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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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New Escapist Column! On “Predators” as a Film That Understands Its Own Limitations…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Predators is ten years old, so it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look back that second (and best) Predator sequel.

In hindsight, Predators is the rare movie that understands the limitations of its core premise. Fox spent decades trying to turn Predator into a franchise, but the sequels largely disappointed. A large part of this is down to the fact that Predator is a concept anchored in a particular time and place, without the timeless quality of a movie like Alien. In contrast to the other Predator sequels, Predators is a lean and modest machine. It never pushes its central concept too far, instead offering a pulpy and enjoyable b-movie. In doing so, it mostly works as a worthy successor.

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

Non-Review Review: Palm Springs

On the surface, Palm Springs is instantly recognisable as a genre-savvy update of the classic Groundhog Day template for the twenty-first century.

The basic plot finds two young adults – Nyles and Sarah – trapped living the same day over and over and over again. There is no escape from this nightmare, which finds the pair constantly reliving the wedding of Sarah’s sister Tala. As befitting the more modern media-literate approach to these sorts of stories, Palm Springs joins Nyles at a point where he has already been trapped in the loop for an extraordinarily long amount of time. He is already as familiar with the rules and limitations of this sort of narrative as any audience member who watched Groundhog Day on loop.

Making a splash.

This level of self-awareness in a story is potentially dangerous, encouraging ironic detachment. It’s very each for stories about these sorts of genre-savvy protagonists to feel more like plot devices than actual characters, particularly when operating within constructs that audiences only recognise from other films. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of,” Nyles casually explains to Sarah early in the film. Sarah responds, aghast, “That I might have heard of?”

There are certainly moments when Palm Springs feels like it might be just a little too knowing and a little too arch, its own story too consciously framed in terms of familiar narrative devices. Most notably, even though the film is not directly named, one of the big emotional beats in Palm Springs seems to be lifted directly from Jurassic Park. Released the same year as Groundhog Day, it exists within the same nostalgic framework and was just as defining for an entire generation of movie-goers. Moments like that feel just a little bit too heavy-handed.

Some “him” time.

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Non-Review Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard works best as a nostalgic throwback to turn-of-the-millennium action movies, and struggles awkwardly when it tries to be a modern superhero blockbuster.

The Old Guard is adapted by writer Greg Rucka from the Image Comics series that he created with artist Leandro Fernandez. The story focuses on a group of immortal warriors who have worked at the margins of human history for centuries, making small differences wherever they can while trying to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a pretty solid premise with a lot of narrative potential, and it could easily branch in any number of directions.

Immortal narrative engines.

The best and worst thing about The Old Guard is that it insists on branching in various competing directions. It often feels like three or four different movies that have been edited down into a fairly conventional and generic structure. By turns, The Old Guard tries to be a character study about the weight of immortality, a franchise-launching origin story, a criticism of modern hyper-capitalism, a solemn meditation on what it means to do good in a fallen world, and an old-fashioned kick-ass action movie with a pretty neat soundtrack.

To the credit of The Old Guard, it manages to avoid embarrassing itself too badly while trying to serve all of those competing impulses. However, that balance comes at a cost. None of the central ideas in The Old Guard are ever truly explored or developed, because that might mean that some other angle would get a short shrift. The result is an action film that is largely functional, which isn’t entirely satisfying but is also never completely frustrating. It’s a solid and sturdy film that largely avoids a potential identity crisis by declining to commit to a single identity.

An axe-soldier.

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New Escapist Column! On the Cynical Honesty of “Terminator: Genisys”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Terminator: Genisys turned five years old this month, so it seemed like the right time to take a look back at the third (of four) attempts to make a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Genisys has been largely forgotten, even overridden by the next film in the saga – Terminator: Dark Fate. This makes sense. Genisys itself overrode the previous two films on its own terms. Still, Genisys is an instructive and informative piece of blockbuster cinema. It’s a messy film, but in that messiness there’s an honesty. Genisys is a film that is naked in its ambition and its intent, in its efforts to reiterate and regurgitate the past while erasing any potential evolution. It’s a film that captures the emptiness of modern franchise filmmaking at its most cynical, and its most honest.

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

 

New Escapist Column! In Praise of Michael Keaton’s Batman…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. The big news this week was that Michael Keaton might be reprising his role as Batman from Batman and Batman Returns, so it felt like the right time to celebrate his contribution to the role.

Michael Keaton was a controversial choice for the role of Batman. Indeed, he’s arguably been underrated and underappreciated since he donned the cowl, with stock criticisms describing his interpretation of the Caped Crusader as bland or boring, especially in comparison to his villains. However, Keaton offered a fascinating and compelling portrayal of the Dark Knight, one worthy of celebration and praise. Keaton offered a version of Batman who felt more vulnerable and more insecure than other iterations, a child playing dress-up. It has aged remarkably well.

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

“The Truman Show” Didn’t Just Predict Our Future, But Also the Future of How Movies Would Be Sold…

More than twenty years after its release, it feels like everything that might be said about The Truman Show has already been said.

The Truman Show is that rare Hollywood blockbuster that feels somehow simultaneously timeless, timely and prescient. It speaks to anxieties that resonate throughout history, fears that were very particular to the cusp of the millennium, and to nightmares that were yet to come. It belongs at once to that age-old anxiety that the world is an illusion and human comprehension is insufficient, to the difficult-to-articulate existential uncertainty of the so-called “end of history”, to a future in which everybody would willingly become the star of their own Truman Show.

Indeed, The Truman Show seems to say so much about the world outside itself and the human condition that it’s possible to miss the film itself. Peter Weir’s late nineties blockbuster is a surreal slice of history itself, a relatively big budget mainstream release starring one of the most famous people on the planet, built around a rather abstract high concept. Not only was the film a massive critical success, it also managed to survive and prosper against a heated summer season.

While its actual themes and contents might be dystopian, The Truman Show itself offers an optimistic glimpse of a kind of blockbuster that seems increasingly unlikely.

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Non-Review Review: Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a limp misfire.

There’s no doubt that the film comes from a place of affection and sincerity, reportedly inspired by writer and star Will Ferrell’s delight on discovering the camp weirdness of the Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed, The Story of Fire Saga has clearly been produced with the enthusiastic participation of the contest itself; the film uses a lot of branding associated with the event, features cameos from commentators like Graham Norton, and even ropes in a couple of past participants for its most endearing tribute to the surreality of the competition.

Marching on.

However, whether because it constrained by the official branding or simply by the limitations of Ferrell as an outsider looking in, The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t work. On a basic level of comedy mechanics, there are not enough jokes to sustain the indulgent two-hour runtime. On a more fundamental level, The Story of Fire Saga often fails to grasp what makes the Eurovision Song Contest such a beloved cultural institution. There’s a sense in which The Story of Fire Saga could be about almost anything else, and would be functionally the same movie.

This is a disappointment, particularly given that The Story of Fire Saga is being released in a year without the Eurovision.

A pretty weak ‘Vision.

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Non-Review Review: Irresistible

Irresistible is a movie that largely exists to demonstrate that nobody hates the political left like the political left.

Jon Stewart’s second feature as writer and director essentially positions itself as a post-2016 political satire. Stewart’s former correspondent Steve Carell is cast as Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmer, who is still nursing the wounds of the 2016 election. The film features two short table-setting prologues, the second of which finds Zimmer lying in bed on November 9th, 2016 as the news media plays back his unearned confidence in the face of the earth-shattering Donald Trump victory. There’s a sense in which Zimmer needs to be humbled.

Window into a broken system.

A couple of years later, both Zimmer and the party clearly still smarting from that humiliating defeat, a video comes across Zimmer’s desk. Recorded at a town hall in Deerlaken, Wisonsin, it shows a military veteran standing up for the rights of immigrants and minorities to a town administration desperate to lock them out of welfare. Colonel Jack Hastings appears to be the complete package, a white rural farmer with genuinely progressive politics. “He’s a Democrat,” Zimmer insists. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Stewart tries to position Irresistible as a biting social commentary on the state of the modern Democratic party and its awkward relationship with the white rural voters who are undergoing incredible political hardship as a result of a series of global recessions, and who feel increasingly disconnected from the political establishment. It’s an old theme that belongs to a rich cinematic tradition including films like Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and it should still resonate these days.

Making Hastings while the sun shines.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s satire is unfocused and tonally unbalanced. It’s never clear exactly what the film is saying, beyond expressing an understandable frustration with the establishment of the political left. However, the film’s anger is clearest when it is singularly focused as to imply a vacuum that simply doesn’t exist. More than that, Stewart occasionally seems to invest in the some sort of nostalgic and romantic fetishisation of the rural community that he so scathing ridicules in the political establishment.

This issue reflects a broader problem with the movie. Irresistible is tonally erratic at the best of times, alternating between a biting satire set in a world that is at least meant to be recognisable and a more cartoonish comedy populated by outlandish science-fiction elements. Stewart can’t seem to hone in on what Irresistible is trying to say about the political system, beyond the simple fact that political types are the absolute worst.

Dems the breaks.

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New Escapist Column! On How Pixar Reinvented American Theatrical Animation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This weekend marked the tenth anniversary of the release of Toy Story 3 and the planned release date of Soul, so I thought it was a good time to take a look back at what made Pixar special.

Everybody talks about how emotive Pixar films are, how much they resonate with audiences on that level. However, what’s most striking and impressive – and perhaps most influential – about Pixar’s output is the way in which the studio draws consciously from a wide variety of influences to tell a wide variety of stories. There’s a lot of variety in the Pixar canon, they films playing with a large number of genres in interesting ways, repurposing classic formulae for a much younger audience than would have been the intended audience for the original films in question.

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