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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Tiny Furniture (2010)

Written and directed by: Lena Dunham

Tiny_furniture_poster           Before there was Girls, Lena Dunham’s mildly-comedic, mildly-melancholic brand of stories-about-nothing was seen in her film Tiny Furniture. While not technically a prequel to Girls, it might as well be. The protagonist Aura (Dunham) is fresh out of college, and beginning to be interested in employment and independent living while nonetheless un-thrilled about the perils of adulthood. The film also stars Girls cast members Jemime Kirk and Alex Karpovsky. Kirk’s character, Charlotte, might as well be her Girls character, Jessa.

Unlike Girls, the film also features two of Dunham’s relatives. Her sibbling Grace plays Aura’s sister Nadine, and her mother Laurie Simmon plays Aura’s mother Siri. These characters draw heavily on the biographies of the actors who play them. While in Nadine’s case, the result is a likeable and entertaining sibling rival for Aura, in Siri’s case this approach is questionable.

Siri is a successful photographer, and that is seemingly the only career she’s ever had. Siri’s professional identity throws off what viewers might anticipate in a story about a recent college graduate struggling to face adulthood. One might expect Aura’s mother to give her a hard time about her head-in-the-clouds dreams of being an artist. As an artist herself, however, Siri can not judge her daughter and is therefore quirkily patient with Aura’s idiosyncracies. While, theoretically, Siri’s characterization makes her an interesting, novel figure, in practice her contradictory roles as mother and free-thinking artist negate each other. Siri is just impatient enough with Aura to allow some mother-daughter tension to simmer. This impatience is not enough, however, to truly drive fear into Aura, nor is it absent enough to make Siri’s tolerance for her daughter a comic trope.

Tiny Furniture is a subtle, realist, low-action film. In order to work, such films usually need to stumble upon some minimal form of a plot arc. In Paterson, this manifests in the final drama over Paterson’s notebook. In Lucky , the protagonist’s story is given meaning after he attends the birthday of his bodega owner’s son. Tiny Furniture’s plot arc seems to be structured around Aura’s relationship with Siri, however, and because of the weird middle ground between antagonist and supporter that Siri inhabits, the negotiation of her “dilemmas” with Aura doesn’t truly feel like a fitting focal point for the entire film to revolve around.

I do not mean to give the impression that Tiny Furniture is a bad film. I enjoyed parts of it, and would categorize it as on the cusp of being very good, but burdened by subtle mistakes. Aura is simultaneously vulnerable and privileged, a character dynamic that Dunham explores again and more effectively through Hannah Horvath in Girls. The problem with Dunham’s writing of this identity, however, is that she never thoroughly explores its highs and lows. For instance, even though Aura would rather go into the arts than pursue a practical career we are never really led to see the zaniness of her imagination, her level of drive to pursue the arts, or, as previously mentioned, a clash with her mother (or another “real world” figure) over her impracticality.

Tonally, however, Aura is effectively portrayed by Dunham. She is joined by other engaging characters including the regally rebellious Charlotte, snobby but likeable sister Nadine, literary hipster-bro Keith (David Call), and mysterious youtuber Jed (Karpovsky). These characters together form a dynamic universe, one which Dunham imagined for herself in a way that many viewers (especially those in the college and immediately-post-college phases of their lives) no doubt do as well. What would have made this film a classic, more than just a prequel to Girls? Oddly enough, more hipsterdom, more youthful entitlement, and perhaps (since it is described as shaping the lives of Siri and Aura alike) more tiny furniture.

The Future (2011)

Written and Directed by: Miranda July

TheFuture2011Poster“Quirky.” Is a vague adjective. Perhaps it refers to realism with non conventional characters. Perhaps it refers to fantasy or science fiction that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Regardless, it is certainly an upbeat word: it’s a spark of joviality. Miranda July’s The Future is an undoubtedly a Quirky work. Its co-protagonist Sophie (July) is never without an awkward look on her face, her partner Jason (Hamish Linklater) dons constant expressions of optimistic inadequacy. The story also features a (sort of) talking cat, and a somewhat animate yellow shirt. Nonetheless, this tale of quasi-millenials coming to face adulthood is anything but jovial.

 

The film’s plot can perhaps be called quirky as well. Jason and Sophie make plans to adopt an injured cat. Both aged 35 and working jobs they are not thrilled about, the thought of becoming “parents” (yes, as in parents for a cat, albeit a medically troubled one) leads them to believe their lives are endings. This leads the pair of them to adopt carpe diem attitudes. Unfortunately, they are both somewhat inept at the philosophy and it leads them to face greater levels of confusion and depression.

 

The Future is the rare film that one can see and not be sure whether one liked it or not. I say this because while it may be good, or bad, it is certainly not ‘meh.’ Sophie’s brand of awkwardness distinctly guide’s the film’s plot, as do the simultaneously-low-key-and-magical plot twists. The Future’s problem, or it’s quirk (depending on whether you view it positively or negatively), is that it is a tragedy that lacks a distinct moment of death or heartbreak. It follows a steady stream of bleakness, speckled with shimmers of hope. Furthermore, its almost-circular plot structure leaves audiences with cognitive dissonance: can there be tragedy, where it feels like to some degree, things were simply reset to the way they were to begin with?

 

I was drawn to The Future after enjoying Miranda July’s loosely-tonally-similar book, The First Bad Man. Fans of her written work will no doubt appreciate her filmmaking. Nonetheless, the tonal awkwardness (or distinctness) of The Future really illustrates the difference between the two mediums. Books provided writers with many chances to qualify their distinct emotional arcs, thus allowing audiences to become acclimate to them. Films do not offer a chance for such acclimation. Perhaps, however, that’s not a bad thing, and in leaving us disoriented, The Future has achieved its ambitions.

Loving Vincent (2017)

Written by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Directed by: Kobiela and Welchman 

Loving_Vincent            Let me begin by saying that Loving Vincent is a work one should see independent of one’s opinion of its narrative merits. Those who have heard of it previously surely know why. It describes itself (presumably accurately) as the world’s first oil-painted movie. The project consists of 65 000 frames and was painted by a team of 115 painters. In short, it is an animation miracle.

That said, I hope my first paragraph does not sell the film’s narrative short. The movie takes place following Van Gogh’s death and tells the story of Armand Roulin, a young man, and subject of one of Van Gogh’s portraits. Roulin is sent by his postmaster father (also the subject of a Van Gogh painting) to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As Roulin’s task grows more complicated, his journey turns into a mystery, one where he questions whether Van Gogh in fact committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The film is arguably sold short by its title. It is not a predictable, gushy tale of people feeling guilty and learning to love a mentally ill man and his work too late. Rather it is a work that maintains a constant air of mystery. Roulin’s journey to understand Van Gogh ultimately sheds a light on how he does not and perhaps cannot understand Vicent. Perhaps, the film implies, this is because Roulin is not himself an artists, but a more typical hot-headed male hero-figure. An alternative explanation is that the film intentionally limits itself with its medium. Characters move slowly through their viscous, post-impressionist surroundings, surroundings that limit their abilities to express themselves. Therefore, even as the film is a post Van-Gogh work, it ultimately only retells the story that Van Gogh, through his work, had already made public.

While the film is meant to resemble a Van Gogh painting, its artists did not attempt to create facsimiles. Rather, actors were cast in the roles of Van Gogh’s painted subjects, and the film’s painters painted over digital renditions of their faces. Roulin’s features, for instance, are firmer then they are in Van Gogh’s original depiction of him, giving him an air of toughness (in contrast to the sadness Van Gogh may have seen in the then teenage boy, whom the film’s creator’s imply he did not know well).

In essence, viewers should go to Loving Vincent to appreciate its visual singularity, and in doing so can enjoy a decently compelling story. While the animation pace may take some time to get use to, the film makes for a pleasant celebration of a beloved historical figure.