Before Lin-Manuel Miranda shot to fame in the mid-2010s with Hamilton, he had already enjoyed success with his 2005 musical, In the Heights, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, winning four Tonys for its Broadway production in 2008. Set in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, it now comes to cinemas, following the lives, struggles and dreams of its inhabitants, who simply cannot stop singing.
Well, singing and rapping – and it’s the rapping that shines, Miranda’s lyrics as witty and intricate as those in Hamilton, while the singing is less impressive, and the domain of the film’s women, who Mike wishes had been given the opportunity to rap. We discuss our disappointment in the direction – the film is full of visual ideas that aren’t executed to their fullest potential – and its relationship to the cultures and peoples it portrays.
In the Heights has its flaws, but despite them, it’s an immensely likeable portrait of life in its locale, José in particular, an immigrant to North America himself, recognising a lot of what it depicts and loving the way it shows off the cultures around which it’s based. We pick fault with it, because that’s what we do, but don’t let that stop you from seeing and enjoying it.
An extended discussion of Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria, New York. ‘I love American cinema but America doesn’t love me’. Anyone who loves Chahine’s cinema will find this irresistible. A film made by someone who thinks and knows how to visualise and dramatise. We will see it again. The discussion can be listened to in the player below:
Listeners might also be interesting in the clips below which are discussed in the podcast:
Watching Cairo Station in New York.
2. Watching the Girls Go By (and whose gaze is it?).
A bisexual gaze?
A coming full circle:
New York, New York: An Arab Ending.
Whilst scrambling to collect these clips this morning, Richard and I realised that we were speaking in relation to different prints and his findings might be of interest to some of you. Richard writes:
Very interesting – I’m assuming the 2hr 3 version is an Egyptian edit, and the longer one(2h9m) is the French version. Differences I could find are:
Scene at the dance contest: conversation at the bar is shorter and the presentation of the prize is cut (not clear why this is). Young Yehia walks Ginger home after the dance – their final long kiss is cut.
Scene with the peeping landlady – ends when she appears at Yehia’s door. Entire sequence of him showering in her flat and her joining him is gone. (about 2 minutes cut here)
Later scene where Ginger comes to Yehia’s room and they are interrupted by the landlady – their kiss is cut.
End of this scene where Yehia and Ginger go to bed is also cut.
Sex scene in Yehia’s room when he is planning to leave – opening two minutes of this scene has gone, the shorter cut opens at the end of this sequence with them lying in bed together (so, interestingly, it is still OK to show them in bed) 70s scene with the older Yehia and Ginger in his hotel room – mostly intact but the end of this scene is cut.
After a brief gap, José Arroyo and Richard Layne return for the 24th episode of the Youssef Chahine Pocast, an extended discussion of L’autre/ The Other, a film about Orientalism, Imperialism, Terrorism; an examination of class structures with a gender analysis; a film about a land and its people…yet one that also recalls popular melodramatic and glitzy works like Dynasty. Not quite top Chahine but a film that’s nonetheless made us think and that we’ve grown to love. Edward Said starts off the film with a delicious lecture/advice/framing paradigm:
The following excerpts are discussed in the podcast and should be of interest:
The discussion with Edward Said:
The fantasy sequence:
The hommage to Duvivier’s Carnet de bal
The sexual violence:
Connection to Dynasty:
Some of you may also be interested in this conversation with Marianne Khoury, Youssef Chahine’s niece:
A classic of Hollywood crime, The French Connection paints a bleak picture of life and justice in America, as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle demonstrates that no matter how low the drug dealers he pursues, he can sink lower. We ask what its depiction of New York’s underbelly and the accuracy of Doyle’s hunches despite his revolting behaviour says about the filmmakers, and consider Pauline Kael’s assertion that the film is “what we once feared mass entertainment might become”. Underneath the iconic style and unforgettable chase, is there anything meaningful to The French Connection?
(You can see Mike’s film, which for some reason he doesn’t mind comparing to The French Connection, below.)
Independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team up with Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems, an energetic, evolving crime thriller set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. By the time we meet Sandler’s Jewish jeweller, Howard, he’s already embedded within a web of competing interests, desires and debts, as well as a gambling addiction – and the tension only mounts as problems grow worse.
The Safdie brothers and Sandler are all Jewish New York natives, the writer-directors in particular growing up, in part, around the Diamond District, where their father worked. There’s a specificity to the location and culture that the film captures beautifully, a richness to Howard’s characterisation, and the world he inhabits, that feels authentically observed. Howard’s need to take risks never allows the tension to settle – he can’t help but invite further trouble upon himself, so neither does the film let us calm down for a second.
Uncut Gems is a complex, character-oriented, engrossing work of edge-of-your-seat genre entertainment, and a terrific follow-up to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time, which we discuss a little bit (but not too much because José hasn’t finished it yet). Both Good Time and Uncut Gems are available on Netflix, and well worth your time. The Safdie brothers might not just be good – they might be greats.
A three-and-a-half-hour epic in his signature genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks back on the life of a gangster, hitman, enforcer, and WWII veteran, who loses everything. There’s a familiar tone to much of the film, Scorsese getting the gang back together – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are wonderful to see, but perhaps the most enjoyable performance comes from Joe Pesci, his Russ a calm, knowing presence, a characterisation that feels like a deliberate defiance of the volatility we remember so vividly from Tommy in Goodfellas. The film weaves a tapestry of power structures throughout 20th century New York, incorporating the mob, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and politicians, all tied together by the wild, paranoid, braggadocious figure of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a brilliant Al Pacino in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese.
Scorsese’s use of digital technology to take years off his cast is a matter of debate between us. José thinks that the use of younger actors would have been beneficial, comparing it to De Niro’s portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II; Mike arguing that the technology convinces, facilitates a smooth telling of the story, where, had different actors been used, he might have felt like he was waiting for the ‘real story’ to begin, and doesn’t hamper the facial performances as it might have – though he agrees wholeheartedly that, in his mid-70s, Robert De Niro simply can’t convincingly kick a baker as a man thirty or forty years his junior should be able to.
José asks whether Frank feels enough guilt about having to kill Jimmy, by this point a man who’s been his friend for years. We agree that we think his emotional state is too opaque, though Mike suggests that he’s also tamping down his feelings for the sake of getting on with a task he can’t avoid. The feeling of loss and guilt that this event leads to, though, enormously affects the final half hour of the film, and for Mike it’s a beautifully moving coda to a film that, while hugely enjoyable, often felt free of a clear destination – something José disagrees with, never wondering where it was going.
We also consider Scorsese’s recent remarks on Marvel, suggesting that his perspective is a surprisingly ahistorical one, and that had he been making films in the 1950s he’d have had identical complaints about Westerns, for instance – the dominant genre of the time. But José takes time to agree with his aesthetic and artistic complaints, arguing that Marvel’s films lack ambition, and Mike suggests that his issue really comes down to a level of dominance that is marginalising films of lower budgets and greater ambition. We also discuss the fact that Scorsese has made The Irishman for Netflix, hardly the home of a lover of the cinema, as their model is Internet-based and doesn’t allow for wide theatrical releases, Mike suggesting this represents a conflict between Scorsese’s words and actions; though José argues that, as limited as it is, the film has been given a theatrical release, and one would be stupid to turn down money if it gets one’s film made, no matter the source.
But to bring it back to The Irishman, we had a terrific time and the film throughout is layered with great jokes, considered compositions, and brilliantly written, performed and directed set-piece scenes in which conversation is king, stakes are high, and power is in play. If you get a chance to see it during its brief theatrical window, do so.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
First of all, huge thanks to the Electric Cinema in Birmingham for not only screening a preview of irresistible hangout flick Skate Kitchen, but for hosting a Q&A with director Crystal Moselle and some of the cast – not professional actors, but girls who genuinely hang out and skate in New York City under the name “Skate Kitchen”, and whose daily lives form the basis of the film. A chance meeting on a train led to Moselle shooting a short film with them and ultimately this feature. Moselle has been here before: her debut, The Wolfpack, also came about due to her curiosity about a group of people she came across in New York, but that was a documentary, and Skate Kitchen is narrative fiction.
Indeed, the narrative works to bring out the best of the setting and people, structuring the documentary aspects to avoid losing much focus while bringing out observations of these girls’ lives that feel deeply authentic, pointed, and original. It follows a teenage skater with a rebellious streak becoming part of the Skate Kitchen collective, the changes to her life as she grows up away from home, and the inevitable conflicts between the girls and the boys who dominate the skate culture they want a part of.
We discuss the nuances in the film’s construction of a divorced family in which both parents are nonetheless present, and in which the child is given agency over her relationships with them; the wholesomeness of the girls’ interactions, particularly with one of their dads; the dimensionality of the boys, particularly in terms of sexual desire and their interactions with girls – and the way the girls’ bodies are displayed not as passive, simply intended to look sexy, but as active and really, really fucking talented. Watching them skate is, just like watching the horse breaking in The Rider – also played by non-professional actors using their real-life skills – a pleasure in which the film allows us to indulge deeply.
Finally, Mike wants to apologise for the sound quality in this episode. He forgot to plug the mic in.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg was the son of Geraldine Fitzgerald and…who? That’s the overall arch of the book. Was it Orson Welles or a Sir Edward Lyndsey-Hogg, a minor British aristocrat? Whilst the answer to the question takes several turns in the book, we also hear about his directing ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’, some of the early key concert movies like ‘Let it Be’, a pioneer of the MTV video clip (most of the early Rolling Stones videos), a director of Brideshead Revisited on TV and The Normal Heart off-Broadway.
It’s a lovely book; a not very distinguished career in cinema, but with landmark work in tv and theatre; and then of course through his mother — who most of us probably now remember for her work with Bette Davis in Dark Victory or as Isabelle Linton in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights — he knew all the greats of the classic era (Welles himself but Marion Davies, Hearst, right up to Lumet, Gloria Vanderbilt) then on his own (the Beatles, the Stones, everyone in music really) right up to turning Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart into a hit in the 80s at the height of the AIDS pandemic. Wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of Hollywood in the 40s, Dublin in the 50s, post-war New York, Swinging London etc.
The book’s conclusion about paternity has been disproved in Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, but Lynsay-Hogg’s views on so much of the landmark work he helped create on film and in the theatre makes for an insightful and entertaining read: and the book is also an interesting exploration of the lure of celebrity as social currency that each of the protagonists deploys to advantage: would paternity have been such a question if the father were rumoured to be Joe Blow instead of Orson Welles?