319 – Respect

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Aretha Franklin, an icon of American music, receives a dispiritingly by-the-numbers biopic in Respect, which takes this perfect subject for such a film and does nothing very interesting with her. We discuss, among other topics, the film’s dependence on clichés, its poor lighting, Franklin’s relationship with her father and upbringing in a prosperous household, Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the central role, and that scene, so common to music biopics, in which the signature song is developed.

If one of the functions of the biopic is to introduce newcomers to a person’s work and provide an insight into what made them worthy of their story being told… then the Queen of Soul needs another biopic. Respect certainly isn’t devoid of entertaining and engaging moments, but, ultimately, it fails its subject.

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

318 – Undine

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

The fairytale figure of the undine has been used and developed in the arts for two hundred years, and Christian Petzold, whose Transit we loved, brings his clear-eyed but sensitive aesthetic to it in Undine. Paula Beer plays the titular character with transparent emotion, in the opening scene regretfully informing her ex-boyfriend, as he dumps her, that she will have to kill him. It’s a moment that captures the timbre of the film that follows – fantastical, potent, full of drama, but grounded throughout.

We also discuss Undine‘s knowing and deliberate setting against a sociopolitical backdrop, the film devoting significant time to Undine’s lectures on the history of Berlin, tying them and the city to her relationships, and the way the film conveys the tactility of new lovers, unable to keep from touching each other. We disagree on the film’s greatness – to Mike, it’s something of a trifle, particularly in comparison with Transit, but José is in deep love with it. But we’re agreed that it’s well worth your time.

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

317 – The Night House

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Based on the trailer, Mike was interested in The Night House, a horror film about a recently bereaved woman and the secrets she discovers her husband was keeping – but it took him a good third of the film’s duration to remember why. It’s an ugly film, one of the poorest-lit you’re likely to see, and the culmination of its mystery is almost offensively stupid. José finds the thematic ground it covers has potential, and Rebecca Hall’s performance is very good – she’s unafraid to make herself unlikeable, which is likeable indeed. Still, she’s really the only reason to see it. If you actually can see it through the terrible lighting.

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

316 – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

A new day, a new entry in the MCU, and on this occasion we’re introduced to an entirely new set of characters and mythos: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fills us in on the history of a young Chinese-American man and his dad’s magical jewellery. Like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it’s a film whose connection to the wider MCU is light, establishing characters, a setting, and story elements that are certain to tie in to subsequent films, but free of the obligation to prioritise them at the expense of itself. And like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, that freedom works in its favour – it’s of a piece, interesting, pretty, and entertaining.

We discuss the film’s setting in a Chinese-American immigrant context, comparing it in particular to The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians: all three films dramatise the cultural differences between the new and old country, and the ways in which the younger generation might face challenges in visiting or returning to their ancestral home. Indeed, Awkwafina appears in all three films, and, even in supporting roles, expresses this subject all by herself. We also think about the MCU’s use of the film to address its own past, a character from Iron Man 3 returning: Shang-Chi not only rejects the way the earlier film totally reconfigured him from the comics, but also addresses the Orientalism with which he has historically been associated.

And there’s more besides – Tony Leung’s beautiful, evocative performance of a character that nonetheless doesn’t quite work; the quality of the action, much of it a cut above what we typically expect from Marvel; and that classic Disney trick – if in doubt, animate a cute animal. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a promising start to the MCU’s next phase, and we look forward to finding out how its world will integrate down the line, but it’s worth seeing on its own terms.

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

315 – The Courier

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Benedict Cumberbatch gets himself embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Courier, a dramatisation of the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6 to smuggle Soviet secrets provided by high-ranking GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky. It’s a film that offers pleasures in its performances and in the telling of a story you likely haven’t heard, but its storytelling is often banal and sometimes unclear, and, José contends, it’s full of tricks and tropes that are just there for effect – and often not very good ones. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, set in a similar period of the Cold War and also telling a true story of a citizen’s recruitment to engage in an overseas mission, is an obvious point of comparison, and perhaps The Courier‘s greatest gift is that its mediocrity helps to show off just how assured and polished is Spielberg’s cinematic technique, even if the ideological purposes to which he puts it leave us rolling our eyes.

The Courier isn’t a terrible film, and its performances do make it worth a look… but it isn’t a very good film, either.

