First Reformed (2017/2018, dir. Paul Schrader)





Praised as a return to form for filmmaker Paul Schrader and a career-best showcase for Ethan Hawke, the drama First Reformed is a thought-provoking (if imperfect) meditation on assorted crises of faith. Hope and despair are the two warring states of emotion here, exposing characters’ constant struggles against the entwined losses of loved ones and, thanks to global warming, the natural beauty of our planet. Schrader, who will almost certainly be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, occasionally makes heavy-handed missteps in articulating his environmental concerns – anyone who seen the film’s “Magical Mystery Tour” sequence has an idea of what I mean, though they may not share my reaction – but the strength of the acting, the dialogue (including voiceovers) that conveys the inner turmoil of Hawke’s Reverend Toller and the superb cinematography by Alexander Dynan make First Reformed one of the must-see films of the year.

Named for a politically active German Jewish playwright from the 1920s and 30s, the Rev. Ernst Toller of Schrader’s film is yet another of God’s lonely men, a solitary figure who embraces warm conversations when given the opportunity yet rejects help from those who would share more intimate expressions of love and kindness with him. Living in a few sparsely-decorated rooms attached to the humble Dutch Reformed church that he presides over in rural upstate New York, this is a man mired in regret and grief for the son who died as a soldier in Iraq, the tragedy of which caused his marriage to dissolve. Unable to cope with his pain, Toller has turned to the bottle for solace. His alcoholism has in turn caused his body to fall apart as surely as his soul, internal ailments that are eventually mirrored by the external conflict that will also trouble him.





At the beginning of the film, Toller is called on by a local woman, Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), to council her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, a promising up-and-comer whom I first noticed in last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99), an environmental activist who is filled with doubt and frustration over humankind’s self-destruction, compounded by the corporate greed that no amount of peaceful protest seems able to stop. Toller slowly comes around to Michael’s line of thinking – the core of which is the simple yet potent question “will God forgive us?” – and Michael’s actions and influence spur Toller to take steps of his own against power structures, chiefly the megachurch run by a gregarious acquaintance, Rev. Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, wonderfully cast against type) and a nearby factory’s contemptible CEO, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose money is funding the renovation of Toller’s church for its upcoming 250th anniversary.

Paul Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing evidently inspired his decision to write First Reformed as much as climate change did, but the lingering traces of his cinematic muses are visible throughout the film as well. Schrader’s first breakthrough as a critic and historian came with the publication of his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and I certainly recognized the impact that Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light had on First Reformed while watching it. As I have also noted with regard to Schrader’s remake of Cat People, his understanding of visual composition is masterful; the images in First Reformed by the aforementioned DP Alexander Dynan are magnificent, not just because of the color palette and camera angles/framing but because of Paul Schrader’s command of mise-en-scène. In this film, empty spaces are as important and symbolic as the arrangements of objects, a physical representation of Reverend Toller’s emotional isolation and the hollowness of his cloistered life. I also appreciate the director’s overt allusions to Taxi Driver, apparent in Toller’s daily journaling of his obsessive thoughts, as well as a scene when Toller drives through his desolate town at night and, most literally, in a moment when he pours some Pepto-Bismol into a glass of liquor à la Travis Bickle’s bubbling Alka-Seltzer tab (itself an homage to Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her).



First Reformed’s ending has proved itself to be divisive, and I’m not convinced that it was the optimal way to bring the story to a close, but in truth I respected it more when I heard Paul Schrader’s take on moviegoers’ two possible interpretations of the final scene during the post-film Q&A (the screening I attended was at the Museum of Modern Art, where both Schrader and Hawke spoke). I stand by my distaste for some of the film’s clunkier “We Are the World”-isms, and I also thought Amanda Seyfried was perhaps not the best casting choice for Mary – yes, that name is as symbolic as you imagine – but my problem with the latter is not so much with Seyfried’s acting (since I enjoy her work in general) as with the dull lines that Schrader wrote for her. Still, if First Reformed is viewed fundamentally as a display for Ethan Hawke, who is guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance, then it is indeed a great cinematic success. Ever since he was a teenager in Dead Poets Society, Hawke has shown a remarkable ability to illustrate the coexistence of vulnerability and fortitude, and he continues to uncover new ways to demonstrate this tender balancing act with intelligence and grace.

Cool Stuff to Check Out in NYC: June 2016

For all you dedicated cinephiles out there, here are some upcoming film screenings and retrospectives that are sure to excite you this June in New York City. Information regarding the theaters and dates/times can be found by clicking the links provided at the beginning of each series or event’s entry.


Danger lurks behind every corner for Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (1980).

“Brian De Palma” at the Metrograph (Wed. June 1 – Thurs. June 30): The new arthouse cinema on Ludlow Street (Lower East Side) will be hosting this look back at director Brian De Palma’s half-century-long career as a master teller of Hitchcockian tales filled with sex and violence, as well as a maker of more commercial, action-oriented fare like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. With the exception of Murder à la Mod (1968), Metrograph will be showing Brian De Palma’s entire history of feature films. If you’ve never experienced Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill or the crazy, extravagant mess known as The Black Dahlia, here is your chance to do so.

The Series IncludesThe Wedding Party (released in 1969 but shot in 1963), Greetings (1968), Dionysus in ’69 (1970), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976), Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Home Movies (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), Wise Guys (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Casualties of War (1989), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Raising Cain (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007), Passion (2012)


The skydiving sequence in Point Break (1991, dir. Kathryn Bigelow).

“Genre Is a Woman” at Film Forum (Fri. June 3 – Thurs. June 16): This is the series I am most excited about this June. The retrospective will be looking at films made by nineteen women directors (spanning the early silent era to the present day), none of whom were or are restricted by the usual stereotyped boundaries (e.g., “chick flick” romantic comedies). You will see teen comedies, fast-paced action flicks, sci-fi thrillers, biopics, sexploitation dramas and much more. My personal recommendations among the selections here are Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless (1981) and Point Break (1991), so you should definitely make time for those.

The Series Includes Films ByAlice Guy Blaché (silent short films including Babies from Cabbages; The Detective’s Dog; The Pit and the Pendulum), Dorothy Arzner (Dance, Girl, Dance), Ida Lupino (Not Wanted; The Hitch-Hiker; two episodes of “Thriller”), Doris Wishman (Nude on the Moon; Bad Girls Go to Hell; Let Me Die a Woman; A Night to Dismember), Barbara Loden (Wanda), Stephanie Rothman (The Student Nurse; Group Marriage), Barbara Peeters (Bury Me an Angel), Kathryn Bigelow (The Loveless; Near Dark; Blue Steel; Point Break; Strange Days), Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Amy Holden Jones (The Slumber Party Massacre), Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Katt Shea (Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls; Dance of the Damned; Streets; Poison Ivy), Sondra Locke (Impulse), Cindy Sherman (Office Killer), Mary Harron (American Psycho; The Notorious Bettie Page), Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff; Night Moves), Ami Canaan Mann (Texas Killing Fields) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)


Kamikaze ’89 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Fri. June 3 – Thurs. June 9): BAM is showing the final film starring the incomparable German auteur/artiste Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kamikaze ’89 (1982, dir. Wolf Gremm), for a week in early June. This rarely-screened thriller is set in a dystopian future society and R.W.F. plays a detective; the cast includes roles for Fassbinder’s frequent collaborators Günther Kaufmann (Whity (1971), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), the miniseries “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980)), Brigitte Mira (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973), Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976)), and Juliane Lorenz (Fassbinder’s editor for films and TV, as well as his girlfriend, from the late 70s until his death in 1982), as well as an appearance by international star Franco Nero. Kamikaze ’89 cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger also worked with Fassbinder on his own projects, photographing “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), Lili Marleen (1981), Lola (1981), Veronika Voss (1982) and Querelle (1982).

Trivia: Fassbinder was buried in the leopard-print suit he wore in Kamikaze ’89.


Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung share a quiet, contemplative moment during a rendezvous in In the Mood for Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar Wai).

“Luminosity: The Art of Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing” at the Museum of Modern Art (Thurs. June 16 – Thurs. June 30): MoMA pays tribute to one of the most talented cinematographers in Asian and European cinema. One of the must-sees is the romantic drama In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar Wai’s take on Brief Encounter set in Hong Kong in 1962.

The Series Includes Films By: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Dust in the Wind; The Puppetmaker; Flowers of Shanghai; The Assassin), Wang Tung (Strawman), Ann Hui (Eighteen Springs), Tran Anh Hung (The Vertical Ray of the Sun; Norwegian Wood), Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love), Tian Zhuangzhuang (Springtime in a Small Town), Ivy Ho (Claustrophobia), Chiang Hsiu-Chiung and Kwan Pun-Leung (Let the Wind Carry Me), Gilles Bourdos (Renoir), Jay Chou (The Rooftop), Yang Chao (Crosscurrent)

2015: Part 4

Aloha. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Jesus Christ, this movie is bad. I would be thoroughly shocked if it weren’t a major contender at the upcoming Razzies ceremony; not only is the social/political content (revolving around a convoluted plot related to nuclear weaponry) kept to a dumbed-down minimum in favor of a bland romantic story, but Crowe’s screenplay also has several cringe-worthy lines (“I go hard, I go deep, and sometimes I break things.” “Don’t skin your knees on eternity, brah.” “I was sound-transducing when you were still in a ballerina costume!” “You sold your soul so many times, nobody’s buying anymore.”) that I can’t believe came from the same mind who crafted Say Anything… and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe in an alternate universe I would at least be able to praise Bill Murray for doing a sexy dance with Emma Stone to the tune of “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” or Jaeden Lieberher (Murray’s young co-star from St. Vincent) for being one of the better child actors of his age (as Rachel McAdams’ and John Krasinski’s son), but all I can focus on is the negative: Bradley Cooper’s character as the white savior of Oahu, complete with bright blue eyes and a flawless tan, Emma Stone’s embarrassing role as a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese character (to those who say her casting is necessary because there are no biracial actresses who could be hired – did you ever think that maybe the reason why you think that is because Hollywood systemically refuses to hire them and instead goes with a white actress whose popularity will help the movie sell more tickets?), Rachel McAdams in yet another of her signature boring performances and John Krasinski in a role he appears to sleepwalk through in every element (Cooper’s best friend, McAdams’ husband, father of two children) sink this ship even faster than its captain could have imagined.

P.S. At least half of the songs on the soundtrack are soul-deadening indie pop/rock songs. You know, the kind that sound like Elliott Smith on tranquilizers – in other words, like almost everything from the last ten years. I think I murmured oy gevalt! internally every time I heard one.

