To What Extent is Netflix Challenging the Validity of Conventional Film Criticism in Assessing the Value of Contemporary Cinema? (Essay)

Foreword:  This is a fully sourced, 3161-word essay on Netflix, that I wrote for a University assessment.  It received a first class grade, and I think that it handles the topic pretty well.  The main obstacle holding the essay back is the lack of meaningful academic research on the subject of Netflix and film, as most of the investigations on the platform revolve around TV.  Nevertheless, it is a burgeoning debate, and an interesting one if you follow the world of cinema, and having failed to sell this thing to any kind of publication, it will die a slow death on here where perhaps another student can find something within it.

Essay

The value of cinema is weighed on by two successes: financial and critical.  These two successes can intertwine, and occasionally what is popular is also deemed as artistically valid.  However, in an increasingly media saturated world where a wealth of content is at our fingertips, the artistic accomplishment of a piece of work could be irrelevant.  The voice of the film critic is perhaps dying, when we live in a society that no longer requires human gatekeepers for entertainment media, news media, or common opinion.  Netflix is the catalyst for this saturation and the instantaneous access of an unfathomable choice of movies to watch in the comfort of your own home, with it not only being a back catalogue of existing titles, but in recent years Netflix’s own original efforts, and own distribution method (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016).  This idea of choice is questionable, and to truly understand Netflix’s model, you have to try and decipher their techniques, which is not an entirely easy task, and Ramon Labato says in his book ‘Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution’: “While Netflix is an established global brand with 20 years of history, there is still very little agreement about what Netflix is or how it should be understood by the public, scholars, or media regulators,” (Laboto, 2019).  What is clear is Netflix’s popularity and dominance, as they have 137.1 million users as of 2018, their net profit in 2018 was $403 million, and they take up 51% of the market share for streaming services (Iqbal, 2019).   Their ‘Netflix originals’ have broken through to the mainstream, with their 2018 release Bird Box becoming an example of a ‘chat around the water cooler’ kind of popular culture (Bird Box, 2018).  And yet the film received a middling reaction from critics, and appears to add nothing of significance to its genre, so its success is confusing, though it is almost impossible to gauge its actual scientific success, because there are zero box office figures when it comes to video on demand.  On the other end of the spectrum is the film Roma, not a Netflix original but distributed by them, and except for a short, select cinema release, is only available to view on the platform (Roma, 2018).  The film has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece, was nominated for ten academy awards, winning three, and therefore its critical success is obvious, and outweighs its success in becoming a discussion point in the mainstream like Bird Box.  This is the starting point in wondering whether the values we put on contemporary cinema are changing.

To begin to understand Netflix’s impact on cinema, there must be a look at how the platform works.  As of April 2019 (it changes every month), there are 3,658 movies on Netflix in the United Kingdom (Cook, 2019).  On the homepage (of the desktop version) you can see a total of 228 films if you scroll to the very end of each section (Netflix.com).  This shows the disparity in what is instantly viewable when you first log onto the Netflix, compared to the amount of films that are on the platform.  Netflix’s system of recommendation is what dictates some of what is visible on the homepage, and so what a user is most likely to choose is algorithmic.  This creates the idea that there is a ‘myth of choice’ on the platform, that all of these titles are diluted down to a select few, through the analysation of the audience.  In ‘The Netflix Effect’ Sarah Arnold discusses the ‘data-fication’ of users, whereby viewing figures can be measured more accurately than ever before, which can lead to a predictable audience (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016).  She notes that Netflix subscribers can be reduced to “characteristics, attributes, and a narrow set of identities,” meaning that Netflix is putting a quick judgement on what a user would like to see, and the algorithm can work after one movie viewing, or one positive rating by the user.  Consequently a Netflix subscriber is more often than not going to be watching similar things, or at least what Netflix is recommending to them, which produces a strange relationship between consumer and seller.  Netflix has become a new gatekeeper for content intake by the masses, by partly cutting out the middle man, the middle man being the critic or the box office numbers.  On a rudimentary level they have almost negated word of mouth, and moulded the word of Netflix.  From this ‘data-fication’ of audiences Netflix can understand mainstream behaviours and wants as a whole, and thus re-create what the masses want.  Of course this is not a completely new phenomenon in the movie business, because since the dawn of cinema Hollywood have been producing genres that are contemporaneously trendy, from film noir to westerns to buddy cop movies to violent male driven indies to superhero movies.  An interesting add-on about Netflix is that they are aiming for the easy monetary win, but also a lot of their ‘Original’ titles and back catalogue are low budget, niche affairs, however the audience’s discovery of these films is on themselves.  Subsequently there is a separate category on Netflix of forgotten films that has spawned a new kind of film journalism, where countless ‘Top ten Netflix movies you have haven’t seen’ features are published every week (agoodmovietowatch, 2019).  And this is an example of media synergy, Netflix being a perfect tool for it, where internet brands can go hand in hand to help one another financially (Dong, 2019).  The movie news and reviews website ‘Film School Rejects’ has a partnership with Netflix, where they constantly promote Netflix films, and are therefore granted access to interviews/preview information on what Netflix is working on (Filmschoolrejects.com).  If popular contemporary cinema is becoming more centred on video on demand, then it is important to note how online media synergy can elevate certain platforms, and movies, through social media and online journalism.

