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Author: Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.
Editorials

The Mandalorian – A New Hope For Star Wars

November 26, 2020

Since Disney bought Star Wars in 2012 it would be fair to say they have had mixed success. Apoplectic fans have denounced all three of the last trilogy and Solo was not well-liked either. The TV series The Mandalorian has actually been there most successful creation (successful here means critical and fan appeal, not making money, in that sense I think Disney are very happy).

The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian with "Baby Yoda" (Credit: Disney)
The Mandalorian with “Baby Yoda” (Credit: Disney)

The show stars Pedro Pascal as the titular character, an exceptionally good bounty hunter always hidden behind his near priceless Mandalorian armour. The character’s bounty hunter code is challenged when sent after a morally difficult target and he chooses to do the right thing. The show is set in between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens and is heavily focused on the chaos that follows the death of the Emperor.

The Golden Age Of Television

There was a time when film was the perceived cultural superior to television but in the last twenty years things have changed – this is the Golden Age of television. Film and television can tell stories in different ways – in my opinion, Goodfellas and The Sopranos are the high-points of the portrayal of gangsters in their respective mediums but have different strengths and weaknesses. The Mandalorian has a main story arc but within that are numerous smaller stories, characters who get to shine in a particular episode. It often felt with the Star Wars films you are getting a glimpse of a huge universe, whilst and TV shows can go into depth.

One benefit to doing a TV show over another film trilogy would be that a film trilogy would inevitably feel it had to be about saving the galaxy and with some even bigger ultimate weapon. The Mandalorian is about saving one child and a smaller story can actually be more engaging.

The Trouble With Trilogies

Star Wars - The Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace (Credit: Disney)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about a film as I was about The Phantom Menace and like many, I convinced myself it wasn’t that bad, but that couldn’t last. The prequels were a disaster with a few redeeming features – there are many, many problems with them ranging from casting to too much CGI to just being boring. The text crawl at the start of The Phantom Menace talks about tax disputes and while I do think a movie could be made about war sparking from something that dull The Phantom Menace failed.

Star Wars: The Last jedi
The Last Jedi (Credit: Disney)

It’s hard to even discuss the sequel trilogy without being overwhelmed complaints of the fans – they’re too much like the original trilogy, they’re too different to the original trilogy, Rey is a Mary-Sue, they ruined Luke, and then there’s the torrent of sexism that was also present in much of the criticism. For what it’s worth I think the sequels have problems but are much better than the prequels. The Last Jedi is an uneven film yet it has amazing parts to it – Luke and Kylo Ren’s confrontation is incredibly well done and a brilliant way to deal with their history. The biggest problem might have been it felt that the different directors had different ideas of what they wanted to do.

The Star Wars Universe

Star Wars - Nien Nunb & Lando Calrissian
The next hero of a Star Wars TV show – and I don’t mean Lando (Credit: Disney)

There is a wealth of material for more television shows. Aside from the films, there are a variety of TV shows, dozens of books, graphic novels, computer games and more:

The Old Republic – The Empire overthrew the Galactic Republic but there would be wars, conflict and interesting stories throughout this period. It could explore the time when the Jedi were at the height of their power.

It’s not all about the war – There’s a lot more going than just the civil war between the Empire and Rebel Alliance – there are bounty hunter guilds, crime syndicates, strange religions and more.

So Many Characters – There are a wealth of interesting existing characters. What about Chewbacca’s life before Han? Or ace rebel pilot Wedge Antilles – the only pilot to have fought in both Death Star battles? I was genuinely thrilled when Nien Nunb (pictured above) turned up in the sequels – for those who don’t know Nunb is the small alien who co-piloted the Millennium Falcon with Lando Calrissian in Return of the Jedi and would love to see more of him. If they’re willing to embrace the Dark Side, Disney could explore Darth Vader’s war against the Jedi.

Whatever happens next we all know Disney aren’t going to stop making Star Wars films and tv shows – let’s just hope they’re worthy additions.

Also Read: Was It Really That Bad?: Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker

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Editorials

Great Video Games That Should Be Adapted Into A Movie

November 24, 2020
Uncharted - Tom Holland

The adaptation of mega-successful video game franchise Uncharted has just finished filming and it is hoped it will add to the rather slim library of good video game films. The first draft of this article was 600 words on the great injustice that Nathan Fillion was not cast in the lead role in Uncharted, but as all my articles could be 600 words complaining why Nathan Fillion wasn’t cast in every film ever made, instead I made a list of other potentially great video game adaptations.

Bioshock

Bioshock - 2K Games
Big Daddy and Little Sister from Bioshock (Credit: 2K Games)

A plane crash survivor stumbles upon the underwater city of Rapture, imagined as a utopia but now descended into anarchy, inhabited by terrifying humans and sinister monsters. From the start, Bioshock looked amazing, released in 2007 game designers were putting as much effort into “set design” as any filmmaker. The first game featured monsters so compelling – the gigantic hulking Big Daddies and the Little Sisters they protected – that in the sequel players took control of a Big Daddy.

Who Should Direct – surely a job for Guillermo Del Toro, creating a bizarre but beautiful world and especially suited if the Big Daddy was to be the monster-hero protagonist.

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto  - Rockstar Games
Grand Theft Auto from 1997 (Credit: Rockstar Games)

There are lots of GTA games, some which are undeniable high points of video games, but I want a specific game – the first Grand Theft Auto. Released in 1997 it’s hard to explain the dizzying level of joy this game delivered there had been nothing like this before. More important than plot, acting or even making sense will be capturing that sense of anarchic fun this original had.

Who Should Direct – It would be very easy to tip over into the grim horror of the at times amoral GTA world, instead bring in the genius comic-action director Edgar Wright.

Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Credit: Rockstar games)

Another game franchise that already looks like a movie – YouTube is full of videos of people simply riding around the beautiful scenery. A western set in the dying days of the Wild West with little room for cowboys and outlaws. A morally nebulous world of crime and adventure, working for the authorities as often as fighting them and often little hope of every actually getting to any sort of better life.

Who Should Direct– John Hillcoat – looking at the westerns and not quite westerns that exist in multiple layers of moral ambiguity his back catalogue would make him an excellent choice.

Super Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart - Nintendo
Super Mario Kart (Credit: Nintendo)

We’ve had a Super Mario film and I think we all agree it was terrible but there has been no Super Mario Kart film, surely one of the best video games of all time. I propose a nightmarish horror-action extravaganza of monsters, dinosaurs and plumbers battling it out on dazzlingly bright M.C Escher inspired racetracks full of insane bursts of speed and turtle shell violence.

Who would direct – With Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller brought us a brilliant film that was one long car chase, I’m sure he could do one long car race on a similar scale.

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus - Sony Computer Entertainment
Shadow of the Colossus (Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment)

A curious and unusual game, Shadow of the Colossus had players travel the world and kill sixteen (mostly) gigantic creatures – known as Colossi, in doing so the life of another person will be saved. The departure from most games is that there are no towns to explore, no NPCs to interact with, no legions of lesser enemies to wipe out – you simply fight the Colossi. Each enemy is different and designed with a huge amount of detail and depth, each way to kill them is different.

Who Should Direct – there are two options – first a more traditional fantasy take helmed by Peter Jackson who if nothing else can do spectacle. The second would be Paul Thomas Anderson in a There Will Be Blood style – long periods of not much talking, it looks stunning and brief moments of shocking intensity – Daniel Day-Lewis could even play one of the colossi.

Also Read: When Great Video Games Become Lacklustre Movies

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Editorials

Suicide Squad: Release The Ayer Cut?

November 9, 2020

2016’s Suicide Squad was one of the biggest disappointments of the year. It was a film I was very excited about as I enjoy the idea of the good guys being the bad guys. Sadly, it wasn’t a good film, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn being perhaps it’s best feature, which has lead to Robbie reprising the role for Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Director David Ayer though is now pushing for the film to be released the way he had originally intended – The Ayer Cut.

The Lost Forty Minutes

Zack Snyder's Justice League
The Snyder Cut (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Ayer Cut comes hot on the heels of the Snyder Cut of Justice League, the DC film originally directed by Zack Snyder who was replaced by Joss Whedon after a family tragedy for Snyder. Fans campaigned for a version they believed was closer to what Snyder had envisioned and were successful. Ayer now wants the same for Suicide Squad. Ayer has said forty minutes of his film was cut by the studio which would surely have an impact on any film. Studios insisting on their own edits of films is nothing new – sci-fi classic Blade Runner had voiceover added that completely changed central parts of the film, leading to a slew of other “cuts” that better represented what director Ridley Scott had in mind.

What was wrong with Suicide Squad?

Jared Leto as The Joker
Jared Leto as The Joker (Credit: Warner Bros)

Suicide Squad was unpopular with both critics and fans (but there are those who champion the film, or at least parts of it) and the film had many problems.

  • The Joker – while not a pivotal character in the film Jared Leto’s portrayal still managed to attract a lot of disdain with few people enjoying it. While I didn’t care for it I didn’t judge Leto or Ayer too harshly, following in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s legendary performances they needed to make a distinctive Joker – it didn’t work but at least they tried.
  • The Characters – When you have a large ensemble cast you run the risk of no character having enough time and this certainly felt true of Suicide Squad. The introduction of every character felt rushed and bare bones and I didn’t really care about any of the characters. There were characters like Katana who just seemed to be there – another person to fill out the cast without serving any purpose (despite having an interesting character premise).
  • The Villain -I am a firm believer in that the secret of success for many comic book films is the villain. The Dark Knight had Heath Ledger’s Joker, Black Panther had Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, after a lacklustre villain in Red Skull having Robert Redford play Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a stroke of genius. Suicide Squad had a witch…or her brother, and her brother? The film was always going to be in a tricky place with a villain as the whole point is they’re the villains but undoubtedly the forgettable villain they had wasn’t good enough.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (geektyrant.com)

Of course, this battle is yet to be resolved on the horizon is the release of The Suicide Squad. How will The Ayer Cut effect this? I doubt it will at all. It seems most people have simply written off Suicide Squad as a mistake, the Ayer Cut is at most a chance to show there was a good film there. The success or failure of The Ayer Cut will not matter and I doubt would have any impact on the already inconsistent DCEU.

Will It Happen?

If the fans get behind the idea it probably will. The Snyder Cut really did show that fans have the power to get alternate cuts released and there’s no reason to give up that power. Whilst in this instance it’s being done under the impetus of the director, it’s important to remember that fans don’t always know best, for years there was a Kickstarter campaign to edit Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, specifically to digitally remove the rat that appears in the final scene. Whether or not you feel this was a bad decision by Scorsese I think you need to essentially trust a director on their decisions.

Before we all start clamouring for new cuts of films we feel could have been improved, remember Star Wars is a prime example of that sometimes it’s just better to leave things alone and that you can never please all of the fans.

Also Read: Flashpoint: The Defining Film of the DCEU


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Reviews

Retro Review: The Shining

October 22, 2020

The BBC have spoiled us all by making The Shining available on iPlayer (until 16th November) and to celebrate here is a retro review of this classic of horror cinema. WARNING – THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

What’s Going On?

Danny and the Grady twins
Danny and the Grady twins (Credit: Warner Bros)

Aspiring writer Jack Torrence is given the job of winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a grand and isolated property, in which he, his wife and young son will be completely cut off. It is also revealed that the son, Danny, has The Shining – a supernatural gift that can warn Danny of danger, glimpse the future and see what has happened in the past – allowing Danny to see the various horrific things that have previously happened in The Overlook Hotel. Not long into their stay things begin to get strange and forces seem intent on driving Jack to repeat the horrific things in the hotel’s past.

Behind The Scenes

Nicholson and Kubrick on set
Nicholson and Kubrick on set (independent.co.uk)

The film was based on Stephen King’s 1977 horror bestseller of the same name, this only being King’s third book his legendary status had not yet been cemented. Not true of the director Stanley Kubrick at the time seen as one of the best directors in the world and whose reputation has only increased since. Kubrick is famous, or infamous, for overthinking his films – by which I mean years of research, hundreds of takes, layer upon layer of meaning and attention to detail like no other director. The Shining is a classic example of this and it has been endlessly examined and re-examined by critics and fans.

In Front Of The Camera

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Credit: Warner Bros)

The Shining has a small cast and is essentially about three characters: married couple Jack and Wendy, and their young son, Danny. Jack is played by Jack Nicholson, Wendy by Shelley Duvall and Danny by Danny Lloyd, who has done little acting before or since. All three give amazing performances. Nicholson gives perhaps a career-best and bear in mind this is a career in which he has won two Oscars (neither for The Shining), his descent into madness and violence is utterly believable and compelling. Duvall arguably has the hardest job – she is an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation with no supernatural powers or evil forces preying on her to explain her actions. Once things start ramping up she is terrified essentially for the rest of the film – but she never stops trying to defend her son, managing to convey her horror at the events going around her and how her need to protect Danny overrides everything. Lloyd is practically perfect as Danny and his portrayal of the “supernatural child” is almost the textbook example for every film that came after.

Does It Work?

Wendy finally seeing what Jack’s been writing (Credit: Warner Bros)

To put it bluntly – yes, magnificently so. To me, The Shining is the best horror film ever made and one of the best films ever made, it is a genuine masterpiece. The escalating tension over the course of the film as Jack is slowly overcome by madness is incredible. The wildness in Nicholson builds to an absolute fever pitch. The glimpses of Jack trying to battle the darkness overwhelming him are difficult to watch as he can see what he is being driven towards and Kubrick’s horror is as much about the unhealthy dynamic in that family as anything supernatural. Even without the intervention of ghosts, you suspect it would not have been a happy stay (indeed some fans are of the opinion there are no ghosts and it is just the isolation that pushes Jack to madness). Duvall becomes ever more frantic as things unravel around her and the scene where she discovers just what Jack has been writing all this time is phenomenal.

The hotel is hugely important in this film, this vast and grand hotel that is eerily empty. We see Danny riding around the hotel on his tricycle, the camera almost in point of view, giving a very unusual visual perspective. The design of the hotel is glorious – the hotel carpets are genuinely famous and I recently bought a face mask that features the iconic design. Somewhere so big and so empty is inherently spooky, simple things that are in themselves perfectly innocuous because deeply sinister when there is no one who could have them.

