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106. Fifty Shades of Grey (#-91)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Sam Taylor Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Non-Review Review: Cam

The most horrific aspects of Cam have little to do with the literal monster lurking at its core.

It is almost half an hour before the central plot of Cam kicks into gear. It is a credit to both director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei that Cam sustains itself as a horror even through this (relatively) long establishing stretch. There is something inherently skin-crawling about that extended introductory sequence, which is essentially a depiction of “business as usual” for central character Alice. The opening scenes of Cam very skilfully and very creepily capture the commodification and performativity of both cam-girl-ing in particular and social media in general.

Time for reflection.

Watching the opening stretch of Cam, the audience might read social media itself as the monster, a horrific force capable of warping and bending individuals to its will. Even before Alice realises that something is wrong, there is a sense that the audience has taken a trip through the looking glass. The pink neon glow, the way the camera snakes down hallways, the casualness with which Alice picks up her dinner from a delivery man while covered in corn syrup (and little else), the repeated framing of shots to emphasise mirrors and screens as images trapped and projected.

Indeed, the obligatory bridge between the second and third acts of the film might be the biggest issue with Cam, the clumsy in-universe explanation of the strange entity lurking at the centre of the story and function that it performs. However, this is a testament to the quality and imagination of the rest of the film around that exposition. The monster in Cam is so familiar and so relevant to contemporary society that it almost needs no explanation at all. Cam is so effective a horror story that it arguably doesn’t even need its monster.

“Feed me.”

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Non-Review Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders may be the worst film of the year.

There are any number of issues with The Happytime Murders. The film is only ninety one minutes long, but feels interminable. The film has no idea what it is about in any meaningful sense, beyond assembling a number of familiar tropes in a very familiar way. Beyond that, the film seems to believe that rehashing familiar clichés is amusing of itself, some sort of self-aware postmodern ironic anti-comedy where the reference to the thing is enough of itself to become a joke.

It really blows.

A larger problem is that the film assumes that seeing puppets do “adult” things has greater novelty than it does. The Happytime Murders is a film that is consciously powered by the juvenile thrill of watching beloved children’s characters caught in inappropriate situations – swearing at one another, smoking cigarettes, engaging in vigorous sexual activity. This glosses over the fact that there are plenty of other media that has already covered this ground. The Happytime Murders runs on a joke that has already been repeated and rehashed several times.

However, all of these concerns distract from the biggest issue with The Happytime Murders. It is just not funny.

The boy in blue.

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Luke Cage – Wig Out (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of masculinity in a number of interesting ways.

This is an interesting choice on a number of levels. Most obviously, the idea of exploring masculinity within the framework of a Marvel Netflix show should (in theory) belong to Jessica Jones. With the character of Kilgrave, it was the streaming service’s first female-led superhero series that marked out the idea of masculinity as a concept worth exploring within the framework of a superhero narrative. However, the second season of Jessica Jones is very engaged with the idea of female relationships, whether friendly or familial.

In doing so, Jessica Jones may have passed the theme on to the second season of Luke Cage. This makes sense on a number of levels. Most superficially, Luke Cage was actually introduced as a recurring guest star on the first season of Jessica Jones, and so ideas about masculinity are clearly woven into the character’s core identity. Beyond that, there is some value in Luke Cage in exploring the idea from a different perspective. After all, Luke Cage is a series with a male heroic lead. Its approach to the theme of masculine identity would be radically different.

As such, the second season of Luke Cage is perfectly positioned to explore notions of masculine identity.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Disease (Review)

One of the curses of Star Trek is the tendency to saddle the weakest and most ill-defined members of a given ensemble with a generic soul-destroyingly dull love story.

Deanna Troi has Haven, The Price and Man of the People. Geordi LaForge has Booby Trap and Galaxy’s Child. In the first few years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, both Bashir and Dax were subjected to such plots. Bashir had Melora, and Second Sight was originally developed with his character in mind. Dax got a similar story in Meridian. Chakotay has Unforgettable, and was shipped with both Janeway and Seven at various points in the run of Star Trek: Voyager. Even Mayweather’s subplot in Demons and Terra Prime was romantic in nature.

Kiss and Tal.

Of course, there are any number of compelling and interesting  romantic episodes built around characters over the history of the franchise. Kirk had The City on the Edge of Forever. Spock had All Our Yesterdays. Tuvok had Gravity. Even the more developed seventh season version of Bashir had Chrysalis. However, it frequently seems like the production team’s go-to plot for an underdeveloped regular character is a romance-of-the-week plotline, perhaps because it is a fairly standard story and because it can be applied to almost any type of character.

However, the problem with building these romantic storylines around undeveloped characters is that they lack any real hook. The audience implicitly understands that the romantic interest is unlikely to stick around, so the story has offer a compelling insight into the regular character. This is understandably difficult if the production team have chosen to tell this story with this character because they really cannot think of any other interesting story to tell. As a result, these episodes can feel like an exercise in boredom, in watching wheels turn.

“Dammit, Harry. I thought we had this conversation after Favourite Son.”

This is particularly true in episodes built around weaker (or more disinterested) members of the ensemble. In a romantic installment of an episodic show, the audience needs to invest in the love story very quickly. This puts a lot of pressure on a performer to sell the romantic attraction. On a weekly schedule, with two performers who may not know one another particularly well, this can be very difficult to accomplish. Robert Beltran is a relatively serviceable performer with the right material, but he would never make a convincing romantic lead.

The Disease is a romantic episode built around Harry Kim. While the script has its own very severe problems, the biggest issue is that Garrett Wang simply cannot sell the intense attraction that is necessary for the episode to work.

Colony ship collapse disorder.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blood Fever (Review)

Blood Fever is a strange and dysfunctional episode.

By this point in the third season, Star Trek: Voyager has abandoned any sincere attempt to develop or define its own identity. Instead, the series has committed itself to being the most generic Star Trek show imaginable. In many ways, this represents a disappointing betrayal of an interest premise and a fascinating cast of characters. In other ways, this allows the show to focus on telling archetypal Star Trek stories like Remember or Distant Origins or Living Witness, stories that deal with broad themes through science-fiction allegory.

Tunnels of love.

Tunnels of love.

In its strongest moments, Blood Fever feels like it wants to be that kind of classic Star Trek metaphorical exploration of contemporary society. In many ways, Blood Fever is an exploration of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality, of the damage that can be wrought by sexual repression on levels both personal and societal. It is building upon the idea of pon’farr as introduced by Theodore Sturgeon (and refined by D.C. Fontana) in Amok Time, as the volcanic eruption of sexual desire following years of repression.

Unfortunately, Blood Fever lacks the courage of its convictions. The script feels like a victim of the same social mores that it seeks to critique, either unable or unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality in a manner that is suitably candid. As a result, Blood Fever ends up a muddled and ineffective piece of television that seems unwilling to call out its characters and which inevitably builds towards a tired rehash of an iconic Star Trek scene. Waiting seven seasons for this must be very unsatisfying.

Droning on.

Droning on.

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