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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Silence

If you know that Martin Scorsese, early in his life, wanted to be a priest, you can understand why one of his passions was bringing Shusaku Endo's novel Silence to the screen. It is about Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and their struggle to avoid apostatizing themselves in the face of persecutors.

This is a stunning film, both visually and intellectually. Within there is a mini-course on theology, and while some scenes seem redundant (there is a bit too much torture and execution for my tastes--we get it) it is almost always gripping, despite it's near three-hour length.

Silence follows a familiar trope in films, from The Searchers (one of Scorsese's favorite films) to Saving Private Ryan--the search and rescue film. A priest, played by Liam Neeson, is forced to apostatize (that is, renounce his faith) by the inquisitors of Japan, who are Buddhists and outlaw Christianity. Word of this reaches the head priest in Macao (Ciaran Hinds). Both of these characters, I was interested to read, were real people.

Hinds briefs two young Jesuits (who are fictional and played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They don't believe that Neeson has given up his faith, and are determined to track him down, even though it is highly dangerous for them to set foot in Japan. They go anyway, led by a guide (Yosuke Kubozuko) who has apostatized many times, and will many times again, believe he can be absolved by confession. The two priests find a small community of Christians living in hiding.

The title Silence comes from the fundamental trouble with the priests; faith--why is God silent in the face of such suffering? It also shows how Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is rooted in suffering, and that the promise of paradise after death comforts those that are suffering. It becomes a test, led the inquisitor (a very good Issey Ogata), and a simple one--deny your faith, and you will go free. If you do not deny it, you will die. He takes this further after Garfield is captured--if he will renounce his faith, Ogata will let many Christians go free. If Garfield refuses, they will be killed.

The film, while at times being very violent, is mostly talk. There are many conversations about faith and absolution--between Garfield and Driver, Garfield and Ogata (their conversations are central to the film) and then a stunning scene between Neeson and Garfield, where Neeson explains why Christianity can not take hold in Japan (today only about one percent of Japan is Christian). In a way, Silence is like My Dinner With Andre with the topic as religion with the chance that one of their heads will be cut off.

The acting is impressive. Garfield has had a good year, with this film beside Hacksaw Ridge, in two very different roles (though both about devout men). Driver, who suddenly seems to be all over the place, has a smaller role but I think a more interesting one, as he plainly struggles more with his faith, while Neeson really only has a cameo but knocks it out of the park. The Japanese actors are all terrific, especially Ogata, who is a man who smiles as he tells you you will be tortured.

Silence has a few false endings, but I think ends with the right shot, which I certainly won't reveal here. I think how one views the film will depend on their own religious beliefs. As a nonbeliever, I kind of felt sad that so many people went to hideous deaths out of a sense of duty to Jesus Christ, but at the same time I had to admire their courage. I would have said anything to stay alive, but just crossed my fingers behind my back.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Yearling

One of Gregory Peck's first starring roles was in 1946's The Yearling, which earned him his second Oscar nomination (the first was in 1944 for Keys to the Kingdom, which I can't find in any form). It is unabashedly sentimental family fare, and cynics may well hate it. It takes a simple story and builds it to something universally epic, and at times goes overboard (the choir on the soundtrack should have been cut).

Directed by Clarence Brown, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling is set in 1878 in central Florida, when it was a wilderness and not a haven for theme parks. Peck, his wife, Jane Wyman, and their son, Claude Jarman Jr., eke out a meager existence as they grow various crops in a cleared out section of forest. They have already lost several children, so Wyman is reluctant to bond with Jarman, and she is a cold fish. Peck, who would play the quintessential movie father seventeen years later in To Kill a Mockingbird, establishes credentials in this film. He loves his son and they have a special bond.

But Jarman wants a pet, and on that Wyman is obstinate. He is friends with a neighboring boy, a kind of odd duck who crippled himself when he jumped off the roof, determined to fly. That boy has a thing for animals, and Jarman is envious.

One day they are out hunting and Peck is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots a doe to wash his wound in blood (that's a new one on me). That leaves a fawn orphaned, and Jarman (with Peck's help) takes in the little deer as a pet. Of course, deer eat vegetation, and eventually conflict arises.

