Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Good Stuff: The Haunting

The Haunting
Directed by Robert Wise

"Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there... walked alone."

I like to think I don't scare easily.  The language of horror films is just something you can learn and, with time, easily predict.  You know the heroine will investigate the strange noise, find it's a cat or a branch, and breathe a sigh of relief.  And you roll your eyes, bored, knowing the killer's stood behind her.  We've seen it all a thousand times.  The only film that really, truly frightens me and I mean that when The End appears on screen and the video stops, I'm still frightened is fifty years old and doesn't include any murderers, monsters or blood.  The Haunting is a masterpiece of psychological terror, and I've yet to see its equal.

Four psychic researchers go to Hill House, hoping to investigate claims that it's haunted.  And oh boy, is it haunted.  They (and we) are subjected to torrents of strange noises and hallucinations, as an unseen thing separates and torments them. Robert Wise's expertly-filmed chiller succeeds because it taps into that basic nightmare fear of what's making that noise, what's on the other side of the door.  In dreams, we're paralysed by the idea that we might find out.  The Haunting holds us at that level of agonised panic for almost its entire runtime, and never shows us anything.  Your imagination does a lot of the work, and guess what: it doesn't stop just because the film's over.  Go to bed shortly after watching The Haunting and you'll notice more than ever how many strange, unexplained noises your home makes at night.  I did not sleep easily last night, and I've seen this film easily ten times.

Scaring the audience is not something that comes easily, and an enormous amount of skill has gone into it.  Firstly, there's Hill House itself.  Huge, gothic, all at angles, something as simple as a mirror tilted forwards is enough to cause unease.  Wise films the house like a character, treats its spires and archways like eyes, watching the characters as they go about their business.  Watching us, too.  Even the way actors are framed increases the sensation that there's something else there.  At one point, an empty chair sits slightly out of focus in the background.  We listen to the main character, we're meant to look at her, but I couldn't stop looking at that chair.  My imagination, thanks to the direction and sound, was all too happy to put a ghostly something in that chair.  (It's a trick used to great effect thirty-five years later, in Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense.)

Next, there's the sound.  Obviously there's the famous scene where something pounds on the walls, but I'd argue the entire soundtrack is just as frightening.  Whether it's a creature sniffing around the corners of a door, a dead woman's laugh echoing around the corridors, or just an eerie gust, a constant atmosphere of What-The-Hell-Was-That? hangs over the film.  The music, by contrast, is an all-out assault on the nerves: dramatic, loud, it occasionally tips the story from sinister unease to absolute horror.

Finally, we have the cast.  Eleanor (Julie Harris) is a few apples short of a bunch even before her visit to Hill House, thanks to years looking after her invalid (now dead) mother.  Desperate for attention, Nell may or may not be in the house's thrall, exacerbating things by at one point (maybe) writing a ghostly message to herself in chalk.  (Fellow investigator Theo suspects her all along, saying pointedly "You know none of us did it".)  Nell is also a narrator of sorts, which isn't so much a storytelling device as another method for scaring the audience; her eerie inner voice is, in effect, haunting her, and edging her closer to madness.  We know from the history of Hill House that Nell will fit right in there.

Also present are Doctor Markway (Richard Johnson), whose experiment this is; Theo (Claire Bloom), a clairvoyant whose fluctuating affections for Nell are not helping her mental state; and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a youngster who stands to inherit Hill House.  The house affects all of them, eroding Markway's enthusiasm, Theo's cool exterior and Luke's carefree attitude until the only one who isn't petrified, oddly enough, is Nell.  The transformation of Luke in particular a smirking cynic is cleverly done to convince any still unfazed stragglers in the audience of how frightening all of this is.

There are a few big jump-out-of-your-seat scares, but it's the building dread and chilly sense of panic that makes The Haunting a classic.  The story, particularly Markway's opening narration of the horrible history of Hill House, is strange and gripping.  The way the film leaves you afraid of empty rooms and probably unable to sleep, is unforgettable.  The fact that Robert Wise did all this with sound effects and furniture puts most modern horror movies to shame.  It's easily one of my favourite films ever, as frightening as Rear Window is tense and exciting.

The Haunting may not work on everybody, as inevitably some people will look at all the empty rooms and just see empty rooms.  But it seems precisely calculated to give me sleepless nights and, as not a lot of films can do that, I'm eternally grateful.  Just not very well rested.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I, Pepperpot

Doctor Who
Series One, Episode Six

Doctor Who and the Daleks.  They're synonymous.  Show someone with no idea about Doctor Who a picture of a Dalek, there's a good chance they'll know it's not a novelty spice-grinder.  So it was a safe bet that when the show came back, the angry pepperpots would turn up as well, ready to terrify and fascinate a new generation of kiddywinks.  (Though this nearly didn't happen due to copyright issues.  You've got to wonder what else the Daleks had planned besides coming back to Doctor Who.  Village fetes?)  It falls to Robert Shearman, adapting his dark Daleky audiodrama Jubilee, to do the honours.

Some Daleks still work as after-dinner speakers,
usually with limited success.
We waste no time getting to the introductions.  The TARDIS is summoned by a distress call to the last Dalek in existence, loitering in a billionaire's dungeon and refusing to talk.  The Doctor strolls in hoping to help a distressed alien, but all he has to do is say his name.  Familiar lights flash.  "Doc-tor?  THE... DOC-TOR?"  Uh.  Oh.

I can only imagine what this must be like for someone who didn't grow up afraid of these things, but this scene is one big chill down my spine.  The direction nothing but a blue light visible, until those first words – makes it an instant classic.  And Christopher Eccleston knocks it up a notch: the Doctor's sheer terror, followed by venomous hatred, tells us all we need to know about Daleks in seconds.  We also find out who the Time War was against, what the Doctor's involvement was, and why he's been so sullen and guilty since he came back.  "I watched it happen.  I made it happen!"  It's all there.  What a scene.

But squint, listen, and you'll notice something odd going on here.  Nicholas Briggs (undisputed king of Dalek voices) has more to do here than just shout the E word:  "I... AM... ALONE."  Down goes the eyestalk, the music going sad along with it.  Wait, wait, no, stop, stop I say!  The Daleks have been back thirty seconds and they're already acting sympathetic?  A sympathetic Dalek?  Couldn't it just sit there and be scary as hell for a little while?  I know the episodes are only 45 minutes nowadays, but are we really in that much of a hurry to de-fang the show's most famous, most popular, most scary creation?

