Ethan Hawke

First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Maggie’s Plan

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03/08/16

It’s ironic that before the screening of Maggie’s Plan, we’re shown a trailer for Cafe Society, the kind of film that Woody Allen makes now – ironic, because the main feature is the kind of film that he used to make, back at the height of his powers. Greta Gerwig stars as the titular heroine, a self-confessed control freak who believes she has her whole life planned out in advance. Having failed to sustain a meaningful relationship for more than a few months, but deeply addicted to the idea of becoming a mother, she decides to go ahead and have a baby via insemination by Guy (Travis Fimmel) a ‘pickle entrepreneur’ who readily agrees to eschew any notion of parental responsibility. But matters become a bit more complicated when Maggie’s fellow university lecturer, John (Ethan Hawke) asks her if she wouldn’t mind reading some chapters from his novel, a thinly veiled account of his own life and marriage to the highly successful, but  extremely neurotic Georgette (Julianne Moore).

As Maggie and John’s friendship develops, it soon becomes apparent that they are falling for each other and matters are compounded when, inevitably, they sleep together

Three years later, they are a couple with a toddler to look after but Maggie is beginning to realise that this isn’t anything like the kind of rosy future she’d envisaged. As well as her own child, she’s also handling the other kids that John had with Georgette and John is too intent on that blasted novel to pay her any real attention – so Maggie hatches a devious plan to get John and Georgette back together…

The film is a delight, funny, acerbic, beautifully handled by writer/director Rebecca Miller. Gerwig builds on the sterling work she did in Frances Ha and Julianne Moore submits another of her chameleon-like performances, that stays just the right side of caricature. Bill Hader is particularly funny as Maggie’s long-suffering best friend, but to be fair, there’s barely a wrong note anywhere in this movie, which is as light and palatable as a perfectly cooked soufflé. It’s interesting to note that there are no villains in this story, just a collection of people dealing with their own life issues- and there’s a delightful surprise at the film’s conclusion that makes for a truly satisfying ending.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney