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 | No Comments »

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.

So… what did I think of Extremis?

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

Evil Monk 1: So, how did we fare in our simulated invasion of Earth?

Evil Monk 2: Oh, pretty well.

Evil Monk 1: Did we learn all we needed to about how to subdue the Earth people and take their planet?

Evil Monk 2: Yup. Pretty much.

Evil Monk 1: Good, good. And this “Doctor”, were we able to handle his interference?

Evil Monk 2: Oh yes. Well, I mean he was blind.

Evil Monk 1: What?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, we made him blind.

Evil Monk 1: What? Why?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he’d just been made blind when we started gathering data for the simulation, so we thought…

Evil Monk 1: But we want the Doctor at the absolute peak of his powers. What’s the point in testing our invasion against a weakened version of the Doctor?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he wasn’t all that weakened. He had these glasses with a sort of heads-up display.

Evil Monk 1: Glasses with a what?

Evil Monk 2: A heads-up display. Showing him what he couldn’t see with his eyes.

Evil Monk 1: And what was he using to look at the heads-up display?

Evil Monk 2: Eh?

Evil Monk 1: If his eyes don’t work, how does a heads-up display help- oh, look it doesn’t matter. The point is, we’ve ironed out all the kinks in our invasion plan now, right?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it was pretty easy once everyone started to commit suicide.

Evil Monk 1: When they what?

Evil Monk 2: Well, once they found the book, the er, Extremis, which told them that they were in a simulation and how to test it, then they just started committing suicide.

Evil Monk 1: How to test it?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah. Despite the fact that each subroutine controlling each of the billions of people in our simulation is fantastically unique and complicated, so much so that the simulations believe they are alive, we couldn’t think of a single way of using that rich, complicated and unique data to find an arbitrary starting point for a random number generator, so when they-

Evil Monk 1: Wait, stop, go back. You put a book in the simulation…

Evil Monk 2: Extremis, yeah…

Evil Monk 1: Telling the people in the simulation that it was just a simulation?

Pause.

Evil Monk 2: We did make it very hard to translate.

Evil Monk 1: But what was it doing there at all??

Evil Monk 2: Sort of like an in-joke.

Evil Monk 1: Acolyte, I’m hugely disappointed. You were clearly the wrong person to put in charge of this simulation project. I should have realised something was up when I watched the Doctor execute the Master and take the body away for safekeeping – and not mention that he was doing this for the second time.

Evil Monk 2: I’m sorry, sir. I failed you.

Evil Monk 1: Never mind. We’re in no hurry. We’ll build a new simulation and do it properly this time. After all, what difference does it make if we invade this week, or next week, or next year?

Evil Monk 2: Ah… well…

Evil Monk 1: “Ah well” what?

Evil Monk 2: You know how you said we should make absolutely sure that the simulation was connected to the Earth Internet?

Evil Monk 1: What? No, I said it was to be totally isolated from any other networks. It was to be totally air-gapped. Any other plan of action would be foolhardy to the point of self-defeating.

Evil Monk 2: Oh…

Evil Monk 1: Why???

And, scene…

So… What did I think of Oxygen?

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

Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts for the show – Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline attracted near-universal praise, including from this blog, so expectations were high for his return in series ten. Were they met? Ah… nearly.

The set-up is largely great. Putting the Doctor and his – still very new – companion at risk of a terrible death in the icy vacuum of space is a great idea. The David Tennant episode 42, and in particular the sight of Martha Jones drifting off into nothing, is one of the very few things keeping me optimistic about Chris Chibnall’s forthcoming takeover of the programme. And who doesn’t like seeing Capaldi wandering around a deserted base making macabre quips, even if that kind of thing has been happening a lot lately.

The teaser is also very compelling, with the zombie colleague offing the newly-engaged couple and – look! – Nardole’s allowed to come. So what’s the problem? Well, there are too. One is a science niggle, but it’s such an important plot point that I can’t permit it to go unchallenged. For, I suspect practical production reasons, the cast don’t wear their helmets most of the time, but instead have a forcefield around their heads which keeps the air in. Thus even though the inside of the station is a vacuum, they can breathe normally.

But suddenly when they have to go outside the station, proper helmets are required. But either the station is deprived of air or it isn’t. As soon as there’s any opportunity, the pressure will equalise. You can’t maintain a thin atmosphere like on a small planet. And thus, either the forcefield can create an air-tight seal or it can’t. There’s just no way that the vacuum inside the station is more vacuum-y than the vacuum outside the station.

So, this rather takes the shine off the generally terrifying ordeal of the station inhabitants (as usually, poorly-differentiated, although the blue one is a nice sources of gags about racism, although played by a white actor I believe) and horrendous sacrifice – more on that later. The other, far bigger problem is that the episode is not so much rushed as absolutely stuffed. Whereas several recent episodes have had about thirty minutes of story and ten-fifteen minutes of running around and quipping (The Witch’s Familiar being the most egregious recent example) this could have certainly made a 60 minute special and is probably only one subplot away from being a two-parter.

So, when the Doctor’s blindness is easily fixed back at base, I’m intensely frustrated that such a brilliant idea wasn’t given time enough to be really developed and explored. Except of course – they aren’t done with that idea yet, are they! A lovely final twist to a thrilling and very well-executed episode.

I’ll quickly note that I don’t regard the profiteering algorithm as another automatic system gone awry for the simple reason that the algorithm was programmed by heartlessly profiteering bad-guys, so it’s not a benevolent system which becomes accidentally fatal, it’s a ruthless system doing exactly what it was intended to do.

4 ½ stars. Hurrah.

Oscars 2016: The Big Short and Trumbo

Posted on February 21st, 2016 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

big short

Trumbo’s Oscar-buzz faded quite rapidly, and so it’s not up for Best Picture, but Deborah and I nevertheless took the opportunity to double-bill it with The Big Short in the delightful faux-hipster environs of the recently-opened Picturehouse Central near Piccadilly Circus. They make an interesting pair – both true life stories of poor decision-making among the America’s rich and powerful and both helmed by directors known for comedy for whom this is a more dramatic piece of work.

The Big Short is undoubtedly the more interesting of the two. Based on Michael Lewis’s excellent book of the same name, it has to deal with several elements that make it tricky to package into a two-hour entertainment. The first is the fact that there were several independent groups of people who all hoped to make a profit by placing a “bet” on the housing market collapsing rather than booming (a “short” rather than a “long” position). Any one of these might provide a traditional protagonist, with some kind of recognisable “arc” through the piece, but director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) wants to include everyone from the book.

Then there’s the problem that much of the book is basically a lecture about the workings of Wall Street in the early 2000s. Lewis’s style is breezy and informal, and he has a great talent for picking out the key details and keeping the humour and character stuff to the fore, but there’s still a lot of factual information to take on board. To begin with, McKay populates the cast with a range of strong comedy actors who can fill up this vast array of characters with their own tics, quirks, improvised put-downs and face-pulling (Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling lead the way, but we also get Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan and many more). But he also gives most of them permission to address the audience, either in voice over or by directly talking to the camera, sometimes to emphasise what has just happened, other times to flatly contradict it. And then, he wheels out celebrity cameos to give brief explanatory lectures.

The narrative is so totally extraordinary that this kind of approach does seem in keeping. Allied to this is the need for the audience to empathise with these people who – even if they aren’t quite as dumb or quite as venal as the rest of their breed – are nevertheless hoping to profit tremendously from an economic disaster which will ruin the lives of countless millions.

Sometimes this need to inject a shot of vinegar into the brilliantly coloured candy of the movie is handled clumsily, as when Brad Pitt is forced to lecture his two young neophyte investors about their inappropriate jubilation. Elsewhere, it’s more subtle. Early on, Carell’s team goes to visit homeowners who they suspect may have been sold vastly subprime loans. One resident is aghast to learn that his landlord has taken out the mortgage in his dog’s name and has not been keeping up the repayments. Later, the same family is seen living out of their car, which passes without comment.

