Silence Movie Review 0 115

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This review was previously published in The National.

WE don’t get very many films like this. That’s because it could only have been made by a filmmaker of Martin Scorsese’s calibre and experience, perhaps even by no one else but the man himself.

His 24th feature – in a career that has included such diverse films as Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Aviator – is a hugely ambitious, unabashedly gruelling and epic yet intensely up-close-and-personal meditation on the nature of faith and the adherence thereof.

Scorsese’s momentous adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s celebrated 1966 novel has been long-gestating; it’s been in various stages of development since not long after he made the out-there religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ.

It starts off as a search and rescue mission as two 17th century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), travel from Portugal to Japan in search of their friend and mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has gone missing while spreading the word of Christianity in a land that couldn’t be more different to their own.

“The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger,” they are warned. At first this seems untrue for them, as they arrive with greetings of joy from villagers who have been practising Catholicism in secret.

But soon the Japanese lords arrive who make it a mission of their own – with all the might behind them of an established Japan that’s described as a swamp where nothing grows – to utterly and irrevocably snuff out the spreading of Catholicism throughout the nation. This includes burning alive, beheading, bleeding out and drowning anyone who threatens to let it take root.

Their specific focus is to get Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe to commit apostasy – the process of renouncing their faith. The more the priests stick to and try to further spread their beliefs, the worse it is for the locals – “The price for your glory is their suffering,” they are bluntly told by the supercilious Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata).

Scorsese might be most famous for making an impact with mobsters but lest we forget that in whatever mould he works – whether it’s satirical black comedy like The King of Comedy, creepy mystery like Shutter Island or historical adventure like Hugo – he brings a resolute ambition and eye for striking imagery that few other Western filmmakers can match.

Silence feels like the culmination of his aesthetically astute career and a means for the director to push his own boundaries with a visually bold and thematically affecting piece of cinema informed by his own work and those he – the obsessed cinephile and lapsed Catholic – admires.

The visual palette feels passionately steeped in influence by the work of Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa, notably with an opening shot that strongly evokes samurai classic The Hidden Fortress as figures in native garb appear like ghosts out of the mountaintop mist.

On the other hand, the way he approaches the intimate moments of spiritual examination brings to mind the work of austere European filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. But far from being a cheap imitation, it feels like a respectful concoction of cinematic treasures of the past that only Scorsese could blend.

It’s undoubtedly a challenging watch that requires patience and engagement from its audience. It comes in at a pretty hefty 161 minutes and deals with some truly lofty and thought-provoking questions, not least does the eponymous state disprove the existence of God or does unwavering faith in spite of it merely amplify him?

From its opening to its closing image, it presents an unforgettable experience, one that demands to be submitted to, and contemplated long after the credits roll. The quiet power of it is positively deafening.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 355

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 382

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10