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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

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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Editorials

What The Snyder Cut Could Mean For The DCEU

June 16, 2020
Justice League

Things have never gone quite smoothly for the DC Extended Universe, often seen as the poor relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and always playing catchup. The DCEU does not seem to have had the same overall guidance that the MCU had and with the announcement that HBO will screen the “Snyder Cut” of 2017’s Justice League things are only going to get more complicated.

What Is The Snyder Cut?

Justice League - The Snyder Cut
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (credit: Warner Media)

When DC wanted to create its own superhero universe, the DCEU, one director was pushed to the front – Zack Snyder. Snyder directed the first film in the DCEU, Man of Steel, in 2013. He then went on to direct Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which brought Batman and Superman into conflict and introduced the character Wonder Woman. Naturally enough, a Justice League film was planned, this being a team of superheroes that worked together from the DC comics. Again, Snyder was to direct. However, after a family tragedy Snyder stepped down from directing and the project was taken over by Joss Whedon. Many fans were disappointed with the finished product with some believing Whedon had taken the film in a different direction to which Snyder had wanted. And so an internet campaign was born for the so-called “Snyder Cut” to be released.

The Two Film Problem

Doc explaining the diverging DCEU timelines (backtothefuturefandom.com)

This has created a rather thorny philosophical problem – which is the real Justice League film? To use the correct term – which is canon? In the past this wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, canon was not something that worried the people who made Batman Forever, whilst nominally a sequel to Batman Returns it was very much its own film. But in the DCEU this is important as it will have repercussions to the other films and tv shows. In the world of comics, canon is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly simple. There is no one story for a superhero, there are multiple stories, they can be set in different time periods, change important details of the story, retell old stories in a new way. This is a perfectly natural part of comic books that allows them to remain refresh when characters can be decades old. Such a reset is probably coming to MCU relatively soon.

The DCEU machine is already winding up for the release of The Batman with Robert Pattison taking on the role. Obviously this will be a younger Batman/Bruce Wayne than Ben Affleck’s Batman and raises the question of where does this sit in the DCEU storyline? I have tried to find this out but it seems very unclear. Similarly what about Suicide Squad, The Suicide Squad, and Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey? Affleck’s Batman briefly appeared in Suicide Squad and as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn runs through them it could be assumed they are all in the same universe.

I doubt in terms of plot too much would be different between The Snyder Cut and the original film. I can’t imagine that Snyder’s will feature a massacre of the main characters or a completely different outcome but if nothing else fans obsess over small details.

The Darkest Timeline

Abed in Community wearing his evil beard (www.community-sitcom.fandom.com)

My own rather impractical solution is to have two separate DCEUs running alongside, each branching off from their own version of Justice League. The idea of having two competing DCEU timelines with the same actors and same plots is certainly intriguing, given that it’s DC you’d have to assume that each would be competing to be the darkest timeline – in the vein of Abed’s infamous belief, in TV show Community, that of six possible different ways for the show to go, there was a “darkest timeline”. Like in Community (as inspired by Star Trek) all characters in DCEU would wear goatee beards, the acknowledged universal symbol of evilness.

Abandon The Universe

Joker (deseret.com)

My unpopular opinion on the MCU is I don’t think it promotes good storytelling. The MCU currently consisted of twenty-three films (as well as tv shows that are meant to take place in that universe) and every new film has to fit in. There can be a lot said for telling a story over multiple films and adding scope to the narrative but I see it as so much baggage.

Joker is probably the most critically acclaimed comic book film ever as well as being hugely financially successful and popular with traditional fans and it is not considered part of the DCEU. I would like DC to embrace this idea. They didn’t have to worry about how this film would fit into the wider story and just make a great film. If they want to do another Green Lantern film there is no reason for it to fit in with an existing story, it can be it’s own self-contained entity, allowing them to be more experimental. This will allow DCEU to have over-the-top minor character mad-cap adventures like the recent Harley Quinn and their brooding dark Batman films.

If nothing else the release of The Snyder Cut could be an interesting watershed for films with huge fandoms, fans made this happen. Much has been written about what effect fan dissatisfaction had in relation to the recent Star Wars films and it’ll be interesting to see how fans will use this new power.

