LFF 2018: Assassination Nation

Hyper-realised, ultra-violent and ultra-feminist, Assassination Nation is bound to push most viewers away. Sam Levinson’s film is a provocative, bloodsoaked and powerful battle cry for all women to unite against patriarchy. Men are also welcome. Rapists, misogynists and asshats, not so much.

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In the centre of Assassination Nation are four young women. Lily, a flirtatious girl with secret, Bex, a trans girl, and presumably adoptive sisters Em and Sarah. All our heroines, like the rest of the world, live their lives online and through their phones. Their phones contain their most valuable and embarrassing secrets. So when a hacker first hits the town mayor, the school principal and eventually about half the town’s population, the violence somehow turns towards women, including our protagonists.

Assassination Nation is definitely one of the craziest films out there. It’s a strange piece of cinema, like a revenge film on crack cocaine. It’s going to be polarising with it’s strong feminist message and it’s bound to be too much for many viewers because it’s just so in your face. A feel good film this is not, my friends. Prepare your senses for the sensory overload the film throws at your face.  Assassination Nation reveals the ugliest possible truth and reality of patriarchy and misogyny by shoving it down your throat because what else can we do at this stage? It’s a painfully timely film, one that you hope wouldn’t resonate as strongly as it does. Levinson’s film constantly tip toes the line between making violence towards women a spectacle and simply using it to point out how messed up the world we live in is and how close to a reality like this we actually are. At times brilliant, at times shaky, it makes for an uncomfortable, but cathartic watch. Levinson fills his film with some powerful images and while some dialogue doesn’t quite sit right in the actors’ mouths, there are some truths spoken here.

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The film works as a biting satire of our lives online. How can we allow so much sensitive information out there where it can be stolen in an instant? What ever happened to diaries we could lock or hide in the bottom of a sock drawer? The scariest thing about Assassination Nation is that while it’s so hyper-stylised, it still feels accurate in its depiction of constantly being online and building your identity in front of everyone. Do we even exist if we’re not online?

In the end, it all comes down to how the society treats women and while I really want to say that Assassination Nation is over the top and unrealistic in its approach to misogyny, I can’t. It feels familiar, terrifyingly so. The film is very much about the female experience of being ridiculed, sexualised without our consent and constantly under the male gaze. Assassination Nation hits all the right notes about this, especially in today’s political climate. There is a fantastic scene (which apparently is getting cut from theatrical versions) where our protagonist Lily schools the school principal over a drawing of a naked woman. Assassination Nation dares to ask why do we sexualise women, what is so wrong about the naked female body?

Director Sam Levinson does something risky with the material. He presents our protagonists as the easy victims, the ones who may have brought this on themselves. For years, decades even, we have been fighting to prove that rape, assault, harassment or just unwanted attention isn’t due to our looks, behaviour, time of day or any other factor than the attacker and the attacker alone. And here Levinson shows us these girls in tight tops, plenty of skin to show and shorts so short Harley Quinn would feel self-conscious. Their bodies are the enemy in the beginning of the film, it’s a threat to the patriarchy in Salem. They young women are overly sexual and by horror film rules, they must be punished. Levinson is asking us to blame these girls for what’s to come. And shame on you if you fell for this. Shame on you. Thankfully, these girls aren’t here for your hate and fear. They fight back. They reclaim their sexuality and harness their female power to fight Salem’s patriarchy. The image of the middle-aged white cop shouting “We’re good people!” feels unnaturally timely. A mob screaming they’re fine people while commiting murder and heinous hate crimes. It seems too close to reality.

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Ultimately Assassination Nation is an empowering experience. A fist-pumping joyride, Assassination Nation is all about our heroines taking back what was theirs to being with: their freedom. Freedom to express themselves, freedom to be sexy, freedom to be whoever you want to be without the threat of physical violence. I would imagine that most men would find it too much, too serious, too stupid, too this, too that. But to anyone who has ever been harassed, hurt, grabbed or assaulted, this is a much needed cry to unite our forces. To keep fighting, to keep resisting. Assassination Nation feels like an acknowledgment that we exist and we are rightly angry. We will fight, there is strength in numbers and we can’t be silenced.  As Lily says, you can’t kill us all.

****

LFF 2018: Wildlife

Paul Dano, an actor known for films such as Prisoners, There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine has now become the umpteenth actor to try his hand at directing. Like Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born a couple of months ago, Dano’s film is surprising, endearing and impressive, prompting this fan to wonder if there are more talented directors in front of the camera. Dano’s debut is subtle, beautiful and accomplished, powered by performances to die for.

Joe (Ed Oxenbould, fantastic) observes his family’s internal downfall as his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and is forced to accept a potentially dangerous job trying to control and stop a wildfire. Joe’s mother Jeanette (exceptional Carey Mulligan) takes up a job as a swim teacher and attempts to regain her youthful freedom, but grows restless and frustrated with her small suburban life.

