FIRST REFORMED (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “A crisis of faith” is merely the tip of the theological iceberg in this gripping, thought-provoking, debate-inspiring oddity from legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader has long specialized in messed up/conflicted gents struggling in a world-gone-wrong in films like HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), AFFLICTION (1997), and AUTO FOCUS (2002). Of course he is best known for his TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980) screenplays. This latest is his best work in years, though few will likely describe it as entertaining.

Ethan Hawke digs deep in his performance as Toller, a former military Chaplain now relegated to caretaker for a small church whose historical marker informs us was organized in 1767 and built in 1802. Although Toller has a very small congregation, the church itself is now mostly a tourist stop and throwback to the days of rural community churches.

Thanks to Toller reading us his daily journal entries, we know that he is already dealing with doubt and grief even before Mary (whose name is no coincidence) approaches him about speaking with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Toller’s teetering emotional stability is further jolted by a mesmerizing talk with Michael, whose work as an environmental activist/extremist leaves him unable to reconcile bringing a child into this doomed world … despite his wife Mary (an excellent Amanda Seyfried) being pregnant. (Though no further proof is needed that I should never offer counseling to confused folks, I couldn’t help but wonder why Toller didn’t challenge Michael on why he risks having sex if he is so adamant against making a baby.)

With Michael’s global and societal warnings piling on Toller’s personal tragedy and disintegrated marriage, he sinks deeper into his funk and deeper into the bottle. There is also the pressure of the upcoming 250 year reconsecration ceremony and the expectations of Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer in perfect casting). Abundant Life stands in for all of the mega-churches that specialize in money grabbing these days (more business than religion). Here, big money is represented by billionaire industrialist Edward Balq (played by a less than patient Michael Gaston). He is truly the higher power in this relationship.

Toller explains to us that we hold both hope and despair in our thoughts, and that these are life itself. He has an intensity towards life and his role in the church that would make most uncomfortable, if not a bit frightened of and for him. And those concerns would be quite accurate. Some people are just never comfortable in their own skin, and these are often the most intriguing movie characters. Schrader and Hawke ensure that Toller is every bit of that and more. It’s a bleak story with some dark and twisted humor, and it’s shot in old style ratio which adds an element of harshness to every moment. Austere might be the best one word description of the look captured by Schrader, but the story is sure to generate some colorful and intense post-viewing debate … with an open for interpretation ending being the cherry on top. Welcome back Mr. Schrader and kudos to Mr. Hawke.

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MAUDIE (2017)

July 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. As the saying goes, “opposites attract”. It seems the bond between Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis and her reclusive employer/husband Everett Lewis prove this so – at least at first glance. However, digging deeper, as director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White do so expertly here, we discover an abundance of subtle similarities and life events that connect these two … showing yet again that real life is often stranger than fiction.

Sally Hawkins delivers her best performance to date (and a slam dunk Oscar nomination awaits) as Maud. She somehow manages to look even smaller on screen and capture the twisted, painful posture and movements of one stricken with severe arthritis. Ethan Hawke is Everett, the local fish peddler who lives like a hermit in his one-and-a-half room shack on the outskirts of town. Our first glimpse of Maude has her sneaking a cigarette on her Aunt’s porch while she listens to family members argue about who has to care for her. We first see Everett has he stomps into the general store demanding the shopkeeper write out and post his job opening for domestic help.

Filmed in Canada and Ireland, cinematographer Guy Godfree captures the harshness of the seasons and, more impressively, the claustrophobic and sparse living conditions of Maud and Everett’s tiny home (nothing like the HGTV segments). Maud’s sweetness and never-ending ability to find joy in the moment contrasts with Everett’s cantankerous and even initially cruel approach. These polar opposites are both societal outcasts, but eventually develop respect and yes, even love (though such a word would never be exchanged between the two). Hawkins and Hawke share two especially fabulous scenes – their initial meeting in his house, and a many-years-later emotional exchange on a bench. Hawke’s character is a bit challenging for the audience, but Hawkins captures our heart immediately.

Supporting work is minimal, yet effective, as Zachary Bennett plays Maud’s brother Charles, Gabrielle Rose is her Aunt Ida, and Kari Matchett is Sandra – the New Yorker with the fancy shoes who first spots Maud’s talent. Much of the story focuses on Everett’s pride and Maud’s joy/spirit, while slowly they both gain a bit of fame thanks to her artistic talent and their living arrangement.

