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New Escapist Column! On The Lingering Ambiguity of “The Sopranos”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the rapidly approaching premiere of The Many Saints of Newark, it seemed like as good a time as any to take a look back to The Sopranos.

The Sopranos remains a towering accomplishment in modern television. It is a show that ushered in what has been described as “the Golden Age of Television.” It is a show that has endured, recruiting new fans in the years since it went off the air. It is a show that is still hotly contested and debated, with fans still arguing over what particular scenes or episodes mean. This is particularly true of the show’s famous ending scene, but the truth is that The Sopranos was always deliberately ambiguous, trusting its audience to reach their own conclusions about these characters and how they operate.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“We Will Change You, Doctor Jones”: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and a Unified Theory of Indiana Jones…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie with very real and very tangible problems.

Part of the problem is one of simple aesthetics. The original trilogy were products of a very particular moment in the history of American cinema, spanning the eighties. Raiders of the Lost Ark was very much a rollercoaster of a movie, a showcase for practical effects and impressive stunt work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was built around impressive physical sets, model work and location work. Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took a great deal of pride in how tactile this world felt.

Crystal clear.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a product of a transitional decade for Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the film opened in the same summer as blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which heralded a new future for crowdpleasing spectacle. While The Dark Knight made a conscious effort to ground its storytelling in practical effects, Iron Man signaled that the digital effects revolution was going to be the cornerstone of the superhero genre.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a deliberate and conscious step into the uncanny valley. Many of the movie’s most decried action sequences are driven by green screen and computer-generated special effects, standing in start contrast to the weight and mass that defined the earlier set pieces. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. The chase sequence in the Amazon is perhaps the most egregious example, but this detachment from reality is obvious from the early scenes inside the warehouse, as pixels guide our hero and his captors to their destination.

Blowing the roof off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists in another uncanny space, most obviously through the introduction of the character of Mutt Williams. Part of this problem is undoubtedly Shia LeBeouf himself, who has been candid about his work on the film to the point of alienating director Steven Spielberg. Much like it’s easier to recognise the “pre-sequel” of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a prequel with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier now to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rough draft of a “legacyquel”, like Creed or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is too clumsy to really work in that way. The film’s closing moments dare to tease the idea of Mutt Williams succeeding Indiana Jones, the wind blowing Jones’ iconic hat into Williams’ clutches. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks the courage of its commitment. Jones snatches the hat away at the last minute, prefiguring the way in which Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker would retreat from the idea of passing Star Wars to a new generation.

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

There are other ways in which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it is caught between two eras. The film’s structure arguably suffers from the production team’s famed attempts to preserve the secrecy of the plot, which even extended to a sting operation and a high-profile lawsuit. The publicity around the film reportedly considered keeping Karen Allen’s return a secret, and the film’s structure conceals the presence of Marion Ravenwood for an hour. It’s a choice that muddies the film’s handling of its themes, denying it the clarity of how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade handled Henry Jones.

Still, accepting these issues as problems, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a very sincere and genuine effort on the part of everybody involved to figure out some grand unified theory of Indiana Jones, separated from the original three films by decades. What does it mean to look back on the trilogy? How has the world changed? How would the character wrap it all up?

It was admittedly a bit of a wash…

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249. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Indiana Summer 2021 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Tony Black and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, wrapping up our Indiana Summer, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

In the midst of the Red Scare, veteran archeologist Indiana Jones finds himself embroiled in a Communist plot involving Area 51. The mystery inevitably spirals outwards, the explorer finds himself roped into another adventure that reunites him with his lost love Marion Ravenwood and offers surprising revelations about the adventurer’s family.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“Stay Out of the Light”: The Black-and-White Morality of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” Last week, we looked at Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I had some thoughts on the film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film of stark contrasts.

This is true in a very literal sense. Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas had envisaged the film as a loving homage to classic black-and-white film serials, so it only makes sense that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe would populate the film with shadows and silhouettes. Spielberg has talked about wanting “a much moodier, almost neo-Brechtian style of light and shadow for this film”, and it’s notable that the lead character’s costume design was intended to be “immediately recognisable in silhouette.”

While Raiders of the Lost Ark is a visually rich film saturated in deep colours and strong images, it is also a movie obsessed with light and shadow. Indiana Jones is first introduced literally stepping out of the shadows. “Stay out of the light,” he warns a companion during the film’s opening scenes. Many of the film’s most striking images – like Jones visiting an old flame or workers toiling in the desert – are shot to make use of shadow and silhouette.

After all, much has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s Raiders, an experimental edit of the movie that strips out all sound and colour to repurpose Raiders of the Lost Ark as a black-and-white silent film. Soderbergh did this in an effort to force the audience to “watch this movie and think only about staging”, drawing attention to how carefully constructed Raiders of the Lost Ark was as a piece of film. After all, the movie is arguably as pure a cinematic rollercoaster as ever existed, a triumph of pure filmmaking.

However, there’s something revealing in this sharp contrast – in the clear boundaries that Raiders of the Lost Ark draws between light and darkness in its cinematic storytelling. At its core, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie about good and evil at work in the world, and the movie is anchored in the belief that good will prevail and evil will be judged. It’s a fascinating film, one that provides an interesting contrast with Steven Spielberg’s later work at the turn of the millennium on projects like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Munich and even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a striking piece of cinematic mythmaking, one that feels very true to its time and one firmly anchored in its director’s sensibility.

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New Escapist Video! On “WandaVision” and the Death of Ambiguity…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with every second Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This week, following the end of WandaVision, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at what the show said about contemporary pop culture, in particular the show’s approach to its “mystery box” format and its insistence on explaining every ambiguity without any willingness to leave space for interpretation. It’s a big, ambitious video essay that looks at everything from Lost to Twin Peaks to The X-Files to Doctor Who, and I hope you enjoy.

143. Once Upon Time… in Hollywood – This Just In (#127)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Phil Bagnall, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

It’s February 1969. Everything is changing. Hollywood itself seems to be facing an inevitable collision with the turmoil that has engulfed the rest of the world. Against this backdrop, lives intersect and collide. Returning from the United Kingdom, Sharon Tate moves in next door to washed up fifties western star Rick Dalton, both completely unaware of how profoundly their lives will impact one another.

At time of recording, it was ranked 127th on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Shadows and Symbols (Review)

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols continue to reframe the theology of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in terms of Christian iconography.

To be fair, it makes sense that Christian imagery and metaphor should so heavily influence film and television. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of entertainment, and so it makes sense that its preoccupations should filter through into the art that it creates. After all, certain plot and story threads on Star Trek: Voyager (including the Kazon, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Displaced and Day of Honour) are very clearly anchored in a number of racial anxieties unique to California during the nineties.

The writing’s on the wall.

However, there was something very interesting in the way that Deep Space Nine had introduced and developed its theology. The early seasons of Deep Space Nine were heavily influenced by more eastern religions, like Buddhism. They were also more ambiguous in their portrayal of the wormhole aliens, suggesting that the enigmatic creatures could be both aliens and gods, depending on one’s perspective. Even then, there was a recurring suggestion in episodes like Emissary and Prophet Motive that the wormhole aliens did not conform to human morality.

As Deep Space Nine approaches the end of its run, it simplifies its approach to religion. The Prophets become a lot less ambiguous, and the spiritual framework becomes a lot more conventional. This process really began in earnest with The Assignment and was solidified in The Reckoning, but it becomes a lot more concrete in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols.

Let there be light.
And it was good.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Damage (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The stock comparison for Damage is In the Pale Moonlight.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, both are Star Trek episodes that hinge on a series of morally questionable decisions made by the lead actor in a moment of sheer desperation. In In the Pale Moonlight, Benjamin Sisko starts a chain of events that builds towards the assassination of a Romulan Senator to trick the Romulans into joining the war effort. In Damage, Jonathan Archer resorts to piracy in order to obtain the parts necessary to make a meeting with Degra in order to plead against the use of the Xindi weapon.

A met a man who wasn't there...

A met a man who wasn’t there…

There are some notable differences, of course. In purely practical plotting terms, Sisko dominates the narrative of In the Pale Moonlight; the entire story is related directly by Sisko to the audience in the form of a personal log. In contrast, Damage is split between the demands of Archer’s own arc in the episode and various other continuity elements; the episode needs to get Archer back to his ship and devote a considerable amount of time to T’Pol’s addiction. As a result, it lacks the keen focus that made In the Pale Moonlight so compelling.

At the same time, there is something much more direct about Damage. Sisko is quite detached from the horrors of In the Pale Moonlight, with the audience insulated from his choices through the use of a framing device and Sisko himself insulated through his use of Garak to conduct all the unpalatable actions. In contrast, Archer makes a point to bloody his own hands over the course of Damage. He doesn’t have somebody else to make the decision for him; he leads the boarding party himself.

Everything comes apart...

Everything comes apart…

It is a very bold an unsettling choice, a culmination of a character arc that has been pushing Archer towards this sort of horrific choice since Anomaly. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise has not been entirely consistent when it comes to its character arcs, working better in broad strokes than in fine detail. Nevertheless, Damage represents a very clear commitment to the promise of the third season of Enterprise; an interrogation of the franchise’s core values in an increasingly morally ambiguous world.

Damage is a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling episode of Star Trek, but it is arguably a necessary one. It is, in many ways, a criticism of the moral absolutism that informs a lot of discussion about terrible situations, suggesting that reality is often a lot more complicated than people might hope it would be.

Drowning his sorrows...

Drowning his sorrows…

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Millennium – Siren (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.

Even when the second season of Millennium doesn’t quite work, it remains a fascinating piece of television.

Siren is the last script written by Glen Morgan and James Wong before they drafted the two-part second season finalé, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. The duo wrote a phenomenal stretch of the second season. They wrote six of the first eight episodes to air; Siren ends another run of four episodes credited to the duo in the middle of the season. Including the two-part finalé, the pair wrote twelve of the season’s twenty-three episodes. That is a phenomenal workload, even discounting the work of producing and re-writing the other eleven teleplays.

Where's your head at?

Where’s your head at?

Given that the duo were writing what amounts to a full-season order for some modern shows, and producing similar volume of episodes, it seems inevitable that one of their episodes would have to slip. Siren is mess. The script feels like it was stitched together from two different story ideas – each of which might have sustained its own intriguing forty-five minute episode. However, cramming both of those ideas into a single script means that neither feels as developed or as explored as it might be.

At the same time, the careful structuring of the season makes it quite what Siren is trying to do. There are a wealth of interesting ideas here that very clearly and very logically serve the larger arc of the second season. However, it often feels like this weight derives not from Siren itself, but from the outline of Siren created when all the other episodes in the season click together.

Hear him out...

Hear him out…

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