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126. Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) – Anime April 2019 (#216)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and with special guests Graham Day and Marianne Cassidy, 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 second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This year, we are proud to continue the tradition of Anime April, a fortnight looking at two of the animated Japanese films on the list. This year, we watched a double feature of Hayao Miyazaki’s Kaze no tani no Naushika and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira.

This week, the first part of the double bill, Kaze no tani no Naushika, celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary.

Unofficially and retroactively folded into the Studio Ghibli canon, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was only Hayao Miyazaki’s second film. Nevertheless, it demonstrated remarkable confidence. It also signalled a lot of the director’s interests, with its tale of a strong young woman navigating the aftermath of a horrific environmental disaster and trying to prevent a new war from breaking out.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 216th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“Black Panther”, “Crazy Rich Asians”, and American Dreaming in 2018…

The silver screen is not just a window, it is occasionally a mirror as well.

The cinematic gaze reveals a lot. Not just about the object in focus, but about the filmmaker (and the audience) behind the gaze. Although independent and arthouse cinema is thriving in the twenty-first century, and though home media is fundamentally changing the way that people consume media, the cinema will always be a communal space. A group of people sitting in a room together, bathed in projected light. There are obviously debates to be had about to what extent cinema reflects culture as much as it acts upon it, but there is undoubtedly a symbiosis there.

Cinema reveals a lot about contemporary culture, and not just “worthy” cinema that tends to get cited by critics as “the most important” or “the most timely” media of its particular moment. Indeed, there is perhaps something more revealing in looking at media that doesn’t consciously invite these comparisons, that doesn’t trumpet the manner in which it speaks to a particular moment. Sometimes it is more revealing to look at the films that aren’t saying anything, or at least are not consciously or overtly saying anything, about the current political moment.

In fact, it’s often a lot easier to get a sense of what is bubbling through the popular consciousness (or even the popular subconscious) by looking at low-budget “disposable” fare like horror movies than it is be interrogating more respectable and self-conscious fare. It is no coincidence that the past decade has seen a resurgence in haunted house and home invasion horror like The Conjuring, The Strangers, The Purge or even Don’t Breathe, reflecting anxieties about the American home as a site of horror in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Popular cinema is similarly a fascinating prism through which to examine contemporary American culture, to get a sense of how the United States sees both itself and its relationship with the rest of the world. It’s a glimpse into the nation’s psyche, offering a messy and dynamic dive beneath the polished exterior. It cuts through a lot of contemporary politics, foregoing accuracy in favour of a general aesthetic. It is a sketch more than a portrait, but that sketch can be instructive and revealing of itself.

In particular, the twin releases of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians over the past year suggest something interesting about modern conceptions of the American Dream.

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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Humanist of (Star) Treks

On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise. but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people.

– Benjamin Sisko, The Maquis, Part II

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is contentious.

Writer Ronald D. Moore has talked about the franchise as the bastard stepchild of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Marina Sirtis has described it as little more than a hotel in space and not worthy of the franchise name. While the show was still on the air, Majel Barrett Roddenberry took the time to write a public letter denounced the show and its perceived connection to her husband’s legacy. This argument rages on-line even today, as fans argue about the series’ legacy and its place in the broader canon.

The charges against Deep Space Nine are clear. It is generally regarded as the most cynical of Star Trek spin-off shows, the series most likely to question and interrogate the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe. Deep Space Nine was the series that introduced and developed the Maquis, terrorists who splintered off from Starfleet. Deep Space Nine introduced the concept of Section 31, and the idea that Starfleet might be dangerous if left to its own devices. Deep Space Nine devoted its final two seasons to a war arc, a rejection of Roddenberry’s utopia.

However, these arguments are all based upon awkward presuppositions that reveal a lot about the assumptions of Star Trek fandom, and which tend to miss the forest for the trees. Deep Space Nine is a deeply humanist and optimistic piece of television, one has a great deal of faith in its cast and in people. As wary as Deep Space Nine might be about institutions and authority, Deep Space Nine fundamentally believes that people are good and that it is possible to peacefully coexist. The show simply acknowledges that this takes work, but believes it can happen.

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60. The Shawshank Redemption (#1)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, 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 Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode along with them.

This time, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

Convicted of murdering his wife, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences in Shawshank Penitentiary. A harsh and unforgiving prison, Andy struggles to hold on to hope as the years go by.

