Cate Blanchett in ‘Veronica Guerin’

This week we go back to Cate Blanchett’s early career and another one of her “titular” roles, playing Irish journalist Veronica Guerin (2003). To discuss Joel Schumacher’s film, Murtada welcomes illustrator and designer Dash Silva to the podcast. This wide ranging conversation also covers Blue Jasmine, The Aviator, the accent work of Meryl Streep and a few of this year’s best actress awards contenders including Lady Gaga, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Stewart.

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What is the film about?

From Wikipedia: The film’s about Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, whose investigation into the drug trade in Dublin led to her murder in 1996, at the age of 37.

Who does Cate play? Veronica Guerin – another one of her “titular” roles.

How is Cate introduced? 2 mins in court defending herself as a reckless driver. It’s an exciting prelude before the film goes back 2 years to tell the story.

What year did it come out? 2003

Box Office: US $1.5MM, rest of the world $ 7.8MM Critical Response: Metacritic: 55 RT: 53

Ciaran Hinds and Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin

Topics Discussed:

  • Guerin is a major figure in Ireland, the film came just a few years after her murder and tries to capture the legend.
  • A clear good vs. evil narrative. Does it get at the complexity of the story?
  • The portrayal of Guerin as dogged, focused, intimidating and intimidated, brave and frightened. Many notes for Cate to play.
  • An odd choice for Joel Schumacher or is it? He seems to make many different genres of film. Best known for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, he also directed a musical (The Phantom of the Opera), thrillers (8MM and Falling Down), melodramas (Dying Young and Flawless) and even a rom-com (Cousins). This is his Erin Brockovich.
  • Since Cate does an Irish accent here let’s pit her against the Accent Queen; Meryl Streep. Irish (Dancing at Lughnasa), Italian (The Bridges of Madison County vs. Cate actual Italian in Heaven ), English (Plenty vs. Notes on a Scandal).
  • Brief interlude about Cate’s performances in The Man Who Cried, The Aviator and Blue Jasmine.
  • Oscar winner Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) and current Oscar hopeful Ciaran Hinds (Befast) are in the cast. Plus a Colin Farrell cameo ( a meta joke since they talk about Eric Cantana who’s in Elizabeth). 
  • Brief mentions of Cate’s two films out now in release; Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up.
  • This year’s best actress hopefuls; Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, Kristen Stewart in Spencer and Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

What critics said at the time:

Cate Blanchett plays Guerin in a way that fascinated me for reasons the movie probably did not intend. I have a sneaky suspicion that director Joel Schumacher and his writers (Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue) think of this as a story of courage and determination, but what I came away with was a story of bone-headed egocentrism. There are moments when Guerin seems so wrapped up in her growing legend and giddy with the flush of the hunt that she barely notices her patient husband, who seems quite gentle, under the circumstances, in his suggestions that she consider the danger she’s in and think of their child.Roger Ebert.

Film within context of Cate’s career:

  • 2003 was a busy year for Blanchett, see also The Missing, Coffee and Cigarettes and her 3rd time as Galadriel in LOTR:The Return of the King.
  • 2003 was the last year of her wilderness era post Elizabeth (1998) when her movies didn’t seem to connect. The year after she appears in The Aviator and for the next 4 years she’ll have a great run.  

Further Reading:

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Cate Blanchett in ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’

A witch and a warlock teach an orphan boy how to becme a magician in The House with a Clock in its Walls, one of Cate Blanchett’s more curious film choices. We discuss her performance, what makes co-star Jack Black special on screen and briefly touch on the response to her two films on release. For this conversation Murtada welcomes filmmaker and podcaster Chels, from Untitled Cinema Gals to the podcast.

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Topics Discussed:

  • This is a “nice” movie, in addition to being a kid’s movie.
  • A humorous script (written by Eric Kriple based on the novel by John Bellairs), full of bon mots “do the right thing, lie to the kid,” verbal barbs between Florence and Jonathan (Jack Black).
  • Jack Black – what makes him special on screen. We choose his best film and coolest moment. “Look at Catherine Zet Jones, she’s snoring,”
  • Contemporary actresses who played witches include Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer(The Witches of Eastwick)Meryl Streep (Into the Woods), Anjelica Huston (The Witches), Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic), Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia). Who’d win in a battle?
  • We celebrate the annoucement of Blanchett’s collaboration with Pedro Almodovar for an adaptation of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.
  • Brief discussions of the two Blanchett movies out on release now; Nightmare Alley and Don’t Look Up.

