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Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino loves film. He also loves television and music. He loves writing and actors. All of these loves are on display in his latest film, which works as two fairly charming if thinly related tales set in 1969. The first tale concerns fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose career in TV westerns has left him with little to do other than play bit parts in episodes. Rick feels used up and past it, Tarantino’s unsympathetic close-ups expose the slightly sagging face, wrinkles and overweight physique. Rick’s best friend and stunt double Cliff Bole (Brad Pitt) takes a more laconic view of the world, his body still in great shape as a shirtless scene emphasises. The second story concerns Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her seemingly carefree swan around Hollywood. The connection between the two stories is mostly due to location, as Sharon and her husband Roman Polanski live next door to Rick and their presence exacerbates his frustration. The viewer may also be frustrated as Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is often meandering and, as is often the case with Tarantino, indulgent. Long sequences of driving coupled with longer sequences of actors playing actors acting add up to little more than Tarantino’s delight in this material. There are some strong set pieces – a visit to an old western set plays out like a western showdown, complete with tension; a brilliant action sequence that serves as the film’s climax, but these sequences punctuate an otherwise aimless meander through this landscape. Brief cameos from the likes of Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino allow these performers to simply spout a few pungent speeches, while side scenes involving Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Rick’s stint making spaghetti westerns add little. Ultimately the film adds up to very little, and while Tarantino’s love for his material is palatable, he is unlikely to engender similar affection in the viewer.

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My Credible Journey

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This is a digression from the usual offerings’ on Vincent’s Views. Rather than reviewing the latest film I saw, this is a review of my own professional trajectory. It may be of interest to some, especially early career researchers looking for academic employment.

They say that life begins at [insert age here]. For me it turned out to be true at the age of forty. In 2000 I set my heart on becoming a university lecturer. I remember my personal tutor at the time said that I was mad to want an academic career, and he was right, for academia requires a special kind of madness. I spent the next decade working towards a PhD, which I achieved in 2009.

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Over the next ten years I applied for over 600 academic jobs, literally all over the world. It took three years before my first interview, and over the next seven years the number of interviews increased but always resulted in ‘you have been unsuccessful on this occasion’. To make myself more employable, I published, I taught, I did outreach and engagement. But none of it seemed to make any difference, and whole years would go by with only a single interview. I became frustrated, experienced feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, was a nuisance and a burden to those around me, and eventually was diagnosed with depression. I sought advice and feedback on my applications, much of which was helpful, yet success still eluded me. Those nearest and dearest to me suggested other professions that I did explore, but all for naught, as I either failed to get into those fields altogether or did not derive the satisfaction I sought from them.

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Through all of this, I never lost sight of what I wanted, and the odd bit of hourly teaching kept me motivated. The first time I taught undergraduates it felt absolutely right, and subsequent experiences have felt much the same. Teaching is not always easy, and like any job can be frustrating and disappointing, but it never fails to raise my spirits by the sheer rightness of it. Be it seminar room or lecture theatre, the teaching environment is somewhere I always feel that I belong, despite the intermittency of my time there.

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In 2019 everything changed. I was offered what became a six-month maternity cover post. It was a very quick start and I had to hit the ground running, covering material both familiar and completely new, and with a new style of teaching. Despite that, I felt valued and useful, and that I was where I belonged. I continued the applications and later that year I was offered a twelve-month post at another institution. The longer contract and the greater opportunities of this second role allowed me to leave my day job of seventeen (!) years, which I never felt comfortable in.

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The shift was dramatic. After more than a decade of fruitless searching, suddenly I was offered two jobs in the space of six months. What changed? Rather than being a matter of ‘not what you know but who you know’, I think it came down to what I could offer. For years I taught the same few modules, offering little that stood out. Then I broadened my repertoire with courses in other areas, and what better way to develop one’s skills than by working with new material? It is through challenge that we grow, and I significantly improved my pedagogic skills by teaching new material, skills that I highlighted at the interviews in 2019.

