First Reformed (2018)

first_reformed

The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.

In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.

This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.

‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.

Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.

If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.

7/10

Advertisements

Spotlight (2016)

20104185723_0ca6c3e963_o

Delicately handled considering the subject matter, this biographical film balances the story between the seekers of truth and the victims in a great way. It’s a movie that pulls you in by being interesting and giving enough time to the key characters that we understand all motives at play. I can really see why this is up for Best Picture and why it might win.

At the Boston Globe, a small group of 4 journalists called ‘Spotlight’ take their time in documenting big stories. After new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives, he suggest they look deeper into the allegations of perversion and molestation of children from priests in the Catholic Church. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) wants his team to do it right so they trawl through files and reports uncovering a shocking statistic.

There’s never a moment in this film where it feels slow, even when briefings or meetings occur it all feels right for the story and therefore keeps the bubbling pace of this plot going nicely. It’s a film with something always around the corner and you want to find out what that is. Also, this film never comes across forced to seem more interesting or explosively damaging to the Church. It’s done with a calmness in the way the Spotlight team meticulously go over findings and try to help victims come forward. This movie could easily have been terrible if the four journalists were more dynamic for the sake of cinematic entertainment or if the whole uncovering was twisted in a more typically dramatic way, but gladly the film knows it’s dealing with a tough issue and focuses on the subtle moments building to the findings they make.

Tom McCarthy does a great job in firstly letting us buy into the film’s people and see their understanding of what’s happening slowly hit them. Secondly he does a greater job in reversing away from panned Adam Sandler flick ‘The Cobbler’ to prove directors need second chances. One of the good things here is that McCarthy still weaves a gripping dramatic tale even though the trailer gave us the knowledge of what’s to come. So a movie that has no true mystery left but is still overly engaging and thoughtful is one that must be seen and I’m glad I have.

McCarthy wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer and the two of them; like the Spotlight foursome are a great unison of harmony and talent. The story is done really well, they don’t make the journalists into heroes, in fact we learn hard truths about them. They don’t write harsh pot-shots at faith or the Church but more at the necessary problem of the system failing time and time again. It’s a narrative with no unneeded embellishments and that’s an admirable quality to look upon.

It’s a film that has to be seen, the true danger of the priests and their constant replacements is unbelievable. The lasting feeling this film gives is of overwhelming shock at the amount of locations listed and with this, there’s a feeling of laughable madness in a certain figure’s new position. It’s more than scary to think what’s being gotten away with and therefore this is a movie that must exist to shine a spotlight on what many people know but turn away from.

Michael Keaton is fantastic, toning his performance with direction and leadership, there’s a constant presence of damaged knowing to his character that comes into fruition later on. Mark Ruffalo transforms into his role, leaving Bruce Banner behind as he becomes the workaholic and fiery Michael Rezendes. It’s clear to see why he was nominated for Best Actor because he does bury his teeth into the character and give passion to the project. Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer is gently reserved but bold in looking like she wants to do this story right. She brings compassion and morals to the piece. Brian d’Arcy James is magnificent also, not one of the four feels shaded or left with no meat on the bones so to speak. James does really well in showing his worried character and the home-life he faces with danger on the doorstep.

For me, this feature should win Best Picture, I’d give it to Room if I could. but in all likelihood I’d root for this excellent portrayal of character development and detailed professionalism concerning an absorbing and worrying subject matter.

8/10