The best thing about The Yearling is its appreciation of nature, both in the photography (the cinematography, in Technicolor, won an Oscar) and in the writing. There is a rhapsodic scene in which Jarman and his yearling run through the woods, joining a herd of deer, set to Mendelssohn. While the film is full of cornpone humor and raw emotion, it almost works better as a nature documentary.

For a double-feature of traumatically sad movies about the deaths of animals, throw in Old Yeller, or, sticking to the deer family, Bambi.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Suspiria

I have a few more witch movies to go, one of them being Suspiria, a 1977 film directed by schlock-master Dario Argento. Set in Germany, it concerns a young dancer (Jessica Harper), enrolling at a prestigious dance school. But strange things are happening. First, one of the students run out into a storm and takes refuge in a friend's apartment. She sees ghostly eyes out of her window, and then is stabbed repeatedly.

Later, a blind man is attacked by his service dog, maggots infest the place, and Harper learns that the school was founded by a woman who was thought to be a witch. One of her friends ends up falling into a pit of razor wire.

Suspiria is certainly vividly rendered, with anamorphic lenses and lurid colors (red filters are frequently used, setting a mood but making things difficult to see). The film seems to have been shot on a measly budget, and the music, by a band called Goblins, is mixed much too loudly, while the dialogue is barely audible. Argento made a lot of these movies and is venerated by some, but he's not a very good technical filmmaker.

Also, the plot doesn't make sense. If the dance school is indeed a front for a coven, just what are they up to? They don't seem to be turning the girls into witches, or eating them, or anything else nefarious. It just seems like it was written in to give the film an evil overtone (unlike many witch films, Satan's name is not invoked). The film is gory, but the special effects are not that good, so even when a woman is stabbed directly in her beating heart it shouldn't spook anyone. I found the whole thing unpleasant without being thrilling.

Jessica Harper had a short but interesting career. She was in a few high profile films of the early '80s, like Stardust Memories, Pennies From Heaven, and My Favorite Year, but not much after that. According to Wikipedia she is now writing children's books. She was a very interesting actress, too bad she didn't do more films.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Finders Keepers

I don't know how many Stephen King books I've read--a lot--and I'm always amazed at how he draws in the reader. The prose flows so naturally, so effortlessly, it's like we're hearing him read it to us. There's no obfuscation, no experiment language, and a steady current of sardonic humor. Perhaps this is why he isn't taken seriously by many critics.

In Finders Keepers, the second in the Bill Hodges series, King does it again. This is a sequel to Mr. Mercedes, in which the hero was a retired detective. He's back again, but doesn't appear until near the middle of the book. Instead we're told two parallel stories. One, set in the 1979, concerns the murder of a J.D. Salinger-like author. He lives in seclusion in New Hampshire, and hasn't written in years. A young psychopath, Morris Bellamy, wants to know if he's written anything else, and robs him. The writer, John Rothstein, mocks him, and dies for his trouble.

Cut to nearly forty years later. The murder goes unsolved, but Bellamy is arrested for rape. A teenage boy, Pete Saubers, finds a trunk filled with cash and several dozen notebooks--the unpublished works of John Rothstein, hidden by Bellamy. So, as King alternates stories, we are led down the dark path to when Bellamy will meet our boy Pete.

With many King books I've dreaded both reading on and not being able to resist. This is the way of Finders Keepers. The forces of evil and good are on a collision course. The inclusion of Hodges, who now runs a private detective agency called Finders Keepers, is almost superfluous. His character development was the most important in Mr. Mercedes, but here he's more of a standard good guy. Two of his sidekicks from the first book, especially Holly Gibney, who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, are back, but the story is about the nature of obsession and ownership. The title is a childish refrain that I still hear--a kid finds a pencil on the floor, so it's his, regardless of the claims of the person that dropped it. Bellamy is so obsessed with Rothstein that he can't stomach the idea of someone else possessing what he wants.

