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The Great Inception, and the Movies that Made Us…

This week, the podcast I host, The 250, will be marking its one hundredth episode with a look at Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I’m very much looking forward to it. It’ll be available on Saturday from 6pm UTC. I also have a book coming out on Christopher Nolan, titled “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films.” This is a much more personal (and much less detailed) discussion of Inception than the one in the book. So, if you like this piece, it might be worth a look.

I’ve always been somewhat wary of Inception.

I mean, Inception is a fantastic movie. There is a reason that it is so beloved and so highly regarded. It is perhaps one of the four core Christopher Nolan films, along with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. It is the rare big budget blockbuster with no longstanding association to established intellectual property, and one of the few to succeed on that sort of level. Indeed, the only other comparable examples on a similar scale are Interstellar and Dunkirk, both directed by Christopher Nolan.

More than that, Inception has permeated the popular consciousness. It is a film that has become part of the broader conversation. It seems that barely a few months can go by without another hot take on that closing scene, with news coverage of commencement speeches or interviews with actors. More than that, the film itself has become something of a critical and popular shorthand. It is a stock comparison for any movie or television show with a vaguely similar concept. Maniac is the most recent example, even inviting the comparison with an elaborate hallway action scene in its penultimate episode.

And yet, in spite of that, Inception is a movie of which I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship. I still adore it, as I adore most of Nolan’s filmography. I think its reputation is well-earned, and I think it excels by every measure that it sets itself. It delivers on just about every front, showcasing Nolan as a director with incredible command of both the form itself and the audiences watching these films. Inception is a big and broad crowdpleaser that is also a surprisingly intimate and personal film, which works as both a story and as a showcase. It is thrilling, it is engaging, it is compelling.

However, there’s something underneath the surface that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. A large part of this is simply down to the fact that it’s a movie that is fundamentally about movies. This is nothing new of itself. All of Nolan’s movies are about stories, whether personal or cultural. In fact, it could be argued that the central trilogy of Nolan’s work is actually The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, a trilogy of films that seem to be about the challenges of constructing and maintaining spectacle, arriving at a point in the director’s career where Nolan was transitioning from smaller films to high-profile epics.

Inception is the most transparent of these films, exploring most directly the mechanics of how storytelling works within a cinematic framework. There are even scenes of characters discussing in relatively clinical terms the mechanics of catharsis and how best to emotional manipulate their target audience. Inception feels very much like Nolan is stopping and deconstructing his stopwatch storytelling for the benefit of the audience, revealing how the trick is done and how the pieces fit together. As with everything Nolan does, he does this with a great deal of skill and nuance. However, it can’t help but feel a little cynical.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Critical Care (Review)

Critical Care is the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager attempting to be archetypal Star Trek.

To be fair, Voyager had done this before. When Jeri Taylor took over the show during its third season, she steered it away from the disaster of the Kazon arc and towards a more conventional style of Star Trek storytelling. Many of the episodes of the later seasons could easily have been repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Enterprise without changing much beyond the characters’ names; think of Warlord, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments.

What’s up, Doc?

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, many of the best episodes of Voyager had this broad and generic quality to them, offering something resembling an archetypal distillation of Star Trek for audiences. Remember and Memorial were both stunning explorations of cultural memory and Holocaust denial that could arguably have worked with any Star Trek cast. Blink of an Eye was a beautiful science-fiction parable that was more about Star Trek itself than Voyager. Even Nemesis could have easily worked with Riker or O’Brien or Tucker as easily as it did with Chakotay.

However, there are also points when these attempts to create “archetypal Star Trek” feels cynical and exploitative, the writing staff very cynically offering audiences something that is designed to meet as many of the vaguely defined aesthetic qualities of Star Trek, but without any substance underneath it. This happens repeatedly during the seventh season of Voyager, when it seems like the production team understand what Star Trek looks and feels like enough to offer a passable approximation, but don’t understand the underlying mechanics enough to replicate that ineffable feeling.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

Like a lot of seventh season episodes, Critical Care is couched in the trappings of Star Trek but without any substance to group it. On the surface, Critical Care is classic “social commentary” storytelling, the type of allegorical narrative exemplified by stories like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or The High Ground. It is an episode about the horrors of contemporary healthcare, transposed to a distant alien world where Voyager can draw some very broad parallels for the audience watching at home. This is, on a very superficial level, what Star Trek is to a large number of fans.

Unfortunately, these touches do not add up to anything particularly insightful or compelling, Critical Care providing observations on contemporary American healthcare that amount to “this is pretty bad, isn’t it?” without anything resembling actual engagement. The result is a shell of an episode, a missed opportunity, and a pale imitation of the franchise’s best social commentary.

“What is up, Doc?”

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Luke Cage – All Souled Out (Review)

It is interesting watching Luke Cage in the age of Donald Trump.

The first season did not have to worry about such things. Luke Cage premiered in late September 2016, more than a month before Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the United States Presidential Election. The first season had entered production a year earlier, in September 2015, only fourth months after Donald Trump had announced his presidential bid. Production on the first season wrapped in March 2016, a couple of months before Ted Cruz would formally throw in the towel and affirm Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

However, the second season emerges in a highly-charged political environment where it seems like every piece of popular culture exists in the shadow of Donald Trump. Trump exerts a strange gravity over popular culture, making every piece of pop culture a strange referendum on his premiereship. Is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom about Donald J. Trump? How about Darkest Hour? Could the analogy stretch to Avengers: Infinity War? There is so much pop culture and so little time.

At the same time, it seems inevitable that the second season of Luke Cage would have to confront the legacy of Donald Trump and what he represents in American popular culture. However, the series does this in a rather interesting way.

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Non-Review Review: Ready Player One

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Reader Player One is a very curious piece of cinema. It is an incredibly flawed piece of work, with a lot of its flaws so fundamental that they are threaded into the very architecture of the film. Screenwriter Zak Penn has offered a very thorough and involved reinvention of Ernest Cline’s source novel, a ground-up renovation of Cline’s catalogue of popular culture references and collection of narrative tropes. Indeed, Penn’s screenplay improves a great deal on the novel that inspired it; junking and reworking entire sequences, bulking up supporting characters, trying to find a beating human heart.

Worlds apart.

More than that, Ready Player One provides Spielberg with the opportunity to go “all out.” There is a sense watching Ready Player One that Spielberg has approached the film not as a collection of popular culture references and in-jokes, but instead as an attempt to reconnect with a younger audience. Whether or not Reader Player One is the right source material for such an attempt, there is no denying Spielberg’s energy and vigour. Ready Player One is a dynamic piece of film, Spielberg demonstrating all the technique for which he is known, but with an enthusiasm that puts younger directors to shame.

However, there is no escaping the biggest issue with the film remains its source material. The problem with Ready Player One as a film is that it is an adaptation of Ready Player One as a novel.

Back to the past.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast Season 11 #35 – Barbara Beaumont and the Cult (“Nothing Lasts Forever”)

The second of three podcasts looking at the penultimate episode of what might be the final season of The X-Files, Nothing Lasts Forever.

Once again chatting with Carl Sweeney, this time we discuss the “monster of the week”, washed up immortal sixties starlet Barbara Beaumont and the cult that she has built around herself. Along the way, we discuss other supporting characters like Juliet and Doctor Luvenis, along with constructing a twenty-first century vampire story.

We’ll be back tomorrow talking about the combination of writer Karen Neilsen and director James Wong. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the episode. Click here, or check it out below.

Non-Review Review: Dawson City – Frozen Time

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

In 1978, the city of Dawson was demolishing an old ice rink to make room for a new recreational centre. During the demolition, the construction crews stumbled on something remarkable. Reels and canisters of films buried in the old swimming book, sealed away and forgotten about. This was a treasure trove for cinema historians, the unearthing of a collection that included films that had been presumed lost to history. It represented a tangible and literal connection to the rich history of cinema and – through that – to the history of American popular culture.

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary looking at this archeological discovery, but it is also so much more. Using footage taken from the recovered films, and from other contemporaneous materials, Morrison takes the audience on a trip through the cultural history of the eponymous settlement, from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century through to the unearthing of these nitrate film reels in the late seventies. The result is a beautiful and compelling exhumation of something much more than those invaluable and long-considered lost silent films.

Morrison weaves a fascinating and compelling narrative that seems to tie all of this together into a convincing and expansive social history. The result is a documentary with startling ambition and scope, in some ways reflecting the approach taken by those earliest of settlers panning for gold in the Yukon territory. Dawson City follows both the social evolution of the settlement and occasionally digresses to follow some of its most important inhabitants. Some of these digressions introduce players who will return to the narrative later in the film, both others suggest a broader social context for the film.

Dawson City is occasionally just a little bit too unfocused for its own good, casting its net just a little bit too wide to bring everything back together for an otherwise satisfying finale. Nevertheless, Dawson City is a powerful ode to a community and to cinematic history, one with big ideas and provocative insights.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Dogs of War (Review)

The Dogs of War is the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

As such, it has lots of important things to be doing. The episode’s primary function is to streamline the ongoing narratives so that they might all neatly feed into What You Leave Behind. The goal of any penultimate episode is to set up the shot so that the finale might punt the ball into the goal, in a manner that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Given that The Dogs of War is arriving towards the end of a seven-season series, a two-year war story, and a ten-episode closing arc, that is a lot of setting up to be done.

The best is Yates to come.

There is a lot of work to be done on paper. The plot thread focusing on the Pah-Wraiths has been dangling since When It Rains…, the Federation has not reengaged with the Breen since the disastrous encounter at the end of The Changeling Face of Evil, and Bajor hasn’t even mentioned the possibility of joining the Federation since Rapture or In the Cards. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense of The Dogs of War to focus on getting Bashir and Dax together while Quark thinks he is about to be Nagus as Damar is forced to hide in a cellar.

However, there is something inherently charming about how The Dogs of War chooses to prioritise threads over story beats that might seem more relevant or important, to dedicate a sizable chunk of the penultimate episode of Deep Space Nine to tying up a clumsy “will they?”/“won’t they?” romance and telling one last Ferengi story. The Dogs of War is an episode that speaks to what Deep Space Nine was, both in terms is esoteric plotting and its skewed-but-optimistic outlook. There might be better ways to wind down a series, but this is very Deep Space Nine.

Love in a turbolift.

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