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Non-Review Review: Creed II

Creed II is a much better sequel than Rocky IV deserves.

At the heart of Creed II is the grudge match that fans of the franchise had been anticipating since the core concept of this “legacy-quel” series was first suggested. Adonis Creed in the ring against Viktor Drago. The son of Apollo Creed squaring off against the son of Ivan Drago, a generational rematch of the bout that cost Apollo Creed his life in Rocky IV. Adonis Creed is haunted by the name that he inherited from a father that he never met, and so it seems only reasonable that his film series would circle back around to allowing him closure on this.

A Rocky Road Less Travelled.

There is an irony in all of this. One of the central themes of Creed was the challenge of this spin-off movie franchise existing in the shadow of the original beloved Rocky series. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler rose to that challenge, and created one of the great franchise success stories of the twenty-first century. As a result, it occasionally feels like Creed II is not so much fighting to escape the shadow of Rocky IV as much as it is wrestling with the weight of Creed.

Creed II is a solid and sturdy sequel to Creed, although not a superior one. It isn’t necessarily the sequel that Creed deserves.

To the Viktor, the spoils…

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Non-Review Review: Mute

Mute is a bold and ambitious mess.

Mute is perhaps most interesting for what it is, and most frustrating in what it is about. In its own way, Mute stands as a triumph of the Netflix model. As it streams, Mute is undoubtedly the film that director Duncan Jones wanted to make. Indeed, it is next to impossible to imagine Mute making its way through the conventional studio system, and certainly not in the form that appeared on Netflix. Even watching the film play out, those never-materialised studio notes suggest themselves. (Most notably, “What is this film saying?”) There is nothing that feels like compromise about the film, and there is something very appealing in that.

However, there is also something deeply frustrating in Mute. The film is undoubtedly the unfiltered creative vision of its director, but there is something overwhelming in that. Mute is beautiful to look at, but almost too much to take in. Its world is vivid and fully formed, its atmosphere rich and evocative. However, there is something awkward in the story that unfolds within this dystopian landscape, the narrative never quite cohering in the same way as its grimy futuristic Cold War Berlin.

Mute is a film that is fascinating and impressive, if far from satisfying.

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Non-Review Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a beautiful emerald fairy tale, told from the fringes.

Set in the early sixties, against the backdrop of “the last days of a fair prince’s reign”, The Shape of Water promises to regale audience members with the story of “the princess without a voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all.” However the most striking aspect of The Shape of Water is in how it chooses to focus its magical story. The Shape of Water is a story largely about those who are silenced on the margins, right down to its decision to cast Sally Hawkins as protagonist Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner working in a secret government lab.

He’s in a glass case of emotion.

The Shape of Water is very much an exploration of the concept of “the other”, of the lives of those who exist outside the confines of “normal” society. The film’s central antagonist is a happily married white American man, who finds himself set against a collection of misfits and outcasts; a mute orphan, a black cleaning lady, a gay designer, an immigrant scientist, and a monstrosity pulled from the depths of the Amazon river. Coasting from the conservative fifties, Colonel Richard Strickland faces the threat that everything he accepts as granted might be washed away.

The Shape of Water suffers from some minor pacing problems in its romantic adventure, but these are minor issues in a haunting and enchanting piece of work.

The Creature from the Black Ops Department.

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Non-Review Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a very pretty mess.

Atomic Blonde is a stylistic showcase for director David Leitch and star Charlize Theron, a bruising and beautiful ballet of brutality with a killer soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is a film set in a funhouse mirror version of Berlin in November 1989, a movie that argues its location is more a state of mind than a physical place. The violence in Atomic Blonde is visceral, the mood tangible, the soundtrack delectable. Atomic Blonde is a feast for the senses.

Seeing red.

However, Atomic Blonde also makes next to no sense. The film is an action movie dressed in the attire of a nihilistic espionage thriller, and a little narrative confusion inevitably comes with the territory. These films are all but obligated to have twists and betrayals, macguffins and revelations, switches and levers. Atomic Blonde embraces that zany approach to plot and structure with relish. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde is more fundamental than all that. It often struggles to remain coherent from one scene to the next, from one set piece to another.

Atomic Blonde is beautiful chaos, an exploding collage that probably didn’t make any sense to begin with.

Putting her turtleneck on the line.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Bar Association (Review)

This February and March, 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 Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

The politics of Star Trek can occasionally be difficult to pin down.

There are obvious reasons for this, of course. Television is a collaborative medium, the result of lots of different creative voices. It is hard to argue that Star Trek has an consistent set of politics, because those creative voices have very different politics. Even on the original show, episodes like Errand of Mercy and The Omega Glory suggested that Gene L. Coon and Gene Roddenberry had very different perspectives on the Vietnam War. Certainly, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine have very different viewpoints.

Don't beat yourself up, Quark...

Don’t beat yourself up, Quark. We have some Nausicaans to do it for you.

However, it is also the case that the franchise has always been quite careful when engaging with political discourse, particularly in the context of its nineties incarnation. The myth of Star Trek paints the show as progressive and liberal, but the truth is that the series rarely broke new ground in the nineties and into the new millennium. Episodes like Rejoined and Judgment were very much the exception rather than the rule, engaging with big political and social issues in a very clear manner. A lot of the time, the franchise played it fairly safe.

