Friday, 22 November 2013

An Adventure In Space And Time (2013)

Doctor Who used to brilliant didn't it? You remember, no? It was a long time ago now and mostly before my time too but I've still seen every episode, even the reconstructions of missing episodes and the VHS copy of Shada with Tom Baker narrating the missing scenes due to industrial action. I love how it all began, so cleverly crafted. The wizened old man, the impetuous grand-daughter and the two teachers, history and science - the show's very core, all having adventures together in our real past and a futurists wildest dreams, alternating story by story. Imaginative, educational and exciting. Doctor Who isn't like that any more. It's the BBC's biggest export and 2 entertain video sales are astronomical but since it's third return to our screens we've lacked that original ethos in favour of over convoluted story arcs with no actual conclusions, just gaping holes in the plot. Back then stories made sense - Marco Polo, The French Revolution, The Romans, The Aztecs, The Wild West and much more were explored in Hartnell's era. Under The Moffat helm this would be just one episode with everything happening at once. What do we learn from that?

Tom Baker is my Doctor, I remember 'The Robots Of Death' with Louise Jameson at his side and it was 'City Of Death' with Lalla Ward before I was allowed to watch it again! I am a big fan of Douglas Adams so this period is still my favourite but as a child I didn't know the show's past. I was bought a book, Doctor who And The Daleks and I didn't understand. It wasn't like the Doctor I saw on television, and who were Ian, Barbara and Susan? I will buy that book again someday and watching them back now on DVD brings me enormous pleasure. Billy Hartnell was the original Doctor Who and the blueprint for all who followed. They all took something from him. He brought a character to life beyond our dreams, an angry old grandfather who cared so much he just kept saving the world. Then other worlds too. Carole was excellent as the likeable teenager who was just 'unearthly' enough to be alien. Well, aren't all teenagers alien? Jackie Hill and Bill Russell were so believable as the wide eyed teachers drifting in time and space watching their own subjects unfurl before them, for real. The daleks became national treasures, Sydney Newman was already a major player in television, Verity and Waris became hugely successful in tv and film. The legacy of these early works lives on so how good is this BBC production about those very days, the inception of Doctor Who? Very good indeed.

Focusing on producer Verity Lambert and character actor Billy Hartnell it was a moving story dealing with several issues. Verity was given a position of authority in a male dominated world. Her success in a time of old boy networks and patriarchal business models is given a large part of the story, also bringing in Waris Hussein's success and growth in a white, racist environment. Doctor Who again breaking new ground and looking to a future which we mostly now enjoy. Bill's success in his role is well represented as is his love of playing it but of course his is a story of ill health and ultimately sadness as he was unable to continue in the role. A moving tribute to some people who made a real difference to their art and to children's lives across the globe.
The cast was excellent on the most part. Jessica Raine (Doctor Who "Hurt") was excellent as Verity and not a bad likeness to the young woman about the universe.

David Bradley (Doctor Who "Dinosaurs On A Spaceship") was stunning as Billy Hartnell. Claudia Grant, Sacha Dhawan and Brian Cox (Doctor Who "The End Of Time") were all excellent as Carole Ann Ford, Waris and Sydney respectively. Jemma Powell look and sounded superb as Jacqueline Hill but like Jamie Glover as William Russell, their parts were too small really. Anna-Lisa Drew made a good Maureen O'Brien and Sophie Holt captured the look of Jackie Lane but Peter Purves, Anneke Wills and Michael Craze's counterparts just made it look like the producers had given up. Carole Ann Ford and William Russell are always a pleasure to see (Joyce and Harry) and who wouldn't welcome a cameo from Anneke Wills? There's even Jean Marsh (Doctor Who "The Crusade", "The Chase" & "Battlefield"). The only disappointments were Matt Smith and Reece Shearsmith. Matt obviously is there to boost DVD sales with the kids. If you are seriously suggesting Billy could see that lanky streak of piss playing a character of gravitas like the Doctor then you've gone a step too far. Shearsmith (The League Of Gentlemen) is clearly only there as he's buds with writer Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen). He looks, sounds and acts nothing like Patrick Troughton and that wig? Do me a favour. Those parts were a massive let down really but we move swiftly away from it. Other than that and a few clunky bits of dialogue which jarred, Gatiss did a stand up job. Then again he is a fan and has written for Doctor Who from long before it's return under Rusty Davies. Anyone seen the P.R.O.B.E. videos? Yes, I have. Guess who was in them? Yes, Gatiss' old mate Reece Shearsmith. A must for any fan, they're full of Who stars, perhaps I'll review them here. . .

So a success for the BBC, I'll be buying the DVD despite it's faults. Anyone who's seen Billy Hartnell in Brighton Rock or any other movie (with the exception of Carry On Sergeant) will know what a great actor he was and this is a great depiction of that. If you like cult TV like me then the study of Verity, Waris and Sydney in full, glorious colour is too good to miss. Even if you just like Doctor Who then the cameos and colour sets are worth it. It moved with joy both for Bill when he was playing with the children and Verity when the children on the bus are playing Daleks, then sadness with Bill's illness and departure. Excellent direction, mise, design, clothes and make-up. Dialogue and old boy casting cost it though, 4/5, almost classic drama.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Insidious (2010)

So here I am reviewing a modern movie, oh look at me! Well I've been absent so it's time to catch up and reviewing old movies needs context and history so let's start with something we all know.

Spoiler free version.

Insidious is a movie with two distinct halves, really distinct, like Hitchcock's Psycho. The first is creepy and builds slowly (insidiously) with lots of shock value from sudden loud noises (the modern way it seems) and the odd visual surprise. The story is simple enough, a family move to a new house to build a better life and things just seem to get worse. Weird but not awful things seem to happen until the boy in the picture above goes into the attic (of course the attic) and falls off some wooden steps while trying to turn on a light. He falls into a coma from his injuries and Mom gets depressed while Dad just hangs out at work having a snooze. Then Grandma arrives and changes everything. . .

After 53 mins it stops being 'Paranormal Activity' (without Katie Featherstone) and becomes Poltergeist (1982) meets The Omen (1976) with things like The Shining (1980) and more besides thrown together with some steampunk and more audio visual cliches. I will be honest with you, the first 53 mins had me looking over my shoulder. The second half just came as a light relief. Together the two halves make an enjoyable experience but despite the early scares you emerge unscathed and just maybe a little sad. My score out of 5, an admirable 3. Half a movie well worth watching.

Now for the spoilers - look away now if you haven't seen it.

Let's be honest with ourselves, Oren Peli is a producer on this film so the fact it starts like a 'Paranormal Activity' film is no surprise. It's the fact it deteriorates into derivative nonsense that really shocks. The first 53 mins are SO scary, long silences, open sequences, nothing happening but expectation then something followed by nothing again. As the tension builds to it's climax (that's half way through remember) we start to see scary stereotypes but by now we're so scared it seems right. I was checking around me at this point, expecting to see almost anything but then the secong half arrives. Babs Hershey is a star, no doubt about that, and acts as the bridge into part 2. The part that hopes you've never seen an original horror film before. I liked the 'Ghostbusters' and their make-shift equipment combined with their 1950's dress and comedy stylings. Elise herself is very 1950s giving all the new characters a cohesion but ultimately it looks a bit "Be Kind Rewind' with the old movies being re-enacted with children's toys and cheap effects. As we go overload into cultural standards and cliches it becomes predictable and unsurprising, a total change from the first half but totally negating any problems sleeping after watching. Quite handy really.

The bits I liked best were the interplay on the baby monitor, again, not a new concept but scary nonetheless. I also loved the mise-en-scene. Seriously. Look at the screen, what do you see? A load of junk but in the right light maybe something scary? If you do don't be surprised if that very same scary thing you thought you saw arrives. It was there in the mise-en-scene. If anyone reading this does not know what this is, it refers to the setting up of the scene, the background, the objects, the lighting etc. For instance, doesn't that jacket and hat hanging behind that door look like a 1950's schoolboy? Next up a 1950s Schoolboy is running around the house, laughing at us. Doesn't the way those pictures, cupboard door and shadows look like a gas mask? Within five minutes Elise has donned a gas mask. Got it? Right. They are actually showing you what will be up next in the design of the shot. It's a cool trick which prepares the mind to accept ideas, it's not new either but still works. The same could be said of the jump cuts. Often a jump cut expresses the passing of time but here the jump cuts are also preparing us to accept the same technique later, in the underworld, where the dead family's expressions change to smiles in an instant using - you guessed it, jump cuts. I also really liked the use of Tim Tiny with 'Tiptoe Through The Tulips', a truly disturbing song and man who sounds just plain odd. The world's very first modern Goth you know, seriously, he was born in 1932!! Eat your heart out Marilyn Manson!!

Ultimately we spend the last 50 mins of this film trailing through 'homage' to better films that have gone before and just when you think it's over they go a step too far. Obviously unhappy with an ending they choose to step into Korean or Japanese horror territory and give us one last shock. Sadly this new twist is not followed up and the film just peters out like a 'Two Episodes Of M*A*S*H sketch. With no-one bothering to write an ending it's much less satisfying than a Joe Wilkinson and Diane Morgan sketch though as there's no laughs or scares. You just think to yourself, "Wow, an hour ago I was really scared - what happened? Am I watching the same film?". It reminds me a great deal of the Doctor Who episode 'Hide' which is set in the 1970's and features outdated equipment being used for high-tech supernatural research and ultimately the second half of that story is a disaster too.  Wonder where they got the idea from?

Still, at least they didn't stoop to tying a rope around Patrick Wilson before he entered Orpheus' Underworld, I mean 'The Further'. It could have been worse, like using dolly out zoom in shots like Hitchcock or casting a lead from a 1980s supernatural horror like, I don't know, 'The Entity' or something, that would have been really bad.

Oh, hold on. . . .