A J. Black

Author: Myth-Building in Modern Media | Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcaster: @motionpicspod @wemadethispod | Occasionally go outside.

From the Vault #33: CHRONICLE (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 is from February 16th, 2014…

As inevitable as the setting sun, eventually two of cinema’s most recent obsessions–the found footage and superhero genres–were destined to collide, yet no one surely predicted in such a strong manner as Chronicle.

Josh Trank’s compact, relatively low budget blend of handheld camerawork and the superhero (or should that be villain?) origin story blasts out of nowhere as a remarkably assured piece of work, telling a story that has it’s roots in decades of comic-book lore while being entirely original, and managing to utilise the found footage gimmick in order to tell a character story that starts casually and builds to a gripping climax.

The simple fact is Trank’s film probably shouldn’t have been this good.

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

Book Review: THE LOST ADVENTURES OF JAMES BOND (Mark Edlitz)

Every franchise has their lexicon of tantalising lost projects, stories which failed to see the light of day, and James Bond is no exception.

Many of these tales are public knowledge and have been documented over the decades since 007 came to the big (and small) screen in various incarnations and guises, but Mark Edlitz is one of the few scribes to comprehensively piece together the fabric of James Bond narratives lost to the ages and weave them into a document which, rather forensically, presents many of these fascinating fragments into a coherent meta-narrative of his own. 

The Lost Adventures of James Bond is the story of Bond that never was.

From the Vault #32: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

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 is from March 8th, 2014…

For many years, Wes Anderson has been celebrated as an offbeat American auteur, with a narrative and visual style all his own – a colourful, melancholic whimsy riven with a biting, black comedic undercurrent. At times it’s worked well, others it misses the mark, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel he has created something truly wonderful.

Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film is light, fun, thoughtful, cheeky, rude, farcical and emotional all in one rip roaring stew, never stopping for breath to tell a sumptuously filmed story about the passing of time, of friendship, of codes of honour, as well as commenting on a memorable slice of history, backed up by a galaxy of fantastic character actors.

It’s a joy from start to finish.

From the Vault #31: OLDBOY (2003)

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 is from May 29th, 2014…

Based loosely off a successful Japanese manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi, Oldboy is the second part of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, a non-connected trio of movies that nonetheless deal with similar weighty themes including violence, revenge and ultimately salvation.

Of the trio, Oldboy is arguably the most well known and indeed the most celebrated, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 & feted by Quentin Tarantino, not to mention subsequently being remade by American auteur Spike Lee almost a decade later – proving its durability as a striking piece of work. Oldboy is not, however, what you may have been told, or indeed expect; chances are you’d be imagining this a hard-boiled, action thriller of powerful violent revenge, and while there are components of that in Chan-Wook’s film, ultimately this is a devastating character study wrapped around a mystery that steadily, carefully unfolds over the running time in twisted, elegiac and often surreal fashion.

It’s memorable for speaking on a variety of different thematic levels.

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

New Podcast: THE TIME IS NOW – ‘Antipas’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of The Time Is Now, myself and my guest Darren Mooney discuss the thirteenth episode of Millennium‘s third season, Antipas.

As someone who finds Millennium‘s final season to be a touch too esoteric for my tastes, this was the only episode of that stretch of the show that really scratched my itch, and we had huge fun talking about the Gothic madness of it. Hopefully it’s a chat you’ll enjoy too.

HANNIBAL (2001): classy yet sleazy carnival horror (Movieversary #2)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of February 9th, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal

One of the more telling aspects about Hannibal’s occasionally troublesome production is the fact that almost nobody, outside of director Ridley Scott and producer Dino de Laurentiis, truly believed in the story.

Released in 1999, Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which took him over a decade, was more than highly anticipated, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation released that same year, 1988. Due to whip smart, suspenseful direction from Demme and memorable turns from Jodie Foster and especially Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs swiftly established itself in popular culture as a tense piece of modern, procedural, psychological horror, inspiring future cultural phenomenon’s such as The X-Files and establishing its main female lead as a feminist heroine.

The moment Harris elected to devise a trilogy around Lecter, which became eventually a ‘quadrilogy’, the film adaptation was a foregone conclusion. Hopkins had won an Oscar for his deliciously unnerving, playful performance, revitalising his career in a stroke. The film launched Demme into the big leagues and even boosted the already successful Foster’s career. Lambs became one of the signature, iconic pictures of the 1980s, which meant any follow up would be overcome by a weight of expectation, as befits any sequel to a beloved movie or property long after the fact.

What surprised everyone involved, however, was Harris’ story for Hannibal.

From the Vault #30: JACKIE (2016)

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 is from Jan 27th, 2017…

In what must surely be a trace of sweet irony, Jackie was released in U.K. cinemas on the same day Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. Were this about a British head of state, it would be more than coincidence.

Though Jackie isn’t about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, probably the most famous President of all thanks to his untimely assassination in 1963, but rather his wife, the titular Jackie. Taking place in fragmented time frames including immediately after the tragic events in Dallas, between then and JFK’s funeral, and Jackie telling her story to a reporter after the fact, Pablo Larrain’s film is a devastatingly intimate portrayal of a fascinating, complicated woman, and how she deals with not just the grief of losing her husband but the pain of losing her role in American history.

Jackie Kennedy is painted as a woman haunted by her role in history, by her husband’s legacy, and her relationship to the people and the monuments of America that surround her. In doing so, it buries under your skin and refuses to go anywhere.

New Podcast: MAKE IT SO – ‘The Dark Veil’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of Make It So: A Star Trek Picard podcast, I joined host Luke Winch to discuss the most recent Picard tie-in book, The Dark Veil, from James Swallow, which I recently reviewed.

This was a really enjoyable chat about a damn good read, and one which allowed me to get on my soapbox about tie-in fiction and how one day I hope to see it folded into on screen canon. Stranger things have happened!