‘Hail, Caesar!’, Humor, and the Meaning of Movies

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George Clooney as buffoonish actor Baird Whitlock in the Coen brothers’ hilarious ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Universal Studios)

There is a special brand of humor associated with Joel and Ethan Coen— it’s irreverence without the scorn, satire without the snottiness, lines of dialogue that inspire chuckles rather than roars of mirth. “Hail, Caesar!”, the Coen brothers’ latest writing/directing production, expertly toes this comedic line. And though the different threads of plot feel, at times, overextended, the spiritual quest at the heart of the film ultimately shines through.

Like many Hollywood auteurs, the Coens attract a rotating cast of regulars to their films, and it is on these actors’ shoulders that the film rises and falls. Coen vets George Clooney, Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton don’t so much slip into their roles as melt into them, lending their characters a realness without ragged edges. The actors carry along their past filmography in a way that elevates their performances further: As Eddie Mannix, an overworked Capitol Films executive trying to juggle daily duties with retrieving his kidnapped movie star (George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock), Josh Brolin channels a profound world-weariness. Clooney, in turn, dons his goofball hat in the role of the affably obtuse Whitlock. Tilda Swinton does double duty as twin reporters (Thora and Thessaly Thacker) who espouse journalistic values that aren’t quite as divergent as they repeatedly insist.

Past this trio, the remainder of the ensemble primarily services the film’s humor wheel. Jonah Hill, oddly, gets top billing for a single scene as a stoic lawyer-type. Scarlett Johansson is charming as ever as a Brooklyn-accented, foul-mouthed starlet, but Mannix’s plot to marry her off in order to polish her image feels tacked on. (As usual, Johansson is too talented to realistically inhabit a supporting role; her character would be much better served in a spin-off of her own.) Ralph Fiennes is delightfully funny as prestige period piece director Laurence Laurentz, appearing for all the world like he just wandered off a Wes Anderson set— his fruitless attempt to teach cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to deliver a line with any degree of emotional nuance and accurate pronunciation is one of the film’s most amusing gags, complete with a perfect payoff in the editing room of C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand).

If that seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Though the full realization of distinct personalities is usually indicative of strong storytelling, the sheer abundance of characters in “Hail, Caesar!” often distracts from rather than supplements the overall narrative. Mannix is the connective tissue that ties together these disparate plots, but the film barely allows us the space to truly empathize with him. Which is a shame, because Mannix’s contemplative search for the meaning of movies at the dusk of Hollywood’s Golden Age is by far the film’s most compelling story.

“Hail, Caesar!” frames Mannix’s quest in overtly religious tones. The film opens with a swell of somber chamber music and a close-up of Jesus on the cross, an image neatly paralleled towards the end of the film when Mannix approaches three backlit crucifixes on a studio soundstage. Mannix begins and ends his long day in confession— at first, admitting to a petty lie; at last, asking probing questions about what really matters.

“Hail, Caesar!” is an ode to filmmaking, but it does not thoughtlessly idolize the motion picture industry. Anyone involved with or simply in love with movies must ask the same questions Mannix does: Is any of this important, or is the art of Hollywood merely artifice? Do motion pictures mean something, or— as a business executive trying to snatch Mannix away from the industry insists— are they simply “frivolous” distractions from the hydrogen bombs of the real world? Mannix, for one, is dedicated to ensuring the film industry’s worth. In classic Coen brothers fashion, a meeting with four religious leaders plays out like a sketch comedy while also revealing Mannix’s desire to do right by people of faith, as he strives to bestow his own temple— the movie set— with inherent (and, in this case, religious) value. Boldly subtitled “A Tale of Christ,” the film starring Clooney’s Baird Whitlock as a Roman who discovers the humble glory of Christ is woven throughout the overarching narrative of Eddie Mannix— a clever meta-commentary on the movie we’re watching, in which Eddie himself strives for a similar earthly enlightenment.

Mannix’s yearning is inversely paralleled by that of the communist “study group” responsible for Whitlock’s abduction. Nibbling on finger sandwiches in a seaside Malibu villa, a gaggle of blacklisted writers and intellectuals laments their lot in life, using Whitlock as a sympathetic sounding board. But the joke’s on them. They wax poetic on the dialectics of history, science and economics, purporting to champion “the little guy” while a disgruntled maid vacuums the impeccable carpeting and a glowering photographer shoots photos and dirty looks. In their high-minded denunciation of capitalism, the communists miss the point entirely, and underneath the comical dialogue (“You can’t share your own ransom, that would be unethical!”) lies the satire that highlights the contrasting, quietly heroic journey of Eddie Mannix.

By laughing at the communist crew, we implicitly root forMannix, and it’s a mark of the Coen brother’s genius that the high-powered Hollywood pusher— Mannix— becomes the prototypical “little guy” in terms of audience sympathies. When Whitlock parrots the commies’ anti-Capitol(ist) jargon back at him, Mannix responds with an impassioned rant about his movie’s worth. Mannix believes in the profound value of his films, and by the end of “Hail, Caesar!”, so do we.

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‘The Finest Hours’ Showcases Spectacle Over Character

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Casey Affleck as engineer Ray Sybert in ‘The Finest Hours’ (Disney)

What “The Finest Hours” lacks in character development, it makes up for in spectacle. Craig Gillespie’s roaring, relentless Atlantic Ocean may as well have been directed by Poseidon himself. If only Gillespie’s decorated cast had mustered up half as much intensity as their inanimate counterpart.

“The Finest Hours” tells the tale of the incredible true story (stop me if you’re heard this one before) of a daring rescue attempt pulled off by a bunch of brave men against all odds. The would-be tragedy in question is the sinking of the Pendleton oil tanker during a 1952 blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod. On the tanker, Casey Affleck’s Engineer Ray Sybert takes charge after the ship’s captain is lost at sea. Coast guard officer Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is chosen to lead the rescue, armed with only three additional crewmates and a 36-foot motorized lifeboat.

Bernie is an odd hero, as far as these stories usually go. Chris Pine plays up the aww-shucks shyness, but his performance is a bit too understated; I found myself wishing instead for Tom Hanks, that paragon of the heroic everyman, and probably the only actor who could infuse life into this one-dimensional character. Pine slides into the skin of a much brasher, much more arrogant captain— one James Tiberius Kirk— more smoothly than that of the passive, rather nebbish Bernie Webber.

When sent out on this suicidal rescue mission by station commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), Bernie’s fellow officers urge him not to go, but he gives a doe-eyed shrug and apologetically follows orders; submitting to authority is just the way Bernie does things. He is also ribbed by his colleagues for requesting the commander’s permission to marry his lady love, Holliday Grainger’s Miriam (how quaint!), after she was the one who proposed marriage in the first place (the horror!). Still, everyone in the film insists on reminding us that Bernie is “a good man.” It’s a tiresome refrain, but it does stick— and by the end, I felt a twinge of affection for the man’s sheer perseverance.

