Towards the end of Martin Scorcese’s pious dedication to the apostate Catholic priests of seventeenth century Japan, Liam Neeson’s character, Ferreira, is called upon by the Japanese inquisitors to engage in dialogue with Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the very last of the Catholic representatives – now captured – to attempt to track down and ‘rescue’ Ferreira from his Japanese subjugators. Only, Father Ferreira has long since renounced his faith and has by now fully integrated himself into traditional Japanese beliefs and culture.
Ferreira uses the fact that nothing is able to take root in Japan – owing to the country’s aqueous environment, and the tendency for plants to simply rot away – as a metaphor for the country’s people being unable to fully grasp and appreciate the ‘truth’ of the Catholic religion. Pointing to the sun, he explains to Rodrigues that no matter how good and holy had been the intentions of the missionaries, those that had been ‘converted’ by their religious teachings had never really understood fully the true meaning of the scriptures. Theirs was a very literal translation. For them, the sun of God, was not one that rose miraculously after three days to absolve their sins, but one that did so every morning, in the very sky above them.
In effect, the missionaries had been wasting their time, and the thousands of Japan’s ‘saved’ souls were not in fact ‘saved’ at all.
Or so he insinuated.
Whether these were the words of a brow-beaten slave of an intolerant Japanese society, fearful of aggravating his masters, or the knowledgable insight of a now more enlightened soul who had been party to both sides of the reasoning, only he would have known. Regardless, his conclusions shine a light on perhaps the true historic origins of rigid religious dogma, and threaten to undermine their staunch, unalterable, fiercely-guarded ideals and values by reducing them to one simple premise; a premise that man perhaps hijacked for his own gain and controlling purposes, somewhere down the line.
Scorcese was allegedly himself set for the priesthood until the film-making life proved too alluring, and it’s clear that Silence, whilst maybe a little self-indulgent, is the work of a man with great respect for the church and its core values, and at two hours and forty minutes long, he is able to explore the subject matter in some depth in this considered and thoughtful piece.
But what of the film itself? The narrative of Silence contains many parallels with the story of Jesus, with Rodrigues (and to a lesser extent, his colleague, Garupe – Adam Driver), tested considerably by the Japanese as to the true strength of their own unwavering faith, whilst the potential treachery of the weak and confused ‘Judas’ character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), is omnipresent throughout.
Of course, whether one is empathetic with the plight of Rodrigues and Garupe depends greatly upon how the somewhat arrogant, invasive exploits of the Catholic church are perceived. Certainly, from Scorcese’s tale, there can be no doubting that Rodrigues and Garupe’s intentions are wholly heart-felt and honourable, but Silence is not a conventional story of good against bad, but asks far deeper questions pertaining to whether it is right to impose another’s will upon others, and at what point it becomes morally wrong to do so, when to do so is to endanger the lives of others.
Silence’s pace is slow but not laboured, leaving ample space in which the viewer has time to reflect upon the many moral conundrums that Scorcese poses throughout the piece. Garfield puts in a weighty, sincere performance, whilst Adam Driver, and his atypical facial anatomy, is appropriately well cast – if rather underused – as his priestly-colleague, Garupe.
Harrowing, yet understated scenes of torture are occasional reminders of the consequences of following forbidden religious practices in a fiercely anti-Catholic land, and these combined with the atmospheric, evocative overcast scenes of wild and misty Japanese coast lines, lend Silence an eery yet visually beautiful quality.
Silence is a well-crafted piece of cinema without doubt, and clearly a piece close to Scorcese’s heart. Thankfully it’s also a film not making any obvious, cheap attempts to scoop accolades or vying for mass attention (excuse the pun), during this year’s Oscars season.
Watching itbrought to mind Tim Robbins’ 1995 piece, Dead Man Walking, in which a convicted murderer on death row finds salvation through befriending a nun, whilst awaiting his execution. I recall being suitably moved by his plight and relieved at the peace and faith that he ultimately found through God.
Silence evoked no such emotions in me.
