Eavesdropping at the Movies: 316 – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

 

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

A new day, a new entry in the MCU, and on this occasion we’re introduced to an entirely new set of characters and mythos: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fills us in on the history of a young Chinese-American man and his dad’s magical jewellery. Like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it’s a film whose connection to the wider MCU is light, establishing characters, a setting, and story elements that are certain to tie in to subsequent films, but free of the obligation to prioritise them at the expense of itself. And like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, that freedom works in its favour – it’s of a piece, interesting, pretty, and entertaining.

We discuss the film’s setting in a Chinese-American immigrant context, comparing it in particular to The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians: all three films dramatise the cultural differences between the new and old country, and the ways in which the younger generation might face challenges in visiting or returning to their ancestral home. Indeed, Awkwafina appears in all three films, and, even in supporting roles, expresses this subject all by herself. We also think about the MCU’s use of the film to address its own past, a character from Iron Man 3 returning: Shang-Chi not only rejects the way the earlier film totally reconfigured him from the comics, but also addresses the Orientalism with which he has historically been associated.

And there’s more besides – Tony Leung’s beautiful, evocative performance of a character that nonetheless doesn’t quite work; the quality of the action, much of it a cut above what we typically expect from Marvel; and that classic Disney trick – if in doubt, animate a cute animal. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a promising start to the MCU’s next phase, and we look forward to finding out how its world will integrate down the line, but it’s worth seeing on its own terms.

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

A quick note on Scott Eyman’s ’20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the creation of the Modern Film Studio’

I wizzed through this yesterday. A highly readable, chronological account that gives a good overview of the studio. I sometimes quibbled with his opinions of particular films, though not often, mainly because this is a book that doesn’t deal much with particular films. It’s an overview of the studio, focussing mainly on personalities (Fox, the Zanucks) and technology (primarily CinemaScope). I also didn’t find any errors…and still. It feels a thin book, one based on secondary research done by an assistant and whose only primary research seems to be conversations with a handful of personalities (and really I don’t think it’s wise to take what Evie Johnson says at face value). On the other hand, the Lev and Wasser books on Fox, so rich and detailed, also seem less rounded an overview than this one (the Lev book focusses only on the years 35-65 but feels fragmentary even taking that into account). I’m a fan of Eyman and I’ve read most of his books. His latest before this, only last year, a very good one on Cary Grant. Is he writing too much, too quickly? The books with Wagner, enjoyable as they were, were good for movie star books. The book on the friendship between James Stewart and Henry Fonda was excellent for film buffs. But this is a writer who’s written important, enriching works on Lubitsch (my favourite of his books, from 1993), Ford, De Mille , Louis B. Mayer and so many others; and this feels like a come-down. On the other hand, it’s an erudite, fast-paced and well-written overview that is a pleasure to read. It would make an excellent gift for a sixteen year-old film buff.

José Arroyo

Jaguar (Ramón Campos, Gema R. Neira, 2021)

 

I’m enjoying Jaguar, a Netflix series about Spanish survivors of German concentration camps  who group together as Nazi hunters in early 60s Spain. The twist is not only that they’re Spanish but that they’re hunting down Nazis within a fascist regime. Action sequences are interpolated with brilliant young singers versioning the coplas of the period. Maria de Madeiros with her wide dark eyes and soft tentative voice, appears as the secret head of the operation, always at the Prado museum, framed against beautiful paintings that are a backdrop, a point of conversation between the characters, and an added signifier to the narrative. Madeiros is lovely to see. I also enjoy the animated credit sequence (though not the song). Only two episodes in; commercial fare not of the top rank; and stylistically it’s nothing to scream about, but the story is holding me, clichés and all. It’s on Netflix.

The show is set in the Spain of the early 1960s but looks nothing like it. No poor people. No peasants wondering around selling their garlic on street corners. Jaguar seems to have been made by a generation without memory, or is it perhaps just means? Pop music does help with this, Marisol singing Tombola; Spanish versions of Rolling Stones hits on the radio; you sometimes get the occasional poster (Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel appears as a background poster but even that, though correct to the period feels anachronistic).

