Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde’s second feature as director, after Booksmart, which we loved, is an irredeemable mess of a psychological thriller. We pick through its carcass in an attempt to figure out which bit of it we liked the least.
The absence of presence that is Idris Elba, who we’d like to like one day, stars in Beast, a Jurassic Park knock-off that pitches him against both his distant daughter and an excessively affectionate lion. It’s a film that Mike enjoyed unironically but can’t claim to find much quality in; José, showing off, provides a coherent response, seeing the film’s weaknesses and having no fun.
It’s a mechanical film in more ways than one. The character relationships crash inelegantly into place, the action hasn’t met an idea from a better film that it didn’t try to copy – and the seats share the load, tilting and rumbling along with the images. For reasons beyond our understanding, our local Cineworld offered Beast only in 4DX, the theme park-style augmented exhibition format that purports to enhance the cinematic experience through practical effects such as moving seats, wind, and strobe lighting. It’s a technology that José despises to its core, arguing that it betrays a lack of trust in the film’s own ability to excite its audience, while Mike, who is in his thirties, likes filling himself up with fizzy liquid and sugar and being shaken around all afternoon.
Still, no amount of physical animation can either distract from or add to the vacuum of cinematic substance that is Idris Elba, Beast‘s central problem and central lack. It makes for a film you won’t regret ignoring.
We visit the MAC for a screening of the new 4k restoration of Psycho, one of the most analysed films of all time, and arguably director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous. It’s a film we’ve both seen several times, but not for a few years, and in the cinema setting for which it’s meant, instead of the classroom, there’s a renewed and reinvigorated wonder to its imagery and editing.
We share our feelings about this screening, remark upon things we’d forgotten or had never noticed before, discuss how elements of the film have aged, and compare it to Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which was, shall we say, inspired by Psycho, and which we recently saw. We find plenty of room for criticism, but although we conclude that Psycho works for us more as a collection of a few iconic scenes than a thoroughly engrossing story from beginning to end, those scenes shine, and nowhere more vividly than on a cinema screen.
Problematic and protested against upon its release in 1980, and remaining so today, Dressed to Kill is nonetheless stylish and engrossing, showing off some truly great filmmaking. We talk Psycho and cinema’s transgender villains, why Nancy Allen should have been a star, Brian De Palma’s greatest deaths, and the version of Michael Caine that José doesn’t like.
We explore 1947’s Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, and compare it to Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of the material, which we find superior in almost every way. Mike in particular finds, in the reflection of Goulding’s version, useful ways to appreciate del Toro’s, which at first blush he found uninspiring. We discuss the portrayal and use of the geek, the differences in the introduction of the protagonist (played by Tyrone Power and Bradley Cooper in the old and new films respectively), del Toro’s greater focus on mood and scene setting, and how thoroughly Goulding’s film adheres to the noir genre. And we express our joy at seeing del Toro’s version at the grand reopening of the Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, which we completely forgot to do in the last podcast.
We talk swoony visuals, alcoholism, a femme fatale pastiche, moral descent, Bradley Cooper’s sexual presence and more in our discussion of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.
Edgar Wright’s highly anticipated psychological horror, Last Night in Soho, reaches cinemas, and we dive into its themes, its visual magnificence, its relationship to the era and environment it portrays… and its problems. It’s impossible not to admire this film for its lush cinematography, impressive special effects, and the best of its performances, but its screenplay leaves a huge amount to be desired, not just in how it conceptualises the world and people it portrays, but also, more simply, how clumsy it is in telling its story, bafflingly dropping entire character threads that seem like they obviously have places to go, and handling at least one secondary character’s entire subplot very poorly. We discuss the film’s dream logic, or lack thereof; its fear of the very lure of the grimy world it needs to show us, and the moralism that accompanies it; how it trades in nostalgia of Sixties Soho, despite being keen to exhibit is dark side; and the thematic simplicity of almost everything – things are good or bad, to be loved or feared, and room for complexity, there is none.