I suspect that a twenty-two year period having elapsed since then in which my own personal ‘truth’ has veered considerably from any such vague religious leanings, may well have played a large part in that, rather than it being any sort of slight on Scorcese’s film, which may be one of subjective content, but is nonetheless impressive and thought-provoking.
Devout though never ‘preachy,’ Silence will, unsurprisingly, split its audience into those that want to and those that are simply unable to fully engage with it, no matter how they try.
The battle cry – if indeed that is the correct term – of one, Desmond Doss; WWII front-line U.S military medic.
Mel Gibson certainly doesn’t do things by halves. His directorial style is, shall we say, honest and forthright; proper heart-on-sleeve stuff, and it’s suitably applied in this instance to the recounting of Desmond Doss’s incredible story.
Doss (Andrew Garfield), a deeply religious man and a conscientious objector to the act of killing (or “conscientious cooperator” as he preferred to be known), performed remarkable heroics in Japan during the Battle of Okinawa, saving the lives of countless men.
His actions were all the more remarkable considering the majority of the men he attended to single-handedly, long after the rest of his unit had retreated from the field of combat, and with Doss completely unarmed and still very much under enemy fire.
Doss had felt compelled to join the war effort, and having met his sweetheart, Nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), at his local hospital, he was inspired and therefore intent upon signing up to become a front-line military medic. Doss had a fierce aversion to violence born out of both a strong commitment to the ‘word of God,’ and having witnessed and been subjected to the beatings of an often armed, and frequently enraged father – a self-confessed, embittered alcoholic war veteran. These beatings had been dished out indiscriminately to both he, his brother and their mother during Doss’s formative years.
Consequently, on volunteering his services to the army, Doss refused to even so much as hold a fire-arm, let alone use one in combat; something that hardly enamoured him to his assigned military unit. A stubborn resolve and considerable religious devotion somehow got him through the multitude of obstacles (both literal and metaphorical), that therefore plagued his unnecessarily complicated time at the Fort Jackson military training camp; a time in which his comrades and the U.S army did everything in their power to sabotage and infringe upon his efforts to graduate.
With their efforts in vain, however, they were shipped to Japan where Doss’s unit would face the daunting prospect of the Japanese army at Hacksaw Ridge, and Doss, voluntarily, would face it all entirely unarmed.
Hacksaw Ridge is a very linear, straight forward telling of Doss’s inspirational story. Director Gibson, with trademark lack of subtlety, forces a back-story upon us, thus setting the scene and tone of the tale. Everything is rather spelt-out, clunky and predictable, and at no point is there really ever any doubt about the direction in which his film is heading.
Such a formulaic and almost clichéd tick-box directorial exercise seems like something of a missed opportunity given the intriguing nature of Doss’s story, but in his favour, the strong momentum and no-nonsense nature of Gibson’s direction rolls this particular wagon of predictability along at such a lick, that any lingering doubts over lack of character development or absence of nuance, never successfully take root; utterly brutal scenes of combat and the fierce fight for survival see to that, and demonstrate the true point and beating heart of Gibson’s hard-hitting war piece.
I’m fairly sure that the director’s intentions with Hacksaw Ridge were manyfold. We’re all aware of Gibson’s fierce Catholic convictions, so we can only assume that this work was very much a labour of love. However, Gibson somehow pulls off the trickiest of juggling acts in not allowing his considerable religious prejudices to completely overpower a story that still manages to successfully represent – equally persuasively – the resolve of the human spirit and the drive that exists within each of us towards goodness – irrespective of organised religion’s bad habit with regard to its inference that such moral goodness is more divine-inspired than something innate within us.
Visually the film is big, bold and dramatic, centring upon the huge imposing escarpment, on top of which the ferocious motions of battle were played-out, but it’s Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the fresh-faced, pontifical private, which, despite a solid supporting cast, is every bit the show-stealer, and this, in conjunction with Gibson’s battering-ram of direction, sees Hacksaw Ridge somehow transcend itself from stock Hollywood schtick, to something far more thoughtful and indelible.