It's not enough to ruin the scene completely, and I'll poke anyone in the nose who says that it is.  But it highlights something annoying that festers at the heart of this episode: is the Dalek scary, or isn't it?  You can have scary Daleks (and you should), and you can have not-scary Daleks (you probably shouldn't), but it seems crazy to attempt both in their first episode back.

Still, at least it is both.  When Rose meets Tim Nice-But-Dalek and offers her sympathies (because she's never met one so how should she know?), Briggs plucks at our heartstrings like a drunk puppeteer, but once she gives him a sympathetic pat full of useful DNA, it turns out he's fibbing!  I love this.  Depressing as it is to hear all that "I'M GLAD I MET A HUMAN WHO WASN'T AFRAID OF ME" stuff, and oh boy is it depressing, it's totally in character for a Dalek to lie, cheat and manipulate to get what it wants.  That'll teach Rose for not listening when someone says "Whatever you do, don't touch the Dalek."  It doesn't quite redeem the sad-Dalek stuff, because they've barely even started on that yet, but at least it's a second great Dalek moment.  Hoorah for that.

Pretty soon the inevitable occurs, and the Dalek starts doing what it does best.  (What it does best rhymes with "Frecksterminate.")  Downloading the entire internet might not be its biggest asset; it now "knows everything", so presumably all about kittens, movie trivia and adult entertainment.  But it's soon back to its former glory, and yeah, the new bronze design looks terrifyingly gorgeous.  The Doctor's "release me if you want to live" is a nice nod to The Terminator, and a good way to keep the Dalek scary (though perhaps not as scary as Topless Eccleston).  The Dalek's effortless and eye-popping extermination of everyone it sees puts paid to any images of little men sat inside shaking sink plungers and egg-whisks.  This thing means business, and no, getting up those stairs will not be a problem.

Then the episode's subtext drops by to say "Coo-ee!", and the Dalek tells the Doctor "YOU WOULD MAKE A GOOD DALEK."  Now, hold your horses there, Mr Metaltron: the Doctor might identify with it, because they're both the last survivors and both feel somewhat superfluous in the universe.  But that's about as far as the comparison goes.  This stuff's great acting-fodder, mind you: the Doctor's empathy and even, on some level, respect for the Dalek makes a complicated brew of emotions whenever they face off against each other, and Eccleston sells the long history between them every time he's on screen.  But the Doctor needn't lose any sleep over this.  Did he blow up the Daleks?  Yes.  Does he order this Dalek to die, in effect trying to exterminate it?  Yes.  Because as far as he knows, it's going to get out and kill everybody.  Because that's what Daleks do, it's all they do.  The Doctor himself says that a Dalek is motivated by hate and wanting to destroy everything that's different, and the Doctor isn't like that, so that's that, really.

But they won't let it lie.  Pretty soon Rose's DNA gives it a bad case of emotional turmoil, and while the Doctor's itching to reset the Dalek population to zero (the bastard, with his comprehensive knowledge and experience of Daleks!), all the Dalek wants is to feel the sunlight.  Ugh.  Look, it's just too soon to start re-assessing what Daleks are really like.  Having this one pathetically wiggling its tentacles and mewling about feelings would be horrible anyway, but it's their first episode.  It's like The Terminator, if Ahnuld played a friendly robot before playing a scary one, or Darth Vader telling Luke he wants to look on him with his own eyes, except in the first Star Wars movie.  The whole point is that the character has grown and changed, but that takes time.  You can't run before you can walk.

The Doctor Learns and Grows as a result of Rose's telling off – "He's not the one pointing the gun at me!  What the hell are you changing into?" – but that's wrong, too.  Rose doesn't know Daleks.  This particular pepperpot is having an identity crisis, sure, and it won't kill her, but it's still an absolute danger to everyone else.  Or did she fail to notice stepping over a bunch of corpses?  This is typical Rose, assuming she's A) the most important person involved and B) knows more than anyone else, except possibly the Doctor.  Her obvious glee at knowing more about aliens than Adam, The Boy Genius, is tinged with superiority.  At least the Doctor recognises that the humanity she's passed onto the Dalek is poisonous to it – Rose, the Best Person In The Universe, naturally assumes it's "better"

It's an important watershed moment for the Doctor – "I'm the only one left.  I win.  How about that" and Eccleston's on fire, when he's not made to say dreadful Learn And Grow dialogue like "Oh Rose, they're all dead!"  Rose applies what she's learned so far, but she's not in full possession of the facts, and compassionate as she is, 200 people are still dead.  It's supposed to be a strong episode for both of them, but nope, not quite.  And as for their relationship, the Doctor in fact never said he'd protect her (there was a whole thing about him not saying it last week), and the Dalek's got no reason at all to call Rose "the woman you love".  I smell a Russell T Davies rewrite.

The cast, not to mention all those juicy American accents, add a nice action movie flavour to it.  Henry Van Statten makes a delectable intermediate baddie.  But Bruno Langley's not the most nuanced actor, so I'm not exactly thrilled to have Adam come aboard at the end.  Yet more typical Rose self-importance: she invites him without first clearing it with the pilot.  Hey, I'm sure that'll work out and won't be a total disaster...

The premise doesn't work, as after all those exterminated corpses it's a bit rich to ask us to sympathise.  But the important bit is the corpses.  Ignore the violin soundtrack.  On some level, those scariest of monsters are back, they look better than ever, and don't pretend you're not glad to see them.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Night Of The Noticeably Fed

Doctor Who
Aliens Of London and World War Three
Series One, Episodes Four and Five

In his first two episodes, Russell T Davies gave us two distinct types of Doctor Who.  There's the bawdy, silly, just-a-bit-of-fluff monster mash, and the emotional character-developer using sci-fi as a backdrop.  Which do we get in Aliens Of London?  Um...

Above: character development.
To be fair, it's often both.  There are some great ideas, and some moments that really say something about the characters.  There's genuine creativity here as well, handling an alien invasion story with wit.  But make no mistake, we're in flufftown.  Triple-digit IQs need not apply.

