"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. One of the Coen’s very best films that is both disturbing and funny and distrubingly funny.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, is a six-part western anthology available on Netflix that stars Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan and Tom Waits.

Much like Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers are held up by some to be cinematic gods and geniuses who can do no wrong. Once again, I disagree with my cinephile brethren on this point but not to the same degree as I do regarding Soderbergh. That said, I am more agnostic on the Coen cult than I am an atheist.

I find the Coens to be at times brilliant and at times terrible, and rarely in between. For instance, No Country For Old Men is a phenomenal film, where as Burn After Reading is an abomination. For every Fargo there is a Hudsucker Proxy, for every A Serious Man there is a The Ladykillers.

The Coens are famous for their subversive dark comedy, but for me I much prefer them when they lean more towards the dark and less towards the comedy. Because of this, my moments of Coen appreciation and distaste are often at odds with popular opinion. Unlike most people, I am not a fan of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou, but love The Man Who Wasn’t There and Hail, Caesar!

Which brings us to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is structured as six chapters that are not connected to each other in anyway except that they are set in the old west. This anthology approach behooves the Coens because it allows them to touch upon both the dark and the comedy without ever having to fully commit to either. It is also a benefit when watching it on Netflix because you can watch it smaller increments and not miss anything, which will benefit those with shorter attention spans (which seems to be all of us).

The first chapter in the film is titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and is easily my least favorite. I almost didn’t make it through this chapter because it is so forcibly “Coen” with its comedic sensibilities. It also didn’t help that Tim Blake Nelson is the lead actor in this chapter, as I find him to be a less than appealing screen presence.

This first chapter is an over the top send up of westerns and and for me bordered on the unbearable. This is just a matter of taste so others may appreciate it, but I almost turned the movie off and never returned. Thankfully I didn’t.

The second chapter, titled “Near Algodones”, is where the film starts to take flight. In this chapter James Franco plays a bank robber who gets taken on a twisting and turning journey. This chapter shows the Coens trodding their well-worn but well-played ironic existentialist playground.

Chapter three, titled “Meal Ticket”, which stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling is simply fantastic as it follows a pair of showmen traveling the old west. Melling dazzles as the showman and Neeson does his best Irish brooding in years. This chapter is almost peak Coens and it is a cinematic delight.

Chapter four, titled “All Gold Canyon”, which stars Tom Waits, is the slowest paced of all the chapters, but it still delivers a powerful cinematic punch. Waits is fantastic as a gold miner who stumbles across Eden and lives out a biblical fable. The Coen’s use of animal symbolism in this section adds one more layer onto the usual mountain of old testament morality which they so frequently and effectively mine (pun intended).

Just when you think the film has peaked along comes Chapter Five, titled “The Gal Who got Rattled”, which stars Zoe Kazan as a young woman making the long journey west with a wagon train. Kazan dazzles as Alice Longabaugh, a delicate young woman who is forced to face a cruel world and an uncertain future. This chapter may be the very best thing the Coen’s have ever made.

Kazan, the granddaughter of the iconic filmmaker Elia Kazan, gives a beguiling and compelling performance that never falls into caricature. Her ability to fill her character with a vivid inner life and intentionality allows her to be vibrant on screen even as she keeps herself tightly contained. I am not very familiar with Kazan’s earlier work, but I look forward to seeing how bright her future gets, I have a feeling it could be as bright as a supernova.

The final chapter, titled “ The Mortal Remains”, is interesting but not compelling enough and ends the film on a slight misstep. This chapter, which stars Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek, is similar in some ways to the prologue in A Serious Man. The existential and mystical blend in this section, not always to great effect. While I thought this was one of the weaker chapters, I also thought it was the one that held the most potential. Sadly it never lives up to its intriguing premise.

On the whole the film, shot by Bruno Delbonnel, looks great with a simple yet precise visual style. What I appreciated was that, unlike say Soderbergh’s recent Netflix film High Flying Bird, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks lush and crisp even on the smaller screen.

In terms of the acting, it is very good across the board. Neeson, Melling, Waits and Kazan give truly impressive performances that elevate the film to great dramatic heights.

In conclusion, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is among the very best of the Coen Brothers filmography and I can’t recommend it to you highly enough. If you are a Coen brothers afficianado, you’ll love this movie, and even if you are lukewarm on them, you will find something to like in it. The film is dark, funny and darkly funny, but it also has a philosophy driving through it that gives it a narrative and mythic coherence.

The western genre is the most American of all film genres, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of epic fables that insightfully and accurately diagnose the American affliction. The American affliction that the Coens examine in this film is gaining in power and potency, and if we don’t understand its origins we will never survive this pandemic. A good place to begin to understand our affliction is by watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

©2019

Widows: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A poorly written, cliche ridden, Hollywood heist movie that stumbles over its own absurdity. Worth seeing for free on Netflix or cable if you want to see director McQueen’s visual prowess, but has scant few other worthwhile qualities.

Widows, directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, is the story of a group of women in Chicago who plot a robbery amidst political intrigue after their criminal spouses are killed pulling a big money heist. The film stars Viola Davis with supporting turns from Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya.

This has been a bad few weeks of movie going for me. As I stated in a previous review for At Eternity’s Gate, 2018 has been a down year for film. There were two films I was greatly anticipating seeing this Autumn that I thought might break this year’s cinematic malaise, the first was the aforementioned Julian Schnabel film At Eternity’s Gate, and the second was Widows. At Eternity’s Gate failed me miserably, and so I was left with all of my optimistic eggs in one basket, and that basket was Widows

The reason I was excited for Widows is that Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the iconic actor Steve McQueen of Bullitt and Papillon who died almost 40 years ago, is one of my favorite directors. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was a Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay) Academy Award winner, and is a truly terrific movie, but my personal favorite, and McQueen’s best film in my opinion, is his first feature, Hunger (2008). In Hunger, McQueen’s cinematic vision and dynamic style jumped off the screen in his big screen debut about the I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands.

McQueen’s approach has always been a bit unconventional, for instance, in Hunger there is a static shot of a conversation between two characters that is held for 17 straight minutes. It is a staggeringly courageous maneuver for a rookie filmmaker to attempt, but McQueen dramatically pulls it off, aided in no small part by two pulsating performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.

McQueen’s dexterity with the camera, his flair for framing and shot composition and his ability to draw out superb performances, make him one of the great film makers working today, a true auteur….which is why I was so anticipating Widows.

But much like my disappointment with At Eternity’s Gate, Widows dashed my hopes of a 2018 cinematic revival onto the rocks of cold, hard, Hollywood reality.

Widows is a movie terminally at odds with itself. On the one hand, Widows is a filmmaking masterclass filled with expertly rendered shots, and on the other hand its story is a nauseatingly contrived piece of Hollywood hackery that is so far-fetched as to be absurd.

Widows is meant to be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but by the looks of the box-office it isn’t drawing much of a crowd, and it certainly didn’t please me. The main issue is that the story is too much, the script is too much and the movie is too much in that what it asks of its audience is too much. For the movie to succeed the viewer must make such gargantuan leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief to such a degree that the entire enterprise simply isn’t tenable.

Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay with McQueen, and as she has proven in the past with her decrepit Gone Girl script, Ms. Flynn is not very good at screenwriting. The dialogue in Widows is just as forced and manufactured as the inane plot, the fault of which no doubt lies with Ms. Flynn and her writing accomplice Mr. McQueen.

The performances, for the most part, are pretty lackluster as well. Viola Davis is a good actress, but she never finds her footing as Veronica Rawlings, the leader of the widowed women’s brigade. Daniel Kaluuya is also pretty underwhelming as Jatemme Manning, the alleged badass in the movie. Kaluuya strikes the right pose but his Jatemme is a one dimensional character that never goes anywhere and is more akin to a dog chasing its tail than a pitbull on the loose. Both Davis and Kaluuya’s performances are entirely predictable and lack any spark of originality.

Colin Farrell, who in recent years has gotten his acting groove back with quality performances in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, badly misfires as Jack Mulligan, the candidate to replace his father for Alderman in the newly reshaped Chicago district where the film is set. Farrell’s accent is all over the map and his character work is unfocused and erratic.

