Book Review: THE PRESS GANG – Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 (edited by Jim Colvill) + author interview

★ ★ ★ ★

Film criticism is a thrilling, if mercurial, business, and one which can either chew a writer up and spit them out on the other side of corporate vacuity, or lead them to stand firm against the cultural tide.

In many ways, The Press Gang exemplifies that ongoing struggle. Subtitled ‘Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011’, the book strings together two decades worth of criticism spanning an era of cinema undergoing a long-standing, pervasive metamorphosis into a corporate mono-culture. Edited by Jim Colvill, who undertook a mission to seek out the writing of three critics who penned a brace of work for the now long defunct New York Press, the book is a snapshot of criticism during a key time, filled to the brim with detailed, often fascinating analysis on pictures as diverse as Michael Bay’s The Island through to Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (nope, I’d never heard of it either).

This is uncompromising, often searing film writing which is not designed to simply encourage you to indulge the filmmaker or studio producing said films, but rather question their cultural, aesthetic and personal value in the world, as part of a broader societal whole.

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Movie Review: SHE DIES TOMORROW

★ ★ 1/2

Anxiety is a monster, especially unchecked, and Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is the ultimate expression of the condition as a horrific construct.

Based in no small part on Seimetz’ experiences, and funded thanks to her role in the remake of Pet Sematary, she crafts a personal, if often quite ponderous, picture. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), so named after Seimetz in case the autobiographical aspects are unclear, has just bought a house in Los Angeles but is crippled by a strange sense of existential dread, convinced that she will, as the title suggests, die tomorrow. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who calls to congratulate her, at first finds her unnerving conviction ridiculous but slowly she succumbs to the same escalating feeling of doom. Almost akin to a virus, Amy’s unshakeable belief ripples across her circle of friends and contacts before building to devastating consequences.

You might feel She Dies Tomorrow is, from this description, a low-key horror movie. It’s not. Nor is it a comedy, as has been billed. It’s neither, and both, and unable to figure out quite what it is, all rolled into one.

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Movie Review: THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

★ ★ 1/2

Dementia serves as a cruel indulgence in Sally Potter’s latest introspective wallow, The Roads Not Taken, a short but thankfully sweeter film than her last.

Potter is, to put it mildly, a hit and miss director, though to just call her by that title is to dismiss the powerful, all-consuming role she plays in her films. In this one alone, she writes, co-edits and scores the film, besides directing. She plays one of the main parts too in The Tango Lesson. A film by Potter really is, soup to nuts, a film by Potter, and The Roads Not Taken is no exception. She brings most of her pictures in tightly – this is eighty minutes, her last film The Party a mere seventy-one. There is a welcome economy to Potter’s work, a brevity which other filmmakers would do well to import, but despite this a film by Potter often feels longer than the running time. Again, The Roads Not Taken, an intentionally fragmented, insular and personal work, is no exception.

Leo (a somber Javier Bardem) is a middle-aged man suffering from advanced dementia as he is visited by his loyal daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), and the film charts the course of their journey across one day, as Molly takes Leo for medical checkups and must cope with his physical and psychological deterioration in public and around professionals. Simultaneously, while trapped in the mental prison of his condition, Leo plays out several parallel versions of his past, including a life in rural Mexico with his ex-wife Dolores (Salma Hayek), and a visit to Greece, alone, where he becomes obsessed with following a group of young women, one of whom reminds him strongly of his daughter. A third parallel life, which would have seen Leo living with his male partner (played by Chris Rock) in New York, was filmed but cut from the picture entirely. 

Potter’s film nonetheless interweaves these three journeys for Leo as he tries to contextualise his experience with great difficulty.

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Movie Review: TENET

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tenet is the first film in which Christopher Nolan winks to the audience that he, too, understands what a Christopher Nolan film is.

How else to explain that John David Washington’s lead character is not just referenced as The Protagonist, but he describes himself as such at multiple points during the film. Washington’s mysterious, super-trained, probable CIA spy describes people he fights as ‘antagonists’ and positions himself directly at the centre of a narrative in which Nolan culminates everything you would expect from him as a director.

A high concept idea which glances toward the realm of science-fiction, mind-bending physics, powerful technology, concepts of futurism born from theoretical ideas, relentlessly thundering sound design and practical effects where possible. If Nolan appreciates he is making the most ‘Nolan’ movie ever, in contrast to Dunkirk which eschewed his penchant for dialogue driven escapism, then The Protagonist ultimately has a level of hyper-awareness core to his nature.

