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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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The Moffat Moment: The Lasting Legacy of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”…

Hindsight is a powerful tool.

It’s hard to recognise patterns in the moment, to understand how a larger design is unfolding as it actually unspools. It’s a lot easier to process the larger context once the work is complete. Many important works only reveal themselves in retrospect, once they can be properly contextualised as part of broader cultural movements and placed within the larger popular consciousness. By this measure, Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is a particularly fascinating piece of work.

Moffat’s Doctor Who is an interesting piece of work, in large part due to the sheer volume of venom that it generates online. This is to be expected with any writer working on a major geek-friendly property. Fandoms are inherently protective of what they deem to belong to them, and this can lead to excessive and aggressive campaigns of hatred against those writers and directors they believe to be betraying the object of their affection. This is most obvious in terms of the response to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, with harassment campaigns against actors and insane petitions and misogynist edits.

Moffat was subject to that sort of online hatred to the point that he was chased off Twitter, but the most interesting thing about the hatred of his tenure was that it seeped into professional journalism. Professional websites like The Daily Dot were so aggressively critical of Steven Moffat that they even made a point to blame him for decisions made by his direct predecessor; even when issuing a correction of that simple fact-checking oversight, they made a point to leave his sarcastic commentary on that narrative choice within the article without any context so that it might look like an endorsement.

There was an interesting dishonesty in the criticism of Moffat’s tenure. The most obvious example might be Rebecca A. Moore’s infamous study that argued that women’s speaking roles actually decreased under Moffat’s tenure, which was circulated in mainstream media and press. While it’s possible to have subjective arguments about the content of such dialogue and characterisation, the study itself was easily demonstrably inaccurate and read very much as an attempt to manipulate the numbers in service of a predetermined editorial perspective.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to dislike the work of a particular writer or to dislike the direction of a particular show. Life would be boring if everybody liked the same things. However, a large part of the fan-press coverage of the Moffat era seemed dedicated to arguing that the series was objectively awful with little room for debate. This resulted in a very heightened tone in online discourse around it in which the producer had to give interviews to the mainstream press insisting that he was not a misogynist. This critical environment was less than healthy, and its spread to professional outlets was regrettable.

As with most things, including the tenure of Russell T. Davies and Andrew Cartmel, the reality of the Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner was complicated. It is, for example, true that the overnight ratings did drop during the final years of his tenure. It is also true that the manner in which people were consuming television changed as well, making overnights less important. It is similarly true that Moffat’s tenure saw the series breaking into America; synchronising broadcast on BBC America, record high ratings and shooting episodes like The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon and The Angels Take Manhattan there.

More to the point, it was the Moffat era that saw the series’ impact on American popular culture increase dramatically. To be fair, at least some of this was a delayed reaction to the hard work done by Russell T. Davies who had made smaller-scale efforts at outreach such as second-unit shooting in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks. Nevertheless, the impact was felt. For example, Christopher Eccleston showed up on The Sarah Silverman Program playing “Doctor Lazer Rage.” Similarly, Community featured “Inspector Spacetime”, with a superfan played by future Moffat-era co-star Matt Lucas.

Whatever the precise cause of this increasingly mainstream interest in the show in American popular culture, and it seems fair to credit at least some of that to the increased access that American audiences had to the show during Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, it gets at one of the larger and stranger overlaps between Moffat’s work on the series and broader cultural trends. Moffat’s Doctor Who often seems like a template for certain strands of contemporary popular culture, whether through coincidence or design.

Rewatching Moffat’s Doctor Who, removed from its original context, it often seems like Moffat had a much stronger understanding of the direction of contemporary culture than many of his critics would allow.

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81. Django Unchained (#61)

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, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

A “Southern” set against the backdrop of the southern states in the lead-up to the Civil War. Freed by the German bounty hunter King Schultz, Django embarks upon a mission to free his wife Broomhilda from the clutches of slave-owner Calvin Candie. Together, Schultz and Django find themselves entering the heart of darkness.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 61st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Ready Player One

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Reader Player One is a very curious piece of cinema. It is an incredibly flawed piece of work, with a lot of its flaws so fundamental that they are threaded into the very architecture of the film. Screenwriter Zak Penn has offered a very thorough and involved reinvention of Ernest Cline’s source novel, a ground-up renovation of Cline’s catalogue of popular culture references and collection of narrative tropes. Indeed, Penn’s screenplay improves a great deal on the novel that inspired it; junking and reworking entire sequences, bulking up supporting characters, trying to find a beating human heart.

Worlds apart.

More than that, Ready Player One provides Spielberg with the opportunity to go “all out.” There is a sense watching Ready Player One that Spielberg has approached the film not as a collection of popular culture references and in-jokes, but instead as an attempt to reconnect with a younger audience. Whether or not Reader Player One is the right source material for such an attempt, there is no denying Spielberg’s energy and vigour. Ready Player One is a dynamic piece of film, Spielberg demonstrating all the technique for which he is known, but with an enthusiasm that puts younger directors to shame.

However, there is no escaping the biggest issue with the film remains its source material. The problem with Ready Player One as a film is that it is an adaptation of Ready Player One as a novel.

Back to the past.

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Iron Fist – Snow Gives Way (Review)

So, what is Iron Fist about?

To be fair, it is a tough question to answer. The final Netflix series, publicised as “the Last Defender”, seems to have been a hard sell. Indeed, the emphasis on the show’s position as “the Last Defender” recalls the marketing of Captain America: The First Avenger. In both cases, Marvel was selling a property that posed a creative challenge by tethering it to a looming mass-market crossover, counting on its position as “the last piece of the puzzle” to draw in audiences that might otherwise hold little interest in the material.

Fist first.

And, by and large, Iron Fist is defined by these outside demands. Any audience member trying to figure out what Iron Fist is or what purpose it serves will arguably get a better sense of that by tracing the outline established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. Iron Fist is not a television show that defines itself, instead existing in a narrative and marketing space that has already been defined for it by the demands of other multimedia. Iron Fist is not so much a television show as a bunch of stuff that fits in that space before The Defenders.

That much is evident even as early as Snow Gives Way, the first episode of the Netflix series. The pilot is arguably as instructive in what it fails to do as it is in what it actually accomplishes. It eats up fifty minutes of airtime without providing the audience with any real sense of who these people are, what they want, or what the series is trying to say that isn’t on the agenda already set up by the other Marvel Netflix shows.

He’s acting. Really hard.

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The X-Files – Triangle (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.

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate Triangle.

The episode gets a lot of attention for its wonderful use of long tracking shots. According to Chris Carter’s commentary, there are only twenty-four individual shots stitched together to produce the forty-five-minute episode. Considering the amount of split-screen action at the climax, that is not a lot. Triangle is an artistic tour de force for writer and director Chris Carter. The success that both Birdman and True Detective enjoyed in 2014 due to their extended takes suggests that Carter was significantly ahead of the curve.

Dragging up the past...

Dragging up the past…

There are other aspects to note. Triangle also ushers in a new mood and tone for the sixth season of The X-Files. The show had moved to Los Angeles, and would struggle with how to retain its identity in the new (and bright) surroundings of California. The Beginning and Drive had both answered the question in their own way, but Triangle ushers in a whole new approach to storytelling. Triangle is the first of a series of light and breezy episodes in the early stretch of the sixth season where The X-Files almost turns into a paranormal sitcom.

However, there is one other reason to celebrate Triangle. It is an extended forty-five minute pun on the word “ship.”

Cigarette-Smoking Nazi...

Cigarette-Smoking Nazi…

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Millennium – 5-2-2-6-6-6 (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the fourth season of The X-Files with the scripts that they wrote for the first season of Millennium. The duo were writing for both shows at the same time – with episodes frequently airing within a week of each other. Morgan tended to focus more on the four X-Files scripts, while Wong worked primarily on the three Millennium episodes. While the seven scripts are all fascinating in their own way, there is a marked difference in how the duo approach the two shows.

Their four episodes of The X-Files are very bold and experimental – they look and feel utterly unlike anything that the show has done; before or after. These four scripts seem to needle at the show, pushing it further. Home seems designed to see how much unpleasantness the writers can get on to Fox prime time in the nineties. The Field Where I Died is a thoughtful and melancholy romance with no companion in the X-Files canon. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man parodies the show’s central conspiracy. Never Again makes the Mulder/Scully dynamic toxic.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

That makes a great deal of sense. After all, The X-Files was in its fourth season. It was approaching that impressive “one hundredth episode” landmark, the number of episodes necessary before the show would be secure in syndication. (At least in the television landscape of the nineties.) Although less than half-way through its eventual nine-season run, The X-Files was an old dog by this stage of its life cycle. As such, it made a great deal of sense for Morgan and Wong – two writers who had been there at the beginning – to shake things up.

In contrast, the three scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the first season of Millennium are a bit more conservative in scope and tone. They are fascinating pieces of television that help to establish the mood of the show, but they are not as experimental of the work that Morgan and Wong were doing on The X-Files. Again, this makes a great deal of sense. Millennium was still a very young show. It was still defining its own identity, figuring out what it wanted and needed to be. Morgan and Wong’s three scripts are essential in that development.

Taking a page from the Group...

Taking a page from the Group…

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