First Reformed(6/3/2018)

Review Contains Spoilers

Paul Schrader is a bit of an anomaly among veteran film directors in that, when looked at from afar, he actually has a pretty impressive filmography but it doesn’t always feel like that.  Part of that might simply be that his accomplishments as a screenwriter have long overshadowed his work as a director.  That’s perhaps understandable, handing off a script like Taxi Driver off to a different director tends to have that effect, but he does have some really solid directorial credits as well like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo so that can’t be the only problem.  The real problem is simple inconsistency.  For a guy who tends to speak very seriously about cinema and who once wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” about Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer Schrader sure seems to get involved in some questionable projects.  This has always been a problem for Schrader, who even in his prime years found himself making sensationalist projects like Hardcore and bad ideas like his Cat People remake.  But the last fifteen years have been particularly dismissible with him making Exorcist prequels, trashy Nicholas Cage movies, and tabloid baiting Lindsay Lohan movies with hardly a single real triumph since 2002’s Auto Focus.  Admittedly I haven’t actually seen most of the movies he’s made in that stretch and it’s possible that there are actually some hidden gems in there, but from the outside it’s been pretty easy to write the guy off as a has been chasing former glories.  But lo and behold, out of nowhere Schrader has suddenly made a movie called First Reformed that has actually gained a great deal of critical respect.  Could it be a true comeback?

First Reformed follows a modern day Calvinist pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is currently in charge of a historic church in the Albany, New York area called the First Reformed, which is about to go through its 250th anniversary.  Toller was once a military chaplain and he encouraged his son to follow the family tradition and join the military but this went bad when that son was killed in action during the war in Iraq.  Toller is now divorced and alcoholic but still takes some solace in preaching to his small flock.  One day a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him and asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has become increasingly depressed about the state of the world.  Michael is worried about his wife’s pregnancy and feels that it’s immoral to bring a child into a world that will inevitably be decimated by climate change within the child’s lifetime.  Toller tries to console the man but is himself disturbed by what he’s saying, which sparks a crisis of faith in the pastor about everyone’s culpability in destroying the world.

First Reformed uses as a framing device the fact that the depressed pastor at its center is writing a diary to get out his inner spiritual turmoil.  This of course harkens back to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest… I think.  Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Diary of a Country Priest.  Bresson and his theological explorations have never been my cup of tea and while I’ve seen a couple of his movies that one is a blind spot.  I have, on the other hand, seen the other movie that this one clearly draws influence from: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  The connection between the two is pretty clear with the film’s look at environmental despair being essentially an update of the nuclear paranoia that’s going on in Bergman’s film.  There are various other bits and pieces lifted from European classics and Schrader more or less announces that he’s working within this tradition by filming the movie in the old Academy Ratio, but the movie is not necessarily as slow and meditative as some of the movies that Schrader describes as “transcendental.”  This is not exactly a summer popcorn movie or anything but it isn’t the kind of art film that’s filled with pauses and lingering shots of the kind you might see in a Tsai Ming-liang movie or something.

This also shouldn’t be mistaken for a movie so indebted to the films of the past that it isn’t bringing anything of its own to the table.  There are elements of the film that hue closer to what Schrader’s own interests in almost hysterical obsession to the point where the film almost shares the structure of Schrader’s breakthrough screenplay Taxi Driver.  These Taxi Driver like elements are probably where I start to take issue with the movie, in part because the act of violence that the movie leads up to never quite seemed plausible to me.  For one thing, the basic notion of an “eco-terrorist” owning a suicide vest strained credibility from the beginning.  “Eco-terrorists” are a thing, but they are pretty different from “terrorist terroists,” they’ve been known to cause property damage and pull stunts like breaking into labs and freeing test animals but they’ve never killed anyone and it’s doubtful they would have much use for a C4 vest.  Even ignoring that, I have trouble seeing the logic in Toller’s eventual plan, which seems to involve killing several innocent people to take out one easily replaceable industrialist.  Deranged as he may have been, Travis Bickle at least had enough common sense to hatch a plan that actually would conceivably succeed at freeing the Jodie Foster character from her pimp.  Toller is older, better educated, and seemingly less far gone than Bickle and yet his plan seems even more disconnected from reality than that crazy taxi driver’s violent outburst and it’s tough to believe that even someone in extreme spiritual tumult would hatch such a scheme.

Ignoring whether or not the development at the end quite makes sense, what are we to make of it?  I think a big part of the message might be in the music that Schrader chooses to set his climax to.  As Toller begins to mutilate himself with barbed wire and contemplate drinking drano Esther is singing an old American Hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that will be familiar cinephilles from its use in Night of the Hunter and its incorporation in Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.  It’s filled with lyrics like “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,” “safe and secure from all alarms,” and “O how sweet to walk, In this pilgrim way.”  In short it’s a song about finding bliss and comfort in religion, which is about the opposite of what Toller is experiencing.  On the contrary, Toller finds that truly thinking through the implications of his faith and the toll of being moral in a fallen world to be anything but comforting.  I don’t think the movie is suggesting that this is an experience that’s unique to religion given that the character of Michael also ended up being consumed after truly thinking through the implications of what we’re doing to the world.  I don’t think the movie is trying to suggest that people should be living in blissful ignorance either but it is suggesting that people maybe shouldn’t try to bear the weight of the world on their own and in the final shot of the film Toller manages to unburden himself, even if only in his dying imagination, by throwing out the burdens of the cloth and following the carnal instincts that he’s been suppressing this whole time.  Some of the chains that bind him still remain, but in this final vision there is perhaps at least some hope that remains.

**** out of Five


Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 6 – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

I first encountered the Pee Wee Herman as a child when the show “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” was airing on Saturday mornings on CBS.  It was decidedly not my favorite show as a kid but I do remember having watched a couple of episodes.  I must have been a very small kid when this was happening because I would have only been about four in 1991 when it was pulled off the air following Paul Reubens’ arrest for jacking off in a porn theater.  I do remember hearing about that incident at the time and knowing that it was the reason the show was cancelled, though I had no concept of what masturbation was at the time and no one felt the need to explain to me what a porn theater was, I just heard he was caught “playing with his penis” in a movie theater which actually kind of makes it sound worse than it was but I digress.  As I said his show was never really for me even as a small child, possibly just because it always seemed to be a bit too “in your face” with its weirdness and also for its general lack of narrative.  Maybe it was actually meant for a slightly older audience of, like, seven and eight year olds but because I was so young when it got pulled I associated it with being for the smallest of small children.  Consequently I had also always assumed that Pee Wee’s big screen debut Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was less of a real movie and more just a spin-off of the show like Elmo in Grouchland or something.  Over the years though it became apparent that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was something a little different from that as evidence by the fact that it was directed by Tim Burton of all people and that people actually talked about it respectfully rather than as the mercenary corporate project I had suspected.

As it turns out, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure actually predates “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and that the Pee Wee character actually debuted as a sort of counter culture stage show for adults about this weird guy who had sort of constructed the Howdy Doody Show from hell.  A filmed version of this stage show was eventually broadcast on HBO and Reubens started showing up on talk shows in character and eventually the character became famous enough to support a feature film and this was the result.  As previously stated, this was directed by Tim Burton and was his first feature film after directing a couple of well-liked if controversial short films while working for Disney and the success of his Pee Wee film propelled him to bigger things like Beetlejuice and Batman.  I had always assumed this was something of a mercenary project for Burton, but Pee Wee Herman does sort of serve as an outsider figure along the lines of an Edward Scissorhands or an Ed Wood although he isn’t always treated that way.  One would have expected that the joke of this film would be seeing what would happen to this weird guy when he left his little bubble and showed up in the real world, and there’s a little bit of that in the movie but for the most part everyone in the film comes to accept Herman quickly, perhaps a little too quickly.

There are certainly bits and sketches in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure that are well staged and amusing.  Its most famous moment, Large Marge, is certainly a neat piece of filmmaking and the film’s climactic chase scene has a comic energy that’s reminiscent of silent era slapstick and on top of that Danny Elfman gives the films an excellent score.  Unfortunately, in my eyes almost all of the film’s merits are undone by its Achilles heel: it has one of the most annoying main protagonists in the history of cinema.  I had basically no nostalgia for Pee Wee Herman as a character and I had hoped that watching this I would see something in him that I had missed before, instead I just found in Pee Wee Herman this strange irritating man with a voice that falls on the ears like nails on a chalkboard.  His every annoying laugh and every dumb phrase just filled me with an incredible loathing and opened in me an incredible urge to reach into the TV screen and grab Pee Wee by the neck and squeeze until his shrill voice was silenced, his made up face turned purple, and he stopped moving.  I can’t speak for everybody but in general I think it’s hard for any movie to really overcome a weakness like making the audience want to murder its central character but there are other alienating elements here, many of the side characters are similarly hard to deal with and the “normal” characters who somehow find this human wrecking ball that they encounter charming rather than disturbing are strange in their own right.  I’m not oblivious to fact that there’s some talent here and I will concede that Pee Wee’s schtick might not be kryptonite to some people the way it is to me and that they might like the movie more than I do, but for me this damn thing was painful.

