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New Escapist Column! On the “Avatar” as a PG-13 “Aliens”…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. With the re-release of Avatar in China this weekend, it seemed like an opportunity to take a look at Jameson Cameron’s blockbuster.

Avatar is often discussed in terms of its relationship to nineties films like Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas and even Fern Gully. However, Avatar is also notable in its similarities to James Cameron’s first proper blockbuster. Avatar often feels like a reworking of Aliens, albeit one aimed at a much broader audience. This is interesting, positioning Avatar as part of a wave of similarly four-quadrant-pleasing reboots and remakes of classic R-rated eighties properties.

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

“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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New Escapist Column! On the Cynical Honesty of “Terminator: Genisys”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Terminator: Genisys turned five years old this month, so it seemed like the right time to take a look back at the third (of four) attempts to make a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Genisys has been largely forgotten, even overridden by the next film in the saga – Terminator: Dark Fate. This makes sense. Genisys itself overrode the previous two films on its own terms. Still, Genisys is an instructive and informative piece of blockbuster cinema. It’s a messy film, but in that messiness there’s an honesty. Genisys is a film that is naked in its ambition and its intent, in its efforts to reiterate and regurgitate the past while erasing any potential evolution. It’s a film that captures the emptiness of modern franchise filmmaking at its most cynical, and its most honest.

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

 

Escapist Column! “It: Chapter 2” and the Dangers of Nostalgia…

Another In the Frame column from Escapist Magazine!

This time, taking a look at the recent release of It: Chapter 2, and what the film has to say about the gulf between memory and history. It: Chapter 2 is a story about coming home, and processing the reality of what happened, so that it can be truly put to rest.

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

143. Once Upon Time… in Hollywood – This Just In (#127)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Phil Bagnall, 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, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

It’s February 1969. Everything is changing. Hollywood itself seems to be facing an inevitable collision with the turmoil that has engulfed the rest of the world. Against this backdrop, lives intersect and collide. Returning from the United Kingdom, Sharon Tate moves in next door to washed up fifties western star Rick Dalton, both completely unaware of how profoundly their lives will impact one another.

At time of recording, it was ranked 127th on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Flesh and Blood, Part I (Review)

In its seventh season, Star Trek: Voyager gets nostalgic.

It happens naturally when long-running shows begin the process of wrapping up. It is inevitable that the production team will look back with affection and sincerity towards the early years of their shared adventures. The seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation made a conscious effort to tie up loose ends and to handle long-dangling plot threats. Daimon Bok made a surprise return in Bloodlines, seven years after his first appearance in The Battle. In fact, All Good Things… even sent Picard back in time to relive the events of Encounter at Farpoint.

Going off the grid.

That nostalgia simmers and bubbles through Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The two-parter is openly nostalgic, consciously harking back to the middle seasons of the show. Both parts were aired in a single evening, recalling the broadcast of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. More to the point, the two-parter brought back the Hirogen for their first appearance since the fourth season, acknowledging that they were perhaps Voyager‘s most successful recurring alien menace.

Unfortunately, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II are a flawed recreation of the past. They are a fake, a simulation, an illusion. They are crafted from a fading memory of the show’s short-lived glory years, and rooted in a number of fundamental misunderstandings about what exactly worked when Voyager was at its best. The result is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating.

They were never really here.

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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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85. Forrest Gump (#12)

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, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump is an unremarkable man who has lived the most remarkable of lives, a feather caught in the breeze of history. From his childhood in Mississippi through the turbulence of the sixties and seventies, Forrest Gump lives a life that intersects repeatedly with the biggest moments of the twentieth century, having a profound and unspoken effect upon the course of history.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 12th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Memorial (Review)

Memorial is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager doing a generic Star Trek story.

The episode has a very basic premise that allows for the construction of a science-fiction allegory, the kind of storytelling associated with the franchise dating back to early adventures like The Devil in the Dark or Errand of Mercy. Despite its unique premise and set-up, Voyager had largely embraced the archetypal mode of Star Trek storytelling in its third season. A lot of Voyager episodes feel very broad and very generic, and could easily be adapted for another series – whether inside or outside the franchise.

The real devil in the dark.
Spoiler: It’s us.

There any number of episodes that are not rooted in the specific premise of Voyager, that could easily have been reworked or reinvented for another crew at another point. The Chute was a harrowing story about the horrors of mass incarceration and its capacity to turn people into animals. Nemesis was a meditation on killology, in the way that militaries turn soldiers into killing machines. Scientific Method was a treatise on the horrors of animal testing. Random Thoughts was paranoia about “political correctness gone mad” translated into forty minutes of television.

Memorial belongs to a very specific subset of these episodes, something of a bridge between the more generic Star Trek storytelling to which Voyager aspires and a slightly more specific area of thematic interest. Voyager is a series very much engaged with the idea of memory and history, perhaps befitting the Star Trek series that straddles the twentieth and twenty-first century. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness are all archetypal Star Trek stories, but they are built around ideas of particular interest to Voyager.

The past never remains buried.

As the title implies, Memorial belongs to that very specific subset of episodes. It is easy to imagine a version of Memorial starring James Tiberius Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Lafayette Sisko or Jonathan Beckett Archer. It is a generic Star Trek episode that could work with any crew, perhaps meaning something slightly different in each context. (On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be an “O’Brien must suffer!” episode. In fact, Hard Time is quite close.) However, it is an episode that engages overtly with ideas that are of great interest to Voyager.

Memorial is about the importance of memory and history, even in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning.

Standing watch over history.

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