You’ve got to hand it to director Martin Scorsese: When he’s obsessed with a subject, he pursues it with vice grip precision. He has evidently had the story of two 17th century Christian missionaries facing the ultimate test of faith in Japan (when their religion was outlawed and their presence forbidden) in his mind for nearly three decades, so it’s cathartic indeed to have his fever dream of a tale realized on screen. But while his epic Silence (C+) will undoubtedly become required viewing for graduate divinity students pondering its Big Themes for generations to come, it is a fairly uneven and punishing task for an everyday moviegoer. The acclaimed director strips down many of his showy virtuoso moves to flesh out a naturalistic period story tackling issues of gravitas. It’s often fascinating to watch the auteur plumb Herzogian man versus nature (and human nature) style plot lines against a stark and exotic landscape. He explores violence both physical and emotional in new milieus, and there’s lots to ponder as this film kinda happens to you. The Japanese actors fare better than the Hollywood ones: Issey Ogata is a revelation as a captivating antagonist, and Yōsuke Kubozuka provides wild-child wonder as a confused soul. Miscast as the film’s hero, however, is Andrew Garfield, a thoroughly modern actor who can’t consistently bear the cross of the film’s themes or of a Portuguese Jesuit character in the 1600s. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are similarly uneasy in their parts and generate a bit of a hollow center that may actually be symbolic. A hodgepodge hybrid of Apocalypse Now, Passion of the Christand Salò with awkward narration and a needlessly lugubrious patchwork pace, it’s a film that will long be studied, both for its audaciousness and for its overreach. Now that Marty’s religion-themed trilogy of Silence, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ is at long last complete, folks may welcome tales of confession, redemption, vengeance and sacrifice back where Scorsese does it best: on the mean streets of modern America.
An epic true tale of faith has met its match in a filmmaker for whom fire and brimstone are merely a prelude, and the power and singularity of his vision on screen cannot be denied. Director Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (B) is a tough mudder of an action movie, hearkening to the actor-turned-director’s own roots in Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli and imprinted with a world-weary POV applied to WWII’s Battle of Okinawa. Funneled through Gibson’s prism of gore and glory, the film is far from subtle but nonetheless audaciously moving. At the center of the proceedings – and key to its believability – is Andrew Garfield’s knockout portrayal of real-life American hero Desmond Doss, whose Christian beliefs prompted him to become a conscientious objector to violence simultaneous to enlisting in the military as a medic without a gun. Opening sequences feel like a Whitman’s Sampler of giddy nostalgia that would give Forrest Gump a run for his money in treacly sweetness. But soon after dispensing with some basic training melodrama, the film quickly detours into a fog and slog of war and a series of difficult decisions and riffs on themes of sacrifice and redemption. The director is adroit at putting the viewer in the heart of the action, relating to the protagonist’s fear and faith of being disarmed in the face of encroaching force. Aside from casting Vince Vaughn against type as a droll drill sergeant, the filmmaker rounds out his ensemble with sterling British and Australian actors ranging from Sam Worthington to Hugo Weaving to a relative newcomer, the delightful Teresa Palmer. The images of war are among the most suspenseful and sensational committed to screen, with the titular ridge, flanked with a mountain-high netting leading infantry to setbacks and triumphs, among the splendid set pieces. The sheer duration of some of the sequences dull their impact, but the fight choreography is second to none. Many will love the film’s messages but be turned off by the graphic violence; others repelled by Gibson will miss out on a poignant story. The auteur has once again found the pulse of an incredible and inspiring brave heart.
Reclaiming the title of D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic is the most subversive element of Nate Parker’s otherwise straightforward historical 2016 retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave uprising, The Birth of a Nation (B-), but the timing of this true-life tale could not be more prescient given continuing struggles with race in today’s society. Because the protagonist is both slave and scholar and an active preacher, the film brings up big themes about the nature of vengeance. It doesn’t always fuse those themes into a consistent tone, though. For a first time writer/director also in the lead role, Parker is a bit over his head; and his passable acting is largely enhanced by the gravity of his character and because he is opposite a very wooden Armie Hammer as the plantation owner (with unwieldy beard and novelty teeth). Hammer has evolved very little since his leaden Lone Ranger. In fact, the acting overall is a weak spot as many of the underwritten characters (especially the women) feel more like symbols than fully fleshed-out individuals. The film gains stirring resonance long after it has lost narrative momentum. Where’s the storytelling fire found in the final twenty minutes during the rest of the film? Aside from the gruesome rebellion itself, the film soars in a sequence when scriptures are used to argue both sides of the slavery argument. I couldn’t help but think how good the exchange would have been if embodied by more seasoned performers. Nonetheless the cinematography is intermittently gorgeous and Henry Jackman’s chorus-tinged score haunting. It’s an important film and a vital story to tell; it just could have been a bit stronger cinematically. But the first-time helmer should get some major credit for his brazen first choice in subject matter.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (A) is a heart-wrenching Hollywood epic about American race relations through the lens of pacifist father (a solid Forest Whitaker) and action-oriented son (a revelatory David Oweloyo). Even Oprah Winfrey gets every note right as the mighty mom of a great American family. What may be dismissed as overly polished is actually one of the most stirring, touching films of the year. Civil rights teachers will be showing this to students for generations to come.
Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (B+) is a stirring Civil War-set adventure and romance with some of the best work done by Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. The director deftly handles two parallel stories, invoking color and detail in the backwaters of battle. The film has epic sweep and intrigue throughout.
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (B-) is an epic historical drama set in the mid-19th century in the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are fine in their roles, it is Daniel Day-Lewis who steals the show as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, the crime boss and political kingmaker of a time period inclusive of Irish immigration, the Civil War and the New York Draft Riots. It’s clear Scorsese was going for Dickensian characters and atmosphere on classic American turf, but then he rushes the final act. The story isn’t all that memorable, even if The Butcher’s menace lingers on.