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ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘Alive and Buried’ (1×01 – Series Retrospective #1)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

To begin, we look at the pilot episode of Series 1 where it all began, Alive and Buried, which first aired on January 4th, 1990…

There have been hundreds of successful situation comedies on British television in the last sixty years, but few of them have the nuance, grace and intelligence of One Foot in the Grave.

Devised by writer David Renwick, the series revolved around Victor Meldrew, a cantankerous Scot living somewhere in England’s Home Counties with his, as oft-quoted, ‘long-suffering’ wife Margaret. As played expertly by Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, the Meldrew’s frequently found themselves in an array of unusual, eccentric and downright bizarre comic situations in otherwise dull 90’s British suburbia, as Renwick’s tightly constructed scripts saw Victor, thrown unceremoniously on the scrap heap after losing his job in opening episode Alive and Buried, face enforced retirement and his own mortality with growing frustration at society around him, which would frequently manifest in irascible rants that would include what became his catchphrase, and one of the signature comic lines in British comedy history: “I don’t *believe* it!”.

Alive and Buried establishes the concept in clear and concise fashion. Victor is retired by the company he has worked at for 26 years, finds himself listlessly wandering around the house while Margaret goes to work, facing constant reminders of his pensionable age everywhere he turns, and being irritated by the cruel happenstances of fate which conspire against him in everything from broken down cars to magic acts. Yet, as with most pilot episodes, particularly with comedies, the mixture isn’t yet refined. There is a broadness about Alive and Buried that later One Foot episodes swop for naturalistic eccentricity, playing on Wilson’s talent for silent or physical comedy. The essential formula is present and correct but the rhythm and cadence that makes Renwick’s series stand out hasn’t quite clicked yet.

That said, Alive and Buried is among the better first episodes of British comedy series. One Foot in the Grave already knows what it wants to be, even if it isn’t quite there yet.

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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.

ROAD TRIP: a post-American Pie comedic artefact (2000 in Film #20)

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 May 19th, Todd Phillips’ Road Trip

This week, I’m cheating a little bit, because I’m not talking about the biggest box office hit of the weekend in mid-late May. That honour goes to Disney’s interminably dull Dinosaur, but I’m more interested in Todd Phillips’ Road Trip.

Dinosaur, while boasting a fascinating production history that is far more interesting than the picture itself (Paul Verhoeven was once down to direct it as a live-action, early 90’s mega-blockbuster), the film is about as vanilla Disney as you can imagine, and it romped home at the box office to, by this point in 2000, rake in almost $400 million worldwide. Not quite the haul of the still-dominant Gladiator, but a relatively close second. This is understandable. The competition besides Gladiator, and the incoming Mission Impossible II, was not exactly stellar. Road Trip, the second most successful new film of that weekend, was designed to appeal to a very different crowd.

Being an 18 year old (almost), when Road Trip came out, you can imagine how eager I was to see a film like this. A-Levels were about to come to an end with my final exams in Drama and Media Studies (I had it tough, I know…) and a summer of freedom before University in the autumn beckoned. A film like Road Trip was catnip to my friends and I, despite the fact I attended cinemas regularly myself, more regularly than my compatriots at college. Road Trip was a picture we all went to see and we howled. We were precisely the target audience and we reacted accordingly. Twenty years on, the effect is not the same. The effect wasn’t even the same 13 years on, as I reviewed the film in 2013, and I’m going to turn over to ‘Past Tony’ to lend some thoughts about the film from a distance, and then return to add a modern postscript.

So, 2013-era Tony, does Road Trip hold up down the years? 

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.

BATTLEFIELD EARTH: a space opera with all the grandeur of a packet of crisps (2000 in Film #19)

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 May 12th, Roger Christian’s Battlefield: Earth

What makes a bad movie? It’s a question that might be harder to imagine than you think. No filmmaker, from Ed Wood through to Orson Welles, sets out to make a bad movie. Roger Christian and John Travolta certainly didn’t set out to make Battlefield: Earth into a bad movie, and yet, objectively, they produced one of the worst pictures in cinema history.

Bad movies are as subjective as great comedies. For every one person who laughs like a drain at Some Like It Hot, another will be thrilled and excited by Batman & Robin. How do you quantify the poor quality of a piece of art? Cinema is seen differently by millions of people. Which means there are audiences out there who truly believe Battlefield: Earth is not just an enjoyable film, but a good one. A film of objective, critical and technical quality. After watching Christian’s film, what would you say to someone of that opinion if you don’t share it? The best response would likely be to wish them well, get on with your day, and vow never to set eyes on the picture again. That, believe me, is what I plan to do with Battlefield: Earth. Once was, without doubt, more than enough.

My position, then, as a critical amateur, is that Battlefield: Earth is not just a bad movie, but an objectively terrible one. It has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever and I can honestly say, with some degree of factual certainty, that it was the first American made film of the 21st century, made on a significant budget with any sense of cultural capital, to achieve that. Travolta suggested it would be “like Star Wars, only better”. It ended up being a record breaking achiever (tied only with Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls) of Golden Raspberry Awards, the ‘Razzies’ being the tongue-in-cheek Academy Awards for terrible cinema. It failed to make back it’s ultimately sizeable budget. And any hopes on the part of the producers it might spawn a sequel or franchise to rival George Lucas’ magnum opus soon vanished into the ether.

Battlefield: Earth stands, almost squarely in the middle of the year 2000, as an abject example of how *not* to make a film, and time, you can trust, has not been any the kinder to it.

“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

ALIAS – ‘Firebomb’ (2×16 – 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 a series born in the wake of the devastating attack on New York in September 2001, Alias was always a series that glanced the other way from that existential trauma. Firebomb begins to see a turn back toward that direction.

A Free Agent worked to establish the new status quo for the show and its characters in the post-Phase One world, placing Sydney Bristow on a new quest not as a double agent but rather a reluctant operative in the CIA dedicated to bringing to justice the man who killed her fiancé, her former SD-6 boss Arvin Sloane. The episode ends with her coming close, facing off inside a Swiss bank Sloane is robbing—himself utilising an alias—as a way of marking how Season Two will, despite shooting off into a variety of different directions in the final third, arc itself around the CIA’s hunt for Sloane, and their determination to prevent him completing his quest to understand the work of prophet Milo Rambaldi.

In that sense, Alias immediately gets the opportunity to streamline the concept that ABC has, in time, become weary of, with the show costing almost 2 million dollars an episode without the ratings improving to show for it. Not even a post-Super Bowl slot for arguably one of the best crafted episodes the show would ever do in Phase One was enough to justify the series’ existence. The network would remain committed to being in business with JJ Abrams, but the show needed to adjust direction. A Free Agent gives a taster of what that new direction could be – less tangled in terms of narrative structure but filled with character complications and ongoing storylines. Firebomb is, essentially, the second part of establishing this new template for how Alias will operate this season, picking up on Sydney cornering Sloane and playing out the first cat and mouse chase between them.

Where Firebomb stands out, despite being an episode of transition and establishment, still working in fixing the new paradigm of Sloane in opposition to Sydney and our heroes, it fully begins to embrace Alias’ position as a post-9/11 series, acknowledging the wider geopolitical landscape around it.

GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

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 May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

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.