The Shining is a perfect film for the Halloween season and is in fact my go-to Halloween film. If nothing else watching this film will clue you in on forty years of references to creepy twins, Red Rum and taking an axe to a door.

Obviously and easily 5 out of 5 stars but that does not really do it justice – a truly unmissable film.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Also Read: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Editorials

The Changing Face of James Bond

October 12, 2020
Daniel Craig - James Bond
Spoiler Warning – there is a lot of discussion of previous Bond films but particularly around the Daniel Craig films.
Content Warning – The second half of this article deals with the subject of sex in Bond films with a particular reference to a character with a very traumatic past.

Is Tom Hardy the next James Bond? It does seem that “who is the next James Bond” is one of those perennial topics of discussion that never really goes away. With No Time To Die being Daniel Craig’s last Bond film (no, seriously this time) there has been a lot of talk who will replace him – Tom Hardy being the current front-runner.

I think this change really need to be used as an opportunity to change a lot in the franchise, much like there was a big change in tone when Craig became Bond. In my mind there are two things that happen a lot in Bond that need to be addressed – death and sex.

Death Part 1 – Amoral Killer

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Roger Moore
Roger Moore fighting (Credit: MGM / Eon Productions)

Is there any doubt to anyone than were James Bond born in Moscow in the Cold War he wouldn’t be killing capitalists for the KGB? The potentially world ending struggle between the West and the USSR made it easy for bond to automatically be the hero but that simplicity is long gone. Little time in Bond is ever spent on his own morality, what does he actually believe in? What is he fighting for? Often it seems that Bond likes killing people and he found a job where he will be rewarded for doing that. Despite the incredibly high stakes Bond constantly gives in to his vices, is murder just another vice? In the BBC sitcom The Trip to characters take turns impersonating Roger Moore’s Bond with the line, “When I kill I kill for Queen and Country, but I admit killing you would be a pleasure,” which while is not the right quote does sum up how we are meant to see Bond. If he kills people it is because it is necessary, because they are villains, but the portrayal often shows a Bond who does enjoy killing.

Death Part 2 – Licence To Kill

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (Credit: MGM / Eon Productions)
Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (Credit: MGM / Eon Productions)

More useful to Bond than any gadget or weapon is that he literally has a licence to kill. Throughout the novels and films what this actually means in practice is not clear – certainly, Bond murders people at his discretion and his superiors seem fine with this. An article in Screenrant ( https://screenrant.com/james-bond-movies-007-kill-count-how-many/ ) put his total kills across his films as 597, but presumably, there is more off-camera. Some of these, like in Quantum of Solace, takes place when Bond is not actively working for the British government, but again, there are no consequences. Yet Bond is the good-guy but he seems to me to be Judge Dredd without the sense of justice and with a drinking problem. Can a person just be given that much power? Again to bring it back to Judge Dredd, that takes place in some nightmarish future nuclear-irradiated dystopia. In Casino Royale Bond murders a man and shoots up an embassy and gets a telling off from M. I say Bond needs to go one of two ways, embrace Judge Dredd or make it clear that Bond can’t just do whatever he wants.

These first two issues are somewhat connected and a lot of it could be could come down to whether Bond is a hero or an antihero, again the problem is that over the decades he has been both, a cold-blooded killer and gentleman adventurer. Casino Royale did much for modern Bond in eschewing most of the gadgets and silly gimmicks but they crept back in – Mr Hinx, the henchman villain of Spectre, had metal fingernails, which obviously as an assassin of an international criminal network you want as many distinguishing features as possible. I don’t think you can have gritty serious spy films and then have ejector seats – Bond needs to pick what it wants to be.

Sex

Sean Connery as James Bond (Credit: MGM / Eon Productions)
Sean Connery as James Bond (Credit: MGM / Eon Productions)

After killing, sex is probably the thing Bond spends most of his time and energy on. Skyfall does contain the suggestion that not all of Bond’s relationships have been heterosexual but certainly, in the films, he is only seen pursuing relationships with women. It should be made clear that James Bond’s behaviour towards women isn’t just appalling now, in 2020, it was always appalling. And again, it isn’t just how James Bond acts to women that is the problem, a character can be sexist without the film being sexist. The women in Bond, often referred to as “Bond girls”, are just about always seen as people Bond will sleep with, or will at least try to. In more recent years with Judy Dench playing M and Moneypenny being reinvented in Skyfall as a field agent female characters have somewhat stepped out for Bond’s shadow, and it’ll be interesting to see how new character Nomi, a new OO agent in No Time To Die will be developed.

The people making Bond now are very different to those in the 1960s and I am sure that starting from scratch a superspy character they created wouldn’t have this sexism (or at least this level of sexism) running through it. Filmmakers even now are still caught up in this image of Bond of a “ladies man” – which apparently means behaving terribly to women. The Bond film that did the most to move the character forward, Skyfall, was also guilty of one of the most awful examples of this obsession with sex. Bond encountered an associate of the villain, a woman named Severine. The audience quickly learnt that Severine was the victim of child sex-trafficking, the villain took her from that life but she was still very much a prisoner. Severine knew nothing about Bond other than that he was a dangerous man who intended to kill the villain. Within hours of meeting they sleep together – at the very least, this is a shocking insensitivity to the issues, the actual scene seems to show Bond actually surprising Severine in the shower. I cannot believe that a writer and director would think to include this in a film in 2012 were it not for the idea that Bond needs to sleep with every woman he meets.

Severine was later murdered by the villain and the trope of women Bond cares about, or at least sexual partners, being murdered by the villain appears throughout the franchise. The four most recent films: Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre – all feature women who sleep with Bond and then are killed by the antagonist. Many things have changed in the Bond films over the years and certainly, the dismissive way Connery-era Bond speaks to women has gone (in Goldfinger Bond actually tells a woman to leave by telling her it’s time for “man talk”) but drastic work needs to be done.

There are a handful of franchises that are continually successful across decades and all have issues with not simply being a nostalgic relic but genuinely modern entertainment. Bond has changed over the decades and it should continue to do so.

Also Read: The Movie Villains Who Nailed It (And Those Who Didn’t) – [James Bond]

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Editorials

The Film Fan’s Guide To Time Travel

September 27, 2020
Time Travel in Movies

Christoper Nolan’s latest film is the epic Tenet which plays a lot with the idea of time and moving through time. This has long been a feature of Nolan’s films – whether explicitly messing with time like in Interstellar or the non-linear storytelling of Memento. But Nolan is hardly the first filmmaker to explore time travel, with some saying the first time travel movie A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court from 1921. What lessons can a film fan learn should they ever find themselves travelling in time?

Protect The Timeline

Back to the Future 2
Back To The Future Part II (youtube.com) the altered timeline where Biff is rich and powerful

We would all do well to remember Abe Simpson’s advice to his son Homer on his wedding day “If you ever travel back in time, don’t step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can’t imagine.” A dire warning issued to virtually every time traveller is to protect the timeline – do not do anything that will change the present or future. This is explored wonderfully in Back To The Future Part II, Marty buys a sports almanac in the future with the idea of using it to place winning bets in his present. Unfortunately, the almanac winds up in the hands of villain Biff who gives it to his younger self. When Marty returns to his present he finds a very different Hill Valley, beset with crime and corruption in which multi-millionaire Biff essentially runs the town, his mother is married to Biff and his father is dead – later revealed to have been murdered by Biff. The rest of the film is Marty and Doc trying to restore the original timeline by getting the almanac back.

Beware of Paradoxes

Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (cinemablend.com)

There are a number of paradoxes that can beset the unwary time traveller – the most famous being The Grandfather Paradox and the Bootstrap Paradox. The Terminator franchise is a classic example of the Bootstrap Paradox, taking it’s name from the literal impossibility of a person “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. Essentially this is when by going back in time you invent or create something that already existed in your time – meaning it’s actual moment of creation is lost in a paradox. In The Terminator franchise a war is raging between humans and machines in the distant future (the year 1997), the computers send a killer robot, a terminator, back in time to kill the mother of the human leader. This terminator is defeated and destroyed…or nearly destroyed, parts of it are salvaged by a company who then go on to create the very computer system fighting humankind. The groundbreaking technology that enabled the creation of artificial intelligence is only possible because that artificial intelligence sent an example of it back in time. Given that there are now six Terminator films as well as a television series the complicated overlapping timelines and paradoxes are essentially nonsensical and any attempt to tell a story has been abandoned.

The setup for The Grandfather Paradox is suitably demonstrated in the Back to the Future trilogy, this time with the first instalment. Marty travels back in time and interrupts the meeting of his parents, thus erasing himself from the timeline. In the film, Marty begins to fade from reality. The paradoxical nature of what he has done is never explored but essentially if Marty erases himself from history then his parents will successfully meet, then he will exist, so he will go back in time, interrupt the meeting and will no longer exist and so on forever. Of course, Back to the Future adds the weird and creepy element of your own mother developing a crush on you, taken to the logical conclusion in Futurama with The Grandmother Paradox – where Fry travels back in time, kills his grandfather and then sleeps with his grandmother, becoming his own grandfather.

The Future Isn’t Necessarily Going To Be Better

The Time Machine
The Time Machine (youtube.com) Behold – the future of the human race

In our modern times looking back at the past it can sometimes seem like we’ve be on an almost inevitably upward trajectory of progress – both scientific and social. This is wrong. There is no reason to suppose the future would be better than the present. Few time travel films portray this better than the 1960 classic The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’ novel. Setting off from Victorian England the protagonist travels forward in time and while at first he sees the march of science and progress things turn bad, at some point in the 1960s there is a terrible, world-wide calamity, seemingly brought on by humankind itself in which the world is covered in lava. Finally stopping in the far distant future when the lava is gone he finds the eloi, a group of beautiful people but who seem to understand little of the world and laze around waiting for food to be delivered. The protagonist learns that the eloi are little more than cattle for the subterranean morlocks, ugly monstrous creatures but have vastly more intellect. In fact both the eloi and the morlocks are the descendants of the human race, each taking a diverging path. Our future could contain killer robots, a world-ending plague or maybe nothing at all.

Getting Things Right

Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day (inquirer.com) Phil and Phil on the run

Time travel offers unique opportunities to get things right the second time around. Action sci-fi blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow (also known as Live. Die. Repeat) starred Tom Cruise as a soldier, Cage, infected by alien blood who travels back in time each time he dies, reliving the same day. This is the alien’s ultimate weapon that allows them to avoid defeat by learning and changing their tactics appropriately. Cage is transformed from manipulative PR coward into a battle-hardened hero by repeatedly dying, slowly getting better. Groundhog Day is one of the best films ever made and while it doesn’t even attempt to look at the science or magic or whatever of time travel, it investigates what it might do to a person. Arrogant and selfish weatherman Phil Connors is trapped in a seemingly endless loop, repeating the same day over and over again. Connors goes through a variety of stages from enjoying the absence of consequences, to using his future knowledge to get money and sex, to becoming suicidal from the never-ending sameness of it all to eventually becoming a better man. What both films show, amongst other things, is that an ability to know the future, even just a few hours, can give you immense powers. To others Cage seems damn near indestructible, knowing where wreckage will fall from the sky or where aliens are hiding to Connors performing perfectly timed bank heists where no one even knows a robbery has been committed or simply getting every answer on Jeopardy. In Edge of Tomorrow Cage dies on screen 24 times, but it is suggested the total is a lot higher. Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis has put out that he thinks Connors was stuck in the same day for somewhere between thirty and forty years.

It is perhaps unlikely any of us will be called upon our knowledge of time travel learned from movies but hopefully, if you are, this will have been a helpful guide.

Also Read: Flashpoint: The Defining Film of the DCEU

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Editorials

Underrated Movies: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

September 13, 2020

This film was released in 2002 and in my opinion, is an underrated classic, a film that covers a dozen genres and never settles on one, ranging from romantic comedy to spy thriller to existential exploration. Despite a decent rating of 7 of IMDb it seems to have slipped from cinematic consciousness. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind was the directorial debut of George Clooney and was the start of an up and down career as a director, in my view, this is his best film. The screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, a writer and director behind such weird gems as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing, puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered thirty-three human beings.”

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (IMDb.com)

Okay, there’s a bit to explain about the background of this film. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is based on the book of the same name by Chuck Barris, not a household name in the UK but he is very famous in America as the inventor of hit TV shows like The Dating Game (Blind Date to us Brits), The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show and others. That already might be enough for an interesting film but in the book Barris claims that as well as being a TV producer he was a hitman for the CIA. The film explores both aspects of this bizarre life.

“Rather than killing ourselves trying to find good acts… we just put on bad ones and kill them!”

Sam Rockwell plays Barris in what was a string of roles of Rockwell playing oddballs, Clooney is his CIA handler, and Drew Barrymore is Barris’ on again off again girlfriend – the two have an exceedingly modern relationship. Julia Roberts and Rutger Hauer pop up to round out the spy team and there are great cameos for the contestants of The Dating Game.

Rockwell is brilliant as Barris. He plays a distinctly unlikable character – manipulative, violent, cruel while at the same time having genuine charisma. Barris’ impact on television was huge and Rockwell pitching The Dating Game is a surreal moment of someone suggesting something that is in many ways obvious but nobody had done it. Barris is never content and always coming up with new games – including the incredibly titled The Game Game – and just his desperate and at times ingenious climb to the top of television is riveting. Then comes the CIA. Barris kills people, personally, with his own hands and the CIA is hardly particularly scrupulous about who ends up dead. Rockwell manages to hold the idea that these two very different careers can be successfully combined in one man.

Clooney is a typical 1950s Cold War American establishment type, constantly tempting Chuck with the more interesting and more perhaps more fulfilling life of a hitman. Drew Barrymore is charming as always as the hippy free-spirit woman who will just about put up with all of Barris’ nonsense (bear in mind she knows nothing of his CIA double-life).

