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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.

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.

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ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13 – 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…

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.

ALIAS – ‘The Getaway’ (2×12 – 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…

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. …

ALIAS – ‘A Higher Echelon’ (2×11 – 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…

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.

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.

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?