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New Escapist Video! On How “Aliens” Responds to “Alien”…

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 every second Monday’s 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 content – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This month, with Aliens celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film. In particular, how James Cameron designed one of the great sequels by refusing to simply repeat what worked about the original Alien. Instead, Aliens works in large part because it actively responds to and engages with Alien, in a way that enriches both films.

New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Will Black Widow Have Us Russian Back to Cinemas?”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Richard Newby for the twenty-first episode of the year. With the release of Black Widow on streaming and in cinemas, there was only one movie to discuss. So we went for a deep dive into Marvel’s interquel, its character-centric movie for a dead Avenger.

You can listen to back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

Non-Review Review: Black Widow

Black Widow was originally supposed to release in May 2020.

This would have marked as something of a “coda” movie to the main saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a belated follow-up tidying away loose ends from Avengers: Endgame in much the same way as Spider-Man: Far From Home. Like a lot of the releases immediately following that massive cultural phenomenon, Black Widow feels like a bit of unfinished business. It is the first solo movie based around the only female founding member of The Avengers, a project that gestated in various forms over decades across multiple production companies.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, Black Widow would always have felt curiously out of step and out of time. Scarlett Johansson wrapped up her tenure as Natasha Romanoff in Endgame, with the superhero sacrificing her life in the quest to defeat Thanos. As a result, Black Widow has to position itself earlier in the timeline. It functions as something of an interquel between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following the title character as she desperately evades capture by United States Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Had Black Widow released on time, it still would have felt like a movie that arrived four years too late. After all, despite introducing Natasha Romanoff as early as Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not build a solo superhero film around a female character until Captain Marvel. For all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the DC Extended Universe managed to beat Marvel Studios to the punch with the release of Wonder Woman in May 2017. It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to a May 2016 release is something of a retroactive grab at that title.

Widow maker.

Even aside from all of this baggage, Black Widow is a frustrating film. It is a movie that feels only a draft or two (or an editting pass or two) away from greatness. The film grapples with big themes and bold character work in interesting ways that occasionally verge on confrontational. After all, Natasha Romanoff has consistently been portrayed as a complicated and ambiguous figure within this world of gods and legends, an international assassin whose moral and bodily autonomy was violated in the most grotesque ways, and who responded to this by trying to reinvent herself as a superhero.

There’s a fascinating story there, and Black Widow intermittently acknowledges as much. However, when the film gets close to hitting on any nerves, it immediately retreats into snarky irony and wry one-liners that rob the story of any real weight and the characters of any real agency. Black Widow is supposed to be a story about a character asserting her own agency in the face of an uncaring machine. Instead, it feels like a film where the machine always wins.

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New Escapist Column! On James Cameron’s “Aliens” as a Challenge to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. James Cameron’s Aliens is thirty-five years old this July, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at one of the best sequels ever made.

Aliens works in large part because it’s smart enough to avoid directly challenging Alien, in that it avoids simply recycling the original formula with a shift in location or with a new cast. Instead, it offers a very different approach to the core material. More than that, James Cameron positions Aliens as a direct challenge to Alien, deliberately and pointedly inverting some of the core themes of the original film. This choice enriches both films, turning Alien and Aliens into a conversation.

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

229. Mad Max: Fury Road (#206)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy and Deirdre Molumby, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Through the ruin of the world stalks the ruin of the man. In a world that has descended into anarchy and chaos, a lone nomad finds himself embroiled in a brutal chase sequence across the wasteland. However, the characters quickly discover that the past is the one thing that they can’t outrun.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 206th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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228. Interstellar (#29)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Cooper is a former astronaut who has resigned himself to life on a farm, raising his two children Tom and Murph. However, when the fates align to send Cooper back out into space, he finds himself faced with the terrible choice to leave his kids behind with no idea of when – or even if – he might return.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 29th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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213. Black Christmas – Christmas 2020 (-#75)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Doctor Bernice Murphy and Joey Keogh, 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.

So this week, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas.

As Christmas settles on Hawthorne College, something more unpleasant is in the air. A series of attacks on female students suggests that a killer is loose on campus, but the young members of the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority begin to suspect that there is something far more toxic at work.

At time of recording, it was ranked 75th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Mulan (2020)

Niki Caro’s Mulan is an interesting beast.

As a piece of production, it’s impressive. It lands neatly among the best of Disney’s live action adaptations of its classic animated films, simply by virtue of its willingness to offer something new. It avoids the limp and slavish devotion of films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, even if it never quite transcends its origins like Pete’s Dragon. It is vibrant and dynamic film, one that leans into what is possible in live action rather than animation, with cinematographer Mandy Walker ensuring that colours really pop off the screen.

Claws for concern

However, there’s also something slightly frustrating about Mulan. It often feels like the changes from the animated film were not made with the intention of improving the film or finding a new angle, but instead to render Mulan more palatable to a targetted Chinese audience. After all, for all the attention paid to the film’s video-on-demand release, its box office prospects have always had one eye on China. The result is a film that feels more cautious and more conservative than an animated film produced over two decades ago.

Mulan is clean and stylish, but feels a little too calculated and sterile to be its best self.

A prime cut?

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Non-Review Review: Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour is a charming an engaging film that suffers slightly from the lack of a clear focal point.

Philippa Lowthorpe’s historical drama-comedy is set against the backdrop of the 1970 Miss World pageant in London. The event became something of a point of convergence in the cultural wars spilling over from the end of the sixties, a target for the anarchist fringe, the anti-apartheid campaign, and for the nascent women’s liberation movement. At the same time, a quieter revolution was taking place within the event itself. Grenada had sent its first contestant to take part, while South Africa sent a black woman to represent them for the first time.

Misbehaviour features an incredibly stacked cast and diverse array of perspectives, looking at the central event through a variety of radically different prisms. There’s a sense that Misbehaviour wants to offer a genuinely intersectional perspective on the events of that explosive contest, the film’s form resembling its core themes. It helps that Lowthorpe has assembled an increidbly charming cast, and that spending time with just about any member of the ensemble is a worthwhile endeavour of itself.

At the same time, though, the film struggles to balance its large ensemble. There are occasionally too many plates spinning, and too much space between them. By the time that the film has checked in on all the major characters and circled back around, dramatic momentum has been lost and the film has to spend a minute or two regaining its footing. As a result, Misbehaviour never works as well as it might, feeling a little too clumsy and broad. Still, there’s a lot to like about it.

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Non-Review Review: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is an immensely charming and high-energy romp, that is as unfocused as its central character and suffers more than a little bit from a non-linear narrative style that it never really justifies or employs effectively.

There is a lot to love in Birds of Prey, but perhaps the most charming aspect of it is the intimacy. Birds of Prey is bereft of the sort of city-, planet- or galactic-sized stakes that have come to define so much of modern superhero cinema, from Thor: The Dark World to Man of Steel to Avengers: Endgame. The bulk of Birds of Prey consists of a wrestling match over a diamond that happens to contain bank account details that point to an even larger payday. Its climax is on the scale of an eighties or nineties action movie, which means it involves anonymous henchmen rather than a literal army.

A cutting retort?

This consciously low-stakes approach allows Birds of Prey to simply enjoy itself, to revel in the charm of the cast and the relatively straightforward journeys of the central characters. Warner Brothers have been pushing their DC properties away from the MCU-emulating shared universe model that led to the spectacular disaster of Justice League, instead focusing on affording creators the freedom to do what they want to do. Joker rejected the modern superhero template to offer a throwback to films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. In contrast, Birds of Prey seems to hark back to The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Birds of Prey is perhaps a little too messy and unfocused in terms of narrative, which affects the movie’s pacing and rhythm. However, it also trusts its cast and its energy to carry it a long way, working best when it feels confident enough to play as a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.

Girl gang.

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