Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

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.
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Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

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…

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.

You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.
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Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings

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…

Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.

It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.

The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.

Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.

What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×16: ‘The Prophecy’ (TV Review)

If The Box was the episode which transformed first season of Alias from a narrative perspective, The Prophecy is the episode which sees Alias finally embrace the fact it exists on a fine line of two distinctive genres.

It is hard to look past The Prophecy as perhaps the most important episode of Season 1 of Alias, indeed it may well be one of the most important episodes of the entire series. The Prophecy is the episode which embraces and contextualises the Rambaldi mythology in a way J.J. Abrams’ series has thus far been hesitant to do. John Eisendrath’s script acknowledges that the reveal at the end of Page 47, which saw the key page of Milo Rambaldi’s 500-year old manuscript unveil an image of our heroine Sydney Bristow, was a moment Alias could never come back from. 

This was the moment Alias becomes as much science-fiction as it has been pure, pulpy espionage.

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Essays, Film, Star Trek

STAR TREK is Boldly Going… but to where?

What many Star Trek fans considered an unlikely impossibility has finally, it seems, happened: the franchise is well and truly back on TV, and here to stay.

When Star Trek: Discovery launched at the tail end of 2017, after several delays, it ended the franchise’s 12 year exile from television screens following the slow demise of Star Trek: Enterprise, and the Rick Berman\Paramount TV dominance of the late 80’s and 1990’s – if not the most iconic in terms of popular culture, then without question the most successful era of Star Trek in its half a century of history. Discovery was a symbolic return for one of television’s most legendary series and, as every Star Trek sequel series has done over the decades, it divided opinion.

If you put aside Discovery’s quality, and the difficulties behind the scenes in bringing it to bear, one fact is indisputable: it has triggered a revival of Trek which is now heading in some very unexpected directions.

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Black Mirror, Episode Reviews, TV

BLACK MIRROR: ‘Bandersnatch’ (TV Review)

There is every possibility we may look back upon Bandersnatch, the latest episode of Black Mirror, and be amazed at just what a pioneer it was.

Black Mirror has seeped into popular culture in a remarkable way since Charlie Brooker moved from being one of TV’s most entertaining cult comedians, when it comes to analysing popular media, and into the realm of writing and producing what could be the most innovative and format breaking television show of the modern age. Black Mirror has come a long way since its first Channel Four episode, telling the disturbing story of a David Cameron-parody being blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on television. 

What began as a darkly comic examination of our evolving relationship with new media, akin to Brooker’s earlier scripted series Dead Set (zombies meets Big Brother), has grown into a 21st century Twilight Zone; a dark, indeed black mirror for our own fears, anxieties and cautionary tales about the technology we are allowing to dominate and consume our lives. While Brooker’s show, on being snapped up in a savvy move by Netflix and getting a hefty budget increase in the bargain, has benefited from A-list movie stars and directors wanting to be involved, the modern day Rod Serling has always had one eye on the past as he puts one foot in the future.

Bandersnatch feels like the ultimate realisation of Brooker’s fascination with retro 1980’s and 1990’s culture, particularly gaming culture. Fionn Whitehead’s troubled protagonist Stefan Butler could be Brooker in another, alternate life.

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Essays, Film, The Greatest Showman

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: Barnum’s biggest con job is on us

There are winds in the east, a storm coming in apparently for the newly released Mary Poppins Returns, if some of the box office reports are accurate.

Forbes are saying that Rob Marshall’s sequel is being seen off quite resoundingly by the surprisingly critically acclaimed Bumblebee, and the fairly divisive Aquaman. The absence of a Star Wars this Christmas for the first time in three years has meant studios have thrown a few major blockbuster candidates into the pot, but it would have been a sure fire bet that family friendly musical Mary Poppins Returns—featuring the half-century long return of one of Disney’s most iconic characters—would rule the roost. This does not seem to be the case so far.

Yet a year ago, another musical, trailing in the wake of The Last Jedi, took audiences increasingly by storm as 2018 kicked off: The Greatest Showman.

To date, Michael Gracey’s film has made $434 million dollars at the global box office, making it the fifth most commercially successful musical of all time. All. Time. In one year. It climbed considerably at the box office on the back of word of mouth, fighting off not just The Last Jedi but other competitors with franchises behind their backs – Pitch Perfect 3 (one of my worst films of 2017) and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. There was over a 70% jump weekend on weekend as the film closed out 2017, which for an original musical, and a 19th century biopic no less, is quite remarkable.

The film collected accolades and nominations for its music, particular the song ‘This Is Me’. In the UK it became only the second album in 30 years to achieve 11 consecutive weeks at number 1. Fans over just the space of a year have started attending ‘sing along showings’ of the film. A sing along version can be watched now on streaming services alongside the traditional way to view it.

This has all been in the space of just 12 months. Can you think of any other film of this genre which has captured the public consciousness in quite the same way in recent years? Only Frozen eclipses it for reach and cultural crossover between children and adults, and that has the advantage of being Disney animation. The Greatest Showman is a live action biopic. How did this happen? And my biggest question, the one that has been rolling around in my head since I watched it a year on from when it was released… how have so many people been conned by it?

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×15: ‘Page 47’ (TV Review)

Page 47, unexpectedly, turns out to be the first Will Tippin-centric episode of Alias.

As the show moves into the second half of the first season, J.J. Abrams and his team of writers (including this episodes’ co-writer Jeff Pinkner) are working hard to try and draw together and assemble the disparate threads coursing across Season 1 in the wake of the game-changing The Box two-parter, which amped up the threat to Sydney Bristow’s life and career while dealing with the series’ biggest revelation to date. The Coup served as an epilogue concerned with the knock-on effects and consequences of those episodes while equally working to tie off loose ends dangling across the first thirteen episodes. Page 47, in some sense, does the same.

Looking back at Season 1, it really does quite acutely feel like pre-The Box and post-The Box in how the writing staff approach their storytelling. Not that serviceable episodes such as Page 47 are vastly different but they feel more unified in terms of where the primary storylines are headed. Before The Box, Alias worked consistently to figure out what kinds of stories it wanted to tell, having Syd face a litany of rent-a-baddies on a consistent basis. The missions felt more throwaway, the Rambaldi mythology more separate, and characters such as Anna Espinosa less defined.

After The Box, something changes. Everything feels more in line with a plan and a direction.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×14: ‘The Coup’ (TV Review)

If there is such a thing as a TV comedown episode, it’s The Coup

Not in the sense that The Coup is a bad episode of television. It’s a perfectly serviceable, mechanical Alias episode, even if it probably would fall fairly low in a ranking of what has been a strong first season.

The Coup is a comedown in the fact that after a two-parter like The Box, where exactly do you go next?

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