Tuesday, 11 July 2017

"Was he slow?" Baby Driver

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Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

Edgar Wright is someone who's in love with his job as a filmmaker, which has shown in every film he's made thus far. This love affair continues with his latest film Baby Driver. The film's story involves familiar genre archetypes: a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who wants to quit the life of crime, the crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who reels him in for another job, the waitress with whom our hero wants to run away (Lily James) and the assortment of criminals along for the ride (Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx). It's an old song but performed with genuine style, charm and heart.

Speaking of songs, Baby Driver can be best described as a film noir musical. This is because our hero-Baby- listens to music while heists are being pulled off and when he's out-driving the police. He also records conversations and makes songs out of them. The film as an extension of Baby's mindset; Wright shot and edited the action sequences to the music, creating a unique synthesis of sound and visuals that's organic to the film's universe. 

We learn Baby listens to music constantly due to a childhood car accident which left with him a constant humming in his right ear. The same accident also killed both his musician mother (Sky Ferreira) and father (Lance Palmer). When he was still a kid, Baby stole from Spacey's Doc. Doc was so impressed that he's used Baby for every heist. Baby is in debt to Doc and is due to retire after one more heist. Like Ryan Gosling's unnamed character in Drive Baby is great at his job but still strikes others as odd. Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Foxx's Bats are antagonistic towards him. However, due to his youth several of the criminals treat him as a surrogate son or little brother. 

Hamm and Gonzalez's Bonnie and Clyde married couple Buddy and Darling treat him with a kind of bemusement- not quite affection but a certain level of respect. Baby has a complicated relationship with Doc, who is part extorter/part father figure to Baby. Spacey is one of the best actors at doing quiet menace while being darkly funny. When he brings Baby back in to the fold after debts had supposedly been settled Doc casually remarks that he could cripple Baby and kill everyone he loves if Baby doesn't keep working for him; it's this scene where Baby realizes how much he's still in Doc's grip- and desperately needs a way out. 
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While James Debora and the whole love story between her and Baby is somewhat underwritten, she and Elgort's chemistry makes the relationship very pleasurable to watch unfold. Wright understands that there's a inherent romanticism inherent in noir- wanting to drive away with a beautiful woman, turning your back on the world of violence and greed- and he portrays the romance in an idealized fashion. The movie believes two people can be brought together by music. I get the impression that Baby sees something of his mother in Debora- a memory of a happier time when he felt protected. Debora and Darling are notably the two major female characters in the film and they are deliberately contrasted. Darling isn't quite a femme fatale but she's certainly a more dangerous and sexual figure than Debora- who projects a virginal innocence. And while Gonzalez is younger than James, Darling does come across as older and seasoned woman.

While Baby may see his mother in Debora, fatherhood an important aspect of this film. I mentioned that Doc is a twisted version of a father figure; but the man Baby views as a father in the film is foster father, Joe (C.J. Jones), who is deaf and whom Baby looks after, being a father of sorts to Joe. This relationship is perhaps the most touching in the film and helps make Baby a more sympathetic character. 

While the movie is using well-worn genre tropes, it also manages to subvert expectations- particularly regarding certain characters. Bats is killed before the third act even though he was being built up as possibly the major antagonist of the film. It's actually Buddy who becomes the villain in the finale of the film. We understand Buddy's motivations- Darling is killed by the police after Baby intentionally ruining the heist. We see that Buddy and  Darling's love was as or even more genuine than Baby and Debora's. Unlike other noir heroes- Baby lives at the end of the film- but the film doesn't escape tragedy if you look at the film from Buddy's point of view. This makes ending's romanticized reunion of Baby and Debora- after Baby gets out of prison- ironic considering the fact Baby is partly responsible the death of a man's wife.

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Hamm- who became famous for his portrayal of Don Draper on the TV show Mad Men- has in his film roles avoided Draper-esque characters. Instead he's played the good-looking doofus (Bridesmaids), rugged detective (The Town), and a doctor who specializes in lobotomies (Sucker Punch). Hamm's smooth grizzled-ness makes Buddy a distinct personality and a character who could likely carry his own movie.

