Eavesdropping at the Movies 44 – 2018 Oscar nominations

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Mike and I have not seen all the films nominated. But we have seen most of the work nominated in the main categories and, with those qualifications in mind, we engage in preliminary discussion on the films, performances and cinematography nominated in the major categories. It’s also an opportunity for us to revisit and renew our appreciation of some our favourite films.

José Arroyo

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We also have a facebook page here

Thank you very much for your feedback. It’s most welcome.  It’s already  led to some changes we hope you see as improvements. And it’s always great to have a dialogue on film so please keep the comments coming.

 

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

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Phantom Thread gives us a lot to talk about; films about recessive people trying to communicate, the superb use of sound, quite extraordinary performances from all three leads; the beauty of the images, the complexity of the themes, the extraordinary ending, the coolness of the tone; filmmakers who excel at inciting thought versus those who excel at inciting feeling (and the full spectrum in between. We discuss the film in relation to Anderson’s ouevre and we will bring Mike’s brother into a further podcast on this film to help us delve into it further. The film makes you want to do that.

 

José Arroyo

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We also have a facebook page here

We’ve been receiving quite a lot of comments and we welcome them. Keep them coming. They’ve led to some changes we hope you see as improvements. And it’s always great to have a dialogue on film.

 

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018)

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The Commuter

 

 

I like these relatively low-budget star vehicles featuring action. They’re often much better than they’e thought to be. Here we discuss how Collett-Serra frames a wonderful opening scene through innovative use of editing, the superb montage of dissolves that highlight the commuter’s lonelyness, the wonderful shot that tracks through all of the carriages of the train, the ingeniousness of the central promise. There’s more cinematic nous and contemporary relevance here than in all of Downsizing. Mike likes it less than I and we discuss these differences of opinion whilst highlighting the many pleasures this film offers. Neeson, who I think is terrific, is surrounded by a great cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Vera Fermiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill. A good example of today’s Termite Art.

José Arroyo

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We also have a facebook page here

We’ve been receiving quite a lot of comments and we welcome them. Keep them coming. They’ve led to some changes we hope you see as improvements. And it’s always great to have a dialogue on film.

 

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Hawaii (Marco Berger, Argentina, 2013)

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Eugenio (Manuel Vignau) drives into a small town. Martin (Mateo Chiarino) knocks door-to door trying to find work. Eventually, Martin knocks on Eugenio’s door. The premise is almost that of a porn film: the handyman knocks on the door, the householder eyes him up and before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, cut to the bedroom.

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looking through doors, windows, bars

What Hawaii does that extends this basic premise is to offer social context, background, and to dramatise the partial perceptions, lack of knowledge, and barriers to communication that impede romance and act as blocks to the fulfilment of desire.

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outside, looking in, not quite in focus

Martin’s mother died when he was 13 and he went off to live with his grandmother in Uruguay. The grandmother’s now died and it turns out she didn’t own the house they shared. The current owner, a distant relation, let him stay on three months longer. But eventually Martin had to leave. He’s got a promise of a job in Buenos Aires in the Autumn. He’s left his few boxes of belongings in the garage of a cousin but said cousin has barely room in his place for his wife and his three children and Martin doesn’t want to impose. He’s returned to the rural village in Argentina where he grew up to kill time in familiar surroundings whilst enduring scraping a living. He’s homeless. He’s been living outside in the woods, though Eugenio doesn’t know this yet. Martin’s been lying to him about this. He’s a childhood friend but also a homeless migrant. His nickname’s ‘The Russian’, only partly due to his colouring.

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games people play whilst they’re trying to hide what they want

Eugenio is a writer trying to write a novel called ‘The Germ’ about the conflict between a landowner and the young daughter who questions how come it is that he owns the land rather than someone else. Eugenio is a couple of years older than Martin but he’s the baby in his own family, younger than his brothers: Flor by five years; Santi by 7. His family is extensive and they are close: an uncle bought his childhood home so he and his brothers could enjoy the money it brought but also continue to enjoy the use of the house. In the beginning we see him pictured reading, writing, doing yoga, typing away in the dining room on his mac, at a handsome table on which rests piles of books, a soup tureen and other signifiers of bourgeois respectability.

