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A powerful meditation on faith and the human spirit
The year is 1640. The Catholic Church has spread all over the world, yet one nation has been labeled a danger. That is Japan. Two Jesuit Priests, Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) receive word that their former master Ferrerira (Liam Neeson) has apostatized. Believing this a lie, the two priests embark on a journey to the foreign land, hoping to discover the truth of their teacher. The Priests' quest proves more burdensome than they had expected, putting their lives in danger and faith to the test.
Dubbed as his passion project, Scorsese explores many deep, philosophical questions in Silence. Is there a God? If so, why does he permit so much suffering? Is it mere arrogance and selfishness to hold onto one's faith at the expense of other people's lives? There is much to meditate and reflect upon in this film. At times, Silence is very hard to watch. While not particularly bloody, unlike some of Scorsese's other movies, the brutal acts depicted feel very real.
Aside from the controversial subject matter, "Silence" is an excellent character study on Father Rodriguez and Garupe. We get to see how they change and ultimately follow two different paths. Andrew Garfield turns in his best work as Father Rodriguez. Adam Driver is equally brilliant. Liam Neeson has minimal screen time, but delivers one of his finest performances. He can convey so much emotion without speaking. There is more to his acting capability than Bryan Mills from Taken. Isse Ogata is evil and manipulative as the Japanese Inquisitor. He can be charming one moment and vile the next, a sort of Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde persona. The rest of the supporting cast are also great in their respective roles.
Like most other movies by Scorsese, the production values are top-notched. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is simply stunning. Each shot is a work of exceptional art, whether it is a close-up on an actor's face or a beautiful landscape image. Prieto has a phenomenal eye for composition and lighting, proving himself as one of Hollywood's best DP's. The production and costume designs are exquisite, capturing a lost era. The make-up design accommodates the ugliness and lack of personal hygiene people had centuries ago. We don't see actors with pearly white teeth or unblemished skin.
The use of sound or rather lack thereof is particularly unique. There are moments where it is completely silent. The visuals take priority, allowing the audience a chance to absorb the character's emotions. This technique works very well. The fact Silence does not have a music soundtrack makes it even powerful. So many films rely on music to convey an emotional response in the viewer. The visuals, performances, and story do this for the movie.
The only criticism I have is the pace. The first two hours move steadily but the ending drags a bit. It is almost as if the screenwriters wanted to add more to the story than it needed. In my opinion, a shorter ending would have given the film a much stronger resolution.
With such a huge filmmaking career that Scorsese has developed over the years, it is hard for me to rank this as one of his best. He has made so many excellent movies. Silence is a great one. That's for sure one of 2016's best.
Visually awe-inspiring with a profound story
While most modern-day sci-fi flicks focus on extravagant CG set pieces and mindless destruction, Denis Villeneuve's film "Arrival" offers the viewer something much more profound and thought-provoking. As twelve canoe-shaped spaceships touch down on earth, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the US government to investigate the purpose of the newly arrived extraterrestrials.
The plot focuses on how Banks and Donnelly attempt to communicate with the aliens and understand their mission. Rather than this process being tedious or even boring, screenwriter Eric Heisserer constructs an interesting and well-crafted story, built on mystery, tension and intrigue. As a viewer, I wanted to know about the aliens identity, their mission, and whether humanity will go to war or if a compromise could be made. The tension is astronomically well done. I kept guessing till the end and was pleasantly surprised with the final outcome. The creativity of the alien language and the use of linguistics help make the film even more plausible. Without giving too much away, it is amazing how a simple set of words could easily be misinterpreted or construed. That's one of the several underlying themes of this movie, how people make quick judgments without fully comprehending the meaning of another individual's, or in this case, an aliens' perspective. Language can be a powerful weapon.
