FIRST REFORMED (2018, Paul Schrader)
I saw this 11 days ago and have been chewing on it ever since. It feels like a roulette ball tossed around the wheel without being able to settle down into a number. Nevertheless, as it spins, my personal life has involved a confrontation with death so I’ll jot down a few thoughts about human suffering and this movie, even though the ball keeps whirring through space.
The rigid 4:3 aspect ratio is being rightly praised, as it does everything IDA tried and failed to do. That film was so self-consciously composed and left so much headroom (for God?) that rarely a shot went by that didn’t call attention to itself; Schrader’s more confident work, on the other hand, is more subtle in its boxing-in of the characters, and uses spare camera movement to great emotional effect. Also, as a meditation on faith and the inability of organized religion to appropriately deal with the Camusian sickness of the human condition, it blows IDA out of the water — the characters here are on a collision course with a day of reckoning, and only time can get in the way of the inevitable.
Hawke plays his Ernst Toller with a passion and conviction matched only by Schrader himself, and that sincerity, single-mindedness, and devotion goes a long way towards pacifying the inherent flaws in the narrative and basic unease of the milieu. It’s never slow, always moves, but goes nowhere good. And it says a lot about the formal design and the acting talent that this is an easy sit despite its weighty, lugubrious subject matter. Hell may be other people, according to Sartre, but being alone is no picnic either.
HEREDITARY (2018, Ari Aster)
After some brief obituary text, it opens on a shot of a dollhouse and moves in to fuse live action into one of the bedrooms. That artificiality seeps into the rest of the movie and the result is a thrice-removed distance so impenetrable that even the upsetting, creepy horror imagery fails to land. Even if you love a good scare or Mike Flanagan-style unsettling dread (OCULUS wipes the floor with this), you’ll be disappointed by just how inert this becomes.
Heavily burdened by its own philosophy about free will vs. inherited traits (an early classroom scene spells it out in painfully obvious terms), Aster’s film debut is an obnoxiously showy piece of theater, despite some clever ideas. Take the dollhouse metaphors (Collette is an artist specializing in turning her own trauma into gallery-ready miniatures) and ladle it with ostentatious pans and tilts demonstrating Camerawork, added to characters who are mostly chess pieces, and you have a work that is constantly shouting at you that it’s a Movie, and as such it’s impossible to lose yourself in the story and become involved in its satanic supernatural horror.
We’ve seen plenty of fright flicks focused on family, and many of them work — but this is a family incredibly difficult to identify with in any way. Collette and Byrne appear to have just met each other last Thursday (and she might be wondering why this 70 year-old has two teenage kids with her), and while she’s reliably great (often the case), he’s lifeless and annoyed. Then there’s Alex Wolff as Peter, forced to carry a huge load (a good chunk of this bloated 2-plus-hour runtime is spent on close-ups of Wolff’s aghast face) and can’t carry through. He’s a bad enough actor, and the character lacks enough of an interior, that the distance is even worse. You won’t care about him or anyone else in the family that much, so the effect of watching this is that of an entomologist staring at bugs crawling around in a jar. Plus, even the attempts at comedy (and there are a few big, intentional jokes) ring hollow because they’re shoehorned into such serious, weighty generational angst. This a morose, arrogant debut that isn’t devoid of isolated pleasures, but the sum of its parts is so phony that nothing will get under your skin.
SOLO (2018, Ron Howard)
An exhausted, hurried, ugly, half-assed shrug from a franchise that had finally come into its own with three of its four best entries released in a 2-year span. THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE, and THE LAST JEDI were all inspired and idiosyncratic. This creaky, cornball place-holder is the opposite: formulaic, clichéd, and carrying no distinguishing vision or creative idea.
You can’t help but wonder what the JUMP STREET guys would have done with full control of this material (for the 7 people left on Earth who don’t know, Lord & Miller were fired off the project and Howard was brought in like a company-man consultant to wipe the movie clean of personality and deliver a product on time and within budget). A few lines peek out from the smothering blanket of crap (“That’s a rock! And you were just making a clicking sound with your mouth!”) indicating that a funny, satirical Western was the initial intent, but most of the jokes that remain are grossly ancient and waft through the theater like a fart that won’t die.
Pre-production did its job — Ehrenreich, Harrelson, and Glover are all fine actors with the ability to make a stamp, but the only characters who come to life are, ironically, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid L3 and the always-reliable Chewbacca. Harrelson is particularly disappointing; he’s an actor who usually elevates material, whereas in this he couldn’t be less interested in anything going on. Hard to explain why he showed up for WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES but sleep-walked through this. Glover is likable but the script seems too concerned with winking Lando in-jokes and handcuffing him to a mythology. (Not to mention he’s the center of two annoyingly predictable poker [yes, I know it’s not poker, but it’s poker] scenes with all the requisite slowrolls, string raises, and cold-decks that are depressingly de rigueur).
If it isn’t going to be about anything (STAR WARS movies rarely are), at least make it entertaining and fun to look at. Bradford Young’s photography looks like dark grey toilet water covering old magazine photos. It’s so dark I had to ask the theater manager to confirm they didn’t leave the 3-D filter on the projector for this 2-D presentation (she said they didn’t). It’s a colorless slog, blurring out incoherent action and dimming any chance at seeing the forgettable monsters and aliens on display. The fight scenes are pre-determined and suspenseless. The plot is an entire act too long. It’s a sad and greedy reminder that, like with Marvel films, this franchise has a ceiling of goodness but a floor that can sink to PHANTOM MENACE-depths of garbage, embodying the soulless, quality-indifferent cynicism that Hollywood’s sharpest critics accuse the studio system of far-too-often succumbing to.