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New Escapist Column! On Colin Trevorrow’s “Duel of the Fates” and JJ Abrams’ “Rise of Skywalker”…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday, looking at the leaks around director Colin Trevorrow’s plans for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

Of course, there are a lot of variables involved. Are the leaks authentic? Even if the leaks are authentic, how much faith do you place in the director of Jurassic World and Book of Henry to realise them? More than that, though, there’s a sense in which the proposed “Duel of the Fates” is so appealing precisely because it will never actually exist. It will never disappoint anybody, because their imagined version of the film will never brush up against harsh reality. It’s interesting in this age of “alternative facts” that we long so strongly for “alternative movies.”

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

New Escapist Column! On the Oscar Success of “Joker”…

I published a piece at Escapist Magazine earlier this week, looking at the success of Joker at this week’s Oscar nominations.

Joker is an interesting film, primarily because of the passion and enthusiasm that it generates on both sides of the debate. It is a film with a strong following and a very strong opposition, and it seems that every observer must pledge allegiance to one side or the other. This is ironic, because it’s arguably the most interesting thing about a film that is largely remarkable for how safe it plays most of its creative choices – the irony only enhanced by how that modesty seems almost dignified amid the cacophony around it.

As such, it’s easy to miss how successful Joker has been, and how it has positioned itself as an obvious choice for the Oscar-nominee frontrunner. Of course, the polarisation around the film makes it highly unlikely to actually win the prize, but any sensible assessment of the film – its performance, its influences, its pedigree, its impact – would concede that it is very much the definition of a slam dunk for the Oscar nominations. More than that, the fact that it swept up the Oscar nominations is arguably a good thing for the Academy Awards, a welcome a long overdue reminder that big and popular films can succeed.

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

Non-Review Review: Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life is an extremely stupid and occasionally veering on incoherent film. It is also a lot of fun.

There are any number of obvious problems with Bad Boys For Life. The pacing and plotting is a mess, stopping and starting at random intervals depending on the film’s mood as much as its own internal logic. Characterisation varies wildly from one scene to the next. Bad Boys For Life has even picked up some of the more frustratingly formulaic narrative beats from modern blockbusters, stumbling blindly into overwrought bathos and even attempting to offer a retroactively Freudian origin story for veteran police officer Mike Lowrey. It also understands that modern blockbusters have to be “about” things; in this case, growing old.

Welcome to Miami.

However, a large part of the charm of Bad Boys For Life is the way in which the film seems to have taken virtually every note that an executive might possibly offer and decided to approach these notes in a way that feels surprisingly fitting for a belated follow-up to Michael Bay’s bombastic duology. Bad Boys For Life is unashamedly and unapologetically its own thing. This results in a cocktail that doesn’t exactly go down smooth, but at least offers a refreshing and distinctive flavour. It helps that Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah lean strongly into the series’ sensibility, and invest heavily in its core strengths.

For all its gestures towards the modern age of intellectual-property-driven franchise-building, Bad Boys For Life grasps that the heart and soul of the series has always been the charm in watching Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bounce off one another. That dynamic between Smith and Lawrence, two performers who know how to work an audience and a camera, are arguably what grounded the first two films – keeping a very human perspective amid the ensuing “Bayhem.” In Bad Boys For Life, they does something similar, adding a charismatic star power that is often absent from contemporary blockbuster production.

Police don’t stop.

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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

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Non-Review Review: Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is a stylish modern indie that occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but is elevated by a surprising amount of warmth and humour.

It is no surprise that Queen & Slim looks beautiful. It marks the theatrical debut of director Melina Matsoukas, perhaps best known for her work on some of the most striking and memorable music videos of the past decade – including Rihanna’s We Found Love and Beyoncé’s Formation. Matsoukas has a wonderful eye, and she brings that to bear on this story of two unlikely fugitives who watch as their frankly uninspiring first date takes a sharp turn into an outlaw romance that finds them racing desperately for Cuba.

Getting the show on the road.

Queen & Slim is recognisably a modern American indie, drawing from the kind of cinema that Barry Jenkins helped to mainstream with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It focuses on two young African Americans, and examines the world from their perspective. It is also dazzling to look at, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe saturating the frame with warm golds and neon purples. It exists in a liminal space, somewhere between a grounded naturalism and heightened dream logic – and all the more effective for that juxtaposition.

Queen & Slim occasionally veers a little bit too heavily into the stylistic clichés of this sort of cinema, leaning a little too heavily on shots studying the contemplative faces of its leads or taking in the breathtaking vistas of the American wilderness at an always perfectly calibrated distance from the eponymous couple’s vehicle of choice. It is to Matsoukas’ credit that Queen & Slim largely avoids indulgence, demonstrating an endearing humanism and humour beneath this carefully crisp and calibrated exterior.

Out(run the)law…

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New Escapist Column! On How “Avatar’s” Lack of a Cultural Footprint Might Be Its Best Feature…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine earlier this week, given the release of new concept art for the Avatar sequels.

Much as been made of the extent to which Avatar left no tangible pop cultural footprint, despite its massive financial success. It’s a fascinating conundrum, and almost impossible to imagine in this age of fractured fandoms and hot takes. Indeed, that lack of a strong cultural footprint might even be the best thing about it. For better or worse, Avatar was a film that millions and millions of people saw and enjoyed, before getting on with their lives. And in an era where films increasingly feel like religious events, there’s something vaguely comforting in that.

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

New Escapist Column! On “Rogue One” as “Star Wars” for the Twenty-First Century…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Like most films, the original Star Wars was a product of its time. It spoke to simmering tensions and traumas related to the late seventies, from lingering atomic anxieties to the horrors of the Vietnam War. However, a lot of time has passed since the original trilogy, and our cultural anxieties have changed over the intervening years. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, the Star Wars franchise has been fixated and focused on the original trilogy. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the only film to make an effort to ask what those tropes and conventions mean moved to the present day.

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