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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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Luke Cage – The Creator (Review)

Luke Cage has always been engaged with The Godfather.

This was obvious even during the first season. Outside of dialogue accepting The Godfather, Part II as “the sequel better than the original” in Step in the Arena, the portrayal of the Stokes family in flashback owed a lot to Francis Ford Coppola’s generation crime saga. Indeed the sequences of the Stokes family gathered around the family table, unaware of the chaos that would rain down upon them, evokes the closing flashback of The Godfather, Part II. It is an image rich with irony, bringing the tragedy something of a full circle.

This point of comparison makes a great deal of sense. The Godfather is a story about a minority community in America, trying to exist both inside and outside the law. It is an archetypal American fairy tale, one of the great cynical meditations on the American Dream. (After all, the opening line of The Godfather is “I believe in America.”) This fits neatly with what Luke Cage is, an exploration of a particularly distinct subculture within contemporary America that explores the sometimes tumultuous relationship that this community has with the law and with political structures.

The second season of Luke Cage commits to this idea even further, its narrative borrowing liberally from The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II in crafting a generational superhero crime epic.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Honour Among Thieves (Review)

Honour Among Thieves is effectively Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pitching itself as a nineties crime film.

One of the luxuries of Star Trek is the sheer flexibility of the format week-in and week-out, the capacity to tell different sorts of stories depending on the tastes of the writers. The franchise can do comedy episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles or House of Quark, political thrillers like Sins of the Father or Homefront and Paradise Lost, weird science-fiction like Whispers or Threshold. The possibilities are endless, the variety incredible. It is a remarkable flexibility, to the point that the audience is never entirely sure what genre they will end up with in a given week.

To Bilby or not to Bilby…

The writers on Deep Space Nine have long been fascinated with the darker side of the Star Trek universe, the pulpy aspect of the franchise that was largely downplayed in the Rick Berman era. Episodes like Necessary Evil played with the conventions of noir storytelling, while Whispers hinted at some postmodern paranoia. The Orion Syndicate were brought back into twenty-fourth century continuity in The Ascent. Occasionally, the strands would come together, most notably in A Simple Investigation, a cyberpunk noir that blended “net girls” with bantering assassins.

Honour Among Thieves very much continues along that evolutionary line. It picks up the Orion Syndicate thread from earlier episodes like The Ascent or A Simple Investigation. However, it also positions itself very much in the context of nineties gangster cinema. This is Deep Space Nine channelling Donnie Brasco, casting O’Brien as a mob informant finding himself sympathetic to his target.

Miles ahead of the enemy.

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Non-Review Review: Triple 9

Triple 9 looks great.

Although it set in modern day Atlanta, director John Hillcoat seems to frame Triple 9 as a grim companion piece to The Road. Hillcoat captures the horrors of urban decay, creating a world that seems to teeter on the edge of the abyss. The camera pans through abandoned tenement buildings and lingers on graffiti; bodies are found in shopping trolleys while tinted windows serve to conceal immediate dangers. As filmed by Hillcoat and filtered through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Atlanta seems to be composed of slums and overpasses.

Traffic stop...

Traffic stop…

From the impressive opening heist set piece, Hillcoat saturates the film with red, as if our heroes are only glimpsed through the light of hellfire. That red comes from multiple sources; a red dye pack that explodes at the worst possible moment, the boots worn by one of the characters, the lights from a police car, the fire from a distant (and somewhat anticlimactic) explosion. Triple 9 is oppressive and grim, with Hillcoat threatening to bring the world collapsing down upon his protagonists.

The problem with Triple 9 has nothing to do with Hillcoat’s aesthetic. Instead, the film suffers from a generic and unfocused script populated by characters who lack agency and identity. The main figures in Triple 9 often feel like pieces of paper caught in a breeze, moving in any given direction at the whim of the plot rather than through any essential quality of their own. Things happen not because they are organic (or even inevitable), but because they are convenient. There are points at which it seems like maybe the characters are not in hell; maybe the audience are.

Married to the mob...

Married to the mob…

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Millennium – Nostalgia (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Nostalgia is the last “serial killer of the week” story produced by Millennium.

Sure, there is a serial killer in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That, but the last two episodes of Millennium are much more interested in the show’s mythology than in a nuts-and-bolts “Frank catches a serial killer” story. Appropriately enough, given its title, Nostalgia feels like a throwback to a simpler version of Millennium. In a way, it does more to capture the mood and feel of the first season of the show than anything like Matryoshka or Seven and One. It helps that Nostalgia is a great episode, judged by it own merits.

Frank sees all. All.

Frank sees all. All.

It makes sense that Nostalgia should come from Michael R. Perry. With his debut script for The Mikado in the second season, Perry had demonstrated quite a knack for traditional Millennium storytelling. The Mikado was arguably something of a throwback itself, the most old-school “serial killer of the week” story in the show’s delightfully off-kilter second season. If the show wanted to do one last “serial killer of the week” story, there was no writer better suited to crafting it than Michael R. Perry.

