No Time to Die

Posted on October 6th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Warning – spoilers!

After the initial flurry of five films in six years, which exhausted Sean Connery, the Bond producers cranked out a new instalment every two years, pretty much without fail between 1967 and 1989. Not the loss of their star, the break-up of the partnership between Broccoli and Saltzman, rival movies exploiting rights that Eon didn’t control nor even the rise of AIDS and political correctness could halt the machine. And when the bandwagon stopped in 1989, it roared back into life six years later and Pierce Brosnan starred in four films over seven years which together earned nearly $2bn.

Daniel Craig’s tenure has been nothing like as smooth. The chaotic Quantum of Solace sprinted out of the traps just two years after the amazing critical and commercial success of Casino Royale. But Skyfall took four years and the uneven Spectre another three. After four films in nine years, Craig was exhausted and ready to retire. The news that he would be starring in a fifth film was surprising, and the Eon team reunited writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) to have the movie ready for November 2019.

Eventually, Hodge and Boyle moved on and long-time Bond scribes Purvis and Wade got their old job back, with Cary Fukunaga becoming the first American to direct a Bond film. The new release date was April 2020 and I bought tickets as soon as they went on sale. I eventually saw it in October 2021. Eon resisted various suggestions that the film go to streaming, and stubbornly sat on their prize cinematic asset until it could get a theatrical release. The gamble seems to have paid off, with box office records tumbling.

But is the film any good?

After the amazing reinvention of the series in Casino, the disappointment of Quantum, the lavish extravagance of Skyfall and the rather clumsy Spectre – not to mention the 18-month delay – my anticipation could hardly have been more fervent. Formulas are funny things. It can be reassuring to see a familiar sequence of events – why did it take four movies before we got a Daniel Craig gun barrel at the beginning? – but they can get stale very quickly. And yet it can be hard to attract and retain fans if you stop giving them what they want. That’s one of the thrilling things about Skyfall. It absolutely feels like a Bond move through-and-through, while constantly giving us things we’ve never seen in a Bond film before. But when Spectre’s at its worst, it’s straining to be Bond Chapter IV, despite that fact that none of the previous films have in any way prepared the ground for that.

Like Quantum before it, No Time to Die picks up pretty much exactly where Spectre left it (following a brilliantly eerie flashback sequence). For the first time, we see Bond continuing the relationship which ended the previous film. The stunning action scene which follows is a continuation of that storyline, rather than a standalone Bond-on-a-mission, and although the song is terrible and the titles a bit uninspired from the usually excellent Daniel Kleinman, I loved the evocation of the Dr No graphics in the transition from teaser to credits.

What follows is certainly unhurried – this is the longest Bond film by a considerable margin – and there is a sense of the plot doing a laborious three-point-turn in the middle of the film, but it feels purposeful, deliberate and carefully calibrated. As the various narrative elements converge – a terrifying bio-weapon, Blofeld’s revenge from captivity, a plot against SPECTRE itself, Bond and Madeleine’s relationship, Bond and MI6’s relationship and Madeleine’s history with Safin – the length feels justified and Fukunaga holds his nerve, letting moments breathe when they need to, giving us jokes when we want them (possibly thanks to script doctor Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and staging the action brilliantly.

Even more so than in Casino or Skyfall, Bond, Madeleine, Felix – even M and Q – feel like proper lived-in characters with agency, history and a sense of connectedness. Meanwhile, over-the-top elements like the bonkers science, the pockmarked Safin and a wonderful cameo from Ana de Armas mean that we are still allowed to have fun – lots of fun. What works slightly less well is the introduction of a new 007. Lashana Lynch is fine, but seems far more relaxed and charismatic giving interviews than she does as the surnameless “Nomi” and the business of them swapping the 007 moniker back and forth seems like a comedy bit searching aimlessly for a punchline.

After the hugely entertaining springing of Obruchev, the terrifying sight of Bond and Leiter trapped in the bowels of a doomed yacht, Bond’s reunion with his MI6 colleagues and an amazing chase / hunt / fight in a bafflingly misty Norwegian forest – the stage is set for the big finale at the Terrifying Villain’s Secret Lair. Bond is retired. Leiter is dead. 007 is a girl now. What can this film possibly do to ring the changes one last time?

Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, was the first time we’d seen a first mission for Bond. Every other actor’s first film in the role has been just another chapter in the continuing saga. And now, for the first time, the 25th film shows us Bond’s last mission. Infected with a deadly pathogen which will kill the people he cares most about in the world, he sacrifices himself to ensure that the missile strike wipes out Safin’s nanobots. Wow.

It’s an extraordinary end to a finely-calibrated film that knows exactly when to be Bond part V, when to be Bond part XXV, when to be entirely its own thing and when to tip its hat to Fleming (the garden of death owes a lot to the novel You Only Live Twice, at the end of which Bond is presumed dead). Spectre is so clumsy in its attempts to retrofit earlier films into an overarching story that it nearly makes me like Skyfall less. No Time to Die is so well-constructed that it actually makes me like Spectre more. And it has the guts to stick to its convictions and take this incarnation of the character to the only logical end that he could ever have. And yet, the credits end with the familiar phrase: James Bond Will Return.

Will he? But how? Bringing Craig back from the dead (as Fleming did with The Man with the Golden Gun) seems like it would betray everything that this film set out to do. Having Henry Cavill stroll into Ralph Fiennes’s office and start bantering with Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris would be weird. Yes, it worked with Moore and Dalton (and even Brosnan had Desmond Llewellyn connecting him to previous incarnations) but none of them got obliterated by Royal Navy missiles.

Another reboot? Yes, we’ve had – what is it now eight Spidermans in four years? – but surely there’s a limit. And in this post-Marvel, peak TV world, we’ve become accustomed to a consistent chronology, making perfect sense (if you squint) across years if not decades, and in various media.

So, what? I think the only sensible option now is to take Bond back to the 1950s. Ignore the Craig and pre-Craig stuff completely and tell stories more like Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (written in 1954, three years before Sputnik, let alone the Apollo programme) in which a crazed ex-Nazi is plotting to aim a nuclear missile at London. This has been pitched before – Tarantino wanted to do a period Casino Royale with Pierce Brosnan in the early 2000s – but now I think it’s the only way of carrying on the franchise.

For the time being though, Barbara and Michael should toast their success. It may have taken fifteen years (making Craig the longest-serving Bond) but these five films as a package overcome the weaknesses in the two lesser efforts and tell us, for the first time, The Bond Saga. It’s an amazing achievement and I can’t wait to watch this fantastic film again.

Russell’s back

Posted on September 27th, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

This is the most extraordinary news. It’s virtually unprecedented.

Getting the writer of Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose, Casanova and The Second Coming to work on the programme at all was remarkable enough. That he, Atlas-like, bore the entire weight of resurrecting a show which had become a burden, a joke and then a half-remembered folk memory is astonishing. And that he turned it into an international megahit is, with the benefit of hindsight, exactly what one might expect – but it was a huge gamble.

The job was also exhausting. So, after four seasons, five years and two Doctors, Rusty moved on and Steven Moffat was the obvious choice to replace him. Received wisdom seems to be that Matt Smith was a worthy successor to David Tennant, but that the writing was less consistent, that it tailed off further when Peter Capaldi took over and that when Chris Chibnall started as showrunner, it became a pale shadow of its former self.

My personal view is not quite in alignment with this. Matt Smith was a remarkable find as the Doctor, but I found the stories often frustratingly complicated and I wasn’t on board with the show attempting to sustain multi-season arcs without every really committing to full serialisation. The Capaldi era I found to be far more consistent, and I find the refrain that his scripts were poor compared to Smith’s baffling when I consider entries like Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, Oxygen or World Enough and Time.

Outside fandom, there was a decline in interest in the show, with Series 9 and 10 getting significantly lower ratings than earlier years – although IMDb audience scores give Series 9 the second best average (after Series 4). Rotten Tomatoes audience scores support the received wisdom better. Series 7 (Matt Smith’s last) is the first to get less than 90% and Peter Capaldi’s last gets only 69%.

