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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 6 – The Almost People


Yet again I am late with my thoughts on the latest episode. I’d actually been putting off my standard pre-blog second viewing, for two reasons. On the one hand I was so blown away by the unexpected cliff hanger that I didn’t think I would be able to say much besides “what will happen next week?” in various different ways. On the other, I was disappointed with The Almost People.

I should qualify that statement by explaining that when it comes to Doctor Who, even a below par outing is a must see event I can always derive satisfaction from. A bad Doctor Who episode is merely relatively poor, compared to the greatness of other episodes, and still one of the best things on telly.

Why was I disappointed though? It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason. As the Guardian series blog points out, the shocking and momentous twist at the end would overshadow whatever came before it, no matter how good it was. But The Almost People was certainly not as good as it could have been and not as good as the promise set up in The Rebel Flesh. In fact there were some shockingly bad elements.

As I said in last week’s piece, Matthew Graham’s script was inconsistent. After watching The Almost People for a second time, I liked it a lot more and appreciated the extremely intricate and clever plotting. All of the character development ploughed into the Gangers, for Jimmy and his son, Cleaves and her blood clot, even the Doctors shoe swapping, made more sense once you knew that this was all part of the Doctor mulling over Amy’s impostor. The Doctor still gets the odd good line; with Matt Smith making most of the disappointing ones look good too with a varied and vibrant performance. Re-watch it and see the burden of worry about where the real Amy is on his face, way before we find out.

 However Graham’s script also contained such truly awful lines as “who are the real monsters?” and “It will destroy them all”. And whilst you can see the idea behind the development of the Gangers far more clearly after a second viewing, it doesn’t always come off, with stereotypical northern Buzzer not convincing at all as he moans “I should have been a postman like me dad”. Then there’s the terrible acting, which I touched upon last week, even more noticeable this time. Cleaves and Jennifer in particular are woefully portrayed.

So despite a lot of potential, with intelligent moral dilemmas and frightening psychological horror, this double bill never really grabbed my attention completely. Until the climax that is. With the rather random and forced CGI monster out of the way and the ridiculous farewell hugs when the beast was supposedly breaking down the door, the Doctor becomes grave and ushers Amy and Rory into the TARDIS. He had a reason for his visit to the factory with the flesh. Amy has not been with them for some time.

But how long? She must surely have been there for the Doctor’s death at the beginning of the series? Did the swap take place during an adventure we saw on screen or another in between time? It would seem a bit of a cop out if it just happened somewhere along the line and we’re not given a precise explanation as to when.

There are endless other questions, and knowing Moffat, the majority will be left unanswered. We are promised that next week’s A Good Man Goes to War will see the unveiling of River Song’s true identity though. And the trailer shows us that the Cybermen are back, but once again, knowing Moffat, they’re unlikely to be the real masterminds behind it all. Who impregnated Amy? Was the Timelord child from the opening two parter hers? The Doctor shouts something about not using a baby as a weapon in the trailer, to mysterious eye patch midwife Madame Kovarian, so how exactly does she do that?

After this disappointing pair of episodes following the superb The Doctor’s Wife by Neil Gaiman, doubts resurface, for me at least, about trying to do too much with the story arc. In overlaying so many secrets, which are often tagged onto the ends of episodes, Moffat risks devaluing the standalone stories and turning the increasingly strained relationships within the TARDIS into soap opera. I’m sure that A Good Man Goes to War will be an improvement on The Almost People, if only in terms of the quality of the dialogue. But hopefully, with some real answers, Doctor Who will also begin to get back to just telling damn good stories every week too.

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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 5 – The Rebel Flesh


I am rather late with my thoughts on the latest episode. This is because in a lot of ways I thought The Rebel Flesh was scarcely worth commenting on. Not because it was bad but because it was mostly a setup for next week’s The Almost People. My suppressed OCD instincts could never allow me to skip an episode though. Judging by the build up to next week, it would seem that we’ll get some fairly substantial answers to aspects of the story arc, as well as a dramatic conclusion to the story established here.

The trailers and promotional material for The Rebel Flesh all emphasised the aspect of the Doctor mediating between two sides in a war, without necessarily condemning one as the enemy. This was all rather ominous given that the weakest episodes of last year’s series came via the Silurian double bill, in which the Doctor was reduced to an ineffectual peacekeeper. However thankfully not only does next week’s finale look far more satisfying than last year’s, as a standalone ideas piece this was superior to the disappointing Silurians.

Matthew Graham’s script has some very interesting ideas and manages to be original despite treading well explored sci-fi territory. The Doctor gets some fantastic lines when he is calmly and seriously explaining the rights and beauty of the flesh but I can’t help feeling Graham doesn’t carry off the scattier moments as entertainingly as Moffat or even RTD in the past. Matt Smith’s increasingly assured and diverse performance helps gloss over these occasional weaknesses in the more playful chunks of dialogue though and one line did manage to capture the mysterious, funny and mad side to our temperamental Time Lord: “I’ve got to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose! I never thought I’d have to say that again.”

The concept of the Gangers is suitably chilling for the tone of the new series and delightfully unsettling. There are genuinely complex ethical questions that arise from such a technology. Doctor Who is at its best asking those sorts of questions and sparking intelligent debate. But of course it also has its essential ingredients. Here we get some typical running around and down corridors, as well as scary gooey faces and a dark, near future setting.

With the somewhat obvious creation of the Doctor’s Ganger, and its emergence at the end, many are wondering if this is connected to the big question marks of the series surrounding the Doctor’s death in episode one. It would seem to be an easy get out clause. But for some reason my instincts tell me it would be simultaneously too simple and complex a solution. Too simple because Moffat doesn’t like answers you can see coming and too complex because clearly, despite their similarities, the Gangers have underlying faults and differences that make them monstrous. And I’m sure the Doctor will be of the opinion that there can’t be two of him dashing about the universe, for reasons of cosmic law and order.

Elsewhere in this episode we are still being fed teasing reminders of Amy’s pregnancy, with the Doctor scanning her inconclusively once again and telling her to “Breathe” before he darts of to try and stop the solar tsunami doing too much damage. Also Amy’s and Rory relationship continues to be pushed and strained. This week Rory has another love interest, in Ganger/human Jennifer, which is a nice role reversal for the hapless husband, often just reduced to a comic presence lusting after the TARDIS redhead.  Theories swirl in the online fan community, with some suggesting Rory is fading in and out of reality. Seems random? Don’t forget his disappearance through a crack in time and space last year and his return as an auton. Also the Doctor has forgotten about Rory a few times this series, including in this episode. Such moments appear to be simple humour at first glance. But maybe they’re not.

On a second viewing I thought Raquel Cassidy’s performance as factory leader Cleaves was quite appalling and irritating. That’s right just a random jibe at a hardworking actress there.

Stay tuned for next week’s The Almost People, which will nestle nicely before the Champions League final. Superb Saturday viewing.

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.