Movie Review: Silence

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a movie that I admire for the tough questions about faith and spirituality that it raises but I am ultimately unsatisfied by it for the breadth it limits itself to.  There is also much to appreciate in terms of the filmmaking qualities as we would expect from a director like Scorsese.  Given that this is a personal passion project by Scorsese to deal with issues of Christian faith and spirituality, I find it appropriate to bring my own personal and spiritual response to the film as a churchgoing Protestant Christian (and it should stir a response for others in their own spiritual background).

The movie is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1971 novel, Silence, a piece of historical fiction that Scorsese had reportedly labored for over 20 years to bring to the big screen.  For all of the novel’s exquisite, literate prose, much of the issues that I have with the novel carry over into the film.  Both the book and the movie portray a complex portrait of different levels and strengths of religious faith and the story made me think deeply about what it means to follow the Christian God under extreme persecution and agony.  However, the kind of faith that the story embraces is not a clear, steadfast kind of faith but a kind that yields to a confusion of one’s own identity.

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The story begins in the 17th Century with two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) in the Portugese Catholic Church.  They receive word that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who journeyed to Japan to do missionary work, has apostatized and renounced the Christian faith in public.  The young priests can hardly fathom that their mentor has done such an act and they decide to travel to Japan to find out.

With the help of a slovenly and sycophantic beggar, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they find a village of lay Christian people.  Among them are Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oda).  Always vigilant of the officials that are sent to scout the villages under the orders of the Lord of Chikugo, Inoue (Issei Ogata), the villagers protect the priests and hold their masses in the evening as secretively as possible.

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What the movie portrays extremely well is the widespread persecution of Christianity in Japan, though by some, it could also be read as a vicious war between two opposing world views of Japanese and Western cultures.  The 16th Century period in Japan there was historically one of the strongest and most successful suppressions of Christianity and the film conveys that punishingly in numerous scenes.  One of the most powerful and disturbing scenes shows a few Christians being hung on a cross against raging tides on the seas, dying a slow, exhausting death for their beliefs while singing hymns.  Also, despite the raw brutality interspersed throughout (including one unsettling decapitation scene), Scorsese, in stark contrast to his usual style of dynamic camera movement, keeps his compositions here mostly static in the tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Robert Bresson.

Moreover, the movie poses a tougher question than self-martyrdom.  It is bad and painful enough to die for your own beliefs but what if a priest is forced to watch one of the Christians they have converted suffer?  That is the strategy that Inoue and his officials employ to suppress the Christian faith.  Amidst this, what if God seems to remain silent through this immeasurable, unendurable suffering?

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Ultimately, however, Scorsese, who at one point had studied to become a Catholic priest but now professes himself as a “lapsed Catholic”, is aiming to make a profound spiritual film.  This is where I think the film falls rather short, especially compared to the works of Dreyer or Bresson.  Scorsese focuses narrowly on the agony of the suffering throughout without contrasting it with even a minute sense of spiritual elation or joy.  It does not have to be some big epiphany but it would have been insightful to actually explore what made the Japanese Christians convert to the faith they are so willing to die for.  The best spiritual films have done this in small gestures.  Even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was criticized for being relentlessly focused on the gory suffering of Jesus Christ, interspersed moments of His teachings to balance the mood and provide context for the suffering.

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One other problem that diminishes the impact of the overall film is that, while most of the actors are very convincing in their roles (especially Issei Ogata as the frightening persecutor), Andrew Garfield is miscast in the central role.  While he has been effective in emotional roles in movies such as Boy A, Hacksaw Ridge, and the Spider-Man movies, he is too much to an open-faced actor to play a priest in spiritual crisis.   Even though the suffering around him would brew turmoil inside anyone, he does not really convey the supposed inner confusion.  If Garfield did not come off as more of an easily wavering priest rather than a truly conflicted one, I would have been able to accept some ambivalence I have towards the film’s ideas (and I think Adam Driver, who plays the more stalwart priest would probably have fit better in the role).

Then there are my objections that I believe troublingly limits the scope of Christianity that the movie presents.  To express them, I will try to be vague to avoid potential spoilers, but if you would like to go into this movie cold, please skip the next two paragraphs.

