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New Podcast! The Movie Palace – “Summer of Psycho: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho”

I had the pleasure of joining the great and generous Carl Sweeney on his excellent classic Hollywood podcast The Movie Palace.

To mark the sixtieth anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, The Movie Palace has dedicated a run of episodes to exploring elements of the iconic horror film. I was thrilled to rejoin Carl for a discussion of the infamous and divisive remake of the film, in which Gus Van Sant leveraged the success of Good Will Hunting to convince Universal to sign off on a full colour remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, using a largely unchanged script and even emulating a lot of the same camera angles. The result was a critical and commercial failure, but remains an interesting experiment.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

193. Gigli (-#19)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Louise Bruton and Jenn Gannon, 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.

This time, Martin Brest’s Gigli.

Larry Gigli is a low-level Los Angeles gangster who finds himself assigned the seemingly menial task of kidnapping and holding the brother of a district attorney hostage in the hopes of helping notorious criminal Starkman avoid prosecution. However, this seemingly simple assignment goes awry when a mysterious woman calling herself Ricki shows up, and Gigli finds himself warming to the young developmentally impaired man that he has taken under his wing.

At time of recording, it was ranked 19th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow is very much a modern indie horror movie, in that’s decidedly absurdist and surrealist, and perhaps scariest in a vague existential sense.

It’s interesting to consider the development of this particular strand of modern horror cinema. In some ways, it reflects the development of the indie comedy in the early years of the twenty-first century, once it became clear that these sorts of films could be financially and critically successful. This led to a strange situation where movies that were essentially off-kilter dramas were marketed as comedies, films like A Serious Man, Nebraska or The Kids Are All Right. (This approach to comedy arguably even spilled out into television, where even comedies adopted a prestige sheen.)

It’s not the end of the world…

Something similar has been happening in terms of prestige horror. A large part of this is due to the emergence of smaller studios supporting genre fare from writers and directors with strong visions – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, Ari Aster’s Hereditary. These films blended the sly aesthetics and stylistic sensibilities of independent cinema with the trappings of horror, producing a strand of horror that was reasonably successful, highly praised, and strongly distinctive.

Of course, all of those films are drawing from the genre’s rich history. Hereditary is perhaps the most obvious example, and it’s possible to draw a clear line between Hereditary and New Hollywood experiments with the genre in films like The Exorcist or Don’t Look Now. As such, it isn’t that this is an entirely new approach to horror that came out of nowhere. Instead, it is a logical extrapolation of certain trends and sensibilities, pushed to their logical extremes.

Looking out for herself.

She Dies Tomorrow clearly fits within that framework of modern indie horror cinema, along with films like The Lodge or The Lighthouse. However, She Dies Tomorrow pushes itself much mroe confidently towards the rhythms and structures of a blackly comic psycho drama. She Dies Tomorrow is a film about existential loneliness, the frustrating death drive, and suffocating dinner parties populated by people who can barely stand one another. It is very much a standard low-budget indie drama. It’s just flavoured with a dash of existential horror.

It’s a cocktail that doesn’t quite work. Writer and director Amy Seimetz offers a film that is intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but one that is ultimately more frustrating than it aims to be. She Dies Tomorrow has a number of striking images and interesting ideas, but punctuates them with scenes that play almost as a parody of arthouse drama.

Dial it back.

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“The Best Sword is Kept in its Sheath”: Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” and the Reluctant Samurai…

I got to write about Akira Kurosawa earlier this week for The Escapist, which was great. However, having rewatched a bunch of his films at the weekend, I had some more in-depth thoughts I wanted to share on them. One in particular. I recorded a podcast on Sanjuro last year, which might also be of interest.

Sanjuro is something of an oddity in the filmography of director Akira Kurosawa.

The film is one of only two sequels in Kurosawa’s filmography, following on from Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two seventeen years earlier. It is also the last of Kurosawa’s black-and-white samurai films. While Kurosawa did make other black-and-white period films, such as his last collaboration with Tushiro Mifune in Red Beard, he would not return to stories of warlords and swordsmen until Kagemusha and Ran in the eighties.

Sanjuro is somewhat underseen among Kurosawa’s black-and-white samurai films, which is interesting. It is the sequel to one of Kurosawa’s most influential films. Yojimbo famously inspired one of the formative spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, and so helped to inspire a renaissance in American westerns. It introduced a basic plot that was often emulated, leading to remakes like Last Man Standing. When Sanjuro is discussed, it is often in terms of its striking final scene, in which the eponymous samurai strikes down an opponent, resulting in a geyser of blood.

