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.

watch the trailer:

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TAXI DRIVER (1976) revisited

February 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  I was excited to hear Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vognar  put together a monthly film series focusing on the 1970’s.  The first showing was last night and, of course, I attended … Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.  The biggest surprise of the evening came when Mr. Vognar asked for a show of hands from those who had not previously seen the film … approximately HALF admitted it was their first time. 

Now I have seen the film 12-15 times, and last night made the third time on the big screen – counting the first time which was at a Drive-In!  The surprising thing about the first timers was that they were somehow drawn to it 35 years after release, but had never felt strongly enough to rent the video or include on their NetFlix list.  Maybe it was the lure of the Q&A with a noted film critic or maybe they just wanted it in a theatre setting.  Either way, it was very interesting to hear crowd reactions from so many who were witnessing the Schrader/Scorcese work for the first time.

 Whether you have seen the film or not, chances are good that you are familiar with the “You talking to me?” scene.  Robert DeNiro improvised the scene including the key line “Well I’m the only one here.”  That line goes straight to the theme of isolation and alienation that runs throughout.  Another interesting aspect to consider is the similarity between this film and John Ford’s classic The Searchers.  Both include no-holds-barred rescue missions (by war veterans losing their grip) to save a girl who may or may not want to be rescued.  In The Searchers, it’s Natalie Wood with the Comanche Indians; and here it’s 12 year old Jodie Foster with her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel

Taxi Driver certainly takes on a different look today, than it did when it was first released.  It was surely not endorsed by the New York Chamber of Commerce as we spend two hours in the filthiest, most crime-addled areas of the city.  Of course, today, much of that same area is touristy and revenue-producing (in a legal way!).  The campaigning by the slick politician and his idealistic supporters (Albert Brooks, Cybill Shepherd) ring as true today as then … kind of sad more progress hasn’t been made.

 This is a very tough film about one man’s slow descent from sanity caused by a seemingly impossible dream of cleaning up the streets of the city and the morals of its inhabitants.  The isolation and alienation themes hold up well today, and though it may not be Scorcese’s absolute best, it could be DeNiro’s rawest performance.  For a chuckle (you’ll need it after watching it), imagine the film directed by Brian DePalma (Scarfaceand starring Dustin Hoffman … it almost happened!

Next month’s showing is the underrated Hal Ashby/Robert Towne 1973 film The Last Detail, which features a 35 year old Jack Nicholson in full scene-chewing glory … one of my all-time favorites!