"Everything is as it should be."

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First Reformed: A Review



My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A serious art house meditation on religion and politics and the politics of religion. A flawed but worthwhile film for the religiously, spiritually and cinematically inclined.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is the story of Toller, a protestant pastor and former military chaplain, struggling with his faith amidst environmental and personal concerns. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Toller, with supporting turns from Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. 

First Reformed is a fascinating film that, like Jacob with the angel, wrestles with complex issues of faith and politics (and a fusing of the two), with a deft and insightful passion. I can't tell you what a joy it is for me to see a film that takes seriously matters of faith and genuinely grapples with religious issues without falling into either a display of saccharine christianity or reflexive anti-religiosity. 

When Ethan Hawke's character Toller mentions iconic 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and later has a small debate with a fellow pastor over Merton's work, I knew this was no ordinary movie about religion, but rather a serious contemplation of complex spiritual issues. Spiritual questions, such as whether in the search for a vibrant religious life should one engage with the world (and its politics) or retreat from it into a monk-like existence, and the perils of both approaches, are at the forefront of First Reformed


Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for being the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. While Schrader is an infinitely more talented writer than director, he did on one occasion make an exquisite film, his 1997 examination of familial rage, Affliction. That film resonated so deeply with me that I frequently contemplate it even twenty years later. Affliction aside, Schrader's films usually suffer from his less polished direction. 

I think, in keeping with Schrader's history, First Reformed is infinitely better written than it is directed, but Schrader's direction is strong enough to put it in second place in his directorial cannon behind Affliction. There are certainly some pacing problems with the narrative, not that it goes too slow, but rather it makes dramatic leaps that the story hasn't quite yet earned, which left me feeling that the final third of the film was a bit dramatically rushed. In addition, the transition from the realism of the first two thirds of the film to the final third's deep dive into symbolism and the metaphorical, might be jarring to some, but I encourage you to make the leap as it is worth the effort to suspend your disbelief (which may very well be the brilliant sub-text of the entire film). 


Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do paint an intriguing picture with First Reformed, particularly with their framing. There are some shots that are absolutely delicious, such as when Dynan turns a rather mundane shot of Toller's entrance into a church into a visual masterpiece by simply shooting from above (God's perspective) down onto a rug with the church's logo on it turned upside down. It is a dizzyingly glorious shot that, like all great pictures, speaks a thousand words. 

The religious and spiritual dimensions of the film are surprisingly nuanced and complex. Toller is representative of a traditionalist (old world) faith, his church is one of the oldest in America, but that faith is dying. His church is nicknamed "the souvenir shop" because people don't go to actually worship there, only to stop by for historical tours and to buy trinkets. 

Toller's "old religion" is contrasted with the new wave mega-church of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle). Toller deems Pastor Jeffers house of worship more akin to a corporation than a church but he still tries to off-load his counseling duties to its abundant staff. This religious clash between Toller and Jeffers in First Reformed is playing out in real time here in the U.S. as evangelical mega churches sell a corporatized, flag waving, prosperity gospel under the veneer of Christianity while more traditional churches get more and more marginalized in the culture and their pews are more and more empty. 

The Toller character is not only representative of the old church, but of God's green earth. Not only is Toller's faith and church dying, but so is the planet, and Toller's body comes to symbolize the earth. Toller fills his body with toxic trash and refuses to change his behavior even when doctors tell him he must in order to save himself. First Reformed makes the case that the same is true of corporate America (and the world), who constantly ignore existential environmental concerns in favor of myopic capitalist ones. 


As the film plays out, Toller turns into a Christ-like figure, battling demons within and without and trying to save his soul in the process. Like Christ, Toller must choose between a dizzying array of archetypes…is he a warrior, a martyr, a savior, a devil or all of the above? Is Toller an activist or a terrorist? An evangelist or a monk? As Toller goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit's hole in search for the meaning and purpose of his life (and maybe all life), spiritual vertigo sets in, at which point viewers are asked to take some leaps that may be a bridge too far for some, but which I found to be challenging yet deeply rewarding. 

Ethan Hawke does some of his best work as Toller. Hawke's Toller has a world weary gravitas about him that fills the character with a troubled present, past and future. Hawke gives Toller a palpable cross to bear, and his skillful performance lures the viewer in to help him carry it. Toller's metamorphosis and awakening in the film is compelling and is a testament to Hawke's talent and mastery of craft. 

Amanda Seyfried plays Mary and is meant to be symbolic of hope and potential. While at times Seyfried performance feels a bit out of rhythm with the film, and feels unconscionably lightweight next to Hawke's burdened Toller, she does do enough to fulfill the character's dramatic purpose. Treating Seyfried's Mary as less a real-life character and more a totem of spiritual hope and redemption makes her performance much more digestible. 

Cedric Kyle, who is better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is unrecognizable from his comedic persona as Pastor Jeffers. I had no idea that is who the actor really was as Kyle looks the same but is energetically unrecognizable to Cedric the Entertainer. Kyle gives a seamless performance that is shocking because it is entirely without any artifice. 

In conclusion, First Reformed is a very interesting, if somewhat flawed film, that I found well worth worth my time and money. If you have minimal or no interest in matters of faith and religion, this film will be too much for you. And if you are allergic to the art house, then stay well clear of First Reformed. But if you are a cinephile, a religiously minded or faithful person, and can make the leap from taking the film literally to taking it figuratively, First Reformed is the film for you. It certainly won't give you any easy answers, but it will definitely ask you some very difficult and profound questions. 



Mind the Generation Gap: While We're Young, A Review


Just begging to be punched!!

Just begging to be punched!!

A few weeks ago, a delicately beautiful young woman approached me and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her. "What movie do you want to see?" I asked. "I want to laugh" she said, "let's go see Ben Stiller in While We're Young".  After an extended uncomfortable silence, I dryly retorted, "I thought you said you wanted to laugh."  I had zero interest in seeing While We're Young for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that I have an instinctive, gut-level impulse to punch both of the male actors in the film, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, right in their stupid, idiotic, oh-so-punchable faces. Add to that the fact that I have a pretty strong revulsion to much of writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous work, The Squid and the Whale being the lone and notable exception, and you have a recipe for a nasty case of movie rage on my part. But when a charming young woman asks me to a movie, even a movie I don't want to see, who the hell am I to say no? As I do with all beautiful women, I relented to her request. And so we were off to the theatre to see While We're Young

Chalk it up to low expectations, or the attractive lady on my arm, but While We're Young actually won me over. I know, I know, I am just as surprised as you are about this turn of events. I mean, watching Ben Stiller and Adam Driver for an hour and a half sounds more like some heinous form of torture banned by the U.N. rather than a form of entertainment I'd pay for, but gosh darn it if those two punchable asshats didn't pull it off.

Oh so punchable!!

Oh so punchable!!

Now you may be wondering why I am so strongly repulsed by Stiller and Driver. This is a good question, and I can honestly tell you that I have no idea. Or at least I am not consciously aware of why they irritate me so much.  I've never met them or heard a bad word about either of them personally from anyone I know who knows them. I've actually even enjoyed some Ben Stiller films in the past too, although I can't name them off the top of my head and don't want to waste my mental energy searching the dark recesses of my mind trying to find them. Regardless of why I feel the way I do, I do feel it. There is just something about the both of them and their dopey, moronic faces that quickly triggers the punch reflex in me. I readily acknowledge this is much more an indictment of me than of them. (Although to be fair to Adam Driver, I have that same "punch reflex" reaction to every single person who has ever appeared on the show Girls, or who has ever even watched the show Girls, or has even thought about watching the show Girls. I don't like the show Girls, just wanted to make that clear. That said, I am not exactly Girls target audience, so if I did like Girls, Girls would probably be doing it wrong.)

Now that my irrational Stiller/Driver hate has been outed and explored, you can have some sense of what an accomplishment it is for Baumbach, Stiller and Driver to get me to like their movie. It is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. How did they do it? Let's take a look, shall we?

While We're Young is the story of New York based documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), both of whom are in their forties and childless.  Josh and Cornelia are losing all of their friends their own age to parenthood and are struggling to maintain their identities as artists and creative, cool people. Then they meet aspiring documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young hipster couple in their twenties who reignite Josh and Cornelia's zest for life and creative living. Through Jamie and Darby, Josh and Cornelia are born again hipsters. Josh wears a hipster hat like Jamie, and Cornelia takes hip-hop dance class with Darby.  

The story of While We're Young is straightforward enough, it is the tale of all of us as we age and try to stay current, cool and relevant. This is a fools errand of course, but that doesn't stop us from trying anyway. What made While We're Young resonate with me is that it very closely resembled my own life's journey, or at least my artistic life's journey. Stiller's Josh is a Brooklynite, a self tortured artist, and he worships his art with a religious reverence. I am guilty on all counts (although I have relocated my existential angst from Brooklyn, the city of my birth, to Los Angeles, the city of my death…most likely). The film not only mimicked my experience, but understood it and, at a very deep level, respected it. That is a great credit to director Baumbach, who is of my generation and shares a similar temperament, taste and worldview. He may have cut me to the bone with his insightful look at Josh's/my life, but he did it with surgical precision and I tip my hipster cap to him for it.

The generational struggle, be it Gen X'ers versus Baby Boomers, or Millennials versus Gen X'ers, is cyclical. The struggling artistic purist of today will be replaced with the corporate crowd pleaser of tomorrow. It happened to the baby boomers, it happened to the Gen X'ers and it has already happened with the millennials. But there are always holdouts from each generation. Like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands who never knew that World War Two had ended, so it is with the generational holdouts. I know because I am one of them, and so it Stiller's Josh.  We are true believers and we have such a respect and reverence for great art that we are exhilarated when we see a talented and equally, in our eyes, honorable artist in a younger generation, and indignantly horrified when we see the sellout, faux artists in that same generation, or any other generation. This is the struggle of the purist. For reasons too elaborate to get into here, Generation X is a group with a higher Purist ratio than other generations, and with Millennials, it seems as though Purists are a rare breed, and a nearly extinct one at that. Although the reality is much more likely to be that there are probably just as many Millennial Purists as there are Gen X Purists, but due to the seismic shift toward corporatism in the creative economy over the last twenty-five years, they are much, much harder to find. With this in mind, the two generations are wonderfully represented in While We're Young by Stiller's Josh (Gen X) and Driver's Jamie (Millennials).

This generational struggle is what I think will make While We're Young interesting for all sorts of people, not just Brooklynite artistic purists like myself. Releasing the mantle of being one of the cool people to the younger generation who are, by definition, the cool ones now, can be a catastrophic event for some people's ego and identity. But that doesn't make it any less inevitable. This is the story of While We're Young, this is the story of me, this is the story of everyone, sooner or later, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.

As for the rest of the film, it is well made. I laughed out loud quite a bit, or to put it in terms the kids use today I "lol'd". (See how cool I am, kids? I know all the lingo! Kids? Kids? Why are you rolling your eyes and laughing at me? I'm hip…I'm not jive!!) Stiller is excellent, creating not just a character, but a real person, who is at once frustratingly stubborn yet genuine and endearing. Naomi Watts, as usual, gives a solid performance. Her Cordelia is vibrant and carries a palpable wound that gives her a strength and a fragile charm.

Adam Driver is…good. He uses his unlikability to his great advantage in the film. I'm not supposed to feel completely at ease with Jamie, or to completely like him…and I don't. So mission accomplished. This helps drive the story and Driver is a great foil for Stiller to play off.  Driver, who is tall, with a commanding physical presence and a goofy confidence, paired with Stiller who is short, neurotic and desperately desperate, makes for a fantastically and uncomfortably poor pairing, which is why it works so well.

Amanda Seyfried is an actress I always enjoy watching, and she is interesting and very compelling here as Darby but is terribly under used. The film focuses more on Josh and Jaime than it does on Cordelia and Darby, which works out fine in the end, but I did wish I saw more of Watts and Seyfried…maybe because I like them very much as actors and don't want to punch them like I do with their male co-stars. Regardless, I think there is great potential for a similar film to be made from the female perspective.

In conclusion, While We're Young was a very pleasant surprise. It is a genuinely funny, interesting and painfully honest film that keeps you engaged and laughing. Like me, you may only be laughing at yourself because the films bare bones honesty makes you so very uncomfortable, but you will be laughing nonetheless.  

Oh…and one more thing. This is very difficult to type with my fists clenched so tightly but…a job well done by Ben Stiller and Adam Driver. You both did excellent work in the film, and I respect your talent. I offer this to you both...I cannot promise to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore…but I do promise to try to try not to want to punch you in your stupid faces anymore. Sorry, it's the best I can do, believe me. Now…GET THE HELL OFF MY LAWN!!!