Episode 58: Close vs Boys Don’t Cry: Close Boys

(Let’s start with a content warning, as this episode’s films contain scenes of extreme violence, self harm and suicide.) If you’re happy to continue, join us as we watch two films about the many forms of love this time: new Belgian drama Close and 1999’s classic Boys Don’t Cry. They form a great double bill, outstanding, beautiful, moving, absorbing, tragic and transformative. But which film reminds us vividly of our ‘happy place’? And which film feels so contemporary it’s a shock when one of the characters uses a landline phone?

You can also hear us fail to remember the name of Nic Cage’s best film, try to figure out what ‘Benelux’ means, and discuss the difference between ‘hot potatoes’ and ‘living in each other’s pockets’. Plus a quick look at a classical music movie, a thumbs down for the Spielberg biopic, a laugh with a robotic doll assassin, and a brief word from our sponsor – although we’re not sure if what they’re saying is an ad or a warning….

Episode 57: Popcorn Counter: VHS

Join us as we hide in a little bubble of nostalgia at the popcorn counter this week. Before AI and chatbots, before Netflix and YouTube, before dvd, there was VHS. We explain why we think those chunky cassettes might possibly have been the most important thing to happen to cinema ever, both for film viewers and for film makers. So what if you spent half your evening adjusting the tracking and then had to watch the movie through a fog of static that would get even blurrier just before the good bit? It was ANALOG. You can’t beat that. ANALOG. Do you hear? ANALOG!

Don’t Worry Darling (2022): A Lesson in Tailoring

The Chiffon Prisoner

To make a good suit, a classic 1950s suit, the kind of suit that James Mason or Cary Grant might wear, requires twenty three different pieces of fabric. The material is very important, and the accuracy of the measurements and the precision of the cuts is essential. But even if the elements are perfect they won’t make a great suit unless they are stitched together just right.

And that, I think, is the problem with Don’t Worry Darling. Many great pieces of fabric that haven’t quite been sewn together into the suit they deserve.

Florence Pugh is Alice, a 1950s housewife living with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) in an isolated desert community where the women cook and clean and gossip and the men drive off everyday to a secret facility lead by Frank (Chris Pine), to do work that no one will talk about. Are they making ‘innovative materials’ as they claim, or is it weapons or maybe mind-control machines? After she sees one of the other wives apparently commit suicide, Alice’s ‘perfect’ life starts to unravel, amid strange hallucinations and possible flashbacks to a different life altogether. What is real, what is illusory, and what is going on?

Pugh is fantastic at the centre of the picture, ably supported by Styles who gives a performance far better than the lukewarm reception he seemed to get at the time of the film’s release would suggest, and Pine – not an actor I generally warm to – gives maybe a career-best turn as a cult leader dressed as a CEO.

So with all those great elements, why doesn’t the film quite work?

It’s a screenwriting truism that directors are interested in scenes while screenwriters are interested in stories, and this film seems to me to be a terrific example of this conflict. Because there are many outstanding scenes in this film. Many. Eerie, foreboding, romantic, tragic. Director Olivia Wilde has created many wonderful scenes with a beautifully balanced cocktail of acting, soundtrack and especially cinematography – this film looks fabulous. There’s a real ‘The Prisoner’ goes to Nevada vibe here.

But all these great scenes just don’t quite gel into a coherent whole. It is a director’s film and not a writer’s one. The story resets too many times – we see something weird happen but then Alice is okay, again and again. Plot threads are established then abandoned – what happened with the plane? Who are the bus driver and the medical staff, are they simulations or real people? And the world building is patchy, with some essential rules only explained at the last minute, or not explained at all – how does death work in this place? Who knows what’s happening and who doesn’t? Is Frank’s wife a pawn in the whole endeavour, or is she a grand master? The building blocks are good but the issues are with the thread that holds them together.

The result of this haphazard sewing is to leave the viewer with a poorly fitting suit made of the very finest fabric. Beautiful in closeup, yes, and stylish in many parts, but ultimately too tight here, too loose there, too baggy all over and eventually tripping you up when you try to climb the stairs. With just a firmer grasp on the big arcs of the story, it could have been terrific, though. I look forward to Wilde’s next runway show with anticipation.