When Jodie Whittaker took over, ratings initially shot up. But the new audience didn’t stick around and for her second season, we were right back where we were when Capaldi left. Except this time, the audience who was watching wasn’t as happy. On IMDb, Series 1 is the worst-performing pre-Chibnall run with a score of 8.0 out of 10. Series 11 rates 6.6 and Series 12 rates 5.9. On Rotten Tomatoes, it’s even worse. Again, these are the two worst-performing runs, this time by an even wider margin. Series 11 manages 20% and Series 12 only 16%.

And this I don’t think has been helped by the small number of episodes, coming less frequently than ever. The year-plus gap between Series 9 and Series 10, with only one Christmas Special broadcast in the whole of 2016, was very unusual. But from this point on, it became the norm. After Series 10 was broadcast in April 2017, rather than returning to the March-April launch of the first six seasons, Series 11 didn’t air until October – and then it only aired 10 episodes instead of 12. Series 12 didn’t air until over a year after Series 11 had come to an end. Series 13 is expected 20 months after the start of Series 12. We’ve gone from Doctor Who on the air for three months out of every year to ten weeks out of every two years. Matt Smith gave us 44 episodes in four calendar years. Capaldi gave us 39 episodes over four calendar years. With Jodie Whittaker we’ll end up with 32 episodes over five calendar years.

So, where does all of this leave Rusty? Let’s start with logistics. October-November 2021 will be a six-part epic masterminded by Chris Chibnall. Chibnall, you will remember, first came to fandom’s attention by going on TV to slag off The Trial of a Timelord as a teenager. Now, as showrunner, his plan to rescue the show from an onslaught of criticism, and following an unexpectedly long hiatus, is to tell one long story across the whole season. Brilliant! Then during 2022 we will get three specials, which will presumably conclude with Jodie Whittaker’s regeneration. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these will be New Year’s Day, Easter and Christmas. Then the baton gets handed back to Rusty for the 2023 run. And that will include the assumed 60th anniversary special.

But this leads some people to conclude that Rusty’s problem is going to be handling a new Doctor and a multi-Doctor anniversary special simultaneously. Why? The cadence which Russell established in 2005-2009 was airing a full season from March-ish to June-ish, having a Christmas special in December and then round we go again. So, I would expect a Christmas (or New Year, it doesn’t really matter) special to end the Chibnall/Whittaker era, followed by a complete season of 10-12 episodes starting in March/April 2023, allowing plenty of time for the new Doctor to bed in – and only then a 60th anniversary special in November. And it’s not like the incoming team doesn’t have time. That first full season of episodes is 18 months away. If not more – the plan above would still work if Series 14 ran from late August to early November, as Series 8 did.

And what will he do? The prodigal producer’s return really is an unprecedented phenomenon. One thinks of Gene Roddenberry launching Star Trek: The Next Generation, two decades after the original series went off the air, or Lorne Michaels returning to save Saturday Night Live. I’m told Phil Redmond returned to Brookside after a long absence, but I never watched that. So – what will his approach be?

Steven Moffat varied the Russell T template gradually and cautiously, choosing to evolve the format rather than revamp it. Much the same happened when Graham Williams took over from Philip Hinchcliffe in 1977. City of Death is very unlike The Ark in Space, but Horror of Fang Rock is clearly from the same team that brought you The Talons of Weng Chiang. But both John Nathan-Turner and Chris Chibnall changed everything as soon as they could, with Chibnall also given the opportunity to wipe the regular cast slate clean from day one (which took JNT a year to accomplish). New aspect ratio, new composer, new logo, new everything.

When Russell began in 2005, he had nothing to build on. And in fact, he invented the Time War as way to avoid lots of tedious talk of Gallifrey and Time Lords and other continuity which would be meaningless for the new audience. Now back in charge, will he hit the Fast Return Switch? Will we see Murray Gold back holding the conductor’s baton, the Chibnall era logo junked (won’t somebody think of the Blu-ray box set spines?), return appearances by the Moxx of Balhoon, Jackie Tyler and those silly cat nuns?

Or will he build upon the new lore established in the last five years? Keep Sacha Dhawan as the Master, get Bradley Walsh to make a guest appearance, follow up on the Timeless Child? Of course, I don’t know, but my hope is that this will feel like a return to 2009 in terms of tone, but that he will keep all of those story ideas on the table. Whether we like it or not, they are part of the narrative of the show, and sometimes old ideas brought back can be improved upon and rehabilitated. I don’t think he will or should carry on where Chibnall left off, but I don’t think he’ll pretend the last five years haven’t happened either.

Lastly – who will he cast? It can’t surely be another boy. That would be a ghastly admission that the biggest problem with Series 11-13 is that the leading actor had ovaries instead of testes. Jodie Whittaker rarely comes across as a mysterious alien, but that’s largely because she’s written as such an uncertain, passive, bland character – not because no woman alive could ever have stepped into David Tennant’s holy sneakers. Looking at people he’s worked with before, Lesley Sharp jumps out at me as someone who would take the character in a whole new direction – but given her appearance in Midnight, that would be a little odd. The other obvious suggestion is Lydia West who unbelievably would be 30 in 2023 – older than both Peter Davison and Matt Smith when they took the part. That’s assuming he doesn’t do the right thing and go for Susan Wokoma.

So – I’m optimistic. Hugely optimistic. Watching Doctor Who and not enjoying is a new experience for me. I look back on eighties episodes that I now find wanting and can’t remember any disappointment when I watched them for the first time. And between 2005 and 2017, if I didn’t like The Curse of the Black Spot or Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS or In the Forest of the Night or Smile, it hardly mattered because in a week or two I’d get The Doctor’s Wife or The Crimson Horror or Flatline or Oxygen. I want Russell to innovate the way he did in 2005. I want him to push the envelope and take risks. But if the rubber band does snap back to where he left off in 2009 – that would be fine by me too.

Belief, research, conspiracy theories and evidence

Posted on August 10th, 2021 in Skepticism | No Comments »

Let me start by telling you three stories. The first is one you very likely know. A fraudulent tailor with no money to buy cloth nevertheless persuades a wealthy emperor that he will make him the finest suit of clothes imaginable. The emperor, deceived by the flattery of the tailor, believes that he is wearing a beautiful new outfit (made of very lightweight material). In fact, he goes out to greet his subjects stark naked. The rest of the crowd falls prey to the same mass delusion until a little boy points out the truth and then the spell is broken and the emperor becomes a laughing stock.

Now let’s also consider the story of the fraudulent Hitler diaries. Unlike the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, this is a true story (although I don’t swear that every detail here has been forensically researched). A fairly incompetent forger named Konrad Kujau wrote them himself during the early 1980s, staining the pages with tea to make them look old, before he sold them to the German news magazine Stern for several million pounds. Stern relied on the analysis of English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who pronounced them genuine. Only after the fraud was uncovered did Trevor-Roper reflect on his thought process which included factoring in that Stern was paying a vast sum for the publication rights. Since fraudulent Hitler diaries had no value, he reasoned, these must therefore be authentic.

Finally, let us consider Edmund Landau and Fermat’s Last Theorem. As many people know, the brilliant 17th century mathematician Pierre de Fermat once scribbled in the margin of a book the equation xn + yn = zn and asserted that he had discovered a truly marvellous proof that there were no whole number solutions where n > 2. (If n = 2, this is Pythogoras’s theorem.) He did not alas provide the proof, claiming that the margin was too small to contain it. The theorem was finally proved in 1995 by English mathematician Andrew Wiles, whose proof ran to many dozens of pages and build on the work of Gerhard Frey and Ken Ribet and required a deep understanding of semistable elliptical curves. Evidently, this was not the proof which Fermat had (or thought he had).

Fermat’s Last Theorem was for three hundred years the outstanding unsolved problem in mathematics. Not because it was particularly important (although Wiles’ work did open up new avenues of exploration) but because it had remained unsolved for so long and yet it could be stated in terms which anyone with a passing knowledge of algebra could understand. This meant that it attracted the attentions of a great number of enthusiastic amateurs, all of whom imagined that they would be the ones to solve the unsolvable.

The problem was compounded in 1908 when industrialist Paul Wolfskehl offered a large cash prize for a valid proof. Edmund Landau was the mathematician who was, for a while, responsible for assessing entries. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of submissions, many of which were little more than gibberish, he eventually had a stack of cards printed which read: “Dear [BLANK]. Thank you for your manuscript on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. The first mistake is on line [BLANK]. This invalidates the proof.” He gave the job of filling in the blanks and returning the cards to his students.

What does all of this tell us about vaccines, conspiracy theories and the nature of evidence?

I had high hopes that the natural experiment currently being run in which tens of millions of healthy adults are being given a vaccine to help prevent them from contracting COVID-19 would silence the anti-vax brigade. If it were true that vaccines were toxic in any way at all, then we would see a huge wave of whateveritis sweeping the globe. No such wave has in fact materialised. The best (ugh) the anti-vaxxers could muster were a few cases of blood-clotting, which were at such a low incidence it was barely possible to connect them to the vaccine at all.

Although something of a side issue here, the case of blood clotting is instructive when it comes to vaccines in particular. Even though the incidence was so low that it was almost impossible to distinguish from the base level (some people will get blood clots anyway), it was determined that one brand of vaccine could increase the likelihood of developing a blood clot in some people. Okay then. We have identified a risk. Somebody fearful about developing a blood clot would be sensible to refuse the vaccine. Even if the risk is small – blood clots are nasty and can be fatal.

Except… that by not getting the vaccine, you are increasing your risk of contracting COVID-19. And one of the possible complications of COVID-19 is – blood clots. In fact, you are many, many times more likely to develop a blood clot as the result of contracting COVID-19 than you are from getting the vaccine.

Life is a game of risk vs benefit. The problem is that we tend to see risks where we take positive action (getting a shot) and ignore them where we are passive.

But that alone can’t explain the demented anti-vax brigade rapidly pouring on to social media to tell me that vaccines are toxic, that they aren’t properly tested, that diseases don’t exist and that I should do my own research. There’s an enormous appeal for some people in the conspiracy theory. It enables the conspiracy theorist to be the brave little boy in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, whose plain common sense and straightforward approach cuts through all of the sophisticated bullshit to expose the obvious truth. Of all the characters in that story, the one we want to be is the little boy. We don’t want to be the villainous tailor whose nefarious plans are ruined and we certainly don’t want to be the foolish emperor, taken in by such a simple trick. The appeal is obvious.

The trouble is that fate is manifestly unlikely to present us with such a situation. Randall Munroe in one of his XKCD comics, imagines a riposte to a parent who asks “If all your friends decided to jump off a bridge – would you?” as follows: “Which scenario is more likely: every single person I know, many of them level-headed and afraid of heights, abruptly went crazy at exactly the same time… or the bridge is on fire?”

Thus, Edmund Landau’s pre-printed cards. Landau didn’t need to read these crazy would-be proofs, and nor did he fear missing the mathematical discovery of the century. Anyone who had done the necessary work to even begin to attack this prodigiously difficult problem would of necessity be someone in the mathematical community who was publishing on a regular basis, and that is where the proof would turn up (if it were ever found). Landau didn’t live to see Wiles’ proof which was published nearly a century after his death, but its form and the manner of its revelation would not have surprised him.

That brings us to the key question. How can I, with a 2:2 in mathematics, know that Wiles’ proof is correct? I have read an outline of the proof intended for the curious lay reader, and I failed to keep the concepts clearly in my head. I do not have a mental model I can use for considering modular groups or elliptic curves or how they relate to each other. In fact, when Wiles’ proof was first published, an error was found and it took Wiles and a colleague several further months of work to patch the problem. Probably there are less than 100 people living who can read and appreciate every line of the final version – such is the obscurity of modern mathematics, all of it resting on pre-existing understanding of already fairly abstruse and difficult material.

In practice, I cannot “do my own research”. It is too late for me now to begin a decades-long career in number theory and I do not believe that the investment of time and energy would have a satisfactory payoff. So, how can I be sure that I am not poor foolish Hugh Trevor-Roper, who takes the fact that Stern believes in the Hitler Diaries as a reason to vouchsafe to that same organ that they are worth the sum proposed for their publication rights?

This is the charge that the conspiracy theorists level at those of us who subscribe to scientific scepticism. Some of the more obviously loopy ones will happily (and loudly) present themselves as the little boy pointing at the naked emperor. The idea that a minority opinion is likely a false one has never entered their head. They so enjoy the heady rush of being in the select group of the clear-thinkers and the far-seers that they never stop to question why no-one else can think those same clear thoughts and see those same far-off things.

But the charge of blind obedience or fatuous credulity is a harder one to dismiss. You’re just believing what you’re bring told. You’re Hugh Trevor-Roper falling for the Hitler diaries because some authority figure tells you they’re genuine. And look! They proclaim. Here is a paper which proves what I am saying is correct. Here is a doctor who doesn’t believe in germs. Here is an engineer who doesn’t believe the Twin Towers could have fallen without demolition charges. Here is an Air Force pilot who has seen flying saucers. Here is an astronaut who believes the Earth is flat. Here is a photo of Bigfoot. Here is a NASA scientist who can read minds. Et cetera and so forth.

Particularly with medicine, online debate-via-link-to-scholarly-journal is rife. Don’t take my word for it, look at the conclusion reached by this research team. This exchange of technical papers which neither party can properly understand is the height of pointlessness. I was (unwisely) drawn into a debate about the events of 9/11 on Facebook not long ago. A “new” paper had been published (several years ago), paid for by a group whose only purpose is to find any contradiction at all in the “official story”. This piece of mathematical modelling purported to show that the collapse of Building 7 was inexplicable without some additional force acting (they coyly stop short of saying the word “explosives”). Online it was easy to find people with far more expertise than me taking this paper apart, but the technical details were beyond me and so I saw no reason to comment on its contents.

What I found fascinating was the existence of another paper which had been published many years earlier which had modelled the collapse and found that the weakening of the structure due to the immense heat of the fires which burned for nearly an hour was entirely sufficient to explain what was observed on that horrific day. I was angrily told by defenders of the later paper that they had been researching the subject for years and were expert in this field (and by those same defenders that the online criticism which I provided links to was too technical). But the existence of this earlier paper seemed not to have registered.

Surely, if a second analysis has been performed which comes up with a different result, then the first question to ask would be: what was the difference in approach and what were the faulty assumptions made by the first team? Otherwise, what sense does it make to accept the conclusions of the second paper wholesale and completely dismiss all of the conclusions of the first? Without an understanding of what led to the difference, we’re simply being asked which black box we prefer. How can we possibly learn any objective truths about the world by doing this?

So, are we doomed to just saying “nobody knows” or committing to decades of re-education to get to the truth? I don’t believe so. In practice, we don’t need to even ask these basic questions. We don’t need to take the paper(s) apart. We don’t need to begin a lengthy career of detailed study to be able to critique the work of both teams. We can just ask instead: who else believes this?

Science proceeds in general not because of individual mavericks whose ideas seem crazy at first. Instead, evidence gradually piles up in favour of one conclusion more than the others. It was well-known and agreed by almost all medical practitioners that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, until it was shown that they were caused by bacterial infection. Now, virtually every doctor prescribes antibiotics. Palaeontologists used to believe that dinosaurs were likely scaly and reptilian. Now the preponderance of evidence suggests instead that many of them were feathered. The evidence moved the consensus of opinion over time.

With COVID-19, we have seen this play out as we’ve watched. Early guidance emphasised handwashing, because (for a variety of reasons) the importance of aerosolised viral particles was underappreciated. Now, both mask-wearing and crucially ventilation for indoor events is understood to be key. We didn’t know that when the pandemic started. But the consensus of medical opinion moved as the evidence accumulated.

And this brings me to my last bugbear regarding Internet vaccine warriors. We have seen that “do your own research” is ridiculous. We are simply not equipped to do anything of the sort. Instead, we need to appreciate that we are not likely to be the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes – if everyone else sees clothes and we don’t, it’s far more likely that we are having a stroke. But the world is full of plausible sounding people who write articles and share videos (and post blogs!) and it’s easy to get seduced by their rhetoric.

“Watch this video, then you’ll understand.” “This doctor gets it, read what she writes.” “This book really changed my mind about this topic.”

So now we have an expert who is explaining complicated ideas in ways that we lay people can understand. We don’t have to worry about whether we can master the technical details. If this expert can explain this in a way which makes sense to us – then we will understand it. Right?

Wrong.

This is in fact the very error made by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who took the opinion of Stern as the basis for his conclusion. You can’t learn about scientific consensus by listening to one expert, no matter how slick, folksy, friendly or straightforward they seem.