The visuals and aesthetics of "Arrival" are simply astounding. The sheer scale of the alien spacecrafts is terrifying and unique. Even though the aliens resemble large cephalopods, they pose as a powerful and foreboding force. Bradford Young's cinematography consists of dimly lit interior rooms, sometimes only lit with computer screens, and overexposed exterior shots. His choice of lighting and camera angles makes the movie feel real, almost like a documentary versus a studio lit scene from a soundstage. But the component I enjoyed the most was the sound design. Some scenes are deathly quiet and then bang, something loud happens. This technique made me feel like I was part of the movie. Johann Johannson's score takes the film's sound to a new level. He conveys something intense, magical, and above out of this world (I hope he wins an Oscar). Max Richter's piece "On the Nature of Daylight" adds an additional layer of emotion to this great film.
The final highlights of what makes "Arrival" an excellent alien contact movie are the performances. Renner is solid as Donnelly, determined to a find scientific way to communicate with the aliens. It is nice to see him take more dramatic roles rather than playing Hawkeye from "Marvel's: The Avenger's." Amy Adams as Dr. Banks could easily receive her sixth Oscar nomination. Her performance is based on subtlety, particularly with her movements and facial expressions. She can express so much emotion without uttering a single word. Instances like these are what can make an actor either really good or bad. Adams is simply wonderful.
2016 still has quite a few movies left to hit the theaters. So far, "Arrival" is the best one I have seen.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
A winter storm sweeps through the mountainous Wyoming valley as eight individuals shelter in a log cabin. Each person seems upfront and friendly, but not all of them are who they claim to be. The characters include John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter bringing in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a crazy little minx, to hang; Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter collecting some reward money, a town sheriff (Walter Goggins), the town's hangman (Tim Roth), a former colonel (Bruce Dern), and the cabin's caretaker (Damien Bicher). In a "who done it" storytelling fashion, the characters figures out the hidden truths and turn on another one.
Writer and director Quentin Tarantino approaches his eighth film like a play. He takes his time unraveling the story as the characters engage in idle conversations through the blustery storm. QT is a master of witty dialog and has a talent where he can have his characters talk endlessly about irrelevant matters to the movie's plot, yet remain entertaining and enthralling. While this worked flawlessly in "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," in "The Hateful Eight" it drags the story out longer than necessary. After awhile, the dialog feels very long-winded. If Tarantino wanted to emphasize the boredom of being secluded in a cabin during a storm, he certainly achieves that. There are still some very well written scenes though, such as a reoccurring gag where each character asks John Ruth why he is bringing Daisy in alive when it is just simpler to shoot her in the back. The punch line, "It's too much work to bring 'em in alive" will go down as a classic Tarantino movie line.
Without giving too much more away, the "surprise" twist is very predictable. In Tarantino style, people die gruesomely. Shot, stabbed, hanged, poisoned, bled to death, take your pick. Unlike other QT movies where the violence seems justified, "The Hateful Eight" depicts violence just for the sake of it. The last on-camera death specifically displays a disturbing act of pure sadism. I never really felt uncomfortable watching a Tarantino movie. This one actually bothered me a little.
There are some more worthwhile factors that "The Hateful Eight" offers. Shot in 70mm film, the landscape shots pay homage to the old Westerns. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has once again shown his talent as one of Hollywood's greatest DPs. Ennio Morricone's score is haunting to say the least, but also has the soul he created from the Spaghetti Westerns. Both are probably in luck for some Oscar nominations this year.
To sum up, "The Hateful Eight" is merely decent. The acting is good. The technical skills are phenomenal. But the story is weak, but fortunately has some of the flare QT that audiences have seen before, just not enough to make another masterpiece.
Powerful and thought provoking
"Spotlight" is about the Boston Globe's investigation into the allegations of child abuse by some of the priests in the Catholic Church. In a similar style to "All the President's Men," we follow the newspaper's team as they uncover awful truths and cover-ups. The story presents a bit more of a personal touch for the main characters as we observe how they are affected, and ultimately impacted from what they discover. In part, this is what makes "Spotlight" such a compelling and thought-provoking film. The scenes where the victims share their stories are powerful and heart rendering.
