Wes Craven 1939 – 2015

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This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2014 by The 405. This was the first full obituary I wrote, and it was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the news was deeply upsetting as I had a considerable amount of respect for Wes Craven and his work, which I hope comes across in the piece. Second, on a practical level, the rigorous demands of online publishing don’t really afford much time to craft the thorough, detailed consideration of the subject’s life and work that one would want to write. I think I did an adequate job here, although I really would have liked more time to research. He lived a hell of a life, I only wrote about a tiny slither of it here.

It’s strange to write about someone like Wes Craven in the past tense. The venerated director sadly died on Sunday at the age of seventy-six following a battle with brain cancer, but he still feels so present. A cliché, perhaps, but no less true of a director who left such an indelible mark on horror cinema, and on popular culture writ large. This is, after all, the director of such landmark films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), and The Last House on the Left (1972). Had those films been made by three separate directors, they would each be regarded as legends among fans of horror cinema for having reinvented the genre; that he made all three, and countless other fascinating, idea-driven horrors throughout the last five decades, is a testament to his genius. Certainly, one of horror’s great voices has been lost, and our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

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Capsule Review; The Visit (2015, M. Night Shyamalan)

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This piece was written in September 2015 for the first and only issue of a magazine published by the University of Kent’s School of Arts.

Following the big-budget atrocities of After Earth and The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan has had to go back to basics with his new horror film, The Visit. Working with a meagre budget (by his standards) of $5 million, he eschews overwrought apocalyptic designs and laughable fantasy indulgences, and instead sets the narrative action almost entirely within an unassuming farmhouse. The drama there is simple: Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a teenage filmmaker, and her younger brother Tyler spend a week in rural Pennsylvania getting to know their estranged grandparents, and tensions grow as the children become increasingly aware that nanna (Deanna Dunagan) and pop-pop (Peter McRobbie) put the strange in estranged. That is, quite remarkably given who we’re talking about here, your lot; Shyamalan’s vision with The Visit never extends beyond a modest chamber piece predicated on the interactions between four characters. And he would do well to rein it in like this more often, as The Visit is the work of a filmmaker liberated, rather than inhibited, by constraints.

This is most clearly manifested in Shyamalan’s decision to shoot The Visit in the style of a documentary, with the film doubling as a film made about the trip by the precocious, film-savvy Becca. This is, of course, a cheap way of shooting for Shyamalan, but he approaches this frankly tired style of filmmaking with a grace that few others have managed. On one level, the faux-doc style provides Shyamalan with the opportunity to imbue his formal decisions with quick and easy emotional meaning because, considering that Becca is the diegetic filmmaker and editor, all the filmmaking choices explicitly express character. On another level, however, this style also allows Shyamalan to indulge his long-dormant sense of playfulness. He delights in the spatial and emotional proximity to the protagonists, in building tension through the manipulation of on-screen and off-screen space, and in letting both of them goof around on camera like the children they are. The result is a funny, unabashedly entertaining film; not an ironic horror-comedy, but a genuine horror film made with a wry smile. It finds Shyamalan shorn of pretension and in command of fundamental things that had previously eluded him, such as tension and levity. It is, at the very least, the most accomplished and enjoyable work he’s made for fifteen years, but it could very well be his best film to date.

Capsule Review: Legend (2015, Brian Helgeland)

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This piece was written in September 2015 for the first and only issue of a magazine published by the University of Kent’s School of Arts. It’s a decent review, so I thought it would be worth republishing here.

Legend, singular. This title is not an accolade this biopic bestows upon either Ronnie (Tom Hardy, straining) or Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy, excellent), the twin doyens of organised crime in London’s East End during the 1950s and ‘60s, but is instead an acknowledgement that the film dramatises the mythology surrounding them both. Indeed, writer-director Brian Helgeland wisely bypasses wearisome backstory and begins the film when the Krays were already immersed in the process of creating their legend of inter-gang rivalries, ruthless violence, and living large with Britain’s most illustrious celebrities. It follows, then, that Legend is an entirely romanticised formal construction, one that erects a distorted façade around the slightest semblance of historical fact in order to create something resembling slick entertainment. As real as the Krays and their crimes were, Helgeland’s direction is more concerned with luxuriating in the comforting, glossy artificiality of garishly lit sets, flamboyant camera movements, and myriad familiar gangster movie signifiers.

All of which could have been palatable had Helgeland committed to the artifice on a deeper level, critiqued our cultural fascination with the Krays by giving us exactly what we want à la Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (in essence saying we allowed them to thrive because we love watching them). But while Legend’s surface details tell one story, Helgeland’s script tells several as it inexplicably dithers between uncovering the ugly private lives behind the legend – Reggie’s relationship with his wife Frances Shae (Emily Browning, who provides the film’s execrable voice-over), his fractious sibling rivalry with Ronnie, etc. – and delighting in the various public exploits that secured their place within Britain’s cultural mythology. Legend is therefore entirely bereft of focus, an interminable two-hour muddle that depicts terrible people in a superficial and unquestioning manner because it cannot decide between affirming and dispelling their legend.

The Dissolve Dissolved!?

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This piece was originally published on the 13th of July 2015 by The 405. So, for a few months I wrote a weekly film news round-up column for The 405. It was fun for a while, but I soon became tired of both trawling through trade publications and translating glorified press releases into entertaining copy. It was good experience and I didn’t do a terrible job by any means, but  regurgitating casting news and commenting on future major studio follies became a bit of a grind, especially as I was not remunerated for my work in any way. One week, however, I got to go long on The Dissolve’s closure and all the concomitant anxieties for those invested in film criticism, and it resulted in what was by some distance the best thing I wrote for that column. It’s also the only one of those columns that’s worth republishing here, seeing as this crisis in film criticism, and online publishing writ large, never seems to go away.

In what can only be described as a heart-breaking loss for film culture, Pitchfork‘s speciality film website The Dissolve unexpectedly published its final article on Wednesday, two years after it was initially launched. In that article, former editorial director Keith Phipps cited “the various challenges inherent in launching a freestanding website in a crowded publishing environment, financial and otherwise,” as the reason for the site’s closure. But it’s fair to say that he was being diplomatic. Those who pay attention to and care about film criticism – and digital publishing writ large, I suppose – are fully of aware of why The Dissolve could not be sustained, and the reasons hurt.

From the outset, The Dissolve represented a beacon of hope in the increasingly cynical world of film coverage. Founded by Phipps and a number of brilliant writers from pop culture website The A.V. Club (Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, and Genevieve Koski) who wanted to focus on cinema, the site’s remit was to provide a “playground for movie-lovers,” and for two years it did exactly that. The editors’ approach to publishing was uniquely pluralistic, balancing high-traffic coverage of the latest blockbuster films with decidedly unprofitable articles that explored contemporary independent cinema, film history, and the downright esoteric. I mean, they were just as likely to devote significant feature space to Buster Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman as they were Kurtzman and Orci, the writing partnership behind Star Trek (2009), Transformers (2007), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). In this way, The Dissolve encouraged a righteous, omnivorous kind of cinephilia, where value can be found in anything and even the most outrageous dreck could encourage a deeper understanding of the medium. It may have been a niche publication in the sense that cinema was its only focus, but, within that niche, The Dissolve gave everything a chance.

