REVIEW: First Reformed

2 07 2018

I don’t have much to say about Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” that I didn’t say in my rave review for Slashfilm out of TIFF last year. It’s currently sitting atop my best of the year list at the midway point of 2018, and it will take a mighty potent film to dethrone it by December. This is a film with an urgent, powerful message that resonates deeply with a world going mad that is also perfectly wedded to an austere visual style and overall aesthetic. It will be a long time before I shake this movie.

For more of my poetic language about the film, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article. Here’s a sampling of what I wrote:

We’ve quietly entered a renaissance of master American filmmakers tackling religious subjects with the gravity, dignity and seriousness they deserve. Add Paul Schrader’s latest movie “First Reformed” to a growing list of modern masterpieces on faith through hardship that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”

Schrader’s work stands out in this group, however, as the only one to take place in the present day. “First Reformed” is an essential parable for the Trump era about the role of the church in the most pressing moral and political issues facing our world. Through the tortured consciousness of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain turned custodian of a historical Calvinist church, Schrader explores a country’s moral malaise and the seeming inability of mainline Christianity to mobilize against it.

[…]

“First Reformed” charts Toller’s turbulent internal journey, which heads to dark and disturbing corners of his mind, with an emotional reserve as chilly as the film’s wintry weather. None of this is surprising given Schrader’s well-documented affinity for directors such as Bresson and Dreyer, but the steadiness of this aesthetic rigor helps balance a film daring to ask some thorny questions about how actively religion should participate in the public square – as well as how much they should bring those issues into their churches. And Hawke, both deeply expressive and internal as Toller, adds a human spin on the issues to really drive them home.

Their combined efforts form a powerful challenge to Christians, without derision or condescension, to live up to their stated values and honor their sacred text. At the very least, apathy in the face of flagrant immoral and unjust deeds in the world should be taken off the table for any who take the time to thoughtfully engage with “First Reformed.”

A

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REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

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REVIEW: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Les Misérables

19 12 2012

Les Miserables“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent,” wrote Victor Hugo in his novel “Les Misérables.”  Though his work has found expression in a number of different mediums since its publication in 1862, none has captured the public’s imagination quite like Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical.  It took the spirit of Hugo’s classic novel and put it on stage to powerful effect with an operatic score and poetic lyrics.

The endearing place “Les Misérables” holds in contemporary musical theatre is due to the supremacy of the music, featuring showstopper after showstopper that tug on the heartstrings and open the floodgates of the tear ducts.  I’ll go ahead and declare my lack of objectivity since I was fortunate enough to be a member of a production of “Les Misérables” in high school.  Watching the show from the audience is an ethereal experience, but living with that show for several weeks and being a part of conveying that show’s magic to an audience made it a truly spiritual experience for me.

However, theater does have its limitations.  Using terminology from cinematic camera proxemics, the audience is locked in perpetual longshot, forced to view the action from a distance.  Though the immediacy of the performer is felt, we see only broad strokes of emotion.  So for “Les Misérables” on stage, the potency must come across through the notes of the music, putting the emphasis on execution of the orchestra and the voices of the performers.

Yet these complex and well-written roles are a goldmine for actors, offering them chances to explore rich internal worlds and manifest them through beautiful song.  On stage, we are overcome by spectacle and score, so much so that we can lose the depth of the characters that build the colossus that is Hugo’s novel.  If the stage actor chooses to build in nuances in facial and body movement into their performance, it would be mainly for them alone as most in the auditorium would only be able to discern larger, grander motions.

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REVIEW: Gone

1 03 2012

The fact that movies like “Gone” are allowed to be written, green-lit, financed, filmed, and released is shameful.  To call it a trite trifle is to do the flagrance of its unoriginality a disservice; I can think of few worse ways to spend 90 minutes of my life than watching this movie.  If this movie didn’t nab Amanda Seyfried, I would expect it to be in the $5 bin at a truck-stop stuffed below a dozen copies of “Pootie Tang.”

A girl goes missing?  Her sister (Seyfried) will stop at nothing to find her and the kidnapper?  That same sister is just as crazy as the criminal?  Please, no-name directors, leave stories like this to masters like Scorsese, who actually did something masterful with a similar plot in “Shutter Island.”  For once, I’d like Hollywood to stop belittling the work of true artists by doing half-baked carbon copies that border on outright plagiarism.

Moreover, it’s not just what they are doing that makes me mad, but it’s also how they are doing it.  PLEASE do not put a movie before paying audiences if you cannot come up with an ending.  Do not cop out and scrap together an open ending if you don’t have the decisiveness or intelligence to devise one.  Again, leave that to people with a vision.  Do not borrow their techniques to hide your own laziness.  C-





REVIEW: Letters to Juliet

7 12 2010

The Italian countryside has got to be the single most beautiful place in the world.  Apologies to Amanda Seyfried, but “Letters to Juliet” is a romance (not even comedy) that doesn’t deserve to feature the gorgeous country in its background.  Given the quality of the script, the disillusioned lover played by Seyfried should be traversing back alleys to find the long lost love of Claire (the graceful, ageless beauty Vanessa Redgrave).

Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” gets a fairy-tale romantic twist here as Sophie (Seyfried) ventures to Verona for her pre-wedding honeymoon with her all-too-occupied fiancé (Gael Garcia Bernal).  A journalist, she discovers the secret behind the letters left for the fictional Juliet in the wall of her house.  They are answered by the “secretaries of Juliet,” yet one letter manages to stay lodged behind a rock.  Sophie takes it upon herself to answer it personally, finding Claire and her well-groomed grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan).  Believing her love is still out there, they embark on a journey to find her Romeo.

From then on, all originality goes out the window and formula takes over.  Charlie and Sophie have the typical romantic arc: hate turns to not hate, and somehow not hating someone means you are in love!  If love in real life was like it is in romantic comedies nowadays, what a depressing world it would be.

Poor Claire for having to put up with their sudden infatuation in denial, and poor Vanessa Redgrave for having her name on this movie.  While it’s certainly darling that she got to make a movie that had echoes of her own life, no Academy Award winner deserves to star in something like this.  Apart from Redgrave, I struggle to find much good to say about this movie.  Italy and Amanda Seyfried look good, perhaps?  Or maybe that I would have really liked this movie if it was the first romantic comedy I had ever seen?

As Taylor Swift’s song goes, “It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”  When it comes to “Letters for Juliet,” maybe you should say no (unintentionally another Taylor Swift quote).  C-