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Wildlife boils down to the performances of Dano’s gifted actors. Mulligan turns in a fearless performance; she isn’t afraid to make Jeanette ugly in all her frustration and selfishness. Oxenbould injects his performance with just the right amount of sadness, which thankfully never turns melodramatic, although the film cleverly tiptoes the line between a serious drama and a melodrama.

Quietly devastating, Dano never underlines his themes. Joe is forced to assume the role of the man of the house, so integral to the 1950s America that Dano emulates convincingly. Joe and Jeanette’s roles are essentially reversed as Jeanette tests the limits of what she can do with her new-found freedom as a woman. Joe is forced to cook his own dinner and often take care of his mother. Wildlife also includes the most cringe-worthy, yet fascinating date night known to man.

Jeanette’s search for liberation and Joe’s inner turmoil make for an engaging watch. Wildlife’s themes hit close to home to most people as Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan have written a film with fully realised characters, like a smorgasboard, something for everybody. Whether it’s Jerry’s threatened masculinity due to his inability to provide for his family, Joe’s forced entry into early adulthood or Jeanette’s frustrations and newly found sexuality, there’s a lot in Wildlife to munch on. The symbolical wildfire, burning so bright and destroying everything in its way provides a great backdrop for this family’s crumbling. The film provides lots to think and talk about, but it’s best digested alone, reflected upon within your own mind and your own experiences.

If the film has a weakness, it’s Gyllenhaal. After Jerry leaves for the wildfire, Gyllenhaal’s presence is gravely missed. It’s hard to have such a huge star in such a small role and not have the audience miss them. It’s not a case of Mulligan and Oxenbould not able to hold their own, but Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are both incredibly talented character actors and watch them bounce off each other is the film’s greatest pleasure. The film’s final shot is full of pain, longing and regret. All communicated through the words that weren’t and aren’t being said, the looks avoided and hands not held. There is a lingering sense of a life not lived, a promise not fulfilled in Dano’s last frame. Like phantom pain, there is a feeling of something that once was there and is now gone, but is somehow still causing the characters indescribable pain.

****

Rewatch: The Greatest Showman (2017)

I saw The Greatest Showman on opening day, Boxing Day 2017. There was only roughly 15 of us who were able to leave the comfort of our homes and drag ourselves to the cinema in central London. This was all before the film became the smash hit we know it to be today, mind you. I saw it because I was going to be reviewing it for a magazine. I gave it 3 stars, because that felt right. I recognised its flaws and how badly the story dragged at points, how bad the CGI was and how strange it all was.It wasn’t a great film but I had fun with it.

A month or so later, I bought tickets to a Singalong screening at The Prince Charles Cinema, thinking that’ll be a giggle; the songs were great and I had been listening to the soundtrack non-stop since that Boxing day so why not. The screening was on a rainy afternoon so I didn’t bother getting there too early, thinking there was going to be only about 30-40 of us kind of humming along, tapping our feet along the musical numbers.

I have never been so wrong in my life. The queue went around the block, people were dressed up as characters from the film and the energy was palpable. The screening was sold out, the director made an appearance and there were flashing lights, dancing and a lot of off-tune singing. We all had a blast. It was like a rock concert, everyone was on their feet and stomping, clapping, singing, dancing. This was the first time I started to realise what a phenomenon The Greatest Showman was becoming.

I haven’t seen the film since that rainy afternoon, scared that it would be ruined for me outside the comfort and darkness of the cinema, with its flaws fully visible to me. And then a day so awful came along, only a bit of Hugh Jackman could save it from becoming the worst day ever. So I popped the disc in and sat down, a little scared but mostly excited. Was it still the magical experience I had had twice almost a year ago?

For the most part, yes.

The Greatest Showman follows the idealistic P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, born for this role) who is hungry for success, but can’t seem to catch his big break. Opening his museum of oddities, Barnum finally hits gold, but starts to lose his way when no amount of success is enough and he leaves for a tour with a Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a sanitised, romatizised, utteer BS tale of Barnum, who was a much more complicated and problematic character than Jackman’s version of him.

The Greatest Showman is an odd film. It arrived after the smash hit La La Land, which made musicals trendy and popular again, so it doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it probably should, considering its lengthy production history. The Greatest Showman has one of the best opening scenes in a musical, possibly only matched by La La Land‘s highway dance extravaganza, but the film drags in the scenes between the musical numbers. There’s no heat, no electricity in the scenes where the characters are talking, they’re simply not very interesting. The story is glossy and not very true to life, all characters come across as a bit bland and strangely the film feels rushed although not much happens.

But the musical numbers, oh boy. They are fantastic. In these scenes, the film truly comes alive and sparks fly. The cast is so talented, it’s actually a little depressing since the film never becomes truly great as a whole. Jackman is perfect as Barnum, Zendaya brings some sass into her character Anne and it’s truly a delight to see Zac Efron flex his musical muscles again. Both Efron and Jackman are so charismatic and natural performers that it’s hard to believe it took this long to get the two of them in the same film. Their duet The Other Side is bursting with energy and joy, it’s a fun number where two of the best get to show off against one another. Only Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife seems to have drawn the short straw and doesn’t have much to do unfortunately.

And then there is Keala Settle, playing Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. She sings the absolute tune that is This Is Me, an Oscar nominated song about self-acceptance. There’s a video online about one of the workshops where she sings it and you can pinpoint the moment she becomes a star, the moment she lets go of her fear and starts to believe in what she sings. Her character doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but she is the real star of the show. The song is powerful, the choreography is perfect and while cheesy, it does send out an important message that has resonated with audience far and wide. I would lie if I said I didn’t cry during the song.

In my original review I said The Greatest Showman fails as a film, but succeeds as a musical. I stand by this. The musical numbers are perfect; songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exactly what you’d want them to be, choreographies by Ashley Wallen are energetic and dynamic and the cast sells it. It fails to be an engaging film, the story itself just isn’t that inspiring. But musicals are about utopia, being transported to somewhere better and existing in a world where you can burst into song and dance. And The Greatest Showman does exactly that during its musical scenes. It pulls you out of your seat and into the action, into the dance. And for 3 minutes, you dance with the freaks and oddities and belt your heart out and simply belong. I will go to my grave defending the musical numbers of this film and how they save The Greatest Showman from itself.

 

LFF 2018: Suspiria

The one thing that can be said with certainty about Suspiria is that it’s not for everyone. I saw the film with my mother and a friend of mine was also in the audience that night.

I loved it.

My mum said there was too much blood.

My friend hated it.

That pretty much sums up all the different reactions to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. It’s a five star film while also being a one star film, depending on your subjective experience of the film. Suspiria is a film that is experienced rather than passively watched and consumed. If successful, it will draw you into it’s world from the first frame, but it’s equally likely to push you away.

Suspiria follows young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who dreams of auditioning for Madame Blanc at the Markos Dance Academy. Audition she does and gets in when a place opens up after another student goes missing. The missing student, Patricia Hingle shows up at her psychiatrist’s home, panick-y and delusional, muttering about the witches at the academy and how they’re after her body. Are there witches at the academy and more importantly, what do they want with Susie?

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Suspiria is a dizzyingly good film. Guadagnino’s vision here is focused and uncompromised. There is something incredibly soothing and reassuring to know that a film is the very best version of itself, the exact end product the filmmaker was aiming for. And surely that should be taken into consideration when reviewing a film, how well it achieves the goals it sets out early on.

Tilda Swinton, playing a whopping three characters is an utterly delightful presence. She is a chameleon, an actress who doesn’t embody a role but lets the role completely take her over. Dakota Johnson is also good. Her time on the Fifty Shades films seems to have paid off because she is remarkably confident in her body and presents it to us fully. Not so much in terms of nudity, but in terms of full access to its nooks and crannies. Her body is on show here, never sexually, but simply to appreciate its physicality and how much the human, especially female body can and will endure.

The real star is Guadagnino himself. His filmmaking is front and centre in Suspiria. Remakes are difficult, but Guadagnino has cracked it. By not attempting to recreate any of Dario Argento’s iconic visuals, he has created a film that stands firmly on its own feet while paying homage to the old film. Guadagnino’s love for the original Suspiria has clearly made the director understand that trying to imitate something so iconic and loved would have been a failure from the beginning.

Suspiria is strongly a film about women and the female experience, but it never becomes overly political or feminist. Clever move from Guadagnino, who understand that it’s probably not his place to make a film like that. Suspiria has a veil of femininity over it, it’s constantly examining the female body and the quest for truth. Suspiria gives women power and momentum. Men don’t have either in Suspiria’s world, more precisely Berlin in 1977. They are cast to the side, simply witnesses or even toys for our coven to play with. Suspiria is a fascinating look into the community, the coven if you will, of women in the film’s heart. These women are feral and beautiful, graceful and beastly at the same time, they are complex creatures with complex motives and inner lives, even if we only get a glimpse of those. Women have always been accused of witchcraft, or dark magic by men in power. Suspiria shows us the true power of these very literal witches and the end result is a hypnotising, intoxicating and a relentlessly violent, yet liberating film.

*****

 

 

LFF 2018: WIDOWS

Hello there! It’s been a while, but I’m back and better than ever. And I bring with me some reviews from BFI London Film Festival. It was 2 weeks of pure cinematic bliss, the programme was fantastic this year with several films either focusing on women or made by women. Well done, BFI!

Steve McQueen’s Widows opened the festival and what a opening that was! McQueen, known for hard-hitting dramas like Shame and 12 Years a Slave seemed like an unlikely director to tackle such a generic action film. The beauty of Widows is that while the source material might not bring anything new to the table, McQueen and his wonderful cast elevate it to a whole new level.

The story follows Veronica (the superb Viola Davis) whose husband dies during a robbery with 3 other men. Unfortunately for their widows, the men were stealing from a local politician and crook Jamal Manning who is now out for blood if he doesn’t get his money back. Veronica’s late husband has left a detailed plan of their next job which Veronica decides to execute with the other widows to pay Jamal back and claim their financial freedom.

