Tag Archives: drama

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 184 – Judy

José reminisces about Judy Garland as a feature of his childhood, a constant presence on his family’s television, and as a person who took on different significance to him as he grew up. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been keen to see Judy since the trailers first appeared. Mike, predictably, neither knows much about her nor cares, although he has seen The Wizard of Oz about a thousand times.

The film’s greatest pleasure is Renée Zellweger’s performance, a pleasant surprise to José as he’s never liked her very much. We agree that the stage numbers leave something to be desired – the production seems to create a disconnect between Zellweger’s performance and singing, sounding artificial – but swoon at moments when it all comes together, particularly in the climactic rendition of Over the Rainbow. José suggests that this is when Zellweger most deviates from any of Garland’s true performances, and perhaps that relative freedom from imitation is what gives her the space to connect to the song here.

In general terms, the film is none too exciting, shot effectively but inexpressively and ticking off the normal plot points of a star-on-the-decline biopic, with money and family worries, substance abuse problems, temper tantrums and assorted other clichés making appearances, and authentic as it may be, there’s only so many times Judy can be late for a gig before the drama wears thin. Her relationship with her children is an emotional wrench, though, and the film builds to an effective ending, powered by that fantastic final number.

There’s a subplot about Judy’s encounter with a gay couple that recognises her importance to the gay community and contrasts her glitz and stardom with the inhumane oppression to which gay people were and are treated – homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only two years prior to when the film is set. It’s a plot strand that could fall on its face through cheesiness or clumsiness, particularly considering the couple’s role in the final scene, but it arguably succeeds through periphrastic, sparing dialogue, and by tying everything back to Judy’s songs. Everything comes back to those, ultimately, and despite some lacklustre direction here and there, it all comes together when it absolutely needs to.

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

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 182 – Rojo

n the mid-Seventies, Argentina was terrorised by the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), a far-right death squad that disappeared countless people, and it is under this regime of fear and death that Rojo is set – with 1976’s military coup on the horizon. Disappearance is one of the film’s major themes and gives it its central structure: Dario Grandinetti’s Claudio, a lawyer, has an altercation with a rude young man in a restaurant and, though what follows is partially accidental, ends up leaving the man for dead in Argentina’s vast desert.

It’s the first act of disappearance in a film draped with them, disappearances that nobody speaks of, but everybody takes advantage of. Overt signals of the Triple A are absent here – the film shows us how daily life is affected, in a chilling atmosphere not of fear, but of acceptance. Friends are spoken of as having moved away. A house vacated by a family we never see is ransacked by otherwise well-to-do, middle-class neighbours, and presents a money-making opportunity. The culture isn’t fought, it is adjusted to.

Though we find great depth to Rojo‘s thematic complexity, we find less joy in its cinematic technique. José isn’t as critical as Mike, whose arse went to sleep through boredom, but despite an aesthetic that beautifully evokes the 1970s in every way, the film makes no real concessions to the audience, particularly lacking tension, which we feel there was ample opportunity for.

However, despite our criticisms, we recommend Rojo. It portrays a time and place rarely seen, and does so with intelligence and confidence. Its themes, of course, speak not just to mid-Seventies Argentina but keenly to today’s increasingly right-wing societies in Europe and America, and in that light its themes of complicity and adaptation to quotidian far-right terrorism constitute a warning.

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: 171 – The Souvenir

A gentle, somewhat meandering podcast to follow a gentle, somewhat meandering film. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir talks of artistic development, the vigour of youth, life without money worries, and the complications of love, all through a soft camera and subtle performances. It’s a film that refers to and respects art, that remembers the past fondly, and that leads José to explain the Portuguese concept of saudade, quoting Eugène Green here.

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: 166 – Pain and Glory

It’s probably fair to say that Pedro Almodóvar’s films seem to be made specifically for José. It’s in every detail: the locations, eras, sexuality, ways of life, attitudes, class, love of cinema and countless other aspects of Almodóvar’s ouevre speak to José on a deep, intimate level. He’s watched every one of his films time and time again, and he considers Pain and Glory, which he has already seen twice and plans to see again, a masterpiece. Mike doesn’t have anything like such a specific relationship to Almodóvar, and indeed has only seen one other of his films, 2016’s Julieta, which he liked very much – and indeed he likes Pain and Glory just as much… though not quite as much as José.

We discuss how Pain and Glory stands alone but might benefit from being seen in relation to Almodóvar’s ouevre. Several of his regular collaborators appear, including Cecilia Roth, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano and Penélope Cruz; this film, as with The Law of DesireBroken Embraces and Bad Education, is about a filmmaker; it makes use of art as an unconscious but pointed visual layering and underlying theme; images of characters writing on typewriters or computers show up – this is a film about, amongst other things, writing. Mike brings up the way chance events are used to drive the plot forward and thinks about how they’re contextualised; José praises how fluid Almodóvar’s storytelling is here, effortlessly bringing together disparate timelines and plot strands.

Is this autofiction, as the mother in the film accuses her filmmaker son of so often indulging in? José considers the appearance of Almodóvar’s own mother in his previous films and how so many of his previous films are in fact about mothers (All About My Mother and Volver being the most obvious examples). We discuss the structure of the film, the movement from the relationship with an actor who’s an addict to a previous relationship with an addict, through the performance of a confessional monologue titled Addiction, then a sexual awakening seen from a young boy’s point of view. Representations of Spain in the 50s, memories of the past and a present setting fluidly intermingle. We also consider its themes of illness, ageing and loss, and how it’s a film about cinematic expression, the revelation that half of the diegetic world is in fact a film within a film recontextualising half the story, similar to Bad Education but to different effect here.

It’s a film on which as soon as we finished, José regretted not saying more: The references to Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa, the clear allusion to Fellini’s , the use of Rosalía to sing the song by the river, the section on films that feature water such as Splendor in the Grass and Niagara. He’s only scratched the surface of a great 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: 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: 159 – O Fantasma

We’re still with MUBI and grateful for the opportunity to see O Fantasma, directed by João Pedro Rodrigues: a film José had heard of and been encouraged to see by various friends, but hadn’t quite come his way until now. He thought the film was only a few years old and could now kick himself for having waited twenty years to see it. José thinks it a masterpiece, Mike doesn’t; though the film being clearly aimed at a gay male audience might help account for it, and it speaks to José deeply.

Following Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), a very handsome young garbageman in Lisbon, perpetually horny and on the hunt for sex, O Fantasma is feverish sex dream of a film, a reverie, that evokes the feeling of horniness, of being up for sex but having no one with whom to find release with. What starts as a hunt that eventually turns the hunter into the hunted. We discuss how the character of Sergio seems to have no filter and no fear. He lives in a homophobic culture fraught with danger but is free. The sexual situations seem to take on the form of a dare and, even in the most potentially dangerous encounters, Sergio’s glance seems to say “I’m not afraid of you and it could get sexual if you want it to”. We discuss how the film’s story is structured differently to a conventional narrative: there is a conveyance of a certain kind of sexual dreamscape. The various episodes might not cohere in terms of plot but do come together in the film’s conveyance of atmosphere and feeling.

We note how for an earlier generation this would have been an X-rated film due not only to its subject matter but to its explicitness. We also remark upon the film’s real queer gaze that is also a gay male gaze; something worth distinguishing. We compare the film to the New French Extremity films of the era but also note that where they possessed had a harsh kind of crudeness, O Fantasma is very stylised. José finds the film unusual and beautiful, with extraordinary images that are really potent and poetic.

Sergio feels his desires in a culture in which he’s allowed none of them. Yet this is a film that celebrates a full spectrum of desires, the freedom to desire and to act on one’s desires. O Fantasma is a film that will confirm every homophobe’s worst views of gay men – and that partly its strength. It’s a film that is made in and asserts freedom. Sergio’s gaze is radiant, subversive, and defiant.

If you’re a gay man interested in film, this is unmissable.

