Rogan fan. If you are a Seth Rogan fan, and you find the new Hollywood comedy rat pack funny, then you will find this film funny. Very funny, probably. If you don't subscribe to this particular brand of gross out humour with a heart, you won't start now. 
Also, if you like Christmas movies. But not just any Christmas movies, Christmas movies with a red capital R attached. Movies like Bad Santa, or Trading Places. Then, again, you'll like this one. 
I don't know if it was the filmmakers intention to produce the crudest, most R-rated r-rated Christmas comedy ever, but I think they have. The Night Before has a lot of swearing, a lot of sexuality, is gleefully politically incorrect and even sports a scene of straight up graphic nudity in the form of a few hilarious Phone pics. But really, how could you not crude it up with this synopsis: Three best friends, who have gotten together every Christmas Eve for many years to hit the streets of New York and go wild, get together for one last big hurrah. Armed with a box of drugs, a Red Bull limousine, and an endless river of booze, they hit the streets of NYC one last time before they all have to 'grow up'. 
Hilarity ensues. 

Presentation: The Night Before looks good, most blu-ray's do, however I would scale this particular presentation closer to a really good DVD than a benchmark hi-def blu. The image is soft in places and in some scenes is downright blurry at the edges of the screen. The blacks aren't very deep at times either. Overall, not an overly impressive display, but it does the job. 
The audio is much better. There's a lot of great music in this film, from a Run-DMC cover at a karaoke bar to an entertaining rendition of Kanye West's 'Runaway'. The dialogue is clear and the sound mix is well handled in the many bar scenes in the film, when things can get muddled. 

Extras: Kicking things off is the Gag ReelThe gag reel is pretty sad. One minute long. There had to be more hilarity caught on camera between takes than that.

Christmas In Summer is an interesting little five minute featurette about shooting the snow set movie in the middle of summer in New York. They also touch on some of the locations and sets that were used.

The Spirit of Christmas is a couple minutes long and consists of some of the cast talking about their Christmases growing up

The Drunkest Santas on the Block is some extra crudity in regards to the scene in which Joseph Gordon Levitt's character gets in a fight with the eponymous Kringles.
It feels like special feature filler.

Midnight Mass With Nana is a closer look at that particular scene. More filler.

Whale Juice is about Seth's scene where he imagines his future daughter a stripper and he and Jillian Bell's attempt to get through the scene without breaking up in laughter.

Mr. Green O Rama is like a line o rama featuring Michael Shannon's mystical Mr. Green.

Making One Epic Party is the best feature on the set. And in some ways it makes all those three and four minute features that came before it kind of pointless. It's a garden variety behind the scenes feature with cast and crew interviews where everyone talks about how funny and amazing everyone else is. It's entertaining.

Finally, there are half a dozen deleted and extended scenes, many of which we've seen clips of in the featurettes. Some of them are funny, but for most you can see why they were cut.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the whole disc is the absence of a commentary track. It would've been great to have the three stars sit down and watch the movie together. 

Verdict: Remember how I said you know before watching this movie whether you would like this movie? Well I knew that I would, because I like this type of humour, and, surprise surprise, I did. It starts off a little slow, but quickly picks up steam in tandem with Seth Rogan's first drug kicking in. I laughed a lot, sometimes until my sides hurt. But it was nice to discover that the movie, surprisingly or not, has a lot of heart. There are some very touching scenes and to the writer and director's credit, they don't feel out of the place with the cruder moments. Still not a movie you'll want to sit down and watch with Nana while waiting for It's A Wonderful Life to come on (unless your Nana is a whole lot of awesome). But a great movie to sit down and watch with your buddies and a couple jugs of spiked egg nog every Christmas season. 

Movie: ****
Presentation:  ***