The killing of a writer by an obsessed fan may be a stretch, but it's certainly happened before in other areas, most notably John Lennon. King gives it a spin, though, as he is a voracious reader and probably has had his own scrapes with lunatics (and, of course, he wrote the ultimate obsessed fan book in Misery). This also allows him to give some of his opinions on writing: "A good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.”

I was talking to someone today who is a fan of King and read Mr. Mercedes, and said something I think is correct--the Hodges books are a different kettle of fish for him because they are not supernatural (at least not yet--there are hints to come that I'm sure are answered in the third book). Instead these two books are about monsters that are very much human, committing horrific acts of violence for the flimsiest of reasons--they're insane. My colleague was saying she did not like to read books like that, and I understand, But maybe that's why they get under my skin so much.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Golden Globes and Golden Showers

For someone who has a gilded toilet, the element Au has not been kind to Donald Trump this week. On Sunday night, at the Golden Globes, a weird awards show that somehow got prestigious even though only about 80 people vote on it (it's as if your block voted on their favorite movies and TV shows) made headlines when Meryl Streep, very likely the best actress Hollywood has ever produced, took the opportunity of winning a lifetime achievement award to rip Trump for his mocking of a disabled reporter back during the campaign.

This, as they say, set the Internet on fire. Predictably, the right attacked, saying that Trump's "mocking" has been debunked. A series of videos showing Trump waving his arms like a spastic person several times indicates, they say, that he wasn't mocking this guy, he just always waves his arms like that. I'm not sure I buy it, because in the video in question, Trump holds his arms exactly like that reporter does. Trump also says he never met him, but he prefaces his fake spasm by saying "You gotta see this poor guy." Also, anytime Trump says anything, we can be sure he's lying.

 But beyond that, Streep picked just one issue of many that shows that Trump is a horrible excuse for a human being. Do Republicans really see this man as a shining knight on a horse, and not a money-grubbing, heartless cretin? Their blindness is really amazing. Streep could have picked many other things--"Grab 'em by the pussy," wandering naked into Miss Teen USA's changing room, attacking the Mexican-American judge, wanting a registry of Muslims, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

We also heard a round of "celebrities should keep their mouths shut," as if becoming famous requires turning in one's freedom of speech. This is especially ironic since these people just elected a famous, rich TV star. One who has a gold toilet, and cares about the common man about as much as he does about yesterday's bowel movement. If I wanted someone to have my back, and guessed who cared about me as a human being more, I'd take Streep in a heartbeat.

The most predictable response came from Trump himself. On Facebook some friends and I, right after the speech, played Trump Tweet Bingo. I got the "over-rated" square, but missed on "Hillary Flunky." One is over-rated, of course, unless they like Trump, then they become the best ever (somewhere in Trump's brain, Jackie Evancho equals Beyonce). As Steven Colbert put it, "Over-rated? Have you seen Sophie's Choice?" I doubt being called over-rated hurts Streep any. She was once called too ugly to play the girl in King Kong, which was a huge bomb.

But here's what's galling--that Trump engages in these petty snits while also being President-Elect of the United States. Can you imagine Barack Obama taking after a criticism of him? No. Trump seems more concerned about Streep and Alec Baldwin than income inequality, bad drinking water, or Russia's intervention in Syria. He is so thoroughly non-presidential it's surreal. They say Nixon's downfall seemed Shakespearean, and Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal was written by Beckett. Trump's presidency, no matter how short it is, seems to be written by Ionesco.

Trump's bad week continued with an intelligent report that suggests Russia was blackmailing him. Here's one headline: "Donald Trump Denies That He Hired Russian Hookers For Golden Shower Party." Now, whether true or not, that is not a headline one wants to see one's name in. The facts of this report are in question, but the humorists of America seized on Trump enjoying being urinated on with glee. "Tinkle, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," tweeted Frank Coniff. "Inauguration Day Weather Update: 100% Showers," tweeted Andy Borowitz. If that weren't enough, another article said that Trump may be the fattest president ever, even heavier than Taft. One could almost feel sorry for him, except for the fact he's incapable of feeling sorry for anyone else so fuck him.

