Monday, June 10, 2013

Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier); Dr. Who Season 7 Part 2 (Bells of St. John, Rings of Akhaten, Nightmare in Silver, The Name of the Doctor)

(Warning: plot twists and surprises discussed in detail)

Slight of hand

Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me starts off intriguingly enough--four talented young magicians/escape artists/confidence men are recruited to become the Four Horsemen, with all the ominous and apocalyptic connotations deliberately (though not very effectively) evoked.

The four announce a series of crimes; Mark Ruffalo's FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes declares his intention to stop them. The four are constantly a step ahead of Agent Rhodes, and ultimately disappear in a flash of light and puff of hard currency.

On Leterrier--seems to me he's a stylish filmmaker of the Luc Besson school of filmmaking (lots of gliding camerawork, lots of bright lights and loud explosions) doing not very much at all. His Incredible Hulk was a dully conventional disappointment, having followed Ang Lee's nuttily unconventional take (easily the best work of Lee's career); his Clash of the Titans is a glossy digital bore, the monsters uninspired  thuds with only a fraction of the personality and charm of the Ray Harryhausen originals.

Along the way Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman briefly step onstage to essay amusing character roles--one a ruthless multimillionaire, the other a sleazy debunker of magic tricks. Frankly if the movie had focused on these two sly veterans then maybe it would have something, but no--

Is the movie about the four youths? Not really; we follow their exploits, we don't really get to know them, or how they achieve their tricks. Is it about Rhodes? Better guess, but the plot twist at the end reveals how little we know about what's really going on (and as it turns out, what's really going on is disappointingly conventional Hollywood showmanship: a twist of Harry Potter's wand, and the promise of revelations ends with some rock-concert spotlight choreography and a boring dollop of digital effects).

Takes some time--almost the end of the picture, in fact--to realize that the whole movie is a scam--you'd just been watching the scriptwriter jerk you off, pretending to present a story when all along it's just distracting patter to direct your eye away from the real trick: making you waste a hundred and fifteen minutes of your time watching not much of anything. Nice hustle, folks.

Ding ding ding went the bell

I can barely remember any of The Bells of St. John; can't believe I'm saying that of a Steven Moffat episode.

I can remember the prequel, a sad little vignette featuring the Doctor on a swing with a child--nicely features Matt Smith's easy charm with children, who he likes and who seem to like him. The episode itself starts scattershot: man pleads for help through a computer screen; Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) has trouble logging on to the internet; the Doctor is meditating the loss of his companions in a 13th century monastery. The script ties it all together with the use of a single phone call: Clara calls for customer support and gets the Doctor instead, just as she's about to be swallowed up by the internet herself...and then the episodes slides from "huh!" into "eh."

Part of the problem I think are the spoonheads: yes the idea of being physically kidnapped by the net is a disturbing concept, yes the sight of these figures (with most of their head scooped out, as if for dessert) is unsettling; problem is it's hardly fresh territory--Joss Whedon's Dollhouse suggests a faster, far less clumsier way to upload and download a human soul; Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Pulse suggest far more disturbing implications behind all the disappearing people. 

Coleman is a lovely girl and makes for a lively companion, but she's basically playing a cipher, and a confusing one at that; she's easy on the eyes and easy to get along with (unlike most other companions when she's ordered to stay put, she actually stays put), but without much more to go on, she's in danger of becoming deadly dull. 

The episode itself is a lively enough affair, leaping from TARDIS to plummeting airplane to motorbike running up the side of a building. I don't know what more to say--less bike running, more story plotting? Unlike say The Eleventh Hour, which is another elaborate setup for another elaborate story arc, Bells promises to be as if not more elaborate (who is Clara and why does she keep dying on us?) without delivering the wit and magic  found in the Doctor and Amy's first meeting (fish fingers and custard anyone?).

Sing a song

Looked at The Rings of Akhaten again and it really comes together for me the second time.

What ties it together is the opening sequence, summarized thusly by the dad: that this leaf hit that face, creating this girl. The story is neatly reprised by the Doctor later in the episode, when he talks of atoms from supernovae coming together in random combinations to create young Merry--basically Clara's story (which the Doctor witnessed firsthand), from a more cosmic perspective.

Then the showdown. The Doctor told one story (the supernova atoms) to persuade Merry to save herself; tells another to explain what the God was all about--basically, an eater of souls or stories, which to the Doctor are equivalent. Then he offers up his story, in an effort to bust the God's gut (how to deal with someone's bite on one's arm? Feed the bite).

It's not enough. Up steps Clara with her solution--the story of the leaf that starts the episode, only she gives her interpretation: that the leaf represents not one story already told (Clara's mom), but the countless stories that could have been told but were not. She's offering infinity, in effect, which if you listen closely to the Doctor is what he was really talking about all along.

Love doesn't save the world in this episode, stories do;  the struggle involves differing interpretations of stories, differing versions of what's really happening. The Doctor in this episode talks the God to death, yes, with help from Clara's crucial input, but all this is to affirm the importance of controlling the narrative.

