Review: ‘Widows’ is an increasingly rare caliber of thriller, and bold new territory for Steve McQueen

There’s a scene early in “Widows” – Steve McQueen’s latest and most unorthodoxly mainstream movie – in which Robert Duvall’s aging, racist local statesman tells his son and heir that his new $50,000 painting comes across as mere wallpaper.

Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan responds with a nondescript rebuke, as if on a deeper level he doesn’t fully disagree: “It’s art.”

The brief exchange can garner a universal chuckle for those watching in a moviehouse, but one gets the sense that isn’t McQueen’s intention. How we react to the scene, after all, is also a product of our experiences.

Would $50,000 turn our lives around? Is it pocket change? Do we ever dream of being at a place where that sum of money could be spent on a single, needless piece of wall decor? Could we dream of it? Continue reading →

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Review: With ‘Silence,’ Scorsese’s passion project finally comes to life

An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

Martin Scorsese has proven to be a consistent a filmmaking force over the years, having succeeded in multiple eras of cinema where other directors may have lost touch with their audience. But while consistency in his filmography reigns, the accessibility of his projects in recent years vary wildly.

It’s hard to think of a Scorsese movie that exemplifies this better that “Silence.” It represents a long-gestating passion project for the director, about Christian priests searching for their missing mentor in 1600s Japan, where the religion is not only outlawed, but met with swift brutality.

It’s easy to say that “Silence” has a straightforward premise; it certainly isn’t tough to follow, even when the seemingly intimate story occasionally lends itself to broad, epic strokes of storytelling.

Rather, it’s the underlying tale of conflicting religious and cultural ideologies that makes “Silence” one of Scorsese’s most profound works to date.

That the movie, clocking in at a little over two and a half hours, tells a story that simultaneously self-contained and transcendent of its setting is a testimony to Scorsese’s script, which he worked on alongside Jay Cocks.

Scorsese’s seemingly lifelong interest in the project is absolutely on display here. Consequently, some in the audience will find it hard to engage on an emotional level with what they see on screen, whether it’s because they were expecting something more in the veins of the frenetic “The Wolf of Wall Street” or they can’t relate with the characters in terms of belief in a higher power.

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But the ones who can engage on an emotional, even spiritual, level might find themselves deep in thought at various points in the film, particularly at moments of discussion between Andrew Garfield’s priest Rodrigues and the anti-Christian Inquisitor. These intellectual clashes serve to show that there’s not really a traditional good guy and bad guy in “Silence”; just a difference in perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Rodrigo Preto conjures up imagery behind the camera that is nothing short of majestic, a visual contrast to the figurative nothingness suggested by the film’s title. In a year with many superbly-shot films, “Silence” demands a seat at the table.

Fog is a pervading element in the movie, acting as nature’s answer to the wisps of doubt that slowly creep into Rodrigues’ mind. And the use of Christian imagery at the most unexpected of moments is chilling, if not meant to make us feel a similar weight that is on Rodrigues’ shoulders.

Garfield is fine here, enduring through initial impressions of having been miscast with a performance that becomes more physically demanding the more he looks like Jesus himself. Adam Driver, as the priest Garupe, is acceptable with the unexpectedly limited screentime he has, and Liam Neeson is expectedly satisfying as the vulnerable missing priest Ferreira.

Meanwhile, it’s silence itself that feels like it has the most noteworthy performance, a character in its own right that almost acts as a mediator in the proceedings. There’s the figurative silence that Rodrigues must grapple with in his journey, but the virtual lack of any score in the film gives a certain amount of levity to the narrative.

At times the technique makes “Silence” feel like a historical documentary (which, to an extent, it is, having basis in fact). Other times it’s authority is so  pertinent that we hope for just a pin drop to break the tension. On that end, Scorsese delivers with the occasional, but extremely vivid, display of brutality.

The modern cinema is a place where most movies are rife with spectacle that is as easy to absorb as it perhaps is to forget. “Silence” instead is formidable in its resolve to remind us that the physical lack of cinematic bombast can be even louder, and certainly more thought-provoking.

Scorsese is offering us an invitation to the table where identity and culture collide in constant conflict; whether that’s under the authority of a hanging crucifix or not is up to us.

 

“Silence” is rated R for some disturbing violent content

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano

Directed by Martin Scorsese

2016

 

Review: In ‘A Monster Calls,’ grief and metaphor take center stage

The subjects of coping with grief and coming to terms with inevitable loss are some of life’s most complex. Director J.A. Bayona understands this with his vision of “A Monster Calls,” an adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel of the same name.

The film is simultaneously straightforward and allegorical, with so much of its brains relying on the audience to keep up with its multitude of metaphors. It still holds a certain amount of weight if you fall a bit behind, but reveling in its intricacies, now matter how forced they may seem, ultimately leads to a powerful message of accepting the direst situations life may throw at us.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, whose mom, portrayed powerfully by Felicity Jones, is sick and not getting much better, despite trying seemingly every treatment available.

Conor is aware of her debilitating situation, but continually shuts himself off to it. What young child wants to think about having to live life without their mom? Instead he draws away his frustrations late at night, a distraction that proves to be a bit too effective.

That is, until the titular monster – a wooden CGI beast sporting Liam Neeson’s devilishly sly voice – pays Conor a visit, and begins to preach his parables.

These moments, although they are what make “A Monster Calls” unique and provide its billing, are hit-or-miss. Rest assured, there is a vital importance the monster’s origin and appearance other than being a cultural knockoff of Marvel’s Groot character, as there is in the stories he tells Conor.

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They are meant to instill some wisdom, although the messages seem a bit forced. Thankfully, some wonderful, unexpectedly macabre animation makes it more bearable. The sharp and analytical minds that pick up on the monster’s motives for telling these particular stories are the ones who will get the most out of “A Monster Calls.”

Instead, the film is at its strongest and most accessible in Conor’s interactions with other humans, including his father who now lives in America, and his grandmother that he has trouble connecting with. Not only is MacDougall stronger in these scenes, but the interactions may lead us to think back to moments in our lives where we may not have gotten along with a family member in a time when it was so important to be emotionally in sync with one another.

A highlight of the film comes during the monsters’ third, and most unexpected, visit. If we haven’t up to this point, it finally becomes clear what the beast represents, as well as his timeliness of visiting Conor. It is an impactful scene, and a rare one for Bayona when all aspects of his film come together perfectly as Conor finally begins to let out what he’s been keeping pent up inside.

And that’s only the prologue to his complete transformation in the film’s final act, one which makes us ponder the monster inside us all, and the power of releasing it when life swings its biggest punches. It’s difficult to tell who “A Monster Calls” is best suited for; its protagonist relates more to our youthful, innocent selves while the film is certainly more dark and mature than some may expect.

But the discussion that it is sure to spark between moviegoers of any age after leaving the multiplex is an important one, affirming the impact of a film that might make you question your perspective of life, even with its tough-to-absorb allegories.

 

“A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images 

Starring: Lewis McDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell

Directed by J.A. Bayona

2016