Slate’s 2016 Movie Club

Posted on January 6, 2017 at 8:00 am

I look forward to Slate’s annual movie club roundup of critics discussing the best and worst of the year.

Copyright 2016 Plan B Entertainment

Slate’s own Dana Stevens points out that there was only one title on all four participants’ top ten lists for the year, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” She says, “‘Moonlight’s’ commercial and critical success—the near-universal recognition of its hard-to-define specialness—was one of the cracks in the wall that allowed light (that liquid Miami moonlight) to shine into this sometimes pitch-dark year.” Mark Harris calls it “a beautifully accomplished work that takes seminar-room issues of race, class, sexuality, and identity and transforms them into something artistic, sexy, tragic, wrenching, human, and fully American.”

I am more interested in the discussions and debates about particular movies than in the effort to look for themes in the movies that were released or popular in any individual year or consider them as a reflection on our times. But I did like Brooks Barnes’ essay in the New York Times about how in the tumultuous year all of the top box office films were fantasies.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Paterson

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 6:52 pm

Paterson (Adam Driver of “Girls” and “The Force Awakens”) lives in Paterson, the New Jersey home of Paterson Falls, and of poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsburg. In writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s sweetest film to date, we see a week in the life of Paterson, a bus driver who writes poetry, mostly love poetry to his adorable wife Laura (a delicious performance from the beautiful Golshifteh Farahani), and in the life of his namesake home town.

Copyright Bleecker Street 2016

Each morning begins with Paterson and Laura asleep in bed, cuddling tenderly. He wakes up to what Laura calls his “silent alarm clock,” puts on his watch, nuzzles her gently, and gets ready for work. As we become used to his routine, walking to the bus depot with his lunchbox, lovingly packed by Laura, hearing the daily complaints from the dispatcher, listening to the conversations of the passengers, Laura’s imaginative dinners and wild experiments with design, walking Marvin the bulldog and stopping by the neighborhood bar for a beer, the smallest details become significant, whether reinforcing our understanding of his quotidian life or surprising us with its minor variations. Be sure to watch Marvin the dog for one of the film’s most delightful surprises.

Driver is better known for anguished and intense performances, in “Girls,” as Kylo Ren in “The Force Awakens” and, 50 pounds lighter, as one of the priests in Martin Scorsese’s current release, “Silence.” It is a pleasure to see him here, thoughtful, sensitive, with a hint of a more traumatic past — note the photo on a bedside table, of Driver himself in his days as a Marine), but amused and pleasantly bemused by the world around him and unabashedly adoring his beautiful, devoted wife. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him laugh before, certainly not with such evident pleasure, and it made me want to see much more of this side of him.

While Paterson is contemplative and focused, considering words carefully as he walks, Laura is impulsive and enthusiastic, with new creative projects and inspirations all the time. Each day, Paterson comes home to find that Laura has covered the rug or the shower curtain or her dress or cupcakes with op art-like geometric designs in black and white. When they go out to an old movie together, she winningly says she likes it because it is in black and white. Their support for each others’ creative projects is endearing, and their pleasure in each other and in each other’s pleasure is exquisite.

Not much happens. There’s a mechanical problem on the bus, which Paterson handles responsibly, despite not having a cell phone. An unhappy customer at the bar creates a fuss, and Paterson intervenes quickly and capably, almost through sheer muscle memory from his military training, though it shakes him a little. He happens upon three other poets, a spoken artist practicing in a laundromat (Method Man), a nine year old waiting for her mother and sister, and a Japanese tourist carrying a volume by William Carlos Williams. He compliments the young poet on her internal rhymes. It turns out the sister she is waiting for is her twin. The film itself is full of doubles and twins, including the matched names, a series of internal rhymes that match the lyricism and cadence of Paterson’s poems, written by Ron Padgett and his life, modest, diligent, precise, aware. We come away from the film filled with the alertness and engagement Paterson and Laura bring to their days.

Parents should know that there is a brief scene with a gun, threatening murder and suicide, and some strong language and sexual references.

Family discussion: Who is your favorite poet? How did Paterson incorporate what went on around him into his work? Why didn’t he want to make a copy of his notebook?

If you like this, try: “Only Lovers Left Alive” and the poetry of William Carlos Williams

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Drama Independent

A Monster Calls

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Universal

It turns out that there is something even more painful than the most devastating loss imaginable. That is the lesson of “A Monster Calls,” based on the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal award winning book by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, from an idea by the late human rights activist Siobhan Dowd.

It takes place in the Irish countryside. “We begin,” the movie tells us, “like so many stories, with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man and a nightmare.” The boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose adored single mother (Felicity Jones) is struggling with cancer and the ravages of its treatment. While other boys are gently awakened by their parents and sent off to school with a good breakfast and a lovingly packed lunch, it is Conor who makes breakfast for his mother (there are rows of medicine bottles in the kitchen cupboard). He also does the laundry before he goes to school, where a bully threatens him. He has a frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an affectionate but useless father (Toby Kebbell). So, he is alone with his grief, his fear, his anger, and his paints, which he must learn to use to express them all.

Let’s think for a moment about the title: “A Monster Calls.” Is that “calls” as in “pays a call,” or comes to visit? Is it “calls” as in “calls out to?” Is it “calls” as in “calls out from?”

A teacher says sympathetically, “If you ever want to talk…” Conor’s dad arrives from America, where he lives with his new wife and new baby, and he takes Conor to an amusement park. But Conor does not want to talk and he is not amused. A glimpse of the old “King Kong,” Fear and Fury bookends, and a shiver-inducing creaking noise give us a hint that a terrifying, destructive monster may be coming.

And then, yes, Conor is visited by a monster, an enormous walking yew tree with the rumbling voice of Liam Neeson. Conor may think the monster is there to protect him, but that is not exactly true. He says he is there to tell Conor three stories, and then, he says, Conor must tell him one and it must be true. The monster’s stories have a yew tree connection, as does a possible new treatment for Conor’s mother. They begin like traditional fairy tales but do not pretend that the resolutions are fair or straightforward. The fury within the stories seems to take over Conor and he finds himself becoming violent before telling his story forces him to admit what terrifies him even more than the prospect of losing his mother.

This is a complex, richly imagined film with a deep understanding, clear-eyed but compassionate. The stories it contains help us to be honest about our own.

Parents should know that this film is about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. There are some other disturbing images and situations, including a bully and a monster.

Family discussion: Which story surprised you the most and why? Why was it important for Conor to tell his story? What monsters live inside us?

If you like this, try: the book by Patrick Ness and “Secondhand Lions”

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Stories About Kids

Silence

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Copyright Paramount 2016
Copyright Paramount 2016
Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era adaptation, Apocalypse Now, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is the story of men who take a journey to find a former leader who has disappeared into the untamed natural world.

It is the mid-17th century. Two Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) go to Japan in search of their teacher and mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). After receiving disturbing reports that he has publicly abandoned his faith, they say, “We have no choice but to save his soul.” They leave with “no luggage except our hearts.”

Ferreira had gone to Japan as a missionary and he and his colleagues had some success in converting Buddhist peasants. But Japan has now outlawed Christianity in any form, and as we see immediately, the officials have decided that the best way to eradicate it is to torture believers, forcing the priests to watch. Early efforts to fight Christianity failed because killing the priests made them martyrs, showing the strength and power of their faith when they refused to renounce it, even under torture. So the officials responsible for eradicating Christianity have had to develop a more subtle approach. Instead of torturing the priests, they torture and murder their followers, telling the priests that all they have to do to stop it is recant. It can be as simple as putting a foot on an icon of Jesus. “It’s a formality,” the Japanese official says in a soothing voice. “You don’t have to believe it.”

The priests have a choice: deny their faith in Jesus and Christianity or allow the suffering and death of innocent people. What should they do? Who has the answer?

For Martin Scorsese, who co-wrote and directed, this movie has been a passion project for three decades, since he read the award-winning novel by Shusaku Endo, inspired by the true stories of 17th century priests in Japan. Scorsese, who once thought of becoming a priest grapples here with the big questions about the letter and the spirit in the context of a time and a faith that traditionally has put a lot of emphasis on the letter as a frame and a discipline for the spirit. It is also a faith tradition that understands suffering as a part of faith practice, whether a way to appreciate the suffering of Jesus or to test one’s faith or to better understand others’ experiences, or to earn the rewards of heaven. The gorgeous visual scope and striking images are as powerful in telling the story of the clash of culture and religion as the narrative.

When it comes to performances, the film is off-balance, probably unintentionally, as the Japanese characters are more complex and completely realized than the one-dimensional priests. Garfield seems at sea as an actor, not just as a character, except in a few scenes where he has a chance to debate the “Inquisitor” (a wry, clever Issey Ogata). This movie about silence is at its best in the verbal jousting on faith, culture, truth, and power.

Translation: Extremely tense scenes of torture and brutality with some very disturbing graphic images, characters injured and killed

Recommendation: Mature teens-Adults

Family discussion: Were you surprised by the final shot? In the debate with the Inquisitor about culture and faith, who was right?

If you like this, try: “Unbroken” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”

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Based on a book Epic/Historical Spiritual films

HBO: Bright Lights with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 8:00 am

In tribute to Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, HBO has moved the premiere date of the documentary about them, a festival favorite, and it premieres on Saturday, January 7, 2016 at 8 pm Eastern.

Be sure to check out “Wishful Drinking,” Fisher’s one-woman show about her life, also on HBO.

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