REVIEW ROUND-UP PART ONE
Hey, remember when I actually wrote on this site?! Well, I’m back with some mini reviews on most of the major releases of the year so far.
Ignored by most of the major awards, and seemingly too grueling an experience for general audiences, Martin Scorcese’s latest seems set for re-discovery in a few years as another of his masterpieces.
Silence follows two Jesuit priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, as they head to Japan to find a fellow priest who has gone missing whilst working as a missionary. It is believed the third priest (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith in public.
Much of the film’s lengthy run-time is spent on suffering. The suffering of the Christian Japanese at the hands of the government, and the suffering of the priests who are held responsible. It is not an easy watch, but it is ultimately a rewarding one.
It is not a film that provides answers, but the questions it wrestles with are eternal.
LA LA LAND
La La Land opens with a scene that isn’t entirely indicative of the rest of the film. It’s a large ensemble dance scene with tens of performers singing, and moving through some intricate choreography over, under, and around all of the cars stuck in a traffic jam.
It’s a scene reminiscent of the Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire eras of Hollywood. The rest of La La Land is more intimate, smaller scale, focused almost entirely on the interior lives of its charming leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The reason that opening number, so different from the rest of the movie, is right up front is because it explicitly tells the audience what this is about. The song is about the dreamers, those aspiring to reach the bright lights of Hollywood. It screams, shouts and sings about a life of almost magical possibility. But it takes place on a freeway at a standstill as those dreamers roast in the L.A sun, trapped in their cars. On route to a life many of them will never reach. Few dreamers ever actually get out of the traffic jam.
That is La La Land. It’s a land of hopes and dreams, intermingled with the monotony and difficulty of reality. It is the point where real life rubs up against the musicals of old, where stardom and happiness are just one song away.
It’s a film with not only a deep love of movies, but of life. The good and the not so. The dreams, and the everyday. Because there is magic in both.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
The trailer above doesn’t really sell Manchester by the Sea. It clearly shows you what it’s about, a man loses his brother and is tasked with being a guardian for his nephew, but doesn’t communicate how it is about that. This is not a film of tearful declarations of love out in the rain. Or cathartic outpouring of emotions. There is little catharsis to be found here. This is a film about a man who is swallowed by grief, and decides it to repress it to the point that it hollows him out.
It is a moving, heartbreaking, yet at times surprisingly funny movie with three phenomenal performances from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges.
When M. Night Shyamalan first burst on the scene with The Sixth Sense things looked promising. He then followed that up with Unbreakable, a “gritty” real world take on superheroes before that premise had become tired. A clear Hitchcock fanboy, even down to his cameos, but with undeniable talent. Unfortunately, his subsequent work seemed lesser with each passing entry. Signs, The Village, The Happening, and then the absolute nadir, The Last Airbender. Shyamalan seemed done.
Then he released The Visit, a schlocky, nasty little film, with some thrilling sequences put together by a solid craftsman. Split is another step closer to returning to form, his best film since Unbreakable.
Split follows Kevin, a man who is made up of twenty three distinct personalities, and the three young women he has abducted and locked in a basement. To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil the fun, but the real joy in watching Split is James McAvoy’s performance. He never stops chewing the scenery, but he is clearly having a blast in the role(s) and that enjoyment is infectious. He also finds small ways to imbue each personality with some humanity. The performances may be hammy, but McAvoy hints at layers to these characters.
A late in the third act reveal strongly suggests this is a universe Shyamalan plans on returning to, and I hope he does, because this exploitation genre fare is clearly where he belongs. After years of roaming the movie wilderness, he has finally found his home.
For the sake of this conversation I am largely going to ignore the controversy surrounding this film’s director, one Mel “sugar tits” Gibson, and focus solely on the finished product, Hacksaw Ridge.
The film follows Desmond Doss, a pacifist who enlists in the war effort but refuses to carry a gun, let alone fire one. For the first half of the film almost everyone Doss meets believes him a coward and they do their damnedest to break him. The second half of the film, once Doss and company reach the Battle of Okinawa, is Doss proving everyone wrong.
The most interesting thing about the film is also my biggest problem with it, and that is how it uses violence to temper its sentimental side. Doss is presented throughout as a Christ-like figure. He is bathed in sunlight throughout, and at least once strikes the crucifix pose. There is no shade to this character. He knows what is right and goes about doing it. Which in and of itself is fine. But every single character that opposes him comes around and sees Doss for the hero he is. And then they tell him. There are four of five scenes of characters telling Doss how wrong they are and how great he is. These scenes aren’t externalised in any dramatically satisfying way, it’s just a bunch of cloying speeches.
Gibson is clearly aware of this, and so to combat that sickly sweetness he fills every frame with as much blood, guts, and carnage as possible. The combat scenes owe much to Saving Private Ryan, and in some instances seemingly entire sequences are borrowed, but where that film was muting colours and slowing time to get to the truth of what that experience felt like, Hacksaw Ridge just wants everything to look cool. It’s a film where the central character is deeply opposed to violence made by a filmmaker who is clearly obsessed with reveling in it. Whether you see this as a genuine comment on the psychological makeup of audiences, or just Gibson attempting to have his cake and eat it, will depend on how willing you are to read into the film.
Overall, I thought it contained some powerful moments buried in an overly mawkish movie.
XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE
AKA Vin Diesel’s continued insistence on reviving all of his franchises. He did it with Riddick, he did it with Fast Five, and now he’s done it again. No-one was asking for another XXX movie, but we’ve got one anyway. And it’s pretty fun.
This is a movie where Vin Diesel skis through a jungle, rides a dirt bike across an ocean, fights NFL legend Tony Gonzalez in zero gravity, and has an orgy about ten minutes into the film for no reason other than to try and convince us that women find Vin Diesel attractive (…I still don’t buy it. He’s a potato). The film is ludicrously dumb. And I had a stupid grin on my face for its entirety.
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
After the original Lego Movie came out and surprised everyone by not just being really funny, but actually having something to say, many people were calling out for the film’s undeniable breakout star, Will Arnet’s emotionally stunted Batman, to get a movie of his own. The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite the achievement the original was, but it is more than able to stand on its own as a solid piece of entertainment. It is also the most successful of any of the Batman films, live action or animated, at getting to the heart of the character.
There are so many jokes in this film that if one doesn’t land for you, you’ve only got to wait a couple of seconds before another two come along that will. It’s chock full of references to the character’s seventy plus years of history, as well as nods to other Lego owned properties, and manages to tie all of this into cohesive whole full of wit, heart, and action.
Fun for adults and kids alike.
That’s it for part one. In part two I’ll be discussing John Wick 2, Kong: Skull Island, Logan, Get Out, Beauty and the Beast, Free Fire, and Fast and the Furious 10000 or whatever it’s called.