After all the turmoil that surrounds the priest, one of the concluding points the movie posits is that love for Christians must prevail even at the cost of apostatizing and blaspheming Christ (represented in the movie by stepping on a crude drawing statue of Christ’s face).  However, this is only true if one ignores crucial verses from the Bible that state in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  The verse is indeed a troubling one, even for the most faithful of Christians, although it does not misleadingly mean that one should willingly abandon their family for God.  What it does mean, however, is that when one is left with a difficult choice between betraying God and the sacrificing of others close to us, a Christian must choose not to betray God.  Not only does this verse never seem to cross the mind of a Catholic priest, but in the most perturbing moment, one character even says, “Christ would have apostatized for His followers,” which simply flies in the face of all Biblical teachings.

In addition, both the book and the movie propose that betraying Christ over and over again is acceptable in the eyes of God (a point more heavily emphasized in the lesser read Gospel of Judas than the Bible, the former of which Scorsese seems to embrace more).  It is true that the Bible says that no sin is unforgiven, but there is also a crucial verse in Hebrews 6:6 citing that “[Those who have been saved] and fallen away – to be restored again to repentance, because they themselves are crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.”  The fact that the story portrays that repeated betrayal is okay is meant to express that God is all-loving and all-forgiving.  While the Bible does express those two qualities in abundance, it is also said that He expects true faith, which is far from what the movie presents in the form of someone who lives an outward life of betraying other Christians while supposedly holding a certain faith inside (the dichotomy between inner and outer selves is a common theme of Scorsese films).  However, to be fair, the movie (not the book) does counter this view a little by showing a character who seems to break away from his pattern of betrayal.

So is the movie worth seeing?  For the reason that there are few movies that ponder the questions and situations that the movie raises, I cannot dismiss it.  Certainly, it works as a discussion starter and it will leave many people to start their own conversations.  However, for me personally, on balance, I think it is far from the rich spiritual experience the movie aspires to be.

Rating: 62/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2016.  Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese.  Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese.  Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo.  Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Yosuke Kubozuka.  Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

My Favorite Movies

Perhaps one of the hardest questions to be asked as a movie buff is “What are your favorite movies?”  There are so many great movies out there that I admire and adore, and would re-watch in a heartbeat.  However, it is always hard to boil down the ones that speak to me most personally.  The movies that strike a chord may even change over time depending on the stage of life one is at.  However, as I said in my introduction, if movies are where we can test our own emotions, values, and virtues, it is useful to actually keep a record of the ones that tested me the most.  So here is a list of my 10 favorite movies in alphabetical order:

 

12 Angry Men (1957) – dir. Sidney Lumet

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This movie directed by Sidney Lumet is a paragon among cinematic adaptations of theatrical plays, closing in on its characters to enhance the chamber drama.  Its story of 12 jurors who, in one small room, debate on whether to sentence a young criminal to death has timeless lessons on the legal concept of reasonable doubt and always being on guard against the fallacies of logic including extreme emotion and prejudice.  The lessons are enhanced by the cinematography that is a textbook example of how to employ high and low camera angles and capture when we tower over the characters and when the characters tower over us.

 

Alien (1979) – dir. Ridley Scott

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I will always remember when I watched this horror movie as a teenager in a library viewing room by myself with headphones on.  The way I watched this intense, claustrophobic movie directed by Ridley Scott certainly left with me the most visceral impact but this is not the only reason I admire it so much.  At the film’s core is a story about how humans encounter an alien that turns procreation into agonizing death and destruction.  This brings about a subtle commentary against misogyny by tapping into the male fear of pregnancy.  The portrayal may not be pleasant, but its symbolic theme makes me appreciate women who go through the arduous experience to bring about life.  It is unsurprising that this movie headlined a female hero, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  It would never have worked with a male one.

 

Aliens (1986) – dir. James Cameron

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I tried to see if I could include the first Alien movie without the second and I cannot.  If Alien introduced its concept in a horrific, visceral way, James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens confidently expanded its story.  Not only did it present a whole race of terrifying aliens, it fully developed its hero, Ripley to represent the human species to go up against them.  The near dialogue-free action climax where Ripley goes back into the aliens’ lair to rescue her surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn) is not only exciting every time I see it, but is also a powerful illustration of a woman taking on the qualities often associated with masculinity (heavy military weaponry) for feminine, maternal reasons.  I enjoy many 80s and 90s action movies with Schwarzenegger, Chow Yun-Fat, and the like, but no other movie that I can think of portrays a more potent reason to cheer on the action hero who embodies the strengths of both genders.

