Tag Archives: drama

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 318 – Undine

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

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: 315 – The Courier

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

Benedict Cumberbatch gets himself embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Courier, a dramatisation of the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6 to smuggle Soviet secrets provided by high-ranking GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky. It’s a film that offers pleasures in its performances and in the telling of a story you likely haven’t heard, but its storytelling is often banal and sometimes unclear, and, José contends, it’s full of tricks and tropes that are just there for effect – and often not very good ones. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, set in a similar period of the Cold War and also telling a true story of a citizen’s recruitment to engage in an overseas mission, is an obvious point of comparison, and perhaps The Courier‘s greatest gift is that its mediocrity helps to show off just how assured and polished is Spielberg’s cinematic technique, even if the ideological purposes to which he puts it leave us rolling our eyes.

The Courier isn’t a terrible film, and its performances do make it worth a look… but it isn’t a very good film, either.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 310 – The Human Voice

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

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: 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: 301 – Come and See

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

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 273 – Suzaki Paradise: Akashingō

A young, destitute couple seek survival and stability in Yuzo Kawashima’s 1956 drama, Suzaki Paradise: Akashingō (in English, this subtitle is given as Red Light, or Red Light District). Tsutae and Yoshiji spend their last few yen on a bus to anywhere, ending up on the outskirts of Tokyo’s red light district, separated from it only by an ominous bridge that is spoken of by the locals as though fearful, dreaded, even mythical. They take to their new home differently: Tsutae easily finds work as a waitress at a bar, comfortable for reasons that become clear; Yoshiji, a former office worker, has trouble adjusting, and, though it’s not put into words as such, spends much of the film depressed.

We discuss the portrayal of Tokyo’s unfortunates, their attitudes to life and to each other, and the tightrope Kawashima walks between wallowing in poverty porn and sentimentalising the couple’s situation. The motif of the bridge is a potent one, recurring throughout, and we consider how it’s used, what it signifies, and how it combines with the film’s theme of patriarchy and how it oppresses both women and men.

Suzaki Paradise is a concise and potent film, an intelligent dramatisation of social and economic issues in post-war Japan, and an expressive melodrama. It’s worth seeking out.

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: 272 – Cool Hand Luke

A key film in Paul Newman’s career that gave us one of cinema’s most iconic lines, Cool Hand Luke is known to both Mike and José – but previously seen by neither. The reasons that it became a cultural touchstone remain crystal clear, despite it failing, to a significant degree, to grab us as it might. We question the authenticity and purpose of Luke’s rebellion, the depiction of prison life, and the flimsy Christian allegory that tirelessly insists upon itself. The brutality perhaps seems unfairly tame today, an unavoidable consequence of coming to the film more than fifty years late, but its comedy still works beautifully and Newman’s charm has gone nowhere. It’s a fantasy, we conclude, for the privileged – an ultimately mortal fight against The Man, the point of which may very well be its lack of focus and clarity of purpose. Jesus was crucified for our sins; will we be recounting the story of Luke in two thousand years? Only time will tell.

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: 260 – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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

The winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells an aching story of doomed love within a wealthy Jewish community in Fascist Italy. The 1938 racial laws, enforcing the segregation of Italian Jews, have just been introduced, but the titular family’s titular garden offers insulation from the rising tide of fascism – for a while.

Mike finds the film’s love triangle somewhat banal, but is impressed with the subtly observed way in which the central characters allow themselves to remain comfortably ignorant of the increasingly hostile and dangerous Italy beyond their walls; comparisons to frogs in saucepans abound, not to mention the present-day normalisation of absurd corruption and violence in the Greatest Country in the World™. José is more keen on the romance, but still, the film’s sociopolitical side remains our focus. We consider the film’s use of physical space, the ways in which the Jewish characters can navigate it without being suspected by the racist public, but find themselves eager to retreat to safety as the film develops. We note that The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made 25 years after the end of the Second World War, but 50 years prior to today: it’s now conspicuously an historical artefact that speaks to the time in which it was made, and whose proximity to the horrors it dramatises is necessary to keep in mind. And Mike reflects on his relationship with his Jewishness in this day and age, and how the film demonstrates that whatever divisions we may find among ourselves, to those who hate us, there’s no distinction.

