A J. Black

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

Partisan Cinema: THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015) – A Genesis of Fascism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.

Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.

Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.

New Podcast: Trek FM’s PRIMITIVE CULTURE – ‘What’s in a Name? Pt VI’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of Trek FM’s Primitive Culture, I join host Duncan Barrett for the next in a long-running examination of the titles of Star Trek episodes, looking in depth and the scope and meaning behind them. It’s been a long road so far but a very enjoyable one.

This episode covers the end of Star Trek: Voyager, the remaining Star Trek: The Next Generation films and all of Star Trek: Enterprise.

From the Vault #26: THE ROOM (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 August 30th, 2015…

Let me give you a piece of advice about The Room. Don’t watch it alone.

Not because it’s scary, though the fact this abomination of cinema ever got made is slightly terrifying. Rather because it needs to be experienced with a crowd, ideally of like minded people who understand it’s probably the worst film ever made, and yet appreciate and love it for that fact. This was my recent experience of Tommy Wiseau’s romantic drama (though it’s very little of either) and it was glorious.

In a packed cinema of enthusiasts, we whooped and cheered at everything Wiseau throws at us – terrible lines, scenes with no direction, characters with no discernible dramatic arc, other characters who appear out of nowhere and disappear, transitions that last forever of the San Francisco skyline, and easily the worst protracted sex scenes ever committed to celluloid. The result was, easily, one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences in recent memory. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “it’s so bad, it’s good” then The Room is the apex of that philosophy.

Take it as a comedy, you’ll have the greatest time ever.

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Episodes 1 & 2’ – a surreal, charming homage to comic Americana

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI: a stylish, urban black history fable (Movie Review)

First reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2020…

On one calm evening in 1964, in the heart of Miami, four men gathered who would, in their own way, influence not just black culture but 20th century American history.

One Night in Miami… is that story, the ellipsis at the end of the title in service of the urban fable that such a confluence suggests. This quartet reflect four quadrants of experience as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam in counter-cultural America, each overlapping the other. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), founder of the Nation of Islam and black power scion; Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the self-proclaimed greatest boxer there ever is, ever was or ever will be, on the verge of Muslim conversion; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), NFL linebacker and legend who has grown weary of his path; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), one of the greatest voices in soul who ever lived, currently trapped within a sphere of white middle-class appeasement he cannot escape.

Regina King’s debut feature is a contained night in the life; a reckoning between four black cultural and political titans heading in the same direction while treading very different roads to get there.

Partisan Cinema: THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – Ultraconservative Horror to fear?

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Given The First Purge is first and foremost a horror movie, this may seem like a redundant question. Blumhouse Productions naturally want us to be afraid of a picture designed to make audiences jump and scream, but The Purge franchise has never been simply a series of jump-scare horror films. The most recent prequel, depicting how the concept of the Purge came to be, presents a deeper, more existential question which, by the day, seems to grow in power.

Should we be scared that The First Purge could actually, in some form, one day happen?

The deeper sociological and political quandaries posed by Blumhouse and writer-director James DeMonaco’s franchise have always been more intriguing than the storytelling itself in these movies. Don’t get me wrong, after the somewhat listless 2013 entry that opened the franchise—which presented itself more in the vein of a home invasion horror in the wake of successes such as The Strangers or Funny Games, no doubt to accentuate The Purge along more of an axis horror fans had responded to in the past—the franchise has steadily with sequels Anarchy and Election Year evolved into more of a grotesque action-thriller/horror spectacle, and benefited from that direction.

TONY TALKS: Announcing Book II – Star Trek, History and Us

Greetings from planet Earth!

Some exciting news for regular followers of Cultural Conversation today as I’m delighted to announce the 2021 publication of my second book, with a freshly revealed title:

Star Trek, History and Us: Reflections of the Present and Past Throughout the Franchise.

You can pre-order the book right now from McFarland: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/star-trek-history-and-us/

SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001): a hip, hopeful MTV romance (Movieversary #1)

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 January 12th, Thomas Carter’s Save the Last Dance

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

From the Vault #25: A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)

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 October 21st, 2015…

Georges Melies, perhaps the grandfather of cinema itself beyond the Lumiere Brothers, made a staggering 520 pictures in his lifetime, 300 of which he starred in himself simply because the concept of a ‘star’ had not yet even been realised.

That is how far back into the history of motion pictures this goes, with A Trip to the Moon a pioneering piece of film and still the defining piece of work Melies is remembered for. Though only running fifteen minutes, featuring no dialogue and no character stories essentially, Melies film is one of the very first to employ not just a basic narrative structure but equally display, visually, concepts that would later be classified as science-fiction.

The plot concerns a group of Parisian scientists who launch a steampunk-style rocket to the Moon, only to be captured by the native Selenites, before escaping with a Selenite captive back to a celebrating Paris. It takes an enormous cue from primarily the groundbreaking 19th century works of Jules Verne & H.G. Wells, while stylistically pulling from French theatre and operetta. Though naturally over a century on it looks extremely primitive and different to film as we recognise it, just take a step back and imagine how incredible this would have looked to the eyes of a person circa 1902.

It would have been staggering.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY: That Hope Was You (Season 3 – Review)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd.