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Oh My God: Modern Cinematic Depictions of the Almighty…

Religion is understandably one of the great cinematic themes.

After all, religion provides a way of making sense of a seemingly chaotic world, of imposing order upon the universe. More than that, it connects into any number of other rich themes, from man’s place in the grand scheme of things to the art of creation. However, religion is understandably a subject that needs to be treated with some delicacy, joining sex and politics on topics to be avoided in dinner table conversation. Of course, there has always been a market for religious subject matter in cinema.

Classic Hollywood produced any number of broad religious epics for public consumption, films like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. These stories blended familiar biblical narratives with large-scale spectacle, offering reassuring tales of conventional heroics often anchored in Christian iconography. These biblical epics faded from view towards the end of the sixties; perhaps tellingly, they faded out of view around the same time as that other American creation myth, the western.

However, there remains a market for religious entertainment. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of smaller Christian-based movie studios producing wholesome narratives couched in religious language and imagery. Films like Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead are clearly calibrated to appeal to a very particular market instead of a broader audience, akin to specialty cinema like Bollywood. However, entire studios exist to feed this market and provide a solid return on a reasonable budget; just look at Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage.

Nic Cage doesn’t get raptured. It turns out God has seen the remake of The Wicker Man.

While these specialty studios are offering a much more conventional and old-school depiction of divinity and religion, there is something interesting happening in more mainstream cinema. The twenty-first century has seen a number of high-profile creators grappling with strong religious themes in explicitly Christian terms, and – in doing so – offering a number of provocative and subversive interpretations of God.

Note: the post will include spoilers for mother! If you have not seen the film yet, proceed at your own peril.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Reckoning (Review)

The end is nigh.

As the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine draws to a close, the production team are increasingly aware that things will be wrapping up shortly. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, setting a nice target for the spin-offs. Indeed, most of the sixth season had been spent discussing contract extensions with the cast for a final season. The writers (and the cast) knew that the seventh season would be the last. As the sixth season wound down, that massive deadline loomed large.

That’s gonna leave a stain.

The long-term storytelling on Deep Space Nine was largely improvised on the fly, with the writers adding new and interesting twists to the mythology as they went; this led to strange-in-hindsight tangents like Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light. There had never really been a long-term plan, explaining why seemingly important plot points like Bajor’s admittance to the Federation seemed to just drop off the table after Rapture.

At best, the writers on Deep Space Nine knew the direction in which they were moving, but had not charted the course that they would follow. Still, a looming deadline tends to focus the mind. In the final third of the sixth season, the production team begin aligning plot points and character arcs towards the end of the story. Ira Steven Behr wrote His Way in large part because he wanted to introduce Vic Fontaine and pair off Kira and Odo, realising that time was working against him.

Who Prophets?

The Reckoning is a story about the end of days, in more ways than one. Broadcast in April 1998, it perfectly taps into the millennial eschatology that had taken root in the popular consciousness in the lead up to the twenty-first century. The Reckoning posits an epic battle between good and evil that will mark the end of an epoch, tapping into an anxiety simmering through popular culture in television shows like Millennium and films like End of Days. As the nineties came to a close, there was a clear anxiety about what the future might hold, if it existed at all.

However, The Reckoning also feels like a conscious effort to align various characters and plot beats in service of the final season ahead. The Reckoning properly seeds an entire subplot that will play through the remainder for the show, from Tears of the Prophets through to What You Leave Behind. Character motivations are made clear, stakes are heightened, mythology is explained. All of this is very much in service of where the writers plan for Deep Space Nine to go.

The wormhole in things…

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Harsh Realm – Leviathan (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The first three episodes of Harsh Realm are an interesting combination, and not just because they were the only three episodes of the show to air before cancellation.

All three episodes are written by Chris Carter. The first two are directed by Daniel Sackheim. Taken together, they form a loose triptych. They are effectively three separate stories that come together to form a three-part pilot for the show. It is only by the end of Inga Fossa that Thomas Hobbes (and the audience) fully accept the virtual world into which they have been placed, embracing the hero’s journey that lies ahead. It isn’t until Kein Ausgang that the show really offers the audience a sense of how it might work on a weekly basis.

Fading out...

Fading out…

This is not to suggest that the events of The Pilot flow elegantly into Leviathan, nor that the events of Leviathan bleed over into Inga Fossa. All three episodes of television are discreet and individual; foreshadowing the format that the show would take in its relatively brief life. Interestingly, Carter does not take advantage of the show’s video game structure to enforce more rigid serialisation. If anything, most the nine episodes (particularly the back six) are rigidly episodic.

Leviathan is particularly relaxed in its structure. The Pilot offered all the spectacle and exposition necessary to establish Harsh Realm. In contrast, Leviathan is a bit more focused on mood and atmosphere. There is an impressive action sequence to close out the episode, but there is a larger sense that Leviathan is about establishing what day-to-day existence must be like in this virtual world.