Watching well-produced explainer videos on YouTube is a great way to learn about stuff and there are some great creators out there. But you don’t discover objective truths about the world by opinion shopping. You can’t sift through a few different takes on a complex subject and then decide “I’ve found my guy.” That only works if your guy is just saying what everyone else is saying. But if your guy is an outlier, you need to ask why. If your guy’s evidence – which might be highly convincing to you, a non-expert – has failed to convince the other experts, you need to ask why not.

So, if 99 doctors tell you that the vaccine is safe and it’s in your best interests and society’s best interests for you to take it as soon as you are offered it, the fact that you can find a 100th doctor who tells you something else is not relevant. At all. Because if that one doctor had real evidence that the other 99 were wrong, the other 99 would change their minds. How do we know? We have seen it happen in real time as the pandemic has played out, and we have seen it happen throughout the history of science. Your one paper “proving” that masks don’t slow the spread of this, or any disease, does no such thing. It’s an outlier. The consensus is that they do help. Your one paper is wrong. (Or it isn’t widely applicable. Or you’ve misunderstood it. Or it doesn’t say what you claim it does.)

Salinsky’s Second Law: You can prove anything with one study.

This has become a very long post, for which apologies. My point really is a simple one.

We believe our dentist when we are told we need a filling. We believe the mechanic when we are told that our car needs a new fan belt even though we couldn’t pick a fan belt out of a line-up. We trust experts all of the time and don’t feel the need to “do our own research” – unless and until a campaign grows around a particular topic and a small but insistent band desperately needs to believe that the emperor has no clothes on.

So, I don’t really mind where you fall on the scale from “I’m not anti-vax, I just don’t feel this has been tested enough,” to “You’ve been lied to! Disease isn’t real!” Both those positions are wrong because both of them misunderstand what science is and how it works. You can’t possibly know what “tested enough” means. You don’t (and I don’t) have even a basic working knowledge of how vaccines are routinely developed or tested and what happened in this case. The first error is in word eight. This invalidates the argument.

So, by all means “do your own research”. Research is fun. You can teach yourself a lot and you can end the day understanding more about virology, immunology, biomedical research and the spread of infectious diseases than you did at the beginning. But if you fail to take into account where the conclusion you are satisfied with sits in relation to the scientific consensus, you are not avoiding the error made by Hugh Trevor-Roper, you are committing it.

Don’t be Hugh Trevor-Roper. The bridge may very well be on fire.

So… what do I think of the news that Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker are leaving Doctor Who?

Posted on August 3rd, 2021 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Honestly? Relief.

That sounds harsh, but for me personally this era of the show has been a slog more than a joy. I’m reminded of the Annie Hall “such small portions” joke but there’s been so little new Doctor Who since Capaldi left that it’s doubly frustrating that the tiny morsels we get have been so poor. However, that does at least mean that’s when we look back on the grand sweep of the show as a whole, the Chibnall years will be a fairly brief segment. Thus, relief. As odd as it is for showrunner and leading actor to both commence and depart together, and as odd as it is for a producer not to outlive a Doctor, they’re leaving, it’s official and plans are no doubt already underway for their replacements.

Now, let’s acknowledge that bad things happen when people are made to run shows for which they no longer have any enthusiasm. Watching the Season 24 Blu-ray box set, it becomes clear that John Nathan-Turner first expressed thoughts of leaving after The Five Doctors anniversary special in 1983. He ended up still working on the show when it was cancelled in 1989 – following the BBC’s eccentric decision to fire Colin Baker who wanted more than anything to keep playing the part, but to retain the services of JNT who wanted more than anything to be assigned to a different show.

So, if Chris and Jodie want to leave, then leave they should. But the timing is odd.

Less so for Jodie. Every Doctor post Eccleston has done about-three-seasons over about-four-years. Tennant did three x 14 episodes back-to-back and then four specials between Christmas 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. Matt Smith had that weird split series six which was at least partly about manoeuvring the fiftieth anniversary special into position, but again completed the equivalent of three full seasons between spring 2010 and Christmas 2013. Under Capaldi, an episode was shaved off the season length and he had a year off between December 2015 and December 2016 but again he completed his tenure about four years after he began and with the usual quota of 40 or so episodes to his name.

Even before COVID, the latest team took an unprecedentedly long amount of time to prepare an unprecedentedly short season. Ten months after Capaldi’s farewell, a ten episode season began airing on BBC One. Over a year later, another ten episodes finally emerged. Now, after a further eighteen months, we will get Jodie’s third season of just six episodes. Together with two New Year’s Day specials and three more 2022 specials, that will give us just 31 episodes broadcast over five calendar years. At the end of which the showrunner is so knackered that he has no option but to quit the show? Really? (I’m not saying he was forced out, but it is peculiar.)

As lovingly detailed elsewhere in these pages, very few of these episodes have been to my taste. But rather than the tone being too jokey or too serious, or the emphasis being on elements of the show I care less rather than more for, my chief complaint about what little we’ve been given is that basic elements of scriptwriting craft have been largely absent. So we have an overstuffed TARDIS full of thinly-drawn characters, who rarely impact the plot in meaningful ways. We have episodes in which good ideas are squandered and dialogue is rarely more than functional. We have endless minutes drifting by in which the main cast just wanders about. We have horrific interpretations of the Doctor’s morality and we have plotting which is as often predictable as it is nonsensical. And no good jokes. At all. None.

A few episodes stand out. The Witchfinders has a plot that makes sense and a strong guest cast and it’s about something. It Takes You Away has a real sense of atmosphere and a balls-to-the-wall bonkers climax. The Haunting of Villa Diodati has some of the best the era has to offer, although it’s not consistent. But honestly, that’s about it. And that’s before we get to the gibberish of the Jo Martin Doctor and the Timeless Child. Chris Chibnall upends the history of the show, proffers a lengthy explanation that barely explains a quarter of the mysteries he introduces, then immediately tells us why it doesn’t change anything (before having the murderous and cowardly Doctor have someone else do her killing for her to resolve the plot). Sigh.

Amidst all of this is Jodie Whittaker. Veteran script editor Terrance Dicks observed that the part of the Doctor is basically actor-proof. This is a diplomatic slam on some of the actors who post-dated his day-to-day involvement in the show who he thought were miscast. And he’s probably right. The part isn’t ideally suited to traditional leading-man actors like Peter Davison or Paul McGann. Weirdos like Tom Baker and Matt Smith are easier to write for. It’s hugely to both of their credits that the combination of Russell T Davies and David Tennant created such a massively popular version of the programme, despite Tennant seeming to lacking the eccentricity that the part usually benefits from.

As far as non-male actors go, Jodie Whittaker is firmly in the traditional leading camp, rather than the character type. If the part had gone to Tilda Swinton or Miriam Margolyes or Meera Syal or Katherine Parkinson, that would have hugely impacted the way the scripts were written. But, while Jodie will show up, look the other actors in the eye, and say the lines with conviction, she isn’t going to alter the fabric of the programme in any way at all. And beyond taking the not-good-with-social-niceties element of the previous two Doctors and running with that, the showrunner hasn’t created an actual character for her to play either, so she’s generally been reduced to little more than a bit of Davison-esque breathless enthusiasm where an interpretation should be.

The other apparent sea-change since 2018, apparently, is that the show is “woke” now. I’ll deal with this briefly as it doesn’t really warrant more than a few lines. No, the show which told stories about the need for pacifism, green politics and feminism in the 1970s hasn’t suddenly gone Marxist. No, the show which first included two men kissing in 2005, first included a non-white regular cast member that same year, and first gender-swapped a familiar character in 2017 didn’t suddenly discover diverse casting when Jodie Whittaker was handed the keys to the TARDIS. It’s just that when previous showrunners did these things, fans generally liked them because they were using these characters to tell good stories. But when the only thing you can say about Ryan is that he’s black (and he’s dyspraxic for about one episode in five) then that’s going to look much more like stunt casting than Michelle Gomez as Missy. The anti-woke brigade isn’t out in force in the same way for Sacha Dhawan. Why not? Because he was good (at least to begin with). If anything, it will be a pity if there’s pressure on the next team to retreat to the “safety” of the kind of white, male, straight, non-disabled casting which in fact we were already seeing less and less of between 2005 and 2017.