Michelle Rodriguez plays one of the widows and she gives the same Michelle Rodriguez performance she’s been giving her entire career where she is tough…real tough…but also boring as hell. She is joined in her uncomfortable acting futility by Liam Neeson, who comes across as equally unprepared and awkwardly out of place.

As for the bright spots, there are a few. The first of which is Elizabeth Debicki who plays Alice, widow of Polish descent. Debicki is the only actor in the film who feels like a real person. Her grounded yet charismatic performance lights up and jumps off the screen. Debicki looks like a supermodel but obviously has the soul of an actor as she never poses or preens but rather inhabits a genuine character. I have never seen Debicki act before, but after her intricate and nuanced performance in Widows, I expect I am going to be seeing a lot of her in movies that matter in the future.

Another positive was that one of my favorite, and one of the greatest, actors of all-time, Robert Duvall, has a small part in the film. Duvall plays Tom Mulligan, the patriarch of the political dynasty that Colin Farrell’s Jack hopes to inherit. While Tom Mulligan is not much of a role, Duvall plays it with aplomb, filling it with as much ornery old man piss and vinegar as you’d imagine.

Widows also has a fairly interesting sub-text that touches upon issues of race, class, power and politics that McQueen highlights with some exquisite shots, like when he places the camera on the front of a limousine while candidate Mulligan rants and raves out of sight in the back of the car. The shot travels from the desperate urban blight where Mulligan is campaigning to the tony upscale neighborhood where Mulligan actually lives. To McQueen’s credit, it is a fascinating shot that says more than any of the dialogue in the film. Sadly though, as interesting as the sub-text is, it gets pulled under by the cliched silliness that is the main plot.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is top notch, and his framing and shot composition, particularly his use of mirrors, borders on the sublime. Bobbit is McQueen’s long time collaborator, having worked as a cinematographer on all of McQueen’s features, and his confidence with the camera and his mastery of craft have always enhanced McQueen’s vision. In Widows though, with its ludicrous script, Bobbit’s superb cinematography is akin to putting a silk hat on a pig.

In conclusion, Widows in not the cure for what ills 2018 cinema, instead it is more a symptom of what ails the art form. What Widows has going for it is an Oscar level auteur at the helm (McQueen), a master craftsmen behind the camera (Bobbit) and a superb cast (Davis, Kaluuya, Fareel, Debicki, Duvall), but the albatross around its neck is the hackneyed script that scuttles the whole ship. As a result of that ill-conceived and executed script, Widows ends up being a contrived and vapid film that makes the fatal error of trying to give the audience what it wants, instead of giving them all that it has.

Whether you are an art house cinephile or an action movie creature of the cineplex, Widows leaves you lacking. It simply isn’t worth the time, money and effort to see it in the theatres, and you will feel like you’ve been on the short end of a heist if you do end up paying to see it. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable, feel free to watch it for free for no other reason than to see Bobbits cinematography and to maybe catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Dibecki’s star being born.

At the end of the day, cinema is the great love of my life, and Widows left me feel like a grieving black-clad widow of the art house. I am not sure what stage of cinematic grief I am currently in, but if I keep getting disappointed at the movie theatre like I did with Widows and At Eternity’s Gate, I am pretty sure anger is right around the corner.

©2018

#MeToo: It's Not Broke, but You Can See the Cracks

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 48 seconds 

In the U2 song "All Because of You" off of their 2004 album "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" there is a lyric that goes, "I'm not broke, but you can see the cracks". That lyric kept popping into my head over the last few weeks as I followed the cavalcade of developments with the #MeToo movement. 

VIDEO LINK

As my long time readers know, I have written extensively on the subject of #MeToo since the Weinstein story broke in early October ( linklink, linklink, link, link, link ). Early on in the story, I wrote what I considered to be a warning to the #MeToo adherents that their movement was destined to self-destruct because it was built on the sand of emotion and not a sturdy foundation of reason. Sadly, for my efforts I was routinely called lots of charming names like misogynist and rape apologist by readers who disagreed with my diagnosis. The following months though have proven my insights to be correct. If you have read my article, "Phases of a Sex Panic", you would be able to recognize that we are now deep into Phase Three of this current sex panic, with all the warning signs of #MeToo's decline due to decadence coming to fruition which will no doubt be followed by a backlash.