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I feel that the key interview question was how I would teach students with a background different to my own. The answer is to find the commonalities: what are the links between film and politics, media and sociology, theory and practice? Links such as these are where teaching opportunities emerge and the soul of a teacher can shine. I developed because I spent time delivering new material and did the work necessary to engage the minds of students. A good teacher is adaptable, adaptable to different students, techniques, space and material. I know I have the power to teach and finally I can proclaim this reality to selection panels.

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This is my message to all PhD graduates and early career researchers struggling to get their foot in the door. The best things you can do is believe you will get there, and expand what you offer. It is an employer’s market, and you must offer as much as you can. If you don’t have much, search for and take further teaching experience, especially outside your comfort zone. You will get better, and you will look better.

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Much like a lead character in my favourite film, what I am is what I’m going after. For a long time, I was going after the job. Now I’m going after being the best teacher that I can be. It is not a final destination but an ongoing pursuit, so I’ll be going after it for a long time to come, and I will relish every minute of it.

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The Lion King

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The Lion King is a timeless classic. Released during a golden period for Disney Studios, it remains a touchstone for many viewers as a demonstration of what animation can do. Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic digital animation remake may also come to occupy a significant place in animation history, specifically in terms of its animation. As a visual feast, The Lion King 2019 is dazzlingly realised. Descriptions of the film as ‘live action’ are nonsensical – everything is animated here as surely as it was in the original. The difference is that it looks real – from the lustrous fur including lions’ manes that you want to run your hands through, to the textured skin of elephants and warthogs to rippling water and intricate blades of grass, the African landscape looks as rich and tactile as that in a documentary. Indeed, at times a voiceover would not seem out of place, recalling both BBC nature documentaries and Disney’s ‘Real-Life’ adventures of previous decades. Yet the illusion of reality is easily broken by the talking and singing of the photo-realistic animals, and this break is hard to get away from.

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The lifelike visuals are simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its most crippling weakness. There is an inescapable disjunct as the visuals look real, but quite clearly are not. Similarly, the animals are anthropomorphised, but not by much. They speak and sing, but their faces remain largely blank and their movements are appropriate for animals. It is therefore hard to relax into the film, as one constantly marvels at the visuals and is then jerked out of the marvel by the obvious artifice. In addition, one may have to keep reminding themselves that of course lion social dynamics do not work that way, this being a fictional drama, but that concern never arose in the original, fantastical animation.

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A further problem is that this film does nothing new narratively. Previous Disney remakes elaborated on the previous versions, expanding characters, updating representation and, in some cases, reducing or omitting the songs altogether. Unlike Favreau’s previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book, which works as an entirely new adaptation of the source material, The Lion King 2019 makes almost no changes to the original story. The Lion King is an original story (borrowing some elements from Hamlet), and as an original story for an animated family adventure, it is hard to improve on. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson expands some scenes and provides some additional detail to a few characters, including Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This development of female characters does continue Disney’s greater diversity and improvements in representation, but because the rest of the film follows the original so closely, these expansions create a further disjunctive element. The end result is ambivalent, as the visuals are utterly stunning and incredible, but the film lacks soul and emotional engagement.

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Midsommar

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Midsommar is a film that defies easy categorisation. It can be seen as a horror film, a dark comedy, a relationship drama, and a tale of grief. As all responses are ultimately subjective, this reviewer sees Midsommar as a horror film, because it was horrifying (in a good way!). The opening act details the family tragedy of Dani (Florence Pugh) in a manner that is horrifying. Dani’s subsequent trauma inflects much of the film, with ingenious cuts demonstrating the inability to leave such experiences behind, and therefore lending the entire film as sense of horror and dread. Early scenes indicate to any seasoned viewer of horror that Dani, along with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) should run away, yet at the same time the allure and appeal of the midsummer festival that they visit is apparent. Gorgeous vistas of Sweden (actually Hungary) are captured in wide shots, these devices being the key tool of writer-director Ari Aster, along with deep focus and long takes. Within these broad, encompassing shots, much drama and indeed humour takes place, such as moments of embarrassment and the appearance of a bear. But the predominant mood is one of strangeness, dread and ever-escalating menace, extending even to the visual fabric of the film that morphs and pulses like a bad trip, as much of the film is. The overall effect is to create a horrifying atmosphere. Graphic gore is mixed with shocked reactions, a pervasive soundscape enveloping the viewer much as the characters are themselves immersed in this strange world. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to be left exhausted by the gamut of emotions inflicted by Midsommar, and with the wisdom that if anyone ever suggests going to a Swedish midsummer festival, far away from modern civilisation, don’t.

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Toy Story 4

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What am I? Why am I alive? What does it mean to be alive? What is our purpose? Pixar’s fourth (and arguably unnecessary) entry in the Toy Story saga explores these existential questions with characters old and new. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Ham (John Ratzenberger), Slink (Blake Clark), Jesse (Joan Cusack) and Bullsye are joined by Forky (Tony Hale), a toy that new kid Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) made at kindergarten. Consisting of a spork, pipe-cleaners, lolly sticks and stick-on eyes, Forky is simultaneously endearing and creepy, and rapidly becomes hilarious with his insistence that he is trash, until the realisation dawns that he might have another purpose. Parallel to Forky’s awakening is Woody’s need to be essential to Bonnie, as he adjusts to life after Andy.

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In the course of answering these questions, Toy Story 4 delivers laughs, excitement and imaginative delights galore, ranging from the menacing ventriloquist dummies and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the returning Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Set pieces in an antiques store and a carnival provide plenty of thrills and spills, and while the film sometimes stretches its own conceit of humans not noticing supposedly inanimate objects moving on their own, there are still creative explanations, the skunk being a particular highlight. It may not quite reach the extraordinary acceptance of mortality displayed in Toy Story 3 or the miraculous joy of the luggage sequence in Toy Story 2, but if this is the final outing for the toys, director Josh Cooley and writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom manage a genuinely surprising, fitting and ultimately moving conclusion.

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Top Six of First Six 2019

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As the year reaches its half way point, I take stock of what I have seen thus far. I was able to see more films for the first month, managing seven in January (although some were leftovers from December). Then work got in the way and I had to be picky about my encounters.

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Most galling in this regard was not seeing the eventual Best Picture winner until after the Academy Awards took place, which has not happened for years. But at least I ticked off all eight of them, as usual some being released this year, and one creeping into my top six thus far.

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2019 has had its share of prestige fodder and box office battalions, with Hollywood, Britain and other countries jostling at the cinema. The year thus far has rewarded, confounded and exceeded expectations with sequels and franchise instalments, although the best offerings came from unexpected sources. Thus, my personal six best films of the first six months of 2019 are:

 

The Favourite  the favourite

An extraordinary, acerbic, acidic and at times absurdist comedy-drama of manners, manipulation and monarchy.

 

 

 

 

 

Avengers: Endgame  Endgame 1

An enveloping, emotional, exhilarating, witty, tragic, astonishing and utterly triumphant superhero epic of extraordinary ambition and magnificent realisation.

 

 

Booksmart booksmart

A gloriously funny, beautifully sweet, sometimes surreal, touching, delightful coming of age comedy of being more than you or anyone else expects.

 

 

 

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A flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic bio-musical of a flamboyant, fabulous and frenetic talent and personality.

 

 

 

 

Us Us

A malevolent, magnificent, Marxist, satirical nightmare of demographics, doppelgängers and dance.

 

 

 

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A joyous, heartwarming, bittersweet delight of family, wrestling, dreams and the pride of being a freak from Norwich.

 

 

 

Honourable Mention

 

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A glorious superpowered special forces adventure of memory, identity and morality, boosted with beautiful politics of diversity and inclusion.

 

 

Stinker So Far

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix XMDP

A disparate and somewhat hollow but still brooding and atmospheric superhero adventure, spiced with the most dramatic of dramatic scores.

 

 

What will the rest of the year bring? Certainly there is much to be excited about, as Avengers, Jedi, musicians, demon clowns, entrepreneurs and more continue to compete for attention in the overcrowded cinemas. Plus there are remakes, re-releases and homages still to come. Will these six make it into the Top Twelve of 2019? Check back in six months to find out!

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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.