Movies I’ve Recently Seen: First Reformed, Friendly Persuasion, Anna Karenina, & Now Voyager

I see a lot of films at festivals. I screen films that haven’t yet been released. I review classics on Blu-ray, and I revisit beloved films in series such as my current Chaplin Diary.

But sometimes, I just want to see a movie at home or, better yet, in a theater. Here’s my latest batch of movies I simply wanted to see:

First Reformed (2018), California (Berkeley)
First Reformed.jpg
In this very serious drama by Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke gives a great performance as a Christian reverend hit by multiple tests of faith. A congregant lives in total despair because of global warming. The big megachurch down the block (which owns his small, historical church) is bowing to big petrodollars. And the reverend has a serious drinking problem along with some frightening medical symptoms. (When someone pees red in a movie, it’s never because they’ve been eating beets.) The story seems a combination of Bergman’s Winter Light and Schrader’s own
breakthrough screenplay, Taxi Driver.

Cinematographer Alexander Dynan used short lenses for Hawke’s close-ups, making him look distorted and disturbed – an unusual but effective technique. The film is presented in the pre-widescreen 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

B+ Friendly Persuasion (1956), FilmStruck

William Wyler’s film about Quakers caught up in the Civil War starts out awful. How bad is it? The movie opens with a drearily corny love song sung by Pat Boone, followed by unfunny hijinks involving a mischievous goose. But slowly, the film gets better. There’s conflict between husband and wife (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire) over how strictly they should follow their religion. There are conflicts with non-Quakers. In the final act, the war marches up to their front porch, and the film comes close to greatness. They’re opposed to slavery, and they feel the need to protect their own farm, but they’re pacifists. The film offers no simple answers. Anthony Perkins plays the loving but rebellious son.

Anna Karenina (1935), Pacific Film Archive

Totstoy’s tragic story of love and adultery (which I haven’t read) gets the full MGM treatment, starting with an extremely opulent banquet, soon followed by an equally lavish ball. But the people inhabiting these extravagant sets lack the romantic/sexual charge that the story needs. Greta Garbo could certainly play overwhelming desire, but her scenes with co-star Frederic March feel pedestrian. You can’t believe she would leave not only her husband and her place in society, but also her beloved son for this bland officer. Basil Rathbone gives an excellent performance as her cuckolded husband, who worries more about his status than his family.

B- Now, Voyager (1942), FilmStruck

Bette Davis’ great performance makes this overlong soap opera bearable. Davis starts out almost unrecognizable as a plain-looking spinster under the thumb of a wealthy, snobbish, and evil mother. Then she finds herself, finds love, loses love, and repeats the process until the interesting story turns dull. The usually excellent Max Steiner overdoes the music. Paul Henreid plays the man she can’t have, even if they do share cigarettes.