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Tony Talks #20: Cultural Conversation Strikes Back!

Friends! Readers! Countrymen!

You may have noticed that around a month or so ago, I said I was saying goodbye to WordPress for a site called Substack – some of you may well have followed me over there (thanks if you did).

It didn’t, however, quite work out. Substack is great. I was really impressed with the style and presentation of it, how easy it was to use, and how it facilitates what I want with my blog writing – contact and interaction with *you*, the reader. What it lacked, for me, was the sense of curation. It is designed more as a newsletter to communicate and interact, rather than a way to importantly store work online as a repository, which is what I prefer about WordPress. So, I’m back, and I’m going back to basics.

I’m going back to the original name – Cultural Conversation.

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WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS: High concept, low returns (2000 in Film #7)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Jonathan Lynn’s mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards is a strange confluence of elements. It puts together a high concept Hollywood comedy premise with two household names, one known for comedy, the other not, alongside a director from an entirely different pedigree.

When it comes to box office, the concoction worked. In one of the most crowded weekends for cinematic releases in the year 2000 up to this point, The Whole Nine Yards ends up qualitatively ruling the roost on those terms. You can understand why. Bruce Willis has by this point brought in punters on the strength of his name for over a decade, well established as one of the defining leading men of the 90’s. Matthew Perry, conversely, was perhaps the breakout star of the era-defining sitcom Friends as Chandler Bing, the deadpan master of the sarcastic one-liner. Friends was here in its wind up years, with Perry and many of the main cast spreading their wings into cinematic careers; indeed coincidentally this same weekend, Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow appears in another comedy, Hanging Up, just two weeks after Courteney Cox’s key role in Scream 3.

If back in the late 90’s you would have put money on the Friends star most likely to maintain a successful, post-show movie career, it would have been Jennifer Aniston, and by and large you would have been right, but The Whole Nine Yards puts a lot of faith in Perry that he can hold his own as a leading man against someone with the casual on-screen magnetism of Willis. And on the whole, Perry manages to translate elements of his awkward, geeky Chandler persona into the role of dentist Nicholas ‘Oz’ Ozeransky, and the fact The Whole Nine Yards doesn’t entirely work is not on Perry’s shoulders. The film doesn’t convince you that Perry is a natural romantic comedy lead but the problems lie in deeper roots.

Ultimately, The Whole Nine Yards—a phrase which translates as “the lot”—is remarkably, for a comedy, lacking in a lot of what you would call laughs, thanks to a cluttered, needlessly muddled script.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt IV – 'Sailing Into the Unknown'

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

When the Star Trek universe was created in the mid-1960’s by Gene Roddenberry, the Romulans very quickly, following The Original Series Season 1 episode Balance of Terror, established themselves as an iconic race within the science-fiction tapestry of the series.

There was long some debate about who exactly created the Romulan species but it has over time roughly been attributed to staff writer Paul Schneider, who based the Romulan people on the Roman Empire, naming their twin planets Romulus and Remus after the creation myth of Rome itself; the twin children abandoned on the River Tiber and found by a wolf who raised them to go on and found Rome. While many of the races in Star Trek are based on human cultures, be it the Bajorans on the Jews or Klingons on the Russians, never in Trek was a species so literally devised to connect directly to an ancient human myth as the Romulans. Had they not been as deftly characterised, they could well have been consigned to the litany of strange races in TOS who are now considered kitsch – the Zeons in Patterns of Force, for instance. Thankfully, the Romulans were carried through into The Next Generation and developed into an allegorical Chinese or even North Korean state; a shadowy, secretive species who sit behind their ‘Neutral Zone’ between Federation space and occasionally incur on missions of espionage and devious plots to interfere in other species politics – particularly the neighbouring Klingon Empire, as seen in TNG’s Redemption.

Yet throughout TNG, and even Deep Space Nine where they were eventually embroiled in the galaxy spanning Dominion War and the machinations of Starfleet’s sinister spy organisation Section-31, we never truly came to know who the Romulans were, seldom visited their home world—we only see it in TNG’s Unification and DS9’s Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges—and Remus, beyond the initial mention in the 1960’s, was never explored. Nemesis, therefore, in re-contextualising Remus, and the Reman people, as a monstrous, toiling slave race for the Romulan Star Empire, adds a level of mythology previously unexplored in Romulan culture. While they are, to an extent, a narrative means to an end in Nemesis, the inclusion of the Remans as a key factor in Shinzon’s backstory gives Nemesis that added Star Trek factor – a new world and species to discover and explore. The only downside is that, ultimately, the promise Nemesis might have in truly revealing Romulan culture after all of these years is smoke and mirrors. 

It is never really a story about the Romulans at all.

