“DUNKIRK” (2017), written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Now this is cinema that is meant to save cinema or the kind of computer technology frenzy cinema that proliferates Hollywood these days, or for decades now. First, check these out for authenticity. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot the film on IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock. It made extensive use of practical effects, such as employing thousands of extras, gathering boats that had participated in the real Dunkirk evacuation, and using era-appropriate planes for aerial sequences. Nolan's screenplay was a mere 76-page manuscript, which means the movie was approached as more of documentary than a dialogue-reliant drama.
First of all, the film wasn't the usual Hollywood formula that usually ends with a victory. "Dunkirk" was an evacuation, short of defeat. There are no American in the movie because of the fact that the Dunkirk evacuation, which happened between 26 May and 4 June 1940, in the north of France, was prior to US' involvement in Second World War. America entered the war after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor the following year. The Dunkirk operation commenced after large numbers of British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the Battle of France. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this "a colossal military disaster."
"Dunkirk" puts you almost right there. Sound editing shudders not like how a horror banger nails you. It's like an invisible fist punched you in the dark. And you can't strike back, the hit was emotional. The characters aren't the gun-savvy warriors that inhabit most war movies. These kids, those on land (and sea), don't even know how to shoot a gun or how to use one, actually, it seems. Yet the movie was about heroism. You don't need back stories to heighten the dramatic effects. Like where did British Army privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (pop star Harry Styles) come from? Or what's the story behind the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), or civilian mariner/rescuer Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his two sons? The movie tells it as it was, play by play. No qualms, no chasers, no whatever in between. You don't see lots of movies with that kind of sincerity and honesty these days.
“SILENCE” (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese, stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, and Liam Neeson. The plot follows two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan to locate their missing mentor and spread Catholic Christianity. The story is set in the time when it was common for Christians to hide from persecution following the suppression of Japanese Roman Catholics during the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638) against the Tokugawa shogunate.
I could navigate this historical reading of Shusaku Endo's fiction account of Japan of the past more than Scorsese's 1988 film, "The Last Temptation of Christ" (based on Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial 1955 novel), which I labored to understand. Written partly in the form of a letter by its central character, Endo's novel explores the theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity. It was said that the Catholic Endo, who died in 1966, was greatly influenced by his experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and a debilitating bout with tuberculosis when he wrote the book.
I read a number of feedback and comment on Facebook a week after the movie was released in moviehouses. I differ with their views though. The movie (or book) wasn't about Christianity per se. For me, this 3-hour epic is all about, (1) religion as an expression of a people's culture. Thus, "God doesn't grow in the swamp" or "A tree that grows in one climate will not grow in the soil of another," and (2) There is nothing wrong in believing. It's how we believe and apply it in the real world that matters. Ergo fanaticism as professed by the preacher as an individual against common good as universal light.
Despite Christianity being a minority religion in Japan, it is respected and accepted by the populace. A tolerance that isn't usually seen in a Muslim world or even in America where free observance of religion is written in the Bill of Rights. Most large Christian denominations, including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox Christianity, are represented in Japan today. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Japanese wed in Christian ceremonies which has had a major impact on Japanese Christianity. I have a number of relatives who live in Japan, including my dad's sister who's married to a Japanese. Aunt Concepcion hasn't given up or renounced her devout Catholic faith despite living there since late 70s. Celebration of Christian holidays in Japan puts emphasis on sharing time with loved ones, either significant others or close family.
"Silence" is a provocation more than a statement. I'd love to comment about the movie as art but then I watched it as historical reading more than an exercise of cinematic aesthetics although the movie isn't bad at all. If I am still teaching, I'd view this with my students as a starting point for a discussion on culture, religion, and tolerance amidst diversity.
“LION” (2016), directed by Garth Davis, based on the non-fiction book "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose. Stars Dev Patel, with Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman. Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley (born 1981), played by Patel, was accidentally separated from his biological mother at age 5. He was adopted by an Australian couple and, 25 years later, reunited with his biological mom. His story generated significant international media attention, especially in Australia and India. "Lion" is his story.
Superbly acted and finely directed by Davis, his first feature, "Lion" managed to veer away from possible kneading sentimentality by doing away with usually lumbering narrative that spelled doom to a number of true-to-life features. Instead it did away with exploring romantic backstories and cut through the chase and brought us to the heart-wrencher: Saroo's reunion with mom. It was a celebration of life more than a dramatic tearjerker. Fine, fine writing.
"Lion" is Dev Patel won a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this one at the 89th Academy Awards, alongside Kidman (who also got a supporting actress nomination). The movie also received well-deserved nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Patel is that awkward IT guy in the TV series "The Newsroom." But I guess, you saw "Slumdog Millionaire"? Remember him? Now you do.
Lost children is a familiar truth in India. According to a Track Child data, nearly 73,000 children or 30 percent are still missing despite a raft of initiatives to better protect and find these kids. Up to 70 percent of the missing children found are victims of trafficking and slavery. India has one of largest populations of children in the world, with more than 40 percent of its 1.2 billion people below the age of 18, according to its 2011 Census. An economic boom of the last two decades has lifted millions out of poverty yet many children continue to be born into dire circumstances with India home to over 30 percent of the world’s 385 million most impoverished children, according to a 2016 World Bank and UNICEF report. That fact makes "Lion" a must-see.
“MARCO POLO,” The TV Series. A Netflix/The Weinstein Company production. I just concluded Season 1. The $90 million first 10 episode epic was massively lambasted by critics, calling it "An all-around disappointment." Okay, critics. Chill. Even before I ventured to watch "Marco Polo," I knew and I quite expected there'll be a slew of "cinematic liberties" that'd be traipsing around historical facts. Don't we know that already? This is, after all, a Bob and Harvey Weinstein project.
Yes, it is true that Marco, with his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan. But you'd surely ask, did the powerful Mongol ruler really trust the European trader that much to believe in most of the young man's advice (especially in regards military warfare)? Did Mr Polo engineer the construction of the catapult that eventually broke into the Great Wall that spelled the fall of the Song Dynasty? Did Marco dude fight like a gallant lieutenant/combatant? It's up to you to google those out but you know. Those are all swashbuckling visual/scripting bullshit. Although the series is based on "The Travels of Marco Polo," this is entertainment, first and foremost.
But yes it's true that in 1271, Kublai established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. Scholars also attest that Kublai had strong attraction to contemporary Chinese culture. He in fact invited Buddhist monks in North China to sit as his advisers. Kublai employed people of other nationalities as well, for he was keen to balance local and imperial interests, Mongol and Turk. Those are all said or shown in the series. But historical cinema is a provocation. For that alone, I watched "Marco Polo." True, Netflix and Bob and Harvey lost, all in all, $200 for the two seasons hence the series is shelved. No Season 3. No prob. Who wants Season 3? But I still wanna watch Season 2. I hope I'd watch Marco doing his real professional calling this time: Trader.
Meantime, critics who often adore politically correct efforts like "Orange is the New Black" and all those other self-deprecating depression yarns (there's a lot, including a philosophizing but morose dog in "Downward Dog") will surely thumb's down this series. But hell I care. The sets that were put up in Italy and Kazakhstan were astounding. The fight sequences that feature the amazing Tom Wu (as Li Jinbao, Marco's guru) and the gorgeous Olivia Cheng (as Jia Mei Lin, assassin mom) were enthralling. Mr Wu is so fun to watch; oh yeah, I am a huge fan of Hongkong Martial Arts cinema.
Well, at least Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj loved the series. He presented creator John Fusco and the "Marco Polo" creative team with an award, honoring their positive portrayal and global presentation of Mongolian subject matter. However, Italian TV actor Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco seems so confectionary cutesy for the gargantuan subject matter. But Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and the always-reliable Joan Chen as the Khagan's wife, Empress Chabi fit their roles. So for the sake of sheer provocation to dig in more of history, check "Marco Polo" out. I'd rather recommend this to younger viewers than "Orange is the New Black," or "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," or "Lady Dynamite." Uh huh.
“AMERICAN CRIME.” Via Netflix. The third season takes place in North Carolina. One of the sub-stories focused on runaway youths. Or homeless youngsters. Such a phenomenon still puzzles and astounds me since I wasn't born or grew up in the US. Yet in my many years here I met and spent time with many homeless/runaways, mostly very young. Some of them I met in summer camps where I taught (organized by NGOs), and in shelters via friends, others I met as I organized concerts and events, many I met in bus terminals, public parks, diners, and Greyhounds. The circumstances that made most of them run were different from realities back home in the Philippines why youngsters leave home.
Data. The number of homeless children in the US grew from 1.2 million in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2010. The number of homeless children reached record highs in years 2011, 2012, and 2013 at about three times their number in 1983. An "estimated two million [youth] run away from or are forced out of their homes each year" in the United States. Yet the word "forced out" needs to be qualified or defined. The difference in these numbers can be attributed to the temporary nature of street children in the United States, unlike the more permanent state in developing countries. Are they running as temporary way to show their family what they don't approve of? The classic rebelliousness? Or their homes are just that messed up? I once met a group of homeless kids in New York City who told me that they only "take off" on summer time, so when it gets cold, they'd go home. Quite a number say they didn't like their mom's (or dad's) new partner.
Street children in the United States tend to stay in the state, 83 percent do not leave their state of origin. If they leave, street children are likely to end up in large cities, notably New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. Street children are predominantly Caucasian and female in the United States. I don't have the exact data for this but based on my own encounter, yes I do agree most of them are young women, many end up prostitutes (like what was tackled in "American Crime").
The United States government has been making efforts since the late 1970s to accommodate this section of the population. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1978 made funding available for shelters and funded the National Runaway Switchboard. Other efforts include the Child Abuse and Treatment Act of 1974, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. There has also been a decline of arrest rates in street youth, dropping in 30,000 arrests from 1998 to 2007. Instead, the authorities are referring homeless youth to state-run social service agencies, yet many of these are cash-strapped and/or understaffed like those that I wrote about when I was in Los Angeles.
Meantime, another set of homeless youths are college students. Thousands of students at community colleges in the US are considered homeless or "precariously housed," either because they have been thrown out of home, evicted, or sleep in a shelter, car or abandoned building. The homeless college youth accounts for over one million of the young homeless population. According to the Free Application Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, in 2013, over 58,000 students identified as homeless on their application.
This is a social ill that is bothersome. Is it about the government? Is it about poverty in the house? Child poverty in America is 7 times the rate in Denmark or twice than in Germany. But I believe it's not just economics. The US is not a poor country. Hence I see this problem rooted deep within the family and how children are raised or how children behave within a family setting. I can go on and on and on. I am glad though that despite imperfections in our own home, no one in my family or kinship had to run like the 17-year old Shae and Coy in "American Crime." Very real and true stories.