Tag Archives: drama

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.

195 – Le Mans ’66

Cars, business, and a big chummy Brummie combine in 1960s California as Ford sets itself the mission of beating the all-conquering Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in a film that has not one but two boring titles: Ford v Ferrari in the USA, and Le Mans ’66 in the UK. Mike had a good enough time to see it twice, even though it’s directed by James Mangold, for whom he has little love; José, incredibly, even welled up at the end.

Although one might expect clashes between the egos of our heroes, the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummie racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), their relationship is really one of friendship, common goals, and coping with the management at Ford, for whom Le Mans is about business opportunity and making their way into the increasingly deep pockets of the American teenager. José finds Ken’s family life of particular emotional interest, the support he receives from his wife a pleasure and their arguments complex, though Mike isn’t as complimentary, seeing the film as overall too slick for its own good, failing to generate real tension in the problems it depicts. This goes for the racing, too, for which he reserves some criticism, opining that while the races are good fun and entertaining larks, they don’t convey the stresses or feeling of endurance as they should. But José, a man who cares not a jot for cars or racing, enjoyed the heck out of them, and perhaps that is an achievement all of its own.

The film offers some rather crude comic representations of Italians, the Ferrari pit crew running around like cartoons, which despite only really showing up twice do stick in the mind; and lightly poses the competition as a continuation of the Second World War, the Allies at Ford battling the Axis Power of Italy (at one point, Henry Ford II, played to a T by the great Tracy Letts, brags to Shelby about the role his factory played in building planes for the American war effort, telling him, “Go to war”). It’s an American film about the greatness of America at the height of America’s cultural standing in the world; as José describes it, their empire.

And plonked in the middle of this American myth-making is a sarcastic showoff from Sutton Coldfield, unable to keep his mouth shut except when he’s got some tea in there. Mike responded with unbridled joy to the attention to detail shown to Ken’s origins, not only in the broad, charming accent Bale employs, but also in the dialect he brings with him, talking of cheese cobs and using the phrase “round the Wrekin”, something most of Britain probably has no clue about, let alone America. Peaky Blinders may have given Birmingham a platform in modern pop culture, particularly amongst Americans, but Mike enjoys Ken here much more, ecstatic that a $100m movie that’s going down well with audiences features a Brummie as one of its heroes.

Le Mans ’66 is an honest to god charm offensive of a film, with entertaining action, performances that do the well-written screenplay justice, and even an emotional sting in the tail. Get yourself to the cinema for it. It’s bosting.

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.

190 – Sorry We Missed You

Returning to Newcastle after shining his coruscating lens on the inhumanity of the benefits system in I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach now casts his eye on the gig economy and the exploitation of workers in Sorry We Missed You. A struggling dad and husband gets a job as a delivery driver, coerced into handling unfair responsibility and meeting impossible targets, with the stability of his family bearing the brunt of the stress.

José argues that Sorry We Missed You only tells us what we already know; Mike contends that its dramatisation makes it scarily real. We’re in agreement that it’s not especially interesting filmmaking, though, José suggesting that Loach doesn’t trust images to convey what he wants. And José has never enjoyed his depiction of the working class, finding it unrealistic at best, with no joy or love available to his films’ victims, though he agrees – with some relief! – that there is love in the central family here. Although there’s a lot to criticise in his often mechanical filmmaking, we agree that Loach makes meaningful films with which he sincerely wants to make a difference, and that’s admirable to say the least.

If nothing else, Sorry We Missed You inspired Mike to try and do one nice thing for a stranger upon leaving the cinema, and that must mean it’s a work of genius. If, however, you are already someone who does nice things, then you may find it less inspiring, though it is in some respects vital. It won’t do you any harm to wait until it’s shown on telly though.

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.

188 – Bait

Shot in black and white on a clockwork camera from the 1970s, the hand-development of its 16mm film resulting in scratches and unpredictable changes in exposure, and its soundtrack entirely post-synchronised, Mark Jenkin’s Bait is audiovisually suffused with atmosphere and texture, and not a little dreamlike and weird to boot. It tells the story of Martin, a Cornish fisherman struggling to cope with the upheaval of both his region and his life specifically that results from an influx of middle-class settlers. He’s sold his family’s cottage to a family of outsiders, his brother now uses his fishing boat to take tourists on drunken stag parties, and Martin snarls and growls his way through dealing with these changes.

It’s clear that we’re meant to see Martin as a hero, but he’s tilting at windmills – though perhaps that’s WHY he’s a hero – and José argues that the film is deeply conservative, asking, for instance, why it’s so bad that Martin’s brother adapts to his changing environment by taking tourists on trips. Mike argues that the family of newcomers is too caricatured, so keen is the film for us to see them as invaders who fuck everything up, and thinks about the film’s parochialism in the wider context of Brexit – the unfriendliness to outsiders displayed here speaks to anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the UK; is there a difference between the way the Cornish in Bait feel and the way Brexiters throughout the country feel? Perhaps there’s a tension between the relative power and privilege of the “invaders” and “invaded” that we don’t resolve, but in overly simplistic terms we don’t emerge from the film feeling entirely on its side.

Jenkin’s cinematography and editing beautifully conveys what there is to love about Martin’s way of life, concentrating on manual labour and his close-knit community. José suggests that the film looking the way it does makes it feel as though it’s already an object from the past, with the romance, nostalgia and loss that goes along with it – just as it depicts the decline of its way of life. It also puts us in mind of Italian Neorealism, José bringing up Visconti’s La terra trema, Mike thinking of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and we’re indebted to Mark Fuller for offering a perspective on Bait‘s place within a tradition of similarly claustrophobic coastal dramas, such as Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers, Epstein’s Finis Terrae, Flaherty’s Man of Aran, and Powell’s Edge of the World. Mike also considers the film’s visual and tonal similarity to Aronofsky’s Pi, thinking about how effectively that film places the audience in the main character’s headspace, and suggesting that the visual design here does the same.

Bait is a considerable film, one that speaks deeply to the loss of a certain way of life and the anger and resentment to which that leads. But the film doesn’t appear keen for this resentment to be questioned, and we feel it needs to be.

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.