REVIEW: First Reformed

2 07 2018

I don’t have much to say about Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” that I didn’t say in my rave review for Slashfilm out of TIFF last year. It’s currently sitting atop my best of the year list at the midway point of 2018, and it will take a mighty potent film to dethrone it by December. This is a film with an urgent, powerful message that resonates deeply with a world going mad that is also perfectly wedded to an austere visual style and overall aesthetic. It will be a long time before I shake this movie.

For more of my poetic language about the film, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article. Here’s a sampling of what I wrote:

We’ve quietly entered a renaissance of master American filmmakers tackling religious subjects with the gravity, dignity and seriousness they deserve. Add Paul Schrader’s latest movie “First Reformed” to a growing list of modern masterpieces on faith through hardship that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”

Schrader’s work stands out in this group, however, as the only one to take place in the present day. “First Reformed” is an essential parable for the Trump era about the role of the church in the most pressing moral and political issues facing our world. Through the tortured consciousness of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain turned custodian of a historical Calvinist church, Schrader explores a country’s moral malaise and the seeming inability of mainline Christianity to mobilize against it.


“First Reformed” charts Toller’s turbulent internal journey, which heads to dark and disturbing corners of his mind, with an emotional reserve as chilly as the film’s wintry weather. None of this is surprising given Schrader’s well-documented affinity for directors such as Bresson and Dreyer, but the steadiness of this aesthetic rigor helps balance a film daring to ask some thorny questions about how actively religion should participate in the public square – as well as how much they should bring those issues into their churches. And Hawke, both deeply expressive and internal as Toller, adds a human spin on the issues to really drive them home.

Their combined efforts form a powerful challenge to Christians, without derision or condescension, to live up to their stated values and honor their sacred text. At the very least, apathy in the face of flagrant immoral and unjust deeds in the world should be taken off the table for any who take the time to thoughtfully engage with “First Reformed.”


REVIEW: Maudie

25 07 2017

From the opening scene of Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” we’re painfully aware of how painful it is for Sally Hawkins’ Maud Dowley to make the art that brings her satisfaction. We see the intense exertion it takes for her arthritic hands to paint even the simplest stem of a flower. This isn’t “My Left Foot” or anything, but Maudie’s folksy creations are clearly a labor of love.

This type of art is sadly in keeping with the rest of her life in small-town Nova Scotia. Abandoned by her brother and ignored by her mother, Maude takes a thankless housekeeping job for Ethan Hawke’s Everett Lewis at his secluded cabin. He’s a brusque man of the house who needs someone to clean the house – and that’s it. At times, his grip on her activity borders on the abusive, an aspect of their relationship that Walsh handles (only with kiddie gloves on).

“Maudie” unfolds at a pace similar to its protagonist: belabored but simple and beautiful. Walsh takes her sweet time moving along Maude and Everett’s ever-evolving relationship, and she moves only slightly faster to show how Maude’s paintings became a quaint international sensation. Hawkins is, as usual, an exemplar of quiet grace; not unlike her Oscar-nominated turn in “Blue Jasmine,” her character is the only person blind to her own victimization. Had Walsh or screenwriter Sherry Walsh given her a scenery-chewing moment to release the film’s tension, it might play as tonally inconsistent. But a part of me did wish she got the chance to show more range than the relatively stable performance allows. C+

REVIEW: The Magnificent Seven

19 12 2016

“Progressive” is hardly a common adjective used in conjunction with the western genre, at least ones that are made in the classical (as opposed to revisionist) style. And yet that’s essentially what “The Magnificent Seven” is at its core. All things considered, Antoine Fuqua’s film is an emblematic Obama-era movie – if not in content, than at least in themes and representation.

Gone is the lone gunman or the reluctant savior of the John Wayne era. In comes the diverse band of outsiders who must collaborate and cooperate to save a small frontier town from hostile takeover. These gunslingers might not always see eye to eye, but they can unite over a common goal of helping out the endangered townspeople. Moreover, they do not just glide in as mercenary heroes; they also train the citizens to fight alongside them for control of their land. While they might lack funding, they more than compensate for that deficit with a surplus of ingenuity.

The setup of the sometimes bitter racial, cultural and partisan divides from Nic Pizzolato and Richard Wenk’s script can get a bit tedious. But by the time the final battle for the heart and soul of Rose Creek arrives, all elements of “The Magnificent Seven” cohere. I found myself invested not only in the fate of the characters but also in the very ideals at stake. Both on and off the screen, that fight is far from settled. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan

23 05 2016

Maggie's PlanNew York Film Festival

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” makes for the kind of madcap, ensemble-driven romantic comedy that Woody Allen has not churned out since his relationship with Mia Farrow turned sour. And it’s certainly the kind of screwball comedy abandoned by studios altogether. But lest this review devolve into nothing but comparison to other works, it must be said that this is a wonderfully crafted and involving film in its own right.

