Tag Archives: Novel

Silence (2016)

I’m a sucker for movies about the supernatural, the occult, a higher power, God (or gods) and faith. And so when I heard one of the greatest directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese, was making Silence, a film about 1600 Jesuit priests in Japan starring Spider-Man, Kylo Ren and Qui-Gon Jinn, I was like “Sign me up!”

I intentionally avoided reading too much info about the movie, and thankfully the fantastic trailer did not reveal anything major. Accordingly, I did not know what to expect going in, and boy, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see.

Twenty-five years in the making and based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Silence is unlike any film I have ever seen. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests from the 1600s who venture to Japan — where Christianity is outlawed — in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing after sending back a letter describing the horrors he witnessed — horrors that allegedly made him renounce his faith. This thus kicks off a harrowing journey of incredible danger as the two young priests are thrust into beautiful Japanese seaside villages where pockets of Christians remain hiding in fear and despair due to the brutal Christianity suppression campaign of a man known as the  “Inquisitor”.

Silence is without a doubt a difficult movie to sit through and is definitely not for everyone. The priests are subject to test after test of faith, many of which are impossible to bear from both a physical and emotional standpoint. I guess it could be called slow and torturous “religious persecution porn”, and despite how that sounds, I found the film so engrossing that I could not turn away at the horrors happening on the screen. Scorsese’s control of storytelling and the characters’ inner turmoil is downright masterful, and his use of sound and silence is incredibly powerful. From a visual perspective, the film — entirely shot in Taiwan — is stunning and accords with Japanese beliefs about nature while offering an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the ugly human conduct depicted in the film. The simple sets and foggy landscapes appear authentic and with no sense of CGI whatsoever, and now having seen all the Best Cinematography Oscar nominees this year, I would say that the Silence‘s DP, Rodrigo Prieto, should be the favorite.

The performances are of course great and should have garnered Oscar consideration. I don’t have a problem with Garfield getting his nomination for Hacksaw Ridge instead of this movie, though I think Liam Neeson should have gotten a nod for his difficult and heartbreaking portrayal. I’ve always known that Neeson has a very particular set of skills, but I never thought it would be playing a broken 1600s Jesuit priest who has had his faith shattered.

Silence is not so much a Christian film as it is a film about faith. It’s a movie that people of all faiths, regardless of religion, can appreciate and empathise with. I’d go further and say that even atheists and agnostics can gain valuable insights from this film, especially the extent to which one can have faith in a higher power that never speaks back no matter how much you pray and does nothing to put an end to unjust suffering. I was fascinated by the film’s portrayal of different types of people of faith, from those who succumb to persecution and betray their faith easily, only to ask for forgiveness again and again, to those who long for death — and thus entry into their promised paradise — as sweet relief from their wretched lives.

It’s a shame Silence was almost entirely overlooked by the Academy because it’s easily one of the best films of the year in my book. I found it significantly better and deeper than The Passion of the Christ, which can also be classified as suffering porn, though Silence is more about the mental than the physical, and goes much further by questioning the very nature of faith itself.

5 stars out of 5

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

me_and_earl_and_the_dying_girl_poster

In an age when young adult films are dominated supernatural romance garbage and sex comedies, it’s refreshing to see Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, who also penned the screenplay. With a superb cast, sweet charm, touching drama and plenty of witty laughs, it’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story that cleverly tricks you into thinking that you’re not being manipulated because of an apparent avoidance of genre cliches.

The protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann), is a high schooler who prides himself in not being a part of any cliques and can stay on friendly terms with anyone and everyone. His best friend — and only close friend — is Earl (RJ Cyler), and together they have been making short film parodies of famous classics for years using creative low budget techniques. Everything changes, however, when Greg is forced by his eccentric parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a former childhood friend who had been diagnosed with an illness.

Before you go there, allow me to set things straight. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is not a tear-jerking love story in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars. In fact, it feels like writer Jesse Andrews intentionally tried to steer away from such a storyline. The film is more in the ball park of John Green’s other film adaptation, Paper Towns (which was somewhat meh) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (one of my fave films of 2012), though it’s lighter on romance and heavier on humour, especially of the dry, self-deprecating kind.

There’s plenty of things I liked about this film: the likable central characters, the amazingly clever short films they created, Greg’s weird-ass father, Rachel’s hilarious mother (Molly Shannon), and the very cool teacher played by Jon Bernthal. I liked how determined it was to veer away from melodrama and the saccharine, without losing any of its charm or wackines. It has just the right amount of adolescence — for once the teens in a movie look like teens and act like teens and have teen issues and problems.

The performances are top notch across the board, and much of the credit must go to the perfect casting. I hated Project X with a passion, though Thomas Mann was one of the things I didn’t loathe about it. Since then he has really done a lot of good work, including in The Stanford Prison Experiment and being the bright spots in mediocre features like Barely Lethal and Beautiful Creatures. He’s going to be seen next year in Kong: Skull Island, the reboot of the King Kong franchise that will culminate in a showdown with Godzilla.

Olivia Cooke is an underrated up-and-coming actress I’ve kept my eye on. She’s mainly known for horror up to this stage of her career (Ouija, The Quiet Ones, The Signal and TV’s Bates Motel) but her screen presence and acting chops suggest to me that she will catch a big break sooner or later. Same goes for RJ Cyler, who has reportedly been cast as the Blue Power Ranger in the upcoming Power Rangers flick.