“When you are young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (IMDb.com)

The film really is about Chuck Barris and his idea of success. He takes up the CIA hitman job when he thinks his life is going nowhere and as soon as he becomes successful regrets this rather extreme side of his life. Barris is extremely driven, starting in the NBC page programme (the same programme as Kenneth in 30 Rock is part of) and determined to work his way up. Barris is also quite odd – he regularly starts fights in bars despite being no good at fighting, his dating life is somewhat unusual and is also comfortable killing people. It may be noticed that what Barris makes are game shows, exceedingly low rent gameshows as well, The Gong Show was a talent contest and in the film Barris is credited with having the idea that a talent show doesn’t need people with talent – in fact, it’s more entertaining to watch talentless people fail. Throughout the film people confront Barris about making “garbage” television, with him putting on a veneer that success is all that matters but there is the lingering feeling that that is not the truth. After all, this is a man who legitimately wonders what’s a better life – making gameshows or killing people?

“I’m not killing people… my future’s in television”

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (IMDb.com)

Not long after the book was published Barris admitted that he had never worked for the CIA, he had simply made that up. Apparently, in his youth, he had applied for the CIA but had been unsuccessful and this book was partly imagining what that life might have been like. This is never really addressed in the film although the audience is prodded to question just how a reliable narrator Barris is.

For me this film is all about Barris trying to work out if his life was well-spent, was he successful, whatever views he really had on his television shows, whether he saw them as successful light entertainment that made people happy or he thought them brain-dead garbage we don’t know, but it is perhaps telling he had to invent a whole other life for himself as a CIA hitman so perhaps he wasn’t entirely satisfied.

Also Read: Underrated Movies: Power Rangers (2017)

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Editorials

The Brilliance Of The Truman Show

August 25, 2020
The Truman Show

Spoiler Warning – Massive spoilers ahead for The Truman Show

The Truman Show is a brilliant film. A short review but it gets to the point. In our difficult to socialise times, I have watched a number of old movies and decided to rewatch this film, which I hadn’t watched in years, and loved it as much as I ever did.

The Film

Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank – a man who was adopted by a television company as a baby and has been filmed and broadcast to the world for just about every moment of his life. Everyone around him is an actor and the world as he knows it is completely controlled by the show’s director, Christof. Truman knows none of this and thinks he has a perfectly normal life. At the start of the film, events take a turn that lead Truman to suspect that there is something wrong with the world and he begins to pick at some of the loose threads of this reality.

Jim Carrey’s Performance

Carrey as Truman (slashfilm.com)

When I saw The Truman Show, Jim Carrey was the guy from The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a super over the top turned up to eleven comic actor and, at the time, I really liked that Jim Carrey. I daresay Jim Carrey’s involvement was what first made me want to see The Truman Show. Carrey’s performance was not only brilliant, it was surprising, I simply did not know this was something he could do. At times Carrey’s performance is genuinely heartbreaking. Memorable scenes are those of his young romance with one of the extras who tried to tell him the truth, to the conquering his phobia of the water to sail away from his fake home, to his final confrontation with Christof. There are a few moments of Carrey breaking out his wilder side, when Truman is realising something is wrong, and as we can probably assume this is him in the middle of a nervous breakdown it makes perfect sense. The fact that Jim Carrey was not even nominated for an Oscar has gone down in history as a famous “Oscar snub”.

After this film, Carrey would be considered a very talented actor – adept with comedy and drama, giving equally sensational performances in Man On The Moon and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, whilst remaining a regular comedic actor.

And Laura Linney’s For That Matter…

Laura Linney in The Truman Show (imdb)

While we’re talking about acting a quick note on Laura Linney, who played Truman’s wife (or rather the actor playing Truman’s wife). I had never picked up before just how sinister a character she is, more than any of the other actors she is tasked with keeping Truman in the dark – with the possible exception of the actors who played his parents. She undermines his confidence, she plays on his fears and while many of the actors and those making the show are lying to Truman many seem to have some kind of affection for him – not so much with Linney’s character.

The Audience

An “article” about Truman (30a.com)

The show is hugely popular around the world and the film has a great deal of fun dealing with this and how the set works. There are legions of actors who simply exist to make it seem like a real town or the “adverts” that exist in the show – Laura Linney is fantastic at talking to Truman about new products like she’s in a commercial. We do see a number of people watching the show; there is a Truman bar that screens it non-stop, and the final third of the film has a lot of shots of people simply reacting to Truman’s escape attempt. Those watching are shown to be ecstatic when he does escape – one viewer is watching in the bath and as Truman’s boat is nearly capsized his frantic clinging to his shower curtain is amazing. Of course, there is the massive problem of the show’s audience – we are meant to see Truman as a prisoner, someone who has suffered, those watching the show have kept him in that prison.

Relevant Today

The Truman Show (archdaily.com)

The Truman Show came out in 1998, just around the time reality television was really taking off. Obviously The Truman Show’s premise is a lot darker than actual reality television (well, most of it) the question of what an audience will watch for entertainment and ignore any associated moral problems is more relevant now than ever. The show’s director, Christof, passionately defends what he has done to Truman but even in the most benevolent light he has done terrible things to him – manufacturing phobias, killing Truman’s family members, regularly placing Truman in stressful situations. In the film, the show is a huge worldwide success, more than justifying the huge cost of making it, and it is a genuinely interesting question – would this show be popular in real-life?

Relevance To Me

I saw this film as a child when it first came out and it is very important to me. Before The Truman Show most of my favourite films were silly comedies and action/scifi blockbusters – this was one of the very first films I loved that could be called a “drama”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with silly comedies and blockbusters but that’s not all there is. The film, in an odd way, taught me something about myself. I saw the film at the cinema on the weekend, on Monday morning I was back in school and we were discussing what we did over the weekend. I said I watched The Truman Show and was asked if it was any good. I responded by praising the film in the most eloquent way my teenage self could. What I learned was that it’s not a good thing to like things too much, you’re not meant to love films or be passionate about them, they’re meant to be “okay”. And that could be applied to much of life – it’s just meant to be okay. To be passionate about something is to reveal part of yourself and to make yourself vulnerable – and that is something you should never ever do. Of course, not long after I realised this was nonsense and I embraced my love of films (and more) and my life is infinitely better for it.

And In Case I don’t See Ya, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Goodnight

This really is an amazing film and would highly recommend it to just about anyone. It has just about everything – great acting across the board, an interesting and original idea, it’s funny, moving and meaningful. It is a film that will actually leave you happy and uplifted after being put through an arduous experience.

Also Read: 1994: The Year of Jim Carrey

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Editorials

War Films: Horror and Glory

August 9, 2020

Films about war are one of the most popular and successful genres of film, winning Oscars, getting huge audiences and being some of the most memorable films ever made. The purposes of these films vary dramatically from over-the-top military worship like Top Gun to attempts to show the horror of war like Platoon to sometimes telling the stories of people in terrible situations.

