All posts by Pat Mulcahy

Film Reviewer from back when they had magazines. See also

First Reformed – Review

Up until First Reformed, I had pretty much given up on Paul Schrader, the screenwriter turned director whose best films – Blue Collar, American Gigolo and The Comfort of Strangers – are way behind him. His 2013 collaboration with Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons, featured an embarrassing Lindsay Lohan in soft porn. His 2016 adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s Dog Eat Dog starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Cage strove for black comedy but came across as distasteful. After years of working outside the studio system in Hollywood on films in various states of compromise, including Dominion, the prequel to The Exorcist, on which he was replaced by Renny Harlin, Schrader was overcome with cynicism. In the opening of The Canyons, he shows us a derelict movie house, effectively saying ‘cinema is dead’.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a man with a Calvinist upbringing should rise again, returning to religion and the stuff of Robert Bresson, the French director he idolized in his book ‘Transcendental Style in Film’. Yet it is! At a time when America has veered lazily to the right, Schrader, aged 71, has found his voice, subject and purpose.

First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Toller (a goatee-free Ethan Hawke) who ministers to a congregation of six in a 250 year-old renovated church, First Reformed in Albany, upstate New York. The church is something of a local landmark – Toller offers tours, with a one-size-fits-all baseball cap for sale. Toller tries to live within the church’s means, refusing the offer of a plumber to deal with deficiencies in the men’s room – an apt description of Schrader’s oeuvre. He is surprised when one of his parishioners, a modestly pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who doesn’t want to bring a child into the world.

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Never the most commercial of directors, Schrader eschews wide screen for the Academy Ratio (1.37: 1) that we associate with black and white movies of the 1930s. In the film’s opening, the camera moves slowly towards the white clapboard church where Toller spends his days writing in his journal – a familiar Schrader trope. For the most part, the camera is static. There is little music on the soundtrack save for those performed by a small choir. In being reductive and restrained, Schrader exercises perfect control over his material. Even when he stages – in a literal flight of fancy – the ‘magical, mystery tour’, his choices work.

Michael is concerned by the effect of climate change: the chance to stop it was, according to his reading, lost in 2015, coincidentally the year that the climate accord was signed in Paris – I said Schrader was cynical. His attempts at eco-activism left him frustrated. After their first meeting, in which Toller tries to convince Michael to live with both hope and despair (‘you can’t have one without the other’), Mary calls Toller back to the house. She has discovered a suicide vest.

Toller has his own problems. He may have cancer. His marriage collapsed after he allowed his son, Joseph, to go to war in Iraq, where the young man died. Toller drinks to assuage his guilt. However, he performs his religious duties diligently, tidying up the gravestones in the churchyard and participating in a conversation with young Christians in the nearby Abundant Life 5,000-seater worship complex – a religious shopping mall to Toller’s corner shop.

Toller’s attempt to minister to Michael doesn’t end well. He finds himself on a collision course with polluting industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who represents big business’ indifference to the destruction of the planet.

The film recalls, in very direct fashion, Schrader’s iconic screenplay for Taxi Driver, in which ‘God’s lonely man’, Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) took on a politician, Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) before re-focussing his efforts more locally. You work out pretty early on what the climax will be – it builds to the re-consecration of First Reformed church. Yet there is something inevitable – Schrader-like – in how the action pans out.

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The film’s biggest surprise is Hawke, who gives a thoroughly controlled, interior performance. He has to pull off a scene in which he lies, fully clothed, on top of another person in an act of homage – I won’t explain it further – and convinces completely. He is contrasted with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle aka Cedric the Entertainer) who complains that Toller ‘spends too much time in the garden’. Jeffers has embraced big business, but Balq is worried that Toller might give the re-consecration ceremony a political dimension.

The drama is riveting through its essential simplicity whilst still having something to say about considering how mankind will be judged for ruining the planet. Schrader encourages the audience to value hope and despair as a dual response to 21st Century challenges and offers his most engaged and engaging film in decades.

First Reformed is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

The Guilty – Review

No self-respecting film reviewer should say too much about the police thriller, The Guilty. How then can I encourage you to see it?

I can point to the compelling central performance by Jakob Cedergren as Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police officer restricted to desk duty following the fatal shooting of a suspect. Cedergren is on screen throughout – literally – and he commands your attention and, very importantly, your sympathy for the 85 minutes of the film’s running time.

