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MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

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 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience. …

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ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 2’ (2×09 – 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 second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.

The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example. Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.

Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage *is* the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.

That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than the setup preceding it.

THE NEXT BEST THING: A glossy, ham-fisted, non-romance (2000 in Film #9)

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 3rd, John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing

It is fair to say that the first weekend in March of 2000 was a slim one in terms of new releases, which accounts for why John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing was both the most profitable movie and at the same time failed to ultimately make a profit, just falling shy of recouping its modest budget.

Everyone involved almost certainly imagined it would do better. Madonna was headlining as Abby, a New Age yoga instructor in sunny California who falls in love with her gay best friend Robert, played by Rupert Everett—basking in the glow of success in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where he essentially played the same kind of character. It must have seemed like box office alchemy, indeed Madonna’s previous film Evita probably remains her most successful. Throw in one of the most celebrated transatlantic directors of the 60’s & 70’s in Schlesinger and what we should have ended up with was a charming, star-led romantic comedy. What we ended up with was a bizarre, mawkish, messy comedy that veers wildly into a dramatic final act lifted from an entirely different movie.

The Next Best Thing is, to put it mildly, bad filmmaking. The script, written by Tom Ropelewski as an original screenplay called The Red Curtain originally meant to star Richard Dreyfuss & Helen Hunt—proof positive there was a better film lurking underneath somewhere—that eventually was mangled through the Hollywood threshing machine, plonked into the lap of Madonna, and presumably transformed into the strange, worthy beast we ended up getting. Quite what possessed Schlesinger to get on board we will never know – it’s even more tragic that this was the final film he directed before his death in 2003. It’s about as flaccid and ignominious an end the director of Midnight Cowboy or Billy Liar could have had to his career. Nothing, genuinely *nothing*, about this film works in any respect. It is really quite remarkable from that perspective.

The Next Best Thing is also evidence that while Hollywood had an eye on the progressive, liberal structures that are coming to define it twenty years on, its tin ear for how to achieve them was still strong.

ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 1’ (2×08 – 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 the first seven episodes of Alias Season Two deal with the fallout from Season One and establish the narrative and character arcs of the second season, Passage is arguably the two-part episode which kickstarts the beginning of the end of the series we have come to know up to this point.

The change is evident right away with the lack of a pre-credits sequence explaining the concept of the show, as every episode up to this point has in some manner included. This could have been a decision designed to afford the show greater running time, having to worry about those concerns as a network series, or equally it could simply show the confidence Alias now has that the audience will be keeping up enough with a standard ‘previously on…’ segment. The stabilisers are now off. Even the slippery Mr Sark, who we see in a brief car dual alongside Sydney Bristow which recalls a much cheaper version of the car chase in Mission Impossible II, is blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic ‘Bad Moon Rising’ on the stereo. “I see a pale moon rising… I see trouble on the way…”.

Everything about Passage, immediately, is foreshadowing significant change on the horizon. Syd is now working with one of her key antagonists in Sark, though she very quickly establishes a Mutually Assured Destruction quid pro quo with him as regards the truth about her role as a double agent. “If you burn me, I burn you”. His presence, nevertheless, moves a bad guy into her orbit in a way the series has not previously attempted. As Sark arrives, the stakes also massively raise as Passage introduces a big gun: nuclear weapons. Sure, Syd may have casually defused a nuke early on in Season One’s So It Begins…, but here it matters. Passage considers stolen nuclear weapons big enough, Thunderball-style, to warrant a broader, two-part canvas.

Passage, in that sense, mirrors the key Season One two-part story The Box, even if they go about their business very different. They both change the game in several ways. They are both points of no return. …

Book Trek #10 – Star Trek Gateways: What Lay Beyond – ‘Horn and Ivory’

In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.

This story takes place 27,000 years ago…

It’s worth me making a confession before you read any further: I haven’t yet read any of Star Trek: Gateways, the 2001 book series which connected all of the Star Trek properties of that time together in a shared uber-narrative concerning the ancient Iconians and their titular gateways through time and space. Luckily, that doesn’t make Horn and Ivory too impenetrable as a story.