Also Read: The Snyder Cut Saga

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Editorials

Five Reasons To Watch Succession

May 31, 2020

Recently I started watching HBO hit Succession and was quickly sucked into a world of treachery, wealth and truly unpleasant people. Here’s five reasons you should watch.

1. It’s Being Called The New Game Of Thrones

Succession Cast  HBO
Succession Cast (deadline.com)

So, I should say Succession is it’s own programme, with its own ideas, but there are similarities. I should also say Game of Thrones is a fantasy programme filled with zombies and dragons and Succession is set in present-day America about a rich family so there are plenty of differences. The main similarity is the struggle for power. The show is focused on the Roy family – Logan Roy is a self-made billionaire and owner of a huge business empire and he has a number of children vying to take over that company. As far as I’ve seen no one has yet murdered anyone to seize power but sometimes it feels like that is definitely coming. In fact, if people start poisoning each other it would feel very much like I, Claudius the masterpiece BBC drama showing the struggle to control the Roman Empire.

2. You Will Hate All The Characters So Much

Kieran Culkin stars as Roman Roy (Peter Kramer / HBO)
Kieran Culkin stars as Roman Roy (Peter Kramer / HBO)

I don’t have if I have ever wanted to punch a character more than Roman Roy (played wonderfully by Kieran Culkin). Not actually evil but smug to the point of ridiculousness when he has achieved precisely nothing. There are two things in particular that incur my ire in regards to Roman: 1- he is unbelievably wealthy and is a dick about it. There are few things I hate more than rich people who love to shove that wealth in everyone else’s face, something Roman does repeatedly. 2. Perhaps, more importantly, the man cannot sit on a chair. Throughout season one virtually every time you see him sitting it’s never the right way. But Roman is simply the most immediately objectionable of a very bad bunch – there’s Logan who seemingly enjoys pitting chis children against each other, Kendall, the heir-apparent business bro, the already mentioned deplorable Roman and their sister manipulative Shiv. The oldest child, Connor, who has decided to stay out of the family business and perhaps seems the most likeable quickly turns out to be not so nice and even Greg, the stoner-slacker cousin is soon corrupted.

3. Fantastic Insults and Swearing

Logan Roy preparing to swear at someone (cheatsheet.com)

Perhaps the best swearing in television since The Thick Of It and while the characters don’t have the verbal imagination of Malcolm Tucker the delivery of each curse is wonderful. You can spend a lot of time admiring the way Logan Roy tells people to “f**k off”. There are no punches pulled when it comes to insults with everything from recovering addiction problems to childhood trauma seen as fair game.

4. Character Complexity

Best friends Tom and Greg Suceesion HBO
Best friends Tom and Greg (polygon.com)

It’s almost impossible to work out the motivations of any character with my idea of every character being rewritten with every episode (with the possible exception of Roman who is just a dirtbag through and through). The two characters where this is most apparent is Logan Roy and Tom Wambsgans. Logan at first seems to have virtually an Alexander the Great plan of succession, wanting to leave his empire to the strongest, but there are moments, glimpses, of when you think he might actually care about his children. Tom is even more fascinating – starting the show as Shiv’s fiancee I was 100% convinced he did not care about her at all, his only goal being the advancement in her family’s company. But as the show goes on this becomes less and less clear and their relationship more complicated. Perhaps even more enjoyable is his bizarre “friendship” with Greg, does he hate Greg? Does he like him? Is he trying to destroy him? Is he trying to mentor him?

5. The Worst Family In America

Happy Family (harpersbazaar.com)

The Roys are undoubtedly a contender for the worst family ever portrayed on television. The siblings are constantly at each others’ throats looking for any potential weakness. At times when Logan asks them to be on their best behaviour to look vaguely normal, they can barely manage five minutes. Another show it reminds me of which has a similarly dysfunctional family is Arrested Development, with some of the characters like Tom, Roman and Greg needing only a minor tweak to fit into the world of the more comedic and silly world of the Bluths.

