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RIP William Peter Blatty (1928 – 2017)

The grim reaper, it seems, has started his work this year. Curiously I revised his little known picture The Ninth Configuration a few weeks ago, it’s a rather strange debate on the nature of life and death, of good and evil, just like his cultural milestone which still causes shudders and chills over forty years later;

In other news yes I’m aware of the Twin Peaks teasers, but I’m not in the business of linking to insubstantial marketing and am awaiting a full, revelatory trailer. Also, if the January blues have got you down then maybe a perusal of the greatest movie best-of-list can distract you from the freezing weather, you can begin here, and finally here is a wonderful article on Steven on the occasion of his 70th birthday…

La La Land (2017)

lala1It will not surprise any of you regular visitors to lean that I am not a fan of musicals. Well, OK let me quantify that – there are some musicals I like, I was raised on the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy for example, but I’m broadly referring to the more traditional song and dance jamborees of Hollywood’s golden era, pictures such as Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or An American In Paris to name just three. I have no problem with broaching the fourth wall of convincing artificiality, or with the slightly strange idiom of characters suddenly bursting into song and dance routines in order to express their evolving motivations and drives – that is digestible. No,  it’s just that the music and vocals that accompanies these fantastic flights of fantasy is rarely attractive to my ears, even as the coldly academic cinephile inside me can appreciate the skill of the choreography, the luxurious production design and spectacular camera techniques. In that light I have observed the snowballing popularity for La La Land with a distanced distress, knowing that at some point I will have to go and see this picture as a part of maintaining a finger on the contemporary cinema pulse, my own personal idioms and preferences be damned. Fortunately after many months of staggering praise my antipathy has slowly thawed, to the point where I have metaphorically thrown my arms up in mock disgust, and bitterly muttered ‘OK, OK, I’ll go and see it, are you satisfied?’when in fact I was secretly kinda looking forward to it. There are two potential asides to this entertainment, the first is director Damien Chazelle’ previous form with his debut picture Whiplash which I throughly enjoyed, an incredibly skilled debut which while flawed managed to dazzle in technical prowess and J.K. Simmons captivatingly cruel performance. Secondly I’m not completely immune to the charms of Golden era musicals, Singing In The Rain for example is a throughly entertaining film, providing a fine backdrop of the paradigm shift of Hollywood from silent to sound. So in anticipation of the Academy Award nominations I ambled along to the local multiplex to see what all the fuss is about, and left the venue a couple of hours later with a modest, appreciative spring in my step.

la3Fortunately, and rather refreshingly I went into this completely blind, I hadn’t even seen the trailer so any expectations were abscenl, other than the knowledge that this was a modern musical which everyone from the festival circuit to the critical intelligensia seems to have fallen in love with. It is love, of the bittersweet and interrupted sort which drives the narrative, the real world and its diverting ambitions that disrupt the path of true happiness, as two ambitious creatives seek their fortune in the glittering, magic-hour framed City of Angels. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz pianist, fully committed to his craft who yearns to open up a club committed to keeping the legitimate history of authentic improvisation alive. Mia (Emma Stone) works as a beleaguered barista on the Warner Brothers lot while striving through a brutal parade of depressing auditions, furtively awaiting her big break as an actress among the hundreds of other prospective stars. As you’d expect our ravishing couple meet-cute, follow the well trod path of the usual boy meets girl / girl meets boy / divergent success of their career paths placing insurmountable obstacles in the second act climax. Fortunately for the film Gosling and Stone are third time lucky with a gushing Niagra (or should that be Viagra?) of on-screen chemistry, this swirling musical romance punctuated with some fantastical moments, some genuine laughs and tender tears, all set to a shifting seasonal sequencing that moves from the joy and anticipation of spring to the clammy death of winter. Mark my words, this charming throwback is going to win every Academy Award imaginable come February, and probably steal a few categories it’s not even nominated in by sheer force of osmosis.

la2Although I am aware of Jacques Demy I can’t pretend to be fully au fait with his work, I’ve seen maybe two of his pictures over the years and the experience simply hasn’t carved a trench in my memory bank. From my reading and general cinema knowledge I recognise the primary coloured shadows his work casts across this film, particularly the prismatic palette and his romantic inclinations, but I also was reminded of Coppola’s colossal folly One From The Heart which also tempered its amour with a bittersweet bite. La La Land is a far more successful movie, it’s unashamed deployment of classical syntax – iris transitions, the blossoming costume palettes which look like the debris from an explosion in a Smarties food colouring factory, the frequent and deliriously dexterous plot accelerating montages. We’ve been speaking a lot about fluid camera work recently with the Scorsese material but I can’t avoid repeating similar gushing praise, the twirling and yearning coverage makes the pulse quicken and the heart soar, with its seductive CinemaScope framing La La Land is an unalloyed technical marvel, and even if you’re not particularly attracted to the trope of musical cinema the craftwork alone is worth the price of admission. The background is plastered with nostalgic references, some quite ostentatiously frank – an Ingrid Bergman street etching here, a Casablanca shooting location there. Being Los Angeles denizens and show-business slaves of course Mia and Seb go to the cinema, the magical beams refracted back over their wonderstruck faces, heck they even get to visit well-beloved movie locations such as the Griffith Park observatory of Rebel Without A Cause. It’s a film in love with the history and fading magic of its California location, as much as it wallows in a pool of Post-Modern edification. 

lala4One of the functions of the Golden Era musical, intentional or not, was to supply pure, unvarnished escapism from the horrors of the great depression and the subsequent anxieties of World War II. The studios provided a stream of opulent, undiluted fantasy divorced of any pregnant social or political commentary, beguiling those pre-TV, pre-internet audiences with beautiful, sybaritic silver screen sophistication. Why am I bringing this up? Well, no reason, but if this film continues its award momentum then we can expect similar pictures in its wake, as Hollywood will always carnivorously seek to replicate any success, which might be a repeat of some sort of cultural cycle given the current social temperature – we’re already saturated with super heroic speciousness. I’m also amused to see yet another example of the ouroboros digesting its own movie history, like The Artist, Argo, and Birdman once again we see Hollywood celebrating itself again in an onomastic orgy of self-congratulation, as the media landscape becomes more diffused and their ascendant position as the gatekeepers of dreams becomes increasingly degraded. I’m not suggesting this is a bad film as I’m a sucker for a bit of nostalgia, and this is a expertly aligned piece of genuine entertainment, it’s merely an observation of a particular strain of hemispheric cinema continuing to turn inward rather than look outward for new stories and techniques to express them. Would this have pirouetted into my best of 2016 list if I;d seen it at the LFF last year? No, because as I said musicals simply don’t arouse my particular moving picture peccadilloes, but this is a throughly charming and seductive film, marking Chazelle as an ascendant talent to watch, and further cementing Gosling and Stone as two of the most assured talents currently at play. La La Land is a testament to the enduring lure of Tinseltown, a pleasurable, heartfelt and vibrant pastiche;

 

 

Zashchitniki (2017) Trailer

Well, in true cowardly fashion I for one welcome our new Soviet cinematic overlords;

Given all the disruption in the wider world concerning anglo- Soviet relations this is almost satiric, right? Like a comedy sketch of a Russian film adopting the Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics? Welcome to 2017 comrades…..

BFI Scorsese Season – The Color Of Money (1986)

money1In order to provide the most comprehensive cover for this seminal season we have to delve down into the lesser known, more neglected films in the Scorsese canon. Rifling through the material in my film book library there is unsurprisingly a wealth of anecdotes and analysis on the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but I could barely glean a half-dozen pages on the making of The Color Of Money, the loosely grained 1986 sequel to sports classic The Hustler which starred a fresher faced Paul Newman in one of his iconic roles. Curiously to me, the 1980’s have usually been considered as Scorsese’s wilderness years, the period where he fell from the pedestal of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation following a litany of incredible pictures, even managing to recover from the annihilating reaction to his tribute to the Golden era Hollywood musicals New York, New York with what is widely considered as one of the greatest ever post war American films – Raging Bull. He kept working throughout the following decade, kicked the debilitating coke habit that landed him in hospital for exhaustion a number of times, but it wasn’t easy to convince the studios to fund his uncommercial projects. Sometimes however the movie gods would smile and the talent would approach him with opportunities, as Newman did when he raised the prospect of a return to the life of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool shark turned wholesale liquor salesman, a quarter century after he abandoned the life. Personally I love 1980’s Scorsese so we will be lavishing a particular emphasis on this period during this season. Even within that enclave this is perhaps his most overlooked picture which crackles with that whip-crack energy and emphasis on character and conflict, yet another man writhing in an existential web of regrets, half-imagined hopes and degraded dreams, with one more elusive shot at glory a chance to transcend their personal purgatory.

money2I’ve always had a soft spot for this film for a number of reason which I hope to unpick here. Unlike some self-important directors, slowly casting their imperious aspersions over the numerous scripts that pass through their aides fingers and only committing to a prestige project every four or five years Marty decided he wanted to keep working, to keep learning, to collaborate with new and established talent and to expand his repertoire – I admire that. Maybe some of this was commercially minded as we all have bills to pay, but after a cursory glance through the material and one assumes the chance to work with Newman he thought ‘yeah, fuck it’ and committed to the project – I get the same sense of instinctive decision-making arising from his remake of Cape Fear which enabled him to get his full Hitchcockian anxieties exorcised into another project. Paul Newman plays Felson a quarter century on from his rejection of the fugitive life, longer in the tooth and more temperate in his dealings, he initially senses a money spinning opportunity if he can harness and mould the skills of the volatile Vincent (Tom Cruise) and manage the possessive instincts of his girlfriend and partner Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Shot during a grim Chicago winter Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus straddles the film in shivering greys and whites, the palette coming to life when the road-movie plot reaches Atlantic City, just as Eddie’s slow awakening and new-found faith in his own prowess coalesces in a conspicuous climax. Along the way we see the internalized mechanics of the con, of the sweet nectar of the hustle which I’ve always found fascinating, the psychological games and feints which Newman has prior pedigree in one of the all time great grifter movies The Sting. However, unlike more straightforward con movies like House Of Games or Nine Queens which rely more on their serpentine plot mechanics The Color Of Money strives for a deeper purpose, a character study of a man in the twilight of his career lamenting past glories, wondering and yearning if he can recapture his youth which fate and his own foibles snatched from him a generation ago.

money3As character study The Color Of Money is a picture which rests entirely on the quality of its performances, and Marty shepherded an Academy Award winner from Newman, and buttressed Cruise’s emerging screen persona as a cocky, charismatic all-American boy. This was released just as Cruise had just broken the sound barrier of superstardom, already a hot property after the previous years Risky Business, blasting into the fame stratosphere launched by Top Gun which opened five months earlier. Of course the box office receipts weren’t remotely comparable but he carries his purpose in the picture with his usual chutzpah, this scene the perfect encapsulation of his arrogant adolescence. The associated energy comes from the spectacular exhibition shots and the skilled montages dropped over the various games, I’m not a particular fan of sports films as, well, I’m just not into sports, but the skill on display is fascinating and gripping, all the more impressive as with the exception of one spectacular jump shot every stroke in the film was conducted by Cruise or Newman. Far more interesting is the hustle, that fine psychological game of convincing your opponent that you are an inferior player while slowly coaxing the prize money higher and higher, the act of losing while your ego demands revenge, the ability to walk away and nurse that hunger for revenge until you revisit your mark months later with the bookies odds stacked heavily in your favour. That’s where the characters come to the fore and the intrinsic drama of the film lurks, that struggle between male posturing in Vincent and the venerable wisdom of Eddie’s street smarts, although he isn’t totally immune to his ego obscuring his intellect. These nodes are the pinions of the screenplay by the always brilliant Richard Price – an acclaimed urban novelist in his own right whom has also written episodes of The Wire, Clockers and cult gang movie The Wanderers. Through his research and life experience he has developed a real ear for the argot of the street, for the genuine hustles and scores that this sub-class have developed, all of which gives the films a fascinating authenticity as backdrop  to the internal ideological struggles. There is some fine supporting turns from John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a portly prestidigitator, and keep an eye out for a youthful Iggy Pop making a small cameo as another ignorant mark.

