‘Silence’: Review

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Martin Scorsese is so good and operates at such a high level after 50 years of directing (I had to look this up to be sure, that’s two of my lifetimes making stunning films) that I feel everybody, including myself, is kind of brushing Silence to the side like “eh, another amazing Scorsese film, what else is new.” Any other lesser director, or one not as well-known directs this film and there’s gonna be storming the streets over how good this thing is, but with Scorsese it just seems like another day at the office. I’ve been waiting years for Scorsese to get his passion project finished and now that it’s here and as good as it is it’s kind of demoralizing to see it fall by the wayside during end of the year awards talk, not that that’s the be-all and end-all of whether a movie is good or not, but still.

This is an uncomfortable film to watch and Scorsese doesn’t reward you at the end for sitting through this punishment, it’s not Hollywood fanfare where we all come out happy in the end and necessarily excited for life. It’s about two priests who travel into anti-Catholicism Japan in the 17th century in search of their mentor who has been missing for years. Both men get deeper and deeper into this religious war zone and suffer hardship after hardship affecting both their religious and physical demeanour.

While Liam Neeson and Adam Driver share their name on the poster with Andrew Garfield, it’s largely a showcase for Garfield who he pulls it off with aplomb. I’ve always liked Garfield fine enough, he’s never really wowed me or did anything horrible, just been doing well existing and putting in fine work. But, he certainly proved that if you give him a meaty part and something for him to sink his teeth in, like this film, he’ll go full bore and deliver something special. A lot of the film works in quiet moments and also because of the Japanese to English language barrier a lot of the emotions and reactions are played off the actor’s faces. Garfield is especially wonderful in how he’s able to act with his face and emote all this pain and feeling that wears him down through the hours of the audience watching the film and the years inside the film.

Scorsese never makes easy films, but he also never makes films that are so over-complicated and convoluted that they treat the audience like an idiot because of wanting to seem “smart” and educated. He’s so assured in his direction that a psuedo-comedy like The Wolf Of Wall Street and a deeply religious exploration like Silence can be told by the same equal measured by Scorsese’s respect for the medium and how expertly each part of it informs the whole, no matter the subject matter. Silence is a film that is powerful in the quiet moments and understated in the grandiose, revelatory moments. It’s a film that is interested in showing how things are and how they were, no matter the pain that it delivered and may continue to for some. Scorsese documents it and wraps it all up in an engaging filmic package that he clicks on as easy as autopilot, while still showing how much he cares.

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‘La La Land’: Review

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La La Land works well enough because it operates within every preconceived notion and cliche of what you would be perceive this movie to be. It’s quirky, sends up Hollywood pictures of yesteryear and has a couple who meet then dislike each then like each other then date then have the best time of their lives then something UNEXPECTEDLY splits them apart then they become a “better” person from that relationship.

Now none of this is particularly bad per se, and La La Land has enough to distract from its formulaic misgivings, but still in doing so the film seems unoriginal in spite of what it’s trying to project on the screen. It so badly wants to rise from the ashes of all these old time Hollywood movies and become something different and masterful, but it’s still tied down by its trite machinations. I mean, sure, it’s not like the two main characters end up together happily ever after or anything like that, it’s not that formulaic, but it does the next best thing by having its cake and eating it too by saying, “Hey, we’re not gonna put them together, but see they’re better off for that and, awww, heck, fine, we’ll show you them together in some alternative world dream sequence.” Because the film is never content on straying TOO far from that happy Hollywood medium, less it get pulled out of its preordained rut. It’s a fine enough device, giving you the sad and happy by showing you both sides of how following your dreams or staying with a lover can work out either way and letting you choose what applies, but it still rings too cheap and easy.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both exceptional in there roles, although I’m quite less enamoured with Stone even when while I still see the good stuff she’s putting out there. The writing and performances do a pretty good job in letting these characters be fun and eccentric without it veering too far into camp and seeming like these are just movie characters spouting these writer-speak words that nobody in real-life would ever say. In other words this movie wasn’t written by Diablo Cody. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that Gosling and Stone’s characters suffer from Gilmore Girls syndrome, where it’s all fun and charming to see them crack wise at each other and make funny little quips and have all these cutesy sayings, but imagine actually running into these people in real life and you won’t be able to find a razor blade fast enough to get away from these unbearable people.

