"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Roma: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE. IT. NOW. A directorial tour de force and utter masterpiece from Alfonso Cuaron.

Roma, written, directed, shot and edited by Alfonso Cuaron, is the story of Cleo, an indigenous young woman who works as a live-in maid for a middle-class Mexican family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood in the 1970’s. The film stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in her first acting role.

2018 has not been a good year for movies, and as the final days of the year quickly fall away the chances of a cinematic redemption have grown ever more bleak. But sometimes a Christmas miracle occurs and a movie comes along that reminds us why God invented cinema in the first place…Roma is that movie. Simply said, Roma is a stunningly beautiful, staggeringly well-crafted masterpiece.

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Director Alfonso Cuaron has made some very good movies in his time, the most notable of which were Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Gravity (2013), for which he won the Best Director Oscar. My personal favorite of Cuaron’s movies is the under appreciated Children of Men (2006), which I thought was magnificent but was maybe a little too dark and too existential for audiences and Oscar voters to embrace. Cuaron’s filmography is a testament to his storytelling ability and his dedication to craft, which brings us to Roma…and in the case of Alfonso Cuaron, all roads lead to Roma.

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Auteur Cuaron puts on a remarkable directorial and cinematographic tour de force with Roma. Cuaron’s direction is intimate, intricate and impeccable and creates an immersive cinematic experience that is so sublime as to be hypnotic. Cuaron’s artistic visual prowess is on full display from the very first shot of the film, which is cinematically glorious in every way, and only grows from there.

Cuaron shoots the entire movie in black and white and intermittently uses a slowly panning camera which at times goes a full 360 degrees, to masterfully tell the story of Roma with moving pictures instead of words. Cuaron’s camera movement, framing, choreography and blocking are absolutely exquisite, and are the work of a true master. In fact, you could watch Roma with the subtitles off, and if you don’t speak Spanish or Mixtec you would still have an equally profound cinematic experience. There are so many visual sequences in Roma that are so breathtaking, and dramatic scenes so gut-wrenching, that viewers are left in a cinematic stupor when it is all over.

Cuaron’s use of black and white and his complete mastery of craft are reminiscent of another great auteur’s seminal work, Martin Scorsese and his 1980 classic Raging Bull. While the story’s of Raging Bull and Roma are very different, the artistry and craftsmanship that brought them to life and propelled their narratives are very similar.

Roma is a perfect stylistic combination of realism and formalism, where the viewer is shown a realistic slice of life in Mexico City in 1970 but one that is littered with mythic and political symbolism. Everything in Roma is intentional and deliberate, filled with deeper meaning and symbolic significance.

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Water opens the film and plays a vital symbolic role throughout, signifying transitions and/or baptisms and rebirths. The symbolism of dogs (and their shit) rears its head…literally…and carries with it the symbolism of status and social hierarchy throughout the film. Planes, (symbolic of higher planes of spiritual existence), containers such as eggs and cups (symbolic of the womb-the container of the life force) along with natural disasters (symbolic of God/Fate/Destiny) and social unrest (symbolic of the political as the personal) are all used throughout the movie to great affect. These rich symbols are hiding in plain sight in Roma, but their deeper mythic and archetypal meaning is pulsating just beneath the mask of Mexico City’s middle-class mundanity.

Roma is the story of one drop of water lost in the meaningful, yet mystical and mysterious, Sea of Life. It is a detailed glimpse of the specifics of one woman’s life, where tedious work is transformed into transcendent ritual and the minute and mundane into spiritual magnificence.

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Roma’s politics are both personal and profound, as class and social hierarchy are at the fore of the story, and speak to the scourge of income inequality and the enormous disparity of wealth across the globe and the angry populists sentiments rising in reaction to it. The reason viewers so quickly project themselves onto Cleo is because so many of us are in her shoes in one way or another, under the boot of someone higher up the social/economic class totem pole. Cleo is all of us, exploited and degraded by those who consider themselves our superiors and who look down upon us from tony, Ivy League, Washington, Wall Street, Media, Hollywood perches. Cleo’s struggles are our struggles, in one form or another, and as elites across the globe have been slow to discover, that struggle is quickly becoming conscious and growing very sharp and lethal teeth.