Even though the investigation keeps the movie's plot moving steadily, it is the performances that make the film memorable. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo stand out in particular. Their characters are opposite ends of the spectrum. Ruffalo is passionate and intense as Mike Rezendes whereas Keaton is more reserved and calm as Will Robby Robinson. Both mold into their roles so well that I failed to see them as actors. The rest of the cast is sublime, even Rachel McAdams as the emotionally attached Sacha Pfeiffer.
"Spotlight" is a great movie. It is engaging, powerful, compelling, and thought provoking. The film will leave you with much to think about, especially if you attend an organized religion.
The Big Short (2015)
One of this year's best movies!
Though marketed as a comedy, "The Big Short" covers some very serious issues. Based off of the book with the same title, the film goes in great depth of the reasons behind the 2008 economic catastrophe. The focus is on a group of individuals that foresee the economic bubble burst and decide to take advantage of it. Among them are a savvy, but socially awkward hedge fund manager (Christian Bale), a short-tempered, no-nonsense trader (Steve Carell), a banker seeking a huge payday (Ryan Gosling) and two young investors that want to make it big (John Margo & Finn Wittrock) who enlist the help of a retired trader (Brad Pitt).
The plot jumps from one group of characters to another, covering nearly every angle possible of the behind-the-scenes financial industry that most everyday people do not know or understand. Even though the multiple subplots and some of the technical jargon in the dialog may prove confusing or daunting for the viewer, director Adam McKay and screenwriter Charles Randolph break the subject matter down enough so that the audience can follow along. Often times, they blend humor (such as characters breaking the fourth wall with one- liners or using a chef to explain CDOs) to get their explanations across.
The controversial topic that the movie captures is insanely well-written and the actors perform brilliantly in their roles. Christian Bale went so far into his character that he wore the clothing of the man his performance was based on. However, it is Steve Carell who steals the show. With his disheveled hair and East Coast accent, he is unrecognizable. Like with his work in "Foxcatcher," Carell once again shows that he can do drama. His character has a lot of passion as he tries to make sense of the impending economic disaster. In a way, he becomes the voice of the viewer, wondering how capitalism can spin so far out of control.
The only gripe I have with this movie is the heavy-handed message. Like the 2010 documentary "Inside Job," "The Big Short" paints Wall Street and the banks as the main culprits responsible for the economic ruin. As a result, this gives the audience someone to vilify. Besides this personal opinion, "The Big Short" is an exceptional film and one of this year's best. I am probably in the minority here, but I think this is better than the new "Star Wars" movie. It is a film that both entertains and makes you think.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Compelling and Powerful but not the best
This is the movie that made me join Netflix. The trailers looked very promising, and the film does not disappoint. The plot is told from the perspective of Agu (Abraham Attah), a child growing up in an unnamed African country. The first fifteen minutes provides a sense of calm and general happiness, emphasizing the childhood innocence of this boy. He has a loving family and a wild imagination. The story takes a dramatic turn when war breaks out in Agu's homeland, resulting in the separation from his family. Agu is forced into the army as a child soldier. While films like "Blood Diamond" and "Lord of War" scratch the surface on child soldiers in Africa, "Beasts of No Nation" takes you down to its core level. It is brutal, dark, and inhumane. As viewers, we watch as Agu transforms from an innocent boy to a brainwashed killer, under the manipulative powers of the Commandant (Idris Elba).
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does not sugarcoat the barbarity. There are several moments intended to make the viewer uncomfortable, including a harsh scene where a young girl is stomped to death while a group of child soldiers laugh. Despite the graphic violence, Fukunaga does not demonize the children. The director provides us moments where the child soldiers are simply children. They play games and question what their futures will bring. It cannot be said that we necessarily like them, but given their circumstances and the lifestyle that has been forced onto them, they are understandable characters.
While Idris Elba has been receiving nominations (including a Golden Globe & SAG) for his role, it is Abraham Attah's performance that makes the movie. He has a talent that most child actors, and many adult-aged actors lack, the ability to convey powerful emotion without uttering a single word. Though unlikely, I hope he secures an Oscar nom for his performance. Idris Elba is convincing as the manipulative and despicable Commandant, but his British accent breaks through on several occasions, pulling me out of several key scenes.
The technical skills and Fakunaga's direction are nothing short of remarkable. Fakunaga acted as his own cinematographer for this movie and he does an incredible job. In some instances, he seemed to shadow Terrence Malick's work from "The Thin Red Line" with his selection of beautiful landscape shots, close-ups of nature, high saturation and natural lighting. The voice-over by Agu adds another layer to this compelling film as he reflects on his past experiences as a soldier.
While this is a very good movie, it is not without faults. The last act feels drawn out, making it longer than necessary. The conclusion is particularly weak and withholds any catharsis from the character. A more glaring problem was the thick African accents. They made the English dialogue very hard to understand. It would have been more appropriate if all the characters spoke in their native language and then subtitles were added after the fact. The first fifteen minutes were mostly subtitled, as the rest of the film should have been.
2016 has not been the best year of movies. However, December is the month where the greatest films are usually released. "Beasts of No Nation" is a compelling and powerful film, and marks one of this year's best. But I would not rank it as one of the best of all time.
Still not quite there Neill Blomkamp, I know you can make a masterpiece
In the near future, Johannesberg, South Africa has replaced their police squad with Scouts, robots that decimate crime in the poverty-stricken city. The genius behind these machines is Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). His rival, war-mongrel Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) wants his own device up and running. And he will do just about anything to discredit Wilson, even if it means foul play. When Scout #22 is damaged from a routine take down, Wilson bestows the idea to upload an experimental program into the robot's neural network. Wilson and Scout #22 are abducted by a group of drug dealers (played by Ninja and Yo-landi from the band Die Antwoord), where he is forced to upload the software into the robot in order to assist them on a $20 million heist. Scout #22 becomes Chappie, the first machine to be able to think on his own and learn new features like a human child.
The core of "Chappie" is the titular character's relationship with others and how they mold him into either doing good or bad actions. Yo-landi takes up the mantle as the nurturing mother figure that wants him to find his own way while Ninja poses as the violent father figure, who only wants to use him for his own unsavory activities. Interestingly, director Neill Blomkamp chose to keep the band members' names as the character names. Both neophyte actors do not deliver bad performances, but they could have been better. Their characters are rather one-dimensional and flat. The same goes for most of the other cast members. Sigourney Weaver as the CEO of the robot company has too little screen time to develop at all. Dev Patel plays the idealistic genius too well to the point that he feels more like a caricature than an actual character. Hugh Jackman is somewhat of an effective antagonist and his motives are clear for wanting to derail Wilson and his pet project, but his over-the-top performance makes him someone not to be taken seriously.
Then there is Chappie, played by Sharlto Copley in a MOCAP suit. From his movements and voice (digitally altered of course), he rivals the prowess of Andy Serkis. He has a natural energy about him that for the whole two hours, I failed to see his character as a man in a dotted suit. By default, much sentimentality is given to Chappie for his innocent and childlike behavior. This never gets in the way for the audience to enjoy the robot with manlike features and bunny eared antennas. The quieter moments, such as him learning new words or how to paint a picture make this a more worthwhile movie over the action and explosions. Sadly though, they are often interrupted by gunfire or mass destruction. Like so many past sci-fi movies like "E.T." or "The Iron Giant," Chappie is another non-human character we can feel sympathy for. The overall pacifist personality he exhibits is a nice touch, too.