Amy. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Even if you already know part or most of the story, you still won’t be fully prepared for how devastating Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Amy Winehouse is, particularly if you experience it in a packed movie theater. Sitting with the MoMA audience last night, there were so many moments of total silence among the moviegoers, caught in the spell of this talented, troubled performer. I found myself thinking about Amy’s trajectory as an artist and as an addict, the way she was used and abused by so many around her, including her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her father, Mitch. These family members, friends and other people in managerial positions enabled her substance problems; it’s especially disgusting when Mitch Winehouse says that it was Amy’s responsibility to help herself (even though it is clear to the viewer that she was unable to do so on her own and she desperately needed a firm hand to convince her that she needed treatment) and also when manager Raye Cosbert prioritizes a tour over Amy’s need to go to rehab, claiming that heroin isn’t such a big issue because he knows other artists who are able to function while using it. Amy reminds people (or tells some of them for the first time) of Amy Winehouse’s musical gifts, but it’s much more important and powerful as a harrowing portrait of how addiction can destroy you – the human body can only take so much before it gives out. At the end of the film I heard two women talking about the film and one said that she thought it was “distasteful” that the director showed footage of the aftermath of Amy’s death, with the paramedics carrying the body bag out of the flat; as sad as that image is, it’s necessary. Addiction is an ugly thing, and her death was the final, horrible consequence. I thought a lot during the film about how people have reevaluated Amy’s career after her passing, posting and reblogging photos of her on websites like Tumblr and Pinterest and obsessing over her as a posthumous icon, a member of the 27 Club. Where were those people when Amy was alive? Undoubtedly making fun of her along with the rest of the world, mocking her once she could no longer perform to everyone’s demands and laughing even more as her disintegration (which also included bulimia) continued. Probably the most telling moments in the film are the two scenes showing “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno thanking Amy Winehouse for performing on his program, then, some time later, making jokes about her serious drug addictions in a monologue. (Another key moment: when one of the many paparazzi cornering Amy on the street is bumped/hit into by her, which is a small shock to the cameraman; he was there to do a job, but even though he got physically close to his subject, right in her face, I guess he still thought there was supposed to be distance between them and he hadn’t expected to collide with her.) (Also, since I have mentioned late-night talk show hosts, here’s the other side of the coin: Craig Ferguson’s monologue from 2007 about why he refused to make jokes about Britney Spears and her substance/mental health problems.) Amy is as much an indictment of the unbelievable pressures of celebrity – seen in the constant presence of paparazzi hounding Amy practically to her death, even after death as her corpse was carried out of her home – as it is about the pitfalls of Amy’s dependencies and co-dependencies, even though the film could not exist without all of the footage that was used in it. Art can be a vicious, grotesque cycle.

The Martian. Directed by Ridley Scott. I had the opportunity to finally see The Martian (and in 3D!) at MoMA on the evening of December 9. While nothing about the film (essentially Cast Away in space) is groundbreaking – not even the visuals/use of 3D – it is an entertaining flick with a great soundtrack. It totally makes sense why the film is categorized as a comedy for the Golden Globes; a lot of the dialogue is quite funny, including the use of certain disco songs on the soundtrack. Matt Damon does a very good job in carrying the film, again not surprising or innovative but still solid; few other performances are particularly noteworthy, but I did enjoy Michael Peña (not a shock, he’s probably this year’s film MVP) as a fellow astronaut and Sean Bean as the director of the astronaut training program. Kate Mara seemed ill-cast (and looked too young) as another member of the space team, while Kristen Wiig was poorly used as NASA’s PR woman (why cast such a funny woman in such a bland role? Diane Lane or Ashley Judd could have been cast just as easily, right? … except for the bigger popularity of Wiig, of course) and Donald Glover also has far too little screen time as the tech genius who figures out how the Hermes can save Damon (also, did anyone else notice the awkward switch that the score made into hip-hop-flavored beats in two instances when Glover was the center of a scene?). Even so, The Martian moves at a very nice pace and is constantly fun to watch, so it’s hardly the usual “mindless/soulless popcorn” thing that people assume will be the case with big blockbusters.

Spy. Directed by Paul Feig. I really enjoyed this movie. I have a tendency to shy away from recent comedies because so many of them are painfully unfunny, but I had the feeling I would like this one; how could I not, given that Paul Feig, who purposely works from a feminist perspective, wrote and directed it? The gender-flipping of the traditional James Bond-type secret agent story works well, giving Melissa McCarthy a great leading role with lots of character development over the course of the story and loads of funny lines (and most of them don’t have to do with her body size). She is ably assisted by Jude Law as the dashing, Bond-like spy guy whom she has worked with for years (and quietly lusted after); Jason Statham as the wildly unprepared and pompous hyper-spy Rick Ford; Miranda Hart as McCarthy’s good friend at the agency, who, like McCarthy, gets the opportunity to move from “basement work” into the field; and Allison Janney as the CIA head in charge of the missions. (In smaller roles, it’s also nice to see Michael McDonald as the CIA gadget guy who gives McCarthy the greatest watch imaginable, Steve Bannos as “Alan the Bartender” and Zach Woods as a waiter with nefarious intentions.) I was less impressed with Rose Byrne, who I guess is OK as one of the main villains, but she never outshines McCarthy in any of their scenes together; Bobby Cannavale, another of the baddies, is suitably handsome but underused, not unlike the bland but pretty eye candy that often shows up in female form in James Bond flicks – more of Feig’s intentional gender-flipping, perhaps? The nicest surprise, cast-wise, was Peter Serafinowicz (who I totally forgot was also in Spy until he showed up) as Aldo, a sex-obsessed CIA liaison who casts his amorous eye on McCarthy. Every scene they share is gold, especially the last one at the end of the film. For a film filled with send-ups and spoofs of its genre, all of which could have failed in lesser hands, the screenplay, dialogue, most of the performances and the overall trajectory of Spy succeed, and hilariously so.

Woman in Gold. Directed by Simon Curtis. Contrary to what some critics and moviegoers may have said, Woman in Gold is a well-acted drama. Helen Mirren is, as one would expect, good in the role of Maria Altmann, who fought to get back the paintings that Gustav Klimt gave her family (including the most famous one of her aunt Adele, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) and which were subsequently stolen by the Nazis in 1938. Ryan Reynolds also does an OK job as Altmann’s lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, not perhaps an Oscar-worthy performance but still fairly good considering that I’ve never thought of Reynolds as much of an actor. All of the most effective actors, however, appear in the Vienna flashbacks: in this order, Allan Corduner as Maria’s father (a beautiful, beautiful performance), Max Irons as Maria’s husband, Tatiana Maslany as young Maria, Nina Kunzendorf as Maria’s mother, Tom Schilling as a Nazi officer assigned to watch the family. I didn’t have any particular opinions about Daniel Brühl‘s boring performance as investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin, while Katie Holmes is wasted in a throwaway role as Randy’s wife, Pam Schoenberg, who has very few facial expressions other than “concerned.” Where the film is weakest is in the overarching feeling of being a Hollywood drama/biopic/Holocaust story, exactly the sort that Harvey Weinstein produces (which he did, in this case) and which is designed to make you feel certain feelings. I am totally sympathetic with Maria Altmann in terms of the art restitution case – would Aunt Adele really have preferred for her portrait to hang in the Belvedere Palace gallery if she had known what would happen to her family, friends and country in WWII? – but perhaps because I remembered the Maria Altmann story (I recall when she died a few years ago, which led me to read all about the case and visit the painting in the Neue Galerie), Woman in Gold did not provide any surprises. But I should not be too shocked; the film was made by the same who directed the problematic My Week with Marilyn.

2014: Part 6

Gone Girl. Directed by David Fincher. (SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MOVIE AND NOVEL. This will all make sense to those of you have seen and read both.) After reading Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller-novel Gone Girl (a page-turner about a missing-person case and a marriage gone horribly wrong) late last year, I knew I had to hunker down and watch the film adaptation (which had just been released on DVD), especially since the Oscars were right around the corner. At the end of the day I was more surprised for what the Oscars didn’t get right with their nominations than what they did acknowledge, which was the film’s lone nod for Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy Elliott Dunne. I’ve been a fan of Pike for years, so I know she’s capable of wonderful performances, but I can’t commit 100% to this particular role for her. The thing about reading the novel is that the way the story is structured – with all those diary entries – it makes for quite a stark contrast once you find out what Amy is really like. When you read those sympathetic diary notes, you imagine Amy to be the sympathetic character she wants you to believe she is. With this film adaptation, Fincher/Pike/Flynn don’t give us that luxury since Pike is ice-cold from the get-go. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that something has to be off with Amy and that she would somehow be involved with what happened on the morning of July 5. This is not to say that Pike’s performance is bad, but I don’t feel affected by it in the same way that I was emotionally involved in the performance given by another nominee in the Best Actress field, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).

Because I knew which characters they played in the film, I pictured Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris in their respective roles as Nick Dunne and Desi Collings while reading the novel. In the film I thought they both did really good work and “that scene” between Desi and Amy in the lake house was probably the best scene in the film, purely because the film dared to go even further and more horrific than what Gillian Flynn originally wrote in the novel. Other actors do well too, including Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Lola Kirke, Scoot McNairy and Missi Pyle. I’d also add that I can’t believe that the film didn’t get Oscar nominations for the editing (Kirk Baxter) and the score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). The editing is particularly impressive; Gone Girl’s opening credits might be the fastest and most efficient that I’ve ever seen in a movie. There were also many notable moments in Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, like the observation of flashing paparazzi cameras as seen from the Dunne family cat’s perspective as it looks out the front door, although some of the gold-soaked scenes were a little too Steven Soderbergh-esque (in a bad ripoff way) for my taste.

In terms of aspects of the novel that were missing from the movie: I noticed a few omissions, like the interview done in the Bar, which was obviously cut for time. Things that I wish had been used in the movie, though: 1) Hilary Handy, 2) the fact that Nick’s first name is “Lance,” 3) more about Nick and Go’s father, 4) Desi’s mother [the fact that Desi lives with her, and also her resemblance to Amy], 5) the fact that Desi didn’t actually attempt suicide when he was going out with Amy – we see Nick confront Desi about this at the Collings home, to which Desi visibly reacts but says nothing, and we never hear Amy mention either in narration or dialogue that she was the architect behind that event [I can’t recall if the story was a complete lie or maybe Desi actually was found in her bed, but Amy had supplied the pills… but there was more to the story than what we hear in the film], 6) the ending as it is written in the novel, with the memorable final line that Nick says to Amy. Final verdict: Gone Girl is very entertaining. I just don’t think that any adaptation can adequately match the novel.

Learning to Drive. Directed by Isabel Coixet. I saw Learning to Drive at a preview at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater, a screening sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image that featured a post-film Q&A with director Isabel Coixet and stars Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley and Sarita Choudhury. I really enjoyed the experience; the film has a great leading role for Patricia Clarkson, the kind that she (and other actresses her age or older) rarely get unless they’re Meryl Streep. Clarkson does a beautiful job as Wendy, a book critic whose professor husband leaves her after cheating on her with one of his college students. Clarkson’s life is totally uprooted and she makes the first of several new decisions when fate brings her and driving instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley, also excellent) together; Wendy, who has never driven before, takes on the challenge of overcoming her fears and learning how to take control both literally behind the wheel and metaphorically in the driver’s seat of her own life. Sarita Choudhury is also very good as Jasleen, Darwan’s new wife thanks to an arranged marriage. (It’s fun to see Samantha Bee too, playing one of Clarkson’s pals helping her with her divorce crisis, but the role isn’t particularly big.) All three main characters have to find ways to move forward in their lives and take charge of certain situations, which I think the actors, director Coixet and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan accomplish quite nicely. This kind of story has probably been done many, many times before, but Learning to Drive has some new takes on the narrative that give its middle-aged female protagonist (which is to say, the actress playing her) a marvelous showcase.

99 Homes. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year again: MoMA Contenders season! First up for 2015 was a screening of 99 Homes, which was extra exciting because at the last minute MoMA updated their website – literally an hour before the show – to say that there would be a post-screening Q&A with director Ramin Bahrani, so that was awesome. As for the film, it was excellent; I didn’t recall what kinds of reviews it got when it was first released to US theaters two months ago, so I decided not to check and to just experience the film as it happened. I thought it was a very fine piece of work, benefiting from a great screenplay, a terrific performance from Michael Shannon as a vicious real estate agent in charge of evicting Florida homeowners from foreclosed properties and an almost-as-good performance by Andrew Garfield as one such evicted (and rather desperate) man who is suckered into working for Shannon, first as a construction worker and later as a guy serving eviction notices to scared and angry families. Shannon and Garfield play their characters in a Faustian story line that morphs from social drama into tense thriller, witnessing escalations of threats and violence in various forms on both sides of homeowners’ doors. (It should be noted that Laura Dern and Tim Guinee are also good in their supporting, and less flashy, roles – Dern as Garfield’s mother, Guinee as a man fighting against being forced out of his home – but they are dependable actors who have never been anything less than good in film and on TV.) Bahrani’s screenplay is top-notch, easily one of the best that I’ve seen this year, so that helps make the film so successful; I’d also like to thank Bobby Bukowski for photographing perhaps my favorite shot of the year, when we see a juxtaposed image of Andrew Garfield and pool water, a visual metaphor for being “underwater” as it relates to mortgage terminology and over his head/drowning in other ways – what an amazing shot. I don’t know if 99 Homes will make it to the Oscars, but I can definitely see it being up for some Independent Spirit Awards. P.S. My favorite thing that Ramin Bahrani said during the Q&A: to paraphrase, describing the time he visited Michael Shannon at his home in Brooklyn, Shannon appearing golden-tanned with a wisp of blonde hair curling on his forehead, looking “like a god had come down to Red Hook. Why hadn’t I ever seen him look that handsome in a movie?” (Bahrani did indeed address this issue in 99 Homes.)

That Awkward Moment. Directed by Tom Gormican. That awkward moment… when you waste time watching this movie. (Seriously, why did I do that to myself? And why did you offer this as programming, HBO Signature?) Starring in a failed romantic comedy about a group of guys determined to have only flings and no serious relationships, Michael B. Jordan is the only one of the three main bros who appears to have a heart and a sense of right and wrong. Zac Efron’s hideous character starts out as a sociopath, treating every casual hook-up like she’s a disposable paper plate to be used for the night and immediately thrown away; Miles Teller’s character, despite being cute and goofy, is overwhelmed by his more weaselly qualities in the dating department. The film’s gratuitous display of assholery is saved only by Imogen Poots’ performance as the woman with whom Efron falls in love, thus redeeming him in the third act in true Hollywood fashion; Poots’ character is the only female character in the film with any kind of development in Gormican’s laughable script. Mackenzie Davis’s character, the young woman dating Teller, has the potential to be interesting (particularly in the scene when she sings and plays the piano) but the film never turns her quirky-funny-girl routine into something more sustainable. Addison Timlin also had some OK moments as one of Efron’s frequent hook-ups. I didn’t understand Josh Pais’s character at all, though; as a co-worker at the publishing firm where Efron and Teller work, Pais only pops up to display some awkwardness (gong!) by cracking unfunny jokes that scream “NERD!” and which make the actor seem extremely uncomfortable. Every now and then Brandon Trost’s cinematography helped things along, but it was always too brief a respite; for 95% of the film, every aspect from the acting to the uninspired dialogue to the predictably poppy soundtrack choices (with the exception of “Still Life” by the Horrors) combined to drag this dung heap down. The cruelest blow of all? The film wasn’t nominated for any Razzies. All that hard work for nothing!

