First Reformed (2018)

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The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.

In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.

This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.

‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.

Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.

If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.

7/10

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Hostiles (2018)

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After a dry spell of Westerns last year; aside from perhaps the snowy frontiers with Caesar and co in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, a new year in UK film releases sees us literally follow soldiers and a Cheyenne family ride across New Mexico.

Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort some of his own men and a Cheyenne family to peaceful tribal lands in Montana. This is a journey in itself but the fact that he’s taking Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi); a man who has killed people he knows, makes it even more of a burden. Along the way they find Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) who has her own path to take.

Two years on from his so-so ‘Black Mass’ feature, director Scott Cooper manages to really let us feel the danger and grit of the expansive South West upwards to the North of Montana. It’s a huge and perilous journey, both physically and mentally, and through the choices made we truly sense that overwhelming scale of weight a few of these characters carry with them. Cooper fares well in delivering a palpable sense of tension on more than a few occasions which adds stakes but annoyingly the film does have some problems.

It’s a film that stretches just a touch too much. The pacing of numerous scenes don’t help feeling like this is a long movie. After completing one assignment, we’re thrust back into another similar job to follow which feels like a drag at points. The cliche of the character dynamic we’re left with by the end of the movie is another downer. It’s a film that looks beautiful, can be admired but isn’t a home run and I think that’s more down to the story which as said suffers from pacing issues and general writing missteps in the true harshness of rural America that could have been tapped into much more by changing the ending dynamics.

Bale is quiet and brooding as the rough but kindly captain but has changes of hearts or attitudes that feel slightly off, that’s more down to the writing than the actor of course. Pike is sensational in an opening sequence that bursts with shocking intensity and bleak tension. She’s just as brilliant throughout in a role that sees her show compassion, strength, weakness and forgiveness. Studi is an even quieter presence but one you never fear which is right. There’s a slow sturdiness about how he plays Yellow Hawk that mirrors the slow nature of the film itself.

It may be too slow and slightly long and a film that I’ll likely not remember come the end of the year, or maybe in 6 months time, but it’s shot stunningly well, the acting is great from everyone involved and there is an undeniable sensation of un-glorified violence that works well.

6.5/10

Haywire (2012)

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This thriller/action movie had me annoyingly disengaged for the majority of the run time. There is a genuine admiration to be had for the stunt work and actual fighting style used by MMA fighter Gina Carano, but apart from that I feel this was nowhere near as exciting or special as it could have been.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a former Marine and after retrieving a hostage in Barcelona she gets an assignment to Dublin from director Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). There she meets up with MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) and after a shady night she realises she’s being wrapped up into a conspiracy.

It’s a film that feels like it has so much potential, from the talents of director Steven Soderbergh to the impressive acting list including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton, there’s the action grittiness that usually works so well and a story about embroilment and pointing the finger but it only comes across as…average.

It would be hard not to compare this film to the Paul Greengrass splendour of the Bourne 2 and 3. This one appears like a female version of Jason Bourne but sadly is never quite as impacting or interesting. The action is alright but the attempts at the murky world of intelligence shrouding a person in blame and mystery doesn’t ignite in the same way as the JB trilogy.

Soderbergh does a neat job in utilising blends of fast paced shots with black and white moments, he gives each new location a suitable amount of breathing time and he ensures that the focus sticks with capable Mallory, but it never felt like he was breaking out of the action thriller formula and aside from him doing well in casting an actual subject for his lead and giving the movie some sleekness, this for me felt like a blah picture.

I do commend the way we see Carano kick ass and flip off walls, the brutal elements as she takes down a succession of men is cool to see but it nearly gets blinded by the stupid choice to have Mallory and Aaron just kiss, the awful deer in car moment and a drained sense of colour and blur to most of the movie. Even David Holmes’ music at most points sounds like it comes from a 60s/70s TV show and doesn’t feel right.

There’s a neat ending which feels very right and helps the film…but it’s at the ending. I don’t know, you just never feel tense or you don’t get nervous for the main character because she just gets seen as a strong fighter and nothing else. Everything is almost to easy for her, I feel from the other reviews I’ve seen of this feature that I’m firmly on my lonesome in having this viewpoint on the film but I didn’t really like it.

 

Gina Carano isn’t much of an actress but she more than makes up for it with her display of real hand to hand combat. There’s a cold tenacity in her eye, a furious touch to her look that helps Mallory feel driven. Michael Fassbender is brooding, handsome and dangerous as Paul. Ewan McGregor doesn’t get to do much outside of the typical director cliche mould, his motive transparent and Michael Douglas also fails to get much to do to pique the interest.

I admit there’s a cool level of muscle and style to this action number, but the pace, music and been there done that plot made me switch off multiple times.

4.5/10