Starring Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill
Challenging. Powerful. Thoughtful.
What exactly does God expect from men and women as stewards of the Earth? Reverend Toller (Hawke) asks himself this question after meeting a serious young man and environmentalist, Michael, written off by some as a lunatic. After Michael kills himself, Reverend Toller, in ill health and growing increasingly wary in his faith, picks up the mantle the young man left. Toller also develops feelings for the young man’s widow, Mary (Seyfried), as the 250th anniversary of his church, First Reformed, approaches. Provocative material aside, Toller’s struggles and inner monologues represented by his daily journal entries are compelling and relatable, making his unraveling, or enlightenment, in the end powerful. First Reformed is a painful viewing, so unlike most “faith based” films designed to give a message, wrap up, and leave the audience feeling comfortable. First Reformed, raises difficult questions, makes us uncomfortable, resolves nothing, and leaves us to think. Ethan Hawke is superlative, and his character’s quiet intensity, personal demons, and passion make him a sort of battered, beaten down hero by the end.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-
Starring Harriet Andersson, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Lars Passgård
One long, revealing day on a remote island unfolds for Karin (Andersson), suffering from schizophrenia, her father, David (Björnstrand), sexually frustrated brother, Minus (Passgård), and embattled husband, Martin (Von Sydow). Dense with themes of God’s existence, incest, family turmoil, and mental illness, this chamber play grows bloated with symbolism and opaque dialogue. It’s a style many value as Bergman is renowned, but I can’t stand it. The acting is strong, the visuals are striking, but I have no heart for Through a Glass Darkly, and it doesn’t appeal to me thematically. Talkative. Leaden. Dreary.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller
A young girl, Regan (Blair), raised by her single mother, Chris (Burstyn), plays with a Ouija board. Not long after, Chris sees dramatic, inexplicable, terrifying changes in her once innocent daughter. Exhausting all other resources, Chris eventually turns to Father Damien (Miller), a priest and doctor working through spiritual doubt in his own life. Finding Regan to be possessed, Father Damien and a more experienced priest, Father Merrin (Von Sydow) set about her exorcism. An early standard bearer of the genre, many of its tactics have been borrowed across dozens of horror flicks, but rarely used as effectively as they are here. The Exorcist, aside from being genuinely thrilling and affecting, is an impeccably made film. From pacing to acting to its notorious special effects, the film remains an impressive horror classic. Beyond the evil and the fear of demons, the film is rooted in the horror of watching these terrible things happen to a little girl, and watching a loving mother at a loss to help her daughter.
Starring Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal, Margarita Lozano, Lola Gaos
Subversive drama about an aspiring nun, Viridiana, on a final familial visit before she takes her vows. A tragedy follows, and Viridiana responds by becoming nearly a saint figure. She takes in a group of vagrants, as her proud and handsome cousin moves in. Subtly transgressive, striking in its imagery (the beautiful Pinal, the repulsive vagrants), provocative, funny, bleak. There’s much left to interpretation, but this was the first Buñuel film that’s iconoclastic imagery mixed with what I found to be a compelling narrative.
Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal, Enrique Álvarez Félix
The least inflammatory of Bunuel’s trilogy, Simon of the Desert follows Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962) in its illusory approach to religious themes. In this one, a devout figure named Simon spends his days and nights atop a pillar in the desert besieged by onlookers and frequent visits from Satan, here in the form of an attractive woman. Bunuel, an acclaimed surrealist, uses the premise for a series of unspectacular imagery to my mind. The proceedings, while mercifully short, are too austere and uninspired. There’s no new approach to the material. It mostly symbols we’ve seen before. That is, until the ending, which I won’t ruin, but salvages the film to a degree with its strangeness.
Voices of Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Jason Alexander, David Ogden Stiers
Victor Hugo’s classic novel about hypocrisy, lust, sin, guilt, good versus evil, superficiality, mob mentality, and God makes for odd source material for an animated Disney flick. Quasimoto, born deformed and orphaned by the cruel Judge Claude Frollo, lives atop the famed Parisian cathedral, out of sight of fellow Parisians, but not left out of rumors. He, along with two other men-Captain Phoebus and Frollo-fall in love with a travelling Gypsy, Esmerelda, and the plot is set in motion that leads to Disney’s most thematic film ever. Naturally there had to be many changes and compromises from the original text, but Disney’s Hunchback remains remarkably dark; a powerful film with great music from Alan Menken and beautiful traditional animation.
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney
Ed and Lorraine Warren return to help a working class British family against a real or created demonic presence, mid ’70s. Not as surprising or inspired as its predecessor, this horror sequel nonetheless delivers on thrills and expert filmmaking, from the acting to the careful pacing or the modest use of jump scares; it’s all very well-executed.