While Bernie navigates the unfamiliar waters of his relationship with Miriam, Ray Sybert (Affleck) is tasked with coming up with a plan to save the remaining crewmembers of the sinking Pendleton until help arrives. This proves to be difficult, since no one seems to like him very much. This backstory is teased but never fully fleshed out, leaving Affleck and his supporting crewmates with a confusing amount of animosity. To be sure, Sybert’s grim persona does not exactly inspire confidence, either on the part of his crewmates or moviegoers. Still, Sybert knows the ship better than anyone, so the men choose to throw in their lot with their best chance of survival. Other supporting characters don’t fare as well either: Eric Bana’s commander is depicted as and verbally denounced as incompetent, but he’s not a typical blowhard, and it’s unclear how he ended up in his position at all. (Perhaps greatness was thrust upon him, as with Bernie?) Meanwhile, Ben Foster’s turn as one of Bernie’s rescue mission volunteers is essentially a still-life rendition of his IMDB profile page picture. I know you have other facial expressions, Ben!

Fortunately, the film’s special effects blow all thoughts of half-baked character development out of the water. The film was promoted in IMAX 3D, and for good reason: every mammoth wave that threatens to capsize Bernie Webber’s ant-like rescue boat looms like a merciless wall of sheer force, and the terrifying screech of dying machinery reverberates with each pounding of the Pendleton’s formidable hull. A booming score from the illustrious Carter Burwell (a 2016 Oscar nominee for “Carol”) heightens the drama even more.

“The Finest Hours” tries too hard (or not hard enough) to set up emotional arcs that don’t quite set sail. There’s a nice bit of parallelism with Bernie’s coast guard buddies and the tanker crew: both groups start out standoffish and vaguely resentful, only to come together in times of peril and dredge up much-needed camaraderie. But because of the lack of character insight, it doesn’t quite feel earned. What does feel earned is the rush of relief when the survivors step onto the dock after their rescue. It’s just a shame that the stellar cast couldn’t match the performance of the perfect storm.

’13 Hours’ is Murky to its Core

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John Krasinski stars in ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,’ Michael Bay’s latest addition to the war film genre.

“13 Hours” has a two-and-a-half hour runtime but feels like a 24 hour ordeal. It’s a harrowing and deliberate film from a director better known for constructing (and destroying) robots than for fleshing out blue-blooded humans. But Michael Bay’s latest film, about the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is surprisingly thrilling and thoughtful.

An aura of uneasy suspense is established at the outset of the film, from the moment ex-Navy SEALs Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) meet up at the Benghazi airport. The streets are bustling with everyday activity, until the weapons emerge; within minutes, Jack and Rone get caught in a hold-up with a local militia. Guns are drawn, threats are exchanged, and Rone convinces the scowling leader that Uncle Sam has a couple of drones flying overhead, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Guns are lowered. Rone backs the jeep out and returns to the main road.

“Welcome to Benghazi,” Rone says wryly.

Jack has been summoned to Benghazi to join a security team of U.S. military vets, hired by the CIA to protect the American diplomats operating out of the region. The tension between the diplomats and the security team is established early on: Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier) bristles when the presence of her “babysitters” interferes with diplomatic talks, and the on-site CIA chief known only as Bob (David Costabile) is a constant thorn in their side, and can almost be viewed as one of the film’s antagonist, insofar as the others are nameless, faceless terrorists. “You’re not CIA,” he snaps at Rone. “You’re hired help. Act the part.”

The animosity among the Americans situated in Benghazi is one part of the film that feels a bit orchestrated, and the veracity of Bob’s stony refusal to give the security team free reign has been called into question. But to its credit, aside from the obligatory “This is a true story” epigraph splashed on the opening of the film, “13 Hours” treats the truth as a murky matter, save for one character’s uncontestable, mid-film summation: “What a shitshow.”

Unfortunately, the dialogue is nowhere near as nuanced as the overall message, with clunky references to “the bad guys” and “the good guys” bogging down otherwise visceral moments of horror. But when the shooting starts, we’re drawn right into the action, as the jittery camerawork, the hazy night-vision lighting and the Hans Zimmer-inspired score ratchets up stress levels and heart rates.

“13 Hours” focuses on heroics rather than politics. Save for a couple lines of meaningless prattle from a boardroom full of suits, the scenes from “back home” are few and far between. Instead, the film wisely fixates on the bravery of a group of men in a no-win situation, fighting to defend American lives in the face of certain death. As the assault on the diplomatic compound begins, Jack, Rone and their impeccably trained compatriots hide their shellshock well, and their steely-eyed exteriors prove that they’ve been involved in similar circumstances too many times to count. But their haunted expressions betray their all-too-human core.

The camaraderie between the CIA contractors, many of whom served together, all of whom speak the common language of brothers at war, is effortless. At times their rapport feels too effortless, their personalities too similar, to the extent that we can barely differentiate between each of the buff, tanned, rugged ex-soldiers. (So, that one is an ex-SEAL and that one is just an ex-Marine? That one has slightly darker facial hair? That’s the guy from “The Office”?) And, sure, Michael Bay gives audiences a couple glimpses of family photos to tug at the heartstrings. But the film’s most quietly impactful scene comes before the explosive action, before the bursts of heroism. As the camera pans through a montage of each member of the security team Skyping home with family and loved ones, the scene feels peaceful, ordinary, and all the more touching because of its simple universality.

Even the politically-slanted scenes serve to humanize our heroes rather than cast the lens of blame on any one person or administration. In between waves of attack, Rone and Jack share a moment of vulnerability on the roof of the compound, as Jack tearfully wonders about his daughter telling her friends of her father who died in a country far from home, fighting in a war he didn’t believe in.

In one of the film’s final scenes, the camera wordlessly hones in on images of wailing women throwing themselves at the ground by the fallen bodies of the men who had led the brutal attack on the American compound and CIA base. Nearby, a tattered and bullet-ridden American flag floats listlessly in the dirty water of the slain U.S. ambassador’s once sparkling pool. Are we meant to pity these women while apotheosizing the men who killed them? It’s not entirely clear. And perhaps it never will be.

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the Art of Nostalgia

Returning to a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. (Disney / LucasFilm)

The nostalgia is strong with this one. Also the stunning special effects (trippy new Force-choke makeover, man). Also BB-8. All the BB-8.

It was impossible to have too much hype for this movie. Not because it is just that good but because after a certain undefinable point, the hype for the movie morphed into the hypeof the movie. I mean, please. I was already mentally raving about the film by the time the cheesy yellow logo appeared onscreen. J.J. could’ve thrown in a lens flare or two and called it a day, and we all would’ve gone home happy.

He didn’t, though. Spoiler alert: plot happens. Although…not toomuch plot. “The Force Awakens” is all about setting us up for an infinitude of sequels, and it does so beautifully. New characters Rey and Finn and Poe Dameron are cute and snippy and great. BB-8 steals the show. Leia (ahem, General Organa) and Han are old and grizzled. BB-8 continues to steal the show.

“The Force Awakens” is also surprisingly funny. Of course, that could’ve just been the giddiness of finally being in the damn theater and seeing the damn movie, but there were lots of giggles, all of them heartfelt. Also, BB-8.

The one glaring issue is the villain situation. Adam Driver is not at all convincing as an evil Sith lord, and no one else (General Hux, Jar Ja– I mean, Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma) gets enough screen-time or backstory to pick up the slack.

That’s okay, though, because “The Force Awakens” is pretty much a rehashing of “A New Hope,” so it does its job by laying the groundwork of the new world order and introducing us to the characters we’ll soon come to love like our own…okay, like the other fictional characters we love more than anyone in real life.

And, again, nostalgia. The movie is a beloved jumble of in-jokes and call-backs that’ll send even the biggest skeptic into paroxysms of nerdtastic glee. It also makes “The Force Awakens” feel a bit recycled, but that’s okay– because it’s the greatest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

David Foster Wallace, Personal Existential Crises, and ‘The End of the Tour’

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What would David Foster Wallace think of this?

I mulled this over before when I first heard about the movie. I considered it while watching the movie. And I’m wondering now, as I type this, what he would say about the whole thing. In fact, the words “What would David Foster Wallace think of this?” crosses my mind whenever I sit down to watch a television show (read: very frequently), whenever I bathe in the glow of my computer screen (read: even more frequently), and whenever I begin to question my personal value system and life choices (read: constantly).

Much like Wallace was consumed by imposter syndrome with regards to his status as A Brilliant Author, I feel like an imposter calling myself a David Foster Wallace fan, since I’ve “only” readInfinite Jest and a bunch of his essays. Though I’m in the middle of The Pale King and I keep a tab of vocab words and neologisms I learned from his writings, I’ve stagnated a bit in interactions with his works. Yet I have seen a live-reading/performance of a selection of essays which bills itself as “part sporting event, part theatrical séance.” So, there’s that.

But I haven’t immersed myself in the DFW intelligentsia the way his rabid cultists have. I know there’s more material to be consumed, and yet I’m holding back. Why? A big part of the reason is— and I’m loathe to admit this, in case Wallace’s ghost is hovering over my shoulder, shuddering in empathetic despair— that I don’t have the time and mental energy to devote to his existentially mind-bending prose. So I shove it aside to the “eventually” ether, where it is slowly but irrevocably buried under pages and pixels. On a deeper level, though, I avoid further writing by or about Wallace simply because I am afraid that they will taint— or to be less dainty, fatally disperse— the colossal, cosmic truths that Infinite Jest exposed me to.

And so I delayed seeing The End of the Tour because I was afraid it would disappoint. I’ll be brief: It did not. It was more than I possibly could have hoped for. And perhaps it was more than Wallace himself could have hoped for.

When I glimpsed promos for this movie, I saw Jason Segel playing dress up. But when he appears on screen as David Foster Wallace, he instantly becomes David Foster Wallace. Since we’re seeing him through Ultimate Fanboy David Lipsky’s eyes, it wasn’t too difficult to buy into the rockstar-like mythos of the character, but it was certainly thrilling. As Lipsky steps over the threshold of Wallace’s house for the first time, I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the scene’s snowy setting. Wallace had dogs! He spoke to them in a dumb baby voice! He had a refrigerator and a couch and a coffee maker! He was…human?

The movie (and, I’m assuming, the book on which it was based), gives DFW devotees even more than just a glimpse at his living quarters— it offers us a deep dive into his unparalleled mind. To say that David Foster Wallace was brilliant would downplay his pure thinky-ness; he was so much more than just a luminous mind. He felt things so acutely and was somehow— in a way that is so inconceivable to this aspiring writer— able to harness extreme pain and extreme pleasure and to hammer out those thoughts into words. His words are transcendent; his words are Truth. His words are hilarious and horrifying.

Jason Segel channels Wallace’s spirit beautifully. His mannerisms, I can’t personally attest to, but his words? Ohhhh, his words. Those vivid, mile-a-minute metaphors, those out-of-nowhere gut-punches of realness!

And, of course, his loneliness. As Wallace points out in the film, anyone who actually immersed herself in a 1,000-page book must suffer from some form of loneliness… so, by extension, the guy who wrote the damn thing must have suffered from this chronic condition all the more so.

Wallace’s loneliness and frustration comes across quite poignantly in this film, but it doesn’t override his humor, his kindness, and his groundedness; Wallace’s mind might have operated in a realm leagues above the rest of the human race, but his heart was firmly rooted among people. When Lipsky asks him questions, Wallace throws them right back— not as a diversionary tactic, but in an effort to truly understand the person sitting next to him. Through it all, Wallace comes across as strangely likable, if profoundly and absurdly insecure about himself; this is a guy who calls himself a “whore” and a “dweeb” in the same breath, worrying about what the Rolling Stone audience will think of him while worrying about worrying too much about what the audience will think of him.

This meta element is in play throughout the film, most notably when Wallace remarks that he’d love to interview Lipsky about interviewing him. Which immediately led me to a spiraling mindwarp in which I fretted over my status as a person who is writing about a movie in which someone is writing about someone who writes. How far removed can you get before you fall off the edge of the spaceship and enter a state of freefall? On a personal note, what is the point of the journalist altogether?

Which brings us to the other David in this story, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, played to awkward perfection by Jesse Eisenberg. If Wallace is described as “pleasantly unpleasant,” Lipsky balances the scale as someone who is “unpleasantly pleasant.” And if Wallace made me question my entire existence (he has that effect), Lipsky made me question my choice of career. That may sound like a trivial thing, but it’s not— certainly not at this stage in my life, certainly not at the point where I still believe that I can love what I do to pay the rent.

I saw every journalism-related fear play out in David Lipsky, starting with his editor’s curt response to Lipsky’s unwillingness to ask Wallace an uncomfortable question: “You’re not his buddy, you’re a reporter!” Lipsky lobbies hard for the opportunity to profile the budding rockstar-author, but when he arrives at Wallace’s house, it becomes clear to Lipsky and to us that he is more interested in befriending and impressing Wallace. Whenever Lipsky turns on the tape recorder, he tries to be as casual as possible, but the damage is done the instant his finger presses that Record button; whatever “realness” the two Davids are experiencing evaporates with the appearance of that red recording button, and they sink into their reporter-subject roles. Both Lipsky and Wallace toe this line, muddying the waters of performativity while drudging up the question of whether or not we can ever actually be genuine with another human being.

Now I’ve somehow made this review about me, haven’t I? Of course, even that is vintage Wallace— which is not to say that he was a raging egomaniac in the classic sense, but that he felt so intensely the trauma of being. As he put it in his “This Is Water” commencement speech, that he insisted that our default setting is that we are each “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” Perhaps empathy is, at the end of the day, just a word.

The night before Lipskysets sail for home, Wallace brings up the most impactful passage from Infinite Jest: the three pages in which he talks about suicidal depression. (If you read nothing else in life, read 695 – 698 of this book.) He compares the plight of the suicidal to the plight of a person standing at the window of a burning building. Though the fear of falling remains constant, the variable is the fire’s flames: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames.”

The movie could have ended on that note, leaving the viewer to connect the dots to Wallace’s eventual suicide. But Wallace’s life should not be defined by his death. Though he suffered under the enormous weight of sadness, the end of The End of the Tour shows that such a being was capable of immense joy as well.

Innovation Abounds at Aspen Shortsfest 2015

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(from left) James Surls, Austin Lottimer, and Maitland Lottimer from ‘The Journey’; Mathieu Lalande from ‘Zero’; Festival co-director Laura Thielen

In the age of virtual reality goggles and groundbreaking advances in computer animation, the film industry is hungrily cracking open the window to a new frontier of creative storytelling. While heavyweight filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (in one end of the cultural boxing ring) and Jean-Luc Godard (occupying the other corner) garner the majority of the attention for their boundary-pushing techniques, much of the medium-and-message experimentation has its roots in the oft-overlooked genre of short film.

Short films typically run less than 40 minutes, and their emotional punch comes from the condensed, in media res drama that contrasts sharply with the narrative diffusion of your modern-day, three-hour blockbuster. Think: Anders Walter’s Helium (23 minutes), a tearjerker about a terminally ill boy and the hospital janitor who befriends him, or Eoin Duffy’s trippy, whimsically apocalyptic The Missing Scarf (7 minutes), a cubist animation tale of a squirrel who ventures out in search of his missing scarf and confronts a few existentially disturbed friends in the process.

The 24th annual Aspen Shortsfest (April 7-12, 2015) is screening over 70 short films from 30 different countries, and they run the gamut from uplifting to gut-wrenching, with dozens of variations in between. Below, read through a brief selection of the shorts that made a longer-lasting impact.

Note: Audience rating system spans 1 – 4, with ‘1’ being the lowest rating and ‘4’ being the highest.

The Edge of Impossible (USA, 14 min., Documentary)

Conor Toumarkine’s upbeat documentary follows quadriplegic skier Tony Schmiesing on his mission to take on Alaska’s Chugach Mountain. All of the campaigning, fundraising, and logistical planning took place behind the scenes, as the film focuses on the thrill of big-mountain powder-skiing and the incredible can-do attitude of Schmiesing and his entire support team, including Brian Sheckler, Schmiesing’s “one-in-a-million ski partner, fellow collaborator, and friend.” The duo’s dynamic enthusiasm is contagious, and their winter wonderland adventures are captured in rudimentary but effective GoPro footage. Aside from a brief mention of Schmiesing’s condition (along with, of course, the ubiquitous wheelchair), we don’t receive a detailed explanation of Tony’s physical limitations—mostly because he, himself, doesn’t view his “disability” as limiting. As Tony expresses with a roguish smile, alluding to the aptly-titled name of the short: you’ll never know what is and isn’t possible until you try. My vote: 3. (Available on Vimeo)

The Bigger Picture (UK, 8 min., Animation)

Writer/ Director / Animator wunderkind Daisy Jacobs created a superbly original animation from scratch. She painted impressionistic, life-sized character murals and built an elaborate, papier-mâché set, weaving it all together through stop-motion animation. The illustrative medium allows Jacobs to show rather than tell her tale of two brothers caring for their elderly mother, and the effect is all the more poignant because of it.The Bigger Picture won a whopping 23 festival awards, not to mention a 2015 Oscar nom for Best Animated Short. My vote: 4. (Clip)

Zéro (France, 10 min., Fiction)

A bird takes flight through a quiet, suburban apartment complex; another hobbles along a dirt path, appearing faintly bored. Nearby, on a hilltop overlooking the same town, one boy takes a puff of his inhaler, and another observes him cautiously, also appearing bored. Throughout the remainder of music video specialist Tony T. Datis’s fantastical short film, “Zero” attempts to prove his cosmic worth to his classmate in a series of overeager—yet not completely misguided—superheroesque demonstrations. My vote: 3. (Trailer)

The Journey (USA, 16 min., Documentary)

Filmmakers Austin and Maitland Lottimer loaded their slo-mo specialist FS700 into a minivan and tailed Texan sculptor James Surls as he transported his latest sculpture from Colorado to Houston. The 38-foot high “Tree and Three Flowers,” made of bronze and stainless steel, was commissioned by the Upper Kirby District Foundation to join several other publicly displayed Surls sculptures. According to the artist, “Tree and Three Flowers,” a piece two years in the making, represents his “big hurrah.” Though the film offers interesting tidbits of insight from Surls regarding his creative process, The Journey is minimalist in its narrative techniques—much like Surls’s sculptures. My vote: 1.

Listen (Denmark/Finland, 13 min., Fiction)

Listen is the prime example of a short film painting a dramatic masterpiece in a mere handful of scenes. Zambia-born Hamy Ramezan and Finnish-Iranian Rungano Nyoni collaborate on this harrowing piece, in which a woman in a burqa attempts to file a police report against her abusive husband. The title serves as a literal reference to the frightened woman’s appearance—her full-body burqa prevents her from being seen, so her voice is all she has. But her voice is mercilessly taken away from her as well, as her translator calmly advises her to “go home and pray,” and the well-intentioned but ultimately dismissive officers fail to understand her words or her plight. My vote: 4. (Trailer)

Lambs (Germany, 4 min., Animation)

There’s not much to dislike about Gottfried Mentor’s brightly animated, whimsical short about a ewe’s consistent disregard for its species’ traditional vocalizations. Although aimed at 3-5 year-olds, parents can also identify with the somewhat-humorous frustration of trying to get through to their kids. My vote: 3.

Grounded (France, 19 min., Fiction)

Alexis Michalik takes a mundane concept—airport bureaucracy—and concocts a high-stress story equal to any contemporary thriller. Any 21st-century traveler can sympathize with Evelyne, a young woman attempting to fly to London with her husband and 3-month-old daughter to attend her mother’s funeral. She enters traveler hell when she realizes she forgot her newborn’s ID, and is prevented from boarding the plane. If you feel like tearing your hair out based on this sparse summary, you’re not alone—my heart was pounding anxiously until the very end, and I was forced to hold back tears of gratitude when Stephanie, a compassionate ground hostess jumps through every hoop in order to assist poor Evelyne. If nothing else, this film demonstrates that we are all, ultimately, at the mercy of TSA officers. My vote: 4.