money4The towering presence isn’t Scorsese’s direction or the economic script, the real bounty is of course the lamented Paul Newman, a real screen legend who managed to laminate his late career with a scattering of incredible performances, see also Lumet’s The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool for how you populate the latter stages of your career with some incredible punctuation points. His reprisal of Felson is an aging chancer with a twinkle in his eye, slowly coming to terms with his own mortality and declining opportunities, hell-bent on one last blaze of glory before his star inevitably must diminish and fade. In terms of style Marty winds up his camera like a taut cluster of vivacity, before detonating the mechanism to dizzyingly orbit the baize battlefields as the games commence, tracking the ricocheting balls and thrusting cues like some general monitoring the forward deployment of his assets and his opponents ambushes and counter-strikes. The narrative is clean and compact, a linear journey which educates Vincent and Carmen in the various skillsets of the hustle across a frigid landscape of smoky pool halls and dive bars, as Eddie regenerates his mojo and confidence in his own ambitions. Scorsese’s usual darting coverage, long-takes shifting from perspective POV to mise-en-scene is just so skilful it brings a smile to the eyes,  and as I’ve said before and will say again it drapes his films with such an effervescent energy, I just love the technique which makes his films such as joy to watch and revisit again and again. This time around what I found truly compelling, away from the insight into the street was the shifting motives of the characters, and Eddie’s conscious or unconscious use of Vincent to put himself back in the game and rekindle his dwindling confidence. Cleverly, the script probes  that grey landscape between being confident enough to throw a game, to build confidence in an opponent before fleecing him with your superior skills, and not being hustled yourself by a stronger player, turning your own ego against you in a more devious and surreptitious manner – that’s the query that the film alights upon yet never definitely answers, wisely leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. This was another well-preserved 35mm print, overall a minor Scorsese perhaps but no less rewarding with its spiritual self-flagellation and adrenalined aesthetics, so rack ’em up;

 

Neruda (2017) Trailer

Hmm, I’ve just got a press invite to see Neruda, the latest film from rising world cinema star Pablo Larrain, a film which cropped up in quite a few best of 2016 lists and just scraped onto the Sight & Sound list. Fortunately I have some time on my hands at present so I think I can slot this into an extraordinarily hectic month – apart from the Scorsese season I’ve also got programmed screenings of Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Toni Erdmann and La La Land – but this screening is at the Fox HQ in Soho which I’ve never attended so that should be an experience. The movie looks good too, which kinda helps;

BFI Scorsese Season – Mean Streets (1973)

