Monday, February 6, 2017

A Test of Faith

Faith is a virtue that can help us get through some difficult times in our lives. But what happens when our faith seems to come up short in a critical situation? Do we abandon this doctrine or do we maintain our fundamental beliefs?

That is one of the principal questions asked in Martin Scorsese's latest film Silence. Based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, the film covers the journey of two Jesuit priests in the 17th century that travel to Japan to find Father Cristovao Ferreira, a fellow Jesuit who wrote a letter detailing the tortures that local Catholics had to endure in Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion that was allowed at that time. The two priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are emphatic with their elder Jesuit that they need to find Ferreira, who has disappeared and is rumored to have renounced God. Despite the elder's warning that this journey would be meaningless as well as dangerous, Rodrigues and Garupe know in their hearts that they must undertake this mission, as their Jesuit beliefs tell them they cannot abandon one of their own.

Scorsese has reportedly been trying to make this film ever since the novel was released; the wait was certainly worth it, as he has made one of his finest and most personal films. Much of the story deals with Father Rodrigues, who is captured and must witness the torture of local Catholics who look to him for spiritual enlightenment. His captors are unwilling to bend as far as allowing Catholicism to endure, but they are intelligent people that cater to the priest's will. They do not mean to harm him, he is told, but unless his followers renounce their Catholic beliefs, they will be tortured and in some cases, put to death.

This message holds the principal meaning in the film. Rodrigues is driven by the fact that his Jesuit education tells him to stay strong at all times, even in the face of unspeakable horrors. Yet, he is told repeatedly that his faith - in this case, his silence when asked to influence local Catholics - is the root of the problem. If he stubbornly refuses to change his beliefs, then that behavior will mean death for others. Is his devotion to God worth all the suffering that will take place?

Scorsese treats this story with intelligence and subtlety, both in the screenplay that he adapted along with longtime collaborator Jay Cocks, as well as in his direction. His work here is extremely fluid, a departure from some of more innovative camera tricks (such as the signature tracking shots as in Raging Bull and Goodfellas) he has employed in the past. In Silence, Scorsese take a more relaxed approach to telling his story; as he features numerous panoramic images that highlight both the beauty of the seaside as well as the foreboding nature of the jungle. In this regard, he is immeasurably aided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who delivers a palette of cool blues and greens, along with deep browns. Prieto, who worked with Scorsese on his last film The Wolf of Wall Street, and has also been director of photography on such films as Argo, Babel and Brokeback Mountain, is one of the most talented directors of photography working today, and his compositions here are often breathtaking in their beauty, while some shots are heartbreaking in their impact.

At two hours and forty minutes, some will find this film to be overly long; I did not have that problem. The question of Catholic guilt, especially presented in this light, is a complex and troubling one, and cannot be treated on a surface level. Andrew Garfield's performance is first-rate, as he gives us a man that is obsessed and outraged, yet one who must keep his feelings to himself at critical times (we hear his thoughts in voice over narration at several moments in the film). His appearance, especially later in the film, when he has grown a full beard, is Christlike; Garfield embraces this and answers his enemies in a restrained, religious fashion. Together with his Oscar-nominated performance earlier this year in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield has become a leading contemporary actor; it's nice to see his star on the rise.

There is a marvelous moment in Silence that delivers a significant message in a beautifully elegant, visual manner. Rodrigues is on his knees, drinking water from a local spring, when he sees his reflection; suddenly his face is transformed into that of Jesus and then back again to his own appearance. Just then, the face of one of his captors appears in the water next to his; all of this takes place in a matter of a few seconds. These images seem to connect Rodrigues with both God and his enemies; perhaps in their worship of a higher being, the priest and his conqueror are not so different after all.

Silence is a superb film, the work of an accomplished filmmaker that wants us to examine our beliefs, while presenting a story with a timeless message - are our convictions unshakeable? Can we look beyond our own creed to help others?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Looking Out for Number One

The Founder is a cautionary tale about the American Dream in all of its guises. Come up with an original idea, develop it, and you can be a success. But the real victor, at least according to this tale, is the individual that follows up on someone else's accomplishments by making them his own. That may be a brutal message, and if the film doesn't quite have the hard edge it needs to be totally satisfactory, it is an entertaining, fascinating work that does a fine job of detailing the remarkable narrative of Ray Kroc, who would become one of the 20th century's most famous entrepeneurs.

