242 – The Exorcist

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No exploration of William Friedkin would be complete without The Exorcist, 1973’s iconic horror about a little girl possessed by a demon, and so watch it we do.

We watch the theatrical cut, which Mike’s excited to see, since the only one he’s seen before is “The Version You’ve Never Seen”, the extended cut released in 2000, and he finds this version superior, with better pacing and fewer distractions. José has always had a significant problem with the crucifix scene, and we go into why, and he argues that the film exhibits a desire to shock above all else that is typical of Friedkin. Mike argues for the sympathy we feel for Father Karras and his centrality – Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin is in theory the eponymous exorcist, but is that actually the case? And we think over much more besides, including the thrill of the special effects, the disparity between how Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is used and its subsequent iconic synonimity with the film, whether the film should be clearer about the boundaries of its demon’s abilities, and ultimately, the fact that it’s so famous – or is that infamous? – that even Mike’s mum still references the projectile vomit bit.

José’s video note on the connection between The Exorcist and No News From God:

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

241 – Jade

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As likeable as it is incoherent, Jade oozes style and steaminess. David Caruso’s assistant district attorney, searching for the killer of a businessman, finds himself delving into a world of kink, prostitution and power, in which Linda Fiorentino, his former lover, is embroiled.

William Friedkin’s attraction to the taboo is at home in the world of the erotic thriller, but as enjoyable as Jade is, it’s a film you watch with one eye on its substantial problems. It’s a film in which everything is done for effect, and damn the consequences – especially the final twist, which turns the film’s sexual liberation and power dynamics on their head, for no good reason. Still, it’s a film we were both happy to watch twice, and as superficial as it may be, that surface is highly polished and glossy.

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

240 – To Live and Die in L.A.

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To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir, is kinky, colourful, offbeat and as much a Los Angeles film as The French Connection is a New York one. A young and androgynous Willem Dafoe plays a notorious counterfeiter pursued by two Secret Service agents, one by the book, the other corrupted. We discuss the film’s style and tone, its subject matter and setting in L.A.’s liminal, casually confrontational criminal underworld, its sensuous cinematography, and how it reflects and contrasts with The French Connection, particularly in the context of the films’ morally cloudy protagonists.

José has a soft spot for To Live and Die in L.A. despite acknowledging several problematic facets to it; Mike can’t say he loves it, finding little satisfying to bite on other than the extraordinarily expressive imagery and Dafoe’s captivating presence. Still, it’s a bold, evocative work of very, very Eighties noir, and deviant enough to keep you on your toes.

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

239 – Sorcerer

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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.

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

238 – The French Connection

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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.)

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

237 – Bug

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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.

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

236 – Da 5 Bloods

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Spike Lee’s latest joint sees four US Army veterans, the Bloods, return to their former battlefields in Vietnam in search of two things: the body of their fallen comrade and leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars, intended during the war to pay the Lahu people for their help fighting the Viet Cong, but taken and buried by the Bloods for themselves. Set in the modern day, exploring the history of black oppression and racism in the USA, and released on Netflix among a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Da 5 Bloods could hardly be more relevant. But is it successful?

No, argues José. Spike Lee is in full-on propagandist, pamphleteer mode here, delivering lessons about racism and class, warfare and imperialism, black martyrs and heroes, but inartfully and clunkily. Although his direct address is striking and powerful, the Rambo-esque action adventure story to which it’s married lacks imagination and intelligence, and really functions only as a frame from which to hang the film’s essays. Its representation of the Vietnamese is at best crude and even arrogant, a scene with a man selling oranges and chickens particularly egregious, and its characters are thinly drawn, their relationships and development unsatisfying. Mike argues for one or two things he likes, particularly the way in which Stormin’ Norman is integrated into the story and the flashbacks to the war are put together, but ultimately cannot but agree with José’s disappointment.

Da 5 Bloods is an overpraised film that promises more than it delivers. But someone has finally managed to make a Vietnam film without using “Fortunate Son”, so there’s that.

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

235 – Vitalina Varela

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A slow, careful drama, Vitalina Varela – named for the non-professional actor at the centre, who plays a version of herself – tells a story of grief, anger, and discovery. Vitalina, abandoned by her husband in the 1980s, travels to Portugal from Cape Verde to confront him, but finds that he has passed away just days ago. She is left to explore the house he has left empty and the life he led without her for some forty years, and the film gives ample time to the feelings and questions that arise within her.

We discuss the economic situation depicted – this is a slum in Lisbon, built into the ground, feeling a world away from the vibrant, wealthy capital nearby – and Varela’s visual power, her performance one of presence as much as acting, as she moves slowly through the town like a ghost. Leonardo Simões’ cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, thoughtfully composed and intricately lit, and Mike remarks upon how the edges of the 4:3 frame blend into the blackness of a widescreen television, giving a feeling of an expanse of darkness. We ultimately disagree on how much we liked it: José was engrossed throughout, Mike found the tempo a trial – but stories like Vitalina Varela’s are necessary to tell, rare to see, and worth experiencing.

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

234 – Hook

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A film dear to Mike’s heart since childhood, and a large blot on Steven Spielberg’s career despite its financial success, Hook imagines a world in which Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s flying boy who never grows up… grows up and forgets how to fly. When the adult Peter, a workaholic corporate lawyer unaware of his origins, travels to London with his family, his children are kidnapped, forcing him to return to Neverland, confronting his past, his attitude, and his erstwhile adversary, Captain Hook.

Hook is a chunky, colourful family film with flaws all over the place. Its action is unexciting, its plot composed of several disparate strands and themes that never cohere elegantly. José takes issue with Dustin Hoffman’s accent and John Williams’ score, finding the former pointless and unsuccessful, the latter prescriptive and overbearing. But Mike defends them, finding charm in them, and appreciating as an adult what never stuck in his mind as a child, in particular the central emotional conceit: that for all the costs of growing up, the refusal of the Lost Boys to do so, and the fact that all adults in Neverland are pirates, Peter’s happy thought – the crucial feeling that allows him to fly again – is of becoming a father and holding his newborn son. And José finds beauty in the lighting and staging of the film’s London townhouse scenes that he never appreciated upon its first release.

A messy film, but with pleasures. And anyway, it turns out that if you saw it five hundred times as a preteen then no criticism anybody can make can matter.

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

233 – Hoop Dreams

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From a central focus on two aspiring young basketball hopefuls from Chicago, Hoop Dreams weaves an incredible tapestry of race and class in America, without once explaining itself to the audience, without once winking and imploring us to notice something. William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black boys of about 14 or 15 years old, are plucked from their neighbourhoods by a scout for St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, a white suburban private school that dips into the inner city looking for talent to boost its basketball team, chucking back any kid that doesn’t show enough promise. Over the course of several years, we follow William and Arthur’s development.

William and Arthur don’t start in the same place – William is touted as the next Isiah Thomas, a former St. Joseph’s alumnus who reached the NBA, and receives as an individual gift a personally guaranteed scholarship to St. Joseph’s from a wealthy benefactor. Arthur is labelled with no particular expectation beyond that he shows the potential to go pro, and whose partial scholarship becomes a financial burden once the school decides they’ve had enough of him – they want tuition fees from him now. The stresses put on these boys come from all angles – their school demands they perform for the team while keeping their grades up, their parents and communities put all their hopes into their success, and achieving stardom, a vanishingly unlikely prospect, feels like the only hope for a life free of minimum wage jobs and the power being cut off because of unpaid bills. Over the course of three hours, we understand intimately who William and Arthur are, the familial and socioeconomic circumstances that shape them, and follow them as they grow, learn, and encounter hurdles throughout their time at St. Joseph’s.

Hoop Dreams is an all-time great documentary, a portrait of life in early Nineties America that is both a state-of-the-nation declaration for its time and effortlessly legible and relevant today.

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