I enjoyed all the musical aspects, ie breaking into song, but I honestly couldn’t help but thinking that the film didn’t really need any of it and at the end of things it just became more gimmicky than anything. There’s not a single song that stands out (good or bad) and it’s not like the film is worse off for any of it, or that it provides a disruption, it just seems like the musical aspect was force-fed into this movie that didn’t really need that to operate at a high level.

Believe it or not after the first four paragraphs that I wrote, but I actually liked this film. While I hated that it had to rely on so many cliches to get where it was going, it operates so well inside these cliches that it puts itself head and shoulders above what most do with them. Damien Chazelle is a good director and writer who crafts this film on such a grandiose stage thanks to his assured eye and vision that it’s hard to believe it’s only his third film. Everyone behind and in front of the camera delivers this whole package with such passion that it’s hard not to be moved by its emotion and the final grace notes from each character. La La Land is a film that loves old Hollywood musicals a bit too much, it has its own heart, but it just can’t resist the bright lights.

‘Moonlight’: Review

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Moonlight is a film about many things. It’s about childhood, growing up, sexuality (repressed and expressive), race, love and a myriad of other constant filmic themes, but Moonlight takes them all into its melting plot and lets them simmer in concert with each other, feeding into the story of one young man.

Moonlight follows Chiron through three stages of his life, firstly as a young child who gets pseudo-mentored by a crack dealer, secondly as an often-bullied teenager and lastly as a full grown adult now working on the block and running drugs. Many through lines exist throughout the three sections including his fractured relationship with his crack-addicted mother, his discovering of his (homo)sexuality and his friend Kevin who is the first person he first becomes intimate with and eventually shapes a lot of who he becomes and subsequently who he never became.

The film works because it takes all these large themes and plays them out on the small scale and focuses them on one character as he progresses through his “boyhood.” It allows us to relate on certain levels (ie. growing up, sexuality, first love, bullying), but it also creates further layers in presenting it through ways that one may not be familiar with directly. It uses the presence of drugs, living in the ghetto, homosexuality, black lives and uses it to inform and play against certain stereotypes and what we generally think are associated with these ideas and making it clear that that’s not always the case.

It’s wonderfully acted by all three of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who all display the quiet stillness of Chiron and are all remarkably skilled at showcasing every emotion that runs through his brain by portraying it on their face. While Chiron never says much verbally, it’s usually always painted directly on his face. The film’s cinematography is wonderfully done with a lot of dark muted blues that help suspend the film in this depressed dreamscape for a lot of what’s representing Chiron and his current head space.

Ultimately, Moonlight is about a lot of various things, but at the base of things it’s about those small personal moments that we hold near and dear to us for years, and something that can provide a life-changing effect for oneself, that might never even register on someone else’s radar. That’s the thing about growing up, love or whatever, it’s never the big, grandiose moments that have the biggest effect on our lives and relationships, it’s the the small personal moments that act as connective tissue to the different stages of your life, for good and bad, and something that continues to trace throughout your life and helps make you the person who you were twenty ago, who you are now, and the person who you’ll be after the next twenty years.

‘Arrival’: Review

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Dennis Villeneuve has fast become one of my favourite filmmakers and one of those people who I’ll see his name next to a project and know I’ll be seeing it as soon as possible. So much so that I’m now looking forward to his reboot/sequel/whatever of Blade Runner, and I could not have cared less about the original one. Incendies first launched him into the limelight, and with his four year run from 2013-2016 of Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and now Arrival, Villeneuve has proved that he’s no fluke and has a ton to say through a variety of film genres.

A common thread through all of Villeneuve’s films, and one that becomes abundantly clear watching Arrival if it wasn’t already, is that he’s chiefly interested in the human condition. How people react in increasing times of physical, psychological, and even extraterrestrial avenues of stress and how this informs them as humans. How these feelings are intrinsic to each person around the world whether you’re confronting family strife, emotional instability, high pressure job situations or just some damn aliens.

Arrival works because Villeneuve is so skilled at balancing everything this film needs to be, from sci-fi to a character drama to a philosophical study. Because this is a Villeneuve film he takes something standard (at least in sci-fi fare) like an alien invasion and doesn’t just go the simple route of seeing them lay waste to our society or set everything up for an epic 30-minute space battle, instead the film takes a step back and thinks about what REALLY might happen if aliens descended upon our world tomorrow. Villeneuve makes the reality of this situation shine so bright and dim that it makes the otherworldly aspects that much more starker, and scarier, because of what its implications mean on us everyday humans.