So, who will be the next team and what will they do? Obviously, I have no idea. (Aren’t you glad you took the time to read this?) But since there hasn’t been a female showrunner since 1965, it’s probably time for a woman behind the typewriter as well as hovering over the console. That rules out my top choice of Peter Harness (sorry Peter), assuming Neil Gaiman isn’t free. Maxine Alderton’s work on Villa Diodati shows enormous promise, but if someone with Chibnall’s CV can fail as comprehensively as he did, that suggests that we really do want someone with some miles on the clock in this role. Phoebe Waller-Bridge I suspect wouldn’t want to be tied down for three or more years. Sarah Phelps?

And what do we want? Firstly, a vision for who the Doctor is. The blessing and the curse of the show at this point is you have 13 hard acts to follow. You have more than a dozen incarnations, all with their adherents and detractors, which means finding a new version which adds to the corpus, while not violating what we already know, is hard. That’s why I say that it needs to be actor-driven. I had no idea that the Doctor was capable of some of the things which Matt Smith pulled off, but they all (or almost all) made sense once I’d seen them.

Secondly, we need to get back to stories being plot-and-character led. Don’t have three companions because you think it would be nice to go back to having three companions again. Have three companions because you have stories which need three companions. And give them at least as much personality and individuality as, say, Tegan Jovanka, even if they don’t get the depth of Rose Tyler or Amy Pond. Don’t have stories in which you revisit the show’s origins because you think revisiting the show’s origins is intrinsically exciting or interesting. Revisit the show’s origins because you have an exciting story to tell which naturally leads you there.

And maybe it should be someone who wasn’t a childhood fan of the show. Hiring fans worked with RTD and Steven Moffat, but hiring non-fans also worked with Barry Letts and Phillip Hinchcliffe. There’s no shortage of people knocking around who can tell a future showrunner what a Judoon is, or what Fenric means. But people who can write really good science fiction television drama for a family audience and within a BBC budget – maybe they are rarer than we think.

There’s also the sixtieth anniversary to consider. My guess is that we will learn who the new producer is around the same time as the new series starts airing, and who the new Doctor will be shortly after those six episodes have gone out. So, say we get Jodie Whittaker regenerating into Gemma Whelan in December 2022. A production team headed by Kate Herron could be working on scripts from late this year and have 10-12 episodes ready to go by spring or summer 2023 – September at the latest. That one full series is going to be essential to establish the new direction of the show before any kind of nostalgic anniversary special at the end of November. And while it would be fun to get Capaldi, Smith, Tennant – even McGann – back for one last trip in the TARDIS, it’s likely that Whittaker won’t want to come back so soon, so I wonder if some other mode could be discovered to celebrate sixty years, rather than another multi-Doctor story?

Whatever happens, I will still be watching. And, as always, hoping for the best.

Philips Hue – The Revenge – Part One

Posted on May 19th, 2021 in Technology | No Comments »

It seems it was nine years ago that I was writing about sticking Philips Hue bulbs all over my flat. Well, it doesn’t actually seem like nine years ago, but arithmetic confirms that it was very nearly. A lot has happened since then. Most of the bulbs are still working (one conked out and another met with an accident) but I don’t know if I really ever got the most out of them. They’ve also switched from WiFi connectivity to the more reliable and less router-dependant Zigbee for their communications and they are still very popular despite a huge array of (usually cheaper) alternatives.

In the interim, we’ve also converted our loft, giving us another floor to play with – oh, and there’s been a bit of a flap on about some sort of bug that seems to be going round. Being stuck indoors the whole time with no house guests and very few visitors, I decided to take another look at the Hue situation. I made sure all the bulbs were correctly named in the now-upgraded Hue app. I thought of something sensible to do with the dimmer switch magnetised onto the fridge. I set up rules to slowly dim the lights in the evening and to turn them on in the morning. I made sure that Alexa knew where all the lights were and could turn them on and off as I commanded. And I replaced the existing candle-style bulbs in what I was now using as my study with Hue versions, complete with a little magnet-y Smart Button to control them, adhering to one corner of the existing metal switch.

Upstairs, with the low-ish ceilings which are part of the deal with loft conversions, there were no dangling pendants, only flush spotlight GU10 bulbs. We wanted them dimmable but the touch-sensitive panels which we had installed had always been unreliable and had steadily been failing. First the light at the top of the stairs wouldn’t turn on, then the set of six lights overhead in the TV room. Finally my reading light went. Enough was enough. We hadn’t asked for Philips Hue bulbs when we had the loft done – because the one thing I knew about Hue bulbs was they only came in E27 Edison Screw flavours.

Except – wait. After all this time, could Philips (actually it’s now a company called Signify which has taken over the brand) have come up with compatible GU10 bulbs? Actually, they had. And – in common with much of the rest of the line – you can push the boat out and have all the fancy colours, you can go the cheapskate route and have just white, or you can have what they call “white ambience” which is somewhere in the middle cost-wise and gives you a range of whitish tones from warm gold to icy bright.

Okay, so… Supposing we rip all of those bulbs out and replace them with Philips Hue? The white ambience ones wouldn’t be too expensive. The old switches would be able to give them power but not dim them. Could we replace the switches as well? Probably the easiest solution is to buy some more Philips Hue dimmer switches (oh, and they’ve just come out with a fancy new model) and mount them in covers designed to fit over existing switches. That way if the system throws a fit (or when we move out) we can take our fancy dimmers and leave ordinary switches behind.

And while I’m at it, why don’t we do the same thing downstairs? We have these fancy dimmable bulbs, but turning the dimmer knobs on the existing switches no longer dims them. Replace all of those switches with straight on-off affairs, put covers over them and have Philips Hue dimmers everywhere! I tried this out just inside the front door, where I have a regular ordinary white plastic switch and set up my existing Hue dimmer to turn the stairs lights and and off. It looks smart and works like a dream.

Before I put this plan into action (which would in any case require the services of an electrician) I did a bit of Googling, and I quickly found one possible flaw in the plan. The “bridge”, which plugs into the router and acts as a central hub for all things Hue, is only an itty-bitty little computer, and even if it wasn’t – at a certain point, the airwaves would get clogged with Zigbee signals. The recommended load is 50 bulbs and 12 switches. Downstairs I only had 12 bulbs, even with three in the study. But I would need something like 7-8 dimmers to control them all.

Upstairs, there were a couple of dozen little GU10 bulbs in the ceiling. With both floors, I’d certainly approach the 50 bulb limit and I’d go sailing past the 12 switch barrier. Should I just keep adding devices and hoping? Well, I really want this system to be reliable and pass the wife-compatibility test with ease (this is made more probable since the existing lights very often just don’t work at all) so I didn’t want to take any chances. So, having found some appropriate light switch covers, I decided to test out a second bridge.

Adding a second bridge can create problems. The official app only allows you to access one bridge at a time, although you can switch back and forth with no problem. And I’d heard mixed reports about adding a second bridge to Alexa. The official Hue position is that this can’t be done, but plenty of people on the Internet seemed to have managed it.

I’d got a couple of Philips GU10s at what I thought was a bargain price, until I realised they were white – not even white ambience, just white. But I decided to use them as a test case. I bought a second bridge, plugged it in upstairs, using the hardline from the router that also goes (via a switch) into my Apple TV. I replaced the two GU10 bulbs above our bedroom mirror with the white Hue ones and I set everything up in the app. Then, as the Internet told me I should, I made sure to press the button on the second bridge before inviting Alexa to find new devices. And it worked! Alexa found the two new bulbs and so with the Alexa app I can see all my Hue devices at once.

Then I tried to set up a light group in Alexa called “Mirror Lights” consisting of just these two bulbs – and Alexa kept adding one of my new bulbs and one of my kitchen bulbs from downstairs. I don’t seem to be the only one who has had this problem, and it almost defeated me. I must have tried to set that up half-a-dozen times. Eventually, I found the work-around. You verbally tell Alexa to move the errant light and to add the one you do want. That worked. Okay. I can install new lights and set up apps and switches myself. What I need now is an electrician who can get the recalcitrant loft lights working at all, and then to have that person replace all of the existing switches with ordinary on-off affairs which I can cover with smart dimmers.

 
To be continued…

Oscars 2021: Sound of Metal and Another Round

Posted on April 22nd, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Last on my list of Best Picture nominees was Sound of Metal. And I might just have saved the best for last. Riz Ahmed does career-best work here as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a heavy metal duo who suffers suddenly and catastrophic hearing loss which causes him to spiral despite the best efforts of firm but fair Joe (Paul Raci) at whose retreat for the deaf the middle part of the film is set.

So, this is another small film. Small in the sense that Minari is small or Nomadland is small, in that it’s about a handful of people and the intimate group of people around them. But it’s also small in the way that The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah aren’t. This isn’t righting any societal wrongs, or commenting on a troubled part of recent history. What’s fascinating about Darius Marder’s film (with input into the screenplay from Derek Cianfrance and Marder’s brother Abraham) is both its window into deafness – and particularly sudden loss of hearing – and its fascinating depiction of a protagonist who consistently makes amazingly poor decisions but who never loses my sympathy.

The evocation of deafness is absolutely stunning. Both in the sound mixing and the editing. Because deafness is impossible to evoke simply on the soundtrack. Certain scenes play like a weird looking-glass version of the nightmare scene in The Artist wherein objects sudden create noises. It’s the contrast between the kinetic movement in the frame and the precisely judged presence or absence of accompanying sounds that give these moments their profound impact. And Riz Ahmed – almost never off the screen – anchors the film with a commanding performance, which would make me sorry that he doesn’t stand a chance as Best Actor this year, were it not for my now unshakeable faith that it’s only a matter of time.

Paul Raci (possibly controversially, a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults rather than a deaf actor) underplays beautifully and there’s not a trace of sentimentality in his relationship with Ruben. And it’s greatly to the film’s credit that when that relationship is sabotaged by Ruben, he leaves and we never see Raci again – but nor does this feel untidy, like a loose end that needs to be tied off.

Less successful is Ruben’s relationship with his girlfriend Lou. Olivia Cooke does fine work in the first third, but she’s Jennifered off to sleep on a porch while the boys have their drama. The way their relationship shifts in the final act feels true and poignant however and the final shot is completely devastating. Richer than Minari or Promising Young Woman, less purely entertaining than Chicago 7 but more grounded, just more interesting than Nomadland and far more cinematic than The Father, this barely noses ahead of Judas and the Black Messiah as my favourite of the nominees.

I also watched Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, which for a while I thought would top the lot. It’s a marvelously dark, richly comic tale of middle aged angst, in which four schoolteachers use the (apparently real) writings of a crackpot psychiatrist to justify being permanently pissed at the job. Naturally, this can’t end well, but the sly way in which they egg each other on, and the sheer pleasure of seeing them almost lift out of the skins at home and at work is delightful. But this morbid tale demands a grim ending, and just as I was waiting for the final savage twist of the knife, the storm clouds lifted. I gather that a tragedy in Vinterberg’s life led him towards a more life-affirming ending for the tale, and while the final sequence is just that, it feels like the central conceit has been neither carried to climactic excess nor brutally undercut as reality seizes control and wrests the fantasy away from our heroes. A very near miss, then, but well worth investigating.

Oscars 2021: The Father and One Night in Miami

Posted on April 18th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers herein. Read at your own risk.

I’d vaguely heard that Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play (with a bit of help from Christopher Hampton) had arrived with rather poor reviews for all save Anthony Hopkins, but on closer reflection this does not seem at all to be the case. It’s got marvellous reviews pretty much across the board and it’s a wonderful showcase for Hopkins who manages to be charming, petty, exuberant, pathetic, manipulative and befuddled as Anthony, an elderly man whose daughter is concerned that he will shortly be unable to look after himself.

The set up – and weirdly the physical geography of the flat – calls to mind Michael Haneke’s devasting Amour but Zeller is playing a different game. Haneke’s approach was ruthlessly objective, never imposing anything on the material that wasn’t there already. The only exception to this is a sequence towards the end where a bird flies through the flat, which feels less than wholly literal to me and gives the whole piece a tiny extra spark of poetry.

Zeller’s approach would have played brilliantly on the stage – how I wish I’d seen this in the theatre – as after an initial scene between Anthony and his daughter (Olivia Colman, doing very fine work), Anthony is disturbed to find a stranger in his living room. He claims this is his flat, not Anthony’s and when his daughter comes home, she’s now played by Olivia Williams. From this point on, we are slave to Anthony’s encroaching dementia as people, faces, roles, ownership, time, geography and even personhood are constantly called into question by these simple devices. This might be a one-trick film, but by god it’s a wonderful trick and by god it works gangbusters.

And, as the human cost of living in this confused state finally becomes too much to bear, it becomes a deeply moving “trick” as well. What it never becomes, however, is cinematic. Zeller doesn’t do much wrong with the camera and – as noted – the cast are exemplary. What’s missing is any attempt to tell the story visually beyond what would have been observed by a theatre audience. There’s one moment which muddies the geography of the space more than usual which does hint at this, but it’s never developed.

This is a wonderful record of a fascinating play rather than a piece of fully-realised cinema then, but that shouldn’t take away just how fascinating a play it is, how beautifully acted it is by all concerned and how movingly it penetrates the quandaries faced by those with dementia and those who love them.

One Night in Miami

Also adapted from a play, and not nominated for Best Picture (although in the running for various other awards), this feels much more like a play in conception: four famous men sit in a room and talk. But Regina King is very at home on movie sets and constantly finds ways to make this feel like a movie – and crucially finds ways to tell the story that aren’t reliant on dialogue. The early section, prior to the four-way meeting, I imagine is new for the screen, and there did come a moment once all four were on screen that I detected what felt like slightly stagey rhythms as each man came in with his line precisely on the heels of the one before, but that moment passed and I was able to enjoy an equally absorbing play, this time playing out as cinema.

The four men are all excellent: Oscar nominated Leslie Odom Jr bides his time as smooth-as-silk Sam Cooke but his journey is probably the most profound; Aldis Hodge is powerful and striking as NFL player Jim Brown; Eli Goree summons up all of Cassius Clay’s bounce and swagger without making him a cartoon; and Kingsley Ben-Adir is a thoughtful, paternal, sometimes impatient Malcolm X. Although I something about Ben-Adir’s look is distractingly English in my eyes.

The conversation takes on many topics including colourism, parasitism, the Muslim faith and the need for solidarity. There isn’t much of a plot, but nor does their need to be one. The conversation is enough, and King expertly judges when to let that breathe and when to do more with the camera, the blocking or the mise-en-scene. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is her debut feature as director, although she has been directing for television since 2013.

Two slightly compromised films then, in terms of their form, but both of immensely high quality and featuring stand-out performances. I don’t know who will win the acting awards on Sunday night, but I do know that whatever the outcome, there will be people rightfully feeling they was robbed.

The Oscars 2021: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari

Posted on April 15th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Judas and the Black Messiah

This can’t help but call to mind Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman for me. Both stories are about the infiltration by law enforcement of an organisation concerned with race in America, and both attempt to walk the line between true life stories, social commentary and thriller movie clichés. BlackKlansman is hardly subtle, and the final act of the story does become a slightly ridiculous race-against-time trip to movieland – before the closing montage slams the real message home. Judas (written by Will Berson and Shaka King and directed by King) is a bit more subversive, a bit more sly, and I think I very slightly preferred it.

It’s blessed by some powerhouse performances. On the one hand, we have Daniel Kaluuya, cementing his reputation as one of our most gifted actors. In Get Out he seemed vulnerable, almost spindly. Here, his doughy physique gives him massive presence and power – he dominates every room he’s in, physically, vocally and emotionally. Opposite him, in a less showy but more complex part, is Lakeith Stanfield, fulfilling all the promise he showed in Sorry to Bother You. His nervy, twitchy Bill O’Neal is nabbed passing himself off as an FBI agent and made to pass on information about the Black Panthers, which Jesse Plemons’ agent laconically sells to Stanfield as as much of a threat to civil rights as the KKK.

And while much of this film is a straight Fred Hampton biopic and much else (as noted) is fairly familiar from films such as Donnie Brasco or The Departed or the aforementioned BlackKlansman, it’s all extremely well structured, shot, acted and assembled. Where it becomes at first queasily fascinating and then shockingly tragic, is in the interplay between Stanfield and Plemons and then Plemons and Martin Sheen – playing J Edgar Hoover like a cross between Nixon and The Penguin.

Telling the story of an extraordinary person through the eyes of an outsider is often a smart move. We can’t know what it was like to be Fred Hampton (or Gandhi, or Stephen Hawking or Charlie Chaplin) but when the narrative unfolds this way, we can know what it was like to be in their presence. And it helps that – as with Selma a few years ago – much of the true story was not known to me. However, I still rank this film as “very good” rather than “masterpiece”. It’s a smartly written and directed slice of highly relevant history, with an outstanding performance from Kaluuya, and contains many memorable moments. But it doesn’t quite contain that extra little innovation, flourish or profundity that would elevate it to the absolute top ranks.

And I’d say pretty much the same thing about Minari, a film which otherwise resembles Judas in almost no way at all. Taking inspiration from his own childhood, Lee Isaac Chung writes and directs this tale of the immigrant Yi family abandoning their life in California, where father Jacob has become a chicken-sexing savant, to instead farm a few acres of Arkansas in the hope of taking a bit more control over their lives.

Whereas Judas presents some fairly clearly defined evildoers, one of the fascinating things about Minari is that there are no bad actors. Things go well and things go poorly for the Yis, but there are no moustache-twirling villains threatening them with eviction, no racist thugs who beat them up. There aren’t even thoughtlessly cruel classmates who taunt the children. Things go well and things go poorly because that’s what life is like. The trick (and it’s a good one) is to put that simple truth on the screen and make it interesting, and not use “that’s what life is like” as a pretext for a story which doesn’t build, or move or have a reason to end. Without a trace of artifice, Minari has all of these. Like Nomadland, it’s a delicate film, built out of small human moments. Unlike Nomadland, none of those moments ever feels without purpose or meaning.

The cast is effortlessly convincing. Winsome Alan Kim as little David and elderly Youn Yuh-jung as grandma are mopping up most the awards love, and Steven Yeun is the only familiar face from English-language fare thanks to his years of service on The Walking Dead. But I was constantly drawn to Han Ye-ri as Monica, the mother of the family, who manages to create a version of the wife-who-opposes-her-husband’s-desire-for-adventure which never feels like a shrewish cliché. She’s the glue that holds this family together and this performance similarly binds the film together.

That only leaves me with The Father and Sound of Metal from the Best Picture nominees but I’m going to try and take in a few others like One Night in Miami, Wolfwalkers and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom if time allows.

The Oscars 2021: Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on March 24th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It often seems to me as if the majority of modern American films fall into one of two types: self-actualisation through sudden wealth acquisition or self-actualisation through superior firepower. That’s not necessarily a criticism – some of my favourite films could be considered as belonging to one or other of those two categories – but it speaks to a lack of ambition that drags everything back towards the mainstream. Although criticised in some quarters for no longer representing the tastes of the average cinema-goer, the modern Oscars at least shines a light on films which pull in a different direction.

Part of the reason for all of this expiation is that… well, I didn’t love Nomadland the way I was supposed to. Poor Nomadland. It’s such a delicate, heartfelt, intimate little film, that for me to watch (and thoroughly dislike) Mank and then have Chloé Zhao’s film presented as the Mank-killer which is going to deprive Fincher and co of their armfuls of little gold men is hardly fair or appropriate.

And I did really like this film. I just can’t see it changing my life. That said, I do admire it intensely. While Fincher plays silly games with true stories, Zhao takes a non-fiction book and incorporates some of the real Americans who are living this lifestyle into her scripted drama. One of the many accomplishments of the piece is the way that lead actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn so beautifully integrate themselves into the authentic “nomads” that it’s almost impossible to see the joins. And Zhao also creates some indelible images of the American landscape.

This is a story which needed telling and it’s thrilling that the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world is treating it so well. The US experiment in utterly unfettered capitalism is crushing huge swathes of the population under the oppressive weight of an American Dream which purports to create opportunity for all, and in fact does as little as possible to level the playing field. No wonder that some people just refuse to play the game at all.

So as a window into this lifestyle, this is fascinating stuff and McDormand’s Fern is an utterly winning protagonist. Nor does this fall into the trap of seeming like a series of self-contained short films which could have come in any order. Part of the interest lies in seeing how chance encounters pay off later down the (literal and metaphorical) road.

But – without ever wishing this to tip into melodrama – I couldn’t help wanting the stakes to feel a little higher, for me to be just a little more invested in the details of Fern’s life. I literally gasped out loud when David clumsily pulled a cardboard box out of Fern’s van, and I was happy that she was able to repair the damage with a handy tube of superglue, but the very fact that Fern was able to fix the problem so easily (barely an inconvenience!) made me just a bit less committed to wanting to know what happened next.

As noted – this is really a story of how not to watch a film rather than any real criticism of Nomadland as a piece of art. It’s clear that Zhao is a major talent and that she has made exactly the movie she set out to make. And I will be delighted if this film wins Best Picture on 25 April. But I fear I like the idea of this film winning Best Picture more than I actually enjoyed watching the film.

Of course, if it does win, I will have to watch it again for a future episode of Best Pick. And who knows – like both Moonlight and (to a lesser extent) Parasite, I might discover that what seemed to lack a bit of narrative punch on first viewing, turns out to have more rewarding depths second time around.

One thing you can’t accuse Promising Young Woman of is not having narrative punch. It’s a delirious, sweet-and-tart, fizzing cocktail of a movie, pulsing with energy, anger and black humour. The set up is wonderfully sick and yet horrifyingly just at the same time. Cassie feigns near-blackout drunkenness in bars and nightclubs, waiting for a “nice guy” to take her home. And then when he attempts to consummate the encounter, she terrifyingly reveals her sobriety and shames them for their horrible actions. While Cassie clearly has right on her side, these scenes are almost as scary putting yourself in her shoes as those of her victims. Any one of these “nice guys” could turn out to be more committed to adding another notch to the bedpost than she assumed and she could quickly find herself in very serious trouble. What could possibly drive someone to these extremes? Emerald Fennell has all the answers.

Not nominated for any Oscars is I Care A Lot which secured a Golden Globe for its promising young star Rosamund Pike. But whereas J Blakeson’s film is pure trash with an unremittingly morally bankrupt protagonist who ends up resembling the relentless Terminator in her ludicrous determination to succeed, Fennell’s is more nuanced, subtle and awkward. However, both films deliver final acts which are more interested in twisty thriller plotting than the moral questions they pose, and while this doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, it does make them both a little harder to take seriously.

I Care A Lot is best watched as a bonkers thriller with a satisfyingly sick concept as its premise. Promising Young Woman feels like it has considerably more to say and will live with me a lot longer, but the last twenty minutes or so have a straight-ahead quality that while not exactly betraying the complexity of the preceding hour and a half, doesn’t seem entirely in keeping with it either.

But these are minor criticisms really, when Fennell shoots everything so well, and assembles a remarkable supporting cast including GLOW alumni Chris Lowell and Alison Brie, Mclovin himself Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton (whose one scene is a total stand-out), Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge and Bo Burnham. But holding everything together is a radiant Carey Mulligan, who exudes resolve, vulnerability, loneliness, joy, desperation and clarity of purpose without ever turning Cassie into a chimera. It’s a stunning performance in a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable film.

I had already seen Promising Young Woman before the nominations were announced and the same is true of The Trial of the Chicago 7, but even longer ago, so forgive me if this review isn’t quite so detailed. If I had no idea what to expect of Promising Young Woman and was knocked out by the originality of the concept and the sureness of the execution, I had much clearer expectations of Aaron Sorkin’s latest, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled in quite the same way.

Unlike Mank, Sorkin doesn’t appear to have taken quite so many liberties with the truth and – arguably more importantly – the story as presented does seem to make sense. Reality has furnished him with a number of extraordinary events and as screenwriter, he’s created a subtle but powerful structure which holds back some key information until very late in the day. As director, too, Sorkin continues to grow in confidence, and he brings a really authentic period feel to proceedings. He also parcels out exposition with his customary skill and knows when to play games, when to come in with the gags and when to slow down and make us take things seriously.

This is probably the most completely successful film of this batch so far – but also the least exciting. While it’s a powerful story that deserves to get a wider hearing, and while there’s another fantastic roster of American (and non-American) character actors having a blast with Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue, there’s nothing here I haven’t seen before. I’d put this on the same shelf as previous Best Picture winners like Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire or Shakespeare in Love – entertaining and well-made films which deserved their win but which probably wouldn’t have succeeded except in a relatively thin year.

And I’ve got a feeling this isn’t a thin year. I think this could be rather a special year.

Oscars 2021: Mank

Posted on March 21st, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

In 1925, Herman J Mankiewicz, newly employed Hollywood screenwriter, sent a famous telegram to fellow New Yorker Ben Hecht. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

In David Fincher’s film Mank this notorious missive is paraphrased, relocated to 1930, the recipient switched to Herman’s brother Joe, its status is lowered to that of a tired old running gag and it is shorn of its punchline. That’s this film all over: flagrantly inaccurate, its inventions usually less interesting and more confusing than the truth it rejects, freely borrowing other people’s witty remarks, but heedless as to what made those quips funny in the first place. Elsewhere, Sam Goldwyn’s famous barb about sending messages by Western Union is put in the mouth of Louis B Mayer and Mankiewicz himself adopts John Houseman’s savagely funny nickname for Orson Welles: Maestro The Dog-Faced Boy.

Mank, now trailing ten Oscar nominations in its wake, is (sort-of) the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. That’s a big problem right there. The actual process of writing, the hard graft of trying to construct a screenplay, the endless finessing of dialogue and action lines, the painstaking editing and re-editing, is rarely dramatic, and almost never cinematic. But whereas there are fascinating stories to be told about how Welles got the contract of a lifetime at RKO, why he wanted to collaborate with Mank and how they settled on Hearst as a suitable subject – not to mention the nearly catastrophic fallout when the film was completed – none of this is of interest to Fincher who starts the action with a 90 day countdown to Mank finishing the first draft and ends the movie before Welles starts shooting his.

That it’s Mank doing the writing means that Fincher (and his late dad Jack who wrote the script – given an uncredited polish by Eric Roth, irony fans) has swallowed the Pauline Kael Kool-Aid and is repeating the easily-debunked lie that Mank deserved sole credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. Like Kael, Fincher’s camera just doesn’t look at it any of the writing of Kane done by Welles and thus concludes that he did none. In interviews, Fincher has claimed that he had no interest in attributing credit. But he was interested in the story of a man who agreed not to accept credit and then changed his mind. The sum total screentime which this debate occupies is less than two minutes. A great deal of the rest of it is rather ho-hum life-in-1930s-Hollywood flashback, which eventually and laboriously drags itself towards a slightly hysterical and mildly revisionist take on radical novelist Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California in 1934, which is then presented as Mankiewicz’s motivation for writing a satire about Hearst.

The facts are that Sinclair’s bid was harmed by “fake news” propaganda films released by MGM, and by poisonous columns in Hearst papers – although other papers were even more violently anti-Sinclair. Mank gilds this slim story with Herman being the only Sinclair supporter amid hundreds of loyal Republican MGM staffers, his personal crusade via his friendship with Marion Davies to prevent the films from being released, and the suicide of the writer-turned-editor-turned-director who was somehow goaded into creating these monstrosities. In real life, the editor of the films (who was previously employed by MGM as… checks notes… an editor) was perfectly happy with his work and made more of the same.

Mankiewicz had no involvement with Upton Sinclair whatsoever, and would no doubt have been drawn to the legend of Hearst even if he hadn’t first been a frequent guest at San Simeon and then been humiliatingly uninvited. So this is somewhat of a made-up answer in search of a suitable question. And the movie shifts gears abruptly when Mank’s aloof cynicism suddenly turns into messianic zeal as he briefly battles to prevent the forces of darkness from winning. It’s true that by this point in the film I was getting very fed up of people walking in and out of rooms, making mordant wisecracks at each other, always in the same monotonous rhythms, smothered by the ever-present score, and I dearly longed for there to be something at stake, for someone to strive for something, for me to be hoping for one outcome or dreading another. But its hard to escape the conclusion that Gary Oldman’s Mank adopts this role of desperate defender of all that is good and holy because he’s the protagonist of the movie since this behaviour is totally at odds with everything else we know about him. And this is the problem with making shit up to try and turn your slice-of-true-life into a screenplay. You need to make sure the pieces fit together and that what you’ve added to reality coheres with what was there before. Better to make up almost everything (as in Argo) – or just give up and make a documentary – if the fiction fails to mesh with the fact to this extent.

Take Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies. Probably the best scene in the entire film is their conversation in the garden of San Simeon. The score dies down, people stop quipping over each other and we just get to explore who these people are, and what they mean to each other. It has little to do with Welles or Kane or Sinclair or anything else but it does explore deeper themes of fame, wealth, notoriety and the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world.

However, this largely-invented relationship now has to do battle with what most viewers already know. The person who came off worst from Citizen Kane was probably that same Marion Davies. Welles in several interviews is rather shamefaced about her, describing their depiction of Kane’s second wife as a “dirty trick” which unfairly tarnished the reputation of a basically blameless and clearly talented young woman. Obviously, at the time, the enterprising young screenwriters didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

But, watching Mank, you are forced to conclude that Herman J Mankiewicz establishes a deep friendship and trust with Davies. Then, given total autonomy to write whatever screenplay he wishes, he chooses to write a version of Hearst and a version of Davies which wildly defames them both, and then when the damage this will do to Davies is pointed out to him – on two separate occasions – despite no pressure whatsoever in any other direction, he calmly leaves the screenplay exactly as it is without his conscience bothering him for a moment. And remember – the lesson he has supposedly learned from the Sinclair debacle is: movies can alter how people think. At this point, it’s impossible to try and understand who Herman Mankiewicz is. He’s reduced to a series of checkboxes and catchphrases, assembled at random.

There are other problems besides. While taking almost no time at all to school younger viewers as to who Welles is, what Citizen Kane is and why it matters, the script makes sure we know who individual characters are by having people greet them by name and most notable feature: “Thalberg! The boy genius!” “Herman Mankiewicz? New York playwright and drama critic?” Neither Mankiewicz nor Welles would ever have stood for that. Elsewhere, LB Mayer is “poppa” and WR Hearst is “pops” just in case you were having trouble keeping all these old white wisecracking men straight. About halfway through the film, everybody starts calling Hearst “Willy” to avoid confusion. And the Frankenstein plotting continues right to the end, where Mayer’s offer to buy the Kane negative off RKO for a little more than the film cost to make is bizarrely made before the script is even finished. And, a colossal bet that Mankiewicz makes on the outcome of the election is given huge weight and then never referred to again.

Performances are largely fine. Oldman is several decades too old for Mankiewicz, but maybe that fits given that Herman J essentially drank himself to death over many years. Sam Troughton makes a suitably fussy and pedantic John Houseman, Amanda Seyfried is very winning as Davies and Tom Burke catches something of Welles’ voice, although little of his wry self-reflection and megawatt charisma, while Charles Dance chews the scenery with predictable relish as Hearst.

And it all looks magnificent of course. One can only wonder if Fincher considered shooting it in 4:3 ala Zach Synder, but he fills the widescreen frame with period detail, including reel change marks, fake splices and type-written captions which, after they’ve appeared, scroll jerkily down the screen – you know, the way that paper in a typewriter doesn’t. It’s cute at first, but wearying after a while, like a precious child constantly demanding your attention.

There is a fascinating story here, and there are glimpses of what might have been. But the brilliance of the Kane script is (in part) that it takes a vastly complicated narrative, boils it down to only the most interesting and dramatic sequences and then erects a framing device which not only gives the whole enterprise a second layer of meaning, but avoids the need for any clumsy exposition to be given in dialogue. For a film which keeps making silly visual puns with the 1941 masterpiece, it’s amazing to look at the script and see that almost the exact opposite has been done in every single case. A fairly simple story has been made to seem more complicated than it was, the main timeline zeroes in on the least dramatic sequence and the only framing device seemingly required is a few terse captions.

Which would all be fine – or at least tolerable – if the execution weren’t so grindingly tedious. The worst offenders are the lengthy scenes at the Hearst mansion where everybody rattles out historical exposition alternating with ersatz versions of famous bon mots, carefully timed so as to delicately overlap. But the cadence is relentless, monotonous, deadening. There are no actual people in this room. It’s like a ride at Disneyland – we glide smoothly past animatronic versions of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg et al, reciting their familiar catchphrases. And at the end, I feel I know Mankiewicz less well than before. A big disappointment from such a talented team.