In Theaters

The weight of the world is quite a load for anyone to carry, even those who believe they’re best equipped to do so. Holding up under such circumstances can easily be more than one can bear, but some take up the challenge anyway. Why? That’s a key question for a beleaguered protagonist in the gripping new drama, “First Reformed” (web site, trailer).

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), somewhat ironically, is a troubled soul. As a former military academy chaplain who has suffered a number of personal tragedies and a crisis of conscience, he’s been assigned to what would seem to be a soothing, less stressful post – overseeing the operations of the First Reformed Church, a historic parish in Upstate New York. Established in 1767, his church has a long and celebrated history, but today it has fallen on hard times. The parish has become more of a tourist destination than an active fellowship, and its paltry congregation is too small to support the ongoing monetary needs of the church. To stay afloat, First Reformed’s finances are propped up by sales of souvenirs and the generous bankrolling of the nearby Abundant Life megachurch, a facility run by one of Toller’s few friends and confidantes, the charismatic Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer). Toller sees the necessity of these measures, but he dislikes the commercialism of a church hawking tee shirts, and he’s uncomfortable continually accepting charity.

Pastor Toller’s woes don’t end with his past and the troubles of his parish, either. His health has been giving him problems, and he’s slowly losing a battle with the bottle. He’s also uneasy with the fallout from his brief romance with Esther (Victoria Hill), a kind but incredibly clingy parishioner. Their affair apparently ended awkwardly, and she’s unwilling to let go of it. All told, it’s quite a full plate.

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) wrestles with a bundle of personal issues in the intense new drama, “First Reformed.” Photo courtesy of A24.

As a scholarly, thoughtful sort, Toller spends many hours in study, particularly the works of authors like monk Thomas Merton, looking for the answers that perpetually seem to elude him. He also keeps a journal to sort out his thoughts, passages of which are read as voiceover narrations. However, these attempts at grounding himself offer little solace or insight, arguably making things even worse. As time passes, he seems to sink further and further into the depths of despair, both for himself and in his perspectives on the state of the world.

Those feelings become exacerbated when Toller is approached by one of the members of his congregation, Mary (Amanda Seyfriend), who asks him if he’d be willing to help counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). As a somewhat overzealous environmental activist who was recently released from a Canadian prison for compassionate reasons (Mary is pregnant), Michael is severely depressed about the future of the planet and has serious reservations about bringing a child into a world whose ecological prospects look increasingly bleak. He believes that ending the pregnancy could be the best course.

Being the compassionate soul that he is, and despite the weight of his own personal challenges, Pastor Toller agrees to speak with Michael. He offers what uplifting guidance he can, drawing from both scripture and personal experience, but he finds that the arguments Michael raises to defend his perspective are difficult to counter. In fact, the Reverend even begins to sympathize with his troubled parishioner’s position. He comes to see the perils associated with environmental degradation, and it reminds him of Biblical passages that call upon humanity to be dutiful stewards of the earth, caretakers of God’s creation, a task at which he, like Michael, increasingly believes we’re failing – and miserably.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young mother-to-be, seeks counseling for her troubled husband from an equally troubled pastor in writer-director Paul Schrader’s gripping new drama, “First Reformed.” Photo courtesy of A24.

While the Pastor’s emerging environmental sensibility only adds to his despondent state, he nevertheless appears to be going through a personal evolution, one in which he seems more willing to address practical secular matters rather than staying trapped in the realm of purely lofty philosophical issues. He takes steps in which he rejoins the world. And, even though his focus is almost exclusively on the negative, his evolving attitude nevertheless represents a fundamental change in outlook, one that increasingly prompts him to take a stand by taking decisive action, especially where the environment is concerned. That urge is further energized when he learns that one of the largest donors to Abundant Life (and, by extension, to First Reformed) is also one of the worst polluters on the planet.

Others can see the pain he’s going through. Esther offers him comfort that he routinely rejects. Pastor Jeffers tries counseling him as well, observing that Pastor Toller spends “too much time in the garden,” suggesting that he’s trying to take on even more of the weight of the world than Jesus did. Even the joy that the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of First Reformed’s consecration should engender does little to raise his spirits. Those who genuinely care about his well-being try to convince him that there’s nothing wrong with being happy in life and that actively seeking it out is part of our fundamental human nature, but these suggestions tend to fall on deaf ears. The only one who seems able to successfully reach out to the troubled pastor is Mary. But is her encouragement enough? And will he get the message?