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I can commend the daring of director Gustav Möller in restricting the action to a single location. In some films, this can stretch credibility, for example, in Buried in which a civilian truck driver in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds) is entombed with his cell phone, or Locke, in which the titular character (Tom Hardy) juggles multiple crises over the phone whilst driving to London. In The Guilty, it feels less of a stunt, mainly because it is the route by which Asger makes at least one terrible mistake.

I can enthuse about the suspenseful plot that puts you in Asger’s shoes throughout whilst vividly suggesting the horror that he has to deal with on a moment-by-moment basis.

I can flag up the dark humour that erupts from the other incidents that Asger has to deal with as he takes calls from some less than sympathetic victims of crime and circumstance. Danish humour tends to be on the droll side; Danes are plain speakers.

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So you might have seen films like The Call in which Halle Berry plays a 911 operator who is telephoned by a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) kidnapped by a serial killer – it was Berry’s biggest solo hit in the last decade. The Guilty, which also puts an operator in the centre of a situation, is more honest. It certainly realises the potential of its idea, unlike Phone Booth in which an obnoxious public relations guy (Colin Farrell) takes an anonymous call from a sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) who manipulates him throughout – director Joel Schumacher couldn’t save the film from becoming ridiculous. I should also mention Cellular in which another kidnap victim (this time played by Kim Basinger) rings a complete stranger (Chris Evans) and has to convince him that she has been snatched; Jason Statham was on villain duty for that one.

You don’t need stars to make a telephone-based thriller exciting and morally complex. Möller proves it. OK, it is in Danish with English subtitles – if that puts you off, I cannot help you. For the rest of us, it is the thriller of the year.

The Guilty is out in cinmeas Thursday 25! 

The Hate U Give – Review

In a marketing move that went awry, the American police shooting drama, The Hate U Give inspired mass walkouts at ‘Cineworld Unlimited’ Surprise Preview screenings across the UK on 8 October. The last Cineworld Unlimited screening was The Incredibles 2 so audiences were primed for a tentpole release. Fearing it might be the new Hallowe’en movie anxious parents contacted Cineworld sites to ask whether their children might be turned away. There was also some consternation that customers weren’t given complimentary candy, dished out at previous surprise screenings. What the heck, indeed!

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Adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel by the late Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Under the Tuscan Sun) and directed by George Tillman, Jr (The Longest Ride, Men of Honour), the film tells the story of African American teenager, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who grows up in two worlds. Whilst she lives in the deprived neighbourhood of Garden Heights, where her father runs a store, she is educated at a school notable for the rarity of students of colour. Daddy (Russell Hornsby) drills his children to behave appropriately when stopped by a police officer – something they are taught to expect. However, whilst she is being driven home from a party by an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), Starr is unable to stop him from being shot. In the aftermath of the outrage (this is not a tragedy, rather an ongoing injustice) Starr struggles to articulate an appropriate response.

In the film’s best scene, Starr visits her police officer uncle, Carlos (Common) and they discuss why officers respond the way they do. White motorists are given the benefit of the doubt; black motorists are not. The scene works exceptionally well because it admits that this attitude is held by both black and white officers alike, but is rooted in bias about social background; whether the motorist is likely to own a vehicle, have committed infractions of some sort or carry a gun.

In many of the other scenes, this bias is presented as a white institutional problem. Yet the drama plays out against a criminal backdrop: Khalil worked for a local drug dealer, King (a nuance-free performance by Anthony Mackie) to pay for his grandmother’s medical treatment. The police officer’s suspicion therefore has some merit, though not his trigger finger.

Far from being an articulate film that decries racism, The Hate U Give is deeply confused. Starr’s parents consciously address environmental determinism rather than attempt to reform the neighbourhood from the inside. Although her father runs his own business, his ambitions are economically limited. He had turned away from a life of crime to be a good father, albeit in a drill sergeant mode, but is content for his children to live in a white world.

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The film creaks with a lack of authenticity, notably in Starr’s romance with Chris (K J Apa) a white student at her school, who is something of an embarrassment – a class clown who is singularly unfunny. Chris exists in a vacuum. We don’t meet his parents or his other friends; he is there as light relief – or should I say white relief. Starr’s relationship with two white girls in her class, one of whom takes part in a protest against police brutality to avoid a chemistry test, is somewhat more believable, but the film makes the mistake of presenting teenagers as finished articles, and not capable of change.

