Category Archives: Eavesdropping at the Movies

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 236 – Da 5 Bloods

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

Spike Lee’s latest joint sees four US Army veterans, the Bloods, return to their former battlefields in Vietnam in search of two things: the body of their fallen comrade and leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars, intended during the war to pay the Lahu people for their help fighting the Viet Cong, but taken and buried by the Bloods for themselves. Set in the modern day, exploring the history of black oppression and racism in the USA, and released on Netflix among a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Da 5 Bloods could hardly be more relevant. But is it successful?

No, argues José. Spike Lee is in full-on propagandist, pamphleteer mode here, delivering lessons about racism and class, warfare and imperialism, black martyrs and heroes, but inartfully and clunkily. Although his direct address is striking and powerful, the Rambo-esque action adventure story to which it’s married lacks imagination and intelligence, and really functions only as a frame from which to hang the film’s essays. Its representation of the Vietnamese is at best crude and even arrogant, a scene with a man selling oranges and chickens particularly egregious, and its characters are thinly drawn, their relationships and development unsatisfying. Mike argues for one or two things he likes, particularly the way in which Stormin’ Norman is integrated into the story and the flashbacks to the war are put together, but ultimately cannot but agree with José’s disappointment.

Da 5 Bloods is an overpraised film that promises more than it delivers. But someone has finally managed to make a Vietnam film without using “Fortunate Son”, so there’s that.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 235 – Vitalina Varela

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

A slow, careful drama, Vitalina Varela – named for the non-professional actor at the centre, who plays a version of herself – tells a story of grief, anger, and discovery. Vitalina, abandoned by her husband in the 1980s, travels to Portugal from Cape Verde to confront him, but finds that he has passed away just days ago. She is left to explore the house he has left empty and the life he led without her for some forty years, and the film gives ample time to the feelings and questions that arise within her.

We discuss the economic situation depicted – this is a slum in Lisbon, built into the ground, feeling a world away from the vibrant, wealthy capital nearby – and Varela’s visual power, her performance one of presence as much as acting, as she moves slowly through the town like a ghost. Leonardo Simões’ cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, thoughtfully composed and intricately lit, and Mike remarks upon how the edges of the 4:3 frame blend into the blackness of a widescreen television, giving a feeling of an expanse of darkness. We ultimately disagree on how much we liked it: José was engrossed throughout, Mike found the tempo a trial – but stories like Vitalina Varela’s are necessary to tell, rare to see, and worth experiencing.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 234 – Hook

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

A film dear to Mike’s heart since childhood, and a large blot on Steven Spielberg’s career despite its financial success, Hook imagines a world in which Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s flying boy who never grows up… grows up and forgets how to fly. When the adult Peter, a workaholic corporate lawyer unaware of his origins, travels to London with his family, his children are kidnapped, forcing him to return to Neverland, confronting his past, his attitude, and his erstwhile adversary, Captain Hook.

Hook is a chunky, colourful family film with flaws all over the place. Its action is unexciting, its plot composed of several disparate strands and themes that never cohere elegantly. José takes issue with Dustin Hoffman’s accent and John Williams’ score, finding the former pointless and unsuccessful, the latter prescriptive and overbearing. But Mike defends them, finding charm in them, and appreciating as an adult what never stuck in his mind as a child, in particular the central emotional conceit: that for all the costs of growing up, the refusal of the Lost Boys to do so, and the fact that all adults in Neverland are pirates, Peter’s happy thought – the crucial feeling that allows him to fly again – is of becoming a father and holding his newborn son. And José finds beauty in the lighting and staging of the film’s London townhouse scenes that he never appreciated upon its first release.

A messy film, but with pleasures. And anyway, it turns out that if you saw it five hundred times as a preteen then no criticism anybody can make can matter.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 233 – Hoop Dreams

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

From a central focus on two aspiring young basketball hopefuls from Chicago, Hoop Dreams weaves an incredible tapestry of race and class in America, without once explaining itself to the audience, without once winking and imploring us to notice something. William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black boys of about 14 or 15 years old, are plucked from their neighbourhoods by a scout for St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, a white suburban private school that dips into the inner city looking for talent to boost its basketball team, chucking back any kid that doesn’t show enough promise. Over the course of several years, we follow William and Arthur’s development.

William and Arthur don’t start in the same place – William is touted as the next Isiah Thomas, a former St. Joseph’s alumnus who reached the NBA, and receives as an individual gift a personally guaranteed scholarship to St. Joseph’s from a wealthy benefactor. Arthur is labelled with no particular expectation beyond that he shows the potential to go pro, and whose partial scholarship becomes a financial burden once the school decides they’ve had enough of him – they want tuition fees from him now. The stresses put on these boys come from all angles – their school demands they perform for the team while keeping their grades up, their parents and communities put all their hopes into their success, and achieving stardom, a vanishingly unlikely prospect, feels like the only hope for a life free of minimum wage jobs and the power being cut off because of unpaid bills. Over the course of three hours, we understand intimately who William and Arthur are, the familial and socioeconomic circumstances that shape them, and follow them as they grow, learn, and encounter hurdles throughout their time at St. Joseph’s.

Hoop Dreams is an all-time great documentary, a portrait of life in early Nineties America that is both a state-of-the-nation declaration for its time and effortlessly legible and relevant today.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 231 – Burt Lancaster

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

On a very special Eavesdropping at the Movies requested by our listeners, José takes us through the career of Burt Lancaster, every one of whose films he has been watching during the lockdown. Lancaster is a star through whose career a whole history of movements and evolutions in Hollywood can be tracked, from the studio noirs of the 1940s right through to the anti-war allegories of the 1970s, taking in all of the social, political, stylistic, industrial and aesthetic shifts that would take place in a constantly changing America.

On screen, Lancaster was capable of moving fluidly between genres and styles, including noir, action-adventure and Westerns, won the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry, was regularly amongst the top box-office stars from 1950-1965, and worked with some of the great screenwriters and playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Off screen, he was one of the foremost independent producers of his day. He fought against McCarthyism during the height of the Red Scare, employing blacklisted screenwriters when nobody else would, later made a number of anti-racist revisionist Westerns, and championed progressive causes throughout his life. José argues that Lancaster conceived of the cinema as a national theatre of ideas, a place in which conversations could be had and arguments advanced, a conception that ties his entire, varied career together.

Mike, on the other hand, has barely seen anything of Burt Lancaster’s, and José has put him on a crash course of five or six films in order to get a sense of his work, style and persona. He’s left with questions to throw at José: Why Lancaster hasn’t lingered culturally as strongly as some of his contemporaries? Is it his politics? His acting ability? His style? Is his reputation for muscles, teeth, and little else, justified?

Burt Lancaster, José concludes, represents the best of America. His work is ripe for rediscovery, and offers rich insight on a constantly changing culture and industry.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 230 – I vitelloni

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

Federico Fellini invites us to hang out with a group of unemployed, lazy twentysomethings in 1953’s I vitelloni, one of his earliest films and an interesting portrait of life in a sleepy Italian town. For José, comparisons to his youth in a sleepy Spanish town abound; Mike finds links to British films that evoke similar feelings. I vitelloni is both culturally specific and universally relatable – every society has some version of the gang one grows up with, and the middle-class youngsters who think they rule the place.

We consider the motif of homosexuality – evoked in different ways by different characters, sometimes explicitly and sometimes only if we want to see it, but present throughout – and the theme of patriarchy, considering particularly the roles of women in the film, be they wives, mothers, or playthings, and ask what their agency is, if any – do they even believe they have any? Life in I vitelloni‘s seaside town is unconducive to personal progress, development, opportunity, and freedom, but where another story would express the frustrations felt by the constricted youth, here they harbour few ambitions.

I vitelloni is evocative and timeless – as coherent and understandable today as it was seventy years ago.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 229 – Fedora

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

Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.

Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.

Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.

And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 228 – To Be or Not to Be

 

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

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny lead chaos in 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy set amongst a group of actors turned resistors in occupied Poland. Considered to be in bad taste at the time, it was, to say the least, a bold film to make, one that mocked the very real and active threat of the Nazis to their faces. It’s also endlessly witty and truly hilarious, generous and kind. It’s a treat.

We think about it in comparison to other satire, in particular that of Mel Brooks, who José argues has an aggression and contempt that Lubitsch avoids, while Mike suggests that their work shares an absolute unambiguity as to the targets they set and the messages they convey. But there’s unquestionably a remarkable sensitivity of tone to To Be or Not to Be, as well as an effortlessly executed intelligence in plotting, with the love triangle of the opening leading cleverly, smoothly, and unpredictably, into the unmasking of a Gestapo spy.

