Tag Archives: drama

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.

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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.

134 – If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight – Second Screening

We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)

We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.

Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.

We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.

And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and Moonlight. Beale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.

A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking 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.

132 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Achingly romantic and visually rapturous, If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, utterly bowls Mike over, while José expresses some reservations about it, despite also finding it enormously impressive. A love story set in New York City in the late 60s/early 70s, the film follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they fall in love, begin to build a life together, but are threatened with its destruction by a racist cop and a false accusation of rape.

The title refers to a street in New Orleans that Baldwin, and subsequently Jenkins, use as a metaphor for the black experience across America, and arguably this is overambitious (if not simply impossible). The universality implied by the title is dissonant with what the film offers, which is much more personal and idiosyncratic. José points out the lack of anger in the film, anger that would be absolutely justified to express given both the general institutional racism the characters face in their place and time, and the specific instance of racist behaviour to which they are subjected: the rape accusation. Instead of fury, we see coping, survival, sadness, resistance and love, all communicated with an extraordinary depth of feeling and a camera that finds the beauty and subtlety in everyone’s face. And ultimately this is wonderful, it’s just that the title and opening intertitle that explains it somehow don’t seem to quite understand their own story.

There’s a huge amount we discuss, including the narration; the film’s excursion to Puerto Rico and how its depiction of the experience of Latinx people might or might not offer an interesting comparison to its central interest, the African-American community; how Brian Tyree Henry shows up for a scene and steals the entire film; how the film aims for visual poetry; how Jenkins conveys rich sense of different people’s lives and environments with just a few shots; and how the film chokes you up with its incredibly tactile depth of feeling that is sustained more or less throughout. We also bring up comparisons to Green Book, Get Out, and in particular, Moonlight, Jenkins’ previous film – José has issues with how he copped out of giving his story of a gay black boy’s difficulties growing up an honest ending, and takes issue with how viscerally one feels Tish’s desire for Fonny due to the way he’s shot, finding it even more disappointing than before that Jenkins didn’t do the same in Moonlight.

It’s a film we want to see again, infectious and emotionally rich, and if you don’t see it in a cinema you’re missing out. It’s great.

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.

131 – Green Book

It’s already being portrayed as the film that will undeservedly win Best Picture for its cuddly, comfortable, comedy-drama version of American racism in the Sixties, but do we dissent from that view? Green Book tells the true story of a road trip through the Deep South shared by jazz pianist Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen).

Mike immediately seizes upon Tony’s inconsistent characterisation, the film using other characters to describe him as deeply racist, but his actual interactions with Shirley consisting of essentially polite microaggressions rather than real malevolence and anger. José also takes issue with the revelation that Shirley is gay, Tony having no problem with it, saying that in his regular job as a bouncer he sees it all the time – the film makes no attempt to explain how he can be entirely understanding and accepting of sexuality while intolerant of skin colour. Mortensen, though, is very characterful, imbuing Tony with entertaining irreverence, and the love Tony displays for his wife, writing her letters every day, is very sweet.

Ali doesn’t match Mortensen’s level of performance, though he is perhaps asked less of, largely remaining aloof throughout the film. Again, we find problems in Shirley’s characterisation. The film sets him up as a fish out of water, not just as a gay, black man in the Deep South, but also amongst other black people – it’s a quirk too far to believe that he’s never heard a Chubby Checker or Little Richard record. And the movements made in the film’s final minutes to engineer a classic happy ending (at Christmas, no less) are as predictable and obvious as they come, but Mike is moved by the ending nonetheless, leaving the cinema with a smile on his face.

Despite the character issues, lack of subtlety (every aspect of the issues it depicts is explained in dialogue), weak visual storytelling (this film doesn’t appear to actually know that it’s being shown in cinemas, so fully does it lack any sense of cinematic nous or style), and project of delivering an unchallenging, white man’s version of racism in which everyone can learn to get along without having to face any hard truths, we found things to like in Green Book, and recommend it as long as you keep your expectations low.

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.