Inevitably Twitter and sites like ‘Film School Rejects’ could be key in how a Netflix films gains serious traction in the day to day mainstream, never mind the covert algorithms of recommended sections and carefully crafted homepages.  The symbiotic online relationship that culture websites have with Netflix is fuel for pushing exactly what Netflix wants at the top of the pile, whereas the time and space between a cinema release and a Tweet can halt the process of promotion.  If you take a look at social media, aside from partnerships with film websites, Bird Box utilised tools like Twitter very well.  The film has a definite hook in its plot, a hook movie producers get excited about, where the characters cannot be harmed by the dangers of the world (the ‘creatures’) if they don’t look at them, and the main protagonists use blindfolds for this.  Consequently it created the ‘Bird Box challenge’, which entailed doing tasks whilst blindfolded, recording it, and uploading the video to social media.  It quickly became a meme, gaining millions of views from all corners of the world, and Netflix had to tweet warning people not to injure themselves doing it, also stating that they didn’t know how it started.  There is a naivety to saying that the challenge originated itself, as Netflix and the filmmakers would have been acutely aware of the motif, and hook they were creating with the blindfolds (Shoard, 2019).  It’s a gimmick and a starting point for audiences when they are discussing the film with their family and friends.  Furthermore this overnight internet trend highlights the power Netflix has in putting something at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist, because Netflix is so interconnected with the online world. Within a few clicks a user could go from a short article fluffing Bird Box, or a 30 second challenge video, to watching the film, which could partly explain the astronomical numbers that Bird Box pulled in.  According to a claim made by Netflix and later verified by TV measurement company Nielsen, 26 million accounts viewed the film (minimum 70% through the runtime) in the first seven days of its release in the US, and 45 million worldwide, but the second statistic has not been independently verified (Loughrey, 2019).  It is their second best reach for a Netflix original, after Sci-Fi series Stranger Things.  Although Netflix are able to share their data on a success, they are less inclined to share viewing numbers on something less successful.  Their only figure for Roma is that 50% of accounts in Mexico viewed the film, which means nearly 4 million, making it the second most viewed film in the country, behind Bird Box (Barnes, 2019).  The lack of information on Roma’s numbers as a whole is an indication of its lack of an audience outside of Mexico (its success in Mexico is unsurprising considering the visionary behind it, Alfonso Cuaron, is a national treasure there).  And of course the basic answer to the question as to why Bird Box is so popular globally, compared to Roma, is that Bird Box is a generic accessible thriller with a recognised star (Sandra Bullock), and Roma is a black and white, small plot film not in the English language.  However the more pressing questions are how Bird Box got so much attention, and how are the values of contemporary cinema changing when a film as applauded as Roma is only available on small screens, where it loses a sense of place in history.

That sense of place is one of the key issues with films distributed on Netflix, and the odd ownership that they have over something that has been classed of artistic importance.  Roma got a small, almost privileged theatrical release, where you had to live nearby a particular arthouse cinema to have any chance of seeing it on the big screen.  Other than that it is only watchable on whatever screen and internet set-up audiences have at their home, streaming the film through Netflix, there is no DVD, Blu-ray, or any trace of physical copy available.  Therefore, Netflix effectively owns a string of computer codes when it comes to the film, which means its place in history is fragile.  The film is loved almost universally by critics, having a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating, a statistic collated from 357 adjudicated professional reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019).  Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian gave it five stars, and described it as ‘a densely realised, intimate drama developing in what feels like real time.’ (Bradshaw, 2018).  Editor of Little White Lies magazine David Jenkins said in his review that ‘It stands as testament to the awe-striking complexity of humankind.’ (Jenkins, 2018).  In all of the Roma reviews there is a recurring theme that the film is totally cinematic – Cuaron’s use of widescreen, the endless depth of field and the extraordinary sound design built for Dolby speakers being examples of this.  Yet only a lucky few got to see it in cinemas, with Netflix taking away the opportunity to get the full experience of the film, and Bradshaw notes that Netflix has been accused of ‘supressing the big-screen identity of its own product.’  Netflix users are relying on their bandwidth to watch the film in full resolution, and the strength of their in-built laptop speakers to enjoy the scope of the narrative.  Ergo Netflix are diluting a filmmaker’s message down, with simple technicalities of their platform.  It was not only the critics that loved the film, awards ceremonies did too.  The most prestigious of them all, the Oscars (Academy Awards) gave Roma ten nominations, and three wins: Best Director for Cuaron, Best Cinematography for Cuaron, and Best Foreign Language Film (The Irish Times, 2019).  Even though Netflix proudly champions Roma’s critical success, plaudits of this kind are almost irrelevant to them because the film hardly broke into the mainstream.  If you compare this to the critical response to Bird Box, it becomes obvious that for Netflix it doesn’t really matter what the critics say.  Amy Nicholson of The Guardian gave the film two stars and called it a ‘disappointingly clunky waste of a star-studded cast,’ and it has a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, collated from 147 critics (Nicholson, 2018) (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019).  This cold response from critics does not match the film’s success on Netflix, and interestingly the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 59%, from 6,354 user ratings.  It is a tiny sample of the amount of people that watched the film, and completely unreliable, but it gives the impression that the regular Netflix subscriber was not thrilled by the movie.  Furthermore, it is possibly showing that what is valuable is completely changing when it comes to Netflix products, with something not necessarily having to be good for it to be successful.  It is less and less about the art, and more about how you can package and market it in an online world.

