Thursday, January 12, 2017

SILENCE Tests My Faith In Scorsese

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SILENCE (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)



It is well documented that, in his childhood, Martin Scorsese attended a Roman Catholic seminary, and dreamed of being a priest.

Of course, he later chose making movies over practicing religion, but that didn’t mean that he ever abandoned his spiritual faith.

Religious themes and imagery appear in all of Scorsese’s films whether they’re in your face like Christ himself on the cross in his controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial novel, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, or subtly, like the tiny cross around Henry Hill’s neck in his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s “Wiseguys,” GOODFELLAS.

But in this, his adaptation of a book he read between making LAST TEMPTATION and GOODFELLAS, Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence,” Scorsese dives deeper into the questions that have plagued him his entire career: how far can or should one go to save his and/or others’ souls? How can we serve a God that allows such extreme suffering? What if we are praying to nothing at all?

Set in the early 17th century, SILENCE concerns Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two Jesuit priests, named Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who travel to Japan to find a former mentor of theirs, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after hearing that he renounced his religion to escape persecution.

This is during what was called the “shogun era” of Japan, in which Christianity was outlawed, and those captured practicing it were interrogated, tortured, and killed.

With the questionable help of an alcoholic guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), Sebastião and Francisco sail to the coastal town of Tomogi where they administer to the villagers.

The priests stay in hiding, nightly meeting with the Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), but they are found out and after having to endure witnessing some intense torture scenes that I’ll refrain from describing, they separate and the film follows Garfield’s Francisco while Driver’s Sebastião disappears for a large chunk of screen-time.

Francisco gets captured by Japanese authorities and is taken to Nagasaki to be interrogated by Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), an elder, sinisterly smirking Japanese official, via Inoue’s sleazily charismatic interpreter (Tadanobu Asano).

In captivity, Francisco is given a choice: either step on “fumi-e,” a plate that has an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary carved into it, to repudiate his faith, or they will torture and kill the other captives.

Neeson’s Ferreira, looking like a shamed version of the Jedi master he played in THE PHANTOM MENACE, even shows up to help Francisco make this difficult decision.

For most of its two hours and forty minute running time, SILENCE moves very slowly with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s camera staying very still for lengthy shots.

You’ll feel like you’re really out in the harsh, grayish green mountain terrain of Japan, waiting for something, anything, to happen through long passages of this often plodding narrative.

The hardcore Scorsese fan in me was scanning the screen with excitement during the first 20 minutes, but that lost momentum as the film did the same for roughly the next 40, then that fading enthusiasm got regularly jolted back into temporary immersion by various violent moments up until the end.

Garfield, who as he gets shaggier on his journey looks more and more like Jesus as the film progresses, puts in an invested performance, as do his cast-mates (Driver does a lot with a little), but it might be Kubozuka as the desperately conniving Kichijiro that gives the film the most energy.

This last year, Garfield also played another devout Christian in a historical drama whose belief system gets put to the test under extreme circumstances. That would be HACKSAW RIDGE, where he portrayed conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved many lives in World War II. I hate to say this, but HACKSAW RIDGE is a better, much more compelling film about conviction and sacrifice than SILENCE.

Obviously, I hate to say that because HACKSAW RIDGE was made by Mel Gibson, and this is, you know, f-in’ Scorsese!

Since this was a 30 year in the making passion project, I so wanted to love it, but there was a serious disconnect between the action and imagery on screen, which admirably is as straight forward as can be, without visual trickery or flashing editing; and my fully surrendering myself to the experience. That’s something I’ve been able to do with so many of Marty’s movies throughout my movie-loving life, but it just wasn’t happening here.

Then again, I’m still processing it so maybe one day I’ll see it differently. There have been a number of Scorsese films that get better with repeated viewings (like CAPE FEAR, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD), and those that I appreciate more (NEW YORK, NEW YORK, KUNDUN), as I get older, and wiser and all that crap.

But, you see, the reason I’m saying these kind of things, that is, making excuses for not liking a movie by one of my heroes, is because I’m a devout follower, who wants to believe that all of the man’s works are masterpieces – some blinding, some in hiding.

SILENCE is as much a test of Francisco’s faith as it is a test in my faith in Scorsese. I so want to believe his latest film is a masterpiece in hiding, and not the seemingly passionless project I suffered through, but I just can’t put that in a prayer yet.


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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES: A Cornball Crowd Pleaser That Is Inspirationally On Point

Now playing everywhere:

HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)



There are times in this film, currently the #1 movie at the box office (take that, ROGUE ONE!), that young moviegoers may feel like the filmmakers are comically stretching reality way too thin to make a point.

Like in the scenes that show mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) having to walk, and sometimes run, a half mile across the campus of Virginia’s Langley Research Center, to the “colored” ladies room several times a day during her long shifts.