So far, so generic, but Widows has one of the most kinetic and engaging opening sequences I can remember seeing in… well, ever. McQueen intercuts the fiery action of the robbery with scenes of the widows at home with their husbands. Especially the quiet, simple image of Veronica and Harry kissing on the bed has real impact when contrasted with a car chase we know won’t end well. The sequence is so good that nothing else quite matches it in terms of action and emotinal impact during the rest of the film.

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L-R: Elizabeth Debicki (back to camera), Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis (back to camera), and Michelle Rodriguez star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

There is very little that can be said about Viola Davis that hasn’t been said before. She is ferocious as Veronica, with balls bigger than those of all the men present in the film combined. She is backed up by equally powerful performances from Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. Debicki’s character Alice goes through the biggest transformation after losing her husband, who might have been cruel but took care of everything for Alice. Michelle Rodriguez plays against type here; Linda is tough for sure, but she’s also more vulnerable than Rodriguez’ typical screen roles.

Out of the men, Daniel Kaluuya steals the show. His turn as Jamal’s psychotic brother proves that his Oscar-nominated turn in Get Out last year was no fluke; this guy is the real deal. It’s only the storyline concerning Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, another local politician, that doesn’t quite land, it simply isn’t as interesting as the other stuff McQueen throws at us. The problem isn’t that any of the men in Widows are bad per se, they’re just completely outshone by the women and rightly so. This isn’t a film about the male experience. It’s a film about the struggle of being a woman in the middle of men. Men who attempt to own you, who believe it is their right to own you and your fate.

Widows is easily the most accessible of McQueen’s films and it’s easy to dismiss it as a lesser film than his previous ones, but Widows is simply a genre film and a damn good one as well. Widows is not as action-packed as it would like you to believe it is, but McQueen’s take on an action film is never less than excellent and exhilarating. The ending might be a bit too neat and preditactable but Widows is an exercise in creating tension and character driven action, that’s engaging and dynamic. At it’s best, Widows is like a female-driven version of Drive, just with less fragile male egos. At it’s worst… well it’s still a damn fine film that makes you wonder why can’t all films be this well made?

****

 

“I Didn’t Have a Choice. Did you?” The Miseducation of Cameron Post Review

I’m back! I have taken a short break from writing, simply because, well… your girl needed a rest. And while I have spent most of these last couple of weeks holed up inside with a cold or at work with a cold, I did manage to catch Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which won big at Sundance earlier this year.

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I had very high hopes for this film. I love Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane has a fantastic, mysterious screen energy and most importantly, it’s a very female story, a lesbian story, told by women. It’s a huge step in the right direction and one that we need desperately.

Cameron Post gets caught fooling around with another girl at prom by her boyfriend, so Cameron’s well-meaning aunt send her off to God’s Promise, which seems to be a cross between camp and boarding school. At God’s Promise, they try to find excuses as to why their occupants feel how they feel and more importantly, how to get rid of those feelings of SSA (same-sex attraction).

While this premise promises a highly emotional film, the end result is not the film you expected or wanted it to be. I was expecting big emotions and a big climax, but Akhavan’s film is much more subtle than that. Cameron is almost too silent, too subdued during the film. She doesn’t agree with God’s Promise’s teachings but she also doesn’t fight being there, she doesn’t actively resist the exercises. There’s no real sense of anarchy. At first this can feel like a disappointment, like you were cheated out of the film you wanted to watch,  but Akhavan’s film is quietly shocking. The kids at God’s Promise aren’t getting beaten and most of them seem quite happy, but this is all on the surface. The reality is that these kids are taught to hate themselves and to fight against their identity, it’s emotional abuse as Cameron herself says. And that alone should be horrendous enough.

The film is also surprisingly funny. I went in expecting a profoundly sad film and came out grinning because it was witty and fun. Even when life deals you a crappy hand, you still find time to smile and crack a joke and it’s lovely to see that reflected in the film. The chemistry between all the lead actors is fantastic, it’s almost as if they have a secret we’re not in on and they’re winking behind our backs.

The one thing I truly loved was the treatment of God’s Promise’s counselors. They are never made into true villains, but people who truly believe they are helping. The character of Reverend Rick is especially tragic and John Gallagher Jr. plays him with admirable vulnerability. Eating cereal has never been this emotional. Our main baddie is Lydia, the founder of God’s Promise. She’s mean, but deep down she still thinks she’s doing the kids a favour by taking her experience in psychology and trying to cure these kids. The film never talks down to the audience by making these people outright cruel or violent, making The Miseducation of Cameron Post such a better and more nuanced film.

I do have a slight problem with the main character, Cameron. I did find the constant silence incredibly infuriating. While the film feels very natural, very real, we are walking in Cameron’s shoes and I really wanted to see the fight in her. She goes from not interested to kind of playing along with the counselors. After a tragedy at the premises leads to an investigation, she tells them they’re being emotionally abused at God’s Promise, but she never really resisted. While she is all too right to say this, it does feel a bit sudden from someone who spent the majority of the film as a very passive character.

So all in all, the film left me with some very conflicted emotions. On one hand, I loved the very natural feel of the film and it’s such an important film. The actors are all fantastic. I just wanted to feel a bit more.

