Silence (2016)

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The biggest news about the latest Martin Scorsese epic is how it’s been shut out of the awards lists, thus far at least. And it’s easy to see why. No guns, no gangsters. Plus in this minority-appeasing year it’s a film about white Christians defending their faith against mindlessness (think about where you might find that analogy at present even if it’s been Scorsese’s passion project for decades). He and Jay Cocks adapted Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and in terms of the director’s oeuvre it is most assuredly in the ‘one for me’ category. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are the Portuguese Jesuits who get smuggled into seventeenth-century Japan to find their missing mentor, priest Liam Neeson, whose eight-year old letter detailing the torture of his fellow believers at the hands of Buddhist Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) leads them to uncover hidden communities of Christians. Their presence elicits attention and villagers suffer. Garfield is taken in several times by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who has taken them to the country and eventually betrays him repeatedly while constantly pleading for forgiveness in confession. It’s grim stuff and the analogy with episodes of Christ’s own suffering is made several times. Garfield is eventually forced to watch others’ torture and the film then clarifies its several narrative strands, even while posing some problems of a meta cinematic nature:  you can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python, especially as the Jap inquisitor has a high-pitched voice and Bugs Bunny teeth;  Kichijiro is clearly a folkloric trickster;  Garfield looks into water and sees both himself and Christ, indicating that faith is often a matter of extreme narcissism. And then there’s the issue of Neeson’s reappearance in garb we know he wore in Star Wars. But given the long running time, it’s nice to be able to sigh and laugh in recognition occasionally and be glad you’re not there amid this epic of endurance. Driver’s deterioration does not inspire the same humorous recognition:  it is utterly shocking. And these are the postmodern ideas that make this work, an overlay of relief from the relentless series of questions:  what is faith? Is it about God and love or is it about rosary beads and crucifixes? Is it purely about ego? (One recalls the old saw that if you replace the word ‘God’ with ‘I’ you get closer to what fanatics and believers are really about – themselves – and we all know plenty of those, don’t we. The daily churchgoers and penitents who are rifling through your pockets and avoiding paying taxes!) What is religion for? Is it a form of delusion devoid of relevance to real life? Is the Son of God more important than the Sun of God? This ideological tussle is all played out as Garfield is repeatedly taken through crowds of Japs attacking him and having the inquisitor play mind games of persuasion and then terror that take you right up to the twentieth century and ideas of psychology and marketing and war (and you’ll also remember that Shinto Buddhism was the motive force behind what the Japs did in WW2.) Ultimately, this is a work of monumental significance. However there are pacing problems and after Kundun et al one expected a more beautiful photographic immersion in this spiritual odyssey. And there are issues with the depth of the writing, reflected in Garfield’s performance which seems too simplified at times. But I don’t see how a film of philosophical dimensions and thoughtfulness will receive an award since it goes against everything that is current and it’s clear that the gifted Garfield will not be in line for an Oscar for Acting While Black. (This, too, shall pass.) A tough film for true movie believers. Apostasise Now?

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The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr X. The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

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Giulietta Masina suspects that her event manager husband is a philanderer and a mystic confirms her worst fears so she hires a private eye to follow him and get the proof. That’s it, in a nutshell. Except it’s SO much more. She’s more contained, conventional, bourgeois than her cliquey flamboyant friends who show up to have a seance to celebrate her birthday. They all have artistic lives, huge hats, exotic lovers and her equally worldly sisters have beautiful little children to add injury to insult. The woman next door entertains her lovers in a tree house:  when Giulietta returns her cat she demurs from their offer to join them. She enters a world of fantasy and flashback, frequently finding an amusing correlative on TV for her woes and Fellini indulges his wife’s character in all kinds of daydreams and psychic excursions, memories of frightening nuns from childhood, intimations of sex in a brothel. She’s so different from the artificial environment in which she finds herself which is incredibly photographed and looking as fresh as if it were made yesterday. The images are like jolts to the senses:  this was the maestro’s first feature in colour and boy did he revel in its painterly possibilities with Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography making pictures that sing. Critics argue about the film’s significance and whether it was his explanation to Masina for his own extra-marital life, but it is sheerly wondrous, a throwback to when films mattered.

Eat Pray Love (2010)

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The zeitgeist sometimes throws up books that speak to a lot of people. This volume by Elizabeth Gilbert was one of them. It’s a given that 50% of the population (that is, the male half) will not get this. And a fair proportion of women who do not walk out on their toxic relationships will not get it either. (A friend in a dreadful marriage told me to ‘F… off and mind your own business’ when I gave her a copy of the book. Nice!) On a TV arts show I watched the women eviscerate this film:  it wasn’t ‘feminist’ or ’empowering’ and why would a good looking successful career woman with an idiot husband living off her need to leave him – like what’s she so UNHAPPY about?! … Etc.  And of those who do get this, some will remain sceptical about the benefits of handing over everything you own to a man just to be shot of him (he’s Billy Crudup but he’s a directionless tosser here, so that’s alright.) But when the next guy is James Franco, it’s slightly more understandable. But he’s not right either! Because life’s not all about sex with handsome empathetic actors into meditation! So Liz Gilbert got herself a book contract and took off with the proceeds of her travel journalism (and presumably some frequent flier miles) and decided to get back to basics – to permit herself to eat real food and not just lettuce leaves, to learn Italian and get some balance in her life. Julia Roberts is a skinny creature who will never gain the kind of weight we hear about here, Italy looks great and the men are delectable. Richard Jenkins is a kind of guru while Javier Bardem offers Liz the prospect of a marriage of equals in Bali. Okay – I understand that waiting for the right guy isn’t all of the answer but for some people … it’s some of it. Ryan Murphy is working from a screenplay he adapted with Jennifer Salt and you know, it’s pretty terrific.It was shot in sequence so that Roberts’ performance really achieves the gravity and grace she feels she needs to acquire to get through life easier. Sometimes you need to look at what a film is actually doing and saying as opposed to what it’s not attempting in the first place. Or something. What’s not to love? Eat? Pray?! Whatever! PS Speaking of the zeitgeist there’s a new book on the history of Chinese philosophy that totally discredits the mindless idea of mindfulness that seemingly intelligent people indulge right now – so get with the programme, eat pasta, learn Italian, dance! Cos the answer to life is not all inside – it’s outside! Enjoy yourself! Yeah!