Category Archives: Eavesdropping at the Movies

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 218 – Contagion

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

We may be living under lockdown conditions, but no virus can stop us, and to prove it we’re taking on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion, about a virus that rips through every country on Earth, the scientific work to stop it, and the social decay that it leaves in its wake. Suggested as a podcast by an irony-seeking Mike, it backfires as it actually just frightens him.

At least, for a while. We think about the film in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic currently upon us, of course, praising what we recognise in the film’s imagined crisis, remarking upon the differences. Much of what it depicts feels very true to life, and it strongly evokes panic and a sense of uncertainty; on the other hand, the difference less than a decade makes is thrown into sharp relief with the film’s essentially competent and well-intentioned government response to the disease, a far cry from the lies and bluster being spouted by certain American presidents today – something that would have been not only unimaginable but laughable at the time of the film’s release. José notes that a high proportion of the public worry in our current outbreak comes down to its economic effects, which again, Contagion does not imagine as even a minor point.

It’s a well-made film, tightly plotted and paced, juggling several plots and sets of characters, understanding keenly how and when to jump between them, and its staging, editing and cinematography bring to life the paranoia of living in a society in which any surface innocently touched by any stranger’s hand could spread a deadly disease, and the fear and confusion engendered by a lack of trust in the government and loud countervailing voices. Contagion uses its characters and scenes as representative of ideas as much as, or more than, things in and of themselves, which Mike argues leaves it emotionally distant and overly simplistic – though there’s plenty of room for debate, particularly over Matt Damon’s performance.

All in all, Contagion is an impressive piece of thriller fiction whose successes and failures are both given oxygen in the light of very recent developments. If you watch it, be prepared to be made even more paranoid than you currently are… because the world we’re living in now is even more insane.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 217 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

A delicate, intelligent love story, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire undulates with complex, interlocking themes and emotions. It’s a film about looking: who looks, who is looked at, how one should be seen, for whom the gaze is intended and what the rules are. Héloïse, a young aristocrat, refuses to have her portrait painted for the approval of a Milanese nobleman; an artist named Marianne is commissioned to do just that, but in secret, forcing her to steal glances at her subject and, outwardly, act merely as her companion. The women’s relationship quickly develops, and soon they are collaborating on the portrait to which Héloïse had hitherto objected.

Sciamma demonstrates an eye for beautiful, sensitive composition, and with cinematographer Claire Mathon creates some simply stunning imagery, evoking 18th and 19th century Romantic art; truly, this film understands what it means to paint with light. We consider the differences between the characters: one formerly resident in a convent, brought home to take over her sister’s role to be betrothed; the other a skilled worker, whose life experience Héloïse is keen to probe – and this is to say nothing of Sophie, the maid, who forms friendships with both Héloïse and Marianne, and the drama of whose life experience surely outweighs theirs combined. We discuss how the boundaries between the three – particularly Héloïse and the two workers – are broken down; without the rule-keeping figure of Héloïse’s mother present, the young women are able, to an extent, to reshape the world in which they live. But patriarchy overhangs the entire film, even with men physically absent throughout; the painting into which Marianne and Héloïse are investing their love is the very thing, intended for the Milanese suitor as it is, that will seal their fate to live separate lives.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an ambitious, confident, complex and beautiful film whose imagery soars on the cinema screen. See it.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 213 – The Lighthouse

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

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a tale of two lighthouse keepers stranded during a storm, is a visual treat in black and white that stuns and engrosses us. A two-hander between Willem Dafoe’s irascible boss and Robert Pattinson’s secretive youngster, it invokes myth, gods, folk tales, the clash of male egos, compulsive psychosexuality, if not much, much more besides.

If its plot is simple, its story is complex, and we think our way through its characters’ personalities, wants, needs, and psychologies. José asks if the film is gothic, and we discuss the boss’s treatment of his assistant: is it just controlling, or abusive? Extraordinary imagery of mermaids, monsters, and gods suffuses the film with inescapable surreality and the turbulent minds of men overburdened with ego and sexual need. Eggers has an assured, confident sense of tone, layering the film with mood and atmosphere, making its remote island a pressure cooker.

