“I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life” If Beale Street Could Talk Review

Ah, to be young and in love. The love represented in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is the kind of love we all dream of finding. The all-consuming, hungry and passionate love that doesn’t seem to know time or place. One would be considered lucky to find such love in life, or even just to experience through art. Unfortunately for our star-crossed lovers Tish and Fonny, love is forced to carry them through some awful, awful things and at the end, onequestion stands; is love always enough?

After Fonny is falsely accused of rape, the newly pregnant Tish has to find her own way in life as well as try to prove Fonny’s innocence. Innocence becomes a prominent theme in Beale Street, the loss of it and the sheer existence of it through a racial lense. As a black man, Fonny was more likely to be sentenced to jail than a white man. So what meaning does innocence have in an unjust world?

The film’s best scene is somewhere in the middle and features Brian Tyree Henry, who no one seems to be talking about and I can’t understand why, because this scene is pure dynamite. Like everything Barry Jenkins puts on screen, the scene between Fonny, Henry’s Daniel and Tish is lyrical and magnetic. It’s often hard to look away or even to blink because everything presented to us is the prettiest, most complete version of itself. Fonny runs into Daniel on the street and the two old friends decide to spend the afternoon together with a few beers and plenty of cigarettes. Fresh out of jail, Daniel recounts his harrowing experience, something that still hasn’t left him and probably never will. Fonny and Tish can only listen and hope nothing like this ever comes their way. The audience knows better, or worse really. We know Fonny will be locked up and forced to hear the news about Tish’s pregnancy through the glass of a cold government building cubicle. Henry’s haunted performance as Daniel threatens to steal the spotlight from the other actors and Jenkins forces us to examine race and innocence through Daniel’s experiences in a society that was never on his side.

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KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny star in Barry Jenkins’ IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Jenkins pushes his camera close to his characters and we are forced to examine their faces and the hopes and dreams that are embedded in the fine lines and the occasional wrinkle. Often the faces are like vast, open oceans and it’s easy to get sucked into Jenkins’ world of constant symmetrical beauty. At its most devastating, the close ups become almost terrifying in their openess and raw honesty. We are not used to frames like this, there’s no hiding from Jenkins’ gaze. We’re used to quick cuts and fast moving cameras that spin around the objects. Jenkins is right to keep his camera still when looking at and into his characters. Their internal lives are communicated so clearly without a single line of dialogue, a sign of Jenkins’ skill as a visual storyteller.

Jenkins has lifted most of the dialogue from the source material, the classic James Baldwin novel. Not all of it works, not all the words fit the mouths of our fine young actors and the film feels heavy and stuffy at times. Both KiKi Layne and Stephan James do fine jobs, but it’s Regina King who stands out as the MVP of Beale Street. Her portrayl of a mama bear of sorts is the actress’ finest work to date. Never overdone, it’s a natural performance that’ll burrow through even the thickest of skins to move beyond words. King has a certain effortlessness to her, she makes her scenes flow easy and never appears calculated or forced.

If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’ second masterpiece after the acclaimed Moonlight. The film weighed down by its precessor’s succession. Beale Street never unlocks the same level of truth the more experimental Moonlight did, but it’s nonetheless a gem of a film. Beale Street is more accessible, more humble and easily digested. It’s lyrical, but underneath the romance there’s an angry heart beating at the centre of Beale Street. It’s rightfully pissed at the system, but within lies a great amount of hope, which is what we all need at times like these.

 

“I Don’t Know How to Help Him!” Beautiful Boy Review

Nic Sheff (played by various actors throughout the film, but by Timothée Chalamet in his adult years) is a teen who likes to experiment with drugs. Experimenting turns quickly into full on addiction to hard drugs and Nic’s father David (Steve Carell) rushes to help his son. A long journey into sobriety begins, full of ups and downs. Mainly downs.