The value of a critic is not entirely going away.  In Roland Barthes essay ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’ he is assessing the danger of cultural evaluation, when it creates a split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or the privileged and the desperate, the educated and the unaware (Barthes, 1971).  He says: ‘Cultural Criticism, that is, must be impatient, it cannot be carried on without desire,’ which concludes his point in the essay that criticism cannot be given up on, despite it creating a gap between classes of people, it must continue to serve.  The void between those that respect and follow a critic’s view, and those that are ignorant to it is larger than ever, with the latter sitting in the mainstream with Netflix.  Therefore critical response is not invalid, but perhaps blunt to the power in numbers that Netflix has and their only real scrutiny has come from the old guard of cinema.  Legendary director Steven Spielberg shot out at Netflix, saying in an ITV News interview: ‘I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination,’ (ITV News, 2018).  He believes that Netflix releases should not have the same value as theatrical ones, and whether they are good films or not they have committed themselves to the television format.  This superior thinking again shows the gap between films ruling classes – the cinephile and the mainstream audiences.  Netflix responded to Spielberg say that they ‘love cinema,’ and what is important to note is that Netflix loves diverse cinema (Pulver, 2019).  It is easier for Spielberg to get his family blockbuster movies into cinemas, and less easier for other directors, such as Cuaron.  He questioned after his Golden Globes win, how many theatres he could get a film like Roma into (no recognised stars, not in the English language etc), and its paradoxical to think that Netflix are simultaneously lessening value of films whilst also allowing chance for films with more artistic value to obtain a bigger audience (Variety, 2019).  And arguably the greatest director of his generation Martin Scorsese has also made a film for Netflix coming out in 2019, but it’s not only these recognised artists getting a chance on Netflix, minority voices are getting backed on the platform as well.  Bird Box is directed by a woman, Susanne Bier, and female directors are still sparse in Hollywood.  It has films from Gareth Evans and Duncan Jones as well, other directors who have struggled to get their films financed (Netflix.com).  This quantity, variety and scope of Netflix releases means that major critical organisations cannot ignore them.  In the editorial of the May 2019 issue of Sight and Sound, Nick James writes how the Cannes Film Festival and others can keep their purity by dismissing Netflix films, but Sight and Sound cannot, because of the quality and interest in the works on the platform (James, 2019).  He writes how they must be selective of what they review, because of the sheer amount of film releases available to cover, meaning that Netflix is taken over cinema so much that the critics cannot keep up with them.  Respected magazines like Sight and Sound have to put value on video on demand movies because of the inevitable strength of them, and so critics in this sense give films a value they would be missing if they were un-reviewed.  Ultimately though there is little evidence to show they will sway a Netflix films impact on popular culture.