THE HIT ON AZIZ ANSARI

There have been a plethora of big #MeToo stories recently and they back up my predictions and hypothesis of #MeToo and its future. One big story was the Babe.com article which claimed comedian Aziz Ansari had "sexually assaulted" a young woman, Grace, with whom he went on a date. The reaction to the Babe article highlighted a gigantic rift in the #MeToo movement between generations. Younger women saw the Babe story as a tale of sexual assault while older generations saw it as "revenge porn" for a bad date. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote two Ansari articles (link, link) that were insightful and eloquent. Her takedown of the Ansari story is mandatory reading. Bari Weiss of The New York Times also wrote an Op-ed taking the Babe article and the claims that Ansari sexually assaulted his date to task. 

Flanagan and Weiss join Daphne Merkin (New York Times) and Meghan Daum (LA Times) as women who have written worthwhile pieces that challenge #MeToo and spotlight its very apparent shortcomings. Not to break my arm patting myself on the back (or to quote Bono from the song above, "I like the sound of my own voice, I didn't give anyone else a choice") but, I wrote pieces with remarkably similar themes regarding #MeToo months before these women ever considered writing their articles. I am glad my once lonely voice in the wilderness clamoring for reason and rationalism has now become a mini-chorus that includes other thoughtful writers, particularly females ones, because the topic of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment is too important to be left to the emotionalist and reactionary warlock hunters of #MeToo.

VIVE LA FRANCE

Recently, actress Catherine Deneuve and a group of French women wrote an open letter challenging #MeToo, and were joined by French film star Brigitte Bardot, who called the movement "ridiculous and hypocritical". In addition, French actress Juliette Binoche said something in a recent speech that I thought was incredibly important but received scant attention. Ms. Binoche said in relation to #MeToo that she WANTED to hear men's thoughts. This is in stark contrast to Minnie Driver and Alyssa Milano and the rest of the #MeToo mob that has consistently shouted men like Matt Damon down when they voiced their opinion on the subject.

The argument made by #MeToo and many neo-feminists is that men have no right to talk about the subject, whereas Ms. Binoche's argument is that men are as deeply involved in this issue as women, and so their perspective is equally valuable. The reason #MeToo wants to keep men quiet is because men might not say what they want to hear…like when Liam Neeson echoed my thoughts and called the movement a bit of a "witch hunt". I appreciate Ms. Binoche speaking up and out because I am constantly told by hectoring readers, or now former readers, that I should keep my mouth shut on #MeToo issues (and all issues really) because I am a straight, White, male. I have always found this line of attack to be so transparently infantile and foolish as to be absurd, but it seems to be the favorite fall back position for people who are entirely incapable of formulating and articulating a coherent logical argument. 

JAMES FRANCO IN THE CROSS HAIRS

Another big story were the charges of sexual misconduct against actor James Franco by his former girlfriend and some of his acting students. The charges against Franco and Aziz Ansari are so typical of Phase Three of a Sex Panic that it is remarkable. One of the claims against Franco was that while he was in a romantic relationship with a woman, Violet Paley, he allegedly took out his penis while they sat in a parked car together and motioned for her to perform fellatio upon him. The woman claimed she didn't want to do it but did because she "didn't want Franco to hate her". 

The Ansari situation was a date where the two people got naked, performed sex acts on each other and then Ansari kept asking for intercourse and the woman declined and so the date ended. Later, both Franco's companion Ms. Paley and Ansari's date Grace, claimed they were "sexually assaulted". It is objectively obvious that what happened to these woman may have been uncomfortable for them, but it was not sexual assault. In hindsight, these women regretted what they did and they used the #MeToo movement to turn their regret into revenge upon the famous men they felt treated them poorly.  

What the Franco and Ansari cases highlight is one of the things that disturbs me and the previously mentioned female writers Flanagan, Weiss, Merkin and Daum, and that is the embrace of victimhood and the reinforcing of a learned helplessness on the part of the women involved. As Caitlin Flanagan writes in her piece about Ansari's date Grace who was uncomfortable but didn't leave the situation, "have we forgotten how to call a cab?"

