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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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187. Catch Me If You Can (#194)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Luke Dunne and Jess Dunne from The Breakout Role Podcast, 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.

This time, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.

When his parents announce their divorce, high school student Frank Abagnale runs away home. He never stops running. The enterprising young man reinvents himself as a dashing airline pilot, a debonair doctor and a diligent lawyer. However, Frank can only stay ahead of the long arm of the law for so long. As the ground starts shrinking out from him, as FBI Agent Carl Hanratty closes in, Frank wonders if he’ll ever be able to stop running.

At time of recording, it was ranked 194th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On Clint Eastwood’s Complex American Masculinity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Clint Eastwood turned ninety years old yesterday, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about the American icon.

For decades, Eastwood has embodied a certain ideal of American masculinity. However, he has also used his career to offer a more nuanced and sophisticated exploration of that masculinity than many observers will readily acknowledge. Eastwood is the rare movie star who completely understands his screen persona and the audience’s relationship with it, and uses that to engage in interesting discussions about what that says about American machismo.

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

“Whose Gesture Would Remove Me?” Fate and Chance in Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear

“You going to tell me where I’m going?”

“I swear to Christ, I don’t know.”

The fates seemed aligned against William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

The very idea of the film was an act of hubris, with Friedkin daring to remake one of the classics of world cinema. The Wages of Fear is justifiably regarded as one of the best movies ever made, and so for an American director to assume that he could remake it in his own image felt like an act of arrogance. Sorcerer often felt like a doomed project, suffering from wound both rooted in Friedkin’s self-regard and resulting from broader cultural trends.

Friedkin’s refusal to compromise cost the movie a bankable leading man in Steve McQueen, something that Friedkin regrets to this day. The decision to shoot on location South America led to a ballooning budget, conflicts with cast and crew and a variety of logistical difficulties. Friedkin refused to compromise with the studio during production, being openly antagonistic when they offered notes. The decision to open the movie with seventeen minutes of subtitled prologue may have alienated audiences, along with the use of title that conjured images of an Exorcist  sequel.

Perhaps all of this was meaningless. Maybe there was nothing that Friedkin could have done during the production of Sorcerer would have made a difference. After all, Sorcerer had the misfortune of opening a week after Star Wars. George Lucas’ science-fantasy epic obliterated the more restrained and more cynical film. It’s debatable to what extent Steve McQueen’s face on a poster or more favourable reviews in the papers might have helped. Friedkin’s career might have fared better after the failure if he’d been easier to work with, but it seems the film itself was always doomed.

In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate. Sorcerer is a story about a vindictive and mean-spirited universe, one that seems actively antagonistic towards the characters who inhabit it. Sorcerer is a story about the whims of fate, and the inescapability of destiny, populated by characters who are doomed long before they sign on to a suicide mission to transport highly volatile dynamite across the Amazon. It seems entirely reasonable that Sorcerer itself would be just as ill-fated as any of its central characters, just as subject to the sinister machinations of a cruel world.

However, all of this gets at the most interesting aspect of Sorcerer, the part of the film that is most distinct from The Wages of Fear. The film is definitely a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic, but it does what most truly great remakes do: it finds a fresh angle on the same basic source material. In many ways, The Wages of Fear is a uniquely European blockbuster that exists in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War. Sorcerer is undeniably an American movie, one that insists on finding order in the chaos of the turbulent seventies.

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“You Understand Me Now, Don’t You?” Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and the Chaos of Miscommunication…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing Snatch on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

“Have I made myself clear, boys?”

“Yeah, that’s perfectly clear, Mickey. Yeah… just give me one minute to confer with my colleague.

“… did you understand a single word of what he just said?”

Guy Ritchie is an interesting director, in large part because there seems to be very little that actively defines “a Guy Ritchie film” outside of a few stylistic quirks.

Films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Revolver, RocknRolla and The Gentlemen suggest a director fascinated with “hard men”, and some of this sensibility undoubtedly carries over into his blockbuster filmography, most obviously in the rambunctious stylings of Sherlock Holmes and most painfully in the attempts at grit in King Arthur. However, Ritchie has also spent a lot of time working as a director-for-hire on mainstream blockbusters worlds apart from that hypermasculinity, such as Swept Away, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Aladdin.

More than that, Ritchie’s work is more often recognised for its visual flourish rather than its thematic coherance, the director adopting a high-energy approach to camera movements and editing. Ritchie’s emerged from British independent cinema in the late nineties, and his work shares more than a few passing similarities to the work of young and hungry filmmakers working on the contemporary American scene. It is perhaps too much to describe Ritchie as “the British answer to Quentin Tarantino”, but it’s not entirely unfair either.

This is what makes Snatch such an interesting film. It is Ritchie’s second film, one that notably added some transatlantic flavour to the sensibilities of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Indeed, it’s tempting to write Snatch as an inferior copy of that earlier film, as a reiteration of that striking cinematic debut with extra Brad Pitt thrown in for marketability. After all, this was a particularly common line of criticism when the film was released. While there’s certainly some substance to this accusation, it overlooks the way in which Snatch makes its arguments much more clearly.

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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #74 – Star Trek: Voyager as a Nineties Time Capsule

Over the Christmas Break, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Duncan Barrett and talking about Star Trek: Voyager. Duncan is a historian, and I’ve actually quoted some of his work on the blog in the past. He hosts Primitive Culture, a show wherein the hosts discuss certain historical-related items of interest in the Star Trek canon.

Duncan noticed that I had recently finished a massive rewatch of Voyager, leading me to write around 750,000 words on the show’s seven seasons. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager coming up, he suggested that it might be fun to talk about the third live-action Star Trek spin-off in a bit of depth, looking at the series as a snapshot of a particular cultural moment. More than any of its sibling series, Voyager perfectly encapsulated the American experience of the nineties, tapping into the decade’s sensibilities and its anxieties.

The result was a fun (and involved) discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

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“Can You Help Him?” The Millennial Malaise of “The Phantom Menace”…

It is almost a cliché to say it, but 1999 was an amazing year for movies.

No, really.

Of course, everything is subjective and different people have very different tastes, but there was something special about that year. There were traditional crowd-pleasers like The Green Mile and The Cider House Rules. There were young poppy disruptors like Go! or Run Lola Run. There were formative films from era-defining directors like The Sixth Sense, Magnolia or Election. There were epoch-defining hits like The Matrix or Fight Club. There was a wave of teen movies serving an underserved audience like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You or The Virgin Suicides.

And there was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. It was comfortably the most anticipated movie of the year, to the point that its teaser trailer became a cinematic event that arguably inflated the box office of Meet Joe Black. It seemed perfectly timed. The generation of fans who had grown up with Star Wars were now old enough to have their own families, with which they might share the experience. The public’s appetite had been whetted by theatrical re-releases of the original films to prove that there was still a hunger out there for the franchise.

Not quite a duel in the franchise crown.

However, The Phantom Menace is very rarely discussed in the context of the cinematic marvel of 1999, despite being crowned the year’s box office champion. There are plenty of reasons for that, of course. Most obviously, it wasn’t very good. Perhaps more importantly, it aggressively upset the established fanbase who promptly made very silly statements about how George Lucas had “raped their childhood” by continuing to make films that weren’t to their specifications. As such, The Phantom Menace is primarily notably as a failure and disappointment, which it undoubtedly is.

That said, there is something very interesting happening beneath the surface of The Phantom Menace, and something that perhaps merits discussion in the specific context of its original release. The Phantom Menace was the only Star Wars film to be released in the nineties, serving as both the cornerstone and the capstone of what Star Wars looked like during the decade. The films that would follow were shaped by the concerns of their own era, warped and informed by the War on Terror. However, in hindsight, The Phantom Menace is very much a 1999 movie, through and through.

Anakin, not Anakin’t.

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158. The Wizard of Oz – w/ The Movie Palace – Winter of ’39 (#–)

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 Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

This week, a special crossover episode with The Movie Palace Podcast, a film podcast hosted by Carl Sweeney taking a look at the classics of Hollywood’s golden age. Carl suggested a crossover episode taking a look at the list, and particularly some of the classic movies listed on it.

So this week, Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe and King Vidor’s The Wizard of Oz.

After a freak hurricane scoops her home off the ground and deposits her in a vibrant magical land occupied by talking scarecrows and wicked witches, Dorothy Gale must confront a shocking reality: she’s not in Kansas anymore.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! “The Shining” and the Perfect Haunted House…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday. Because it was Halloween and because of the release of Doctor Sleep, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look about at The Shining.

The Shining is my favourite horror movie ever. It is one of my favourite films ever. It is the rare piece of work that offers something new every single time I sit down to watch it. As I’ve thought more and more about it over the years, I’ve been drawn to the way in which the power of the Overlook is one of scale. It is big enough that it can serve as a fun house mirror to the anxieties of America itself, but also intimate enough that the familial anxieties of the Torrance family can play out within it. It is both large enough and small enough to work as the perfect haunted house.

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

Amazing.

Non-Review Review: Hustlers

Hustlers wears its influences on its sleeve, which no small accomplishment for a movie about a bunch of criminal strippers.

Hustlers is adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, covering a post-recession swindle orchestrated by a group of enterprising strippers. The film is a tale of greed and commercialism, of opulence and corruption. The premise practically writes itself. Hustler is a story that is just lurid enough and just timely enough and just charged enough that it all comes together perfectly. The film’s narrative exists at an intersection of money and sex and drugs, but is anchored in a broader cultural and social context that uses this seemingly trashy set-up to say something seemingly profound about the American condition.

Given the premise and themes, it is no surprise that Hustlers should take so many of its cues from the films of Martin Scorsese. Joker has dominated a lot of the autumnal discussion about Scorsese’s influence on contemporary cinema with its obvious debts to films like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, but Hustlers is just as transparent in the debts that it owes to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s influence is felt on every inch of the film, from the film-making to the narrative structure to the awkward articulation of the central theme in the closing scene. It is both a strength and a weakness for Hustlers.

While Hustlers occasionally feels a little too indebted to the work of Scorsese to stand on its own two feet, the film largely works. Part of this is down to the skill and playfulness with which director Lorene Scafaria acknowledges her influence. Part of this is down to the film’s engaging charm and sense of humour, belying a compelling moral sophistication befitting the films that it is so obviously evoking. A lot of it comes down to the strong casting, including a compelling central dynamic and a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez.

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