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Tony Talks #21: Blog in a Time of Coronavirus

Hey friends!

So I checked and the last time I did a check in piece such as this, it was February 26th. Man, that feels like a lifetime ago now. We were able to travel places or hug loved ones. We could go to the cinema or the football. Hell, we were still going into work every day! Two months ago is already a different world.

The Corona Era has certainly changed and upended everything, for us all, so I hope anyone reading this first and foremost is safe, well and haven’t suffered too much loss in this terrible pandemic.

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TREADSTONE: Spy fun, but don’t say the B-word (Season 1 – Review)

Treadstone feels like a show that somebody made in 2008 and forgot about for over ten years.

There is something a little strange about Tim Kring’s series set in the Jason Bourne universe. For one thing, it seems utterly determined to never mention the ‘B word’ at any point. Not Blackbriar, the second secret CIA project to recruit, train and brainwash super-spies. That gets a mention, having collapsed during The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. The events of those films, particularly Ultimatum, are expressly referenced or at least heavily hinted at. Bourne *himself* is referred to (as “the asset”, or something deliberately wink wink nudge nudge), but his name? Nope. It could be a rights issue. The credits do after all say “based on an organisation from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum” which is about as thin a tether as you can mine in order to put together a TV show. You can have the name Treadstone, and that’s it.

Yet at the same time, Kring goes out of his way to make this show, effectively, a lower-budget tribute act to the Bourne franchise, predominately the Paul Greengrass films which really established the tone and style of that saga – all shaky cam, pass the sick bag Krav Maga fight sequences, a global travelogue, lots of shady government intelligence agents in rooms trying to outfox assassins working as much with raw instinct as intellect. You’ve all seen a Bourne film, right? This doesn’t just inhabit the same narrative world but also the same visual and iconographic one. The music has John Powell’s percussive style. The fighting is close combat, no quarter, balletic hand to hand. The intrigue is post-Cold War (and mid-Cold War, actually) spycraft. It works to place itself as a side-story to the Bourne saga in the same manner as The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy. That worked to distance from Greengrass in many ways. Treadstone works to revel in the comparisons.

The biggest surprise of all is that Treadstone, well… it’s actually not that bad, for what it is, even as a show caught between two worlds and two eras.

NEXT FRIDAY: It’s all about the neighbourhood (2000 In Film #2)

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, I’m looking at Steve Carr’s stoner comedy sequel, Next Friday

All things being equal, you may have imagined Walter Hill’s dark science-fiction thriller Supernova would have ruled the box office in the second week of January 2000 but it ended up a critical and commercial dud, paving the way for the modest success of Steve Carr’s Next Friday – the sequel to a film that struck much more of a chord in the culture of black cinema.

Friday appeared in 1995, the brainchild of successful rapper Ice Cube and his co-writer DJ Pooh, who teamed with director F. Gary Gray (in his debut, long before the heights of The Fate of the Furious) to shoot in a modest 20 days a low-budget comedy which was designed by Cube to emulate the modest, indie stylistics of a Kevin Smith but rather for African-American culture. Friday was a slice of life which transformed Cube from rapper to movie star—within two years he would be headlining Dangerous Ground and starring in the schlocky Anaconda and the critically acclaimed Three Kings a couple of years beyond that—not to mention featuring a raft of stars to come: Chris Tucker, Regina King, Michael Clarke Duncan. It was also a surprise hit, tapping into a sub-genre that Cube astutely realised had not been mined by black performers and filmmakers.

As a result, Next Friday was almost an inevitability but, to paraphrase Hugo Drax in Moonraker, it arrives with the “tediousness of an unloved season”. While outwardly amusing, with plenty of basic scatological and farcical gags to keep punters busy, it is an example of the kind of diminishing sequel returns that the early 2000’s would deliver in spades.

It is, quite simply, a film with absolutely no reason to exist beyond the financial.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IX – ‘There Always Are… Possibilities’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

Across the entirety of The Wrath of Khan, we are reminded that James T. Kirk is facing his own mortality, coming to terms with his own youthful, exuberant past as a galaxy-hopping’ Starfleet Captain, but this is never more apparent than when he is in a room with Carol and David Marcus.

Star Trek Generations might attempt to convince us that the unseen Antonia was the one who got away for Kirk, once he is reliving happy memories in the Nexus, and we know there is a quadrant full of old flames who have different levels of meaning for Kirk—few would doubt that he did fall in love with Edith Keeler in City on the Edge of Forever for example—but as far as we know, Kirk only ever had one child, and that was with Carol. Star Trek Into Darkness, flawed as it might be, revives Carol for a new generation and understands the resonance of Bibi Besch’s character who, it must be pointed out, is no throwback to the 1960’s. She was a Meyer creation and one of numerous, brave steps the writer-director took in exploring Kirk’s middle age. Of course he would have fathered a child at some point, given the amount of conquests he had! Indeed it’s probable that David wasn’t the only one, with Kirk maybe unaware of others.

With the challenge of age, the loss of youth, comes also the challenge of continued masculine virility, and this is made clear as Kirk’s first, violent encounter on the Regula moon is with a defensive David, not realising at first who he is. “Of course he didn’t!” is Carol’s immediate remark when David suggests Kirk was responsible for all of the murdered scientists on Regula 1. She may not have seen the Admiral for years but she knows Jim Kirk. She is the wife he never married. They are the family Kirk avoided.

They now represent the life he sundered to *be* James T. Kirk and if regaining his youth forces him to examine his own past, Carol and David represent a key marker on that journey of rebirth.

ALIAS – ‘Salvation’ (2×06 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If there is a disposable episode of Alias Season Two, it is probably Salvation. It struggles to follow in the dramatic wake of Dead Drop and the personal revelations of The Indicator as much more than an epilogue to episodes which cut to the very core of Sydney and Jack Bristow’s relationship, and the central themes of the show itself.

Salvation to an extent also misses a golden opportunity to fully tether the post-Cold War politics of Alias with the post-9/11 reality of America at the time. Irina Derevko, again unseen in this episode, is tried for treason by the US government and (off screen) pleads guilty, having been interrogated at the ominous Camp Harris—Alias’ version of Guantanamo Bay which we would eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point. Irina is sentenced to die by lethal injection in an extremely short time frame, which adds some level of ticking clock to the events of Salvation, as Syd’s moral conscience compels her to try and expose Jack’s crime in framing her to try and save a mother she, otherwise, distrusts and is telling herself she despises.

This has been the crux of this entire mini-arc that has dominated Season Two so far – Sydney being manipulated in different ways by both of her highly dysfunctional parents to choose which one she is loyal to. Jack still believes Irina is manipulating her in accepting her guilt. “She plead guilty to stop you witnessing her trial, Sydney” he assures her, reeling off a reminder of the lives she took as part of the eighty-six counts of espionage levelled at her. Jack considers Syd to be naive in not seeing her manipulation and whether right or wrong about that, Salvation *does* depict Syd’s naiveté in how she believes exposing the misdemeanours of one parent would save another. Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci’s script does her a disservice in how little she understands the actions and motives of a hawkish US government responding, in the wake of 9/11, to an unspoken societal trauma. Had the episode depicted Irina on trial, answering for her crimes, we might have felt the same core level of dramatic weight as we experienced in Dead Drop or Trust Me.

Salvation, sadly, wants to race through character arcs and plot beats of significance, while still servicing the natural structure of Alias as a show, rather than focusing more heavily on the meatier drama at the heart of Irina’s possible execution as a terrorist. It makes for a frustrating hour of television.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Season 1

How do you solve a problem like Jack Ryan? This appears to be a question Hollywood has been asking itself for over two decades. Tom Clancy’s most famous creation—the lowly, bookish CIA analyst who over the course of around a dozen modern espionage novels becomes President of the United States—has assiduously avoided successful attempts at long-term adaptation. Amazon’s new take on the character, starring John Krasinski, is the fifth attempt in a long line of varying tries to make Jack Ryan a cinematic icon.

The most well-known incarnation still remains, arguably, the two pictures Harrison Ford portrayed him in – 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, both from Australian director Philip Noyce – and it is perhaps one of the most unfortunate roads not taken that Ford didn’t continue in the role and build to Ryan’s Presidential years. While Clancy was still writing books featuring the character, Ryan then went away for a while, cinematically. Ford wasn’t, of course, the first incarnation of the character.