193 – The Irishman

A three-and-a-half-hour epic in his signature genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks back on the life of a gangster, hitman, enforcer, and WWII veteran, who loses everything. There’s a familiar tone to much of the film, Scorsese getting the gang back together – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are wonderful to see, but perhaps the most enjoyable performance comes from Joe Pesci, his Russ a calm, knowing presence, a characterisation that feels like a deliberate defiance of the volatility we remember so vividly from Tommy in Goodfellas. The film weaves a tapestry of power structures throughout 20th century New York, incorporating the mob, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and politicians, all tied together by the wild, paranoid, braggadocious figure of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a brilliant Al Pacino in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese.

Scorsese’s use of digital technology to take years off his cast is a matter of debate between us. José thinks that the use of younger actors would have been beneficial, comparing it to De Niro’s portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II; Mike arguing that the technology convinces, facilitates a smooth telling of the story, where, had different actors been used, he might have felt like he was waiting for the ‘real story’ to begin, and doesn’t hamper the facial performances as it might have – though he agrees wholeheartedly that, in his mid-70s, Robert De Niro simply can’t convincingly kick a baker as a man thirty or forty years his junior should be able to.

José asks whether Frank feels enough guilt about having to kill Jimmy, by this point a man who’s been his friend for years. We agree that we think his emotional state is too opaque, though Mike suggests that he’s also tamping down his feelings for the sake of getting on with a task he can’t avoid. The feeling of loss and guilt that this event leads to, though, enormously affects the final half hour of the film, and for Mike it’s a beautifully moving coda to a film that, while hugely enjoyable, often felt free of a clear destination – something José disagrees with, never wondering where it was going.

We also consider Scorsese’s recent remarks on Marvel, suggesting that his perspective is a surprisingly ahistorical one, and that had he been making films in the 1950s he’d have had identical complaints about Westerns, for instance – the dominant genre of the time. But José takes time to agree with his aesthetic and artistic complaints, arguing that Marvel’s films lack ambition, and Mike suggests that his issue really comes down to a level of dominance that is marginalising films of lower budgets and greater ambition. We also discuss the fact that Scorsese has made The Irishman for Netflix, hardly the home of a lover of the cinema, as their model is Internet-based and doesn’t allow for wide theatrical releases, Mike suggesting this represents a conflict between Scorsese’s words and actions; though José argues that, as limited as it is, the film has been given a theatrical release, and one would be stupid to turn down money if it gets one’s film made, no matter the source.

But to bring it back to The Irishman, we had a terrific time and the film throughout is layered with great jokes, considered compositions, and brilliantly written, performed and directed set-piece scenes in which conversation is king, stakes are high, and power is in play. If you get a chance to see it during its brief theatrical window, do so.

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.

192 – Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil isn’t very good.

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.

191 – Monos

Comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies are inescapable in Alejandro Landes’ captivating Monos, about a group of teenage soldiers, stationed on a Colombian mountaintop, whose relationships and leadership break down during a descent into the jungle.

We think about its central imagery, Mike arguing that one image above all speaks for the film as a whole, and its allegorical qualities, José considering the character of the American hostage and the impact of American foreign policy and cultural influence on these kids’ mentalities and environment. Mike suggests that the engrossing experience of watching the film may outshine its thematic substance, but nonetheless we highly recommend it and urge you to see it at a cinema if you can.

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.

190 – Sorry We Missed You

Returning to Newcastle after shining his coruscating lens on the inhumanity of the benefits system in I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach now casts his eye on the gig economy and the exploitation of workers in Sorry We Missed You. A struggling dad and husband gets a job as a delivery driver, coerced into handling unfair responsibility and meeting impossible targets, with the stability of his family bearing the brunt of the stress.

José argues that Sorry We Missed You only tells us what we already know; Mike contends that its dramatisation makes it scarily real. We’re in agreement that it’s not especially interesting filmmaking, though, José suggesting that Loach doesn’t trust images to convey what he wants. And José has never enjoyed his depiction of the working class, finding it unrealistic at best, with no joy or love available to his films’ victims, though he agrees – with some relief! – that there is love in the central family here. Although there’s a lot to criticise in his often mechanical filmmaking, we agree that Loach makes meaningful films with which he sincerely wants to make a difference, and that’s admirable to say the least.

If nothing else, Sorry We Missed You inspired Mike to try and do one nice thing for a stranger upon leaving the cinema, and that must mean it’s a work of genius. If, however, you are already someone who does nice things, then you may find it less inspiring, though it is in some respects vital. It won’t do you any harm to wait until it’s shown on telly 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.

