Category Archives: Eavesdropping at the Movies

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 328 – Spencer

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As he did with 2016’s Jackie, director Pablo Larraín explores the life, image, and legacy of a woman publicly struck by tragedy in Spencer, a fabulistic biopic that imagines a Christmas holiday spent with the royal family at Sandringham, during which Princess Diana struggles with the knowledge of her husband’s affair and the watchful eyes of both the royals and the paparazzi.

We discuss our own relationships to both Larraín and Diana, and consider how the film draws on various aspects of the princess’s public image in painting a portrait of a woman losing her mind. The film is set squarely within that mind, and Mike argues that it uses several tropes and techniques common to horror in order to dramatise Diana’s fracturing mental state. José expresses his love for Kristen Stewart’s outstanding lead performance, one that doesn’t impersonate but evokes, and conveys differing stages of psychosis with subtlety.

We don’t agree on everything, and the film isn’t perfect, but Spencer is a really remarkable, expressive exploration of an iconic figure.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 325 – Last Night in Soho

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Edgar Wright’s highly anticipated psychological horror, Last Night in Soho, reaches cinemas, and we dive into its themes, its visual magnificence, its relationship to the era and environment it portrays… and its problems. It’s impossible not to admire this film for its lush cinematography, impressive special effects, and the best of its performances, but its screenplay leaves a huge amount to be desired, not just in how it conceptualises the world and people it portrays, but also, more simply, how clumsy it is in telling its story, bafflingly dropping entire character threads that seem like they obviously have places to go, and handling at least one secondary character’s entire subplot very poorly. We discuss the film’s dream logic, or lack thereof; its fear of the very lure of the grimy world it needs to show us, and the moralism that accompanies it; how it trades in nostalgia of Sixties Soho, despite being keen to exhibit is dark side; and the thematic simplicity of almost everything – things are good or bad, to be loved or feared, and room for complexity, there is none.

With all that said, it’s still a very enjoyable couple of hours, a discussion piece, and thanks to its fabulous imagery and in particular the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, easy to recommend.

P.S. Mike would like to acknowledge that he is aware that in the course of speaking too quickly for his brain to issue timely corrections, he wildly overstated how much the ghostly figures in Last Night in Soho are referred to as “blank” or “blanks”. It happens maybe once or twice, if he remembers rightly, and in passing. But he asserts that nonetheless, their faceless, amorphous, anonymous design and relentless, zombie-like behaviour does make them a fair point of comparison with the Blanks in The World’s End. So nyah.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 324 – Nosferatu (1922)

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In a chilly outdoor screening at the Coffin Works in Birmingham, we indulge in Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist classic. José’s seen it many times, Mike never in its entirety. We discuss how this 100-year-old film holds up today and still entertains a general audience, its differences from and similarities to Dracula, its source material, and more. Including how cold it was. Mike only wore a t-shirt.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 319 – Respect

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Aretha Franklin, an icon of American music, receives a dispiritingly by-the-numbers biopic in Respect, which takes this perfect subject for such a film and does nothing very interesting with her. We discuss, among other topics, the film’s dependence on clichés, its poor lighting, Franklin’s relationship with her father and upbringing in a prosperous household, Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the central role, and that scene, so common to music biopics, in which the signature song is developed.

If one of the functions of the biopic is to introduce newcomers to a person’s work and provide an insight into what made them worthy of their story being told… then the Queen of Soul needs another biopic. Respect certainly isn’t devoid of entertaining and engaging moments, but, ultimately, it fails its subject.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 318 – Undine

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The fairytale figure of the undine has been used and developed in the arts for two hundred years, and Christian Petzold, whose Transit we loved, brings his clear-eyed but sensitive aesthetic to it in Undine. Paula Beer plays the titular character with transparent emotion, in the opening scene regretfully informing her ex-boyfriend, as he dumps her, that she will have to kill him. It’s a moment that captures the timbre of the film that follows – fantastical, potent, full of drama, but grounded throughout.

We also discuss Undine‘s knowing and deliberate setting against a sociopolitical backdrop, the film devoting significant time to Undine’s lectures on the history of Berlin, tying them and the city to her relationships, and the way the film conveys the tactility of new lovers, unable to keep from touching each other. We disagree on the film’s greatness – to Mike, it’s something of a trifle, particularly in comparison with Transit, but José is in deep love with it. But we’re agreed that it’s well worth your time.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 314 – Free Guy

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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.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 313 – Stillwater

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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

 

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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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 311 – Jungle Cruise

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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

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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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 306 – Fast and Furious 9

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What began twenty years ago as a series of car chases and races has since spiralled out of control into an action behemoth encompassing ten films, a TV series, videogames, and theme park attractions. But for the spinoff film Hobbs & ShawFast and Furious 9 is Mike’s introduction to the Fast & Furious series, with José having seen some of the previous instalments, but not all.

We discuss the soap opera storytelling, the way it expresses humour – what it thinks are jokes are really just aggressive, macho posturing – and what it thinks of intelligence, José contending that it represents the worst of American culture in privileging stupidity and making it victorious, with Mike offering a complementary drop of nuance, arguing that it does at least believe that its heroes are smart… but it’s a stupid person’s idea of what being smart is. Core to the film’s failings is its almost complete lack of irony, only the car-turned-space shuttle indicating that the film has any understanding of comedy and how absurd it all is.

There’s no recommending Fast and Furious 9, its shortcomings exposed by the competence of almost every other action blockbuster (even Hobbs & Shaw, which had its own problems, but was a pleasant surprise). On the basis of this, Mike’s curiosity has been sated, and he’s happy to continue avoiding this godforsaken series for the rest of his life.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 305 – Black Widow

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Marvel’s triumphant return to our cinemas is… a film that fills in a plot hole nobody cared about for a character who not only should have had a standalone film long before now but who has since been killed off. To say that Black Widow feels like a kick in the teeth is an understatement, but still, the MCU is back with us and we see what it has to offer.

And what it presents us with is something much more earthbound than the spacefaring antics in which Marvel has increasingly indulged: a good old-fashioned Russian spy story, and a family reunion of sorts, Natasha Romanoff driven to reconnect with the other undercover Russian agents who formed her surrogate family as a child. We ask whether the theme of family is done justice here, especially David Harbour’s – the father’s – part in its expression. And, among others, we ask questions of the action filmmaking, the lack of humour in heroes, Romanoff’s conceptualisation, how the women are filmed, and whether it’s necessary to eschew edginess in order to pursue a progressive politics.

Black Widow is a film we enjoyed, though on reflection, picking out the reasons why is harder than picking at its flaws – but it certainly hasn’t dampened our willingness to continue following Marvel’s movies.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 304 – French Exit

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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.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 303 – The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

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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.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 302 – In the Heights

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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.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 301 – Come and See

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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.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 300 – A Quiet Place Part II

Our 300th podcast!

 

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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.

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

Hou Hsiao-hsien 18: Context 9 – Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema (Chinlin Hsieh, 2014)

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:

The podcast can 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

The Jackie Chan referred to can be seen below:

Images constituting a list of people interviewed for the film, in chronological order, can be seen below:

An image that interested me:

An image that made no sense in the film (who are these people and why are we being shown them?).

 

José

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 298 – Witness for the Prosecution

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.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 297 – Spiral

Listen to our podcast on Jigsaw here.

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.

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