Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

DOCTOR WHO – S11 E03: ‘Rosa’ (Some thoughts…)

Here come some thoughts on this week’s episode.  Fear the spoilers…

– Celebrity Historicals have been a standard of the show since RTD brought it back, but I really wasn’t expecting what we got here, which is the closest we’ve come to the kind of ‘pure’ historical story the show used to do back in its 1960s early days, when the educational remit was still a strong part of Who’s backbone. There might be a mild sci-fi ‘changing history’ element driving the plot, but the time period and the event in question are the major stars here, which is rare.  (Big Finish have done a bunch of these kinds of Who stories on audio, but I really didn’t think we’d get anything like this in the actual show). Aiming at this kind of historical event is daring, and could easily have gone wrong, but they pulled it off.

– Once again, production values are way up here, aided by the South Africa shoot. Who has faked America in recent years, but it’s always been a bit rough around the edges (no matter how much they try, Spain just doesn’t quite look like the USA). Here, on the other hand, the environment and the period detail sells the illusion extremely well, and the sight of the TARDIS parked in a 1955 Alabama alley really does tap into that pulpy ‘anything is possible’ vibe that Doctor Who is so good at.

– I liked Jodie Whitaker more here than I did in the previous two episodes, and she seems more comfortable in the role – which is weird, because The Woman Who Fell To Earth was shot after this one. Maybe it’s the largely more serious tone of this episode, or maybe I’m just getting more used to her.

– Who has dabbled with racism in history before – most notably with Martha in Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Bill in Thin Ice – but this is a whole different order, and I’m impressed with how effectively they portrayed the time. Again, this could easily have tipped into cartoonish caricature, and while it sure ain’t subtle, it does a great job of showing exactly how pervasive the attitudes are. Racism is essentially the main bad guy in this episode, and it’s handled in a way that doesn’t sugar coat the times in the slightest (even making it clear that Ryan could easily end up getting himself lynched), and which also doesn’t pretend that everything was sorted out once Rosa makes her protest. Again, this is the amazing thing about Doctor Who – it can go from last week’s running around from robot snipers and evil bits of cloth to this, and it can make this kind of history accessible and enjoyable for kids who might not even know who Rosa Parks is.

– It’s also just as well that racism was such a pervasive and convincing threat, as the actual villain of the piece was another weak, two-dimensional thug who barely makes an impression. He works in theory – I can see why they went that route (especially building in the ‘unable to kill’ element so he can’t just assassinate Rosa) but in practice, he’s a hopeless and unthreatening character who doesn’t ever feel like he’s going to present that much of a problem. There’s very little tension that comes from his presence in the episode (some of which may be down to casting), and the fact that he vanishes in the same ‘We’ll probably be seeing him again’ manner as the villain in ep 1 does not fill me with confidence.

– Thanks to this problem, the actual nuts-and-bolts storytelling aspects of the episode aren’t as exciting as they could have been. Krascow isn’t like the weird invisible Chicken-monster in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, a throwaway threat to drive what’s largely a character piece – he’s the main antagonist, and he’s so lacking in threat that the episode doesn’t always build a full sense of drama, especially with some of the more fiddly ‘we have to get the bus more crowded’ story engineering during the finale (and particularly since he’s defeated so easily.)

– And talking of Krascow’s defeat – considering the Doctor didn’t seem remotely annoyed at Ryan stealing the Time Displacer and firing Krascow into the past, why didn’t she just do it herself and save themselves the stress? (Plus, isn’t firing a vengeful racist time traveller at random into the past potentially a rather bad idea?)

– Another note – considering her experience in time travel, the Doctor takes a loooong time to work out that Krascow might be changing the future by trying to nudge history in the right direction.

– Vinette Robinson is really strong as Rosa Parks, and once again, Bradley Walsh is the TARDIS team MVP, especially in the climactic sequence on the bus.

– Also once again, we’re still not quite getting to know the companions much more than we did in episode 1. A crowded TARDIS has its advantages, and the characters do get a reasonable share of the action here, but it still feels like they’ve got a way to go before they find the right balance.

– On second look, the TARDIS redesign is looking unfortunately like an explosion in a New Age shop, especially in that final scene.

– As pointed out by @ianberriman on Twitter, this is also possibly the most Quantum Leap episode of Doctor Who ever.

