Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/
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An offbeat, gentle, surreal, intriguing and slightly camp comic drama, French Exit is a pleasant surprise for us both. Michelle Pfeiffer’s widowed heiress, reduced to selling her late husband’s property, takes what’s left of her life – her cat, adult son, and attitude – to an apartment in Paris, where she resolves to spend her remaining money before ending her life. Sounds hilarious.
And indeed it is, its director, Azazel Jabocs, demonstrating a mastery of tone. We discuss what makes the film work, its visual design, its relationship with and attitude towards money, how that campness José perceives is kept subdued, and more. French Exit isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it is a good one, and a charming way to spend a couple of hours.
A discussion of OUR TIME, OUR STORY, a more traditional documentary than FLOWERS OF TAIPEI but all the better for it. A film that offers various kinds of contexts (production, distribution, exhibition, reception), historicises well, finds extraordinary archival footage, interviews many of the leading people involved in Taiwan’s New Cinema and really enhances our knowledge of the period, the movement, and the films themselves. The film boasts many clips often in a lamentably degraded state but one that really make us appreciate the value of the new restorations . The video may be listened to below:
After all our contextualising, we return to Hou Hsiao-hsien films proper, focussing on the masterpiece that is a City of Sadness. We are able now to discuss not only what the film feels like to watch or what it is about in formal terms but can now add various kinds of contexts: historical, political, social, aesthetic, industrial, and even how our own personal histories find echo in the film and how those echoes add a layer of insight and understanding into the film and perhaps also into ourselves. It makes for a rich but still — as is proper with all great works — initial and tentative discussion.
The sequel to one of the first films we discussed on Eavesdropping at the Movies, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard reunites Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman, Ryan Reynolds’ bodyguard, and Salma Hayek’s hitman’s wife – whose role is significantly expanded from the first film’s bit part. The vaguely sketched plot – Antonio Banderas wants to blow up Europe or something, and that’s enough detail – is the wire hanger upon which jokes and comic character interplay are draped, but, crucially, is the comedy successful?
Whether it is or isn’t, and what we read into the audience response, is up for discussion, as is the deployment of the stars’ personas and cinematic histories, what renders Ryan Reynolds’ schtick endearing here where it’s normally irritating, and whether the film’s sexual dimension is overly vulgar or too one-sided.
José has seen The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard twice now, and is no less in thrall to Hayek’s aggressive, wild performance the second time, loudly and enthusiastically responding to it. Mike is much less impressed with the film, but does admit to warming up to it in the second half, after a particularly mad joke that we won’t spoil here (but do in the podcast). If there are more Hitman’s Bodyguard films to come, hopefully with increasingly deliberately clunky titles, we’re up for them.
We continue with our discussion of Edward Yang films in relation to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work. We discuss the film in relation to Postmodernism, Existentialism, contingency, nausea, chance. We note that Fredric Jameson wrote on Sartre, Postmodernism, and this film. We discuss, Yang’s characteristic visuals, his distinctive way of filming, narrating, and style of characterisation; a kind of mosaic sights, sounds, scenes which the viewer is left to piece together. We continue to be entranced.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda shot to fame in the mid-2010s with Hamilton, he had already enjoyed success with his 2005 musical, In the Heights, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, winning four Tonys for its Broadway production in 2008. Set in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, it now comes to cinemas, following the lives, struggles and dreams of its inhabitants, who simply cannot stop singing.
Well, singing and rapping – and it’s the rapping that shines, Miranda’s lyrics as witty and intricate as those in Hamilton, while the singing is less impressive, and the domain of the film’s women, who Mike wishes had been given the opportunity to rap. We discuss our disappointment in the direction – the film is full of visual ideas that aren’t executed to their fullest potential – and its relationship to the cultures and peoples it portrays.
In the Heights has its flaws, but despite them, it’s an immensely likeable portrait of life in its locale, José in particular, an immigrant to North America himself, recognising a lot of what it depicts and loving the way it shows off the cultures around which it’s based. We pick fault with it, because that’s what we do, but don’t let that stop you from seeing and enjoying it.
We explore Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film whose reputation precedes it – it’s regarded as one of the greatest war films of all time. In 1943 Belarus, a young teenager, Flyora, joins the resistance, but as he travels from village to village across Nazi-occupied Belarus, experiencing worsening horrors and atrocities brought upon the locals, the extent to which he is out of his depth gradually becomes clearer and clearer.
Part of Come and See‘s reputation is of being hard to watch, something we both take issue with – it goes to some deeply unpleasant places, but it’s a gradual descent rather than an onslaught. That the film is regarded as such a trial has likely caused some filmgoers to unnecessarily avoid an experience that they would value. While it depicts shocking imagery and events, it’s shot with an ethical eye – everything that’s shown has a purpose, and that which would be excessively prurient is often avoided.
