So… What did I think of Can You Hear Me?

Posted on February 15th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I mean at least it’s trying…

God, where to start with this one. Again, it’s a mix of old episodes tossed into a blender, with very little thought for how all the pieces are going to work together. The storybook exposition as well as the theme of nightmares put me in mind of Listen, the darkest fears bit is a lift from (among many other places) The God Complex and Amy’s Choice and there’s the now obligatory pointless references to Classic episodes, because Chibnall has now decided that he needs to do that all the time, instead of never as was his stated philosophy last season.

It’s heartening, I suppose, to see some attempt made to give the companions a bit of characterisation, and some attempt has been made to actually connect the inner lives of the TARDIS crew to the adventure story of the week, rather than putting the adventure on pause while somebody talks unconvincingly about their feelings, but the pacing and the construction of the early part of the episode is very clumsy, as everybody simultaneously has somewhere better to be, and then everybody simultaneously wants to come back on board the TARDIS again. And just what is it that Yaz and her sister a celebrating the anniversary of in this desultory way? Her suicide attempt? Who does that?

The main threat is original enough, I guess, but instead of that pleasing obvious-only-when-you-hear-it kind of originality, like the explanation in The Witch’s Familiar about why Daleks talk the way they do, or Rose being missed by her family in Aliens of London, this is just odd for its own sake. It doesn’t make sense for dreams to communicated finger-to-ear and even visually, this just looks wrong as the fingers pop off (all five although only one is needed) and sail aerodynamically towards their target before very awkwardly reversing course and then burrowing into the ear fat end first – you know, the way that fingers don’t.

And this is another episode which seems determined to weaken and diminish the Doctor. First she can’t cope with being left on her own. Then she can’t tell that The Terrible Zodin is using her to free his friend. And then, worst of all, she can’t even give poor Graham a hug. Even the conversation between Yaz and the other one at the end weakens the Doctor. Past companions have been so enriched by being their travels in the TARDIS, they can’t conceive of ever having to leave. This lot are worried that it’s making them lesser.

And the poor structuring continues. Having tried to make the companions’ nightmares a part of the actual story, Chibnall and co-writer Charlene James just give up and give us the (fairly weak) catharsis for Yaz after the main story is over. The actual climax is almost too stupid for words. The all-powerful immortal Zodin who can travel at will through time and space shits his pants at the sight of the monster he summoned into being? Give me strength. And just how did the Doctor get hold of that sonic screwdriver? Does she have Force powers now?

And yet, as frustrated – and often, frankly, bored – as I was watching this, there are flickers. Finally, somebody (I assume James) has tried to dig a little deeper into these three bland characters who stand around and let plots happen near them. The animated exposition is fun and it is new. Asking the question: what do you gain, and what do you lose travelling with the Doctor? is the kind of thing that having a bigger regular cast should give you access to – although it’s somewhat pointless if they all come up with the same answer. So this isn’t an Orphan 55 or Very Long Walk to What is Obviously the TARDIS scale of disaster, but the general level of incompetence coming from the top is still doing its best to smother the best intentions of the rest of the writing team.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Parasite and predictions

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Parasite was my final film of this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, and it came with quite the hoopla. People better-versed than me in South Korean cinema tell me that in comparison this seems very very good as opposed to exceptional, but my only previous exposure to Bong Joon Ho had been his very Hollywood (and totally demented) Snowpiercer, so I sat down with high if rather vague expectations.

I’d also tried to keep myself spoiler-free, so I didn’t even know the premise of the film, and in many ways it was the early scenes which I found most engaging. The apparently feckless Kim family, living in a squalid sub-basement, always on the scrounge or on the make – but furious at the bad behaviour of others – turn out to have a more entrepreneurial side. Following an introduction from his cousin, the son becomes English tutor to the daughter of the very wealthy Park family, whose bonkers house resembles that in Mon Oncle (although they don’t quickly turn on the fountain whenever there are visitors).

Ki-woo passes his sister Ki-jeong off as an art teacher for the other child and pretty soon, Kim père and Kim mère have replaced the incumbent chauffeur and housekeeper. When the Parks go away for the weekend, the Kims revel in their borrowed luxury. But hiding in the basement is a terrible secret, and it’s this plot left turn which gave me a moment’s pause, because although there is thematic unity here (height equals wealth and status; depth equals degradation and poverty) nothing to this point has been quite so outré as the previous housekeeper hiding her unemployed husband in a secret basement for the past four years.

Once I swallowed that, I was on board all the way to the end. There’s one plot contrivance in the climax which I felt was a little too constructed to really resonate, but for the most part this sings. The story is expertly assembled, Bong shoots it with the eye of a master and the acting is absolutely superb throughout. I was particularly struck by the Kim family matriarch (Chang Hyae-jin) and son (Choi Woo-shik) both of whom manage to transform themselves in a way which is utterly convincing for the Park family and yet the deception is perfectly clear to the audience.

There’s loads going on here about capitalism, climate change, wealth inequality and the nature of trust and deceit. The point of the title (for me at any rate) is that both families are parasites. The Kims leech off the Parks’ good natures and the Parks can’t survive without the seemingly servile Kims. I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated this parable even more if it had avoided the shift into the grand guinol but I can’t deny that I was completely enthralled for every minute it was on.

So, despite the fact that my track record is pretty pisspoor, if you’ll indulge me, I will embarrass myself once again with some predictions. Best Picture will go to 1917 and Sam Mendes will also take Best Director. As luck would have it, I also think this is the most deserving film of the year, with shoutouts to Little Women and Parasite, coming in a close second and third. While it’s just possible that Bong will pinch Best Director, no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture and if Roma can’t do it than I don’t see Parasite succeeding. 1917 seems to have all the momentum anyway.

I did not like Joker at all, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is exactly the kind of showboating so often rewarded by the Academy, and provided it doesn’t win either Picture or Director, I’ll allow it. Of those nominees, I’d probably give it to Adam Driver, but it’s a crime George McKay isn’t nominated. Best Actress can only go to Renée Zellweger who has no doubt been working on her speech since June.

Best Supporting Actor likewise has Brad Pitt pretty much nailed on, and fair enough I suppose. Best Supporting Actor is tougher to call. I’d love to see Scarlett Johansson lift the statuette on Sunday but Laura Dern seems to be a lock. Best Original Screenplay should go to Rian Johnson for his delightful and inventive Knives Out, but I suspect Tarantino will nick it. Best Adapted Screenplay must surely go to Greta Gerwig for her magnificent Little Women script or there’s no justice whatever in the world.

See you in a few days for a detailed explanation of how and why I got it all so wrong.

So… what did I think of Praxeus?

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

And, like an over-extended elastic band, Doctor Who snaps back into familiar patterns. What had briefly threatened to be a US-style saga with an ongoing narrative across the season, reverts unceremoniously to being an anthology show as it has been for most of its existence. We’ve seen this before of course, most notably in Series 9 where the transition from Let’s Kill Hitler to Night Terrors was particularly jarring, and this doesn’t have that particular problem. But it is disappointing and frustrating to see no more of Doctor Ruth and learn nothing further about her origins.

Anyway, let’s try and judge this episode on its own merits. And here we have another problem, because the overall standard since Chibnall took over has been so poor that I’m now pouncing on any crumb of competency with joyful delight. Stories I gave two or three stars to under Moffat now look like near-masterpieces.

We start, as is becoming the norm, in media res at least for the TARDIS team. After two virtually-identical death scenes, it becomes apparent that the Doctor and fam have been investigating strange goings-on in Peru, Hong Kong and Madagascar for some time. This country-hopping is fairly new for Doctor Who (the opening reminded me strongly of Resolution) and if we are going to have an Earthbound season, then it’s nice if it isn’t all in the UK. And thhis does all look fantastic. The location filming in South Africa has really paid off, director Jamie Magnus Stone makes the most of all of the scenery he has access to, and the bird attack is gangbusters.

The companions are… better. Instead of commenting banally on the story as it rolls past them, unheeded by their presence, they’re active, purposeful and resourceful. They’re still written fairly interchangeably (save for a couple of Graham-is-a-doofus gags) but I’ll take these generic investigator archetypes over the passive along-for-the-ride or sequestered-in-their-own-unrelated-story versions we’ve had for the last five episodes. It’s a shame they don’t figure out that Jake isn’t on duty. They had all the pieces but couldn’t put them together, which weakens them unnecessarily (especially as we already have the information).

And although the supporting cast is super top heavy, there’s still time for the actors to chisel out some kind of characterisation here. Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty get the most to do, but Joana Borja and Molly Harris have their moments also. And Tosin Cole seems to come alive in his scenes with Gabriela. Presumably that’s what the production team saw in him at his audition. Shame he’s been sticking with his half-asleep-monotone line delivery for a season and a half.

It’s also a shame that having spent all that money on plane tickets, the monster costumes ended up being some hazmat suits and old gasmasks. The section with Yaz in the Hong Kong lab is definitely the weakest part of the whole episode, with Yaz’s sudden picking up of a bit of equipment and divining that it is highly valued by the gas mask crew totally unmotivated and clumsy.

The big climax sees all of the supporting cast standing back and watching the Doctor at work, as is the usual way of things lately, but Jake’s threatened self-sacrifice adds a bit of needed human drama, and does work despite – or maybe because of – being a very familiar Doctor Who trope. And it’s freshened-up here by having him survive, which felt right overall given the number of unmourned bodies which have hit the deck already.

So, what to say about this? Jodie is fine – coasting rather than soaring, but the material doesn’t give her much to work with this time round, beyond enthusiastically solving the problem. Clearly it’s far less ambitious than Judoon but equally clearly, it’s a competent piece of writing on the whole, certainly compared to dross like Orphan 55 or The Very Slow Race to What is Obviously the TARDIS from last year. It’s a bit frantic, and the plot has to grind to a halt to allow a slightly forced character moment between Graham and Jake. But the science-fiction-adventure plot does work and the fam can’t be cut out of it. It’s an RTD three but a Chibnall four I suppose.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Fugitive of the Judoon?

Posted on January 29th, 2020 in Culture | 1 Comment »

What?

What!? What!? What!??

WHAT!?!

Okay, let’s back up…

Early on, the signs were promising. The little love triangle between Ruth, Lee and Allan – while it didn’t have the warmth and richness of RTD at his best, nor the topspin of Moffat’s best work – had a few more wrinkles than typical Chibnall fare. These might not have been truly three-dimensional characters, but they had attitudes. They were differentiated. That’s a start.

When the Judoon materialise, it’s pretty much the Smith and Jones playbook, except I don’t remember them being quite so murderously callous, but I haven’t gone back and checked the other episode, so I don’t know if that’s the show rewriting history or me. What follows is exciting enough, but a bit of a run-around, with Segun Akinola’s pulsing music working hard to up the tension. It rankles that Jodie’s Doctor sounds less certain of her deception when talking to the Judoon captain than Yaz does, but I suppose that’s just BAU for this incarnation.

And then we get the first WTF moment of the episode. Graham is whisked away from the action to join – of all people – Captain Jack Harkness as played by John Barrowman. There’s a swagger and what Russell called a “size” to the performance (and the lines, tweaked by Barrowman apparently) which seems very at odds with the Children’s Film Foundation version of the show which we’ve been treated to over the last couple of years, but it works. Hello, mate.