The dangerous dynamic being set up by #MeToo is that women are delicate, fragile flowers who have no agency and who need special protection. To me that is the exact opposite of what is required to change the predatory paradigm under which the sexual harassment and misconduct that #MeToo has so nobly highlighted once prospered. 

If women, like Grace and Ms. Paley, make bad decisions they must take responsibility for them, not use #MeToo to turn their regret into revenge because all that does is muddy the waters revolving around the issue of rape and sexual assault. For Ansari's date Grace to claim what happened that night was sexual assault is so outrageous as to be obscene, and is extremely disrespectful to women (and men) who truly have been sexually assaulted.  

STAR FUCKER

Both Ansari's date Grace and James Franco's former companion Ms. Paley strike me as women who fall into a particular category of person that is all too common in the entertainment industry. The Rolling Stones aptly named these type of people as "star fuckers" (see video). I fully acknowledge that is an unkind term, but that doesn't make it any less descriptively accurate. In the cases of Ms. Paley and Grace, these women were interested in these men because of their fame and wanted to use that fame to their social advantage. When that didn't happen, their infatuation turned into affliction and they sought their pound of public flesh. 

THE SIREN'S CALL OF VICTIMHOOD

The Ansari/Grace story has highlighted the notion that the Siren's call of victimhood seems to intoxicate younger women much more than it does older ones, probably because older ones fought so hard to not be victims, while younger ones have grown up with victim status being exalted.

I have written previously about how tempting it is to turn any sexual interaction into a claim of sexual assault or misconduct when the payoff for that is unchallenged acceptance and identification with the archetypal energy of the victim. This approach may be emotionally satisfying in the short term for the individual, but is a death knell for the #MeToo movement in the long term. 

Women won't become safer from predatory men, or be more empowered with the #MeToo embrace of victimhood, but will only empower predators more. And by stifling male voices, and taking away female agency, women are inadvertently generating a dynamic that ultimately will increase the chances of harassment and assault happening, not reduce them.

Women do not need to be protected because they are emotionally slight and psychologically weak, they need to be empowered by acknowledging and celebrating their innate mental, physical, spiritual and emotional toughness and resilience. Women need to be taught from as early an age as possible that it is ok to be hated, that way when they grow up, they won't feel "coerced" into blowing a guy when they don't want to in order to avoid being "hated". Women also need to learn that their self-worth should not be determined by the fame of the man with whom they sleep. They also need to learn that their bodies are theirs to do with as they please and that they are responsible for the choices they make and the consequences that come with them. All of these things are things that women in the #MeToo movement and modern feminists would say they want for women as well, but their actions thus far do not support this long term outcome, in fact, they guarantee the exact opposite. 

LITTLE BILL MAHER MAKES A POINT!!

This past Friday I forced myself to watch Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. Maher is a vapid thinker and an insipid comedian, but I feel it is my duty to watch him so you don't have to. This week, something remarkable happened…I actually agreed with Little Bill Maher. I know, I know, I am just as shocked and horrified as you are. After having spent the last few years referring to him as "Little Bill" and claiming he enjoyed performing fellatio on members of the intelligence community establishment, here I was nodding in agreement with what that silly-putty faced douche bag was saying. I was so startled by this turn of events I sat for hours pondering if my thinking was wrong because Maher thought I was right. 

I agreed with Maher because in his "New Rules" segment to close the show, he did a lengthy bit on the #MeToo movement. Maher went through his argument and basically made the case that while he believes sexual misconduct is abhorrent and should be stopped, the #MeToo movement is damaging to that cause because it is emotionalist and anti-reason.

Upon further review I realized that the reason I liked Maher's bit and agreed with it so much is because I wrote the same exact thing many times over. In fact, it seems very clear to me that either Maher, or more likely, someone on his writing staff, had read my RT piece on the subject that coincidentally came out during his show's recent hiatus. The reason I conclude this? Because Maher uses the same argument, structure and the examples in his New Rules segment as I did in my RT piece and its recent update. Read my piece and then watch the segment below to see what I am talking about.

Look, I am glad people are finally coming around and listening to me, but if Bill Maher wanted to be ahead of the curve for once, he could simply throw me a couple bucks and I'd happily consult for his stupid show. Ok…to be honest it would take considerably more than a "couple bucks", and even then I wouldn't do it "happily", but I would do it….maybe…but I'd still call him Little Bill.

