Month: April 2020

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘A Free Agent’ (2×15)

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

FREQUENCY: a nostalgic sci-fi reverie of American family values (2000 in Film #17)

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 April 28th, Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency  

As someone who is a sucker for a good time-travel yarn, Frequency scratched an itch for me as a viewer, even if it did so in more of a sedate manner than this sub-genre is used to.

When most people consider time-travel stories, certainly at the movies, their mind will go straight to the iconic staple of that genre: Back to the Future. There had been films concerning interlopers across time before, of course; 1962’s La Jetee, later remade as Twelve Monkeys, or earlier with George Pal’s seminal 1960 version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and numerous after that, but Robert Zemeckis’ film sent time-travel into the cultural consciousness and made it *fun*. It added wonder to what has always been a knotty science-fiction concept, even when played for eccentricity or colour, as it was often on television particularly in the 1960’s with shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who or The Time Tunnel.

Frequency is a different texture of time-travel film because it not only takes the subject matter more seriously, but it frames the broader science-fiction concept underpinning it in overly non-science-fiction terms. Gregory Hoblit’s film is about loss, about coming to terms with the past, and about the desire and fantasy wish-fulfilment of changing your own personal history. Life didn’t pan out for Jim Caviezel’s John Sullivan the way he might have imagined after his heroic fireman father, Frank (played with all-American sincerity by Dennis Quaid), dies in a fire when he is just a little boy, and their strange, almost magical connection via an old CB radio—thanks to a mystical aurora borealis in the sky—gives them the chance to not just connect, but actively play around with temporal physics. It’s a personal father and son drama with time-travel trappings.

In that sense, Frequency owes a debt to anthology science-fiction such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, in attempting to ground the subject matter in a level of humanity. The message is simple: you *can* go home again.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Double Agent (2×14)

If we can consider Phase One to be a second pilot for Alias, then Double Agent faces an even trickier job than following up the biggest episode of the series to date. It also has to reset the board and establish the kind of series Alias will be in future.

Or, at least, in theory. Double Agent kind of doesn’t do that. It is a strange episode in some respects. Originally designed to slot in after The Getaway, Double Agent is without question the most standalone episode Alias has ever done to date. If it wasn’t for the key MacGuffin of Project Helix being crucial to the denouement of the season, it could be considered fairly disposable, focusing primarily as it does on the guest character of CIA agent James Lennox and his entanglement with the facial and bodily reconstruction technology that causes such problems for our CIA heroes in this story. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine just how writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci could have penned this episode in the same way were it *before* Phase One.

For one thing, there seems no logical way SD-6 or the Alliance could have functioned in this story and for it to have made sense, and one wonders if Kurtzman-Counter & Orci had to re-write and re-structure the story to eliminate the traditional constructs of the pre-Phase One storytelling style – SD-6 mission, Sydney’s counter-mission, and multiple narratives balancing alongside that central thrust. As it turns out, Double Agent operates in a strange nether space between Phase One and A Free Agent. Double Agent has the briefest of cameos from Sloane. No Sark. No Irina. No Marshall or especially Dixon, in limbo as they transition into their new CIA roles. “They’ll be in debrief for a while. Meanwhile, Sloane’s been put on Interpol’s most wanted list” Vaughn claims, allowing the story to continue unabated.

Nevertheless, Double Agent is too awkwardly placed, despite spinning a good yarn, to really answer the question of what kind of show Alias will be. Perhaps in step with the world of Alias, it’s almost deliberately a sleight of hand.

U-571: well-executed but troubling wartime historical revisionism (2000 in Film #16)

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 April 21st, Jonathan Mostow’s U-571

U-571 is a film perhaps better remembered for the dangers of playing too fast and loose with established history, particularly wartime history, than for the quality of Jonathan Mostow’s movie itself.