Angela Ruggiero and the Importance of Women’s Hockey

U.S. Olympians and members of the Lady Harlem team, courtesy of Ice Hockey in Harlem

The advent of the National Women’s Hockey League is big news.

It’s big because the other existent professional women’s hockey organization, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, has issues, and the NWHL aims to plug at least one of the CWHL’s holes by promising to pay its players. It’s big because the immediate reaction to the announcement on social media was enthusiastic, proving that the market is definitely there. And it’s big because far along the proverbial pipeline, young girls who have never stepped foot on the ice before, who would never have been taken seriously as female ice hockey players, will soon see older versions of themselves lacing up the skates, and they will dare to dream.

**

On February 23, one of the coldest nights of this memorably frigid winter, women’s hockey standouts Hilary Knight and Brianne McLaughlin joined Ice Hockey in Harlem’s all-girls “Lady Harlem” team for a practice at Lasker Rink. “It was definitely our most well-attended practice this year!” coach Kristin Blundo remarked two nights later, at Ice Hockey in Harlem’s annual Winter Sports Celebration. “Looking at the girls, you wouldn’t have known how cold it was—they were just so excited that two female Olympians were skating with them.”

The excitement is contagious, rippling across color lines, socioeconomic lines, and generational lines. At the Winter Sports Celebration, a middle-aged woman named Janine told me that when she was younger she played hockey “with the boys” until she could progress no further—because those were the days before the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, before the Nagano Olympics (where women’s hockey made its debut), before NCAA scholarships, and before the National Women’s Hockey League.

Since its inception nearly 30 years ago, Ice Hockey in Harlem has ensured that young girls get the same exposure to educational and athletic opportunities that their male classmates do, while making a concerted effort to promote women’s hockey at the grassroots level—hence the establishment of Ice Hockey in Harlem’s girls-only Lady Harlem team. The organization’s devotion to advancing girls’ hockey is also evidenced by its choice of honorees at this year’s Winter Sports Celebration: youth hockey maven (and Rangers alum) Pat Hickey and women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero, who has been instrumental in setting up the NWHL.

Ruggiero boasts an impressive resume both on and off the ice. A four-time Olympic medalist, three-time World Champion, and the all-time leader in games played for Team USA, Ruggiero made history in 2005 as the first woman non-goalie to play professional men’s hockey in North America, playing for the Tulsa Oilers alongside her younger brother, Bill.

But her influence extends past her own inimitable playing career, proving that—as the NHL is fond of asserting—the biggest assist happens off the ice.

For the past two years, Ruggiero served as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a charitable and educational organization dedicated to promoting girls and women in sports and fitness. In 1998, when the Foundation named Ruggiero and her gold medal-winning teammates “sportswomen of the year,” Ruggiero was impressed by the organization’s empowerment of female athletes regardless of their skill level or Olympic ambitions.

“By playing sports, you learn about yourself as a person, and you learn about playing on a team,” Ruggiero said, checking off the statistically proven effects playing sports has on young girls, such as healthier living and higher self-esteem. “There are just so many benefits that I want every young person to have.”

As far as statistical benefits go, the all-girls Lady Harlem team is Exhibit ‘A’. Coaches Kristin Blundo and Natalie Oshin have noticed a pronounced change in their players’ mindsets since the team’s inception three years ago. “There’s certainly something to be said for the way the girls act with each other compared to the way they acted when they were playing on co-ed teams,” said Blundo. “The blossoming friendships, the confidence, and the overall skill development that we’ve witnessed over the past three years speaks volumes to what Ice Hockey in Harlem has built in this community.”

Women’s ice hockey has been on the rise ever since the sport’s medal debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, and Angela Ruggiero has been riding the crest of the wave. She was there at the very beginning, as the youngest member of that ’98 team, and she is now leading the charge for the future, acting as a role model for girls who dream of excelling at a sport that had previously maintained a pretty rigid ice ceiling.

Having female role models like Knight and McLaughlin will inspire more young girls to dream. But more than that, watching and interacting with hockey players who are a little more like them can turn those dreams into a reality—whether they strive for the Olympics or the National Women’s Hockey League or simply Saturday night pick-up games. Role models like these transform “I wish I could do that” into “I can do that”—and their importance to the confidence and development of young girls cannot be overstated.

To close his address to the gathered crowd at the Winter Sports Celebration, Executive Director John Sanful recounted a tale from the night the Lady Harlem team welcomed Knight and McLaughlin as guest coaches. “A parent of one of the Lady Harlem players said that her daughter was so happy, she was talking about the practice until she fell asleep.” He smiled, slightly teary-eyed. “That is what it’s all about.”

A version of this piece appeared in the March 2015 issue of Blueshirt Bulletin.

2015 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees in Two Words or Fewer

"Hi! My name's Oscar. I'm a Man."
“Hi! My name’s Oscar. I’m a Man.”

Who’s pumped for Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony? I know I am. The diverse array of nominees in all categories reflects the equally diverse makeup of the longstanding Academy. Everything nominated is awesome, and absolutely nothing was overlooked.

To that effect, I understand that it can be difficult to keep track of the many multifaceted films that will be featured on the big stage this coming weekend. No reason to fear, intrepid cinemaphiles: I racked my brain to come up with concise summaries of all the Best Picture nominees so that you can easily differentiate between the films when it comes time to cast your ballots. Behold:

Film-by-Film Summaries of the 2015 Oscar Nominees for Best Picture:

Selma:

Great Man

The Theory of Everything:

Great Man

Whiplash:

Great Man

The Imitation Game:

Great Man

American Sniper:

Great? Man

Birdman:

?Great Man

The Grand Budapest Hotel:

Quirky Man

Boyhood:

Man

~*~*~

Whew! There you have it. Godspeed to all our glorious Men!

Goodbye to All That | Doctor Who Season 8: Episode 12

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If I were being honest, I’d say that I put off writing up a reaction to the season 8 finale, “Death in Heaven,” because I found myself suddenly neck-deep in grad school applications. Instead, I’ll insist that I totally planned it this way so that we could all have an opportunity to stew in the shocking events of the season finale for a bit before approaching this year’s Christmas special. At the same time, we’d also need a refresher of what went down in the season finale given the month-and-a-half long gap. And lo, because you asked so nicely…here goes:

When it comes to serialized dramas, it’s difficult for recappers to present a perfectly coherent write-up of any given episode of a series because we, like any viewer, rarely know how it’ll all end. No one outside of the show itself knows how the plot will be resolved (or not) and how the characters will get through it all (or not). Tracking a character’s arc is much easier when you’re presented with a larger store of reference points. This has been especially true pertaining to the current season of Doctor Who, a season that was weak on overarching storylines and heavy on character development. So, in lieu of a scene-by-scene recap (the likes of which I tend to avoid anyway), I’m going to focus instead on several key characters.

