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New Escapist Column! “The Shining” and the Perfect Haunted House…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday. Because it was Halloween and because of the release of Doctor Sleep, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look about at The Shining.

The Shining is my favourite horror movie ever. It is one of my favourite films ever. It is the rare piece of work that offers something new every single time I sit down to watch it. As I’ve thought more and more about it over the years, I’ve been drawn to the way in which the power of the Overlook is one of scale. It is big enough that it can serve as a fun house mirror to the anxieties of America itself, but also intimate enough that the familial anxieties of the Torrance family can play out within it. It is both large enough and small enough to work as the perfect haunted house.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Amazing.

Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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“It’s About Family”: Why Are Modern Blockbusters So Preoccupied With the Notion of Family?

“It’s about family” has entered the cultural lexicon, usually delivered with a grim Vin Diesel bass.

It is, of course, a cliché to suggest that the Fast & Furious franchise is “about family.” Of course they are about family. Dominic Toretto never stops talking about how it is “about family.” The entire heart of the film franchise is that it’s “about family.” It arguably has been from the start, with the simmering attraction between undercover cop Brian O’Conner and Mia Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. In that first film, Brian doesn’t merely befriend the criminal that he is supposed to catch, he becomes family with him. The two men become (ironically) something close to brothers-in-law as much as brothers-at-arms. Over the course of the series, Dominic offers such pearls of wisdom as “you don’t turn your back on your family” in The Fate of the Furious.

Family runs through the film franchise. Owen Shaw, the villain of Fast and Furious 6, is revealed to be the brother of Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious Seven. The series hinges on soap opera plot dynamics like amnesia and betrayal, all of which emphasising the importance of these familial ties in mapping out the world that these characters operate. However, “family” is more than just a word that drives the plots of these movies, as much as those plots can be said to exist. It is also an important thematic element. The films frequently feature extended sequences at family gatherings, such as barbecues and parties. (Indeed, the franchise seems to evoke almost a Pavlovian response between the words “family” and “Corona.”)

However, while the Fast and Furious franchise is perhaps the franchise most overtly and obviously committed to the theme of “family”, and certainly the film franchise with the most frequent articulation of the concept, it is far from the only example. Modern cinema, particularly modern popular cinema, seems obsessed with the notion of family. In particular, contemporary big budget films are very much engaged with the idea of “found family” much more than biological family. It is interesting to wonder why modern pop culture seems so fixated on the idea of “found family”, to the point that it dominates so much cinematic real estate.

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115. Roma – This Just In (#–)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guests Aine O’Connor, 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, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Instant Family

The biggest issue with Instant Family is one of identity.

Is Instant Family best approached as a broad feel-good comedy that deals too glibly with serious and deeply affecting issues, or is it an earnest drama that too eagerly punctuates its heart-tugging beats with gags that play loudly the gallery? Instant Family never quite seems to work this out, bouncing quickly from one extreme to another without any sense of internal cohesion. Instant Family often seems unsure of the tone that it wants to hit, which means that it can never maintain a consistent tone for more than a scene or so.

Kids also make great human shields.

To be fair to Instant Family, it is possible to deftly balance the demands of comedy and drama. There are countless great films that balance on a knife-edge between the two extremes, most notably the work of directors like Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers. While there is obviously some debate about how skillfully they pull off this balance, it is also a key ingredient in contemporary Oscar contenders like Vice or Green Book. It is entirely possible for a film to make the audience both laugh out loud and cry softly at the same time. Pixar is very good at this.

The issue with Instant Family is one of speed and extremes, how much ground it tries to cover in navigating the space between funny and moving, and how quickly it tries to cross that space.

Family matters.

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96. Paper Moon (#229)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Peter Bogdonavich’s Paper Moon.

Mose is a two-bit hustle who is passing through town in time to visit a funeral for an old flame. While there, the woman’s young daughter is thrown into his care. Mose immediately denies paternity of the precocious and intelligent young Adie, but the pair quick gel as they embark upon a string of hustles across Depression-era America.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 229th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Luke Cage – For Pete’s Sake (Review)

Maybe we don’t all become our parents, but we do live in their shadows.

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of parents and children as a consistent thematic arc across the length and breadth of the season. In Soul Brother #1, Luke is thrown off his game by the arrival of his long-absent father in Harlem, seeking to reconnect. In Straighten It Out, Mariah is informed that one of better chances at going legitimate would be to cultivate a relationship with her own long-estranged daughter. From his introduction, even before his story is articulated in On and On, Jon McIver is clearly seeking justice for his parents.

This is not something that the second season conjures out of thin air. The first season had also hinted at generational tension. The battle between Luke Cage and Willis Stryker in the second half of the first season was largely fought in the shadow of the as-yet-unseen Reverend James Lucas, with Luke even taking Claire home to Georgia in Take It Personal to provide a sense of his history and back story. Similarly, both Cornell and Mariah wrestled with the obligations and the wounds that the Stokes family had inflicted upon them, seen in flashback in Manifest.

However, as all successful sequels and follow-ups tend to do, the second season of Luke Cage works from those small kernels and develops them into a strong central thematic arc for the various characters. Reverend James Lucas actually appears, force Luke to work through his anger and his rage towards his emotionally distant father. Similarly, Mariah is forced by political necessity to reach out to the daughter who has largely been absent from her life, which serves as a catalyst for confronting all of these deep-set issues.

This parental anxiety simmers through the season in interesting ways. The Jamaican restaurant that serves as Bushmaster’s base of operations is called “Gwen’s”, implicitly named for his long-deceased mother and a reminder of what motivates him. At the climax of On and On, the story of the loss of Bushmaster’s mother is cut against Luke remembering the last time that he saw his own mother. Similarly, Tilda’s store is named “Mother’s Touch.” In For Pete’s Sake, she assures Reverend Lucas that she meant “Mother Nature’s Touch”, but it seems a telling choice.

The second season of Luke Cage is all about family. Those that are there, and those that are not.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Child’s Play (Review)

Interesting, isn’t it?

What?

With all their technology, their opportunity to explore the galaxy, the thing they want most is to get home.

A Trek away from the Stars.

Child’s Play is a fascinating episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in that it might be seen as a firm rejection of some of the show’s core conservatism.

Voyager has always been the most conservative of the Star Trek franchise, the series most likely to panic about gang violence for two whole seasons starting in Caretaker or to rail against immigration in Displaced or to voice its anxieties about refugees in Day of Honour. More than that, what are episodes like Remember or Distant Origin or Living Witness or Memorial but expressions of literal anxieties about the erosion of the certainty of history to postmodernism and moral relativism? At its core, Voyager is a series about nostalgia, about the yearning to recapture what once was, how the only journey is the journey home.

“Everything the light touches is your kingdom…”

Child’s Play is interesting as a firm rejection of the idea of the traditional family unit in favour of a more modern (and less rigidly defined) idea of a “found family.” It is a story about how a child’s best interests do not always lie with their biological parents, and about how some of the strongest and most loving bonds in a young person’s life can be forged by chance rather than biology. Child’s Play is essentially an ode to the kind of complicated family dynamics that were entering the mainstream at the turn of the millennium, a staunch defense of a liberal and inclusive definition of family.

More than that, the episode also seems to be making several very pointed jabs at Voyager‘s traditionally conservative outlook.

“I want to be out there…”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part II (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has a morbid fascination with the Borg. Quite literally.

Time and time again, the series returns to the image of the Borg dead and dying. Blood Fever ends with the discovery of a Borg corpse. Unity features the extended autopsy of that corpse. In Scorpion, Part I, Kes is haunted by the image of a grotesque mound of Borg drones, torn apart and reassembled. In Unimatrix Zero, Part I, the Borg Queen tears the heads off her drones and mounts them on spikes. There is a very similar image in Dark Frontier, Part I, where Janeway wanders casually through the wreckage of a Borg ship.

Queen of minds.

Star Trek: The Next Generation worked hard to establish the Borg as a credible threat. If the Borg were associated with death, it was only because they delivered something akin to it. In The Neutral Zone, the Borg scooped an entire outpost off the surface of a planet. In Q Who?, Picard had to literally beg Q to save the Enterprise after the loss of eighteen crewmembers. In The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, the Borg tore through the Federation like it was made of tissue paper. The trauma of that invasion informed Emissary.

In contrast, Voyager seems preoccupied with the destruction and desecration of the Borg Collective. This is an interesting creative choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, it severely undercuts the menace and threat posed by the Borg Collective. Janeway seems to travel through the Delta Quadrant leaving a trail of broken Borg bodies in her wake. It is hard to believe that the Borg are a big deal, when Janeway seems to decorate her ship with their remains. The Kazon, the Vidians and the Hirogen have all taken Voyager at some point. The Borg have never.

Green light for reassimilation.

Perhaps this fascination with Borg corpses and remains simply speaks to their visual aesthetic. With their pale skin and their lack of individual identity, the Borg have always evoked the walking dead; Star Trek: First Contact was essentially a zombie movie in deep space. However, perhaps this desecration of the Borg speaks to something buried deeper within the psyche of Voyager. The Borg are perhaps the most iconic aliens of the Berman era; they represent the moment that The Next Generation came into its own. Perhaps their decay mirrors that of the Berman era itself.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II represent something of a final frontier for the Borg Collective. While the Borg had been in decline for some time, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II marked a point of no return. Regeneration is an underrated return to form for the iconic cyborgs, but it is too little and too late. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II is effectively a funeral for the most iconic adversaries of the Berman era. However, they would remain shuffling lifeless for another two-and-a-half seasons.

Subject to change.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Real Life (Review)

Real Life is in some ways a departure for Star Trek: Voyager.

That much is obvious from the teaser, which introduces three new characters on a new set. More than that, the three characters comprise a nuclear family and the set is built to resemble the stereotypical American family home. It is a very strange image, even before the characters begin talking like they escaped from The Brady Bunch. In what might be the best teaser of the entire third season, it is revealed that the EMH has fashioned himself a holographic family and is “commuting” to work in sickbay from the holodeck.

Projections.

Projections.

It is certainly an interesting idea, one that consciously brushes up against the kinds of limitations and expectations that Voyager has faced. It feels experimental, quite removed from the broader third season attempts to position Voyager as the most generic of the Star Trek spin-offs. This does not look or feel like any other episode in the franchise’s history. Indeed, with its focus on family dynamics and conflict, it feels like an extension of Ronald D. Moore’s work on episodes like Family and Doctor Bashir, I Presume.

This makes the episode’s failure to follow through on any of that potential even more disappointing. The third season of Voyager has dramatically scaled down its ambition following the spectacular misfires of the second season. The show is no longer attempting to create long-form stories or introduce iconic new recurring alien species, instead setting more modest goals for itself. There is something disheartening in seeing Voyager set more modest challenges for itself in episodes like Macrocosm or Fair Trade, only to spectacularly bungle the handling of those challenges.

Family matters.

Family matters.

Real Life is another example of the trend. The premise is interesting, and the episode hits on any number of intriguing ideas. There is a great story to be told using this premise, exploring core themes about the human condition in a way that is quite different from the normal storytelling on Voyager. However, the episode flirts with the premise and then balks at it. Real Life is terrified of the implications of its story, padding out the plot with an unnecessary techno-babble-laden diversion and casually discarding the holographic family at the end of the script.

Real Life is an underwhelming story, rendered all the more disappointing for the promise that it squanders.

Photon father.

Photon father.

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