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.”

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REVIEW: Top Five

22 12 2014

Too bad for “Top Five” that the title “The Interview” was already claimed for 2014.  Chris Rock’s film, a starring vehicle which he also wrote and directed, gets its narrative motor from a day-long conversation between his character Andre Allen and the probing New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a newspaper profile.

Chelsea happens to catch Andre, a successful comedian struggling for credibility as a dramatic actor, on a particularly stressful day.  Not only is it the opening day of his new film about a Haitian slave rebellion, which resembles “12 Years a Slave” more than “Django Unchained,” but it is also the weekend of his marriage to a Kardashian-style Bravo reality star (Gabrielle Union).  That much pressure all at once is about enough to make him relapse into the alcoholism he has controlled for years.

Rather than chew out his publicist for such horrific planning, Andre responds to the stacked schedule by baring his soul in responses to Chelsea (in a manner similar to Rock’s own refreshing candor on the “Top Five” press tour).  He rambles on about moments both somber and hilarious from his career, and Rock usually captures the back-and-forth in a two-shot.  This character arrangement, perfect for verbal volleying like in “Before Midnight,” allows the simultaneous enjoyment of Andre’s outrageous delivery and Chelsea’s often dumbfounded reaction.

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