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“Black Panther”, “Crazy Rich Asians”, and American Dreaming in 2018…

The silver screen is not just a window, it is occasionally a mirror as well.

The cinematic gaze reveals a lot. Not just about the object in focus, but about the filmmaker (and the audience) behind the gaze. Although independent and arthouse cinema is thriving in the twenty-first century, and though home media is fundamentally changing the way that people consume media, the cinema will always be a communal space. A group of people sitting in a room together, bathed in projected light. There are obviously debates to be had about to what extent cinema reflects culture as much as it acts upon it, but there is undoubtedly a symbiosis there.

Cinema reveals a lot about contemporary culture, and not just “worthy” cinema that tends to get cited by critics as “the most important” or “the most timely” media of its particular moment. Indeed, there is perhaps something more revealing in looking at media that doesn’t consciously invite these comparisons, that doesn’t trumpet the manner in which it speaks to a particular moment. Sometimes it is more revealing to look at the films that aren’t saying anything, or at least are not consciously or overtly saying anything, about the current political moment.

In fact, it’s often a lot easier to get a sense of what is bubbling through the popular consciousness (or even the popular subconscious) by looking at low-budget “disposable” fare like horror movies than it is be interrogating more respectable and self-conscious fare. It is no coincidence that the past decade has seen a resurgence in haunted house and home invasion horror like The Conjuring, The Strangers, The Purge or even Don’t Breathe, reflecting anxieties about the American home as a site of horror in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Popular cinema is similarly a fascinating prism through which to examine contemporary American culture, to get a sense of how the United States sees both itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. It’s a glimpse into the nation’s psyche, offering a messy and dynamic dive beneath the polished exterior. It cuts through a lot of contemporary politics, foregoing accuracy in favour of a general aesthetic. It is a sketch more than a portrait, but that sketch can be instructive and revealing of itself.

In particular, the twin releases of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians over the past year suggest something interesting about modern conceptions of the American Dream.

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The X-Files – Three of a Kind (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Unusual Suspects is perhaps an underrated episode.

The third episode broadcast of the fifth season is a light adventure that offers viewers an origin story of the Lone Gunman. Byers, Langley and Frohike have been around since E.B.E. towards the end of the first season, and have become an integral part of the show’s ensemble cast. Unusual Suspects is frequently written off as a piece of fluff designed to work around the limited availability of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson due to on-going production work on The X-Files: Fight the Future.

Viva Las Vegas...

Viva Las Vegas…

This seems dismissive of Vince Gilligan’s paranoid origin story, which is one of the few times that Gilligan engages directly with the themes that underpin the sprawling mythology at the heart of the show. Unusual Suspects is not a “mythology episode” in the way that gets episodes repackaged on DVD collections, but it does explore the idea of conspiracy and paranoia as a personal narrative. Unusual Suspects is a very sweet story about a lost and heartbroken man who builds a conspiracy mythology around himself because he has nothing else to do.

Three of a Kind is very much a sequel episode to Unusual Suspects, focusing again on the Lone Gunmen and bringing back Susanne Modeski. However, it is a much lighter and more disposable story. Barring the beautifully crafted prologue, Three of a Kind is an entirely disposable episode of television. It feels like filler. It is neither a beginning nor an end to the story of Byers or the Lone Gunmen. It is just a long middle, with the characters ending up back where they began. In a way, this makes it feel very much like a standard sixth season episode.

A man alone...

A man alone…

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Space: Above & Beyond – Pilot (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Space: Above and Beyond made a great deal of sense in the context of the mid-nineties. Fox had begun its life as a scrappy little network that had trouble producing seven nights of broadcasting, but had rapidly solidified itself into a credible alternative to the big three networks. There were lots of reasons for this. The X-Files was one reason, but the network had also solidified itself with a slate of popular young dramas like Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Party of Five. Securing the NFL rights in 1993 didn’t hurt.

By late 1995, Fox was largely past the growing pains stage of its evolution. The network had been announced in late 1985, and first hit the airwaves in late 1986. It was approach the end of its first decade by the time Space: Above and Beyond was broadcast. Fox was no longer a small network fighting for scraps, but a viable challenger to the so-called “big three.” This change in outlook would lead to great success in the twenty-first century, but would also lead to change in how Fox did business.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

The X-Files had been the right show at the right time in a number of ways. It landed at the perfect point to speak to a generation that grew up in the shadow of Watergate, but also to tap into millennial anxieties and insecurities. From a commercial perspective, The X-Files launched towards the end of the period where Fox could take chances on young shows struggling to find an audience. The first season of The X-Files was a cult hit, but not a breakout success story. The network had faith in the show, and that faith paid off.

It is interesting to wonder whether The X-Files would have received a second season if it débuted even two years later. After all, Fox would develop a reputation as a network with a ruthless tendency towards cancellation and plug-pulling. If The X-Files had first appeared in September 1995, would it have enjoyed the same fate as Space: Above and Beyond?

Distant sands...

Distant sands…

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Girl in the Flower Dress (Review)

The first few episodes of any new show are about finding the right balance, striking the right tone. You experiment a bit, you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you try a number of new things knowing that only a few will pay off. The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t that none of the show’s experiments are coming to fruition. It’s that the show seems completely afraid to try anything new at all.

The Girl in the Flower Dress is the show’s fifth episode, but it already feels like something of a reheat, taking the best parts of The Pilot and The Asset, and synthesising them into a single familiar story.

The problem is that the best bits of The Pilot and The Asset weren’t anything to write home about.

A chip off the old block...

A chip off the old block…

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Severed by Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki (Review)

Severed is a distinctly American horror story, feeling like something of a companion piece to author Scott Snyder’s American Vampire or even the work of Stephen King. Set during the dark days of the first world war, it’s an exploration of the darker side of the American Dream, to the point where it’s quite telling that our narrator refers to the anonymous villain merely as “the Nightmare.” It’s rich, sophisticated and atmospheric storytelling, a modern American fable co-written by Scott Tuft and with bone-chilling illustrations from Attila Futaki that are sure to unsettle.

Not too far afield…

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The Sopranos: College (Review)

College is interesting because it perfectly captures a lot of the themes at the heart of The Sopranos, effortlessly blending Tony’s upper-middle-class concerns with his familial obligations (both to his nuclear family and to the mob). At the same time, it explores many of the inherently contradictory aspects of modern living, including the implied acquiesce to a culture of greed and corruption. College is the first time that we really see Tony get his own hands dirty, and it’s the point at which we explore how complicit Carmela is in his shady dealings and illegal activities. I think it’s a show that really pins down what the show is going to be – and it’s no surprise that the episode won Chase his first writing Emmy for the show, and is reportedly his favourite episode of the series.

Driving the conversation...

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Sopranos: Meadowlands (Review)

It’s interesting how slowly The Sopranos approached the violence of what Tony does. Of course, the pilot episode (The Sopranos) featured Tony brutally beating a debtor in an attempt to earn his money back and the subsequent episode (46 Long) featured Tony beating up an employee at the Bada-Bing for failing to work the telephone properly, but the show generally eased us into seeing Tony as a truly “bad” guy.

It was never ambiguous about his mob connections or the crimes and violence that he committed or that he authorised others to commit, but the first few episodes generally keep that violence somewhat insulated from Tony. Paulie and Pussy brutalise the car thieves to reclaim a teacher’s lost car, while Tony’s threatened castration of a Jewish man refusing to play ball is kept off-screen. While Tony would commit his first on-screen murder in the next episode (College), Meadowlands feels like the first episode to truly present Tony as a borderline sociopath, and to demonstrate just how aggressive and possessive he can be.

Paying respects...

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