Archive for February, 2020

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

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

I mean at least it’s trying…

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Parasite and predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of Praxeus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars