Film Review: First Reformed

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Director: Paul Schrader

R | 1h 53min | Drama, Thriller | 13 July 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Ethan Hawke cuts a looming, flinty-eyed and tormented figure as a disillusioned and possibly unstable upstate New York Reverend, in Paul Schrader’s austere but ultimately mesmerising character study. First Reformed, which refers to the name of a church in the film whilst obviously also lending itself to other interpretations, doesn’t attempt to hide its debt to Schrader’s acclaimed screenplays the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Beyond being another study of another of ‘god’s lonely men’, of the narcissism of those who feel they are the only ones who can sense and purge the sickness running amok in the world, this film even mimics certain shots from Taxi Driver in ways anyone beyond vaguely familiar with that Scorsese/DeNiro milestone will recognise right away. Thanks to Hawke’s commanding soul-in-torment performance, striking cinematography and production design, and a different setting which allows for connections to more modern concerns about radicalisation, First Reformed ends up being a satisfying meditative echo rather than a simple replay of Schrader greats. I have heard also that there is much love for Bresson laced throughout the work, but I’ve not seen the film many are pointing to.

A grizzled and taut Ethan Hawke (who it is tempting to think was cast so we would cringe at how far young Jessie from Before Sunrise has come) plays the ominously-named Father Toller, a late 40s divorcee literally living out the meaning of his name in an upstate New York Dutch colonial-style church called First Reformed. Like DeNiro’s disturbed loner from Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, Toller finds little to no sleep at night, and keeps a daily diary which we hear in voiceover. That voiceover, scattered with biblical references and unending lists of daily slights, reveals a man unable to follow the same homilies he dispenses to his much-reduced flock. “Wisdom,” Toller tells one young man who calls on him, “is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” Yet Toller, burning through a bottle of whiskey a night with a Pepto-Bismol chaser to conclude, is not able to perform the same mental gymnastics that we all do on a daily basis to get past such competing truths and carry on, such as accepting we are going to die yet knowing that that the law says that doesn’t give us license to act like we are unleashed from any responsibility. Or knowing that despite being given evidence of the dire state of the world and our own personal circumstances, it could also be true that things could get better tomorrow. We all, usually, find ways to compromise and carry on. But, bitter at the fact that the church he oversees attracts fewer and fewer followers, resentful of the timidity with which the pastor of the larger, corporate-backed church that owns First Reformed displays when he starts nudging towards speaking on political issues, and frustrated by the unyielding extremist positions that his young church group volunteers take, Toller is a man slowly twisting himself further and further inwards at the sense of his own uselessness. And people like that, both the movies and real life tell us, can explode outwards.

Schrader seems to take a perverse delight in taking us through the daily indignities that Toller perceives as his day-to-day fate. Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, also known as Cedric the Entertainer) over at the parent church Abundant Life, a modern megachurch par excellence, insults him when he chides Toller for not living in the real world. “You’re always in the garden, even Jesus got out of the garden”, he tries to joke with the stony-faced reverend. When dining in the cafeteria of Abundant Life, Toller is surrounded by wall-mounted quotes from the scriptures that, thanks to the garish design and bizarrely large fonts, end up looking like tacky corporate advertising. The industrialist who bankrolls Abundant Life is a total asshole promotes anti-climate change myths and who clearly wants no political involvement from the ministers. Visitors to the First Reformed, when it is open for weekend tours, seem more interested in getting the right size of tee in the gift shop than in the fact that it is due to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It seems Toller might be doomed to endure death by a thousand cuts for eternity, but an inciting incident fires something up inside him. Though unable to prevent the suicide of a local eco-activist (a convincing display of desperation from actor Philip Ettinger) who called on him in despair the week before, Toller seems to absorb wholesale his statistic-laden diatribes about corporate malfeasance and political corruption ensuring certain global doom. Here, it seems, is something he can grasp on to; an identifiable nexus point where a politically ignorant and corporate-dominated church is failing to rise to a basic challenge: “will God forgive us for what we do?”

However, even as Hawke’s character starts down a disturbing path in order to shake the church and the wider world awake, one that engages fully with the modern reality of how the internet can provide all the material a budding extremist needs to affirm their beliefs (austere figure he may be, but Toller maintains a nifty laptop and solid broadband), Schrader keeps his motives interestingly ambiguous. For a man of the cloth, Toller seems to be growing worryingly close to the activist’s widow (Amanda Seyfreid, good, but underused). Is it worth pointing out that the widow is with child and that her name is Mary, too? Is it a sexual attraction? Then there is the fact that this man is booze-addled much of the time, and his stubborn refusal to heed Jeffers’s advice to get his deteriorating health checked out raises the possibility of a refusal to face a wasting illness. His son is revealed to have died in the second Iraq War also; a pointless death in an unjust war. All of these nuggets of backstory and behaviour challenge the purity of his new-found environmental drive, in much the same way many have theorised that Travis Bickle’s ‘manifesto’ and onscreen actions in Taxi Driver could in fact be a delusion linked to PTSD resulting from his Vietnam War service (assuming, of course, that he did serve as he declared).

Though it eventually arrives at a place of what I can only call transcendental madness, Schrader’s film mostly betrays a suitably severe aesthetic. The film is shot in an ‘older’ 4:3 Academy ratio, which makes everything looked hemmed in and tense. The First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, upstate New York is a stern, looming 18th-century box of white wood with a steeple raised to a heaven offering no answers. Toller’s room inside has little furniture, and looks hardly changed from decades ago. The effect is to make the Reverend look like he’d be more at home in the actual time period the church was built, free of the compromises a global economy demands.  The world outside offers no cheer, being one of permanently grey skies and spidery trees. Schrader’s film, unless you interpret the loopy ending in a very positive way, offers no cheer or clear answers either, being both a savage takedown of modern Catholicism whilst also suggesting it might have a role to play, a critique of environmental pollution but a warning against extremist activism too. But what is does offer is plenty of food for thought, and one of Ethan Hawke’s best performances.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Whitney

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Director: Kevin MacDonald

15 | 2h | Documentary, Biography, Music | 5 July 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Who was Whitney Houston? Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal tackled this question in last year's Whitney: Can I Be Me?, now director Kevin MacDonald has the Houston family-sanctioned Whitney to have another go. In truth, both films have a lot to recommend about them, but having sampled each, I still find Whitney Houston an enigmatic and essentially unknowable figure. Of course, you could argue everyone is unknowable, but for various reasons, in large part due to Houston's reticence to open up in the interview footage both documentaries chose to draw on, and due to certain key figures still holding back their co-operation, Whitney still feels out of reach for me.

That is not to say MacDonald's film doesn't manage to command the attention, as well as emphasise different aspects of what is still essentially the same 'arc' as Broomfield's film: that arc being Houston's youthful success from poor-to-middle class roots in New Jersey, the rise of the young church choir singer to global fame following signing a deal with the Arista label, with it all sinking into a drug-addled decline and tragic death years later at age 48. In terms of style and structure, it has a few pleasingly different flourishes: such as chapter break-like sequences where we are bombarded with jarringly intercut news footage and deconstructed images (visual and aural) of Houston's poptastic life, showing how crazy fast the 80s and 90s must have passed at that level of fame. Comprehensive and sensitively presented, and with a year since Broomfield's film was released to find different footage to showcase Houston's huge talent (highlights include Houston's Star-Spangled Banner Super Bowl performance -which she astonishingly improvised in a few minutes- and her concert as the first major artist to appear in post-apartheid South Africa), MacDonald has another trump card to play; the co-operation, for the first time in a doc, of the Houston family. This includes her mother, brother and half brothers and step sisters, and their presence does not seem to have produced the sanitised product I feared. And audience members are, of course, always free to read between the lines regardless of what the Houston inner circle say on screen.

For one thing, her brothers frankly speak of their role in introducing Houston to drugs at an early age (helping correct the impression it was her later husband, the rapper Bobby Brown, who was solely responsible) whilst other family members express some shocking homophobia towards Houston's long term friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, about whom it has been long alleged was Houston's lover. The absence of Crawford, who Houston essentially fired after she had achieved global fame and after what was framed as a long Robyn vs Bobby feud for attention following Houston's marriage to Brown, leaves MacDonald's film with the same gaping hole as Broomfield's. I don't consider this the final word on Houston as a result, though seeing this severing of ties in MacDonald's film re-emphasised for me the sadness at the thought of a woman possibly blocked by social and commercial pressure and the conventions of heteronormative marriage to avoid embracing her sexuality openly. Houston's mother Cissy has some thought-provoking and poignant remarks about how she taught her child to not only sing, but think about singing from first principles: use the heart, soul, and the guts. Whitney certainly had all three, but other family members and friends warn about the dark side of Whitney's parental experience; about how her mother's singing career and long periods away, her affair with their local minister, and then her father's own infidelities, left Houston deeply scarred emotionally and damagingly dependent on an image of marriage and happiness that hurt all the more when it kept evading her.

MacDonald's film certainly feels thorough in terms of what it is trying to do, and wisely only nods to areas the Broomfield doc already covered in more detail (such as the painful racial politics Houston had to negotiate by being a singer that some in the black community thought was 'too white in her singing'). Though I can't imagine I will want to see another Houston doc that simply goes over the triumph to tragedy arc all over again (let's maybe next time see a detailed exploration of Houston's singing and writing talents, the 'method') MacDonald does have one singularly important contribution to add to the story, and one which justifies using his official status to gain access to friends and family: the revelation from Houston's inner circle that she and other family members privately stated that they were sexually abused at a young age by a relative entrusted with their care during a prolonged period of being shuffled around by absent parents. The alleged abuser is named (they are dead), and audiences members are thus left to wonder how this could have impacted Houston's many decisions about expressing her sexuality, her choice in relationships, and ultimately, the way she treated herself.

This is not the final word on Whitney, not by a long shot, but it doesn't feel like a disservice to one of the greatest voices of all.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Leave No Trace

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Director: Debra Granik

PG | 1h 49min | Drama | 29 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returns to feature films with another look at American outsiders operating either on the fringes or outside the modern, interconnected world. Leave No Trace is, like Bone, a small-scale, atmospheric character-driven piece with a young woman at the centre that explores issues like family bonds, parental responsibility, and the challenges faced in a life with minimal resources. It features strong performances from lead Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as a father-daughter pair - Will and Tom - who are living off the grid in a vast nature reserve on the edge of Portland, Oregon. 

We are introduced to the pair in the middle of what must be one of any number of typical daily routines getting their tent camp ready for sunup: pack the tools away into a hidden crevice, check the water supply that has gathered overnight, start cooking breakfast without resorting to the limited propane supplies. We are told nothing about the pair as there is no onscreen text or narration, so we are inlined to lean in to guess how they ended up here and what Will’s deal is. Will is a quiet, calm presence, but his intensity and insistence on teaching Tom escape and evade techniques seems a little odd. He also is very interrogative towards Tom whenever she reveals she came close to the presence of any outsider, or reveals a slip-up in their routine. The expectation is that when the outer world, which Will seems to keen to avoid, finally intrudes, we will learn more about what made this man want to live like this. Granik’s film, which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini adapting from the novel by Peter Rock, delivers on that expectation, but instead of delivering some screen-filling emotional fireworks, turning into an escape drama, or devolving into a straight-up celebration of the nomadic lifestyle, instead chooses as much to sympathetically and quietly interrogate Will as a father as it does to explore how someone could find modern American life unbearable. How does a person fall between the cracks?

