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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Silence" 2016 What Was Scorcese Thinking?

There used to be 200,000 Christians in Japan. In the seventeenth century, the Buddhist shogunate decided to eliminate them. Christians were tortured, starved, crucified, and wiped out by the Buddhists. Thank heaven Buddhism is such a tolerant religion. Otherwise it would be terrible to think what might have happened.

Martin Scorcese's film "Silence" depicts a slice of this history. Two priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan seeking to learn the fate of their fellow priest, played by Liam Neeson. Japanese Christians rush to the priests, eager to receive the sacraments of communion and confession.

The priests are set upon by Japanese Buddhists who starve and torture them. Occasionally there is some flapdoodle dialogue about whether or not Christianity belongs in Japan. You will receive no spiritual insights from this dialogue. It is lifeless and uninteresting. Ask any college sophomore to talk to you about Buddhism and Christianity and you will be more intrigued.

The movie is very slow. Events are depicted almost in real time, with no editing. As one reviewer said, "the movie starts in the 1500s and never ends." The torture is graphic and grotesque. There are decapitations, crucifixions, and drownings. The ending won't surprise anyone. The priests have no power. They are surrounded by people who are not only eager to torture them, but also to torture other people. The Buddhists tell the Christians, "We will only stop torturing these innocent Japanese people if you renounce Jesus."

What on earth was Martin Scorcese thinking? What is the point of this movie? Is Scorcese trying to get us to renounce something? The film sure feels like torture.

The movie questions whether or not Christianity "belongs" in Japan. It implies that Christianity does not belong in Japan. Here's the thing – people are being tortured. Under torture you'll say whatever the torturer wants you to say. You'll say that Trump won the popular vote. With the threat of torture hanging over the head of every character in the film, the debate is rather skewed.

Even as he appears to be belittling Christianity as an imperialist, colonizer's religion, Japanese Buddhism doesn't come off any better. The film consists of one scene after another of Japanese Buddhists torturing innocent people, coldly and gleefully. Not a great advertisement for Buddhism. Buddhism was also used by Imperial Japan during WW II. It's time we take a serious look at how Buddhism has been exploited to condone evil. 

"A Monster Calls" 2016 Weirdly Christophobic and Underdeveloped

"A Monster Calls" is a weirdly, distastefully Christophobic film.

Conor, an adorable little English boy (Lewis MacDougall) is very sad because he is bullied in school and his mother has cancer. His father lives in LA and is married to someone else and has another child. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) appears cold and controlling. Conor is artistic and he likes to escape from his sad life by drawing.

One night, Conor is visited by a talking tree (Liam Neeson). The tree promises to tell Conor stories that will help him with the burdens he faces in life.

That's pretty much all that happens in the film. The film doesn't go deep into the pain a child feels when he watches his mother go from being a bit pale to being bedridden and bald. It doesn't do much of anything with Conor's heartbreaking relationship with his absentee father. It doesn't delve into the complexities of bullying. Why do the bullies behave so badly? How can bullied kids change their situation? The film doesn't even ask these questions, never mind answer them. The film doesn't explore or articulate Conor's relationship to art. Conor is at the age when romantic love first rears its head. Conor cuddles in bed with his mom, but he doesn't seem to see or be seen by any romantic prospects.

The talking tree promises to tell Conor stories that will help him in life. The stories are animated and narrated by Neeson. The animation is lovely. It is pen and ink and watercolor. The watercolor splashes colorfully across the screen.

The thing is, the tree's stories suck. They are boring and pointless. There isn't much going on in this movie, and the stories, which are promised to be profound, are just painful to listen to.

I did cry watching this movie. I think you'd have to have a heart of stone not to cry watching a lad deal with such depressing life circumstances. But the film is so underdeveloped that I left the theater feeling unsatisfied.

The one thing the movie does do and does with great efficiency. The film bashes Christianity. Watching this movie, I had to ask myself, what is going on in England? Why does England hate Christianity so much? Why are Christophobic themes so prominent in English films, from the creepy clergyman Mr. Collins in every new iteration of "Pride and Prejudice" to this film, which opens with a scene of a church crumbling into the earth?

