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The Great Regression: “Little”, “Shazam!”, “Unicorn Store” and the New Cinema of Arrested Development…

It’s always fun to pick at trends in contemporary cinema, especially when so many movies with similar ideas arrive in such rapid succession.

Film production is a long and arduous process. This is part of what distinguishes it from television. Films spend years in development and then production, their releases carefully managed and synchronised. As a medium, mainstream cinema often lacks the urgency suggested by the churn of television. It is harder to immediately react to trends. This is why, for example, the feature film Slender Man arrived more than half-a-decade after the character had taken the internet by storm and arguably after culture’s attention had wandered in other directions. Similarly, the success of movies like Iron Man and The Avengers led other studios to pursue that model of film-making, but it’s telling that the DCEU lagged roughly half a decade behind with Man of Steel and Justice League.

This is why it is particularly interesting when movies tackling the same big ideas happen to be released around the same time; Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Capote and Infamous. These films arrive so quickly that they are unlikely to exist in response to one another. Instead, they suggest similar ideas developed in parallel, perhaps hinting at some deeper motivating factor that spurred these similar ideas into development. Recent weeks have seen the release of three relatively distinct films operating in three very different genres; Shazam! is a superhero story, Little is a broad nostalgic comedy, Unicorn Store is a quirky independent film. However, each of those three films gets at the same idea.

Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store are all stories about the intersection of childhood and adulthood. Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store all feature adults who become children, in a manner of speaking. Of course, Unicorn Store is rather less literal than the other two examples, with Kit content to simply recapture her childhood dreams rather than to physically transform herself into a child. While Shazam! might more accurately be described as the story of a child who becomes an adult, the story’s central thrust is that Billy Batson needs to lean to be comfortable being a child and that he cannot remain an adult superhero forever. (Indeed, the primary plot of Shazam! features an adult trying to reclaim “the power of Shazam”, with the film insisting that it belong to a child.)

Still, taken together, these films suggest an interesting trend within contemporary pop culture. They hint at the awkward relationship that exists between childhood and adulthood in modern society, and the difficult that many individuals face in navigating the boundaries between the two. In Little, a forty-year-old tech entrepreneur finds herself transformed into her teenage self so that she might live the childhood that she previously denied herself. In Shazam!, a superhero is able to transform into a child with the mere mention of the title word, able to retreat from the responsibilities of heroism into the comforts of a warm and loving family environment. In Unicorn Store, Kit still lives in her parents’ house and sleeps in her childhood bedroom, dreaming of owning a unicorn.

These films are rather strange, in large part because they run counter to so many of the beloved stories with which they might otherwise be compared. During the eighties and even into the new millennium, children dreamed of the freedom that being an adult might afford them. In recent years, many of those children grew into adults who longed for the relative safety and security of childhood.

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Night Stalker – Timeless (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The unaired episodes of Night Stalker are fascinating glimpses into what the show might have been.

Into Night was the show’s original second episode, brutally shunted from its original position when ABC decided that they did not want a show focusing on monsters. The version of Into Night that appears on the DVD appears somewhat cobbled together, hastily editted in such a way as to make the show’s second episode sit as its eighth. The result feels like something of a rough cut, a glimpse at the pressures bearing down on the production team to meet various network demands.

It's dead at night in here...

It’s dead at night in here…

In contrast, Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? feels like something completely different. These are episodes that were obviously produced while Night Stalker was still airing on ABC, but which did not complete production under the network’s supervision. While Timeless and What’s the Frequency, Kolchak? are ver clearly part of the same show, they feel tangibly different. The two episodes are more horrific, more confident, and less pandering than what came before.

In many respects, the two episodes suggest that Night Stalker benefits from not having to air on ABC.

My word!

My word!

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The X-Files (Topps) – Afterflight (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.

And so we reach the end of Stefan Petrucha’s work on The X-Files.

It is quite a delayed end. Petrucha had originally written Afterflight three months before Home of the Brave, his last script for the monthly tie-in comic book. It was published fifteen months after the publication of Home of the Brave. That meant a year and a half had passed between Petrucha finished and Topps actually publishing it. The delay was rooted in disagreements with Ten Thirteen over the artwork. Still, Afterflight offers just a hint of closure to the sixteen-issue (and more) run that launched Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book line.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

Afterflight is a mournful little comic, a story that takes a lot of the core themes of Petrucha’s X-Files work and distills them down to a single story. Interviewed about his work, Petrucha contended that his writing for The X-Files primarily meditated on themes of “memory, the self and what is reality.” All of these ideas are brought to the fore in Afterflight, a comic that offers a similar thematic resolution to Home of the Brave, suggesting the faintest hint of hope can be found beyond the world of men.

Afterflight is a beautiful piece of work, and a suitable conclusion to a fantastic run.

Aliens among us...

Aliens among us…

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Star Trek – The Deadly Years (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

“Accelerated ageing” is one of those classic science-fiction tropes. It’s one of those stock element that can be easily baked into an episode – like “evil duplicate” or “body theft.” It instantly adds drama, gives the actors something to do, and offers a chance for the make-up team to work on something that might be considered a bit more prestigious than aliens. It pops up on shows as diverse as Stargate SG-1 and The X-Files.

Within the Star Trek franchise, the trope shows up a couple of times. The Deadly Years is the most obvious example, but it also shows up during the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when that show was trying hardest to channel its direct predecessor. Too Short a Season inverted the trope to give us “accelerated de-ageing”, while Unnatural Selection played it entirely straight.

A wrinkle in the timeline...

A wrinkle in the timeline…

The Deadly Years is an episode that doesn’t quite work as a cohesive whole, although if its populated with some intriguing moving parts. There is a sense that the writing staff are trying to plug perceived gaps in the story by throwing everything they have into the mix. Some of these are good ideas, some of these are already so familiar that they feel like Star Trek clichés at what marks the halfway point of the original production run.

There are several elements here that would arguably support their own episodes. On top of the idea of the crew ageing rapidly, we get the wonderful dramatic hook of Spock trying to prove Kirk unfit for command – a plot point that never feels like it gets enough focus. However, we also get another “incompetent/crazy/stupid senior official” plot heaped on top to provide a suitably dramatic climax to the episode. And the Romulans return, albeit as generic heavies. The Deadly Years is a mixed bag at best.

"She's... well, you get the idea..."

“She’s… well, you get the idea…”

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Suspending Your Belief: Age Before Beauty…

It’s strange, isn’t it, what will break our suspension of disbelief? I mean, we’ll accept (while watching Superman) that a man can fly around in his underwear, but the fact he advertises his weakness to kryptonite in a public interview is distracting. Or we’ll somehow buy into an archeologist who searches for the holy grail and encounters all manner of occult phenomenon, but when it comes to aliens extra-dimensional beings… well, a lot of us call foul. Still, I’ve been thinking a bit of late about the really quite weird fascination that movies seem to have with age and recasting.

Grasping at straws to keep Patrick Stewart on board...

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Growing Old in Hollywood…

Is it possible for an actor to age gracefully? The Guardian has been very fruitful in providing food for thought this week and the article that grabbed my attention today is a discussion of Heath Ledger’s potential had his life not been cut so tragically short. I don’t intend to dwell on what could have, should have or would have been, but the article does raise some interesting assertions about the ageing of great actors:

If you want to propose Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson as the outstanding figures of the 70s and 80s, who can be resigned about what has happened to them? They have become pastiches of what they once were.

So, is that what really awaits our truly great actors at the end of their careers?

Grumpy - but cool - old men...

Grumpy - but cool - old men...

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