– There’s points where the storytelling does get a bit heavy-handed (and boy, I could really have done without the reprise of the song over the end credits), but the episode gets an awful lot right, and is the first to give me a sense of confidence about where the show is heading (which, for an episode that’s co-written by Chris Chibnall, is saying something).

– And yet… while I admire a lot about what the show is doing, the determined steer away from the majority of the show’s crazier side is a little cause for concern. An episode like this needed to be mostly hard-hitting in order to work, but the three episodes of season 11 so far have consistently been the least goofy and weird Who has been since… well, possibly, since Eric Saward was script-editing back in the Eighties (although feel free to argue if you disagree). The lack of decent villains so far is a definite problem, and while ‘Rosa’ has given me confidence, Chibnall’s version of Who still has some way to go before I’m completely sold on it. Of course, in terms of goofy weirdness, next week’s ‘Return to Sheffield/Killer Spiders’ episode may or may not prove to be what I need…

DOCTOR WHO S11 E02: ‘The Ghost Monument’ (Some Thoughts, with Added Spoilers)

We have a new episode of Who – and I don’t have time to do a proper review, so instead this is going to be a bunch of semi-quick-fire thoughts (which still ended up longer than I expected because, well, it’s me talking about Doctor Who). I don’t have enough time to do proper reviews right now, but I do want to put my thoughts down somewhere, and this way I can be honest about the bits I didn’t like without sounding like a grouch raining on everyone’s parade. At least, in theory. Onwards – and fear the spoilers…

– A new title sequence! It’s very pretty, (and feels very reminiscent of the Troughton title sequence) but also a little lacking in the kind of propulsive forward motion I’ve gotten used to in recent Who title sequences. And just a teeny bit lava lamp, as well.

– This is possibly the most visually gorgeous and cinematic Who episode ever broadcast. The way they’ve upped the production values and the cinematography is very hard to deny. The whole episode felt very big, and very evocative (in the manner of the way I always imagined Hartnell-era stories when reading the Target novelisations), and they used the South African locations really well.

– Another Chris Chibnall episode that qualifies as ‘Not Bad’! A step up in terms of memorability and energy from the season opener – it’s also genuinely exciting in parts, but still more of a frequently derivative collection of ideas than a genuine story, and doesn’t really add up to anything more than a slightly half-hearted ‘we are stronger together’ theme.

– Art Malik as a mysterious overlord/criminal-type person. I wonder if we’ll be seeing him again? (I’m almost 100% sure we will be).

– Both Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley do a lot with not much here, bringing stock characters to life and pulling off some effective moments.

– A well-executed spaceship crash sequence, even if Ryan and Graham have obviously watched Prometheus too many times and don’t understand the ‘run to the side to avoid the crashing ship’ principle.

– Setting up the TARDIS as the macguffin that ends the race is a nice touch.

– I’m almost annoyed that nobody even attempted to make an Infinite Improbability Drive gag in the opening five minutes, considering how VERY convenient it was that two separate ships arrived to rescue them.

– Is it just me, or does Ryan’s dyspraxia seem to turn on and off as the plot demands it? And was I the only one who thought the ruined building they arrive at looked suspiciously like an abandoned Tesco?

– So, the Stenza are obviously being set up as this season’s big bad, to which my reaction was “Those guys? Seriously?” I mean, I already suspected that ‘Tim Shaw’ would be making a return appearence (even if I’m really not sure why), but it still doesn’t make them any less generic or forgettable. But then, this is Chris Chibnall, the man who thought a pig-faced demon and Captain Jack’s deeply underwhelming kid brother were effective end-bosses in Torchwood, so I guess you get what you pay for.

– I am unexpectedly finding myself more invested in the companions than the Doctor, which is kind of a strange experience.

– KILLER CLOTH FROM OUTER SPACE!

– Heavens, we have a ‘mysterious overarching plot arc’ in the form of the ‘Timeless Child’, helpfully told us by the randomly talkative Killer Cloth. First thought – are they pulling the ‘member of the Doctor’s family (potentially a daughter/son, considering someone had to have Susan) is still alive’ gambit?

– Again, it would have been nice to have just a slightly clearer idea of how the Doctor created that electromagnetic pulse, rather than it looking like she reached into a robot and pressed the convenient ‘Activate EMP’ button.

