Month: September 2020

THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is exactly what we need right now

Precipitously timed as we head into deeper, restrictive Covid-19 measures in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off is a breath of fresh air.

Yes, I’m a fan of this show, particularly in recent years. I didn’t get on with Mel & Sue generally but once they left, and the charming mixture of Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig filled the breach when the show transitioned from BBC1 to Channel Four, it rapidly became a show I enjoyed with my wife as opposed to doing other things while she had it on. As with any ‘reality’ show, the combination of presenters and on-screen talent are the key ingredients to engagement. These kind of shows are, as a result, entirely subjective – I may have found Mel & Sue irritating, but many would have turned away from the show with Noel & Sandi taking their place, or the posh, grandmotherly Mary Berry being replaced by the equally posh, schoolmistress-y Prue Leith.

For me, the combination worked, and it allowed the fantasy of Bake Off to engulf me whole. And it is a fantasy. Bake Off exists in a hermetically sealed, English-rose depiction of Britain, one where the sun always shines on canvas tents surrounded by bunting in the gardens of manor houses and stately homes. It’s as if the 19th century gentry allowed the peasants to have a bit of fun on their grounds, yet at the same time it never strives to be elitist. Bake Off feels inclusive, warm and good natured, even if ultimately it’s not really about baking. It’s about personal empowerment, building self-esteem, and proving worth in a fantastical, alternate-universe England where we all live in harmony.

In 2020, more than ever, Bake Off is a pleasant fiction.

Bill, Ted & the Dark Fate of the Legacyquel

With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.
First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.

This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.
This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.

Film Review: THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (2020)

You will almost certainly find many viewers decry Netflix’s eye-opening documentary The Social Dilemma as hysterical polemic; an over the top rebuke of our Information Age. Like everything else around us right now, the content will polarise.

It is an extension of arguments that thinkers and writers such as Shoshana Zuboff (who appears here as a marvellously coiffured talking head) have been making for some time about the perils of surveillance capitalism. That our dominant, all-pervasive big tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit etc…—deal in, as Zuboff describes it, “human futures”. Rather than we as a society using social media as a tool to communicate, learn and principally buy, we rather are the tool of almost artificially intelligent algorithms that understand more about our psychology and habits than anyone in our lives, and even we as individuals could possibly understand. We are the commodity. And the result is that our entire fabric of society is being controlled and fundamentally broken by this machine-led, money-driven system.

The Social Dilemma packages up ideas that you may well have heard before into an effective, streamlined docu-drama, one that plays as much like a horror movie at times in how it pushes our buttons to be afraid, very afraid, of Big Tech and their manipulation of human existence. Some, therefore, will find it hyperbolic and perhaps even simplistic. It is a film with a clear agenda, one designed to influence us in the manner the networks it decries itself does. Netflix is, technically, no better. After watching the movie, I automatically pressed the thumbs up button and rated it. I therefore sent data off to Netflix’s servers which will influence what their algorithm shows me on the “you might also like…” screen. There is an irony about that that the makers of The Social Dilemma might not have appreciated.

Yet it speaks to how I, as much as you reading most likely, remain a willing cog in the manipulation machine. How do I use social media? And could I detach from it completely? These are the questions I’ve been asking since I finished The Social Dilemma.

Book Review: THE X-FILES: The Official Archives – Cryptids, Biological Anomalies, and Parapsychic Phenomena (Paul Terry)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Over the years, we have enjoyed a litany of tie-in material for The X-Files, principally across the 1990s but again recently thanks to the return of Chris Carter’s iconic series.
Fans will remember Brian Lowry’s essential episode guide books back when the show aired – basic by today’s standard but a touchstone in the pre-online era of limited investigative or behind the scenes information. Ditto Jane Goldman’s two-volume Book of the Unexplained, much more of an expansive ‘coffee table tome’. Aside from the novelisation tie-ins from writers such as Charles Grant & Kevin J. Anderson, these materials expanded our knowledge and enjoyment of the television series, paving the way for the multimedia onslaught of additional material that would appear around shows and movies to come, and following in the footsteps of mega franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, who had already been doing it for years.
In the modern 2020s, what can resources such as this offer us? Back in the ‘90s, without access to information or images or contextualisation, such books would inform and enrich our knowledge of the movies and shows we loved. Now, everything in those books is available thanks to a cursory Google search. This forces books such as The Official Archives to be a touch more inventive in how they engage with the property they’re playing with.
Paul Terry is clearly someone who adores The X-Files and knows it well, and such enthusiasm emerges in a book that is part coffee-table resource filled with arcanum and part investigative journal, playfully adding new details and lore to The X-Files mythos.

Book Review: THE PRESS GANG – Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 (edited by Jim Colvill) + author interview

★ ★ ★ ★

Film criticism is a thrilling, if mercurial, business, and one which can either chew a writer up and spit them out on the other side of corporate vacuity, or lead them to stand firm against the cultural tide.
In many ways, The Press Gang exemplifies that ongoing struggle. Subtitled ‘Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011’, the book strings together two decades worth of criticism spanning an era of cinema undergoing a long-standing, pervasive metamorphosis into a corporate mono-culture. Edited by Jim Colvill, who undertook a mission to seek out the writing of three critics who penned a brace of work for the now long defunct New York Press, the book is a snapshot of criticism during a key time, filled to the brim with detailed, often fascinating analysis on pictures as diverse as Michael Bay’s The Island through to Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (nope, I’d never heard of it either).
This is uncompromising, often searing film writing which is not designed to simply encourage you to indulge the filmmaker or studio producing said films, but rather question their cultural, aesthetic and personal value in the world, as part of a broader societal whole.

