First Reformed Movie Review

Writer/director Paul Schrader has never shied away from the subject of faith in his over four decades in cinema. It’s present in often invigorating ways in First Reformed, which restored my own in Schrader’s ability to surprise and confound us. Here the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ seems more focused than he has in some time. His recent filmography includes two unfortunate Nicolas Cage straight to VOD titles and the Lindsay Lohan bomb The Canyons. This is a return to form.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, who ministers at an upstate New York parish that bears the film’s title. The church is about to mark its 250th anniversary and holds great historical significance. However, there’s more people in attendance on field trips during the week than on Sunday morning. The Reverend is a loner (a frequent trait of Schrader’s subjects). Some of these reasons are tragic. He encouraged his son to enlist in Iraq, where he was killed. That loss ended his marriage. Toller is clearly experiencing serious health issues and he masks the pain with a bottle.

A sparsely attended service one day brings Toller in the presence of Michael (Philip Ettinger). He’s a hardcore environmental activist who was recently incarcerated for his protests. His wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant with their child (if that sounds like overt religious symbolism… you’re correct). Michael’s crisis of faith is questioning the validity of bringing a life into the world that he believes has precious time left. The Reverend offers platitudes, but is clearly not confident in his own reassurances.

This meeting ends up having a profound effect on the Reverend that veers into unexpected directions. His church is largely subsidized by an energy CEO (Michael Gaston) and a nearby mega church led by a pastor played by Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer in a change of pace role). His faith in them falters. Toller begins to espouse Michael’s beliefs in foreboding ways while establishing a strong connection with Mary. His mind’s journey is not dissimilar from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver.

Hawke is present in nearly every frame of First Reformed and it’s the kind of multi-layered part that most actors likely dream of. It’s his finest work to date. Schrader is not shy about mixing the themes of environmentalism and corporate greed with those of salvation and grief. This is not always a pleasant watch as we witness Toller’s descent into… well we’re never totally sure. Yet it’s often riveting to behold.

First Reformed fades to black with an ending open to interpretation. Like most everything preceding it, Schrader challenges the audience to reach their own conclusions about Toller. In a picture with these weighty themes, he deftly does so by not being overly preachy. That’s a testament to his power as a writer and we are witnesses again.

***1/2 (out of four)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again Box Office Prediction

Arriving just over 10 years to the day after its predecessor, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again dances into theaters next weekend, looking to be queen of the box office over other sequel competition. The 2008 original was based on a popular stage musical incorporating the music of Swedish super group ABBA and it turned into a behemoth at the multiplex. Returning cast members include Meryl Streep (in her first ever sequel), Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard, and Dominic Cooper. Newbies include Lily James, Andy Garcia, and Cher. Ol Parker takes over directorial duties from Phyllida Lloyd.

Mamma Mia! held the distinction of being the highest grossing live-action musical of all time until 2017’s Beauty and the Beast topped it. It opened to $27.7 million and legged out quite well to a $144 million domestic total. The worldwide haul was a fantastic $615 million. Ten years is a significant gap between sequels, but the fan base seems likely to turn out and there’s little else marketing an older and female crowd. Two others sequels debuting over the weekend – The Equalizer 2 and Unfriended: Dark Web – are going for different demographics.

It seems reasonable to me that Again could debut about 20% higher than the first and it remains to be seen if it holds as well as part 1 in subsequent weekends.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again opening weekend prediction: $33.5 million

For my The Equalizer 2 prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/07/10/the-equalizer-2-box-office-prediction/

For my Unfriended: Dark Web prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/07/11/unfriended-dark-web-box-office-prediction/

Oscar Watch: First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall and it opens domestically in limited fashion tomorrow. The drama casts Ethan Hawke as a pastor grieving the death of his son in Iraq who becomes politically active in various matters. Costars include Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer (who goes by Cedric Kyles in this particular case). Reviews out of Italy were encouraging and as more critical notices have come out in recent days, the picture now stands at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Schrader has had a decades long career that includes serving as screenwriter for classics like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directing features including American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and Affliction. Based on the buzz prior to its release tomorrow, Reformed stands as one of the filmmaker’s most acclaimed works.

Could Academy voters take notice? Distributor A24 certainly has it work cut out to keep it fresh in the minds of voters later this year. That said, praise has been effusive for Mr. Hawke and the studio could mount a strong campaign for him. If so, it would mark the actor’s second nomination after receiving a Supporting Actor nod in 2001 for Training Day.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Gringo Box Office Prediction

Gringo is action comedy laced with marijuana humor and it hits theaters next weekend. The film marks the directorial debut of Nash Edgerton (previously known for being a stunt coordinator). The cast includes David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Nash’s brother Joel Edgerton, Thandie Newton, Amanda Seyfried, Sharlto Copley, and the King of Pop’s daughter Paris Jackson.

