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Non-Review Review: Searching…

Searching… is an interesting fusion. It blends the innovative narrative style of Unfriended with the more convention cinematic language of thrillers like Kiss the Girls.

This cocktail is at once welcome and overdue. Unfriended was one of those rare genuinely innovative pieces of mainstream cinema; in form, if not necessarily in function. Unfriended built from a premise that was both incredibly simple and also formally daring, telling a fairly standard supernatural teenage revenge story entirely through a computer desktop. As with Searching…, all of Unfriended unfolded within a computer screen.

Windows ’95 into the soul…

In hindsight, it is surprising that it has taken other genres so long to embrace that formal experiment. Cinema has a long history of eagerly coopting the language and experiments of horror for more prestigious and high-brow fare. Consider, for example, how quickly other genres coopted the “found footage” revolution of the early twenty-first century for action movies, thrillers, comedies, and even monster movies and superhero films. (Then again, that embrace of the “found footage” aesthetic may have caught on for reasons beyond the success of The Blair Witch Project.)

Searching… takes the basic formal conceit of Unfriended and applies it to a more conventional genre film. The result is an abduction thriller told exclusively through screens, through video streams, search histories, web cameras and screenshots. It’s a provocative premise, effectively turning the bigger screen into a smaller one and changing the rules of how the audience processes the imagery in front of them. However, Searching… clearly aspires to bridge the gap between screens big and small.

She needs to screen her fans better.

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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

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The X-Files – Underneath (Review)

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

Nothing like cancellation to get the vultures circling.

It is the nature of television that not every episode ends up exactly the way that the production team would like. Working on a tight deadline with a limited budget, compromises have to be made. Sometimes, there is not enough time to properly polish a script so that it makes sense. Other times, the special effects have to be rushed. Churning out twenty-odd episodes in a season demands a lot of the production team, and it seems impossible to maintain a perfect record across a full season.

Skull and bones..

Skull and bones…

The X-Files might have held itself to the highest production standards, but there are inevitable missteps along the way. Fearful Symmetry is about invisible zoo animals because there is no way that the show could be about visible zoo animals. Teso dos Bichos had difficulty wrangling its cats. The special effects work on Tunguska came so close to the wire that people in different parts of the country actually saw different cuts of the episode. Parts of Christmas Carol had to be reshot when the child actor proved unreliable in Emily.

These are the realities of television production. It is not always pretty, and the result is not always fantastic, but it gets done. Fans and commentators have a tendency to overlook these problems when they occur at the height of the show. They are less forgiving when they occur past the show’s prime.

Crosses to bear...

Crosses to bare…

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The X-Files – Kill Switch (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.

On the surface of it, William Gibson seems a strange fit for The X-Files.

He certainly seems like a more eccentric choice than Stephen King. King was a writer famed for his horror stories, with a fascination for small-town life and an interest in guilt as a legacy of American history. On paper, King should have been the perfect “special guest writer” for the show, able to churn out a script that would resonate perfectly with the larger themes of The X-Files while still sitting comfortably within his own oeuvre. While Chinga is not a bad episode, it is not an exceptional episode by any measure. It feels perfectly adequate.

Well, that's going in the DVD menu.

Well, that’s going in the DVD menu.

As such, Kill Switch seems like a story that could go horribly wrong. Gibson is a writer most famous for his work in defining and popularising “cyberpunk”, a science-fiction subgenre that is far removed from the horror trappings generally associated with The X-Files. Gibson was a writer who tended to explore the possible future development of cyberspace and associated issues, while Carter worked very hard to anchor The X-Files in the now. Gibson’s stories seemed to take place in the not-too-distant future; Carter grounded The X-Files in a very particular now.

However, Kill Switch works. It works phenomenally well. It is an episode that feels markedly different from everything else around it, while still feeling like it belongs to The X-Files. The clash of styles is evident in Kill Switch, as writers William Gibson and Thomas Maddox find themselves adapting their themes and ideas to a completely different aesthetic. That is perhaps part of appeal. While Chinga made it look quite easy to construct a solid Stephen King story that was also a solid episode of The X-Files, Kill Switch is nowhere near as smooth. This is a different beast. And it is glorious.

"Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?"

“Woah, woah, woah. What happened to floppies?”

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Millennium – The Mikado (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.

Glen Morgan and James Wong famously pulled Millennium away from its “serial killer of the week” format in its second season. While the label might be a little harsh (and perhaps a little exaggerated), it did hint at a recurring formula in the first season. Frank Black would be called in to catch a serial killer with a unique and distinctive modus operandi. The first season was littered with episodes built around that core format, wildly varying in quality. For every Blood Relatives or Paper Dove, there was a Loin Like a Hunting Flame or Kingdom Come.

The second season largely moved away from all that. Although Morgan and Wong occasionally made nods towards the classic format in episodes like Beware of the Dog, 19:19 or Goodbye Charlie, the second season of the show was a lot less formulaic and familiar. This is was a show that could transition from The Hand of St. Sebastian to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” to Midnight of the Century to Goodbye Charlie to Luminary. It seemed quite reasonable to suggest that the second season of Millennium was not as firmly attached to the concept of serial killers as the first season had been.

This is Avatar calling...

This is Avatar calling…

This makes The Mikado a rather unique instalment, arriving a little past half-way through the season. Written by Michael R. Perry, The Mikado is very much an archetypal serial killer story. There is a case from Frank Black’s past, lots of victims, some occult imagery, and even a ticking plot. In fact, The Mikado is probably the only episode of the second season that would arguably fit more comfortably in either the first or third seasons of the show. All you’d have to do is write out the character of Roedecker.

However, there is something decidedly big and bold about The Mikado. It is perhaps the most archetypal (and maybe the most successful) straight-down-the-middle “serial killer of the week” story that Millennium ever produced. After all, if you are only going to do produce one truly traditional “serial killer of the week” story in a season, you may as well go big. And you can’t go much bigger than the Zodiac.

It's all about the execution...

It’s all about the execution…

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The X-Files – 2Shy (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.

A lot of the success of the third season of The X-Files came for learning what had worked earlier, and trying to hone that.

So, for example, the epic mythology of Colony and End Game enabled episodes like Nisei and 731 along with Piper Maru and Apocrypha. Shows like Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug had proven that the show could do comedy, so it wasn’t as big a risk to commit to stories like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Even episodes like Fresh Bones had helped to define what a standard “monster of the week” should look like.

Freak like me...

Freak like me…

This approach to the third season had its drawbacks. It seemed like the first chunk of the first season was stuffed with supernatural revenge stories, to the point where it is surprisingly easy to confuse The List and The Walk on the basis of title and theme alone. However, it was a very effective way of producing television. It is very hard to fault any approach towards television production that could turn “fat-sucking vampire” into a premise that works.

The genealogy of 2Shy is quite easy to trace. It is the obvious synthesis of Tooms and Irresistible, two of the more memorable and effective monster stories of the first two seasons. 2Shy may have some very serious problems, but it does what it says on the tin.

Fresh bones...

Fresh bones…

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