189 – Ring

A horror film that everyone knew about when Mike was a teenager, but nobody seemed to have seen, we finally see 1998’s Ring – or Ringu, to transliterate the Japanese title. It’s been beautifully restored in 4K and we were keen to see what all the fuss was about.

And, truthfully, we’re left still asking that. Its influence is obvious, Mike suggesting that alongside 1999’s The Blair Witch Project it defined a new generation of horror cinema, but we don’t find it all that creepy, let alone scary. We suggest a number of factors in its iconic status: its place in the West as a foreign curio, an oddity; its brilliant conceit, a videotape that gives you seven days to live after you watch it, giving it an urban myth quality, rather like the found footage form of The Blair Witch Project convincing people of that film’s reality. And perhaps what was different and interesting about Ring at the time of its release has become commonplace enough to no longer appear so.

However, none of this is to say that we disliked the film, which would be a lie. It remains an intriguing and compelling mystery that makes excellent use of its central idea and creates some truly iconic imagery. We’re glad to have finally seen it, and if you have any interest in horror, this 4K restoration gives you renewed reason to revisit, or visit for the first time, this foundational film.

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.

188 – Bait

Shot in black and white on a clockwork camera from the 1970s, the hand-development of its 16mm film resulting in scratches and unpredictable changes in exposure, and its soundtrack entirely post-synchronised, Mark Jenkin’s Bait is audiovisually suffused with atmosphere and texture, and not a little dreamlike and weird to boot. It tells the story of Martin, a Cornish fisherman struggling to cope with the upheaval of both his region and his life specifically that results from an influx of middle-class settlers. He’s sold his family’s cottage to a family of outsiders, his brother now uses his fishing boat to take tourists on drunken stag parties, and Martin snarls and growls his way through dealing with these changes.

It’s clear that we’re meant to see Martin as a hero, but he’s tilting at windmills – though perhaps that’s WHY he’s a hero – and José argues that the film is deeply conservative, asking, for instance, why it’s so bad that Martin’s brother adapts to his changing environment by taking tourists on trips. Mike argues that the family of newcomers is too caricatured, so keen is the film for us to see them as invaders who fuck everything up, and thinks about the film’s parochialism in the wider context of Brexit – the unfriendliness to outsiders displayed here speaks to anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the UK; is there a difference between the way the Cornish in Bait feel and the way Brexiters throughout the country feel? Perhaps there’s a tension between the relative power and privilege of the “invaders” and “invaded” that we don’t resolve, but in overly simplistic terms we don’t emerge from the film feeling entirely on its side.

Jenkin’s cinematography and editing beautifully conveys what there is to love about Martin’s way of life, concentrating on manual labour and his close-knit community. José suggests that the film looking the way it does makes it feel as though it’s already an object from the past, with the romance, nostalgia and loss that goes along with it – just as it depicts the decline of its way of life. It also puts us in mind of Italian Neorealism, José bringing up Visconti’s La terra trema, Mike thinking of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and we’re indebted to Mark Fuller for offering a perspective on Bait‘s place within a tradition of similarly claustrophobic coastal dramas, such as Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers, Epstein’s Finis Terrae, Flaherty’s Man of Aran, and Powell’s Edge of the World. Mike also considers the film’s visual and tonal similarity to Aronofsky’s Pi, thinking about how effectively that film places the audience in the main character’s headspace, and suggesting that the visual design here does the same.

Bait is a considerable film, one that speaks deeply to the loss of a certain way of life and the anger and resentment to which that leads. But the film doesn’t appear keen for this resentment to be questioned, and we feel it needs to be.

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.

187 – Gemini Man

Gemini Man lacks charm, wit, originality, intelligence, any real sense of understanding how to shoot action… but it’s a technological showcase, and with 3D glasses on, sat in a cinema with a 60fps projector (120fps screenings, the film’s native frame rate, are nigh-on impossible to come by), it provides a certain pleasure. We agree that the high frame rate, so widely criticised in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy – and along with the rest of the world, neither of us liked it at all – works surprisingly well here in Ang Lee’s hands, and Mike argues that it’s not only visually enjoyable but genuinely aesthetically valuable, picking up on shots that it noticeably contributes to and considering the way Lee uses stillness early on to help the audience adjust to its look and feel.

We can’t see eye to eye on the film’s other technological showpiece, a fully CGI Will Smith, motion captured but rendered as his 20-something-year-old self. Mike thinks it’s remarkably convincing, truly evocative of the Fresh Prince-era Will Smith with which we’re all familiar and, again, a visual treat, but José finds it a lifeless failure. That’s a criticism, though, that can be made of the film as a whole, and we can’t compliment the screenplay, direction or performances very much at all.

Without HFR 3D, Gemini Man really isn’t worth your time to see. With it, it’s surprisingly attractive, but that can’t rescue the script.

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.