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New Escapist Column! On How “The Suicide Squad” Deconstructs Amanda Waller…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of The Suicide Squad, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one small-but-clever aspect of James Gunn’s superhero sequel.

The character of Amanda Waller is a pop culture archetype. She is an example of the ruthless intelligence operative who will cross whatever line it takes in pursuit of what she believes to be the greater good. Outside of comic books, one need only look at the character of Jack Bauer. Within the modern superhero landscape, the archetype is embodied by Nick Fury. These characters might be edgy or ambiguous, but they are also undeniably cool. Gunn’s approach to Waller in The Suicide Squad is interesting in large part because it rejects that idea of effortless cool in favour of something a lot blunter and more horrific.

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

New Escapist Video! “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – 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 feature film review to the channel, discussing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which features the last major live-action performance from Chadwick Boseman.

Non-Review Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers an illustration of how times have changed.

The film exists as part of the same production deal that brought Fences to cinemas just four years ago. Denzel Washington signed a deal with HBO to produce screen adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s plays, bringing one of America’s core dramatists to as wide an audience as possible with the highest quality production. Even without that specific context, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a companion piece to Fences; they are both films adapting Wilson, produced by Washington and starring Viola Davis.

A play of note…

However, while Fences was a major theatrical release distributed by Paramount, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has gone direct to Netflix. While the film will have a limited theatrical run where that is possible, it will primarily stream online. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is still a lavish production with a top tier cast working from strong material. However, as with the release of The Boys in the Band on Netflix earlier in this awards season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom illustrates that even in the four years since Fences, the market for these sorts of productions has migrated to streaming.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the sort of clean and uncluttered performance-driven adult-skewing film that might have enjoyed a wide release in years past, but now it seems impossible to imagine the film anywhere but on a service like Netflix.

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Non-Review Review: Fences

Fences is a superb play, with a great cast, that makes for a reasonably solid film.

Fences was adapted by playwright August Wilson from his 1983 Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage play. Although Wilson passed away in 2005, the resulting film is very faithful to that stage-bound sensitivity. Perhaps out of respect for the writer, or out of respect for the story’s origin on the stage, director Denzel Washington never really pushes Fences beyond its source material. Fences has a superb A-list cast, but it never quite feels like a feature film adaptation.

Living life to the Maxson.

Living life to the Maxson.

Instead, Fences feels like it is trapped somewhere in the limbo between stage and screen, feeling like one of those adaptations from the earliest days of television when the medium never knew exactly where it fell between those two pillars. Fences retains a tight cast and a very fixed location, much like the stage play. It retains monologues and confrontations that play out over extended scenes that recall theatre rather than taking advantage of cinema’s ability to let time lapse.

To be fair, the cast superb and the source material is impressive. It is easy to understand why Washington adopted such a reverent and respectful approach to the cinematic adaptation. However, Fences never feels like anything more than the sum of its very impressive parts. In fact, it might feel like a little less.

Mending fences.

Tightly-knit family unit.

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Non-Review Review: Prisoners

Prisoners is very much a game of two halves. Feeling like two separate films grafted together, Prisoners feels at once like a psychological exploration of American masculinity and also a far more conventional serial killer film. Indeed, had director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski decided to cut suddenly to black two-thirds of the way through Prisoners, we’d have a frustrating but much more cohesive atmospheric drama.

Instead, it seems like the duo conspired to surgically attach the last act from a far more conventional thriller on to their robust framework. The result is intriguing, but disappointing – the conventional paint-by-numbers final third diminishing a lot of the richness to be found in the first section of the film.

Somebody is about to get Jack(man)ed...

Somebody is about to get Jack(man)ed…

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Non-Review Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry’s latest film, and surprise Best Picture nominee, looks lovely. It opens with a credit sequence that see Tom Hanks falling through the air like an even more stylish version of the Mad Men opening credits. The blue background is just the right shade, the picture is crisp, the focus is tight. Of course, that beautifully illustrative opening sequence exposes the primary flaw with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Some things just aren’t meant to look pretty, and some events can’t be wrapped up inside a feel-good blanket with a tidy ribbon on the outside.

Not quite picture perfect...

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Academy Awards 2012: The Insiders’ Oscars…

That was… underwhelming. I mean, I think I’m relatively happy with most of the nominees, and there’s very little I can vehemently object to as completely unworthy in yesterday’s Oscar nominations, but still… Yesterday’s Oscar nominations felt decidedly insular, as if the Academy had taken a complete U-turn on any of the amendments that had recently been made in an attempt to broaden the Academy’s horizons. The Oscars have always been a party thrown by the movie industry to celebrate themselves, but this year’s nominations feel increasingly isolated, with nominations and lists populated with the safest and most predictable choices. This is the first year in quite some time that there hasn’t been anything as pleasantly refreshing as the Best Picture nomination for District 9 or Toy Story 3.

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Non-Review Review: The Help

The Help is a well made film with a solid script, decent direction, and some very good performances from a superb ensemble. It’s hard not to get swept up in the drama as it unfolds, as the movie takes a harsh look at some of the prejudice festering in Mississippi during the sixties, where the phrase “hippie!”was an accusation that could destroy anyone’s social standing, it was not appropriate to fraternise with the help, and even raising the suggestion of racial equality was to open one’s self to prosecution for breaking the law. It’s powerful stuff. I was moved by it, particularly by the wonderful work put in by the cast. And, yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something very cynical unfolding before my eyes. The Help is a movie that seems built to fill a particular void, carefully measured and constructed to keep its audience well within their comfort zones, and a movie that feels like it might be sacrificing some of its depth for fear of actually challenging its audience.

Fraternising with the help...

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Non-Review Review: Doubt

Doubt is quite possibly the best movie I’ve seen this year. It’s a fantastic adaptation of a hit play with a cast to die for. It’s also a stunning portrayal of a religious institution at a time of great upheaval, both internally and externally.

Asked about her doubts, Meryl said she had nun...

Asked about her doubts, Meryl said she had nun...

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