Cuaron’s skillful direction is not limited to just his camera work, as he coaxes an astounding performance from first time actress Yolitza Aparicio. Ms. Aparicio is staggeringly good as Cleo, creating a grounded and genuine character that is part sherpa and part lama, whom the audience is instantly drawn to and sympathetic towards. Aparicio is so comfortable on camera that it appears she isn’t acting at all, and while this may be a case of a person just being perfect for a specific role, that does not diminish her incredible work in Roma. There are so many scenes where Ms. Aparicio has to do so much in regards to blocking and specific “business” and has to do them all with perfect timing and in synchronicity with very detailed camera moves, that it is just remarkable she is able to pull it off. I can tell you with first hand, recent experience with some famous actors, that Ms. Apricio’s skill in regards to doing this is very, very uncommon, and extremely beneficial to a director. Ms. Aparicio isn’t painting by numbers as Cleo either, she brings a potent and palpable emotional vitality to the role that is so compelling it drives the entire film.

In conclusion, Roma is a monumental and magnificent masterpiece that is a film for our times and of our times. It is one of those films that restores my faith in the art form and reminds me of why cinema exists in the first place and why I love it so much. I am hesitant to write too much about the film because I don’t want to spoil it, but just know this…I cannot encourage you strongly enough to go see Roma. If you can see it in the theatre, do so to swim in the lush and immaculate waters of Cuaron’s cinematography on the big screen, but if not, watch it on Netflix (it is available now). I don’t care where you see it, just see it, and bask in the glow of Alfonso Cuaron’s talent and skill, because with Roma, he is currently at the height of his glorious cinematic powers.

©2018

At Eternity's Gate: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.

At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.

The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it. First off, I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.

Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.

Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.

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And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.

With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.

As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.

What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.

A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.

Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt and perspective wisely was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the point of view of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.

At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.

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What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.

I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggering and brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.

I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.

With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.

There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.

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When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.

Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.

Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he imbues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.

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Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.

The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.

On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.

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As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach, such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.

In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.

©2018

Burt Reynolds and the End of the Movie Star

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 38 seconds

Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82. A review of his career reveals a great deal about not only the man, but the current state of Hollywood.

Burt Reynolds was once the king of Hollywood. For a period of time in the late 70's and early 80's, Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star on the planet. From 1978 to 1982 Burt was the top box office draw for every single year, a five year run that in the history of cinema is only matched by Bing Crosby's 5 year run in the late 1940's.

What makes Burt Reynolds magnificent box office run all the more a monument to his star power and charm is that the movies Burt churned out during this stretch were absolutely abysmal. Here are the films that Burt Reynolds sold to the public to become box office champ for a record five years straight.

1978 - The End, Hooper. 1979 - Starting Over. 1980 - Rough Cut, Smokey and the Bandit II. 1981 - The Cannonball Run, Paternity, Sharkey's Machine. 1982 - Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Best Friends.

That is a Murderer's Row of completely forgettable, horrendously awful movies. But the cinematic atrocities that are those films only act as incontrovertible evidence of the tremendous mega-movie star Burt Reynolds really was. Audiences didn't show up at movie theaters to see these films for any other reason than to get to hang out with Burt for two hours.

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Burt's formula for success was simple...just be Burt, the fun lovin', handsome, good ole boy that he was, who guys wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Didn't matter the story or the character, as long as Burt was on camera people would pay money to see it. Burt was...well...Burt...sort of a one man Rat Pack, with Bacchanal Burt as the Pope of the Church of Shits and Giggles, which is why he was such a sought after guest on The Tonight Show or any other talk show.

Burt's films, particularly the mind-numbingly awful Cannonball Run movies, are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise, in that audiences are basically paying to watch famous, good-looking rich people have fun with each other. Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen are a way for regular folks to get to hang out with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon for two hours and feel like part of the crew. Audiences get to watch these "stars" dress up, be witty and outsmart everyone and get to be in on the joke.

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Burt Reynolds film's are the same formula as Ocean's Eleven except Burt didn't need a bunch of other stars, he was big enough and bright enough to carry a movie all on his own. Sure, he'd have Mel Tillis or Dom DeLuise caddy for him, but Burt didn't need them, he was doing them a favor and kept them around because they made HIM laugh.

Burt was so big from '78 to '82 that if you melded George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon at the height of their careers into one, you'd still have to add in Matthew McConnaghey in order to have it all add up to be even remotely close to peak Burt Reynolds. That is stunning for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that it shows how staggeringly magnetic Burt Reynolds was back in the day, but also the shocking dearth of movie stars walking the planet now.

Could any actor working today draw audiences with the cavalcade of crap that Burt Reynolds was churning out during his heyday?  Not a chance. Tom Cruise is the closest actor since Burt to capture the public's imagination in the same way, he has been a box office champ 7 times over three decades (80's, 90's, 00's), but Cruise never accomplished it in consecutive years never mind five years running. 

Unlike Burt, Cruise has benefited by starring in the big budget Mission Impossible franchise and in a few Spielberg extravaganzas. Even Cruise's earlier, more critically acclaimed work, was a result of his being secondary to his directors. Born on the Fourth of July is not a Tom Cruise film, it is an Oliver Stone film, and the same could be said of Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick) or The Color of Money (Scorsese).

Burt Reynolds didn't work with big name directors, in fact, remarkably enough, Burt actually directed two of the film's in which he starred during his box office championship run, 1978's The End and 1982's Sharkey's Machine...that is absolutely insane.

When it comes to the "movie stars" of the current era the proof is in the pudding, and today's pudding shows us a paucity of stars so stunning that the cupboard is basically completely bare.

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Tom Cruise has a big box office hit this year with his latest Mission Impossible monstrosity, but without that franchise or a big name director, Cruise's ability to attract audiences on his own has diminished in striking ways over the last twenty years. Since 1996's Jerry Maguire, Cruise has been under performed on his own without the friendly confines of a big budget franchise or the assistance of name directors, like Spielberg and Kubrick, who overshadow him.

Many thought George Clooney was the heir apparent to the movie star throne, but he isn't ready for the crown as shown by the recent poor box office results of Tomorrowland and Monuments Men, and as the Ocean's Eleven films show, he needs not just one other star to help him over the finish line, but a cornucopia of stars.

Brad Pitt had his moment in the sun but was always more of a second rate Robert Redford than an imitation of Burt Reynolds, and has never had the box office impact of either man.

Matthew McConnaghey has churned out similarly awful films to Burt's sub-par canon, but he has never even remotely approached the star wattage or box office prowess of Burt.

Leonardo DiCaprio is often considered a movie star, but Leo is much more of an actor than a movie star, and his inability to open films on his own without the benefit of a big name director like Scorsese, Spielberg or Christopher Nolan is testament to that fact.

Studios have figured out that nowadays it is about teaming auteurs like Scorsese, PT Anderson, Inarritu or Tarantino, with name actors in order to generate profits. The auteurs alone, or the stars alone, just don't cut it anymore, so the studios combine them together.

The film industry has changed dramatically in other ways since Burt Reynolds ruled the roost, as studios have discovered it isn't the stars that make a movie, but the characters, and so studios have slowly transitioned from building movie star brands to creating big budget franchises. Boiled down to its essence, this approach is basically, It doesn't matter who plays Batman, people will see a Batman movie.

As a result, actors try and attach themselves to these franchises in order to become "movie stars"...but the truth is the actors are, like sports stars for people's favorite teams, just wearing the jersey. These sports stars could be traded to another team and wear another jersey next year, so the fans aren't really rooting for the players, they are rooting for the laundry.

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For example, Chris Pratt is a "big movie star" right now, and to his credit he can carry a movie, but no one is dropping $14 to go see Chris Pratt, but they will pay to see Chris Pratt in Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy. Same is true of the other Chris's...Chris Helmsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Evans...otherwise known as Thor, Captain Kirk and Captain America. Those guys are decent enough actors, but no one rushes out to see them in anything unless they are playing their signature franchise roles.

What is staggering to consider is that Burt Reynolds could have been an even bigger star than he was. Burt notoriously turned down the role of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise and John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, which if he had starred in those films only would have extended and expanded his box office dominance to such exorbitant heights as to be ridiculous, adding at least $4 billion more to his overall box office tally.

Besides making poor movie business decisions, Burt also made bad artistic decisions which hurt him in his attempt to score prestige points. For instance, besides turning down Han Solo and John McClane, Burt also turned down the role of Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, which won Jack Nicholson an Oscar and may have done the same for Burt.

Burt Reynolds as an actor, was, to be frank, pretty dreadful, mostly because he just didn't give a shit. Burt was more interested in having fun and feeling safe rather than pushing himself as an artist. Burt the actor liked to take the easy road, and for the artist, that road ultimately leads to nowhere.

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That said, Burt he did rise to the occasion twice in his career, in the two best films he ever made. In the 1972 classic Deliverance, Burt embodied archetypal masculinity to a tee and elevated the film to great artistic heights. Burt's performance as Lewis Medlock, the bow wielding alpha male on a river adventure in the backwoods of Georgia, gave audiences a glimpse of his acting potential. Sadly, it would take another 25 years before Burt ever even approached the same level of artistic achievement in PT Anderson's 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, as porn impresario Jack Horner.