One of six novellas within What Lay Beyond, the Gateways conclusion, it is based on the idea that six characters from each of the collected series stepped through one of the gateways at the end of their journey in the preceding book, and these novellas chart what happened to all of them. Horn and Ivory, as a result, follows on from the Deep Space Nine Gateways book, Demons of Air and Darkness, also written by Keith R. A. DeCandido, and focuses squarely on the character of Kira Nerys, who finds herself in Bajoran antiquity at the heart of territorial wars between numerous nation states in the ancient history of her home planet.

It’s a credit to DeCandido’s writing that Horn and Ivory doesn’t in any way seem a baffling experience if you haven’t read any of the previous Gateways novels, his prose explaining quite clearly the basics needed to understand how Kira has ended up in the ancient past before getting on with a short story which neatly resonates with the character we know from the show and subsequent relaunch book series.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt V – ‘A Better Way’

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…

While Star Trek as a franchise, across all of its television series, has been defined by the philosophical and scientific approach its storytelling has taken to humanity’s future, Star Trek in cinematic terms often feels defined by the antagonist of each film.

When people think of The Wrath of Khan, do they immediately imagine Kirk’s grapple with middle age or his emotional and physical rebirth? Maybe, but they’re probably more likely to conjure up Ricardo Montalban with his buffed tanned chest and wild hair spitting Shakespearean poison. Who can think of The Undiscovered Country, equally, without imagining Christopher Plummer’s General Chang twirling happily in his chair barking lines from Hamlet? Alice Krige’s sultry, mechanical and haunting turn as the Borg Queen is just as synonymous with First Contact, to the point she holds a pride of place position on the film’s poster. In so many Star Trek films, the villain is crucial. The last three pictures have all boasted star name bad guys perhaps even more famous than the main cast – Bana, Cumberbatch, Elba, all A-list Hollywood surnames who people instantly recognise. Think about some of the names who’ve inhabited these roles previously – Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, F. Murray Abraham. Legendary character actors to a man. There is almost as much cache in playing a Star Trek villain as there is a James Bond antagonist.

Retrospectively, Tom Hardy sits on that tier of household name bad guy, even if when Nemesis came out he was a youthful, unknown quantity no doubt cast because of a passing visual similarity to Patrick Stewart, but in hindsight Hardy ended up being a ‘get’, even if Shinzon never sits in the tier of the greatest Star Trek cinematic bad guys, some of which have been mentioned above. The truth is, while Star Trek has always engaged with excellent, well-known actors to play these parts, the villains themselves often end up overshadowed by the Starfleet crew themselves. Sybok, Tolian Soran, R’uafu – does anyone really know who these characters are outside of Star Trek fandom? Arguably the only villain to truly break out into mainstream popular culture is Khan Noonien Singh, especially given his lease of life recast in Star Trek Into Darkness more recently. Khan set the bar as a character (and in The Wrath of Khan) that the franchise has been striving to equal ever since. Shinzon, however, is the most unashamed attempt to cash in on Khan’s charismatic mania.

As we start to peel back the layers of Shinzon, learning his backstory and of his bizarre connection to Jean-Luc Picard, Nemesis’ blatant mission statement to replicate what made Khan work becomes ever clearer. …

Tony Talks #20: Cultural Conversation Strikes Back!

Friends! Readers! Countrymen!

You may have noticed that around a month or so ago, I said I was saying goodbye to WordPress for a site called Substack – some of you may well have followed me over there (thanks if you did).

It didn’t, however, quite work out. Substack is great. I was really impressed with the style and presentation of it, how easy it was to use, and how it facilitates what I want with my blog writing – contact and interaction with *you*, the reader. What it lacked, for me, was the sense of curation. It is designed more as a newsletter to communicate and interact, rather than a way to importantly store work online as a repository, which is what I prefer about WordPress. So, I’m back, and I’m going back to basics.

I’m going back to the original name – Cultural Conversation.

WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

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 February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS: High concept, low returns (2000 in Film #7)

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 Jonathan Lynn’s mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards is a strange confluence of elements. It puts together a high concept Hollywood comedy premise with two household names, one known for comedy, the other not, alongside a director from an entirely different pedigree.

When it comes to box office, the concoction worked. In one of the most crowded weekends for cinematic releases in the year 2000 up to this point, The Whole Nine Yards ends up qualitatively ruling the roost on those terms. You can understand why. Bruce Willis has by this point brought in punters on the strength of his name for over a decade, well established as one of the defining leading men of the 90’s. Matthew Perry, conversely, was perhaps the breakout star of the era-defining sitcom Friends as Chandler Bing, the deadpan master of the sarcastic one-liner. Friends was here in its wind up years, with Perry and many of the main cast spreading their wings into cinematic careers; indeed coincidentally this same weekend, Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow appears in another comedy, Hanging Up, just two weeks after Courteney Cox’s key role in Scream 3.

If back in the late 90’s you would have put money on the Friends star most likely to maintain a successful, post-show movie career, it would have been Jennifer Aniston, and by and large you would have been right, but The Whole Nine Yards puts a lot of faith in Perry that he can hold his own as a leading man against someone with the casual on-screen magnetism of Willis. And on the whole, Perry manages to translate elements of his awkward, geeky Chandler persona into the role of dentist Nicholas ‘Oz’ Ozeransky, and the fact The Whole Nine Yards doesn’t entirely work is not on Perry’s shoulders. The film doesn’t convince you that Perry is a natural romantic comedy lead but the problems lie in deeper roots.

Ultimately, The Whole Nine Yards—a phrase which translates as “the lot”—is remarkably, for a comedy, lacking in a lot of what you would call laughs, thanks to a cluttered, needlessly muddled script.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt IV – ‘Sailing Into the Unknown’

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…

When the Star Trek universe was created in the mid-1960’s by Gene Roddenberry, the Romulans very quickly, following The Original Series Season 1 episode Balance of Terror, established themselves as an iconic race within the science-fiction tapestry of the series.

There was long some debate about who exactly created the Romulan species but it has over time roughly been attributed to staff writer Paul Schneider, who based the Romulan people on the Roman Empire, naming their twin planets Romulus and Remus after the creation myth of Rome itself; the twin children abandoned on the River Tiber and found by a wolf who raised them to go on and found Rome. While many of the races in Star Trek are based on human cultures, be it the Bajorans on the Jews or Klingons on the Russians, never in Trek was a species so literally devised to connect directly to an ancient human myth as the Romulans. Had they not been as deftly characterised, they could well have been consigned to the litany of strange races in TOS who are now considered kitsch – the Zeons in Patterns of Force, for instance. Thankfully, the Romulans were carried through into The Next Generation and developed into an allegorical Chinese or even North Korean state; a shadowy, secretive species who sit behind their ‘Neutral Zone’ between Federation space and occasionally incur on missions of espionage and devious plots to interfere in other species politics – particularly the neighbouring Klingon Empire, as seen in TNG’s Redemption.

Yet throughout TNG, and even Deep Space Nine where they were eventually embroiled in the galaxy spanning Dominion War and the machinations of Starfleet’s sinister spy organisation Section-31, we never truly came to know who the Romulans were, seldom visited their home world—we only see it in TNG’s Unification and DS9’s Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges—and Remus, beyond the initial mention in the 1960’s, was never explored. Nemesis, therefore, in re-contextualising Remus, and the Reman people, as a monstrous, toiling slave race for the Romulan Star Empire, adds a level of mythology previously unexplored in Romulan culture. While they are, to an extent, a narrative means to an end in Nemesis, the inclusion of the Remans as a key factor in Shinzon’s backstory gives Nemesis that added Star Trek factor – a new world and species to discover and explore. The only downside is that, ultimately, the promise Nemesis might have in truly revealing Romulan culture after all of these years is smoke and mirrors. 

It is never really a story about the Romulans at all.