So… what did I think of Empire of Death?

Posted on June 25th, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

I said it last time, and it bears repeating: the build-up is easy and the payoff is hard. One of the best ways of making the payoff really land is to have our hero achieve victory at some personal cost. The first two RTD season finales achieved this with considerable style. In Doomsday, the Doctor loses Rose and in The Parting of the Ways, he loses his life (he got better). Subsequent finales didn’t have the same power, with David Tennant’s exit undermined a little by his rather self-indulgent pre-expiry victory lap.

But we knew, or I guess we knew, that Russell wasn’t going to kill Ruby, murder Mel or have Ncuti make an early exit. So the nearest we get to a squeeze of vinegar to help the triumph over adversity feel a bit more earned is the reunion between birth mother and daughter, which felt real and complicated in the best tradition of nu-Who, but came after the villain was summarily despatched and all of the dusted citizens of the universe popped back into life again.

The other problem for finales is you have to answer all of those niggling questions. So, yes, we find out that Ruby’s mother was just a girl young in trouble, but her significance to those travelling in the TARDIS – a TARDIS with a malevolent quasi-Egyptian god wrapped invisibly around it – created a weak point in time. That’s a fair enough explanation as far as it goes, but I can only assume that the Time Window was using a hefty dose of artistic license as it depicted her pointing out a signpost to nobody with such melodramatic flair.

And of course, as soon as the world turns to sand, the spectre of a reset button rears its head. That’s the problem with bringing the apocalypse as opposed to merely threatening it. But the world stayed dead for an appreciable amount of time, and – thanks to that heartbreaking scene with Sian Clifford – we felt it as opposed to were merely informed about it. The journey also contained much that was worthwhile, with Bonnie Langford doing wonderful work, whether roaring through “London” on a Vespa, tenderly fondling Colin Baker’s old tie, collapsing in near-exhaustion on the floor of the TARDIS, or possessed by Sutekh and giving us magnificent claw-hand-of-evil acting.

Ncuti and Millie showed their class here too, with Millie’s fake-out “God of nothing” moment being a stand-out – and if you thought the secret of her mum was pure bathos, then here’s the Doctor saving the day with bungee cord, a whistle and a spoon. Detailed explanations of the whistle and the spoon were apparently both written and then discarded in favour of more showing-not-telling. It’s fine to cut pedantic explanations if they aren’t needed, but this walks a fine line between “It’s a neat trick, I’ll explain later” and “Details are boring, on with the adventure.” I think it’s on the right side of that line, but it’s a close one.

So, this is an episode of moments rather than a truly cohesive hour of storytelling, but many of the moments are fabulous, with Kate Stewart’s sign off, the Remembered TARDIS, Mrs Flood cos-playing as Romana/The White Guardian/Mary Poppins/Jackanory and Ncuti’s howl of despair into the echoing void. It’s clear this is a TARDIS team for the ages, but I hope next year Russell remembers that he doesn’t have to end the entire universe for us to care – sometimes just seeing two characters holding hands in adversity is enough.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Legend of Ruby Sunday

Posted on June 18th, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

I made the mistake of posting an eye-rolling Tweet about how the season’s mysterious big bad isn’t going to be the Valeyard – a villain associated with a charismatic performer, which looks to devoted fans like a dangling loose end in the series’ mythos, but whose backstory doesn’t really make any coherent sense in the broadcast episodes, let alone invites further forensic investigation. With the passing of Michael Jayston, the already thoroughly remote prospect of this complicated enemy being returned to receded further into the darkest recesses of possibility. Replying to another fan, I agreed that it was equally unlikely that we’d be seeing Fenric, or the Rani, or Harrison Chase, or the Drahvins. Ha ha ha. Well done to me.

Except that I started that list with Sutekh.

Now, on reflection, Sutekh is one of the few badguys from the classic series whose return does make sense. Pyramids of Mars is a very well-remembered story (not least because it was one of the very first released on VHS), from the most highly-regarded era of the show, but there’s nothing about him which particularly needs to be explained to the new viewer. Partly because he wasn’t invented by Robert Holmes, who was riffing on Hammer Horror versions of the Mummy’s Tomb and flipped through the Big Boys Book of Egyptian Mythology to find the right name. Partly because everything you need to know is right there on the screen.

And, yes, this does feel like the Russell T Davies Stolen Earth/Army of Ghosts/Bad Wolf playbook, with a certain amount of narrative vamping in the early going, and then an acceleration into a mind-blowing reveal at the end. That isn’t a particularly difficult bit of writing, but neither is it trivial, and while this makes it look easy, let’s not overlook some of the grace notes in the writing and the directing. The Time Window is a wonderful device, brilliantly executed. The agony of not quite being able to see the face of Ruby’s mother is exquisite (and just how far away were those security cameras?). The Su-Tech gag is delightful, as is UNIT’s casual dismissal of the S. Triad anagram. All the characters pop – maybe except for Rose who doesn’t get much to do here. But I loved the new 13-year-old scientific advisor and I adored Mel telling the Doctor to get his shit together.

But, of course, and by design, this is all build-up and no payoff. And build-up is easier. If this doesn’t all come together next week, that could well tarnish this episode’s reputation. I liked Dark Water a lot more before I’d seen Death in Heaven. But for now, for the ascent to the top of the rollercoaster, this is faultlessly done, with all departments firing on all cylinders, so once again, it’s the full five stars from me.

So… what did I think of Rogue?

Posted on June 9th, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

Weirdly, as I watch toxic parts of the internet melt down in a froth of racism and homophobia (“Two men kissing, urgh!” “My Doctor would never dance to Kylie” “Does he have to say ‘honey’?”) what I loved about this episode was how unashamedly traditional it was. It takes real craft, and skill, and care, to take a solid science fiction run-around and really make it work, ramping up the stakes, pulling surprises on the audience and have it all (or almost all) make sense. This isn’t a galaxy-ending catastrophe, or a rewriting of everything we thought we knew about the Doctor’s history. It’s some malevolent monsters whose fun means innocent people suffer, and our hero is going to stop them – hurrah!

As is rapidly becoming the norm, we don’t waste time with tedious TARDIS scenes in which the leads ponderously decide to go to the environment we already saw in the teaser – the Doctor and Ruby are just there. But while Ruby is having fun soaking up the atmosphere, Ncuti has spotted an “evil leaper” watching from the balcony. With the exception of Captain Jack, who shares some DNA with the titular Rogue, it’s rare in Doctor Who to see a dark version of the central character. The Master is just another villain, but Rogue has a mission, and he thinks he’s the good guy, which makes him fascinating. And it makes perfect sense to me that this most open, empathetic and warm-hearted of Doctors would be attracted to him. I’m sorry, did you prefer David Tennant wholesomely falling for Madame Pompadour? You do remember that that love affair began when she was a child, right?

One of several brilliant story devices is that Rogue thinks there’s only one Childer at the party, whereas we know there are two – but our smugness doesn’t last very long, because there are actually three! No, five! No, six! And, yes, I was completely hoodwinked by the Ruby switcheroo at the end (not least thanks to Millie Gibson’s wonderful evil bird acting), and I briefly considered that this might be a Face the Raven-style situation where the companion’s seeming death sets up the season-ending two-parter.

So, this has wonderful costumes, solid plotting, great guest stars (Indira Varma is sensational), it’s got a strong emotional core, and it kept me guessing all the way to the end. Are there niggles? Yeah, a couple. Jonathan Groff has charisma to burn, but he seems so determined to create a contrast to Ncuti’s exuberance that he ends up underplaying to a fault. Revealing a few more layers towards the end would have been nice – we know he has the range. And on a rewatch, I’m not super-convinced about the Doctor glimpsing the unconscious Childer in her turquoise dress and somehow coming to the conclusion that Ruby in her yellow dress is therefore dead. Why didn’t he examine the body? I also think that the details of how the trap worked, and just what allowed Rogue to substitute himself for Ruby, could have been set up a little more clearly.

These are definitely niggles though, and very far from fatal flaws, because this was hugely entertaining, and certainly a more reliable model for stories going forward than the more outré offerings which we began the season with. Just one more thing – is he going to cry in every episode? It doesn’t have nearly as much impact fifth time round.

4.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Dot and Bubble?

Posted on June 3rd, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

Well, this seems to have delighted, shocked, disappointed and enraged people in equal measure. As is typical for this iteration of the show, it’s a wildly atypical episode, again sidelining the Doctor – and this time Ruby too – giving us a thoroughly unlikeable leading character; and then rather than giving her a redemption arc, revealing further despicable layers as the story unfolds.

The opening is pretty standard sub-Black Mirror, isn’t-social-media-awful stuff. Russell T Davies’s writing across all genres is typified by big operatic emotions and hard-to-miss social commentary. There isn’t a lot of subtlety in most of what he does – and yet, there is a detail about the world of Finetime which it is at least possible to miss, and that’s the monochromatic nature of the cast.

In the classic era of the show, this was just the way of things. You tended not to see non-white actors in British television unless there was some very specific reason. And sometimes that didn’t seem like it was helping overmuch. Season 25 features one Black man per story – a descendent of slavery, a blues musician, a jazz musician and a rapper. Yikes. Casting even one non-white actor just because that’s what modern Britain looks like doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone until we get to Battlefield and Survival and that’s arguably too late.

When tall, posh, white men are the default, it doesn’t look like identity politics to only centre them. But casting only white actors is also a choice, it also makes a statement. Casting Jodie Whitaker meant that the possibility existed that some characters might think differently of the Doctor, even compared to beta-males like Troughton or McCoy, but this wasn’t something which Chris Chibnall felt like exploring. I would say this was because he worried about weakening the character, but his version of the Doctor was almost uniquely panicky, inept, cowardly and immoral, so I dunno what he was worried about. So far, Ncuti Gatwa’s ethnicity has yet to be a plot point. Until the hammerblow ending of this episode.

I kind of wish that Lindy Pepper-Bean and her ghastly crew had spelled out their objection. Their dialogue in the climactic scene is almost coy. There’s a really thought-provoking question being asked here – do you try and save the irredeemable? But it’s undercut slightly because the script can’t bring itself to actually say what the characters are clearly thinking. Not that I think this story needed a rewrite by Quentin Tarantino you understand, it just didn’t sound entirely natural. And Ncuti Gatwa – on his first day on set for this season – is spectacular as first he can’t comprehend what he’s being told, and then, suddenly, horribly, he can.

The bigger problem with the episode is that by telling the story so rigidly from Lindy’s point-of-view, we’re forced to spend most of the running time with a vacuous, selfish, self-centred character. I get why the structure is necessary to make the ending work, but it felt like the tail wagging the dog a bit to me. So, this was another bold stroke from a series which is determined to experiment in every way it can, but a slightly awkward viewing experience for me. Not because I was being forced to confront my own prejudice, just because Callie Cooke was doing such a good job of creating such an unlikeable lead, and I’d rather have spent more time with the Doctor.

4 out of 5 stars

Furiosa and Challengers

Posted on May 31st, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

Thirty years after Beyond Thunderdome, and to everyone’s surprise, George Miller returned to the world of Mad Max and brought us the astonishing Fury Road, which hoovered up dollars, acclaim and awards in pretty much equal measure. Since, by all accounts, a detailed backstory for Charlize Theron’s Furiosa had already been written, the surprise this time around is that it took a further nine years for the prequel to hit our screens. But, while the new film is still a wildly entertaining, beautifully shot, thrill-ride, it doesn’t have the ice-water shock of the 2015 film, and nor does it have anything new to say, despite being a good half-hour longer.

What it does do is split its narrative into individually-named chapters, a gimmick I always appreciate. But while this lends a welcome feeling of a sure hand on the tiller – “I know you aren’t sure what the story is quite yet, but sit back, you’re in safe hands” – I came away feeling I’d seen half-a-dozen very exciting but rather samey short action films. Fury Road didn’t have this gimmick and didn’t need it. It was stripped to the bones. The first half is running away and the second half is going back again. Nothing else is needed.

Here, it’s all a bit more complicated and convoluted. We don’t even see Anya Taylor-Joy (taking over from an absent Theron) until about an hour in, because we’re seeing the adventures of a prepubescent Furiosa first. And it’s all very well done, with a nice turn from Tom Burke in the middle, and there’s no shortage of demented action set pieces, eye-popping visuals and the familiar rogues gallery of badguys and misfits. Miller even seems to be aping Sam Raimi with his bonkers push-ins through the windscreens of various vehicles, and there’s almost as much undercranking here as in a 1960s James Bond movie.

Saving grace of what could have been a fine, rather exhausting, over-familiar affair is the amazing performance of Chris Hemsworth as Dementus, and it’s greatly to the film’s credit that the climactic scene is all about him and Furiosa as people, rather than as ballistic objects.

Speaking of ballistic objects, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers sees a profoundly odd trio of actors (Spiderman’s girlfriend, Prince Charles and Riff from West Side Story) hashing out their complicated romantic feelings via the medium of tennis. I wouldn’t have seen this coming from the director of Call Me By Your Name, who’s always proven to be a keen observer of human nature, but who hasn’t previously struck me as much of a visual stylist. Here he goes to town on the material, slamming Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s techno score into ordinary dialogue scenes, shooting arguments like tennis matches and tennis matches like video games.

Too much of this stuff and you’d get the impression that the director doesn’t trust the material, a feeling emphasised by the free-floating timeline with early scenes turning up in what almost feels like a random order. But the playing of the three leads holds it together and when a should-be low-stakes tennis match in a no-name tournament starts to become the spine of the story, the central trunk to which all the other scenes connect, then it comes fully into focus. Just as I was beginning to get exasperated at it, the pulpy soap-opera plotting pulled me back in, and then I surrendered to the beguiling excess of it all.

So… what did I think of 73 Yards?

Posted on May 27th, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

I didn’t know we were getting a Doctor-lite episode.

I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers – I didn’t know that Boom was about the Doctor spending the whole episode standing on a landmine until about a day before the episode aired – and so it came as quite a surprise when we followed Ruby away from the TARDIS. It came as an even greater surprise when the “Welsh Folk Horror” aspect of the story turned out to be one of several narrative feints. It’s easy to get fed up with a tale in which nothing is ever what it seems because sometimes the audience stops trusting the storyteller. But this is such a beguiling installment, built around such a chilling image, that that never bothered me.

And it’s about something. It’s not a puzzle to be solved – we’ll come back to that in a minute – it’s rather a deep, sad, meditation on loss and loneliness and the fear of abandonment. Ruby’s mother locking her out and telling her that the woman who gave birth to her didn’t want her either is savage in its ferocity. How does anyone bounce back from that? Well, in a typical edition of a fast-moving science fiction adventure anthology show, they kill a monster or defeat a badguy and then it’s all smiles. But in reality, you just keep on living.

And amazingly, that’s what happens to Ruby. UNIT can’t help her, the Doctor can’t help her, she can’t help herself, and so she just lets the years roll by. And sure, after the first time jump, the prospect of a reset button at the end of the episode looms very large, and by the time she’s an elderly woman, it’s pretty much guaranteed. But a reset button need not render the entirety of the preceding action moot – even if none of the characters can remember anything. Sometimes the journey is worthwhile. And this was so creepy, so suspenseful, so heartfelt, so bleak and yet so sunny, that it really was.

Various people are complaining online that the ending didn’t make sense or wasn’t resolved, but I was thrilled not to have to wade through endless turgid minutes of science fiction plot admin. Ruby loses the Doctor when they break the circle which trapped Mad Jack. Ruby has to neutralise Mad Jack to have any hope of putting things back the way they were, but she still has to go the long way round. When future Ruby stops the circle from being damaged, the cycle is broken and she and the Doctor can go on their way. If you wanted to be told that the was all due to the Galactic War between the Zagbars and the Zoobles and that the old lady was the Zagbarian Ambassador caught in a temporal flux and trying to stop Earth from being caught in the crossfire, I understand your frustration, but I think you have to accept that that wasn’t what this story was trying to be. This was something much more allegorical, much less literal.

And so, no, I don’t think threads from that ending will be returned to. Clearly there’s a lot going on already – even Ruby has started to notice that Susan Twist keeps cropping up – but the ending of the episode didn’t give me the impression of a writer saying “And here are some unanswered questions that you need to keep in mind for next time.” It felt final, complete and for me at least completely satisfying. Much of this is due to the extraordinary work done by Millie Gibson who makes every aspect of Ruby’s bizarre journey totally believable. As sad as I was not to see more of Ncuti this time round, this was an exceptional episode of Doctor Who which kept me guessing right to the very end.

5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Boom?

Posted on May 19th, 2024 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Having Steven Moffat back writing new scripts for the show was certainly a surprise, and many think his very best Doctor Who work was under RTD’s stewardship, so expectations were high. It’s a signature Moffat conceit, taking one idea and making it work for the entire run-time. Here I think he’s very successful, on the whole. There are countless developments, revelations, raisings of the stakes and they pretty much all come off. You can tell listening to the commentary how pleased he is with the twist of Ruby getting felled by friendly fire and, fair enough, it’s brilliant.

Ncuti Gatwa continues to just do exceptional work here. He really is the Doctor now, and is pulling off that oh-so-difficult trick of being exactly the same character and yet totally different from any of his predecessors. But there are niggles. Firstly, it’s the benevolent-automated-system-run-amuck yet again. True, these are set up in the opening, rather than being the final hopefully-devastating revelation. And, yes, the added wrinkle that it’s all part of the same capitalistic warmongering plan as the mines themselves feels fresh (apart from a tiny whiff of familiarity from The Doctor’s Daughter). But we had SO MANY of these devices in the Eccleston/Tennant/Smith days (The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Silence in the Library, The Lodger, The Girl Who Waited, The Curse of the Black Spot, and probably more besides) that one of the saving graces of Chibnall’s run was I really thought we’d seen the last of them. But, no, here it is again with its placating catchphrases and serenely beaming countenance.

Then there’s the fact that very small cast, who all pretty terrific, are not all used to full capacity. In particular, not only is Ruby out cold and playing no part in the climax, Carson does a lot of standing around saying nothing after he’s nobbled Ruby, and Splice is just told to watch a slide show and shut up. Add to this, the fact that – out of necessity – the craterous warzone has been created entirely in the studio, and the ambulances look like the cleaners out of Paradise Towers, and we might be heading to near miss territory here.

What brings us back is the strong playing of the cast – who’d have guessed we’d be seeing next year’s companion this early? – the very effective ramping up of tension and some amazing moments, like the rock-hard Doctor taking three blasts to the right hand and not even flinching. I even didn’t mind the reprise of the Anglican Marines, which to me landed like world-building and not like “oh this again”, but if I’d not been enjoying the rest of the story so much, maybe that would have grated too.

So, it’s a terrific premise, handled with skill and style, brilliantly played by an incredible cast. But it looks a bit cheap, and some of the parts so cleverly assembled are a trifle shopworn and over-familiar. However, it’s very entertaining stuff, and crucially, we’re seeing the format stretched again which is all to the good. I loved the tone of the ending too. Four stars.

So… what did I think of Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord?

Posted on May 13th, 2024 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who is a uniquely flexible format, and while there were some off-putting things in the first four RTD2 stories (“mavity”, singing goblins, sonic forcefields, cartoon mallets), as a set they express the enormous range of possibilities that the series can provide, from creepy space opera, to giant terrifying production numbers, to whimsy, to deep emotion. And possibly the most exciting thing about the new season was the new Doctor. After several goes (with varying levels of success) at portraying a closed off, emotionally-stunted timelord, this time we’re getting someone open-hearted, generous and compassionate. It’s a great place to take the character.

And superficially, this is the 2005 playbook revisited: establish the rules; take a trip to the unfamiliar future; take a trip to the more-familiar past. And we get to do it all in a single night as – for the first time ever – we got two new episodes on the same day. But rather than express all the different things the show can be – scary, funny, exuberant, dark, mournful, thrilling, thoughtful, silly, angry – we got two potentially divisive episodes back-to-back which were both bizarre in much the same way. Three if you count the baby-eating goblins at Christmas. That doesn’t send the message “here’s a show that can do anything”. Rather, it sends the message “Hope you like bodily functions and people pulling faces, because that’s the show now.” Of course, both stories have more to offer than that, but after such a strong opening quartet, I can’t understand why we now have two such defiantly quirky episodes right out the gate. It’s unlikely to win new fans and it’s almost guaranteed to anger existing ones.

Taking Space Babies first, I have no problem with the so-called exposition dump as Ruby peppers the Doctor with questions. I wished that the “butterfly” moment hadn’t been in the trailer, as I thought it was the set-up for a whole story and not a single throwaway gag. Exploring the space station is suitably suspenseful, the babies are eerily convincing, and Golda Rosheuvel’s Nanny was a nice blend of warmth and tension. Only Ncuti’s repeated tic of “Babies – space babies!” grated just a bit, and the political points seemed grafted-on rather than emerging naturally from the underlying story logic. But my taste in humour doesn’t include snot and nappies, and I’m rather dismayed that the definition of the problem and a major part of its solution has to put these elements front-and-centre. Still, it should prove that Disney’s funding isn’t Americanising the scripts as the “Bogeyman” pun only works in British English.

The heart-and-soul of the episode is the Doctor risking his own life to save the slavering beast which for all its scary and slobbery appearance is simply playing its own innocent part in the narrative. The effects work is top-notch here, but compared to the wallop of the Doctor’s conversation with suddenly-childless Carla Sunday, it doesn’t have much in the way of depth or drama. It’s kinetic, rather than truly moving, if you see what I mean. The only properly quiet moment is the weird meta-textual reprise of the end of Ruby Road. The rest is a slightly odd remix of The Beast Below and The Impossible Planet, buoyed by Millie Gibson and especially Ncuti Gatwa, but never feeling like it amounts to very much.

Rusty hangs a lantern on the repeated baby image in an effort to make it seem like part of an unfolding master plan (which it may yet prove to be) rather than a paucity of imagination on the part of the showrunner. And he tries the same trick again with The Devil’s Chord which is clearly a re-run of The Giggle, from the 1920s opening, to the explosion of camp villainy, to the unexpected musical number at the end. Although given that it’s the third musical number in four episodes, I don’t know if “unexpected” really works. The problem is that telling us that the two stories are related doesn’t make the feeling of “oh, this again” go away. Jinkx Monsoon’s Maestro would have seemed much fresher if we hadn’t seen The Toymaker a few months ago, or indeed the Space Babies an hour ago.

What’s new is the meta-joke that even with Disney money, the show can’t afford to license any Beatles songs, and so the Doctor and Ruby’s trip back to Abbey Road coincides with an erasure of music from the world. And we get the Pyramids of Mars homage which Russell could never find space for in 2005. Inside all the whirl and dash of these stories there are lots of hints about a bigger, more complicated over-arching story. Adding to the hints about Ruby’s past, the cryptic warning from The Meep, and mystery of Mrs Flood, we now have even more warnings from Maestro, and the Doctor asserting that “things connect”.

Meanwhile, there are references to An Unearthly Child, both in the dialogue and on billboards, not to mention an acting role for venerable costume designer June Hudson. There’s also the repeated appearance of Coronation Street’s Susan Twist in multiple roles across various episodes. But a complicated series of connections won’t make a bad episode into a good one. And this isn’t bad exactly, but – again – what is it about? What does it mean? It doesn’t have Chris Chibnall’s inability to realise the dramatic potential of even the most extraordinary situations, thank goodness, nor his refusal to ever attempt both plot and character within the same scene, but it operates more on a sitcom level than anything we’ve had for ages, which is rather a waste of this incarnation, defined as he is by his previously-mentioned emotional intelligence.

For all that the interesting story seems to be at the fringes of the narrative and not at the centre, the second episode – which is ten minutes longer – feels better paced, even if the middle thirty minutes is basically one long extended confrontation scene. There are some deliciously weird and suspenseful moments here, and the notion that the beauty of music is what stops us from killing each other is both bleak and optimistic in rather a beguiling way. And yet there are some significant missed beats, as the Doctor hops from his panicky admission “I can’t fight this thing,” to the ironclad confidence of “I can find the chord to banish you,” in the space of twenty minutes without apparently having found anything new out, or weakened Maestro, or the situation having altered in any way at all.

Then there’s the issue that we have plenty of time for a song and dance routine at the end (which I’m fine with – of course a story which takes music away from humanity and then gives it back should celebrate its return) but no time at all to understand what happened between Maestro arriving in 1925 and then being banished in 1963. Even a couple of quick cuts to reassure us that time was reset and that music flourished in the intervening decades would have been helpful.

I can’t give Space Babies more than three – it’s so flimsy, so silly, and so scatological. The Devil’s Chord had some stronger moments and nearly reached four stars, but in the spirit of keeping my powder dry, I’ll award it 3.5. Each of these instalments was disappointing in some ways, fascinating and beguiling in others, but neither had the sureness of touch which the four specials demonstrated, and each seemed to think that it, and only it, was the one-off “oddball” episode from the middle of the season, when in fact the job they had to do was to set the tone for Doctor Who in 2024. Still, Moffat’s back next week, and everyone likes Moffat, right? Right?

Wicked Little Letters

Posted on February 29th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

This could have been a very good film. In fact, it almost touches on greatness, and the difference is largely down to the powerhouse performances of Oliva Colman and Jessie Buckley, who lead a very strong cast. Jonny Sweet’s well-constructed script re-tells a largely true story which rocked the peaceful town of Littlehampton in 1920. Spinsterish pillar of the community Edith Swan (Colman) begins receiving profanity-laced poison pen letters and immediately suspects her freewheeling neighbour (Buckley). Only “Woman Police Office” Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) suspects that the culprit might not be so obvious.

Littered with a wealth of comedy acting talent from newer faces like Vasan or Lolly Adefope (or Matilda herself, Alisha Weir) to stalwart campaigners like Eileen Atkins and Gemma Jones, this is a constant delight and you’re never far from another wonderful bit of business, sharp one-liner or marvellous moment. But there’s an extra bit of ballast which comes from the incredibly layered and detailed playing of the two leads, given extra weight by a truly sinister turn from a terrifying Timothy Spall, embodying the patriarchy as Edith’s horrendous father.

Director Thea Sharrock marshals these competing forces expertly, and while this has no aspirations to be much more than a delightful 100 minutes at the cinema, that is no small feat, and when it can touch on something a bit deeper or more profound, it does so without capsizing the whole enterprise. If you loved See How They Run, then you’ll enjoy this just as much. It isn’t quite as intricately constructed, but it’s arguably got more to say.

American Fiction

Posted on February 11th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Cord Jefferson’s satire on the publishing business through a Black lens is many things. One thing it isn’t is the riproaring, one-liner stuffed, broad comedy which the trailer sells it as. By taking the ten best jokes and stitching them together, the marketeers have badly misrepresented this smart, painful, incisive, thoughtful – and yes, sometimes very funny – film. Ironically, despite the frustrations that this might cause, it seems appropriate for a story in which things are not what they seem, commercial imperatives trump artistic integrity and even vaunted literary prizes are hotbeds of pandering and intellectual shortcuts.

The cast is unimpeachable. Jeffrey Wright has never been better and is given a strong family unit comprising sister Tracee Ellis Ross, mother Leslie Uggams and brother Sterling K Brown. The early part of the story dismantles this strong family, forcing Wright’s hand much in the way that the St Valentine’s day massacre forces Joe and Jerry’s hand in Some Like it Hot. Only the incredibly convenient arrival of the perfect suitor for their live-in-maid strains credulity a little.

Based on what sounds like an unadaptable novel, the film’s unwillingness to settle for a single ending (or a single clear message) is probably the best way of taking the book’s style and finding a cinematic analogue, and Jefferson is careful to pave the way for this development in the way he structures and shoots some earlier moments (which include a lovely cameo from Keith David). He’s also careful to smudge the outline of what could have been too strident a moral, shading Issa Rae’s initially comical character with more depth and unafraid to make out hero seem like something of an asshole from time-to-time.

Possibly the best joke in the whole film, and one the trailer couldn’t spoil (so I will), is the conclusion of the literary judging process in which the three white jurors overrule the two Black ones on the basis that “It’s time to listen to Black voices.” Sharply satirical, but also oddly warm and even moving, this definitely isn’t what was sold to me, but is arguably better.