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308. feardotcom (-#67)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, with special guest Diamanda Hagan, 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, William Malone’s feardotcom.

Detective Mike Reilly has spent the past few years in pursuit of the online serial killer who goes by the name of “the Doctor”, a murderer who streams his crimes on the internet for all to watch. Reassigned after failure to show any results, Reilly finds himself investigating a seemingly unrelated case of contagion that is spreading through New York City. However, Reilly soon discovers that the two cases are more closely linked than he could have imagined.

At time of recording, it was ranked 67th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the Dearth of the Monoculture…

I published a new column at The Escapist earlier this week. It’s been an interesting few weeks and months in terms of pop culture. There’s been a lot of debate about critics and the role of critics, there’s been a lot of news about pop culture that the internet doesn’t seem too excited about, and there’s been a lot of coverage about mundane aspects of The Batman.

All of these things speak to an interesting and ongoing anxiety about the “monoculture”, the idea of pieces of pop culture that are seismic enough to become part of the shared vernacular. The pandemic has had a number of major impacts on the production and the consumption of popular culture, and part of that has been an increasing sense of disconnect from a shared sense of the monoculture. However, is the monoculture truly dead? Or is it simply resting?

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

Non-Review Review: Profile

Profile is the latest entry in the so-called “Screen Life” series, produced by Timur Bekmambetov. It is also notable as the first entry in the series to be directed by Bekmambetov himself.

The “Screen Life” series is effectively a set of heightened genre movies that unfold through the screen of a laptop, narratives that unfold through chat boxes, Skype chats, playlists and file transfers. It’s an innovative and experimental approach to storytelling. While the results – Unfriended, Searching… and Unfriended: Dark Web – have varied in quality, the hook has always been fascinating. So much of modern life is navigated through screens that it is fascinating to see movies try to reflect that. Indeed, there’s an argument that movies like Unfriended play better on computer screens than they do in theatres or on televisions.

Translating the story to screen.

Profile adheres to the cinematic conventions of these sorts of stories, but it feels unnecessarily constrained in other ways. Each of the three previous films has been a genre exercise told through a computer screen. Unfriended and Dark Web are teenage horror movies, while Searching… is a delightfully schlocky nineties thriller reimagined through a web camera. In contrast, the subject matter of Profile is decidedly weighter. The film is based on the non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Ereklle, looking at online recruitment of young British girls by Islamic extremists.

This is an appreciably more grounded and more serious piece of subject matter than something like Unfriended or Searching…, and it’s interesting to see this cinematic language applied to this subject matter. After all, this is a digitally native story and a tale about the process of mediating the world through computer screens. However, Profiles suffers slightly from the need to frame this subject matter not through the lens of a web camera, but through the prism of genre, to transform something very real and very threatening into a heightened cartoonish thriller.

A new Skype of thriller…

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New Escapist Column! On the Legacy of “Game of Thrones”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the tenth (or “iron”) anniversary of Game of Thrones coming up, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the show’s enduring legacy – in particular, the disconnect between the internet’s narrative of that legacy and the reality of it. To listen to the internet, Game of Thrones ended in such a way as to erase its cultural footprint and any residual cultural goodwill towards it. It’s not uncommon to hear people talk, at length, about how nobody talks about Game of Thrones anymore. However, there’s a fascinating dissonance here, because Game of Thrones appears to be thriving by any quantifiable measure. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

It’s All About Meme Meme: The Perfect Timing of “The Wicker Man”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, marked Halloween with a look at Neil La Bute’s adaptation of The Wicker Man. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about Nicolas Cage, meme culture and the perfect storm of timing involved.

It’s possible to break down Nicolas Cage’s career into two phases: before and after The Wicker Man.

Before The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage was a respected actor. He had won the Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. He had become an blockbuster movie star thanks to films like The Rock and Con Air. He had worked with auteurs like David Lynch on Wild at Heart and the Coens in Raising Arizona. Indeed, at the turn of the millennium, Cage had settled into a respectable cinematic middle age. In the years leading up to The Wicker Man, he worked on fare like Andrew Niccol’s earnest Lord of War and Gore Verbinski’s decidedly middle brow The Weather Man.

And then The Wicker Man happened. Almost immediately, Cage’s career shifted gears. There were where still franchise films like Ghost Rider or National Treasure: Book of Secrets. There were still auteur collaborations like with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. However, there were also movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Next and Knowing, which would lead on to films like Drive Angry, Seeking Justice and Trespass. Not all of these films were bad, but they were instrumental in establishing the Nicolas Cage audiences know today: “full Cage.”

To give Cage some credit here, his later work is often more interesting than his popular reputation would suggest. In particular, Cage works remarkably well in ensemble genre pieces like Kick-Ass or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. More than that, Cage works remarkably well in the context of films that are pitched to match his fevered intensity as a performer like Mandy or The Colour Out of Space. Nevertheless, The Wicker Man was very much a watershed moment for Cage, like the flicking of a light switch.

Part of this is simply timing. The Wicker Man arrived at the perfect moment in popular culture, as a seismic shift was taking place. Discussions about the history of cinema often focus on the mechanics and the politics of the industry itself – the way in which movies are produced, funded and distributed. This makes a great deal of sense. However, it’s also important to consider how movies are discussed and how audiences engage with those films.

The Wicker Man arrived at a moment where the internet was primed to change the way that movies were watched, and the impact on Nicolas Cage’s career is perhaps a graphic illustration of that seismic shift.

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New Podcast! The Time is Now – Season 2, Episode 15 (“Roosters”)

I have had the immense good fortune to appear on The Time is Now quite a lot lately, but was particularly flattered to be invited on to talk about Owls and Roosters, the big “mythology” two-parter in the late second season of Millennium. It’s an honour to join Kurt North for the second part of this conversation.

Owls and Roosters are two of my favourite episodes of television, because they demonstrate everything that Millennium did so well. They’re incredibly densely packed with information, in a way that really captures the sense of modern living – a constant influx of often contradictory stimulae that the individual often struggles to parse or process. In many ways, the second season of Millennium has aged remarkably well, capturing a sense of information overload in a manner that resonates even more strongly today than it did on broadcast.

As ever, you can listen directly to the episode here, subscribe to the podcast here, or click the link below.

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Non-Review Review: Fantasy Island

What, exactly, is the point of the Blumhouse reboot of Fantasy Island?

To be fair, Blumhouse are a studio with a varied track record. They have produced some of the most interesting and compelling mainstream horror movies of the past few decades, including films like Get Out and The Invisible Man. They have also produced a fair amount of cynical schlock, such as Truth or Dare. There are also a number of films that seem to exist in the middle ground between those two extremes, like The Hunt or Black Christmas. It’s certainly a more varied approach than the standard horror films that heralded the studio’s arrival, like Insidious or Sinister.

Palming it off.

Jason Blum is a shrewd producer, and there’s a sense in looking at the studio’s output of trying to balance competing artistic and commercial demands. Blum tends to keep budgets under control, but he also seems to offset the riskier and more ambitious projects with generic crowd-pleasing fare. Fantasy Island would seem to belong in that category, but exactly what crowd is it intended to please? Watching Fantasy Island is a strange experience, and not just because of the multitude of structural and storytelling problems.

On a more basic level: who exactly is this movie for?

Can’t stick the island-ing.

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108. Slender Man – This Just In (-#57)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best(and the 100 worst) movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Sylvain White’s Slender Man.

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Non-Review Review: Cam

The most horrific aspects of Cam have little to do with the literal monster lurking at its core.

It is almost half an hour before the central plot of Cam kicks into gear. It is a credit to both director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei that Cam sustains itself as a horror even through this (relatively) long establishing stretch. There is something inherently skin-crawling about that extended introductory sequence, which is essentially a depiction of “business as usual” for central character Alice. The opening scenes of Cam very skilfully and very creepily capture the commodification and performativity of both cam-girl-ing in particular and social media in general.

Time for reflection.

Watching the opening stretch of Cam, the audience might read social media itself as the monster, a horrific force capable of warping and bending individuals to its will. Even before Alice realises that something is wrong, there is a sense that the audience has taken a trip through the looking glass. The pink neon glow, the way the camera snakes down hallways, the casualness with which Alice picks up her dinner from a delivery man while covered in corn syrup (and little else), the repeated framing of shots to emphasise mirrors and screens as images trapped and projected.

Indeed, the obligatory bridge between the second and third acts of the film might be the biggest issue with Cam, the clumsy in-universe explanation of the strange entity lurking at the centre of the story and function that it performs. However, this is a testament to the quality and imagination of the rest of the film around that exposition. The monster in Cam is so familiar and so relevant to contemporary society that it almost needs no explanation at all. Cam is so effective a horror story that it arguably doesn’t even need its monster.

“Feed me.”

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Non-Review Review: Searching…

Searching… is an interesting fusion. It blends the innovative narrative style of Unfriended with the more convention cinematic language of thrillers like Kiss the Girls.

This cocktail is at once welcome and overdue. Unfriended was one of those rare genuinely innovative pieces of mainstream cinema; in form, if not necessarily in function. Unfriended built from a premise that was both incredibly simple and also formally daring, telling a fairly standard supernatural teenage revenge story entirely through a computer desktop. As with Searching…, all of Unfriended unfolded within a computer screen.

Windows ’95 into the soul…

In hindsight, it is surprising that it has taken other genres so long to embrace that formal experiment. Cinema has a long history of eagerly coopting the language and experiments of horror for more prestigious and high-brow fare. Consider, for example, how quickly other genres coopted the “found footage” revolution of the early twenty-first century for action movies, thrillers, comedies, and even monster movies and superhero films. (Then again, that embrace of the “found footage” aesthetic may have caught on for reasons beyond the success of The Blair Witch Project.)

Searching… takes the basic formal conceit of Unfriended and applies it to a more conventional genre film. The result is an abduction thriller told exclusively through screens, through video streams, search histories, web cameras and screenshots. It’s a provocative premise, effectively turning the bigger screen into a smaller one and changing the rules of how the audience processes the imagery in front of them. However, Searching… clearly aspires to bridge the gap between screens big and small.

She needs to screen her fans better.

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