Then things take a real turn for the bizarre. Having pointed the finger very clearly at Lee for the first third or so of the episode – and he absolutely does have something to hide – it turns out that Ruth is the quarry that the Judoon are seeking. There must be some kind of connection between the two of them. I really hope that Chibnall and Vinay Patel aren’t asking us to swallow the idea that two covert aliens arrived independently on Earth, and by sheer coincidence they hooked up with each other, neither knowing that the other was not human.

Ruth is “activated” and suddenly develops ninja fighting skills which are sufficient to see off the Judoon. She and the Doctor travel to her family home – a lighthouse (an old fashioned structure designed to keep the public safe, with a light on top). In the garden, the Doctor’s attention is caught by an unmarked gravestone which strikes her as odd. She’s right. A better hiding place would be a marked gravestone. She starts digging, and uncovers… a police box. It’s absolutely the biggest, most incredible WTF moment in about ten years of the show – immediately topped by Jo Martin striding out in a costume which is sort of half-way between Jodie’s and Barrowman’s. She announces that she is the Doctor.

Wow. What the hell? Where to start?

Pointless speculation time. Regardless of what Chibnall is saying on social media, I suspect that the reset button is going to be hit pretty hard before long. The fact that neither one remembers the other is a pretty enticing thread to pull on, and it wouldn’t be hard to pull on it strongly enough that the whole conceit unravels. It wouldn’t be the first time that showrunners have tried to insert extra Doctors – see also The Brain of Morbius, The Trial of a Time Lord – but to date only one has “stuck”, John Hurt’s War Doctor in The Name / Day of the Doctor. As (most) previous examples of this kind of retconning ably demonstrate, it’s perfectly easy for future showrunners just to ignore this kind of thing if they don’t like it. Been a long time since we heard about the Doctor being half human on the mother’s side, isn’t it?

She obviously can’t be a pre-Hartnell Doctor if she has a TARDIS shaped like a police box, and she claims she can’t be a future version, so I suspect either it’s the Master playing games again or some kind of alternate universe time paradox. I dare say we’ll find out before too long. Possibly not next week though. Also, Jo Martin’s Doctor being “activated” and her instinctive reaction being to judo the Judoon into unconsciousness and then threaten them with a huge gun is about as un-Doctorish as you can get.

So… is this any good or not? Well, to be begin with, it’s very hard to judge a take-off until you’ve seen the landing. I will give a star rating for this episode, but I reserve the right to retcon it in the light of future events. Let’s start with a major structural failing. Not only do the companions have very little to do – once again, they just traipse around after the Doctor, parcelling out one companion’s worth of exposition-prompting lines between them – they eventually get shunted off into an extended trailer for a future episode. If Captain Jack’s storyline had converged with the Judoon storyline, and the whole thing had ended at the 49 minute mark, I would have been ready to give this my second five star rating for the Chibnall era – it’s less ambitious than It Takes You Away but more exciting and just as well done.

But that’s not the story that Patel and Chibnall have in mind for us in any way at all. This is the beginning of a multi-part saga and we don’t know how it will play out. What we do know is that – once again – as it stands, it would have played out exactly the same with one companion, or in fact, zero.

So, let’s just discount all the Captain Jack stuff for now. Looking at the rest, it’s very artfully constructed. I was completely suckered in by the Judoon-pursuing-creepy-Lee feint and never suspected cheerful loser Ruth. This is by far the best structured episode of the whole Chibnall run so far (if we discount the Captain Jack side-quest). And Jo Martin does wonderfully well as ordinary Ruth and as the multiverse Doctor. And her TARDIS interior is gorgeous. The Judoon are fun, with the animatronic head looking and moving better than ever. And Ritu Arya as Gat gives Barrowman some real competition in the cheese-meets-swagger stakes. And Nida Manzoor makes the whole thing hurtle on from ridiculous plot point to the next even more demented one without letting us catch our breath for a second.

Back in the TARDIS, everyone explains their bit of the plot to each other, and there’s time for some contemplation and a character beat for the top-heavy regular cast. Here’s that little scene again. Do you like it? Do you think it’s well-written?

DOCTOR: Something’s coming for me. I can feel it.

GRAHAM: Let it come.

RYAN: You’ve got us.

DOCTOR: Ryan… I’ve lived for thousands of years, so long I’ve lost count. I’ve had so many faces. How long have you been here? You don’t know me. Not even a little bit.

GRAHAM: Don’t talk to him like that!

YAZ: Yeah, I’m not having that. We do know who you are. You’re the woman that brought us together, the woman that saved us and loads of other people.

GRAHAM: You’re the Doctor

RYAN:. Whoever you were in the past or are in the future, we know who you are right now. Right?

YAZ: Right! The best person we know. And whatever is coming for you, we’ll be here. Cos we’re your mates.

RYAN: Well, not just mates. Family.

GRAHAM: Yeah.

YAZ: Yeah.

RYAN: So, whether you want to go looking for whatever trouble’s coming, or whether you want to wait here and let it come to you… we’ll be right here, by your side, like it or not, Doctor.

It’s nice to hear them bonding like this, I suppose, but this isn’t writing with any texture or subtlety or sub-text. Everyone just says exactly what’s on their mind. And notice that the attitudes of all three companions are identical, as is the way they express themselves. It’s an old test of good writing that you should be able to cover up the names of the characters and know by the dialogue who said what line. Can you do that here, with any confidence?

In fact, are you even sure that I’ve assigned the lines accurately?

So, what score to give this, then? As a single piece of television, unfurling over 50 minutes, it beats everything we’ve had so far since Moffat left in its sheer exuberant ambition. It’s not without flaw. Apart from the anycompanion dialogue, the return of the shakydoctor and the quarantining of Captain Jack into his own unrelated short film, there’s the fact that as eye-popping as this is, it’s pretty much all an RTD remix. I rather wonder if Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall got drunk and watched a load of David Tennant episodes together. “Wasn’t Utopia great, when Derek Jacobi turned out to be the Master?” “I’d love to do something like Smith and Jones, we should totally get the Judoon back.” “Remember The Next Doctor?, I fuggin loved that episode.” “Cattain Jack Harshness! Has you got John Barrowmum’s nander?”

What the hell. I’ll give this four-and-half stars. This one got me. It really got me.

Let’s see if it can keep me.

4.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror?

Posted on January 24th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

This was about the most entertained I’ve been by Doctor Who probably since Chris Chibnall took over. I still think The Witchfinders and It Takes You Away are the episodes to beat, but the one thing I can say about Nina Metivier’s script is that it was fun. Sadly, elsewhere there are plenty of flaws, but let’s try and be positive, eh?

This doesn’t try and reinvent the form in any way. The Doctor and her new celebrity historical pal team up to rid the Earth of aggressive aliens. Good. That’s the kind of story you can tell in 45 minutes. It should work – and by and large – it does. Tesla is an interesting figure, his rivalry with Edison gives the narrative a few millimetres of depth, and it’s perfectly understandable that the story didn’t want to go into Tesla’s misogyny or views on eugenics.

And you can’t say it’s slow and boring either. It’s a – sometimes bewildering – whirlwind of narrative beats, flinging us from Niagara Falls to Wardenclyffe to the Orient Express (for some reason) to the Skithra ship while viewers struggle to catch a breath. And director Nida Manzoor tries, and largely succeeds, to give the breakneck narrative some quieter moments to breath in.

There are two big problems with this episode as a whole. Even for a space-adventure-romp kind of story, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and often what is said does not match what is depicted. The Skithra are scavengers (or at least, this lot are). They don’t really know how to work their stolen technology and it keeps on breaking, meaning they have to find someone skilled to repair it for them. You might think that it’s in their inability to maintain their weapons and means of transport that the seeds of their destruction will be sown, but this isn’t the case – indeed what we actually see is all of their tech working flawlessly first time, every time.

The first mis-matched piece of tech they are seen brandishing is a Silurian weapon, which the Doctor diagnoses as “alien”. The trouble is that the Silurians are native to Earth and ruled the planet 70 million years ago. Does that make the Skithra time-travellers as well? If so, it doesn’t come up again. And then – rather than kidnap a scientist at the same time as they are making off with all of this hooky gear – they pick a barely technologically advanced planet and zero in on one inventor virtualy at random. Tesla could no more fix their devices than my cat could change the oil in your car.

And why do they bother making bad copies of the people they kill? They can’t pass as the people they are duplicates of, and they never try to. The scorpion versions look great, but if they aren’t interested in pretending to be humans, why do they ever bother with this kind of disguise? And the plan to deal with them is a bit ho-hum as well. It’s the latest in a long line of big zappy tower things – see also Partners in Crime, The Vampires of Venice, The Idiot’s Lantern and probably more besides. And again, what we’re told doesn’t match up with what we see. First we’re told – again, yawn – if we kill the Queen, then all her brood will die too. Then, the Doctor – who hates guns – turns Tesla’s mast into a great big gun to blast the Skithra ship out of the sky. Then, what in fact happens is that teleporting the Queen back on board her own ship causes all of her brood to teleport back with her. Huh!? And then the zappy thing just looks like it makes the Skithra ship go away. A pretty poor solution, as – whether it makes sense or not – Rani from the Sarah Jane Adventures cos-playing as Queen of the Racnoss seemed very keen on Tesla, so she’ll probably be back in ten minutes or so.

Now, to be fair, a lot of this is fridge logic, and on first watch, it all goes by so quickly, that not all of this niggles. The playing of Goran Višnjić and Robert Glenister is strong enough and the twist that the Queen isn’t on board the ship do work well. What did not evade me on first watch is that whereas two weeks ago, two famous women from history can’t be trusted to keep their traps shut without being mind-raped by the Doctor, this week, two famous men from history can see the inside of the TARDIS, meet aliens from other planets, handle and inspect off-world technology and be left at the end of the story with all of their memories intact.

But the biggest problem with this story is that the regular cast just troops around after the Doctor with no stake in the plot at all. There’s an attempt here to make the interaction with Tesla and the Skithra to mean something to the Doctor, and Jodie Whittaker plays the “dead planet” line beautifully. But it never really works. Are we really supposed to buy the Doctor – who stole a TARDIS from Gallifrey – having the murderous moral high ground over the thieving Skithra? But at least there’s a nod in the direction of who the Doctor is. With the other regulars, they are just along for the ride or doing dad jokes in the background. Graham’s gun doesn’t work, Yasmin can’t get people off the streets without Edison’s help, Ryan as usual, might as well have not bothered turning up.

In fact, if you’re interested, here’s the whole episode with every single line from the companions cut out. Doesn’t hurt it in the least. I could probably have lost all of Dorothy Skerrit’s lines too, if I’d tried.

To be clear, I don’t really blame Metivier for this. What’s she supposed to do, after fourteen full episodes have resolutely refused to give these three anything remotely resembling characterisation? Suddenly giving them recognisable human failings and desires would jar, but apparently she’s not allowed to write any or all of them out, so she shoves them to the fringes of the narrative and concentrates on the guest stars. I might well have done the same thing.