Burt's Jack Horner is an extension of Lewis Medlock, he is like Zeus, a great father to the panoply of gods and goddesses atop the Mount Olympus of porn. Horner is Medlock grown old, still the dominant alpha male but using his brain more and his phallus less.

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In one of the great displays of foolhardy hubris, Burt, who admitted that over his career he only took roles he thought were fun, hated the greatest film in which he ever appeared, Boogie Nights. Burt ranted that he didn't like the movie or the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Burt's public distancing from the film no doubt led to his losing his only chance to win an Oscar, as he was nominated but refused to campaign and ended up losing to Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), and ended up scuttling what could have been his acting renaissance.

If Burt didn't have such a pedestrian taste in film, such a voracious appetite for the inconsequential and such a artistically myopic outlook, he could have been not just the George Clooney + Brad Pitt + Matt Damon + Matthew McConnaghey of his day, but also the Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis of the 80's/90's and a multiple Oscar winner to boot...which would have made Burt Reynolds the biggest movie star of all-time. Instead what we got was bacchanalian Burt, boozing with buddies, chasing skirts and ultimately chasing his own tail.

In conclusion, even though Burt Reynolds was a mega-movie star for a period, the likes of which the film business has rarely ever seen, it is difficult not to lament Burt's career with a quote from the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, The Saddest are these, 'It might have been'."

©2018

 

 

 

First Reformed: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A serious art house meditation on religion and politics and the politics of religion. A flawed but worthwhile film for the religiously, spiritually and cinematically inclined.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is the story of Toller, a protestant pastor and former military chaplain, struggling with his faith amidst environmental and personal concerns. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Toller, with supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. 

First Reformed is a fascinating film that, like Jacob with the angel, wrestles with complex issues of faith and politics (and a fusing of the two), with a deft and insightful passion. I can't tell you what a joy it is for me to see a film that takes seriously matters of faith and genuinely grapples with religious issues without falling into either a display of saccharine christianity or reflexive anti-religiosity. 

When Ethan Hawke's character Toller mentions iconic 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and later has a small debate with a fellow pastor over Merton's work, I knew this was no ordinary movie about religion, but rather a serious contemplation of complex spiritual issues. Spiritual questions, such as whether in the search for a vibrant religious life should one engage with the world (and its politics) or retreat from it into a monk-like existence, and the perils of both approaches, are at the forefront of First Reformed

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Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for being the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. While Schrader is an infinitely more talented writer than director, he did on one occasion make an exquisite film, his 1997 examination of familial rage, Affliction. That film resonated so deeply with me that I frequently contemplate it even twenty years later. Affliction aside, Schrader's films usually suffer from his less polished direction. 

I think, in keeping with Schrader's history, First Reformed is infinitely better written than it is directed, but Schrader's direction is strong enough to put it in second place in his directorial cannon behind Affliction. There are certainly some pacing problems with the narrative, not that it goes too slow, but rather it makes dramatic leaps that the story hasn't quite yet earned, which left me feeling that the final third of the film was a bit dramatically rushed. In addition, the transition from the realism of the first two thirds of the film to the final third's deep dive into symbolism and the metaphorical, might be jarring to some, but I encourage you to make the leap as it is worth the effort to suspend your disbelief (which may very well be the brilliant sub-text of the entire film). 

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Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do paint an intriguing picture with First Reformed, particularly with their framing. There are some shots that are absolutely delicious, such as when Dynan turns a rather mundane shot of Toller's entrance into a church into a visual masterpiece by simply shooting from above (God's perspective) down onto a rug with the church's logo on it turned upside down. It is a dizzyingly glorious shot that, like all great pictures, speaks a thousand words. 

The religious and spiritual dimensions of the film are surprisingly nuanced and complex. Toller is representative of a traditionalist (old world) faith, his church is one of the oldest in America, but that faith is dying. His church is nicknamed "the souvenir shop" because people don't go to actually worship there, only to stop by for historical tours and to buy trinkets. 

Toller's "old religion" is contrasted with the new wave mega-church of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle). Toller deems Pastor Jeffers house of worship more akin to a corporation than a church but he still tries to off-load his counseling duties to its abundant staff. This religious clash between Toller and Jeffers in First Reformed is playing out in real time here in the U.S. as evangelical mega churches sell a corporatized, flag waving, prosperity gospel under the veneer of Christianity while more traditional churches get more and more marginalized in the culture and their pews are more and more empty. 

