Lost River (2014)

2016 #79
Ryan Gosling | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Lost RiverThe directorial debut of uber-hearththrob movie star Ryan Gosling is not what you might expect someone of that particular adulation to produce. It’s not just that it has a dark heart, but that it’s slow, opaque, perverted, and not easily summarisable.

To try nonetheless: Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives in a possibly-near-future rundown Detroit, where his mother (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to repay the loan so they can keep their house. A meeting with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) leads to him offering her a job at a mysterious nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones salvages copper for cash, which brings him into the orbit of vicious criminal Bully (Matt Smith). Escaping Bully’s clutches, Bones discovers an old road that leads under a lake. He learns from his neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), that there’s a town under there, which may hold the key to breaking the curse hanging over their town…

If it’s not obvious, there’s definitely some magical realism going on in Lost River. Adult fairytale would be another term for it; there are slices of some form of Gothic, too. To put it another way, it’s definitely Lynchian. Other directors may have been an influence on Gosling as well, but it specifically brought Blue Velvet to mind for me, without in any palpable way being a clone of that movie. Nonetheless, it also engages with some very real present-day issues, like the recession, albeit in an elliptical fashion (despite the plot being about someone under threat of losing their house). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to touch of themes of family, home, and what home means (i.e. more than just a house), as well as the importance or otherwise of escaping that home, or somehow reconstituting it.

Lake lightsIt comes to a very cathartic ending, on multiple levels. I almost didn’t realise I needed that catharsis at the end — I knew I wanted certain characters to get their comeuppance, but the load that seems to lift at the end, with all the different climaxes combined, including parts that might not seem ‘good’… well, it’s almost like Rat is right about Bones’ actions lifting a bad spell.

On a technical level the film is superb, combining fantastic cinematography with evocative costumes, expressive sets, and an effective score. Some of the imagery is the visual equivalent of ambient mood music, as is some of the score (er, literally). That occasionally comes across as self-consciously Arty, therefore, but in the right mood or mindset it works. There are several strong performances as well: Christina Hendricks does understated desperation; Matt Smith is a credible schoolyard bully writ large; Ben Mendelsohn exudes menace as a nightclub-owner-cum-devil-incarnate; and Saoirse Ronan is marvellous in everything.

By giving it a 4, I’m maybe being a tad generous; certainly it’s poor consumer advice, because this is a “not for everyone” film. But if I gave it a 3, I’d be underselling how much I eventually liked it. It’s certainly flawed — slow, slight, maybe pretentious, and Arty. But it also takes us to an intriguing world, toys with some interesting ideas, conveys a few memorable moments, and stuns with consistently arresting visuals. I’ll take that mix over “blandly fine” any day.

4 out of 5

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2015 #185
Alan Taylor | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Terminator GenisysI liked Terminator Salvation. There, I said it. (I also said it in my review, so, y’know, not news.) Not many other people agreed, however, meaning plans for a new wave of Terminator films in its wake were abandoned. Fast-forward a few years, past a load of complex and dull rights wranglings, and we reach this: one of the biggest critical flops of 2015. It also flopped with audiences in the US, taking under $90 million, but fared better internationally, to the tune of $350 million — making it the franchise’s second highest grossing film, in fact. Nonetheless, perception has hewed closer to the critics’ take. Is that vitriol deserved?

The story begins in the future war against the machines, where an army of humans led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) storm a Skynet facility and find a time machine that has recently sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), before she’s given birth to John. Reese volunteers to go back and save her. Now, this is where the film leans on being the series’ fifth — we’re expecting him to land in the first film. And at first he does… until a T-1000 (the one that turns into metal from T2) turns up, and Sarah rocks up to save Reese — accompanied by an aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who arrived decades ago and has been protecting and training Sarah ever since.

At this point, some people will already be predisposed to hate the film. Why mess with a classic, etc. I can see where they’re coming from; at the same time, it’s an interesting idea. Time travel is a key part of the Terminator series, and John grows up with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back to 1984 to save his mother — but what if Skynet knew that too? That would change what both John and the computer did, surely? What are the ramifications of that? (And even if you’re not interested, the original Terminator is still there — they’re not re-editing it or removing it from circulation or something — so if you don’t want it affected, that’s fine.)

Come with me if you want to meet some dragonsNow, a good idea doesn’t guarantee a good execution, and here is where we begin to encounter Genisys’ problems. Time travel is a tricksy thing to engage with in fiction, and is highly prone to creating plot holes — something blockbusters regularly struggle with anyway. Genisys has at least one glaring one. Then there’s the general level of quality — the screenplay, acting, effects, and so on. In this regard, I suspect the reason so many people reacted so badly to it is that it follows, and riffs off of, two of the greatest sci-fi/action movies ever made. In and of itself, Genisys is no worse than any of the other half-dozen-or-so middle-of-the-road $150-million-plus-budgeted blockbusters we’re routinely served every year now. If you instead compare it to its iconic forebears, however, it comes up much shorter.

I think one of the major problems is the direction. Marvel hired Alan Taylor for Thor 2 because of the perception that he knew how to handle fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones. That and because, as a TV director, he would’ve been cheap, and Marvel like their directors cheap (and consequently controllable). Clearly the success of Thor 2, such as it was, was parlayed into this big directing gig. I’m just not sure Taylor has the chops for it. The fight scenes are muddled, riddled with close-ups and too many cuts. Not a unique problem these days, of course, but after, what, a decade of that style being criticised, you’d think they’d’ve finally wised up. Nowadays it looks cheap. Most of the direction looks cheap. This is an expensive movie, with lots of practical stunt work, but it never looks it; and those stunts were mostly done on green screens or with the aid of wires here and there, so they’ve ended up CGI’d too. And the CGI looks surprisingly cheap. The Terminator films used to be right at the cutting edge of effects; now it’s just any old blockbuster.

Ex-TerminatorAnd yet the man who was responsible for those remarkable pictures, James Cameron, was impressed by it. He’s interviewed among the film’s special features, where he explains, “can I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it? No. I just know that I enjoyed the film, you know. But I strongly suspect that… you’re gonna love this movie.” Well, he was way wrong there! You almost feel a bit sorry for everyone in those special features, actually. They’re all so confident that Genisys is a great, well-made movie that everyone’s going to love, and they have big plans for a trilogy which they keep talking up. I would love to see their reactions after the reviews and box office figures came in…

So, Terminator Genisys is not a good movie… but I don’t really think it’s a bad one, either. It just sort of is. The action palaver is passable, the plot at times interesting, the developments and twists on the series’ history… well, your mileage will vary. It didn’t help anyone that they were in the trailer, but I’m not sure people would’ve reacted any better if it hadn’t been spoiled. Still, it shouldn’t’ve been spoiled. Stupid marketing people.

Could Terminator Genisys be a lot better? Definitely. Could it be worse? Definitely. I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (2013)

2013 #102
Nick Hurran | 77 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

The longest-running science-fiction TV show in the history of the world ever marked its 50th birthday with a feature-length cinema-released one-off special — I think we can count that as a film, right? Good.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor theatrical poster

The pressure on showrunner/writer Steven Moffat when it came to this special must have been immeasurable. To distill over 30 seasons of television and 50 years of memories into a relatively-short burst of entertainment that would satisfy not only fans, both hardcore and casual, but also Who’s ever-widening mainstream audience. Not only that, but to produce it in 3D, preferably in such a way that the 3D wasn’t pointless, but also that played fine in 2D; and to make it of a scale suitable for a cinema release, but for only a BBC budget; plus, the weight of an unprecedented (indeed, record-shattering) global TV simulcast audience. And all that in the wake of years of griping and disappointment about the direction he’d led the show in, not least the less-than-usual number of episodes being released during the 50th anniversary year as a whole. Yeah, no pressure…

That The Day of the Doctor delivers — and how — is part miracle and part relief, and all joy for the viewer. Well, most viewers — you’ll never please everyone, especially on a show as long-running, diverse, and indeed divisive, as Doctor Who has become. But for the majority it wasn’t just a success, it was a triumph. Evidence? There was that record-breaking global audience; it was the most-watched drama in the UK in 2013; its theatrical release reached #2 at the US box office, despite being on limited screens two days after it aired on TV Come on in...(and it made more than double per screen what The Hunger Games 2 took that night); it recently won the audience-voted Radio Times BAFTA for last year’s best TV programme; and, last week, a poll of Doctor Who Magazine readers asserted it was better than the 240 other Who TV stories to crown it the greatest ever made.

Phew.

As we well know, popularity in no way dictates quality, especially when it comes to TV viewing figures or opening-weekend box office takings… but those audience polls tell a different story, don’t they? The story of something that managed to satisfy millions of people who it seemed impossible to please.

There are many individual successes in The Day of the Doctor, which come together to make something that is, at the very least, the sum of its parts. The star of the show, however, is Moffat’s screenplay. Eschewing the “standard” Whoniversary format of bringing back all the past Doctors and a slew of their friends for an almighty stand off with a huge array of popular enemies (so “standard” it was only actually done once), he instead opts to tell a different kind of story: the series is never about the Doctor, just the adventures he has, so what could be more special than shifting that focus? And with the backstory previous showrunner Russell T Davies had created for the revived show in 2005 — the Time War, and the Doctor’s role in ending it — Moffat had the perfect canvas to tap in to our hero.

Does he have the right?The Doctor’s role in the Time War has not only dominated many of his actions and personalities since it happened, but it also stands awkwardly with his persona as a whole. Here’s the man who always does the right thing, always avoids violence, always finds another way, even when there is no other way… and this man wiped out all of his people and all of the Daleks? The same man who, in his fourth incarnation, stared at two wires that could erase the Daleks from history and pondered, “do I have the right?”, before concluding that he didn’t? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

So Moffat crafts a story that shows a little of how the Doctor came to make that decision… and then, thanks to this past Doctor getting to see a little of how his future selves reacted to it, the chance to make a different one after all. If that sounds a little bit Christmas Carol-esque, it shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s a favourite form of Moffat’s. Indeed, for a series about time travel, very few pre-2005 Doctor Who stories involve it as a plot point (merely as a mechanism to deliver the main characters into that week’s plot), whereas Moffat has frequently tapped into the whys and hows of that science-fictional ability. In these regards — and others, like the sublime structure where things are established in passing, or for one use, and then resurface unexpectedly later with a wholly different point — The Day of the Doctor is inescapably a Moffat story, albeit one without some of his other, less favourable, predilections that have coloured the series of late.

The (new) Three DoctorsI think some fans would have preferred a big party history mash-up; they certainly would have liked to see their favourite faces from the past. But let’s be honest: from the classic era, only Paul McGann could pass muster as still being the Doctor he once was (and he got his own, fantastic, mini-episode to prove it); and how the hell do you construct a story with a dozen leading men? It’s clearly enough of a struggle with three. The Doctor is always the cleverest person in the room, so what do you do with multiples of him? Moffat finds ways to make all of the Doctors here (that’d be David Tennant’s 10th, Matt Smith’s 11th, and John Hurt’s newly-created ‘War Doctor’) have something to do, something to say, and something to contribute — because really, the oldest (i.e newest) Doctor should be the most experienced and have all the ideas, right? There are ways round that, but only so many.

No, instead Moffat treats us to a proper story, rather than an aimless ‘party’… and then serves up a final five or ten minutes that deliver fan-centric treat after treat, without undermining what’s gone before. I guess a lot of that is meaningless to the casual viewer, or is at least unintrusive, but to fans there are moments that provoke cheers and tears — often at the same time. All the Doctors flying in to save the day! Capaldi’s eyes! Tom Baker — as the fourth Doctor, or a future Doctor? Doesn’t matter! And then the final shot, with them all proudly lined up! It’s an array of effective, emotional surprises that far surpasses what could have been achieved if the whole episode had been executed in this style.

An excellent MomentAlong the way, Moffat nails so many other things. The dialogue and situations sparkle, and frequently gets to have its cake and eat it: familiar catchphrases and behavioural ticks of the 10th and 11th Doctors are trotted out to a fan-pleasing extent, and then Hurt’s aged, grumpier, old-fashioned Doctor gets to criticise their ludicrousness, speaking for a whole generation of fans who hate “timey-wimey” and “allons-y” and all the rest. I think it’s this self-awareness that helps so much with selling the episode to everyone, both calling back to well-known elements of the series that many love, and pillorying their expectedness for those that aren’t so keen. Well, it would be a pretty awful party if you had a cake but couldn’t eat it, right?

