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Non-Review Review: Marriage Story

Towards the end of Marriage Story, divorced dad Charlie Barber decides to check in on his son, Henry.

Charlie has been absent from his son’s life for quite some time, the toll of familial separation weighing heavily on him. Arriving home before his ex-wife Nicole, he finds a strange man in his life. His former mother-in-law has accepted his replacement. When Nicole arrives, the conversation makes it clear just how quickly her life has moved on without him. When somebody mentions that she has been nominated for a prestigious award, Charlie can’t even guess what she was nominated for.

Marriage of inconvenience.

It is Halloween. The family are getting ready to go out together. They have theme costumes. They are going as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is itself a reflection of the level of subtlety at which the film is pitching itself. Of course, Charlie was an unexpected arrival; whether because he failed to signal ahead or simply because he has been so completely erased from the life of his ex-wife and son that nobody gave any serious consideration to the possibility that he might show up. Hastily, one character suggests an improvised costume. “You can be a ghost.”

This is simultaneously the best and worst moment in Marriage Story, and generally indicative of how the movie operates.

Getting off-track.

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“I’m Ready to Communicate With You Now”: The Millennial Anxieties of “The Sixth Sense”, and Feeling Alone in the City of Brotherly Love…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Sixth Sense on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

What do you think these ghosts want when they talk to you? I want you to think about it, Cole. I want you to think about it really carefully. What do you think they want?

Just help.

That’s right. That’s what I think too. They just want help, even the scary ones. I think I might know a way to make them go away.

How?

Listen to them.

The Sixth Sense is a remarkable film, for many reasons.

These days, The Sixth Sense is perhaps best known for its central twist. The film’s powerhouse emotional ending has become a pop cultural touchstone, anchoring jokes in everything from Fifty First Dates to the viral video sensation Jizz in my Pants. Of course, this also complicates the legacy of The Sixth Sense by serving as ground zero for director M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent dependence upon these sorts of twists in movies like The Village or The Happening. Nevertheless, The Sixth Sense has endured in the popular memory as one of the rare twist-driven films that stands up to repeat viewings.

A Cole’d open.

However, it is much more than that. Even beyond that, The Sixth Sense is a lavish production that looks beautiful. Of course, Shyamalan’s ego has done his reputations few favours, from his own cameo as a writer-messiah in The Lady in the Water to his role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan to the famous Newsweek cover crowning him “the next Spielberg.” Still, The Sixth Sense is visually stunning. Although it is tempting to think of The Sixth Sense as a “small” movie by modern standards, it was actually produced on a budget of $40m.

Rewatching The Sixth Sense twenty years later, it is amazing how much of the film’s visual storytelling lingers. Shyamalan might not have been the next Spielberg, but he had a wonderful eye for composition; that shot of a red balloon drifting up the inside of a spiral staircase, those eerie sequences of Malcolm and Cole wandering through a surprisingly quiet Philadelphia, even the conversations at that church with Cole towering over Malcolm from the balcony as he plays with his toy soldiers.

Pew pew!

However, even more than all of that, The Sixth Sense remains the rare film that is both specifically rooted in its cultural moment and profoundly universal. The story that drives The Sixth Sense is surprisingly straightforward – helpfully encapsulated in Cole’s trailer-friendly assertion that he sees “dead people.” However, Shyamalan understands that ghost stories are about more than just the recently deceased. Ghost stories translate a sense of longing and regret, of disconnect and isolation. The Sixth Sense is fundamentally a story about how difficult it is to meaningfully communicate in the modern world, with or without a pulse.

The Sixth Sense is a story of existential ennui, wrapped up in a set of late nineties anxieties.

M. Night Shyamalan had to eat Crowe on his next few films.

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Millennium – Roosters (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.

Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

– Matthew 26:72

Everything is in runes...

Everything is in runes…

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Space: Above and Beyond – The Angriest Angel (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Existentialism is something of a recurring theme in the work of Glen Morgan and James Wong.

