Review: Your Name

One day, rural girl Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and city kid Taki Tachibana (Kamiki Ryunosuke) find themselves inexplicably swapping bodies at random. At first, this sudden occurrence serves as a strange but amusing diversion, with the two kids using it to live each other’s lives, send each other messages and improve each other’s lives, but it doesn’t take long for something darker to seep through the cracks. News of a passing comet heralds a change, and the two find themselves in the midst of something monumental, all the while trying to preserve the connection and memories they have.

Your Name, the latest in Makoto Shinkai’s filmography and by far his most critically lauded, is a curious outlier in his library of work. It retains much of what its predecessors feature – smooth, eye-watering visuals, an emphasis on the subjects of connection and human bonds and, more often than not, a heaping dollop of bittersweetness. Here he aims to subvert that general mood, giving us perhaps the closest to a standard romantic drama he’s ever made, with a slight fantastic edge, an endeavour that yields mixed results.

Certainly, Shinkai and his crew bring their experience to the fore. The animation and art, especially when concerning the village of Itomori nestled among beautiful scenery, are nothing less than stunning. The intricacies of rural and urban environments and the sharp contrast between them are captured perfectly. There is nothing off-model to ruin the immersion, and the visual direction creates some utterly striking scenes. Shinkai makes the worlds he creates feel vibrant, weathered and lived-in all at ones, and CoMix Wave Films, who have frequently collaborated with him, help bring Your Name’s vision of Japan to live like never before, and the film includes perhaps the most beautifully animated comet in recent history.

The Japanese voice acting is also strong across the board, with both lead actors displaying an impressive degree of range as they alternate between bodies and convincingly portray the other’s mannerisms and personalities as time goes by. Kamishiraishi’s performance is particularly soulful, and joining her are a smattering of voice actors and actresses who mostly don’t have a massive deal of experience in the field, barring Ryunosuke and Aoi Yuuki who voices Mitsuha’s friend Sayaka.  The relative newness of most of the remaining cast makes their performances that much more genuine, and there are some true standouts, particularly Kanon Tani as Mitsuha’s sister Yotsuha.

Additionally the film excels at simply making you feel good, while also having its share of punches to the emotional centre. It’s a film that tells us to cherish the memories we have, a creation brimming with a sense of hopeful positivity in stark contrast to a great deal of the director’s previous works. Given that Shinkai has often made a habit out of taking viewers of his films on an unremitting emotional rollercoaster, and so to have something from him that is genuinely happy in tone that rewards the protagonists for their struggles is welcome indeed. The soundtrack – chiefly a number of insert songs from Japanese band Radwimps – intensifies this, and their music makes up some of the most memorable parts of the film as a whole.

The characters are given enough time to shine, and are probably among Shinkai’s most memorable. What the characters themselves do is oftentimes interesting or compelling enough, and through them we do learn intriguing things about them and the world around them. We have a look into things like Taki’s attempt at a love life, and Mitsuha honouring the traditions of her shrine, dealing with school, seeing her boredom towards rural life…but there is a disparity, and therein lies part of the problem.

On the issue of characters the film also ends up suffering, for all the colour the characters exhibit, by electing to focus chiefly on Mitsuha as opposed to Taki, with him only receiving proper focus after the story drops its first major bombshell. Even then it is only for a limited amount of time, and as a result of this focal disparity Mitsuha not only comes across as the infinitely more interesting lead, but one of the main thrusts of the entire film – the romantic angle pushed for these two characters – comes off as rushed and insincere on Taki’s part as a result.

As with the characters, so too do the mechanics that enable the film’s plot find themselves wanting. The idea of body-swapping, though a nifty gimmick, is what ends up dragging the film down the most in this regard. No real reason is given at any point in the film as to how the phenomenon occurs, barring one brief moment in the film where it’s mentioned that Mitsuha’s relatives had dreams of living other lives – but even then, that doesn’t account for Taki, which is odd because the other fantasy elements receive a sufficient explanation. Related to this mechanic, what is probably the most outstanding revelation in the film finds itself bogged down in a series of retroactive plot holes that unfortunately diminish the impact of the reveal and make the events that transpire in its wake less plausible. One cannot help but wonder if Shinkai ended up being somewhat carried away by the idea of swapping bodies to the detriment of the script.

However, the biggest problem is that, ultimately, compared to its predecessors, it’s just simply rather plain, even somewhat derivative. Strangely enough, it is in attempting to divorce itself from the director’s usual style of work that Your Name ends up damaging its own identity. It has a likeable cast, and it unquestionably has iconic moments and sequences filled with impeccable direction and raw emotion, but there’s nothing that’s narratively hard-hitting like the sheer distance involved in Voices of a Distant Star, the tragedy in Children Who Chase Lost Voices or the unflinching realism of Five Centimetres Per Second. It’s a relatively standard romantic drama with a hint of the fantastical, and while it’s a well-made feel-good feature, the simplicity of its scenario ends up hindering more than helping.