Stay Excellent!

Maria

 

 

 

Rewatch: Raw (2016)

Raw was my favourite film of 2017. Without a doubt. I saw it several times in the cinema and I’ve watched it so many times at home. It’s everything I want from a film, I can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s clever, it’s darkly funny and it’s also very accurate in it’s depiction of university life. I wrote a short piece on it for a magazine I write for and I called it the cannibal film we wanted but got Eli Roth’s Green Inferno instead.

For those of you who are not familiar with the premise of the film, this is what it’s about. Garance Marillier plays Justine, who follows her parents and sister’s footsteps into a veterinary school. A brutal rite of passage includes getting blood dumped on the new students and force them to eat a small animal liver. This does not sit well with the vegetarian Justine who breaks out in a horrible rash and then some. It seems that her coming of age is a tiny bit more bloody as she develops a taste for meat and not just beef and chicken, but human.

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No summary can do justice for Julia Ducornau’s film. It’s inventive and hypnotising in its approach to growing up, finding your sexuality and becoming this whole new person you didn’t know existed. Justine is naive and childish, which makes her transformation into a man-eating beast even more satisfying, because she is almost annoyingly sweet in the beginning. Although she might now crave a bit of human flesh, she never becomes a true monster, she fights to keep her humanity. She is trying to find a way to remain herself while horrific transformations take place in her body. Don’t we all. Her changes mimic our own, even if we never developed a taste for human burgers. There are new sensations, new found confidence and sexuality and a sense of being comfortable in your own body, because finally you have some say over how to use it and what for.

Ducornau deals with Justine’s sexuality admirably. Maybe it’s because the film is French, but Justine’s budding sexuality and its emergence is dealt frankly and honestly. Her first sexual encounter with her roommate is wild, animalistic and erotic, which is a change to all those awkward first encounters, with sheets magically covering everyone’s private parts. The sex is about her, about her satisfaction and her needs. As she climaxes, she bites down on her own arms, drawing blood.

The film ultimately boils down to the relationship between the two sisters and that’s what I fell in love with on my first viewing. Alexia is wild, out of control and a cool party girl, where as Justine is quiet and shy. The two couldn’t be more different and it’s the cannibalism, which turns out to be a family trait, brings them closer in ways you can’t imagine. The last act of the film is as horrifying as it is emotional. The sisters love and hate each other in equal measure, they’re too different, but crafted from the same tree. They share a genetic bond, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will get on. At the end of the day, they’re still family though. Alexia commits a heinous crime, one that isn’t only gruesome, but also hurts her sister more than anything. When Justine discovers this, she’s angry and she places a ski-pole on her sisters forehead, ready to plunge it in there and deliver a final blow to end the madness. But how could she? They’re the same and they have to stay together. The sisterly bond is one that cannot be broken, it seems.

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Jim Williams’ score is one of the best film scores. It draws you in and it really drives the film forward. I still listen to it and every time I hear the Main theme, I get goosebumps.  Electronic film scores have become a trend lately, especially in horror films, but rarely are they this effective and able to draw such an emotional response. Williams’ score never overtakes the visual imagery, but provides an essential companion, like all the best scores. Hearing a song will remind you of specific visual images in this case and that’s powerful.

Raw was called a feminist film and there were also many reports about audience members fainting at the over the top gore in the film. Both are true and false. The film isn’t necessarily feminist, but a very female-centric film, focuse largely on the female experience of growing up, in Raw‘s case in a very horrific way. Justine goes through what most opf us go through in uni. We become independent, but the process is scary and littered with bad sexual experiences and uncertain emotions and of course, too much alcohol. Ducornau never hides how emotionally abusive the experience can be on the female psyche. In Raw the experience manifests in what is almost a physical as well as an emotional transformation for Justine.

Raw is gory. Of course it’s gory, it’s a film about cannibalism. It’s never needlessly gory nor does it glorify violence. Raw is an intelligent film about growing up. The film is never about a cannibal, it’s about the changes we all go through in our adolescence and how we adapt to them. In Justine’s case, she has to adapt to the desire to consume human flesh as well as her new relationship with her sister. Thigns really aren’t the same after your sister munches on your first love. Grim.

Stay Excellent, and watch Raw!

Maria

“Well, somebody’s got to do something!” First Reformed Review

First Reformed opens with a shot of a church. The slow, creeping shot sets the tone for the rest of the film. This is not the film for the fast and the furious, but the meditative and tormented. The church is shot from a low angle, which makes it look much bigger than it really is. Much like God.

Paul Schrader’s excellent First Reformed deals with one man’s crisis of faith. Not just a spiritual crisis, but also a crisis about one’s role in the universe. Will God forgive us? That’s the question tormenting Reverend Toller whose shortcomings in life haunt him. Toller writes a diary, which is also read in heavy voiceover. The diary, as well as the film, is a brutally honest take on a sick man’s life, which is filled with despair and whiskey. He meets a local pregnant woman, Mary who asks Toller to speak with her husband Michael, who is struggling with his own demons. Michael wants Mary to get rid of their baby because he’s against bringing a child into a world like this. Despite Toller’s best intentions to help him, Michael kills himself. Toller gets caught up in the aftermath and starts researching Michael’s enviromental activism with disastrous consequences.

