Oscars 2018 – Lady Bird and The Shape of Water

Posted on February 27th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Apparently, I’ve been saving the best for last. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Lady Bird was briefly the best-reviewed movie of all time (now overtaken by Paddington 2). I therefore sat down to watch Greta Gerwig’s unassuming coming-of-age movie with high expectations. It is, of course, excellently done, but I am slightly bewildered at the overwhelming adoration it has received. Maybe critics who are lauding it as an amazing debut didn’t see Frances Ha, also written by Gerwig (but with Noah Baumbach directing) which now looks somewhat like a trial run for this.

This is not to say that it isn’t excellent. It absolutely is. Gerwig’s acutely observed script follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson through the end of high school and the beginning of college, and essentially watches her – as many people do at this time in their lives – try on different personalities, ways of engaging with the world and circles of friends, in an attempt to discover who she is and what space there is left in the world for her. Time and again, Lady Bird presents us with situations very familiar from other movies (high school prom, losing virginity, meeting the parents), but time and again Gerwig finds a way to twist, tweak, surprise or invert these tropes, without the film ever departing from reality too much.

To deliver this script, Gerwig has marshalled an incredible cast, from the effortless Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, to the impeccable Laurie Metcalfe as her mother, to Beanie Feldstein as her off-again, on-again best friend. And – look! – there’s Timothée Chalamet, so utterly convincing in Call Me By Your Name, incredibly funny and having a whale of a time playing the hideously pretentious boyfriend whom Lady Bird goes to bed with.

But as well done as all of this is, it seems inherently and necessarily limited in its scope. The themes, although universal, rarely rise above the trivial, and the appeal to religiosity at the end, while it might have more resonance with American audiences, did nothing whatever for me. So I would file this under “really well made” rather than “changed my life”.

I had almost equally high expectations for The Shape of Water, which comes to the 90th Academy Awards with the most nominations (13 including director, screenplay, score and cinematography). I made a point of watching del Toro’s early hit Pan’s Labyrinth which I hadn’t seen before and which I thought was absolutely amazing – far darker and grimmer than the whimsical fantasy I was anticipating, but hugely effective.

A few similar themes recur here, but the intent is subtly shifted. The period setting and the slight unreality of the production design create a fully-integrated world in which Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man fits properly. This contrasts with Pan’s Labyrinth in which the “real world” is generally presented in a realistic fashion and the hidden world of sprites and fauns seems fantastical. There’s also something fairy tale about Sally Hawkins’ apparent refusal to speak (although the marks on her neck, which give rise to the wonderful visual pun at the end hint at some physical trauma robbing her of the power).

But elsewhere, the feel is much more realistic, with some fairly grim and gruesome violence, not least Michael Shannon’s severed, reattached and rotting fingers, and it’s when these two approaches collide that the film is on thin ice. For much of its running time, the sheer conviction of the players – Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and fabulously expressive and winning Sally Hawkins – carries it through. But all it takes is for the audience to think – even for a second – hang on, this is all a bit silly isn’t it? And suddenly the whole enterprise collapses. And it’s hard not to think that when Hawkins is blissfully filling her entire bathroom with water from an overflowing bath in order to engage in sub-aqua nookie with a fish man. Dear god!

Looking back on the nine nominees, then, it strikes me that while there are no outright disasters – nothing nominated this year is anything like as bad as The Imitation Game, Hacksaw Ridge or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – most of the nominees have been bettered by their own directors. Here, The Shape of Water is good, but not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is good, but not as good as the same director’s Memento (or even The Dark Knight). Phantom Thread is good, but not as good as Magnolia. Three Billboards is good, but not as good as In Bruges. The Post is good but – take your pick! Call Me My Your Name may be better than I am Love, but I haven’t seen it.

Passing over Darkest Hour, which really isn’t all that good, that just leaves Lady Bird and Get Out: two films from first-time directors which really stand out as being true statements of intent from fascinating artists to look out for in the years to come. And although I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Bird, it can’t match the breadth, depth, complexity and ambition of Get Out, which – I’m slightly surprised to report – turns out to be my favourite of this year’s nominees.

On to predictions, briefly. I suspect another split year, with Three Billboards gaining enough momentum to overtake The Shape of Water (which is also dogged by accusations of plagiarism) for Best Picture, but I can’t see anyone other than del Toro winning Best Director. Best Actor and Best Actress are foregone conclusions (Oldman and McDormand) as is Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney). Best Supporting Actor is a little more open but Sam Rockwell should probably have a speech ready.

Screenplay is much harder to call. Really, any of the five nominated films could take Best Original Screenplay, with Three Billboards probably having a slight edge, but I’d love Jordan Peele to take it. Best Adapted Screenplay won’t go to The Disaster Artist or Logan, but the other three all have a shot. I suspect the Academy’s tastes lean more towards Molly’s Game than Call Me By Your Name, but I’m by no means sure.

Join me back here this time next week and we’ll all know for certain.

Oscars 2018 – The Post and Phantom Thread

Posted on February 16th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post almost looks like a spoof Oscar-garnering machine. Beloved actors working together for the first time, a true story about noble crusaders standing up against the powerful elite, an expert director and plenty of hype from a long way off. But when it actually arrived, it seemed to have run out of puff a little. In practice it only ended up with two nominations – Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.

And I entered the cinema with a slight sense of obligation. Sure, I know Spielberg will marshal the material with grace and elan; Hanks and Streep are never less than watchable; and I wasn’t overly-familiar with the story. But honestly, with the classic All The President’s Men showing us The Washington Post taking on Nixon already, and the very recent, Best Picture winning Spotlight giving us a more modern take on the brave reporters uncover the truth story, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real need for The Post?

The story is very simple. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg smuggles out classified reports on the doomed Vietnam War and the New York Times begins to run them but is halted by a court injunction. When copies find their way to the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham have to decide whether to risk their newly public company by following suit. And that’s it! That’s the whole story. So this is a film about process, and a film about character.

Spielberg’s ability with shots and editing is unrivalled, of course, but it’s his ability to deploy all of the resources of a filmmaker’s arsenal to deliver story which really sets him apart. I’ve recently noted the care with which he sets up Lincoln’s need to pass a constitutional amendment, and his 2015 film Bridge of Spies is another example of his immense skill and care. So, if anyone is going to tell this story, it’s this filmmaker.

What lets the script down a bit is the relentless determination to make it relevant. The parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to win the public debate by using the courts to silence dissenting voices are obvious, but that doesn’t stop the film from reminding us again and again and again that Trump is behaving in a very similar way. But at its heart, this is a film about characters, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer create moments for even the smallest parts, which is partly why the roster of talent continues way past the marquee names. Take a bow Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and more besides.

Hanks, of course, is tremendous, delivering a straight-arrow part with straight-arrow charisma. But – perhaps predictably – it’s Meryl Streep’s movie. The portrait of a publishing heiress with the guts to risk it all could have been movie-of-the-week tepid triumph, but Streep invests her with such tremendous vulnerability – even when she’s in the very process of standing up to her army of advisors – that it becomes a uniquely fascinating take on a woman in whom multiple clashing forces are chaotically fighting it out. Sadly, for Streep, Frances McDormand is in the race too, but with three acting Oscars and an unprecedented 21 nominations, I think Streep will be able to bear not winning this one.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is much more complex and unapproachable. In what is being touted as his final film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the gloriously-named Reynolds Woodcock, fifties dressmaker to London’s great and good. With his severe sister (Leslie Manville – magnetic) as his second-in-command, the tetchy, fussy genius of couture continues to command his army of seamstresses and turn out stunning ball gowns and wedding dresses.

Into this controlled and controlling world comes Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and a very strange and twisted battle of wills ensues. If The Post’s storyline is simple, Phantom Thread’s is positively anaemic. Much of the running-time resembles a series of short films, some of which are delightful, some of which are less diverting, some are just a bit frustrating. When Alma, ignoring all advice, tries to disrupt Woodcock’s routine by making him a private romantic dinner, she displays so little understanding of his character, and he displays so little sympathy for her feelings, that it’s hard not to feel entirely fed up with both of them, and it’s very hard to remain invested in the future of their romantic relationship.

When the real nature of their relationship is finally revealed, it’s undeniably arresting and original, and does draw various thematic threads together (sorry) but it’s also faintly ridiculous, with a whiff of off-brand Roald Dahl. And what’s also a peculiar choice is that the film opens with the casual dismissal of the previous girlfriend. This sets Alma up as merely the latest in a series of women, which should make Alma’s refusal to go away much more of a threat to Manville’s Cyril. But in fact, Manville plays almost no part in the final act of the film.

So, it’s also a little hard to understand, particularly in light of the dinner scene above, just what Alma is getting out of the relationship, and also how she is able to see into Woodcock’s soul.

I suspect, more than anything, this is a question of taste. I saw this film with two others one of who adored it and one of whom couldn’t wait for it to end. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. The performances, especially the three leads, are absolutely excellent, and director Anderson makes the most of the locations and wintery London scenes. It’s undeniably original and richly realised, but I think fundamentally I didn’t enjoy being in the company of these people and I began to lose interest in the horrible things they chose to do to each other.

Two films left to go, and to hear my thoughts on Oscar-winners past, do check out my new podcast Best Pick, wherein John Dorney, Jessica Regan and I are watching and reviewing every Academy Award Best Picture winner in no particular order.


Oscars 2018 – Darkest Hour and Three Billboards

Posted on January 31st, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here we are again. As well as podcasting about the Oscars, I intend to continue blogging about them, so here are the runners and riders for the 90th Academy Awards…

Call Me By Your Namereviewed here. Moving drama with incredible performances and not quite enough story to sustain the length.

Darkest Hour – enjoyable history lesson with some ghastly lapses, held together by a wonderful central performance. Full review below.

Dunkirk – often very effective outing for Nolan’s rigorous style and not overlong, but not all sequences are equally effective

Get Out – stunning achievement, marrying black comedy, horror and social commentary in a brilliantly controlled manner.

Lady Bird – have yet to see, but looks great

Phantom Thread – have yet to see, and I don’t always enjoy Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff, so I’m anxious

The Post – have yet to see, and worry that it is inessential

The Shape of Water – have yet to see, but it looks amazing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – marvellous, meditative drama, which always kept me guessing. Full review below

Darkest Hour

Where would the Academy Awards be without a biopic of a famous historical character, played by a beloved character actor, labouring under mounds of latex? Some years we get several, this year Joe Wright and Gary Oldman provide the only one (unless you count The Post) although not the only film about Dunkirk.

To begin with, Oldman is amazing, with the aforementioned mound of latex applied gingerly and not too roughly, so that – while the resemblance is sometimes absolutely total – Oldman’s interpretation of the role is allowed to shine through. He completely inhabits the character – flaws, ideals, strengths, lapses and doubts – and never dips into caricature. Overall, I think his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably finer (who else would dare go toe-to-toe with Alec Guinness) but this is the kind of expert showboating that the Academy loves and it’s hugely satisfying and fun to watch.

Director Joe Wright surrounds Oldman with an impressive roster of supporting actors too, from Kristin Scott-Thomas who eagerly laps up what tiny crumbs the script gives her and manages to sketch in something resembling a human in barely five minutes of screen-time; to Ronald Pickup, born to play Chamberlain and an excellent Ben Mendelsohn as stammering Bertie.

What isn’t quite so satisfactory is the script. The raw story arguably gives writer Anthony McCarten more to work with than the life of Stephen Hawking, but the pages he has produced are often equally flaccid and unconvincing as they were in The Theory of Everything. One huge problem is that the story, which pits Churchill’s newly-anointed Prime Minister against a gag of senior appeasers, doesn’t give him adequate space to articulate his views on how best to deal with the Nazi menace.

