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Non-Review Review: Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen is one of the great American storytellers.

Through nothing more than his voice, Springsteen can conjure entire lives into being. Springsteen paints vivid pictures through his music. These are often portraits of masculinity and longing, poems reflecting on the perils and challenges of trying to navigate the modern world. To listen to a Springsteen album is to be transported into another world, one that often lives in the smaller details. There are very few working singer-songwriters who can communicate so clearly and so efficiently.

As such, Western Stars seems like a reasonable prospect. The film is effectively a cinematic companion piece to Springsteen’s latest album, which shares the same name. The appeal of a project like this is very straightforward. It is interesting to see how Springsteen’s storytelling sensibility translates from one medium to another. It’s not an irrational leap. Songwriter Nick Cave cultivated an interesting creative partnership with director John Hillcoat, co-writing The Proposition and Lawless. RZA wrote and directed The Man With the Iron Fists.

The concert film structure of Western Stars seems like a safe bet. After all, Bruce Springsteen is one of the most respected live musicians working in the world, and so a live rendition of his new album is a logical approach to this. However, Western Stars runs into one very serious problem, finding a way to turn Springsteen’s biggest strength into a weakness. Springsteen’s music is so good at telling its own story that any other attempt at narrative feels completely superfluous.

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129. Avengers: Endgame – This Just In (#6)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Tony Black, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame.

At time of recording, it was ranked 6th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“Maybe It’s Time To Let the Old Ways Die…”: “A Star Is Born” and Baby Boomer Rock Nostalgia…

It takes a lot to change, it takes a lot to try,

Baby, it’s time to let the old ways die.

A Star is Born would seem to be a massive success, before it has even been released.

The film has an impressive score on both Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. The film has also been named as the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner by publications as diverse as Forbes, Playlist, Vulture and Vanity Fair. Of course, that may not actually mean much; presumptive Best Picture frontrunner status doesn’t always translate into ownership of that little gold statue. Just ask La La Land, the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner from two awards seasons back, a film that literally had the award snatched out of its hand by the underdog that could, Moonlight.

The comparison to La La Land is interesting. In many ways, A Star is Born is effectively the movie that many critics claimed to see in La La Land. By its nature, La La Land evoked nostalgia for a long-lost version of Hollywood, blending a story of an ascendant star with a cynical hipster, filtered through the lens of old-school musicals. Many read the film as the ill-judged story of a white guy saving jazz, glossing over the fact that it was instead a tragic story about a guy who kept an outdated notion of jazz alive in a basement club while shunning the opportunity to work with an African American artist to bring it to the masses.

What is striking about A Star is Born is how it embraces many of the controversial aspects of La La Land and pursues them with uncritical earnestness. A Star is Born is a film steeped in seventies notions of authenticity, reflected not only in the past-his-glory stylings of rock daddy Jackson Maine, but also in the stylistic influences of Bradley Cooper who aspires towards the glory days of the New Hollywood movement. At the core of A Star is Born is a suggestion that popular culture was never more “real” than it was during the seventies, and that modern artists should look back to that authenticity, not craft their own identities.

A Star is Born is inevitably going to be nostalgic. It is the forth iteration of this particular fairytale to use the title, although the story itself has been reworked and reimagined in countless iterations over the past century. Fans were already identifying callbacks and homages to early versions of the story from the trailer. Much was made of the the passing of the torch, whether it was Kris Kristofferson allowing Bradley Cooper to use his set at Glastonbury to film a key sequence from the movie, or his and Barbra Streisand’s visit to the set. Nostalgia was woven into the fabric of A Star is Born.

However, A Star is Born is in theory about more than nostalgia. It is about evolution. It is about a dying star elevating a new voice from obscurity, providing a young artist with a platform from which they might launch themselves. A Star is Born is a tale of succession, of perpetual reinvention, of the passing of the torch from one generation of celebrity to another. This is why the story inevitably focuses on an over-the-hill rocker who discovers a startling young talent. It is a story about how celebrity changes and evolves. It is about acknowledging the future, and allowing the past to legitimise that future.

There are certainly shades of that in A Star is Born. There are certain songs that recur throughout the film, suggesting both potential hit singles from the soundtrack and important thematic markers. Shallow is one hell of a pop-rock love ballad, full of power and emotion. However, Jackson Maine keeps coming back to his own folksy country ballad Maybe It’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die. It seems like an important statement of purpose for the film, an exploration of what is actually happening when this aging crooner plucks young Ally out of obscurity and pushes her towards celebrity.

Unfortunately, the movie itself seems less concerned about letting the old ways die, and instead is much more anxious about what it sees as the lack of authenticity within popular culture. When A Star is Born positions Jackson Maine as an aging rock god, it is entirely sincere. It might accept the man’s flaws, but it heralds his message. A Star is Born is a story about how “real” celebrity looks like a bearded rocker with a guitar thrown over his shoulder singing about lost love, while more stylised modern pop culture is just vacuous nonsense. A Star is Born is a prestige picture celebration of baby boomer rock nostalgia.

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95. Into the Wild (#180)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jack Hodges, 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, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Christopher McCandless abandoned a comfortable middle-class life in pursuit of something greater. His search would take him across the United States, impacting the lives of those he met along the way. His search would eventually lead him into the Alaskan wilderness.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 180th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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93. Reservoir Dogs (#76)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn 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, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Following a disastrous botched jewellery heist, what remains of a criminal gang meets at an abandoned warehouse. Unsure of who to trust and unable to determine what went wrong, these violent men quickly turn on one another while navigating a complex web of shifting loyalties.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 76th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“The Things You Gotta Remember Are the Details”: Reservoir Dogs and the Fragility of Memory and Meaning in the Nineties…

It’s always interesting to understand how much of being one of the defining artists of a cultural moment is down to understanding the zeitgeist, and how much of it is down to simply being in the right place at the right time.

This is not to denigrate the incredible skill and talent required to be perfectly positioned “in the right place at the right time”, as any amount of sustained success requires both a great deal of determination and an incredible amount of talent. Quentin Tarantino is undeniably determined and impressively talented. Tarantino has a unique knack with dialogue, a keen understanding of genre, and a fine appreciation of the history the medium. It is hard to imagine a world in which Tarantino would ever have been unable to parlay those skills into some form of success in filmmaking.

Still, there are very few directors who were so perfectly in step with the nineties as Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is a writer and director who emerged almost fully formed, to the point that many critics and pundits would argue that his first two films are the best films in his filmography; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. (As an aside, there are a not-insignificant number of pundits who would argue that Tarantino’s best film was his third, the underrated Jackie Brown.) It seems fair to describe Tarantino, however controversial his legacy and however divisive his modern films might be, as a defining nineties filmmaker.

(As an aside, it should be acknowledged that Tarantino arguably had something of a similar moment towards the end of the first decade and into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight are films that have generated a lot of polarised debate, but they also seemed very much on-the-pulse in terms of the tensions and anxieties that bubbled to the surface of American popular consciousness at towards the end of the twenty-tens. However, that is perhaps a debate for another time.)

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction speaks specifically to a collection of nineties anxieties and uncertainties that seem only to have crystalised in retrospect, as if working through an existential crisis that the decade didn’t realise it was having in real time. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fictions are stories about memory and meaning, and how fleeting the human understanding of a chaotic world can be. They are stories about the breakdown of social order, and of trying to find some way to navigate increasingly turbulent and unstable times.

They are films that embody the tensions of nineties as effectively as Forrest Gump or the films of Oliver Stone or Chris Carter’s work on The X-Files and Millennium.

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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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To Infinity and Beyond: Of Life (and Death) Without Meaning in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering accomplishment, from a purely logistical standpoint.

The film features approximately fifty major characters drawn from ten years of cinematic storytelling, all drawn together to face a major existential threat in a story that spans from a fictional African kingdom to the depths of outer space, all told within two-and-a-half hours, and all packaged in a neat and easy-to-follow delivery mechanism. Marvel Studios and the Russo brothers might make it look easy, but there’s no denying the level of skill and technique involved in shepherding a story like this to the big screen and making it work in a fundamental “this is entertaining” kind of way.

It’s important not to undersell this, not to dismiss the level of craft involved in stitching together a coherent narrative from the differing lengths of cloth. There is pleasure to be had in watching the various characters come together; in watching Peter Quill get insecure around Thor, in listening to Rocket joke about stealing the Winter Soldier’s arm, in the fact that Tony Stark and Stephen Strange spend the bulk of the movie attempting to out-Sherlock one another. Infinity War succeeds on these terms. It’s easy to be dismissive of this cinematic experiment, given how easy it looks, but that does not diminish the accomplishment.

However, there’s also something gnawing away in the background of Infinity War, an awkward question that the film never actually answers. “What is this actually about?” somebody might legitimately ask, and there are any number of possible answers. Infinity War is a film about a big purple dude with a magic glove. Infinity War is about paying off ten years of continuity. Infinity War is about proving that it is possible to make a movie like Infinity War. Infinity War is about ensuring that the next Disney shareholders’ meeting is a blowout party.

All of these are legitimate answers, but they dance around the truth. On its own terms, taken as a piece of popular culture projected on to a screen for two-and-a-half hours, Infinity War isn’t actually about anything. When people sit down to look at Infinity War in the years and decades ahead, to dissect and examine it, what will they come back with? What is it actually saying? What is it actually talking about? Not even in some grand “thesis statement about the universe” way, but in a more basic “this is the thematic arc of the film” manner?

Watching Infinity War, there is a deeply uncomfortable sense that Infinity War is about nothing beyond itself.

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Form a Square For That Purpose: Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and the Illusion of Civility

In some respects, Barry Lyndon is seen as an outlier in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

The film is a lush and extended period drama, adapted from a nineteenth century novel set in the eighteenth century. It arrives in the middle of an acclaimed run of films from director Stanley Kubrick: Doctor Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. By all appearances, Barry Lyndon stands apart from these films. “Period piece” is obviously a film genre unto itself, but it is not as heightened as the bigger and bolder films around it.

Arresting imagery.

Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick’s only “period film” outside of Spartacus, which the director famously disowned and is arguably seen as a film more overtly influenced by its leading man than its director. Of course, some of Kubrick’s films move backwards and forwards in time; Full Metal Jacket takes place in the late sixties, while the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey is set at “the dawn of man.” Nevertheless, for many casual film fans approaching Barry Lyndon, the film’s period trapping stands out from the surrounding films, which are largely set near the present and into the future.

Indeed, it could be argued that this difficulty that casual observers have in positioning Barry Lyndon within the Kubrickian canon accounts for some of the controversy around the film’s place in the director’s larger filmography. Upon release, the film was largely met with confusion and disinterest, critics often struggling with what to make of the finished product. For his part, Kubrick dismissed the idea of critics forming a consensus on a film like Barry Lyndon after just one viewing.

Initial audiences weren’t enamored with the film.

Of course, this is arguably par for the course with Kubrick films, particularly those towards the end of his career. Many Kubrick films opened to a divided critical opinion before slowly solidifying their popular reputations over time; 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining. However, Barry Lyndon seems to be a special case. Debate was still raging over the critical merits of the film after Kubrick’s death, even in letter columns of newspapers like The New York Times. Even the release of remastered editions forty years later find proponents arguing the film is undervalued or underrated.

However, watching Barry Lyndon, the film never really feels like an outlier in terms of Kubrick’s filmography. Indeed, in some respects, it feels like a culmination of many of the director’s recurring themes and fascination. Barry Lyndon is perhaps the clearest articulation of some of the key themes within Stanley Kubrick’s larger body of work, in particular through its engagement with the Enlightenment as a window through which he might explore the human concept of “civilisation.”

Drawing to a close.

Repeatedly over the course of his filmography, Kubrick engages with the idea of civilisation and order, the structures that mankind imposes upon the world in order to provide a sense of reason or logic to a chaotic universe. Repeatedly in his movies, Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is really just a veneer that masks the reality of the human condition, providing a framework for acts of violence and self-destruction that seem hardwired into the human brain. Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is a fragile construct, and one that occasionally seems hostile to the nature of those who inhabit it.

Unfolding against the rigid social mores of the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon allows Kubrick to construct the starkest and most literal example of that theme.

Soldiering on.

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The X-Files – Requiem (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

As with a lot of the seventh season, Requiem is an oddity.

It is an episode that exists in a weird limbo state, carefully designed and calibrated so that it might serve two – if not three – very different purposes. Requiem was written and filmed at a point where nobody knew what was going to happen next. Requiem could have been either a season or a series finalé; it could have been the last episode of the seventh season, the last episode of the series before the launch of a movie franchise, or even just the last episode ever. That is a lot of weight to put on a single episode.

"X" marks the spot where it all began...

“X” marks the spot where it all began…

In essence, Requiem existed in a state of ambiguity and flux. It was never entirely sure what Requiem would be when Chris Carter wrote it or when Kim Manners directed it. Requiem had to be designed to be fluid and malleable; it had to support any context that might be heaped upon it in the editing suite or on broadcast. Stories like Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Bad Blood had explored the blurred boundaries of reality and perception; Requiem is perhaps that idea applied to the show itself.

Chris Carter could tell you what happened in Requiem as it went through production. He could explain plot details and character motivation; he could outline the chain of events that bind Requiem together. However, it was impossible for anybody working on Requiem to actually assert what the episode was until three days before the episode aired. Until that point, Requiem was a shadow or a blur, just waiting for some larger context to bring it into proper focus.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

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