“First Reformed”

The only thing good I can say about Paul Schrader’s new film is that my husband would now like to try the body to body mystical -travel -sans -elevation game. Otherwise, Schrader’s  screenplay is a mess. “First Reformed” tries to deal with theological questions about the meaning of life and our stewardship of the Earth, but ends up with a guilty, physically and mentally-ill alcoholic trying to make his suffering mean something. He copies Thomas Merton only in that he writes a daily journal. He tears out the pages he does not like when he feels they were written in delirium. Pride gets in his way. He tells us in one of the frequent voice-overs that “this journal brings me no peace.”

Our reverend goes through all the footwork of religious service: he , ironically, counsels others in hope and despair; he ladles in the soup kitchen; he leads prayer circles; and he makes house calls to pregnant woman in distress over their husband’s depression and eco-terrorist plans. The audience is sympathetic to a point with the daily and lonely grind of a churchman.

And our churchman has a backstory. He sprung from devout stock, was married, had a son, whom he counseled to enlist in military service. The son was killed in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage dissolved in his alcoholism and grief. Reverend Toller was reassigned to a small clapboard church in upstate New York. A museum place from Underground Railroad days with a handful of parishioners, the church is a country of its own, an exile for the emotionally damaged Toller.

The cinematography is stark and telling. One chair, one desk, one candle on a bare wood floor. Loneliness is here, yet the chiaroscuro facial lighting is so Ingmar Bergman that we feel like screaming “copy-cat” instead of breathing in rhythm with the greats.  I do not understand the rave reviews this film has received. I can do stark and barren, even appreciate it, but I am an outlier in thinking this is a poor screenplay.

There is some nuanced acting from Cedric Kyles as he plays the mega-church minister Rev. Joel Jeffries. He is worried about Rev. Toller’s depression. Rev. Jeffries counsels his colleague: “ Even Jesus took a break from the Garden, ( of Gethsemane) once in awhile.”

Phillip Ettinger is a fine actor in the part of Mary’s husband, Michael. He has been imprisoned for his activism. We understand him. He intones in his talk with the reverend that “One-third of the natural world has been killed in your lifetime.” His anthropocene take on the second half of this century is laudatory. Even with Ethan Hawke’s voice overs, Rev. Toller is more difficult to fetter out. He is needlessly derisive to the choir director, (Victoria Hill) who is attracted to him. He meanly says, “ I despise you. Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block. You are hovering.” Rev. Toller has no trouble biking with the thirty-three-year-old Mary. Even Ethan Hawke’s good acting can’t save this film, or the crazy Rev. Toller.

Director-writer Schrader used old-fashioned credits at the film start. Another tip-off that the ending is going to be arresting, but in this case we just wonder why Rev. Toller did not flinch at any kind of embrace since he is wrapped in thorny wire. This brings me to Mary, the pregnant widow, whom the reverend is so obviously smitten by. Amanda Seyfried has this role, and she is horrid and wooden. She does not cry enough after her husband kills himself. She can’t wait to have Rev. Toller pack up Michael’s things. She has her plan to stay in Buffalo with her sister and have her baby before her husband’s ashes are tossed out of a plastic bag.

The eco-conversion of Rev. Toller is unconvincing. He borrows Michael’s passion, because he has none. He tells us that the petty ailments of a forty-three-year-old make him ill-tempered. Hawke’s seems much older than that and much sicker. He tells us that he has found another form of prayer. Really? In killing?

And what is up with the barbed-wire dramatically found at the last minute to supplant the suicide vest. A crown of thorns for the un-Christ-like sufferer does not work except to turn this film into a horror show of Liquid Plumber. Ingmar Bergman copy-cat filming with chiaroscuro facial lighting and long, white robes is boring. The dolly-rolling-camera technique in the framing of the church edifice and of Michael and Mary’s home is meaningless. The static shots with bare lightbulbs overdone.

Yes, love can make the world go round, but “ Cat People” (1982) was a better movie.

“Maudie”

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke give humbling performances portraying a real life couple, who find happiness in each other. Finding happiness and how we frame it is the subject matter of this story based on the primitive artist Maud Lewis. Lewis ( 1903-1970 ) is Canada’s most famous folk artist. Physically, she suffered from polio and childhood rheumatoid arthritis. Emotionally, she suffered from a family who made decisions expediently that excluded, yet greatly affected, her.

The pace is slow. The cinematography lovely. Nova Scotia with its isolation and stark natural beauty surround the shack where Everett Lewis ( Hawke ) salvages materials and peddles fish. Cinematographer Guy Godfree frames everything like a canvas. Windows and doors, screened and otherwise, filter soft light as a way of being free to see the world as we choose. Filmed in Ireland and in Newfoundland, Godfree and Director Aisling Walsh give us juxtaposition between the small world of  Maud and Everett and the natural world at large.

The late 1930’s is our time frame, and “Maudie” ‘s writer Sherry White  has the late teenaged Maud seeking some independence from her Aunt Ida’s restrictions. Maud parlays her way into a housemaiden’s job with even more rules. How her spirit wins over the gruff, mono-syllabic Everett  is much of our tale.

Sally Hawkins’ wry smile and swinging legs, her constricted hands, and her unconstricted heart, get us ready for her seven-mile-walk on hobbled limbs and her easy “would not mind a cup of tea” as she introduces herself to the knuckle-cracking Everett. Hawkins is brilliant in capturing the emotionally delightful Maud. One of my favorite scenes is where she delights in the irony of being called his “love slave”.

Hawke is equally as fine in his brutal remarks and quick to anger ways: “You walk funny”, “I am the boss; don’t forget it”, and “Who told you you could talk to the dogs like that!”  “It is me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you.” He kicks the door when he can’t recall the words he needs on his help-wanted ad. He wishes his housekeeper to bring her own cleaning supplies. His tender side is shown, too, as he volunteers at the orphanage where he grew up and as he comes to show his love for Maud.

His coarse insecurity is understood until he slugs Maud across the face. Maud leaves him and stays with her vacationing, New-York-City friend, who admires her work and buys Everett’s fish. Smaller moments lead to bigger lessons. Everett wants her back, and Aunt Ida no longer believes Maud has “stained the family name”. In fact, Ida proclaims that Maud is the only one in the Dowley family who ended up happy.

Stay through the credits to see many of Maud’s pictures which capture her innocence in the unmixed color and true lines of her work. But best of all, learn to capture her joy.

 

 

 

“Born To Be Blue”

The image of a scorpion crawling out of a trumpet’s horn sets the tone for this Chet Baker bio-op. We know all will end badly, yet we are surprised by how moved we are. The flame-out jazz trumpeter tears at our hearts. We want this father of West Coast swing to conquer his demons so badly.

Most of this emotion is brought to bear because of the incredible acting of Ethan Hawke. I can not stress how much this actor draws us in to the soulful musician, the deluded junkie, the angry son, the insecure come-back kid, and the inventive lover. Hawke is amazing, a romantic tour de force, just jealous enough, just playful enough, just melancholy enough. Hawke does his own singing. With “My Little Valentine” stirring every listener’s breath,  you consider Hawke a romantic lead for the first time. Part of this has to do with the dynamic chemistry between Carmen Ejogo and Hawke. Sex sizzles and notes soar.

Carmen Ejogo is Jane, the woman Baker adores. She is lovely and insightful and giving. Baker flirts with Jane, “Come back to my place and we can sing.”  Ejogo lights up the screen with her knowing, “You are trouble.” Her glow at her trumpet-valve ring  and her insistence on Baker “staying clean” says much about her character. She is no nonsense when she intones, “I don’t date zombies, Chet.” Whether bowling or walking the beach, or delivering her last lines: “Don’t be sorry for me!” , you will remember her in this film.

Director/writer Robert Budreau uses a unique color tool to keep the West Coast and the East Coast scenes orderly. All Pacific scenes are in color while all Atlantic scenes are shot in black and white. Close shots are perfectly alternated with long shots. Visually, this is a treat. We enjoy the facial muscles and the shaded eyes more once we see waves dashing a shoreline or light at a tunnel’s end.  Head shots don’t get claustrophobic.

While the cinematography is lovely, even the bloodied face of an assaulted Baker is artful, it is the music that permeates our psyches. Hawke’s slicked-back hair, his finger placement on the keys, the strong cords of his neck, even his missing teeth pay homage to his talent, but the mixture of song and story had theater goers sitting in their seats to read the last song title credited.

Three other characters round out the Chet Baker story. His parole officer is played by Canadian actor Tony Nappo. As Officer Reid he has twenty-five years of experience working with musician addicts. Portrayed with humor and caring, Reid both winces and laughs at Chet’s accusation: ” It is people like you who killed Billy Holliday!” He counters with, “Try to be happy for more than ten minutes.” They “get “methadone, and they “get” each other. Reid delivers one of the film’s most homiletic lines: ” If a man sits in a barber shop long enough, he is going to get a haircut.”

Dick, Chet’s manager, is played just as successfully by Callum Keith Rennie. Tough love and moist, joyful eyes show up again when Chet’s hard work earns Baker a gig at “Birdland”.  Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie sit in here and add tribute to the junkie jazz man. Even though Miles’ earlier putdown  lingers:” Go back to the beach, man. Come back when you have lived a little.”

The third  significant man in Baker’s life may be his dealer, but we don’t meet him. The story arc encompasses just the early to  mid-to-late sixties. We do get a glimpse at Chet’s father, a  curmudgeon of an Oklahoman, who farms sarcasm as well as he farms pigs. Calling his son a diminutive “Chetty”, he asks “Why did you have to sing like a girl?” ” Why drag the Baker name through the mud (with your drugs) ?”   Though Mr. Baker has contributed to his son’s love of music , we get glimpses of  a very lonely childhood. His rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” we see as having true emotional roots.

Be ready for some extreme violence and lyrics  that tear at your heart. Chet Baker is seen here as a fragile man, soft-spoken and vulnerable. I don’t believe it is true that he never hurt anyone, but himself. There were a lot of filmgoers who felt pummeled at  his ” forgive this helpless haze I’m in”. Only Chet Baker was born to be blue. Need I say: Do not miss.