With all that said, it’s still a very enjoyable couple of hours, a discussion piece, and thanks to its fabulous imagery and in particular the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, easy to recommend.
P.S. Mike would like to acknowledge that he is aware that in the course of speaking too quickly for his brain to issue timely corrections, he wildly overstated how much the ghostly figures in Last Night in Soho are referred to as “blank” or “blanks”. It happens maybe once or twice, if he remembers rightly, and in passing. But he asserts that nonetheless, their faceless, amorphous, anonymous design and relentless, zombie-like behaviour does make them a fair point of comparison with the Blanks in The World’s End. So nyah.
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.
We’re joined by returning guest Celia, on the phone from Canada, to discuss writer-director Emerald Fennell’s unusual revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman. Following the rape and – implied – suicide of her friend Nina, which goes unpunished, Carey Mulligan’s Cassie drops out of medical school, and now spends her nights feigning drunkenness, allowing men to pick her up and take her home, alarming them with her sobriety as they begin to sexually assault her. When a chance reunion with a former classmate reveals that Nina’s rapist is engaged, Cassie embarks upon a campaign of vengeance against those she considers responsible for and involved in committing and allowing her friend’s rape and its cover-up.
Celia loves it, finding that it invokes and brings to life many subtle and important observations about life for women in the patriarchy, enjoying the various forms Cassie’s revenge takes – particularly the “exercises in forced empathy”, in her words – and feeling a call to arms; José decidedly doesn’t, decrying those observations and revenges as cinematically unrealised in what is merely a filmed essay, albeit one that admirably exhibits a style, an aesthetic and a point of view. Mike bravely sits in the middle, pretending to be superior to the other two by virtue of not exhibiting an extreme response to the film. The discussion is varied and passionate – and full of spoilers. Love it or hate it, Promising Young Woman is a thought-provoking, vital film, and well worth watching.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
I made a trailer for the podcast which can be seen below:
Ethics and truth in the land of documentary come under the microscope in our discussion of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s love letter to his childhood friend, Andrew Bagby, is a sensational and moving film that you should know as little as possible about before watching. It’s exceptionally effective, built out of a combination of interviews, home footage, still photos and more, masterfully edited to generate emotional affect – but despite its qualities, there are real issues fundamental to its form. It’s a hybrid of two types of film that find themselves in competition here: it’s a documentary, a form about openness and truth; and a thriller, withholding information until it reshapes everything you’ve learned so far. It’s a tension that may well be impossible to avoid – to resolve it might be to totally change Dear Zachary from the deeply personal, passionately made film it is.
The story Dear Zachary tells is powerful, moving and utterly gripping, and the conversation to which it will lead you is rich and illuminating. We recommend it without reservation, even though we have serious reservations about it.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Could we have found a Christopher Nolan film that José actually enjoys? We explore the brilliantly imagined and executed Inception, a heist movie set inside the human mind, talking up the intelligence and creativity with which the central concept is used, the elegant and effective intercutting and structure, and the noirish, expressive romance that underpins the entire affair.
Making spoof Inception trailers was all the rage around the time of its release, and here are the two Mike made:
Our exploration of William Friedkin ends almost where it began, with his second collaboration with Tracy Letts, who, following the adaptation of his second play, Bug, adapts for the screen his first, Killer Joe. A key film in Matthew McConaughey’s career, one of the first in what would become known as the McConaissance, Killer Joe sees his seductive, charming romcom persona repurposed to threatening, chilling effect in the ugly world of trailer parks and contract killing.
We discuss THAT scene with the chicken leg, and compare and contrast it to THAT scene with the crucifix in The Exorcist, asking what might be outrageous about one but not the other. We ask what we’re missing in Letts’ screenplay that others see, and José argues that Friedkin has throughout his career been drawn to second-rate source material – material that here is unquestionably elevated by the cast, who are almost all excellent and believable, in particular Gina Gershon, of whom demanding things are asked, and Juno Temple, who carries with her an otherworldliness that lightens what is a very dark part in a very dark story.
And we take the opportunity to think over the set of Friedkin films that we’ve now seen, including his biggest hits, and consider what we’ve learned, what his achievements and strengths are, where he fails or what he lacks, and where he stands amongst his contemporaries and peers.
William Friedkin remakes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, telling four strangers’ tale of their two-hundred-mile journey through the South American jungle, transporting dangerously explosive cargo for a US oil company. Though a flop upon its release, we find some nice things to say about Sorcerer.
It’s impressively narrated, largely wordlessly, although we wouldn’t have minded some character development, and Friedkin’s preference for spectacle over depth is on display: as with The French Connection, the end leaves us asking, “is that all it’s about?” The treatment of South America and its people is lazy if not worse, the central characters ending up in this hell as a form of cosmic punishment for their sins. But there’s a keen sense of pace to Sorcerer, despite how long it takes for the journey to even begin, some memorable images, and one outstanding, stunning set-piece. Its present-day reappraisal is understandable, and despite its problems, it’s worth a look.
Neil Jackson informs us that, ‘It’s worth mentioning also that when the film was released internationally, it was completely re-cut (without Friedkin’s involvement) using alternative scenes and shots in some cases, and reducing the running time by about thirty minutes. It also alters the implication of Scheider’s fate in the denouement. The entire opening section introducing the characters is removed altogether, and only appears in brief flashback! It’s a completely different (and wholly inferior ) film. That’s the version we got in the UK, and it was re-titled ‘The Wages of Fear’. Fascinating. And Neil also brought to our attention this fascinating comparison between the US and German version, which was also the one shown in the UK as The Wages of Fear.
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.)
Adapted from Tracy Letts’ 1996 play of the same name, 2006’s Bug, directed by William Friedkin, sees two lonely people with traumatic histories connect and share a descent into madness. It’s a bit of an experiment, its theatrical roots obvious, some questions left unsatisfyingly unanswered, and it’s not until the final act that it takes off. But it’s interesting, features strong performances from Michael Shannon (who also played the role on stage) and Ashley Judd, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in Friedkin, Shannon, Judd or Letts.
Jean-Pierre Melville draws upon his experiences in the French Resistance for 1969’s Army of Shadows, which depicts an ensemble including Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse working to disrupt the Nazi occupation of France, rescuing Resistance members from captivity, operating safehouses… and killing informants.
Army of Shadows‘ view of the Resistance is far from romantic, showing the ordinary people who comprise it being driven to extreme measures in the cause of remaining hidden and evading capture, and the threat of capture and death hanging over them at all times. We compare it to The Great Escape, a caper in which prisoners of war work towards a big victory – there’s nothing of the sort in Army of Shadows, the Resistance only ever staying one step ahead of the Nazis pursuing them. Resistance itself is the victory, and it comes with costs.
We think about continuities between this film and Melville’s other work. The isolation felt in Un flic and Le Doulos comes through here, the Resistance members needing to work together but constantly suspicious of one another, as anyone could turn informant; emotional connection is a danger, as it can be used as a thumbscrew. But the film depicts the courage of the Resistance, the inhumanity of the situations into which they’re forced, and elicits a range of feelings simultaneously. It’s a complex, intelligent, essential film.
A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.
To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.
We may be living under lockdown conditions, but no virus can stop us, and to prove it we’re taking on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion, about a virus that rips through every country on Earth, the scientific work to stop it, and the social decay that it leaves in its wake. Suggested as a podcast by an irony-seeking Mike, it backfires as it actually just frightens him.
At least, for a while. We think about the film in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic currently upon us, of course, praising what we recognise in the film’s imagined crisis, remarking upon the differences. Much of what it depicts feels very true to life, and it strongly evokes panic and a sense of uncertainty; on the other hand, the difference less than a decade makes is thrown into sharp relief with the film’s essentially competent and well-intentioned government response to the disease, a far cry from the lies and bluster being spouted by certain American presidents today – something that would have been not only unimaginable but laughable at the time of the film’s release. José notes that a high proportion of the public worry in our current outbreak comes down to its economic effects, which again, Contagion does not imagine as even a minor point.
It’s a well-made film, tightly plotted and paced, juggling several plots and sets of characters, understanding keenly how and when to jump between them, and its staging, editing and cinematography bring to life the paranoia of living in a society in which any surface innocently touched by any stranger’s hand could spread a deadly disease, and the fear and confusion engendered by a lack of trust in the government and loud countervailing voices. Contagion uses its characters and scenes as representative of ideas as much as, or more than, things in and of themselves, which Mike argues leaves it emotionally distant and overly simplistic – though there’s plenty of room for debate, particularly over Matt Damon’s performance.
All in all, Contagion is an impressive piece of thriller fiction whose successes and failures are both given oxygen in the light of very recent developments. If you watch it, be prepared to be made even more paranoid than you currently are… because the world we’re living in now is even more insane.
A legal drama about the biggest corruption scandal you’ve never heard of, Dark Waters tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s twenty year long fight to expose chemical manufacturer DuPont’s decades of knowing and unapologetic poisoning of a town, a country, and the entire world. Visited by a West Virginian farmer named Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock and falling prey to unusual medical conditions and dying, Bilott – a corporate lawyer who works to help chemical companies pollute within the law – files a lawsuit, and slowly begins to uncover the company’s secrets.
For José, it’s a film that fits neatly amongst director Todd Haynes’ previous work, which often focuses on power relations and the struggles of the oppressed, sidelined or disenfranchised. For Mike, it might be a new Spotlight, another film about the exposure of vast, historical, institutional wrongdoing. But don’t believe the trailer that makes it look all blood and thunder – Dark Waters, though compelling and dramatic, is a slow burner, methodical and careful, and with a scope that looks beyond the details of the law. The town of Parkersburg, WV is shown in portrait, with shots evocative of Depression-era photography, and Bilott is an interesting character, a man who appears uncomfortable within his own body, whose determination to uncover the truth grows alongside his paranoia that something bad will happen to him, and whose relationship with his wife is a constant that is reframed intriguingly in the film’s final movement.
Dark Waters is a fascinating, intelligent, complex thriller that gives its themes room to express themselves and is full of details and moments that speak to entire inner lives and ways of thinking. Make sure you see it.
(Mike would also like to apologise to Bucky Bailey, one of DuPont’s most unfortunate victims and perhaps the film’s central emotional tentpole, for referring to him as Bucky Barnes, who is the guy from the Avengers films who sports a prosthetic arm and does nothing interesting.)
It’s one of José’s films of the year; it leaves Mike cold. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite depicts social inequality in South Korea through a lower-class family that cons its way into working for an upper-class family. We pick our way through the film’s structure; its motif of staircases that delineate status and power relations; the way poverty carries with it an inescapable smell, intolerable to the upper class; the two families’ experiences of nature and the desire for sunshine.
It builds on some aspects of horror, but cannot at all be considered one, either in genre or affect – though the fact that its trailers sold it as such might have something to do with Mike’s frosty response. It’s an allegorical thriller, every character standing in place of a class or group of people, and its construction is intelligent, thoughtful and tight. For José, it works on a visceral level, the mood and tone emphasising and combining with the structure and metaphor; for Mike, it’s a flat experience, a clever essay with definite interpretations and little feeling.
But it’s clearly touched a nerve, connecting with worldwide audiences. It speaks not just to conditions in South Korea but a global system of oppression and inequality under capitalism. We may not agree on what it makes us feel, but it’s potent food for thought and offers much to discuss. Don’t miss it.
Also in this episode, we take a look at the upcoming Oscars, which eager cinephiles will be able to watch yesterday.