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

 

I tweet about films ALL THE TIME here: https://twitter.com/insiderobbie

Hereditary – Film Review

Boy was I excited to see this one.  Horror films are the greatest genre when done right, and this film has been praised almost across the board from critics.  The trailer was incredibly enticing, and I entered the cinema anxiously, worrying about how much the film would scare me.  How disappointed was I?

Toni Collette stars as Annie, a miniatures artist, whose mother has just passed away.  Her husband and two children (one a young teenager, one an old teenager) are dealing with the death in their own ways, however in their mourning something more sinister appears to be going on.

This is a classic case of great form not equating to a great film.  On a technical level this film is outstanding, with perfect cinematography, tight writing, and high class performances.  However the film struggles to find a hook or a point of interest by the time it’s done.  And this was properly disappointing because I got about two thirds of the way through and was thinking: this is good, but this is it isn’t it – nothing more is coming.  There was no ‘grab you by the throat’ plot point, and ultimately the film lacked meaning.

Focusing on the positives though, it is an expertly crafted couple of hours.  The film is beautifully shot, with Wes Anderson esque framing, and low key natural lighting.  It parallels stylistically between Annie’s miniature models and reality well, and the opening shot (an example of this) is sublime.  The acting is top draw – Collette is brutally engaging as a very emotive and often deranged mother.  There is a moment where she lists all the crazy things that have happened in her family, and is so captivating because of her delivery.  Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff are brilliant as the children; Wolff in particular is starting to impress me with his range of teenage sadness (Patriots Day).  I was also a fan of the quieter father role, played by Gabriel Byrne as he effectively becomes the only hero of the film.  These actors in the drama are what the film gets right, over the horror stuff.

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However not that all of the horror stuff doesn’t work.  In fact a lot of it is unnerving, and spooky.  One scene involving a séance was the only real scene that got me on edge, but overall the film made me uncomfortable (in a good way) throughout.  It was a little lacklustre at times that’s all, and even though the themes of the film work, (mental health issues passed down through a family like a curse), they could have been delivered with more vigour.  And they could have unpicked more things that they set up, because without spoiling anything, I got the feeling there is a much more interesting road this film could have gone down.  If you’re into slow burn horror movies, you’ll enjoy this, but you might not love it like some critics do.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes!

The Absent Female in Kramer vs Kramer

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

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

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

Love, Simon – Film Review

This film’s first trailer was appalling, and I had no desire of seeing it till a couple of weeks ago.  It’s had good things said about it, and the last trailer made it seem more appealing.  Basically it’s another teenage comedy of age movie, except here the main character Simon is gay, but hasn’t told anyone yet.  On his school’s blog that reveals ‘secrets’ about its students, an anonymous poster comes out to the world.  In an attempt to not feel so isolated Simon begins emailing this student, and suddenly his immediate life starts to change.

I think it’s important to note that this film is a proper middle to upper class painting.  The American class system is strange, but the film revolves around well off kids, whose main problems are trying to get into Ivy League schools.  Their parents are good looking, happy, liberal and successful who obviously love their kids more than anything else.  This is fine, just a little soul-sucking, because middling USA is so uninteresting.  Teenagers going to Starbucks, performing in a school play, and going to tedious parties is boring, so the films setting is a little dull.

What keeps the film from getting stuck in that setting is its main character.  Nick Robinson as Simon is great, and likeable.  He’s laid back, smart and believable.  Some of the decisions he makes to get the plot going in the middle are frustrating, and thin, but Robinson’s acting is good enough that you enjoy being in his company.  Other than that the adults are the best thing about the film, with Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell as the teachers having the funniest moments.  Simon’s parents are also played well (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and they steal the emotional scenes late on in the film.  The other kids are fine, but aren’t given anything interesting to do.

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At times the movie is fun, and moves along nicely, then all of a sudden there’s some bad dialogue that had me cringing.  This happened a lot, and has ruined any thoughts of me wanting to see it again.  The character Martin (Logan Miller) was actually intolerable, and the film sort of relies on his involvement, which is a shame.  Though despite this the film worked on an emotional level, where the message of the film lands.  It’s about a young man struggling to open up to massive part of his personality, and I think how even in a progressive society it’s still hard to come out and feel accepted by the people around you.  This is all dealt with well, and the dramatic scenes that come from it have some punch.  It is also directed with some style, having some terrific cinematography throughout.  So it is an okay film that is schmaltzy, sometimes excruciatingly cheesy and often bland but with enough sentiment to save it.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Sure, I wouldn’t be rushing out to see it though.