Miller is the first person not named Noah Baumbach who seems to have a clue what to do with Gerwig’s considerable charm. Beneath her hip, ultra-modern exterior and droll delivery lies reservoirs of deep feeling and humanity still largely unexcavated. Miller might be the figurative Daniel Plainview to figure out the means to pull it out of the ground and siphon it to power other characters.

Gerwig stars as the titular Maggie, who might think she has a plan – but then life happens. Or fate happens. Or, heck, Maggie happens! Some odd mixture of time, self-realization as well as cosmic meddling seems to guide the proceedings of “Maggie’s Plan” as she stumbles and soars through a unique romantic escapade.

While trying to become pregnant to raise a baby alone, she falls in love with Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a nebbish professor who feels like a wallflower in his marriage to Julianne Moore’s Georgette Norgaard. He struggles to complete a novel long in the works yet faces nothing but stern rebukes at home from his critical theorist wife. Both John and Maggie seek to seize the narrative of their lives … so they begin a relationship together.

Unlike so many stories involving older men who fall for younger women, Maggie never loses her agency in the courtship. In fact, it is far more often she who levels with John than the other way around. So it should come as no surprise that whenever things take a turn for the worse, it is Maggie who takes the initiative to grow out of their relationship.

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REVIEW: Born To Be Blue

29 04 2016

Born to Be BlueAny tweak on the “great man” biopic is welcome, though the pendulum need not swing as far in the other direction as Robert Budreau’s “Born To Be Blue,” a portrait of Chet Baker so mundane that one could mistake him for being an entirely fictional invention. His story of career struggles, addiction battles and relationship strife feel rather commonplace and pedestrian. I entered the film knowing nothing about Chet Baker’s renowned skills and left with scarcely more knowledge about his fame or his work.

Ethan Hawke, who plays Chet Baker, inhabits the body of the talented musician and heroin junkie with aplomb. He’s ever so slightly more on edge than his usual laid-back persona, and he makes his motions a little lankier and oversized. The performance consists of a soulful component, too, not just a grab bag of mannerisms. But with precious little to service, Hawke’s work goes largely to waste.

Writer/director Budreau never settles on what “Born To Be Blue” should be. Films can resist categorization, yet without purposeful maneuvering, ambiguity reads as indecision. The most powerful component of the film might be Baker’s heroin habit; Budreau, however, resists the tropes of drugs being either a fatal flaw or the talent enabler.

Thus, he leaves somewhat of a redemption storyline as Baker relearns the trumpet after losing his front teeth after getting beat up by – shocker! – his dealers. There’s also a good deal of attention paid to Baker’s relationship with Carmen Ejogo’s Jane Azuka, his life partner whose career as an actress frequently takes a backseat to his. He also needs her to be his everything, while she gets precious little in return. Sure, it might be unfair to impose modern social norms on a story set fifty years ago … but Jane literally objectifies herself during sex to make him feel more comfortable. “Play me like a trumpet,” she says. If only “Born To Be Blue” gave more information about its subject, that line would ring as something more than a demeaning, diminutive remark. B-3stars

REVIEW: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Good Kill

22 06 2015

Good KillUsually, we consider a film a success when its form matches its content.  In the case of Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill,” though, the opposite is true.  The movie, which tackles the escalation of drone warfare in the Middle East, takes on the form of a droning screed itself.

It should have felt particularly damning that Niccol chose to make a film set in the present day, since his features – which include “Gattaca,” “The Truman Show,” and “In Time” – tend to take place in dystopian futures.  But rather than expanding the discourse around the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft to do its dirty work, he chooses to preach to the choir with surface-level platitudes.  The target audience for “Good Kill” probably knows the basic philosophical and existential arguments around drones, and Niccol does nothing to explore our complicity in their perpetuating existence.

He sets the film in 2010, the apotheosis of drone strikes in the Middle East, and follows the slow evolution of Ethan Hawke’s jaded Air Force pilot Thomas Egan against the increasingly unethical tasks assigned to him by the CIA.  Of course, he would not arrive at those conclusions without a spring chicken of a female pilot, Zoë Kravitz’s Vera, who does little other than spout off the film’s core message.  Vera is not a character so much as she is a personified Washington Post column.

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REVIEW: Seymour: An Introduction

15 03 2015

Look no further, all those who wander aimlessly and wonder what the true meaning of life is, for Ethan Hawke seems pretty sure he has found it.  In “Seymour: An Introduction,” his first effort as a documentarian, Hawke profiles a former pianist and current piano instructor, octogenarian Seymour Bernstein.  But this is hardly a movie about music; the real subject is how to lead a wholesome life in the pursuit of art.

Hawke, after apparently hitting a wall of frustration in his acting, found renewed purpose from hearing the work and teachings of Seymour.  He mostly removes himself from the film, though Hawke does appear from time to time to gush ecstatic praises at his subject.  “Seymour: An Introduction” possesses the same amount of reverence that might be expected in a documentary about the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra.  I kept waiting for Gwyneth Paltrow to jump out at some point and endorse Seymour’s lifestyle brand.

