Movie Night: First Reformed

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

A minister of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.

We had just finished watching Gattaca (a truly world-class movie) when we came across First Reformed on the iTunes New & Noteworthy section, and thought to give it a try – more because of Ethan Hawke than anything else.

I will say Ethan Hawke seems to truly dedicate himself to whatever role he takes.

The plot – such as it is – centers around a middle-aged minister of a fading congregation whose son was killed in Afghanistan (or Iraq – I can’t remember). Whilst he tries to comfort and help the few remaining members of his flock, he clearly is battling an almost unbearable inner despair – something that becomes painfully evident as he fails to reach the people he tries to help.

First Reformed is really more of a character study on depression and the loss of faith, and the events that take place are at once surreal and hauntingly believable. When Ethan Hawke’s character, Minister Toller, comes across a suicide vest in the belongings of one of his congregation, he doesn’t report it – he takes it. Combined with the stark contrast between his own poorly-attended worship and the wildly successful for-profit church in the neighboring town, and things take – as you can imagine – a nasty turn for the worse.

The final few scenes are nail-bitingly intense, and equally bizarre – suffice to say bombs, churches and barbed wire are involved. This isn’t a happy film, but it subtly underplayed by the entire cast to great effect. You truly believe the emotional rollercoaster of every character, even if you don’t particularly like any of them; the person I felt sorry for the most was ultimately Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, who really didn’t deserve the punishment inflicted on her by Ethan Hawke’s misery and rage.

Sad, despondent and dark.

6/10 would watch again.

Movie Night: The Lobster

Year: 2015
Genre: Black Comedy … ?
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden

In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.

There is very little lobster in The Lobster. In fact, I don’t think there was one at all.

This film carries with it the dubious accolade of being one of the most bizarre movies I’ve watched in recent years. I read the above description before watching it, and I’m not sure whether I should or shouldn’t have; it certainly helps explain a lot of the exposition, but there’s a sense of utterly nonsensical mystery that stems from not knowing the premise from the outset.

The Lobster bears many of the hallmarks of an indie film trying its best to not fit into any particular genre; billed as a black comedy, there were moments I laughed perhaps only because I thought it was meant to be funny, and not because it actually was. In fact, there were more scenes I found outright disturbing than I found funny. It’s interesting, as these are some of the same comments aimed at my alter-ego young adult novel, 22 Scars – that it tries almost too hard to be edgy, at the expense of plot and character clarity.

For example, very few characters are named, and only when necessary; even Rachel Weisz is known only as the short-sighted woman. Another key character is referred to throughout the film as the heartless woman. There are no place names – only The Hotel and The City – and even when these settings are abandoned for the wild woods, there is very little reference to anything grounded in reality.

In fact, the very premise – that single adults are transformed into animals if they fail to find a partner in 45 days – becomes something of a MacGuffin to the themes of love and lust. The point of the movie – if there even is one – is tenuously that love can’t be forced, but can be found in the strangest of places. To this end, it hardly matters that the threat hanging over the characters’ heads is transfiguration – it could have been death or exile, for all it matters – but rather that there simply be some impetus for the characters to connect with each other in a context where they have very little other reason to.

In the end, there are enough bizarre moments to elicit a kind of disbelieving guffaw – in some ways, a funnier film than Crazy Rich Asians, which we had watched earlier in the day – but they are overshadowed by the wide brushstrokes of disturbing insanity, including a woman jumping from a window and breaking her neck but not dying, and a frankly cringe-inducing final scene. I would hardly label The Lobster as a comedy – black or otherwise – but perhaps closer to an essay on love; a kind of parable for a society that praises social relationships for their appearance rather than their substance.

Either way, The Lobster is a film that I would recommend only to those who have the nerve to stomach some truly troubling material, and despite that recommendation, hardly one I would watch again any time soon. As one of my friends put it, there were multiple moments throughout where I asked myself why I was still watching it at all.

4/10 would watch again.

Movie Night: Ingrid Goes West

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.

An unhinged social media stalker moves to LA and insinuates herself into the life of an Instagram star.

When I first saw previews for Ingrid Goes West, I was both intrigued and put off; it wasn’t clear what kind of movie it was supposed to be, and whilst I was attracted to the idea of Aubrey Plaza, who I knew from The Little Hours, playing a somewhat deranged stalker, the whole concept of of sunny LA Instagram star-based pop culture references was somewhat disenchanting.

In the end, I’m glad I ended up watching it with Mrs. Satis, because that isn’t really what it’s about. Instead, it’s really about the psychological addition to technology, and the false personas we create when hiding behind the anonymity of online forums.

This is perhaps where things goes spectacularly right – and terribly wrong. Ingrid Goes West‘s biggest asset is also its greatest flaw, and that’s its timeliness. Set in 2017, it really couldn’t be any more 2017 if it tried, and whilst highly topical, it’s immediately dated as well. Ingrid uses an iPhone 6s Plus, which is already three years out of date, and whilst there is an in-story explanation for this, it also points to the film’s era – which will be out of date by the time you read this review.

The acting is, if not Oscar-worthy, perfect for the story and the cast; Plaza’s titular Ingrid is at its best a cringe-inducing, awkward social mess, unable to communicate outside of social media and obsessed – dangerously so – with people who give her even a modicum of attention. Olsen’s Taylor Sloane is, whilst well-played, somewhat more two-dimensional – despite this being exactly the point of the character. The supporting cast are never superfluous, even at their extremes (Billy Magnussen’s character Nicky could ostensibly be autistic, but then becomes simply sinister), but their behaviors border on the unbelievable, especially toward the end.

Speaking of the ending, it left me wanting from a moral message point of view. We watch the downfall of a socially inept twenty-something as she is one-by-one ostracized by everyone she attached herself to, and (spoiler) witness her livestream an attempted suicide. And whilst the story naturally wanted to leave us with some hope, the result is internet fame – by the time she wakes up in hospital she discovers her post as trended, and millions of people are now fans, supporting her and giving her the love and attention she always dreamed of.

To me, this is simply a poor note to end on. The insinuation is that suicide – even as a cry for help – is a justifiable action so long as it gets you what you want. And for Ingrid, it does. I’d have rather seen her saved by her would-be boyfriend but without the infamy of a viral livestream; it would have shown her that there are real people in the world who care for her, without pandering to the idea that our lives only mean something if people watch it.

In the end, though, I was satisfied by the mental anguish and drama portrayed, and the fact that it does at least attempt to show that online infatuation is not the same as real-life love. Ingrid Goes West is certainly no comedy, and at its best serves a role in highlighting the difficulty in blending the real and online worlds we immerse ourselves in daily.

8/10 would watch again.