Filmspotting

"The Flagship Film Podcast"

“The flagship film podcast” featuring in-depth reviews, top 5 lists and interviews.

"If Beale Street Could Talk" Excerpt

Josh: The last time most of us saw him, Adam, writer/director Barry Jenkins was accepting Oscars for 2016's "Moonlight," including, quite dramatically, Best Picture. That sort of success gets you a lot in Hollywood. It's one reason I still like to keep an eye on the awards, and indeed, Jenkins used his newfound clout to pursue a passion project – an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel, "If Beale Street Could Talk," set in 1970s Harlem. The plot centers on a troubled young couple – Fonny, played by Stephan James, who is awaiting trial in prison after being falsely accused of rape, and his girlfriend, Tish, played by Kiki Lane, who is desperately working to clear his name while also carrying their child. Though an adaptation like this is no easy task, Jenkins surely had more resources at his disposal post-Oscars than he did while making "Moonlight." I wonder if you saw any particular evidence of that on the screen, Adam. In many ways this is clearly the work of the same filmmaker in terms of style and sensibility. But is there anything about the movie that reveals Jenkins taking these resources, this opportunity to even more fully come into his own powers? In short what impressed you most? I already know you liked it. 

Adam: Yeah. 

Josh: So what impressed you most about "If Beale Street Could Talk?" 

Adam: I loved it actually, and there's so much I can outline that really impressed me. I don't begrudge anyone certainly who prefers "Moonlight," to, "If Beale Street Could Talk," who perhaps even thinks it's the more provocative or challenging film. I don't probably agree with that, but either way for me, "Beale Street," is no less of an achievement. I think you could actually point to its ambition compared to "Moonlight," at least in terms of its scale. The sheer number of characters and the scope of, "If Beale Street Could Talk," is grander than "Moonlight," and the audacity of trying to harness James Baldwin's language, and his mixture of the personal and political. Maybe as well – and we'll talk about this I hope in a little bit more detail – the way Jenkins doubles down here on the influence of Wong Kar-wai. The lushness of this film is something that we saw elements of, undoubtedly, in "Moonlight," and here he's taken it to another level. I just want to say my experience with this movie, as we've joked a little bit about cramming all of these films in last minute. And we will confess a lot of them to not having the greatest viewing experience because, unlike "Roma," which we did both see on the big screen we both watched, "If Beale Street Could Talk," from the comfort of our couches. 

Josh: Yeah. 

Adam: And maybe not ideal, especially when this happens often. You're very excited to watch a movie – of course you are! You have high expectations – it's Barry Jenkins. Why wouldn't you? But it's a weeknight and you're tired and you know almost nothing about the movie except it doesn't promise to be an easy sit. I suspected that I was going to see some bad things happen to good people in this movie and I apologize if that didn't get me pumped up to throw, "If Beale Street Could Talk," in my DVD player. And then the movie starts and within seconds all of that tension and all of that trepidation just dissipates, which doesn't mean I didn't end up wrecked watching some very bad things happen to some very good people. But really for me, Josh, from frame one, I was so swept up in this romance – the central relationship between Tish and Fonny, and the romanticism with which Jenkins renders that relationship – that I was comfortable observing this world for as long as Jenkins would let me do it. I think it really sunk in from the opening sounds – not even the images, but the opening sounds of Nicolas Britell score. 

Josh: Oh, it's a great score. 

Adam: There's a melancholy to it, an elegiac quality to it, a deepness, and a resonance that grounds it in the harshness of the world that surrounds these two lovers. But it also often flutters and occasionally soars. And I think for me it really just... It hints at a spirit that is all powerful and eternal, just like this love is, and then we see that manifested in the cinematography as well. I could go on and on but I want to hear what you thought. 

"The Favourite" Excerpt

Adam: Olivia Coleman as the beleaguered queen. Rachel Weisz as her ruthless, but most trusted friend and adviser, Lady Sarah. And Emma Stone as the interloping viper, Abigail. And just when I thought last week's conversation about "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," had exhausted the need to come up with a more synonyms for cynicism, we have "The Favourite," a film with a decidedly lower body count than "Scruggs," with regard to onscreen casualties anyway, but arguably even a more acetic view of human nature. Nobody in Queen Anne's early 18th century court gets shot in the back by a rival, as we see in the Coen's Old West – though a rifle may not-so-accidentally get fired in one's general direction to deliver a pointed message during an otherwise elegant afternoon of pigeon shooting. And even the lowliest kitchen helper with no power or political agenda to angle for is more likely to connive to inflict pain or embarrassment than spare a moment of compassion for a new servant.

So Josh, who did you find the most redeemable in this basket of deplorables? Or perhaps who did you find the most entertainingly irredeemable? Coleman's exhaustingly needy childlike monarch? Weisz's icy, brutally honest Sarah? Stone's seemingly wide-eyed schemer? Or, rakish puppet master Yorgos Lanthimos? So determined to devise and explore hermetically sealed worlds that present their own unique language, protocols and acrid blend of decorum and debauchery. 

Josh: Yeah, this is quite the cheery vision of humanity isn't it? As we would expect from Lanthimos. I think we both knew what we were getting into at this point from that director and for the most part we both really enjoy getting into these sorts of dramas that that he gives us. Great question. I would argue they're all redeemable. 

Adam: Nice! 

Josh: But I would also say-. 

Adam: Such compassion, Josh. 

Josh: I guess I would say that some of them have more redeeming qualities than others? Let's start at the bottom, which it sounds like we both agree is Emma Stone's Abigail. 

Adam: Maybe not. 

Josh: Oh, OK. I mean she is just out for the kill from the beginning, and understandably so for many reasons – the more we hear about her past and, as you said, her station in her class... Man she's– look out. Look out for her, right? And it is, to answer your other question, a perverse delight to watch Stone get to showcase new levels of deceitfulness, especially when her early reputation for sure is as a sweet-natured – someone who plays sweet natured parts, right? Rachel Weisz's Lady Sarah... I think there might be a little bit of genuine love there for the queen, and it's gotten just tangled up in plays for political power and all sorts of other things that we see happen in this film, so that [love] seems to have faded and faded until it's almost entirely gone. But there is... You still see glimmers of it. That makes her, you know, have some redeemable qualities.

