Corpus Christi Fearlessly Questions Our Beliefs in Religion and Redemption

Corpus Christi” was one of the five films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film). While it was destined to lose to “Parasite”, this does not in any way speak to its overall quality. In fact, I hope people get a chance to check out this import from Poland if and when they get the chance. While its plot might make it look like a remake of “Sister Act,” “Corpus Christi” is a deeply thoughtful look at religion and of how the road to redemption is a rough one for the average convicted felon.

We are introduced to Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old man who has spent several years in prison for a violent crime, as he serves as lookout for the guards while a fellow inmate is being assaulted. But soon after that, we see him taking part in a religious service with the prison chaplain, and we can see he has found a spiritual awakening while behind bars. He aspires to become a priest, but his criminal conviction prevents him from ever becoming one. I always find it interesting how when a convicted felon does his time and is released from prison, but for some odd reason he or she is never fully free. They always seem forever defined by a past which no one will ever let them completely atone for. Like the DMV, people never forget.

Upon his release, Daniel is sent to a remote village where a job as a day laborer awaits him, but he sees a church in the distance and decides to walk over to it. Once there, a quick lie allows him to be mistaken as the church’s new priest, and it is a role he jumps into with little, if any, hesitation. But while he proves to have a strong and positive effect  to where the church seats are filled up more than they were previously, we know his past will eventually catch up with him. Moreover, he knows it will as well, and a scene where we hear a clock ticking loudly alerts us to how his time is running out.

For a time, “Corpus Christi” plays like a comedy as Daniel seems ill-equipped to be a priest. During a confession where a mother talks about the troubles she is having with her teenage son, he furiously looks at the internet on his cell phone to get an answer, any answer. In one of his sermons, he repeats the words the priest in prison spoke to him and his fellow convicts such as “I’m not here to pray to you mechanically” and “each of you is the priest of Christ.” Clearly, he is stumbling about, but he eventually inspires the local community to where the church finds its attendance increasing to an astonishing degree.

Director Jan Komasa, working from a screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz, is never quick to reveal every aspect of this small-town Daniel resides in. We eventually come to discover how a tragedy has long since engulfed the town in a never ending state of grief, and we are with Daniel every step of the way as he uncovers the devastation which has left the residents in such an infinitely mournful state. While he is essentially doing a “fake it till you make it” act a, the efforts Daniel makes to heal the town of its deep emotional wounds is truly moving, and I found myself rooting for him to have a positive effect.

Bartosz Bielenia gives a powerful performance as Daniel, and he inhabits this character with a truly fierce passion for his newfound calling. While Daniel is in lying about being qualified to be a priest, he quickly proves to us how his spiritual awakening is no joke. His methods may not always be sound, but his willingness to help those in his parish comes from the heart. Even when he is eventually exposed, and this is really not spoiling anything, I was left enthralled by Bielenia’s portrayal as Daniel because his religious calling is never in doubt to him or those who have flocked to his church.

At the heart of “Corpus Christi” comes a number of questions: What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be a religious person? Does redemption ever get fully realized by the society which surrounds the sinner? Does any individual deserve to recognized by their past more than their present? While this church, or any other church, may have rules about who can and cannot a priest or a nun, one wonders if those rules should be so stringent after watching this movie. Daniel’s spiritual awakening is no joke, and I personally would rather converse with a priest who was a sinner than one who has a “holier than thou” attitude.

Seriously, the more I think about “Corpus Christi,” the more I am reminded of a routine from George Carlin’s classic comedy album “Class Clown” entitled “The Confessional:”

“I wanted to get into Father Byrne’s confessional one Saturday maybe a half hour before he showed up and get in there and hear a few confessions, you know? Because I knew according to my faith and religion that if anyone came in there and really thought I was Father Byrne and really wanted to be forgiven…and perform the penance I had assigned…they would have been forgiven, man! ‘Cause that’s what they taught us; it’s what’s in your mind that counts; your intentions, that’s how we’ll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. You had to WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. “Thou Shalt Not WANNA”. If you woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!’ Save your car fare; you did it, man!”

When it comes to Daniel, he may not be a priest, but he is willing to hear you and help you out. While he may be breaking sacred rules, at least he is making an effort to get you past your sins.

“Corpus Christi” ends on an ambiguous note as Daniel may have found a salvation he may not have expected to find in the direst of circumstances. Unlike the average faith-based movie, this one is not out to prove or disprove the existence of Jesus Christ. All that matters is Daniel believes such a person exists, and this may have very well saved him from a horrific fate. Some questions deserve an answer, but others deserve to be pondered on for a long time.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MY EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JAN KOMASA AND BARTOSZ BIELENIA ABOUT “CORPUS CHRISTI”

Exclusive Video Interview with ‘Corpus Christi’s’ Jan Komasa and Bartosz Bielenia

In a year filled with many great foreign films like “Parasite,” “Corpus Christi” is another one to keep an eye out for. Directed by Jan Komasa (“Suicide Room” and “Warsaw 44”), it stars Bartosz Bielienia as Daniel, a 20-year-old man on the verge of finishing his sentence at a youth detention center for second degree murder. While there, he experiences a spiritual awakening which inspires him to enter the priesthood, but because of his felony conviction, no seminary will ever be able to accept him. Upon his release, he is sent to a small village to do manual labor. However, Daniel quickly discovers the local church there and ends up lying his way into becoming the town’s new priest. His passion and unconventional methods come to inspire its residents in a way they have not been in a while, and in the process he comes to discover a terrible tragedy which has engulfed the town in endless sorrow. As he digs deeper into the tragedy and the town’s deepest secrets, some of the townspeople become increasingly suspicious of his methods, and it is only a matter of time before the past catches up with him.

Now the above plot description might make “Corpus Christi” sound like a remake of “Sister Act,” but it really proves to be a thoughtful and compelling motion picture as it ponders what it means to be a person of faith, of the possibility of finding forgiveness in a realm where sadness and anger seem infinite and irrevocable, and of finding redemption even when society will not easily permit its criminally convicted to do so. What results is an enthralling film which is now Poland’s selection for the Best International Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.

I was lucky enough to speak with Komasa and Bielienia while they were in Los Angeles to do press for “Corpus Christi.” Komasa recently won the Best Director award at the Gdynia Film Festival for his work here, and Bielienia has picked up Best Actor awards at the El Gouna Film Festival, the Chicago International Film and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Be sure to check out “Corpus Christi” when Film Movement releases in American theaters in 2020. My full interview is up above, and you can also watch the movie’s trailer down below.

Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ is More a Love Story Than a Documentary

Tabloid movie poster

“What is a lie when every man has his own truth?”

-Clark Johnson from “Homicide: Life on The Street”

 “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

-Bill Pullman from “Lost Highway”

 “Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them.”

-from “Crosseyed and Painless” by Talking Heads

The story at the center of “Tabloid” is further proof of how truth can be much stranger than fiction. It is an endlessly entertaining documentary on an utterly bizarre incident from 1977 involving former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney. She talks about falling head over heels in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, and of how he disappeared without a trace after they became engaged.

Joyce spent the next couple of years searching for Kirk, eventually finding him in Ewell, Surrey where he was working at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Desperate to be reunited with him, she flew to England determined to rescue and marry him as she sees her destiny as being with him until death separates them forever. But from there the story splinters into two heavily contrasting versions. Joyce claims the Mormon religion is a cult which brainwashed and robbed Kirk of his free will, and that he went with her willingly upon finding him at the church. However, Kirk later told police he was abducted by Joyce and chained to a bed in a cottage where she seduced and raped him.

Whatever the case, this story exploded in the press and became, as one interviewee called it, “the perfect tabloid story.” With its mix of sex and religion, this case came to be known as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case” and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

You may come out of “Tabloid” frustrated as it is not made entirely clear who is honest and who is lying, but getting to the truth is not the intention of this documentary. Morris constructed it in a way which tests who and what we believe in and how our perceptions have been molded over time by the media culture more than we ever bother to realize. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened because the story is so weirdly captivating, and viewers find themselves wanting it to go in a particular direction regardless of whether the facts match up with that direction or not.

John Patrick Shanley was dead on correct when he wrote how doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Everyone in “Tabloid” has an inescapable shadow of doubt hovering over everything they say and what they believe to be true. It’s like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we all read as kids. You know, the ones which tell you to turn to this page or another to where the outcome of your journey remains truly unpredictable.

Seeing the media at work on this “Mormon in Chains” case makes one realize not much has changed in their coverage of events. Back then, the public ate all the lurid details of this absurd story as it touched on those guilty pleasures we are never quick to admit we have. People like to believe they are above “trash” like this, but unconscious minds are always quick to wander to the magazine aisle in the supermarket to peek through the latest issue of the National Enquirer among other magazines which take the truth and manipulate into something wonderfully lurid. We know it is bad for us, but we cannot always keep our morbid fascination in check.

As an interview subject, Joyce McKinney is never boring for one second. At the start of “Tabloid,” she has an endearing quality which makes you want to spend all this time in her company. You will find yourself feeling for her when the world more or less threw her under a bus, and you will not be able to stop empathizing with her even after much of what she says comes into question. You can hear Morris interviewing her in the background, and every other question he asks sounds like, “Oh my god are you kidding me?!”

Still, it does at times feel like Joyce is putting on a performance for us, one which she has rehearsed for decades. Morris said she was the star of her own movie long before he started making this one, and it is easy to see how this is the case. Regardless, you will find yourself wanting to buy her story even as others come up with proof of how she lied.

With all the various facets of her life put up onscreen, you are eager to see where Joyce will take us next as it is unpredictable for those who are not the least bit familiar with this case. Even if she is lying about everything, it’s never less than interesting.

The truth these days is such a malleable thing as everyone shapes it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Others will say we are wrong or lying, but we are quick to defend what we know to be the truth. Many will convince themselves of what is true to where we can no longer be objective about the experience they had. We replay certain moments in our lives over and over again until they seem correct to us. Even Joyce says at one point, “You know you can tell a lie long enough until you believe it.”

What is great about “Tabloid” is how on top it is a love story of the most unusual kind. There is never any doubt that Joyce still loves Kirk after all these years. Even if you feel miles away from truth after watching this documentary, it is safe to say this much is certain.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu’- Is it More Tolerable Than What Came Before?

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As much as I abhor “I Spit on Your Grave,” its power to shock and deeply unnerve its captive audience is something I have to admire even if I do so begrudgingly. The 1978 cult classic is like a scab which I cannot help but pick at even when I know doing so is harmful and pointless. Meir Zarchi’s controversial revenge flick was such a poorly made motion picture, and yet it maintains a raw power which would later inspire a remake and two sequels. Heck, there is even a documentary called “Growing Up with I Spit on Your Grave” which was made by Meir’s son, Terry Zarchi, and I may have to watch just out of sheer curiosity.

Now it’s 40 years later, and Meir Zarchi has given us a direct sequel to the original called “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu.” Upon hearing Zarchi was going to make a follow up, I couldn’t help but be incredibly intrigued. It’s been a long time coming for this sequel as it was finished in 2015 but is only now seeing a release, albeit one which is seeing it go straight to DVD and Blu-ray. Has Zarchi improved as a filmmaker? Will it be more disturbing and violent than what came before? Could “I Spit on Your Grave: The Next Generation” be a more appropriate title?

Well, I got to check the sequel out the other week at its Beverly Hills premiere where the cast and crew were in attendance along with fans who seemed more excited for this than they are for “Avengers: Endgame.” Since this screening, I have tried to sort out my thoughts about it and will continue to do so in this review. What I can tell you is this; “Déjà vu” is infinitely better than its predecessor, features some really strong performances, and it shocks in a way which feels nowhere as exploitive as what came before. At the same time, it is widely uneven, has some actors redefining the term “scenery chewing,” and it has a running time of almost two and a half hours. Plus, as it goes on, it quickly becomes clear why it was given the subtitle of “Déjà vu.”

The movie opens with us learning Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) was found not guilty of killing the four men who brutally raped her, and she has since published a memoir of her ordeal appropriately titled “I Spit on Their Graves.” She meets up with her beautiful daughter, Christy Hills (Jamie Bernadette), for lunch, and we se she is a successful model who has made quite the career for herself. Both women are at a crossroads in their lives as they discuss what else they can do now they have found amazing success despite a troubled past, and the road ahead offers no easy answers.

As Jennifer and Christy leave the restaurant, they are accosted by Kevin (Jonathan Peacy) and Scotty (Jeremy Ferdman) who are eager to get Jennifer’s autograph. The fact the two men drive up to her in a white van with the words “Enola Gay” painted on the side is not a good sign as this was the name given to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan back in World War II. Before they know it, the two women are abducted and driven far away from the eyes of the world where they meet Becky (Maria Olsen), the wife of Johnny (Eron Tabor) whom Jennifer castrated in the bathtub and left bleeding to death. Suffice to say, Becky is brimming with rage and furious at Jennifer for depriving her of a “church-going” husband and their two kids of a father, and she is intent on taking Jennifer back to the place where it all began so she can give her a “preview to hell.” In the process, Christy is forced to fend for herself after she is separated from Jennifer, and as she attempts to rescue her mother from a horrible fate, she comes to discover more about herself than she ever could have expected.

“I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” is a much more professionally made movie than its god-awful predecessor, and Zarchi is blessed with an excellent cinematographer in Pedja Radenkovic who gives him a number of beautifully framed shots amid the bloody carnage we know will be unleashed in front of our eyes. He also provokes our views on religion and revenge among other things as Becky has convinced herself as well as Kevin and Scotty how her acts are justified by the word of God and the Holy Bible, and she sees Jennifer as nothing more than a vixen who used her sexual powers to lure Johnny and the other men to their ever so painful deaths. It’s both fascinating and frightening to see how people use religion to justify acts which Jesus would not condone in the slightest, and this makes this sequel feel surprisingly, and painfully, timely.

The first performance worth singling out here is Jamie Bernadette’s as she is a commanding presence throughout and manages to say so much while saying nothing at all. Just watch her stare down one of her assailants as she rocks back and forth in a chair. Not once does Bernadette have to tell us that Christy will have her revenge in a most brutal way as her eyes make this clear from the get go. Even when “Déjà vu” takes us through moments which defy all believability, this actress makes you believe certain things could be possible even when logic tells us they are not.

Then there is Maria Olsen who makes Becky into one of the most unforgettable characters I have seen in a horror film in quite some time. Even when she looks to head into, as Kevin Smith and Ralph Garmin would call it, “exquisite acting” territory, Olsen gives a fully committed performance as someone whose heart and soul yearns for nothing more than vengeance, and I can’t help but see her in some respects as a female Khan Noonien Singh. As she prays at the grave of her dead husband, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, and even the snot hanging from her nose can’t possibly upstage her.

Okay, now let’s talk about what doesn’t work about this sequel. Yes, Zarchi has definitely improved as a filmmaker, but he needs a better editor as this movie has no reason to run over two hours long. Scenes drag on for much longer than they have any right to. Moreover, why does Becky want revenge after 40 years? I know the American legal system moves very slowly, but this slowly?

While the screenplay fearlessly provokes our thoughts and beliefs on religion and justice, it doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. Is Zarchi trying to strive for some particular meaning here? If so, what exactly is he getting at? And as we arrive at the movie’s climax, certain characters end up doing a 180 turn on us to where I came out of it questioning the logic of everything which came before. Why, why, why?

And as “Déjà vu” goes on, we come to see it is replaying the same exact story of the 1978 original as Christy is forced to endure the same fate as her mother though in a way slightly less disturbing. Didn’t any of the characters around her learn anything from what happened before, or are they far too dumb to realize the consequences of their actions? The bible does say “an eye for an eye,” but the meaning of this phrase proves to be quite infinite.

As for the other performances, they come to redefine scenery chewing. Jonathan Peacy in particular is all over the place in his portrayal of Kevin to where I wondered why Zarchi never bothered to rein him in. The actor is like a dog who gets all too excited to where he cannot stop jumping all over strangers. Regardless of how the dog’s owner tells them to get down, sit or shake hands, this dog cannot and will not contain their energy. I have to admire the energy Peacy brought to his role, but perhaps a little less caffeine behind the scenes would have done him some good.

And there is Camille Keaton who returns as Jennifer Hills. Her appearance here threatens to be nothing more than a cameo, and this for me was the most disappointing thing about this sequel. At the “Déjà vu” premiere, Keaton said she had wanted Zarchi to make a sequel to “I Spit on Your Grave” for years, and yet she only gets so much to do here. Considering how Jaimee Lee Curtis got to resurrect Laurie Strode for one of the best “Halloween” movies ever and turned her iconic character into a bad ass survivalist, I was hoping the same would happen with Jennifer Hills. In the end, this proves not to be the case.

There is a rape here, but only one thank goodness. Now that last sentence may sound strange, but considering the half hour of brutal abuse Jennifer Hills endured in the 1978 movie, this was a relief as Zarchi is far more focused on the revenge of the female this time around. There is also a castration scene you can see coming from a mile away, and it is as painful as the one we witnessed decades before. And yes, there is another mentally challenged who gets murdered even after he spares another human from certain death. Seeing him get killed off was especially frustrating as the character, Herman (Jim Tavare), proved to be more of a morally balanced individual than anyone else here, and yet he still gets it right in the back.

At some point, I may be able to view “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” as a guilty pleasure. For what it’s worth, it is a vast improvement over its notorious predecessor and a little easier to sit through even as Zarchi fearlessly and shamelessly gets under our skin. It also ends on an interesting note as one character chooses to avert a course of action we expect them to take, and we wonder if history will repeat itself again as two people who are alluded to show up unexpectedly. Still, after a time it devolves into the same old story, and many of us will be left wondering if it was one which needed to be revisited at all.

Perhaps Zarchi can make another sequel with the subtitle “Vuja De.” You remember what George Carlin said about this, right?

“Do you ever get that strange feeling of vuja de? Not deja vu, vuja de. It’s the distinct sense that somehow, something that just happened has never happened before. Nothing seems familiar. And then suddenly the feeling is gone. Vuja de.”

 

* * out of * * * *

‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘First Reformed’ Could Very Well Be Paul Schrader’s Filmmaking Masterpiece

First Reformed movie poster

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.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

 

Exclusive Video Interview: Chelsea Rendon and Carlos Miranda Talk ‘Vida’

While at the press day for the new Starz show “Vida,” I got to talk with two of its stars, Chelsea Rendon and Carlos Miranda. Rendon plays Marisol, a young woman who is passionate about her politics and determined to fight against any and every injustice thrown into her path. Miranda stars as Johnny, a well-meaning guy who is busy running his dad’s auto shop and is on the verge of getting married to his pregnant girlfriend. However, when Johnny’s ex-girlfriend, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), arrives back in town, his plans for being a good husband and dad are challenged to a large degree. Both characters reside in East Los Angeles and in a community filled with pride and passion, and while they are certain of the paths in life they are meant to take, everything gets turned upside down for them.

