Neruda(1/28/2017)

It used to be, back in the days of Hollywood factory filmmaking, that film directors would routinely make at least a movie a year but more than likely more than one.  I think this was partly because directors came into the process later and left it earlier than they do now but it’s still impressive how fast they could crank out movies.  Today there are still directors capable of putting out two movies in a year, Clint Eastwood has been known to do it and so has Spielberg, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence.  Even rarer though is the act of putting out three essentially unrelated movies in a single year, which is what the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has managed to do by releasing his films The Club, Jackie, and Neruda all in the year of 2016.  Granted, this was largely the result of the vagaries of how foreign films get released in America.  IMDB would consider The Club a 2015 film because of its earlier Chilean release and Neruda only barely got in by getting a New York/L.A. release in late December, but from where I sit he did manage to get all of these movies in during a single year.  What’s more, every one of these movies is at the very least interesting.  The Club didn’t quite work for me but it had some interesting things to say about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I’m certainly on record as thinking Jackie (which was his English language debut) is one of the year’s best.  For Neruda he returns to Chile to tell the story about a very famous Chilean.

The film is set in 1948 and at this point Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a larger than life figure in Chile and a world famous poet and political activist in the country’s communist party.  It’s a tumultuous time in Chile as the recently elected Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has proven to not be the leftist figure that everyone had hoped when he was elected and it has become clear that everyone in the communist party would soon be in danger.  Neruda goes underground but continues making appearances among the Chilean counter-culture as he seeks a means of exiting the country.  Meanwhile, an police investigator named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) has been brought in by Videla and tasked with finding Neruda, a task that Peluchonneau has every intention to complete.  This will however prove difficult as Neruda is slippery and willing to taunt Peluchonneau at every turn.

I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the life and work of Pablo Neruda before seeing this movie.  I’m not proud of that, the man was a Nobel laureate and was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Gabriel García Márquez, so he certainly seems like someone an educated person should know about.  The film focuses less on his literary achievements than on his status as a political figure in Chile but either way it’s a pretty decent crash course in what he was like and what his stature was.  In playing the character Luis Gnecco certainly seems to have captured the look of Neruda, or at least what he seemed to look like in the photos I was able to google, then again I’m not wildly familiar with Gnecco as an actor so it’s hard to gauge how much of a transformation this is.  Either way the movie does a good job of showing the poet’s free spirited defiance and it’s fun to see him elude the authorities at every turn.  Audiences seeing the movie are likely meant to be well aware of the fact that Neruda does not get captured and the movie never tries to give the illusion that Peluchonneau is ever going to be a match for Neruda even when he occasionally seems to have the drop on him.

Where the movie started to lose me was in its second half where the movie introduces a meta element with the Gael García Bernal character which I don’t think is really as fascinating as it possibly could have been.  I’m not going to discuss it in much detail here but I’m still not exactly sure what was supposed to be real and unreal in it and I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that was supposed to be.  I do wonder if that business was a reference to something in Neruda’s literature or an actual documented element in his life that more familiar audiences would be better able to pick up on but for me it just felt a bit odd.  If it hasn’t been made clear so far, I think the fact that I’m not Chilean has me at a bit of a disadvantage with this movie, or perhaps more accurately my ignorance of early 20th Century Chilean history and the works of Pablo Neruda have me at a bit of a disadvantage.  That said, I don’t begrudge Larrain for having chosen not to dumb down his movie for people who don’t go into it with a whole lot of outside knowledge.  The fact that he made his one of his other films this year, Jackie, in a similarly uncompromising way is one of its strengths and I wonder if part of the chilly reception that it’s gotten is that audiences less educated in that story have left it a touch baffled.  However, I’m not going to entirely blame myself for the fact that this movie didn’t entirely impress me.  There are other issues in it like it’s rather bland and washed out photography and regardless of if I’m missing anything that ending still could have been handled better.   Either way I do think this is a worthy, if slightly disappointing entry in Larrain’s filmography and I look forward to his future work.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts(2/10/2017)

The Academy Awards are such the perfect capper to a year of cinema that I’ve long enjoyed following them and the rest of award season even though I know it’s all silly at the end of the day.  Some years I get pretty deep into the horserace of it all and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with predictions and to follow the narratives around each category.  One line I had not crossed up to now was seeking out the short films nominated each year just so I can have a better idea of how to predict those categories, but there’s a first time for everything.  Kidding aside, I didn’t really check these out just to win an Oscar pool.  Really I was just kind of curious what kinds of movies tend to show up in these categories and see if there were any gems in the bunch.  After all, the Best Short film category has at times featured early works by filmmakers who would go on to greater fame.  Previous winners and nominees in this category have included Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis, Taika Waititi, Andrea Arnold, Peter Capaldi, and Taylor Hackford.

Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here because I don’t really watch a lot of short films, at least not a lot of short films from this century.  I’m not really sure how or why short films get made really.  There’s almost no commercial market for them to my knowledge and I don’t really know where they get their budgets from.  This is probably a big part of why every single one of the short films nominated this year are from Europe, where I’m guessing there are grants and public funding for this sort of thing.  In general I tend to view short films as either being a place to test out filmic experiments or to make what are sort of video resumes for young filmmakers trying to show their skill.  Most if not all of the shorts this year fall into the latter category, or at least feel like they do.  Most of them use fairly conventional narrative techniques and basically feel like miniature feature stories. Four of them run about a half hour with one exception which runs about fifteen minutes.  Two of the shorts are fairly serious and deal with topical subject matter, two tell quirky little stories, and one of them serves more as a sort of visual joke.  They’re being released theatrically by a company called ShortsHD, which I believe is also a niche cable network.  They’ve programed them into a no frills package and have ordered them so as to space out the different tones involved.  I’ll be discussing the films in the order presented by this theatrical exhibition.

Also, please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

Mindenki (Sing)

The first film presented is “Sing,” which is a Hungarian short made by a guy named Kristóf Deák, who appears to have been making shorts at least since 2008.  The film follows a elementary aged girl named Zsofi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who is the new kid at a school and is interested in joining the school’s award winning choir, but when she gets there she’s told by the dominating choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) that she didn’t have quite the chops to live up to the choir’s reputation and that she should mime singing instead of actually vocalizing so she doesn’t bring the rest of the choir down with her.  So, basically we have the ambition of a young aspiring musician clashing with a dictatorial instructor who puts being number one above the needs of their students… in other words it’s Whiplash with children and less shouting.  Of the five nominees this is probably the cleanest and most concise.  It’s exactly the kind of story that feels at home in this thirty minute format and it feels neither rushed nor stretched out and while the story feels a little simple there are some layers there.  The dictatorial choir teacher does make a few legit points in defense of what she’s doing and it is interesting seeing her try to manipulate these children into following her lead because they don’t really have the sophistication to debate her.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this one is a bit of a dark horse.  It lacks the weight and political heft of a couple of the other nominees and might not stand out as much and it isn’t comedic like two of the other choices, but voters looking for a nice Goldilocks balance might go for it.

 

Silent Nights

The second film presented gets a lot more serious as it, like a number of the films in the various specialized categories this year, focuses on matters of immigration in Europe.  It’s called “Silent Nights” and hails from Denmark and was directed by the (awesomely named) Aske Bang.  The film follows a Ghanaian man named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) who has been living on the streets of Copenhagen and meets a young and slightly naïve homeless shelter worker named Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen).   Of the five films this one is probably the most densely packed and feels most like a condensed feature film, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Where it falters is that it does not really examine these issues of immigration with a whole lot of subtlety and feels more like the work of someone who’s learned about the struggles facing immigrants from reading the newspaper than from someone who really knows what that life is like.  Every time that Kwame faces racism it comes in the form of either nationalist thugs on the verge of committing full on hate crimes or old people willing to drop full on racial slurs and the film never really examines the less obvious and more institutional forms of prejudice that are likely the more pressing threats that he’s likely to face.  Beyond that there’s kind of just a feeling to it of a young director who’s working a little too hard to try to make certain things feel “gritty.”  On the bright side I found the acting here to be quite good and the relationship between Kwame and Inger felt a lot more natural than it could have.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say it has a legit shot.  Its density could work to its benefit as it plays more like a complete film than some of the other nominees and the fact that it deals with serious issues will help it, especially considering that it does so with more uplift and hope than the other “serious” nominee this year. Also, if you look behind the curtain you learn that the film’s producer/co-nominee Kim Magnusson actually has a pretty long history in this category having been nominated five times in the past and won twice.

 

Timecode

It’s not hard to see why “Timecode” was programed as the middle movie in this block.  It effectively provides a respite between the two “heavy” shorts and it also wouldn’t exactly be the appropriate short to either get the ball rolling on things or send people out of the theater.  At fifteen minutes it’s about half the length of the other four shorts and it’s also the least dialogue driven and most overtly comedic even if it isn’t necessarily going for laughs per se.  Made in Spain by a guy named Juanjo Giménez, the film is about a pair of bored security guards in commercial parking ramp who find a way to pass the time by passing security cam time codes to one another where they’re dancing on camera.  Of the five films here this is the one I had pegged more than the others of being a film by a hotshot out of film school trying to show off his skills behind the camera.  Researching after the fact this proved to not be true.  Juanjo Giménez appears to actually be quite a bit older than his competitors being a man in his fifties who appears to have been working as a producer going back to the 90s. Timecode is very much a light hearted formal exercise that almost could have been made as a silent film if the people involved had been so inclined.  I’m not sure the payoff lands quite as well as the filmmakers thought it would but it it’s a fun little film just the same.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: While a number of these films have won various festival awards Timecode is the only one that can say that it won the Short Film Palme d’Or and much like the films that win the feature Palm d’Or it brags about this in a title card in front of the film.  The film’s other big asset is that it stands out from the other four in its brevity and its entertainment value.  If the people inclined to vote longer and more serious fare split their votes between the other four nominees this one could benefit.

 

Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within)

The fourth film here and the second to deal with issues of immigration is “Enemies Within” from the French filmmaker Sélim Azzazi takes the form of a man with Algerian roots doing an interview in order to gain official French citizenship after having lived in France for most of his life.  However, the interview takes a bit of a turn at a certain point and suddenly becomes a lot more hostile than you expect it to.  The whole process does a pretty good job of illustrating how much immigrants are sort of at the mercy of bureaucracies that are not always working in their best interests.  Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri do a very good job of portraying the interviewee and interviewer respectively and the tension in the scenes between them is quite good.  The positioning of the film as a series of conversations does work well for the short film format and we do come to learn a lot about the guy over the course of the short.  Oddly, the film is actually set in the 90s, possibly to allow for the protagonist to have been born prior to the Algerian revolution, but it certainly looks and feels like a film that’s set today.  I think the movie sort of loses steam a bit as it goes and leads up to an ending that doesn’t have quite the impact it’s supposed to, but it does certainly have a lot going for it just the same.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one might be where the smart money is.  It’s got the best odds on Goldderby.com and people looking for weightier and more topical material would probably gravitate towards it, although it along with “Sing” probably have the least showy visual aesthetic and that could hurt it a little.

 

La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

First thing’s first: TGV stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse” which means “High Speed Train” and refers to the bullet trains which go between France and its border countries.  This Swiss short looks in on the life of an eccentric woman who owns a boutique bakery and whose main hobby seems to be timing her day to wave a Swiss flag at TGVs as they pass by her home and depicts what she goes through when she becomes pen pals with the engineer of one of the trains.  It’s apparently based on a real story and they show some documentary footage of the real lady at the end, but it certainly feels pretty fanciful during the film.  The film was directed by a guy named Timo von Gunten, who at twenty seven years old is (I think) the youngest of the directors here but has already been tapped to direct a feature film called “Eifel” about the life of a famous Czech conman named Victor Lustig.  The film also sports the one famous actor of the bunch in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays the titular woman and plays her pretty well.  All that having been said this feels like the lease distinguished of the five films here to me.  Gunten never quite humanizes his protagonist and late in the film where it’s suggested that this experience improves her life it doesn’t quite seem earned.  Beyond that the movie just kind of tries to coast on its own quirkiness but really just kind of collapses under it.

