Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

106. Fifty Shades of Grey (#-91)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, 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.

This time, Sam Taylor Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Doctor Who: Kerblam! (Review)

Watching Kerblam! makes for a very strange sensation.

As with the earlier stretch of the eleventh season, there is a sense that Chris Chibnall is consciously harking back to the era overseen by Russell T. Davies. This explains the opening present-future-past triptych of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, The Ghost Monument and Rosa. It also accounts for the positioning of Arachnids in the U.K. as an opportunity to spend time in the contemporary United Kingdom for the twin purposes of character development and broad political commentary.

A clean record.

Kerblam! is the kind of futuristic story that Davies would frequently tell early in his own seasons, like New Earth, Gridlock or Planet of the Ood. It might also be reflected in episodes like The Long Game or Midnight. Interestingly, the episode is populated with the sort of politically-coded iconography that defined those stories, iconography that had largely been stripped out of The Ghost Monument in favour of some broad asides about how late-stage capitalism is a destructive rat race without any real depth to them.

Kerblam! is very overtly a story about hypercapitalism, with the eponymous company obviously standing in for Amazon. This is much more overtly political than any subtext that could be read into the season’s other “future” stories like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum. Following on from episodes like Arachnids in the U.K. and Demons of the Punjab, it seems like Kerblam! might be positioned as bit of biting social commentary, using the broadly drawn science-fiction future in the same way as even Moffat era tales like The Beast Below, Smile or Oxygen.

Doesn’t scan.

On a purely surface level, Kerblam! looks like it might engage with the legacy of the Davies era as more than just a production aesthetic, understanding the potential to use a cartoonish and exaggerated science-fiction framework to slip in some genuinely provocative social commentary for family consumption. One of the great ironies of the Chibnall era has been the narrative that it is “too PC!”, despite the fact that it has actually been surprisingly moderate in its political ambitions. The surface level design of Kerblam! looks like a breath of fresh air in that context.

Unfortunately, the episode takes a number of very sharp swerves and veers crazily off course, featuring the surreal assumption that “the systems aren’t the problem.”

Difficulty Fezzing up to reality.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading