Friday, August 31, 2012

Five Things We Hope to See in Doctor Who’s Season Seven

As of this Saturday night’s season seven premiere, it will have been exactly eleven months to the day since Doctor Who was last regularly seen on our TV screens. Expectations for a new run of episodes are always high. But for some, this season’s hopes verge on borderline desperate. See, season six didn’t go over particularly well with many hardcore fans. Drunk on the success of his partial reinvention of the show the year prior, head writer and executive producer Steven Moffat went and made the series his own — arguably more so than any other producer before him.

On Moffat’s watch, Doctor Who became a celebration of the clever, rather than the intelligent. One-liners were traded back and forth in place of conversations. Sexual innuendo took the place of declarations of passion and love. All of this was reflected in his quartet of lead characters’ ongoing need to keep their emotions guarded, a departure from the exposed heartbeats often on display under former creative lead Russell T. Davies. When they weren’t engaging in snarky wordplay, Moffat often forced the Doctor and his best friends, the Ponds, to endure uncomfortable silences at odds with the Doctor Who we’ve come to know.

Read the rest of my first article for Vulture by clicking here and visiting their website.

Also, I'm returning to the world of Doctor Who recaps starting this weekend. Links to my Vulture pieces will be posted here on Sunday afternoons. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space Special Edition DVD review

Looking for a review of the Spearhead from Space Blu-ray? Click here.

Having been critical of some of the recent classic Who Special Edition DVDs, it’s great to be in a position to bestow some kudos once again, as “Spearhead from Space” is a story absolutely deserving of some double dip love, especially given that, alongside “The Five Doctors” and “The Robots of Death,” it was one of the first three stories released on DVD back in September of 2001. First is a word that
’s used frequently when talking about “Spearhead.” It’s the first story of the 1970’s. It’s the first story in color. It’s the first tale of Season Seven. It’s the first story of Jon Pertwee’s era, as well as the first story with Caroline John’s Liz Shaw. It’s the first story to feature the Autons. It’s the first story to explore in some detail the process of regeneration, and the Doctor’s physiology (we’ve got your first mention of two hearts, right here!)

Now that’s a lot of firsts, and yet what to my mind overshadows them all is the fact that “Spearhead from Space” is the first - and only - story from the classic series shot entirely on film[1] and on location. If it weren’t the sole instance, that fact would likely be lumped in with all the other firsts, but since visually this tale is such an anomaly, its filmic aspects tower above almost everything else. Once one sees “Spearhead,” one cannot help but wonder what the rest of Doctor Who might’ve been like if everything that followed had been produced in this manner.

One major criticism that all too often gets lobbed in the direction of classic Who is that it frequently looks cheap, due to how much of it’s shot on videotape. One thing unlikely to ever be said about “Spearhead” is that it looks cheap; dated, perhaps, but not cheap. Shot entirely on 16mm, this thing looks like a coolly classic horror sci-fi flick from the early 70’s. It has such a different style that much of it is borderline unrecognizable as Doctor Who. (Obviously, your mileage may vary.) As for why this happened, and why it never happened again, well, let’s leave a few mysteries for you to discover via the DVD.

So, all these firsts tend to dominate any discussion of “Spearhead,” to the point where the story itself doesn’t get talked about nearly as much, but then again the story isn’t necessarily one of its strongest aspects. It’s a good, old-fashioned alien invasion yarn, sure, but it’s not exactly bathed in brilliance from a plot or character standpoint. What is its greatest strength, however, is in how perfectly Robert Holmes’s script reinvented Doctor Who from what it was before. In one fell swoop it became virtually a different TV series from the six seasons that preceded it, and laid down a new template that would be followed and/or experimented with over the next few years (though in fairness, credit also needs to be given to “The Web of Fear” and The Invasion.”)

Further, an argument could easily be mounted that it was here, within the confines of “Spearhead,” that the seeds for modern Doctor Who were laid. You’ll find inspiration from “Spearhead” in no less than “Doctor Who: The Movie,” “Rose,” and “The Christmas Invasion,” and what those stories all have in common is that each of them is a “starting over” point, and they all seemingly had the good sense to reach back to this tale as a means of doing just that.

There’s loads of talk and info on this DVD about how and why Doctor Who was very near the brink of cancellation at the end of the Troughton era, and that the only reason it was given another season is because the higher ups at the BBC couldn’t come up with a worthy replacement. In this instance, thank goodness for their uncreative minds, because if not for the greenlighting of another season with a new Doctor, and for Derrick Sherwin’s bold reinvention of the series, it’s highly unlikely we’d be talking about Doctor Who today. Sherwin’s a guy who doesn’t often get a lot of credit for his contributions to the series, but he did some really important stuff in regards to Who (or at least he claims to have). While “Spearhead” is a story of many firsts, in the case of Sherwin it was his last, for it was after the production of this serial that he was moved off of Who, and Barry Letts was brought in as his replacement. 