If director, J.A Bayona brings a fraction of the warmth, charm and magic that’s in evidence in A Monster Calls to his Jurassic World sequel (cited for 2018), then he’s got a sure-fire success on his hands.
Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s critically acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name, benefits from also having had Ness write the screenplay, and I am informed by those that know – not having read it myself – that Bayona’s film is a pretty faithful rendition of the book. As much as any film can be, that is.
The transition into our teen years is difficult enough, and in Conor’s case, he has more than his fair share of angst-filled issues to contend with. Relentlessly bullied at school, with a father who has relocated to California, and a mother (Felicity Jones) battling a serious illness, Conor finds himself alone and rather unhappy; very much a boy with the weight of the world on his young shoulders.
With the shattering news that his mother’s health continues to deteriorate and that she will be hospitalised in order to receive more treatment, he will have to live with his strict Grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Theirs is a ‘strained’ relationship at best, and the latest in a sequence of events pushing Conor towards his tipping point.
Salvation, however, can sometimes reveal itself from the most unlikely of sources. In Conor’s case, it’s by way of his own vivid imagination and a large, imposing yew tree that stands tall at the rear of his mother’s house. These two ingredients serve to create a monster in Conor’s mind, (voiced by the rumbling, bass-heavy tones of Liam Neeson – a perfect fit), whose fearsome appearance and manner seem heaven-sent, matching his own need to lash out and release his frustrations by breaking things – lots of things. Very much one in the eye for the injustices that plague his life.
Conor’s flights of mind-fuelled, Monster-infused fantasy fluctuate in and out of his own reality with at times disastrous consequences, yet those who are most affected by his outlandish actions remain reluctant to treat the young man with anything other than pity and understanding, mindful of his predicament. This is all much to Conor’s own bewilderment and chagrin.
But, as time will reveal, Conor’s monster is not all jack hammer and ‘bovver boots’. Indeed, by way of regaling tales that demonstrate life’s lessons, the monster gradually enables him to come to terms with his considerable frustrations, and crucially, empowers him to admit to himself the hidden truth that he keeps locked deep within himself. Only by admitting this can Conor learn to accept the gravity of his mother’s condition, and prepare himself to let her go.
Liam Neesons’ Monster is a terrifically daunting presence, though not overly so for younger viewers, with its authoritarian nature and menacing outer appearance that belies an assured, dependable warmth and wisdom.
Lewis MacDougall is splendidly outwardly-emotional as Conor, Felicity Jones is tender and loving as his incapacitated mother, whilst Sigourney Weaver’s casting as the Grandmother is spot-on; portraying as she does, a strong, dependable woman whose good intentions are stymied somewhat by her rather prim and stand-offish demeanour.
Bayona’s film is visually beautiful, whilst Fernando Velázquez’ soundtrack is suitably evocative. Perhaps most impressive of all though are the considerable layers of this tale that Ness and Bayona successfully weave together, elevating A Monster Calls from just simple children’s tale into a totally different beast altogether.
Rich in metaphors, and full of subtlety, nuance and ever so clever tiny details – blink and you miss them – A Monster Calls is on one level, fantasy, but on another, a very human tale of frustrations, loving bonds, heart-break and hope; and the entire thing is very beautifully realised by a director who, in collaborating with the story’s author, has clearly understood and unearthed the very essence of Ness’ novel.
A Monster Calls is a very moving and touching piece of cinema that’s almost certainly set to last the test of time.
I often find it incredible how apparently relatively simple stories of everyday folk and their lives can have such depth and underlying meaning.
In many ways, Manchester By The Sea (MBTS), is one such story.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, brother of Joe (Kyle Chandler), a fisherman from Manchester, Massachusetts – the town in which the brothers had grown up – whose sudden death from a pre-existing heart condition has left his brother Lee in a predicament. Whilst attempting to sort out arrangements for the funeral, and his brother’s estate and general affairs, he’s shocked to discover that according to his brother’s will, he is to become the legal guardian of his son, Patrick (played by the younger, Ben O’Brien, and more prominently at the age of sixteen, by Lucas Hedges).