Neill Blomkamp never seems to escape his location of home, depicting trash invested regions, criminals that prove to be anti-heroes instead of villains, Afrikaans dialog, and a gratuitous amount of violence. Fortunately no bodies are blown to pieces, though one guy does get ripped in half. Chappie exceeds over its director's previous film "Elysium." It takes a potentially cool idea and charges forward with some avenue of success. "Chappie" is simply a movie too enjoy. Very easily, with some more polish and time geared toward re-written script drafts, this could have been the best science-fiction film of the decade. Blomkamp still has not yet reached the masterpiece level that I know he can. "Chappie" though is still lots of fun and it has some heart.
The Imitation Game (2014)
An exceptional film
"The Imitation Game" is a movie that makes known a part of classified history during World War II and it shows that even then, people 70 years ago were thinking ahead on how technology can impact and eventually alter how wars can be fought. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who has a mind for the future. At the peak of the Blitz, the British government recruits him to crack the Enigmaa type of code that the Germans used to communicate their naval positions. Discovering that it is humanly impossible to decipher the code, he brainstorms the idea to build a machine that could break the Enigma and save lives. To put it quite plainly, Alan Turing is the man who founded the first computer.
His journey of working with a team to build this game-changing device is only part of the film. The movie also explores the man and his personal struggles of being a homosexual in a society that outlaws such "behavior." This subject matter is handled with tact and is never in the viewer's face in regards to say, showing sexual situations. With Cumberbatch's pro-gay advocacy and him personally seeing Alan Turing as an idol no doubt made him the perfect candidate for the role. Putting aside all of these matters, there is no other British actor who could portray this man and his struggles. Interestingly, the film depicts Turing as a bit of a recluse and exhibiting Asperger's tendencieshe says things bluntly and has no social graces whatsoever. He fires two employees out of merely "slowing everyone else down" and he does not understand or bear the time for diplomatic solutions for his fellow code-breakers.
At first blush, he can be quickly seen as an egotistical jerk. While the film progresses though, we clearly can comprehend his problems, accept his brilliance, and even feel empathy for him as a human being. Cumberbatch has given us a complicated, multi-layered, yet honorable performance. Graham Moore's witty dialog has supplied Ben with plenty of ammunition for his character as well as add flare for both funny and serious moments. Moore makes a front-runner for the Adapted Screenplay category. The remaining actors in the film are merely good and never reach Cumberbatch's level. Keira Knightley though does have some great moments, particularly in a scene where she tries to help a depressed Alan back on his feet again.
"The Imitation Game" is an exceptional film. It has a stellar performance by the lead actor. It is well rounded and explains character and plot in past, present, and future settings. It is supported with an emotionally charged score by Alexandre Desplat and has beautiful set pieces from the production design team. The ending is a little fast, but suitable. It is not a pure Oscar bait film. It is really an award-worthy one.
A great movie falls a little short on the ending
While "Foxcatcher" is inspired by real people and events the film's roots are in a psychological examination of its lonesome and disturbed characters. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, the 1984 Gold Medalist in Men's Wrestling. Going nowhere with employment and training, he receives a chance of a lifetime from being recruited by John E du Pont (Carrel), a reserved and awkward multi-millionaire, who wants America to win the gold again in the 1988 Olympics. At Du Pont's mother's farm, he organizes the new US wrestling team for the International games.
Their relationship becomes the basis of this film and how it rises and then ultimately deflates. From the first five minutes we are introduced to Du Pont, he is presented as a wealthy, charismatic individual with a peculiar way of speaking and an even more peculiar nose. Progressively, we get to see the type of man Mark has befriended as he spirals out of control, engaging in drug abuse, guns, and irrational behavior. Carrel has performed a role at first glance may seem hard to swallow. However, he portrays his character in such a style that it is truly terrifying. Beneath the hours of make-up, he can display absolute nothingness, uncontrollable rage, and even pure narcissism without even speaking. Director Bennett Miller relies heavily on non-verbal scenes, allowing the silence between the actors on camera to create tension and intriguing interactions. This is a tough accomplishment, and he hits it head-on at every point.
