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New Escapist Video! “Prey is Worthy of the Predator Brand”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Prey, which is streaming on Hulu from tomorrow.

New Escapist Video! “Jurassic World: Dominion is Bad… Very Bad”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Jurassic World Dominion, which is in theatres now.

270. Ratsasan (Raatchasan) (#250)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Ramkumar’s Ratsasan.

Arun Kumar aspires to be a director. He has the perfect serial killer script, but nobody will make it. Resigned to this reality, Arun accepts a job in the police force, working with his brother-in-law. However, it isn’t too long before Arun discovers that his unique insight into serial killers might help to catch a monster currently targetting teenager girls. It will take all of Arun’s wits and courage to earn his happy ending.

At time of recording, it was ranked 250th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On How “Scream” is a Cutting Commentary on the Noise Around the “Star Wars” Sequels…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Scream this weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to delve into the latest entry in the beloved horror franchise.

What is most interesting about the latest Scream is the extent to which it feels largely divorced and separated from the horror genre, particularly compared to the earlier films in the franchise. Instead, Scream seems much more engaged with the modern Star Wars films, borrowing key plot points and background lore from recent entries in the franchise. More than that, it’s a film that is very aggressively engaged with the fandom discussion around those films.

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

269. Smolensk (-#35)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Antoni Krauze’s Smolensk.

After a horrific plane accident wipes out a significant portion of the Polish political class, people begin to question the official narrative. Nina is a journalist who initially sets out to confirm the official story, but who begins to spot gaps and lacunas, all of which point to something a little more sinister.

At time of recording, it was ranked 35th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

There is something inherently cinematic about Macbeth.

More than the other three of Shakespeare’s “big four” tragedies, Macbeth is a movie that lends itself to bold cinematic adaptations. To be fair, there are great cinematic adaptations of Hamlet and King Lear, but there don’t seem to be quite as many of them that linger in the consciousness. It’s interesting to wonder why cinema seems to be such a perfect form for this Jacobean tragecy. Maybe it’s the overt supernatural elements, or the grim setting, the intersection of stark morality and brutal violence. It might even be uncanny imagery suggested by the dialogue. Perhaps it’s all of these. Perhaps it is none of them.

Black and white morality.

Whatever the reason, from straight adaptations like those of Orson Welles through to Justin Kurzel and more abstract interpretations like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Shakespeare’s historical tragedy is one that really pops within these heightened and formalist adaptations. It helps that the play works in any number of registers: as tragedy, as horror, as drama, as morality play. Indeed, in the context of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it’s tempting to argue that Macbeth fits surprisingly well within the Coen Brothers’ larger filmography of inept and over-confident criminals undermined by their own incompetence.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a worth addition to both this list of impressive adaptations and the filmography of director Joel Coen.

A doorway to madness…

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Non-Review Review: West Side Story

In some ways, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a match made in heaven, a union that feels as perfect as the story’s central romance.

After all, West Side Story is one of the quintessential American texts. In its review of the classic Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins adaptation, The Hollywood Reporter described the film musical as “the one dramatic form that is purely American and purely Hollywood”, and West Side Story is a musical that takes that idea to its extreme, with a show-stopping number literally titled In America. More than that, the previous cinematic adaptation stands as one of the virtuoso examples of classic Hollywood studio filmmaking, with its beautiful production design, large cast, and beautiful backlot.

“Do you want to dance or do you want to fight?”

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most purely American and most purely Hollywood director of his generation. He is just as much a monolyth of American popular culture as West Side Story or even the cinemative musical. Writer Arthur Ryel-Lindsey might have sarcastically declared that “Steven Spielberg is American culture”, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Depending on who you ask, Spielberg is “the defining American populist of his generation”, “possibly the greatest American director”, or even simply “synonymous with cinema.” So West Side Story feels like a wonderful synthesis of material and director.

Plus, you know, Spielberg knows how to direct sharks.

“Maria, you gotta see her…”

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Non-Review Review: House of Gucci

At its core, House of Gucci is the story of how the handbag is made.

Trying to convince his nephew Maurizio to take the reigns on the family business, Aldo Gucci explains that the cows that provide the leather for the company’s products are part of a long dynasty. Much like Aldo and his brother Rodolfo inherited the company from their own father Guccio Gucci, these cows are the direct descendents of the animals upon which the brand was established. To Aldo, Gucci is a fmaily business, right down to the cows that are fattened for slaughter. Aldo insists that the cows deserve praise for what they have given their owners. However, the cows still inevitably get skinned.

Where there’s smoke…

House of Gucci returns time and again to this animal imagery. “Gucci is a rare animal,” Domenico De Sole warns Patrizia Reggiani at one point, as the family consider how best to maintain the brand. “It must be protected.” It’s no coincidence that, towards the climax of the movie, the investors debating the future of the family’s ownership of the brand enjoy delicious cuts of steak. It’s rare, of course, the blood visible as they cut into it. The imagery is hardly subtle. Perhaps Aldo and his family have more in common with the cows than they’d like to acknowledge.

House of Gucci feels like something of a companion piece to two other recent Ridley Scott films, The Counsellor and All the Money in the World. Both feel like extrapolations of themes that have bubbled across the director’s filmography, from his earliest work on movies like Alien and Blade Runner. They are cautionary tales about the terrible things that people will do to one another for money, shaped by the ironic understanding that even after all these terrible things are done, nobody really wins. House of Gucci is not a particularly subtle movie, but it doesn’t need to be.

Glass act.

House of Gucci is similar to The Counsellor and All the Money in the World in other ways, as a movie that feels significantly less than the sum of its parts. Then again, what parts they are. House of Gucci doesn’t really hang together cohesively as a movie, often feeling like several smaller movies wrestling for control of the narrative. Every major member of the cast feels like they are the star of their own movie, but not necessarily an essential part of this movie. House of Gucci puts Howard Hawks’ “three great scenes” hypothesis to the test, compiling a number of compelling individual scenes that rarely add to something greater.

House of Gucci is an interesting, disjointed, uneven but strangely compelling study of what wealth does to people – particularly when it no longer needs them.

A familiar ring to it.

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Non-Review Review: Encanto

One of the most interesting and overlooked entertainment trends in the past decade has been the extent to which Disney’s animated films have quietly become the studio’s most reliable output, ahead of higher-profile properties like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, it’s possible to argue at least convincingly that Disney’s animated films have been more consistent in quality than those from Pixar, even allowing for Pixar’s success with movies like Inside Out.

The studio entered the twenty-first century in a state of crisis over its traditional animated features. There was a perception that the studio’s classic “princess movies” like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas or Mulan were outdated, and that the studio needed to reconfigure its image to appeal to young male demographics. The acquisition of other brands like Star Wars eased the pressure somewhat, and the studio’s animated output has become more comfortable in its own skin with female-led animated projects including Tangled, Frozen, Moana, Frozen II and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Family portrait.

The studio’s animation division has spent the past decade tinkering with the formula and assumptions that drive these sorts of films, in some ways cutting to what was always the heart of the genre. Love stories are now optional for female leads. Villains are more complex and multifaceted. Themes are richer and more ambitious. It’s perhaps too much to suggest that Disney has spent the past decade quietly and carefully deconstructing and then reconstructing the familiar “princess movie” storytelling engine, but it’s also not inaccurate. The studio has done this in a careful and considered manner, never feeling false or cynical.

In some ways, Encanto feels like the culmination of this larger trend. It is a movie that is instantly recognisable as part of the familiar animated “princess movie” template, a musical about a young woman in a remote location coming into her own to find her identity. It’s a stunning piece of animation, with a charming cast and some catchy musical numbers. However, it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful and clever subversion of some of the core ingredients in these sorts of movies. It’s a story about a lead character whose epic adventure begins at home, who finds herself without needing to leave the house.

Food for thought.

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Non-Review Review: King Richard

King Richard is an interesting take on the classic sports biopic.

On the one hand, King Richard is a very conventional film. It’s a movie that hits all of the marks that one expects for an inspiring look at two sports icons like Venus and Serena Williams. There is family tension. There are debates about whether the young athletes are ready. There are training montages. Made with the active participation of the Williams family, King Richard was never going to be a gritty “warts and all” interrogation of its subject. Instead, it’s a charming and charismatic star vehicle for Will Smith, one of cinemas most charming and charismatic stars.

King Richard holds Court.

However, there’s also an interesting tension at play within the film itself, one that derives from the film’s understand of just how inevitable the success of Venus and Serena Williams actually is. To be fair, most sports biopics are stories of triumph over adversity, given that they tend to focus on successful sports stars. However, Venus and Serena Williams exist in such rarified company, dominating culture to such an impressive degree, that the conclusion of King Richard doesn’t just feel predetermined but inescapable.

Cleverly, King Richard doesn’t try to fight this idea. Instead, it leans into it. King Richard is a character study of Richard Williams, the hustler who boasts eagerly and enthusiastically that he is “in the champion-raising business.” To any outside observer, Richard’s confidence borders on insanity. When an observer remarks that he’s claiming to have raised “the next Mohammad Ali”, Richard is quick to correct them and boast that he’s got “two” of them. There’s an interesting frisson at play here, because King Richard trusts its audience to know that – no matter how surreal his claims might appear to his contemporaries – he is entirely correct.

A Rich(ard) character study…

In hindsight, it seems almost absurd to point out how severely the odds were stacked against the success of Venus and Serena Williams. The two were born into a large working class family in Compton, surrounded by drugs and violence, with nowhere to train but community tennis courts. Richard and his wife Brandy didn’t have the money to send the pair to upper-class academies, so had to teach the girls themselves with an obsessive devotion to recording and playing back the work of professionals. However, none of that really matters, because any audience watching King Richard knows the outcome of this story.

The result of all of this is a sports biopic that hews quite close to the familiar rhythms and template of other sports biopics, but which operates according to a different internal tension. It’s a movie which sticks close enough to events that there’s no second act humbling of Richard, Venus or Serena. The movie never tries to build suspense around whether its stars are going to succeed in the face of the enormous odds against them, but instead about when and why. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis. However, coupled with the film’s strong casting and powerhouse lead performance, it’s enough to help King Richard stand out from the crowd.

The perfect Ten(nis)?

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