My Grade: C

Its Oscar Chances: This one seems like a bit of a longshot, but maybe that’s my own bias talking.  The presence of Jane Birkin could turn some eybrows and it may also appeal to some of the… young at heart… Academy members that tend to disproportionately vote in these specialty categories.  This isn’t the Documentary Short category and the movies that win are not necessarily the heaviest or the most artistic.  If this gives some voters “feels” that could propel it.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I found this roster of shorts to be solid but a little underwhelming.  The movies are all pretty solidly in the B- to B+ range and none of them every really jumped out at me as being particularly inspired.  I think my favorite out of the lot might actually be “Sing” simply because it seemed most able to get its story across within the time limitations and with the fewest missteps.  That said, if you’re not obsessing over the Oscars and aren’t that interested in winning an Oscar pool I don’t know that I’d recommend going out of your way to see these really.  Of course the irony to all this is that I’ve kind of come away from this with legitimate arguments for any one of the five winning this thing but as of now (and I reserve the right to change my mind before Oscar night) I’m predicting Silent Nights.

For the record, I’m probably not going to be doing the same for the Animated category.  I’ve already seen two of them and I don’t feel like paying to just see three others, especially given that two of them are only ten minutes each.  As for the documentary short category, if you know where to look four of the five are available for streaming.

20th Century Women(1/21/2017)

It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie.  For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more.  It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick.  When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain.  Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc.  That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.

The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son.  The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after.  She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way.  That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game.  In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways.  This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently.  Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.

20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners.  That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar.  Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up.  However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie.  Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times.  All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail.  The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen.  This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream.  What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.

The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another.  Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son.  Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens.  She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her.  There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act.  Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age.  Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins.  Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into.  Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.

At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself.  In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge.  It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice.  In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long.  The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.

Home Video Round-Up: 1/22/2017

Florence Foster Jenkins (1/12/2017)

The story of the real Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman from the early 20th century who achieved a certain infamy for her inept opera singing, is one of those true stories you pick up from sources like NPR or as the historical oddity anecdote that gets thrown at the end of a newscast as a sort of “news of the weird” kind of thing.  Every once in a while though someone tries to make a whole movie about this sort of thing and that’s what’s happened with Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins.  To the film’s credit, it mostly seems to realize that Jenkins’ story is the quirky curio that it is rather than some grand peek into the human condition and presents it accordingly.  Meryl Streep is up to her usual high standards in the title role and Hugh Grant is surprisingly effective as her husband as well.  The film is light, kind of frothy fun, not sure what else to say really.  Catch it on HBO or something on a night when you don’t have anything better to do or maybe watch it with a family member who is allergic to more challenging movies but also isn’t that into action movies or funnier comedies.

Gleason (1/13/2017)

Whoever works at the marketing department at Open Road should probably be fired because the trailer they cut for their documentary Gleason pretty actively made me not want to see their movie.  That trailer made their movie, a look at a former NFL player who was revealed to have ALS, look like this incredibly corny “triumph of the human spirit” and I had no time for that.  Fortunately the movie is a lot more dignified than the advertising would have you believe.  The film is actually a pretty intimate look at what Gleason and his wife are going through as this guy is slowly debilitated while the disease takes hold.  The film gives you a pretty good idea what the two of them are like and they are people you don’t mind being in the company of.  Occasionally we do get glimpses of his football fans rallying around him and that is a bit lame (I would have preferred a version of this about people who aren’t semi-famous) but the movie does a pretty good job of showing that while this support is meaningful it often doesn’t really change their lives and or lighten the load.

Anthropoid (1/14/2017)

The title “Anthropoid” refers to Operation Anthropoid, an occurrence in 1942 in which two Czech agents trained by the British SOE parachuted into Prague with orders to carry out the assassination of Nazi third in command Reinhard Heydrich.  Operation Anthropoid is something of a footnote in much of the world but in the country it happened in, the former Czechoslovakia, it’s an extremely important moment and the high point of their resistance movement.  It is then probably not a surprise that the new film about the operation was largely funded by Czech money out of a desire to spread word of this event outside the country’s borders via a Hollywood looking production.  To their credit this national pride has not led to this becoming a patriotic tract which ignores the difficult nuances of the situation and the film is very willing to weigh in on the moral gray area of carrying out an operation that will likely lead to the deaths of thousands of civilian through Nazi reprisals.  However, I’m not sure that the film’s British director Sean Ellis has quite the passion for this subject matter that the producers do and a lot of the lead-up to the assassination is kind of stiff and the characters never really jump off the screen as particularly interesting.  That said, once the assassination scene does arrive the film picks up a lot and leads up to a finale that’s very well done.  I wouldn’t necessarily call the movie a must-see, but there’s enough there to make it worth a rental.

Cameraperson (1/21/2017)

Cameraperson is a sort of video collage that documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson put together mainly using outtakes from documentaries she photographed for other filmmakers and some of her home movies all presented without voiceover and simple captions establishing the various sources.  The title card at the beginning explains that she believes this collage will serve as a sort of autobiography and I’m just not so sure that’s what I got out of it.  We certainly get a good idea of the various places that she’s been in her career and the breadth of her work as well as a vague sense that she has a family, but beyond that we are told very little about her personality and outlook.  Perhaps if she actually were the director on these movies I could see a pure career retrospective being a bit more impactful, but if all she’s doing is pointing the camera in the direction that the various directors told her to I don’t see how much that’s really going to reflect on her beyond the various kinds of jobs she took.  I suppose that could be the point; that it’s about a simple worker trying to do the most she can in her oft overlooked role, but is that really enough to make this a great piece of work?  I don’t know.  The movie is a bit more watchable than you’d maybe think given the description and there is something a bit hypnotic about it all for the first hour or so, but as we returned to various locations over and over again it all got a bit tedious.  The film has been getting some rave reviews from sources I respect, so maybe I’m just missing something, but as of now I can’t help but kind of shrug my shoulders at the whole thing.

Jason Bourne (1/22/2017)

I don’t know that I’d say the first three Bourne films form a perfect trilogy or anything, but they were certainly solid and by the time they got to The Bourne Ultimatum the style they’d come up with had been pretty much stewed to perfection.  With Greengrass and Damon leaving well enough alone Universal went ahead and made a Bourne film with neither of them and by all accounts it didn’t go well (wouldn’t know for sure, didn’t see it) but now a few years later Greengrass and Damon are back and… the results are kind of underwhelming.  Truth be told this fourth (or fifth depending on how you’re counting) Bourne film isn’t really bad so much as it’s unneeded.  The action scenes here are all alright I guess, but nothing comes close to scenes like the car chase from the first film or the fist fight from the third film and the story is basically a whole lot of “meh.”  We never really reconnect with our hero in any interesting way and the villains are largely retreads of villains from the previous films.  It’s like Greengrass made the whole film because he thought making one Edward Snowden reference in a major motion picture would automatically make this some kind of hyper relevant and necessary film, but it really isn’t, it mostly just feels like a standard case of Hollywood trying to milk a cash cow that’s run dry.

Lion(1/15/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Harvey Weinstein is a guy who’s ultimately probably done more good than bad for the film world, but man does he do some annoying things sometimes.  Of course Weinstein is instrumental in making independent film go mainstream back in the 90s and he’s also helped introduce a number of foreign films to the American market and he’s also helped Quentin Tarantino be the wonderful maverick that he is but there’s always been a dark side to his empire.  He used to be notorious for buying up foreign films, especially Asian genre films, and then sitting on them for years instead of actually releasing them.  He is also of course infamous for tampering with movies to make them palatable to less sophisticated audiences, a practice that earned him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands.”  But most of all when I think of Harvey Weinstein I think of all the lame mawkish movies that he’s tried to sell to the film-going public because he (often correctly) thinks they’ll be eaten up by the more basic members of the Academy and earn money off of Oscar buzz.   These are movies that serious cinephilles don’t really want anything to do with, but they end up having weigh in on them anyway because they get sold as “art films” when they are in fact anything but.  The new film Lion certainly had the look of everything that’s wrong with Weinstein’s brand, but I had heard some people defend it as something that’s better than it looks, so I was willing to give it a go.

The film follows the life of Saroo (Played by Sunny Pawar as a child and Dev Patel as an adult), a four or five year old boy living in a very impoverished Indian village.  One evening his slightly older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) reluctantly takes him along with him to his night job but decides to leave him to wait at the train station.  When Guddu takes a very long time to return Saroo boards a train thinking his brother is on it only to then be locked inside the train as it proceeds to travel a very long distance without routinely stopping.  By the time the young boy finally finds his way off the train it has gone as far as Calcutta.  Lost, the boy lives on the streets for a while and when he’s finally rescued by authorities he’s unable to locate his home on the map and because his family is in such a remote and impoverished area they have no way to find him either.  Finally the boys ends up in an orphanage and ends up being adopted by an Australian couple named Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who also adopt another boy from India named Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a child, Divian Ladwa in adulthood), but as Saroo gets older he begins to get more and more curious about where his parents are and how to find them.

