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“The Price You Pay for Being Successful”: How “The Empire Strikes Back” Was One of the First Blockbusters of the Eighties…

Star Wars is often discussed in the context of the late seventies, whether the political context of the Vietnam War or George Lucas’ status as an up and coming director alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg or even just the way in which it shifted movie-making away from the new Hollywood model towards the blockbuster template.

Despite all of this, it is often overlooked just how firmly Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is rooted in the context of the early eighties. There are obviously any number of reasons for this. Most obviously, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi consciously retreated back to the late seventies trappings of the original film, right down to its decision to restage the Vietnam War with adorable toyetic teddy bears in the place of the Viet Cong. There’s also a sense in which the cultural markers of The Empire Strikes Back are more subtle than those of Star Wars.

Sabre-rattling.

Watched from a modern perspective, The Empire Strikes Back seems to herald the arrival of the new decade. Like all great sequels, it broadens both the scale and scope of Star Wars, but it also pushes the franchise forward. Even beyond the now iconic revelations about family lineage and power dynamics, The Empire Strikes Back radically redefines what it means to be a Star Wars film. It is no longer about navigating the moral ambiguity of an uncertain time, wrestling with the spectre of American might. It is instead about exploring social power structures, of finding one’s place in system.

The Empire Strikes Back might just be the first truly great eighties movie.

A little father-son outreach.

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Non-Review Review: The Commuter

The Commuter is the best Neeson Season movie since The Grey and the best movie about the financial crisis since The Big Short.

On paper, The Commuter is a mildly interesting premise that feels very much of a piece with the typical January awards-fare counter-programming. It is very much a high-concept action film that feels populated from a mad lib. [Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Gerard Butler] is a [former cop/current cop/law enforcement official] who finds himself embroiled in a race against time to [protect/rescue/expose/defeat] a [loved one/conspiracy].

McCauley took the instruction not to fire the gun inside the carriage a little… literally.

The Commuter is very much of piece with Liam Neeson’s other collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra; Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night. It is a movie about a weary protagonist embroiled in a situation beyond his control, the perfect fodder for a midweek movie to be enjoyed with a bucket of pop corn and a soft drink of choice. However, what elevated The Commuter above these earlier collaborations is similar to what elevated Collet-Serra’s The Shallows above so many familiar shark movies.

The Commuter has the look and feel of a big dumb action movie, a film inviting the audience to engage on its own terms rather than theirs. However, there is a very knowing and self-aware quality to The Commuter, an understanding of what the audience expects of the film and what the film can expect from the audience in return. The result is a film that always feels smarter and better than it needs to be, very carefully calibrated; just serious enough to work, just self-aware enough to charm. The result is a delightfully enjoyable action film.

Dial “C” for Commuter.

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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 X-Files – Salvage (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.

Salvage is another mid-season “monster of the week” that doesn’t quite work.

As with Surekill, it is possible to imagine the interplay between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson elevating this episode had it been produced in the seventh season, as was originally planned. The Doggett and Scully pairing lacks that easy dynamic that made so many generic episodes flow so easily. That is not to say that Robert Patrick and Gillian Anderson don’t work well together, simply that they don’t replicate the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry that Randy Stone found with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Testing his metal...

Testing his metal…

That said, Salvage has more severe problems than Badlaa or Medusa. In many respects, Salvage feels like a first season episode of the show that arrived seven years too late – in terms of tone, design and aesthetic. There is a clumsiness to the execution, an awkwardness to the presentation, that feels like the show has forgotten many of the lessons that it learned in its time on television. If it is fair to argue that the eighth season is as much the first season of a new show as the last season of the old one, Salvage is the most “first season” episode of the bunch.

Salvage has a host of interesting concepts and ideas, but it lacks the skill and confidence that the show would need to pull off a story like this. Salvage is one of the handful of season eight stories that would arguably have worked better in season seven, albeit only barely.

Scrap that...

Scrap that…

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Vault-emort: Harry Potter and the Disney Vault: Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?

I’ve known about the “Disney Vault” ever since I started buying DVDs, well over a decade ago. It’s the reason why you can’t simply go into a movie shop and ask for a copy of every Disney movie, as the company regulates the titles coming in and out of release on various home entertainment platforms at any given moment, giving consumers only the smallest window of opportunity to pick up a given childhood classic before snatching it away for another six or seven years. While I have some serious problems with the practice, it’s a shrewd economic move, and I always wondered why Disney were the only studio to really do it.

Well, Warner Brothers recently announced that they’d be doing something similar, pulling the theatrical versions of the Harry Potter films from DVD and blu ray on the 29th December 2011. That leaves movie fans with only forty-eight days in which to pick up their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. I suppose this sort of development was inevitable, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Will a lot of film fans feel a bit hallowed by the news?

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