Sunday, June 17, 2018

First Reformed (2018)

I had not actually seen a trailer for First Reformed until after I saw the movie. I had read a review of the film and thought it sounded interesting, I find that movies that take the subject of religion seriously are rare and generally worth seeking out. I was surprised by First Reformed and found it took some directions I was not expecting it to take, so you may or may not want to watch the trailer (or even read this review, though I'll keep spoilers to a minimum) because you'll have a different experience of the movie if you go in mostly unaware.

I tend to think of the film as having two parts, the first was more what I was expecting, the 2nd was not. Roughly the first half or so of the movie has an awful lot in common with one of my all time favorite films, the 1963 Bergman masterpiece Winter Light. The two films share so many central elements that Paul Schrader's film is obviously intended as homage. Both films center on pastors of small congregations in the snowy north of their countries. Both pastors wives are gone, in Winter Light through death, in First Reformed through divorce. Both pastors are in existential crises, both have had affairs with women in there congregations, both of these women look alike and are more interested in the pastor then he is in them, and in each case the pastor kind of hates the woman. Both pastors are called upon by women in their congregations to provide council for husbands who have become obsessed with a pending end of the world, in Winter Light that concern centers on the prospect of nuclear war, in First Reformed ecological disaster through corporate greed and short sightedness. In both films the pastors do not feel themselves up to the task, though they still try.

If you look at the credits of First Reformed's writer and director Paul Schrader you will find the subject of obsession, both religious and secular to be probably his most consistent cinematic theme in both his writing and his directing over 40 years, Obsession (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Mosquito Coast (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Autofocus (2002), even Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). However the film that First Reformed is most often compared to here is Taxi Driver (1976), and if you are familiar with that film the reasons for this will be made obvious in the viewing of this one. While psychological portrait is central to what this film is, and Ethan Hawke in the lead reminded me just what an underpriced actor he is, the film is also a eulogy for the decline of religious faith in American life.

Hawke's Rev. Ernst Toller is the pastor of First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, a pre-revolutionary war structure gearing up for its 250th anniversary, and long of more interest as a "tourist church" then a place of spiritual community. Even the associated Abundant Life Church, more modern and evangelical in its sensibility, sports an anemic youth choir, and though we only see it on weekdays seems more then anything like a business far past its peak. The religious interest of many in the film seems mundane and work a day, and those really struggling for meaning, including the pastor, seem to have a hard time finding it in faith.

A gorgeously stark film, imitating Bergman's cinematography of quite nature shots, long head and upper torso shots (which have an oddly haunting effect on a big screen), and playing unusually long stretches of conversation out with minimal camera movement. The score often has the quality of an electrical hum, at first almost subliminal but building. The sense of mounting tension and dread to the piece is magnificent. Amanda Seyfried and Cedric (The Entertainer) Kyles are also quite excellent in supporting parts, each understated in their own way. First Reformed is not the kind of movie you expect to see in the summer, to me it was perhaps the greatest experience of cinematic surprise I've had in a theater all year. It left me a little dumbstruck.  ****

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Wake Island (1942)

The Paramount release Wake Island was showing in U.S. theaters in August of 1942, it is about a battle that happened in December of the previous year. One of those early War pieces of Hollywood propaganda that was rushed into production, you can almost see the seems in the thing, its slap dash but was meant to fulfill the role not only of cashing in on the war, but of energizing public support for it. While there is not a lot of depth to the portraits we see on screen, the characters are more types then real people, we like them and they are martyred before our eyes. While hundreds survived the battle no one survives the film, which is an interesting decision because of it what it says about how the war was framed for the public, it needed to be worth dying for. Most of the performances here are bland, but Robert Preston and William Bendix have a workable buddy comedy thing going on. **

On Chesil Beach (2018)

When I read the novel On Chesil Beach a number of years ago their was a scene where I so disagreed with a characters decision that I threw the book down in frustration. That is the only time I can remember having an emotional reaction of that physical intensity to a work of literature. So I steeled myself ahead of time for this film version. It is the story of a virginal couple on their wedding night at hotel on Chesil Beach in England in 1962. Florence (Saoirse Ronan, who interestingly made her first big impression on the screen in the adaptation of another McEwan book, Atonement in 2007) came from a wealthy but distant family of the upper classes, who other then her sister she could never really relate to, while her husband Edward (Billy Howle) came from an aspiring family of lower class roots, his father a headmaster at a small school, his mother mentally unhinged for as long as he's known her.

The couples making it to this moment is quite an accomplishment in its self, much stood in the way of their ever being together. While the bulk of the framing story takes place over a period of around six hours, we see the journey this sympathetic couple took through flashbacks. One of the things I love about McEwan's writing is a tendency to digression, it's seeming meandering, but its meticulous filling of the gaps, and even more intentional leaving of ambiguities in the narrative. Since the author is adapting himself here, his 2007 novella of the same name, the films feels very organic, very true to its source material. But the ability of the movie to succeed lays almost entirely on the leads, and both Ronan and the lesser known Howle are up to the task, giving generally subtle, and at times quite moving performances.

This is a beautiful, sad movie, I found it quite affecting. The story uses its historical setting, and sympatric young leads to evoke ideas of innocence. Yet McEwan being McEwan he wants to explore the ambiguity in that innocence, its perils and its promises. Those paths which are taken and those that are not. What the world may have gained through sexual liberation, and what through the coarsening of those mores it may have lost. It is about love, and context, and circumstance, expectations and mistakes. It finds a power there that can still stagger. ****

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Fighter (2010)

David O. Russell tells the true story of half brother boxers Micky Ward and "Dicky" Eklund (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) in a tale of both family and personal redemption. The film very concisely evokes the Rocky ethos, and the beaten up blue collar flavor of its principle setting of Lowell Massachusetts. Filmed on location and casting a fair amount of locals, this movie feels true, feels lived in. Everyone channels the place, not hard for Wahlberg whose from near by, but impressive for Bale, and impressive (if not unexpectedly so) for Melissa Leo, the latter two won Oscars. Even Amy Adams essays the local color, cast against type early in her stardom, previously known for playing doe eyed characters, her Charlene Fleming is much more the realist. The film that inaugurated Russell's strongest cinematic decade, very well crafted, very effective. ***1/2

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

It's hard to say precisely what it is that did it, but with Ghost Protocol the Mission Impossible franchise feels like it has finally settled into its self, knows what it is, an has made peace with a formula that could be replicated almost indefinitely. Basically its James Bond with a team of Felix Leiter's. There is a steady rotation in said team (and especially in agent Hunt;s boss) but still some continuity. The foreign location and action set pieces (I'm particularly thinking of Dubai) are strong, events of previous films are referenced lightly and their plot threads are resolved, while the story does not feel as if its built solely around previous fall out. The villain here is even an interesting variation on the routine, a crazed academic rather then a mad scientist. It has its footing, it's fun, its a well oiled machine, and that the franchise took awhile to figure itself out makes that achievement more satisfying then it probably deserves to be. ***

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Kings Choice (2017)

The Kings Choice tells a story not well know in the United States, but doubtless very well known in Norway concerning the actions of that nations King Haakon VII during the spring of 1940. While Haakon (Jesper Christensen, wonderfully grandfatherly in the part) and his son the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) had voiced their concerns about German aggression early on, as the Royal family only had a ceremonial role in the system of Norwegian government their warnings went unheeded. Then the German ships started arriving, extending the Nordic nation an offer of 'beneficent occupation', to 'protect them' from the British, traditional rivals of Norway but with whom they were at peace. The Royals and the cabinet were evacuated further inland and the nations elected government seemed unable to agree on a strategy, seeming to simply wish the issue would just go away. A man of restraint and a life defining sense of duty and decorum, Haakon no doubt surprised many when he found a way to use his ceremonial office to force his government to do the right thing, and stand up to the Germans, in short he did far more then George VI did in The Kings Speech. I will stop the narrative here though, I wouldn't want to spoil the details, this movie is worth seeking out, especially if your a World War II aficionado like a number of my friends, but at the lest I'd recommend Wikipediaing the story.

A finely made film with some strong performances, in addition to the central story there are subplots concerning a Norwegian navel officer who succeeded in sinking a German boat early on, briefly delaying the invasion, the German envoy to Norway reluctantly carrying out his governments orders, and a teenage solder who shares a brief moment with the King that inspires him to an act of bravery on the battlefield. Inspiring stories like these, especially when they are ones that you are not already familiar with, can be among the most satisfying types of movie watching experiences, and if subtitles aren't a deal breaker for you, I'd really recommend The Kings Choice. ****

Friday, June 8, 2018

Solo (2018)

An "origins" film about one of Star Wars most popular characters must have seemed like a sure thing to the execs at Disney. However Solo had a troubled production, the comic directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) were replaced by Ron Howard a full five months into filming, and doubts by some at Disney about relatively unknown lead Alden Ehrenreich made there way into the press. When the film finally came out, a finicky fan base, and the fact that this was the 2nd Star Wars film to be released in six months, lead to a disappointing $103 million opening over the four day Memorial weekend (and isn't it weird that $103 million can be considered disappointing). This weaker then expected performance puts in doubt if the sequel film (which I presume would be called Han) which this film sets up will even be made, and is reportedly causing some reassessment at Disney about their ambitious production plans for the franchise and the extent to which they can milk the Star Wars cash cow.

Legitimate concerns about oversaturation not withstanding, I enjoyed Solo, and would be curios to see that sequel (this is not a New Hope joke by the way). I thought the movie was fun, and didn't have as much of those solemn/serious undertones so present in the franchise after the original trilogy. If Rouge One was a Star Wars version of one those World War II secret mission movies, Solo is Star Wars as caper film. It has a good, likable cast of supporting characters including Emilia Clark and Woody Harrelson, and while Ehrenreich's lead performance was not the spot on channeling of Billie Dee Williams that Donald Glover provides as Lando Calrissian, I thought it seemed true enough for a younger version of the Harrison Ford original. Though it keeps its risks at a minimum I though Solo got more out its market research premise then might be expected, do in large part no doubt to the presence of veteran Star Wars scripter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan as the screenwriters.

While the standard of some Star Wars fans seem impossible to meet, if your primary interest is a reasonably intelligent, but mostly diverting good time, I'd readily recommend Solo either alone or in a group. ***