The talk now is that eventually the Republican Party will gang up and invoke the provisions in the 25th Amendment, declare him incompetent, and remove him so that Mike Pence can take over. That would be fun to watch, even though Pence is in some ways worse. But then Trump would be free to have women pee on him whenever he wants.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Omen

In the wake of the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, there was a short period when A-list horror films were made. The first of these kind of copycat films was The Omen, released in 1976, directed by Richard Donner. The makers of the film confess in the "making of" extras that the film couldn't have been made without the presence of Gregory Peck.

Peck was then an eminence grise of Hollywood, sixty years old and making interesting choices (he would a few years later play a Nazi fugitive in The Boys from Brazil). In this film he was a high-placed diplomat, who is told by a priest in a Roman hospital that his baby has died at birth. Unable to face telling his wife (Lee Remick) the news, the priest offers a deal--another infant, born at the same time, to an indigent mother with no family. Peck takes the child. The time of birth? June 6, at 6 A.M. They will name him Damien.

The Omen has been around now for 40 years and most of us know it, but I had fun remembering the first time I saw it, which must have been on HBO. My friend Bob remembers that he saw it late on night on TV while babysitting, and it gave him a bit of a chill. The film does not have the overall gore of The Exorcist, but instead arrives slowly and stealthily, like the Rottweilers that serve as Satan's guards. A nanny hangs herself at the boy's birthday party. A priest shows up spouting nonsense, so it seems, but gets skewered by a lightning rod trying to get into a church. And then, in a memorably shot scene, when Damien, aided by her Mrs. Danvers-like nanny (Billie Whitelaw), trikes past his mother standing on a table, who falls, along with a goldfish bowl. Something is definitely wrong with Damien.

Peck, who is by now the Ambassador to England, starts to believe the priest, and then is helped by a photojournalist (David Warner), and the third act is a kind of Dan Brown thriller, as they hop from city to city, tracking down who the boy's mother was, interpreting Revelations, and finding other disturbing news. In perhaps the film's most "wow" scene, Warner loses his head to a pane of glass (the devil, it seems, has a sense of humor and we can see the inspiration for The Final Destination films, along with Rube Goldberg). The climax, with Peck wresting Damien away from Whitelaw and then...well, if you haven't seen it, I'll stop there. I will mention the eerie last shot, with Damien with the President of the United States, turning and giving us a sly smile. It made me think what's going to happen on January 20th, and whether Donald Trump has a 666 birthmark under his comb over.

The Omen was a hit, but sequelitis killed the prestige horror picture. I think the last blow was The Amityville Horrror, and then fright films went back to where they belong, to B pictures. But The Omen is a genuinely creepy film. I don't know if Peck and Remick thought they were slumming, but they are stalwarts, and the music by Jerry Goldsmith, full of choirs and church organs, won an Oscar.


Monday, January 09, 2017

Birdman Soundtrack

Ironically, the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media went to a soundtrack that wasn't even eligible for an Oscar, Birdman. The original drum soundtrack was by Antonio Sanchez, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed that it had too much other music (including pieces by Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and others) that it wasn't eligible. Well, rules are rules, but I'm glad the Grammys recognized it.

I've always been drawn to drumming. Other people may play air guitar, but I air drum, or at least drum on my steering wheel. When I saw the movie, over two years ago now, I was immediately struck my the mostly drum-only score, which has a jazz feel but also some rock and roll. There's jokes about using the drum solo as a time to go pee at a concert, but I like drum solos, and I've tried to appreciate the difficulty of drumming (I sure picked up some of that in Whiplash).

Rodriguez's score creates a kind of chaos, as when drumsticks crash it almost sounds like walls breaking down, our the loss of sanity by the main character, played by Michael Keaton. It certainly isn't soothing--if you listen to meditation music there isn't much drumming.

The rest of the music is also wonderful. It includes part of Symphony No, 9 by Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor by Rachmaninoff, some Ravel, some Tchaikovsky, and an absolutely lovely choir piece, "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians," by John Adams.

I don't know many soundtracks anymore, but this one is a good one, and even after several days of playing it I'm not tired of it and hear more things.