Archive for June, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on June 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hearts_beat_loudSTARS3I really enjoy movies about music. Specifically, stories that detail the creative process involved in the composition of great songs. I adored last year’s Patti Cake$. The indie drama was merely the most recent example in a long illustrious tradition. I’m talking about pictures like The Commitments (1991), That Thing You Do! (1996), 8 Mile (2002), School of Rock (2003), Music and Lyrics (2007), and Crazy Heart (2009). Special commendation goes to director John Carney. He’s a master. Once (2006), Begin Again (2013) and Sing Street (2016) were all shining examples of the genre. Each one ranked among my favorites in their respective year. I could go on and on. I was primed to love Hearts Beat Loud. While it may not rank up there with the very best, it’s certainly a delightful little film.

Frank is the owner of Red Hook Records in Brooklyn, New York. The store is on the verge of closing up shop for good. He’s a widower whose daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is getting ready to attend school as a pre-med student at UCLA.  They’re both musicians. He’s a guitarist. She’s a keyboardist with a mellifluous voice.  Mom was a singer too actually.  Frank was in a band with his wife but she died in a bike accident when Sam was much younger. Sam actually appears to be the more responsible of the two. She is focused on her studies while her father wants to have fun creating tunes. That he is going to miss his daughter when she goes away to school is emphasized to the nth degree. “We’re not a band!” she exclaims.  Frank winkingly uses that declaration as their band’s moniker. Unbeknownst to her, he uploads their musical collaboration to Spotify, the music streaming service.   The humor remains light and modest.   There’s a really poignant quality in their bond that never resorts to schmaltz.  At times the script emphasizes a mildly acerbic quality to their exchanges.  In fact, Frank comes across as pretty stoic. Maybe it’s because his facial expressions are hidden behind that massive salt and pepper beard of his. There are also some really nice tunes that are beautifully highlighted throughout. It culminates with an impromptu concert at Frank’s record boutique.

Hearts Beat Loud is appropriately named. This is about love whether it be among family, friends or that special someone. There’s a little bit of all three. The drama is dressed up with interesting personalities. Director Brett Haley’s recent prolific output has made him a darling of the Sundance Film Festival. The director has premiered three features there in the past four years.  Haley reunites with Nick Offerman and Blythe Danner who have each acted separately in different movies of his. I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) featured Blythe Danner as the star. She makes a quirky appearance as Sam’s grandmother here. Offerman played a supporting role in Haley’s The Hero (2017). Other key portrayals include Toni Collette as the really cool landlord of Frank’s music store. It’s always a pleasure to see the actress but I wish she had been given more to do here.  Actress Sasha Lane (American Honey) is Rose, Sam’s love interest and Ted Danson appears as — what else? — a bartender.

Hearts Beat Loud is a heartwarming story about a family’s ties to music. What really elevates the dialogue is the chemistry between Nick Offerman as the father and Kiersey Clemmons as his daughter. Frank and Sam write songs together and that development is a delight to watch. As the artistic process comes together we hear the end product. There’s a nice collection of little ditties by composer Keegan DeWitt that captivate the ear.  The fast version of the title track is probably my favorite. There’s also a ballad version. “Everything Must Go” and “Blink (One Million Miles)” are memorable as well. While agreeable, this crowd-pleasing account is not going to have any lasting impact on your life.  The screenplay by Brett Haley and Marc Basch almost redefines how slight a drama can actually be. All excitement is essentially derived from the sincerity of the performances. Frank seems genuinely impressed by his daughter’s talents. He positively beams with pride. I got a little emotionally choked up with their relationship. Any film that can do that in an efficient 97 minutes gets a stamp of approval from me.

06-24-18

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on June 24, 2018 by Mark Hobin

jurassic_world_fallen_kingdom_ver7STARS1.5I think it’s pretty clear that the only Jurassic movie that ever NEEDED to be made in this whole blessed series was the very first entry.   Allow me to clarify with an explanation that admittedly reeks of arrogance.  The whole point was to show the wonder of an emerging technology in which dinosaurs looked like they did indeed exist. We experienced jaw-dropping special effects and lots and lots of reaction shots at which Steven Spielberg is so good at giving us. It was simply the wonder of it all. I won’t pretend out of nostalgia that The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were any better than the schlocky entries they actually were. Nor do I think 2015’s Jurassic World was great art. However, and this is key, it had the best reason to exist since the first. I am an ardent apologist of Jurassic World. I am not alone. That production remains the sixth highest box office hit of all time in the U.S. and the fifth highest worldwide. It was the culmination of everything. For the first time, we got to see the park legitimately open and then, of course, fall apart right before our eyes in cataclysmic tragedy. As frivolously entertaining as 1970s disaster classics like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure.

It has now been three years after the theme park debacle on a fictional Central American island. Back in the United States, an ongoing Senate debate over the fate of the dinosaurs rages on. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the very existence of the creatures on Isla Nublar. “Should they be saved?” is the question. Seems pretty obvious to me. Given the fact that many human lives have died at the hands of those unpredictable beasts, NO is the only sane response.  Ha! But then alas there would be no movie. In a rare glimpse of common sense, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues that the dinosaurs should be left to die. Despite his ubiquitous presence in the marketing, he only appears ever so very briefly in two hearings.  I’m guessing Mr. Goldblum’s time commitment couldn’t have required more than a few hours.

The production introduces a bunch of new characters, none of which are interesting. Preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is called by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who apparently wishes to relocate 11 species to a new island sanctuary.  Mills is acting as an agent on behalf of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Lockwood is a previously unknown partner of Jurassic Park’s original creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough).  That we would have never heard of this man after four installments takes a huge leap of faith, but whatever. Like his predecessor, Lockwood has no problem with cloning. The circumstances concerning the birth of his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) involves a pointless reveal.  I can’t imagine any of these rote story beats need to be concealed but I’ll tread lightly.  Claire subsequently seeks Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) help to secure the raptor Blue, who is also loose on the island.  They’re joined by two nonentities that would’ve served better use as dino fodder. They work for Claire – technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda).  A mercenary team is also sent to help retrieve the dinosaurs headed up up Ken Wheatley.  He’s portrayed by Ted Levine and if you’re aware of the actor’s most famous role, you already know * SPOILER ALERT* he’s not a nice person.

Fallen Kingdom is an uncreative excuse to depict a lot of tedious pandemonium involving giant reptiles. Directed by ostensibly talented J. A. Bayona, the Spanish director has charted a steady decline from helming something great with The Orphanage (2017), good with The Impossible (2012), passable with A Monster Calls (20116) and now something truly wretched.  The volcano erupts.  What follows is a lot of monsters and humans running around in catastrophic chaos.  The mercenaries apprehend the creatures in their helicopters.  We later learn that Mills (Rafe Spall) isn’t as altruistic as we had originally thought. He meets with Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones), an auctioneer who wants to have the dinosaurs sold for profit. They’ve also designed a new hybrid dinosaur combining the DNA of an Indominus and a Raptor, calling it the Indoraptor. Gasp!  It’s an even more technologically advanced version.  Do you really even care about the scientific mumbo jumbo?  I didn’t.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is part 5 for those keeping track and perhaps that is the breaking point in this franchise.  At least for me anyway.  You might be surprised to learn that I was really looking forward to this picture.  Now that I’ve seen this utterly shabby display of commercial product, I can scarcely remember to explain why.  My enthusiasm obliterated by a soulless commodity of corporate greed utterly bereft of creative ideas.  So bad, it casts doubt on whether Universal Studios still has the ability to invent worthwhile entrainment. I will offer a bit of praise. Returning heroes Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are slightly more likable this time around. Everyone one else behaves in a way that inspires contempt. The spectacle of the Indoraptor claw slowly reaching out toward Maise as she cowers in her bed is a striking image. But if you saw the trailer, that scene will be familiar.

The hollow screenplay is courtesy of writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, the director of the 2015 film. They seemingly have no interest in trying to even assemble a coherent plot. The tale clearly means for the profit-driven mercenaries to be the hissable villains. But I’m confused. Wasn’t the amusement park originally designed by individuals seeking monetary gain? Apparently, capitalism was an acceptable quality in episodes one through four, but now it’s considered a bad thing. It doesn’t seem so horrible to anyone who tries to logically understand the motivations of the so-called scoundrels that are simply trying to stay alive.  In other plot points, the drama posits a sort of a debate over whether dinosaurs are beautiful living things or horrible beasts. It’s never clear how we’re meant to feel. The schizophrenic script takes no position on the matter. Don’t try to rationalize any of the story beats. Money! Mayhem! Monsters! These are the reasons for a Hollywood product so formulaic it could induce a vegetative state. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is one of those movies that fans will tell you to “turn your brain off” to enjoy. I’d need a lot of help with this flick. I suppose I could consume enough alcoholic beverages to artificially dumb down my brain. However, I don’t want to die of alcohol poisoning.

06-21-18

Hereditary

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on June 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hereditary_ver2STARS3.5Horror is a genre in which many entries rely so heavily on blood and gore for thrills, that when a story is varnished in a veneer of class and sophistication it appears almost revolutionary.  Hereditary opens with a tracking shot of a dollhouse from far away. As the camera pans in closer it centers on a bedroom where the father (Gabriel Byrne) enters bringing a blazer for his sleeping son (Alex Wolff) to wear at his grandmother’s funeral. It’s a bewitching introduction because it conveys so much.  Mother Annie (Toni Collette) makes miniatures, small-scale versions of things influenced by her own life. That’s merely one reason why the beginning is so apropos. This production is highlighted by sleek cinematography, atmospheric music, and good performances. One is truly great. I’m talking Oscar nomination. More on that in a moment. But strip away all the stylish flourishes and you’re left with a screenplay that seems like it was cobbled together after a night of watching Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and the 1976 composite they inspired: The Omen.

I mean if you’re going to steal, might as well rob from the best right? Hereditary is a very effective flick. It’s just that any horror aesthete even mildly versed in the classics of the medium is going to find this drama a bit reductive. Annie and her husband Steve have two children, Peter and their 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They’re attending the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen. There’s a bit of foreshadowing that bad things are afoot. We learn that Annie and Ellen had an estranged relationship, the family suffers from mental illness and little Charlie attends special education classes. A pigeon dies after flying into her classroom window with a “sudden loud bang” designed to startle the audience as well as the students.  We later see Charlie on the playground pocketing the head of that lifeless bird after she has removed it with a pair of scissors. That’s pretty freaky, right?  It’s only the first beheading we’ll see. I used to think the decapitation scene in The Omen was pretty dreadful, especially for its time, but this film actually tops it for sheer shock value.

Hereditary is so impressive in producing fear that it deserves to be raised up as a new touchstone. Much of the credit goes to Toni Collette in a portrayal that is certain to remain among the very best of the year. She is a mother shaken to her very core by the events around her. It is a flawless achievement so raw and unhinged that I literally started to tear up at her desperate pleas in the climax. It would seem the role is custom made for her.  Collette famously played the mother of a child that “sees dead people” in one of the most successful horror films of all time (The Sixth Sense). She is so memorable that it stands out even among the other remarkable performances.  Actors Alex Wolff as her teen son and Milly Shapiro as her little daughter are convincing in exhibiting the undoing of their characters as well.  Ann Dowd is an upbeat presence as Joan, a chatty friend Annie meets in a support group for the bereaved.  Hereditary is an emotionally compelling experience. The feature from writer/director Ari Aster is a notable debut. He proves he can creatively mold cinematic influences into an entertaining movie. Looking forward to his next production that hopefully charts a more innovative course.

06-14-18

Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Beast

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on June 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beast_ver4STARS4Beast is a hard movie to characterize. Pundits often label this as a psychological thriller. I suppose the designation works because the account deals with the emotional state of a person. Yet it really doesn’t adequately embody the gorgeous mood of the film. That’s what makes this picture so affecting. Let’s call it an atmospheric thriller. One might even say dreamy. This is a character-based drama about two people who need each other. Although this is not your conventional love affair. There are elements to the romance that might make this seem like more of a horror flick. It’s those conflicting dichotomies that make this feature so enthralling.

Beast is about a repressed 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley). She lives on Jersey.  Not the U.S. State — the UK location.  The Bailiwick of Jersey is the largest island in the English Channel. Moll works as a tour guide and lives with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her family is celebrating Moll’s birthday but she’s not having a very good time. It’s meant to be her day, but her older sister (Shannon Tarbet) steals her thunder by announcing that she’s having twins. Mother’s demand that Moll fetch champagne for the guests is the last straw.  Frustrated, Moll leaves her own party. She goes to the local watering hole and dances the night away. She later absconds to an isolated area with a guy she meets at the club. Their date grows sinister when his flirtation becomes increasingly hostile. Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be illegally hunting game in the area, rescues her from the scoundrel. The only problem is there’s been a rash of murders in the area and her “savior” appears to be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

Beast is the debut feature from British director Michael Pearce who also wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Platform Prize (Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country won). It was released in May with a limited run in U.S. theaters to critical acclaim.  Peace was born on the island of Jersey so he obviously has an affinity for this location. The events were inspired by the real-life case of a serial attacker known as the “Beast of Jersey” back in the 1960s. The setting is an asset because the remote location gives the production a timeless feel. It seems almost otherworldly. The sumptuous cinematography from Benjamin Kracun helps to heighten the mood. The movie kind of burrows its way into your consciousness. Moll and Pascal’s love is a slowly mounting anxiety that creeps up on you. These two have incredible chemistry.

You’d think the suspense in knowing whether “is he or isn’t he the killer?” would propel the narrative but actually it’s the relationship between Moll and Pascal. Moll projects a spirited intensity that has finally been allowed to breathe after years of oppression. Although a fresh-faced innocent, she doesn’t look like your classic ingenue. Her fiery ringlets of red hair are enough to separate her from the cookie cutter naïfs we typically see in romantic dramas.  It’s easy to see why Moll is drawn to Pascal. He exudes kind of a rakish charm suggesting a more working class Ryan Gosling. He represents a way out from under the oppressive rule of her domineering mother. She rules over her behavior with a passive-aggressive stance. Although Moll expresses regret when she inspires her mother’s ire, you can tell she resents her dominant posture. Her mother’s dislike of Pascal is clearly a plus in Moll’s eyes. Moll and Pascal form a dynamic duo with a charismatic fervor that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. The production is extremely well crafted. That makes the crushing feeling you have when you exit the theater such a heartbreak. The chronicle culminates in a denouement in which the tension just drains away from the picture. The resolution is seriously flawed, but that’s a discussion for people who have seen the movie. Until that point, however, Beast creates a hypnotic experience and that is something to treasure.

05-31-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

First Reformed

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.

06-04-18