My Love & Hate for the new film First Reformed

I haven’t seen every Ethan Hawke film, but I’ve come pretty darn close. There’s some immense sadness behind his eyes that makes me want to give him a hug. Though I fully realize his persona is that of a cad, a guy who left Uma for the nanny. That said, my favorite film remains Before the Devil Knows Your Dead in spite of the 98% rating of First Reformed which I saw last night as a generous treat from my friend.

I’ve had this experience before, wary of where the film is going, yet willing to jump on for the ride. I was at first bored and depressed by the bleak Upstate New York winter setting, and the stifling repressed religious ministers. But I bought it, as Hawke is an amazing blank slate who takes on the gray coloring of the film written and directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Fun fact I just read about Mr. Schrader is that he grew up in a strict Calvinist family and that his next film is titled The Jesuit. Looks like he’s on a ‘give us this day our daily religious roll of film’.

So there I am, riveted, more so than my friend, who had every right to be turned off due to some spoilers of which I won’t mention that she’s all too familiar. But after offering to leave (movies aren’t worth psychological torture, aka my leaving Thin Red Line which was much too violent for me to take) and my friend saying she was ok due to some vastly different circumstances between her life and the film, I was fully ‘woke’ to experiencing what the culmination would be.

Schrader does a great job of establishing both a menacing foreboding and many foreshadowing red herrings. Where he lost me was at probably an hour and fifteen in, a magical realism sequence cascades into an Aronofskyesque Mother ending. At the conclusion (big question mark), my friend and I looked at each other thinking perhaps Burns Court was sent a bad cut of the film. Or perhaps we’re not ‘deep’ enough to get all the symbolism.

Hence, I’ll be heading to Rotten Tomatoes now to read the trained critics’ unpacking this film which means I was moved enough to care about what the hell it all means. Ethan Hawke definitely deserves fanfare, as does Cedric the Entertainer, who is an ultra serious role, is terrific as the financially minded super preacher. Amanda Seyfried is also fantastic as the emotionally confused pregnant Mary.

The film certainly confirms my opinion of organized religion in that much like any organization that becomes large, power corrupts. And if my life is any indication (my best friend pretty much breaking my heart in her rejection of me once she became full Baptist), religious folks can be some of the coldest. A visceral scene from First Reformed is when Ethan says an inch away from the face of a woman (portrayed by Victoria Hill, also very good) who loves him that he despises her for her petty emotions, you fully get that he is not a man who can heal.

Unfortunately, due to the uneven story, this won’t win Ethan the Oscar, but it was worth seeing for the acting and ‘interesting’ story idea.

Goodbye Columbus, Goodbye Mr. Roth

My good friend and co-worker Barry suggested Goodbye Columbus a a library loaner last week after Philip Roth died. My experience with Mr. Roth began during my relationship with a Manhattan born handsome devil who encouraged me to read Portnoy’s Complaint.

I had admittedly lost track of Philip Roth except for his announcement a few years back that he was retiring from writing. Then I had heard even more recently that Lisa Halliday had written a roman a clef about her May December affair with Roth in her novel Asymmetry. During the reading of that novel, Mr. Roth passed away at the age of 85.

Hence, I rented Goodbye Columbus that Barry joked was ‘the story of my life’. Did you know that 1969 was a looooong time ago? Meaning, the world has changed leaps and bounds and this film no longer holds up. Sure, there are certainly still conflicts regarding wealth disparity and dating below or above your income status, but the main conflicts no longer exist. The fact that one of the culminating conflicts involved Ali McGraw (and while this was her first movie and she was drop dead gorgeous, let’s face facts, she was not expressive aka had zero range) being verkelmpt over her mother finding her diaphragm while in college isn’t as big of a deal these days as it was in the stubborn repression that the wild 60’s was trying to snuff out. And sure, there were nuances to this conflict, trying to make a relationship work when two people exist in two different realms (one college, one not) rarely works out.

And while Richard Benjamin did a decent job as the middle class outlier, he was an equally flat character. I felt I was watching two actors, almost too nervous and new to really make this film. But then again, it could be I’m just cynical about the outdated plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I needed something somewhat fluffy to get me through Anthony Bourdain’s suicide and it was comforting to see Jack Klugman who I always saw as the ultimate father figure; tough but super caring. And thinking of a younger Barry navigating dating socialites also made me smile.

On Chesil Beach: I’m a runner not a skater, likewise McEwan should stick to novelist

On Chesil Beach (screenplay written by the novelist Ian McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke) was intriguing and worth seeing. Just realize you’ll spend the first third of the movie motioning the log roll “and then” speed it up signal, and then be equally flabbergasted when you flash forward from a Loooooooong 1962 to a semi quick 1975 to a super sped up 2007.

My movie companion brought up a fair point about Britain’s cinematic fascination over ‘the old day’s’ rather than tackling current issues. Perhaps its fitting with the surfacey insistence that perfect (or in the cinema sense ‘halcyon’ days) royalty must somehow reflect a perfect society, a sweep under the rug of violent crime and racism happening in the ‘real’ England.

Back to the film: cinematography; great. Chesil Beach’s pebbles is/are a perfect backdrop for a marriage ‘on the rocks’. And to be fair, turning a novel into a screenplay is no small feat. McEwan attempts to layer the sedementary rock of their courtship, their separate but equally dysfunctional pasts.

Acting by the leads; Saoirse Ronan, though ubiquitous in recent films, was solid as ever as the repressed English musician. Billy Howie, who I had never seen before (didn’t see Dunkirk), was not an attractive man, but he did grow on me (almost literally considering the decades covered) as the movie wore on. Props to the make up artist who helped him age realistically and convincingly. Emily Watson and Samuel West were impressive in making their small, but abusive parental roles very memorable.

In a nutshell (part pun there as Ian McEwan’s most recent famous novel (new in paperback) is called Nutshell), this is the story of probably 75% of young marriages. Here are two people who don’t know themselves yet and are equally crippled due to family hardships or abuse and thus, two broken kids can not equal a whole or healthy beginning. This is exactly what happened in my first marriage (which I was too immature to just hang in there and wait), and my second marriage which age unfortunately had not advanced to wisdom.

My film companion chalked the film’s message up to “Pride Goeth before a Fall” blaming the male. I see a woman who clearly wasn’t ready for marriage, but was towing the ‘company line of the 1960’s’. The reality is, we all make early mistakes which we inevitably second guess as we age. Yet the most important epiphany to hold on to is that we’re given each new day to make the most of, and we damn well better do that.