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133. Saving Private Ryan (#28)

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.

This time, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

It is D-Day. Allied troops are launching the liberation of France from Nazi occupation. Having led his men on the beaches of Normandy, Captain John Miller receives a unique set of orders. He is to track down lost paratrooper Private James Ryan and return him home, no matter what the cost.

At time of recording, it was ranked 28th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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My 12 for ’18: Holding Out for a Hero in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number ten.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout was released around the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight.

In fact, the week after I caught the preview of Fallout, I attended a tenth anniversary screening of The Dark Knight. This is important, because Christopher McQuarrie’s second Mission: Impossible film undeniably exists in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s epoch-defining blockbuster. It is impossible to watch Fallout without thinking of The Dark Knight, from Lorne Balfe’s propulsive score to the sight of an armoured truck sinking slowly into a river.

However, McQuarrie does something interesting with Fallout, in relation to The Dark Knight. Too many of the films influenced by that iconic piece of cinema opted for shallow and superficial homage. Thor: The Dark World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: The Last Knight settled for borrowing influence from the title. Law Abiding Citizen tried to embrace moral ambiguity. Man of Steel attempted to emulate that serious grounded approach to other properties.

In contrast, Fallout understands that the best thing that most films could learn from The Dark Knight is simple craft and professionalism. Fallout understands that top-notch production, an emphasis on in-camera effects and a propulsive sense of momentum are the most applicable lessons that most films could take from The Dark Knight. As such, Fallout takes those lessons and applies to them to Mission: Impossible, leading to the year’s most impressive embrace of the concept of heroism.

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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

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Luke Cage – Can’t Front On Me (Review)

On of the most remarkable things about Luke Cage is just how much it enjoys being a superhero series, particularly compared to the other Marvel Netflix series.

The Punisher felt distinctly uncomfortable with its source material, and so instead tried to position itself as a low-rent 24 knock-off. Jessica Jones largely embraces the superhero genre as a vehicle for metaphors about trauma rather than as something to be enjoyed or appreciated of itself. Iron Fist made a strange choice to tone down both the most outlandish aspects of its character’s back story and the genre elements inherent in a kung-fu exploitation adventure. Daredevil is the only show to give its protagonist a costume, but it skews towards a much more sombre and serious school of superheroics.

All of these series contrast with Luke Cage, which eagerly embraces the trappings of the superhero genre, even as the second season remains deeply ambivalent about the very idea of a superhero. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has described himself “a hip-hop showrunner”, and that sensibility infused the series. Hip-hop is a genre that heavily draws on sampling and remixing, so it makes sense that Luke Cage should draw on that tradition with its own stylistic influences, embracing the opportunity to create a deeply affectionate (and surprisingly traditional) superhero story around its hero.

For a story that inevitably goes to some very grim places, Luke Cage takes a great deal of joy in being a superhero television series.

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The X-Files – Jump the Shark (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

As The X-Files trundles towards its finalé, there is a sense that the production team do not understand “closure.”

There is, of course, a cheap gag to be made here. Long-time fans of the show might joke that the show never understood the concept of “closure”, as demonstrated by the fact that the show’s mythology frequently resembled a precariously-balanced tower of Jenga bricks gently swaying in a light breeze. This is perhaps a bit unfair; episodes like Requiem and Existence had done a good job of bringing the television show to a point where it might end, only for the show to be picked up for another season.

Shot down in their prime... time slot.

Shot down in their prime… time slot.

The end of the ninth season differs from the ends of the seventh or eighth because the production team know that the show is going to end. There will be no last-minute reprieve, no green-light give mere days before the last episode is actually broadcast. This is, in many ways, the end of The X-Files. With that in mind, the final episodes of the ninth season begin tidying away dangling plot threads and narrative loose ends in the hopes of satisfying the audience. The show seems to be running through a checklist. Lone Gunmen now. William next. Luke Doggett after that.

The problem, of course, is that none of these concepts are really calling for definitive “closure.” There is no reason for the show to draw a line under these supporting characters or plot arcs. It is possible for fans to imagine life beyond a television show for many characters without engaging in ruthless pruning. The Lone Gunmen do not need an epic send-off. In fact, the idea of an epic send-off seems to represent a misunderstanding of the characters themselves.

"Chris Carter said we're invited to the wrap party..."

“Chris Carter said we’re invited to the wrap party…”

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Space: Above and Beyond – … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best (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.

Fox has a very weird (and perhaps even paradoxical) reputation when it comes to cancelling television shows. On the one hand, there is the tendency to run successful shows into the ground, missing the window of opportunity to transition them into big screen franchises. The X-Files and 24 are perhaps the most obvious example of this tendency. Of course, this isn’t unusual in American television. If a show is making money, it makes sense to keep on the air for as long as possible.

On the other hand, the network is notoriously ruthless when it comes to cancelling young shows. Although popularised by the cancellation (and subsequent revival) of shows like Firefly and Family Guy in the early years of the twenty-first century, the network had already demonstrated that it had little time for dead weight in the schedule. In hindsight, it seems like a wonder that The X-Files survived its first season, and was allowed to grow and develop into a massive cultural phenomenon.

We have met the enemy...

We have met the enemy…

Indeed, considering the abbreviated runs of shows like Profit or The Tick or The Ben Stiller Show or Harsh Realm or The Lone Gunmen, Space: Above and Beyond was lucky to get a full twenty-two-episodes-and-a-pilot run on Fox, even if it couldn’t count on the network to air the episodes at a consistent time on a consistent day. Space: Above and Beyond was undoubtedly treated shabbily by the network, but it could have been a lot worse.

That’s not the best eulogy you could write for a television show, but it is worth treasuring what we got.

President of the World...

President of the World…

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