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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 Column! On “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and How “Borat” Has Changed Over 14 Years…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm last week, it seemed an interesting opportunity to take a look at the return of the Kazakh caricature, and examine how the character had shifted in the fourteen years since the release of Borat.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the way in which it offers a much more conventional structure – and even character arc – than the original film. It’s a strange choice, particularly in the context of the film’s mockumentary sensibility and the outlandish nature of the character. However, it also illustrates how much the world has changed since the release of the original film. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm realises that the world has changed, so maybe Borat should as well.

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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“There’s Nobody Here to See Us”: The Untamed Frontier in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’re looking at Casino. 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 1995 gangster classic.

When Casino was released, it experienced something of a minor backlash.

Part of this backlash was motivated by the film’s perceived similarities to Goodfellas – Scorsese had made another soundtrack-heavy period-piece mob movie starring both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, adapted from the work of Nicholas Pileggi. To a certain extent, this was fair. There were legitimate concerns that Scorsese was simply repeating himself, and that any comparisons to Goodfellas did not flatter Casino.

These problems were compounded by content. At time of release, Casino was Scorsese’s longest movie, clocking in at just shy of three hours. That is a lot of mobster movie, particularly if that movie felt in anyway derivative of the appreciably shorter Goodfellas. There were also rumblings of the movie’s brutality and violence, which was seen as being particularly excessive and graphic. These complaints circulated even before Casino hit cinemas. Peter Travers summarised the mood, “Even before Casino opened, the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.”

However, time has been kind to Casino. Although the film undoubtedly still exists in the shadow of Goodfellas, it has come to be recognised as one of the great crime films and to merit some appreciation on its own terms. Casino is a fascinating piece of work. It is bold and ambitious, epic and sweeping. However, what is most striking about Casino is not how it compares to Goodfellas, but how it contrasts. The differences are instructive.

Casino is often categorised as a mob movie, and it is definitely that. It is a story about gangsters and organised crime. However, it is also a western. It is perhaps the closest that Scorsese has come to making a traditional western in his entire cinematography. More than that, while Goodfellas is anchored in the character of Henry Hill, Casino lacks a similar hook. Both Sam and Nicky are much more oblique characters than Henry; Sam is less proactive, and Nicky is much more brutal. They are harder to invest in, tougher to root for.

However, this allows Casino to take a much wider view of this world and the people that inhabit it. Casino is arguably a religious parable, a story about mankind’s destruction of paradise and the inevitable exile that followed. In that sense, Casino feels like more of a bridge between Goodfellas and Scorsese’s more overtly religious-tinged parables like Bringing Out the Dead or Silence than it initially seemed. This is a story about heaven on earth, and the fallen sinful human beings who turn that heaven into a nightmarish hell.

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200. Goodfellas – Summer of Scorsese (#17)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jenn Gannon, with Andy Melhuish, Jack Hodges and others, 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, continuing our Summer of Scorsese season, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Colour of Money, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through his filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

As far back as he could remember, Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. However, the life that Henry leads doesn’t turn out exactly as the young hoodlum might have expected, as he finds himself navigating a web of betrayal and violence involving his closest friends.

At time of recording, it was ranked 17th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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195. The Third Man (#177)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Neasa Hardiman, 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, Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Holly Martins arrives in Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime. However, Holly quickly discovers that all is not what it seems. Harry apparently died in a freak traffic accident shortly before Harry arrived. As British officers start asking pointed questions about the dead man, Holly becomes increasingly anxious that something has gone very wrong.

At time of recording, it was ranked 177th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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190. 12 Angry Men (#5)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Donald Clarke and John Maguire, 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, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.

In New York, in the height of summer, twelve jurors assemble for what should be a simple open and shut case. Most of the jury assumes that they’ll be done within the hour. However, against all of that evidence and in spite of all of that expectation, one member of the group isn’t entirely convinced that the accused is guilty.

At time of recording, it was ranked 5th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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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.