The first third of Lion, which depicts Saroo being lost as a child, is almost certainly the strongest part of the film.  This section of the movie, which is entirely in Hindi and Bengali, functions as a strong little short film of sorts and tells this neat Dickensian story about a scrappy kid’s journey.  I think that the main problem with the film is that everyone involved in the making of it seems to find this true story to be a lot more “extraordinary” than I do.  When Saroo finally begins searching for his family he doesn’t do it through some sophisticated detective work or by tirelessly knocking on every door or by doing some grand publicity campaign.  No, he literally just does some google searching.  To say that this is a very un-cinematic means of going on a lifelong quest is quite the understatement.  To spice up the drama in this segment the film tries to focus in on Saroo’s existential guilt about his family not knowing where he is, but the way they externalize this guilt to the audience was rather tedious and at a certain point almost made me resent the character as he moped on the screen for something like forty minutes.  I don’t completely want to dismiss what the guy was going through but when you watch the film you can’t help but think: “dude, you have two seemingly saintly adoptive parents supporting you, you seem to be fairly wealthy, you look like Dev Patel, your girlfriend looks like Rooney Mara, and yet all you can do is whine about this one less than perfect thing in your life.  Get over it and move on.”  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the transition between “third world problems” to “first world problems” in the movie can be rather jarring.

There are other little things about this second half that annoy me.  The sub-plot about Saroo’s adopted brother, for example, ultimately goes nowhere and seems like this half-baked element that was thrown in both because they felt obligated to add an element from the true story and because they needed to pad the running time.  I also kind of hated the very end of the movie, by which I mean the title cards that summarize things at the end.  Specifically I kind of despise a card that flashes on the screen at the end which announces something along the lines of “there are [x number] of missing children in India, go to [x charity’s URL] to help the cause.”  This is ridiculous, firstly because no movie should end by encouraging people to go to a website, and secondly because it implies that this movie was in any way made to raise awareness of this or any other issue when it very clearly wasn’t.  Saroo Brierley is in no way a representative example of the kind of missing children this charity is fighting for and his predicament is not presented as any sort of indictment of any system or institution so much as an unfortunate accident possibly borne of the family’s poverty.  That title card exists solely to make the movie feel more important than it is and I’m almost positive it was added in by Harvey Weinstein as it reminded me a lot of his rather cynical attempt a couple years back to re-paint The Imitation Game as a statement about pardoning people convicted under England’s “indecency” laws.  I realize this seems like a goofy thing to nitpick about but I think it’s emblematic of this movie’s problem: it’s taking a moderately interesting human interest story and treating it like something it’s not: namely something they needed to make a feature length movie about.

Silence(1/7/2017)

On October 22nd 1988 a fundamentalist Catholic group linked with the far-right National Front firebombed the Saint Michel theater in Paris, a theater that was showing what had become a highly controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ.  The film had been condemned sight unseen by everyone from The Vatican to Jerry Falwell to Pat Boone.  People were picketing outside the home of the president of Universal Pictures, it was banned in numerous countries, and everyone involved received numerous death threats.  A film this controversial would be the most famous thing that most Hollywood directors would ever be involved with, but for Martin Scorsese it almost feels like a footnote in an extraordinary career.  That’s partly because, once the controversy died down, people were left with a rather complicated movie that isn’t easily digested.  It’s certainly isn’t my favorite Scorsese film but I do see it as a pretty important movie in understanding Scorsese’s career.  The weight of a traditional catholic upbringing has long been a central theme within his work and it’s something that he’s put a lot of thought into… so much thought that when he dives into it he often presents audiences with works that are a little over their heads.  That’s probably what happened with Last Temptation even among audiences who were open minded, and perhaps something similar befell his under-rated 1997 film Kundun.  Despite this, he has boldly dived back into those waters once again with another long awaited passion project: his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.

