A J. Black

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

New Podcast: THE TIME IS NOW – ‘Interview: Megan Gallagher’

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of The Time Is Now, a podcast all about the TV series Millennium, I was really pleased to be joined by one of the series’ main stars, Megan Gallagher, who played Catherine Black, to discuss her role on the show.

Recorded in the Fall of 2018, this was immense fun to record, Megan was an absolute delight, and if you’re a fan of Millennium, you really will dig what she has to say.

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.

From the Vault #29: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

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 22nd, 2015…

It begins with nothing. A long, drawn out vision of blackness, as a haunting elegy of sound plays. The Dawn of Man approaches, a twenty minute or so beginning not just of Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, but indeed a circle that will form and close by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey draws to a close.

We may know those are men in ape costumes but that doesn’t prevent us appreciating what Kubrick is doing, saying, in a motion picture that stands less a conventional piece of cinematic narrative, rather a visual, multi-textual work of cinematic art. Many have suggested 2001 kickstarted, wrote the book on, and simultaneously signalled the death knell of cinematic science-fiction, creating something that simply cannot be equalled – perhaps that’s true, perhaps it never will be, but what Kubrick did–along with co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction author who was equally as responsible for a project that jointly became a film and novel, in one of the first examples of cross media–was to birth a picture that fired so many imaginations, inspired filmmakers for the next half century, who went on to create different but in some cases no less seminal pieces of cinema.

The legacy of 2001 stands. Its reach far, its magnificence unparalleled.

From the Vault #28: PULP FICTION (1994)

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 January 9th, 2016…

If Quentin Tarantino set his stall out as a vivid, dangerous post-modern auteur with his first picture, Pulp Fiction is the movie that not only cemented him as the most influential director of his generation, but equally will most likely be the piece of cinema that will define him.

Six films and over two decades on, most people agree Pulp Fiction is his best work, revered by legions of fans and critics alike. For me, Tarantino’s direction and skill have certainly improved in some of his successive films, but it’s hard to deny this is probably his strongest and most memorable piece of writing. If Pulp Fiction deserves accolades for one thing, it’s the truly marvellous script filled with a melee of monologues and conversations and one-liners and pop culture references that have gone down in cinematic history, still oft-quoted to this day. How many movies manage that? Most would be happy to stop there but Tarantino’s film has many more strings to its bow; some fantastic performances, larger and more colourful direction, and a wonderful fusion of action and soundtrack to create two and a half hours of neo-noir brutality.

It all begins with an opening quote and an immediate juxtaposition.

First Impressions: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS – ‘Second Contact’

As Star Trek: Lower Decks finally premieres in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, A. J. Black takes a look at the first animated Star Trek series in almost half a century…

Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.

Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.

This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.

From the Vault #27: THE GODFATHER (1972)

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 January 17th, 2015…

“I believe in America”

These are the first words we hear in The Godfather, part of a speech in which the eponymous organised crime figure, Don Vito Corleone, listens to a man seeking his own brand of justice, the camera slowly and carefully pulling back from the guest to take in the outline of Marlon Brando.

It’s the first of many iconic shots in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s epic crime novel, itself a masterpiece of fiction, a shot that immediately gives birth to the central beating heart of this adaptation – a searing, beautifully shot deconstruction of the American Dream in all its ugliness and corruption, bursting with magnificent performances from many actors who have since become legend, directed with a vision, class and grace few have equalled before or since.

Even at over four decades old now, it doesn’t even seem to have aged, rather continues to mature as a glorious period piece, arguably the greatest motion picture about organised crime and the Mafia ever made.

Book Review: STAR TREK: PICARD – ‘The Dark Veil’ (James Swallow)

All things being equal, the second season of Star Trek: Picard would likely have been airing at the start of 2021, allowing the second tie-in novel The Dark Veil to align with its parent show.

Luckily, James Swallow’s tale does not rely too heavily on the established canon and continuity of Picard’s current events and has the providence to prop itself up as what is fast becoming a ‘classic’ Star Trek story. Classic, in terms of this franchise, used to refer to the colourful kitsch of the 1960s Original Series but it now encompasses an era Swallow has straddled, both as a tie-in novelist and story contributor to Star Trek: Voyager – the 1990s. Perhaps the ‘Golden Age’ of Star Trek, this era did not just birth Picard’s originator, The Next Generation, but a style of storytelling the modern age of Star Trek has increasingly moved away from. 

The Dark Veil, in that context, is comforting and reassuring. It feels a reminder of what Star Trek is capable of and, honestly, what the modern example of it on television is steering away from.

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.