Movie Review: TESLA

★ ★ 1/2

Such is the latent tragic power of 19th century genius Nikola Tesla that he remains an enigmatic figure of fascination, as Michael Almereyda’s offbeat biopic suggests.

In 2003, a group of founders including the now infamous billionaire Elon Musk launched Tesla Motors Inc, what would later become Tesla, and emerge as the world’s foremost provider of electric vehicles and clean energy in the modern world. Musk’s well known aspirations as one of this centuries technological pioneers, not to mention his eccentric reputation, all stem from the influence of the original Tesla, the tentacles of his unique, imaginative and ultimately rejected scientific concepts stretching across more than a century. Almereyda’s take on the man’s life, the first dramatic biopic after a recent 2016 documentary (and indeed an appearance by him in Doctor Who), is designed to remind us of his genius.

Inevitably, however, this being an Almereyda picture, Tesla refuses to be a straight down the line, traditional historical portrait, and rather an avant garde, often wilfully navel-gazing depiction of lost greatness.

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New Podcast: STREAMING WARS #2 – ‘The Witcher / Doctor Who / Dracula’

Welcome to my newest podcast on wemadethispod.com… the STREAMING WARS podcast!

I’ve wanted to put together a TV podcast for a while now given we’re entering an exciting age of streaming service rivalry and a bevy of TV every single month. There is always something to talk about, so every fortnight or three weeks with a new guest, I’ll be doing just that.

For this latest episode, I’m joined by Luke Winch to talk a cluster of new shows – Dracula, Doctor Who, The Witcher, Lost in Space, Doom Patrol and many more…

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DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself

Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.

I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.

Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.

It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.

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DRACULA: a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent

The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.

In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.

As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.

Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.

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HIS DARK MATERIALS: a slick adaptation lacking in magic (Season 1 – Review)

Until the BBC, in league with HBO, decided to tackle Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, it remained one of the greatest, unfilmed epic adventure stories in modern literature.

There was, granted, an attempt in 2007 with The Golden Compass, directed by Chris Weitz, but despite starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and a host of talented thespians in support, it failed to capture enough critical acclaim & audience imagination (and crucially box office) to warrant adapting not just Pullman’s first novel, Northern Lights, but the subsequent two sequels – not to mention launch the career of star Dakota Blue Richards, playing central heroine Lyra Belacqua. On the face of it, His Dark Materials should be a slam dunk as a success story; a plucky heroine, a quest narrative, magical realms, talking bears, witches and megalomaniacal villains. Except it isn’t quite that simple.

Though this kind of genre may lend itself to family friendly entertainment, a Harry Potter-esque story of good vs evil, Philip Pullman’s books are incredibly dense, complicated and challenging pieces of world-building crammed with the kind of philosophical ideas that your JK Rowling’s or George Lucas’ do not touch. His Dark Materials, over the three books, goes to some seriously dark places – the climax of Northern Lights is built on such a moment. Adapting these books is not nearly as easy as they may look from the outset, bucking convention in the ideas Pullman presents. The Golden Compass proved one film was not enough space to pull this off. The BBC’s His Dark Materials suggests even an eight-part television series might not be up to the challenge.

As despite the fact Jack Thorne’s scripts put everything from the first novel (and a bit from the second) on screen, the first season of His Dark Materials lacks the key component present in Pullman’s writing: magic.

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Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

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Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

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‘Ineffably’ Disappointing: Good Omens (2019)

Everything pointed toward Good Omens being one of the TV highlights of 2019 yet, in truth, it could likely turn out to be one of the year’s greatest disappointments.

The ‘why?’ of this is, to an extent, confounding. Good Omens derives from much loved source material, a one-off 1990 fantasy comic novel by the joint literary powerhouses of Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett. It tells an epic, cosmic story across 6000 years of human history, tackling the classic Biblical concept of Armageddon and the rise of the Anti-Christ through a delightfully oddball British lens. It is festooned with a variety of inventive comic characters, from ancient angels and demons through to surly modern witchfinders and ever-present prophets. It never takes itself too seriously while remaining a potent reminder, right at the end of the Cold War era, of man’s ability to self-destruct in the most apocalyptic of ways. It is also underpinned by an unlikely, history-spanning friendship between two ideological enemies which, again, reflects the end of an era. The world is ending. Long live the world.

While personally I don’t consider Good Omens anywhere near the best work of Pratchett or Gaiman, lacking the finesse, wit and structure of their strongest novels, there is no reason Good Omens couldn’t and shouldn’t have made for a strong TV adaptation. And TV is certainly the ideal medium for a fractured, multi-strand, ensemble story that weaves everyone together at the end. Terry Gilliam was all set to make it in the early 2000’s with Johnny Depp & Robin Williams headlining, boasting a script Gaiman claims was in fine fettle, but you wonder just how adequately a two hour or so film could have threaded everything in Good Omens together. TV gives it room to breathe, room to build up the core dynamic between angel Aziraphale & demon Crowley which exists at the heart of the book. Gaiman’s scripts all live up to this over the six parts and yet… it doesn’t work.

The more I think about why Good Omens doesn’t work, the more the answer becomes… well, ineffable.

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Star Trek: The Q Conflict (#1)

Tie-in fiction loves a good crossover event and Star Trek, in particular, is full of them.

Outside of recent Trek crossovers with Planet of the Apes, Transformers and Green Lantern, IDW Publishing most recently have tied into Star Trek: Discovery‘s narrative trends with a heavy focus on the Mirror Universe (particularly the untold on TV story of The Next Generation side of the Mirror coin) and now The Original Series with the newly launched Year Five, but The Q Conflict is a different animal. It is the kind of story that could only take place in tie-in continuity for a variety of reasons, and more specifically the comic as opposed to the novel. It feels mostly in step with Doctor Who events such as The Two Doctors, The Three Doctors or The Day of the Doctor; tying together in this case the legendary Starfleet Captains and crews across the four most popular Star Trek series from the last 50 years.

The Q Conflict is, consequently, a huge gimmick which hinges on the excitement of seeing Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway, and key members of their crews, working together. How long that gimmick may last is open to question.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.

Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, *the* biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown *up*, with the Avengers.

It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every  single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.

Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.

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