VIDEO LINK

In conclusion, things are happening fast and furious with #MeToo. Stories break on the subject everyday, from Woody Allen to Michael Douglas to David Copperfield, there is always a new charge and a new headline. We are knee deep in Phase Three of this current sex panic and the cracks in the veneer of the movement are showing and growing. The Aziz Ansari story is NOT the "have you no shame" - McCarthyism stopping moment, but it is an important moment none the less because it reveals the deep foundational rifts within the #MeToo movement. Phase four and the inevitable backlash is a ways off, but it is definitely coming, especially with #MeToo adherents choosing reactionary emotionalism over nuance and self reflection. These are strange times, and they will no doubt only get stranger.

 

©2017

Silence : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!

Estimated Reading Time : 6 Minutes 37 Seconds

My Rating : 4.5 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. If you are a Catholic you must go see it now!! If you are a person of no faith or of another faith or even another denomination, the film may not resonate with you as much as it did with me. You can see it at your leisure.

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is the story of two Portuguese missionary Jesuit priests sent to Japan in the 1600's to try and find their missing mentor amidst a brutal nationwide persecution of Christians. The film stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as the Jesuit priests, Tadanobu Asano as their Japanese interpreter and Liam Neeson as their missing mentor Father Ferreira. 

Silence is a testament to iconic director Martin Scorsese's filmmaking prowess. It is a monumental film, a grueling, staggering, unrelenting and intensely personal piece of work that is, without a doubt, one of the best of the year. Silence is not only a film about faith, but a film of faith, faith as failure, faith as doubt, faith as struggle. Silence is riddled with intriguing metaphors that speak to our time, on issues like personal faith, religion, cultural assimilation, arrogant colonialism, conquest and submission. 

As much as I was enthralled by Silence, I am acutely aware that others may not, and probably will not, feel the same way about it I did. If you are not a person of faith, or are a person of a non-Catholic faith, this may not be the film for you. The film could feel impenetrable for someone who has not spiritually struggled in a similar fashion as the film's lead character Father Rodigues struggles. The film is a question with no answer, and if you think you have the answer, then it will most definitely be lost on you. The film is also intensely and specifically Catholic. The Christ of Catholicism is a mystical whisper, a flicker in the dark, a distant yet vaguely familiar mystery. When and if Christ/God ever does speak with Catholics, it is in the stillness, in a voice as quiet as the grave and as thundering as the end of the universe or the beginning of one. If you are Christian but not Catholic, the film may feel spiritually foreign to you and thus be a more frustrating than enlightening experience.

Silence, while a marvelous and compelling film, is also not a perfect one. The film runs two hours and forty minutes which was cut down due to pressure from the studio from a reported running time of three hours and thirty minutes. The studio no doubt wanted a shorter running time in order to facilitate more showings per day-per theatre, which equals more money. As strange as this is to say, the film should have remained three hours and thirty minutes long, as it is too short at two hours and forty minutes. The third act of the film is clearly rushed and the overall power of the narrative undermined by that fact. I sincerely hope that at some point a directors cut of the picture is released so that Scorsese's true and entire vision can be seen and appreciated. The irony of the studio forcing Scorsese to cut the length of the film in order to get more showings, is that the film is performing dismally at the box office anyway. A film like Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the iconic filmmakers of all time, is a prestige picture and should be treated as such. The emphasis should be on bringing Scorsese's unmolested artistic vision to the screen, not trying squeeze every nickel and dime out of the public. Due to its subject matter, a dark religiosity and spiritual struggle, Silence had slim chances of being a box office smash anyway, so the studio would have been wise to shoot for a bevy of Oscar nominations and wins in order to drum up audiences. Once again the commerce of Hollywood has done harm to the art of a filmmaking genius, I am sure it won't be the last time. 

