Category Archives: Eavesdropping at the Movies

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 293 – Promising Young Woman

We’re joined by returning guest Celia, on the phone from Canada, to discuss writer-director Emerald Fennell’s unusual revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman. Following the rape and – implied – suicide of her friend Nina, which goes unpunished, Carey Mulligan’s Cassie drops out of medical school, and now spends her nights feigning drunkenness, allowing men to pick her up and take her home, alarming them with her sobriety as they begin to sexually assault her. When a chance reunion with a former classmate reveals that Nina’s rapist is engaged, Cassie embarks upon a campaign of vengeance against those she considers responsible for and involved in committing and allowing her friend’s rape and its cover-up.

Celia loves it, finding that it invokes and brings to life many subtle and important observations about life for women in the patriarchy, enjoying the various forms Cassie’s revenge takes – particularly the “exercises in forced empathy”, in her words – and feeling a call to arms; José decidedly doesn’t, decrying those observations and revenges as cinematically unrealised in what is merely a filmed essay, albeit one that admirably exhibits a style, an aesthetic and a point of view. Mike bravely sits in the middle, pretending to be superior to the other two by virtue of not exhibiting an extreme response to the film. The discussion is varied and passionate – and full of spoilers. Love it or hate it, Promising Young Woman is a thought-provoking, vital film, and well worth watching.

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.

I made a trailer for the podcast which can be seen below:

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 292 – Affair in Trinidad

 

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford star in Gild– sorry, Affair in Trinidad, Hayworth’s first film upon her return to Hollywood after four years away, and a blatant rip-off of a certain classic film noir from 1946. (There’s also a chunk of Notorious thrown in for good measure.) Expensively cobbled together at Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s instruction, its production was rushed, with its script barely presentable and Vincent Sherman’s direction lazy, but audiences weren’t put off – it made $7m domestically, blockbuster box office in 1952.

Now featured as part of Columbia Noir #2, a box-set from the same series that includes The Garment Jungle, we take the opportunity to see what Affair in Trinidad has to offer – for José, the answer is, “not much, besides Rita Hayworth, gorgeous gowns and rich cinematography” – and discuss more besides, including Hayworth’s name and image, and how and why they were changed. Affair in Trinidad is far from a good film, but one of historical interest, and certainly worth seeing for any fan of Rita Hayworth.

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: 291 – Sound of Metal

A film that offers a beautiful evocation of community, as Riz Ahmed’s drummer suddenly loses most of his hearing and joins a retreat for the deaf, Sound of Metal also feels regrettably, and unforgivably, dishonest in some of the ways it engineers its story. In this respect, we disagree over one of the film’s key scenes, but agree about what it goes on to depict in the final act. Despite the severe problems we have with the film, it has pleasures to offer, including an outstanding central performance from Ahmed, whose wide-eyed, puppy-dog expressions transparently convey fear, anger, worry and determination, sometimes all at once. For Ahmed alone, it’s worth seeing Sound of Metal.

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: 290 – Godzilla vs. Kong

The fourth entry in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, the first crossover in the series, sees a journey to the center of the Earth and Hong Kong made the playground of its titular colossi. In this cinematic universe seeking to challenge Marvel et al., Mike finds visual splendour and an ambition to reach for something a little more meaningful than your usual blockbusters. Indeed, the character of Godzilla, in particular, is well-known to derive from Japan’s horrific experience as history’s first and only target of nuclear warfare, and Mike argues that the MonsterVerse seeks to continue to use its creatures as giant metaphors that punch and breathe fire, unleashed by humanity’s insatiable consumption and arrogant claim on the natural world. José isn’t that impressed with this reading, but finds things to enjoy, particularly the beautiful imagery – though, he argues, while it demonstrates incredible skill and craft on the part of the artists who created it, art is precisely what it lacks. But luckily, although we butt heads over Godzilla vs. Kong, Birmingham remains intact.

Our podcast on Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Mike’s review of 2014’s Godzilla

José’s review of 2014’s Godzilla

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: 289 – The Trial of the Chicago 7

At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, riots erupted when thousands of anti-Vietnam War protestors clashed with police. Seeking to crush the energetic counterculture, the US government put on trial a group of eight defendants, some political organisers, some cultural radicals, some with hardly any influence, a pacifist, and a Black Panther, hoping to convict them for conspiracy to incite the riots. Aaron Sorkin’s writing is a good fit for this story, the disparate group of defendants arguing amongst themselves sharply, and many scenes flowing beautifully towards their own internal climaxes; the same cannot be said of his direction, the film lacking much visual flair and instinct for expressive imagery.

We revisit our common theme of British actors playing Americans, José finding more fault with it here than Mike does – we can, at least, agree that Sacha Baron Cohen’s accent is atrocious, his Abbie Hoffman a weak point. Mike expounds upon how much he hates himself for how much he likes Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, comfort food for the American left, which he sees echoes of here.

We find flaw upon flaw with The Trial of the Chicago 7, but despite every one of them, it’s an immensely watchable film with a terrific ensemble cast and entertaining dialogue. With an awareness of its limitations and economy with the truth, we recommend it.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 288 – The Father

Anthony Hopkins is magnificent as The Father‘s title character, an old man losing his grip on reality to dementia, in debut director Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own stage play. We discuss the techniques the film uses to situate the audience within the mind of a dementia sufferer, and whether they lose their potency as the film develops. The Father‘s origins on stage are obvious in its sparse setting and focus on dialogue, and we suggest that the raw power of seeing the performances live, an immediacy, is lost here – though the cast, particularly Hopkins and Olivia Colman, are impressive nonetheless. Mike argues that the film somehow lacks enough plot to even fill its 97-minute duration, and would have worked better as a short film – José suggests that it ends up in cliché.

Still, for a while at least, it’s an extraordinarily effective dramatisation of what it might feel like to suffer from dementia, convinced of your own mental acuity while contradicted by everyone and everything around you. The Father doesn’t offer a pleasant experience, but it is a valuable one.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 287 – Minari

A gentle drama about Korean immigrants making a life for themselves in 1980s Arkansas, Minari‘s tone is consistently light, despite some of the upsetting events that occur. Mike argues that it reflects a child’s perspective of life, protected by their parents from the worst of life, or simply not understanding the darkness in what they experience – writer-director Lee Isaac Chung based the film on his own upbringing on a farm in Arkansas. José identifies strongly with the story, commenting on the similarities and differences with his youth as a Spanish immigrant to Canada. Minari is a good-natured film with no room for cynicism, and, for José, a joyous experience to watch.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

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

Peter Kim George has a wonderful piece on the film that amongst many other riches also touches on the issue of casting, which is becoming a recurring concern of mine. He writes, ‘

Another issue is that Steven Yeun is miscast as Jacob. He is miscast for the same reason he was so superbly cast in Okja and Burning — Yeun’s bodily mannerisms and speech are American through and through. By mannerisms, I mean those dimensions of culture and nationality that trickle into the most basic, lived instincts of how one sits in a chair or expresses hesitation. In Okja and Burning, it imbues a hybrid otherness to his character, which works so well in Bong’s and Lee’s films, respectively. Chung notes in an interview that he had originally imagined the role of Jacob for someone from Korea.

Still, it is difficult to write that Yeun is miscast in Minari, for several reasons. One, a mostly non-Korean viewership (still a remarkable feat in itself for a non-English language film) is unlikely to notice that Yeun quite obviously does not fit the mold of a man who comes of age in 1960s and 70s South Korea, so why bring it up? Add to which how prominently Yeun features in the film’s marketing and press — a Korean actor may have been a better fit, but certainly would not have given Minari its visibility. ‘

 

Also Kevin B. Lee has produced a very interesting video essay some of you may want to follow up on.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 286 – Zack Snyder’s Justice League

In 2017, Justice League, DC’s answer to Marvel’s continuing Avengers crossovers, flopped. Director Zack Snyder had left the film several months before release, his role taken over by MCU regular Joss Whedon, and significant changes were made in an attempt to lighten the tone of what had so far been a rather bleak series. Immediately, talk erupted of a director’s cut – the so-called Snyder Cut – that would represent Snyder’s true vision, uncompromised by studio executives’ fears and directives. Initially no more than a meme responding to that film’s quality, it was given oxygen by Zack Snyder’s insistence that it did actually exist, and it now reaches us via online streaming in the age of Covid-19. There’s perhaps no other set of circumstances in which it would have been made real – on top of the original budget, the creation of this director’s cut cost some additional $70m – but what an opportunity to compare and contrast two versions of the same film.

At four hours in length, this is a version of Justice League that would never have seen a theatrical release, but the time it affords its characters to develop is welcome, and a huge improvement over the sketchy treatment some of them received in the original film – particularly Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher, who arguably becomes the central character in the Snyder Cut. We discuss and disagree on the decision to change the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 to 1.33:1, which José loves but Mike considers a mistake, and look over a few key scenes and shots to explore the differences between Snyder’s and Whedon’s aesthetics.

And we discuss that new ending, additional scenes which help the Snyder Cut conceive of the overall story as epic, mythological fantasy, and more.

It’s a surprise to us both that we enjoyed Zack Snyder’s Justice League as much as we did, but there you have it. The four hours flew by and if this leads to the studio’s renewed interest in completing Snyder’s planned series, we’re up for it.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 285 – Nomadland

Frances McDormand and a cast of non-professional, real-life nomads unite to explore the life of the modern American itinerant in Nomadland. We consider the line between fiction and reality, the non-professionals who appear bringing their real experiences and stories with them, and discuss what drives a person to their way of life. Like director Chloé Zhao’s previous feature, The RiderNomadland is a textural, contemplative film, and perhaps one that grows in stature upon reflection – while José loved every moment, Mike was bored by the tempo, but finds much to praise nonetheless. A film worth taking the time to sink into.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 283 – Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Ethics and truth in the land of documentary come under the microscope in our discussion of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s love letter to his childhood friend, Andrew Bagby, is a sensational and moving film that you should know as little as possible about before watching. It’s exceptionally effective, built out of a combination of interviews, home footage, still photos and more, masterfully edited to generate emotional affect – but despite its qualities, there are real issues fundamental to its form. It’s a hybrid of two types of film that find themselves in competition here: it’s a documentary, a form about openness and truth; and a thriller, withholding information until it reshapes everything you’ve learned so far. It’s a tension that may well be impossible to avoid – to resolve it might be to totally change Dear Zachary from the deeply personal, passionately made film it is.

The story Dear Zachary tells is powerful, moving and utterly gripping, and the conversation to which it will lead you is rich and illuminating. We recommend it without reservation, even though we have serious reservations about it.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 282 – Lapsis

First-time writer-director Noah Hutton imagines, in Lapsis, a near-future gig economy dystopia that isn’t that different from our own. Unable to pay for his brother’s healthcare, Dean Imperial’s Ray takes on contracting work for a Google-esque tech giant, hiking through forests laying cables. Imperial’s performance is a standout, his Ray always sympathetic and legible, and Hutton’s sketchy, piecemeal world-building suits the film – until it doesn’t. Lapsis creates a recognisable milieu and has a leftist politic with which we broadly agree and are happy to see, but as its story develops it wants to evoke the feeling of doom one would expect of a revealed conspiracy, without the burden of having to bring together its disparate subplots and building blocks in order to explain anything.

Despite our reservations, we enjoyed Lapsis and are glad to have seen it, and are keen to see what comes next for Noah Hutton and Dean Imperial.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 281 – The Day of the Locust

Another discussion of — if not a classic — a still remembered film, on Hollywood, and — to add a cherry on top — with the great Karen Black.

An expensive flop in its day, The Day of the Locust maintains a cult intrigue for its critique of Hollywood and descent into madness. It’s new for both of us, and we discuss the qualities its cast brings, what could be better about its industry commentary, its moments of surprisingly graphic violence, and who, or what, its titular locusts are.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 280 – A Sun

We explore a wonderful Taiwanese film that Netflix forgot it had, A Sun. An intimate yet epic drama about the effects of a single mistake that reverberate through a family and down the years, it’s gorgeously lit and shot, and although it feels as long as it is, every moment is earned and valuable. It asks fundamental questions of its characters and of us, the most important of which is: What does it mean to be a good person?

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 279 – Rocky – Part II: The Rocky series

 

Our two-part discussion of Rocky concludes with a look at the entire series of eight films, including the two Creed movies. It’s a series that’s deeply interested in its own history, regularly referring to it in montages of characters’ memories, journeys back to iconic locations, and the reintroduction of one particular character in Creed II. The series rewards its audience for its investment, although despite featuring a soap opera-like series of melodramatic plot developments over its many films, almost everything that refers to a previous film refers to the first one. Other than the events of 1976’s Rocky, which laid the foundation for the series, only Apollo Creed’s death and Ivan Drago’s defeat in Rocky IV have lasting impact on later films.

We discuss how, following his superhero-like physicality in the Eighties, the character of Rocky is brought back down to Earth in his old age, his body ravaged by time, his life broken by loss. And we think about how the milieu evolves over time, the music, for instance, changing from barbershop/a capella singing in the Seventies, through power ballads in the Eighties, to rap and hip-hop in the 2010s. And we discuss much more besides.