Senior parliamentary figures, having agreed to a war-time coalition on the basis that Chamberlain is removed from office, select Churchill as his successor, presumably knowing that he is certain that Hitler must be opposed and by military force, and then proceed to act as if the very thing was absolutely unthinkable. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that appeasement would have been a dreadful folly, but McCarten is so keen to make sure that Chamberlain, Halifax and the others are able to clearly explain the logic behind appeasement that he never gives Churchill the same opportunity. The result is that Winston is painted as a warmongering maverick who on this occasion got lucky. See Spielberg’s Lincoln for how to do this right. That film glides sedately to a stop while the President lays out exactly why nothing short of a constitutional amendment will do, because Spielberg understands that while such a scene might lack in visual excitement or emotional heft, if that issue is not made absolutely clear, then nothing else in the movie is going to matter.

And this may be the wrong place to bring this criticism up, but Oldman-as-Churchill is the latest in a long line of figures which I might call The Rude Good Man. This is a character who is breathtakingly arrogant and rude to those around him (often women) but whose rudeness is not without wit, and so we are invited to find it funny and iconoclastic (instead of just aggressive and unpleasant) and with whom we empathise because he is saying the unsayable and he is ultimately on the side of the angels. Isn’t it time this figure was laid to rest and Lily James given something to do other than have verbal punishment meted out to her?

So at the end of the film, Churchill must win over the doubters. Unlike Ava DuVernay, Wright is able to use Churchill’s real speeches, so we don’t get some awful paraphrase of “We will fight them on the beaches,” but the already-shaky logic of the film rather falls apart here. Churchill is criticised early on for not being straight with the people of Britain about just how dire the situation is. When the King comes around to his Prime Minister’s way of thinking (an epiphany which frustratingly happens off-screen) he tells him that they are now in partnership, but that the PM must start being straight with the British people. Churchill nods in agreement, but that is the last appearance of the King in the movie, and Churchill’s next opportunity to speak to the nation is the aforementioned famous barnstorming speech.

In fact, according to McCarten and Wright, what Churchill needed was to spend an implausibly long time going one stop on the London Underground, hob-nobbing with ordinary Londoners in order to kick-start his torpid confirmation bias. The absurd scene is the nadir of an otherwise fairly enjoyable film, and appears to have been left over from an earlier, sillier draft in which Churchill was made to sound like a Spitting Image puppet of Jeremy Corbyn, trying to score points in the house by asking questions from “ordinary voters”.

As far as the shooting goes, Wright does create a strong sense of place and time and texture, and he manages to pull off some impressive shots. What he lacks is the ability – which, again, Spielberg always seems to have had – to sew a number of amazing shots together into a fluid and dynamic sequence. Wright’s bravura dollies-to-the-sky and so on stand out because in the edit they are too often sandwiched between very static or otherwise pedestrian set-ups.

So – top ten movie of the year? Clearly not. But quite an enjoyable history lesson and a wonderful opportunity for one of our best actors to have a blast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Following his debut feature In Bruges, which was astonishing unless you were already familiar with his amazing stage work, writer-director Martin McDonagh stumbled slightly with the diverting but hollow Seven Psychopaths. Three Billboards feels like his most mature, complex and satisfying work to date. Not nearly as much fun as In Bruges (no-one even comes close to exploding the head of a little person, even though there’s a little person right there and nobody calls anyone an inanimate fucking object at any stage) but considerably deeper, richer and more interesting.

Frances McDormand is excellent as grieving mother Mildred Hayes, who pays $5000 to put up three enormous billboards on a quiet country road, taunting the local police for their inability to find her daughter’s killer. McDonagh’s work in the theatre hasn’t lead him to fall into the trap of telling the whole story verbally. People having ideas is one of the hardest things to pull off in cinema. From the opening of this film, I know I’m in safe hands, because McDonagh doesn’t make a meal of it. He just films McDormand driving past the derelict billboards and looking at them. That’s all you need.

This action sets up a wave of recriminations which touches Sam Rockwell’s racist thug of a cop, John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Caleb Landry-Jones as the billboard manager and essentially the whole town. McDonagh’s first master-stroke (of many) is making the principle antagonist, Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, not an intransigent authority figure but instead a deeply compassionate family man with a cancer diagnosis.

To say much more would be to spoil this endlessly rich and rewarding film, but what really struck me was how the playwright’s cynical and mordant tone has shifted into something much more hopeful and optimistic. So, yes, we do get some clumsy racial slurs early on (which to be honest, the film doesn’t need and which stick in the throat a bit), as well as the nasty fun of McDormand drilling a hole through a disgruntled dentist’s thumbnail, or – in one amazing shot – Rockwell tossing Landry-Jones out of a second-storey window. But ultimately, the film offers us a redemptive view of humanity which is hugely refreshing and uplifting.

Some of the plot contrivances have come in for criticism, and I understand where those critiques are coming from (hi guys) but I don’t entirely share them, except in one case, very near the middle of the film, where poor old Željko Ivanek is made to recite some truly awful dialogue which makes no sense at all, but which is simply required to move one of the chess pieces to the appropriate square on the board. What’s much more laudable is the way McDonagh manages to avoid the plot disintegrating into a very uninteresting whodunnit without the gears grinding in the least little way. And what’s truly impressive is the that the film constantly kept me guessing without me ever feeling cheated, bewildered or manipulated.

Every member of the cast acquits themselves with honour – look it’s Lester Freamon! – and Carter Burwell’s music knits the whole thing together. A wonderful film to savour, bar a few tiny stumbles.

Molly’s Game

Posted on January 7th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut arrives and it’s certainly a heady concoction, full of fizz and invention, but it does end up feeling just a little hollow. It’s the true story of the improbably-named Molly Bloom, whose career as a professional skier is interrupted by an injury and who ends up making more money running her boss’s poker game than she does doing her job. She therefore takes the game away from him and ends up as the unwitting confidante of a number of top players, including members of the Russian Mob.

Sorkin borrows a page from his own Facebook, designing the structure of the film around Molly’s court case, in which her phones full of incriminating texts from regulars at her poker games become the prize which law enforcement is after but which Molly, despite protestations from her lawyer, is unwilling to surrender. Around this main narrative thread, there are frequent flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, young adulthood and evenings running poker rooms.