So, overall this is decent. After the slurry of the last few weeks, that seems like a relief, but this would be a run-of-the-mill episode in any of Series 1-10. This is at the level of The Long Game or The Lazarus Experiment or Cold War or Time Heist. Why do I have a nasty suspicion it’s going to prove to be the highlight of this season?

3.5 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: 1917

Posted on January 18th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Sam Mendes’ one-take wonder arrives in cinemas with less fanfare than some Best Picture contenders, but it is a superb piece of immersive filmmaking which unites its some-might-say gimmick and its narrative into a single indivisible whole. On the surface, there’s little here that’s new. The whole movie in one take idea has been seen before in versions both genuine (Russian Ark, Lost in London) and faux (Birdman) but arguably never before has it been deployed so ingeniously and so effectively. And, while no-one needs Sam Mendes or anyone else to tell us again that war is hell, it’s rarely been so realistically hellish as it is here. The banality of the pointlessly slaughtered cows in the French countryside is somewhat the point.

The set-up is perfect in its simplicity. Our heroes (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, both totally committed and convincing) have to cross no man’s land and get a message to the Devonshire regiment that they are waking into a trap. That’s it. Early on, I wondered just where the drama was going to come from. Either the information our two have about the German withdrawal is correct, in which case they will meet no resistance; or it’s wrong, in which case they will be diced by machine gun fire in two minutes. Either way, there isn’t a story. But Mendes and fellow screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have devised a remorselessly incremental series of obstacles which range from the purely natural, to collateral damage, to enemy action, to friendly fire.

And far from being a show-off-y gimmick, the supposed single shot presentation is vital. It means that there can be no cheating. As MacKay and Chapman set out, we’re going to watch every step they take, every breath they draw, every trap they blunder into, every adversity they triumph over. And when we desperately yearn to cut away, we can’t. There’s nothing to cut to.

In The Revenant, shot largely in long takes but including obvious cuts, several times I felt the style chafing against the story. As Iñárritu’s camera tracked along the length of a rifle barrel to move from one side of a conversation to another, I couldn’t help thinking – mate, you could just have cut there. Here, despite the overwhelming complexity of many of the set pieces, Mendes’ camera always seems to be in exactly the right place, and when something does move out of frame that in a conventionally-shot film, we would cut back to – the fact that it is out of frame becomes the point.

It’s also I think important to note that I never – and I use this word as precisely as I can – found the film exciting. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s never boring. It’s absorbing, terrifying, gut-wrenching, horrifying and suspenseful. But it never feels like a thrill ride. This is not James Bond. This is not Bourne. This feels real – even the parade of one-scene cameos can’t quite break the spell, although Benedict Cumberbatch comes close. Also, take a bow Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Adrian Scarborough and Daniel Mays.

And there are moments of quiet beauty too. Hope, among the pain, and one moment which echoes the end of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And if this film isn’t quite as cynical as that one, then maybe that’s for the good too.

If there’s any justice, this will win Best Picture. It’s more personal and more epic than its closest rival in my eyes, The Irishman, although the bookies currently have it tailing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and I haven’t seen Parasite yet. But if I had to vote tomorrow, this is what I’d pick.

So… what did I think of Orphan 55?

Posted on January 14th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m writing these reviews out of a sense of obligation I think more than anything. Maybe Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall just isn’t for me. That’s fine, I suppose, if disappointing personally. But can there really be people who prefer this middle-of-the-road, joke-free, characterisation-deficient, third hand version of the show to the carefully crafted scripts and charismatic leads we got from 2005 to 2017?

Listen, under RTD and Steven Moffat, the show wasn’t consistently wonderful, but both showrunners worked like dogs to try and get every script as good as it could be. And if I thought that Moffat’s attempts at multi-season arcs weren’t always successful, then at least he was trying something new. And, sure we got drivel like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS every so often, but we also got wonders like The Girl Who Waited, The Doctor’s Wife, Heaven Sent and The Zygon Inversion. And the run-of-the-mill stories were all good, entertaining, well-made sci-fi yarns.

But in a recent interview with DWM, the new showrunner describes the most exciting part of his job as hiring good people and getting out of their way. Not for him, rewriting and rewriting other people’s scripts, cannibalising ideas he was saving for himself if necessary to make sure that a script with someone else’s name on it would work. No. Write a few scripts, let other people write theirs. Knock off for an early lunch. Hence the only half-decent scripts last year were the ones without Chinball’s name on them.

Best of these was probably It Takes You Away by Ed Hime, one of only two stories last year (along with The Witchfinders) to present anything remotely resembling an actual character dealing with a genuine dilemma, as opposed to a lot of hard-to-pronounce names and endless walking. So, I was excited to see his name on the credits of Orphan 55, but sadly, this is square in the middle of Chibnall Who with all of its faults and none of the virtues of last year’s effort.

So – briefly – Graham, who over the last few months has been taken on a life-changing tour of the universe is bafflingly thrilled to have won a free holiday. The holiday camp is rigorously ordinary, with no hint of a larger universe, and nothing you wouldn’t find at Center Parcs, save for a ludicrous and embarrassing “hopper virus”. Customer host Hyph3n (who looks like she is performing in a community theatre version of Cats but had to make her own costume from a leftover Spaceballs outfit) delivers some exposition and everyone starts dying at the hands of monsters who are only ever shot in close-up shaky-cam because the costumes are shit.

As uninteresting and thinly-drawn guests start milling about, wandering in and out of danger, it eventually transpires that this holiday camp is in the middle of a dead planet. One of the guests has been taken by the monsters, so the surviving cast all troop outside to get slaughtered. They have to wear a stick-on piece of technology because this is Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And because it’s Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, this piece of technology never impacts the plot in any way at all.

