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John Rozum and Alex Saviuk/Charles Adlard/Gordon Purcell’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

It is amazing to think that Topps’ licensed comic book tie-in to The X-Files lasted three-and-a-half years, let alone that it was such a success that it spawned a second on-going series, a miniseries and a considerable volume of one-shots and digests and annuals. If anything, Topps enjoyed greater success exploiting the license than even IDW has – despite the fact that Topps was a relatively young company with minimal experience in comic book publishing while IDW has a reputation for (and a lot of experience at) skilfully leveraging these sorts of tie-in properties.

This success would be remarkable in any context, but the comic book succeeded at a time of turmoil for the entire comic book industry. The late nineties were not a good time for comics, with the speculation bubble imploding and Marvel filing for bankruptcy. The success of Topps’ X-Files comic book is in many way a triumph of the brand, yet another reminder of how the series was on top of the world. There were lots of others – the ratings, the film, the tie-in video game – but the success of the comic was part of the narrative of The X-Files at this stage of its life.

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The comics themselves are actually surprisingly good. There is a reason that one of the first things that IDW did upon receiving the license was to publish “classic” collections of these comics. One of the more interesting aspects of the monthly series was the way that it managed to feel like The X-Files while still seeming suited to the medium in question. Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard pitched their run as something akin to a Vertigo comic, feeling like a crossover between The X-Files and the work of Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman.

The influences on John Rozum’s run are a lot less ambitious. Time and time again, Rozum seems to position his run on The X-Files as a rather strange hybrid between the first season of the television series and pulpy fifties horror comics. There are quite a few stories in Rozum’s run that might easily be read alongside Fantagraphics’ E.C. Comics archives, albeit guest starring Mulder and Scully. (And modern fashions. And phones. And so on.) It is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way to approach the idea of “X-Files comic books.”

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Indeed, it seems especially reasonable given the existing tensions between Ten Thirteen and Topps over the comics. The relationship had been fraught since the early days of the comic, with Ten Thirteen objecting to both Petrucha’s dense and ambitious plotting and Adlard’s moody and atmospheric art. Petrucha was fired from the title after sixteen issues, while Adlard was phased out in favour of better likeness artists like Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Ten Thirteen wanted a safer and more conventional comic book under Rozum’s pen, and they got it.

While it is easy to understand why these creative decisions were made, it does not make them any more palatable. Rozum’s work on The X-Files is generally quite consistent and occasionally even impressive. But it seldom seems ambitious or exciting. Under Petrucha, the tie-in comic carved out its own space that intersected with the parent show. Under Rozum, the comic book seems to do nothing but skirt the margins.

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Non-Review Review: Magic Mike XXL

Well, if you’re going to do a sequel, it’s not a bad bet to go bigger.

Magic Mike XXL is a film that knows exactly what its audience wants, making a point to emphasise that this same attribute is what makes the “male entertainers” at the heart of the film so special. At one point, young heart throb Ken serenades his audience with a D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel?), perfectly setting for the tone. Magic Mike XXL knows what its viewers are demanding, and dedicates itself to shamelessly satisfying their needs. The audience wants more, and they get more.

The problem with Magic Mike XXL is that it goes just a little bit too big. Bigger is not always better, as “male entertainer” (“Big”) Dick Richie discovers, spending the entire movie searching for the metaphorical “glass slipper.” The original Magic Mike ran a little bit too long at ten minutes short of two hours. Magic Mike XXL extends that runtime by twenty minutes. The result is a film that feels rather bloated. The pacing could be tighter. Some trimming and cutting might have served the film well.

Nevertheless, Magic Mike XXL maintains a lot of the charm and positive energy that made the original such a surprise hit. There is nothing wrong with trying to please your audience, even if there is such a thing as too much teasing.

Is the magic back?

Is the magic back?

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Non-Review Review: The X-Files – Fight the Future

The X-Files: Fight the Future is often described as the mythology episode that somehow got released into theatres. In her review, Joyce Millman teased that Fight the Future was little more than “a two-hour episode of the show, except with better production values and a nicer wardrobe for Scully.” It is a fair point. It is not too hard to imagine a slightly cheaper version of Fight the Future split into two parts and replacing The End and The Beginning as the two-parter bridging the fifth and sixth seasons of the show.