Also Read: Why Watchmen Is One of The Best TV Series Ever

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Editorials

Quentin Tarantino Directing A Star Trek Film? Here’s What It Would’ve Been Like

May 18, 2020
Star Trek

As any Star Trek fan will know the films are a mixed bag – ranging from the genuinely brilliant Wrath of Khan and First Contact to the practically unwatchable Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The recent run of films, starting with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, breathed new life into the franchise, but I never cared for these, to me they felt more like Star Wars than Star Trek. And then a little while ago it seemed like there would be a new director for the next Star Trek film – Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps not the first name that would spring to mind, but what would a Tarantino directed film be like?

Bloody Violence

Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: First Contact (denofgeek)

Star Trek films have typically shied away from much of the possible blood and gore of fight scenes. Even when featuring Klingons, whose favour sword-like weapons, there was little blood. But even if you know next to nothing about Tarantino you will probably know his films are bloody. Kill Bill 1 and 2 are horrific limb slicing, blood spurting rampages. Reservoir Dogs has THAT scene involving Stuck In The Middle With You. At times Django Unchained is drenched in blood and one would expect Star Trek: Tarantino would be too. The traditional weapon in Star Trek, phasers, have never seemed to do too much damage but I’m sure Tarantino would have them blasting off arm and leaving gaping holes in people. I would have said at some point there would have been a samurai fight but with Star Trek already having done a sword fight maybe not.

Swearing

Reservoir Dogs (youtube.com)

There has never been much swearing in Star Trek. Certainly, at times it has been seen as a broadly family show. I watched it as a young child and only learning a few Klingon insults. Obviously, with a show running over decades, the idea of what they can and can’t be said has changed, the original series was usually restricted to Bones shouting dammit. I distinctly remember being shocked at Data’s use of the word “shit” in Generations. Quentin Tarantino, however, fills his films with profanities, The Dallas Observer went through his films and totalled up the swearing, Tarantino dropped the f-bomb 269 times in Reservoir Dogs, and throughout all his films has used that word 901 times. While it does point to a downward trend in swearing within Tarantino films we could expect Bones to be far more aggressive when explaining what he can’t do.

Star Trek Further Into Darkness

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (syfy.com)

The single biggest change would simply be the tone of Star Trek. Traditionally, it has been a “nice” show, Earth and the Federation were beacons of justice, prosperity and equality. The original series was praised for its diverse cast and over the years it has become a near-utopian vision of the human race. They journeyed through space as explorers and scientists, never looking for a fight. The more recent films have tried a grittier and darker view of the universe they inhabit and I think it’d be safe to say Tarantino would raise this 1000%. In Tarantino even the good guys aren’t that good, in Inglourious Basterds, the heroes explicitly go out to torture, maim and do everything they can to terrorise the Nazis. In Kill Bill The Bride seeks revenge on those who wronged her but she spent years doing exactly the same work, hardly a hero. Would Captain Kirk go a revenge rampage? Is Spock using the science labs to make drugs? Has the ultimate epitome of Federation-niceness Captain Picard started mutilating captured Klingons? You dread to think what the actual villains might be like.

The problem with auteurs…

Star Trek: The Original Series
Star Trek: The Original Series (startrek.com)

Ultimately the problem with having Tarantino direct Star Trek is that it wouldn’t be a Star Trek film, it would be a Tarantino film. I think this is what happened with Star Trek directed by J.J. Abrams – he is a director with a very particular style that I don’t think he could relinquish for the good of the franchise. On top of that a director like Tarantino would want to make his presence felt, much in the way Abrams did, starting over and rewriting what happened so he could tell the story he wanted to tell.

At the time of writing, it seems like this film won’t happen and another director will take over, which I think is broadly a good thing. Of course, there is a perfect Star Trek vehicle for Tarantino – the Mirror Universe, the alternate reality where all the main characters are evil. This is the origin of the trope of evil versions of good characters having beards, referenced in everything from South Park to Community. In the Mirror Universe, the director could have the characters go full Tarantino without spoiling Star Trek itself.

Also Read: What Makes A Tarantino Film?

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Editorials

Never Less Than Great: The Films of Edgar Wright

May 8, 2020
The Films of Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright is a phenomenal director. He can do action, he can do comedy, he can do tragedy – and he can do it all in one scene. Let’s start with the greatest thematic film trilogy of all time…

#1 Strawberry – Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead (whats-on-nettflix.com)

In the early 2000s, I remember reading that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of the brilliant sitcom Spaced, were working on a film and I thought “that’ll probably be good”. I was wrong – it was a great film. I would go so far as to call it a perfect film, there is not a single part of it I would change. A film that was billed as a zombie spoof became far more than that (although even as a zombie spoof it works fantastically well), one of the best comedies ever made with more emotional depth than Oscar-winning dramas. Simon Pegg made a fantastic everyman hero, Bill Nighy excelled as unloved stepdad Philip and even Dylan Moran stretched himself to play a character who wasn’t a version of Dylan Moran. You can see the film as a zombie story, a tale of Shaun getting his girlfriend back or a film about Shaun sorting his life out. Jokes range from relationships to zombie horror with tangents into orangutan impressions. This a film that completely obliterated my expectations and remains one of my all-time favourite films.

#2 Chocolate – Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz
Hot Fuzz (focusfeatures.com)

As with Shaun of the Dead what could have been a cheap parody became one of the best, if not the best, example of the genre. In a sensational example of misdirection, we are lead to believe a rampage of murder and destruction is all about supermarkets going out of business but is actually a terrifying tale of people trying to make the perfect village. The film easily going from cop action film to claustrophobic British horror (everyone who has visited a small town has heard the “he’s not even from around here” statement). Even more so than with Shaun of the Dead the cast is packed with amazing talent; there are two Oscar winners in the cast (Olivia Colman and Jim Broadbent), small roles are filled by people like Alice Lowe and Rory McCann. I firmly believe that Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel is the best portrayal of any police officer ever seen on film or television – hugely effective yet understands the importance of rules for the police, understands the letter and the spirit of the law, works with the community and doesn’t like guns.

#3 Mint – The World’s End

The World's End
The World’s End (theverge.com)

The final part of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy that is not really a trilogy. There are themes than run through them all like friendship and growing up, but there is no common story. The World’s End changes things up a little with Simon Pegg playing the irresponsible character and Nick Frost being the more stable person. Pegg’s Gary King is still stuck in his teenage mindset, immature, irresponsible and at times downright idiotic but convinced of his own brilliance. He corrals his old friends to finish a pub crawl they started in their youth only to discover that the town has been taken over by robot duplicates. The World’s End deals with genuinely weighty and emotional topics- addiction, suicide and feelings of failure whilst still being very funny and still a first-rate sci-fi film.

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (sky.com)

I saw this not knowing the source material at all. I loved Wright’s films and I knew Michael Cera from Arrested Development but I had decided I liked it even before any actors appeared. The Universal logo was rendered in 1980s 8bit graphics and I was already on board. What followed was nearly two hours of nerdy awesomeness as Scott battles his prospective girlfriend’s seven evil exes. Scott himself is not a terribly likeable character but grows on you through the film, especially as exes are uniformly bad people ending with supremely smug Gideon Graves. Another fantastic castlist including Superman, Captain America, Johnny Storm and Huntress. Chris Evans stealing the show with insufferable skateboarder/blockbuster movie star Lucas Lee who has his stunt doubles join the fight. Again Wright throws a curve ball when what saves the day is not Scott’s love for Ramona but in finding self-respect and dealing with the bad things he’s done.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver (youtube.com)

Edgar Wright has perhaps made the best zombie, the best police action film and best graphic-novel-adaptation-set-in-Toronto film and he has probably made the best car chase film. Or at least the best chase; which you can watch in entirety as well as the charming several minutes of Ansel Elgort singing along and sort-of-dancing to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on youtube. This scene was based on a music video Edgar Wright directed a long time ago, with Noel Fielding playing the driver and presumably it was his previous obligation to the Great British Bake Off that stopped him reprising the role. There is a slightly loose plot and villain of the film switches between Kevin Spacey, Jamie Fox and Jon Hamm but the film is still stunning. There are amazing car chase scenes but there is also the music. Music has always been important in Wright’s films but some people have said this film should be viewed as a musical. Using the device of Baby constantly listening to music to drown out his tinnitus there is seemingly music always playing. Many people have commented that the film often feels like a musical, not just because of the music but the way scenes are filmed – colour matching laundrettes and gunshots synchronised to the music.

Never Less Than Great

This surely has to be one of the most impressive resumes in film history, beloved cult classics, endlessly quotable, with some of the funniest moments in any film ever. Wright has at least two of all my time favourite shots. Some filmmakers are praised for “never making a bad film” whereas Edgar Wright should be celebrated for only ever making great ones.