That is part of what makes Bar Association such an interesting episode of television. As with Rejoined, there is a sense that the Star Trek franchise should take the liberal politics of Bar Association for granted. After all, while there is some ambiguity as to exactly what form of economic theory is employed by the Federation, it certainly isn’t capitalism. However, it is interesting to hear the franchise (perhaps literally in this case) put its money where its mouth is, allowing a major character to quote Marx and Engels.

Strike while the bar is hot...

Strike while the bar is hot…

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The Lone Gunmen – Bond, Jimmy Bond (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.

If The Pilot is a proof of concept, then Bond, Jimmy Bond is all about demonstrating that The Lone Gunmen can work on a weekly basis.

Second episodes are more important than most viewers realise. While television pilots typically enjoy larger budgets and looser schedules in an effort to demonstrate that a concept can work as a television show, second episodes are very much about demonstrating precisely how that model will be applied to the structure of a weekly television show. The second episode is about transitioning from a pilot into a weekly schedule. As such, Bond, Jimmy Bond is much more indicative of the first season of The Lone Gunmen than The Pilot was.

All set.

All set.

So Bond, Jimmy Bond is largely about laying groundwork for what follows, and for setting the tone for what comes next. The title makes this clear, introducing the fifth and final member of the leading ensemble. While The Pilot had made room for Zuleikha Robinson as the mysterious Yves Adele Harlow, Bond, Jimmy Bond introduces Stephen Snedden as the well-meaning but none-too-bright James “Jimmy” Bond. This is the cast as it will remain for the rest of the run, give or take a guest appearance from Kimmy the Nerd.

However, there are also changes behind the scenes. Rob Bowman directed The Pilot, his last piece of work with Ten Thirteen before leaving to concentrate on feature film work like Reign of Fire and Elektra. On the commentary to The Pilot, Frank Spotnitz affectionately joked that they couldn’t afford Bowman. That seems perfectly believable, given Bowman’s rising star. As such, Bryan Spicer was drafted in to direct Bond, Jimmy Bond. Spicer would direct the lion’s share of the show, helming six of the show’s thirteen episodes.

"I know kung-fu..."

“I know kung-fu…”

Spicer was very much the logical choice. He had only directed a single episode of The X-Files, but it was an important episode from the perspective of The Lone Gunmen. Spicer had helmed Three of a Kind towards the end of the show’s sixth season, the second Gunmen-centric episode and the show that provided a clear inspiration for the television series. In its own way, Three of a Kind was as much a pilot for The Lone Gunmen as Unusual Suspects or The Pilot had been, and Bryan Spicer was a perfectly logical choice for for the show’s signature director.

However, Bond, Jimmy Bond also cements some other details that will be important for the rest of the season. The Pilot had been an off-beat thriller, but it was a story with incredibly high dramatic stakes and a solid dramatic arc. The Pilot skewed, consciously or not, more towards a quirky thriller than an action comedy. As such, the wacky hijinks of Bond, Jimmy Bond are much more in line with the tone of the series than the grave threat that was posed in The Pilot. For better or worse, Bond, Jimmy Bond sets the agenda for the season ahead.

The last time Ten Thirteen got accused of mimicking The Matrix, everything worked out perfectly...

The last time Ten Thirteen got accused of mimicking The Matrix, everything worked out perfectly…

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Millennium – Matryoshka (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.

It seems like every time that the third season of Millennium takes a step forward, it is simply preparing to take a tumble backwards.

After spending over a third of the season trying to rewrite the events of the second season, it seemed like the show was finally accepting the changes that had been made by Glen Morgan and James Wong over the course of the sophomore year. Omertà, Borrowed Time, Collateral Damage and The Sound of Snow had all seen the show trying to make its peace with the loss of Catherine Black and the changes to the Millennium Group stemming from the second season finalé. It looked like the show was working through its conflicted feelings, and was ready to move on.

Perhaps it must...

Perhaps it must…

However, both Antipas and Matryoshka represent a very clear step backwards. Antipas feels like an attempt to return to the mood and aesthetic of the late first season (and first season characterisation of Lucy Butler) with no regard for what came afterwards. Matryoshka attempts to reintroduce the sort of clumsy revisionist rewriting of Millennium‘s internal continuity in a manner that evokes The Innocents or Exegesis or Skull and Bones. It presents a secret history of the Millennium Group that heavily contradicts The Hand of St. Sebastian.

There is a host of potentially interesting stuff buried under all of this, but – as with a lot of the third season – it is very hard to care about a show more invested in playing ping-pong with its own history than in trying to tell a new and compelling story. It seems like the most striking thing about most third season episodes is how they engage with what came before, more than what they are actually trying to do. Watching the third season, it seems like the Millennium writing staff is just as divided as the Millennium Group was in Owls and Roosters.

Nesting dolls...

Nesting dolls…

This approach is self-defeating on a number of levels. The second season was admittedly divisive among fans, but it seems like the third season simply cannot get past The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now in any meaningful fashion. Fans who enjoyed the second season will inevitably feel frustrated by the repeated efforts to minimise or over-write it. Fans who disliked the second season will grow increasingly annoyed that the show is still fixated upon it. Any viewers without a working knowledge of the history of the show are likely to just be confused and befuddled.

Matryoshka is not the worst offender for this sort of confused self-contradiction and self-fixation, but there is a sense that Millennium‘s fascination with the continuity (or lack thereof) of the second season has already passed to point of diminishing returns. Much like the script for Matryoshka, it seems like the third season of Millennium is trapped in the past.

Eating its own tale...

Eating its own tale…

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