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The X-Files – Season 4 (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.

The fourth season of The X-Files is a work of chaotic genius.

While the third season of The X-Files is one of the most consistently well-made seasons of television ever produced, the fourth season is a lot more uneven. There are a lot of reasons for this. Chris Carter was busy launching Millennium. Fox had decided to press ahead with The X-Files: Fight the Future. Behind the scenes, it was chaotic. Glen Morgan and James Wong hung around for half the season before leaving to work on their own pilot, a planned script from Darin Morgan fell through, Chris Carter’s attention was divided.

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However, the fourth season represents something of a changing of the guard on the writing staff, a transition between two generations. The fourth season sees the permanent departure of writers Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon. These were all writers who worked hard to give The X-Files its unique flavour and identity in the show’s earliest years. The X-Files would not be the same show without the input of those three writers. It is a shame to see them depart, although four years is a long time in the industry.

In contrast, the fourth season also sees younger talent rising up. It sees the first collaboration of Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz. The trio would become one of the most consistent (and productive) writing ensembles on the series. The fourth season also saw the rapid ascent of Vince Gilligan, who had only contributed one script to the third season; Gilligan’s three solo scripts for the third season are iconic and influential in their own right. These are the voices that will steer The X-Files through to the end of its nine-year run.

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As such, the fourth season feels transitional. It is a season that lacks the finely-honed efficiency that defined the third season, in favour of a more ambitious and even experimental style. The result is a season that feels wildly creative, a joyous cacophony rather than a harmonious symphony. The fourth season may not always hit the notes, but it is doing something very fresh and exciting. There is an energy and enthusiasm to the season that carries even some of the weaker episodes.

The fourth season is not consistently brilliant, but it is more than occasionally transcendental.

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Non-Review Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel takes a formula that worked well enough the first time, and tries to figure just how much it can add in on top without throwing everything out of a balance. When producing a sequel, the tendency is to double down on what worked before – to commit to the bits to which the audience responded, sometimes missing the fact that moderation might have been some of the appeal. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel commits to its cast, putting the various star through a wide variety of sitcom premises that look like they might have been lifted from a UK Gold marathon.

In some ways, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feels a little bit like the ambitious construction and renovation project planned by Sonny Kapoor: sprawling, excessive, unwieldy, overly elaborate. The main cast are not clustered as they were the first time around, meaning that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel feels disjointed at best and haphazard at worst. Richard Gere arrives to lend some extra prestige (and some international appeal) to the film, but seems almost like a distraction from the thespians around him.

Getting into Gere...

Getting into Gere…

There are points where it feels like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might collapse under its own weight. The character plots don’t really intersect or overlap, so the ensemble frequently finding themselves fighting for space as the movie tries to figure out who warrants the most attention. (The relative name recognition seems to offer a convenient deciding factor, which is a shame in some respects.) While director John Madden does not keep as tight a rein on the film as he might, he prevents the film from completely dissolving into a series of interconnected sitcom episodes.

Still, despite these problems, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delivers what it promises: a familiar framework for veteran actors to demonstrate that they can still carry a light and entertaining film.

No need to make a song and dance about it...

No need to make a song and dance about it…

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The X-Files (Topps) #20-21 – Family Portrait (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.

Kevin J. Anderson is a very experienced hand when it comes to tie-in fiction.

Although Assemblers of Infinity was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1993, Anderson is perhaps best known for his work with licenced properties. He has written a significant number of Star Wars novels. He has published a trio of books set in the world of The X-Files. Indeed, Anderson would even adapt his first novel – Ground Zero – into a comic book miniseries for Topps. When Brian Herbert decided to finish his father’s Dune series, he collaborated with Anderson.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

So Anderson is very much a safe pair of hands. He is a writer you can trust to construct a functional two-part X-Files story with a logical structure and a solid central premise. Anderson knows how to work within the boundaries of tie-in media, and he knows how to write a solid science-fiction or fantasy story. Pairing him with artist Gordon Purcell makes a great deal of sense, particularly for comic book that is trying hard to cement its place as a good old-fashioned tie-in.

Family Portrait is not exceptional, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead, it is functional. It is more efficient than ambitious, feeling very much like a classic horror comic that just happens to feature Mulder and Scully than a compelling episode of The X-Files in its own right.

Let's see what develops...

Let’s see what develops…

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The X-Files (Topps) #18-19 – Night Lights (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.

With Night Lights, incoming X-Files writer John Rozum teams up with veteran X-Files artist Charles Adlard. While Stefan Petrucha’s involvement in the line was pretty much finished, pending the release of Afterflight, Adlard would work as part of the book’s rotating art team for a while longer.

Thin Air made it quite clear that Rozum was going to be writing a more traditional X-Files comic book than his predecessor. Stefan Petrucha seemed happy to stretch the series as far as possible, to tease out big ideas about The X-Files and to play with the show’s sacred cows. The result was always intriguing, even if it sometimes went a little beyond what readers would have expected from a comic book based on The X-Files.

