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Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 7, “The Rings of Akhaten”

The story of the Doctor’s new companion, Clara, is following a very similar trajectory as those of two of his previous fellow travelers.

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 7, “The Rings of Akhaten”
Photo: BBC

It may just be coincidence (though, given showrunner Steven Moffat’s fondness for building in connections and references between episodes, I wouldn’t bet on it), but the story of the Doctor’s (Matt Smith) new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), is following a very similar trajectory as those of two of his previous fellow travelers. Just as happened with Rose in 2005 and Amy in 2010, when Clara tells the Doctor that for her first trip into time and space, she wants to see “something awesome,” she finds herself being whisked away from present-day Earth to a fantastical adventure in a weird alien environment.

Last week I expressed the expectation that this episode would be a standalone story, separate from the ongoing season arc plot. I was partially right: There’s certainly no sign of the Great Intelligence, the behind-the-scenes adversary of “The Bells of Saint John.” But the Doctor is now fully engaged with the mystery of Clara, and the pre-titles sequence shows him digging through the story of her life. He travels back to observe the meeting of her parents, a chance occurrence as Ellie (Nicola Sian) saves Dave (Michael Dixon) from a hit-and-run accident. He checks in at various points as their daughter grows up, culminating with him observing a 16-year-old Clara standing with her father over Ellie’s grave (nice costume and makeup work to turn Coleman back into a teenager for that scene, by the way). But to his bafflement, the Doctor can find nothing to connect this girl with the 19th-century Clara he met in “The Snowmen” or with Oswin from “Asylum of the Daleks.”

Eventually, we’re going to have to start getting some answers about what’s going on with Clara, but as the final brooding shot of the Doctor indicates, at this point both he and we are still in the dark. We do get some further possible clues in this episode though. At one point, the TARDIS refuses to open for Clara, and she gets the feeling that it doesn’t like her. It may also be significant that the language-translation feature of the TARDIS doesn’t seem to be working for Clara with regard to some of the aliens she meets in this episode. (However, the translation feature of the TARDIS has occasionally failed before, mostly for comic effect; I’m thinking particularly of the Hath in 2008’s “The Doctor’s Daughter.”) It seems like Clara will turn out be some kind of temporal paradox or anomaly, and we’ve seen the TARDIS react badly to such things before: For example, encountering Captain Jack Harkness in “Utopia,” it traveled to the end of the universe itself in an effort to shake him off.

This year’s new addition to Doctor Who’s stable of writers is Neil Cross, the creator of the dark psychological crime thriller series Luther. After writing the forthcoming episode “Hide,” he was then commissioned for a second script, and came up with this piece, which would seem to be somewhat outside his normal comfort zone. He brings the Doctor and Clara to the Saturn-like rings of the planet Akhaten, which contain a bustling marketplace (clearly inspired by the Mos Eisley scenes in Star Wars) where many different creatures from the seven inhabited planets of the system come together.

There’s a vaguely ancient Egyptian feel to this alien environment, ranging from the name Akhaten, to the pyramid on one of the rings’ asteroids which is the main focus of the story, to the mummy that serves as a decoy villain—though, as the Doctor points out, it actually behaves more like a vampire. The use of memories as currency is a nice touch: In order to buy things here, you have to give up an object that’s important to you. This isn’t just a clever bit of world-building, but actually ties in to the plot.

In a frankly rather clumsy piece of either scripting or direction, the Doctor simply wanders away for no apparent reason in order for Clara to be alone when she encounters a small girl who’s clearly running from something. Doctor Who has showcased quite a number of good child actors in important roles over the last few years, and Emilia Jones is no exception. As Merry, the “Queen of Years” who’s apparently a repository of the accumulated songs and stories of her people, she’s the central character of the story, the one who’s supposed to lead a ritual hymn to the “sleeping god” within the pyramid. Jones is entirely natural and believable as she convincingly conveys Merry’s fear of messing up the upcoming performance. She establishes a lovely rapport with Coleman, as Clara—in what’s no doubt a deliberate echo of the governess version of the character in “The Snowmen”—reassures the young girl and leads her back to those searching for her.

The episode was directed by Farren Blackburn, whose previous work on “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” I found to be rather lacking. This is a stronger script, but he still fails to bring much above and beyond the most workmanlike telling of the story. The marketplace seems very small-scale, with no open spaces, giving no sense of a larger world beyond the few dressed corridors we see. The episode is very slow-paced (even discounting the singing sequences, where a measured, deliberate tempo is justifiable), and drags at several points. Just compare the space moped scenes here with the motorcycle sequences from last week’s episode to see the lack of dynamism in Blackburn’s direction.

The critical moment of the plot, when Merry’s song is disrupted and the sleeping god begins to wake, is quite badly mishandled. It’s totally unclear whether it happened by accident (due to Merry making a mistake), or whether the sleeping god caused it (as the Doctor later guesses). Even more annoying, only the Doctor and Clara react to Merry being dragged through space toward the pyramid; not one of the hundreds of other creatures taking part in the ceremony seems to want to do anything about it. (There’s a half-hearted attempt to explain this away by saying they all regard the pyramid as sacred ground, and it’s not remotely believable.) While the profusion of creature designs in this episode is certainly eye-catching (the most impressive is probably the Vigil, a trio of black-coated humanoids with metallic skulls for heads), the fact that they’re all effectively nothing more than background local color is regrettable.

In fairness, there is an effective set piece when the Doctor, Clara, and Merry are trapped inside the pyramid with the awakening creature. The Doctor has to hold off the Vigil, who are trying to force Merry to sacrifice herself to the creature—something which she is quite prepared to do. With the focus narrowing back down to just the main characters, the episode briefly becomes tense and exciting. I’m even prepared to forgive the overuse of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, since unlike other episodes where the device has been treated as a magic wand, the writer took care to ensure that the obstacles here were appropriately sonic in nature.

Even though the episode’s storytelling is muddled, it still contains some interesting thematic ideas, particularly an approach to the idea of a soul that’s not conventionally religious. The series has generally tended to be quite antagonistic toward religion—particularly organized religion. Here, though, the Doctor espouses a “live and let live” approach: When he tells Clara about the belief of the people of this system that all life in the universe originated on Akhaten, she asks if it’s true, and he simply replies: “Well, it’s what they believe…It’s a nice story.” Later, he expounds on the notion of “soul” as a term for the sum total of memories, experiences, and circumstances that make up a person with a speech (beautifully delivered by Smith) that sounds like it could have been inspired by Carl Sagan, with an Alice in Wonderland reference thrown in for good measure:

“Hey, do you mind if I tell you a story, one you might not have heard? All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago, in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so many millions of years those elements came together to form new stars and new planets. And on and on it went—the elements came together and burst apart, forming shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. Until, eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gallel, and there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice—it is a waste.”

Having convinced Merry not to sacrifice herself, the Doctor then finds himself facing a much bigger problem, as the creature within the pyramid is revealed to be nothing more than an “alarm clock”—a mechanism to wake up the real “sleeping god.” The actual enemy is a voracious mental parasite that covers the entire planet of Akhaten (or perhaps is the planet Akhaten; again, the direction leaves it unclear). It’s a nicely unexpected plot turn that escalates the stakes well, though it does have the effect of making all the stuff with the vampire creature threatening to escape from its cage seem rather redundant.

The Doctor attempts to overload the planet-creature by feeding it his own vast lifetime of memories and experiences. The combination of Smith’s performance and the music and singing in the background is very effective, even though we’ve seen the Doctor give this kind of bombastic speech several times before (most memorably, in 2010’s “The Pandorica Opens”). But the creature manages to successfully absorb the Doctor’s memories; in a final twist which ties together the previously separate strands of plot, it’s Clara who ends up finally destroying it, by utilizing the very leaf which we saw at the top of the episode leading to her parents meeting, and which she has kept ever since her mother died. For her, it signifies an infinity of possible days that her mother might have had.

It’s a lovely, poetic ending. But unfortunately, the way it’s depicted on screen seems to have misled many people into thinking that Akhaten’s star was being destroyed—which would of course instantly doom all life in that system. The confusion is understandable, even though the Doctor explicitly named the object as the planet Akhaten early in the episode, thanks to the fiery CGI effects used to depict the creature and its destruction. (I’d also contend that it was a misjudgment to show crude facial features within the swirling flames while the Doctor and Clara were talking to the creature, making it look like they were confronting a gigantic Halloween pumpkin.) In its haste to get back to Earth, the episode simply forgets about Akhaten, and ends in unnecessary incoherence.

Next Week: An old monster from classic Doctor Who makes its 21st-century return, in Mark Gatiss’s “Cold War.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Actually, the word “recommendation” may not be quite fitting in this context, since it’s one of the poorest stories of the classic series, but “Time and the Rani,” the story which introduced Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor, with Bonnie Langford as his companion, Melanie, did come to mind when I was watching the gaudy background aliens in “The Rings of Akhaten.” The bat-like Tetraps from “Time and the Rani” would have fit right in.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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Review: Chambers Liberally Borrows from Horror Tropes to Uneven Results

Netflix’s latest horror offering only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references.

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Chambers
Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Among the centerpieces of Netflix’s Chambers is the terrain of the American Southwest. Featuring wide shots of desert topography, blue-pink sunrise horizons, and cracks of lightning in the gray distance, the series is set in Arizona but was actually shot in neighboring New Mexico. It’s thus built on a doppelgänger of a landscape, a fitting geography given its premise: After high-schooler Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) undergoes a heart transplant, she gradually absorbs the memories, traumas, and impulses of her organ donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Scarlett Reid), until the line separating the two teens vanishes.

As Becky exerts increasing control over Sasha’s body, thoughts, and dreams, Sasha ropes her best friend, Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson), into an investigation of Becky’s supposedly accidental death. Their sleuthing initially targets Nancy and Ben Lefevre (Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn), Becky’s wealthy and creepy parents. Meanwhile, Big Frank (Marcus LaVoi), Sasha’s uncle and sole guardian, doubts that anything otherworldly is afoot. Skeptical of the supernatural but worried about Sasha’s apparent hallucinations, he seeks aid from doctors instead of the spiritual healers in the Navajo community from which he has distanced himself and his niece. But medicine doesn’t help Sasha, and she’s too far removed from her tribe to consider turning to it for guidance, so she keeps digging into the Lefevre family’s secrets.

Beyond suspicious deaths and ghostly doubles, Chambers is waist-deep in the tropes and fixations of so many horror films and TV shows: stalkers; demonic possession; the linking of sex with hellish fates; a wise old man; an arguably wiser, inarguably more disturbing old woman; and so on. Photos of Becky regularly worm their way into scenes, and you can feel the series straining to conjure its own Laura Palmer. This speaks to the predominant problem with Chambers: It only rarely assumes a form greater than its individual elements and references. There are moments late in the season that demonstrate the kind of gravitational pull that good horror can generate, but for the most part, the series claws at its inspirations, making confused and superficial gestures toward the works it imitates.