I think Queen Anne – and this is maybe tied to how I enjoy the performances. Enjoyed them all, thought they were all great. But Olivia Colman as Queen Anne is just fantastic in the way that she's at once the most... She is the most easily manipulated in some ways, but she's also the master manipulator. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that she's at the top of the chain, right? She's the queen, but she plays that card throughout and Coleman just gives her... There's a lot of "King Lear," going on in this movie, and I think Coleman captures what that play has. It's this idea of a monarch as a having this weary ferocity of a dying animal. There's a desperation to her so that she's at once the movie's most monstrous presence when she really wields that power. But she's also I found her to be the most sympathetic and maybe having the most redeemable qualities because of that. So that's sort of where I landed after a first viewing of this – in one way perfect Lanthimos film in the themes that it's exploring and intriguingly different in that costume drama setting. 

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" Excerpt

Josh: This is indeed a Coen brothers friendly show, Adam. The work of Joel and Ethan Coen tends to dominate our Filmspotting Madness tournaments each year, where listeners vote in an NCAA-style contest pitting movies and their makers against each other. "Fargo," won our Best of the 1990s edition. The Coen brothers themselves won our Best Directors tournament. When it comes to the two of us though it seems as if we equally appreciate the Coens, but maybe from different vantage points. Case in point, in the last 10 years we've each named a Coen brothers film as our favorite in a given year. But for you that was 2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis." For me it was 2016's "Hail, Caesar!" If you look at our separate lists on Letterboxd, ranking their films – or could decipher our opening shoot out – our top fives share only two titles in common, "Fargo," and "No Country for Old Men."

All of this brings us to "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," the Coen's anthology Western, comprised of six separate tales set on the American frontier. I was quite intrigued when I saw where we each ranked "Buster Scruggs" on those Letterboxd lists. Before I get to that though, a bit more background on "Buster." The opening tale, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," features Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a singing gunslinger who wears snappy white chaps and tends to shoot up every saloon he enters. He's sort of like a smiley Anton Chigurh. The next tale, "Near Algodones," stars James Franco as a dimwitted bank robber and Stephen Root as a resourceful teller. This is where you yell, "Pan shot," Adam. 

Adam: Pan shot! 

Josh: Nice. "Meal Ticket," follows, the bleakest installment, featuring Liam Neeson as a travelling showman and Harry Melling as his act, an armless, legless man reciting lofty oratory poetry, famous speeches, [and] Bible passages to frigid frontier crowds. That puts us at the halfway point where we get the cheerier, "All Gold Canyon," with Tom Waits as a persistent prospector, and "The Gal Who Got Rattled," a tentative, touching romance between a pioneer woman named Alice, played by Zoe Kazan, and a trail guide named Billy, played by Bill Heck, who showcases some real leading man chops. Did you notice how Kazan pronounces Oregon, Adam? 

Adam: I did actually. [Laughs

Josh: I expect the Coens to get many, many emails. 

Adam: And then I noticed how Bill Heck said it correctly. 

Josh: [Laughs] Things do come to a spooky conclusion with "The Mortal Remains," featuring a midnight stagecoach. Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O'Neill, and Brendan Gleeson are the passengers who may or may not be galloping to their final resting place. So what do we make of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in its entirety, Adam? Let's start with the unlikely fact that you and I both ranked it in the same spot on Letterboxd amongst the Coen brothers filmography, and it's even lower than where listener Ben had it at 11. We've both got it at a lowly number 15, so I'm curious to hear is there a particular reason "Buster Scruggs," fell that far down for you. Or do you essentially think it's pretty great, and that list is mostly a testament – as Ben says – to how damn good the Coens are? 

Adam: I hate to spoil your setup. You had some nice symmetry going there, but within about 24 hours of putting it in the 15 spot– 

Josh: Oh my gosh you re-ranked them?

Adam: –on letterboxd, I reranked it. 

Josh: You're ridiculous. 

Adam: I reranked it and I definitely– 

Josh: You're ridiculous! 

Adam: –knew I had to rerank it after I watched "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," for a second time. I actually right now, Josh, have it at number 12. 

Josh: OK... 

Adam: And it is absolutely a testament to how good the Coen brothers filmography is. I think "Buster Scruggs," is pretty great, and we will not devolve into breaking down those rankings. I probably have, if I wanted to get really specific, five different tiers of Coen brothers movies, and that starts with six movies that are just flat out masterpieces – six movies that [...] on any given day I could take from any slot and move into the number one slot. But if I wanted to be a little more general about it, I could simply say that there are two tiers of Coen brothers movies of the 17 I've seen. There's one I haven't seen, and that is, "The Ladykillers." There are 15 that I think fall on some scale from really, really good to, as I said, masterpiece, and then there's two – just two at the bottom that I don't fully appreciate. Those are "Intolerable Cruelty" – I know there are some defenders out there of that film, and there are a lot more defenders out there of "Burn After Reading," which I'll admit I probably got wrong and just need to see again. I think the two that we really are actually split on the most is "The Man Who Wasn't There" – you have that ranked a lot higher – and also "True Grit". I think both are very good films, but those I know are right up there in that, what, top eight or nine for you, if not higher? 

Josh: Yeah, I like both of those, and also I really like "Intolerable Cruelty." I would say the one that I'm lower on than you is "A Serious Man." 

Adam: Yeah. 

Josh: That's basically how things shake out, so we do have distinct differences when it comes to the Coens. 

