Month: December 2020

Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.
“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.
Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.

Film Review: SOUL (2020)

A. J. Black reviews the latest Pixar animated epic…
Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.
They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.
By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.

SOUL (2020 – Review)

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.

Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, we look at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.

Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.

“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.

Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.

Partisan Christmas Cinema: LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) – A Fairytale in Downing St

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
It would be fair to say that Richard Curtis’ crowd pleaser Love Actually is not hard hitting political discourse, but one of its central plot threads does warrant closer examination.
Curtis’ film is a loose-knit, Altman-esque character piece under the central umbrella of ‘love’, mostly involving Curtis’ traditional retinue of cloyingly middle class Londoners living in a fantasy version of Britain’s capital where everyone has money, time to navel-gaze, and doesn’t worry about laws such as breaching airport security gates and things like that. It is, simply, a load of sickeningly twee nonsense inflated, bizarrely, into some kind of totemic Christmas film that only humbugs suggest might not just be rubbish, but also contain numerous creepy plots and almost sociopathic characters.
You only have to look at Andrew Lincoln wooing Keira Knightley with cue cards on the doorstep of the house she shares not only with her boyfriend, but his best friend.

Leaving that aside, there is one plot line in Love Actually that bears looking at, given outside of Emma Thompson’s genuinely moving performance as the wife of a cheater, it probably stands as the only thread in the film that is easy to stomach: the romance between Hugh Grant’s incumbent British Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon’s cockney Downing Street tea girl. There is a charm about their characters that belies the rest of the film, even if it bears almost zero reality with anything else in British politics, bar the thinnest of tangential nods and winks to both the Blairite and Bush eras – fitting as the film was made and is set during their tenures, and at the point tensions were fraying.
Love Actually might here be political fantasy, but it has one foot in post-9/11 reality.

New Podcast: PRIMITIVE CULTURE – ‘Champagne and Confetti’

Brand new podcast appearance.
In the latest episode of Trek FM’s Primitive Culture, I join host Duncan Barrett and fellow guest Clara Cook to celebrate the show’s 100th episode!
For most TV shows, making it to the one-hundredth episode is a significant achievement. In the Star Trek franchise, only the three 1990s spinoffs—The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were able to reach this milestone. But collectively, more than half a century since Gene Roddenberry’s original show debuted in 1966, the nine series that now comprise Star Trek are about to deliver their 800th instalment.
Join us for a trip down memory lane as we discuss some of Star Trek’s landmark installments and find out how your own knowledge of the podcast stacks up against Duncan’s two former co-hosts as we play the inaugural Primitive Culture Quiz!

TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)

A. J. Black lends his thoughts on the second season of Disney’s The Mandalorian
In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.
On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.
In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.
Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.

New Podcast: MOTION PICTURES – ‘The Cinematic Story of 2020’

Brand new podcast appearance.
In the latest episode of Motion Pictures, myself and my co-host Carl Sweeney discuss talk through the craziest year for cinema yet – the rollercoaster that was 2020.
What was cinema like before March? Did Disney+ signal the beginning of a new era for distribution? How did Tenet fare? And how does the Warner Bros decision effect 2021 and the unpredictable year to come? We ask these questions and many more.
Plus! We count down our five favourite films we did manage to see from 2020.

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.
Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.
You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Prelude’ (3×07)

While on one level Prelude could appear a functional, necessary episode of Alias, it is quite stealthily both a well constructed and quite important piece, in terms of Season Three and the larger context of the show.

The word ‘prelude’ brings immediate connotations to mind, particularly in the world of music where it is frequently a means to describe the introductory opening or movement in an opera or concert or, more specifically in terms of a dictionary definition, an action that serves to introduce another event of greater importance. The first six episodes have, in that sense, served as the prelude to Prelude itself, and by default Season Three itself. J. R. Orci’s script deliberately tethers Sydney’s ongoing arc back to The Two, back to Succession, back to seeds in the very opening episodes in order to further make the point: the events of Prelude have been inevitable since the very beginning.

Prelude also continues to demonstrate how Alias has moved away from the structure that defined it across particularly the first season and a half, whereby Sydney would likely travel to at least two global locations as part of a mission in shorter bursts.

Prelude frames the first half of the episode around the Beijing mission, allows Syd one of the more protracted and technically adept fight scenes in the series, and then allows the back half of the hour to be devoted to a series of falling dominoes, revelations clicking together, and characters having to make immediate changes to their situation as the impending status quo for the next four episodes—one of Alias’ more tightly constricted and dense story arcs—stitches itself together. Prelude is the perfect title for an episode which is about payoff that informs bigger, concentrated narrative developments to come, at the expense—at points—of Alias’ house style.

Unexpectedly, it is also an hour packed with allusions, character development that foreshadows plot mechanics to come further down the line, and takes the strongest cue from its primary TV inspiration perhaps yet.