They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

They Worship Everything and Value Nothing

Originality.  What is originality? For starters, it’s an idea.  A unique idea that tackles different subjects in a unique, personal way.  This year in particular has been a blessing to original movies such as Elle by Paul Verhoeven, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and even Everybody Wants Some!! by Richard Linklater.   We live in an age where indie movies rule the awards’ shows and rock the box office.  Manchester by the Sea, this year’s heartbreaker is racking up awards and it was produced by Amazon (!).  But I’m here to talk about a movie that has been on my mind ever since I saw it twice in the theater: LA LA LAND, ladies and gentlemen.  The best movie of 2016.  A movie so fresh, so vibrant, exciting and original that you just want to embrace it and kiss the screen.  At least, that was me when the credits rolled.  Should you see it? Yes. Don’t like musicals?  See it, won’t be a problem.  Why?  Here we go;

Musicals have shaped the way we understand music in cinema.  Musicals allowed viewers to contemplate beautiful set designs and jaw dropping dance sequences in movies such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Guys and Dolls.  Their favorite stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, were given the opportunity to showcase their full range of musical talent and when their movies hit the theaters it was a huge show.  But eventually the whole formula wore down by the end of the 60s.  Probably the last successful musical (and it was very unexpected at the time) was the best picture winner of 2002, Chicago.  Then everything felt silent until a couple of years ago with the release of the atrocious remake of Annie, which failed both critically and commercially.  Now, two years later, almost three, and La La Land is in pole position to win the Oscar for best picture of the year.  And why is that?  Why does all of a sudden a musical out of all the brilliant films that came out this year (Silence, Sully, Arrival, Moonlight, Hell or High Water, De Palma; Hail, Caesar! among many many more) come out on top with critical acclaim and financial success?  After all it’s Damian Chazelle’s only second feature film (after the thrilling and just as successful Whiplash) and it doesn’t contain a star studded cast like Chicago did.  Sure, the two protagonists are played by two of the biggest stars of modern day Hollywood but a musical by definition stays a musical and people nowadays are very reluctant toward such an ‘old fashioned’ genre. BUT don’t listen to them. La La Land is a film that uses the musical side in order to make the love story more profound. It doesn’t rely on it. It uses it. Music, in fact, is a perfect instrument, which, if used properly, can play a big role in the delivery of a movie’s message.  We all saw how brilliant Damian Chazelle was in using music in Whiplash as the centerpiece of the story without making it unbearable for us to cope with.  Music was the engine of Whiplash and the reason for the characters’ development.  It inspired and terrorized Andrew (Miles Teller) and eventually made of him an obsessed monster just as it had done years before that with the cruel Mr. Fletcher (JK Simmons).  Now, La La Land, as the title suggests, is a movie about dreams, about confronting fantasy with reality, and about the cost of love and the sacrifice that goes with it.  The two main characters, Mia and Sebastian, represent today’s hidden youth. I say hidden because these are authentic people, who have real interests, needs and ambitions.  They want to live and want to live their lives without anyone telling them as to what to do, something that is rarely seen among today’s young generation.  Music expresses their existence.

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Music is reason. A representation of life.

So why is it so fresh and exciting?  Because it is not a coming-of-age story, it is not a melodrama, it is not a chick-flick, and it is not a comedy.  It is an achievement built on pure love for cinema.  Chazelle, 32, and already one of the very best in the business with a bright future ahead of him, paints the screen with beautiful images that make us recall the old movies, the experience of seeing the film on color and sound, with a rich palette (shot on breathtaking Cinemascope lens), that ranges from dark purple to light red and an endless sea of blue.  It is a celebration of filmmaking. It opens with a musical piece accompanied by an astonishing tracking shot that covers an entire lane on the LA motorway with dancers and stuntmen giving it their all and setting the tone for the rest of the film.  It’s there and then that we meet both characters and we immediately understand what kind of people they are; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a young man who loves Jazz and demands the best out of himself, and then Mia (Emma Stone), a pretty and goofy girl who loves acting more than anything in the world.  They find themselves in similar situations; they are hungry not for success but for personal glory, the feeling of accomplishment, of doing something that they like and that sets them apart from the average Joe with a suitcase and a shirt and tie.  They want to prove themselves. Sebastian’s goal is to save Jazz and Mia’s desire is to express what she’s been bottling up her whole life.  And that is why the use of music is essential.  When the music takes over the true faces of these two young people appear before us and demand our attention.  Their dancing and singing is how they communicate and bond.  At first there isn’t much to their relationship but soon they become lovers of a whole new generation.  They are honest and they fight through a shitstorm of bureaucracy, rules and social norms. Together they become the modern day couple and as we follow them fall in love, we come to the point where we realize that their love is beautiful precisely because it comes at a price and decisions have to be made.  I won’t say much more than that.  Go see it.  All I can say is this; with two breathtaking performances given by two amazing actors, who remind us of the great pairings of the 50s such as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the direction of a young man who understands music, its power and significance not only in cinema but in real life too, and treats the history of the silver screen with maturity and respect, this musical tackles the subject of dreams, passion, desire and the fragility of love with incredible subtlety and experience.  It doesn’t push its message and it doesn’t try to sell it either.  It is similar to a painting; it allows you to see things only you can see in your own, personal way.

