Posts Tagged historic films
Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.
The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.
The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.
“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.
“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.
Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.
However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.
Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).
Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.
Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.
Personal Recommendation: B
Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whithead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.
Dunkirk is relentless. I say that as neither praise nor criticism, but as mere statement of fact, much in the same way one would say Les Miserables is a musical or Gone with the Wind is the longest Best Picture winner or Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic car chase. Dunkirk is relentless, and that is clearly something of which Christopher Nolan is proud.
Nolan has so clearly accomplished exactly what he wanted with Dunkirk that the film is in many ways critic-proof. Sure, it’s possible to say one dislikes it, and it’s also possible to rave about it as the best film of the year. In both cases, the writer will be revealing more about themselves and their personal tastes than the film, and they will not be acknowledging that the film strikingly and stunningly achieves everything it wanted to, so if there are aspects one dislikes, those are not filmmaking weaknesses.
The same goes for Hans Zimmer’s score; one can love or hate his incessantly pulsating soundtrack telling the audience exactly what emotions to feel in each scene, but it’s impossible to deny that the score massively aids in the creation of the tense, heart-pounding atmosphere that Zimmer and Nolan worked so hard to achieve.
Watching this epic historical rescue mission condensed down to a taut, nerve-racking hour and forty-six minutes is a cinematic experience like no other. Seeing Dunkirk on anything other than the largest screen possible will be watching a mere shadow of Nolan’s vision, much like listening to an mp3 of a Beethoven symphony through a mediocre ear bud will only convey a fragment of Beethoven’s genius.
Before I continue, let me state clearly that I think Dunkirk is an astonishing achievement. Early buzz hinted at its staggering realism in making the viewer experience the reality of war first hand. While it undeniably makes the viewer experience the events of the story first hand, it is not a war film, and it doesn’t convey the cost of war or the notion that war is hell, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead it places the viewer directly in the midst of a dangerous and desperate rescue mission, showing the cost of victory, bravery, and heroism, clearly demonstrating that there is nobility in capture or retreat. It is that rescue mission the viewer survives along with the characters.
And it is a rescue mission to behold! There were several times I gasped believing I was really present. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures the beauty and the menace of the sea and shore, the simultaneous threat and salvation they provide to the soldiers, which is important considering the Nazis are never once seen in the film, but their absence coupled with the danger of the Dunkirk beach makes their looming proximity felt all the more.
The rescue mission takes place on land, sea, and in air, with each portion of the rescue occurring in its own timeline – a week for the almost 400,000 soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk beach, a day for the British sailors coming to their rescue across the Channel, and one hour for the pilots attempting to shoot down Nazi planes. Nolan cuts between the three storylines and timelines effortlessly, much the same way he did with Memento, and when he brings all three together at the film’s climax, he finds the best of all his cinematic interests. His puzzle crafting skills and humanist interests serve one another in an inspiring way I would not have believed possible.
The film’s climax was truly the make or break moment for me, and in my opinion Nolan pulled it off in spades. I had spent the eighty minutes prior to that unsure whether I loved or hated the film. It was easy to admire the intensity and purity of Nolan’s vision, so stunningly captured, yet the shock and awe of the proceedings, while admirable at first, were stretching me to my breaking point, which I think was Nolan’s intention to reflect the ordeal of the soldiers. Then the climax arrived, and with it, not only the dispersion of the tension, but a beautiful moment of hope celebrating the sacrificial virtue of the rescuers, acknowledging the heroism of retreat, the triumph of capture, and the victory in loss of a battle. The simple line uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s navy captain with joy and gravitas underscored all those sentiments perfectly.
At that moment there was also a stark change in the score, as Zimmer’s driving pulsation gave way to a soaring string melody using Elgar’s theme from the Enigma Variations. Hearing that theme was a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the prior cues, but more importantly, the grandeur of one of the most famous British musical themes captured the importance of taking the soldiers home away from the war while mirroring their own relief, which again, I believe was the point.