The film begins in Macau in 1639 where a pair of Jesuit friars named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have arrived from Portugal on a mission from the Vatican to assess the location of a priest named Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  Ferreira had been on a mission to Japan in order spread Christianity there when the local government decided to crack down on foreigners meddling in their country.  They banned Christianity within their borders and isolated the country from foreigners.  The last word that escaped from the country suggested that Ferreira had cracked under pressure from the inquisitor (Inoue Masashige) and renounced his faith, rumors that Rodrigues and Garupe find difficult to believe given Ferreira’s previous fervor.  The two insist on completing their mission despite the grave danger of sneaking into Japan and find a Japanese man living in China named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) who they opt to hire as a guide despite his clear alcoholism and questionable motives.  Seeing how determined the two monks are to complete this mission, the head of the local church (Ciarán Hinds) agrees to let them go but warns them that there will be no further missions into Japan and that they are on their own while there.

It would be an understatement to say that this movie is dealing with some pretty heavy themes.  The film’s Japanese setting will almost certainly draw comparisons to the works of Kurosawa, but its contemplative religious musings are in many ways closer in nature to the works of Carl Th. Dreyer and early Ingmar Bergman.  It’s a movie that is very interested in exploring the power of faith and the internal struggles of its main character as he sees people suffer and die for their faith and contemplate whether a god that seemingly does nothing to answer his prayers is really worth dying for.  Central to this struggle is the fact that this character is catholic rather than merely Christian and in a perhaps incidental fashion the movie makes a pretty good argument for the value of the protestant reformation.  It quickly becomes apparent exactly how problematic Catholicism is when it’s removed from the institutional infrastructure that provides priests to forgive sins and deliver biblical interpretations and whatnot, and the more you think about it the more it feels like these “requirements” are only in place to give power to the central authority.

Roger Ebert once related a story of Scorsese telling him during the 70s or 80s that he “thought he would go to hell for violating the church’s rules on marriage and divorce” before eventually rejecting the dogmas of the Catholic Church and becoming an agnostic.  Given that this is at its heart a movie about the Rodrigues character’s inner turmoil about his faith and his increasing skepticism about the rules that he’s been tying his faith to, I imagine that this is a story that is deeply personal to Scorsese.  It is not, however, a story that is deeply personal to me.  As someone who dismissed my catholic upbringing at age 12 with no real struggle it is really hard for me to connect with this kind of person as he writhes in agony over the fact that god isn’t saving his flock from their enemies and the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to make me empathize with him either.  That having been said I’m not sure how many practicing Christians are going to be able to connect with this either as, and I don’t want this to sound too condescending, but I feel like the people who are happily faithful tend not to think too deeply about the religions they practice and the finer points of faith.  In many ways this is a movie that will be too contemplative and questioning for religious audiences that lack theology degrees and yet too focused on matters of faith to really connect with people who just sleep in on Sundays.

In many ways I do kind of feel ill-equipped to fully grasp this movie, at least on a first viewing, and I kind of have a hunch that the same goes for a lot of the critical community circa 2016 given how the consensus surrounding the movie seems to be of the “respectful but now overly enthusiastic” variety.  I suspect that people would be a bit more eager to dive in had the movie spent more time discussing the political situation that led Japan to persecute its Christian population and gave a bit more time to the Japanese Inquisitor to explain his actions.  I was certainly waiting to hear him at least lay out the argument that these missionaries very well could be used for the purposes of setting up the nation for colonization in much the way they were used against the indigenous people in the Americas and perhaps point out that this behavior is hardly unique to Japan (there’s a reason that the word “inquisition” is more closely associated with Catholic Spain than Buddhist Japan).  That’s not to say I would have necessarily agreed with that line of reasoning given that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are core tenants of liberty, but the debate would have certainly interested me.  However, I don’t think that debate is what interests Scorsese about this story and that’s certainly his prerogative.

At the end of the day you have to analyze the movie you’re given and not the movie you maybe wish you were given.  The movie I was given is one that I desperately wanted to like more than I actually did.  I really want there to be a place for serious weighty movies like this to thrive, especially in this larger budget level, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to find much of an audience, at least not during its initial run.  You’ve got to feel sorry for Scorsese, he made the mistake of releasing a very adult movie during very childish times.  And yet, I have to admit the movie didn’t really sing for me either despite the fact that it’s clearly very smart and quite well made.  It’s definitely a movie that I plan to see again, repeatedly, and I also want to look up a lot of what’s been written about it by people who know more about its historical and religious context of what’s going on here.  For not though all I can say is that it’s a quality movie that did not quite deliver that excited feeling I normally get from new Scorsese.