meanstreet1‘It goes back to that question I had in ‘Mean Streets’, how do you live a good life? A life which is good, meaning compassion, and respect for others, in a world like today or in a world where I grew up, quite honestly’. I think I’m safe in claiming this as the first essential Scorsese film in the canon, the one that he was inspired to make by his mentor John Cassavettes who gave him what we Brits would describe as ruddy good talking to after Marty was bitching about not really finding his muse and expressing himself honestly in the early, atypically difficult phase of any filmmakers career. It’s the usual story of shooting his semi-professional debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door over a period of years as the money was hustled from various vendors, struggling actors falling into and out of the film due to their shifting availability and commitment, begging borrowing or stealing expensive film stock and then being obliterated by ruinous lab processing costs, although he did forge a career long friendship with his initial screen avatar Harvey Keitel. Like all obsessive artists he tenaciously got the film made, and the final piece aroused legendary career shepherd Roger Corman who always had a keen eye for upcoming, hungry talent that he could exploit. Provided he could deliver the requisite level of nudity and violence to satisfy the drive-in circuit Corman offered Scorsese his somophore assignment Boxcar Bertha, providing him with a minuscule budget and the use of a professional crew, fulfilling the next logical step on that long road to becoming an established name in the industry. Although the film was lukewarmly received it made a return on its investment, so an emboldened Scorsese and his writing partner Mardik Martin dusted off their dormant script for a project called Season Of The Witch, a semi-autobiographical narrative inspired by their adolescence and experiences growing up in the rough, seething cauldron of the Lower West Side. Using the same crew as Bertha they embarked on an extremely swift, six figure budgetary shoot, the results of which has been accepted into the Library of Congress as a work of ‘significant cultural, historic or aesthetic significance’, the first Scorsese film proper that brims with queries on faith and moral turbulence in an environment of frequent violence and pea cocking male machismo, and a sly critique on the all-pervasive ideology of the American dream.

ms3Although I am a worshipper at the church of Scorsese I hadn’t seen Mean Streets for years, even though a recent excavation of my streamlined DVD collection unearthed some special edition DVD published in the early noughties. Sure, I’ve always liked the film but it never really gripped me like some of his other cinematic sermons, but as usual a big-screen revisit regenerated my rapture, especially as an initial supporting strut to this two month season. Like his subsequent gangster films Scorsese is more interested in the low-level enforcers, the scuttling con-men and scumbags who operate at the margins of serious organised crime, those who rub shoulders with the strippers and dope-fiends rather than the Machiavellian consigliere’s or ruthless capos. There is a dramatic triangle at the heart of the film, with the ambitious and well connected Charlie (Harvey Keitel) operating as a racketeer with a sense of compassion and patience with his clients, sympathetically listening to their tales of woe while quoting St. Francis of Assisi as he grapples with his spiritual demons. He’s conducting a secret affair with his cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) who wants to move away with him to a safer part of town, but Charlie’s community spirit runs deep and he’s committed to protect his reckless childhood friend Johnny-Boy (De Niro), a degenerate gambler wiseass who owes money to every loan-shark in the district. Charlie is trying his best to be a good man in a bad milieu, boxed in by the traditions and definitions of his social and psychic environment, a theme that runs throughout Scorsese canon. Mean Streets also embedded some of the more recognisable aesthetics of the work, from the vigorous use of boomer era popular music as sly commentary on the motivations and machinations of the characters and plot, to the very first deployment of that trademark slow-motion soundtrack shot;

Proving that the entire so called 1970’s ‘golden age’ of Holllywood owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the nouvelle vague Scorsese has cited that when he saw this (9:53) sequence in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie it was an eureka moment, a stylistic revelation, unchaining the camera from its static observation of the space and instead  gliding in long takes through space, incrementally pulling the audience into the fictional world and provoking a sense of energy, of restless kinetics, of moving pictures as a shattering of the usual Hollywood master-shot, shot/reverse-shot syntax. This is signature Scorsese, flexing his cinematic muscles for the first time and finding his aesthetic feet, its overused now of course although we’ve seen deployed to repeated brilliance since.

ms2In terms of cinema history Mean Streets is an important picture, the first collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro which produced such highlights over the intervening decades, those first scenes together always prompting a wry style even as it has slipped into mild cliche. We’re talking spectacular swearing, the slightly off-kilter cadence of dialogue repetition, the immediacy of improvisation which breaks with that forced fiction formalism of most screen performances. De Niro plays the irritating Johnny quite brilliantly as one of those character types we all loathe, the selfish yet somehow cheekily charming self-destructive fuck-up who drags the main protagonist down – think Bernie in Millers Crossing, Ziggy in Season Two of The Wire, or just about any Sam Rockwell performance of the last twenty years. The real character brought so vividly to life though is New York itself, the restless city that never sleeps, teeming and churning with a volatile social energy. Commentators often cite Woody Allen as the ultimate cinematic chronicler of the Big Apple and to be sure he’s had his moments, but just as his international efforts set in London or Milan his camera never strays from the immensely privileged upper class locales, whereas in Mean Streets we are plunged into the cultural stew, the bubbling cauldron of the five boroughs, the spics, wops, niggers and kikes all striving for a score to get through another day, against the incessant distant cries of car horns and mournful emergency service sirens. Oh, I also have to applaud some of the innovations in the film, specifically the drunken Charlie scene which was achieved by strapping an arriflex body brace to Keitel and unleashing the rest of the cast on him, a fine mirror to the films overall hand-held aesthetics which Scorsese embraced as there was little space or time to construct complex camera arrangements on location, the economics and environment demanding a vérité approach which maps perfectly to films urban immediacy.

ms9So finally to see ephemera – surprisingly, through the magic of the movies the film was primarily shot in Los Angeles with only eight days lensed in  New York, to give some authenticity to locale and to enable the capture of the context setting San Gennaro religious festival. The crew averaged a remarkable twenty-four set ups a day which belies the urgent energy which bleeds onto the screen, it might be scrappy and you can see some of the rough edges but it all adds to the films  asperous credibility.   Although his third credit Scorsese has cited this as the first film where he truly learnt to direct a movie, not just mustering the technical aspects to completion but also the mastering the personal themes and injecting them into the material. He also learnt how to conduct and guide rehearsals, the importance of keeping a crew fed, watered and inspired even with mediocre resources, and how you find the story through the shoot and its environmental restrictions, the unpredictable weather, through illness, and the covenants of locations, all inspiring and obstructing in equal measure. Naturally there are a few movie references, the most overt being footage of Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeria in the cinema visit scene and a glimpse pf Lang’s The Big Heat seen on the TV, and you also you might recognise a youthful David Proval who most memorably went on to portray the terrifying Richie Aprile in the middle seasons of The Sopranos. This was a high quality 35mm print that the BFI projected which aided my enjoyment, it was an exceptionally preserved reel which could have passed for an analogue projection except for the usual distress around the reel changes. When Scorsese showed a rough cut of the movie to Coppola he instantly cast De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, accelerating a soaring career which resulted in an Academy Award for Supporting Actor a couple of years later. Scorsese and De Niro were now considered hot properties, and when ambitious husband/wife producers Julia and Michael Philips were considering some key creative posts for their controversial new project they knew that they wanted Scorsese to helm, provided he could also provide his friend in the leading role as a lonely, unhinged Vietnam veteran traversing the sordid streets of New York  – I won’t insult you with the movie title but that masterpiece begin its long and hellish journey here;

 

The Lure (2017) Trailer

Would like to see a trailer for one of 2017’s early tipped cult movie mist sees? Well, OK, then allow me to indulge you in probably this years only Polish carnivorous Mermaid time-travel musical pictures;

BFI Scorsese Season – Silence (2017)

silence1The long road to penitence begins here. Almost three decades in the making Martin Scorsese’s latest, and potentially penultimate picture is finally anointed in the church of cinema, if he keeps to his recent comments about hanging up his viewfinder. This  passion project has been adapted by Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter collaborator Jay Cocks from the celebrated 1966 novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. This is not the first time this striking story has been brought to the screen, in fact it has been filmed twice before, once by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 and by João Mario Grilo as The Eyes of Asia in 1996. I’ve seen neither so we’re not operating from a position of comparison, but I can assume that analysing all three could be a fascinating exercise as they emanate from the perspectives of the host and interloper countries – Japan and Portugal – with a neutral approach provided from the US with this latest translation. Anyway, that’s a whole other exercise, Silence has already been compartmentalised as the final entry in Scorsese’s so-called spiritual trilogy, mused in theological trysts alongside 1988’s controversy baiting The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1997’s zen like Kundun, neither perhaps Marty’s most celebrated works but both harbouring an essential and central ingredient of his entire cinematic oeuvre – the spirit and faith, and how our physical actions connect with the divine via our morally constructed maelstroms.

