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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tsunkatse (Review)

Tsunkatse is the crossover between Star Trek: Voyager and WWF that you didn’t know you needed. Mostly because you didn’t actually need it.

Tsunkatse is a delightfully bizarre piece of television, and perhaps the most cynical piece of Star Trek ever produced. That is saying something, considering that the franchise also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, an episode that literalises William Shatner’s paranoid delusions about his fellow cast members. Separated from the episode by almost two decades, it is still hard to believe that Tsunkatse actually exists, even allowing for other “out there” premises for Voyager episodes like Threshold or Concerning Flight.

Somehow, the production team couldn’t secure Jean-Claude Van Damme as a guest star.

To be fair, Tsunkatse isn’t awful. It isn’t especially good either, but it never develops into the trainwreck suggested by the premise of making a Star Trek episode designed to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for the fact that Tsunkatse manages to be a truly memorable episode of Voyager based around a highly dubious premise, without ever collapsing into itself. Tsunkatse is better than it has any right to be, and that might just be enough.

Might.

Rock your world.

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77. Avengers: Infinity War – This Just In (#10)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this time with Tony Black, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War.

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Non-Review Review: Maze Runner – The Death Cure

Maze Runner: The Death Cure feels like a movie that has arrived several years too late, a belated epilogue to the young adult boom.

The Death Cure is the last in the trilogy, the culmination of a journey that began with The Maze Runner in 2014. By that point, the young adult adaptation boom was already winding down. The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn, Part II had been released two years earlier, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II had been released the year before that. There was a clear sense that The Maze Runner was starting when everybody else was ending.

“So, it turns out that the Death Cure is… not dying. Whudda thunk it?”

Of course, there were still faint signs of life in the genre when the series began, but those sparks have largely been extinguished. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II was released the year after The Maze Runner. One year later, The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed to such a degree that it has been suggested that the series might be resolved on television. Even in the context of The Death Cure, there is a sense that the production team understand the fatigue; there is no over-extended duology to bring the series to a close; no lingering Part II.

The Death Cure is mostly an efficient film, one that keeps moving well enough for the bulk of its two-hour-and-twenty-two-minute runtime, although the bloat eventually becomes too much in the final act. There is something very functional about The Death Cure, a sense that everybody involved the film – and every character within the film – has adopted a “let’s get stuff done” attitude towards the production. There is all the expected angst, betrayal, insecurity and hesitation expected of a young adult novel, but surprisingly little wallowing in those emotions.

After initial trials proved unsuccessful and disappointing third quarter returns, WCKD moved on to producing “The Death Treatment.”

The result is something of a mixed blessing. Very few young adult adaptations had the benefits and strengths that defined the Harry Potter or Hunger Games franchises. Those two heavy-weight franchises had the luxury of several built-in advantages denied to many of their imitators; the strong ensemble cast, the compelling source material and the distinctive-within-limits voice. The Death Cure seems cognisant of its limitations, and so structures itself in a way to avoid exposing them too readily and too often.

However, this efficiency hinders The Death Cure. The film only rarely stumbles, and never falls flat on its face. However, it never manages to soar either.

Runner, runner.

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44. Chinatown (#127)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Phil Bagnell, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

When a seemingly routine investigation into spousal infidelity evolves into a political scandal, private investigator J.J. Gittes finds himself navigating the dark underworld of thirties Los Angeles. Sinister conspiracies, local politics, private ownership of public utilities. As Gittes digs deeper and deeper, he uncovers the rotten foundations upon which the city was built.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 127th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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The X-Files – Je Souhaite (Review)

This September, 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 late seventh season has something of a twilight quality to it.

Even the show’s production staff are unsure whether the show will be coming back for an eighth season, so every episode takes on a special significance. Could this episode be “the last time that…”? Is Brand X the last time that the show does a traditional monster of the week? Is Hollywood A.D. the last time that David Duchovny writes and/or directs? Is Fight Club the last time that Chris Carter writes a non-mythology episode? Is Je Souhaite the last time that Mulder and Scully just investigate a weird standalone case together? There is a weight to it all.

"I'll drink to that."

“I’ll drink to that.”

Of course, the show would come back for an eighth season. There would be lots of traditional monster of the week stories after Brand X. David Duchovny would enjoy another story and directorial credit after Hollywood A.D. Chris Carter would get to write non-mythology episodes after Fight Club, and even get to direct a much more successful whimsical adventure. Mulder and Scully would get to hang out together in the late eighth season and even at the very end of the ninth. In a very real way, this is not the end.

However, in an equally real way, this is the end. It has become hyperbole to suggest that something “… will never be the same again.” Even The X-Files has reinvented itself at least twice by this point, at the start of the third and sixth seasons. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to argue that The X-Files actually will never be the same again. The show changes on a very fundamental level after this point, with Je Souhaite serving as the very last glimpse of the show as it was. In many ways, this is the end of the road.

"So... meet up in about fifteen years?"

“So… meet up in about fifteen years?”

Gilligan would get to write and direct another episode of The X-Files before the show finally came to an end. In fact, there are a few thematic similarities between Je Souhaite and Sunshine Days, with both stories serving as affectionate and romantic finalés to Vince Gilligan’s version of The X-Files. There are still two full seasons ahead. Indeed, it is interesting to wonder what it would be like had Je Souhaite come earlier in the season, or even during the sixth season; it would be a light and fun episode, but would have the same heft and weight?

However, there is something different about Je Souhaite. In hindsight, it feels like a snapshot of an extended (seven-year-long) moment coming to end; it is a picture in an photo album that captures Mulder and Scully right on the edge of a transition. It is innocuous, yet profound. It is a picture of college friends sharing a drink at the end of the last term, unaware (or silently aware) of how things will change in the coming months. It is a picture of friends just hanging out before one gets married or has children.

"I am outta here!"

“I am outta here!”

Of course, Mulder and Scully see each other after this point; there is the second half of season eight and the revival hanging in the future. (To say nothing of The X-Files: I Want to Believe or the comics.) College buddies still hang out. People with families maintain friendships. Still, those dynamics change. They are never quite the same. Not better, not worse. Just different. As weird as it is to describe an episode where Mulder encounters a genie as “the point before things got weird”, that’s exactly what Je Souhaite feels like.

What is most striking about Je Souhaite is how much the episode accepts that reality. It is not morose or melancholy; it is practically celebratory. Instead of eulogising the good times, it decides to have a good time. There is something very sweet about that.

"I'm still here for two seasons..."

“I’m still here for two seasons…”

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