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.

First Reformed – Religion, Faith and Silliness

(Spoilers!)

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.

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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.

Follow me on Twitter: @insiderobbie

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The Absent Female in Kramer vs Kramer

One thing that fascinates me about film watching is how our tastes change as we change.  The enjoyment of a film is based purely on your personality and life situation.  For example a friend recently told me he was really into old gangster films, so I asked if he meant like The Godfather (1972) and he said no, like Public Enemies (2009).  He said that he believed that it was the best gangster movie of all time, though I later found out he hadn’t even seen Goodfellas (1990) or any film of the genre before the year 2000.  However Public Enemies is the best gangster film for him because of his small research pool, and I would guess he probably wouldn’t enjoy a classic from the seventies.  The point being that what we like in a film is completely defined by who we are as a person, but also what we’ve seen in the past.  And then your tastes mature, because of the people you meet and the experiences you go through.  You ask me at sixteen whom my favourite director was and I would’ve probably said Quentin Tarrantino, in a typical teenage boy kind of way.  Go ahead four years and though his films are good, they can be slightly repugnant to me.  This is because I’ve changed, not necessarily in some gap year life affirming journey, but just in small ways.  Spending a lot of time with an intelligent and caring woman is a massive step to changing how you view films.  Suddenly those romantic films you adore seem silly because the girl you’re watching them with is telling you how inaccurate the portrayal is of the female in the relationship.  You start to notice where women are ignored or falsely portrayed for the sake of the director, because of this different perspective sat next to you.  Then your eyes are open, and they were firmly open to an absent character in the film Kramer vs Kramer (1979).

The film itself is great.  It is a simple concept (custody battle of the child of a divorced couple) told very gently, and it breezes by.  Dustin Hoffman (ugh) is fantastic as father Ted Kramer and gets wonderful treatment as a man creating a tight bond with his son, and understanding the perils of leaving your wife to become a bored housewife.  And the film pretty much focuses entirely on that – how Ted realises that he loves his son over his work and was negligent of his wife’s needs.  Yet we rarely see his wife’s point of view.  Joanna Kramer, played of course superbly by Meryl Streep, is absent for most of the movie after the first ten minutes.  She disappears and is shown to have abandoned her child.  Now she’s left for good reason, and that’s explicit, but the decision to keep her out of the frame and elevate this character arc from Ted is something I locked into.  It was under my nose because I’ve started to understand the role of the female in cinema more, because of my learning new values, following feminist writers on twitter and spending time with that female who has changed my life so much.  The idea is conceited yes, and I’m certainly no radical progressive or anything, but once you start looking for the disregarded female it’s hard not to see it.  So I’m sat there watching the film, wondering how harmful it actually is.  Yes the film ultimately has a positive message, and yes the idea is how Ted changes, not the dynamic of this new attempt at purpose from Joanna, however there’s part of me thinking the film could have benefited with more of her.  Not only thematically, but also stylistically.  The joys of the film come from Ted’s interaction with his son, any two shot of them is sublime, and Ted’s interaction with neighbour Margaret (who is also divorced).  Therefore a look at the other side with Joanna could have given the film something more?  Or perhaps it would have lessened the impact of the beautiful life transition Ted has.  There is a mark on the film, because the man wins whole heartedly, and the woman is shoved into the dark without a real chance to protest her point.  I’m not sure how big of a shame this is, because the film works, but it’s certainly a representation of how gender usually works in popular cinema.

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It is a classic film, and this criticism is probably a common one, considering it’s an Oscar winner that came out almost forty years ago.  I’m using it as an example to try and key into how I’m evolving as a person and how my film tastes are evolving.  At twenty I am always looking for a new film to get into my top ten, so that I can remove the stuff that’s been in there since I was that geeky teenage boy.  It’s cool to see how my attitude is changing, and all my favourite directors and critics are well over the age of thirty so I’ve got some way to go before I’ve reached their calibre of understanding what films really mean to me.

Phantom Thread – Health and Eating

This film is so perfect that I cannot review it.  It’s not possible for me, and like with last year’s Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 and Call Me by Your Name there’s a sense that’ll I’ll ruin the experience if I review it.  There’s more to the film then just if it’s good or not, if you should go see it or not.  You should definitely go and see it, even if it’s not the usual sort of film you’d go and see.  It’s worth every penny of your cinema ticket, trust me.  Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius auteur, and with Phantom Thread he’s hit it out of the park again.  The film is doing so many things that it’s really hard to comprehend it all.  It’s a dream-like parable, a character study on a creative obsessive, a romance, a ghost story, an abstract comedy and most of all a film about health and eating.

