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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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Non-Review Review: Captain Marvel

The biggest problem with Captain Marvel is one of spoiler culture.

“Spoiler culture” is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and one that is interesting as a facet of cultural consumption that arose parallel with the internet. It is perhaps a logical extension of the manner in which information flows these days. Information travels instantly and in all directions, quickly consumed and quick disseminated. In the nineties, it was easy (or easier) to avoid spoilers to films like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. After all, there was no Twitter or Facebook to share information. If somebody had already seen the film, they had to be physically talking to somebody else to discuss it, and it was posisble to establish the ground rules for the flows of information before the conversation progressed.

In an era where simply being on the internet exposes a person to torrents of information, the advent of “spoiler culture” seems logical and rational. People want to be surprised. People don’t want to know the finer points of a story before witnessing it first hand. People do not want the easter eggs given out or the finer details dissected. This is an understandable response. Having an experience described is no match for actually having that experience first-hand. So a culture has grown up online about preserving surprise and controlling the flow of information. This is fine. This is healthy. This is good. Mostly “spoiler culture” is just common courtesy and common sense. A reviewer should not reveal anything to a reader that they themselves would not want to know.

As with any philosophy, there is a tendency to take things too far. Sometimes “spoiler culture” descends into self-parody. Reviewers were famously told not to reveal any information about the plot of Blade Runner 2049, which ironically made it very hard to sell the movie to a potential audience. Some more extreme adherents felt betrayed when Sony released a trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home before Avengers: Endgame, as if the fact that Sony was making another Spider-Man movie would give away the resolution to the cliffhanger from Avengers: Infinity War. Naturally, Infinity War came with its own massive spoiler-warning from the studio, with reviewers told that “Thanos demands [their] silence.” This despite the fact the ending was lifted directly from a comic.

Captain Marvel embodies the worst impulses of “spoiler culture” because it confuses a logical and organic narrative development for a big twist. There is a reveal that comes around the half-way mark of the two-hour film which fundamentally changes the nature of the story being told. It plays against the story that had been set up to that point, and is positioned as a game-changer. It is a “twist.” It is a “big” moment. It is the kind of development for which Thanos would demand silence. Except it’s not really. It is not an actual twist. It is a plot point. It is a story beat. It is a part of the story that makes a great deal of sense in the context of the story as it is being told. However, Captain Marvel decides to play this game-changing story beat as a revelation.

There are a couple of big issues here. Most obviously, the actual narrative development is quite literally the only way that Captain Marvel could go without becoming something completely and irredeemably monstrous, so it is entirely predictable. (The twist is only a surprise to audience members who genuinely believe that Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie is likely to play out as extreme white nationalist propaganda.) More than that, though, it creates a larger problem with the flow of the story. The decision to play this story beat as a twist means the film has to conceal its hand for the first hour and fifteen minutes. This means that Captain Marvel is almost half-way over before any member of the cast gets any real character development.

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86. Mister Smith Goes to Washington (#147) – Independence Day 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, an Independence Day treat. Frank Capra’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington.

Local activist and unlikely politician Jefferson Smith finds himself appointed to represent his great state in the United States Senate. However, while trying to ensure a fair deal for his constituents, Smith soon finds his faith in democracy threatened as he figures out how the institutions actually work.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 147th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Dogs of War (Review)

The Dogs of War is the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

As such, it has lots of important things to be doing. The episode’s primary function is to streamline the ongoing narratives so that they might all neatly feed into What You Leave Behind. The goal of any penultimate episode is to set up the shot so that the finale might punt the ball into the goal, in a manner that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Given that The Dogs of War is arriving towards the end of a seven-season series, a two-year war story, and a ten-episode closing arc, that is a lot of setting up to be done.

The best is Yates to come.

There is a lot of work to be done on paper. The plot thread focusing on the Pah-Wraiths has been dangling since When It Rains…, the Federation has not reengaged with the Breen since the disastrous encounter at the end of The Changeling Face of Evil, and Bajor hasn’t even mentioned the possibility of joining the Federation since Rapture or In the Cards. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense of The Dogs of War to focus on getting Bashir and Dax together while Quark thinks he is about to be Nagus as Damar is forced to hide in a cellar.