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Don’t Cry For Me, I’m Already Dead: On the Negligible Impact of The Simpsons Movie

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This piece was originally published on the 15th of August 2014 by The 405. The version I’m publishing here has been brushed up slightly, particularly the messy first paragraph. Honestly, though, given the chance (and the money – ha!), I’d probably rewrite the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t stand by the crux of my argument, because I broadly do (albeit with some caveats), it’s just that the writing is a bit naff. I mentioned this in a previous annotation, but when I  wrote this piece I was of the opinion that Film Crit Hulk was just about the best writer around, and his style informed my writing in all the wrong ways. It’s flowery and overly earnest when it shouldn’t be, broad and superfluous when it needed to be incisive, and structurally unsound (I mean, that ending, fucking hell – at least I got a Simpsons reference out of my inability to finish a piece properly). In my defence, though, I was an impressionable idiot nineteen year-old at the time. Because of this pervasive naffness, I was considering not republishing this piece (as I have with a few other pieces). But I’m probably being a wee bit hard on myself, as there’s still some good stuff buried in there, somewhere. And, if anything it serves as an example of how my writing has changed over the years.

Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a movie event so extraordinary that it becomes a part of our shared heritage. The Simpsons Movie was supposed to be one of them. Though it can sometimes seem as if the film exists only as a dumb pig joke these days, its release in July 2007 felt like cultural supernova to a certain generation (some ghastly amalgam of Gen X and Millennials), engulfing the world in an incomparable fervour. It was our Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie: not just an event, but the event, the defining moment of a generation, like the moon landing or something. It was, well, it was everything I suppose.

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Sundance London 2014 Report (Part 3)

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This piece was originally published on the 6th of May 2014 by The 405. Again, a few errors have been cleared up here and there, but this was just about the most polished of the three reports I wrote during Sundance. My memory is hazy, but I may have had more time to write it (otherwise I can’t account for why this was published almost a week after the previous day’s piece, unless the editor fucked up). It also helped that I wrote about two films, rather than all four films that screened that day. I was covering the festival with my friend Jay, who also wrote about the second day of press screenings and conducted interviews with some filmmakers, and we decided to divide the final day’s slate between us. I covered the two documentaries, he covered the two fictional narrative films (Obvious Child and Blue Ruin). He got the more interesting films, I got the easier job. Fair trade-off.

I feel like a piece of shit, to be honest. Two documentaries played on Friday, the final day of press screenings and the first day of the festival proper: The Case Against 8 and Dinosaur 13. The former won the ‘Directing Award: U.S. Documentary’ at Sundance 2014 and details the recent five-year legal battle in California to overrule Proposition 8, which repealed the right for same-sex couples to marry. The latter charts the complex custody battle which began in the 1990s following the discovery of the most complete T-Rex fossil ever. Now, guess which one nearly made me cry and ended up being one more impressive films I saw at the festival? Yeah, the one about the fucking dinosaur. Not the one about the unwavering battle for equality, the tragic denial of constitutional rights, and the dehumanisation of a minority group; no, the one about a dead T-Rex called Sue. Good job, brain!

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Sundance London 2014 Report (Part 2)

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This piece was originally published the 30th of April 2014 by The 405. I’ve made a few edits here and there to correct some errors and smooth out a few of the kinks. As with the first part, I had to write the majority of this in a few hours and didn’t have the opportunity to redraft any of it, so what was published was very raw. (The editor uploaded what was given to him as-is). That being said, however, I was actually (and somewhat unusually) quite proud of what I managed to write within those time constraints. Today it reads a bit ‘first-year film studies’, but I was in my first year of my film studies degree when I wrote it, so I suppose that’s not too bad. Also, the Zellner brothers retweeted and complimented this piece, which was the first time something like that happened to me, and that was pretty neat. I haven’t revisited Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter since Sundance London, but I probably should to see if it holds up.  

Muddied by VHS static, David and Nathan Zellner’s (Kid-Thing, Goliath) Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens with the same epigram as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1997): “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” Of course, in the same spirit as Fargo, this declaration is clearly facetious. Kumiko isn’t based on events that actually happened, but very loosely derived from the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman believed to have died in the North Dakota snow while searching for the suitcase buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. (In reality, Konishi committed suicide; a short documentary about her story, called This is a True Story [2003], was made for Channel 4 called). However, also in the spirit of Fargo, Kumiko really is a true story, just not in the conventional sense.

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