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New Escapist Column! On How “Doctor Who” Is Less “Woke” Than It’s Been In Decades…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With rumours that Jodie Whittaker may be departing Doctor Who, it seems an appropriate time to look back her time on the show. In particular, the weird political furore around it.

Under producer Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who has been criticised for being “too woke” and “too politically correct.” This is interesting, because – if anything – the show is more conservative than it has been at any point since the mid-eighties. Under Chibnall, Doctor Who believes that “the systems aren’t the problem” and is openly deferential to authority. It frequently rejects the idea of radical systemic change, instead suggesting that the status quo is something to be preserved rather than disturbed.

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

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks (Review)

“Have you had work done?”

“You’re one to talk.”

Like Resolution before it, Revolution of the Daleks is a special that largely works through momentum and spectacle, while failing to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its separate parts.

The cobbled together Dalek casing from Resolution is a major plot point in Revolution of the Daleks, but it also plays as metaphor for the episode itself. Even as early as The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it was clear that the Chibnall era did not share the same strengths as the Davies and Moffat eras before it. It is impossible to imagine Chibnall constructing a holiday special featuring characters bantering around a couple of generic sets. If he did, it would probably resemble The Timeless Children more than Twice Upon a Time, with characters just expositing at one another.

Insert political joke here.

Instead, Chibnall tends to construct his more successful episodes around propulsion and momentum; he likes to have multiple characters doing things simultaneously, while constantly throwing new elements into the mix to maintain some sense of forward movement. Revolution of the Daleks is not so much an episode as a collection of familiar Doctor Who elements thrown into a blender with even more familiar elements thrown on top. There’s a frantic sense of “… and then…” plotting to the episode, as Chibnall rhymes off any story coming into his head.

The result is an episode that is messier and more overstuffed than Resolution. Indeed, Resolution might have somewhat bungled the eponymous reconciliation between Ryan and his father, but at least it understood that this relationship was meant to be both the heart of the episode and the pay-off to a thread running through the season. In contrast, Revolution seems like a bunch of stuff happening incredibly quickly as the stakes frantically escalate and the story switches before the audience can get bored of it.

To be fair, everybody looks at Christmas leftovers the same way.

Revolution of the Daleks doesn’t really work. After all, despite all the stuff that happens in the episode, it is hard to pinpoint what it is actually supposed to be “about.” There are certainly scenes and developments that feel like they should be important, but they never really feel like organic evolution from one scene to the next. That said, Revolution of the Dalek manages to avoid falling completely flat. The sense of constant escalation prevents anything from collapsing into itself. Revolution of the Daleks is certainly more Spyfall, Part I than Spyfall, Part II.

At the same time, it is hardly revolutionary.

“It’s hard to keep track of how many stories this is referencing.”

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Non-Review Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is misconceived on just about every possible level.

On the most superficial and surface level, Hillbilly Elegy is the most cynical form of Oscar bait. It is a vehicle for actors Amy Adams and Glenn Close to take a run at awards season, turning the inner dial on their performances up to eleven playing absurd caricatures of complex and nuanced human beings. There are moments when, entirely divorced from its form or substance, Hillbilly Elegy veers into the realm of self-parody, as Adams musters every dramatic bone in her body to shout “bad dog!” with as much conviction as possible, as if every moment could be an Oscar clip.

“Looks like we got ourselves a good old-fashioned act-off.”

It isn’t that Close and Adams are bad performers. Indeed, there’s a credible argument to be made that – on some level – Hillbilly Elegy might be “worth it” if it eventually allows Adams to take home what will effectively be a career award. However, everything in Hillbilly Elegy is a staggeringly ill-judged combination of heightened melodrama and earnest sincerity. Ron Howard directs the film with a solemn profundity that suggests he is peeling back the layers of the American heartland, as if viewing the film through the lens of Terrence Malick via the Russo Brothers.

However, underneath the surface, there is something more insidious and uncomfortable at place in Hillbilly Elegy. The film is based on the autobiography of J.D. Vance, a book that became a breakout sensation in 2016. The arrival of the book coincided with the election of Donald Trump, and so it became a cornerstone of a subgenre of literature built around understanding Trump voters – the kind of soul-searching that led to fawning profiles of white nationalists in The New York Times. (While Vance characterises himself as “a nationalist”, the film overtly avoids his politics.)

Ad-Vancing.

This context perhaps explains the assurance and self-importance of Hillbilly Elegy, which at every turn presents itself as a window into a different culture – the idea of the “forgotten” America or the “left behind” America. Unfortunately, it also explains the most horrific aspect of the film, the way in which Hillbilly Elegy treats its characters as exhibits in some grotesque zoo. While adapted from a book written by a character rooted in that community, Hillbilly Elegy often feels like an anthropological study constructed from second- or third-hand accounts.

However, the movie’s most egregious fault might be how profoundly it misunderstands Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

This Cagney and Lacey reboot is really something.

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New Escapist Column! On “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and How “Borat” Has Changed Over 14 Years…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm last week, it seemed an interesting opportunity to take a look at the return of the Kazakh caricature, and examine how the character had shifted in the fourteen years since the release of Borat.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the way in which it offers a much more conventional structure – and even character arc – than the original film. It’s a strange choice, particularly in the context of the film’s mockumentary sensibility and the outlandish nature of the character. However, it also illustrates how much the world has changed since the release of the original film. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm realises that the world has changed, so maybe Borat should as well.

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

Non-Review Review: Irresistible

Irresistible is a movie that largely exists to demonstrate that nobody hates the political left like the political left.

Jon Stewart’s second feature as writer and director essentially positions itself as a post-2016 political satire. Stewart’s former correspondent Steve Carell is cast as Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmer, who is still nursing the wounds of the 2016 election. The film features two short table-setting prologues, the second of which finds Zimmer lying in bed on November 9th, 2016 as the news media plays back his unearned confidence in the face of the earth-shattering Donald Trump victory. There’s a sense in which Zimmer needs to be humbled.

Window into a broken system.

A couple of years later, both Zimmer and the party clearly still smarting from that humiliating defeat, a video comes across Zimmer’s desk. Recorded at a town hall in Deerlaken, Wisonsin, it shows a military veteran standing up for the rights of immigrants and minorities to a town administration desperate to lock them out of welfare. Colonel Jack Hastings appears to be the complete package, a white rural farmer with genuinely progressive politics. “He’s a Democrat,” Zimmer insists. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Stewart tries to position Irresistible as a biting social commentary on the state of the modern Democratic party and its awkward relationship with the white rural voters who are undergoing incredible political hardship as a result of a series of global recessions, and who feel increasingly disconnected from the political establishment. It’s an old theme that belongs to a rich cinematic tradition including films like Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and it should still resonate these days.

Making Hastings while the sun shines.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s satire is unfocused and tonally unbalanced. It’s never clear exactly what the film is saying, beyond expressing an understandable frustration with the establishment of the political left. However, the film’s anger is clearest when it is singularly focused as to imply a vacuum that simply doesn’t exist. More than that, Stewart occasionally seems to invest in the some sort of nostalgic and romantic fetishisation of the rural community that he so scathing ridicules in the political establishment.

This issue reflects a broader problem with the movie. Irresistible is tonally erratic at the best of times, alternating between a biting satire set in a world that is at least meant to be recognisable and a more cartoonish comedy populated by outlandish science-fiction elements. Stewart can’t seem to hone in on what Irresistible is trying to say about the political system, beyond the simple fact that political types are the absolute worst.

Dems the breaks.

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New Escapist Column! On the “The Hunt” as Empty Provocation…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine last week. This is one has been a while in the making, since at least August last year.

The Hunt was massive controversial before anybody had actually watched the finished cut of the film. It attracted the ire of Fox News and, through that, Donald Trump. Universal pushed the film back, eventually settling on a mid-March release date, with the advertising leaning heavily into that controversy as a selling point. As such, it’s impossible to discuss The Hunt without discussing the maelstrom around it. This means that the movie itself feels like a disappointment and a damp squib. Its potent political content is nothing more than empty provocation, its biting social commentary just an elaborate troll. The Hunt has nothing to say, which is particularly disappointing as it is sandwiched between the genuinely political provocations of The Invisible Man and Promising Young Woman.

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

171. Knives Out – This Just In (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Alex Towers and Luke Dunne, 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, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.

The apparent suicide of noted mystery author Harlan Thrombley attracts the attention of consulting gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. Interviewing the deceased man’s family, Blanc finds a nest of vipers hiding in plain sight and comes to suspect that Harlan has been victim of murder most foul.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (Review)

“He’s moving at thirty-seven klicks an hour.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Benni.”

Like It Takes You Away in the previous season, Orphan 55 provides a something close to a workable model for the Chibnall era as a whole. Unfortunately, Orphan 55 doesn’t quite get there.

One of the strange paradoxes of the Chibnall era is that it often seems like the guest writers have a stronger grasp on its core themes than the showrunner. After all, Demons of the Punjab was perhaps the best single argument for Chibnall’s passive and observational characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor, a far stronger argument than that articulated in Rosa or Arachnids in the U.K. or any of the episodes with Chibnall’s name on the credits.

“Game over, Doc.”

Orphan 55 draws from an impressive array of influences across the history of Doctor Who, providing a fascinating intersection between “holiday camp gone wrong” episodes like The Macra Terror and Delta and the Bannermen and “future of Earth” episodes like The Ark in Space or The End of the World. Indeed, the positioning of Orphan 55 as the first standalone episode after the premiere is quite canny; it fills what would be the “New Earth” slot on a Russell T. Davies season. However, it offers a much grimmer prognosis. This is appropriate for a much grimmer age.

Like so much of the Chibnall era, Orphan 55 is built around the general impotence of the Doctor. The Doctor is a fictional character, and so cannot save the world. The Moffat era dealt with this question in a more abstract and metaphorical sense in episodes like Extremis, demonstrating the importance of Doctor Who as a story and the Doctor as an idea. The Chibnall era tends to respond to this challenge with dull literalism. The Thirteenth Doctor spends an inordinate amount of her run confronting systemic or societal problems with which she refuses to engage.

A green message.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s passiveness when confronted with monstrosity is one of the more horrifying aspects of the Chibnall era as a whole. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor refused to hold Ilan to account for the horrors he inflicted on the participants in his race. In Arachnids in the U.K., Jack Robertson just walked away from liability for mass murder in his hotel. In Rosa, the Doctor stage managed the oppression of Rosa Parks, even forcing her companion to be actively complicit in systemic racism.

While the Chibnall era is clearly trying to make a larger point about how the Doctor cannot save the world because she doesn’t exist, this often becomes a bleak and depressing study of how the public imagination can no longer conjure better worlds into being. Demons of the Punjab managed to make the best argument for this approach through careful construction, tying its historical injustices to Yaz’s personal history. Orphan 55 pulls off something similar, primarily by setting the action long after the world has failed to be saved.

Shattering expectations.

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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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125. V for Vendetta (#153)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta.

Accosted by “finger men” for breaking curfew, Evey Hammond is rescued by a mysterious stranger who only introduces himself as “V.” As Evey finds herself drawn deeper into the world of this violent vaudevillian figure and as she discovers more and more of his plot to topple the country’s totalitarian regime, Evey finds herself wonder whether this masked figure is a vigilante or villain.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 153rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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