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New Escapist Column! On the the Folly of Franchising the Predator…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist yesterday. With news that Dan Trachtenberg’s new Predator film might receive an edit for PG-13, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the difficulty in trying to reshape the iconic eighties movie monster into a modern franchise.

The appeal of the Predator is very simple. It hunts. It’s a concept that is perhaps best suited to a mode of franchising that doesn’t really exist any more, a set of reasonably budgeted sequel films that swap out characters and locations while retaining the core concept. However, modern franchises demand more. They demand world building, mythology, scale, spectacle and a shared universe. There’s something absurd about trying to retroactively apply that to the Predator as a concept.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover

The Last Letter from Your Lover is an adaptation of Jojo Moynes’ breakout romantic novel of the same name, and it very much feels like a cinematic adaptation of a beloved novel.

The basic premise of The Last Letter from Your Lover is a nested love story. While working on a feature about another subject, an intrepid journalist named Ellie Haworth finds a mysterious love letter. This love letter suggests a secret affair in sixties high society. The letters are clearly addressed to Jennifer Stirling, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy industrialist, who finds herself navigating her own past following an accident that leaves her with amnesia.

How I Met Your Lover.

It’s a solid set-up for a romantic drama, with The Last Letter from Your Lover paralleling both Ellie and Jennifer in their investigations into Jennifer’s mysterious past in an effort to explore and investigate the sordid affair that potentially could derail Jennifer’s entire life. The Last Letter from Your Lover benefits from two charming lead performances from Felicity Jones as Ellie and Shailene Woodley as Jennifer, along with strong direction from Augustine Frizzell.

Unfortunately, The Last Letter from Your Lover never feels like a convincing screen romance, but instead a shadow of a much more engaging love story on the page.

Letter be.

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Non-Review Review: Profile

Profile is the latest entry in the so-called “Screen Life” series, produced by Timur Bekmambetov. It is also notable as the first entry in the series to be directed by Bekmambetov himself.

The “Screen Life” series is effectively a set of heightened genre movies that unfold through the screen of a laptop, narratives that unfold through chat boxes, Skype chats, playlists and file transfers. It’s an innovative and experimental approach to storytelling. While the results – Unfriended, Searching… and Unfriended: Dark Web – have varied in quality, the hook has always been fascinating. So much of modern life is navigated through screens that it is fascinating to see movies try to reflect that. Indeed, there’s an argument that movies like Unfriended play better on computer screens than they do in theatres or on televisions.

Translating the story to screen.

Profile adheres to the cinematic conventions of these sorts of stories, but it feels unnecessarily constrained in other ways. Each of the three previous films has been a genre exercise told through a computer screen. Unfriended and Dark Web are teenage horror movies, while Searching… is a delightfully schlocky nineties thriller reimagined through a web camera. In contrast, the subject matter of Profile is decidedly weighter. The film is based on the non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Ereklle, looking at online recruitment of young British girls by Islamic extremists.

This is an appreciably more grounded and more serious piece of subject matter than something like Unfriended or Searching…, and it’s interesting to see this cinematic language applied to this subject matter. After all, this is a digitally native story and a tale about the process of mediating the world through computer screens. However, Profiles suffers slightly from the need to frame this subject matter not through the lens of a web camera, but through the prism of genre, to transform something very real and very threatening into a heightened cartoonish thriller.

A new Skype of thriller…

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New Escapist Column! On Hollywood’s Next Franchising Trend, the “Requel”…

I published a new column at The Escapist today. The success of David Gordon Green’s Halloween and the announcement of his upcoming Exorcist trilogy seemed like a good time to discuss one of the more interesting modern trends in studio franchising: the rebooted sequel, or the “requel.” The idea is that if an original movie is iconic, but subsequent sequels have devalued the brand, the studio can just roll the franchise back to the earlier beloved film and effectively start franchising again from that point onwards.

It is a frustrating and unsettling trend that illustrates the cannibalistic feeding frenzy that is modern franchising. Hollywood has already franchised every viable property, but this approach allows studios a second (or third) bite of the apple by effectively erasing perceived mistakes and rolling the clock back to earlier and more nostalgia-friendly points in the shared continuity. It’s interesting to see this approach becoming increasingly mainstream.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the “Jungle Cruise” and the Journey Into the Uncanny Valley…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Jungle Cruise this week, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt vehicle.

It isn’t particularly surprising that Jungle Cruise takes place in an unreal environment. After all, this is a feature film based on a theme park ride. However, it is striking how completely and how eagerly it rejects anything resembling reality. Jungle Cruise draws openly from films like The Mummy, The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, globe-trotting adventures that blend special effects with beautiful location work. In contrast, Jungle Cruise unfolds entirely within the hard drive of a computer.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Video! “The Suicide Squad – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of The Suicide Squad, which is releasing theatrically in Europe this week and in cinemas and on MBO Max in the United States next weekend.

New Escapist Video! “Jungle Cruise – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Jungle Cruise, which is releasing theatrically and on Disney+ Premiere Access this weekend.

Non-Review Review: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is a stunning piece of blockbuster cinema.

There’s an understandable urge to treat The Suicide Squad as something of an outlier, particularly in the modern wave of big superhero blockbusters. After all, this is an R-rated blockbuster about a bunch of super-villains populated largely be characters that few people will recognise, let alone care about, and which exists in something of a strange continuity limbo away from the rest of the shared continuity. It is darkly funny, bitterly bleak, and decidedly uninterested in things like brand synergy. It is a sequel to a maligned film from a director now best known for his work with a rival studio and a rival property.

Squad goals.

Looked at from a certain angle, The Suicide Squad must seem as alien as the monster that rampages through the film’s third act – a space oddity that fell to Earth. However, this just makes it all the more remarkable that writer and director James Gunn has managed to fashion all of this into a thrilling and spectacular piece of blockbuster cinema that understands the appeal and the potential of the superhero genre without forsaking its own distinct perspective and while delivering on everything that a well-made populist blockbuster should.

There are very few superhero movies that are put together like The Suicide Squad. That’s their problem.

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Non-Review Review: Stillwater

Stillwater is effectively three different movies bundled together. Each of those three movies have their own merits and their own weaknesses, but none of them really work when bundled together.

Stillwater stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a demolition worker from the eponymous town in Oklahoma. His daughter Allison is five years into a nine-year sentence in Marseilles, having been found guilty of a sensational crime involving the death of her roommate. Even half a decade later, Allison still protests her innocence and Bill tries to maintain some connection with his previously estranged daughter. However, the past is pulled into the present when a potential new lead opens up.

Damon’s demons.

Stillwater is directed by Tom McCarthy, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (and was nominated for the Best Director Oscar) for his work on Spotlight. McCarthy has kept relatively busy since winning the award, collaborating on the script for Christopher Robin and doing uncredited rewrites on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. However, Stillwater still feels likes something of a long-awaited return from McCarthy as a prestige filmmaker. Stillwater is built around a central movie star, deals with weighty issues, and even (faintly) echoes the very public spectacle of the Amanda Knox trial.

However, the film never coheres into a compelling narrative. It is disjointed and uneven, bouncing clumsily between tones and struggling to anchor itself as it switches freely between genres. Stillwater doesn’t run quite as deep as it needs to.

An American in Marseilles.

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Non-Review Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback.

Jungle Cruise is inspired by the eponymous theme park ride, a surprisingly common occurrence in the age of intellectual-property-derived blockbusters, and an approach that has led to films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and The Haunted Mansion. However, because even narrative-driven theme park rides don’t necessarily provide enough story to sustain a feature-length film, Jungle Cruise positions itself as a very deliberate homage to movies like The Mummy, and traces that lineage back to classic eighties adventures like King Solomon’s Mines, Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Cruise Control.

There’s an undeniable charm in this. After all, that adventure movie template can trace its roots back to movies like The African Queen and even into classic screwball comedies. It is a narrative framework that lends itself to charismatic movie star performances, and so it makes sense that Jungle Cruise features two genuinely engaging movie stars at its core: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Jungle Cruise is at its strongest when it is willing to trust its leads to do what they do best, to be fun and charming while having exotic adventures together.

Unfortunately, Jungle Cruise feels too beholden to the conventions of modern blockbuster storytelling to lean into its stronger elements. Instead, those aspects of the films are constantly at war with the demands and the limitations of a modern spectacle-driven blockbuster. At times, Jungle Cruise feels more like a faded map promising a path to precious treasure. The broad outline is clear, but the richer detail has been lost to time.

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