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268. Incendies (#110)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Following the death of their mother Nawal, twins Jeanne and Simon find themselves dealing with dark family secrets bubbling to the surface. Nawal’s will includes two instructions for her children, to find both their father and their long-lost sibling. While Simon dismisses this last request as another manipulation from an emotionally-distant mother, Jeanne embarks on an epic journey to trace her family’s history and perhaps change its future.

At time of recording, it was ranked 110th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Lord of the Rings” as a Blockbuster for the Post-Ironic Age…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the twentieth anniversary of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings fast approaching, it seemed like a good opportunity to place the films in the context of their times.

Obviously, every work reflects the time in which it is produced – it speaks to a variety of factors (consciously or unconsciously) acting on the creative talent as it evolves into its final form. However, audiences also can’t help but engage with a work in the context of the time in which it is released. Peter Jackson shot most of his Lord of the Rings trilogy before 9/11, even if The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings was released in theatres three months after the attack. Still, it’s not to feel like the films’ earnestness and sincerity resonated with an audience looking for meaning in seemingly chaotic and arbitrary time.

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

New Escapist Column! On How “The Suicide Squad” Deconstructs Amanda Waller…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of The Suicide Squad, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one small-but-clever aspect of James Gunn’s superhero sequel.

The character of Amanda Waller is a pop culture archetype. She is an example of the ruthless intelligence operative who will cross whatever line it takes in pursuit of what she believes to be the greater good. Outside of comic books, one need only look at the character of Jack Bauer. Within the modern superhero landscape, the archetype is embodied by Nick Fury. These characters might be edgy or ambiguous, but they are also undeniably cool. Gunn’s approach to Waller in The Suicide Squad is interesting in large part because it rejects that idea of effortless cool in favour of something a lot blunter and more horrific.

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

New Escapist Column! On the “Superman II” as the Rosetta Stone of Zack Snyder’s DCEU…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League this week, it seemed like an appropriate opportunity to take a look at the strange and enduring influence of Superman II on the DCEU, from Man of Steel forward.

Superman II is one of the cornerstones of the superhero genre. It was the first big superhero blockbuster sequel, setting the stage for the franchises that would follow. It was the first depiction of the urban devastation that has become a fixture of the modern superhero spectacle. However, what makes movies like Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s Justice League so interesting is the extent to which they interrogate and explore the fantasy presented in Superman II.

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

“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. 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 complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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125. V for Vendetta (#153)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta.

Accosted by “finger men” for breaking curfew, Evey Hammond is rescued by a mysterious stranger who only introduces himself as “V.” As Evey finds herself drawn deeper into the world of this violent vaudevillian figure and as she discovers more and more of his plot to topple the country’s totalitarian regime, Evey finds herself wonder whether this masked figure is a vigilante or villain.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 153rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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The Defenders – The Defenders (Review)

If The Defenders is fundamentally a story about New York, then it seems inevitable that it should return to the city’s defining tragedy.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the events of 9/11 changed the course of world history. They fundamentally altered the foreign and domestic policies of the United States, the world’s strongest superpower. Inevitably, they also changed New York itself. It could reasonably be argued that the twenty-first century began with the 9/11 attacks, at least culturally; the atrocity brought an end to the global peace and stability that had defined the nineties, ushering in a new world order.

“Um, Danny? Hero shot?”

The Defenders is a story very much invested in New York City, with characters repeatedly referring to New York as “my/your/our city.” Of course, each of the four series leading into The Defenders imagines a different city. Daredevil is set against the backdrop of an early eighties version of Hell’s Kitchen, one never tamed nor gentrified. Jessica Jones unfolds in a vast and anonymous and disconnected city. Luke Cage imagines Harlem as an ideal, a cultural hub. Iron Fist treats Manhattan as the stage on which familial conflicts might play out.

The Defenders is about bringing those separate versions of New York together, of integrating them into a single story set against the backdrop of a single version of the city. Inevitably, that version of the city is the city as it was defined at the start of the twenty-first century, a city united by catastrophe and destruction. However, there is more to it than that. The Defenders embraces the 9/11 subtext seeded through the first season and plays the idea out to its logical conclusion.

“What? Am I supposed to look serious doing this?”

The season culminates in a bizarre inversion of 9/11, in which our heroes lay siege to an empty skyscraper. They decide that the only way to save Manhattan is to demolish the building. Although the episode is edited in such a way that the audience never sees the collapse of the skyscraper in question, The Defenders is still structured in a way that evokes the most uncomfortable paranoid conspiracy theories about the events of 9/11. With the structure destroyed from the inside with architectural precision, this change to the New York skyline really is “an inside job.”

It plays almost as a grotesque and uncomfortable attempt to reclaim a traumatic image, to take ownership of the atrocity. It is an attempt to construct a heroic iteration of the terrorist attacks that forever changed the city, as if that may somehow provide an opportunity for healing and reconciliation.

Take it as red.

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37. No Country for Old Men (#171)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.

Lives are thrown into chaos when a drug deal in Texas goes horribly wrong. Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two million dollars in drug money, and finds himself drawn into a world of violence and chaos as cartel hitman Anton Chigurh is on his trail. If this is not the mess, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 171st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Paradise Lost (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Part of what is so remarkable about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is how prescient it seems.

The Star Trek franchise is renowned for its central metaphors and allegories, its fondness for addressing contemporary issues through abstract philosophical discussions. Even the most casual of television fans can point to episodes like Let That be Your Last Battlefield or A Private Little War as examples of the franchise’s engagement with contemporary social issues. (Of course, they may not be able to actually name those episodes.) Of course, the reality was always more complicated than that, but this social engagement is part of the popular memory of the franchise.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

While there is a tendency to overstate the importance of social commentary and engagement in the history of the Star Trek franchise, it is a massive part of the cultural behemoth. Although not every (and arguably not even most) Star Trek episodes are explorations of moral philosophy that apply to the contemporary world, they are an essential part of each and every Star Trek series. Sometimes these episodes are brilliant, and sometimes they are heavy-handed. Sometimes they are earnestly sincere, and sometimes they are hopelessly misguided.

However, Deep Space Nine stands out in comparison to its contemporaries. Even twenty years after the show aired, it seems like Deep Space Nine speaks to contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.

The Changeling Face of Evil...

The Changeling Face of Evil…

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