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New Escapist Video! On the Childish Wonder of “Black Panther”…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week.

With that in mind, here is last week’s episode, covering Ryan Coogler’s use of childish wonder in Black Panther. You can watch the pilot video here, and read the companion article here.

New Escapist Column! On the Planning of Disney’s “Star Wars” Sequel Trilogy…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because the news cycle around Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker never dies, it seemed like an appropriate time to look at the famous refrain that Disney needed a “plan” for their Star Wars sequel trilogy.

In truth, this is at best a simple solution to a complex problem. After all, fans have hardly proven themselves willing to offer movies the benefit of the doubt because they were “planned” in advance. The Star Wars prequel trilogy was not greeted with any greater warmth or understanding because George Lucas knew where he was going. Instead, the problem is that The Rise of Skywalker needed a strong vision of what it wanted to be and what it wanted to say.

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

Holy Camp, Batman: The Redemptive Queerness of “Batman & Robin”…

Batman and Robin is not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is somewhat unfairly vilified. This is particularly true in comparison to its direct predecessor, Batman Forever. Very few people would attempt to argue that either Batman Forever or Batman and Robin were good films on their own terms, but the consensus seems to have formed around the idea that – to paraphrase Edward Nygma – Batman Forever was bad, Batman and Robin was worse. This calcified into the idea that Batman and Robin is among the very worst comic book movies ever, and Batman Forever is not.

It is interesting to speculate on why this might be. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are both cynically constructed blockbusters aimed at the youngest and least discerning audiences, eschewing concepts like plot and characterisation in favour of cheap thrills and terrible jokes. Both films offer incredibly condescending exposition, betraying the sense in which they have been constructed for audiences with the shortest possible attention span. However, while Batman and Robin embraces this cynicism, Batman Forever clumsily tries to disguise it.

Much has been made of the fact that director Joel Schumacher wanted to make a better movie than Batman Forever. He singled out Batman: Year One as the Batman movie that he wanted to make. Traces of this better movie occasionally surface in discussions of Batman Forever and are often framed in reference to the film’s admittedly darker and more artistic deleted scenes. There is a clear sense that Batman Forever harboured something resembling ambition before it was brutally bent and broken into its final released form.

However, Batman Forever also offers its audience condescending and trite pop psychology. The result is a veneer of faux profundity that suggests hidden depths that the movie is unwilling and unable to explore. Batman Forever vaguely touches on the question of whether Bruce feels responsible for the death of his parents and the trouble he has reconciling the two halves of himself, but in no real depth. Two-Face is one of the primary antagonists of Batman Forever, and the film can’t even be bothered to make that thematic connection.

It’s interesting to wonder if Batman Forever has a slightly warmer reputation because of this unearned grasp at weightiness, these small gestures towards the idea of “psychological complexity” and “psychological nuance” in the most trite manner imaginable. After all, Batman Forever is a movie that has Bruce Wayne dating a psychologist, and feel inordinately proud of that idea. It’s easier to pass off Batman Forever as more mature or more considered than Batman and Robin, because it gestures broadly at ideas that are a little darker and more complex.

This is strange, because there’s a lot more interesting stuff happening in Batman and Robin. Unlike its direct predecessor, Batman and Robin makes no broad gesture towards profundity or insight. It is a profoundly stupid movie, and it is cognisant of both that stupidity and the audience’s relationship to that stupidity. However, there’s something much more interesting going on underneath the surface of Batman and Robin, in direct response to Batman Forever.

Batman Forever feels like a moral panic picture, a direct response to some imagined public outrage about certain earlier interpretations of the Caped Crusader. As such, it aims to produce the most generic and vanilla iteration of the character, the most boring and the most normative. What makes Batman and Robin so interesting is that it represents a firm rejection of that conservativism, and actively works to inject a lot of the queerness back into the Batman mythos. It doesn’t do this especially elegantly or smoothly, but it does it nonetheless. The results are compelling and engaging.

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“It Had Nothing to Do With Me”: The Moral Sloth of Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Raging Bull. This week, we’re looking at Goodfellas. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic.

There is a long-running debate concerning the films of Martin Scorsese, one that arose most recently around The Wolf of Wall Street.

To his critics, Scorsese is seen as a director who glorifies and venerates a certain form of toxic masculinity. There’s a certain logic to this argument. After all, whatever Scorsese’s intentions may be, there is no denying that his films attract a certain unironic fandom that gets swept up in these stories of tough men who do terrible things. This is reflected in everything from the ubiquity of Goodfellas as a “dorm room poster” to celebrations of its depiction of masculinity to the fact that real-life gangsters reportedly love it.

This criticism largely derives from the fact that Scorsese effectively surrenders control of the film’s narrative to his central characters. His movies are often literally narrated by their central characters: Henry and Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in Casino and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. These characters are given ample room to espouse their worldview and their philosophy, to craft the story that they want to tell.

Scorsese undoubtedly pushes back against his characters in interesting ways – often ironically juxtaposing their conceited monologues with brutal imagery to underscore the dissonance between their narrative of events with the reality of the situation. However, Scorsese largely avoids overtly moralising. He avoids the easy route of having external characters comment too obliquely or too loudly on the moral decadence at play. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Karen Hill is her own complicity in Henry’s immorality rather than any condemnation of it.

To be fair, there’s a lot to recommend this approach. American cinema has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the Breen Office, and there is a lot to be said for the importance of treating an audience as mature enough to grapple with complicated ideas or giving them room to reach conclusions on their own terms. Psycho is a classic piece of American cinema, but it suffers greatly from a closing scene where a new character shows up to lecture the cast (and implicitly the audience) on the film that they just watched.

Indeed, this is ultimately the beauty of Scorsese’s approach to these characters. Scorsese gives them all the room that they need, and they still manage to incriminate themselves. Their robust attempts to glorify and mythologise themselves inevitably backfire. Like a good detective or lawyer, Scorsese shrewdly just allows characters like Henry Hill to talk and talk and talk, knowing that they have been given enough rope with which they might hang themselves.

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New Escapist Column! On Kat as the Emotional Heart of “TENET”…

I published a new piece at The Escapist on Sunday. With the release of TENET, Christopher Nolan has been subject to the familiar criticisms of his work: that he is humourless, cold, emotionless. However, these criticisms miss the fact that Nolan’s films are often underpinned by deep reservoirs of emotion.

Elizabeth Debicki’s Katherine Barton is the beating heart of TENET. She also represents a clear evolution of how Nolan writes female characters. If TENET is a James Bond pastiche, than Kat is introduced as a disposable love interest – the character that the hero seduces to get closer to the villain, and is ultimately killed for her betrayal. She is also positioned in Nolan’s filmography so as to suggest one of Nolan’s “dead wives.”

However, as the film progresses, Kat becomes the emotional protagonist of TENET. It is her story that drives TENET. More than that, she assumes the narrative space that is usually reserved for Nolan’s male protagonists like Cooper in Interstellar and Cobb in Inception: that of a parent fighting desperately to be reunited with their lost children. As such, Kat is a fascinating character in Nolan’s filmography, both a deconstruction of the way that Nolan writes his women characters and a clear step forward.

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

New Escapist Video! On Disney’s Chinese Gambit with “Mulan”…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week.

With that in mind, here is last week’s episode, covering Disney’s ambitions to bring Mulan to China and the story of how Hollywood became so fascinated with that market. You can watch the pilot video here, and read the companion article here.

New Escapist Column! On “Black Panther” and Childlike Wonder…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman over a week ago, I have been thinking a lot about Black Panther. In particular, what makes it special.

It isn’t simply that Black Panther was the first superhero movie on this scale to feature a predominantly black cast from a black director. It was also the extent to which director Ryan Coogler understood the power of superheroes. Very few superhero movies are written with an understanding of what superheroes represent and why they are important, instead often falling into the trap of power fantasies rather than empowerment fantasies. Black Panther is the rare superhero movie that dares to see its world through the eyes of a child, and is more powerful for that.

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

“I’m Not an Animal!” Raging Bulls and Pushing the Boundaries of the Empathy Machine…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, launched a belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Taxi Driver. This week, we’re looking at Raging Bull. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white boxing film.

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]
summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’
the man replied.

‘All I know is this:
once I was blind and now I can see.’

By Scorsese’s own admission, Raging Bull was a “kamikaze” film.

By the end of the seventies, Scorsese was personally and professionally wiped out. The director had just gone through his second divorce. He was recovering from a cocaine addiction that had almost killed him. Scorsese had attempted to capitalise on the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver by making New York, New York. The film was intended as an update of the classic MGM musicals shot in a New Hollywood style, but it was a critical and commercial failure.

The New Hollywood era was ending around Scorsese. William Friedkin had been brought down to earth by the critical and commercial failure of Sorcerer, which had the misfortune to open opposite Star Wars. While Apocalypse Now had become a hit, the film’s troubled production was already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Indeed, it has been suggested that Scorsese was able to sneak Raging Bull through United Artists because its production overlapped with the attempts to fight fires on Michael Cimino’s studio-killing flop Heaven’s Gate.

Scorsese was committed to seeing through his vision of Raging Bull. He wanted to make a film that satisfied him, even if it was to be the last film that he ever made. The result is a singularly abrasive piece of work. It is a biography of the boxer Jake LaMotta that paints a harrowing and horrifying sketch of an innately violent man who succeeds in alienating everybody close to him and destroying every opportunity that he has to build a better life for himself.

Even watched forty years after its original release, Raging Bull is an uncompromising and unflinching portrayal of a protagonist who is deliberately and aggressively unlikable. This is a bold and daring move. Studio biographies are often designed to soften the rough edges of their subjects, to temper biting commentary with glimpses of humanity. Even Oliver Stone’s Nixon offers a surprisingly sensitive study of a subject that the audience might expect the director to skewer.

However, this is the power of Raging Bull. Roger Ebert famously described film as an “empathy machine”, and Raging Bull seems to probe the limits of that idea. The audience spends two hours inside the head of Jake LaMotta, and sees the man with his all his flaws and through all his failings. The film then asks its audience, having subjected them to that brutality and violence, to look on Jake as a human being deserving some measure of compassion and empathy. Raging Bull accomplishes this, one of the most remarkable feats in Scorsese’s filmography.

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New Escapist Column! On Disney’s Chinese Gambit with “Mulan”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Mulan as a premium video on demand this weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look at what the film represents in terms of Disney (and larger Hollywood’s) relationship with China.

The streaming release of Mulan is just one prong of Disney’s rollout strategy for a film that reportedly has a larger budget than The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. The company has an eye on the Chinese box office, which makes sense given that China has become a global powerhouse in terms of box office. Mulan has been consciously tailored to appeal to Chinese audiences, but this is really just the culmination of Hollywood’s long-running courtship of Chinese censors and audiences, a trend that has been in motion for over a quarter of a century.

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

New Escapist Column! On “Interstellar”, “TENET” and the Competing Visions of the Future…

I published a new piece at The Escapist earlier today. With the release of TENET, it seemed worth taking a look at some of the core themes of the film.

TENET has most frequently been discussed in the context of its relationship to Inception, but it is perhaps most interesting to discuss in relation to Interstellar. Both of those films are about the relationship between the present and the future, exploring the dynamic between mankind and a projected future version of themselves. Interstellar is a story about the hope held by the future, but TENET offers a more cynical perspective.

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