There’s quite obviously much to consider in this offering. “First Reformed” presents a captivating examination of the difference between being in the world or apart from it, regardless of whether we’re devoted spiritual practitioners or principally secular beings. It explores the meaning of despair, the search for happiness, and the need to strike a balance between our sacred and worldly lives. It probes our prevailing core outlooks, whether we choose to see the glass as half full or half empty (or, in even more extreme terms, completely full or completely empty). And, of course, it asks us to examine our faith, not only in our divine connection, but also that of it in ourselves and in our fellow man.

Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), the charismatic head of a megachurch, tries to offer help to a troubled peer in “First Reformed.” Photo courtesy of A24.

While some elements of the picture are a little dragged out (likely intentionally to convey to viewers the burden the protagonist is saddled with), much of the film sizzles with an underlying intensity that you can feel in your gut as the story unfolds. As Toller’s story plays out, we can empathize with the dark night of the soul issues he wrestles with, so much so that it almost feels as if we’re being dragged along for the ride (and a rather uncomfortable one at that). With what is undoubtedly Ethan Hawke’s best screen performance, a surprisingly strong portrayal by Cedric Kyles in a dramatic role and phenomenal atmospheric cinematography, writer-director Paul Schrader has put together a film that gives us all much to contemplate, as well as emotional impressions, both haunting and uplifting, that will stay with us long after we leave the theater. This is handily one of the best releases of 2018 thus far.

When faced with the kinds of choices posed in this film, we’re reminded of the importance of our power of free will. It’s one of our most precious birthrights. Yet it’s of little value to us if we fail to make use of it. Retaining sight of it is crucial, especially at those times when we face moments of personal crisis. We can choose to languish in the depths of despair or to aspire to something more elevated. Let’s hope we have the insight to see the difference and make the right choice.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Four Shades of Gray

As the years pass by, it can be easy to let our lives (and ourselves) slide. Those of us who have attained a certain age may unwittingly fall into the trap of believing that the best years are behind us, that the joys of our youth and young adulthood are no longer available or take too much effort to recapture. This is especially true when it comes to our love lives. But is that really the case? It might take a little initiative to get back what’s been lost, but it is indeed possible – and worth it – as a quartet of seniors discover for themselves in the new romantic comedy, “Book Club” (web site, trailer).

Longtime friends Diane (Diane Keaton, left), Sharon (Candice Bergen, second from left), Vivian (Jane Fonda, second from right) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen, right) get together every month to enjoy great works of literature, such as E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, in the new romantic comedy, “Book Club.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

When four friends form a book club, who thought they’d still be meeting 40 years later? But so it is with Diane (Diane Keaton), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Carol (Mary Steenburgen) and Vivian (Jane Fonda). The vibrant, spry seniors are all going strong in their lives except in one very important area – the romance department. But, then, each of them has her own challenges:

  • Diane was married for decades and became the proud mother of two (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton). But, with the death of her husband a year ago, she now faces a somewhat uncertain future. Her overprotective daughters want her to relocate from her home in southern California to a retirement community near them in Arizona, but she has reservations about leaving her friends behind. And, even though she’s available again, dating is the last thing on her mind.
  • Sharon was happily married (or so she thought) for many years. But, when her husband, Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), left her for a younger woman (Mircea Monroe), Sharon’s love life came to an abrupt halt. Even though she got divorced and felt nothing but animosity toward her ex, she couldn’t get past her anger and refused to move forward, a struggle that’s been going on for 20 years. She threw herself into her work as a federal judge and never gave romance a second thought.

Diane (Diane Keaton, left), widowed after a long marriage, rediscovers the joys of dating when she meets a sexy pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia, right), in the new romantic comedy, “Book Club.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

  • As the owner of a successful upscale restaurant, Carol loves her work. She also loves her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who recently retired. With more free time to spend with one another, she had great hopes for their relationship. That expectation hasn’t panned out, however, as things have turned rather humdrum, especially in the bedroom. Carol drops more than her share of hints about spicing up their love life, but Bruce is either unaware or uninterested in her advances. What’s a frisky wife to do?
  • Free-spirited Vivian has always been hard to pin down, especially where relationships are concerned. As a successful hotelier, she’s been far too focused on building her career and business to think about getting involved. She even turned down a proposal from an old flame, Arthur (Don Johnson). Her attitude didn’t keep her from having a robust sex life, but she never saw herself as the marrying type. However, now that she’s getting on in years, does she still want to be on her own, unhindered but nevertheless alone?

Successful hotelier Vivian (Jane Fonda, right) rekindles her romance with an old flame, Arthur (Don Johnson, left), in filmmaker Bill Holderman’s directorial debut, “Book Club.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Realizing these predicaments, Vivian decides to do something about it. When it’s her turn to choose a book for the club to read, she decides to spice things up by selecting Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. If that saucy tale of sexual escapades doesn’t get the girls stoked up once again, she reasons, nothing will.

When Vivian announces her selection at a club meeting, her cohorts resist the idea. Given the book’s tawdry reputation and the respectable selection of titles they’ve read over the years, the other club members can’t see themselves perusing the pages of something as pulpy as the steamy best-seller. But, after they begin reading, they become unexpectedly captivated. What’s more, they find themselves inspired, prompting them to begin acting on their impulses – and their hormones – to get funky once again:

  • Through a chance meeting on a flight to visit her daughters, Diane befriends a sexy pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Before long, she gets to find out just how friendly the skies can be.
  • After working up the nerve to try her hand at online dating, Sharon launches into an unexpectedly frisky relationship with a tax attorney, George (Richard Dreyfuss). In no time she’s banging things other than her gavel.

Restaurateur Carol (Mary Steenburgen, left) looks for ways to spice up her love life with her recently retired husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson, right), in the new romantic comedy, “Book Club.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

  • With a little trial and error, Carol finds ways to perk up her husband. Her timing isn’t always the most opportune, but she gets results that get noticed (even if they’re noticed by the wrong parties).
  • And, much to her surprise, Vivian find herself on the verge of getting serious about someone – Arthur, whom she runs into unexpectedly in the lobby of her hotel. Will she rediscover what she passed up years ago?

In a world that worships youthfulness and all too readily shuttles the mature set out to pasture, it’s refreshing to see a story like this. It celebrates aging and demonstrates that it needn’t be looked upon as a time of life characterized by bland food, mahjong tournaments and lonely evenings in front of the TV with the volume turned up high. It truly can mean a fresh start, one full of vibrancy, engagement and maybe even a little naughty behavior. Indeed, this film shows that it’s never too late to have fun and enjoy life, no matter what ad agencies, social media and allegedly in-the-know trend influencers might say.

Divorcee Sharon (Candice Bergen, right) takes a chance on romance with George (Richard Dreyfuss, left) thanks to an online dating site in “Book Club.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Put simply, “Book Club” is a real joy. What a treat it is to see a quartet of veteran performers doing what they do best and quite obviously enjoying themselves at it! This light, frothy, albeit somewhat predictable chick flick for the mature set clearly has its heart in the right place and hits the right notes most of the time. Granted, some of the jokes don’t land as solidly as they could, particularly in the first 30 minutes, and some of the humor is a little on the trite side. But, all things considered, this is still one fine diversion, full of fun, full of spirit and full of life, especially for those who can appreciate where its protagonists are coming from and are in need of a few good laughs.

As the years pile up, it’s all too convenient – and perhaps even a little tempting – to grow complacent and settled, stuck in a rut of our own making. We can slip into it so casually that we might not even realize we’ve done so until we’re in the throes of it. But the examples in this film show what it means to come alive again, to rejoin those who enjoy life. And to think it can all start with something as simple as picking up a book – or watching a movie. 

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Preserving a Legacy

Director Stanley Kubrick is arguably one of the most brilliant filmmakers who ever lived. Though he wasn’t particularly prolific and his productions came more sporadically in his later years, he nevertheless was responsible for such classics as “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and his groundbreaking masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), which was recently re-released in a beautifully restored, 50th anniversary edition. But, as skilled an auteur as Kubrick was, much of his repertoire never would have come into being in its magnificence were it not for the efforts of his right-hand man, a tireless jack of all trades who proved to be the man behind the man, the subject of the fascinating new documentary, “Filmworker” (web site, trailer).

In 1968, aspiring English actor Leon Vitali went to see Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”; he was captivated. Three years later, he screened “A Clockwork Orange”; he was captivated again. From that point forward, Vitali vowed that one day he would somehow join forces with the iconic filmmaker. And, after several years of working in British television shows and several films, he auditioned for the part of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” a role he landed, much to the young actor’s surprise.

With a likeness of his collaborator, director Stanley Kubrick, at his side, longtime production assistant Leon Vitali explains the many roles he played in helping bring the filmmaker’s pictures to life in the riveting new documentary, “Filmworker.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

While on the set of “Lyndon,” Vitali became fascinated with all of the equipment, technology and expertise that went into the making of a film of this magnitude – so much so that he wanted to learn more about it. He asked Kubrick if he could watch the film editing process, perhaps become involved in it, even for no pay, just so he could learn the ropes, a request to which the director agreed. And, once Vitali got a taste of the behind-the-scenes work, he was hooked. He was convinced that he wanted to change tracks, leaving acting behind for the technical side of filmmaking, a bold move for someone whose onscreen career was just beginning to crest.

