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203. Kundun – Summer of Scorsese (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle 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, continuing our Summer of Scorsese season, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun.

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: New York, New York, Raging Bull, The Colour of Money, Goodfellas, Casino, Shutter Island, The Irishman. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through his filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

The fourteenth Dalai Lama navigates the complicated web of faith and politics at a highly volatile time in the history of Tibet, meditating on both his divine responsibilities and the looming threat of Chinese intervention as the world changes around him.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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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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New Podcast! The Time is Now – Season 2, Episode 15 (“Owls”)

I have had the immense good fortune to appear on The Time is Now quite a lot lately, but was particularly flattered to be invited on to talk about Owls and Roosters, the big “mythology” two-parter in the late second season of Millennium. It’s an honour to join Kurt North for the conversation.

Owls and Roosters rank among my favourite mythology episodes in the Ten Thirteen canon, largely because they serve as a conscious unravelling of conspiracy theory. It is very common to compare Millennium to The X-Files, and with good reason. There’s considerable thematic overlap between the two shows; in fact, Patient X and The Red and the Black work as interesting companion pieces to Owls and Roosters. Both are stories about the limits of conspiracy, and the idea that entropy must eventually kick in and erode these empires of sand.

However, while The X-Files maintained a consistent belief in a singular unifying mythology, a belief in a single account of history, however convoluted that arc might be, Millennium opted for a more adventurous and postmodern approach. Millennium suggested a world in which all conspiracies were true, in which there were multiple competing narratives of history struggling against one another, with no clear or correct answer. Owls and Roosters offer the culmination of this approach, a car crash of competing narratives trying to account for a period of great instability.

As ever, you can listen directly to the episode here, subscribe to the podcast here, or click the link below.

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“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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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 5, Episode 1 (“Redux I”)

The X-Cast just kicked off its season coverage, and I’m back with Tony Black to discuss the first part of the fifth season premiere Redux I.

Redux I was famously the second-most watched episode of The X-Files, behind Leonard Betts. It’s easy to see why. Not only was the episode following on from an edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger involving the supposed suicide of the male lead on one of the buzziest shows of the decade, but it was also the launch of the season that would lead into the feature film adaptation, The X-Files: Fight the Future. As such, it was a pretty daring move on the part of Chris Carter to devote so much of the premiere to purple prose monologues playing over Mulder walking down grey corridors.

I think this is a pretty fun and interesting discussion. Redux I is always an episode that I’ve have complicated and conflicted feelings about, and the podcast was a nice opportunity to work through some of those strange emotions. Anyway, I hope there’s something worthwhile in here.

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

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Non-Review Review: The Day Shall Come

The Day Shall Come is an ambitious piece of work that suffers from some very fundamental flaws.

Chris Morris’ long-awaited follow-up to Four Lions treads on relatively familiar ground. The narrative unfolds along two threads in parallel. The first of these focuses on Moses Al Shabazz and the Church of the Star of Six, a vaguely radical (but completely non-violent) religious organisation built around addressing historical injustice and using psychic powers to bring down construction cranes over Miami. The other narrative thread is build around the bureaucratic machinations of local law enforcement, desperate to justify the bulking up of their budget after the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

My ami.

Separately, these elements feel like they should work well enough for Morris. The opening credits promise that the film is “inspired by one hundred true stories” and the set-up is absurdist enough that it feels entirely believable. Morris’ knack has always been in articulating the heightened and surreal aspects of the modern world while grounding them in mundanity, so that even the most outlandish of concepts feels anchored in a world that is recognisable and convincing. Like all great satirists, Morris holds a mirror up to the world that he sees and produces a caricature that feels as true as an naturalist portrayal.

However, The Day Shall Come just doesn’t work. A lot of this is tonal, with one of the film’s two central story lines occasionally veering into trite sentimentality that feels completely at odds with the rest of the film and which plays as an attempt to soften Morris’ more conventional and abrasive style. The result is a film that has a few compelling elements and solid (if bleak) gags, but which often feels unjustly worried about how its audience will respond and so sands down its rough edges to make something more palatable. The problem is that the rough edges are by far the most interesting parts.

He can preach until he’s horse.

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98. PK (#–) – Indian Summer 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Giovanna Rampazza and Babu Patel, 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, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This year, we are proud to announce Indian Summer, a fortnight looking at two of the Indian films on the list. We hope to make this an annual event. This year, we’ll be covering Rajkumar Hirani’s PK and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti. This week, we’re discussing the first of those two films, PK.

In the middle of the desert, a mysterious stranger arrives from a far away land. When events conspire to strand the visitor in this strange land, he makes a desperate attempt to get home. Along the way, he asks tough and probing questions about the bizarre world in which he has found himself.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Nun

Nobody really talks about how strange The Conjuring is.

James Wan has effectively managed to fashion Hollywood’s second most successful shared universe from a variety of old-fashioned horror tropes stitched together with a more modern blockbuster aesthetic. The films in franchise – which include The Conjuring 2, Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation – are remarkable because they seem like such a strange basis for a twenty-first century blockbuster franchise. They are all period piece jump-scare driven retro jorror movies that are produced with a very slick and modern sensibility.

Bad habits.

The Nun is another worthy (and interesting) addition to that canon. As with the other films in the series, its basic structure wields more modern storytelling and filmmaking techniques to a more classic horror tone. As with the other films, the production team also understand the appeal of a certain level of variety within that familiar template. The Conjuring was a throwback to beloved seventies haunted house films, Annabelle set its horror against the backdrop of the sixties, The Conjuring 2 moved to England and Annabelle: Creation unfolded against the backdrop of rural America.

The Nun evokes gothic horror. Set in a creepy abbey in Romania during the fifties, following an investigator dispatched from the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a young nun, The Nun thrives in this environment with this iconography. The Nun falters a little bit in its storytelling, especially its exposition, and it stumbles a little bit when it comes to building a climax that works as both an action film and as a horror. However, the film is canny enough in its choice of setting and imagery that it never completely comes apart.

Who goes stair?

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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

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