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.
A chamber piece that asks what happens when your life of carefully constructed lies is exposed, Shiva Baby is a smart, tense comedy set in that most aggravating of situations: the funeral, in which you’re forced to be judged by lots of people you want to avoid but aren’t allowed to kick up a stink. We discuss debut writer-director Emma Seligman’s handling of the story’s shifts in tone, in particular how she intensely ekes out tension; the light in which it depicts its women, who bookend scenes with sarcastic off-screen barbs and gossip; and the main character’s relationship to technology, and how her use of it to seek power is a double-edged sword.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.
The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.
There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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 Moonlight. Beale 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.
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.
I finally got to see The Danish Girl and was unexpectedly moved. My opinion of Tom Hooper hasn’t improved. There is a reason why his company’s called ‘Pretty Pictures’: he can make them pretty but he can’t mobilise that prettyness into meaningfulness. He’s obviously superb with actors and I think Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are believable and affecting; the former in a very risky part; also it feels like a kind of bourgeois filmmaking: all this delicate and thoughtful suffering in exquisite settings whilst thinking of art and higher things…and yet, on an emotional level, it still gets to you. It’s interesting.
There are complex themes around identity that revolve around sex, gender, but also artistic production. The need to express oneself is in this film as important as that of becoming one’s idea of who one wants to be in the face of harshly punitivie social prohibitions. The Danish Girl doesn’t necessarily present these ideas in a complex manner. For example, sometimes the film presents the question of sex as an essence struggling to overcome the boundaries of the wrong body that imprisons it; sometimes it shows gender in the very process of its construction as its costumed, painted and slipped on. Sometimes it confuses the various categories it seems to be dramatising. But what it might get muddled analytically it more than makes up for emotionally. The film gets us to understand and feel for ‘The Danish Girl’ and when he asks his wife ‘I don’t know what I’ve ever done to have earned such love’, I welled up. It’s a question often asked but this time we know the answer.
In The Danish Girl, there seems to be an overt contradiction between representing social transgression as a pathway to truth whilst deploying the most conservative aesthetics means to do so, which act as obfuscation, a kind of show-and-hide and perhaps an appeasement of potential audience reactions via gentle and extraneous pleasures. I at first thought Eddie Redmayne was too young to already seem so mannered. But then began reading the initial overdone gesture as a foreshadowing of the transformations to come and ended by thinking it a really marvellous performance. Vikander is just as good in a less showy part. Mathias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw appear intermittently to offer unstinting support and very considerable glamour.