Suspiria – Film Review

The 1977 original Suspiria is hailed as a horror classic.  I think it’s outdated, disengaging and dull, however I was very keen to see the new reimagining of the story, for three reasons.  The first being because it’s directed by Luca Guadagnino, who due to his last film Call Me by Your Name, is now one of my favourite people working.  The second reason being Dakota Johnson, who is stunning in everything she pops up in, and deserves more credit on screen.  And the third reason being that the film has been marketed incredibly well, and since the first trailer I’ve been excited for its release.  The film on a basic level is about Susie Bannion (Johnson), an American who travels to Berlin to audition for an esteemed contemporary dance troop.  She gets in, because it’s clear that she’s a bit of a prodigy, and quickly she becomes the centre of the school, a school that is run by witches.   


Where to even begin with this?  Actor, comedian and now podcaster (Films to be Buried With) Brett Goldstein tweeted after seeing the film that he found it strange that reviewers were giving it three stars.  He said that by the films design you could only give it a one, or a five, you either were amazed or repulsed.  As much as I like Brett, he’s wrong, the film is very meh, but I’m not sure it would even reach three stars for me.  Let’s start positively though, well to an extent anyway.  The film is very long, about 2 and a half hours, so it could probably lose a few scenes, but what I will say is that I was never bored.  Similar to the original, there’s a sense that something horrid is around the corner and it’s edging towards it.  It’s a slow advance, yet the story is intriguing enough to keep your attention.  What the film lacks however, is direction.  I’m still not sure what Guadagnino is trying to say with it all, and the only real (and thin) takeaway is that those responsible for the Holocaust should feel guilt, and those who weren’t shouldn’t?  This underlying theme isn’t fed badly into the film, and I disagree with the critics who say that it is, but it wasn’t effective.  Perhaps this was because the choices from the main character were so obtuse, and misdirecting.  Dakota Johnson plays her well, being both soft and intimidating in her face, and tough to decipher, which I liked, yet ultimately her character became pointless whilst being the main point of the film.  I’m aware that doesn’t make much sense, but this review may end up a bigger question mark than the movie.  And not an interesting question mark, more like watching my cat torture a mouse in front of me then him waiting to be applauded when the mouse is finally dead. 

Stylistically, the film is pretty dry.  Guadagnino has ditched the painted, florid beauty of Call Me by Your Name for a washed out, grim palette of greys and browns.  The original was all about striking imagery, and pop colours, whereas the new one is about the sadness of blandness.  There is some exceptions – the dance scenes were lovely to look at, and the highlight of the film, the gore and violence were beautifully putrid, and in the second to final act Guadagnino dives head first into some devilish imagery, which was entertaining.  That climatic satanic scene was actually really funny, and when I watch this film again in the comfort of my home, I won’t be afraid to laugh more at some of the ridiculous things that happen.  A strange stylistic choice was to cast Tilda Swinton in ‘at least’ two roles, one being an old German bloke in coats of make-up.  It’s obvious from the start that it’s a young actor in the role, but I had no idea that it was Swinton until my friend told me after the film, and it’s another ‘???’ moment.  I mean obviously Swinton is fucking great in the film, and the character was quite sympathetic to follow round, but Swinton playing the role added nothing, and meant nothing.  Her other character’s (Madame Blanc) relationship with Susie was a solid part of the film, so having her as the other part was unneeded.   


The friend I went to see the film with said that he’s starting to like the film more, now he’s thought about it and read a bit on it.  I have no desire to think about it, because I don’t think the film is profound in any way, however I do want to watch it again, as it may be one of those where it takes repeat viewings to appreciate it.  And I do hope that I grow to enjoy it more, because the intentions of the filmmakers seem admirable.  It was just a bit empty, and lacking something.  Maybe if Thom Yorke had made a better soundtrack (other than one song) the spaces in between the film would have been better.  His efforts were totally disappointing, and so was the film.   


Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket? 

This is a tricky one, because you definitely get your money’s worth.  What I would say is that the film is hard, and gruesome, so general audiences might want to stay away, because nothing of substance comes from that unpleasantness.

Widows – Film Review

Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is a personal favourite.  It does everything a great film should do – capture emotion on screen, and create emotion for those watching it.  His other films aren’t too shabby either, with Hunger (2008) being a true artistic vision of real story, and 12 Years a Slave (2013) a comprehensive cinematic experience of large themes.  He’s an elite director, with a wonderful eye for detail and a transcendent relationship with his actors.  Widows is a new step for him, a jump into the genre movie with the weight of expectation on his shoulders.

McQueen co-wrote the film with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and it stars just about anyone you can think of.  It’s an ensemble cast, with Viola Davis at the centre as the grieving wife of a criminal, played by Liam Neeson.  When gangster come politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) knocks on her door looking for the money her husband stole of him in his fatal heist, she has to band together the wives of the rest of her husband’s deceased crew, to pull off a job to pay Manning.  Set in contemporary Chicago, a political race is also mixed in there, with dodgy product of the system Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) going up against wildcard Manning.

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For a movie with a simple premise, there is a lot going on.  In the first hour I was wondering where all the threads would come together, and why there were so many players bouncing in and out scene by scene.  However all this mix and matching is entertaining, thanks to this incredible cast and quick pacing.  The movie races along, but McQueen gives each actor time to breathe.  Davis had the potential to be annoying in this role, but is measured enough to keep the film’s empathy balanced, rather than over the top.  Farrell is sleazy, but mostly pathetic and it was like watching a dog that had been run over most of the time.  Elizabeth Debicki is totally believable as the underdog, and the highlight of any of the actual heist stuff.  The standout by far is Daniel Kaluuya, who is absolutely terrifying, in a fun way, and his scenes probably took the shine off the rest of the movie.

After the first hour, the film gears towards the heist more, and this was a negative for me.  The least interesting thing about this film is the heist, because when it came down to it the stakes felt very low, and unimportant.  I would have been happy if the film got to the final act and the characters were like actually no we can’t pull this off, credits.  And I’m not saying the women weren’t convincing as capable of doing it, they were, but seeing them try and get on with their lives after losing their husbands was more intriguing.  So the film becomes a bit of a romp, which I’m fine with, because it was well directed, and exciting.  However the political games between poverty and the institutionalised, Kaluuya’s madness, and Debicki’s new means of income completely overshadowed the need for a final act robbery.

There is a real sense of place throughout the movie, and its greatest strength was its geography.  The best scene in the film is a shot from a car bonnet, where you can hear Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his assistant (Molly Kunz) talking candidly in the back of the car, but you can’t see them.  It’s a single take where the car moves from the projects to the suburbs, and perfectly illustrates the contrast in wealth in such a short amount of distance.  And that idea of a decaying, façade-ridden city is the theme that worked the most.  McQueen and Flynn throw in added social issues towards the end of the movie, that didn’t have an impact because of their briefness.  There’s also a third act revelation that felt unneeded, and it made the final few moments unsatisfying for me.

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This is one of those films where there is a lot to talk about, which I like.  I understand why the majority of critics have applauded this film, it’s good and I enjoyed it.  There were a few things that didn’t sit right with me, and it’s a shame that the better parts of the film stayed in the background.


Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.  In the end this movie is a solid cinema experience, for any mainstream audience, something I wouldn’t say for McQueen’s previous films.

