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Posts Tagged ‘Matt Smith’

The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.

(Yes, yet another movie poster with Keira Knightley staring out against a black background while her co-stars peer over her shoulders. Knightley takes some stick for always doing the same kind of thing but the publicity people are at least as bad.)

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistleblower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistleblower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.

Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.

It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he’s come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn’t know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?

I’ve seen all of Gavin Hood’s last few films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender’s Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.

And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn’t it just be better to accept things and move on?

Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistleblowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from become general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it’s the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.

And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there’s a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer’s big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith’s performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what’s basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film’s other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)

This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it’s her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can’t recall Knightley’s Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.

This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday’s issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn’t stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.

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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.

 

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Before we go any further, a brief recap of this blog’s position when it comes to the Terminator franchise: The Terminator is a stone-cold all-time classic, and a practically perfect movie (possibly because it’s the only one in the series not conceived of as a blockbuster), Terminator 2 is very decent in a deafening-overblown-James-Cameron-big-budget-remake sort of way, Rise of the Machines passes the time in a not actively painful manner, and Terminator: Salvation is a pointless and puny waste of money and talent.

Given this general trajectory, the omens are not great for Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys even before we consider the silly title. This is a film the rights to which essentially went to the winners of an auction, so perhaps one’s expectation management should be even more severe than that.

Anyway, the film initially appears to be playing it safe and heading down the route of being a more polished remake of the original film, as, in the year 2029, Kyle Reese (this time: Jai Courtney) prepares to go back in time and save Sarah Connor (this time: Emilia Clarke) from cybernetic assassins. She is a target due to her being destined to give birth to John Connor (this time: Jason Clarke), the man who will lead the human race to victory following a nuclear war sparked by a rogue AI, Skynet. (Does anyone not know the Terminator backstory…? I feel obliged to recap it anyway.)

But when Kyle arrives in 1984, pursuing the Terminator already dispatched back there, he finds that time is out of joint: the Terminator has already been dealt with by another, somewhat wizened machine of the same model (I need not tell you who plays this role, I suspect), who is working with an entirely clued-up Sarah, while Kyle finds himself hunted by a T-1000 Terminator, which likewise shouldn’t be here at all.

What on Earth is going on? Kyle never actually asks this, so far as I recall, but he should clearly be thinking it, as should the audience. Well, to cut a long story short, this film takes the nuclear option when it comes to time travel as a plot device, and sticks anti-matter in its microwave (if that’s not too tortuous a metaphor). Basically, all the major characters end up in an entirely pre-apocalyptic near future, where they find out that Skynet is now an app or a mobile phone or the new version of Windows or something, and the reason this is happening is because…

I have two good reasons for not going any further. One is that it would involve heavy spoilers for the second half of the film, and the other is that I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. To be fair, Terminator Genisys probably isn’t much more full of blinky-blonky techno-cobblers and suspect determinism than any of the other sequels, but it’s a lot more up-front about it, predicating its plot around some startling narrative developments it never properly bothers to explain: what exactly is going on with the grumpy old T-800 that was apparently sent back to the early 1970s? Not only does the film not bother to explain, it essentially says ‘we’ll get to this in the next sequel’, which I feel is relying rather too much on audience goodwill. (It may be significant that playing a small but important role in this film is one – it says here – “Matthew” Smith, an actor more experienced than most in dealing with byzantine time-travel plots that may not, in the final analysis, properly hang together.)

The first act of the film has fun re-staging and screwing around with sequences from the original Terminator (Bill Paxton doesn’t come back, by the way), and this stuff has a sort of demented energy that serves the film rather well. Once everyone decamps to the future, though, the film becomes rather more predictable and even pedestrian: you’ll never guess what, but they’ve got to stop Skynet being created! Just like in number 2. Oh, and number 3. And, I’ll hazard a guess, number 6, when it’s finally made. Hey ho.

What is perhaps surprising is what a peripheral presence Arnie is in the movie, given I doubt they’d have made it without him. When his CGI double isn’t being chucked through walls in the action scenes, he spends quite a lot of his time just standing around, occasionally waking up to deliver comic relief or bafflegab exposition. He’s still clearly up for it, however, and this is surely his best work since that odd political interlude in his career.