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the film was that it balances its study of Will with an exploration of Tom’s coming of age, whilst never making Will’s decision to drop out morally clear-cut, even as it shows how difficult it is in the modern world to live without the accoutrements that a ‘connected’ person picks up. Bureaucracy and technology have a way of sticking to a person like flypaper. Thus when a chance encounter with a jogger blows their cover, and authorities alerted to the presence of illegal camping in the park take Will and Tom to first the police, and later social services, Will quickly finds the paperwork, web-ready devices, and various legal requirements stacking up. Clearly these were things he wanted to avoid. But it is also noticeable that the law enforcement and social service works Will and Tom meet are never cruel, even if they are inquisitive and have a battery of psych test questions that want to ask Will, hundreds in fact. The look on Foster’s face as he faces a blandly-voiced computer for the testing tells it all; this is not a man who likes to look inside his own head. And the reason for that soon becomes clear, as it is revealed Will is a special forces veteran, presumably from Afghanistan or Iraq. A kindly female social service officer who quizzes Tom also has a pertinent question to further complicate Will’s choice to flee human contact: is it fair on his teen daughter, who has been denied socialisation? Though she notes Tom is above the expected level on reading and maths, she points out to the anxious girl that schooling isn’t just about being able to write, add and gut fish. 

The revelation about Will’s past not only raises the issue of his almost certainly suffering from PTSD, but connects the film to the current ongoing controversy over not only the US involvement in recent morally questionable and very lengthy wars, but the failures of the notoriously incompetent Veterans Affairs bureau. Armed forces dropouts are a shamefully common phenomenon in the US, and Will is not the only one to appear in the film. Pointedly, a trip to a VA station by the pair to try to shift some medication that Will finds useless sees Tom get a sales talk from a vet stall manager which includes a pitch for a suicide prevention clamp for a rifle. A chilling thought. Yet the film, whilst presenting Will sympathetically in this way (and Foster’s character doesn’t present in what you night consider a typical ‘wreck’ fashion, with no shouting or screaming or violence), never loses sight of the warning that the social services officer gave to Tom: that girls deserve the choice of an education that is about more than just survival skills. 

This clearly resonates with Tom, and the fraying of her relationship with her Dad after this interruption of the ‘real world’ is well-drawn and believable, whether it is Tom clearly being drawn to boys her age after she starts to encounter them in one of the care homes they are placed in, or awakening to how the truisms her Dad drops on her (‘those were never our things’ Will declares about one of the rest homes social services put them in) are in fact based on his decisions, not hers. Some of the decisions Will makes eventually become physically exhausting for the young girl, and even life threatening. Tom is old enough to reason that even if the modern world had its banalities and pressures, and plenty of moral compromises, it has things like advanced healthcare. Even if the path this sets these characters on, where each has to choose where they draw the line at what independence is enough, is perhaps predictable, it is very well-handled.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Sicario 2 - Soldado

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Director: Stefano Sollima

15 | 2h 2min | Action, Crime, Drama | 29 June 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆


Sicario 2 is certainly an unusual sequel to behold in a year filled with Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar follow-ups. But although Taylor Sheridan is back on writing duties here to expand on the 2015 predecessor, director Denis Villeuneve, DP Roger Deakins, and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson are all absent. Though this change of personnel does sadly seem to have affected the quality of the final product, watching Sicario 2 made me re-assess the first film in a more negative light also, and I came to realise both share some pretty fundamental flaws. Its just that the first film had enough style and memorable set-pieces to make you forgive them.

Under director Stefano Sollima's captaincy, Sicario 2 continues the gritty, grim tone of the original, presenting us with a merciless picture of a modern day Mexico-US drug war fought entirely cynically by both the cartels and the US military and intelligence agencies. Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin also reprise their roles as Mexican assassin 'sicario' Alejandro Killian and CIA chief operative Matt Graver respectively, though the character of SWAT agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt) is absent this time. Thus we have an unashamedly male-led mission with a simpler 'buddies at war' dynamic to look forward to, with Graver and Killian instructed to disrupt the Mexican cartels over the border in response to the US government's belief that they have begun smuggling terrorists as well as cocaine across the border into the US. People are the new currency here, regardless if they are packing bombs. The opening night sequence, where a terrorist detonates himself when confronted by border patrol at a desert crossing point, sets the stakes as well as re-affirming the 'Sicario aesthetic' brought over from the first film. Night vision goggles and laser sights cut the darkness, as helicopter and Humvee lights flare in the background against the dust clouds. Later, as if to confirm the US government's (and Trump's?) worst fears, we see a group of terrorists detonate themselves in a crowded supermarket, with Sollima refusing to spare us the sight of a mother begging the last bomber -futilely- to let her daughter go. And thus Sicario 2 puts the pedal to the metal when it comes to this portrayal of a world of sudden, violent death carried out - and later avenged- by faceless agents of war, and it doesn't take it off.

But that is in large part the problem, both with Sicario 2 and its predecessor. Over time, it has become clear to me that grimness is what both these films are really about, at the expense of anything revelatory or moving. Basing two feature films on exploring how dark the border war can get, and how those that police the law in this porous landscape whilst wedged in between two erratic governments can become as corrupted as their opponents, is not a particularly novel concept. Even before Sicario there were plenty of TV shows and films exploring this. The first film did at least go about this with panache, with Roger Deakin's intense, sharp cinematography and some nerve-shredding action set pieces being the key things that kept you awake in your seat. There was also sense that that first film put at least some time aside to nod towards the fallout such back-and-forth black ops missions had on the innocent people of Mexico in the border lands. Sicario 2 on the other hand manages one or two shootouts that pack a punch, but narrows everything down so tightly elsewhere that we end up with a nightmare version of Mexico that feels pretty one-note, with every agency across the border corrupted by the cartels to a paranoia-inducing degree; so much so that Killian and Graver can't even escort a VIP across the border in an armoured convoy without their entire pre-arranged Mexican police escort and backup being revealed to be in with the cartels (which does at least lead to the film's centrepiece shootout).

I don't think Sicario 2's sparse, portentous screenplay does enough to justify any claim that it is a critique of Trump's conflation of 'Mexican' with 'criminal' and, now, 'terrorist'. The crisp cinematography and drone-like score just ape the approach of the first film without addressing the lack of freshness that risks. Brolin and del Toro are good actors and their ambiguously-motivated and mismatched characters have potential, but continously having gritty military men stare off into the distance looking either darkly cynical or nobly wounded after committing acts of horrific state-backed violence or muttering homilies like 'no rules this time' (there were rules in the first film?) is not a substitute for thematic depth. Nor does it really help the film's super-serious commitment to portraying a world drenched in cynicism and blood when a third act sympathy and salvation arc suddenly manifests, as Killian goes AWOL to protect the very girl he and Graver were ordered to kidnap, and then eventually kill, so as to spark the aforementioned cartel war and then cover the US's involvement up. If there is one thing I'm not buying in Sicario's world (franchise?) at this point, its a sudden return of morality and compassion.
 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Arcadia

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Director: Paul Wright

12A 19, 75m June (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

I'm a sucker for film essays that repurpose old archive footage, and that is exactly what BAFTA-winner Paul Wright's Arcadia is. Scouring 100 years of British film archives and deploying footage non-chronologically, Wright constructs a surreal study of the British people’s shifting — and contradictory — relationship to the land. We start with bucolic 1930s footage of farms and fields, set to the (now-amusing) clipped narration of the newsreaders of the time. Then, the visuals slowly start to tip towards the more exotic, ritualistic, and harder-edged uses of the soil. Centuries-old pagan festivals, one of which seems to include village men dressing up as walruses, flash past us. Townsfolk ride pigs. Advanced farming techniques that see land segmented and tilled by giant machines, replace the rickety ploughs and hand-planted seeds we saw in earlier footage. A village gent fights...a kangaroo? A throbbing and woozy new score from Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) plus folk music from the likes of Anne Briggs combines with this kaleidoscopic presentation of footage to create the effect of tumbling through time.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.