Does Your Name live up to the monumental hype? Not quite. It is worth a watch, is unquestionably a labour of love and is something that you turn to if you want to feel fuzzy. But from Shinkai himself – from the realm of animation itself – there are titles that simply do better.

Film Review: A Silent Voice

Bullying in schools is, tragically, something that is felt across the world. Japan is no different in that regard – yet its own bullying problem manifests in forms that are equally unique and disconcerting. There, bullying is called ‘ijime’, and it can range from verbal threats and physical altercations to – outstandingly – ostracisation and prolonged psychological cruelty aimed at individuals. In this form, ‘ijime’ is defined as the elimination of those who are considered ‘different’, be it through racial heritage, disabilities or personality traits, to maintain classroom homogeneity and conformity. This harassment takes root in values taught in school – uniformity and those who uphold group attitudes are championed, while those who ‘stand out’ are seen as disruptive elements, and subsequently the ‘majority’ encourages ignoring, criticising and punishing those who deviate from the established norm. Attitudes towards ‘ijime’ are gradually shifting, but it is so deeply ingrained into Japanese society that it has been normalised within the school system, with some students describing it as ‘necessary’ to uphold conformity. Teachers are sometimes just as culpable, whether through asking parents of victims to label suicides as ‘accidents’, singling out children who are ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’, or outright denying the existence of any harassment to preserve the reputation of their school, their students or themselves. It is a deep-rooted issue with thousands of cases reported on a yearly basis, and it is summarised by a proverb of Japan’s own making: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

The Japanese entertainment industry does not often confront such a subject. A Silent Voice, created by Yoshitoki Oima, was quick to garner both praise and controversy for its upfront, no-holds-barred exploration of the ‘ijime’ phenomenon in Japan, both when it was first released as a one-shot story to stiff opposition – its later serialisation was delayed by vocal opponents who claimed it painted a discomfiting picture of Japanese society – and now as a feature film under the auspices of Naoko Yamada. The premise establishes the bedrock for a story of absolution – Shouya Ishida (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka), is a rambunctious delinquent who chooses to harass new student Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) because of her deafness. The harassment becomes so severe that Shoko transfers, and Ishida soon finds himself shunned in turn, shouldering the blame. Resolving to try and make amends for the follies of his youth, he runs into her several years later, having learned Japanese sign language and having a genuine desire to hear her voice. Their chance encounter puts him on the slow, rocky path to redemption.

a silent voice 2017 movie embed1Every film is the sum of its parts, and from the top down almost every aspect of this film’s composition comes together to deliver something spellbinding. Visuals are a key competent of any animated production, and from an artistic standpoint the work is stunning, a feast for the eyes that flows like water as Yamada and her staff put every bit of the film’s sizeable budget to use with minimal outsourcing to other studios. Every element of the production gels together and supplements each other, from the fluidity of the animation to the immersive lighting, to the soft colour palettes and engrossing background art provided by Mutsuo Shinohara to the smooth yet striking character designs courtesy of Futoshi Nishiya that refine Oima’s occasionally rough artwork. The level of detail present in the animation is a sight to behold. Meticulous attention is given to character movement, especially considering the prominence of sign language, and the motions are so fluid – especially those of hands – that the characters are made even more lifelike because of it.

The sound is rich and clear, and Kensuke Ushio delivers a score that fits the film like a glove. The picture opens with a rather bombastic choice of soundtrack in the form of The Who’s My Generation, a song that perfectly encapsulates Ishida’s outlook as a child. From then on, though, the soundtrack consists of minimalistic yet stirring piano tracks and ambient noise, punctuated by strikingly effective stillness. The tracks are sometimes ponderous, halting and distant in nature, reflecting the minds of the cast in times of contemplation and struggle. The voice work is solid and the cast gives a commendable performance, but credit must be given to Hayami who delivers a painfully moving and decidedly unconventional performance that makes Shoko’s few yet outstanding attempts at speech even more powerful.

a silent voice 2017 movie embed2Visually and aurally the film is doubtlessly impressive, but it is in the script and direction where the film’s true strengths lie. The film’s script is written by Reiko Yoshida, Yamada’s scriptwriting partner in many previous works such as Tamako Market, K-On! and their respective films. Over the course of a 129-minute running time it finds itself pared down compared to the original work, with good reason. Combined with the aforementioned serialisation problems the manga also suffered from secondary arcs that weighed down the central plot, and occasionally indulged in excessive and sometimes gratuitous emotional moments. By trimming secondary plot details the film gains a renewed focus on the central thrust of the story with minimal distractions, and what results is a film that has an optimal length, hitting all the central plot beats with aplomb and having the emotional aspects of the tale come about naturally as opposed to being forced upon the audience. Owing to her script and Yamada’s style of directing, the work also abounds with small subtleties and concealed character motivations that aren’t blatantly spelled out – instances of sign language go untranslated leaving the viewer to infer their meaning. Characters undergo development visually in response to external stimuli. Little visual quirks, like a near-constant distance being maintained between Shoko and Shouya and characters being framed in deliberate isolation, are prevalent throughout the film.

This laser-like focus on Shouya and Shoko also enables the narrative to curb its excesses, exploring the range of emotions and topics on offer without descending into melodrama as the original work was sometimes wont to do. Shouya thunders out of the gate in that respect – for him, much of the first act is dedicated to his younger self indulging in the many fraught and terrible forms of bullying in scenes that are thoroughly uncomfortable and completely unrestrained. In his crusade to conquer boredom he faces no opposition in his campaign of mockery. Some of his classmates, particularly Ueno (Yūki Kaneko) are complicit, joining him in harassing her when they come to see her as a burden dragging down the class. Others are merely content to be spectators even after offering half-hearted words of criticism, or decide to silently ignore his actions. Even members of the faculty become aloof, at least until Shouya himself is turned into a convenient target – ‘We’re still in class’, one teacher nonchalantly tells him after another display of mean-spiritedness. His clique is universally toxic and his actions and those of his colleagues depict the disconcerting reality behind how ‘ijime’ scenarios often play out – entire classrooms can marshal against a single victim in one way or another. However, the turnaround he suffers because of of his actions opens a pathway to intense introspection down the road.

a silent voice 2017 movie embed3Five years on he finds himself listless, seriously entertaining the thought of taking his life and beset on all sides by comments regarding what he did in his younger days, and subsequently copes by closing himself off almost completely. He constructs mental walls around his psyche to numb the pressure that gnaws away at his mind and to deafen the noise of the world around him – a key moment is Shouya imagining himself cupping his hands over his ears before crosses blossom across the faces of his fellow students and former associates, so that he can shut them out and deal with them without even having to look at them even when they talk to him. Breaking down those walls is never easy, and not just in relation to personal relationships – even after his encounter with Shoko, he receives justifiable criticism, constantly wonders about his own self-worth, ponders whether his pursuits are only meant to satisfy himself and have no greater meaning, and questions whether he deserves happiness and forgiveness while having spectres of the past hovering over him. For him, having reaped what he has sown, the film is a struggle for genuine betterment in the face of adversity, an attempt to find purpose in his life and start relationships anew while also yearning to listen to the silent voice that he ignored in his youth.

The film spares no expense, however, in showing that the hurt goes both ways. On the surface, Shoko initially seems the embodiment of innocence.  Unerringly kind, she shows almost no resistance towards those who torment her. Instead of lashing out against those who harass her she maintains apparent positivity and refuses to retaliate, but her kindly, magnanimous behaviour is not a convenient panacea – for her persecutors, it is another target. Her unwaveringly good-natured disposition and her tendency to profusely apologise in the event of any misunderstanding or perceived wrongdoing sometimes cause aggravation in others, particularly Ishida’s younger self and Ueno, who see her neutral passivity and outwardly gentle demeanour as either a fabrication, a ploy for pity or an annoyance and view her as weak, selfish and excessively submissive. We see cracks in the armour that speak to her depth as a character – one striking moment early on involving her and Ishida, one of the few times they close the near-perpetual distance between each other, results in an emotional and physical flashpoint where Shoko’s facade falters. Just as Shouya is not a stereotypical thug, she is not simply a character designed to garner sympathy – in fact, it is underneath her innocent mask that we see the full extent of her suffering and learn that she and Shouya are, in the present day, very much alike.