The show’s messiness is on full display in its wildly inconsistent characterizations of Nancy, Ben, and their son, Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine), all of whom are suspects in Becky’s death. Chambers aims to create mystery and suspense, of course, but it feels gratuitously manipulative to give selective glimpses of characters that paint them a certain way prior to a big reveal, only to offer vastly more fleshed-out depictions later. It’s not a sin of which Chambers is uniquely guilty, nor is it especially damning. But combined with the fact that emotional climaxes and important character developments are frequently rushed or too easily achieved, it diminishes the payoff. Instead of amplifying momentum and adding thoughtful layers to the narrative, the season’s various revelations undercut what came before them.

Chambers is often more graceful in its depiction of interpersonal drama. As Nancy, Thurman exquisitely vacillates between unsettling and heartbreaking. Rose, too, impresses with her measured depiction of Sasha. Almost everything involving Yvonne, a computer prodigy who cares for her dementia-struck mother, is poignant, funny, or both. “I’m glad you have my back,” Sasha tells Yvonne at one point, to which Yvonne replies, “Front, back, both sides, and the middle, girl.” And when Sasha’s boyfriend, TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand), consults a medicine man about her plight, the scene lends real depth to the two characters’ releationship.

It’s worth noting, particularly in the context of novelty, the show’s focus on the experiences of indigenous and black people. It’s remarkably satisfying to watch a series in which every single white character must actively earn the audience’s trust—as opposed to its non-white characters, who receive the benefit of the doubt that whiteness usually affords. Unfortunately, Chambers’s fresh perspective and more organic moments serve to amplify the contrasting artificiality of much of the dialogue, as well as how rote the horror is.

By the end of the season, many questions remain unanswered—and the writers deserve credit for refusing to tie too neat a bow on everything. But the conclusion ends up over-explaining some things and under-explaining others, leaving the show’s unsettled dust to read as less intentional than haphazard. The medicine man, when speaking about Sasha, tells TJ that there’s “somethin’ bad there. Really out of balance, but…it’s not from here. I don’t think our medicine can take care of all of it.” He may as well be diagnosing Chambers itself: admitting to its unevenness, surrendering to the not-from-here ghost trapped between the show’s bones.

Cast: Sivan Alyra Rose, Lilliaya Scarlett Reid, Uma Thurman, Marcus LaVoi, Tony Goldwyn, Nicholas Galitzine, Griffin Powell-Arcand Airtime: Netflix

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 8, Episode 1, “Winterfell”

The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

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Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO

Given the sheer number of still-living characters that remain caught in the tangled web of plot lines that Game of Thrones has delighted in spinning across its first seven seasons, the show’s final six episodes have a lot of wrapping up to do. And the eighth season’s premiere episode, “Winterfell,” suggests that will occur at a reliably steady clip.

Take Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who doesn’t waste words when he sees his ex-wife, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner): “Last time we spoke was at Joffrey’s wedding. Miserable affair.” Her response is even more to the point: “It had its moments,” conveying her satisfaction at the poisoning of Tyrion’s nephew, Joffrey. The episode has the good sense to respect our familiarity with these characters, and as such it doesn’t beat around the bush.

This approach, though, isn’t always successful, as in the clipped depiction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) effortlessly infiltrating his uncle Euron’s ship in order to free Yara (Gemma Whelan) from captivity. The scene is conspicuous as much for its compressed nature as it is for closing a plot thread and allowing Theon to finally return to the North, where almost every other character on has converged, and where most of the episode’s action takes place.

Speaking of which, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) badly needs an excuse to head North; her scenes, so isolated from the rest of the show’s stakes, feel as if they’ve been beamed in from an entirely different show. Headey is given little to do at the start beyond smirking and telegraphing her character’s evil, but in Cersei’s interactions with Euron (Pilou Asbæk) we’re reminded of the complexity of this woman’s nature. It’s in the way she scoffs at, then indulges Euron’s sexual demands, and never without ever relinquishing her power.

Fan service also occasionally gets the better of “Winterfell.” Little is accomplished by having Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) exchange grim pleasantries with The Hound (Rory McCann), her one-time captor. The scene serves only to emphasize the obvious: “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you? Guess that’s why you’re still alive.” Far richer is just about every other reunion, especially Arya’s with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The Hound’s words exist to underline who Arya has become, while Jon, who hasn’t seen Arya since the first season, offers her the rare opportunity to be the mischievous little girl she once was. Arya’s brutally honest with everyone she meets, but when Jon asks if she’s had to use the sword Needle he gifted her, she lies, so as to stay that little girl just a little while longer in his eyes: “Once or twice.”

Both the opening and closing scenes of the episode depict two very different returns to Winterfell, and they intentionally echo those of the very first episode of Game of Thrones. This time, however, it’s not a king arriving in the North at the start of the episode, but rather a new and suspicious queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Her darkly attired retinue doesn’t approach Winterfell neither in festive nor raucous fashion, marching instead in fixed and rigid columns. It’s important for a sense of scale (and spectacle) that we see just how many troops are present, but in mirroring this earlier episode, director David Nutter achieves more than just a dutiful tally: He evokes the funereal mood of how things have changed now that winter has finally arrived in Westeros. And right at the end of the episode, we see Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) staring down Jaimie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the latter attempts to sneak back into Winterfell. It’s a kind of flip on the moment from the show’s pilot where Jaimie pushed Bran out a window for catching him and Cersei having sex.