Beautiful Boy played at LFF 2018 and it was set to be a real tearjerker. Not only A tearjerker, but THE tearjerker of the festival. It was also promised to be a quality film because anything that Timothée Chalamet does or touches, seems to turn into gold and Steve Carell hasn’t turned in a bad performance for years now. (Although I hear Welcome to Marwen might change this). It’s also based on the true story of father and son Sheff. So Beautiful Boy should be a hit, a touching and honest film filled with great performances.

Should have been.

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I’m sorry to say that Beautiful Boy is not any of the things it seems to promise. It’s not exactly bad, but it’s average. So average it’s almost physically painful to watch a film that wastes this much potential. It’s unfocused and never digs deep enough into the themes it so carefully lays out in the first act.

The greatest shame here is that it never gains any perspective. It lacks the point of view of a protagonist. Throughout the film’s 2-hour runtime, it flips between David and Nic’s point of views. It’s at its best when it looks at things from David’s persective as Carell is flawless and bring pathos to his role as the well-meaning father about to lose hope. The film becomes increasingly clichéd and uninspired when looking at addiction through Nic’s eyes. It fails to nail how Nic falls into the hard drugs. The idea must have been to show how easy it is, how quickly and effortlessly one becomes addicted and gets lost in the drugs, but it can never quite convey believably the high Nic experiences or make it so engaging, interesting or crazy that we would believe it.

The performances in the film are largely the reason it’s not a bigger stinker. As mentioned earlier, Carell is phenomenal. His quiet, but desperate performance is perfect. Known for his comedic work, it’s easy to forget just how good a dramatic actor Carell is. He thrives in drama, allowing himself to fully merge with the character he plays. Chalamet, the hottest young actor right now, is equally great as the struggling addict Nic. Chalamet makes Nic young, foolish, stupid, but always relatable. His performance here doesn’t quite reach the honesty he found playing Elio in Call Me By Your Name, but there’s never a feeling he’s pretending, playing dress up. He dives deep into the internal life of his character and portrays the addiction and how it ruins Nic with such ease, it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t done it himself.

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Unfortunately Beautiful Boy never becomes the film it could have been. Director Felix Van Groeningen makes too many odd choices, mainly with music, to make his film flow effortlessly. Thankfully his actors shine here and bring some much needed nuance and sensitivity to the film that is otherwise too ordinary for its’ own good.

“Some wounds do not close; I have many such” The Favourite Review

Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman. Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film has what must be the most attractive and talented cast of… well, any year really.

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I didn’t find The Favourite to be quite the masterpiece everyone is raving about. I found it made one crucial mistake from which it never quite recovered, but more on that later.

If you have been living under a rock and have just emerged, The Favourite is the story of two young, ambitious women fighting to be the titular favourite of one Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Sarah, an established lady and Anne’s current favourite is basically running the country for the queen, who is remarkably bad at being a queen. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, Sarah takes pity and orders Abigail to work the most menial, horrible jobs she can find. Family is family after all. Abigail sneakily finds her way to the queen good graces by tending to her aching legs with some herbs. After that there’s sex, guns and laughs, all shot magnificently by Robbie Ryan.

The Favourite is a blast, there’s no denying it. It will enrage some of the population with it’s lesbian politics and somewhat rude and strange humour, but Lanthimos is at the top of his game here and in total control. Not a single frame here has as much as a single hair out of place and it makes for a satisfying watch. Like Wes Anderson, but after a few beers and some cocaine.

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The film wouldn’t be nearly as fabulous without Lanthimos’ cast. All three leads do a fantastic job. All those awards Olivia Colman has been collecting are for a reason. Her role might be at time ridiculous and frivolous, but Colman underlines it all with tremendous pain and suffering. Anne is truly tragic character and Colman sees the pain under the humour in it and employs it well, even when Anne is being played for gags.

Weisz and Stone are equally delicious as the rivalling cousins. Weisz especially injects her role with such power and hunger, it made me want to wear a corset and point a gun. Stone doesn’t reinvent herself here, but seems to have blended her own star persona with Abigail. It makes for an arresting watch, especially since the usually so PG-13 actress has decided to go nude for Lanthimos here. It feels fresh and bold and also, about damn time. Not the nudity, per se, although a little graceful nudity is always appreciated, male and female. What I mean is that Stone has been playing it safe for years while establishing herself in Hollywood. The Favourite feels like her jump to the deep end. This isn’t to say that Stone hasn’t been challenging herself or turned in great performances but this feels like she’s arrived somewhere and is definitely staying.

And now we get to my problem with the film. The film very heavily relies on the explosive dynamic between Abigail and Sarah as well as the comedy provided by Anne. When Lanthimos separates Abigail and Sarah, the film loses speed, its’ flame dies. It’s still perfectly fine and interesting, but it’s not able to move on or find something to replace the deliciously wicked relationship the cousins share. It simply never recovers, rendering the second half of the film joyless and dull and the first half much more superior. Shame.

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The Favourite is still a great, great film, but I’m unable to move past my disappointment with the story. The last scene is bittersweet and powerful, but not enough to fix what they broke. Colman is the constant highlight of the film and deserves all the praise.

“Nothing’s gone forever, just out of place” Mary Poppins Returns Review

Everyone’s favourite flying nanny is back and dare I say it, she’s better than ever.

I have a confession to make. I have never liked Mary Poppins. It always felt incredibly dated to me and while I do appreciate mixing of animation and live action and how revolutionary this must have been at the time, it always felt like the film was at an arms length from me.

However, I have a weak spot for Emily Blunt. In my eyes, Emily can do no wrong. From the casting announcement to the trailers, it was clear that Emily Blunt was going to be the perfect Mary Poppins. And she mostly is. I prefer Blunt’s portrayl of Poppins, she’s much more fun to watch. I just wish the film served her better.

The film follows the grown up Banks children, Michael and Jane. Michael’s wife has died and the family is in deep financial trouble and about to lose their house. Michael’s children are far too mature for their ages and when the family must find some important papers to save the house, the kids seem like the adults of the household. The Banks’ need Mary Poppins once again to put their lives in order.

The film does so much right; it’s colourful, beautifully filmed and full of magic. It’s a joy to watch and Blunt nails her portrayal of Mary Poppins. It’s difficult to do your own spin on such a beloved character, who was played by Julie Andrews, but Blunt’s Poppins is more stern and playful, in equal measure.

It’s too bad the film is so forgettable. None of the songs are catchy enough to become ear worms that follow your bus ride home and while listening to the soundtrack on the walk home, none of them transported me back into the magical world of Poppins and co. Which is a shame because Blunt can certainly sing and dance and she is visibly having a blast. Seeing an actor enjoy playing their part is a rare sighting and letting it shine through in her performance Blunt adds another layer of magic into Mary Poppins.

Lin Manuel Miranda is just another version of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, this time named Jack. While the musical star does just fine in the role, it’s hard to imagine why director Rob Marshall would stick this close to the original film’s structure and tricks. It all seems like a missed opportunity to create a new classic, something exciting and different. Musicals are hip and cool again and Mary Poppins has all the right ingredients, but somehow it never quite comes together in a satisfying way.

The film isn’t without some hightlights. It’s biggest and catchiest song Trip a Little Light Fantastic is a fantastic sequence with some great choreography and it lets Miranda really show his chops as a musical star. The sequence happening inside a bowl is also fantastic from start to finish with its’ two songs and great visuals. It’s too bad the film felt like it had to borrow from the first film’s animation. A scene like this could have been innovative and exciting, but ends up feeling used and tired, because they did it 50 years ago.

Mary Poppins Returns is worth a watch just for Emily Blunt’s joyous performance and it’s dazzling visuals. It’s not the film I hoped it would be and it fails as a satisfying sequel, but it holds its own magic and is perfectly fine in every way.

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.

****

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

 

 

 

“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