Rendon began acting at the tender age of six years old, and she has won numerous awards for her role as Cristina on “No Turning Back.” She was featured on the shows “The Bridge,” “Major Crimes” and “Code Black,” and she also has a recurring role on “The Fosters.”

Miranda was born in raised in San Francisco, California, and he has appeared in such movies as “Warrior,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” and “Grandma” which starred Lily Tomlin. On television, his credits include “Chicago PD,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and on the TNT revival series “Dallas.”

Please check out the interview below and be sure to watch “Vida” when it debuts on the Starz network on May 6th.

 

‘Red State’ is the Best and Most Unlikely Film from Kevin Smith

Red State movie poster

Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.

The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.

The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.

The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.

With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.

Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.

Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.

This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.

Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.

Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Robin Givens on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Gods Not Dead 2 Robin Givens

Robin Givens has graced us with her presence for years whether it be on television, onstage or on the silver screen. She caught Theodore Huxtable’s gaze on “The Cosby Show,” played the infinitely spoiled Diane Merriman on “Head of the Class” and gave Eddie Murphy a taste of his own medicine in “Boomerang.” Now she adds a faith based movie to her resume with “God’s Not Dead 2,” a sequel to surprise box office hit from 2014. In it she plays Principal Kinney, the chief administrator at Dr. Martin Luther King High School where a teacher, Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), becomes the center of controversy when she mentions God in a response to a student’s question. From there Principal Kinney is forced to decide whether to stand up for Grace or to stand by the school district officials who demand Grace to apologize for violating the “separation of church and state.”

I got to speak with Givens while she was in Los Angeles to do press for “God’s Not Dead,” and she could not have been nicer. Her family were huge fans of the original, and she jumped at the chance to appear in this sequel. She discussed what was most challenging about her role, how doing the movie affected her own faith and she shared her opinion about the fact that the movie not only opening on April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day.

Gods Not Dead 2 movie poster

Ben Kenber: You play a high school principal in this movie. Did you do any research on principals at all?

Robin Givens:  No, I didn’t too much and I kept thinking of my own. I didn’t have a principal. I had a headmaster, Dr. Paul Firestone. I kept thinking of my children so I approached one from the students’ point of view and then one from a parents’ point of view. It’s interesting when you begin to approach the character and you are actually in the school. We were in a very, very large high school, and however big the kids were makes you assume a certain posture. You really do assume a posture even physically, so that was pretty interesting for me.

BK: This is a sequel which has the director and screenwriters returning to it, but most of the cast from the original did not return. Did that concern you at all?

RG: No, no, not at all. My family and I are very big fans of the first one. I guess I was not surprised they were doing a second one based on its success which I’m sure even surprised them. You kind of get the feeling that they were going to camp it up a little bit. When I met Harold Cronk, the director, I just loved him so much so I was not concerned about it at all.

BK: What would you say was the most challenging aspect for you in playing this character?

RG: Just for me, what I believe versus what she believes. You can play different characters that have nothing to do with you; that’s the most wonderful thing about acting. But with this one, I kind of wanted to insert myself for the first time. I wanted to be on Grace’s side in helping her along, not just sort of walking the line or concerned about following the rules. So that was the big part for me that was difficult.

BK: It can be tricky because you don’t want to judge your character.

RG: Exactly.

BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” is being released on April 1 which is not just April Fool’s Day, but also National Atheist’s Day. Do you have any thoughts on that?

RG: (Laughs) Somebody mentioned that to me and I didn’t know there was a National Atheist’s Day. I think it’s interesting that it’s also April Fool’s Day and that April Fools’ Day is different from National Atheist’s Day, but they also mentioned the irony that they didn’t know that was the day when they decided to release it, so maybe that was God intervening.

BK: Perhaps. You said your character was torn between her job and her heart, and that makes her complex as a result. What would you say were the challenges of playing those complexities?

