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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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86. Mister Smith Goes to Washington (#147) – Independence Day 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, 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, an Independence Day treat. Frank Capra’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington.

Local activist and unlikely politician Jefferson Smith finds himself appointed to represent his great state in the United States Senate. However, while trying to ensure a fair deal for his constituents, Smith soon finds his faith in democracy threatened as he figures out how the institutions actually work.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 147th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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The Dark Knight Rises (and Falls) in 2016

As it draws to a close, there has been considerable reflection on the fact that 2016 has been a very “strange” year.

Of course, “strange” is perhaps a polite way of phrasing that sentiment. “Harrowing” might be another. “Depressing” could also fit. The year has been physically and emotionally draining for virtually everyone. It was the year that audiences around the world bid farewell to talents as diverse as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. When it was determined that December 2016 would receive a “leap second”, it felt almost like an insult. Why should 2016 last one second longer than it absolutely has to? (Not that 2017 promises to be better.)

The hole in things.

The hole in things.

However, the biggest shocks of 2016 were political. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shook the world to its core, and not just because the pollsters somehow failed to predict them. Those public votes were seen as stern rejections of liberalism and progressivism, of an angry and disenfranchised class striking back at what had been seen a disconnected and aloof elite. It was presented as a strike back against the establishment, against vested interests, an expression of rage – whether racial or economic.

Some of the best films of the year helped to capture that sense of anxiety and resentment. The Hateful Eight suggested that perhaps the United States had never reconciled itself following the end of the Civil War and perhaps it never would. Green Room suggested that there was still a primitive savagery lurking just off the main roads, nestled snugly in the heart of the country. The Girl With All the Gifts dared to suggest that those who reacted with panic and fear to change were likely to find themselves consumed by it.

Everything falls apart.

Everything falls apart.

However, the movie that most successfully embodied 2016 was not released in 2016. It was released four years earlier. That film was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his groundbreaking Batman trilogy of films. Batman Begins had been released in 2005, and its meditations on fear made for a potent superhero story in the midst of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight was released in 2008, and seemed the perfect film to close out the Bush era. It was even described as “the first great post-Sept. 11 film.”

In some respects, The Dark Knight Rises was lost on its initial release. It seemed rather out of place, with audiences unsure how best to read the film. It was not the sequel that anybody had been expecting. Indeed, it seems fair to observe that it was not the sequel that Christopher Nolan would have been expecting as he worked on The Dark Knight. That had been a crime epic with political undertones. The Dark Knight Rises was a revolutionary epic and war movie, an odd combination for a film released in 2012. And yet it feels perfectly in step with 2016.

"Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn't everything that it could have been."

“Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn’t everything that it could have been.”

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Non-Review Review: Sully – Miracle on the Hudson

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson has a certain Frank Capra quality to it.

To be fair, a lot of that comes from the casting of Tom Hanks in the title role. Hanks radiates a certain ineffable integrity, a “Hanksian Decency” that informs his performances in films as diverse as Bridge of Spies and Inferno. It is tempting to think of him as “America’s Dad”, particularly given the grey hair and the moustache that he donned for the title role here. However, it is also tempting to think of him as a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, the embodiment of a certain type of fundamental American decency that lends itself to this sort of narrative.

Hanks for the memories.

Hanks for the memories.

Similarly, director Clint Eastwood has a similar philosophy. Eastwood’s films tend to be organised around strong moral principles. Often those principles are articulated in terms of personal responsibility, particularly the responsibility that individuals have for others whether in a professional capacity (J. Edgar) or a personal capacity (Million Dollar Baby) or simply by virtue of being there (Gran Torino). Eastwood’s recurring fascination with individual responsibility makes him a quintessentially American director.

This combination is ideally suited to Sully, which is constructed as something akin to a modern-day American fairytale.

"Mr. Sullenberger goes to the NTSB Debriefing."

“Mr. Sullenberger goes to the NTSB Debriefing.”

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American Nightmares, Part I: Old Frontiers… (The Revenant/The Hateful Eight)

Trying something new. Or rather something old. Been a while since we published an old-fashioned thinkpiece on here, and been thinking a lot about America as filtered through film in 2015-2016. We’ll be publishing a series of these articles in the coming week. If you’d like to see more of this sort of content, please comment or share or facebook or tweet, so we know you like it.

The United States of America is a relatively young country.

Like all other countries, it has its own history and mythology. As with many of those countries, that history and mythology intertwine. The European settlers may have inherited some of that mythology from their ancestors across the Atlantic or appropriated some from the indigenous population, but a lot of that history and mythology was cultivated wholesale. The American Dream. Manifest Destiny. The idea that this was a wild continent to be tamed through the sheer strength of will of those rugged early settlers.

westerns9

Britain has knights. Ireland has rebels. America has cowboys. It is tempting to look upon these archetypal mythic figures as something far removed from the modern day, something so far in the distant past that they may never have existed as all. Particularly given the historical decline of the western genre in recent decades, it is easy to consider the cowboy a historical artifact covered in centuries of dust and disconnected from the modern world. Billy the Kid does not seem so far removed from King Arthur, Wyatt Earp from Brian Boru.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. The overlap between the history and mythology is striking; these stories seemed to be mythologised before they were allowed to fad into history. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, and generally considered to be the first cinematic western. Although past its prime, the era of the American frontier was still in progress. Oklahoma would only become a state in 1907, with Arizona and New Mexico would become states in 1912. There is a sense that the country was still forming as the mythology coalesced.

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