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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews

Posted by Maximum Fun on 17th April 2011

Vital stats:
Format: movie reviews, movie interviews, Brit banter
Episode duration: 40m-1h40m
Frequency: near-weekly

Okay, even as a cinema, criticism, podcasting, and broadcasting geek, I’ll admit it: a couple of critics’ voices trading opinions about what’s in the theaters? Often no great shakes. Podcasting has let a million of these flowers bloom, and for every long-lived blossom of informative entertainment like, say, Battleship Pretension (Podthought about by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill), vast fields wilt. Established radio programs about film have a better time of it, on average, in the podcasting arena. Having gone strong on the BBC’s legitimate airwaves for about a decade now, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews [RSS] [iTunes] struck me right away as more promising than most. I almost wish I could make a dramatic flourish here and tell you that it went on to bitterly disappoint me with a salvo of pure state-bankrolled blandness, but nope; show’s solid.

U.K. readers, so my impression says, probably know of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo. Readers outside the U.K. may or may not, but probably don’t, so here comes what I can cobble together by way of introduction. Mayo, a beloved BBC Radio presence since the early eighties, mainly hosts a drivetime talk show. Kermode has risen to the state of one of these all-around “cultural presenter” types who seem to exist everywhere outside of America but mainly in England and of whom I feel all-consuming jealousy. The man talks about movies on the radio, but he also writes about them for papers and magazines, blogs about them, publishes books about them, and hosts other programs in various media about them. If you live outside the U.K., you may well know him as the guy who couducted the interview during which someone shot Werner Herzog with an air rifle.

Kermode’s ongoing journalistic relationships with Herzog and other intriguing filmmakers ensure that we hear not only assessments of their projects on this show but rapport-y conversations with they themselves. Kermode and Mayo put on the rare show that combines reviewing and interviewing without inflicting much compromise upon either. Part of this has to do with Kermode’s apparent willingness to speak his critical mind directly to the creators, as when he tells Herzog straight up that his new 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams plays better in 2-D. Variously respected and disrespected — known, let’s say — for his contrarian positions, Kermode displays a deep, unvarnished suspicion of the ascendant style of 3-D, and I find that refreshing. He also goes short on acts of big-budget spectacle and does not reflexively go easy on “popcorn” movies. He’ll occasionally let a movie off the hook due to its low ambitions, but at least he doesn’t do it with the kind of pathological regularity you see in other critics of his media profile.

So what part does Mayo play in all this? First and foremost, and like the veteran broadcaster he is, he keeps the program moving through all its usual segments. These include the running down of of the U.K. box offices’ current top ten and the real-time addressing of listener e-mails, texts, and tweets. Not to say that he appears merely as a facilitator; even if he doesn’t make the theatrical rounds with the same dedication as Kermode does — he’s not the film critic, after all — he matches him comment-for-comment with surprising gusto. But Mayo makes his most critical contribution to the show’s entertainment value as a sparring partner in what I understand to be an age-old tradition of British friendship: taking unending amounts of lighthearted abuse from your buddies and manfully responding right back in kind. American broadcasters and podcasters do this too, or at least they attempt it; something about the English manner of speaking renders this type of banter infinitely more amusing. I suspect it has to do with how absolutely everything they say sounds, even if just faintly, like a question.

Like any long-standing comedio-cultural partnership, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews‘s has developed a certain suite of tics. Some of those tics I enjoy, especially the one that urges them to compare most films to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Less felicitious tendencies have them dancing nervously around plot details for fear of divulging “spoilers” — surely a cinephile as experienced as Kermode realizes that, if knowing a picture’s events truly “spoils” it, then that picture sucks? — and inexplicably fixating upon the “age advisories” (like MPAA ratings in the States) the British Board of Film Classification issues each film.

But, as ever, the details matter less than the overall vibe the hosts put forth, and nearly without fail, Kermode and Mayo — but especially Kermode — summon the kind of energetic enthusiasm about film, good and bad, that makes you believe they’ve discovered a vaccine for critical burnout. I mean, I love film; I love film more than most things. But could I look myself in the mirror and honestly claim to be able to talk about Red Riding Hood — or the crushing grind of its week-to-week bretheren in mediocrity — with all the vim and zing that flows from a faith that what I’m discussing genuinely matters? Jeez, I don’t know if I even want to think about that.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]