REVIEW: “First Reformed”

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“A world without hope”. It’s an idea wrestled with (in some form or another) by several characters and it’s one of many things on the mind of “First Reformed”, the latest film from writer-director Paul Schrader. This hopelessness feeds a lingering despair that is mirrored in the lives of several key players and is woven into the very fabric of this hypnotic exploration.

I realize that may not be the most upbeat way to introduce a movie, but when honestly dealing with themes of guilt, obsession, self-destruction, and despair the rays of light should be just as difficult for us to find as it is for the characters. And much like the ‘Crisis of Faith’ classics it follows, “First Reformed” is more interested in the spiritual and emotional struggle as well as the toll it takes on the human psyche.

Giving the performance of his career, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller. He pastors a Dutch Colonial church is upstate New York known more as a historical landmark than a place of worship. First Reformed Church gets by thanks to its parent megachurch, ironically named Abundant Life. It’s ran with a businesslike prowess by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Jeffers preaches to packed houses and has big community connections. Toller sees more sightseers than parishioners and struggles in his alone time to reconnect with God.

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After a Sunday service Toller is approached by one of his few faithful church members, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She implores him to meet with and counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) whose environmental fanaticism has driven him into a deep state of depression. Michael questions the “sanctioning” of bringing a child into a world he believes to be doomed and he poses a question that haunts Reverend Toller for the duration of the film, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

Always a solid actor, Hawke dials back from the type of performances he’s known for. It’s a quiet and reserved portrayal allowing much to be told through expression and even appearance. Deep wrinkles etched in his brow held up by tired, forlorn eyes. You truly get a vision of a man who as Schrader himself put it “has lived a life”. In his case it hasn’t been an easy one. Harboring guilt from his past, unable to connect with God through prayer, and sickly due to a worsening stomach ailment. You can’t help but see shades of the struggling young priest from Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest”.

The great French auteur wasn’t the only influence for Schrader. Hints of Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet”, Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, Tarkovsky, Ozu and Rossellini are everywhere. You even see him pulling from the same thematic toolkit he used in his acclaimed collaborations with Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”).

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The cracks in Reverend Toller’s psyche begin to show after an especially troubling tragedy. Add to that pressures from his church’s upcoming 250th anniversary reconsecration ceremony. During his daily duties Toller puts up a good front. But it’s at night, alone with his thoughts and journal, when we see the gravity of his dark inner turmoil. He’s a man mired in self-destruction and self-contradictions, yet at the same time he is yearning for the voice of God. He’s a good man who has lost his way.

The mood of the film is nailed down via Alexander Dynan’s stellar cinematography. The cold gray tones and deep shadows are only occasionally washed with color and those instances aren’t without meaning. There is also the stillness of Dynan’s camera offering very little motion at all. But in the rare scenes where the camera does move, you can be sure the movements are rich with purpose. Add to it the intensely effective score from Welsh composer Brian Williams, minimal yet undeniably foreboding.

In the 27th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus cries out “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” It’s a cry of anguish from the Son of God calling out to His Father but hearing no response. To an obviously lesser degree, you can imagine the same cry burning in the heart of Reverend Toller. It all builds up to an ending that feels slightly out of tune with the rest of the film (or does it?). And while fascinating to watch and contemplate, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. At the same time I love how I’m still wrestling with it. And when complimented by a bracing career-best turn from Hawke, strong supporting work throughout, and an auteurist presentation, you have a film that I can’t help but love.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The 15:17 to Paris”

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In a sense “The 15:17 to Paris” is a tough movie to criticize. It’s a biographical drama/thriller based on the true story of three Americans and their tremendous acts of heroism aboard a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam. Here’s the catch, the film stars the actual three heroes playing themselves. Director and producer Clint Eastwood offers them an opportunity to tell their story which is a great thing. But this is no documentary and none of the three are professional actors. This opens the door for criticisms you simply can’t avoid.

The friendships between Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos date back to their elementary school days as rambunctious outcasts. Later the three would go their separate ways, Stone becoming an Air Force staff sergeant, Sadler studying kinesiology at California State, and Skarlatos a National Guard specialist serving in Afghanistan. Despite being separated by thousands of miles they always stayed connected.

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In 2015 the three buddies reunite to backpack across Europe. This eventually (and I emphasize ‘eventually’) leads to what the movie’s title refers to and what we actually see in the trailers. In Amsterdam they board a Thalys train to Paris for the last leg of their trip. Also onboard is a terrorist armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition. The actions of Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos to thwart the attack would save countless innocent lives.

The film’s advertising leans on the events aboard the train, but the movie itself spends little time there. Eastwood and first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal spend a chunk of the movie highlighting Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos’ childhood. The young unknowns portraying them flounder mightily. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer add some acting credentials playing struggling single moms, but even they fall victim to one of the movie’s biggest problems – a script desperately grasping for anything resembling authenticity. Line after line of uninspired dialogue feels as if it’s being read from a page than coming from within the characters.

We see this elsewhere when Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos take to the screen. They too suffer due to a script which inadvertently accentuates their lack of acting chops. But Eastwood is no help either. His stars could understandably use some direction, but Eastwood seems to be working in a hands-off mindset. That may work with seasoned talent but here it results in performances that are dry, sheepish and borderline excruciating. Toss in tons of cringe-worthy buddy banter and it only gets worse.

The film takes us through a drawn out middle act that turns into some kind of weird European travelogue. I’m pretty sure it’s meant to emphasize the camaraderie between these three pals, but it’s so bland and pasted together with practically no attention given to what makes these guys tick. We get some beautiful sites, two wedged in and then tossed aside female characters, a pointless (and annoying) nightclub scene, and a ludicrous amount of selfies before the three finally board the train.

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It’s here that the movie finally gets on track (no pun intended). The train sequence unfolds with the right amount of intensity and Eastwood’s camera maneuvers through the tight quarters capturing the terror and the heroism. And interestingly Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos are at their best in these scenes. Perhaps they feel more in their element or maybe Eastwood is actually offering meaningful direction. It almost saves the movie. Sadly it comes an hour too late.

It’s a chore trying to carve an identity out of “The 15:17 to Paris”. Is it a faith-based drama, a coming of age story, an action thriller? I’m guessing it wants to be a little of all. Unfortunately Clint Eastwood’s finished product is a well-intended but surprisingly awkward movie. Only the last 30 minutes felt like the tribute these three courageous young men deserved. I really enjoyed the last act and kept thinking to myself that their real story was just getting started. Too bad we couldn’t start there instead.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “First They Killed My Father” (2017)

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Throughout her 15 year career Angelina Jolie has been called many things – actress, sex symbol, humanitarian, one-half of the ridiculously over-publicized, paparazzi darling “Brangelina”. But not enough people have considered her prowess behind the camera. Through four directed films she has shown a sharp awareness of technique but never quite hit her stride. That changes with her fifth film, “First They Killed My Father”.

This piercing historical thriller is an adaptation of human rights activist Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name. In her book Ung, a childhood survivor of the brutal Pol Pot dictatorship, tells the heart-wrenching story of growing up during the Khmer Rouge reign. For the film she collaborated with Jolie in writing the screenplay.

A brief but pointed newsreel introduction lays the foundation for Cambodia’s vulnerability and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. From there we move to  April, 1975. We meet Loung as a fun, precocious 7 year-old (played with such vivacity and emotion by Sreymoch Sareum). As the daughter of a government official she lives a privileged life with her loving parents and six siblings in Phnom Penh. But her world is forever turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge take control and forcibly evacuate the entire city.

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Loung and her family leave with nothing but necessities. They join floods of people, now refugees in their own country, on what some journalists and historians have described as a death march. For Loung’s family it’s particularly stressful. Her father (played with such warmth by Kompheak Phoeungas) is an instant target due to his government ties. This makes every checkpoint or encounter with a Khmer Rouge soldier a harrowing experience.

In a bit of ominous foreshadowing the film’s title looms over a good portion of the story and is an indicator that the road ahead of this family will be a difficult one. Much like the memoir it’s based on, the movie puts us behind the eyes of young Loung. Many films have told their story from a child’s perspective, but not many have done it as well as Jolie does here. You genuinely feel Loung trying to make sense of all she is witnessing and experiencing. You also feel Loung’s love for her family by the way they are often filmed from her perspective. It’s especially evident with her father who Jolie often frames with a childlike adoration. Loung’s love for her family is a fundamental ingredient to the story.

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Visually Jolie intentionally understates the brutality and violence choosing to allow it to burn just outside of our sight. It keeps our focus on the characters but also leads to some of the film’s most stunning photography – breathtaking overhead shots that briefly pull us out of Luong’s head to give us a broader picture of the horror. Later in the film the violence comes more into focus as it becomes more of a reality for Loung. Jolie shoots it careful and with great effect. And even beyond the violence, there are so many powerful images captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (know most for his collaborations with Danny Boyle).