Jaguar has a look that is out of time, contemporary, generic. A depiction of a Francoist Spain made by Spanish filmmakers who seem to have very little knowledge of it. There’s a bit where Blanca Suárez as Isabel Garrido/Jaguar, a waitress in an expensive restaurant frequented by Germans, walks around the streets of Madrid in trousers where you think ‘in Madrid in 1962? A waitress wearing trousers? Never!’  The upside to this ahistoricism, at least in relation to film history, is that the protagonist is now a woman, the head of the operation is also a woman, and one of the gang is a gay man struggling with his sexuality and finding sympathy and understanding from his colleagues (in a Spain with severe anti-gay laws and where there had until recently been concentration camps for gay men).

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But perhaps none of this matters. I binged it, and did so with pleasure. It’s clichéd but competently done and moves along at pace. It’s comic book scenario — and this is not meant as an insult. I love comic books and I suspect that there’s a comic book the show is based on that’s better than the series — but with a great central idea, a modern approach to a Mission Impossible-type scenario (a group on a mission — in this case Nazi Hunters in Spain), the  the narrative propulsion of a good serial or comic book, interspersed with pleasurable actions sequences throughout. I look forward to the next series.

José Arroyo

A note on Hayley Mills’ ‘Forever Young: A Memoir’

I had to get it of course. Her films are my childhood. But a little more cheekiness would have made for a better book. It’s too Pollyanna-ish, overly determined to see the good in everybody, excessively kind, and so determined to see everybody’s point-of-view that it takes the shine off the extraordinary people she met – none were Saints –and the extraordinary circumstances she lived through…. Her father’s solicitor mishandles the trust set up for her movie money and she ends up having to hand over 91 % of it to the government when she turns 21, and this on already pre-taxed income; ie like so many other child stars she ends up with nothing. But she can’t bring herself to sue because the solicitor’s an old friend of the family. And this is before the ‘spiritual journey’ bit, at which point I almost gave up. It only takes us to the birth of her first child at 28 so I hope she learns to wink before she starts on the sequel.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 315 – The Courier

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Benedict Cumberbatch gets himself embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Courier, a dramatisation of the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6 to smuggle Soviet secrets provided by high-ranking GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky. It’s a film that offers pleasures in its performances and in the telling of a story you likely haven’t heard, but its storytelling is often banal and sometimes unclear, and, José contends, it’s full of tricks and tropes that are just there for effect – and often not very good ones. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, set in a similar period of the Cold War and also telling a true story of a citizen’s recruitment to engage in an overseas mission, is an obvious point of comparison, and perhaps The Courier‘s greatest gift is that its mediocrity helps to show off just how assured and polished is Spielberg’s cinematic technique, even if the ideological purposes to which he puts it leave us rolling our eyes.

The Courier isn’t a terrible film, and its performances do make it worth a look… but it isn’t a very good film, either.

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

 

Thinking Aloud About Film: Return Of Prodigal Podcast: The Youssef Chahine Podcast No. 39: Youssef Chahine on MUBI

We return to the work of Youssef Chahine, spurred on by by MUBI’s decision to screen a selection of his works, in what turns out to be marvellous copies. We focus on two of his films, Daddy Amin (1950) and The Devil of the Desert (1954), we compare the visual quality of the MUBI versions to those we saw previously, confirm our admiration for Youssef Chahine’s skills as a director, José takes a dig at the arrogance of a British film culture that assumes one can just move from writing or directing for the stage to directing a movie, and not even Richard can stop José from sighing over Omar.

The podcast my also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

A comparison of the quality of Daddy Amin from the version we saw to the MUBI version:

The version we saw previously:

The MUBI version:

Omar’s introduction in The Devil of the Desert:

The Battle Sequence in The Devil of the Desert as an example of cinematic staging:

The introduction of Omar Sharif in The Devil of the Desert:

You may also be interested in our previous podcast on Daddy Amin:

The Youssef Chahine Podcast No. 18: Baba Amin (Youssef Chahine, Egypt, 1950)

…annd on our previous podcast on The Devil of the Desert/ aka Devil of the Sahara aka The Desert’s Devil:

The Youssef Chahine Podcast: No. 21 – Devil of the Sahara/ The Desert’s Devil/ Devil of the Desert

The Tom Stoppard article Richard refers to may be accessed here.

Also. You might be interested in this:

José Arroyo

José Arroyo in Conversation with ….Ana María Sánchez Arce on The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar (Manchester University Press, 2020)

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Pedro Almodóvar is arguably the most written about Spanish filmmaker since Buñuel. Is there anything more to say of his work? After reading The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’; and I wanted to talk to its author — Ana María Sánchez-Arce — to find out more: What did she seek when starting out on the project and what did she find? What has now come to light about the Movida that was missing from earlier accounts? What are the benefits of analysing the film in chronological order and what do we learn about Spain’s culture and history in doing so? Were Spanish critics really that blind to Almodóvar’s accomplishments and that mean to his person? Did Almodóvar really invest his own money into the production of Law of Desire (1987)? There was so much talk about — we could have gone on for several hours more — that we only really cover the first parts of his career, trailing off after the controversies of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!  (1989) and Kika (1993). Those of you who find it interesting can turn to the book for more. The podcast can be listened to below:

José Arroyo

A quick note on Christopher DiRaddo’s The Family Way

To create a novel that is at once suffused with kindness and yet a page turner is a rare and wondrous thing. I can’t recommend Christopher Di Raddo’s The Family Way enough. It’s not a literary novel and it won’t gobsmack you with the beauty of its sentences nor the sophistication of its theoretical underpinnings . But it has characters you’ll recognise in places you’ll be familiar with wondering about things you might be wondering about now. It is a gentle, nuanced exploration of the importance of various kinds of families — the ones we make, the ones we’re excluded from, the ones we’re born into, the ones that are thrust on us, and, after being initially resistant to what I saw as the yuppyness of it all,  I ended up being very moved by it. But the main reason I’m going on about it so is that I was gripped by a narrative propulsed by kindness. It’s Di Raddo’s second novel and I’ll bet it will find a big audience if marketed properly. Certainly those on the lookout for a hit TV mini-series would be smart to have a look.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 314 – Free Guy

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Ryan Reynolds’ schtick, so irritating for so long, is winning us back, and Free Guy is built around his entire star persona, the self-effacing originality of which José remarks upon. Reynolds plays Guy, a videogame non-player character – an extra, essentially, following a programmed routine within a virtual world – with a lightness and sweetness that defines the tone of the entire film.

We discuss what the film represents about videogame culture and what it discards, the desire for romance that drives the story, what Mike questions about its ending, and more. Free Guy is a charming and entertaining action comedy, whether you know games or not.

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

 

Some more thoughts on Mildred Pierce

Preparing a class on Mildred Pierce and binged on the Todd Haynes TV series yesterday, which I thought beautiful and moving. It reinforced my feeling that cinema is not only condensed — condensed I suppose could also mean insufficient, missing out important bits, truncated — but poetic; that that condensed form needs to be used variously, that everything has to contribute, allegorise, fulfil the obvious function and do something else. Even the speech in the Curtiz version seems to mean not only what it says literally but also something else. The Haynes version also uses visuals beautifully but has more space. Curtiz’s visuals are striking; and that also made me think of a comparison of the performances in the two adaptations. Crawford is so impactful, and her performance certainly hits all the notes….but not the spaces between the notes like Kate Winslet does in the Haynes version. Winslet moved me so whereas Crawford leaves me awestruck. Anyway, a thought.

The close-up below, part of the magnificent star entrance at the beginning of Mildred Pierce. After two years away from the screen (not counting her cameo in Hollywood Canteen), Crawford returns in rainy streets, under lamp-pots, weaving in and out of the shadows wearing fur that seems to bristle with a dark and luxurious sensuality….and now about to throw herself from a bridge. Why? It’s terrific…and a hint of what Crawford might have carried over from her ‘Silent’ movie days.

‘The wool gets pulled from her eyes’: light as dramatic revelation and narrative device:

Mildred Pierce is chock-a-block with brilliant examples of the Expressionist work so characteristic of Curtiz. This moment, were Bert finds his wife has remarried is a favourite, partly because it’s not only expressive in many ways (Burt’s feelings, his anger, perhaps jealousy) but also via the shadows and timing, that they’re hidden, only partly perceptible, and full of a passion and violence we haven’t seen him exhibit before.

Winslet in the TV version, shot like a woman in a Hopper painting — lonely, lost — but also evoking another range of feeling: anxiety, fear, defeat, desperation. The look in the last five seconds or so is beautiful.

José Arroyo

Hou Hsiao-hsien 25: Contexts 15 – Growing Up (Chen Kunhou, 1983)

We discuss this absorbing and extremely likeable film in the context of New Taiwanese Cinema. Chen Kunhou was then Hou’s regular cinematographer. This feels , to an extent,  like a transition between the style of the earlier Hou films and the later ones. Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborated on the screenplay and we compare this to Hou’s earlier films (and find it lacking). There’s a sense that that this is a first try for ideas that were better developed in Boys from Fengkuei & Time to Live and a Time to Die.

There are spoilers in the podcast. The film is a maternal melodrama, where the mother’s point of view is sidelined in favour of the son’s, the husband’s, the society, a childhood schoolmate of the son. We find fault with the screenplay, the structure and the visual story-telling. What in Hou feel like ellipses that afford depth, here  come across as unbelievable plot holes or plot twists. We are nonetheless very charmed by it and highly recommend.

The podcast my also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

An example of the clumsy visual story-telling we refer to may be found below:

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 313 – Stillwater

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Matt Damon gives arguably a career best performance in Stillwater, as a tightly-wound, reserved, Oklahoma roughneck doing his best to support his daughter, who has been convicted of murder and resides in a Marseille prison. We discuss the film’s origins in the real case of Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher, consider how well the characterisation works and where it might fail, and work through our fundamental responses to the film: for José, it’s is an unusual and complex critique of American society and culture; for Mike, it’s hard to take seriously, its animus obvious and milquetoast. Wherever you land, though, Stillwater is a deeply engrossing drama and worth seeing.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 312 – Shiva Baby

 

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

A chamber piece that asks what happens when your life of carefully constructed lies is exposed, Shiva Baby is a smart, tense comedy set in that most aggravating of situations: the funeral, in which you’re forced to be judged by lots of people you want to avoid but aren’t allowed to kick up a stink. We discuss debut writer-director Emma Seligman’s handling of the story’s shifts in tone, in particular how she intensely ekes out tension; the light in which it depicts its women, who bookend scenes with sarcastic off-screen barbs and gossip; and the main character’s relationship to technology, and how her use of it to seek power is a double-edged sword.

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

On The Rocketeer and The Mark of Zorro — Not Just For Kids podcast

I’m delighted to have been invited to the Not Just for Kids Podcast to discuss The Rocketeer and The Mark of Zorro:

The web link is here:

https://notjustforkids.libsyn.com/chapter-8-swashbuckling-nostalgia-the-rocketeer-the-mask-of-zorro

 

Aug 25, 2021

“He probably wears the mask to hide his bald head and unsightly features.”

For those who cherish Disney, worship at the altar of Spielberg, love nothing more than immersing themselves into the world of Aardman, let us introduce you to Not Just For Kids. This is the podcast that revisits the films we cherished growing up, be they family films or something we maybe shouldn’t have been watching. Host Russell Bailey continues our four series as we wallow in the 90s.

The film academic and co-host of Eavesdropping at the Movie, Jose Arroyo joins to wallow in the nostalgia of The Rocketeer and The Mask of Zorro

Email us: notjustforkidspodcast@gmail.com

Find us on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd: @adultstoopod

Give the Not Just For Kids Movie Club a listen: https://anchor.fm/russell-bailey2

Follow Jose on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JoseArroyo16

Listen to Eavesdropping at the Movies: https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/

Other links worth your time –

The influence of Adventure of Robin Hood on 90s cinema (including The Rocketeer): https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/584997495

Hou Hsiao-hsien: 24 Contexts 14 -That Day On The Beach (Edward Yang, 1982)

Two old friends reunite after 13 years apart. Tan Weiqing  (Terry Hu) was in love with the brother of Jia LI (Sylvia Chan) but the couple were forced to separate after he was forced into an arranged marriage with someone else. This ruined his life. Jia Li ran away to marry for love but ended up just as unhappy as her brother and her friend. Tan Weiqing lost herself in her work and became a famous concert pianist; the other started a successful business, but only after her husband disappeared, one day, at the beach. Did he die? Did he ran off to Japan after scamming millions from his work?.Could someone do that to someone they loved?  Will Jia Li ever know? Does it matter? A poetic exegis on love, loss and happiness with a focus on women’s perspectives and experiences; a melodrama in art cinema mode, with gorgeous images beautifully shot by Christopher Doyle. Sylvia Chang is a luminous Jia LI, radiating strength, purpose, sadness and chic. Hou Hsiao-hsien appears as part of a gang of boisterous Wall Street types. The discussion may be listened to below:

