Archive for November, 2018

Pre-Oscars 2019 – A Star Is Born

Posted on November 30th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

We don’t yet know what’s on Academy voters’ minds for next year, but it’s a near-certainty that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut will feature heavily. I confidently expect to see half-a-dozen nominations for A Star is Born, not just making up the numbers in Best Picture, but likely some or all of Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Score and Best Original Song too.

Not that this is a new story of course. First filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as a bitter satire on Hollywood’s star-making system, it became Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle in 1954 when she made a musical version with James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson kept the music, but moved the action away from movies and into rock concerts, and that’s the pitch for the 2018 incarnation, which stars Lady Gaga as waitress-singer-songwriter Ally.

Part of the issue with the story, across all these variants, has always been – whose is it? Very often, the female lead has been the bigger name, but the structure of the plot generally means that the male lead takes over in the final third. Here, it’s much more Cooper’s story than Gaga’s all the way through. Previous incarnations of her character have been given new names as part of the star-making process (so Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester). Here, slimy producer Rafi Gavron simply takes away Ally’s surname – a moment that never really lands because, almost unbelievably, we never find out what her original surname is!

Both Cooper and Gaga have families around them (which isn’t always the case in earlier versions), but Cooper’s is much more fleshed-out and his interactions with brother Sam Elliot (never better), and Dave Chapelle drive much of the action. What’s weird is that, Gaga aside, this is a woman-free story. Ally has a father (Andrew Dice Clay – no, really!) but no mother. She sings at a male drag bar. Her best friend is a gay man. Where are her female friends??

Little of this really matters while the film is on though. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry to spare, and even if the film closely hugs the contours of previous versions, it consistently finds ways to make them fresh and engaging. Ally’s first song on-stage with Jackson Maine is particularly fine, with Gaga pitching Ally’s uncertainty, strength, talent, delight and terror perfectly. Only the end of Jackson’s story seems a little hasty. Norman Maine overhears Esther Blodgett deciding to give up her career to look after her husband. Jackson Maine just takes his wife’s producer’s word for it and obediently fetches a sturdy belt.

As director, Cooper occasionally falls prey to some TV-commercial lighting and framing, and his sometimes eccentric editing rhythms don’t always work, but overall, this is confident, engaging, character-driven movie-making. It deserves its bonanza box office and if it does take home armfuls of Oscars – well, it will be a safe but not undeserving choice.

So… what did I think of The Witchfinders?

Posted on November 29th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Now this really is more like it.

From the very beginning of this episode, there’s a swagger, a commitment to drama, and to fun, a sense that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. The Doctor ripping off her coat and plunging into that lake is a defining moment for this incarnation. The panicky figure of The Ghost Monument is nowhere to be seen, neither is the stoic back-turner of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. This is morally-righteous, heroic stuff and all the better for it, with the Chibnall Checklist of Tedium completely absent for the second week in a row.

Other writers have grumbled that the Doctor grumbles when later in the episode, men attempt to sideline her. But it’s precisely because Joy Wilkinson’s script makes her so strong for so much of the episode that these moments don’t undermine her. In fact, throughout there’s proper adventure and jeopardy, real moments of tension, very strong character work, and a much more rich and profound theme than last week’s “Cor, Amazon, eh? What are they like?

There are some moments of clumsy plotting and uncertain geography. Early on, Yaz joins the Doctor and co as they head off to Becka Savage’s mansion. Then, for no real reason, she doubles back just in time to see Willa Twiston menaced by a root. In no time at all, she’s back at the mansion with the Doctor, and then the Doctor and Yaz have to go together all the way back to Willa’s place. Surely that could have been streamlined a little?

And it’s a similar story towards the end, when the Doctor and company are knocked out and then reconvene before the final assault. It doesn’t seem like a long journey, but night falls very quickly.

In general, new director Sallie Aprahamian photographs and paces the whole thing wonderfully. The only real exception is the – as noted, iconic – first ducking stool scene which seems to be over and done with far too quickly to finish off even very elderly Mother Twiston. Did they run out of time? Money? Was it cut down at the last minute, for fear of being too scary for children?

