Criterion Corner: Beau Travail (#1042)

Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.

I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #61: Tony “Scheherazade” Soprano

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I met my now-wife back in the previous millennium. It took a while for things to work out between the two of us – anywhere between nine and eleven years, depending on how you measure and what you take as the starting point of a relationship that developed over a fairly long time, and that is still developing and growing. But especially during the first few years, there were a few constants. From the first, we went to the cinema with each other a lot. And early on, we would start watching TV series together – and once you start with a TV series with someone else, you can’t just go off and watch it on your own, because that would be simply uncivilised. Over the years we’ve watched so many series together: great ones, good ones, a fair few mediocre ones and even a couple of series that were plain bad. (I’m looking at you, Hunted and Intruders!) From Battlestar Galactica to Veronica Mars, from Ultraviolet to Lost, from House of Cards (the BBC original) to Edge of Darkness (also the BBC original).

But somehow, I would say that our origin story, our relationship as first friends and then more than friends as facilitated by television, really began with a mobster who went to see a psychiatrist.

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Living Doll: Annette (2021)

It’s the old story: boy meets girl, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl have a child. The boy, a cynical, self-loathing comedian, can’t handle the fact that the girl, an opera singer, is both beloved by her audience and more successful, so he… doesn’t exactly kill her, but, well. Their baby starts to sing in a haunting voice whenever she is exposed to starlight (real or fake), so her father turns her into an international sensation – and makes a nice buck in the process.

Oh, and the child is a wooden puppet. You know, that old story.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #52: The State of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A new year, a new slew of Marvel movies and TV series! After 2019’s grand finale Avengers: Endgame, what felt like an infinite number of new films, shows, characters and storylines were announced – and then a certain virus that shall not be named thwarted the plans of Disney. 2020 came and went without a single new MCU movie, but 2021 more than made up for this, with four films – starting with Black Widow and ending with Spider-Man: No Way Home – and various Disney+ series continuing the ongoing adventures of the Marvel heroes and heroines. Join Alan and Matt as they talk about the franchise and their response to it. What were their expectations after the big snap-and-back climax of Infinity War and Endgame? How did they bridge the one-year gap caused by the pandemic? Were they excited by the upcoming Marvel avalanche, or was it all getting to be too much? And how do they feel about where the franchise is now, leading into 2022?

By the way, this is a Very Special Episode of the Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast: for the first time ever, it was recorded in front of a live studio audience with everyone on the podcast not only in the same country but the same room, talking into the same microphone! Which means that Matt’s Christmas wish did come true. How better to start 2022?

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That was the year that wasn’t: 2021

In early 2021, I started a draft blog post for the end of the year, in which I’d note down all the culture that had come out during the past twelve months that stood out to me: films that I loved, TV series that surprised me, books that I hated so much that they somehow defined 2021 for me.

I started that draft, and then I never touched it again. And here we are.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast Christmas Special 2021

Certainly, 2020 and 2021 have been strange years (and perhaps I shouldn’t say too much, since there is still one week to go until we get to the end of the latter), they have been difficult and draining in many ways, and Christmas 2021 is likely to be more lonely for some of us than we would like. The pandemic has been a drain on everyone, and it’s not over yet. But in spite of this, we have had some good times this year, we’ve watched some great films and TV (and admittedly some that were not so great), we’ve read some great books and we’ve played some fun games – not least the wonderful board game Pandemic Legacy, which at least gives us the feeling that this thing can be beaten… provided our medic isn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For the Christmas Special 2021, Julie and Matt are joined, albeit remotely in space and time, by regulars Alan, Mege and Sam as well as by our favourite returning guest Daniel Thron of Martini Giant, and we talk about the damn fine things we’d like to see under the Christmas tree – from the purely material but greatly enjoyable to things that are elusive but all the more necessary for that. Join us – and have happy, safe and healthy holidays! Wishing all of you the very best for what remains of 2021, and thanks as always for hanging out with us.

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What’s a little murder between family? House of Gucci (2021)

You may have heard about House of Gucci being really bad: lurid, cheesy soap opera. You may have read about Lady Gaga’s over-the-top accent and Jared Leto’s outlandish performance. You may have decided that the film is a disaster and definitely no reason to go out to the cinema and risk catching some C-word virus.

The thing is, you’re probably not wrong. House of Gucci isn’t a very good film. Even if The Last Duel wasn’t a surprisingly strong addition to Ridley Scott’s oeuvre, most likely it would still be the weaker Scott film coming out in 2021. But the reasons for this aren’t Lady Gaga’s accent or Jared Leto’s much-reviled performance. It’s true, the accent almost deserves a mention in the credits as a supporting character, and Leto’s performance of Paolo Gucci, son of Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino) and scion of the Gucci dynasty, is often grotesque. House of Gucci isn’t subtle or nuanced, and it isn’t The Godfather but with fashion substituting for organised crime. If anything, it’s the panto version of The Godfather.

No, arguably House of Gucci suffers from not being lurid and cheesy enough. It fails because it has several very different ideas of what kind of film it is – and therefore ending up particularly good at none of them.

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The Compleat Ingmar #28: The Magic Flute (1975)

In 1975, Ingmar Bergman directed a production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Swedish television (which was later given a cinema release). I had seen Mozart’s opera before, at the theatre, but that was about 35 years ago. I don’t remember much, other than the relatively sexy outfits the Three Ladies were wearing (or at least what I considered sexy at the age of 11). Having watched Bergman’s screen version, though, I can safely say that The Magic Flute is weird.

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They create worlds: Dirt Rally 2.0

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

Every now and then, I will play a horror game. Not often, since I don’t regularly feel the need to be scared, and because so many horror games will mainly run on atmosphere and jump scares, the latter of which I’m not particularly interested in, regardless of the medium. Still, every now and then, I want to be scared. I want to feel dread at being in a place that clearly doesn’t want me there. That is vast and uncaring, and if it is out to get me, that’s just because I am so small and insignificant, yet foolhardy enough to venture there and therefore it’s all my fault. The danger to me is incidental. I went to the dark place, so anything that happens to me while I’m there is entirely on me.

And when I’m there, I suspect that the words I will hear are “Turn, one left, don’t cut.”

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #58: Redemption song

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I used to be a massive sucker for redemption stories, in films, books, games, anything that tells a story. Darth Vader? Severus Snape? Buffy‘s Spike? Or, to choose a somewhat more seasonal example, Ebenezer Scrooge? Oh, yes, please, give me more of that! Conflicted villains that, at the last moment, find the goodness in their hearts were very much my thing.

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