Episode 56: Popcorn Counter: Welcome to our New AI Overlords

You can’t move for blog posts and YouTube videos about ChatGPT at the moment, but what is it going to mean for working writers? Will AI help us, giving every writer a patient editor and a sympathetic sounding board to ease them through the painful development process? Or will it steal all the jobs and throw us away, leaving us no option but to look for employment in an Amazon warehouse or sweeping up at the local cinema? Join us at the popcorn counter as we give what we like to call ‘CheatGPT’ some writing assignments of our own, and come to our own rather downbeat conclusions as it answers our questions in its irritatingly bland and cheerful tone…

M3gan (2023): Plastic Fantastic

There must be something good in the coffee on board American Airlines, because I watched three films on one of their flights this week and they all seemed pretty great.

I’d previously skipped M3gan on its theatrical release because I assumed from the name that it must be a sequel to movies called something like ‘Megan: Death Doll’ and ‘Megan 2: Polymer Warrior’, neither of which I’ve seen. But that is because, of course, they don’t exist, and despite its name the film is not a sequel.

I’m glad I caught up with it now, though, as it turned out I laughed more times in this new Blumhouse horror than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s hilarious.

M3GAN is a prototype robot toy, a curious, machine learning, titanium playmate, and the natural successor to the Furby. ‘Today is the day we kicked Hasbro in the dick!’ exclaims triumphant toy company exec David when he sees a working demonstration. Imagine ChatGPT meets the Terminator in a four foot tall doll aimed at Ariana Grande fans. She is emotionally attached to her nine year old owner, Katy, who loses her parents in a traffic accident at the start of the movie – so every time Katy gets upset, M3gan will do everything she can to protect her. Can you guess what might go wrong? Yup, that. And that. Ooh, yeah, and that.

There’s a difference between being predictable and fulfilling a promise, and M3gan stays on exactly the right side of that line for almost its entire running time, only let down by an unearned story beat in the third act when Katy suddenly decides she prefers her disinterested human guardian Gemma to robo-bestie M3gan, and a rather too telegraphed sequence of pay offs in the last fifteen minutes. But the second act is *chef’s kiss*.

Openings are easy. Well, not EASY, but it’s rare I see a film without a good enough opening twenty minutes. If your first twenty pages are no good, you’re unlikely to get your project moving at all. And everyone knows endings are hard – hard to nail perfectly, so they tie up everything neatly while still being surprising.

But most often it’s that long second act that’s the hardest part of a film to get right, in my opinion. All the stuff that happens between the set up and the goodnight, the wax and wane, the to and fro, the development, the BUSINESS. You might have some ideas for scenes but how do you get it to flow naturally and how do you control the pace and modulate the tone? It’s like a long, long plate spinning performance. That’s the very hardest part of screenwriting, I find.

But M3gan, with a script by Akela Cooper and James Wan, utterly hammers that second act. The film is short and fairly low budget, so the action is focussed and brisk, yet it’s happy to introduce new ideas, popping out little subplots like bite sized treats that don’t distract or slow down the story. Here’s a deadly robot, yes, but here’s the child psychologist, here’s a bit of industrial espionage, here’s a play group in the forest, here’s a parenting dilemma. It’s organic and thematically consistent and inevitable feeling without being pat or mechanical. And, as I mentioned, there are some great gags, one after the other.

The only problem will be what to call the sequel. M2gan? M3g2n? M3GAIN? (Need more coffee…)

Episode 55: Warriors of Future vs Ghost in the Shell: Straight to the Amygdala

We’ve seen the future in this episode’s films, and frankly it doesn’t look like a place we’d want to visit. Netflix’s new Hong Kong Chinese sci-fi action movie Warriors of Future paints a bleak picture of the rest of the 21st century, with killer plants, killer robots, killer air pollution and killer civil engineers to contend with. We compare it to 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell, which adds urban flooding, malign AI, existential crises and brain hacking to the mix. But which film fights for the greater good, and which film exudes noirish resignation? Which film has the biggest spider-shaped armoured tank in it? And which film sees the protagonist’s clothes fall off every time they need to start shooting? Plus a run in with the garbage collectors, a quick look at an anime sequel, a farewell to a veteran film journalist, and a singalong chant about dog adoption.

Joker (2019): Crimelord or Edgelord?

I have come late to this film but it seems to my eye more or less as zeitgeisty now as it was on its release in 2019.

Joaquim Phoenix gives a highly committed performance as the unemployed clown and aspiring stand up Arthur Fleck who, having been let down by life, psychiatrically ill, his medical services cut and his housing poorly maintained, becomes violent and then inspires an entire movement of eat-the-rich anarchists.

On a craft level the film is outstanding. 1980s Gotham is grimy and grim, urine yellow and refrigerator-light blue, with a sense of place so believable you can smell the stench of fried onions and uncollected trash.