We will be gods, on night lights...

We will be gods, on night lights…

Rozum’s stories tend to be a bit more straightforward. They are very much conventional X-Files stories. They hue closer to the standard formula, and feature a whole host of expected ingredients. Thin Air was a very conventional and fairly rote X-Files story, particularly following on from stories like Falling or Home of the Brave. Rozum appeared to have some teething troubles, particularly when it came to pacing and characterisation.

While Night Lights feels a little too jumbled and confused to really work, it does seem a lot more confident and assured. The comic has a host of good ideas, and moves considerably smoother than Thin Air did. In fact, there is a rather brilliant idea nestled at the heart of the story. Rozum just buries it a little too well.

Keep watching the skies...

Keep watching the skies…

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My 12 for ’14: The Babadook and Living With Demons…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

The Babadook is a delightfully well-executed Australian horror film for most of its run-time, an uncomfortable and occasionally harrowing exploration of guilt, resentment and motherhood. The scares are executed cleanly and efficiently, and director Jennifer Kent does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension as the movie ticks along. However, the most interesting and clever aspects of The Babadook are found nestled in the movie’s final few minutes, providing a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion to the allegorical horror film.

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Note: This “best of” entry includes spoilers for The Babadook. You should probably go and see the movie, particularly if you are a horror fan. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you. Still there? Good. Let’s continue. Continue reading

My 12 for ’14: Guardians of the Galaxy and “the Day I Left Earth”…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It comes with burdened with all the trappings that one expects from a Marvel film. Thanos provides a mostly superfluous element that clouds the narrative while serving as an advertisement for a film several years away. Ronan the Accuser makes for a suitably banal villain, like a cosplaying fan who won’t choose between his deep abiding affection for Thor and his love of the Smurfs. The third act is a jumbled mess, one that occasionally loses sight of its characters amid all the CGI spectacle.

And, yet, it works in spite all this. One of Marvel’s biggest problems as a movie studio is the way that it tends to smother individual creators in pursuit of a more consistent project. The studio’s best films  – Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – are the films that aren’t afraid to let a writer or director’s voice shine through. In contrast, the weakest entries – Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 – try desperately to drown out any hint of personality in pursuit of something that can be homogenised; rendered safely within the studio’s comfort zone.

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After all, Marvel is a company that likes to play it safe. It is a studio that would replace Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed for Ant Man. It is a movie that would gladly have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin its wheels for two-thirds of a season so it can wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to arrive in theatres. It is a studio that has build six movies around blonde white actors named Chris without a single female- or minority-led superhero film. (Sure, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming… eventually, but Black Widow remains a rotating co-star.)

To be fair to Marvel, this system makes a certain amount of sense. It avoids horrific misfires like Catwoman or Elektra, but also does not allow for anything as transcendental and unique as Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a product of this system. It is safe, hitting all the necessary plot beats and offering minutes of screentime (and plot convolutions) as tribute to the shared universe. However, there is just enough of James Gunn left in the final product to make it all worthwhile. The film retains a sense of oddness and charm that prevents it from ever feeling generic.

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Non-Review Review: Unbroken

The true story of Louis Zamperini is absolutely fascinating. It lends itself to this sort of big spectacle. It has everything you need for a movie that might clean up during awards season: a historical setting; a war; a sporting story about triumph of adversity; incredible physical transformations from the cast; a character enduring incredible hardship and coming out the other side. These are the sorts of ingredients that make a Best Picture contender. Unbroken just heaps more and more on top of these already alluring elements.

It isn’t the terrible and messy script that ultimately defeats Unbroken, with beloved filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen at the top of the bill. It isn’t the pedestrian unchallenging direction, either. It isn’t Alexandre Desplat’s condescending and patronising score, that doesn’t trust the audience to determine what they should be feeling from one moment to the next. It is not even the cynical Coldplay song playing over the closing credits, to put a pleasant life-affirming spin on events.

The Oscar race is on...

The Oscar race is on…

The detail that really shatter Unbroken is the fact that all of this has been very carefully and meticulously calibrated to check off the requisite items on the big Oscar check list. Unbroken is just as mechanical and lifeless a production as Transformers 4, but it happens to be built for a different purpose. There is no energy here, no enthusiasm, no emotion. It is just a bunch of things that have been successful in other stories heaped on top of one another, hoping to hit the high score on that fateful morning in January 2015.

Despite managing to eat up an incredible amount of attention and discussion in the larger Oscar race – taking attention off far more deserving contenders – Unbroken is a complete and utter misfire.

"This is what happens to anybody who suggests Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence is a better Japanese prisoner of war film."

“This is what happens to anybody who suggests Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence is a better Japanese prisoner of war film.”

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