The two different parts of the movie are handled very differently. Especially early on, Sorkin makes the flashbacks an assault on the senses. Chastain rattles out Sorkin’s voice-over dialogue with crisp authority as driving music knits together images from a huge variety of sources, to the point where the style is not so much Award Winning Prestige Motion Picture, but more YouTube video. At times, he seems about to fall prey to one of what David Frost called “Lord Privy Seals“.

The rest of the film – mainly contemporary verbal fencing between Jessica Chastain’s resolute Molly and Idris Elba’s compassionate lawyer (thankfully much more cautious Stringer Bell than lumpen Luther) –  is more conventionally shot and edited. Sorkin, whether wisely or not, trusts that his dialogue and his actors will carry the day. And they mostly do. Both Elba and Chastain do solid work, if a little one-note. Kevin Costner and Jeremy Strong are both fine. Michael Cera has fun as movie-star composite Player X, and Chris O’Dowd possibly has little too much fun as the hilariously inarticulate Douglas Downey, whose Russian Mob connections prove to be Molly’s downfall. It’s just a shame that as a director, Sorkin hasn’t found any middle ground between shooting his scenes like a particularly demented music video on the one hand, and like any random episode of The West Wing on the other.

The story itself is well-paced and never less than entertaining. Sorkin uses the backstory well, serves the needs of poker and poker-related gamesmanship, family drama and legal thriller equally and adroitly, and – as you might expect – the dialogue crackles along. He is also unafraid to deploy jokes, even during moment of the highest drama, so when Elba is speechifying or Chastain is expositing, all is right with the world.

But there are a few niggles. Surprisingly, not all the poker stuff is completely accurate. Twice Sorkin, who must have known better, over-reaches. Wanting to establish Michael Cera’s character as a brilliantly player who can force better hands to fold, he gives the other player the nuts, i.e. an unbeatable hand, which strains credulity quite unnecessarily. Later, he allows Molly to begin raking the pot in the middle of a hand, which is highly unlikely to be true. I suppose it could be, I haven’t read the book, but most players would revolt at this sudden, unexpected and irrevocable rewriting of the rules.

Ultimately, with an eye on the Oscars, the question becomes – is this just a thrill ride, a roller coaster of words and situations, or does it illuminate something bigger than itself. In conversations with Dad Costner and lawyer Elba, the nature of Molly’s stubborn integrity is probed, but she remains a movie hero, who plays by her own rules, but whose interior life is only glimpsed occasionally, unless it’s being spelled out for us in voice over.

And as the film has no ambitions to explore anything beyond the realms of poker and crime, this remains a well-made entertainment rather than a masterpiece.

Look out for episode 0 of my new podcast Best Pick, dropping on Wednesday, and be back here on 23 January for the Oscar nominations,

Pre-Oscars 2018

Posted on January 4th, 2018 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

Although the nominations have not yet been announced, I’ve got my eye on what films are getting “buzz”. One leading candidate I’ve already seen (Dunkirk) and at least a couple of other slightly more left-field possibilities are also in the bag (Get Out and Bladerunner 2049) but back in London with a less-than-usually hectic schedule, I sought out a couple of indie films likely to get mentions on 23 January.

Please remember, my reviews are not guaranteed to be spoiler-free. Proceed at your own risk.

The first film I took in was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s depiction of a young mother struggling to make ends meet for her and her six-year-old daughter in her run-down motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Brooklyn Prince as Halley and Bria Vinaite as her daughter Mooney are outstanding as is the rest of the mostly-unknown cast who all give hugely engaging, truthful performances. Really only Willem Dafoe is at all familiar, but he slips in beautifully as Bobby, the wearily compassionate manager of the Magic Castle.

Halley scams, makes friends, makes enemies. Mooney plays, makes friends, makes enemies. Bobby bears witness, tries to protect Halley from herself and the motel from Halley, and all of this takes place walking distance from The Happiest Place On Earth™. Baker is very aware of the irony, but to his credit, never leans on it too heavily. It’s all beautifully observed and never less than fascinating to watch, but although to some extent Halley’s misdeeds do start catching up with her at the end of the film, I never quite got the sense of the dominoes starting to topple. Sean Baker has essentially made a dozen or so short films set in this fascinating location, but for me there’s no sense of crescendo even when social services arrive and try and take Mooney away. And the eventual (slightly inexplicable) trip to the real Magic Kingdom at the end doesn’t deliver the necessary catharsis either, because it’s all over with very quickly, and too many threads are left hanging.

Similarly episodic, but (slightly) more in control of the narrative structure is Call Me By Your Name which arrives festooned with awards and critical acclaim. Directed by Luca Guadagnino with a script by James Ivory from the novel by André Aciman, this is a coming-of-age story in four languages set in a bucolic Italian retreat some time in the 1980s.

Elio, the slightly feckless son of academic Jewish couple the Perlmans, sees his regular summer sojourns as a tedious stretch to be endured, but he begins experimenting sexually with one of the local girls, not least as a distraction from this year’s visiting student Oliver, played with brawny intelligence by Armie Hammer. Eventually, the two of them develop a sexual relationship.

As Elio, Timothée Chalamet is revelatory, his unstudied awkwardness and fleeting articulacy capturing with pure honesty the way a young life is slowly assembled through different experiences. But while this film doesn’t have the near-random order of events that weakens Florida, it does get a bit bogged-down in the long middle section where Elio and Oliver continue their affair, happily, warmly, equally and without fear of discovery or approbation. The desire to avoid melodrama is laudable, but the danger is that one avoids drama.

Looking at a synopsis, I can see that the plot of the novel has been streamlined, and I can understand why, but when it becomes clear that this is not an older man taking advantage of a younger man, nor a foolish infatuation of a teenager with an adult, but a genuine meeting-of-minds, then simply watching that play out is not quite as interesting to me as it apparently is for Guadagnino. So I found that the episodic feeling was a bigger problem here than with The Florida Project simply because the stakes feel so low here.

Unlike Florida, though, when the catharsis comes, it really hits home. In a movie which is largely concerned with visuals, where many scenes play out with little or no dialogue, the crucial scene is essentially a monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg to his son. Stahlbarg, a fabulous actor, pulls it off magnificently, and so finally, and without ever tipping into hysteria, the film delivers a real punch of an ending, which considerably makes up for the sluggish preceding half hour or so.

That’s it for now. Other movies which I imagine are in the running include The Post, Molly’s GameThree Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, and Detroit. I also wouldn’t rule out The Big SickThe Shape of Water and I Tonya.

So… what did I think of Twice Upon A Time?

Posted on December 27th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Give me a second to blow the dust off. Right, there we go. Hello everyone.

As what I fondly imagine are “regular readers” will recall, I was, by and large, hugely impressed with Series Ten of Doctor Who, and the two-part season finale in particular I thought was a total triumph, one of Steven Moffatt’s very best scripts for the series, brilliantly orchestrated by Rachel Talalay and anchored by a titanic performance from Peter Capaldi. I was fully on-board for the gimmick of regenerating Doctor meets regenerating Doctor and so was beside myself with anticipation for this year’s Christmas special.

What we got was… unexpected.

The opening was glorious, clips from The Tenth Planet artfully merged with recreated scenes, until finally Doctor meets Doctor in the nostalgically studio-bound polar wastes. But for the first forty minutes or so, this was pretty flaccid stuff. True, both Doctors played their parts to the hilt – although as usual the returning Doctor is a pastiche version rather than an accurate evocation of the real thing. The most outré lines though, were accurate Hartnell quotes. Mark Gatiss too plays his part with real feeling and sensitivity, and of course it’s a delight to have Bill Potts back, and even more of a delight to see her wandering around a beautifully-recreated classic TARDIS.

But where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the drama? Where, in short, is the plot? As delightful as it is to have Peter Capaldi and David Bradley exchanging well-crafted zingers, put-downs and in-jokes (“Mr Pastry”) the whole thing seems almost entirely inert, and that allows nagging questions to start to impinge. Just why exactly does two Doctors meeting in 1986 pluck a dying soldier from the battlefield in 1914? Why is such a big issue being made of Bill’s identity if no solution proffered is going to prove acceptable to the Doctor? And why on Earth are we risking life and regenerating limb to double check Nikki Amuka-Bird’s story with Rusty the Dalek from the forgettable Series Eight story?

If that was all this story had to offer, I would be pretty pissed off by now. Luckily, the last fifteen minutes are something a bit special. From the Christmas Eve Armistice onwards, the story suddenly takes flight. An evil villain plotting the downfall of our heroes still fails to materialise, but the rich themes of sacrifice, honour, friendship and kindness come to the fore, and the returning companions are handled with much more grace and subtlety than Karen Gillan’s reprise of Amy in the very unsatisfactory Time of the Doctor.

The regeneration itself – alone as it was the last time a Doctor and a showrunner departed together – was a little laboured, but who could really argue for cutting Capaldi’s final barnstorming performance? And lo! There she is. The Doctor. All blonde hair, wide eyes and in the most terrible trouble, plunging to certain death out of the TARDIS doors. Oh brilliant.


So – some housekeeping.

To briefly recap, Steven Moffat’s first three seasons were characterised by vaulting ambition which rapidly out-reached the series’ ability to attain them. While the arc-plot collapsed into further and further gibberish, only a few stand-out episodes survived (The Girl Who Waited, A Good Man Goes to War, The Crimson Horror and especially The Doctor’s Wife) despite Matt Smith’s supple performance.

With Capaldi at the helm, the seas were calmer. The last series alone boasted Thin Ice, Oxygen and The Pyramid at the End of the World which would be poll-winners in any year which didn’t include World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. So, Chibnall and Whittaker inherit a series in rude health. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

Lastly, this blog will probably not spring back into the kind of life which it enjoyed in its heyday, but I will be recording some probably fairly brief Oscar reviews in the coming weeks and months, when I can find time away from my new podcast – Best Pick.

So… what did I think of the end of Series Ten?

Posted on July 3rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

As the Capaldi era comes to an end, Steven Moffat has just three more chances to show us that his technical brilliance, his love for the programme and his vaulting ambition can work together to provide some really terrific storytelling, and not get in each other’s way as they are so wont to do.

The opening of World Enough and Time is unbelievably cheeky, with Missy proclaiming “I am Doctor Who and these are my expendables – Exposition and Comic Relief.” This almost feels last-day-of-school, but Moffat, guardian of the legacy, is always careful to provide a canon-friendly interpretation of the lines.

We find ourselves on board a miles-long spaceship, fighting the gravity well of a black hole, such that it is experiencing massive time dilation effects. This is a lovely science fiction concept, based in real physics, it’s just a shame that we saw another, slightly less rigorous version, last week. Suddenly, shockingly, Bill Potts gets a hole visibly blasted through her middle and then Cybermen bundle her off to the floors below. Although – if the Cybermen are evolving on the very bottom floors, where time is running the slowest, surely it should take them decades to even notice the presence of humans on the upper levels?

While the Doctor debates and argues, Bill makes friends with a shambling Fagin-like figure in the hospital on the ground floor. A lot of this is just vamping, and it’s slightly annoying that the time dilation isn’t ramped up just a little bit more. We know full well that the “hospital” is a cyber-conversion centre so the suspense is when and not if Bill will be fully converted. But the scenes of the Doctor working the problem feel a bit lifeless, which is a shame when the time dilation means that the Doctor and company could have headed straight for the lift and still been years getting down to where Bill is.

What’s brilliant about the stuff with Bill is how cleverly Moffat uses parts of the mythology which have gone unnoticed until now and provides justifications for them. Just as Clara’s calm words get turned into Dalek ranting in The Witch’s Familiar, and so we understand why Daleks sound the way they do, here the Cyber chest-units are retconned into elaborate surgical heart-replacements. And don’t the “Mondasian” Cybermen look fantastic?

About half way through the episode, I caught myself musing “I wonder when John Simm is going to show up,” and then I instantly realised that that’s who Fagin was. I honestly don’t think I would ever have got there without the advanced publicity. Shame on you, BBC.

Finally, at the episode’s end it all comes together. The Master is unveiled, Bill is converted, and the Doctor is at a loss. It’s a great part one, emphasising personal loss and avoiding the diminishing returns which set in when writers start trying to raise the stakes by having the threat become greater and greater.

The Doctor Falls takes an hour to wrap up – well sort of – what the previous episode began, but compare to season finales past, never seems hurried or over-stuffed. It’s nice to see the Doctor on the front foot so early on, springing into action and escaping to higher floors. The location footage on Sam Spiro’s farm somewhat fights the notion that we are on a gigantic spaceship, but there are sufficient reminders so this just about works and Rachel Talalay handles this visual conundrum very well indeed.

Shooting cyber-Bill as Pearl Mackie means we never forget the person inside the tin suit, and keeps hope alive that she will be returned, even if the rest of the script is dismantling that hope piece-by-piece. Her plight is hugely affecting and it’s clear that – for once – Moffat is thinking through the human side of the dilemma he’s created instead of just writing crossword puzzle clues for the viewers to solve.

The time dilation works for and against our heroes. On the one hand, it means that the Cybermen have time to evolve (another lovely piece of ret-conning – the Cybermen are not unique to Mondas or Telos, or Marinus(!), but are an inevitable by-product of technological advancement). But it also means that with each floor you go up, it takes them longer to follow. So Nardole figuring out how to selectively blow up parts of the ship buys them time, but more time than it might have done otherwise. (Although the justification that Nardole’s remote control device can’t be controlled remotely is astonishingly feeble.)

From here – the story follows three tracks. The fate of Bill. The fate of the children. The fate of the Master. They don’t really affect each other, which is not perhaps ideal. The Master can be removed from the story entirely without anything changing, but unlike the pointless cameo from Clare Higgins in Hell Bent, here they serve not just as something to cut away to, but underline the real point of the story, and indeed the point of the Doctor. I would have liked it underlined that the Master(s) leave the children to die not because they refuse to be kind, but because they are cowardly. But nevertheless, the Doctor’s desperate plea that they stand and fight with him, and their ironic mutual destruction add immeasurably to the episode’s bleak tone.

Bill of course, finds a saviour, in the form of The Pilot from Episode One. Again – serialised storytelling done right. This is not vaguely mentioning a past event in order to get a fanwanky cheer. This is setting up a figure with clearly defined abilities and proclivities and then dropping her back into the narrative when she’s needed.

The fate of the children and Nardole is rather less clear. The Doctor is totally backed into a corner here. Wounded, dying even. An army of cybermen below him which will only grow bigger. One opportunity to get innocents out of the line of fire. All he can do is send them a few floors up and hope that they have a few extra months or years – either to live and grow and be happy, or to think of another plan.

The Doctor himself, meanwhile, fighting off regeneration, stumbles out of the TARDIS and into the snowy landscape, presumably of the North Pole c. 1986 and meets – himself.

Well, we’ll judge this audacious move on the merits of the Christmas special, but let’s try and assess this two parter on its own merits.

Clearly, it’s by far the best finale Steven Moffat has written. The Big Bang barely makes any sense, and coming off the back of The Pandorica Opens with its absurd Monster Convention, it’s amazing that it works at all on any level. The Wedding of River Song is total gibberish, failing to wrap up the Lake Silencio storyline in any satisfactory way, and providing next to nothing in terms of narrative coherence. The Name of the Doctor doubles down on this kind of unintelligibility, although The Time of the Doctor makes it look like a masterpiece of structure. Time is surely the worst regeneration episode in the entire show’s history.

Under the firm leadership of Peter Capaldi, things improve. Death in Heaven isn’t a patch on Dark Water, but is still far better than any of the Smith finale episodes (maybe on a par with The Big Bang). Hell Bent, alas squanders the considerable capital built up by Heaven Sent, but this year’s pair work beautifully together to tell a complicated science-fiction story, that keeps its focus on the characters we love and care about, which doesn’t try and pack too much in to its running time, and which lets five amazing actors do wonderful work together. It’s telling how much more apocalyptic this feels than The Big Bang for example, not because the fate of the universe is threatened, but because the Doctor gives so much to eke out a draw against impossible odds.

A few little niggles in both episodes prevent me from offering up a full five stars but I’ll happily give four and a half to both.

Overall, this has been another very strong season, with only Smile and Knock Knock really letting the side down. Extremis makes not a whit of sense but is quite fun while it’s on and all the others have been good to great. Here’s my final ranking.

  1. World Enough and Time
  2. The Doctor Falls 
  3. The Pyramid at the End of the World 
  4. Oxygen 
  5. Thin Ice 
  6. The Lie of the Land 
  7. The Eaters of Light 
  8. Empress of Mars 
  9. The Pilot 
  10. Extremis 
  11. Knock Knock
  12. Smile 

And just for fun, let’s compare this to the rankings on Gallifrey Base to see just how in-tune or out-of-step I am with Doctor Who fans across the world.

  1. World Enough and Time 91%
  2. The Doctor Falls 86%
  3. Oxygen 82%
  4. Extremis 79%
  5. The Pilot 76%
  6. Thin Ice 74%
  7. Knock Knock 74%
  8. Empress of Mars 73%
  9. The Pyramid at the End of the World 73%
  10. The Eaters of Light 69%
  11. Smile 67%
  12. The Lie of the Land 64%

The fondness for Oxygen as well as the finale two-parter doesn’t surprise me, nor does how much people like Extremis. The excellent Pyramid coming so low down, beneath the awful Knock Knock is very surprising, and I would never have picked The Lie of the Land as the season’s worst. I wonder why people disliked it so much?

One more Capaldi episode to go. See you at Christmas…

So… what did I think of The Eaters of Light?

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

I don’t remember whether or not, as I sat and watched Survival in December 1989, I knew I was watching the last episode of Doctor Who for the foreseeable future. Over ten years, I’d watched this stalwart of British TV get shunted around the schedules, have its season lengths slashed, and finally I’d watched it get shut down and pensioned off.

When the series came back (properly came back), sixteen years had passed. Yes, we got the Daleks back, but without Roy Skelton and without John Scott Martin. The Cybermen returned, but David Banks and Michael Kilgariff remained absent. The Master returned, but Geoffrey Beevers stayed at home. It was a new broom. A new team. About the only exception to this implacable rule was director Graeme Harper. (Thinking of other exceptions is left as an exercise for the reader.)

So, when last week Ysanne Churchman reprised her role as Alpha Centauri, it seemed only fitting that this week was the first time a classic series writer returned to the fold. Rona Munroe created the planet of the Kitlings, and it is she who now brings us The Eaters of Light.

Before we gear up for the no-doubt dementedly epic two-part finale we take a break from serialised storytelling and just go for a yarn. This is a pretty good one, albeit kicked off by the fairly unlikely premise that Bill Potts, yes, that Bill Potts, would be so invested in the fate of the ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army that she would have to go and see for herself. What she in fact finds is one of the best-designed and executed monsters the series has ever done, linked with a strong science-fiction device that actually seems to make sense and to work. All this and a nifty moral dilemma too.  If this is non-epic, non game-changing, Doctor Who business-as-usual, then I’m all for it.

There is a slight issue, as there so often is, with the cannon-fodder cast not always being too readily distinguishable, but Rebecca Benson does well as Kar, and so do Brian Vernal and Sam Adewunmi on the Roman side. But after a week in which they were slightly overshadowed by the guest cast, this time around the regulars really get to shine. Ten episodes in and the writers still haven’t got bored of the concept of Bill asking all those questions which have never been asked before, which is great because neither have I. But this is easily the best Nardole episode yet, playing right into Matt Lucas’s comedy talents without him ever becoming annoying.

The Stones of Blood style opening probably isn’t needed. Either this was a set-up for a pay-off later deleted, or a last-minute addition to bulk out the running time. The tag with Missy obviously belongs to the next story and not this one, so I’ll overlook it for now. And the nonsense with the crows is a hideous stumble, bringing back horrid memories of Matt Smith claiming he can speak baby. But overall, this is fine stuff, funny, exciting and properly thought through with Charles Palmer doing a fantastic job behind the camera. Four stars.

So… what did I think of The Lie of the Land?

Posted on June 12th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Endings are tough, as this blog has observed before, and following the excellent Pyramid at the End of the World was never going to be easy. And The Lie of the Land made a decent fist of it, while not quite scaling the same heights.

The time jump helps enormously, defining this as its own story, linked to but separate from the two (or three?) earlier installments. People who compile lists of Doctor Who stories (how tragic!) worry endlessly about whether The Trial of a Time Lord is one story or four (or three) (it’s four) or whether the Return of the Master sequence at the end of Series Three is one story or two (or three) (it’s one). As I observed last week, this is serialised storytelling done right, and that means I have no hesitation in calling “The Monk Trilogy” three stories.

It’s not just the fact of it’s being a trilogy which calls Last of the Time Lords to mind, nor the brief presence of the Master. The whole dystopian Earth subjugated by fascist overlord aesthetic seems familiar both from this and Turn Left, especially because in all three versions, the companion is forced to survive separated from the Doctor. The nifty turn here is that the Doctor is broadcasting propaganda videos on behalf of the oppressors.

All the most interesting stuff surrounds the Doctor’s apparent turncoat shenanigans, culminating in the powerful and cheeky confrontation between Bill and Capaldi, complete with faux-regeneration light-show, so handy for casting-related trailer internet chatter. What follows is rather less interesting, not least because the whole set-up screams “reset button”. In Turn Left, this is not an issue, because the whole episode is a might-have-been. In Last of the Time Lords, Russell goes to tremendous lengths to make sure that the year-that-never-was is remembered by some people, so there is a least some cost to the Master’s cruelty.

Here, once the Monk’s spell is broken, it’s business as usual very quickly, so the only point of interest is the manner of their despatch. This is thought through, again using material developed earlier in the season in an intelligent way, without making the whole thing a Gordian Plot of bewildering complexity. But Bill’s sacrifice doesn’t really resonate, because it’s just vastly unlikely that her mind-meld actually will kill her, and because it just doesn’t and for no very good reason.

Bridging the gap between these two halves (one very strong, the other serviceable but slightly uninspired) is another confrontation between the Doctor and Missy. Far more than the much-hyped but rather empty Doctor/Davros scenes in Series Nine, the issues explored here are genuinely fascinating, and Michelle Gomez continues to find new things to do with the character, deepening and broadening a figure who was once the very epitome of a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

So this is an easy four stars. Very far from a catastrophic let-down, but not quite delivering the clarity, originality and depth of the previous installment.

And… what did I think of The Empress of Mars?

Mark Gattis is nothing if not prolific. With nine scripts for the series under his belt, only the two show-runners have written more for the modern day incarnation of the show and he is only beaten by Terry Nation and Robert Holmes in the classic era. However, the quality of his output ranges from the excellent (The Crimson Horror) to the serviceable (The Idiot’s Lantern, Cold War) to the downright terrible (Robot of Sherwood, Sleep No More).

This story is absolutely in his wheelhouse, combining his love for England and Empire with his knowledge of Doctor Who’s past, with his somewhat carefree relationship with technology (how Victorian technology is pressed into space-faring service is never really explained).

The teaser is a bit Moffat-by-the-numbers with the Doctor and Bill on a lackadaisical tourist trip to no real purpose, but the reveal of the message under the Martian ice is interesting enough and once we get to Mars, the visuals are eye-poppingly brilliant. I’m a bit disgruntled by once again, putting the actors in great big uncomfortable space suits and then having them take off the helmets on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Instead of a handful of human cannon-fodder, we get a small army of redcoats to worry about, but it’s a tribute to the writing, directing, casting and acting that the three principals – Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw all manage to distinguish themselves and avoid all blurring together. And the double-crossing plot does seem to make sense at first viewing. “Friday” exploits the greed of the human soldiers for assistance in rescuing his queen, who first turns on her saviours and then grudgingly respects the nobility of their leader.

The updated version of the Ice Warrior’s sonic weapon is absolutely brilliant, a fantastic 3D evocation of the Mylar-wobble that Leader Clent and Commander Radnor had to worry about, and Adele Lynch chews up all the scenery available (and has the false teeth to do it) as Queen Iraxxa. And while, as noted, the magic Victorian spacesuits don’t really make any sense, in general the sight of a Zulu-style steampunk British Army facing off against some “upright crocodiles” seems joyfully silly as opposed to offensively stupid the way those spitfires in space did.

What’s missing I suppose is any sense of real depth or surprise. There are interesting issues here which Doctor Who has been keen to tackle lately, but the Empire-building British forces are thinly drawn and there is very little moral dimension to their actions, beyond what the plot requires. Similarly, while the story unfolds very smoothly and fairly satisfyingly, there are hardly any heart-in-the-mouth goodness-whatever-will-happen-next moments.

I think the disappearance of the TARDIS is meant to be like that (it provokes the Doctor to exclaim “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” which feels totally wrong) but this is evidently another script written before Matt Lucas agreed to come on board, so the whole jaunt with Nardole and Missy feels like it’s coming from another story entirely. And while Capaldi and Mackie do everything that’s asked of them, neither really gets any opportunity to show what they’re capable of here, leaving Anthony Calf to walk off with the acting honours.

So, this is probably three-and-a-half stars if we’re being fair, but I’ll bump it up to four for the reappearance of Ysanne Churchman – returning to the series after 43 years which must be some kind of record.

So… what did I think of The Pyramid at the End of the World

Posted on May 28th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Part ones are arguably far easier than concluding part twos. Creating mysteries, locked box conundrums, impossible life-or-death situations is far, far easier than providing solutions which manage to be simultaneously surprising, satisfying, and with hindsight seem inevitable. Recent Doctor Who is (understandably) littered with examples of part twos which fail to live up to the promise of part one, and sometimes even tarnish the memory of part one.

A notable exception is last year’s The Zygon Inversion, a co-pro between showrunner Steven Moffat and Wallander scribe Peter Harness, the conclusion of which is still for me a high water mark for the series as a whole (up there with Human Nature, Dalek and, yes, I suppose, Blink).

I didn’t really review Extremis last week, but suffice to say I thought it was a fairly empty and meaningless exercise. A glorified “and it was all a dream” ending which makes very little sense on any level. So, I had rather mixed feelings sitting down to watch this week’s installment.

I needn’t have worried. This is masterly stuff, playing to both writers’ strengths. I suspect Moffat’s hand in the chain-of-chance plotting which leads lab workers Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner to accidentally create a bacterium antithetical to all life. And Harness’s contribution I imagine is likely to be the stunning pair of moral dilemmas – first those faced by the three generals, and then the even greater one faced by Bill at the very end.

It’s also very well worth pointing out that – for perhaps the first time since Matt Smith took over – this is serialised storytelling done right. Doctor Who 1963-1996 was always fundamentally a serialised anthology series. Even linked seasons like The Key to Time or (gawdelpus) The Trial of a Time Lord fell neatly into self-contained sections. Parts two, three and four might be a little hard to follow if you hadn’t seen last week’s episode, but every part one was a new story, and all you needed to know was the Doctor travels in time in a police box and you could start watching.

But in 2005, the television landscape was very different. Post Babylon 5, post Murder One, post The Wire, audiences were happy with – maybe even expected – a series arc at the very least. Russell’s approach to this was cautious. Mentions of Bad Wolf, Torchwood or Mr Saxon could be picked up by devoted watchers, safely ignored by casual viewers.

When Moffat and Smith took over in 2010, we were post Breaking Bad, post Man Men. And Moffat was keen to show that Doctor Who could compete. However, not wanting to sacrifice variety, the end result was a pretty ghastly muddle at times, with “arc” stories rubbing up against “non-arc stories” sometimes in the clumsiest of ways (see Night Terrors for arguably the worst offender in this regard).

Under Capaldi’s reign, things have been a bit smoother, with stand-alone-stories generally being the order of the day, but we’ve still had to suffer end-of-season gibberish like Death in Heaven. Now it seems like the balance between these two forces is being struck perfectly. Both this episode and the preceding one stand alone, but they work better together. In fact, Pyramid retrospectively flatters the earlier episode. I’m considering bumping it up from two stars to three.

Back to the episode itself. The structure is more sophisticated than, say, Robot, but far simpler and far less OCD than many recent stories. The Doctor madly scrambles to figure out what the monks in the pyramid are up to, but we know he’s looking in the wrong direction. Finally, the Doctor’s blindness pays off – he figures out how to find the source of the impending catastrophe.

Here the physical geography of the lab is a little confusing. It would have been better to have found some way in the scripting or the shooting to clearly demarcate which areas were compromised and which were safe, but the key elements of the problem are assembled very neatly. The Doctor on one side of a door. The TARDIS on the other. Nardole, incapacitated inside. And the Doctor’s sonic glasses totally unable to read the numbers on the combination lock. As a piece of plotting, forcing Bill to sacrifice the stewardship of the Earth out of pure love, it’s basically perfect.

Let’s have a little talk about that prop though. The actual combination lock itself looks like a child’s toy and no lab in the world ever had a combination lock like that. Surely it should be a keypad? That’s a problem if Denning knows the code, because then the Doctor can enter it without looking at it, but surely a better solution would be to have the code be 10-12 digits long – so long that Denning and Gardner keep it written down. Now Denning doesn’t know it, and any sighted person would be able to read it and we don’t have to have that ridiculous looking Duplo prop.

This is a minor niggle, and I hate giving episode five stars when there’s a conclusion still to come, but this is really, really good stuff. The regulars are on great form, the UN quartet do everything that’s asked of them, the effects are all top notch and director Daniel Nettheim generally keeps things moving. I’m going to keep half a star in my back pocket though. 4½ stars and onwards to The Lie of the Land.