Film Review: TENET (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tenet is the first film in which Christopher Nolan winks to the audience that he, too, understands what a Christopher Nolan film is.
How else to explain that John David Washington’s lead character is not just referenced as The Protagonist, but he describes himself as such at multiple points during the film. Washington’s mysterious, super-trained, probable CIA spy describes people he fights as ‘antagonists’ and positions himself directly at the centre of a narrative in which Nolan culminates everything you would expect from him as a director.
A high concept idea which glances toward the realm of science-fiction, mind-bending physics, powerful technology, concepts of futurism born from theoretical ideas, relentlessly thundering sound design and practical effects where possible. If Nolan appreciates he is making the most ‘Nolan’ movie ever, in contrast to Dunkirk which eschewed his penchant for dialogue driven escapism, then The Protagonist ultimately has a level of hyper-awareness core to his nature.
This is key to Tenet’s palindromic construction, one replete with a narrative that bends in on itself thanks to the fascinating, ‘Nolanian’ gambit of ‘time inversion’ or a level of reversed ‘entropy’. “Don’t try to understand it” suggests Clemence Poesy’s scientist early on, and that’s Nolan speaking to his audience. Just go with it. Allow the inversion to pull you along because it does, for the most part, make sense by the end.
Many will be telling you that Tenet is a puzzle box that leaves you baffled and while, granted, several rewatches might be necessary to get it all straight, as ever in a Nolan film the pieces are in front of us to be observed. His continued prestige, his belief that we want to be fooled, is the key to how he constructs his pictures. In this case, however, The Protagonist—as the inversion himself of an archetype—is clued into the game. He may not understand it all until the end but he knows, at least, that he has a role to play in the grand tapestry of the tale.
These constructs, and the sheer, epic, bravura joy of seeing Nolan weave everything together, is why Tenet is—Dunkirk’s side step notwithstanding—Nolan’s best picture since The Dark Knight.

Film Review: BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC (2020)

★ ★ ★

The good news is that while Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t excellllllent!, it certainly is far from bogus.
Frankly, it should have been. Resurrecting a series almost three decades after the previous picture is hardly a recipe often for success. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey are so inextricably tethered to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that the idea those characters, and that world, could be revived seems unfathomable. Surely too much has changed? Are we not too cynical to embrace the sweet-natured, MTV generation, latent stoner-kid reverie of films that could not more epitomise the comfort of America’s cultural hegemony at the end of the 20th century if they tried? As it turns out, that is kind of why Bill Preston and Ted Logan’s third outing works so well.
The original films were infused with innocence, trading on established cultural cliches that Western audiences understood and appreciated. Bill and Ted were less dim-witted than amiable, optimistic teenagers who simply wanted to play music, hang out and be excellent to each other, and those films pointedly project their kind, collegiate mindset in the direction of a utopian future that seemed achievable to an America sailing out of the long Cold War. Bill and Ted literally inspired a future build on concepts of friendship, goodness and learning, almost antithetically to their middle-class ‘dude bro’ avoidance of school and learning, which underscored the point: being yourselves, being happy, partying on and caring for one another can make a better future.
It therefore fits that Bill & Ted Face the Music, thirty years on into a decaying century, actively attempts to throw such a utopian mindset in doubt, but counters the prevailing mood by suggesting we can, actually, do better.

Let’s give X-FILES: ALBUQUERQUE the benefit of the Truth

Fox threw fans of legendary 1990s pop-culture phenomenon The X-Files a curve ball last week by announcing the development of a brand new, spin-off series.
X-Files: Albuquerque, which is currently being worked up for the network (and by extension their overlords, Disney), is planned to be an animated comedy revolving around a collection of “misfit agents who investigate X-Files cases too wacky, ridiculous or downright dopey for Mulder and Scully to bother with.” as described by TV Line’s Michael Ausellio. The project has a ‘script and presentation commitment’ from Fox (translated: if they like the script, they’ll let them make it) and is being developed by Rocky Russo & Jeremy Sosenko, with X-Files creator Chris Carter and his former PA/Season 11 scribe Gabe Rotter overseeing as executive producers. The old and the new joining forces, essentially, for a new chapter in the history of the series.

I say series because The X-Files will, if this does come to fruition, take the first steps to becoming a franchise; not just one singular, iconic series any longer, but rather part of a broader tapestry that could expand beyond the adventures of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, who with David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson in the roles investigated America’s paranormal secrets between 1993-2002, across two movies, and then between 2016-2018 for what will, almost certainly, be a swan song for the traditional era of that show. Fans don’t want to admit it (I run an X-Files podcast so, trust me, I know), but the original series of The X-Files is done. Anderson doesn’t want to revive Scully again. Season 11 wrote the show into a corner, effectively, and it’s hard to imagine just what else you could do with the middle aged Mulder & Scully now that hasn’t been done.
In other words, this might be the right time for Albuquerque, if you subscribe to the idea The X-Files should even become a franchise at all.

What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.
Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.
Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…