– What exactly was the point of ending the race at the ‘Ghost Monument’ if Ilinn isn’t timing it so that the TARDIS is actually making one of its semi-regular stops? Yes, it adds a brief bit of tension that the TARDIS isn’t there (and an oddly out-of-character bit of rapid defeatism from the Doctor), but it also feels an odd choice when the whole race is built around getting to a place that might not even be there.

– We have a new TARDIS! Very reminiscent of the 2005-era TARDIS, but with more hexagons and quartz (and money). The whole ’TARDIS dispensing Custard Creams’ thing was slightly blunted by not realising what it was, and only working it out when I looked at Twitter. (And what the hell is that teeny spinning TARDIS all about?)

– I suspect Jodie Whitaker’s going to be staying in the Christopher Eccleston category of ‘actors who are really good and who I just don’t buy as the Doctor’. The Doctor needs to be someone who owns every scene they’re in, and she’s good, but she’s not convincing me, and I’ve yet to get a moment that makes me think “Yes, that’s the Doctor,” or that has the sense of easy naturalistic weirdness that says “Doctor” to me. I think there are going to be plenty of echoes of the 2005 season here, as everybody else is going to be loving the hell out of it, while I’m suspecting that it’s just not quite for me. I’m enjoying it, but with LOTS of provisos, and I suspect it may stay that way (especially since Chibnall is either writing or co-writing BOTH the next two episodes).

– Big surprise – I think Bradley Walsh is turning into my favourite aspect of the new season, especially since his casting ranked up with Catherine Tate for levels of ‘Wait, they’re casting who?’ Graham’s turning out to be a really enjoyable, satisfying character and is the stand-out among the current crew – it’s still feeling like three companions is just too many (I mean, we’ve barely had a chance to get to know Yaz), but Walsh is pulling off some nicely nuanced acting, even if I also suspect that Graham’s difficult relationship with Ryan is destined to get sorted out by Graham pulling a tragic but heroic sacrifice in the season finale (I hope that’s not the case, but I’d also be willing to bet money on it happening.).

– Another observation – this version of Who so far is distinctly less goofy or weird than either RTD’s or Moffatt’s approach. It’ll be interesting to see whether the show is still capable of letting its freak flag fly and going for radically different tones (which is both the blessing and the curse of Who, depending on how those tones are executed), or if we’re in the realm of nuts-and-bolts SF for the foreseeable future.

– And next week, it’s celebrity historical time with Rosa Parks. I guess we’ll see how that turns out…

DOCTOR WHO: S11 E01 – ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ (An Unexpected Review)

Press launches are not normally a thing that happens to me. Therefore, when the stars aligned and I got asked by SFX to go to Sheffield for the first ever screening of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who – the first time I’ve ever been able to write something professionally about the new era of the show, believe it or not – it was a considerable surprise.

And it was even more of a surprise when I got to Sheffield and fully understood how big a deal this was, with a red carpet outside the cinema venue and big crowds, and a general sense of being fabulously out of my depth. Inside was even weirder – imagine going to your local cinema, and instead of the usual posters on display, absolutely every image in sight is a Doctor Who poster – and I ended up armed with a massive free bag of popcorn, and accidentally found myself sat in a row directly in front of where the main cast were sitting and surrounded by BBC people, simply because I got into the screening early and there was nothing telling me that I couldn’t sit there.

There was a big introduction to the screening, followed by the episode itself and a Q+A with the cast, followed by drinks that involved lots of loud music and tons of people who I didn’t know. I made a relatively swift exit, heading for the station and back to Nottingham, but it was great fun overall, and a hell of a peculiar and memorable way to watch a Doctor Who debut episode (although watching S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ in 2010 at a convention while sat next to the gorgeous girl I’d recently met (and who I’d eventually end up falling in love with) still has it beat).

THE REVIEW: (Which I’ve kept pretty-much spoiler free)

I went in with a healthy degree of caution, because while this new era for the show is big and splashy and has a ton of publicity and goodwill behind it, it’s also being overseen by Chris Chibnall, a man with a Doctor Who-related history that can be best described as ‘spotty’ and who’s never written an episode that ranked for me above ‘not bad’. Most of my Chibnall-related problems come from his place as showrunner and main writer on the first two seasons of Torchwood – i.e., the ones before it got genuinely good with Children of Earth – and especially the fact that he wrote the Torchwood episode ‘Cyberwoman’, which is one of the most wrong-headed Doctor Who-related pieces of media I’ve ever seen.

