REVIEW: “First Reformed”

First poster

“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.

first1

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”).

First2

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: “Boyhood”

BOYHOOD POSTER

“Ambitious” is an adjective that is probably overused by many when reviewing movies. As a result many well-known and prominent movie critics steer clear of the word and often view it as a negative description of the film. Their idea is that many people excuse a film’s faults by hiding them under ambition. That may sometimes be true, but I’ve never prescribed to that reasoning nor do I avoid using the word when it accurately describes a film. There are plenty of examples of movies that have combined great ambition and great storytelling. “Boyhood” is one such example.

Let’s talk about the film’s ambition. Writer and director Richard Linklater has shown himself to be one of the great modern American filmmakers. In “Boyhood” he gives us a coming-of-age drama unlike any you’ve seen before. Filming spanned twelve years starting in 2002 and the same cast was used the entire time. They were brought back to shoot scenes periodically throughout those twelve years in hopes of capturing an accurate physical representation of aging. It also allowed the cast to grow with their characters making the film’s time transitions all the more realistic. This is an extremely ambitious project.

 

BOYHOOD1

But it isn’t just the clever and innovative approach that makes this a good film. It’s Linklater’s simple but beautifully conceptualized vision for presenting a young boy’s life from preadolescence to early adulthood. There is no distinct streamlined plot. Instead we are introduced to a young boy named Mason and we experience his complicated, topsy-turvy boyhood with him. Linklater doesn’t ask us to dissect or wrestle with the material. Instead he seeks to show us the complexities and minutia of real life. He wants us to invest in Mason and let his circumstances strike an emotional chord. We laugh with him. We fear for him. We worry about him. Essentially we grow up with him.

Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane, a relatively unknown actor who was 7-years old when filming began. Coltrane has a quiet reservation about him that we consistently see in every stage of Mason’s life. It’s an acting quality that gels nicely with Linklater’s vision for the character. When we first meet young Mason he is living in Texas with his older sister Samantha (played by Richard Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) and his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). His father Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) reappears after over a year doing his own thing in Alaska.

Mason’s life has its share of obstacles and it starts with his parents. His mother works hard to provide for Mason and Samantha. She moves them to Houston where she finishes her degree and gets a good job. But her loneliness leads to bad choices which effect her children. Mason, Sr. is a flaky and irresponsible father who won’t get a job and doesn’t always provide a mature fatherly influence during his time with his kids. In a sense Mason and Samantha’s time with their father is an escape. Mason, Sr. clearly hasn’t been a good father, but he loves his kids and they recognize his good intentions. As the film harmoniously moves along we learn more and more about these characters and we watch them and their circumstances evolve.

BOYHOOD2

At times “Boyhood” feels like a series of random moments sewn together to form a beautiful whole. We often move from scene to scene without any narrative connection between them. But that’s okay because the film is about the journey. We literally watch Mason (and Coltrane) grow up before our eyes. One minute we see a young boy laying on the couch asking his father about the existence of magic and elves. An hour later we watch a 16-year old get into his Toyota pickup. It’s such a visually satisfying trip through time brought to life through Linklater’s brilliant approach, Sandra Adair’s impeccable editing, and the cast’s unquestioned commitment.

Speaking of the cast, I’ve talked about Coltrane being a great fit as Mason and he only gets better as he transforms from a first-grader to a college freshman. But Patricia Arquette is the one getting a ton of attention and rightly so. This is a such a strong and honest performance , significantly better than when I first saw her years ago in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3”. She doesn’t offer an ounce of pretense and she never overplays her scenes. And as you would expect Ethan Hawke is really good and you never doubt the truth he brings to his character.

BOYHOOD3

The only performance I struggled with came from Lorelei Linklater. In her defense she is considerably better by the end of the film but by that time we rarely see her. Prior to that I felt she was forcing her performance and she looked like a young actress who was having every line, every look, and every expression drawn out by the director. I also struggled with these odd and sometimes clunky political sequences that pop up several times. At first they feel like a natural extension of a particular character. Later the politics and characterizations seem forced and very heavy-handed. This stands out mainly because Linklater is such an instinctive and precise writer.