If there’s a star of “Spearhead,” it’s undoubtedly the Autons. Simply, the series had never seen anything like them before, and children raised on steady diets of Cybermen and Daleks must have been truly and genuinely terrified by the shop window mannequins coming to life, and going on a killing spree across London. These creatures didn’t feel like fiction from outer space, but seemingly a tangible threat kids could understand and relate to in a way that few Who monsters before them achieved. But alas, shop window dummies proved to be something of a one-trick pony, as the sequel to “Spearhead,” “Terror of the Autons,” proved by being considerably less effective than the original, and the Autons wouldn’t threaten the Doctor again until 2005, in the aforementioned “Rose.” (Due credit must also be given to Steven Moffat for his own reinvention of what an Auton can be via Rory the Roman.)

As far as double-dips go, “Spearhead” looks as clean and perfect as ever I’ve seen it (and boy have I seen some crappy looking versions of this over the years). I don’t know if it’s quite a night and day difference from the 2001 DVD. I attempted to do some screengrab comparisons for this piece, but ultimately decided to not go that route as I couldn’t see major, breathtaking differences via frame by frame comparisons. That said, this serial’s been cleaned up considerably in contrast to the old DVD, and the new extras more than make it worth returning to the well. Besides, the bit of the excised Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well, Part 1” has been reinstated into the factory scene. (For purists, this is great news. For Mac freaks like me? A long overdue necessity.) My only complaint? If ever there was a classic Who story that begged for a Blu-ray release, it’s this one, and it sure would’ve been nice if a chance had been taken, as this would be a treasure in 1080p.

[1] The only other Doctor Who story shot entirely on film was the aforementioned TV movie from 1996, but this writer doesn’t consider that part of the classic series, because, well, it’s not. It stands on it own. I’m not saying it’s not part of continuity, just not part of the classic series.

DVD Extras: Aside from the now dated “Who’s Who” featurette, everything from the 2001 DVD, including the commentary with Nick Courtney and Caroline John, has been ported over for this release, so you can pass your old disc on to a Who newbie with confidence. New to this disc is a second commentary track featuring Sherwin and Terrance Dicks, which is lively, informative fun. Sherwin’s something of a blowhard, but that’s part of his charm. He reminds me far more of an American producer than a Brit. “Down to Earth” is a fine, proper making of doc, even if at 22 minutes it feels a little short. It includes bits from a vintage interview with Jon Pertwee, which is a nice bonus. “Regenerations: From Black and White to Color” feels as if it’s an extension of the first doc, and its title is fairly self-explanatory. Additionally, there’s a nice selection of Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a trailer for “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.”

Friday, August 03, 2012

Metropolitan & The Last Days of Disco: The Criterion Blu-ray reviews

Filmmakers who only make movies when they feel they have something worth saying are a rarity in this age, where it seems the goal is to see how quickly one can be hired to helm the latest, biggest superhero opus. Whit Stillman has only made four movies since 1990, including his hyphenate debut, Metropolitan, which was released that year, and rather amazingly snagged an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. It lost to Ghost, which, from today’s perspective, is a travesty, but typical of the Academy nevertheless. 50% of Stillman’s filmic oeuvre, including the aforementioned Metropolitan, along with The Last Days of Disco (1998), both hit Blu-ray last week, and from the fine folks at Criterion, no less.

When I think of Stillman’s films, what I think of first is the speech; the way the characters speak. His films are drunk on subtle affectations of the English language (but not necessarily the language itself). It isn’t that, in a Stillman movie, what the characters have to say isn’t important, but rather that you’ll find yourself almost hypnotized by the manner in which they’re saying it. No doubt some viewers will be just plain annoyed by the incessant, rhythmic chatter. Those people will not find the next film of his any more tolerable, because there’s no question that a Stillman film is a Stillman film. I’d use the word unique if not for the fact there are now four of them. Now, all of that said, Stillman’s dialogue is second to none, and positively crackling when heard within the context of the situations he devises, and coming from the mouths of the memorable characters he’s created.

Metropolitan follows a group of young, rich people living in New York City during Debutante Season, which apparently coincides with Christmas break. Now you must understand that I was born and raised in small town Missouri, and have spent my adult life in Texas. There is no reason on this Earth or any other why I should care about these people and their cushy situation, and yet Stillman writes characters that interest, and therefore their situations are of interest as well. The kids in Metropolitan are interesting because they genuinely appear to struggle with their existence. It’s easy to write privileged folk as shallow. Most do. What’s tough is giving them some sort of depth, which Stillman does. Into their privileged lives stumbles Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who is not privileged, nor is he rich. The group accepts him (some quicker than others), as they are basically decent people and they recognize a kindred spirit in Tom, and the film showcases one complex conversation, argument and/or debate after another, all draped in some wraparound, romantic entanglements.

I’ll never quite understand why Metropolitan is reminiscent of some John Hughes movie from an alternate universe, yet for me it is. It’s sort of like The Breakfast Club, if that movie had little interest in appealing to the masses. I think Stillman wants his movies to be appreciated and liked (any filmmaker who’ll tell you otherwise is lying), but I think he also knows there’s a specific audience for his work. I’ll not venture out and guess who that audience is, because by my own admission I don’t feel as though I’m part of the target, and yet I’m endlessly amused by his universe. It’s anyone’s guess who’ll like a Whit Stillman movie, and the only way to find out is to dive in and see if it’s a club you want to join.

Chris Eigeman
Some years after Metropolitan, in 1994, Stillman unveiled Barcelona, which starred Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, both of whom had made their big screen debuts in Metropolitan. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that someday soon, Barcelona also gets the Criterion treatment. Four years after Barcelona came The Last Days of Disco, which ended up being Stillman’s last movie until 2011, when he brought us Damsels in Distress, which I must confess I have not yet seen, as it played for only a week in San Antonio, but is hitting DVD and Blu-ray in September.

But we’re here to talk about Disco, and The Last Days of it. Much of what I wrote about Metropolitan applies to this movie as well, except that Stillman had a bigger budget and access to all sorts of folks who at the time were up and coming Hollywood talent: ChloĆ« Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Matt Ross, Robert Sean Leonard, and Matt Keeslar to name a few, as well as Chris Eigeman, the De Niro to Stillman’s Scorsese for the third time in a row. Or the MacLachlan to his Lynch. Someday, for a lesser known director and actor combo, I will hopefully say “The Eigeman to his Stillman.” Disco follows a group of twentysomethings in the year 1980, or maybe 1981, as they navigate their way through the changing times. Their self-involved dialogue covers their places in the world to sexuality to careers to, of course, disco. With a Whit Stillman movie, you can’t always tell when he’s taking his characters seriously and when’s having a laugh at their expense. Such lines are blurred, and that’s a big part of the charm of his style.

What I believe to be the triumph of Disco, is that despite packing the movie from one end to the other with disco hits, and regardless of the fact that much of the film takes place in a Studio 54-like nightclub, the movie never once, not even for a second, feels in the least bit kitschy. It is a Whit Stillman movie first and foremost, and his style never gets swallowed by the tacky surroundings, nor does he as a writer or director ever rely on nostalgia or wallow in excess or wink through the camera. The title of the film is wholly accurate, and yet it’s a film that shouldn't be judged by that title. Simply put, you may have no interest in disco yet still appreciate this work. No mean feat, no lack of vision and talent.

It’s tempting to suggest that these two movies would make a fine double feature, but I won’t. The day these discs arrived I watched Metropolitan, and let it wash over me. A few hours later I put on Disco, and within ten minutes I realized that I couldn’t watch two Stillman movies in one day. They’re too thick for that. The movies leave the viewer with so much to think about, that one cannot simply move on to the next one. I ended up putting a week or so between the viewings and Disco felt all the stronger for it. It was perhaps the most rewarding viewing of the movie I’d ever had. In some ways the same can be said for the Metropolitan viewing, simply because I’ve never seen it look as nice as it does on this Blu-ray. (It may even have been the first time I saw it in its proper aspect ratio.) Disco has always looked reasonably good, so this presentation wasn’t exactly revelatory, but a nice Criterion presentation nevertheless. (If you're interested in Blu-ray screencaps, I recommend looking at the articles at DVD Beaver here and here.)

Whit Stillman

Blu-ray Extras: The star extras here are undoubtedly the commentary tracks. Metropolitan features Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, as well as Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. It’s an informative track to be sure, and certainly well worth a listen if you’ve any interest in grass roots independent filmmaking (indeed, Metropolitan is one of the poster children for true indie filmmaking). The Disco track features Stillman, Eigeman, and Sevigny and by comparison is a great deal more fun and flirty, due to Sevigny’s lively presence.

Additionally, Metropolitan offers up some deleted scenes and some alternate casting choices, with optional commentary, as well as a booklet with an essay by Luc Sante. Disco also has some deleted scenes with optional commentary, an audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his book, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which was published a couple years after the movie was released. There’s also a behind-the-scene promo featurette from 1998, a stills gallery, and a trailer, as well as a booklet with an essay by David Schickler.