184 – Judy

José reminisces about Judy Garland as a feature of his childhood, a constant presence on his family’s television, and as a person who took on different significance to him as he grew up. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been keen to see Judy since the trailers first appeared. Mike, predictably, neither knows much about her nor cares, although he has seen The Wizard of Oz about a thousand times.

The film’s greatest pleasure is Renée Zellweger’s performance, a pleasant surprise to José as he’s never liked her very much. We agree that the stage numbers leave something to be desired – the production seems to create a disconnect between Zellweger’s performance and singing, sounding artificial – but swoon at moments when it all comes together, particularly in the climactic rendition of Over the Rainbow. José suggests that this is when Zellweger most deviates from any of Garland’s true performances, and perhaps that relative freedom from imitation is what gives her the space to connect to the song here.

In general terms, the film is none too exciting, shot effectively but inexpressively and ticking off the normal plot points of a star-on-the-decline biopic, with money and family worries, substance abuse problems, temper tantrums and assorted other clichés making appearances, and authentic as it may be, there’s only so many times Judy can be late for a gig before the drama wears thin. Her relationship with her children is an emotional wrench, though, and the film builds to an effective ending, powered by that fantastic final number.

There’s a subplot about Judy’s encounter with a gay couple that recognises her importance to the gay community and contrasts her glitz and stardom with the inhumane oppression to which gay people were and are treated – homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only two years prior to when the film is set. It’s a plot strand that could fall on its face through cheesiness or clumsiness, particularly considering the couple’s role in the final scene, but it arguably succeeds through periphrastic, sparing dialogue, and by tying everything back to Judy’s songs. Everything comes back to those, ultimately, and despite some lacklustre direction here and there, it all comes together when it absolutely needs to.

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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183 – The Mustang

A captivating performance from Matthias Schoenaerts as a long-time inmate in a Nevada prison gives The Mustang its heart and emotional centre. The story of an isolated man finding the ability to open up through a relationship he develops with a wild horse isn’t going to win any awards for originality and is pretty one-note, but has its pleasures, and is an easy watch.

Writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre calmly avoids asking obvious and important questions of the American prison system in favour of depicting the benefits of the horse training initiative – based on a real-life scheme that operates in a number of US states – and José suggests that her nationality has a part to play in this apparent lack of knowledge about the deep institutional issues involved, or at least her lack of interest in challenging them. The film indulges in cliché after cliché, but, for all its flaws and lack of imagination, Mike liked it, because that’s what he’s like, and we really can’t emphasise enough how good Schoenaerts’ central performance is.

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.

182 – Rojo

In the mid-Seventies, Argentina was terrorised by the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance), a far-right death squad that disappeared countless people, and it is under this regime of fear and death that Rojo is set – with 1976’s military coup on the horizon. Disappearance is one of the film’s major themes and gives it its central structure: Dario Grandinetti’s Claudio, a lawyer, has an altercation with a rude young man in a restaurant and, though what follows is partially accidental, ends up leaving the man for dead in Argentina’s vast desert.

It’s the first act of disappearance in a film draped with them, disappearances that nobody speaks of, but everybody takes advantage of. Overt signals of the Triple A are absent here – the film shows us how daily life is affected, in a chilling atmosphere not of fear, but of acceptance. Friends are spoken of as having moved away. A house vacated by a family we never see is ransacked by otherwise well-to-do, middle-class neighbours, and presents a money-making opportunity. The culture isn’t fought, it is adjusted to.

Though we find great depth to Rojo‘s thematic complexity, we find less joy in its cinematic technique. José isn’t as critical as Mike, whose arse went to sleep through boredom, but despite an aesthetic that beautifully evokes the 1970s in every way, the film makes no real concessions to the audience, particularly lacking tension, which we feel there was ample opportunity for.

However, despite our criticisms, we recommend Rojo. It portrays a time and place rarely seen, and does so with intelligence and confidence. Its themes, of course, speak not just to mid-Seventies Argentina but keenly to today’s increasingly right-wing societies in Europe and America, and in that light its themes of complicity and adaptation to quotidian far-right terrorism constitute a warning.

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.

181 – Laurel and Hardy – Twice Two, County Hospital, and Way Out West

The Birmingham chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society shows a few of their films every year at the mac, and this year sees them screen two shorts, Twice Two (1933) and County Hospital (1932), followed by their classic Western feature, Way Out West (1937). We discuss Laurel and Hardy’s style, Mike comparing it favourably to cartoons and less favourably to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and José remarks upon the joys of seeing a full audience of people aged 4 to 90 all laughing at these everlasting films.

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.

180 – Joker

It’s as though we’ve seen two different films, with José bowled over by Joker‘s social commentary, Mike bored and annoyed by its perceived self-satisfaction – not to mention an audience that applauded at the end. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is explored to be a product of an uncaring, broken society that reaps in him what it sows, in a 1981 Gotham City that is the New York City of the era in all but name. José argues that the film will become a bellwether of the time, depicting the anger of the oppressed and downtrodden – Mike suggests, though, that in demonising them and aligning them to villainy, it gives the right-wing what it wants, in a vision of antifa, the enemy it believes it faces.

We discuss issues of race and representation, Mike seeing similarities between some of the film’s scenes and real-life historical crimes to which they may refer, and in observing racial components and changes to them, asks what the purpose may be, though, struggles to work towards an answer. And José remarks favourably upon everything aesthetic, including the way in which poverty is written into Phoenix’s withered form, the expressiveness and grace of his movement, and the film’s use of shallow focus.

There’s a lot going on in Joker, both on its own terms and in the cultural conversations it has ignited, and it may be worth a second go.

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.

179 – Rambo: Last Blood

Donald Trump’s vision of Mexico as America’s terrifying, criminal neighbour to the south finds a home in Rambo: Last Blood, a film in which a journey to Mexico is no less than a descent into Hell, and the comfort of the USA means a ranch, horses, sunsets, and a subterranean network of tunnels in which to viciously trap and slaughter Mexican rapists. You may be surprised to hear that we weren’t that keen on it.

Considering Sylvester Stallone’s age – a mighty 73 years old – Last Blood‘s action can’t ask as much of him physically as did the Rambo films of old, but through the use of traps and ambushes, Stallone’s limitations are smartly made irrelevant. But that’s about as positive as we can get. This is a film that cost $50m, if the production budget figure on Box Office Mojo is to be believed, and if Stallone hasn’t taken $40m of that for himself it’s impossible to tell where it’s been spent. This is cheap, nasty, acrid cinema, and it spurs José to look back on Stallone’s career and decry it for not simply having too few hits but moreover representing a betrayal of what Stallone meant to immigrant kids and underdogs back when he broke out with Rocky in 1976.

Avoid Rambo: Last Blood like the self-mythologising, racist bile it is.

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.