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New Escapist Column! On the Morality Plays that Ground Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Yesterday was Thanksgiving and Christmas is fast approaching, so it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about the heartwarming morality of director Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino arrived in the early nineties as something of a provocateur, and caused no shortage of outrage among older and more traditional audiences. One of the more frequent criticisms thrown at Tarantino suggested that the director was nihilistic, that he presented worlds without meaning or sense beyond violence and chaos. While this might superficially appear to be true in that many of Tarantino’s films feature both violence and chaos, it fundamentally misunderstands the director.

On the contrary, Tarantino is arguably one of America’s most morally conscious filmmakers. His films present characters with worlds in which arbitrary forces sweep through their lives, reflecting the reality of living in a world outside of an individual’s control. However, many of Tarantino’s protagonists react to that chaos by fashioning their own order out of it – discerning their own meaning, constructing their own reasons. Although obscured by Tarantino’s preference for non-linear structure, his stories are often miniature morality plays.

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

New Escapist Column! On the Terrible “Terminator” Metaphor at the Heart of “Hillbilly Elegy”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Hillbilly Elegy arriving on Netflix tomorrow, it seemed like the right moment to take a look at one of award season’s biggest misfires.

There are a lot of problems with Hillbilly Elegy, many of which have been explored by writers with a lot more probing insight and personal experience than I have on the matter. That said, one aspect of the film has stuck with me since I first watched it: Hillbilly Elegy has possibly the worst Terminator metaphor that I have ever seen. It’s impressive how terrible the metaphor is. It relies on both a fundamental misunderstanding of the Terminator franchise, but also on a misunderstanding of what Hillbilly Elegy is trying to say.

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

New Escapist Column! On James McAvoy’s Complex and Compelling Charles Xavier…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With New Mutants releasing on streaming this week, effectively drawing the shutters down on Fox’s “X-Men Cinematic Universe”, it seemed an appropriate time to take a look back at one of the franchise’s unsung highlights: its portrayal of Charles Xavier.

Charles Xavier is a challenging character. He was essentially introduced as a plot function, the adult in the room for a teenage superhero team. However, over the years, Xavier has come to embody more. However, he has typically been portrayed as a saint or an icon. As played by James McAvoy, Xavier becomes a much more complex and compelling character, one who raises important questions about the X-Men as a metaphor for minority groups and about the best way of advancing ideas like social change and equality.

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

New Escapist Video! On “GoldenEye” and an Unchanged Bond in a Changed World…

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. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With that in mind, here is last week’s episode. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of GoldenEye, we took a look back at the first James Bond film of the nineties, which introduced the suave secret agent to a whole new generation. Indeed, the genius of the film lay in its understanding of Bond. It presented a version of Bond that had no changed, even as the world around him had.

New Escapist Column! On How “Return of the Jedi” Reduced “Star Wars” to Formula…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special releasing tomorrow, I thought it was worth taking a look back at Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

In particular, the way in which Return of the Jedi sets an outer limit on what Star Wars can be. After the previous film in the series pushed the franchise outwards, the third film in the original trilogy folds the series back in on itself and sets a clear boundary on what Star Wars is and what Star Wars will forever be. It is a creative choice that has arguably hindered the franchise in the years since, restricting its capacity to push beyond that template and embrace new ideas and new concepts.

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

New Escapist Column! On “Creed” as the Perfect Legacy Sequel…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because Creed is five years old this month, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at one of the defining legacy sequels.

Creed arrived at a point in time when these sorts of movies were becoming a lot more common; Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens would premiere a month later. However, there is a lot that later legacy sequels could learn from Creed and how it approaches the idea of passing the torch from one generation to the next. Creed is a love letter to the Rocky franchise, but never loses track of its own identity, accomplishing the rarest of balances.

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

“I Erased You”: Identity, or Lack Thereof, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at The Aviator. This week, we’re looking at The Departed. 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 Best Picture winning gangster film.

The Departed is about a lot of different things.

As one might expect from a Martin Scorsese film, it is very much an exploration of a certain type of masculinity. It is a story about fathers and sons, but also about how a man’s worth is measured. Indeed, The Departed arguably takes Scorsese’s fascination with a certain kind of hyper-exaggerated American masculinity to its logical endpoint, as Frank Costello serves as a nexus point tying together sex and violence without producing an heir and Colin Sullivan is forced to discuss his impotence as his girlfriend eats a banana.

However, The Departed ties into some of Scorsese’s other core themes – most notably the director’s recurring fascination with identity. Of course, The Departed is an adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, so it makes sense that identity would be a core theme. The film is the parallel stories of two undercover movies; Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan. Colin is a criminal posing as a cop, while Billy is a cop posing as a criminal. Naturally, the theme of identity and self-image inevitably ends up tied up in all this.

That said, The Departed is perhaps most interesting for how it ties back to Scorsese’s larger filmography. So many of Scorsese’s films are tied back to the idea of human connection and belonging, even as extreme counter-examples in films like “god’s lonely man” Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Particularly in Scorsese’s crime movies like Goodfellas and Casino, there is a clear emphasis on the idea of “belonging” and “conforming”, with his films often focusing on outsiders (like the Irish Henry Hill or the Jewish Sam Rothstein) trying to blend into the largely Italian American mob.

The Departed is largely built around the Irish mob in Boston, and so exists at a remove from Scorsese’s typical interest in the Italian mob in New York. (Notably, despite its Boston setting, large parts of The Departed were actually shot in New York City.) However, Scorsese’s portrayal of criminal life in The Departed marks a clear point of contrast from Goodfellas and Casino. While the characters in Goodfellas and Casino inevitably betray the bonds of family and loyalty to bond them together, they still acknowledge their importance. This is not the case in The Departed.

In The Departed, all of the characters eventually confront the reality that they exist in liminal spaces, caught more in the gravity of larger forces than held in place by ties of blood. The Departed marks a departure from Scorsese’s earlier crime films – arguably including Mean Streets and even Age of Innocence – because it completely disregards any sense of common community or shared identity. As Frank Costello opines in the opening scene, “When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

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New Escapist Column! On “GoldenEye” and a James Bond Out of Time…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because GoldenEye is twenty-five years old this month, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at one of the more underappreciated entries in the franchise.

GoldenEye arrived in a changed world, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many of the underlying assumptions of the Bond franchise were no longer relevant to the new world order. At the same time, the Bond franchise was in an existential crisis following the commercial disappointment of the previous film and the longest gap between installments to date. However, GoldenEye hit upon a novel solution to this problem: instead of fighting against the idea of Bond as a man out of time, it would embrace it.

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

New Escapist Column! On Taika Waititi’s Totally Radical Postcolonial “Thor: Ragnarok”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because it was released three years ago this month, I took a look back at the postcolonial politics of Thor: Ragnarok, and put them in a broader cultural context.

Ragnarok is one of the most enjoyable superhero movies ever made. It’s both fun and funny. However, it’s also one of the best and smartest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a joyous exploration of the legacy of colonialism and an interrogation of the consequences of imperialism. Ragnarok is bold and provocative, but is also so shrewd and slyly constructed that it manages to sneak a genuinely revolutionary perspective under the radar.

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

It’s All About Meme Meme: The Perfect Timing of “The Wicker Man”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, marked Halloween with a look at Neil La Bute’s adaptation of The Wicker Man. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about Nicolas Cage, meme culture and the perfect storm of timing involved.

It’s possible to break down Nicolas Cage’s career into two phases: before and after The Wicker Man.

Before The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage was a respected actor. He had won the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. He had become an blockbuster movie star thanks to films like The Rock and Con Air. He had worked with auteurs like David Lynch on Wild at Heart and the Coens in Raising Arizona. Indeed, at the turn of the millennium, Cage had settled into a respectable cinematic middle age. In the years leading up to The Wicker Man, he worked on fare like Andrew Niccol’s earnest Lord of War and Gore Verbinski’s decidedly middle brow The Weather Man.

And then The Wicker Man happened. Almost immediately, Cage’s career shifted gears. There were where still franchise films like Ghost Rider or National Treasure: Book of Secrets. There were still auteur collaborations like with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. However, there were also movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Next and Knowing, which would lead on to films like Drive Angry, Seeking Justice and Trespass. Not all of these films were bad, but they were instrumental in establishing the Nicolas Cage audiences know today: “full Cage.”

To give Cage some credit here, his later work is often more interesting than his popular reputation would suggest. In particular, Cage works remarkably well in ensemble genre pieces like Kick-Ass or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. More than that, Cage works remarkably well in the context of films that are pitched to match his fevered intensity as a performer like Mandy or The Colour Out of Space. Nevertheless, The Wicker Man was very much a watershed moment for Cage, like the flicking of a light switch.

Part of this is simply timing. The Wicker Man arrived at the perfect moment in popular culture, as a seismic shift was taking place. Discussions about the history of cinema often focus on the mechanics and the politics of the industry itself – the way in which movies are produced, funded and distributed. This makes a great deal of sense. However, it’s also important to consider how movies are discussed and how audiences engage with those films.

The Wicker Man arrived at a moment where the internet was primed to change the way that movies were watched, and the impact on Nicolas Cage’s career is perhaps a graphic illustration of that seismic shift.

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