It echoes through their work. Mulder’s choice of action ultimately serves to define him in One Breath, in contrast to the other more senior male characters in the narrative. The duo’s second script for Millennium, 5-2-6-6-6, opens with a quote from existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Even the pair’s feature film work – The One and the Final Destination films – touch broadly on existentialist themes.

Pressed (up) on the issue...

Pressed (up) on the issue…

However, The Angriest Angel is perhaps the most candid of their scripts, with McQueen explicitly explaining how his actions are serving to define his identity. In his power-house opening monologue, McQueen describes these defining moments as make-or-break points. “Everyone, everyone in this life knows when the moment is before them. To turn away is simple. To ignore it assures survival. But it is an insult to life. Because there can be no redemption.”

This is perhaps the most elegant and effective summary of Morgan and Wong’s approach to character development. McQueen articulates it clearer than any of their characters, but the philosophy applies just as much to Scully in Beyond the Sea or Never Again as it does to Tyrius Cassius McQueen. Indeed, it would come to define their work on Millennium, with the second season repeatedly suggesting that the end of the world was as much a personal event as a massive social occurrence.

Slice of life...

Slice of life…

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The Flash (1987-2009) #5-6 – Speed McGee/Super Nature (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please let me know in the comments.

Half-way through its first year, The Flash is still a mess.

It’s easy enough to see what writer Mike Baron is trying to do, but nothing is really gelling together. In theory, The Flash is the story of a twenty-year-old kid who is trying to fill his mentor’s shoes. It’s about a hero who has only just passed from his teenage years into adulthood, and trying to navigate all the problems that come with that. The intent is quite obvious here – to draw in readers who had been alienated by the somewhat generic (and perhaps even “dull”) perception of Barry Allen.

"Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it."

“Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it.”

This is an approach that clearly owes a lot to Marvel’s reinvention of the superhero genre, and it’s fairly easy to read Mike Baron’s Wally West as an attempt to update the superhero archetype established by Peter Parker for the eighties. Wally is a bit more grounded and real than his predecessor, with a bit of an edge. He finds himself navigating issues and personal problems that Barry Allen never had to worry about.

Unfortunately, the series can’t quite make this work. For every step forwards, there is an awkward step backwards. Every time it seems like The Flash might have a good personal hook into the world of Wally West, it falls back on generic superhero clichés that seem to have been ad-libbed into the script.

"Talk about an explosive relationship."

“Talk about an explosive relationship.”

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The X-Files – End Game (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.

Towards the end of End Game, Mulder stumbles across a nuclear submarine that was attacked in the episode’s teaser. The craft was disabled by a strange craft it picked up in the ocean. Now, following a mysterious alien figure across the world in a quest to find his sister, Mulder approaches the location of the lost American submarine. As he does, he notices the submarine’s coning tower, bursting through the ice.

It’s one of those beautifully iconic television moments. It’s an image that is audacious and stunning and beautiful and breathtaking. It immediately gives End Game (and Colony) a sense of scale. All of a sudden, this isn’t just a bunch of stuff happening under the radar in some small town somewhere. This is the hijacking of a nuclear submarine by a hostile entity. This is Mulder going to the ends of the Earth to get his sister back.

Not so green any longer...

Not so green any longer…

It’s also worth noting that the symbolism is beautiful. Even looking at a picture of Mulder on the ice conjures up all manner of associations. Coupled with the non-linear storytelling employed by Colony and End Game, it calls Frankenstein to mind – Frankenstein serving as a massively influential text on Chris Carter. However, the idea of Mulder finding important existential answers on an Arctic soundstage also evokes Clark Kent’s self-discovery in Richard Donner’s Superman films, playing into the sense that this is an episode framed in cinematic terms.

The rest of the episode could just be dead air, and End Game would still work impressively well. However, End Game remains a fantastic piece of work in its own right, effectively codifying how a two-parter is meant to work.

The truth is out there...

The truth is out there…

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