.Toxic Blooms

And fun at the ball game: A double header of Master Gardener and It Ain’t Over

Paul Schrader is one of the most important filmmakers of today, primarily for his writing. In such influential properties as Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Blue Collar, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed and The Card Counter, the scholarly Schrader has brought his fierce brand of spirituality to a cinematic discussion of what it means to be alive and aware.

Schrader’s latest directorial effort, Master Gardener, finds him in an unaccustomed forgiving mood in the story of a humble horticulturist, a rich benefactor and a young woman newly rescued from the streets. It’s one of his more problematic propositions.

There’s something odd about the relationship between imperious patrician dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) and the younger man who tends the grandiose flower beds at her estate, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton). The first time Norma addresses Narvel as “Sweet Pea,” it jumps out at viewers—that’s not the usual way a rich matron refers to a slow-talking laborer like Narvel. 

Then there’s the matter of Narvel’s tattoos, and the flashbacks that show him in violent situations with men who fit the description of rightwing paramilitary types. Narvel’s “Nazi” hairstyle only adds to the effect.

All of that is further complicated with the arrival of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s young, “mixed-race” relative, who’s recovering from some poor life choices and has been offered a gardening job to help her out. The characters in this triangle behave in a cool, distant manner, as if they’re all waiting for the situation to either explode or peter out.

A queasy-feeling atmosphere of impending danger prevails. Maya and Narvel converse in the same way Jodie Foster’s Iris the teenage prostitute did with Robert De Niro’s obsessive cabbie Travis Bickle. Meanwhile, Norma’s dinner table banter takes a darkly sexual turn. All three characters move in slow motion—observing their emotional workings is like watching lilies grow. 

In common with most of Schrader’s protagonists, Narvel seeks redemption. So does Maya, in her equally introspective manner—leaving the film’s loneliest individual, the proprietary flower show queen Norma, to settle for the meager leftovers of other people’s love lives. And let’s not even go near the title’s use of “master,” one of the many hotly contested terms from the current culture wars.

Australian-turned-Hollywood leading man Edgerton has shown a flair for heavies before (The Underground Railroad, Animal Kingdom), but Narvel is a particularly hard-to-reach subject, a murderer who asks for forgiveness with a swastika on his back and a handgun in a hiding place. Compared to Narvel, Swindell’s Maya is a night-blooming jasmine, innocent until proven guilty. Can any viewer really expect her to grow old living in a cottage with a man who buries his face in topsoil?

The crowning malignancy of the piece is Norma, the overbearing grand dame with an air of condescension she makes no effort to conceal. Weaver steals the movie without doing much more than describing the Cointreau-infused maraschino cherries in her favorite cocktail. She’s the real star of Schrader’s hard-to-admire love-triangle drama.

On a different note, watching the entertaining new documentary It Ain’t Over might well irritate East Bay baseball fans as they watch the Oakland A’s slip slowly from their grasp. But there’s no denying that writer-director Sean Mullin makes his case with maximum style and good humor. The premise of the documentary is that the late Yogi Berra was one of the game’s all-time best players, a true cultural hero with more going for him than his famous knack for malapropisms. 

Besides being one of the major leagues’ best “bad ball” hitters, catcher Lawrence Peter Berra, from St. Louis’ “Dago Hill” neighborhood, established a large number of records and appeared in 14 World Series, 10 of which he and the Yankees won. Such admirers as Don Mattingly, Joe Garagiola, writer Roger Angell, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Maddon testify to his prowess. The period sports footage is priceless. See this movie now.

Both films are in theaters.

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