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New Escapist Video! “Spiral: From the Book of Saw – Review in 3 Minutes”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on Escapist Movies. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which is releasing in cinemas this weekend.

Non-Review Review: The Little Things

The Little Things was reportedly written by John Lee Hancock in the mid-nineties, and it shows.

The film is largely set against the backdrop of October 1990. There frequent reminders that this is effectively a period piece. During the opening sequence, one potential serial killer victim sings along with Roam from the B-52s on her car stereo. Another victim has a pink flyer for No Doubt pinned up on her fridge and a poster for The Lost Boys hanging in her living area. There are repeated references to how Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker”, still lingers in the living memory of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A new release window.

However, The Little Things feels like a period piece in some more fundamental ways. Most obviously, there’s the fact that The Little Things exists as a star vehicle, its cast including Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jared Leto, along with Oscar nominee Rami Malek. The film is not based on any existing intellectual property, even if it is highly derivative in other ways. More than that, it harks back to the serial killer boom of mid-nineties cinema, when big studio films were dominated by procedural thrillers and forensic meditation.

The Little Things is neither an exemplar nor a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a straightforward reminder of its tropes and conventions seemingly cobbled together to construct something close to the statistical mean. The common refrain with a film like The Little Things is to suggest that this is the kind of film that they don’t make any more. The more worrying thought is that The Little Things seems to illustrate why.

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“Your Reminiscence”: Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”, Nostalgia, and Parental Anxiety…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’ll looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but the season skips over large swathes of Scorsese’s filmography. So I thought it might be worth taking a look back at Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is often overlooked in terms of Martin Scorsese’s filmography.

It falls in the gap between the instant classic Goodfellas and the sleeper masterpiece Casino. It shares that gap with The Age of Innocence, which is one of the films in Scorsese’s filmography that has been begging for a reappraisal and seems more likely to receive critical attention than a trashy remake of a pulpy sixties thriller. (The Age of Innocence recently received a re-release as part of the high-end Criterion Collection.) Indeed, Cape Fear seems designed to be seen as disposable in the context of Scorsese’s filmography.

At best, Cape Fear is typically seen as a curiosity – and potentially a worrying one. While Roger Ebert praised the film, he lamented “a certain impersonality in a film by this most personal of directors.” There was a whiff of moral panic to Kenneth Turan’s review, which asked, “Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience’s increasing avid addiction to increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them?”

However, there’s a lot interesting happening in Cape Fear. Most obviously, the film is a vehicle for Scorsese’s love of a certain style of directorial technique. The original Cape Fear had been directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had worked as a dialogue coach under Alfred Hitchcock. The film arrived two years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the influence of Hitchcock is obvious on Thompson’s work; it’s scored by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, editted by Hitchcock veteran George Tomasini and features art direction from Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen.

However, what’s particularly interesting about Cape Fear is the way in which it actively translates the original movie from the early sixties to the early nineties, playing not only on the same underlying fears that informed the original, but also understanding that they existed in a different context during the nineties. It’s a movie that cannily and shrewdly transposes those two times, tapping into the same fears, but in a way that demonstrates both how those fears have evolved – and also how they haven’t.

Cape Fear is a lurid b-movie thriller, but in the most interesting and unsettling ways. It is a film fascinated by what lurks beneath the surface.

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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: Widows (2018)

At its most basic, Widows is a testament to applying the skill and craft of two filmmakers working at the very top of their game to a sturdy and reliable genre framework.

The basic plot of Widows is relatively straightforward, adapted from Lynda LaPlante’s book by way of a very successful British television miniseries. A group of women find themselves drawn into an unlikely life of crime when their husbands are killed during a botched robbery. Caught between corrupt politicians and scheming gangsters, the women are thrown out of their comfort zone as their leader commits to completing a heist that was carefully and meticulously planned by her late husband. It’s pulpy, it’s trashy, it’s fun.

Widows of opportunity.

However, the beauty of Widows lies in applying the skill of Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen to this set-up. Flynn is one of the biggest writers working today, known for both her novels and for her work on screenplays. Gone Girl was enough of a cultural force to turn its title into a verb, and embodied a certain kind of sleek self-aware trashy storytelling style. McQueen is a great writer in his own right, but already one of the most esteemed and respected directors working in contemporary cinema; known for his work on Shame or Twelve Years a Slave.

Widows is a movie that is completely unashamed of the trappings of its story, a familiar story about unlikely criminals who find themselves forced into “one last job”, with the biggest irony being that it is somebody else’s last job. Widows never looks down upon the heightened aspects of its narrative, nor does it feel a need to elevate or legitimise them. Instead, Widows allows its intelligence and insight to fold into the contours of this slick stylish crime thriller. The result is simply dazzling.

Stealy resolve.

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Non-Review Review: Searching…

Searching… is an interesting fusion. It blends the innovative narrative style of Unfriended with the more convention cinematic language of thrillers like Kiss the Girls.

This cocktail is at once welcome and overdue. Unfriended was one of those rare genuinely innovative pieces of mainstream cinema; in form, if not necessarily in function. Unfriended built from a premise that was both incredibly simple and also formally daring, telling a fairly standard supernatural teenage revenge story entirely through a computer desktop. As with Searching…, all of Unfriended unfolded within a computer screen.

Windows ’95 into the soul…

In hindsight, it is surprising that it has taken other genres so long to embrace that formal experiment. Cinema has a long history of eagerly coopting the language and experiments of horror for more prestigious and high-brow fare. Consider, for example, how quickly other genres coopted the “found footage” revolution of the early twenty-first century for action movies, thrillers, comedies, and even monster movies and superhero films. (Then again, that embrace of the “found footage” aesthetic may have caught on for reasons beyond the success of The Blair Witch Project.)

Searching… takes the basic formal conceit of Unfriended and applies it to a more conventional genre film. The result is an abduction thriller told exclusively through screens, through video streams, search histories, web cameras and screenshots. It’s a provocative premise, effectively turning the bigger screen into a smaller one and changing the rules of how the audience processes the imagery in front of them. However, Searching… clearly aspires to bridge the gap between screens big and small.

She needs to screen her fans better.

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Non-Review Review: La French (The Connection)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

La French (aka The Connection) looks and sounds beautiful.

Working with cinematographer Laurent Tangy, director Cédric Jimenez manages to capture the scenic beauty of seventies Marseilles. The classic architecture, the sea views, even the hot night spots all look absolutely stunning. Le French manages to capture the crisp feeling of the late seventies without ever feeling stylised or staged. Similarly, Jimenez manages to pull together a beautifully evocative soundtrack, with songs as distinct as Call Me and This Bitter Earth helping to underscore emotionally-charged sequences and giving the film a sense of style and taste.

lafrench

La French is a stylishly-constructed crime thriller that stretches from the south of France to New York and back again, a family loosely inspired by the infamous “French Connection” that fed drugs into France and overseas to the United States. However, despite its obvious overlap with William Friedkin’s The French Connection, it seems like Jimenez owes more to the work of filmmakers like Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese, constructing a crime epic that flows beautifully and effortlessly, with an impressive soundtrack complimenting a dynamic visual style.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with La French, a sense that there might actually be too much style – that the film may occasionally feel a little too hollow or detached from its twin leads. However, Jimenez cleverly casts Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche in the lead roles, who help anchor the film with a sense of humanity that only occasionally gets lost in the film’s beautifully-crafted production.

lafrench2

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Non-Review Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an oddly nostalgic serial killer film.

The movie is an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name. Block originally published A Walk Among the Tombstones in 1992, around the time that pop culture’s fascination with serial killers was building to a crescendo. Thomas Harris had released Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs to universal acclaim. Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs had managed to sweep the Oscars, despite the handicap of a February 1991 release.

Dead letters...

Dead letters…

Scott Frank’s feature film adaptation moves the action forward to 1999, towards the tail end of pop culture’s interest in serial killers. Morgan Freeman’s career in serial killer films offers perhaps the best illustration of the state of the genre. By this point, Freeman had already moved on from 1995’s stylish se7en towards 1997’s efficient Kiss the Girls and was on the cusp of 2001’s unnecessary Along Came a Spider. The serial killer’s stock was falling, and the serial killer would soon be replaced by another bogeyman.

This shift in the story’s setting makes it feel like A Walk Among the Tombstones is a funeral ode towards the serial killer.

Lives are on the line...

Lives are on the line…

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Non-Review Review: A Most Wanted Man

For better or worse, A Most Wanted Man is going to be overshadowed by the passing of its lead actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a giant, a performer with a wonderful gift for bringing flawed and real characters to life, and A Most Wanted Man serves as his last leading role in a major motion picture. It is impossible to talk about A Most Wanted Man without talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a great performance, one that reminds the audience of why they loved Hoffman in the first place – Günther Bachmann is the sort of flawed human being that Hoffman played so well, given a great deal of depth by the late actor.

What's on the table?

What’s on the table?

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Watch! Mama Trailer…

Universal just set over the new trailer for Mama, the new supernatural thriller produced by Guillermo del Toro. Del Toror is producing, and writer-director Andres Muschietti is making his theatrical début, having worked on a number of short films before this (including one called Mamá). It stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain and follows the mysterious recovery of two missing girls years after their initial disappearance. It looks nice and atmospheric, and del Toro’s name is enough to make the film worth a look to me.

Give the trailer a watch and let me know what you think.