In conclusion Netflix is changing cinema in many ways, and one of them is the disregard of praise or criticism in taking away or giving value to contemporary cinema.  It all comes down to what is deemed as valuable, is it artistic accomplishment, transgressive meaning, culture changing or monetary success.  Some would argue that the days when a film is of artistic quality and mainstream popularity is long gone, and that contemporary films are worse than ever.  Netflix is not fully to blame for this view, their power to be successful with a poor product because of interconnect-ability online is slightly separate.  The climax to the first stage of the decade dominating Marvel cinematic universe Avengers: Endgame broke all box office records easily, and is deeply engrained into the systems of society (Boxofficemojo.com, 2019).  It is an expertly made film, but has its criticisms, such as being a silly distraction to real world realities, having abhorrent moralities around grief, and it ensures Disney’s complete monopolisation of the movie business (Brody, 2019).  A film journalist has to prepare for some flak from the fans if they publish a negative review of the film, even questioning its issues causes them to receive tweets about how they do not know how to have fun (Shoard, 2019).  And this is what is at the heart of popular culture, the centre of what people see and talk about, the validity of the product is clear when it is shaping the world around us.  And in the end, critics struggle to place value in the world other than in their niche group of readers, who can speak of the greatness of Roma without really being heard, living in their own analytic entity.  D. N. Rodowick sums this up perfectly in the preface to the second edition his book ‘The Crisis of Political Modernism,’ he says: ‘reading (critically) is a performative act, and an active construction of meaning, that not only challenges the preferred meanings of contemporary media, but also helps us recognise, and sometimes create, the utopian anticipation of forms of subjectivity, and way of thinking and desiring, that are occluded in contemporary society,’ (Rodowick, 2019).  This was written in 1994, but applied to this essay, it realises the value of film criticism, or any criticism, is situated around form and content, the messages between the photo print, no matter where it comes from.  Netflix may be a new machine to show the large audiences controlled, autonomous products, that they will unknowingly ingest, but criticism remains the same in revealing the products weight in the world.

 

Bibliography

  1. (2019). 23 Best Movies On Netflix You Haven’t Yet Seen. [online] Available at: https://agoodmovietowatch.com/netflix/23-best-netflix/ [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  2. Barnes, B. (2019). Just Who Has Seen ‘Roma’? Netflix Offers Clues. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/business/media/roma-netflix-viewers.html [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].
  3. Barthes, R. Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers: ‘Ecrivains, intellectuels, pro-fesseurs’, Tel Quel 47, Autumn 1971.
  4. Bird Box. (2018). [film] Directed by S. Bier. California: Netflix.
  5. com. (2019). Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Box Office Mojo. [online] Available at: https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=marvel2019.htm [Accessed 8 May 2019].
  6. Bradshaw, P. (2018). Roma review – an epic of tearjerking magnificence. [online] The Guardian Online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/29/roma-review-alfonso-cuaron [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  7. Brody, R. (2019). Review: What “Avengers: Endgame” Could Have Been. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/review-what-avengers-endgame-could-have-been [Accessed 8 May 2019].
  8. Cook, S. (2019). Netflix Libraries – World. [online] Public.tableau.com. Available at: https://public.tableau.com/profile/samuel.cook7370#!/vizhome/NetflixLibraries-World/Dashboard1 [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
  9. Film School Rejects. (n.d.). Film School Rejects: Movies, TV, Culture. [online] Available at: https://filmschoolrejects.com/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].
  10. ITV News (2018). Steven Spielberg on the threat of Netflix, computer games and new film Ready Player One. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hTTvO50QTs [Accessed 7 May 2019].
  11. Iqbal, M. (2019). Netflix Revenue and Usage Statistics (2018). [online] Business of Apps. Available at: http://www.businessofapps.com/data/netflix-statistics/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
  12. James, N. (2019). Streaming The House Down. Sight & Sound, (Volume 29, Issue 5), p.5.
  13. Jenkins, D. (2018). Roma Review. [online] Little White Lies. Available at: https://lwlies.com/reviews/roma/ [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  14. Lobato, Ramón. Netflix Nations : The Geography of Digital Distribution, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northumbria/detail.action?docID=5345765.
  15. Loughrey, C. (2019). ‘Nielsen backs Netflix claims that Bird Box is a massive hit’. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/bird-box-netflix-movie-sandra-bullock-stream-viewing-figures-official-nielsen-a8718931.html [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].
  16. McDonald, K. and Smith-Rowsey, D. (2016). The Netflix effect. 1st ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, p.5.
  17. com. (n.d.). Netflix United Kingdom – Watch TV Programmes Online, Watch Films Online. [online] Available at: https://www.netflix.com/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].
  18. Nicholson, A. (2018). Bird Box review – Sandra Bullock’s Netflix thriller is a bird-brained mess. [online] The Guardian Online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/14/bird-box-review-sandra-bullock-netflix-susanne-bier [Accessed 3 May 2019].
  19. Pulver, A. (2019). Netflix responds to Steven Spielberg’s attack on movie streaming. [online] The Guardian Online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/04/netflix-steven-spielberg-streaming-films-versus-cinema [Accessed 7 May 2019].
  20. Rodowick, D. (1994). The Crisis of Political Modernism. 2nd ed. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  21. Roma. (2018). [film] Directed by A. Cuaron. Mexico: Espectáculos Fílmicos El Coyúl, Pimienta Films, Participant Media, Esperanto Filmoj.
  22. Rotten Tomatoes. (2019). Bird Box (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bird_box [Accessed 3 May 2019].
  23. Rotten Tomatoes. (2019). Roma (2018) – Rotten Tomatoes. [online] Available at: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/roma_2018 [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  24. Shoard, C. (2019). Avengers: Endgame may well be brilliant – but the pressure to say so isn’t | Catherine Shoard. [online] The Guardian Online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/26/avengers-endgame-critics-film [Accessed 8 May 2019].
  25. Shoard, C. (2019). Netflix warns viewers against Bird Box challenge meme: ‘Do not end up in hospital’. [online] the Guardian online. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jan/03/netflix-bird-box-challenge-meme-sandra-bullock-blindfold [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].
  26. The Irish Times. (2019). Oscars 2019: The full list of winners – Roma, Green Book and more. [online] Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/oscars-2019-the-full-list-of-winners-roma-green-book-and-more-1.3804488 [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  27. Variety (2019). Alfonso Cuarón – Golden Globes – Full Backstage Interview. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEyR9m_GlWE [Accessed 8 May 2019].
  28. Xuebing Dong, Yaping Chang, Shichang Liang, Xiaojun Fan, (2018) “How online media synergy influences consumers’ purchase intention: A perspective from broadcast and interactive media”, Internet Research, Vol. 28 Issue: 4, pp.946-964, https://doi.org/10.1108/IntR-08-2017-0298