This is unwelcome news for Lee, who, whilst having great affection for, and a strong bond with his late brother’s son, feels that he is wholly incapable of performing such a role.
For Lee is a deeply troubled and broken man. A janitor, living alone in a his Boston bedsit, going through the motions of life and doing whatever it is that he needs to do each day in order to forget his past. It’s a past that has rendered him aloof, incommunicative and somewhat volatile; a shell of the man he once was.
MBTSslowly recounts Lee’s story by way of a series of flashbacks interwoven with the present, revealing in the process his not inconsiderable hurt and sufferance. It’s a piece in which his character is very gradually exposed by way of what are at times painfully-stunted interactions with friends, family and strangers.
Lee’s sudden return to the town of his birth comes as an unexpected surprise to those who had once known him or indeed known of him, and is the catalyst for much consternation, voiced in that typically small town fashion – through secretive whispers or mumbled disapproval. It seems that a dark cloud of infamy now follows Lee wherever he goes.
Michelle Williams, is predictably wonderful as Lee’s heart-broken ex-wife, Randi, but it’s Affleck who steals the show, brilliantly portraying a man whose past clearly continues to haunt his present, displaying extremes of awkward, self-imposed introversion only to counter them with sudden bursts of predominantly alcohol-fuelled aggression, lashing out indiscriminately as some kind of emotional release or coping strategy.
MBTS is a very nuanced piece; at once tragic, emotional, heart-felt and cathartic, full of subtle detail and refreshingly real dialogue. It’s also a piece positively teeming with memorable scenes, some of the most poignant of which are brought to life – to extraordinarily emotional and powerful effect it should be noted – through the use of largely dialogue-free orchestral montages, played out to the strains of George Frederick Handel, and the like.
Affleck’s affecting performance will no doubt engrain itself in your head, whilst it’s a safe bet to suggest that the film, by way of its subtle, considered approach to what is at times particularly weighty subject matter, will entrench itself firmly in your heart.
Director Kenneth Lonergan has created a wonderfully honest observational piece that’s not afraid to admit that there isn’t always a solution to everything, and that sometimes the best we can hope for is just to learn how to cope with our past, no matter how unfair or traumatic it may well have been for us. Sometimes just accepting who we are and what we’ve become, can be victory enough.
Justifiably spoken of as an awards contender, Manchester By The Sea is an instant classic.
That’s right, it’s the second annual WWAFAS, folks (Wayward Wolf Annual Film Awards – you can wipe that clueless look off your faces for a start), brought to you as ever in conjunction with the barren and dusty confines of my own confused and barely-used mind.
Yes, we made it. A whopping seventy-five cinema visits made during 2016 (Rogue One was squeezed in on a technicality, viewed as it was in the early murmurings of January 1st, 2017, whilst the drunken masses were unconscious), and seventy-five reviews have duly been written and published.
Not too bad for a part-time film reviewer. You’ll excuse me I’m sure if I just take a brief self-congratulatory moment now and give myself a well-earned pat on the back.
Back suitably patted, it’s on with the show…
I say it every year, but once again I really have been bowled over by the quality that’s been on offer this year (2016), which was at times staggeringly good, with only a small handful of turkeys on show (at least concerning the seventy-five films that I saw, personally). In fact, I’d say that 2016 has seen the highest quality of film output for many a long year which has been reassuringly comforting, and a most welcome antidote in the face of the sadly still relentless regurgitation of endless comic book / superhero etc. remakes and spin-offs, not to mention the tiresome big-budget blockbuster clone-a-like tedium that interminably spews from ‘you know where’.
Yes, despite all of that, it seems that the world of film-making, in general, is in a pretty healthy state right now, and long may that continue.
