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Ida (2013)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida went on to win a number of accolades and prizes, including inspiring Paul Schrader for First Reformed (2017) (see my earlier review). On that basis I was hoping for a masterpiece, perhaps I was too expectant.

Ida is set in 1962 Poland and is about a young woman (Anna) who grew up in an orphanage and is about to take her vows before fully committing to becoming a nun, before she can, her Mother Superior informs her to go see her estranged aunt Wanda, Anna agrees and goes to meet her.

Anna’s aunt used to be state prosecutor but now is an alcoholic and heavy smoker, when Anna first meets Wanda a man is seen dressing and leaving the place. Wanda reveals a shocking truth, Anna’s real name is Ida and she is Jewish. This shocking revelation spurns Ida to learn about her past, Wanda agrees to help her and the two go in search of what happened to her parents.

The journey is a mixed bag, people in Poland are still recovering from the past physically and psychologically and the aftermath of the holocaust so it is difficult for the two to get people to open up. They eventually do trace down the farm where the family stayed, but there is more tragedy, and the impact that has on the two is far more then they could have imagined.

The film has exquisite cinematography and is shot in black and white which adds to the film, the way Pawlikowski uses the camera set just off the action is brilliant. The quiet and sombre setting of the nunnery is amazing to look at. Agata Trzebuchowska is good as Ida, but Agata Kulesza as Wanda steals each scene, she is fierce. The ending reminded of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coup (The 400 Blows), definitely worth checking that out.

Now what stopped me from giving it a higher rating was that I perhaps expected more from it, I wanted to learn more about Ida’s family and history and Ida’s upbringing but maybe that was me. I would still recommend seeing it, watch out for the actor Joanna Kulig as the jazz singer as she pops up in Pawlikowski’s latest offering Cold War (2018) which seems to be gaining rave reviews.

Rating 4/5

A Quiet Place (2018)

It’s oh so quiet, Shh shh, being quiet is what you need to be to thoroughly enjoy this film, it stars real-life couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski (who also directs) as the Abbotts who are doing their best to protect their children from alien like creatures who hunt based entirely on noise. The family seem to be doing well and understanding sign language (their eldest daughter is deaf) has helped them, how long can they remain safe is the question.

If you leave some of your logic behind, then you will enjoy this film, it is a good horror film. Logic? Well there are bits which you will question and find strange, hence the leaving it behind. The good thing is the film makes you sit up and pay attention, the lack of sound and dialogue draws you into the claustrophobic and paranoid world the Abbotts are living in. There is no human contact with others, everything has to be considered, no microwave, no music, down to even the toys the children can play with, but, they do manage to conceive a child as Blunts character is pregnant (leave the logic behind). So, this is difficult time for the family to pull and stay together, but it is not easy and mistakes can happen.

I really liked the atmospheric sound and music that was used (incidentally the sound editing was rightly nominated for an Oscar). It creates a tense edge of the seat feeling – exactly what is required of a good horror. I first noticed Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and have followed her roles since, particularly Looper (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Sicario (2015), she is brilliant in this, she is supported well by Krasinski and child actors Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward.

An interesting fact, abbots in Catholicism usually live in monasteries, living self-sufficient lives, sometimes in silence. I was fully engrossed with this film from start to finish, I would recommend it purely for the experience, sometimes silence is golden.

Rating 3.5/5

First Reformed (2017)

‘Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and Despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself’

Yep, that makes you ponder and pondering is what First Reformed does. The film centres on 46 year-old Reverend Ernst Toller, who is the pastor of First Reformed Church, a small church with a small congregation which is seen as a tourist spot more than a church. Ernst has just started a journal, specifically a handwritten one, in which he tries to write down his thoughts into everyday. He also has a simple mobile phone, one with no social media apps or Internet – just a simple messages and call phone – like a phone used to be, he sleeps in a modest room with modest furnishings.