Ms. Hawkins has long been an underrated actress (despite last year’s Oscar nomination), and her turn in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) was proof she could carry the lead. Here, seeing her hoist such a real life character and story on her hunched back is a thing of beauty and is not to be missed. It’s an artful movie about an artist and making the best of life. The film’s music is perfectly understated and features acoustic guitar, violin and piano. It should be noted that the end of the film features a clip of the real Maud and Everett, and their house has been preserved and displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

September 25, 2016

mag-7 Greetings again from the darkness. In this era of endless remakes, sequels and superheroes, I strive to keep an open mind when it comes to mainstream movies. All I ask is that the classics be left alone. Most will agree that there is no need for a new version of The Godfather, Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; however, disputes arise in the gray areas. An old guy like me may cringe at the thought of updating this western, though it’s easy enough to understand how Hollywood studio types view it as an opportunity to sell tickets to a younger audience. In art vs. commerce, making money usually prevails.

The 1960 original, directed by John Sturges was itself a remake/reimagining of one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Both are must-see’s for any movie lover. Given the technical advancements in filmmaking over the past 50-60 years, it only makes sense that director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) would go bigger, faster, louder. What he can’t do is match the cool factor of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, or of course, Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Fuqua does bring a more racially diverse cast with Denzel Washington taking the lead as Chisolm, the dignified man-on-a-couple-of-missions. Chris Pratt basically buckles a holster onto his Jurassic World character and becomes Faraday, the wise-cracking sharp-shooter, who is as likely to cheat in a card game as lay his life on the line for a good cause. The “seven” are rounded out with Ethan Hawke as war hero Goodnight Robicheaux, Vincent D’Onofrio as bear-sized man Jack Horne, Byung-hun Lee as knife specialist Billy Rocks, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, and Martin Sensmeier as native-American outcast Red Harvest. You might think the only thing missing from this culturally diverse group is a woman, but Haley Bennett (and her distractingly terrible hair dye) plays a key role as a recently widowed town person intent on revenge against the heartless robber-baron Bogue, played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard.

Co-writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) devote so much screen time to Denzel and Pratt that we never much get a feel for what makes the other characters tick. What’s not missing is the thundering hooves of galloping horses, steely-eyed glares, and gunfire … lots and lots of gunfire. This is where today’s sound technology really adds a welcome element – the cocking of a rifle, the leather of the holster, and of course, the near-deafening chorus from the Gatling gun all benefit from Sony 4k sound.

Fuqua’s stylistic approach may have more in common with Silverado (1985) than the 1960 Sturges film, but it’s important to note that this was legendary composer James Horner’s final score before he passed away. While we hear Horner’s unique take, we can’t miss the influence of the iconic original score by Elmer Bernstein. So while Pratt’s “So far, so good” joke may be a Steve McQueen re-tread, your appreciation of this latest probably correlates to your appreciation of the 1960 version.

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016)

June 2, 2016

maggies plan Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen’s film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type … those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.

Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving “plan” is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John’s slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie’s master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.

The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film’s rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’ by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John’s slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).

Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written … as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It’s good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing … and an ending that actually works.

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BORN TO BE BLUE (2016)

April 6, 2016

born to be blue Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics aim for historical accuracy with only the occasional stretching of facts for dramatic effect. Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two that take a much different approach … fictionalized versions of jazz icons – legendary trumpeters Miles Davis (Miles Ahead) and Chet Baker. Writer/director Robert Budreau expands on his 2009 short film to deliver a feature length look at the talented and troubled Baker … with a huge assist from Ethan Hawke.

The film begins in 1966 with Baker locked up in an Italian jail cell. Bailed out by a filmmaker who wants Baker to star in his own life story, a flash back to 1954 allows us to see Baker at his musical peak. As he heads into a gig, he asks an autograph seeker “Who do you like best, me or Miles Davis?” The question could be arrogance when asked by another artist, but it’s our first insight into the insecurity that Baker struggled with his entire life. His desire to be liked sometimes conflicted with his goal to be great. But like the story of so many musical geniuses, it was the drug abuse that continually sabotaged the talent.

Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in Selma) plays Jane, a fictionalized blend of Baker’s lovers through the years. The two of them are good together, though she is as much a caretaker as a lover … keeping him on track and nursing him through the (many) tough times. Baker received a savage beating that cost him his front teeth and ability to play the trumpet for years. The movie presents the beating as drug-related, but history is unclear on the matter. Still, it’s painful and brutal to watch Baker bleed for his art.

Baker is credited as the inspiration of West Coast Swing, though it’s quite challenging to relate to yet another junkie musician – no matter how talented. He’s just not a very interesting guy as presented here. Talented, yes … but not very interesting. Additionally, none of Baker’s music is actually heard. It’s been reimagined, just like his life story.

Despite the issues, Ethan Hawke delivers what may be the best work of his career. He is tremendous and believable as both the talented jazz artist and the insecure drug addict. Director Budreau creates a dream-like atmosphere at times, which adds to the “is it real” style. The 1988 Oscar nominated documentary Let’s Get Lost is probably a better source for Baker’s life story, but Budreau’s take does capture the man’s struggles.

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10,000 SAINTS (2015)

August 13, 2015

10,000 Saints Greetings again from the darkness. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll – not just a bumper sticker, but also frequent and fun movie topics. Throw in 1980’s New York City, some excruciatingly dysfunctional parenting, and the coming-of-age struggles of three youngsters, and you have the latest from co-writers and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the real life couple behind American Splendor, 2003).

Based on the novel from Eleanor Henderson, it’s a nostalgic trip with little of the positive connotations usually associated with that term. The surprisingly deep cast features Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County, 2013) as parents to son Jude played by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011). Emily Mortimer plays Hawke’s new girlfriend and mother to Eliza played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010). Avan Jogia plays Jude’s best friend Teddy, and Emile Hirsch is Teddy’s big brother Johnny. It’s an unusually high number of flawed characters who come together in a story that features some familiar coming-of-age moments, yet still manages to keep our interest.

The story centers on Jude as he comes to terms with finding out he’s adopted, works to overcome his less than stellar parents, and spends an inordinate amount of time finding new ways to experiment with drugs. One night changes everything as it leads to a tragic end for one character and pregnancy for Eliza. Ms. Steinfeld is extraordinary as Eliza and really makes an impressive step from child actress to young adult. Julianne Nicholson is also a standout, and Ethan Hawke provides some offbeat comic relief.

So many elements of 1980’s New York are included, and no effort is made to add any touches of glamour. The Tompkins Square park riots also play a role, if only briefly as the key characters realize life is just not so simple … a consistent theme for both kids and parents. The fragility of life is always an interesting topic, and the filmmakers bring this to light through some characters that we feel like we know – and wish we could help.

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GOOD KILL (2015)

May 22, 2015

good kill Greetings again from the darkness. It sounds like a screenwriter’s workshop: write a story centered on a joystick, a computer monitor, a speaker phone and a shipping container. Most would surrender their Pulitzer dream and head back to the day job. Andrew Niccol, on the other hand, is a talented writer/director known for such projects as Gattaca, Lord of War, and The Truman Show. His story is set in 2010 and is “based on actual events” of drone warfare.

It could seem a bit dated to explore a topic that most have known about for years, but Niccol manages to wring out a story that keeps us engaged and more importantly, encourages discussion about the concept of “video game warfare”.

Ethan Hawke plays a fighter pilot who has been reassigned as a drone pilot after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan. Each day he reports to duty on a Las Vegas base and spends 12 hours locked away in a cramped shipping container staring at a video monitor while delicately manipulating a joystick that can kill people 7000 miles away within 10 seconds. These killer drones have transformed warfare, and as far as I know, this is the first film version dedicated to the daily lives of the men and women serving this duty.

Given what we know about fighter pilots, it’s not surprising that Hawke’s character is crumbling emotionally … missing the danger that comes with a real cockpit. His marriage to January Jones is void of any intimacy or communication (partially due to his alcoholism), though surprisingly, Ms. Jones delivers something other than her typical cardboard cutout performance. Watching the suburban lifestyle of these two – grilling, backyard parties, math homework with the kids – brings nothing new to the screen, but tension is palpable as Hawke and his co-drone-pilot Zoe Kravitz are locked away and forced to follow morally-questionable orders from Langley (voiced by the great Peter Coyote). Put yourself on that joystick and imagine what you would do.

The story pushes us to discuss the dehumanization of war, and the idea that the Air Force is now best described as the “Chair Force”. Especially interesting is the official verbiage used by the CIA and military in an effort to avoid “killing” and “innocent bystanders”. Think about the fact that 3 decades have passed since we got caught up in the thrill of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as Top Gun pilots, and now some of the most deadly decisions are made based on a visual feed from a done hovering at 10,000 feet.

Mr. Niccol delivers a thought-provoking movie, which alone sets it above many. The drone’s eye view follows not just the movements of the enemy, but also those of Hawke at home and in his car. Hawke’s commanding officer is played by Bruce Greenwood, who delivers the film’s best line: as Hawke is looking at Greenwood’s fighter pilot photos, he says, you are probably thinking “I must have been a pilot before Pontius”. It’s a great line and one that reinforces how warfare has changed … from boots on the ground to recruits based on their video game savvy.  Surgical strikes are the preferred manner of warfare, so watch this and ask yourself … what would you do?

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