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: 158 – Border

Pickings are slim at the cinema at the moment, so it’s MUBI to the rescue. We chose Border almost at random, our criteria being only something that looked interesting and would still be on rotation by the time we released the podcast. And what a fascinating film we picked.

Border is a Swedish art film that reeks of mud, pain and isolation, but with a sense of fantasy and irony that render it a curious, surprisingly light affair, despite some gruesome imagery and dark plot developments. It gives us a lot to talk about: the interstices of ideas of gender, place, what it is to be human, how we categorise ourselves, what makes us behave towards others as we do. The film takes a figure of fairy tale, fantasy, and horror, placing it in a contemporary setting. It supports all kinds of interesting interpretations: as a racial narrative, as a trans narrative, as an exploration of nature vs. nature, as a dramatisation of the fluidity of ‘the self’. It opens up beautifully as we discuss 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: 146 – Todos somos marineros

Todos somos marineros (in English, We’re All Sailors) was partly inspired by a workshop in which a group of students spent eight hours discussing the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, and a news story about three Russian sailors left stranded in a Peruvian port due to the sudden bankruptcy of the company they worked for. Writer-director Miguel Ángel Moulet developed a story about just that predicament, a story in which two of the sailors are brothers attempting to find their place in the world, stranded in the coastal city of Chimbote, able neither to go home nor to establish a stable life in Peru, living in limbo, tentatively making connections with the locals.

Moulet is a graduate of EICTV, the Cuban film school, where José visits and spends a few days teaching every year, and this is how we come to bring this podcast to you, José having been screened Moulet’s debut feature recently and keen to share it with us. We’re far from the first to see it, the film being on the festival circuit and already having picked up a number of nominations and awards, including the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize at the Toulouse Latin America Film Festival. A screener was made available for us to watch, and we’re so grateful that it was, as it’s a beautiful, sensitive film.

That line from The Merchant of Venice reads: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”, and that simple thought informs the tone and themes of Moulet’s entire film. Todos somos marineros is a story about isolation, displacement, loneliness, and a kind of all-encompassing, ethereal sadness. The central four characters pair up throughout the film – the two brothers, Tolya, the elder, who feels a degree of paternal responsibility towards his younger brother Vitya; the cafe owner and her delivery boy, Sonia and Tito, who function as a kind of surrogate mother and son; Tolya and Sonia, who are in a loving relationship, and Vitya and Tito, who grow close and whose relationship leads to the film’s climax and quiet cliffhanger ending. These pairings are developed and expressed subtly, intelligently, and with heart.

The film makes significant use of long takes, both moving and still, and doesn’t exactly discriminate between when they should and shouldn’t be used. At their best, these shots allow the performances space to breathe, contribute to a delicate, slow pace, or help to convey a rich sense of the characters’ environment; at their worst, they distract from or even obscure what the film is showing us. There’s also use of a trope in which the film opens on a flashforward we’ll return to later, one that effectively establishes a strong mood and mystery but which Mike argues is not purposefully used, and which detracts from the film’s later scenes. (At least, that’s his argument for why he didn’t grasp what was going on in the film’s final third.) On the other hand, there is simply gorgeous cinematography by Camilo Soratti, his camera capturing dense, diffuse natural light infusing the air over Chimbote with extraordinarily beautiful colour and texture. And, overall, Moulet’s direction exhibits a strong control of tone, the film surging with the sense of sadness and loneliness so crucial to it.

There’s more besides all of this to discuss, and we take our time to do so. Todos somos marinerosis an imaginative, rich debut feature that is deservedly earning praise and winning prizes. There’s no predicting if and when it will come to a cinema near you, but if you do get the opportunity to see it, we urge you to jump at it.

José spoke to Miguel Ángel Moulet recently, and their conversation (in Spanish) can be heard here.

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: 141 – The Passionate Friends

We visit 1949’s romantic drama The Passionate Friends, a favourite of previous podcast guest Celia, who describes it as “what would have happened if they’d had the affair in Brief Encounter“. It offers a complex story of love and relationships, characters who want different things from their relationships and a love triangle that gradually shifts and changes over many years. Mary (Ann Todd) loves Steven (Trevor Howard), but refuses to marry him, wanting to belong only to herself, as she puts it; instead, she marries Howard (Claude Rains), a successful banker who gives her security, stability, social status and affection. Dramatic irony, shifting affections and a sensitivity to the subtleties of love and relationships create a fascinating and beautiful film.

There’s a lot to discuss, including and especially the unconventional Howard – in any other film he would be an obstacle to the romantic couple’s true love, but here, although he has villainous aspects, he is revealed to be as three dimensional a character and as deserving of respect and a happy ending as anybody else. It’s the part he plays in the film’s conclusion that makes Mike cry. We also talk about David Lean’s direction, his use of visual layering, considered staging and occasional flourishes of editing emphasising the characters’ emotional states and calmly and smartly conveying to the audience the right information at the right time.

It’s not held in the esteem that Brief Encounter, a film with obvious parallels in many ways, is, and that’s unfortunate, as it is deeply felt and quite beautiful. It appears to only be available on Blu-Ray in France (that’s where Mike’s copy had to come from, at any rate), but its loving restoration is worth seeking out.

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: 136 – Die Welle

n response to José’s excursion into the world of Michael Curtiz a few months ago, Mike has picked four films of his own to discuss, the first being writer-director Dennis Gansel’s 2008 high school drama Die Welle (The Wave). Based on the true story of a 1967 social experiment, Die Welle follows one week in a high school in which, as an exercise intended to teach his pupils about the methods and dangers of fascism, a teacher creates a fascist movement, named The Wave, that rapidly spirals out of control.

Die Welle is first and foremost remarkable for convincingly depicting the seductive aspects of fascist movements, such as the shared symbols that engender group unity and, indeed, simply the positivity of being a member of a like-minded group. Mike compares it to Starship Troopers, claiming that it doesn’t just argue its case but actually makes it work on its audience – rather than seeing why The Wave is appealing to the kids, you feel it too. José discusses what sets it apart from your typical high school movie and how an even greater focus on the kids, rather than the teacher, might have strengthened it.

The classroom scenes allow the film to develop its arguments about fascism through ersatz Socratic dialogues, the teacher’s seminar-style classes allowing pupils to make competing points in quick succession, clashing with each other as they do so. But Mike points out that perhaps all is not what it seems: one student, for instance, goes unchallenged when she claims that high unemployment and social injustice are social conditions that favour dictatorship, but the world in which these children live bears few markers of such sociopolitical problems, yet they enthusiastically join and build their movement. Indeed, one motivation behind the experiment is the students’ belief that Germany, having already experienced a fascist dictatorship, is immune from another. Perhaps, the film suggests, we aren’t quite as clever and protected as we’d like to congratulate ourselves on being.

Aside from the film’s central thesis, there are minor details in its world that pique our interest, José noticing the students’ access to and expertise in the use of image editing and web design software; Mike picking up on the educated, liberated attitude to sex the characters display (it’s hard to imagine an American high school movie treating sex with similar freedom and confidence). We remark upon how believable the characters are (with perhaps one exception) in their interactions and responses to the nascent movement.

Neither of us can claim that it’s a perfect film – there’s little in it that is visually expressive, and its mechanisms are too openly displayed, with some characters too clearly intended to represent ideas and serve plot functions. But Die Welle is an enormously engaging, intelligent, and rather bold exploration of the mechanisms and appeal of fascism that enthusiastically uses cinematic affect to convey its message that we may all be more susceptible to its dangers than we think.

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: 134 – If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight – Second Screening

We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)

We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.

Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.

We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.

And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and MoonlightBeale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.

A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking 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: 132 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Achingly romantic and visually rapturous, If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, utterly bowls Mike over, while José expresses some reservations about it, despite also finding it enormously impressive. A love story set in New York City in the late 60s/early 70s, the film follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they fall in love, begin to build a life together, but are threatened with its destruction by a racist cop and a false accusation of rape.

