FIRST REFORMED (2018)
Most of the important American films in the past 30 years that have addressed faith and the place of God in modern society have been the work of Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader.
While Scorsese's 2016 examination of the sacrifices demanded by faith, "Silence" was a complex epic set in 17th Century Japan, Schrader new movie is a humble tale of a rather cold, depressed pastor in a tiny church in upstate New York. Both filmmakers, over long careers, have often addressed the strains of living a moral life in contemporary America.
Schrader, whose recent pictures have barely been released (and star Nicolas Cage, need I say more....) helped write "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" for Scorsese and directed "American Gigolo" (1980), "Cat People" (1982), "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1985), "Patty Hearst" (1988) and "Affliction" (1997). Without making Hollywood's A-list, Schrader has been one of the most interesting, cerebral writer-directors of his generation.
In "First Reformed," Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, a deeply reflective, alcoholic minister whose counseling of a troubled young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) leads him to an awakening to the ongoing ecological crisis and the polluting being done by a company whose founder is a major backer of his church and its larger sister church, Abundant Life.
While Toller becomes emotionally involved with the appropriately named Mary (Seyfried), who's also pregnant, and the environmental issues, Rev. Jeffers of Abundant Life (Cedric--the Entertainer--Kyles in a rare dramatic role) is pushing him to prepare for the celebration of the old church's 250th anniversary.
The combination of the conflict between the old church's austerity and the upbeat, can-do attitude of Jeffers is all it takes to send Toller into an emotional and intellectual abyss. Not only is Schrader taking shots at the feel-good religion of the 21st Century, but at the lack of social responsibly taken by contemporary religious leaders.
Hawke's Toller is essentially Travis Bickel with a collar, complete with a "Taxi Driver"-like ending that hovers between reality and dream.
This rigorous, stoic performance by Hawke, his best work on film, converts the minimalistic picture into a kind of battle of conscience in the desert as Toller takes on the suffering of Christ.
One could criticize Schrader for mining old ground, but this is a timeless conflict that, especially in this dumb-downed era of moviemaking, is always welcomed.
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)
I'm starting to feel as if I review a "Star Wars" film in every edition of Thoughts on Film. Of course, that might be because this is only my sixth post in the past year, but, to the point, maybe Disney needs to slow down production on these side features.
Not that "Solo" isn't worth seeing for fans, but the movie is about as basic as the series gets. The entire plot could have been a 10-minute flashback in "The Force Awakens" the 2015 entry in which the intrepid and beloved Han Solo dies.
Played with the required playfulness and arrogance by Alden Enrenreich (who doesn't look much like Harrison Ford but captures some of his mannerisms), young Han does exactly what you'd think in every situation the film presents. But what surrounds him isn't much; the movie lacks any sense of urgency and, inexcusable for a "Star Wars" adventure, is filled with flat, forgettable characters.
Even the usually reliable Woody Harrison, as a conniving mercenary, doesn't bring much value to the film. Even worse are Emilia Clarke (of "Game of Thrones") as Solo's love interest who ends up attached to the bad guy, Donald Glover (of TV's "Atlanta") as the young version of con man Lando and veteran Paul Bettany as the criminal they are all working for.
Director Ron Howard, brought in midway through production, doesn't make his presence felt either; not that he's ever been known as a stylist, but the film is dying for a some energy and a sliver of believability. At least, he could have inspired decent performances out of the cast.
Enrenreich, not yet 30, arrives at the role with an impressive resume, having already appeared in films by Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty and Woody Allen, but he still isn't ready to carry a major film like "Solo."
I'm relatively confident that I'll finish another Thoughts before the next "Star Wars" picture hits screens, but I'm just as sure that a new piece to George Lucas' epic puzzle will arrive way too soon. Sure, I'd like to see the middle years of Obi-wan Kenobi, but I'm happy to wait until 2020.
I'm not exactly part of the target audience for a film about postpartum depression, the trials of breast feeding and the struggles of parenthood. Yet this Jason Reitman-directed movie also offers insight into the changing landscape of adulthood and the longing for the optimism of youth, which registered loud and clear for me.
In her ninth month when the film opens, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is clearly exhausted by her pregnancy (it's her third) and not feeling much support from an inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston). Adding to her stress, the couple's first-grader, obviously on the spectrum, isn't fitting in at school and requires special care (and, though not mentioned, the right meds--they desperately need a better health plan).
Her brother offers a solution to some of her ailments: a night nanny. She rejects the idea as bourgeois, but after a few weeks of nonstop, exhausting care has a change of heart. Suddenly, the young, wise, ridiculously efficient free spirit Tully (Mackenzie Davis who played the replicant prostitute in "Blade Runner 2049") shows up just before bedtime every night, reviving Marlo's outlook on life. The relationship between Marlo and Tully that forms the center of the film turns the story into much more than the trials of a newborn's mother.
Though not as edgy as "Young Adult," the first collaboration between director Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and Theron, "Tully" continues the trio's exploration of difficult transition into a life of responsibility in the 21st Century. The film also connects to Cody's Oscar-winning debut screenplay about teen pregnancy, "Juno," also directed by Reitman.