Pretty good, actually and, I'm surprised to say this, better than Moffat's own starting episode.

The cloud in every silver lining

It's been a relatively lackluster half-season so far with Moffat delivering a weak beginning episode (The Bells of St. Mary), then episodes long on suspense and sensation (Cold War, Hide) and short on--I don't know what to call it: Moffatism? Timey-wimey? Inventiveness? The voice of a distinct sensibility?

I'll welcome the season's penultimate episode, Neil Gaiman's Nightmare in Silver, as being the best response to date to that last complaint. The Cybermen truth be told are for me the dullest villains in the Whoniverse: emotionless and rather clunky (at least the Daleks are allowed to be surprised, terrified, display anger by waving their plungers and rolling around in brief, agitated arcs), they moved so damned slow you're thinking even a tortoise would run circles round them.

Moffat did something about that in The Pandorica Opens: suggested that a Cyberman's arms and head could move independently of the body, show that "upgrading" a human can be a grisly process. Gaiman's attempt at scarifying this overfamiliar monster is if anything even more effective: now there are Cybermites that can suck the humanity out of you like metallic leeches, and a process of upgrading that afflicts half your face with a silvered rash.

Maybe even more frightening is the fact that these armored cyborgs--always-eerie parodies of the human figure--replicate the human condition even more closely by evolving at an even faster pace than their biological models. Hit a Cyberman once, and you slow him down; hit him a second time and he has adapted to your weapon and moved on. This episode captures the unstoppable feel of a wave of Cybermen invading a castle (at a relatively small budget at that)--a feel that makes your skin do that unmistakable crawl. Whovian history records a number of cries that remain in memory, including "Geronimo!" Allons-y!" "Exterminate!" Add to this illustrious if modest collection the latest Gaiman contribution: "Upgrade in progress!"

Gaiman gave us a great Whovian character in Idris, or Sexy, or the TARDIS incarnated in fetchingly human form ("Did you wish really hard?") and as a result nearly brought us to tears; this time he doesn't make us weep but does give us a great Whovian villain--and who could be more villainous or more brilliant than the Doctor himself, upgraded into a Cyberplanner? What I love is that upgrading doesn't drain the Doctor of his emotions; if anything it lifts the Cyberman's rather soulless manner to the same manic high as the Doctor's--Mr. Clever (as the Doctor calls himself) is a mad, marvelous wonder, who gets giddy at the brilliance of his own mentalworks, the same time he chortles at the malevolence of his machinations. He's the Doctor's dark side, able to articulate the buried attraction he has always had for Clara (which is, of course, a giveaway: the real Doctor would rather die than admit to any such attraction), and a chilling addition to the select gallery of great Whovian villains.

A rose by any other name

I'd written before that it wouldn't be such a bad thing to put an end to the Doctor--and, mind you, 'put an end' as opposed to simply 'ending' the Doctor are two totally different concepts. 

Seems I'd written more presciently than I thought I did, a season too early.

Moffat finally tackles the Doctor's demise in The Name of the Doctor; typical of Moffat to throw in a few clever conceits of his own: that the Doctor for instance wouldn't just be a dead body lying in a bier but a gaping wound in time he calls "the tracks of my tears"("Less poetry, Doctor. Just tell them"). Cleverest thing about it is that it is less poetry--it's literally the gashes he rips open in the fabric of time when traveling--and yet more. Time travel (Moffat suggests) causes pain and suffering and doesn't really, definitively resolve anything; on the contrary it leaves everything open, vulnerable, subject to interference and change. 

This is where Moffat puts paid to all the naysayers, Michael Corleone style: Clara useless and incomprehensible? Now she's The Impossible Girl, Born to Save the Doctor. The episodes seem mostly like fillers, marking time till the '50th anniversary special? Now we know when and where the Doctor dies, and who the real villain is. The Great Intelligence relegated to background figure, a mostly useless one? Now he's The Doctor's greatest threat--determined not just to kill him (remember, the Doctor's already dead) but destroy him; again two markedly difference concepts. 

Love the moments which for once (Moffat's mojo really working now) come on strong and plenty, not so much a snowfall as asnowstorm--

Madame Vastra, Strax, and Jenny brought back, with Jenny saying: "Sorry, ma'am, so sorry, so sorry, so sorry--I think I've been murdered." 

The Whisper Men hissing, their Moray Eel fangs bared like a formidable knitting needle collection.

The giant TARDIS. "When a TARDIS is dying sometimes the dimension dams start breaking down," the Doctor explains. "They used to call it a size leak--all the bigger-on-the-inside starts leaking to the outside...when I say that's the TARDIS I don't mean it looks like the TARDIS, I mean it actually is the TARDIS."  

The Victorian trio confronted with the Doctor's remains: "It's beautiful..." "Should I destroy it?" "Shut up, Strax!"

River Song's computer-generated image, meeting the Doctor one last time: "Why didn't you speak to me?" "Because I thought it would hurt too much." "I believe I could have coped." "No, I thought it would hurt me. And I was right."

...a moment please while we brood over River Song. I'd mentioned before how Moffat seems to have taken a page from the relationship between Arthur and Merlin in T.H. White's The Once and Future King (Merlin weeps when they first meet because this is the last he'll see of his dear friend). Don't think much of Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead except for River--she'd not only given her life to save the Doctor but actually knew his name! Who was she? Why was she? It was an intriguing way to introduce a character, and I got the sense that Moffat himself didn't know all the answers.

Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels was a less satisfying sequel to Moffat's brilliant Blink only again Dr. Song kept dropping all sorts of fascinating hints--for one she could operate the TARDIS even better than the Doctor can ("Of course we've landed. I just landed her." "But it didn't make the noise!" "What noise?" "You know the 'wooOOOoughfff! wooOOOough! OOOough!'" "It's not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on." "Yeah, well it's a brilliant noise. I love that noise"). For another she does have a heedless love for the Doctor ("Now if he's dead back there, I'll never forgive myself. And if he's alive, I'll never forgive him. And--Doctor, you're standing right behind me aren't you?" "Yeah." "I hate you.").

She always seems to be teasing, and Moffat can never resist encouraging her ("Are you married, River?" "Are you asking?" "Yes--?" "Yes." "No--hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me or asking if you were married?" "Yes." "No, but was that yes or yes?" "Yes.").

Apparently even nine-hundred-year-old Time Lords are no good at multitasking. 
If I seem to be doing little more than quoting Moffat dialogue to describe Dr. Song's relationship with the Doctor, think about it: is there a better way to do it? She seems to have been created specifically to speak his dialogue (and well golly by gum, when you think about it--she was).
 So on and so forth, up and down the spirals of time to this strangely appropriate, strangely sad farewell. Oh it's possible Moffat'll insert her in a few more episodes down the road--she's that timey-wimey--but basically her story's finished. In the meantime she's done everything from halt reality on its tracks (The Wedding of River Song) to fracturing her own wrist (The Angels Take Manhattan) just to save or please the Doctor. She justifies what she does--sums it all up, really--with three words she learned from her mother ("It's called marriage"), and while the sentiment may seem trite (remember, Moffat once wrote a swinging sexy comedy series called Coupling that ended in a wedding) the length and breadth and depth she will go to affirm that adage is a bit breathtaking, not to mention psychotic. Which I suppose is the point to her. 

So so long, River Song; it feels short (despite all the time travel), but oh so sweet.

The episode, by the way, ends on a cliffhanger shocker--did I in talking about Gaiman's episode mention that the Doctor was  his own best villain...? 

Best single thing in this weak half a season--but strong enough that it can compare with the best of any of the seasons, I think. Now if it were November already... 



Dennis Yu said...

On 'Now You See Me', I thought the twist was standard twist. What was unforgivable for me: all the scenes prior to the big revelation did not, in any way, lend credibility to the twist. It was as if Mark Ruffalo himself was not told about it, and acted accordingly, until he was about to film the final scene. Unlike Shutter Island or Sixth Sense or Femme Fatale, where red herrings abound, in 'Now You See Me' the "misdirection" felt empty and insulting.

Quentin Tarantado said...

Methinks Moffat is more effective as a writer than a showrunner. He's too busy running the whole show instead of writing intriguing scripts. Then online, there was a proposal to make Neil Gaiman the showrunner. I can't think of a better way to shut up a remarkable voice. No to the idea!

Noel Vera said...

Dennis: or conversely the twist did not seem consistent with everything you saw before (Why did Ruffalo run so hard after the one Horseman, when it turns out he doesn't really want to catch the guy?).

I think the twists in Shutter and Sixth and Femme just marginally make more sense. What makes up for them, at least in the case of Shutter and Femme, is that the director pours so much style into them you end up having fun anyway.

Quentin: you might have a point there. On the other hand, if Moffat wasn't a showrunner, we wouldn't have Amy and Rory, or the River Song storyline. How do we know what's too much if we don't try?

Quentin Tarantado said...

It's sort of the Peter Principle. We get promoted to our level of incompetence. If Moffat resigns as showrunner, I hope he'd still throw in a script or two in future seasons. Come to think of it, if Doctor Who runs out of steam, I hope they think of ending it (like The Sopranos) before it becomes a parody of itself. Then there may be a time of no episodes for a few years (or decades) while the Whovian legend gestates and percolates until some Russell T. Davies equivalent resurrects the series. Sort of like a new incarnation.

Noel Vera said...

Who's to say the Peter Principle applies? Without Moffat as showrunner, who brings in Gaiman? Or creates Madam Vastra, Strax and Jenny? Or writes The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, Asylum of the Dalkes, The Angels Take Manhattan?

Better than the Peter Principle are the Laws of Thermodynamics, which more or less boil down to: you win some, you lose some.