We also consider the use of supernatural and fairytale aesthetics to place us in the mind of an innocent teenager, and the repeated portrait photography that shows the deepening scars the film’s events leave upon him. We also discuss the film’s view of Hitler and how it espouses a kind of great man theory in placing him as an icon at the centre of the Nazis’ crimes, and the explosion of audiovisual imagination that is the final scene.
Come and See is a beautifully made expression of the hideous costs of war on the innocent, and on our humanity. It’s imaginative, intelligent, moving and shocking, and, we might add, beautifully restored. If you’ve avoided it on the basis of its notoriety, we urge you to reconsider. It’s truly great.
Richard and I discuss our admiration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. It’s connection to Hou Hsiao-hsien, who stars and co-wrote the screenplay. It’s a mosaic of a film in which a relationship between two people, childhood sweethearts who care for each other, falls apart and as it does so we get to see stories of a people and of a city in transition in a country situated within two imperial cultures, Japanese and American, with mainland China always hovering on the background. It’s a beautiful film, with really striking, original and beautiful imagery: Yang’s flat face-on camera, uses of screens, reflections, the city always ever present in what is ultimately a chamber piece focussing on a couple and their immediate relations, the couple caught between a longed for past (on his part) and an uncertain future in hers. A truly great film.
Reflected on screens. Also see other images below:
clip of Pepsi imagery:
Yang & Hockney
Richard also recommends this article:
This is a great article although it ignores the Hokkien-language films! This artistic conservatism was partly the result of the Kuomintang government’s thirty-eight-year imposition of martial law, and while the New Taiwan Cinema did not become explicitly political until the late eighties, when the law was lifted, Yang’s and Hou’s early films were among the first to depict Taiwan as a place with a burgeoning sense of its own social and historical integrity, independent of a mainland China that had long considered it a mere repository.
A Quiet Place Part II picks up moments after its 2018 predecessor ends, its characters desperate for refuge from the terrifying predators hunting them. Seeking survivors, they encounter a family friend, now a recluse, having lost his wife and children. Emboldened by her discovery of a way to combat the aliens, the family’s deaf daughter makes a beeline for a radio station she believes can help, and what was a home invasion horror becomes an action adventure.
While accommodating this alteration in tone, A Quiet Place Part II offers, as sequels tend to do, more of what made the first film so successful, and it’s terrifically entertaining cinema – but a diminished experience, compared to its predecessor, in almost every way. We consider the film’s view of society, the uncritical whiteness in its casting and its inability to imagine ways of living that don’t involve the nuclear family unit; and the lack of threat we feel, despite its functional and well-orchestrated set-pieces – we simply never feel like these characters are at any real risk of being allowed to die.
We have problems with A Quiet Place Part II, but don’t let them dissuade you from seeing it. It’s exciting and made José jump time and time again – we just wish, both in cinematic and social terms, it could see beyond its rather narrow boundaries.
Disney’s latest update of its back catalogue sees Emma Stone bring punk rock to Sixties London in Cruella, a beautiful, stylish, but clunky affair. Like Maleficent before it, Cruella offers an origin story to a key Disney villain: Estella, as she’s named when we meet her, takes a circuitous route to her destiny as a star fashion designer, grifting with friends to make ends meet, and waging war on the leading fashionista of the day, Baroness von Hellman – played by a fabulously wicked Emma Thompson. Oh, and there are some Dalmatians involved.
We discuss the quality and intentions of Cruella’s characterisation and Stone’s performance, the conspicuously expensive soundtrack, the use of CGI animals, whether the film is as queer as some of the hype has suggested, the role of men and masculinity, and why it is that fashion movies are one of very few areas in cinema where women get to play fun villains like the Baroness. Cruella is an imperfect film, less than the sum of its parts – but at their best, those parts are worth it for their own sake.
A discussion of FLOWERS OF TAIPEI, a documentary on Taiwan New Cinema. José saw it twice; the first time finding it interesting but almost instantly forgettable; the second time it incensed him, seeming an attempt to get a production to pay for a director’s networking opportunities rather than a work that actually illuminates what Taiwan New Cinema might be; its history, contexts, development. We do get to see it’s impact on major names from East Asia. Richard is as always the voice of reason. The podcast can be listened to below:
A discussion of Hsin Chi’s THE RICE DUMPLING VENDORS (1969), a rare male melodrama. The protagonist kicks his wife out of the house for perceived infidelity; as soon as he does the whole family falls apart and is plunged in a spiral of poverty, the father at one point abandoning his baby even as his two minor children take on jobs in order to buy milk. The film documents a society on the cusp of modernity and suffering the effects of the social and economic effects produced by it. Stylistically, the film is highly skilled and gorgeous to look at. Character’s thoughts are offered in voice-over or through song. There is a mix of genres: noir/action/family-melodrama/documentary. It’s a cinephile’s film, with references to PSYCHO (1960) and other films. The music borrows from CINDERELLA (1950) as well as then current pop-hits as Sinatra’s version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. We also discuss the extent to which this film is an influence on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE SANDWICH MAN (1983). The more Hsin Chi films we see, the more we like and value them.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, this trailer will hopefully entice you to:
We were delighted to see Su Chu (The People’s Grandmother), Chin Tu (Veteran Thespian), and especially Chin Mei (Tragic Goddess).
