Tag Archives: thriller

308 – Old

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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.

237 – Bug

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Adapted from Tracy Letts’ 1996 play of the same name, 2006’s Bug, directed by William Friedkin, sees two lonely people with traumatic histories connect and share a descent into madness. It’s a bit of an experiment, its theatrical roots obvious, some questions left unsatisfyingly unanswered, and it’s not until the final act that it takes off. But it’s interesting, features strong performances from Michael Shannon (who also played the role on stage) and Ashley Judd, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in Friedkin, Shannon, Judd or Letts.

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

223 – Army of Shadows

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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.