First Reformed (US-UK-Australia, 2017)

Religion in the modern world

I’m probably one of the least qualified people to comment on a film about religion as I’m mostly ignorant of the themes that inform them. I didn’t even twig that the potentially redeeming character, played by Amanda Seyfried, was called Mary until I read Gillian Horvat’s excellent Sight & Sound article. So this post will be limited by my secular outlook.

I’m aware that writer-director Paul Schrader has form in dealing with metaphysical issues and was more attracted to the film by Ethan Hawke’s presence. I can’t think of a contemporary actor who consistently turns up in more interesting material and who, invariably, delivers brilliant performances. The only time he disappointed me was when he was, I felt, miscast in Maudie (Ireland-Canada, 2016); here his star power overwhelmed the simplicity of his character. In First Reformed we know that his Toller is a deeply conflicted priest right from the start, as he delivers a sermon, simply through his non verbal communication: his posture is uncertain and intonation full of doubt. Alexander Dynan’s austere cinematography, it was shot in late autumn/winter (and apparently influenced by Berman’s Winter Light, Nattvardsgästerna, Sweden, 1963), beautifully captures Toller’s despair.

Whilst I have no problem with existential angst it was rewarding when, as the film progressed, the despair gained a political edge as Toller tries to console a parishioner who questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that is doomed to climate catastrophe. The introduction of the ‘big business’ bad guy (whose argument against mitigating climate change is, “It’s complicated, right!”) also works to root the metaphysical problems in the real world.

Most of Schrader’s camera work is austere too: an unmoving camera placed not necessarily to get all the action. However, he’s not averse to breaking away from arthouse realism. There are two scenes where the metaphysical outweighs the physical: (spoiler alert) one where Mary and Toller float through together through the ether (for want of a better term) and, at the end which for some, Peter Bradshaw for one, went too far. I take Bradshaw’s point, but the ending is only problematic if you read it as realist. In fact, it’s clear that the doors to Toller’s residence are locked and Mary could not have entered so the ending is really all in the priest’s mind.

There’s probably something symbolic about the church he ministers as it’s about to celebrate its 250 anniversary and so places its origins in colonial days. That one went over my head too.

I haven’t actually seen many of Schrader’s films as director (and he’s credited with 26 on imdb); I’ve long wanted to catch Blue Collar (US, 1976) his debut. I need to catch up with him as the ones that I’ve seen I’ve mostly enjoyed.

A Quiet Place (US, 2018)

Silence is…

Along with Hereditary (US, 2018), A Quiet Place had a critical buzz that suggested a reanimation of the horror movie; the latter also had the lustre of box office gold. As it turned out I found the former terrible and the latter just about adequate, which no doubt says more about me than the films. While A Quiet Place is conceptually clever, don’t make a noise or peculiar creatures will eviscerate you, and is efficiently directed by John Krasinski (also co-credited with the script and he plays the lead male), there was an emptiness in the film that meant I didn’t care about what happened. Teen horror films, in particular, can suffer from not engaging audiences (me anyway) sufficiently with characters so their inevitable demise is more a relief (we’re nearer the end of the film) than a tragedy. A Quiet Place does not fall into that trap for we are offered a nuclear family, mothered by the charismatic Emily Blunt, and children who are obviously vulnerable. So why didn’t I care?

Seeing a newspaper headline, early in the film, ‘New York in Lockdown’ was somewhat surreal given current pandemic circumstances. That, if anything, should have intensified the horror. While I have no problem with films being ‘only entertainment’ I do like to find more in the text than a sugar-rush. In the case of horror movies this can often be found in the monster, the fearsome Other, and what it represents. In this film the monsters are indeterminate, and their appearance based on slimy creatures not unlike the aliens of the Alien franchise (UK-US, 1979-2017); they have – in effect – big ears and munch anything that makes a sound. They are not creatures from the id; they are not the ‘monstrous feminine’; they are not sexually potent; they are not migrants and so on.

As the monsters don’t represent anything other than necessitating the destruction of civilisation and severe restriction upon the easiest way to communicate, speech, the full weight of the development falls on the family; there has to be more than simply to avoid being turned into bloody mulch. Here the film manufactures conflict between Dad and eldest child, played by the deaf Millicent Simmonds (great to see someone with a disability getting a lead role). Understandably Dad is in ‘survivalist’ mode and this seems to include training up a reluctant son rather than enthusiastic daughter. Why?! We don’t know enough about Dad to understand why he has Neanderthal views on gender and the film fails to articulate why this likeable guy (he tells his wife he’ll take daughter ‘next time’) should be so stupid. By the end of the film it’s clear the whole plot point is exists solely to create an emotional resolution. In this sense it is typical of the film, everything is designed to work in a solipsistic way, the set-ups (for example, Mum’s heavily pregnant, a nail sticking up from the floor) signpost themselves in neon and their whole point is create suspense and thrills. However as they are not sufficiently integrated into the film’s world they stick out as obvious narrative devices.

The only interesting thing I found in the film was the use of silence; most of the dialogue is signed and we understand through subtitles (a subtitled film as a $100m+ hit in North America!). Music is used sparingly and much of the 90 minute running time is spent in silence and this wasn’t comfortable ‘listening’ suggesting how important sound is to the enjoyment of a film normally.

A Sun (Taiwan, 2019)

Unlike father

It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:

‘This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly “help” in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.’

A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.

They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.

There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.

As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scene, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.

Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano, Colombia-Denmark-Mexico-Germany-Switzerland-France, 2018)

Proto-gangsters

I didn’t get on with Ciro Guerra’s last film, the well-received Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina, 2015), for reasons I don’t remember. However, I loved this one, co-directed with Cristina Gallego who produced the earlier film; it’s scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde based on the directors’ idea. It tells us the ‘true story’ of how the drug trade, and particularly the Medellin cartel, came to decimate indigenous traditions in Columbia. Apparently there’s much dispute about the accuracy of the film, however I took the film, which suggests the start of the drug trade began with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, as a metaphor for the malign influence of capitalist North America rather than as a form of documentary.

The film starts with a riveting Wayuu ritual of a young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who appeared in the most recent Terminator film), coming out of confinement (one year!) as part of her rite of passage and immediately being courted, in a bird-like dance, by Rapayet (newcomer José Acosta). A large dowry is set which he proceeds to get by opportunistically supplying marijuana to the Americans. Such a patriarchal ceremony mustn’t be forgotten in the light of what follows. Most of the film dramatises the changes necessitated by the growing drug trade as at the expense of tradition; however, just because something has been done for years doesn’t mean it’s good or right. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the destruction meted out in pursuit of wealth is devastating.

‘Bird’ courtship

I was more interesting in the representation of the indigenous community than the drug gang narrative. Another (virtual) newcomer is Carmiña Martínez, who plays Zaida’s mother, Úrsula, and is a strong antidote to the patriarchal treatment of young women as she is in charge. Martínez superbly portrays the matriarch’s formidable character whose indulgence of her wayward son is also the family’s undoing. She is a seer of sort; her visions of birds portend the future. There are some fabulous dream sequences that seem to come directly from the imagination of Salvador Dalí.

Daliesque dreams

The surrealism extends to reality: the family accrues luxuries in the desert and the contrast between their affluent villa and its surroundings are a brilliant metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of the wealth. The conflagration of the finale, like Bacurau, owes something to spaghetti westerns and is as much a catharsis as a tragedy.

Luxury in the desert

I shall have to go back to Embrace of the Serpent to see if I can see what I missed.

Atlantics (Atlantique , France-Senegal-Belguim, 2019)

African story telling

I try to watch films from around the world in the hope that they will teach me about what’s going on in different places, as well as entertain me. I suppose, also, I’m seeking difference to pique my jaded palette so although the first half of Atlantics was engaging, it is beautifully shot, I was less than engaged as the story it told was familiar: the economic hardship of the working classes and a teenager being forced into marriage for economic reasons. Then a specifically African motif of spirituality (also present in Japanese cinema though in a different way) suddenly changes the narrative’s genre and, from a western perspective, in a quite brilliantly coup de theatre the film goes to another level.

This is director Mati Diop’s first feature (she co-scripted with Olivier Demangel), having made five shorts including a documentary, Atlantiques (France, 2009), on the same theme. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) are youngsters in love but the latter hasn’t been paid for three months for his work on a building site. He has to become an economic migrant.

Leering over Dakar, Senegal, is the ghostly tower, that fortunately doesn’t exist; the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade planned to build it, presumably as a monument to himself. It reminded me of the unreal towers of Qatar, where the 2022 World Cup is being held, where thousands of migrant workers are treated as slaves. The divide between rich and poor is starkly presented by Clare Mathon’s cinematography, which shows the dusty poverty in contrast with the garish conspicuous wealth of those who have ‘made it’.

Ghostly CGI enhances the absurdity of the ambition

The scene were the film switches genres (this could simply be my western reading, for an African there may be no switch at all) is truly uncanny (I’m trying not to give anything away). A detective is charged with investigating arson and he leads us to the truth; I’m not sure what are the contents of the USB drive he gives to his boss at the end, when he claims he’s solved the crime. I’m guessing the ambiguity is purposeful .

Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at this year’s London Film Festival and the Grand Prix at Cannes. It landed on Netflix last Friday. The film, for me, was definitely another way of seeing and for that reason alone should be seen.

The Irishman (US, 2019)

The old school ride again

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

The Two Popes (UK-Italy-Argentina-US, 2019) – LFF5

Seeing doubles

I missed Fernando Meirelles’s last film as director, 360 (UK-Austria-France-Canada-Brazil-US, 2011), but his previous, BlindnessThe Constant Gardner (UK-Germany-US-China-Kenya, 2005) and City of God (with Kátia Lund, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) were all interesting. As is the Netflix-headed The Two Popes which surprisingly engaged me given my interest in religion is tangential at best. If I struggled with the film at all it was because it humanised the Pope(s), which is not to say they aren’t human, but they tend not to represented as such. As God’s representative on Earth, the issues of representation are tricky. I dislike monolithic meta-narratives that purport to tell others how to live; earlier this week the DUP tried to keep Northern Ireland in the ‘dark ages’ regarding religion and same sex marriages to show bigotry still thrives in some institutions. Indeed, that is the focus of the film, scripted by experienced film writer Anthony McCarten, as it contrasts the last two Popes: ‘fundamentalist’ Benedict and his successor, the ‘humanist’ Francis.

The Popes are embodied by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who are both superb, and the narrative is ideal for those ignorant of anything other than broad brush Roman Catholic politics (me). It sets up the conservative versus progressive narrative and then undermines it with flashbacks to Francis in Buenos Aries under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Humans’ characters are rarely ‘black or white’, which is why the almost-deification of the Pope is ridiculous, and the film admirably shows us the shades of character that are part of all us.

My ignorance is such that I’m not sure how much we see is imagined or based on what is generally known. It’s certainly not a docudrama about the last two Papal accessions so a liberal degree of artistic licence is to be expected. The (almost) obligatory footage of the actual Popes at the end of the film seems to suggest what we’ve seen is true but the film would have been better without this epilogue. Has Francis been a better Pope than Benedict? I have no idea.

I saw the film in 4k, which for The Aeronauts added greatly to the experience (the ice on the ropes was palpably freezing), but it added little to my enjoyment of The Two Popes; though there is a scene in the Sistine Chapel. Such a dialogue heavy film will be little diminished by Netflix I suspect though, of course, films should preferably be seen in the cinema.