Joker

Posted on October 29th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It seems everyone has to have an opinion about the new movie Joker, and so here’s mine.

I didn’t like it.

To begin with, I didn’t like the idea of it. I don’t really like the idea of Todd Phillips, whose recent comments about his move away from comedy smear a patina of cynical self-interest over what is already a pretty lazy and cynical piece of filmmaking.

I don’t really like the idea of Joaquin Phoenix either, who often reminds me of those tortured Hoffman performances of the 1970s, full of effort but lacking in charm. He’s fun in Gladiator (opting simply not to be in the same film as Russell Crowe but to join Oliver Reed’s team instead – and quite right too) and he’s a fine match for Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master even if that film ultimately doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go. But I had deep misgivings about his ability to portray the clown prince of crime as anything other than an introverted sociopath.

And I don’t really like origin stories, particularly not for well-established characters. Why do we have to laboriously build up who this person once was when the reason we like them (or at least are interested in them) is because of who they became? And when one filmmaker has scored such a huge success creating a version of The Joker whose origins are obscure, it seems downright perverse to spend two hours providing a definitive one.

And I don’t really like the idea of a Joker movie without Batman. The Joker is defined as the mirror-image of the Dark Knight Detective – chaotic and improvisational where Batman is ordered and methodical, venal and selfish where Batman is noble, and yet both hide their true identities behind elaborate costumes and exhibit signs of mental distress.

This idea is made pretty much explicit in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, one of many obvious antecedents which feed into this magpie’s trove of a movie. While drawing on yet earlier origin stories (The Joker’s first appearance is in 1940, just one year after Batman himself) Alan Moore’s story is pretty much patient zero for the modern conception of the character. The plot is brilliantly simple. The Joker’s thesis is that the only difference between him and Batman is one bad day. As we flash back to the bad day which turned a struggling stand-up comedian into a crime lord, we watch him inflict the worst of all possible days on Commissioner Gordon, including crippling his daughter Barbara – a nasty piece of sadism which was retained in the main comic continuity.

This story, elevated by wondrous art from Brian Bolland, was a big influence on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman where Jack Nicholson was essentially asked to reprise his performance from The Witches of Eastwick while wearing a rather limited prosthetic that makes him look like he has a nut allergy when he tries to relax his face. Heath Ledger’s version is many people’s favourite, his facial scars alluding to the “Glasgow Smile” which may have been the original inspiration for the character, and as noted he has no need of a coherent origin story.

So what can Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver add to this rich legacy? Their version of the character has a rather muddled career as a party clown / sign-twirler / stand-up comedian. He’s also afflicted with a neurological condition which makes him laugh inappropriately and a number of other ill-defined mental illnesses which do little other than perpetuate the myth that mental illness = violence. So here’s problem number one with the construction of this movie. Rather than taking an earnest sad-sack with whom it’s possible to feel some sympathy and turning him into a supervillain (as in The Killing Joke) or taking an ambitious career criminal and releasing a flamboyant theatricality as in the Tim Burton film, here we take a dangerous mental patient and make them a bit more unstable. It’s just not that interesting.

The universe rains trouble down upon Arthur Fleck. He gets beaten up; he loses his job; he’s humiliated on TV by his idol, chat-show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro, essentially playing a 70 year old Rupert Pupkin); his mother is lying to him about his paternity. But quickly it becomes apparent that the transformation from Arthur to Joker is going to take the full running time of the movie. This is not a half hour origin story and then a ninety minute Joker movie. We’re just going to watch a sick man suffer until finally he snaps.

Now, that’s a structure that could work. It instantly calls to mind another far superior movie, Taxi Driver, not just because of the presence of de Niro but because of the journey of the central character. But it’s noteworthy that Travis Bickle’s explosion of violence occurs at the very end of the film, whereas Arthur Fleck shoots three improbable musical-theatre fans to death about a third of the way in, and it turns out not to be a defining moment in his transformation, but a mere detail along the way.

I have other grumbles about the structure. There’s a hint at the end of the movie that possibly an incarcerated Fleck imagined the whole thing, but the fact that he appears to have fantasised his relationship with his next-door neighbour (Zazie Beetz) muddies those waters pretty fatally. And I desperately couldn’t give a shit about Penny Fleck and Thomas Wayne, nor do I have any interest in seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents shot yet again (and the meeting of a 45 year old Joker and a 10 year old Bruce Wayne creates some fairly unmanageable problems for the wider DC Universe).

But it’s the spirit of the thing which finally ground me down. Firstly, the movie has no interest in any of the victims of Fleck’s crimes. As noted, the three chorus boys on the subway are essentially never mourned and their execution is treated as an amuse-bouche when surely it should have been the main course. Neither Fleck nor anyone else misses his mother after he smothers her and although Fleck’s colleague Gary has the good grace to look shocked and scared after Fleck plunges scissors into another clown’s eye, again there’s no sense of loss, grief or anything other beyond the orgiastic excitement of seeing the blood flow.

And so there’s a queasy sense – totally unlike Taxi Driver – that the city and his misfortune is not so much corrupting and degrading Arthur Fleck, but that he is self-actualising through this process. Phoenix’s part-awkward part-graceful cavorting on those now-famous steps is probably the highlight of the movie as far as performances go – that theatricality which the character rests on is finally becoming visible – but there is no moral context given to this transformation. And at the end, when he becomes almost a messiah for an angry and violent populace, this ascension to greatness is made to seem all the more noble because it is clear that Fleck never wanted it. My hero.

Unimaginably dull for much of its running time, frequently chasing its own narrative tale and shot through with a sadistic and cynical worldview, this is a one-note film whose occasional bright spots can’t save it from its own self-loathing.

I didn’t like it.

Oscars 2019: BlackKklansman

Posted on February 20th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

And finally to BlackKklansman.

I haven’t seen very much of Spike Lee’s work. I think I’ve been in the room when either She’s Gotta Have It or Do The Right Thing was on, but I suppose aged about 16, I didn’t really think that the issues he was documenting had anything to do with me. I do remember seeing and enjoying Mo’ Better Blues, but that’s a pretty small and fairly unrepresentative sampling. Today, I see his work as being far more relevant.

Even without the urgent social commentary, there’s a pretty juicy set-up here. It’s the mid-1970s and rookie black cop Ron Stallworth gets it into his head to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan division. In furtherance of this goal, he will need to team up with a white cop who can play Ron Stallworth in person. All based on a true story of course – this is Oscar season after all.

After a bonkers opening in which Alec Baldwin has too much fun as a mouth-foaming white supremacist I guess motivational speaker, Lee and his fellow writers sketch in Stallworth’s entry into the Colorado Springs Police Department, interregnum in the records room and graduation to intelligence work with admirable economy. Stallworth meets and begins a relationship with student civil rights activist and teams up with Flip Zimmerman who will become his pale-skinned alter-ego.

A lot of this looks pretty cliched on the page. Zimmerman must think quickly to protect his cover from the probing of the dumb but instinctive red neck when he asks too many questions of the more intellectual, but more trusting leader. And towards the end, when Stallworth is working as David Duke’s security detail, at the same time as Zimmerman’s cover is falling apart, and while simultaneously Stallworth’s girlfriend is the intended victim of a bomb attack, it becomes near-ludicrous. Remarkably, the subplot about Stallworth having to protect Duke does seem to be true, even though most of the rest is exaggerated, rearranged or just made-up from whole cloth.

However, after that demented opening, Lee and the actors keep it grounded and play it for a great deal of verisimilitude. John David (son-of Denzel) Washington is quietly compelling as Stallworth, but it’s the addition of a Jewish heritage to Adam Driver’s Zimmerman that gives real depth to the white side of the story. At the end, it’s all smiles and air-punching as Duke is humiliated and ally white cops drag racist white cops away to jail. But Lee is too smart and too political a filmmaker to leave us on that, instead cutting in horrifying footage from protests and riots in 2017.

Again, on the page this seems clumsy, even crass, but the progression is so perfectly calculated and the clips chosen so shockingly confronting that it can’t help but be effective – more effective I thought than the seemingly far more elegant and complex machinations of Vice. To be successful, BlackKklansman needed to do a great many things at once. It needed to tell the story of these people in this situation. It needed to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller. And it needed to connect the experiences of America 45 years ago to the realities of America today. It’s hugely to the film’s credit that it largely achieved all three of these. I think I would have preferred it to feel a little less like a suspense thriller in the middle, but I can’t deny the powerful work done by both leads and the effectiveness of that hammer-blow ending.

So… what did I think of Resolution?

Posted on January 5th, 2019 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who Christmas specials often operate by different rules than the regular episodes. With certain obvious exceptions, they stand-alone, outside the regular continuity and generally avoiding any season-arc material. They frequently have a more exuberant tone and often feature a more extravagant guest-cast than usual. While disregarding a great many elements which made previous seasons of Nu-Who so successful, Chris Chibnall has been careful to make sure that at least some baby is retained, while the bathwater goes gurgling down the plug-hole.

In some respects, Resolution is a rehash of 2005’s stunning Dalek, the moment when I suddenly realised that Doctor Who in the twenty-first century could work. In each case, we have a single Dalek, brought back to life by well-meaning humans, which proceeds to lay waste to everything in its path, before the Doctor finally stops it in its tracks. Robert Shearman’s script isn’t perfect either, and the production team in 2005 is still finding its feet, but the differences between the two stories are instructive.

First, in Chibnall’s most brilliant innovation (possibly of his whole run to date), it’s the Dalek mutant which is brought back to life. The slightly portentous not-technically-a-pretitles-sequence-because-again-we-have-no-titles has echoes of the opening of The Battle of Rancorous Cornflakes – but is an effective scene-setter. And the relationship between Lin and Mitch is nicely handled. What’s the most effective part of the whole episode is the sight of Charlotte Ritchie, possessed by this alien parasite which gradually takes control of her more and more thoroughly.

I’m going to gloss over the fact that Dalek mutants apparently don’t actually need so-called “survival” machines any more, which seems a very boring thing to complain about given the upsides. All of this works gangbusters, with the Doctor’s pursuit of the creature not requiring her to be stupid in order to keep her one step behind, and the body horror nicely judged for a family audience. The ruthlessness of the Dalek and the horror than Lin experiences are very strong, but never overwhelming or off-putting. And the custom-built Dalek casing when it materialises is great, and let’s a have a mention for the hugely funny and enjoyable scene in which UNIT has been killed by Brexit. What’s less amusing is the over-familiar, patronising and childish “joke” about people’s internet being cut off. All right, grandad, I won’t watch your Doctor Who episode on iPlayer then. FFS.

So here’s the second big difference between this episode and Dalek. Every so often, this exhilarating science-fiction action-adventure gets intercut with a much less interesting, sub-Broadchurch family drama, in which cliched mopey teen Ryan turns out to have a cliched deadbeat Dad. (Think Pete Tyler but much less interesting). Daniel Adegboyega isn’t really given much to do, but his big scene with Bradley Walsh is good. What’s little short of bewildering is the seemingly-random swapping in-and-out of TARDIS occupants in order to allow the “right” people to interact at the right time. Of course, the other function of this thinly-drawn and off-theme second plot strand is to deposit Chekhov’s microwave at the Doctor’s feet. So let’s have a talk about the ending.

Setting up an unstoppable foe makes for a very exciting middle. But when you need your story to conclude, you have to stop the unstoppable. It’s a difficult storytelling problem, to say the least. The ending of Dalek doesn’t have the same kind of high-octane excitement that the rest of the story does, but it’s rooted in character and emotion. It’s all about who a Dalek is, at its core. And it’s about who the Doctor is, especially this new Doctor, suffering from survivor’s guilt. Because of the interplay between these three well-defined characters – the Doctor, the Dalek and Rose – the Dalek’s reason to exist is violently yanked away from it, and so it ceases to exist. But not without getting in one last devastating jab: “You would make a good Dalek.”

What solution does Chris Chibnall find? Run around behind it and microwave it to death. Sorry, what? With all the equipment on board the TARDIS, it’s impossible to disable a Dalek without a defrost setting?

And if you want to talk about overstuffed TARDISes, this is ridiculous. The Doctor, Yas, Ryan, Graham, Mitch, Lin and Aaron all have to gang up on it, but the plan really only requires one to distract it and one to stick the magnetron on it, so once again, the supporting cast get nothing to do Ryan and Graham get one scene each with Aaron (which as noted neither propels nor illuminates the main plot) and Yas gets exactly nothing.

There’s a second climax after that one, which makes even less sense and which undoes a lot of the good work in the first three quarters of the episode, so this is still recognisably Season 11 stuff – clumsily structured, with no thematic unity, an underused regular cast and thinly drawn supporting characters. But it’s also Chibnall’s best script of the season, and Jodie Whittaker has never been better in the central role.

Leave Yas, Graham and Ryan at home. Make Mitch and Lin temporary companions. Find a Dalek weakness other than consumer electronics and have the win come at some kind of cost (even Lin survives, which I suppose is fair enough for a celebratory episodes, but it does seem unlikely) and this might have been an absolute classic. As it is, four stars.

4 out of 5 stars

Mary Poppins Redux

Posted on January 2nd, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns

I was really looking forward to Mary Poppins Returns.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgic affection for the original 1964 film – even more so after watching Saving Mr Banks, far better than the pitch would suggest (it’s basically a massive studio making a film about how awesome another one of its films is!). You can’t argue with the pedigree of the talent involved, on both sides of the camera. And the early clips looked great.

What we got was… okay, I guess.

It probably shouldn’t go without saying, but it very often does, that the film looks fantastic. Robert Stevenson’s original is strikingly effortless in its creation of magical effects, with no computer generated imagery available (although Disney did have better blue-screen than anyone else, thanks to Petro Vlahos’s sodium vapor process which other technicians at rival studios had been unable to replicate). Rob Marshall’s follow-up keeps the same easy and unfussy integration of magical elements into a believable, but storybook world and Dion Beebe’s photography smartly keeps a ceiling on the brightness until the world explodes into colour and light towards the end. And if the new songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman aren’t quite in the league of those by the Sherman Brothers, they’re tuneful enough and they get the job done.

But from fairly early on, a lot of elements don’t seem quite right.

We are (re)introduced to the Banks children, now grown up and played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer. Wishaw’s Michael is living in his childhood home on Cherrytree Lane and now has three children of his own, and all four are mourning the death of their mother. Aunt Jane (Mortimer) is staying with them and in a needlessly chaotic scene we gather that the plumbing needs seeing to, the groceries need to be got, the house is being repossessed and the kids, especially Annabel are really running the show. They’re certainly more practical help than housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).

Lo, while flying Michael’s old kite, Mary Poppins appears and with a bit of help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), they descend into a cartoon world inside a china bowl, pay a call on Poppins’ cousin Topsy (a delightful Meryl Streep) and save the house from the clutches of the bank.

In outline, I suppose, this all sounds fine. But, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film treats the original less like a springboard from which to find new ideas, but rather as a template to be followed closely. So just like in 1964, we get a magical tidying up, followed by a journey to a cartoon world, followed by adventures with an eccentric friend of Poppins’ up on the ceiling, then a trip to the bank which goes wrong, rescue by Bert/Jack and his gang of workers, then a resolution at the bank, followed by aerial delights with the whole family in the park while Poppins slips away.

But while the structure is followed rigidly, it seems as if writers Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca are working from a half-remembered version of the original, in which Dick van Dyke plays a chimney sweep (he has a different job in each section of the film), in which Mary Poppins repeatedly transports the children to magical lands (this only happens once) and in which fantastic sequences end with the children waking up as if from a dream (this never happens). In fact, as the cameos from familiar faces start piling up, this begins to feel less like From Russia With Love and more like Operation Kid Brother.

But the original film is also smart and subtle enough to realise that while the source books feel very episodic, movie audiences of all ages need a bit more connecting tissue. So, every episode contributes in some way to the rehabilitation of George Banks. Motifs like “a spoonful of sugar” and “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” are all part of his journey back to his family and the least well-remembered sequence (Ed Wynn on the ceiling) is the cornerstone of this process.

Here, nothing in the underwater “Can You Imagine That” sequence is ever referred to again, and it’s questionable whether we needed either “Turning Turtle” or “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” either. And if it sounds like I’m criticising the film when it copies the original and criticising it again when it doesn’t – well, I suppose I am, but that’s the problem that sequels are often faced with, especially sequels to beloved films which are a very long time in coming. And it’s not particularly a point in the new film’s favour that a lot of the new sequences are drawn from PL Travers’ writing either. Who the hell actually read the books? (Actually I read the first four avidly as a child, but that’s not the point.)

No, here’s the real problem with this film. What’s it actually about? As I’ve said, it was the Sherman Brothers and producer Don Da Gradi’s inspiration that the golden thread uniting all of the elements of their story was that Mary Poppins had arrived not to straighten out unruly kids, but to save their father from himself. What is Mary Poppins’ mission this time round?

Well, at first it seems as if the natural order of things has been reversed. The kids are having to parent their father (Annabel at least). Is this the problem that supernanny is here to solve? Well, Georgie, the youngest, doesn’t suffer this affliction and when she’s done summoning a plumber (who never arrives) and setting off for groceries (which she never buys), Annabel just basically becomes a child again and so does her twin brother John.

Wishaw seems a bit absent-minded, but it’s not clear whether this is brought on by grief or whether it’s a character flaw. Either way, it wouldn’t work for Mary Poppins to make him more organised and rigid, and she clearly isn’t going to bring his wife back from the dead (can you imagine!?), so he isn’t the problem either. And Emily Mortimer’s Jane seems pretty self-reliant and together throughout. The film hints that she might need a man to be whole, but never quite sets off down that rather parochial path.

One interesting thread which is presented is that as they recollect their time with Mary Poppins, the adult Michael and Jane have rewritten their memories, and now believe that their magical adventures were nothing but an overactive imagination. They conclude this in the foreground, as Emily Blunt sails up the bannisters behind them, in what is possible the best shot in the entire film. But they both feel the same way, which is dramatically inert, and they don’t really alter this point of view over the course of the story. At the climax, when the whole family is soaring through the sky, buoyed aloft by Angela Lansbury’s balloons, Lansbury lumpenly spells it out for us – the adults won’t remember this the next day. No change. No growth. No transformation. No point.

In other words, Mary Poppins isn’t doing anyone any good by being there. She’s a fun source of magical adventures, but that isn’t a story. Disney realised that in 1964. Why has no-one clocked it this time round?

Absent a needed emotional transformation of a family member, what does drive the plot of the new film? An achingly tedious find-the-McGuffin routine, over-familiar from countless other films before it, allied with an even more over-familiar race-against-time device. This requires the presence of something which the first film had no need of: a bad actor; a villainous character who is actively and purposefully seeking to cause the Banks family harm for his own personal gain. It was during the otherwise lovely Royal Doulton Bowl sequence, with its wonderfully nostalgic hand-drawn animation that I began to feel as if something was badly wrong. Why are the Banks children in mortal danger? Why is a bad guy rubbing his hands with glee? Why does the sequence not end properly? What the hell is going on?

And Colin Firth is required to jump through any number of nonsensical plot hoops to make all this work. He gives Wishaw a job, even though he wants him to default on the loan. He voluntarily stays at the bank till midnight, even though he could go home at 5:00pm and guarantee that his scheme succeeds. He allows himself to be suckered in by the incredibly lame device of Miranda and co turning back the hands of Big Ben so that the deadline can be extended (a literal race-against-time, yawn) and then every single action anyone has taken in the last half hour is rendered moot by the Deus Ex Van Dyke at the end. Without Indy, the Nazis would probably still have found the Ark eventually, but at least because he was there, it ends up safe in the hands of the American government, who have the wisdom not to try and weaponise it. Without Mary Poppins’s return… I don’t know. Everything is exactly the same, I guess. Because she’s there to give the kids adventures, but the plot revolves around a bank loan. The pieces don’t mesh, and I don’t feel anything when I watch it.

The nearest I got to being moved was when the kids sing The Place Where Lost Things Go to their dad, who realises that they’ve been parenting him. Yes. Briefly. Before Mary Poppins showed up. But this epiphany doesn’t actually change Wishaw’s behaviour in any way, so – again – what’s the point of it? And it doesn’t help that this is the latest in a too-long line of supposedly insightful bon mots which attempt to recapture the simple truth of “A spoonful of sugar” but none of them quite make the grade. “Different point of view.” “If it makes no sense it can’t be true.” “A cover is not the book.” And most vacantly of all “You can’t lose what you’ve never lost.” Eh?

Even the shot of Firth’s balloon sinking to the ground at the end, leaving him humiliated and earthbound just seems wrong to me. Mary Poppins is about taking crusty adults who have forgotten the elation of being childlike and giving them that joy back again. It’s not about sorting adults into winners and losers and then laughing cruelly at the losers. Ugh.

One of many reasons why the 1964 film works so well is that its makers were in no way in awe of the books. They disregarded PL Travers every chance they got, in order to put their vision of Mary Poppins on screen. As Saving Mr Banks tells us, they then had to defend and fight for every single one of those changes, which is perhaps why the final film feels so perfectly balanced.

The new film has been made by people whose reverence for the original seems overwhelming, and yet at the same time, who didn’t really understand it at all. It’s a cargo-cult version of the original, with a smashing cast, decent songs, a good sense of fun and some eye-popping visuals. But it has no engine and that’s why it can’t ever actually take off and fly.

Pre-Oscars 2019: Roma

Posted on December 15th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

I like structure.

I like structure in movies, and I like it both explicitly and implicitly.

I like it when a film is divided into chapters, or falls neatly into sections, or mirrors itself in some way.

But I also appreciate a well-constructed story, in which everything is there for a reason, in which chains of cause-and-effect link the actions of the characters and everything builds to a satisfying resolution. I like it even more if the plot points are artfully concealed, and if it’s at all original or has something to say, than that’s even better, but even building a complete structure like that and successfully hiding the scaffolding from view is not easy, which is why it so often makes me cross to hear critics carping about the three act structure, as if writing according to this template is some sort of paint-by-numbers job. Really? You try it.

Independent films which reject the three act structure often find very little to go in its place. As I’ve observed before, writing a film with no structure, in which a bunch of things happen and then the film ends, may or may not be truer to life, may or may not feel fresh compared to the Hollywood template, but it is certainly a great deal easier to write than a film which requires careful set-ups and payoffs all the way through.

So, films like Boyhood, The Tree of Life or Beasts of the Southern Wild (to pick three previous Best Picture nominees) often leave me cold. On the other hand, I don’t have a single template for movie narratives into which I insist that every story be forced. The three act structure endures because it works and because it’s so flexible, encompassing everything from Dumb and Dumber to Citizen Kane, but other structures are possible – they’re just harder.

In the case, for example, of The Hurt Locker, the only thing I didn’t like was the emergence of traditional Hollywood storytelling in the final third. It jarred and felt artificial next to the terrifying realism of the preceding hour. Or there’s Amour in which the brilliant performances and acutely observed details of the lives of the protagonists, combined with the pitiless direction to make an extraordinary, if harrowing movie experience.

All of which brings us to Alfonsa Cuaron’s Roma. This is not Gravity Cuaron. This is not Harry Potter Cuaron. This is not even Children of Men Cuaron. It’s closer if anything to Y Tu Mama Tambien in structure, if not in tone. A synopsis doesn’t really do it justice, because the story, although it contains many powerful and affecting elements, isn’t really the point. Roma is not a film you watch. It’s a film you experience.

Recreating and lightly fictionalising his childhood, growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuaron takes us through a year in the life of a wealthy family facing domestic strife, not from the point of view of one of the children, as you might expect, but from the point of view of Cleo, the maid and nanny. Point of view is of course vitally important. It’s what distinguishes storytelling from journalism. This perspective immediately brings harsh realities of class, economics, politics and relationships into sharp relief. There is the sense here that the mother’s story, or the child’s or possibly even the father’s would be good movies in their own right, but Cuaron is never distracted, keeping Cleo at the centre of every event, including momentous ones in her own life, the family’s life and Mexico’s history.

Over some of the bland domesticity which takes up about the first half of the film, there is the constant hum of potential violence. Hard-edged technology creeps into the softness of the family home. Too-large cars crunch into narrow drive ways. Cleo’s boyfriend shows off his martial artistry. Planes whine overhead. When Cleo visits a shanty town, a man is being shot out of a cannon in the background. When, in the last third of the film, this violence erupts, it’s incredibly shocking and what follows is one of the most upsetting scenes in recent cinema history. But like those planes that are so often in view, Cuaron tells us that this too shall pass.

This has no need of any kind of three act structure, and would not be helped by it. The film would have been riveting enough with these performances (among a uniformly strong cast, Yalitza Aparicio is exceptional as Cleo) and this kind of storytelling. What catapults this to the very top of my list of movies for 2018 is the way that Cuaron tells the story visually.

Shooting in gorgeous 65mm black and white in 2.35:1, this couldn’t look less like an old movie, and yet the monochrome images can’t help but evoke the past (as does a cheeky reference to Marooned, a sort of 1969 version of Gravity). But although Cleo is the emotional heart of the film, by giving us a modern lens on an earlier time, Cuaron inserts himself discreetly into the movie too. This is 1971 from a 2018 standpoint.

We know Cuaron loves long takes, but here his style evolves again. Although shot with tremendous flexibility and panache, time and again, the camera tracks sideways or pans left and right across that widest of widescreen frames, almost like a security camera – observing but never intruding, And this unfussy style, combined with the patient editing, means that when the story is told in eye-popping images, which it so often is, it never feels forced, contrived or showy. This may have been bankrolled by Netflix, but you need to see it on a big screen.

Roma is an extraordinary achievement, clearly a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language film this year, and if there’s any justice at all, it will become the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. I’m not saying that’s going to happen – it probably won’t. I am saying I find it very hard to imagine seeing a better film than Roma this year.

So… what did I think of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos?

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Arghh!! So close!

This is Chibnall’s best script so far. But it’s probably the fourth best story of the year, about level with Arachnids in the UK and with some of the same flaws.

What’s frustrating is that Arachnids was almost as good as it could have been, it just needed an ending that made sense and was on-theme. Whereas Battle comprehensively squanders any number of hugely promising story ideas in its last ten minutes, in a rather dispiriting and depressing way.

The opening is some of the best stuff we’ve seen all season.The Ux are a fascinating creation and the visuals are absolutely eye-popping. The mystery of Ranskoor Av Kolos is fascinating and guest star Mark Addy makesa great impression as Paltracki. I have two niggling complaints about all this.

Firstly, the neurobalancers are clearly going to be very important later (read on) but why don’t we get a clear shot of team TARDIS applying them?And why does this story need two separate unrelated little black gizmos which you stick to your face? Secondly, as always sagacious Andrew Ellard points out, Chris Chibnall’s talent for euphonious alien planets, characters and races lags very far behind his showrunner predecessors. Epzo, Tsuranga, Krasko, Ranskoor Av Kolos and even Paltracki are all awkward in the mouth and grating on the ear.

Then, the mission is defined and the team sets off. Two things here. Firstly, Steven Moffat acutely pointed out that a great deal of classic Doctor Who, for budgetary reasons, involves people standing around urgently. Russell T Davies brought running to the series, if not for the first time, then certainly as a regular feature. Chris Chibnall’s revolutionary vision for the show seems to involve walking. An awful lot of walking. Walking towards the Ghost Monument, walking around Robertson’s hotel, walking around the corridors of the Tsuranga, walking up and down Pendle Hill, walking through the anti-zone and now plodding across the surface of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Rather like the anti-zone (although far less colourful and dramatic) it’s another plot-retardation device. Everyone needs time for a chat. Have to keep the plot on hold for a bit. It’s bad writing. It just is.

However, one of those chats is probably the best-written and acted scene in the whole season. When Graham tells the Doctor he’s going to kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, I believe him. And I care. It’s powerful stuff, paying off story threads started nine weeks early, beautifully played by both Whittaker and Walsh.

The rest of the actual plot is pretty much standard middle-level Doctor Who science fiction nonsense. Ancient religion, blah blah blah. Mysterious crystals, blah blah blah. Hugely powerful forces, blah blah blah. Fine, but hardly the point.

It really is best not to think too much about the details. One of the bad-guys who was just banished but not killed in an earlier episode (Tzim-Sha) returns, leaving the fate of Racist Fonzie still open. The robo-sentries from the terribly tiresome Ghost Monument are back for no very good reason. The Doctor finally admits that her anti-gun rhetoric is inconsistent, hypocritical and badly thought-through, further weakening her character. The Ux are a race of exactly two people (saves on budget) who live three thousand years or more, conveniently the same time that Tzim-Sha has been waiting for the Doctor. The very important people who urgently need rescuing just get treated like cargo and contribute nothing to the story. Nothing really feels like it means anything or it matters terribly much. Even getting back out of the floating rock castle in the sky, which took an awful lot of sonicking and frowning to get into, happens easily, quickly and off-screen.

As things ramp up, Jamie Childs does his best to build the energy and excitement, so it does feel dramatic, but when the character stuff should be paying off, there’s nothing he can do to fill the void that Chibnall leaves him. In order to save the day, the Doctor has to convince Andinio andDelph that their creator is a fraud and that the last three thousand years of sacrifice and toil have been for nothing. This should be appalling news and they should hate her for telling them this. No, they just happily agree to switch sides. On Earth, Tzim-Sha killed passers-by without a second thought. Now, he just stands there and listens to the Doctor explain that she’s going to foil his plan, and then lets her do that. Oh wait, he’s plumbed into this machine in some way. Is that why he can’t act more directly? It must be super-important that he stay connected. No, he just pulls out the tubes when it’s time to go and be shot by Graham.

And most egregiously of all, the hugely built-up neurobalancers come to nothing. Forcing characters to act against their nature, confronting them with their darkest secrets, paranoid fantasies and basest thoughts is a wonderfully effective science-fiction trope which can really reveal character in a way which is not available to conventional drama. The Doctor and Yas losing their identities as the terrible forces of the planet take hold once they’ve removed their neurobalancers could have been an amazing sequence, easily helping me to overlook some of the other rather iffy plotting and catapulting this to the top ranks of this season.