The Wife – Film Review

The silly takeaway from this film is that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature seems pretty lame.  A life’s work given the greatest nod of approval is essentially a jet lag poisoned trip where you’re bothered by intruding sycophants the whole time.  That would be the silly take, but not a false one.  The Wife is directed by Bjorn L Runge, and is based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer.  It’s about, unsurprisingly, a wife, played by Glenn Close, who is questioning her life choices after her husband (Jonathan Pryce) wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.  They travel to Stockholm, so that he can receive the award, and with them is their son (Max Irons) – a struggling writer, living in his father’s shadow.  Creeping behind them, desperate to write the prize winners biography, is Christian Slater’s Nathaniel Bone, a man poking the fire for a story.

From the beginning, Joan’s (Glenn Close) struggle is recognisable.  It’s a burning resentment that is not a new thing in her life, you can see it in her eyes.  And at first it’s a simple notion of being pushed to the background, seen as the leaning post for the genius husband.  It’s not jealousy, but melancholy for years spent being a crutch and a kiss on the cheek as she passes through the study.  This is what I was expecting for the rest of the film, and almost sitting in sympathy for Pryce’s character also.  He’s a brilliant writer, a proud father, and a loving husband – he shouldn’t feel guilt for his wife’s underlying un-fulfilment?  His level on the scumbag scale and the faults of the characters is something you should discover on your own, and the discoveries work.

Seldom do plot developments enhance the complexities of characters, however The Wife is a film where they do.  Suddenly the father/son relationship is in a far deeper mess – beyond seeking fatherly approval, or an attempt to disconnect nepotism.  So go see the film, and enjoy this weight of revelation that the director throws at you.  And Lunge is careful with his projectiles, holding them off until the right moment, coming as trebuchet rocks destroying a castle when they arrive.  The use of that purple metaphor is because the film certainly has its big moments – Oscar screams they could be described as.  Thankfully the performances are superb, and the explosions are engaging because of them.  What can I say about Glenn Close that hasn’t already been said?  This performance is a game of repulsively beautiful 3D chess, a jump on an elevator to different floors in Hotel Psyche.  To quote the film: “She brings out the stillness and the noise.”  The STILLNESS and the NOISE, the RISING ANXIETY and the VOMIT OF EMOTION.  She’s terrific, and when she takes best female actor at the Academy Awards I’ll be watching in glee.  Pryce tackles her well, and on a character level is not a serious match for the tranquillity of Joan, or his disturbed son – something Pryce nails, where he presents those sad inadequacies.  Special mention to Christian Slater, who was probably thrilled at the opportunity to do some actual acting, something he’s quite skilled at.


So what comes of this slow rise to a satisfying denouement?  A nuanced experience, softly photographed and precisely written.  Screenwriter Jane Anderson converts the novel to be a full frontal message, which is impactful despite its lack of thematic ambiguity.  In fact, scratch that, the film manages to be both transparent and open-ended, due to a final interaction between Slater and Close.  If you can’t tell, I loved the movie, and connected to it a great deal.  The flashback scenes of young love, competitiveness, inefficiency and some hopelessness hit close to home, and give a sense to the history of the characters.  It’s one of those where the players have more to tell, and have more going on between the scenes that we never see.  Watch the film to see an attentive director capture the essence of human relationships through brilliant acting, and hopefully the film will stay with you when the point of the film becomes crystal clear.


Worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes, fuck Venom, and go to your smaller cinema and catch this before its run ends.

Follow me on Twitter: @insiderobbie

American Animals – Waiting for Something Extraordinary to Happen

I don’t think I have ever related to a group of characters more. The guys in American Animals choice to do something absolutely mental, because life is disappointing, is very identifiable to me. There is no way I would ever go through with anything though, and it’s a scary prospect. It’s the sort of feeling that probably leads to school shooters – a way to be seen and noticed, as well as to turn your life into an event, rather than a cruising ship. Thankfully the young men that committed the ‘American Animals’ heist appear to be decent human beings, and so they did something much less extreme. They attempted to steal a group of rare books from a college library, to sell for millions of dollars.

If you haven’t seen the film, go see it, because it’s good and I’m going to spoil a few things, though it’s a true story so ‘spoiling’ is a bit irrelevant. Also the way the film is set up, the outcome for the main characters is clear from the beginning. Despite it being director Bart Layton’s feature debut, it’s crafted to a high standard – the film moves at a good pace thanks to some kinetic editing, engaging cinematography choices (<3 letting dialogue play out in a two shot without cuts <3) and its vibrant colour palette. I’d liken it to perhaps a Tarantino film (there is a whole scene where they knowingly rip of Reservoir Dogs), but thankfully it’s not too poppy or overindulgent – the film is quite calm at times. The cast do a solid job, with Evan Peter’s in particular being convincing in a role that is slightly different to his usual ones. I’m a fan of the way they kept it grounded to the truth, with cuts to interviews of the real guys, and the re-telling off different moments from different points of view, which is something I, Tonya did beautifully as well. So it’s an enjoyable movie, but I was more interested in the characters (and real guys) motivations over anything else.

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The thing that drives this whole story, and consequent movie is why did they do it? Why did these young, smart, athletic, middle class, healthy lads from supportive families decide to do a heist. I think it stems from disappointments, and one of them being university. Before even learning about the rare books, the main two Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) meet up after starting in their respective colleges. They talk about how it wasn’t what they expected and they haven’t met any cool people – it’s just a bunch of jocks. The lie that college will change their life has been revealed to them, and they’re sat back in their home town smoking weed with their old best friend. It’s a strange feeling, and one I’m familiar with. I’m not loving my university degree and I should have probably chosen a different one, because rarely does a lecturer inspire me or I’m interested in the work we are set. Everything appears to have limits, and I was expecting something more. The guys in the film were expecting more, and they see college for what it is, and they think is it all worth it? Warren is there on an athletic scholarship, and one of the best scenes in the movie is when he tells the athletic director at the school that he’s worked all his life to be here, and he thinks it’s all been a waste of time. It’s a beautiful monologue, about working towards something you don’t really want or enjoy, and highlights the relationship he has with his father, who has pushed him all his life to obtain athletic achievement. Again it’s something I can relate to – having an incredibly caring father, that is obsessed with sporting talent over anything else. It comes with a lot of pressure and guilt, and the tension is visible between Warren and his father. The film makers hone in on these little things well, and quickly it’s very obvious as to why these guys did what they did.

Warren is the most troubled out of them, that shows through his divorced parents and his lack of desire to do anything that would make sense. However they all have their cracks, and issues. Spencer wants to be an artist, but he’s from a sheltered home, and he has a strong family unit around him. All of his heroes had something traumatic happen to them, so that they could create great art, and he’s constantly battling with that. I struggle with that too, because how can you write something remarkable when you haven’t seen anything remarkable? Eric (Jared Abrahamson) is on an impossibly dull college course because he wants to work for the FBI, and he has no friends. The real Eric says in one of the interview segments that he agreed to be involved at first so that he could re-start his friendship with Warren. How many times have we done things just for the social aspect? To not feel lonely? Chas (Blake Jenner) is probably the most stable of the four, until he starts whipping a gun out every five minutes, and his flaw is probably his greed. He’s fit, good looking, incredibly successful and wealthy, but he has a desire to keep gaining more – more muscle on the arms, more money in the bank and more points to prove to his father perhaps? After a while you start to think OF COURSE THEY DID IT. It all makes perfect sense.

So now they’re in, and they’re planning the heist. At first Spencer doesn’t think they’ll actually go through with it, and that it’s all just a bit of fun – he could get out at any time, but he never does. Inevitably everything goes wrong for them during the heist, because their planning wasn’t thorough and it wasn’t as easy as they thought. That’s another main reason for why they did it – how simple it all seemed. They could walk into the room, get the keys of the middle age librarian, carry the books out the fire exit and then drive off for 11 millions dollars. The librarian is what changed it from ‘young guys trying to get rich quick’ to ‘young guys doing something stupid and dangerous’. They didn’t realise how difficult it is to ‘neutralise’ a person, or harm them, or threaten them and their aggression towards Betty the librarian (Ann Dowd) has haunted Warren and Eric since. The real Betty during an interview segment talks how she doesn’t think the guys knew what they wanted, they just wanted it quick and easy. They didn’t want to work for their goals, they wanted them now. It’s a profound moment in the film, because it’s the first time they are shown in a negative light, and again, naturally, it’s totally relatable. I want to be an accomplished and respected writer RIGHT NOW please.

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At the end you learn that they all got 7 years in prison, which personally I think is pretty harsh, especially for Chas and Spencer who were never in the room with the librarian. What’s interesting is the way the film notes on where the guys are now, to see if the heist was that special thing to happen to them – that movie experience where their arc is shifted upwards because of a major event. For Warren, it could have been the diversion he needed as now he’s back in school, studying film this time around. For Spencer, it could have led him to some great art, because he’s now a working wildlife artist (similar to the book they were trying to steal). The other two seem to have had a lesser result from it all – Chas is a personal trainer and Eric is trying to be a writer. They weren’t particularly searching for that magic moment however, with Warren and Spencer being the ones with more romantic visions. Nonetheless I hope everything in their future lives pan out the way they want, because I see so much of myself in them.

I’m sure when the heist happened there were hundreds of ‘think-pieces’ written about why they did it, so what I’ve written is definitely not original thought, but I was impressed by the film. As someone similar to their age when they did it, I fully understand their motives, and the story is an effective portrait of young men – seemingly with no problems, until you look closer and see that they are about to explode.

Cultist Animal – Short Story?????

DISCLAIMER: This is not a film related post, and usually I would put something like this on my other blog, but I haven’t used that one in ages, so it’s going on here where there is LIFE.  Enjoy.

Scottish Highlands – February 2025

The polar bear was only two hundred yards away from Tom and Emily.  It moved across the coastline below them, it shoulder bones protruding through its fur with each step.  The white fur was soaked, dripping into the grass, and was covered in dirt.  Its limbs were taut, languidly thumping through the greenery of the shoreline.   Tom was gazing at this tortured beauty through green binoculars, and Emily was crouched down with him, clutching to his skinny arm.

“We’ve found him,” Emily said, rubbing the tight knitwear of Tom’s sweater.
“We’ve found him,” Tom replied, passing over the binoculars.

Tom stood hands on hip and took a deep breath.  A tough breeze flew past, to remind them of the freezing conditions.  It blew across Tom’s untidy hair, and Emily’s flared ponytail, making it even messier.  Their faces were pale and dry because of the cold temperature.

“He looks healthier than we expected,” Emily said standing up.
Tom smiled.  “He does,” he said taking another long breath. “We could stay here you know, and follow him into the night,” he finished.
“I think we would freeze to death.”
“What’s your point?”

They laughed and reached out to hold hands.  Emily rested her head deep into Tom’s chest, hearing his elevated heartbeat, and they were still for a few moments.  Then when the beat had calmed to a normal pace, Emily pulled away and got a radio out of her backpack.

“Come in Crow’s Nest, this is Coast two, over,” Emily said down the microphone.
“This is Crow’s Nest responding, over,” a voice muffled back.
“We have located Father, I repeat, we have located Father, over.”

Coast One was the closest team nearby and appeared within the hour.  They had jogged a few miles and were panting on arrival.  Tom and Emily remained huddled together trying to keep warm, exchanging looks of gratitude every time the creature moved more than an inch.  And the creature was strolling – picking at grass and investigating each rock it came across.  The new pair came up to the hillside and there was an immediate embrace between the teams.  Coast One was an all-female coupling:  Beth and Hill.

“I can’t believe he’s actually here,” Hill said catching her breath.
“Me neither, have you been here long?” Beth asked.
“Not long.  We were tracking him for a while, all the way from the lighthouse.  Then we saw a white dot on the horizon, climbed this hill, and he was there waiting for us,” Emily said.
Tom was keeping his eyes on the bear.  “It was a special moment.  I wish everyone was here,” he said.
“This is special enough.  He looks healthy,” Beth said.
“From here yes.  We could get closer but if we drop down this hill he’ll see us,” Tom said, picking at the grass at his feet.
“We’re better off waiting for the trucks, and everyone else,” Hill exhaled, showing her lack of fitness.
“Won’t they spook him?” Beth asked.
“We’re going to find out.  They are coming whatever,” Tom said.

The trucks arrived thirty minutes later with the two inland teams, and a host of people from headquarters.  They parked on the road away from the hillside, but were clearly audible as they pulled up.  The Coast teams held their breath waiting for a reaction from the bear, and relaxed again when he didn’t shift.  He was asleep now, his face planted into the ground and his legs curled up into his body.  Without the binoculars he looked like a kind of limestone rock, that had eroded off the cliffside.  The people from the trucks walked over and cluttered the top of the hill, making greetings in whispers and soft hugs.  Leaving the scene to not be gluttonous of the encounter, Tom and Emily went over to the road, where the leader of the operation Khaled Endo was waiting for them.  Khaled had dark skin, an extravagant quiff that drooped over his forehead, and was wearing a navy blue three-piece suit.

“Guys, guys, come to me,” he called with outstretched arms.

The wind caught his deep voice.

“Two months of scouring through this empty country and here we are.  My two best eyes making the biggest discovery of the 21st century,” he continued.
“It was luck Khal,” Emily said.
“Ah, maybe a little, come and sit inside.”

They entered the largest of the two trucks and sat in the backseat.  Khaled sat down in the passenger side and turned to face them.

“They’re not going to pick him up yet, are they?” Tom asked anxiously.
“No, no of course not.  We will observe him first, do our tests and then we shall inform the rest of the world,” Khaled replied.
“They’ll want him,” Tom said.
“Well they’re not getting him.  Don’t worry Tom, we’re going to keep him safe,” Khaled said.
“What about the media?” Beth asked.
“They have been following us, as you know, but we’re keeping them at bay for now.  They will want to speak to both of you,” Khaled replied.

Tom and Emily pulled a face at each other.

“For now though you should go back to base.  Have some tea, get some sleep, you’ve earned it,” Khaled continued.
“I think we’d like to stay,” Emily said grabbing Tom’s arm again.

Khaled smiled.

“Fair enough.  Just please stay here a while and warm up.  Maybe grab an extra layer of clothing from the boot, because remember what I always say…”
“Human lives over animal lives,” Tom and Emily said together.

The sun had gone down when they returned to the hillside.  Small tents had been erected and short-range telescopes had been stuck into the mud.  Everyone was communicating in quick breaths and acute sign language.  The wind had stopped but the air had grown cooler, causing many to retreat back to headquarters.  Those that were left sat under muted temporary lamps waiting for the beast to wake up.  Fergus, the only native to the country, sat with his legs hanging off the edge of the cliff.  Tom joined him, whilst Emily dived into one of the tents.

“It’s hard to see him in this light,” Tom whispered.
“Aye, thank god for the moonlight,” Fergus said in his thick Scottish accent.
“The stars too.  The sky is so clear up here.”
“Untouched land, no wonder he was so attracted to this place, though we’ve got a little bet on.”
“A bet?”
“Aye, he hasn’t moved for a good while now, Jackie reckons he could be dead.”

Jackie Gunn was the technician and was fiddling with the telescopes.

“He’s not dead.  After all this he can’t be,” Tom exclaimed in defense.
“What makes you so sure?  How many dead prospects have we seen over the years?” Fergus questioned.
“He looked good Gus.  Majestic and well fed, like we expected.”
“That’s the problem with you English, too hopeful, too poetic.  I have the animal to be alive though, I think I saw it twitch just before you came back.”
“How much is on it?”
“Well then you’ll be twenty quid richer by the end of the night.”
“We’ll all be a lot richer if he turns out to be the last one.”

Fergus scratched aggressively at his long hair, then his bushy beard before letting out a huge yawn.  He then laid back, bending his body over the cliff, and Tom took this as a signal to leave him be.  Emily was in the fetal position with her eyes shut when Tom opened the flaps of one of the tents.  He rolled down next to her, feeling her body heat surge through him and then drifted into a slumber himself.  Tom dreamt of a sunny horizon.  He was floating, on some kind of cloud, edging closer to the polar bear’s eyes and nose.  The bear’s body was absent and soon Tom’s body drifted away too, causing him to reach out without the hands to do so.

They were awoken an hour later by the sound of smashing glass, and few calls of “fuck,”.  Emily leapt up and untangled herself from Tom, emerging out of the tent asking what was going on.  Tom followed and suddenly the small group that were left on the hill were surrounding a lamp that had been knocked over.  It was in pieces in the middle of the campsite, and the bulb had blackened some of the grass in a small fire.

“Shit, it was my fault, I was trying to shine it down the hill to see him more clearly but…” Jackie started.
“Shine it down the hill, are you insane?” Hill exclaimed.
“We thought it might have been dead,” Jackie replied.
“You boys and your stupid bets.  You could have set us all on fucking fire,” Hill continued to berate.
“Guys come on, calm down.  No-ones hurt.  Let’s all take a deep breath and see if we can pick up the glass,” Emily said calmly.

During this, Tom had sped down to the cliff edge to check on the bear.  Where was he?  Fergus had abandoned his spot and was engaging Hill on being too harsh on Jackie.  Where was the bear Tom scanned across the coastline, squinting to almost a point of pain.

“He’s moved,” Tom said.

The rest were still arguing.

“I think he’s moved,” Tom said, but again no-one listened.

He got to his knees and hung tightly to a large weed on the side of the cliff, then slid.  On his side he jagged his way down the side of the hill, using his right arm to guide him.  He cut through branches and dirt with his boots until he touched the bottom with a thud.  His body ached and his sweater was ripped, however he was able to stand up and look more for the bear.  It was pitch black down there, and Tom could hear the waves crashing against the coast to the left side of him.  Walk inwards, he told himself.  The foliage was more disorderly at the bottom of the hill, and the grass was sharp on his legs.  He crept forwards slightly, then froze.  A white silhouette flashed in his eyeline, and he took a second take to see the bear blurred into the darkness only a few feet away.  Following his training Tom dropped face down into the heavy vegetation, tucking his arms in tight.  The bear let out a long growl.

Back on the hillside Emily felt the blood run through her veins when she heard the growl echo into the abyss.

“Where’s Tom?” She said in a flash.

They all looked around puzzled.

“Get the prod guys in now Jackie,” Emily demanded.
“What?” Jackie replied.
“Call them fucking in!” Emily shouted.

Tom could feel the vibrations on the ground as the bear came closer to him.  He looked feeble from the hillside, but was a towering force now.  Tom was trying not to breathe too heavily as the adrenaline seeped through him, causing a cold sweat.  The bear growled again, this time much louder.  More vibrations, and the bear was upon Tom, breathing hot steam onto his back.  Tom pressed his eyelids together and thought of Emily’s skin.  He was brought back to reality when he felt the bears nose rub against the side of his head.  This is it.  The nose pushed against him, with so much force that Tom was forced to roll over onto his back.  He glared up at the bear’s dark brown eyes, seeing the little red in them.  The bear glared back for a few seconds, then turned to march off in the other direction.  Tom was stuck in a trance, then remembered he had to breathe, coughing as he did so.

The ‘prod’ team were on standby at the trucks, and when the radio call came in they were ready.  They had been waiting for this moment for weeks.  It was a team of three bulky men, each with a bomb defusal like outfit on.  They couldn’t move with any pace, so Emily and the rest of the camp beat them to the bottom of the hill.

“Can you see him?” Emily said leading the group.
“Wait.  I can hear him.  Stand back, the boys close,” Fergus said holding his arms out.

They backed away, Emily squirming, and panicking.  The sound of electric cattle prods came from behind them, and through a helmet a voice told them to get back to the hillside.  One of the men carried a giant torch light that he was waving from side to side, the other two advanced in tandem.  They were in a pre-prepared formation, holding out their prods at a long reach.  The bear came into their sight, and under the torch he looked smaller than ever.

“Surround!” One of them yelled out.

They gently negotiated their way to either side of the bear, and began to poke their prods towards him.  The torch bearer kept the light onto the bear, which was blinding it, and making it cower in fear.

“Ready,” one called.
“Ready,” the other replied.

They both hopped forwards and ZAP, hit the bear with their prods simultaneously.  The bear dropped with a moan.

Watching on from the hill, Emily was using the torch light between attacks to look for Tom.  When the bear fell, she saw him laid in the grass, and ran back down the hill.  Emily launched herself onto Tom, holding his body weight up as he tried to stand.

“Are you okay, are you hurt?” She asked in a heightened tone.

Tom struggled to get any words out, and simply pointed up at a helicopter that was now buzzing overhead.  He then passed out in Emily’s arms.

A kiss on the forehead is what woke him some hours later.  He peeled his eyelids open and saw a white light, with Emily’s face coming into focus.  In that moment, her eyes were the bluest he had ever seen them.

“Hi,” he said sitting up, adjusting the many pillows behind his head.

Emily smiled, and tucked her dark hair behind her ears.  “Hi,” she said.

“How long have I been out for?”
“A few hours, how do you feel?”
“Fine, I’m not even sure why I passed out.”
“Yeah, apart from a few scratches on your arms and legs you’re good.”
“He didn’t attack me, not at all.  He came close, and then just stared, it was so strange.  I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
“You’re safe now.”
“And the bear?”
“They airlifted him out, then contained him down in the basement.”
“Can we see him?”

Tom’s body was stinging, so Emily helped him out of the bed.  They left the room and headed down the corridor, having to dodge many bodies on the way.  With the bear coming in, the headquarters were manic – everyone had something to do and somewhere to be.  At the end of the corridor they went down a few sets of stairs that Tom struggled with, and Emily made a comment about how they should have taken the elevator.  The basement was sealed off, and guarded by two men with machine guns, but Emily had a clearance card.  They were nodded through, and they entered the containment room.  It had tall ceilings, and a circular catwalk that went around a central glass chamber.  The bear was sedated inside the cube like structure, seemingly at peace.  Tom winced at the sight of him.  He can barely move in there, he thought.  Stood observing the box was Khaled, Fergus, the prod guy who was giving the orders and a woman Tom had never met before.  She had a sickly purple pantsuit on, and a face like a wet book.  They all turned their heads at Tom and Emily’s arrival, apart from the woman.

