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New Escapist Column! On the “Doctor Strange” as a Film About Time and Death…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the upcoming release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at Scott Derrickson’s somewhat underrated contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange felt like an oddity when it was released, sandwiched between Captain America: Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. It was a very conventional origin story, stripped of the legacy character attributes of Ant Man, the crossover baggage of Black Panther or the period piece nostalgia and narrative trickery of Captain Marvel. It was perhaps the most straightforward superhero origin story since the earliest days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically recalling both Iron Man and Thor.

However, underneath the surface, there was something more interesting happening. Doctor Strange is a rare superhero movie that is about both the passage of time and inevitability of death, where the ultimate act of villainy is to pervert either flow. It’s a movie about accepting that change happens, and that sometimes a moment doesn’t last forever. It’s a theme that felt particularly relevant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, given that it was going to lose two of its three lead characters in the very near future.

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

Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time (Review)

“Love is the only mission.”

Once, Upon Time is equal parts ambitious and frustrating.

It feels like an attempt to adopt the approach that Chris Chibnall took to The Halloween Apocalypse and apply it to a mid-season episode. Allowing for the tertiary plot involving Yaz, War of the Sontarans was recognisable as a fairly straightforward Chibnall era episode, albeit one tied to the season arc. It was a historical epic about a marginalised female hero like Rosa or Spyfall, Part II and it was also a modern-day invasion story like Arachnids in the U.K. or Revolution of the Daleks. Sure, the plot mechanics where governed by the larger concerns of Doctor Who: Flux, but it was recognisable as an episode of Doctor Who.

Blaster from the… future?

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is a radically different approach to Doctor Who on television, one that feels like an extension of the style of The Halloween Apocalypse. On some level, it recalls another of the bolder scripts of the Chibnall era, The Timeless Children, in that it really feels like Chris Chibnall is driving Doctor Who like he stole it. He is trying to do something new with a nearly sixty-year-old franchise. That is genuinely admirable, particularly given how traditionalist the rest of the era around it can feel. For Doctor Who to grow and evolve, it needs to be able to try new things.

However, that’s a very qualified comparison. Like The Timeless Children before it, Once, Upon Time is an episode that doesn’t necessarily work on its own terms. It demonstrates that an episode like The Halloween Apocalypse – an episode with multiple seemingly disconnected threads constantly pushing the narrative forward – only really worked as a season premiere. The Halloween Apocalypse worked because it started with a bang. The audience were oriented coming into the episode, which made the chaos somewhat compelling.

Time, pyramided.

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is too disjointed. It never provides the audience with enough to hold on to as it jumps from one concept to another. It is an episode that should theoretically have a set of clear emotional hearts – Dan and Diane, Vinder and Bel, the Doctor and her past – but gets too tied up in scale and speed to really ground anything that is happening. Once, Upon Time feels like a more dynamic version of The Timeless Children, a lot of exposition in place of what should be a compelling and engaging emotional narrative.

Once, Upon Time feels like it is trying for something new, but it isn’t quite succeeding.

Back up.

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(—#) TENET .052

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New Escapist Column! On the Tenets of TENET…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With TENET now on streaming, it seemed like a good time to dive into the film’s position within Christopher Nolan’s filmography.

Most discussions of Nolan’s filmography focus on the director’s obsession with time, and TENET makes sense in that context. However, the film also ties into more existential anxieties that simmer through Nolan’s body of work, in particular the question of reality actually is and how best to respond to a world that can fundamentally chaotic, hostile and unknowable. TENET deals this this theme, confronting its audience and its characters with a reality that appears to be unraveling.

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

 

228. Interstellar (#29)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Cooper is a former astronaut who has resigned himself to life on a farm, raising his two children Tom and Murph. However, when the fates align to send Cooper back out into space, he finds himself faced with the terrible choice to leave his kids behind with no idea of when – or even if – he might return.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 29th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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222. Fa yeung nin wah (In the Mood for Love) – Chinese New Year/Valentine’s Day 2020 (#239)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Stacy Grouden and Luke Dunne, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, a Valentine’s and Chinese New Year treat. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Sixties Hong Kong is in a state of transition. Lives overlap in the densely populated city, as the Chan and Chow families move into the same building. Over time, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow come to suspect that their spouses are having an illicit affair. This act of betrayal draws the two strangers closer to one another, even if neither seems entirely sure where this intersection will take them.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 239th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“It Will Always Be Broken!” The Strange Melancholy of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, has been running a season of coverage of director Martin Scorsese. Last weekend, we discussed Scorsese’s Hugo. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film’s strange melancholy.

Martin Scorsese is a more complex and nuanced filmmaker than a casual glimpse at his filmography might suggest.

The clichéd depiction of Scorsese is largely shaped and defined by his most popular movies: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, CasinoGangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Irishman. Based on these films, there is a tendency to pigeonhole Scorsese as a director who makes violent films about violent men, usually filtered through the lens of the seedy underbelly of organised crime or urban decay. This does not quite capture the breadth and the scope of Scorsese’s interests.

Indeed, Scorsese is a much more interesting filmmaker than that list of classics might suggest, reflected in films as diverse as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, After Hours, The Colour of Money, Age of InnocenceThe Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and The Aviator. However, even allowing for that range, Hugo stands out as an oddity in Scorsese’s filmography. The film was something of a flop when it was released opposite The Muppets, and is often glossed over in accounts of Scorsese’s career and history.

This is shame. Hugo suffers slightly from arriving in the midst of a late career renaissance for Scorsese that includes some of the best and most successful films that the director ever produced: The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman. In the context of that body of work, Hugo is often overlooked. This is a shame, as it’s a magical and wonderful film. It manages to be a children’s film as only Martin Scorsese could produce, suffused with a melancholy and introspection that is rare in the genre.

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New Escapist Column! On “TENET”, and Christopher Nolan’s Fascination With Time…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This week saw the release of the latest trailer for TENET, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about the work of Christopher Nolan.

Nolan’s filmography is absolutely fascinated by the flow and manipulation of time. It warps, distorts and bends around his protagonists. However, it’s a force that cannot be controlled or governed, but which acts upon the characters nonetheless. The trailer to TENET is interesting because it seems to suggest that the villain of his latest film has learned to manipulate time, which in the context of Nolan’s filmography suggests that he’s messing with the most primal of forces.

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

Non-Review Review: The Irishman

“Time goes by so fast,” Frank Sheeran reflects to a young nurse late in the movie. He adds, “You’ll understand when you get there.”

Of course, the nurse doesn’t quite understand the passage of time in the way that Frank does. “You’re young,” he explains. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” In contrast, Frank Sheeran’s entire life seems to be left behind him. When The Irishman introduces the audience to its central character, he is already well past his prime. He is resting in a retirement community. He begins to narrate his story through internal monologue, but then decides to directly address the camera. After all, there is nobody left who might be exposed or shamed by his reminiscences. They are all long gone.

The end is DeNiro.

The audience really feels the passage of time in The Irishman. It is revealing that Frank’s most prized possession appears to be his watch. The watch itself changes as Frank’s situation does, becoming more ostentatious has his stock rises, but there is always a watch on the bedside table and it is always fixed first thing every morning. Even more than the ring that signifies his acceptance into the underground criminal fraternity, Frank holds tight to that watch. It measures the seconds that make up the minutes, the minutes that make up the hours, the hours that make up a life.

It is a critical cliché to praise a long film by saying that it doesn’t feel long, that the time spent watching a story unfold “flies by.” In some cases, that is true. Of this year’s hyper-extended offerings, both Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood move breezily enough that they never feel their length. In contrast, The Irishman does feel every minute of its three-and-a-half hour runtime. That’s part of the movie’s power. By the time that the audience has reached that conversation between Frank and his nurse, they have some small understanding of what he is saying. They have lived that life with him.

Get Hoffa his case.

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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Endgame

It says a lot about the state of contemporary pop culture that the biggest movie of the year is essentially a clip episode.

Pop culture has always been vaguely nostalgic, evoking an idealised past and reminding audiences of times when the future seemed brighter. After all, much of the New Hollywood canon is explicitly nostalgic, sixties and seventies films that pay loving homage to the thirties and the forties, often explicitly; The Sting, The Godfather, Paper Moon, Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde. The past has always had a certain allure for cinema, perhaps because that’s what pictures have always been; individual moments captured on film and frozen in time, removed from their original context. Film is simply those frozen images run together to create the illusion of movement and life. Every film is a time machine, some are just more explicit than others.

Assembly line.

However, there is something fascinating about the modern wave of nostalgia, the speed at which pop culture is consuming itself. Recent waves of seventies, eighties and nineties nostalgia are still cresting. Earlier this summer, Captain Marvel channeled some of this nineties nostalgia into blockbuster (and Blockbuster) form. However, it also feels like nostalgia is getting closer and closer to the present, brushing up against the current moment. In some respects, the success of Lady Bird is indicative here. After all, Lady Bird is a film that is explicitly nostalgic about the post-9/11 era, evoked through footage of the Iraq War and the sounds of Justin Timberlake playing at a teen house party.

Avengers: Endgame is a strangely nostalgic beast. It is not strange that the film is nostalgic; after all, this is something of a coda to a decade of superhero films. However, it is strange how that nostalgia brushes up against the present, the climax of the film feeling very much like a loving homage to Avengers: Infinity War, a film that only premiered one year ago.

Stark raving mad…

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