General problems...

General problems…

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Millennium – Anamnesis (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.

In Arcadia Ego and Anamnesis form a strange late-season duology, exploring the roles of important female Christian icons.

In Arcadia Ego was the story of a (possibly) divine conception and birth, one evoking the story of the Virgin Mary. Initially, it seems like Anamnesis is another story about the Virgin Mary, when a bunch of high-school girls claim to have seen a religious apparition in their local church. However, after a bit of investigation, it quickly becomes clear that the religious figure at the centre of Anamnesis is not the Virgin Mary, but is instead the other major female character from the Gospels; it is Mary Magdalene.

Holy Mary...

Holy Mary…

Appropriately enough for an episode built around a female character who is often ignored and overlooked, Anamnesis is an episode largely driven by two of  the series’ three most prominent female characters. Anamnesis follows an investigation into this hysteria led by Catherine Black and assisted by Lara Means. As a matter of fact, Anamnesis is the only episode of Millennium that does not feature Frank Black. According to an interview with Back to Frank Black, writers Kay Reindl and Erin Maher had considered including him via phonecall, but quickly dropped that idea.

Anamnesis is a fascinating piece of television. It is a script written by two female writers, driven by two female regulars, investigating a case built around a mostly female guest cast. It is a testament to just how far Millennium has come in its second season that it can do a show like this. The first season had no female writers and had only Catherine Black as a prominent female character. It is the great that show can something like this, but do it so casually and effortlessly. Anamnesis is an underrated and overlooked second season script.

Going around in circles...

Going around in circles…

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Star Trek – Bread and Circuses (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Bread and Circuses is not subtle. Then again, that is the point.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Bread and Circuses, the fourteenth episode produced for the second season, but the last to air. There’s the idea of a world dominated by “a twentieth century Rome”, a rogue captain, a Prime Directive dilemma and a scathing indictment of modern television. Not only is it one of the last episodes with a “produced by Gene L. Coon” credit, it is also an episode co-written by Roddenberry and Coon. It is also the episode of Star Trek that endorses Christianity most explicitly and heavily.

"Wait, we're only getting it in black and white?"

“Wait, we’re only getting it in black and white?”

Bread and Circuses is a bold and audacious piece of television, full of venom and righteous anger, rich in satire and cynicism. It’s a plot so ridiculously over-stuffed with good ideas that viewers are liable to forgive the show’s somewhat cop-out ending where Kirk and his away team beam back to the Enterprise and continue on their merry way as though little has actually happened. Bread and Circuses feels like it uses every minute of its fifty-minute runtime wisely, balancing character with world-building.

It is probably a little bit too messy and disjointed to be labelled a dyed-in-the-wool classic, particularly when compared to the shows produced around it. Nevertheless, it is a decidedly ambitious piece of work, and one that demonstrates what Star Trek could do when it sets its mind to something.

When in Rome...

When in Rome…

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Star Trek – Who Mourns For Adonais? (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

In many respects, Who Mourns for Adonais? is a formative episode for Star Trek as a franchise. It’s a show that really informs a lot of the franchise that would follow, even beyond the confines of the original television show. It’s an episode that represents the first clear articulation of a strand of thought that has been bubbling away through the first season of Star Trek and into the second, exploring the religious side of the Star Trek universe and mankind’s place in the cosmos.

The episode is iconic and memorable. It is packed with images that are familiar to even the most casual of fans. “Kirk confronts a Greek god in deep space!” is a catchy premise. “A giant hand grabs the Enterprise and threatens to crush the ship!” is the type of delightfully insane visual that ranks with “Captain Kirk as a Nazi!” or “space Lincoln!” when it comes to Star Trek visuals that stick with people outside the context of the show itself. Coupled with the distillation of those themes, this is a “big” episode.

"Jack, I'm flying!"

“Jack, I’m flying!”

Unfortunately, Who Mourns for Adonais? is also a deeply troubling episode. It has problems heaped upon problems. Some of those problems are inherited from the general aesthetic of the show, and are not specific to this episode. However, some of those problems are explicitly articulated here. Who Mourns for Adonais? is an episode that embodies quite a few of the very serious problems that run through the original Star Trek and haunt the franchise for quite some time.

The fact that these problems come baked into an iconic and memorable episode is disappointing.

"Oh, your gods..."

“Oh, your gods…”

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The X-Files – Fresh Bones (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Written by Howard Gordon and directed by Rob Bowman, Fresh Bones is a superbly constructed piece of television. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Fresh Bones is the best “traditional” episode of The X-Files produced since Scully returned to the fold. While episodes like Irresistible and Die Hand Die Verletzt have been bold and adventurous in their attempts to expand the show’s comfort zone, Fresh Bones is perhaps the best example of what the show was missing while Gillian Anderson was unavailable – proof the familiar formula still works.

It’s a great example of what might be termed “the standard X-Files episode” – a demonstration of how all the moving parts come together to produce an episode of the show, offering an example of the series’ standard operating practice. If you were to pick an episode of the second season to demonstrate how a “standard” episode of The X-Files should work, Fresh Bones would be perhaps the most appropriate example. (Aubrey and Our Town are perhaps the only two other examples.)

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

In keeping with Bowman’s approach to the series, Fresh Bones feels like a forty-five minute movie. The show atmospherically shot with some wonderful kinetic sequences – such as Mulder’s pursuit of Chester on the pier or Scully’s attack in the car. The Voodoo subject matter lends Fresh Bones a wonderfully pulpy atmosphere, although it seems like Howard Gordon has done his homework. The script to Fresh Bones averts many of the awkward stereotypes you’d expect in a show about Voodoo starring two white leads produced in Vancouver.

The result is a superb piece of television, an example of what The X-Files is capable of.

A bone to pick...

A bone to pick…

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The X-Files – Die Hand Die Verletzt (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Die Hand Die Verletzt is a fascinating piece of work, for a number of reasons. The most striking reason, however, is that it is essentially a comedy episode. While The X-Files has always had a wry sense of humour – Mulder’s viewing habits are a recurring joke, after all – this is the first time the series has tried to produce a full-length comedy episode. Die Hand Die Verletzt is still a horror story, and the comedy is pretty black, but it does seem to prove that the show can do an entire episode that is funny.

The implications of this are far-reaching. At its height, the beauty of The X-Files was its versatility. The show could tell just about any sort of story imaginable, flitting between prestige drama, out-and-out horror, pastiche, broad comedy, political thriller, satire or even romance. While you could always bet on at least a hint of the supernatural and a dash of horror, The X-Files could really be anything that Chris Carter and his writers wanted it to be. It was even a show that could collide with other shows, as in The Springfield Files or X-Cops.

She's the devil in disguise...

She’s the devil in disguise…

To be fair, the second season is already reaching towards that approach to The X-Files. Although he has yet to produce a script for the series, the show has hired Darin Morgan to work on the writing team; his sensibilities would be proven truly and brilliantly gonzo. Irresistible proved that you could produce an episode of The X-Files without an overt supernatural horror, focusing on a more grounded horror. Red Museum provided an “almost crossover” with another television series.

However, Die Hand Die Verletzt is the point at which the show does something that looks truly weird in the context of what has come before, yet feeling strangely comfortable in light of what has followed. The script may mark the departure of Glen Morgan and James Wong from the show – the duo leaving to produce Space: Above & Beyond – but it isn’t the end of an era so much as the start of a new one.

The writing's on the... er... chalkboard...

The writing’s on the… er… chalkboard…

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Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A Christmas Carol originally aired in 2010.

If you’re my babysitter, why are you climbing in the window?

Because if I was climbing out of the window, I’d be going in the wrong direction. Pay attention.

– Kazran and the Doctor get things straight

A Christmas Carol might just be the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever produced, if only because it’s such a brilliantly obvious idea, executed with the show’s traditional wit and charm. Russell T. Davies tended to write the Christmas Special in the style of a gigantic blockbuster episode of Doctor Who, but Moffat adopts a slightly different approach to what has quickly become the annual tradition of the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Davies traditionally had the Doctor collide with genres of Christmas television viewing. The Christmas Invasion was American blockbuster sci-fi, The Runaway Bride was fun odd-couple comedy action film, Voyage of the Damned was a disaster flick in space and The Next Doctor was a celebration of quaint Victoriana. In contrast, Moffat has Doctor Who collide with beloved children’s stories in his first two Christmas Specials. His second two are burdened with dealing with left-over plot threads.

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most effective distillation of “Doctor Who as a story” that the show has ever managed, on top of being a wonderfully moving piece of Christmas television and hitting on the major themes of the Moffat era as a whole.

Turning back the clock...

Turning back the clock…

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Non-Review Review: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

It’s very hard to know how to react to the seemingly bottomless pit of sex abuse allocations that have surfaced against the Catholic Church over the past couple of decades. Mea Maxima Culpa reveals that not only does the institutional abuse reach far into the past of the religious organisation, but that the Vatican was aware of these betrayals and violations of trusts for forty years. Mea Maxima Culpa is brutally candid in the way that it exposes the steps that the Catholic Church took to insulate and protect itself from these allegations and insinuations, even pointing out that most modern concessions and apologies are more concerned about the violation of the sanctity of the priesthood than with the damage done to the victims.

Mea Maxima Culpa is rough and overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to fault the documentary for this candid approach to the most uncomfortable subject matter. It’s well-constructed, thoughtful and also quite affecting – a powerful piece of documentary cinema that really exposes the true extent of a problem that has only been acknowledged in the past decade or so.

meamaximaculpa6

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