Certainly, Fight the Future retains the late-stage mythology’s reluctance to provide any real sense of closure to the long-running plot about alien invasion and colonisation. Writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz increase the stakes by using some of that sweet blockbuster money to pay for a gestating alien fetus, but what do Mulder and Scully actually accomplish? What would a viewer jumping from The End to The Beginning miss, except for the fact that the Well-Manicured Man has left the mortal plane to visit that great Somerset estate in the sky?

What you've all been waiting for, admit it...

What you’ve all been waiting for, admit it…

The answer is nothing, but that is not the point. As much as Fight the Future enjoys playing with the trappings of the mythology (black oil! bees! tanker trucks! space ships! Oklahoma City!), the film is only interested in the idea of alien colonisation as a vehicle to explore the show’s central relationship. Carter and Spotnitz have shrewdly realised that Fight the Future will have the largest possible audience for the show, and has decided to give the general public what they want.

As a two-hour mythology episode, Fight the Future leaves a lot to be desired. As a two-hour Mulder and Scully ship tease, it is right on the money.

Buried secrets...

Buried secrets…

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Non-Review Review: Love and Mercy

The music biography is a surprisingly familiar genre.

For all that there are thousands upon thousands of musicians with their own life stories and histories, the plotting of these sorts of stories always seems to hit on the same beats. The rhythm and tempo might change, but the notes feel the same. This was rather strongly pronounced a decade ago, when Walk the Line and Ray were released in quick succession and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story provided a delightfully surreal skewering of the conventions associated with these sorts of films.

Where there's a Wilson, there's a way, son...

Where there’s a Wilson, there’s a way, son…

There is always a childhood trauma at the root of the story; whether it is a dead relative or parental abuse, there is always a suitable motivator for artistic expression. Similarly, fame is always something of a mixed blessing, with material success only serving to exaggerate a larger spiritual emptiness. Dependencies come rather naturally, whether on drugs or on other people. Eventually, it seems like true love allows our protagonist to find themselves before they find their happy ending. Having a ready-made (and thematically appropriate) soundtrack probably helps.

In most cases, the material is elevated by the skill with which the story is put together. If the film must hit all those familiar notes, then the moving parts make all the difference. Walk the Line and Ray were buoyed by mesmerising central performances from actors at the peak of their game. Love and Mercy hits a lot of these common plot beats as it maps out the troubled life of Brian Wilson. Even a viewer unfamiliar with the arc of Wilson’s life will have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the film.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

At the same time, Love and Mercy benefits from a collection of strong performances. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the musician at various stages of his life, jumping back and forth between his controversy-creating career highs and subsequent lows. The bulk of the supporting cast is teamed up with Cusack, creating an interesting circle of characters around Wilson in the late eighties and into the nineties. Elizabeth Banks is Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac saleswoman who gets caught up with Wilson. Paul Giammatti is controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

Love & Mercy is at its best when it feels playful and accessible, and is at its worst when it feels familiar and well-trodden. It is a fascinating sketch at the life and times of Brian Wilson, with a recognisable structure elevated by a great ensemble.

Pet sounds...

Pet sounds…

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The X-Files (Topps) #41 – Severed (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

This is the end.

Severed is the last X-Files comic book to be published by Topps. It was released in September 1998, after the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future and before the broadcast of The Beginning. The company had actually solicited a number of X-Files comics that were never actually published – including Season One adaptations of The Jersey Devil and Ghost in the Machine. It seems quite likely that Severed was the last comic book to be published by the comic book division of Topps, who had decided to retreat from the industry following market trends.

Filed away...

Filed away…

Topps wrapped up the bulk of its publishing operations over the summer of 1998, releasing the last few tie-in comics for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Severed was actually delayed significantly. Devil’s Advocate had been published in June, leaving a three-month gap between the two issues. It is interesting to wonder what the delays behind publication might have been; certainly writer John Rozum and Alex Saviuk had proven themselves quite capable of managing a monthly schedule.

Whatever was happening behind the scenes, Severed is very much damp squib of an ending. It’s a bland and forgettable story, but one that is sadly par for the course in the stage of the book’s life cycle.

