Friday, July 13, 2018

The King

Posted By on Fri, Jul 13, 2018 at 11:39 AM

Review movies for a Memphis publication, and you’re going to watch more than your share of Elvis flicks. Most of them either walk through the basic facts of his life and career from a certain, allegedly novel point of view, or take a specific incident and dramatize it or explore it for meaning.
The view from Elvis' Rolls Royce in The King.
  • The view from Elvis' Rolls Royce in The King.
But The King is unlike any Elvis documentary, in that it is not really about Elvis, or at least, not solely about Elvis. Director Eugene Jarecki wants to talk about Elvis as an avatar for America. This territory has been in plain sight the whole time, of course, but no one has ever explored it so thoroughly.

Jarecki’s vessel for his voyage of exploration is Elvis’ Rolls Royce, a silver monster of an automobile from the 1960s that was elegant in its day but rickety and temperamental now. This is what you call a no-miss pitch: Ride around the country in Elvis’ car, get some musicians in the car, let them expound on how cool Elvis was, and boom, you got a movie the fans will watch. Well, it didn’t turn out that way. In a remarkable little sequence about a half hour into the picture, Jarecki turns the camera on a senior member of his crew who tells the director to his face that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Jarecki instantly agrees, much to the consternation of the seasoned film worker to whom “director without a plan” spells disaster.

Indeed, some of the scenes of the film look like failed attempts at staging compelling scenes. Creator of The Wire, David Simon, sits on a stoop in Baltimore awkwardly playing electric guitar and critiques the film’s premise. It should have been one of the Cadillacs instead of the Rolls, he says. Since it’s an English car, the metaphor falls apart. Jarecki has plenty of other opportunities to regret the Rolls as it repeatedly breaks down in the middle of interviews.

The filmmaker’s warts-and-all approach to presenting himself turns out to be a canny move, as it gives him more leeway to comment on Elvis the man, and how he related to Elvis the rock star, and Elvis the avatar for American empire. Elvis scholar Peter Guralnick, famous superfan Ethan Hawke both temper their praise for the King with sobering observations. Chuck D, who famously called Elvis a racist in “Fight The Power”, offers a fuller assessment of the man behind the legend. His words are among the film’s most powerful.

Everyone who looked at Elvis saw something different, and there are moments of unalloyed beauty and raw emotion. Stoic songwriter John Haitt bursts into tears as he climbs into the back seat of the limo, moved by the splendid but profound isolation it represented. A group of kids from the Stax Academy are captured in the intimate space making beautiful harmonies together. Dan Rather waxes rhapsodic about Elvis and the America he represented atop the Empire State Building.

Likewise, everyone who looks at America sees a different thing. As the film crew and their reluctant automobile tool around the country, the 2016 catastrophe happens around them. The ordinary people Jarecki meets on the streets of the places where Elvis once walked provide the most fascinating moments. 

There’s no summing up this sprawling, impressionistic document of America on the cusp of profound change. The closest recent analog to the film is probably Agnes Varda’s Faces Places, but there’s a level of tension here not present in that pastoral romp. The King is required viewing for not just Elvis fans and Memphians, but anyone who strives to understand the state of our sprawling democratic experiment.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The First Purge

Posted By on Wed, Jul 11, 2018 at 9:18 AM

What happens when reality catches up to your sci-fi movie concept? It probably looks a lot like The First Purge. And strangely enough, that means that The Purge series is actually Hollywood working properly.

I’m betting James DeMonaco didn’t think that his 2013 cheapo horror flick would end up being one of the most prescient works of the young century, but here we are. The premise of The Purge—for one night a year, all crime is legal—is brilliant from multiple angles. It allowed DeMonaco to do a zombie-type siege plot without the expensive undead makeup. And it calls out for a response from the audience: If all crime were legal, what would you do?

