132 posts categorized "Drama"

May 27, 2018

FIRST REFORMED

First_reformedHow refreshing it is to be reminded of the mortal shocks that valid Cinema can deliver. When audiences first saw “Taxi Driver” (written by Paul Schrader) they couldn’t wait to talk about it. It was an experience they had to get off their chests. Audiences were confused but intuitively informed by “Taxi Driver’s” dire provocation. Here was a film that captured the fall out of the Viet Nam War in a stark portrayal of a [racist] veteran’s psychological, and existential, crisis in the midst of an American culture shock.

Firstreformed

For all of its mis-readings by audiences who also misunderstood Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” or Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” (both ingenious filmic satires), “Taxi Driver” remains a cinematic touchstone that refuses to submit to the ravages of time. So too will “First Reformed” stand as a bellwether film for the ages.

First Reformed

Culture shock plays a role here too. As Paul Schrader did with “Taxi Driver,” he transplants God’s lonely man of Thomas Wolf’s indispensable essay into the modern world. However, this time it is not Manhattan’s urban cesspool that ignites the mind and body of our searching protagonist, but rather a perfect storm of globalized political, corporate, and religious corruption that infects Ernst Toller, a war vet (military Chaplin) turned small-town minister. Missing are any visual trappings and sexy locations that would distract from Schrader’s formally composed character study. Small-town America is the hotbed environment where a toxic chemical dumping ground releases vapors of social unrest and rage. This film’s formal compositions seethe with restrained silence and nostalgic dignity.

Firstreformed

Although Schrader retains the voice-over narration approach he effectively utilized in “Taxi Driver,” this time he puts a diary in our protagonist’s hand. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller (named after the Jewish German left-wing playwright exiled by the Nazis) is the not-so glorified caretaker of the First Reformed Church in a fictitious town in upstate New York. Sick with an internal disease for which he refuses to seek medical care, Toller sets out to keep a handwritten journal that he will “shred and burn” at the end of one year. Empty whiskey bottles pile up in his weekly trash. Ethan Hawke’s performance is exquisitely transparent.   

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Having lost his son to the Iraq War that he insisted his boy enlist, against his wife’s wishes, Toller squandered his marriage. His salvation came from Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the leader of a large institutional church that guards its corporate funding with a vengeance. The church will soon celebrate its 250th anniversary at a “re-consecration” event to be held in the well-preserved “souvenir shop” church that Toller oversees.  

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Reverend Toller embraces the challenge of faith brought to him by Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant newlywed who has recently moved to the area with her ecological activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael doesn’t believe Mary should give birth to their 20-week old fetus due to the impending dire effects of climate change that will ravage human life in the coming years and decades.

First Reformed2

What follows is a concise thesis on how Christian ideology is co-opted by corrupt forces, and how the religion’s “washed in the blood of the lamb” imagery feeds into radicalizing those who are most committed to its precepts. Far from the “thriller” genre that some are attempting to pigeonhole “First Reformed” into, the film is a transcendent drama built on a rigorous filmic foundation.

Firstreformed

There are two sequences of romantic affection in the film. Each one arrives as a dangerous if not outright radical act. How and why is it that we the audience can be so provoked by something as natural as a kiss when the violence that we see or expect to witness seems more inevitable, if not natural?

Firstreformed

As Thomas Wolf pointed out in his essay, Christ’s primary teaching was that “loneliness could be destroyed forever by the life of love.” You don’t have to be religious to see the truth in that, but you should see “First Reformed” a couple of times to understand how Paul Schrader shows you what connects us in the kingdom of heaven that we all possess and share. Is "First Reformed" a perfect film? Yes, yes it is. 

Rated R. 113 mins.

5 Stars

Dramatist and LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) regular Phil Holt returns to the podcast to discuss PAUL SCHRADER'S FIRST REFORMED over a glass of BUNKER'S BROWN ALE. Bon appétit!

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COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

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March 21, 2018

MANDERLAY — CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Colesmithey.comLars von Trier’s second installment in his Brechtian trilogy of American culture stays true to the stage bound theatrical setting of his first installment (“Dogville” 2003) even if his protagonist heroine Grace seems not to have kept any continuity from her traumatizing experiences in Dogville, i.e. multiple rapes, torture, and various humiliations, including being enslaved before ordering the massacre of a small town. After all, murderers are humiliated by their own bloodlust.

Manderlay movie review & film summary (2006) | Roger Ebert

Perhaps that is as it should be. That was a lot of baggage. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over the role that Nicole Kidman portrayed in “Dogville,” just as Willem Dafoe fills James Caan’s shoes as Grace’s gangster father this time around.

Manderlay - Little White Lies

Under von Trier’s fluid handheld camera there is no mistaking the parable aspect of his rigorous dramaturgy, this time dedicated to a slave plantation operating 70 years pat the abolishment of slavery. If you do the math you know that it’s Depression Era 1933. You don’t have to ponder long to realize that slavery in America continues albeit under a transmogrified state of incremental genocide glossed over with pretty words such as democracy, freedom, and capitalism.

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So it is that our minimalist tale of colonialism, best intentions, and hidden agendas comes into microcosmic view when the headstrong Grace arrives at Manderlay in the company of her smarmy dad and his gun-toting henchmen and lawyers. A slave (Isaach De Bankolé) is strapped to a grate, about to be whipped by one of his white masters when Grace intercedes and takes the whip away from the brute with the aid of her dad’s goons. The plantation matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) appears from her mansion with shotgun in hand, but put in her place by Grace. Mam wasn’t long for this world anyway as it turns out but she does leave behind a book (“Mam’s Law”) which includes a “code of conduct” for the plantation. Most appalling, if informative, is the book’s dilatation of seven slave character types with titles such as “Proudly,” “Clownin’,” and “Pleasin’.”

Torture is Fine: Lars Von Trier Interview

Grace decides to stay on at Manderlay in order to oversee the slaves’ transition to freedom. She keeps her father’s lawyer and a few of his guards. Under von Trier’s seven remaining chapter headings, Grace learns the hard way the unseen forces and brutal tactics that undo her naïve attempts at leading the slave community to any form of holistic equality.

MANDERLAY

Not since Ingmar Bergman’s trenchant Cinema has a filmmaker so efficiently tackled universal truths of human behavior that predictably veer toward duplicity, greed and the lowest common denominator of groupthink that priests, politicians, judges, and corporate CEOs wield under the guise of democracy. “The lesser of two evils” is still immoral, n’est-ce pas?    

Manderlay (2005) - Rotten Tomatoes

Not rated. 139 mins. 

5 Stars

COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal!

Cole Smithey on Patreon

October 12, 2017

LAST FLAG FLYING — NYFF 55

Colesmithey.com2“Last Flag Flying” is a huge disappointment. Co-written by Darryl Ponicsan (“The Last Detail”) and Richard Linklater, this episodic drama plays like a misguided cross between “Grand Theft Parsons” and “In The Valley of Elah.” Even so it feels like a movie in search of a story.

Although the film lurches toward condemning the U.S. Military for its systemic brainwashing and capitalist-based murder of friends and foe alike, the movie wraps up with a fantasy-is-better-than-truth message that reneges on its premise. Add to that the equal miscasting of its three leads (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell) and you end up with an excruciating viewing experience. Here is a movie that scores less than zero, in case you didn’t know that were possible from such a reputable bunch.

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Darryl Ponicsan is no longer floating on the cred he earned for “The Last Detail” (1973), about a Navy soldier (played by Randy Quaid) being escorted by two Officers to a Naval prison for trying to steal $40 from a collection box. The author is however still stuck in a no man’s land mindset about whether or not the U.S. military is worth a damn. It’s similar to Martin Scorsese’s overriding career theme regarding the existence of God, and the value of organized religion. I’ve got a short answer to both quandaries, but that’s another story for another time.

Passion for Movies: Last Flag Flying [2017] – A Predictable yet an  Endearing Journey of Middle-Aged War Veterans

Ponicsan is clearly obsessed with the U.S. military’s methods of indoctrination that turn grown men into pap-spewing fraternity bros. Any mention of the Marines incites a knee-jerk response of ‘hoo ra” or “semper fi do or die” from Laurence Fishburne’s character, Pastor Richard Mueller, a veteran who substituted religion for military service after going civilian. Mueller doesn’t necessarily believe in either, but it’s a way for him to big-dog everyone he comes in contact with via his connection to the bible, or to the Marines if need be. He is an insufferable person, and a phony.

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Next up in our trio of unbearable, and inauthentic, human beings is Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon, a bar owner who talks and acts like Andrew Dice Clay’s brother. Cranston hams up the role past 11. That Richard Linklater allowed Cranston to overplay his character to such an outlandish degree only emphasizes Linklater’s failings as a director. Cranston mugs and twists his made up accent into an acting clinic on things not to do as a thespian. I don’t suppose he ever watched Michael Caine’s lessons on film acting. You’ll never think of Bryan Cranston the same way again.

Last Flag Flying (2017)

The same goes for Steve Carell, the most miscast member of Ponicsan’s reprobates. Carell’s milquetoast character, Larry “Doc” Shepherd took the fall for Sal and Richard after a vaguely told episode of wartime negligence. Doc did hard time for his fellow comrades, I mean soldiers. Still, Doc isn’t holding a grudge; he’s got other, more recent, wounds to lick. His wife died of cancer, and now he has to bury his soldier son who died under mysterious circumstance in Baghdad. So it is that Doc recruits his military bros to join him on a road trip to his son’s funeral. That is until the guys discover the real story of how the kid died from Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a soldier who witnessed the deadly incident. Oddly, J. Quinton Johnson upstages his fellow, more experienced actors, with this film’s only believable performance. Remember his name, J. Quinton Johnson has a bright acting future ahead.

Last-Flag-Flying

You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more inept movie, much less one coming from the pedigree that this one does. In hindsight, the film’s title seems to signal a career-ender for all those involved except for J. Quinton Johnson. The icing on the cake is that “Last Flag Flying” was chosen as the centerpiece for the 55th New York Film Festival. Entropy with a whimper is everywhere you look.  

Rated R. 124 mins.

Zero Stars

COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal!

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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