The film opens in 1954 with Kroc (Michael Keaton), a marginallly successful businessman from Arlington Heights, IL, selling his MultiMixer machines that could mix five milk shakes at once, from his car. It's not easy to get restaurant owners to listen to his pitch, so when his secretary tells him over the phone that he received an order for six of these machines, he is dumbfounded. Believing this was a mistake, he calls the owner of the restaurant about the order; it so happens that this is a hamburger shack in southern California called McDonald's, named for the two owners, brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Mac tells Kroc during this call that indeed the order for six MultiMixers was an error. "Better make it eight."

Kroc, now disbelieving, drives all the way to California to see this restaurant and meet the brothers. He parks his car, drives up and orders his food, which comes to him in about 30 seconds. He's never seen anything like this, and he introduces himself to Mac, who gives him a tour of the inner workings of the immaculate kitchen, with its specialized ketchup and mustard dispensers, along with its assembly line-like organization. He tells the brothers that he wants to buy them dinner, so he can learn how their fast-food operation came about.

Their meeting is one of the most best parts of the movie; good ideas lead to one failure after another, but their persistence paid off with their most recent concept. During this sequence, we see a flashback scene of how the brothers planned out their kitchen, as they drew plans in chalk on a tennis court and had future employees move around, as they performed their various tasks. It's wonderfully choreographed - Mac calls it a "burger ballet" - and it is very well edited and photographed.

It's this persistence the brothers displayed that impresses Kroc; at the opening of the film, we see him listening to a recording of a lecture by a famous speaker about the power of staying positive. Kroc tried that on his own and met with little success; now that he has heard the brothers' story, the light bulb goes on in his head. Here is his chance at the big time!

I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to say that Kroc manages to take the idea of the brothers' restaurant and franchise it; yes, everyone knows how successful McDonald's became in the latter decades of the 20th century, but if you think you know this story, you don't. One step at a time, Kroc enlarges the scope of McDonald's, much to the chagrin of the brothers.

As Kroc, Keaton is marvelous. At times proud and focused, at other times unsure and nervous, his portrayal of Ray Kroc is multi-dimensional and is the center of this film. Keaton probably should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance - how the Academy loves actors that portray real-life people - but I'm guessing that the film was either under-promoted or was released much too late. Or it may be the simple fact that Keaton is the type of actor that doesn't emote; his strengths as an actor - especially when he is listening and not speaking - are more subtle than many performers that do receive award nominations.

I also want to single out the performances of Lynch and Offerman as Mac and Dick McDonald, respectively. Lynch is best known to most of us from his role on the Drew Carey Show television series, and he delivers a quiet performance, that ranges from good natured and trusting to regret. Offerman, (he was a featured performer on the tv series Parks and Recreation) truly nails his performance, as the more dominant and passionate of the two brothers. His scene with Keaton late in the film when they discuss final agreements on a contract, is evidence of his skill.

The movie is beautifully shot and lit by cinematographer John Schwartzman, who handled similar duties for director John Lee Hancock's last film, the underrated Saving Mister Banks. Schwartzman is an advocate of shooting with film, but agreed that one of the latest digital cameras (ARRI ALEXA) would work extremely well for this project, and he was right (I thought it was shot on film- the movie looks that good). His images of the American landscape early in the film are lovely, and he revels in the bright yellows and reds of the McDonald's logo, along with the bright blues of the American sky, capturing a beauty that at times is in contrast to the questionable behavior of Kroc. A snapshot of Schwartzman's expertise occurs during a brief scene when Kroc drives up to see a newly designed McDonald's restaurant; note the reflection of the golden arches on the windshield of Kroc's car. It's a mesmerizing, haunting image that shows how a talented director of photography can combine lighting and overhead composition to realize a visual that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

As for director Hancock, overall his work is fine, as he presents this story in an understated tone; it would have been easy to make this film heavy-handed. But while he succeeds at that level, he does tend to underline a few too many scenes (as in the restaurant when he spots a beautiful woman that will become his next wife) and does tend to dawdle a bit at times. Hancock's last film Saving Mister Banks was one of my favorites films of 2013, and if The Founder is not quite at that level, it is a very good film nonetheless.

As we walk away from The Founder, we can't help but think about the brothers, and how their hard work has become nothing but a footnote in history. Fortune may favor the bold, as one character famously quotes in the film, but perhaps it also rewards those who bend the rules a bit. While I wish the film had a tougher screenplay that focused more on that aspect, The Founder does has enough strong points in its overall approach to make this a highly entertaining look at not only a big slice of American history, but also an insightful view of capitalism, in all its good and bad realizations.