Ernst has had some sadness in his life, he lost his son Joseph to an unjust war, subsequently his marriage soon feel apart. He now preaches, but he is on a downward spiral, he drinks heavily and is passing blood. He meets Mary, a young woman who is concerned about her husband Michael an environmentalist who has recently home after a stint in prison for his activities. Mary is pregnant but Michael is concerned about bringing a baby into the world which he believes is doomed.

Ernst tries his best to council Michael, but, he stumbles as he is at a crisis himself about his beliefs and thoughts. The more Ernst learns about Michael and his belief about the world the more he spirals. Even with all the people around him, Ernst is still lonely, he in fact embraces it as some sort of badge of honour,

‘Some are called for their gregariousness, some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness’

But deep down, he knows he needs emotion but where will he find?
‘The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer. How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion’

It is no surprise First Reformed screenplay has been nominated for an Oscar, it is excellent. Similarities have been made to Taxi Driver (also written by Paul Schrader) and to some extent it is rightly so, I would also say there are elements of David Lynch with its dark tones, the cinematography is also quite soft and reserved and the film is shot on a 1:37:1 aspect which is an old style of filming allowing for more focus.

Ethan Hawke is very good, he delivers a restraint and emotional performance as Ernst, (not sure why he didn’t get an Oscar Nod for it). He supported by Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. I have not mentioned the ending, as, it is interesting one, I will leave it up to you to decide, I just hope you don’t despair.

Rating 4/5

Isle of Dogs (2018)

What ever happened?
To man’s best friend
Falling – Spring – Blossom

The above haiku is read by 12 year old Atari (the adopted son of Mayor Kobayashi) to the people of Megasaki in an attempt to save all dogs from being killed.

This is the second animated film by Wes Anderson (the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox) and it is just as exquisite and delightful as the first. The film starts with a brief background of the plight of dogs from being free and independent to being hunted, tamed and eventually domesticated. We are then hit with thudding drumming and credits appearing – the music by Alexandre Desplat in this is excellent by the way.

We are then thrown straight into the near future in Japan where a dog flu outbreak has occurred with the risk of it spreading to humans. To save humans the Mayor Kenji Kobayashi signs a decree to banish all dogs to ‘Trash Island’ a place where all the city’s rubbish is sent, Atari’s dog Spots, a white and black speckled pink nosed dog, is the first to go and is sent in his cage across in a cable cart, soon more and more dogs are sent across.

Six months later, we are then shown a pack of dogs who march over to a fallen rubbish bag, the pack is lead by Chief a stray dog (voiced by Bryan Cranston) who has never had a master, and includes Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray). The dogs are met with another group and battle ensues over the pile of rubbish. This scene sets the tone that this is a Wes Anderson film, it is funny, dry and quirky. Chiefs group wins. As the group is enjoying the ‘taste of victory’ (soz) they spot a plane crash land on the island. They investigate, it is Atari, he has come to find Spots.

The dogs are happy to see a human or a master, all except for Chief who is sceptical, ‘I’m a stray’ he says, ‘we are alpha dogs’ and do not need humans. But the dogs rally round Atari and help him. Soon the Mayor finds out that Atari is alive and sends forces in to retrieve him. But Atari does not want to leave and the dogs help him once more and save him. Then begins a journey with to find Spots.

All the while a enthused group of students lead by foreign exchange student Tracey are finding the truth about the Kobayashi regime. There is an amazing scene featuring sushi being prepared which leaves you quite enthralled. In the end do we care if Atari finds Spots? The answer is yes we do.

This a good film, it is split into parts, the stop motion style animation is amazing, the way the dogs hairs move is pretty cool, and the plasticine humans are good too. But it is not the great film it could be have been, I like the way it can interpreted into different meanings, for example, the plight of the dogs can be seen as the way immigrants are treated – used as a scapegoat and fear mongering, there is also the way a regime controls propaganda and news. But the story doesn’t touch into this too much, and it sort of becomes a film that starts a conversation but leaves before engaging. I feel Anderson has aimed at the younger audience whereas his previous effort was more of a older one, which gives us a mixed bag.