However, the overall approach boarders on the hyperactive, like an over-excited child always eager to show you yet another new thing and get another reaction out of you. And this creates some disappointingly unintended consequences. McKay is rightly careful not to allow the material to become sentimental, but when Steve Carell’s Mark Baum finally breaks down and talks about his brother’s death to his wife, McKay can’t bear to let the camera rest on his face, and so frantically cuts around the scene, slathering music all over the top. Not only does this mean that Carell can’t show us where the character actually is, but in a movie with precious few female characters as it is this robs Marisa Tomei of her only scene with any emotional power at all. There’s a whiff of misogyny from other quarters as well. Margot Robbie shows up as herself to explain one financial concept – naked in a bubble bath. Male cameos tend to be experts like Anthony Bourdain and Richard Thaler who are allowed to keep their clothes on. All of which suggests that the movie wants to celebrate these awful lifestyles as much as it would like us to think it’s being fearlessly critical of them.

And more familiarity with the true facts tends to breed contempt. When Gosling turns to the camera after one of Carell’s more outré moments and cheekily tells us “This is true – Mark Baum actually did that,” it’s great – until you realise that Mark Baum is a fictional character and while a man called Steve Eisman is said to have uttered the words which Carell used, his backstory has been completely rewritten for the sake of the movie. Should someone else have turned around and pointed that out too? I don’t really know, but I do know that the movie is pretty uneven, albeit also pretty entertaining.

Where does that leave us? Well, The Big Short ultimately I think does do a fair job of telling the story of the credit crunch from an interesting perspective, and the vigorous performances keep the bubbles in the champagne for the most part of the running time. It’s also great to see such an individual and unusual movie get a Best Picture nomination, even if not all of the experimentation worked for me, and even if it doesn’t actually have a hope in hell of winning.

Trumbo is rather more by-the-numbers and suffers from the same problem that plagues a great many biopics. By starting the action in the 1940s and following screenwriter Dalton Trumbo all the way to his return to the Hollwood fold in the 1970s, the filmmakers give themselves an awful lot of ground to cover, with the result that characters pop up and disappear and whole sequences flash by without really having the time to register.

The through-line of Trumbo’s battles with the Un-American Activities Commission (personified mainly by Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper) provides a bit of a thread for these sequences to hang on, but the feeling that this is a series of short films is hard to dispel. So we get Trumbo Picks a Fight, followed by Trumbo Behind Bars, followed by Trumbo Writes for Peanuts, followed by Trumbo’s Script Factory and finally Trumbo and Spartacus, but there’s precious little here that really resonates or illuminates.

What we do get, once again, are some bright performances. Diane Lane gets a little more to do than Marisa Tomei did in The Wife Part, John Goodman is marvellous as ever as schlock producer Frank King, Louis CK does great work as Arlen Hird (one of very few fictional characters), Alan Tudyk is criminally underused as Ian McLellan Hunter, Helen Mirren has great fun as Hopper and Richard Portnow seems born to play Louis B Mayer.

There are also some more recognisable figures resurrected. Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) fussily cuts between old footage and recreated events, but can’t settle on a style for portraying famous people. Most successful is probably Michael Stuhlbarg, who summons up a little of Edward G Robinson’s appearance and manner, but makes no attempt at that extraordinary voice, and so creates a wholly believable character. David James Elliot makes a decent fist of John Wayne’s voice, but looks nothing like him and so comes across as an impressionist. Least successful of all is spindly Dean O’Gorman who has nothing of Kirk Douglas’s burly charisma – and the obvious parallels between Spartacus and Trumbo’s own treatment seem to have evaded all concerned.

But the dialogue is bright and breezy enough, and the film has one last Trumbo card to play – Bryan Cranston in the leading role. With his lean frame, Harry Potter glasses, Terry-Thomas moustache, Hunter S Thompson cigarette holder and Peewee Herman suit, he presents an extraordinary physical presence and Cranston fills him with manic energy and determination while gracefully aging him across the years of the film. It’s an amazing, precisely judged performance and almost makes the whole film worthwhile.