Gotham Takes a Ride

The Gotham Awards were held this evening in the Big Apple and the annual ceremony honoring the year’s best in independent filmmaking provided a couple of legitimate surprises. Chloe Zhao’s Western The Rider was a surprise winner for Best Feature, beating out the favored The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk. The Rider premiered all the way back in April after originally screening at Cannes in May 2017. The acclaimed film from director Chloe Zhao has not been on my Oscar radar screen whatsoever.

Should it be? If you look at Gotham’s winners for the last few years, you may deduce that the answer is yes. From 2014-2016, the honored feature (Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight) went on to win Best Picture in the biggest race of all. Call Me by Your Name from last year got a nomination. On the flip side, the recipients from 2012 and 2013 (Moonrise Kingdom and Inside Llewyn Davis) failed to garner Academy recognition. The Rider will more than likely fall in that camp, unlike fellow nominees The Favourite and Beale Street. The other two features nominated were Madeline’s Madeline (an Oscar non-factor) and First Reformed (more on that in a minute).

The Actress race also provided an unexpected winner in the way of Toni Collette for Hereditary. She won out over Glenn Close, who seems bound for an Oscar nod in The Wife. Best Actress is crowded this year, but the fourth and fifth slots seem open to several leading ladies. If Collette can manage some critics awards (which are coming very soon), expect her name to earn more chatter. For the time being, I still believe a nomination is a reach. That could change.

For Actor, Ethan Hawke was a victor for First Reformed. Unlike Actress, this year’s crop of potential Actors at the Oscars is a little weaker. Hawke seems to be gaining momentum at the right time. Last week, I included him in my predicted five for the first time. I feel better and better about it.

Speaking of First Reformed, Paul Schrader (who also directed it) picked up the Screenplay award. Somehow he has never been Oscar nominated… not even for his Taxi Driver screenplay over four decades ago. In order to get his first, his original script would need to knock out one of the following contenders in that race: The Favourite, Roma, Green Book, Eighth Grade, or Vice. That could be a tall order, but it’s certainly possible.

Check back tomorrow as the National Board of Review (a significant precursor) unveils their winners. I’ll have reaction to that with updated Oscar predictions on Thursday!

You Were Never Really Here Movie Review

When You Were Never Really Here ends, you may think you just witnessed a lot more gory violence than you actually did. That’s because the character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a universe drenched in depravity. Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature wallows in that world in the same way some of Paul Schrader’s directorial and written works do. Like Taxi Driver, we witness a Big Apple underground that is rotten to the core. Joe even has a nagging dental issue like Nick Nolte did in Affliction. This is not to suggest Ramsay is a knock off artist. Far from it. She’s a talent that saturates this with sadistic style, even if it ultimately lacks in substance. I couldn’t quite escape a feeling that this is Taken for the art house crowd, but it’s well done.

Joe is a former solider who served in Iraq and in the FBI. Quick flashbacks reveal the horrors he’s seen not only there, but in a troubled childhood. He now works in the shadows as a blunt force for hire who rescues trafficked girls. When not on assignment, he cares for his sickly mother (Judith Richards). A state senator (Alex Manette) utilizes his services to track down his young teen daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov).

This latest job leads to some revelations about the individuals behind the abduction. However, the film’s plot is less of a focus than Joe’s mental state while keeping up with it. The traumas of what’s to come have to compete with his stress disorders of prior ones. In a career filled with fine performances, Phoenix impresses again. With his unkept beard and near Terminator like concentration on inflicting pain on some real bad guys, he’s hard to turn away from. That’s even when the cruelty (both seen and implied) is occurring.

The picture is lean (clocking in at an hour and a half) and filled with mean spirits. It’s a credit to the lead actor, Ramsey’s filmmaking abilities, and an ace score by Jonny Greenwood that we stay with it.

*** (out of four)

First Reformed Movie Review

Writer/director Paul Schrader has never shied away from the subject of faith in his over four decades in cinema. It’s present in often invigorating ways in First Reformed, which restored my own in Schrader’s ability to surprise and confound us. Here the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ seems more focused than he has in some time. His recent filmography includes two unfortunate Nicolas Cage straight to VOD titles and the Lindsay Lohan bomb The Canyons. This is a return to form.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, who ministers at an upstate New York parish that bears the film’s title. The church is about to mark its 250th anniversary and holds great historical significance. However, there’s more people in attendance on field trips during the week than on Sunday morning. The Reverend is a loner (a frequent trait of Schrader’s subjects). Some of these reasons are tragic. He encouraged his son to enlist in Iraq, where he was killed. That loss ended his marriage. Toller is clearly experiencing serious health issues and he masks the pain with a bottle.

A sparsely attended service one day brings Toller in the presence of Michael (Philip Ettinger). He’s a hardcore environmental activist who was recently incarcerated for his protests. His wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant with their child (if that sounds like overt religious symbolism… you’re correct). Michael’s crisis of faith is questioning the validity of bringing a life into the world that he believes has precious time left. The Reverend offers platitudes, but is clearly not confident in his own reassurances.

This meeting ends up having a profound effect on the Reverend that veers into unexpected directions. His church is largely subsidized by an energy CEO (Michael Gaston) and a nearby mega church led by a pastor played by Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer in a change of pace role). His faith in them falters. Toller begins to espouse Michael’s beliefs in foreboding ways while establishing a strong connection with Mary. His mind’s journey is not dissimilar from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver.

Hawke is present in nearly every frame of First Reformed and it’s the kind of multi-layered part that most actors likely dream of. It’s his finest work to date. Schrader is not shy about mixing the themes of environmentalism and corporate greed with those of salvation and grief. This is not always a pleasant watch as we witness Toller’s descent into… well we’re never totally sure. Yet it’s often riveting to behold.

First Reformed fades to black with an ending open to interpretation. Like most everything preceding it, Schrader challenges the audience to reach their own conclusions about Toller. In a picture with these weighty themes, he deftly does so by not being overly preachy. That’s a testament to his power as a writer and we are witnesses again.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall and it opens domestically in limited fashion tomorrow. The drama casts Ethan Hawke as a pastor grieving the death of his son in Iraq who becomes politically active in various matters. Costars include Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer (who goes by Cedric Kyles in this particular case). Reviews out of Italy were encouraging and as more critical notices have come out in recent days, the picture now stands at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Schrader has had a decades long career that includes serving as screenwriter for classics like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directing features including American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and Affliction. Based on the buzz prior to its release tomorrow, Reformed stands as one of the filmmaker’s most acclaimed works.

Could Academy voters take notice? Distributor A24 certainly has it work cut out to keep it fresh in the minds of voters later this year. That said, praise has been effusive for Mr. Hawke and the studio could mount a strong campaign for him. If so, it would mark the actor’s second nomination after receiving a Supporting Actor nod in 2001 for Training Day.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Money Monster Movie Review

A few years back, George Clooney revealed a list of his top 100 films released between 1964 and 1976. It’s an era he considers the best in the history of the medium and that’s certainly a valid hypothesis. In his impressive career, Clooney has appeared in movies that could have come out in that time frame. Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March deal with themes of corporate corruption and dirty politics in ways that entries on his list did more often forty to fifty years ago. Titles like 1976’s Network and George’s all-time #1 All the President’s Men. Both of those features also deal with the positive and negative aspects of journalism and so does Money Monster. In 1976, 24 hour cable news didn’t exist yet. There were no programs like the one in the title where over-the-top host Lee Gates (Clooney) tells viewers how to invest their cash. Think Jim Cramer… except he looks like George Clooney.

Lee is set to tape his Friday show with his trusty director Patty (Julia Roberts) in his ear. Shortly after the cameras roll, Kyle (Jack O’Connell) crashes the set with a gun and explosive laden vest for Lee to don. His beef? He lost his life savings in a company that his now bomb strapped captive heartily endorsed. As millions of ciewees watch the situation live on TV, Monster becomes a rumination on the themes mentioned earlier.

That list Clooney made also correctly included 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. Like that excellent effort, this is a real-time New York City hostage drama with humor frequently injected. Al Pacino gave one of his richest performances of his filmography in Afternoon and his riveting character made the tension substantial in it. That’s a problem here as the character of Kyle is neither fleshed out enough or believable enough to create any significant suspense. It’s not O’Connell’s fault really. He’s just written that way. And therein lies the film’s biggest drawback.

Often, Monster manages to coast on the considerable charms of its two leads and their nice rapport. We’ve seen plenty of pictures with this one’s “Wall Street is bad” theme but few with the star wattage. The quick running time (99 minutes) is a plus. This is never boring, though it’s credibility does dip in the third act.

The director, by the way, is an actress you may have heard of named Jodie Foster. She appeared in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and 1976’s Taxi Driver. They both also made that Clooney list. Money Monster probably won’t be listed on anyone’s all-time top 100 of anything. You may not regret investing a short amount of time in it, but there’s lists of similarly themed fare that’s far superior. Even this movie’s star did one.

**1/2 (out of four)