Read Mark Kermode’s review here for some context: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/04/phantom-thread-review-paul-thomas-anderson-daniel-day-lewis

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My own obsession of nutrition and dieting stems from the Joe Rogan Experience.  This terrific podcast, hosted by comedian and UFC colour commentator Joe Rogan, often has health experts on as guests.  They come on to de-bunk myths about food groups, and discuss the better ways to fuel your life.  Rogan himself is a fitness fanatic, who mostly keeps a strict Ketogenic diet and has a constant exercise routine.  The Ketogenic diet is very popular right now, and consists of a low carb high fat intake, which leads the body to naturally burn energy.  Many, including Rogan, proclaim it has improved their life drastically.  They feel less tired, less anxious and sleep better – not to mention being much fitter.  And that’s what a lot of people don’t realise about what they are eating, and how much it affects them.  It may seem silly, but if you’re particularly down, you should try and change your diet for the better because it is massively important.  The changes you make should be the correct ones though, and not the ones cycled out falsely for years.  Sugar is the worst, and saturated fat isn’t all that terrible.  The food pyramid taught in schools has in some way ruined the lives of many people who believe the wrong thing about what’s good to eat.  It’s outstanding the amount of people slowly poisoning themselves by eating loads of bread and pasta – foods our bodies just aren’t built for digesting.  The point is that what we put in our bodies has a huge affect on us, and Phantom Thread features a lot of eating – something that I think is significant in the film…

 

Breakfast

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Some of the film’s most amusing scenes occur around the breakfast table.  Woodcock’s day is ruined if he is unsettled whilst having his breakfast.  This means no confrontation, no loud buttering of toast or any form of interruption as he works.  He requires his mind to be totally on his work, and is uninterested by anything else whilst he does it.  Breakfast being the most important meal of the day is a fallacy really, but for Woodcock it is crucial.  He needs a clear mind, and doesn’t have the time for the worries of the women in his life.  This is because his dressmaking is everything, and to battle his anxiety and grief over his mother he designs constantly. He can’t tackle it any other way.  Eating can be a cure for anxiety, and often if you feel anxious, you probably just have an empty stomach.  Anderson uses breakfast, and Woodcock’s attitude towards it to show how geared he is to always be creating.  It also highlights his distain and boredom for almost anything else.  The scene in the beginning of the film where his current companion is bothering him with an argument shows how no-one comes close to his mother, or his work.  When Alma comes into his life, she too is annoying at breakfast.  Yet there is a bite to Alma, and she’s not going to be dominated by Woodcock.

Eating breakfast is usually an inconvenience for Woodcock, and he gets up to do some work first.  It’s not that he just doesn’t have time for confrontation while he draws, and picks at eggs, he doesn’t have time for the luxury of it.  The intensity in his creativity is ever-present during these scenes, and Anderson uses them as a starting point to build this strange character.  It’s the foundations of his extraordinary nature of a loveless, deeply focused man.  There also comes moments of humour from these scenes, where Alma inadvertently strikes back at Woodcock by being more annoying.  Being irritated by people’s weird little habits is a human thing, and so in a minute way we sympathise with Woodcock.  Only till we realise that all he needs is a bit of time to relax.

 

Indulgence (I love this bit of gorgeous physicality from DDL in this shot…)

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Every now and then Woodcock indulges to a great degree, and for particular reasons.  It comes when the anxiety has gone, and he feels brief moments of contentment.  For example early in the film when he meets Alma, and instantly has a connection with her, he is relaxed.  He’s in the country away from his work and he engages with someone who completely captures his attention.  And so he orders this extremely extravagant breakfast that seems to never end.  It’s interesting because often we indulge when we feel down, or are feeling lazy.  Woodcock indulges when he is on top of the world.  This is because he’s not fighting anything or chasing that desire to re-create the wedding dress he made for his mother.  He’s at ease, and so goes to the extreme when he’s eating.  There’s madness to this, because the meal he orders seems too big for anyone to eat.  Surely he would feel sick after all that food?  This indicates the dream-like nature of the film, and Anderson’s choice to use motifs to tell a story, rather than reality.

Woodcock only indulges on his own terms, and when Alma attempts to spoil him by evacuating the busy house and cooking him dinner – he’s not amused.  His controlling attitude and his need for everything to be precise come out in this part of the film.  It’s the first indicator of Alma losing faith in him and shows a broken dynamic between them.  There’s hopelessness to her admiration for him, and so it churns a cycle of events that lead her to take more drastic actions to get his full attention.

 

MAJOR SPOILERS…

 

Poison

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The third act revelation in this film is an interesting one, because it subverts our expectations to some degree.  Woodcock is built as the villain, and the one capable of malice.  Alma’s use of the poisonous mushroom to weaken Woodcock so that he becomes malleable and caring is not a plot twist but advancement in character.  It’s the use of a plot device to have character development instead of a narrative move.  Anderson uses as almost a point of romance, something the film is full of.  The outstanding soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood has lush romantic tones that sweep the film along.  And the relationship between Woodcock and Alma is gentle and loving at times.  The poisoning brings a new level of caring however, and removes the toxicity between them.  Woodcock’s health on the demise shadows thoughts about the care-system in general.  It’s the kind of thing where injured soldiers fall in love with their nurses.  Suddenly Alma is all he needs to survive.

Without our full health we become different people, and unable to fulfil our potential.  Woodcock’s revelation and subsequent submission indicates a massive change in his character.  Suddenly he is content, and changes his life to revolve around Alma, instead of the work.  This is because he has finally finished grieving for his mother and can move on.  He doesn’t have to seek perfection in his dresses, searching for the stitch that will bring the feeling of his mother back.  The right stitch has come in the form of this unbalanced and physically unhealthy relationship with Alma.  It’s a strange connection they have, but no doubt one full of actual love.

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This is a remarkable film.  It could be Anderson’s most accessible at the surface level, but still with a thick subtext.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ Woodcock is assured, though soft and idiosyncratic against Vicky Krieps’ insecure but charismatic Alma.  Their binding together is shown as a to and fro as they eat and live together.  Woodcock’s sister (Lesley Manville) intervenes, appearing to be the master of her own health and not the one bit unstable.  The instability creates the drama and the teetering edge that the film sits on.  At any moment the film could explode with anguish and take you away as the viewer.  In the end consumption and production drive the film, taking plenty of turns as it goes.  When something goes in, a change must occur, and I think Anderson stunningly shows that here.  There’s a mirror to the way the characters engulf and the way they act.  It works on every level, which creates a nuanced and utterly captivating experience.  There are layers, and what I’ve discussed is only one of them.  I cannot wait to see it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Reasons Why Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Not a Good Film

Few things first – this film is not terrible, it has some great things about it and if you want to read my initial thoughts here’s my review: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/01/14/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-film-review/.  I’m not writing this to hate on the film, but rather to try and understand why I didn’t like it and so many others did.  Martin McDonagh is a good director and In Bruges is one of my favourite movies of all time so this is not an attempt to slate him or the cast involved, because they are clearly very talented. The film just didn’t click for me, and here are five reasons why…

 

  1. Comedy Set – Up

This is something I discussed in my short review, because it’s probably the thing that stands out the most.  I saw the film with a big crowd, so when everyone laughed it was loud in the cinema.  There was also the sheep affect where if one person laughs, everyone else does.  From the very beginning the film is set up as a comedy with its staging, writing and character design etc so the audience was instantly laughing.  This meant that when it got to a less funny moment they were still giggling, because the film had settled them in to that kind of movie.  Consequently I stopped caring about everything that was happening, because the situations were comedic rather than dramatic.  I don’t think it’s particularly groundbreaking to make light out of serious situations or make a film that is laugh out loud funny (this film often is) that touches on deeper themes – Mcdonagh did it perfectly with In Bruges.  This film doesn’t work like that, as the situations are too outrageously portrayed.  It is made like a comedy, therefore everything out of that genre didn’t land and overall made the film uninteresting.

 

  1. Sam Rockwell’s Character

Rockwell is one of the most underrated working actors, and has loads of great roles behind him.  He’s great in this film as the twisted cop Dixon, but the character isn’t.  Similar to my first point he’s set up as a joke, to a point where he’s almost a Blazing Saddles character.  In the first half of the movie he’s a complete spoof of a racist, stupid, violent police officer.  So why should I care? He’s not written as a real person, and only becomes intriguing in the second half of the film.