But, as folks who know history will attest, this was the era of “separate but equal” segregation, and their framing of Ms. Johnson’s predicament is apt as it symbolizes how rough it was for many African Americans in the workplace.

There are other times when it seems that director/writer Theodore Melfi’s (ST. VINCENT) movie takes some liberties with some major moments as when astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell, portrayed as much as a dreamboat as possible) tells the team of engineers that he’ll be “good to go” on the launch of the rocket that officially put a man in space for the first time if they “get the girl to check the numbers” – referring to the aforementioned Ms. Johnson.

But according to transcripts of the event, that actually happened, and this film portrays it perfectly. There’s just no way around that being a feel-good, empowering moment in which we see how important the contributions of black women like Johnson, and her colleagues - Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – were to NASA, back when the space program mattered the most.

That would be the ‘60s, when the U.S. was in a space race with Russia to being the first to put a man on the moon. The story focuses most on Henson’s Johnson as she adjusts to being assigned to the Space Task Group headed by group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Costner’s Harrison is a stern by-the-book boss who doesn’t appears to have a racist bone in his body, but Johnson’s co-workers, especially NASA engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) all give her disgusted looks (it should be noted that Stafford didn’t exist; he’s an amalgam).

Things get worse when Johnson finds that her all-white office mates have labeled a small empty coffee pot “colored” for her.

Henson’s Johnson also gets a love interest in the form of Mahershala Ali, who’s really been making a name for himself lately in such worthy projects as Luke Cage and MOONLIGHT. Here Ali, as a smooth-talking military man, gets to join the movie’s male contingent in having to learn that the times are indeed a-changin,’ and they should never underestimate any woman’s abilities.

Meanwhile, Spencer’s overworked Vaughan, told repeatedly by her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) that she won’t be getting a promotion, learns the programming language needed to program the new IBM computer which leads to her being made NASA’s first black supervisor.

The third lead, Mary Jackson as played by musician/model Monáe in her first starring role in a major motion picture, may not get the lion’s share of screen-time, but makes the sassy best of her storyline involving sweet talking a judge into letting her take classes at an all-white school so that she can get a degree in Engineering and become NASA’s first black female engineer.

Many critics have called HIDDEN FIGURES: “THE HELP meets THE RIGHT STUFF,” and, yeah, that’s valid. There is certainly a lot of cheesy, made-for-TV-style packaging surrounding this unapologetically inspirational history lesson, but at no times does that diminish the film’s earnest tone and heartfelt spirit.

Henson, best known as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, owns her role as the central protagonist as she holds her own with Costner, who’s right at home here as he’s been in a bunch of movies set during this era, and Parsons, whose character is like a racist Sheldon Cooper without any snarky one-liners.

Spencer gets the film’s maybe funniest and most on point moment in a bathroom scene where has a supremely cutting comeback to Dunst as her superior. I won’t spoil it, but will say it really riled up the audience at the advance screening I attended.

It’s a big cornball crowd-pleaser for sure, but HIDDEN FIGURES earns its place as a piece of primo entertainment with an important message. That being, if, as a people, we can overcome assholish, bigoted oppression, we can reach the stars.


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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Was 2016 The Worst Year Ever For Sequels?



It sure seemed like last year was crowded with bad sequels, and it’s true – from ZOOLANDER 2 to JASON BOURNE to NOW YOU SEE ME 2 to ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS to INFERNO to BAD SANTA 2 to…okay, you get the idea – there were a whole lot of follow-up fails in 2016. But was it the worst year ever for sequels?

To answer that, let’s take a look back at sequel history. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK epic BIRTH OF A NATION, may not be the first feature length film (this piece makes the case that Charles Tait’s 1906 crime drama THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG holds that honor), but it did have the first sequel ever, THE FALL OF THE NATION, released in 1916.

Then came the first film trilogy, a horror film trilogy at that, about a clay statue called a golem that comes to life – THE GOLEM (1916), THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL (1917), and THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (1920).

After that there were various film series over the next several decades including the Universal Monsters movies, the Inspector Hornleigh trilogy, the Dashiell Hammett THIN MAN series, and all those Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello BEACH PARTY flicks in the ‘60s.

The ‘60s also gave us James Bond, a franchise that’s still going strong with its most recent installment, last year’s SPECTRE, being its 24th. The ‘60s also brought forth Sergio Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy (three classic westerns that starred Clint Eastwood as “The Man With No Name”), Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers' PINK PANTHER films, the German “Dr. Mabuse” series, and various Godzilla and King Kong movies, including one in which the two iconic creatures fought each other.

But it wasn’t until the ‘70s that sequels really became a thing. The decade hosted THE GODFATHER PART II, CLASS OF ’44 (followup to THE SUMMER OF ’42), 
JAWS 2, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, FRENCH CONNECTION 2, the AIRPORT series, the PLANET OF THE APES series, the DIRTY HARRY series, and more Godzilla, Bond, and PINK PANTHER movies.