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

314 – Free Guy

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Ryan Reynolds’ schtick, so irritating for so long, is winning us back, and Free Guy is built around his entire star persona, the self-effacing originality of which José remarks upon. Reynolds plays Guy, a videogame non-player character – an extra, essentially, following a programmed routine within a virtual world – with a lightness and sweetness that defines the tone of the entire film.

We discuss what the film represents about videogame culture and what it discards, the desire for romance that drives the story, what Mike questions about its ending, and more. Free Guy is a charming and entertaining action comedy, whether you know games or not.

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

313 – Stillwater

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Matt Damon gives arguably a career best performance in Stillwater, as a tightly-wound, reserved, Oklahoma roughneck doing his best to support his daughter, who has been convicted of murder and resides in a Marseille prison. We discuss the film’s origins in the real case of Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher, consider how well the characterisation works and where it might fail, and work through our fundamental responses to the film: for José, it’s is an unusual and complex critique of American society and culture; for Mike, it’s hard to take seriously, its animus obvious and milquetoast. Wherever you land, though, Stillwater is a deeply engrossing drama and worth seeing.

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

312 – Shiva Baby

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

A chamber piece that asks what happens when your life of carefully constructed lies is exposed, Shiva Baby is a smart, tense comedy set in that most aggravating of situations: the funeral, in which you’re forced to be judged by lots of people you want to avoid but aren’t allowed to kick up a stink. We discuss debut writer-director Emma Seligman’s handling of the story’s shifts in tone, in particular how she intensely ekes out tension; the light in which it depicts its women, who bookend scenes with sarcastic off-screen barbs and gossip; and the main character’s relationship to technology, and how her use of it to seek power is a double-edged sword.

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

311 – Jungle Cruise

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Disney has already turned one of its theme park rides into a box office colossus – is it time for another? They seem to think so, bringing us Jungle Cruise, an adaptation of one of the attractions from Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, the Jungle River Cruise, starring The Rock, who we still refuse to call Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Jack Whitehall, as explorers searching for the Tree of Life.

The film gives the ride more than a nod and a wink, The Rock’s character operating a cruise along the Brazilian Amazon, complete with the real ride’s cheesy dad jokes – and there’s effort made to reckon with the attraction’s history of racist representation of indigenous peoples. How successfully it does so is up for debate, the film indulging in its own cultural imperialism – despite being set in Brazil, there isn’t a word of Portuguese spoken; and no matter the purity of their intention, the characters are still in Brazil to take something that doesn’t belong to them.

We also discuss the film’s feminism and sexual politics, as embodied by Blunt’s and Whitehall’s characters, the setting in 1916 and the use of England rather than the USA as a point of origin for its story, and consider who the film is for – Mike sees its relationship with the likes of Jumanji, Indiana Jones, Hook and The Mummy, and is sure that he’d have loved this as a kid as much as he did those. It fails to really explore the poetic potential of some of its ideas, and one too many action scenes feel like they need explosions to keep things exciting, but on the whole, Jungle Cruise is a likeable bit of popcorn fodder with three terrific performances, and chemistry to match.

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

310 – The Human Voice

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Freely based, as the closing credits tell us, on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name, The Human Voice sees Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar working in the English language for the first time. The play has long been on Almodóvar’s mind, inspiring, significantly, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, among other works of his, and this short film joins the pantheon of adaptations of the play, which has seen its single character, a woman speaking on the phone to an unseen, unheard lover, played by such stars as Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, and Anna Magnani.

Here, Tilda Swinton plays that role, bringing to it a sense of reserve that didn’t quite make sense to José until the final sequence and the resolution to the story – perhaps an effect of having seen the play adapted so many times and not having seen the character played this way before. Conversely, Mike feels he instinctively understands the character, remarking upon her change from being out of place, both geographically and emotionally, to her assumption of control of her world and destiny. José, who identifies with Almodóvar’s work like nobody else’s, picks up on the themes, motifs, visual designs, settings and interests that tie The Human Voice to the rest of his oeuvre, and finds where this short fits in and where it doesn’t. Specifically, he argues that Almodóvar’s control of language and knowledge of how people speak is typically overlooked in favour of his visuals, but here becomes obvious precisely because of the decision to use English rather than Spanish, which results in less poetry and nothing memorable throughout the entire monologue.

That flaw is evident but minor in the scheme of the entire film, which is an elegantly made and interesting study both of Swinton’s character and of Almodóvar’s own style and lifelong interests. The Human Voice is on Mubi, and well worth your time.

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