I do want to talk about Elgort's casting in the role of Baby. Elgort first came to audiences' attention with his role in the teen romance The Fault in Our Stars alongside Shailene Woodley, whom he also co-starred with in the Divergent franchise. His casting as a slick getaway driver would appear to be a case of miscasting. But it ends up working due to how Elgort's image as an actor in Young Adult-orientated films offers a humorous contrast to the noir archetype he's playing; at the same Elgort's offbeat stoicism makes him believable as this odd but cool getaway driver. The opening scene establishes the relationship between Baby and his music, how he grooves to it even as a dangerous heist is occurring. 

I don't know where I'd rank Baby Driver in the Wright Pantheon, particularly since I still need to re-watch most of his work- but it clearly shows a director high on the joy of making movies and pushing himself as an artist, which makes what he'll do next always very exciting. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Essential Films: Looking back on "Star Wars" 40 Years Later

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A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me

Spoilers Below

In May of 1977, pop culture and cinema was forever changed by the release of director George Lucas' Star Wars. Before it was Episode IV, before it was A New Hope, before people argued about who shot first- it was just that: Star Wars, as pure and simple as the story which it told. Star Wars- and the subsequent episodes of the Original Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi- have become so ingrained in the popular imagination, so influential and obsessed over, that's it hard to look at it as just a movie. Like the stories of Superman and Batman- and even the work of J.R.R Tolkien, it's become something like a modern myth, almost a religion. This isn't to say Star Wars is above criticism or that it can't be analysed; just that it's so much bigger than just a really popular movie. 

Star Wars is  one of the biggest franchises in history but when Lucas was making the original film there was no guarantee it would be a success. We've become so accustomed the world of Star Wars but all this stuff about Jedi, the Force, Wookiees, and a big guy in a black suit with a breathing problem would have struck the people involved in the film's production as weird. Lucas' vision was of the pulpy/fairy tale sort rather than the cerebral nature of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 or the original Star Trek series. I don't even think 20th Century Fox had much faith in the film. Harrison Ford had worked with Lucas on Lucas' sophomore feature American Graffiti and would become a star with his performance as Han Solo. He's notorious for telling Lucas that the dialogue could be written but couldn't be spoken. In many ways I would argue Star Wars is the most mainstream and successful cult movie of all time.
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In crafting the story for Star Wars, Lucas drew inspiration from various genres- samurai film, fantasy, pulp sci-fi, swashbuckling adventure, war epic, western, and coming of age/hero's journey tale. In regards to the specific films which influenced Lucas, Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars' narrative structure. Lucas begins the film with the droids C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Kurosawa tells the story of his film from the perspective of two peasants who accompany a general and a princess across enemy lines. Fritz Lang's groundbreaking 1927 film Metropolis inspired the design of C-3P0. The homestead burning on Tatooine comes from a similar scene is John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) was the basis for the medal ceremony which closes the film. 

What's impressive is how Lucas blends diverse genre tropes in to a cohesive whole where the archetypes and iconography compliment each other. The result is a film which feels familiar yet boldly new. I think a big reason for Star Wars' success is how its story already felt old-fashioned back in 1977- and accessible to general audiences- while expanding their idea of what could be accomplished cinematically. More on that later.


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When talking about genre archetypes in relation to Star Wars, the character that stands out most to me is Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Ben represents both a samurai and an old wizard- like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He begins to mentor Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) while still carrying the weight of his failure with his last apprentice, Darth Vader; Vader turned to the dark side and helped the Empire eliminate the Jedi Order. I feel Guinness is underrated in the part- maybe due to the fact we don't think of it as a performance, to many he just is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness convinces me he is this old Jedi master, the Force exists and there was once Jedi Knights who protected the galaxy for thousands of years. And when Luke mentions the Clone Wars- which became a huge part of Star Wars media- it provides a sense of history to this universe. 

