WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this is about a screening which took place several years ago.
Actress Lynn Lowry, one of the famous horror queens of 1970’s movies, made a special appearance at New Beverly Cinema on Thursday, April 19, 2012 for a double feature of George Romero’s original version of “The Crazies” and Paul Schrader’s erotic remake of “Cat People.” Lowry took some time to talk about her brief appearance in Schrader’s take on the 1942 horror film, and her responses truly surprised the small but faithful audience attending this screening.
Filmmaker Ryan Stockstad, who was about to make a movie with Lowry called “Eggs,” asked the veteran actress what it was like working with Schrader, who may be best known for writing the screenplay to “Taxi Driver.” Lowry described Schrader as “insensitive,” and also said, “Is it okay if I say Paul Schrader is the least favorite director I’ve ever worked with?”
In auditioning for “Cat People,” Lowry said she asked the casting directors if they wanted her to do the scene “full out.” They said they had no problem with that, and she didn’t hold anything back as a result. Looking back, she said the secretaries who heard her from a distance loved what she did.
Lowry’s scene had her playing Ruthie, a prostitute who goes to a seedy motel to fulfill the pleasures of a particular customer. While there, she gets attacked by a black leopard hiding underneath the bed and screams in horror when she realizes how badly one of her feet has been slashed.
Lowry started the scene by walking to the hotel, and Schrader wanted the makeup people to spruce her up from head to toe. He wanted to light up the streets of New Orleans where “Cat People” was being filmed as she made her way to the location, but she ended up only being filmed from below her knees.
The actress described Schrader as working so fast to where he couldn’t quite get what he needed. For her scene, Lowry had to keep falling on her knees over and over again. As the day went on, she said the crew finally had to put a cat paw on the leopard to make this scene work.
The climax of had Lowry falling down a flight of stairs, a sequence she noted had to be shot multiple times. Part of the problem was her bra would not open up on cue, and she said Schrader wanted to see a lot of skin throughout the film. This ended up necessitating the use of Velcro on the undergarment to make it open more easily.
Lowry also remarked how there were nails on the stairs which the crew members did not bother removing. As a result, she ended up getting cuts on various parts of her body.
On the DVD commentary for “Cat People,” Schrader said he wanted to share credit with the movie’s visual consultant, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and this was because he felt Scarfiotti was mostly responsible for the look of the film. Lowry, however, said she never ever saw anyone else on set directing.
It is a bummer to hear Lynn Lowry was not very happy with her time making “Cat People,” and she is certainly entitled to her opinion. But after all these years, this movie is a fascinating remake which truly stands on its own.
While “Goodfellas” introduced me to the filmmaking brilliance of Martin Scorsese and became my all-time favorite movie, it was “Taxi Driver” which really shaped the way I view movies today. Before seeing it, I always tried to avoid those movies which would make me sad or were too dark. This was a result of my parents having to carry me out of “Star Trek II” and “E.T.,” both of which I cried so hard over to where others wondered if I was okay. I promised myself I would never put my family through such embarrassing situations ever again, and this was especially the case with my brother who was constantly annoyed at my emotional outbursts.
Unlike “Goodfellas” which was immensely entertaining and had great comedic moments, “Taxi Driver” is dark, dark, dark. There is nothing the least bit glamorous to see here as we watch the main character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) get continually sucked into a corrupted environment he deeply despises. I kept hoping for him to achieve sort of redemption and maybe, just maybe, have another chance with Cybil Shepherd’s character of Betsy whom he had a memorable first date with. But as we reach the movie’s bloody conclusion, I realized there was nowhere for Travis to go but down. While the reaction to his actions may have been surprising, we all know the truth about Travis and realize something will set him off again before we know it.
Once the end credits went up, my dad asked me what I thought about “Taxi Driver.” My initial reaction was it was not exactly enjoyable. My dad’s response to this has always stayed with me, “Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Some are meant to be experienced.”
Looking back, I see what he meant. Look, there are a lot of reasons to not make a movie about someone like Travis Bickle; he’s seriously nuts, not a good date if you want to go to the movies, and watching him lose his mind is painful. But the thing about “Taxi Driver” is people like Travis exist, and turning a blind eye to their existence does us no good. We need to understand why people do the things they do. It’s like what Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:
“Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”
With “Taxi Driver,” I came to see how you need these kinds of movies just as much as you need the average escapist entertainment. Some movies need to shine a light on the darker parts of human nature to remind us we need to acknowledge we have a dark side and realize we have more in common with Travis Bickle than we would ever care to think or admit.
Since watching “Taxi Driver,” I have become completely open to movies which disturb me or take me on a journey I would not necessarily want to endure in real life. I can’t stand to watch films in a passive manner. I want to be moved by what I see, be disturbed and shaken, and even weep. Movies are too powerful an art form to be made just for the sake of entertainment. There are so many things about the human existence which deserve to be captured on celluloid, and I believe audiences crave these kind of cinematic experiences as they do the next Marvel movie.
“Taxi Driver” is my second favorite movie of all time, right behind “Goodfellas.” It is a movie I admire above so many others, and I still watch it from time to time. There are many I get sick of watching, but this is one I will never tire of sitting through.
I have always been fascinated by the story of Patty Hearst, of how she was kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) in an effort to get some of their comrades released from jail. How she later joined the SLA in their fight against what they perceived as a fascist police state fascinated me even more. When I first heard about this event, probably around the same time the movie was released, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can someone who was kidnapped by people with guns suddenly join up with her captors? Can someone be changed into a completely different person in a situation like this? Taking all this into account, I wonder if makes sense we should prosecute someone for crimes they committed after being brainwashed and sexually abused by their captors. It’s such a strange story, and one ripe to be made into a movie. Thank goodness the story of her ordeal ended up in the hands of the great Paul Schrader, famed screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Blue Collar,” Affliction” and “First Reformed.”
Yes, “Patty Hearst” is based on a true story, but this movie was made back in 1988 when that term actually meant something. Is this movie factually true to what happened to her in real life? I don’t know and, quite frankly don’t care. Movies based on a true story always have moments which are fictionalized or changed for dramatic effect. It is too easy to brand movies like these as “a lie” or “factually incorrect” to what actually happened. Movies cannot play a real story out the same way it did in real life because there has to be a structured story in place which takes you from point A to point B. In the end, the filmmakers need to be respectful of the facts, but they can’t just do it the same exact way it all happened. Besides, people will accuse the filmmakers of being too faithful to the original material, and this makes it all seem like a no-win situation. People making these kinds of movies are going to get attacked one way or the other, and there is no way around it.
“Patty Hearst” stars Natasha Richardson in her breakthrough performance as the title character, and the movie starts with her walking around the campus of UC Berkeley, giving us our first glimpse of her as a person. In a voiceover, she takes the first opportunity of many to break down preconceptions that may have of Patty Hearst who is the granddaughter of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst. From the start, she makes it clear Patty was never spoiled and had a happy, normal childhood. These opening moments show how nothing could have prepared her for the kidnapping which would come to define her life.
What makes this movie so effective is the way Schrader manages to tell the whole movie almost entirely from Patty’s point of view. As a result, we end up experiencing what she goes through as she is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven off to a place where she is imprisoned in a tiny closet. Spending most of her time in this claustrophobic space, she becomes completely disoriented. Throughout, she is met by soldiers of the SLA who shout their beliefs at her, and she is made to believe she is the enemy. These moments are presented with the actors acting in front of a blindingly white backdrop which gives us a strong feeling of displacement as even we don’t know where we are. What keeps Patty going through this is her gnawing fear of being buried alive, and of her need to survive.
The fact Patty ends up joining the SLA in their “revolutionary” fight makes sense as it is presented here. Having been cut off from those she loves and being exposed to a whole other set of people and ideas, what choice could she have had? Seriously, it’s not like she had much of a chance to escape. In the end, the SLA is basically a cult, and like all effective cults, they broke down Patty’s spirit until there was nothing left. Everything from her life up to that point was made to seem false, and she had no way of believing otherwise. Her captors offer her a choice of joining them, or to go home. But by going home, Patty interprets this as being killed or even worse, being buried alive.
From there, the movie shows Patty going from terrified hostage to being a soldier for the SLA. The moment where her blindfold is removed and she is finally given a chance to look at her captors is actually a beautiful moment as it is made to seem Patty is now surrounded by people who are more loving than they are threatening to her. It is also a relief for the audience as we too are now out of the claustrophobic state of mind to where our eyes are wide open. From there, we are with Patty every step of the way to even after she is arrested and incarcerated for her involvement.