World War Two – Enemy At The Gates

Enemy at the Gates
Enemy At The Gates (empireonline.com)

World War Two dominates this genre, not only is it the largest military conflict ever it is relatively recent and happened whilst movies were being made – Casablanca was released whilst the war was still going on. Saving Private Ryan’s opening of the assault on Normandy is often held up as the one of the best examples of film accurately depicting actual combat and is genuinely harrowing. Enemy at the Gates is one of the few English language World War Two films that looks at the conflict and doesn’t include any Americans or British forces. The film is about the terrible siege of Stalingrad in which the German and Russian forces fought for control of the city for nearly seven months with around 2 million casualties. The film focuses on the story of a sniper battle between Russian soldier Vassili and German soldier Major Konig. Vassili becomes a hero to the Russians, at a time when they badly need any good news, and Konig is brought in to kill him. As well as showing the utter devastation the battle caused the film portrays the propaganda battle going on behind the front lines. It is an interesting film as well in that neither side is shown as the good guys – certainly the Russians are defending against the invading Germans but the Soviet government is heavily criticised. On Vassili’s arrival in the city he is immediately thrown into combat but without a weapon, told to take one when the soldier next to them dies, then as they prepare to charge the Germans they are told if they retreat other Russian soldiers will shoot them – not exactly inspiring. There are glimpses into what Stalinist Russia is like and they are very unpleasant.

The Vietnam War – Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket (nytimes.com)

Stanley Kubrick has made more than one contribution to this genre but perhaps most famously with Full Metal Jacket – damning not only the Vietnam War but much of the idea of war. The film is essentially in two halves – the first half shows marines in boot camp, the second half following one of the marines – Joker – to Vietnam. Certainly the first half is the more famous, showing the inhuman treatment of the marines by their drill sergeant and military authorities in general. The drill sergeant was played by R. Lee Ermey (a real-life former drill sergeant) and has become the default of drill sergeants in popular culture. The punishment inflicted on the recruits is truly astonishing – ranging from cruel mockery and psychological torture to effectively encouraging recruits to beat their comrades. The worst of the cruelty is focused on Pyle, one of the less able recruits, who ultimately loses his mind and kills the sergeant who has tormented him. The film The Men Who Stare At Goats cites an interesting statistic – only 15 to 20 percent of new recruits will actually fire on the enemy when entering combat (despite their own lives being in danger), seemingly showing that people don’t want to kill other people. Full Metal Jacket is a film that understands that lesson and Ermey’s sergeant is trying to beat the humanity out of the recruits. The second half of the film showing Joker in the war demonstrates what comes of this treatment, for example, at one point a gunner on a helicopter randomly shooting Vietnamese people as they fly by, making jokes whilst he kills them.

Science Fiction – Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers (theguardian.com)

War films are not just confined to historical conflicts or even semi-fictionalised ones that have a very real-life setting, you get sci-fi and fantasy war films too. I watched Starship Troopers at a young age and a lot of what was going on with that film went over my head, I thought it was a cool sci-fi film. Watching it subsequently it is a satirical gem about the awfulness of war. In this film it’s humans versus alien bugs and so any idea of coming to terms with the enemy is abandoned – this is pretty much extermination. Populated by a cast of extremely good-looking people living in what is revealed to be something akin to a fascist society saturated with government propaganda. We follow three school-friends as each goes into a different branch of the military – infantry, navy (meaning spaceships) and intelligence. The film has sensational battle scenes and excellent special effects for the time making the alien bugs very believable. There is an awful grinding relentless to the fighting and you get the feeling that this is a war that is never going to end. The most memorable scene, however, is when the new recruits discuss why they joined the army, some wanting a career, some to do good, but what it comes out is one character wants to have children and another wants to go into politics – and without joining the army, neither of these goals are possible. This reveals a chilling insight into their world, especially as this passes without comment from anyone else.

Why Do We Make War Films?

Saving Private Ryan (mentalfloss.com)

So war films are big business – huge commercial successes and often hailed as some of the best films ever made. But what is the point of war films, why do we make them? That war is hell is a cliche but it is also true, why we do we want to watch hell? Something like Saving Private Ryan which can show the horrible savagery of what happens can be very useful. Most films on the Vietnam War are very critical – questioning why America joined the war, their use of chemical weapons, the impact on innocent civilians. Set during World War One Wonder Woman did an excellent job of capturing the absolute futility and pointlessness of it all – generals who did not care for the lives of their soldiers, regiments that had spent years fighting barely advanced. Sadly though things aren’t that simple and not all war films portray war in these terms. There is often a romanticism of war, of the nobility of warfare and conflict, and in some films war is simply cool.

Top Gun famously lead to a recruiting boom for the US navy with recruitment booths set up outside cinemas, now whether you see that as good or bad is a matter of opinion but what I think is perhaps the most striking thing about Top Gun is the people the pilots are fighting are never identified. The enemy aircraft are MiGs, a Soviet design, but they aren’t Russians, if the enemy in a war film is not even identified, then there is an awful feeling that “our side” must always be in the right.

Even if films are explicitly antiwar things can get complicated – Apocalypse Now is a damning critique of the Vietnam War but the famous Ride of the Valkyries scene has been referenced numerous times in other films and culture and it’s interpreted in different ways – in Gulf war film Jarhead, the marines have a screening of Apocalypse Now in which there is almost a standing ovation for this scene, with cheering and yelling as innocent civilians are killed. There is a famous quote usually attributed to French filmmaker Francois Truffaut “There is no such thing as an anti-war film” in which he seems to be saying that whatever the motivation of the filmmaker they will inevitably make war look heroic and be glorifying the conflict.

War films can tell huge, epic and tragic stories and they can be everything from summer blockbusters to indie think-pieces. They have been, and will continue to be, a huge part of cinema, not every war film needs to be an angry denunciation of war but a filmmaker should think carefully about the story they are telling.

Also Read: Da 5 Bloods (Review)

More: Hollywood & The Military: A Special Relationship

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Reviews

Review: The Old Guard

August 1, 2020

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings to Netflix the action blockbuster The Old Guard. The film stars Oscar-winning Charlize Theron as the leader of a group of (almost) immortal mercenaries who suddenly find themselves fighting for their survival.

What’s Going On?

The Old Guard team (rogerebert.com)

The Old Guard is the story of a group of secretive almost-immortal soldiers who do what they can to make the world a better place. The group is lead by Andy, by far the oldest, seemingly thousands of years old but never quite confirmed, there is also Joe and Nicky, both around a thousand years old and Booker, relatively young at around two hundred. Unsurprisingly being around for centuries makes you pretty good at your job and they are highly sought after but always trying to balance this with the fear their secret may be uncovered – which after taking a job for a former employer it is. As they are found out they also realise a new semi-immortal has come into the world and it is their responsibility to find her. They must confront their greatest fear – not death, but endless imprisonment and torture.

Behind The Scenes

Charlize Theron as Andy (decider.com)

The film is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, a director and writer perhaps best known for the film Love & Basketball as well as various credits writing and directing television, including co-creating recent TV drama Shots Fired. The Old Guard is written by Greg Rucka, the creator of the comic-book series on which the film is based.

