Doctor Who – The Psychic Circus review

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(c) Big Finish

***Contains spoilers***

Big Finish Productions have aimed for the top with this release. A Big Top to be precise!

Doctor Who‘s offbeat clownfest The Greatest Show In The Galaxy hit TV screens at the end of the Eighties. Now three decades on an audio prequel has been released. It’s a sort of rabbit out of the hat for Big Finish, seemingly launched without warning. Not only does it feature original cast members but writer Stephen Wyatt has been persuaded to come back and flesh out events.

Nostalgia is a driving factor behind the company’s output and news of a return to the Psychic Circus had me hook, line and sinker. Sylvester McCoy‘s era was my entry point to Doctor Who at school. It was definitely the weird kid of the Classic Years family. From villains made of sweets (The Happiness Patrol) to the late Ken Dodd being brutally assassinated (Delta and the Bannermen), it wasn’t afraid to go somewhere different.

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Chris Jury as Kingpin (c) BBC

Greatest Show ranked among the best because yes it was peculiar, but Wyatt grounded it in some kind of reality. This was the first time coulrophobia (fear of clowns) played a role in the Doctor’s adventures. The circus and its damaged performers were far out yet at the same time meaty and intriguing. Plus the carnival atmosphere was a good fit for McCoy’s tumbling Time Lord, who got to put on a magic show for a trio of malevolent gods. The story was simple, anarchic and effective.

Satisfying though it was, questions hung in the air after the circus blew up. Fans wanted to know more about how these poor souls wound up caught in a showbiz-fuelled trap. Where did the characters come from? Why was it called the Psychic Circus in the first place? It’s a trick Wyatt is ready to reveal, but does he pull it off…?

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Jessica Martin as Mags & Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor (c) BBC

The Psychic Circus begins with Kingpin (Chris Jury, sounding exactly as he did 30-odd years ago) and Juniper Berry (Anna Brophy) arriving on a planet where fun is outlawed. Coming a cropper in this faceless environment where growing broccoli and building walls are the norm, it isn’t long before they encounter other hippies like themselves.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has his TARDIS invaded by another annoying junk mail robot. This one is faulty and becomes a companion of sorts for part of the story. The Doctor was involved in the Circus’s future. He’s about to become embroiled in its past…

The two strands are connected by some nebulous idea about psychic landscapes that didn’t come together for me. Behind the mental manipulation is of course an old enemy. It would have been a surprise to learn it was the Master (James Dreyfus), only they’ve stuck him on the cover. When the revelation arrives you’re already a few steps ahead.

Kingpin establishes the Psychic Circus and the Doctor does some nosing around (and a fair amount of juggling). That’s the first half – a confusing preamble I thought. Wyatt has created the universe’s blandest planet and then written it perfectly! Quite why we needed to go there I don’t know.

In a genuinely surprising move the writer revisits another story he wrote, Paradise Towers. The prospect of a Stephen Wyatt shared universe type thing was exciting, but in the end it’s just a passing plot point. I had hoped the Great Architect might be connected to Ragnarok in some way – hint hint – but it wasn’t to be.

Whilst birthing the circus turned out to be less interesting than I thought, things get much better once the tent is up and politics comes into play. Yes, circus life isn’t all buckets of glitter and riding elephants. The downfall of the Psychic Circus lay not only in dark forces working behind the scenes, but the consumerist bent imposed on free spirits who just wanted to have a good time.

Wyatt writes a fun dynamic between the peace and love brigade with their “solidarity” (as a Socialist I’m all for that) and the cold hard lure of the spotlight and a fast buck.

He also cleverly boosts the role of fortune teller Morgana (Sioned Jones). If anyone’s going to be significant in a psychic nightmare it’s the person with the crystal ball. It would have been nice to hear from other classic characters. No-one new here measures up to Mags the curveball-throwing werewolf, Captain Cook or Nord. Bellboy the robot maker is mentioned a few times, though doesn’t appear. I wanted to know what he was like before he became so tormented.

