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Non-Review Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a very pretty mess.

Atomic Blonde is a stylistic showcase for director David Leitch and star Charlize Theron, a bruising and beautiful ballet of brutality with a killer soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is a film set in a funhouse mirror version of Berlin in November 1989, a movie that argues its location is more a state of mind than a physical place. The violence in Atomic Blonde is visceral, the mood tangible, the soundtrack delectable. Atomic Blonde is a feast for the senses.

Seeing red.

However, Atomic Blonde also makes next to no sense. The film is an action movie dressed in the attire of a nihilistic espionage thriller, and a little narrative confusion inevitably comes with the territory. These films are all but obligated to have twists and betrayals, macguffins and revelations, switches and levers. Atomic Blonde embraces that zany approach to plot and structure with relish. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde is more fundamental than all that. It often struggles to remain coherent from one scene to the next, from one set piece to another.

Atomic Blonde is beautiful chaos, an exploding collage that probably didn’t make any sense to begin with.

Putting her turtleneck on the line.

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Star Trek – Spectre of the Gun (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Star Trek is dead.

Not in a literal or technical sense. The show had been brought back from the brink of cancellation, offered a last-minute reprieve by NBC following a number high-profile fan campaigns. As far as outside observers were concerned, Star Trek lived. Kirk and Spock would continue their voyages into the space, the production team offering new and exciting interstellar adventures for the delectation of the audience at home. The execution had been stayed, Star Trek was back on television for another season.

End of the line.

End of the line.

However, the show had been mortally wounded. Star Trek was clearly not a top priority for NBC. The show was moved to the infamous “graveyard slot” of Fridays at 10pm. The budget was slashed even further. Most of the top tier creative talent left, including veteran producers Dorothy Fontana and Gene L. Coon along with creator Gene Roddenberry. Tensions were simmering behind the scenes. Even before NBC cut the season order to twenty-four episodes later in the season, it was clear that the series was on its last legs.

Star Trek was very much in limbo. Indeed, looking at third season as a whole, many such analogies suggest themselves. Star Trek was a show limping and lurching towards its own funeral, hobbled and humbled by forced outside of its control. These creative problems bubbled through the production into the finished product, with much of the third season inheriting a haggard and defeated disposition. There is a funereal tone to a lot of the third season, distinct even from the Lovecraftian horror that bubbled through the show’s earliest episodes.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Spectre of the Gun is part of that funereal tone, although it is also something different. Spectre of the Gun was the first episode of the season to be produced, although it was shuffled into the sixth broadcast slot. To be fair, this rescheduling seems appropriate; Spectre of the Gun aired both the week of Halloween and one day shy of the eighty-seventh anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The episode has a haunted quality to it, a more mournful horror than that on display in the franchise’s previous “Halloween episode”, Catspaw.

In some ways, there is an interesting contrast between the first episode of the third season to be produced and the first episode of the third season to air. Both Spectre of the Gun and Spock’s Brain speak to the grim realities of the third season, offering a taste of the anxieties simmering through the show. Both seem to acknowledge that Star Trek is a shell of its former self, whether in the half-remembered ghost town of Spectre of the Gun or the brainless Spock shuffling his way through Spock’s Brain. The only difference is that Spectre of the Gun is a good episode.

Men of mist-ery.

Men of mist-ery.

Death stalks through Spectre of the Gun. Seeking to confront the Melkotians, Kirk and his crew beam down to a formless world that is nothing more than swirling clouds of gas. When they find themselves transported to Tombstone, the sky is an ominous red and the Earps are cast as horsemen of the apocalypse. The world seems hollow; the sound stage is incomplete. Time ticks down, albeit to a fictional five o’clock deadline rather than the historical three o’clock shout out. During the final confrontation, the wind howls as if the world itself is screaming in anguish.

Spectre of the Gun confronts Kirk with a world of phantoms. It evokes a world long vanished into fading memory, populated by characters who died long before. It traps Kirk and his crew in what is effectively a death trap, cutting off all of their narrative options as it marches them inexorably towards a bloody finale. It is even written by a ghost, with Lee Cronin a convenient fiction allowing former producer Gene L. Coon the chance to write a few scripts for a show he had already departed and which was not long for this world. The setting is even called “Tombstone.”

Even the newspaper is in on it!

Even the newspaper is in on it!

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Millennium – … Thirteen Years Later (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.

… Thirteen Years Later is infamously silly. That may not be such a bad thing.

There are a lot of details that would seem to weigh against … Thirteen Years Later. It is the show’s first attempt at comedy since Darin Morgan left the staff at the end of the second season; any episode will suffer in comparison to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. It is an episode built around a guest appearance from the rock band KISS to promote the release of their latest album, Psycho Circus. It is also an attempt to do wry self-aware meta-commentary and Hollywood satire, which could easily become indulgent.

KISS was 'ere...

KISS was ‘ere…

To be quite frank, … Thirteen Years Later doesn’t really work. It is messy and convoluted. A lot of the gags are obvious, and a lot of its satire of Hollywood feels somewhat stock. The framing device builds to a pretty lame (and entirely predictable) punchline. Some of the best gags in … Thirteen Years Later are shamelessly poached from better second season episodes – the idea of Frank Black in Hawaiian shirt comes from Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” while the idea of Frank Black critiquing serial killer movies was hilarious in Midnight of the Century.

However, in spite of all that, … Thirteen Years Later has an energy and momentum that is sorely missing from much of the season around it. The third season has seen a return to the mood and aesthetic of the first season, which occasionally wallowed in gloom and self-importance. … Thirteen Years Later completely skewers that sense of self-importance. Its best jokes seem to be affectionate jabs at Millennium itself, demonstrating that the show still has a great sense of humour; even if it has gotten quite effective at hiding it.

The camera never lies...

The camera never lies…

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The X-Files – Bad Blood (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.

Despite a notable absence of Darin Morgan, Bad Blood makes a much more convincing case for Vince Gilligan as the heir apparent to Darin Morgan than Small Potatoes did at the end of the fourth season.

Bad Blood finds Gilligan touching on some of the same broad ideas as Small Potatoes – how Mulder is perceived and how he perceives himself, a sly awareness of the show’s tropes and conventions. However, Bad Blood feels a lot more honed and focused than Small Potatoes. It felt like Small Potatoes only got to the meat of the story it wanted to tell in its final third, while Bad Blood is shrewd enough to put its core concepts front-and-centre. While Bad Blood has the same broad humour of Small Potatoes, it feels a lot more convincing when it comes to characters.

The tooth is out there...

The tooth is out there…

It could be argued that Gilligan drew quite heavily on the work of Darin Morgan in some of his scripts. There is no shame in this. After all, Darin Morgan is perhaps the most widely-praised writer to work on The X-Files. In this context, Bad Blood is something of a spiritual successor to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Gilligan’s script is not quite as structurally or philosophically ambitious as Darin Morgan’s final credited script for the series, but it does hit on the same fundamental idea that truth is an inherently subjective construct.

Bad Blood is essentially an episode that is not only about how Mulder and Scully see each other, but how they see themselves.

Mulder knows what's at stake...

Mulder knows what’s at stake…

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The X-Files – Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (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.

“No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Light 'em up...

Light ’em up…

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