Game of Thrones excels when it puts weight behind its words and artifacts, because without such history—George R. R. Martin’s imprimatur—the show would be a tawdrier fantasy: pomp, sans circumstances. Yes, there’s a bit of gratuitous nudity in the scene where the mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) at last receives a three-prostitute reward for his loyalty to Cersei. But the scene is swiftly, mercifully interrupted, so as to focus on the significance of the crossbow that Qyburn (Anton Lesser) gives to Bronn. Though it’s only implied by Qyburn’s mention of “poetic justice,” eagle-eyed fans will certainly recognize that this is the weapon Tyrion used to slay his father. Now it’s the one that Bronn is being hired to use in the event that either of Cersei’s “traitorous” brothers somehow survive the war in the North.

Consider, too, the weight carried by the crypt in which Jon at last learns the truth of his parentage, as well as the blood-brother connection he shares with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), his best friend and the bearer of this news. Jon isn’t just a man learning that he’s been lied to his entire life—that he’s actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne—or that the woman he’s fallen in love with is actually his aunt. In that tomb, he’s once again a boy—a bastard—trying to live up to the legacy of the dead statues that surround him. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalan-like twist-for-twist’s-sake, but a genuine revelation that’s been years in the making. That viewers have known this since last season, or predicted it for even longer, takes nothing away from the moment at which Jon at last knows something.

If it seems at all odd that the series lingers on Jon and Daenerys’s courtship—they kiss in exhilaration after taking her dragons for a ride—it’s to better set up not only the confirmation of Jon’s dragon-riding heritage, but the likelihood of this love being doomed by the whole incest thing. (That may be a Targaryen thing, but Jon’s got a pretty sturdy moral compass.) Likewise, it’s no mistake that moments before Sam tells Jon what he and Bran have discovered, Sam is turned against Daenerys as he learns—from her own mouth—that she murdered his father and loyal-to-a-fault brother. Earlier conversations with Sansa and the young spitfire Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), who at first just seemed resentful or distrustful of Jon’s abdication of his title of “King of the North,” now take on an entirely new light.

What’s most remarkable about all this squabbling over lineage is just how much it actually matters, given that an army of the dead is only days away, seemingly determined to kill everyone in its path. And as if we need another reminder of this existential threat, Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), trapped behind enemy lines, encounter a gruesome sigil hewn of human flesh in the recently ruined Castle Umber, a taunting (and still partially alive) message from the Night’s King. It remains to be seen just how far Game of Thrones will bend the knee to full-on body horror and fantasy in its remaining five episodes. But something that’s as true now after this premiere episode as it was throughout any that have come before it is that the show is at its most frightening when it grapples with the political realities that connect its characters’ lives.

For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.

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Review: Native Son’s Anguished Howl Lacks the Rage of Richard Wright’s Novel

Once an accidental act of violence sends the main character’s life into a spiral, the film unfortunately spirals with him.

2.5

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Native Son
Photo: Matthew Libatique/HBO

This modernized adaptation of Richard Wright’s iconic 1940 novel Native Son is full of people who believe they understand the story’s African-American protagonist, Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders). They assume that he marches for some unnamed cause because he’s outraged, and that he’s outraged because he’s black. They believe he’s desperate for a “respectable” job opportunity, and that he’s into hip-hop.

As adapted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, Native Son makes a number of changes to its source material, many of which dilute the story’s power. The most successful tweak is how Bigger, who goes by “Big” and pointedly not “Biggie,” is conceived as a listless punk-rock type. At a record store, he asks for a Bad Brains album. He cuts a wiry, towering figure topped with dyed green hair. He wears a jacket stuck through with pins and sprayed with words that might be lyrics or slogans that, though they mean something to him, don’t mean the world understands him any better.

He’s less angry than he is lost, pulled in every direction. A friend wants him to help rob a convenience store, but Big opts for another job: as the driver for the wealthy Dalton family, whose daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), is an activist—the kind of white liberal who would certainly have voted for Obama a third time if she could have. The awkward exchanges between Big and Mary quickly become the discomforting heart of the film, a suffocating performative wokeness on her part worsened by fumbling attempts at solidarity. “You’re outraged, aren’t you? He’s outraged,” she says at one point. She doesn’t mean any harm, of course. She’d probably consider him a friend. Her boyfriend (Nick Robinson) certainly does.

Nobody in the film truly “sees” Big for anything other than a concept, the dehumanized stereotype of a young black man, and Native Son builds that point from a subtle hum to an anguished howl through Big’s striking appearance. Sanders plays Big with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows that confidence is a performance to some degree, a mask for inner turmoil. You see the confidence drain from Big’s body when he’s dragged into uncomfortable situations; his body language goes rigid, like someone who’s gritting his or her teeth and praying for the end. As if in response to James Baldwin’s noted critique of the character as a stereotype, this version of Bigger Thomas is tormented as much by casual racism as by how it drowns out his constant assertions of individuality.

Eventually, an accidental act of violence sends Big’s life into a spiral, and Johnson’s Native Son unfortunately spirals with him. The film’s initial confidence at examining the weight of stereotypes falls away, as if such self-assurance were a mask of its own. Ominous whirs and drones on the soundtrack stand in for the fact that we never truly get inside Big’s head. So much of his character is only defined by situations he’s thrown into, and Matthew Libatique’s camera shoots all of them at a sort of neutral, objective remove. That pivotal act of violence cries out for some subjectivity to seem plausible, but despite being true to the source material, it feels outrageous and contrived because it’s filmed with the same clinical distance.