The last part of the script relies too much on listeners being familiar with Greatest Show, which in fairness the majority will be. Having the Master so heavily in the mix may come across as fan service but I thought he worked quite well as the lynchpin between the circus and the Gods of Ragnarok… even if I couldn’t quite work out what he was up to.

McCoy is as eccentric as we’ve come to expect, treating many of the lines as a workout for his vocal chords. Jury really took me back and Dreyfus makes an enjoyable addition to the list of Masters. This was the first time I’d heard him as the Doctor’s nemesis and on this evidence I’ll be checking out more.

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Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown (c) BBC

Like many, I really wanted to meet the Chief Clown again and hear about his origins. Ian Reddington played one of the best one shot Doctor Who villains of all time. I guess in a way he’s better left to the imagination but Wyatt does a good job explaining who he used to be. Reddington delivers another intelligent performance and runs away with the tale once again. Big Finish must surely be wanting to bring him back somehow.

Everyone else is decent. Director Samuel Clemens has an impressive pair of multi-taskers in Sioned Jones and Andrew Spooner and though the production didn’t grab me their versatile tones did. Also featured on the release are interviews and an evocative suite from composer Steve Foxon.

Did this match up to The Greatest Show In The Galaxy? Not a chance, though waiting from 1989 to 2020 for a follow up/look back was always going to ramp up expectation to mega levels. Are there more stories to tell about Kingpin’s hippy haven? If Wyatt wanted to take a third trip to Segonax I’d probably shell out for more.

The Psychic Circus keeps enough balls in the air to be worthwhile. It’s certainly not a classic but the 11 year old in me was happy to be back in the ring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The tortoise was very responsive to strawberry juice.” John Carroll Lynch ‘Lucky’ Interview (THN)

Out today is Lucky, a very personal comedy-drama about a man at the end of his years coming to terms with life in a remote part of America. Playing the title character is the man who inspired it, the late great Harry Dean Stanton, in his final starring role.

Actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch was tasked with bringing Lucky’s story to the screen. Lynch is well known as Norm Gunderson from the Coen BrothersFargo, as well as Twisty the Clown in American Horror Story. He’s worked with the best in the industry for decades, from Michael Keaton (The Founder) to Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino). We sat down with John to talk about this ambitious directorial debut and what it was like working with Harry Dean, as well as supporting actor and namesake David Lynch

THN: What brought you to Lucky’s door?

John Carroll Lynch: My friend Drago (Sumonja) was one of the writers, I had known Logan (Sparks, co-writer) as well and the two of them approached me as an actor to play one of the roles in the film as they were trying to put it together. Then a couple of months later, because Drago knew I had wanted to direct for quite a while, they came back to me and asked if I would direct the film. I really loved the script, I thought it was really good and Harry was already attached to play Lucky, which is not surprising because they based it on him. It didn’t take me long to say yes.

You’ve worked with many great directors over the years. For your directorial debut, you had Harry Dean Stanton, who’s worked with everyone, and David Lynch on top of that… you must have been very confident or very nervous, or both! What was it like…?

The opportunity to work with great people has always been attractive to me, and it’s been true since I started out as an actor. Great people, being great at their jobs make you better, in terms of how they come to the set or the stage to work, but they also teach you about how you could do that too. All of that was attractive to me, not distracting.

The film was shot at a rapid pace of eighteen days. When you’re doing your directorial debut, try to find an actor as good as Harry Dean Stanton to play your lead… do that first! See if that doesn’t cover a lot of your problems. That being said, I knew I had a leg up, once the cast came together and once David said yes I turned to Ira Steven Behr one of the producers and said: “Now I’m the only person who can f*ck this up!”

Gratefully it came out the way it did and people have responded…so many people get an opportunity to do their first film and they’re very good but nobody sees them. And with this one, it’s played all over the world, particularly in Europe because of Harry and David’s fan association there. In terms of how the movie unfolds, it’s a very European film.

Let’s talk about David Lynch… he’s known as an actor but in his own projects. What was it like directing him outside of his own universe?

Well, he loved Harry, he was one of his best friends. They had met when Harry was doing a film… interestingly enough Terrence Malick was in the first class at the American Film Institute and David Lynch was in the second. Terrence Malick had gotten more notes than Harry Dean Stanton to do his student film, which is shocking, the idea of that makes me laugh. They met when David came to observe one of Terrence’s shooting days, so they’d known each other since 1970. He had been in, I think, seven of his projects, and that’s the reason he’s in the film. We had been looking for somebody to play Howard and it was Harry who suggested him.

When he came to the set we were barely able to get him for any amount of time. But he agreed to it, he came to the set and it was the first time I had spoken to him directly. He came so well prepared and so steeped in the material. He had done a bit of adjusting to make it easier for him to read and it was a beautiful adjustment he had made. I know I should have been more worried, more intimidated, but he made it easy not to be. And also because it was close to the end of the picture and my focus was on Harry he really made it so simple. He came, and he made a Howard who was so disarming and innocent, which I thought was surprising given the rest of his work! (Laughs)

In the opening shot, a tortoise has to crawl across the frame. I was thinking that must have been either quite easy or extremely difficult to shoot. What’s it like to direct a tortoise?

The tortoise was very responsive to strawberry juice. (Laughs) So we tried to bribe the tortoise by putting strawberry juice on various rocks that it would smell and move towards. It didn’t always do that, so we have a lot of extra material where we’re resetting the tortoise and resetting the tortoise and resetting the tortoise! That choice of shot is important because it teaches the audience how to watch the movie. Almost all first shots in movies teach you how to watch them, and that was no exception.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘King Cohen: The Wild World Of Filmmaker Larry Cohen’ Review (THN)

Think you know Larry Cohen? If you’re a movie buff you might recognize his name from cult classics like Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985) and notorious infant horror picture It’s Alive (1974).

Steve Mitchell’s wild yet warm-hearted documentary is here to tell you one thing… you don’t. Cohen is a major player in American independent film but has managed to hide in plain sight for decades. He employed the services of great Hollywood veterans such as star Bette Davis and composer Bernard Herrmann. At the same time he stunned the cinematic community with his guerrilla filmmaking approach.

This contradiction between loved figure and health and safety nightmare is at the heart of the film, and it works beautifully. It’s a treat for anyone interested in seat-of-the-pants movie production, containing stories that will shock and amuse in equal measure. For example, there was the time he caused a panic in New York by staging a pitch battle on the exterior of the Chrysler Building for Q.

As remarked by the doc’s numerous contributors (among them Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante) Cohen is a one of a kind, who existed in a pre-911 climate. A time when a crew could rock up at an airport and stage an impromptu brawl on the baggage carousel without causing an international incident. For Cohen, if such a thing occurred, he’d have his camera out ready to include it in the picture.

The man himself is wonderful company, a frustrated stand up comedian walking the line between swagger and sensitivity. Cohen has been in the business since he was a teenager and there are some big surprises here. I had no idea he created The Invaders (1967-68), and if you don’t know what that is maybe you’ve heard of blaxploitation? Cohen was right there at the start of it!

King Cohen is affectionate but anarchic, showcasing a great director and most impressively of all a prolific writer. Even today, Cohen is producing pages of material that both inspire and infuriate his peers.

Mitchell’s portrait will hopefully bring Cohen the acclaim he deserves. He’s had it from fans and fellow filmmakers in spades. Now it’s time for the world to know who Larry Cohen truly is.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

Frightfest 2018 ‘Crystal Eyes’ (Mirada de Cristal) Review (THN)

Recreating bygone eras is a tricky business. Most attempts suffer one major drawback – try as they might, they just aren’t the genuine article. A way round this is to nail every little detail, from the font of the opening titles right down to the special effects. This gives people the impression they really are watching something from the time of grainy VHS and good old-fashioned slasher antics.

Crystal Eyes (Mirada de Cristal) pulls off that trick, but goes one better and creates something entertaining and inspired in its own right. Writer/directors Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano have crafted a fiendishly simple homage that stays absurd throughout without veering into spoof territory.

When drug-addled supermodel Alexis Carpenter (Camila Pizzo) dies during a fashion show, the emptiest of industries in mid-80s Buenos Aires tries to fill the void. To this end a tribute is planned, which in effect is a clambering exercise for models looking to take the top spot. But there’s a crazed killer at large offing the glitterati in various and visceral ways. It could be any number of the shallow, vindictive and memorable “personalities” on display. Or it could be Alexis herself, risen from the grave with a Giallo-fuelled grudge.

Despite the genre trappings (which the filmmakers revel in) the action has some unusual touches worthy of David Lynch, though in a league of their own. The title track alone is barmier than a box of frogs with lipstick on, part of Pablo Fuu’s synth wave soundtrack which exists on permanent overdrive.

Everyone is acting like they’re in a telenovela, spouting a raft of exposition-heavy dialogue so judging the performances is pointless. Endelman and Leandro Montejano have a real eye for vivid characters and the small touches they introduce are fantastic. At one point a character walks around in heels having just got out of the shower, and a strategically-placed stone backside also raises a chuckle amongst the chills. The malevolent protagonist (played by the brilliantly-named Issis Trash) is creepy yet ludicrous and the action plays out against the backdrop of stylized sets, grimy basements and old architecture.

Every so often you can see the film is shot on digital but given the Eighties pop video vibe that’s a quibble. You could also argue this is more an overextended sketch than anything, but I was truly taken with it.

For casual viewers the nature of the film will be irrelevant, but hopefully they’ll be drawn into what for me was quite a unique mix of elements. Crystal Eyes is a blast and one of the best evocations of the era I’ve seen. A minor triumph and an instant cult classic.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

“Packs enough stupidity to test anyone’s WTF-ometer…” ‘The Meg’ Review

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Sharknado spawned a brood of bad killer fish pictures, so maybe it was time for Hollywood to redress the balance with a deluxe version.

The Meg is certainly in a bigger league than that knowingly absurd franchise. It tips its hat (or swimming cap) in the direction of Jaws, though the movie also packs enough stupidity to test anyone’s WTF-ometer.

The first half is promising. When underwater science hub Mana One discovers a hidden realm of exotic marine life in the Mariana Trench, it isn’t long before a sub is stricken and its crew trapped by a mysterious yet large aggressor.

Among their number is the ex-wife of chiselled cartoon cockney Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a rescue diver who’s still smarting from an incident where he sort of drowned his mates.  Naturally Jonas is the best in the business, so is persuaded out of alcoholic exile to retrieve the crew.

But there’s more to it than that. Because whatever crippled the sub is something he’s encountered before. As the team of photogenic boffins start fishing around they find themselves face to face with terrifying prehistoric predator, the Megalodon.

For a while it seems like director Jon Turteltaub and co are crafting a fairly traditional ocean-bound creature feature. Then once the Meg is unleashed, the plot starts swerving around too much. Instead of focusing on a man v shark grudge match, which is perhaps what people were expecting, the movie wastes energy being tricksy and wrongfooting the audience.

Whereas Jaws‘ protagonists started off on land before winding up isolated and under attack at sea, The Meg goes the other way. The cramped and murky environment of Mana One is left behind so the title monster can make for a brightly-lit resort full of Chinese shark fodder.

Turteltaub treats this third act as kind of a joke, where tension is obliterated by sight gags and multiple references to Spielberg’s classic. The film was more frightening in the build up and the flat characters just can’t sustain the narrative.

Of the main cast Ruby Rose and Page Kennedy have the most presence, and Rainn Wilson is called upon to be sarcastic and slippery as the base’s billionaire investor. But then this isn’t a film about acting so much as a bloody great shark.

The Meg itself is entirely CGI and though it’s a dead-eyed behemoth it doesn’t have a distinctive look or personality. Its size was a problem for me, in that shark movies are about people having chunks taken out of them and being picked off from below. In this everyone is gulped down in one unsatisfying bite.

I’d take this over something like Empire Of The Sharks any day of the week. Granted that’s not saying much. Despite it all I enjoyed The Meg. Lower your expectations into a deep, dark trench and you’ll come back up for air without feeling short-changed.

 

 

 

 

 

“It became a nice combination of all these people from different backgrounds all trying to achieve the same goal.” Brad Anderson Interview, ‘The Negotiator’ (THN)

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Out today is The Negotiator starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a former diplomat confronting his demons in 1980s Beirut (the city the film was originally named after). Pike is CIA agent Sandy Crowder, joined by an impressive line up of Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Larry Pine.

Brad Anderson (The Machinist, DC Universe’s Titans) directs from a script by Tony Gilroy (acclaimed writer of the Jason Bourne franchise). Anderson’s career has covered many genres (his CV includes Transsiberian and Stonehearst Asylum), and when we sat down to chat with him that diversity seemed to be a great place to start…

THN: This is your first time making a political thriller. How did you find the experience?

Brad Anderson: Basically all the films I’ve done over the years have been different genres, from a horror movie to a drama to a period thriller. I like mixing it up a bit for myself, it keeps me on my toes. I had a great experience with this, mainly because of the script that Tony Gilroy had written. He wrote it over 20 years ago in the early ‘90s, it was one of his first spec scripts.

The idea of doing a movie set in an exotic location, in a time period that was far enough away so you could create a different world, but also was – for me anyhow – a familiar timeframe of the ‘80s, which was a really interesting time for me. To capture the vibe of that world again. And also the characters and the story itself… a central character who’s fallen off the wagon and who’s struggling to redeem himself. He returns to save a friend. To me these were all big draws.

The political aspects of it were interesting. I’ve always had a fondness for those John Le Carré-type political thrillers, I think they’re really compelling. But that was a less of a draw for me than the chance to create this world in Beirut, a city torn by this endless civil war. It felt very topical, a story that was resonating in the headlines again with all the violence in Syria and neighbouring countries. For all those reasons it felt like a good fit, so I jumped on it.

Did the script have to be changed from how it was written back in the ‘90s?

Tony did a pass on it, but it didn’t change much because the story is locked in that period. We changed certain things in order to adapt it to the budget level that we had. The logistics were complicated. Originally the movie was meant to be a studio movie, but we did it independently so we had less money, less time. That was really it, much of it was the original script Tony had written.

You’ve got Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike in the cast. They’re both similar in that they look like movie stars but they’re drawn to challenging subject matter. How was it working with them?

Both of them are great. Jon dived into this role. Outside of Mad Men he’d not done a lot of dramas, he’d veered more into doing comedic movies, so this was a chance for him to play a straight out dramatic role, he really responded to Tony’s script. And he’s just a wonderful guy to work with. He’s one of those guys that, despite the difficulties of making a movie on a low budget, and all the problems that come with that, he’s gung ho. He’s not a person who complains, he isn’t a prima donna by any stretch.

Similarly with Rosamund, she was excited to work with Tony and Jon as well. She had a smaller part but she does her research. She researched how the character would look, how they would dress, all the period details. Also she did her interviews with some CIA operatives to get a little background, so she was totally great, really professional and excellent to work with.

You also worked with Dean Norris and Shea Whigham, two of the great supporting actors from Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire.

I worked with Shea before, I always wanted to put him in a movie, going back to my movie Session 9 which I tried to cast him in. I’ve always loved his work, it was exciting to be able to put him in the film. He totally jumped at the chance, he’s great. He is a real character in real life! That’s the thing with these guys, they’re character actors because they are characters. He and Dean and Larry Pine and the supporting cast made this a fun experience.

You mentioned logistics before. Was there anything that was especially tough to film?

We shot the movie in Tangier in Morocco, which turned out to be a very good location, looking like what Beirut may have looked like back then. So the production design was largely taken care of before we started working. I think the issues were we were shooting the movie in the middle of Summer during Ramadan. It just happened to time out that we started rolling cameras on the very day Ramadan started, the Muslim holiday where Muslims can’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. So for the entire length of the production all our Muslim crew were suffering badly!

It was a challenge trying to keep everyone content, but in some ways the difficulty of that made everyone rise to the occasion. The non-Muslim Americans, the European crew really helped the Moroccans when needed and vice versa so it became a nice combination of all these people from different backgrounds all trying to achieve the same goal. There’s a lot of infrastructure in Morocco for movies and TV shows, so it’s not like they’re unaccustomed to the process.

You’re also a TV director (Boardwalk Empire among others). Tell me a bit about Titans, which you’ve been making for DC Universe.

Just like I’d never done a political thriller, I’d never done a superhero show. It was new to me as well, but they wanted to reinvent it a little bit, make it darker and more dramatic. Not make it so effects-driven, which was interesting to me. I did the first two episodes and my job was to create the look and the feel of the show and set it up.

It was a good experience, it’s definitely different when you’re working with a network and a well-established canon. I’m not a big comic book person so I’m not really familiar with that world which was a disadvantage but also an advantage because I came at it from the perspective of someone who’s not a fanboy, from the perspective of trying to make a really good story. And I think the producers wanted that as well.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ Blu-Ray Review (THN)

Pacific Rim Uprising faces a double whammy of expectation. First, it has to fill the shoes of director Guillermo del Toro and be a worthy sequel to boot. Second, with five years between movies it’s slightly belated, a situation that rarely ends well.

Director Steven S. DeKnight and producer/star John Boyega join forces here to move the story on and inject new elements, while at the same time giving fans and general audiences what they want, i.e. Jaegers and Kaijus bashing the hell out of each other with lots of buildings collapsing along the way.

The balancing act starts promisingly enough. Boyega plays Jake, son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from part one). A decade since the devastation of the last film he’s turned his back on piloting Jaegers and is now partying and scavenging to make his way in this drastically-altered world. When he runs into young Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who’s managed to knock up her own Jaeger, it takes him on a path back to his father’s stamping ground of the PPDC and a reunion with former buddy Nate (Scott Eastwood).

At that point, DeKnight has to start bringing in former characters such as Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Dr.Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who’ve all gone their separate ways into the various plot strands. If you remember these people, and I kind of do, then fine. If you don’t then you have to keep up a bit. Some things are recapped but other aspects, such as the piloting of the Jaegers, are just thrown in and maybe needed more explanation for first-timers.

Kikuchi isn’t given that much to do, while Day and Gorman resume their snappy wisecracker/cartoon boffin double act from before. The pair roam around like ex-Ghostbusters looking for a spook and spark well off one another. Meanwhile Jake and Nate have to train Amara and a team of international newbies how to “move like Jaeger” (sorry) and take on a resurgent batch of Kaijus, who are back for some reason.

The film doesn’t gel much and floats around in chunks before everything comes together for a final battle. In my view, DeKnight improves on his predecessor by setting the Jaeger/Kaiju faceoffs in broad daylight. There the shiny robots and weird creatures can be done justice, whereas in Pacific Rim everything was murky and indistinct.

Another plus is the light atmosphere, which for me was preferable to the first movie with its daft concept taken a little too seriously. Boyega is clearly having fun and is his usual cocky yet likeable self. However, Uprising could have done with ditching a couple of characters just to give things breathing space. If you want more, the home release is happy to oblige, with deleted scenes and a few featurettes.

Despite the last half hour or so being incoherent I enjoyed the film and was happy to leave my brain at the door as the carnage commenced. I’m not sure it’s done enough to warrant a third instalment, something that’s suggested at the end as these things often do. But there’s enough electricity and indeed eccentricity to make Pacific Rim a more watchable mega-franchise than most.

 

This review first appeared on THN