Tag Archives: drama

163 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.

Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here, instead only wanting to use the Manson family to rag on hippies, is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.

The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.

Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.

You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.

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.

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159 – O Fantasma

We’re still with MUBI and grateful for the opportunity to see O Fantasma, directed by João Pedro Rodrigues: a film José had heard of and been encouraged to see by various friends, but hadn’t quite come his way until now. He thought the film was only a few years old and could now kick himself for having waited twenty years to see it. José thinks it a masterpiece, Mike doesn’t; though the film being clearly aimed at a gay male audience might help account for it, and it speaks to José deeply.

Following Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), a very handsome young garbageman in Lisbon, perpetually horny and on the hunt for sex, O Fantasma is feverish sex dream of a film, a reverie, that evokes the feeling of horniness, of being up for sex but having no one with whom to find release with. What starts as a hunt that eventually turns the hunter into the hunted. We discuss how the character of Sergio seems to have no filter and no fear. He lives in a homophobic culture fraught with danger but is free. The sexual situations seem to take on the form of a dare and, even in the most potentially dangerous encounters, Sergio’s glance seems to say “I’m not afraid of you and it could get sexual if you want it to”. We discuss how the film’s story is structured differently to a conventional narrative: there is a conveyance of a certain kind of sexual dreamscape. The various episodes might not cohere in terms of plot but do come together in the film’s conveyance of atmosphere and feeling.

We note how for an earlier generation this would have been an X-rated film due not only to its subject matter but to its explicitness. We also remark upon the film’s real queer gaze that is also a gay male gaze; something worth distinguishing. We compare the film to the New French Extremity films of the era but also note that where they possessed had a harsh kind of crudeness, O Fantasma is very stylised. José finds the film unusual and beautiful, with extraordinary images that are really potent and poetic.

Sergio feels his desires in a culture in which he’s allowed none of them. Yet this is a film that celebrates a full spectrum of desires, the freedom to desire and to act on one’s desires. O Fantasma is a film that will confirm every homophobe’s worst views of gay men – and that partly its strength. It’s a film that is made in and asserts freedom. Sergio’s gaze is radiant, subversive, and defiant.

If you’re a gay man interested in film, this is unmissable.

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.

158 – Border

Pickings are slim at the cinema at the moment, so it’s MUBI to the rescue. We chose Border almost at random, our criteria being only something that looked interesting and would still be on rotation by the time we released the podcast. And what a fascinating film we picked.

Border is a Swedish art film that reeks of mud, pain and isolation, but with a sense of fantasy and irony that render it a curious, surprisingly light affair, despite some gruesome imagery and dark plot developments. It gives us a lot to talk about: the interstices of ideas of gender, place, what it is to be human, how we categorise ourselves, what makes us behave towards others as we do. The film takes a figure of fairy tale, fantasy, and horror, placing it in a contemporary setting. It supports all kinds of interesting interpretations: as a racial narrative, as a trans narrative, as an exploration of nature vs. nature, as a dramatisation of the fluidity of ‘the self’. It opens up beautifully as we discuss it.

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.

146 – Todos somos marineros

Todos somos marineros (in English, We’re All Sailors) was partly inspired by a workshop in which a group of students spent eight hours discussing the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, and a news story about three Russian sailors left stranded in a Peruvian port due to the sudden bankruptcy of the company they worked for. Writer-director Miguel Ángel Moulet developed a story about just that predicament, a story in which two of the sailors are brothers attempting to find their place in the world, stranded in the coastal city of Chimbote, able neither to go home nor to establish a stable life in Peru, living in limbo, tentatively making connections with the locals.

Moulet is a graduate of EICTV, the Cuban film school, where José visits and spends a few days teaching every year, and this is how we come to bring this podcast to you, José having been screened Moulet’s debut feature recently and keen to share it with us. We’re far from the first to see it, the film being on the festival circuit and already having picked up a number of nominations and awards, including the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize at the Toulouse Latin America Film Festival. A screener was made available for us to watch, and we’re so grateful that it was, as it’s a beautiful, sensitive film.

That line from The Merchant of Venice reads: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”, and that simple thought informs the tone and themes of Moulet’s entire film. Todos somos marineros is a story about isolation, displacement, loneliness, and a kind of all-encompassing, ethereal sadness. The central four characters pair up throughout the film – the two brothers, Tolya, the elder, who feels a degree of paternal responsibility towards his younger brother Vitya; the cafe owner and her delivery boy, Sonia and Tito, who function as a kind of surrogate mother and son; Tolya and Sonia, who are in a loving relationship, and Vitya and Tito, who grow close and whose relationship leads to the film’s climax and quiet cliffhanger ending. These pairings are developed and expressed subtly, intelligently, and with heart.

The film makes significant use of long takes, both moving and still, and doesn’t exactly discriminate between when they should and shouldn’t be used. At their best, these shots allow the performances space to breathe, contribute to a delicate, slow pace, or help to convey a rich sense of the characters’ environment; at their worst, they distract from or even obscure what the film is showing us. There’s also use of a trope in which the film opens on a flashforward we’ll return to later, one that effectively establishes a strong mood and mystery but which Mike argues is not purposefully used, and which detracts from the film’s later scenes. (At least, that’s his argument for why he didn’t grasp what was going on in the film’s final third.) On the other hand, there is simply gorgeous cinematography by Camilo Soratti, his camera capturing dense, diffuse natural light infusing the air over Chimbote with extraordinarily beautiful colour and texture. And, overall, Moulet’s direction exhibits a strong control of tone, the film surging with the sense of sadness and loneliness so crucial to it.

