198 – Harriet

A truly deserved biopic, Harriet tells the story of the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who served as part of the Underground Railroad, undertaking several journeys to liberate around 70 slaves, and later serving as in the Union Army during the American Civil War (this latter part of her life forming the film’s coda, as its focus is her escape to Philadelphia and rescue missions).

Despite its obvious value, though, it’s poorly told story, with a depiction of Tubman’s devout religiousness and prophetic visions that serves to confuse more than express or inspire, and too little tension in what are really action scenes, too little sense of hardship in Tubman’s escape, work, and life. We try to keep in mind that our relationship to Tubman’s story is distanced, that its importance as a black narrative and feminist narrative is easy for us to be blind to when all we can see are flaws, but ultimately we find the film a let-down.

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.

197 – Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

A trip to the Mockingbird Cinema in the Custard Factory yields a massively hyped up and receptive audience of fat white blokes for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Mike is one of them, and he’s never been harder to pick out of a lineup, laughing like a drain at the fan service and antics. José isn’t, and he was already a bit too old for Kevin Smith when he emerged in the 90s, but he has almost as good a time as everyone else there. The film is huge fun and creates a palpable sense of community, filled with friends and family, incorporating in-jokes and characters from throughout Smith’s work – it’s pure comfort food for its fans.

We think about Smith as a figure, his reputation as a writer who can barely direct, and what he takes pride in. And we look over his filmography, José thinking back on what made Chasing Amy radical in its day, and Mike suggesting that with Jersey Girl and Cop Out, Smith’s reputation, and perhaps an external factor or two (remember Bennifer?) played a part in the hostile reception for two films he found perfectly acceptable and even charming.

He’s an interesting figure, Kevin Smith, a director whose cinematic reputation is outshone by his stardom as an individual, something to which his mighty legion of podcasts and Q&As speaks – indeed, Reboot‘s UK screenings come with a bespoke post-credits Q&A, and Smith is accompanying the film around the US and Canada on its roadshow release – but his films have earned and maintained a devoted following for 25 years now, something to which the audience tonight can attest. Wherever Reboot is showing, it’s worth checking out, because with an audience as up for it as ours was, it’s a special event.

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.

200 – Luis Ospina on MUBI – The Vampires of Poverty, A Paper Tiger, and It All Started at the End

Luis Ospina, the influential Colombian filmmaker who died very recently, was last month the subject of an mini retrospective of his work by MUBI, who showed three of his films: Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty (1977, co-directed by Carlos Mayolo), Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger (2008), and his final feature documentary, Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (2015), and we’re grateful to them for making these works available to us with subtitles. We begin by considering how such an influential filmmaker, not only in Colombia but across Latin America, remains so little known in Anglo-American film cultures. We talk about the ‘Caliwood’ group and how we’re so used to talking about structures that we forget how individuals make a difference. A group of young friends with shared interests get together and share a house, turning it into studios, an art gallery, a publishing house and a cinema. This group happens to include, amongst others, Luis Ospina, Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo. We’re shown how shared cinephilia leads to collaborative cultural production, one that’s left an imprint, proven to be very influential and now become part of the cultural history of Colombia and Latin America.

In Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End we see how the friendships and shared interests of these irreverent, druggy, countercultural dissidents bore fruit and left a legacy – which is not to say that structures are not important (they wouldn’t have been able to do so had they not been of a particular class, one with relatives who could afford to lend out empty houses). The film serves as an important reminder that individuals can make a difference and that collaboration is essential. Harold Innis’ observation in Empire and Communications that colonised people need to be fully conversant with their colonisers’ culture as well as their own is amply evident in the conjunction of the group’s programming and their own production.

All three of Ospina’s works are concerned with documentary, representation, ethics. In Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger, the Zelig-like mockumentary about an imaginary person, the form itself acts as a way of commenting on broad strands of cultural and political movements internationally that had an effect on the local and synthesises and evokes all of the virtues we admire: the playfulness, quirkiness, intelligence, the concern with politics and ethics but also fun, a pin-prick to pomposity. And we share admiration for the savage satire of Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, a statement against the exploitation of the poor, unfortunate and mentally ill on the streets of Cali, by filmmakers keen to sell their work, and the image of Colombia that goes along with it, to Europe.

José is in thrall to Ospina’s work and the culture to which it speaks, and has boundless thoughts; and although Mike asks questions of the ethics at play in Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, even in a film so clearly well-intentioned and with such a valid point, and comments on weaknesses he perceives in the cinematic quality of Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End, finding it less expressive artistically than simply informative of a time, place and culture, he’s glad to have spent this time exploring Ospina’s work.

This episode has been released early (keen listeners will have noticed a jump from number 196 to 200), and that’s to coincide with yesterday’s homage for Luis Ospina, hosted by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, one we hope will be but the first of many to come.

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.

196 – Knives Out

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s playful, knockabout whodunnit Knives Out has been receiving praise for its screenplay that we feel isn’t quite warranted, and isn’t much to look at either – but it’s a lark, and one that carries some unexpected sociopolitical commentary. José argues that Johnson doesn’t learn enough from the films upon which his pastiche is based, making too little of both the wonderful cast he’s assembled and the wonderful sets he’s had assembled for him, though the film isn’t devoid of flair or structural neatness. Mike was with the film more or less all the way, though suggests that it won’t play as well in the distracted environment of the home, the minutiae of the countless plot details easy to lose track of as one tries to make sense of them. So it’s worth a watch, but it’s neither as elegant nor as charming as we’d like.

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.

195 – Le Mans ’66

Cars, business, and a big chummy Brummie combine in 1960s California as Ford sets itself the mission of beating the all-conquering Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in a film that has not one but two boring titles: Ford v Ferrari in the USA, and Le Mans ’66 in the UK. Mike had a good enough time to see it twice, even though it’s directed by James Mangold, for whom he has little love; José, incredibly, even welled up at the end.

Although one might expect clashes between the egos of our heroes, the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummie racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), their relationship is really one of friendship, common goals, and coping with the management at Ford, for whom Le Mans is about business opportunity and making their way into the increasingly deep pockets of the American teenager. José finds Ken’s family life of particular emotional interest, the support he receives from his wife a pleasure and their arguments complex, though Mike isn’t as complimentary, seeing the film as overall too slick for its own good, failing to generate real tension in the problems it depicts. This goes for the racing, too, for which he reserves some criticism, opining that while the races are good fun and entertaining larks, they don’t convey the stresses or feeling of endurance as they should. But José, a man who cares not a jot for cars or racing, enjoyed the heck out of them, and perhaps that is an achievement all of its own.

The film offers some rather crude comic representations of Italians, the Ferrari pit crew running around like cartoons, which despite only really showing up twice do stick in the mind; and lightly poses the competition as a continuation of the Second World War, the Allies at Ford battling the Axis Power of Italy (at one point, Henry Ford II, played to a T by the great Tracy Letts, brags to Shelby about the role his factory played in building planes for the American war effort, telling him, “Go to war”). It’s an American film about the greatness of America at the height of America’s cultural standing in the world; as José describes it, their empire.

And plonked in the middle of this American myth-making is a sarcastic showoff from Sutton Coldfield, unable to keep his mouth shut except when he’s got some tea in there. Mike responded with unbridled joy to the attention to detail shown to Ken’s origins, not only in the broad, charming accent Bale employs, but also in the dialect he brings with him, talking of cheese cobs and using the phrase “round the Wrekin”, something most of Britain probably has no clue about, let alone America. Peaky Blinders may have given Birmingham a platform in modern pop culture, particularly amongst Americans, but Mike enjoys Ken here much more, ecstatic that a $100m movie that’s going down well with audiences features a Brummie as one of its heroes.

Le Mans ’66 is an honest to god charm offensive of a film, with entertaining action, performances that do the well-written screenplay justice, and even an emotional sting in the tail. Get yourself to the cinema for it. It’s bosting.

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.

194 – Permission

This year’s Screening Rights Film Festival saw a great start with Permission, an Iranian film about women’s rights, oppression, and male ego, based on the true story of Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian women’s futsal team whose husband barred her from leaving the country to play in an international final. After the film, José led a discussion with Riham Sheble and Dr. Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad in which the entire audience got involved.

It’s an enormously interesting film and despite its severe subject matter, a lively, enjoyable watch. Baran Kosari is captivating as Afrooz, the captain, fighting as best she can the system that allows her husband, Yaser, to restrict her movement – which is made scarier by his absence for several scenes. The film cannot possibly be mistaken for suggesting that Yaser’s actions can be justified, but gives him space to express his reasons for them, revealing the danger of a bruised male ego, especially one with the support of unjust laws that can be weaponised.

We also discuss Afrooz’s relationship with her teammate and roommate, who stays in Iran with her out of choice, with respect to the ways in which writer-director Soheil Beiraghi uses code and ellipses to circumvent his country’s censors. And Sahar Dolatshahi’s team manager catches our eye, a powerful figure who enjoys her status among the football federation, and whose sanctimonious, matronly attitude reminds Mike of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Aunt Lydia.

A film we’re very glad to have seen. Thank you to the Screening Rights Film Festival for putting the event together!

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.

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.