The Lighthouse is a spectacular film, an audiovisual treat that you should not miss at the cinema. Its imagery is poetic, its characters complex – in its entirety, it is confusing but approachable, symbolic but not coded, allowing room for interpretation and emotional response. It’s brilliant.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 212 – Parasite

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

It’s one of José’s films of the year; it leaves Mike cold. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite depicts social inequality in South Korea through a lower-class family that cons its way into working for an upper-class family. We pick our way through the film’s structure; its motif of staircases that delineate status and power relations; the way poverty carries with it an inescapable smell, intolerable to the upper class; the two families’ experiences of nature and the desire for sunshine.

It builds on some aspects of horror, but cannot at all be considered one, either in genre or affect – though the fact that its trailers sold it as such might have something to do with Mike’s frosty response. It’s an allegorical thriller, every character standing in place of a class or group of people, and its construction is intelligent, thoughtful and tight. For José, it works on a visceral level, the mood and tone emphasising and combining with the structure and metaphor; for Mike, it’s a flat experience, a clever essay with definite interpretations and little feeling.

But it’s clearly touched a nerve, connecting with worldwide audiences. It speaks not just to conditions in South Korea but a global system of oppression and inequality under capitalism. We may not agree on what it makes us feel, but it’s potent food for thought and offers much to discuss. Don’t miss it.

Also in this episode, we take a look at the upcoming Oscars, which eager cinephiles will be able to watch yesterday.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 211 – Birds of Prey

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

Trying to build a portrait of patriarchal power and subjugation that shapes the lives of five women, Birds of Prey takes a solid enough foundation and executes it abysmally, lacking visual style, coherent storytelling, and really any imagination. It’s the worst time José’s endured at the cinema in a year; Mike heroically offers a couple of examples of moments he enjoyed – the flying sandwich – but there’s no rescuing these damsels in distress.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 210 – Uncut Gems

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

Independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team up with Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems, an energetic, evolving crime thriller set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. By the time we meet Sandler’s Jewish jeweller, Howard, he’s already embedded within a web of competing interests, desires and debts, as well as a gambling addiction – and the tension only mounts as problems grow worse.

The Safdie brothers and Sandler are all Jewish New York natives, the writer-directors in particular growing up, in part, around the Diamond District, where their father worked. There’s a specificity to the location and culture that the film captures beautifully, a richness to Howard’s characterisation, and the world he inhabits, that feels authentically observed. Howard’s need to take risks never allows the tension to settle – he can’t help but invite further trouble upon himself, so neither does the film let us calm down for a second.

Uncut Gems is a complex, character-oriented, engrossing work of edge-of-your-seat genre entertainment, and a terrific follow-up to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time, which we discuss a little bit (but not too much because José hasn’t finished it yet). Both Good Time and Uncut Gems are available on Netflix, and well worth your time. The Safdie brothers might not just be good – they might be greats.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 209 – Bombshell

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

The film that wants to make us feel bad for people who worked at Fox News, Bombshell casts former stars Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson as heroines fighting the revolting, crude, institutional sexism of their former place of work. It refuses to do so with any complexity, any suggestion that they were anything but victims – that they had all the opportunity to say no to the hideous deal they were offered, and that they were, too, key players in a propaganda machine, pumping poison into the world. It’s a view of the world that, at best, has been simplified for popular consumption, relegating criticism of Fox News’ politics, operations, and output to a laughably basic subplot involving a lesbian Democrat employee who explains the machinery of Fox’s messaging.

Mike suggests that it sits alongside the work of Adam McKay, who, like Bombshell director Jay Roach, made his name in comedy, offering the term “satire-adjacent” in an attempt to understand this breed of film – McKay’s Vice and The Big Short have a similar tone and basis in reality. Where we decried the lack of satire these days when discussing Jojo Rabbit, perhaps we’ve found where it’s been relocated. And there are things about it he likes, this kind of sociopolitical talkie being up his street, though our highest praise is reserved for the performances, John Lithgow’s explosive, sinister Roger Ailes, and Charlize Theron’s unbelievable transformation into Megyn Kelly, in particular.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 208 – 1917

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

An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.