Those things aside, what is it that great movies do? They challenge us. They cause us to reflect. They cause us to appreciate. They cause us to feel. “Boyhood” did all of that for me but not in a casual sense. It is a coming-of-age story but it also looks at other things like parenting – the sacrifices of good parenting and the consequences of bad parenting. As a father, that hit home for me. The film had me looking back on my own childhood, but also thinking about my 13-year old son and the life he is living. Walking out of the theater I wanted to hurry home, give him a hug, and tell him that I loved him. Some may call that corny. I call it being moved by a very good movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

(Fun observation for “Dazed and Confused” fans: Pay close attention to the brief scene in the liquor store. The clerk is played by none other than David Blackwell. He played a very similar convenience store clerk in “Dazed”)

REVIEW: “Getaway”

Getaway Poster

I have to start by addressing Ethan Hawke (because I’m so sure he reads this site). What were you thinking? I mean you’ve made some strange and questionable movie choices recently but none as mind-boggling as this. You’re a talented actor Mr. Hawke. Your work in movies like “Training Day” and the “Before” trilogy proves it. But if I may be blunt, your film “Getaway” absolutely sucked. And let me add a quick bit of advice. If anyone on your “staff”, whether it be an advisor or agent, recommended that you take this role, fire them immediately. Trust me, it’s for the good of your career.

Now with that out of the way, “Getaway” is one of these movies that has an obvious ambition but it fails to realize it in practically every regard. It’s poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, and poorly edited. Even the likable Ethan Hawke can’t save the film from its sleep-inducing monotony and overall lack of intelligence. It’s no surprise the film wasn’t able to come close to reaching its $18 million budget.

Hawke plays a former race car driver named Brent Magna (gotta love that name). One day he comes home from work to find his wife has been abducted. A mysterious man calls him to take responsibility and to give him a wild assortment of tasks to carry out in order to get her back. The first task leads him to a fully customized Shelby Mustang. It has all the normal accessories: AM/FM radio, power windows, automatic transmission, armored plating, bulletproof glass, and a number of cameras so that the kidnapper can keep up with Brent’s whereabouts. He takes the car and is told to follow the man’s instructions implicitly and if he gets caught by the cops his wife dies.

This way my reaction too after seeing "Getaway"

This way my reaction too after seeing “Getaway”

From there the movie collapses into eye-rolling stupidity. Some of these tasks that Brent is asked to do make no sense whatsoever. They are mainly just reasons to drive the car really fast. That’s really all this film is – an endless parade of high speed chases many of which are some of the worst ever filmed. They are extremely repetitious with little variation at all. At one point I honestly wondered if I was watching the same chase sequence from earlier in the film just from a different camera angle. There is very little creativity to them and practically no thrills. Just a mind-numbing assembly line of wrecked cars and engine roars.

“Getaway” does try to expand its tissue paper-thin plot by throwing in a girl known only as ‘The Kid’ (Selena Gomez). She ends up in the car and her role mainly consists of having a bad attitude and spitting out expletives. She is a terrible character shoehorned in by the dumbest contrivance. In fact, that’s a great way to summarize this movie. It’s one of the (unintentionally) dumbest movies of last year built around one of the worst scripts of the year. And the car chases (which should be the film’s saving grace) are the blandest and most repetitive scenes to endure. This is an awful movie and again I ask “Ethan Hawke, what were you thinking?”

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “The Purge”

PUrge Poster

We all have traditions that we look forward to each year: Christmas, Mothers Day, birthdays, opening day of the baseball season, the Purge. Well, at least that’s how it is in 2022 America. What is the Purge you ask? It’s an annual 12 hour government sanctioned period where all crime (murder, rape, anything) is legal. This cathartic release of personal angst and pent up emotion is said to be the reason for the low poverty levels and crime rates. Perfectly reasonable thinking, right?

The yearly Purge is the centerpiece for this horror/thriller written and directed by James DeMonaco. Therefore your ability to buy into it will undoubtedly effect your perception of the film. Personally I found the central conceit to be absurd and while I tried to backburner it I never could quite get over the nuttiness of the idea. I’ll admit there was a slight draw to the concept and if DeMonaco had spent time developing a background it may have been intriguing. Instead it comes across as a gimmick for some typical bloody violence mixed with a sloppy and heavy-handed political statement.

PURGE2

In terms of story, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family live in an upper class Los Angeles suburb. James made his fortune exploiting the Purge by selling high priced security systems. The film starts mere hours before the Purge is set to begin. Sandin arrives at his lavish home, wishes his neighbors a “safe night”, has dinner with his family, and prepares to lock down his fortress for the next 12 hours. But obviously they don’t spend a quite uneventful night in their home. A series of events, regardless of how random and illogical, turn their night upside down and they find out they aren’t as secure as they thought.

