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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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101. A Star is Born (#182) – This Just In

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guest Stacy Grouden, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 182nd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 19 (“Hell Money”)

I’m back on The X-Cast this week, covering Hell Money with the great Carl Sweeney.

This is an interesting one. Everybody has their own personal underrated favourites, whether in film or on television or in any other media. Pieces of art on which we feel much more strongly than the consensus, and in which we see a bit more than our fellow audience members. In my case, this is true of quiet a few episodes of The X-Files, typically episodes that meet with a shrug from the collective audience, but with which I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. Hell Money is one of those episodes.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

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Non-Review Review: First Man

First Man offers a novel take on a familiar story.

The moon landing is one of the most important moments of twentieth century history, a defining for both America and the larger world. In fact, it remains emblematic of the furthest soil to which  man has ventured to this point. Our species had crossed the threshold of the upper atmosphere before and has done so since. In fact, mankind has even gone back to the moon, although those trips are fading from living memory. The moon landing remains a cultural and historical touchstone, and has been explored from countless perspectives.

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.

It takes a lot to find a fresh pair of eyes on this journey, but Damien Chazelle does exactly that. The director makes this clear as early as the opening scene. The first time that the audience sees the Earth as a planet, it is not through an establishing shot or the windows of the makeshift space craft. It is reflected in the visor of Niel Armstrong, the warm blue horizon cutting across his visor just below his striking and piercing eyes. Ryan Gosling has always been an actor capable of communicating much through his eyes, and First Man asks us to appreciate space reflected back from them.

So much of First Man is told either focused on or looking through the eyes of Neil Armstrong; the majesty of space and lunar surfaces reflected in the visor of his helmet, or various first-person shot from inside elevators or falling swiftly to Earth. The audience is placed very much in Armstrong’s shoes. Even when Chazelle isn’t literally shooting the film from Armstrong’s perspective, he favours tight close-ups and handheld camera work in confined spaces to suggest that the audience is literally trapped within that space with Armstrong.

Rocket man.

There is no small irony in this, and Chazelle knows it. It seems strange that freshest pair of eyes on the lunar mission should be those of the first man to set foot on the moon. One might have expected the mythology to start there, but instead Armstrong has long remained a figure of mystery. Tacit and introverted, Armstrong has always seemed more like a legend than a human being. The novelty and the power of First Man comes from studying the man who made both that small step and that giant leap.

In doing so, First Man offers a powerful and intimate exploration of a very personal story that just happens to be told on the broadest canvas imaginable.

All fired up.

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Non-Review Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is over-stuffed, over-long, and unfocused. It is a muddle of big ideas thrown against one another, the sparks flying in whatever direction they will.

There is a sense in which writer and director Drew Goddard wants Bad Times at the El Royale to be about everything, to find some space within the movie for just about every possible allegory. It is difficult to explain what Bad Times at the El Royale is actually about, for reasons that extend beyond contemporary spoilerphobia. This is a movie that feels at once like it has important things to say, and a very abstract way of trying to say them.

Red guy at night, Hemsworth fans’ delight.

There is also something brilliant in all of this, in the way that Drew Goddard swings wildly at such a broad array of big ideas in such a surreal context. Bad Times at the El Royale is packed to the brim with big ideas, offering a story that could easily be read as scathing political commentary, powerful religious allegory, or biting social satire. It is an unashamedly odd film that is wrestling with a variety of interesting themes. If it can’t pick just a handful to focus upon, it is because there are so many rich veins to tap.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a bold and infuriating piece of pop art. It’s also unashamedly ambitious and enthusiastically esoteric. It’s a movie that certainly won’t be for everybody, but it is broadcasting very strongly on its own distinctive wavelength.

Flower power.

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Non-Review Review: 22 July

22 July is both a very well made and a spectacularly ill-judged film.

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July focuses on the infamous attacks conducted by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011. The attacks were brutal and horrific, and sent shockwaves across both Europe and North America. To a certain extent, Breivik’s attacks prefigured a wave of similar violence in the years that followed, violence driven by nativism and xenophobia, toxic forms of ethno-nationalism that crept in to the social and politic spheres. There is no denying that these attacks (and their aftermath) deserve attention and discussion. They are a formative moment in modern western politics.

However, there is also a sense that Paul Greengrass might not be the best director to tell this sort of story. There are several reasons for this, but most them come down to Greengrass’ stylistic sensibilities, his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is incredibly obvious from the outset what kind of film Greengrass is trying to make. Greengrass is trying to capture the horror and brutality of Breivik’s actions, and to present the ordinary everyday heroism of those who survived and endured his assault. However, Greengrass’ directorial sensibilities conspire to undercut these aspects of the film.

Greengrass may be a very naturalistic film director, who at times seems almost like a documentarian in his storytelling, but he can direct a visceral and effective action sequence. This means that the part of 22 July that really feels alive and propulsive is the mass shooting. More than that, Greengrass’ no-frills style means that most of the characters in 22 July never feel particularly well-developed or well-formed, never having a life outside of the frame or what the movie expects of them. As a result, the only character who does stand out is Brievik himself.

The result is a film about mass murder and ethno-nationalism that structurally resembles more conventional issue-driven movies, but without any of the strong emotional cues or distinctive performances that serve to place the moral weight within those narratives. Instead, 22 July often feels rather blunt and matter-of-fact, a collection of events and occurrences without any actual living characters to clog up the mechanics. The only things that stand out within 22 July are those elements that are (by their nature) heightened and extreme.

The result is a movie about a horrific terrorist attack that only seems to come alive in its depiction of the attack, and an ensemble drama about the cultural response to trauma where the only compelling character is a white supremacist terrorist.

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