January 2017 Movies (1/1/17-1/15/17)

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What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

This was showing on BBC iPlayer, so I decided to watch it based on the one-sentence summary and a brief look at the “Critical Reception” section on Wikipedia to confirm that I wasn’t about to step into a pile of shit. David Tennant and Rosamund Pike as a couple in a 90-minute comedy seems promising, right? But nope, this is very much a Family Movie, and the focus is more on the child characters and their precocious hijinks, which ughhh. It’s tonally just so weird because there is, like, a very black comedy buried inside it—with these young kids witnessing their grandfather’s death and then burning his body because he said he wanted a Viking funeral and their parents are too busy arguing about their impending divorce and party planning and whatever to notice—but it’s ultimately just so fucking trite.


Youth (2015)

Eh, whatever. I get that there’s supposed to be some Deep and Beautiful Message about Life and Death and Aging and Art here, but probably should have gone with my first instincts on seeing the trailer in theaters (i.e. irritation, aversion, eye-rolling, etc.) and avoided it. But The Young Pope made me curious about what Paolo Sorrentino’s deal is and I’m trying to make more use of my HBO subscription to justify the $10? $15? a month I’m paying them.


Silence (2016)

I’ve had the novel this is based on in my To-Read list on Goodreads for a while, I think because of a Wikipedia binge at some point—there is something really fascinating about small religious communities in unexpected places (e.g. the Old Believers in Oregon, the Kaifeng Jews in China). Especially when you think the sort of divergent evolution you might get when transplanting a religion to a new community–not only one without the historical and cultural context that the religion was founded on, but also its own, different context—how do they shape their existing beliefs to fit the new religion and how does the religion morph as a result, once it’s out of the missionaries’ hands? How do you translate religious concepts into languages that have developed in such fundamentally different cultures that certain essential words just don’t exist? (Silence briefly gets into this with the difficulty of translating “son of God” into Japanese.)

The movie itself, though: is it any good? Well, it definitely does not need to be 2 hours and 41 minutes.

scorsese_runtime_by_year
Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese made films that were under 2 hours. Shocking!

It felt like there was a lot of repetition that was really unnecessary to drive home the central conflict–how many times do we have to watch Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) watching people being tortured on his behalf and looking pained? How many times do we have to listen to the voice-over of  Rodrigues’s letters and prayers saying approximately the same thing about the hopelessness of the situation? Just: a lot of same-ness that isn’t particularly interesting and doesn’t add anything. The only repetitiveness that worked for me was the semi-comedic pattern of Kichijiro betraying the Christians and then asking Rodrigues for confession/forgiveness.

Like The Amazing Spider-man before it, though, Silence a great showcase for Andrew Garfield’s hair. The premise of Garfield and Adam Driver as 17th century Jesuits is itself pretty compelling, since they both do (especially Driver) have some sort of quality of the face that looks correct with old icons or religious art and sort of weird in the modern day. I did really like the shot of Garfield’s reflection morphing into the Jesus painting and how that ties in with Liam Neeson’s lecture to him later in the movie, about his hubris in thinking of himself as Jesus (or I guess wanting to go through trials of faith like Jesus?)

In fact, basically every scene of someone calling Rodrigues out was solid, especially the ones with the Japanese interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who yes, basically articulates everything that irks about missionaries. Asano also just has a very interesting screen presence, with the smiling and the chillness in an otherwise super dour movie.

So yeah, missionaries: not super sympathetic, because blah blah blah colonialism. But it’s also just hard for me to empathize with religious martyrs—or really any martyrs? I can’t quite fathom having convictions so strong that I’d be willing to die for them, especially in a case like this, where it seems like you could just lie about your beliefs in public, but still keep believing them in private. Like, of course you shouldn’t have to in a truly just society, but the sort of symbolic renunciation the inquisitors are asking for seems like such a small action to take to avoid being tortured to death? I think this is also how I felt when learning about the Spanish Inquisition in Sunday school–if it’s just a matter of publicly converting or renouncing your religion to be safe…but I guess it all depends on how literally you take religious symbols and how understanding you think God and/or Jesus would be.

It’s also just kind of weird timing in the cultural landscape for a movie about the persecution of Christians, especially in the hands of a lapsed (?) Catholic director who once intended to become a priest. In other hands, it might just be an exploration of a weird historical footnote and colonialism and whatever, but from Scorsese there is some extra “hmm, what is his agenda?” going on here. Also when you think about the Spanish Inquisition (and, more relevantly to this movie, the Portuguese Inquisition) happening at around1 the same time as the events of the movie…But curious what the take-aways of someone going into the movie with a pro-missionary bias or indifference to the whole concept of missionaries would be.

Interesting timing, personally, because I had just read  E.M. Forster’s “The Life to Come” (also dealing a missionary, but very different themes) and contemplating how one would hypothetically write a screenplay for that and ensure that it would not be Problematic if filmed today.

Minor quibble, but major pet peeve of mine: the choice to have the actors playing the Jesuits attempt Portuguese accents was super dumb, like David Fincher’s choice to have the actors attempt Swedish accents in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When the actors are speaking English, we understand that the characters are hearing Portuguese; the Japanese characters speak varying levels of broken English with Japanese accents, because it’s the Portuguese they’ve picked up from the Jesuits and they’re not fluent, so the Portuguese characters should be speaking accentless English. Granted, this is complicated by the fact that you have American, English, and Irish actors, so what would “accentless” mean. (But is Liam Neeson even attempting a Portuguese accent, or is it just Garfield and Driver?) On the other hand, when the actors are speaking Japanese, it’s actually Japanese–I would assume it’s modern-ish Japanese rather than 17th century Japanese, but who knows (well, fluent speakers of Japanese, presumably). I guess then the big question is: when Garfield or Driver speak Japanese in the movie, are they doing it with Portuguese or British/American accents? (I could not tell.)


Midnight Special (2016)

Sure, fine. Did not have much of an impact on me, although I liked the sort of funny human moments that the Adam Driver character was allowed to have instead of being a straight-up Movie Agent. Well, somewhat like the NSA agents on The Good Wife, actually, which also understood that you probably have to be kind of a dork to have the qualifications for a job at the NSA.


Venus in Fur (2013)

We’re supposed to be unequivocally anti-Polanski, I know, but fuck it, this was solid. To what extent is that due to the quality of the play it’s adapting and to what extent is that due to the direction? I’d guess more the former than the latter, although hard to say without knowing what adaptational liberties this may have been taking. Certainly, the dialogue and the way the actors portray the shifting dynamics between the characters are the strong points here–since that’s basically all it is, two characters talking, without any change in setting or major action.

That sort of thing happens a lot in modern plays, I guess, but—and I’ll have to shed a few pretension points for admitting this–the concept of live theater really doesn’t appeal to me. Never mind the inaccessibility arguments (i.e. tickets are prohibitively expensive, theaters may not be conveniently located, showtimes are limited, etc.), it just seems like it would be harder to escape into the story when you can always see the stage/curtains/flimsy sets and can’t even see the expressions on the actors faces. That said, so curious what this was like on Broadway, in English, with Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

With this, I think I’ve officially watched 25% of the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list, so that’s something. Not that I put much stock in AFI’s judgment of the century, but it is very pleasing to be able to cross things off of lists.

The movie itself is, like, sure, fine? Hard to judge when you’ve been seeing its influence in the media for your entire life, since it has been spoofed and/or referenced in basically every TV show ever. The strongest feeling it provoked in me was probably, “man, that sure is A Look” w.r.t. young-ish Jack Nicholson. The beanie + leather jacket + denim short combo has aged very well, thanks to glorious hipster fashion.

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A Look

1. Using a very loose definition of around, because these things officially lasted for centuries, and I’m not sure when, like, Peak Spanish Inquisition was.^

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