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Non-Review Review: Their Finest

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Their Finest is a charming, if somewhat overly schmaltzy, Second World War comedy drama.

To be fair, the basic premise and setting do a lot to carry the film. The Second World still exerts a mythic power, particularly to the members of the United Kingdom that weathered the Blitz before marching (with American support) to victory. That moment is powerful and evocative, Britain serving as the “island fortress” holding Nazi German at bay. The imagery is striking, from the bombed out buildings to the rubble on the streets to the sounds of air raid sirens. It is a rich and evocative setting.



More than that, it is a setting that offers all manner of storytelling possibilities. As one of the defining moments of the twentieth century for Great Britain, it is the perfect fodder for telling smaller and more intimate tales. After all, everybody knows the basics of the Blitz, so there is more opportunity to explore the lives of those who exist at the fringe of the narrative. Those were extraordinary times, and so stories that might otherwise seem ordinary are elevated to be extraordinary by virtue of unfolding against those circumstances.

Their Finest is the tale of about one woman’s struggle to be heard and acknowledged as a writer against this backdrop, fighting the war at home in any number of ways. It is a fascinating premise, and one that feels relatively under-explored in the larger context of this defining historical moment. While Their Finest occasionally trips into cliché and melodrama, and occasionally even loses focus on the story that it is trying to tell. Still, a strong cast and a lot of charm carry Their Finest a long way.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Call to Arms (Review)

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. This does not mean that one can know when war will come but only that one is sure that it will come. This was true even before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war.

– Albert Einstein, “Einstein on the Atomic Bomb”, The Atlantic, November 1945

Feels like coming home...

Feels like coming home…

Can war ever be justified? Can war ever be inevitable? Can war ever be necessary?

These are very tough ethical questions, particularly when posed in the abstract. In fact, the vast majority of policy decisions about warfare are rooted in living memory rather than philosophical certainty. It has been repeatedly suggested that Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda was a consequence of the spectacular failure in Somalia, and that his eventual intervention in Kosovo was an act of atonement for the moral lapse in Rwanda. This is to say nothing of how Obama’s policy on Syria is shaped by Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

The Star Trek universe is a utopia. It is a world where technology has eliminated poverty and hunger. The replicator, the holodeck, the transporter and warp drive are the building blocks of an idealistic future in which mankind seems to have found peace with itself. Dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest, Gene Roddenberry proposed that the franchise represented an idealised future for mankind. It was a world in which nobody ever wanted for anything, in which mankind were free to explore the universe.

This idealism is a cornerstone of the franchise. It is one of the most recognisable and universal aspects of Star Trek. This is a franchise that genuinely believes that mankind can be better than we are today. That is a large part of what makes the show so powerful, particularly in its original context. As the Doomsday Clock ticks closer and closer to midnight, Star Trek is a franchise that seems to argue that mankind has a future worth aspiring toward; a future beyond the end of the world or some corporate dystopia.

A farewell at arms.

A farewell at arms.

The franchise was never particularly interested in exploring how mankind reached that level of enlightenment. Star Trek: Enterprise was nominally a prequel series for the franchise, picking up in the wake of Star Trek: First Contact, but it opened after mankind had eliminated warfare and famine and nationalism. In some ways, the franchise could seem like a rather surreal experiment. If you imagined a world without warfare or without greed or without hunger, maybe people would get along? There is undoubtedly value on this, but it feels simplistic.

In contrast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dared to ask tough and uncomfortable question by challenging these assumptions. If these characters did not live in a perfect world, would they still aspire to betterment? If hunger and greed were still a part of everyday life, could mankind still work to improve themselves? If warfare is the inevitable outcome of statesmanship, then how do these twenty-fourth century people retain their values and ideals? These are legitimately tough questions for the franchise to ponder, but Deep Space Nine embraces them.

Terror on Terok Nor.

Terror on Terok Nor.

It is hard to overstate just how shocking Call to Arms was on broadcast. The actual plot mechanics are fairly standard Star Trek season finale stuff. The ominous and mounting sense of dread coursing through the episode evokes The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, the first season-ending cliffhanger from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The decision to have the recurring antagonists hijack the eponymous space station recalls Basics, Part I, the cliffhanger that Star Trek: Voyager broadcast at the end of the previous television season.

However, Call to Arms is more shocking for the one element of the episode that has been building since the first encounter with the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar. It is the beginning of the franchise’s first extended war story. This is bold new territory for the franchise, something that remains controversial to this day.

"The ball is in your court."

“The ball is in your court.”

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Non-Review Review: Suite Française

Suite Française is the name given to a planned series of five novels written by Irène Némirovsky during the Second World War. Living in France during the conflict, Némirovsky was Ukrainian and Jewish descent. She completed the first two novels in the series (Tempête en Juin and Dolce) and had outlined the third (Captivité) before she was arrested as a Jew in 1942. Némirovsky was detained at Pithiviers, before she was transferred to Auschwitz. She died in Auschwitz in August 1942.

The two novels were undiscovered for more than half a century; her daughter – Denise Epstein – only discovered the novels in the nineties. They were written microscopically inside journals. The 140 pages that Némirovsky had written expanded to more than 500 printed pages. There is some evidence that even the two “completed” manuscripts were not quite finished. Notes suggested that Némirovsky was considering revisions to Dolce so as to change the fate of a featured character. More than six decades after her death, Suite Française was eventually published in 2004.

An officer and a gentleman...

An officer and a gentleman…

Adapting any novel for the screen is tough job, let alone a sequence of five novels – only two of which were ever finished, and published posthumously. Part of the intrigue of Suite Française was the fact that these were novels depicting incredible historical events as they actually occurred. It is impossible to quite convey that sense of urgency and vitality after decades of storytelling about the Second World War. Although it is an adaptation of a novel published only a decade earlier, Suite Française has the weight of considerable expectations baring down on it.

Even allowing for the difficulties with this particular adaptation, Saul Dibb and Matt Charman’s script still feels quite clumsy in execution; despite excising most of Tempête en Juin, the finished script feels curiously over-written. Monologues tend to meander and wander, as if the script doesn’t trust the cast to convey deep emotion through their performances, as if the writers are afraid the audience might miss the key philosophical or moral points of the script. This is a shame, as Suite Française is beautifully acted and looks quite wonderful.

The good German...

The good German…

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The X-Files (Topps) #17 – Thin Air (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.

By all accounts, this was the kind of creative team that Ten Thirteen Productions probably wanted on Topps’ X-Files comic since the start.

Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard had done a phenomenal amount of work on The X-Files comic line. They had written sixteen issues of the monthly series, an annual, two digests and a slew of short stories scattered across various forums. However, it was quite clear that their approach to the comic was not quite what Ten Thirteen had hoped for when they licensed the comic to Topps. Petrucha’s scripts were ambitious, bold and playful; they were occasionally downright cheeky. Adlard was a master of mood and expression; he was less suited to likeness.

Here come the men in black...

Here come the men in black…

This had caused no small amount of friction between the production company and the creative team. By all accounts, the working relationship between Petrucha and the production company was quite strained. Eventually they fired him from the comic, making Home of the Brave the last story written by Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard on Topps’ The X-Files comics. Given the two had been with the comic from the start, this was quite a radical change.

However, this did allow Topps to put a team more agreeable to Ten Thirteen’s demands on the comic.

"I call it blue steal..."

“I call it blue steal…”

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Space: Above and Beyond – Toy Soldiers (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The Never No More and The Angriest Angel two-parter represented a moment when Space: Above and Beyond seemed to gel, when the show seemed to realise what it wanted to be and how it wanted to be about it. Written by showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong, they presented a demonstration of just how well the show could work, and why it had been an absolutely ingenious idea to do the premise of “World War II… IN SPACE!”

So, naturally, Toy Soldiers shows up to demonstrate that we have yet to reach a point where we can do this consistently.

Oh, brother...

Oh, brother…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Never No More (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

On the surface, Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a companion piece to Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance. Both are two-part episodes airing around sweeps, almost in step with the equivalent two-part episodes of The X-Files. Both push the show’s story arcs forward. Both also draw in recurring guest stars Doug Hutchinson and Michael Mantell, last seen during Choice or Chance. In many respects, Never No More and The Angriest Angel could be seen as a follow-up to that earlier two-part adventure.

However, there are a number of subtle differences that help Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a series highpoint – rather than another ambitious misfire. Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance seemed like episodes trying to do too much, and straying into areas where Space: Above and Beyond had always faced difficulty. They were high-concept science-fiction epic adventures that also tried to work in character arcs for the entire ensemble, set against a truly epic story about an ambitious suicide mission and subsequent rescue attempt.

It's only a paper moon...

It’s only a paper moon…

In a way, Never No More and The Angriest Angel are a lot more modest in their scope. There are big revelations here, and plot points that push the show’s arc forwards. However, these elements are not foregrounded. Never No More and The Angriest Angel are not episodes that aspire to be all things to all people. Instead, they are two character studies centred on the two strongest characters (and actors) in the cast, filling in other details as a secondary concern.

Space: Above and Beyond always worked better as a war show than as a science-fiction drama, and Never No More and The Angriest Angel seem to realise this. The two episodes play as an extended homage to the tropes and conventions of classic war stories. Never No More is the story of love divided by conflict, and The Angriest Angel is a tale of personal discovery set against the backdrop of a larger war. They combine to produce a highlight of the entire Space: Above and Beyond run.

Not a patch on his original squadron...

Not a patch on his original squadron…

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The X-Files – 731 (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

731 is a lot more substantial than Nisei.

This is most likely due to the episode’s production history. Frank Spotnitz had pitched the episode that would become 731 as a single standalone episode, but the production team discovered that the show was too large to fill a single forty-five minute block. So the show was extended into a two-parter. Given that Spotnitz was the credited writer on 731, it would seem that the second part retained most of the substance.

It's in the eye of the beholder...

It’s in the eye of the beholder…

This makes a great deal of sense, given that the two-parter eschews the stand format of a two-part X-Files episodes, featuring a frantic run-around in the first forty-five minutes and a tighter more intimate story in the second. Coupled with the fact that the episode is more about working through what we already know instead of heaping more information on top, and the two-parter seems a lot more substantial than most of the series’ big mythology shows.

Thoughtful, introspective, and unnerving, 731 is perhaps the highpoint of the show’s entire nine-season conspiracy arc.

Where the bodies are buried...

Where the bodies are buried…

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