Much of the film is left to Courtney and the Clarkes to carry, and they do a decent enough job, supported by a script which actually manages to find decent moments of emotion and thoughtfulness between all the crash-bang-wallop and tortuous temporal wrangling. J.K. Simmons pops up as – I think – a new character who was supposedly mixed up in the events of 1984, but he’s mainly just there to do exposition and comic relief as well.

Like all the other sequels, this knows the audience it’s pitching to and sticks in all the appropriate explosions and jokes and lingering shots of heavy weaponry, as well as enough references to the original film to gratify the fanbase (though Brad Fiedel’s theme is saved for the closing credits), although I would be really very hesitant about taking anyone to see this who wasn’t already familiar with the first film (at least).

If it doesn’t have the raw energy, inventiveness, and dramatic charge of The Terminator – well, hardly anything does, and at least it’s more fun to watch than Terminators 3 or 4 (in places, certainly). But the prospect of yet more, even more convoluted sequels, kind of makes my heart sink a bit. Blowing up the existing timeline and letting the bits fall where they may is what powers this movie, but it’s not exactly a long term strategy, and I can’t imagine them managing to drag the story back to a place where it actually makes sense any more. On its own terms, this is a rather unsatisfying film, narratively at least – but I still think that any further sequels will find the law of diminishing returns biting them very hard and very fast. Enough, Arnie, enough.

 

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Even before it aired, it always seemed to me that the Christmas special doubling as Matt Smith’s final episode was going to be an odd sort of beast, falling into the gap between the 50th anniversary episode and the alluring prospect of Peter Capaldi’s initial season – the anniversary was always going to be a joyous occasion, which the conclusion of the story amply reflected, while the advent of a new Doctor inevitably brings with it a new sense of energy and excitement. So giving Smith a send-off with an appropriate sense of occasion about it, that didn’t feel tonally adrift somehow, was a very particular sort of challenge.

It’s very difficult to resist the temptation to compare The Time of the Doctor with The End of Time (and equally tempting to muse on the truism from the 20th century series that any story with the word ‘Time’ in the title has a better than even chance of being duff – exhibits include Time and the Rani, The Time Monster, and The Invasion of Time) – both seasonal departures of much-loved lead actors. My sense is that The End of Time is not a well-regarded story, due to excessive sentimentality and a slightly implausible plot revolving around the possible return of Gallifrey. I suspect that its reputation will be undergoing a significant upward reappraisal in the wake of The Time of the Doctor.

timedoctor-who

But I really don’t want to just sit here and criticise the story – it’s not really the case that I have a problem with individual episodes these days, more that I’m not a fan of the whole Moffat approach to the series. This seems to me to be to treat the programme as a series of comedy sketches, moments of great sentiment (sometimes sentimentality), and big set pieces, all linked together by plot elements of varying degrees of spuriousness. (The image of a naked Jenna Coleman, planted in my subconscious early on, was one I found difficult to dislodge, but that’s by the by.) One would almost think Moffat had an actual aversion to including a straightforward, solid, coherent plot in any of his programmes.

Anyway, that’s how The Time of the Doctor seemed to me – the actual story seemed very much secondary to providing all the usual clever bits. The big ideas this time around were (apparently) firstly to try and gather together some of the many dangling loose ends from previous Moffat episodes, and secondly to give Matt Smith a chance to really show his chops by playing a Doctor gradually aging into the ancient being the actor has always managed to suggest through his performance. Smith was, of course, very good, as he always has been, but I was rather less impressed by the rest of it – I still don’t think we’ve received a proper explanation of why the TARDIS exploded in The Pandorica Opens (how, precisely, did the Kovarian Chapter contrive this remarkable feat?), for one thing.

I’m not sure whether the recurrence of plot elements from The End of Time and The Parting of the Ways constitutes a reverent homage or just a shortage of imagination, but I was genuinely surprised that the potential-return-of-Gallifrey plot coupon was cashed in so soon – once upon a time I would have groused about the way the plot here completely ignored the assertion in the very previous episode that the Time Lords would be effectively frozen in time, unable to act at all, but we’re operating in a universe where the TARDIS has developed a teleporter function and a side-effect of regenerating is the ability to shoot down battle cruisers, so why bother?