But, without any more to-do, it’s time once again to raid the charity shop, don that poorly fitting tux or moth-eaten glamour dress, powder your noses, make your excuses, stroll down the red carpet of your minds, and take your seats for the biggest show in town**
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the annual celebration of the good, the bad and the downright ugly of film, 2016 – Wayward Wolf style…
*Clearly just a Mats Jonasson glass sculpture.
**assuming that everything else has been cancelled and there’s literally nothing going on.
This Year’s Seven WWAFA Categories:
1. Best documentary
2. Best soundtrack
3. Best foreign language film
4. Best actress
5. Best actor
6. Worst film
7. Best film
First and foremost, the list of films from which I’ve made my assessments is by no means exhaustive. Only films with a 2016 UK release date and which were personally viewed by me at a cinema during the year, have been considered.
Top Five: (In descending order):
5. Amanda Knox– An intriguing if ultimately unconvincing (in terms of case clarity/closure) HBO documentary looking at one of the most controversial crime investigations of recent times.
4. Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World– Werner Herzog’s often comical look at the history of the internet, done Herzog-style.
3. The Music of strangers – A superbly uplifting demonstration of the global unifying and healing properties of music. inspirational.
2. Weiner– Brilliant warts-and-all look at the rise and self-destructive fall of Anthony Weiner, and the perils and minefields of the political system.
And the winner is…
1. The Beatles: 8 Days a week (The Touring Years)
Ron Howard’s joyous ode to the Beatles’ years as prolific touring artists brings to our attention once again just how incredible a live act the fab four really were. It’ll make your spirits soar!
Best Original Soundtrack:
The Top Five: (In descending order):
5. Mike Lévy (as Gesaffelstein) – Disorder
4. Nick Cave / Warren Ellis – Hell or High Water
3. Alberto Iglesias– Julieta
2. Cliff Martinez – The Neon Demon
And the winner is…
1. David Lang: Youth
Innovative and evocative, David Lang’s soundtrack both compliments and substantially affects the form and flow of Paolo Sorrentino’s wonderful meditation on ageing and our coming to terms with our own mortality.
Best Foreign Language Film:
The Top Five: (In descending order):
5. Mænd og Høns (Men & Chicken) – Idiocy abounds in Anders Thomas Jensen’s offbeat and genuinely hilarious comedy.
4. After love – There’s no escape from toe-curlingly tense and awkward scenes-a-plenty in this tale of love in its death throws, played out superbly under one roof.
3. Rams – A subtly charming Icelandic tale of two feuding shepherd brothers and their love for their flocks.
2. Julieta – Pedro Almodovar’s beautiful, bitter-sweet story of hope, despair and forgiveness.
And the winner is:
1. Son of Saul
Extraordinarily well realised tale of concentration camp horror and the daily tightrope walk for survival. A film made all the more powerful for its lack of visually gratuitous content. What the eye doesn’t see…
The Top Five: (In descending order):
5. Jennifer Lawrence – Joy: A hard-working and put upon mother who fights her way to the top. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is gritty, mature and highly convincing.
4. Meryl Streep– Florence Foster Jenkins: Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the musical socialite with delusions of grandeur is warm, generous of heart and predictably superb.
3. Emily Blunt– The Girl on the Train: A fine performance from Blunt – a woman with serious addiction issues and everything that accompanies such an unfortunate predicament.
2. Laia Costa – Victoria: An emotion-filled yet tender portrayal of a role that must have taken every last ounce of concentration and commitment to successfully pull-off. Incredible achievement.
And the winner is…
1. Brie Larsson – Room:
Along with her young co-star, Jacob Tremblay, (equally deserving of an accolade), Brie Larsson is absolutely stupendous as the young woman and mother forced to create an entire world for herself and her young son, within four small walls. A monumental performance.
The Top Five: (In descending order):
5. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nocturnal Animals: Two roles in one. Both, equally captivating.
4. Bryan Cranston – Trumbo: Light-hearted yet weighty performance from Cranston who well and truly makes the role his own.