Amy Adams is the perfect vessel for all of this because she, like Villeneuve, is so skilled at portraying a wide variety of person for the job that needs to be done. She is believable as an expert communicator trying to decipher what these aliens are trying to get across, she is believable as a mother with grief, hardship and confusion seemingly informing her every move and she is believable as someone who isn’t just content with seeing things at face value.

The film features a clever twist on the idea of a “twist” where I even hazard to really even call it a twist. We find out that Louise’s visions she’s been having throughout the movie (including of her dead daughter) are flash-forwards and that the presence of these aliens is to reveal that time can be literally viewed as a flat circle, changing the idea of time.

When we first view the film chronologically we interpret what we assume are flashbacks, but only later realize that they are flash-forwards. Just as in the narrative film universe where the characters discover that they can view time as a flat circle, us viewers of the film now unlock that ability and retroactively feel the same experience of the characters and click into this mindset of seeing everything at once, even if we didn’t know it and were confused by it at the time.

I feel like it’s almost too lazy to call this a “thinking man’s” sci-fi film, and I mean it is, but it still feels like too much of an easy brush to paint it with. It works much like Villeneuve’s other films because it puts you in the situation because it feels so real and lived in no matter how fantastical, makes you try and answer the questions being posed to the characters in the film and actually provokes thought and emotion that sticks with you. Arrival isn’t interested in tricking you and making you out to be a fool, but rather taking a roundabout way in showing you how things you might have thought looked so concrete and definitive are often always anything but that.

‘The Hateful Eight’: Review

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The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s bloody rendition of a what a play would look like filtered through the eyes of the visual director. It’s funny because where Tarantino is largely and accurately looked at as a pastiche director, one who takes elements of several others and combines them into one thing, The Hateful Eight very much seems like a pastiche of previous Tarantino films, although I guess you could make that argument about all his films.

Of course, Tarantino loves nothing more than hearing people speak his dialogue, so this film which is about 80% set in the same location, a haberdashery filled with a cavalcade of Tarantino characters, is practically a field day for Tarantino where he has access to eight+ characters cramped in a tiny room, all fixed to play off each other and each maintaining their own motivations and secrets. It works well in this sense because Tarantino gets to indulge in everything he loves like grand monologues, Samuel L. Jackson recounting an epic story, and slowly tightening the grip on these characters who are all unsure of who each other truly is.

I think that’s the best thing that Tarantino has going for him here, I mean, largely it’s the whole point of the film, but it works expertly in ratcheting up the tensions until you’re finally revealed to who’s who and what’s going on. Chiefly all these characters with different backgrounds and motivations are stuck in this cabin during a blizzard, until Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Marquis Warren slowly unravels that certain people might not be who they say they are and like all Tarantino films unravels into a mess of blood and chaos.

The film is purposely slow and takes a while to get to the point where all is revealed, but it happens in one large swoop rather than one-by-one. I previously thought coming into this that it would be a And Then There Were None situation where people slowly get picked off one by one, but I guess in this shortened film time it almost works better where things pop off with a huge violent reveal. Tarantino, though, to create these shortcuts and remove some of the guessing from the audience actually outlines, through his own dang narration I might add, what is going on and literally tells you which character did what and guides your hand in solving this mystery for you. I’m not explaining that well at all, but it’s this weird thing where Tarantino provides his own narration in order to skip the plot ahead and tell you pertinent plot details instead of letting things play out, it’s weird and not a good decision, even if it speeds the film’s events up.

It’s almost pointless to talk about the performances in a Tarantino movie, because they’re always so good. Jackson is fantastic and literally fits any Tarantino movie like a glove, where nobody delivers Tarantino dialogue like Samuel. It’s nice to see Kurt Russell back again who’s perfect as a gruff bounty hunter where he has a code always to bring his subjects to hang, because the hangman’s gotta work, too. Tim Roth does his best Christoph Waltz impression and Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern turn in inspired work as well. By far the standout, though, is Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, a supposed newly appointed sheriff to the town they’re all traveling to. He’s his typical Walton Goggins southern hillbilly self combining a weird off-kilter sense about him to his bubbly humour that can pop out of nowhere.

I will say that after Django Unchained its gotten progressively uncomfortable hearing and seeing Tarantino make these movies with black issues at the forefront involving slavery and the general treatment of black people of this time, and his insistence in using the n-word so frequently. I realize this was largely how it was, but it seems excessive to a fault, even if he’s trying to make some kind of point, and especially coming from Tarantino, who is as white as can be. I don’t know, it just seems a bit much at times, and yes, the black protagonist in the past two films always gets his way over the oppressors, but it sometimes just feels he uses it as an excuse a bit too much.