When Big subsequently acts out, his actions feel incongruous because this version of Native Son hasn’t shown us the thought process that fuels them. The Bigger Thomas of Johnson’s film lacks the rage of his literary counterpart, but because the novel climaxes in explosive violence and terror, the film seems obligated to replicate it (albeit to a much less extreme degree), despite so many other changes. As a result, what understanding we have of the character seems to slip through our fingers, as if the filmmakers and viewers alike are the next in a long line of people who don’t truly understand Bigger Thomas.

Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, Nick Robinson, Lamar Johnson, Sanaa Lathan, David Alan Grier Airtime: HBO

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Review: Fosse/Verdon Struggles to Capture the Sensual Fanaticism of Its Subjects’ Art

The miniseries at least gives ample space for Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams to richly inhabit their characters.

2.5

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Fosse/Verdon
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon comes with more than a bit of baggage. First, it has to compete with the electrifying work of its legendary protagonists: choreographer, theater director, and filmmaker Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer and choreographer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who collaborated on stage in Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago, among others, while living out a volatile love affair and marriage that would inspire each artist’s career. But Fosse/Verdon is particularly haunted by the legacy of Fosse’s monumental and similarly plotted 1979 film All That Jazz, in which he fictionally recreated his efforts to stage his iconic Chicago production while editing his third film, Lenny.

All That Jazz mixes mythmaking with an intoxicatingly, and disturbingly, sensual study of addiction, as Fosse fashioned an editing syntax that remains influential, especially to films about drug use. All That Jazz’s quick, repetitive, exhilarating montages suggest the rigid schedule of uppers that are ingested by Fosse’s stand-in, played by Roy Scheider, so that he may work for days at a time while seeking late-night solace in women and alcohol. This editing comes to suggest a cinematic equivalent to the jagged movements that Fosse favors as a choreographer to express the exertion of power for the sake of satiating erotic hunger. Fosse’s characters, like the man himself, always wanted more. Like Fosse’s Cabaret, All That Jazz informs the musical genre with a modern, free-associative cynicism and luridness.

Fosse/Verdon emulates All That Jazz’s freneticism, as the series is constantly hopping around in time so that we may experience only the highs and lows of these lives. It opens in the late 1960s, when Gwen is helping Bob fine-tune the film version of Sweet Charity, which would become a financial and critical disaster. A lovely scene makes a point that theater and film buffs will already know: that Gwen wasn’t allowed to reprise her role for the film, which went to Shirley MacLaine, who bears a striking resemblance to the dancer. Bob reads the New York Times review, which asks “Where’s Gwen?” and Gwen is put in the weird position of having to comfort her husband for his complicity in not hiring her. Meanwhile, Gwen is trying to get Chicago off the ground while also reinventing herself as a dramatic actress for straight plays.

All That Jazz played Chicago and Lenny off of one another, suggesting how Fosse derived his creative energy from working in multiple mediums at once while deliberately spreading himself thin, courting physical and mental collapse as an implicit declaration of his integrity, as well as a way of servicing his addiction to the various substances necessary to sustain such a lifestyle. Similarly, Fosse/Verdon is driven by various comparisons of productions that are being simultaneously considered or created. One such pairing is Children! Children!, a doomed play Gwen takes out of desperation to prove her acting chops, and the film version of Cabaret, which appears to be the nail in the coffin of Bob’s languishing film career. Cabaret’s producer, Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), thinks that Bob is all style and no substance, fighting the filmmaker’s taste for darkness and decay. Later, Bob looks at a four-hour rough cut that he describes as “unwatchable,” leaving him to save the film in the editing room—a process in which he discovers how to use cutting to adjust his aesthetic for cinema. Learning to cut both with and against the movements of the dancers, depending on the mood he wishes to evoke, Bob outgrows the stagey sluggishness of the Sweet Charity film.

Fosse/Verdon could’ve spent more time in the Cabaret editing room, as Bob nearly loses his mind on booze, pills, and women while trying to save the film that would eventually win him a best director Oscar. It’s also a pity that a series about dancers doesn’t have more dancing. (There’s a sexy sequence in which Bob and Gwen meet over a discussion of Damn Yankees, their rehearsal of “Whatever Lola Wants” coming to represent their own attraction.) And a touching point is conventionally over-emphasized: Gwen is “always there” for Bob, apparently inventing the sexy black outfit that Liza Minelli wears in Cabaret on the fly, while Bob fails to give her notes on Children! Children!, coddling her with banalities that are meant to disguise his distraction and self-absorption. Such threads risk reducing Gwen, a colossal figure in her own right, to “Bob Fosse’s wife, lover, and champion.”

Fosse/Verdon is boxed in by a “have-it-both-ways” quandary. Cinephiles will probably want something more dynamic and less sentimental, with more formalist fireworks and nuts-and-bolts texture about Bob and Gwen’s modes of creation, while others may prefer a simpler and talkier melodrama about a couple torn between their ambitions, vices, and respect and love for one another. Despite its showy flashback structure, the series leans more toward the latter mode, with romantic pop psychology and jokey cameos by Bob and Gwen’s friends and fellow legends-in-the making such as Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). (In fairness, there’s also plenty of pop psychology in All That Jazz, as the narrative is another of those Great Self-Destructive Genius numbers that Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis, but Fosse’s formal audacity transcends such gimmickry.)

