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Essays

THE PATRIOT: an entertaining, if troubling, slice of jingoistic, historical fantasy (2000 in Film #26)

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 June 30th, Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

If we have seen American cinema across the year 2000 attempt in some way to reconcile America’s place in history as we enter a new millennium, The Patriot is heavily concerned in re-writing and re-conceptualising it.

The Patriot wasn’t actually the biggest box office hit of this weekend, coming in a little short (unexpectedly) of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm. Though both are highly different movies playing in different eras with very different concepts, both do share a particular, definable ‘Americanism’ that even for Hollywood is powerful and potent. The Perfect Storm, telling the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel out of Massachusetts that sank during the so-called ‘Perfect Storm’ of 1991, boasts a tremendous cast of character actors spearheaded by a grumpy George Clooney and hot-headed Mark Wahlberg but suffers under the weight of melodramatic exceptionalism, overblowing a far more tragic real life story for rousing, heroic and ultimately bittersweet Hollywood effect. Jaws by way of Twister and saccharine, Lifetime drama.

Both this and Roland Emmerich’s take on the American Revolutionary War share a dubious claim on historical accuracy in the same vein of U-571 earlier in the year, and to an extent Gladiator, except the latter looked more inside out on what American exceptionalism actually means at the turn of the 21st century than either of these two films. The Perfect Storm, which—in a very local side note—had its UK premiere at a recently opened Midlands entertainment centre called Star City, with Clooney and Wahlberg in attendance, is now remembered more for the nautical effects—particularly the gigantic wave that sinks the Andrea Gail—than the overwrought script and performances, which pitch these real-life sailors as reckless, masculine sea lovers who needlessly throw themselves into the eye of the storm not just for bounty but for male obsession. It may have performed more strongly at the box office but The Patriot lingers further in the minds’ eye, serving as the first significant Hollywood take in some years on America’s bloody, foundational history.

In truth, the timing of The Patriot, and what it brings to 2000’s ongoing exploration of America’s past and future, is especially timely.

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ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – 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…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

ALIAS – ‘Second Double’ (2×21 – 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…

Though not officially classed as a two-part season finale for Alias, Second Double originally aired on the same night as The Telling, which gives the structure of this episode very much the feeling of a story that is inextricably linked.

Second Double operates on multiple fronts, as both the beginning of a season finale tying together numerous threads which have unfurled across the latter half of Season Two, and as a direct sequel of sorts to Double Agent, which introduced the central idea of Project Helix and the doubling technology. Crystal Nix Hines’ teleplay, from a story by Breen Frazier (though it is likely this was heavily or at least partially re-written by J.J. Abrams in advance of the finale), reasserts the significance of this plot strand by finally starting to pay off the Evil Francie storyline that has been nicely cooking since the end of Phase One. It is satisfying for the audience to see Syd and the main characters around her starting to catch up with us, given we have been a step ahead and aware of Francie’s death and Will being compromised for the last third of the season.

In that sense, Second Double feels more like the beginning of a boulder running downhill which the last couple of episodes have been steadily pushing back up the hill following the climactic point of Truth Takes Time. Endgame and Countdown were both transitory episodes in which our principle villains didn’t make significant strides in their master plan and which focuses more on character or theme – the duality of Elsa and Neil Caplan, or Dixon and Sloane’s voyages of post-traumatic discovery. Second Double from the very beginning kicks over some dominoes, having the CIA close in on the mole who has influenced events in A Dark Turn and Endgame, which dovetails with Irina and Sark, in particular, having to compromise, gamble and adapt to stay one step ahead of Sydney and her colleagues.

Consequently, Second Double feels too inextricably linked with the episode to come to feel entirely functional as an episode of its own, but it threads numerous character beats and ongoing plots to quite fast-paced, thrilling effect. Much like Truth Takes Time, it once again personalises all of the espionage scheming and threats to national security to make for a story that resonates for our protagonist.

Don’t Mention the Comedy: FAWLTY TOWERS and Reactionary Cultural Politics

Whether ten years old or close to a hundred, we have all seen Fawlty Towers at some point in our lives. We have either binge watched the series, casually caught it on a satellite channel or streaming service, or even seen clips on one of the many comedy panel or discussion shows over the years with talking heads discussing the brilliance of John Cleese’s monstrous creation Basil Fawlty.

What, though, is Fawlty Towers really *about*? What are all our comedies *about*, whether in the UK with a long-standing tradition of legendary comedic creations or the US with their penchant for long-running, familiar series? Every drama is about something and comedy is no different. The jokes are born from an idea or theme or societal construct the writer is looking to explore. One Foot in the Grave, which I’m currently examining episode by episode, sees David Renwick unpicking the listlessness of the working man at the tail end of Thatcherite neoliberalism after Victor Meldrew is displaced by a heartless corporate system. Only Fools and Horses was a fantasy of working class meritocracy, of Derek, and in a different way Rodney, Trotter overcoming their background of poverty and struggle to try and prove their worth within an elitist class system where the deck is stacked against them.