The lack of authenticity extends to a funeral reception that Starr attends for Khalil, where the family members aren’t so much traumatised as under-directed. The film builds to a scene of rioting that also seems under-populated.

The worst thing about The Hate U Give is that it presents Starr’s acknowledgement of outrage as triumphant when in reality nothing has changed. The way to address a culture of fear is to debunk it, which is why a number of first time African-American writer-directors, like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley have turned to black comedy rather than social realism. The Hate U Give feels like a throwback that could have been made five years ago. President Trump’s war on his predecessor’s legacy demands a more considered response.

The Hate U Give is out in cinemas now! 

First Man – Review

The opening of First Man is shaky – very, very shaky. It is 1961. Test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is in flight, as close to the stratosphere as he can get. His plane’s instruments are vibrating. It’s not just Neil’s job to guide the plane down – it is necessary for his survival. However, he isn’t gripped by a sense of panic; it is more about his ability to make the right judgements. Naturally, he survives. Otherwise he wouldn’t go on to be the first man to walk on the surface of the moon eight years later.

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The weight of expectation surrounding First Man is intense. It is director Damien Chazelle’s first film since La La Land. Its executive producer is one Steven Spielberg. It has a moon walking sequence filmed with IMAX cameras. Working from a script by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) Chazelle appeared to be priming his audience for a white knuckle thrill ride – Whiplash in space. However, First Man doesn’t deliver the way you might expect. It is slow to reveal its hand, to let you in.

The film is taken over by something else: grief. Neil’s young daughter dies and the pilot retreats into himself. Gosling gives his most closed off performance ever. We’ve seen him in love with a life-size plastic doll in Lars and the Real Girl. This time, he’s even more remote.

In the absence of Gosling – not physically, but in emotional availability – Claire Foy takes over as his wife Janet. She has to raise children on an air force base while her husband is co-opted into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Back in the 1960s they didn’t think calling it ‘Space Force’; but then the class bully wasn’t in the White House.

Foy is terrific and if she doesn’t earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I would be astonished. I fully expect to see the scene in which Janet asks Neil to say goodbye to his boys at least three dozen times before Oscar night.

Though it is not music-based – the first of Chazelle’s four features to date not to feature a musician as protagonist – it is an auteur work. Chazelle’s big subject is the challenge of reconciling a profession with a relationship. Neil doesn’t grieve with his wife; he throws himself into his work, almost to the point where he is anonymous. There is a strong supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll (the latter as Buzz Aldrin) and they glow with charisma while Gosling goes through the motions.

About halfway through the film, Armstrong is lodged in another cockpit and the film takes off. We see how unreliable and to some extent primitive the technology is. The production design stresses the manual nature of locks and the basic level of electronics. Chazelle’s big achievement – and he maintains it throughout the film – is to put us where Armstrong and his co-pilots are sitting. He doesn’t give us the exhilaration of a plane or rocket speeding by – even when they set off for the moon, there is no kinetic pleasure in lift off. Rather he offers a more immersive experience. It’s not Neil making the first footprint on the gravelly lunar surface, it feels like us.

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I fully admit to being a fan of The Right Stuff and to a lesser extent Apollo 13 (one of director Ron Howard’s best films). First Man has, to adapt a Chazelle line, a different tempo. The final hour and twenty minutes is utterly gripping. When we get into space and, during the exterior shots, there is no sound (finally) I fully geeked out. As every space nut will tell you, sound doesn’t travel in space. OK, so we hear the sound of Armstrong breathing, but inside his suit.

Quite apart from the production design, I was knocked out by Justin Hurwitz’s score, which, frankly I hummed most of the way home. It is also the first of Chazelle’s films to have a political dimension. I’m not just referring to the absence of the American flag being planted on the moon – free tickets to the movie have been offered to US service personnel by way of deflection – but Chazelle sets a montage to Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 poem ‘Whitey on the Moon’ pointing out the disparity spent on space travel and the lack of resources given to the black community. Chazelle understands Scott Heron, but he also answers him. America didn’t correct racial inequality but it proved that it was capable of giant leaps, claimed not for the country alone but ‘for all mankind’ to quote the title of Al Reinart’s 1989 Apollo programme documentary.