 

The podcast my also be listened to on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/2zWZ7Egdy6xPCwHPHlOOaT

and on itunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/first-impressions-thinking-aloud-about-film/id1548559546

Listeners might also be interested in seeing the opening scene of Wong Kar-Wei’s Days of Being Wild which illustrates my point about the shooting and editing styles:

 

 

Listeners might also be interested in this article on Silvia Chang from MUBI:

https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/all-about-sylvia-chang?fbclid=IwAR0cEoynmB59uobnYYKvkmTsEVZGEIpQlQSIKMzbQUzBp7a74wW1rQwQpMc

Some images that caught my eye from the film:

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 311 – Jungle Cruise

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Disney has already turned one of its theme park rides into a box office colossus – is it time for another? They seem to think so, bringing us Jungle Cruise, an adaptation of one of the attractions from Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, the Jungle River Cruise, starring The Rock, who we still refuse to call Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Jack Whitehall, as explorers searching for the Tree of Life.

The film gives the ride more than a nod and a wink, The Rock’s character operating a cruise along the Brazilian Amazon, complete with the real ride’s cheesy dad jokes – and there’s effort made to reckon with the attraction’s history of racist representation of indigenous peoples. How successfully it does so is up for debate, the film indulging in its own cultural imperialism – despite being set in Brazil, there isn’t a word of Portuguese spoken; and no matter the purity of their intention, the characters are still in Brazil to take something that doesn’t belong to them.

We also discuss the film’s feminism and sexual politics, as embodied by Blunt’s and Whitehall’s characters, the setting in 1916 and the use of England rather than the USA as a point of origin for its story, and consider who the film is for – Mike sees its relationship with the likes of JumanjiIndiana JonesHook and The Mummy, and is sure that he’d have loved this as a kid as much as he did those. It fails to really explore the poetic potential of some of its ideas, and one too many action scenes feel like they need explosions to keep things exciting, but on the whole, Jungle Cruise is a likeable bit of popcorn fodder with three terrific performances, and chemistry to match.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 310 – The Human Voice

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Freely based, as the closing credits tell us, on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name, The Human Voice sees Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar working in the English language for the first time. The play has long been on Almodóvar’s mind, inspiring, significantly, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, among other works of his, and this short film joins the pantheon of adaptations of the play, which has seen its single character, a woman speaking on the phone to an unseen, unheard lover, played by such stars as Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, and Anna Magnani.

Here, Tilda Swinton plays that role, bringing to it a sense of reserve that didn’t quite make sense to José until the final sequence and the resolution to the story – perhaps an effect of having seen the play adapted so many times and not having seen the character played this way before. Conversely, Mike feels he instinctively understands the character, remarking upon her change from being out of place, both geographically and emotionally, to her assumption of control of her world and destiny. José, who identifies with Almodóvar’s work like nobody else’s, picks up on the themes, motifs, visual designs, settings and interests that tie The Human Voice to the rest of his oeuvre, and finds where this short fits in and where it doesn’t. Specifically, he argues that Almodóvar’s control of language and knowledge of how people speak is typically overlooked in favour of his visuals, but here becomes obvious precisely because of the decision to use English rather than Spanish, which results in less poetry and nothing memorable throughout the entire monologue.

That flaw is evident but minor in the scheme of the entire film, which is an elegantly made and interesting study both of Swinton’s character and of Almodóvar’s own style and lifelong interests. The Human Voice is on Mubi, and well worth your time.

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

Two observations on Little Caesar

Two observations on Little Caesar:

one: I’d forgotten the extent of Little Caesar‘s influence on The Godfather:

and two: watching Little Caesar, it’s easy to forget that Douglas Fairbanks was a big star: The Prince of Hollywood if not of Hollywood cinema, though a significant box office star throughout the early to mid ’30s; the only one I can think of who made films with Garbo, Hepburn, Crawford, Davis, & Dietrich. Yet, he not only seems callow in Little Caesar — he was very young –but physically overpowered by the diminutive Edward G. Robinson:

As we can see in some shots, Fairbanks was considerably taller (see below):

..and Robinson might have been sitting in 25 cushions in the previous screengrab…but there’s physical size and screen impact ;and on-screen Robinson is the one that blows everyone else away.

 

JA