And the end result is an episode that is… quite good, with an emphasis on the ‘quite’.

There are a bunch of sensible choices that have been made here, most notable of which is that aside from a couple of small references (and stuff relating to the TARDIS), there’s basically no continuity and this is played as a completely fresh start. There’s also the fact that the show is properly based in the North now, with Sheffield functioning as the home town for all three of the new companions and giving a very different visual feel and style to the show. Plus, the cinematography has been given a serious upgrade, making the show look a lot slicker and more genuinely cinematic, and the new music takes a definite step away from Murray Gold’s sweeping and occasionally OTT orchestrations for something with a crunchier, slightly more electronic flavour.

Ultimately, the episode is a good jumping-on-point for new viewers, especially since it goes straight for a style and a characterisation that’s very similar to the first two seasons of New Who (except maybe not quite as broad), along with a certain amount of DNA from Torchwood (thankfully, it’s mostly taking from the bits that worked in S2). There are also more homages to The Terminator than you might expect from Doctor Who, but overall this is very much a story of ordinary people being swept up into an adventure, and plays heavily with the idea of weird sci-fi adventure happening in somewhere as gritty and down-to-earth as Sheffield in a way that is sometimes pretty fun.

The problem is that this is the episode’s biggest and most genuinely attention-grabbing idea. The story itself takes a while to coalesce, existing for almost half the episode as “An assortment of strange things happen in Sheffield just as the Doctor arrives”, and even once the main threat makes itself felt, it doesn’t feel like anything that’s in danger of capturing the popular imagination. It’s an entertaining but slightly generic threat, and while there’s a tenuous attempt in the script to make a parallel between the villain’s quest and the Doctor figuring out her new identity, it doesn’t really land or make this all feel less generic.

From certain perspectives, it makes sense to keep the threat relatively simple, considering the heavy lifting the script has to do – not only introducing a new Doctor to a potentially new chunk of the audience, but also introducing three companions (along with another character who essentially acts as an extra companion for the story). Anyone who’s seen any early 1980s Who will know full well that a crowded TARDIS brings with it the problem of giving everybody something to do, and while the episode does its best to spread the load of action around, the result is that not everyone gets the chance to make the kind of strong impression that can be made when there’s just a single companion.

Surprisingly, it’s Bradley Walsh as Graham who makes the most impact, after spending much of the episode playing the ‘perplexed father figure’ role – there’s a couple of scenes at the end that give a lot of depth to his character and make it properly interesting that someone like this is going to be travelling through Time and Space. Both Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill do good work as Ryan and Yaz, but they do run into the simple fact that they don’t quite get enough time to properly make an impression, as well as the fact that the script doesn’t always have the sense of spark, energy and polish that Moffat or Russell T. Davies were able to bring.

Moffat absolutely had his flaws and it was definitely time for him to move on, but it’s easy for some people to forget the level of craft that went into his scripts and the level of energy he was able to inject into even the smaller scenes. There’s not that much of that energy here, meaning that there are lots of what feels dangerously like dead air, or at least scenes that are perfectly functional and nicely played but which don’t do much else, and certainly don’t achieve the breakneck pace that Doctor Who can achieve at its best. If anything, the pacing is surprisingly leisurely in places, especially the opening half hour when the story has yet to coalesce into a genuine idea of where we’re going.

There’s also a couple of scenes that shocked me in exactly how classic 1980s Who they were. Companions in the ‘classic’ era of the show often complained how they were simply there to ask “What’s going on, Doctor?”, and the new era has been pretty good at avoiding that kind of thing, or at least making the big exposition scenes fun and accessible. Here, however, there’s one scene in particular that’s just a little astonishing in how much it cribs from the Classic Who playbook, with virtually every companion just firing “What does this mean?” questions at the Doctor and the Doctor answering them, without finding any way of subverting the whole “this is where the main character explains the plot” part of the episode.