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  1. Pointless Characters

This is the one that I find the most offensive, and it’s not really an offensive film.  It’s that the choices made by McDonagh on some of his characters are really strange.  Why is Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson – the highlight of the movie) wife 20 years younger than him and Australian?  There seems no explanation to this in the film, and it adds nothing to Harrelson’s character.  Everything in a film has to be there for a reason, but there’s no reason to write her as that?  Maybe it’s a weird artistic choice or maybe it’s because filmmakers have this perverse problem of casting younger women to be wives of their male actors.  Another character that is pointless and just played to poke fun at is Mildred ex-husbands new girlfriend.  She is shown as a complete idiot, who has no function at all other than to say something daft for laughs.  Ha ha ha! Do you get it?  The husbands ran off with a younger better looking girl! But she’s fucking tool! Isn’t that hilarious?  They’ve simply aimed for the lowest common denominator here, and for me made a really ugly decision.  Why does she have to be really dumb?  Is the film not funny enough already?  They could have made her a normal human, the ex-husband character is a horrible person already – him having a girlfriend with no brain cells doesn’t make him any worse.  Just because you have a female lead, doesn’t mean you can disregard every other female character as a puppet.  Also Peter Dinklage is totally unutilised in the film, and references to his height became too frequent and dull.

 

  1. Boring Direction

This film has one great piece of direction in it, and that’s about it.  The rest of it is shot very ordinary, and at times is quite disjointed.  For dialogue he just cuts quickly between each character, making every conversation lose weight and not once did I feel McDonagh try to say something with his camera.  As well as this he occasionally makes weird jumps to action that leave you feeling a bit bemused.  There’s a bit with a knife that is so out of character and out of place that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  It must have been another joke.

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  1. The Deer

I despise it when a director has a random bit of CGI in to break the drama.  In one scene Frances McDormand talks to a deer (that looks like a cartoon) to tell her everything that she’s feeling.  AGAIN, did we need that? It pulls you completely out of the film, and it is so cringey.  After that I gave up on it all.

 

 

Like I said in my review if you go into this film thinking it as a strange comedy parable, you’ll probably enjoy it.  However the poor choices McDonagh made lead it to be nothing more than that.  It is not a good film.

S/cene [3]: The Crown – Beryl (Episode 4)

S/cene [1]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-1-the-social-network/

S/cene [2]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-2-fight-club/

 

The idea of S/cene is to break films down a little more closely and see how nuanced the art of film-making can be.  This time I’ve chosen a short scene from Episode 4 (Beryl) of The Crown.  It’s a stunning TV series that has the production values of a big movie.  I enjoyed the first season (though I did have some problems with it, found here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/defusing-the-tension-in-drama/).  This second season, however, is a real triumph and each episode is made with gorgeous precision.  As soon as I saw this particular scene I knew I could write about it…

 

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Shooting Princess Margaret

To give this moment some context, it occurs around 37 minutes into episode 4.  This episode is where the season diverts from Queen Elizabeth to branch out to the other characters surrounding her.  It focuses on her sister Margaret who is having a torrid time romantically.  She is one of the most interesting characters of the series because of her ability to be more open with the way she acts.  I also think she is played superbly by Vanessa Kirby, who makes her both vulnerable and fearsome.  Recently, at some lavish (though slightly left-field of the monarchy) party, she met photographer Tony Armstrong – Jones, who is played by Matthew Goode.  It’s casting brilliance because Goode fits perfectly into this world, and has a striking look for a striking character.  The pair have an instant, if jagged, chemistry and when Tony offers to take a photo of her she takes it up – desperate for some fresh air.

The scene opens with Margaret pensively coming into Tony’s studio alone.  Outside the door window is a bright natural sunlight, somewhat symbolising the safety Margaret is leaving.  There’s a non-diegetic soundtrack on the go that is ticking, which is increasing the tension like a thriller would.  Tony shouts: “Upstairs” as soon as she opens the door, indicating very quickly just who is in charge here.  She passes a photograph of several men huddling around and staring at a singular woman.  This background image echoes Margaret’s life in the spotlight and the constant criticism she receives.  It then cuts to her sat waiting under the lights for Tony, and the soundtrack fades away.

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Next, Tony strolls in.  Unlike Margaret (who has a dress on), he is dressed casually with a loose tie and light coloured trousers.  His face is extremely thin, drawn out but still pleasant.  It’s this peculiarity in his looks that makes the camera draw to him, and make us follow his every move.  He says nothing as he enters and then retreats away.  Suddenly the light is on her, and off him.  He’s in the dark, adding more to the mystery of his character.  Purposefully he is making noise to unsettle her and it cuts between them.  They light a cigarette at the same time from different rooms, showing their connection and obvious chemistry.  Margaret gets up to look outside – perhaps thinking of an escape.