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the body outside, looking in, both object an subject of desire

What separates Eugenio and Martin is class and this is depicted in the starkest of terms. But throughout the first part of the film what keeps them apart is also the uncertainty about the other’s sexual orientation, the false clues they give each other regarding their sexuality, the insecurity that their own desire will not be returned. They play peekaboo games with each other. But what they hope to win by doing this is at the cost of real understanding and becomes a block.

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Longing, partial and distorted

Eugenio leaves pictures of himself with a naked woman for Martin to find. What does he hope Martin will think of this? He asks Martin to not be a faggot and feel free to undress in front of him. But where is this leading? Eugenio’s desire for Martin is shown palpably, even as he gives all these mixed signals to Martin. Martin’s desire is less clear, though at one point we do see him going into Eugenio’s room, sniffing his shirt à la Brokeback..and well.

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Anticipatory space in a narrative that’s full of anticipation and barriers to consummation

 

All this is brought to a head when one of Eugenio’s brothers comes to visit, quickly assesses the situation and is not shy to share it: ‘You like him. Do you think I’m an idiot? You gave him work because you fancy him. What are you going to do? Are you going to fuck him and then are you going to tell him, ‘Hey sorry, I gave you a job because you turned me on?’ Do you want to be his boyfriend? Did something happen already? Does he know? And if you fuck him and the summer ends, what are you going to do. You’ll take him to Buenos Aires, to a Levi’s store you buy him some clothes. You take him to Palermo and support him? Or you’ll send him to work on a construction site and you’ll wait for him at six with tea prepared at yours?’ A bourgeois’ perception of the horrors of cross-class elected affinities of any kind.

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Just when you think you understand….wrong!

The brother’s choices are stark and brutish. But it’s the first time in the narrative that we’re certain that Eugenio is gay and out to everyone but Martin. And this spins the story onto another level. Martin is only certain of Eugenio when he’s helping him move things, a bunch of explicit homoerotic drawings drops on the floor, and they’re clearly ones that Eugenio has been doing of Martin on the sly since the beginning. But then the plot gets complicated further because Eugenio then interprets Martin’s coming onto him for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with simple shared desire. And Eugenio’s rejection is so frustrating and hurtful to Martin that he leaves.

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the game of childhood

Eugenio wins him back by finding viewfinder slides of a shared childhood experience of marvelling at images of Hawaii, fixing the old machine, and leaving it in the woods where Martin previously took shelter so he may find them. And it’s this shared love of being in accord and at ease doing things they’ve enjoyed since childhood that finally brings them together at the end.

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Hawaii as symbol of childhood and fitting together

Hawaii, though in a way less successful than Plan B, has deepened my love of Marco Berger’s films. The way the viewer is always shown things at a distance, through a corner, via bars, glass, windows. The way the protagonists’ own mode of looking becomes a barrier to seeing and understanding. The way sexual reverie means the sound goes off, one isn’t listening, and thus one doesn’t understand anything other than one’s own want.

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What Eugenio’s been drawing. A revelation that results in a misunderstanding

 

I love the the kindness evident throughout; the confident gazing on people’s faces so that they might reveal; the intermingling of fear of rejection with desire. In other words, whilst his films provide quite a bit to incite desire in the viewer – these are handsome and charming men, gazed at longingly – the desire for going deeper, for finding character and understanding in people, over-rules and subsumes the libidinal desire that drives the narrative. Sexual desire is seen and dramatised but also put in its place. It’s only carnal, and carnality is not all there is to people in Berger’s films. There’s hugging and sharing and trust and companionship, and all those marvellous things that continue to glow in memories of childhood companions. I have two quibbles: a) the music is better than in Plan B but not good enough and the film ends too abruptly.

 

 

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I’m amazed that this was a Kickstarter project, delighted to see Manuel Vignault again. It’s a slow film in which nothing seems to happen unless you concentrate and look. But look; at the faces, the shots, the composition, the way things come and in go out of focus, the way spaces are places for feelings, and looks a way of suturing not only space but hearts and minds. A film that I liked the first time but learned to love by looking and looking better, the second time around.