 

Army of Shadows (1969) – dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

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There are many movies that try to evoke a psychological state of mind and the most potent evocation was the pure sense of fatalism that this movie portrays.  Telling a story of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, the movie is as hushed and introspective as the characters must be to to fulfill their missions.  Most of the resistance fighters are determined in their missions but the primary state the movie conjures is the sense of oppressive determinism in wartime.  If movies are about showing, not telling, showing interior emotions is perhaps one of the hardest things to do on screen.  The director, Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of such moody introspection from movies like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai and, among his movies that I have seen, this movie stirred in me the most.

 

A Brighter Summer Day (1991) – dir. Edward Yang

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Edward Yang’s sprawling 4-hour film, based on the first real-life juvenile murder case in Taiwan, is the best crime film that I have ever seen.  There are many other great crime films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or City of God but none of them match the devastating effect of this one that combines such a rich and complex rumination of political and cultural confusion with familial strife, adolescent romance, and a coming-of-age story.  The movie is set in Taiwan in the late 1950s to early 1960s, just over a decade after the Chinese Nationalists escaped to the island, and it carefully examines how the lack of a firm identity indirectly breeds gangland strife and crime among aimless teenagers.  The film’s storytelling is subdued and restrained (with no musical score and only diegetic music) and settles you into a feeling of reading a great novel until its bleak impact hits you like a ton of bricks.  Most American audiences know Edward Yang for another terrific and more optimistic film, Yi Yi from 2000 but this film is widely regarded as his masterpiece and would be a great discovery for anyone who appreciates fine storytelling.

 

City Lights (1931) – dir. Charlie Chaplin

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If someone asks me about a comedy that can leave you in tears in both laughter and emotions, I would point to this movie by Charlie Chaplin.  The fact that this is all done in silent form makes the laughs and the tears universal.  Its story about the lonely Tramp (Chaplin) who romances a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) is the kind that the cynics inside us would scoff but the brilliant slapstick comedy gets past whatever defenses we may have up.  The genius of this movie is that all the slapstick comedy is setup for one of the most moving endings ever put on film.  There may be other silent comedies from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or even Chaplin that gave me a few bigger laughs, but this one encapsulates all of what silent comedy is really about, with the funny jokes aligned to bring the strongest sense of pathos.

 

A Man for All Seasons (1966) – dir. Fred Zinnemann

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One of the strongest depictions of faith, identity, and tenacity ever put on screen, this movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted by Robert Bolt from his famous play, is another brilliant achievement of theatrical to cinematic adaptation.  If 12 Angry Men closed in to perfect the chamber drama, this movie opens up color and vistas to recreate 16th Century England.  At the center is Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, who maintained silence to adhere to his beliefs (against the creation of a new religion to allow the King’s divorce) while remaining loyal to King Henry VIII.  His silence is so unbending that his opponents have to scheme to find fault in him and the movie distills the essence of More who knew exactly who he was.

 

Schindler’s List (1993) – dir. Steven Spielberg

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There was a point in my movie watching when I realized that what moves me most is not necessarily tragedy or sadness, but a triumph of goodness over adversity.  Steven Spielberg’s film is one of the best portraits of this in how one man found a way to snatch 1,100 lives out of the maws of the Holocaust.  In some respect, I understand that many would not consider this the most honest depiction of the tragedy of the Holocaust (that title would probably go to Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, which is a 9 ½ hour documentary of interviews with past Holocaust survivors).  However, in its devotion of filmmaking artistry from the haunting score to the cinematography and parallel editing, it is the most ambitious dramatization of the Holocaust put on film.  That it finds a small sense of goodness does not undermine the tragedy but reminds us that it can exist in spite of it.