3. Géza Röhrig – Son of Saul: Röhrig’s understandably restrained emotions belie the mental horror and torment that his character must have endured. Incredibly powerful.
2. Tim Roth – Chronic: A secretive yet intense performance of quite some note. Roth’s finest hour, and a truly memorable film
And the winner is…
1. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant:
DiCaprio pips the rest to the award thanks to a visceral, gritty and uber-physical performance of passion and determination in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s cinematic epic.
A reassuringly low number of really poor films this year, and so, as last year, just the three worst entries in this particular category…
3. The Finest Hours– Dreadfully drippy Hallmark-esque, seafaring yarn. Not entirely awful, but every bit an archetypal ‘straight to bargain bin’ TV movie, if ever there was one. Considering the film’s apparently considerable budget, that really is quite some achievement.
2. The Shallows – Inoffensive early signs are soon vanquished by ove-blown, unnecessarily gadget-driven drivel about a shark with a vendetta – or something. Comically bad in places.
And the winner is:
1. Zoolander 2
You just know when you’ve witnessed the year’s worst film, and there was surely no doubt in anyone’s mind once they’d watched the hopelessly dismal, trying-way-too-hard yet still woefully unfunny, Zoolander 2; a film that’s probably as stand-alone awful as it is when placed side-to-side with its vastly superior – and crucially actually funny – predecessor.
As already mentioned, it’s been an incredibly difficult decision this year. The final ten will follow, but as there were so many worthy films, a quick mention for a handful that narrowly missed the cut:
Bone Tomahawk – A grisly piece of B-Movie Western nonsense that will have you laughing and recoiling in horror, simultaneously. Gruesome and terrifically entertaining.
Trumbo– Bryan Cranston’s almost cartoonish portrayal of Dalton Trumbo is splendidly entertaining in Jay Roach’s biopic of Hollywood’s infamous screenwriter.
The Neon Demon – Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly-stylised, visually stunning fable set in the vacuous and morally bankrupt world of the fashion industry.
The Top Ten (in descending order):
10. The BFG– Spielberg does great justice to both himself, and Roald Dahl’s memory in this charming, big budget animated adaptation of the Norwegian author’s delightful children’s tale.
9. The Beatles: 8 Days a Week (The Touring Years)– Winner of the Best DocumentaryWWAFA for 2016 (see above).
8. Nocturnal Animals – Director Tom Ford’s visually sumptuous, thoroughly engaging, dark, moody and sinister tale with both Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal on top form.
7. I, Daniel Blake – Dave Johns is a revalation as Daniel Blake in Ken Roach’s hard-hitting damning indictment of the sorry state of the UK benefits system.
6. The Big Short – A thoroughly entertaining yet serious look at the predictably slippery practices of the banking industry that led to the financial crash of 2008, and those that were wise enough to take full advantage of it.
5. Room – A real sense of claustrophobia pervades in this psychologically intense piece with mesmerising performances from Brie Larsson and Jake Tremblay.
4. The Revenant – A huge, sprawling cinematic epic of a film absolutely made for the big screen. Thoroughly engaging and magnificently acted by Leonardo DeCaprio.
3. Chronic – Tim Roth has never been better, playing, brilliantly, a detached, almost morose palliative care worker barely going through the motions of life.
2. Son of Saul– (See the Best Foreign Language Film section, above).
And the winner, and Wayward Wolf film of the year for 2016, is…
A staggering one-take logistical achievement, a fact that shouldn’t and indeed doesn’t detract from what is, in itself, a superbly enthralling thriller that lives long in the memory.
And there you have it!
A film that saw only a limited UK release and seemed to quietly pass by has taken top spot, but for those who managed to catch it, you’ll agree – a deserved if maybe surprise winner of the Best Film WWAFA for 2016.
It only remains to wish everyone an excellent 2017 and to leave you all with the full and final 75-strong, Wayward Wolf film list (in order of preference), for 2016.
Cheers for now…
The Full 2016 Wayward Wolf Film List (in order of preference):