Silence(1/7/2017)

1-7-2017Silence

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.

4

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Home Video Round-Up: 1/10/2017

Warcraft (12/7/2016)

12-7-2016Warcraft

It’s weird, It’s been something like seven years since Avatar came out and became the worldwide highest grossing movie of all time and yet almost nothing seems to have come along that really picks up on that movie’s technical innovations, at least nothing until Duncan Jones tried to make a big budget adaptation of the computer game series “Warcraft.”  Warcraft is certainly a movie with a vision and it is definitely interesting to watch how it tries to bring the game’s visual aesthetic to the screen.  There are a couple of effects that fall a bit short but for the most part they’re quite good and the movie’s art direction and costume design is really going all out.  However, there’s a reason that this movie was not embraced by audiences (outside of China, where it was a surprise hit): this thing is really, really, really, really, really nerdy.  Believe me, I like me some super nerdy stuff (I own all five seasons of Babylon 5 on DVD), but even I found myself rolling my eyes and wanting to give a wedgie to whoever was writing this nonsense about orcs and their magic pacts or whatever.  It’s not even so much that it’s nerdy so much as it does nothing to adapt the material for a wide audience or even ease them into it.  It’s like if when they made the very first X-Men movie in 2000 they had just come right out with the yellow spandex and had the characters and they were going through some crazy storyline like “House of M” or “Age of Apocalypse” right off the bat.  The characters are unengaging, the plot is uninteresting, the action scenes are competent but don’t really stand out.  The whole thing is just this big messy thing with clear potential buried somewhere but ultimately just a clear failure.

** out of Five

The Seventh Fire (12/16/2016)

It’s been said that there are a dearth of stories about African Americans, and that’s true, but there are other groups in this country that are also under-represented and that’s probably the truest of Native Americans who are pretty much non-existent on the screen outside of period pieces.  Truth be told though, this is hardly just a Hollywood problem, the media in general doesn’t seem terribly interested in Native American tribes, and in part that might be because much of their population is concentrated in reservations that are far from the major population centers and they just aren’t integrated into most peoples’ day to day lives the way that African Americans and Latinos are.  All this is to say, I think there’s a very big opening for documentaries like The Seventh Fire, which takes a look at life on the White Earth Indian Reservation and specifically looks at a man named Rob Brown who was involved in drug running and a restless 17 year old named Kevin Fineday who may soon be going down the same path.  In many ways the film seems to suggest that American Indians are suffering a lot of the same problems that the rural people on Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and less fictional shows are also suffering.  From a filmmaking perspective there’s not a lot to report on here, the movie kind of feels like it was destined to be broadcast on PBS’s Frontline or Independent Lens… in fact I’d be shocked if that didn’t already happen.

*** out of Five

12-16-2016TheSeventhFire

Morris From America (12/17/2016)

12-17-2016MorrisFromAmerica Morris From America is one of those movies that doesn’t have much of anything wrong with it at all but whose ambitions are so modest that you can’t really help but to not give much of a shit.  Well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  The movie has something of a unique premise for a coming of age movie in that it’s about a 14 year old African American kid who’s living with his single father, who is an ex-pat living in Germany.  Not really a set up you see every day and Craig Robinson is pretty charming as the father.  There are some funny moments along the way and a couple of interesting interactions, but it’s shot without a even the slightest bit of visual flair and the arc the main character experiences is ultimately pretty standard for this kind of movie.  The whole thing feels less like a movie and more like a pilot for a sitcom, a sitcom I wouldn’t mind watching for what it’s worth, but it’s certainly not great cinema.

*** out of Five

Holy Hell (12/18/2016)

I’ve never really understood the mentality that would lead someone to join a cult, and perhaps because of this I’ve always been interested in stories about them to a certain extent.  This documentary was made by a guy named Will Allen, who was a former member of the Buddhafield cult.  While in that cult Allen worked as their official videographer and when he left them he managed to take a bunch of footage with him which he eventually used to make this documentary about the cult’s rise and fall.  Buddhafield was a weird little movement that appeared to have only about a hundred members at its peak.  It didn’t end in a mass suicide or anything but it certainly showed all the usual tendencies of a cult with an abusive leader and it’s not often that we’re given this level of access to one of these organizations.  Their beliefs and philosophies make almost no sense and I am once again left kind of baffled that people would go in on something like this.  Allen is ultimately not the world’s greatest documentarian but he does give the film something of a personal touch that it wouldn’t have had if he’d simply handed the footage over to an objective third party.