To the Scorecard:

In the last two rounds the 80s were starting to win me over.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit really lived up to the hype and Labyrinth managed to charm me a little, but man oh man did this one not work for me.  This is certainly a knockdown, no question.  Going strictly by my subjective opinion of that experience I might even go so far as to paint this as a round with multiple knockdowns but there are some solid elements of filmmaking here that can’t be entirely ignored.  For that reason I’m just going to score this a 10/8 round.

Solo: A Star Wars Story(5/27/2018)

Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began.  That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told.  It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something.  A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.”  This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.”  The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him.  What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that.  Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame.  As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.

Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess.  This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia.  There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to.  Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not.  From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot.  We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.

Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue.  To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie.  It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to.  He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie.  He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.

Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role.  The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes.  Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length.  We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of.  That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it.  Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe.  If anything I feel like it should be the other way around.  The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here.  Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.”  I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals.  On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo.  At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up.  However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.

***1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 5 – Labyrinth (1986)

On January 10th 2016 it was announced that the legendary pop superstar David Bowie had passed away from a bout with cancer that had previously not been announced to the public.  It was the first of many tragic celebrity deaths that occurred that year and the mass mourning for it seemed a bit different than the many other celebrity passings that had occurred previously.  In the wake of this the Fathom Events company decided to mark his death by bringing one of his movies back to the big screen.  The movie they chose was not one of the cinema classics he appeared in like Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth or Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence or even one of his concert films like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  Instead what they screened was a family film he made with Jim Henson in the mid-eighties that was considered a box office bomb at the time but which went on to have a cult following of sorts, a film called Labyrinth.  This was of course an understandable choice, as a successful musician Bowie generally only took starring roles in movies that were passion projects and this kids movie was probably his most prominent move into the mainstream.  What’s more Labyrinth has become a pretty noticeable part of pop culture and is definitely one of the movies that I hear “80s kids” talk about a lot despite its initial box office disappointment.

Of course one of the ironies of the great ironies of the film’s legacy is that it has become so heavily associated with the performance of a flesh and blood actor (and his strangely prominent pants bulge) when it was plainly intended to be a showcase for Jim Henson’s puppetry.  There are two prominent human actors in the movie, Bowie’s Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly as the film’s protagonist.  Connelly would of course go on to be a fairly prominent star in the 2000s but her work here as a fifteen year old is not great.  Granted, Connelly’s character is kind of poorly drawn in the script.  It seems like she’s meant to be some kind of theater kid with an overactive imagination, but the movie makes the rather strange decision to give the audience no reason to believe she has a single friend her own age and until the muppets show up spends a lot of time talking to herself in order to give exposition.  I wouldn’t exactly call Bowie’s performance great acting either but he certainly has presence and to my surprise he actually performs music in the film, which was kind of an odd choice.  “Magic Dance” is certainly an earworm but it certainly breaks any sense of menace that his character has and a number later on with puppets mostly just seemed like an exercise in terrible green screen effects.

There are sort of two kinds of fantasy story-telling: there are the “high fantasy” stories like Lord of the Rings and “Game of Thrones” witch construct worlds and tell straightforward stories within them, which is what The Dark Crystal was, and then there are the fantasy stories that are meant to sort of be literalizations of their characters imaginations like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland and Labyrinth is clearly trying to fit in that second tradition.  At times the film feels more like a series of sketches than a true narrative and is notable for having been written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, whose voice you can hear in parts like the scene where a cat who fancies himself a knight tries to stop our heroes from crossing a bridge, which is almost like a kid-friendly remake of the famous Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  That said I wouldn’t exactly call the movie “funny” and I also don’t think it really holds together too well as a story.  Really it’s more just a series of sometimes clever but sometimes simply strange little ideas.  It can be a fun watch in the moment but it probably could have been a more memorable and coherent adventure with a little more attention to the script and less attention to the puppets.

To the Scorecard:

This one is kind of a tough call.  In the context of a normal review this thing would probably be marginal thumbs down because deep down I think it’s a pretty shallow movie that is brought down by some elements that simply don’t work.  However, my metric here is less strictly about quality and more about whether the nostalgia around a movie is merited rather than purely the result of rose-colored glasses and in this case I think the nostalgia is understandable.  Put simply it’s a fun movie and its flaws are in many ways enjoyably weird rather than truly boring.