Along with Guinness, Peter Cushing- who played Grand Moff Tarkin- was the other veteran actor with a major role in the film. Guinness represents the mythological side of this universe while Cushing is the face of the totalitarian and fascist Empire. I would argue he's the true villain of this film, not Vader. Tarkin orders Princess Leia's (Carrie Fisher) home planet of Alderaan destroyed by the Death Star just to prove a point. What's great about Cushing's performance is he doesn't over play Tarkin's evilness, which makes Tarkin's actions and demeanour all the more believable and unsettling.

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But when it comes to villainy in the Star Wars saga, people will always think about Vader. If Vader isn't the greatest screen villain of all time then he's certainly up there. Even in the original film, before it's revealed he is Luke's father, Vader is a commanding and compelling presence. Vader represents the bygone time of the Jedi; He is more connected to the mystic side of the universe rather than the technical. He's contrasted with the technological and brute-force based Empire. During a meeting about the Death Star with the Imperials Vader states the station's power is meaningless next to the Force. General Motti (Richard LeParmentier) tells Vader not to attempt intimidation with his "sorcerer's ways." Motti sees Vader as something of a relic- calling the Force an "ancient religion." Vader displays his power by choking Motti via-the Force. Tarkin orders Vader to stop, further emphasising he's in charge, not Vader. Later Tarkin disregards Vader's sensing of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Vader is an outsider among the Imperials, though we later learn the Emperor is a Sith like Vader.
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Luke, Han and Leia come from different backgrounds. Luke is the farm boy who's never been off Tatooine, Han is the smuggler who never stays in one place, and Leia is a princess who's the only one of the three who has her mind on defeating the Empire. The film is largely about these three people coming together for a single purpose. It's part of why the series is so enduring- it believes regardless of background people can work together and accomplish great things.

Luke longs for a better life, one of adventure and purpose. His uncle Owen (Phil Brown) doesn't allow him to leave because he needs Luke's help on the farm. Owen is also afraid Luke will follow in his father's footsteps and become a Jedi Knight (in the context of this film Luke's father Anakin was murdered), We understand Luke's frustration but we can also see Owen sincerely cares about Luke and is reasonable. The tragedy of Owen and Beru's (Shelagh Fraser) murder is Luke never got to reconcile with Owen. Moreover, now Luke has no choice but to leave Tatooine. Obi-Wan becomes a father figure to Luke. When Obi-Wan dies Luke truly has to grow up. Hamill was already in his mid-20s when he played 19 year old Luke but he conveys Luke's immaturity, genuine decency and infectious energy perfectly.

Leia isn't afraid of Vader nor Tarkin. She's confident but we see her fear and desperation when Tarkin forces her to disclose the location of the rebel base or he'll destroy Alderaan. Her confident and arrogant exterior slips away; we see how powerless she- and the whole idea of royalty-is in this situation. She's snobbish in how she treats Luke and Han but comforts Luke after Obi-Wan's death. Despite losing her planet she shows compassion to the man who rescued her. The late Fisher plays these different sides of Leia's personality with grace, making them all feel part of the same person.

Han is the scoundrel with the heart of gold. The key to Ford's performance is you believe he's really out for himself while at the same time you buy that he comes back to help the rebellion at the film's conclusion. Ford is arguably the closest thing we have to a modern day Humphrey Bogart. His performance is charming, sly, ruthless and funny. The scene where he's talking over the intercom display Ford's ability to convincingly play the tough guy who's occasionally ill-equipped in certain situations.
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I mentioned earlier that Star Wars expanded people's idea about what could be achieved cinematically. This is due to how groundbreaking and influential its visual effects (by John Dykstra and his team at ILM (Industrial Lights & Magic)) were. Star Wars is a film that embraces its goofy pulp sci-fi roots; while being more technically sophisticated then that sub-genre had been before  The opening shot of the Star Destroyer chasing the Tantive IV is still an incredible visual marvel. It automatically establishes the rebels as the underdogs and the Empire as oppressive and all-encompassing. Ben Burtt's sound design also deserves credit. The sound design of Star Wars is so iconic all you have to do is hear the sound of a TIE fighter and you know what you're listening to.

