272 – Cool Hand Luke

A key film in Paul Newman’s career that gave us one of cinema’s most iconic lines, Cool Hand Luke is known to both Mike and José – but previously seen by neither. The reasons that it became a cultural touchstone remain crystal clear, despite it failing, to a significant degree, to grab us as it might. We question the authenticity and purpose of Luke’s rebellion, the depiction of prison life, and the flimsy Christian allegory that tirelessly insists upon itself. The brutality perhaps seems unfairly tame today, an unavoidable consequence of coming to the film more than fifty years late, but its comedy still works beautifully and Newman’s charm has gone nowhere. It’s a fantasy, we conclude, for the privileged – an ultimately mortal fight against The Man, the point of which may very well be its lack of focus and clarity of purpose. Jesus was crucified for our sins; will we be recounting the story of Luke in two thousand years? Only time will tell.

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

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

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271 – Soul

Occupying some similar thematic terrain to Coco, Pixar’s 2017 masterpiece, Soul uses an afterlife-bound journey with a tight deadline to explore what it is that makes us human, in the context of a life devoted to music. When Joe, a music teacher and passionate jazz pianist, dies in a classic open manhole cover accident, his soul, now separated from his body but desperate to live, escapes an A Matter of Life and Death-inspired travelator to Heaven and ends up in the Great Before, a meadow populated with unborn souls preparing for their upcoming lives. Mistaken for a mentor, he is assigned 22, a cynical, sarcastic soul with no desire to live on Earth, and when he tries to return to his body, she accidentally comes with.

As well as to Coco, Mike finds Soul comparable to another of Pixar’s films: Soul handles philosophical concepts the way Inside Out did psychological ones, rendering them visually imaginative and narratively physical. ‘The zone’, where people describe themselves when feeling that transcendent state of flow when an activity consumes them, is in the Great Before a real place that Joe and 22 visit; the unborn souls develop personality traits signified by Boy Scout-style badges. The storytelling is economical and concise, characters’ priorities and attitudes smoothly and legibly changing as their goals and relationships shift. It’s a beautifully told story.

José considers the social and economic setting of Joe’s life, the music he loves and the barber he visits, about whose life he learns – the film humanely understands people and hardship without wallowing in despair, finding space for joy. We wonder how well it will play to kids, thrilled that Pixar refuses to speak down to its audience, if a little unsure about how much will translate to the younger members of its target audience. Predictably, Mike finished the film in tears, despite an ending he found to be overly mechanical and inorganic.

Soul is a beautiful, wonderful film. To José, it’s a masterpiece. To Mike, possibly not, but only because Coco exists. See it.

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

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

270 – Wonder Woman 1984

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Despite a couple of charmingly enthusiastic performances from Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig, Wonder Woman 1984 disappoints, betraying what the title character stands for. We discuss the gender dynamics and representations, the Eighties setting, the Trumpian themes of greed, lust for power and the use of mass media to con, the opening scene that offers a glimpse of what the film could have been, and more. Although we criticise the film throughout our conversation, there’s still enough in it that we liked to force us into a mixed conclusion. But what’s wrong with it is really, really wrong indeed.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

269 – Small Axe: Education

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe ends with what, based on his 2014 profile in the Guardian, we take to be a tale partially inspired by Steve McQueen’s own childhood. In Education, a young dyslexic boy, Kingsley, is transferred to a school for the “educationally subnormal”, a real practice in the 1970s that disproportionately involved black children. The institution to which he’s sent is barely a school, the children left unsupervised by bored teachers and allowed to run riot – but it’s covertly investigated by a group of activists hoping to fight and end the system.

Mike relates to the film, recognising in Kingsley’s mum the same righteous anger and desire to fight for her son that his own mum showed for him as a youngster, and to its evocation of British school life. (It may be set twenty years prior to his school years, but British kids have had to perform London’s Burning on recorders and tambourines since time immemorial.) The aesthetic evokes the era vividly, the visual quality of the images, the shot selections and editing all perfectly emulating the look of Play for Today, the iconic anthology series. And as with the rest of Small Axe, a concise historical struggle within Britain’s wider racist society is effectively rendered complex…

… up to a point. Though the situation and its effects are complex, the characters are mostly fairly one-note, and the film’s ending is rather pat – even a little phony, though it’s forgivable for this series to want to end on a hopeful note. Still, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film that fits in perfectly amongst the rest of the series, and as we have throughout, we implore you to watch it all.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

268 – Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

The theme of assimilation is given a fascinating twist in Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, in particular, depicted black people’s attempts to assimilate into mainland British culture and life and the racism they faced, the title character here is a young black man brought up in an abusive children’s home, orphaned from his parents, and whose move to Brixton sees him culturally dislocated and having to, in effect, learn to ‘be black’.

Cultural and familial dislocation are connected through Alex. The abandonment by his parents led to his upbringing by the state, amongst white Britons, and when an influential Rastafarian he meets in prison expounds on the importance of education and knowing one’s past, to Alex, he’s speaking just as much about his personal past as about the history of the African disapora. This is the most interesting aspect of Alex Wheatle and we focus on it, but there’s more to discuss, including the continued invocation of music as a kind of life-giving force, how Alex learns to be black and British and the spaces in which that happens, and director Steve McQueen’s expressive formal visual storytelling.

Alex Wheatle elegantly tells a unique and complex story, and we continue to urge you to watch this remarkable series of films in its entirety.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

267 – Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Another Steve McQueen rendition of a true story, Red, White and Blue examines institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, as did Mangrove – but from the inside. Leroy Logan, a research scientist, applies to the police with the express intention of combating its attitude and behaviour towards black people, in part because of his father’s own abuse at their hands.

The theme of black British identity runs throughout Small Axe, and here it’s intriguingly augmented by imagery of the Queen; we discuss how it can be interpreted, including as a symbol of the common nationality the Windrush generation ostensibly shares with British-born white people, and a painful reminder of the fact that that shared identity is not truly embodied, and also as an icon of the establishment Leroy hopes to disrupt and improve. We also concentrate on Leroy’s relationship with his father, which frames the entire film, and how their attitudes, experiences and understanding of each other intersect.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

266 – Mank

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

José hasn’t seen a worse film from David Fincher than Mank, a contentious biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter whose collaboration with Orson Welles resulted in The Greatest Film of All Time™, Citizen Kane. Mike had rather a good time, despite seeing numerous problems with the film, raising the question: How much background knowledge is the right amount for enjoying Mank?

Mank doesn’t even explain, for instance, that the film Mankiewicz and Welles would create is considered one of history’s greatest, so some knowledge of the subject is clearly necessary; too much, though, and its missed opportunities and purposeful alterations to and adaptations of the facts become evident and impossible to ignore. Mike finds that he’s just ignorant – or is that informed – enough to understand the film’s background and setting without going crazy, as José does, as it clashes with his knowledge of the history.

We discuss Mank‘s obvious inspiration in Pauline Kael’s discredited essay, Raising Kane, which argued that Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for Kane‘s screenplay; its flashback structure that shows us where the screenplay came from and why Mankiewicz is the only person who could have written it; its depiction of Hollywood in the 30s (not to mention Mankiewicz in HIS 30s); the parallels that it draws with Hollywood and, more generally, the state of the world today, and more. Almost every criticism José makes, Mike agrees with – but he cannot and will not deny that he had a good time, finding the film witty and energetic where José felt it musty and lethargic. It’s a poor showing from a filmmaker with a largely exceptional oeuvre – unless you’re in that Goldilocks zone with Mike.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

265 – The Palm Beach Story

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Do English people get Preston Sturges? Is his work all it’s cracked up to be? These questions are on the table as we tackle The Palm Beach Story, a film Mike’s twice been encouraged to see by Canadians, and twice found infuriating and tiresome. José’s a fan, and we discuss the differences in our responses to the film, the pleasures that can be found within it, and how Sturges gives comically sensitive voice to the strong, silent American male, with several helpful interjections from Celia, friend of the podcast and the first Canadian who told Mike he just doesn’t get it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

264 – Small Axe: Lovers Rock

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock, a stunning musical set in a house party in the 1980s. Hit follows hit on the soundtrack, and José in particular is blown away by how Steve McQueen’s camera observes its euphoric subjects, concentrating on specific body parts, taking as much time as it likes to explore the mood, the resulting experience as sensuous as any we can recall. We discuss the cross-national identity the partygoers occupy, the Christian symbolism conspicuously on display, the open-ended narrative structure, and more, but always returning to the bold and brilliant dancefloor sequences. A masterpiece.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

263 – Small Axe: Mangrove

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.

We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, how they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.

Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.