I didn’t have any real complaints about the film. The pace probably could have been swifter for a 105-minute film and resorts to more conventional genre tactics as it nears its conclusion, though my primary gripe — if it can be called that — is that it’s not quite as emotionally affecting as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps after all that effort to keep the tone light and unsentimental also somehow sapped it of the deeper poignancy that a film like The Perks of Being a Wallflower had hit me with.

On the whole, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a sweet little film, well-written and superbly executed by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (best known for directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story). I laughed often and enjoyed it a lot, though in my opinion it still falls a few steps short of the memorable classic it was aiming to be.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Giver (2014)

the giver

The Giver is the latest big screen adaptation of a popular teen sci-fi novel (this one’s based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 book of the same name). But anyone expecting another Hunger Games or Divergent is likely to be disappointed. While The Giver is not a complete waste of time as it explores, maybe intelligently for some, familiar themes about free will and dystopian and utopian societies, in the end there’s just not enough there — whether it’s action, romance, heart or genuine substance — to call it a worthwhile experience.

The story is set several decades into the future, in which a post-war community comes up with the brilliant idea of erasing everyone’s memory in a bid to create a world of peaceful co-existence. Additionally, everyone is assigned to preselected families and jobs, and have to live by a strict set of rules, one of which gives Katie Holmes the opportunity to say, “Precision of language!” a lot. Doesn’t sound like utopia, but I suppose the idea is that ignorance is bliss.

Our 16-year-old protagonist, Jonas (Aussie Brenton Thwaites in yet another Hollywood role), is assigned by the community’s chief elder (Meryl Streep) to the most important role in the community, the next Receiver of Memories, meaning he must become an apprentice to the current receiver, The Giver (Jeff Bridges). Naturally, as the plot necessitates, the more memories of the past Jonas receives, the more he begins to question the validity of the whole regime. Boom shakalaka!

The Giver comes across as a bizarre crossbreed between Pleasantville and Divergent, where people pigeonholed into rigid categories by an authoritarian system shake things up by inevitably giving in to the urges of human nature. And like Divergent, it’s one of those films where you get the sneaking suspicion that the story works much better on the page than the screen because of its high concept premise. There’s no denying that the central conceit of the film is difficult to swallow, and if you think too much you’ll just get tangled up in the web of common sense and logic fails.

Still, I quite liked the pleasing visual style of Aussie director Philip Noyce, and it’s never a bad thing when screen legends Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges are involved. The surprising stand out for me, however, has to be Katie Holmes as Jonas’s mother, though I suppose she has an unfair advantage when it comes to acting zombie-esque in a cult like environment after being married to Tom Cruise for all those years. By the way, Taylor Swift is also in this, and as expected she is a singing robot.

In the end, The Giver feels like a valiant effort at bringing to life a beloved novel, but the various elements just don’t quite come together. This is a film I think lovers of the book might be able to enjoy a lot, though for me it felt like there were more than just a few pieces of the puzzle missing.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

walk

You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

Lots of awesome posters for this film -- this is my fave

Looks like Daniel Radcliffe might have a decent career after Harry Potter after all.

I was really looking forward to Radcliffe’s first post-Potter feature, the gothic horror The Woman in Black, not because I’m a fan of the kid but because it looked freaking awesome. Based on an 1983 novel by Susan Hill and set in the early 1900s, it tells the story of a struggling young lawyer (Radcliffe) struck by tragedy who heads to a small town to take care of some legal work, only to discover that it might be cursed by the titular character.

I’m a big fan of ghost stories and this one did not disappoint. In fact, I can’t think of a better ghost-related horror film from the last few years off the top of my head.

The story and progression is about as traditional as you can get: main character goes to new place, weird stuff happens and he has to unravel the mystery behind the haunting. In that respect The Woman in Black brings nothing new to the table, but as they say, it’s all in the execution.

Old dilapidated English mansions, freaky toys, pale kids with haunting stares, weirdos, psychos and shadows all over the place — the atmosphere is so brilliantly spooky it kept me on the edge of my seat even though it’s not a fast paced film.

And don’t worry, it doesn’t just rely on atmosphere — The Woman in Black also has some terrific ‘boo’ moments and some visceral scares too. Coupled with the perpetually grey, dreary backdrop, it creates an inescapable sense of dread that seems to keep pulling you deeper and deeper. And at a brisk 90 minutes, it never outstays its welcome either.

The film reminded me a little bit of the underrated Insidious from last year, except it’s set in the scarier gothic era and doesn’t crumble into silliness in its second half.

While it’s difficult to picture Radcliffe as anyone other than the boy wizard, he does do a great job here as the damaged but likable protagonist. Yes, his face seems doomed to be forever trapped in that bizarre transitional phase between child and adult, but I think with more performances and films like this he’ll have a long and successful career.

4 out of 5 stars!

Book or Movie First?

Shutter Island is about to start at the movies soon.  I also happen to have the novel (by Dennis Lehane) on which it is based at home.

Except in very rare situations, I usually find the book to be superior to the film version.  A friend told me to watch the movie first, because then when you read the book, you can take your time to properly digest it.  And because the book will be more in-depth, it’s like adding to the movie experience.

On the other hand, watching the film first could lock up certain images in your mind (whether it be the way a character looks, talks or acts), which could be detrimental to the reading experience.  In other words, it limits the ability of your imagination to envisage the scenesor characters in your mind (eg, like seeing DiCaprio’s face all the time!  Argh!).

Just to take a few recent examples.  I read The Road first before seeing the film, whereas I saw Revolutionary Road first before reading the book.  Did it really affect either experience?  Not really.  Each had a different feel to it.

So what should I do?  Read the book first or watch the movie first?