She is quietly and painfully aware of her faults, and just as Shouya has his episodes of internal reflection, her own dilemma is showcased through both how her personality is depicted in relation to her condition and through her family. Her self-esteem is at troubling lows owing to both her opinion of her deafness and her past torture, despite the best efforts of her sister Yuzuru (Aoi Yūki) and her stern mother Yaeko (Akiko Hiramatsu). Underneath her sweet, cheerful veneer and her outward kindness, there resides a broken soul, a girl who internalises her pain and battles extreme hatred within her as she inwardly sees herself as a problem and her deafness as a burden. She silently accepts whatever criticism and blame she receives because she believes she deserves it in a shockingly accurate depiction of how severely depressed people sometimes see themselves and she apologises as intensely as she does because she sees herself as the source of all the problems that transpire. That her tormentors, past and present, point out personal flaws that she silently acknowledges also does not help matters, and beyond her apologetic exterior there lies someone who is locked in a constant struggle with herself, all the while in danger of succumbing to the weight of the cross of self-loathing that she willingly bears. For her, the film is also a lesson in reflection and self-improvement – learning from the mistakes that she makes, coming to peace with herself and reining in the self-hatred festering within her.

a silent voice 2017 movie embed4This is a movie that rests upon the shoulders of its characters, and through their emotional turmoil and trials – not just those of Shouya and Shoko, but virtually everyone in the cast – there emerges a timeless tale of atonement and self-discovery. It is about people who each have their own demons and who, through sorrow, hurt and endurance, gradually start to overcome them while they try to move onward, swimming boldly against the tide. It is a production filled with heart-warming ups and heart-rending downs and a satisfying if slightly rushed emotional payoff, and its contents are not restrained by what it is. It embraces what it wants to show and is universally resonant, capable of affecting and educating a whole host of audiences.

The film is not without its problems. Like a number of adaptations, it is in cutting away extraneous content and narrowing its focus that the film suffers most, chiefly relating secondary cast. Although characters such as Ueno and Nagatsuka (Kensho Ono) emerge mostly intact albeit with a couple of pivotal personal scenes removed, others such as Kawai (Megumi Han) and Mashiba (Toshiyuki Toyonaga) find themselves lacking in substance owing to them being tied to the arcs and individual spotlight chapters that found themselves excised from the film – flow is improved, but character development falls behind subsequently. Additionally, by nature of its content alone it is extremely polarising and intentionally uncomfortable in many places. It aims to prove a point and it does so very well, but some viewers who are less receptive of what it tries to show them may be firmly dissuaded by the unremitting cruelty it displays. Those who come in expecting the film to be a decidedly more romantic affair will no doubt find themselves bewildered as well. It occupies a niche within a niche, a Japanese animation about singularly unique subject matter, and it ultimately is not for everyone.

It may cause discomfort to those who are unaware, but A Silent Voice is right to be forthcoming in its subject matter. It is undeniably polarising but it says what needs to be said in a package that is both tender and forthcoming. Perhaps it is not the most original tale or the most faithful adaptation, the film is a commanding presence on the silver screen, powerful, touching, poignant and revelatory in equal measure. It may be unrelenting in its depiction of the brutality of bullying as it intends to be, and it doesn’t dismiss such deep-rooted problems with convenient fixes, but it is something that champions second chances for those who truly want to take them. It is a film that shows us that, sometimes, simply listening is the first step towards absolution.

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Review – The Emoji Movie

Directed by: Tony Leondis

Starring: TJ Miller, Anna Faris, James Corden, Maya Rudolph, Patrick Stewart

 

The simplest questions are often the most profound. In the immortal words of the Bard, brevity is the soul of wit, and from this thing’s conception to release one short, enduring question was on the tongues of those who followed its development with abject disbelief and those who left theatres with ashen faces and mortified minds.

Why?

Why, in another hapless bid to recreate the wonder of Toy Story while ignoring the heart and soul and messages that Pixar put into their work, did a gaggle of clueless executives greenlight a film about banal emoticons? Why did renowned, veteran, thespian actors agree to be associated with this tripe? Why is this, in all likelihood, still scheduled to make back every bit of the $50 million that went into funding this misadventure?

All these and countless more burning queries raced through my mind as I watched the procession of images flash before my disbelieving eyes. I left bamboozled, befuddled, discombobulated, uncertain as to whether or not what I witnessed was some crazed fever dream that would make Hunter S Thompson blush with admiration. But alas, my faculties were intact, and on sitting down to write this I am reminded once more that this is a product that was indeed released to the public. Such is the world we live in today.

the emoji movie 2017 embed3Above everything else, this is a product. It is not something made with creativity in mind, nor is it a bold, intrepid venture into unexplored territory. This is a bald-faced, utterly unabashed advertisement for apps wearing the guise of a family feature, born from a desire to exploit new “toys”, and the film’s “plot”, for lack of a better word, is likewise slapdash. It’s a generic, tepid “be yourself” story interspersed with blatant product placement so shameless that Mac and Me finds itself humbled. Gene, a phone-dwelling “meh” emoticon in a society where emojis can only perform the task they’re given or display the emotion they’re assigned, is played flatly by TJ Miller who gives a performance that never rises above passable – something shared across virtually every single performance in the film. He stumbles from app to app, paying dues to rapacious corporations and blundering through sessions of Candy Crush and Just Dance as he tries to change his abnormally expressive ways through enlisting the assistance of a hacker named Jailbreak, played by Anna Faris who may or may not have been reminiscing about her Scary Movie glory days in the recording booth.