Billy Wilder directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama concerning a man on trial for the murder of an old woman – did he do it? What’s up with his wife? Will his lawyer’s nurse catch him smoking? As with Christie’s stageplay, The Mousetrap, upon the film’s conclusion, the audience is kindly asked to refrain from revealing its twists and revelations, but we at Eavesdropping at the Movies respect no such requests. Spoilers within.
Charles Laughton is pleasingly hammy, Marlene Dietrich composed, and Tyrone Power a loud, sweaty, stressed out mess – and somehow mostly in the background, despite his central role as the accused murderer. We discuss their performances and characters, the pleasures and methods of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and Wilder’s direction, which hopes, in that classic Hollywood style, to render technique invisible. Witness for the Prosecution is an engrossing mystery filled with interesting bits of business that enrich its characters, and a classic.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Continuing with our discussion of Hsin Chi films generously made available in wonderful versions by the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute. This time the focus is on DANGEROUS YOUTH. We offer a bit of background on Hsin Chi; discuss how the film is similar to Nagisa Oshima’s CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH, Godard’s BREATHLESS, BEAT GIRL, and all the motorcycle gang Roger Corman films of the mid-sixties. The film has the thematics and energy of pre-code sex melodramas but surrounded by a rock-pop soundtrack stylised and transformed by foregrounding the sax. DANGEROUS YOUTH is visually inventive, with fascinating compositions, interesting intimations of nudity through shadows, compositions that make the most of the architecture to suggest interior states and external perspectives. The story of a young girl groomed into prostitution for money by the pimp she loves and the richer woman who is pulling his strings, is given sexy, noirish form and fascinating gender politics. Does anyone believe the end?
Cinema is back! And to celebrate, we see the new spin-off of the Saw series, Spiral, which… is not a good film. But it gives us much to think on, especially the surprisingly big names of its cast, which includes Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Max Minghella. Slasher series don’t traditionally accommodate stars, but, beyond the fact that they’re typically too expensive, Spiral offers a warning against their presence: the screentime they require pulls too much attention away from the thrills, the reason we’re really there. The deaths we’re accustomed to enjoying in Saw films just aren’t given to us in sufficient excess or quantity in Spiral; Chris Rock’s protagonist, a detective hunting a Jigsaw copycat, dominates the story. As if catching the murderer is more exciting than watching him work. Honestly.
Despite our disappointment in the film, we enjoy our return to the cinema after nine months away, José finding a new appreciation for the meditative quality of submitting himself to a movie he can’t pause in a darkened room, after a year of experiencing a fractured, distracted mental state watching streaming media. Mike likes the bigness of the screen, and that’s as far as his introspection takes him. In an increasingly vaccinated Britain, this return to the cinema is more optimistic than the shaky and short-lived reopening of last summer, and feels like it stands a good chance of lasting. And a damn good thing, too. We’ve missed it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
We continue our discussion of the films kindly made available in wonderful versions by the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute. This time we discuss the second Hsin Chi film on view, FOOLISH BRIDE, NAIVE BRIDEGROOM, a wonderfully inventive screwball comedy displaying a wide array of cinematic devices for humorous effect (stop-motion, music, fluid camera), anchoring it in solid structure, set on the cusp of modernity, and wittily putting all the major decisions in the hands of the female protagonists. Great fun
In this new podcast we discuss The Bride Who Returned From Hell, from a cycle of Hsin Chi films the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute is currently providing free on You Tube and in excellent restorations. The film is based on Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellin (1960). We discuss its debt to Rebecca, Strangers on a Train,The Innocents, the Bond films, melodrama and the Gothic. We talk about its formal inventiveness in its use of a rotating camera and split screen. We also explore how its interspersed with musical numbers that often take place amongst a recognisable landscape. It’s a Taiwanese film where one can’t help but note its transnational dimension. It’s a film we both liked and recommend.
We explore René Clair’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel of – in the US – the same name, And Then There Were None. In terms of quality, it’s nothing to write home about, sadly, but is interesting nonetheless.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
We once more thank the Taiwan Film and Audio-Visual Institute for the opportunity to see these marvellous copies of Lin Tuan-Chiu films. In the podcast we discuss the combination of genres in the film — melodrama, court-room drama, documentary, murder-mystery, musical. We discuss the acting in relation to revue theatre. We wonder if a scene from Hou’s Cute Girl finds its inspiration here….and much more.