Jolie should also be commended for her deep desire for authenticity. It led her to film on location in Cambodia. She also used Cambodian actors and actresses as well as the native language of Khmer. All great decisions which puts us the viewers in the proper mindset to take in this story as we should. The film comes across as truly Cambodian in its respect and passion. In fact the film is Cambodia’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

In new Cambodia they’ll be no banking, no trading, no private property. No Rich, no poor. No class. We are all the same now.” This one of many lines of propaganda we hear shouted out by Khmer Rouge soldiers. We know it’s a lie. So do Loung’s parents. Yet they are powerless to do anything. That may be the greatest tragedy. As a kid it wasnt a history class that first educated me on the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities committed by their hand. It was a movie – 1984’s powerful “The Killing Fields”. Now I feel another movie is reopening my eyes. Jolie’s film has been simmering in the back of my mind for days. I want to see it again. Sure it’s a difficult watch, but some stories need to be etched into our brains. I would argue this is one of them.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Finding Oscar” (2017)

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Some of my favorite documentaries are ones that dispel ignorance, most notably my own. I’m not talking about the minutia of any given subject. I’m referring to an ignorance of significant events, subjects or people who I should know about. I love the ones that educate, enlighten and expose. Sure, like any film, some docs have trouble melding movie with message. But the good ones find all sorts of ways to inform minds and provoke a response.

“Finding Oscar” is one of those good ones. The film documents the search for justice for the Dos Erres massacre which took place during the decades-long Guatemalan civil war. Director Ryan Suffern explores the dynamics of the bloody war which raged between the government and leftist guerillas. He then puts his focus on the 1982 massacre that took place in the small village of Dos Erres. From there the film highlights the work of a small but determined group of people set on uncovering the truth behind Dos Erres and bringing to justice those responsible. And the secret to doing it may lie in tracing one of only two known survivors – a missing boy named Oscar.

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The story of Dos Erres is potent and distressing on its own. It was a poor isolated village with no means of outside communication, yet we learn from a former villager that life there was “good”. A guerilla attack in the region left 21 government soldiers dead and guns and ammunition were stolen. President José Efraín Ríos Mont deployed the elite special forces commandos known as Kaibiles to Dos Erres which he believed to be guerilla sympathizers.

On December 6, 1982 the Kaibiles entered the village dressed as guerillas and slaughtered every man, woman, and child. The lone exceptions were four children – two boys and two girls. The scope of the barbarism was appalling and included brutal killings and rape. The four surviving children were taken by the Kaibiles. The two girls were raped and strangled to death a few miles from the village.

The lone exceptions were four children – two boys and two girls who the soldiers took with them. Both girls were raped and strangled to death a few miles outside of their village. The two boys were separated and raised by two of the same soldiers who took part in the massacre. One of those boys was named Oscar.

“Finding Oscar” doesn’t shirk on the details of what happened in Dos Erres. It leans on multiple sources to paint a bloody unsettling mental portrait of what took place. It’s not easy to watch, but it is necessary. The film also examines the political climate which led to Ríos Mont staying in power. It was during the height of Cold War paranoia and United States foreign policy often went through that prism. The film doesn’t shy away from America’s culpibilty in keeping the Guatemalan military regime in power.

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Then you have the group of dedicated individuals resolute in their quest to bring the Dos Erres truth to light. Included is a determined family advocate, a forensic anthropologist, and a young Guatemalan prosecutor. Through years of devotion and through drastically different avenues their search leads to the two young boys who survived the atrocity in particularly to Oscar. Can they find them, the only true witnesses to the horrors that took place.

Dos Erres wasn’t the only massacre of the Guatemalan civil war, but it is certainly one deserving to be brought to light. And as it is, hopefully it draw attention to what happened there, they lives that were forever effected, and those responsible. That is what “Finding Oscar” wants to accomplish and it succeeds. It skillfully balances its many efforts to cover this a multi-faceted subject. The results are powerful and gut-wrenching. Yet even among such grim savagery, we do see exercises in courage by those fighting for justice and closure. Such welcomed inspirations from this tough but beautifully made picture.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Frantz”

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François Ozon’s quiet but stylish drama “Frantz” is an exquisitely made film that dares you to try and define it only to end in a place far more intimate and straightforward than I expected. It cracks open the doors to our imagination and invites us to peep in, get a glimpse and overthink. But ultimately it’s the film’s simplicity that makes it such a touching melodrama.

The story begins in Quedlinburg, Germany, 1919. World War I has just ended. The wounds are still fresh and the effects still reverberate through the town. A young woman named Anna (Paula Beer in a breakout performance) takes flowers to the grave of her fiancé Frantz, a German soldier killed in the war. At the cemetery she witnesses an unknown man leaving flowers on her husband’s grave. His name is Adrien (Pierre Niney) a Frenchman from Paris.

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The next day Adrien shows up at the home where Anna lives with Frantz’s parents Hans and Magda Hoffmeister. A grief-stricken and bitter Hans (Ernst Stötzner) kicks him out upon hearing he is French. Anna convinces the Hoffmeister’s to invite Adrien back since he seems to have a connection with Frantz. When Adrien returns he tells them of his close friendship with Frantz. He talks about the time they spent together and the places they went. For Anna and the Hoffmeisters it’s therapeutic and they befriend Adrien much to the dismay of the townsfolk.