The heart of the story is about the relationship between a boy and his dog and the lengths both will go to look after each other – something we can all appreciate and do more of.

Rating 3.5/5

The Post (2017)

Remember when journalism was about real matters and issues and you didn’t have to double check everything that was written or published and what those in power told us? Well those days are almost over – perhaps due to the very reasons discussed in films such as All the President’s Men (1976) and more recently Spotlight (2015). Well The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks is more of the same vein – in fact Hanks plays Ben Bradlee who was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men (for which Robards won an Oscar) and co-written by Josh Singer who wrote Spotlight.

The film is based on an interesting period of time which the Washington Post was going through, it was losing revenue so was considering floating with an initial public offering (IPO) and the ownership had transferred to Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) who took over after her husband committed suicide – who had taken over from Graham’s father. It was at this time the Pentagon Papers were leaked by an internal source stating that the government had been lying to the the public about the Vietnam war – it was a damming statement which said that the government had known that they could not win the war in Vietnam but to save humiliation carried on sending young men to their deaths.

The leaked source originally sent the papers to the New York Times but when they published, President Nixon ordered a judge to stop the paper publishing anymore as it was against national security. It was then the Post editor Bradlee asked his staff Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to get something which he did when he got most of the papers from Daniel Ellsberg. We then see Bradlee push to get the papers published but there is the threat of all those involved going to prison if they do so. It is at the point we see Katharine having to make a decision that could jeopardise everyone involved.

The film is a pretty good breakdown of the various social situations and views at the time, for example Katharine is the only woman in the boardroom and has difficulty adjusting to work as she has never worked because she has been expected to stay at home to raise the children and host parties. We see a fragile and doubting Streep – who is good in this, but she has never really been bad in anything – well perhaps her singing in Mama Mia? Anyway, the transformation in her is subtle but not too forced, and she does deliver a good line,

‘It’s my decision, and I am going to bed’

Hanks like Streep is good as always, and there is nothing wrong with Spielberg’s directing, but all in all I sort of felt this was more of a made for TV affair rather than cinema hence why I initially hesitated at seeing it in the cinema and saw it now on DVD. Everyone does their job (including John Williams doing music) but it feels like a timid piece, one that sort of becomes forgettable – unfortunately. I felt it was almost pushed and done in expedited fashion to combat the actions of the Trump administration.

Nevertheless I felt it was relevant especially in comparison to today’s fast moving pace of news, the dying print media where facts are probably checked after they are put out or not put out at all due to injunctions, in the age of fake news where everything is questioned and refuted, perhaps we need more good journalists being backed by strong editors who are willing to take a risk in order to bring those in power to account, and less sensationalised drivel and gossip. It is perhaps then the public can start to build trust in its media and politicians – perhaps.

Rating 3/5

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) Nice

Remember when people used to be nice? I quipped to a colleague days before our office broke up for the holidays (I can’t remember what it was that made me ask that) anyway it was a rhetorical remark, but my colleague went on to mention a host of reasons why people are no longer nice – politics and the ongoing effects of the recession being two – I agreed with her on the reasons but I wondered if the reasons were just an excuse for people to express their true colours.

Anyway I thought about films in which people have changed their views, luckily there are a few, but the one that stuck in my mind was John Hughes ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’

The film stars Steve Martin (as Neal) and John Candy (as Del) who play two characters who could not be more different, they meet accidentally when Martins plane is cancelled he decides to travel with Candy to get home in time for Thanksgiving, but he keeps running into problems and gets more and more antagonistic and rude, luckily Candy is there to soothe things over (or make them worse). It is essentially a buddy film, but as with all Hughes films there is an underlying message.

The film features a number of hilarious encounters and memorable conversations, the most memorable, most imitated and probably one of the most powerful happens when they row and Candy delivers his best performance:

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.

This is a particularly poignant scene and definitely gives a gulp moment. We then see a change in Martins character and his opinion of others. He realises that he has been unfair to Candy, just because Candy is a larger than life character and can be annoying at times, he is still a human being and he should not be judged after all he does not know his background or life.

Strangely I am reminded of a time when a former colleague told me that as a finance person I shouldn’t smile (not sure why – are finance people expected to be dull and somber?) anyway I gave (a Cheshire Cat) smile at every opportunity I found at him for the rest of the time we worked together – I think I won him over. (By the way I am not always a smiley smile face in case you expect it when you see me, it does depend on who you are and how I feel!)

Anyway I like the idea of being nice to each other and treating each with respect and humility, even when it feels like the world pretty much sucks – (I don’t mean go overboard Stepford Wives way) after all if we don’t be nice then people might start to forget what nice is, and then you are left with a world of hate, animosity and confusion. I don’t like hate and have never hated anyone, yes there have been times when I have been disappointed with people and their behaviour/actions but I have always tried to look past it, to find some decency in them, even when at times it felt like I have hit a brick wall I have never judged, instead I have reached out, anyway I think I have digressed here.

Ok, I will not go into the ending of the film as it is pivotal to the story, but it definitely leaves a tear in your eye, and a rendition of the Paul Young song Everytime You Go Away is pretty cool. I thoroughly recommend the film, I think it is Hughes best film. The acting is top notch and both actors are given enough material to chew through and flex their skills.

The film is a good example of redemption, friendship and more importantly helping each other. Candy does not have to do anything for Martin, but he goes out of his way to help him (a good Samaritan) because it is in him and his character to do it. Martin returns the favour as he sees his generosity and he learns about Candys life. It is testament of Candys character that even with all the things in his life he is still jovial and upbeat – he doesn’t have to be – but everyone handles things differently, just as long as we all get on and along.

Rating 5/5

La Isla Mínima (Marshland) (2014)

The opening overhead shots of Marshland are absolutely stunning, they show Andalucia so pristine, clear and calm but also full of mazes, little do we know what the marshes hide, in fact at certain points the shape of the marshes look like a brain, complex and mysterious.

Marshland is set in 1980 Spain, it follows a pair of mismatched detectives who are on the hunt for a killer who is brutally murdering young girls in the area.

On paper this is your average thriller film, but, there is something more to this, something more than meets the eye, it has a haunting quality to it. The two detectives Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are quite different, Juan is probably the most intriguing one, he has a brooding simmering quality to him, he has something his background that he seems to be hiding. Pedro is more straightforward, he is doing the job so he can support his family, but at what cost and how far will he go to do this?

The subplot between the two and their relationship is good, but it looks like it could have been developed further, there is an element of distrust between the two, more from Pedro towards Juan, as Juan is a bit of a mystery – although he is social and expressive he is also very tough and aggressive, he uses force to get results, something which Pedro does not like, it is something Spain is trying to eliminate after Franco, as Spain aims to become a democracy.

As the case progresses Pedro learns more about Juan’s past, he is told that Juan killed a protestor, which Juan denies. We also learn Juan is dying – he is passing blood in his urine, there is a really spectacular scene when a Kingfisher appears in his room which he sees before collapsing, the Kingfisher then flys in circles before settling on a chair, quite brilliant.

The film has superb cinematography, it is quite amazing the way the marshes are captured including every detail. The car chase scene is very good and tense. The limited use of music adds to the atmosphere, I felt I had to really concentrate which is a good thing, especially for someone who grew up with the MTV generation.

The case the detectives are investigating is quite brutal. In a small rural town young girls are being murdered and no one knows anything, the young Quini (the distracting and rather annoyingly beautiful Jesús Castro) is someone who knows what is going on, but is he part of it or not.

If you enjoyed True Detective then you will love this film, it is haunting, dark, gripping and slick. It deserves a second viewing, which is what I am about to do.

Rating 4/5