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

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Star Trek: Voyager – Night (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager typically bridged its seasons with epic two-parters, a sprawling single narrative told over two forty-five minute episodes separated by the three-month summer hiatus. In fact, it was somewhat striking when the production team chose to end the fourth season with Hope and Fear, a standalone episode with a very definite conclusion. However, it becomes even more ironic once the fifth season opens with Night. Rather than one story split over two episodes, Night feels like two narratives compressed into a single chunk of television.

Of these two narratives, one is definitely more interesting than the other. The first half of Night essentially focuses on the ship and crew as they venture through an empty (and starless) section of space known as “the Void.” No light can get in. Nothing seems to live in there. There are no anomalies to investigate. “Anything to report?” Tuvok asks Kim. Kim responds, “Not even a stray electron.” It is so dull that even Tom classifies the detection of “a sudden increase in theta radiation” as “excitement.”

Starless, starless night.

This is an interesting approach to storytelling, particularly for a show so focused on plot. More than any other series in the franchise, Voyager runs on plot beats. Stories tend to progress from one revelation and escalation to the next, affording little room for character development or exploration. As such, the first half of Night seems like a very ambitious piece of work, an introspective character-driven drama where there are no plot beats to distract from character. It is a very brave and compelling set-up.

Of course, Night somewhat fumbles the ball in this first half. The thread is never explored as thoroughly as it might be, the character never allowed to properly express themselves. There is far too much emphasis on the holodeck, and the ship’s ability to simulate comforts and illusions even in this most depressing of surroundings. However, compared to the way that Voyager usually tells stories, the first half of Night is refreshing. Ironically, it is genuinely exciting, because it feels like the writers are pushing outside their comfort zone.

A darker side of Janeway.

Unfortunately, it cannot last. Night can only resist the comfort of plot for so long. Eighteen minutes into the hour, the second plot kicks into gear. It is a much more conventional Voyager episode, particularly for these later seasons. There is a broadly drawn piece of social commentary that ties into the both Voyager‘s New Age sensibilities and its attitude towards the Delta Quadrant as a whole. There are new aliens introduced, that will become recurring foils. It is all very standard, and all very rushed. The second half of Night makes up for those missed plot beats.

The result is an episode that is deeply frustrating, a game of two halves were each horribly undercuts the other.

A black-and-white issue.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Prey (Review)

Prey is a fantastic piece of television, and stands as one of the best standalone episodes of the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is an episode built around a very simple premise, pitting two of Voyager‘s more memorable alien creations against one another and throwing a nice character arc into the midst of this epic conflict. Prey is an exciting thriller built around the established characteristics of both the Hirogen and Species 8472, using two very distinctive cultures to tell a compelling and engaging story with the regular cast thrown into the fray. “Lone Hirogen hunter pursues lost member of Species 8472” is a great hook for an episode.

Here come the big guns.

However, Prey goes even further than that. The basic plot is intriguing on its own terms, but Prey cleverly grounds the story in what we know about these characters and their dynamic. As much as Voyager is caught in the crossfire of this horrific situation, the crew are also forced to make tough decisions. How will Janeway react to a wounded member of a hostile (and nigh-invulnerable) species? How will Seven of Nine respond when asked to save the life of a creature that participated in a brutal war with the Borg Collective?

This is intriguing stuff, largely anchored in what the audience already knows of the characters and delivered with top-notch production values and a great sense of pacing. Prey is an episode that plays to all the strengths of the fourth season, from the appeal of the Hirogen and Species 8472 through to the chemistry between Kate Mulgrew and Jeri Ryan.

There’ll be hull to pay.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Quickening (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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 for the latest review.

Somehow, it happened. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine went from a show that could barely produce one good Bashir episode in a season to a series that could crank out three great Bashir episodes within the same production year.

The fourth season of Deep Space Nine is a fantastic season of television, even allowing for the episodes that don’t quite work (Sons of Mogh, Rules of Engagement) and those that fall completely apart (Shattered Mirror, The Muse). There any number of ways of measuring this success: the ease with which Worf has been integrated into the ensemble; the very high average quality of the individual episodes; the skill with which the production team navigated the introduction of the Klingon plot threads at the suggestion of the studio.

Paradise lost.

Paradise lost.

These are all perfect valid barometres of the season’s success. As is the most obvious indicator: the season is fun to watch and largely holds up on rewatch. However, the simple fact that Deep Space Nine could produce three great centring around Julian Bashir over the course of a single season speaks to how far the production team had come. After all, the studio had repeatedly asked the staff to write Bashir out of the show, convinced that fans were not responding to the station’s chief medical officer.