“The Purge” seems to be constantly straining to generate tension and scares. Most of its horror devices are taken from a number of different movies you’ve seen before. Now and then they turn out to be effective. For example later in the film a group of masked preppies show up and terrorize the Sandins. It’s something that will be very familiar to horror fans and the group plays into the tactless class warfare statement the film is preaching. Yet I’ll admit I found them to be very creepy at times.

PURGE - FILM REVIEW

But there are also moments where DeMonaco’s direction completely undermines the scene. There’s a sequence where James and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) are searching for a man in their darkened house. The scene features the routine shadowed hallways, flashlights, and sudden mysterious sounds. This might have been effective except for the fact that DeMonaco already revealed that the man is hiding in a closet. Therefore these designed scare scenes have absolutely no effect. There are several clumsy missed opportunities like this that pop up throughout the picture.

The film has other flaws including a fairly predictable outcome and random nonsensical behavior from some of the characters. But despite these gripes, “The Purge” is never boring and it does create some frights and intensity that works. It doesn’t do enough to cover the silliness of its main concept and there isn’t an ounce of subtlety with DeMonaco’s political preachiness. I think there is a pretty intriguing movie here somewhere, but the glaring problems restrict it to being a middle-of-the-road and ultimately forgettable experience.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE ROMANCES

movie_theatre - Phenom 5

Well this is the week where millions and millions of dollars will be spent on fresh roses, boxes of rich chocolates, sparkling diamond jewelry, and expensive fancy dinners all in the name of undying love. Ok, let me reword that. This Thursday is Valentines Day – a day where we guys had better have our wives or girlfriends something nice or the following few weeks will not be very pleasant! In the spirit of this wallet-crushing holiday I thought it would be good to focus this week’s Phenomenal 5 on love. So today I’m listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Romances. These are classic onscreen romances that are equally memorable and romantic. Now with so many big screen romances gracing cinema for all these years I would be a real goof to call this the definitive list. But I have no problems calling these five movie romances absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – Jack and Rose (“Titanic”)

TITANIC

While the first half of James Cameron’s epic sized blockbuster “Titanic” wasn’t nearly as good as the second half, it did set in motion a romance that gave the tearjerker finale some huge emotional pop. Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a poor drifter and Rose (Kate Winslet) is a member of the high society upper class. The two cross paths on the maiden voyage of the British luxury liner Titanic. Obviously they come from opposite ends of the social order but you know the old saying – “opposites attract” yadda yadda yadda. A deep and forbidden love develops between them and Rose’s family are none too happy about it. But all of that takes a back seat when the Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to sink. At no time does their love shine brighter than in their struggle to survive and you can’t help but be moved by it.

#4 – Jesse and Celine (“Before Sunrise” & “Before Sunset”)

BeforeSunset

No list like this would be complete without including Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). These two young lovers first met on a train from Budapest to Vienna in “Before Sunrise”. Jesse convinces Celine to skip her connecting train to Paris and spend the night walking around Vienna with him. A romantic spark is lit and the two seem like true soul mates but at the end of the film they head their separate ways. They cross paths 10 years later in Paris in “Before Sunset” and their lives have taken on many new changes. But as they spend the day walking and talking we quickly learn that spark never went out. It’s such a wonderful but complicated romance and we’ll get to see them 10 years later in this year’s “Before Midnight”. I can’t wait.

#3 – Nathaniel and Cora (“The Last of the Mohicans”)

MOHICANS

Underneath the surface of frontier violence and costly war lies an incredible romance that plays a big part in “The Last of the Mohicans”. Cora (Madelenie Stowe) is an English woman who has arrived in the States during The French and Indian War. She’s rescued by Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted father and brother after a Huron war party tries to kill her. Through Nathaniel she learns a different perspective of the war and how it effects the locals. Even more important to the story, the two develop a love for one another that carries them through blood, battlefields, and tragedy. The way this love story is told through this dangerous and violent environment is beautiful and “The Last of the Mohicans” remains one of my all time favorite films.

#2 – Scarlett and Rhett (“Gone with the Wind”)

GONE WITH THE WIND

There may not be a more difficult and sometimes volatile relationship in film than the one shared between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Their fascinating romance takes place during the outbreak of the Civil War. Scarlett is a fiery but spoiled daughter of a plantation owner and Rhett is just the one to tame her…or is he? Rhett is a confident and brash fellow who makes a play for Scarlett. But he’s not her puppet which often times infuriates her. But through their on again/off again relationship there is evidence of a truly passionate love between them. These two take us on a roller coaster ride that’s anything but a soft and tender love story. But it’s without a doubt one of the most mesmerizing romances to ever grace the movies.