But it becomes clear that Adrien isn’t telling them everything. In fact he’s harboring a burdensome secret which is at the heart of why he came to Quedlinburg. Ozon gets in no hurry to reveal it which is one of the film’s strengths. It gives the director room to explore other ideas. Like its inspiration, Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby”, the story has a well handled anti-war subtext as seen in the anti-French sentiment that still permeated much of Town, some of it rooted in xenophobia and some in unbridled grief. But later Ozon holds the same mirror up to the French.

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The film eloquently veers back-and-forth between being a suspenseful mystery and an aching love story. Themes of truth, grief, forgiveness, reconciliation, and independence are significant to the plot and given a lot of attention. But then you have Ozon’s subtle riddles and red herrings that would have brought a smile to Hitchcock’s face. It all gives “Frantz” some intriguing and unexpected layers.

Visually “Frantz” is a delight. The use of black-and-white and the occasional shift to color are more than gimmicks. They relay tone and mood from the director but more importantly perspective from the characters. It’s a tricky yet perfect fit for this moving period story. Some may be encouraged to offer more speculation than interpretation. The story opens itself up for that. But for me the best interpretation of “Frantz” is the simplest and most straightforward. It puts Anna in the spotlight which for me made the film more poignant and emotionally satisfying.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Fitzcarraldo”

fitzposterI’m not sure you can look at “Fitzcarraldo” without comparing the film’s obsessively tenacious lead character with its equally mulish and unyielding director. In fact the entire production testifies to a specific type of incomprehendible creative madness. Yet without that very madness “Fitzcarraldo”  would have been a lesser movie.

“Fitzcarraldo” was written and directed by Werner Herzog and the making of his film is a legendary story in itself. Herzog was determined to bring as much realism as possible to his picture by steering free of any special effects. This meant shooting in the jungle next to an ongoing border war between Peru and Ecuador. It meant facing natural hardships brought on by shooting on location.But those obstacles would shy in comparison to the human hurdles. Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald but almost halfway through shooting he contracted dysentery and was flown back to the States. Doctors refused to let him return meaning Herzog had to recast the role and restart shooting from the beginning. Herzog regular Klaus Kinski was given the role which brought a slew of new problems.

Kinski was known for his volatile run-ins with his directors and crew. It was no different here. He repeatedly fought with Herzog and even angered the natives serving as extras (It’s said one of the local chiefs offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). This obviously complicated production in a number of ways, but Kinski’s flirtation with madness is also what made him perfect for the role. His wild, eccentric nature was an ideal fit for a character possessed with realizing his dream of bringing opera to the Amazon.

Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by locales who can’t pronounce his name) comes across as delusional but he is driven by the best intentions. He’s not a bad guy. He believes in a transcendent quality to opera which could have magnificent effects in the heart of the Amazon. But time and again his optimism and determination crashes into walls of ridicule and disparagement.His one light comes from Claudia Cardinale. She plays Molly, his girlfriend who upholds Fitz with her faith and her money. Kinski and Cardinale couldn’t be more different either in character or real-life personalities yet the two work well together. Molly is a constant encouragement even when Fitz’s dream seems all but squashed.

Herzog’s film makes a dramatic change of direction at the midway mark. Fitz realizes his ice-making contraption won’t fund his opera house so he dives into the region’s one lucrative business – rubber. He purchases a steamboat with a loan from Molly, puts together a ragtag crew, and heads down the Amazon River towards his isolated patch of land rich with rubber trees. There’s a reason the land was previously unclaimed. It’s inhabited by a threatening indigenous people and the path to it is blocked by the dangerous Pongo das Mortes (which tellingly means Rapids of Death). But Fitz has a plan as improbable as his opera dream itself – take his 350 ton steamboat down a branch of the river, literally pull the ship over a hillside and into another river branch that bypasses the deadly rapids.The attempt to haul the massive steamboat over a steep, muddy hill became the film’s signature sequence. Herzog’s insistence on actually doing it instead of relying on special effects became a legendary tale that mirrored the fanaticism of the movie’s lead character. Herzog was convinced his audience would never buy it unless they saw it with their own eyes. The difficulty and frustration it brought often threatened to kill the production, but the end product is a shining example of true movie magic.

“Fitzcarraldo” and the story of its filming (much of it chronicled in the documentary “Burden of Dreams”) are like inseparable companion pieces. Each reveals unique sides to this fascinating picture yet together they feel undeniably one. And we are the true beneficiaries. Much like the frazzled Fitz himself playing Caruso on his beaten up Victrola record player, we sense there is something special in the art we are consuming. And for that reason Herzog’s intense creative labor and all of the accompanying hardships were worth it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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