***1/2 out of Five

12-18-2016HolyHell

Krisha (1/10/2017)

1-10-2017Krisha Do you have that one family member who seems to never be able to get their act together and no matter how many times you try to give them a chance they always find a way to ruin every family gathering?  Well I don’t.  In fact I don’t have a whole lot of experience with large multi-generational gatherings in general (my Thanksgivings in general have rarely involved more than six or seven total guests) and as such I’m not necessarily in the best position to relate to the super-low-budget indie Krisha even if I can see that it’s a pretty well put together little movie made in the family home of 26 year old debut filmmaker Trey Edward Shults.   The film actually stars Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild in the title role of a 60 something year old woman with mental problems attending her family’s Thanksgiving gathering.  Shults films the whole encounter in a fairly intimate manner but you can tell he’s not just randomly pointing a DV camera at his subjects and does have some legit filmmaking skill.  The film is effective at showing this woman’s breakdown and her family’s discomfort, but to what end?  At the end of the day this feels more like a movie at the stronger end of the “festival only” league of filmmaking than like something that should really be competing with general release films to me, but maybe people who can relate to it more closely will feel differently.

**1/2 out of Five

Fences(12/26/2016)

12-26-2016Fences

August Wilson was likely one of the most unanimously revered playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century and he also lived in my home state for about ten years, a fact that was more than enough for the local English teachers to adopt him as a hometown hero despite the fact that every one of his plays was set elsewhere.  As such I’m somewhat familiar with his work, but for whatever reason I was never assigned to read his most famous work “Fences,” perhaps because those English teachers all wanted to explore the deep cuts rather than the play that everyone would theoretically find without their help.  “Fences” was often viewed as being sort of a black response to “Death of a Salesman” which makes some sense structurally and thematically even if it is a little reductive.  It was something of a sensation when premiered on Broadway in the late eighties it won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and also won a Tony for its original star James Earl Jones.  Needless to say this is material that has largely been canonized and is not to be adapted lightly.  The play was however successfully revived in 2010 with a cast which included Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and now that revival has been adapted into a feature film with Washington himself directing.

The film is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and focuses on an average working class African American family called the Maxsons.  The patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has been working as a garbage man for decades and has raised a teenage son named Cory (Jovan Adepo) along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis).  As the film begins things are looking fairly decent for the family; Troy is lobbying to get a promotion that has historically not been available to African Americans, Cory is proving to be a talented football player, and the family is soon going to have a nice picket fence to spruce up their home.  However there are cracks in this nice veneer that will soon threaten to implode this tight family dynamic and they first show themselves when it’s revealed that Cory has put his job at a corner store on hold so that he can attend football practice, a move that would seem irresponsible until you realize that his skill is such that he’s already attracted the attention of a college scout and could get a scholarship from this skill.  Troy, played Negro League baseball in his youth and experienced the frustration of having never advanced beyond that because of his race and as such doesn’t see that as any kind of a valid hope for his son’s future and stubbornly refuses to allow the son to continue this pursuit.

Given that this play has basically entered the cannon of American literature at this point it almost feels presumptuous to weigh in on any of this material in and of itself, but I do have a few reservations.  The biggest is that I feel like the conflict that the play builds between the father and the son all through the first act sort of seems to be sort of pushed to the wayside in the second half in place of a different conflict with his wife which I will not reveal.  That second conflict is of course interesting as well but I would have liked to have seen how that tension over the son’s potential football career would have played out if the focus had stayed there.  I also maybe could have lived without a sub-plot involving Troy’s brain damaged brother and I’ve also never been particularly fond of August Wilson’s occasional dabbling in magical realism as he does in the epilog here.  Those quibbles having been aired, it is clear from this movie that this play does live up to its reputation and is clearly a very poignant character study about a flawed man trying to live up to the pressures and expectations of being a patriarch.

Of course with a film like this the question is really less a matter of how good the material is so much as how good the adaptation was, and the answer to that almost entirely depends on how you feel about stage plays being turned into films with minimal attempt to conceal the theatrical origins of the text.  The movie is certainly doing nothing to hide the fact that it’s based on a play.  A few scenes certainly appear to have been relocated to other locations but most of the action takes place in the back yard of the family’s house and the dialogue certainly leans more towards long speeches than any movie written directly for the screen is likely to indulge in.  Of course the film has the benefit of something that the stagings of the play at your local repertory theater company don’t have: it has a world class cast anchored by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are both operating at the height of their abilities.  Washing ton in particular is impressive here, albeit in a very certain kind of theatrical way.  My one real reference point for this character is a Youtube video I found with a three-some minute clip of James Earl Jones doing the play’s signature “why don’t you like me” scene.  Judging a Tony winning performance by a short clip like that is pretty stupid but what I noticed was that Jones’ take on the character seemed a lot more stern and withdrawn into himself.  Washington by contrast seems to be playing the character a bit looser and lets you see a bit more of the character’s roguish past.

If there’s any reservations I have about Washington’s performance it’s that it doesn’t have a ton of internal range.  Washington starts at about a 9 on the intensity range, moves to a 10 frequently, and occasionally pushes into an 11, but never goes much below a 9.  Of course the material invites this and he probably shouldn’t have played it any other way, but it is not the kind of actively naturalistic acting that most modern filmmaking trades in.  That can kind of be said about most of the movie as it is unapologetic in the fact that it’s speaking the language of theater rather than the language of cinema and one’s enjoyment of the movie is going to mostly be rooted in how one feels about that.  Personally I think that does kind of diminish the movie, at least when you’re directly comparing it within the larger world of cinematic accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a lot of value for what it’s trying to be.  I’m not someone who gets out to the theater very often for a variety of reasons and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there like me in this regard.  I’m also not inclined to read plays like books and don’t have much of an interest in seeing filmed plays through Fathom events and the like.  As such these stage-to-screen adaptations are often my only real way to experience great works of theater like this.  So, for a play like “Fences” to be brought to the screen competently like this and with a cast like this is a pretty good thing any way you cut it.

4

Elle(12/25/2016)

12-25-2016Elle

During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day.  Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare.  Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit.  This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.

The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris.  In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day.  That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it.  She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.”  This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge.  Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.

The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either.  The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study.  Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film.  She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences.  She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé.  She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards.  One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.

This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems.  There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been.  It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange.  It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior.  Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.

Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.  He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood.  Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills.  Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face.  I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe.  I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around.  I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.

Jackie(12/23/2016)

12-23-2016Jackie

A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

4.5

Hacksaw Ridge(12/19/2016)

12-19-2016HacksawRidge

It must take a special kind of insanity to willingly go to a theater to see a movie you’re 90% sure you won’t like out of some strange belief that you need to be involved in “the conversation.”  That’s especially true when you’re under no professional obligation to see anything and the range of people who care about your opinions is… limited.  Still, for whatever reason I do feel a certain pressure to go see certain movies that have a degree of relevance critically or commercially or in awards season.  In the case of Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge I was desperately afraid that would end up happening.  The film’s trailer makes it look awful; like the worst kind of pandering mess made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I was desperately afraid that it would become a big red state hit along the lines of an American Sniper or Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ, but that never really ended up happening.  The movie actually did end up earning a good sixty million dollars at the box office, but it certainly wasn’t an unavoidable sensation.  Oddly enough, the critics were actually more enthusiastic or at least they were a lot less harsh on it than I expected, but they weren’t swaying me either.  What did finally force me to break down and see the damn thing were the award bodies.  Somehow the movie managed to make it to the National Board of Review’s top ten, and then it was nominated for a BFCA award, and then it somehow even managed to get a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes.  What the hell?  I’m now pretty worried the thing could somehow get an Oscar nomination (if The Blind Side could do it…), and given that I felt I had to see the movie so that I could complain about its success with credibility.

The film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who grew up in rural Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church and believed in a strict form of pacifism because of this and because his father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) had awful experiences during the First World War.  However, once World War II began, Doss felt much the same obligation to fight as his peers did and as such he enlisted but only under the provision that he be trained to be a medic and not be forced to personally fight or even carry a weapon into battle.  This is met with skepticism by his fellow cadets as well as his drill instructor Sargent Howell (Vince Vaughn), and he’s even sent to face a court martial for his unorthodox demands, but eventually he gets his way and he’s deployed with the rest of his unit to Okinawa where they’re all asked to take over a heavily fortified position at the top of a steep ridge… the Hacksaw Ridge.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has to have been one of the most influential movies released in my lifetime.  Before that movie there really weren’t that many World War II combat movies being made at all and the ones that were getting made didn’t look anything like the ones that have been made since.  Today it’s pretty much impossible to depict that war without muted colors, graphic violence, and soldiers who don’t look like action heroes.  However, time has dulled the effect of this style and what was once exhilaratingly original is now kind of a cliché.  Between Flags For Our Fathers, Fury, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Defiance, Windtalkers, Miracle at Saint Anna, two separate “Band of Brothers” series, and various video games I kind of feel like this style has been run into the ground.  That’s not to say that filmmakers absolutely need to stop making their World War II battles like this, just that this kind of spectacle alone does not really impress me anymore and I need the film itself to be doing more.  That is a problem for Hacksaw Ridge given that it’s one and only really redeeming feature is that much of its second half consists of an elaborate re-enactment of the battle atop Hacksaw Ridge, which is admittedly pretty well staged but adds almost nothing to the usual WW2 battle formula outside of its general size and the amount of screen time it takes up.  This sequence is notably gory even by modern war film standards, which isn’t an inherently incorrect decision given that the film wants to juxtapose the main character’s pacifism with the horrors of war, but Mel Gibson has long had something of a sadistic streak in his directorial efforts and it’s not hard to question his motives here.

It’s a good thing that the film eventually does at least become a serviceable battle movie because pretty much everything else about the movie absolutely sucks.  Andrew Garfield, an actor whose talents are increasingly appearing to be rather suspect plays Desmond T. Doss as the most punchably earnest sap that you could ever imagine.  His accent seems notably phony (a problem the movie has in general given that almost all the actors except Garfield and Vince Vaughn are from Australia) and Garfield never really makes this character seem believable or grounded.  Granted this is partly the fault of the material he has to work with, which can charitably be described as hagiographic.  If there’s any moral gray area in Doss’ decision to conduct himself in the way he did, the movie completely dismisses it in its pursuit of canonizing this guy.  Also, make no mistake, the fact that this guy was a pacifist is not really what the movie finds so admirable about him.  The movie does not give a damn about universally ending warfare and is very much of the belief that Japanese violence needed to be met with violence.  What the movie really likes about Doss is that he was unapologetically religious and that he “stuck to his guns” on the topic.  The film was clearly designed to do well with the “faith-based” audience and I’m thinking that the goal was for evangelical audiences to view the film as a sort of allegory for their own struggles in the face of public ridicule as they protest the teaching of evolution or picket abortion clinics or whatever the fuck those people are doing now.

Really there’s no limit to how corny this movie’s first half is with its goofy flashbacks, half-assed romance sub-plot, and silly court room theatrics.  It’s perhaps a testament to Gibson’s skills as a filmmaker that the movie ends up feeling bad rather than howlingly terrible by the time it ends, which is the result of a combination of that battle scene being pretty decent and just a sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes you inured to some of its dumber elements by the time you get to that second half, but make no mistake this is not a good movie.  It’s easily Mel Gibson’s worst directorial effort and I’m genuinely baffled that so many critics have completely given this thing a pass and that these awards bodies are giving it the time of day at all.  I for one would genuinely rather re-watch Pearl Harbor than sit through this thing again.

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