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Doctor Who: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (Review)

“Don’t worry. This ain’t our first rodeo.

“We’ve never been to a rodeo.”

“You’re not helping, Ryan.”

As with Orphan 55 last week, there is a sense that Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is pushing at the edge of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, trying to take the era’s underlying assumptions and make them work within a compelling narrative structure.

Orphan 55 attempted to write around the Thirteenth Doctor’s narrative passivity by dropping her in a plot that took place long after calamity had befallen Earth, and so cannily avoiding another story that hinged on the Doctor’s general uselessness. (Of course, it also ended with the Doctor abandoning Kane and Bella to their deaths, so mileage varies.) Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror offers an interesting spin on the era’s approach to historicals – telling a story that hinges not on building an affirming narrative from a hopeless future, but instead mourning the loss of a potential future.

Tesla recoils.

To be fair, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is still haunted by a lot of the familiar problems of the show around it. As a showrunner, Chris Chibnall is nowhere near as good with characterisation or humour as Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. More than that, the episode seems have largely been built in homage to the villainous Skithra, as a collection of spare parts and leftover pieces. Like Arachnids in the U.K., the extent to which Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is an engaging piece of television is the extent to which it feels like a flat mid-season episode from the Davies era.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a mixed bag. Indeed, it’s interesting how much Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror feel like the belong in the first season of a new era, trying to figure out the basic mechanics of the new way that Doctor Who tells stories. This is something that Doctor Who should have been doing last season, and it’s frustrating to see it only really trying now.

“Elon who?”

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165. Gisaengchung (Parasite) – This Just In (#34)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Graham Day and Bríd Martin, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Boon Joon Ho’s Gisaengchung.

Drafted in to tutor the daughter of a rich South Korean family, the lower-class Kim Ki-woo enacts a cunning plan that will allow his entire family to infiltrate the lavish Park household. However, things quickly spiral out of control, leading to unpredictable chaos and disaster.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 34th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On Colin Trevorrow’s “Duel of the Fates” and JJ Abrams’ “Rise of Skywalker”…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday, looking at the leaks around director Colin Trevorrow’s plans for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

Of course, there are a lot of variables involved. Are the leaks authentic? Even if the leaks are authentic, how much faith do you place in the director of Jurassic World and Book of Henry to realise them? More than that, though, there’s a sense in which the proposed “Duel of the Fates” is so appealing precisely because it will never actually exist. It will never disappoint anybody, because their imagined version of the film will never brush up against harsh reality. It’s interesting in this age of “alternative facts” that we long so strongly for “alternative movies.”

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the Oscar Success of “Joker”…

I published a piece at Escapist Magazine earlier this week, looking at the success of Joker at this week’s Oscar nominations.

Joker is an interesting film, primarily because of the passion and enthusiasm that it generates on both sides of the debate. It is a film with a strong following and a very strong opposition, and it seems that every observer must pledge allegiance to one side or the other. This is ironic, because it’s arguably the most interesting thing about a film that is largely remarkable for how safe it plays most of its creative choices – the irony only enhanced by how that modesty seems almost dignified amid the cacophony around it.

As such, it’s easy to miss how successful Joker has been, and how it has positioned itself as an obvious choice for the Oscar-nominee frontrunner. Of course, the polarisation around the film makes it highly unlikely to actually win the prize, but any sensible assessment of the film – its performance, its influences, its pedigree, its impact – would concede that it is very much the definition of a slam dunk for the Oscar nominations. More than that, the fact that it swept up the Oscar nominations is arguably a good thing for the Academy Awards, a welcome a long overdue reminder that big and popular films can succeed.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life is an extremely stupid and occasionally veering on incoherent film. It is also a lot of fun.

There are any number of obvious problems with Bad Boys For Life. The pacing and plotting is a mess, stopping and starting at random intervals depending on the film’s mood as much as its own internal logic. Characterisation varies wildly from one scene to the next. Bad Boys For Life has even picked up some of the more frustratingly formulaic narrative beats from modern blockbusters, stumbling blindly into overwrought bathos and even attempting to offer a retroactively Freudian origin story for veteran police officer Mike Lowrey. It also understands that modern blockbusters have to be “about” things; in this case, growing old.

Welcome to Miami.

However, a large part of the charm of Bad Boys For Life is the way in which the film seems to have taken virtually every note that an executive might possibly offer and decided to approach these notes in a way that feels surprisingly fitting for a belated follow-up to Michael Bay’s bombastic duology. Bad Boys For Life is unashamedly and unapologetically its own thing. This results in a cocktail that doesn’t exactly go down smooth, but at least offers a refreshing and distinctive flavour. It helps that Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah lean strongly into the series’ sensibility, and invest heavily in its core strengths.

For all its gestures towards the modern age of intellectual-property-driven franchise-building, Bad Boys For Life grasps that the heart and soul of the series has always been the charm in watching Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bounce off one another. That dynamic between Smith and Lawrence, two performers who know how to work an audience and a camera, are arguably what grounded the first two films – keeping a very human perspective amid the ensuing “Bayhem.” In Bad Boys For Life, they does something similar, adding a charismatic star power that is often absent from contemporary blockbuster production.

Police don’t stop.

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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #74 – Star Trek: Voyager as a Nineties Time Capsule

Over the Christmas Break, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Duncan Barrett and talking about Star Trek: Voyager. Duncan is a historian, and I’ve actually quoted some of his work on the blog in the past. He hosts Primitive Culture, a show wherein the hosts discuss certain historical-related items of interest in the Star Trek canon.

Duncan noticed that I had recently finished a massive rewatch of Voyager, leading me to write around 750,000 words on the show’s seven seasons. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager coming up, he suggested that it might be fun to talk about the third live-action Star Trek spin-off in a bit of depth, looking at the series as a snapshot of a particular cultural moment. More than any of its sibling series, Voyager perfectly encapsulated the American experience of the nineties, tapping into the decade’s sensibilities and its anxieties.

The result was a fun (and involved) discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

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