Welcome to Me. Directed by Shira Piven. This dark comedy has a very good lead performance by Kristen Wiig, who anchors the film with both a sense of absurdist comedy and a dedicated portrayal of mental and emotional instability. The film’s story is built on an intriguing concept: what would happen if a woman with borderline personality disorder won the lottery, used her money to buy a TV studio and, despite having little to no social skill, gave herself her own Oprah-like talk show to host? Wiig almost makes this folly believable, but most of the other performances in the film either fall short of Wiig’s mark or are not in the film long enough to register. (How, may I ask, can you cast an actress as good as Loretta Devine and put her in only one scene?) I really liked Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack and Thomas Mann in the film, and Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace have some great little moments as Wiig’s parents, but other characters just… I don’t know, weren’t necessary or weren’t given dialogue that could amount to anything. I don’t see what the point of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character was (a TV exec who has no authority and quits in disgust, how fascinating) and all Tim Robbins did was act like a sourpuss as Wiig’s psychiatrist. I support women directors 100%, so I would give Shira Piven (older sister of actor Jeremy Piven) another shot, but the ultimate shortcoming in this film is that the screenplay is so predictable. There are far too many moments of dead air – television pun intended. Wiig can do great things, and she almost achieves a kind of greatness here, but she needs better work happening around her to support her acting, or the whole thing goes to pieces. Additional note: If you’re one of those people who only wants to see Welcome to Me because you’re interested in Kristen Wiig’s full-frontal nude scene, you might as well look elsewhere on the Internet or crack open a skin magazine because Wiig’s scene is shown in the context of a mental breakdown. It’s not supposed to be sexy.

A New Retrospective at MoMA: The Films of Hasse Ekman

Swedish filmmaker Hasse Ekman (1915-2004) had a long career both in front of and behind the camera. The son of legendary theater and film actor Gösta Ekman, Hasse Ekman carved own his niche in cinema, starting as an actor and then going on to direct 41 films (many of which were the products of his own original screenplays) between 1940 and 1964. He is now the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which will be showing ten of his directorial efforts. (Last week I also had the opportunity to see a film in which both Hasse Ekman and his father appeared, the 1936 romantic drama Intermezzo, directed by Gustaf Molander and co-starring Ingrid Bergman.) Although Hasse Ekman’s work was overshadowed by the success of Ingmar Bergman during the same period, MoMA is resurrecting Ekman’s filmography for a new generation of moviegoers. Here is a look at some of the films that will be screening in the upcoming series.

The First Division (1941) – Sat. Sept. 12 at 7:30 pm and Mon. Sept. 14 at 4:00 pm – Famed Swedish actor Lars Hanson stars in this drama about World War II. Hanson’s name may be best known to American silent film buffs; he starred in a number of well-known MGM films, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) with Lillian Gish, Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and The Wind (1928) with Gish again, but Hanson worked in the Swedish film industry both before and after his time in Hollywood. Hasse Ekman also has a supporting role in The First Division.

The Banquet (1948) – Sat. Sept. 12 at 1:30 pm and Wed. Sept. 16 at 7:00 pm – Ekman and his wife at the time, Eva Henning, have supporting roles in this drama of complex family relations. Also featured in the cast is Birger Malmsten, who worked with Ingmar Bergman many times, including in It Rains on Our Love (1946), Thirst (1949), Secrets of Women (1952), The Silence (1963) and Face to Face (1976).

The Girl from the Third Row (1949) – Fri. Sept. 11 at 4:00 pm and Thurs. Sept. 17 at 4:00 pm – Ekman wrote this drama as a response to Ingmar Bergman’s 1949 film Prison (a film in which Ekman had an acting role) by exploring similar themes of life’s interconnectivity and theories of existentialism. Eva Henning plays “The Girl,” while Bergman regulars Gunnar BjörnstrandBarbro Hiort af Ornäs and Maj-Britt Nilsson, as well as Hasse Ekman, also play supporting roles.

Girl with Hyacinths (1950) – Wed. Sept. 9 at 7:00 pm and Fri. Sept. 18 at 7:00 pm – Ekman’s favorite among the films he directed, this drama tells the tale of a young woman (played by Eva Henning) who has committed suicide, and a host of her friends and family members look into the reasons why. The September 9 screening will be introduced by Hasse Ekman’s widow, Viveka, as well as by his daughter with Eva Henning, Fam Ekman.

Gabrielle (1954) – Sun. Sept. 13 at 2:00 pm and Fri. Sept. 18 at 4:00 pm – A romantic drama of infidelities and revenge, the title character is played by Eva Henning and the other two-thirds of the love triangle are played by Hasse Ekman and Birger Malmsten. Supporting actors in the film include Inga Tidblad (she played Ekman’s mother in Intermezzo two decades earlier), Karin Molander (wife of Lars Hanson) and Gunnar Björnstrand, while the black-and-white cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer, who shot many of Ingmar Bergman’s films between the late 1940s and the early 60s, such as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958).

No Small Parts: Supporting Actors in Casablanca (1942)

Seeing Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art last weekend as part of the Ingrid Bergman centennial retrospective reminded me that the film is so much more than just a vehicle for its four stars, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains (admittedly, Rains’ name is not above the title either in advertising or in the film’s opening credits, but his role is large enough and his lines memorable enough that he has been accorded a higher position in viewers’ hearts). Casablanca is also a wonderful showcase for the many character actors who populated Hollywood in the 1940s, a large number of whom were European refugees, like the characters they play in the movie. With the exception of John Qualen, because I cannot find any videos of his performance, I have tried to account for all of the notable supporting roles in the film by writing a little about each actor and showing his or her work in clips. As Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski said, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” and American character actor Dabbs Greer once remarked that “every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.” That is certainly true of the many performers who shine, even if only very briefly, in Casablanca.

