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New Escapist Column! On How “Candyman” is About Art About Trauma…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman this weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film and the larger franchise.

Much has been written in recent years about the recent explosion of African American horror, and the relationship between that horror and the very real trauma experienced by that community. What’s particularly interesting about Candyman is that the movie is very much engaged with that debate. In an era where so many movies and television shows purport to be “about trauma”, Candyman is explicitly a movie about art about horror, and the thorny questions that stem from that relationship.

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

“Anything Goes!” The Curious, Qualified Appeal of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” This week, we’re looking at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I had some thoughts on the film.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom occupies an interesting space in the cultural consciousness.

Released as a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was generally considered something of a disappointment. Despite a higher profile and a higher budget, the film grossed slightly less than its direct predecessor. The reviews were generally unkind. People Magazine decried the movie as “an astonishing violation of the trust people have in Spielberg and Lucas’ essentially good-natured approach to movies intended primarily for kids.”

A bridge too far?

Many of those involved with the film seem to have accepted this criticism and taken it to heart. Kate Capshaw quipped that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only really endured because it was packaged as part of trilogy re-releases, joking, “Thank goodness it’s a three-pack, or we wouldn’t have made the cut.” Spielberg was already apologising for the movie in the pre-release publicity for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, admitting, “I wasn’t happy with the second film at all.”

To be clear, there are a lot of valid criticisms of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It would almost be a cheat to concede that the film “has not aged well”, as that would imply that its portrayal of the Indian subcontinent was not horribly dated on its initial release in the mid-eighties. However, accepting and allowing for these very real problems, there is still something interesting and engaging about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not a movie that is appealing in spite of its darkness, but one that is appealing precisely because of it.

Fortune and glory.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a messy and brutal movie. It’s angry and it’s unpleasant. However, it is interesting for precisely that reason. It stood out in the context of Steven Spielberg’s career at the time because Spielberg had cultivated an image of himself as a wholesome and wondrous filmmaker. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom marks the first real challenge to that image, perhaps paving the way for the director’s later forays into darkness and cynicism with movies like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich and more.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like the work of Steven Spielberg at his most unguarded, cutting completely loose and working through a lot of stuff. It’s a very candid and very explicit film, lacking a lot of the polish and the cleanliness of Spielberg’s other major works from around this time. That’s what makes it such a fascinating artifact.

“Why did it have to be snakes?”

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247. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Indiana Summer 2021 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Tony Black and Darren Mooney, with special guest Alex Towers, 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, continuing our Indiana Summer, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Escaping a botched deal in Hong Kong, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones finds himself in India with two unlikely partners. Jones is quickly drawn into a mystery involving stolen artifacts and a village of missing children, which offers the adventurer the opportunity for “fortune and glory.” However, dark secrets are buried beneath Pankot Palace, and it may take an archeologist to unearth them.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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221. Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a weekly journey through the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. And sometimes, because we can, a movie not on the list.

This week, to mark the passing Christopher Plummer, a special midweek bonus episode covering Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

An explosion on the Klingon moon of Praxis sends the Klingon Empire into disarray, and forces the warrior race to consider an unlikely alliance with their old enemies in the Federation. The Enterprise is sent to meet the Klingon Chancellor, under the command of Captain James Tiberius Kirk. However, things do not go to plan.

At time of recording, it was not ranked the list of best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Witches (2020)

The Witches offers a clumsy American update of the classic Roald Dahl novel.

To be fair, there is something potentially interesting in attempting to update The Witches, both for modern audiences and for American viewers. It’s to the credit of director Robert Zemeckis and co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro that they at least understand this. The Witches makes a number of alterations to its source material, and at least some of those reflect a genuine and compelling attempt to update the story to fit in a modern and American context.

Any witch way but loose…

At the same time, The Witches is a mess. Part of this is down to the way in which a lot of the appeal of Dahl’s story is lost in translation, as a wry and arch British story gets filtered through the hypersaturated Americana of one of the defining American directors, an even more exaggerated effect of what happened with Steven Spielberg’s work on The B.F.G. However, some of this is more fundamental, as Zemeckis struggles to balance tone and mood across the film, and finds his attentions drawn more to what his interests desire than what the plot demands.

The Witches is a misfire, but an intriguing one. There are hints of a much more compelling movie to found, sifting between its more misjudged moments.

Putting a (ro)dent in his reputation…

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198. Taxi Driver – Summer of Scorsese (#107)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair and Alex Towers, 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, kicking off our Summer of Scorsese season, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Raging Bull, King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Shutter Island. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through the director’s filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

Travis Bickle cannot sleep. So he splits his nights between the Times Square porno theatres and his job as a taxi driver. Bickle immerses himself in the nightlife of New York City, finding himself adrift in a world of anomie and urban decay. Thoughts begin to formulate in his head, thought he can’t articulate or express, but thoughts that push him in a horrific and unsettling direction.

At time of recording, it was ranked 107th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“You’re a Real Cowboy!” The Haunted Emptiness of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be launching a belated Summer of Scorsese this week with a look at Taxi Driver. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 classic.