silence2I’ve mentioned it here before but after growing up in those ‘mean streets’ of Queens and later in his childhood the Little Italy enclave of Manhattan Scorsese was submitted to the Catholic seminary at age 15, a path of devout clemency being laid before him. Thankfully for us heathen cinephiles he didn’t take to his studies and instead turned to the cinema, where he has spent a career examining men – and the fact is that it is nearly always men – wracked in some lacerating mortal or spiritual torment, sometimes finding some sort of redemption or transcendence, and sometimes….not. These themes find themselves at the heart of Silence which reminds one of Apocalypse Now given the similar trajectory into a pagan Heart Of Darkness, a clandestine pilgrimage into the hostile unknown of another culture and country, in order to resurrect with a lost mentor, to rescue an almost saint like idol. It’s 17th century Portugal, and Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are advised by their superiors that a letter has fallen into their hands from a colleague long thought lost to the lord. A Dutch trader, one of the rare merchants from Europe allowed entry to the isolated Japan of that era has passed on correspondence from their inspirational mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the wonderful news of his mortality is coated with concerns, as the liaison also slanders Ferreira by claiming that he has since renounced the church and turned away from god. Refusing to believe this both Father Rodrigues and Garupe decide to follow in their teachers footsteps, and risk torture, death or worse in the mysterious Orient, where the practitioners of the Christian faith are lethally repressed since an earlier flowering of the faith was crushed by the Shinto / Buddhist majority.

silcence3This is an aesthetically beautiful film, a late flowering of a great master marshalling his frequent collaborative choir to beautiful crescendos, but the final effect rests on your own plinth of faith and belief, so speaking as a lifelong atheist I worshipped the craft but rejected the credo. Silence is set during a period of imperialistic colonisation of other corners of the globe by many Judeo-Christian sects, so their arrogance with converting others from their native beliefs, the prideful righteousness in enforcing their ideology on the poor and disenfranchised made me harbour zero sympathy for either Fathers journey,   but we’ll come back to those dimensions shortly. Nevertheless as a historical backdrop the film is fascinating, following my visit to Japan a decade ago I have absorbed a little of Japanese history and was au fait with the shift from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration, 17th century Japan being a near hermetically sealed culture and society. The fact that 300,000 converts had been raised and then been suppressed was a revelation, so there is much to enjoy from the sheer historical framework of Scorsese’s spiritual sociology. The design of the film is exquisite, from the gilded costumes of feudal Japan to the harmonious architecture of the dynamic dojo and seething peasant villages, garnishing Dante Ferreti (this is his 9th collaboration with Scorsese) a guaranteed Academy Award nomination. The colour palette is dominated with the frail and pale, the mist choked and mysterious in the opening sequences as slowly DP Rodergio Piasto infuses golds and flickering harbingers of light into compositions, as the Priests are tested and their religious odyssey requires a more frantic grip on their Jesuit faith. The camera movements are discreet, Scorsese’s usual inquisitive, darting minnow guidance through scenes shifting from POV to isolate specific sectors of interest, but there is no showboating here, there’s no Copacabana centrepiece, as Silence is a much more pious visual experience – although some of the landscapes are spectacular. In penitence to the title the soundtrack is also sparse and diagetic generated led, cloaking the auditorium with the chirping cacophony of the Japanese flora and fauna, enveloping all the senses in a pre-industrial Oriental Eden. Oh, and for you cult movie fans out there yes that is Shinya Tsukamoto – cybermind behind the Tetsuo pictures – who appears in a reasonably large part as one of the diligent and devoted faithful.

