Tag Archives: thriller

325 – Last Night in Soho

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Edgar Wright’s highly anticipated psychological horror, Last Night in Soho, reaches cinemas, and we dive into its themes, its visual magnificence, its relationship to the era and environment it portrays… and its problems. It’s impossible not to admire this film for its lush cinematography, impressive special effects, and the best of its performances, but its screenplay leaves a huge amount to be desired, not just in how it conceptualises the world and people it portrays, but also, more simply, how clumsy it is in telling its story, bafflingly dropping entire character threads that seem like they obviously have places to go, and handling at least one secondary character’s entire subplot very poorly. We discuss the film’s dream logic, or lack thereof; its fear of the very lure of the grimy world it needs to show us, and the moralism that accompanies it; how it trades in nostalgia of Sixties Soho, despite being keen to exhibit is dark side; and the thematic simplicity of almost everything – things are good or bad, to be loved or feared, and room for complexity, there is none.

With all that said, it’s still a very enjoyable couple of hours, a discussion piece, and thanks to its fabulous imagery and in particular the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, easy to recommend.

P.S. Mike would like to acknowledge that he is aware that in the course of speaking too quickly for his brain to issue timely corrections, he wildly overstated how much the ghostly figures in Last Night in Soho are referred to as “blank” or “blanks”. It happens maybe once or twice, if he remembers rightly, and in passing. But he asserts that nonetheless, their faceless, amorphous, anonymous design and relentless, zombie-like behaviour does make them a fair point of comparison with the Blanks in The World’s End. So nyah.

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

315 – The Courier

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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.

308 – Old

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

Reminding José of 1970s auteur exploitation movies and Mike of The Twilight Zone, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old confines its characters, and most of its action, to an isolated beach at a high-class tropical resort. As you might expect with Shyamalan, it’s best seen with little advance knowledge, as the plot twists and turns, revelations throwing previous events into new light.

But we do, indeed, encourage you to see it – it’s perhaps the most entertaining film Shyamalan’s made in some time, and although his dialogue isn’t the finest you’ll ever hear, his camerawork is some of the most interesting. He’s a director who always seeks an interesting or expressive composition, who isn’t satisfied with shot-reverse shot, and his enthusiasm for the image is infectious. Some things could be better – some dramatic moments could be heightened, and it’s a fairly thin film that may not reward a second viewing, when there’s no hope of surprise. But the first viewing is an engrossing one, and we recommend it.

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

293 – Promising Young Woman

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We’re joined by returning guest Celia, on the phone from Canada, to discuss writer-director Emerald Fennell’s unusual revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman. Following the rape and – implied – suicide of her friend Nina, which goes unpunished, Carey Mulligan’s Cassie drops out of medical school, and now spends her nights feigning drunkenness, allowing men to pick her up and take her home, alarming them with her sobriety as they begin to sexually assault her. When a chance reunion with a former classmate reveals that Nina’s rapist is engaged, Cassie embarks upon a campaign of vengeance against those she considers responsible for and involved in committing and allowing her friend’s rape and its cover-up.

Celia loves it, finding that it invokes and brings to life many subtle and important observations about life for women in the patriarchy, enjoying the various forms Cassie’s revenge takes – particularly the “exercises in forced empathy”, in her words – and feeling a call to arms; José decidedly doesn’t, decrying those observations and revenges as cinematically unrealised in what is merely a filmed essay, albeit one that admirably exhibits a style, an aesthetic and a point of view. Mike bravely sits in the middle, pretending to be superior to the other two by virtue of not exhibiting an extreme response to the film. The discussion is varied and passionate – and full of spoilers. Love it or hate it, Promising Young Woman is a thought-provoking, vital film, and well worth watching.

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

284 – Judas and the Black Messiah

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The story of a civil rights activist who deserved a biopic long before now, told from the perspective of the man who killed him. Fred Hampton chaired the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and using his oratorical skills and powers of persuasion formed the Rainbow Coalition, a political movement in which black, white and Puerto Rican organisations combined and worked together. Hampton was identified as a threat by the FBI and his death is considered an assassination under COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal programme of disruption of domestic political organisations. He was killed in December 1969 at the age of 21.