Throughout this arduous and asinine voyage, barring one brief yet merciful stretch, they are accompanied by one of the most ruthlessly humorless comedic “sidekicks” in recent cinematic history, a disturbingly uncanny hand frozen into a high-five inventively called Hi-5 who is left bitter about being laid by the wayside and denied the digital high life he once indulged in. They’re pursued by Smiler (Maya Rudolph), the perpetually grinning, gratingly-voiced overseer of the city of Textopolis – and the film’s idea men pat each other on the back vigorously – who seeks to eliminate Gene due to the threat he poses to the system as a “malfunction”. All the while, the phone’s teenaged owner, high school freshman Alex, is grappling with what many monied first-world children in the world today struggle with: smartphones. And a romantic crush. But mostly smartphones.

So our bumbling band of bozos go, off on a merry adventure towards discovery and self-acceptance so obviously telegraphed that it’s safe to say you could watch it with your eyes clamped shut. Off a minuscule 86-minute running time, even less factoring in the credits, the film catapults itself through the motions and inserts every single cliche that it can crowbar into the script. Emotional moments are glanced over, striking changes are reversed in only a handful of scenes, everything feels like it’s on fast-forward and consequently the central cast remains only slightly less threadbare than when they started out on their grand odyssey.  It’s a ceaseless barrage of noise, light and sound, with barely any downtime to allow the audience to breathe and digest, and nothing sinks in as a result. But even with this in mind – surely, if the visuals and pacing are troubled, an outstanding script can make up for such shortcomings.

Maybe so, but certainly not here. Instead, courtesy of writer-director James Leondis and fellow collaborators Eric Siegel and Mike White – whose presence is nothing less than utterly perplexing considering his repertoire – we get such insightful, thought-provoking rise on subjects like personal desires  and the changes in the way people communicate as “Wow, that’s a super-cool emoji!”, or “What’s the point in being number one if there aren’t any other numbers?” The entire script reeks of unabashed sloth. Modern lingo is crudely shoved into conversations because it is modern, ergo funny, ergo guaranteed money in the eyes of executives without any need of context or effort. In a thoroughly galling display, it shamelessly pilfers dialogue from timeless classics in a desperate bid to please any older or more cinephilic viewers who have the misfortune of watching it. Lyrics from popular songs are outright lifted to serve as plot points, and amid such platitudes almost every single statement that masquerades as a “joke” is painfully inept and made as obvious as possible for the sake of the viewers, as if the film takes a perverse glee in belittling the intelligence of the audience it’s aimed it. Kids are developing – but they aren’t stupid.

Character development is accelerated to ludicrous speed on all fronts as the movie barrels through the beats in a desperate attempt to end faster, and Gene is the only member of the cast who comes even remotely close to possessing some kind of arc. Hi-5 is almost completely devoid of anything resembling a character, and James Corden’s proven comic chops are non-existent as the character exists chiefly to bombard the audience with insipid zingers. Jailbreak, aside from being the token female love interest and action girl, is similarly unrealised and bounces around aimlessly. Her reasons to exist alternate haphazardly; sometimes she is there to spout oddly-inserted feminist tracts about alleged emoji sexism and ignored female ingenuity, make forced statements on girl power and use random slang to appeal to the trendy crowd – “Slay!” she cheerfully shouts at one point for no discernible reason, after being invited by Gene to “put some sauce on that dance burrito” – and sometimes she’s an average tough chick doing hacker business or bantering, or preaching the wonders of youness. Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge provide perhaps the only truly noteworthy performances in the film as Gene’s parents, Mel and Mary Meh, whose attitudes are strikingly reflective of what the average moviegoer feels when bearing witness to this drivel.

the emoji movie 2017 embed1Everything from the story to the characterisation to the humour falls utterly flat and summarily this is a blunder, a mess in every sense of the word. The lone high points are one or two genuinely amusing quips that seem positively restrained compared to the rest of the script, and the visual presentation of the digital realm that is distantly evocative of the mindscapes of Inside Out, steeped in corporate avarice instead of encapsulating developing emotions. Leondis, an avid fan of Pixar’s work, tries to recreate its splendor but it is something that is simply out of his grasp. Pixar’s creations are founded upon a bedrock of passion and there is precious little in the way of passion to be found here – this is not someone’s baby. It is the spawn of a think tank, made solely to leech off of that which is popular, rake in a guaranteed profit and get people in seats. It is filmmaking at its most hollow, little more than extended lip service to financial benefactors while having only the barest of necessities for any kind of three-act structure, and it’s a painful experience that ultimately overwhelms the few faint glimmers of hope the film has.