THE BEACH: Apocalypse Now 2 – Beach Vacation (2000 in Film #6)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Danny Boyle’s millennial curiosity, The Beach

You almost can’t reconcile twenty-something Leonardo DiCaprio with his forty-something incarnation. He moved across the 2000’s from the teen heartthrob who raced pulses for Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet and melted a generation of hearts for James Cameron in Titanic all the way into a skilled, chameleonic leading man and character actor all in one by the time of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

When you look back at The Beach, it feels like the first stirrings of DiCaprio’s edgy, youthful brio shedding its skin. Danny Boyle’s picture is DiCaprio embracing his sex symbol icon while simultaneously rejecting it.

Some commented at the time that Titanic, released three years earlier in 1997, likely helped The Beach at the box office, yet I’m cheating this week as it wasn’t the biggest financial success in the US on its opening weekend. That honour goes to Disney’s The Tigger Movie, rather ignominiously for Boyle the auteur. Yet the film picked up traction for a decent take, no doubt pulling in Leo’s fans who would have been totally unprepared for the Heart of Darkness-tale the actor undertakes in The Beach, which perhaps deserved to be called Apocalypse Now 2: Beach Vacation.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt III – 'Unsafe Velocities'

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

It almost seemed a direct, deliberate counterpoint to the stripped back, low-fi prequel aspect to Star Trek: Enterprise, the dune buggy in Star Trek: Nemesis. Captain Jonathan Archer barely had room for a dog, let alone an indulgent race car, not to mention a personal Captain’s yacht, which we saw in previous film Star Trek: Insurrection.

Enterprise was in its second season when Nemesis premiered in cinemas and was by then flying the flag for Star Trek on television, and was in a diametric position to the crew of the Enterprise-E. If Nemesis in 2379 represented, at that point, the top end of the timeline, Enterprise was positioned over 200 years earlier at the other – the beginning. Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s two Enterprise’s were galactic, diplomatic cruise ships. Archer’s was a submarine in space. In Enterprise, androids were centuries away and Romulans were enigmatic to the point no human had ever seen their face. In Nemesis, B-4 represents how central the idea of synthetic life has become to 24th century Star Trek, a factor which will heavily influence and continue in Star Trek: Picard beyond this. This is a film which opens Romulus and it’s people up, more directly, than any Star Trek story in history.

The existence of the Argo is the most potent example of how Nemesis strives to fuse together The Next Generation-era’s futurism with the near future modern aesthetic of EnterpriseStar Trek historically replaces the motorised vehicle with the shuttle or hover vehicle, a symbol of Trek’s utopian future, but Picard seems gleeful at the opportunity to test drive a ground based car with wheels and an engine – though no doubt one powered with some kind of fossil fuel free zero point energy or such. “I will always be puzzled by the human predilection for piloting vehicles at unsafe velocities” Data remarks, an acute observation for the fact Picard has never historically appeared to be a ‘petrol-head’ interested in vehicles like this. You believed it when child Kirk stole his stepdad’s Chevy at the beginning of Star Trek 2009 for the thrills. It’s less in character for a measured Captain such as Picard.

It perhaps further establishes how Nemesis, and particularly the two films before them, provide a clear delineation between ‘TV Picard’ and ‘Movie Picard’, while at the same time nudging Star Trek—at the end of the 90’s era of the franchise—toward the retro-futurism the franchise would employ once it reboots itself.

SCREAM 3: An underrated, post-modern deconstruction (2000 in Film #5)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Wes Craven’s threequel, Scream 3

Did we all misjudge Scream 3? That was the question on my lips by the end of rewatching Wes Craven’s threequel to Scream, one of the defining horror movies—indeed movies generally—of the 1990’s, taking a post-modern blade to horror tropes and conventions and slicing through them with abandon.

The first Scream was released in 1996, a year after the nadir example of The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth Halloween film that suggested the slasher, and the horror franchise machine in general, was bloated and tired. Scream, coasting on a wave of self-reflective pop-cultural analysis, balanced fresh scares and incisive comedy to create a new horror movie icon in Ghostface, the costume that disguised the very human killers immersed in the tropes and cinematic beats of horror movies. Scream 2, while less effective, took a knife to the horror sequel, building on the mythology of the Woodsboro murders of the original while observing the repeating narrative ideas in follow-ups. It made sense, given Scream was all about upending the horror origin story, to deconstruct the storytelling symbols of horror sequels. Every Halloween has it’s Halloween II, right?

Scream 3 naturally extends this same deconstruction to the horror trilogy, commenting from a metatextual standpoint about endings. One wonders if there was a self-knowing irony in this statement, certainly when it comes to horror; many of the most successful horror franchises – the aforementioned Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St etc… – all extended beyond three movies, stretching and sprawling out to innumerable sequels designed to extend the menace, often for box office returns. Scream itself would be no different – Scream 4 arrives by 2011, with a TV series a few years later. Scream 3 therefore ends up a moot point, a concluding chapter to a series that will eventually be revived, a property with as much cultural cache as the traditional slasher franchises it lampooned and deconstructed.

Yet we maybe have treated Scream 3 with too much scorn. With distance, though not on a par with its predecessors, it works in context with the films that came before.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt II – 'Captain's Prerogative'

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

It almost became a running joke across Star Trek: The Next Generation… when exactly *would* Will Riker accept a promotion to Captain and command his own starship?

It’s a question that defined perhaps the most legendary episode of TNG, Season 3’s finale and Season 4’s premiere The Best of Both Worlds, in which Riker has to step up and truly command the Enterprise when Captain Jean-Luc Picard is abducted and assimilated by the Borg, challenged all the way by spunky first officer Elizabeth Shelby. Riker, ultimately, refuses to take the logical next step in his career for many years. For the remainder of TNG’s run on television. Even during the big screen outings, indeed we see Commander Worf, the Enterprise’s chief security officer, captaining a ship before Riker in Star Trek: First Contact, as he commands the USS Defiant against another Borg invasion. Riker resists his destiny right up until the very last moment, the ‘generation’s final journey’, and it comes in tandem with finally tying the knot with the love of his life, Counselor Deanna Troi, after their romance was rekindled during previous film Star Trek: Insurrection.

The fact Star Trek: Nemesis pulls the trigger on these seismic personal events for Riker is further proof of just how *final* this film was meant to be for the crew of The Next Generation. That show, born as it was of an episodic television structure designed for later syndication and built on many of the episodes being watchable out of sequence, would resist time and again the natural promotion for Riker and relationship with Deanna, both of which almost certainly would have taken place on the serialised, riskier Deep Space Nine at the time. Nemesis has the freedom to change Riker and Troi’s circumstance by virtue of the fact we were never supposed to see them again. Their adventures on Riker’s new ship, the USS Titan, were a chapter meant for tie-in novels and fan fiction, not the canonical Star Trek universe. Nemesis could instigate these developments because it was where the line was being drawn.

Nevertheless, it remains a huge moment for the crew of TNG, the wedding of Riker and Troi, and particularly for Picard himself. He may start his best man speech in jest, yet there is truth beneath his words. “I have commanded men in battle. I have negotiated peace treaties between implacable enemies. I have represented the Federation in first contact with twenty-seven alien species, but none of this compares to my solemn duty today …as best man.”

Picard understands nothing will ever quite be the same again.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Neo-noir, near enough a bore (2000 in Film #4)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Stephan Elliot’s oddball thriller Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder will possibly go down in cinema history for the dubious honour of being the first movie to be graded F via the Cinema Score ranking system.

Established in 1979, Cinema Score is a market research firm based in Las Vegas who survey film audiences to rate their viewing experiences with letter grades, report the results, and forecast box office receipts based on the data. In 2017, Kevin Lincoln for Vulture, in the wake of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! being added to this negatively auspicious list, brought to light the 19 films since 1999 that rest in a category of, technically based on audience responses, the absolute worst of the worst, suggesting that a common denominator was the failed auteur project and many of the entries—films such as Mother! or Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris or Andrew Dominik’s Killing Me Softly—got an unfair shake. For pictures such as those, it’s true. There is no way they should be on a list like this.

Eye of the Beholder is not one of those films.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: a quietly moving retort to modern cynicism

If you’re an American reading this, have you ever heard of Tony Hart? Or maybe Peter Purvis? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding no. Well, that’s probably what British people would answer if you asked them who Fred Rogers was. It is also why A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood won’t make too great a ripple on these shores.

Tony Hart, by the way, was a legendary, kindly old artist who fronted a show for years with an animatronic lump of clay called Morph, while Peter Purvis is probably the most well known presenter of children’s TV educational series Blue Peter, a British institution for over 50 years. They are, in short, nice old men who children grew up watching and trusting in, along similar lines to Mr Rogers in the States, who with his show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood for over three decades entertained more than one generation of children and became a beloved household name to families across the nation. Who else could have essayed such a role on the big screen than Tom Hanks?

The most notable aspect of Marielle Heller’s film, however, is that it is not a biography of Mr. Rogers. For that, you may want to check out the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? from Morgan Neville which goes into detail about the man and his life, whereas A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is more about what Fred Rogers represented and the quiet power the man had to transform the lives of those he broadcasted to, and in the prism of this story, who he met. It’s a film about Mr. Rogers that isn’t *about* Mr. Rogers at all, and it’s the principal reason why the film ends up working so well.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is by degrees charming, heartbreaking, uplifting and, ultimately, a full rebuke of modern cynicism.