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Us – Is Being Less Scary, and More Funny, a Bad Thing?

The short answer is no, of course not, and the short take on Us is that it is great – an accomplished piece of work and a crowd pleaser. Jordan Peele has proven himself to be a skilled director, but the man just can’t help but be funny. He’s got joke blood running through his veins, that is transforming into his screenplays, except that Us is certainly funnier than Get Out, so it must be a conscious decision on some level. The real question is how detrimental is this to the drama, or the emotional engagement of the film.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a member of constantly bickering but functional family, and someone burdened with childhood drama. She’s married to Gabe, the walking talking version of a dad joke, and is the mother of two idiosyncratic children. Whilst returning to the location where her trauma took place, she begins to relive her troubles, until her worst nightmare comes true when a doppelganger family appears to torment them.

u.gif
The film on a base level is terrific. It is a well-made, well-performed addition to the horror cannon and thoroughly entertaining. From the outset Peele replicates the energy from Get Out with fluid and rhythmic filmmaking, there is even a moment where Adelaide shows her son how to get in beat with a song, and as an audience you match that too. The film takes its time to get to the crux of the story, but it is not a slow build, thanks to some clever writing and interesting shot choices – Peele is putting things into place for later, such as Adelaide switching on the lights to cut to the room being flipped around. And when the plot gets going, we have spent enough time with the main family to care when their lives are in danger. The relationship dynamic between Adelaide and Gabe is a strange one, however possibly explainable. Gabe is wonderfully played by Winston Duke, and making his third only big-screen appearance he is the perfect nerdy dad. He’s cringe-worthy to his children, annoying to his wife, but likeable and endearing. His character as a whole though is basically a joke and around for much of the humour, even poking fun at Adelaide when she explains her trauma to him. They seem like a mismatched couple, because Adelaide is cool and reserved, while Gabe is a massive dork, and I know – opposite’s attract right? I was just thinking why on earth she would go for this guy. An answer could be that her lack of social skills goes well with is outgoing, loser attitude, but I think it’s valid to wonder if the intensity of the film is blunter because of their lack of a connection.
What the film manages to do is dodge the Gabe character being pointless, by making him genuinely hilarious. I’ve tried to tackle comedy before, and it’s tough, because how do you describe funny? Duke’s timing works, Peele’s a comic genius, and above all else people that are likeable and silly are funny. There you go. He’s not the only source of humour though, there are plenty of physical and musical gags as well, and these moments got the whole cinema laughing, so much so that there was an overlap to where they were still giggling when something more horror-fuelled was going on. Is that a bad thing? If you would have asked me that question after I saw Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, I would have said yes, totally the jokes take away from the emotion of that film. However with Us I didn’t feel that way at all, and I know why, it’s because of how funny the comedy is, and the competence of the directing. I don’t want to dog on Three Billboards too much, I’ve done that several times before, but the directing in that film is dull, and Peele’s directing in Us is precise and interesting. Even something as simple as the family walking to the beach was shot with style, choosing to take the camera in a god’s eye view position. The film is lit superbly, with the night time horror scenes not being so dark that we couldn’t get a good look at the action, and the editing really astounded me – the climactic fight was remarkable in the way that it was cut together. So my take is that when you have such expert film-making on the go, you can blend humour, and horror, and drama altogether, you’ve earned the right to do so. And when you have an actor at the top of the game like Elizabeth Moss in there as well, you’re really onto a winner.

