• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

“There’s Nobody Here to See Us”: The Untamed Frontier in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’re looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 gangster classic.

When Casino was released, it experienced something of a minor backlash.

Part of this backlash was motivated by the film’s perceived similarities to Goodfellas – Scorsese had made another soundtrack-heavy period-piece mob movie starring both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, adapted from the work of Nicholas Pileggi. To a certain extent, this was fair. There were legitimate concerns that Scorsese was simply repeating himself, and that any comparisons to Goodfellas did not flatter Casino.

These problems were compounded by content. At time of release, Casino was Scorsese’s longest movie, clocking in at just shy of three hours. That is a lot of mobster movie, particularly if that movie felt in anyway derivative of the appreciably shorter Goodfellas. There were also rumblings of the movie’s brutality and violence, which was seen as being particularly excessive and graphic. These complaints circulated even before Casino hit cinemas. Peter Travers summarised the mood, “Even before Casino opened, the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.”

However, time has been kind to Casino. Although the film undoubtedly still exists in the shadow of Goodfellas, it has come to be recognised as one of the great crime films and to merit some appreciation on its own terms. Casino is a fascinating piece of work. It is bold and ambitious, epic and sweeping. However, what is most striking about Casino is not how it compares to Goodfellas, but how it contrasts. The differences are instructive.

Casino is often categorised as a mob movie, and it is definitely that. It is a story about gangsters and organised crime. However, it is also a western. It is perhaps the closest that Scorsese has come to making a traditional western in his entire cinematography. More than that, while Goodfellas is anchored in the character of Henry Hill, Casino lacks a similar hook. Both Sam and Nicky are much more oblique characters than Henry; Sam is less proactive, and Nicky is much more brutal. They are harder to invest in, tougher to root for.

However, this allows Casino to take a much wider view of this world and the people that inhabit it. Casino is arguably a religious parable, a story about mankind’s destruction of paradise and the inevitable exile that followed. In that sense, Casino feels like more of a bridge between Goodfellas and Scorsese’s more overtly religious-tinged parables like Bringing Out the Dead or Silence than it initially seemed. This is a story about heaven on earth, and the fallen sinful human beings who turn that heaven into a nightmarish hell.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time demonstrates that the adjective “novelistic” isn’t always a compliment.

Writer and director Antonio Campos is clearly aiming for an epic sweep to The Devil All the Time. The film unfolds over the course of several decades, following several intersecting lives in rural Ohio in the space between the end of the Second World War and the height of the Vietnam War. This is a tale that spans generations, with an impressive density. Small characters get huge arcs, dramatic twists hinge on chance encounters, and a large amount of the film’s plot is delivered by way of folksy omniscient narration.

Holland of the Free?

It is easier to admire The Devil All the Time than it is to appreciate it. Campos has drawn together a formidable cast to tell a story that explores a host of big ideas about small town life. The Devil All the Time clearly aspires to be a piercing study of religion, sex and violence in the American northeast. The film maintains an impressive atmosphere, in large part due to Campos’ moody direction and the work of Lol Crawley and the rumbling soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

However, nothing in The Devil All the Time has room to breath. There are so many elements competing for narrative space that even films two-hours-and-twenty-minute runtime feels overstuffed. Characters are never allowed to stew or develop in a way that a story like this demands, instead reducing the movie to a series of plot points and thematic observations delivered in a rich and moody manner, but without any real substance to bind them all together.

Book ‘im.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: Boy Erased

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boy Erased is the amount of faith that writer and director (and supporting actor) Joel Edgerton puts in the material at hand.

Boy Erased is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley, offering a fictionalised account of the writer’s time in gay conversion therapy in rural conservative America. The film is fiction to the extent that the names have been changed; Garrard Conley becomes Jared Eamons. However, Boy Erased never tries to disguise its influences or to assert ownership of the story. The end of the film includes pictures of the real-life inspirations for various characters, often illustrating how uncanny the film’s casting had been.

Bedfellows.

More than that, perhaps as a nod to the increased self-awareness within these sorts of stories, the film hints at its own fictionalisation. The article and book that Jared decides to write towards the end of Boy Erased is very plainly the basis of the film that audience is watching. There is something intriguing in that, in the way that Boy Erased folds itself into its own narrative. The ending of Boy Erased is rooted in the characters responding to the story that Jared has written of his experiences, a clever and reflexive narrative choice that is consciously (and shrewdly) underplayed.

However, the fact that this is the closest that Boy Erased comes to a subversive or deconstructive moment only underscores the matter-of-factness with which Edgerton’s handled the material. Outside of using the origins of the film to provide the basis for a third-act catharsis within the film, Edgerton takes a very straightforward approach to this story. He never seems particularly interested in bending the narrative out of shape or of heightening particular elements for dramatic tension.

Syke out.

In its own weird way, Boy Erased feels decidedly conservative for a contemporary awards film. It is much less energised or dynamic than other similar works, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy starring Lucas Hedges’ Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. This creative restraint is not a criticism in any way; quite the opposite. Edgerton trusts the story that he has been given, and trusts his cast to deliver. Boy Erased is not a showy or ostentatious piece of work, instead a film constructed to specification with care and craft.

Boy Erased is a film that exists primarily as a vehicle for its subject and for its cast, and that is a credit to Edgerton’s approach to the material.

They said that he needed this, but it couldn’t be father from the truth.

Continue reading

98. PK (#–) – Indian Summer 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Giovanna Rampazza and Babu Patel, 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, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This year, we are proud to announce Indian Summer, a fortnight looking at two of the Indian films on the list. We hope to make this an annual event. This year, we’ll be covering Rajkumar Hirani’s PK and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti. This week, we’re discussing the first of those two films, PK.

In the middle of the desert, a mysterious stranger arrives from a far away land. When events conspire to strand the visitor in this strange land, he makes a desperate attempt to get home. Along the way, he asks tough and probing questions about the bizarre world in which he has found himself.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the Internet Movie Database.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Shadows and Symbols (Review)

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols continue to reframe the theology of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in terms of Christian iconography.

To be fair, it makes sense that Christian imagery and metaphor should so heavily influence film and television. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of entertainment, and so it makes sense that its preoccupations should filter through into the art that it creates. After all, certain plot and story threads on Star Trek: Voyager (including the Kazon, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Displaced and Day of Honour) are very clearly anchored in a number of racial anxieties unique to California during the nineties.

The writing’s on the wall.

However, there was something very interesting in the way that Deep Space Nine had introduced and developed its theology. The early seasons of Deep Space Nine were heavily influenced by more eastern religions, like Buddhism. They were also more ambiguous in their portrayal of the wormhole aliens, suggesting that the enigmatic creatures could be both aliens and gods, depending on one’s perspective. Even then, there was a recurring suggestion in episodes like Emissary and Prophet Motive that the wormhole aliens did not conform to human morality.

As Deep Space Nine approaches the end of its run, it simplifies its approach to religion. The Prophets become a lot less ambiguous, and the spiritual framework becomes a lot more conventional. This process really began in earnest with The Assignment and was solidified in The Reckoning, but it becomes a lot more concrete in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols.

Let there be light.
And it was good.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Image in the Sand (Review)

There is an endearing sense of symmetry to the seventh season premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The writers who worked on the show have been quite candid about their creative process. In particular, most of the production team would acknowledge that the show was heavily improvised rather than planned in advance. While the creators had a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move, they did not have a clear destination in mind until quite late in the journey. This was quite obvious looking at a number of the strange narrative detours that the arc took, most notably Gul Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light.

A Time to Sands.

At the same time, as the seventh season began, it seemed like the writers working on Deep Space Nine had a much stronger idea of how they wanted the series to come to a close. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a very clever structural choice for the seventh season premiere. They exist at once as echoes of the arc that opened the sixth season and as preludes to the story that would conclude the seventh. They exist as bookends to these two chapters of the larger series, feeling almost like the exact midpoint of a larger story.

Positioned approximately half-way between the epic six-episode arc that opened the sixth season and the sprawling ten-episode narrative that would draw down the curtain at the end of the seventh season, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a much smaller affair. However, they are still well-observed and well-written, covering a lot of thematic and narrative ground in a way that contextualises what come before and sets up what will follow.

“Play it again, Sisko.”

Continue reading