So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 205 – Jojo Rabbit

 

Its intentions are good, but we have trouble with Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s comedy about a young boy in Nazi Germany, a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth, who discovers a Jewish girl being given safe harbour by his mother. Our reservations stem from the state of the world and culture in which the film has been made, in which fascism is resurgent and increasingly worth taking seriously.

We discuss comedy’s ability to puncture that at which it takes aim, Mike arguing that we like to overstate its power, José lamenting cinema’s unwillingness to take today’s fascist figureheads on directly – by comparison, satirising Hitler and the Nazis is a safe choice. Mike criticises the film’s superficiality, finding that its depiction of the Nazi regime is skin deep, merely built on signifiers with which we’re familiar – there’s no attempt here to explore Jojo’s psychology, or how and why he’s been taught what he has. José argues that the film makes its Nazis too likeable, too goofy; the film wants to offer us a message that people are ultimately good, and in so doing gives its villains the opportunity of redemption, which they tend to take. It’s partially contextualised by the 1944 setting, the dying German war machine making sense of the cynicism in Sam Rockwell’s Nazi officer; setting the film during the Nazi regime’s strongest years would have been more interesting, and braver.

Despite all of this, Jojo Rabbit gets lots of laughs, and Waititi manages the tone well, the film making moves into some unexpectedly dark areas at times. But its successes never distract from the overall ideological problems we feel it has.

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

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

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 204 – Little Women (2019)

 

José has been brushing up, recently rewatching the 1933, 1959 and 1994 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Mike has neither seen any adaptations nor read the book, coming to the story entirely fresh. And so we get to grips with Greta Gerwig’s wonderful, open-hearted, energetic version of Little Women.

José finds much to contrast between the versions, picking up in particular on the unusual dimensionality given to the male supporting characters here, whose roles have previously been thankless. Timothée Chalamet and Chris Cooper particularly impress, the former capturing Laurie’s playful, generous spirit; the latter touchingly evoking Mr. Laurence’s grief. Less successful is Meryl Streep’s Aunt March, who slightly too mechanically reaches for the laughs for which she’s designed.

The girls, though, are a triumph of energetic wildness, ambitions and realism. The scenes they share in their childhood home are well observed, wisely mixing all-American sentimentality you might expect with a disarming sororal combativeness you might not. If there’s a bum note amongst them it’s Emma Watson as Meg, who Mike argues never truly embodies the roles she plays, but Saoirse Ronan is miraculously transparent as Jo, and Florence Pugh gives Jo a burning, vital sense of frustration and fury at always being second best to her sisters. Their relationships make the film the success it is, and, Mike suggests, even when the film begins to wrap their stories up in some fairly convenient ways, so fond are we of them that it’s hard not to be swept along.

Greta Gerwig has achieved magical things with Little Women, and you miss it at your peril.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 202 – Cats

 

The podcast you´ve all been waiting for. Mike is so traumatised, he can only continue watching from the safety of the exit. I was entranced. There was cosplay in the audience. We disagree throughout. it´s great:

 

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 201 – Marriage Story

A beautifully observed, intelligently written and transparently played drama, Marriage Story shows the separation of two people with deep and ongoing love for each other, and how they change under the stress of their marriage breakup. Mike argues that it’s an advert for therapy, the unread notes in which each partner describes what they love about the other, with which the film opens, returning structurally despite the descent into legal hell and gamesmanship. José remarks upon the generosity the film has towards its characters and the magic that Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver bring, and Mike picks up on the length of some scenes, scenes that move smoothly and in real time through evolving conversations.

Marriage Story is on Netflix now and worth your time.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 199 – The Report

 

Adam Driver and Annette Bening shine in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ historical drama The Report, about Senate staffer Daniel Jones and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s work to investigate the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Mike’s been filling up on this stuff lately, quite by coincidence, watching old episodes of The Daily Show; José didn’t even know what the film was about, and the difference in our responses is perhaps quite telling, the film not going out of its way to help its audience into its murky waters, leaving it up to them to pick up on what it’s on about.