José can’t speak highly enough of Lubitsch, above whom there sits nobody in the pantheon of the great filmmakers. And Mike likes him too.

P.S. Corrections and clarifications: Mike begs your forgiveness for incorrectly claiming that Sid Caesar famously played a comedy Nazi on television in the 1950s. He in fact played a German general. A comedy German general.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 227 – Southland Tales

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

A film many have heard of and few have seen, Southland Tales is writer-director Richard Kelly’s infamous difficult second album. Six years after his eventual cult hit Donnie Darko, this sprawling, confusing mess of an end-of-days parable was released to thunderous bafflement and almost no box office. We dive in and find that perhaps all we needed was to give it thirteen years to breathe.

There’s no defending much of the film’s execution. Kelly’s visuals are functional at best, almost never expressive, and rather obvious, there’s an abundance of plot that feels at once over- and under-developed, and there’s no emotional way in to significantly connect with any character. But Southland Tales is chock full of ideas and ambition, and there’s much to respond positively to. José considers how its critique of American culture continues to resonate today; Mike suggests that alongside M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it captures the state of mind of post 9/11, pre-financial crash, perpetually warring, deeply conservative and fearful America. Kelly may show little instinct for visual expression, but his ability to cast well and get the best out of his actors is remarkable, and for José, Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson have never been better. And we consider the use of Revelations in the voiceover, and wonder where Seann William Scott has been for the last ten years.

For a Saturday night in, it’s tough to recommend Southland Tales. As a sizzlingly ambitious attempt to combine just about every worry it was possible to have in mid-2000s America into a grand work of sci-fi satire, it’s fascinating and worth your time. Its reach far exceeds its grasp, but that’s so much more appealing than the other way round.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 225 – Stranger on the Third Floor

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

A 62-minute-long, 1940 B-movie whose director you haven’t heard of and whose top-billed star has barely ten minutes of screen time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stranger on the Third Floor is nothing remarkable, but its reputation precedes it: Here we behold, if the legends are true, the first film noir.

José, a lover of noir, both likes and dislikes this line. On the one hand, it enjoyably disrupts what is already a fairly shaky narrative of noir beginning practically overnight in 1941; on the other, noir is a term that encompasses many visual styles, stories, character types, associated genres and influences, and artistic movements like this develop gradually, not immediately. But this taxonomic discussion says nothing of Stranger on the Third Floor‘s quality.

And for a good fifteen minutes or so, that quality is not promising, but the film explodes into life upon the protagonist’s descent into a hallucinatory nightmare brought on by guilt and fear. It’s José’s first time seeing the film, and immediately he proclaims its dream sequence as one of cinema’s greatest. And throughout the film, before, during and after this central visual treat, there is conveyed a vivid sense of the difficulties of life in Depression-era America, alongside a severe critique of the absurdity of a justice system that can be relied upon to offer nothing of the sort. All of which is to say nothing of Peter Lorre, who imbues his titular stranger with both understandable threat and surprising empathy.

So, Stranger on the Third Floor, The First Film Noir, is rather more than an historical curio. It embodies stylistic and thematic developments that were taking place in American cinema of its era, though the question of what counts as first is best left to those who think it’s even deserving of an answer, let alone possible to establish one. It’s a film that is on its own terms deserving of your attention, and in between its B-movie cheapness and clunkiness, offers something truly great.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 224 – Le Cercle rouge

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

We conclude our dalliance with Jean-Pierre Melville with 1970’s Le Cercle rouge, a heist film with an impressive cast of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand. We discuss how genre conventions operate in the film – the shortcuts an understanding of genre provides allow details to make the difference, Mike suggesting that it all comes out through character relationships and quirks.

In discussing Le Cercle rouge, we think back on what we’ve learned about Melville’s style, themes and interests. For Melville, emotional attachment is dangerous and makes one vulnerable; it’s a rather bleak outlook, but José argues that his films aren’t without their romantic aspects. Mike remarks upon the way in which Melville’s style has been interpreted and appropriated by the filmmakers he influenced, noting that the vivacity with which, for instance, Quentin Tarantino effuses about Melville is not reflective of Melville’s films themselves, which are slower and more pensive than you might be led to expect. To José, it’s existentialist cinema through and through, and, naturally, he loves it.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 223 – Army of Shadows

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

Jean-Pierre Melville draws upon his experiences in the French Resistance for 1969’s Army of Shadows, which depicts an ensemble including Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse working to disrupt the Nazi occupation of France, rescuing Resistance members from captivity, operating safehouses… and killing informants.

Army of Shadows‘ view of the Resistance is far from romantic, showing the ordinary people who comprise it being driven to extreme measures in the cause of remaining hidden and evading capture, and the threat of capture and death hanging over them at all times. We compare it to The Great Escape, a caper in which prisoners of war work towards a big victory – there’s nothing of the sort in Army of Shadows, the Resistance only ever staying one step ahead of the Nazis pursuing them. Resistance itself is the victory, and it comes with costs.

We think about continuities between this film and Melville’s other work. The isolation felt in Un flic and Le Doulos comes through here, the Resistance members needing to work together but constantly suspicious of one another, as anyone could turn informant; emotional connection is a danger, as it can be used as a thumbscrew. But the film depicts the courage of the Resistance, the inhumanity of the situations into which they’re forced, and elicits a range of feelings simultaneously. It’s a complex, intelligent, essential film.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 222 – Le Doulos

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

We visit another Melville, 1963’s Le Doulos, about a network of criminals searching for an informer in their midst. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays his thief with such assuredly French swagger that it’s no wonder why Quentin Tarantino names this film as a significant influence, though we also pick up on the story’s similarity to Reservoir Dogs, in particular the botched robbery and snitch mystery.

The film has clearly been preserved beautifully, the crispness of the images on Mubi’s stream simply breathtaking. As with Un flic, we consider the characters’ alienation, emphasised here through composition and framing, and their decisions, including the idea that all these men try to do the right thing by their particular code.

Despite looking for things to like, Mike is ultimately nonplussed and a little bored by Le Doulos, preferring, on reflection, Un flic, while José, as ever the spirit of sunshine, beams with praise for it. We can at least agree that it looks fabulous.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 221 – Un flic

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

Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un flic (A Cop), has a bleak feel, its characters isolated amongst harsh architecture and the neverending business of cops and robbers. Alain Delon’s cop follows the trail of Richard Crenna’s thief, whilst handling informants, other cases, and an occasional relationship with Catherine Deneuve.

It’s a film in which feeling shows through small actions, glances, and behaviour. The cop has seen the worst of humanity and carries a weariness with him, but that just makes his capability for generous gestures more meaningful. Mike remarks upon the similarity between cop and thief, both going about their work with a sense of lifeless inertia. We also note the central heist sequence’s clear influence on the climactic set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, comparing the ways in which the scenes work and what their intended effects may be, and José comments on the film’s blue-tinged look, something that contributes greatly to its sense of melancholy.

Those of you interested might follow up with Le samourai, Bob le flambeur, L‘armée  des ombres/ Army of Shadowsand other Melville films.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 220 – Commando and Predator

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

Hollywood action in the Eighties was a world unto itself, and we look back on two specimens of one of the genre’s icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger. One a delightful, over-the-top romp, the other a macho, moody sci-fi, we compare and contrast Commando and Predator.

We’re in agreement that Predator is the better film, but that Commando offers the better time. José describes this era as his awakening to the fact that heterosexual men were checking out each others’ bodies – Arnie and co. are put on display, made to flex their muscles in absurd ways, their bodies painted in glistening sweat, for the pleasure of a straight male audience. We discuss how Arnie’s extraordinary body means entire films have to built around it: elsewhere cast as a pseudo-Greek hero and android killing machine, in Commando and Predator he’s theoretically human, but still a G.I. Joe male fantasy inhabiting similarly oversized films. Similarly, his accent always needs at least a hint of acknowledgement – the films taking a line of dialogue here and there to reassure us, don’t you worry, we also know he sounds odd.

We also think about the fact that these films have simply lasted. Commando in particular is not a very good film, but 35 years after its release it retains a loyal audience, and has to be considered a classic of a kind. Though dated and easy to critique in all sorts of ways, there are still pleasures in this cinema, and Arnie in particular.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 219 – Bacurau

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

A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.

To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.

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

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.