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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Cottrell Boyce’

I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.

And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn’t justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap’s buttons).

In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan’s generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter’s mother.

Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table).¬† (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan’s victims in this very funny sequence.)

However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan’s other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?

The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we’re honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas’s celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably towards the top of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.

That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film’s general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.

I find myself wondering how much of the film’s general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic – this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.

That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy’s contribution. To begin with I wasn’t sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you’re also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.

The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men’s difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don’t feel as though they’re carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It’s a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it’s more than that, nor even as if it’s really trying to be.

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It says something about the much vaunted-flexibility of the Doctor Who format that a relatively traditional-looking story like Kill the Moon can have as its companion piece¬†something as weird and atypical as In the Forest of the Night and it not seem that peculiar. Kill the Moon is stuffed with planetary bodies, space-suits, spaceships, gribbly alien monsters, and the star-faring destiny of the human race. Forest, on the other hand (no, I’m not typing that title out in full over and over again, sorry), has some trees and wolves and magic golden fairies. Or something.

forest

Given that Kill the Moon drew heavy flak for its charmingly nonchalant attitude to basic physics, I’m curious to see quite how Forest is received – not just for its magic golden fairies, but for its peculiar world where trees can grow, not just overnight, but without anyone noticing, and to defend yourself from a solar flare all you need are a few extra trees flooding your atmosphere with surplus oxygen. (This in itself overlooks the fact that the principal effect of solar storms/CME events is its impact on our technology, rather than flesh and blood.)

I rather suspect people will cut Forest a lot more slack, quite simply because Kill the Moon has spaceships and aliens and technology in it, and this week’s story just has a load of trees. In short, Kill the Moon is positioning itself much more explicitly as an SF story, and as a result inviting us to judge it on its science content, while Forest is full-bloodedly going for that mythic, fabulous (in the technical sense), fantastical vibe.

I am not particularly inclined to be nice to Forest simply because it is a fantasy, as this season is really making me realise that I don’t really enjoy Doctor Who as an out-and-out fantasy (trains flying through space, etc), but much prefer it when it retains its SF trappings. Note I say trappings, and note also that all my Doctor Who reviews are tagged ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘SF’. The awkward thing for me is that I would never describe the series as actual SF, but – at a push – something more like science fantasy, which is to say it’s something that uses an SF rationale to explore fantastical concepts.

It’s curious, looking back on Steven Moffat’s scripts from before he was showrunner, that most of them are couched very firmly in a strong SF framework: most of them include spaceships or other planets, and revolve around strange alien technologies. Spaceships and alien races, per se, are a little thinner on the ground in the show these days – Moffat’s template from the series seems to have been derived from his most atypical episode, Blink, which is much more of a fantasy. (To say nothing of the cut-up narrative form.)

So, anyway, Forest is pretty much a pure fantasy story in a fairy-tale tradition: little girls lost in the forest, big bad wolves, tree spirits, and so on. You may like this or you may not. This is something subjective. As, I suppose, is the story’s sentimentality – particularly the final beat, which is massively sentimental. We’re told virtually nothing about the girl who disappeared, who she was or why she went, and yet we are invited to derive a big emotional moment from her sudden return. The script doesn’t provide any emotional context or detail – we are invited to project whatever we like onto the scene, based on vague generalisations about the positivity of family and motherhood.

But, again, your mileage may differ. Same with the story’s vague attempts to say something about the nature of modern childhood (apparently kids should go outside more, or something). However, what I think is objectively flawed about this story is that, as a piece of Doctor Who, it is lamentably light on genuine jeopardy.

At one point Nelson’s column nearly falls on the Doctor and Clara. Later on, a tiger turns up and growls at them and the little girl with the laboriously symbolic name. Apart from this, no-one is really in any danger at any stage in the story. There is, I suppose, a vague sense of menace and mystery, but the whole story is too much predicated on the Doctor not knowing what’s going on for this to really be sustained. And it’s a prime time BBC fairy tale, so you know none of the kids are going to get eaten.

As usual, I must qualify all this by saying that Peter Capaldi is, as usual, brilliant as the Doctor – and Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson aren’t bad either. The scene counterpointing the end of Kill the Moon was immaculately written and played, and there were some genuinely funny bits along the way.

But overall this was a story which felt like it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be – not rigorous or honestly realistic enough to work as SF, or even science fantasy, too soft-centred to really function as an adventure, and nowhere near dark or menacing enough to even be a good fairy tale. It looked nice and the acting was mostly solid, even from the kids. I suspect the images will linger much longer than the story, though.

 

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