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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Treachery, Faith and the Great River (Review)

Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a beautiful piece of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a meditation on everything suggested by the title, recurring themes across the seven-season run of Deep Space Nine. Indeed, it is a reflection on how each of those three concepts all tie back to the same notion of belief. Treachery is what happens when belief is betrayed, faith is what happens when belief is held without validation, and the great river reflects a more generic belief in the balance and distribution of the wider universe. Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a story about belief and the various forms that it takes, and the rewards that it offers.

“And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?”

In many ways, Treachery, Faith and the Great River marks a return to the sort of softer religious belief that defined the early seasons of Deep Space Nine. It is an episode that engages with the challenges of faith, rather than taking it at face value. It is no small irony that an episode as nuanced as Treachery, Faith and the Great River should be credited to the writers responsible for The Reckoning. In many ways, Treachery, Faith and the Great River asks what it means to truly believe in something, even knowing that this belief might never be rewarded.

Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a story about looking for the divine, and the answers that are offered in return.

Weyoun Six, Weyoun Seven…
All good clones go to heaven…

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Non-Review Review: Silence

Faith is a curious thing.

It is a fascinating concept, even (and perhaps especially) for those who lack it or wrestle with it. Pure and untempered faith in the face of a turbulent (and occasionally hostile) world is intriguing. It is something that many long to understand, even if it eludes them. Silence is very much a meditation (or an extended monologue) on the nature of religious belief playing out as a set of conversations and moral dilemmas. Characters wrestle with doubt and uncertainty, and particularly about what their faith means to them.

Easy pray.

Easy pray.

Silence is not a masterpiece or an epic. It is not one of Martin Scorsese’s major works, despite the energy and conviction with which he invests it. It is the weakest film from the director in a very long time, although that sounds very much like praising with faint criticism. Silence is a little too invested in its own dialogue with itself, as delivered through a series of monologues and occasionally through conversation between characters. Silence looks beautiful, but it often feels a little bit like a stunning visual companion to a book on tape.

And yet, in spite of all of this, there is an endearing earnestness to the film. Silence feels like the product of a long and considered reflection on the nature of faith and its place in the world. It never lacks for ambition or vision, playing as a two-and-a-half hour parable about suffering and transcendence. Silence is more interesting than successful, but that is largely because it is so very interesting.

Gotta have faith.

Gotta have faith.

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The X-Files – Badlaa (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Badlaa is a disturbing and unsettling piece of television.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about it might be the fact that this is the last truly memorable monster of the week.

"Well, this sure beats the way I got in."

“Well, this sure beats the way I got in.”

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The X-Files – All Souls (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.

There are a lot of aspects of The X-Files that mark it as an artifact of the nineties.

It is easy to point to all the visual cues and indicators – the mobile phones, the suits, the cars. The political elements are all in play as well – the unquestioned assumption that the United States is the global superpower, the indulgence in a paranoia that exists in sharp contrast to the material prosperity surrounding it. There are even any number of pop cultural references buried within episodes themselves – from Byers and Frohike joking about Bill Clinton’s haircut in Fearful Symmetry to Scully quoting Babe in Home.

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

However, perhaps the most obvious indicator of the nineties is the way that The X-Files seems to fetishise absolute and unquestioning faith. Through episodes like Miracle Man, RevelationsAll Souls and Signs and Wonders, there is the recurring sense that giving oneself over absolutely and completely to religious faith is a sign of strength and certainty. At times, it seems like the writers are almost envious of those who have unwavering conviction in their beliefs amid the wry cynicism of the nineties.

The X-Files finds something romantic in such pure and uncompromised faith. After all, Gethsemane had proved that even Mulder has his doubts. This fixation on unquestioning religious belief made a great deal of sense against the backdrop of nineties disillusionment, but it a lot more uncomfortable when examined in hindsight through the prism of the early twenty-first century.

Scully has seen the light...

Scully has seen the light…

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The X-Files – Kaddish (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.

Kaddish is the last solo script that Howard Gordon wrote for The X-Files.

The writer would remain part of the writing staff until the end of the fourth season, contributing to scripts like Unrequited or Zero Sum. However, Kaddish would be the last script credited to Howard Gordon alone. So Gordon does not quite get the clean farewell that Darin Morgan got with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or that Glen Morgan and Howard Wong received with Never Again. Instead, Howard Gordon remains a pretty significant presence on the show even after writing his final solo script.

The word made flesh...

The word made flesh…

Nevertheless, Kaddish is packed with a lot of the images and themes associated with Gordon’s work. As with Fresh Bones or Teliko, it is a horror story set within a distinct ethnic community. As with Firewalker or Død Kälm or Grotesque, there is an element of body horror at play. As with Lazarus or Born Again, this is essentially a supernatural revenge story. Kaddish offers a distilled collection of the tropes and signifiers that Gordon helped to define for The X-Files, making it an appropriate final script for the writer.

It helps that Kaddish is a surprisingly sweet and thoughtful little horror story.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

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