261 – The City Without Jews

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1924’s The City Without Jews, an Austrian silent film adapted from Hugo Bettauer’s enormously successful novel of the same name, published two years earlier, imagines a European city undergoing hyperinflation and mass unemployment, blaming the Jews for its problems, and expelling them. Unthinkable! Needless to say, it both drew on and prefigured actual events, but some of the imagery is chillingly evocative of what was yet to occur, including the Chancellor’s proud address from a balcony to the ecstatic crowds below, and the entire depiction of the Jews’ eviction, from being kicked out of their homes to the trains that remove them from the city.

Despite its historical interest, the stories that surround it, including the murder of Bettauer by a Nazi less than a year after its release, and its obvious and depressing relevance 100 years on, The City Without Jews is not a great film, its story and world feeling somewhat poorly thought-out, and its ending rather pat, perhaps the result of the significant changes made in adaptation that led to Bettauer falling out with the director, Hans Karl Breslauer. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking film, and worth watching.

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

260 – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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The winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells an aching story of doomed love within a wealthy Jewish community in Fascist Italy. The 1938 racial laws, enforcing the segregation of Italian Jews, have just been introduced, but the titular family’s titular garden offers insulation from the rising tide of fascism – for a while.

Mike finds the film’s love triangle somewhat banal, but is impressed with the subtly observed way in which the central characters allow themselves to remain comfortably ignorant of the increasingly hostile and dangerous Italy beyond their walls; comparisons to frogs in saucepans abound, not to mention the present-day normalisation of absurd corruption and violence in the Greatest Country in the World™. José is more keen on the romance, but still, the film’s sociopolitical side remains our focus. We consider the film’s use of physical space, the ways in which the Jewish characters can navigate it without being suspected by the racist public, but find themselves eager to retreat to safety as the film develops. We note that The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made 25 years after the end of the Second World War, but 50 years prior to today: it’s now conspicuously an historical artefact that speaks to the time in which it was made, and whose proximity to the horrors it dramatises is necessary to keep in mind. And Mike reflects on his relationship with his Jewishness in this day and age, and how the film demonstrates that whatever divisions we may find among ourselves, to those who hate us, there’s no distinction.

It’s also Bonfire Night – well, the day after, but it’s a Friday evening so the festivities continue – and we celebrate by closing the window and trying to ignore the fireworks going off outside.

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

259 – Love Me Tonight

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We’re enraptured by a musical neither of has seen before, 1932’s Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier as a charming and roguish Parisian tailor, and Jeanette MacDonald as a princess he falls for. Its soundtrack is peppered with Rodgers and Hart classics, and its stunning audiovisual design is endlessly experimental, expressive and exciting. In amongst our swooning over the film’s many pleasures, we find time to discuss the careers of Chevalier and director Rouben Mamoulian, discuss what makes it a uniquely American form of fairytale, and examine the fascinating censorship and production records made available on Kino Lorber’s special edition Blu-Ray.

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

258 – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

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Fourteen years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen’s first tour of the USA as Borat, his friendly, clueless, and decidedly un-PC Kazakh journalist. Borat gave his unwitting participants, real people who didn’t know that he was a character, space and encouragement to display their bigotry, sexism, racism, and stupidity – now he’s back to do it again, in a world in which bigotry, sexism, racism and stupidity are no longer deemed necessary to hide.

Sexism in particular is this film’s bedrock, the film introducing a daughter, Tutar, who Borat didn’t know about, and when she stows away on her father’s trip, he decides to offer her to Mike Pence as a token of Kazakhstan’s friendship. Women are chattel, and the only objection raised when Borat decides to give the fifteen-year-old Tutar breast implants is that he can’t afford them. Women’s role as playthings for men, and the society that refuses to allow them control over their bodies, shape almost every scene, including a debutante ball, a conversation with a Christian doctor, and of course, THAT scene with Rudy Giuliani.

We also discuss the question of the reality of what we’re seeing and how the film’s camerawork and editing fails to convince us of it, how comedy has changed in the last decade and a half, and how the film unexpectedly gives its unwitting participants the opportunity to be tolerant and welcoming. And we each share memories of our grandmothers.

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

257 – Antz

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The second feature-length computer-animated film ever made, after Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story, Antz is an oddball. A public feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, led to Katzenberg founding Dreamworks SKG and subsequently feuding with Pixar’s John Lasseter, who was making the suspiciously similar – and ultimately more successful – A Bug’s Life. Pixar is the historically more successful and well-regarded studio, and the direct comparison between these two films usually sees Antz considered inferior, but Mike’s long been fond of it, and in revisiting it we discuss both how far it shows us animation has come in the last twenty years, and its many qualities, including its rather grown-up tone and references, imaginative and expressive visual design and cinematography, and witty dialogue.

Oh, and we try to work out how children think.

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

256 – Playtime

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Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, 1967’s Playtime, is an extraordinarily ambitious work of visual comedy and social satire. Mike’s been keen to see this for fifteen years or more, knowing of its reputation for detailed visual design and the 70mm cinematography that shows it off, waiting for the right moment. José, when Mike suggests we watch it, thinks he’s seen it many years ago, but soon realises he was probably thinking of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati’s rather more charming comedy of fourteen years prior, so it takes him a while to get into Playtime‘s rather more offbeat gear.

