116 – The Marvellous Mabel Normand

Flatpack’s Silent Night series continues with a screening, at Birmingham Cathedral, of The Marvellous Mabel Normand, a programme of four silent comedy shorts from the BFI National Archive. Normand was the leading silent comedienne of her day but neither Mike nor José was familiar with her, and the programme provides a great introduction to her work, as not just a star but also a director.

We saw Mabel’s Blunder (1914), which she directed, Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), His Trysting Place (1914) and Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Each stars Normand, and alongside her are such names as Mack Sennett, Oliver Hardy, Eugene Pallette and one Charlie Chaplin.

José finds himself in thrall to Normand’s magnetism and emotional openness, finding her incandescent with screen presence. The nuances she brings to her physical and facial performances, the way she types or jumps out of the way of an onrushing car, light up the screen and make her memorable.

Mike, it must be said, is less impressed, suggesting that she doesn’t elevate some weak material as a better actor might, though that’s not to say he sees nothing to appreciate about her performances. But what he takes away above all else is how seeing one Chaplin film amongst other silent shorts provides incontrovertible proof of his comedic genius, His Trysting Place a geyser of creativity and comic charm.

We also consider how key figures of silent comedy are remembered or not, particularly thinking of the disparity between Mack Sennett’s importance and name recognition, and how Chaplin remains a worldwide icon perhaps to an extent comparable only to religious figures. José holds forth on the talents and career of Leo McCarey, director of Should Men Walk Home?, and we discuss the programme’s newly commissioned score by The Meg Morley Trio, who performed it live during the screening.

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.

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115 – Shoplifters

Intriguing, calm, witty, touching. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or, is a modern-day Oliver Twist with real depth of feeling and naturalistic charm. Deceptively simple, it asks big questions of its audience, questions about family, love, loneliness, and how to live a good life.

It’s largely free of significant plot points – it begins with a very young girl, abused by her parents, being taken in by a motley crew of a family living on the poverty line, but from there takes an approach to story that is driven by character and situation. Everything is rendered complex – on the one hand, the young girl is taken in by a group of rescuers who care for her; on the other, they are kidnapping her. It would be true to say the aren’t easy answers to be found, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a harsh watch. It isn’t. There’s an impressive lightness of tone, the film refusing to wallow in victimhood, instead focusing on getting on, day to day. And it has a great sense of humour and keen eye for the romantic and emotionally open. It’s truly moving.

Amongst our praise for the film, we find time to discuss the projection and atmosphere at The Electric, a cinema we’re probably a little unkind to at times, and José orates on the relative lack of circulation of films such as these to a cinephile culture that does exist outside London and would gratefully receive more arthouse and foreign cinema.

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.

114 – Robin Hood (2018)

We argue about a film that neither of us can possibly claim is good, but in which one of us found things to like. Hot on the heels of watching Errol Flynn’s Technicolor classic a few weeks ago, we catch the latest telling of the Robin Hood folk tale, fittingly titled Robin Hood, a desaturated, guns and geezers-inflected version that transports us to a somewhat otherworldly, sci-fi-ish version of the medieval Midlands. Church and state are in cahoots, the poor are exploited – and it doesn’t look like they have much left to exploit anyway – and with Sherwood Forest nowhere to be seen, the only green thing around is Robin of Loxley.

We can both agree that no matter the intention, the film is poorly directed, though José would decry it more than Mike, who tries to look beneath the incoherent camerawork and dull set pieces to find areas of interest, such as the tangible sense of growing revolution and the charming Black Hawk Down version of the Third Crusade, complete with shoulder-mounted arrow bazookas, why not. We have good and bad words to say about the performances in equal measure, Jamies Foxx and Dornan standing out but Ben Mendelsohn and star Taron Egerton failing to meet expectations set by their previous performances. And Tim Minchin, with the best will in the world, isn’t an actor.

Mike takes issue with the film’s conception of Robin; a character learning to become the hero is one thing, but simply being nudged and told by everyone around him how to do so makes for poor character development. Little John is so significant he’s known here only as John, José speculating that as the biggest actor in the film, Jamie Foxx had the role improved at the expense of balance. We do find common ground in praising aspects of the world and visual design, but it’s always with the caveat that the direction generally works better to obscure than exhibit it.