Adam: And we might have a distinct difference when it comes to our reads on this film, "Buster Scruggs." I think it is an unabashedly bleak yet oddly hopeful and entertaining meditation on the Coens perennial occupations the folly of human nature and death. I only know how you feel Josh based on your little Letterboxd blurb, but based on some of your phrasing there, I get the sense that you have a little bit of a different read on this. 

"Widows" Excerpt

Adam: Back in January, when we did our Top 5 Questions of the 2018 movie year, I asked which female-led heist octet ensemble will we most want to see get away with it – "Ocean's Eight" or "Widows?" And yes, I was including in that octet, on the "Widows" side, some of the men who do populate the cast of Steve McQueen's "Widows." But this is undoubtedly a female driven film. I did not ever see "Ocean's 8," so I can't answer that question. Maybe you can give us the short answer here in just a little bit. It was certainly one of my most anticipated movies of the year overall for a variety of reasons. I think you were excited as well – certainly the pedigree of Steve McQueen, the director of "12 Years a Slave," "Shame," and my favorite film of his, "Hunger." Gillian Flynn – I know I like "Gone Girl" more than you... I think probably a lot more than you, but I was curious to see the fruits of that collaboration on the screenplay between Flynn and McQueen. And for whatever reason, we Chicagoans seem to love seeing our city depicted on screen. This movie is in every way a Chicago movie, not just in the locations. It's really about so many of the things I think we identify as prototypical Chicago, even if for some that's not from any experience actually living here – it's just from seeing Chicago as it's portrayed in the movies. This is one of those movie portrayals of Chicago, and that doesn't necessarily make it a false one. But I'm going to put you in the role here of the thief who's preparing for the heist and you have your checklist of the things that have to go right in order for this to be a success. What had to go right for "Widows" to be a success? Did you need to see some of those Steve McQueen visual directorial flourishes? Did you need to see some unconventional choices for a heist movie, or simply see a satisfying heist movie with a great central heist scene? Or maybe it was the performances you were most excited about – Viola Davis leading the cast here along with Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. Three of them have lost their husbands in an arm robbery attempt, that we see at the very beginning of the film, that goes wrong, and the four women, despite not knowing each other previously, do come together to stage a heist of their own not really by choice so much as for survival. So, did "Widows" deliver on any of those counts? All of those counts? 

Josh: Well going in at the top of my list was Steve McQueen's presence. That was what I was most interested in. As with you, I think he's one of the most exciting working filmmakers today, and so I wanted to see what he would bring to a genre picture. I mean, none of his other movies really could be classified in that way, and I was excited to see the distinctions that he would bring. I think you get a handful of them here that we will talk about. The cast, yes, would probably be second on that list of mine, and I definitely want to talk about what we think this movie does or maybe doesn't quite do with the cast. You mentioned "Ocean's Eight," and I will say just as it was unfair to compare "Ocean's Eight" entirely through the lens of "Ocean's Eleven," though maybe a bit inevitable, it's also unfair to compare "Widows" entirely through the lens of "Ocean's Eight." 

Adam: [Laughs] I can only imagine. 

Josh: But it's interesting how they each do something better than the other. And if you added them up, we probably would have had a really good woman-driven heist film in 2018. 

Adam: Okay, do tell. 

Josh: For me, "Ocean's Eight" had a sleek efficiency. It was more of a commercial product even though "Widows" is a genre film. The plot, you mentioned that heist, that it goes off like clockwork, is that one of the things you want... You get all of those things in "Ocean's Eight." It just moves. It doesn't move as smoothly as "Ocean's Eleven," to make another comparison, but it does move and I appreciate that about it. I also appreciated the chemistry that you had in "Ocean's Eight," particularly between Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and really the whole cast. You know they had that going – again, not as much as the guys in "Ocean's Eleven," but they had some of it. I think "Widows" is missing both of those things. Really strong cast, but I don't know if it ever gets them all on the same page. Also, the plot mechanics – and there is a ton of plot in "Widows." We were trying to just hash out, you know, after the film on our way over here to the studio, where we thought things landed just to kind of get a base of understanding for this conversation, and I don't know that we entirely did. So... 

Adam: No, I blame myself there, not McQueen or Flynn. 

Josh: Well, of course. That's why we were doing the work. We were saying, "Now did this mean this? Did that mean that?" And maybe at the end of the day this is a possibility too, because there are a lot of politics and cultural conflict going on here, maybe you could say to be generous that all those misunderstandings are on purpose because this depicts a city that is a corrupt mess. And so we're not supposed to make sense of it. OK, that's the generous reading. It was intentionally confounding, but it was [still] confounding for me. So I'm really mixed. I'm left mostly excited about a few signature touches that McQueen brings to it. Before I highlight those, let me hear what you made of it. 

Adam: Yeah I liked it a lot more than you. And it's funny, because I didn't see "Ocean's Eight," so I can't compare them at all, but surely this film has so much more on its mind, and I think it does a really good job of exploring all of those things. We may touch on a few of the specific ideas here, but already you've talked about the sense of corruption and the way that those abuses of power do find their way into every aspect of this film. No, it's not going to be these sleek, efficient kind of thrill ride that something like "Ocean's Eight" probably was trying to be, but I still found it overall to be a really tight film. What I mean is even though I can't quite piece together who exactly stole from who and who was trying to get it back or do what with it, that's only really because there's an element – there is a twist – a surprise element that is introduced about halfway through that then kind of throws everything on its head. But for the bulk of this film's running time I was never questioning what any character was after or why. And what I mean by being tight, and I would say even efficient in its own way, is I never felt like any scenes were wasted in this film. They are all about serving some aspect of the plot, or developing character, or setting up some future scene that is going to be very crucial to the plot or some aspect of the characters. And you know what I really enjoyed about it too? We can talk about this in terms of what I think the film I suppose is really ultimately about. I just like watching these people, these really smart people – and I'm not necessarily referring to them as smart in terms of their IQ or their education – but characters who know the world they live in and understand the terms of that world. We get so many scenes that are about that kind of gamesmanship, just conversations like the one we see very early in the film between Colin Farrell, who plays someone running for an alderman position that for decades was held by his father, who's played by Robert Duvall in the film. And he goes to meet his challenger for that seat – Brian Tyree Henry the actor, so good in "Atlanta" and so good here – and that banter, that back and forth between them I thought was really thrilling. I think the biggest thrills in the film actually come out of a lot of those types of conversations, whether it's between father and son, Duvall and Ferrell, or Viola Davis with any number of other people that she's talking to, as she's trying to navigate this world that she's now thrown herself into. I guess that was a little bit of a surprise for me, that I enjoyed the conversations in this film as much as any visual aspect of it. 

"Suspiria" Excerpt

Josh: Why do we do this to ourselves, Adam?

Adam: It's late, and that was a long movie.

Josh: An after-screening review of "Suspiria." We got out of the film maybe 20 minutes ago and my head is still spinning, as yours likely is. Probably not the best movie to choose for this review scenario. It's always difficult to come right out of the screening. Sometimes I prefer it just throw those fresh thoughts out there, but I have maybe more questions than I do thoughts at this point.

Adam: That might work.

Josh: We'll start there. I do think it's worth beginning by making a distinction between Dario Argento's "Suspiria," and this one from Luca Guadagnino, because a lot is added. There's an extensive running time, compared to the original.

Adam: It's basically two "Suspirias."

Josh: Yeah, pretty much. It almost gets to that point. The bones are the same. The story essentially is the same. We do have another American dancer who travels to a prestigious German dance academy, also named Susie Bannion, in this case played by Dakota Johnson. She gets there and fairly early on realizes that, yes, coh-ven, coven – whichever one you want to say it – this thing's run by witches. Those are the same plot points that both films follow. Here's some of the stuff that is added in 2018's "Suspiria." I won't give it all because there are some revelations we should probably leave unmentioned. It is set in Berlin in 1977. So one thing that is new is the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Yes, I had to look all this up.

Adam: I going to say you've had enough time to Google...

Josh: Yes, because it is referenced throughout this film, that this crisis is undergoing while the events of the story proper are unfolding. There is also a character, a Dr. Klemperer. We will leave it to you to discover who plays Dr. Klemperer, but he is a psychiatrist [who] interviews Chloe Grace Moretz's dancer in the very beginning of the film. She has escaped. She's a patient of his, let's say, and she's been visiting him from the academy, sharing these theories – that he thinks are delusions – about what's going on there. He becomes a very prominent character throughout the film. That's added. There are doctors in the original, but this is much more of a different take on that. Susie's past, the Dakota Johnson character's past... We go back to her childhood living on a Mennonite farm particularly the deathbed of her mother, and then get some flashbacks that indicate the tension – possible abuse – going on there. Another throughline that is added in this film! And then I would say... I watched the original "Suspiria," a couple weeks ago now, but I don't recall that there was turmoil among the witches, [or] something of a power-struggle-disagreements, especially when it comes to how they should handle Susie in particular.

So, as I said, there are other things that are added here. I'm wondering if any of this added something to you for the experience of "Suspiria." What here was was worthwhile, or proved fruitful, or maybe answered the question of why would Guadagnino want to make this now? What did he want to do with this? Any answers in some of those elements?

Adam: Well, I did not listen to the orders of our esteemed producer, Sam Van Hallgren, the one who, back in 2005 when we talked about the original "Suspiria," as part of our horror movie marathon... derided the film as basically written by a 12- or 13-year-old. He hated "Suspiria."

Josh: Not a fan.

Adam: And I don't remember where it fell in the marathon but actually at the time of its review it was my favorite movie in the marathon. We were both seeing it for the first time – that's why we use those marathons. And I was a little bit wishy-washy on some of these details. I was recognizing all of these new aspects in the 2018 version – what seemed like new aspects to me – but [I] couldn't be completely sure as I haven't seen the Argento "Suspiria," since 2005. It sounds like my recollection was correct. Like so many horror films, that original "Suspiria," may have had real world issues and anxieties on its mind. But if it did they were predominantly allegorical. It's truly the tale of a young American dancer who comes to this academy and she finds out it's actually run by a couple of witches. Spooky things happen. People die in gruesome and elaborately staged ways. You get bright colors, that pseudo-prog-rock score. That's "Suspiria." Here, we've got the young American dancer, we've got the coven of witches, and we definitely have some gruesome deaths. I'm not sure that we get the elaborately staged ones – and maybe we can talk about that. But the real world anxieties are all made literal.

And you touched on a lot of them! Berlin, as a character, this divided city is such a major aspect of this film in a way I don't remember from the original, [both] politically and geographically, obviously with the wall. Baader Meinhof and the terrorists crisis that constantly being in the background – you mentioned that! Dr. Klemperer – his history! The way the Holocaust actually does come up a few different times. We have this sense of his own personal guilt and shame and the collective national guilt and shame, 30 years removed from World War II, being something that is omnipresent and still very much weighing on these characters and this city. Trauma in general is a major aspect of this film. You mentioned the other one I latched onto – Susie Bannion's past. And we get some flashbacks to her childhood and the way she was raised.

Another part here is the feminist angle. You go back to that opening scene you touched on. Chloe Grace Moretz is this young dancer. Basically, Susie Bannion comes in and takes her place. She's going to this Dr. Klemperer to get help. She believes that there are witches at the academy that they are out to get her. And he is just sure that she's completely delusional. He's taking notes, he observes. He never actually tries to help her, at least in that opening scene. And the phrase in my head the whole time was, "believe women." That's what I wrote down in my notes. Then later in the film, much later in the film, one character at least verbalize it completely. But tied to that, what did resonate with me this time, Josh, was this sense of history and survival. I'm not going to say that I was rooting for the coven of witches or Tilda Swinton's Madame Blanc, who is the main instructor there, but I certainly did admire the strength and the resolve of this collective, making this quite political subversive art and doing it for 30 years, and the implications of that – of the art being rooted in a struggle. There's a suggestion that they have been oppressed, probably as women, and they've had to survive through all this turmoil. And they're still standing.

So the English major and the literalist in me loved having all of these ideas to latch onto. I think I'm naturally inclined to want to intellectualize material like this, or maybe I mean to say I want to believe I spent 152 minutes on a movie that actually had some depth to it. But I can't wait to hear from you, Josh. I can't help but wonder if in elevating the material, Guadagnino, you know, actually robbed it of most of its fun.

"Hold The Dark" Excerpt

Adam: I don't think either of us would be so foolish as to characterize Jeremy Saulnier's two previous films, 2014's "Blue Ruin" and 2016's "Green Room," as simple or lacking in nuance and complexity – uninterested in probing the often unseemly depths of the human experience. But compared to his latest "Hold The Dark," based on William Giraldi's 2014 book, both are undeniably pretty straightforward. The former, a character-driven revenge thriller. The latter, a grisly tale of survival. The distinction is somewhat ironic because "Hold The Dark" is on paper and in parts both a character-driven revenge thriller and [a] grisly tale of survival, this time set against the isolated, apparently endless, Alaskan wilderness, instead of a confined nightclub overrun by skinheads. There are hints – and maybe more than hints – of the supernatural, not to mention plenty of unnatural acts that defy explanation in "Hold The Dark," which sees Jeffrey Wright's Russell Core summoned by a mother, played by Riley Keough, who is grieving the killing of her young son by wolves and wants them hunted down. Ambiguous would seem to be an appropriate descriptor but it's a word for me that carries with it, almost exclusively, a positive connotation. Who doesn't want art to contain multiple possible meanings and interpretations? Who doesn't want art to provoke hours of rumination on those meanings and interpretations? But what about art that is just plain vague or confounding – perhaps even pretentious in how it occasionally flirts with larger profundities without the actual provocation? If not forced to consider it for this show, Josh, how long would "Hold The Dark" have loomed in your consciousness? Is there indeed some profundity in the mysteries of Saulnier's Alaska? Or am I overstating the filmmakers elusive ambition altogether? 

Josh: No, it actually stuck with me. It was a more interesting experience to me in the aftermath, in a lot of ways, which I think I mostly mean as a compliment. And you're dead on, in referencing ambiguity here. Just trying to describe this movie in my written review, I said, "It's a werewolf movie that isn't a werewolf movie but really kind of is." I-I still can't even make up my own mind. Maybe we'll do a little bit of spoiler-[talk] at the very end of this, where we can share how we come down on that particular question. I think you're on to something though in that the ambiguity is both a strength and a weakness of this film in different degrees. For me, the weakness part might be that there are a few narrative gaps here, I would say, – some frustratingly open questions that the narrative seems to want you to know the answer to, but doesn't provide, which to me is a little different than letting us fill in the blanks ourselves. You know, what it sort of felt like to me in the aftermath was almost like a limited run Netflix series that had been squished into a feature film. I could have really seen standalone episodes with a certain character that filled in some of the stuff that maybe we wanted to know and let the story breathe – and made this world a little bit more whole, a little bit more cohesive. That would've been more rewarding. 

Adam: Yeah, I think the material is rich enough if you consider supporting characters like James Badge Dale's sheriff and also Cheeon, who is a friend and someone else who has been a victim of a wolf attack on his family. They're fascinating characters. 

Josh: There you go! And both could have easily sustained an episode. And here you get just enough of them to want more, and also just teases as to how they do fit into this larger narrative. Now, the larger narrative itself I was drawn into and fascinated by. This central question of what is going on in this remote village – what do we make of it, given what we know about survival movies, which have a realistic tendency, but also more supernatural... Part of the fun for me was, like, "Where is this thing falling, genre-wise?" Not that I needed a specific answer on that. That's the ambiguity that I enjoyed, the way Saulnier was using the elements from the novel to keep us always guessing what-in-the-world-kind of movie are we watching. That I did enjoy. 

Adam: Not only keeping us guessing, as far as what kind of movie we're watching, but what's going to happen moment to moment. I think that's one of the thrills in all of Saulnier's films – that really everything is up for grabs, scene by scene. And just when you think you are dialed in to what kind of film it is, or what kind of characters these are, it jars you and goes in a completely different direction. I immediately settled into this film thinking it was going to be a movie about Jeffrey Wright's character coming to terms with his own family dysfunction [and] some of a loss that he's experienced. But it was going to be kind of like "The Grey." It was gonna be a movie where he's out in the wilderness, wrestling with his demons, and possibly wrestling with wolves, and within 20 minutes or so, we discover this is really going to be a different kind of movie. I think we also recognize it's a different kind of movie just in terms of its craft. For those of us who have seen these two previous films, that visual artistry isn't really a surprise. The cinematography here is spectacular. 

Josh: Oh, it's gorgeous. 

Adam: I'm probably gonna butcher the name, Magnus Nordedhof Jønck [pronounced Yonk]? 

Josh: I was going to go on "Yonk.". 

Adam: Or is it "Jonk?" 

Josh: Let's say "Yonk.". 

Adam: OK. He also did the camera work for "Lean on Pete," from earlier this year, another movie that we thought was gorgeous. And the compositions here of these Alaskan mountains and the landscapes – of the wolves themselves – there are isolated shots throughout this film that really take your breath away. And just in terms of the storytelling too. This is where the editing obviously comes into play as well. But I think about the very beginning of this film where we see a shot of the young boy, the son, he's playing with a soldier in some ice. And he then looks up and sees the Wolf and we get to the wolf looking back at him and then the next shot is a door being locked, which has some significance we find out later, and we see Riley Keough as the mother – Medora is her name – walking over to make some tea or coffee, and then she goes over to the door and opens it up and just looks at that block of ice where her son was. Just in that one cut, we have transported ahead in time – we come to learn it's only been a few days – but she looks out at that ice and we see the soldier still stuck in it, the ice in the foreground with the soldier, and the mom in the background. We know everything we need to know – or think we need to know – about what happened to that boy just in those few cuts and those shots. Actually I think my single favorite shot in the movie is that one of the camera slowly tracking behind her as she opens the door. It's a very "Searchers"-esque doorway moment, whether deliberately or not. But all we see is that total engulfing blackness. And then when she opens the door, That vertical swath of light from it, and then in front of her, in the background of that shot – all that grandeur and that kind of menacing isolation in the distance. Really that shot, I think Josh in a lot of ways, is a visual metaphor for the entire movie. It's called "Hold The Dark." It's called that very much for a reason. We might be able to get into some of the aspects of just how literal that can be taken, but that little sliver of light against that encompassing darkness and that battle that's going on – and the battle that the light is losing – is really at the core of this entire film. 

"Halloween" Excerpt

Josh: Let's go back to 1978, when the slasher film didn't really exist. Then came John Carpenter's "Halloween." Let's get this out of the way right at the start, Adam. I've seen the jack-o'-lantern light. Last week, you teased this episode by pointing out I was one of four critics on Rotten Tomatoes who had not given 1978's "Halloween," a fresh rating. That did not put me in good company for the record– 

Adam: No, it's Sam who really likes to bring that up, our producer. 

Josh: [Laughs] I know. Well, Roger Ebert was not one of those four, because his four-star review called "Halloween," "...an absolutely merciless thriller," and even compared it to "Psycho." In a 2014 Rolling Stone readers poll, asking about the best horror movies of all time, "Halloween," placed fourth. The movie is so revered it even currently has its own limited run podcast, "Halloween Unmasked," hosted by the wonderful critic, Amy Nicholson. Part critical assessment and part oral history, the series recounts how director John Carpenter's third film, which he co-wrote with producer Debra Hill, became an unexpected hit and the fountainhead for countless slasher flicks, in which a psychotic killer slices his way through horny teenagers, only to be thwarted by the virginal heroine in the end. That heroine here in "Halloween?" Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the matronly high school babysitter, stalked by a masked maniac Michael Myers, who has returned to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he murdered his own teenage sister 15 years earlier when he was just 6. My dismissal of "Halloween," after seeing it for the first time some 10 years ago was partly just me doing a bad job of movie criticism, Adam. I wasn't watching carefully enough and I was not giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. One thing I didn't give enough thought and attention to is "Halloween's," place in the sex-equals-death genre of horror. I lumped the movie in with "Friday the 13th," and wrote it off as at once puerile and puritanical in the way it eagerly punished Laurie's promiscuous friends, while rewarding her with survival. Paying more attention to that theme this time around, Adam, I've got a different take. But first I want to hear yours. When did Halloween first scare you, does it still scare you today, and what do you make of its sexual politics, especially in a contemporary horror-aware movie world that recognizes Laurie Strode as the original Final Girl? 

Adam: No, it didn't really scare me this time for whatever that's worth. Thinking back to the last time it was discussed here on the show – though discussed... I'm going to use that term loosely, because Sam and I, we talked about "Halloween," as part of our Horror Movie Marathon. It was the second marathon we'd ever done on the show. This is back in 2005. 

Josh: Is this the one "Suspiria," was part of as well? 

Adam: Exactly. I think we had talked about "Suspiria," just before this review of "Halloween." Again, I'll use the term "review" loosely, because I did revisit this and it was the only film in the marathon that I was already familiar with, but Sam wasn't. At least I think I was. I grew up seeing "Halloween," on all the time, and I felt like I'd seen so many parts of it that I really knew the film. Sam didn't feel like he knew it at all, so we included it in the marathon. For me, watching it 13 years ago now, it felt like I was seeing something pretty miraculous, and actually, I'd say I did my own bad job of criticism in '05, because we spent about 9 minutes on it and really didn't get into any of the substance of the movie. In fact at one point I said, "Well Carpenter's not saying anything profound here." I basically just chalked it all up to style. But I was so enthusiastic. I was entranced by the filmmaking, those tracking shots and the soundtrack, and just Carpenter's control and his craft. This time I maybe wasn't as surprised or taken off guard by that and was more aware I think of some of the absurdities of the script, which isn't uncommon in the horror genre. Of course now I can intellectualize it a lot more. I've a lot more to say about the film. We'll see if there's any substance behind it. But that question about final girls, and where this movie kind of stacks up in that discussion, is a really fascinating one to me. I'm far from an expert on this but you said it in the tease. Slasher films didn't really exist before John Carpenter. I'm sure someone can write in and say, "Well this could work," or whatever, but generally speaking, people look to the films of the '70s and '80s – "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," definitely came before "Halloween" – but I feel like Laurie Strode has to be the Final Girl doesn't she? Whether or not she was in fact the first – I know the term came from the Carol Clover book that focused on those '70s and '80s slasher films – I think "Halloween," has to be the biggest one of those. Even though I haven't read it, Josh, my understanding is it takes a feminist approach to gender in these slasher films, and argues that while these movies start out offering the perspective of the male killer – and we certainly get that in Carpenter's "Halloween," right with that fantastic opening that all takes place from the viewpoint of the young Michael Myers. Even when he puts the mask on, we watch the murder of his sister play out through the eye-holes of the mask – and then these films end with the perspective shifting to that of the female victim who ultimately wins. And of course, as an example – I'm sure there are many others we could point to – when Laurie is hiding in the closet upstairs... We watch Michael from her viewpoint as he busts through those closet doors. We are hiding in the closet with her. So that shift is definitely there. Now the counterpoint, surely, is that it's hard to reconcile as feminists the notion that promiscuity is bad, that these young women in any way deserve to be punished to die because of their sexual transgressions. This movie probably does fit into that scheme. But where I think "Halloween," is still relevant, and maybe set a standard that all of the copycats didn't fully follow, is that this movie seemed to me, on this watch, something I didn't tap into at all, frankly, 13 years ago. This movie is fundamentally about the concept of sexual transgression, and about the concept of good-versus-evil and good-girls versus bad-girls, and even good-boys versus bad-boys. I think the most famous line in the movie is probably the one where we have Donald Pleasance, as the doctor Sam Loomis, say that, "He had the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil." He believed that wholeheartedly and no one else sees it or is willing to see it. But I think given what we see in that opening shot of Michael, when his parents come home, there's at least a suggestion of... I don't know that you can say he's a victim in this. But it's as if he's suffered some kind of trauma as well. That look on his face, of a 6-year-old boy, it certainly suggests innocence, though, of course, we saw it all play out. We know there was nothing innocent about it as he holds that knife with blood on it. I think what really emerged this time was not just the talking-to and -about Laurie Strode to Laurie, often and her propriety and her purity, but even the way she personally seems to wrestle with it. There's really a key moment I think when she admits that she's attracted to Ben Cramer. Then, when she essentially retracts that – and I love that we get there's at least two of them in the film, maybe more – these asides to herself where she actually talks to herself and reassures herself that she really is a good girl. She makes a bet with her friend Annie, the one who reached out to Ben. She says, "If you watch her I'll consider talking to Ben Cramer in the morning." And then, basically, saying, "Oh, I didn't mean it. She doesn't really like you that way. Is it a deal?" And Lori says to herself after her friend leaves, "The old girl scout comes again." 