For me, Star Wars isn't quite Star Wars without John Williams' music. The fanfare- accompanying the title as it recedes in to space and the opening scrawl is romantic, epic, poignant and thrilling to this day. The force theme, which plays over Luke looking at the twin sunset, invokes longing and the hope for a better future. It became such an indelible combination of visual and sound that Lucas ended the Prequel Trilogy Owen and Beru looking at the twin suns.

In 40 years, I think this film- and the Original Trilogy as a whole- will still be classic. It's world and its characters feel timeless- appealing to multiple generations and people of different backgrounds. It inspires the imagination and has a purity to it that's often missing in the modern blockbuster landscape. So, what is your favourite aspect of the original film, and what does it mean to you? Comment below and let me know.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Some thoughts on Luke Skywalker and "The Last Jedi"




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Spoilers for The Force Awakens below

Darth Vader is my favourite Star Wars character but it's his son Luke Skywalker's story that for best epitomizes the mythic nature of the Star Wars saga. The original trilogy is about Luke's journey from a Tatootine farm-boy who doesn't know the legacy of his namesake to a Jedi who redeems his father and helps save the galaxy. When we get to The Force Awakens Luke has become a figure of legend. Rey believes he's just a myth. One can imagine that children in the post-Return of the Jedi galaxy have grown up with stories of Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia. This is appropriate considering the fairy tale nature of the saga.



What intrigues me most about the The Last Jedi trailer is Luke saying the Jedi must come to an end. It appears that Luke is a more cynical character 30 years since Return of the Jedi's ending. I can't help but think of Luke telling Obi-Wan Kenobi he wanted to about the Force and become a Jedi like his father; and later, telling the Emperor he'll never turn to the dark side, that he is a Jedi, like his father before him. Now, what he once strove to become may not have any positive meaning for him anymore. 




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The ending of Return of Jedi left Luke as the person who would rebuild the Jedi Order, albeit likely different in certain ways from what became before. In The Force Awakens we know that Luke has attempted to train new Jedi but Ben Solo- Han's son and Luke's nephew- and the Knights of Ren killed Luke's pupils. This sent Luke in to exile like Obi-Wan and Yoda- and likely led to a new outlook on the relevancy and purpose of the Jedi, thinking beyond the dogma of both the Jedi and the Sith. With the Jedi being eliminated twice perhaps Luke is taking that as a sign from the Force. Maybe the galaxy would be better without dogmatic religions. What I'm curious about is that will affect the role of force users in the saga post this new trilogy. 

Also: Supreme Leader Snoke and Ben (now calling himself Kylo Ren) aren't Sith, so they themselves represent a different type of dark side user. However, Ren still worships his grandfather who was a Sith.

I'm also wondering what Luke is going to be teaching Rey specifically and how her arc will proceed People have theorized that she will go to the dark side, which would be a bold choice. I enjoyed The Force Awakens but I feel this film will explore new mythological territory in regards to the Star Wars universe; like The Empire Strikes Back, this middle chapter will deepen and redefine what came before, leading us in to the conclusion of this trilogy.

So, what are your theories on Luke's possible story in The Last Jedi. Comment below and let me know.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Some brief thoughts on Joss Whedon and Batgirl

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It was announced this recently that Joss Whedon was in talks to write and direct a Batgirl movie for DC/Warner Bros, presumably to be part of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe that began with Man of Steel. It's a major coup for DC/Warner Bros. Whedon helped make the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) what it is today, successfully bringing together its disparate heroes in the game-changing The Avengers. Having Whedon on-board the DCEU adds some good will considering the controversial reaction to their film output thus far.

Whedon's sensibilities do line up with writer Cameron Stewart's run on Batgirl several years ago, which was more lighthearted compared to Gail Simone's serious take on the character. Just imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer but with Batgirl and I think you have something akin to the actual film.

When the DC universe was rebooted for the New 52, Simone re-imagined Barbara Gordon as having gained the ability to walk again. Barbara had being paralyzed by the Joker shooting her. This event occured in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. In the previous continuity, Barbara took on the role of Oracle, a computer expert working alongside the DC heroes. With the DCEU reportedly moving towards a lighter tone, a Whedon Batgirl wouldn't feel as out of place as it would immediately post Batman v. Superman.

Whedon's Batgirl film is said to be taking inspiration from the New 52 so the question is whether The Killing Joke will be part of Barbara's backstory. The Killing Joke is a controversial, with some considering it sexist and misogynistic. Critics of the story view Barbara's role in the story as essentially a plot device to psychologically torture her father Commissioner James Gordon. I believe there is a way to incorporate Barbara's paralysis in to the story without her being a plot-device, which is to have her in costume and in action when she is paralyzed. 


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Another important question is who will play Barbara. Many have suggested Emma Stone, who's fresh off her Oscar win for La La Land. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of Stone and feel Jane Levy- who's name has also been bandied about for the role- is actually a more versatile actress and deserves a star-making role of this caliber. British actress Imogen Poots is also another actress who always feels like she's on the cusp stardom. 

I'm looking forward to seeing more of the Bat-family as the DCEU progresses, particularly with Ben Affleck's Batman in BvS seemingly cut-off from everyone except Jeremy Irons' Alfred Pennyworth. So, let me know- is Whedon a good pick? And who do you want to play Batgirl in the DCEU? 



Monday, 20 February 2017

"If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go:" "Rumble Fish"


Warning: Spoilers for the film below

In 1983 director Francis Ford Coppola released two films based on the work of young adult novelist S.E. Hinton. These films were The Outsiders- released in March of that year- and Rumble Fish- released seven months later in October. The films were shot back-to-back in the same location and Coppola even used several of the same actors in both films, most notably Matt Dillon and Diane Lane. Dillon had a supporting role in The Outsiders and became the lead in Rumble Fish

When viewing Rumble Fish I gather Coppola didn't want to repeat himself and make The Outsiders again. The Outsiders is mostly straightforward in regards to its style but in Rumble Fish Coppola is experimenting with cinematic form and meshes the story's subject matter with a different ambience than what was expected from a 80s teen film. It's atmosphere is more film-noir than teenage coming of age drama. Others have also noted the influence of German Expressionism and the films of Orson Welles. This film divides me. I don't think it works as drama; it's narrative isn't satisfying- several plot and story strands do feel underdeveloped and without strong payoffs- but it's worth viewing as a turning point for Coppola; this film points forward toward his later 21st century work. 

Rusty James (Dillon) is told he has to fight Biff Wilcox, the leader of a rival gang. Rusty James' brother, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) prior, had instigated a truce between the gangs just prior to his leaving without explanation; but Rusty James goes to fight Wilcox that night anyway. The Motorcycle Boy shows  up and Rusty James is wounded by Wilcox stabbing him with a shard of glass. The Motorcycle Boy ends the fight and takes Rusty James home to tend his wound.

The Motorcycle Boy is the most captivating and seductive character in the film, largely due to his mysterious nature. There's a James Dean quality to Rourke's performance, and it's no wonder Rourke was pegged as the next Brando/Pacino/De Niro. I get the impression that the Motorcycle Boy that Rusty James looks up to and wishes to emulate is the not the same man we see throughout the film. The Motorcycle Boy has matured and isn't interested in being in a gang or engaging in any wars. However, Officer Paterson (William Smith) still hates the Motorcycle Boy due to the kids idolozing him. The Motorcycle Boy is killed by Paterson while attempting the free the titular rumble fish from a pet store. It's only through the Motorcycle Boy's death that Rusty James can be free to his own man.


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Rusty James' relationship with Patty (Diane Lane) falls apart when Rusty James cheats on her with another girl. I wish Patty had more of a inner life but Lane does give Patty an angelic quality. She's the embodiment of every teenage boy's fantasy, which is visualized in Rusty James' day dream sequences where he sees her in lingerie on top of a classroom bookcase and at work. 

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For me, Stephen H. Burum's cinematography (this was Coppola's first film in black and white) invokes the 1950s, even while the film is set later in time. By providing the film the aura of a period piece rather than a contemporary drama, there's an almost nostalgic nature to the events, as if we're seeing them from the perspective of Rusty James looking back at this time in his life.

Rumble Fish is more of an impressionistic fever dream than a involving emotional experience. Still, as I mentioned before, the film is worth viewing to see what would personify Coppola's later career work; and as a piece of visual art, it's gorgeous.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Looking back at Steve McQueen's "Hunger"

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Warning: Spoiler for one particular scene 

Steve McQueen's debut film, Hunger chronicles the 1981 hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland's Maze prison. Sands wanted he and his fellow IRA inmates to be recognized as political prisoners by the British Government. Michael Fassbender plays Sands, who doesn't appear until 26 minutes in to the film. A more conventional film would've started with Sands. Hunger begins with Raymond Lohan (Steve Graham) as he goes about his day as a prison guard. We see him check his car for bombs, wash his bloodied knuckles, smoke and eat lunch. The film then introduces Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a new IRA prisoner, and his cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Campbell has smeared his cell wall with his own feces as part of the "no wash" protest. It's through these characters the film establishes its world and the feeling of being a guards and prisoners in the Maze. 

Coming back to the beginning of the film, McQueen- by showing the bottom of Lohan's car- makes us think there is a bomb. When Lohan checks underneath the car we understand this is something he checks every day. This small detail already tells us something about this man's life and the political climate. McQueen is a director who's also interested in the banal details of these peoples' lives. In a wide-shot we see Lohan smoking outside in the snow. There's a feeling of peace, that this most Lohan gets during the day; it's also the most peaceful the film gets. Then there's the scene where Gillen plays with the fly in his cell. These are the kind of details some would consider boring but they are the small things that make up every day life. The film doesn't follow a traditional act structure. Rather, it is comprised of vignettes and moments.  It's sometimes easy to forget we're watching a film, so vivid is its portrayal of these events. And it's the film's often slow pace which makes the sudden outbursts of violence- most notably Lohan being killed while visiting his mother in a nursing home- all the more visceral.

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What struck me about Hunger is it's almost a completely visual experience. Aside from one extended dialogue sequence McQueen and Enda Walsh's screenplay only sparsely uses dialogue. McQueen is less interested in discourse about politics or terrorism than he is in creating a specific mood and sense of realism through visuals and sound design. As described by the Criterion Collection, McQueen's is experiential and abstract.

The center-piece of the film is the aforementioned conversation between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), which is filmed in one unbroken long take. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt- who would photograph McQueen's other two films, Shame and 12 Years a Slave- casts Sands and Moran in silhouette. The smoke from their cigarettes is bright, somewhat blueish. The scene has the look of a film noir. It's a simple set-up but it's that simplicity which gives the scene its absorbing power. We're so accustomed to dialogue scenes being cut in a particular way. There are usually close-ups that punctuate certain lines; this scene- by not cutting- invites us to pay attention to these men's words and their body language. Cunningham actually moved in with Fassbender and they rehearsed the scene during the day. When McQueen finally cuts to a close-up of Sands the close-up has more impact because we haven't already been given a dozen of them already. 

Sands tells Moran he and other IRA inmates plan to go on a hunger strike. Moran doesn't agree with Sands' stance but you can tell these two men have a mutual respect for one another. What's striking about this conversation is that it's not about the IRA being right or wrong so much as its about how far Sands is willing to go to achieve better treatment for prisoners as well as proper acknowledgement as a political prisoner. We also hear snippets of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discussing the prisoners but the film isn't concerned with being anti or pro Thatcher either. Her voice is there to remind us of that time and her views on these prisoners.

