In what has to be an example of casting in the most apocalyptic sense both Nicolas Cage and John Cusack star, along with Adrian Grenier, in the mob thriller Arsenal. Cage and Cusack are hard working actors who currently bounce back between tony studio films and inconsequential B-movies.20161220-the18-image-nicolas-cage

In the last couple of years Cusack has headlined titles like Drive Hard, Grand Piano, The Numbers Station, and The Frozen Ground. Cage in the last few years has graced titles like Left Behind, The Trust, Dog Eat Dog, Men of Courage, and Army of One. Pot boilers all of them, despite an occasional thumbnail of quality.

In a sense, Arsenal pits Cage and Cusack in a battle to see who can chew the most scenery while pretending that they are acting in a film that people will actually want to see.

Cage wins by a hair mainly because he rocks a really weird wig. Retribution, kidnapping and revenge have never seemed so pointless. Arsenal director Steven C. Miller uses extreme slow motion photography where time is slowed down to make a bullet appear to shoot across the screen at a snail’s pace. Bullet hits also explode in similar slow-mo glory. If Arsenal was an art film, this might be some glorious exploration of time and space. As it stands, it’s a glorious waste of time.

Arsenal opens exclusively in Houston this weekend at the Premiere Renaissance 15.

Silence won’t be the last time a prestigious director uses career clout to make a navel-gazing exploration of personal religious issues. A serious film for serious film fans, Silence exists seemingly for the sole purpose of showing viewers how bereft the world at large is of actual faith.

Martin Scorsese has made previous forays into religious subjects, most notably The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). Your ability to find some kind of beating heart likeability for Silence is proportionate to your knowledge and grasp of world events and religion.

L-R: Director, Martin Scorsese and Andrew Garfield on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films
L-R: Director, Martin Scorsese and Andrew Garfield on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films.

Set in 17th century Japan, in a time when Christianity has been outlawed, we follow two Jesuit priests (Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield) who surreptitiously smuggle their way into the country to find and rescue another priest (Liam Neeson) who has been forced to deny his Christian mission and study Buddhism.

Scorsese doesn’t let the viewer down cinematically, there are some beautifully shot sequences like one where the camera follows a hawk in wonderful panning shots only to reveal the danger of being discovered when the camera comes to a sudden halt. There’s very little in the way of violence, mostly mock torture that resembles crucifixion. However one decapitation comes about so fast that even as the proverbial head rolls there’s still time to cut to a reaction shot of the headless body, which stands upright waiting for the pressure of blood loss to collapse. Another Scorsese device is where his films change from narrator to narrator mid-stream. Here, Scorsese starts the last third of the film with voice-over from a previously unseen character, a Dutch merchant whose country is the only one Japan trades with.

Japanese roles run the gamut from the guide who may or may not be trusted and a translator who merely wants to do his job, to the inquisitor, himself wise beyond his years but yet unbending in wanting to eradicate all religions except the true one. The inquisitor speaks with a strange lisp.  Interesting how Buddhism, today considered a peaceful alternative to more radical religions, is used to represent a totalitarian regime. In the West, the Son of God rises from the dead once, whereas in the East, the Sun of God rises fresh in the sky every day.

Perhaps Silence works best as a litmus test of faith. Would you keep quiet about your beliefs and accept the status quo in order to survive prosecution or would you defy those realities and speak out thus becoming a martyr?

Frankly, I cannot wait for Scorsese to return to making violent gangster tales. Silence was a project that Scorsese worked on for decades before he was able to secure financing. Scorsese returns to form with his next film The Irishman, about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa with a cast that includes Al Pacino (as Hoffa), Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.

Silence opens exclusively at the Edwards Grand Palace this weekend, and opens wider next weekend.

Liam Neeson also appears, via motion capture, as a huge tree in A Monster Calls. Mainly a film for older kids and teens with a mature bent, A Monster Calls deals with a boy and his mother’s fatal illness. A giant monster tree appears out of the blue with a series of parable-like stories that gives a young lad the pluck to make his life bearable. Lewis MacDougall plays young Connor with believable co-star turns from Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell. Spanish director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) helms this wide release.

Sometimes it’s just good to have an old standard back. Railroad Tigers stars Jackie Chan as a Chinese rebel leading a group in terroristic activities against their Japanese oppressors in the early 1940s. It’s not like Chan doesn’t appear in a myriad of current films foreign and domestic yet Railroad Tigers brings back the kind of excitement, comedy and kinetic stunts that define Chan’s best work.railroadtigers-jackiechan-hat-shot

Most of the stunt work revolves around trains and as such Chan classics like 1992’s Police Story 3 (released domestically as Supercop) are recalled. In Supercop, Chan literally drove a motorcycle onto a speeding train, while in Railroad Tigers a new generation of CGI driven stunt teams turns old notions on its head. Outtakes during the credit roll show some of the green screen and wire choreography that went into the production.

Chan and team, as well as their Japanese advisories are introduced in swooshing freeze frame close-ups. The gang breaks into trains to steal arms and explosives. They leave behind a hastily drawn symbol that looks like a cat with wings. The action proceeds non-stop. Break-ins are followed by breakouts. Bridges exploding and drugged pancakes figure into the equation. All the while a sly sense of humor highlights events.

Railroad Tigers unwinds exclusively at the AMC Studio 30.