After a few months off, during which Mike has forgotten how to record podcasts – sorry about the audio early on – we’re back for Barbenheimer weekend. Never mind your Infinity Wars, this is the crossover they said would never happen, and the clash of tone between joy-of-pink Barbie and sin-of-man Oppenheimer, coincidentally released during the same weekend, has unexpectedly and charmingly reignited the public’s interest in going to the pictures. The question isn’t, “which one will you see?”, it’s, “which one will you see first?”
And we picked Barbie. Our screening was packed with young girls typically unaddressed by the biggest releases, and this film does a great job of correcting that. José describes its treatment of patriarchy as a fact as one of the most radical things he’s seen, and it’s a sign of where we are culturally that it can be, and that every joke and piece of commentary the film builds upon it is implicitly understood by an audience the film treats as intelligent.
Yes, Barbie‘s a toy advert. Yes, you’re always aware that every joke at the expense of Mattel and Barbie’s cultural footprint has the company’s stamp of approval. Yes, Mike brings up Jean Baudrillard. (He’s such a Ken at times.) But it’s also witty, ironic, self-knowing, and really good fun.
Fassbinder continues to surprise, this time with an all-out comedy, a high-pitched farce, dealing with the vulgar, explicit and extreme in a way that’s designed to be offensive and to push as many of the audience’s buttons as possible. How did he get away with it? In the first ten minutes of the film, we get fellatio with gun à la CHANT D’AMOUR, a murder enhanced by poppers during coitus, a dildo-drawer with a gun, a woman slapping down her brother-in-law’s erection in close-up, a prostitute getting her nipples tweaked for a laugh… It’s like a grunge explicit version of boulevardier farce about masochistic power relations, drained of any trace of elegance. I found it discomforting and funny.
The plot revolves around Walter Kranz(Kurt Raab), once the poet of the revolution, now suffering from writer’s block, and in constant need of money. He has a long-suffering wife, several mistresses, a brother who’s not all there (and who seems to be modelled on the fly-eating Renfeld, Dracula’s side-kick). He takes adoration as his due and exploits all his inter-personal relationships, including his long-suffering parents, whom he tricks out of the money they’ve saved for their funeral.
designed to be offensive
After two years when he hasn’t been able to write a word, he finally recites some lines he likes. He’s delighted at the break-through only to be told that the lines are not his but those of Stefan George, the famous symbolist poet. So he decides to become George by performing him, by hiring a coterie of young gay men to worship his poetry readings and by becoming gay himself, something he ends up not being too successful at. Performing identity, performing society’s expectations of identity and finding liberation in madness are key themes in the film.
male full frontal
Like in a good farce, everything is over-turned and comes full-circle in a ‘happy’ ending. Walter, who’s surprised when his brother likes the whipping he gives him, ends up finding his own masochistic side, thereby losing the provincial acolyte he’s been dominating, Andrée (Margit Carstersen) but getting together with Lisa, who previously enjoyed an open marriage with Rolf, who has now gone off with the newly liberated Andrée. He finally ends up writing a novel: NO CELEBRATION FOR THE FÜHRER’S DEAD DOG, a book who’s thesis is that Fascism will triumph, a hit with his publishers.
The film is book-ended by a quote from Antonin Artaud: ‘What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all their forms of belief, not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of Creation, in other words with the Godhead’, ie thinking from a non-hiuman point of view is a way of maintaining contact with the divine. Fassbinder described the film as a ‘comedy about me if I were what I perhaps am but don’t believe I am” Thomas Elsaesser found the film “a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as most commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humour’. A bit harsh I think, though how funny people find it might depend on how far they are willing to be pushed.
A film Mike was doing his damndest to avoid seeing but eventually agreed to, Babylon is an epic period comedy-drama about the excess and industrialisation of Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s, and an epic bomb at the box office. Its aesthetics, characterisations, use of race and class, vulgarity, set pieces, bizarre ending and more are up for discussion. Did Mike have as terrible a time as he anticipated?
There’s an unwelcome element of particularly American and ill-fitting barbarism in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a film that we hoped would be cleverer and more charming than it is. It’s also more of a straightforward thriller than a whodunnit, with one particular alteration to the murder mystery formula meaning that so much is kept from the audience that it stops being fun to play along. There’s still enough here to enjoy, but we’d like the third film to be more like the first, please.
José gave an introduction to the MAC’s screening of The Old Dark House, a 1932 comedy horror directed by James Whale, focusing on queerness. James Whale was openly gay – although what it meant to be openly gay in the 1930s is up for discussion – and knowledge of his sexuality has led to interpretations of his work in that light, including Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). The Old Dark House arguably invites such readings more explicitly than those, with the demeanour of Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm (not to mention his surname), the relationship between Morgan (Boris Karloff) and Saul (Brember Wills), and the casting of a woman in the role of patriarch, with actress Elspeth Dudgeon credited as John Dudgeon.
As well as its queerness, we discuss its preponderance of tropes and how well they cohere, its use of distorted imagery, its pacing and more.
