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New Escapist Column! On “Avatar: The Way of Water” as the Rare Discourse-Free Blockbuster…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Avatar: The Way of Water continuing to push its way up the list of highest-grossing movies of all-time, it is interesting that James Cameron’s sequel hasn’t dominated the discourse to the same extent as comparable blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame.

Truth be told, there is something innately charming about that. It’s fun to have a big and bombastic blockbuster that hasn’t become an online shouting match, a film that audiences have just turned out to see and then gone back to their lives without making the film’s performance or reception a key part of their identity. Whatever problems there may be with The Way of Water, there is something to be said for a film that manages to entertain that many people without causing too many ripples.

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

301. Cool Hand Luke (#234)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a weekly 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, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke.

Lucas Jackson is a petty criminal assigned a two year sentence to a chain gang in Florida. All he needs to do is to keep his head down and his nose clean, and he’ll be back out in society in no time. However, Luke is unable and unwilling to do that. Luke bristles against the camp’s authority, and finds himself locked in a battle of wills against those in charge.

At time of recording, it was ranked 234th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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298. The Sound of Music (#243)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this time with special guest Síomha McQuinn, The 250 is a weekly 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, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music.

Maria is a young woman lacking purpose and direction in her life. Exiled from a convent, Maria is assigned to work as governess for the von Trapp family, caring for seven children who recently lost their mother and are struggling to connect with their emotionally distant father. Maria strikes up an unlikely connection with Captain von Trapp, but the family soon finds their idyllic existence threatened as historical realities come to bear on Austria.

At time of recording, it was ranked 243rd on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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266. Spider-Man: No Way Home – This Just In (#8)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week joined by special guests Graham Day, Luke Dunne and Bríd Martin, 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 second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Peter Parker returns home from a school trip to discover that his deepest secret has been revealed to the world: thanks to the villain Mysterio, now everybody knows that the teenage is the vigilante known as Spider-Man. Peter races to put the genie back in the bottle, but discovers that his plans might have unforeseen consequences.

At time of recording, it was ranked 8th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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247. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Indiana Summer 2021 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Tony Black and Darren Mooney, with special guest Alex Towers, 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 Indiana Summer, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Escaping a botched deal in Hong Kong, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones finds himself in India with two unlikely partners. Jones is quickly drawn into a mystery involving stolen artifacts and a village of missing children, which offers the adventurer the opportunity for “fortune and glory.” However, dark secrets are buried beneath Pankot Palace, and it may take an archeologist to unearth them.

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

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New Escapist Video! On “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the Arbitrary Lines Between High and Low Culture…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This week, with the renewed and ongoing debate between “high” and “low” culture, between “art” and “content”, it seemed like a good time to take a look at one of the more fascinating films to straddle that line. Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth entry in a long-running franchise, a film essentially built around a long car chase and explosions. However it’s also as pure a piece of cinema that has ever been made. It demonstrates the fungibility of those perceived boundaries.

183. Koe no katachi (A Silent Voice) – This Just In/Ani-May 2020 (—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and with special guest Graham Day, 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 year, we are proud to continue the tradition of Anime May, a fortnight looking at two of the animated Japanese films on the list. This year, we watched a double feature of Hayao Miyazaki’s Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta and Hauru no ugoku shiro. We’ll also be covering a bonus on a recent entry on the list next week, Naoko Yamada’s Koe no katachi.

This week, the third and final installment of this year’s Ani-May, Koe no katachi.

Teenager Shoya Ishida finds himself haunted by guilt over his merciless bullying of his deaf classmate Shoko Nishimiya six years earlier. Coming back from a suicide attempt, Shoyo makes an awkward attempt to reconnect and reconcile with Shoko, but are either of them prepared for the strong emotions that this reunion will provoke and the consequences that it will have for their friends and their families?

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

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The Great Regression: “Little”, “Shazam!”, “Unicorn Store” and the New Cinema of Arrested Development…

It’s always fun to pick at trends in contemporary cinema, especially when so many movies with similar ideas arrive in such rapid succession.

Film production is a long and arduous process. This is part of what distinguishes it from television. Films spend years in development and then production, their releases carefully managed and synchronised. As a medium, mainstream cinema often lacks the urgency suggested by the churn of television. It is harder to immediately react to trends. This is why, for example, the feature film Slender Man arrived more than half-a-decade after the character had taken the internet by storm and arguably after culture’s attention had wandered in other directions. Similarly, the success of movies like Iron Man and The Avengers led other studios to pursue that model of film-making, but it’s telling that the DCEU lagged roughly half a decade behind with Man of Steel and Justice League.

This is why it is particularly interesting when movies tackling the same big ideas happen to be released around the same time; Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Capote and Infamous. These films arrive so quickly that they are unlikely to exist in response to one another. Instead, they suggest similar ideas developed in parallel, perhaps hinting at some deeper motivating factor that spurred these similar ideas into development. Recent weeks have seen the release of three relatively distinct films operating in three very different genres; Shazam! is a superhero story, Little is a broad nostalgic comedy, Unicorn Store is a quirky independent film. However, each of those three films gets at the same idea.

Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store are all stories about the intersection of childhood and adulthood. Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store all feature adults who become children, in a manner of speaking. Of course, Unicorn Store is rather less literal than the other two examples, with Kit content to simply recapture her childhood dreams rather than to physically transform herself into a child. While Shazam! might more accurately be described as the story of a child who becomes an adult, the story’s central thrust is that Billy Batson needs to lean to be comfortable being a child and that he cannot remain an adult superhero forever. (Indeed, the primary plot of Shazam! features an adult trying to reclaim “the power of Shazam”, with the film insisting that it belong to a child.)

Still, taken together, these films suggest an interesting trend within contemporary pop culture. They hint at the awkward relationship that exists between childhood and adulthood in modern society, and the difficult that many individuals face in navigating the boundaries between the two. In Little, a forty-year-old tech entrepreneur finds herself transformed into her teenage self so that she might live the childhood that she previously denied herself. In Shazam!, a superhero is able to transform into a child with the mere mention of the title word, able to retreat from the responsibilities of heroism into the comforts of a warm and loving family environment. In Unicorn Store, Kit still lives in her parents’ house and sleeps in her childhood bedroom, dreaming of owning a unicorn.

These films are rather strange, in large part because they run counter to so many of the beloved stories with which they might otherwise be compared. During the eighties and even into the new millennium, children dreamed of the freedom that being an adult might afford them. In recent years, many of those children grew into adults who longed for the relative safety and security of childhood.

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“It’s About Family”: Why Are Modern Blockbusters So Preoccupied With the Notion of Family?

“It’s about family” has entered the cultural lexicon, usually delivered with a grim Vin Diesel bass.

It is, of course, a cliché to suggest that the Fast & Furious franchise is “about family.” Of course they are about family. Dominic Toretto never stops talking about how it is “about family.” The entire heart of the film franchise is that it’s “about family.” It arguably has been from the start, with the simmering attraction between undercover cop Brian O’Conner and Mia Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. In that first film, Brian doesn’t merely befriend the criminal that he is supposed to catch, he becomes family with him. The two men become (ironically) something close to brothers-in-law as much as brothers-at-arms. Over the course of the series, Dominic offers such pearls of wisdom as “you don’t turn your back on your family” in The Fate of the Furious.

Family runs through the film franchise. Owen Shaw, the villain of Fast and Furious 6, is revealed to be the brother of Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious Seven. The series hinges on soap opera plot dynamics like amnesia and betrayal, all of which emphasising the importance of these familial ties in mapping out the world that these characters operate. However, “family” is more than just a word that drives the plots of these movies, as much as those plots can be said to exist. It is also an important thematic element. The films frequently feature extended sequences at family gatherings, such as barbecues and parties. (Indeed, the franchise seems to evoke almost a Pavlovian response between the words “family” and “Corona.”)

However, while the Fast and Furious franchise is perhaps the franchise most overtly and obviously committed to the theme of “family”, and certainly the film franchise with the most frequent articulation of the concept, it is far from the only example. Modern cinema, particularly modern popular cinema, seems obsessed with the notion of family. In particular, contemporary big budget films are very much engaged with the idea of “found family” much more than biological family. It is interesting to wonder why modern pop culture seems so fixated on the idea of “found family”, to the point that it dominates so much cinematic real estate.

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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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