“You’re awake then big lad.  What exactly did you pass out from?  Being a total fucking moron?” Fergus said.

Khaled shot him a look.

“I was just trying to save your money maker,” Tom said.
“Think you’ll find I saved the lot of you, and the beast,” the prod guy announced, his name was Frank.
“We’re always grateful for your team Frank, especially when my guys are trying to kill themselves,” Khaled came in, with a knowing look to Tom this time.
“I’m sorry Khal, it was stupid,” Tom said.
“It’s fine.  If you were killed then you would have been sorry,” Khaled said with a trademark grin of his.

Tom was still leaning on Emily, and she was rubbing his lower back.  “How is he?” She asked.

“The same.  He’ll be out for a while yet.  We got him good,” Frank replied.
“I hope not too good.  Are we sure the things even alive in there?” The woman said, swiveling her snake like head around.

Even from a few metres away, Tom could see her thick nasal hair.

“Oh sorry Tom.  This is Miranda Larkin, the cabinet minister for the environment, food and rural affairs.  She’s just flown in from Downing Street,” Khaled said.

Tom recognized the name, and now her face, but she was far uglier in person.  He nodded to acknowledge her, thinking of the all the decisions she had made that had caused so much desolation.

“You found it then?” Miranda asked.
“We did,” Tom replied.
“Right, well, the PM will be happy with the both of you.  This is a great opportunity for the country to be one of the good guys again,” her voice was high like a screeching pig.
“Nicely put, what will be done to him?” Emily asked with a bite.
“Nothing will be done to him.  He will be cared for in London, and you won’t have to worry about it,” Miranda bit back.
“Giving your record, I’m worried.  You don’t own him,” Emily said.
“I’m afraid we own everything,” Miranda said sharply.

Khaled came in to defuse the situation.  “We can discuss this all later, between those who are allowed to have the discussions.  For now…” He began.

A loud hum echoed through the walls, like a thousand bees were flying above.

“What the fuck is that?” Fergus exclaimed.
One of the guards burst through the doors, flicking the safety off his gun.  “You guys might want to come outside,” he said.

They followed the guards up through the headquarters, the hum still ringing around the building.  Tom and Emily were at the back trying to keep up.  There was a commotion at the main entrance, with more armed guards trying to keep people from leaving.  Khaled parted the crowd and they made it to the front door.  They were all taken aback by what they saw outside.  Scattered across the car park were people, of all shapes, genders and race sat down cross-legged humming towards the headquarters.  They all had orange clothing on, and had their eyes closed.  There was at least a hundred of them, and the noise was deafening.  Several guards had their guns putting firmly at them, fingers on trigger.  Khaled looked at Miranda, and Miranda looked at Khaled.  At the front of the horde was a man wearing a brown outfit, who was standing.

“Who are these people?” Miranda asked, shouting over the noise.
“I don’t know.  They’re not with us,” Khaled said, also shouting.
“Can we get them to stop with that noise.  It’s killing me,” Fergus yelled.

Silence.  The man in the brown clothes approached.

“That was easy,” Fergus remarked.

He was the only one who could find the words.

“My name is Shinji.  If you would lower your weapons, we would like to speak to you,” the man said in a monotone Eastern Asian accent.

Khaled waved his arms.

“Thank you.  Who is in charge here?” Shinji asked.

Khaled and Miranda exchanged looks again, then Miranda stepped forward.

“Who are you people?” She asked.
“We are Fukahi Shinjitsu.  We have travelled from Japan to be here.  To be reunited with our master Owari.”
Miranda gulped.  “I know who the Shinjitsu are.”
“Many now do.  For better or for worse.”
“Your leader is dead.  He was executed by the Japanese government only a week ago.”

Tom gripped onto Emily tight.  “They’re terrorists,” he whispered to her.

Emily’s throat stiffened and Fergus looked over to them.  Tom nodded to him with wide eyes.

“He was executed in this life yes, but he has the power to be passed on to another life force.  A life force so strong it has survived the destruction of the rest of the species.  And he has presented himself to you,” Shinji carried on.
“How did you find us?” Miranda questioned.
“We have our ways.  Owari has blessed us and guided us here.”
“You are not welcome.  You must leave now, or be dismissed by force,” Miranda said waving to the guards.

Shinji bowed.  “We will respect your judgment.  Owari will look over you, and we shall be back at noon to collect him,” he said.

One by one the orange outfits sat and up and walked away.  The guards followed them with their gun sights, until the car park was completely abandoned.

The operations room was crowded minutes later.

“Am I only the one who doesn’t know who these guys are?” Emily started the conversation.
“Me too,” Khaled added.
“They’re a terrorist group,” Miranda said.
“I think they’re classed as a religious group actually,” Fergus said.
“Aren’t they all?  They killed 13 people in a chemical attack on a Japanese train 7 years ago.  Their leader Owari Osako took all the blame and was put on death row.  His appeals ran out last week, and he was hung,” Miranda said with an informed intensity.
“They still hang people?” Emily asked.
“They do.  It’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it though.  He was a class A fundamentalist, and a class A brainwasher.  Except the dangerous kind, where he actually believes what he’s saying.  They are a Buddhist and Catholic mix, with a lot of mysticism and bullshit thrown in.  Fukahi Shinjitsu translates to Inevitable Truth.  Like the rest of them they believe in a doomsday, but they’re trying to get there before God does, so that Owari can take his place,” Miranda replied.
“How do you know so much about this?” Khaled asked.
“I was the defence secretary when the train attack happened.  They put out threats to all major cities across the world,” Miranda replied.

There was a few moments of silence.

Fergus chuckled.  “And they think this Owari guy has transformed into the bear or something?” He said.
“Seems like it,” Miranda said.

Tom didn’t say a word, and was staring at the wall.

“So, what do we do now?  Get the military or the police involved?” Khaled said.
“No, we can’t have any attention brought here.  This bear is too important to throw away the good image it brings,” Miranda said.
“Good image?  You said their terrorists; my people are in danger here!” Khaled exclaimed.
“We have enough protection on base.  I’ll call the PM,” Miranda said looking around the room. “In private. Khaled you stay,” she finished.

Tom and Emily went back to their quarters, whilst Fergus went to de-brief everyone else.  In their small room, that had nothing but a bed and a sink in it, Tom collapsed onto the bed.  Emily was pacing up and the down the tiny amount of floor space that they had.

“This is crazy.  This is so crazy.  How did they know that we found him?  And then got here so quick?  It’s crazy and it’s scary.  They’re terrorists, actual terrorists.  And Larkin going on about the country’s image, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s selling him onto the highest bidder.  She’s half the reason for the extinction, her and all those anti-conservation organizations,” she said hysterically.
Tom was motionless, and Emily only noticed because she was out of breath. “Are you okay? Does your head hurt?” She asked.
“I believe them,” Tom said.
“Who? Larkin?  You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, the Shinjitsu.”
“They’re out of their minds Tom.”
“You didn’t see the way he looked at me.  His eyes had red in them, have you ever seen that before?”
“No, but there’s always variations.”
“In his eyes I saw something.  Like a clearing, like my mind was emptied.  We had a connection, a human one, and it took me back to Peru.”