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First Reformed shares a lot of DNA with Schrader’s early work, most of all, Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. While Toller might not quite reach Travis Bickle -level madness, First Reformed is a scary film. It starts as an honest portrait of a man in crisis, but changes into a chilling account of Toller’s struggles and humanity’s mistakes, how much destruction we as individuals as well as a species can cause. The scariest part is that Michael actually has a very good, very well researched point to his argument. Why would we bring a child into a world like ours? One character notes that their (much older) generation wouldn’t even recognise this world we live in now, so much has it changed. It’s all true and Toller struggles with this knowledge. First Reformed feels timeless, even though it’s specifically mentioned to take place in 2017. Toller has an old flip phone and no new technology apart from laptops make apperances. The story could take place in any decade and it’s refreshing to see such a contemporary film that doesn’t waste time making statements about social media and our addiction to the gadgets in our lives. This is about one man and his inner life. Simple, but effective and compelling.

Schrader filmed the film in a 1.37:1 ratio, which frames the characters tightly, trapping them into a box on the screen. Schrader avoids closeups and too many cuts; First Reformed is a slow, quiet film, which will leave the viewer devastated by the end. It sneakily wraps its’ celluloid hands around your throat and when the film abrubtly cuts to black before credits start rolling, you realise you haven’t taken a breath for a while. Even after leaving the cinema, I felt like I was still being strangled by the weight of Schrader’s film. I felt a strong connection with Toller. While I’m not a guilt-ridden man of the cloth, surely we all struggle with the madness of life and the insanity of the world we are living in, but that is our own creation.

First Reformed is heavy on metaphors and spiritualism, naturally. Toller is a sick man, one who slowly poisons himself with alcohol despite being told to stop. After becoming concerned about the environment and wanting to punish those who pollute it, it’s ironic that he would still keep polluting his own body, which is meant to be a temple and a vessel for God’s work. Toller’s life is without hope, until Mary arrives. Mary, a name with religious connotations, is carrying a child, new life. She represents hope, a new beginning for Toller. The ending, which I don’t want to spoil here, is a delirious one and open for interpretation. It seems to be a happy ending though, with Toller finding hope again or at least meaning. Schrader toys with the abstract and while most of the film is dead serious and imitates the greyness of real life, he offers solace in moments like this. There’s a fantastic scene where Mary is frightened and ask Toller to lay down while she lies on top of him. Suddenly the two start levitating over mountains and cities. It’s a strange moment in a film that is a very literal in it’s dialogue and approach, but it gives us a moment to breathe and just to admire.

Ethan Hawke turns in his best performance to date. Rarely is he bad, but in First Reformed he is simply on fire. It’s largely a one-man show, focusing solely on Toller, but Amanda Seyfried is memorable as Mary. The relationship between a priest and a grieving mother-to-be is a strange one, almost an uncomfortable one. Although Schrader goes out of his way to make sure no sexual desire is ever implied between the two, the two share a strange bond, as if tethered to each other through their losses and struggles.

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First Reformed is not an easy watch and I would struggle to recommend the film, because it’s an exhausting watch. It grips you. It silently shocks you. Schrader uses music sparingly and the silence is deafening at times. Music often offers the audience a relief, but Schrader denies us this. If Toller suffers, so should we. In this sense First Reformed isn’t a film that is to be enjoyed and consumed passively, but something that should jolt you awake. First Reformed imitates life by denying us the one thing that often drags us to the cinema: escapism. First Reformed doesn’t allow us to escape the real world, but actually forces us to face the world and the damage we have done to it and to humanity. There’s a little Toller in us all.

Stay Excellent.

Maria

“We can still think our own thoughts” Leave No Trace Review

Does anyone remember a time before Jennifer Lawrence was the biggest movie star on this planet? Me neither, but I do remember the film that made her the biggest movie star on this planet. It was Winter’s Bone, a tiny indie film that somehow managed to score a few Oscar noms, including one for Lawrence. What a film and performance that was. Winter’s Bone was directed by one Debra Granik who has been laying low since, but she’s now back, better than ever.

Leave No Trace follows father and daughter, Will and Tom, who live in an urban park, away from the busy streets of Portland and other people. Living in isolation, surrounded by nature, the pair live off the land and make very few trips to the busy city. This is a lifestyle choice for the two, who just prefer the peace and quiet really. It might also have something to do with the PTSD that Will, a war veteran, suffers from. A small mistake by Tom leads to the authorities finding them and taking them away from their home and into the city. While Will seems to suffer from the move, Tom is conflicted by her love and devotion to her father and the new life she finds exciting. When Will decides to head back into a life of isolation in the woods, Tom is forced to choose between her dad and her new life.

