Archive for August 2018

First Reformed

August 26, 2018

firstreformed“There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader

First Reformed is Paul Schrader’s twenty-first film as a director, and probably his best. It seems to sum up a lot of things Schrader believes in, artistically and spiritually. It is quiet and modest; it adopts the boxy “Academy format” of 1.37:1, in which most films were shot before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, and which is seldom if ever employed today, even on television. First Reformed has been released the same year as the re-issue of Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, which meditated on the cinema of Robert Bresson, Yasajiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, and the two Schrader works can stand alongside each other, or atop each other, as two characters in the film do in a fantasy sequence — at least I think it’s a fantasy sequence. Past a certain point the distinction becomes unhelpful, and when Schrader draws the final curtain we are left with doubt regarding the image immediately preceding the darkness. We are left, much like the film’s protagonist, balanced between despair and hope.

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over the sparse congregation of the First Reformed Church in the drab, snowy, fictional town of Snowbridge in eastern New York. Toller was once a military chaplain, married with a son, but he lost his son and then his marriage, and now he is here, drinking too much in his lonely, barren rooms (which make Travis Bickle’s apartment look like a Chuck E. Cheese). He coughs; his stomach hurts; at one point he pours Pepto-Bismol into his whiskey, and Schrader’s camera hovers above the slimy, blobby mix the way Martin Scorsese’s camera detained itself over a glass seething with Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver. Toller resists any attempts to bring him into the family of man; he would much rather brood in solitude and wrestle with God in his journal.

Decades of moviegoing have conditioned us to expect Toller to respond to a calling raised by the plot, and that happens, sort of. A parishioner, the tremulous, pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches Toller and asks him to advise her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is concerned about the environment, to the point of being arrested at a protest in Canada. He wants Mary to have an abortion, since bringing a child into a disintegrating world seems to him like selfish folly. First Reformed is not about what anyone thinks or feels about abortion, though. Mary discovers a suicide vest in the garage, and soon after, Toller discovers Michael’s body in a park, head shattered by a self-inflicted shotgun blast. The plot, as they say, thickens; Toller is shown to absorb the dead man’s fear and loathing about the environment and its despoilers (including the corporation that bankrolls Abundant Life, the megachurch that oversees Toller’s church).

Yet I don’t get the sense that the movie becomes about the environment, either, or that Toller becomes fixated on it. He is drawn, I think, to the kind of passion that would resolve itself by a self-extinguishing gesture — something Toller has lacked until now, a vital and bleeding connection to Christ. He is ill and alcoholic and mad with loneliness and despair. He says that a blend of despair and hope produces life, but hope is what he has been missing. So he lunges for someone else’s hope, the hope that one’s life and death will matter, make a difference. In essence it’s the same impulse that drives Travis Bickle to blast through anonymity (to paraphrase Pauline Kael). I have always felt that Travis’ liberation of the teen prostitute Iris was incidental to his real mission, to announce himself to an indifferent world. Same dynamic here. Does Toller really love Christ, or is he just hiding inside the bleak asceticism the religious lifestyle makes possible?

First Reformed has a lot of moving parts (and nods to other directors besides Schrader’s triumvirate, the big one being Ingmar Bergman and his Winter Light), but its emotional/spiritual throughline is plain and simple. Schrader pulls career-best performances out of Hawke, Seyfried, even Cedric the Entertainer (billed here as Cedric Kyles), creating quiet, intense moments the actors can share inside the pinched square of the frame. It’s a rigorous, unadorned film except for two bits between the pastor and the pregnant woman that are sure to be debated as long as there are films and debaters. It’s at these points that Schrader seems to acknowledge the movie-ish tradition he’s a part of, the foundation from which artists can then leap free via surrealism or symbol. As for the other tradition studied here, the Dutch Reformed Church has been home to various people of note over the years, including two presidents, Evel Knievel, and Fred and Mary Trump.

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Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

The Last Temptation of Christ

August 5, 2018

lasttemptation_89_033_current_mediumEnough, I think, was written about the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ when it opened thirty years ago this August 12. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather skip all that, except to say that the outrage showed a thunderous lack of understanding of context and of literary inquiry. The movie, and its source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined a Christ confronted on the cross by an angel (Satan) who offers him escape into the life of a normal man, a life with wives and children and, yes, lovemaking. Christ’s agonized mind turns this possibility over at length — the possibility of simple human contentment — until finally he realizes and embraces his literally God-given role, and finds himself back on the cross, radiantly happy as he passes from life into legend.

Last Temptation is director Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic worship, the movie he had hungered to make since boyhood. Of course, most of his films have that stream of Catholic blood and guilt running through them. Again and again in Scorsese’s work we see men (he has never, with a couple of exceptions, been interested enough in women to put them front and center) sinning yet yearning for redemption, or at least respect or peace or a point at which they can rest assured that “it is accomplished,” whatever it may be. The movie is imperfect — its colloquial dialogue and casting of homely urban types and musicians (hey, John Lurie! hello, Victor Argo!) as the apostles bring it, at times, perilously close to camp. But it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Much of the movie’s soul can be traced to the long and many disputatious talks between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Judas (Harvey Keitel). Dafoe seems to be experiencing the same insecurity and fear playing Jesus as Jesus himself feels — Dafoe and Jesus both have to grow into their roles. Keitel, for his part, approaches Judas with the same spiritual anguish he brought to The Piano and Bad Lieutenant. In this telling, Judas is merely the guy who has to embrace his intolerable role, the betrayer, so that God’s plan for Jesus can proceed. Late in the film, when the elderly former friends meet again in Jesus’ mortal bedroom, Keitel makes us feel the betrayal Judas feels — he has betrayed his master as ordered, only to see that act of love rendered meaningless when Jesus chooses the life of a man. We first see these two together when Judas is chastising Jesus the carpenter for building crosses for the Romans. Here is a Jesus in need of redemption.

Dafoe and Keitel, and also Barbara Hershey (who gave the book to Scorsese in the first place) as the Magdalene, get to run the gamut of inflamed, wounded emotion. The rest of the cast, eclectic to say the least, sometimes falters in the face of the moment’s importance — some of them, we gather, like the late Call frontman Michael Been, are there out of their own Christian passion. And then David Bowie swans into the picture as Pontius Pilate, unimpressed with what Pilate clearly sees as (sigh) yet another Jewish troublemaker, and the conception and almost comically perfect casting transcend camp (even with Pilate’s deathless, amazing line “We have a space for you up on Golgotha”) and achieve a kind of show-biz nirvana. Bowie takes his few minutes of the film away from Jesus and Scorsese and suavely tucks them in his pocket.

The filmmaking here, though rushed and on the cheap, is a hot stew of influences; Peter Gabriel’s sometimes alarming world-music score, Michael Ballhaus’ savagely unadorned photography of a dusty and near-uninhabitable land, Thelma Schoonmaker’s gliding and intuitive editing — all of it coalesces into a cinematic essay about the violence and chaos, and also the vitality and urgency, of worldly life, the solace Jesus must renounce — the heat and hard dirt floors, the cool fleshly comforts. This renunciation would be meaningless if it were too easy and did not come freighted with self-doubt and conflicting desires. Scorsese manages to make us feel what pulls Jesus towards normality, what he has to give up. We do not see the resurrection; instead, at the climax, the very celluloid itself seems to rupture, shudder, flare into a blood-red death. How else would a director equally indebted to Christ and cinema end such an inquiry?

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