The versatile Theron brings the same authenticity to her roles whether she's playing a resourceful spy in "Atomic Blonde," an Amazon warrior in "Mad Max: Fury Road" or someone desperate for stability in "Young Adult" and "Tully." She deserved Oscar nominations for "Mad Max" and "Young Adult;" hopefully her work in "Tully" won't also be overlooked.
Even the most insightful and accomplished filmmaker occasionally miscalculates. Alexander Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor have produce a string of films that inevitably have made my year-end Top 10: "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004), "The Descendants" (2011) and "Nebraska" (2013).
But their latest, a metaphoric tale about the search for a meaningful life, wrapped in a clever idea of saving the planet by shrinking humans down to five inches, never finds its footing.
Matt Damon's Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), unsatisfied with their financial status in the full-sized world, decide to get shrunk and move into a slick new world where their meager savings will allow them to live like millionaires. Except that Audrey backs off at the last minute, leaving mini Paul to navigate his new existence on his own.
When Paul meets a famous humanitarian, slumming as a housekeeper, his life quickly changes. She takes over his life, or he lets her, and the Swiftian satire is dispensed with. Ngoc Lan Tran (an amusing Hong Chau), whose thick Vietnamese accent becomes a bit too-much of a running gag, dominates the second half of the film as she leads Paul into uncharted waters, a new way to look at life.
Damon and the script are never able to nail down what Paul is all about other than an easily led sad sack who doesn't have a leading role in his own life. I was more interested in his neighbor Dusan (the kinetic Christoph Waltz), who seems to have uncovered the key to success in the little-people world and is having the time of his life.
A QUIET PLACE (2018)
There's something very appealing about movie characters forced by threat of quick, gruesome death to remain silent. Noisy, pointlessly talkative character are a plague on contemporary cinema--no one (screenwriters and directors) knows when to let acting tell the story.
For this well-received horror film, the hushed tones keep the Abbott family, headed by Lee (John Krasinski, who also directed) and Evelyn (the always stressed Emily Blunt) from being attacked by hideous alien creatures that have seemingly destroyed much of humanity.
The screenplay offers little clue as to where these spider-like creatures came from, how many people have survived or what's being done to combat them. The nuclear family is the entire cast.
The film's spareness is its primary strength--I was glad not to be subjected to all the usual scientific mumbo jumbo that always results in nothing in these types of pictures. But what's left--remember, very little is said--doesn't add up to much of a story. Most interestingly is the pre-teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), whose anger at the overall situation and an earlier family tragedy provide an edge to this otherwise solemn situation.
Yet my sympathy for the family went out the window when Evelyn becomes pregnant. At first I thought I was mistaken--what could be more idiotic than bringing another human into this horrific world. More practically, a newborn cannot control crying, almost guaranteeing that the very hungry aliens would show up.
If Krasinski was trying to show how hopeful these people remained the face of incredible darkness, it didn't work; my reaction was how stupid they were, putting their other children and themselves at pointless risk.
I don't see many horror films, so I'll take other critics' word that this is a big step above the usual fodder, but the genre still has a long way to go to be more than amusing date-night entertainment.
READY PLAYER ONE (2018)
For a film that is more computer game than cinema, this sentimental story based on a best-selling teen novel is entertaining from start to finish.
Set in a dystopia future just 30 years from now, in which hopeless humans play out their lives in a virtual reality game called OASIS (not much of a sci-fi stretch), the film is filled with reference to pop culture of the 1980s--even Orwell never imaged a future so horrible).
The deceased creator of the VR world, Anorak (an unrecognizable Mark Rylance) has left behind an elaborate contest in which the winner will become controller of the world.
Wade (Tye Sheridan), known as Parzival in the game, lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio--not far from director Steven Spielberg's hometown of Cincinnati--who through obsessive study of Anorak's life, earns the first of three keys to the game. At that point, he's joined by an amusingly diverse posse who all take on superhero guises in OASIS.
What kept the movie interesting for this non-gamer was the nonstop reference to other movies, including 1980s classic "Back to the Future" (there's a Zemeckis rubric's cube!), "Say Anything" and "The Shining" (in a long sequence at the Overlook Hotel).
Like all teen movies, this is a story of diversity, teamwork and lessons to be learned, which grows dull quickly.
While there are way too many CGI battles for my taste, Spielberg keeps bringing the viewer back to the real life people behind the avatars and their battle with the evil corporate giant (if the VR world is anything, it's filled with clichés).
The obvious question is: Why is a filmmaker of Spielberg's status making this kind of Saturday morning throwaway, like he did in "BFG" (2016)? Yet it's hard to complain too much when he continues to also make films like "Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies" and "The Post," all in the last six years.
THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN (2017)
Though a constant presence in American film for 30 years, Bill Pullman has rarely been the star. Like the great character actors of the studio era, he's always convincing, usually more memorable than the films.
His finest performance was as the quirky private eye Daryl Zero in "Zero Effect," a little seen 1998 gem that in some alternative universe would have turned into a serious of films.
Pullman became a well-known face starting in the late 1980s and early 90s as Lone Starr in Mel Brooks' "Star Wars" parody "Spaceballs," Meg Ryan's jilted fiance in "Sleepless in Seattle," gunman Ed Masterson in "Wyatt Earp," Sandra Bullock's low-key love interested in "While You Were Sleeping" and as the president in the mega hit "Independence Day."
Suddenly, he found himself headlining projects directed by cult filmmakers David Lynch ("Lost Highway") and Wim Wenders ("The End of Violence") and then scored his best role, as quirky private eye Daryl Zero in "Zero Effect" (1998) for director Jake Kasdan. In some alternative universe, "Zero" would have been turned into a series of films.
Since the turn of the century, he's mostly been toiling in B-movie territory, though in 2017, in addition to "Lefty Brown," he played tennis legend and proud male chauvinist Jack Kramer in "The Battle of the Sexes."
Lefty Brown is the unassuming, trusted sidekick of Edward Johnson (the enduring Peter Fonda), a successful Montana rancher and just elected U.S. senator who is shot down while the pair are out checking on livestock.
While Lefty and a young hotshot (Diego Josef) go after the killers, various friends and local politicians convince the widow (Kathy Baker) that the seemingly loyal Brown turned on Johnson. Even in the middle of nowhere in the 1890s, politics were ugly.
Written and directed by Jared Moshe, whose previous feature was also a Western, "Dead Man's Burden" (2012), but has mostly served as producer on documentaries, the film plays more like an extended episode of "Gunsmoke" rather than a feature. But Pullman more than makes up for that; he shines for all the sidekicks who were underappreciated in Western pictures.
THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926)
and THE LOVES OF JEANNE NYE (1927)
Unlike most art forms--writing, painting, dancing, the stage--technology plays a large part in our appreciation of movies. Those other expressive endeavors look pretty much the same as they did a century ago (or longer), but try showing a black and white film to a classroom of teenagers. Even a movie from the '90s is greeted with groans about its creaky visuals and acting.
Even my generation, born just 25 years after the arrival of sound, thinks of silent movies as quaint relics of a long-ago world not to be taken seriously. I'd wager that most people under the age of 60 have seen nothing from the silent era beyond clips from Chapin or Keaton comedies--they are missing some of the finest works of the cinema.
The Western epic "Barbara Worth" tells the story of the Colorado River and how its invaluable water was used for the agricultural and urban growth of California. We first meet Barbara as an infant standing beside the body of her dead mother in the middle of an endless desert. The family's attempt to migrate west ends tragically, but the girl is taken in by rancher Jefferson Worth (Charles Lane) and grows to be a feisty, independent cowgirl, played by Vilma Blanky, one of Hollywood biggest stars in the 1920s. (The Hungarian actress' career ended with sound--she's couldn't speak English.)
When Jefferson Worth hires an engineer (the dashing Ronald Colman) to create an irrigation system for the desert town, the young man falls instantly in love with Barbara, who's already being courted by her father's top ranch hand (a pre-stardom Gary Cooper).
Director Henry King creates an impressive visual stage for this love triangle, capturing the vastness of the west before the massive immigration began. The story, from Frances Marion's script of Harold Bell Wright's novel, was reused in Westerns for the rest of the century and, predictably, culminates in the two rivals putting aside their differences to save the town from ill-advised decisions.
The climatic dam break, which comes close to destroying the entire community, is as impressive a special effect as any created in Hollywood over the next 20 years. George Barnes ("Rebecca") and Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") are the credited cinematographers.
King spent 30 years as 20th-Century Fox's go-to director making mostly pedestrian, star vehicles, yet occasionally he turned out gems like "Jesse James" (1939), "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949), "The Gunfighter" (1950)--both starring Gregory Peck--"Carousel" (1956) and "The Sun Also Rises" (1957).
More complex and adult is G.W. Pabst's "The Love of Jeanne Ney," a intense story of an innocent young woman caught up in the underground activity of factions of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. When the father of Jeanne (Edith Jehanne) is murdered, she flees to Paris under the protection of her uncle who runs a private eye agency.
The performance of the film is given by 21-year-old Brigitte Helm, best known as the star of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" released that same year. She plays Jeanne's blind cousin who is courted by the sleazy Khalibiev, who really has his eyes on Jeanne.
Stylish constructed by Pabst, the film is a model of silent artistry in which plot and character are conveyed through visuals and a limited amount of title cards. Two years later, Pabst collaborated with sex symbol Louise Brooks to create two of the most memorable silents, "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl." He also brought Bertolt Brecht's landmark musical-drama "The Three Penny Opera" (1931) to the screen.
Just as the art of film was reaching its apex in the late 1920s, elevated by directors telling stories with the camera, Warner Bros. released "The Jazz Singer," featuring stage legend Al Jolson singing "Mammy" and a few other songs. The industry--and the art form--was never the same again.