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149. American Beauty – Summer of ’99 (#73)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, 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, continuing our Summer of ’99 season, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, The Green MileThe Insider, Run, Lola, Run. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

Trapped in a loveless marriage and father to a daughter who wants him dead, Lester Burnham finds himself going through a midlife crisis. In the year leading up to his death, Lester attempts to reconnect with his youth and rediscover the man that he once was before the embers die out for good.

At time of recording, it was ranked 73rd on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Natural Law (Review)

Natural Law represents another vaguely nostalgic entry in the final season of Star Trek: Voyager.

Most superficially, Natural Law evokes the vague New Age sentiment that defined a lot of the early episodes focusing on Chakotay – episodes like The Cloud or Tattoo. It feels entirely appropriate that Chakotay should be part of the away team to encounter the Ventu, as the presentation of the Ventu evokes a lot of the early approach to Chakotay’s own Native American heritage; a romanticised ideal of a more primitive culture. In fact, it seems entirely plausible that the aliens who build the shield to protect the Ventu – the mysterious “Species 312” – might in fact be the same white-skinned aliens encountered in Tattoo.

“I can see what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue…”

More specifically, though, Natural Law represents a familiar archetypal Star Trek episodes. Although the words are not actually spoken within the episode itself, Natural Law is pretty much a textbook “Prime Directive” episode. It belongs to that familiar subset of stories about the crew encountering a group of primitive aliens affected by a piece of outside technology, and trying to weigh their obligation to help that society with their desire not to directly intervene. The Ventu are a familiar native archetype, albeit one handled with a little more grace and dignity than the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple.

There is something very interesting in Natural Law, particularly in the context of the seventh season’s recurring fascination with tying Voyager back to the roots of the Star Trek franchise with references to Kirk in episodes like Q2 and Friendship One. Ironically, Natural Law only underscores how far removed Voyager is from the original Star Trek. Kirk often struggled to justify bending the Prime Directive to liberate societies trapped in oppressive circumstances and kept in arrested development. In contrast, Natural Law strains to justify the washing of the crew’s hands. More than that, Natural Law reveals the true purpose of the Prime Directive has nothing to do with primitive cultures.

The rise and falls…

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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an amazing Spider-man movie.

There is no other way to describe it. Into the Spider-Verse is a clean lock for the best superhero film of the year, neatly leapfrogging the superlative Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse is also the best animated film of the year, placing comfortably ahead of The Breadwinner or Incredibles 2. In fact, it seems fairly safe to describe Into the Spider-Verse as the best feature film starring Spider-Man since Spider-Man II. Even that feels like hedging, and would be a very closely run race.

Just dive on in.

Into the Spider-Verse is a creative triumph. It is a fantastically constructed movie, in virtually every way. The film’s unique approach to animation will inevitably dominate discussions, and understandably so. Into the Spider-Verse is a visually sumptuous piece of cinema that looks unlike anything ever committed to film. However, the film’s storytelling is just as impressive if decidedly (and consciously) less showy in its construction. Adding a phenomenal cast, Into the Spider-Verse is just a film that works in an incredibly infectious and engaging way.

Into the Spider-Verse does whatever a Spider-Man movie can. And then some.

Suits him.

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97. The Open House (-#58)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. The Bottom 100 is a special series of episodes that will be randomly interspaced with regular releases, covering the way in which the Internet Movie Database recently renovated their list of the worst movies ever made to include more populist fare.

This time Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s The Open House.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Live Fast and Prosper (Review)

Live Fast and Prosper is a reasonably adequate mid-tier episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is not awful. It has an interesting premise, with some interesting potential for development and exploration. It fits with some of the larger fascinations of Voyager – in particularly recurring themes of identity and narrative, and the intersection of the two. More than that, unlike a lot of Voyager episodes, it has a story that feels somewhat original. This is not a dull rehash of a familiar story, a shiny new exterior hastily assembled over a familiar storytelling engine.

“Get this… whatever it is… to Sickbay!”

At the same time, it is also not very good of itself. Although Live Fast and Prosper has an absolutely ingenious premise, it never seems to push itself beyond that point. It never makes the leap that the best stories make, from an interesting premise into a satisfying execution. Live Fast and Prosper is pretty much exactly the episode that every audience member would anticipate given the one-line plot description of “Voyager encounters a group of con artists who have been impersonating them for shady business deals.”

The result is an hour of television that is solid, if not impressive. Live Fast and Prosper feels like a middling delivery on a fantastic promise, to the point where its status as merely adequate is almost as severe a disappointment as some of the spectacular misfires around it.

Unfamiliar faces…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Course: Oblivion (Review)

Course: Oblivion is a fantastic piece of television, in large part because of how strange and surreal it feels. Like Distant Origin or Living Witness, it is an episode that demonstrates how effective Star Trek: Voyager can be, once it is willing to push itself beyond the template of familiar Star Trek storytelling. Course: Oblivion is a staggeringly weird piece of television, a bottle episode filmed with the primary cast on standing sets, but which only features the briefest of appearances from the regular characters.

More than that, Course: Oblivion effectively weaponises many of the long-standing weaknesses and clichés associated with the storytelling on Voyager. It is the very definition of a “reset” button episode, in that the events (and the ending) of the episode are both catastrophic in scale and utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. In some ways, Course: Oblivion is the quintessential Voyager episode, distilling the destruction of Voyager and the death of Janeway into a tragedy with absolutely no repercussions.

‘Til death do us…

Voyager could often feel generic and disconnected, a show without a unique identity. In many ways, Course: Oblivion is very unique to Voyager in that it builds those core ideas into the very fabric of the episode, constructing an episode that reflects Voyager‘s identity by channeling its identity crisis. As with various other episodes of the fifth season, like Night and TimelessCourse: Oblivion builds a meta-text around the anxieties rippling through Voyager at this point in the run.

However, Course: Oblivion is more than just an effective illustration of Voyager‘s storytelling tropes and unique sensibility. Course: Oblivion is also an episode that taps into a lot of the anxieties bleeding through the zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium. Voyager was undoubtedly a television of its time, and tended to reflect the existential paranoia of the nineties. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to grapple with a person’s own unreality, to wrestle with an existence where meaning no longer exists, and everything is illusory.

“… well, that was quicker than expected.”

Even beyond those themes that anchor Course: Oblivion is the cultural landscape of the late nineties, the episode ties back into broader Star Trek themes. One of the great strengths of the Star Trek franchise is the freedom to use a science-fiction template to explore big questions. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to face death, in a manner very distinct from the way that television usually treats death. The death in Course: Oblivion is not meaningful or epic or heroic. The death in Course: Oblivion is inevitable decay, a murmur in an infinite void.

The result is one of the most striking and effective episodes that Voyager ever produced, and easily the most ambitious episode of the fifth season as a whole.

Face off.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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