If we absolutely have to return to the Powell Estate a few short episodes after leaving it, and I'm not sure we do, at least it's an excuse for some meaty character stuff.  The Doctor means to drop Rose off twelve hours after she left (not something he'd ordinarily bother to do, but apparently she's worth it), but there's been a slight hiccup and it's actually been twelve months.  Whoops!  Rose is listed as missing.  Her mum's been worried sick.  Mickey's been accused of murder.  It is one hell of an opening, both horrifying and (thanks to the bashful way the Doctor breaks the news), shockingly funny.

In a couple of seconds Rose goes from having an exciting TARDIS-themed hobby to dealing with the consequences.  It's not something Doctor Who used to think twice about, so it's absolutely ripe for a going-over.  Come to mention it, yeah, it's a big deal when someone drops their entire life to travel with the Doctor; most of his past companions didn't end up back where they started either, meaning they pretty much vanished without explanation.  Episode Four seems a bit soon to worry about all this, but it's a pleasant surprise to be thinking about it at all.

Having said that, it is a bit of an overreaction, if not on Jackie's part then on Davies'.  Rose left the flat a couple of days ago to have an adventure, and thanks to a quirk of the TARDIS she's paying the price but she hasn't actually done anything wrong.  (Well okay, the way she did it, hanging up on Jackie and disdainfully ditching Mickey, left a lot to be desired.  But that's just her natural, er, charm.)  It's a curious double standard, that we should expand our horizons and see the universe, but not if it means actually leaving the house.  Does Russell have issues about leaving home?  What's so wrong with getting out there and doing stuff?  So Rose went and got a life.  The horror, the horror.

He was acquitted of murder, but he'll always be guilty...
of hilarity!
It's not exactly consistent.  Jackie's initial outrage lasts a couple of scenes, but then she's sat with the neighbours chatting about boyfriends as if everything's fine.  And Mickey, who's had a pretty rough year, is reintroduced by doing a comedy pratfall into a fence.  Slapstick didn't suit him last time, and it's still an awkward fit, especially given what he's been through.  I know life doesn't stop being funny when awful things happen, but couldn't this stuff be taken just a little bit seriously?

Anyway, on with the plot, which arrives so suddenly you wonder if Russell had the first five minutes finished before he even came up with it.  A spaceship crashes in central London, and before you know it everyone, not just Jackie, is worried about aliens.  This helps make a natty point about Jackie et al having no reason to trust the Doctor, but also gives us a lovely insight into why he does what he does: Eccleston's irrepressible thrill at seeing history in the making is a big part of who the Doctor is.

Once the alien invasion hits full swing, things get decidedly fluffy.  Rather than investigate, the Doctor plonks down in front of the TV, giving us some curiously emotive news reporters and that American channel Jackie's TV apparently defaults to every few minutes.  Meanwhile, in Downing Street, the real villains are gathering, and they are farting.

Ah yes, the Slitheen.  There's a lot to like about them: the fact that they're a family, not a species, because not every member of every race acts the same thankyouverymuch Star Trek; the way their plan plays on what you (and the Doctor) expect of an alien invasion, which wittily rewards any sci-fi fans in the audience; and the general creepiness of a bunch of aliens wearing human skins like lycra.  I'm not so keen on their motive for blowing up the Earth, which just like Cassandra's is a boring bunch of dollar-signs.  But it's probably supposed to be a reversal of the usual Today London Tomorrow The World schtick.

They work best when they go against convention.  They even call the Doctor on his own flim-flam when he threatens to sonic some alcohol at them.  "Your device will do what?  You're making it up!"  It's a bit risky making fun of the sonic screwdriver and its limitations, given the rubbish it's capable of doing, but hey, they're right.

Less good, though, all that farting.  I said in my review for Rose that New Who feels awkwardly obligated to poke fun at itself (and that there were "worse bodily functions" ah well), and that all goes a bit far in this one.  From giggling at their own naughtiness to stopping and talking about the fact that they're farting, they seem determined not to be taken seriously, because who could take a bunch of green blobby aliens (or worse, fat people) seriously?  Um... people who watch Doctor Who, perhaps?  Their general disgustingness is played for laughs, but so is their murderous nature.  Even their death is coupled with a comedy swearword.  As for the unzipping effect, so unsettling at first, it's way overdone and eventually, yes, played for laughs.  How many times do they need to get their kits off?  And seriously "literally hair-raising"?

"Yes, Prime Minister, I see what you did there.
Please stop explaining."
Oh well.  They are funny a lot of the time, especially David Verrey as the greasy acting-Prime Minister, and their plan's pretty cool.  If they seem overly stereotypical in spite of all the smart touches, that's probably because Aliens Of London is trying to celebrate the general monsterness of Doctor Who.  It's got the first New Who cliff-hanger, which goes laboriously all out juggling three perilous situations and ending, of course, on a malevolent chuckle.  Just like the old days!  There's also a rather familiar morgue scene with something knocking on the freezer door (shades of the TV Movie, perhaps?), and that time-honoured solution to an alien menace, blowing them the hell up.  Make no mistake, this episode's got its nostalgia on, complete with references to the Doctor's career with UNIT (and more pressingly, the Doctor's name and the TARDIS being red-flagged by the government – no wonder he didn't want them to find the TARDIS, he doesn't want to get drafted!).  It's a lot of fun in that regard.

The second episode is more about hurriedly putting the plot to bed than carrying on the character development, but there's some there.  We have a nice thread about Mickey and Jackie working together because, presumably, they're all they've got; the Doctor gradually overcoming his (random) dislike of Mickey, and eventually offering him a place on the TARDIS; and Jackie wanting to know if Rose can ever be safe if she travels with the Doctor.  It's an understandable thing for a parent to worry about, but her request that Rose "always be safe" couldn't be granted even if Rose lived in a one-horse village and slept in a house made of pillows.  It's probably meant to be hard-hitting that the Doctor leads a dangerous life, but isn't any life potentially dangerous?  I know the Doctor's meant to be murkier than just some wonderful guy who's fun to be with, but Rose hasn't made any Faustian deals here  she's just seeing the world and helping people.  The constant guilt-tripping doesn't compute for a show that's also trying to encourage a life of adventure.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of running through corridors (because apparently No. 10 Downing Street is massive), including some unwise Benny Hill-esque chase sequences, because apparently some of us didn't get the memo about this being comedy.  And how could I forget some of the most hilariously terrible computer hacking ever put on screen?  Mickey can, from his home computer and using one password (which is one word with no numbers, symbols or different cases, none of which asterisk out when he types them), launch a missile at Downing Street.  It's easier than eBay.  There's even a big red button marked FIRE!  In a self-deprecating story about blobby green aliens that fart, it takes some doing to cross the line into unbelievability, and this bit does it with a pole-vault.  (Rose's "ingenious" solution of surviving by hiding in a cupboard isn't much better.  Oh, so the three-inch steel walls won't help, but wait until you see the cloakroom?)

