108 – Bohemian Rhapsody

The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.

José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.

Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.

Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)

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.

Advertisements

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.

106 – Casablanca

One of us has seen it countless times. The other has never seen it. Fortunately for José, Mike instantly falls in love with Casablanca.

In a way, the pressure was on for Mike to enjoy it, as it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time, and its screenplay in particular held up as a shining example of the craft. And how effortless it is to enjoy it! José notes how rare it is in cinema to see a man suffer for love, as Rick does, and the film’s romance is intense and unapologetic. We swoon over the elegance of Michael Curtiz’s direction, the sheer beauty of the cinematography – nobody these days is shot like Ingrid Bergman is here – and the rich cast of characters, played by one of the all-time great supporting casts.

José considers how the refugee situation and politics depicted – that of a war-torn world relocating regular people to geographic and bureaucratic purgatory – haven’t gone away, and Mike picks up on Madeleine Lebeau’s Yvonne, a minor character whose story recapitulates Rick’s in microcosm. The Marseillaise scene in particular gives us a lot to talk about. And so does much, much more.

It’s a good film. Who knew?

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.

105 – They Shall Not Grow Old

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.

Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.

We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.

As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.

All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.

Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.

Lawrence Napper’s first blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/05/they-shall-not-grow-old/

Lawrence’s second blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/12/they-shall-not-grow-old-2-the-abject-archive-the-sacred-archive/

Lawrence’s review on Iamhist: http://iamhist.net/2018/10/they_shall_not_grow_old/

Pamela Hutchinson’s review on Silent London: https://silentlondon.co.uk/2018/10/16/lff-review-they-shall-not-grow-old-honours-veterans-but-not-the-archive/

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.

104 – Bad Times at the El Royale

We pick at flaw after flaw in a film we sincerely enjoyed! Drew Goddard’s post-noir, post-Tarantino, post-Hitchcock thriller is an oddball, a delightfully playful collection of stories about secrets and regrets and temptations and damage. A fabulous ensemble cast is split up and paired off in all sorts of ways, histories are exposed, deception is currency, violence is brutal and shocking. And it all happens on one rainy night in a broken old motel in 1969.

We have few issues with Goddard’s screenplay, which, but for the exception of one or two characters who we reckon could have been given a little more flesh, is creative, clever, witty, and energetic. But as a director, we find him lacking – as José phrases it, he has no instinct for cinema. It’s a significant problem in a film that’s building upon and pastiching entire genres and movements of cinema.

We go back and forth on some of the performances, though they’re primarily good, and Jeff Bridges and Lewis Pullman in particular are just perfect. Mike appreciates that the film understands when to pull the rug out from under you and when not to. We agree that it’s destined to become a cult success, the type of film you want to know if your friends have seen. And we like trifle.

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.

103 – First Man

A weird failure, as Mike puts it, we struggle a little bit to get a read on First Man, Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong. Not content to adopt a mainstream tone, not willing to go full art movie, it gets lost in the middle somehow. Mike sees Armstrong as incongruously passive in his own story, his – and, for that matter, everyone else’s – drive for the Moon light, not believable, ultimately making the landing scene feel cheated, the film trying to convince you of the incredible achievement of the mission only at the last minute.

José finds aspects of the plot interesting, particularly the portrayal of marriage, but sees the use of the daughter as disjointed. Mike finds the film misunderstands Ryan Gosling’s style – his minimalism requires rich surroundings off which to reflect, and with so little here, Armstrong comes across blank. We appreciate the physicality of the space sequences, shot almost entirely with close ups on interiors, though the extension of the shaky cam to the rest of the film is irritating.

A confusing film that we find misguided, and a glance at its opening weekend box office doesn’t bode well. Claire Foy is very good though.

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.

102 – A Star Is Born

Hyped up, already very successful, and widely well-received, A Star Is Born earns strong reactions from us. To Mike it’s at points truly reprehensible, to José simply a confused failure. Mike has never seen any of the previous versions – he tried and couldn’t make it – while José finds writer/director/star Bradley Cooper’s new remake unworthy to share their company. The novelty of seeing Lady Gaga unmasked soon wears off, her performance opaque and lacking in presence. We agree that Cooper is very good and truly a star, though with the opprobrium he receives from one half of us, he must have done something to Mike in a previous life.

We discuss and debate what we make of the film’s characters – Mike finds them deeply unlikeable, toxically compatible, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but for the fact that the film wants to render it romantic. (Cooper has a real problem with consent and personal space.) José finds their love difficult to believe in, particularly Gaga’s for Cooper. Quite why she’s so hot for him is barely even told, let alone shown.

Cooper’s take on the music industry is out of date and simplistic, which is more than disappointing considering he was working with one of the biggest pop stars of the last decade. We each have our reasons for finding the suicide scene nonsensical. And Mike describes his problem with the film’s ending.

A lot to talk about, most of it negative. See you again in between twenty and forty years for the next version.

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.