Cate Blanchett’s performance as the title character is the highlight of the otherwise unutterably deflating Tár. What begins as an unexpectedly captivating profile of a world-class musical conductor and promises to develop into a story of sexual and psychological intrigue ultimately fails to satisfy when it refuses to offer thrills and drama – not to mention plot resolution. We pick through our problems with it, including what we find implausible, its reactionary attitudes and low opinion of young people, and its embrace of ambiguity and lack of interest in developing the story of Tár’s downfall.
We explore 1947’s Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, and compare it to Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of the material, which we find superior in almost every way. Mike in particular finds, in the reflection of Goulding’s version, useful ways to appreciate del Toro’s, which at first blush he found uninspiring. We discuss the portrayal and use of the geek, the differences in the introduction of the protagonist (played by Tyrone Power and Bradley Cooper in the old and new films respectively), del Toro’s greater focus on mood and scene setting, and how thoroughly Goulding’s film adheres to the noir genre. And we express our joy at seeing del Toro’s version at the grand reopening of the Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, which we completely forgot to do in the last podcast.
We talk swoony visuals, alcoholism, a femme fatale pastiche, moral descent, Bradley Cooper’s sexual presence and more in our discussion of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.
We’ve enjoyed Adam McKay’s previous couple of films, The Big Short and Vice, in which he dramatises real events in a pointed, opinionated, satirical manner. He now brings the same attitude to the apocalypse, painting a picture of a world in which an asteroid is headed on a collision course with Earth, poised to end the human race’s existence unless something is done… and nobody cares.
We debate its merits and failures, agreeing that it’s a comedy with few laughs, but José arguing for its place in the national theatre of ideas that cinema has always been in America, and as a response to that question we’ve been hearing asked for several years now – how can you satirise a reality that’s this absurd to begin with? Mike asks why McKay’s previous films worked where this fails, and suggests that it’s an inability to be indirect, to work in poetic ways – something that’s effective when being openly sarcastic, as in The Big Short and Vice, but that falls short in Don’t Look Up‘s appeal for earnestness and depth of character.
An ambitious film, then, attempting to holistically satirise the state of things as they currently stand – but at best, a mixed bag.
We’re disappointed with The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a children’s horror fantasy that insults its audience’s intelligence by assuming that this is the kind of simplistic shit kids love. We find some aspects of its design to enjoy but for the most part find it close to charm-free and not up to the standards of its stars – though Mike is keen to point out it’s probably director Eli Roth’s best film, which isn’t saying much. José goes on a rant about how often the adorableness of children in Hollywood cinema is signified by blue-eyes and the Nazi Aryan-worship implicit in such a consistent use of of that particular trope, as if dark-eyed children can’t per se be adorable.
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A lovely byproducts of visiting Athens was its open air cinemas. I now see that it’s famous for them, with over sixty still remaining. But I had not known. I’d gone to Athens for the Parthenon, classical sculpture, Melina Mercouri and sunshine. Once made aware, however, I had to go, and we went every night of the short long weekend we were there. Each time was special: magical, incantatory, hypnotic. Each time was also different. All were a reminder that filmgoing was always about so much more than the movie being screened: it was a bout courtship and friendship, leisure and rest, a ritual taste of the luxurious; a context for engaging more senses than just sight and sound.
The first cinema we went to was the Thysion. As you can see above, the view of the Parthenon is marvellous and, as the evening progresses, you might find your head wavering as in a tennis match between it and the movie. It has a very friendly staff, with a bar in which every nook and cranny seems pasted with film posters from the Fifties; Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida feature prominently. Wine is cheap enough to guzzle. And you can sit in one of the dozens of tables printed with iconic photographs of movie stars of yore, bask in the sights, smell the bougainvillea, delight in the cool wine on a hot day and just feel grateful you’re alive.
The movie playing was Truth. It had something to do with Dan Rather, and news being clamped down in the US by the Bush administration and corporate interests. Cate Blanchett looked very chic being very worthy and I thought Robert Redford rather good as Rather. I enjoyed it very much but I really couldn’t tell you if it was any good. It was definitely secondary to the cinema itself, one of the earliest Open Air ones, which opened in 1935.
The second evening, we went to the Cine Paris, with an equally spectacular view, this time, as you can see above, of the back of the Acropolis. Here drinks were a bit more expensive but they do cocktails and it’s worth it. The film was better too, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys. The cinema is upstairs from a fantastic poster shop where you can get Greek posters of your favourite films, Hollywood and International Art House. It has several levels and it’s worth exploring them as the higher up you go, the better the view. The Cine Paris also overlooks a central square in Plaka, teeming with a range of dining options which we made full use of.
On our third evening we went to the Zephyr. This one offered classic programming instead of a view. We arrived early and ate in a restaurant just opposite that fulfilled every fantasy of Mediterranean communities: A baby passed around for everyone to kiss. The waiters seemed to be part of the same family: they’d serve and then go off across the street to chat with the lady from the cinema’s box office or other merchants from across the street but were quick to return should you need anything. Every so often a car would drive by, stop, the driver would shake hands with one of the waiters, chat for a while and move on. Those in the cars behind didn’t seem to mind waiting. Everyone seemed to know each other.
The film we saw was Bringing Up Baby; all the films we saw were in original version. Baby was in a 16mm print that had seen better days but on a lovely big screen. Seeing Grant and Hepburn at their best, on a balmy night, with an audience that got every joke and appreciated every nuance was a thrill.
We also went to the Dexamini, which ostensibly has the very best view of the Acropolis. But here they were also showing Truth, and we had already seen Truth and….well…it was a reminder that whilst cinema-going has traditionally been about so much more than just the movie; the movie’s still the central component of filmgoing. We ended up not going into The Dexamini and opted instead for sitting in a terrace outside, guzzling more wine, and taking full advantage of the calamari.
Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?
He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.
But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.
Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.
The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.
A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:
Our revels are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
is rounded with a sleep
It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.
A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162