Humid jungle. I’m sweating hard and my shirt is sticking to me.  They’re chanting in the distance, and the branches are enclosing around me.  Is the warmth coming from the sun?  Or their torches?  The smoke is getting in my eyes.  I’m uncomfortable but there is nowhere I would rather be.  They tell me to keep moving, that it’s my turn.  My mind tells me to go back, and get on the plane back to London.  Something is pushing me forward.

“Maybe you should go back to sleep for a while?” Emily said scratching Tom’s head.

Tom was going pale, and felt cold to touch.  Emily was worried about him.  He obliged her request to get some more sleep, and she left him.  When she had gone, Tom got up and shook his whole body in an attempt to feel something, anything.  The pain from the hillside had faded away, and there was a numbness to his body.  He laid down again.

I can see them now.  They’re grabbing onto my arm, and my feet are dragging.  My bare feet are scraping against the sand, I resist, but they are too strong.  The chanting is more intense now.  Getting closer all my mind thinks about is Emily.  Why didn’t she come with me?  It’s too late for her, and this is my chance to let go.  I reach the man with the antlers, and he passes me the ivory jug.  Drink, they say.  It tastes foul, and chemical.  I’m waiting for a sensation, for the ending I was promised.  Waiting, until the man with the antlers turns to dust.

Tom took a breath like he was drowning.  A breath so strong he nearly choked himself.  He leapt up and went into his shared wardrobe with Emily to pull out a black wooly hat and a fleece jacket.  After putting them on he looked out into the corridor to see if the coast was clear.  He only had to avoid Emily, everyone else would be unsuspicious of his movements.  She wasn’t around, so he pulled her clearance card off the door handle and darted for the closest fire exit he could find.  It led him outside to the side of the headquarters, and there was a guard on the other side, who Tom nearly knocked over as he pushed open the door.

“Woah, you can’t be out here.  The whole building is on lockdown, all the exits are covered,” the guard said trying not to trip over.

Tom said nothing, and returned back inside, then leant against the wall next to the door.  He sighed.  The fire exit was in a closed off point of the building, next to a stairwell.  No-one can see me here, he thought.  Tom sighed again then walked a few metres away from the door, then ran full pelt towards it.  At the door he threw himself into it, and he burst through with a bang.  The guard was still on the other side, and the door slammed into him, launching him onto the concrete.  Tom scrambled to jump on top of him, then yanked off his hat to force it into the guard’s mouth.  With his other hand he reached for the guard’s holster, then awkwardly pulled out the pistol and pressed it against the guard’s skull.  The guard stopped trying to wriggle away, and Tom got off him, the hat falling to the ground.

“Don’t say a word or I’ll shoot you,” Tom said pointing the gun at the guard.

The guard raised his arms, and Tom checked around to see if anyone had heard the noise.

“Where’s the nearest exit that’s open?” Tom asked, speaking as quietly as he could without sounding too timid.

The guarded jolted his head backwards to indicate an entrance behind him.

“Is it guarded?” Tom asked, clumsily waving the gun around.

The guard shook his head.

“Okay.  You’re coming with me, go ahead.”

The guard tentatively turned and walked slowly to a gate not far from them.  Tom came up behind and dug the gun into the guard’s back.  The car park was too dark for anyone to spot them, and they made it out of the base.  A woodland surrounded the headquarters, and Tom pushed the guard towards it until they were far enough away to not be heard.

“The Shinjitsu, where are they?” Tom asked, holding the gun more relaxed now.

The guard remained silent.

“You can speak now,” Tom said.
“They’re camping in the woods, at the end of the road,” the guard said.
“How far?”
“About a mile.  They’re easy to find because they’ve got several fires going.”
“Okay, let’s go.”

They cut across the tree-line, following the road leading away from the base.  Tom was keeping the gun on the guard, urging him to move quicker and quicker.  They tripped on branches in the darkness many times, but Tom never let the gun slip from his hand.  It didn’t take them long to get to the end of the road, and the guard was right about the Shinjitsu being easy to find.  Their large fires lit up the forest, emitting a bright orange flame and a jet-black smoke.  The orange outfits sat around these fires, some asleep on one another, some on their feet dancing around.  Tom and the guard crept into the camp, and stumped for an introduction, Tom just tried to make as much noise as he could by kicking at some leaves.  A dancing orange outfit at the nearest fire heard, and began signaling to his fellow followers.  Tom dragged the guard forward, and seeing the gun the orange outfits backed away.

“Don’t worry, the gun is for him not for you.  I am here to see Shinji in peace,” Tom announced.

One of the orange outfits broke away, and came back a few moments later with Shinji.  He sat down on a log in front of them.  Sitting down showed how tiny Shinji was, he was almost child sized, and he had a narrow face.

“You were the one to find Owari, weren’t you?” Shinji asked.
“Yes, I was,” Tom replied.
“Good.  Please put the gun away and sit down.”
“This man is my captive, I can’t leave him unwatched.”

Shinji leant over to an orange outfit and whispered something into his ear.  The orange outfit then whispered something to another follower next to him.  They went over to the guard and grabbed an arm each, taking him away from Tom’s side.

“Fine,” Tom said, sitting on a log opposite Shinji and putting the gun by his feet.
“I believe you have something to say to us,” Shinji started.
Tom took a deep breath. “I saw red in the bears eyes.  A red so sharp and vibrant it cut into me, and for a second me and the bear were in our own world together,” he said.
“That is Owari’s spirit calling to you.  You must be very special.  Tell me, what is your name?” Shinji asked.
“Thomas Pieters,” Tom replied.
“Okay Thomas, did you feel a human connection when you looked into his eyes?  A connection that you have only felt with someone that you love or desire?”
“Yes.  And it took all the pain away.  At first, I thought it was a fluke that he didn’t attack me, and the feeling was because we have been looking for him for so long.  But hearing you speak, I understand what the bear really is.”
“Tell me what the bear really is Thomas.”
“It’s your master Owari.  It’s a god.”

The orange outfits cheered and hugged one another.  Shinji was cackling.

“Yet you come here alone?  Have your people not witnessed god?” Shinji asked, standing up and speaking louder.
“They haven’t seen what I’ve seen, if I could show them,” Tom replied, looking down at the ground.
“The whole world needs to be shown.  And you can do that Thomas, by getting us to him.”

The guard began to push and shove his arms into the orange outfits that had a hold of him.  “You’re all insane! The polar bear is a fucking animal, there’s nothing behind his eyes!  Tom, we’ve never met, but I know about you and your team, don’t throw everything that you’ve sacrificed for these maniacs!” He exclaimed, trying to get away.
Tom remained looking at the ground. “I can get you in, you alone Shinji.  Once there if Owari speaks to me again, my friends will understand,” he said.

Emily searched everywhere in the headquarters looking for Tom.  It was now the early morning, and in a panic, she headed to the operations room.  Khaled, Miranda and Frank were inside, talking to a man in a military uniform on a large screen.