However, that was nothing compared to the ‘80s, when sequels dominated the box office, and franchises really began trending. The summer of 1980 could be considered the first big sequel summer as it boasted
the first of many follow-ups to the massive sci-fi smash STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK; SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 2, CHEECH AND CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE, HERBIE GOES BANANAS, and BON VOYAGE, CHARLIE BROWN (AND DON’T COME BACK!). 

The rest of the ‘80s was sequel crazy, with each year packed with more and more film follow-ups averaging to 10-12 sequels a year by the end of the decade. 


1989 was particularly notable as ’88 only had one sequel that was in the box office top 10 for the year (CROCODILE DUNDEE 2 – yes, really), but ’89 had four big brand franchise entries that ranked among the biggest hits of the year – INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, LETHAL WEAPON 2, and GHOSTBUSTERS II. I’m really not sure why some sequels get roman numerals in their titles while others just go for plain numbers, but I digress.

The sequel thing died down a bit in the ‘90s. Not that there weren’t a lot of sequels being made (1990 had a record high of 14 sequels), but less of them made the box office top ten for their perspective years. There were only two years of the last 40 in which any sequels failed to make the yearly top 10 movies at the box office and they were in the ‘90s – 1993 and 1996. Mind you, both those years had movies in their top 10 that led to sequels (’93 had JURASSIC PARK and THE FUGITIVE, while ’96 had INDEPENDENCE DAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE).

In the 2000s, franchises became stronger with sequels appearing more rapidly (THE HARRY POTTER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and the Marvel movies particularly). A record seven sequels made the top 10 in 2003, helped by the fact that there were two MATRIX movies that year. That was out of the nearly 20 sequels that were released in ’03.

After that, every year until now sequels made up half or more of the annual box office top 10 lists. 2011, which set the record for the most sequels to date (26), had nine sequels in the top 10 (the only non sequel that year was THE SMURFS, another that led to a sequel).

This has been the norm with every year following bringing around 30 sequels, a handful of which that are among the biggest box office draws.

In 2016, the two sequels I enjoyed the most, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and FINDING DORY, were also the two biggest grossing films of the year. The rest of the top 10 was made up of spin-offs (ROGUE ONE, FANTASTIC BEASTS, DEADPOOL, and SUICIDE SQUAD), a remake (THE JUNGLE BOOK), with only two original entities – the animated hits ZOOTOPIA and THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS in the mix. Oh, and #6 at the box office, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, which wasn’t technically a sequel, but it’s sort of difficult to not think of it as one.

In tallying up sequels from the last 40 years, 1994 stands out as a particularly bad year as there was only one sequel in the box office top 10 – CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, the third installment of the Jack Ryan series, and it just got in under the wire at #10. CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER was well reviewed – it stands at 82% on the Rotten Tamatometer, but the rest of that year was littered with a dozen horribly panned, low grossing sequels including BEVERLY HILLS COP III (really? That gets a roman numeral?), CITY SLICKERS 2: THE SEARCH FOR CURLY’S GOLD, THE NEXT KARATE KID, D2: THE MIGHTY DUCKS, HIGHLANDER III: THE SORCERER, MAJOR LEAGUE II, MY GIRL 2, NAKED GUN 33⅓: THE FINAL INSULT, THE NEVER ENDING STORY III, and DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, which got a 0% on the Rotten Tomatometer.

But by sheer quantity alone, 2016 crushes 1994. While it had a number of sequels that weren’t bad – i.e. both box office and critical-wise – including THE CONJURING 2, BRIDGET JONES’S BABY, NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING, and STAR TREK BEYOND – there was an unbearable slew of follow-up failures including ZOOLANDER 2, LONDON HAS FALLEN, MY BIG FAT WEDDING 2, GOD’S NOT DEAD 2, THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, NOW YOU SEE ME 2, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, THE PURGE: ELECTION DAY, JASON BOURNE, ICE AGE: COLLISION COURSE, MECHANIC: RESURRECTION, RIDE ALONG 2, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK, BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN, and BAD SANTA 2.

That’s six bad sequels more than ’94, and several more than every other year.

So, in my book, or on my blog, 2016 definitely comes in as the worst year for sequels in film history. Sure, that’s another reason to be happy that the year is over, but, as people keep point out on other fronts (especially politically), 2017 doesn’t look like it's gong to be much better.

There’s nearly three dozen sequels scheduled for the next 12 months including more STAR WARS, KONG, ALIENS, Marvel superheroes, DC superheroes, Universal Monsters, TRANSFORMERS, SAW, SMURFS, APES, and that hugely anticipated, but largely feared BLADE RUNNER sequel. No doubt, 2017 has powerful potential to destroy 2016’s worst year for sequels record.

So be afraid, be very afraid – and Happy New Year!

More later…