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A J. Black

Pop-culture writer/geek @cultural_convo. Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/ajblackwriter Podcast: @wemadethispod. 1st book coming 2019. Occasionally go outside.

SHANGHAI NOON: anachronistic escapism that has worn well (2000 in Film #22)

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 May 26th, Tom Dey’s Shanghai Noon

Again, this week I’m cheating, because I just cannot bring myself to devote time, energy and words to the box office winner of the June 2nd weekend: Big Momma’s House.

This is partly because in a few weeks, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps is incoming and touching on similar ground, but also because there doesn’t seem to be any cultural relevance or reward in discussing Martin Lawrence gurning as a woman while dressed in a fat suit. The thought of devoting time to that is depressing, even while the proliferation of such base, lowest common denominator comedy is arguably an extension of content we saw in the 90’s such as the Farrelly Brothers successes such as Dumb & Dumber or There’s Something About Mary, simply taken to a different level, and partly designed to appeal to an African-American audience. It is, put simply, not my thing.

Shanghai Noon, however, perhaps does warrant a look. Tom Dey’s comedic action adventure was released the same weekend as Mission Impossible II and, as you can imagine, struggled to hold its own under the weight of the Tom Cruise sequel and Disney’s Dinosaur, but it nevertheless slightly out performed its modest budget and struck something of a chord, with not just the star wattage of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson but the mash-up of multiple genres that came together for quite an old-fashioned bit of fun; the kind of film you could imagine having been made in the lighter, brighter 1980’s, and almost at odds with the darker, serious, dour blockbusters that would come to define an edgier, even more earnest decade before the Age of Marvel.

To discuss this one in more detail, however, I’m handing back over to 2013-era Tony, who reviewed the film back then, and who you may remember discussing Road Trip recently, before returning with a postscript. Take it away, younger self…

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Revolution & Rebirth: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES imagined America’s fire almost a decade ago

This piece was written in 2018 for my upcoming book Myth-Building in Modern Media, but ended up not fitting the final text. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protest riots engulfing America, my belief is that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, before Trump, or Covid-19, or walls and trade wars, saw the possibilities now ahead of us coming.

I thought, given everything happening, I would publish it today. I’d love to know what you think about this film and the current situation…

While the stranglehold of Totalitarianism casts a long shadow over fictional mythology, so too does the freedom of Revolution, in which societies break away from the shackles imposed by a system which frequently benefits the few as opposed to the many. It is often inside the heart of Revolutionary systems that heroes are born. A recent example of the power of Revolution as a national myth, and how it can come to define a society, lies in The Dark Knight Rises.

Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films centred around Batman, the shadowy vigilante who attempts to liberate the fictional Gotham City from the grip of crime, served to transform a character who had been significantly misappropriated and misunderstood for decades. The bright escapist nature of the 1960’s served to turn into a superhero what was originally in comic book lore, going way back to Bill Finger & Bob Kane’s initial series for Detective Comics back in the 30’s, a detective character who just happened to have a secret identity with the symbology of a shadowy, nocturnal creature, the ‘Bat’. Batman in his Adam West incarnation on TV and later a movie, which began seeping into comics once again, was a larger than life playboy turned crime fighter.

After the Reagan-era gloom of 1980’s comics such as The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller again returned the character to even darker roots than his original legend, introducing a tragic backstory for Bruce Wayne, Tim Burton’s successful blockbuster adaptations heading into the 1990’s captured the neo-Gothic feel of Gotham but once again cast Batman as a ‘superhero’, which only edged back toward the camp and froth of the 1960’s by the time Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise for subsequent sequels. What Nolan understood, and which came across in all three of his versions of Batman, was that the character essentially is not a hero in the conventional sense of the word. Batman is a symbol – an idea.

The Dark Knight Rises, in ending the trilogy, took this idea to a natural point of conclusion. Batman Begins had given Bruce Wayne an origin story as the Bat grounded in more of a realistic take on Gotham and the character; a city in the vice-like grip of neoliberalism, with corporations such as his own Wayne Industries vying for control against organised crime organisations such as Carmine Falcone’s mafioso. Liam Neeson’s villain, Ra’s al-Ghul, and his organisation the League of Shadows, seeded the conceptual idea at the very heart of Nolan’s Bat-mythology: that Gotham had grown too big, fallen too deeply into injustice, and was in need of ‘saving’.