The Menu is a smörgåsbord both of scenes, its plot dropping ideas as soon as it picks them up in its rush to entertain, and of styles and genres, with black comedy, satire and horror combining. But while it’s witty and engaging, it’s also inconsistent, unfulfilling, and, although the flights of fancy with which it imbues some of its action are good fun, fairly trite. As is way The Menu thinks of the food it mocks, so is the film itself: it looks delicious at first blush but fails to impress under scrutiny. And such small portions!
We wanted to like Bros more. Co-writer and star Billy Eichner jumped at the chance to expand the boundaries of the wide-release Hollywood rom-com to tell the story of a gay romance and give representation to people who are usually marginalised, if included at all, in mainstream comedy, and whose inclusion is often at their expense. It’s a shame, then, that it’s comedically unimaginative and unskilled …. and preachy. A wasted opportunity.
Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, best known in cinema for his breakthrough comedy-drama In Bruges and, most recently, the critical and financial success of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, on which we podcastedtwice, reunites with the stars of the former for an exploration of a male friendship, its dissolution, and the subsequent fallout.
The Banshees of Inisherin offers something of a chamber play: it might not be set in a single room, but the titular island of Inisherin is isolated, barely populated, and promises little by way of escape or a future. Brendan Gleeson’s Colm begins to feel this keenly, and abruptly declares his hitherto long friendship with Colin Farrell’s Pádraic over, intending to devote his life to his music. We discuss how depression might play into his actions, the role of the island in inhibiting ambition, the difficulty an intelligent actor has in playing dumb, the balance of comedy with drama in comparison with McDonagh’s other films, the peculiar masculinity of the way the breakup plays out, how the story might be seen as a modern myth, and how convincing the sense of place is.
There’s a lot to admire about The Banshees of Inisherin, which is arguably McDonagh’s best film, and (equally arguably) his least flawed – which sounds like damning with faint praise for a filmmaker whose work is typically interesting and novel, admittedly, but those flaws have sometimes cast large shadows over otherwise wonderful work (looking at you, Three Billboards). Here, such issues are easier to accept, and it’s consequently easier to enjoy the film’s achievements. In short – see The Banshees of Inisherin.
We indulge in a caper inspired by a real-life attempted overthrow of the US government – no, not that one. The Business Plot of 1933 was alleged to have been planned by business leaders, aggrieved by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, who sought to remove him and install a retired major general as dictator, and in telling a loose version of this story, writer-director David O. Russell chucks in a doctor, a lawyer, and a wildcard, played by Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie, respectively.
Amsterdam has been a colossal bomb at the box office, and despite its many attractions – including surely the richest and most exciting cast you’ll see all year – we can understand why. It’s on the long side, it’s fuzzy, it’s overwritten, and its messaging, while agreeable, is banal… but it’s also full of charm and novelty, and Christian Bale hasn’t been this fun to watch for ages. Mike’s typically had a cool relationship with Russell’s films but finds this one easy to like; José is less in tune with it, particularly its comic tone, but still enjoys his time with it. It’s imperfect, but deserving of a more welcome reception than it’s had, and worth seeing.
David Leitch, who directed the surprisingly enjoyable Hobbs & Shaw, delivers another surprisingly enjoyable action comedy. Bullet Train is set upon the eponymous Japanese train, which, for two hours, hosts an assortment of assassins getting into scraps and scrapes at the behest of their various employers. It’s stylish, funny, smart, and features a wonderful central comic presence from Brad Pitt, who seems to have relaxed into himself in recent years, his performances exhibiting a delightful spontaneity. Definitely worth a watch, and going on the trailers, Mike really didn’t think he’d be saying that.
We’re into the land of diminishing returns with Marvel, it seems, with the novelty of a shared cinematic universe having worn off and the big storyline everything was building to for ten years now over. Of course, another big event is sure to be on its way in another decade, but will we care by then?
Not if Thor: Love and Thunder is anything to go by. Between the thinning appeal of Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied comedy and the uninvolving and lazy plot, characters, and imagery, it’s an unmemorable failure of Marvel’s action comedy formula. Admittedly, Christian Bale makes his Voldemort-esque villain, Gorr the God Butcher, more threatening than you might expect, given his simplicity and lack of screen time, and there’s some fairly charming comic business between Thor and his semi-sentient weaponry. Tough to recommend just for those, though.
The Italian Job is a classic British caper familiar to everyone who’s grown up in the UK, so often has it been shown on telly and so embedded in British culture is the iconography of the red, white and blue Minis, the chase through Turin, only being supposed to blow the bloody doors off, and of course, the cliffhanger. Even those who, like Mike, have never watched it from beginning to end, know and love it as an unimpeachable icon of British cinema.
Which may be curious, considering Mike’s dislike of a UK that has left the EU in a storm of angry little Englanderism and British exceptionalism, as that reliving-the-war, one-in-the-eye-for-the-Europeans attitude can be read throughout The Italian Job – but, José argues, it’s a film that conveys affection for the continent, too, in its globetrotting nature and the beautiful scenery it shows off; and after all, its release came just a few years before the UK joined the EEC, which would later become the EU, in 1973. So it’s not quite that simple.