Eventually Tony returns to the room and removes his shoes, which enumerates more calmness to his nature.  He starts casually taking photos, and Margaret is clearly fond of him as she smiles.  Despite this effort at a bond from her, his dialogue is sharp – making sure he stays on top of this exchange.  Tony brings up her former lover Peter Townsend who she was forced away from, and the conversation becomes passive aggressive.  He’s edging closer; awkwardly pushing his camera forwards as the sexual tension grows.  The ticking soundtrack begins again.  It cuts to the side of them, almost a wide, in one of my favourite shots I’ve seen for a while.  The screen is split in almost two, her on the left out of the light and the camera on the right in the light.  He is invading her life as he moves the camera into the frame – breaking down her insecurities.  Standing over her, you can’t see his face as he moves her, then slightly pulls down her dress.  It’s a move of total power dominance, yet also sensuality as she gasps.  Tony has walked right into her world and taken over it.  The camera then follows him back and he says: “Do you miss him?” and she replies: “Sometimes”.  He takes the picture.

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This scene is excellent because it reveals so much about the characters in a short space of time.  Like the rest of The Crown it’s wonderfully executed – the lighting is warm, the camera moves gently and the acting is captivating.  Director Benjamin Caron really makes the scene engaging with all the subtle choices he makes, and allows this relationship to be fun to watch.  The Crown is so great because of how it’s made, not necessarily because of its content.  It’s the style of the show that makes it standout, and hopefully it’s been a good example of how the techniques of film-making (tv-making) are what creates the enjoyment of watching.

William Friedkin – The Imperfect Director

William Friedkin – The Imperfect Filmmaker

There is a problem with modern cinema, and that’s streaming.  Having things like Netflix, Amazon and Sky (as well as possible downloading) means that there are thousands of films at your fingertips.  Yet what kind of films are we watching on these services?  If you’re like me you research films before watching them – check out how they reviewed.  This has the unfortunate outcome of only ever watching things that other people like.  What about what you like?  I’ve seen enough films to know that a 6.5 on IMDb might be something that I really love.  The problem with having access to every film ever, is the lack of surprise, or risk you take seeing a random film.  There was a magic to catching a film late at night on the TV, then being pulled in by it.  So I would encourage anyone to delve out of their comfort zone, and look for films in the past that were possibly unpopular.  Search for left-field directors, who might have a style you gravitate to.  This is what I’ve been doing by going through William Friedkin’s filmography.  A legend of cinema his films have often been polarising, or just out-right hated, or loved.  He’s a filmmaker who is totally uncompromising and has an incredibly varied back catalogue.  I’ve now seen a fair bit of that catalogue, and why wouldn’t I share my unasked thoughts about them?  This is done in order of when the films came out, and not the order I watched them in.

 

The French Connection (1971)

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This film is like an action video game that has a tutorial soon as it loads up.  The tutorial is tricky, and it’s almost as if it expects you to know everything already.  Take a breath before watching this film and make sure you are in the right mindset.  Get past the 10 minute tutorial, and abstract introduction to the characters, and then sit back.  The rest of the film is Friedkin yanking you along with a big lasso.

This is a classic, and one of those films that fits into the loved category.  It’s been on my list for a while, and I was disappointed when I finally started it.  So much so that I turned it off, and decided to give it a go a different day.  Thankfully it was much better the second time around.  After the first 30 minutes the film really picks up the pace, and never stops moving till the end.  Friedkin is quite level-headed and subdued in his direction here.  It’s early in his career and he’s more of a steady hand then a visionary.  Despite that, it still has the great imperfections that I’m going to try and highlight.  Imperfections such as incongruous pieces of acting, or ridged cuts.  Gene Hackman is playing a disjointed character – saying and doing rash things.  This makes the film entertaining because as the central character he is unpredictable.  These are early signs of Friedkin not conforming to simple movie tropes.  He doesn’t need to take a break between action scenes or have additives to the plot.  That is the main thing I can say about this film, there are no add-ons.  There’s no need for a tacked on love-interest, or twist, or moments of pause.  Friedkin tells the story how it is – a policeman desperate to bust a drug dealer.  He is a visual director, someone who is concerned with cinema and not narrative.  It’s one of the things I love most about him – he does not care in the slightest about something if it doesn’t make the cinema experience greater.  There’s no fat in The French Connection at all.