The performances in Silence are all very solid. Andrew Garfield easily does the best work of his career as Father Rodrigues. Garfield played a somewhat similar type of role in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge this year, which was a terrible performance and a terrible film. Garfield's work in Silence is, thankfully, a million miles away from his lackluster work in Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield's performance in Silence is wonderfully crafted and filled with such a vivid internal life and struggle that he mesmerizes. Father Rodrigues' battle with fear, doubt, spiritual vertigo and pride are compellingly captured by the complex and layered work of Garfield. Garfield creates a character that is hoisted upon the cross of his own grandiosity and arrogance, who is both filled with a ferocious religious fire and also a delicate emotional and spiritual fragility. Garfield never wastes a moment on screen, or rings a false note in his entire magnetic performance which carries the picture upon his frail shoulders. 

The supporting actors do solid if unspectacular work, especially compared to Andrew Garfield's work. The Japanese cast are all excellent across the board though, with Tadanobu Asano being the most noteworthy. His work as the priest's Japanese interpreter is crucial for the film and he never fails to captivate with his character's, at times, infuriating behavior. 

Adam Driver and Liam Neeson do average work in supporting roles as Jesuit priests. I found Neeson to be, surprisingly, a bit underwhelming in his role. Driver was better than I thought he'd be, but he too never rises to the heights that Garfield does in terms of intensity and intricacy of performance. 

After seeing the film I read up on the history of its development and production and the struggle it took to get it made. Apparently the film had been in development hell for over twenty years. One tidbit that I found fascinating was the cast that was scheduled to star in the film a few years back when it got closest to being made. That scheduled cast was stellar and included Daniel Day- Lewis, Benicio del Toro and Gael Garcia Bernal in the three main roles. As much as I loved seeing this rendition of Silence, once I read that those actors could have been in it, I thought that their portrayal would have been markedly better than the one that was made. Day-Lewis, del Toro and Bernal are far superior actors to Neeson, Garfield and Driver. With that said, I was thoroughly enraptured with Garfield and Scorsese's 2017 version, but it is fun to speculate on what may have been.

In conclusion, Silence is a gorgeous, challenging, brutal and ultimately wondrous film. It is an intimate glimpse into the personal passion and crucifixion of a man on the cross of his faith and doubt. If ever there were a film that captured the arduous, perilous and ultimately confusing journey along the secret path of Christ, this is it. Silence is an exquisite work of art from the filmmaking genius that is Martin Scorsese, and is unquestionably the very best film of the second half of his career, and it isn't even close. I readily admit that this film is not for everyone, and that people of no faith or different faiths than Catholicism, will probably not connect as deeply with the film as I did, or at all. But if you are a person of faith, particularly a Catholic, I think this is not only a great film for you to go see, but a vital one. Martin Scorsese's faith mirrors my own in many ways, a sort of Merton and DeMello-esque, Buddhist Catholicism of deep meditative questioning, and hard fought, doubt-riddled belief. If you are religiously and spiritually wired the same way I am, I think Silence is well worth your sparse free time and hard earned money. If you share the same type of spiritual outlook as I do, then you shouldn't just go see Silence, you should seek it out like a man who's hair is on fire seeks water. 

©2017 

 

A Monster Calls : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 47 Seconds

My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. I recommend you see this film either in the theatre if you are a Jungian devotee, or on Netflix or Cable as it is interesting and original enough to be worth watching.

A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Patrick Ness based upon his book of the same name, is the story of Conor, a lonely, young boy in a small English town whose mother has cancer. The film stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, with supporting turns from Felicity Jones as Conor's mother, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and Liam Neeson as the voice of the Monster that comes to visit him one night.

I had not heard about A Monster Calls before seeing it and knew nothing of the story. Obviously, I had not read the book it is based upon as well. I had time to kill and there was nothing else playing that fit into my time schedule, so, like a young Native American at the time of his initiation, I made the leap. I am very glad that I did.  A Monster Calls is not a perfect film, or even a great one, but it is an interesting film of deep meaning and that is extremely refreshing in the cookie-cutter cinematic culture of today.

The story of A Monster Calls is simple enough, it is a coming of age story where young Conor must go from being a boy to being a man. Conor, like all of us, must be wrenched from his mother's warm bosom (and bed), and thrown into the cold and cruel world to fend for himself. That journey from boy to man is a difficult one under the best of circumstances, but with a cancer-stricken mother as his only ally in the world, Conor's passage becomes a treacherous and desperately lonely one. This is where the Monster is awakened and comes to guide Conor on his path into, and out of, the dark wood of life. 

