Tag Archives: Ethan Hawke

First Reformed

26 May

‘First Reformed’: The reverend is in torment in a ‘Taxi Driver’ for a newly tormented era

 

In two of Martin Scorsese’s career-defining films – “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) – the protagonists (cab driver Travis Bickle and Jesus) are souls in torment and on the cusp of greater things that, to varying degrees, shift the civilized world as we know it. Both were written by Paul Schrader, a Calvinist-raised midwesterner who’s regularly shown himself a master as writer (“Raging Bull”) but something of a tormented soul himself as a director. With early hits such as “Blue Collar” (1978), “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Cat People” (1982) and intermittent wonders thereafter – “Affliction” (1997) and “Auto Focus” (2002) – Schrader has more recently scored a series of miscues – “The Canyons” (2013) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2016) – that have tanked critically and gone to the secondary market without the dignity of a theatrical release.

The good news is that Schrader’s latest, “First Reformed,” is something of a resurrection for the 71-year-old filmmaker, and an apt one; it revolves around a soul arguably more anguished than Christ or Bickle. The object of the title is a small, upstate New York church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Tending to its diminishing flock is a reverend by the name of Ernst Toller (played with perfect restraint by Ethan Hawke, delivering his best work since “Training Day”) who’s clearly more lost spiritually than any of his flock. We learn early on that in the near recent past he’s lost his son to the war, and his wife abandoned him in the aftermath. Toller remains composed at the dais, but behind rectory doors he’s washed out, rueful and barely able to find solace at the bottom of a glass of bourbon. Smartly, he keeps the bottle hidden, but higher-ups at the parent parish (played with power and concern by Cedric the Entertainer) ultimately suss him out. How Toller finds redemption comes initially through purpose, when pregnant young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled husband, who spouts eco-terrorism mantras and conspiracy theories – nothing like a drowning man trying to save another going under – and later, in the discovery of a suicide vest. Continue reading

The Magnificent Seven

28 Sep
The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven

Courtesy Sony Pictures

The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven

Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Yul Brynner — that’s a pretty tough trio to beat in any context and just one half of the star-studded cast of the original Magnificent Seven. That Western classic directed by John Sturges was itself a rebranding of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and while the cross-genre translation made sense back in 1960, the current redux by Antoine Fuqua (Shooter and Training Day) doesn’t offer much of a spin besides boasting a diverse crew (an African American, Asian, Native American, and Mexican among the mix). Even then, with the exception of one “his kind” comment in reference to Byong-hun Lee’s blade-wielding character of Chinese descent, there’s not one drop of racial tension. Had the septet been hot pink fuchsia, the bad guy’s wouldn’t take notice. It certainly wouldn’t flavor their dull backlot dialog, but it might improve their ability to shoot and hit anything, because as the movie has it, their blazing guns — sans a lone Gatling gun mounted outside the cow-poke town — couldn’t strike the broadside of Kim Kardashian’s famous posterior.

Fuqua’s posse, which features Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, is a pretty well-armed lot, but as they team up and ride out it becomes clear that something’s off with thisSeven. Sure, the scenery’s panoramic and lovely, but after a long, bouncy canter across the prairie, saddle soreness sets in well before the first bullet’s chambered. What’s missing are personality and philosophical idealism let alone brooding, macho conflict — all requisite when telling a tale of morally ambiguous men walking in a lawless land. It’s as if Fuqua took Sturges’ blueprint, connected the dots, then forgot to bring his palette to the set. Continue reading