None of this is meant to imply that Hawke is off-base in declaring Seymour a true savant at playing the keys of the piano as well as life, nor do I wish to ridicule the director for some kind of ridiculous insincerity.  I have personally witnessed Ethan Hawke speaking in person, both in private and public settings, and I truly believe that he cares deeply about meaningful art.  To someone without that context, though, “Seymour” might seem to drown under the weight of its hyperbole.

Plenty of Seymour’s wisdom is relevant, applicable, and deeply felt from a lifetime of lived experience.  Sometimes, though, his morsels of insight amount to little more than a well-phrased fortune cookie aphorism.  Hawke treats both like they are holy texts, unassailable because of their almost spiritual nature.  In fact, he passes off the only serious interrogation of his subject to a reporter writing a story on Seymour (convenient way to show undying loyalty to a deity).

“Seymour: An Introduction” works best when consumed like a self-help chicken soup as opposed to a practically religious message.  There is likely a great documentary lurking under the surface of this pretty good one, probably hiding behind the unceasing praise lavished on the film’s sage.  But if Seymour played any part in helping Hawke find the poignancy he lent to those final scenes in “Boyhood,” then this film’s existence is completely justified.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Boyhood

14 07 2014

BoyhoodWriter/director Alexander Payne has said of cinema’s advent, “I think that mankind had been looking for this magnificently verisimilar art form which really mirrors life.”  And like an answer to an unspoken prayer, “Boyhood” arrives after over a century of narrative cinema to show that the medium has far from exhausted its capabilities of wondrously recalling life beyond the screen.

Richard Linklater’s film is at odds with notions of conventional fictional cinema, resembling a curated ethnography in its creation.  “Boyhood” condenses twelve years of shooting a young boy growing up through his grade school years into under three hours, not into a prescribed narrative arc but into a singular sort of time capsule.

It’s not crossing off significant life experiences of childhood and adolescence from a preordained bucket list.  It’s not out to provide an alternate cultural history through a child’s eyes.  It’s not trying to make some grand statement about the ever-changing nature of boyhood (nor about the various things that seem to stay the same).  It’s not even necessarily moving towards any sort of dramatic climax other than the ultimate one we all have to face, that of the end of time.

Instead, “Boyhood” focuses mostly on the mundane moments and the routine conversations, so literally portraying “slices of life” that no film can really lay claim to the phrase anymore.  Yet in the sheer act of capturing these everyday occurrences, Linklater elevates the profane to the level of sacred.  These brief and otherwise insignificant flashes of childhood are nothing, yet they are also somehow everything.

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REVIEW: The Purge

12 06 2013

The PurgeThe amateur sociologist in me finds plenty to love about “The Purge.”  Though not without its holes, the film is aiming at some deep social commentary about the causes of our seemingly never-ending modern woes.  It posits a quasi-utopian 2022 where unemployment and crime have virtually disappeared thanks to a single night called The Purge where nothing is illegal for 12 hours.  Robbery, assault, and even murder are all acceptable because it provides an opportunity for society to unleash all its pent-up anger.

Sound a little elementary to you?  All society needs to do to achieve harmony is get out some rage?  That’s because it is.  Writer/director James DeMonaco has a brilliant concept, but it probably needed a little bit more time to be developed.  For example, for all the psychological good The Purge supposedly does, could you really go to work the next day if your boss tried to kill you as if nothing happened?

Yet while the oversimplification allows for plot holes aplenty, it also allows the film’s message to (hopefully) reach the average horror film viewer, normally not accustomed to anything deep from the genre.  Not to bash an entire class of movies, but horror generally waters down to small universes where only the moral stave off their doom.  “The Purge” is not particularly subversive, but it’s closer to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” than it is to “Evil Dead.”

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REVIEW: Before Midnight

22 04 2013

Before MidnightSome movies I just really don’t expect to fully comprehend at the ripe old age of 20.  For example, I don’t really expect to understand the intricacies of love and marriage as portrayed by “This is 40” and “Amour.”

Though both are extremely realistic and vivid, I almost feel like I’m watching a fantasy film because I cannot locate them anywhere within my own personal experiences. The same is true for “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater’s third entry into what I suppose can be called the “Before” series (comprising of 1995’s “Before Sunset” and 2004’s “Before Sunrise”).  I just kind of have to take the word of others that the film once again captures something true about the place of love in the human condition.  I get a feeling that in twenty years, something about Linklater’s film will resonate more strongly with me.  But for now, I’m left most impacted by the saga’s first entry that explored idealistic notions of love and compatibility.

Though this is the now the third time that they’ve done it, I’m still left reeling by the fact that Linklater, along with co-writers and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, can make long, drawn-out conversations about broad topics into compelling cinema.  It’s a bold and daring conceit to expect an audience to sit for nearly two hours and listen to fictional characters broach subjects that they themselves are often too scared to touch.  The concept seems like one bound to the stage, but it works yet again on screen.

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