Tag Archives: Elizabeth Debicki

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 112 – Widows – Second Screening

I drag a somewhat recalcitrant Mike to the cinema for a second go at Widows, joined by Lee Kemp (@leekemp), a Birmingham-based filmmaker and founder of Vermillion Films. And wow, we cover a lot!

Mike and Lee both agree that some of the cinematic technique is distracting on the first viewing, whereas second time round, knowing what to expect, it’s easier to appreciate the art of some shots and evaluate them more intimately. I simply luxuriates even more deeply than before in the visual splendour and tone. We agree that it’s a heist film that isn’t really about the heist, though what we then make of that – how clever we think that is – is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the film’s economy, both visually and in dialogue. It’s so, so elegant and deliberate, and that all becomes clear as we compare things that struck us.

The film’s use of the Church comes into focus – morality and God is almost never in question when it comes up, the film instead framing it in political, corporate and corrupt terms. The film equates the worlds of politics and gang crime, one white, the other black, a theme expressed through the two opposing political candidates and their associates.

We take time to consider the similarities and differences between the central female characters; how, for instance, the two black women are members of very different social classes. We praise how the film depicts how they deal with grief, the lack of connection they so desperately feel, and the way it affords each of them their scene to express it. Mike has, since the first podcast, watched the first Prime Suspect (written by Lynda La Plante, creator of the original Widows) and talks a little about it; I find it interesting that an originally British television programme adapted in part by a British filmmaker should yield such a sharp commentary on American society, and in such a condensed form.

We also consider wider questions of how to watch films critically. Mike goes on a brief rant about why the lack of seriousness with which media studies education is still taken has resulted in a world of Trump, Brexit, and fake news. Methods of analysis come in for scrutiny; we mention the video essay series Every Frame a Painting and discuss how one of its episodes in particular, the one on 2011’s Drive, is or isn’t a good example of textual analysis. We discuss the scene in which we see the protagonist’s son’s death; would we have watched it differently ten years ago, when it’s set?

All this and even more in a discussion that’s full to the brim. Mike is begrudgingly forced to concede that he misjudged the film the first time. I love it even more than I thought I could. And many, many thanks to Lee for joining us. And check out War of Words, the UK battle rap documentary on which he worked as executive producer, now on iTunes!

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: 107 – Widows

José falls in love with Widows, a portrait of life and survival in modern America in the skin of a heist film. Mike can see exactly why he should love it, but just doesn’t click with it.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows sees three women lose their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong, and their attempt to complete their final job with the promise of a big payoff. The film draws parallels between urban gang violence and entrenched political dynasties, complicates the widows’ grief with sex and intimacy, and constructs the potential payoff not as a cause of celebration but as a way out of bad situations. José finds the film a visual marvel, layered and expressive, but to Mike it’s more a reminder of what he loved so deeply about You Were Never Really Here than great in its own right.

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.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (James Gunn, USA, 2017)

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A super sappy film. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 lacks the illusion of three-dimensionality, which is to say it lacks what Marvel is most famous for in its comics: depth, visual and thematic. The world of the film seems a badly drawn cartoon one, with human faces occasionally popping out of the one-dimensional backgrounds to bring a little life to the otherwise inert. This is a movie that is so scared of anything approaching human truth that it’s willing to jump to another dimension to avoid it: the sequel’s idea of wit is jokes about turd size. The CGI, however expensive, makes the film look cheap and fake. However, the audience I saw it with liked it, with one group guffawing loudly at every cheap joke. I found there were too many characters, too many cameos, in a way that detracted from the playful dynamic of the protagonists that was such a pleasure in the first film, which I loved. Nothing here approaches the grace and wit, the exuberance, of Chris Pratt’s first scene in the original movie, the scene that turned him from the loveable Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation into a fully-fledged film star. Having action scenes taking place in the background as characters bicker might be considered inventive if the action scenes the film did show were more exciting and memorable. As with the first film, I did very much like the 70s soundtrack: it’s the am radio of my childhood. Yet whilst I enjoyed hearing Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’, and whilst the film’s deployment of the song might be seen as ironic, it still didn’t cut through all the schmaltz Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is propagating. The gross sentimentality is the opposite of what made the first film so memorable and is unbearable in all its manifestations, be it love in a couple, between friends or between fathers and sons. It’s a curse on American cinema. It all seems one screeching lie no matter how buttery or sweetly rendered. To me, the best thing about the film was a chance to see Elizabeth Debicki again, so sexy in The Night Manager, this time as the villainess and still enticing in spite of being covered in the ugliest gold make-up imaginable. All that glistens is most definitely not gold.

José Arroyo

Our Kind of Traitor (Susanna White, UK, 2016)

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A not quite successful adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel that I nonetheless found intriguing and enjoyable. In a year with two such Le Carré adaptations, this one for film and The Night Manager for TV, both directed by women (Susanne Bier directed all six episodes of Manager for TV), the works are bound to raise interesting questions about the connections between film and TV  long-form fiction narratives, which is the best form to adapt this type of novel to, and the place of women directors at the intersection of these media.

Let’s be clear, The Night Manager is by far the most successful work. It was glamorous, tense, thrilling; it had superb and memorable performances (I was particularly impressed by Olivia Coleman and Hugh Laurie; whilst the beauty of Elizabeth Debicki and the callow elegance of Tom Hiddleston remain memorable). The failure of Our Kind of Traitor is mainly due to it not being exciting; there’s not enough tension in the scenes; there are not enough thrills; and the heart remains distanced and disengaged from what melodrama there is on offer.

I nonetheless enjoyed the film because there’s a very glamorous film star turn from Ewan McGregor, one he rarely chooses to give, opting instead for the plumping for greater depth often unwarranted by characters like the Perry Makepeace he plays here. There’s also a truly great performance from Stellan Skarsgård as a Russian Mafioso equally capable of love and murder; I also appreciated the inter-racial romance (McGregor’s wife in the film is played by the elegant Naomi Harris) and how it’s presented without fuss and as completely commonplace. Lastly, the director has found a fascinating way to film the moral ambiguities of a thriller; everything in the film appears only partial; we see through distorted images or through glass that dimly reflects what happens outside that which contains or carries our characters (reflected through cars, windows, etc); how we see is made equivalent to what we know. Bits and pieces; aspects; as the peaces of the puzzle are put together, so is our sight in relation to the events that are shown. One understands how the director is trying to condense and symbolise; to create images that not only convey plot but reverberate into other aspects of the story. I found it quite beautiful.

It’s not enough however: chase scenes and fights scenes are both lax;, unforgivable in an espionage thriller; and at the heart of the film is the embarrassment that is Damien Lewis’ performance. He’s trying for a stylised turn but is letting his glasses do most of the styling and in making this choice also loses the emotional effects a more understated and realistic performance might have conveyed of the lengths a father might go to avenge his son.

Not good but enjoyable and worth seeing.

****

This is now on Netflix. It stands up well to a second viewing, seeming even better than I at first thought. The visuals seem even more striking; the gender politics so much clearer (woman are depicted with a depth here they usually lack in other films of the genre) and even Damien Lewis seems better.

9th of March, 2017

José Arroyo