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Let’s start with Miss Clara Oswald, since the upcoming episode is likely to be her last. “Death in Heaven” opened up with a bizarre sequence in which Clara pretends (once again) to be the Doctor. This time, she picks up the charade in order to save her own life, cunningly convincing the approaching Cyberman that she is “strategically valuable” because she’s “not human.” Clara drags out the act for quite a while, word-vomiting detailed facts about the Doctor’s lives so quickly that I had to pause repeatedly just to make sure I could absorb all the information.

Going back to review these scenes after we learn definitively that Clara was faking casts the whole thing in an even stranger light, since it just goes to show how shockingly well she knows the Doctor. She’s like…a Doctor Who Superfan, rattling off facts at the speed of light. And that’s where it gets interesting, because Clara is decidedly not like any of the Doctor’s past adoring companions. As Kyle Anderson over at Nerdist phrased it: “While other companions fall in love with traveling with the Doctor, or possibly fall in love with the Doctor himself, Clara had fallen in love with the idea of being the Doctor.”

Now that’s a compelling character arc.

If you’ve been reading these posts, you’re probably aware of how low my opinion is of Clara. But my dislike of the character is, far from being an indictment of her writers, actually a commentary on how well she’s written—I wouldn’t bother hating on someone who didn’t feel so damn real. Clara is an egotistical control-freak. But the Doctor is, too, so why don’t I feel such animosity towards him?

Well…I do. The Twelfth Doctor is definitely a more difficult Doctor to love. But Clara’s narcissism feels more egregious; she repeatedly shirks her earthly responsibilities (*cough* Danny) in order to go gallivanting around the universe because that is the only activity that appeals to her astronomically high sense of self-worth. The interesting thing about Clara, though, is that she is highly intelligent and extraordinarily capable, so her egoism is not pure bluster. Which brings us back to the Doctor. Every time the Doctor whips out his “I’m the Doctor” line, he is implicitly insisting that he is better.

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star trek animated GIF

Otherwise, that sentence would have no power. He’s not just introducing himself– he’s laying down the law, with three simple words.

Basically. Run. - doctor-who-for-whovians Photo

And, let’s be honest: He really is better at everything. He’s THE DOCTOR!

At any rate, it’s pretty easy to imagine that if Clara had been born under different circumstances (say, on Gallifrey), she would be a near-exact replica of the Doctor. The fact that she, the Impossible Girl, actually was born under several different circumstances in several different eras only adds to her lone wolf aura—a maverick status that once again connects her to the Doctor. But it is both characters’ insistence that each one “knows better” that proves to be the most explosive aspect of their treacherous relationship. (In my last recap, I noted the symbolism of Clara and the Doctor ending up in a literal (though un-real) volcano at the beginning of “Dark Water.”) As Kyle Anderson put it: “Two Type A people in one TARDIS.” Which frequently plays out exactly as you would expect it to play out.

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That’s why this season felt a bit off-kilter—these two opposing forces were constantly butting heads, and Clara, not the Doctor, was often the one who came out on top. See: every scene in which Clara pretends to be or actually acts as the Doctor, which Moffat attributes to Clara “think[ing] the show is called Clara” instead of Doctor Who.

All of this infuses their goodbye scene in the diner at the end of “Death in Heaven” with an undercurrent of tragedy, because both Clara and the Doctor seamlessly fall back into their habit of blatantly lying to each other. The Doctor tells Clara he’s off to Gallifrey, despite the fact that Missy’s coordinates allegedly didn’t work, and despite the utter frustration he expresses while alone in the TARDIS. Clara, in turn, lies to him about Danny returning from the dead, despite the emotionally walloping scene beforehand in which Danny sends the boy he killed in war back in his place. After the final lies have been said and the final goodbyes are in place, Mr. “No Hugs!” allows Clara that one ceremonial formality, at long last explaining the reason for his mistrust of hugs: “It’s just a way to hide your face.” Clara agrees, gazing regretfully into nothingness, lying by omission, as the man on the other end of the hug does the same.

Doctor Clara last hug

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**

Next up: Osgood! Ah, dearly departed Osgood. Was Osgood her first name or her last name? Now we’ll never know.

Osgood was a much-beloved fan-favorite, despite the fact that she only appeared in one other episode (“Day of the Doctor”), and for good reason: Osgood was, essentially, an on-screen representation of the collective Doctor Who fandom. She worshipped the Doctor (sometimes literally), not-so-subtly cosplayed the different Doctors’ idiosyncratic attire (Tom Baker’s scarf in “Day of the Doctor,” Matt Smith’s bowtie in “Death in Heaven”), and fostered a fervent desire to travel through time and space as the Doctor’s companion (“Something for your bucket list,” the Twelfth Doctor says, and a starry-eyed Osgood quickly takes a puff of her inhaler).

Given Osgood’s status as the fandom incarnate, it’s not surprising that the character found her way into real fans’ hearts. And given her status as a fan favorite, it’s not surprising that Steven Moffat would use her death for maximum shock effect.

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As Dr. Evil himself explained, vaporizing Osgood was all about helping us realize just how psychotically twisted Missy is: “The Master-stroke-Missy would have to kill somebody we liked in the most cruel, heartless, and terrible way to absolutely say that this person is shockingly evil.”

Thanks, Moff. We got it now.

There are two blatant problems with this: 1) It’s a classic case of fridging, so Moffat is not doing himself any favors in the ever-narrowing eyes of his feminist critics, and 2) He seems to be vindictively biting the hand that feeds him by offing the audience surrogate, and doing so “in the most cruel, heartless, and terrible way,” making her death into some sort of egotistical power trip—for Moffat, not for Missy, as was his iorigial intention.

**

Danny Pink: Still dead and buried.

Well, still dead, at any rate. But he sure as hell wasn’t resting in peace.

“Danny’s a Cyberman. And he’s crying.”

Doctor Who is really killing it (no pun intended) with the three-word-sentence gut-punches, eh? You see, for the average 21st-century viewer, Daleks and Cybermen are about as scary as Dark Helmet. But Moffat injects the mythos of the Cyberman with a hefty dose of existential terror by creating the idea of a Cyberman that can feel. Gone is the inhuman automaton; enter the guilt-ridden, bone-weary, deadened but not dead Danny Pink. The Cyberman is crying. How on Earth are we supposed to approach that?

But first: The Doctor makes a house call. Or a graveyard call, as it were.