Director Gerald McMurray channels Die Hard with Y’Lan Noel in The First Purge.
  • Director Gerald McMurray channels Die Hard with Y’Lan Noel in The First Purge.

I suspect that for most people, the answer would be less “murder spree” and more “drug binge with side of light looting”, and, indeed, that’s what happens at first when the New Founding Fathers (NFF) institute the first Purge experiment.

The borough was chosen for its favorable demographics—the white supremacist NFF have a lot invested in the idea that black and brown people will revert to murderous savages as soon as the shackles of civilization are thrown off. Proving them wrong are a diverse cast led by Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel), a gang kingpin, and Nya (Lex Scott Davis) as a former gun moll turned community activist. Her awakening to his destruction of the community drove them apart, but they’re both deeply suspicious of a white-run government program that pays people of color to kill one another.

Not so bothered by that idea is Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a murder-crazed base head with a scarified face. And after Skeletor humiliates Nya’s little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) on the corner, the young man decides to pocket the money and wear the wifi contact lenses of the Purgers.
The dude on the right is Skeletor (Rotimi Paul).
  • The dude on the right is Skeletor (Rotimi Paul).

DeMonaco stepped back into writing and producing, leaving the directing duties to newcomer Gerard McMurray. Visually, this film is the best of the franchise, which have always leaned heavily on good production design and let the cuts fall where they may. There’s even a fantastic, one-take, close quarters fight scene in a stairwell as a little show-off piece to demonstrate how far the B-movie series has come.

DeMonaco’s script seems much more interested in the political implications of his near-future world than the perfunctory violence. He takes care to position the NFF as a third party, neither Democratic nor Republican. But their rhetoric is straight up Turmpian racist word salad. The haughty Chief of Staff (Patch Derragh) wears the disinterested rich-boy smirk as he orders Russian mercenaries and Klansmen to burn down churches full of cowering New Yorkers. Marissa Tormei is largely wasted as the a sociologist who pioneered the bright idea that allowing people to be violent without consequence would cut down on violence, which is roughly the equivalent of trying to cure alcoholism with booze.

Sharknado notwithstanding, the low-budget exploitation picture with a not-so-secret agenda, once a time honored Hollywood product, is an increasingly endangered species.

For me, a lot of the fun of The Purge movies is watching the inventive ways the producers stretch the budget. In this one, my favorite is a lengthy scene that appears to be literally shot in and around the film’s production trailers. Nothing saves money like shooting in the dressing room.

The fact that these seven-figure pictures with Klansmen and gangbangers re-enacting Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes has attracted a hundred-million-dollar audience says that DeMonaco has tapped into something deep in the national psyche. And the fact that they’re slowly morphing from sci-fi to social realism is deeply disturbing.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

This Week At The Cinema: Soccer and Sundance

Posted By on Tue, Jul 10, 2018 at 3:14 PM

With the World Cup and the Thai soccer team rescue in the headlines, it's a good time for a soccer doc.
The Workers Cup
  • The Workers Cup

Migrant African workers in Qatar are currently building facilities for the 2022 World Cup. It's a hellish existence that borders on slavery. The worker's only outlet is a soccer tournament, held on the very fields they're constructing. The Workers Cup is by director Adam Sobel and producers Ramsey Haddad and Rosie Garthwaithe, and it's screening at Malco Ridgeway tonight at 7 PM. You can get tickets on the Indie Memphis website.

Tonight is also the 50th Anniversary screening of The Beatles' only excursion into animation, Yellow Submarine at the Paradiso.

On Wednesday, Indie Memphis Microcinema presents an encore of the 2018 Sundance short films at Crosstown Arts.

Friday night will be busy, with two very different possibilities to fulfill your entertainment needs. At the Orpheum Theatre, the summer goes into small gear with Joe Johnston's debut special-effects romp, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

Then Mike McCarthy's Midnight at the Studio continues with Alejandro Jodorowski's groundbreaking psychedelic western El Topo.

On Sunday at the Paradiso, Turner Classic Movies hosts the 30th anniversary of the film that made Tom Hanks a superstar, Big. Directed by Penny Marshall, it was the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million.

See you at the movies! 

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Music Video Monday: Faith Evans Ruch

Posted By on Mon, Jul 9, 2018 at 11:06 AM

Catch a fire with today's MVM.
Music Video Monday frequent flyer Faith Evans Ruch is back with a new song and a new video full of fire, revenge, and doppelgangers. "I'm Yours", which features the singer playing both good and evil twins, drops as Ruch is preparing to embark on a European tour. Check it out!

If you would like to see your music video featured on Music Video Monday, email

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Get Psychotronic With Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls Midnight at the Studio

Posted By on Fri, Jul 6, 2018 at 10:03 AM

"I illustrated VHS covers for Something Weird Video, and Mike Vraney paid me in movies, with eccentric gems like Mom & Dad and Sex Kittens Go To College," says Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy "This led to me curating a [VHS] series of exploitation films called Cinema Augraten at a little hole-in-the-wall pub called Barristers, where I showed Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls in 1994 or '95 to a drunken and cheering crowd. Now you can buy a beer at Studio on the Square and actually sit down in a comfy seat and watch it. Who says there's no such thing as progress?"

This weekend at Studio on the Square, McCarthy's Midnight at the Studio series continues with Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. The film, produced and directed by legendary schlockmeister Russ Myer, has the distinction of being Roger Ebert's sole screenwriting credit. Ebert was a much better critic than he was screenwriter, but this in-depth exploration of what the straight world thought was shocking in 1971 must be seen to be believed. They just don't make trailers like this one any more:

Beyond The Valley of the Dolls screens at midnight on Friday and Saturday (or Saturday and Sunday, if you're being technical) at Studio on the Square. 

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

This Week At The Cinema: Americana At The Orpheum

Posted By on Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 12:29 PM

It's July 4th week, and the place to be is Memphis' grande dame of theaters, The Orpheum.
Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum battle aliens in Independence Day.
  • Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum battle aliens in Independence Day.
Tonight, the greatest of the Clinton-era disaster schlockfests, Independence Day, is your warmup for the 4th. With a circa-1996 state of the art special effects that still pretty much hold up and a complete howler of a script that never held up, its best assets are a high-dollar cast led by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in their respective primes. Here's the famous scene with President Bill Pullman rallying the troops.

Speaking of speeches, on Friday, July 6th, The Orpheum celebrates America with one of the great speechifying movies of all time. Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is the film that made Jimmy Stewart a star in 1939. It's the classic tale of a small town Boy Scout leader who, almost by accident, ends up being appointed to a vacant Senate seat by an indecisive governor. Senator Jefferson Smith stands up for the little guy with a filibuster for the ages. Nowadays, all Senators have to do to gum up the works is announce they're going to filibuster, but I think it would be a better world all around if they had to actually get up and emulate Jimmy Stewart for days on end.

Tickets to both screenings are available on the Orpheum Theatre website.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Music Video Monday: Hippy SOUL

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2018 at 12:23 PM

Music Video Monday is getting lit for the 4th!
This week is Independence Day, which will see Americans all over this great nation lighting the fuse on recreational explosives. What does this have to do with Hippy SOUL? Memphis rappers Idi Aah Que and Teco got lit for Beale Street Caravan's I Listen To Memphis video series, and now they're about to blow up.*

All the videos in the series are directed by Christian Walker and produced by Waheed AlQawasmi. The music is performed and recorded live, in this case in the Hi Tone in Midtown Memphis. You can find "My Dojo" on Hippy SOUL's album Worthy Negro.

*It's a lyrical stretch, I know. Cut me some slack. It's Monday. If you think your music video would play well on Music Video Monday without bad puns**, email

** Bad puns will be made regardless.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

This Week At The Cinema: Sordid Lives and Reefer Madness!