The missing guest everyone is looking for gets killed off-screen. Then it turns out – buh, buh buum – that this is actually Earth and the monsters are the remnants of humanity. This has approximately one tenth the emotional impact of Peri walking around Marble Arch tube (a place she almost certainly has never visited before) in the story The Trial of a Time Lord which a teenage Chibnall famously went on TV to slag off.

The compassionate Doctor has no interest in protecting the once-human monsters, but carries on cheerfully murdering them and getting other humans killed. A man who never listened to his smart-arse son starts listening to his smart-arse son, because that’s a little bit like character development if you squint. Somebody turns out to be somebody else’s daughter and blows everything up. Then the Doctor and friends suddenly appear back in the TARDIS because although the plot hasn’t resolved yet, the time is about to run out. Moral of the story – you should probably avoid single-use plastics.

I mean, Jesus.

I suppose this is worth two stars. I mean, things did actually happen which is a change from Rosa and Demons of the Punjab but if anything they’ve wildly over-corrected, stuffing this episode with so much “action” that it all becomes a meaningless blur. And again, nothing for the regulars to do; again, no supporting characters make any impact at all; again, all of the science fiction concepts are third hand; again, nothing really makes any sense. Even Jodie Whittaker looks like she’s going through the motions.

2 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Nominations, Little Women

Posted on January 13th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

So, we’ve barely finished singing Auld Lang Syne and already the Oscar nominations are here. Depressingly, Todd Philips’ empty Joker leads the way, with eleven nominations, but in a sign that the trend towards spreading the awards out evenly may continue, three other films earned ten nominations each (1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and a further four earned six nominations.

Here’s a run-down of the nine Best Picture nominees – seven of which I have already seen at the time of writing!

Ford v Ferrari. Workmanlike and engaging, but definitely here to make up numbers. Will likely win nothing at all. Review here.

The Irishman. A huge achievement, if not quite Scorsese at his very best, then certainly enthralling and beautifully acted. Review here.

Joker. As noted, I didn’t like it. Review here.

Jojo Rabbit. Flawed both in concept and execution and yet frustratingly winning when it’s actually on. Scarlett Johansson is luminous. Review here.

Little Women. A remarkable adaptation of a literary classic. Review below. It’s a crime Greta Gerwig wasn’t included in Best Director.

Marriage Story. A somewhat slight affair that flirts with something darker and stranger, but remains resolutely real, for good or for ill. Review here. Has no real shot at Best Picture though. Review here.

1917. Seeing it soon, will report back.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Loose assembly of short films pretending to be a feature. Some of those short films are awfully good though. Apparently I neglected to review this when I saw it, for which apologies.

Parasite. Opens in the UK on 7 February.

As to predictions – my hunch is that Best Picture and Best Director will be split. Best Director seems likely to go Sam Mendes way, since 1917 is the film for which it is easiest to identify the director’s contribution. If we assume that eliminates 1917 from Best Picture, and we can also eliminated no-hopers like Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story and Parasite (sorry) then that leaves us with just three. If we further assume that a Joker backlash is coming (surely!?) then that leaves Once Upon a Time and The Irishman, and I think Scorsese’s feels like the more substantial work.

Best Actor, tiresomely, will likely go to Joaquin Phoenix however – backlash or no backlash – and Best Actress I still think will go to Renee Zellweger, although the competition is far fiercer than I imagined when I first saw the film. Best Supporting Actor seems likely to go to Brad Pitt (Jonathan Pryce surely doesn’t have a chance and the others all have Oscars already). Best Supporting Actress is harder to call, with pretty much everyone in with a shout, but Johansson deserves it.

And we’ll do screenplays while we’re here. Original Screenplay will go to Parasite which will also pick up Best International Feature, obvs, while Adapted Screenplay should go to Little Women but will actually go to The Irishman.

So, let’s talk about Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. As written, it is purely chronological, beginning with sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in adolescence and following them through to young adulthood (or the grave in Beth’s case). The book is fairly episodic and Jo’s marriage to the middle-aged Professor Bhaer is a curious development for the character.

According to the estimable YouTube channel BeKindRewind, which I cannot recommend highly enough, following the publication of the first volume, Alcott was besieged with correspondence from fans of the book, all eagerly shipping Jo and neighbour Laurie. Alcott, who had already paired oldest sister Meg up with her love match John Brooke, had no interest in marrying the strikingly independent Jo off to Laurie or anyone else, but she eventually bowed to pressure from her publisher and provided her with a husband. As cheeky snub to her fans, however, she devised the seemingly most inappropriate husband she could and ended the second volume with Jo and the Prof setting up a school together.

The previous film versions of the book have all rendered it fairly faithfully and have tackled the Bhaer problem in various ways. The 1933 version which made a star of Katharine Hepburn renders the book accurately if tersely and just goes ahead and has Professor Bhaer as an older German man who inexplicably falls in love with Jo and she with him. The 1949 version is an MGM chocolate box of a movie with a much softer June Allyson as Jo (although she still cries “Christopher Columbus!”) at every opportunity. This Bhaer is younger and sexier, but the structural problems remain.

When Winona Ryder took on Jo in 1994, the whole story became a little more grounded. This Jo isn’t anything like as stylised as her predecessors, but she’s also the most feminine of the three – Hepburn’s is an early but very obvious example of queer coding – and she gets to choose between Christian Bale’s Laurie and Gabriel Byrne’s Bhaer – hubbah hubbah. So, we have historical screwball, chocolate box, sophisticated soap opera. What can Greta Gerwig do in 2019?

Plenty.

First of all, she’s completely reinvented the book’s structure. Now, we start with Jo and Bhaer in New York, creating a connection between them from the very beginning. However, unlike in the book – and previous film versions – Bhaer is not the one to suggest that Jo writes stories from her own life instead of her preposterous tales of damsels in distress. Jo takes ownership of her own creativity. From here, the film darts nimbly back and forth through time, often finding little echoes of later and earlier scenes. In the book, Beth cares for a local family even more poverty stricken than her own, and catches scarlet fever from the dying baby. The Marches fear her death is imminent but she recovers, although permanently weakened. Later, she succumbs. This double-beat feels needlessly episodic and threatens to rob the whole subplot of its tragic power. Gerwig plays the two scenes of Jo awaking in Beth’s room and finding her bed empty and running downstairs back to back. Once with a joyous outcome, and once with a ghastly one. It unifies this narrative thread, taking what worked in the novel and making it a complete cinema experience.

This incredibly fluid, nimble, lucid script is brilliantly handled by an exceptional cast. Meryl Streep makes an enormous amount of hardly anything, Tracy Letts is great value as Jo’s publisher, Timothée Chalamet takes Laurie on a thrilling journey from trusted friend, to asshole to member of the family, and Laura Dern is warmth personified as Marmee. And the four March sisters are all perfectly cast, Eliza Scanlen as fragile Beth, Florence Pugh as proud Amy, Emma Watson as romantic Meg and at the centre of this delicate epic – fierce, funny, gawky, independent, heroic Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

Again and again, Gerwig the screenwriter finds ways to deepen and strengthen what Alcott gave her, as well as streamlining and focusing the action. Characters manage to give each other long proto-feminist speeches, and they all sound exactly in keeping and of the period, because they are delivered so sincerely and written so thoughtfully. And Gerwig the director manages to make keeping all of these characters in focus, keeping track of multiple time periods, juggling huge variations in tone, look effortless, which it absolutely isn’t.

While not perhaps as daring as Joker would like to think it is, or as technically formidable as 1917 undoubtedly is, this is a truly magical evocation of a much-loved classic which manages to totally reinvent it, while not losing sight of what made it so beloved in the first place. I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next.

Pre-Oscars 2020: Jojo Rabbit and Ford v Ferrari

Posted on January 10th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Two films this week which have been part of the Oscar conversation but which won’t necessarily clean up or even get Best Picture nominations. Both came out strong, but reviews haven’t been uniformly praiseworthy – Jojo Rabbit has proved to be divisive and Ford v Ferrari (released here as Le Mans 66) has left many lukewarm.

When I first heard about Ford v Ferrari, with Christian Bale and Matt Damon starring all I knew was that it was about some kind of car race. I vaguely assumed that it would be the two of them squaring off – one working for the Americans and one working for the Italians. Actually this is the two of them teaming up to take on the greasy Ities and win one for Ford, mom and Apple Pie.

James Mangold is an old pro and knows just how to marshal the material, balancing the corporate jockeying, pulse-pounding driving and mano-a-mano face-offs. He gives us just enough details about the intricacies of race rules, regulations and tactics without bogging us down, and Daman and especially Bale go to town with their characters. There’s a laudable attempt made to give Mrs Bale (Caitriona Balfe) more of a stake in the narrative, but apart from one loopy over-the-top scene about half way through, this is a boys film about boys who do boy things.

The true facts give Mangold and his screenwriters (including playwright Jez Butterworth) quite a lot to work with, and don’t require them to invite lots of new nonsense to juice up the story. But the demands of sports movies eventually take hold and this settles into a reassuringly familiar shape. So, this is well-made intelligent storytelling rather than anything truly innovative or authored.

The same can’t be said for Taika Waititi’s sixth film as director. Jojo Rabbit tells the story of ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, growing up in Nazi Germany practically friendless, save for an imaginary Adolf Hitler who dines on unicorns, keeps him company and encourages him to do more with his life. Over the course of the film, he tries and fails to make a name for himself in the Hitler youth and then has to confront the fact that his mother is harbouring a Jewish girl in the attic.

The first thing to say about this film is that it is tremendously charming and funny. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo is very strong and he is ably supported by Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa and Archie Yates as Yorki. Sam Rockwell is as good as ever as the gone-to-seed Army officer in charge of the Hitler Youth camp and even broad performers like Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson don’t overbalance the whole thing. Waititi is great value too as Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, and even the Schindler’s List ploy of having German characters speak English with a German accent works most of the time.

There are two potential problems with this story. One is structural. Is it really necessary for Jojo to have two secret friends (or three, or even four, depending on how you count)? And it is striking that the film occasionally struggles to find room for Imaginary Hitler. Waititi’s version of the Fuhrer is such a prominent figure in the trailers, but he disappears from the film for large stretches and almost never affects the outcome of the narrative. What he does contribute is a whimsical tone which is supported by Jojo’s fascination with the true facts about Jews (all of which are grand guignol fantasies about their vile habits, evil powers and bizarre biology) and his mother’s playful attitude to bringing up her son.

The other problem is that the same whimsical tone is going to collide with the true facts of the Second World War. This is a version of the rise and defeat of the Nazis which never even mentions concentration camps, let alone depicts the fate of Jews who, unlike Elsa, did not have obliging mothers to conceal them in handy eaves. What exactly is Waititi hoping to say in this story that hasn’t been said before? World War II from a child’s point of view is hardly a new idea – see for example, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Hope and Glory, Empire of the Sun (all from 1987), Forbidden Games, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and no doubt many others. Is Waititi just borrowing the potent imagery of the Nazis to give his fantasy a bit more grit? And if so, is that a worthwhile endeavour?

It’s perhaps a testament to the quality of the filmmaking that I didn’t let many of these thoughts bother me at the time. The first half is hugely enjoyable and when, as it inevitably must, the story takes a darker turn, Waititi manages the shift in tone smoothly and compellingly. And I haven’t yet mentioned the film’s true secret weapon – luminous, incandescent Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother. With this and Marriage Story, Johansson proves conclusively that there’s far more to her than Black Widow. Here she’s spectacular – dancing, inventing, playacting and filling Jojo’s life with love, compassion and imagination, and then she pulls back to a more internalised style for her conversations with Elsa. Far more than Waititi’s cartoonish Hitler, she gives this story its heart and its meaning.

Again this is an interesting film rather than a great one. It isn’t a crass fable which has no understanding of the horrors of the holocaust, but it also needs to soft-pedal a lot of the consequences of the Nazi regime in order to avoid breaking the spell, which means that it can only ever be a compromise. As compromises go, however, this one is highly entertaining and it does hang together.

More news on Monday after the nominations are officially announced.

So… what did I think of Spyfall, part two?

Posted on January 6th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay, to begin with, this wasn’t a case of an epic build-up followed by a damp squib of a resolution. Part two continued to learn the lessons of Resolution with proper jeopardy, real stakes, and it actually made the Doctor a proactive problem-solver, all of which is good. But a lot of the same criticisms still apply. Characterisation is largely non-existent, the regulars are wasted and none of the bits of the story connect to each other in meaningful ways.

To begin with, in the whirl and dash of the episode, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the companions, who usually stand around parcelling out one character’s worth of dialogue between the three of them, have been shunted off into their own story for the entirety of the episode. From the moment we see them in that plane hanger (and just how did they get there?) to their reunion with the Doctor, nothing that they do impacts the main plot in the slightest. And much of what they are doing is fairly stupid. I pity poor Bradley Walsh having to hop up and down pretending that lasers are shooting out of his shoes. Christ almighty. And lucky for the three of them that when they do deliberately call attention to themselves, Lenny Henry, who wants nothing more than the three of them eliminated, sends the very feeblest force at this disposal to intercept them.

One of Chris Chibnall’s most frustrating faults is his habit of introducing potentially thrilling ideas and then forgetting about them instantly. Early in the episode, Lenny Henry’s mastery of all world communication is used to make Yas, Graham and the other one wanted by the police. How will their friends, their families, react to this? What repercussions will this have on the rest of their lives? For me, the new series of Doctor Who came alive when the Doctor brought Rose home a year later than intended. Her family were grieving. Mickey Smith was accused of her murder. This felt real. For Chris Chibnall, it’s a brief adrenalin rush and then it’s forgotten – despite the fact that we spent five boring minutes in part one establishing all of their families!!

And what was Lenny Henry’s plan exactly? First of all, judging by that interaction at the airport, he’s obviously trying to keep his nefarious plots as secret as possible. Crashing one of his private planes into the Essex countryside is hardly likely to do that. But also, massive emphasis is given to harvesting people’s private data. Yet, the Voord’s plan only requires that people use the devices. It doesn’t matter whether Lenny is harvesting their data or not. And if alien menaces using personal communications devices that have become ubiquitous to take over people’s brains sounds familiar, it’s because you saw it in 2006 in Rise of the Cybermen – in the era of MySpace and Napster.

Of course the Voord’s plan doesn’t make any sense either. Humans are not the only things on planet Earth with DNA. The Voord could use DNA in trees for their data back-up. And just where is this data coming from anyway? Have the filled up some other planet’s biostorage already? And what’s in it for Lenny, whose only desire is to control people’s data, be rich and famous, and show off to his mum. Turning the majority of humans into flash drives prevents him from doing any of these things.

The Doctor meanwhile is off playing Overlooked Women of History Top Trumps and while it’s a pleasure to see Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan, again they aren’t really given anything much to do – certainly nothing which requires their unique talents. As with part one, it’s Sacha Dhawan who is the saving grace of the episode. The set piece in the 1834 tech fair is genuinely gripping, brutal and exciting. Shame that later on, we get one of those dreary Chibnall parlay scenes, where the Master seemingly forgets that top of his to-do list for the day was to kill the Doctor.

And speaking of forgetting, I did not like the Doctor mind-raping her allies once their usefulness was at an end. Has she never heard of consent? Ada was actually saying “No, I don’t want this.” Jesus.

When everyone is reunited, it turns out that the Doctor’s plan to save her fam was – again – to bribe the architect first. When he isn’t half-remembering better RTD stories from 2006, Chibnall is half-remembering ideas that Steven Moffat thought were so played-out as to be worth spoofing in 1999. And then we get the dreary notion that Gallifrey, once lost, then found, has been lost again. When, at the end of Gridlock, the Doctor tells Martha about his home for the first time, it’s because meeting a new companion had meant that for a moment he could pretend to himself that Gallifrey was still there, that the Time War had never happened. Even though the vocabulary is made up science fiction words, the emotions are real. When Jodie Whittaker plays the same scene at the end of Spyfall, there’s no context for it, there’s nothing to hang on to. We’re just expected to punch the air because Chibnall remembered “Kasterborous” from The Pyramids of Mars and the Timeless Child from his own The Ghost Monument.

Of course, if the Doctor did have access to Lenny Henry’s plane whenever she wished, then it might have been more straightforward to disable the bomb the same way that she disabled the Voord’s back-up system. And what the hell was the Master doing for all that time? Having a nap? Why??? It’s also a shame that the Doctor’s new togs are two sizes too big for her, which again makes this feel like a fan-made Youtube video starring a precocious child wearing her dad’s clothes.

I guess this is worth another three stars – for Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh, definitely for Sacha Dhawan (even if this is just the John Simm master again), for the energy and punch of the direction (this time from Lee Haven Jones instead of Jamie Magnus Stone, odd) and the scene in the exhibition. But I fear it’s going to be a long old season…

3 out of 5 stars