It’s hard to tell at this point where I fit this on the overall canon of Tarantino, I liked it overall, but as soon as I finished I was dying for a re-watch because I think things will become a lot more clear once I’ve seen it again. I did respect and enjoy the play aspect of things, where everything was combined and contained to one specific area that made you feel like a bigger part of the film and the filmic world became such that you were aware of every nook and cranny of that cabin. I am very interested to see what Tarantino will do next, since his big ideas years ago of doing a WWII film and a western have now been done, and now two westerns at that. As great, and enjoyable as his period films have been, I wouldn’t mind him tackling something in the modern day again or perhaps another modern crime flick in the vein of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Who knows.

‘Behind The Candelabra’: Review

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I always just knew of Liberace as that sequined piano player from way back when. Of course, as I and people nowadays know him as a gay icon and often a punchline for that type of humour. But, as the film portrays, it’s fascinating seeing how in the 1970s he was obviously gay, but made sure to the nth degree that the public didn’t know that, and that he kept up appearances as a straight man. Obviously, back then it would have been a killer to his career, and the danger and threat of AIDS wasn’t even a thought in people’s minds.

Not knowing really anything about Liberace, I can only understand how he was to a certain degree, but Michael Douglas portrayed him perfectly to what I imagine he was like, or at least played to how we view him. It’s almost scary how good Douglas is in the role, inhabiting him so expertly that it was often off-putting when he showed off his eccentricities and plying into Matt Damon’s character. Damon is equally great as what ends up being Liberace’s boy toy, a troubled individual who learns to love fame when attached to Liberace and all the spoils that come with it.

It’s a common narrative we’ve seen before, especially in bio-pics, Damon is the hot, young thing that is unsure of all this attention, but eventually embraces it, almost to an unhealthy degree. He gets comfortable, and a little too steadfast in his position. Then he realizes he’s more expendable then he ever thinks, and is so easily replaced, much to his chagrin. We’ve seen this before, but the framing of the story and the acting that delivers it makes it feel like it’s the first time we’re seeing it.

Soderbergh’s directing isn’t flashy, it hardly ever is, but’s it’s competent and confident like always, and often lets the story play out rather than try and enhance it unnecessarily through camera tricks. There is one scene in particular that stands out, Douglas and Damon are walking through Liberace’s lavish house as Damon complains they don’t get out and do stuff together, Soderbergh’s tracks them through the house, showing off the incredible luxury and prominence these men live in.

I think largely Behind The Candelabra is successful because it’s consistently interesting and explores a topic that few know all that much about. I always knew of the man, but never really understood who Liberace was and Soderbergh, Douglas and Damon paint a perfect picture.

8/10

‘Philomena’: Review

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Philomena is like the pre-eminent adult film. No, not that kind of “adult” film you weirdo, but a comfort film that stars 40+ year olds, and is largely about something they solely relate too, mostly dramatic with some comedy sprinkled throughout the proceedings. That doesn’t take anything away from the film as a sole entity, just an observation on its intents and focus. I don’t think I’ve ever put this anywhere online yet, but I’m a huge Steve Coogan fan, and this is almost the perfect piece of work for him. Yes, I enjoy him more solely in straight comedies, but since he shepherded this film largely, it seems clear this is the direction he largely sees himself, and it works. Coogan gets to be in a dramatic film, all the while being a sarcastic semi-asshole who still gets to make all the quips, but also gets to stretch his dramatic muscles. As well as co-writing the film, it’s obvious that Coogan felt a strong afffinity to this subject matter and it shows both on-screen and off.

Judi Dench is Judi Dench, of course, meaning she’s great. She actually reminded me perfectly of my grandma, who is pretty light-hearted and free about most things and never misses an opportunity to talk up complete strangers, whether in line for something or in an elevator, about complete random things or something related to their surroundings. She’s nothing but likable, and does nothing but serve your pleasure in her trying to track down her long, lost son.

I’d say the film is quite average, if not slightly above, which peaks my interest in how the film got a decent amount of Oscar love. It’s a fine film with fine performances, but I don’t know that any of it is necessarily Oscar worthy. Not that it’s going to win any or that Oscars mean anything towards the quality of a film, just that I was surprised this film got recognized so readily.

7/10