In Front Of The Camera

The star of the film is very much Charlize Theron, who as well as being one of the best dramatic actors of her generation has recently made a lot of action films. Theron plays Andy, the leader of the mercenaries, and is very good, carrying much of the film herself. Newcomer to the group and our way into understanding this story is Nile, played by KiKi Layne. Layne is best known for starring in If Beale Street Could Talk and she has the difficult job of explaining the story to the audience and struggling with this earth-shattering knowledge. The rest of the immortal team are made up of Nicky (Luca Marinelli), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts). There are two villains – Copley, ex-CIA agent and former employer of the group played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, looking to use the extraordinary powers of the group to help the world and the far more selfish Merrick played by Harry Melling. Ejiofor is another acting heavyweight and does his best to express the conflicted feelings of someone who has genuinely good intentions but involved in quite unpleasant work. Melling is a far more standard evil baddie – and to save everyone googling this – Melling is probably best known for playing Dudley Dursley in The Harry Potter films. Merrick works for Big Pharma which is shorthand in the film for absolutely untrustworthy and is hoping to rip out the group’s special powers out of them with brutal medical methods.

Does It Work?

Joe and Nicky (thegeekiary.com)

The Old Guard is an enjoyable action film with an interesting premise and a great cast. It’s not going to reinvent the genre but it is very good. Theron is utterly convincing as the ancient mercenary soldier with slightly less convincing performances as we go down the cast. Ejiofor never quite manages to sell the disconnect between his noble intentions and committing horrific human rights abuses but I think this is the fault of the film rather than Ejiofor. Indeed, the rationalising of a number of the villains is paper-thin.

The action scenes are first-rate, the most memorable being the plane fight between Andy and Nile near the beginning of the film – when Nile still doesn’t trust the strange woman telling her she’s immortal. They also have fun with the healing abilities of the soldiers – bones jutting out from limbs that heal neatly and head shots that are gone within seconds.

But the film is not built solely on its action and there is more going on with the characters. Andy and Booker are clearly struggling with their near-immortality and the grief and pain that has accumulated and at it times it reminded me of vampire films and the “curse” of immortality. This is especially interesting as Andy and Booker are the oldest and youngest respectively. Then there is Joe and Nicky who manage to get an awful lot of feeling into their relatively limited screen time focused on their relationship. Two men who fell in love whilst fighting – and killing -each other in the Crusades is about as star-crossed a pair of lovers as you are going to get, and a timely declaration of their love is genuinely emotional.

The main problem in the film are the bad guys, it doesn’t help that the role is effectively split between Copley and Merrick (with the addition of one soldier who seems to be the leader of Merrick’s mercenaries but you never consider as dangerous as Andy or her team). Copley is half-hearted in the endeavour whilst Merrick is so utterly ruthless and cruel that he is a bit of pantomime villain. I would much rather have seen Ejiofor play someone along the lines of his unnamed character in Serenity, a supremely effective individual doing admittedly bad things for a greater purpose – a character that I hold as a high watermark of sci-fi villains.

Overall this is a very enjoyable action film with good acting and great fight sequences. There is a very interesting premise which allows it to do something different to most action films and there is an emotional depth many similar films do not have.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The Old Guard (Trailer)

Also Read: The Best of Blumhouse

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Editorials

The Many Films of Martin Scorsese

July 17, 2020
The Many Films of Martin Scorsese

Hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of his, or any, generation, Martin Scorsese continues to make amazing films after more than fifty years. So what can you expect from this Oscar-winning director?

Long Stories

The Irishman
The Irishman (credit: Netflix)

Martin Scorsese tells long stories, often spanning decades – Goodfellas follows Henry Hill from a child getting a part-time job in a cab stand to him turning on his Mafia friends many years later. The Aviator spans decades in the life of trouble genius Howard Hughes. Unsurprisingly the films have run times to match this, the last time Scorsese made a film under two hours it was The Colour of Money in 1986 – with one whole minute to spare. Scorsese’s most recent film, The Irishman, is also one of his longest, running at 3 hours and 29 minutes. This was released on Netflix which I think is important, as I imagine it being streamed at home was a factor in this and so eager to have this prestigious director working with them the streaming service would have agreed to anything. The story runs from 1949 to 2000 and seeing characters age, grow old and die has quite an impact. You don’t just assume characters are friends because you’re told this – you see it happening. The journey of Peggy Sheeran – the daughter of De Niro’s character – from child to adult and how she viewed her father is particularly devastating.

Casino is just shy of a three-hour runtime which showed the destruction of the relationships between three people: Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santora and Ginger McKenna. Ace and Nicky are childhood friends and Ace and Ginger have a somewhat unconventional marriage, and as rifts and new feelings develop between the three of them things get ugly. It doesn’t help that whilst this is going on Ace is running casinos for the Mafia with Nicky meant to be protecting him but is as much a liability as security. Nothing in the demise of these relationships feels forced or motivated to advance the plot but develops naturally from the flaws in the characters.

The Wolf of Wall Street was three hours long and the story goes that Scorsese wanted a four-hour cut and a lot was said at the time about how it felt long. Various people have suggested that this was a directorial choice in the sense that the main character’s seemingly endless party of drugs and sex was meant to feel gruelling, you were meant to feel like it was too much – because it was.

Quentin Tarantino is another director who makes long films but while I often feel with Tarantino this is self-indulgence, Scorsese earns this time and uses it to maximum effect.

Obsession

The King of Comedy
The King of Comedy (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

A lot of the stories in Scorsese’s stories revolve around obsessions characters have. Travis Bickle is obsessed with cleaning up the streets, Rupert Pupkin is obsessed both with talk show host Jerry Langford and being famous, Amsterdam is obsessed with getting revenge on Bill the Butcher. For each of these characters, their obsessions take them to odd places – Bickle becomes a hero to people when he could so easily have been the villain, Pupkin fulfils his ambition for fame by kidnapping his hero. Amsterdam saves Bill’s life at one point, just so he can kill him himself, and at times is taken in by the strength of Bill’s personality. Normally obsessions don’t go too well for people in films but looking at these characters it’s not that simple – Pupkin becomes famous, Bickle becomes a hero to people, Amsterdam gets his revenge and seems on the verge of moving onto a happier life.

Crime

You're a funny guy -Goodfellas
You’re a funny guy -Goodfellas (Credit: Warner Bros)

I considered not writing about this but considering twelve of Scorsese’s films are directly about crime, criminals or law enforcement it was impossible to ignore. A lot of these films focus on people who don’t want to do things the typical way. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill spends a lot of time complaining about normal life and trying to get ahead that way is pointless. In Casino, the mob bosses baulk at the idea of just making the profit they could out of a huge casino in Las Vegas – they have to break the law to get every penny. Joe Pesci’s character in Casino is even frustrated with the “normal” way the mob conduct business and makes his own path. The Wolf of Wall Street is entirely about finding new ways to rip people off using the stock market. It’s important to say that I don’t think Scorsese celebrates this attitude – his crime films are full of death and violence, they’re not simply enterprising, they’re dangerous people. Casino and Goodfellas both contain sections of utter bloodbaths against people who by the supposed rules of the mob “shouldn’t” have gotten hurt. While The Wolf of Wall Street is not focused on violent crime Belfort’s contempt for the people (especially people who can’t afford to lose money) he cons is sickening.

Gangs of New York focused on vicious gang violence in 19th Century New York with the main issue being around the tension between newly arriving immigrants and longer established gangs (but, it’s America, so ultimately immigrants as well). More or less the city authorities abandon this area, the Five Points, to gang rule. Taxi Driver dealt with the crime-ridden streets of 1970s New York – given rise to Bickle who while wanting to clean things up was just as dangerous and unhinged as those he fought. Both of these films are set in New York and despite the hundred years between them the violence and the inability or indifference of the authorities is damning.

