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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.

Into the forest we go: Star Trek, Discovery and the first frontier

As all new Star Trek television series Discovery closes out its opening half-season, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this momentous point in modern television. That’s a big word – momentous. The return of Star Trek to the small screen, however, surely fits that description. Without the cultural impact of the original 1960’s Star Trek, television would look a great deal different in the modern day. Star Trek stands as, easily, one of the key pop-cultural touchstones of the 20th century and for all its success as a movie franchise across three separate retinue of actors, television remains and always will remain the true home and heart of Star Trek. Any appearance of the franchise on television is a big deal, and Discovery has been many years in the making.

The wilderness years of television Star Trek were long. Following the transition of Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, subsequent series failed to match the commercial success of the first sequel series to Gene Roddenberry’s original. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both had levels of critical or commercial success (less so Voyager) but neither made the same kind of impact on the cultural storytelling landscape, while Enterprise—the first Trek voyage into the 21st century—was hampered out of the gate in attempting to tell a 20th century style of Star Trek in a rapidly changing television and real world political and sociological landscape.

2005 was the darkest year. Enterprise was cancelled in its fourth season, the year ironically it finally began to find its creative feet and place within the Trek universe, and mirrored The Original Series in how it began a long period of the franchise away from television. Not quite as long as the eighteen years between the end of TOS and the launch of TNG, but it took twelve years for Star Trek to make a return with Discovery, a show which had an enormous legacy to live up to in a world where Trek has experienced significant evolutionary growing pains. You only have to consider the polarising fan reaction to Star Trek 2009 and its subsequent J.J. Abrams led sequels, which repurposed Trek as an action adventure science-fiction franchise, to feel that divide.

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Murder on the Orient Express: Poirot’s Humanity, History, and his Eggs

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot. Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.

Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses. Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.

The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and writer much better known in the United States than in the UK, but he was familiar to me due to his association with my favourite TV series, The X-Files. Nanjiani famously hosted a successful podcast on the subject, The X-Files Files, which partly led him to gaining a guest starring role on a recent episode of the show’s revival. Nanjiani’s love of The X-Files is lightly referenced in The Big Sick, his debut feature as star and co-writer, in which he plays an extension of himself.

To an extent, Nanjiani playing Kumail is akin to Larry David’s extreme persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s extensions in The Trip and its sequels, but the difference with The Big Sick is the tone. It’s one of the funniest comedies of the year, without question, but it’s also much sweeter, filled with charm and touching on a multitude of themes about relationships, societal barriers, religion and loss. How it manages to balance these disparate elements is the most impressive factor.

A major reason why perhaps comes down to the naturalism employed by Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter. The production stable of Judd Apatow lies behind the script which Nanjiani wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and the story is theirs. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) in the movie are the narrative version of the story of Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, which allows for a deeper sense of autobiographical honesty, fused with the kind of laid-back Americana comedy Apatow (when on form) does so well with his movies. The Big Sick, even before making you laugh, makes you feel.

James Bond Will Return – Should Continuity Come With Him?

After quite some time in the shadows, the James Bond rumour mill has kicked into overdrive with the announcement this week that the 25th film in cinema’s longest running franchise will be arriving in November 2019 (or very late October if you’re in the UK). That’s a whole year later than most Bond fans were expecting, given the usual three-year cycle most of us have come to expect. An interesting debate has arisen around the usual questions, however, and it concerns continuity.

Before we get to that, here’s the current state of play. MGM have announced the release date, as studios are often wont to do with major franchises (look at how Marvel let us know what they’re up to years in advance), but since the release of Spectre in 2015 the producers of the franchise, EON, have been locked in a difficult financial back and forth over distribution. Last year, Sony’s distribution rights expired and it seems Bond stewards Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson have struggled to find a replacement. This no doubt accounts in no small part for why 2019 and not 2018 is when 007 is returning.

There is also the unresolved issue of Bond himself, Daniel Craig. A lot of misreporting has circled around the actor, especially since his clearly flippant comments about not wanting to play the role anymore were taken seriously by many, and while almost certainly Craig has made his choice by now, the MGM announcement wasn’t accompanied by confirmation Craig is coming back in the role that made him a household name. This could indicate negotiations are still ongoing, that maybe Craig wants extra time to finish other projects, or indeed that he’s not coming back at all. Right now, it’s uncertain.

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity. Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

Some Nerve: Social Media and Modern Cinematic Voyeurism

Social media has taken control of the world. Almost all of us have a smartphone and we’re wired into either Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc… or all of them. The open communication of the internet has made us desperate for ultimate, constant connectivity. It’s an idea that across this decade, as social media has fully taken hold over Western society, the movies have begun exploring.

Inevitably, and perhaps appropriately, cinema has largely taken social media to be a new and dangerous playground. Much as the technology is used by people of all ages (yes, even some of the elderly), apps, games and innovations remain primarily the province of the young and impressionable. Social media is attractive, not just for the fact you can build a virtual profile that presents a picture of who you would like the world to *believe* you are, but it provides a gateway to thrills and social taboos. Hence why adults are consistently reminded, and parents are scaremongered, into believing social media is a corrupting evil that will warp and destroy the minds of our children.

Filmmakers on the whole don’t quite see it that way. Many seem to consider social media to be one enormous, conceptual cautionary tale, sometimes fused a with futuristic morality play. An entire sub-genre now exists of pictures often starring, and certainly aimed at, the young, but to classify them specifically as horror films—as some have—does them a slight disservice. Those directors and writers who are interested in the pervasive effect social media has on our lives seem more keen to portray the internet, and all its myriad labryinthian contexts, as something that will only destroy us if we misuse it or refuse to pay it enough respect.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

Dunkirk (2017)

Audiences are quite understandably going to consider Dunkirk a war film, quite possibly one of the great war films of our age. Christopher Nolan’s tenth picture is possibly an even better survival horror movie, given it takes a well-known piece of 20th century history and pitches the story as a desperate battle for survival against a powerful, largely unseen and intractable foe.

From the very first frame, of isolated and beaten British troops walking down a deserted Dunkirk street as flyers depicting the German advance on their position rain down on them in almost endless supply, a terrifying pallor of dread and ominous doom casts its shadow over Nolan’s picture. This is a war the ‘good guys’ are losing, in terms of France one they have already lost, and all they can do now is run from the darkness that is pursuing and engulfing them. Nolan’s film, on the whole, couldn’t be less jingoistic; the British and their allies are terrified, broken and in a desperate situation.

Though far from being a film which wears any kind of political or social polemic on its sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to not consider Nolan a pacifist after watching Dunkirk. Not perhaps since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and rarely in all of cinema with its legion and entire sub-genre of war movies, has any director portrayed the senseless horror and brutality of World War Two with such visceral, haunting power. Nolan’s world here isn’t one without hope but it’s absolutely a war where good guys are complicated, and heroes don’t necessarily carry guns.

The Beguiled (2017)

An open question lies at the heart of The Beguiled and it’s a simple one… who, precisely, *is* the beguiled in Sofia Coppola’s story? Come the conclusion, you may not have reached a simple answer. Beguiled, in its essential form, means ‘charmed’ or ‘to charm’. The answer, considering the plot, may appear obvious but it’s anything but.

The Beguiled started life as a 1966 novel called ‘A Painted Devil’ by late author Thomas P. Cullinan, and was first adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood in the role of wounded Corporal John McBurney in 1864, during the middle of the American Civil War, a Union soldier who is found injured in the woods of Mississippi by the youngest girl in a Christian seminary & finishing school and upon being brought into the household out of Christian charity, begins to inveigle himself into the lives of a group of girls and women starved of testosterone, with disturbing results.

Having not seen the original it’s hard to compare, but Coppola in reimagining the story was aware that Siegel’s previous take—as one can imagine from a director known for his long-standing working relationship with Eastwood—very much pitched the focus from the point of view of McBurney. A male viewpoint of an extremely female world which Coppola wanted to flip and invert, re-tasking McBurney as the enigmatic outside force who begins to psychologically distract and expose the taut, bridled sexuality of these women against the spirit of their God-fearing values.

War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)

There’s an almost laugh out loud moment in War For the Planet of the Apes in which several of our simian heroes, traversing a tunnel underneath a massive, fortified Army mountain base, find scrawled graffiti on the wall which reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The laughter doesn’t just come from the bad pun but how, frankly, that could have been an alternate title in a much sillier world.

War For the Planet of the Apes is about both the death of humanity but also the death of the American Dream. This is exemplified through the character of The Colonel, played with quiet steel masking hardened swagger by Woody Harrelson, who is a not so veiled homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he’s bald, he’s a stone cold military man, he has an almost hypnotic power of his troops and he’s very much gone off the reservation. The Colonel captures the madness of war, and the fear behind knowing you’ve essentially lost it.

After the critical and commercial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves was swiftly recruited by 20th Century Fox alongside returning writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to continue and in many senses conclude the Apes saga began in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. While the series could continue beyond War, by the end you honestly wonder if it should. Sure, this could very easily lead into the original Planet of the Apes remade, but what would be the point? What story is left to tell? This feels like the definitive exploration of man vs ape as a complete trilogy.