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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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The X-Files – Redux II (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.

Redux II would be a lot better if the audience believed anything that the episode was saying.

In fact, Redux II would be a lot better if it seemed like the show itself believed anything that the episode was saying.

"Hm. That resolution is unsatisfying. Deeply unsatisfying."

“Hm. That resolution is unsatisfying. Deeply unsatisfying.”

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The X-Files – Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

“No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Light 'em up...

Light ’em up…

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