186 – Neither Wolf Nor Dog

It’s enormously disappointing that Neither Wolf Nor Dog is as bad as it is, because its subject – Native American life in a society built upon a land that was taken from them, and the pain, grievances and stories that the displaced people carry with them – is massively, conspicuously underrepresented in US cinema and demands to be explored. Unfortunately, although the story on which it is based is true, the hackneyed device of a white man, Kent, who learns about someone different and with whom we’re supposed to emotionally identify falls on its face, and the filmmaking is awful. When the film visits Wounded Knee and we hear Dan, the Lakota elder, expose his history of pain and loss, Kent’s unearned tears destroy the scene.

Mike argues for the film’s first act, suggesting that it sets up promising questions and themes, and has a slowness that invites the audience to contemplate these. Dan’s interactions with Kent, knowingly using him to tell his stories, conflicts with his friend Grover’s reaction, suspicious but willing to put his feelings aside to do what Dan wants, and his granddaughter Wenonah, hostile and concerned that her granddad might be taken advantage of. This is all inextricably tied to the history of white invaders to America and the treatment to which the natives have been subjected for generations… but the promise of how the film could develop is far preferable to how it does develop, uncritically, unimaginatively using tropes that illuminate nothing and relying on undramatised oral storytelling to express its themes.

José, on the other hand, hated the film from the start and wanted to leave long before the end. He argues that there’s a self-importance to the filmmaker, Steven Lewis Simpson, on display, and Mike argues (with no proof of course) that Simpson edits his own Wikipedia page.

It’s a shame to have to declare that Neither Wolf Nor Dog is terrible but there it is. For people on nodding terms at best with Native American history to emerge from it having learned nothing, having gleaned no insight into the life it depicts, is a fundamental failure on the film’s part. A huge missed opportunity.

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.

185 – Don’t Look Now

Neither of us has ever seen classic British thriller Don’t Look Now before, though we’re keenly aware of the esteem in which it is held. And it’s fair to say that we’re blown away by the expressive visual design and editing style, though Mike at first admits to a certain degree of nonplussedness – a film’s reputation for greatness can often result in a dampened experience when it is finally encountered – but finds that the film quickly opens up as we discuss it.

Don’t Look Now is about grief, and expresses it at a formal level. Donald Sutherland’s character is unable to save his daughter from drowning at a young age, and thereafter, Mike argues, cannot prevent images of her death from flashing into his mind, just as they flash into the film with no warning. His wife, played by Julie Christie, handles her grief differently, and we discuss whether she does so more successfully than her husband – but if there’s something on which we agree, it’s that the film primarily conveys his point of view and experience of his grief rather than hers.

José considers the film’s depiction of Venice, dilapidated, sparse, but still beautiful. We think about the film’s place in the canon, its status as a great horror, comparing it to other British oddities such as Under the Skin and Kill List – is it even right to think of these as horror? And we try to get a handle on some of the motifs used, such as the supernatural element underpinning the husband’s experiences, the red-hooded figure, the elderly sisters, a motif of doubling and replacement, and more, but often having to resort to the anodyne comfort of asserting that this is a film that would benefit from repeated viewing.

However, even after seeing it once, Don’t Look Now captures our imagination and burns its wonderful, imaginative imagery into our minds. If you haven’t seen it, this 4K restoration is doing the rounds as we speak, and it’s how the film should be seen. It images are meaningful and considered. See it in a cinema and it’ll get its hooks into you just as it’s supposed 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.

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.

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.