Film, Reviews

READY PLAYER ONE is a nostalgic yet prophetic futuristic vision

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×07: ‘You Win or You Die’ (TV Review)

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of Winter Is Coming, you could do worse than point to You Win or You Die. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, You Win or You Die can be seen as a clearer successor to The Wolf and the Lion than A Golden Crown was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season.

Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

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Essays, TV

JESSICA JONES, Marvel Malaise and the Pacing Problem

Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Pacing.

Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.

The second season was always going to have a difficult job living up to the story of Jessica’s mental and physical battle against the mind-controlling monster Kilgrave (played with sadistic relish by David Tennant), and never quite manages to match it for raw, heartbreaking power, but Rosenberg successfully does manage to craft a tale which naturally follows up on Jessica’s determined destruction of a man who corrupted, abused and violated her; a tale in which Jessica faces her own origin story, in a sense, and reunites with the mother she believed long dead, who turns out to be a darker and even more troubled reflection of herself.

Thematically, Jessica Jones remains about abuse, abusers and the search for ‘normal’ in a world filled with fractured families and controlling parents, siblings and lovers.

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Essays, The X-Files, TV

Project Crossroads: Where does THE X-FILES go from here?

The X-Files, one of the most recognised and beloved television properties of the last three decades, lies once again at a fascinating impasse.

My Struggle IV was billed as a finale, but it soon became clear Chris Carter only intended Season 11 to serve as a season rather than series finale. Despite Gillian Anderson’s claim this was her last time playing FBI agent Dana Scully, Carter has steadfastly refused to write a true ending for Scully and her erstwhile partner Fox Mulder. What many considered could well be the final time we saw these iconic characters, fates were left unresolved, storylines nebulous, and our two heroes were left staring down at a crossroads of two different paths: domesticity with the chance of a new family, or continuing their work investigating the paranormal. Their choice depends on many factors which lie beyond any decisions made by the two intrepid FBI agents in the show.

For one thing – ratings. Unlike the cavalcade of TV shows and even movies now being produced for streaming services, The X-Files still operates out of the FOX network on broadcast television, and their fiscal choices of what to spend their money on depends on how many people tune in every week. While the first revival series, Season 10, was a mega hit for the network both domestically and internationally, lightning hasn’t struck twice; Season 11 has consistently underperformed week on week, with low viewer numbers.

Were people turned off by the lukewarm creativity of the six episodes in 2016? Did they watch back then because The X-Files returning was a novelty? It’s hard to say. Either way, the numbers haven’t looked good, and while it mattered less when everyone believed Season 11 was the final hurrah, it matters more if Carter hopes to continue the show in some form.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×10 – ‘My Struggle IV’ (TV Review)

How do you end The X-Files? This is a question fans have been asking themselves for quarter of a century, ever since Chris Carter’s show premiered in 1993 on the FOX network and helped define popular culture across the entire decade. My Struggle IV proves, without any shadow of a doubt, that the truth is you don’t. The X-Files is a phenomenon that will never truly come to a close.

Season 11 of The X-Files has been overshadowed, to some degree, by Gillian Anderson’s announcement last October—with several months of shooting left to go—that this was her final go around playing FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she will be immortalised for, as much as David Duchovny will never truly escape her partner, FBI maverick Fox Mulder. Anderson stayed with the original series longer than Duchovny—who jumped ship as a forefront character at the end of the seventh season—so it’s difficult to truly blame her for deciding, after twenty-five years living the part even in the long period she didn’t play her, that Anderson wanted an end for Scully. The revival series, which arrived in 2016 on the trail of a nostalgic comeback tour for various TV shows which were iconic in the days before streaming and cable changed the paradigm of television, was one millions of fans hoped would provide some sense of closure.

The end of the original series, Season 9’s The Truth, came as a disappointment to many fans at the time. Contextualising a mythology many had (falsely) claimed made no sense, and reintroducing the long-absent Mulder, made what fans hoped was a climactic thrill ride for the alien mythology more like a clip show, with an ending that reflected the Pilot but left Mulder & Scully in nebulous waters; were they fugitives? Were they out of the FBI? Were the X-Files shut down? What about Agents Doggett & Reyes, who had taken over the department and failed conceptually to replace the dynamic duo we had followed for seven seasons together? Were the aliens still about to invade?

So many questions were left unanswered, far more indeed than My Struggle IV has left unanswered – and this latest attempt at a finale is, in all honesty, no real finale at all.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×06: ‘A Golden Crown’ (TV Review)

As we move into the second half of Game of Thrones’ debut season, two of the most central concepts of George R.R. Martin’s saga begin to assert themselves in deeper ways: children and lineage. A Golden Crown is an episode filled with the lingering shadows of lost childhood and assumptions, or presumptions, of birthright.

David Benioff & D.B. Weiss present, of course, probably Game of Thrones’ first true watershed, “OMG they just did that!” moment with the horrendous death of Viserys Targaryen, given the titular ‘golden crown’ by Khal Drogo when he finally pushes his luck a little too far with the Dothraki, who take his demands just a touch too literally.

Game of Thrones would of course top this many times over – Ned Stark’s shocking execution in Baelor at the end of the first season would be the next, and the one the series will forever be immortalised for is the so-called ‘Red Wedding’ in the third season’s penultimate episode The Rains of Castamere – both examples of which cement the idea of the penultimate episodes of Game of Thrones always provide the biggest shock events or battles, before a calmer, scene-setting finale.

