Category: Hollywood

Silence (US-Mexico 2016)

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence by Japanese Christian (and Roman Catholic) Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996) follows a Japanese film adaptation, Chinmoku directed by Shinoda Masahiro in 1971. There was also a Portuguese film in 1996, Os Olhos da Ásia, which featured similar historical events. Scorsese thus finds himself in the same position as with his previous remakes, Cape Fear and The Departed – what can he add? I need to see the Japanese version of Silence to judge whether his close personal interest has been a bonus or a burden in interpreting the narrative. My verdict on The Departed was that he didn’t match the Hong Kong original. At the moment I’m ambivalent as to whether or not his most recent remake works.

The background to the narrative is the attempt by both traders and missionaries to ‘open up’ Japan to the West (i.e. the maritime nations of Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and England) in the 16th and 17th centuries. These European incursions coincided with the period of civil wars in Japan, the final triumph of the Tokugawa clan and the beginning of the long Shogunate which would only finally succumb to American trade (and military power) in the 1850s. Silence begins in 1640 when the Shogunate has banned Christian missions and forced up to 300,000 converts to deny their Christian beliefs. Two young Portuguese Jesuits set off from Macau (the Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast) to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) one of their teachers/mentors who is rumoured to have renounced his faith and who is now living as a Japanese. The two young men, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver) land secretly in Japan and are hidden by Christian villagers on the coast near Nagasaki (the port where Dutch traders eventually negotiated sole trading rights for the next 200 years). The two Jesuits face an almost impossible mission. They wish to prove that Fr. Ferreira couldn’t/wouldn’t commit apostasy but very quickly they see that the local governor acting as ‘inquisitor’ is willing to adopt various strategies involving torture to force renunciation. Both Jesuits are eventually captured. How will they withstand torture, mainly in the form of watching the villagers die, if the Jesuits refuse to renounce their faith?

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

This is a very long film (161 minutes) and there isn’t as much ‘action’ as I expected. I confess that my attention lapsed at times. I thought I had stayed with the narrative all through but watching the trailer and some of the clips available online, I’m beginning to think I missed some moments. The film is beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and designed by Dante Ferretti – so it looks great. This is especially true of the scenes in the mists that shroud the priests’ journeys by small boat or through the mountains – classical Japanese cinema (especially Mizoguchi) comes to mind. Much of the film was actually shot in Taiwan, though I noted from the credits that some work was based in Kyoto, the home of Japanese historical drama. But no matter how great the film looks, I have problems with the narrative.

This is really Andrew Garfield’s film – Adam Driver (looking almost skeletal) becomes almost a secondary character. Garfield is presented as almost a Christ-like figure (i.e. like the conventional 17th century images of Christ in Europe) and indeed this seems to be the central narrative theme. Is Fr. Rodrigues too concerned with seeing himself as the image of Christ and therefore unable to see the wider picture? As a non-believer I can be reasonably objective about this tendency, but because I find the Japanese history so fascinating and because I see the missionaries as part of mercantilist/capitalist attempts to colonise, my sympathies are generally with the Japanese characters. This should be one of the strengths of the film. The two most engaging characters for me are the interpreter (the wonderful Asano Tadanobu, last seen by me in Harmonium (Japan-France 2016)) and Ogata Issei as the governor/inquisitor. Ogata is remarkable and I perked up whenever he appeared. Yes, he is responsible for torture and death, but at least there is a reason behind his actions, which he explains in a tale about a daimyo (feudal lord) and his four concubines – a clear allegory about the four foreign powers squabbling among themselves and causing unrest in Japan. By contrast, what do the Jesuits offer in a country that already has both Buddhism (imported via China) and Shinto? Why do they need another religion? It’s not as if these Christians have liberated Europeans from feudal rule. I’m intrigued as to how the Japanese version by Shinoda handles this. Scorsese’s script (with Jay Cocks) has the Japanese inquisitor argue that Japan is a ‘swamp’ in which Christianity can’t put down roots. ‘Swamp’ as a description seems to come from the novel, but to me sounds rather demeaning. The suggestion is that Japanese converts simply grasped the hope of this new religion to assuage the misery of their lives in a feudal state without ever understanding it. Christians have always believed in the universality of their beliefs and the righteousness of the gospel teachings. But from the perspectives of other cultures, as the interpreter comments, this looks like arrogance.

During the screening, I did wonder why the Catholic Church successfully grew a large community of adherents across Latin America but had relatively little success in Asia. I note that some reviewers refer to The Mission (UK-US 1986) with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro as a comparison film for The Silence. I haven’t seen that film, but I understand that the Spanish missionary priest and his lay companion positively help the local people in their fight against Portuguese slave traders. Perhaps Catholicism is not necessarily ‘universal’? Is faith universal? Must it always be contextualised in relation to different cultures? It’s often said that the Catholicism of filmmakers like Hitchcock and Scorsese helps to explain their fascination with guilt, self-doubt etc. I can see that I should have been open to these questions in watching Silence, but the film didn’t move me as I hoped. I can see though that if you believe in a supreme God, the ‘silence of God’ in the face of the suffering must be hard to accept. The narrative provides a ‘way in’ to understanding this by offering us a Judas-like figure, Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke) who is present throughout, ‘testing’ Fr. Rodrigues.

The Silence is presented with most of the lead characters speaking English and with subtitles for the Japanese speech. The Japanese speak English with accents that reveal the class distinctions between peasants and nobility. I suppose this makes sense but I do wonder why, when non-Anglophone directors can make films in English, Americans (and Brits) won’t use the appropriate languages for the characters in their films. Portuguese-speaking Japanese actors in 2016 is a bit of a stretch (though there are many Japanese-Brazilians) but the principle remains sound. Silence is an impressive film and Catholic audiences may find the questions of faith more riveting than I did, but some kinds of personal projects are always likely to be problematic. It would be good if Marty returned to a neglected genre that he has conquered before. How about a decent female-centred melodrama?

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday (in that red dress – see below)

Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).

The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.

Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.

The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

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The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

The Girl on the Train (US 2016)

The world from the train window . . .

The world from the train window . . .

The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie – trapped in the town which is a "baby-making factory"?

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie, trapped in the town – which is a “baby-making factory”?

I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.

The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.