silence4Can we elevate Scorsese to the other great spiritual seers in the vestry, alongside Bresson and Dreyer, Bergman and Malick? No, his faith follows the poverty of Pasolini, finding the struggle in the street among the dispossessed and depraved, although his style certainly apes the celestial. When his name is uttered the first thoughts are usually of the machismo oozing urban malaise of New York, his energetic and fluid camerawork, all set to a rocking soundtrack of baby boomer classics. I’ve long linked his work to a quiet moral authority, they might be buried under the cinematic chutzpah of Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas but without wasting my powder on my review of that masterpiece (with hopefully a special guest attended screening if I can get tickets) there is always quiet moral sermon underpinning his character odysseys, a search for asomatous nourishment and solace, although the conclusions remain intangible and as etherial as a wisp of smoke from a tabernacle candle. These enigmas are dropped in Silence which is more studious, slower paced and contemplative, whose maker is uncharacteristically wearing his heart on his sleeve. Despite its beauty and the dense theological and ethical debate it elevates this for me is where Silence comes unstuck. Usually Scorsese is too skilled and wise an artist to ever make his position so oblique, but questions of faith such as the priests insistence of their holy righteousness are dressed with a solemn endorsement. More problematically the dire consequences of the theocratic insurgency the Jesuits are fostering are explored but through the cinematic syntax it is clear where the sympathies ultimately lie. That was my reading of it and I don’t find that comfortable, although more pious souls may arrive at different conclusions. Still, like the best of ambitious, passion projects I’m sure these reactions could change or warp with age, Garfield is convincing as a man stretched to the absolute limits of his faith, and his climatic scenes are extremely powerful, dramatically and emotionally in the same category as Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation. I have to confess I have no intention of catching the film again at the cinema which should also speak volumes, as a major late period work by arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the past fifty years it  of course remains essential viewing, even if Silence won’t be golden for everyone;

 

BFI Scorsese Season – Prologue

newyorkThis year’s ambitious season started for me with a screening of Silence today which will take a few sleeps to digest, so I thought I’d kick things off with a lovely little montage. Plus, if I’m honest, I also wanted an excuse to post this astonishing list of all the films which are coming throughout 2017/18 which doesn’t uniquely dwell on Hollywood product, so we can all get jolly well excited for new material from Haneke, Armando Iannucci, Martel, two projects from Claire Denis, Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (I haven’t seen the last two yet!) and Mikke, Bigelow, Lanthimos, Del Toro, Aronofsky, Alfredson, Craig Bone Tomahawk Zahler,  Malick, Lynne Ramsay, Alexander Payne (always wondered where he had got to), Audiard, Wenders, Soderbergh (wait a second, Soderbergh?), Korine, Alex Garland, Joachim Trier (although his recent English language film didn’t quite work), Duncan Jones Blade Runner inspired Mute, Martin McDonagh, Bong Joon-Hoo and maybe, just maybe, Carruth’s The Modern Ocean – and these are just the ones I’m specifically interested in as there is much. much more coming through. Those rumours of cinema’s imminent demise are a little premature if you ask me, and I think Marty would be proud;

Scorsese’s New York from House of Nod on Vimeo.

There are also rumours floating around today of a Twin Peaks preview at Sundance at the end of the month. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, as it somehow seems apt to begin our story in New York, where Scorsese was born in 1942. What’s that? Oh go on then, let’s take a little more of an academic look at a specific scene in the canon, which should help set the context for whom we are dealing with over the next couple of months;

MARTIN SCORSESE Shot By Shot from Antonios Papantoniou on Vimeo.

Himeanôru (2016) Trailer

Catching up on some cult themed movie lists of 2016 to see what I missed, I’m still kicking myself at evading Train To Busan which everyone has been raving about as a ‘resurrection of the zombie movie’ or some such wordplay. I’ll certainly be renting it as soon as it hits Blu, but I’ve also identified this as one of the more esoteric gems emerging from that continent;

Yes, apparently starts of like some bubble-gum, J-Pop Rom_Com, then suddenly dovetails down to hell in a way that would make Sono or Miike shudder – sounds good. Very unlikely it will get Region 2 release here, so I’m monitoring some specialist sites…..