Film, Writing

Film Retrospective: SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001)

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

Continue reading “Film Retrospective: SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001)”

2000 in Film

SHAFT: super-empty but super-cool thrills (2000 in Film #24)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 16th, John Singleton’s Shaft

Once again, this week, I’m handing over to the recurring spectre of 2013-era Tony who last looked at Shaft and devoted some thoughts to it, and once again I’m forced to make a confession: I still haven’t seen the original 1971 Shaft.

As a result, what I continue to wonder is whether I got from the 2000 sequel Shaft–and we must so denote the year as there now, as of 2019’s third sequel, three movies all in continuity and all just called Shaft–what I should have taken, not being conversant in the original. This Shaft, of course, wants to place a stamp on popular culture at the turn of the millennium by replacing Richard Roundtree as lead with Samuel L. Jackson, arguably sailing at the height of his career following his legendary turn in Pulp Fiction, a career that has never entirely faded. Jackson has made a fair amount of dross in the subsequent two decades but he remains in that elite tier of stars who are still A-list, still a household name, and thanks particularly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still appearing in the biggest films in Hollywood.

Sadly, we did lose before his time the film’s director, Singleton, who died just aged 51 in 2019 and remains a sad loss not just to African-American cinema, but Hollywood in general. Not all of his films were great, indeed Shaft itself is by no means a great film, but he remains influential to the burgeoning, potentially great black filmmakers of the 2020’s – Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay etc… all of whom have taken the gauntlet lain down by directors like Singleton and Spike Lee and ran with them. Shaft, in that sense, deserves to be remembered much like its well-known, 1970’s predecessor, and that is perhaps why this version is both a remake of sorts, *and* remains in continuity (a trick repeated by the 2019 Shaft), which was rare in cinema then and remains rare now, to serve both of those masters.

Time then to turn over to 2013-era Tony for his thoughts on whether Shaft lives up to the hype. Let’s find out…

Continue reading “SHAFT: super-empty but super-cool thrills (2000 in Film #24)”

2000 in Film

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 7th, William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement

My question for William Friedkin in regard to this film is quite simple: did he steal the plot of Rules of Engagement from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

In that series, the character of the noble Klingon Commander, Worf, is tried by an extradition hearing after, during hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, he commands a vessel that fires on and destroys a civilian transport ship which he believes is a Klingon warship. That episode is called, yes… Rules of Engagement, and it aired just three short years before Friedkin’s film came to bear. Perhaps the original writer, James Webb, saw the episode, liked the title and premise, and ported them over. Stranger things have happened! Either way, Rules of Engagement probably shares this coincidence for the simple fact it treads a well-worn story in fiction, science-fiction, and any morality-based dramatic narrative.

Friedkin’s film, eventually written by studio-hired scribe Stephen Gaghan from Webb’s original screenplay—one of two films penned by Gaghan, the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the end of the year, for which he would win an award—directly concerns the United States military and their own, titular, rules of engagement in a combat situation. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Terry Childers, while leading a Marine squadron to evacuate an American diplomat and his family from an under-siege Yemeni embassy, orders his men to fire into a crowd of protestors, some of whom appear to have opened fire on his men. 98 men women and children end up slaughtered. Images make the front page of every global newspaper. And the US government want Childers’ head on a spike, forcing him to enlist his old friend—Tommy Lee Jones’ military attorney Hayes Hodges—to defend his honour.

What ends up happening is that the subject matter, and what it wants to say about modern American imperialism, is more interesting than Rules of Engagement turns out to be in execution as a film. Continue reading “RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)”

Essays, Film

Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another.

Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated.

There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’.

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