“Get her out of here,” Miranda said dropping her spectacles on the table.
“You can’t be in here, not now,” Khaled said.
“I can’t find Tom,” Emily said.
“I’m sure he’s…” Khaled started.
“Wait, you can’t find Tom?  When did you last see him?” Frank interrupted.
“I don’t know, maybe a couple of hours ago,” Emily said.
“Ms Larkin, I think we’ve been breached,” Frank said sternly.
Miranda instantly switched the monitor off.  “How is that possible?” She asked.
“One of our guys was meant to check in an hour ago, and never did,” Frank replied.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Miranda demanded.
“We didn’t think anything off it.  We assumed he just missed it, because of all the new lockdown protocols.”
“Do you think Tom could be with him?” Emily asked.

The same hum from earlier echoed through the walls again.  Emily shuddered.

“They’re back.  Frank, I want all your guys out on the front, now!” Miranda ordered.

They all clattered past Emily, who was left flustered and alone.  The headquarters were at full speed again – bodies gliding against each other to get to the front door.  Fergus was one of these bodies, but he stopped at Emily.

“Have you found Tom yet?” Fergus asked.
“No.  They think he’s with one of Frank’s guys, who’s also gone missing,” Emily replied.
“He’ll be safe then.  Come on, don’t worry, he survived a bear attack don’t forget.”

They followed the crowd, that had dispersed into designated ‘safe rooms’, then went outside to the car park.  The orange outfits were there, in the same formation as before, doing their hum.  Shinji didn’t spear head them this time though, and they couldn’t be quietened.

“Where’s our speaker?” Miranda said, behind a line of armed men.
“No sign of him.  Shall we proceed as planned?” Frank asked.

Miranda nodded, and Frank’s men advanced, machine guns in hands.  At first the orange outfits kept their eyes closed, and their hum going.  Frank’s men applied more pressure, screaming at them to shut up, pushing their guns closer towards them.  Some of the outfits began to flinch slightly, before returning back to their solid state.  More pressure and more hints of a submission, but the Shinjitsu followers stayed strong.

“This is a bit brutal to watch,” Fergus said into Emily’s ear.
“This is a distraction,” Emily said back, thinking only of Tom.
“The bear,” they said together.

Emily and Fergus sneaked back inside headquarters, where the corridors were abandoned.  There was no sign of human life as they scurried to the stair well.  They darted down the spiral steps, jumping down several at once, whipping around the rail.  The door to the basement was unguarded and left slightly open.  Emily could hear Tom before she could see him.  He was talking to someone, and going into the containment room she could see who that someone was.  Shinji.  They were on the other side of the glass box, stood on the catwalk, the bear blocking most of them.  Emily called out Tom’s name across the room, but he didn’t respond.

“What is he doing?” Fergus said as they came right up to the cube.

Emily called out again.  No response.  She went to run around the catwalk to him, but Fergus yanked her arm back.  Shinji had given Tom an axe, and Tom was approaching the glass.  The bear was snarling and growling at him, pressing its head against the glass, its giant paws pounding on the floor.  Tears were streaming down Emily’s face, and she was fighting Fergus as he pulled her back.

“Don’t do it Tom! Please!” She yelled.

Tom paused, gazed at her through two layers of window, then swung the axe into the cube.  It smashed on the first hit, and millions of tiny shards fell onto the bear like rain.  They cut into the animal, sending a sea of red into all directions.  It let out a loud cry then charged.  Emily was repeatedly screeching no, and Fergus had both his arms around her, dragging her back.  The bear flopped in pain over Tom, striking him with its arms.  He then exposed his teeth, and bit at Tom, taking a chunk out of his cheek.  Half of Tom’s face was launched off – meaty flesh spraying.  He didn’t make a sound.  Shinji had disappeared, and Tom was now on his back.  Fergus tried to cover Emily’s face, as he guided her out of the room, but she had seen too much already.  Tom was dead, gushing with claret red and the bear moaned whilst picking at his limp body.

Retreating back up the stairs, Emily was effectively in a state of comatose in Fergus’s arms.  Frank’s men came to the basement and it only took a few bullets to kill the bear.  A few bullets to kill all sense of hope.  On seeing Shinji fleeing, the rest of the Shinjitsu fled with him, and were picked up at a private airport a few miles away by the British military.  Miranda saw to that.  The death of the bear brought the death of Operation Father, and a two-year long investigation into the decision made by Thomas Pieters.  Many people tried to explain to Emily why Tom had made that fatal error.  She never understood, and spent her days waiting for reassignment sitting on the coastline, watching the tide come and go.


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First Reformed – Religion, Faith and Silliness


Every now and then a film come along that gets your mind ticking.  First Reformed is one of those films.  It’s full of meaningful ideas that are presented in a beautifully nuanced fashion, it has purposeful characters that you care about, and most of all it captures your absolute attention.  And it’s fascinating outside the film as well, because writer & director Paul Schrader by all accounts hasn’t made a decent movie in years.  He is probably still best known for penning four Martin Scorsese scripts, notably Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), but since then it’s been a patchy road.  I have only seen one of his directorial efforts other than First Reformed and that’s American Gigolo (1980), so forgive me if I’ve missed a gem of his.  What I do know is that his recent efforts have tanked financially and have been slated by the critics, so where has this sudden greatness come from?  At 71 years old?

The film follows Protestant minister Ernst Toller, played wonderfully by Ethan Hawke, who is the pastor of small historic church called the First Reformed.  He is questioning his faith and morality, and in attempt to feel the urge to pray again he begins writing unapologetically about himself in a journal.  In his words he writes of his failings, his worries and his ongoing dark thoughts about his past and upcoming present.  His past being a life of military and loss, and his present being an illness that is debilitating him physically.  Not only is he urinating blood, but he also has a problematic member of his church to deal with.  Angelic churchgoer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) pleads Ernst to come and talk to her husband Michael – a man haunted by the consequences of climate change.  Speaking to him, and the events that follow, bring the reverend’s life to boil, and suddenly his purpose is much clearer.

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Before getting too deep into thematic issues, let me say that the plot in this film is perfectly executed.  Schrader draws out a troubled clergyman, and pairs him with a societal issue.  This being the human damage of the environment, and the impending doom of global warming.  At first this plot development is almost a distraction to the main body of the film, but eventually it becomes a representation of Ernst lack of faith.  He is losing faith in himself and consequently his God, and then when he is opened to the issues of climate change, he loses faith in humanity too.  Michael is a radical environmentalist, and on initial meeting Ernst enjoys debating him on not losing hope on the world, and on trusting your religion to guide you.  The thrill of the theological discourse excites Ernst, somewhat throwing him back into the perils of a military career.  It also hangs upon how deeply interesting it is to match religious rhetoric with real life problems.  The world is dying?  Perhaps God is punishing us.  Activists are being shot for the cause?  Perhaps God has an ultimate plan for them.

Personally, I’m not a member of any kind of organised religion, but I do think that religion could be the most interesting topic in fiction that there is.  Whether that’s a disturbed story about a system of sexual abuse in the catholic church (Spotlight, 2015) or as hammy as the search for the mythical holy grail (take your pick on that one, I’d go with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989).  It’s the obsession with a higher power and the subsequent creation of rules to follow it that makes religious stories so impactful.  There’s a mysticism to it, and a sense of intrigue to the darkness that comes from the wonder of God.  Churches are spooky and being stood in one you can’t help but feel something.  Schrader isn’t shy of stories revolving around religion, he wrote Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1989), which is effectively a sexualization of Jesus’ last day on Earth, and he also directed Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), which is a much-hated spin-off.  With First Reformed he has developed a more complete, and acute religious piece of art, like Scorsese’s own Silence (2016) – a glorious film despite Andrew Garfield’s off-putting Portuguese accent.  An answer as to why he’s finally found the right formula could be because as a man in his seventies, he’s closer to death and so is closer to God.  If you disregard the form, and the moving parts of the film, you can see a filmmaker that can still surprise you.  And this film surprised me in more ways than one.

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One of the remarkable things about the film is its ability to present the Protestant church with full respect, whilst also being able to poke fun at it.  The silliness of a wealthy community based organised religion is ever present in the film, and it leads to many humorous moments.  Teenage choirs, bible quotes on a cafeteria wall, church gift shops and themed church tours are dorky, incongruous and silly.  Schrader gets a lot of laughs from this, as well as with some sharp and dispassionate writing.  Yet the beliefs of the characters, and the well-meaning nature of the affluent megachurch ‘Abundant Life’ is never ridiculed.  This means there’s a connection with Ernst’s troubles about his faith, because Schrader paints a realistic, balanced world (for the most part).  Ethan Hawke’s terrific performance of course helps this message along, and he is stingingly on point in this role.  The desolation that his character goes through really does go low, by shooting Hawke’s ever moving face in muted lighting.  When interviewing Hawke, BBC Radio’s Simon Mayo said to him: “This is a colour film, but it looks black and white.”  That says it all about the films look, and Hawke’s acting in the film.  It’s very astute, and measured, but still packed with life.  And Schrader’s decision to frame the film in the box shape 1.37 could have compacted the themes down too much, however it focuses our attention and dismisses any unneeded empty space.  I’ve said it many times before – filmmaking is its own art and as a filmmaker you should be designing an experience through what a film can do (TALK TO WILLIAM FRIEDKIN).  Forget normality, and only show what you must.  The 1.37 format is a smart way to achieve this, because it cuts away so much fat.  It doesn’t mean the film is soulless, because Schrader puts enough juice in to give it a kick.  Juice like sudden splashes of extreme and original gore.  When was the last time you saw a reverend wrap barbed wire around himself before putting his robes back on?  It’s an excruciating image, and it honestly left me aghast.

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This film probably has the most bizarre scene of the year.  It comes towards the final act, where the film takes a turn with the Toller character.  He’s almost given up on life, at least this life, and his heavy drinking has got even heavier.  During a bit of a binge, Mary comes to his door unannounced, having felt a sudden fear in the night.  She can’t explain why she feels so terrible and recalls a strange activity her and husband would do to Toller.  It involved smoking a joint, then laying with each other and guiding each other’s movements without saying a word.  Toller asks if Mary would like to do this with him, she’s hesitant, but says yes.  She lies down on the wooden floor, and Toller lays on top of her.  Their faces are millimeters apart and they are breathing at each other, holding their arms together.  They could kiss at any second, but instead the scene transitions to them seemingly flying – gliding over scenes of man’s destruction of the planet.  It is a peculiar moment in the film, where Schrader switches from the subtle to the obvious, and so it was quite bemusing.  Nonetheless I’m a fan of when a movie takes a fantastical jump, for example 500 Days of Summer (2009) is futile apart from the singing and dancing scene, and La La Land’s (2016) best sequence is when they fly off in the planetarium.  So I went with Schrader’s dream, following Toller’s journey from faithless to faithful, thanks to a unique connection with Mary.  Before this scene their relationship is gentle, and tactile, then after this scene they are completely comfortable with one another.  It’s a mixture of a father daughter dynamic and a couple who have been married for sixty years dynamic.  The father daughter thing gets thrown out the window in the final seconds of the film, but even as they are aggressively kissing, there is something sweet, and innocent about it.  And of course, her name being Mary has a meaning, and I’m sure someone out there will make a video essay charting how Schrader has hidden every story of the bible in the runtime.  I need to see the film again before making any clear judgments.


The end of the film is sublime, and Schrader leaves just enough blank space there.  It tops of an enthralling experience and leaves little interpretation in my eyes.  I believe that Toller dies in that moment, from the pressure of Mary pressing the barbed wire into him, or along those lines anyway.  The screen cutting to black is my explanation, but more than that Toller’s journey seems complete.  I grew such an affection with his troubles, and motives, that I was willing for him to die, because that’s what he would have wanted.  Mary is naturally his saviour, and puts a halt to his martyrdom, and the death of innocents.  However he is still successful in his mission to pray again, and in reigniting his love for his religion and his fellow man.  In a scene prior to the end, Toller is pleading Mary not to come to the church service where he plans to do his suicide bombing.  He tells her of his Grandfather’s death, a holy man himself, who died ‘somewhere between the first and second floor’ (I’M IN LOVE WITH THAT LINE) of an old bank elevator.  As he died of a heart attack, he told the boys helping him that ‘he was on holy ground’ before taking his final breath.  It’s a touching piece of dialogue, where Toller appears resolute and content with his fate.  And when he is kissing Mary, perhaps he is on holy ground too, in his mind, and that is very satisfying indeed.  First Reformed is a bleak picture at times, but SO full of hope and wonder.



Thanks for reading this.  I can’t wait to see the film again, and read about it, and understand it more.  These are just some initial thoughts about a movie with issues beyond my understanding.

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Hotel Artemis – Film Review

This film had a great trailer, a great cast, and a great concept, but is it another disappointment from this year? 

We’re in Los Angeles in 2028, and Jodie Foster runs the longstanding Hotel Artemis, a safe haven and hospital for criminals of all kinds (except paedophiles, serial killers and terrorists).  The city is barely surviving its worse ever riot, and when a bank robbery goes side-wards, Sterling K. Brown is forced to take himself and his brother to the Artemis.  They’re not the only visitors and are quickly tangled up in a whole mess of criminal plotting. 

Going into this film you can convince yourself that it’s going to be a simple thriller, and you would be wrong.  The film doesn’t revolve around one thing, one McGuffin, or one plot device.  There’s loads of them, and for the most of the film writer and director Drew Pearce is trying to set them up.  So that means quite a baggy middle, where your expecting cheap thrills but getting a lot of chatting, and emotion.  Thus, the film almost becomes a massive anti-climax, however thanks to a 94-minute run-time and some surprise ultra-gore the last 20 minutes are entertaining.  Which was a huge relief, because honestly I thought it was never going to get going. 

During that baggy middle there is a strong attempt for an emotional connection through the Jodie Foster character.  She’s likeable, and it’s nice to see Foster again, but her story was too familiar and predictable.  There’s a twist involving her past that wasn’t needed, and you don’t really care about her demons until the very end.  And fair enough to Pearce because it does get more touching as it goes on, it was just a bit dull?  A lot of the routes the film goes down were unoriginal, including some of the action, which lets the good concept down.  It’s like: here’s this exciting idea, about future criminal cultish stuff, but let’s just fill this world with things that everyone has seen in every crime movie ever.   


Thankfully Pearce elevates his weak writing with some competent film-making.  The action isn’t shot amazingly, but it’s exciting enough.  Pearce uses violence well – it’s extremely strong and used in short bursts.  I was also a fan of the films look, especially when it changes its colour palette towards the end.  The characters are fun and well played.  Goldblum in anything is great, Charlie Day was very funny and Dave Bautista continues to impress.  Some critics have called the film lacklustre, and I would disagree with that because of how enjoyable little individual moments were. I was a bit confused by the films messages, and the film gets caught between being political and silly so who knows what they’re trying to say.  Overall the film is likeable, short and full of watchable people. 


Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?