The Big Sick (2017)
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kurt Braunohler
This film is one of the most celebrated independent films of last year, and having seen it, I can tell why. First off, The Big Sick is legitimate “dram-edy” fare. It has that independent quirkiness like Juno or last year’s Don’t Think Twice, but moments that really make you stop, too. Second, it concerns a real comedian baring his soul, which is always a hit with critics and fans alike. Finally, Sick deals with the modern discussion of letting old customs… evolve. Perhaps this discussion is what sets the film apart, which is a credit to Nanjiani and the rest of the cast and crew. Without this comic and his real life wife sharing their story, perhaps it would have been easy to dismiss.
You should recognize star Kumail Nanjiani as soon as he appears on screen. The man has been on Portlandia, Silicon Valley, in the film Central Intelligence among many, many other recent projects. From my viewing of his work, this is Nanjiani’s first foray into drama, which is always exciting to see. See Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler and a host of other traditionally comedic actors who have dipped into drama. In this case, and perhaps it’s because it’s Nanjiani’s own, personal tale, the role is well played and convincing in every essence – both the funny moments and the heart breaking ones. His girlfriend is played by Zoe Kazan, and their chemistry is believable and fun to watch in Act One.
In Act Two, however, the story takes an unexpected turn. Emily (Kazan) discovers Kumail’s cigar box full of Pakistani women, which his dear mother has been trying to set him up with using the family dinner as the meeting place. Kumail thinks nothing of the cigar box because he didn’t ask his mother for these set ups, nor is she very subtle about them. Played by Zenobia Shroff, Kumail’s mom was one of the more difficult characters for me watching Sick. We’ll circle back to that sentiment in a while – the point is, their first major fight comes at a terrible time as Emily is sent to the hospital shortly after for symptoms that are really difficult to describe. The long and short is, the hospital staff informs Kumail – and Emily’s Mom (Holly Hunter) and Dad (Ray Romano) that they are putting her in a coma as the best option.
This “what if” is part of why this little indy works so well! I can only imagine sitting in that waiting room, sharing space with my girlfriend-ish’s parents – who I’ve never met, and who know what a bastard I am from their daughter. From here, the film twists and navigates itself adeptly. Frankly, I don’t want to ruin it for you. There are great, laugh out loud moments, and others that really make you pause – and not simply because it’s the time in the script for a pause like so many other formulaic comedies of the day.
The reason I had difficulty with Kumail’s mom is the third reason Sick works – this dialogue about tradition and when to let certain ones go, and how to let others evolve. I grew up in this country, I don’t have Pakistani roots, which makes it easy to understand how I can’t believe how a parent would simply prescribe the mate for their son or daughter. But, the very title of this entry surrounds this point. Do some parents ex-communicate their children because they don’t marry within their wishes? Apparently so! And I had a real difficulty putting myself in that kind of mindset.
In summary, please watch The Big Sick. It’s a great, crowd-pleasing dram-edy, and it raises thought provoking and relevant social questions. Perhaps a dialogue can start in your house after you watch it about some traditions that need adjustment. At the end of the day, I hope we all can find ways to keep our family close and discuss both sides of whatever conflict there may be. I mean, what a phenomenal theme for a film, eh?
Dir: Bryan Fogel
Stars: Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov – and many other real-life characters
I remember listening to sports radio years ago – I think it was Dan Patrick, but don’t quote me – and there had been a poll of Olympic athletes. I paraphrase as I say the survey question was something to the effect of, “Would you, as an Olympian, prefer to win the Gold Medal – with the understanding you would therefore surely die by age 40 – or take Silver, and live life indefinitely…?” And the results were something overwhelmingly positive, as in 80% GOLD to 20% Silver/Live Indefinitely… So, I’ve felt for years that I am built very differently – both physically and mentally – from Olympians.
This anecdote is related to Netflix’s documentary film Icarus, which had its first success at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. As documentary films go, Icarus stands as one of the tallest in my humble opinion. The non-fiction story is impressive, as is often the case when watching this genre. But, what makes Icarus so exceptional is the way the filmmakers follow along its unexpected ride. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean that the movie does not start where it ends in any respect. The fact the filmmakers navigated the twists and turns of the narrative in real time, as it was playing out is a tribute to their production skill – and mettle as human beings.
Let me start at the beginning. The point of the film as it begins is for professional cyclist Bryan Fogel to gain a better understanding of how Lance Armstrong, and other cyclists like him, have been able to game the system so easily. He wants to experiment with steroids, and see how much better his performance goes from one year in competing in the Tour of Switzerland compared to the next. You’ll surely get an insight to Brian’s competitive nature when you see where he places in the field the first year – without the influence of narcotics. Anyhow, we begin this journey with Brian in the same boat – just like a scientific experiment, we’re going to state a hypothesis, run a control test and then compare that control test with an alternate test to observe and analyze the results.
Well, the whole tale takes a dramatic turn when it turns out the very advisor Fogel hires is none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who happens to be far up in the Russian hierarchy of Russian state athletics. Rodchenkov, who is a caricature of a caricature by the way, hops on Skype in his first interaction with Fogel – and he’s got no shirt on. In the same video, he is continually distracted by the family cat, and has no qualms about broadcasting his adoration for the feline as the discussion progresses. The guy is in mis mid 50s. And he is so bizarre and funny that you almost forget you’re watching non-fiction for a moment. The point is, this character is going to advise Fogel on exactly what drugs to take, how to take them (shot to the buttocks or elsewhere, etc) and the dosages, too. We get the feeling right away that this isn’t Rodchenkov’s first rodeo – or whatever the Russian equivalent is to rodeo.
Now, as it turns out, Rodchenkov is the top of the pyramid as far as doping research and execution goes in Russia. He has been responsible for systematically enhancing the performance of Russian athletes – and Olympians in particular – since the 1980s. You might feel as if I’m ruining the film for you, but I promise I’m not. In fact, I’m confident I could relate the entire story to you and it would still be worth watching just how Rodchenkov is able to assist Fogel in his experiment – and how he ultimately becomes the thrust of the entire story. I’m struggling to remember a documentary that so dramatically shifts its focus while only increasing the suspense. Regardless, Rodchenkov has a lot to get off his chest, and Fogel and his filmmaking team deserve massive credit for making the man feel comfortable enough to share his insights and confessions with the world. But, it seems that when you name names and admit to the involvement of the KGB (also known as FSB – let’s just say “Russian Intelligence” to make it crystal clear), the despot Mr. Putin doesn’t take too kindly to it.
As a documentary, Icarus ebbs and flows with an entertaining and thrilling pace. The presentation of new characters, which range from the UCLA doctor in charge of creating the first anti-doping tests, to members of the IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), is handled well in that we know who Fogel is talking to and the purpose of the interview. The introduction of Rodchenkov is interesting, then amusing, then appalling – and ultimately a mix of all these emotions and more. The direct involvement of Russian officials all the way to the top of their government, and how Fogel proves the links to the IOC and WADA reminded me of classics like All the President’s Men and the more recent Spotlight. This won’t spoil anything, but the film even references another world event in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine covered here on ronhamprod in the Winter on Fire entry.
The philosophical questions raised by Icarus continue to intrigue me even weeks after seeing the film. For example, from a cycling standpoint, if all of the athletes are on drugs… does that mean the contest is not actually rigged, but in a bizarre way, an even playing field has resulted? From an Olympics standpoint, I don’t see how the organization can rebound from the revelations Icarus presents without a full external audit of how both the IOC and WADA was able to miss such blatant, systematic cheating. Concerning the almost throwaway reference to Chinese steroid production, will that country be next on the list of investigations by IOC and WADA? Are there other countries who have the kind of secrets contained that Rodchenkov just confessed to here?
Lucky for you, dear Reader, Icarus is on Netflix this minute. And, perhaps you saw the news recently that Russia has been banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea in less than 100 days. It’s fascinating to watch when a great film enters the social conversation – particularly when it’s true. As this is the holiday season, let me raise a glass to truth – something we can all drink to.
Last Saturday, November 4, I had the opportunity to attend The Contenders, which is an all day presentation hosted by the trade publication, Deadline. A variety of interviewers welcomed a legion of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and other royalty onto the stage at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard. It’s an exciting, infinitely fun, full day of discussions surrounding this year’s best film offerings. The purpose of this event, now in its seventh year, is to help those voters in the various industry guilds and associations cull down their “short list” of films. And it’s worth noting, the trade pub does the same event in the screen for TV productions.
In an age in which an infinite number of films are released annually, I would think these voters appreciate the day and the effort that Deadline puts forth. This next comment is not a complaint at all, but worth mentioning how jarring it is to have these immense stars on stage, like Gary Oldman, Patty Jenkins and Denzel Washington – and consistently have the moderators and Deadline staff politely say, after only ten or fifteen minutes, “OK! Thanks, now… onto the next panel!”
What follows is a quick commentary on all of the films presented this year – in order of when I arrived that morning… I’m also including the trailer and IMDB links so you can get a real idea of the filmmakers involved. It was an immensely fun, educational and sometimes heartfelt day. This “Part 1” entry will take us through lunch… Enjoy!
Dir: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad and Kate Hudson
IMDB – Marshall
I arrived that morning in the midst of director Reginald Hudlin’s discussion. But, the little clip I saw, which showcased the film’s score, gave me a great sense of how intricate and accurate the film was in its costumes, sets and design. The interesting element that the moderator discussed as their talk wrapped up, was the inclusion of Trayvon Martin’s parents in the conclusion of the film. Basically, in an effort to make a definitive correlation between the events of Marshall to today’s race relations, the director was able to “call of friend of mine” to have Martin’s parents take the part of Marshall’s next case.
The Big Sick
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
IMDB – The Big Sick
Let me just say that I’ve seen Mr. Nanjiani in a lot of projects over the past years – and he is just a naturally funny man. He told this story about pitching this idea to, as he said it, “a producer named Judd Apatow? Look him up… he’s done some things.” And the idea was for a “ghost witch.” Apparently, Nanjiani really likes the idea of a witch that dies, and then becomes a ghost.
Well, his wife, who was on stage with him, and Mr. Apatow didn’t like that idea so much. So, Nanjiani shifted into the story of how he and his wife met – and Apatow liked that idea very much. From there, the project continued for three years as Nanjiani, his wife and Apatow worked the script over and over. As they do throughout the day at The Contenders, they showed the clip of when Nanjiani meets Kazan in the bar, and admonishes her for heckling him during his comedy set. Well, this scene is almost identical to how the filmmakers actually met. Some real authenticity achieved!
Dir: Todd Haynes
Stars: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley and Julieanne Moore
IMDB – Wonderstruck
Cinematographer Edward Lachman talked about Wonderstruck, which frankly, was not a movie I had on my radar prior to last Saturday. He talked a little before they showed a clip from the film about how challenging it was to shoot visuals for the feeling of not being able to hear. Not to mention the fact that director Haynes, who you might remember from the recent film Brooklyn, wanted to give New York city a look of “Mean Streets” and classic 1950s films. Tall order, right?
Well, then they showed the clip. And, I have to say, after watching four minutes of this film, it has moved to my top five to see. I see that Mr. Lachman was responsible for shooting Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and Erin Brokovich, so… I’m a fan! But I’m fascinated by a film that wants to tackle a silent film star, casts unknown child actors – one of which is actually deaf – and seeks to transform New York city to that 1950s raw look on a budget. I’m really looking forward to seeing Wonderstruck in theaters.
Last Flag Flying
Dir: Richard Linklater
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
IMDB – Last Flag Flying
This panel featured director Richard Linklater, who has brought us amazing films in his career. And, it boasts an amazing cast. The clip they showed also hit home, as I can certainly relate with aged folks struggling with today’s technology. In the scene, Fishburne’s character is getting hit from all sides as both Carell and Cranston’s characters, along with the cell phone salesman, try to convince him to get his first mobile device.
With all of that said, I’m still dubious about Flag. I read a lot of social media conversation for work, all of which is related to films and TV shows. The “convo” in clips related to Flag from veterans and those in service say the very plot of the film is suspect. Sure, I’d like to see a road trip film with these iconic actors, but… if, as Linklater says, the film is more about “post 9/11 paranoia” than a legitimate drama featuring veterans and their sons? Concerning my suspicion, I’ve been proven wrong before!
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein
IMDB – Lady Bird
First off… you’re wondering, I was wondering, so let me just spell it out for you. It’s pronounced “SIR-sha,” all right? Ms. Ronan is one talented actor, and I have to say, after her role in Atonement, I will pretty much consider watching anything she’s in, including the very indy minded Lady Bird.
Although the film seems rather Mother-Daughter and “teenage angst” in its themes, and the panel definitely focused on items that were of small interest to me, I suppose I will have to give this A24 title a try. I went to Catholic school, and I know what an effect the themes and norms taught there can have on a youngster. Plus, the clips they showed and the trailer seems to contain some genuine comedy, which nestled within awkward drama always makes for great awards season fodder.
Finally, another random item brought up during the discussion with director Gerwig was Beanie Feldstein’s inclusion in the cast. The relevancy seemed specific to this actor being Jonah Hill’s younger sister. From the IMDB listing, she does not seem to have a substantial role, so this portion of the interview was lost on me. Regardless, I’ll continue to include these kinds of notes to give you a sense of the kind of things discussed on stage at The Contenders.
The Florida Project
Dir: Sean Baker
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince and Caleb Landry Jones
IMDB – The Florida Project
Director Baker and co-star, six year old Brooklyn Prince appeared for this panel. As you’ll see when you watch the preview, the story concerns all the less than economically advantaged children who live in the torn up, wretched motels around Disneyworld in central Florida. The writer came across this idea as an amazing juxtaposition, that you have children coming from around the world to visit the “happiest place on earth,” while all the kids who live down the block can’t afford to get in there – although they can see the fireworks every night.
Regardless, I’m really interested to see this film, which seems to have a real mix of hard drama and genuine laughs, all told from the perspective of a little girl. And Brooklyn Prince is incredible. On stage, as she talked, it became easy to understand why Baker cast her. When asked how Mr. Dafoe was on set, Prince said (paraphrased), “Oh, he was great! He would have lunch with me, and then when a scene was um… ready to go… he would tell everyone to give me space so I could think about it and… yeah, he was great.”
Let me put it this way – Baker said he was looking for a modern take on the classic shorts, “The Little Rascals.” And the clips they showed certainly suggest the film achieved that kind of camaraderie!
The Disaster Artist
Dir: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco and a LOT of high profile actors…
IMDB – The Disaster Artist
Years ago, I specifically remember seeing an outdoor ad for The Room, which is widely considered one of the “best worst movies” ever made. For context, the ad I’m describing said something like, “Tennessee Williams level drama” in its copy. Tommy Wiseau, the film’s director, is a superbly eccentric actor/producer/director/fill-in-the-blank, whose pal wrote a book all about Wiseau’s feature, The Room. In one of the most engaging discussions of last Saturday 11/4, director James Franco did a great job articulating how the material spoke to him.
I recently saw one of Marlon Brando’s interviews from late night TV on YouTube, and I bring it up only because I think it speaks to Franco’s feeling that Wiseau was on to something. Big or small, with an immense budget or micro, you have to keep the very essence of “making movies” in perspective. I also think playing the character appealed to Franco, as his immediate, on demand imitations of “Tommy” were entertaining to watch.
Finally, it was fascinating watching panels where, like Artist, the material just spoke to the actor and/or director. Other times, as I’ll try to call out, the talent had no intention of getting involved – before that “thing” happened. With Disaster, Franco just knew he had to make the film. Obviously, a very unique film has resulted.
The Phantom Thread
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis
IMDB – The Phantom Thread
This film will allegedly be icon Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. OK! Moving on…
This film had not really grabbed me prior to last Saturday. I was certainly aware of it as it came out earlier this fall. But, part of the fun of The Contenders is the “did you know” moment, of which there are many. For Victoria, it was explained that this is indeed a true story, and the British royal family tried with great determination to get it suppressed. So, in a funny way, it was character Abdul Karim’s family that actually brought the story to the public eye. I’m a big fan of director Stephen Frears, and I expect Victoria & Abdul is a superb addition to his filmography.
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
IMDB – Darkest Hour
The clip shown at The Contenders for Darkest Hour was.. intimidating. It featured Stephen Dillane’s character advising Mr. Churchill to, well, surrender to Hitler. The advise given was essentially that surrender and reasoning with the tyrant was preferable to total annihilation. I get a little emotional even now when I think of Gary Oldman as the heroic figure and his reaction to this suggestion. Let me just add that the applause for this clip was some of the loudest and longest-lasting of the day. It was special seeing Gary Oldman himself in person talking about the role and his experience playing Churchill.
I adore those roles, whether they are recognized with awards or not, in which the actor just sinks into the character in all respects. Physically, mentally, emotionally, you can not recognize the actor, only their character. I think Darkest Hour contains that performance, which is the latest in an impressive career for Mr. Oldman. He discussed the idea that attracted him to the film was playing the “larger than life” prime minister in all his humanity. In a career that spanned from the disaster of Gallipoli to the ultimate triumph over the Nazis, Oldman wanted to explore the “naughty schoolboy” in all his vitality, beyond what’s covered in the history books.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya , Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford
IMDB – Get Out
Just a quick FYI that Get Out is no longer a horror film – as of “Awards Season”, it is now being re-branded as a “Psychological Thriller.” The only representative from the film, Jordan Peele wanted to discuss the “suppression of the race conversation” in this, his directorial debut. In fact, he explained on his panel that he asked himself whether or not there might be riots on opening weekend. If you have not seen Get Out yet, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year thus far.
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Algee Smith, Will Poulter and John Boyega
IMDB – Detroit
In case you missed Detroit this summer, the good news is that Annapurna will be re-releasing the film on December 1 in theaters. And, the film sent its best cast and crew to this panel, including director Bigelow and composer from Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, Questlove. It was an interesting panel, but I feel like viewers should be warned that this film, based on true events, is a really emotional, challenging watch from the same director as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy
IMDB – Dunkirk
I truly enjoyed the Dunkirk panel, which featured producer and longtime Nolan collaborator, Emma Thomas, and director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema. I never knew that Thomas is Nolan’s wife, and you would never know it unless she had said so. What was fun about the panel was watching these two filmmakers discuss, despite the challenges, how fun it was to make Dunkirk. And remember, this is a film whose script is around 80 pages, and was intended as a silent film.
This statement concerning the fun involved obviously took me by surprise – and should shock anyone who’s seen the film. But, the dedication to the story offset any and all weather challenges the film’s set endured, which were considerable. There was a goodly amount of footage of Hoytema, who is a big fella, hoisting around a 70mm camera rig in the breaks of the French beach at Dunkirk. They advised the “mole” set was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. And yet, nothing would douse that “Dunkirk Spirit.”
Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright
IMDB – Wonder Woman
I am almost ashamed to say I still haven’t seen this fantastic title from last summer. Feel free to lay it on me, I deserve it! Regardless, director Patty Jenkins was the sole rep sent for the film, and I think based on the Contenders’ audience reaction, it’s likely she will be nominated for director.
Recognition aside, Jenkins had some items to share that would hit home for any filmmaker. For example, she started working on the film way back after film Monster wrapped! Part of the reason she loved the idea of a Wonder Woman movie so much was that it was an homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, which is also a complex character told within the context of a very direct plot line.
The behind the scenes footage they showed contained a lot of video of Jenkins actually acting out what she wanted – which was both endearing and in some respects, funny. Another fascinating tidbit was that she did not have a say in the casting of the title character because Gadot was already in Batman v Superman! However.. she had no argument when she saw the footage.
Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and Sylvia Hoeks
IMDB – Blade Runner 2049
I am further ashamed that I have not posted my comments and thoughts on this sequel just yet. But, no time to think of that when the director himself, Denis Villeneuve is on stage. When asked about the pressure he was under to make a great 2049, he said that the original film was his first VHS, the first film he actually owned. As if that didn’t give us enough of an idea as to this “dream come true,” opportunity, he then says, and I paraphrase, “And Ridley’s basic comment to me was, don’t f*ck it up.”
Like so many of the super talented filmmakers on 11/4, Villeneuve added his voice to the list who feels that the script simply must speak to them. And, the 2049 script not only connected well to the original, but also informed the intricate effects and that feeling throughout of the winter season. He also got into how complex the sets and design were to work through from pre-production to the editing – and I think anyone who’s seen the film can agree that effort was worth it.
I just can’t wait to see this one. Anyone who knows my blog knows I love crime thrillers, and Three Billboards looks to be one of the best in recent memory. Both director McDonagh and co-star Sam Rockwell were on stage, and they did a funny little thing. When McDonagh called Rockwell one of the best actors of his generation, Rockwell patted his shoulder, got out his wallet, and stuffed some cash in the director’s coat. And, when Rockwell gave his director equal praise, he returned Rockwell’s money. Funny stuff…
The film clip showed indicates that the film has some real levity in between its serious subject line – not to mention another tour-de-force performance from Ms. McDormand. Woody Harrelson and Rockwell as small town law enforcement? John Hawkes in another deep-dive, cringe-worthy violent, salt of the earth role? Peter Dinklage playing pool? I’m all in!
The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
IMDB – The Shape of Water
I had seen interviews and read articles about del Toro – but seeing and hearing him in person is another affair all together. The man is eccentric, passionate and contagious – all in a good way. He spent years of his life on this latest effort, and the clips shown by Fox Searchlight gave me every indication that Shape must be seen on the big screen – like I should have seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
Del Toro said a few things that confused me, but a lot of things I liked. For example, whenever there’s a budget shortage, he invests his own money into the problem to make a solution. He insists that he knows his audience in that, if we don’t believe it for even a couple seconds… he’s lost us! Del Toro went on to say that he spent the most time developing the creature for Shape because this “monster” is paramount to the story, its themes and moments. Essentially, it all works or falls with the believability of the creature. And, I always think it’s interesting when a writer/director makes a part for someone, and then actually gets that actor, in this case Sally Hawkins. Another “can’t wait” status for this title…
…and then, we had lunch! Kudos to Deadline and their staff for not only the day’s management and composure, but also the delicious lunch.
We’ll take a break too for now – look for Part 2 very soon…
Dir: Zak Hilditch
Stars: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard and Neal McDonough
I saw the trailer for this new Netflix film a couple weeks ago, and this week I finally got a chance to see it. 1922 is a spectacular entry in the horror genre because it doesn’t go too far in its gore to the point it’s explicit. Further, this movie trusts its story and its performers – and the result is a spectacular thriller that provocatively presents the question, “what’s the fallout of a murder?”
Some might disagree with that synopsis, or my presentation of the question the film really asks. I think that’s OK. The beauty of this film, based on a Stephen King novella by the same name, is that it doesn’t use the cinematic devices that so many films use today. It’s much deeper than the typical slasher movie or “us vs. them” setup. The result is a genuine, slow burn that convinces us we’re watching a farmer from the 1920s conspire to kill his own wife – with the help of their only son.
The story is adeptly displayed in the trailer, and the reason behind the murder is quickly laid out for us. Wilfred James (played by Thomas Jane) married Arlette (Molly Parker – might recognize her from House of Cards and/or Deadwood) years ago. Sure, you might think it’s because they’re in love, but as the story unfolds, it seems most likely that Wilfred married her for the 100 acres of land she controls. As family struggles dramatically increase in regularity, Wilfred pitches his only son Henry on the idea of, well, dispatching Arlette. Otherwise, she might take him away to Omaha so she can open that little dress shop she always wanted. Obviously.. such a move would take 14 year old Henry away from his first true love, Shannon.
I must insist on leaving the plot and details surrounding it right there. This is one of those films where, the less you know the better. What unfolds really reminded me of the nonfiction author, criminologist Colin Wilson. He has two big books I read, “The Mammoth Book of True Crime,” and its accompanying “Part II.” In these behemoths, which I highly recommend to aspiring writers, the author details the types of crime, their history and the numerous examples that fuel his descriptions of kidnappings, poisonings, arson – really any kind of crime you can think of. It’s a tough read. I mean, have your favorite sit-com on stand by for watching before bed.
Anyhow, Wilson’s detail is very matter of fact – an example might be, “Mr. Simpson had had enough of his wife cheating on him. So, one day upon returning from the office in late 1958, he took a kitchen knife and stabbed her 32 times.” I’m not saying this example is in Wilson’s books – but his tone has a matter-of-fact-why-are-you-gasping quality to it. This film shares this matter-of-fact tone to the point that it makes your skin crawl. I was thinking, “why is Wilfred so casual about this action?” As the character says in the preview, the suggestion is that there are two men inside us all – the one people see, and then a conniving man. What unfolds in the film is a study in what happens when the conniving one wins out. And what’s fascinating to me is how close this story is to many of Wilson’s descriptions of true crime – down to the detail that many people over the centuries have claimed, “the devil made me do it.”
The presentation of the pre-meditation of Wilfred’s murdering of his wife is scary. I mean, when in the history of Man has a murder ever gone to plan? The King novella’s feel comes out in these early scenes when Wilfred is really piecing together the act – and how it’s the only option he and his son Henry really have. Perhaps that’s the really scary part, how he’s able to convince his boy that if there was another option, he’d gladly take it.
Needless to say, the killing and disposal of poor Arlette is terribly frightening. I think it’s scarier than the typical horror film – because it’s actual human-on-human action, and not “us against them.” I have not yet seen King’s other hit adaptation, It, but that film is a great example of “Us vs. Something Supernatural.” There are other Halloween classics that have “Us vs. A Monster” or “Us vs. a Haunted House,” but as I’ve been thinking of 1922, I think it scared me because it’s so.. possible.
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its supernatural elements. If you do brave the preview, I’ll say just one word – rats. And believe me, Professor Henry Jones would not be able to get through 1922. That said, the incredible effort that director Zak Hilditch has put into 1922 is perhaps best complimented by the fact that there were scenes in which I legitimately couldn’t tell if I was watching reality – or Wilfred’s perception of a reality. Does that make sense? Perhaps its combination of remote location of Nebraska farm land and the patience with which the film is edited that really contribute to the movie’s authentic, frightful tone.
Watch 1922 and see what you think – ’tis the season. Aside from all the elements I’ve mentioned, I’d also like to point out especially that Thomas Jane’s acting is masterful. He is supported by a very talented and able cast, but he literally sinks into this role. He is unrecognizable and twists along with the plot – much like his character’s soul, I’m sure. Will he be nominated for… an Emmy? I wonder…
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman and Austin Stowell
I would apply the “drama-edy” genre label to Battle of the Sexes. Much like directors’ Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ previous effort, Little Miss Sunshine, Sexes is a great combination of heartfelt, genuine, behind-the-scenes glimpses at real life characters juxtaposed with moments of overwhelming comedy. That combination rarely produces a “miss,” and in this case, I think we can call it an “ace.” Come on – you knew this entry was ripe for puns…
The film concerns the real event of September, 1973, which took place in the Houston Astrodome between women’s #1 Billie Jean King and former men’s #1 Bobby Riggs. That month, Billie Jean King was 29 years old, and Riggs was 55. She had trained like hell for the event, Riggs had dabbled with 70s era health and diet supplements and, well, worked on his promotional tactics. Regardless of how they both prepped, the event was a true exercise in American traditions – public relations, media and standing up for one’s cause. The film does a great job of toggling between all of these traditions, from Rigg’s Don-King-styled promotion of the event to King’s real-life confusion concerning an affair, not to mention her development of the WTA.
Now, the filmmakers do a fine job of setting the match up. The movie moves along with expedition as the story develops both King and Riggs. Each of them had dramatic events going on in their own lives when the idea came to Riggs to sell this epic battle. I think the film did adequate job of demonstrating that for Riggs, he might have been over-playing some of his own chauvinism – while illustrating that there was certainly a contingent of men in this country at the time who desperately wanted him to win. These guys had no qualms about their chauvinism, and in some cases, were surely shocked at how big this showdown became in the cultural discussion.
However, I’d like to point out a couple of things that really enriched Battle, things that aren’t necessarily alluded to in the trailer and promotional materials. First off, Billie Jean was instrumental in creating the WTA. I never knew that before watching the movie. As a former tennis player – and one who still follows the game – I was interested in the first half of the film, which showcases how King and her band of women’s tennis players took the sport out of country clubs and made it much more accessible to all Americans. That’s a significant story in and of itself, which meshes well with the comedic shenanigans of Riggs’ grand idea for an ultimate “him vs. her” contest.
But, the other element I really liked from Sexes was the portrayal of how King had an affair with a Los Angeles hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) – and her husband Larry’s subsequent reaction to the infidelity. The scene, in which Larry shows up to King’s LA hotel early to meet up with his wife, is a filmmaking-101 scene. We take it for granted, but the cinematography, sets, costumes, hair – all of the technical elements are just as sharp in this scene as the rest of the film. What I loved specifically in this scene was the awkward manner that Larry discovers that his wife has cheated on him – and how the filmmakers took the time to let him have his moment.
So many films are in a rush today. There is a “save the cat” feeling that, “it’s time to do THIS” in a lot of movies – particularly blockbusters. But, Sexes allowed Larry his moment. Played by a new, familiar actor named Austin Stowell, Larry discovers Billy Jean’s action in her hotel room’s bathroom. He tells her he’s going to stay in another room – and then there is a cut to the hallway, where Larry leans against the wall in shadow. He’s upset, we can tell from his body language. And it’s with great effort that he picks up his bags and hops on the elevator. Seems like an easy scene to cut out, right? I mean, who would miss it? Well… without it, all of his subsequent actions would seem a little odd. With this scene appropriately included in Battle, we are immensely impressed with how Larry continues to support the talented Bill Jean – despite how much her cheating on him hurt.
I haven’t even gotten to the fun scenes between Riggs and his wife! Or how Bobby interacts with the press, or how Virginia Slims – yes, the (gasp!) cigarettes – was the first sponsor of the WTA. But, you can enjoy all of these elements when you watch the movie. Hopefully you’ll agree that King was an incredible talent, particularly in the way she carried herself on the court. There’s a moment – and this won’t ruin anything for you – when the match with Riggs finally begins, and she hits a winner. Riggs yells across the court, “Atta girl!” And King never, ever responds to his chatter during the course of the match. Boy, I’ve always been a fan of those athletes who let their performance speak for itself. Sure, sports needs personalities like Riggs – but I’ve always appreciated the Kings of the world who quietly go about their business…
NOTE: I put the directors of Battle in that order at the top of this post as they are not only alphabetical, but also in that order on IMDB. Just in case anyone was wondering! No chauvinism from this author!!
Final Note… (Potential spoilers, or… unpopular intel?)
I listened to “The Director’s Cut” podcast, which is a phenomenal resource for guys like me who are just junkies for all things related to movies they see. On this podcast, DGA (Director’s Guild of America) members typically interview the director(s) of the film in question, and sometimes other cast and crew.
What fascinated me about the moderated discussion with directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris was their discomfort about stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone’s actual tennis playing ability. What I was able to gather from the podcast is this – not all of the play was ACTUALLY Stone and Carell. In fact, some pro tennis players who doubled as King and Riggs had to re-learn how to play 1970s style tennis, with primitive rackets and slower play – probably a lot more serve and volley than they usually play (just guessing).
My question is – why the discomfort? Why the hush-hush? Whether or not these two stars were actually playing the game had absolutely no effect on my viewing or perception of the film. I think this is an unfortunate fallout effect of the audience’s insistence that they know everything they want to know about the film. To those asking that question – was the play genuine, featuring the stars? – my question is, why is that important?
It would be a shame if these questions about authenticity – whether it’s tennis play or historical – dominated the discussion related to Sexes. Isn’t it enough of a celebration – telling this story, focusing on a beloved game for millions, an event that captured the focus of an entire nation? How does that portrayal – that portion of their portrayal – really matter in the end? And… how incredible is it, speaking from a special effects standpoint, that it WASN’T those two stars?? Because, it sure looked like them.
Blade Runner (1982)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Ridley Scott
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy and Edward James Olmos
I love those movie experiences where you feel completely different as you’re watching the movie – and completely different afterwards, too. Like you can’t get the film, its themes, characters and scenes out of your mind. I didn’t actually feel that way the first time I saw Blade Runner. But, as I age, the film becomes more and more significant to me. Perhaps it’s because of the philosophical, mind-bending question at its center. Regardless, most films that I love share common elements. A unique story, an impressive cast, “that scene” and thought provoking themes that stay with me. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, and particularly its 2007 definitive version, have all the pieces.
A scroll at the open of the film explains that a “blade runner” is a member of a special LAPD unit in 2029. The runners’ task is to hunt down and “retire” replicants, which are artificial human beings made by the Tyrell Corporation. Replicants are so identically human, they are really difficult to spot. Only asking them a series of questions designed to reveal their nature will truly ID them – which makes for great drama, of course. In the typical “Frankenstein” story set up, it seems that once again humanity has built something it can’t control. And former blade runner Deckard (Ford) is tasked with his most challenging assignment yet – to retire four replicants who have come home to L.A. after slaughtering a mass of miners on an outlying colony.
I mean, what a set up. If you were reading this script, you would probably lean in at this point. The replicants have their own little mission, and that is to find their maker, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, and see what he can do to expand their life expectancy – in case I neglected to mention it, replicants are designed to live only four years. But anyhow, leaning in is exactly what I do as Deckard sits in his former superior, Bryant’s office (M. Emmett Walsh, one of my favorite character actors). Bryant introduces Deckard to Pris (Hannah), who is designed for sexual pleasure. Then Zhora (Cassidy) who is a combination of sex and violent tendencies. And then there’s Leon (Brion James, another great character actor). Leon has already killed here on earth: he was being interviewed for a job, and the interviewer asked that series of questions I mentioned. They got around to a question about Leon’s mother – to which Leon reacted by shooting the man to death.
Finally, we have Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer in one of his best roles. Batty is most appropriately named. He’s the quintessential villain, the kind who’s terrifying whether he’s in this early 80s film, a 1930s horror classic or a modern day thriller. He is frightening in his behaviors, mannerisms, speech and idiosyncrasies, even when he doesn’t intend to be. And his bloody dialogue! “Gosh, ya really got some nice toys here…” He has white hair and a stylish high collar leather jacket. He’s incredibly strong as he demonstrates several times over the course of the film. In short, he makes a great challenge for our hero, Deckard to meet. But brining it back to what I was originally saying, how Runner really creates a world of its own, pulls you into it and keeps you there for two hours – Batty does not work with all the cinematic elements that surround him.
Ridley Scott successfully designs a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly crowded. Distinctive, convincing blimps patrol the skies, and they bombard the crowds below with ads for Coca-Cola, Toshiba and RCA. It’s fun to watch the film and identify which brands have endured – and which have been “retired.” But the future thinking isn’t unique to the design, it’s embedded in the costumes. The music by Vangelis fits the crazy, flying cars, the insane collars, the incessant rain and the oil rigs that blow flames from their tops. Even the sound design contributes to the amazing mix with curious echoes and synthetic sounds that make us wonder, “is that real or inserted for effect?” As a result, this “bad guy” replicant, Batty, works in scaring us only because his surroundings are so successfully composed and presented. None of these items are revealed because it’s time to do so. Scott’s presentation of the story is at Runner’s center – which is one of the reasons the film works and endures.
However, I’ve alluded to this deep philosophical question that accompanies this sci-fi/action classic. And that is the very question, what if you were a replicant – and no one told you. It’s like the old game of asking yourself, if you could talk to a mystic and they would tell you the date of your death… would you ask them? The question is presented in earnest in an early scene where Deckard visits Dr. Tyrell and the doc has him interview his secretary, Rachael (Young). At the end of the montage of the investigator asking this beautiful woman questions, the doc asks Rachael to excuse them and when she’s out of the room, Tyrell asks Deckard what he thinks of her. Deckard tells Tyrell he understands she’s a replicant – but it took many more questions before he realized it.
Further, poor Rachael doesn’t KNOW she’s a replicant. Tyrell has embedded her synthetic brain with memories, things that happened between her mother and her, distinctive moments from childhood and the like. Deckard reveals these to Rachael in a different scene, and we see how incredibly difficult the revelation is for her. In fact… she may not be the only character unaware of their true nature (see note 1).
Blade Runner (1982) Directed by Ridley Scott Shown at left, above: Harrison Ford (as Rick Deckard)
I also referred to “that scene,” which is a reference I need to work on. Nonetheless, Runner has it when Deckard finds Zhora in a sleazy downtown dance joint. The scene, like many in the film, and aptly reflected in the film’s poster, too, has a look, feel and tone of some noir pic from the 40s. Anyhow, as Zhora discovers who Deckard is, she escapes, and he pursues through these incredibly busy, crowded downtown streets. Her death scene really turns the film for me – not only is it incredibly violent, but it also brings home that thought presented earlier… what if the blade runner is wrong? How many retired replicants weren’t synthetic Tyrell corp machines at all?
In closing, I don’t mean to ramble when I cover films like this that I love, that have heavily influenced my own writing and ideas for films. But, I hope you take the time to see Blade Runner because of its futuristic look and feel – and how it presents the idea, “what if a machine could learn to love?” Not to mention how close the film is in some ways to the world we’re living in now! And yet… it’s not always on – Deckard still uses a phone booth in the film. Anyhow – if you do check it out, you’ll be all ready for Blade Runner: 2049, in theaters Friday, 10/6/2017… You can expect an entry on this sequel, too.
NOTE 1: for those who haven’t seen the original film, please don’t read…
I have not watched all of BR’s Blu-Ray extras yet, but I understand that many Runner Fans insist that Deckard himself is a replicant. I will admit that the “definitive” 2007 edition certainly does a good job of presenting this “what if” scenario. The unicorn dream that Deckard has, accompanied by the Olmos character’s dialogue at the end, “..it’s too bad she won’t live too long… but then again, who does?” which Deckard considers as he sees the origami of the unicorn… this entire sequence is best presented in the final version.
But, my question is, if Deckard IS one – he’s a bad one, right? As in, he’s an early, outdated model that’s not quite up to the task…? He’s incredibly out-matched by these four newer models – I hope that’s the thought? Because… Bryant advises in the beginning that they have been designed “to develop their own emotional levels” to fit in ever better… Well, to me, Deckard seems very human indeed. He’s out-matched by these superior, synthetic androids. He does not dramatically change in a way that presents the idea to me that he is a replicant.
But then again… if you think of that sequence where Rachael saves his life from Leon killing him, and they go back to his apartment… Deckard’s EYES have that incredibly subtle orange glow to them, which Rachael’s had in the Q&A scene, which the owl in the room shared… And at that moment, she asks Deckard, “did ya ever take that test yourself?” Chills, my friends….
Enjoy the classic trailer below:
Disclaimer: I own none of the pictures or clip included – if the images need to be replaced, please contact admin.
Dir: Tim Miller
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, Gina Carano, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand and Karan Soni
I went to see Deadpool in the theater the Monday after it opened last February. I’m not sure if you remember, but, it was a phenomenon. It exceeded all expectations for how much money a rated R, comic book – Marvel movie – could make in theaters. Particularly on Valentine’s weekend! What a shift in culture when Deadpool becomes the romantic choice for going to the movies with your sweetheart. Incidentally, this shot below is of an outdoor sign I saw weeks in advance of the film’s debut – for those of you who’ve seen it, you understand why this is so hilarious.
Anyhow, I remember coming into work that Monday and reading all of the coverage and doing our “post-game analysis” for Deadline and then looking at the boss and saying, “I gotta go see this thing tonight.” Part of the reason it’s such a vivid memory is that I went to see it at one of my favorite theaters, the FOX theater in Westwood. This place is OLD SCHOOL – capitalization earned. It’s got a balcony. Got pictures in the restroom of what Westwood used to look like in the 1920s. I saw The Departed there opening night. I saw 300 there. So, I bought my ticket because I had to see what all the fuss was about – and I felt the fuss deserved the FOX theater. There are those movies that achieve “cultural icon” status like Jurassic Park and Avatar and – well, we all have our own opinion. My point is that after a weekend like Deadpool had hit that fever pitch. And so, there could very well be a bit of nostalgia in this entry for one of last year’s “Top Films,” I admit that.
But for me, like so many moviegoers, the movie delivered! Deadpool is funny first and action second. Sure it’s a comic book movie. Yes, it’s got legitimate action and the costume and all the rest. But, it’s a parody of all of our complaints of the “Marvel Comic Universe,” or MCU for short – just Google that and see what kind of fanboy fare pops up. I mean, which of us hasn’t wondered while watching recent superhero films how exactly this character’s powers aren’t the trump card in that battle, or why they would pair this superhero with that love interest, or why the hero always has to take the mask off in the second film. And specific to Marvel films, why we have to wait til the very end to see that last tidbit – you get the idea.
To that point, Deadpool is a parody of itself, which is very difficult to attain. Co-Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick did another delightfully creative, uber-violent comedy called Zombieland – hopefully you caught that one. Their peculiar sense of humor seems to have found a perfect match in the “merc with a mouth,” Marvel’s Deadpool. One element used very effectively was the title character’s tendency to break the fourth wall. I was skeptical the first couple times he did it – but man, it ended up one of the elements that made the whole production work.
And, this comic book based, R-rated Marvel film – can they do that? – found its ideal leading man in Ryan Reynolds. Like I mentioned, we did a lot of social media analysis on this title, and we found that years ago, as soon as the film was green-lit, Reynolds himself was the first one sharing the news on social. He couldn’t WAIT to get into the red spandex. That, my friends, is what we all wish to see in leading men and women these days – a commitment to the project that the audience ultimately feels on screen. I can think of few other examples in recent memory of a more committed star, whose performance was such a key indicator to whether or not the film would work at all. For a small exhibit in support of what I’m talking about, check out this picture that was shared in the trades the week after open. Mr. Reynolds thought it’d be nice to stop by and say hello to the 20th Century Fox Marketing Team (see Note 1) – and buy them chimichanga’s for lunch, which is Deadpool’s favorite snack.
The marketing is another reason the movie worked. The messaging took the sense of humor of the character, and leveraged it using Reynolds – and why not? Each trailer and poster and clip from the film was hilarious to the point you couldn’t wait to see the next. Again, another exhibit of support is seen at the very bottom of this post – the ad for buying Deadpool on Blu-Ray. Please, be sure to check that out if you haven’t seen it already. Now, sure, they tried new techniques like the 360 view on Facebook. But at its center, 20CF had the gumption to follow its leader and extend this anti-hero’s bizarre sense of humor to moviegoers, a move that ultimately paid off.
OK, OK but… what’s it about? It’s about this ex-special forces guy named Wade who falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). So, definitely boy meets girl – boy falls in love with girl. But, then he gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ruh roh – sounds like boy’s gonna lose girl. However, a shady character tells Wade that he can cure his cancer and give him amazing abilities. Well, this is the rather identifiable part of the Deadpool character – who doesn’t want that? Even we, in our post-adolescent years, we still fantasize about what we’d like to be able to do – if only [fill-in-the-blank]. Regardless, as the trailer below so adeptly illustrates, the procedure goes radically wrong. Wade does not – repeat NOT – have Batman or Superman’s looks. In fact, he’s so angry about his looks that he decides to pursue the villains. That anger, that pursuit, that quest for vengeance is one that moviegoers can identify with.
And these bad guys are excellent villains. Gina Carano as Angel Dust and Ed Skrein as Ajax deserve all kinds of credit for contributing to Deadpool’s overall success. If the villains were pushovers or morons or inexplicably powerful, we’d fold our arms. But instead, they set up Wade’s next punch line and adequately battle him – and his sidekicks. Just as good as the villains are X-Men comic characters Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and the monstrous Colossus (Stefan Capicic). In fact, the presence of only two X-Men to aid Deadpool sets up one of the funniest lines in the film, which I won’t ruin for you. But, I have to admit that my favorite character in the film is Karan Soni as Dopinder. Even with the presence of this supporting part in the trailers, I had no expectation for how funny his interaction with this superhero would be. Watch, and enjoy.
Long story short – too late – writers Reese and Wernick beautifully set up the pieces, Reynolds and his co-stars killed the acting and director Tim Miller shuffled it all together into a beautiful piece of cinema. And by the way, it earned over $363M in the U.S. last year. That ranks #6 for 2016. And that means it beat all the films up for best picture. Now, should box office success be a definite consideration among Academy voters? No, I’m not necessarily suggesting that.
What I am suggesting is that Deadpool would really round out the nominees. It’s one of the most successful rated R films, ever. It is, in my view, an action-comedy. And, from another standpoint, it’s a great superhero film. So my question to the Oscar voters is, why not celebrate this one? There are ten spots for best picture! And we’re always lamenting the missing “crowd favorite,” the lack of comedies, the shortage of “smart” films. Deadpool is all of these. I don’t care that it’s crass and far short of classy. It’s FUNNY. And it made a lot of people wanna go to the movies… Well, at least Wade & Co find themselves on our “Top Ten” for 2016.
NOTE 1: part of the reason I love that photo of Reynolds in the Marketing conference room is that I used to work for the ad agency of record for 20th Century Fox – and that young lady on the left was head of that department! Nice to see JR getting some credit…
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata and Ciaran Hinds
I’ve read a lot about Silence since I saw it on a Thursday night last month. The “30 years” reference in the title refers to the length of time that director Martin Scorsese has been contemplating this project before it finally debuted in December. Anyhow, like a lot of movies I end up blogging about, I was excited to see this Scorsese helmed epic from the moment I saw the first trailer late last November. And, I think a little context might help you, Dear Reader, on this particular entry. Just a little bit of background on me, I grew up in Cincinnati, OH and was born to Christian parents. My Dad rarely, if ever went to church – because he grew up in one. I was confirmed Presbyterian. I went to Catholic high schools from kindergarten to senior year of high school. So, Christianity is a bit second-nature to me. And, from my diverse Christian upbringing, I have a lot of understanding on the subject – and a lot of interest in understanding other religions, beliefs and philosophies.
I preface this particular entry with that disclosure, because I think Silence is like a lot of other films that explore world religions and crises of faith. These films tend to be extremely personal and sensitive experiences. So, if you’d like to skip to the next entry here on ronhamprod.com, I won’t have hurt feelings! However, I really hope you take the opportunity to see Silence as I personally believe it possesses themes that we can all relate to, regardless of religion, faith, belief, doubt, etc. As Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues asks so eloquently in the trailer, “Am I just praying to silence?” I feel like that’s a question which many of us can relate to – and a profound question around which to compose a film.
I can’t help but go back to my upbringing for a moment and divulge that I attended St. Xavier high school, which was a Jesuit run “college preparatory academy.” I have lived a blessed life – and I hope this entry at least makes some of my teachers, not to mention my parents, grin with pride. The reason I mention it is that Father Rodrigues mentions the Jesuits and St. Francis Xavier himself in Silence. Having some of this context, just like having context when you read the Bible for the first time, would really help before seeing the movie. The Jesuits are kind of the entrepreneurial sect of Christian “men of the cloth.” So, when Dutch, Portugese and Spanish explorers set out to discover new lands, Xavier and Jesuits like him hopped aboard. They were just as interested in spreading the word of God as the explorers were in finding new land and exotic wares.
With all of this in mind, it was a crisis how Japan had reacted to Christianity’s spread. Basically, by the time we meet Garfield as Rodrigues and his fellow priest Garupe (played very well by Adam Driver), the country has executed a harsh backlash against anyone harboring the faithful, much less proclaiming to be Christian. As the film brutally demonstrates, feudal Japan had rules – and they would be adhered to.
In one way, Silence is the ultimate adventure film, in which we get to be that “fly on the wall” watching Rodrigues and Garupe travel to the land of the rising sun, find a foothold with a group of faithful, elude the local samurai enforcers and do their best to give hope to Christians who have been praying for their arrival. How do they give hope? They make little crosses out of the local leaves and grass to give to the villagers. Rodrigues and Garupe hold mass in the middle of the night in quiet sanctuary, hidden from the government officials. They hear confessions, particularly the recurring, consistent admissions of Mokichi (played with immense depth by Shin’ya Tsukamoto). Mokichi actually helped the priests navigate from Macau to Japan, and his involvement in the film is one of the more thought provoking elements of the entire story.
Just as there are two ways to look at Rogue One – from a purely film perspective and then from one of spectacle – the Viewer can perceive Silence as a film about Christians, for Christians. But, the alternative view is a film about the human condition, which happens to be set in a very desperate time and place within Christian history. Regardless of how you actually watch the film and digest it, I can tell you it is indeed an experience. Just like the other films on our “Top Ten” list for 2016, Silence is expertly crafted, from the writing to the performances to the props and costumes – everything down to the heavy accents the local feudal officials speak with. In fact, it goes to show what a master Mr. Scorsese is because this title is such a departure from his work of late. Silence is just as expertly crafted, but it is sailing in very different seas than The Departed, Wolf of Wall Street and even Hugo. So, from a purely film perspective, you simply have to give Silence its due.
As I’ve already qualified, I admittedly see the film through the lens of my own Christian background. From that perspective, it’s a nearly three hour experience that I hope all Christians take the time to see. In one scene, as three of the Japanese faithful hang on crosses and await a death by drowning at the hand of the government officials, I felt like I was drowning in guilt. In another, when Rodrigues and Garupe are cowering in their little hut, hoping they haven’t been discovered, I was terrified. When Rodrigues separates from Garupe so that he can travel to a nearby island where Mokichi insists the faithful need to see him, I felt elated and excited for the possibilities new believers experience. In short, the often used descriptor “emotional roller coaster” doesn’t do Silence justice from my personal, Christian perspective.
And in that same vein, the film stuck with me. The next day, I thought a lot about the conclusion, over and over about “Act Three.” Then, I would drift to Mokichi’s character and his challenges again. Later, I would be angry at the persecutors, but then.. I’d think about the outcome and the anger and frustration would leave.
The thought I want to end with is that the Oscar nominations have a tendency to spark debate over which film should be given the ultimate honor for an entire year of work. Frankly, I think movies are a little more personal than that – see my 2016 “Top Ten” list for an elaboration on that thesis. People’s favorite all time films are oftentimes completely contrary to what you might expect. I had to select Silence because it deeply effected me – but, that’s not to say it’ll do the same for you. And that’s OK.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Dir: David Mackenzie
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham
This crime drama is so up my alley that it’s going to be hard to draft this particular entry without veering off – thanks for bearing with me!
In the tradition of other purely American crime pictures like The Departed, Killer Joe, Heat and No Country for Old Men comes High Water, a film with disciplined pace, engrossing characters and a setting that is absolutely essential to its tightly wound story. West Texas is the only place this movie could have taken place. The economic reality of its main characters and the look and feel of the supporting cast all manifest themselves by the authentic, Texan locations.
Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard, respectively. The brothers are robbing different branches of the same “Texas Midlands” bank, all within driving distance of their plot of land. In the opening scene, their nondescript, turquoise colored Chevy Camaro – which is covered in dust like almost all the vehicles and props in High Water – passes behind a couple of dilapidated buildings in a dilapidated town. And if you look closely, the director, David Mackenzie, hovers on one of these buildings just long enough for us to see the graffiti scrawled on the wall, which reads something to the effect of “I’m good enough to do two tours, but not good enough for the bait shop to be open when I get home.” This kind of shot, which appropriately seasons the delicious stew that is High Water, is beautifully mixed in to the film throughout. These shots serve as constant reminders that there are a lot of Americans living in debt, who cannot support their ex-wives and estranged children, who are turning to the local casino for any kind of break rather than their elected officials, the local church or the community free store.
But, at its core, Hell or High Water is about two different sets of characters on a collision course. If the Howard brothers represent chaos and crime, then Jeff Bridges as veteran Texas Ranger – capitalization earned and demanded, by the way – Marcus Hamilton and his deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), represent the law & order side. Again, this is a rich stew, and Hamilton and Parker’s exchanges are one of the essential ingredients of the recipe. We all know Bridges from his iconic work spanning more than four decades. But Birmingham as Parker deserves a lot of credit too, for his supporting effort is a fantastic foil to Bridges’ codger.
Early on we learn that Hamilton is nearing his retirement. And, over the next several weeks before “easing into that rocking chair on his porch,” he apparently intends to get every dig, joke and downright insult hurled at the deputy Parker. For one quick example, Hamilton is in the huge Dodge Ram with Parker on their way to the next crime scene. He says something disparaging about Parker’s Commanche background to which Parker says, “You know I’m half Mexican, too, right?” And without missing a beat, Hamilton replies as only Bridges can saying, “Well, I’m looking to get past all the Indian remarks before moving on to that portion.”
I’m not going to divulge much more. There is a very good reason established for why the Howard boys have actively decided upon their life of crime. There is a very interesting pattern to what they’re doing, which Hamilton thinks he’s uncovered. There is a lot of action for such a serious drama, which rivals some of the movies I mentioned earlier. But, another reason High Water worked for me so well is its supporting characters and their language. Dale Dickey, an incredible character actor who I recognize for her turn on TV’s Southland among other roles, does a masterful job as the victim in the Howard boys’ first robbery. Acting students should watch the scene with a careful eye for her dialogue, particular accent and her body language. Another great bit part was executed by Kevin Rankin, who was awesome not only on Justified but also Breaking Bad. His one scene as a Texas bank manager is pitch perfect.
And then there’s Margaret Bowman, the waitress of the T-Bone cafe where Hamilton and Parker stop in for lunch while they’re on the Howard boys’ trail. She asks, “what DON’T you want?” Like the Coen Brothers, Mackenzie has aptly used the supporting cast and extras to paint an uncannily accurate picture of the world of their film – and Ms. Bowman is one of the best examples. In fact, last November, I had the fortune of attending The Contenders, which is an annual event sponsored by Deadline at the Director’s Guild of America. These are a couple of pictures of the cast and crew from the film – and subsequently, Mr. Bridges welcoming Ms. Bowman onto the stage to welcome us all to a Texas barbecue lunch.
In the end, Hell or High Water is one of my very top films of 2016. I consider it an instant classic. The acting is masterful. The art direction, costumes, cinematography and music all contribute to the authentic tone of the film. And Mackenzie’s taut direction keeps us focused not only on the spirited chase, but also the reason for the chase. There are a lot of Americans with real, daily economic struggles. High Water does a helluva job of composing its theme, that some of these challenges are self inflicted, but some of them are part of a bigger, “haves vs have-nots” conspiracy. And if you have an argument about said conspiracy, I’m sure there are folks very like the Howard boys awaiting your contention the next time you pass through West Texas.
The Lobster (2016)
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly and Olivia Colman
My top ten films of 2016 would definitely have to include this foreign film, which received quite a bit of attention at Cannes last May. The Lobster is such a unique, bizarre look at dating and companionship that I really feel is worth a watch: in fact, it’s playing for free on Amazon Prime right now (as of January 2017). Granted, there are scenes when the film’s black comedy actually veers into disturbing tones and even horror elements, but the overall presentation is just too much to miss.
Imagine a future in which single people are routinely herded into a gorgeous hotel with plush amenities. We’re given the impression that this is somewhere in Europe, but the location and nationality of the characters that inhabit The Lobster are really of no consequence because the theme of pursuing love is so universal. Plus, the monotone that most of the characters speak in make it difficult to put any kind of label on them.
Anyhow, at this hotel they are given 45 days to find a suitable mate to spend the rest of their lives with. If they do find such a person, they are given a couples suite and several different examinations before ultimately landing on a yacht for 15 days to finalize the union. If the couple finds themselves arguing, fighting and at an impasse after a few days, well, they’re typically given a child, which “seems to help the situation.” And, if these individuals are unable to find that elusive, suitable mate, well.. they’re turned into an animal of their choice. This detail makes for interesting visuals as various animals are seen in the background throughout the film, which seem random at first.
If The Lobster sounds otherworldly and Kafka-esque, I can tell you it is. From the opening sequence in which a random woman pulls off a country road and executes a donkey with a pistol to our subsequent introduction to David, director Yorgos Lanthimos successfully yanks the viewer into this dystopian world and keeps them there for two hours. Colin Farrell stars as David. We meet him as he is petting his brother, who has turned himself into a Border Collie. David is now preparing himself to join other lonely hearts at the hotel. He’ll be our guinea pig as we learn about how the hotel functions, its rules and daily activities. And as we navigate through Act One, we realize that everyone talks in very simple, monotone sentences so as not to offend or stand out too far, other than to appropriately attract another guest.
The stark sets, the dramatic musical score, the persona of the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman – awesome performance, just like her TV turn on The Night Manager, FYI), the “game” in the woods in which guests shoot each other with tranquilizer guns to earn more days at the hotel, which is beautifully set to slow motion – all of these cinematic elements and more contribute to this hugely engaging tale. Director Lanthimos has successfully channeled his inner Kubrick and given us a purely unique world with a central character we can root for, even if it isn’t David.
In fact, it’s the nameless “Short Sighted Woman” played by Rachel Weisz that we’re rooting for. At least I was. Credit to her for having such a distinct voice that I recognized her voice-over from the very beginning. She narrates the film until the midpoint, which is when David escapes the Hotel and finds the “Loners” in the woods. This group is led by a most intense leader, played by Lea Seydoux. Come to think of it, has this actress played any non-intense characters to this point in her career? Anyhow, it’s fascinating how in retrospect, Lanthimos easily could have switched the order of the Hotel and the Loners. The Hotel is a metaphor for society’s insistence that people follow Thornton Wilder’s suggestion in Our Town and “go through life two by two.” The “Loners” are an equal metaphor for the ludicrous behavior that some people exhibit in remaining alone. Don’t flirt? Don’t intimately interact.. with anyone? Aren’t we human?