Close the book on 2016. Slam that door shut. Good riddance. This has been a tumultuous and trying year by any standard, leaving an abundance of uncertainty in its wake. Questions of purpose seem to dominate our national conversation on a daily basis. Swells of fear and doubt tend to have that effect on people. Interestingly, the first wave of 2017 film releases seems to reflect these anxieties in a variety of ways. They may belong to different narrative styles and genres, but each searches for meaning by grappling with the inevitability of change.
Silence, opening Friday Jan. 6, wrestles with the shifting boundaries of ideology. Set in the 17th century, the film follows young Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they search for their missing mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in Japan. Catholicism has experienced a deathblow in the country thanks to a brutal decades-long campaign by government forces to root out foreign priests and their local parishioners.
Director Martin Scorsese's long-gestating adaptation of Shûsaku Endô's 1966 novel is a prickly epic that deals with the unexplainable motivations surrounding religious faith. A duality quickly emerges between cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's quietly vast landscape imagery and the subversive internal beliefs propagated by Rodrigues. The physical and spiritual are constantly at odds with each other in every image, equally horrifying and pristine. There's no better example than in the sequence involving the beach crucifixion of three Japanese Catholics.
Unlike much of Scorsese's canon, Silence has few visual showstoppers or flashy moments. Instead, this furious saga unfolds almost serenely, clinging to Garfield's mesmerizing eyes trying to unpack all of the confusion, rage and desperation warring inside with devout conviction. That battle culminates in the haunting final scene, which brings to an end this desperate search for something tangible.
Mercy has often been something Scorsese struggles to define in his films, especially the ones with overt religious connections. But in many ways, Silence feels like a passionate and open sermon clarifying how the director sees the world, conflict and redemption. The scenes between Rodrigues and his tormented interpreter Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) are especially illuminating in this regard. They confirm the film to be an oft-difficult experience, but also a transcendent one.
If Silence suggests that true peace can only be achieved in death, Theodore Melfi's new drama Hidden Figures opts for a more hopeful and pragmatic view of social transition. The 1960s are just beginning and fear of Russian space dominance has got segregationist Virginia on pins and needles. Here, three talented African American women try to make their marks at NASA despite deeply rooted racial and gender inequalities.
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a numbers whiz that gets assigned to the all white and male Space Task Group. A natural born leader and talented coder, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) ambitiously takes on programming the new IBM super computer. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), already an ace engineer, demands the opportunity to attend a white high school in order to take extension courses that will advance her career.
On paper, Hidden Figures, which opens Jan. 6, looks like Oscar bait. Yet it's an inspirational and relevant crowd-pleaser that dutifully respects its characters and their various struggles. Instead of demonizing villains, the film calls attention to the failed policies and precedents that help fortify racism in the workplace. All three of the central characters struggle with this reality while still persevering under high-pressure situations.
Biases are gradually worn down thanks to work ethic and a collective belief in the bigger picture. With Russia's aggressive space program in full swing, the stakes become just too high for NASA's leadership (personified by a grouchy Kevin Costner) to ignore their own glaring injustices and inefficiencies regarding personnel.
"You have to see what she becomes," says Katherine's teacher during the film's optimistic prologue. That sense of hope fuels the characters of Hidden Figures at home and on the job, two experiences that can, at times, seem galaxies apart. In the end, collective triumph is far more important than stubborn and archaic ideologies, a prescient lesson to remember heading into the New Year.
Openness and curiosity also propel Cameraperson toward an awakening of sorts. This intensely personal film, which also opens Jan. 6 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, explores the sometimes hidden connections between one's work and private life. A longtime documentary cinematographer, director Kristin Johnson weaves together footage from multiple projects (including Bowling For Columbine and The Oath) to create a memoir of sorts.
Seemingly incomplete sequences involving a family in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a midwife in Nigeria, a boxer in New York City and more merge together, forming an experiential anthology that connects with Johnson's own pain regarding her mother's death. At times, this linkage is muted and assumed as opposed to constructed, leaving some segments feeling adrift. Maybe this messiness is what enriches the film's rhythmic pulse, its lyrical sense of incompletion.
As a collection of memories, Cameraperson resonates with a unique kind of melancholy. For Johnson, the act of filming becomes a search for external meaning, and one that always leads her back home to the personal. This kind of life cycle—which fluctuates between emotions and experiences, highs and lows—never trivializes the intimacy of human interaction.
In that sense, Johnson's film aligns nicely with both Silence and Hidden Figures. They are each concerned with the way people find strength in each other, even when their preferred religious/social institutions and art forms come up short in explaining the unexplainable. I can't think of a more serendipitous triple feature to open 2017. See them.
A Monster Calls: Connor (Lewis MacDougall) gets bullied at school only to come home and has to care for his sickly mother (Felicity Jones). In order to cope with the trauma, he creates a fantastical parallel dream state with a parable-telling tree (Liam Neeson).
Amityville: The Awakening: A family with a comatose young boy move into a spooky new house, only to see him suddenly wake up and begin to act strangely.
Cameraperson: Longtime documentary cinematographer Kristin Johnson cuts together footage from her various projects into a moving memoir about cinema, life and death. Opens Friday, Jan. 6, and screens through Thursday, Jan. 12 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Hidden Figures: Three determined and brilliant African American programmers (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Octavia Spencer) break through the gender and racial barriers at NASA in the early 1960s.
Train to Busan: When a virus hits South Korea, turning regular people into rabid animals, the occupants of a train must band together in order to survive. Opens Friday, Jan. 6, and screens through Thursday, Jan. 12 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Silence: Set in the 17th century, Martin Scorsese’s passion-project follows two young Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan in order to locate their missing mentor (Liam Neeson).
Underworld: Blood Wars: Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as an ass-kicking vampire in the fifth film in this action/sci-fi series.
One Time Only
The Hangover: Four friends travel to Las Vegas for the bachelor party they’ll instantly forget. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Altered States: A Harvard scientist begins experimenting on himself with hallucinatory drugs and sensory-deprivation tanks, causing irreparable damage to his psyche. Screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Old School: Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson start a fraternity long after they’ve graduated college and boozed-up hilarity ensues. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.