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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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New Escapist Column! On “Masters of the Universe: Revelation” and the Paradox of Spoiler Culture…

I published a new column at The Escapist today. The release of Masters of the Universe: Revelation generated some controversy last week, owing to a major twist at the end of the first episode that caught some fans entirely off-guard.

This is interesting, because it gets at one of the central tensions of modern fan culture, particularly the obsession with spoilers. Many fans are obsessively worried about having the film and television that they enjoy spoiled for them ahead of time, of having secrets revealed before release. However, that narrative doesn’t really fit with the outrage over Revelation, where it seems like many of those fans most vocally protesting the big twist at the end of the first episode seem frustrated that something like that development was preserved as a surprise for them and that it did catch them off-guard. So do fans really want to be surprised?

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

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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Non-Review Review: The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers is a fan’s love letter. As the tagline helpfully summarises, it is a documentary about “your favourite band’s favourite band.”

Virtually everybody who appears on camera in The Sparks Brothers appears to rave about the eponymous siblings, Russ and Ron Mael, whose career has spanned more than half a century. There is a lot of joy and enthusiasm on display, even within fairly standard talking head sequences. Mike Myers takes a moment to playfully joke about how carefully the documentary team is getting is mole in focus, while the only character who has anything particularly negative or dismissive of the band is an animated Neil Tennant in a recollection from one of the band’s long-term associates.

An interesting framing…

This makes sense. The Sparks Brothers is a documentary from director Edgar Wright, a self-acknowledged fan of the band. Wright is careful never to crowd out or overwhelm his subjects, but he also takes advantage of his position as director to indulge his own fannish enthusiasm for the unlikely pop group. The Sparks Brothers is a surprisingly long documentary, running to two hours and twenty minutes. At least part of this is down to the fact that Wright takes great care to ensure that absolutely everybody gets a chance to have their say on what makes this “unusual duo from the seventies” such a monument

The Sparks Brothers is indulgent to a fault, but it’s also enthusiastic and excited. The energy of the assembled panel radiates through the screen, giving the documentary an infectious joie de vivre. The result is perhaps a little overlong and a little hagiological, but it is carried by a genuine sense of overdue celebration.

Oh, brother!

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New Escapist Video! On How “Black Widow” Demonstrates the MCU’s Humour Problem…

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 every second Monday’s 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 content – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With the release of Black Widow earlier in the month, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film. In particular, the use of humour in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general and in Black Widow in particular. In its best moments, the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses humour to enrich and deepen its themes. However, in Black Widow, it undermines them.

New Escapist Column! On the Promise and Peril of “Dune: Part One”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Last week, footage from the upcoming Dune adaptation was filmed for critics and press to build attention. One of the more interesting revelations from these screenings was that the movie apparently comes with subtitle Dune: Part One.

On one level, this is not really a surprise. It was been reported for years now that the upcoming adaptation would only cover a certain amount of the source novel. However, there is a certain boldness to including a “part one” subtitle on the cinematic release. In one sense, it harks back to the trend in the 2010s of splitting popular books into multi-part adaptations. However, it also suggests the blurring of boundaries between media, implying that this is really the first part of a two-part miniseries, where the production of a second part is contingent upon the commercial performance of the first.

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

New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 7, Episode 2 (“Amor Fati X-tra: The Last Temptation of Mulder”)

With The X-Cast moving on to coverage of the seventh season of The X-Files, I was thrilled to join Kurt North and Marlene Stemme to discuss the seventh season premiere – The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati – in the context of Martin Scorsese’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

Scorsese’s biblical epic was one of the most controversial major studio releases of the late eighties, attracting death threats and protests for its portrayal of Jesus Christ. It formed the basis for Mulder’s journey in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, with the two-parter directly lifting several scenes from the film. It’s interesting to interrogate, in large part because – despite the influence of seventies cinema on The X-Files – it feels like the show’s only real point of intersection with one of the most influential filmmakers of the seventies.

You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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244. Swept Away (-#100)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jenn Gannon, The Bottom 100 is a subset of The 250. It is a journey through the worst 100 movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away.

Amber Leighton is a spoiled socialite who insists on turning a Mediterranean holiday into a nightmare for everybody she encounters. This includes deckhand Giuseppe Esposito, a working class man with a very different view of the world. Circumstances conspire to maroon Amber and Guiseppe alone together on a remote tropic island, forcing them to renegotiate their relationship.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 100th worst movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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