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Non-Review Review: Destroyer

At its core, Destroyer is a pulpy, heightened B-movie.

The basic plot involves a former undercover officer who finds herself tidying up loose ends from a botched job twelve years earlier, Erin Bell trying desperately to stay ahead of everything as the walls close in around her. It’s a standard template for a story like this, and audiences will be familiar with the basic structure of the story. Erin’s life is a disaster zone, and there is a sense that she still carries the scars from the trauma she enduring working with a local criminal gang.

She is become death…

As with most other genre exercises like this, Destroyer lives or dies in the execution. The template is so recognisable because it works efficiently. Apply a talented performer, a good director and a solid script to the template, and the movie will work. In that respect, Destroyer benefits from a compelling central performance by Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, and from director Karyn Kusama’s understanding of the rhythms and tempos of genre exercises like this.

Destroyer stumbles a little bit in its third act, largely due to a completely unnecessary piece of narrative trickery. However, the film is propulsive and compelling enough to make it across the finish line.

Copping to it.

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Non-Review Review: Den of Thieves

Heat was not the first cops and robbers film to parallel the opposite sides playing for control of the board, suggesting lives on a collision course inside a gritty crime epic.

However, Heat did it better than most. Heat inspired an entire generation of film fans, and arguably an entire subgenre of heist movie. Los Angeles had always lent itself to operatic crime sagas, with triumph and tragedy playing off against one another in the City of Angels, but Heat redefined the game. The movie developed a style of storytelling, both in terms of actual technical craft and in terms of storytelling construction.

Mann of Today.

Success breeds imitation, and there have been far too many crime films inspired by Michael Mann’s classic, to the point that many film fans were disappointed to discover that Mann himself had not adhered to the template in making Public Enemies. Almost every year, there seems to be another example of a movie constructed in the image of Heat, from Takers to The Town. The quality varies from film to film, as does the level of innovation and inspiration.

Den of Thieves is rather brazen in how much it takes from Heat, lifting both the crime classic’s cinematic language and even direct scenes. The result is a lukewarm reHeat of an exquisite meal, something to which the movie cheekily alludes towards the end of its climactic heist when one character literally serves up days-old leftovers. It isn’t anywhere near as filling or satisfying as the original meal, but it can satisfy a craving.

You definitely feel the Heat around the corner.

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44. Chinatown (#127)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Phil Bagnell, The 250 is a fortnightly 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 time, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

When a seemingly routine investigation into spousal infidelity evolves into a political scandal, private investigator J.J. Gittes finds himself navigating the dark underworld of thirties Los Angeles. Sinister conspiracies, local politics, private ownership of public utilities. As Gittes digs deeper and deeper, he uncovers the rotten foundations upon which the city was built.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 127th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alliances (Review)

This September and October, 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.

One of the more persistent and convincing criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager is the idea that it was very narrative conservative; that the show got comfortable playing out the familiar formula that had been established by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so never attempted to innovate or experiment in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or eventually Star Trek: Enterprise) did. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the show as a whole, but it does ignore some of the weird tensions that played out across the first two seasons.

It is fair to say that Voyager never truly experimented. However, there are several moments in the first two seasons where it looks like the show was considering doing something unique or unprecedented. The show walked up to the edge, looking up and down; it never quite made the leap, but it seemed to weigh the possibility of jumping headlong into uncharted territory. However, it ultimately only dipped its toes in the water before getting cold feet and returning to the comfort of the familiar.

"Everyone liked Godfather III, right?"

“Everyone liked Godfather III, right?”

The sad truth about the second season of Voyager is that the show made a number of attempts to do something different or unique, only to botch each and every one of those attempts so completely that the production team learned not to even try. The second season’s more adventurous creative decisions all ended in humiliation and farce, explaining why the show desperately sought the warm blanket of a familiar format and an established template. After all, it was the more conventional episodes of the second season that had been (relatively) well received.

The second season of Voyager turned the process of trying something moderately ambitious and failing spectacularly into something of an artform. Of course, given the simmering tensions behind the scenes, it often seemed like the show wanted to fail. Michael Piller desperately wanted to do new things, only to meet resistance from his fellow producers and writing staff. Writers like Kenneth Biller would publicly criticise assignments they had been handed, offering a sense of just how much faith the staff had in these ideas.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

Alliances marks perhaps the most ambitious element (and most spectacular failure) of the second season of Voyager. It is the centrepiece of Michael Piller’s attempts to develop the Kazon into a credible (and convincing) alien threat, while also setting up a recurring arc that will allow Piller to push Tom Paris into the role of “lovable rogue” of which Piller was so fond. These were elements that excited Piller a great deal, but left most of the rest of the production team relatively cold.

So there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Alliances is ultimately written by Jeri Taylor, who was increasingly at loggerheads with Piller over the direction of Voyager. In light of that context, it makes sense that Alliances is an episode that aggressively critiques its own existence. Janeway spends most of the episode frustrated at the fact that the story is happening at all, and Alliances builds towards a climax that seems designed to convince the viewer that this whole idea is misconceived on just about every possible level.

Blooming disaster...

Blooming disaster…

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Night Stalker – Three (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

Three is an interesting episode of Night Stalker, representing a threat that certainly feels less generic than that proposed by episodes like The Five People You Meet in Hell or Burning Man.

Three is the story of a house that is haunted by “the ghost of an emotion.” Given the fact that this is very much a horror show, and the themes already outlined in The Pilot and The Five People You Meet in Hell, it makes sense that the emotion in question is “fear.” Opening with a hazing ritual conducted by a secret society inside a derelict house, Three confronts the guest characters with their greatest fears. It is a very direct way addressing the underlying themes of Night Stalker, the fear and disconnect of modern urban living.

Top of the world...

Top of the world…

However, despite a good premise and solid execution, Three demonstrates the difficulties that Night Stalker is having finding its own unique voice. Three makes a conscious effort to flesh out its main characters, giving its central players personal conversations and introducing a new recurring character to help Kolchak in his investigations. However, this focus on character only emphasises how generic the show’s ensemble is. It is unfair to blame the cast and crew for something as intangible as the lack of chemistry, but it remains an issue for the series.

Three gives Stuart Townsend and Gabrielle Union banter, but it only serves to demonstrate that they lack the palpable chemistry that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson had. The script slots Jain into the role of comic relief, but this raises questions about what exactly his function in all of this is meant to be. The central characters seem lost in the episode’s shuffle, with Three demonstrating that a solid monster-of-the-week can only really succeed when built on a firm foundation.

Hide and seek...

Hide and seek…

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Night Stalker – The Five People You Meet in Hell (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The Five People You Meet in Hell makes it quite clear that Night Stalker is not going to have an easy life. (As it turned out, the show was not to have a particularly long one, either.)

The Five People You Meet in Hell was not originally intended to be the second episode of the show. The original plan had been to broadcast Into Night as the second episode of the season. However, the network shifted the broadcast order, opting to air The Five People You Meet in Hell in second place and bury Into Night much later in the season. In fact, Into Night would not be among the six episodes of Night Stalker to air on ABC; the show would be cancelled before the production team would get a chance to broadcast the show.

Eye see...

Eye see…

The reason for the shift is quite obvious. Into Night is not a great episode of television, but it is one that aligns quite neatly with what Night Stalker is supposed to be; it opens the mummification of two office workers and goes from there. In contrast, The Five People You Meet in Hell is much more generic. Sure, it involves mind control and psychic projection, but it is a much blander piece of television. The Five People You Meet in Hell is very much Night Stalker as a forensic procedural with paranormal elements than an accurate representation of the show.

Shifting the broadcast order around in order to prioritise The Five People You Meet in Hell suggests that the network is not entirely comfortable with the show they have commissioned. Two episodes into the first season, that is not an ideal signal to be sending.

A stab in the dark...

A stab in the dark…

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Night Stalker – Pilot (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

If you want to examine at the impact of The X-Files on mainstream American television, there are worse places to look than Night Stalker.

Sure, the show only ran for six episodes before it was cancelled, but its very existence speaks to the legacy and success of The X-Files. Night Stalker was a revival of a failed seventies cult television show commissioned by Touchstone Television and broadcast on ABC, one of the “big three” American television networks. More to the point, the network had tasked a veteran producer of The X-Files to oversee production of the show. The network scheduled their Night Stalker relaunch on Thursday nights, against the ratings juggernaut of CSI.

Night Stalking, deserves a quiet night...

Night Stalking, deserves a quiet night…

This was not a scrappy young network taking a creative gambit on an unknown property because they had nothing to lose; this was a substantial investment by a major player in a property that was largely forgotten outside of cult circles and which had failed the last time that it had come to television. It was very much a creative decision based on what had been learned from the success of The X-Files; handled properly, a seemingly marginal and fringe property could grab the national attention. The major networks had been paying attention.

In a way, the success of CSI at the turn of the twenty-first century was proof of this; a forensic thriller populated by idiosyncratic characters with an emphasis on stylised direction. ABC had committed to this idea with Lost, which launched in September 2004. Debuting a year later, Night Stalker found the network doubling down on the premise. Although the twenty-first century televisual landscape owed a debt to The X-Files, Night Stalker would be perhaps the most obvious successor. At least until Fringe came along three years later.

Playing all the angles on the City of Angels...

Playing all the angles on the City of Angels…

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The X-Files – The Beginning (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The opening shot of The Beginning makes it quite clear that things have changed. The camera opens staring at the sunny cloudless sky of California, doubling for Arizona. It pans down to an open desert. As the production team conceded with Anasazi, the desert was just about the only American environment that Vancouver could not easily mimic – to the point where the team had to paint rocks red in order to convincingly set a scene in New Mexico. California makes for a much more convincing desert.

Bursting on to the scene...

Bursting on to the scene…

The contrast is striking. The sixth season of The X-Files is bright and sunny; it is aware of its new production reality and chooses to embrace them rather than pointlessly resist them. Things had changed, and there was nothing to be gained from pretending otherwise. It is no wonder that the opening sequence of The Beginning features a group of working-stiff conspirators in transit; the perfect opening image for a season still figuring out how Los Angeles works. The Beginning loads all of that into its opening shot, getting it out in the open before it gets down to business.

At the same time, The Beginning is keen to stress that not too much has actually changed. The naming of the fifth season finalé and the sixth season premiere is decidedly symmetrical – The End and The Beginning. In fact, naming the second part of a two-part episode “The Beginning” is a very clear attempt at reassurance. It is a beginning without actually being a beginning; it is a conclusion without actually being a conclusion. The wheel keeps on turning. All that is missing is the ouroboros.

Dude, that's totally not sterile...

Dude, that’s totally not sterile…

The closing shot as much as confirms this, revealing that the bold new alien design revealed in The X-Files: Fight the Future is not so bold and new after all. Instead, the monster obviously inspired by Alien is something of a missing link, a tether connecting the grey aliens seen in episodes like Duane Barry to the black oil introduced in Piper Maru. It is all one big circle in perpetual motion. Everything is connected. Everything fits together. The show might have moved two thousand miles south, but it hasn’t missed a step.

For better or worse, The Beginning is about assuring viewers that – no matter what has changed – everything remains the same. It is up to the viewer to decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.

The truth is in there...

The truth is in there…

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The X-Files – Season 5 (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.

The fifth season of The X-Files represents the height of the show’s popularity.