Watching this film projected on 70mm IMAX, I had to remind myself to breathe on several occasions. Not only was the tension so great that it seemed as if the viewer were surviving the rescue mission alongside the soldiers, but there were many breathtaking instances of beauty to behold as well. Regardless of how one feels about Nolan forcing his audience to experience a soldier’s point of view in way no other film has done, Dunkirk is undisputedly bold and daring cinema. It’s a film I can honestly say I loved, even while acknowledging it is not one I’ll revisit too frequently.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content advisory: Extremely intense, but non-graphic war time violence; a few crass words MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Year of release: 1984 Directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.
“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.
The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.
Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.
It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.
However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.
As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.
Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.
Personal Recommendation: A
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of release: 2016 Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.
I tried to avoid spoilers, but it’s really hard to discuss Silence without referencing the climactic act. However, I remained as vague as possible, but consider this a mild spoiler warning.
Ever since I read Shusaku Endo’s literary masterpiece Silence last January, one question that has haunted me is: what would I have done had I been in Rodrigues’ place at the story’s climax? It’s a question I still don’t know the answer to, and one which any attentive reader of the novel will be forced to grapple with for some time. One of the highest compliments I can pay to Scorsese’s film adaptation is that it treats that question with the same amount of gravitas as the book does, and it forces the viewer to wrestle with his or her answer to it in the same way.
After releasing The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, an Episcopalian bishop introduced Scorsese to the novel Silence, and shortly thereafter Scorsese fell in love with it, and he has wanted to adapt it into a film since then. The wait was worth it. Scorsese’s love and admiration of the source material shines through in every frame. There is hardly a sentence from the book which is not translated onto the screen. If there were an award for most painstakingly, laboriously faithful adaptation of a novel, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better candidate than Scorsese’s Silence, a few small changes aside.
When Jesuit missionaries Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) learn of a rumor that their beloved mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) apostatized in Nagasaki after three days of torture, they refuse to believe it. They implore their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to go to Japan and learn the truth themselves. Shortly thereafter, they embark on their mission to the land of the rising sun, where in their search for Ferreira they will minister to the covert Christian communities, evade the local authorities hunting for priests, and ultimately have their faith tested in way they cannot imagine.
That test of faith is primarily shown through Rodrigues’ perspective, and the letters he sends back to his superior ask one of the questions at the heart of Endo’s novel: where is God in the midst of terrible suffering and isolation? As Garfield narrates the letters via voiceover, it begins to appear he is not only addressing them to his superior, but also to God. Notably, as Peter T. Chattaway said at Arts & Faith, when Rodrigues finally hears the voice of Christ, it sounds very much like that voice is provided by Ciarán Hinds.
As I suppose should be expected, there have been Christian viewers balking at the outcome of Rodrigues’ test of faith in Silence. However, even though the film is slightly less ambiguous than the book regarding that outcome, it is anything but a celebration of Rodrigues’ act. While the test itself may seem trivial to a non-Christian – stepping on a fumie (an image of Christ to be trampled to prove one does not hold the image as sacred, and is therefore not Christian), the following consequences for a priest who did so would be that he was then be paraded as an example to make other Christians lose their faith.
Naturally, why any priest would denounce his faith, or anyone with strong core beliefs would renounce them, is a question that should challenge viewers of any religious background, forcing them to ask when and why they would abandon their principle, identifying beliefs, if ever. In the case of Silence, it must be noted that the Japanese inquisitors were exceptionally cruel in their method of torture. As Steven D. Greydanus observed in his review:
“‘Smite the shepherd,’ wrote the prophet Zechariah, ‘and the sheep will be scattered.’ Not only have the Japanese inquisitors learned this lesson, they’ve also learned an insidious inverse principle: To break the shepherd, smite the sheep.”
As the grand inquisitor Inoue (an outstanding Issei Ogata) casually mentions to Rodrigues, initially the Japanese officials made the mistake of torturing priests, but that only strengthened their resolve, since many of them envisioned a glorious martyr’s death. However, forcing the priests to watch helplessly as other Christians were tortured produced the desired results.