us 2 gif.gif
I think that overall the film is an entertaining thriller that has contradicted some of my criticism that you can’t put comedy and character drama together. The film doesn’t have any real scares, and it’s exciting rather than spooky, also Peele was skimping a bit on the gore. It’s gruesome enough but a couple of times he shied away from the violence, and it didn’t add anything, which made my sick side wish that I got to see the throat being cut open. I don’t come from a position where I can accurately pick apart the films underlying race themes, or its attempt to present the United States as a whole. What I can say is that the way it presented trauma through the Adelaide character worked for me, thanks to a pretty amazing performance from Lupita Nyong’o. She is a screen grabbing actor, almost ethereal and mystifying, in both of the roles she is playing in this film. Peele hasn’t created a ground-breaking movie that perhaps he did with Get Out, because everything is a little vague and the plot runs away with itself at the end. Get Out was more purposeful and despite my enjoyment of Us, some of the horrors were lost at the expense of humour, but the impression I got is that Peele was going for that. Instead of something profound he’s gone for something more genre specific, and punched himself into horror history.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Methodical and Melancholic

In an interview for Little White Lies, film-maker Barry Jenkins said that in his early 20’s an ex-girlfriend gave him Giovanni’s Room (1956) to read after they broke up, as she hoped it would help him to mature as a person. I saw this, and ordered the acclaimed novel of Amazon straight away, not really in an attempt to grow up (though perhaps I need it), but more as an attempt to match my intake of art with one of the great working artists. For those that don’t know, Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin about a man living in Paris, who has an incredibly sensual affair with a barman called Giovanni whilst he is waiting for his girlfriend to return from Spain. The book covers the burning passion of the encounters, and the subsequent guilt afterwards, along with the trials of the heart the characters put upon each-other. It is a remarkable experience to read Giovanni’s Room, and at 150 pages long, it only takes a few sittings to get through it, however the journey is so exquisite that you wish that it was longer. Like any piece of fiction that touches on love, I was entranced by it, holding onto every word, every sentence and every segment of dialogue. It is beautiful literature, that works as a narrator recollecting memories, reaching for emotions over specific events, and Barry Jenkins reproduces this style in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is an adaptation of one of Baldwin’s later works, that I haven’t read yet (it’s in the post), however you can see Baldwin’s prose breathing through Jenkins’ directing.

beale street

Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016) won ‘best picture’ at the Oscars, so you could say there was a fair deal of pressure on him for his next attempt, especially since many critics have cited that film as a masterpiece. Moonlight is an art-house film, that I enjoyed but didn’t love, because I think that it has more flaws than people care to point out, however I appreciate its importance and its technical mastery. Beale Street is a triumph, and a true adaptation of the feelings that Baldwin evokes in his writing, with my main point being that Jenkins has transformed a novel to a film, and not simply wrote a movie script from a book that he’s a fan of. It’s essentially a love story, about two young people who have grown up in the same neighbourhood together – Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and sent to jail, only learning that Tish is pregnant with his child once he is inside. Jenkins weaves the plot around this event, by showing the relationship beforehand and the attempts after by Tish’s family to free Fonny by clearing his name. The film has a rhythmic and lyrical sensibility to it, where scenes flow together smoothly, with the camera moving like a floating poltergeist watching down on their surviving family. It is soft and florid at times, creating a weightless and dreamy look to the flashback scenes of Tish and Fonny, but that doesn’t mean it is not vibrant, or lifeless. The colours are warm and hue-y, with Jenkins pushing in and out from the characters as though we are focusing in on their thoughts. A stunning score by Nicholas Britell is placed over the top of all this, and the music is where the film begins to strangle you, leading you to be lost in the world of the film. The track titled ‘Agape’ is the one that will break you. This melancholia is constantly present in Baldwin’s writing, as is an honest respect for romance, and lust, which Jenkins threads throughout the runtime.

Jenkins has made few films, and people have only been properly aware of him since Moonlight, but he already has his own style and signature moves. The most obvious example of this would be the way that he makes his actors stare directly at the camera, but much has been wrote about that, by far more qualified people than me. What I enjoy about his film-making, is his compassion and his lack of cynicism when it comes to romantic and poetic moments. He treats these moments with a tactile advance, and in Beale Street, you can’t help feel full of love and joy during these scenes. Whether its Tish’s sister telling her to un-bow her head, or a wonderful scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where Daniel tells him of the trouble he faced in prison. It’s a great scene not only because of the content of the discussion, but Jenkins positions it perfectly, where the camera slowly drifts from Fonny to Daniel as they speak and the performances the two actors give are completely captivating. The sex scene is endearing, where Jenkins elongates the build up in silence, until Fonny reminds her that she is safe, and that he would never hurt her. Jenkins fills the screen with their bodies, and we can see the sweat pouring off them, as they tentatively come closer together, framing them with no perversion, relying on their acute chemistry. Baldwin’s sex in Giovanni’s Room is much of the same, where it is formulaic to a point of mechanical physical contact, and people are attracted to one another so they do something about it, in an essence of sweetness and raw human nature.

