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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

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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

Jules Dalou

I had the opportunity to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge a few days ago, it is quite an amazing place architecturally, and the art pieces inside.

All the works are beautiful but I was particularly taken by French sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou. Dalou was born in Paris on 31st December 1838 and died on 15th April 1902. He was born to a working class family and made no secret of his working class background. It has been claimed that his sympathies towards the working class did obstruct his career under the Second Empire, as he was refused the Prix de Rome by the state on several occasions, nevertheless he continued to pursue his passion and through it made friends with fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.

But ultimately it was his association with the Paris commune and his socialist views that eventually led to him to flee to London in 1871 (he was given a life sentence in his absence by the French government). It was during his time in London that he produced a several pieces including those I would like to highlight here.

French Peasant or Paysanne française is one of a series of statuettes of women produced by Dalou. It is a comment on the highly stratified society and the layers of social divide. The sculpture depicts a peasant girl wearing a simple headdress seated on an upturned basket, suckling her child. It is a pure and simple piece but speaks volumes, why? Because here is a mother who does not have much, is probably having a hard day at work, but seeing her child is hungry, has stopped, but cannot find a place to sit so turns her basket upside down and begins to feed her child. She is a representative of the working class. She does not have servants helping her, pampering her, looking after and feeding her baby.
It really is a beautiful piece capturing life, it is no surprise it has been widely reproduced in different sizes and materials.

I also liked Palm Sunday at Boulogne or Le Jour des Rameaux à Boulogne. This is a terracotta piece and depicts a beautiful Breton peasant girl on Palm Sunday cradling her prayer book and a spray of Spring flowers in her arms. Why I like this piece is because the girl is so at peace with herself. She is not concerned with anything, she calm, serene and tranquil, just standing there. Looking at this piece definitely had the same effect on me.

I would recommend visiting the museum for all the pieces on show, but for the sculptures definitely check these ones out. It is good to know Dalou was awarded the Grand Prix of the Exposition Universelle and was made a commander of the Legion of Honor, he was also one of the founding members of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

Rating 4/5

I, Tonya (2017)

‘America, they want someone to love, they want someone to hate’
Tonya Harding

I, Tonya is based on the real life story of American figure skater Tonya Harding, a self-confessed redneck who beat the odds to join the top ranks of the U.S Figure Skating Team only to have it all taken away by the actions of those around her including her ex-husband.

Ok, if you haven’t heard of Tonya Harding then you will do well in enjoying this film, if you have, then please park those thoughts at the door as you need to come at this fresh.

The opening monologue states this film is based on the irony free and contradictory story which tells you exactly what are you into. It is told in different ways, it is linear but each specific point in her life is countered by each person involved, for example we hear different points of how things went down from Tonya, her husband Jeff and her mother LaVona, these are either through narration talking to the interviewer or as it is now known breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera and audience, the style complimented and enhanced the story for me – though I always find this technique slightly lazy storytelling but on this occasion it was a good decision by director Craig Gillespie.

It has touches of Martin Scorsese (don’t why I always bring him up but I do) the way it is filmed handheld and closeups are reminiscent of Goodfellas and The Wolf on Wall Street – the language is also a little blue.

The film has a brilliant soundtrack ranging from Violent Femmes’ Gone Daddy Gone (recently covered by Gnarls Barkley – a particular favourite of mine), Siouxsie and The Banshees, Cliff Richard (er…yep), Dire Straits, Heart, Doris Day and Fleetwood Mac to name a few.

The acting is top notch, Margot Robbie is very good, her ability to go through the range of emotions Tonya suffered is amazing to watch – the scene when she is applying makeup is a fine example – it is a powerful scene, can makeup really cover up who/what she is – to quote Barack Obama ‘you can put lipstick on a pig but it is still a pig’.

Robbie is supported superbly by Sebastian Stan as her husband Jeff, he is good, on paper he should be a completely unlikeable character, but Stan makes him interesting and watchable even with that moustache. It is perhaps no real surprise that the scene stealing performance by Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona won her so many accolades and awards, she is very good. She is ice personified, cold, cruel and toxic, not sure if the real LaVona was like this but if she was then it is no real surprise she has been divorced a number of times – interesting fact Janney filmed her part in only 8 days.
I have to say I also liked the character of Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser, he is very funny and also a scene stealer, perhaps should have also been nominated.

I really liked the film, definitely worth catching, it keeps you entertained and doesn’t play too much on probably one of the most hyped events in American figure skating.
There is a reporter also interviewed in the film played by Bobby Cannavale (fantastic in Boardwalk Empire) who says it best, it was 24 hour rolling news we had to give them something.

But at what price, here it looks like a lot of lives. It also begs the questions, how far would you go to win? And is winning really everything?
Interesting points, but now I’m off to get the soundtrack – she’s just a devil woman.

Rating 4/5