Junior School Under 7s Missile Survival Team.
She got the Bronze.
It ends on a sour note.  Despite the Doctor being warm enough to let Mickey come aboard if he wants (he doesn't), he still forces Rose to choose right now between one life and the other, with no question of co-existing in both.  He becomes in that scene exactly the sinister git Jackie thinks he is, and between him putting the screws on Rose and Rose leaving Jackie miserable once more, I'm left wondering who the hell we're supposed to actually like.  (Oh, and another random thing: why do characters keep saying "Who the hell" and "What the hell"?  Is it supposed to sound gritty?)  It's not exactly out of character for him to get possessive, so fair enough to an extent, but really... this over Rose?  I'm just not seeing it.

Cast-wise, it's a strong one for the Doctor, although his possessiveness doesn't make much sense right next to his offering Mickey an olive branch.  Mickey grows, despite some lingering slapstick tendencies.  The Slitheen are all having tons of fun; it's not their fault the comedy's so broad.  And Penelope Wilton is a constant highlight as bright spark Harriet Jones.  Maybe it's her vague resemblance to Elisabeth Sladen, but she strikes me as a better and more useful Doctor Who companion than Rose could ever be.  Shame we can't keep her.

It's unwieldy, and on a constant humour offensive that cannot help but miss half the time.  But when it's funny, it's very funny; when it's thoughtful, it's refreshing.  The good stuff's trapped inside a wacky, often annoying pantomime, but squint and you'll see it.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Who You Gonna Call?

Doctor Who
The Unquiet Dead
Series One, Episode Three

A man stands sullenly over his grandmother's body.  The cadaver awakes, throttles him.  The mortician returns, and unsurprised, says "Oh no.  We've got another one!"  But he can't hold the dead woman down  she smashes out of her coffin, lurches towards us in the street, her ghostly moan breaking into a scream, until finally that familiar sting, and... dum de-dum, dum de-dum, dum de-dum, DUM de-dum!  Without question, this is one of my favourite openings ever, equal parts Doctor Who and Ghostbusters.  I remember just how I felt watching it for the first time in 2005: like it was the '70s, and Doctor Who was at its gothic best again.  Ohh, love it.

"Go get her, Ray!"
The rest of the episode's pretty good, too.  Continuing to explore what Doctor Who can do, i.e. taking us to the past as well as the future, it gives us a rollicking good time in Victorian Cardiff.  (On that score, it's nice to have monsters turn up somewhere other than London.  Although Rose's puzzlement that she should wind up in historical Wales, as opposed to anywhere else, is hilariously put across by Billie Piper.)  You've got to wonder if Russell T Davies kicked himself that he didn't think of doing Christmas + Charles Dickens + Ghosts for the first Christmas Special.  Still, they weren't expecting to ever make one of those.

And did I say Dickens?  Good, because Simon Callow is superb as our first Doctor Who-style historical personage.  It's admittedly pretty obvious fan service, having our heroes meet someone famous (and dead) and tell them how great they are, but well, you would, wouldn't you?  Besides which, Charlie Boy is put to rather good use.  His renowned scepticism is a good foil for an apparent ghost story; his initial disenchantment with life and eventual rediscovery of his imagination are a good reason to include him; and the ultimate revelation that there's nothing the Doctor or Rose can do to prevent his death makes it a poignant trip.  It's not the sort of thing you can keep doing and still expect to have impact – though that didn't stop the Doctor Who gang from having at it over and over again – but this first time, it works.

The episode's grisly sense of humour also works a treat, courtesy of League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss.  Take Sneed, the slippery mortician, who goes from "She's not dead, sir, merely sleeping!" to calling dead people "stiffs" depending on who's listening.  Even the Doctor's only too happy to make crass jokes in amongst the tragedy – a Happy Medium?  Yikes.  This Doctor's sense of humour is his question-mark pullover – and more importantly, to suggest that Rose is the one with the maladjusted morality.  When it's suggested that the gaseous Gelth be allowed to inhabit humanity's corpses, he's got no objection, and snaps at Rose for suggesting otherwise.  "Get used to it, or go home."  Brr.  This Doctor refuses to be an easy fit, or to see the smaller picture; as long as he seems utterly alien but still fundamentally compassionate in the process, I'm all for it.  (And he's not that bad: he's willing to take Gwyneth's place at the end, and gives her a little kiss when he realises he can't save her.)

And Rose is in the wrong.  Not just about the corpses – who, yeah, aren't exactly going to good use – but about the people she meets being "stupid" because they're not from her present.  It's a sobering moment when Sneed's servant Gwyneth says "Things might be different where you're from, but here and now, I know my own mind."  We do think of people from the past like that, and the Doctor's got every reason to think of Rose like that, but he doesn't.  It's a point well worth making, even if it makes Rose continue to sound like a self-important little madam.  (Unfortunately, on that score, I still can't stand her and I'm not sure why I should feel otherwise.)

The plight of the Gelth is an intriguing one, and stirs up seemingly the Doctor's last word on changing history:  "Time's in flux, changing every second.  Your cosy little world could be rewritten like that.  Nothing is safe, remember that.  Nothing."  I suspect that'll come back to bite Doctor Who in the soft parts sooner rather than later.  It turns out he's planning to take them somewhere else after they put on the corpse costumes, but it's still an exciting excuse for, well, anything to happen in a story set in the past.  Otherwise you'd just sit there saying, well, there weren't any flying saucers in King Arthur's time, so why pretend?