The screenwriters supply the actors with straight-to-the-point, yet brilliant dialog, and the cast carry the weight of their characters superbly. Who could have imagined that Channing Tatum or even Steve Carrel could deliver such vulnerable and sophisticated characters? Mark Ruffalo is extremely limited in screen time but he is up to par with his leading co-stars as Mark's caring brother. The only setback "Foxcatcher" has is the ending. The first 100 minutes are electrifying and engaging, but the final 20-30 minutes kind of meander and depict a series of events that feel woven together. Too much of Carrel and Tatum looking depressed make a snail's pace for the final act. I wanted more character interaction and an actual conclusion that ties in with the violent tragedy of Dave Schultz's murder. It merely happens and Du Pont is arrested. No trial. No final face-to-face showdown between Mark and Du Pont. Not even a moment where Mark mourns his brother. Nor is there a clear motive for Du Pont's crime. As a viewer, the ending is quite cold and rather withholding.
"Foxcatcher" is a great movie. I would definitely buy it when the Blu-Ray hits retail stores. Yet I don't think it is as great as some of the other movies released in 2014.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Not quite what I was expecting, but still pretty good
Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Joaquin Phoenix team up again for "Inherent Vice," a somewhat nostalgic look of Los Angeles in the 1970s. Phoenix plays dope-head PI Doc Sportello, who investigates at his ex-lover's request (Katherine Waterson), her boyfriend (Eric Roberts), a married, wealthy man. He quickly learns that he is in more than he bargained for as he encounters a black militant (Michael K Williams), a detective whom he shares a respect/hate relationship with (Josh Brolin), a druggie informant (Owen Wilson), a hedonist dentist (Martin Short), a brothel run by an Asian smuggler group, a cult, and crooked cops. These are only some of the mechanics that Doc discovers. The movie becomes so perplexing and multi-layered that we as viewers become just as dazed as Doc. We merely follow along and try to keep up with the shenanigans and ambiguous subplots.
"Inherent Vice" is a movie that requires multiple viewings. Even then, it may be questionable for someone to put all the pieces together. I cannot help but wonder if Paul Anderson knew what the film was all about in terms of a plot. However, he is anything but a conventional filmmaker. His past films usually somehow tie together in the end. His latest one though just leaves his viewers scratching their heads, wondering what they had watched for 148 minutes. The only information that sort of guides the audience is the narration by Joanna Newsom. Her character though is a druggie and is only seen by Doc. So, is she a reliable character? Or is she a figment of a drug- induced hippie's imagination? We are not entirely sure.
"Inherent Vice" is not by any means a bad movie. It is actually quite good. Like all of Anderson's past works, he pushes his actors to give performances to the best of their abilities, and then some. In my opinion, Joaquin Phoenix is a very underrated actor. Like with his role in "The Master," he embodies an unlikeable, yet unique character. The way he carries his gait. The way he remains silent and allows his face to express emptiness and want is remarkable. Brolin holds to the tough guy, hardass, he plays so well. Only this time, he beats up hippies and violently eats chocolate covered bananas on a stick. New faces Joanna Newsom and Katherine Waterson add flare to the roles they are given. Owen Wilson still displays his general awkwardness and goofy humor, too.
The nostalgia that is shown really sells to the overall fun of the film. Vintage cars, land-line phones, Adam-12, Richard Nixon, Afros, weed, sex, cult paranoia, and Rock 'n Roll are only some things that people who grew up in the era will recognize and get a smile from. I particularly enjoyed how Roger Elswit's cinematography captures the look of a movie from the 1970s. Shots are underexposed at night and never look lit. In result, there is sort of a natural look that almost makes the movie appear like an older film.
"Inherent Vice" is not a film for the average viewer. The humor is crude in nature and there is very little action or suspense. For fellow cinema lovers though, you may very well find a fit here. The trailers that try to advertise this movie as a quirky comedy are far from the truth.