There’s more besides all of this to discuss, and we take our time to do so. Todos somos marineros is an imaginative, rich debut feature that is deservedly earning praise and winning prizes. There’s no predicting if and when it will come to a cinema near you, but if you do get the opportunity to see it, we urge you to jump at it.

José spoke to Miguel Ángel Moulet recently, and their conversation (in Spanish) can be heard here.

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.

141 – The Passionate Friends

We visit 1949’s romantic drama The Passionate Friends, a favourite of previous podcast guest Celia, who describes it as “what would have happened if they’d had the affair in Brief Encounter“. It offers a complex story of love and relationships, characters who want different things from their relationships and a love triangle that gradually shifts and changes over many years. Mary (Ann Todd) loves Steven (Trevor Howard), but refuses to marry him, wanting to belong only to herself, as she puts it; instead, she marries Howard (Claude Rains), a successful banker who gives her security, stability, social status and affection. Dramatic irony, shifting affections and a sensitivity to the subtleties of love and relationships create a fascinating and beautiful film.

There’s a lot to discuss, including and especially the unconventional Howard – in any other film he would be an obstacle to the romantic couple’s true love, but here, although he has villainous aspects, he is revealed to be as three dimensional a character and as deserving of respect and a happy ending as anybody else. It’s the part he plays in the film’s conclusion that makes Mike cry. We also talk about David Lean’s direction, his use of visual layering, considered staging and occasional flourishes of editing emphasising the characters’ emotional states and calmly and smartly conveying to the audience the right information at the right time.

It’s not held in the esteem that Brief Encounter, a film with obvious parallels in many ways, is, and that’s unfortunate, as it is deeply felt and quite beautiful. It appears to only be available on Blu-Ray in France (that’s where Mike’s copy had to come from, at any rate), but its loving restoration is worth seeking out.

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.

140 – Fighting with My Family

A young girl from a tight-knit family in Norwich gets a shot at her dream, joining the WWE, the glamorous home of professional wrestling. Parental pride, sibling rivalry, and a lot of hard work ensues, as do great performances generating a lot of laughs. We’re not that keen on some of the clichés – very little happens that you wouldn’t expect, and some of the scenes take a long time to get there – but we like the male-female rivalry, the way Vince Vaughn and Nick Frost light up the screen, and of course, the fact that a big promotional corporate movie for Americans starts off in a tiny living room in Norwich.

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.

136 – Die Welle

In response to José’s excursion into the world of Michael Curtiz a few months ago, Mike has picked four films of his own to discuss, the first being writer-director Dennis Gansel’s 2008 high school drama Die Welle (The Wave). Based on the true story of a 1967 social experiment, Die Welle follows one week in a high school in which, as an exercise intended to teach his pupils about the methods and dangers of fascism, a teacher creates a fascist movement, named The Wave, that rapidly spirals out of control.

Die Welle is first and foremost remarkable for convincingly depicting the seductive aspects of fascist movements, such as the shared symbols that engender group unity and, indeed, simply the positivity of being a member of a like-minded group. Mike compares it to Starship Troopers, claiming that it doesn’t just argue its case but actually makes it work on its audience – rather than seeing why The Wave is appealing to the kids, you feel it too. José discusses what sets it apart from your typical high school movie and how an even greater focus on the kids, rather than the teacher, might have strengthened it.

The classroom scenes allow the film to develop its arguments about fascism through ersatz Socratic dialogues, the teacher’s seminar-style classes allowing pupils to make competing points in quick succession, clashing with each other as they do so. But Mike points out that perhaps all is not what it seems: one student, for instance, goes unchallenged when she claims that high unemployment and social injustice are social conditions that favour dictatorship, but the world in which these children live bears few markers of such sociopolitical problems, yet they enthusiastically join and build their movement. Indeed, one motivation behind the experiment is the students’ belief that Germany, having already experienced a fascist dictatorship, is immune from another. Perhaps, the film suggests, we aren’t quite as clever and protected as we’d like to congratulate ourselves on being.

Aside from the film’s central thesis, there are minor details in its world that pique our interest, José noticing the students’ access to and expertise in the use of image editing and web design software; Mike picking up on the educated, liberated attitude to sex the characters display (it’s hard to imagine an American high school movie treating sex with similar freedom and confidence). We remark upon how believable the characters are (with perhaps one exception) in their interactions and responses to the nascent movement.

Neither of us can claim that it’s a perfect film – there’s little in it that is visually expressive, and its mechanisms are too openly displayed, with some characters too clearly intended to represent ideas and serve plot functions. But Die Welle is an enormously engaging, intelligent, and rather bold exploration of the mechanisms and appeal of fascism that enthusiastically uses cinematic affect to convey its message that we may all be more susceptible to its dangers than we think.

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.