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Tuesday 18 December 2018

RBG, Documentary Film, USA (2018), written and directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 9* out of 10

RBG, the documentary, has been an unexpected box-office hit among young people in America and it deserves a wide audience beyond.  The portrait and life story of a highly intelligent woman fighting with her outstanding talent and well thought out strategy for a worthy cause: women’s rights. Don't miss getting to know Justice Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Imagine God looking down on the United States of America that has given rise to Donald Trump and everything that implies – and she is not best pleased. If you were to advise, who would you pick to help people reinterpret their foundational texts and lay down the law? 

Well, how about a 155cm tall fragile yet austere looking Jewish lady in her eighties whom her grandchildren affectionately call by the Yiddish “boobbah” (grandma)? Yes, God has a sense of humour as well as a penchant for being effective. RBG are the initials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America appointed to this position by President Bill Clinton in 1993, only the second female justice of four ever to be confirmed to the court. 

And RBG is the title of a hagiographic documentary on the life and times of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. At 85 years of age, the woman referred to as “this witch, this evildoer, this monster” and as a “liberal super-hero” prepares herself for a work-day like Rocky Balboa prepared himself for his bout with Apollo Creed in Rocky 1.

RBG tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life from its beginnings to the present day based on extensive interviews with the lady herself and admiring fans and adversaries and audio archive footage of her appearances as a lawyer arguing cases in front of the then Supreme Court to claim for several women (and a man) the equal protection of their rights under the law that the US Constitution supposedly grants to everyone. In one of her court appearances, she memorably quotes the 19th century abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimk√©: “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of my brethren is that they take their feet off our necks”.

What emerges is the portrait of a highly intelligent woman fighting for women’s rights with great talent and a brilliant feel for strategy. In a quiet, unassuming way, she exudes seriousness, intelligence and the ability to listen and convince with a quiet voice and powerful arguments. She strikes up unlikely, yet genuine, deep friendships on her way, such as the one with ultra-conservative Justice John Scalia, a colleague and determined adversary on the court. Being moderate in tone and clear in argument at the beginning of her career on the Supreme Court, the film shows how she has become ever more outspoken. Remaining highly respected by her colleagues she writes trenchantly argued dissenting minority opinions as recent Republican Presidents' appointments to the court have changed its balance towards the conservative right. 

Most recently, she has ever less reluctantly become an unlikely pop icon of the young generation of social media savvy women who celebrate her in Tumbler blogs like “The Notorious RBG”, a reference to Brooklyn rap artist The Notorious BIG, and a regularly parodied character on the widely-watched Saturday Night Live television comedy show.

RBG shows all this while making no secret of the admiration and affection the film-makers have for their subject. But then Ruth Bader Ginsburg is clearly a highly intelligent woman with an outstanding talent for the law and an enormous amount of civil courage, who has made a deep and important impact for the good of society in the USA.

RBG, the documentary, has been an unexpected box-office hit among young people in America and it deserves a wide audience beyond. There is nothing much special about this documentary other than its content and its subject, and these make for a highly interesting and surprisingly moving experience. Don’t miss it!

Friday 7 December 2018

First Reformed, Film USA 2018, written and directed by Paul Schrader, 8* out of 10

"First Reformed" is only slightly marred by a weak ending. Ethan Hawke in the role of a troubled priest in troubled times leads a strong ensemble of actors, but the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is the true stand-out in this thought-provoking drama.

New York State 2017. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the priest in a small picturesque village community church in upstate New York which was founded by Dutch Protestants in the 18th century and provided shelter to black slaves escaping with the help of the Underground Railway. Starved of funds and with a very small congregation, Toller’s church survives because it is part of Abundant Life a large modern evangelist congregation with its own broadcasting facilities. It also has a large modern church and community center and attracts young people and wealthy donors, among them Mr. Balq (Michael Gaston) the founder and CEO of the major local industrial company whose donations ensure the upkeep of Toller’s small church. 

Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles) who heads Abundant Life has helped Toller obtain his post so that he can free himself from the demons of a difficult past which haunt him. The small congregation and the occasional tourist group looking for a guided tour of the historic church are not very demanding, but the upcoming Jubilee celebrations for his little church are an unwelcome source of limelight and stress for the troubled priest.

One day after services one of Toller’s congregants the young pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him for advice and guidance for herself and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael has been away in Canada where he has become part of a radical environmental activist group. He has come to believe that the future for humanity is bleak and hopeless due to capitalisms nefarious impact on the environment and wants Mary to abort. At Mary’s urging, Toller reluctantly agrees to speak to Michael. But with his own troubles, Toller is quite vulnerable to pessimism, particularly when it is not unfounded. As the pressure slowly mounts events take a dramatic turn.

First Reformed is an understated drama that slowly builds up suspense. The issues raised in tense conversations are big issues of our time.  It is a credit to the writing that they are not dealt with in a preachy way, but serve as triggers to moral dilemmas that cause inner turmoil and desperate actions by some of the protagonists. Apart from the decidedly lackluster (non-)ending, this is a good story well told. The direction and the ensemble acting performances are all strong. What makes First Reformed stand out, however, is the cinematography by Alexander Dynan. The almost sepia tones of some of the landscape scenes and the static wide-angle view with people moving through the picture are very well matched to the pace and feel of the story. 

Is there is any damaging development whose future impact we feel confident in predicting that justifies us resorting to violence against people who are maliciously or willfully blind? This is not about using violent self-defense against imminent mortal danger as authorized by the law, but violence against a longer-term threat. There is apparently something deceptively and disturbingly attractive in having a cause which authorizes an inner drive to give way to righteous indignation leading to the feeling of justification for “righteous violence”. Given mankind’s evolutionary path violence is always a temptation and violence authorized by a strongly held belief, whether religious or secular, is apparently hard to resist. 

First Reformed is a movie that makes one think, a visually appealing, thought-provoking and suspenseful drama.