FIRST REFORMED (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “A crisis of faith” is merely the tip of the theological iceberg in this gripping, thought-provoking, debate-inspiring oddity from legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader has long specialized in messed up/conflicted gents struggling in a world-gone-wrong in films like HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), AFFLICTION (1997), and AUTO FOCUS (2002). Of course he is best known for his TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980) screenplays. This latest is his best work in years, though few will likely describe it as entertaining.

Ethan Hawke digs deep in his performance as Toller, a former military Chaplain now relegated to caretaker for a small church whose historical marker informs us was organized in 1767 and built in 1802. Although Toller has a very small congregation, the church itself is now mostly a tourist stop and throwback to the days of rural community churches.

Thanks to Toller reading us his daily journal entries, we know that he is already dealing with doubt and grief even before Mary (whose name is no coincidence) approaches him about speaking with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Toller’s teetering emotional stability is further jolted by a mesmerizing talk with Michael, whose work as an environmental activist/extremist leaves him unable to reconcile bringing a child into this doomed world … despite his wife Mary (an excellent Amanda Seyfried) being pregnant. (Though no further proof is needed that I should never offer counseling to confused folks, I couldn’t help but wonder why Toller didn’t challenge Michael on why he risks having sex if he is so adamant against making a baby.)

With Michael’s global and societal warnings piling on Toller’s personal tragedy and disintegrated marriage, he sinks deeper into his funk and deeper into the bottle. There is also the pressure of the upcoming 250 year reconsecration ceremony and the expectations of Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer in perfect casting). Abundant Life stands in for all of the mega-churches that specialize in money grabbing these days (more business than religion). Here, big money is represented by billionaire industrialist Edward Balq (played by a less than patient Michael Gaston). He is truly the higher power in this relationship.

Toller explains to us that we hold both hope and despair in our thoughts, and that these are life itself. He has an intensity towards life and his role in the church that would make most uncomfortable, if not a bit frightened of and for him. And those concerns would be quite accurate. Some people are just never comfortable in their own skin, and these are often the most intriguing movie characters. Schrader and Hawke ensure that Toller is every bit of that and more. It’s a bleak story with some dark and twisted humor, and it’s shot in old style ratio which adds an element of harshness to every moment. Austere might be the best one word description of the look captured by Schrader, but the story is sure to generate some colorful and intense post-viewing debate … with an open for interpretation ending being the cherry on top. Welcome back Mr. Schrader and kudos to Mr. Hawke.

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LARRY CROWNE

July 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I view Tom Hanks as one of the all-time giants among movie actors. He is true Hollywood royalty. When I heard he was producing, directing, co-writing and starring in a new film (his first directorial outing since That Thing You Do), I assumed it was his first step in becoming the new Clint Eastwood. Sadly, Mr. Hanks broke the number rule of movie-making: have a point to make or a story to tell. What we get is a time warp when mainstream movies could be successful just by putting nice people on screen.

 And nice people is what we get. Tom Hanks plays the ultimate nice guy as Larry Crowne. Crowne is the type who attracts nice people and makes them even nicer. Even when he loses his job, we never doubt that this nice guy will land on his feet and even be better off eventually. Oh no you don’t … stop trying to guess the ending! Other nice people are … EVERY STUDENT in the speech class taught by Julia Roberts, the L.A. scooter club that recruits Crowne, the Marine owner of a diner who hires Crowne, the lottery-winning neighbors of Crowne and the dean of students at the community college. The nicest one of all is Talia, played delightfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the awful “Undercovers” show that lasted less than one season).

The closest thing to a bad guy is Roberts’ husband played by Bryan
Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). His fault? He is a bit lazy (after writing two
books) and he likes to look at swimsuit models on the internet. Sure,
when the movie starts, Ms. Roberts character is at her lowest. She
clearly drinks too much to mask her misery, though it’s never obvious
just why she is so miserable.

But this is not a movie about conflict or tension or anything not nice
… even though it begins with a nice guy getting laid off from his
job. The story and screenplay are co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos.
You will remember her as the creative force behind the gem My Big Fat
Greek Wedding. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere close to the level
of that one (conflict with Greek traditions).

 If Mr. Hanks’ goal is to become an important filmmaker in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra, he will need to study the films that have made him rich and famous. Or at least study the best screwball comedies or rom-coms. A good story must have CONFLICT! There needs to be something that creates interest for the viewer. Even children’s books give us something – a mean raccoon, a wicked witch.  Simple, bland, generic, nice, likable and swell can all play a part … but they can’t be EVERY part! My two favorite things about the film are George Takei and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mr. Takei (of “Star Trek” fame) provides some of the few laughs in the film as a very meticulous Economics professor. His voice and mannerisms inspire us to smile and ultimately laugh outloud. Gugu is just terrific as the idealistic free-spirit who transforms Crowne and lights up her every scene. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

 As you might expect, supporting actors lined up to work with Hanks and Julia. Among those not mentioned above are Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji B. Henson (Crowne’s neighbors), Wilmer Valderrama (Gugu’s boyfriend), Rita Wilson (the mortgage officer), Pam Grier (professor), Grace Gummel (Meryl Streep’s daughter as the ‘pasta’ speech student), and it’s always nice to see Bob Stephenson on screen. He is one of the more underutilized deadpan comedic talents around.

There is little doubt that this film will find an audience. An audience
that demands little from a movie. There is nothing wrong with two hours
of back-slapping and giddy smiling … as long as you get a story to go
along with it.  The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s like looking at a family photo album.  Everyone is smiling.  Everyone looks happy.  But nothing is really happening.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe thinking and movie watching should remain separate activities OR you simply want to see a lot of nice people onscreen for two hours

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe filmmakers owe us something and shouldn’t cash in on their reputation … even if their name is Tom Hanks.