Also Read: The Unique Style of Wes Anderson

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Editorials

Returning to The Lord of the Rings

April 27, 2020
Lord of the Rings

I am what most people would call a massive nerd. Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, I tick all the nerd boxes. Except for Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit as a child and tried to read the book trilogy but…I got bored. It’s a long time before anything happens and I mean really long. Like just about everyone else I watched the film trilogy when it came out. I even had a marathon watch of all three films – the special editions as well. And that’s about twenty-nine hours. While I liked these films I never understood their huge appeal but recently I thought I’d give them another try. One note, certain criticisms of the films might be thought of as unfair as they are things directly from the books, as this is a review of the films.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship - Lord of the Rings
The fellowship (marysue.com)

Like the book, the film has a long time before much happens. We get an extended period of time just looking at the idyllic world of The Shire. One of the problems I have with LotR is the hobbits, they aren’t the most interesting of races. I know that Tolkein very specifically chose the hobbits to be the ultimate heroes of the books, these creatures that no one expected much of who actually go on to save the whole world but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re boring. The idea of learning more about the lives of the elves or the dwarves, or following Aragorn or finding out what Boromir was up to, could be extremely interesting. But can you imagine a film set in the peaceful Shire? Anyway, I have to say, once Aragorn shows up things do get more interesting. I don’t have time to go into everything but they have a meeting, people argue quickly showing the audience the fault lines in the anti-Sauron camp, they form the fellowship, Gandalf “dies”, Boromir goes a bit weird, there’s a battle with some new tougher orcs, two hobbits are captured and two other hobbits go off alone.

The character I most identified with was Boromir, he wanted to use the Ring to defend his people who, he rightly points out, are the ones who are constantly fighting orcs. Obviously, the Ring would have corrupted him but it’s still a better plan than the insane one they come up of nine people – four of whom had never left the Shire – to walk into Mordor and destroy the Ring. If anything seemingly making Sauron’s job easier for him.

One does not simply "meme" - Lord of the Rings
The birth of a meme (digitalspy.com)

Highlights – the wraiths attacking Frodo and his race to Rivendell, Gandalf’s last stand and Sam’s refusal to leave Frodo.

Lowlights – too long in the Shire, Elrond’s constant complaining about the inconsistency of Men while planning to run away, “comedic” hobbit moments.

The Two Towers

The Two Towers (youtube.com)

In the first film, there is one central narrative: there is one group you follow. In this one, it splits in three:

Narrative 1 – Frodo and Sam (and then Gollum) heading to Mordor.

Narrative 2: Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli rushing first to save Merry and Pippin, then helping Rohan, one of the kingdoms of Men.

Narrative 3: Merry and Pippin’s capture, escape and teaming up with the Ents.

There is a lot of cutting back and forth between these narratives but this is done quite well. The introduction of Gollum is very odd. I think Frodo is both meant to feel pity for him as well as worrying that is what he will become and so looking for Gollum to be redeemable. The problem being Gollum is the least convincing redeemed person ever, even for the short period of time he might have actually be redeemed. Nobody would ever trust him for a second.

Battle of Helm's Deep - Lord of the Rings
Battle of Helm’s Deep (sfcritic.com)

Aragorn et al not only fail to find the captured hobbits but seem to get distracted and wander off. In fairness, they get distracted by Gandalf returning from the dead and deciding to and help a king (I think Gandalf is meant to have assured them Merry and Pippin are safe). This leads us to the main thrust of the film – the fall of Rohan. The kingdom is on the brink of collapse and after Gandalf does some quick exorcising their king decides to head for Helm’s Deep, his kingdom’s stronghold. The Battle of Helm’s Deep is surely one of the greatest battles in cinema history, there is a real sense of scale, of thousands of people on either side crashing against each other. It does fall to one of the classic film mistakes in that they allow the heroes to engage in utterly ludicrous fights the only thing saving them is the handy Script Immunity you get from being one of the central characters. Aside from this minor quibble, it is genuinely amazing.