It’s also Bonfire Night – well, the day after, but it’s a Friday evening so the festivities continue – and we celebrate by closing the window and trying to ignore the fireworks going off outside.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 253 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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

Horror tropes pervade I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s oddball drama about a girl doubting her relationship, but it can’t be considered a traditional horror. Instead, it turns these tropes inwards, likening a controlling, toxic relationship to an isolated, threatening, haunted house. It’s a fascinating and brilliant idea, but despite the film being well-observed and intriguing, it’s not engaging enough, and offers little opportunity for confident interpretation. Mike has little sympathy for its developing surreality; José wants more humour. Still, it’s an ambitious, interesting film, and worth delving into.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 245 – Interstellar

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

Planet Earth is dying, dust storms are wiping out crops, and all-American single dad, former NASA pilot and corn farmer Matthew McConaughey is our last hope for survival. A “ghost” appears in his daughter’s bedroom, appearing to communicate by affecting gravity, and decoding the messages leads our hero to discover the last remnants of NASA, their observations of a wormhole near Saturn, and their journeys through it to planets that might be able to sustain human life. Eventually convinced of the plan’s value and necessity, McConaughey agrees to lead a mission through the wormhole himself, leaving his family behind, but hoping to rescue them in the long term.

Mike was moved and surprised by Interstellar upon its release in 2014, but on this second viewing moves significantly towards José’s unimpressed response, wondering whether it was simply the novelty of seeing new things to which he responded so positively. He compliments the film’s scientific literacy, but complains that its dedication to incorporating scientific principles and registers can impede what should be dramatic developments, making them dry and clunky; José, who has no ear for science, finds that it’s an irrelevance, unable to tell what might be drawn from reality and what isn’t, and feeling that the film doesn’t dramatise it well.

Everything is rendered through the central family and in particular the father-daughter relationship, strained because of the father’s mission, and consistently the film’s most important consideration, a little simple considering the global nature of Earth’s problems and the countless other families the mission is intended to help. The mission’s revelations and problems affect the entire world, and are discussed as such in dialogue, but we feel only the impact on this family – Interstellar speaks of societal problems but doesn’t show or dramatise them. Mike argues, though, that that central connection is handled well, the most effective shot, in a film full of startling visuals, one of a father’s face looking at his children.

We think about the action, and what it lacks. There are plenty of high-concept set pieces, but all seem to miss something in the execution. And we discuss the black hole scene, the design of that space and what it means, and how, while Mike was totally swept up in it upon first viewing, it quickly falls apart.

We’re glad we’ve seen Interstellar again, and at the IMAX Digital, the best available screening outside of true IMAX – because our response can’t be blamed on watching it on a laptop. We saw it as it should be seen, and emerged disappointed. Oh well.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 235 – Vitalina Varela

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

A slow, careful drama, Vitalina Varela – named for the non-professional actor at the centre, who plays a version of herself – tells a story of grief, anger, and discovery. Vitalina, abandoned by her husband in the 1980s, travels to Portugal from Cape Verde to confront him, but finds that he has passed away just days ago. She is left to explore the house he has left empty and the life he led without her for some forty years, and the film gives ample time to the feelings and questions that arise within her.

We discuss the economic situation depicted – this is a slum in Lisbon, built into the ground, feeling a world away from the vibrant, wealthy capital nearby – and Varela’s visual power, her performance one of presence as much as acting, as she moves slowly through the town like a ghost. Leonardo Simões’ cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, thoughtfully composed and intricately lit, and Mike remarks upon how the edges of the 4:3 frame blend into the blackness of a widescreen television, giving a feeling of an expanse of darkness. We ultimately disagree on how much we liked it: José was engrossed throughout, Mike found the tempo a trial – but stories like Vitalina Varela’s are necessary to tell, rare to see, and worth experiencing.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 232 – Ema

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

A somewhat elliptical family drama from Pablo Larraín, Ema tells the story of a young woman who returned a child she adopted, feels the loss deeply, and wants to get him back. We discuss the central performances from Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, how their characters throw the most painful insults at each other but remain so obviously in love, Ema’s sexual fluidity and willingness to use sex as a tool, the poetic opening movement to the film including the astonishing on-stage, colour-shifting Sun, and whether Ema’s pain is as apparent as we’d like.

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

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 230 – I vitelloni

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

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.