New Podcast: MOTION PICTURES #12 – ‘James Bond & Spectre – Five Years On’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of Motion Pictures, myself and my co-host Carl Sweeney discuss the James Bond franchise, specifically 2015’s Spectre.

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SPECTRE suggests James Bond’s ‘team-ethic’ future

Looking back at Spectre, 2015’s unfairly maligned James Bond film, it becomes apparent just how much of 007’s future may lie around a team ethic.

Historically, Bond was, of course, a lone wolf, certainly in Ian Fleming’s source novels and particularly in the film adaptations produced by Eon from 1962 onwards. Fleming describes Bond’s general routine, in Moonraker, as “evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.” Bond’s life is distant, remote and detached from the world around him, aside from gambling or disposable sex. His cinematic adventures bore this out. If ever we did see his personal life, which we seldom do across any of his incarnations, it almost always revolves around women as opposed to family or friends.

Spectre, building on character introductions and developments introduced in Skyfall, begins to change that. Bond only wins the day with the help of the MI6 team around him back home, and sometimes in the field. Q covers for him, later joining him in Austria to help him reach Madeleine. Moneypenny is no longer the sweet, desk bound, lovelorn secretary who he flirts with and leaves behind, she actively aids him in terms of intelligence, and aides him in the field in Skyfall. M, or Mallory, is the most narratively involved head of MI6 in the series’ history, working to expose Max Denbigh aka ‘C’s connection to villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and gets his own (admittedly rather anaemic) action tussle with the man toward the end. Blofeld’s plans are only foiled thanks to the entire MI6 squad backing up Bond’s determined action.

This marks a sea change in the Daniel Craig era that could well stick through the upcoming No Time to Die, and into the uncertain waters for 007 beyond, as the franchise adapts to a vastly changing cinematic landscape.

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ALIAS – ‘A Free Agent’ (2×15 – 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…

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

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ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13 – 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…

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air *after* Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

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ALIAS – ‘A Higher Echelon’ (2×11 – 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…

A Higher Echelon might be the last traditional episode of Alias ever produced.

In the sense that we are rapidly on approach to the point of no return that is Phase One, and The Getaway works as much to bridge viewers into the developments and revelations of that episode as it does to tell the kind of story Alias has been telling since Truth Be Told, specifically with the balance of espionage mission set-pieces balanced alongside continuing, ongoing narrative arcs. A Higher Echelon has that structure finely tuned now, even though Alias was always a show that raced out of the gate remarkably confident in how it presented itself. The irony is that an episode like A Higher Echelon, which is fun, well-paced and filled with an array of interesting plotlines, proves beyond a doubt that Alias could have continued in the same vein for at least another season beyond this one.

John Eisendrath, arguably one of Alias’ strongest writers, quite expertly balances a number of different storylines in A Higher Echelon, while simultaneously maintaining a level of cohesion which belies the sheer volume of stuff going on: Marshall abducted and tortured, Syd admitting her feelings for Vaughn, Irina being allowed out of her cell, Sloane’s Alliance investigation, Will becoming a CIA analyst, Francie’s suspicion of Will & Syd’s new dynamic, Ariana Kane’s witch-hunt against Jack, and this is even before the plot revolving around the Echelon operating system and the underlying ideas of civil rights and Big Brother that Eisendrath manages to touch upon. Many other shows would collapse under the weight of these threads but Alias thrives on the fast-paced energy of these escalating narratives. Perhaps it’s because the show no longer has to spin any wheels and is racing, tout suite, toward Phase One.

Whatever the reason, A Higher Echelon is the last episode quite of its kind, and it’s gratifying to realise that it turns out to be one of the most assured.

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From the Vault #23: SKYFALL (2012)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Sam Mendes’ 1917 arrives in cinemas, is from March 23rd, 2014…

For five decades of James Bond in cinema, arguably standing tall as the biggest and most successful film franchise of all time, there needed to be some kind of celebration. Not just fanfare, documentaries, look backs, ceremonies, interviews, but rather a celebration of what Bond is, what he means, why he remains relevant half a century on to a world immeasurably different from the one Ian Fleming created him in.

Skyfall turned out, perhaps beyond our expectations, to be all of those things – the clearest demonstrable examination of 007’s psyche we have ever seen, in which Sam Mendes continued the work began by Martin Campbell in Casino Royale (or I would argue GoldenEye infact) and not only gave us what we expect from a Bond movie–the glitz, glamour, action, suspense, wit–but equally delivered on meaningful drama, characterisation and subtext beyond the measure we usually get in this series. It’s been said by many – Skyfall isn’t just a Bond film, it’s a *film* and taking away the slightly derogatory context of that remark to a wonderful franchise, it remains true.