The striking presence of German actor Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) brings life to the role of Third Reich official Major Heinrich Strasser. A tall, imposing man with a distinctively nasal voice, Veidt made a name for himself in Weimar-era horror films including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Hands of Orlac (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) and after fleeing the Nazis (he vocally opposed them, which earned him death threats from the Third Reich) in the early 1930s, he found work in the UK and US playing many elegant, mysterious, oftentimes villainous characters. In the 1940s he was recruited to play Nazi generals, as in Escape (1940), All Through the Night (1941) and, most unusually, as both a Nazi and his anti-Nazi twin brother in Nazi Agent (1942). It makes sense, therefore, that Veidt would be cast in a similar role in Casablanca and it is a tribute to his artistry that he was the highest-paid actor in the cast.

Inveterate scene-stealer Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) takes charge of every frame he is in, which isn’t bad for a guy who didn’t start making movies until he was in his early 60s (his debut being in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon). Greenstreet doesn’t have much to do in Casablanca except throw his weight around (both symbolically and literally) but any time he shows up, you smile.

In two short scenes in Casablanca, Curt Bois (1901-1991) appears as a nameless pickpocket who warns visitors to the city about “vultures everywhere” as he steals their wallets. Berlin-born Bois, who was Jewish, fled Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, finding work in Hollywood starting in 1937. His career, which lasted eighty years, culminated in his final film performance as Homer the aged poet in Wings of Desire (1987), probably one of the largest roles Bois ever had in the movies. You may also recognize the wife in the pickpocketed couple; that is English actress Norma Varden (1898-1989), who later had bigger roles as the society woman nearly strangled by Robert Walker at a dinner party in Strangers on a Train (1951) and as the wealthy murder victim in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

Peter Lorre (1904-1964) got the biggest applause at MoMA aside from Ingrid Bergman, and for good reason. Audiences appreciate Lorre’s immense talent, his wide-eyed stare and perhaps especially his Hungarian-accented tenor voice, which could swing from charming to smarmy in the blink of an eye. Lorre could play morally ambiguous, or repugnant, characters and yet still have an ounce of sympathy because he was that good an actor.

Standing to the left of the door to Rick’s place, you can see Dan Seymour (1915-1993) as Abdul, the heavyset bouncer who does not have any dialogue. Seymour appeared in many films and TV shows between the early 1940s and the late 70s, often with character names like “Fats,” “The Pig” and “Big Louie” and character descriptions for uncredited roles including “Fat Doorman in Cairo Theatre,” “Fat Turk at the Café” and “Fat Native Man.” Despite the continuous casting based on his weight, Seymour proved that excellent actors come in many sizes; two of my favorite roles of his being in films directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat (1953) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). (Lang and Chicago-born Seymour became friends while making Cloak and Dagger (1946) after Lang found out that Seymour spoke German. Another interesting fact: Seymour held a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Chicago.)

Moviegoers remember Dooley Wilson (1886-1953) for singing the now-classic “As Time Goes By” at Ilsa’s (Ingrid Bergman) request, but as piano player Sam, Wilson does not merely play a worker in Rick’s hire. On some level Rick and Sam have an employer-employee relationship since one man pays the other, but Sam was also witness to the romance between Rick and Ilsa; Rick considers Sam a trustworthy confidant.

Leonid Kinskey (1903-1998) plays the small but memorable role of Sascha, the bartender at Rick’s Café Américain, seen here attempting to woo Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau – more on her below). Once described by columnist Louella Parsons as “the maddest Russian on land and sea,” Kinskey made a long career out of playing a long list of types, including political agitators, spies and informers (Trouble in Paradise, Duck Soup, Manhattan Melodrama, Algiers), prisoners (We Live Again, Les Misérables), gigolos (Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio), cowboys (Rhythm on the Range), snake charmers (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), interior decorators (Goin’ to Town), waiters and bellhops (I Live My Life, Week-End in Havana), professors (Ball of Fire), musicians and composers (The Cat and the Fiddle, 100 Men and a Girl, The Great Waltz, On Your Toes, The Helen Morgan Story), poets and artists (Café Metropole, Nothing Sacred, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle). In Casablanca, however, Kinskey plays a barkeep who does not have many lines, yet the ones he says are always amusing. Perhaps most famously, Kinskey tells Bogart, “Boss, you did a wonderful thing!” and kisses him on both cheeks after Bogart has helped a young couple to obtain exit visas.

Madeleine LeBeau (b. 1923), the sole surviving cast member from Casablanca, fled France with her husband, French Jewish actor Marcel Dalio, in 1940, adding realism and poignancy to LeBeau’s singing of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”

American actress Joy Page (1924-2008) plays Annina Brandel, one half of a young Bulgarian couple seeking a way out of Casablanca. Page appears a few times throughout the film, not usually saying much, but in this scene she moves Rick (and the audience) as she pleads her case.

Helmut Dantine (1918-1982), uncredited, plays Joy Page’s husband. A Viennese actor, Dantine is perhaps best remembered for playing many Nazi characters from the 1940s through the 1970s. You will also notice Marcel Dalio (1900-1983), another uncredited actor, playing the croupier at the roulette table. Dalio was a well-known actor in France, his best roles being in the two Jean Renoir films he made, Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Like so many European Jews, however, he had had to flee the continent and went to Hollywood, never playing such large roles again in American film but always popping up in large supporting casts. As previously mentioned, at the time Dalio was married to Madeleine LeBeau, who plays Yvonne in Casablanca.