You can track significant changes in cinema and culture over the last fifty years through the Rocky films. Each one feels like a snapshot of American life at its time. We can’t recommend most of the films as examples of great film art, but the last three, Rocky BalboaCreed and Creed II, stand above the first five, the Creeds especially feeling like a breath of fresh air with the directorial talent on display. But it’s a fascinating series to work through, earnest and open-hearted throughout, and immensely likeable.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 278 – Rocky – Part I: Rocky

In this first of our two-part discussion of the Rocky films, we look at the film that began the series almost 50 years ago. There’s a lot about 1976’s Rocky that… isn’t that good. John G. Avildsen’s direction is drab, the story basic, the themes rudimentary – but with that comes a roughness and a sincerity to the whole affair that might be just what makes it work after all. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a physical brute, softened by his unusual – and unusually pretty – features, his inability to avoid trying to befriend any animal that crosses his path, his demeanour that’s at once confident and shy, and his intellectual simplicity. José argues that the boxing is a diversion, a Trojan horse within which to sneak Rocky and Adrian’s love story. And we think about the character of Apollo Creed, his use as a substitute for Muhammad Ali, and why he couldn’t have been white.

Rocky was a phenomenon upon its release, an immediate cultural touchstone that contains images and scenes so iconic that, five decades on, we continue to attach the same emotions to them and draw the same pleasure from recalling them. Well, we say “we”, but, as is typical, Mike has never seen it before. So while José revisits, Mike joins the party for the first time, and we discuss the quality, significance and impact of this iconic film.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 277 – News of the World

Why this film was made… is rather beyond us. News of the World invokes the era of fake news in name only, its premise – following the Civil War, a former Confederate captain travels the American south reading out newspapers for a living – interesting in principle but almost entirely ignored in favour of a by-the-numbers, surrogate father-daughter road movie. Paul Greengrass’ direction, eschewing the style and energy that made him famous, is barely an impersonation of that of classic Westerns, full of landscapes and sunsets, signifying nothing; Tom Hanks is as tediously noble and upstanding as ever, his character’s supposedly shady past alluded to rather than detailed, allowing us to feel pleased for his redemption without ever having to dislike him for what he needs to be redeemed for. Helena Zengel, the German youngster who plays Hanks’ mysterious companion, is a highlight, a presence you can’t take your eyes off – though her character is as thinly sketched as everything else.

News of the World is bad, but not offensively so. It’s an unending stampede of clichés and tropes, unthinkingly employed and uncreatively executed. We don’t like to advise people stay away from films, but if this is next on your list, we assume you have already seen every other film ever made.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 276 – The Birdcage

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux FollesThe Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.

The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.

There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 275 – The Garment Jungle

A pro-union, pulpy noir in 1957, not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height, is nothing to be sniffed at, even if its stance is to align union interests with business, and blame most of the bad things that happen on organised crime. The Garment Jungle dramatises the infiltration of the mob into New York’s Garment District with arguably surprising elegance, particularly considering its shaky production in which the first director, Robert Aldrich, was fired and replaced with Vincent Sherman. We discuss its significant use of location filming, implied – or otherwise – moral failings of its characters, Robert Loggia’s driven union organiser, the lack of quality of its dialogue and acting, and what appeal there is in it today, beyond an academic interest in the period. It has, after all, been lovingly restored as part of Columbia Noir #1, a six-film boxset – but we’re glad it has.

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

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 274 – Citadel

John Smith’s 16-minute short, Citadel, gives voice to the City of London – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s voice, specifically. Filmed during the first few months of lockdown in 2020, it builds an oppositional portrait of British life under Johnson’s blustery leadership – it’s Boris Johnson vs. the British people, and the City vs. the British people.

But in tying Johnson to the City, it ignores his shockingly unsympathetic stance, for a Tory leader, towards business – summed up succinctly in his overheard comment June 2018: “Fuck business“. Late on, it depicts the British public as lambs to the slaughter as Johnson decrees they must return to work, but while Smith employs a soundtrack of outdoor construction, the homes he is able to show us are suggestive of the middle class, their inhabitants likely able to work from home.

Still, Smith only has so much to work with, stuck at home as he is, and Citadel is an evocative and concise film, cleverly conceived, shot, and edited. Its simplifications are small in comparison to the pleasures of its imagery, wit and tone. A treat.

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

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