What really powers “Patty Hearst” is the performance of Natasha Richardson which is nothing short of remarkable. She takes Patty from being a helpless and frightened hostage to a believer, and then she takes her to being a martyr where she is broken down but given a chance to build herself back up again. In spite of all the media coverage this case was given back in the 1970’s, Richardson gives us a Patty Hearst who can be seen as a person with a heart, and not just as a blip on the popular culture landscape. She nails every emotional moment of Patty’s evolution truthfully, and she is utterly fascinating to watch throughout. In the movie’s final shot, it is just her face we see as she seems at peace with herself and of what she needs to do to show the world the truth of what she has been through, and she gives this movie the exact note it needs to end on.
In addition, Richardson is surrounded by remarkable character actors who have since become better known following this movie’s release. Among them is Ving Rhames in a pre-“Pulp Fiction” performance as Cinque, the leader of the SLA. Ving makes Cinque an intimidating force which you believe can hold all his followers at bay with even a little bit of effort. In effect, Cinque is the glue which holds the SLA together.
Also in the movie is William Forsythe, a terrific character actor who plays Teko, a most faithful follower of the SLA who tries to hold the movement together when its leadership suddenly falls apart. Frances Fisher, who would later co-star in “Unforgiven” and “Titanic,” plays Yolanda who ends up in a power struggle with Teko over the direction in which the SLA is poised to take. Through these two performances, we see how easily a group can quickly disintegrate when there is no real leader to keep them focused and together as a whole.
But of my other favorite performances comes from Dana Delany whose role as Gelina is a lovely delight. Gelina’s thinking is clearly warped beyond repair, but she presents Patty with the only real kindness she gets during her captivity. As Gelina, Delany gives us a character as giddy as she is dangerous to those around her.
There is also Jodi Long who plays Wendy Yoshimura, an SLA member who becomes disillusioned with the movement and of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing the damage done, she is now more prepared to give up rather than face a pointless fire fight with the “pigs.” I really liked Long’s take on the character, and she gives us a strong human being who does not bend easily to the threats made against her.
“Patty Hearst” also features one of the most unique film scores I have ever heard. Composed by Scott Johnson, it is a mixture of both electronic elements and woodwind instruments, and the score helps Schrader in creating a disorienting environment which we and Patty are forced to endure against our will. I cannot think of another film score I can compare this one to. It was Johnson’s first and only movie score ever, and it was out of print for years. In 2007, however, it was finally re-released through Tzadik Records.
This material is perfect ground for Schrader to cover as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. From Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” to George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and to Nick Nolte in “Affliction,” Schrader has long since been endlessly fascinated by individuals who are so alienated from the world around them to where they have long since descended into madness. Patty Hearst, as Schrader shows her here, does not become alienated from the world by choice, but by force, and her dire circumstances of joining a movement she has no business being in makes us wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. We never get to see the world outside of Patty’s point of view, so when she is brought back into reality, we are made to feel as bad as she does when she is made into a martyr in everyone’s eyes.
The movie got a mixed reaction when it was released back in 1988. From watching the movie’s trailer, I imagine moviegoers may have been expecting something more action packed when they walked into the theater. But what “Patty Hearst” really proves to be is a character study, and an endlessly fascinating one as well. While some may find this movie dull, I loved how it got into the inner workings of the SLA, and it made sense of how someone could be forced to join a group they never would have in a sane state of mind. How you view this movie may very well depend on what you are expecting from it.
I really liked what Schrader did with the story and characters. Had this story been in the hands of another director, it may have come across as more exploitive than anything else. Schrader, however, has far more on his mind than playing with all the titillating facts of this case. Throughout, he explores the evolution of a person who goes from being a victim to becoming a participant who later became a pariah, and he gets under the skin of his subject in a way others were unable or unwilling to do.
But what makes “Patty Hearst” work so effectively is the mesmerizing performance of Natasha Richardson. With her entrancing beauty and natural talent, she makes us want to follow Patty to the end of her journey. Whether we agree or disagree with what Patty did, we empathize with her and are forced to look at ourselves and wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.
Richardson was so great to watch here, and she makes me want to watch this movie again and again. It was so tragic that we lost her at the age of 45, and years later we are still mourning her death. She left us with a great volume of work which deserved even more chapters than it was given.
After all these years, we still miss you very much Natasha.
2018 was not a great year for cinema, but the films that were good were really good. The year started out strong, it died out in the middle, and finished good but not good enough.
Honorable Mentions for Really Good Movies:
“Game Night,” “Blockers,” “Assassination Nation,” “Paterno,” “Halloween,” “Never Goin’ Back,” “Creed 2,” “Widows,” “The Hate U Give,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “The Wife,” “What They Had,” “All the Money in the World,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Fahrenheit 11/9” and “Upgrade.”
10) “Love, Simon”
This flick came out in March, and it is truly a film which needed to be made. It was directed incredibly well by Greg Berlanti. Here is the thing about films which deal with someone being gay and not being sure how to tell their friends and family: these are stories that help others feel more comfortable about coming out. This film was funny, touching and incredibly moving. The lead, Nick Robinson, shows the audience all of Simon’s conflicting emotions from coming out to his parents, played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner, as well as his group of friends. Katherine Langford from “13 Reasons Why” is terrific as his best friend, and Tony Hale is also great as the vice principal of the school. The film deals with the subject in a sensitive but profound way. At the end of the day, it is a love story filled with a big heart and a lot of humor. If you missed it back in March 2018, now is the time to see it.
As someone who tries to attend the cinema as often as possible, I know how hard it is to get an audience to keep quiet. While watching this movie in a packed theater, it was total and complete silence. It was a truly surreal and great moviegoing experience. This was an April release and it did well at the box office and with critics. It stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as a family that must survive during a time where, if there is any noise, monsters will appear and attack and kill you. Krasinski is also behind the camera on this one, and he shows some real talent as a filmmaker. When the stakes are so high and no one can talk or make any noise, the tension is unnerving and unsettling in the best possible way. The film also features two great performances from the two children: Millicent Simmonds (hearing impaired in real life) and Noah Jupe. It was great casting to find a young actress who was really deaf as it lends to the film’s authenticity.
8) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
How in the world did this film get overlooked at the Oscars? How did it not even get a nomination? This is something which will puzzle and bother me for quite a while. This is a tremendous documentary and a great film. Everyone remembers Mr. Rogers, and this film shows the impact he had on children and the world. It also dives into other aspects of his life and leaves no stone unturned. It is the kind of movie which makes you feel good, and we need more movies like it during these trying times. Mr. Rogers was a special person, and this is a special film. As the tagline on the poster says, “A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way.” It will take you back to when you were a kid and grew up watching and responding to him. He was never afraid to tackle tough subjects in a profound and thoughtful way, and his impact will forever be felt.
Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a mind-blowing film which shows how Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to be part of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), his partner. Stallworth does all of the voice work over the phone to convince David Duke (Topher Grace) he’s really white while Flip shows up to various meetings. The usual Spike Lee humor is infused in the script as well, and it works because he is still taking the subject matter seriously. Racism is still very much alive today, as they show this in the end credits, but Lee makes an entertaining true story come to life here. Washington keeps proving he is an actor and not just Denzel’s son. This is tough material, no question about it, but Lee has never been afraid to go there. You have to go there in order for real change to occur.
Bo Burnham’s directorial debut took the world by storm in the summer of 2018. My wife and I went out of our way to see it. We have always been big supporters of independent cinema, and we were glad to see it and more than happy to make the drive. Burnham is very much in touch with social media, and even though he is not a girl in eighth grade, he taps into what it feels like to be in that mindset and how terrifying it can feel. It feels like the end of the world and all of this pressure is mounting on you. Elsie Fisher is the star of the show, and she’s so likable, funny and interesting, even though she does not see it. In interviews, Burnham talked about how she was a shy girl trying to be confident in auditions, and this is exactly what he was looking for as everyone else was a confident girl trying to act shy. The best scenes in the film are the ones with her and her father, played by Josh Hamilton. It is a great movie which more people need to discover now that it’s out on Blu-ray.
The LGBTQ community got another great film in “Boy Erased.” This was a November release which sadly did not perform well at the box office. It was written and directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from the novel by Garrard Conley. The film deals with something called conversation therapy. Those who perform this therapy believe they can turn someone who is homosexual into a straight man or woman. Edgerton also plays the leader of this program, and he has some unusual methods to say the least. Lucas Hedges tells the story of Garrard Conley, although his character’s name in the film is Jared Eamons. His parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and this is shockingly their first time working together. Things are complicated because Jared’s father is a pastor, and his father believes this is the best way to handle this situation. The mother is not really on board with it, but she is sticking by her husband even though you sense her regret. It is a haunting, scary and emotional film which deserves to be seen. People are unaware places like these still exist in so many states. The only way they will not exist is if people pay attention and do something. It is an eye-opening film which was criminally overlooked by moviegoers. Just because a film deals with tough subject matter, it does not mean audiences should not view it. Film can educate and inform us.
4) “First Reformed”
Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is yet another great movie which audiences decided to turn away from at the box office. I understand people enjoy their Marvel movies and their popcorn entertainment, but there are films which can create discussion. That, to me, is the power of cinema. The always terrific Ethan Hawke is a pastor named Toller at the First Reformed church. One day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to his church and asks him to help out her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is worried about the state of the world, the planet and what we are doing to it. Her husband wants to do something about it, has been arrested and he feels people are turning a blind eye to these major issues going on in the world. Toller starts to believe in a lot of what he is being told by Michael and even questions his own faith and his church. He has health problems and is not happy with how things are being run over at Abundant Life, which is part of First Reformed, by Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer ). He is journaling everything and trying to process his feelings. Toller also has some issues from his past which he has never gotten over as well. This is an impactful movie which left me speechless. It is a must-see.
Another overlooked critical darling is “Blindspotting” which was written by long-time friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs plays Collin, a black man on parole trying to finish it out without any incidents. This is incredibly difficult due to his friendship with Miles (Casal), a white-man living in Oakland who is always trying to act tough and intimidate people to get respect. Collin is just trying to keep to himself and do his job so he can be free from probation, but he’s finding this hard to do when he sees a young black man killed by a police officer. He wants to say something, but he is worried about how it will impact his parole. “Blindspotting” is a term where people look at something and they only see one thing and are missing another piece of the picture. The chemistry between Diggs and Casal is totally natural, as to be expected, and they have a lot of humorous moments together. That is the beauty of “Blindspotting,” and there are similar films talking about these things happening in the world right now. You can show the ugly side and bring it to people’s attention, but you can also have some humor in there as well. It does not have to be all gloom and doom. There is a lot of terrific music in the film and a lot of it is free style rapping which pertains to the plot. As Collin says, “You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town.”
2) “Green Book”
This is more than your average road trip buddy movie between two unlikely friends. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist who needs a driver to take him through the south. Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, needs some money and ends up taking the job as his driver. Tony is not necessarily racist, but he does offer fried chicken to Don Shirley, as I imagine he is more ignorant than anything else. Tony sees how white men are treating Mr. Shirley and is not happy about it. He forms a kinship with him, especially after Shirley helps Tony write love letters to his wife, played by Linda Cardellini. It is based on a true story, and the two leads knock it out of the park. I have to give a slight edge to Mortensen’s performance, but that is only because he has the juicer lines and more material to work with compared to Ali. Make no mistake about it, though, Ali is superb in this movie and he knows when to pick his scenes to knock it out of the park. This is a moving picture which deals with race in a thoughtful and heartfelt way, and it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either.
1) “A Star is Born”
If you are surprised by this selection, you have not heard me rave about this movie since I first watched it with my wife on opening night back in October. Bradley Cooper is a great director and he should have been given a nomination for Best Director. I hope Lady Gaga wins Best Actress over Glenn Close. This movie is about mental illness, fame, believing in yourself, putting yourself out there and so much more. Cooper is believable as a singer and Lady Gaga is believable as an actress. The two have chemistry for days. It’s a heartbreaking film which truly earns every tear from the audience. The music is catchy, and it has a great soundtrack as well. This is why I go to the movies and, as I said in my review, no film has affected me as much as since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” This is the best film of 2018, hands down. If you don’t cry during it, you are made of stone.
I remember taking a film class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and the instructor talked about how filmmakers often make the same movie over and over again. This is certainly the case with Paul Schrader as “First Reformed” marks his return to the “God’s lonely man” story or, as he would describe it, the “man in a room” stories. Whether it is Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo,” John LeTour in “Light Sleeper,” Wade Whitehouse in “Affliction” or Carter Page III in “The Walker,” Schrader has always been attracted to the lives of men trapped in their own bubble of solitude as they desperately try to find some meaning in life which will rescue them from the crippling isolation and despair which threatens to envelop them.
With “First Reformed,” you could say Schrader is offering his audience variations on a theme here as not everything is as predictable like us movie buffs might expect. But more importantly, he gives us one of the very best movies he has made in years as his exploration of a man in spiritual crisis remain as powerful as ever, and it features excellent performances from its very talented cast as well as a deeply thoughtful screenplay which succeeds in taking us to hell and back. While Schrader has not always had the technical brilliance which Martin Scorsese continues to possess, “First Reformed” shows us the cinematic leaps and bound he has made over the years, and he does it with a story which highlights the eternal conflict between our belief in God and the inescapable realities we can no longer lie to ourselves about.
Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain who works as a priest and provides sermons to a small congregation at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. We learn he had a son whom he encouraged to enlist in the military, and that he was killed six months after arriving in Iraq. The tragedy of his son’s death destroyed his marriage, and he bemoans how he sent his only child into a war which had no moral justification. With his role at First Reformed Church, he looks to redeem himself in the eyes of not just everyone around him, but in God’s as well.
One of Toller’s regular attendees is Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is expecting a baby with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is eager to welcome this baby into the world, but Michael, however, does not share her enthusiasm and thinks it would be better to terminate the pregnancy. Mary asks Toller to counsel Michael to see if he can relieve her husband of his ongoing depression, and it is during their talks that Toller discovers Michael is a radical environmentalist who has long since been convinced of how global warming is destroying the earth, and that time has already past for humanity to effectively reverse the damage. Things become even more tense when Mary invites Toller over to her house to show him something Michael had hidden from her, a suicide vest.
Revealing more of the story from here would be criminal as it would spoil an already immersive cinematic experience which holds you in its grasp from the get go. What you should know more than anything else is this: global warming is real and is an even bigger threat to this planet than ever before. None of this is lost on Toller as he finds himself sympathizing with Michael to where he doesn’t realize how Michael’s despair is infecting him to an increasing degree. As much as he wants to help Michael, Toller finds himself questioning if God can ever forgive humans for what they have done to the planet. As “First Reformed” shows, this will either not be the case, or that forgiveness may come in another and unexpected form.
The brilliant conceit of “First Reformed” is how it deals with the crisis of faith in regards to an environmental issue which continues to get worse and worse with each passing year. Even Toller has to admit how Michael’s fears are becoming a quicker reality than many would want, or even care, to admit, and this leaves him in a state of conflict which pulls him into a dark place which offers no easy exit. Toller feels compelled to do something about this continuing environmental disaster, but he finds himself caught up in a personal struggle which has him drinking an endless amount of alcohol to drown his troubles away. Many see the suffering of an alcoholic as being someone who is too afraid to live and too scared to die, and Toller clearly fits this description as he cannot lie to himself about the apocalyptic path humanity is on.
When it comes to Schrader, his work as a writer typically outshines what he pulls off as a filmmaker. While his sometimes collaborator Martin Scorsese continues to show a filmmaking mastery few others can come close to equaling, Schrader has to make do with whatever is available to him, and this sometimes shows in embarrassing ways (for example, check out the terrible special effects in “Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist”). His films have long since been relegated to the independent film realm which thrived in the 1990’s but came to suffer inescapable blows to where you were more likely to see his films on your iPhone instead of the silver screen.
With “First Reformed,” however, Schrader gives us one of his best films ever as everything about it feels perfect. The acting is superb, the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is both beautiful and appropriately haunting, and the music of Lustmord helps to accentuate the conflict between hope and despair shown here. Considering how this film was shot in just 20 days on a budget of $3.5 million dollars, this makes what he accomplished here all the more commendable.
Ethan Hawke has long since proven to be one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance as Toller ranks among his finest. Seeing Hawke trying to hold his sanity together as his faith continually gives way to despair is fascinating to watch as his actions come to speak much louder than words can. Amanda Seyfried beautifully underplays her role as an expectant mother who is trying to come to grips with an increasingly dangerous world she wants to welcome her baby into, and she is such a luminous presence here. Even Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, shows up here as Reverend Joel Jeffers, a man who has to balance out his duty to God with the pressing issues from corporate entities that do not want anything to get in the way of profit. Church is a way of life for many people, but make no mistake, it is also a business for others.
“First Reformed” is far and away one of the best films I have seen in 2018, and it may very well be Paul Schrader’s filmmaking masterpiece. It ends on a rather ambiguous note as not everything is wrapped up in a neat and tidy fashion, but with a film like this we are left with more questions than answers and for a very good reason. Schrader seeks to test the faith and beliefs of his audience in an effort to wake them up about climate change and global warming as we have long since become complacent with our elected officials doing little to nothing about reduce the damage it has wrought.
I also have to say that if Hawke had performed a certain action in the film’s last few minutes, I would have been waiting for him to say “corn nuts.” If you have ever seen the cult classic “Heathers” starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, you will know what I mean.
Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.
Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.
Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.
Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.
What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.
“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.
This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.
In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.
Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.
Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.
With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.
I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.