All this and more in an edition packed with disagreement. Arguments and quibbles aplenty!

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.

113 – Mildred Pierce

We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.

We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.

We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.

Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?

And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.

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.

112 – Widows – Second Screening

José drags a somewhat recalcitrant Mike to the cinema for a second go at Widows, joined by Lee Kemp (@leekemp), a Birmingham-based filmmaker and founder of Vermillion Films. And wow, we cover a lot!

Mike and Lee both agree that some of the cinematic technique is distracting on the first viewing, whereas second time round, knowing what to expect, it’s easier to appreciate the art of some shots and evaluate them more intimately. José simply luxuriates even more deeply than before in the visual splendour and tone. We agree that it’s a heist film that isn’t really about the heist, though what we then make of that – how clever we think that is – is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the film’s economy, both visually and in dialogue. It’s so, so elegant and deliberate, and that all becomes clear as we compare things that struck us.

The film’s use of the Church comes into focus – morality and God is almost never in question when it comes up, the film instead framing it in political, corporate and corrupt terms. The film equates the worlds of politics and gang crime, one white, the other black, a theme expressed through the two opposing political candidates and their associates.

We take time to consider the similarities and differences between the central female characters; how, for instance, the two black women are members of very different social classes. We praise how the film depicts how they deal with grief, the lack of connection they so desperately feel, and the way it affords each of them their scene to express it. Mike has, since the first podcast, watched the first Prime Suspect (written by Lynda La Plante, creator of the original Widows) and talks a little about it; José finds it interesting that an originally British television programme adapted in part by a British filmmaker should yield such a sharp commentary on American society.

We also consider wider questions of how to watch films critically. Mike goes on a brief rant about why the lack of seriousness with which media studies education is still taken has resulted in a world of Trump, Brexit, and fake news. Methods of analysis come in for scrutiny; we mention the video essay series Every Frame a Painting and discuss how one of its episodes in particular, the one on 2011’s Drive, is or isn’t a good example of textual analysis. We discuss the scene in which we see the protagonist’s son’s death; would we have watched it differently ten years ago, when it’s set?

All this and even more in a discussion that’s full to the brim. Mike is begrudgingly forced to concede that he misjudged the film the first time. José loves it even more than he thought he could. And many, many thanks to Lee for joining us. And check out War of Words, the UK battle rap documentary on which he worked as executive producer, now on iTunes!

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.

111 – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The second Fantastic Beasts film, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter spin-off series, has numerous pleasures, but makes it hard to appreciate them thanks to a pointlessly convoluted plot and unimaginative character goals. Jude Law stands out, bringing a calm control and gravity to Dumbledore, and Eddie Redmayne, while typically a little irritating, is cast well in the role of a near-autistic, nerdy zoologist who connects far better with animals than people. The question of who the film is aimed at is an interesting one – the animal designs and elements of performance are quite cartoony and broad, and the film as a whole is borne of a world-renowned children’s fantasy series, but in this film alone two infants die, and there’s almost no levity to be found anywhere. Certainly, as a middle child of a forthcoming five-part series (how!?), it’s a bit of a holding pattern, interested primarily in making situations worse so as to provide the foundation for future triumphs.

Two of the film’s love stories provide food for thought; one a bizarre love spell story that, upon the charm being broken, attempts to cast the enchantress – or as we think of her, rapist – as the victim; the other a subtle, quiet, but clear gay romance between Dumbledore and Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald. We disagree on the film’s visual qualities – Mike finds beauty in some shots but more or less everything fails to arouse José – and some of its attempts as charm and humour, but despite our deep, deep reservations about the storytelling and lack of interest in the characters or plot, somehow we’re still keen to see the next one.

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.

110 – Angels with Dirty Faces

We continue our Michael Curtiz kick with Angels with Dirty Faces, a James Cagney gangster film with surprising subtleties. We consider Cagney’s stardom and how he remains unique, the film’s themes of hero worship and glorification of crime, and the interesting relationship between Cagney’s gangster and Pat O’Brien’s priest.

A film that’s very much of its time but remains an interesting and entertaining watch.

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.