The Toller character is not only representative of the old church, but of God's green earth. Not only is Toller's faith and church dying, but so is the planet, and Toller's body comes to symbolize the earth. Toller fills his body with toxic trash and refuses to change his behavior even when doctors tell him he must in order to save himself. First Reformed makes the case that the same is true of corporate America (and the world), who constantly ignore existential environmental concerns in favor of myopic capitalist ones. 

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As the film plays out, Toller turns into a Christ-like figure, battling demons within and without and trying to save his soul in the process. Like Christ, Toller must choose between a dizzying array of archetypes…is he a warrior, a martyr, a savior, a devil or all of the above? Is Toller an activist or a terrorist? An evangelist or a monk? As Toller goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit's hole in search for the meaning and purpose of his life (and maybe all life), spiritual vertigo sets in, at which point viewers are asked to take some leaps that may be a bridge too far for some, but which I found to be challenging yet deeply rewarding. 

Ethan Hawke does some of his best work as Toller. Hawke's Toller has a world weary gravitas about him that fills the character with a troubled present, past and future. Hawke gives Toller a palpable cross to bear, and his skillful performance lures the viewer in to help him carry it. Toller's metamorphosis and awakening in the film is compelling and is a testament to Hawke's talent and mastery of craft. 

Amanda Seyfried plays Mary and is meant to be symbolic of hope and potential. While at times Seyfried performance feels a bit out of rhythm with the film, and feels unconscionably lightweight next to Hawke's burdened Toller, she does do enough to fulfill the character's dramatic purpose. Treating Seyfried's Mary as less a real-life character and more a totem of spiritual hope and redemption makes her performance much more digestible. 

Cedric Kyle, who is better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is unrecognizable from his comedic persona as Pastor Jeffers. I had no idea that is who the actor really was as Kyle looks the same but is energetically unrecognizable to Cedric the Entertainer. Kyle gives a seamless performance that is shocking because it is entirely without any artifice. 

In conclusion, First Reformed is a very interesting, if somewhat flawed film, that I found well worth worth my time and money. If you have minimal or no interest in matters of faith and religion, this film will be too much for you. And if you are allergic to the art house, then stay well clear of First Reformed. But if you are a cinephile, a religiously minded or faithful person, and can make the leap from taking the film literally to taking it figuratively, First Reformed is the film for you. It certainly won't give you any easy answers, but it will definitely ask you some very difficult and profound questions. 

©2018 

 

Silence : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!

Estimated Reading Time : 6 Minutes 37 Seconds

My Rating : 4.5 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. If you are a Catholic you must go see it now!! If you are a person of no faith or of another faith or even another denomination, the film may not resonate with you as much as it did with me. You can see it at your leisure.

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is the story of two Portuguese missionary Jesuit priests sent to Japan in the 1600's to try and find their missing mentor amidst a brutal nationwide persecution of Christians. The film stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as the Jesuit priests, Tadanobu Asano as their Japanese interpreter and Liam Neeson as their missing mentor Father Ferreira. 

Silence is a testament to iconic director Martin Scorsese's filmmaking prowess. It is a monumental film, a grueling, staggering, unrelenting and intensely personal piece of work that is, without a doubt, one of the best of the year. Silence is not only a film about faith, but a film of faith, faith as failure, faith as doubt, faith as struggle. Silence is riddled with intriguing metaphors that speak to our time, on issues like personal faith, religion, cultural assimilation, arrogant colonialism, conquest and submission. 

As much as I was enthralled by Silence, I am acutely aware that others may not, and probably will not, feel the same way about it I did. If you are not a person of faith, or are a person of a non-Catholic faith, this may not be the film for you. The film could feel impenetrable for someone who has not spiritually struggled in a similar fashion as the film's lead character Father Rodigues struggles. The film is a question with no answer, and if you think you have the answer, then it will most definitely be lost on you. The film is also intensely and specifically Catholic. The Christ of Catholicism is a mystical whisper, a flicker in the dark, a distant yet vaguely familiar mystery. When and if Christ/God ever does speak with Catholics, it is in the stillness, in a voice as quiet as the grave and as thundering as the end of the universe or the beginning of one. If you are Christian but not Catholic, the film may feel spiritually foreign to you and thus be a more frustrating than enlightening experience.