Tasked with delivering all this, the cast are uniformly excellent, to the point where it’s difficult to pick a stand out. Hurt makes for a creditable ‘new’ Doctor in a relatively brief amount of screen time, while Tennant slips back into the role as comfortably as he does his suit. Special praise should be reserved for Billie Piper, though, having a whale of a time as the quirky Bad Wolf-inspired interface to The Moment. She could’ve been an excuse for exposition and plot generation, two roles her character does fulfil, but if you think that’s all she was then I suggest you watch again: there’s more complexity at play there; a weapon not only with sentience, but with a conscience too. She’s not Rose Tyler, but perhaps she has a part of her…

Clara and one of her DoctorsSmith and Jenna Coleman are on form too, of course, but as the series’ regular cast members that feels less remarkable. That’s not intended to sell them short, however, as they hold their own against actors who are arguably more, shall we say, established. If there’s one weak link it may be Joanna Page’s eyebrows, possibly the side effect of duelling with an English accent. (Complete aside: I’m rewatching Gavin & Stacey as I write this, and feel horrible even going near criticism of such a lovely person.)

They’re backed up by a cornucopia of technical excellence. Yes, OK, it’s a TV episode really — but gosh darn, it looks like a movie. I’m sure some would dig in to criticism of the direction (don’t get me started on the increasingly-regular internet commenter’s cry of “the direction was made-for-TV quality”, but suffice to say I generally don’t hold with that as a complaint), but Nick Hurran’s work is suitably slick. The battle of Arcadia is a sequence any modestly-budgeted big screen extravaganza would be proud to contain, and all achieved on a tighter-than-most-people-realise BBC budget. It won a BAFTA Craft award for special effects, which is more than deserved. Combining full-scale effects, CGI, and even model work (personally, I didn’t even realise there were models involved until I read so in an article months later), it looks incredible, with a scale that’s completely appropriate for a major battle in the war to end all wars. Elsewhere there are a few slip-ups, like a bit of heroic slow-mo undermined by not being recorded at a higher frame rate, but these are few and far between.

Dalek explosion!Credit too to editor Liana Del Giudice, not only for crafting cinematic action sequences, but for stitching together a narrative that is often told with imagery and flashbacks, rather than people stood around chatting. Look at the sequence just after the Doctor sees the painting for the first time as just one clear example. That sequence may be dialogue-driven, but the faded-in and intercut flashbacks and glimpses of other events are what’s really conveying information. This is first-class visual storytelling, not just when compared to the rest of British TV, or international TV, or cinema, but the whole shebang.

Perhaps (as in “it isn’t, but let’s see what some people think”) the editing is even too snappy. In the run up to the special’s release, some fans moaned about its length: an hour-and-a-quarter wasn’t enough to do justice to 50 years, they said; it should be at least 90 minutes. Which is exactly the kind of ludicrous small-minded pettiness some fanbases talk themselves into these days. Moffat commented in an interview somewhere that his scripts for The Snowmen (the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special) and A Scandal in Belgravia (the first episode of Sherlock season two) had exactly the same page count, and yet, when shot and edited, one episode was an hour long and the other 90 minutes. Screenwriting is an inexact science like that. I seriously doubt anyone at the BBC commissioned a 75- or 80-minute Doctor Who special; instead, I would imagine Moffat wrote a roughly-feature-length script that seemed achievable within Who’s limited-despite-what-the-Daily-Mail-think budget, then it was filmed, edited, and it ended up being the length it is. Indeed, the scheduler-unfriendly final running time of 77 minutes is merely further indication of such a notion.

Heroes just for one DayStill, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and not everyone liked The Day of the Doctor: it may’ve topped DWM’s poll, but there were voters who scored it just one out of ten. But then, that’s true of 239 of the series’ 241 stories; and almost 60% of voters gave it a full ten out of ten — that’s a pretty clear consensus. I didn’t get round to voting myself, but I would’ve been amongst them. There are undoubtedly some weak spots that I haven’t flagged up, but conversely, there are myriad other successes — both minor (the opening! The dozens of sly callbacks!) and major (the use of the Zygons! Murray Gold’s music!) — that I haven’t mentioned either.

Even if The Day of the Doctor isn’t flawless, as a Doctor Who story — and certainly as a great big anniversary celebration — it is perfect.

5 out of 5