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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “The Excellence of The Haunting of Bly Manor”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard for the eighth episode. It was a light enough week for film news, so we talked about Disney’s pivot to streaming, the rumours about the upcoming sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and the joys of The Haunting of Bly Manor.

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

Non-Review Review: Rebecca

The most shocking thing about Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca is how tame it feels.

The bulk of the coverage of the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance focuses on the idea that Wheatley is tilting at cinematic windmills by daring to explore the same ground that Alfred Hitchcock had already so memorably mapped. Hitchcock is as close to a cinematic sacred cow as exists, and to attempt to remake one of his most beloved films would be tantamount to making another version of Gone with the Wind or restaging Casablanca. It is one of the rare lines that exists in a modern pop culture built around recycling existing intellectual property.

Maxim-um fun.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with daring to approach the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker was very much an update of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. More than that, there are perhaps valid reasons for wanting to go to Manderley again. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novel was constrained by the demands of the Production Code Authority, and forced to change key plot points and obscure others through subtext. While some observers might argue this renders the film more “artful”, it does justify a revisit in a less puritanical time.

However, Wheatley never manages to bring these ideas to the surface. His version of Rebecca never manages to quite articulate or express the anxieties lurking in the shadow of Hitchcock’s classic. Rebecca is a sleek and stylish production with a set of solid performances and a few flashes of visual vigour, but it lacks a strong sense of its own identity – often seeming disjointedly caught between its influences and its impulses, failing to reconcile the two into anything especially compelling.

A time for reflection.

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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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Non-Review Review: Possessor

Possessor is a brutal and graphic slice of body horror, unsettling and uncanny in equal measure.

It seems unfair to define writer and director Brandon Cronenberg by his relationship to his father, Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg. The fact that it’s possible to draw a clear line from his father’s work on films like Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome through to Possessor only makes these comparisons more obvious and ubiquitous. However, Brandon Cronenberg has already established himself as a potent force in the body horror genre with his feature debut, AntiViral.

She can explain the plot until she’s red in the face…

Possessor is a grotesque and creepy addition to the genre. The movie focuses on Tasya Vos, a professional assassin who completes her assignments by hijacking the body of somebody close to her target, allowing her to infiltrate their inner circle and carry out the murder in that persona. As the premise suggests, Possessor is rife with body horror. The film is built around the classic body horror nightmare, the realisation that the human body is ultimately nothing more than an often malfunctioning machine made of meat, equally often at odds with the mind driving it.

At the same time, Possessor is perhaps a little too broad and too abstract. Possessor is obviously a body horror, but its storytelling often feels closer to the more abstract social horrors that are popular in modern American independent cinema, films like She Dies Tomorrow. This is interesting in some respects, but also leaves the film feeling a little too vague at points. The problem isn’t that Possessor has nothing to say, it’s more that it’s trying to say everything at once. While this confusion is occasionally effective given the themes of the story, it is also frequently frustrating.

Piecing it together.

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“Your Reminiscence”: Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”, Nostalgia, and Parental Anxiety…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’ll looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but the season skips over large swathes of Scorsese’s filmography. So I thought it might be worth taking a look back at Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is often overlooked in terms of Martin Scorsese’s filmography.

It falls in the gap between the instant classic Goodfellas and the sleeper masterpiece Casino. It shares that gap with The Age of Innocence, which is one of the films in Scorsese’s filmography that has been begging for a reappraisal and seems more likely to receive critical attention than a trashy remake of a pulpy sixties thriller. (The Age of Innocence recently received a re-release as part of the high-end Criterion Collection.) Indeed, Cape Fear seems designed to be seen as disposable in the context of Scorsese’s filmography.

At best, Cape Fear is typically seen as a curiosity – and potentially a worrying one. While Roger Ebert praised the film, he lamented “a certain impersonality in a film by this most personal of directors.” There was a whiff of moral panic to Kenneth Turan’s review, which asked, “Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience’s increasing avid addiction to increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them?”

However, there’s a lot interesting happening in Cape Fear. Most obviously, the film is a vehicle for Scorsese’s love of a certain style of directorial technique. The original Cape Fear had been directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had worked as a dialogue coach under Alfred Hitchcock. The film arrived two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the influence of Hitchcock is obvious on Thompson’s work; it’s scored by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, editted by Hitchcock veteran George Tomasini and features art direction from Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen.

However, what’s particularly interesting about Cape Fear is the way in which it actively translates the original movie from the early sixties to the early nineties, playing not only on the same underlying fears that informed the original, but also understanding that they existed in a different context during the nineties. It’s a movie that cannily and shrewdly transposes those two times, tapping into the same fears, but in a way that demonstrates both how those fears have evolved – and also how they haven’t.

Cape Fear is a lurid b-movie thriller, but in the most interesting and unsettling ways. It is a film fascinated by what lurks beneath the surface.

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Non-Review Review: Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire is “quirky”, in a manner that is typical of the modern American independent film.

Miranda July’s third feature-length film operates on its own distinct wavelength, populated by eccentric and exaggerated characters who exist in a world caught in a twilight zone between the mundane and the surreal. Kajillionaire has a distinct sensibility, which it signals as early as a shot of its leading trio trying awkwardly to evade the landlord desperately seeking overdue rent. Kajillionaire operates at a level of heightened reality that immediately gives it a “marmite” flavour.

However, if the viewer can get past the abundance of quirk, there’s a lot to enjoy in Kajillionaire‘s study of emotional dysfunction. Kajillionaire is a con artist movie about a family living on the margins, but one that doesn’t seem particularly interested in the art of the con. Veteran hustlers Robert and Theresa are well removed from the smooth operators of films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Matchstick Men or The Brothers Bloom. Instead, they are a mess of contradictions and maladaptations.

Kajillionaire works largely due to its wry sense of humour, which manages to offset a lot of what might otherwise be suffocating quirkiness. It also benefits greatly from a set of impressive performances. Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins do good work as Robert and Theresa, but the film belongs to Evan Rachel Wood as their daughter Old Dolio and Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, the character who quickly gets swept up in their hijinks.

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Non-Review Review: The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is not only a cinematic adaptation of a classic play, it is a cinematic adaptation of a particular staging of a classic play.

The Boys in the Band is a film designed to capture a snapshot of the 2018 Broadway run of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 off-Broadway play. It is directed by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best know for his theatre work including Wicked and the fiftieth anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that forms the basis of this filmed version. The film reunites the entire ensemble of that staging, including actors like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

Banding together.

In some ways, Hamilton feels like the obvious point of comparison here. The goal is not just to bring a beloved play to the screen, but to capture the particular energy of a particular staging of that beloved play. However, while Hamilton leaned into its attempts to recreate the Broadway experience for an audience watching at home, The Boys in the Band is a much more traditional cinematic adaptation of a theatrical staging. It is a film, but it is a film that feels particularly “stagey.” It recalls a particular brand of awards fare, like Doubt or Fences.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with this adaptation of The Boys in the Band. With the exception of a few framing scenes set outside the apartment at the beginning and the end of the story, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel like a reimagining so much as a restaging. Then again, it’s debatable to what extent this is a problem. Mantello’s approach to the material is straightforward rather than showy, putting his faith in the script – which was reworked by Crowley shortly before his death with writer Ned Martel – and in the cast, trusting them to carry the film.

Not-so-midnight-cowboy.

This largely works. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating snapshot of a cultural moment. Crowley’s play was famously one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to focus on a large a diverse cast of gay characters, arriving before the AIDS crisis and before Stonewall. While the play has remained constant in all of those years, the world around it has changed. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed, while the text seems to remain vital and relevant – it always seemed to say something to the moment, even if that something made critics uneasy.

The Boys in the Band is a welcome reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a theatrical approach to cinematic stagings of beloved plays. The Boys in the Band may not pop off the screen in the way that Hamilton does, engaging as much with the audience’s experience of the show as with the content of the show itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band serves largely as a showcase for its actors and for its source material, proof that there is a lot to be said for locking a bunch of talented cast in a confined space with a good script.

Drinking it all in…

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Non-Review Review: Antebellum

Antebellum never seems entirely sure whether it wants to be a biting social commentary or a pulpy genre exercise.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. One of the most interesting aspects of horror is how frequently it can satisfy both of those objectives. Get Out is perhaps the most obvious recent example of this, and it is telling that (like so many modern horrors) Antebellum markets itself as “from the producers of Get Out.” However, this has always been a feature of horror, as demonstrated by the films of directors like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Antebellum shouldn’t have to choose between being socially relevant and being an effective horror, but it insists on doing so.

Shining some light on the matter.

There is a good movie buried somewhere in Antebellum. It is very clear that writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have a good idea that resonates in the current moment. Indeed, Antebellum hammers that point pretty heavily. It opens with a quote from William Faulkner, reminding audiences that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In case the audience doesn’t get how that applies to the movie’s set-up, a character repeats it about forty minutes into the runtime. Antebellum has things to say, and is not shy about saying them.

However, what Antebellum is trying to say is muddled by a number of awkward structural choices. Antebellum is a film that is consciously built around a number of developments that are intended to wrong-foot the audience and catch them off-guard, to invite the viewer to ask questions about what is happening and why, and maybe even add some compelling gif-able content for the film’s marketing. This structuring of Antebellum is wrong-headed on a number of levels, but most profoundly in the way that it reduces the movie’s biting thesis to a cheap narrative hook.

Burning unease.

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Non-Review Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time demonstrates that the adjective “novelistic” isn’t always a compliment.

Writer and director Antonio Campos is clearly aiming for an epic sweep to The Devil All the Time. The film unfolds over the course of several decades, following several intersecting lives in rural Ohio in the space between the end of the Second World War and the height of the Vietnam War. This is a tale that spans generations, with an impressive density. Small characters get huge arcs, dramatic twists hinge on chance encounters, and a large amount of the film’s plot is delivered by way of folksy omniscient narration.

Holland of the Free?

It is easier to admire The Devil All the Time than it is to appreciate it. Campos has drawn together a formidable cast to tell a story that explores a host of big ideas about small town life. The Devil All the Time clearly aspires to be a piercing study of religion, sex and violence in the American northeast. The film maintains an impressive atmosphere, in large part due to Campos’ moody direction and the work of Lol Crawley and the rumbling soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

However, nothing in The Devil All the Time has room to breath. There are so many elements competing for narrative space that even films two-hours-and-twenty-minute runtime feels overstuffed. Characters are never allowed to stew or develop in a way that a story like this demands, instead reducing the movie to a series of plot points and thematic observations delivered in a rich and moody manner, but without any real substance to bind them all together.

Book ‘im.

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Non-Review Review: Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a movie with a lot of charm, anchored in a sense of playful enthusiasm and a winning central performance.

Adapted from Nancy Springer’s The Enola Holmes Mysteries series of novels, the basic premise of Enola Holmes is straightforward enough. The classic Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is given a younger sister, who inevitably finds herself forced to navigate the wider world while solving mysteries and avoiding the best efforts of her older brothers to ship her off to a suffocating and restrictive boarding school where she might be taught to be a lady.

Make yourself at Holmes…

Enola Holmes moves quickly and cheerfully through its starting premise and central mystery, bouncing from one sequence to another with considerable grace. However, it’s lead actor Millie Bobby Brown who carries the film. Brown is probably best known for her work on Stranger Things and a prominent role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but Enola Holmes suggests a long and promising career ahead of the young actor. It is impossible to imagine the movie seeming as effortless without her at its centre.

In fact, Enola Holmes suffers most when it moves away from its protagonist and makes room in her story for less compelling (but more nominally “important”) characters that wind up sapping the film’s energy. Enola Holmes has a surprisingly slow start for a film that breezes along once it finds its footing, and that is largely because it is initially reluctant to give its central character the breathing room that she needs. Still, once the film gets past that, it is a highly enjoyable adventure.

Enola that look…

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