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Can't Stop the Movies

First Reformed (2018)

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The cold weather does little to encourage attendance at First Reformed church. Reverend Ernst Toller's dispassionate approach to his sermons provide little reason to stay. When one of his parishioners comes to Ernst with ecological concerns, Ernst begins an uneasy journey through what remains of his faith. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for and directs First Reformed, which stars Ethan Hawke.

"Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers."

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) offers the above line of cold comfort to Michael Mansana (Philip Ettinger) in the opening passages of Paul Schrader's First Reformed. Michael despairs over the condition of the planet, neatly presented with charts and factoids aplenty as the stunned Reverend listens. The difference between Michael and Ernst is Michael has reason to despair and Ernst is so mired in codependency he's latched on to Michael's despair as a way to build reliance on himself in a way religion failed to do so.

Ernst's codependency is a fascinating subject that receives little attention outside Schrader's specific aim - to show what happens when a Reverend meets an atheist and goes online for what seems to be the first time. This places First Reformed into broad cynicism, not informed despair, and shallow nature of Schrader's pessimistic screenplay gets no favors from Hawke's equal parts self-pitying and growling performance.  First Reformed is a bad film, one that continues Schrader's downward trend from The Canyons, and so thoroughly lacks in compelling attributes that I started to wonder how this man could also be responsible for Bringing Out the Dead and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.


Octopath Traveler (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

Octopath Traveler confuses redundancy for depth.  Its eight characters, each with their own prologue and four chapters of adventuring, are a collection of differing accents occupying what seem to be unique spaces until you progress just a bit into its far-too-long narrative.  Then the similarities become too apparent and I started to wonder why developers Square Enix (SE) and Acquire focused so heavily on stretching out the concept instead of delivering a smaller choice of tight stories.

They did a fine job crafting Octopath Traveler as I felt compelled to stop then take in the often gorgeous soundtrack and meticulously constructed environments (dubbed HD-2D as diorama is apparently too old-fashioned a word). But the total is akin to a finely fluffed pastry puff around a hollowed and dusty center.  Yet this is all by design, the absurdly named HD-2D gives the travelers a stage show feel though one offered through a dusty looking-glass.  Its aesthetic feeds into the distance, compounded by inter-party conversation where these travelers occupy separate spotlights and talk to one another over a wide gulf.


TSPDT 999: Oasis (2002)

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I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the bottom of the list, Lee Chang-dong's 2002 drama Oasis.

There's a turn of phrase I've gradually phased out of my writing repertoire when it comes to criticism, when the piece of art "makes a mistake it can't recover from".  This implies I know more than the makers of the piece of art, and also posits the mistake as some kind of disease or injury that the art merely needs to take some bed rest to overcome.  When I accepted the good and the bad aspects of all works of art are more intentional than not, I started to appreciate more films, songs, books, and so on.

That also means when a film takes as dreadful a turn as Oasis does, I have to take that as intentional.  What begins as a depressingly realistic depiction of mental illness and how sufferers are ostracized from friends and family becomes a terrible fantasy.  Oasis is the film where its protagonist rapes a woman with cerebral palsy.  This is the start of their romance.  That rape begets romance is one of the many ethical travesties committed in Lee Chang-dong's film.


The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Before The Room became a midnight sensation, Greg Sestero was one of many in an acting class dreaming of "making it".  Not all paths to the top are filled with inspired success, and Greg's journey meets its maker in the form of the perpetually greasy, eternally enthusiastic, and ethnically questionable Tommy Wiseau.  James Franco directs The Disaster Artist, with the screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and stars Dave Franco and James Franco.

The first oddity of James Franco's The Disaster Artist comes right at the end.  In split-screen, we watch how James' recreation stacks up against the bizarre-to-the-point-of-untouchable moments in Tommy Wiseau's The Room.  The weirdness comes from James' technically accurate reflections, not perfectly accurate as the odd cadence of Wiseau's film can't be intentionally recreated.  What few synapses that had the urge to fire moved my fingers to write, "Why is this?" in my notes before realizing I had spent the better part of an hour and a half writing only one other note "Dave Franco's getting into this."

My lack of notes in preparation for writing this review of The Disaster Artist might strike some of you as inattention from my part but - let me assure you - aside from that one burst of passion from Dave there was not a single moment of note in The Disaster Artist.  I might be the perfectly wrong person for this film as I've seen The Room more than once (once was enough but friends gotta introduce it to friends and there I was) and read Greg Sestero's entertaining account of The Room's making.  The trick to enduring The Room more than once is not watching it and occupying yourself during the many go-nowhere moments until the staggeringly terrible bits come up.  Those moments ("You're tearing me apart", complimenting a dog, etc.) expose Wiseau's psyche so nakedly that we tend to gloss over how boring the rest of The Room is.


Mute (2018)

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Leo silently wanders around Berlin, working his bartender position and stealing moments with his girlfriend.  After she disappears, Leo begins an investigation that will lead him into a conspiracy so complicated the participants barely understand their roles.  Duncan Jones wrote the screenplay for and directs Mute, and stars Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux.

Upfront - Mute is terrible.  Duncan Jones' return to science-fiction is arguably legendary in how bad it is.  There are so many threads of interest muddled because of poor acting, borderline incomprehensible dialogue, or pacing so glacial I could watch it to cool down in the summer.  That's before the homoerotic maybe murderers, maybe not, played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux manage to strike two entirely different nervy tones that are at odds with each other and the plodding pace of the rest of Mute.

...and yet.  It's not often a science-fiction film comes along that makes me think of John Cassavetes' infamously difficult 1976 film The Killing of a Chinese BookieMute shares that film's daring approach, practically betting that I wouldn't stay awake for the entirety of its length or stay engaged in this futuristic Amish noir-tinged science-fiction investigation.  Jones misfired with Mute but the extent of that misfire and what bits remain fascinating up until the end will fuel conversation for months to come.