In a way, Nostalgia feels like belated vindication for the “back to basics” aesthetic running through the third season – proof that perhaps it might be possible for the show to recapture some of the stronger aspects of the first season even this late in the game. Nostalgia is a much better version of the stories that Closure and Through a Glass Darkly had tried to resurrect earlier in the year. It might be enough to entirely redeem the season’s stubborn fixation on a past fading into history, but it does demonstrate that there were interesting stories to be told using that technique.

Parks and recreation...

Parks and recreation…

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Non-Review Review: La French (The Connection)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

La French (aka The Connection) looks and sounds beautiful.

Working with cinematographer Laurent Tangy, director Cédric Jimenez manages to capture the scenic beauty of seventies Marseilles. The classic architecture, the sea views, even the hot night spots all look absolutely stunning. Le French manages to capture the crisp feeling of the late seventies without ever feeling stylised or staged. Similarly, Jimenez manages to pull together a beautifully evocative soundtrack, with songs as distinct as Call Me and This Bitter Earth helping to underscore emotionally-charged sequences and giving the film a sense of style and taste.

lafrench

La French is a stylishly-constructed crime thriller that stretches from the south of France to New York and back again, a family loosely inspired by the infamous “French Connection” that fed drugs into France and overseas to the United States. However, despite its obvious overlap with William Friedkin’s The French Connection, it seems like Jimenez owes more to the work of filmmakers like Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese, constructing a crime epic that flows beautifully and effortlessly, with an impressive soundtrack complimenting a dynamic visual style.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with La French, a sense that there might actually be too much style – that the film may occasionally feel a little too hollow or detached from its twin leads. However, Jimenez cleverly casts Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche in the lead roles, who help anchor the film with a sense of humanity that only occasionally gets lost in the film’s beautifully-crafted production.

lafrench2

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tribunal (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

Tribunal is probably the weakest episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in quite some time, hampered by the fact that it never seems too ambitious and the fact that the episode ends because we’re three minutes away from the closing credits rather than because it feels like the story has been told. Tribunal is hardly the deepest or most sophisticated episode of the show’s second season, spending most of its time riffing on Kafka and Orwell, but it’s still solidly entertaining – a rare example of black comedy on Star Trek that works surprisingly well.

I suspect the biggest problem with Tribunal is where it’s placed. The second season of Deep Space Nine has been hitting it out of the park since around Blood Oath, giving us the strongest run of episodes we’d see until the start of the fourth season. Indeed, had the show found its groove a little bit earlier, the second season of Deep Space Nine could have been on par with the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as “that season the show found its groove.”

However, it remains an impressive run of episodes, a rallying of the show in the last third of the season, showing just what Deep Space Nine was capable of. Most of the episodes in that run felt very different from anything done on The Next Generation and most offered some major insight into how the world of Deep Space Nine works as distinct from the rest of the franchise.

A broad cast of characters...

A broad cast of characters…

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Hannibal – Buffet Froid (Review)

Buffet Froid is the most strikingly horrific episode of Hannibal to date. Of course, the show is very much a horror story and enjoys its fair share of grotesque imagery. This is the series, after all, that gave us the makeshift angels, the do-it-yourself cello and the human totem poll. However, Buffet Froid plays most obviously on the imagery and iconography of horror. This is the episode where people have no faces and skin comes off at the slightest touch and the serial killer is waiting for you under your bed.

As you might imagine for a show with such complete control of its own atmosphere, Buffet Froid works very well indeed – providing what might be the most horrific episode of the show to date.

The doctor will see you now...

The doctor will see you now…

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Hannibal – Potage (Review)

Hannibal continues to move apace. Serialisation can often be a tricky beast, because it relies heavily on pacing. Reveal too much too fast and none of the plot beats carry enough weight. Drag out your revelations and your game-changing twists, and things feel too slow. The sense of progression is lost. On top of that, and something which is easily overlooked when it comes to serialisation, the key is to ensure that each episode exists as its own entity, while remaining a part of the whole. As often as one might use the “chapters of a book” analogy for episodes of The Sopranos or The Wire, this tends to ignore that each episode generally tended to be structured as its own entity. While a part of a larger story, each episode was its own self-contained unit of story.

Potage seems to suggest that Hannibal is finding its feet in the area, and carefully pacing itself. We are peeling back the layers on the eponymous psychiatrist at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow. The evidence is mounting and his moves are becoming more brazen, but he retains his air of mystery. Since Lecter is a character who only really works with that sense of mystery, it’s a shrewd balance between progressing the plot and retaining the character’s appeal. Potage demonstrates the show has quite a knack for it.

The good doctor?

The good doctor?

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Non-Review Review: Superman vs. The Elite

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Superman has struggled with his pop culture credibility for quite some time now. The character is seen as too old-fashioned or outdated to really resonate in the modern world, standing for an overly simplistic and unquestioning moral philosophy which doesn’t take into account the nuances of current realities. Superman vs. The Elite, adapted from Joe Kelly’s What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, represents an attempt to counter this opinion of Superman as a character. Unfortunately, it never really does so be convincing us that the character is still relevant. Instead, it creates a bunch of convenient straw men to oppose our hero, and never allows him to win on his own terms.

Beware the Superman...

Beware the Superman…

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