She has also assembled a truly exceptional supporting cast – headed by a wonderfully ludicrous Alan Cumming as a wildly louche King James, who gains just enough depth by the end of the story that we’re forced to take him somewhat seriously. But the great turns keep coming. Here’s Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage, and lovely stuff from Tilly Steel and Tricia Kelly too.

Possibly the weakest part of the episode is the climax, where it all becomes a bit of an RTD style whirl of technobabble and images. But personally, I rather like an RTD-style whirl of technobabble and images, and there’s good thematic stuff going on here with the King putting the witch to the fire and good character stuff too with Willa stepping up to the plate. (Although “Only I know the way,” is a bit of a feeble justification. Even dyspraxic Ryan could find his way to the top of a hill without a sat-nav.)

Ah yes, Ryan. Needless to say, even a writer as skilled as Wilkinson can’t make real characters out of Chibnall’s walking trio of cliches. It’s fun to see Ryan objectified by King James as so many Doctor Who girls were in the seventies, but it only underlines the fact that he has no personality to speak of and no plot function at all. Bradley Walsh continues to grab whatever crumbs are available and Mandip Gill is as personable as ever. But what makes me cross about this episode is that we were denied the version in which it’s just, say, the Doctor and Yaz who land in seventeenth century Lancashire. With three times as many lines, even if the part had been woefully underwritten before, I bet Wilkinson could have given Yaz some real character development. But when all the companion stuff is split into tiny pieces, there really isn’t a chance.

Overall, easily my favorite of the season so far, with only a few minor niggles preventing me from awarding it the full five stars.

I mean, I’ve got to save something for the finale, haven’t I…?

So… what did I think of Kerblam!?

Posted on November 20th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Hey, everyone – Doctor Who’s back.

You remember, the quirky sci-fi series in which an eccentric alien visits strange worlds, overthrows oppressors and inspires the rest of the crew of the TARDIS. Yeah?

Okay, let’s get a few negatives out of the way first of all. This is a terrible title for a Doctor Who story, and a fairly terrible idea. Like Russell T Davies’ Bad Wolf the problem with up-to-the-minute satire is that it dates awfully quickly. The setting of a featureless warehouse populated by humans doing menial work is timely now, but unlikely to endure the way that Genesis of the Daleks has.

On the other hand, the Chibnall Check List of Boredom has been entirely abandoned. Even the trio of regulars are given personalities, a stake in the narrative, something to do. I swear Ryan even got a line of dialogue at point. (I think he mentioned his dyspraxia – for the first time since the pilot – while demonstrating his graceful and efficient skill at packing boxes.)

The set-up has a faint whiff of reverse-engineering. We want a warehouse with lots of people who can be spookily bumped off, and we want some creepy robots. But it’s in the far future, so why wouldn’t it be fully automated? I know – there’s a political movement which is pushing for humans to be employed. The robots are fairly ridiculous (not quite as nonsensical as the ones in Smile but close) and there’s clearly no need for human-looking robots when the whole system could be fully automated, but at least someone (presumably first time Who scribe Pete McTighe) has thought about these issues and provided an explanation.

And, you know what, none of this really matters. And the unexplained crisis at the beginning doesn’t matter either, and nor does the startling ease with which the Kerblam! Man penetrates the TARDIS. Because this is a proper adventure. Big name guest stars get killed off horribly in a lovely display of casting profligacy. Tempting clues are left throughout and do then build to something. Compare the sudden power outages in this to the Doctor’s sudden visions of demons early in last week’s episode. One is there for a reason and helps the Doctor and us to unravel the mystery. The other is not only never explained, it actively contradicts the reason given for the aliens’ presence.

And then, as the Doctor starts putting the pieces together, the crisis gets worse! It doesn’t suddenly go away. There are some stumbles in the directing, as poor misguided Charlie just looks around forlornly, waiting for the Bubble Wrap of Doom to explode – and the regular cast just sort of stare back at him. But as a piece of early evening adventure for all the family, it genuinely does work pretty much all the way through.

Not only that, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is starting to emerge. There’s a really engaging childish streak which she’s discovering. Watch her as the instructions not to ride on the conveyor belts are given with increasing clarity and severity. It’s delightful. And what’s the point of being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?

This was never going to be a five star masterpiece. It’s ambitions are not to rewrite the rules of the series, or push the Doctor to places she’s never been before. There isn’t really much of a theme or deeper meaning here, and what little we do get along those lines is fudged in the ending – it’s not the faceless corporation to blame, it was one of the human workers. Much more The Dominators, much less The Sunmakers. Obvious conclusion – more human workers are needed! Huh?

And the very last scene is fumbled as well. I can (just about) take deadly bubble wrap, but what the hell happened to that joke at the end? Why isn’t written, shot, timed or edited to be light and funny and a neat punchline? It just dribbles away awkwardly.

Looking at Kerblam! in the context of the season as a whole, it’s basically competently written all the way through, but it has rather more than its fair share of niggling execution errors. The other basically entertaining story this year, Arachnids in the UK, arguably aimed a little higher, and had fewer execution errors, but had some rather more fundamental storytelling issues in its last third.

In the end, it’s probably a wash. Four stars and on we go. The question remains – is this a blip of quality or are we ramping up to a rousing conclusion to the series…?

So… what did I think of Demons of the Punjab?

Posted on November 14th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Here it is. Six episodes in and the first episode without Chris Chibnall’s name attached as writer. We also welcome Doctor Who’s second non-white author (unbelievable that it took this long!). I’m grateful that the subject of the Punjab is being tackled by a writer with some personal connection to the region, but slightly apprehensive that the black British writer gets to tell the black people story and the writer with an Indian heritage gets to tell the Indian story. A bit like the Sylvester McCoy years when we got four stories in a single season all featuring a black performer – hurrah! Except they are all men, and they were the descendent of a cane-cutter, a blues musician, a jazz musician and a rapper.

Early on, the dialogue is a bit exposition-clunky, and the trip to Yaz’s past replays the first act of Father’s Day but with much less care and gravity. Once we arrive in the Punjab however, things take a definite turn for the better. The relationships between the guest cast are strong, well-played and clearly defined (not the regulars, don’t be ridiculous) and the alien menace is genuinely scary.

Jodie Whittaker continues to play this uniquely apologetic, uncertain and clumsy Doctor with enough vim and vigour that much of the time, we don’t notice how apologetic, uncertain and clumsy she is. Stealing the alien teleport devices and using them to make a barrier to keep her friends safe is one of the most Doctor-ish things she’s done since building herself a new sonic screwdriver out of Sheffield steel.

What happens next is disappointing, but not all of that disappointment is this story’s fault.

The alien menace turns out to be entirely benign. That’s clearly far less interesting than everybody’s lives being threatened, but to tell this kind of story occasionally is a nice idea. The huge problem with the Thijarians is that they are almost identical carbon-copies of Steven Moffat’s glass avatars from Twice Upon a Time. Even the visual presentation is the same. So, we have a less exciting version of the aliens than we were promised, we have to deal with the fact that no only has our hero got it wrong (again), she has apparently jumped to negative conclusions based only on appearances, and the true state of affairs is familiar from six stories ago.

This leaves the Doctor with no wrong to right, and no reason to be there. She simply has to walk away, taking Yaz with her, as they cannot interfere in the awful events about to unfold. Again, this is powerful stuff – but overfamiliar from only three stories ago. Overall, this story is better told than Rosa but to replay a weaker version of the climax of that story at the end of this one is a huge let-down after the excellent build up.

This, then, is okay. Better probably than anything this year except Arachnids, which in any other year would have been the all right, nothing special, mid-season filler story, but this year is the “thank goodness for actual Doctor Who at last” story. Vinay Patel is to be congratulated for his careful and detailed work creating the family relationships in 1947. Handed three very thinly-drawn regular cast members, he opts to basically forget they are there. Even Yaz, who should have some kind of stake in the narrative, doesn’t really do anything and Ryan is reduced to just repeating whatever the last person said.