We’re some way from that yet. Right now, Game of Thrones just pulled a flanker in the sixth episode.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×09 – ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ (TV Review)

Originally the eighth episode in the ten hour run of The X-Files’ eleventh and almost certainly last season, Nothing Lasts Forever was switched around with last weeks Familiar and you can understand the decision. Karen Nielsen’s script has an undulating sense of finality about it, as if Agents Mulder & Scully know the end of their journey is in sight.

We have, of course, been here before, more than once. Season Five cheekily concluded with The End, Requiem at the end of Season Seven was mooted as being the final episode to segue into a cinematic franchise for the show, before eventually Season Nine’s The Truth brought back an absent David Duchovny and proved to be a hugely divisive (even to this day) mixed bag of a series finale. That was back in the age when a series, certainly in American television, concluded without any real chance of reprisal. British TV has long had a tradition of ending a show and then reviving the property years down the line, but American TV didn’t tend to do it until the advent of streaming services and the full embrace of digital TiVo changed the paradigm of how we digested television. The X-Files itself is proof that while nothing lasts forever, where beloved properties are concerned, we should, to borrow another phrase, never say never again.

Nonetheless, Season Eleven does, at this stage, appear to be the final curtain. Nothing Lasts Forever therefore, should that be the case, will go down in X-Files history as the last ever standalone episode. I’ve discussed the importance of the standalone story versus the ongoing mythology in previous pieces—indeed in last week’s Familiar I touched on the subject—but to fans the difference has more sharply moved into focus with the revival series. Arguably, many felt we simply didn’t have enough episodes where Mulder & Scully investigated strange goings on across the American landscape, and episodes such as Plus One, Familiar and Nothing Lasts Forever have worked hard to remedy that.

Familiar goes the furthest to position itself akin to a historical episode of the original run of the series, but Nothing Lasts Forever stands out as a stranger brew than anything else the entire revival run over both seasons has yet given us.

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Episode Reviews, The X-Files, TV

THE X-FILES 11×08 – ‘Familiar’ (TV Review)

There is something familiar and unfamiliar about Familiar, one of the last truly stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ tales The X-Files will likely ever do.

Anyone who has followed Chris Carter’s series from its inception will be aware that his show was divided between the ‘standalones’ and the ‘mythology’ episodes. At the time, back in the 90’s, fans lived for the mythology, the ongoing story of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully against the conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life, and far darker deeds beyond. Time and distance however, for many, have seen the standalone tales grow in currency; in a world now built on the kind of serialised storytelling The X-Files flirted with, while still keeping to a model ripe for syndication, fans have craved from the revival season a truly stand-alone story. One where Mulder & Scully arrive in a small town, investigate some weird deaths, and find themselves embroiled in the strange and spooky. It’s taken almost two revival seasons, but Familiar gets us there.

Oddly enough now, however, what once was considered a standard, typical X-File, has become essentially the aberration. If you look at how experimental both revival seasons have been, from comedy episodes or Hitchcockian espionage homages, down to episodes like last week’s Followers which pushed the envelope the furthest the show has gone in a long time, Familiar stands out because it’s now unfamiliar. Benjamin Van Allen’s story is almost a throwback, a relic of the original series The X-Files was built on, and were it not for certain fairly indirect but potent allegorical references to modern-day political Americana, you could position Familiar in one of the early seasons of the show. It might sit quite well nearby Die Hand Die Verletzt, perhaps its most intrinsic bedfellow.

For that reason, alone, it feels uniquely old-fashioned.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×05: ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ (TV Review)

Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. The Wolf and the Lion may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.

That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones which lead directly to his next book, A Clash of Kings, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.

At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×04: ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ (TV Review)

To understand Game of Thrones’ fourth episode, you need only to consider the title, for Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things quite adequately sums up the focus David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ series lends as the world building continues to manifest.

This is, of course, the first episode of the show not written by the show-runners themselves, rather Bryan Cogman, who will go on to be one of their most signature collaborators outside of, naturally, George RR Martin. Surprisingly, Cogman has stated the central theme which the title alludes to, the idea of outsiders and those rejected by their families and circumstances, wasn’t in the forefront of his mind when he was adapting material from A Game of Thrones that would comprise the episode. Given how successfully the piece ties together in a thematic context this is almost difficult to believe.

Cogman manages to zero in on the central characters who fit the titular templates in a manner the series simply hasn’t had time to yet accomplish, while still forwarding all of the natural, serialised story arcs the show is constructing.It is quite telling that Cogman chooses to begin proceedings at Winterfell, the setting that most encapsulates the concept of bastards across the run of the series, and digs into three very different characters. Bran has his first true vision here of the Three-Eyed Raven, who naturally serves as a primary presaging of his entire character arc across the run of the series, but it comes in the form of a Crow which leads him, walking through Winterfell, to the strange, at this stage unnerving creature. Bran also continues to deny his status as a ‘cripple’ (unkind word as that of course is), particularly when the other signature ‘broken’ character in the story, Tyrion, as a parting gift chooses to bestow upon Bran technology which would allow him to ride a horse, even without the means to walk.

When Bran declares he’s not a cripple, Tyrion replies with “and I’m not a dwarf”. Tyrion has accepted who he is at this stage, forged through years of experience. Bran, as yet, has not.

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