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New Escapist Column! On 2022 as the Return of Spectacle…

I published a new piece at The Escapist this evening. With the year wrapping up, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at the year in cinema. In particular, one of the big unifying trends in the year’s blockbusters, which balanced a celebration and a fear of spectacle.

This was the year that “movies were back.” Many of the year’s biggest blockbusters were celebrations of blockbuster cinema in its purest form, from the IMAX cinematography of Top Gun: Maverick to the immersive 3D of Avatar: The Way of Water to the breakout international success of RRR. However, there was also an anxiety about the power of spectacle and the toll that it takes, whether on its audience or on its subject. This played out in movies like Nope or Elvis. There was also a clear worry that this might be the end of it all, playing out in movies like Babylon or even Blonde.

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

314. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Bird Watching 2022 (#—)

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 continuing a season focusing on the work of one particular director: Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

When a mad man embarks on a plan that will lead to nuclear annihilation, secret agent Ethan Hunt is the world’s last and only hope. The only problem is that Hunt may not be the man that he once was. Assembling a crack team of operatives in a desperate race against time, Hunt undertakes a globe trotting adventure with the highest stakes imaginable.

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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287. Top Gun: Maverick – This Just In (#50)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Luke Dunne and Joe Griffin, 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, Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick.

More than thirty years after graduating, top naval figther pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is summoned back to Top Gun. His assignment is to train a new generation of hotshot fighter pilots for a seemingly impossible mission. However, Maverick quickly discovers that what is past isn’t ever truly past.

At time of recording, it was ranked 50th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Northman”, and the Desire to Make Movies Weird Again…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of The Northman in the United Kingdom this week and in the United States next week, it seemed like an opportunity to take a look at the welcome return of weird to the blockbuster arena.

Modern blockbusters are frustratingly generic. As budgets have ballooned and intellectual property has trumped high concepts, studios have grown increasingly conservative with their larger projects. This is part of what makes The Northman so interesting. It’s great to see a director like Robert Eggers receive a reasonable budget and a sizable platform in order to make a movie that speaks very specifically to his own aesthetic. It’s refreshing to see a movie this expensive that is this committed to its aesthetic.

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

261. Gladiator (#44)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, with special guests Stacy Grouden and Joe Griffin, 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, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

As Rome extends its dominion over the rest of the world, General Maximus Decimus Meridius dreams only of returning home to his family. However, fate has other plans. When Maximus winds up accidentally involved in a sinister conspiracy surrounding the beloved Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his entire life is thrown into chaos. Maximus finds himself abandoned and left for dead. Recovered by a slave trader, Maximus is sold to an older entertainment manager Proximo, who sees a lot of potential in “the Spaniard.”

At time of recording, it was ranked 44th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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258. Dune – This Just In (#127)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Jenn Gannon and Deirdre Molumby, 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, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

The galaxy is in turmoil. Rumours swirl of a plot against House Atreides. As Duke Leto Atreides takes control of the desert planet of Dune, he tries to track down the traitors in his midst. Meanwhile, his son Paul finds himself on the verge of an awakening that will have a profound impact on the future of mankind.

At time of recording, it was ranked 127th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the Size and Spectacle of “Dune”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Dune continuing its dominance at the global box office, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the movie’s size and scale.

It is stating the obvious to describe Dune as “big.” However, the description is accurate. Still, what’s notable about Dune is how Denis Villeneuve uses that sense of scale and spectacle. Dune is so large that it often threatens to burst out of the IMAX frame, to break the confines of the generous format. Villeneuve uses that size to underscore the core theme of the book, the question of how small these individuals can seem when confronted with systems and forces that operate on unimaginable scales.

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

New Escapist Column! On “Gladiator” as a Celebration of Spectacle…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Gladiator was released twenty years ago this month, so it seemed like a good time to look back on it.

Gladiator is very obviously an example of classic Hollywood spectacle, harking back to the biblical epics of the middle of the twentieth century like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments or Spartacus or even Cleopatra. However, there’s also a more reflective aspect to the film. Ridley Scott constructs Gladiator as a celebration of the art of spectacle, and the power of populist narratives to shape and define a larger society. Maximus does not triumph because he is a soldier or a general, he ultimately wins because he is an entertainer.

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

 

Non-Review Review: The Aeronauts

At one point in The Aeronauts, reluctant partners Amelia Wren and James Glaisher open up to one another. High above the clouds, separated from the world below, Wren talks a little bit about her own departed husband and how she has struggled to come to terms with his absence. It isn’t a particularly in-depth conversation, coming about thirty minutes into a hundred-minute movie, so she stops rather abruptly. She is grateful for the tact and restraint of her conversational partner, the socially-awkward Glaisher. “Thank you,” she tells him. “Another would have pushed me further.”

This is more than just a small and inevitable moment of character development awkwardly signposted, a gesture that Wren and Glaisher are not as incompatible and oppositional as even they have come to believe. It is also a statement of purpose for Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts. It is a promise to the audience that The Aeronauts will never push its viewers or its characters in particularly uncomfortable or unconventional directions. Instead, it will offer a much gentler type of story that moves at its own pace and deals with various obstacles and developments well within its comfort zone.

On top of the world…

The Aeronauts is a clean, old-fashioned awards season drama. Two talented young actors are locked together in a confined space, playing characters who see the world in what initially appear to be two very different ways that gradually align over the course of the movie’s runtime. The costumes are spectacular. The music is triumphant. The special effects are impressive. There is tragedy, but it is overcome. There are complications, but they are handled. The Aeronauts is surprisingly conventional for a film that can be described as “the Victorian hot air balloon adventure starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.

This isn’t a criticism. At least, not a particularly biting one. The Aeronauts understands it is pitching itself as broad crowd-pleasing entertainment, so never pushes too hard in any direction that might possibly jeopardise that. Anything that might possible put that at risk is hastily thrown overboard. This is at once the best and worst thing about The Aeronauts. “Your husband pushed too far,” Glaisher warns Wren at one point, both an example of the film’s complete aversion to subtext and an in-text justification for its careful moderation. The Aeronauts is aiming at “charming.” It lands squarely on target.

A triumph of scale.

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Non-Review Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns largely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Mary Poppins Returns is a belated sequel to the original film, and very clearly – and very strongly – takes that original film as its major influence. Indeed, many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mary Poppins Returns are carried over directly from the previous film. Mary Poppins Returns is visually inventive, narratively accessible, highly unfocused, and episodic in structure. These are all aspects that it shares with the beloved family classic that spawned it, for better and for worse.

The nanny’s state.

There is an endearing energy in Mary Poppins Returns, and a comforting nostalgia. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns to the sort of film that was already endangered when Mary Poppins was released, the cinematic equivalent of vaudeville entertainment; a collection of largely isolated sketches tied together by the thinnest of string, serving as a showcase for the creative talents of everybody involved from the performers to the animators to the set designers. Mary Poppins Returns comes remarkably close to capturing the spirit and the appeal of the original.

However, Mary Poppins Returns struggles slightly to balance its fidelity for (and veneration of) the original with the demands of a modern family blockbuster, the film occasionally caught in the push-and-pull of familiarity and modernity. It doesn’t quite work, but it gets close enough for those craving an old-fashioned feel-good family film.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

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