The desire to be a martyr is universal, and it affects people of all religious backgrounds, or even none at all, as a way to validate the righteousness of their cause. At one point a Japanese translator (Tadanobu Asano) assigned to assist Rodrigues remarks in Japanese that Rodrigues is as arrogant as all the other Jesuits, and he will fall like all of them did. That translator later states an even greater tragic irony regarding the priests who apostatize: they came to Japan for the fame and glory of missionary work, and they receive that fame as apostate priests.
Arrogance is certainly a flaw of Rodrigues’, but how much it plays into his final decision is debatable. What is not debatable is that regardless of the rightness or wrongness of Rodrigues’ climactic act, God is right there suffering alongside him.
As Rodrigues, Garfield conveys the moral certainty of the self-righteous when things are easy, and his shift to a tormented and confused soul in the midst of suffering is flawless as each confrontation with the inquisitors breaks his spirit a little more. As the Chief Inquisitor Inoue, Issei Ogata is perfect as he fluctuates between geniality and menace with a comic air of disliking the whole unnecessary but harmless procedure. Adam Driver captures the firm resolve and strictness of Garupe; and as Ferreira, Neeson’s portrayal of a tortured, conflicted soul is effortlessly conveyed through his facial expressions and halting line delivery.
Scorsese himself is at the top of his game. For the first half of the film, he creates an immersive Japanese landscape while demonstrating his affinity for the novel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is gorgeous and inviting, but at the same time slightly formidable and intimidating, much like the Japanese culture itself. The use of God point-of-view shots happens at crucial moments along Rodrigues’ journey, so the audience never forgets that God is not silent, even if He appears to be.
During the second half of the film, Scorsese’s prowess as a filmmaker is at the forefront. Each confrontation between Rodrigues and the Japanese is staged with increased tension, interjected with moments of dry humor and unexpected violence, which is as tragic and shocking as it should be. Scorsese may continue his habit of extending films beyond their natural ending point, but the final shot he crafts is so powerful, I’m easily inclined to forgive him for ten extra minutes of runtime.
In addition to the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering, there is another question which has haunted me ever since I first viewed Silence. That is: which character are we supposed to identify with? I believe the answer to that is not the protagonist.
At one point, Rodrigues is chided that he likes to compare his suffering to Jesus’ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are countless others who are suffering even more, and they don’t have the arrogance to compare themselves to Christ. It’s a damning line, and one that’s hard to forget, because as I said above, many Christians like to envision themselves as martyrs and see their own sufferings as making them Christ-like. While it’s unquestionably true that we can and should offer our sufferings to God, it’s also true that we make the same mistakes and trample on His mercy again and again. With that in mind, the character from Silence all of us probably have the most in common with is the dirty, cowardly everyman Kichijiro.
Played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, Kichijiro is a thorn in Fr. Rodrigues’ side, a Judas to his Christ. Throughout the film Rodrigues reflects on Christ’s words to Judas: “What you will do, do quickly.” However, as in the novel, Rodrigues begins to question whether that line was spoken in anger or in love. The answer in the film is hinted at earlier than in the novel, but the final affirmation of it occurs at the same powerful moment.
After wrestling with this film for three weeks, what I ultimately take away from it is that it’s a movie about love. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter shortly before his execution, “Finally, it’s not a matter of reason…finally, it’s a matter of love.” Regardless of whether one interprets Rodrigues’ final action as an act of love or an act of betrayal or both, what the film makes unmistakably clear is God’s love for us, that He was born into this world to demonstrate that love, and it never abandons us, even when we abandon Him as many times as Kichijiro apostatizes, which may to our limited understanding appear unreasonable.
To quote my friend Joshua Wilson:
“To identify with Kichijiro means to admit that we commit the same failings again and again. But Rodrigues scorned him and looked down on his weakness. Ultimately that was where he failed to identify with Christ, who comes to us in our weakness and only when he himself had been broken of that pride could he find where Jesus’ voice was in the silence.”