Josh: Uh-huh. 

Adam: Right? So for me, it's less about a filmmaker – and let's point out too... written by Deborah Hill the screenplay and produced by Deborah Hill along with Carpenter – it's less about making these black and white delineations between moral and immoral, and genuinely wanting to explore some of that gray area, I think specifically as it relates to repression. 

Josh: Yes yes yes yes. These are the distinctions that I missed the first time around. 

Adam: I did too. 

"First Man" Excerpt

Adam: Josh, we just came from an IMAX screening of Damien Chazelle's "First Man." And because of that, we're just going to cut right to the chase and really get to the question I can't wait to hear you weigh in on. Just a little bit of background first. The movie covers really a seven-to-eight year span in Neil Armstrong's life, from his time as an engineer and test pilot who was selected for NASA's Gemini and Apollo programs and ultimately becomes -- spoiler -- the first man to walk on the moon. When you think about Damien Chazelle's previous films, they're kinda loud movies. From his debut, the jazzy musical romance "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," which is filled with singing and dancing, to "Whiplash," where jazz is again the milieu, and Miles Teller plays an aggressive drum student taught by an even more aggressive instructor, to his last film which of course features more singing and dancing and jazz, "La La Land." There is no jazz in "First Man." There's scarcely any music and there's actually scarcely any talking, as Armstrong is a man of few words to begin with who turns more inward after the loss of his young daughter and whose job requires him to do a lot but say almost nothing - even when he's strapped into a rocket tightly next to one or two other people who, like him, are experiencing something few people, and in some cases, no other people in history have ever experienced! I'm curious how you think Chazelle acquits himself here with all that quiet.

 

Josh: Well, I would say maybe it's noisy in different ways. One thing that struck me about all of the spaceflight sequences is how chaotic they were visually -- mostly a lot of shaky cam here, and almost to the point where some of the images take on an abstract feel to them, where things begin to blur together. And obviously this is putting us in the astronauts' point of view, but it's very intense. More so than most of the astronaut films I can think of. Noise is a big part of that. There's a roar that comes with this. The opening sequence, where Armstrong is taking a test flight just outside of the Earth's atmosphere, what's most striking about that -- and this ties to your point -- is how we get that roar, and that rush and the clatter. I mean you feel like this thing's going to fall apart. And then he breaks through and suddenly there's silence once he gets out of the atmosphere. That's a really striking moment and a very exciting sequence and it's mirrored with the very final sequence of the landing on the moon, where there's a lot of chaos until that landing, until the door opens and they step out, and we can talk about the other visual elements that come into play there too, but there's silence, as well, when we finally meet the expanse of the moon's surface. So yeah, that's a technique that I think is used effectively in "First man." He is working with Justin Hurwitz again, the composer who has been involved in all of his films, and I would say you know the distinction that he adds here is ... He is using a theremin some cases, so we get this almost '60s cheesy space motif. It's very gentle. It's just in the background. It's not like, you know, the sci-fi stuff we're thinking of when we hear the word theremin. But it's there! You sense it. I don't know how I feel about that yet. At other moments the score is really heavy when they're approaching the moon and very momentous-feeling. That is part of the audio chaos as well, in a way. I'm still thinking my way through this score mostly because of the way music is so integral in all his other films, but I think you're right to point out that there are distinct moments of silence that I did find very effective, and I think Gosling's performance as part of that works too. I mean, one of the things he can do well is stoicism. I feel like he can withhold a lot while still letting us in enough. And in their vision of Neil Armstrong, that's crucial, and I think he does it well.

 

