304 – French Exit

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An offbeat, gentle, surreal, intriguing and slightly camp comic drama, French Exit is a pleasant surprise for us both. Michelle Pfeiffer’s widowed heiress, reduced to selling her late husband’s property, takes what’s left of her life – her cat, adult son, and attitude – to an apartment in Paris, where she resolves to spend her remaining money before ending her life. Sounds hilarious.

And indeed it is, its director, Azazel Jabocs, demonstrating a mastery of tone. We discuss what makes the film work, its visual design, its relationship with and attitude towards money, how that campness José perceives is kept subdued, and more. French Exit isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it is a good one, and a charming way to spend a couple of hours.

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

303 – The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

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The sequel to one of the first films we discussed on Eavesdropping at the Movies, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard reunites Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman, Ryan Reynolds’ bodyguard, and Salma Hayek’s hitman’s wife – whose role is significantly expanded from the first film’s bit part. The vaguely sketched plot – Antonio Banderas wants to blow up Europe or something, and that’s enough detail – is the wire hanger upon which jokes and comic character interplay are draped, but, crucially, is the comedy successful?

Whether it is or isn’t, and what we read into the audience response, is up for discussion, as is the deployment of the stars’ personas and cinematic histories, what renders Ryan Reynolds’ schtick endearing here where it’s normally irritating, and whether the film’s sexual dimension is overly vulgar or too one-sided.

José has seen The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard twice now, and is no less in thrall to Hayek’s aggressive, wild performance the second time, loudly and enthusiastically responding to it. Mike is much less impressed with the film, but does admit to warming up to it in the second half, after a particularly mad joke that we won’t spoil here (but do in the podcast). If there are more Hitman’s Bodyguard films to come, hopefully with increasingly deliberately clunky titles, we’re up for them.

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

302 – In the Heights

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Before Lin-Manuel Miranda shot to fame in the mid-2010s with Hamilton, he had already enjoyed success with his 2005 musical, In the Heights, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, winning four Tonys for its Broadway production in 2008. Set in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, it now comes to cinemas, following the lives, struggles and dreams of its inhabitants, who simply cannot stop singing.

Well, singing and rapping – and it’s the rapping that shines, Miranda’s lyrics as witty and intricate as those in Hamilton, while the singing is less impressive, and the domain of the film’s women, who Mike wishes had been given the opportunity to rap. We discuss our disappointment in the direction – the film is full of visual ideas that aren’t executed to their fullest potential – and its relationship to the cultures and peoples it portrays.

In the Heights has its flaws, but despite them, it’s an immensely likeable portrait of life in its locale, José in particular, an immigrant to North America himself, recognising a lot of what it depicts and loving the way it shows off the cultures around which it’s based. We pick fault with it, because that’s what we do, but don’t let that stop you from seeing and enjoying it.

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

301 – Come and See

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We explore Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film whose reputation precedes it – it’s regarded as one of the greatest war films of all time. In 1943 Belarus, a young teenager, Flyora, joins the resistance, but as he travels from village to village across Nazi-occupied Belarus, experiencing worsening horrors and atrocities brought upon the locals, the extent to which he is out of his depth gradually becomes clearer and clearer.

Part of Come and See‘s reputation is of being hard to watch, something we both take issue with – it goes to some deeply unpleasant places, but it’s a gradual descent rather than an onslaught. That the film is regarded as such a trial has likely caused some filmgoers to unnecessarily avoid an experience that they would value. While it depicts shocking imagery and events, it’s shot with an ethical eye – everything that’s shown has a purpose, and that which would be excessively prurient is often avoided.

We also consider the use of supernatural and fairytale aesthetics to place us in the mind of an innocent teenager, and the repeated portrait photography that shows the deepening scars the film’s events leave upon him. We also discuss the film’s view of Hitler and how it espouses a kind of great man theory in placing him as an icon at the centre of the Nazis’ crimes, and the explosion of audiovisual imagination that is the final scene.

Come and See is a beautifully made expression of the hideous costs of war on the innocent, and on our humanity. It’s imaginative, intelligent, moving and shocking, and, we might add, beautifully restored. If you’ve avoided it on the basis of its notoriety, we urge you to reconsider. It’s truly great.

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

300 – A Quiet Place Part II

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A Quiet Place Part II picks up moments after its 2018 predecessor ends, its characters desperate for refuge from the terrifying predators hunting them. Seeking survivors, they encounter a family friend, now a recluse, having lost his wife and children. Emboldened by her discovery of a way to combat the aliens, the family’s deaf daughter makes a beeline for a radio station she believes can help, and what was a home invasion horror becomes an action adventure.

While accommodating this alteration in tone, A Quiet Place Part II offers, as sequels tend to do, more of what made the first film so successful, and it’s terrifically entertaining cinema – but a diminished experience, compared to its predecessor, in almost every way. We consider the film’s view of society, the uncritical whiteness in its casting and its inability to imagine ways of living that don’t involve the nuclear family unit; and the lack of threat we feel, despite its functional and well-orchestrated set-pieces – we simply never feel like these characters are at any real risk of being allowed to die.

We have problems with A Quiet Place Part II, but don’t let them dissuade you from seeing it. It’s exciting and made José jump time and time again – we just wish, both in cinematic and social terms, it could see beyond its rather narrow boundaries.

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

299 – Cruella

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Disney’s latest update of its back catalogue sees Emma Stone bring punk rock to Sixties London in Cruella, a beautiful, stylish, but clunky affair. Like Maleficent before it, Cruella offers an origin story to a key Disney villain: Estella, as she’s named when we meet her, takes a circuitous route to her destiny as a star fashion designer, grifting with friends to make ends meet, and waging war on the leading fashionista of the day, Baroness von Hellman – played by a fabulously wicked Emma Thompson. Oh, and there are some Dalmatians involved.

We discuss the quality and intentions of Cruella’s characterisation and Stone’s performance, the conspicuously expensive soundtrack, the use of CGI animals, whether the film is as queer as some of the hype has suggested, the role of men and masculinity, and why it is that fashion movies are one of very few areas in cinema where women get to play fun villains like the Baroness. Cruella is an imperfect film, less than the sum of its parts – but at their best, those parts are worth it for their own sake.

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

298 – Witness for the Prosecution

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Billy Wilder directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama concerning a man on trial for the murder of an old woman – did he do it? What’s up with his wife? Will his lawyer’s nurse catch him smoking? As with Christie’s stageplay, The Mousetrap, upon the film’s conclusion, the audience is kindly asked to refrain from revealing its twists and revelations, but we at Eavesdropping at the Movies respect no such requests. Spoilers within.

Charles Laughton is pleasingly hammy, Marlene Dietrich composed, and Tyrone Power a loud, sweaty, stressed out mess – and somehow mostly in the background, despite his central role as the accused murderer. We discuss their performances and characters, the pleasures and methods of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and Wilder’s direction, which hopes, in that classic Hollywood style, to render technique invisible. Witness for the Prosecution is an engrossing mystery filled with interesting bits of business that enrich its characters, and a classic.

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

297 – Spiral

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Listen to our podcast on Jigsaw here.

Cinema is back! And to celebrate, we see the new spin-off of the Saw series, Spiral, which… is not a good film. But it gives us much to think on, especially the surprisingly big names of its cast, which includes Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Max Minghella. Slasher series don’t traditionally accommodate stars, but, beyond the fact that they’re typically too expensive, Spiral offers a warning against their presence: the screentime they require pulls too much attention away from the thrills, the reason we’re really there. The deaths we’re accustomed to enjoying in Saw films just aren’t given to us in sufficient excess or quantity in Spiral; Chris Rock’s protagonist, a detective hunting a Jigsaw copycat, dominates the story. As if catching the murderer is more exciting than watching him work. Honestly.

Despite our disappointment in the film, we enjoy our return to the cinema after nine months away, José finding a new appreciation for the meditative quality of submitting himself to a movie he can’t pause in a darkened room, after a year of experiencing a fractured, distracted mental state watching streaming media. Mike likes the bigness of the screen, and that’s as far as his introspection takes him. In an increasingly vaccinated Britain, this return to the cinema is more optimistic than the shaky and short-lived reopening of last summer, and feels like it stands a good chance of lasting. And a damn good thing, too. We’ve missed it.

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

296 – And Then There Were None (1945)

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We explore René Clair’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel of – in the US – the same name, And Then There Were None. In terms of quality, it’s nothing to write home about, sadly, but is interesting nonetheless.

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

295 – Suspiria (1977) and Suspiria (2018)

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We explore Dario Argento’s Suspiria, his 1977 horror classic, and its loose remake by Luca Guadagnino, from 2018. We’ve never seen either, although Argento’s film casts a long shadow – those who’ve seen it never forget it, and it’s easy to see why. Its visual design is bold, imaginative and beautiful, the images it creates extraordinary, its violence heightened and wild. José loves it, literally wowed by it, captivated by its cinematic flair and interesting casting. But, Mike argues, it’s a film that offers nothing beyond the aesthetic, uninterested in its own characters or story, which leaves him cold.

Our responses to Guadagnino’s remake are reversed entirely. For Mike, it’s superior: ambitious, keen to mine the threadbare original for thematic depth, and laudably attempting to weave together generational guilt, dance, institutional corruption and women’s bodies into a complex tapestry, although one which requires too much audience participation to complete. José thinks he’s giving a pretentious work of ego far too much credit, is turned off by the dance scenes, annoyed at the lack of connection he finds between its wider themes and central coven, angered by its grey, wintry colour palette and dry cinematography… in fact, he’s angered by all of it! Now he knows how his friends felt as he valiantly tried to argue them into appreciating Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, which he loved, but which many of them greeted with similar hostility.

The original a cult classic, its remake a very different take on the core premise – both are worth watching. But if our responses are anything to go by, your mileage may vary considerably.

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