We ask whether it’s a problem that Judas and the Black Messiah frames his story as part of his murderer, William O’Neal’s. For José, the entire story is badly conceived, as Hampton should be the clear focus; for Mike, the problem is in the execution, with O’Neal underdeveloped – but it’s possible that this informant thriller genre structure is what allowed the film to get made in the first place. Mike remarks upon Hampton’s pragmatism in contrast to the narratives around Martin Luther King Jr., murdered only a year before Hampton, which arguably tend to convey idealism for the future as opposed to action in the here and now.

Judas and the Black Messiah is an imperfect but important exploration of an extraordinarily impressive man we should have known more about before now.

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

283 – Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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Ethics and truth in the land of documentary come under the microscope in our discussion of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s love letter to his childhood friend, Andrew Bagby, is a sensational and moving film that you should know as little as possible about before watching. It’s exceptionally effective, built out of a combination of interviews, home footage, still photos and more, masterfully edited to generate emotional affect – but despite its qualities, there are real issues fundamental to its form. It’s a hybrid of two types of film that find themselves in competition here: it’s a documentary, a form about openness and truth; and a thriller, withholding information until it reshapes everything you’ve learned so far. It’s a tension that may well be impossible to avoid – to resolve it might be to totally change Dear Zachary from the deeply personal, passionately made film it is.

The story Dear Zachary tells is powerful, moving and utterly gripping, and the conversation to which it will lead you is rich and illuminating. We recommend it without reservation, even though we have serious reservations about it.

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

248 – Inception

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Could we have found a Christopher Nolan film that José actually enjoys? We explore the brilliantly imagined and executed Inception, a heist movie set inside the human mind, talking up the intelligence and creativity with which the central concept is used, the elegant and effective intercutting and structure, and the noirish, expressive romance that underpins the entire affair.

We’ve had some disappointments with Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy, but Inception was just the antidote. Boy, are we fired up for Tenet now.

Making spoof Inception trailers was all the rage around the time of its release, and here are the two Mike made.

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

243 – Killer Joe

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Our exploration of William Friedkin ends almost where it began, with his second collaboration with Tracy Letts, who, following the adaptation of his second play, Bug, adapts for the screen his first, Killer Joe. A key film in Matthew McConaughey’s career, one of the first in what would become known as the McConaissance, Killer Joe sees his seductive, charming romcom persona repurposed to threatening, chilling effect in the ugly world of trailer parks and contract killing.

We discuss THAT scene with the chicken leg, and compare and contrast it to THAT scene with the crucifix in The Exorcist, asking what might be outrageous about one but not the other. We ask what we’re missing in Letts’ screenplay that others see, and José argues that Friedkin has throughout his career been drawn to second-rate source material – material that here is unquestionably elevated by the cast, who are almost all excellent and believable, in particular Gina Gershon, of whom demanding things are asked, and Juno Temple, who carries with her an otherworldliness that lightens what is a very dark part in a very dark story.

And we take the opportunity to think over the set of Friedkin films that we’ve now seen, including his biggest hits, and consider what we’ve learned, what his achievements and strengths are, where he fails or what he lacks, and where he stands amongst his contemporaries and peers.

José has previous written twice on Killer Joe, once on his blog, and once on The Conversation.

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

239 – Sorcerer

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William Friedkin remakes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, telling four strangers’ tale of their two-hundred-mile journey through the South American jungle, transporting dangerously explosive cargo for a US oil company. Though a flop upon its release, we find some nice things to say about Sorcerer.

It’s impressively narrated, largely wordlessly, although we wouldn’t have minded some character development, and Friedkin’s preference for spectacle over depth is on display: as with The French Connection, the end leaves us asking, “is that all it’s about?” The treatment of South America and its people is lazy if not worse, the central characters ending up in this hell as a form of cosmic punishment for their sins. But there’s a keen sense of pace to Sorcerer, despite how long it takes for the journey to even begin, some memorable images, and one outstanding, stunning set-piece. Its present-day reappraisal is understandable, and despite its problems, it’s worth a look.

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

238 – The French Connection

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A classic of Hollywood crime, The French Connection paints a bleak picture of life and justice in America, as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle demonstrates that no matter how low the drug dealers he pursues, he can sink lower. We ask what its depiction of New York’s underbelly and the accuracy of Doyle’s hunches despite his revolting behaviour says about the filmmakers, and consider Pauline Kael’s assertion that the film is “what we once feared mass entertainment might become”. Underneath the iconic style and unforgettable chase, is there anything meaningful to The French Connection?

(You can see Mike’s film, which for some reason he doesn’t mind comparing to The French Connection, below.)

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