Ilka Grüning (1876-1964) and Ludwig Stössel (1883-1973) play the uncredited roles of Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag, a couple who is immigrating to America after finally receiving their exit visas. Their friend, Carl the headwaiter, is played by Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (1883-1955) who found success playing a series of kindhearted fathers, uncles, bosses and working-class men in films including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Romance on the High Seas (1948), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Small Town Girl (1953).

Technicolor Dreams at MoMA This Summer

For two solid months from June 5 to August 5, the Museum of Modern Art will be running a film retrospective titled “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond,” showcasing Technicolor movies made between the early 1920s and the mid-50s. Here is a sample of 30 of the feature films, both live-action and animation, that you can see this summer. (Times are subject to change.)

The Toll of the Sea (1922) – dir. Chester M. Franklin – starring Anna May Wong, Kenneth Harlan, Beatrice Bentley – Sunday, June 7 at 2:00 pm and Friday, June 12 at 4:30 pm

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – dir. Michael Curtiz – starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell – Wednesday, July 1 at 7:00 pm and Wednesday, July 8 at 4:30 pm

The Garden of Allah (1936) – dir. Richard Boleslawski – starring Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Basil Rathbone – Friday, June 5 at 4:30 pm and Tuesday, July 21 at 1:30 pm

Nothing Sacred (1937) – dir. William A. Wellman – starring Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger – Tuesday, July 21 at 6:45 pm and Sunday, July 26 at 3:30 pm

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – dirs. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley – starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone – Sunday, June 7 at 6:00 pm and Monday, June 22 at 4:30 pm

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – dir. John Ford – starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver – Monday, July 6 at 4:30 pm and Tuesday, July 7 at 7:15 pm

Gone with the Wind (1939) – dir. Victor Fleming (with others) – starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland – Saturday, July 4 at 6:30 pm and Saturday, July 11 at 1:00 pm

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) – dir. Michael Curtiz – starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland – Monday, June 22 at 7:00 pm and Wednesday, July 1 at 1:30 pm

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – dir. Victor Fleming (with others) – starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton – Friday, June 5 at 7:00 pm and Sunday, June 14 at 2:00 pm

Down Argentine Way (1940) – dir. Irving Cummings – starring Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda – Friday, June 26 at 4:30 pm and Sunday, June 28 at 4:15 pm

Blood and Sand (1941) – dir. Rouben Mamoulian – starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth – Friday, July 3 at 7:00 pm and Sunday, July 5 at 6:00 pm

Lassie Come Home (1943) – dir. Fred M. Wilcox – starring Roddy McDowall, Donald Crisp, Elizabeth Taylor – Sunday, July 19 at 3:15 pm and Monday, July 20 at 4:30 pm

Cobra Woman (1944) – dir. Robert Siodmak – starring Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu – Wednesday, July 8 at 1:30 pm and Sunday, July 12 at 3:45 pm

Yolanda and the Thief (1945) – dir. Vincente Minnelli – starring Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames – Saturday, June 13 at 2:00 pm and Tuesday, June 23 at 4:30 pm

The Yearling (1946) – dir. Clarence Brown – starring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Claude Jarman Jr. – Wednesday, June 17 at 6:45 pm and Sunday, June 21 at 7:00 pm

Easter Parade (1948) – dir. Charles Walters – starring Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller – Sunday, July 12 at 1:00 pm and Monday, July 13 at 4:00 pm

The Pirate (1948) – dir. Vincente Minnelli – starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Walter Slezak – Saturday, June 13 at 4:45 pm and Tuesday, June 16 at 7:15 pm

Little Women (1949) – dir. Mervyn LeRoy – starring June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Elizabeth Taylor – Sunday, June 14 at 4:30 pm and Sunday, June 21 at 4:15 pm

Neptune’s Daughter (1949) – dir. Edward Buzzell – starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban – Thursday, July 9 at 7:00 pm and Friday, July 10 at 1:30 pm

Samson and Delilah (1949) – dir. Cecil B. DeMille – starring Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, Angela Lansbury – Saturday, July 11 at 8:30 pm and Thursday, July 16 at 7:15 pm

An American in Paris (1951) – dir. Vincente Minnelli – starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant – Saturday, June 20 at 8:00 pm and Tuesday, June 23 at 7:00 pm

The River (1951) – dir. Jean Renoir – starring Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Adrienne Corri – Wednesday, July 8 at 7:00 pm and Friday, July 10 at 4:30 pm

Scaramouche (1952) – dir. George Sidney – starring Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh – Saturday, June 27 at 2:00 pm and Monday, June 29 at 7:00 pm

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – dirs. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly – starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds – Saturday, June 20 at 5:00 pm and Thursday, June 25 at 4:30 pm

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) – dir. Roy Rowland – starring Peter Lind Hayes, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig – Sunday, June 14 at 7:15 pm and Wednesday, June 24 at 4:30 pm

Mogambo (1953) – dir. John Ford – starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly – Thursday, July 2 at 1:30 pm and Saturday, July 4 at 3:45 pm

Niagara (1953) – dir. Henry Hathaway – starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters – Sunday, June 7 at 3:45 pm and Tuesday, June 9 at 7:00 pm

Magnificent Obsession (1954) – dir. Douglas Sirk – starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Otto Kruger – Wednesday, June 10 at 6:45 pm and Friday, June 19 at 4:30 pm

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – dir. Richard Fleischer – starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre – Monday, July 27 at 7:00 pm

The Trouble with Harry (1955) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock – starring Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine – Sunday, July 26 at 5:45 pm and Tuesday, July 28 at 4:30 pm