The transformed man...

The transformed man…

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The X-Files – Season 5 (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The fifth season of The X-Files represents the height of the show’s popularity.

Bookended by the production and release of the motion picture, the fifth season also earned the highest overall Neilsen ratings of any of the show’s nine seasons. The X-Files was a cultural force to be reckoned with, and had come a long way from its origins as little-seen cult television show. In the late nineties, it seemed like it wasn’t just aliens conspiring to colonise the planet; Chris Carter and his team were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. The fifth season has all the swagger and confidence of a show enjoying the view as it stands on top of the world.

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The fifth season might not be able to match the third season for consistency from episode to episode. The fifth season might also struggle to match the breathless ambition of the fourth season’s best (and wildest) episodes. However, it is a highly enjoyable season of television on its own terms. The season feels a little more relaxed and organised than the fourth season, and more confident in itself than the third. The fifth season even makes better use of its own internal themes and motifs than any of the previous seasons, with most of the staff seemingly on the same page.

Oddly enough, this thematic consistency does not translate into clear or fully-formed arcs. Unlike the second season of Millennium, it seems like the fifth season of The X-Files has no real idea of where it is going or how it wants to get there. This is slight problem when the fifth season needs to build to a feature film that was shot in the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. The X-Files gets a lot of credit for popularising serialised storytelling on prime-time television, but the fifth season demonstrates just how sloppy the show could sometimes be in that regard.

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Still, this is a minor problem. With only twenty episodes, the fifth season is the shortest season of The X-Files produced at this point in the show’s history. The ninth season would run the same length, but there is an argument to be made that it is technically the shorter season; The Truth was written and broadcast as a single feature-length episode rather than two individual episodes. However, production necessities required a lot of innovation and experimentation in the fifth season, leading to a very playful and very off-format season of television.

While it is probably very difficult to argue that the fifth season of The X-Files was the show’s best run of episodes, it is a highly enjoyable collection of shows that brings together a lot of what was so much fun about The X-Files. The last season to be filmed in Vancouver, and the season that moves us closer to the end of the series than the beginning. Although certain segments of fandom would argue that it is the last truly great season of The X-Files, that feels unduly harsh to both the sixth and eighth seasons. Nevertheless, it is thrilling to watch a show so thoroughly enjoying its moment in the sun.

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Millennium – Season 2 (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The second season of Millennium is understandably polarising.

It is returned from its summer hiatus as what was, on the surface, a radically different television show. The Millennium Group was no longer simply a forensic consultancy firm, but had transformed into a secret society dating back millennia; it had become, as Frank would concede in The Fourth Horseman, “a cult.” More than that, the show had changed around the Millennium Group. Serial killers had been the show’s bread and butter in its first season, prompting some critics to describe it as a “serial killer of the week” procedural; now they were a rare occurrence.

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More than that, Frank Black had also changed. In interviews around the first season, Lance Henriksen had been very proud to play a hero who solved problems with his mind rather than with a gun. In contrast, the second season opened with Frank Black brutally murdering the man who kidnapped his wife. The yellow house had been a symbol of everything pure and good in the world of Frank Black, of the family he worked hard to protect. The second season had exiled Frank Black from this family and had him move deeper and deeper into the Millennium Group itself.

However, there were other changes that were less profound, but just as striking. Frank Black was suddenly a fan of the music of Bobby Darin. He suddenly had a sense of humour that led him to crack more than two jokes in a season. at the same time, he was also more short-tempered and grouchy. The first season had presented Frank Black as a rock in the middle of otherwise chaotic seas; in the second season, it was clear that Frank himself was feeling the strain and the stress. In short, Frank Black felt a lot more human.

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The entire mood of the show changed around Frank. Millennium was suddenly a lot weirder. Though the first season had largely moved away from the classic “Frank hunts a serial killer” formula by the end of the year, the second season abandoned any sense of formula altogether. Watching the second season of Millennium on a week-to-week basis, it was almost impossible to predict what the next show would be like. Although there was a very strong thematic continuity between episodes, there was less of a rigid structure to their construction.

The second season of Millennium was a radical departure from what had come before. It was also the best season of television ever produced by Ten Thirteen.

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