Tag Archives: Comedy

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 265 – The Palm Beach Story

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Do English people get Preston Sturges? Is his work all it’s cracked up to be? These questions are on the table as we tackle The Palm Beach Story, a film Mike’s twice been encouraged to see by Canadians, and twice found infuriating and tiresome. José’s a fan, and we discuss the differences in our responses to the film, the pleasures that can be found within it, and how Sturges gives comically sensitive voice to the strong, silent American male, with several helpful interjections from Celia, friend of the podcast and the first Canadian who told Mike he just doesn’t get it.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 262 – A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

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You find us in reflective mood, as we reflect upon a reflective Swedish comedy, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Hopping between vignettes, Andersson’s dispassionate camera sits in corners of rooms, its wide angle lens taking in everything on display from wall to wall, as often absurd and sometimes unsettling action slowly unfolds. The final film in Andersson’s “Living” trilogy (2000-2014), it asks, “what are we doing?”; and, as José points out, in one especially disturbing scene, “what have we done?”

José delights in its sense of humour, the film offering deadpan responses to surreal events; while it’s also up Mike’s street, the film’s studied slowness begins to grate on him, and when it loses him after an initial flourish of spontaneous and unpredictable oddness, it fails to win him back. We discuss its origins, its title inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow; its focus on life’s less fortunate, and how we interpret their behaviour; moments of stillness that eschew the opportunity for jokes; and its historical references, to World War II, to the brutality of white, and particularly British, imperial history, and to elements of Swedish history that our primitive knowledge of the country keeps us from properly accessing.

Our instinctive responses disagree, but perhaps mostly because of the difference in how comfortably we matched the film’s mood. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is an undeniably well-made, carefully considered and original work of individual expression and curiosity, and one that inspires boundless questions and interpretations of its own.

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

 

Many thanks to Andrew Griffin for bringing this excellent video essay to our attention:

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 257 – Antz

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The second feature-length computer-animated film ever made, after Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy StoryAntz is an oddball. A public feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, led to Katzenberg founding Dreamworks SKG and subsequently feuding with Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was making the suspiciously similar – and ultimately more successful – A Bug’s Life. Pixar is the historically more successful and well-regarded studio, and the direct comparison between these two films usually sees Antz considered inferior, but Mike’s long been fond of it, and in revisiting it we discuss both how far it shows us animation has come in the last twenty years, and its many qualities, including its rather grown-up tone and references, imaginative and expressive visual design and cinematography, and witty dialogue.

Oh, and we try to work out how children think.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 258 – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

 

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Fourteen years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen’s first tour of the USA as Borat, his friendly, clueless, and decidedly un-PC Kazakh journalist. Borat gave his unwitting participants, real people who didn’t know that he was a character, space and encouragement to display their bigotry, sexism, racism, and stupidity – now he’s back to do it again, in a world in which bigotry, sexism, racism and stupidity are no longer deemed necessary to hide.

Sexism in particular is this film’s bedrock, the film introducing a daughter, Tutar, who Borat didn’t know about, and when she stows away on her father’s trip, he decides to offer her to Mike Pence as a token of Kazakhstan’s friendship. Women are chattel, and the only objection raised when Borat decides to give the fifteen-year-old Tutar breast implants is that he can’t afford them. Women’s role as playthings for men, and the society that refuses to allow them control over their bodies, shape almost every scene, including a debutante ball, a conversation with a Christian doctor, and of course, THAT scene with Rudy Giuliani.

We also discuss the question of the reality of what we’re seeing and how the film’s camerawork and editing fails to convince us of it, how comedy has changed in the last decade and a half, and how the film unexpectedly gives its unwitting participants the opportunity to be tolerant and welcoming. And we each share memories of our grandmothers.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 256 – Playtime

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Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, 1967’s Playtime, is an extraordinarily ambitious work of visual comedy and social satire. Mike’s been keen to see this for fifteen years or more, knowing of its reputation for detailed visual design and the 70mm cinematography that shows it off, waiting for the right moment. José, when Mike suggests we watch it, thinks he’s seen it many years ago, but soon realises he was probably thinking of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati’s rather more charming comedy of fourteen years prior, so it takes him a while to get into Playtime‘s rather more offbeat gear.

And he is ultimately a little cold to the film, though not immune to its appeal and pleasures, while Mike loves it unconditionally. In a somewhat alternate, near-future Paris, the plot, such as it is, follows two characters: Monsieur Hulot, the character Tati played in several films, as he stumbles through a France he finds unfamiliar and devoid of humanity; and Barbara, an American tourist visiting the city. In approximately six fairly distinct vignettes, Tati explores a vision of a consumerist, modern, and alienating Paris, the Eiffel Tower, symbolising the warm, cosy Paris of old, a long way away, merely a distant feature on the horizon or a reflection in a window. It’s an attitude for which José has little sympathy, though Mike suggests that the development of the final scene, a kind of funfair around a traffic jam, can be seen as a synergy of the traditional and modern, and finds it moving.

There’s a huge amount to discuss, including the design and execution of the jokes; the impossible scale of the set, nicknamed ‘Tativille’ and whose astronomical cost would ruin Tati, who was forced to file for bankruptcy; to what other films, if any, it can be compared; the visual design, cinematography, choreography, and colour; the use of nationality, particularly American; and how the film might play differently today compared to upon its initial release – Mike arguing that it may have anticipated changes to the real world that would later materialise, such as the cubicle office, that diminish the otherworldliness we might otherwise feel.

Playtime is a significant work of satire and well worth seeing, particularly given its beautiful restoration in 2014. Don’t miss it for fifteen years. Don’t be Mike.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 230 – I vitelloni

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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: 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: 226 – Twentieth Century

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

A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.

Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.

While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 205 – Jojo Rabbit

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 181 – Laurel and Hardy – Twice Two, County Hospital, and Way Out West

The Birmingham chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society shows a few of their films every year at the mac, and this year sees them screen two shorts, Twice Two (1933) and County Hospital (1932), followed by their classic Western feature, Way Out West (1937). We discuss Laurel and Hardy’s style, Mike comparing it favourably to cartoons and less favourably to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and José remarks upon the joys of seeing a full audience of people aged 4 to 90 all laughing at these everlasting films.

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: 174 – The Farewell

We love Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama The Farewell, about a Chinese family that knows their grandmother, Nai Nai, has cancer, but keeps it a secret from her. Awkwafina brings humour and sensitivity to the American-raised granddaughter who argues that her family is in the wrong, and although the film opens up questions of cultural differences, it’s remarkably even-handed, refusing to judge or criticise any opinion. Zhao Shuzhen, playing Nai Nai, is delightfully warm and snappy, and shares wonderful chemistry with Awkwafina.

The Farewell is a gentle film that tells an engrossing story, and it’s simply a pleasure to be in its world.

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: 165 – Animals

There’s a remarkable female gaze in Animals, Sophie Hyde’s adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel, and a wonderful sense of insightful observation in the world occupied by and behaviours of the two friends whose stories it tells.

Mike, who’d been anticipating it keenly since seeing the trailer, feels a little shortchanged by the triteness of the larger themes on which the film builds and the relative lack of excitement in comparison to what the trailer conveyed. José shares a little of that feeling but is keen to express his pleasure at seeing a film so confidently and originally expressive of a female perspective, particularly in its sex scenes. And we both adore the stars, Alia Shawkat for her fabulously performative comic theatrics, and especially Holliday Grainger for her extraordinary, sensitive, soulful expression of a girl falling in and out of love and friendship and upset with her own failings.

Animals is a film that explodes with creativity and expressiveness in the details, but whose big picture leaves us wanting.

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: 163 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.

Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.

The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.

Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.

You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.

A very interesting article by Mark Olsen on the film´s ending can be found in the LA Times 

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: 157 – Toy Story 4

Following a break during which José has been exploring Argentina and Mike has been exploring John Grisham films, we reconvene with Toy Story 4, the latest in Pixar’s iconic animated children’s series. Mike’s seen it once already and is keen to revisit it.

José asks questions of the film’s messages, seeing the toys as faithful slaves, desperate for owners, and discarded once their value is exhausted. Mike argues for the characters’ internal lives and the idea that they are parents or stewards of their children. We at least agree on the Key and Peele characters, thoughtless and lazy stereotypes of blackness, and Mike suggests that the irony that Key and Peele bring to their personas might be intended to make their characters easier to swallow. And their characters have the effect of rendering in sharp focus everything that is white about the film, José picking up on what he sees a tokenism in the few human non-white or mixed race characters present.

Toy Story 4 finally makes something of Bo Peep, turning her into an action heroine, and we discuss feminism in the film and, again, whether this is simply tokenistic or not. And an argument ensues about whether the word “homeless” is appropriate to use with regards to her life, and what we can and should make of Woody’s fate.

And apart from all that, Mike laughed endlessly, and José laughed at Mike laughing endlessly! Despite there being much to pick apart, a great time was had by all in this charming, funny, and visually stunning film.

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: 151 – Booksmart

Ridiculously, relentlessly, laugh-out-loud funny, we had a brilliant time in Booksmart. It’s a last-day-before-graduation high school comedy about two girls determined to finally have some fun having been bookworms their entire lives. José loves the central relationship between the straight and lesbian best friends, Mike loves the empathy and openness the film shows towards every one of its characters, deliberately constructing them at first as high school archetypes so that it can go on to reveal their hidden depths.

Booksmart is a simply brilliant comedy with tons of heart and you will have a fantastic time. Don’t miss 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.

Eavesdropping at the Movies – 142 – Shazam!

I´ve recently returned from  three weeks of teaching in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and I wanted to return with a nice easy watch. Shazam! obliges. The latest DC movie follows a teenage orphan given the ability to transform into a thirty-something Action Man at the shout of a single word. It’s light, colourful, a little corporate but what can you do? It’s just what a jetlagged man needs.

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: 140 – Fighting with My Family

A young girl from a tight-knit family in Norwich gets a shot at her dream, joining the WWE, the glamorous home of professional wrestling. Parental pride, sibling rivalry, and a lot of hard work ensues, as do great performances generating a lot of laughs. We’re not that keen on some of the clichés – very little happens that you wouldn’t expect, and some of the scenes take a long time to get there – but we like the male-female rivalry, the way Vince Vaughn and Nick Frost light up the screen, and of course, the fact that a big promotional corporate movie for Americans starts off in a tiny living room in Norwich.

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: 137 – Cold Pursuit

Remaking his own film, Hans Petter Moland brings us a revenge thriller, starring – who else? – Liam Neeson as a model citizen turned remorseless killer on the trail of those responsible for his son’s murder. Sounds like typical Neeson fare, but Cold Pursuit leaps between dramatic and blackly comic tones with verve, and offers something much more interesting and original than you’re likely to expect.

We find lots to like in it, including its magnificent lighting and compositions, interesting and welcome inclusion of a group of Native American characters, as well as a commentary on their relationship to the very whitest America there is (the film being set in a Colorado ski town), and some surprisingly tender moments between adults and children, and people in love.

We highly recommend it, it’s a huge amount of fun!

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.