Pride certainly led to Rodrigues’ downfall, but that downfall was also his moment of salvation when he truly learned how to love a wretched, broken, ugly human being which so many of us inherently despise – as Rodrigues himself did for much of the film, when he begrudgingly heard Kichijiro’s repeated confessions.
For a film which is itself an act of love for Endo’s literary masterpiece on Scorsese’s part, not only did Silence shed new light for me on a powerful text, it also provided a stunning realization of Christ’s love for all of us, even when we abandon Him, a love we often only encounter in the silence.
Personal recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Spiritually ambiguous themes, non-graphic but intense scenes of torture and violence. MPAA Rating: R
Suggested Audience: Mature teens and up.
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt.
Jackie is an incredible film in absolutely every possible sense of the word. I don’t deny the accuracy of any of the criticisms leveled against Jackie; it’s bizarrely and haphazardly edited, there are a glut of close-ups and eye-level point-of-view shots, the notable lack of establishing shots makes it impossible to fully appreciate where or when a scene is occurring, the shot reverse-shot editing becomes predictable quickly, which makes long takes stand out like a sore thumb. And yet, in spite of all that, or maybe because of it, Jackie is one of the most powerful explorations and portrayals of grief that I’ve seen all year. (I haven’t seen A Monster Calls yet.)
At the center of the film is Natalie Portman’s powerhouse performance as the grieving widow of JFK. And her elegance, attention to etiquette, and most importantly, her heartbreak come through in every scene. As the film cuts from the funeral, to an interview with the press, to breaking the news to her children, to recreated archival footage, to an exchange with a priest, to the assassination itself, often quite randomly, Portman is an anchoring presence. The nonlinear jumping from event to event heightens the feeling of grief as it underscores the lack of consistency and logic which people in a state of shock and devastation go through.
Surrounding and supporting Jackie are Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), whose performances fade into the background until Jackie needs them most and they emerge and stand forefront with her.
As Jackie deals with the process of grief, one moment she will be clutching her Catholic faith as a way to comfort her children, and a few scenes later she will be bitterly complaining to her priest (John Hurt) that God seems cruel. It’s a natural fluctuation for anyone who undergoes trauma, and Portman captures it effortlessly. The priest’s ultimate impartial response defies any conventional script writing logic, but like all the other unusual choices in the film, it works. He tells her even when it seems as if we would be better off dead, God gives us enough grace to get through each day, and even if it seems like too little, it will be enough.
That grace manifests itself in Jackie’s concern for her children, her attention to the details of her husband’s funeral, her love of history, the comfort from Bobby, and most notably in the musical Camelot which she and her husband famously loved. The film’s choice to focus on the title song from that musical and the glory of “one brief shining moment” adds even more poignancy to the film. Regardless of whether each viewer interprets that “brief shining moment” as the Kennedy legacy or simply the love of a wife and mother for her husband and kids, random details like that which comprise most of the film make Jackie absolutely stunning, especially for the way it overcomes and capitalizes on its sloppy, unconventional choices.
I confess, I have often grown tired of listening to baby boomers wax poetic about the Kennedys, but this raw portrayal of grief makes empathizing with them seem natural as it reveals broken human beings at the center of a tragedy who must maintain appearances for the press and cameras. Jackie’s calm public expressions of sorrow, contrasted with her cries of anguish in private, is a beautiful and sorrowful reminder of how messy grief is for everyone. Jackie wonders several times whether the “brief shining moment” she and her husband had will last, and that question, along with the dignity and grace with which she conducts herself, makes the sense of tragedy sting all the more for the viewer, especially when one contrasts her demeanor with recent events that left many Americans grieving.
As I said at the beginning, by every normal standard, this film is a mess and should be a disaster, but the rawness that permeates the film astonishingly works in its favor to make the exploration of grief all the more powerful, haunting, and devastating.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: A brief but explicit shot of JFK’s assassination and the aftermath, infrequent rough language, and fleeting discussion of infidelities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment