Tag Archives: Training Day

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

Southpaw

30 Jul

Lots of expectation here by pairing peaking star Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s compiled an eclectically impressive resume over the past decade or so (“Zodiac” and “Brokeback Mountain,” and let’s not forget the uber-creepy “Nightcrawler” oozing out from under a stone last year) with director Antoine Fuqua, who’s been all over the road (“Shooter,” “King Arthur” and “The Equalizer”) since making his mark with “Training Day” back in 2001. Fuqua has the gift of folding urban hip in seamlessly with the mainstream. His works possess auteur flourishes while notching much off the blockbuster checklist. In short, he’s an anomaly and a blessing during these dog days of summer.

072415i SouthpawAnd while that old dog might not want to learn a new trick, he might like to witness one, which is why “Southpaw” nearly disappoints – it’s about as clichéd a retread as you can ask for. The plot feels like something right out of a middle “Rocky,” with the champ on top before he loses it all in a single stroke and has to go toe-to-toe old-school in a dingy gym to get back to his regal perch. But because of the sharp partnering, “S’paw” dances around a lot more nimbly and entertainingly than its pat regime would otherwise indicate. It opens with a bouquet of roses for Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). They grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, met at a home for wayward kids and now he’s the light heavyweight champion of the world and they live in a spacious New York manse. Not to give too much away, but there’s a serious tumble that happens early on, and the people who were around Billy and getting paid large scatter, pretty much leaving him for dead in the aftermath. It’s the perfect spot for the venerable Forest Whitaker waltz-in as the reluctant Titus “Tick” Wills, a boxing gym owner and former pro trainer who now works only with troubled youth. To get an “in” with Tick, Billy’s gotta get back to the basics – no, not bobbing and weaving or defense (he never had much, and his face looks like a tomato at the end of most of his battles), but cleaning the toilets and getting clean and sober. That’s the launching point for a shot at the guy who took his belt and fairy-tale life (Miguel Gomez, trying hard to channel Mr. T’s menace). Continue reading