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New Escapist Column! On “The Wrath of Khan” and “The Voyage Home”, and the Soul of “Star Trek” in “First Contact”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Given that this month marks the 35th anniversary of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: First Contact, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at their relationship within the Star Trek franchise – and how they connect to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

For many Star Trek fans, The Wrath of Khan remains the most beloved and most brilliant entire in the franchise’s cinematic canon. However, it’s notable that The Voyage Home was a much more populist hit, resonating with general audiences. For a decade following the release of The Voyage Home, it provided a template for the franchise for a decade. However, with the release of First Contact, the balance of power shifted. Suddenly, the franchise found itself caught in the gravity of The Wrath of Khan, which exerted a powerful gravity on the franchise’s direction and development.

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

Non-Review Review: Spencer

Spencer introduces itself as “a fable based on a true tragedy.” The official synopsis describes the movie as “an imagining of what might have happened.”

The obvious point of comparison is Jackie. Both are movies directed by Pablo Larraín, offering a tightly-focused profile of their young, famous, female subjects. However, while Jackie is very much about a character who is cannily and carefully cultivating a mythology out of tragedy, Spencer is perhaps about a character failing to do just that. Jackie Kennedy was able to build the myth of “Camelot” in the wake of her husband’s death, a monument that would last generations. Spencer imagines its female protagonist crushed beneath the weight of a national myth, learning that “no one is above tradition.”

A sorry estate of affairs…

Diana Spencer remains a fascinating figure. She has a strong hold on popular culture. Her narrative is a driving force in the second half of The Crown. There was a spectacularly ill-judged attempt at a more conventional biopic with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana. Her ghost haunted The Queen. Diana is often described as “the people’s princess”, but there’s something unsettling even in that affectionate appelation. It is, after all, possessive. It opens up the question of whether Diana was every truly allowed to be herself, or was instead beholden to everybody else – the royals, the public, the ghosts of royal consorts past.

Spencer is very much a companion piece to Jackie, but it feels more like a ghost story. It is haunting and ethereal, its subject flinching even from Larraín’s gaze. The result is enchanting, but also deliberately and effectively frustrating. Spencer is a fable, complete with all the echoing space that such stories usually contain.

Christmas Mourning.

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Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

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Non-Review Review: Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is a fascinating snapshot of the siren lure of nostalgia, and how it is so often filtered through a presumptive male gaze.

Last Night in Soho follows a young student named Eloise who moves to London for the first time to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. After some tensions with her roommate, Eloise moves out of her apartment into a small bedsit, with warnings that past tenants have had some strange experiences in the flat – disappearing in the dead of night, as if fleeing from something that shares the space. Eloise has always been sensitive to otherworldly presences, and it is no surprise when she seems to connect with the memories imprinted in her new bedroom.

Who nose?

Night after night, Eloise is seduced by memories of a young woman named Sandy, who came to London to pursue her own ambitions of becoming a singer. Sandy met a handsome talent agent named Jack, who promises that he can make all of her dreams come true. As Eloise sinks deeper into this nostalgic fantasies of the swinging sixties, she notices that the lines are begin blur – between her waking moments and her sleeping thoughts, between herself and the girl who visits her at night, between dreams and nightmares.

At its core, Last Night in Soho is a meditation on the idea that it is not always so easy to escape the past.

Bad romance.

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New Escapist Video! “Army of Thieves Is a By-The-Numbers Heist Movie – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Army of Thieves, which will release on Netflix this weekend.

Non-Review Review: The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch is a sweet and sincere love letter to a certain kind of journalistic endeavour, and to the creative process beyond that. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly disjointed and uneven.

To be fair, these structural problems come with the format. Wes Anderson has constructed his latest film as an anthology, one loosely designed to mirror the flow of a magazine like The New Yorker. The film is comprised of an opening obituary, a travellogue, and three short stories, all designed to emulate the structure of reading a classic journalistic magazine. It’s an interesting and ambitious approach to structuring a movie, one not without challenges and one that allows Anderson the opportunity to lean into his already heightened sensibility.

That is a lot of Wes Anderson.

However, as with many anthology films, The French Dispatch suffers from an unevenness in terms of pacing. As one might expect from an anthology directed by a filmmaker as distinctive as Anderson, The French Dispatch does maintain a consistent tone across its various elements, but it also suffers from stopping and starting five times over. It doesn’t help that each of the three stories flows in much the same way, playing on many of the same tropes of Anderson’s storytelling, starting with Anderson’s signature arch detachment and inevitably puncturing it with small glimpses of humanity.

The appeal of a magazine like the fictional French Dispatch is a diversity of voices and perspectives. The film positions itself as a celebration of the individual journalists relating their stories to the audience, finding their own ways into these narratives and sharing something over themselves with the world. However, while the film does afford some shading of the characters themselves in the framing sections and within the narrative, the stories themselves all feel like they are cut from the same clothe. They are even similar in stylistic terms, mostly shot in black-and-white Academy ratio, occasionally breaking that for dramatic effect.

Stu(dent)ing resentment…

To be fair, this isn’t a fatal problem. Anderson remains a director with a strong aesthetic and keen sense of humour. His worlds are elaborately constructed, both rich and textured. For all that Anderson’s rigid formalism can seem twee or arch, his films are often possessed of a real heart, one that is all the more effective for sneaking up on the audience through these otherwise carrefully composed surroundings and often caricatured characters. The French Dispatch is no different. It is a film with charm to spare, and with a genuine heart beneath it.

Still, for all that The French Dispatch is a celebration of artistic freedom and discovery, and a passionate argument for an editorial hand the encourages distinct voices and approaches over one that imposes a consistent style, by the time the third story is finished, it feels too much the work of a singular voice working a familiar framework.

The Wright stuff.

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Non-Review Review: Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is an ambitious sequel, if a little messy – and not just in the way that one expects a slasher movie to be messy.

Halloween Kills is a direct sequel to David Gordon Green’s Halloween. It picks up in a very similar place to where the two other direct sequels to a movie named Halloween start. Like Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the film follows Laurie Strode to hospital as Michael Myers continues his rampage through Haddonfield, Illinois. Although Zombie’s Halloween II takes a sharp turn in its second act, all three direct sequels extend the eponymous night into the early morning that follows.

Gripping stuff.

There is a lot going on in Halloween Kills. The film effectively splits across three main plot threads that only intermittently overlap with one another. One of these threads centres on Laurie’s recovery in the hospital, while the second follows the reaction of the local community to the carnage, and and the third focuses on Myers’ continuing rampage through an Illinois suburb. The film is disjointed, with Green inheriting a lot of continuity and character baggage from his previous film while heaping even more connections back to the original film upon it.

Still, perhaps the best and worst thing that can be said about Halloween Kills is that it marks a return to the grim nihilism that defined John Carpenter’s original.

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New Escapist Video! “Dune Is One of the Year’s Best Movies – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Dune, which is released theatrically in Europe and the United States next weekend.

Non-Review Review: The Last Duel

The Last Duel is a thorny and compelling medieval epic. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s undeniably part of the appeal.

The Last Duel is adapted from the book of the same name by historian Eric Jager. As its title implies, the film offers an account of the last judicial duel permitted by the Parlement of Paris. That duel was fought between two noblemen: Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. The challenge was offered over allegations that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife, Maguerite. The assumption was that divine authority would ultimately determine where the truth lay in the matter, that the victor in this mortal combat would ultimately be vindicated.

Duel narratives.

Naturally, the events that inspired The Last Duel remain contentious. Historians are not entirely sure what happened, and how much of the various accounts reflect the truth of what happened or have been shaped by the convenient narratives of the victors. The film, with a screenplay from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, leans into this ambiguity. The film is structured similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, outlining three separate accounts of the events leading up to the trial from the perspective of each of the key figures: Jean, Jacques and Maguerite.

The result is a film that touches on the blurred boundaries between history and narrative, and explores the way in which these sorts of stories are shaped by wounded pride and vain ego. It’s an uncomfortable and unsettling film, occasionally a little clumsy in its execution, but which grapples with big ideas.

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Non-Review Review: No Time to Die

There is perhaps some irony in the fact that a movie titled No Time to Die is the longest movie in the James Bond franchise.

No Time to Die is an interesting mess of a movie. It’s a film that contains a variety of interesting and intriguing elements that never coalesce into something completely satisfying, and are often lost in a mess of continuity accrued from the previous four entries in the franchise. As the final film in the franchise to star Daniel Craig, No Time to Die finds itself tasked with turning off the lights at the end of the night, serving as something of a series finale to the actor’s previous adventures.

Drinking it all in.

The biggest challenge facing No Time to Die is the simple fact that the previous four films in the franchise don’t really form a single or cohesive narrative. They were four separate movies, with each shaped and informed by the reaction to the prior entry. When Casino Royale proved that audiences could accept a modern take on the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace doubled down on tweaking the character to fit into the modern action thriller landscape. When that didn’t work, Skyfall course-corrected for a more traditional approach. Following that success, SPECTRE tried clumsily to tie it all together.

No Time to Die spends far too much of its impressive runtime trying to reconcile these films to each other. As a result, the film never really finds space to play with its own more interesting and compelling ideas.

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