Film, Reviews

THE BUBBLE is a vapid mid-pandemic dearth of wit or ingenuity

We haven’t quite entered the post-pandemic phase of movie making either creatively or indeed in how storytelling and Covid intersect. The Bubble, for our sins, will go down on record as one of the first examples.

Conventional wisdom since 2020 has been that audiences wouldn’t want to see Covid-19 reflected on cinema screens or generally in entertainment and are reaching for escapism. The world is too grim, too real, too tragic and desperate, that we want movies, TV and so on to not remind us of that. Rentals of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion might have spiked during lockdown but only thanks to how prophetic it turned out to be. Audiences, at that stage, the thinking went, didn’t want to see Covid beyond news pieces.

The climate now has started to change. Soderbergh’s Kimi, for instance, recently gave us a de Palma-style taut thriller in the shadow of the pandemic. Filmmakers and creatives are beginning to appreciate the possibilities, as Covid evolves into a virus the West learns to live with and adapt to, in reflecting how the pandemic has perhaps permanently changed our psychology, our habits, our world. We can likely expect across this decade a raft of projects that shine a light on Covid in myriad ways, be it drama, horror, science-fiction and, yes, comedy.

Which brings us back to The Bubble, a film that would not exist were it not for Covid. Another thing we have the virus to blame for.

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The X-Files, TV, Writing

Let’s give X-FILES: ALBUQUERQUE the benefit of the Truth

Fox threw fans of legendary 1990s pop-culture phenomenon The X-Files a curve ball last week by announcing the development of a brand new, spin-off series.
X-Files: Albuquerque, which is currently being worked up for the network (and by extension their overlords, Disney), is planned to be an animated comedy revolving around a collection of “misfit agents who investigate X-Files cases too wacky, ridiculous or downright dopey for Mulder and Scully to bother with.” as described by TV Line’s Michael Ausellio. The project has a ‘script and presentation commitment’ from Fox (translated: if they like the script, they’ll let them make it) and is being developed by Rocky Russo & Jeremy Sosenko, with X-Files creator Chris Carter and his former PA/Season 11 scribe Gabe Rotter overseeing as executive producers. The old and the new joining forces, essentially, for a new chapter in the history of the series.

I say series because The X-Files will, if this does come to fruition, take the first steps to becoming a franchise; not just one singular, iconic series any longer, but rather part of a broader tapestry that could expand beyond the adventures of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully, who with David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson in the roles investigated America’s paranormal secrets between 1993-2002, across two movies, and then between 2016-2018 for what will, almost certainly, be a swan song for the traditional era of that show. Fans don’t want to admit it (I run an X-Files podcast so, trust me, I know), but the original series of The X-Files is done. Anderson doesn’t want to revive Scully again. Season 11 wrote the show into a corner, effectively, and it’s hard to imagine just what else you could do with the middle aged Mulder & Scully now that hasn’t been done.
In other words, this might be the right time for Albuquerque, if you subscribe to the idea The X-Files should even become a franchise at all.
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2000 in Film, Film, Writing

WONDER BOYS: Classy but listless existential privilege (2000 in Film #8)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of February 25th, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys

Nobody went to see Wonder Boys. Granted, it was the top earning box office movie of its opening weekend but the competition was slim, truly only up against John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games, a picture which itself should probably have fared better given the talent involved – Ben Affleck, a rising Charlize Theron. Wonder Boys did so poorly that Paramount re-released the film later in the year. The results were much the same.

Part of the reason analysts suggested Wonder Boys bombed was because Paramount simply had no idea how to market Curtis Hanson’s film. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested the poster made Michael Douglas look like Elmer Fudd; others suggested Bonnie & Clyde’s portly Michael J. Pollard and Hanson himself plumbed for Robin Williams, still a major box office draw at this period. Douglas, however, was not known to audiences as the middle-aged, middle-class literature professor Grady Tripp, filled out with a little middle-aged spread and a semi-nihilistic sense of creative block. Dashing heroes as in Romancing the Stone, corporate snakes a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or sexually compromised detectives in the neo-noir stylistics of Basic Instinct, sure, but this saw Douglas wandering into waters plumbed to great acclaim by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in the Oscar-winning American Beauty a year earlier.

A cynic might suggest Wonder Boys is cashing in on the existential malaise of the privileged white male at a point of powerful social and cultural change, a new millennium that, as Fight Club too in 1999 suggested, offered no easy choices for the rage and sadness built into the masculine American psyche. And, arguably, Wonder Boys no doubt benefited from the success of these aforementioned pictures and helped get Hanson’s film the green light, but Wonder Boys comes from prestigious source material; the second novel of Pulizter Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, front-lined by a household name, crewed out with strong young and old character actors, and propped up by a director fresh off L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the previous decade.

So why did Wonder Boys not capture a great deal of cinematic wonder?

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Essays, TV

A Slayer Reborn: BUFFY and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis.

This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot.

Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

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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, 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 11×04 – ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (TV Review)

There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of The X-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.

Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality.

Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.

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The X-Files, TV, Writing

THE X-FILES 11×03 – ‘Plus One’ (TV Review)

Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that Plus One, the third episode of The X-Files eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.

I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.

Plus One is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere My Struggle III bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and This, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. This had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write Plus One, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. Plus One doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts.

Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.

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