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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.

THE ROAD TO EL DORADO: fun but erratic animation lost to the ages (2000 In Film #13)

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 March 31st, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado

Though containing all of the elements you would imagine might make a rip-roaring, animated comedy adventure, The Road to El Dorado was, surprisingly, one of the biggest initial box office failures of the year 2000.

DreamWorks Pictures, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as an arm of his own Amblin studio, had up to this point been on something of an animated roll. Antz did well in the animated battle with the similar A Bug’s Life, from their rivals Pixar. The Prince of Egypt was a prestige animated picture, with a star cast and a blend of animation and musical picture elements in working to recapture the scale of The Ten Commandments for new audience. The Road to El Dorado was very much designed to follow suit in Katzenberg’s eyes – a sizeable rival to Pixar’s almost immediate, revolutionary skill with Toy Story, and part of a challenge to Disney’s long-held animated dominance.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, despite the alchemy that one would consider a recipe for success. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, both talented comedic and dramatic actors, voicing the lead characters; a clear and recognisable legend and setting with the 15th century and the lost city of gold; and even songs from Elton John & Tim Rice, who helped define 90’s Disney animation with their music for The Lion King. A sure-fire hit would almost certainly be a safe bet and while The Road to El Dorado opened fairly well, second on it’s debut weekend ahead of Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity while in the slipstream of the rampant Erin Brockovich, it soon plummeted to a worldwide gross twenty million under it’s hefty, near $100 million budget.

This is probably the main reason The Road to El Dorado has ended up forgotten in the annals of recent animated cinema: nobody went to see it.

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STAR TREK: PICARD: A 24th Century Worth Fighting For

This piece contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard

How quickly we forget the past. A sentiment deep rooted in the conceptual framework of Star Trek: Picard and, more broadly, how Star Trek fans approach their own franchise.

Picard, the long-awaited sequel to the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, last seen in the oft-maligned final Next Gen movie Nemesis (about which I’ve just finished a ten part examination), has divided people with the same level of brio that Star Trek: Discovery has since late 2017. For some, it has been an unmitigated delight seeing Sir Patrick Stewart back in the role of Trek’s most noble Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, as he battles a new threat in his emeritus years. For others, it has disappointed after the enormous hype ever since Stewart announced his return at Star Trek Las Vegas back in summer 2018. Nobody expected to see Picard again, given Stewart’s age and that Trek appeared to have moved solely to a point of retro-futuristic 1960’s nostalgia given the J.J. Abrams led reboot films and Original Series-era set Discovery. Picard, therefore, came loaded with huge expectation.

Whether it delivered will depend entirely on your tastes as a fan of Star Trek. Some might say it could depend on age but you will find people who watched The Original Series on first broadcast who love Picard, and new Trek viewers brought in from Discovery who dislike it, so that’s not a reliable aggregator. As with most art, Picard’s charms will lie in simply what kind of story engages you. Are you lapping up Stewart back in his most iconic role? Are you enjoying the serialisation, which is even stronger than in Discovery? Are you charmed by the cast of broken rogues, former Starfleet officers and assorted androids or Romulans that make up the crew of the La Sirena? Are you thrilled by the central story and how it is grounded in the long lamented character of Data, synthetic artificial intelligence, and secret ancient prophecies of machine apocalypse? You will have your reasons and they are all valid. Some, like me, are perched very precisely on the fence over these choices, arcs and storylines. I will delve more into them in my podcast, Make It So, in due course.

The question being asked by many is one that was levelled at Discovery, was levelled at movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness, and indeed as far back as Deep Space Nine: is Picard truly *Star Trek*? If history is cyclical, the fact this question comes up again and again is proof of that, and the answer again depends on what you want, or believe, Star Trek to be.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part X – ‘Blue Skies’

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…

For such a relentlessly dark film, Star Trek: Nemesis ends on a bittersweet note of hope, but one that feels false. It serves as a good allegory for the film in general: a point of departure that never feels *right*.

Cast your mind back to 1991. The Undiscovered Country brought the curtain down after 25 years on the adventure of The Original Series crew with a stylised flourish. The so-called ‘end of history’ predicted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama allowed Nicholas Meyer’s film to frame the first Star Trek generation’s final adventure around the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and use it as a neat parallel for the embrace of a new world: peace between the Federation and their most intractable enemies, the Klingons, one we would see reflected in Worf being part of the Enterprise crew in the middle of the 24th century. It felt symbolic. It felt earned. It felt worthy of such iconic characters.

When you consider Nemesis, do you feel the same way for the crew of The Next Generation? Is this either a fitting end to a 15 year run which took in seven seasons of a hugely popular TV series (far more popular in its time than The Original Series was while broadcast) and multiple movies? What really does Nemesis *say* about this crew or who they are at this point? I’m not convinced it says much of anything or leaves any of them, even Jean-Luc Picard, at a reasonable point of closure. It just feels like a film made to satisfy the box office needs of a franchise that, by this point, was running out of steam. Hence: darker, bigger, more explosive, higher stakes, a megalomaniacal villain and a story that taps into the most celebrated Star Trek movie of all.

Nemesis ends with shellshock for the characters which mirrors the unfinished trauma of a film which serves as no real ending at all. We would have to wait almost two decades before we saw the seeds of a true conclusion to the Next Generation era.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’

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…

The so-called Battle of the Bassen Rift is designed, pretty unashamedly, to recall the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with Nemesis even determined to sacrifice a major character at the end of it in a shock way to save the ship and crew.

When you think about the climactic battle in The Wrath of Khan, do you remember it riven with tension? A pitched, submarine or maritime fleet tet-a-tet in space between the Enterprise and the Reliant which was more about the aspect of quiet suspense and tactical superiority between Admiral Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh? We don’t come anywhere close to that in Nemesis. The Bassen Rift is a fairly routine, thunderous ship to ship battle, with a few Romulan ships thrown in for good measure, with the only unique selling point being Jean-Luc Picard’s decision to crash the saucer section of the Enterprise-E into the Scimitar, having exhausted shields, weapons and the self-destruct system. Even this, however, felt better done in Star Trek: Generations, when the separated Enterprise-D saucer slams into Veridian III.

Nemesis almost feels designed to be the culmination of every space battle Star Trek has delivered thus far in the 90’s era of the show, given they steadily built from a few skirmishes in The Next Generation to an entire war in Deep Space Nine or a horde of Borg Cubes battling bio-synthetic, inter-dimensional beings in Voyager. Everything about that ugly sword in space, the Scimitar, is a representation of how Nemesis simply relies on the dark, explosive set-piece when this crew, and these actors, are capable of so much more. Just look at that hilariously embarrassing Will Riker/Viceroy action set-piece, seemingly designed to give Jonathan Frakes one last run at Action Riker (or even something to do in a film where he’s done naff all). Apparently Riker was supposed to quip: “Don’t worry, hell is dark” before kicking the Viceroy to his death, though it was vetoed because they felt Riker would be enjoying the murder a bit too much. It’s a shame he didn’t. Some unintentional levity at this point would have been welcome.

By now though, the stakes are supposedly high. Shinzon has a WMD. He’s headed for Earth. The fleet are nowhere. The Romulans aren’t enough help. How, in the end, do you solve a problem like Shinzon?

ROMEO MUST DIE: less star-crossed lovers, more impossible physics (2000 in Film #12)

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 March 24th, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die

Just to underscore the box office power Erin Brockovich had at this point in March 2000, Romeo Must Die actually debuted in 2nd place at the box office, despite being the highest grossing new release of that week.

On paper, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s action picture might have appeared enough to see off Erin’s David vs Goliath drama, even with the star wattage of Julia Roberts behind it. Romeo Must Die front-lines two major new stars of the moment from the Chinese and African-American community, contains a plot filled with Hong Kong-action cinema styled ‘chopsocky’, not to mention a surfeit of guns and a couple of car chases thrown in, and would have appealed to a broader audience, particularly of teenagers and people of colour. And while by no means a flop, almost quadrupling its fairly minuscule budget, Romeo Must Die nonetheless is barely remembered two decades on save for one tragic factor: Aaliyah.

One of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R’n’B of the late 90’s into the early 2000’s, Aaliyah was a child prodigy mentored by R. Kelly (which is worrying with the benefit of hindsight…) who broke out into an era-defining star who, to many, was changing the face of her musical sub-genre around her. Aaliyah would have no doubt had a hugely successful career and still be relevant today. Fate took a cruel turn, sadly, when in August 2001–less than a month before the epoch-defining events of September 11th, Aaliyah was killed along with much of her retinue in the Bahamas when her private jet crashed before takeoff. She was a mere 21 years old. Romeo Must Die was not the final film she starred in during her budding cinematic career (that honour goes to the poorly made sequel to Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned), but it was the most successful.

The fact Romeo Must Die only stands out because of the sad, untimely death of its co-star is a telling indictment of a leaden misfire which has not aged well at all. …

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’

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 is at this point in Star Trek: Nemesis, as the final act and the final intended showdown with Shinzon begins, that any logical sense of narrative structure begins to collapse in on itself at a thalaron radiation level rate. We learn what has been hinted earlier in the film: Shinzon is dying.

Though John Logan’s script works hard to try and compare him to Khan Noonien Singh, as we’ve previously discussed, he owes perhaps more of a debt to Renard, the James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough played by Robert Carlyle. Struggling to remember him? That’s unsurprising. Ultimately, the bullet in his head that was slowly killing him is probably the most memorable aspect of the character, even with an actor as strong as Carlyle in the role. His entire rationale is fuelled by the reality he won’t be around to see the fruits of his terrorist actions. Shinzon is the same. Yet the difference is that Shinzon has the cure directly within his grasp.

When Jean-Luc Picard asks if his warped clone can be saved, Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher informs him: “Nothing except a complete transfusion from the only donor with compatible DNA… you”. Picard then asserts that Shinzon will come for him, except… didn’t he just escape from Shinzon’s custody, having been very easily beamed off his own ship? Shinzon has always known he was dying, this isn’t news. Beverly concludes, after all: “Shinzon was created with temporal RNA sequencing. He was designed so that at a certain point, his aging process could be accelerated to reach your age more quickly. He was going to need to skip thirty years of his life, but when the temporal sequencing wasn’t activated his cellular structure started breaking down”. This is a neat science-fiction concept—a cloned spy who will rapidly age when triggered—which is utterly wasted as the explanation for Shinzon’s slow death. But if he knew, why not just drain Picard of his entire blood the moment he beamed him onto the Scimitar?

It makes little sense, purely designed to establish the conditions for what will make up the final act. Nemesis might have done well to not have Shinzon be dying at all because all it does is show up how cripplingly incompetent he is. …

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VII – ‘The Echo Over the Voice’

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…

The final few scenes of, roughly, the second and middle act of Star Trek: Nemesis underpin many of the issues about Stuart Baird’s film that we have already discussed, chiefly the tortured parallel between hero and villain.

Jean-Luc Picard, abducted by Shinzon and thrown in the brig of his gigantic warship the Scimitar, has the truthful showdown they danced around while speaking in the Romulan Senate. If that was Shinzon play-acting the diplomatic new leader, this is the outcast, spiteful clone child who never grew up in the bowels of his oversized toy, spitting venom at the man who encapsulates everything Shinzon is aggrieved by. And this conversation really does spell out that psychology: Shinzon hates what he is, and hates that he didn’t have the easier, more prosperous and respected life Picard had. All of Picard’s innate ego as a leader morphed and twisted into a nightmarish visage. “My life is meaningless as long as you’re still alive. What am I while you exist? A shadow? An echo?”.

Nemesis is all about the darker ‘id’ of our hero trying to assert itself. Were we dealing with more of a skilled script that truly understood the film being made, we could suggest this is why Picard reacts so poorly to the violation of Deanna Troi, as discussed previously – a violation, indeed, that serves little purpose as B-4 contains the transponder needed to execute Shinzon’s plan, so mind-raping the Counselor just appears to be ‘sport’ for the villain, if it wasn’t distasteful a narrative choice enough. One could argue that Nemesis is attempting to literalise Picard’s internal darkness through Shinzon, a darkness we glimpsed in Star Trek: First Contact during his obsessive pursuit of the Borg (which Shinzon even alludes to here), but this would be giving the film too much psychological credit. John Logan is certainly shooting for those Jungian comparisons but you never truly feel, in any way, that Shinzon is some kind of Picard offshoot, except for the fact both men are folically challenged.

The fact is, Nemesis has already spent over half of the running time playing with a relationship that was clearly antagonistic from the very beginning, and now as those dominoes begin to fall, the emptiness of the film begins to show itself.

ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

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 March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

ALIAS – ‘The Abduction’ (2×10 – 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…

Ever since the very beginning, Alias has always neglected a key group of its contracted regular cast, among them the character who finally gets his moment in the spotlight in The Abduction: Marshall Flinkman.

Though Will had his conspiracy investigation angle in Season One to give him meat to chew on, Marshall was one of three characters particularly who week in, week out would get short shrift compared to Syd, Jack, Vaughn and Sloane principally. Dixon would only be wheeled out when Syd needed someone to go on a mission with, getting only the briefest of interesting plots when he suspects Syd of betrayal in Almost Thirty Years. Francie, Syd’s roommate, gets an unconvincing romantic sub-plot ditched from The Coup onwards, after which she barely features. It takes Dixon’s entire belief system and then family to be destroyed to give him anything of real substance, and Francie has to actually *die* before she becomes in any way interesting. Which just leaves Marshall.

Right from pilot episode Truth Be Told, Marshall is designed entirely as comic relief. He is the nerdy oddball who is tolerated purely for his technical brilliance, given how much he irritates all of the serious people in the room. There is barely an episode of Alias up to this point that doesn’t feature Marshall in a briefing awkwardly dropping one-liners or geek references that nobody in the room finds funny, or rambling too often before being cut off and falling quiet. He is, effectively, Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Q from the James Bond series by way of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files. Marshall, as a character, runs entirely counter to everyone else in Alias and that’s precisely the point – though he may be a genius, he is also perhaps the most relatable person in the show. If we were in Alias, we’d all be a variant on Marshall, most likely.

The Abduction, and particularly A Higher Echelon after it, are designed with one question in mind: what if we throw Marshall out of his comfort zone?

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VI – ‘A Violation’

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…

One of the criticisms of the recent revival series, Star Trek: Picard, is that Jean-Luc is not acting at points in the manner one would expect from Starfleet’s most reasoned, compassionate Captain. While there may be some truth to this in places, the new series contains nothing as egregiously out of character as we see in Star Trek: Nemesis.

I’m referring, of course, to Picard’s insistence that his trusted Counselor, Deanna Troi, in the wake of a particularly traumatic sexual assault committed on her by villain Shinzon—via the mind powers of his Viceroy—through powerful telepathy, allow herself to go through the ordeal again as part of the bigger picture. The ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, is strangely dismissive for starters. “Aside from slightly elevated levels of adrenalin and serotonin, you’re completely normal”. When Deanna, understandably shaken and rocked by what she’s experienced, requests to be relieved of duty, Picard does not just deny it but doubles down. “If you can endure more of these assaults, I need you at my side now, more than ever”. Yes, you read that right. The hero of Star Trek: The Next Generation actually asks Deanna Troi to let herself be raped, again, in order to try and deal with Shinzon, his only reasoning seemingly being that they are “far from Federation space”.

This goes beyond a mere mishandling of character. Troi describes her assault as “a violation” but Picard’s response is without doubt a violation of everything we know about this man. Granted, he always traditionally struggled with inter-personal relationships across the run of TNG, but Movie Picard—a distinction we have discussed—is markedly more open and relaxed around his crew. Nemesis presents him as anxious about their departure, about the immediacy of changes to the “family” he discussed in the wedding speech at the beginning of the film. So would he really, at this point in his life and career, ask a dear friend—someone who counselled him through his own violating trauma after assimilation by the Borg, and someone he has just helped marry—to open herself up to a deep psychological and sexual assault after having just experienced one?

The answer is, of course, no. It is without doubt the most unpalatable and insensitive aspect of Nemesis as a film, which here uses serious sexual assault as a stepping stone of narrative in a troubling and even flippant way. …