Deadpool 2(5/21/2018)

Let it be known, while I look pretty closely at box office figures week to week I am not always that great at predicting what’s going to catch on and how big.  That was certainly the case of the first Deadpool film, which I expected to find an audience but I never imagined it would make $132 million in its opening weekend and go on to make nearly $800 million worldwide.  There might have been a little personal bias there because by 2016 I’d been pretty frustrated by the “comic book adaptation with attitude” genre as exemplified by such films as Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service.  As such I skipped Deadpool in theaters and when I finally caught up with the movie on Blu-ray I can’t say I particularly regretted that decision.  Deadpool was a fun movie but it certainly didn’t stand out to me as any kind of zeitgeist capturing triumph.  Some of its profane fourth-wall breaking antics were amusing but hardly the funniest thing I’d ever seen and ignoring the jokes it was a pretty dull origin story with a bland villain and it’s lower budget was readily apparent in its small-scale action scenes which couldn’t really compete with the giant superhero spectacles that Hollywood has been regularly churning out.  And yet, I find myself more inclined to see the film’s sequel in theaters than I was for the original, which maybe has less to do with the movies themselves and more to do with the fact that Hollywood didn’t have the balls to put out anything in the two weeks following Avengers: Infinity War and I was jonesing for an action movie.

Deadpool 2 picks up a few months after the end of its predecessor and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has embraced a life of doing mercenary work against criminals while easing into his relationship with his fiancé Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) until one day one of his enemies follows him home and kills Vanessa in front of him.  Deadpool dispatches the responsible parties quickly but is overcome with guilt and tries to kill himself explosively only to have his healing powers save him once again.  Seeing that Deadpool is hurting Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) try to rescue him and bring him into the X-Men fold once again.  Deadpool plays along, but on his very first mission he finds himself shooting someone to save a troubled mutant teen named Firefist (Julian Dennison) and both he and his friend are arrested and placed into a special mutant prison where everyone wears collars that suppress their powers.  All hope seems lost when the prison is attacked by a time traveling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) who seems oddly hellbent on killing Firefist.

One of my biggest problems with the original Deadpool is that is just seemed kind of, well, cheap.  I got why it was cheap, the studios were clearly as skeptical as I was about how much of a mass audience the Deadpool character could draw, but given that it was competing with any number of actual blockbuster superhero films its rather meager action scenes were a problem.  That has been solved in the sequel, which is perhaps to be expected given that the budget has almost doubled and one of the guys behind the “John Wick” series has been brought on to direct.  It would have been a massive disappointment if the action scenes in this thing weren’t a major step up, but they are.  That’s not to say that this is some kind of action movie classic but on scales of spectacle it does hold its own against most the other more conventional superhero movies and the R-ratedness of the film’s violence does give it a flavor that most of those movies don’t have.

This time it’s actually the comedy I’m a bit shaky about.  Having only watched the original Deadpool in a fairly casual fashion I didn’t really have firm opinions about the comedic stylings of the series but watching this sequel it’s clear that what’s basically going on here is that the movies are taking the “throw everything at the wall” approach to comedy that movies like Airplane! took except that it’s working with a much larger budget and only one character is really allowed to break the fourth wall.  As tends to be the case with this approach some jokes work and some don’t, and in this movie I’d say the ratio is maybe one in three landed jokes, which could be worse, but some of the jokes that don’t work are kind of cringey.  The movie really wants to seem cool and subversive but in many ways its not as smart as it thinks it is and you can really see the way it does things that seem aimed at a very wide and frankly kind of basic audience.  Like, this is a movie that feels the need to throw in parodies of the boombox scene from Say Anything and the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct as if the world didn’t already have enough of both and even feels the need to announce exactly the movie they’re referencing in the latter example.  The weird thing is that every once in the blue moon the movie actually will reference something that’s a little bit more obscure like when someone casually brings up the 2005 Australian film The Proposition or when Deadpool makes the occasional inside joke about the comic books, but a lot of these jokes just seem kind of like low hanging fruit rather than subversive digs.

The constant jokes and digressions here certainly leads to some amusing moments but they also sort of undercut the occasional moments where the movie semi-ironically tries to actually play something straight.  The moments in the film where it tries to fight for the soul of a child and prevent him from becoming a killer seem particularly hypocritical given the general disregard for human life that is otherwise on display in the movie.  This is a movie that begs you not to take it seriously outside of its overwhelming irreverence and given that I kind of wish it had gone for the jugular even more.  The film certainly isn’t making any kind of statement about society and while it does make certain digs at the comic book genre I’m not sure they’re all that biting either.  Of course this isn’t to say that the movie is a complete failure or even a failure at all really.  As summer entertainment goes the movie mostly succeeds and I think there is reason to say that it offers more to the viewer than some of the more cookie-cutter of the Marvel movies.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.  That said I don’t really respect the movie in spite of its entertainment value.  At the end of the day it’s a rather immature work and I don’t think it’s going to age we, but again, there are worse ways to spend your time.

*** out of Five