This is key to Tenet’s palindromic construction, one replete with a narrative that bends in on itself thanks to the fascinating, ‘Nolanian’ gambit of ‘time inversion’ or a level of reversed ‘entropy’. “Don’t try to understand it” suggests Clemence Poesy’s scientist early on, and that’s Nolan speaking to his audience. Just go with it. Allow the inversion to pull you along because it does, for the most part, make sense by the end.

Many will be telling you that Tenet is a puzzle box that leaves you baffled and while, granted, several rewatches might be necessary to get it all straight, as ever in a Nolan film the pieces are in front of us to be observed. His continued prestige, his belief that we want to be fooled, is the key to how he constructs his pictures. In this case, however, The Protagonist—as the inversion himself of an archetype—is clued into the game. He may not understand it all until the end but he knows, at least, that he has a role to play in the grand tapestry of the tale.

These constructs, and the sheer, epic, bravura joy of seeing Nolan weave everything together, is why Tenet is—Dunkirk’s side step notwithstanding—Nolan’s best picture since The Dark Knight.

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New Podcast: MAKE IT SO #29 – Star Trek: Discovery 1×10 ‘Despite Yourself’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of Make It So, myself and my guest Zach Moore discuss the tenth episode of Star Trek: Discovery‘s first season, Despite Yourself, as we work through the season before the show returns to Star Trek: Picard coverage.

You can listen directly to the episode and subscribe via the following links or on your podcast app of choice:

Spreaker: https://www.spreaker.com/user/wemadethis/029-zPpMdg

Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/29-star-trek-discovery-1×10-despite-yourself/id1473851833?i=1000489935242

Spotify:

Film Review: BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC

★ ★ ★

The good news is that while Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t excellllllent!, it certainly is far from bogus.

Frankly, it should have been. Resurrecting a series almost three decades after the previous picture is hardly a recipe often for success. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey are so inextricably tethered to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that the idea those characters, and that world, could be revived seems unfathomable. Surely too much has changed? Are we not too cynical to embrace the sweet-natured, MTV generation, latent stoner-kid reverie of films that could not more epitomise the comfort of America’s cultural hegemony at the end of the 20th century if they tried? As it turns out, that is kind of why Bill Preston and Ted Logan’s third outing works so well.

The original films were infused with innocence, trading on established cultural cliches that Western audiences understood and appreciated. Bill and Ted were less dim-witted than amiable, optimistic teenagers who simply wanted to play music, hang out and be excellent to each other, and those films pointedly project their kind, collegiate mindset in the direction of a utopian future that seemed achievable to an America sailing out of the long Cold War. Bill and Ted literally inspired a future build on concepts of friendship, goodness and learning, almost antithetically to their middle-class ‘dude bro’ avoidance of school and learning, which underscored the point: being yourselves, being happy, partying on and caring for one another can make a better future.

It therefore fits that Bill & Ted Face the Music, thirty years on into a decaying century, actively attempts to throw such a utopian mindset in doubt, but counters the prevailing mood by suggesting we can, actually, do better.

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Let’s give X-FILES: ALBUQUERQUE the benefit of the Truth

Fox threw fans of legendary 1990s pop-culture phenomenon The X-Files a curve ball last week by announcing the development of a brand new, spin-off series.

X-Files: Albuquerque, which is currently being worked up for the network (and by extension their overlords, Disney), is planned to be an animated comedy revolving around a collection of “misfit agents who investigate X-Files cases too wacky, ridiculous or downright dopey for Mulder and Scully to bother with.” as described by TV Line’s Michael Ausellio. The project has a ‘script and presentation commitment’ from Fox (translated: if they like the script, they’ll let them make it) and is being developed by Rocky Russo & Jeremy Sosenko, with X-Files creator Chris Carter and his former PA/Season 11 scribe Gabe Rotter overseeing as executive producers. The old and the new joining forces, essentially, for a new chapter in the history of the series.

I say series because The X-Files will, if this does come to fruition, take the first steps to becoming a franchise; not just one singular, iconic series any longer, but rather part of a broader tapestry that could expand beyond the adventures of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, who with David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson in the roles investigated America’s paranormal secrets between 1993-2002, across two movies, and then between 2016-2018 for what will, almost certainly, be a swan song for the traditional era of that show. Fans don’t want to admit it (I run an X-Files podcast so, trust me, I know), but the original series of The X-Files is done. Anderson doesn’t want to revive Scully again. Season 11 wrote the show into a corner, effectively, and it’s hard to imagine just what else you could do with the middle aged Mulder & Scully now that hasn’t been done.

In other words, this might be the right time for Albuquerque, if you subscribe to the idea The X-Files should even become a franchise at all.

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