Tag Archives: drama

235 – Vitalina Varela

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

A slow, careful drama, Vitalina Varela – named for the non-professional actor at the centre, who plays a version of herself – tells a story of grief, anger, and discovery. Vitalina, abandoned by her husband in the 1980s, travels to Portugal from Cape Verde to confront him, but finds that he has passed away just days ago. She is left to explore the house he has left empty and the life he led without her for some forty years, and the film gives ample time to the feelings and questions that arise within her.

We discuss the economic situation depicted – this is a slum in Lisbon, built into the ground, feeling a world away from the vibrant, wealthy capital nearby – and Varela’s visual power, her performance one of presence as much as acting, as she moves slowly through the town like a ghost. Leonardo Simões’ cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, thoughtfully composed and intricately lit, and Mike remarks upon how the edges of the 4:3 frame blend into the blackness of a widescreen television, giving a feeling of an expanse of darkness. We ultimately disagree on how much we liked it: José was engrossed throughout, Mike found the tempo a trial – but stories like Vitalina Varela’s are necessary to tell, rare to see, and worth experiencing.

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

232 – Ema

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

A somewhat elliptical family drama from Pablo Larraín, Ema tells the story of a young woman who returned a child she adopted, feels the loss deeply, and wants to get him back. We discuss the central performances from Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, how their characters throw the most painful insults at each other but remain so obviously in love, Ema’s sexual fluidity and willingness to use sex as a tool, the poetic opening movement to the film including the astonishing on-stage, colour-shifting Sun, and whether Ema’s pain is as apparent as we’d like.

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

230 – I vitelloni

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

Federico Fellini invites us to hang out with a group of unemployed, lazy twentysomethings in 1953’s I vitelloni, one of his earliest films and an interesting portrait of life in a sleepy Italian town. For José, comparisons to his youth in a sleepy Spanish town abound; Mike finds links to British films that evoke similar feelings. I vitelloni is both culturally specific and universally relatable – every society has some version of the gang one grows up with, and the middle-class youngsters who think they rule the place.

We consider the motif of homosexuality – evoked in different ways by different characters, sometimes explicitly and sometimes only if we want to see it, but present throughout – and the theme of patriarchy, considering particularly the roles of women in the film, be they wives, mothers, or playthings, and ask what their agency is, if any – do they even believe they have any? Life in I vitelloni‘s seaside town is unconducive to personal progress, development, opportunity, and freedom, but where another story would express the frustrations felt by the constricted youth, here they harbour few ambitions.

I vitelloni is evocative and timeless – as coherent and understandable today as it was seventy years ago.

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

223 – Army of Shadows

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

Jean-Pierre Melville draws upon his experiences in the French Resistance for 1969’s Army of Shadows, which depicts an ensemble including Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse working to disrupt the Nazi occupation of France, rescuing Resistance members from captivity, operating safehouses… and killing informants.

Army of Shadows‘ view of the Resistance is far from romantic, showing the ordinary people who comprise it being driven to extreme measures in the cause of remaining hidden and evading capture, and the threat of capture and death hanging over them at all times. We compare it to The Great Escape, a caper in which prisoners of war work towards a big victory – there’s nothing of the sort in Army of Shadows, the Resistance only ever staying one step ahead of the Nazis pursuing them. Resistance itself is the victory, and it comes with costs.

We think about continuities between this film and Melville’s other work. The isolation felt in Un flic and Le Doulos comes through here, the Resistance members needing to work together but constantly suspicious of one another, as anyone could turn informant; emotional connection is a danger, as it can be used as a thumbscrew. But the film depicts the courage of the Resistance, the inhumanity of the situations into which they’re forced, and elicits a range of feelings simultaneously. It’s a complex, intelligent, essential film.

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

219 – Bacurau

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

A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.

To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.

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

217 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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

A delicate, intelligent love story, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire undulates with complex, interlocking themes and emotions. It’s a film about looking: who looks, who is looked at, how one should be seen, for whom the gaze is intended and what the rules are. Héloïse, a young aristocrat, refuses to have her portrait painted for the approval of a Milanese nobleman; an artist named Marianne is commissioned to do just that, but in secret, forcing her to steal glances at her subject and, outwardly, act merely as her companion. The women’s relationship quickly develops, and soon they are collaborating on the portrait to which Héloïse had hitherto objected.

Sciamma demonstrates an eye for beautiful, sensitive composition, and with cinematographer Claire Mathon creates some simply stunning imagery, evoking 18th and 19th century Romantic art; truly, this film understands what it means to paint with light. We consider the differences between the characters: one formerly resident in a convent, brought home to take over her sister’s role to be betrothed; the other a skilled worker, whose life experience Héloïse is keen to probe – and this is to say nothing of Sophie, the maid, who forms friendships with both Héloïse and Marianne, and the drama of whose life experience surely outweighs theirs combined. We discuss how the boundaries between the three – particularly Héloïse and the two workers – are broken down; without the rule-keeping figure of Héloïse’s mother present, the young women are able, to an extent, to reshape the world in which they live. But patriarchy overhangs the entire film, even with men physically absent throughout; the painting into which Marianne and Héloïse are investing their love is the very thing, intended for the Milanese suitor as it is, that will seal their fate to live separate lives.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an ambitious, confident, complex and beautiful film whose imagery soars on the cinema screen. See it.