Plus, the storytelling itself is rather murky, even by Doctor Who standards. I’m always willing to forgive a certain amount of hand-waviness when it comes to watertight storytelling in Who – it’s the emotions and the momentum that’s important, not whether every element adds up or makes perfect sense – but there are points in the episode where it gets surprisingly difficult to work out what the hell is going on. I’m still a little perplexed about how the Doctor actually managed to defeat the main villain, and there’s a number of other plot elements that feel like they would crumble if you examined them too closely.

There’s also the tone, which is darker in places than you might expect, and which often feels happier with the idea of being a nicely-played, slightly downbeat character drama than being an unpredictable, frothy sci-fi adventure. Certain moments play well, and other moments play like they’re not quite fitting together, and combined with the struggles the script has of balancing the material between the companions, the result is an episode that isn’t always firing on all cylinders.

And then there’s Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor. Aside from a few references, the new gender doesn’t play anywhere as big a factor as you might think, which is a good way to go, and she attacks the role with a serious level of energy and enthusiasm. She’s absolutely going to be some people’s favourite Doctor as soon as she turns up, and it’s a good contrast to go for after the more traditionally old-school and darker approach of Capaldi (who I loved in the role, but I can also understand why some people were put off by his rather gruffer, more cantankerous approach).

But… I ultimately ended up realising what she reminded me of in playing the Doctor, and it’s Christopher Eccleston. His Doctor was a big factor in relaunching the show, and having an actor of that calibre helped a lot in bringing Who back to prominence – but for me, Eccleston always felt like there were certain things in the role that he was more comfortable with than others (and he’s since gone on record saying that this was the case). Dark, stormy and angry scenes he could knock out of the park – quirky and fun, he was less accomplished at, and sometimes felt like he was trying too hard.

There’s a very odd (and extremely subjective) set of factors that make a good Doctor Who star. For me, probably because I grew up watching Tom Baker, it’s simply to do with being able to make the weird and the strange seem absolutely effortless – which is not something that everybody can do. It’s a throwback to when the performance of the Doctor was what sold the reality of the show (because it certainly wasn’t the special effects). When you see actors like Baker or Patrick Troughton at their best, they don’t feel like they’re acting – you can’t see the performance, they just are the Doctor.

And while Whitaker is really good in the role, there are an awful lot of points where I can feel the performance. She’s occasionally awkward with the more comedic moments, and she’s definitely stronger towards the end of the episode where she gets more dramatic, traditionally ‘Doctory’ material. It’s very possible that this is a performance that I’ll warm to, the same way it took me a while (actually almost a season-and-a-half) to properly like David Tennant as the Doctor. But she hasn’t sold me on her in the role in the same way that Matt Smith did in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, or Peter Capaldi once we hit the restaurant scene in the S8 opener ‘Deep Breath’.

It doesn’t help that for me, S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is pretty much the platonic ideal for introducing a new Doctor – an episode that was so packed with invention, humour and weirdly British thrills that it had me almost jumping up and down with excitement by the end credits. ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is enjoyable, but it very rarely thrilled me, and it only managed a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and is nowhere near the level of pace, invention or wit that Moffat managed in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. But then, with Chibnall at the helm, I didn’t really expect it to get there.

Ultimately, what we have here is an episode that’s a fun jumping-on point and an intriguing starting point for the rest of the season. It’s okay if Doctor Who isn’t entirely my bag for a while (I am, after all, a 44-year-old man who’s WAY out of range of the target audience), and I’ll be watching along for episode 2 to see where it goes. I’ll just also cross my fingers that maybe Chibnall can sharpen his showrunning skills and occasionally deliver something close to the high points that both RTD and Moffatt pulled off.

Legion S1 (Some Thoughts…)

I meant to blog about TV in 2017 for the last month or so. There were two shows in 2017 that stuck with me more than anything, and trying to get my thoughts on the challenging weirdness of Twin Peaks: The Return into shape proved to be a tricky task. There was also Legion, which I adored, but blogging about it didn’t happen for various reasons, and seemed destined to be one of those ‘blog posts I never get around to’.

And then, this weekend, I spotted that there’s a quote from my SFX review of Legion on the back cover of the UK release of the Blu-Ray:

This boggled the heck out of me – getting cover quotes is always great, getting a cover quote on something I loved as much as Legion is a rare treat – so I had to write something.

There’s a hell of a lot to write about – the Wes Anderson-influenced production design, the trippy cinematography, the retro Sixties styles, the way it joyfully ignores any continuity with other X-Men related media and is all the better for it, the strong performances, the jaw-dropping use of music, the fact that episode seven contains an extended sequence that’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on television in years, the kooky joy of Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement as the 1960s-obsessed psychonaut Oliver Bird…

But the thing I love most about Legion is what it reminds me of.

We have a lot of superhero shows right now, and some of them are definitely ‘for adults’ – but up until now, that’s principally meant the Marvel Netflix shows, which are a very particular (and uneven) kind of mature that’s worn out its sense of novelty and welcome surprisingly quickly. None of them have really managed to capture what grabbed me about American comics when I first started reading them – they’re all going for relatively formulaic structures but with more monologues, more intensity and more ultraviolence. There’s no sense of them trying to do anything different, except in how adult they can be – a habit that, outside of S1 of Jessica Jones, hasn’t come across very well.

Legion, however, feels different in almost every conceivable way. There’s an infectious sense of invention and creativity to the show, an adventurous desire to push the envelope – and what it reminds me of are the truly weird, artistic and adventurous comics that came along in the wake of graphic novel landmarks like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, you had lots of dark and gritty tales of vigilante justice, superhero stories but with added intensity and violence and upset – but you also had genuinely weird and adventurous stories that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Comics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, The Sandman, Enigma, Hellblazer – boundary-pushing, unpredictable comics that were giving a sandbox to interesting writers who really wanted to see what comics could do, and wanted to do expand the limits of the everyday mainstream comic.

Legion captures that feel better than anything I’ve seen in our current deluge of superhero media. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the mind-expanding thrill of opening an early issue of The Invisibles, or Alan Moore’s epic run on Swamp Thing, or Neil Gaiman’s ambitious work on The Sandman. I can forgive Legion its flaws – like the weird pacing, the way certain characters get forgotten about, the way it peaks too early in episode 7, or the relative lack of conclusion in the eighth and final episode – for the way it uses superpowers as a way to look at mental illness, alongside the way we interact with the world, other people, and our memories. There’s a scene in episode 3, where two characters simply sit down and talk about their abilities in a calm and open way, that’s one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen in a superhero show, and Legion delivers unexpected moments and stylistic curve-balls like that throughout its run. Season 2 is apparently due to arrive sometime in April – I have no idea where it’s going to go next, but I can’t wait to find out…

Films of 2017 (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Logan, Thor: Raganrok, Wonder Woman, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049)

These aren’t all the movies I saw in 2017 – and admittedly, I didn’t see much – these are just the ones that stuck with me, in no particular order. (And looking at this list, it’s interesting how many of these are definite, rule-breaking, outside-the-box blockbusters. Nice to know that kind of thing is still possible…

STAR WARS – THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars is weird.

It’s easy to forget that the original Star Wars movies – especially A New Hope – are odd, personal, deeply idiosyncratic movies. It’s also easy to forget that the initial critical reaction to The Empire Strikes Back was a little mixed and muted. It’s also my personal theory that even if Lucas had managed to get the dialogue and characterisation a lot sharper and stronger on the Prequels, people would still have mostly disliked or hated them because they “weren’t enough like ‘proper’ Star Wars”.  The franchise has become such an impossibly huge cultural lodestone that it’s easy to go to a Star Wars movie in the wake of The Force Awakens and just expect roughly the same as what we got last time.

The Last Jedi doesn’t do that. It swings for the fences in a whole series of bold strikes, not all of which hit, but which are all fascinating for what they’re trying to do, which is blow the mythic structure of Star Wars wide open. Where The Force Awakens was a joyful sugar rush of nostalgia, The Last Jedi digs deeper into the story and the characters for a movie that’s singularly bonkers in a number of unexpected ways.

It’s a bit too long. There are a few moments where the storytelling gets a bit vague and hand-wavey (although these are NOTHING in comparison to some of the world-building plot chasms in The Force Awakens), and it’s a very particular kind of movie that ain’t necessarily going to land in the same joyful sugar-rush Force Awakens style for everyone. But it’s amazing to see a Star Wars movie this willing to take risks and do weird, unpredictable things, and tell a story that’s chewy and thematic and personal. Some will love it. Others will be nonplussed by it. But I’d rather have that than a franchise that’s stuck being a late 1970s George Lucas cover band until the end of time.

WONDER WOMAN

Possibly the best superhero origin movie since Superman: The Movie, which is ironic since Wonder Woman also shares a number of the same weaknesses – it’s at least twenty minutes too long, it’s tonally all over the place at times, and it comes close to falling apart in its big dramatic climax. But despite this (and some choppy action editing and overdone speed-ramping), this is also a beautifully earnest superhero epic that gets the thematic weight of World War One right, and brings the character of Diana to life in a way that emphasises her humanity and compassion. It’s a superhero tale, a war epic, a fish-out-of-water comedy, and a charming-as-hell love story as well. And the fact that it did all of this while being part of the otherwise shambolic DC Movie Universe only makes it more remarkable.

LOGAN

The moment I saw the Johnny Cash-scored teaser trailer above, I thought “Oh heavens, this movie has a good chance of completely destroying me”. And I was pretty much right. An R-rated, hyper-violent Wolverine movie sounded like a bad, potentially gratuitous idea in theory, especially one that was inspired by a Mark Millar comic, of all things – what I wasn’t expecting was an amazingly well-crafted bleak near-future superhero western that takes an unflinching look at ageing, mortality and the true cost of violence. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have rarely been better than here, and it’s one of the few superhero movies that genuinely transcends its genre. Just make sure you’ve got something happy to watch afterwards, for heaven’s sake…

DUNKIRK

There’s an opinion that gets hurled around a lot online that Christopher Nolan is a Stanley Kubrick-style emotionless Vulcan who makes movies that are absent any human feeling, and it’s heinous bollocks of the highest order. Yes, there’s a chilly, steely precision to a lot of Nolan’s films and he isn’t the best at BIG emotion (as proved by some of the weaker moments of the flawed but wonderfully ambitious Interstellar), but I don’t think an unfeeling Vulcan-style filmmaker would have been able to make this portrait of the Dunkirk evacuation quite such a traumatic and terrifying experience. Simultaneously a stripped down, experimental arthouse movie, a historical epic and a suspense flick, Dunkirk isn’t the place to come for historical context – this is an experiential, almost backstory-free movie that’s all about making you feel what it would be like to be in that situation, and Nolan makes every second count. He’s also one of the only filmmakers around who can still get away with doing deeply experimental movies on a blockbuster scale and actually get people to watch them.

THOR: RAGNAROK

The moment I heard that one of Taika Waititi’s touchstones for Thor: Ragnarok was the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, my interest was sparked – and the moment I saw the first trailer, I felt confident I was going to love a lot about this film. The end result is a gloriously kooky superhero movie that balances out some so-so storytelling and weird pacing with day-glo visuals and some incredible comedy. It’s a healthy up-side of Marvel’s continuing success that they’re able to push the envelope as far as they do here , and it was around the extended homage to the insane ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ tunnel sequence that I realised exactly how insane this film was prepared to go. The Jack Kirby-inspired production design is a delight, Chris Hemsworth is clearly having so much more fun getting the chance to flex his comedy chops, and it’s great to get a Thor movie that taps into the splendour and weirdness of classic runs like Walter Simonson’s Surtur Saga, while also adding its own deeply bizarre humour.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

I have extreme difficulty believing this film exists. A Blade Runner sequel was mooted for so long, and so obviously a bad idea (especially after the messy results of Ridley Scott returning to the Alien universe for Prometheus). It felt like a project doomed to failure – and then Denis Villeneuve came along, and ended up delivering a moving, absorbing and stunningly gorgeous 2 & 3/4 hour sci-fi tone poem that took the mood and themes of the original movie and pushed them even further. Visually and conceptually there is some utterly brilliant stuff here, and some major surprises as well – most notably, Harrison Ford giving a great, nuanced turn as an older, sadder Rick Deckard. I’m not in any way surprised that it didn’t do well financially – moody, dark SF that’s heavily influenced by the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky was never going to be a major box office draw, especially when it’s a 35-years-later follow up to a noted financial bomb turned cult favourite. Yes, it’s too long, and it doesn’t manage to capture the original’s suspense or intensity, but I’m just glad that a lot of people took a risk on something quite so bizarre, and that I’ll soon have the chance to buy the Blu-Ray and immerse myself in those intoxicating Roger Deakins-shot visuals once again.

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