2 posts categorized "Independent Cinema"

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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April 04, 2016

BORN TO BE BLUE

BLUEEthan Hawke certainly has the acting chops to play the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What's more, Hawke resembles Chet in middle age before the ravages of heroin devastated his iconic good looks. But there’s more to Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker than keen acting skills and physical resemblance; demons. The Gen X survivor who caught fire in 1994 with “Reality Bites” has battled plenty of personal sprites, all the while testing the limits of his talents by writing (plays, novels and screenplays), directing, and acting. Always acting. His work here represents his finest performance to date.

Ethan Hawke stars as Chet Baker in the first trailer for Born to Be Blue --  watch | Consequence of Sound

“Hello fear. Hello death. Fuck you.” Hawke’s Baker repeats the lines being fed to him by the scantily clad actress playing a one-night stand in a film-within-the-film about his life. She uses a tourniquet to tie his arm off before giving him his first shot of heroin. He’s a wounded child seeking sex, approval, escape, and love in equal parts.

Born to be Blue review – Ethan Hawke jazzes up unconventional Chet Baker  biopic | Toronto film festival 2015 | The Guardian

Chet’s personal life comes barging though the hotel room door in the guise of his jealous girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). The narrative telescope compresses as black and white turns to color. We’re on a film set in 1966 Hollywood where Chet tries his hand at playing himself for a film director who rescued him from a filthy Italian jail where he was due to spend the next couple of years. So it is that writer/director Robert Budreau submerges his audience into the appropriately cold narrative waters of Chet Baker’s mid-life story.

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The role of Chet Baker’s heroin addiction in ruling, and ruining, his life is fully expressed when he tells Jane that he’s “only hurting himself.” Hawke downplays the self-delusion in the statement. Passive aggression is just another defense mechanism in Baker’s arsenal of survival tricks.

Born to Be Blue: Ethan Hawke plays jazz musician Chet Baker | EW.com

When angry drug dealers pistol-whip Chet in the mouth, the vicious attack comes with the cruel soubriquet, “no more jazz motherfucker.” Relearning to play the horn with dentures means creating three placements of embrasure — left, right, and center. As painful as it is watching Baker bleeding from the mouth while attempting to play, Hawke’s performance hooks us.

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Where Don Cheadle’s concurrently running Miles Davis filmic love letter “Miles Ahead” is an ambitious embrace of the great jazz trumpeter’s music, humor, and imagination, “Born to be Blue” is an impressionistic chamber piece made up of composite elements from Baker’s life.

Born to Be Blue - Little White Lies

Linear facts don’t matter. Both films eschew the traditional biopic formula, and in so doing achieve a sublime dramatic effect of floating through the air that both trumpet players breathed. Forget about dueling super-heroes, “Born to be Blue” and “Miles Ahead” are the real McCoy to see phenomenally gifted men sparring for supremacy on their chosen field of battle. The blood and spit they spill is in the service of a transcendent musical beauty that no comic book creation can imagine.

Rated R. 97 mins.

4 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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