beale street sex

Another aspect of Baldwin’s writing that Jenkins manages to capture is the story playing out like the narrator is recollecting memories. Tish is guiding us through the events with her voice, remembering details of how she feels physically, staying distant from what is actually happening. This makes the experience emotionally investing, because you are keying in and out of moments as Tish remembers them. Jenkins structures the film very precisely, where the time frame is very loose, cutting back and forth between before Fonny was imprisoned, to after, whilst making it unclear and unimportant how much time has passed. The film has an easy pace at the beginning, then suddenly we are introduced to the crux of the story (Fonny being falsely accused of rape), where the pace becomes quicker and sharper, and then Jenkins mixes the plot engrossment with more abstract notes of cinematography. It is less kinetic and more large brush strokes crossing across several canvases. The end painting is a lush one where the melancholia is obvious, yet it is the methodical way in which Jenkins situates the scenes of the film that make it powerful. It’s an editing feat by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, where they allow Jenkins to pragmatically flick back and forth through the story, to envision a climatic message that you’ve been lost in for two hours. More directly, the film is that gorgeous balance between wandering artistry and scientific story-telling, similar to how Fonny feels about his own work – he is an artisan, not an artist.

This isn’t a review of the film, but I haven’t even mentioned how alive the performances are, from all the cast. Many have pointed out Regina King’s matriarchal force, but I would look to the two leads, and Kiki Layne as Tish in particular because she is the real soul of the movie. Basically I was in love with this film as soon as it begun, and in awe, but also sadness by the end. It is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of systematic and societal racism crushing down on an innocent and affectionate relationship, and by staying close to a love story, Jenkins is uncovering more wider issues, something that James Baldwin did all the way through his career. He was a key cultural civil rights activist, something that Jenkins claims not to be, but of course he is inadvertently achieving that anyway through mirroring Baldwin’s behaviour. I don’t know why love and romance affects me so much, but Giovanni’s Room got me, as did If Beale Street Could Talk, and as have countless other tales of amorous sentiment.

baldwinfinal2_0
People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” – James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

 

GO AND WATCH THIS FILM. IT IS BETTER THAN ANYTHING YOU WOULD OTHERWISE SEE.

The Old Man and The Gun & Roma – Smiling Through Tears

Sometimes you fall in love with a film so much, that you simply want to say thank you to the film-makers. Thank you David Lowery, and thank you Alfonso Cuaron, you are two of my favourite directors working and your efforts this year are beautiful. I have been seduced by their latest films The Old Man and The Gun and Roma, swept off my feet, blushing red in my cheeks as I accept their proposal. It’s a proposal to feel something, two very different, but often similar feelings. Lowery with pure happiness and Cuaron with pure despair. Films are my passion because they effect me in a profound way, and perhaps it’s because I can’t get a grasp on true reality, as I’m always the weakest in the cinema, or in the case of Roma, the weakest in my bedroom. I cry at any slight emotion in a moving image, and when a film reaches peak form, my body shudders. I’m touched like an ecstasy high, near death, new years kiss force of nature, and I’m thankful to the film-makers for when that happens.

giphy (11).gif

If you are not familiar with David Lowery, you will be soon. He’s only 37 and got a few lovely films behind him, including one transcendent experience: A Ghost Story. A film about loss, grief, relationships and death, it’s a haunting piece of work, where it takes only a still from the movie to shatter me. This is where Lowery reached peak artistry, and so will forever be a great auteur in my eyes, but his latest film has touched a new nerve. The Old Man and The Gun stars Robert Redford, in reportedly his final film, as career criminal Forrest Tucker – a man who can’t help but rob banks, where ‘it’s not making a living, it’s just living’. He does it in the most charming way, where he dresses smart, walks casually up to the teller, smiles, and says that he has a gun and to put the money into a bag, then he walks out. Gentle police detective John Hunt, Casey Affleck, begins to notice Tucker’s antics as he goes from town to town, so he makes it his mission to catch him. I had a big grin on my face from start to finish during this film. Redford, of course, is the perfect screen presence, with his wry smile and the twinkle in his voice. His performance is joyous, whether this is his last film or not, but knowing that gives his character a melancholic edge. In the opening moments he meets Jewel, a widower played by Sissy Spacek, and their connection remains sweet throughout the film. Their relationship is endearing, tentative, and wonderfully hopeful. Lowery deals with this with such softness, and understands the language of an instant, easy friendship. The camera stays close and the shots cut are together delicately, with the sense that you could be sat at the table with the characters, but they wouldn’t notice that you was there.