Distributed by Amazon Studios and STX Entertainment, I’m having trouble envisioning much of an audience for it. The cast probably isn’t enough to get moviegoers too interested (save for maybe Theron) and the trailers and TV spots might not do enough to keep this from being a home viewing experience.

Gringo is rolling out on approximately 2400 screens (higher than I would have anticipated), but I’ll predict it struggles mightily to break through to American audiences.

Gringo opening weekend prediction: $3.1 million

For my A Wrinkle in Time prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/02/28/a-wrinkle-in-time-box-office-prediction/

For my The Hurricane Heist prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/03/01/the-hurricane-heist-box-office-prediction/

For my The Strangers: Prey at Night prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/02/28/the-strangers-prey-at-night/

Love the Coopers Box Office Prediction

The Christmas season hits the box office in mid November as the holiday themed  Love the Coopers opens next Friday. With an all-star cast including John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Anthony Mackie, June Squibb, Amanda Seyfried, and Alan Arkin, the family affair will look to cash in with audiences looking for some Xmas cheer.

Its prospects are a bit sketchy. Trailers and TV spots for Coopers have done little to make it look like another run of the mill big ensemble experience. Its best hope is to bring in a female audience looking for a diversion from James Bond, which should still be performing like gang busters in weekend #2.

That might be enough to help it reach double digits, though I don’t believe that’s guaranteed. I could actually see this debuting in line with The Family Stone, a similarly themed comedy which opened 10 years ago. Solid word of mouth could push it to perform in subsequent weekends yet that remains to be seen.

Love the Coopers opening weekend prediction: $11.3 million

For my The 33 prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2015/11/06/the-33-box-office-prediction/

For my My All-American prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2015/11/07/my-all-american-box-office-prediction/

Pan Box Office Prediction

Once touted as a summer blockbuster, Joe Wright’s Pan hits theaters next Friday and Warner Bros. may well have a costly flop on their hands. With a reported budget of $150 million, it’s very difficult to imagine this Peter Pan retelling coming anywhere close to grossing its budget stateside.

Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried and Levi Miller (as Peter) star with Wright behind the camera (he’s known most for dramas like Pride&Prejudice and Atonement). The pic was originally scheduled for release in June until the studio got cold feet about the increased competition in that season. The fall push back may not help much. Reviews haven’t been too kind and it currently sits at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There should be some family audience turnout but I’m skeptical this even manages $20 million for its debut, which would be considered highly disappointing considering the budget and well known source material.

Pan opening weekend prediction: $17.6 million

For my prediction on The Walk, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2015/10/02/the-walk-box-office-prediction/

Ted 2 Movie Review

Like many comedy sequels before it, Ted 2 often has a troubling time justifying its own existence. Seth MacFarlane’s follow-up to his wildly successful 2012 hit finds the director a bit more unshackled with choreographed musical numbers and more abundant political humor. This doesn’t achieve the effect of making this more funny. To go down a cliched road, Ted 2 is bearable but struggles a bit to come to life.

When we open, Ted is tying the knot with girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and things are going smoothly in the talking bear’s world. Not so much for Johnny (Mark Wahlberg), who’s down on his luck after divorcing Lori (Mila Kunis, who doesn’t appear). Within a year, Ted and Tami-Lynn are fighting and they figure a solution to their problems may be a baby. Since Ted is anatomically challenged in that area, adoption comes into play and after Tom Brady humorously rejects the notion of being a sperm donor, it’s left to Ted’s longtime friend. It all leads down a dangerous road where Ted is eventually deemed not to be a person by the state and this is where our main characters enlist new lawyer and pothead Sam (Amanda Seyfried) to help.

Ted 2 clumsily draws comparisons of Ted’s plight to that of gays and African Americans. We expect nothing less from MacFarlane than seriously un-PC comedy, yet these jokes fall flat more frequently than they hit. In fact, nearly everything here just simply cannot match the freshness of the original. Returning characters like the Ted obsessed Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sam Jones (Flash Gordon if you recall) aren’t granted moments as uproarious as we’ve seen before. Whereas the relationship of Johnny and Lori was a strength in Ted, the forced romance between Johnny and Sam adds little.

Even with all those negatives, like a middling Family Guy episode, there are genuine laughs to be had. Many are throwaway lines and sight gags and MacFarlane and his cowriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild are too talented not to have some of the material succeed. Certain celeb cameos work more than others – Liam Neeson’s is a trip. There’s also smile inducing references to 80s genre classics of the past including The Breakfast Club and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And Morgan Freeman (as a top civil rights lawyer) is put to decent use mainly due to his voice, as Ted aptly points out when they meet.

As I began though, the sequels that populate film comedy usually can’t match what made its predecessor special. That holds true here and its occasionally preachy overtones don’t help. Ted 2 made this big admirer of the original sometimes happy, but not enough to warrant its second life on the screen.

**1/2 (out of four)