One of the stories the tree tells is about a bad bad bad bad English clergyman, maybe even as bad as Mr. Collins, who is disrespectful to an herbal healer. I mean, come on. The herbal healer gets revenge against the bad clergyman in a really vicious way, and the film celebrates that. To make everything crystal clear, in the animated portion, the clergyman is shown with a giant white cross on his bad bad very bad no good chest.

This film creeped me out. It uses the most poignant of life circumstances to bash Christianity. How exploitative and nasty.

On the plus side: Young actor Lewis MacDougall is beyond spectacular in this role. He gives one of the great child actor performances of all time. This kid, I hope, is going places. 

"Patriot's Day" 2016: An Efficient Littler Thriller that Takes No Risks

"Patriot's Day" is an efficient little thriller that recreates the events of April 15, 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated two bombs during the Boston Marathon. Mark Wahlberg stars as a police officer, but there is really no main character in this movie. It is more of a docudrama, moving from event to event, from one person affected by the bomb to the next. We are introduced to, and spend a few minutes with each of the victims, police officers, FBI agents, and unidentified interrogators. We visit in the Tsarnaev home previous to the bombing. We watch as the governor ponders the decision to shut the city down. We watch police go from house to house in Watertown, seeking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

It's all very suspenseful and interesting but the film made no lasting impact on me. "Patriot's Day" never takes any of the risks that might propel it into the territory of memorable art. It takes virtually no stand on the many questions this bombing prompts us to ask. The Tsarnaev family were immigrants. They applied for political asylum. They were, for all intents and purposes, Muslim refugees, though they were never given the "refugee" designation.

There is a debate going on around the world right now about what to do about Muslim refugees from war-torn regions, and whether or not taking in Muslim refugees is safe for the receiving country. "Patriot's Day" goes nowhere near this question.

There is also a debate about what to do about terrorists' family members. Noor Salman, the wife of the Orlando terrorist, was arrested on January 16, 2017. What about Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlane Tsarnaev? Before the bombing, Russell performed a google search of the rewards Islam offers to the wife of a dead Muslim terrorist. This is mentioned in the film. Russell is shown living in the same tiny apartment with the brothers, where they prepared the bomb. The film implies that she was aware of their plans. She is free and no charges have been brought against her.

The film depicts Russell being interrogated by a woman in a hijab. The suggestion is that America needs good Muslims to fight bad Muslims. In any case, the interrogator gets nothing out of Russell.

In addition to following police officers and other first responders, the film also follows the victims. The viewer is given a brief intro to young lovers whose legs must be amputated. Eight-year-old Catholic schoolboy Martin Richard was the youngest victim. The film does not show him alive. We see, rather, a cloth covering a very small body. We see the cloth rippling in the wind, and a police officer standing guard over the body till investigators can address the corpse without disturbing evidence. In fact the bomb tore Martin's little body apart. The damage was described at the trial. Martin Richard's beautiful face, in a photograph radiating young life, innocence and hope, is shown onscreen after the film concludes.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"Hidden Figures": Inspirational, Starchy, and Skewed

"Hidden Figures" is an inspirational bio-pic about three real black women mathematicians who played a part in NASA. It's relentlessly wholesome and a bit starchy, but worth seeing for the history it presents.

Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 moon flight. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the first black woman supervisor at NACA (later NASA). Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer. Kevin Costner plays the fictional Al Harrison, a composite boss figure. Kirsten Dunst is another composite figure, representing the mean white racist. Jim Parsons is, again, a composite figure, playing the mean white racist male version.

"Hidden Figures" shows its leads struggling against white racism. NASA was located in Langley, Virginia, which operated under Jim Crow. Johnson must run between buildings, often in pouring rain, in order to use the "colored" restroom. Her coworkers decline to drink coffee from the same pot she uses. White coworkers refer to the black women by their first names, while the black women refer to the whites as Mr or Miss and last name. In spite of all this, the women are able to achieve significant contributions to the space program, using their superior skills at mathematics.

The movie's thoroughgoing wholesome preachiness can make it a bit dull. The black people in the film are all perfect – beautiful, perfectly dressed, kind, rational, great parents. Not a single black character ever dresses poorly or loses her temper or swears or is impatient with children or makes a mistake. Such perfect people make for boring drama.

In recent years, Hollywood has caught much flak when it produces movies that show whites advancing black civil rights. "Mississippi Burning" was widely criticized for telling the true story of white contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Critics demanded films that depicted blacks as heroes and whites as bad guys. The historical reality is, though, that without white allies, Civil Rights would have been dead in the water.

As I was watching "Hidden Figures," I thought of the invisible white allies the film erased from its account. Virtually every white person the film's black women encounter is a hostile bigot or merely clueless (as is Costner's composite character). A Polish engineer, the real life Kazimierz Czarnecki, is shown in a seconds-long scene encouraging a black woman, but it is made clear that he is encouraging her because he is a foreigner and not American. In another seconds-long scene, astronaut John Glenn is shown going out of his way to be pleasant to the black women; Harrison pulls him away, as if to say, "Being nice to black people is not allowed at NASA."

I don't believe that African American women were invited into NASA, encouraged to get advanced degrees, and to spread their wings without white higher-ups deciding that NASA would challenge Jim Crow and play a part in the Civil Rights Movement. Those farsighted heroes, whoever they were, have been erased from this account.

Another aspect of the film is ironic. The movie wants the viewer to accept black women as thinkers. And yet it dresses two of its leads in the tightest of dresses and the highest of heels and the lushest of fake eyelashes. Even when at home, putting the kids to bed, the leads are picture perfect. Look at photos of the real Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson. They were not hot models. They looked like mathematicians often look: a bit rumpled, with average attractiveness.

Yes yes we all know movies must have attractive leads. But Russel Crowe was allowed to look rumpled and nerdy in "A Beautiful Mind," about mathematician John Nash. No one forced him to wear a tight shirt that displayed his chest hair or his pecs. Even movies urging equality must resort to old fashioned, sexist objectification of women's bodies in order to bring in viewers.

"La La Land": Fun and Sweet but no Masterpiece

"La La Land" is a fun, sweet movie about two young artists, their attempt to establish their careers, and their love affair. It's enjoyable but not the masterpiece reviews insist it is.

Mia (Emma Stone) is a barrista and an aspiring actress. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist. They meet during a traffic jam, get together at a party, and go through the ups and downs of young people who are in love and who are also chasing artistic success.

"La La Land" is a musical. People sing and dance. That's fun. Neither Stone nor Gosling is a professional singer or dancer, so the singing and dancing are mediocre.

Mia and Sebastian go for a walk at night. Their walk is cinematically reminiscent of a walk that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse take in the 1953 movie musical, "Band Wagon" – to the tune of "Dancing in the Dark."

Just like Fred and Cyd, Mia and Seb begin their nighttime walk as bickering enemies, but during the dance they warm up to each other. They dance under trees and streetlights. The difference is that Gosling and Stone can't begin to match the magic that professional dancers like Astaire and Charisse conjure in their dance number. Gosling's voice is barely there.

In another scene, Stone sings what might have been a show-stopping number, a song about her free-spirited aunt who lived in Paris and went swimming in the River Seine. During this song, Stone wears a non-descript, baggy sweater and she barely moves. Stone is very compelling as an actress. As a singer, especially during this number, she falls flat.

Damien Chazelle's direction doesn't highlight the dance numbers as it might. The opening scene depicts an LA traffic jam. Passengers emerge from their cars and dance on the highway. They sing a lyric-dense song; you can't hear them over the music in order to make out the words. It's frustrating. Their movements are not flattered by Chazelle's camera.

Even so, I very much enjoyed "La La Land." Its strengths would have been evident whether anyone had been singing or not. "La La Land" brings home how hard it is for struggling artists to nurture healthy relationships. Mia and Sebastian live in poverty. At one point he looks at a water stain on the ceiling and despairs. They are crushed when their best efforts meet with failure. They are tempted to sell out. Their careers demand that they not be present for each other for months at a time. Mia and Sebastian let each other down.

"La La Land" drags after a bit. Stone and Gosling are virtually the only characters in the film. Their key interactions are repeated. "La La Land" redeemed itself, for me, in a final, fantasy sequence that was incredibly poignant and true and that was unlike anything else I'd ever seen in any other film. I'd recommend seeing "La La Land" for that sequence alone.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year 2017

John Roberts Shipwrecked Mariners Society 
In the time of your life, live — so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness of death for yourself or any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. 

Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. 

Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. 

Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. 

- William Saroyan