But it’s not panful merely because of its narrative deficiencies, or crude and obvious humour, or even the nature of its existence. Above all else, the most painful aspect of this misguided endeavor is that there was promise. In a culture so thoroughly addicted to smartphones and so enamoured with all things digital as our own, a film that anthropomorphises emojis and bandies them about as the hot new way to communicate and calls them the pinnacle of technological innovation – “Words aren’t cool”, a friend of Alex’s glibly opines near the film’s beginning – this entire concept could have served as some lighthearted yet rather timely and incisive social commentary. Everywhere we look, people are glued to their phones, and there are fleeting glimpses of the possibilities that this film had that are buried away, chiefly manifesting in the real-world segments. Alex, his crush Addie and his friends are consistently enraptured by the technology they possess. For them, the world rests comfortably in their pocket, almost every interaction they make is done wirelessly, and even in the realm of the emojis the film offers some sparse commentary on the subject as Gene and his companions briefly advertise Facebook – they interact with people they don’t even know, all for the sake of achieving popularity. With the right amount of self-awareness and an analytical outlook mixed into its script, it could have at least attempted to deliver on the promise that its premise held. It could have been something else, something worth thinking about, a cautionary tale on the direction our society is going in thanks to these miniature worlds within worlds, these do-all creations and enduring distractions no bigger than the palms of our hands.  But honestly, the moment Sir Patrick Stewart was cast as a walking, talking mound of excreta, I believe this film’s fate was sealed long before it even hit the screens.

If there is any consolation to be gleaned from this experience, however, I can report that the screening I attended was as silent as a crypt. Perhaps the developers aimed wide and went for all the wrong wisecracks – or, maybe, the youth of today have grown wise to the soulless pandering that the film industry so frequently churns out. As a firm believer in the potency of human intelligence and ingenuity, I reside firmly in the latter camp.

Rating: 2/10

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Review – A Cure For Wellness

Directed by: Gore Verbinbski

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie

 

“We build, we buy, we consume,” a gravelly voice intones as our eyes bear witness to the bleak, blank towers of New York City skyscrapers, towering over the drab roads beneath and stretching up towards an impenetrable blanket of grey clouds. “We wrap ourselves in the illusion of material success. There is a sickness inside us…and only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure.”

Such is how Gore Verbinski’s return to horror begins, with a wonderful dollop of atmosphere and foreboding. Unfortunately, it is this very opening that sets the stage for its overall inadequacy, and where the director promises an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it is regrettable that it ends up devolving into something far less.

In an unspecified year in the 2010s, an executive for an unspecified firm who we only ever know as Lockheart (Dane DeHaan) is dispatched to Switzerland by his superiors to retrieve a business associate named Pembroke (Harry Groener) as they need him for a merger and also hope to pin several costly and unsightly corporate dealings on him upon his return. Lockheart is sent to a ‘wellness centre’ where Pembroke resides, a health institution located within the Swiss Alps. At first only interested in finding Pembroke and leaving as soon as possible, complications swiftly arise, and underneath the eerily utopian veneer of the facility, there is something much more sinister afoot – something Lockheart becomes determined to unearth.

This is Verbinski’s return to the genre for the first time since 2002’s The Ring, a passion project that is his first original work since 2011’s Rango. Having been in development since 2014 and having no prior attachment to any existing franchise like most of his work over the past 15 years, the stage was set for him to pour his heart and soul into this production – and as a veteran film-maker it is undeniable that he has done that with respect to the technical side of things. Elements of the cinematography and the mise-en-scene are doubtlessly striking, from the looming, opaque obelisks of the metropolis fleetingly seen throughout the film’s first act to the picturesque scenery of the Alps with Hohenzollern Castle taking centre stage. The scenes involving the institute are often appropriately off-putting in their calmness or claustrophobic depending on the tone, and although Verbinski continues to have trouble with the length of his productions it is undeniable that possess the craft to bring out shots to their fullest. The dichotomy between the beauty of the institute’s surroundings and the disconcerting attitudes and horrific actions displayed within its walls enhances the palpable sense of tension that lingers ominously early in the film, and as the film’s plot places a strong emphasis on water, Verbinski uses it to striking effect in his own way in many shots and scenes – particularly the introduction of Mia Goth’s character along with the highly-publicised eel tank scene. It is splendidly filmed and superbly shot but all the sweeping vistas and dimly-lit rooms in the world cannot compensate for the problem that lies at the core of this endeavour.

The crippling issues with A Cure for Wellness chiefly lie in a few things, but the most outstanding problem of all is its identity crisis. The picture’s script is penned by Justin Haythe, a man most known for receiving a BAFTA nomination for a novel adaptation – 2008’s Revolutionary Road – and Verbinski’s own disastrous 2013 blunder, The Lone Ranger. Just as that film was raked over the coals for its tonally uneven script, the writing of Wellness finds itself on a similar keel – it starts out as a feature that lays sufficient groundwork for some potent psychological horror with the enigmatic ‘cure’ perhaps promising to serve as a commentary on the human condition and the nature of consumerism, and as it plods along across its achingly long 2 hour and 26 minute running time it gradually loses sight of what it wants to be. It wavers between psychological thriller, an ode to B-grade Hammer Horror shlock and something that tries its absolute hardest to be bizarrely experimental in just how uneasy it can make audiences to the point where a sort of threshold is crossed – the director’s insistence on focusing on these things, some of which are flatly repulsive, is deeply disconcerting and may unintentionally say more about the man himself than anything else.

Another pressing issue is that the film reeks of excess and liberal editing could have improved the quality of the final product immensely. Instead the film is content to putter along as it spares no expense in showing us fancy trivialities such as the myriad of oddball treatments that patients go through, or games of croquet, or shots of the natural landscape that are lingered on so lovingly that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is a holiday advertisement in an elaborate disguise – come to Central Europe to find the cure!

The story of the whole affair, too, does little justice to the thick air of dread and mystery created by its early teasers. It is well acted, that much is certain – DeHaan and Goth, who plays the part of Hannah, a mysterious waif kept secluded from the other patients, give sufficient performances even if DeHaan is perhaps a bit young to play a character who is initially defined as a ruthless corporate hotshot. Jason Isaacs delivers an affably sinister display as Heinrich Volmer, the facility’s director, and a handful of other cast members have standout roles as well, with Celia Imrie getting some spotlight as fellow patient Victoria Watkins. These strong casting choices, however, are ultimately wasted by a plot that sadly doesn’t even attempt to conceal its overall predictability, made starker by the horribly unsubtle use of particular framing devices and tropes that enable one to piece together the entire plot before the film is even half over. The feature’s length gives ample time for viewers to ruminate on how patently absurd some of the story beats are upon analysis and how Lockheart makes every effort to agree to perform mind-bogglingly gullible actions despite his situational awareness until the narrative demands that he rebel in earnest. The film’s first act is genuinely rock-solid, but then it dithers as Lockheart ambles about and the film becomes more focused on showing than doing.

The quality of the narrative nosedives as the film finally enters its final furlong and never recovers. It is most certainly not without its moments of competence, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundtrack is additionally solid, but other than its peculiar and frankly off-putting narrative quirks, A Cure for Wellness will most likely be remembered as a cautionary tale of the dangers of excess. It forgets what it wants to become, discarding a gripping first act for tired horror tropes in a new coat of paint and seems to be more focused on wondering how many eels it can put on the screen instead of giving us a solid plot. It is strangely fitting that an homage to gothic horror transforms into a cinematic Frankenstein, a mutant comprised of half-formed ideas, derivative plot threads and general incoherence that gets in the way of any real fear – and that is saddening, for true potential lay within this film, lying untapped beneath the waters. There may be no cure for wellness yet, but this may serve as a remedy for the drawbacks of unchecked ambition.

 

Rating: 6/10

 

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Film Review – Silence.

Directed by: Martin Scorcese

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Shinya Tsukamoto, Issey Ogata

It is the 16th century, and in Japan Christianity is floundering. Amid widespread persecution in the country and after ten years of silence, a letter finds its way to Portugal – Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List), a missionary in Japan and a revered figure in the Jesuit community, has apostatised and renounced the Christian way. Two loyal disciples of the faith, Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are dispatched to bring him back, and from there, they soon find themselves undertaking a mission of dubious purpose, and their doctrine is called into question – as is their very reason for being in Japan to begin with.

Silence is Martin Scorsese’s long-developed passion project, conceived in the years following the release of 1988’s controversial The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ. Adapted from Shusaku Endou’s 1966 novel, Silence is a study of two things at its core – its characters and the matter of their faith and its compatibility in a world that does not recognise it.

The thrust of the narrative is a slowly gestating crisis of faith, and faith and the problems associated with it are portrayed in a variety of ways throughout the film – through its cinematography as well as through its cast. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – who also shot Babel and Brokeback Mountain – makes use of fog so as to emphasise the uncertainty of the journey the main characters are undertaking, and overheard shots, implying the “presence” of God in Portugal, vanish entirely when the missionaries reach Japan’s shores. There is no reliance on an overbearing score, either, with ambient noise taking precedence – the hum of cicadas is heard often and the music is often monotonous and low in pitch.

The central characters are divided between the unyielding Christian and the malleable Christian through Garrpe and Rodriguez, and Ferreira lends his voice as the assimilated Christian later. As the two priests grapple with both their mission and protecting the Japanese Christians that remain, doubts enter their minds – Garrpe becomes impatient, and Rodriguez changes from an unquestioning believer to someone constantly seeking validation and yearning for God to give him reassurance. He struggles to deal with what he perceives as the suffocating silence of a deity who may not even exist, and we watch his zeal and convictions erode as the film progresses.

The Japanese cast provides the other side of the theoretical coin. Indeed, a good number of Japanese characters essentially serve as counterpoints to the wayward padres – Kichijiro (Yousuke Kubozuka) serves as an enduring reminder with regards to the troubles that Christianity faced in Japan. He is a character who desperately attempts to remain true to his convictions yet finds himself succumbing to temptation at every turn even as the padres call upon him to help them – him frequently asking Rodriguez for a confession is a staple of the film. Torn between remaining faithful and guaranteeing his own safety with him following the orders of authority without question, he is representative of the folly of the priests’ mission to introduce a religion to an environment it cannot possibly thrive in, while being aware of his own failings.

Scorsese, dealing with delicate matters, makes sure not to take sides as well – and nowhere in the film is this better conveyed than the Inquisitor, played masterfully by Issei Ogata. The conversations that he and Rodriguez have result in some genuinely compelling commentary on Japan’s state of affairs while serving to underscore the futility of the priests, using a sharp tongue and simple but effective analogies to make his case. He is not evil – Ogata’s performance, indeed, shows him as very much amiable in his own way. They are simply two men on different sides, and it is the Inquisitor’s duty to show Rodriguez the error of his ways.

The characters bring the issue of faith to the forefront, and through their respective plights the primary theme of the film is conveyed strongly – the central issue, however, is that at its core this is essentially what the feature is. Religious viewers and those keen on history and character interaction will doubtlessly enjoy this, but the film is a protracted test of faith across its punishingly long running time. It sometimes speaks more as a lecture than as a proper drama, and although the film puts its characters through numerous ordeals and offers thought-provoking questions, Silence is not something that can truly be watched purely as entertainment. Its length makes its message seem self-indulgent, and the film suffers for it.

Some casting choices are also somewhat misplaced, and this chiefly rests on Garfield. Although he delivers a good all-round performance – and he is no stranger to working in dramatic productions – his reactions to certain developments within the film are sometimes overwrought and a touch excessive. He seems prone to wearing a single expression that wavers between hurt and perplexed, and one may end up thinking that he was chosen for the role for how he resembles Jesus with a fully-grown beard. Driver, on the other hand, is tragically absent for a fair portion of the film’s length, and in his few moments of emotional intensity he offers a gripping and more authentic performance. Neeson’s role is also fleetingly brief, despite its impact.

In addition, though perhaps this is symptomatic of a transition from one medium to another – liberties have often been taken when bringing books to the silver screen, after all – the film occasionally delivers its central message in a rather obvious and heavy-handed fashion through both on-the-nose imagery and narration, particularly in the finale and often elsewhere. These instances detract from an otherwise competent script as the film becomes aloof in its presentation, attempting to lift the burden of thought from the audience.

Ultimately, Scorsese and his collaborators have put a painstaking amount of effort into fastidiously adapting Endou’s work – but it is that, an adaptation of an intriguing but rather dry work of literature, and not much else besides. It is a faithful work and a noteworthy character examination, but perhaps because of its literary basis it’s a far cry from other works of his such as Wolf of Wall Street or Gangs of New York which are entertaining films as a whole, and not an adaptation of a work that studies a period in our history that may end up sailing over the heads of those who view it.  It is competently done, and worth a watch – but it is not without sin.

 

Rating: 7/10.

 

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Salutations

Greetings! I am Jack Gibbs, an avid writer, firm lover of film and part-time reviewer. With this site, as well as keeping updates on my writing progress, I hope to maintain a repository of film reviews and provide an honest, unbiased insight into the films of today – and beyond. I currently review films on a regular basis for UK Film Review and Screenjabber, and am looking to branch out and gain more experience to expand my skillset and reach into the world of film on a professional level.