Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

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Videophiled: Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’

TopFive
Paramount

Top Five (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is Chris Rock’s third film as a writer / director and his most personal. He plays a comedian named Andre Allen, once branded “the funniest man alive” for his electric stand-up act, who made a fortune in lowbrow comedies, bottomed out in alcohol, and wants to remake himself as a serious actor in his sobriety, which is hard to do when his upcoming marriage is little more than a reality TV stunt as far as his fiancée (Gabrielle Union) is concerned. It all plays out in an eventful 24 hours in NYC as a reporter (Rosario Dawson) tags along his errands and interviews on the opening day of his new film, a stiff of a well-meaning historical drama called “Uprize!,” and the day before his wedding, an affair more stage-managed than planned.

It’s very funny—Rock channels the uncensored language and subject matter of his stand-up act, which lands the film in decidedly R-rated territory—with a serious undercurrent. He’s a recovering alcoholic who’s afraid he’s no longer funny sober, with a career on life support and a marriage he now seems to dread. Dawson, one of the most underappreciated actresses around, matches Rock with confidence and intelligence as the journalist who pushes the comedian to be honest with her—and ultimately with himself.

It’s got an episodic structure, dotted with flashbacks (Cedric the Entertainer takes a starring role in “the lowest moment of his life”) and meetings with old friends (among them Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan) and comedy colleagues. Rock lets these moments reveal different dimensions of the man behind the persona, while generously letting them show off their chops. It’s a familiar structure that Rock juggles well and fills with sharp, smart, and often hilarious take on the mid-life crisis of an artist caught between public expectations, private ambitions and anxieties, and professional compromises and commitments. There’s a complex understanding of the business of entertainment and celebrity behind the comedy, and a smart character portrait behind the performance.

On DVD and Blu-ray, but only the Blu-ray comes with extras: commentary by Rock and co-star JB Smoove, the featurettes “It’s Never Just a Movie: Chris Rock and Top Five” and “The Making of Top Five,” the “Top Five” stand-up outtakes and “Moments You Didn’t See in the Film,” plus deleted scenes and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on Cable On Demand and VOD from Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Xbox.

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