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

216 – Dark Waters

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

A legal drama about the biggest corruption scandal you’ve never heard of, Dark Waters tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s twenty year long fight to expose chemical manufacturer DuPont’s decades of knowing and unapologetic poisoning of a town, a country, and the entire world. Visited by a West Virginian farmer named Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock are falling prey to unusual medical conditions and dying, Bilott – a corporate lawyer who works to help chemical companies pollute within the law – files a lawsuit, and slowly begins to uncover the company’s secrets.

For José, it’s a film that fits neatly amongst director Todd Haynes’ previous work, which often focuses on power relations and the struggles of the oppressed, sidelined or disenfranchised. For Mike, it might be a new Spotlight, another film about the exposure of vast, historical, institutional wrongdoing. But don’t believe the trailer that makes it look all blood and thunder – Dark Waters, though compelling and dramatic, is a slow burner, methodical and careful, and with a scope that looks beyond the details of the law. The town of Parkersburg, WV is shown in portrait, with shots evocative of Depression-era photography, and Bilott is an interesting character, a man who appears uncomfortable within his own body, whose determination to uncover the truth grows alongside his paranoia that something bad will happen to him, and whose relationship with his wife is a constant that is reframed intriguingly in the film’s final movement.

Dark Waters is a fascinating, intelligent, complex thriller that gives its themes room to express themselves and is full of details and moments that speak to entire inner lives and ways of thinking. Make sure you see it.

(Mike would also like to apologise to Bucky Bailey, one of DuPont’s most unfortunate victims and perhaps the film’s central emotional tentpole, for referring to him as Bucky Barnes, who is the guy from the Avengers films who sports a prosthetic arm and does nothing interesting.)

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

204 – Little Women (2019)

José has been brushing up, recently rewatching the 1933, 1959 and 1994 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Mike has neither seen any adaptations nor read the book, coming to the story entirely fresh. And so we get to grips with Greta Gerwig’s wonderful, open-hearted, energetic version of Little Women.

José finds much to contrast between the versions, picking up in particular on the unusual dimensionality given to the male supporting characters here, whose roles have previously been thankless. Timothée Chalamet and Chris Cooper particularly impress, the former capturing Laurie’s playful, generous spirit; the latter touchingly evoking Mr. Laurence’s grief. Less successful is Meryl Streep’s Aunt March, who slightly too mechanically reaches for the laughs for which she’s designed.

The girls, though, are a triumph of energetic wildness, ambitions and realism. The scenes they share in their childhood home are well observed, wisely mixing all-American sentimentality you might expect with a disarming sororal combativeness you might not. If there’s a bum note amongst them it’s Emma Watson as Meg, who Mike argues never truly embodies the roles she plays, but Saoirse Ronan is miraculously transparent as Jo, and Florence Pugh gives Amy a burning, vital sense of frustration and fury at always being second best to her sisters. Their relationships make the film the success it is, and, Mike suggests, even when the film begins to wrap their stories up in some fairly convenient ways, so fond are we of them that it’s hard not to be swept along.

Greta Gerwig has achieved magical things with Little Women, and you miss it at your peril.

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.

201 – Marriage Story

A beautifully observed, intelligently written and transparently played drama, Marriage Story shows the separation of two people with deep and ongoing love for each other, and how they change under the stress of their marriage breakup. Mike argues that it’s an advert for therapy, the unread notes in which each partner describes what they love about the other, with which the film opens, returning structurally despite the descent into legal hell and gamesmanship. José remarks upon the generosity the film has towards its characters and the magic that Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver bring, and Mike picks up on the length of some scenes, scenes that move smoothly and in real time through evolving conversations.

Marriage Story is on Netflix now and worth your time.

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.

199 – The Report

Adam Driver and Annette Bening shine in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ historical drama The Report, about Senate staffer Daniel Jones and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s work to investigate the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Mike’s been filling up on this stuff lately, quite by coincidence, watching old episodes of The Daily Show; José didn’t even know what the film was about, and the difference in our responses is perhaps quite telling, the film not going out of its way to help its audience into its murky waters, leaving it up to them to pick up on what it’s on about.

In that respect, it’s a film that requires and respects its audience’s attention and intelligence, though it could do more in dramatic terms to earn it. It’s rather a dry affair, though not without its charms – in particular those of its lead actors, who captivate every second they’re on screen. The story is told partially in flashback, depicting the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the main plot covers the better part of a decade, shifting from initial questions to the depths of Jones’ secretive study, to the fight he and Feinstein face to get it published – and Burns structures all of this well and narrates it admirably smoothly. Unfortunately, he’s content to descend into bog-standard platitudes about the greatness of America being its desire to admit its own mistakes and rancid behaviour, without ever addressing the idea that behaving that way might be equally American.

We compare the film, as we so often do with films about institutional failure and corruption, to Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s exposure of child abuse in the Catholic Church, in particular the complexity of that film’s investigation and apportioning of blame, Mike arguing that the Globe’s realisation of its own part in the cover-up is a crucial and necessary complicating factor, and not something we see here, with the goodies of the Senate and the baddies of the CIA entirely separate – there’s indictment of the people who pursued a programme of torture that was known to be useless, but only the barest, most superficial indictment of the culture that produced and allowed it.

Despite these issues, Mike remains a fan of the film, finding it a well-told story for the most part that does more than simply illustrate its historical context and the arguments therein, and José, who is less familiar with this stuff and has less of an interest in it, is also glad to have seen it, and our discussion was an enjoyable one. The Report is on Amazon Prime and worth a watch.

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.