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(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

The latest episode of my podcast about cinema with my friend and podcast buddy, Carl Sweeney.

Motion Pictures is designed to be more of an informal, free-flowing chat about movies, geared around a topic of the week. There will also be choice episodes around an idea, whatever takes our fancy really! It’s an exciting project.

As Frozen II arrives on the scene, we’re this week discussing Disney.

After decades producing some of cinema’s most beloved and well known animation, the House of Mouse have over the last decade under CEO Bob Iger expanded their dominant reach across Hollywood – Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel Studios and most recently 20th Century Fox all now fall under the Disney umbrella.

But what does that mean for cinema itself? Disney now control a significant proportion of the global box office for 2019. They have just launched their streaming service in the States, Disney+, releasing original movies such as their life-action remake of The Lady and the Tramp as an exclusive for the service. They are actively curtailing screenings of certain classic pictures they now own by independent cinema chains as control over lucrative IP tightens.

Is their corporate hegemony likely to finance bigger and better franchises, providing exciting and varied entertainment to the masses? Or is it part of a creeping cinematic dystopia? A corporate subsuming of original ideas, vibrant talent, and cinematic revolutions which led to some of the greatest film movement of the last 100 years?

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Every now and then I contribute to other websites writing about film, TV, media and sometimes comics, as in this piece for Pop Culture & Comics.

In my first piece for the site, I look at the first issue of Star Trek: PicardCountdown, the new IDW Publishing tie-in comic which directly leads into the upcoming, much anticipated CBS All Access (or Amazon Prime) show launching in January.

Below is a sneak preview…

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As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

One of the key aspects to the character arc of James T. Kirk across The Wrath of Khan is how he, as Dr. McCoy puts it toward the beginning, hides behind rules and regulations as a way of insulating himself from his own lack of inertia. Following the Reliant’s ambush, and the death of young a Starfleet crewmen who represent the next generation, Kirk has nowhere else to hide.

It has been oft-discussed in analysing Star Trek about how frequently the Captain of the ship puts himself in unnecessary risk. Jean-Luc Picard jokes in Star Trek: Nemesis how his first officer, Will Riker, is a “tyrannical martinet” for never allowing him on away missions. By that point, Star Trek can laugh at its own history, across multiple series and Captains, of the figurehead throwing themselves into the fray – and this is precisely what Kirk does once the Enterprise reaches space station Regula 1, upon hearing no word from Carol Marcus or her people.

Across The Wrath of Khan, Kirk has been challenged by regulations, or he has enforced them with company drills or refusing to take command from Spock upon joining them for the training cruise, and the green, curious Lieutenant Saavik has been there repeatedly to query any attempts to not go “by the book”, as Spock later describes it. Saavik here quotes General Order Fifteen: “No flag officer shall beam into a hazardous area without armed escort” as a justification for joining the away mission, and Kirk knows in this case she is not going by the book herself.

You sense in Nicholas Meyer’s writing a clear distrust of extreme, enforced regulation. Once Kirk throws those self-enforced shackles off, he starts to rediscover the swagger and humour he displayed in The Original Series. He begins to embrace that deeper humanity, even in the face of the kind of chilling horror he encounters on Regula 1.

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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, timed as Frozen II arrives in cinemas, is from April 15th, 2016…

It’s hard to imagine a film, let alone just a Disney movie, which has had more of an impact on pop culture in recent years than Frozen.

A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee’s film went on to be a behemoth almost beyond reckoning; now sitting ninth in the top ten grossing films of all time, with Academy Awards at its feet and songs such as ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ that have evolved beyond the movie into TV musical talent shows and pop singles etc… it’s without doubt the biggest and most beloved of Disney musicals since the early 90’s successes of Beauty & the Beast or The Little Mermaid, indeed it almost feels at times like a throwback to both that age of Disney musical and the 1960’s classics beforehand.

Frozen, in fairness, deserves to stand toe to toe with such legendary musicals, as beyond the fact the animation is second to none, the whole piece is an absolute delight of a picture; brilliantly written and well performed songs that stay in the memory, terrific performances from Kristen Bell in particular as the voice of Anna, and a genuinely fun, witty script which tells a classic story damn well.

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Hosted by author Duncan Barrett, Primitive Culture is a Star Trek history and culture podcast we co-created in 2017 on the Trek FM networking, looking at the 50+ year old franchise through the lens of our world today.

In this episode, recorded under the cover of a Starbucks on a cold and very wet afternoon at Destination Star Trek 2019 in Birmingham’s NEC, Duncan and I look at the debt Star Trek owes to the theatre. Whether in the casting of Shakespearean heavyweights such as Stewart, David Warner, and Christopher Plummer, or in the presence of companies of players—both amateur and professional—aboard the starships of the future, Star Trek consistently maintains a link to its theatrical roots. Indeed, some popular episodes, such as Deep Space Nine’s Waltz and Enterprise’s Shuttlepod One are structured as near-one-act plays in their own right. We raise the curtain and take a look at Star Trek on the stage.

Despite the inclement weather and less than ideal recording surroundings, this was a great chat on an equally great, Trek-filled day, one you can read more about my experience of here…

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Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

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One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

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