Those darn foreigners, taking our jobs and our women!
Funnily enough, the excuse isn't needed, as the Gelth turn out to be after more than a mode of transport, meaning the Doctor (with Gwyneth as noble-sacrifice proxy) can intercede.  All that's pretty obvious given their Night Of The Living Dead antics, but oh well.  It's a disappointing outcome, making it black-and-white simple like that.  How much more complex and interesting would it be if the Gelth weren't just your bog standard invade-everything monster army?  Besides which, they're dying, and they're made of gas; is now really the time to get all megalomaniacal?  Seal the deal, Gelth, seal the deal...  (Then again, they've been zombifying and murdering since before the episode started, and the Doctor et al just selectively forget that bit, so perhaps they have good reason to think they'll get away with it.  What is with that, by the way?  We all saw the murdery stuff, right?  Not exactly a cultural misunderstanding, is it?  So why assume that just because they say "Pity the Gelth" they're all sweetness and light?)

Eccleston and Piper are both on brilliant form, and the (small) guest cast are more than a match.  Eve Myles is particularly good as the servant girl with a mysterious gift; her fate is nicely handled, being at the same time a noble sacrifice, no particular sacrifice anyway (as she's already dead) and a nicely spooky enigma.  Also good, the effects: the swirly blue Gelth look all purdy, the zombies look terrifying, and that's a nice mix.  The TARDIS gets to dematerialise in the snow, which looks absolutely beautiful.  The CGI flames in that blown-up building look a bit arse, but hey, nobody's perfect.

The Unquiet Dead is a neat, creepy, morally eyebrow-raising episode for the most part.  It doesn't follow through on all the good stuff, and some of it doesn't add up, but it's close enough to what I loved about Robert Holmes-era Who to make me all tingly.  If I could pop back in time and meet Holmes, I've got a pretty good idea what I'd say to him.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

...And I Feel Fine

Doctor Who
The End Of The World

Series One, Episode Two

*Such as Reign Of Terror, the "monster" of which
is a raging alcoholic named Drinky Jim, see above.
Doctor Who falls into two major categories: monsters come to us, or we go to them.  (There used to be brilliant and entirely monster-free episodes as well*, but that was back when the Beatles were touring.)  After a busy first episode with monsters-come-to-us as its starting point, Episode Two goes completely the other way.  The Doctor takes Rose to Platform One, a spaceship at the end of the world, there to meet aliens, robots and other stuff that completely freaks her out, all while the planet roasts.  It’s audacious, and does a lot more for the premise of the show and the characters than last week’s.

We learn loads about the Doctor.  He’s the last of his kind, the weight of which Christopher Eccleston sells without saying a word; he’s keen to avoid his past, which makes us (and Rose) keen to hear more; and he’s much more at home among aliens and interplanetary weirdness than he is in the Powell Estate, London.  Eccleston’s brash take on the Doctor finds more footing here, as his compassion and otherworldiness are given room to expand.  Overall, he’s a refreshingly weird guy who is most definitely not from round here.

For example, now he's successfully got her into the TARDIS, showing Rose the death of her home-planet seems a funny way to say Welcome Aboard.  (It certainly tops blowing up her day-job for unbelievably blunt you-must-be-my-friend tactics.)  Perhaps he's trying to help her understand his own sense of loss, and grow closer to her in the process.  Or perhaps he thinks she'll appreciate being there for the Earth when no one else can be.  Or maybe he's just super callous.  Maybe all of that.  Who knows?  The Doctor’s one of the longest-running characters in fiction, and it’s great that he can still surprise us, so kudos to Russell T Davies and Eccleston for that.

"Yeah, I know it's your home planet.
Did I mention, I'm also a mental bastard?"
We also learn a lot about Rose.  The consequences of running off with the Doctor start to settle in – an area Old Doctor Who didn’t make much time for – as she realises she knows nothing about him.  She’s thrown in the deep end here, and her culture shock (coupled with a brilliant use of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love) mirrors the audience’s own.  She begins to see space and time as the Doctor does, as enormous horizons rather than just your home and your own lifespan; she also gains a fierce new appreciation for Earth and the human race, especially when their only representative is a venomous “bitchy trampoline” called Cassandra.

Rose’s experience (and ours) is like stepping into Douglas Adams’s Total Perspective Vortex, which shows you your (tiny) position in the (vast) universe.  After all, the death of the Earth, the ultimate, point-of-no-return roasting of all that we know, is the subplot.  The meat and potatoes story here is a whodunit with dinky robots holding Platform One to ransom.  It’s admittedly not much plot – turns out Cassandra’s behind it and is boringly in it for the money, meanwhile the Doctor must keep Platform One from being destroyed – but it’s a character-based episode, so the important stuff is the reaction to it.

It’s the smaller moments that resonate most.  Rose’s phonecall home – perhaps a bit premature, well okay very premature, but then she is watching her now long-dead mum’s home-world set ablaze – is a neat way to bond her to the Doctor, who’s clearly not all alien aloofness and can be sweet sometimes.  (You also get that from his little Tainted Love dance.)  Then there’s Jabe’s curiosity and sympathy for the Doctor’s tragic past; that poor alien plumber giving us a quick insight into her life before it ends; and the Doctor taking Rose home for chips, only then (after what she's been through) telling her a little of who he is.  The juxtaposition of big stuff happening and little moments is one of the show’s strengths.

The general presentation's great too.  The CGI and the aliens look amazing – oh, for prosthetics like that in the old days! – and the supporting cast give the smaller scenes a real weight.  Beccy Armory lights up the screen as the alien plumber Rose meets; Yasmin Bannerman’s Jabe flirts effortlessly and convincingly with the Doctor, and shows us how quickly he can enamour himself to someone of any species; and Zoe Wanamaker has tons of fun as Cassandra, no small feat for a character that’s essentially a bit of blue-screen on wheels.  She’s memorable, a bit of a diva, but is enough to stir a grave reaction from the Doctor.  Her death, which he orchestrates, is one of his most chilling moments, and another bit of Doctorly development to chew on.  Do not mess with this guy.

"I'm so sorry.  I think the Face Of
Boe put his fag out next to her."
There are still a few dollops of dumbness, because although this is a much better episode than Rose, it’s still the same writer.  Why do the rooms on Platform One have individual sun-filters come to think of it, why have sun-filters at all?  Isn't that asking for trouble?  All that stuff with the giant fans, and the Doctor’s ability to magically step through them, feels like overly orchestrated jeopardy just for the sake of it.  He’s capable of amazing stuff, but this is sci-fi, not fantasy; magic powers belong in the latter.  (Unless Russell’s going to argue that being a Time Lord means having a fabulous sense of timing.  In which case the Doctor's probably a great cook.)  Also, if he’s able to just hop through them if he concentrates, then poor old Jabe, who catches fire trying to slow them down, dies for nothing.  Do you think the Doctor mentions that bit to her colleagues at the end?

Then there's the awkward problem: despite a supporting cast that's superlative in places, it's still a bit hard to care about what's going on here.  With the Earth's death as a backdrop, a murder mystery of the future "great and the good" (or "the rich", as the Doctor reminds us) seems like decidedly small potatoes.  Despite learning acres of good stuff about Rose and the Doctor, some of it ain't that good, like Rose's bizarrely vicious outburst at Cassandra before she shows any signs of actual villainy.  ("You're just skin, Cassandra!"  And you're pretty much just a mouth in a hoodie, love.)  Not one of her more flattering aspects.

It's not one my all-time favourites or anything, but it advances the characters in meaningful ways.  For that, and for doing it in a certain amount of style, I'll forgive a lot of things.  And fortunately the things holding The End Of The World back are skin-deep.  It surpasses expectations in some ways; in others, good or bad, it meets them.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Good Stuff: Return To Oz

Return To Oz
Directed By Walter Murch

"Weaugh...  Teaugh... PEAUGH!"

All is not well in Oz.  When Dorothy returns in this sequel (made nearly fifty years later than the revered 1939 original), the Emerald City is in ruins, her friends are missing and everyone else has been turned to stone.  There are no songs and dances, and no Munchkins.  It’s an audacious approach which did not immediately pay off, marooning Return To Oz at the box office and inviting scorn from critics, who believed it was too dark for children.  Were they right?

Well, it’s certainly dark.  We begin with Dorothy (Faizura Balk) getting whisked off to a mental hospital, where Aunt Em hopes that some electro-shock therapy will cure her of what appear to be crazed hallucinations – in reality, memories of Oz.  It’s a bleak opening, tinged with an even greater worry, as Dorothy receives a key from Oz, suggesting trouble back in the Emerald City.  A storm rescues her from losing her memories of Oz, and transports her magically back there.  But something awful has happened, and there’s no sign of life – apart from the frightening Wheelers.
So far, upsetting stuff.  But fairytales – which L. Frank Baum had always intended The Wizard Of Oz to be – are dark, in places at least.  Return To Oz presents us with scary villains, in the Wheelers, the witch Mombi (Jean Marsh), and the Nome King (Nicol Williamson).  It shows us mortal peril, in the Deadly Desert (one touch transforms you to sand) and the Nome King’s palace, where one can be transformed into an ornament or tossed into his Fiery Furnace.  But these things come with the territory.  Without a frightening baddie and a dire situation, what thrill can there be in restoring the order of things?  The more terrifying the villain, the more wonderful the escape.  Take the moment when our heroes finally escape Mombi, flying to freedom on a creature made of furniture, brought to life with the magic words, Weaugh, Teaugh, Peaugh.  It’s a brilliant high, all the more glorious because we’re scared stiff of the bellowing, sometimes headless monster pursuing them.  There is darkness, but it only makes the light brighter.
Critics often overlook all the marvellous uplifting moments in Return To Oz, and the cheerful, friendly characters.  There’s Jack Pumpkinhead, Mombi’s wobbly prisoner who adopts Dorothy as his surrogate mum; Tik-Tok, a heroic but bulky clockwork soldier charged with protecting Dorothy, who would be invincible if he didn’t need winding up; the Gump, a flying sofa, who’s only been alive as long as we’ve seen him, and would rather just be a head; and Belina, Dorothy’s pet chicken, who suddenly finds herself able to talk, and ends up being instrumental in the defeat of the Nome King.  We even see the Scarecrow again, and – in a short scene at the end – the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as well.  They’re all here.  They just needed rescuing first.  Is that so bad?  Remember that in The Wizard Of Oz, the witch got melted to death, and had an army of terrifying flying monkeys at her disposal, who did things like rip the Scarecrow to pieces.  Scary stuff, but not disproportionately so, because good won out.

Anyway, Return To Oz is an amazing film to look at. Jim Henson’s workshop makes utterly lifelike creatures out of Jack and the others, and brilliant stop-motion animation is used to bring the Nomes and their King to life.  The performances fuel the illusion: Nicol Willamson is top-billed, and he is terrifying, just as Faizura Balk is perfectly frightened (but determined) as Dorothy.  David Shire’s music terrifies as often as it soars, and the story – which melds elements from two Oz books into a single plot – makes for a clever sequel, but also a great standalone film for those few who haven’t seen the original.  We learn enough about Oz not to need any previous education, which is how sequels are supposed to work, and so often don’t.

It’s hard for me to be objective about Return To Oz, because it was a big part of my childhood.  I must have seen it fifty times growing up.  I still believe in every special effect, jump when I see the Wheelers, feel giddy during every heroic escape or happy reunion.  I love these characters, and have done my whole life.  Is their adventure too dark for children?  I can only speak from personal experience, but no.  Of course not.  It’s a joyous experience, made all the better by the threat of what might happen if good doesn’t win in the end.  But hey, it does.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Airhead From Space

Doctor Who
Series One, Episode One

After a nearly sixteen-year absence from the telly, Doctor Who’s glorious return is… well, “glorious” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

Still, at least you don't see Paul McGann get murdered.
It’s got a lot to do, setting up the Doctor, the TARDIS, space monsters, and the all-important audience proxy, Rose.  And all that’s got to be done in style, to convince sci-fi-curious newcomers that Doctor Who isn’t the daft, dusty old embarrassment their parents think they remember.  It’s got to be fast, funny and exciting.  It is often all of those things.  There’s even a swanky old/new themetune and a host of nostalgic references to keep the fans happy.  It’s a busy, busy episode, more a mission statement than a story.