This is a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Sanjuro, particularly in relation to the forms and conventions of the samurai genre. Kurosawa’s samurai films are at once archetypal and deconstructive. To a lot of international audiences, films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress are shorthand for the Japanese samurai films of the fifties. However, they are also surprisingly critical of the idea of the samurai. They draw on the cinematic language of John Ford westerns, but predict the cynicism of Sergio Leone westerns.

This is perhaps no more obvious than in Sanjuro. The film originated as an adaptation of Shūgorō Yamamoto’s short story Peaceful Days. Kurosawa had been working on an adaptation of the story before Yojimbo, but the success of Yojimbo saw the studio approaching Kurosawa to make a sequel. Kurosawa took an interesting approach. He wrote the character of Sanjuro into the story of Peaceful Days, replacing the unskilled-with-a-blade ronin from the source novel. Kurosawa also turned up the humour in the script.

The result is fascinating. Watching Sanjuro, it often feels like the title character has wandered into a situation that its protagonists have mistaken for a romantic historical epic: a story of virtue triumphing over corruption. Sanjuro spends a lot of the film openly ridiculing the nine samurai at the centre of the film, picking apart their understanding of how the world works, and generally rolling his eyes at the heightened melodramatic elements of the narrative. Sanjuro is the story of a samurai whose blade is so sharp that it cuts at the narrative that contains him.

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190. 12 Angry Men (#5)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Donald Clarke and John Maguire, 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.

This time, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men.

In New York, in the height of summer, twelve jurors assemble for what should be a simple open and shut case. Most of the jury assumes that they’ll be done within the hour. However, against all of that evidence and in spite of all of that expectation, one member of the group isn’t entirely convinced that the accused is guilty.

At time of recording, it was ranked 5th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Greyhound

Greyhound is a tight and claustrophobic maritime thriller that knows pretty much exactly what it’s doing.

At its best, Greyhound capitalises not just on Tom Hanks as the patron saint of dads, boomers and the American cultural memory of the Second World War, but also as a time-displaced Jimmy Stewart. This makes a certain amount of sense. Despite the presence of character actors like Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elizabeth Shue, Tom Hanks is the only star in Greyhound. The film remains tightly focused on Captain Ernest Krause, the commander assigned to protect a convoy of supplies crossing the Atlantic shortly after America’s entry into the Second World War.

It doesn’t exactly shatter expectations.

It makes sense that Greyhound should be tailored to Tom Hanks. Hanks wrote the screenplay, adapting it from C.S. Forrester’s The Good Shepherd. More than that, Hanks has demonstrated his strong interest in the history of American involvement in the Second World War with films like Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. As such, Greyhound feels like it fits perfectly within the actor’s wheelhouse.

This is an illustration of how effectively Greyhound works. Greyhound is a movie that knows what it needs to deliver, and sets about delivering that in the most efficient manner possible.

The old man and the sea.

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Non-Review Review: Palm Springs

On the surface, Palm Springs is instantly recognisable as a genre-savvy update of the classic Groundhog Day template for the twenty-first century.

The basic plot finds two young adults – Nyles and Sarah – trapped living the same day over and over and over again. There is no escape from this nightmare, which finds the pair constantly reliving the wedding of Sarah’s sister Tala. As befitting the more modern media-literate approach to these sorts of stories, Palm Springs joins Nyles at a point where he has already been trapped in the loop for an extraordinarily long amount of time. He is already as familiar with the rules and limitations of this sort of narrative as any audience member who watched Groundhog Day on loop.

Making a splash.

This level of self-awareness in a story is potentially dangerous, encouraging ironic detachment. It’s very each for stories about these sorts of genre-savvy protagonists to feel more like plot devices than actual characters, particularly when operating within constructs that audiences only recognise from other films. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of,” Nyles casually explains to Sarah early in the film. Sarah responds, aghast, “That I might have heard of?”

There are certainly moments when Palm Springs feels like it might be just a little too knowing and a little too arch, its own story too consciously framed in terms of familiar narrative devices. Most notably, even though the film is not directly named, one of the big emotional beats in Palm Springs seems to be lifted directly from Jurassic Park. Released the same year as Groundhog Day, it exists within the same nostalgic framework and was just as defining for an entire generation of movie-goers. Moments like that feel just a little bit too heavy-handed.

Some “him” time.

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Non-Review Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard works best as a nostalgic throwback to turn-of-the-millennium action movies, and struggles awkwardly when it tries to be a modern superhero blockbuster.

The Old Guard is adapted by writer Greg Rucka from the Image Comics series that he created with artist Leandro Fernandez. The story focuses on a group of immortal warriors who have worked at the margins of human history for centuries, making small differences wherever they can while trying to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a pretty solid premise with a lot of narrative potential, and it could easily branch in any number of directions.

Immortal narrative engines.

The best and worst thing about The Old Guard is that it insists on branching in various competing directions. It often feels like three or four different movies that have been edited down into a fairly conventional and generic structure. By turns, The Old Guard tries to be a character study about the weight of immortality, a franchise-launching origin story, a criticism of modern hyper-capitalism, a solemn meditation on what it means to do good in a fallen world, and an old-fashioned kick-ass action movie with a pretty neat soundtrack.

To the credit of The Old Guard, it manages to avoid embarrassing itself too badly while trying to serve all of those competing impulses. However, that balance comes at a cost. None of the central ideas in The Old Guard are ever truly explored or developed, because that might mean that some other angle would get a short shrift. The result is an action film that is largely functional, which isn’t entirely satisfying but is also never completely frustrating. It’s a solid and sturdy film that largely avoids a potential identity crisis by declining to commit to a single identity.

An axe-soldier.

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Non-Review Review: Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a limp misfire.

There’s no doubt that the film comes from a place of affection and sincerity, reportedly inspired by writer and star Will Ferrell’s delight on discovering the camp weirdness of the Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed, The Story of Fire Saga has clearly been produced with the enthusiastic participation of the contest itself; the film uses a lot of branding associated with the event, features cameos from commentators like Graham Norton, and even ropes in a couple of past participants for its most endearing tribute to the surreality of the competition.

Marching on.

However, whether because it constrained by the official branding or simply by the limitations of Ferrell as an outsider looking in, The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t work. On a basic level of comedy mechanics, there are not enough jokes to sustain the indulgent two-hour runtime. On a more fundamental level, The Story of Fire Saga often fails to grasp what makes the Eurovision Song Contest such a beloved cultural institution. There’s a sense in which The Story of Fire Saga could be about almost anything else, and would be functionally the same movie.

This is a disappointment, particularly given that The Story of Fire Saga is being released in a year without the Eurovision.

A pretty weak ‘Vision.

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Non-Review Review: Irresistible

Irresistible is a movie that largely exists to demonstrate that nobody hates the political left like the political left.

Jon Stewart’s second feature as writer and director essentially positions itself as a post-2016 political satire. Stewart’s former correspondent Steve Carell is cast as Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmer, who is still nursing the wounds of the 2016 election. The film features two short table-setting prologues, the second of which finds Zimmer lying in bed on November 9th, 2016 as the news media plays back his unearned confidence in the face of the earth-shattering Donald Trump victory. There’s a sense in which Zimmer needs to be humbled.

Window into a broken system.

A couple of years later, both Zimmer and the party clearly still smarting from that humiliating defeat, a video comes across Zimmer’s desk. Recorded at a town hall in Deerlaken, Wisonsin, it shows a military veteran standing up for the rights of immigrants and minorities to a town administration desperate to lock them out of welfare. Colonel Jack Hastings appears to be the complete package, a white rural farmer with genuinely progressive politics. “He’s a Democrat,” Zimmer insists. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Stewart tries to position Irresistible as a biting social commentary on the state of the modern Democratic party and its awkward relationship with the white rural voters who are undergoing incredible political hardship as a result of a series of global recessions, and who feel increasingly disconnected from the political establishment. It’s an old theme that belongs to a rich cinematic tradition including films like Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and it should still resonate these days.

Making Hastings while the sun shines.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s satire is unfocused and tonally unbalanced. It’s never clear exactly what the film is saying, beyond expressing an understandable frustration with the establishment of the political left. However, the film’s anger is clearest when it is singularly focused as to imply a vacuum that simply doesn’t exist. More than that, Stewart occasionally seems to invest in the some sort of nostalgic and romantic fetishisation of the rural community that he so scathing ridicules in the political establishment.

This issue reflects a broader problem with the movie. Irresistible is tonally erratic at the best of times, alternating between a biting satire set in a world that is at least meant to be recognisable and a more cartoonish comedy populated by outlandish science-fiction elements. Stewart can’t seem to hone in on what Irresistible is trying to say about the political system, beyond the simple fact that political types are the absolute worst.

Dems the breaks.

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