Following the surge of protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a swift trickle-down effect in terms of racial politics which has proven, this week, to be on some level ‘knee-jerk’. Britbox and BBC iPlayer started by removing the 2000’s Matt Lucas & David Walliams’ series Little Britain, which was always festooned with sketches that were politically incorrect even back then, citing that “times have changed”, while Netflix subsequently pulled The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh as both display characters who engage in what would be termed ‘blackface’. Catch up service UKTV subsequently removed the well-known Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, featuring Basil’s infamous line “Don’t mention the war!”, due to the overt racism displayed by the character, and the use of racial slurs by an ageing colonial character. This has been questioned by some who feel the reactionary cultural politics of the moment has gone too far.

I’m wondering the same. I understand some of these examples. The Germans, however, is an example in which context is missing, and with comedy, context is king.

ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – 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…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. …

TITAN A.E: a disappointingly vanilla science-fiction adventure (2000 in Film #23)

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 June 16th, Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s Titan A.E.

Look, I know I keep cheating with my own rules when it comes to talking about the king of the box office, but the thought of writing lots of words about Gone in 60 Seconds, even watching it again, filled me with dread.

Dominic Sena’s film ruled the roost in the first weekend of June 2000, while Titan A.E. debuted the following weekend, and the Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie-starrer went on to a decent global box office take. It no doubt helped get The Fast and the Furious reboot on the road, which arrived in 2001, and given that has emerged to be the unlikeliest of most successful cinematic franchises ever, Gone in 60 Seconds has a lot to answer for with its high-octane nonsense. The F&F films are at least, for the most part, fun to watch. Gone in 60 Seconds presents itself as a fuelled up riot but ends up a hammy, badly projected slog that seeing once, quite some years ago, was more than enough. I am many things but a glutton for punishment? Not so much.

Titan A.E. fell short of John Singleton’s remake of Shaft next week, which this blog will cover, but this felt an interesting picture to cover simply for the fact animation hasn’t exactly been at a premium this year so far, and Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s film honestly *should* have been quite something. All we’ve really had in 2000 is Dinosaur, an interminably dull picture with a far more intriguing backstory than eventual film, do some box office damage, so Titan A.E. had the space, as an independent animated picture backed by 20th Century Fox, to enrapture children and captive adults. Yet it did neither, collapsing at the box office in the wake of hundreds of animators on the film being fired as Fox Animation Studios collapsed, and the CEO who commissioned it, Bill Mechanic—who just a year or so earlier had Fight Club made—was shown the door.

It could be why you may not even remember Titan A.E., despite a strong cast, enjoyable science-fiction premise, and a wealth of promise. Twenty years on, it’s hard to even argue for it as a lost animated great.

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).

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.

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.

ALIAS – ‘A Dark Turn’ (2×17 – 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…

If you really think about it, everything that happens in A Dark Turn has almost certainly been inevitable since the beginning of Season Two. It’s perhaps why the title of the episode is so heavy in foreshadowing.

The fact we probably just didn’t want to believe how A Dark Turn ends is a testament to how well both the writers and Lena Olin have crafted the character of Irina Derevko since she first truly appeared in The Enemy Walks In. The first third of Season Two was almost entirely devoted to Irina’s introduction, her relationship with both Sydney and Jack, and how her unexpected returns exposes and decrypts Alias’ exploration of the dysfunctional, nuclear American family. Irina is played ambiguously on the page but Olin, with some skill, drew out of her dialogue shades that Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber both played with, and likely influenced later scripts in the season. She could be mercurial and sinister on one hand, while sensitive, regretful and caring on the other.

This was, undoubtedly, in many senses a deliberate move on the part of J.J. Abrams and his staff. We were never supposed to know quite where Irina’s loyalties lay. She could never entirely be trusted, given she surrenders control of what appears to be a major global organised crime network to become a CIA prisoner. We knew she always had an agenda. Yet Season Two plays with the idea that maybe, on some level, Irina turned herself in because she *did* care about Jack, she did love Sydney, and she regretted many of the choices she made decades earlier when her KGB cover was blown. Season Two inevitably saw her character thaw the hearts of both Sydney and Jack, inveigling her way into their lives and emotions, to the point she was in danger of becoming not just an ally, but someone we might actually start rooting for.

A Dark Turn is the reminder we needed. Of course Irina is a villain. She was always a villain. She will always *be* a villain. Alias is just very good at the emotional long con because, over Season Two, we had almost talked ourselves out of this being true.