Skyfall is both a truly great Bond film and a great movie in its own right.

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Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’

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…

Given how powerfully The Wrath of Khan ends, it is easy to miss the beauty in it, certainly in terms of how perfectly it caps off a character journey for Admiral James T. Kirk that we’ve witnessed almost from minute one. It may be Spock who dies in The Wrath of Khan, but the film unquestionably throughout is about Kirk.

It is also hard to overestimate how much of a shock Spock’s death might have been at the time. Characters like Spock didn’t die. You didn’t kill off someone like Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek had emerged from an era of largely safe, colourful, now even kitsch television in which America reflected its aspirational virtues for the post-war future in the 1960’s in heroes. Kirk. Bruce Wayne. Jim Phelps. Cinema had James Bond or Matt Helm. Morally flawed or compromised at times they might have been, but they were designed to save us from the hopeless devastation a generation had lived through. Star Trek’s heroes would fight battles, defeat foes, explore new worlds, but they would always at the end finish on TV with a little joke or the acknowledgement that they’ll be back next week for another adventure.

Even The Motion Picture, which tones down the colour and comedy of The Original Series to depict a post-Watergate, late-1970’s cooler vision of Starfleet’s future, saw Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise—with Spock having regained his purpose as a Starfleet officer—warp away toward a sequel. The human adventure, after all, was just beginning. Nicholas Meyer’s sequel is an incredibly humanistic film but it acknowledges that with humanity, with hope, has to come the balance of pain, and of sacrifice. While Kirk’s arc of spiritual rebirth has a resolutely Christian bent, Spock giving his life to save the Enterprise makes him the Christ figure who saves the crew from Khan’s defeated Devil. Kirk’s first best destiny is to lead, is to find his way back to himself, and to do that he must lose someone he takes for granted for much of The Wrath of Khan. His anchor. His best friend.

To even contemplate such a remarkable ending to a story like this proves just how special The Wrath of Khan is. That ending of Avengers: Endgame? It wouldn’t exist without what The Wrath of Khan dared to try.

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STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

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LE MANS ‘66: a thrilling, playful middle finger to corporate conservatism

Akin to most movies about sport, Le Mans ‘66 aka Ford vs Ferrari is not really about the field in question, motor racing. It is about men. James Mangold’s movie is almost obnoxiously masculine in an era where, and not without good reason, it is far from cache to be so. It is, quite deliberately, a throwback.

Mangold’s film, which tells the real-life story of the British driver who helped an American racing firm win the famed Le Mans race in 1966 for the Ford Motor Company, is a muscular slice of high octane drama. Following the sun-dappled haze of 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mangold gives us a hot, bleached Los Angeles slick with oil and tarmac; a mid-60’s in the throes of a culture war. Ford, headed by Tracy Letts’ iron clad descendant Henry Ford II, are bastions of pure-blooded American conservatism, a Stateside corporate aristocracy who consider modern pop-culture icons such as James Bond “a degenerate”. Christian Bale’s British-born mechanic and driver, Ken Miles, is an unashamed team player. “He’s a beatnik” a Ford executive describes him as but, in truth, the family man Ken simply isn’t on brand.

Le Mans ’66 is, therefore, about masculine individuality. In some sense, David works for Goliath in this story, and the conflict isn’t really Ford vs Ferrari at all. That’s not the beating heart of Mangold’s film, and is only being sold as the title in the US because of the lack of modern associations with the name Le Mans. Framing the film as a conflict between the most famous American car company and legendary European racing firm in the world is an easy read, but the real battle is between individual American exceptionalism and a growing corporate hegemony in a post-war, pre-neoliberal space. Henry Ford represents a world people are still battling against in the Western hemisphere and, oddly enough, Mangold’s film doesn’t necessarily reflect a universe in which the little man can win.

If Le Mans’ 66 is a David v Goliath story, make no mistake… Goliath wins.

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New Podcast: Movie People #1 – ‘John Rain & Superman’

I’ve launched a(nother) brand new podcast, folks – Movie People!

Again part of the We Made This podcast network, Movie People will be an interview show talking to people online who are connected to film, have a deep love of it, and immerse themselves in the medium. I may also take the odd trip into the world of TV and books, other media, from time to time.

Honestly, I wanted to connect with and talk to people who I find interesting, first and foremost, and I’ve started here with one of Twitter’s best assets – John Rain, aka the man behind SMERSH Pod and recently Thunderbook (it’s great, go get it). The show will aim to be fortnightly on Saturdays but we’ll see how it goes.

In this first episode, we talk about all kinds of things – cinema as a kid in the 80’s, James Bond, politics, and Richard Donner’s Superman among many other things. I think it’s a chat you’ll really enjoy.

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