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New Escapist Column! On Edward Norton, “The Incredible Hulk”, and the Kinds of Movies Marvel Doesn’t Want to Make…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Prompted by a conversation with a colleague Matthew Razak, I took a look at the troubled second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk.

I have always had something of a soft spot for The Incredible Hulk, in large part because it feels appropriate that a movie about the Green Goliath should find itself caught between extremes. The Incredible Hulk was caught in a conflict between Edward Norton and Marvel Studios. Norton wanted an introspective character-driven superhero film, and Marvel… didn’t. In some ways, The Incredible Hulk offered as clear a roadmap to the future of Marvel Cinematic Universe as Iron Man, if only because it served to illustrate what Marvel didn’t want from their blockbusters.

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

“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

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Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (Review)

The Witchfinders is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who was come to delivering a conventional celebrity historical.

It is an episode that is much closer to the traditional mode of science-fiction adventure than Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, and not just because it is the first historical episode to be set in British history. As with Arachnids in the U.K., the format of The Witchfinders harks back to the structure and rhythms of the Davies era, feeling like a companion piece to episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code or The Unicorn and the Wasp. (There are a handful of examples from the Moffat era, notably Victory of the Daleks and Vincent and the Doctor, but they are appreciably fewer.)

The King’s Demons.

This is a broad episode set in the distant path in a manner that evokes the popular folk history of the United Kingdom. It evokes a particular period of history that tends to be well known in a general sense, but less familiar in any specific detail. The Witchfinders focuses on the Doctor and the TARDIS wading into the witch trials that took place during the seventeenth century, overseen by King James I. There is even a nice tie-in to The Shakespeare Code, with the historical connection between those witch trials and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Witchfinders often finds itself trapped between two extremes. The idea of sending the first female Doctor back into these witch hunts is ripe for social commentary, arguably even more directly than that with which the historical episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab have engaged. Indeed, there is something slyly subversive in the episode’s portrayal of its celebrity figure – in this case King James I – as a deeply flawed figure rather than somebody to be venerated.

Screwed.

On the other hand, The Witchfinders is very much a typical modern-era historical adventure. The Doctor inevitably discovers that there are sinister aliens at work in a historical setting, plotting an invasion and threatening to derail the entire course of history. These aliens serve to provide an explanation for a historical event, and even allow the Doctor to have a more direct impact on the life of an important historical figure, before disappearing into the TARDIS. This is very much of a textbook example of the kind of story codified by The Visitation or The Mark of the Rani.

These two extremes pull within the episode, holding The Witchfinders back from greatness. It is too serious to be enjoyed purely as a fun runaround, but too winkingly mischievous to work as an insightful piece of social commentary. The result is mostly satisfying, even if it is hardly filling.

Apple of her eye.

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Non-Review Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a beautiful emerald fairy tale, told from the fringes.

Set in the early sixties, against the backdrop of “the last days of a fair prince’s reign”, The Shape of Water promises to regale audience members with the story of “the princess without a voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all.” However the most striking aspect of The Shape of Water is in how it chooses to focus its magical story. The Shape of Water is a story largely about those who are silenced on the margins, right down to its decision to cast Sally Hawkins as protagonist Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner working in a secret government lab.

He’s in a glass case of emotion.

The Shape of Water is very much an exploration of the concept of “the other”, of the lives of those who exist outside the confines of “normal” society. The film’s central antagonist is a happily married white American man, who finds himself set against a collection of misfits and outcasts; a mute orphan, a black cleaning lady, a gay designer, an immigrant scientist, and a monstrosity pulled from the depths of the Amazon river. Coasting from the conservative fifties, Colonel Richard Strickland faces the threat that everything he accepts as granted might be washed away.

The Shape of Water suffers from some minor pacing problems in its romantic adventure, but these are minor issues in a haunting and enchanting piece of work.

The Creature from the Black Ops Department.

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The X-Files – Theef (Review)

This November, 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.

Theef is an underrated seventh season episode, one often forgotten and overlooked as season seven moves firmly into its second half.

The episode represents another conscious attempt to get “back to basics.” Continuing the vein of Hungry or Millennium or Orison or Signs and Wonders, the script for Theef hopes to prove that the show can still produce a genuinely scary hour of television in its seventh season. It certainly succeeds; Theef is a delightfully unsettling story, one that borders on the downright nasty. From the closing shot of the teaser – a body suspended from a chandelier with the word “Theef” scrawled on a wall in his own blood – Theef goes for the jugular.

"I think he's trying to tell you something."

“I think he’s trying to tell you something.”

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The X-Files – Hungry (Review)

This November, 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.

Hungry is an underrated episode of The X-Files.

Although it was the third episode of the season to air, it was actually the first episode produced, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to ease themselves back into the demanding shooting schedule. As with Vince Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects, the idea was to write an episode that required as little of Mulder and Scully as possible. However, rather than building Hungry around an established member (or members) of the supporting cast, Gilligan decides to introduce a new character and make them the focus of the episode.

"I am sharkboy, hear me roar..."

“I am sharkboy, hear me roar…”

Hungry is not quite as experimental as X-Cops, but there is something deliciously subversive about telling a “monster of the week” story from the perspective of the monster. Gilligan is arguably building upon the work done by David Amann in Terms of Endearment, but Hungry is very much its own story. It pushes Mulder and Scully to the very edge of the narrative in a way that distorts many of the underlying assumptions about what The X-Files is and how it is supposed to work.

Hungry is proof that The X-Files still has legitimately great stories in it, even if the seventh season has a decidedly funereal atmosphere.

Brains...

Brains…

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The X-Files – Agua Mala (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Agua Mala means “bad water.” It also makes for a bad episode.

Agua Mala is perhaps the most infamous turkey of the sixth season, beating out Alpha (and – depending on who you ask – Milagro) for that honour. This is the sixth season equivalent of Space or Excelsis Dei or El Mundo Gira or Schizogeny. Conveniently enough, it arrives at around the same point in the season. It is just around the half-way through the year, near the Christmas break. There is a sense of desperation and fatigue to proceedings; it is as if the entire production team just want to get something in front of the cameras to meet the season order.

Choking the life out of him...

Choking the life out of him…

Agua Mala doesn’t really work on any level. The structure is a mess, the plotting is generic. The bulk of the cast are not introduced until half-way through the episode, and climax of the episode takes place off-screen. The monster is ridiculous, and the script decides to compensate by aiming for broad comedy. However, Agua Mala might be the least funny “comedy” episode that the show has produced up to this point in its run. It is an episode that is fundamentally and undeniably flawed.

It feels almost a waste that Agua Mala was broadcast directly after Two Fathers and One Son, representing something of a return to “business as usual” for the show. If this is the new “business as usual”, it is quite unsettling.

Somebody got slimed...

Somebody got slimed…

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The X-Files – The Beginning (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The opening shot of The Beginning makes it quite clear that things have changed. The camera opens staring at the sunny cloudless sky of California, doubling for Arizona. It pans down to an open desert. As the production team conceded with Anasazi, the desert was just about the only American environment that Vancouver could not easily mimic – to the point where the team had to paint rocks red in order to convincingly set a scene in New Mexico. California makes for a much more convincing desert.

Bursting on to the scene...

Bursting on to the scene…

The contrast is striking. The sixth season of The X-Files is bright and sunny; it is aware of its new production reality and chooses to embrace them rather than pointlessly resist them. Things had changed, and there was nothing to be gained from pretending otherwise. It is no wonder that the opening sequence of The Beginning features a group of working-stiff conspirators in transit; the perfect opening image for a season still figuring out how Los Angeles works. The Beginning loads all of that into its opening shot, getting it out in the open before it gets down to business.

At the same time, The Beginning is keen to stress that not too much has actually changed. The naming of the fifth season finalé and the sixth season premiere is decidedly symmetrical – The End and The Beginning. In fact, naming the second part of a two-part episode “The Beginning” is a very clear attempt at reassurance. It is a beginning without actually being a beginning; it is a conclusion without actually being a conclusion. The wheel keeps on turning. All that is missing is the ouroboros.

Dude, that's totally not sterile...

Dude, that’s totally not sterile…

The closing shot as much as confirms this, revealing that the bold new alien design revealed in The X-Files: Fight the Future is not so bold and new after all. Instead, the monster obviously inspired by Alien is something of a missing link, a tether connecting the grey aliens seen in episodes like Duane Barry to the black oil introduced in Piper Maru. It is all one big circle in perpetual motion. Everything is connected. Everything fits together. The show might have moved two thousand miles south, but it hasn’t missed a step.

For better or worse, The Beginning is about assuring viewers that – no matter what has changed – everything remains the same. It is up to the viewer to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.

The truth is in there...

The truth is in there…

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