The title refers to a street in New Orleans that Baldwin, and subsequently Jenkins, use as a metaphor for the black experience across America, and arguably this is overambitious (if not simply impossible). The universality implied by the title is dissonant with what the film offers, which is much more personal and idiosyncratic. José points out the lack of anger in the film, anger that would be absolutely justified to express given both the general institutional racism the characters face in their place and time, and the specific instance of racist behaviour to which they are subjected: the rape accusation. Instead of fury, we see coping, survival, sadness, resistance and love, all communicated with an extraordinary depth of feeling and a camera that finds the beauty and subtlety in everyone’s face. And ultimately this is wonderful, it’s just that the title and opening intertitle that explains it somehow don’t seem to quite understand their own story.

There’s a huge amount we discuss, including the narration; the film’s excursion to Puerto Rico and how its depiction of the experience of Latinx people might or might not offer an interesting comparison to its central interest, the African-American community; how Brian Tyree Henry shows up for a scene and steals the entire film; how the film aims for visual poetry; how Jenkins conveys rich sense of different people’s lives and environments with just a few shots; and how the film chokes you up with its incredibly tactile depth of feeling that is sustained more or less throughout. We also bring up comparisons to Green BookGet Out, and in particular, Moonlight, Jenkins’ previous film – José has issues with how he copped out of giving his story of a gay black boy’s difficulties growing up an honest ending, and takes issue with how viscerally one feels Tish’s desire for Fonny due to the way he’s shot, finding it even more disappointing than before that Jenkins didn’t do the same in Moonlight.

It’s a film we want to see again, infectious and emotionally rich, and if you don’t see it in a cinema you’re missing out. It’s great.

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: 131 – Green Book

It’s already being portrayed as the film that will undeservedly win Best Picture for its cuddly, comfortable, comedy-drama version of American racism in the Sixties, but do we dissent from that view? Green Book tells the true story of a road trip through the Deep South shared by jazz pianist Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen).

Mike immediately seizes upon Tony’s inconsistent characterisation, the film using other characters to describe him as deeply racist, but his actual interactions with Shirley consisting of essentially polite microaggressions rather than real malevolence and anger. José also takes issue with the revelation that Shirley is gay, Tony having no problem with it, saying that in his regular job as a bouncer he sees it all the time – the film makes no attempt to explain how he can be entirely understanding and accepting of sexuality while intolerant of skin colour. Mortensen, though, is very characterful, imbuing Tony with entertaining irreverence, and the love Tony displays for his wife, writing her letters every day, is very sweet.

Ali doesn’t match Mortensen’s level of performance, though he is perhaps asked less of, largely remaining aloof throughout the film. Again, we find problems in Shirley’s characterisation. The film sets him up as a fish out of water, not just as a gay, black man in the Deep South, but also amongst other black people – it’s a quirk too far to believe that he’s never heard a Chubby Checker or Little Richard record. And the movements made in the film’s final minutes to engineer a classic happy ending (at Christmas, no less) are as predictable and obvious as they come, but Mike is moved by the ending nonetheless, leaving the cinema with a smile on his face.

Despite the character issues, lack of subtlety (every aspect of the issues it depicts is explained in dialogue), weak visual storytelling (this film doesn’t appear to actually know that it’s being shown in cinemas, so fully does it lack any sense of cinematic nous or style), and project of delivering an unchallenging, white man’s version of racism in which everyone can learn to get along without having to face any hard truths, we found things to like in Green Book, and recommend it as long as you keep your expectations low.

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: 129 – Vice

Adam McKay brings the confrontational, fourth-wall-breaking style he employed in The Big Shortto a story of lust for power, hidden agendas, opportunism, and as near as makes no difference a coup d’état of the American government, engineered from inside the White House. Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney as he transforms from a brainless layabout into the de facto President of the United States, operating with scary, virtually boundless power to do whatever he wishes. It’s energetic, interesting, self-aware, and makes statements and accusations as bold as you’re likely to see in mainstream cinema. But it’s difficult to trust, says only what you’d like to hear, narrates where there are obvious opportunities to dramatise, and, fundamentally, fails to do what a biopic should: develop and convey an understanding of who its subject is and why. We weren’t impressed with much more than the makeup, unfortunately – though it is brilliant makeup.

We also have a browse through the Oscar nominations, why not.

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: 128 – Colette

Gender-bending in turn-of-the-century France, with the true story of Colette, probably the most famous female writer in French history and author, although they were published under her husband’s name, of the Claudine stories. With representational interests that give voice and presence to people and lifestyles one might not expect in a period film, and two very good central performances, one sensitive and complex, from Keira Knightley, and the other fabulously charming, Dominic West’s, there are things we like. But our overall response is disappointed, the positives dulled by a poor script, some badly developed characters, and direction that allows no metaphor to pass unvocalised.

Mike considers it a potentially smart film destroyed by a pointless fear of its audience not getting it; José sees it as the middle-of-the-road cinema it is, for better and worse. It’s worth a look in some respects, but we can’t claim it’s a good 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: 123 – Roma

Much to Mike’s disdain – he throws tantrums about Netflix films – we settled in with a KFC to discuss Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about the live-in housekeeper to an upper middle class Mexican family. Carefully composed and inflected with a neorealist aesthetic, it’s been making countless year-end lists and is being touted as potentially Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, so Mike wasn’t allowed to say no.

The film is remarkable for depicting modern-day indigenous Mexicans, people to whose existence many outside the Americas might not have ever given any thought. Yalitza Aparicio, Roma’s star, is a non-professional actor of Mixtec and Triqui origin, and simply her appearance is interesting, let alone the film’s use of Mixtec language (Mike gets this name wrong at first but don’t hold it against him) and its development of the indigenous population as lower class workers. We consider the use of black-and-white imagery – José questioning what it brings to the film – and the ways in which the sound design and long panning shots attempt to place the viewer within the film’s environments. Mike explains a prejudice he holds against “personal” films, and José considers Roma‘s place alongside Cuarón’s previous work, and the melodrama of the birth scene.

Mediático, a film and media blog focused on Latin American, Latinx and Iberian media, took an immediate and deep interest in Roma and marshalled eight academics to each write a short essay on the film, and we refer to some of the points raised throughout the podcast. The dossier is well worth reading, will enrich your experience of the film, and can be found here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/

(The links to the essays are on the right hand side of the webpage.)

In addition, the dossier refers on several occasions to Richard Brody’s review of the film in The New Yorker, in which he is critical of the lack of a voice given to the main character and finds the film asks more questions of the world it depicts than it answers. We refer to this, too, and you can read it here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/theres-a-voice-missing-in-alfonso-cuarons-roma

As for us? We find areas of interest, things to both agree and disagree with, in all the articles we read. José was deeply riveted by Roma despite a reservation or two and continues to see Cuarón as a great director. Mike was less interested, admitting that had he been watching the film alone, he would likely have turned it off before the halfway point; an issue with watching things at home that isn’t as pressing at the cinema (he wouldn’t have walked out of a screening). But that’s a tantrum for another day.

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: 119 – Disobedience

Rachels Weisz and McAdams soar in this delicate, passionate, complex drama of social pressures and forbidden love. Set in the North London Jewish community, Disobedience tells the story of two women whose love for each other is reignited when one returns home following her father’s death.

Everything is rendered complex, nothing is simple. Weisz’s anger at having been cast out of the community, McAdams’ subjugation and repression into a way of life she doesn’t desire, and Nivola’s denial and ambition are all expressed deeply and combine in intelligent and subtle ways. José is spellbound by the depth of feeling from the very beginning; Mike feels the lack of context early on is disappointing, seeing the film’s clichés rather than its originalities. And we share a certain reservation as to the film’s visual qualities, Mike suggesting the Jewishness of the story is reflected in its understatement, but again there is complexity present in its aesthetic and we appreciate its coherence.

We also like the seriousness with which the film treats its setting, the lack of condescension with which it depicts Jewish ceremonies and customs, Mike in particular finding it exciting to see authentically represented all manner of occasions and nuances of English Judaism. And the synagogue’s choir sings beautifully.

Though we don’t agree on everything, we are deeply moved and find it an enriching film. It’s very much worth your time.

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.