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Leave No Trace is not a big film. There are no big, heartfelt moments or big escapes from the police, no car chases or tear-jerking moments. It’s all relatively normal and quiet, human-like. A film like this is powered by the performances and Granik’s powerful, but reserved direction. She understands that the filmmaking and the end product should never be about her, but about the story and the performances. Leave No Trace is nonetheless the most authentically emotional film we’re gonna see this year. It doesn’t force your tears, but it earns them. If you didn’t cry at the end, you’re dead inside.

Ben Foster is magnificent. He turns in a reserved but powerful performance as Will. Will is traumatised by his experiences in the war and he turns into the antagonist of the story here, but never a villain. While he holds Tom back for selfish reasons, Foster makes you care for Will and his troubled soul. Foster has always had the ability to transform himself for any role, like a chameleon. Leave No Trace is his most ordinary and stripped down performance and possibly his best.

Thomasin McKenzie is an instant star and it’s impossible not to compare her turn as Tom to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Both performances are stripped, raw and honest, but while Lawrence was full of contempt and equipped with a tough attitude, McKenzie is full of resilience, wonder and tender love. It’s equally powerful, just not as showy, but make no mistake, she is a superstar in the making, just like Lawrence was all those years ago.

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Granik’s direction is subtle, but every frame is filled with meaning and honesty. She finds truth in the most unusual places and images, crafting a painfully authentic tale of a girl between a rock and a hard place. Granik never treats Tom as a child, but as a young woman who is able to take care of herself, but who is treated like a victim by others. Some will always say films like Leave No Trace are films about nothing and some will doze off during the film. Nothing much happens but that certainly doesn’t make for a boring film. Leave No Trace is captivating and engaging, but asks you for an attention span greater than 5 seconds at a time. The film is nothing short of incredible.

Stay excellent!

Maria

“Women always have to put up a fucking fight!” Revenge as a post-#MeToo film

Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is an astonishing accomplishment. I saw it a couple of months ago and I’ve been itching to write about it ever since. It’s a perfect example of visceral female filmmaking.

Rape-revenge films were made popular in the 70s by the likes of I Spit On Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) and The Last House on The Left, which was the late, great Wes Craven’s debut film. The premise of these films is often ridiculously simple. Woman gets raped, woman takes revenge, finito. However, what lies beneath the surface of these films is usually what draws the spectator in; what really grips our attention and makes us commit ourselves to watching unspeakable horrors. They are often a commentary on class and gender inequality, rape culture and the male and female gaze. However, at their worst and too often these films are pure violence and spectacle, which is a shame because Revenge really shows that the genre still has something to say.

Fargeat’s Revenge is a beast of its own and although it would be easy to compare to previous rape-revenge films, it shouldn’t. Fargeat has taken the rape-revenge genre and ever so cleverly and quietly twisted it. I say quietly, because Fargeat so sneakily turns the tables around on us that it takes a while to register that you are watching something different, something new and exciting. While never fully transcending the genre’s limitations, it’s a glorious film that demands to be seen many times to fully unpack its offerings. Needless to say, it comes at exactly the right time with #MeToo and TimesUp movements.

What I found equally interesting and creepy is that at the screening I attended, a quiet Sunday afternoon in Central London, I was the only female present. Men of all ages and races took their seats around me to watch brutal sexual violence and just good old plain violence towards women about to unfold and I felt very uncomfortable for some reason. By the end of it, I felt empowered to be the last woman standing. Although I was the only one to begin with… Anyway.

Fargeat begins her film provocatively and fully embracing the male gaze that dominates the films we are used to. Her doomed protagonist Jen is presented as the ultimate eye candy for lustful men. Erotically sucking on a lollipop and immediately initiating oral sex with her wealthy, but married lover Richard in his holiday home in the desert, she is the forbidden fruit. The camera swirls around her smooth and young body, almost teasing the audience with its overly sexualised imagery. Richard’s hunting pals arrive a day early to the happy couple’s surprise and after a night of drinking, Jen seductively dances with one of them, grinding her forbidden body on Stan, making him feel wanted and desired. So when she rejects him the next day, it’s almost too easy to blame the rape of Jen. Right? WRONG. Fargeat dares to ask this and to show Jen as an individual who loves her body and her sexuality. But to assume that this is asking for rape is exactly what Fargeat hopes the audience will trip on.

Interestingly, Fargeat keeps her protagonist quiet for a painfully long time. Jen has no dialogue until after she has performance a sexual act. Even her first actual line of dialogue is slightly muffled. She is defined by her sexuality and looks and she has no voice. The silence is deafening. This is something she must break free from in order to survive her ordeal. Early on in the film, Jen leaves an apple she was eating on the kitchen counter. The apple stays there and rots along with the men of the film. The more disgusting the men’s behaviour gets, the more rotten the apple appears. Ants are crawling on the apple. Actually, there are ants everywhere in the film. They’re all over Jen and everything she touches, much like the men. The ants end up drowning in her blood. Guess what happens to the men.

Fargeat’s gender politics are complex and interesting. In Revenge, she presents the viewer with three types of toxic masculinity. First type is represented by Stan, who commits the act of rape but isn’t your usual film rapist. Whereas many films tend to overly simplify the role and show rapists as dumb, violent and lower class, Stan is surprisingly normal and relatable in the sense that he is hurt by Jen’s rejection and his motives are driven by his pain. This is not to say that Stan isn’t a disgusting human being, but Fargeat dares to show a more humane version of a character that’s easy to portray as a caricature and it makes the rape even more horrifying, because we all know a Stan. He’s insecure, always in Richard’s shadow and feels the need to be validated sexually. Jen’s rejection is almost an act of castration and he redeems his masculinity by taking what he not only needs to feel like a real man, but what he believes is rightfully his; Jen’s body.

Second is Dimitri. He is the passive male, who allows the rape to happen and ignores Jen’s agonised screams. He sees Jen crying, he hears her screams, but doesn’t stop chewing on his sweets and simply backs away and turns the TV on louder to muffle her screams. Third is Richard. Richard as a character is a fascinating one. He is at first presented as an affectionate and loving boyfriend and even gets appropriately angry after he finds out about the rape. One might even be fooled to believe he might punish Stan. One is wrong however as Richard tries to make the problem, Jen, disappear, going as far as pushing her off a cliff to her death.

Jen lives though, rising from the dead like a phoenix. She literally rises from the ashes of the tree she burns to release herself from. Fargeat isn’t exactly subtle with her metaphors and imagery, but why would you when they’re this magnificent? Jen has been impaled by a branch, a wound that would most likely be fatal in a real life situation. Rape-revenge films often include an almost supernatural element in which the woman survives horrendous, fatal trauma to avenge herself. Fargeat’s avenging angel is however just trying to survive and escape. She’s not yet a warrior at this point.

When Jen finds Dimitri and attemps to kill him, she’s clumsy and almost gets herself killed. But she manages to overpower Dimitri by stabbing him in the eyes. Poetically, Dimitri is punished for not acting on what he saw.

A brilliantly bonkers sequence taking place in a cave with Jen tripping out on some peyote and performing some very gruesome surgery on herself is one of the films highlights, as it is here where Jen really becomes the avenging warrior. Cauterising a bleeding wound with the metal from a beer can, she brands herself with a phoenix and when she emerges from the cave, the camera once again admires her body, but this time not sexually. We are invited to admire and celebrate the strength of the female body and what it’s capable of enduring, the scars that Jen now carries as a reminder of her ordeal. Her body isn’t the childishly smooth, lustful body it once was. It’s now war-torn, dirty and bruised. Richard’s house might have been filled with expensive art pieces, but Jen’s body has become a canvas for both female empowerment and male abuse.

This is where Fargeat finally turns the tables on us. The male gaze is making way for a new gaze. Hers. She becomes the hunter who hunts her pray ruthlessly, but never losing her humanity in the process. Even when she finally reaches Stan, she is unsure and clumsy with the huge gun she is attempting to use. Fargeat doesn’t shy away from the gore; Stan steps on a piece of glass and cuts his foot badly, forcing him to pull a huge piece of glass out of his foot and Fargeat is sure to milk the scene for all its brutality. She understands the genre’s need for violence and exploitation, but she never lingers on anything needlessly while fully committing to the ultraviolent approach.

Ultimately Jen manages to kill Stan, but of course Richard is our main baddie, because he could have saved Jen an awful lot of suffering by just calling the police. Instead of throwing her off a cliff. In this sense, Revenge is the perfect post- #MeToo film, because it seeks to punish not just those directly responsible for the abuse, but those who allowed it to happen and go unreported. It treats Dimitri and Richard’s crime of not speaking out against Stan as equally severe as the act of rape itself.

Back at Richard’s house, Jen wounds Richard by stabbing him in the abdomen, penetrating him like she was forcefully penetrated. They then chase each other around the house in circles, as if the universe is shouting what goes around comes around. Richard is fully naked at this point, having been in the shower when he heard a noise. The film offers substantially more full frontal male nudity than it does female nudity. It feels completely natural, maybe because the film is a French production, they just seem better at filming naked bodies. The house is slowly filled with blood, Richard bleeding profusely everywhere. It’s visually grand, but a little sickening. For a moment it looks like Richard might actually come out of this as the winner, having been able to pin Jen down. “Women always have to put up a fucking fight!” he snarls at her. She plunges her hand in Richard’s wound and gains the upper hand, being able to retrieve her shotgun and kill Richard. She walks outside, covered in blood, dirt and scars, having become a new woman.

And what kind of a woman? The kind of a woman who puts up a fucking fight. The film’s greatest achievement is its message to women like Jen. While not encouraging violence, the film doesn’t force Jen to abandon her sexuality and punishes all three men accordingly, not just the man who physically penetrated her. Female empowerment is all over Revenge. Similar to the Final Girl trope, Jen is the last one standing, but unlike the slasher film trope, Jen isn’t a masculine female. She’s feminine, sexy and aware of the power her sexuality holds. Revenge is a bold movie, both thematically and visually. It’s a tough watch, but an important one and it clocks in at No.3 of my favourite films of 2018 so far, so do check it out and let me know what your thoughts were!

Stay excellent!

Maria