I was very surprised in how involved I became in the struggles of Merry and Pippin in this film. They start the film facing a literal fate worse than death and end it storming the bad guy’s castle. I quite liked the Ents too, even though they’re slower at getting round to doing stuff than hobbits.

Highlights – the battle of Helm’s Deep set the bar for battle scenes, The Extraordinary Adventures of Merry & Pippin and the fact that it was thought necessary to call elephants by a different name and chose oliphaunts.

Lowlights – the idea of anyone trusting Gollum.

The Return of the King

Lord of the Rings - Return of the King bar scene
The Return of the King (flickchart.com)

Fortunately back then it hadn’t occurred to anyone to split the last film into two films as they really would have done it. I’ll say now this was the one I enjoyed the least but that’s not to be unexpected, endings are hard to get right (that said, they have about five attempts). Very brief plot synopsis – Sauron is now focused on another kingdom, Gondor, if this falls Sauron has pretty much won. Talking of the Ring Gollum – returned to his outright evil ways – plans to betray the hobbits and take the Ring, as who didn’t see that coming? Frodo, that’s who. Merry and Pippin join the army of Rohan and Gondor respectively. There is another huge battle which could only feel like an anticlimax after the huge battle in the last film. While people are fighting and dying for Gondor, Aragorn has recruited an army of ghosts who arrive at the last minute and wipe out the entire enemy in about thirty seconds in what has to be one of the laziest and worst deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen.

Lord of the Rings Orc
I need the ugliest orc you have….no, that’s too ugly (lotr.fandom.com)

What about Sam and Frodo? Well, Gollum orchestrates a split between the two by the medium of breadcrumbs and then sends the unsuspecting Frodo into the lair of a giant spider. Sam comes back, saves the day, and they make their way to Mount Doom with only a ten thousand or so orcs in the way. Aragorn takes the soldiers he has left to attack Mordor, a suicidal attack the only aim of which is to distract Sauron and his orcs. A battered and beaten Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom only for Gollum to reappear, stealing the Ring and falling into the fire. Sauron dies, his army of orcs panic and flee and the good guys win.

Despite this film winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it does feel like the weakest, and most of what happens you feel like was done better in the previous films. There are some bizarre moments, such as Frodo turning against Sam, or when Frodo and Sam dress in orc armour to blend in despite obviously not being orcs. One of the problems I’ve always had with these films are the stark choices of good and evil that exist – Sauron is the very incarnation of evil. Is he? Why? Is he just fundamentally evil? The ending of the film suggests everything is going to okay now but I can’t help but think in five years time Aragorn will have annexed Rohan and the elves and dwarves will be fighting interminable wars.

Highlights :

  • Frodo not being able to destroy the Ring was a great idea as it showed just how strong a hold it had.
  • The endings – yes it has a lot of endings but I do really like at least one. Aragorn is crowned king and everyone bows before him, when the four hobbits do Aragorn asks them to stand saying, “You bow to no one,” is fantastic and does come full circle on the hobbits being the most unlikely heroes.
  • Eowyn killing the witch-king.

Lowlights:

  • The endings – yes, it’s both a lowlight and a highlight but it does go on, seemingly giving all the traditional cues of “this is the end of the film” and then refusing to end. I dread to think how long the post-credit scene would be if it was made now.
  • Being back in the Shire – I don’t know how any of the hobbits are meant to go back to their old lives – is Sam still a gardener? That said, I’m divided on Frodo leaving as well as I can’t imagine anywhere else giving him the peace he wants that the Shire (even as a reliably told he is effectively going to the afterlife).

To sum up…

The Lord of the Rings films are a staggering cinematic achievement and Peter Jackson deserves unending praise for bringing these films into the world. I still don’t love Lord of the Rings – I like it, it’s entertaining and certainly cinematic but it’s never going to be as important to me as it is to some people.