Adam: I agree he does it well. One thing that did strike me about the score -- and I think this ties in is some other aspects of the film we may end up discussing -- it's never triumphant though. For me it's not. I know you said it gets more momentous, it gets louder, it gets bigger, especially as they're approaching the moon, but it doesn't have that kind of "Apollo 13," or even "The Right Stuff," [thing] where it's about trying to really make you feel something as a viewer, whether it's pride or inspired. I never felt like it was trying to push any of those emotions onto us. And again, I feel like that ultimately reflects the hero at the core of this and the person who Neil Armstrong is, at least according to this portrait. Putting it in that perspective, thinking about it in relation to other Chazelle films, you can see why he might be drawn to someone like Armstrong because, similar to Miles Teller's character in "Whiplash," and to Gosling, again, as Seb in "La La Land," they're all kind of obsessive men who have a quest and who have some integrity. And there is something that they're trying to attain or aspire to that is greater than themselves, that they have to push themselves to get to. But there is at least one key difference, and I think this gets back to this notion of quiet and saying-versus-doing; we always know what Seb wants. We know what he's after in "La La Land." We know what Miles Teller's character is after in "Whiplash." They're open books. They're people who are proclaiming through both their words their actions exactly what they're after, and it's the complete opposite here. We have in Gosling's Armstrong a character who really is only about action and is almost physically unable to actually express himself to the outside world. Now, where it's similar to those films... I do feel like it's as much about movement and about precision and sound, in some ways, as those more musically inclined films, whether it's the camera twirling with these characters in space, the shakiness that we get in a lot of scenes, putting us right there in the capsule or the cockpit with these men, and even the way we are watching those characters under that duress know what their moves are -- know what the steps are. I do feel like there is some connection there especially as we get into some of those sequences like the extended Moon sequence, where there isn't much of this being said at all. But there is a lot of grace in terms of the movement of the characters and of the space capsules themselves.

"A Star is Born" Excerpt

Josh: Bradley Cooper was not shy when it came to choosing material for his directing debut, Adam. "A Star Is Born" has already been made three times – in 1976, 1954, and 1937 – and those iterations have earned a total of 17 Oscar nominations. Over the years, the settings and details have shifted slightly but all previous incarnations follow a narrative similar to what Cooper and his co-writers, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, have devised here. In this, "A Star Is Born," we follow the whirlwind rise of an unknown singer, played by Lady Gaga, who is discovered by a burnt out, alcoholic, incredibly famous roots rocker played by Cooper himself. Now Adam, you haven't been shy about your reservations with Bradley Cooper, the actor. I remember you scoffing at "American Hustle" – the movie for sure– 

Adam: Yes.

Josh: ...but I think also Cooper's performance. You've repeatedly given the backhanded compliment that his Rocket Raccoon from "Guardians Of The Galaxy" is his best performance.

Adam: I mean it. 

Josh: I've winced each time waiting for you to come around on the sparkly eyed volatility that I think makes him an exciting screen presence. So imagine my delight when I came out of our screening for "A Star Is Born," about two weeks ago and to find you smitten. I believe the quote was, "If I were him I'd never shave that beard or cut that hair." 

Adam: Yeah, but that really has nothing to do with his acting abilities. 

Josh: This is what I've been dying to ask you since then! Is it just Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, prematurely grizzled rock star whom you've fallen for, or have you come around on Cooper the actor? Or could it be that you swoon for him as the director of this big, bold, give-it-all-the-Oscars-now "Star Is Born?" 

Adam: He is grizzled, and he is a tall drink of water with that beard. Based on " A Star Is Born," Josh, I think it's probably accurate to say I appreciate Bradley Cooper, the actor, more than I did previously, and I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on Bradley Cooper, the director, though there's certainly promise there. I'm sure we will get to all of that. A little bit of background, even though you did such a nice job of summarizing it – of my view of him as an actor – is it okay to say that I can recognize someone's talent even if I don't particularly enjoy their work? 

Josh: Oh, absolutely. 

Adam: I've always appreciated particular scenes or moments of Cooper's, but rarely an entire performance. It is true. I think maybe my most Larson-esque opinion is that I think his voice work as Rocket Raccoon in those "Guardians" movies is better than anything, as you said, in "American Hustle," or "Silver Linings Playbook." And I don't even love those "Guardians" movies that much. I do love the attitude and the humor he brings to that raccoon. But he's just one of those actors for me – I think I've said this before on the show – where I often feel like I'm watching the wheels turning. There's a calculation to his choices that comes from an intellectual place but doesn't feel, maybe to me, as instinctual or as natural as I suppose I would like. And maybe that's-. 

Josh: That's a quality observation though there. 

Adam: Yeah. 

Josh: That's not like he's - he's not just your style of actor. That's saying-. 

Adam: That's true. 

Josh: ... that you can see him working on screen. 

Adam: Yes. 

Josh: Which I completely disagree with. I think he's a very instinctual actor. 

Adam: OK. So yeah I don't see him that way at all. But that is maybe why I like Jackson Maine. I like his performance here in this film so much. He's someone who is perpetually in a state of numbness, comfortable or otherwise. And so those wheels just maybe aren't quite spinning as fast as they otherwise would be. The way he carries that numbness physically, that shaggy nonchalance he has, and even vocally the way he lowers his register and he kind of has a flatness to his cadence? I think it's really effective and authentic. That for me Josh is the key word here as we're considering " A Star Is Born." Authentic. Is he believable as this past-his-prime drunk country-rock star? And in addition to that numbness – I don't think I ever use this word in 700 episodes of the show! I definitely don't use it in my daily life. But there is an insouciance to his Jackson Maine. I almost feel like you need that kind of mystical word to describe it because he has that kind of indifference, that general lack of concern for everything that's going on around him, and yet he's someone who still pulls you naturally into his orbit. I think that's a real trick that he pulls off here. Is his singing and his playing believable as this past-his-prime drunk country-rock star? You know that's so important to me. And... Yes, he does! I think about Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version... I just did finish that really terrible film over the weekend, and he's pretty much miserable all the time even when he's on stage. Jackson Maine certainly seems to take more pleasure in it once he has connected with Ali, the Lady Gaga character. But even before that, he does seem to enjoy being on stage and performing. He still has that talent. He doesn't look down on his abilities, doesn't pity himself in those instances when he's performing the way maybe we do see in some other versions of "A Star Is Born". Another key question, of course, is Ali's sudden stardom believable? Does Gaga deliver the goods as both an actress and performer? And as their love believable? Do we believe their connection and their chemistry on stage and off? I do really like the feeling-each-other-out banter we get between them that all leads up to those moments when she finally does take the stage and the comfort they seem to offer each other even after those moments where she's become a big star. That seems to be genuine. So the answer for me all those questions is yes, and that's why I can recommend the movie. 


 
 

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