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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 17 (“Pusher”)

I’m back on The X-Cast this week, to cover a very special episode. Pusher is host Tony Black’s favourite episode, and we recorded this close to his birthday. So no pressure, then.

Pusher has long been a favourite of mine as well, a crackerjack suspense-filled episode from the powerhouse team of writer Vince Gilligan and director Rob Bowman. It’s an episode that works very well both within the confines of The X-Files itself and beyond. Even more than Soft Light, it is an episode that informs a lot of Gilligan’s core themes and ideas going forward. There is a surprising amount of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul to be found in the episode, for example.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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Non-Review Review: American Animals

“To do this thing would take extraordinary effort,” observers Warren Lipka of his fiendish heist scheme in American Animals. “Not ordinary effort.”

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a blend of documentary and dramatisation. It explores the true story of the effort by four young men to steal a collection of precious books from the Library of Transylvania, a scheme that went disastrously and spectacularly wrong. Adopting a style that recalls Bernie or a slightly more grounded I, Tonya, Layton slices interviews with the real-life criminals into a narrative reconstruction of the attempted crime. The results are intriguing, occasionally veering into an exploration of the malleability of memory and the limits of personal perspective.

Up to their old tricks.

At the same time, American Animals is very much engaged with a masculine middle-class malaise. A recurring motif of the film has various figures from around the four criminals pause to reflect upon the character of these young men. “They were good kids,” various talking heads assert over the course of the documentary, talking fondly about their childhoods and their schoolwork and their aspirations. The four young men at the heart of American Animals did not plan (and botch) a heist because they were bad kids or because they needed the money. They did not act out of desperation or anger.

Instead, American Animals suggests that the characters enacted this ambitious and absurd scheme out of a sense of boredom, out of a desire to escape the mundanity of their everyday lives, to do something “extraordinary” to transcend their so-called “ordinary” lives.

Model citizens.

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Non-Review Review: The Fast and the Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and the Furious is a curious piece of work, especially in the light of everything that followed.

From the opening scene through to the climactic setpiece, The Fast and the Furious is very much framed as an urban western, a tale of conflicted masculinity within an urban wasteland that might as well be lawless. Street racers serve as traffic cops at one point, blocking civilian cars from the predetermined race track without any interference from actual law enforcement. Towards the end, Dom Torreto seeks to evade the law by outrunning a train to a train crossing, one of the classic high-stakes western set pieces.

More than that, the introduction of Dom Torreto in The Fast and the Furious is very much meant to evoke the introduction of a western protagonist. He is first seen from obscured angles, glimpsed from behind and through a wire mesh. His presence is felt at a distance, an island of calm in a chaotic world. Torreto is introduced as an outlaw who seeks peace in a world that is constantly at war. This is perhaps a canny approach from a scripting and directorial perspective, acknowledging Vin Deisel’s strengths as a screen presence. Torreto’s first act is to break up a street fight outside the little restaurant stall operated by his sister.

Released in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious is one of the last action films of the nineties. It is a snapshot of a nation still paranoid about street gangs and boy racers, of urban decay and social collapse, of the apocalyptic notion that Los Angeles is the final frontier of the nation’s westward expansion. Explored in hindsight, these were perhaps more innocent times.

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Collapsing Into One Frame: Miami Vice, Time and Luck…

It’s that time.

Yeah.

Badges get flashed, guns come out. Arrests get made. That’s what we do.

So?

So, fabricated identity and what’s really up collapses into one frame. You ready for that on this one?

I absolutely am not.

Time and again, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice returns to the idea of images collapsing into a single frame.

It’s a recurring visual and thematic motif in Miami Vice. Around the midway point, the undercover police note the technique that smugglers are using to get past the complex array of checkpoints and scans set up to secure the border. “What’d you spot?” Tubbs asks their source at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Go-fast boats running that close?” Crockett muses looking at the footage. “On radar they look like one, not two.” The same technique is used later with the jet, which blurs on radar into a single image. More impressively, Mann accomplishes something similar with the camera. Two become one.

This theme of collapse is core to Miami Vice. Watching the film, there is a sense that everything is falling apart, that boundaries cannot hold. This is true of all barriers; the lines that Crockett and Tubbs try to create between their professional and personal lives, the walls set up among the different groups on the inter-agency taskforce, the borders that nominally exist to separate Miami from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It arguably even applies to the boundaries that writers and artists try to impose upon story, with Miami Vice constantly threatening to collapse into itself.

The result is a challenging a provocative piece of work, an ethereal dream-like mediation that reads very much as the inevitable climax of Mann’s meditation on the themes of law and order. Mann’s protagonists typically work to maintain some structure on what they do, to prevent the barriers from completely caving under outside pressure. Miami Vice represents the film in which those boundaries come crashing down.

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Luke Cage – Wig Out (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of masculinity in a number of interesting ways.

This is an interesting choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, the idea of exploring masculinity within the framework of a Marvel Netflix show should (in theory) belong to Jessica Jones. With the character of Kilgrave, it was the streaming service’s first female-led superhero series that marked out the idea of masculinity as a concept worth exploring within the framework of a superhero narrative. However, the second season of Jessica Jones is very engaged with the idea of female relationships, whether friendly or familial.

In doing so, Jessica Jones may have passed the theme on to the second season of Luke Cage. This makes sense on a number of levels. Most superficially, Luke Cage was actually introduced as a recurring guest star on the first season of Jessica Jones, and so ideas about masculinity are clearly woven into the character’s core identity. Beyond that, there is some value in Luke Cage in exploring the idea from a different perspective. After all, Luke Cage is a series with a male heroic lead. Its approach to the theme of masculine identity would be radically different.

As such, the second season of Luke Cage is perfectly positioned to explore notions of masculine identity.

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Non-Review Review: Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is certainly a beautiful film.

In many ways it resembles the dresses designed by the artist at its centre. It is elegant, well-composed, stylish. It looks perfect and has just the right texture. Phantom Thread is a meticulously-produced piece of work, with every technical aspect of the film delivered to the highest possible standard. More than that, Phantom Thread is a very clever and incisive film, one that arguably feels much more suited to this particular cultural moment than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Tailored to the role.

However, Phantom Thread feels like one of Reynolds Woodcock’s dresses in another manner. As fantastic as it might look, it is not designed for living. There is one memorable sequence in the middle of the film where Woodcock actually confiscates the dress from a patron because it is not being treated with the pomp and ceremony that he expects. These are dresses for display, designed to leave observers breathless. It never ignites the same passion as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, never feeling as anchored in appreciable human emotion.

Phantom Thread often feels too much like strolling through Woodcock’s parlour, the audience invited to examine the sheer craft and cleverness of what is being done, but warned in the starkest possible terms not to touch anything. There is beauty, but no feeling.

Make it sew.

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59. Heat (#124)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guests Phil Bagnall and Joe Griffin, 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, Michael Mann’s Heat.

Michael Mann’s Los Angeles crime epic finds lives intersecting and overlapping in the City of Angels. At the heart of the story, career criminal Neil McCauley and driven detective Vincent Hanna find themselves on a collision course that leave countless lives shattered in their wake.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 124th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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