First Reformed (2017)

Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader

   First_Reformed         Sombre, historic, (potentially) creepy: these are all adjectives conjured in the opening scenes of First Reformed, starting with a still image of a Dutch-colonial church in modern Albany. Of course it’s hard to know exactly what ideas to associate with this setting. Does one think of the conservatism of small-town, white Christian America, or the progressivism of Northeasterners whose religious traditions trace back to those of English dissident-Christians fleeing persecution?

This tension provides an underlying foundation for First Reformed, the story of a the historic church’s minister, Toller (Ethan Hawke). Right away we are made to understand he is devout. Given the distinct political positions “Hollywood” and “Christianity” occupy in American society, this shapes our assumptions further. Soon thereafter, however, we discover Toller can in fact move between philosophical traditions, existing somewhere on the liberation theology spectrum. The contrast between this information and our initial assumptions (that he’s part of mainstream “Christian America”) goes on to feed the film’s plot.

I say all of this because the experience of watching First Reformed is one of seeing dichotomies played with. In addition to challenging the assumptions of many viewers about the relationship between “Christian” and “liberal/secular” America, First Reformed also juxtaposes: the past and the present/ future (most notably in a scene where a humourless hymnal choir sings a Neil Young song); the relationship between self-help and selflessness; the political and the apolitical; the folksy chapel and the megachurch (led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles)) and even popular understandings of Christianity in contrast to popular understanding of Islam.

Most important to this film, however, is its exploration of the dichotomy between the clergy and the layman. Toller’s life is gradually, but drastically altered after an encounter with Mary, a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband wants her to abort. At the outset of this plot we still expect Toller’s character to be a stereotypical American Christian: staunchly pro-life. His exact politics on abortion are never made clear, however, he does respond to the situation with sageness and authoritativeness.

The sageness never goes away. The authoritativeness doesn’t either, at least not in Toller’s eyes. The audience, by contrast, is gradually brought to see Toller’s vulnerabilities. The odd result of this is that as the film draws to its close, viewers are almost made to feel that they are watching an indie-drama about a young, hip millennial trying to get their life together, not the story of a 46 year-old Christian authority.

First Reformed is not a plotless movie. It develops its character, leading him to make a dramatic decision as the film approaches its climax. That said, because it is so focused on the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, it nonetheless manages to resemble low-intensity films in the process. This rich, blend of cinematic-character, coupled with the film’s environmentalist politics, makes viewing it a very striking experience.

There are times when First Reformed goes beyond being an interesting piece of art. The film’s first environmentalist scene is near apocalyptic in its rhetoric (a feeling heightened by the story’s Christian foundations). It was a scene that gave me pause. Perhaps it was striking and different enough to indeed have political weight, or perhaps it would disturb viewers to the point of them wanting to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist. Either way, this intense feeling is toned down a little, as the film comes to be more about Toller’s persona.

First Reformed is a political movie that wants to provide answers, but is too pre-occupied with exploring contradictions to ultimately produce those answers (so the film is a contradiction itself). Disturbing, whimsical and directly ideological, it has the potential to be the kind of gospel that resonates in and beyond the pulpit.

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Downsizing (2017)

Directed by: Alexander Payne. Written by: Payne and Jim Taylor

DownsizingIn a year of films misrepresented or sold short by their trailer’s (Colossal, Beatriz at Dinner, Lady Bird, etc.) Downsizing, takes the cake. For reference this was the trailer I saw repeatedly in theatres. While it gives hints of the film’s beauty, it largely makes the film comes across as a fairly mundane romantic-comedy with a not all-that unusual sci-fi twist. For that matter, unless my memory is failing me, parts of this trailer didn’t even seem to be in the film (Matt Damon’s character is, importantly, an occupational therapist, not a generic cubicle worker).

Seen as a full film, Downsizing perfectly combines visual ambition with an emotional melange. The film is the story of Paul Safranek (Damon), a man dissatisfied with his life and financial situation, who along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decides to “downsize”: the process of shrinking one’s body, generally with the intention of living in a miniaturized community. One of the film’s main underlying tensions quickly becomes apparent. Downsizing is a process invented to address the problem of overpopulation (or over consumption, depending on how one likes to look at it), an issue that is not lost on Paul. Through other characters, however, it is suggested that environmental concerns are not the primary driver behind the development of downsizing. Rather, downsizers are motivated by the chance to convert their modest incomes into wealth, as resources become a lot cheaper when bought at the sizes necessary to serve a downsized person.

Downsizing thus is an escape in two senses of the word. It is a necessary and potentially useful escape from the risk of climate change, and it is a distraction-escape: a way for the characters to forget the troubles of the world, and kick back in their cheap mansions. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come as these two meanings are blurred. There is one scene near the end of the film where Paul excitedly says that ten years ago he never could have believed he would have been discussing the end of the world with a famous scientist while on a luxurious river cruise. In this scene Paul is simultaneously both kinds of escapists, exposing an interesting, but familiar cognitive dissonance in his personality. No doubt many of us embody this contradiction as we consider the perils of climate change; we are motivated to want to find both an actual escape (a green society) and a mental escape (pleasurable distractions).

Downsizing has not exactly charmed critics. It currently has a 51% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the fan rating is far worse. The critical “consensus” seems to be that while the film is driven by an ambitious idea, it does not have a fully developed story. This criticism is technically accurate. It would also be accurate to question how Paul’s character is written. There are two moments in the film where he becomes decisively angry, allowing him to unflinchingly cut other characters from his life. This behaviour is not commented on by other characters, seems inconsistent with Paul’s otherwise empathetic and accommodating personality, and (oh so) conveniently advances the script, so I can understand why some critics may perceive it as sloppy writing. Nonetheless, Downsizing is an example of the whole being better than the sum of the parts. Paul manages to go on a journey and transform as a person over the course of the film. This means that even as Downsizing lacks a full-fledged plot arc, what it has instead is emotionally resonant enough that it is quite possible you wont notice the difference (I certainly didn’t). The intrigue of the film’s plot (or not-quite-plot, depending on your viewpoint) is certainly bolstered by the presence of Paul’s companions: the friendly, yet problematically hedonistic Dusan Merkovic (Christoph Waltz), and the persistent-idealistic Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau: who’s portrayal was influenced in part by Flannery O’Connor and Berta Caceres).

Downsizing’s other strength is it’s aesthetic. Seeing the architecture in Leisureland (the downsized community Paul lives in) is like watching the work of a passionate dollhouse collector, as various styles of architecture and luxury are brought together in a wonderful arrangement. The film’s dollhouse-like scenes, however, come even before miniaturization is brought into play, for instance in the cluttered, yet pristine biology lab where the film opens. While the film’s aesthetic was clearly a big budget effort, it nonetheless manages to have fun with simple-size play as well. There’s a scene where Paul decorates his house with a non miniaturized rose, a visual that should stun audiences as much it stuns Paul’s neighbor Dusan.

Downsizing can be a bleak movie, but it’s a relaxing bleakness that takes you down a beautiful river of color. It is a story of sad characters. Paul is haunted by the loneliness and frustrations of his own life. Tran is driven by her far darker past as a political dissent who was forcibly downsized. The film nonetheless manages to be light-hearted due to Paul’s constant willingness to explore solutions to his problems and Tran’s seemingly hapless pursuit of her idealism. Perhaps Downsizing lacks a fully developed story line, but contrary to what many critics seem to say, I don’t think that failure makes a meh movie out of a good idea: rather, it only suggests that this great movie could have been even better.

 

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.