The Favourite – Film Review

Yorgos Lanthimos is a unique film-maker, with a unique style that is sometimes tricky to get on with. His characters usually have a strange, disconnected dialogue, and they are alienated from any kind of real world, which means that they all seem like the same person. The experience is one of mild amusement, that is boosted by Yorgos’ fantastic eye for detail, and composition, however his films always feel as though they are missing something. I think he has discovered that something with The Favourite.

Set in early 18th century England, a weak Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lays in bed, whilst members of parliament come and go to advise her on the war against France. Sometimes when they visit, she is too frail to see them, so her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs in her place. Sarah has to deal with the bickering between the Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) and leader of the opposition Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Quickly we see Sarah’s resilience and strength against them, with Weisz fierce biting tone. During these discussions on which tax to raise so that they can afford to keep fighting against the French, a new servant arrives – a young woman who has ‘fallen from grace’ after her father went mad, and burnt down their manor with his family still in it. Abigail (Emma Stone) rises through the ranks, and soon is promoted form servant to Sarah’s maid, where she can begin to closely interact with the Queen. They build a relationship that is different to the one Anne has with Sarah, and so jealously, and scheming starts to strife between the three of them.

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The triangle is where the film is, and where Yorgos’ comes alive as a film-maker. He has loosened his grip on his style to allow the characters and actors to breathe. Each of them feels alive with their own strengths, weakness, desires and needs. Lady Sarah is controlling, and sharp – she understands the needs of the country, whilst worrying about her own husband (Mark Gatiss) going to war. Her relationship with Anne is loving, and their history is clear, but Sarah is often cruel to the Queen, being the only one not scared to put her down. Anne doesn’t need putting down any further, as she has an eating disorder, stuffing her face when she’s sad, and she’s in constant pain thanks to a serious gout infection. She relies on Sarah, but gets upset when Sarah is mean to her, consequently Abigail is a breath of fresh air for the Queen, and tells her exactly what she wants to hear, that she is still beautiful and respected. Stone’s character is someone who has had to learn how to survive, and there is an unmatched tenacious, persistent attitude to her. The way the three actors play them is superb, and their chemistries are strong but different. Colman and Stone coming together is about excitement, and fun, where Weisz coming together with Anne is about affection, and honesty. Yorgos frames them without showing off, and allows them to move, and act. He lets them act! Colman’s performance at first is almost a Sophie from Peep Show level of absolute disgust, then we learn that there is a deep sadness to her, and a particular scene with her and Stone in the middle of the film is totally heartbreaking. Weisz is tougher, and scarier, especially late on where her physical appearance changes, and her aggressiveness is personified. The standout is Stone, because she goes through so many different levels of emotion, and it’s not fully transparent how much of her is simple manipulation to get what she wants. She is transfixing when she is on the screen.

All of that lovely character stuff aside, the film is of course very funny. Yorgos has never had any trouble with humour, his 2015 film The Lobster wins you over because of the strange laughs. In this film, the script has more heart to it, and thus the humour is more joyous, and quotable. There is a scene where young suitor Masham (Joe Alwyn) is chasing Abigail around a woods, that is genuinely hilarious, but there are little lines throughout that will get you. A lot of this comes from the male characters in the film, because they are quite farcical. Nicholas Hoult is terrific as a golden scumbag, James Smith as the Prime Minister who is obsessed with his racing duck is amazing, if you are a fan of his portrayal of Glenn Cullen in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (his character in the film is great any way), and any Joe Alwyn – Emma Stone interaction was loads of fun.

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The film in the end becomes less of a silly period comedy, and more compelling as view of where the characters are situated, sort of in the air of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) . There is a certain change in the scenery, and set up of power around the Queen by the final scene, and the gear down to this in the penultimate moments is completely engrossing. Even in the very last shot, where Yorgos is suddenly portraying a different message to the one pushed during the majority of the film, it is still very moving. The balance of comedy and drama is the line to sell when describing the success of the film, and you can’t argue with that. This is an accomplished piece of work, that will reap the rewards of time and repeat viewings.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes! The film is split into sections, or chapters and it is worth going to see just for the one titled ‘What an outfit!’

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.

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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.

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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)

Suspiria – Film Review

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

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

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

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

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket? 

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

Widows – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

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

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.

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My Mid-Year Top 10 Films of 2018

Last year I did this to see if anything stayed in my top ten till the end of the year, and it was interesting because not a lot did.  This year I’ve seen way more films, so it should be a better standard of list.  And are lists boring? Yes probably, and there have been plenty of tweets lately saying how it’s annoying that male critics do them all the time, but I like them.  I like them because when people find out that I see most big releases, they always ask me for recommendations, so this list is for them.  Some disclaimers: firstly, I don’t see everything, especially not all smaller movies and I usually don’t get to them until about a year later, but I have seen 37 movies this year, which is a pretty big sample size for six months.  Secondly these are UK releases, so you might see a couple of 2018 Oscar films, but if they came out this year in England, they make it into this list.  And thirdly this isn’t a list based on quality but instead my own personal enjoyment scale.

 

10.  Annihilation (March)

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The fact that this only came out on Netflix in the UK was so sad, because I was relying on my rubbish internet connection for a good quality image.  That aside the film was really interesting and has a couple of moments that are imprinted onto my mind.  I’m not usually a massive fan of Natalie Portman, but this was about the best thing she’s ever done.  Her character is really dark, and troubled, to a point where it’s reflected in the horrors of the film.  Writer and director Alex Garland is a bit of a hero of mine, and I’m eager to watch this one again.  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/03/13/annihilation-film-review/

 

9.  Hostiles (January)

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This is probably the most underrated film of the year so far?  Right from the opening of this movie I was sold to this gritty, but beautiful western.  On a visual level it’s breathtaking, and it has some of the best performances of the year.  Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike are terrific, and it has a stellar supporting cast.  The score adds another gorgeous layer to the film, where composer Max Richter used some funky instruments to make some ambient sounds.  It doesn’t thematically reach the heights its aiming for but I cannot recommend this one enough if you missed it!  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/01/07/hostiles-film-review/

 

8.  A Quiet Place (April)

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I knew I would like this film from the trailer, and it didn’t disappoint.  It’s a series of plot devices mashed together to make a really effective thriller.  John Krasinski and Emily Blunt are both great, and the movie absolutely silenced the cinema I was in.  Is some of the narrative a bit annoying? Yes however the conceitedness brings enough excitement to pull it through.  The scene with the fireworks is one of my favourites so far this year (I might do a list of best scenes).  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/04/07/a-quiet-place-film-review/

 

7.  I, Tonya (February)

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This one surprised me by how much I loved it.  The way they told this true story was totally engaging, and honest.  It has a great central performance from Margot Robbie, which I thought should have won the Oscar.  The film has the best editing I have seen for a while, where it brilliantly switches from comedic beats to dramatic ones.  It also has some exquisite cinematography during the skating scenes.  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/02/07/i-tonya/

 

6.  Ghost Stories (April)

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An actual scary horror film!  I’m a sucker for a British film that reaches for the heights of genre and this does exactly that.  There are plenty of jumps throughout, but the last 20 mins is properly haunting.  The characters are alluring, and I liked the way the story pretty much drifted away into something different by the end.  It has large budget sensibilities as well, which not a lot of smaller British movies achieve.  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/04/10/ghost-stories-film-review/

5.  You Were Never Really Here (March)

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When I came out of this one I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not.  Thinking about it makes me realise how brilliant it is, and how much I enjoyed it.  Joaquin Phoenix is a marvel of an actor, and with director Lynne Ramsey makes a richly intense movie.  Her choices to subvert our expectations about what the film should be really worked, and made for a more colourful experience.  It will pick at your brain, rather than thrill you.  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/03/14/you-were-never-really-here-film-review/

 

4.  Isle of Dogs (March)

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I haven’t got a bad word to say about this stunning movie that is lovely on every level. Wes Anderson is now a master at his craft, and the detail in this film is outstanding.  The cast is of course extraordinary, and they each get their own moment to express themselves.  I went to the premiere and enjoyed the film, then loved it when it came out on full release.  Full review here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/02/23/isle-of-dogs-film-review/

 

3.  Avengers: Infinity War

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I definitely wasn’t expecting this to be up here!  I’m not a fan of the Marvel movies at all, and I wasn’t excited going in, but it absolutely blew me away.  I thought the action was fun, and brilliantly choreographed, and the plot quite daring.  There is so much I could praise about this film because each step it took made complete sense. And most of all it made me want to know what’s going to happen next for the first time in this universe.

 

2.  Phantom Thread (February)

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I really thought this was going to be number one right up until the end of the year because of how much I’m in love with this film.  It’s nuanced, thrilling and moving.  Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the worlds great artists, and the subtleties in this movie are genius.  It’s actually a perfect movie with an elegant final performance from Daniel Day – Lewis, and the most pleasing shot choices of the year.  A piece on the film and how it relates to health and eating: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2018/02/13/phantom-thread-health-and-eating/

 

1.  McQueen (June)

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This has just come in at number one, and for good reason.  I was captivated by the story of Alexander McQueen from start to finish.  I was amazed by his fashion, his art and him as a person.  It’s a dark story, where the filmmakers play on that with style.  The film is structured through different McQueen fashion shows, as he goes through his life and his craft moulding around him.  It brought me to tears through the sheer impact of his work, but also the heartbreaking nature of his psyche.

 

 

Here’s 11-20 with points reviews based upon Presentation (P – look of the film), Performance (PA – the acting), Narrative (N – the story) and Effect (E – Did the film have an impact on me?)…

 

11.  Lady Bird –  P: 2.5/3, PA: 3/3, N: 2/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 8.5/10

12.  Solo: A Star Wars Story – P: 2/3, PA: 2/3, N: 2.5/3, E: 0/1 – Final Score: 6.5/10

13.  Unsane – P: 2.5/3, PA: 2.5/3, N: 2/3, E: 0/1 – Final Score: 7/10

14.  Game Night – P: 2.5/3, PA: 2/3, N: 2/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 7.5/10

15.  Coco – P: 3/3, PA: 2.5/3, N: 2/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 8.5/10

16.  The Shape of Water – P: 2.5/3, PA: 3/3, N: 2/3, E: 0/1 – Final Score: 7.5/10

17.  Black Panther – P: 2/3, PA: 2/3, N: 2/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 7/10

18.  The Post – P: 2/3, PA: 3/3, N: 2.5/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 8.5/10

19.  Hereditary – P: 3/3, PA: 3/3, N: 2/3, E: 0/1 – Final Score – 8/10

20.  Blockers – P: 1.5/3, PA: 2/3, N: 1/3, E: 1/1 – Final Score: 5.5/10

 

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