José Arroyo

 

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice

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One feels one is in a 1930s Kardomah before the play even begins. There’s a small orchestra —  bass, ukelele, accordion, various vocalists — singing to the audience at the bar, and they then serenade us all into the theatre. The brilliantly pink curtain, shining in luxuriant folds, rises, and we see the British Board of Film Censors card which prefaced every movie and which here  announces the start of the show. Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), who’ve been sitting at a table in front of the stage, run onto it.  Laura’s husband, shown on a screen, beckons to her, and she seems to teleport from stage to film.

 

The film, part of the cultural history of several generations, both iconographically and in terms of sensibility, is both backdrop and a shared knowledge the play builds on. The show kids the movie, just like Victoria Wood’s famous sketch did, but with equal fondness. That shared memory, and that shared love for it, is the very structure of feeling the play draws on and develops, both in the way it is constructed and the way individual performances move from light and slightly farcical (most of the supporting characters) and those that are deeply felt and played straight (the lovers).

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The audience is serenaded into the theatre

What we see onstage is necessarily very different from the film. The film makes us cry at the impossibility of this love, at all the social restrictions, from the institution of matrimony to the censure of neighbours, to the weight of the state itself, as seen when Laura goes to sit in the park bench, by the War Memorial in the movie.

The show brings puppetry, circus, a band, acrobatics, songs  –‘Mad About the Boy and ‘A Room with View’ by Coward but many others as well — and brilliantly evocative and poetic use of images; sometimes used as a backdrop to evoke mood; sometimes front of stage to show passing trains; once, wittily, to permit Alec to enter the train.

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The actors sing to us in a world of images we know and love. In a world of sounds that are a backdrop to English culture. But what does the show do with them? It in no way replaces the power of the film. What we get is an entertaining and witty love letter to it, done in a completely different mode. Sights, sounds, and live actors here deployed to evoke nostalgia for norms, cultural forms of understanding, speech patterns, prices for drinks, and narrative tropes that no longer exist but that we recognise, acknowledge as a shared history, and are fond of.

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A production that makes imaginative use of many screens and often ‘steps into’ movies

This production of Brief Encounter, from Kneehigh Theatre and the Birmingham Rep, was first produced in Birmingham in 2007.It’s a wonderful, imaginative evening at the theatre. I particularly enjoyed the sound of Jos Slovick’s voice —  lulling and full of feeling —  and Dean Nolan’s many comic turns. But all the actors are brilliant.

It’s all rather enchanting, and the production enchantingly uses our memory of the film but without once evoking the depth of feeling the film surprises every audience I’ve ever seen the film with. And yet it’s not a disappointment. It’s a wonderful something else that uses every trick in the book available in theatre to both send a love letter to the film  that the show still can’t keep itself from slightly sending up. Those states of feeling presented in those ways might no longer be available to us. And maybe it’s a good thing. They were a bit ridiculous. But weren’t they lovely?

 

Jose Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 41 – Downsizing

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I look at my watch constantly. Mike walks out twice. Every sign of life seems extinguished by earnestness. Even the presence of Christophe Waltz and Udo Kier can’t rattle the film out of its complacency. I love Matt Damon. But there’s not an ounce of excitement on offer. How is the film well intentioned? How do those intentions achieve the opposite of what they intend.  How might the love interest played by Hong Chau come of as stereotypical bordering on racist? We discuss whether this is the most boring film of the year. Certainly it’s no more than nursery food for the brain.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We also have a facebook page here

We’ve been receiving quite a lot of comments and we welcome them: keep them coming.

 

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel by Allan R. Ellenberger

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Very good book on a great actress, still under-rated star, and key figure in the ‘pre-code’ era. The book is as good on her life as on her career. Her relationships with her mother, sister and child figure prominently and are woven throughout the narrative along with her numerous marriages and affairs. The plays, films and performances are well discussed and one also gets the nitty gritty dollars and cents information I at least am keen on. 

The book is interesting on all her key films (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Story of Temple Drake, Becky Sharpe, These Three;). It also gives a very good account of how difficult she was to work with, on the making of The Sisters, Old Acquaintance and the onset shenanigans with Bette Davis that ensued on those films. If Ryan Murphy wants to do a prequel to Feud this would provide very good material. Her reputation for being difficult affected her ability to get work in Hollywood but luckily she always had a stage career to return to in moments were she wasn’t getting what she wanted from Hollywood.

The book is fascinating on her extensive love life: Fritz Lang, Anatole Litvak, Robert Montgomery, and many others. The famous incident with Litvak and Paulette Goddard gets a full airing and Ellenberger also discusses and dismisses the rumours of Hopkins’ lesbian tendencies, locating the sources of the rumours and indicating how and why those rumours might have been propagated.

As an added bonus, one also gets a rich and full account of Hopkins’ career in the theatre. I recommend.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 40 – Call Me By Your Name

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Because my time is so constrained and I can only write on things that take up a couple of hours, I’ve been feeling I’ve been avoiding the truly interesting, complex or problematic films in this blog, and dealing only with what can be dealt with in the time I have. I’m glad I’m doing this podcast with Mike because at least it allows me touch on them conversationally and not hope to wait for time that never arrives like with Alain Guiraudie’s great L’étranger du lac. 

This is my second time seeing Call Me By Your Name and Mike’s first. We touch on issues that have been troubling some friends: class, culture, language, sexuality, the absence of the AIDS pandemic, the peach scene. My second viewing does bring up formal flaws in the film that I hadn’t noticed before. Armie Hamer’s performance comes off less well upon second viewing. Chamelet continues to seem great. It seems a lesser film on second viewing though, to the film’s great credit, I remained just as involved and just as moved. One of the criticisms made is that the film seems to be addressed to heterosexuals. If this is indeed the case, and I don’t think it is, it signally failed with Mike who watched it with restrained fury throughout, as he so eloquently elaborates upon throughout the podcast.

 

We welcome your views. The podcast can be heard below:

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

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With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

39 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Second Screening

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Feeling he gave it short shrift the first time, Mike’s keen to revisit Three Billboards, and drags me along for the ride. With the clumsy handling of race issues clouding the film less, we pick up on listener feedback that leads us into ruminations on Frances McDormand’s Mildred, particularly her defiance of the misogynist society in which she lives and zealous attitude towards collective responsibility, and whether the character of Sam Rockwell’s Dixon truly is a redemptive one.

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Red (Caleb Landry Jones) reads Flannery O’Oconnor

We also double down on our criticism of the film’s use of derogatory terms, comparing this to a similar issue in Tarantino’s films. Mike’s been reading about Flannery O’Connor on Wikipedia, and we consider what would have been gained and lost had the film been written and directed by the Coens.

 

The connection to Flannery O’Connor we discuss is obvious since one of the characters, Red (Caleb Landry Jones) is reading one of her books (see above). However, Andrew Griffin, has pointed out a further connection to another Southern Writer, Carson McCullers’, and her Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which Edward Albee turned in to a play and which Simon Callow made a movie I remember as being stiltedly poetic but with a fierce uncompromising performance  from Vanessa Redgrave at its centre, that is not unlike Frances McDormand’s in Three Billboards.

‘The parallels are quite amazing: a woman who has been brutalized by her husband and ostracized by the town who forms a relationship with a dwarf with explosive, violent results’, says Griffin, ‘ I didn’t think of it until you guys mentioned O’Connor, but thinking about it, the dwarf, the setting, the Redgrave character and the images you posted, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is obviously an inspiration for McDonagh, as both a writer and a director’. I think that’s right and perhaps something to pursue, but not by us; as I think two goes at this film are, for me at least, all I want to give it.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Del Toro on visual differences between film and tv

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‘Film is a medium that isn’t discussed the way I remember discussing it when I was learning it. It’s the one generator of mythical images we have. TV is fantastic but it doesn’t generate those images that have the weight and the heft and the authority that cinema generates….We need to discuss film formally.’

 

The wonderful THR roundtable from which it’s excerpted from can be accessed in full here

Del Toro on his love of George Miller

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The wonderful THR roundtable from which it’s excerpted from can be accessed in full here

Del Toro on the importance of the visual in cinema

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Guillermo Del Toro always says it better than I can. On how the visual,  central to cinema, is often ignored in discussions of particular works by critics and filmmakers:

 

The wonderful THR roundtable from which it’s excerpted from can be accessed in full here

Eavesdropping at the Movies 38 – Coco

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(Mind out for spoilers, we don’t do a good job of warning of them here. After the plot synopsis at the beginning, expect spoilers throughout.)

Pixar’s extraordinarily vivid, rich Coco tells the story of a young Mexican boy who dreams of life as a musician, stranded in the Land of the Dead. Themes of sacrifice for family, liberation and expression through music, remembrance and commemoration of loved ones and more are explored, and a culture that is typically ignored or stereotyped – or walled off if a certain someone has his way – is allowed to explode onto the cinema screen. It’s as warm, funny, and imaginative as anything you’ll see all year, and we adore it.

Film buffs will recognise homages to Busby Berkeley, Mexican musicals, Dolores Del Rio, Maria Felix, Rancheras, Emilio Fernandez, Enamorada, The Wizard of Oz and Frida Kahlo. It’s full of mariachis. When one hears a whisper of what sounds like Chavela Vargas, the spine tingles.

Jose is reminded of his dear abuelita. Mike cries.

Recorded on 23rd January 2018.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Homophobia in Z

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As discussed on our podcast on Z in Eavesdropping at the Movies, Z is a great political film marred by homophobia. In talking to friends about it, many of whom had seen the film on its original release, it became clear that they could not remember this aspect of the film. And yet it seems to me to be central. Vago (Marcel Bozuffi) and Yago (Renato Salvatore) are the film’s main henchmen with Vago taking particularly glee in the damage he causes.

In the first clip (below), shortly after we’re introduced to them, and as Yves Montand’s voice talks of the problems of society and the great ideals he espouses, Yago follows Vago’s gaze, tells him, ‘shit, that’s all you think about’, the camera moves up to show us where Vago’s gaze is leading to, and we see an adolescent boy in his undies. Vago grins knowingly and says, ‘yes’. I have mixed feelings about this.

I like that Vago is unashamed of his desires. I like that Yago, particularly as he’s played by the amiable open-faced Renato Salvatore, knows of it; that Vago is out to Yago and that the latter jokes about this in what seems a ‘natural’ way. I don’t think the response would be any different if Vago had been looking at a woman, say. However, it’s very clear that Vago is meant to be the anti-thesis of the handsome, intellectual, heterosexual, idealist, Doctor/Poltician/Saint played by Yves Montand. Montand’s voice-over is the context through which we see and follow Vago’s gaze.

In the second clip (below), Vago, who has earlier wanted his name in the paper, now, since the police are making a case out of the incident he caused,  wants it out. What the clip shows us is that the newspaper editor is gay and there’s a suggestion of trading sex for favours. This feeds into the old cliché of gay men forming a cabal. Vago then runs to the bar next door and clicks his heels. Is this because he doesn’t have to have sex with the editor who’s his age but too old for him? Is this because his mission’s accomplished? Because he’s high on the havok he’s wreaked? Perhaps a combination of all these? After he clicks his heels he runs to the bar, positions himself next to an adolescent boy, makes sure their hands touch, first trying to make it seem by accident and then very deliberately so. The stereotype of the homosexual preying on vulnerable adolescents rendered explicit, and particularly disturbing in a film which finds cause and reason for and  which humanises every other poor person complicit in causing damage that day.

If it’s not enough that Vago is the anti-thesis of Montand’s Z, preying on young boys and part of a secret homosexual cabal, by the end of the film we’re told he’s a convicted felon found guilty four times, including once for raping a young boy whilst a camp counsellor. So to add to all the damaging stereotypes presented so far, this homosexual is a convicted pedophile.

But that’s not the end, as you can see below, Vago’s thuggery is shown to be brutally misogynist as well.

I find this representation of gay men simultaneously exiciting, unusual and reprehensible in what is meant to be a left-wing film. It’s typical of the era’s politics where the ideal left wing figure is that which Montand represents here (and particularly so considering his star persona of working class Communist man of the people; a model of virility who married Signoret and bedded Monroe); and where to be the era’s most reviled figure is to be that which Vago represents. I suspect the only reasons to make Vago an exuberant thug rather than a mincing queen is to condense clichés of that most reviled by the era’s Marxists into one figure. The gleeful thuggery and lack of shame is what makes Vago unusual and exciting. But to put this figure forth at a time when gay men were actively oppressed in all areas of life seems to me to be reprehensible and one of the film’s great flaws.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 36 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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An extraordinary, near-Shakespearian meditation on misdirected rage, guilt and grief, deeply marred by clumsy lunging into a loud theme of racism and a strong sense that the film neither knows nor especially cares about the culture it’s portraying. Frances McDormand excels as the bullish, bellicose, foul-mouthed mother, but the film suffers as it shifts its focus to Sam Rockwell’s stereotypical racist hick. The central premise is brilliant; its treatment is ultimately uneven, and although there are elements we absolutely adore, we can’t get its lurches between tones out of our heads.

Do Americans have a case against the use of foreigners in their cinema? Language is one of the glories of this film yet we find there are considerable misjudgments with language in relation to gender and race. We can’t find enough superlatives for Frances McDormand yet we question why all the other women in the film seem to look 19, even when they’re meant to be married to Woody Harrelson. The film is very conscientious about its representation of race, yet comes across as rather racist. A tonally deaf film with some great moments.

Rewarding to watch, though, and it would benefit from a second viewing.

Recorded on 18th January 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies 37 – The Post

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Spielberg. Streep. Hanks. Nixon. A political thriller that adopts some clichés and slightly sidesteps some expectations, The Post is a historical drama that follows the internal conflict at The Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers scandal.

We find plenty to talk about in its parallels with the Trump White House and the current President’s attacks on the news media; its careful but stilted style; its relationship to the 70s cinema it evokes; its central figure of a woman out of place in a world of men; and the balance between its nationalistic boosterism of the US Constitution and American exceptionalism on the one hand, and its surprisingly direct denunciation of the powers that be in Washington. You can literally hear Mike learning about the Nixon era, live!

Also discussed: Mike loves Bridge of Spies, Jose doesn’t love Bridge of Spies, Mike thinks Spotlight is uniquely brilliant, Jose espouses his theory on Meryl Streep’s stardom, and why is everyone in the Post’s newsroom over 65?

Recorded on 22nd January 2018

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

You can download it from i-tunes here.

We also now have a dedicated website.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, Netflix, 2017)

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Those of you who love celebrities and fashion will enjoy this documentary on the world’s most famous shoe designer. An eccentric of Hungarian descent who grew up on the Canary Islands, modelled himself on Cecil Beaton and constantly dreams of Sicily, Manolo Blahnik, wearing beautifully tailored suits and with scarves and socks carefully colour co-ordinated, is very much himself and a joy to behold. His career is legendary and touches on everyone who’s anyone in fashion: Diana Vreeland encouraged him to focus on shoes; Anna Wintour took solace in his company and his shoe-shop before either of them were famous; Paloma Picasso hung out with him in Paris; a thin André Leon Talley became pals with him in London in the 70s; he was the first man to grace the cover of Vogue in 1974, shot by David Bailey and with Anjelica Huston by his side. All of these people alongside Rihanna, Rupert Everett, Penelope Tree, Sofia Coppola and many others come to sing his praises. The film itself charts his career from an unknown emigré in Paris to becoming a fixture in fashion in the 1980s and household name in America in the 90s thanks to Sex and the City. It’s an enjoyable film to watch and, as expected, a delight to the eye.

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Gracing the cover of Vogue with Anjelica Huston for David Bailey in 1974

There is only one moment however that seems to break out of the luvviness of the fashion world and hint at something deeper. John Galliano appears at Blahnik’s shop in the middle of a shoot. They clearly adore each other, lavish each other with compliments and then begin an homage to legendary Spanish flamenco diva Lola Flores. As they look into each other’s eyes and sing ‘Pena, penita, pena’, that classic and classically excessive song of hurt, both equally adoring  but each trying to out-trill the other for the cameras, two lost boys are revealed; homeless, exiled, lonely and finding a connection in a shared appreciation of a culture they’ve largely lost but perhaps the more meaningful for that: it’s camp, silly, touching. I wish the film had gone deeper. Manolo Blahnik claims that there is nothing deeper to find, that shallowness is all there is when it comes to him. That’s what the film offers. But Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,  in flashes of moments like those with Galliano,  hints  that it’s not quite so; that there’s a much more interesting story to tell, although it could very well be it’s not one Blahnik wants told.

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A shared love of Lola: surrounded by glamour but singing ‘Pena, penita, pena’

 

Jose Arroyo

 

Plan B (Marcos Berger, Argentina, 2009)

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A film that begins as a slacker sex farce and develops into a poetic dramatisation of changing desires. Bruno (Manuel Vignau) regrets dumping his girlfriend (Mercedes Quinteros) and wants to win her back. She’s now got a new boyfriend, Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and whilst continuing to shag Bruno on the side claims no desire to get back together with him. Bruno hears from one of Pablo’s friends that he’s known to have expressed an interest in men and decides to seduce him in order to break up their relationship and win back his girlfriend. You can guess how it will end.