The Italian Job‘s notion of national identity is also conveyed through class, which is clearly delineated here, particularly through its use of Michael Caine and Noël Coward, who each connote specific strata of the class system. Importantly, this is no tale of class warfare – everyone’s in it together for Queen and country, and the gold heist that everything’s leading towards is explicitly given a national purpose. All that gold isn’t being stolen just for fun: who it’s being stolen from and for are key.
While our heads swirl with all these issues and more – including whether the chase is a good as all that, and the sexism of the comedy delivered by Benny Hill’s character – we have a grand old time at The Electric seeing The Italian Job. It falls short of cinematic greatness, but it’s jolly good fun, and those iconic images and sequences, which might only have existed in your mind’s eye for years since you last chanced upon the film on TV, don’t disappoint when you see them once again.
We’ve seen a lot of the multiverse lately, and Everything Everywhere All at Once brings to it a combination of Gen Z existential angst and mid-life where-did-things-go-wrong woe, in a frantic comic-action-sci-fi wrapper. It’s a lot of things in one, and we discuss as many of them as we can remember, including its campness, puerility, basis in multi-generational immigrant life, film references, endless endings, and much more. It’s full of life and imagination, and despite its unevenness, easy to recommend.
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is to be believed, CODA, a comedy-drama about the tension caused in a deaf family when the one child who can hear wishes to pursue a career in singing, is the best film of 2021. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not to be believed, and the fact that a straight-to-video Hallmark film can win the most prestigious award in cinema is a damning indictment of film culture today. Still, taken on its own merits, CODA is perfectly likeable and you’ll enjoy spending time in its company. But really. This isn’t good enough.
A Palme d’Or-nominated millennial comic drama from Norway, whose lead, Renate Reinsve, won Best Actress at Cannes last year, The Worst Person in the World explores universal themes of how to find a direction in life, our expectations of our own lives and others’, falling in and out of love, and how to handle the twists that life throws our way. But it speaks to José and Mike differently.
To the older of us, it’s a great film, one that articulates its themes with complexity and develops its characters expressively. To the younger – a millennial, to whom it should speak more directly – it’s a film that’s difficult to connect to, that occupies an emotional register to which he doesn’t relate. We discuss that register, the ways in which the characters behave and respond to one another, the use of chapters to structure the story and narration to tell some of it, and the imagination and life of certain scenes. Many of The Worst Person in the World‘s qualities are obvious, but we don’t agree on its greatness. As they say in Norway, c’est la vie.
We’re remotely joined by filmmaker, previous guest, and, crucially, Mike’s brother, Stephen Glass, for a discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s period romance, Licorice Pizza. Stephen last helped us explore Anderson’s previous film, Phantom Thread, and again brings his knowledge of and passion for the director’s work to our discussion.
We consider the efficiency with which Anderson creates rich portraits of characters and their lives from few details; how the blossoming love between the protagonists, a boy of 15 and woman of 25, avoids feeling exploitative or uneasy as the age difference suggests it might; how the film is able to feel loose and free despite conforming to its genre; the likability, or otherwise, of the setting and era; Anderson’s focus on faces and use of reflective surfaces; and whether one particular running joke that begins as hilariously, stunningly outrageous, overplays its hand and ends up in the realm of the unacceptable.
Licorice Pizza is a sweet romance draped in a loving portrait of a particular place and time, and laced with good jokes. Still, your mileage may vary, as Mike’s devoted, grumpy intransigence in the face of José’s and Stephen’s enthusiasm demonstrates, but even he has to admit it’s a very good film.
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.
Paolo Sorrentino reaches into his childhood to tell a story that’s in equal parts comic and tragic, with access to the off-kilter and fabulistic, in The Hand of God – whose title references that infamous goal scored by Diego Maradona, who Sorrentino semi-seriously credits with saving his life – as he dramatises here. We discuss the imagery, the familial banter, the curious opening scene, choosing Naples over Rome, and an oddball friendship with a happy-go-lucky smuggler.
The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s love letter to The New Yorker, is, as you might expect, a charming way to pass a couple of hours – but not as funny or as tight as we might like, and certainly a disappointment in the light of his last two films, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs (although, in fairness, reaching those heights even twice, let alone a third time consecutively, would be a big ask for anybody). Still, despite The French Dispatch‘s pleasures, some gorgeous imagery and a terrific, star-packed cast, we’re left asking what it’s all about, really – is it more than a vaguely diverting trifle based on Anderson’s favourite publication? And why can’t an ode to an icon of American sophistication be set in America?
Venom returns after his surprisingly enjoyable, if trashy, 2018 solo debut, but we don’t find much of a way to have fun with this sequel. Its cast is underserved by both the direction and screenplay, Tom Hardy appears to want to be seen as a slob, there’s not a memorable shot throughout, and most of the comedy, while promising in principle, falls flat. Mike asks where the real carnage even is, the film scared to show anything even cartoonishly gory, while José decries the carnage generally present in American cinema in general, this film, like so many, unable to conceive of a way to generate excitement without blowing things up and causing destruction.