The writing is sharp, confident and inyerface witty, which seems to be more important than the plotting.  The Doctor and Rose learn about each other as expediently as possible; everything is expedient, starting with a camera-dive from outer space to Rose’s alarm clock that could kill you if it was in 3D.  But then there’s a flowery speech about the turn of the Earth, which allows Christopher Eccleston to take things very seriously and metaphorically for a moment, to remind you there’s more going on here than just silly monsters and snappy repartee.  Russell T Davies has a talent for putting emotional notes in all of a sudden, and this scene, stretching the Doctor from swagger to ultra-serious speechifying, epitomises the new take on the character: emotionally, he turns on a sixpence.  The pace isn’t anything like old Doctor Who, but then the times are changin’.

As a reinvention – sitting, I add gratefully, in the same chronological universe as the old show – it’s bold.  I remember watching the first five minutes on an acquaintance’s laptop (back when it leaked – big news in 2005), and feeling dizzy.  Part of that was due to the state of my acquaintance’s bedroom, but more importantly, the pace of this thing is frantic.  We meet Rose, her boyfriend, her mum, the Doctor and the Monster Of The Week (killer shop dummies controlled by the alien Nestenes) in the time it takes most TV shows do a slow pan of the crime scene.  As the pilot to a series, things certainly start as they mean to go on.

Those were the days!
That goes for the humour as well, mixing the camply ludicrous with grim horror and not breaking step.  The burping wheelie bin is a bit broad, but maybe that’s the price we pay for killer shop dummies.  This brand new Who has to escape all those memories of wobbly sets and cheesy monsters, so it can’t do something ludicrous without acknowledging the ludicrousness.  It ensures that we laugh with the guys-in-rubber-suits and the silly science and not at them, so… burp the thing must.  There are worse bodily functions.  I'm happy just to get the killer wheelie bin: a neat idea that's simultaneously silly, scary in an everyday sort of way, and harks right back to the killer armchairs and murderous toys seen during the Nestenes' last appearance.  (1971!)

However this, plus Rose’s boyfriend Mickey being transformed into a stuttering, rampaging robot, goes rather awkwardly with Wilson the janitor (killed off screen) and Clive, the Doctor-obsessive gunned down in front of his family.  Davies obviously feels that silliness makes the horror more horrific.  He’s partly right.  Trouble is, it also makes the horror feel a bit random.  That turning-on-a-sixpence stuff makes for a varied and exciting style, but it also jars, putting you at arm's length from any emotions it tries to sell you on elsewhere.

Probably the most important thing in this is the new Doctor.  Well, Christopher Eccleston makes a huge impression.  Long-term fans will recognise the heroism and the irreverence, but this Doctor is gruffer than the rest, and rather callous.  Spying a possible companion in Rose, and obviously needing one, he’s only too happy to sideline her idiot boyfriend and vampish mother, looking rather nasty in the process.  (Noel Clarke and Camilla Coduri are made to seem buffoonish and one-note in the ep’s quest to push the Doctor and Rose together, and to will us to want the same.  It’s not their fault, but yikes, they’re tiresome.)  Still, it’s all decent character development for a guy in his ninth incarnation, not to mention a man we’re keen to learn more about, and hopefully warm to in time.

The setup of the Doctor as a long-running character, via some adorably bad Photoshopping and a line drawing, works surprisingly well.  Personally I’ve always disliked Clive’s line of reasoning – that the Doctor is always there when trouble’s afoot, therefore he’s partly responsible for it.  By that logic, firemen are pyromaniacs and doctors are only in it for the maiming.  But he’s right about the trouble, and it’s a good way into the character.

"He's that one there.  That one.  THAT ONE."
Billie Piper’s a hit as well, asking some smart questions but also standing on her own two feet, and thus making for a pretty good companion.  She’s not faultless – she fails to spot her boyfriend turning a completely different colour when he’s an Auton, and happily ditches said boyfriend at the end when he fails to measure up to the mysterious newcomer.  But Davies isn’t interested in perfect people, and clearly wants these two to learn from each other.  Real work has gone into her needing the Doctor as well as vice versa.  (Though the Doctor blowing up her day-job is prone to a bit of psychoanalysis on just how desperate he is for company...)  That approach works really well for a pilot; so well, in fact, that Davies basically repeated it for Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

What else works?  Well, the Autons are as creepy as ever, particularly the little ones.  And the TARDIS looks absolutely astonishing: it’s always been bigger on the inside, and now it’s huge on the inside.  Murray Gold’s music gets a lot of ire, but I rather like it here, helping to put Russell and co.’s stamp on this new era.  It’s brash and confident, like the rest of it.

It’s not a complicated story, relying more on general ideas and handwaving than intricate details.  (See the Doctor’s explosive thingummy at the start, plus his “anti-plastic”, and the baddies somehow sneaking the TARDIS off to their underground lair.  In what, a plastic lorry?)  There, unfortunately, it is also starting as the show means to go on.  But that’s another rant.

As an episode in itself, apart from a few neatly written exchanges and some impressive-for-Doctor-Who visuals, it’s almost too flimsy and silly to dwell on.  As a first episode, it’s confident enough that the show’s still on seven years later.  It has a certain charm, an adorable eagerness to please, and an obvious hope that you won’t look too closely if it all moves fast enough.  It’ll do.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Good Stuff: Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

"Steve, my best friend and trusted colleague!"
"Can I count on your help?"
"[Holds up sardine can he's been trying to open] Can."
"I knew I could."