Fassbender lost weight to play Sands during the hunger strike and it its disturbing see someone so gaunt. McQueen doesn't attempt to lionize Sands or the IRA, though Sands seeing himself as a young boy as he's dying does verge too close to sentiment. It simply shows what he endured to be heard. 

McQueen began his career in art installations before making the transition to short films and eventually feature films. McQueen's three films thus far have all been about physical and emotional violence people have been subjected to or to which they subjected themselves. McQueen's goal is to make the audience experience, with all their senses, the world of his films and the pain of his characters.


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Hunger eschews conventions and winds up being one of the most unique depictions of prison life and protest committed to film. It's not a easy film to watch but its film-making and performances make it one of the vital films of the century thus far. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Am I Just Praying To Silence?: "Silence"

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Warning: Spoilers Will Follow

Martin Scorsese's Silence is a film one has to give themselves over to completely. It's a somber, meditative, quiet, slow, and challenging experience. It's refreshingly uncompromised and never feels like it was made for all audiences- or even one audience in particular.  It feels very specific, not just to Scorsese's relationship with faith, but to a particular feeling of guilt and what it means to wrestle with one own's faith. It's my favourite film of 2016 and while watching it I was amazed this was a film coming out of a Hollywood studio in 2016. It feels very European and something that belongs to an earlier era. For me, I think it's up there with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in regards to films about the nature of faith and wanting an answer from God. I think To Scorsese the cinema is like a religion, and a cinema is a church; and Silence is a film that calls out to be seen in a on a huge screen, similar to 2001 or the epics of David Lean.

The film takes place in the 17th century. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are Portuguese Jesuit priests who learn their mentor and fellow priest Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy while in Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe have doubts as to the truth of this story so they travel to Japan in search of Ferreira. In Japan Japanese Christians are being prosecuted and forced to renounce Christianity. Rodrigues and Garupe help the Christians who have been driven underground by the Shoguns's Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Rodrigues and Garupe eventually split up and Rodrigues is captured by the Inquisitor's men. Rodrigues is told to apostatise or others will be tortured until he does.

The film is based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel of the same name, which was made in to a previous film in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. The screenplay for Scorsese's adaptation was co-written by Scorsese with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Scorsese has been wanting to direct a film of Endo's novel for years. Having finally made the film, Silence does feel like something Scorsese has been working towards for years, largely because it doesn't move, sound or look like our collective image of a Scorsese film. It's almost like Scorsese has been living with this novel for so long that his passion for it become bigger than his own stylistic sensibilities. The story couldn't be boxed in by an established style.

Scorsese's films are known for their quick-fire editing, which can largely be credited to Scorsese's long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, whose has edited Scorsese's every non-documentary film since Raging Bull. Here, the editing isn't as frantic, the shots last longer, and with one exception there's no sweeping camera moves. Scorsese wants you to soak in the film's atmosphere and feel it in your bones and soul. The film is largely set outdoors and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography makes you feel the nature of Japan in all its beauty and mystery. 

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As with the the search for Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now we're kept in the dark as to Ferreira's fate until the final act. But as with Coppola's film, Silence is more than just the story about searching for some. The film becomes a spiritual search- a search for meaning amongst unbearable suffering and an answer from God. Throughout the film Rodrigues struggles with his faith and is given a choice between watching others suffer and committing apostasy. The question Rodrigues faces is whether renouncing God is the most Christian thing he can do- if it does stop people from torment. 

But forcing someone to apostatise doesn't prevent that person from still believing in God. However, if you do apostatise, psychologically, you may feel you truly have turned your back on God and can't be redeemed, that what you've said reflects what you feel. But thoughts and words are always in an ambiguous intertwined relationship. Throughout the film Rodrigues thoughts are filled with doubt but what he says never betrays those thoughts. It's only near the end of the film that he verbalizes these doubts. When spreading religion, a man like Rodrigues cannot verbally express doubt. He has to be a figure of zero ambiguity.