In that respect, it’s a film that requires and respects its audience’s attention and intelligence, though it could do more in dramatic terms to earn it. It’s rather a dry affair, though not without its charms – in particular those of its lead actors, who captivate every second they’re on screen. The story is told partially in flashback, depicting the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the main plot covers the better part of a decade, shifting from initial questions to the depths of Jones’ secretive study, to the fight he and Feinstein face to get it published – and Burns structures all of this well and narrates it admirably smoothly. Unfortunately, he’s content to descend into bog-standard platitudes about the greatness of America being its desire to admit its own mistakes and rancid behaviour, without ever addressing the idea that behaving that way might be equally American.

We compare the film, as we so often do with films about institutional failure and corruption, to Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s exposure of child abuse in the Catholic Church, in particular the complexity of that film’s investigation and apportioning of blame, Mike arguing that the Globe’s realisation of its own part in the cover-up is a crucial and necessary complicating factor, and not something we see here, with the goodies of the Senate and the baddies of the CIA entirely separate – there’s indictment of the people behind the programme of torture that was known to be useless was pursued, but only the barest, most superficial indictment of the culture that produced and allowed it.

Despite these issues, Mike remains a fan of the film, finding it a well-told story for the most part that does more than simply illustrate its historical context and the arguments therein, and José, who is less familiar with this stuff and has less of an interest in it, is also glad to have seen it, and our discussion was an enjoyable one. The Report is on Amazon Prime and worth a watch.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies:198 – Harriet

A truly deserved biopic, Harriet tells the story of the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who served as part of the Underground Railroad, undertaking several journeys to liberate around 70 slaves, and later serving as in the Union Army during the American Civil War (this latter part of her life forming the film’s coda, as its focus is her escape to Philadelphia and rescue missions).

Despite its obvious value, though, it’s poorly told story, with a depiction of Tubman’s devout religiousness and prophetic visions that serves to confuse more than express or inspire, and too little tension in what are really action scenes, too little sense of hardship in Tubman’s escape, work, and life. We try to keep in mind that our relationship to Tubman’s story is distanced, that its importance as a black narrative and feminist narrative is easy for us to be blind to when all we can see are flaws, but ultimately we find the film a let-down.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 197 – Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

 

A trip to the Mockingbird Cinema in the Custard Factory yields a massively hyped up and receptive audience of fat white blokes for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Mike is one of them, and he’s never been harder to pick out of a lineup, laughing like a drain at the fan service and antics. José isn’t, and he was already a bit too old for Kevin Smith when he emerged in the 90s, but he has almost as good a time as everyone else there. The film is huge fun and creates a palpable sense of community, filled with friends and family, incorporating in-jokes and characters from throughout Smith’s work – it’s pure comfort food for its fans.

We think about Smith as a figure, his reputation as a writer who can barely direct, and what he takes pride in. And we look over his filmography, José thinking back on what made Chasing Amy radical in its day, and Mike suggesting that with Jersey Girl and Cop Out, Smith’s reputation, and perhaps an external factor or two (remember Bennifer?) played a part in the hostile reception for two films he found perfectly acceptable and even charming.

He’s an interesting figure, Kevin Smith, a director whose cinematic reputation is outshone by his stardom as an individual, something to which his mighty legion of podcasts and Q&As speaks – indeed, Reboot‘s UK screenings come with a bespoke post-credits Q&A, and Smith is accompanying the film around the US and Canada on its roadshow release – but his films have earned and maintained a devoted following for 25 years now, something to which the audience tonight can attest. Wherever Reboot is showing, it’s worth checking out, because with an audience as up for it as ours was, it’s a special event.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 200 – Luis Ospina on MUBI – The Vampires of Poverty, A Paper Tiger, and It All Started at the End

Luis Ospina, the influential Colombian filmmaker who died very recently, was last month the subject of an mini retrospective of his work by MUBI, who showed three of his films: Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty (1977, co-directed by Carlos Mayolo), Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger (2008), and his final feature documentary, Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (2015), and we’re grateful to them for making these works available to us with subtitles. We begin by considering how such an influential filmmaker, not only in Colombia but across Latin America, remains so little known in Anglo-American film cultures. We talk about the ‘Caliwood’ group and how we’re so used to talking about structures that we forget how individuals make a difference. A group of young friends with shared interests get together and share a house, turning it into studios, an art gallery, a publishing house and a cinema. This group happens to include, amongst others, Luis Ospina, Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo. We’re shown how shared cinephilia leads to collaborative cultural production, one that’s left an imprint, proven to be very influential and now become part of the cultural history of Colombia and Latin America.

In Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End we see how the friendships and shared interests of these irreverent, druggy, countercultural dissidents bore fruit and left a legacy – which is not to say that structures are not important (they wouldn’t have been able to do so had they not been of a particular class, one with relatives who could afford to lend out empty houses). The film serves as an important reminder that individuals can make a difference and that collaboration is essential. Harold Innis’ observation in Empire and Communications that colonised people need to be fully conversant with their colonisers’ culture as well as their own is amply evident in the conjunction of the group’s programming and their own production.

All three of Ospina’s works are concerned with documentary, representation, ethics. In Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger, the Zelig-like mockumentary about an imaginary person, the form itself acts as a way of commenting on broad strands of cultural and political movements internationally that had an effect on the local and synthesises and evokes all of the virtues we admire: the playfulness, quirkiness, intelligence, the concern with politics and ethics but also fun, a pin-prick to pomposity. And we share admiration for the savage satire of Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, a statement against the exploitation of the poor, unfortunate and mentally ill on the streets of Cali, by filmmakers keen to sell their work, and the image of Colombia that goes along with it, to Europe.

José is in thrall to Ospina’s work and the culture to which it speaks, and has boundless thoughts; and although Mike asks questions of the ethics at play in Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, even in a film so clearly well-intentioned and with such a valid point, and comments on weaknesses he perceives in the cinematic quality of Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End, finding it less expressive artistically than simply informative of a time, place and culture, he’s glad to have spent this time exploring Ospina’s work.

This episode has been released early (keen listeners will have noticed a jump from number 196 to 200), and that’s to coincide with yesterday’s homage for Luis Ospina, hosted by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, one we hope will be but the first of many to come.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 196 – Knives Out

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s playful, knockabout whodunnit Knives Out has been receiving praise for its screenplay that we feel isn’t quite warranted, and isn’t much to look at either – but it’s a lark, and one that carries some unexpected sociopolitical commentary. José argues that Johnson doesn’t learn enough from the films upon which his pastiche is based, making too little of both the wonderful cast he’s assembled and the wonderful sets he’s had assembled for him, though the film isn’t devoid of flair or structural neatness. Mike was with the film more or less all the way, though suggests that it won’t play as well in the distracted environment of the home, the minutiae of the countless plot details easy to lose track of as one tries to make sense of them. So it’s worth a watch, but it’s neither as elegant nor as charming as we’d like.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 190 – Sorry We Missed You

Returning to Newcastle after shining his coruscating lens on the inhumanity of the benefits system in I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach now casts his eye on the gig economy and the exploitation of workers in Sorry We Missed You. A struggling dad and husband gets a job as a delivery driver, coerced into handling unfair responsibility and meeting impossible targets, with the stability of his family bearing the brunt of the stress.

José argues that Sorry We Missed You only tells us what we already know; Mike contends that its dramatisation makes it scarily real. We’re in agreement that it’s not especially interesting filmmaking, though, José suggesting that Loach doesn’t trust images to convey what he wants. And José has never enjoyed his depiction of the working class, finding it unrealistic at best, with no joy or love available to his films’ victims, though he agrees – with some relief! – that there is love in the central family here. Although there’s a lot to criticise in his often mechanical filmmaking, we agree that Loach makes meaningful films with which he sincerely wants to make a difference, and that’s admirable to say the least.

If nothing else, Sorry We Missed You inspired Mike to try and do one nice thing for a stranger upon leaving the cinema, and that must mean it’s a work of genius. If, however, you are already someone who does nice things, then you may find it less inspiring, though it is in some respects vital. It won’t do you any harm to wait until it’s shown on telly though.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 188 – Bait

Shot in black and white on a clockwork camera from the 1970s, the hand-development of its 16mm film resulting in scratches and unpredictable changes in exposure, and its soundtrack entirely post-synchronised, Mark Jenkin’s Bait is audiovisually suffused with atmosphere and texture, and not a little dreamlike and weird to boot. It tells the story of Martin, a Cornish fisherman struggling to cope with the upheaval of both his region and his life specifically that results from an influx of middle-class settlers. He’s sold his family’s cottage to a family of outsiders, his brother now uses his fishing boat to take tourists on drunken stag parties, and Martin snarls and growls his way through dealing with these changes.

It’s clear that we’re meant to see Martin as a hero, but he’s tilting at windmills – though perhaps that’s WHY he’s a hero – and José argues that the film is deeply conservative, asking, for instance, why it’s so bad that Martin’s brother adapts to his changing environment by taking tourists on trips. Mike argues that the family of newcomers is too caricatured, so keen is the film for us to see them as invaders who fuck everything up, and thinks about the film’s parochialism in the wider context of Brexit – the unfriendliness to outsiders displayed here speaks to anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the UK; is there a difference between the way the Cornish in Bait feel and the way Brexiters throughout the country feel? Perhaps there’s a tension between the relative power and privilege of the “invaders” and “invaded” that we don’t resolve, but in overly simplistic terms we don’t emerge from the film feeling entirely on its side.

Jenkin’s cinematography and editing beautifully conveys what there is to love about Martin’s way of life, concentrating on manual labour and his close-knit community. José suggests that the film looking the way it does makes it feel as though it’s already an object from the past, with the romance, nostalgia and loss that goes along with it – just as it depicts the decline of its way of life. It also puts us in mind of Italian Neorealism, José bringing up Visconti’s La terra trema, Mike thinking of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and we’re indebted to Mark Fuller for offering a perspective on Bait‘s place within a tradition of similarly claustrophobic coastal dramas, such as Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers, Epstein’s Finis Terrae, Flaherty’s Man of Aran, and Powell’s Edge of the World. Mike also considers the film’s visual and tonal similarity to Aronofsky’s Pi, thinking about how effectively that film places the audience in the main character’s headspace, and suggesting that the visual design here does the same.

Bait is a considerable film, one that speaks deeply to the loss of a certain way of life and the anger and resentment to which that leads. But the film doesn’t appear keen for this resentment to be questioned, and we feel it needs to be.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 186 – Neither Wolf Nor Dog

It’s enormously disappointing that Neither Wolf Nor Dog is as bad as it is, because its subject – Native American life in a society built upon a land that was taken from them, and the pain, grievances and stories that the displaced people carry with them – is massively, conspicuously underrepresented in US cinema and demands to be explored. Unfortunately, although the story on which it is based is true, the hackneyed device of a white man, Kent, who learns about someone different and with whom we’re supposed to emotionally identify falls on its face, and the filmmaking is awful. When the film visits Wounded Knee and we hear Dan, the Lakota elder, expose his history of pain and loss, Kent’s unearned tears destroy the scene.

Mike argues for the film’s first act, suggesting that it sets up promising questions and themes, and has a slowness that invites the audience to contemplate these. Dan’s interactions with Kent, knowingly using him to tell his stories, conflicts with his friend Grover’s reaction, suspicious but willing to put his feelings aside to do what Dan wants, and his granddaughter Wenonah, hostile and concerned that her granddad might be taken advantage of. This is all inextricably tied to the history of white invaders to America and the treatment to which the natives have been subjected for generations… but the promise of how the film could develop is far preferable to how it does develop, uncritically, unimaginatively using tropes that illuminate nothing and relying on undramatised oral storytelling to express its themes.

José, on the other hand, hated the film from the start and wanted to leave long before the end. He argues that there’s a self-importance to the filmmaker, Steven Lewis Simpson, on display, and Mike argues (with no proof of course) that Simpson edits his own Wikipedia page.

It’s a shame to have to declare that Neither Wolf Nor Dog is terrible but there it is. For people on nodding terms at best with Native American history to emerge from it having learned nothing, having gleaned no insight into the life it depicts, is a fundamental failure on the film’s part. A huge missed opportunity.

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