RG: I think it was really difficult for me to get out of the way, that’s what I would say. I wanted to not judge her, but I wanted to not play the subtext of this really isn’t me and this is not what I believe. Just letting myself get out of the way of it was really hard for me. If I could go to Harold now, and now that I know him better, I would go, “Could you write a scene that actually explains the difficulties she is having?” It’s like one scene for me is missing, you know?

BK: Was there anything you brought to this movie that wasn’t in the screenplay?

RG: I try to portray the difficulty she was having, that’s the choice that I made. So I tried to bring the fact that she did believe, but she was still wanting to do her day job well. I tried to bring the conflict she was having, and I don’t know if that was originally planned but I wanted her to be conflicted.

BK: Has doing this movie strengthened your faith in your own life a lot?

RG: I feel like, for me, it was one big God wink. A friend of mine gave me a book called “God Wink” which talked about how there are no coincidences. It was such an important movie in our lives, my family personally, that to be asked to do the movie a year later was almost like a big God wink or validation of like “I’m with you.” So in some respects, not that it changed my mind about anything, it just sort of brought validation.

BK: When Melissa Joan Hart’s character of Grace Wesley talks about God in the classroom, she is really talking about him as a historical being instead of a divine one.

RG: I love that! I don’t know how you feel about that, but for me I think that was so smart. I loved how they put Christ in a historical context with Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I just love that.

BK: There seems to be a lot of confusion about when or if you should bring up God in the classroom, and the way Grace does it is not really offensive at all. But if she was forcing people and saying believe in God or you will get an F, that would be a different story.

RG: Absolutely, and also when she’s talking about it she’s just talking about it in very simple terms: tolerance, being a better person and being kind. I think because she’s talking about it in such simple terms then how can anybody complain about this, but that it still creates an uproar is interesting and shows where we are at.

BK: Christianity is still the dominant religion in America, but in “God’s Not Dead 2” it is presented more as a minority because of the way certain Christians are treated. How do you feel about that?

RG: This is America; we have freedom of religion. You can’t be persecuted for what you believe. People come from other countries to this country maybe not for only that reason, but that’s a big thing. You get to believe the way you believe here, and sometimes we get so caught up defending other people’s rights that even things that have been the fabric of our country have gotten pushed to the side. I do think Christianity is a big thing in America still, and I think that’s why these films are so successful because maybe people shouldn’t talk about, but they love that they get to see themselves or what they believe are the discussion. I think people really do love it.

BK: Was there anything in regards to religion you really wanted this movie to have?

RG: I think that probably lies a lot on Melissa’s shoulders in terms of what she wanted it to have. I was there to sort of help her in many respects to find her way and help her character find her way as opposed to my own beliefs.

BK: This movie has quite the cast with actors like Ray Wise, Ernie Hudson and Fred Dalton Thompson in what turned out to be his last role before he passed away. Did you have the opportunity to work with Fred?

RG: No I didn’t, but I always think of Fred Thompson when he was running for office which is like, it’s so cool. I’m a big fan not only of his acting but also politically. He was so thought-provoking in many respects, so I’m just happy to have been in the film with him.

BK: You mentioned that your mom goes to church every Sunday and that she saw “God’s Not Dead” and it made the family very happy. I imagine they were very happy to hear that you were involved in “God’s Not Dead 2.”

RG: Oh my God. My family doesn’t know where I’ve came from just in terms of the entertainment business. They are never too into it. But they loved it and they couldn’t believe it. It was something we did together as a family, so when she went to see it (“God’s Not Dead”) and then we all went to see it as a family there was a certain irony there. But it made them very happy.

BK: What would you say your mother got out of the first movie?

RG: It was a difficult time in our lives as a family, and I think that what everybody needs is just faith. I think certain things can always trigger what’s going on in our own lives, so just to have faith I think was a big thing.

I want to thank Robin Givens for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead 2” is now available to rent or own on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can visit the movie’s website at www.godsnotdead.com.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.