Steve shares his wisdom.
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is no run-of-the-mill kids’ movie.  It’s deviously clever, seriously funny, and has so many ideas spewing out of every orifice that its 90 minutes feels a lot longer and more substantial than they should.  Even the slightly cumbersome title, lifted from the source book, makes no concession for the sake of simplicity.
Set in the miserable island town of Swallow Falls, which has built an industry entirely around sardines, it’s the story of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a brilliant inventor who is, of course, also a moron.  You know how geniuses can have masses of intelligence in one area, but also have no common sense or understanding of the real world?  Flint is that, gone mad.  His inventions invariably work, but they’re either terrible ideas (ratbirds) or they work too well (spray-on shoes that don’t come off).  His latest is a device for turning water into food, and it winds up hovering in the clouds, raining food on Swallow Falls and inadvertently saving the town from a sardine-themed recession.  Trouble is, the machine will eventually overload...
Flint is a great character.  Brilliant but socially inept, he’s so swept up in his childhood dreams that he hasn’t got a clue how to talk to people, and wanders around his lab making science-fictioney noises to himself.  His only friend is Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), a lab monkey wired up to a thought-translator, who offers such useless snippets as “Can”, “Hungry” and invariably, “Steve!”  Take a moment to marvel at the genius and stupidity of a man who creates a working thought-translator, and straps it to a monkey.
When an intrepid weather reporter (Anna Faris) lucks out on a trip to Swallow Falls, she grows closer to Flint, and we learn much about her in the process; particularly, how she’s had to hide her brains in order to gain acceptance.  In a witty reversal of cliché, Sam (Faris) goes from a stereotypical beauty to a brainiac with glasses.  Another witty response to cliché comes in the form of Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan), who couldn’t be more different but wants his son to follow in his dismal footsteps.  Yeah, it’s the familiar old father/son dynamic, but Tim’s an utterly sympathetic and believable character, made more relatable by his son’s distinct absence of marbles.  The heroic genius is an unstable dimwit; his overbearing father is in fact deeply patient, concerned, and ultimately forgiving.  Everywhere I look in this film, there’s a character being written and handled in a fun, refreshing way.  It’s also worth mentioning that every character is animated with some beautifully simple detail that accentuates their foibles.  The Mayor is tiny; Flint has cockamamie hair; Tim has a huge, unrelenting eyebrow where most people have eyes.  It’s expert character design.
A lot of the humour comes from tackling little character clichés, but there’s plenty of thigh-slapping physical stuff too, and visual gags galore.  The voice cast (including cult heroes such as Bruce Campbell and Mr T, which from a 12-year old point of view is just about the greatest thing ever to happen in the history of the universe) are consistently excellent, and the story allows for a feast of dazzling sights, such as huge food items attacking the world’s landmarks.  (This is followed by a brilliant line about how unusual it is for this freak weather pattern to go after all the world’s landmarks first.)
Cloudy is seriously funny stuff, but it also has rich characters and a story that just keeps turning and gets the most out of its ideas.  I’ve heard critics describe it as being aimed squarely at hyperactive 9 year olds and well, they're wrong.  This movie works best if you’re a seasoned moviegoer who’s seen disaster movies, science-fiction movies and any film where a guy leans in to kiss a girl after a dramatic revelation.  It rewards an understanding of conventions and cliché, but sure, it’ll also make the kids in the audience hoot with laughter.  Why shouldn’t it?  I’m 27, and I was laughing all the same, whether at a genius piece of wordplay or the look of joy on Steve's face as he offers his latest inane statement.  CanMoustacheSteve!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Good Stuff: Ed Wood

Ed Wood
Directed By Tim Burton

Really? Worst movie you ever saw? Well, my next one’ll be better!

With Ed Wood, Tim Burton has a clear challenge: do you romanticise the Worst Director Of All Time, so that his films don’t look that bad after all, or do what a lot of other biopics do and just tell us how miserable he was?  Burton takes a trickier third option, and tells an inspiring, hopeful story about a guy trying to make movies and gain acceptance, while never shying away from the fact that Ed’s movies were really, no-fooling terrible.  It’s not a spoof, as there is no need to spoof something as car-crash dreadful as Glen Or Glenda.  Nor is it entirely wistful.  It’s pitched somewhere between, and its message that outsiders are never alone, and wanting to do something great can be enough, even if the end result sucks encapsulates most of the things Tim Burton has ever tried to say as a filmmaker.  There’s no doubt in my mind that this is Burton’s best film, and there’s a tremendously sweet irony in the fact that it’s all about a guy who made terrible movies.

At the centre of it all is Johnny Depp, almost unstoppably optimistic as Ed.  He smiles, ignores such petty filmmaking gripes as continuity and clumsy actors, and fawns unashamedly over his idol, Bela Lugosi, whose faded career he gives a last-minute jump start.  (Of sorts.  His reputation sinks even lower thanks to Wood, but Bela would argue there’s no such thing as bad press, so we’ll go with that.)  Their relationship is of course based partly on Tim Burton’s own with Vincent Price, but it’s also a handy metaphor for how Burton views Ed Wood.  He’s dimly aware of the man’s many failings, but more concerned with what good he’s capable of.  Martin Landau is magnificent as Lugosi, but for me the less-celebrated Depp is the star of the show.  It’s a slightly exaggerated, almost cartoony portrayal, making Ed more of an icon than a down-to-Earth normal human being.  But then, whoever said Ed was normal?

The entire cast are on top form.  Bill Murray is particularly wonderful as Bunny, one of Ed’s cohorts: it’s a performance that’s ingrained into every little movement, making Bunny one of the most real things in the movie.  Sarah Jessica Parker has the perhaps problematic role of Ed’s girlfriend, who eventually leaves him.  She does a great job of being the voice of reason when necessary “You make shit!  These movies are terrible!” but also providing Ed with a sympathetic ear.  She’s a tough, complex little character.

We get to see Ed’s most talked about movies get made, and his final “masterpiece”, Plan 9, is treated almost with awe but again, without ignoring the fact that it was stupid, stupid, stupid.  And that’s okay.  Ed wanted to be remembered, and in a display of typical optimism, Tim Burton tells us that he got his wish.  Ed would probably look at his infamous reputation with cockeyed misunderstanding, and see the good in it: all these people wouldn’t profess to hate him with such enthusiasm if they didn’t love him just a little, right?  And it’s that ability to see the good in things, even when they are definitely, categorizably bad, that Burton has captured so well.

It's funny and entertaining, certainly, because movies about movies (especially bad ones) are always a hoot.  But it’s the hopeful spirit that makes it a moving story as well: Ed’s grinning determination, the kindred weirdos he meets, the faith he inspires in them.  There isn't another biopic quite like it, which is fitting for a filmmaker like Ed Wood, who is arguably unsurpassed in his own way.  Seriously: Glen Or Glenda absolutely stinks.  In that particular case, Burton tells the tale of a longing transvestite much better than Ed himself managed, and that’s somehow no disservice to a man who was lucky to figure out which end of the camera pointed where.  The film about his life tells us that we must try, no matter the odds, no matter what everybody thinks, and no matter if they’re right.  That’s a hell of a thing to get from watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, and that, one hopes, ought to be Ed’s real legacy.