Bookended by the production and release of the motion picture, the fifth season also earned the highest overall Neilsen ratings of any of the show’s nine seasons. The X-Files was a cultural force to be reckoned with, and had come a long way from its origins as little-seen cult television show. In the late nineties, it seemed like it wasn’t just aliens conspiring to colonise the planet; Chris Carter and his team were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. The fifth season has all the swagger and confidence of a show enjoying the view as it stands on top of the world.

xfiles-postmodernprometheus33

The fifth season might not be able to match the third season for consistency from episode to episode. The fifth season might also struggle to match the breathless ambition of the fourth season’s best (and wildest) episodes. However, it is a highly enjoyable season of television on its own terms. The season feels a little more relaxed and organised than the fourth season, and more confident in itself than the third. The fifth season even makes better use of its own internal themes and motifs than any of the previous seasons, with most of the staff seemingly on the same page.

Oddly enough, this thematic consistency does not translate into clear or fully-formed arcs. Unlike the second season of Millennium, it seems like the fifth season of The X-Files has no real idea of where it is going or how it wants to get there. This is slight problem when the fifth season needs to build to a feature film that was shot in the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. The X-Files gets a lot of credit for popularising serialised storytelling on prime-time television, but the fifth season demonstrates just how sloppy the show could sometimes be in that regard.

xfiles-badblood10

Still, this is a minor problem. With only twenty episodes, the fifth season is the shortest season of The X-Files produced at this point in the show’s history. The ninth season would run the same length, but there is an argument to be made that it is technically the shorter season; The Truth was written and broadcast as a single feature-length episode rather than two individual episodes. However, production necessities required a lot of innovation and experimentation in the fifth season, leading to a very playful and very off-format season of television.

While it is probably very difficult to argue that the fifth season of The X-Files was the show’s best run of episodes, it is a highly enjoyable collection of shows that brings together a lot of what was so much fun about The X-Files. The last season to be filmed in Vancouver, and the season that moves us closer to the end of the series than the beginning. Although certain segments of fandom would argue that it is the last truly great season of The X-Files, that feels unduly harsh to both the sixth and eighth seasons. Nevertheless, it is thrilling to watch a show so thoroughly enjoying its moment in the sun.

xfiles-theend32

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The X-Files – The End (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.

The End is a watershed moment for the show.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that The End accomplishes very little in terms of narrative. It doesn’t really do a great job bridging to The X-Files: Fight the Future. It certainly doesn’t do a great job wrapping up any of the show’s long-running concerns. Indeed, it adds two characters who will go on to become major (if controversial) players in the show’s overarching mythology. Even the big dramatic twist at the end of the episode feels familiar, with The End closing on a more memorable visualisation of the cliffhanger to The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

Nevertheless, The End does feel like an end of sorts. It closes out five seasons of The X-Files. Carter had suggested in interviews that he only wanted to do five seasons of the show before transitioning into feature films, and so The End marks the conclusion of the run that Carter had originally planned for the show. After all, The X-Files had crossed the hundred episode mark earlier in the year. It was ripe for syndication. It was at the stage where Fox and Ten Thirteen did not need to keep the show on the air to keep printing money.

At the same time, The End marks another more definitive sort of end. It would be the last piece of The X-Files to be filmed in Vancouver until The X-Files: I Want to Believe a decade later. Vancouver was a part of the show’s DNA. It had been the show’s production hub since The Pilot. More than two decades later, The X-Files would return to Vancouver for its six-episode wrap-up miniseries. Discussing the revival, Carter argued that Vancouver was “a natural place to make a show like The X-Files.” Certainly, the mood and atmosphere lent itself to the series.

"My video collection!"

“My video collection!”

So The End marks a fond farewell from the production team to a city and region that had served them well.  In that respect, it feels like a more definitive sort of ending. The End opens with a scene that is confident enough to let Canada be Canada. As with the opening scene of Herrenvolk, it is almost comical how hard The End flags its “and starring Canada as Canada” cred, to the point where a mountie rushes to the aid of an assassination victim. The closing scene of The End burns down the show’s most iconic and memorable sets.

While The End is not necessarily a satisfying mythology episode or season finalé in its own right, it does feel like a suitably big moment in the evolution of the show.

Smoking gun...

Smoking gun…

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