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One of the pleasures of watching foreign films is to learn about other cultures. Here the bodies, faces, flats, utensils; the ways of being;  the spaces people inhabit and the norms of the culture in which the protagonists dance their game of seduction; all seem strange and appealing to me.

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The film depicts an interesting tension. The protagonists watch TV, have sleepovers, talk about treasured childhood toys, they get to know one another and in doing so discover feelings for each other they didn’t know they had in them. Dramatically, the physical dimension of desire in the film is always blocked, sometimes literally as when half-way through the film, Bruno and Pablo are sleeping together, Pablo goes to cuddle up with Bruno in the night, and Bruno’s arm rises up like a shot to block him. The film seems to take place in a world of feeling — confusing, unexpected, troubling — where homosexual desire is seen as burgeoning but with no release. Characters are confused by their own feelings, uncertain of the feelings and motives of the other, scared to express for real what has heretofore only been expressed as a joke. It’s very beautifully done.

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The formal aspects of the film tell a different story. one that is in productive tension with what we are shown. The camera lingers on these young men’s faces, finding beauty in a glance, a gesture, a way of speaking. The camera is often fixed so that we first see characters from their crotches or bums before they sit down so we can get a big close-up their faces. The camera is often placed low so that we get particularly sexualised views of the characters bodies. And yet it’s only a look at. The faces and bodies themselves are not fetishised by make-up, lighting or lenses. It’s almost as if the rapt attenuation of desire inherent in this particular way of filming  sexualises the relationship in a  way the protagonists restrain themselves from until the end.

In attitude, if not in looks, Bruno is like John Malkovich’s Viscomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, a better looking but equally charming sexual mercenary who ends up hoisted on his own petard. However, the filming of it reminded me of Ozu or Takeshi Kitano. Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.

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The characters speak of feeling; the use of the camera speaks of sex; the editing of that deeply felt but as yet unresolved. The combination spoke to me of a sexual awakening with all the urgency, hesitation, confusion, humour and embarrassment one remembers from life.

A friend recommended Marco Berger’s films to me in the light of my appreciation of Lucas Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. And I can see why to an extent: there’s a shared theme of sexual awakening here, and with a much more complex rendering of the spectrum of sexuality than in most movies (and one that Call Me By Your Name still hasn’t been given credit for). But the styles are very different.

Plan B is slower, more meditative, with leisurely editing, sparse shots composition, terrible music, and many shots where the audience is only half informed and where what the characters are reading or even saying to each other remains unheard by us. It’s a film with mystery, beauty and feeling; all achieved with the simplicity one has to be very skilled in order to achieve. I look forward to seeing the rest of Berger’s oeuvre.

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José Arroyo

 

 

Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938

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I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director  in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.

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Joint Christmas card from Henry Fonda, John Swope, James Stewart and Josh Logan

The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).

Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t  well convey.

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In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou —  immediately underneath her name —  are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.

It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 35 – Darkest Hour

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A chamber piece about history which looks like a combination of Rembrandt and an old photograph. In the podcast we discuss how Joe Wright might be getting short shrift as a director and the excellence of the performances:Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James are all marvellous. Mike mentions how the film is not the life of Churchill but a few defining weeks in the life of Churchill; how the film shows us nothing of Dunkirk, we merely see it on a map; and how wonderful a supercut of this and Dunkirk might be. Mike also highlights how the cemeteries of Belgium tell a very different story from the official one in relation to Britain’s ‘going it alone’ in the two World Wars.  We discuss how the film’s emotional manipulations are cheap but how one finds oneself responding to the film’s jingoism. I would have enjoyed it more had the film been less of a Brexit film, whether the filmmakers intended it or not. I would really like to see a film with the same actors just focussing on the relationship between Clemmie and Winston, and there’s a wonderful volume of letters full of sketches of kitties and piggies called Speaking for Themselves that I wish someone would draw on for a film. Mike guardedly recommends the film and is instantly remorseful but agrees there are pleasures to be had from it. But…..

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.