#1 – Rick and Ilsa (“Casablanca”)

CASABLANCA

My favorite movie of all time also happens to feature what I think is the greatest romance in movie history. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, a club owner in Casablanca during World War 2. His world is turned upside down when Ilsa (played by the stunningly beautiful Ingrid Bergman) reenters his life. We learn the two fell madly in love after first meeting in Paris but circumstances tore them apart. From the first moment their eyes meet again, we know that neither’s feelings have changed. But there are several obstacles keeping them from being together and watching what seems to be an ill-fated romance is simply great cinema. Bogart and Bergman have incredible chemistry and you never doubt their character’s love for each other. This is the quintessential romance in what’s a truly flawless movie.

So those are my five phenomenal movie romances. Now I want to hear your thoughts. What did I miss or where did I go wrong. Take time to comment and share you favorite movie romance.

“Sinister” – 3.5 STARS

Tis the season for horror movies and this year Hollywood has already given us several underwhelming entries into the genre. So along comes “Sinister”, a new supernatural horror thriller that may not break any new ground but fills the need for a fun horror movie experience during the Halloween season. “Sinister” is a small and relatively straightforward horror picture that uses several familiar devices yet is able to keep you a little uneasy in your seat. And even though I was hoping for more I’ve seen a lot worse efforts than this.

It was a nice surprise to see Ethan Hawke starring in this type of picture. He plays the role of a true-crime author named Ellison who moves his family into a new house in a small rural area. We quickly learn that the family who last owned the home were brutally murdered there. We also learn that one child from the family was never found. The murders were unsolved which serve as Ellison’s inspiration for what he hopes will be a can’t-miss best seller. I love how Hawke handles his character. There are several layers to Ellison. He’s deeply concerned that his 15 minutes of fame is up yet he refuses to accept it. His bullheaded insistence on finishing the book blinds him to the toll it’s taking on his children and marriage even as things begin to get really weird around the house.

The weirdness really begins when Ellison finds a box filled with several reels of Super 8 films and a projector in his attic. The films feature several brutal murders of different families in different years including the family killed in his new home. Ellison begins investigating the murders, connecting them In hopes of making a big discovery that would make his book I sure-fire hit. Of course it wouldn’t be a horror movie if everything went as planned. Ellison begins seeing visions, hearing bumps, and grows increasingly unnerved by his findings. But if the current trend in modern horror movies has shown us anything, it’s that you can never assume that things are as they seem.

“Sinister” plays in the sandbox of both psychological and supernatural horror. Even though the trailer gives away too much, there are moments where you wonder if Ellison’s mind is playing tricks on him or if he has unleashed an incredible force of evil. The movie establishes and then keeps the tension amped up as its mystery unfolds. It deals with some tough subject matter and throws some pretty haunting imagery at the audience. Speaking of the imagery, some of the films creepier moments are when Ellison is sitting alone in his home office watching these old films. The darkness, the steady sound of the projector, and the grisly images he’s seeing create a delightfully eerie atmosphere. But this also opens the movie up to some of it’s more conventional approaches.

You can’t help but notice some all-to-familiar devices that “Sinister” milks dry. There are plenty of cheap scares via sudden bursts of loud noises or music. We get the bumps in the attic, the slow walks down long, dark halls, and the very in-fashion creepy kids scenes. In fact, while watching this movie I could’ve kept a checklist of all the things horror fans have seen before. Creepy house with a haunted past? Check! A sometimes head-scratchingly dumb main character? Check! Slamming doors, power outages, a well-timed storm? Check!

But here’s the good news. Despite the well-worn formulas and clichĂ©s, “Sinister” still manages to be an entertaining and eventually disturbing horror picture. A large part of it’s success is due to Ethan Hawke’s strong performance and compelling character (despite his sometimes bonehead decisions). I bought into the conflict between his love for his family and his desire to write another bestseller as well as the repercussions that his clouded judgment brings on them all. But more importantly “Sinister” works because there is a genuine sense of unease to everything you’re seeing. And while it does require the audience to wait a while for things to unfold, the ending is frighteningly satisfying.

As I mentioned earlier, “Sinister” doesn’t break any new ground in the horror genre. It depends on several of the same techniques that we’ve seen over and over. But there is some meat to its story and as you get deeper into the film the tension gets higher all the way to the finale which is perfectly fitting for a good horror picture. “Sinister” won’t make anyone’s horror top 10 list. But it maintains its moodiness and delivers in the end. That’s more than I can say about some of Hollywood’s more recent horror efforts.