Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“First Reformed” has cozied up to elite movie reviewers (to the extent that such still exist) through its surface resemblance to the films of Bresson and Bergman. In it they imagine they see an expression of tortured existence and an examination of contemporary values. After all, it’s about a demoralized minister (catnip for the anti-religion set), and it was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who as a young man authored a book on Bresson and Bergman. (Confession: I own the book, but I’ve never read more than a few pages.) Credentials aside, Schrader has none of Bresson’s Ingres-like knack for presenting tamped-down sensuality, and little of Bergman’s ability (sometimes overbearing) to give dramatic form to metaphysical inquiry. He’s rarely managed to suggest a life below the surface of his constructs. More than one critic has called his work schematic. As in the Schrader-scripted “Raging Bull,” the thesis of “First Reformed” is restated with autistic monotony: Ethan Hawke’s depressive Reverend Toller doubts the existence of God, because the world is a bad place. Once this rather tired idea is forwarded, and you’ve acknowledged the nods to “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Winter Light,” there’s nothing to discover or intuit. In order to offer something in the way of surprise, Schrader resorts to grotesquerie: He inflates the suggestion of climactic violence, reminiscent of “Taxi Driver,” until it’s ludicrous; you get the sense that he’s flagellating himself along with the material to prove that he really means it.
Contrary to what you’ve read in reviews, “First Reformed” offers little sense that something spiritual is at stake, perhaps because its director doesn’t recognize that a man might find meaning in religion beyond the base motivation of self-loathing. We’re told that Toller took up the religious life after his son died in one of the Bush Wars. He feels guilt for encouraging the boy’s military career. Thus his service to God is penitential rather than devotional; he’s only in it for the browbeatings. As an alternative to traditional religion Schrader offers the stridency of contemporary political sloganeering. Regardless of your stance on global warming, you may snort when Toller solemnly informs a non-believer that “there is scientific consensus” and that “ninety-seven percent of scientists agree.” Where Trump calls CNN fake news, Schrader takes its talking points as holy writ. In the picture’s final third Toller experiences a mystical epiphany that combines environmental anxiety with an understandable desire to get it on with Amanda Seyfried. The less said of that the better.
Hawke, who is finally being recognized as one of our most sensitive actors, does a fine job of suggesting a man whose inner light has been reduced to a weak flicker. He subtly bows his posture, dulls his reactions, and somehow manages to suggest that his face is on the verge of cratering into his inner nothingness. But the character gives him little to portray beyond that nothingness and a smidge of anger, and the anger is never quite real. Like Schrader’s unfortunate call to violence in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it’s cosplay anger — a vain declaration of right-side-of-history-ness. According to reports, that outburst was the result of too little sleep and too much wine and Ambien. I fear that Toller, who self-medicates with fervor, is a self-portrait of an artist who has stayed up a little too late, hit the prescription bottle a little too hard, and given indiscriminate vent to his Trump-related anxiety. Maybe “First Reformed” is best appreciated as a figment of Trump derangement.
Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
By turns lyrical and grotesque, and sometimes, unaccountably, both at the same time, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” despite its mutilated form, may be the great movie about the putrefaction of America. Its mutilated state plays into its meaning: it’s a wreck about a wreck. Like director Orson Welles’ later “Chimes At Midnight,” which concerns the passing of Merry England, “Ambersons” is a eulogy for a place that should have existed even if it didn’t quite, that place of collective imagination that we dream of inhabiting even as we help to discredit it. Like Prince Hal in “Chimes,” George Amberson Minafer has the awful responsibility of shouldering this inheritance. Unlike Hal, who at least understands his predicament, he isn’t able to hack it. He has nothing of the king in him; he was born to get his comeuppance. If “Ambersons” has a Falstaff figure, a character who embodies the ideals of the old world, it is Isabel Amberson Minafer, the onetime debutante, later feeble widow, who watches the world slowly rot around her, until she dies, seemingly from the disease of anachronism. To play her Welles cast Dolores Costello, the former sweetheart of the silents. Like the Gibson Girl on whom she seems modeled, her charm is stately but paradoxical. You’d adore her, if you could only get close to her. The movie is bookended by two montages, both narrated by Welles, and both ranking among the high points of American movies. In the first we see the dream, in the second its burnt-out husk. It’s appropriate that the second section is set around the time of the First World War. The truncated “Ambersons” premiered seven months after America entered the Second. Famously, it failed. Audiences wanted something more evasive.
Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“About Elly” uses the disappearing-woman device from “L’Avventura” but to a much different end. Where Antonioni uses it to comment on the modern condition, taking a quintessentially macro POV, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi uses it to examine the particulars of human interaction. The high-status social group on excursion in the country is reminiscent of the group in Satyajit Ray’s “Days and Nights in the Forest.” Farhadi is a more malicious artist than Ray (like most filmmakers who truck in suspense, he’s a bit of a sadist), but he has a similar observational delicacy. Character insights are surprising yet in hindsight seem inevitable. When the plot takes a turn towards the sinister, the picture’s tenor changes in a way that’s perceptible but not measurable. Suddenly, it’s as though the wind has shifted (wind is a constant presence in the movie). Separating the two phases of the story is a wonderful (and very Ray-like) sequence of the enigmatic Elly cavorting on the beach. It has a self-contained beauty. Farhadi is beloved by progressives, who take the movie as an examination of the mores of an honor culture, but I think it’s hard to deny that his concept of Woman is at least somewhat traditional. The movie’s disappearing women, Elly and the German ex-wife of Elly’s suitor Ahmad, are presented as troublesome figures whose independence has brought discord to this group of friends. And the young Sepideh (who, interestingly, is featured prominently on the movie’s poster) has all the mischievousness of Pandora or Eve. It’s to Farhadi’s credit that he never criticizes or condemns these women; rather, he presents their behavior as part of the panoply of human existence. Still, it’s hard to squeeze the picture into the box of progressive dogma, and I do wonder if Farhadi won’t eventually make a movie that pisses off the college professors who claim to love his work. The other Farhadi I’ve seen, “A Separation,” also deals with a broken marriage.
Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Aaron and Melissa Dykes, who operate under the name Truthstream Media, are Alex Jones expats (they seem to regret the affiliation) who make videos about government cover-ups, conspiracy lore, and the like; they’re like Mulder and Scully without the FBI expense accounts. Their new documentary, “The Minds of Men,” is more impressive than the (already pretty impressive) videos on their YouTube channel. They claim the movie took them three years to put together, and I don’t doubt them; they not only live up to their rep as research mavens, they vault over it. The information presented is so tightly woven, and so seemingly well-sourced, that it is at times overwhelming. The Dykeses cannily twist this overwhelmingness towards an aesthetic end: The movie zaps your neurons, leaving you in a fugue state suitable for a documentary about mind control, hypnosis, and the subjective nature of perception. The editing is equally impressive. It may be the most densely cut picture I’ve seen this year, its lapping, almost-stream-of-consciousness rhythms recalling — no joke — Chris Marker. The big drawback: at nearly four hours, it’s a long sit, especially given the level of attention it demands. But I learned a lot while watching it, and I’m still a little freaked out by the footage of monkeys running around with little electrode pillboxes poking out of their skulls.
If you are anti-Trump you may well believe it is Showtime: time has finally run out on the Orange Man, and Mueller will crater the bastard real soon now.
If you are pro-Trump, or at least anti-swamp, anti-Clinton or anti-Obama, you may also believe it is Showtime: Spygate will break real soon now.