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2018 at 11:39 AM

It's gonna be stupid hot outside this week, so cool off with one of the many special film events hitting big screens in the 901.
Sordid Lives
  • Sordid Lives
Tonight, Tuesday, June 26th at Studio on the Square, Indie Memphis presents The King, a documentary by two-time Sundance winner Eugene Jarecki. The filmmaker takes Elvis' Rolls Royce on an epic road trip through America, seeing sites and interviewing guests from Presley biographer Peter Guralnick to Chuck D. This one's a don't-miss. Tickets are available on the Indie Memphis website.

On Wednesday, June 27th, the Malco Kids Summer Film Fest presents the 1998 Dreamworks animated musical The Prince of Egypt at the Paradiso and various other theaters all over their network.

That night (Wednesday), the final film of the Outflix Summer Series screens at Studio on the Square. Sordid Lives is a cult-classic, LBGTQ comedy of the culture clash that comes when the matriarch of a small-town Texas family unexpectedly dies in the midst of a tryst with a much younger man. This 2000 film by playwright turned filmmaker Del Shores stars Olivia Newton John and Delta Burke, and later spawned a TV series.

Across town at Railgarten, Indie Memphis presents an encore performance of the 2017 Memphis music video bloc, featuring 28 works pairing Memphis filmmakers and musicians.

Here's just one example from hip hop mogul and Memphis Flyer's current cover model IMAKEMADBEATS. This animated extravaganza was #2 on our list of Best Memphis Music Videos of 2017.

Then, on Friday and Saturday, June 29th and 30th, a new screening series debuts. Curated by Memphis' own master of psycho-tronic madness, Mike McCarthy, Midnight At The Studio sets the tone for late-night, cinematic mischief with the accidental 1936 classic Reefer Madness. As the laugh-a-minute trailer so seriously intones, "see this important film now, before it's too late."

See you at the cinema! 

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Music Video Monday: Louise Page

Posted By on Mon, Jun 25, 2018 at 10:59 AM

Music Video Monday is covered in flowers!
Louise Page is releasing her second album, Simple Sugar, this Friday with a show at 831 S. Cooper. This music video for Page's song "Blue Romance" was directed by Sam Leathers, and stars Page, Moth Moth Moth, Brenda Newport, Jawaun Crawford, Annalisabeth Craig, Michael Laurenzi, Victor Sawyer, and Michael Todd. It's a gauzy, flower-filled burst of fabulousness. Take a look:

If you would like to see your music video featured on Music Video Monday, email 

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Thursday, June 21, 2018


Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2018 at 3:05 PM

Leo Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
(left to right) Milly Shaprio, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolf as the not-so-happy family in Hereditary.
  • (left to right) Milly Shaprio, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolf as the not-so-happy family in Hereditary.
This holds true for the family of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) in Hereditary. In fact, I’d venture to guess that no family has faced similar unhappiness, with the possible exception of Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby. The film begins with the family preparing for the funeral of Ellen Leigh, Annie’s mother who just passed away at age 78. Even though she lived in the Graham’s large country home as she descended into dementia in the last few years, she and Annie were not what you’d call close. Annie's surprised that the funeral for the this “secret and private woman” is so well attended.

It’s clear from the outset that, despite the outward trappings of affluence, this is not a healthy group of people. Dad Steve (Gabriel Byrne) looks perpetually crushed by the weight of his responsibilities. Teenager Peter (Alex Wolf) is a stoner who looks generally unwell, with splotchy skin and a perpetually sweaty demeanor that is especially alienating compared to his well-scrubbed, suburban classmates. Strangest of all is 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Broadway actress Milly Shapiro), who hides behind an unruly mop of hair and makes tiny dolls out of junk and scraps.
Milly Shapiro as Charlie
  • Milly Shapiro as Charlie
As for Annie, she is an artist who recreates scenes from her life in detailed miniatures. She’s got a big show coming up, and the deadline pressure—represented by a series of passive aggressive voicemail messages from her gallery representatives that doubles as Hereditary’s only attempt at comedy — is starting to get to her. Soon after her mother dies, she starts sneaking out of the house to attend survivor’s grief group therapy instead of working on the little dioramas of family tragedy that litter her attic.

Annie’s dioramas give director Ari Aster an opportunity for experimentation within his austere style. Almost all of the effects in Hereditary are in camera (or are such artfully produced CGI that it fooled me). Aster uses tilt-shift —a technique from still photography that uses a specially constructed lens to mess with the viewer’s depth perception—to blur the lines between the film’s base reality and Annie’s memories in miniature. The director couples his analog visuals with exceptional sound design, laying his arresting images on a bed of creaks and whispers.

Aster is not obsessed with building a better jump scare. He’s making horror hay out of the dread of family dysfunction and that subtle but unshakable feeling leftover from childhood that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know about, but you’re about to get punished for it anyway. Secrets and spirits reach from beyond the grave to manipulate the living in almost every scene of Hereditary, in ways that are subtle but, in retrospect, become strikingly obvious.
Toni Collette screams real good.
  • Toni Collette screams real good.
Hereditary is short on gore but long on general creepiness. What makes it work are the performances, particularly Toni Collette’s commitment to playing a parent whose family is disintegrating around her while her sanity is fleeing. Audiences have talked about how this film stays with them after the credits roll, and I think that’s largely due to Collette’s blood and guts, leave-everything-on-the-screen efforts. There have been great screamers before—such as the mother-daughter duo of Janet Leigh and Jamie Leigh Curtis, for whom the term “scream queen” was coined — but Collette takes it to the next level with a guttural howl from the depths of her putrefying soul. Aster uses her pain as the main ingredient in a unique horror alchemy that is part family drama, part Wicker Man, and part panic attack.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

This Week At The Cinema: Singing, Art, Poetry, Dance, and Gymnastics

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2018 at 11:34 AM

Brown Ballerina
  • Brown Ballerina
Toni Morrison, poet, Nobel laureate, and all-around advocate for empathy, curated an art show at the Louvre in 2006. The Foreigner's Home is a documentary based on the exhibit and the conversations about "otherness" that sprung up around it. Indie Memphis will be presenting the film at 7 PM Tuesday, June 14, at the Malco Ridgeway.

The Foreigner's Home - Trailer from Rian Brown on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 20th, Indie Memphis takes part in a special program with Collage Dance Collective. "Brown Ballerina" is a short film by director Chassidy Jade about one woman's quest to dance at the highest levels of the art. Jade will be in attendance to discuss the film, and there will be performances by Shanna Wood and the Collage Dance Collective. Demand for this event has been high, so they've added a second screening.

Brown Ballerina Official Trailer from ChassidyJade :: CrownMeRoyalLabs on Vimeo.

Wednesday night at Studio on the Square, Outflix is presenting their 2007 Jury Award Winner The Gymnast, a love story by Ned Farr starring famed arealist Dreya Weber.

On Sunday at the Malco Paradiso, Turner Classic Movies presents West Side Story, the 1961 Best Picture winner which still holds the record for most Oscars claimed by a musical. Here's Rita Mareno taking control of your screen with "America". 

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Incredibles 2

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2018 at 11:44 AM

This is the fourth superhero movie review I will write this year. People have been asking me, are you sick of them? The answer is yes.

But I still get excited about a sequel to The Incredibles. The Brad Bird film is a top tier Pixar creation, one of the best superhero movies ever made, and, since it was released in 2004, clearly way ahead of the curve.

Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash, Violet, and Jack-Jack are back after a 14 year hiatus.
  • Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash, Violet, and Jack-Jack are back after a 14 year hiatus.
Incredibles 2 opens pretty much immediately after the events of the first film. Tony (Michael Bird), a classmate of Violet (Sarah Vowell), is recounting the events of the attack by the Underminer (John Ratzenberger) that served as the original’s coda. His audience is Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks), a government operative whose job it is to keep secret the true identities of superheroes. Dicker dutifully erases the memory of moment when Tony saw Violet without her domino mask on, which has the unfortunate side effect of erasing all memory of her, including the fact that they had a date tomorrow night.

The battle against the Underminer provides the bravado opening action sequence any self-respecting superhero movie wants to have, and it immediately outdoes most all of them. The kinetic sections of The Incredibles, like the fight with the Omnidroid, were groundbreaking, and in the five-superhero-movie-a-year timeline we find ourselves in, frequently copied. Fourteen years worth of Pixar technological advances get splashed up on the screen in the first ten minutes, and it’s, well, incredible. A few jokes seem to be written just to show off the water modeling advances. The depth of the image in some shots is mind blowing, even in 2D. IMAX is definitely the preferred format for this one.

With the help of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet, Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack stop the Underminer’s destructive rampage, but they still run afoul of the secret bane of every superhero—massive property damage liability. About to be cut off by their government benefactors, the heroes are contacted by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecom tycoon who wants to mount a campaign to legalize superheroes once and for all. He and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) have crunched the numbers, to discover that the least destructive super hero in existence is Elastigirl. They offer to back her with a generous salary, a new Mid Century Heroically Modern house, and most importantly, insurance.

Holly Hunter voices Elastigirl, who gets to go all Batman in this long-awaited sequel.
  • Holly Hunter voices Elastigirl, who gets to go all Batman in this long-awaited sequel.

After a heartfelt talk, the Parrs decide to accept the offer, even though it means that Mr. Incredible will be a stay at home dad to three super kids of varying ages. From there, the film falls into what is now a familiar episodic pattern. Pixar’s studio mates Marvel have succeeded by emphasizing character over plot, and Incredibles 2 follows suit. Mr. Incredible’s parenting tribulations are put on a equal footing with Elastigirl’s increasingly perilous confrontation with Screenslaver. Incredibles 2 once again proves that the key to truly great superhero films is a strong villain with the timely Screenslaver, who uses smartphones and TV screens as tools of mass hypnosis.

Judging from the responses of opening night audience, Jack-Jack is the breakout star of the picture. Trying to keep tabs on a toddler is hard enough for Mr. Incredible, but Jack-Jack is exhibiting all kinds of new superpowers, like eye lasers and shape changing. His ability to travel through parallel dimensions provides a great opportunity for Bird to stage a Poltergeist callback with Nelson, who plays the beleaguered dad in both films.

Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, center) is called to help Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) parent the super toddler Jack-Jack.
  • Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, center) is called to help Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) parent the super toddler Jack-Jack.
Bird, who returns to voice super-designer Edna, makes a major comeback after his last film, the disastrous Disney corporate branding assignment Tomorrowland. Incredibles 2 fires on all cylinders, but now that we’re all immersed in the expected beats of the superhero movie, it lacks the shock of the new felt in 2004. But it’s a genuine crowd pleaser that rewards viewing on the big screen, which is what a summer movie is all about.

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Music Video Monday: McKenna Bray

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2018 at 10:41 AM

It's a love song Music Video Monday.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 19, McKenna Bray releases her debut album Once In A Blue Moon on Madjack Records with a party at Lafayette's Music Room. The first single "The Way I Loved You" is a heartfelt call to a lover above all others.

The video was produced and directed by Kim Bledsoe Lloyd and Susan Marshall, with production assistance by Sean Faust and Josh Beckemeyer. It features McKenna and dancers Megan McCusker and Shamar Rooks. Check it out:

If you would like to see your music video on Music Video Monday, email

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Music Video Monday: Motel Mirrors

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2018 at 10:11 AM

It's a dreamy Music Video Monday!
Beale Street Caravan's I Listen To Memphis series rolls on with the first-ever video from Memphis supergroup Motel Mirrors. John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere first teamed up in 2013 to create a perfect stew of elegant songwriting, countryfied harmonies, and twangy picking. For their long gestating second album, they were joined by LaVere's husband Will Sexton on guitar and Shawn Zorn on drums. This version of "I Wouldn't Dream Of It" was recorded live at the Galloway House, the former church in Cooper-Young where Johnny Cash played his very first show. The video series was directed by Christian Walker and produced by Waheed AlQawasmi. Take a look and listen!

If you would like to see your music video featured on Music Video Monday, email

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Friday, June 8, 2018

First Reformed

Posted By on Fri, Jun 8, 2018 at 11:33 AM

One thing the great filmmakers of the 1970s valued above all others was intensity. That’s evident in a pair of the decade’s masterpieces—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—that were collaborations between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader.
Ethan Hawk stars as a priest in existential crisis in First Reformed.
  • Ethan Hawk stars as a priest in existential crisis in First Reformed.
Schrader is something of a legendary figure in Hollywood, which is understandable when you see his filmography. He appears in the infamous New Hollywood gossip epic Easy Riders, Raging Bulls holed up in the Hollywood Hills with a pistol and a pound of weed, furiously pounding out the script to American Gigolo. Schrader called those films “man alone in a room stories.” They, along with his films like Auto Focus, rotate around a single individual, tortured, mysteriously driven, and often trying to make sense of a chaotic world. Usually, the protagonists, like Travis Bickle, come apart in the end in some spectacularly weird fashion.
Ethan Hawk and Amanda Seyfriend
  • Ethan Hawk and Amanda Seyfriend
First Reformed is a major comeback for Schrader, now 71. In this case, the man alone in the room is Ethan Hawke as Toller, an Episcopal priest in rural New York. His titular church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but now it’s a dwindling congregation in a fading town. Toller spends more of his time giving tours to leaf peepers and school groups than ministering to his flock. That’s why, when Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him for counseling, it’s something of a relief. Her boyfriend Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a environmental activist who just got out of prison in Canada on charges related to an oil sands pipeline protest. Mary is pregnant, but Michael doesn’t want her to have the baby. He no longer thinks the fight against climate change is winnable and believes its wrong to bring a child into a world that is doomed to foreseeable catastrophe.
Amanda Seyfried
  • Amanda Seyfried
The scenes between Hawk and Ettinger are brutal in their intensity, even though they’re just two people sitting alone in a room, talking. In his diary, which Schrader uses as a voice over device, Toller says the philosophical, scientific, and theological debate felt “exhilarating” like “Jacob wrestling the angel”.

The repercussions of that single conversation echo through the lives of the three characters. Toller was an Army chaplain whose son was killed in Iraq, driving him from the service and breaking up his marriage. He’s struggling to keep his psyche together and his job intact as the 250th anniversary of the founding of his church approaches. Mary and Michael’s dilemma puts pressure on him at exactly the wrong time as he prepares for a ceremony where his megachurch-leading boss Pastor Jeffers and the governor will attend, bringing unwanted attention to a man who just wants to disappear.

Hawke puts himself into the frontrunner position for the 2018 Best Actor Oscar with his performance as a strong but brittle man nearing his breaking point. Schrader’s screenplay is unsparing in its honesty and directness. Toller’s inner turmoil is existential, but grounded in real world pain. The situations are entirely believable and throughly of today, but Toller’s philosophical ponderings are right out of Shakespeare. Is it all, in the end, worth it?
The film’s unsparing intensity is at once its greatest strength and biggest weakness. To watch First Reformed is to stare unsparingly into the most basic, unanswerable philosophical questions we have. It is, as Toller says, both exhilarating and exhausting. Schrader earns his depth—there’s no such thing as gratuitous Christ imagery in a film with a priest for a leading man—but it’s about as subtle as a gold brick to the face.

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