Again, this looks spectacular, but again we have a villain that just fizzles out, a supporting cast with nothing to do and a Doctor who seems a shadow of her former self.

It may also say something about how I’m feeling about the series so far, that I actually forgot this was on until two hours after it had finished.

So… what did I think of The Tsuranga Conundrum?

Posted on November 9th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

How long did it take to write these scripts?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth was uneven. The Ghost Monument was thin. Rosa was patronising. Arachnids in the UK was serviceable. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a mess.

And it’s the kind of mess that has all the hallmarks of being written in a tearing hurry. Chibnall, of his own volition has written or co-written 60% of the episodes in Series 11. But he’s also had a longer prep time than anyone since Russell T Davies and he’s only got ten episodes instead of thirteen (or fourteen!). Why this half-baked rubbish then?

Let’s start with the good stuff. Once again, this looks fantastic. Both the space junkyard and the space ambulance are beautifully crafted visual treats, effortlessly summoning up whole alien worlds. And trapped-in-a-confined-space-with-a-deadly-creature-on-the-loose is a perfectly viable set-up for an exciting adventure – if rather a familiar one.

But all of Chibnall’s bad habits are fully on display here once again. The carefully set-up mystery of who planted that mine and why is ignored. The terrifying alien menace is once again pointlessly neutered – it doesn’t eat flesh, only machines. How is that an improvement?

It is also either a Machiavellian planner and plotter who is as smart as the human crew, or a blind creature of instinct, depending on the requirements of different parts of the script. It methodically takes out the escape capsules and the smartest person on board at the start of the story and then at the end of the story, blindly allows itself to be outwitted by the simplest of ruses.

The supporting cast is wildly overpopulated once again. The most successful portion of the episode is Brett Goldstein’s stuff with Jodie Whittaker. Their relationship is genuinely interesting, even if it does fall prey to the “have a regular cast of four but only let one of them carry the story” trope which we’ve been putting up with all season. Such a shame he has to get bumped off first.

There follows the second most bizarre scene in the series so far (after the Doctor telling Racist Fonz that he better not get up to any shenanigans while her back is turned instead of actually stopping him or anything now he’s totally powerless). Having successfully ramped up the tension and got some adrenalin going, the Doctor announces that there will now be a seven minute interregnum for measured and flat conversations between the regulars. What the hell am I watching?

Then there’s the business of the Doctor’s injury. Making this uniquely uncertain and panicky Doctor even weaker than usual is a questionable choice, but it does add to the here-again, gone-again tension, and Jodie Whittaker gamely sells the possibly life-threatening wound.

Until she doesn’t and it’s never referred to again. By the time she’s removing the self-destruct (maybe she could have thought of doing that before sacrificing Queen Amidala to the piloting fairy lights of doom) she’s totally recovered, and that whole plot strand has gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, the rest of the regular cast get shunted off into self-contained side plots which add nothing and are not especially interesting. Why bother having a male pregnancy if it’s going to play out exactly the same as a human woman giving birth? We can watch that on Casualty whenever we like. And having let opposition to American gun culture dictate the content of so many recent scripts it’s jarring to say the least to turn on the same programme and get what could be interpreted as anti-abortion rhetoric (although I doubt that was the intention).

The Doctor’s final plan, as noted, is hugely risky and relies entirely on P’tang Yang Kipperbang behaving totally differently than it has done so far. But any other series would have taken the idea of a creature that eats energy and used that to get the cast into more trouble, not less. If it had consumed the explosion and then quadrupled in size, we could have had a really exciting climax. As it was, the Doctor’s plan works, and the whole threat is just over, with no cost, no problem and no fuss. Following the now-standard Chibnall playbook, which flies in the face of every other adventure/drama series ever.

Look, I enjoyed bits of this while it was on. It didn’t lie there comatose like Ghost Monument or play like Children’s BBC, but is nobody reading these scripts before they’re shot anymore?

What is happening to Doctor Who right now?

Three, rather generous stars.

So… what did I think about Arachnids in the UK?

Posted on November 1st, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay… so… that was… better. It certainly felt more like Doctor Who anyway.

Why don’t we start with the good stuff?

The regular cast, although still thinly-drawn, are beginning to emerge slowly. This should have been Yas’s episode, but in fact she’s rather overshadowed by the enormous number of guest cast, and Ryan’s dyspraxia wasn’t mentioned, reducing him from Teen-with-Dyspraxia to just Teen. (We know he’s a teenager because he listens to something called “Stormzy”.) But Mandip Gill does much with little and Bradley Walsh continues to impress.

Then there’s actual jeopardy and adventure! Giant (very, very well-realised) spiders come smashing through bathtubs and legit mandible a guy to death. There’s an American tycoon whose resemblance to Trump, while painstakingly obvious, isn’t too cartoony – certainly no clumsier than Henry van Statten and played by a more famous, charismatic and skilled actor.

We also get a Doctor who begins, in flickers and starts, to sound and behave like the Doctor. Trying to talk to the spider in the neighbour’s flat, figuring out where the epicentre of the spider activity is, and thinking Robertson might be Ed Sheeran all really worked.

And the science-fiction adventure plot largely worked. A proper threat. A reason for people to be in danger. Something resembling a resolution. And some amazing visuals, not just the underground spider breeding lair, but also the TARDIS in the vortex at the beginning.

There are some negatives, however. The supporting cast was hugely over-stuffed. Did we really need a fired mum, a spider expert, a whistle-blower and a sacrificial bodyguard as well as the family members who get left behind in the flat? Surely some of those could have been collapsed into one, given we have a regular cast of four to service every week?

And Graham’s scene mourning poor old Grace is lovely – but it gives me the queasy sense that this version of Doctor Who divides people into two groups: those whose deaths actually matter, who will be mourned, whose passing leaves a void where they once were; and people who get bumped off in the course of a rollicking adventure to make it seem scarier, and who never get referred to ever again. Now, Doctor Who has always cared more about some lives than others, but it’s rarely been this blatant, partly because we’ve never spent much time in the company of grief before. Almost as if it doesn’t really work in the context of a science-fantasy show for all the family.

Then, there’s the resolution. Firstly, simply luring the spiders to Chekhov’s Panic Room (it would have been much nicer to have had the Doctor guess that Robertson had a panic room, because he’s the type; avoiding deus ex machina endings only works when you are also careful to conceal the set-ups) and leaving them to die slowly is a pretty limp ending, coming at no cost to anyone, whether real or potential. But, this stupid business of “guns are bad, but killing is fine” won’t go away. Robertson shoots a slowly-suffocating spider through the head, claiming it was a mercy killing. You know what? I’m with Robertson. Assuming the spider can register pain and fear, I don’t think it much cares that gun control is hot political topic on another continent, 3000 miles away. Given the choice between a slow agonising death and a bullet to the brain, I think it would pick the bullet.

More to the point, is letting these creatures slowly suffocate or starve the best she can do? Isn’t there another planet they can be taken to? A way to curb their murderous instincts? Anything but this cheerful horror-show.

So, let’s look at our Chibnall Check List.

No real sense of jeopardy or threat? This was a really exciting episode with good suspense and adventure sequences.

Whole team trails behind the Doctor who does almost all the plot heavy-lifting? Kinda. There are some good character moments in the first half, but the resolution only actually requires Robertson to have a panic room, and someone to vibrate something. Everyone else just stands around and watches. That said, the opening scene in the hotel is good, Shobna Gulati does excellent work and so does Tanya Fear.

Long conversation with bizarrely impotent villain? The spiders (thankfully) can’t talk, and the conversations with Robertson are fairly good.

The threat just vanishes at the 42 minute mark? Check.

The Doctor professes not to use guns, but the enemy is dispatched with lethal force in any event? Check.

So, we’re heading in the right direction – at last – and I had a lot of fun watching the first 35 minutes, and even quite liked the very end, in which our trio make the positive choice to travel with the Doctor. I just get the weird sensation that this version of the show might not be for me anymore. A feeling I’ve genuinely never had before.

Anyway, for what they’re worth, four stars.