Ra’s as a villain has a fascinating backstory. Nolan’s films only mere suggest this, but in comic lore, Ra’s is an immortal, supernatural being who has devoted his endless life to destroying civilisations who are losing themselves to despair and darkness. Batman, in Batman Begins, does serve as the ‘hero’ saving Gotham from this external enemy, from an extremism which Ra’s cannot hide, but which ultimately serves a Revolutionary, philosophical concept. What if Gotham’s people *cannot* be saved? What if everything must be razed, turned to ashes, in order for the city to be reborn? Ra’s may be a megalomaniac suggesting mass murder but he is also a rampant anti-capitalist, and Batman has to serve as the vanguard to protect the existing ‘System’ (with a capital S).

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Valley of Fear’ (1×03 – Series Retrospective #3)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the third episode of the first series, The Valley of Fear, which first aired on January 18, 1990…

Thus far, One Foot in the Grave has portrayed a dim view of British society at large through the prism of Victor Meldrew, and The Valley of Fear continues that trend.

Alive and Buried saw Victor the victim of a heartless corporate machine, replacing human capital with technological without so much as a second thought for what it might do to the self-esteem of a long-term, loyal employee. The Big Sleep sees Victor frustrated by boorish neighbours who think nothing of playing loud music and throwing garbage over the fence into his garden. The Valley of Fear compounds these societal problems that Victor faces by having him, off-screen before the episode begins, mugged by a gang of youths who steal his jacket and daub rude graffiti on the side of his house. David Renwick expressly tackles very present anxieties for the elderly when it comes to youth culture or youth subculture, but ends up inverting them for comic effect, and perhaps to make a wider sociological point.

Outside of this, The Valley of Fear sees Renwick starting to construct elements of the more labyrinthian plotting we will see refined in later seasons, particularly with the central gag involving sweet, kindly old Mrs Birkitt being unintentionally locked away in the Meldrew’s loft overnight as Renwick stitches together a confluence of plotlines including a radiator making a recurring tapping noise and community attempts to assemble a neighbourhood watch group, all of which climax in Victor’s realisation he has become the one-man gang he has been so afraid of. One Foot’s comedy is almost entirely built on misunderstanding inflected with hints of horror and moments that are just plain uncanny – the sideboard everyone can smell but Victor until the end, when the gag is reversed, is one of those unexplained One Foot mysteries designed for another purpose.

The result of this is that you can continue to see One Foot’s comedic elements slowly coming together in The Valley of Fear, even if it lacks the initial strength of the opener and the pathos of its immediate predecessor.

ALIAS – ‘Endgame’ (2×19 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.

Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.

That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.

Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Big Sleep’ (1×02 – Series Retrospective #2)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue with the second episode of Series 1, The Big Sleep, which first aired on January 11, 1990…

The second episode of any new series is designed to build on the foundations of the pilot, to flesh out and contextualise the concept of the show beyond the initial set up, and The Big Sleep does just that for One Foot in the Grave.

Death stalks David Renwick’s show across the entire run. It’s inherent in the very title, let’s face it. Victor’s retirement is considered to be the beginning of a slow death, one foot literally in his own grave, waiting for the inevitable release. The great thing about Renwick’s show, in the end, is that there is no life-affirming message. Victor doesn’t find some cheesy reason to go on living and find a new lease of life. He adapts to his new circumstances but goes on grumbling about the state of the world until that car mows him down unceremoniously in the final ever episode, never reconciling his position in an uncaring, fast-paced, greedy, selfish world that is developing around him. Victor’s lot in life is to be perennially disappointed in it.

The Big Sleep has the freedom, relieved of having to establish the characters and set-up, to dive a little more into Victor’s existential position in relation to death. Alive and Buried, as a title, alluded to the same thing but that episode focused more heavily on Victor’s sense of loss, and of his position suddenly as a pensioner ‘on the scrap heap’. The Big Sleep introduces some key elements that Renwick will play with a great deal over the next six series – Victor’s hypochondria, his abject fear of death, and to contrast this his innate, under-recognised sensitivity and heart. Renwick uses, as a spine underpinning this episode, Victor’s relationship with nature, reflected in a robin in his garden which he cares for and has much more time for than any human he encounters in the story.

That’s why The Big Sleep is a stronger script, for me, than the pilot. It’s still not figured out the classic One Foot structure, but it is beginning to figure out that duality within Victor’s character.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II: slick, empty, sub-James Bond spy action (2000 in Film #21)

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 May 26th, John Woo’s Mission Impossible II

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the Mission Impossible series.

Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.

The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.

In a way, it also remains the most interesting.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01 – Series Retrospective #1)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

To begin, we look at the pilot episode of Series 1 where it all began, Alive and Buried, which first aired on January 4th, 1990…

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.

ALIAS – ‘Truth Takes Time’ (2×18 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Truth Takes Time could have, and perhaps should have, become the catchphrase for Alias in the same manner ‘The Truth is Out There’ did for The X-Files. It certainly speaks to the ongoing reality of the series’ mystery box storytelling.

It was a phrase used by Irina Derevko back in The Enemy Walks In, after she saves Sydney’s life by shooting dead her confederate Alexander Khasinau. As if to underscore her words, she immediately turns herself into the CIA, confounding Syd, Jack and everyone involved in the hunt for her organisation. Truth, in this instance, is knowledge as fundamentally sacred as the Rambaldi mystery Irina is dedicated to solving. Irina’s message is that the search for truth is an ongoing process, that it exists itself as a quest, but one for Sydney. Irina could tell her an enormous amount of secrets, as there is the constant suggestion that she knows much more about the mythology behind Alias than she lets on, but she never does. This is, admittedly, partly for dramatic purposes, but there is something else going on.

Truth underscores this entire episode, beyond even the title, as Truth Takes Time is probably the most *personal* story certainly in Season Two of Alias, and perhaps at any point in the mythology. Most episodes across the first and second seasons, and in subsequent years, see Sydney & her colleagues facing threats that existentially represent old blocs or emerging enemies – SD-6, the Alliance, K-Directorate, even the Covenant or Prophet Five to come in future seasons. They are all impersonal structures, however, and while they contain characters who provide personal connections to our heroes, they are never functionally enemies we come to know or truly understand. In Truth Takes Time, our enemies are Sloane, Irina and Sark. Every interaction, every challenge, every reveal and every loss is deeply felt by everyone involved.

Every episode of Alias right now feels like a point of no return as the series quite masterfully reconceives itself as, this week, an espionage melodrama, and Truth Takes Time is no exception. Nothing is quite the same again by the end of this one.

ROAD TRIP: a post-American Pie comedic artefact (2000 in Film #20)

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 May 19th, Todd Phillips’ Road Trip

This week, I’m cheating a little bit, because I’m not talking about the biggest box office hit of the weekend in mid-late May. That honour goes to Disney’s interminably dull Dinosaur, but I’m more interested in Todd Phillips’ Road Trip.

Dinosaur, while boasting a fascinating production history that is far more interesting than the picture itself (Paul Verhoeven was once down to direct it as a live-action, early 90’s mega-blockbuster), the film is about as vanilla Disney as you can imagine, and it romped home at the box office to, by this point in 2000, rake in almost $400 million worldwide. Not quite the haul of the still-dominant Gladiator, but a relatively close second. This is understandable. The competition besides Gladiator, and the incoming Mission Impossible II, was not exactly stellar. Road Trip, the second most successful new film of that weekend, was designed to appeal to a very different crowd.

Being an 18 year old (almost), when Road Trip came out, you can imagine how eager I was to see a film like this. A-Levels were about to come to an end with my final exams in Drama and Media Studies (I had it tough, I know…) and a summer of freedom before University in the autumn beckoned. A film like Road Trip was catnip to my friends and I, despite the fact I attended cinemas regularly myself, more regularly than my compatriots at college. Road Trip was a picture we all went to see and we howled. We were precisely the target audience and we reacted accordingly. Twenty years on, the effect is not the same. The effect wasn’t even the same 13 years on, as I reviewed the film in 2013, and I’m going to turn over to ‘Past Tony’ to lend some thoughts about the film from a distance, and then return to add a modern postscript.

So, 2013-era Tony, does Road Trip hold up down the years?