 

Shadowlands (1993) – dir. Richard Attenborough

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The number of movies that I have actually cried watching are so few that I can only count them in one hand.  But this movie directed by Richard Attenborough is the one that leaves me in tears every time I see it.  It is the story of C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), who finds love in his 60s with Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), and it is about the awakening of his soul in realizing the concept of love that he has only mused about in books and scholarly teachings.  The love comes with suffering when he finds that she has a terminal illness.  I cannot think of another movie that better embraces how true love and suffering are inseparable and cannot exist without the other in this world.  I may enjoy some movies that portray the sunny side of love but this is the movie that I will see to be reminded of its true meaning.

 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont

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This movie may seem like an obvious choice (it is #1 on the IMDb top 250 films list).  However, this movie made in the classical tradition of fine craftsmanship simply tells one of the best stories ever put on film.  It is about finding hope when you least expect to find it and purpose when there seems to be no direction.  As a churchgoer, this movie also gave me the strongest and most well-rounded symbolism of Christian salvation I have ever seen in a mainstream film.  I know that the writer/director Frank Darabont did not intend to make a Christian-themed film, though the spiritual themes are not entirely surprising considering the original source author is horror writer, Stephen King.  The movie, however, has a strong moral and spiritual compass from the development of the friendship in prison between the Christ-symbolic Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) to the strong critique of Christian hypocrisy in the warden, Norton (Bob Gunton).  That it provides this kind of hope in a harsh and grounded environment is probably why people keep coming back to this.

 

Please feel free to share in the comments what your favorite movies are.

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

We first meet the three African-American ladies at the center of Hidden Figures as their car has broken down on their way to work.  A Caucasian policeman stops by asking what the problem is.  Because the time is 1961, we think the policeman will display the then common racist attitudes and not treat them kindly.  However, once they show proof of their identification as employees at NASA, the policeman decides to escort them to work after one of the ladies gets the car fixed.

The scene provides the key to the film’s underlying theme, which is about how racial and gender equality simply makes things uniformly efficient.  Many others working at NASA throughout the film are slower to pick up on that message even when they all share the common national goal to get a man into space orbit.  However, once the ladies and the policeman know they share the common goal, they do the most logical step which is to get to the destination.

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The movie is based on the true story of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).  Vaughan leads the team (in duties, if not in title) and the three work as part of a team of black female mathematicians performing computations by hand in the West Area Computers division (where their department sign reads “Colored Computers”).  When their overseeing supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs that the Space Task Group need a new computer, Johnson gets scouted in the group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  Russia has already launched its artificial satellite, spiking worries that they will have the ability to spy on the US in the space race.

Johnson, whom we see has a naturally gifted mathematical mind from childhood, is the first black person to join the group and is not treated respectfully at first.  One of the engineers assumes she is a custodian and piles a trash can on her work items on her first day.  When she tries to drink coffee from a common coffee pot, the others place a separate smaller coffee pot labeled for “Coloreds” with no coffee in it.  However, as the team will soon realize, such racist attitudes, especially embodied by the head engineer, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), impede on her work and thus everyone else’s.  When Harrison, who pushes everyone to get the first astronaut into orbit, sees the impediment after an impassioned breakdown from Johnson, the film gets one of its more satisfying moments smashing down the racist attitudes.

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The story finds time for all three women in their personal and professional lives.  Each of them faces uphill battles against the segregation attitudes in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement.  Vaughan is not officially given the title of supervisor by Mitchell despite all the responsibilities she performs in such a role.  She is also not given access to the resources in the library that she needs to learn programming in FORTRAN.  Jackson strives to be a female engineer at NASA but must attend classes at a school that has never accepted black people.

In all three characters’ stories, Henson and Spencer portray their characters strongly as usual and singer Monáe, along with the recent Moonlight, shows herself as a solid actress playing spunky characters.  Costner is a good choice for Harrison, giving echoes of a similar role from Thirteen Days as an adviser to John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The reliable Mahershala Ali provides nice support as a military colonel who romances Henson’s Johnson, who has been widowed with three children.

The director, Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, knows the moments of change that he must hit and is able to do so with some humor.  Some of it is a bit too on-the-nose as when Johnson looks at Stafford’s calculations scratched with permanent markings (refusing to have them checked) under the light, encouraging others to also “see the light.”  However, it is mostly effective, as in one of the best scenes that I will avoid describing too much about.  The scene is set up with shots framed to show Spencer’s Vaughan and Dunst’s Mitchell looking at the same mirror as if each is finally looking at the other as her own reflection.  The way it pays off plays to Spencer’s unique specialization in characters who can size other people up.