Silence, while a marvelous and compelling film, is also not a perfect one. The film runs two hours and forty minutes which was cut down due to pressure from the studio from a reported running time of three hours and thirty minutes. The studio no doubt wanted a shorter running time in order to facilitate more showings per day-per theatre, which equals more money. As strange as this is to say, the film should have remained three hours and thirty minutes long, as it is too short at two hours and forty minutes. The third act of the film is clearly rushed and the overall power of the narrative undermined by that fact. I sincerely hope that at some point a directors cut of the picture is released so that Scorsese's true and entire vision can be seen and appreciated. The irony of the studio forcing Scorsese to cut the length of the film in order to get more showings, is that the film is performing dismally at the box office anyway. A film like Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the iconic filmmakers of all time, is a prestige picture and should be treated as such. The emphasis should be on bringing Scorsese's unmolested artistic vision to the screen, not trying squeeze every nickel and dime out of the public. Due to its subject matter, a dark religiosity and spiritual struggle, Silence had slim chances of being a box office smash anyway, so the studio would have been wise to shoot for a bevy of Oscar nominations and wins in order to drum up audiences. Once again the commerce of Hollywood has done harm to the art of a filmmaking genius, I am sure it won't be the last time. 

The performances in Silence are all very solid. Andrew Garfield easily does the best work of his career as Father Rodrigues. Garfield played a somewhat similar type of role in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge this year, which was a terrible performance and a terrible film. Garfield's work in Silence is, thankfully, a million miles away from his lackluster work in Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield's performance in Silence is wonderfully crafted and filled with such a vivid internal life and struggle that he mesmerizes. Father Rodrigues' battle with fear, doubt, spiritual vertigo and pride are compellingly captured by the complex and layered work of Garfield. Garfield creates a character that is hoisted upon the cross of his own grandiosity and arrogance, who is both filled with a ferocious religious fire and also a delicate emotional and spiritual fragility. Garfield never wastes a moment on screen, or rings a false note in his entire magnetic performance which carries the picture upon his frail shoulders. 

The supporting actors do solid if unspectacular work, especially compared to Andrew Garfield's work. The Japanese cast are all excellent across the board though, with Tadanobu Asano being the most noteworthy. His work as the priest's Japanese interpreter is crucial for the film and he never fails to captivate with his character's, at times, infuriating behavior. 

Adam Driver and Liam Neeson do average work in supporting roles as Jesuit priests. I found Neeson to be, surprisingly, a bit underwhelming in his role. Driver was better than I thought he'd be, but he too never rises to the heights that Garfield does in terms of intensity and intricacy of performance. 

After seeing the film I read up on the history of its development and production and the struggle it took to get it made. Apparently the film had been in development hell for over twenty years. One tidbit that I found fascinating was the cast that was scheduled to star in the film a few years back when it got closest to being made. That scheduled cast was stellar and included Daniel Day- Lewis, Benicio del Toro and Gael Garcia Bernal in the three main roles. As much as I loved seeing this rendition of Silence, once I read that those actors could have been in it, I thought that their portrayal would have been markedly better than the one that was made. Day-Lewis, del Toro and Bernal are far superior actors to Neeson, Garfield and Driver. With that said, I was thoroughly enraptured with Garfield and Scorsese's 2017 version, but it is fun to speculate on what may have been.

In conclusion, Silence is a gorgeous, challenging, brutal and ultimately wondrous film. It is an intimate glimpse into the personal passion and crucifixion of a man on the cross of his faith and doubt. If ever there were a film that captured the arduous, perilous and ultimately confusing journey along the secret path of Christ, this is it. Silence is an exquisite work of art from the filmmaking genius that is Martin Scorsese, and is unquestionably the very best film of the second half of his career, and it isn't even close. I readily admit that this film is not for everyone, and that people of no faith or different faiths than Catholicism, will probably not connect as deeply with the film as I did, or at all. But if you are a person of faith, particularly a Catholic, I think this is not only a great film for you to go see, but a vital one. Martin Scorsese's faith mirrors my own in many ways, a sort of Merton and DeMello-esque, Buddhist Catholicism of deep meditative questioning, and hard fought, doubt-riddled belief. If you are religiously and spiritually wired the same way I am, I think Silence is well worth your sparse free time and hard earned money. If you share the same type of spiritual outlook as I do, then you shouldn't just go see Silence, you should seek it out like a man who's hair is on fire seeks water. 

©2017