May 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.
In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.
Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.
Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:
I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.
Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:
If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.
With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.
Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.
February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.
The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.
On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.
Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.
In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.
It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.
November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments
From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.
Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.
September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Throughout his long career, which began in TV and movie Westerns and dramas in the 1950’s, Stanton was described as a character actor, one who excelled in secondary roles. The character actor label followed him even after he became a leading man in two 1984 films: “Repo Man,” and “Paris, Texas.” It was, I suppose, a reference to his anti-movie star looks: a slight build and a gaunt, weathered face that became more fascinating as he aged. Stanton’s nose, always prominent, came to dominate his face as the rest of his features receded. Increasingly, his visage looked less made of flesh than carved from wood.
But his looks had little to do with his acting. His method relied heavily on observation and stillness, two qualities that elude most actors and almost all movie stars. Lucky is a man of few words, yet there’s never a moment when Stanton isn’t fully thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. We see Lucky going through his day– getting dressed, shaving, brushing his teeth, exercising, venturing out to talk with fellow residents of his tiny town–quotidian activities made profound by Stanton’s acting. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had gone on in this way, like a more mundane “Groundhog Day,” but the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had a bigger theme in mind: mortality, and Lucky’s reconciliation with it. Filling out the story are colorful characters played David Lynch, Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr. and Ron Livingstone, but the film–and every scene in it–belongs to Harry Dean Stanton. For me the highlight is his unexpected, perfect singing of “Volver,” (“To Return”) at a child’s birthday party. More than a showcase for Stanton’s musical talents–he was an accomplished singer and guitarist–“Volver” is a song about memory, love, the passage of time and the inevitability of death:
To Return with a withered brow/the snows of time silvered my temples
To feel life’s a puff of breath/that twenty years are nothing
Through his performance of “Volver,” Lucky gains an acceptance of his own end, a moment of grace that affects everyone in the scene. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.
September 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s hard not to be puzzled by recent director changes in the “Star Wars” series. The latest to be fired is Colin Trevorrow, who was supposed to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.” He follows Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired during production on the untitled Han Solo film (and replaced by Ron Howard), and Josh Trank, who was either supposed to direct the Han Solo movie or the Luke Skywalker one–no one seems to know for sure. Then there’s Gareth Edwards, who received directorial credit for “Rogue One” but was relieved during production by its screenwriters, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Because Weitz and Gilroy did extensive reshoots and fixed the third act, they are widely credited with the success “Rogue One.”
Producer Kathleen Kennedy’s formula for directors seems to be: find them at Sundance, give them a bigger picture and then move them up at warp speed to “Star Wars.” Hence Trevorrow, whose successful indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” led him to direct “Jurassic World.” The critical and box office failure of his latest, “The Book of Henry,” sealed his fate on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” but shouldn’t have been his modest resume? Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s animated hit “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” led them to “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” but none of the three predicted a successful transition to the world’s biggest franchise. Josh Trank’s indie hit “Chronicle” gave him the director spot on “Fantastic Four,”–again, not an obvious pathway to “Star Wars” glory.
As every knows, there has never been an experienced woman director of a “Star Wars” film, much less one with as little directing experience as these men. Women with critically successful first films tend to spend years trying to finance their second, not juggling action film offers from major studios as their male peers do. Often they wind up directing TV shows–hardly the purgatory it used to be, but not the same as having their name on the poster of the big summer movie. I can think of three excellent women directors with long resumes off the top of my head–Kathryn Bigelow, Mimi Leder and Ava DuVernay. All have successful action and effects films to their credit, but were they even considered for “Star Wars”? It’s easy to say they wouldn’t want the oversight that comes with the job, but I wonder if any of them were asked.
As it happens, Ava DuVernay–fresh off her Oscar nomination for “13”–is already directing the forthcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney, which owns “Star Wars.” She is the favorite candidate of many fans for “Star Wars: Episode IX” and a likely choice. Let’s hope Kathleen Kennedy thinks so too.
August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”
There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.
Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.
Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.
November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
Now that it’s been shown that only 1.9 percent of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013 and 2014 were women, the ACLU is investigating. Still, nothing has really changed, or is about to. Maureen Dowd, who wrote the article, says that male executives she interviewed called the issue of gender bias “bogus” and “a tempest in a teapot”–in other words, not even a problem. I’d say “read and weep,” except that the article says there’s no weeping allowed if you’re a woman director:
Last night I saw the beautiful “Carol,” one of the year’s best films. Set in the 1950s and based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Carol” is an honest-to-God woman’s picture, the kind we haven’t seen much of since the days when Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford’s names were on the marquee. “Carol” stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and was written by Phyllis Nagy. All the male roles are supporting ones. With that in mind, you’d think that “Carol” represents an advance for women in Hollywood, but no: it took thirteen years to reach the screen. Whose attachment gave it the green light? Not Blanchett’s, despite her star power and two Oscars. Not Nagy’s, though she is a well-regarded screenwriter and director (“Mrs. Harris”). In the end it was Todd Haynes who got “Carol” greenlit–a male director as usual, albeit one who specializes in films about women.