Hey ho. I think I have said enough about the episode itself. Matt Smith never quite lived up to his promise, if you ask me, but I am still sorry to see him go. My problems are not with him but the scripts he was required to perform. Steven Moffat has spoken about the lunacy of changing the entire creative team of a programme at the same time, as happened when Rusty Davies and David Tennant departed together. That may be the case, but I would still rather have seen Moffat move on than Matt Smith. For me the programme seems in definite need of a sharp change of approach, and I’m not sure that Capaldi’s arrival alone will be enough to bring that about.

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Geeky Bit: The Clockspeed of the Doctor

Well, Moffat doesn’t seem to care that much about the wider fictional universe of the show, which just makes life a bit more interesting for those of us who do. So – age and aging where the Doctor’s concerned.

There are already, of course, several inconsistencies concerning the Doctor’s actual age already written into the series. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor at one point appears to allude to being several thousand years old, which obviously jibes with the age of around 750 which was the standard in the middle Tom Baker years. The next time we get even a general age it’s during the Colin Baker era, by which time the Doctor is claiming to be around 900 – specifically, 953 during Time and the Rani. This is of course flatly contradicted again by various stories from the Eccleston and Tennant series, wherein the Doctor is back down to about 900 (and seems to be aging in real time).

Any way you look at it, the Doctor had never been more than about 950 at any point prior to the arrival of Matt Smith: but here there is a bit of a shift. If we take the Doctor at his word, 200 years pass between The God Complex and Closing Time, then at least 300 more during The Time of the Doctor itself. Quite how long passes between the Dalek attack on the Papal Mainframe and the Doctor’s actual regeneration seems unclear, as we don’t really understand how he ages (he doesn’t age at all in the two hundred year gap mentioned up the page, but becomes noticeably more aged during the three hundred year Siege of Trenzalore), but at least another three or four centuries seems like a reasonable estimate.

The upshot of all this is that the final incarnation of the Doctor’s original regeneration cycle survived for at least 800 years, and potentially as long as the first twelve put together: most of which happened off-screen, of course, but even so it’s a somewhat peculiar development.

This would be an appropriate place to comment on the issue of the renewal of the Doctor’s regeneration cycle, and quite how this squares with the ‘All thirteen of him!’ moment from the anniversary special – or, indeed, the eleventh Doctor’s aborted regeneration from The Impossible Astronaut, or threat to regenerate in Nightmare in Silver. But that will wait for another time, I think…

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Before launching into some comments on The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People which are not really unreservedly positive, I think it is important to remember a few things: this is a piece of relatively hard SF, dealing with some very thoughtful philosophical themes, with quite a high horror content, all made to an extremely high standard. And the BBC broadcast it on Saturday night in the middle of prime time. Only someone with the blackest heart imaginable could really lay into it.

Nor would I really want to, for all that I have a few issues with it. The story did one of the great Doctor Who things very well, namely establishing an atmospheric and surprisingly textured world with only a few broad strokes, all of the guest performances were good and a couple of them were very special indeed (thinking here of Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy).

However, in some ways the story seemed to hearken back to the days of Rusty, with some slightly overdone emotional bits and some elements which just seemed… I don’t know, but does anyone else find the concept of an acid mine slightly implausible? Particularly on 22nd century Earth.

And in other ways it seemed to look back still further (and I’m not just referring to the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Sea Devils and Robots of Death references) – in many ways this story was a corridor-jogger in the classic style, admittedly a very clever one, but mainly just characters dashing from one place to another in a bit of a panic. Lots of things were going on, but most of the important ones were internal – concerned with relationships and ideas and the overall series plot.

Having said that, one of my complaints about last year’s two-parters was that to some degree they concluded by finishing a different story from the one they started. The way in which the central concept of this story flows into the overall arc of the series was very satisfyingly done and the startling scenes at the very end of the second episode didn’t overpower the conclusion of the main story at all.

I feel I should take a moment to praise Matt Smith here. He is, obviously, terrific week-in, week-out, but in this story he was particularly good. His dual role performance was delightful but I was even more impressed with his approach to the final scenes, finding a coldness and an implacable strength in his Doctor that’s… well, it’s been there on occasion in the past, but we appear to be seeing it more and more these days. It looks like there are dark days ahead for everyone in the series, but at least we can look forward to a few answers (finally).

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