I’m not sure that it completely holds up, and there’s plenty of stitching marks.  Yet its early signs of those errors, and scratches, and dirt on the lens that make Friedkin the great director that he is.

 

The Exorcist (1973)

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This whole piece is about how imperfections make things stand out and have character.  However this film is perfect in every way.  Perfectly paced, perfectly acted, perfectly shot.  Lightning really struck for Friedkin here.  Each scene is wonderfully crafted to aid the visual pleasure for the viewer, and the building of the plot.  The characters are all 3 dimensional, all relatable, and real.  They are acted with care and Friedkin creates a complex world for them to be in.  For me, it’s not scary, but gets it so right tonally that it is certainly unnerving & intriguing.

Each character is composed with style.  Jason Miller as Damian Karras is the standout, who has subtle inner troubles that makes him likeable.  He’s charismatic but unfathomable. The film took great risks, and Friedkin pushed everything and everyone as far as they could go.  It’s these risks, and leaps of faith (some literal faith) that make it so genius.  The themes of faith are deep-rooted in him as artist and it is a classic of theological storytelling. There is plenty of legend around this film, and whatever Friedkin did on set it certainly worked.  It’s timeless.

 

Sorcerer (1977)

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The beginning to this film is tough to follow, but if you allow yourself to settle in you will be rewarded with a breathtaking second half.  It’s a masculine film with lots of sweat and grunting.  The characters are frustrated, tired, pushed to their limits and its showing.  Natural human nature is emerging and the men at the centre of the film are starting to lose their minds.

Friedkin is excellent at capturing people doing things on screen.  He has this ability to shoot characters problem solving without it being boring.  This is particularly noteworthy in a spectacular scene about half way through the film when they have to blow up a massive felled tree to continue their journey.  It’s the simplicity of his camerawork that makes it compelling, and every second of that scene has weight behind it.  There is a real peril at all times.

Friedkin’s direction is so suspenseful throughout.  This film is thick, and sweaty. The characters are brash and heavy handed.  It’s clear that Friedkin just let the camera roll on them, because so much of the acting is idiosyncratic and personal.  This matches alongside the jarring electronic soundtrack that soon blends with the hearty visuals

The ending to this film is a spiritual experience and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  It’s profound in its use of music and colours with Roy Schneider at the centre being physically engrossing.  There is a mood to this film that can only be explained once you’ve seen it.  SEE IT.

 

Cruising (1980)

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The feeling you have watching this film is impossible to explain.  It has a strange intrigue and showcases everything that is great about Friedkin.  My favourite quote from him is: “If I don’t show it, it doesn’t exist,” and with Cruising he shows just enough.  It’s a murder mystery with the late 70’s gay BDSM scene as the backdrop, and Friedkin feels no need to make it anything else.  There are no political statements, just visual storytelling.  The film moves weirdly, and is mostly soulless yet it is fully engaging.  All the performances are convincing, with of course Al Pacino guiding the film.  Each small player is thought of carefully and has a reality to them.  Karen Allen’s character Nancy adds a lovely femininity to the film.  There is clarity during her scenes, and Friedkin doesn’t feel the need to push anything during them.  She’s involved in the final moments of the film, final moments that are hard to get your head around.  Is Friedkin trying to say something at last?

A lot of this film feels like the surface level of something much deeper.  Famously there is 40 minutes of lost footage that Friedkin had to cut to stop it from being X-rated.  It was basically pornographic material and in 2013 James Franco made a Documentary/fiction film about the lost footage called Interior Leather Bar.  That film delves into the ideas on what should be shown on screen, and how actors feel about shooting stuff like that.  It’s a weird one but tackles the question that I had whilst watching Cruising: “Where’s the rest of it?” There appears to be something missing from this film, something that would fit into audience expectations.  Never once does the Al Pacino character question his sexuality, and the gay scene is never criticised or praised.  It’s the reason I love the film, and Friedkin so much.  He leaves that out, making the film raw visual entertainment instead.  It doesn’t get bloated with ideas or dilemmas – it just tells the story. Most of all it has that magic quality and a bit of edge that makes it timeless.  What is that quality? Who the fuck knows the film just works for me.

 

To Live and Die in L.A (1985)

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There’s this odd memory about 18 rated films I have as a child.  It’s like I was scared of them – scared of that thick red logo.  Whenever I caught one in my grandfather’s collection I would be fascinated by it.  What makes that film an 18?  I wanted a bite of that forbidden apple.  To Live and Die in L.A is one of those 18’s I was scared of.  A violent thriller about corrupt policeman, and a villain with no boundaries.  There are explicit sex scenes, gore and moments of exploitation cinema.  It’s a brilliant, fun ride that does not hold back in the slightest.  Willem Dafoe is terrifying in this movie, playing a greedy sociopath.  His relationship with the people around him is distant but kinetic.  He’s an artist but a killer.  A business man but a maniac.  William Pietersen stars opposite and I adore him in this and Manhunter.  For my own personal film catalogue he is iconic to 80’s film.  In this movie he’s a conflicted, often unlikable cop, who is totally compelling.  His sex-fuelled relationship with Darlanne Fluegel is dripping with style and these smaller scenes are the highlight of the run-time.

80’s cinema can go three ways: popcorn joy, intense thrills or utter rubbish.  This is the second one and again Friedkin is working the visual art form to the extreme.  The film jumps from scene to scene, only allowing the audience in on some of the secrets.  Moral or ethical values are seldom, and Friedkin excites with his direction.  There are parts where this film is shocking, or uncomfortable to watch.  More than anything it’s brutally entertaining.

 

Bug (2006)

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Its 2000’s Billy Friedkin.  He’s known as a classic auteur but has had 20 years of pretty much flops.  Slowly he’s slipping into that aged director category, where his modern films are self servicing.  Bug throws all of that out of the water.  It’s not an easy watch but it’s a really strong (and strange) play adaptation.  Also it’s best going in not knowing much about it.

The film is dirty, and works like a horror.  Ashley Judd is magnificent as this spitting, bold, and clearly lost woman.  She has no direction and a past that is clinging onto her.  Suddenly Michael Shannon appears in her life as a complete enigma.  The film drudges along and they begin to unravel.  Shannon becomes manic and screen-grabbing in powerful spurts of monologue.  The colours and mise-en-scene are stark, and unnerving. The lines between imagination and reality are blurred, and it’s hard to grasp the meaning of it all.  The film moves with fragility until a total explosion in the climax.  This climax is true visceral cinema and worth the wait until then.

It’s definitely not one of my favourite Friedkin films as it has quite a dull plotline.  Though it is undoubtedly brave and left-field like the rest of his films.  And like the rest of his films it is worth watching.  That’s probably the best compliment I can give all of Friedkins work – worth watching.

 

Killer Joe (2011)

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After the first 10 minutes of this film, I thought what has Friedkin become?  What is this television looking, leering mess?  Then I quickly realised how grounded the film was, how great it was acted, and how Friedkin cuts all the fat away.  He leaves behind any sense of flair to give a bare bones story.  It’s crude and harsh.  Each character an archetype but also deeply complex.  There’s juxtaposition of beauty and real filth.  Hopelessness is constant, and a sense of danger imminent.  Friedkin is almost lazy with his camerawork but on the nose with his control of the narrative.

The now infamous scene with Matthew McConaughey and the chicken leg is disturbing, but I think gels with the rest of the film.  It’s repulsive but didn’t feel out of place.  The ugliness of this film is its outstanding feature and I was surprised with how engaging it was.  There’s no abstract emotional connection, or moments of clarity like his earlier films but the Friedkin-esque style shines through.

Synonymous with Friedkin’s work the film has a powerful ending that allows the viewer to ask their own questions.  I am hoping this isn’t Friedkin’s ending, as this is his last major feature.  He’s well into his 80’s now, but there must be another splash of mucky paint left in him.

 

William Friedkin

Billy Friedkin is a brave director, a risk taker – someone willing to go all the way.  He gets the best out of his actors and isn’t afraid to put them under some intense pressure.  Listening to him is like being in the presence of a thespian making his way through a Shakespeare sonnet.  His memory is outstanding and the stories he tells are mesmerising.  He has thoughts on films that are romantic and compelling but he’s not afraid of change – he welcomes it – he starts it.

These are just a small selection of Friedkin’s films as he has a fair few more.  Arguably the ones I’ve chosen are the only ones you need to see from him.  He has others that are heavily criticised, and a couple that are liked, as well as a plethora of documentaries.  He is imperfect because of all those failures, but when he gets it right it is an EXPERIENCE.