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Non-Review Review: Black Widow

Black Widow was originally supposed to release in May 2020.

This would have marked as something of a “coda” movie to the main saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a belated follow-up tidying away loose ends from Avengers: Endgame in much the same way as Spider-Man: Far From Home. Like a lot of the releases immediately following that massive cultural phenomenon, Black Widow feels like a bit of unfinished business. It is the first solo movie based around the only female founding member of The Avengers, a project that gestated in various forms over decades across multiple production companies.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, Black Widow would always have felt curiously out of step and out of time. Scarlett Johansson wrapped up her tenure as Natasha Romanoff in Endgame, with the superhero sacrificing her life in the quest to defeat Thanos. As a result, Black Widow has to position itself earlier in the timeline. It functions as something of an interquel between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following the title character as she desperately evades capture by United States Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Had Black Widow released on time, it still would have felt like a movie that arrived four years too late. After all, despite introducing Natasha Romanoff as early as Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not build a solo superhero film around a female character until Captain Marvel. For all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the DC Extended Universe managed to beat Marvel Studios to the punch with the release of Wonder Woman in May 2017. It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to a May 2016 release is something of a retroactive grab at that title.

Widow maker.

Even aside from all of this baggage, Black Widow is a frustrating film. It is a movie that feels only a draft or two (or an editting pass or two) away from greatness. The film grapples with big themes and bold character work in interesting ways that occasionally verge on confrontational. After all, Natasha Romanoff has consistently been portrayed as a complicated and ambiguous figure within this world of gods and legends, an international assassin whose moral and bodily autonomy was violated in the most grotesque ways, and who responded to this by trying to reinvent herself as a superhero.

There’s a fascinating story there, and Black Widow intermittently acknowledges as much. However, when the film gets close to hitting on any nerves, it immediately retreats into snarky irony and wry one-liners that rob the story of any real weight and the characters of any real agency. Black Widow is supposed to be a story about a character asserting her own agency in the face of an uncaring machine. Instead, it feels like a film where the machine always wins.

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Non-Review Review: In the Heights

When it premiered, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights was a radical piece of work.

Miranda had begun working on the musical when he was in his sophomore year of college, producing an eighty-minute version of the play in 1999. He would take a prototype of the completed musical to Waterford, Connecticut in 2005. The show would move Off-Broadway two years later, and would open on Broadway in February 2008. It was a move that very much announced the arrival of Miranda as a serious talent, and would serve as a springboard to his later success with Hamilton.

“There’ll be dancing…
Dancing in the Street…”

In the Heights is set against the backdrop of Washington Heights, a neighbourhood on the north west side of Manhattan. Inspired by Miranda’s own experience as a Puerto Rican immigrant, the musical follows the inhabitants of the neighbourhood as they navigate a changing world. The story is told through the eyes of Usnavi, the young owner of a small bodega who dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic, but who needs to find a way to express his feelings for Vanessa, who is considering a move of her own to the West Village.

Miranda wrote In the Heights as a very pointed response to traditional staged musicals like West Side Story. It’s no small irony that, more than twenty years after it premiered, the film adaptation feels as much like a traditional musical as any of the classics that Miranda had railed against.

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New Escapist Column! On “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the New Cinema of Reconciliation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Given the release of Raya and the Last Dragon last week, it seemed like an appropriate time to discuss an interesting and emerging trend, what I call “the New Cinema of Reconciliation.”

The past five years have been extremely turbulent and difficult for the United States and the wider world, and so there is an understandable yearning for a return to normality, a palpable desire to believe that things could go back to normal and that the damage down to the social fabric could be repaired. This is a major recurring motif in films aimed at younger audiences, from Trolls World Tour through to Wonder Woman 1984. However, Raya and the Last Dragon illustrates how complicated this can be.

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

“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. 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 complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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171. Knives Out – This Just In (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Alex Towers 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, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.

The apparent suicide of noted mystery author Harlan Thrombley attracts the attention of consulting gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. Interviewing the deceased man’s family, Blanc finds a nest of vipers hiding in plain sight and comes to suspect that Harlan has been victim of murder most foul.

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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Non-Review Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a profoundly odd film.

On the surface, it looks like another one of those “movies they don’t really make anymore” that tend to get a small release around awards season, like Bad Times at the El Royale or Widows. It is an old-fashioned private detective story that starts with something relatively small before pulling back to reveal a vast and insidious conspiracy at work. It is a movie that is both a genre piece and a statement, and so seems an appropriate release for this late in the calendar.

Railing against the system.

However, on closer inspection, Motherless Brooklyn is much more surreal piece of work. The film was a passion project for writer, director and star Edward Norton. Norton had been struggling to bring the film to screen for the better part of two decades. It is a period piece in more than just its fifties New York setting. It feels like a time capsule. Although Motherless Brooklyn is only Norton’s second theatrical film as director, it arguably feels much more tailored to Norton’s style and interests than his actual directorial debut Keeping the Faith.

However, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it is lost in more than just time. The film is meandering, indulgent and unfocused. It has moments of incredible beauty and surprising power, but lacks the discipline to streamline everything else around those elements. Motherless Brooklyn is not a great film, but it is a strange one.

Evil plans.

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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

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“Black Panther”, “Crazy Rich Asians”, and American Dreaming in 2018…

The silver screen is not just a window, it is occasionally a mirror as well.

The cinematic gaze reveals a lot. Not just about the object in focus, but about the filmmaker (and the audience) behind the gaze. Although independent and arthouse cinema is thriving in the twenty-first century, and though home media is fundamentally changing the way that people consume media, the cinema will always be a communal space. A group of people sitting in a room together, bathed in projected light. There are obviously debates to be had about to what extent cinema reflects culture as much as it acts upon it, but there is undoubtedly a symbiosis there.

Cinema reveals a lot about contemporary culture, and not just “worthy” cinema that tends to get cited by critics as “the most important” or “the most timely” media of its particular moment. Indeed, there is perhaps something more revealing in looking at media that doesn’t consciously invite these comparisons, that doesn’t trumpet the manner in which it speaks to a particular moment. Sometimes it is more revealing to look at the films that aren’t saying anything, or at least are not consciously or overtly saying anything, about the current political moment.

In fact, it’s often a lot easier to get a sense of what is bubbling through the popular consciousness (or even the popular subconscious) by looking at low-budget “disposable” fare like horror movies than it is be interrogating more respectable and self-conscious fare. It is no coincidence that the past decade has seen a resurgence in haunted house and home invasion horror like The Conjuring, The Strangers, The Purge or even Don’t Breathe, reflecting anxieties about the American home as a site of horror in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Popular cinema is similarly a fascinating prism through which to examine contemporary American culture, to get a sense of how the United States sees both itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. It’s a glimpse into the nation’s psyche, offering a messy and dynamic dive beneath the polished exterior. It cuts through a lot of contemporary politics, foregoing accuracy in favour of a general aesthetic. It is a sketch more than a portrait, but that sketch can be instructive and revealing of itself.

In particular, the twin releases of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians over the past year suggest something interesting about modern conceptions of the American Dream.

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Non-Review Review: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is an American tragicomedy.

The past few years have seen a heightening of reality, a blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, an intrusion of the unreal into the real world. The President of the United States is effectively a reality television star, and is running the country as some sort of grotesque reality television show. “Truth is not truth”, to quote one administration figure, while another has peddled in the idea of “alternative facts” while alluding to a horrific terrorist attack that simply never happened while other supporters of the administration insist that other horrific events did not happen.

The two Ronnies.

With all of that going on in the background, soaking into the zeitgeist, BlacKkKlansman feels very much like a movie for the moment. It is – to quote the introductory text – “based on some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”, taking its inspiration from a memoir written by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth. However, it is also filtered through the hyperstylised cartoonish lens of a blackploitation buddy comedy, with Lee taking every opportunity to remind his audience that they are watching a piece of pop culture.

The premise of the film is so absurd that it’s almost impossible to play it as anything but comedy. The first black police officer in Colorado Springs launches an undercover sting on the KKK, using his own name to infiltrate the organisation through the telephone. Working with a fellow white police officer, this ambitious young go-getter manages to manoeuvre his way to the top of the organisation, fooling even the Grand Wizard himself. It’s a ridiculous story, one that seems inherently unreal. Even the name – “Stallworth” – sounds like something from a dimestore paperback.

Hitting all its marks.

Of course, in this era of unreality, it is entirely real. Indeed, the power of BlacKkKlansman comes crashing down on the audience in the final moments, when Lee brushes aside the heavy-handed references to contemporary politics that play through the narrative for something that is much more tangible and real, serving to throw the entire grim joke of the film into stark relief, suggesting that so much of the awkward squirming and ridiculous twists are all the foundation of the horror show through the audience are living.

BlacKkKlansman laughs in the face of horror and brutality. But only because the alternative is to cry.

The historical record.

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