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Non-Review Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is over-stuffed, over-long, and unfocused. It is a muddle of big ideas thrown against one another, the sparks flying in whatever direction they will.

There is a sense in which writer and director Drew Goddard wants Bad Times at the El Royale to be about everything, to find some space within the movie for just about every possible allegory. It is difficult to explain what Bad Times at the El Royale is actually about, for reasons that extend beyond contemporary spoilerphobia. This is a movie that feels at once like it has important things to say, and a very abstract way of trying to say them.

Red guy at night, Hemsworth fans’ delight.

There is also something brilliant in all of this, in the way that Drew Goddard swings wildly at such a broad array of big ideas in such a surreal context. Bad Times at the El Royale is packed to the brim with big ideas, offering a story that could easily be read as scathing political commentary, powerful religious allegory, or biting social satire. It is an unashamedly odd film that is wrestling with a variety of interesting themes. If it can’t pick just a handful to focus upon, it is because there are so many rich veins to tap.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a bold and infuriating piece of pop art. It’s also unashamedly ambitious and enthusiastically esoteric. It’s a movie that certainly won’t be for everybody, but it is broadcasting very strongly on its own distinctive wavelength.

Flower power.

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North by Northwest to Psycho: The Breakdown of Moral Order on the Edge of the Sixties…

In the space of three years, Hitchcock produced Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Each of those three films is (rightly) regarded as a classic, and it is astounding that a single director could produce three such films back-to-back with only a year between each. Each of those films is massively influential, each of those films is loved by critics and audiences alike, and each of those films is radically different than the other two. Hitchcock remains one of the most influential and respected film directors of all time, and these three consecutive classics demonstrate his remarkable control of the form.

The road to nowhere.

It is important to separate the modern perception of these films from the reaction to them upon release. Very few classics are accurately identified as such by contemporary critics, often settling into that role over time. Vertigo was originally met with a somewhat muted critical response by critics and struggled to break even on release. Pyscho was largely dismissed by critics as the time as something crass and inelegant. In contrast, the contemporary critical reception of North by Northwest was a lot warmer.

However, time has arguably been kinder to Vertigo and Psycho than to North by Northwest. Vertigo is frequently identified as one of (if not the) best films ever made. Psycho is frequently cited as one of the most formative (and perhaps the best) horror films ever made. In contrast, North by Northwest can feel overshadowed by the films that flank it, even if it is hard to feel too sorry for a film that have been described by both Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich as “perfect.”

A shady deal…

Still, there is a sense that the lightness of North by Northwest has been held against it. Ben Oliver has stated that North by Northwest is “not typical film-school fodder.” Nathan Rabin explains that North by Northwest is a “glorious trifle of an adventure film” placed “between two of Hitchcock’s heaviest and most tormented films.” David Shariatmadari has speculated that “perhaps the lack of Freudian handwaving leads people to rate it poorly in comparison.” There is a sense that North by Northwest is somehow lesser than the heavier films around it.

Of course, this speaks to broader trends in how critics talk about art. There is a tendency to prioritise drama over comedy, to dismiss superficially lighter material in favour of weightier content. (Genre fare faces a similar bias, although it seems that science-fiction and horror are more likely receive a revaluation in the medium- to long-term.) North by Northwest is a lighter and fluffier film than either Vertigo or Psycho, but does that make it inherently lesser than either of them. More to the point, there is a surprising amount of Psycho to be found in North by Northwest.

The final curtain.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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Millennium – Darwin’s Eye (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.

There is a reckless abandon to the the late third season of Millennium that is oddly endearing.

The first half of the year seemed almost cautious and conservative, as if trying to smooth the rough edges off the show in the hopes of turning it into a more generic piece of television. That approach failed spectacularly, and hobbled the rest of the season. Towards the end of the third season, Millennium allowed itself to become a bit bolder and more abstract, proudly flying its freak flag high. The show found an energy and verve, throwing crazy concepts into scripts with reckless abandon and little regard for how they fit together.

Shady theories...

Shady theories…

It doesn’t entirely work. If anything, it underscores just how skilfully the second season had integrated these crazy ideas with a clear creative direction and a solid thematic foundation. The second season know roughly where it wanted to go, and so embarked on an epic journey towards that point. While the third season has its own thematic underpinnings, these feel more like recurring visual motifs and ideas than a clear purpose. As a result, the weirdness can seem detached and purposeless, abstract and surreal.

However, even when the late third season episodes don’t quite work, they remain interesting. There is a breathless energy to these stories that was sadly missing in the first stretch of the year. Darwin’s Eye is a prime example. It is not an episode that could be described as a success by any measure, but it is still ambitious and dynamic in a way that mitigates its failings. Somewhat.

That's one way to get a head in love...

That’s one way to get a head in love…

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Millennium – Owls (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.

I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places.

– Psalm 102:6

Birds of prey...

Birds of prey…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Cold Front (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It is customary, these days, for television shows to map out their mythologies years in advance. Depending on when you ask him, executive producer Bryan Fuller boasts of having a six- or seven-year plan for Hannibal, despite the fact that the show spends each cancellation period on the bubble line for NBC. Indeed, the move away from the standard television pilot format means that shows are encouraged to have long-form plots and arcs mapped out.

However, that isn’t always the case. The X-Files was very much made up as it went along, with little real thought put into how the show’s sprawling alien mythology hung together beyond the immediate future. Even heavily serialised shows like Lost or 24 were plotted as they went along, with plans radically changing as the show evolved. Unlike film, where you (mostly) need a finished story before you start filming, television is a medium where you don’t really need an ending in mind as you begin telling the story.

There's a lot on the (time) line...

There’s a lot on the (time) line…

So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Trek: Enterprise introduced the idea of the “Temporal Cold War” without any real idea of how the story was meant to develop or conclude. Although structured as something of a serialised arc among a (mostly) episodic couple of seasons, the Temporal Cold War is something that makes very little sense in the context of the show. Even years after the fact, the Temporal Cold War is a mystery, with Brannon Braga casually dropping the reveal that, well… Archer did it.

Of course, that plot development doesn’t make a lot of sense… but that’s par for the course. It is very hard to tie the various Enterprise time travel episodes together into a logical and cohesive narrative. Cold Front doesn’t even bother to answer questions immediately relevant to its own narrative, let alone hint at logical future developments for the series’ recurring time-travel plot line. It’s a story that seldom makes sense within individual episodes, let alone when they are strung together.

In space, all warriors are (temporal) cold warriors...

In space, all warriors are (temporal) cold warriors…

And yet, despite that, Cold Front is a pretty great episode. Part of that is down to the Temporal Cold War plot line, with Cold Front introducing a welcome sense of ambiguity to the conflict and selling the idea that Archer has wandered into something much larger than he can comprehend. On an otherwise quiet mission, Enterprise finds itself embroiled in a conflict between two forces that Archer does not fully understand, as if the ship and its crew have found themselves engaged on one front of a war in heaven.

However, Cold Front works just as well with the elements that exist outside the Temporal Cold War. As with Breaking the Ice, the episode plays like a regular day on board the Enterprise, as Archer and his crew find themselves welcoming religious pilgrims on board and making friendly first contact as they gather to watch some beautiful interstellar phenomenon. It’s an episode that draws attention to the quiet wonder and majesty of deep space exploration, elegantly and effectively.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

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