Film within context of Cate’s career:

She really liked working with Eli Roth, because they are re-teaming this year with Borderlands. This must “the one for my children.”

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‘Carol’ Part Two: The Queer Cultural Impact

In the second of multiple episodes about Carol (2015), the topic is the cultural impact the film had on queer people. From memes to comedy routines, Carol was adored. For this conversation, Murtada welcomes writer and film programmer Shayna Maci Warner of Critically Queer, to review the film and talk about its queer legacy.

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The film is available on vudu.

What is the film about?

From Letterboxd:  In 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Who does Cate play? 

Carol, a wealthy NJ woman in 1952 who begins an affair with a young shopgirl that has big ramifications on her life.

How is Cate introduced? 

3 minutes in as Carol and Therese are interrupted at the Plaza..yet it’s that mesmerizing first look in the department that seals the deal we are in for something special.

What year did it come out?

2015

Box Office: Domestic =  $12.7 MM, Int’l =  $27.5MM its cultural impact goes way beyond these numbers.

Critical Response: Metacritic : 94     RT: 94

Topics Discussed:

  • A lesbian film made by queer people: Todd  Haynes, Phyllis Nagy, Christine Vachon, Sarah Paulson. There are some straights too.
  • Desert Hearts (1986) another great lesbian film.
  • The Democratization of access and how it led to Carol‘s cutural impact., see also Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1986).
  • Carol’s seduction of Therese.
  • Cate Blanchett’s heightned portrayal of Carol, playing both the character and the way Therese sees her.
  • The innuendo, the declaring love without saying anything, the drop of the gloves. These  women use everything at their disposal to communicate; except words.
  •  Rooney Mara charts a stingingly real arc for Therese from naivety to maturity.
  • The chemistry between Blanchett and Mara.
  • Blanchett’s ’s chemistry with Sarah Paulson – the only known queer person in the cast.
  • “Mommy’s baby.”
  • The memes; “Harold they are lesbians,” the support group , “gay shaking”  
  • Kathryn Hahn and Rachel Weisz set to the score of Carol.

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Cate Blanchett in ‘Don’t Look Up’

There’s a comet hurtling towards earth and a bunch of movie stars at trying to not look up at it. To discuss Cate Blanchett’s second movie this holiday season -Adam McKay’s climate change satire Don’t Look UpMurtada welcomes critic Boyd van Hoeij from The Film Verdict to the podcast.

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What is the film about?

From IMDB: Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.

Who does Cate play?

Bree Evante, a morning news show host determined to put a positive spin on news.

What year did it come out?

2021

Critical Response: Metacritic : 52     RT: 56

Topics Discussed:

  • General impression on Adam McKay and his films.
  • Don’t Look Up is being sold as a cross between Dr Strangelove and Network. Are the similies spot on?
  • The targets of the satire – incompetent governments, media, tech billionaires, populace believing in politics not science – are obvious. There’s a shorthand that makes each character’s real world avatar easy to get hence the laughs but does that undermine the film’s intelligence?
  • Huge cast – Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet… and more? Who’s funny? Who’s annoying? Who’s unmemorable? Who brought the heart and pathos? Who stands out?
  • Leo’s big Peter Finch-like monologue. Does it work?
  • Cate’s look; called “yassified” by the NYTimes. Extreme fembot.
  • Cate and Leo – The Aviator reunion?
  • Cate and Meryl; they are in one scene together but hardly interact. So we fantasy cast them in other projects

Film within context of Cate’s career:

2021 is turning out to be a big year for Blanchett. She has this and Nightmare Alley coming out within days of each other. 

Cate Blanchett in Supporting Parts:

  • Cate came to prominence as a lead in Elizabeth (1998) but has since taken many supporting roles. Is there a link between them? In story? In collaborators?
  • Some of the supporting parts include The Man Who Cried (2000), The Shipping News (2001), Babel (2007), Hanna (2011).

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‘Carol’ Part One: The Love Story

In the first of multiple episodes about Carol (2015), the topic is the love story. How Therese and Carol fell in love, how Todd Haynes visualizes falling in love and the scorching chemistry between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. For this conversation, Murtada welcomes filmmaker Luke Willis, to discuss all the above as well as rank the best line reading uttered by Blanchett.

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Topics Discussed:

  • Charting the love story in six set pieces 1) meeting at the department store 2) Therese’s visit to Carol’s NJ home 3) the rooftop decision to travel together 4) Waterloo 5) the gun and 6) the finale
  • Cate’s chemistry with Rooney Mara. Playing illicit secret lovers, the screen must smolder if the bond is to be believed. And it does!
  • That opening; that interruption in the first scene- heartbreaking when you consider what’s coming up.
  • Cate’s chemistry with Sarah Paulson -building a physicl language for people who have known each other for years.
  • Favorite line reading of Cate’ and a few fantastic silent moments.
  • Creamed spinach over poached eggs” isn’t that disgusting… that’s what people ate in 1950s? “Dry martini with an olive” though I love. 
  • The movie is so of such rich details, it rewards repeat watching.
  • Therse’s naivety and Carol’s wordliness – the contrast and Therese’s journey to maturity.

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Cate Blanchett in ‘Nightmare Alley’

Cate Blanchett is back in cinemas this holiday season. And the podcast is back for a final season of episodes. We kick things off with the first of the two Cate movies coming out this month, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. For this conversation Murtada welcomes film critic Leila Latif, to discuss the film, how it differs from 1947 version, and the performances of Cate as a femme fatale, Rooney Mara, Bradley Cooper and Toni Colette.

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What is the film about?

From IMDB: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, with a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. 

Who does Cate play?

Lilith Ritter, a psychologist with a dark past and hidden agenda, who holds the key to the events unraveling in the film.

How is Cate introduced?

About an hour into the 2 and half hour movie, in shadows in a nightclub. A real movie star introduction.

Topics discussed:

  • A bleak noir within Del Toro’s obsessions; only this time the monsters are human and there are no supernatural elements 
  • The arc of Stan’s character as played by Bradley Cooper.
  • Cate as noir femme fatale – delivered on the promise of The Good German.
  • This is another of Blanchett’s oh so glamorous roles.
  • Because of the genre (noir) and period (1940s) Blanchett’s performance has been compared to the stars of Hollywood Golden Age. Does she remind us of any in particular?
  • The chemistry between Blanchett and Cooper.
  • The all star cast, who makes an impression? Rooney Mara, Toni Colette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen…… etc.
  • The crafts – the production design (Lilith’s office, the carnival), costumes, lush cinematography (does it fit the genre?) 
  • This version vs the 1947 version.
  • The 1st half vs the 2nd – there seems to be a clear divide and a clear favorite with those who watched so far 
  • Does the film have full frontal nudity? It’s “blink and miss it,” but it’s there and in these cinema puritanical times I appreciated it.
  • We rank Nightmare Alley within Del Toro’s filmography and Cate’s.
  • *********SPOILERS********* Skip between 28.00 and 36.00 if you don’t want to be spoiled*********

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Announcing The Final Season

The podcast returns on Sunday December 19th for a fourth and final season. Listen to this short announcement where the first film discussed is revealed.

Includes a snippet from The Good German episode with host Murtada Elfadl and guest Megan McGurk, host of Sass Mouth Dames podcast.

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Review: Being the Ricardos

Early on in Being the Ricardos the cast and crew of I Love Lucy are assembled for a table read of an episode of the show. It’s sometime in 1952. Something is off, they can’t land the jokes. Is it the writing? The actors? The film takes a jump into Lucille Ball’s head. She starts to imagine the show alive. And with that she’s able to pinpoint what’s off and of course fix it. This must be a film about Ball’s creative process? Alas that was a brief interlude, though it’s repeated a couple more times, how Ball (Nicole Kidman) creates or how her show is conceived are not top of mind for writer/director Aaron Sorkin. Instead he’s concerned with Ball being accused of communism, of how the show deals with her second pregnancy and if her husband and creative partner Desi Arnaz Jr (Javier Bardem) is faithful in their marriage.

The film takes place during one production week of I Love Lucy, or as the logline puts it “from Monday table read through Friday audience taping.” Somewhat entertaining, Being the Ricardos plays well as a behind the scenes look at I Love Lucy. Then it starts cramming a few too many plots into its “one week with Lucy” premise. The aforementioned fractured marriage even comes replete with flashbacks about how they met and fell in love. The second pregnancy subplot comes with stock characters representing the network and advertisers. We will deal with Lucy’s involvement with HUAC – The House Committee on Un-American Activities – later in this review. All seemingly interesting subplots. However each is peripherally introduced, quickly dealt with and neatly resolved. There’s no nuance, no complexity to any of it. Nothing grips the audience or resonates. 

Most unforgivable from a seasoned screenwriter is an awkward framing device. Three writers from the show are shown in a present day setting introducing and commenting on the main action. This is a dramatic cop out for Sorkin. He can’t coherently bring together the different strands of his screenplay so he utilizes this lazy concept to make it make sense. 

Kidman is known for her inconsistent accents. She always sounds Australian with a Los Angeles affectation, no matter where her character is supposed to be from. Whether Russian (the recent Hulu show Nine Perfect Strangers) or American (Big Little Lies and many others throughout her career). Here the accent is good for once and she dropped her voice an octave or two to mimic Ball’s. However beyond the voice work, her performance is subdued and remains at an emotional remove. Maybe it’s because Ball is mostly shown at work; a place where emotions are checked. However when playing one of the most animated people in the history of entertainment, a little passion is called for. 

Bardem brings charm and effervescence to the film. With his performance you understand why Arnaz was a popular entertainer. Unlike Kidman. However both performances are only skin deep and do not grapple with why Lucy and Desi’s fracturced marriage endured as long as it did. We get neither the attraction nor the competitive nature of their relationship that the script is harping about.  

Kidman fares better with the sweet mentoring relationship Ball has with a writer played by Alia Shawkat. Acknowledging that even though they are from different generations and have different takes on how to use their voices as women in the workplace, they got each other’s back. Maybe more of that Sorkin.

The script is uneven and broad. This could be any workplace in the 1950s. None of the dilemmas and interactions are specific enough despite the constant name dropping. Sorkin’s dialogue cadence is also played out at this point. Why do Lucille Ball, Steve Jobs and the fictional denizens of The West Wing all speak in the same back and forth repetitive cadence? It makes all of Sorkin’s work sound the same. As a director he brings no panache and no point of view, we never get a sense of the story in the way he frames the actors. It’s just mid shot to close up to wide shot, rinse and repeat. No rhythm or sense of drama. He’s also saddled with shoddy looking CGI on Kidman and Bardem in the flashbacks as the younger Lucy and Desi.

Most unforgivable is the coda that resolves the “red scare” subplot. You may skip this if you do not want to be spoiled. Before the taping the show, Arnaz calls J Edgar Hoover to prove Ball is not a communist and then the studio audience watching literally applauds Hoover. It is such an odd note that I’m still reeling from it. The film is asking us to admire Hoover for coming to Ball’s rescue. But it raises so many questions. Did she actually need to be rescued? From what exactly? How are we supposed to feel by this resolution that implies that HUAC was actually a good thing that happened to Ball when we know – FROM HISTORY – it ruined many lives and McCarthysim became a shorthand for fear, biased accusations and unhinged governmental power. Sorkin, you got some explaining to do. 

Being the Ricardos is in theaters this Friday December 10 and on Prime Video December 21.

Spencer or Twirling with No Substance

Kristen Stewart as Diana Spencer

Halfway through Spencer I began to question whether I have ever liked Pablo Larrain as a filmmaker. Earlier this year his adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story was unwatchable. I did not care for The Club (2015). But I had to remind myself that I liked No (2012), Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). Maybe this new one will end up in the like column as well. Alas it did not.

Spencer is supposedly the story of the weekend country sojourn in which Princess Diana of Wales, née Spencer (Kristen Stewart), decided to divorce Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). It’s told like a ghost story; a woman in peril in a big house, surrounded by dubious people, some might be in her corner, others want to sabotage her. It’s Diana as Rebecca (1940). And it’s as alienating as much of Larrain’s work. Though done with top notch craft and an aesthetic recognizable to most cinephiles.

Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight have a good premise. They are trying to tell a story of finding the fortitude to break away from a life that’s suffocating while being completely isolated. However they run out of narrative threads quickly and spend the rest of the movie repeating themselves. Diana, isolated with no one to trust. The servants in the big house (Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins among them) might be spying on her for the royal family. Or are they her allies? Repeat over and over again. Then so many scenes of Diana running. Along hallways, in the meadows. And so much twirling. So much twirling. So much of it that it bears repeating. The movie’s true title should’ve been “Twirling With No Substance.” Who knew it would be Larrain who would inherit the mantle from Terence Malick in this most dubious of categories.

There is nothing about what Knight wrote or what Stewart plays that is specifically about Diana. The details are vague. This could be about any anonymous rich white lady trapped in a cult. One who has access to fancy clothes, castles, maids and personal cooks. Stewart plays her like a haunted woman trapped and she’s effective. However she neither looks nor sounds like Diana. Inhabitation is not necessary with biopics, sometimes just a nod to the real person is enough. See Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. But there’s not even a nod here. If this wasn’t called ‘Spencer” we wouldn’t be talking about awards. Nor would a swath of the potential audience be interested. So maybe it’s a calculated move. Let’s make a movie about a haunted woman trying to escape from a cult. Any woman, no need to be specific nor add any recognizable details. But still call it Spencer. Boo! Awards. Buzz. Magazine covers. Box office though might not materialize if enough people catch on to what it really is. 

Impersonation aside, Stewart is no more than fine. She plays this woman as very frightened, as if she’s in a gothic horror film. Whispery breathy voice, quizzical look. It fits the framework Larrain put her in. However the critical response to this performance is baffling. Even within Stewart’s limited oeuvre it doesn’t stand out. She’s been much more affecting with Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) and Personal Shopper (2017).


All of this would have been forgotten if Spencer actually had a story to tell. This is a bunch of scenes shot well, with actors repeating the same notes over and over in different but limited locations. There is nothing to see here.

NYFF Review: C’mon C’mon

About the hundredth time characters in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon expressed themselves clearly and verbosely and said exactly how they were feeling at that moment, I almost lost it. Who has this clarity? Who can articulate their feelings so eloquently at every waking moment of their lives? Who are these people? They must be aliens from an alternate universe of never ending therapy sessions. These people have done the work and figured themselves out. Even the 10 year old kid. Movies are not real, I understand that. Yet this is one that wants to be taken as reality, while not realizing what a fantastical world it has built. And a false one at that.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio talk show host who’s making a documentary about what children think of the future. He’s going around the country interviewing young people when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), asks him to take care of her child, Jesse (Woody Norman). She has to leave town to deal with the child’s father (Scoot McNairy), who’s in the grips of a manic episode. Obviously uncle and nephew will make a deep connection. Though tentatively at first, perhaps running into some misunderstandings. Yelling, tears and laughter will be involved. And if you guessed Jesse will be interviewed for his uncle’s program and make a profound statement, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Yet none of the events that happen on screen feel real. Interspersed through the main narrative are the interviews Johnny conducts with kids in LA, New York and New Orleans. I guessed we were supposed to feel the anxiety of the next generation and their hopes. I said I guessed because what was on screen was merely false platitudes that rang hollow. The exception is one young person speaking about losing faith in the adults who are supposed to help but can’t.

In flashback we see Johnny and Viv taking care of their late ailing mother. Again we are supposed to understand the enormous grief and the years of pent up frustration between the siblings. But because they keep telling us in the present how they were feeling at the time, it doesn’t make the impact Mills hopes for. The last straw for me was using the oldest trick in the book; the precocious child who asks the “difficult” questions. Boy did I roll my eyes. Cheap and teetering on insufferable.

The black and white cinematography gives the audience something nice to look at while watching what’s inherently not a cinematic story. It’s mostly people on the phone talking about their feelings. The cast acquits themselves well, especially when you consider they are tasked with being in constant open wound mode. This a more relaxed Phoenix, reminiscent of his work in Her (2013) and miles away from Joker (2019). Hoffman has to play 90% of her scenes talking into an iphone, maybe Mills is trying to make a point about how we communicate today or something. Wish he could’ve varied the technology so we could see Hoffman in more than just the one mode. Though all the actors try their hardest to bring empathy to their characters; something was missing. Like what Annette Bening was able to do in Mills’ previous film 20th Century Women (2016); add a dose of no nonsense to the saccharine proceedings.

C’mon C’mon played the Spotlight section at the 59th NewYork Film Festival and will be released on November 19th.