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New Escapist Column! On How “Scream 4” Took the Franchise’s Self-Awareness to Its Logical Endpoint…

We’re launching a new column at The Escapist, called Out of Focus. It will publish every Wednesday, and the plan is to use it to look at some film and television that would maybe fall outside the remit of In the Frame, more marginal titles or objects of cult interest. With the upcoming release of Scream VI, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at the criminally underrated Scream 4.

The last film in the franchise to be written by Kevin Williamson or directed by Wes Craven, Scream 4 exists in a weird space. It is separated from the two film either side of it by more than a decade, the only point in time where the franchise wasn’t coming out on a regular basis. However, it’s a movie that feels very firmly ahead of its time. It was released years before Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and David Gordon Green’s Halloween, but it feels in conversation with a wider culture caught in a feedback loop of Gen X nostalgia.

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

New Escapist Column! On the Recursive Nostalgia of “That ’90s Show”…

I published a new piece at The Escapist yesterday. With the recent release of That ’90s Show on streaming, it seemed like a good opportunity to delve into the show’s very interesting nostalgia.

Part of what is so fascinating about That ’90s Show is that layers of nostalgia that permeate it. It is not simply a show nostalgic for the nineties. It is a show that is itself nostalgic for the nostalgia of the nineties. It’s a conscious effort to resurrect the multi-camera sitcom, a classic institution of American television that has become something of a cultural artifact. It’s also a show that is less interested in its own nineties setting than it is in indirectly channelling the nostalgia that that show felt for the seventies. It’s a hall of mirrors.

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

311. The Iron Giant – Bird Watching 2022 (#250)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Deirdre Molumby and Graham Day, 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.

This week, we’re kicking off a season focusing on the work of one particular director: Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant.

Hogarth Hughes is a lonely kid coming of age in fifties Maine, when he comes across a very strange creature living in the local wilderness: a gigantic metal man who has crashed on this planet from another world. The two strike up a deep and abiding bond. However, Hogarth very quickly discovers that other forces are also trying to track down his new friend.

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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285. Trainspotting (#173)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Emma Kiely, 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, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

Using heroin to numb the pain of simply existing, Mark Renton drifts through a series of episodic adventures in nineties Edinburgh. Renton and his friends find themselves caught up in a web of sex, violence, drug abuse and existential malaise, grappling with challenges both large and small as they struggle to make it out the other side of their experiences.

At time of recording, it was ranked 173rd on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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188. The Truman Show (#177)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Kurt North, 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, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

Truman Burbank has the perfect life. He has a good job, a loving wife, a charming best friend. He lives an idylised existence, one where he wants for nothing. However, a series of freak occurences jolt Truman out of his blissful world and force him to confront a potentially horrifying reality: what if everything that he knows is just an elaborate lie?

At time of recording, it was ranked 177th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #74 – Star Trek: Voyager as a Nineties Time Capsule

Over the Christmas Break, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Duncan Barrett and talking about Star Trek: Voyager. Duncan is a historian, and I’ve actually quoted some of his work on the blog in the past. He hosts Primitive Culture, a show wherein the hosts discuss certain historical-related items of interest in the Star Trek canon.

Duncan noticed that I had recently finished a massive rewatch of Voyager, leading me to write around 750,000 words on the show’s seven seasons. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager coming up, he suggested that it might be fun to talk about the third live-action¬†Star Trek spin-off in a bit of depth, looking at the series as a snapshot of a particular cultural moment. More than any of its sibling series, Voyager perfectly encapsulated the American experience of the nineties, tapping into the decade’s sensibilities and its anxieties.

The result was a fun (and involved) discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

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Non-Review Review: Gemini Man

Gemini Man is a weird and unashamed nineties action movie throwback, for both better and worse.

This is baked into the film. The poster capitalises on the star power that drives the film. Alluding to the clone drama that drives so much of the plot, the poster to Gemini Man credits lead actor Will Smith twice above the line. In an era where the very concept of the movie star is trapped in a seemingly terminal decline, Gemini Man literally doubles down on its star branding. More than that, there is something surreal in the choice of Will Smith as that leading man, an actor whose career is largely defined by nineties hits like Enemy of the State, Men in Black or Bad Boys and whose career has floundered in recent years.

Face to Face/Off.

Gemini Man leans into this nostalgia. The film’s central hook lies in confronting Will Smith with a younger version of himself. Will Smith plays retiring assassin Henry Brogen, who finds himself hunted by a much younger version of himself. De-aged into the uncanny valley, the younger version of Will Smith consciously evokes the actor’s golden age. The film is set in 2019, but the computer-augmented action star feels lost in time; even his hairstyle and facial hair recall the actor’s appearance in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air rather than anything that might suggest a young man growing up in the twenty-first century.

While there’s a lot to unpack in the film, there’s also something disappointingly lifeless about Gemini Man. One of the film’s big action beats take place in a creepy catacomb, in what feels like an encapsulation of the film. Gemini Man never seems truly alive, instead feeling like a facsimile of another, older style of blockbuster.

Out of scope.

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“I’m Ready to Communicate With You Now”: The Millennial Anxieties of “The Sixth Sense”, and Feeling Alone in the City of Brotherly Love…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Sixth Sense on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

What do you think these ghosts want when they talk to you? I want you to think about it, Cole. I want you to think about it really carefully. What do you think they want?

Just help.

That’s right. That’s what I think too. They just want help, even the scary ones. I think I might know a way to make them go away.

How?

Listen to them.

The Sixth Sense is a remarkable film, for many reasons.

These days, The Sixth Sense is perhaps best known for its central twist. The film’s powerhouse emotional ending has become a pop cultural touchstone, anchoring jokes in everything from Fifty First Dates to the viral video sensation Jizz in my Pants. Of course, this also complicates the legacy of The Sixth Sense by serving as ground zero for director M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent dependence upon these sorts of twists in movies like The Village or The Happening. Nevertheless, The Sixth Sense has endured in the popular memory as one of the rare twist-driven films that stands up to repeat viewings.

A Cole’d open.

However, it is much more than that. Even beyond that, The Sixth Sense is a lavish production that looks beautiful. Of course, Shyamalan’s ego has done his reputations few favours, from his own cameo as a writer-messiah in The Lady in the Water to his role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan to the famous Newsweek cover crowning him “the next Spielberg.” Still, The Sixth Sense is visually stunning. Although it is tempting to think of The Sixth Sense as a “small” movie by modern standards, it was actually produced on a budget of $40m.

Rewatching The Sixth Sense twenty years later, it is amazing how much of the film’s visual storytelling lingers. Shyamalan might not have been the next Spielberg, but he had a wonderful eye for composition; that shot of a red balloon drifting up the inside of a spiral staircase, those eerie sequences of Malcolm and Cole wandering through a surprisingly quiet Philadelphia, even the conversations at that church with Cole towering over Malcolm from the balcony as he plays with his toy soldiers.

Pew pew!

However, even more than all of that, The Sixth Sense remains the rare film that is both specifically rooted in its cultural moment and profoundly universal. The story that drives The Sixth Sense is surprisingly straightforward – helpfully encapsulated in Cole’s trailer-friendly assertion that he sees “dead people.” However, Shyamalan understands that ghost stories are about more than just the recently deceased. Ghost stories translate a sense of longing and regret, of disconnect and isolation. The Sixth Sense is fundamentally a story about how difficult it is to meaningfully communicate in the modern world, with or without a pulse.

The Sixth Sense is a story of existential ennui, wrapped up in a set of late nineties anxieties.

M. Night Shyamalan had to eat Crowe on his next few films.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Natural Law (Review)

Natural Law represents another vaguely nostalgic entry in the final season of Star Trek: Voyager.

Most superficially, Natural Law evokes the vague New Age sentiment that defined a lot of the early episodes focusing on Chakotay – episodes like The Cloud or Tattoo. It feels entirely appropriate that Chakotay should be part of the away team to encounter the Ventu, as the presentation of the Ventu evokes a lot of the early approach to Chakotay’s own Native American heritage; a romanticised ideal of a more primitive culture. In fact, it seems entirely plausible that the aliens who build the shield to protect the Ventu – the mysterious “Species 312” – might in fact be the same white-skinned aliens encountered in Tattoo.

“I can see what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue…”

More specifically, though, Natural Law represents a familiar archetypal Star Trek episodes. Although the words are not actually spoken within the episode itself, Natural Law is pretty much a textbook “Prime Directive” episode. It belongs to that familiar subset of stories about the crew encountering a group of primitive aliens affected by a piece of outside technology, and trying to weigh their obligation to help that society with their desire not to directly intervene. The Ventu are a familiar native archetype, albeit one handled with a little more grace and dignity than the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple.

There is something very interesting in Natural Law, particularly in the context of the seventh season’s recurring fascination with tying Voyager back to the roots of the Star Trek franchise with references to Kirk in episodes like Q2 and Friendship One. Ironically, Natural Law only underscores how far removed Voyager is from the original Star Trek. Kirk often struggled to justify bending the Prime Directive to liberate societies trapped in oppressive circumstances and kept in arrested development. In contrast, Natural Law strains to justify the washing of the crew’s hands. More than that, Natural Law reveals the true purpose of the Prime Directive has nothing to do with primitive cultures.

The rise and falls…

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“This Was Supposed to Be a Spiritual Experience”: The Mid-Nineties Ennui of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation”…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

I’ve never been able to watch it with any kind of perspective. To me it just looks like some crude backyard movie a bunch of kids slapped together. There seems to me to be, on one hand, a group of people who were strictly horror fans who venerated it. Only over time has it come to occupy a very peculiar position, and I still don’t have any concept of what that is. I think we just wanted to hang a bunch of people on meat hooks, chop ’em up, and sell tickets at the theatre.

– Kim Henkel discusses The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is a very nineties film, speaking to a very unique set of nineties anxieties.

There is something very revealing and candid about certain kinds of bad movies. Of course, many bad movies are just bad, hacky executions of well-worn concepts without any insight or skill to anchor them. However, there are some bad movies that seem driven by a strange source of passion and energy, which makes them bizarre snapshots of a particular time and place. It is almost a sort of candour, an unguarded bluntness, that allows them to articulate their perspective without any of the consideration or care of a better film.

The Next Generation is one of those films. It is, to be entirely clear, a terrible film. It is sloppily constructed. It is terribly framed. It is incoherently plotted. Its characters are drawn in the crudest of terms. Most damningly, it combines two particularly awful subgenres of the “bad movie” archetype. It is both a horror movie that is not scary and a black comedy that is not funny. It is, by all accounts, a disaster. Watching the film, the question isn’t how the release was delayed for three years. Instead, the question becomes how the film was ever released at all.

However, whether in spite of because of all of this, The Next Generation feels like a weird snapshot of a particular mid-nineties mood. Somehow, while groping around in the darkness, it accidentally puts its finger on the pulse.

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