Monday, July 24, 2017

New(ish) Releases: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2015); Silence (2016)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2015)

Director: Taika Waititi

Great little movie which feels like New Zealand's comedic answer to the films of Tom McCarthy, such as Win Win.

The story follows the often funny, sometimes sad bond which grows between Ricky (Julian Dennison), an orphan and wanna-be gangster of Maori descent, and Hec (Sam Neill), the crotchety old husband of Bella, the woman who adopted Ricky. Ricky is brought to the couple as his last chance to avoid being put into the juvenile detention system for repeated minor acts of delinquency and vandalism. His new home is in the "bush" area of New Zealand - a rural area where Hec and Bella carve out a modest but fairly happy life by the sweat of their brows. When Bella passes away unexpectedly, though, the overly vigilant child protective services come to reclaim Ricky in order to put him back into the system. Ricky and an very reluctant Hec then go on the run, into the untamed wilderness area around Hec and Bella's rustic home.

The movie has plenty of odd and off-color humor which feels like a novel blend of sillier British shows and the more thoughtful dramedies of the aforementioned Tom McCarthy. The classic setup of two wildly mismatched characters finding themselves stuck together works brilliantly here, thanks to sharp writing and directing, along with typically excellent acting from Neill and Dennison. There is plenty of humor poking fun at some New Zealand culture, most of which I followed but some of which was a bit lost on me. It may be a very regional movie in many ways, but there is certainly a rather universal appeal to the greater story.

Though I did feel the movie lost a little bit of steam during its third act, it does offer a fairly satisfying ending. This was the second film I've seen directed by New Zealand native Taika Waititi, along with his hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and he's becoming one of my favorites. I can't be sure how he'll do with his massive-budget, fantasy/action fest Thor: Ragnarok later this year, but I'm definitely pulling for his success.

Silence (2016)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Visually stunning drama that packs more intellectual than spiritual or emotional punch than probably intended.

Based on the Japanese author Shuusake Endo's novel of the same name, the movie follows a pair of Jesuit priest from Portugal who, in the 17th century, make an ill-advised journey to Japan. The priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), set out to find their old mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after they receive word that he has renounced Christ and become an apostate upon torture at the hands of the Japanese imperial government. The two young priests secretly make their way to a small village where Ferreira had previously ministered, though they must exercise extreme secrecy and caution due to Japan's official outlawing of the Christian faith. Over many torturous months, they are separated and face physical and spiritual hardships of immense intensity. Father Rodrigues does eventually track down Father Ferreira, although their reunion is far from what the younger priest had been hoping for.

This story was based on the highly-regarded novel of the same name by Japanese author Shuusaku Endo, published in 1966. Endo, himself a Catholic, often explored the theme of Catholicism's tortured history in the country of his birth. As such, this story looks back at one of the earliest and most brutal periods of friction between the East and West, as metastasized in the ruthless torture and killing of thousands of Jesuit priests at the time. Endo's novel and Scorsese's movie take a fascinating look at the idea that Catholicism was like a seed that would never find purchase in the "swamp" of Japan, in terms of spirituality. The notion that the two were simply incompatible is probably the most engaging part of the story, especially in seeing the lengths to which both sides will go to either maintain their faith or annihilate what is seen as a foreign infection of the mind and soul.

One of several brutal, if brilliantly filmed, scenes of Christians
being persecuted to death by hardline government officials.
Yet, the movie never completely impacted me the way that I was hoping. I've long been interested in religious history (though an agnostic myself), especially in Jesuit history. The Jesuit tradition of forging into foreign lands to bring not only their religious message but also broader education has long been one that I admire in many ways. And there have been a few excellent movies depicting the rigors of their mission, namely Black Robe and The Mission. That latter movie, in particular, did an excellent job depicting the larger Jesuit pursuits while also imbuing a tale with sympathetic characters and emotional heft. Unfortunately, Silence never quite elicited that same feeling from me. The young priests are clearly very dedicated, but I couldn't shake the feeling that we never fully get to know either of them as real people. Instead, they are simply vessels of faith, swimming upstream for reasons that I wish had been more thoroughly explored.

The one other issue I had with this movie is the depiction of government official Inoue, who is tasked with tracking down and weeding out any vestiges of Christianity in his district. I found that this character comes off with over-the-top unctuousness which makes him cartoonishly villainous. This was a shame, since there are actually a few thoughtful and philosophical verbal exchanges between him and the young Jesuit priests. But these and nearly everything else Inoue does are undermined by an overly sleazy, slurred delivery of his lines that would be more fitting for a B-grade horror movie bad guy. Yes, the character is meant to be dislikable, but I feel that it would have been far more interesting had they given him a more noble carriage and not made him so easy to despise.

If you've heard anything about this movie, it is likely about the visuals. They are truly stunning. As Martin Scorsese has shown time and time again, he knows how to find cinematographers and put them in positions to create visual masterpieces. Silence is no exception. It is an odd contrast to the spiritual turmoil and physical tortures being suffered throughout the picture, but the landscapes, costumes, and sets are beautifully captured, making the movie a pleasure to drink in for much of its considerable running length. It also helps that the acting is (aside from Issei Ogata's portrayal of Inoue) strong.

I recently read the novel, which Scorsese remained highly faithful to. While anyone interested in solid film making or the religious and spiritual themes would appreciate the movie's strengths, those more intrigued by the latter would perhaps gain more from reading the novel.