Also Read: Was It Really That bad?: Star Wars Episode 1

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Editorials

The Most Important Cinema In The World (To Me)

April 10, 2020
Tyneside Cinema

Scene 1 – No cinema

Let’s picture a scene. It’s April 1999, a 15-year-old version of me stands in the rain outside the closed ABC Cinema in Sunderland. Distraught and devastated this young movie fan now has no cinema in his hometown. Throwing his last ticket stub, for the surprisingly enjoyable Blast From The Past, at the boarded-up building, he keeps a lonely vigil until a cinema returns to the city. There would not be a cinema in Sunderland until November 2004. Okay, the bits about me in there aren’t true, but it is true that for years the city had no cinema (in credit to Sunderland they still managed to have a film festival during this time). This story is to illustrate just how important the Tyneside Cinema became to me. I didn’t actually visit this cinema until the release of Bowling For Columbine in 2002 and by this point, I was attending university in Newcastle which had cinemas – Plural. Growing up in the outskirts of Sunderland in a town split between being part of Sunderland City and Durham County councils, as if neither wanted to take full responsibility, did sometimes feel like I was living in a bit of a cultural wasteland.

Sunderland's ABC Cinema
Sunderland’s ABC Cinema (twitter.com)

The Tyneside Cinema was built in the 1930s by Dixon Scott (directors Ridley and Tony Scott are relatives of his). As a news cinema, it went on to become a wonderful independent cinema. And in my angry late teens, I saw it as a welcome outpost of culture. Over the years I’ve seen everything from John Cameron Mitchell’s comedy/drama/sex film Shortbus to action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. Undoubtedly had the cinema not existed my experience of film would be very different.

There is more to Tyneside Cinema than just a place that shows films – but let’s talk about films for a second. It’s a cinema where I had the wonderful double-bill of The Raid and Moonrise Kingdom, where I was able to watch brilliant films that I had been too young to see at the cinema: Jaws, The Princess Bride and Casablanca to name but a few. Every Christmas they have sell-out screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life. Their bar screens regular cult classics as well as family films on Sunday mornings over a nice brunch. They have legendary all-nighter film marathons; once I saw The Big Lebowski-Mad Max-The Thing-The Bride of Frankenstein-The Princess Bride and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I will say it was a mistake to end with 2001 as it gets too trippy for someone who is sleep-deprived. For the sake of balance, I should say I also saw 1962 French New Wave classic Jules et Jim which is perhaps the worst film I’ve ever seen in the cinema and probably would not have were it not for this cinema – it was so bad I was glad when the First World War started as I thought something interesting might happen. It didn’t.

The Gallery – a small screening room for films and art exhibitions (tynesidecinema.co.uk)

Scene 2 – Continuing With Normal Life

Let’s imagine a second scene (but this one is entirely true). It’s January 2010 and I am in the Tyneside Cinema watching possibly the most depressing film ever made – The Road. I am in a nearly empty screen on a weekday afternoon and I am able to see it at this time because I am unemployed. I am able to afford it as the ticket cost £1; that is how much they charge the unemployed (and refugees and asylum seekers). When you’re unemployed a lot of your “normal” life is abandoned but because of this ridiculously low price I could keep films in my life and that really helped me.

In addition to showing films, the cinema also boasts some of my favourite places to eat and drink in Newcastle. The best burger I’ve ever eaten was in the Tyneside Bar Cafe (obviously it’s called The Royale with Cheese). They run excellent film quizzes there for people who really know about cinema (which I have won on more than one occasion – but not many more). They have the decades-old institution of the Tyneside Coffee Rooms and the modern coffee and cocktail bar Vicolo. The cinema runs workshops for young people, helping them learn how to make all sorts of films. Then there is building – both inside and out it looks stunning and is a Grade II listed building.

Scene 3 – A Temporary Absence

And now for the final scene, it’s February 2020 and I’m in a very busy screening of Parasite. I had been dying to see this film for a long time after hearing exceptionally good reviews and having seen some of the director’s previous films. It’s a great film and it seems like most of the audience enjoyed it. This is the last film I see before the cinema is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic... It’s possible the cinema might not reopen due to financial issues. It’s been a long time since 2002 when I first went to the Tyneside Cinema and the cultural world has changed quite a bit. A fifteen-year-old today isn’t dependent on just what’s being shown at a local cinema. Being able to stream films from home is great, but getting to see a film in a cinema is still a great experience, sitting amongst people who are all there for the same reason. Newcastle, and me, would be infinitely poorer without it.

To find out more about the Tyneside Cinema (and to donate if you want to) go to https://tynesidecinema.co.uk/

Tyneside Cinema

Also Read: COVID-19 In Movies: Five Films About The Virus That Shook The Earth

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