I’m a Casey Affleck fan, he’s repented for his sins and his acting mesmerises me. When he is introduced into the film, his face is overflowing with a strange bored sadness, and the amount of empathy he is showing is endless. We are quickly friends with him, just as we are with the Redford character. When the two of them clash during the film, all I wanted was the two of them to become friends, and actually they don’t really clash. That is where film becomes completely likeable, because there is no unneeded conflict, no pointless obstacle to get over (even when someone gets shot, it’s brushed passed and solved quickly). Redford’s character is happy-go-lucky and geared totally in the present, and hopeful of the future. Affleck’s character is determined, but aware that once he has caught Forrest Tucker, he will be without a purpose once again. It’s sublime film-making, capturing instances of thrills and human connection, using absorbing actors to keep your attention. Late on in the film, it goes through Tucker’s several successful escape attempts from prison, and Lowery cheekily uses a shot of Redford from an earlier film. It was incredibly moving, seeing a younger version of him, and with his back catalogue including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, there is an added weight to the film. Lowery’s respect for story and characters made it a great film, and his compassion within the frames caused me to adore every second of it.

ROMA

SPOILERS! And it matters, it really matters…

Happiness over, now onto despair, with Roma. However despair does not sit alone in the film, and it is not a depressing runtime, as mixed with it is humour and affection, pulled together with astonishing technique. Cuaron, at this point, is a master of his craft. Y Tu Mama Tambien is amorous, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best franchise movie ever made and Children of Men sits on a pedestal of modern cinema. With Roma he is returning to his roots, almost literally, telling the tale of a middle class Mexican family in the early 1970’s, as they go through a family change. In the middle is their maid Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio, who is going through her own troubles, whilst looking after the house and the children. To say I was excited to see this film would be an understatement, I feel like I’ve been waiting for years to see this film, and despite all the controversy over a cinema versus Netflix release, I would have watched it on my phone if I had to. In the end, I watched the film on my laptop, but the visuals still impressed me. And oh my gosh are the visuals impressing – every scene is packed with life, real life moving along behind the main characters. The choice to shoot the film in black and white leads to engrossing imagery, that is both gorgeous and impactful, due to its starkness. There is a Fellini 8 ½ kind of depth to the shots, where the field of view is never ending but it definitely has Cuaron’s languid, lucid stamp on it too. He stunningly positions each moment in a dream state, whilst completely grounding the content with tangible meaning. This tangibility comes from the sound design, which is remarkable, even little noises like the folding of clothes gets you right in the soul.

The film is slow paced and building, and this is where Cuaron shines. He deceives us for most of the film with this portrait of privileged Mexican life, where the setting is an ambient bystander. Through these subtleties, and tentative interactions we are fooled by, and embraced by the world Cuaron presents, then he amazes us. There is a scene in the film where Cleo is taken to a furniture store by the family Grandmother to pick out a cot for the baby she’s expecting. A student riot is happening outside, and from the window of the store we see it explode, occurring in real time. It’s an unbelievable shot, that emits intense panic and fear because of the monotonous that has come before. I felt my bones shake, my heart stop, my blood curdle, and tears ran down my face. I’m probably a bit pathetic but I was floored by Cuaron’s skill and the emotion he cut out of this scene. And it doesn’t stop there, because this is when the despair comes in. This event, and what follows, results in Cleo losing her baby. It’s born dead, and that is an inherently sad thing, but the way Cuaron presents it makes it much harsher. He does not shy away from anything, and we see a frontally deceased baby, and that created honest despair inside me. My tears were suddenly not from raw, powerful film-making, and were from absolute anguish.

giphy (12).gif

I’m still not sure how interesting gushing about clearly brilliant films is. I’m trying to get people to see these films, and have a similar reaction to them. One of the downsides of having such visceral connections to film is that it can often be a lonely thing, where I’m wiping away my tears surrounded by blank faces, so it’s nice when I can share the feeling with someone. I’m looking forward to watching The Old Man and The Gun with my parents, especially my dad, because it’s a film almost from an earlier generation, that can bring joy to anyone. Unfortunately Roma is a tougher sell – foreign language, black and white, meandering pace, but everyone should give it a go, and be patient with it. It’s on Netflix so there’s nothing stopping you!

 

(Quick note: Roma could be a masterpiece, and much more could be written on it)

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.

giphy (10).gif

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.

giphy (9).gif

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.

giphy (6)

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.

giphy (7)

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.

giphy (8).gif

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.

firstreformed__article-hero-1130x430

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

Follow me on Letterboxd: rob_gresham

 

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.

Kramer vs Kramer 1

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.