TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “The Snowmen” (07.06, 2012)

Written by Steven Moffat (Previous Episodes: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “Forest of the Dead,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “The Beast Below,” “The Time of Angels,” “Flesh and Stone,” “The Pandorica Opens,” “The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” “Day of the Moon,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The Wedding of River Song,” “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” and “The Angels Take Manhattan”)

Directed by Saul Metzstein (Previous Episodes: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “A Town Called Mercy”)

First, a note: It’s incredibly annoying to use the Christmas not-so-specials as important parts of an overall story and then not include them in the season DVDs. Either treat them as completely separate or include them in the DVDs, but stop simultaneously doing both, BBC.

Doctor Who has usually been at its worst for the Christmas episodes, where all of its intelligence, atheist underpinnings, basic horror roots, and much of its fun are stripped away for the sake of being “family friendly.” Christmas episodes in the past have taught such groan-inducing lessons as the idea that a mother protecting her children is in fact the most powerful force in the universe and that Christmas ornaments are the ultimate weapon against giant spiders.

However, this time, we are treated to a more typical Doctor Who horror story and another “depressed Doctor returns to his old self” plot.

The Doctor appears to have become a recluse, hiding on a cloud above the earth, nearly as depressed about the Ponds’ departure as I am. He refuses to help anyone, considering the problems of humanity “not his problem,” and brooding over his own loss. Then, he runs into a girl he’s met but never seen before in “Asylum of the Daleks,” and she convinces him to help after she notices snow forming into snowmen on its own and he is able to recognize that the snow in fact has a built-in telepathic field, an idea that has become rather overused in the show’s universe as its version of “science-based magic. Rather against his own will but thanks to the efforts of the former Oswin (now named Clara) and some friends of his, he returns to action, even instinctively putting on his trademark bowtie as he heads to investigate.

The unfolding of the mystery of the “carnivorous snow” dovetails nicely with the Doctor’s return to his old self, as we are reintroduced to the new companion, Clara. It’s a fun story that includes the bit of emotional and character depth that is often missing from the Christmas episodes. Clara unfortunately comes across as a less sarcastic version of Amy Pond rather than her own character, but she definitely has time to grow into more than that. Jenna-Louise Coleman, though, proves capable of performance from day one, something that could not really be said for model-turned-actor Karen Gillan. Moffat’s decision to introduce her through this series of events suggests that he does have a larger arc for character, but last season makes it difficult to hold out too much hope that the larger arc will work out.

In perhaps the most pleasant development of this episode, Moffat’s capacity for humor seems to have returned, not repeating jokes the way he has been for the last year and producing some truly funny lines like the Doctor calling the Sontaran Strax a “psychotic potato dwarf” and Clara describing the TARDIS as “smaller on the outside” instead of “bigger on the inside.”

He also ends up bringing back an early Doctor Who villain from way back in 1968 in The Great Intelligence, a being of pure, as its name would suggest, intelligence that is currently inhabiting snow but is looking to evolve into something more complex and powerful in order to take over the earth. There are many similar Doctor Who villains, but it was good to see Moffat dip into the show’s oldest pages instead of coming up with something new that did not work.

There are still some groan-inducing moments of Christmas-themed family-oriented magic. “A whole family crying on Christmas Eve” saves the world by melting the snow that the Great Intelligence has embodied.

Saul Metzstein produces an episode that makes stronger use of a mixture of cool and warm colors than many of this show’s episodes and seems to be incorporating the love of presenting text information in establishing shots from Moffat’s series Sherlock but otherwise looks essentially par for the course.

All told, this was a pretty good episode and a vast improvement on the usual Christmas fare for this show. Clara is a promising, if none too original, new companion, and Moffat seems more engaged than he has seemed in some time, which provides hope for this half-season.

Movie Review: “World War Z” (Marc Forster, USA/Malta 2013)

Max Brooks’s novel World War Z is surely the most successful zombie apocalypse novel in history, earning praise for its ability to transform inherently silly subject matter into something not only meaningful but even affecting. It achieved its success through Brooks’s keen understanding of the fact that a zombie apocalypse is essentially a narrative device to allow for in-depth social commentary and metaphor, not a great or interesting story unto itself. It’s the same understanding that makes George Romero’s zombie films so much better than Tom Savini’s and Zack Snyder’s remakes. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, Italy/USA 1978) is a film about consumerism and its supposed anti-intellectual effects, not how zombies could take over the world.

Unfortunately, Marc Forster and his trio of screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof) don’t seem to share that understanding. Instead of delivering a film about the effects of consumerism on the minds of modern humans, the dangerous effects of racism and general fear of the “other,” or the dangers of increasing militarism in the modern political age (all of which have been the point of successful zombie films in the past), they present a zombie film that is nothing more or less than a medical thriller. It’s Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates 2011) remade by someone who didn’t understand any of what made that such an excellent film. There is absolutely no unifying point to the film. It makes some pretenses of having them, repeatedly bringing up the idea that a powerful force’s greatest strength is also often its greatest weakness and focusing heavily on the hero’s love of his wife and children.

The film sets the tone for what it is immediately, opening with some simple family scenes that hamfistedly make the point that our hero, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), is used to working in dangerous situations and has given up such work for the sake of his family. Then, we get a mysterious traffic jam with equally mysterious police presence and explosions that ends up turning into the first great zombie attack, ending with Lane driving his family away in an amazing display of driving skill. He is quickly established as a perfect human being, reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s character in War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, USA 2005), and this sequence immediately sets up the film as a simplistic, one-note action film that’s more about fire, explosions, and fast driving cars than anything else. It establishes that the film is going to spell out everything it wants to say as obviously as possible and will not have anything deeper to say than its surface story. And the rest of the film remains the same.

Visually, Forster and cinematographer Ben Seresin do very little to add to the film. Forster having done some interesting visual work in his past in Finding Neverland (USA/UK 2004) and Stay (USA 2005), it’s terribly disappointing to see him fall into such clear clichés. It’s shot mostly in a cool color palette like most science fiction films and thrillers with all the usual overuse of CGI and series of extremely quick shots that add nothing to the film except to make its pace appear quicker than the plot itself actually moves forward. Forster has previously loved playing with bright shafts of light, interesting color choices, using small amounts of CGI in nontraditional ways, and using mirrors heavily, but none of those elements is visible in this film. Instead, he shoots a standard-issue Hollywood blockbuster, and as a result the film is a failure in a visual sense, something I never would have expected to say about one of Marc Forster’s works.

Acting-wise, there is little that can be said about the film, because there really isn’t anything for anyone to do. The only character who gets a lot of screen time is Gerry Lane, but he is depicted as such a perfect human being that there really is nothing for Brad Pitt to do with the role. He acquits himself well enough with what he has to do, but it’s essentially nothing. And that description could easily be applied to very actor in this film.  Mireille Enos is just a scared, put-upon wife and mother; Daniella Kertesz is a just a brave, tough soldier; David Morse is just a loon; and so on. No one does a poor job, but no one has enough to do to stand out in a positive way. It was nice to get a peek at the twelfth Doctor ahead of time for a crazy Doctor Who fan like me, but he didn’t have enough time on screen to do anything even if the character did have any depth.

Overall, this film is essentially the most by-the-numbers zombie film one could ever imagine. It’s competent, sure, but it’s nothing else, and that makes the zombies as dull and silly as possible. It’s a waste of source material, but that’s all this film is.

Movie Review: “All Is Lost” (J.C. Chandor, USA 2013)

A lone sailor, wandering the ocean seemingly aimlessly, is startled by a thud and the sudden and unwelcome presence of water in his yacht. He heads to the deck to discover that his yacht has run into a shipping container full of shoes. He fixes the hole in the hull, only to realize that a major storming is rolling in. That’s essentially the entire plot of All Is Lost, a film that relies on the movie star charisma of 77-year-old Robert Redford and the very simplicity that deprives it of other attractions to carry it.

Following the damage to his yacht, what ensues is a fairly simple battle of man against nature, with the unnamed lead character battling vicious storms, the loss of more and more of his equipment, a not-entirely-friendly current, and even a shiver of sharks. It’s a naked, obvious allegory for the dangers of commercialism, suggesting that nature always lurks beneath and that only by giving up on commercialism and accepting being a part of nature can man be saved.

The film shows an admirable dedication to making its point, but is ultimately undone by its simplicity and the facileness of its point. The first 20 minutes or so tell us everything the film has to say, and then it just keeps on telling us the same thing until the end. I always say that a film can only make one point, but the idea of only making one point is definitely taken too far by this film’s repetitiveness. Every note of the film is clearly coming from then on, and it does not surprise in the slightest. We see the storm coming and we know it’s going to take out his yacht and leave him somehow adrift on the ocean, probably seeking a shipping lane since he ran into a shipping container, and that’s what happens. While it’s not necessary for a film to surprise, the obviousness of this film really is a weakness.

One interesting aspect of this film is contrasting it with a very similar film that recently received much praise: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA 2013). They are both simple, existential horror films filled with physical action sequences. However, where Gravity gives us a sympathetic lead by giving us a naïve, inexperienced female scientist and reduces the older, more experienced, calmer male figure to a sort of low-level mentor role, All Is Lost gives us a lead character who really should not engender sympathy and is older though equally in over his head and uses Redford’s sheer star power and charisma to force sympathy. It’s an interesting contrast in strategies, and even though Gravity is a better film, I think it is at least arguable that All Is Lost’s strategy proves more successful. A feminist critic could also probably find much to say about what the difference between the female lead of Gravity and the male lead of All Is Lost says about the position of women in current society.

Visually, J.C. Chandor and Masanobu Takayanagi don’t do much with the film. Much of the film is, for obvious reasons, left very naturalistic and simple, which works well enough even if does not really enhance the point. However, they also fall into the CGI trap far, far too often, especially later in the film, and that is much to the detriment of a film that otherwise, for all its faults, holds together pretty well.

Robert Redford, meanwhile, is excellent in his performance. He hardly has anything to say, mostly making his points just with his eyes and movements, and he does that well. He does not have as much to do as one might expect for an actor with that much screen time, but he does what Chandor gives him perfectly. More importantly for the film, he remains one of the absolute most charismatic actors in history. He was always a capable actor who stood out largely because of his looks and his undeniable charisma, and that’s what he remains even at this age and not having acted in a noteworthy role for nearly three decades. It’s easy to feel like we can go along with him for the ride and even feel sympathy for him, even though the setting makes it quite obvious that he’s actually a wealthy man who appears to be rather stupidly in over his head. It’s that charisma that makes Redford such a perfect fit for this role, and it makes the film come far closer to working than it seems like it should.

All told, All Is Lost is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a film that works on a minor level but just doesn’t quite hold together well enough to be as good of a film as the premise and Redford’s performance would suggest. It isn’t the simple, quiet masterpiece it sets out to be, but it’s a decent enough film to be worth a viewing.