Often, characters on this show fall into the trap of spouting platitudes at each other, lessening the weight of their words by giving the impression that we’re being lectured at from all angles. But whenever Danny and the Doctor interact, their ideas crackle with genuine intensity—and truth. At the end of “The Caretaker,” Danny calls out the Doctor as being an officer—that is, a soldier who doesn’t get his hands dirty. He sees right through the Doctor’s hypocrisy.

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…or, perhaps “hypocrisy” is too strong a word—“hypocrisy” would be the term to use if the answer to the Doctor’s season-long query, “Am I a good man?” were “No.” But the Doctor is the hero of our Whoniverse, and so the answer to that question must be “Yes”—or at least, as Clara says, “You try to be, and I think that’s probably the point.” So, then, how to reconcile the Doctor’s values with the blood that he so meticulously wipes off of his hands? How to address Danny Pink’s very valid concerns? This is a question that the show has been dealing with all season, and perhaps all series as well. It’s a question that, like “Doctor Who?” is essentially unanswerable.

Back to the graveyard: Danny asks Clara to turn on his emotion inhibitor, because the pain is too much for him. In doing so, Clara will effectively kill him; he will become a “complete” Cyberman and Danny Pink will be lost forever. She calls to the Doctor for help, and the Doctor, of course, opposes switching on the inhibitor because “Pain is a gift.” An old and somewhat wearying argument, but one that I think was most delicately handled in The Fault in Our Stars.

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I was wary of revisiting this maxim, since it so treacherously toes the line between profound and ludicrous. But what the Doctor says next intrigues me: “Without the capacity for pain, we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.” There’s truth to that, I believe. But for Danny, this makes what the Doctor does even worse: You can feel the pain you inflict, he effectively accuses the Doctor, yet you inflict the pain anyway? For Danny—and for us—it’s hard to accept that that’s what a good man would do.

But it is Danny who has the last word here, finally throwing in an argument for the silent, oft-demonized soldier: “You will sleep safe tonight,” he says to Clara, as he rises (to heaven, finally?) with his fellow Cybermen, sacrificing himself to protect all of humanity. No guns, no weapons, no violence, no soldiers, the Doctor always insists, implying quite clearly that soldiers are somehow inherently bad. But Danny demonstrates here the ideal role of a soldier: not to kill, but to protect. (In light of all that has happened across America since Ferguson, this whole theme is unfortunately very, very relevant nowadays.)

This sequence began with the Doctor’s rather cringe-worthy “Love is a promise” line, but Danny Pink, bless him, carries it out to an emotionally and thematically satisfying conclusion. “This is the promise of a soldier!” he says, and as has been the case all season, Murray Gold’s gorgeous score lends these words additional gravitas. Danny’s exchange with the Doctor in this episode mirrors scenes from “The Caretaker” in another way as well: he asks Clara to tell him if the Doctor ever pushes her too far, and when Clara tells him “it’s a deal,” he corrects her: “No, it’s a promise. And if you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished.”

Sorry, it just started raining on my face.

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**

Missy, Missy, Missy. By this point, everyone has already said all there is to say about the Doctor’s wackiest longtime foe. But I really can’t say enough about how deliriously, anarchically bonkers Missy was, and how delightfully well Michelle Gomez played her. Definite shades of the Joker and Moriarty in that performance, along with, of course, vintage Master craziness.

Picking a favorite Missy line or a standout scene would be impossible, because every word that emerged from her lips had me bubbling over with hysterical (in both senses of the word) laughter. And although her annihilation of Osgood was certainly upsetting, I was almost enjoying her performance too much to notice just how upset I really was.

This episode made me wish that we could have seen more of Michelle Gomez’s character throughout the season. But it also made me think (hope?) that we haven’t seen the last of Missy, because an actress like that is simply too perfect to waste on a single season finale.

Yet despite all of Missy’s loopiness, I noticed that everyone seamlessly took up the female gender pronoun when talking about her, even when referring to Masters of the past. Nice assurance that people in the Whoinverse will respect your life choices—even if you are a psychotic supervillain.

Oods and Ends:

  • Missy: “Cybermen don’t just blow themselves up for no good reason, dear. They’re not human.” Damn. Missy drops a literal truth bomb.
  • So now Moffat has facilitated a fear of rain as well. Add it to the list…

The Day of the Dead | Doctor Who Season 8: Episode 11

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Part I: The Rise of the Time Lady

Anyone else a bit shaken up by that very first scene of “Dark Water”? I should think so. Because Doctor Who tackled something we very rarely see on this show: mundane, inexplicable death. I imagine the average Who fan espouses some degree of BBC Sherlock’s wish for everything to be clever—but life is rarely like that, and Danny’s tragic accident gave us a brief glimpse into that reality. What comes after, however, is pure sci-fi romp.

Before diving into where Danny ends up, let’s focus on Clara. I haven’t really been a fan of Clara’s character or Jenna Coleman’s acting chops, but if her emotional performance in this episode appeared forced, it actually served to heighten the visceral reality of the situation, since no one really knows how they’re “supposed to” behave when tragedy strikes. So in a very meta way, Coleman’s detached performance actually helped me identify even more with her character. “It wasn’t terrible,” Clara says, referring to Danny’s death. “It was boring.” Boring being code for inexplicable, unglamorous, existentially nihilistic; take your pick.

I’m referring, in that last paragraph, to Clara’s cringe-worth conversation with her gran. Meanwhile, her conversation with the Doctor took on a whole different tinge, and Coleman plays the “emotional wreck” version of Clara heartbreakingly well. When she flounces into the TARDIS, all faux-cheerful, we immediately sense that in her grief, Clara has become unhinged. As she meanders purposefully around the belly of the TARDIS, I noticed (and koimizu pointed out with a helpful screenshot) that Clara grabs one of the TARDIS keys from the pages of The Time Traveler’s Wife. That book is known to be one of Moffat’s favorites, and he has cited it as the inspiration to his first Tennant-era episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

If The Time Traveler’s Wife is a reference to “The Girl in the Fireplace,” then it is also a reference to the season 8 premiere, “Deep Breath,” which re-introduced us to the Clockwork Droids and provided us with a silent meditation on the Twelfth Doctor’s new identity.

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The meaning behind the Doctor’s new face (as seen in a previous Doctor’s time in “The Fires of Pompeii”) has been hinted at and overtly referenced throughout the season. “Dark Water” chooses to take the (slightly) more subtle route by having the duo discuss and then end up in a rumbling, fiery volcano. Though Twelve professes his lack of interest in mere “leaky mountains,” I suspect he’ll be inclined to reassess his gut reaction sometime very soon.

In the dream-induced volcano, Clara loses it completely, threatening to throw away the keys to the Doctor’s one true soulmate unless he helps Clara revive hers. “Fix it,” she demands, sounding like a petulant child and looking for all the world like a woman undone. When she tosses away the final key and crumples in a pit of total despair, it’s impossible not to ache for her, and the setting of the volcano feels like the perfect metaphor for her inner emotional chaos spilling out into the open.

The volcano is also an apt symbol of the Doctor-Clara relationship, which has been bubbling with tension ever since his regeneration. I maintain that Twelve and Clara are a terrible pair—but perhaps their lack of chemistry is compelling in its own way, because it serves to emphasize each one’s snobbish irascibility even more. How many times per episode does one tell the other to “shut up” or “do as you’re told,” or threaten to physically assault the other? How often does one betray the other, and yet the other comes crawling back? Healthy relationship dynamics this is not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating to watch.

survivors animated GIF

Their dysfunctionality continues even after the dream-state is revealed as such, and the Doctor confesses that he was “curious” to see how far Clara would go to blackmail him. “Curious”? Like she’s a cute little science experiment? Ehhh. Rubbed me the wrong way. But after that, the Doctor morphed into an Inspirational One-Liner Machine:

  • In response to Clara’s “I love him,” the Doctor says: “Yeah, you’re quite the mess of chemicals, aren’t you?” Like cosmic soup, eh? Even though this could be interpreted as a cheeky nod to the scientific notion that the brain is only made up of chemicals (and not, say, “consciousness” of the mind), it sounded like the Doctor’s tone was gently appreciative.
  • “The darkest day, the blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back, let’s see what we’re made of. You, and I.” Damn straight!
  • And of course…the Doctor’s answer to Clara’s question of why he would help her if she just betrayed him. In that brief pause before the Doctor delivered his response, I expected him to say: “Because I’m the Doctor.” And that would have been just fine, don’t you think? Because that’s what the Doctor does. It would have been just the sort of self-righteous thing Ten would have said, or something that Eleven would have answered with blithe insouciance. But Twelve is different. “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” Perhaps this demonstrates that despite his rudeness, this Doctor has less of an ego than his previous two incarnations—he can make the hard choice that no one else wants to make because he doesn’t view it as his choice, the way Ten or Eleven would. Twelve wouldn’t be so bold as to assume that the weight of the world, or the universe (or Gallifrey!) would fall on his shoulders alone. That’s why he doesn’t allow Clara’s betrayal to impact him too deeply, because it would imply that his feelings about her actions are of the utmost importance—and not her feelings.

Now, Danny. Danny, Danny, Danny.

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Before we descend to the Nethersphere, I’d like to point out: This weekend marked the Mexican holiday of The Day of the Dead, and if you’re wondering about the recently released movie on that very topic, then yes, you should go see it. Doctor Who certainly takes a more sinister view of the colloquially termed “afterlife”—I will never stop shuddering over the screaming man followed by Seb’s giddy “someone donated his body to science!”

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But in all honesty, the absolute most horrifying about the “afterlife” is that you apparently still have to deal with paperwork. Yep, sounds like hell to me.

If I had to deal with him in my own life, I’d probably punch a hole in the wall, but as a fictional exaggeration of simpering bureaucracy, this Seb character is an absolute delight. And of course, said simpering bureaucracy utilizes iPads. Danny, speaking for the fandom, scoffs: “So you’ve got iPads in the afterlife?” Seb grins and replies: “We have Steve Jobs.” Well…that’s legit. Meanwhile, his little office space provided our first connection to the Cybermen:

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Will Clara Pay A High Cost For Trying To Be The Doctor On Doctor Who?

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That shape of concentric circles crops up in several places throughout the episode, the other notable appearance being on the “Rest In Peace” (“We promise!”) gravestone that Clara and the Doctor encounter in the creepy skeleton mausoleum. And if you didn’t catch on by the end, the closing shot of this week’s episode makes the connotation very, very clear:

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(Aside: It also looks like a graphic representation of the idea of a bubble universe, like in “The Doctor’s Wife.”)

…But thankfully, Danny’s not there (yet), because he has a few inner demons to face; namely, the child he killed during his stint as a soldier. File this revelation under: Not Shocking, Still Impactful.  See also: this brilliant catch by taiey, who noticed that Danny’s reflection as he hovers over the “delete” button on the iPad is not his own face, but the face of the aforementioned child.

This kind of baggage is undoubtedly reminiscent of the Doctor’s. But while Moffat was able to magic away the Doctor’s guilt over wiping out nearly two entire species (jk he only displaced them in time!!1), I doubt Danny’s can be so easily erased. Unless…apparently, in hell, there’s an app for that. “These emotions, they’re terribly difficult,” says Seb. “But…we can help with all these difficult feelings.” By pressing the “Delete” button, Danny can make all of the pain go away—and ostensibly become a fully integrated Cyberman. And that, of course, is the key difference between a human and a Cyberman. If you’ll forgive the excessive Sherlock references, one of my favorite lines from the show discusses this very topic—a visibly distraught Sherlock asks his foil, Moriarty: “Why did you never feel pain?” and the latter responds: “You always feel pain, Sherlock…but you don’t have to fear it.” Emotional pain is an integral part of being human, whether we like it or not.

Jumping back to Clara and the Doctor, the blue-tinged mausoleum full of skeletons is the stuff of Halloweekend nightmares. We are shown the name of one “corpse” in particular, and the name is certainly peculiar enough to attract our attention: Xylo Jones. Jones, obviously, calls to mind Martha, or Harriet Jones, Prime Minister™, though it’s a common enough name that I’m not willing to put too much emphasis on it. Xylo, though…Who the hell is named Xylo? As it turns out, “xylo” is Ancient Greek for none other than “wood,” which for all intents and purposes is the sonic screwdriver’s kryptonite. And that certainly doesn’t bode well for the Doctor.

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Unless, of course, it’s referring to another Wood…

harry potter, keeper, oliver wood, quidditch

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The Keeper…of the Gryffindor Quidditch team Nethersphere? SIGN ME THE HELL UP.

Oods and Ends

  • The initial promo featured Clara asserting that “Clara Oswald has never existed.” I’m guessing this will play out in that she will be scattered along Danny’s timeline in an attempt to rescue him, like she did with the Doctor?
  • Books books books! Lots of little Easter eggs in this episode. First: The Time Traveler’s Wife reference, as discussed above. Second: major props to actualproperclara for tirelessly pouring over nearly every single book on Clara’s shelf (as well as the post-its!) while she’s on the phone with Danny. Definitely check that out.
  • I read somewhere that Clara could be pregnant. This would make sense, given all of the hints at maternity w/r/t Clara throughout the season (specifically in “Kill the Moon”), plus the line in this episode about all of the graves on Earth “giving birth.” Also….where does Orson Pink come from if Danny’s dead?
  • The Cyberman in the lab is named Dr. Skarosa, aka the guy who, according to Dr. Chang, started the whole institution. Skarosa…sounds like Skaro. As in, Cult of? I would not be surprised if Missy was scheming with Davros or the like.