First Man is out 12th October! 

Strangeways, Here We Come – Review

Anyone waiting for the next British Shallow Grave won’t find it in the Salford-set ensemble comedy, Strangeways Here We Come, an enthusiastically performed but distasteful caper in which a group of none-too-likeable estate residents band together to rid themselves of an oppressive loan shark (Stephen Lord). It is the sort of film that mixes together Mormon bashing, postman trashing, vomiting, happy pills, community gardens and sex addiction all set to music from bands selected by Terry Christian.

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Writer-director Chris Green has corralled a group of ‘them off the telly’ including Michelle Keegan and James Foster from Coronation Street as well as Lauren Socha (Misfits), Oliver Coopersmith (Humans) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England) in a film that finds a level of irritability and raises it to eleven. It is the sort of material that might make an ITV comedy mini-series rather than something you would spend five-ninety-nine at a Vue cinema using the app.

When a postman is attacked for delivering ‘bad news’ (a bill), I shuddered. Residents mocked a pair of Mormons delivering Seven Day Adventism. A girl curses a boy who vomited on her. There is a boxer (Foster) who had a stroke, which continues to afflict him and a cab driver who has a drunken one night stand with a young student and then asks if she is pregnant. ‘Mixed race kids are always beautiful, even when the parents are ugly.’

If the jokes aren’t painful enough, there is also a boy, Aaron who has a Superhero badge on his chest with the letter ‘A’, which might just as well say ‘autism’. He wears the outfit out of a promise made to his dead mother as he reveals on the one year anniversary of her death.

There is one passable joke. A cabbie walks into Aaron’s front room, decorated with fairy lights and a cardboard cake and exclaims, ‘this is Narnia’. After that you are starving.

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The film takes half an hour to decide on a plot, ten minutes to knock off Nolan, using a mix of strangulation and kitchen utensils and the remaining forty-odd minutes to unwind. Elaine Cassidy (No Offence) makes a late appearance as a woman who wants to know where Nolan is and is more vicious than the thug she has by her side.

There is nothing wrong with a black comedy that shows wit and imagination but at a certain point the entire cast is trapped in a garden shed and the outcome is literally a cop out. This is followed by a drugged up woman having sex.

If Manchester wanted to replace London as the centre of culture in England, it will have to do a lot better than this. If you want a black comedy, go rent Alice Lowe’s Prevenge instead.

Strangeways Here We Come is out in cinemas Friday! 

Revenge – Review

If your boyfriend invites you to a remote villa in the middle of the desert, don’t go. That’s the moral of Revenge, a French language blood-soaked rape revenge thriller from writer-director Coralie Fargeat.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) thinks she is spending some quality bikini time with her married lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens), who has invited two other guys to go hunting with him. There is a pre-hunt pool party. Sexually confident Jen dances with one of Richard’s friends. When Richard is out the next morning (fetching the paper, I dunno), Lascivious Lump One gets the wrong idea and is left to it by Lascivious Lump Two. When Richard gets home, Jen hopes for retribution. But errant males stick together. Jen runs for it, is pursued to a cliff edge and meets a grisly demise. Except she isn’t dead – (almost) broken-backed, but not broken-spirited, Jen fights back.

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Don’t expect Shakespeare, or even Moliere (it is French after all). But Revenge is as visceral as cinema gets, slick and bloody – very bloody. The finale is, quite literally, a trail of blood.

As desert-based action films go, it is edge of seat stuff. You check your disbelief at the concession stand because you want Jen to have her revenge.

As far as subtext goes, there isn’t any. Revenge was made prior to the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Its nearest cousin is The Last House on the Left, but unlike rape revenge films made by guys, this one does not give the viewer the hypocritical and vicarious ‘thrill’ of an explicit rape scene – the act is suggested but not shown.

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The ‘fun’ aspect of the film comes from the dwindling group of guys getting frustrated as Jen triumphs against them. Fargeat invites whoops and hollars. The purpose of the film is for female appreciation to shout down men, to end once and for all the idea that rape is acceptable.

If Revenge has its intended impact, then the audience response in the final hour and a bit of the film will be vocal and unequivocal. The best screenings – and I suspect these will be held at London’s Prince Charles cinema – will encourage participation as the revenge kicks in.

Revenge is available on digital download now and DVD & Blu-ray from 1st October’.