After gaining some valuable experience on the Swedish-Irish production “Terror of Frankenstein” (1977), Vitali approached Kubrick to see if there was a place for him on the director’s upcoming new production, “The Shining.” Again, much to Vitali’s surprise, Kubrick assigned him the crucially important task of casting a child actor to play Danny, one of the picture’s principal characters. After screening more than 4,000 hopefuls, Vitali successfully cast unknown Danny Lloyd to play the part, a decision that pleased Kubrick. And, with that accomplishment, Vitali fell into the good graces of the director, becoming his personal assistant, a role he would play for years to come.

As director Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant, Leon Vitali (center) did everything from checking the color of the film to playing small onscreen roles, as in this scene from the director’s final picture, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), as seen in the new documentary, “Filmworker.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Over the years, Vitali would work on Kubrick’s subsequent films, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” And, with the rise of home entertainment viewing options in the 1980s, he would also play in an important role in the conversion and restoration work involved in readying Kubrick’s early pictures for videotape adaptation. In all of these projects, this included not only the English language editions with which most viewers are familiar, but also all of the many foreign language versions released around the world, an immense project given the scope of distribution involved.

In doing this work, Vitali did whatever Kubrick asked of him, which often involved tasks in which he had no experience. Vitali would wonder how he could get them done and even expressed his hesitation to his boss. But, on some level, Kubrick knew Vitali was up to the challenge. He saw talents in his assistant that he didn’t recognize. In his encouragement, Kubrick would simply tell him, “You know how” or “You’ll figure it out.” And, for his part, Vitali always did.

Vitali’s tasks covered many areas, including everything from checking the color of the film to reviewing the marketing materials to even appearing onscreen in small roles and as an extra, as he did in “Eyes Wide Shut.” The demands were sometimes great, given the volume of work and Kubrick’s relentless penchant for perfectionism in all he did (and in all he expected from his production crews). Nevertheless, Vitali always rose to the occasion.

Production assistant Leon Vitali (left) assists director Stanley Kubrick (center) and actor Jack Nicholson (right) during the shooting of “The Shining” (1980), as seen in director Tony Zierra’s new documentary, “Filmworker.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Some might wonder why someone would be so willing to give so much under circumstances such as this. As Vitali explains, Kubrick could be quite kind and generous, but he could also be an authoritarian taskmaster. However, considering what resulted from their collaborative efforts, Vitali has no regrets. His many contributions have gone into the creation and preservation of one of filmdom’s greatest legacies. And, through “Filmworker,” director Tony Zierra has finally given Vitali his due, at last recognizing the part he has played in bringing these movies to life.

In watching this film, viewers have an opportunity to learn what it means to be part of something great, to participate in enlivening the creative vision of a master. The sense of loyalty, dedication and sacrifice that went into this work is abundantly apparent, clearly illustrating the protagonist’s passion for the work and in realizing the finished result. Anyone who has ever undertaken any effort of a tremendous magnitude can certainly appreciate what Vitali went through – and the fulfillment that comes through when the work is successfully accomplished.

On the set of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), the director’s personal assistant, Leon Vitali, has long played a role in the preservation of the filmmaker’s cinematic library, including this groundbreaking work, as explained in the captivating new documentary, “Filmworker.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

“Filmworker” offers viewers a fascinating look at a fascinating collaboration, with ample behind-the-scenes archive production footage and numerous clips from the films in question. Intercut with this material are interview segments featuring Vitali, fellow production crew members, film industry executives, behind-the-scene peers and numerous actors from several of Kubrick’s films (Ryan O’Neal (“Barry Lyndon”), Danny Lloyd (“The Shining”), Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Tim Colceri (“Full Metal Jacket”), Marie Richardson (“Eyes Wide Shut”)). The archive and film clip segments feature a variety of luminaries as well, including Kubrick and actors Keir Dullea, Malcolm MacDowell, Marisa Berenson, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Tom Cruise. These elements combine to create a moving and riveting documentary that’s sure to have widespread appeal but will utterly enthrall film buffs and fans of Kubrick’s work.

Leon Vitali may not be a household name, but his contributions to the world of film are incalculable. This film attempts to make up for that long-ignored contribution, showing the impact one man had on a treasure trove of celluloid classics. Movie fans the world over should be grateful for his efforts, and perhaps the best way they can honor him is by going to see this film. You won’t regret it.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Inspiration and the Silver Screen

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new magazine article, “Inspiring Lessons from the Silver Screen,” found in the latest issue of Up Words magazine. Find out how to access the entire issue at the publication’s Facebook page, available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.