However, there is something inherently charming about how The Dogs of War chooses to prioritise threads over story beats that might seem more relevant or important, to dedicate a sizable chunk of the penultimate episode of Deep Space Nine to tying up a clumsy “will they?”/“won’t they?” romance and telling one last Ferengi story. The Dogs of War is an episode that speaks to what Deep Space Nine was, both in terms is esoteric plotting and its skewed-but-optimistic outlook. There might be better ways to wind down a series, but this is very Deep Space Nine.

Love in a turbolift.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Non-Review Review: Miss Sloane

Like its central character, Miss Sloane is an interesting beast.

The movie’s central conflict is not the clash of egos between the rival lobbyists played by Jessica Chastain and Michael Stuhlbarg. Nor is it the philosophical conflict over gun control that drives so much of the plot. It is not even the conflict of interest that bookends the movie, the clash between the democratic ideal and the pragmatic reality of contemporary politics, although that perhaps comes closest to expressing the battle raging at the heart of the film.

Miss Sloane Goes to Washington.

The crisis that plays out across Miss Sloane is the gap between the perceived gap between personal and the political. For most of the film’s runtime, the eponymous character’s motivations remain engagingly opaque. Why has the cold and rational Elizabeth Sloane taken up a cause as ill-fated as tighter gun control regulations? The characters in the movie pick at the idea. Several wonder if she knew somebody involved in some traumatic incident of gun violence. It seems impossible to reconcile the calculated decisions of this political operator with a sense of moral righteousness.

Miss Sloane cleverly plays with this idea, teasing and goading the audience across its runtime. That implied conflict between the canny lobbyist and the just cause bubbles throughout the film. Most successfully, it plays out in Jessica Chastain’s superb central performance as the eponymous character; a keen observer of human nature who often seems to be battling with herself as much as with any singular rival. However, it also plays out in the film’s conflicted tone, with Miss Sloane often at odds with itself as it tries pitch itself at the right level.

Liz and let Liz.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Apocalypse Rising (Review)

Apocalypse Rising stands quite apart from the other Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season premieres.

Most obviously, it the only single-part season premiere across the entire seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Emissary and Way of the Warrior were two-hour television movies. The Homecoming fed into the franchise’s first official three-part story. The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II were obviously a two-part episode, while Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols provided a two-part introduction to the seventh season. A Time to Stand segued directly into Rocks and Shoals while also setting up a six-episode arc.

The times, they are a-changeling...

The times, they are a-changeling…

This is not to suggest that Apocalypse Rising is a more typical Star Trek season premiere. It is not a continuation of Broken Link in the same way that The Best of Both Worlds, Part II is a direct continuation of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I or that Basics, Part II is a direct follow-on from Basics, Part I. While Apocalypse Rising does resolve a cliffhanger left dangling by Broken Link, that cliffhanger was only really set up in the final two minutes of the episode. Indeed, the cliffhanger dangling from Broken Link recalls the endings of The Jem’Hadar or The Adversary.

Apocalypse Rising is also notable for being the first season premiere that is not positioned as a jumping on point, that is not intended to either expand the scope of the show or recruit new viewers. One of the luxuries of avoiding the traditional cliffhanger structures to bridge seasons was the freedom to begin each season with a relatively clean slate and introduce new elements. The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II introduced the Defiant and retooled the show to focus on the Dominion. The Way of the Warrior brought Worf over and shifted emphasis to the Klingons.

Klingon to the status quo...

Klingon to the status quo

While Apocalypse Rising does represent a slight shift in the tone of the show, it is not a radical new departure. More than that, it leans rather heavily on the show’s established mythology and in some ways indicates a desire to get the show back on track following an extended detour into war with the Klingons during the fourth season. Apocalypse Rising confirms what was made clear during the fourth season of the show, that Deep Space Nine has eventually evolved into its final form. Apocalypse Rising is a show so comfortable with itself that there’s no need to reinvent.

Although a little cramped and rushed in places, Apocalypse Rising represents a strong start to a stellar season. It is an efficient and effective piece of television, one that demonstrates the clarity of focus driving the season that will follow.

Drinking games...

Drinking games…

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