The Monster is really Conor's psychological shadow. Like all of our shadows, the Monster holds all of the scary, repulsive and ugly things and knowledge that Conor does not want to recognize or admit to himself. In A Monster Calls, Conor's Monster is also the only true father figure or genuine male presence to guide and teach young Conor on his perilous trek into masculinity and out of his pre-adolescence. Conor's actual father makes a brief appearance but is a rather sad excuse for a man and is a pretty worthless father, so Conor is forced to get his lessons in manhood from his own Shadow.

What is so interesting about A Monster Calls is that, while it may at times veer into familiar coming-of-age Hollywood rhythms, it never lets go of its overall darker theme. Without a "shadow"of a doubt, this is a shadow movie. There are no simple answers, no short cuts, no soft landings for Conor here, only the complex, layered and unrelentingly cold, dark and realist life lessons taught by the Monster/shadow. This is not a sunshine, rainbows and singing puppy dogs, Disney/Pixar type of film, if it were it would fail to adaquetly impart the lessons it sets out to teach.

This film is a meditation on death, the death of our former selves, the death of our beliefs, of our religion, of our understanding of the world, of our hopes and of our dreams. A Monster Calls is a Jungian exploration of the power of the Monster/shadow that is born of death (both literal and symbolic), that lives within us all and how to release that power by integrating our own personal shadow elements. A great way to enjoy A Monster Calls is to watch it not as a straight forward narrative but rather as a Jungian analyst would analyze one of their own dreams, as the film is, like life, a dream within a dream within a dream. 

That said, this film may not be for everyone. It is rated PG-13 and I think it is on an individual basis that parents should judge whether their children should see it. I think thirteen is a good cutoff to even consider seeing it as kids younger than that may be overwhelmed with the darker themes of the film and may find it very disturbing. In addition, adults may not like it either. As I said, this is really a complex, Jungian, shadow-fairy tale about physical, emotional, mental and spiritual death and that isn't going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I enjoyed it but I am self-aware enough to know that others may not feel the same way. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed the film is that I have dealt with much death and darkness in my life and I appreciate a film grappling with the deeper meaning of those experiences. I view the world through a Jungian lens and enjoy explorations of the shadow, so this film was right up my alley. Your alley may be much more brightly lit than mine and that is okay, so just be forewarned before you head into see this picture. If the subject matter is something that is unappealing to you, that is okay too, but one thing to consider is that while symbolic death and the shadow may be a "dark" topic, it is also something that we all share together. Each one of us dies a thousand deaths before our final one, and each one of our psyches are inhabited by a thousand shadow Monsters. Our Monsters are what bind us and links us together through the ages from generation to generation. If we couldn't share our Monsters, we wouldn't share anything.

As I previously said, A Monster Calls is not a flawless film, for instance the performances are good enough but not particularly noteworthy with the exception of Lewis MacDougall, and there are some elements of the narrative that fall flat. On the other hand, cinematically, the film is fascinating to look at, particularly the dream/storytelling sequences which are visually dynamic and compelling. To its great credit the film does avoid the trap of sentimentality that these types of films so routinely fall into. Instead of cliches, A Monster Calls has an intriguing message and story that could, emphasis on could, resonate with all sorts of people if they are in the right frame of mind to be able to hear it.  

If you are looking for a dark, unique and original modern-day shadow-fairy tale, A Monster Calls is for you. This film contains lessons that each of us need to learn, whether we want to or not. The pilgrimage from boy to man, or for adults, from dusk to dawn during our dark night of the soul, can be a grueling and perilous one, so guidance from our shadow monsters familiar with the terrain of the darkness will be of critical assistance for anyone trying to survive that transition. While most of us would prefer to spend the entirety of our lives in the familiar warmth of the light, we all, at one time or another, will be compelled to make that journey into the cold, foreboding abyss of the mythical dark wood. It would be wise for each of us to familiarize ourselves with our own personal shadow monsters before we make this imperative and unavoidable expedition. As Conor learns in A Monster Calls, and as we all learn when we are forced to make our own similar odyssey, no one ever comes out of those dark woods the way they went in, best to prepare for that journey now while you can. If you don't, you will most certainly regret it when the time comes.

©2017