But it’s the political content of the film that garnered the headlines. And there’s a great deal to unpick. Fleck might be an unhinged, violent iconoclast, but all he’s really asking for in the film is a little socialism: healthcare and regulated housing, universal basic income and a fair redistribution of wealth. And an education system that teaches enough social cohesion and tolerance that men know not to harass lone women on the subway. On paper it doesn’t seem like a bad manifesto at all.

But it’s not so much what is said as the way it’s said. The movie may state its ideas clearly, but they look different when juxtaposed with the fact that all the anarchists are men.

What does this film think of women? Not much. It’s a man’s world here. White men at that, I think. As soon as you notice that none of the rioters or dissenters is a woman, the film stops looking like a violent cry for collectivism and instead reads as a story about angry incels flipping police cars over. It feels like someone important read the script as far as act three before they remembered that Joker is supposed to be a baddie, so they quickly put all the socialism in parentheses and demanded a few more scenes of men being dicks.

As it stands, by the end of the film, following a scene that heavily implies (SPOILER) a black female psychiatrist being murdered off screen by Fleck before he does a little dance, the whole movie feels less to me like ‘eat the rich’ and more like ‘that poor, much maligned Jordan Peterson actually talks a lot of sense, it’s such a shame a few of his followers take things too far.’ As the credits rolled I couldn’t figure out if the film is about anarchists or 4Chan. What does that say about attitudes to collectivism?

Episode 54: Popcorn Counter: White Lines

Back in the 80s, when we were naive enough to think that the song ‘White Lines’ was a road safety anthem, cocaine was a big thing in movies – and not a small thing in the movie industry. Join us in a cramped toilet cubicle for a few snorts of our favourite cocaine films, including Die Hard, Annie Hall and Maria Full of Grace. Plus a quick look at drug slang, a celebration of Melle Mel, and a little insight into how medical grade cocaine is used legally.

Episode 53: Cocaine Bear vs Grizzly Man: Dude, Where’s My Bear?

We take a hike in the wilderness for this week’s episode, and find ourselves shimmying up a tree at speed in the hope of avoiding the worst of Cocaine Bear, the not-so-impressive new comedy horror from the Lord and Miller stable. Then once we’re in a position of safety we take our time with Werner Herzog’s astonishing and revelatory 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. There’s a lot of gruesome violence between these two, but which film has the scariest bear in it? Which film has the most heinous cliches? And why is the most frightening character in either of these films someone who is barely seen on screen at all? Plus a self-help book from the master of suspense, a quick look at new European features ‘Close’ and ‘Godland’, reflections on ‘Medical Student TikTok’, a revisit of a tasty Pixar classic and a confession that at least one of us doesn’t know what a ‘wheelhouse’ is. What IS a wheelhouse? Seriously? What do you wheel in it?

Bonus Features

This week on the pod we’re talking about the Werner Herzog picture Grizzly Man. It’s an amazing collage of interviews, archive material and found footage, but interestingly there is a bonus feature on the DVD about the making of the film’s soundtrack which probably sheds as much light on one of the primary themes of the film as anything that appears in the main event. Herzog subtly manipulates and directs the musicians in much the same way that he does the actors, his process clearly visible on camera.

It made me realise how much I miss the bonus features that used to be the norm at the height of the DVD revolution. This was one of the selling points of these silver discs when they were first introduced. At the time it wasn’t clear if the improved picture quality of DVD over VHS cassette was going to be enough to convince consumers to switch to the new format, so the notion of bonus features like alternative soundtracks and director’s commentaries, ‘making of’ documentaries and deleted scenes were all crammed onto the disc and advertised with stickers and banners.

Some of these add-ons amounted almost to a film-school-in-a-box. The DVD for Christopher Nolan’s debut ‘Following’ had a feature that let you follow along with the shooting script, gave you the option to rewatch the scenes of the film in chronological instead of narrative order, and had a director’s commentary that was 50 percent of a complete course on low budget film making. Robert Rodriguez’s commentary for ‘El Mariachi’ filled in the other 50 percent.

Where are the directors’ commentaries now? I have no evidence, but I suspect they’ve died because of a mix of budget constraints and filmmakers’ reluctance to draw back the curtain. Any extras that still exist have become promotional shorts on YouTube or music videos. Online streaming would be the obvious home for these bonuses, but perhaps there simply isn’t the demand.

Instead maybe DVD will become the new vinyl in a few years, when nostalgia for the golden age of directors’ commentaries becomes a cool hipster thing. Just in case, I won’t clear out all those old DVDs in the attic just yet. Might be sitting on (under) a goldmine…