The plot, which sees Matthew McConaughey’s untested American lieutenant forced to seize command of the titular German u-boat, the U-571, during a daring mission to capture the Enigma code breaking machine which allowed Alan Turing and his Bletchley Park boffins in the United Kingdom turn the tide of World War Two, stoked enough ire to reach even the House of Commons, the seat of the British government. Labour MP Brian Jenkins called it an “affront” to the British sailors who *actually* retrieved the Enigma machine in such dangerous conditions, and ruling Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time. “We hope that people realise these are people that, in many cases sacrificed their lives in order that this country remained free”.

While cinema plays an important role in our culture and society, it is rare that a Hollywood film designed as popcorn entertainment gets onto Prime Minister’s Questions, such was the frustration by government officials when U-571 arrived in the UK in June. The true story behind the events of Mostow’s film—in which the British vessel HMS Bulldog (as British a naval command could ever be called) who disabled and seized German submarine U-110 to retrieve the device, risking their lives in the process—is paid a sort-of lip service at the end of U-571’s credits, in which the film admits it was ‘inspired’ by true events, but the damage would have been done. For millions of Americans, history would have been revised by Mostow’s film.

And by no means one of the box-office heavy hitters of the year 2000, U-571 doubled its budget in receipts and stands, up to this point, as one of the more successful debut entries of the year. People turned out for this. People would have heard what it had to say.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13)

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air after Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

28 DAYS: painfully earnest, addiction-tackling piffle (2000 in Film #15)

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 April 14th, Betty Thomas’ 28 Days

All things being equal, I should be talking about American Psycho this week, Mary Harron’s satirical and disturbing adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Yet, no, here we are with Betty Thomas’ Sandra Bullock starring drama 28 Days.

American Psycho didn’t even come in second place at the box office this weekend. 28 Days took that spot, in the slipstream of Rules of Engagement, which itself struggled on week one thanks to Erin Brockovich. Harron’s film even ended up behind Keeping the Faith, the Ben Stiller/Jenna Elfman romantic comedy none of you probably remember as much as 28 Days, which as Bullock vehicles go is hardly her most high profile. Christian Bale’s turn as psycho killer Richard Bateman deserved better on initial release whereas 28 Days?

The honest truth is that there really isn’t all that much to say about a film like 28 Days, which is about as earnest as the day is long. It is purely designed to give Sandra Bullock, an actor coming out of the 90’s known primarily for romantic comedies and as the erstwhile female foil for Keanu Reeves in (the brilliant) Speed and Jason Patric in (the less that brilliant) Speed 2: Cruise Control, something meaty to chew on. She here must run the gamut from entitled, perky alcoholic through to recovering victim of excess who *cue trailer voiceover guy* learns lessons about herself and the people she loves by the end.

Yes, it’s yucky. Yes, it’s sentimental. Yes, it’s vacuous and yes, you will feel like 28 Days have gone by come the end of the 90 minute running time.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘The Getaway’ (2×12)

While it may be the twelfth of a twenty-two part season, The Getaway without question is the penultimate episode of the ‘season within a season’ structure of Alias Season Two.

We have discussed Phase One for some time, whether directly or indirectly, but from roughly The Counteragent onwards, everything has been leading up to the next episode of the show, and consequently The Getaway works to both lock certain avenues off and set in motion key developments for Alias’ ‘Season 2.5’, which almost everything post-Phase One is. While A Higher Echelon served as the final traditionally structured episode of Alias, The Getaway is the definitive final episode of Alias in the style that it has been since the show’s inception. This is the final episode with Sloane in charge of SD-6. This is the final episode of Sydney working as a double-agent on a case that isn’t directly about bringing down SD-6 and the Alliance. This is the final episode of Alias we knew it.

The Getaway does however, to its credit, function as a solid conclusion to many of the narrative arcs in play across the first half of the season while telling a contained story, particularly arcing around the Syd & Vaughn relationship, that feeds into the broader continuing plots. Jeff Pinkner uses this episode to lock off the mystery surrounding Sloane’s blackmail and the subsequent loss of $100 million of the Alliance’s money, weaving it quite seamlessly around resolving Jack’s status as a fugitive from SD-6, his cover having been blown by Faye Dunaway’s counterintelligence operative Ariana Kane. Interestingly though, Pinkner actually ensures most of the pieces by the end are back where they were on the board: Jack and Syd are almost exposed but end up safely back in SD-6 under their deep cover.

This is perhaps designed to give the final scene a level of surprise, pulling the rug from under the audience just at the point you believe you’re on firm footing with The Getaway, and everything might be settling down and returning to normal, as it has done when Alias’ central quadrangle has come close to exposure before. Not this time.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)

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 April 7th, William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement

My question for William Friedkin in regard to this film is quite simple: did he steal the plot of Rules of Engagement from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

In that series, the character of the noble Klingon Commander, Worf, is tried by an extradition hearing after, during hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, he commands a vessel that fires on and destroys a civilian transport ship which he believes is a Klingon warship. That episode is called, yes… Rules of Engagement, and it aired just three short years before Friedkin’s film came to bear. Perhaps the original writer, James Webb, saw the episode, liked the title and premise, and ported them over. Stranger things have happened! Either way, Rules of Engagement probably shares this coincidence for the simple fact it treads a well-worn story in fiction, science-fiction, and any morality-based dramatic narrative.

Friedkin’s film, eventually written by studio-hired scribe Stephen Gaghan from Webb’s original screenplay—one of two films penned by Gaghan, the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the end of the year, for which he would win an award—directly concerns the United States military and their own, titular, rules of engagement in a combat situation. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Terry Childers, while leading a Marine squadron to evacuate an American diplomat and his family from an under-siege Yemeni embassy, orders his men to fire into a crowd of protestors, some of whom appear to have opened fire on his men. 98 men women and children end up slaughtered. Images make the front page of every global newspaper. And the US government want Childers’ head on a spike, forcing him to enlist his old friend—Tommy Lee Jones’ military attorney Hayes Hodges—to defend his honour.

What ends up happening is that the subject matter, and what it wants to say about modern American imperialism, is more interesting than Rules of Engagement turns out to be in execution as a film. …

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘A Higher Echelon’ (2×11)

A Higher Echelon might be the last traditional episode of Alias ever produced.

In the sense that we are rapidly on approach to the point of no return that is Phase One, and The Getaway works as much to bridge viewers into the developments and revelations of that episode as it does to tell the kind of story Alias has been telling since Truth Be Told, specifically with the balance of espionage mission set-pieces balanced alongside continuing, ongoing narrative arcs. A Higher Echelon has that structure finely tuned now, even though Alias was always a show that raced out of the gate remarkably confident in how it presented itself. The irony is that an episode like A Higher Echelon, which is fun, well-paced and filled with an array of interesting plotlines, proves beyond a doubt that Alias could have continued in the same vein for at least another season beyond this one.

John Eisendrath, arguably one of Alias’ strongest writers, quite expertly balances a number of different storylines in A Higher Echelon, while simultaneously maintaining a level of cohesion which belies the sheer volume of stuff going on: Marshall abducted and tortured, Syd admitting her feelings for Vaughn, Irina being allowed out of her cell, Sloane’s Alliance investigation, Will becoming a CIA analyst, Francie’s suspicion of Will & Syd’s new dynamic, Ariana Kane’s witch-hunt against Jack, and this is even before the plot revolving around the Echelon operating system and the underlying ideas of civil rights and Big Brother that Eisendrath manages to touch upon. Many other shows would collapse under the weight of these threads but Alias thrives on the fast-paced energy of these escalating narratives. Perhaps it’s because the show no longer has to spin any wheels and is racing, tout suite, toward Phase One.

Whatever the reason, A Higher Echelon is the last episode quite of its kind, and it’s gratifying to realise that it turns out to be one of the most assured.