And he is ultimately a little cold to the film, though not immune to its appeal and pleasures, while Mike loves it unconditionally. In a somewhat alternate, near-future Paris, the plot, such as it is, follows two characters: Monsieur Hulot, the character Tati played in several films, as he stumbles through a France he finds unfamiliar and devoid of humanity; and Barbara, an American tourist visiting the city. In approximately six fairly distinct vignettes, Tati explores a vision of a consumerist, modern, and alienating Paris, the Eiffel Tower, symbolising the warm, cosy Paris of old, a long way away, merely a distant feature on the horizon or a reflection in a window. It’s an attitude for which José has little sympathy, though Mike suggests that the development of the final scene, a kind of funfair around a traffic jam, can be seen as a synergy of the traditional and modern, and finds it moving.

There’s a huge amount to discuss, including the design and execution of the jokes; the impossible scale of the set, nicknamed ‘Tativille’ and whose astronomical cost would ruin Tati, who was forced to file for bankruptcy; to what other films, if any, it can be compared; the visual design, cinematography, choreography, and colour; the use of nationality, particularly American; and how the film might play differently today compared to upon its initial release – Mike arguing that it may have anticipated changes to the real world that would later materialise, such as the cubicle office, whose familiarity to us diminishes the otherworldliness we might otherwise feel.

Playtime is a significant work of satire and well worth seeing, particularly given its beautiful restoration in 2014. Don’t miss it for fifteen years. Don’t be Mike.

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

255 – The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail

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One a great masterpiece of cinema, the other a cultural icon of its day, we compare and contrast Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner with Nora Ephron’s technologically updated remake, You’ve Got Mail. We discuss how each film treats its conceit of two people who dislike each other unwittingly falling in love over anonymous correspondence, the former film’s couple hating each other less vitriolically, the latter giving us more insight into the details of their messages; the latter making their story the entire focus, the former handling it as the main part of a range of stories that take place amongst its characters.

We consider whether James Stewart’s Alfred and Tom Hanks’s Joe are nice people, and what the films’ endings have to say about them and the women they fall for. José focuses on the films’ approach to class and power, praising The Shop Around the Corner‘s portrayal of working people and decrying You’ve Got Mail for barely even seeming to notice its uncritical acceptance of corporate power. And we consider more besides, including how Lubitsch’s camera makes a static setting evocative and expressive, that Godfather bit, and the similarities and differences in Hanks and Stewart’s often-compared personas.

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

254 – L.A. Confidential

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A corrupt police force intersects with the glamour of Hollywood in L.A. Confidential, the tightly-plotted neo-noir that won the Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in a year dominated by Titanic, and established the status and careers of Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey. Over twenty years since its enormously successful release, does it hold up? We discuss its basis in the real history of L.A. and its sense of place, whether the screenplay deserves its plaudits, how it functions as a noir and more.

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

253 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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Horror tropes pervade I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s oddball drama about a girl doubting her relationship, but it can’t be considered a traditional horror. Instead, it turns these tropes inwards, likening a controlling, toxic relationship to an isolated, threatening, haunted house. It’s a fascinating and brilliant idea, but despite the film being well-observed and intriguing, it’s not engaging enough, and offers little opportunity for confident interpretation. Mike has little sympathy for its developing surreality; José wants more humour. Still, it’s an ambitious, interesting film, and worth delving into.

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

252 – Tenet – Second Screening

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Birmingham’s full-size IMAX cinema closed in 2011, having proved unprofitable (the independent venue it became, the Giant Screen, closed four years later for the same reason), so it’s off to the Manchester Printworks, home of the second-largest screen in the UK, for our second viewing of Tenet. We ask whether the full IMAX experience is worth it, Mike comparing the feeling of the images offered to those he saw in Dunkirk and The Dark Knight; José argues that it’s detrimental to the film to be exhibited in different cinema formats, as shooting in IMAX’s 1.43:1 aspect ratio, where the film is supposedly best seen, with the knowledge that it’ll be cropped for conventional cinema screens for its wide release and home media, means that artistic, interesting composition is impossible – you can’t compose well for two frames at once.

Mike suggests that an easily overlooked pleasure of Christopher Nolan’s cinema is turning his films over in your own head, playing with the logic, asking questions of it and trying to unlock the puzzle box – something he’s been doing since his first screening, and which we both spend some time on after this one. Laying out the timeline, speculating on what might happen that we’re not shown – this isn’t the first of Nolan’s films to invite that type of reflection. And Mike describes the pleasure of understanding things that aren’t hidden but simply too many to grasp all at once the first time – now that he broadly knows the film, things that left him confused at first now smoothly fall into place.

We reflect again on the film’s score, performances, and action scenes, finding that rather than changing our initial impressions, this second viewing helps us to perceive and explain better what made us feel the way we did at first. We find more to discuss – the use of Elizabeth Debicki’s height, the cost of Nolan’s adherence to achieving visual effects without the use of CGI, the pleasure of the way in which Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character interacts with the heroes, whether Mike is just shit at watching spy movies – but our overall experience hasn’t changed. What we liked, we still like; what we didn’t, we still don’t.

(Mike’s short film, which he claims was harder to make than Tenet, can be seen below. It’s probably worth mentioning that if you still don’t know what Tenet is about, watching this could constitute a spoiler of sorts – after all, Mike brought it up because of its vague similarities.)

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