As the film goes along we come to understand- to an extent- Inoue's perspective on Christianity in Japan. It is arrogant for people to enter another country and telling people what to believe. Rodrigues exemplifies this arrogance when he says there is one universal truth the Jesuits are spreading. 

One of the best scenes in the film is between Rodrigues and Inoue, discussing religion's place in Japan. It's in this scene where we truly see the point of view of the Japanese. Inoue uses the analogy of a daimyo who had four concubines and were jealous. Eventually the daimyo and was at peace. In the analogy the daimyo is Japan and the concubines are the different countries which are attempting to win Japan over to their side. Rodrigues proposes that Japan take one wife, to which Inoue says Rodrigues means Japan should pick Portugal. Rodrigues says he means the Holy Church but one feels Inoue is right. It's not just about one universal truth, it's about Portugal and having power over Japan. Rodrigues presumes he knows more than Inoue and can convince him that he is right. But Inoue is arguably the more intelligent of the two. Though in many ways Rodrigues and Inoue are to each other the most formidable foe either has encountered. And ultimately, both are stuck in a way of thinking that will either be vindicated or will lead to their destruction.
   
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Garfield's performance is truly transformative. I haven't seen his Oscar-nominated work in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge but I feel he should have been nominated for this. With Garfield, Scorsese is doing what he did with Leonardo DiCaprio, in that he's really pushing Garfield and allowing us to see a different side of the actor. It's amazing this is the same actor that played Spider-Man. Ogata' performance is exaggerated but subdued, he plays Inoue almost but not quite a parody. We're left a little off balance by him, which gives him the advantage. It's kind of a brilliant performance. Driver, whose been building up an impressive performance since appearing on HBO's Girls. I wish he had a little more screentime as Garupe but like Garfield he truly embodies his character. We don't Adam from Girls or Kylo Ren from Star Wars. 

Neeson doesn't reappear until the third act but through his performance we see the culmination of many of the film's thematic threads. As was told, Ferreira has taken a Japanese name and has renounced God. He tells Rodrigues that Japan only believes in their distortion of the Bible and they can't conceive of anything beyond nature, of the Christian God. Ultimately, one religion cannot fit every culture, which is why there must be doubt of a universal truth.  

Viewing Ferreira through Rodrigues' point of view, he's the mentor figure who has drastically changed and can offer no comfort. Rodrigues has found his former master but Ferreira now wants Rodrigues to renounce God. By having Rodrigues renounce God, Ferreira will eliminate the last part of his previous life as a Jesuit priest. Rodrigues' view Ferreira reflects how we can imagine Inoue views Japanese Christians- they are no longer who they were before. Maybe after finally finding Ferreira Rodrigues can finally understand Inoue on some level.

Ferreira tells Rodrigues he can't compare his suffering to Jesus. Rodrigues can't place his suffering above other peoples' which is a difference between Jesus and Rodrigues. Rodrigues is made to look like  Jesus- his facial hair and wardrobe; and there's a great shot where he sees his reflection it changes in to an image of Jesus. But despite these deliberate aesthetic parallels, Ferreira's point of view subverts our expectations that Rodrigues is supposed to be a literal Jesus figure; ultimately Rodrigues' path and destiny is different than Jesus.
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Rodrigues' journey doesn't end the way he thought it would, but no one's ever does, another reason we can't really be like Jesus. Our fates are not foretold to us. Rodrigues does not die for anyone's sins and fades in to obscurity. Is Rodrigues' fate our own?  We are left with the question of whether Rodrigues was lost to God, which only God can answer. Hypothetically if there was a God only that God can speak or him/her/itself. I feel this question asks us not to attempt an answer but to be compassionate and not dole out judgement. 

Unfortunately the film has not fared well at the box office. This is really a shame because it's so deserving of an audience and feels like it would have garnered more of an audience decades ago. But it's understandable a mainstream film, religious or otherwise. But I hope it gains more of an audience in the coming years. It's a brutal but I think rewarding film that almost feels like a miracle.