Iconic Cinema

Raging Bull
Raging Bull (Credit: United Artists)

Martin Scorsese has created countless iconic shots and scenes in films. Raging Bull is packed with amazing shot after amazing shot, the title sequence to the film has more artistic ambition than whole features. Travis Bickle is gifted with at least three truly legendary moments in one film, lurking in his taxi, his mirror conversation and stalking the streets with his mohawk. The unforgettable single-take scene in Goodfellas of Henry and Karen entering the Copacabana, moving around corridors and cutting through the kitchen still looks brilliant after thirty years, let alone Joe Pesci’s handling of the most tense example of “friendly banter” in the history of the world, with the audience thinking he might just murder one of his closest friends because Henry had the audacity to laugh at one of his jokes.

Acting Partnerships

Leonardo Di Caprio in Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo Di Caprio in Wolf of Wall Street (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese has made nine full-length films with Robert De Niro and it would not be out of the question to call it the most successful director-actor partnership in cinema history. De Niro starred in The Irishman with a sizeable amount of money being spent on digitally de-ageing the actor. The buzz around Scorsese and De Niro reuniting was a huge draw for the film.

However, in the 2000s, Scorsese turned to Leonardo Di Caprio, who went on to star in five of his films (with Di Caprio also down to star in two future Scorsese films). Di Caprio’s change in reputation from teenage pinup to one of the most respected actors working today is due in no small amount to these films.

I’ve barely mentioned so much of Scorsese’s work and he’s done everything from religious epics to psychological thrillers – it’s hard to imagine a fan of film not finding something to enjoy. He is one of those directors where even films of his I haven’t seen, like Silence, for example, I feel on very safe ground saying it will be a good film.

Also Read: Dynamic Duos: Iconic Actor / Director Match-Ups

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Editorials

The Films Of Martin McDonagh

July 1, 2020
Martin McDonagh's Films

Martin McDonagh started writing plays and was very successful at it too. McDonagh’s first foray into filmmaking was with short film Six Shooter, his first full-length film was 2008’s In Bruges, his third film, Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a huge critical hit, earning two actors Oscar wins for the cast.

Warning – McDonagh’s films are full of swearing and violence and, especially Three Billboards…, deal with very difficult subject matter. Also, some spoilers for each film are contained within the article.

In Bruges

In Bruges
In Bruges (empireonline)

For me, this is a contender for the greatest directorial debut of all time. Back in the long-long-ago, through the mists of time, Netflix used to actually deliver DVDs in the post. You couldn’t even pick which film you wanted but had to have a list of films and prioritise them – I fudged the list as much as I could to get this film as soon as possible. I watched it twice in two days, exceeding my already high expectations. The film is a story of two gangster hitmen sent to lie-low after a job went wrong, and bizarrely, sent to Bruges. Colin Farrell stars in a career-best performance as Ray who seemingly is the happy-go-lucky of the pair but is also weighed down with something terrible that is eventually revealed to be that during the last job he accidentally shot and killed a child. The film is a superb black comedy but at its heart it’s a story of redemption – what is Ray to do with his life now? How can he make things right? Is that possible? Brendan Gleeson is the experienced gangster, Ken, sent along on the mission and now trapped with Ray in Bruges. Amazingly the third main character, Ralph Fiennes’ Harry doesn’t appear until half-way through the film. All three main actors are astounding, Ray and Ken making as an odd double-act, with Harry being an over-the-top mob boss (Harry screaming at his wife, “You’re an inanimate f*****g object” and promptly apologising, insisting she isn’t, is gold). In true film-snob style, I have to cite Bruges itself as a character in the film. McDonagh has said that Ray and Ken exemplified his perception of the city when he first arrived, he was Ken, he loved it’s medieval beauty but quickly became Ray – bored as there is very little to do aside from sightseeing.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths
Seven Psychopaths (slantmagaine.com)

Following up In Bruges was never going to be easy. Farrell remained as the central character (playing an Irish scriptwriter named Marty), Gleeson and Fiennes were gone but the cast now boasted Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, so a fair trade. The plot revolves around Marty trying to write a script he’s called Seven Psychopaths but doesn’t want it to be a cliched action film, despite calling it Seven Psychopaths. Aided and hindered in scriptwriting by his friend Billy (played by Rockwell, a professional dog-kidnapper); things get out of hand when Billy kidnaps a gangster’s dog who vows revenge. There is a lot going on in this film – perhaps too much, as well as just the action-comedy of the battle with the gangster there is an analysis of filmmaking and discussions thinking about religion, revenge and the power of stories. One memorable scene has Marty, Billy and Hans (Christopher Walken) discussing possible endings for Marty’s film, and despite Marty insisting he doesn’t want a traditional gunfight ending that is what Billy suggests. Billy’s ending is an insane shootout involving exploding heads, hidden crossbows and the escape of a pet rabbit/death of Marty’s girlfriend (leading to perhaps the film’s most memorable line “You can’t let the animals die in a movie… only the women”).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (vulture.com)

There have been criticisms that McDonagh’s films focus heavily on men, certainly, the women characters in his first two films are peripheral, I don’t know whether Three Billboards… is a response to that criticism but this film’s central character was Mildred, played by Frances McDormand. Whilst still a dark comedy the subject matter is far more serious than in previous films. Mildred is a woman in deep grief after the rape and murder of her teenage daughter; after the police have failed to solve the crime she rents three billboards, calling out the local police chief by name for his failure. The idea being that, as Mildred explains, a crime is more likely to be solved the longer it stays in the public consciousness.

A great film it also contains an unforgettable cinema-going experience for me – there is one hell of a punch to the gut as it reveals something Mildred said to her daughter before she was murdered where the cinema audience I was in gasped in shock and heartbreak or in some cases groaned in pain.

McDormand is brilliant and won a second Oscar for this performance and seems to have an almost unstoppable force of nature sense to her, she has no power, no money, no authority but she will make things happen. Harrelson is on great form as the weary police chief who seems genuinely heartbroken he has failed Mildred and her daughter and we also learn is dying of cancer. The fact that Mildred is well aware of both of these facts but pushes on regardless shows her determination. Perhaps the most complicated and controversial character is Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell), a deputy who sums up the worst of the American police force – brutally violent, racist and bullying anyone who stands up to him. Perhaps even worse the rest of the local force is well aware of Dixon’s problems but aren’t terribly bothered (and maybe are the same just better at hiding it) – Harrelson’s character even trots out the line that if they got rid of all of the racist cops, there would hardly be any cops. The reason Dixon’s character is so controversial is whether or not he has a redemptive arc and is that acceptable in a character who has done such terrible things. Personally I don’t think we’re meant to see Dixon as “redeemed”, I don’t think he’s meant to have changed and at best put aside his personal animosity for Mildred to try and achieve something important.

Not For Everyone…

McDonagh’s films are very dark comedies with even darker none comedic storylines going on underneath, and that’s difficult to get right, and certainly, these films aren’t going to be for everyone but have been some of my favourite films of recent years.

Also Read: The Anatomy of a Christopher Nolan Film

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