What actually happens? The Doctor and Yas get a bit of a sore head for thirty seconds, then put the neurobalancers back on again. I’ve never seen a writer so allergic to drama, so blind to the possibilities of their own scripts.

The other big payoff here is Graham’s confrontation with Tzim-Sha. As I’ve said, this is very clumsily arranged, and it doesn’t really come to anything. Graham just decides not to kill him – but again trapping a villain for eternity is presented as a kindness, compared to a quick death. What does help slightly is that Tosin Cole does his best work of the whole season. His stuff with Graham gives us a flash of what this relationship could have been, with a bit more time, a bit more care and a bit more talent.

And that’s it. We’re done for 2018.

Chris Chibnall has had more time to prepare fewer episodes than any showrunner in history, and yet most of these scripts felt to me like hasty first drafts. There’s enough good stuff here to scrape together four stars, but the only really good scripts this year have been the three without Chibnall’s name on them – the fun Kerblam!, the very dramatic and funny Witchfinders and the truly excellent It Takes You Away. These are also the only scripts to even attempt to make proper use of the four regulars (can you tell me one necessary or even interesting thing which Yas does in this entire episode?).

As usual, let’s compare my reactions to fandom at large. Over on Gallifrey Base, Rosa comes out top, averaging 8.49 out of ten. with The Woman Who Fell to Earth just behind it on 8.44. But Rosa has a lot more 9s and 10s. The Ghost Monument does surprisingly well in fourth place with an 8.26, just inching ahead of It Takes You Away. The Tsuranga Conundrum is decisively last with an average of just 6.6 and nearly double the 1s and 2s of its nearest rival The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

So, this has been a divisive year, to say the least, and we now need to wait till early 2020 for the next full season. But ratings are top-notch so I imagine the BBC will be happy, and therefore that the job is Chibnall’s for as long as he wants it. Sigh.

One troubling stat though is to be found on Rotten Tomatoes which aggregates critics’ and users’ ratings. For the first ten seasons of the revived series, critic ratings range from a low of 71% (Series One) to a high of 100% (Series Two to Five) with recent series all in the mid to low nineties.

Audience ratings range from a high of 94% (Series Two) to a low of 73% (Series Ten) with Russell’s stuff generally doing better than Moffat’s and Smith’s stuff generally doing better than Capaldi’s.

Series Eleven gets 95% from critics and a jaw-dropping 46% from users.

Can they all be woman-hating, mouth-frothing, misogynistic bros who just loathe the show now because of the sex of the lead performer? I mean – it’s possible. But maybe, just maybe, Chris Chibnall should look at some of the feedback in more detail. Once the fans turn on you, there’s no going back…

Pre-Oscars 2019: First Man

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

First Man has all the trappings of an Oscar triumph. True to life story of American heroism? Check. Opportunity for visionary filmmaker tocreate indelible images? Check. Strong Oscar pedigree among creative team? Check. Box office smash hit… eh, not so much.

Damian Chazelle is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and – far more than the rather low-stakes and meandering La La Land – his new film shares a lot of DNA with his first big hit Whiplash. Again, we are plunged into the action with precious little in the way of explanation or backstory. Again, we are left to impose our own thought processes on to a stubbornly taciturn leading man. But here, rather than focusing on an intensely human battle of wills, with a (frankly rather odd conception of) jazz music as the background,we instead have one of the most audacious engineering projects in the history of the twentieth century as our story material.

The problem is that Neil Armstrong isn’t the most pivotal figure in this story. The Right Stuff succeeds partly because it finds a very specific angle from which to come at this tale – who are the people who will fly these machines and what qualities do they need to have? – and because of director Philip Kaufman’s determinedly quirky approach. The other companion film to these two is 2016’s Hidden Figures, which successfully finds an untold and very human story, but squanders it in unambitious, sitcom-level execution.

Not only does Armstrong spend the movie obediently carrying out the wishes of others, rather than being a wilful hero who makes decisions and controls his own destiny, the very facets of his personality which make him ideal for the job – calm under pressure, presents well, not prone to outbreaks of emotion – also make him a pretty dull hero for a movie. In this regard, Ryan Gosling is an excellent choice. His movie-star stoicism translates very well into Armstrong’s patient heroics.

What Chazelle attempts is a portrait of a marriage. Second-billed Claire Foy should have an equal stake in the narrative, but when he’s flying a rocket to the moon, and she’s at home hoping her intercom connection to mission control won’t be cut off, it’s hard to see them as equals. This version of the film suddenly crackles into life when Foy makes him sit down and tell their kids that there’s a chance he won’t be coming back. Suddenly, Gosling’s closed-off performance becomes the point, rather than a detail. But it’s a long time to wait and it’s over with fairly quickly.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much drama-documentary here’s-how-we-went-to-the-moon stuff, buoyed by Chazelle’s sense of style – for example, almost completely denying us exterior shots of rockets taking off, instead keeping us trapped in the various capsules and cockpits with the pilots. But even here, fascinating parts of the story don’t make the cut. Not just planting the American flag on the moon (for fuck’s sake) but the details of who (if anyone) wrote those first words for Armstrong to say – and did he blow his lines? Or Aldrin damaging the circuit breaker which would enable the lander to take off again – and having to jam a pen in there to make it work. That would have been a great pay-off for the kind-of-an-asshole version of Aldrin essayed by Corey Stoll, but it’s omitted entirely.

Meanwhile, an entirely fictitious tribute to Armstrong’s late daughter is introduced instead, which I object to not because it’s made up but because it didn’t ring true, which is far more important.

Will this sweep the boards on 24 February? Hard to say at this point, but I think probably not. With up to ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s in with a shout there, but stands very little chance of winning. Chazelle and Gosling might pick up nominations too, but both were overlooked at the Golden Globes, so it doesn’t look likely.

Other films on my Oscar radar include: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma, Vice, The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me.

So… what did I think of It Takes You Away

Posted on December 6th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Let me put you out of your suspense. Five stars. This is it. This everything I’ve been looking for all season long.

Is it perfect? No, not quite. But I don’t require perfection for five stars, if enough elements are strong enough. I will defend Kill the Moon to the death. Does that mean I don’t think that the science is total and utter garbage that doesn’t even make intuitive sense? Of course not. But the moral dilemma and the presentation of the Doctor’s relationship with Clara is so outstanding, I’ll happily give the gibberish biology a total pass.

So, let me get a few gripes out of the way early on, then we can all luxuriate in praise. This episode balances the needs of the four main characters better than anything since episode one. Yas is the most side-lined, but Ed Hime doesn’t overstuff the supporting cast and manages to give Graham a real stake in the action – and, for basically the first time – Ryan too. But Ryan’s early interactions with Hanne are so clumsy and frankly shitty, I question why he’s allowed on the TARDIS at all. By the end of the episode, it’s easier to see that this gives him an arc, but the barrier for entry to the most incredible ship in the universe has never seemed lower.

Also, the Doctor’s lying to Hanne about the “map” she scrawls on the wall is unconscionably awful. It pays off at the end, and it’s great that Hanne wasn’t fooled, but it’s still a fairly hateful thing to do, and unlike previous displays of lack of empathy from her male-presenting predecessors, she isn’t criticised or punished for it. It just stands. Also, I didn’t like her promising the sonic to Ribbons, when clearly she had no intention of keeping this promise.

And lastly, we can now add “wee” to the “chicken poo” from Not-Really-Demons in the Punjab to our list of potty training words that have somehow made their way into a Nebula-winning science fiction programme.

I think that’s it.

Yup, those are all my complains.

I know, I know. But read on…

Let’s start with what’s good. The set-up is briskly efficient. Hanne is an engaging character, well-played by Ellie Wallwork. The mystery is clearly established, and the mirror/portal is a splendid and sudden left-turn. The anti-zone acts as a plot-delaying device more than anything else. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation, because while you can imagine a version of this story which deletes the buffer zone between dimensions, and just has the characters stepping from one version of the house to the other, a lot of what happens in there is the episode’s most visual striking, funniest and contains the most genuine peril – something which has been in short supply this year. And who could complain about extra Kevin Eldon.

Everyone’s actions throughout are clearly motivated and spring from character. Hanne knocks Ryan out and heads for the portal, against the Doctor’s instructions, because she doesn’t trust him, not because the plot requires her to. And the arrival of Team TARDIS in the mirror universe is genuinely surprising, unsettling and unpredictable.

And then WHAM! The episode drops the other shoe like an anvil. Finally, Graham’s grief over Grace – in early episodes either ignored or inappropriately painful given the hijinks elsewhere – means something. It connects to the theme of the episode, it increases the jeopardy for the characters and we get a proper stitching together of emotion, adventure and high concept in a way which we haven’t seen frankly since World Enough and Time. I’m amazed that Chibnall, who presumably had some kind of scene like this in mind when he wrote The Woman Who Fell to Earth, let another writer deliver the punchline. Or maybe he didn’t have this in mind at all, and Ed Hime just saw the opportunity. Whatever, I don’t care. This episode is too good. And Bradley Walsh is sublime.

The Doctor – and it really is the Doctor all the way through this episode – desperately tries to get the humans to reject those they’ve loved, while the Solitract universe starts to tear itself to pieces. Jamie Childs does a wonderful job here, creating the apocalyptic atmosphere the script demands, aided by some of Segun Akinola’s best music.

And then it all comes down to the Timelord and the talking frog.

You don’t like the talking frog? Fine. Okay. I get it. It’s a bold choice, for sure. And if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s a pretty pisspoor special effect too, but c’mon. We’re Doctor Who fans. We can take it.

For me, it hardly matters what form the Solitract takes. For it to take a form associated with Grace, but which isn’t Grace, makes perfect sense. And the image is one which only Doctor Who could provide.

We’ve one more episode to go. I frankly doubt this series can do any better than this.

Ed Hime for showrunner.

5 out of 5 stars

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…?

4.5 out of 5 stars