The Quickening is the third and final “good Bashir episode” of the fourth season, and it demonstrates just how important Bashir is to the fabric and framework of Deep Space Nine. Bashir represents Deep Space Nine‘s esoteric utopianism.

Bashir determination...

Bashir determination…

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The X-Files – The Sixth Extinction (Review)

This November, 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 fate of individual human beings may not now be connected in a deep way with the rest of the universe, but the matter out of which each of us is made is intimately tied to processes that occurred immense intervals of time and enormous distances in space away from us. Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

– Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection

Sea of blood...

Sea of blood…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Council (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

From a technical standpoint, The Council is the third last episode of the third season. From an arc-based standpoint, the third season Xindi arc is not completely resolved until the events of Home three episodes into the fourth season. However, there is an argument to be made that The Council represents the logical conclusion of the third season arc. Sure, Countdown and Zero Hour provide a suitably bombastic resolution to the year-long story, but The Council is the story that really resolves the central conflict driving the season.

After twenty-one episodes of moral ambiguity and ethical compromise, The Council exists to assure viewers that Star Trek: Enterprise has not forgotten the optimistic humanism that has guided the franchise. The Council confirms what most even-handed fans had probably deduced from The Expanse and what had been rendered explicit in The Shipment. The third season was never about getting away from the core utopian values associated with the Star Trek franchise; instead, it was about an attempt to get back to those hopeful ideals.

"I told you not to interrupt me when I'm working on my tan!"

“I told you not to interrupt me when I’m working on my tan!”

As the name implies, The Council is a rather talky script; it is certainly the most talky script between this point and the end of the third season. The episode’s plot finds Archer making his case to the Xindi Council, appealing for a peaceful resolution to the escalating crisis. Archer puts aside his anger and his thirst for retribution, in the hope of finding common ground that might accommodate both sides without resort to warfare or attempted genocide. Naturally, Archer is not entirely successful; the season needs an action climax. However, he is close enough.

Much like The Forgotten, it turns out that The Council is a script about moving beyond grief and hatred towards reconciliation and understanding. It affirms that the third season of Enterprise is (and was always) following a very traditional Star Trek arc.

"Et tu, Dolim?"

“Et tu, Dolim?”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Chosen Realm (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chosen Realm is Manny Coto’s second script for Star Trek: Enterprise.

His script for Similitude marked Coto as something of an old-fashioned Star Trek writer. It was clear that Coto harboured a great deal of affection for the source material, and Similitude was structured in the style of a classic Star Trek morality play. It was a story about the circumstances in which “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” There is a reason that Star Trek fans are so very fond of Similitude, particularly given its position in the middle of a rather polarising and provocative season.

Archer encounter an enemy with faith of the heart...

Archer encounter an enemy with faith of the heart…

However, it was not entirely clear just how traditional Manny Coto was in his approach to Star Trek until the broadcast of Chosen Realm. If Similitude felt like a classic Star Trek morality play, then Chosen Realm literally was a classic Star Trek morality play. A commentary on religious fanaticism and zealotry, Chosen Realm was very much an update of the iconic Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Coto is quite explicit about this, rather blatantly borrowing the emotive (and poignant) ending from that episode.

Although it aired in the much-maligned third season, and has no shortage of its own problems, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is an instantly recognisable Star Trek allegory. Casual fans – and even those with a passing familiarity with the franchise – remember “the one with the aliens who are half-black and half-white who are racist against the aliens who are half-white and half-black.” It is not a subtle or nuanced allegory, but it doesn’t really need to be. It is not as if the sort of blatant racism against which the Civil Rights movement fought was a grey area.

"I think I've seen this before..."

“I think I’ve seen this before…”

Unfortunately, Chosen Realm chooses to apply this simplistic metaphor to a complicated issue. In keeping with the War on Terror metaphor running through the third season, Chosen Realm explicitly ties religion into the larger arc. Archer finds his ship hijacked by a bunch of religious suicide bombers actively intent on turning Enterprise into a weapon that can be deployed against those who believe differently than they do. This is a very classic Star Trek morality tale – the “religion is bad” theme dating back to Who Mourns For Adonais? or The Apple.

Religion is undoubtedly an element of the War on Terror, but it is not the only issue or an issue that exists in isolation. Islamic extremism (as Chosen Realm never seems particularly interested in the trope of Christian extremism) is rooted in more than simply faith. There are political and economic factors at play that are just as vital to understanding why things happen in the way that they happen. Chosen Realm is uninterested in any of this, structuring itself as Richard Dawkins rant in science-fiction form.

What was that about politics or religion?

What was that about politics or religion?

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