That’s originality.

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Love in motion and color.

The Last Faithful One

The Last Faithful One

74.  74 is the age of the little fellow with the big glasses known also as Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors of all time, and probably my favorite one.  74 years of age and he still comes out guns blazing right this second with a three hour epic on Christianity, doubt and above all, the importance of faith.  The movie carries the the following title – Silence – just like its source novel written by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese writer whose book influenced Scorsese to make the picture already back in 1989. 28 years of waiting. 28 years of constant fighting for a project that surely won’t have any commercial success. 28 years of faith.

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The man, the myth, the legend.

The story is that of two Christian missionaries from Portugal traveling to Japan in the 17th century in order to find out what happened with their guide and mentor, Padre Ferrera, a priest who went missing seven years before the actual story takes place, and who apparently apostatized after having been tortured.  Christianity at the time was outlawed by the Japanese officials and anybody who refused to accept Buddhism as their religion ended up being tortured and eventually, killed. Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, never better, seriously) and Padre Garrpe (Adam Driver, brilliant as always) are young, inexperienced and naive, but they believe in one thing – their endless love for God.  As they arrive in Japan,not too far from Nagasaki, they find a small Christian community made up of loyal peasants who devote their lives, risking them every single day, to God.  It is there and then that the two priests realize how dangerous their presence is in that region of the world.  With each breath they take, which each baptism they organize and with each blessing they give, the authorities get closer and closer to the source of this ‘evil’ religion.  It is odd to put it like this, but Endo’s religious tale is like a great coming of age story and Scorsese’s film feels more like a video essay on a subject he is so passionate about rather than just a generic historical drama.

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the struggle of one man is the struggle of all.

This is the difference between a real artist and someone who just happened to pick up a camera.  In every frame of Silence there is belief, originality and calculation.  Like in his less popular works, such as KundunThe Age of Innocence or one of my personal favorites, The Last Temptation of Christ, the director approaches each shot with the eye of a visual scientist and born storyteller.  In this case, the film feels like his most personal one to date. Perhaps it’s because the entire project had been held up for 28 years, or perhaps because Scorsese himself wanted to become a priest at some point in his life and religion had often been an underlying theme in his movies. Also, it has that tender feel like the earlier Scorsese pictures used to have. Why? Well, after six years of digital the director decided to go back to shooting on film, almost as if he wanted himself to go back in time, to his days of youth, madness, drugs and spirituality. It all adds up to a composed and organized presentation of a story that in other hands might have been mishandled and chewed up. Notice the use of steady shots, and even during movement, Scorsese’s camera (operated by Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer of Scorsese’s previous movie, The Wolf of Wall Street) tracks step by step, extremely slow and composed. It is perhaps the director’s aim to make us suffer too, because for those of you who want to go and see this film, brace yourselves for quite a few scenes of extreme torture.  Don’t get me wrong.  Again, Scorsese’s violence in this movie is unflinching but it is more psychological rather than physical (graphic).  The pain comes from the inner conflict of the two priests, and mainly Rodrigues, who has to watch his devoted Japanese followers die in the name of God, tied to a cross and forced into the sea or burned alive on a stake, screaming in agony, or worse, keeping silent through all of it.  When Rodrigues kneels down praying, he begins whispering words of prayer, which quickly become meaningless to him, as he notices that whether or not he asks God to come down and help these poor, innocent creatures, God will remain silent.  He is put to the test and ordered to renounce his God. If he does not obey more people will die because of his arrogance and pride.  At some point Ferrera (Liam Neeson) says “Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in the same cell. And I acted.”   Silence is the source of inner conflict not only for Rodrigues but also for Kichijiro, Rodrigues’ Japanese guide who keeps betraying him and asking for forgiveness like a wandering, lost child.  Kichijiro represents the common mortal sinner who keeps going back to his old habits, hoping for a miracle to come and save him from himself. Silence is also the source of inner conflict for the viewer, at least that is how I felt about it.  Scorsese has built an epic that will cut deep into your heart because he knows how powerful cinema can be.  A story of the faith of one man, one priest, can soon enough turn out to be the story of one nation, one world.   Two hours and forty one minutes go by and at end of it you truly feel speechless because in some way or another, you have taken part in a cinematic confession.  It is my belief that Scorsese has made this movie in order to tell his own experience with religion, his own experience with the hostile world of success and critical failure he’s had over the last few decades. Like Padre Ferrera, he too had renounced certain values he believed in when he was a young man with already a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt. He too, like those three priests and those Japanese peasants, came from nothing and had to sacrifice a whole lot to become the man he is today.  That is how a master works – with some of the best acting of the year (Adam Driver steals every scene he is in, Garfield carries the film all the way through and Neeson adds humanity and understanding to a painful ending), glorious cinematography that captures not only the grim and foggy landscapes (filmed in Taiwan) but above all, the faces of the poor, the rich, the tortured and the privileged, and last but not least the direction of a true professional and the editing done by a long time friend (Thelma Schoonmaker, still the best in the business), Scorsese makes you think about yourself. Re-evaluate yourself. He makes you question your identity, your beliefs, your motivations.  For him, silence is everywhere and it is the only sound there is in the whole wide world. But perhaps, it’s us who create it. Perhaps…

Just perhaps…

 

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Who are we, really?