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Of course, the movie, as all those “based on a true story” are, plays fast and loose with some facts.  Most of the Caucasian characters are composites and the discriminatory attitudes Johnson faced in her working team were not as strong as the movie delineates.  However, many of the facts in the movie did happen, as when the astronaut, John Glenn (portrayed positively by Glen Powell), called on Johnson to verify the trajectory calculations before the launch.  As a general rule, I see good movies “based on a true story” as the emotional key for me to do the research on the facts (for a helpful analysis comparing the facts and the movie, look at this link).

Emotions are what allow for the larger theme to be conveyed more effectively.  In its broad strokes, the movie gives a solid dimension as to why equality is considered progress.  Just as the computing machines we use depend on various moving parts working together, it is progress in us doing our jobs better.

Rating: 76/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2016.  Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Theodore Melfi.  Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi.  Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Biscoe, and Donna Biscoe.  Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.

Film Genres in a Nutshell

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In a rather silly vein, I decided to come up with one-line blurbs to define the essence of each genre in film.  So here goes:

Action: They kill people, I kill time.

Romance: They kiss, I blush.

Horror: They jump out, I get my safety blanket.

Drama: They emote, I try not to.

Sci-Fi: They fly, I can’t.

Fantasy: They believe in fairies, I don’t.

Animation: They stretch reality, I’m stuck in mine.

Mystery: They knot, I untangle.

Crime: They did it, I know it wasn’t me.

Comedy: They goof up, I laugh.

Documentary: They inform, I am appalled.

History: They portray, I skip a class (because I saw the movie).

Thriller: They pursue, I leave fingernail marks on my dashboard.

Musical: They sing, I crack my voice.

Film-Noir: They have a femme fatale, I see that she is muy mal.

Special mention goes to my friend, Sonia Schnee for being a bouncing board to think these up.

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

The emotion can manifest itself at the most unexpected time.  When you forget where you parked your car.  Or when the food falls out of the freezer.  Or when you are shoveling the snow in your driveway.  Or when a random passerby gets in your face about how you are talking to your nephew.  Or when you are just having casual conversation with a person.

Grief is that emotion and it has the power fueled by memory to suddenly bubble to the surface at any moment.  The elegiac beauty of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the subtlest and most perceptive film about grief that I have ever seen, is how it internalizes the emotion so well to show what most people do with grief: barely hold it in.  Grief does not necessarily result in a breakdown of tears, though it sometimes does.  Rather, for the film’s protagonist, Lee Chandler (an absolutely majestic Casey Affleck), the pervading grief from a past incident has shrunken him smaller.  As he works as a general custodial handy man for people’s households, he goes on living life in Boston holding his grief in the pockets of his soul.  However, from his hunched shoulders, his speech, and his sunken eyes, we can see that he is internally on edge fearing the next time he will get struck by a pang of grief.  He is the last person who deserves to hear further news that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has just died due to a heart failure at the beginning of this story.

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We see from the film’s carefully timed flashbacks that Joe was a real bedrock for Lee.  When the past incident happened in Lee’s life, Joe was the one there to get him through.  The brothers, along with Joe’s son, Patrick would go on fishing trips out to the sea in Manchester when they were younger.  Due to the strong bond they shared, it may have seemed natural to Joe in his will to assign Lee be the legal guardian to Patrick (played in present as a teenager by Lucas Hedges), after his alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol) left them.  However, Lee is astonished and unprepared to take on the responsibility.

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You may think the film is a dispiriting affair from what I have described but that would only be true if it focused solely on the pangs of grief.  What makes this movie incomparably richer is that it also finds the moments of joy that allow life to go on anyway.  Despite the pervading power of grief, we can eventually find something in and around us to get us through in between these moments.  It may not be the kind of big epiphany where the sun rises and all the pain is wiped away.  But it is in those small pockets of respite and humor that can be just as unexpected as the moments of grief.  As this movie shows, the humor is not of the kind that makes you laugh out loud but the kind that comes from the elasticity of sharing a close bond with someone or simply recognizing little details or quirks in life.

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Much of the story’s emotional complexity is in the central relationship between Lee and Patrick.  It is not that they open up their feelings frankly to each other or reminisce together explicitly often about what kind of guy Joe was.  Lee is too withdrawn for that and Patrick occupies himself by trying to play hockey and going through adolescent troubles like balancing time between his two girlfriends.  But in the way they talk, you know they have a common history and rapport and their company with each other keeps them going.  There is also Lee’s close friend, George (C.J. Wilson), who provides the kind of gentle comfort of simply being there even if he is a little clumsy at times (one of the film’s funnier moments shows him shouting to his wife across the room during Joe’s wake asking if Lee has eaten).

Lee possibly could make a natural guardian to Patrick as the latter finishes his last two years in high school.  However, for, Lee, returning to Manchester opens up a lot of old wounds.  There is that pivotal event in his life that looms over and follows him like a gray cloud everywhere, even in the faces of random people who give him stares at a bar.  That event led to the dissolution of his loving marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams).  When she and Lee finally meet in a devastating scene, we see the feelings they shared were simmering just barely below the surface.

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I realize that I may have written little more than a glorified series of reflections without making much reference to the actors or the technical qualities of the film.  I could more critically analyze why I think playwright turned writer/director Kenneth Lonergan has made his best movie after two previous terrific films, You Can Count on Me and Margaret.   I could talk more about how I think the film’s structure edited by Jennifer Lame inserts the flashbacks effectively to reflect the uncontrollable nature of memory and, along with the subtle choral music by Lesley Barber, inspires the emotional introspections it does.  I could write in more detail about my small wish to have the female characters to show more shadings than emotional frailty or being a potential killjoy for male behavior.

However, I would rather let the reflections from this movie wash over me.  I have had memories of a loved one pop in my head when I was typing at work.  I did grow more frustrated than I normally would after a sad event when I misplaced my keys.  I have found solace in a family member or friend who calls me to take me away from my moment of grief.  I did find a certain peace of mind when I observed something that helped me reminisce a cherished memory with a loved one.  The highest praise that I can pay Manchester by the Sea that it has put feelings so identifiable that I feel that I cathartically lived through them.

Rating: 95/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2016.  Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, and Matthew Broderick.  Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.

Movie Review: La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is like a delectable blender of the most dazzling qualities of old school musicals.  The 21st century has seen no shortage of attempts to bring the traditional musical back into the mainstream from Moulin Rouge, Chicago, and a slew of other Broadway adaptations.  All of them feel like pale warm-ups to La La Land, which is the real deal.  From its astonishing opening musical number set in a traffic jam to its closing musical number, the movie splendidly captures the look, sound and feel of the golden era of musicals for the modern age.

I would happily see La La Land a second and third time just for that opening number.  It begins in gridlock traffic in Los Angeles on a bridge (where a real bridge section was apparently closed down for filming) as the camera floats through and stops at a young female driver leaning back in her car.  She softly starts singing a tune and joyously walks around to other young drivers in the traffic as if to tap the others in the shoulder in musical fashion.  The camera glides as each driver picks up his or her cue until the drivers make music out of their car horns and dance on top of their cars to ingest the sunny weather (the song is aptly called “Another Day of Sun”).  Crucially, while probably enhanced by CGI to stitch a few disparate long takes, the sequence contains no visible cut that would hamper the actors and camera respectively dancing and gliding through.

lalaland0It is a fitting setup for a story about aspiring dreamers in modern day LA.  The opening number ends as the scene rests on two of them, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).  She is an aspiring Hollywood actress and he is a jazz pianist who hopes to open a jazz club.  It is not a cute meeting at first as they pass each other as rude drivers on the freeway.  After a refreshing series of moments in which they humorously grate on each other (including a clever joke about Priuses), they eventually fall in love, she leaving her uncaring boyfriend behind.  The movie contrives two homages to classic movies to make that happen.  One is an invitation from him to show her a revival of Rebel Without a Cause.  The other is an exuberant evening sequence of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style singing and tap dancing, choreographed by Mandy Moore (no relation to the singer).

lalaland2This is 31-year old writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the more abrasive but equally brilliant Whiplash.  While this movie shares some of the same themes, a dedication to loving jazz music, and a welcome cameo by J.K. Simmons who won an Oscar® for that previous film, I did not expect his follow-up to be this graceful and charming.  Chazelle and his musical composer, Justin Hurwitz, who met as Harvard roommates in college, reportedly started a fruitful collaboration as Chazelle asked Hurwitz if he would compose his movies about music.   If they continue to make more musically themed movies down the road, it will be intriguing to see the moods and shades they may explore between abrasive and charming.

In addition to the said classic homages, the movie draws from several other key inspirations, from Singin’ in the Rain to most notably Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. One characteristic of those musicals that La La Land embraces is the vibrancy of color to support the musicality.  With costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shoots in the wider Cinemascope format, Chazelle makes that quality all of his own with a color palette that is every bit as radiant as his influences.  If the older films were often set in sunny or rainy environs, the cinematography here, after the opening, brings out the radiance of stars in the night to complement the film’s key thematic tune, “City of Stars.”  Against this backdrop, the bright, candy-colored costuming comes most strikingly to life, especially in a song sequence that has Mia and her friends prepare to go to an LA party and confidently strut on the street in sync holding their different colored dresses.

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For all the film’s glittering visual artifice, however, Chazelle wisely does not drive his story into complete fairy tale fantasy with reality in the rear view mirror.  As their relationship grows, both Mia and Sebastian face setback after setback in their attempts to fulfill their aspirations.  While she barely scrapes by working as a coffee barista with one failed addition after another, he has trouble setting up his own club with which he hopes to preserve the fading essence of traditional jazz.  To support himself, he joins a friend, Keith (John Legend) in a contemporary touring band that goes against his core musical philosophy and imposes long periods of separation on the couple.  All of this leads to an emotional argument played as straight drama when the scales balancing between their relationship and their individual dreams tip over.   After Stone and Gosling shared the screen as supporting players in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, it is a pleasure to see their effortless chemistry, both positive and negative, ground the story while they do their own singing.

The film is not perfect.  The number that impressively begins in the aforementioned dress-up scene ends in the LA party on a melody that musically feels like a repetition of the spectacular opening number.  An early scene with Sebastian and his very matter-of-fact sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also not written with as much care and wit to really make an impression in the story.  In addition, as much as I like Ryan Gosling for his dedication to the interesting roles he chooses, one complaint that I have is that he does not seem to register much emotion when honing his technique.  A more subtly expressive actor could have conveyed a slight sense of joy in, for example, the scene where he is defiantly playing his own piano music at the nightclub run by J.K. Simmons’ character (which, to Gosling’s credit, he committedly learned to play himself).  Stone, in contrast, sells every moment of bliss, as when she is dancing with Gosling against the evening backdrop or the observatory, and every moment of heartbreak, as when she sings in another standout moment at an audition, “Here’s to the hearts who dream…”

All the quibbles recede against the numerous pleasures of La La Land, however, as it all culminates in a show-stopping closing musical number.  I would not dream of revealing too much about it other than to say that it serves as a beautiful musical reflection meshing reality and fantasy.  As that number swells and gets better, it crystallizes one of the truest reasons for why we go to old-fashioned musicals in the first place: escapist wish fulfillment.

Rating: 90/100

IMDb Page

USA.  2016. Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.  Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson.  Rated PG-13 for some language.

Introduction

ticket-clipart-4ibpxg5igHello, my name is John Lee.  There are three things that I am most passionate about in life: my faith as a devout Christian, my work as a computer programmer, and my hobby to ponder and appreciate about all things in cinema.  This is the blog that will help me pursue the third of my passions.

I have seen movies as one of the best mediums to learn things that I could not experience directly, feel emotions to help empathize with others, and even discover and gauge what my own values and virtues are.  To me, film is not only a fascinating form of visual entertainment but also a way to walk in the lives of others and share with their joy, tears, laughter, serenity, anxiety, enlightenment, amazement, horror, and more.

In starting this blog, I hope to share with others some of my appreciation of all things cinematic.  Some articles will be movie reviews, others may be goofy observations, and still others may be highlights on key figures in movies.  I hope you enjoy reading and thank you for visiting.