If Fosse/Verdon lacks the obsessiveness and sensual fanaticism of Fosse and Verdon’s art, though, it nevertheless gives ample space for Rockwell and Williams to inhabit their characters. Rockwell conjures Fosse’s almost paradoxical sexiness, emulating the man’s stooped posture, which somehow conveyed power, and speaking in a voice that’s fey and raspy working-class masculine at the same time—a combination that suggests confidence and years spent hustling. Rockwell also reprises one of Fosse’s signature moves, in which he would crouch near the bottom of the dance floor and look up at the dancers, seemingly drinking them in on a molecular level, which is an act of submission as domination. Most importantly, Rockwell captures Fosse’s general bonhomie—the sense the man gave of taking pleasure in everything—which fuses with Rockwell’s own infectious energy as a performer.

Williams is subtle and heartbreaking in a role that’s often more thankless than Rockwell’s, as Verdon’s artistry is given short shrift here compared to Fosse’s. That very sense of being overlooked is built into Williams’s performance, however, as her voice contains multitudes of insinuation that communicate Gwen’s desires to men on nearly subliminal levels, so they can hear her without them knowing it, especially as Gwen fights to keep Chicago alive. Throughout the miniseries, Williams merges Verdon’s voice with her own, grounding an impression in behavioral curlicues, switching from humor to rage with musical fluidity.

Williams is given the finest scene of Fosse/Verdon’s first five episodes. Rehearsing Children! Children!, trying to give a stodgy monologue juice, Gwen accesses one of the most painful moments of her life, turning exposition into confessional poetry. Gwen fillets herself for the rehearsal, and Williams allows you to see the toll this takes, as well as the transcendence of being able and willing to pay that toll. Williams doesn’t foreground the pain, but the surprise of rediscovering an emotional wound that has never healed, the sort of wound the drives artists—and people of other trades as well—to keep working, consuming, screwing, all in the hope of feeling as if they’ve satisfied their inner demon, the harshest and least satiable critic.

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Paul Reiser, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Norbert Leo Butz, Blake Baumgartner, Juliet Brett, Susan Misner, Margaret Qualley, Evan Handler Airtime: FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

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Review: The Sprawling Unspeakable Simmers with Rage But Lacks Resolve

The miniseries fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

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Unspeakable
Photo: SundanceTV

With a title like Unspeakable, one might imagine that Sundance’s miniseries about Canada’s contaminated blood scandal, in which thousands of hemophiliacs were infected with HIV and hepatitis after receiving tainted blood, is concerned primarily with the stigma surrounding those diseases. Yet the series, which attempts to narrativize two separate books about the scandal, as well as creator Robert C. Cooper’s own experience contracting hepatitis from hemophilia treatments, resists homing in on any one aspect of its sprawling story. The result is an untidy and cursory overview of a 40-year saga.

Unspeakable certainly simmers with rage, and Cooper’s disgust is palpable. Throughout, the series solemnly depicts each negligent decision made by parliamentary politicians and Canadian Red Cross bureaucrats, who ignored warnings from United States health officials and distributed potentially infected blood in order to save money. But while this staggering malfeasance provides an opportunity to interrogate a complex example of institutional failure, Unspeakable’s point of view is more incredulous than curious: The series is packed with characters who are consistently shocked and angry, yet it fails to tackle the unseen forces which enable and encourage the institutional rot that wrecks people’s lives.

Unspeakable attempts to underscore the tragedy of the scandal by offering its broad historical account through an intimate lens, following five separate Canadian families effected by the tainted blood supply. Yet because of the sheer breadth of the saga and the multitude of perspectives, the series often feels like nothing more than a dry historical outline. As the breakneck narrative breezes over entire years, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to connect with any one character. A pattern emerges, with short successions of scenes that dutifully lead to a consequential event, before action shifts to a new year, and the cycle is repeated. The effect is distancing, and made even more so by unceasing title cards that clumsily herald new locations with information that should ostensibly be provided by the scenes themselves. (One such mouthful reads “Heat-Treated Factor Concentrates Consensus Conference, Ottawa.”)

Because Unspeakable moves so rapidly through its timeline, much of the dialogue is composed of stilted exposition. Lines like “The way the two of you still don’t speak is fucked up!” and countless instances of characters announcing the parameters of their professions are jarring reminders of the constantly shifting landscape. In other instances, the series glosses over seemingly important developments, leaving the viewer without context. Ex-reporter Ben Landry (Shawn Doyle), the father of an HIV-positive, hemophiliac son, at one point resolves to take action, declaring, “There’s only one thing I’m good at.” Years pass by in the narrative before it becomes clear that he wrote a book about the scandal, which, ironically, seems based on one of the books which provided the inspiration for Unspeakable.

Unspeakable’s subject matter is self-evidently grave, but the series is filmed in a procedural style that lacks distinctiveness. The lighting is creamy and omnidirectional, and episodes are edited with a utilitarian devotion to plot. The quick pace does result in a sense of urgency, if only because the series never fully resolves one narrative tangle before it introduces another. Ben, still working as a reporter, attempts to expose the scandal in its early stages, while Will Sanders (Michael Shanks), the father of another hemophiliac, tries to convince the Red Cross of the impending crisis. Their efforts are portrayed as the kind of earnest journalistic persistence seen in films like Spotlight, but while Unspeakable’s emphasizes the failure of public institutions, it ultimately stops short of interrogating exactly why they failed.

Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Ricardo Ortiz, Spencer Drever, Shawn Doyle, Camille Sullivan, Levi Meaden, Aaron Douglas, David Lewis, Caroline Cave Airtime: SundanceTV

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Review: In Season Two, Killing Eve Still Thrills Even When Spinning Its Wheels

The show’s greatest strength is still the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details.

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Killing Eve
Photo: Aimee Spinks/BBC America

The second season of Killing Eve commences immediately after last season’s conclusion, during which MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) unceremoniously shanked the object of her (mutual) obsession, the flamboyant assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). It’s a disorienting and totally engaging starting point for the new season, a confirmation that the two women are still very much entangled in the web of desperation and lies that led them to one another in the first place. But for how much the season focuses on the show’s obvious strengths, it also gets off to something of an uncharacteristically slow start.

Much of the two episodes provided to critics is devoted to the fallout of Eve and Villanelle’s actions: the firings, the confessions, the stabbings, the shootings. Thankfully, the acts of violence that capped last season’s finale do nothing to flatten and clarify the complexity of their relationship. Instead, they only deepen their infatuation, each one still enraptured with the other’s intellect and style and incongruity within their respective personal spheres. “Sometimes when you love someone, you will do crazy things,” Villanelle says at one point. Though the first date (of sorts) may have gone bad, it hardly closes the door on a second.

The knife wound, however, is quite serious and, hand clutched to her side, Villanelle stumbles to a hospital. It’s a continuation of the shift in the pair’s power dynamic, with Villanelle as elusive and inscrutable as ever yet now quite literally vulnerable. The first two episodes of the season are keen on reinforcing her newfound weakness while Eve deals with feelings of her own, a wide spectrum of emotion that manifests in manic cooking, vacant moisturizing, and stress-eating. Eve’s emotions have practically exploded in every direction, and the debris is strewn all over Oh’s terrific expressions, an equal spread of thrill, regret, and confusion.

Killing Eve’s greatest strength continues to be its dark comedy, and the way it upends our expectations via tonal shifts and amusing personal details. “How do you always look so good?” an exasperated Eve asks her unflappable MI6 boss, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw). The series never undercuts its drama, instead using such specificity to humanize characters thrown into worlds they scarcely understand at the behest of truly thankless jobs.

Comer again embodies the bulk of Killing Eve’s wicked sense of humor, conveying Villanelle’s cheerful but irritable psychopathy through a combination of simmering rage, an eat-your-peas level of childlike disgust, and a still-shocking capacity for violence. And the new season gives Villanelle a host of oblivious characters to play off of who are nevertheless not so easily taken in: One woman at a grocery store shoos the cut-and-bruised hitwoman away, protesting that she doesn’t have the change that Villanelle didn’t even ask for.

The thrilling cat-and-mouse suspense of the show’s best moments, however, is largely absent from these initial episodes. Rather than build on many of the developments from the end of last season, Killing Eve cobbles back together some approximation of its status quo, and quite slowly at that. It’s perhaps an expected, if disappointing, development, and there are some tweaks to the formula—chief among them the ongoing suspicion of Carolyn’s true colors. But the start of the second season eventually begins to spin its wheels, lingering a little too long on Villanelle’s weakness while providing various sounding boards for emotions that Oh is perfectly capable of conveying with no more than a furrowed brow.

Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Owen McDonnell, Sean Delaney, Nina Sosanya, Edward Bluemel Airtime: BBC America, Sundays, 8 p.m.

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Review: The New Twilight Zone Is Stuck Chasing Rod Serling’s Shadow

There’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

2.5

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Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Despite occasional successes, no incarnation of The Twilight Zone has quite stood up to Rod Serling’s iconic original. Two revivals on television and one feature film are more footnotes than notable successors. But Jordan Peele seemingly has the artistic credibility to ensure that this third TV revival is more than just a brand-exploiting ploy.

Peele certainly slides right into the besuited presenter’s persona once occupied by Serling, delivering verbose narration at the beginning and end of each episode in an impassive drone that suggests inevitability yet ends in a slight, mischievous half-smirk. But like previous versions of The Twilight Zone, there’s an unsteadiness to this return to that certain dimension of sight, sound, and, of course, mind that dulls whatever impact it intends.

The four episodes screened for press have a variety of supernatural focal points: a comedian’s stand-up routine that makes people disappear; a future-predicting true-crime podcast that anchors a reimagining of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; a man (Steven Yeun) who mysteriously appears in an Alaskan holding cell; and a camcorder that turns back time. The best of these episodes is the last one, “Replay,” which finds a black woman (Sanaa Lathan) using the camcorder’s unique powers in a desperate attempt to evade a racist police officer (Glenn Fleshler) while she drives her son (Damson Idris) to college.

It’s the most overtly political episode of the bunch, though every moment of the series is placed in a cultural context. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” plays on anxieties about terrorism, while the stand-up conceit of “The Comedian,” which parallels an episode in the original series, alludes to the performative, confessional nature of social media and influencer culture.

The elements that make “Replay” such a standout, however, reveal a distressing void in other episodes—that is, a firm grasp of the intended social commentary, as well as an ability to build that commentary into the episode’s hook without compromising drama. Each rewind of the camcorder creates a distinct, suspenseful scenario in its own right. “The Comedian,” on the other hand, fails to use its multiple stand-up performances to forge new insight into its protagonist (a credibly unraveled Kumail Nanjiani). Though it features an outstanding turn from a sinister Tracy Morgan, the episode merely belabors an obvious, simplistic point that hardly justifies the outrageous 50-plus-minute runtime.

Other episodes lose sight of their themes altogether: “A Traveler” and even the relatively brisk 35-minute “Nightmare” trail off on tangents with multiple characters. As if to acknowledge that they muddy their intended messages, each episode concludes in excruciatingly didactic fashion. Characters say things straight into the camera even before they’ve ceded the stage to Peele’s final narration, which somehow seems subtler than much of the actual dialogue.

The rebooted Twilight Zone suggests a larger problem than mere inconsistency. This version lacks the original’s storytelling economy and, in the process, loses the direct impact of whatever themes it means to convey. It often looks good, with fantastic performances by Lathan, Yeun, and others framed in oblique close-ups to augment the paranoid, aberrant atmosphere, but the muddled, on-the-nose writing is stuck chasing Rod Serling’s shadow.

Cast: Jordan Peele, Adam Scott, Chris Diamantopoulos, Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Tracy Morgan, Sanaa Lathan, Damson Idris, Glenn Fleshler, Steven Yeun, Marika Sila, Greg Kinnear Airtime: CBS All Access

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Watch: Hold on to Your Obsessions with the Final Trailer for Season Two of Killing Eve

The new season may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

We’ve already seen the first two episodes of the new season of Killing Eve, and since the embargo on reviews has now lifted, we can tell you that the series embraces a formal adventurousness in its second season that blows the first season out of the water. Season two picks up at the exact moment that the first left off, with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) escaping in tense and almost balletic fashion from the bloody clutches of Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—or is it vice versa?—before the two are once again caught in a prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out throughout much of Britain and, presumably, beyond.

Today, BBC America has released the final trailer for the new season. Titled “Obsession,” the clip begins with Villanelle, healing from her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Eve last season, sneaking out from a hospital. I won’t tell you where she ends up, only that it may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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Review: In Season Two, Barry Draws Dark, Heartfelt Comedy from a Man’s Trauma

The season’s storylines cohere around the myriad factors which comprise the masks people present to the world.

4

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Barry
Photo: HBO

Right out the gate, the stakes are high in the second season of HBO’s Barry, which begins with Barry (Bill Hader) desperate to maintain normalcy after having murdered Paula Newsome’s Detective Moss in last season’s finale. As soon as police begin to suspect Barry’s involvement in the crime, the new season settles into a propulsive narrative that, similar to the first season, unfolds as a comedy of errors. And while the new episodes maintain the show’s satiric view of self-interested Hollywood types, a poignant theme emerges which represents an evolution for the series. As an introspective Barry takes inventory of his past misdeeds, the show’s storylines cohere around the reflexive lies people tell themselves, and the myriad factors which comprise the masks they present to the world.

Barry’s world is in flux as he attempts to avoid the police, dodge the Chechen mob, and abstain from violence. He even offers to train soldiers for the Chechen mob’s new leader, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), rather than carry out another hit himself. The conceit leads to a scene that derives much humor from the Chechen trainees’ ineptitude at shooting, and while similar comedy abounds in Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from the crime world, the series is ultimately more interested in why Barry is so desperate for change. Though in the first season the character strove to mimic the people whom he viewed as good, this season finds him grappling with, and motivated by, the idea that he’s inherently evil.

In one of the new season’s central storylines, Barry must craft a one-man performance based on his first kill in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. While he resolves to portray the event as a moral reckoning, flashbacks reveal that it was actually one of the happiest moments of his life—a fact which places an upsettingly irreconcilable paradox at the heart of Barry. In an inspired bit of absurdism, the series underlines the extent of the man’s denial when his acting coach, Gene (Henry Winkler), appears in one of Barry’s war flashbacks, offering notes on his student’s recollection. Hilariously, the other soldiers in the flashback chime in as well—a chorus chiding Barry for his attempt to whitewash reality.

Such surreal flourishes lace the show’s new season, conveying in exacting but moving fashion how Barry’s trauma has caused him to live in a fugue state. But the show’s dark comedy is still largely derived from stark juxtapositions of violence and humor. When Barry finds himself in a shootout with a Burmese gang disguised as monks, the incongruity of the gang’s costumes adds a dash of farce to the proceedings. And when Barry declines a job offer from the bald and tattooed Hank, the spurned mobster asks in his characteristically fragmented English, “What do you want me to do, walk into John Wick assassin hotel with ‘Help Wanted’ sign?”

While the series portrays its underworld as the province of bumbling and affable lords, its directors frame violence with a matter-of-fact sensibility, emphasizing the yawning gap between whimsy and outright danger in Barry’s world. When Barry flees a shootout in the season’s second episode, director Hiro Murai embeds his camera in the car alongside Barry, eschewing adrenalized, eye-catching flourishes in favor of stark naturalism. Relatively peaceful moments pass before the first bullets come, and then, without fanfare, they arrive in a hail. The effect is startling and gripping. The discord in Barry’s life similarly informs the way Barry captures Los Angeles, with wide shots that juxtapose the city’s beckoning blue sky and towering palm trees with the generic, nondescript buildings that ensconce Barry. In such moments, the gap between his reality and his ambitions is rendered literal.

As Barry reaches for and clings to a sense of normalcy, Hader portrays the character with a mixture of fear and shame. During one monologue, in which Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), triumphantly declares that she’ll never date another violent man, the camera lingers poignantly on Barry’s quietly downcast reaction. The crux of this season isn’t whether Barry can find happiness from acting, or whether he’ll outsmart the cops, but whether he’s inherently broken and capable of repair. As he strives to bridge the gap between the person he is and the one he wants to be, the show’s central source of pathos is his (and our) dawning understanding that it may not be possible, and that he may not even deserve it.

Cast: Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson Airtime: HBO

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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