Even watched today, there is something deeply unsettling about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Travis Bickle is a haunting figure, drifting through the night in what writer Paul Schrader has repeatedly described as a “metal coffin.” Of course, Taxi Driver is a film of the seventies. The New York through which Bickle moves no longer exists – the one famously (but not actually) told to “drop dead” by Gerard Ford. Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, later sequences revealing scars on his body, and even his mohawk is drawn from experiences of soldiers who served in that war. Even beyond this, the vacuous-but-wholesome politics of Palantine evoke the disillusion of the post-Watergate era.

However, there is also a timelessness to Travis Bickle. His strange isolation in a city populated by millions of people is a manifestion of Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie”, the weird loneliness that human beings can feel when trapped in confined spaces with countless anonymous neighbours. More than that, as countless observers have explained in the nearly half-century since Taxi Driver‘s release, Bickle’s murderous possessiveness towards Betsy and Iris feels eerily prescient in an era of mass shootings and manifestos by entitled angry young men.

What is most striking about Taxi Driver is the emptiness of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a young man who seems to be completely lacking in any sense of identity or self, any strong sense of who he is or what he wants. As much as Taxi Driver presents Bickle as a nightmare of urban living, he is also a reflection. He is an empty vessel that seems to have been shaped by the world around him without any deeper understanding or comprehension of what that means. Bickle isn’t a person so much as a manifestation of a culture so far in decline that it has folded into itself.

Indeed, much of how Bickle sees the world is informed and shaped by the forces around him, perhaps even unconsciously and passively. Bickle offers a glimpse of American masculinity in crisis, of decades of westerns and pulp adventures that have been digested and processed and rehashed until there is no meaning underneath it all. It’s possible to read Taxi Driver as a reiteration of The Searchers, one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of Martin Scorsese’s famous films. However, it isn’t Taxi Driver recreating The Searchers so much as Bickle himself.

There’s an uncomfortably warped sensibility to all this, a bitter meaninglessness that serves as an indictment of the world around him. Travis Bickle is a monster, but he is a monster manifested from the collective unconscious of a city (and perhaps a world) trapped in decline and decay.

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159. Gone With the Wind – Winter of ’39 (#165)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy and Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair, The 250 is a fortnightly 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, Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood’s Gone With the Wind.

A tale of revolution, romance and redemption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind remains one of the most sweeping epics ever produced by the studio system. The decades-long love affair between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler unfolds against the backdrop of the fall and rise of Scarlett’s family fortune.

At time of recording, it was ranked 165th on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Day Shall Come

The Day Shall Come is an ambitious piece of work that suffers from some very fundamental flaws.

Chris Morris’ long-awaited follow-up to Four Lions treads on relatively familiar ground. The narrative unfolds along two threads in parallel. The first of these focuses on Moses Al Shabazz and the Church of the Star of Six, a vaguely radical (but completely non-violent) religious organisation built around addressing historical injustice and using psychic powers to bring down construction cranes over Miami. The other narrative thread is build around the bureaucratic machinations of local law enforcement, desperate to justify the bulking up of their budget after the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

My ami.

Separately, these elements feel like they should work well enough for Morris. The opening credits promise that the film is “inspired by one hundred true stories” and the set-up is absurdist enough that it feels entirely believable. Morris’ knack has always been in articulating the heightened and surreal aspects of the modern world while grounding them in mundanity, so that even the most outlandish of concepts feels anchored in a world that is recognisable and convincing. Like all great satirists, Morris holds a mirror up to the world that he sees and produces a caricature that feels as true as an naturalist portrayal.

However, The Day Shall Come just doesn’t work. A lot of this is tonal, with one of the film’s two central story lines occasionally veering into trite sentimentality that feels completely at odds with the rest of the film and which plays as an attempt to soften Morris’ more conventional and abrasive style. The result is a film that has a few compelling elements and solid (if bleak) gags, but which often feels unjustly worried about how its audience will respond and so sands down its rough edges to make something more palatable. The problem is that the rough edges are by far the most interesting parts.

He can preach until he’s horse.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Homestead (Review)

Homestead represents the culmination of certain impulses within Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, some of those impulses were baked into the show from the outset. The end of Caretaker immediately and effectively established the central premise of the series. Voyager was to be a story about a crew trying to get “home.” Of course, the question of what “home” actually meant was always up for debate. Perhaps “home” could be the unlikely bond that this crew formed with one another, a strange alliance of misfits who found a way to belong together in a way they never could apart; the idea of “home” at the heart of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example.

“Home.”

However, over the following seven seasons, the idea of “home” came into sharp focus. “Home” was not so much about finding an abstract place where a person might belong. “Home” was about returning to a point of origin. “Home” was a not place that could be created or developed, it was a nostalgic ideal. “Home” was not somewhere that could be found on “the final frontier.” In fact, it was the exact opposite. It was a fixed place that was (by definition) as far from the frontier as possible. This theme was heavily articulated in the show’s seventh and final season.

Of course, this very narrow and rigid definition of “home” creates a problem for one member of the cast. Voyager repeatedly and consciously assumes that all of its cast belong in the Alpha Quadrant, because they originated there. It does not matter that Tom Paris never fit in at home, or that the Maquis characters never integrated into Starfleet. It does not matter that Seven of Nine cannot remember Earth. These characters are going back to their point of origin, because that is what “home” means. What, then, of Neelix? How does Neelix get to go “home”?

“Home.”

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